Monday, March 24, 2014

Traveling On Our Stomachs


Kathy and I have set out on a rare vacation that has taken us from Portland to Scottsdale/Phoenix and will continue on mid-week to Austin, TX.

Our first night in Portland we ate at a restaurant that has been on my "need to try" list since I moved to Oregon, Ned Ludd.  The restaurant is named, of course, after Ned Ludd who became the figurehead of the Luddites in the early 19th Century because he broke two stocking frames in a fit of rage in the 1790's.  In the tradition of the Luddites Ned Ludd embraces, to a certain degree, a return to simplicity.  All of the cooked food at Ned Ludd comes either out of a roaring wood-fired oven that is the center-piece of the restaurant or a smoker that puffs away out on the front patio.

Ned Ludd sits in a storefront on Portland's MLK Jr. Boulevard in a neighborhood that might be described as "just beyond transition".  There are restaurants opening up and down the street and what was once a rather ominous part of the city is opening up.  The restaurant, remaining true to its ideals and name, is rather simply adorned with found art, food related tchotchkes and lots of recycled wood.  Service is unpretentious and friendly.  The menu changes monthly and like so many of the good Portland restaurants relies on the seasons to drive its menu direction.  The choices are divided into four parts, Forbits, Kaltbits, Warmbits and Plats.

We started off with a generous bowl of oven-warmed olives and the de rigeur Martini for Kathy.  Fortunately for them they were serving Aviation gin.  The first course offerings were interesting and included a generous plate of house made charcuterie, but what really grabbed us were the salad and vegetable sides (Kaltbits/Warmbits).  We wanted to try all of them.  We settled for a smoky charred salad of oven roasted cauliflower with a bright green nettle sauce and pine nuts and an escarole salad with paper thin slices of sunchoke topped with an olive bread crumb  and tossed with a creamy dijon dressing.  Both were excellent, but I STILL want to try the Arugula salad with oven roasted beets, fresh local sheep's cheese and pistachios as well as the Roasted potatoes with Spring goddess dressing.

Back to the oven for our entrees, a bronzed stuffed quail for me and Petrale sole for Kathy.  My quail was one of the best I've eaten, stuffed with braised bitter greens and sauced with a nice bird reduction sweetened slightly with dried fruit.  The quail sat on a thick bed of oven-roasted root vegetables and was topped with a scatter of mizuna leaves.  As I said, one of the best quail dishes I've ever had.  Kathy's sole was good, but certainly not supernal (thanks, George).  The fish was rolled into cylinders and roasted with chanterelles, white wine, raabs and leeks.  The sauce was "nice" and the fish was fresh, but the whole dish didn't elevate past "good" into "great".

We finished off with something called a "Tarte de Perigord" which was a custard infused with brandy soaked dried fruits and baked in the wood oven in a small cast iron skillet.  I was skeptical, but it was a great way to end the meal; slightly sweet and slightly rich.  I couldn't be absolutely certain but it seemed to go well with the local Pear Brandy that Kathy had with her coffee.  I liked Ned Ludd so much that I wish we lived closer to Portland so I could go once a month to see how the menu changes.  The meal wasn't exorbitantly expensive and the whole experience was totally charming and satisfying.


And onto Phoenix; warm weather, a pre-fab feel and mountains off across the horizon.  Lots of gated communities and some of the most aggressive and rude drivers I've ever encountered.  BUT, amidst all that,  we got to see Spring Training baseball and family.  Hard to beat that.

Oh yes, there was the pilgrimage to Pizzeria Bianco.  Fifteen years ago a chef friend told me about this guy in Phoenix who was making the best pizza he'd ever eaten.  He said the guy was a crust perfectionist and that the line stretched around the block before the place even opened each day.  I started reading about him in the food press a couple of years later and then hadn't heard much about him as the culinary trends changed.  He was still down here, though, building a mini-empire of two good-sized full service restaurants and a newer location called Pane Bianco.

I insisted that we go.  I was here, it was here and I wasn't taking no for an answer.  Good thing.
We found the place inside a Town and Country shopping center and the line was still there.
We were told it would be a 25-30 minute wait and it was more like 45 minutes but it was all okay.
We sat outside on a lovely warm evening and while Kathy and her daughter Chelsea drank very expensive Chardonnay the kids ran around and I just dug the smells coming out of the wood burning ovens.

We sat down and they immediately dropped warm house-baked bread and SOME REALLY GOOD OLIVE OIL in front of us.  We scarfed the first plate of bread up so fast the busser laughed as he dropped the second one.   The menu is so simple as to be deceptive, but don't worry.  This place rocks!  We ordered a simple salad of local greens and a classic Caprese salad and they were both exemplary.  The greens featured a good amount of escarole, olives and a nicely light vinaigrette.  The tomatoes in the Caprese were actually ripe and they included the top with the green vine on the side of the plate as evidence of its freshness.  The mozzarella was homemade, creamy and actually had flavor.  Fresh green basil leaves and more of that great green olive oil made me remember why this is one of the great dishes.

