St. Barts, A Food Lover’s Paradise

I finally made my first trip to Saint-Barthélemy (aka St. Barts, aka St. Barths depending where you’re from) thanks to the occasion of Jeannie and Brian’s wedding. As far as destination weddings go, I don’t think you could have picked a better location. The scenery is beautiful, the people are welcoming, and best of all, the food is fantastic everywhere on the island.

The trip into St. Barths is thrilling in itself. The airport consists of a very short runway tucked behind a hill and ending at the beach. So all incoming planes have to basically come in low over the hill and cut the engines so they can descend quickly enough to catch the runway. Once on the runway the plane needs to stop right away in order to avoid ending up on the beach or in the sea. The pilot then has to pull an immediate u-turn to head back to the gate which you passed on the way down. It’s as crazy as it sounds, and that’s why pilots have to have a special certification to be allowed to land at that airport. Search Youtube and you’ll find some good videos of landings, both successful and not!

The great thing is that once you’ve landed, you’re in St. Barts! No long lines at the airport, no long drive to get where you’re going. The island is so small that once you hop in your rental car you are minutes from wherever you want to go- your hotel, the beach, and of course the restaurants. Oh the restaurants…

The thing about St. Barts is that it is a French territory so you are surrounded by great cuisine everywhere you turn. Here are a few of versions of foie gras I enjoyed:

Foie Gras at Eden Rock

The above was at Eden Rock, once of the pricier restaurants on the island, but we were only there for foie gras and drinks.

Foie Gras at Bonito

This was at Bonito, a new restaurant on St. Barts. I don’t remember exactly what the dumpling like thing at the bottom of the skewers were. Blame it on the fact that it was the sixth meal of the day for me so things were kind of a blur by that point. Also I was much less interested in that foie gras as this one was the highlight at Bonito:

Foie Gras with Pumpkin Ravioli at Bonito

It’s a seared foie gras over pumpkin ravioli. A brilliant combination as the pumpkin had just the right delicate level of sweetness, not as overbearing as the syrupy sauce you often find served with foie.

A recurring theme on menus all across St. Barts is the freshest of fish prepared simply, usually some sort of white fish like wahoo or mahi mahi, and often served in tartare or ceviche preparations. Maya’s is reknowned and beloved for specializing in just that sort of refined simplicity. Check out Maya’s ceviche and her asparagus salad:

Ceviche at Maya's

Asparagus Salad at Maya's

And here’s Wall House’s take on raw fish, with a nice little accent of gari, the pickled ginger you usually get with sushi. Makes so much sense as an accompaniment, I’m surprised we don’t see it more often.

Wall House tartare

And here’s the ceviche sampler at Bonito with some very interesting garnishes. That’s mango and watermelon on the left, pine nuts in position two, seaweed salad in the third slot, and popcorn and sweet potato on the right.

Bonito ceviches

Beautiful raw preparations weren’t limited to fish either. At La Route des Boucaniers we had this magnificent pair of raw beef dishes:

Carpaccio at La Route des Boucaniers

Steak tartare at La Route des Boucaniers

The quality of the beef was magnificent in both dishes, but the carpaccio could have used another salty component. The steak tartare did have that component in the form of capers and it worked beautifully. Definitely the best steak tartare I’ve ever had, it was well seasoned without overwhelming the flavor of the beef. Quite a generous portion too I might add, yet wolfing the whole thing down it never felt like a heavy dish. It was just perfect in both flavor and texture, it may have been my favorite plate of the entire trip.

Another must-visit eatery on the island is La Creperie which as you’d expect, specializes in crepes. They do both savory and sweet, but I opted for this gem featuring lemon, honey and almonds and a scoop of lemon sorbet. So good.

Lemon Twist at La Creperie

It’s not just the French food, but even things like burgers are great here. Just ask Jimmy Buffett who wrote Cheeseburger In Paradise after being inspired by the burger at the St. Barts institution called Le Select. I of course had to try one and naturally I got bacon on mine:

Le Select Bacon Cheeseburger

Ok, I know what you’re thinking, “where’s the beef?”, right? Well I’d agree, the patty could have been a little more substantial, but hey, it was only about 7€, probably my cheapest meal on the island (St. Barts is expensive, even with the Euro collapsing). It was a decent burger but I don’t know if it would have inspired me to write a song about it. Elsewhere on the island however, you can get this burger which will in fact make you want to break into song and dance:

Burger at La Route des Boucaniers

It’s a cheeseburger from La Route des Boucaniers. Just look at it. Simple, not gimmicked up in any way. Just a perfectly cooked patty of beef with cheese melted just right and a lightly toasty bun. Classic and delicious, which is a good way to describe much of the food on island.

