Alchemilla, an Un-Italian Dinner (and some teething troubles)

picture via alchemilla website

Update: T. read this post and says it is too critical and negative. I definitely do not want this to be the message that comes across – I did love the food and the overall experience we had here! I just think that the little mistakes/shortcomings we observed are rather easily avoidable and would increase the positive feeling by so much more. That is why I was pointing them out, not because they were such a big, negative part of the experience.

Take a young chef with great ideas. Add charming family & friends. Spice up with a lack of money and cluelessness in customer relations, modern electronic communications and wine.

You get Alchemilla, a Roman restaurant where we ate exceptionally good (mostly!) and will definitely return soon.

The young chef Francesco Magiar Lucidi, named one of the baby-chefs of Rome, is 26 years old, has great ideas but maybe not just enough experience in important kitchens. His sister, an actress, is part of the service, the other waitress has piercings in her face. On the day of the reservation they change the advertised 9 courses to 7 without explanation and when asked send one that is worse than the offense – “…in order to not overwhelm the senses & speed up the dinner…”. They send out emails, which is rare enough in Italy, but these are mass emails with many addresses on “to”, no “bcc”. There is an insufficient and not carefully selected wine list, the recommendation is a red whereas white is the much better pairing with the menu on hand. Not one glass matches another in the whole dining room. The AC alternates between burning hot and freezing cold. The menu is also in English – or rather, pigeon English.

You get Alchemilla, a Roman restaurant where we ate exceptionally good (mostly!) and will definitely return soon.

During the dinner I had all contradicting feelings. I sat there eating great food, prepared with very good products; great ideas, some working out, some not; a service that is dear and charming but making unnecessary mistakes. I felt like giving them all a big hug, holding their hands and saying “It is gonna be alright. I understand. I see where you are coming from and where you want to go. I want to help you. Listen to me. Take some advice. You can be so much better.”

Lacking that, I will keep on going to Alchemilla. I will keep on supporting them as they (hopefully) learn. I will keep on eating great food. (I just wish I could organize their cellar; choose better wines, put together a wine-by-the-glass pairing.)

What we ate: (expect 7 to 9 courses for €36, “journey” (not menu!) of the week can be seen online)

* Extra-old parmiggiano cream with a forest-honey veil (a gelatinous sheet!), dried fruit, green apple, 25 year old balsamic vinegar – very subtle and nice play of aromas, very good!

* soft polenta with beurre noisette (brown butter), pecorino di fossa (pit-matured sheep’s cheese) and fleur di sel – delicate and comforting, great idea with the brown butter!

* Calamarata shaped pasta with puntarelle cooked in vanilla, red beets, anchovies and smoked provolone – weakest dish of the stretch, though the idea is actually great: taking the very Roman dish of puntarelle with anchovies sauce and warming it up, temperature and spice-wise, and combining with pasta. I think the pasta format and plating was wrong and the smoked cheese was out-of-place, too; the elements of the dish just didn’t come together – but definitely a great idea to play around with in my kitchen

* Meatballs made with Cinta Senese pork (from Sienna), wild greens and black rice (in sheet form!) – very good, the meatballs had a great seasoning.

* Pickled herring with yogurt, very young spinach and smoked salt – a very good idea gone wrong because the herring was way too salty and together with the extra sold became unedible

* Pork flank in sweet&sour sauce with marinated red cabbage – melt in your mouth meat with a lively and decisive taste – perfect.

* Dessert wine, honey (these two in the form of an ice-cream), orange (jelly) and chocolate (powder) – nice combination of tastes, though the honey taste was too strong for me – but that’s really just me.

Giuda Ballerino! What an Unexpected Dinner in Rome!

Tepid octopus, cold burrata cheese and smoked eggplant puree - heaven!

Tepid octopus, cold burrata cheese and smoked eggplant puree - heaven!