We ordered a Margherita for the kids and a sauceless pizza with more of that house made mozzarella that had been smoked, caramelized onions, and long slices of a perfectly spicy fresh made sausage. These were seriously good pizzas.  Seriously.  Good pizza depends on a good crust and this was GREAT crust.  It was smoky, salty, perfectly chewy and one of the best pizza crusts I have ever eaten.  It is now the benchmark for me.  As you might imagine, the pizzas disappeared in record time.

It is rare that a pizza place offers dessert, but we were in the mood and the kids ears perked up at the mention of "flourless chocolate cake".  I am SO glad we ordered dessert!  The chocolate cake was good, really good, but the lemon tart I had was ethereal, everything you ever wanted in a lemon tart.  It was sweet, creamy, tart, all of it.  And the crust was great.  Accompanying and elevating both these desserts was a rich and delicious vanilla creme chantilly.  Another bullseye here.

I would go back to Pizzeria Biano tomorrow and maybe the next day.  It was that good.

And so, on to Austin...

Wednesday May 13, 2009 La Cusinga and Me

This words below are from our website describing La Cusinga.  The story, however is much deeper and much richer than these introductory words can describe.  La Cusinga represents a noble and successful effort to preserve this section of unspoiled coast and to keep it alive as a model of what true ecology can accomplish.  The dreams and visions of John Tresemer, the owner of La Cusinga and the Finca Tres Hermanas that surrounds it, have been realized here in what is a true example for all who would preserve and protect what remains of this, or any natural wonder. 

La Cusinga 
La Cusinga Lodge is a coastal rainforest eco lodge dedicated to marine and terrestrial conservation and environmental education. Its location on the southern Pacific coast provides guests with sweeping ocean views and a relaxing beach vacation. In addition La Cusinga is part of a private nature reserve that supplies the visitor with an unparalleled look at Costa Rican wildlife and rainforest. The reserve consists primarily of 250 hectares of virgin rainforest that borders thousands of more acres of privately protected forest. On Costa Rica’s still wild south-western Pacific coast, La Cusinga Lodge borders Ballena Marine National Park which was developed to protect the humpback whales that frequent the coast. La Cusinga Lodge was established in order to share the unique site with Costa Ricans as well as international visitors. Besides getting exposure to rural Costa Rican culture and beautiful vistas, visitors have access to highly prolific areas of primary tropical rainforest and unspoiled coast, all conveniently accessible. 

i returned to La Cusinga this past January, 2009, with a dream in mind.  I wanted to create a cuisine for our guests that would bridge the gap between what La Cusinga offered physically and spiritually, and what they were putting in their bodies when they ate here.  I knew from having previously lived in Costa Rica for over two years that there were organic farmers and that sustainable agriculture was being practiced, but at that time it had been limited in its scope as well as its distribution.  

My first steps upon returning were toward the local Feria to seek out and communicate my ideas with the growers and vendors who could provide me with a local, organic and sustainable product.  The fertile valleys of San Isidro that lie over the coastal mountains and to the Northeast of our Pacific location are rich and productive but are only now exploring the potential that they hold.  

I had in mind a vision that would support local farmers, fishermen and food artisans and one that would recreate (or perhaps, create) a new cuisine of Coastal Costa Rica.  I visit the markets each week to talk with growers and to develop the  relationships that I believe will be mutually beneficial as Costa Rica experiences its rapid growth on an international level
Organic farming is a new and not heavily supported concept in our part of Costa Rica.  It is a brave step for farmers to make, as local communities of both growers and consumers have never placed, or not known to place, an importance on farming organically and sustainably.  I feel a responsibility as a Chef here to be at the forefront of those encouraging and supporting these pioneers  

I came to La Cusinga almost three years ago not knowing what to expect.  My first time through here was characterized by a lack of understanding and appreciation on my part as well as an inability to recognize or connect with the local "flavor" that would make for a coherent package for out guests.  I now feel as if I have made a "connect" with the property and the vision.  I am not completely satisfied and hopefully, never will be, until we are able to produce, right here at La Cusinga, the greater share of the produce we serve.  However, the groundwork has been laid with local farmers and the availability and quality of organic produce is impressive.

Now at La Cusinga I serve a variety of organic lettuces and braising greens.  My salads include wedges or slices of rich red tomatoes as well as sweet !00 and yellow pear cherry tomatoes.  I roast organic beets and marinate them in balsamic vinegar to be served alongside the lettuces and topped with a locally made organic goat cheese.

My soups are made from roasted and steamed local organic vegetables and tiny organic yellow creamer potatoes have found their way onto my plates, nestled against filets of locally caught fish.
I am now using a local organic cocoa powder that still contains the nuggets of cocoa butter unlike the fined cocoa powder in the markets.

And better still, I am able to use palmito (hearts of palm), ginger, cilantro and its sawtooth leafed cousin culantro coyote, mangoes, hot and sweet chiles, mandarina limes and yucca root from our own Finca Tres Hermanas to serve in my dining room at La Cusinga.   The connection from jungle and farm to table is evolving.  May it continue to grow.