Nowhere was this classicism more evident than in the desserts. Meringue used to be popular back in the hay day of French haute cuisine. These days, in New York anyway, you just won’t see classic French meringue desserts anymore because nobody wants their menu to appear outdated. But you know, these things are classics for a reason- because they’re goddamn delicious! Example number one, a Vacherin at La Route des Boucaniers:

Vacherin at La Route des Boucaniers

A vacherin is a baked meringue shell filled with whatever goodies you want. My favorites are like this one, filled with a berry compote, but they are also great when filled with mousse. La Route kind of unnecessarily gilds the lily by covering it all with whipped cream, but I’m not complaining.

But perhaps the ultimate throwback was this beautiful classic from The Wall House restaurant:

Oeufs A La Neige at Wall House

It’s the Floating Island, or perhaps better known by its more attractive French name, Oeufs a la Neige which means “snow eggs”. The meringue is soft and cloud-like, floating on a pool of creme anglaise. It’s a dish I don’t think I’ve even heard mentioned since the 80’s, but so satisfying and fun to eat it makes me wonder why we have written it off. All I know is it makes me happy that they proudly serve this sort of food in St. Barts. In fact, most everything about St. Barts makes me happy. It’s my kind of paradise, one that has foie gras and steak tartare. 🙂

X2O

As a Westchester resident and a foodie, I’ve been rather ashamed that I had not dined at X2O. After Blue Hill at Stone Barns, X2O is without a doubt the next most noteworthy dining destination in these parts. I had wanted badly to check it out since it opened about 3 years ago but the right occasion never seemed to present itself. Well, I’m pleased to say a worthy occasion finally came up this past weekend as eight of us gathered there to celebrate Esther’s birthday.

I arrived early to take in the sunset views of the Hudson with a cocktail in the bar area they call the Dylan Lounge. From the bar you get only a south facing view but it’s still pretty awesome, with the Palisades across the river and the George Washington bridge off in the distance. Their bar is one of the few places I know of that carries white port, in this case Dow’s White Port, so I ordered a white port and tonic with a wedge of lime. Light and relatively low in alcohol, if you ever see white port at a bar, give this drink a try and see if it doesn’t become your cocktail of choice for the summer.

When everyone in our party finally arrived we headed into the dining room where an even more impressive panoramic view of the Hudson could be had, with large windows facing north, south and west. The dining room itself had a high ceiling with some of the roof beams visible, a bit of a nod to the industrial roots of this part of Yonkers. But enough about the dining room, I know you want to know about the food.

Peter X Kelly is a well respected chef who has stayed true to his Hudson Valley roots and X2O is clearly his flagship. He’s defeated Bobby Flay on Iron Chef America and was also recently featured on Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations. And now that I’ve tried X2O, I can definitely say the attention he’s garnered is well-earned as the food he is putting out is excellent. My friends told me to order for the table and so I did. And this is what happens when you let me do something like that:

X2O Appetizers

See that dish floating in the upper left hand corner of the picture? The waiter was standing there trying to figure out where to place that dish and there was another waiter standing beside him with the same predicament. There were 22 appetizer plates in all. It is extraordinarily impressive that the kitchen managed to handle that order and produce all 22 plates to be served at the same time at the proper temperatures all on a busy Saturday night no less.

In this parade of superb dishes, a few things really stood out for me. The short rib and foie gras ravioli with truffle butter was as decadent as it sounds. A rather unexpected combination of big eye tuna sashimi wrapped around cold foie gras was not to everyone’s liking but those of us that did enjoy it, really loved it. Sure foie gras is always delicious, but there was something about the interplay of textures between the fish and the foie that really made the combo work. The sweetbreads app was delicious too, so perfectly crispy on the outside and melting on the inside that I don’t even remember what kind of sauce it was served with. The obligatory salad I ordered turned out to be amazing, featuring medallions of grilled octopus and slices of garlic sausage. But the star of the show for me was a crepe generously stuffed with lobster and served in a classic Sauce Americaine. I hadn’t had a sauce like that probably since the 80’s. It’s the sort of thing that harkens back to the hay days of haute cuisine. I’m glad that Peter Kelly is confident enough to serve such an old school dish without fear of it coming off as dated or pretentious. Stuff like that is classic for a reason, and I am proud to say I still love it. In fact I think I had a little bit of an Anton Ego flashback moment as I tasted it.