Ever thought about combining octopus, burrata cheese and smoked eggplant puree? Well, think again. Overcome your initial reaction and think about all these elements, all the best of their kind, and imagine the aromas, the textures and the temperatures playing around each other. Once you taste it, it makes you lament the 38 years where you had the possibility of this dish at your fingertips but the idea nowhere in the vicinity.

panzanella con tonno - bread salad with tuna

panzanella con tonno - bread salad with tuna

After 11 months in the Eternal City, we decided it was time to indulge in some serious fine dining. We would like to have something other than the ordinary carbonara or trippa (tripe) or carciofi (artichokes). Sorry folks, yes, I just wrote “ordinary” and “trippa” together. I know any food lover outside of Rome is hating me, but these yummy dishes we have just 5 minutes and 10 Euros away from us – or just a trip to the market and some time in the kitchen. And we do love “our” Roscioli, but there is still so much to try out there.

Fried muscles with sepia crunch and carrot puree

Fried muscles with sepia crunch and carrot puree

I have been eye-ing Guida Ballerino! (literally “jumping Judas”, an exclamation of surprise with origins which I refuse to write in depth here, on a FOOD blog. The relevance to the restaurant is that it is an exclamation used often by the famous Italian comic figure Dylan Dog, of which the owner & chef seems to be very fond of) for over 1,5 years now. Yes, your maths is right, even before coming to Rome I was interested in paying a visit to this place.

Foie gras terrine with whitefish, spicy apple and candied almonds

Foie gras terrine with whitefish, spicy apple and candied almonds

And it really has been worth it. T. and I chose the “classic” menu (6 courses, €65), where we were allowed to substitute one dish with Shrimps because of T.’s allergy. Other than the 6 courses we got 4 amouse courses, 1 pre-dessert and a mignardise plate. We loved (or at least liked) almost everything we ate. Exceptions was the dessert – we found it strangely bland and just too sweet.

Squid ink tagliolini with monkfish cheeks and crispy greenbeans

Squid ink tagliolini with monkfish cheeks and crispy greenbeans

We also had the accompanying wine pairing (4 glasses, €28) to the menu, because we like to test better restaurants in that aspect. Unfortunately, the wines, although good in their own right, were not the best matches to the food. Next time we’ll definitely get a bottle or two of wine that we choose ourselves from the extensive list. A word on the wines: This was the wine list with the highest mark-up we have seen in Italy up to now! Kind of a bummer for us wine lovers.

Vitello tonnato inside out - genius!

Vitello tonnato inside out - genius!

We will definitely go back to Giuda Ballerino!, the food was creative, the products used were very good quality and the results very enjoyable in most cases. This small restaurant (seating only 16 – all taken by Romans on this night) on the outskirts of Rome has great service and a very interesting atmosphere, with the emphasis on the right things (the food!). At the same location there is also a more informal osteria, which is open for lunch as well and has more accessible prices, which we’ll visit soon, too.

desPS: Excuse the pictures, I wasn’t expecting to be able to take pictures and had just my compact camera with me – no proper adjustings!

Goodbye Stuttgart

Stuttgart -end

With the year 2007, our stay in Stuttgart is coming to an end as well. The original 9 months ended up being 17. We will be leaving in two days for a short stop in Bavaria and then on 26th we will be heading for Rome, to realize our dreams. Wish us luck!

Although the one and a half years in Stuttgart may not have been the happiest in our lives (we were away from friends!), I have to stress the fact that culinary-wise the area has a lot to offer. The geographical and historic proximity to France has left its marks, and the produce from the area is eye candy in the many markets. Not only was it very satisfying to shop and cook in Stuttgart, but also the restaurants were, as a whole, among the best Germany has to offer. So before we go, I would like to point out some excellent restaurants in and around Stuttgart. The last months have been crazy, what with all the bureaucracy to deal with (not only are we moving, we are also starting a new business, of which you will hear soon enough!) etc., so I never had the time to write the individual posts these restaurants all deserve.