For entrees, the signature cowboy rib eye for two had a wonderful brown sugar and cayenne crust to it, but parts of it were a touch overcooked which I guess is hard to avoid with a big hunk of meat like that when you’re trying to make sure the center isn’t raw. But in my opinion, a better red meat entree was the saddle of lamb which was perfectly cooked and allowed to sing on its own merits- if there was a sauce, I didn’t notice because it certainly didn’t need it. But the best entree of all was a killer entree of Berkshire Black Hog. Mmmmm, delicious pork. But the side dishes also deserve special recognition at X2O. The brussel sprouts fried to a beautifully caramelized state were so addictive they tasted like they had to be bad for you. And then there’s the creamed spinach. Oh…my…god. This creamed spinach actually tasted like super fresh spinach. Yet it had the texture we’re all familiar with in creamed spinach. But none of that squeaky grittiness you sometimes get on the teeth from spinach. It was like tasting what creamed spinach was always meant to be. I have no idea how you can cook spinach down like that and still have it taste so green and alive. Twoin was particularly awed by it, saying he doesn’t know how many days he will be able to go without having that spinach again. I know you mean Towin, I know what you mean. But I’ll be having the lobster crepe too.

Oh How Olive You

Castelvetrano Olives

The beautiful lush green olives you see above are of the Nocellara del Belice variety grown in Castelvetrano, Sicily. I first encountered these at Peasant restaurant where they serve them on the bar in lieu of boring clichéd bar snacks like nuts or pretzels. The stunning bright green color just catches your eye and makes your mouth water. Then you taste it and it’s like a moment of awakening. Unlike any other olive, the Castelvetrano has a fresh green buttery flavor and a meaty, juicy texture. While other olives taste like they are of indeterminate age, the vegetal vibrance of these just exudes freshness. The olives are harvested young and cured in a very light brine. If you are turned off by olives that are too salty or overly assertive in flavor, then you must give Castelvetranos a try. But of course there’s a catch- depending on where you live, they might be pretty hard to find. If you’re in NYC, you can get them from Di Palo’s in Little Italy, currently selling for $7.99/lb. Coincidentally, I ran into David Rosengarten shopping there this past Sunday. I hadn’t seen him since since my birthday dinner at Daisy May’s a few years ago, but it wasn’t surprising to see him at Di Palo’s; foodies all know the best places to shop! Alternatively, you can always stop into Peasant and grab a seat at the bar. They don’t always have Castelvetranos on the bar, but frequently they do. Peasant has great food anyway, so even if they don’t have these glorious olives on the day of your visit, it is still worth the trip. If you’re lucky enough to be there when Vicky High Life is bartending, she can steer you to some of my favorite menu items. But be sure to save room for dessert- their panna cotta and their bread pudding are the best renditions of those classics I’ve ever tasted. Then after dessert if you linger at the bar enjoying your wine, let’s see if you can resist having a few more Castelvetrano olives. My guess is no. 🙂

Monkfish Liver (Ankimo)

Last month my cousin Nancy was in town and we went to meet up with my brother and his wife for dinner at Ichiumi, a buffet place in Edison, NJ. There was a huge selection of food including lots of seafood items of varying degrees of quality. I spotted one of my favorite things to eat- monkfish liver (also known as ankimo in Japanese), so I of course had to sample it. Sadly, it was awful. Probably the worst I’ve ever tasted. It had a very strong fishy funkiness to it and strands of sinewy veins which ruined the texture. Monkfish liver is supposed to be a little bit funky in a liver-ish sort of way, but mildly so and with a totally smooth texture. It has been called the foie gras of the sea and for good reason. When prepared correctly it has a mouth-filling richness and a mellow creaminess that exemplifies decadence.

The preparation of monkfish liver isn’t particularly difficult, so let me show you how I do it at home. First, get some raw monkfish liver from a reputable fishmonger or Japanese market. Usually monkfish liver is best during the cold weather months, so if this is your first time trying it out, now is a good time for it. It should be a nice pale cream color with as few red spots as possible. The good stuff, partially pre-cleaned for you, should run about $10 a pound. If it’s significantly cheaper than that, I’d probably steer clear of it. When you get it home, the first thing to do is to sprinkle some salt all over it, then place it in a bowl and pour in just enough sake to cover it. It can be any cheap sake, just avoid the sweet or cloudy unfiltered varieties. Here’s what good quality monkfish liver looks like at this stage of the preparation:

Monkfish Liver soaking in sake

Place the bowl in the refrigerator to let it soak for an hour. This is the first step that Ichiumi must have botched because the salt and sake is what draws out the overwhelming funkiness.