Bachofer

Bachofer 1 Bachofer 2

Bachofer 3 Bachofer 4

With a formerly Michelin starred chef, this is a restaurant you don’t expect to find in the countryside. Evaluated highly in almost all restaurant guides, we had the feeling that the chef is trying a little bit too hard to make everything interesting. The food (an excellent P/V of €99 for 10 courses) is very good, there are very interesting combinations (seabream with rabbit ravioli? calf’s head strudel with octopus?), but not always thought thoroughly. I think here is a great chef with a lot of talent, who will get even better when he calms down a bit and re-thinks his creations, which are sometimes too “show-y”. Good wines, also by the glass.

Bachofer
Marktplatz 6
71332 Waiblingen
Tel.: 07151-976430

Fässle

Fässle 1 Fässle 2

Fässle 3 Fässle 4

Another reputable restaurant in Stuttgart, it is especially lovely to sit on the terrace on a mellow summer evening. The five-course menu (for €51) is not the most groundbreaking you ever had, but offers very reliable craftsmanship. Most products are local, as well as the wines, which are not always perfectly matched. If you are self confident, choose your wines yourself and enjoy a relaxed and high quality meal for a relatively small sum of money.

Fässle
Löwenstr. 51
70597 Stuttgart
0711-760100

Irma la Douce

Irma la Douce 1 Irma la Douce 2

Irma la Douce 3 Irma la Douce 4

This restaurant opened in the red light district of Stuttgart in may of this year and took us by storm. We were there three times, this was the restaurant I wished to visit for my birthday dinner. Another former Michelin starred chef who is bound to get it again with this restaurant as well. Mostly local produce, mostly seasonal, french style cooking. Great sauces! The maitre is at times a bit too chichi and ladida, but he recommends great wines and somehow all the show fits into the surroundings between the, ehm, yes, you know, “establishments”.

Irma la Douce
Katharinenstraße 21
70182 Stuttgart
0711-4704320

Epicerie fine

epicerie fine 1 epicerie fine 2

A little jewel of a shop, this place has charmed us. It is actually a delicatessen-shop where you can buy directly imported french cheeses and wines (these not only french). Many a Monday dinner (when the market doesn’t offer its best) has been saved by the perfect baguette, some cheeses and pates from here. But the real ace up their sleeve is the lunch. I ate some of the best dishes of this year standing up in this little no-smoking, no-mobile phones deli, accompanied by some very interesting and less known wines. Everyday, there are up to three courses on offer, which you may pick and put together as you like, with a wine by the glass and at unbeatable prices. No reservations taken and be sure to go early enough, when the food is sold out, it is sold out! Mrs. Hebener, the owner and chef behind the scenes, was planning to open a “real” restaurant just across the street, but it seems like there have been technical problems. Do keep an eye on this!

epicerie fine
Olgastr. 136
70180 Stuttgart
0711-3803383

Earlier this year I put together a culinary city snapshot of Stuttgart for Johanna, everything I wrote there is also still valid. If you are planning to visit Stuttgart any time soon, do have a look at that post as well.

Taking Pictures in a 3-Michelin-Starred Restaurant

Cutting Bread

UPDATE on April 5th, 2007: Thanks to everyone who has commented here or written me emails. It has been very interesting to see how other foodies (blogger or non-blogger) handle this and we even had a chef in the discussion (thanks Sebastian!) who tried to show us the other side about swapping plates. Thanks to a non-blogging but well travelled foodie who wrote me about his concrete experience in the restaurant in question, I was very relaxed and took pictures without any problems. You can read about our heavenly experience in the next post, coming up in a couple of hours already here!

Meanwhile, here are the guidelines I have now firmly developed and will follow from now on:

  • I don’t think the chefs have a copyright on the presentation of the food, so I may take pictures.
  • However, taking pictures in a very exposed way (big camera, flash, setting food up, etc.) can deter the experience of other diners, which has to be avoided, out of respect.
  • Only in very upscale locations and only after I arrive on the premises (to see the situation) I might ask for permission beforehand. Most of the time I will just take pictures (abiding by the above code of conduct) unless explicitly asked otherwise.
  • If the food in question is not just one bite (an amouse or something “molecular” like a sphere etc.) I will swap plates with my husband if we are having different things. Lamb on vegetables and jus is just that, and although the proportions of the different elements on the plate do have a meaning, it does not mean I can’t divide it in two.

*******************************************************

I need your help!

In around a week, we will be having dinner in a 3-starred restaurant. It is even sometimes called the best restaurant in Germany and the chef the best in his guild. Of course I would like to take pictures of the food, even when I didn’t have this blog; I await the meal to be a memorable experience. There has been a lot of discussion about taking pictures in restaurants and this last one (in German) made me really insecure.

I almost always take pictures of my food in a restaurant (including a 3-star establishment in France) unless I am explicitly asked not to do so. I use a very unintrusive little digital camera, of course no flash, and take it out from under my napkin very shortly and only to take a picture of the plate in front of me. Not because I want to do it secretly but I don’t want to disturb any other diners.

So what do you think I should do? Start taking pictures until I am maybe “caught” and even thrown out, as stated in the last article? Ask beforehand? Not even bother? Please tell me your thoughts about this.

On a similar theme: What do you think of tasting your dining companion’s food, or even swapping plates? I have always done this unless I am having the same as the others, but I hear it is not that welcome in some establishments…

An Alsatian Lunch

Naturmorte

naturmorte

Past weekend we were in the Alsace and Vosges regions of France. Strasbourg is so close to Stuttgart, we were there in one and a half hours. We engaged in our favorite pastime activity and walked around the towns (Strasbourg and Wissembourg), went to the market, to “Galeries Lafayette Gourmet” (calling it a supermarket would be an insult, it was like a very large Deli), drank coffee, watched people, read some, drank wine, and oh, ate.

For lunch at saturday, I had well laid plans. Clotilde was at an inn near Strasbourg two years ago and I was keen on trying this wonderful lunch menu at the Bürestubel she raved about (not to confuse with the 3-Michelin-starred Buerehiesel). So I very delicately allured T. into leaving Strasbourg and going to this lovely inn a 10-minute ride away. In this beautiful country-inn we both had the 3-course menu for 26 Euros.

Ok, so this is thin ice I am stepping on to: Disclaimer – I don’t speak french, my cooking tends towards italian cooking (I know, I know, there is no such thing as italian cooking, I am just simplifying for the sake of brevity) and anything and everything I am claiming throughout the rest of this post is not necessarily correct. My spoken and listening-comprehension french is non-existent (not that I can really read french either, but when it is written down I can combine all my roman languages and figure out what is meant and this works especially well when it is about food). The Francophone among you may feel free to correct me in the comments!

terrineAs an amouse-bouche (“bouche” is the more elegant word for “gueule” and therefore amouse-bouche a newish, finer term for amouse-gueule meaning the same, a palate-pleaser) we got a bite of some kind of meat-terrine in aspic with lentils on top. Unfortunately, as this was not on the menu (see above), I cannot specify what meat this exactly was and what the dish might be called. I am tipping cow. This was a good start and a warning that we were in for some meat.

Salad with foie gras and smoked duckNext came our first courses. T. had chosen the “salade composée au magret de canard fumé maison, foie gras d’oie à la fleur du sel, pains aux figues”, which is salad with home-smoked duck breast, goose foie gras (fat-liver) with fleur du sel and fig-bread.Smoked duck breast is something I want to do myself and I hope I will ever reach something near what was on this salad. Very delicate, the smoke not over-powering but definitely there, bringing depth and warmth. The foie gras, combined with the sweet brioche and the fleur du sel (There is a lot of discussion about salt but I think there are only two types of people: believers and non-believers. Pate en croûteI am a believer. David has an excellent entry about this salt in his blog) was very good. It melted in your mouth and was not too dense or heavy. Just creamy and heavenly. I had chosen the “pâté en croûte maison, crudités de saison”, which was a terrine in a pastry crust with various fresh and pickled vegetables like celeriac, carrots, red cabbage, zucchini and the like. Although this was good too, it wasn’t anything close to the salad T. had.