After an hour, dump out the sake and place your liver on a cutting board. This is the only mildly challenging/messy part of the process. With a very sharp knife, start trying to remove any veins or sinewy strands that you see. Anything that does not look like soft liver tissue should be removed, so that includes the very thin outer membrane which peels away very easily once you get it started. The veins are often impossible to remove in complete strands, so don’t don’t get frustrated if you have to remove little pieces at a time. Try to pull the veins off the liver and then use your knife to gently scrape the liver away from them. It will look something like this:

Deveining monkfish liver

As you proceed, you will be exposing more and more of the interior of the liver. That allows you to run your fingers thru it looking for any other tough strands. Also cut away any red blood spots that you see. Don’t worry if it looks like you’re completely mangling the poor piece of liver and it ends up looking like little mounds of jello on your cutting board. In fact, you actually want it broken down into smaller blobs like that because that will make the subsequent rolling step much easier.

Once you have the liver completely deveined, transfer it onto a sheet of heavy duty aluminum foil. Place it all in a horizontal row at the edge of the foil closest to you. Then grab that edge of the foil and gently lift it up and roll it forward, trying to encase the liver into a little tube shape. Do your best to get the liver into as tight a roll as possible without it squeezing out of the two ends. Once you have completed your little aluminum liver tube package, place it into a pan with a steamer rack and let it steam for 30 minutes:

Monkfish liver steaming

After 30 minutes, take it out, let it cool down and then refrigerate until you want to serve it. To serve, just unroll the package and slice off coins about 1/4″ thick. I like to place them in a bowl with a little bit of scallion and drizzle them with ponzu soy (a sauce made of soy sauce and ponzu juice, it’s not as salty as soy sauce and has a citrus flavor that helps cut the richness of the liver). And a quick tip regarding the scallions- for any recipe that calls for raw scallion, I like to use a technique I first learned by watching the guys at Typhoon in the East Village. Finely slice the scallions, wash them in really cold water, and then drain and dry them in paper towels to get out the extra moisture. This cuts the aggressiveness of the oniony flavor and just makes them more palatable overall. If you want to get really fancy with your monkfish liver preparation, a little dab of momiji oroshi would go fantastically with it. That’s the spicy grated daikon that you’ll see with some dishes at Japanese restaurants. Alas, I didn’t make any of that this time around, so here’s my simply plated finished dish:

Monkfish Liver

No More Food Network (for me)

As of January 1st, I no longer get the Food Network or HGTV because Cablevision declined the rate increase being requested by Scripps Networks, the parent company of the two channels. Cablevision claims Scripps was attempting to raise the fee for those channels by 200% and that they could not accept those terms without passing the increases on to their cable subscribers like me. If you ask me, both sides have a greedy wrongheadedness about the value of their offerings. Cablevision charges too much for their services as it is, so they could certainly eat the price increase if they had to. Though I’m not saying they should, because I think Scripps is pretty delusional about the worth of their channels too. But in this day and age, there’s a way disputes like this get resolved- using the arbitration model just like in sports contract disputes. Get an independent arbitrator to listen to both sides and determine what is actually a fair carriage fee for the channels in question. It should be that simple, and at that point, whichever side refuses to go to arbitration is clearly the one in the wrong. Enough said.

As for me personally, I had lost almost all interest in the Food Network long ago. The good shows are either long gone (Taste with David Rosengarten, Molto Mario, the original Iron Chef), or relegated to very obscure hours (Jamie at Home). People that can actually cook, like Mario Batali, have been replaced by cartoonish personalities who annoy us with forced ebullience. So many of the current roster of Food Network celebrities remind me of used car salesmen. But these charlatans aren’t peddling vehicles, they’re selling themselves. They’re trying to convince you that they are fun, cool, and boy wouldn’t you just love to hang out with them. It’s not about food, it’s about them! Nauseating.

Slightly more regrettable is losing HGTV, but only slightly. The only show I watched there was Holmes On Homes, but I won’t miss it too much because it seemed they only had about 15 episodes in rotation and I’m pretty sure I’ve seen them all. That’s another thing to gripe about with Scripps- if they are going to charge more for these channels, they should damn well bring the other episodes of Holmes on Homes to the U.S. audience (there are tons of episodes that have only aired on HGTV Canada).

But while the fallout from this battle between Scripps and Cablevision is no big deal to me right now, I do have serious trepidation about the future. You see, Scripps also bought a majority stake in The Travel Channel back in November. Now that is a channel with programming that I do still like a lot. I love No Reservations, Dhani Tackles the Globe, Meet The Natives and sometimes I even find Samantha Brown, Andrew Zimmern and Man v. Food worthwhile. It scares me to think that Scripps and Cablevision could someday upturn this apple cart the same way they took the Food Network and HGTV away from 3.1 million viewers this past weekend. The way I see it, losing the Food Network is just mildly irritating. I’m annoyed only because it has become a part of popular culture and being a typical American with an inflated sense of entitlement, I feel I should have access to it even if I never actually use it. But losing the Travel Channel? Man, I hope it doesn’t ever come to that.