poussin rotiOne of our mains was “Poussin rôti à l’échalotte paille, petits légumes frais de saison, pommes de terre sautées, salada verte”, a very young roasted chicken (usually under 4 weeks old) with shallots and fresh vegetables, with sauteed potatoes and a green salad on the side. This was the best poultry we ever ate in a restaurant. Tender, juicy, with a lot of taste in the meat as well as the roasted shallots and vegetables. A perfect example that if you take the best ingredients and do as little as possible to them and handle them just right, it is very simple to create a perfect dish. The other main we had was the famous Alsatian dish “choucroute Bürestubel” which literally means sauerkraut the Bürestubel way. Choucroute BürestubelI dare you to find the sauerkraut in the picture! There were liver meatballs, salt-cured pork ribs and ham knuckle, fresh and smoked bacon, two kinds of sausages and some more smoked meats…. And underneath there was the best sauerkraut I ever ate, soft, lightly sweet and not sour at all! Both mains not only tasted great, they would have fed 2 – 3 people alone, without the support from a 3 course menu.

Petit RomeoTarte aux pommesWith dessert it was again T. who had chosen the better option: He had a “petit Romeo“, which consisted of coffee and vanilla ice cream, fruits poached in wine, some kind of white cake with a lot of cream and almond splitters. This was a really good end to this meaty menu, fruity and creamy and fresh. I had chosen the “tarte aux pommes“, an apple tart which was underwhelming, the crust too hard and thick, the filling not very interesting.

This meal was definitely something to remember and we have every intention to visit Bürestubel again. Next time we would order a bottle of wine instead of the unmemorable house wines by the glass we had this time and only one appetizer and one main and share it! I am thinking about maybe the “quenelles de pommes de terre”….

An Evening of Pleasure

An evening of pleasure

an evening of pleasure

Last weekend we were invited to a special dinner by one of the vineyards that we know and buy wines from in the Kaiserstuhl area, Trautwein. This winery is bioland and demeter certified and one of the first vineyards in Germany to completely convert to bio-dynamic and organic farming (in 1980). By no means do we choose our wines according to this criteria, but it is an added bonus to know there are no chemicals in that sip of wine if it tastes good.

The event, “an evening of pleasure”, took place in a Michelin “Bib Gourmand” Restaurant, Scheidels Restaurant in Kenzingen, a mere 10 k away from the winery. After an initial getting to know with some nibbles and live music in the cozy court yard of the restaurant, the 65 wine- and food-interested were let into the restaurant to enjoy a 7 course dinner with corresponding wines from the Trautwein vineyards.

ScallopsOur first course was a scallop carpaccio with olive oil and basil. This was accompanied by a 2005 Rivaner, which is also known as Müller-Thurgau and once was the most planted grape variety in Germany. It is a cross of Silvaner with Riesling and was the grape behind the ubiquitous “liebfrauenmilch” and therefore sank into disrepute. We liked the wine as a fresh and light summer wine but the pairing was not optimal. The sea-smell of the scallops, the saltiness, choked the wine. I can imagine a Pinot Blanc with some body a lot better with these scallops which tasted very fresh.

Poultry terrineThe second course was poultry terrine with Judas’ ear fungi and pistachios, accompanied with Pinot Grigio jelly. Of course the corresponding wine was a Grauburgunder 2005 (Pinot Grigio). I wasn’t crazy about this terrine, it was rather bland, but I liked the idea of combining poultry with pistachios. The wine was a plus for this course and lifted it up. Maybe the cook deliberately hold back the spices so that the wine can shine? I don’t know.

Pike-perch the asian wayThen came my second favorite course of the evening: Pike-perch (also known as zander) “the asian way” with Basmati rice. The fillet was wrapped in rice paper with some ginger, coriander and tomato and then poached. This was very tender, tasted very delicate, and the ginger and coriander gave the fish a whole new dimension without overpowering it. And the combination with the 2003 Weißburgunder Auslese (Pinot Blanc selection) was just right. The wine had a lot of alcohol but was almost creamy on the palate. This was a perfect combination, being more than the sum of its parts.

Ravioli of king prawnsThe next course was anti-climactic. The ravioli stuffed with king prawns was just ok, the prawns not adding much taste and the balls of Charantais melon just disturbing. They were too sweet without holding up to it with taste and completely ruined the perfect 2003 Chardonnay Auslese Edition RS (selection reserve, aged in barriques) that was served with this course. T. had some pasta with a tomato-garlic sauce because of his allergy and was happier with his combination than I was with mine. The next day we tasted the wine again, liked it a lot and bought some, but the combination within this dinner was almost fatal.

Braised calf's cheeksThis rather disappointing course was followed by my favorite: braised calf’s cheek with porcini-cabbage vegetable and pommes Williams. I have been meaning to cook braised calf’s cheek myself for some time now, and this course makes me want it even more. Sitting here early in the morning, days after the experience, I am still tasting it just looking at the pictures. The cheeks were so tender, so flavorful, the sauce almost made me mop it up with bread…Have to replicate this! Also braised calf's cheeksThe wine we drank with this was also, surprisingly, very good, especially if you think about our, well, aversion to German reds: 2003 Spätburgunder Edition Reserve Spätlese (Pinot Noir late vintage reserve, aged in barriques). The next day we learned that this wine costs 25 Euros and had to think about the Pinot Noirs we get in Austria for this amount. This is, according to us, the greatest problem with German reds. There are some really good ones every once in a while, but when you think of the price/performance ratio, they lose.

The cheese course was Tête de Moine, which actually I like a lot. Unfortunately, this was served not the correct way, pared into the shape of delicate rosettes, but in plain slices. I believe this really makes a difference in the structure and taste of the cheese and could not understand why it was served like this. Were 65 servings too much? The wine pairing with the cheese was just ok: 2005 Gewürztraminer Edition Spätlese (late vintage), slightly sweet and full of rose aromas. I would have liked this wine a lot better with some other cheese, maybe a blue-veined cheese like Gorgonzola. No pictures of this no-no serving.

Mascarpone tartletsOur dessert was a mascarpone tartlet with strawberry coulis and raspberry sorbet. The tartlet was sweet but light (!) and the various berries were refreshing. The serving was rather big after all the food we had during the 6 courses before this. We were served some 2000 Pinot rosé Sekt Reserve Brut (sparkling rosé, the traditional method – bottle fermentation) which tasted fine, I am not a great rosé fan, be it sparkling or not, the only one I liked until now was the Moet Chandon Rosé we drank at a Moet Chandon tasting dinner in Munich a couple of months ago.

Although I have criticized quite a few courses I have to say that the overall experience was very good. We liked most courses and most wines and I guess that the cook had some problems having to adjust his food to match the wines (which is usually the other way around) because the wines were the given and he had to come up with the dishes. And you cannot beat the price: We paid 70 Euros per person and it was worth it.

Gewürztraminer grapesWeedsThe next day we had the chance to visit the vineyards with winegrower H.P. Trautwein himself and it was very interesting to compare and contrast his methods with those of Claus Preisinger (who is converting to organic farming) whom we had visited just a week earlier. Trautwein lets a lot more grapes grow on the vines, lets the useful weeds grow higher between the rows and has his vineyards more or less all together in one place. Later on we tasted all the wines of the winery before buying some of the 2003 Weißburgunder Auslese Edition and 2003 Chardonnay Auslese Edition RS.

This was again a fun weekend, with good food and wine. We also got to know some very interesting people during the dinner and got some useful tips about the region. We will definitely use them!

The “Lamm” Theory 4

Lamm - Möhringen

Möhringen – Stuttgart