My Most Memorable Meal

Seven local professional foodies rhapsodize about their most delicious dining experience.


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My Most Memorable Meal

 

Seven local professional foodies rhapsodize about their most delicious dining expierence.

 

The Best Meal I Ever Ate: Seven local epicureans share their most ecstatic and cherished memories.

 

A meal can be so much more than a transitory pleasure.  Like first love, an extraordinary mean changes you and stays with you forever.  The setting, the sights, the sounds, even the quality of light in the room, seem frozen for eternity and you return, again and again, to savor it anew.  A truly sublime culinary expierence, however, happen about as often as true ove.  We catch glimpses of it, but rarely does the real thing descend upon us.  When it does, we’re blessed.

 

The following stories, told by some of our favorite local chefs and food writers, recount these moments of beauty and grace.  While their subject matter ostensibly is food, we think they’re about something far deeper: the nourishment of the soul.

 

Less Is Best-By Jay Muse

 

My best meal ever was the one for which I spent my whole week's paycheck—back in 1997, when I was literally a starving student (well, actually, a starving pastry intern or stagiaire). Yes, pastry interns can starve, too, but this was in France, where one can, after all, enjoy a fantastic meal just by inhaling.

 

See, my paycheck didn’t matter much when I was in the heart of old Nice in a noisy tavern called La Petite Maison, chowing alongside my Moroccan buddy, Amir, a fellow stagiaire I’d met while interning at the Hotel Negresco. As if it weren't nirvana enough just to sit there at a little corner table, munching on a slab of thick, chewy, rustic bread, a dollop of sweet butter, and a dish of juicy green olives. Different country? Nah— different universe!

 

And then there arrived a fragile, bite-sized tart, filled with crinkly little morels and a spoonful of mascarpone. My experience went from sensual delight to deep philosophic understanding. I began to understand this meal as only the French could: je mange donc je suis!

 

Whatever epicurean logic was left in me quickly was propositioned by a salad niçoise with velvety slices of seared tuna garnished with chopped sweet lemon flesh and the sweetest tomatoes that ever nestled atop mixed greens.

 

The place was too noisy for any philosophical effort other than deep, sybaritic meditation on… What is the sound of one lemon tarting? Of one egg yolking? I was so content that dishes shattering in the background were mere muted sounds.

 

And then, la pièce de résistance, which defied resistance: a plate of zucchini-blossom fritters (a regional specialty for which this place was famous, I learned) fried to a pale gold and served with a tiny bowl of fluffy fleur du sel. It needed no other garnish or condiment, just two willing tongues set on “devour.” It was like zucchini tempura served to the gods on Mont Parnasse. Lest you think I totally ignored Amir, he was also in the clouds, enjoying his pasta masterpiece: postage-stamp sized morsels of ravioli stuffed with a wild-mushroom ragout and topped with a simple yet extraordinary tomato sauce. Less, I learned at La Petite Maison, is much, much more.

 

Next came macaroni and cheese—the way it should be. The most astonishing flavors erupted in our mouths as we bit into the macaroni suspended in an ethereal heavy cream sauce, gently perfumed with black truffles. It was all smothered in tangy molten Gruyère. Blessed are the cheese makers.

 

Dessert was a no-nonsense bowl of the first peaches of the season, scented with vanilla and topped with fresh whipped chantilly. Having spent the entire day rolling out Earl Grey tea-infused chocolate truffles with candied violets, I found our dessert to be pure poetry of the sort that made me understand old Archibald MacLeish’s line: “A poem should be palpable and mute as a globed fruit.”

 

L’addition arrived beneath a pair of silver dollar-sized sable cookies so buttery that they perspired their golden dew onto the check: my whole week's salary. Even so, we gladly forked over the tab.

 

I still have dreams of transporting this family-run dive to Manhattan, where, dressed in fine linens, it could easily be a four-star restaurant—and with no need to dish out the extravagant concoctions that pass for American cuisine these days. Not only is La Petite Maison worth a detour,  it's worth the cost of a first-class ticket to fly over to the French Riviera just to sample its own amazing, no-frills culinary delights.

n La Petite Maison,11 rue St-Francois de Paule, Nice, France 04-93-85-71-53

 

Jay Muse, owner of Pâtisserie Lulu in Scarsdale, lives in New York City and is currently working on a cookbook/culinary journal, entitled Dough Doughs.

 

A Single Bite of Fruit (But What an Apricot!)-By Dan Barber

 

It’s the second week of August. I’m standing in the farmers’ market in front of a mountain of intoxicating apricots. A portly lady farmer bellows at me as if to say: “Look here, you silly young American, this is the essence of Provence. Mon Dieu, consume!”

Homesick and exhausted, having logged six days a week for two, long, hot months in the kitchen of a mad chef, I had decided to end my “stage” early and return home. I spent my last day wandering around the farmers’ market, and that’s when I came upon the apricots. The fruit was like nothing I had ever seen—plump to nearly bursting and blushed a deep red.

 

I started to pick one out, but the madame flicked my hand aside. She lovingly placed her fingers over her small treasures, landing on one and tapping it very gently. “Parfait,” she said, holding it up in the morning light. She unhurriedly wrapped it in beautiful soft tissue paper and handed it to me, almost reluctantly.

 

I took a bite. I was entranced and utterly confused; I was tasting an apricot I had never imagined could exist. In that moment of sheer bliss, my eyes welled up and I had to look away. Madame Farmer walked around her stall and put her arm around me. I spent the next half-hour learning how to grow perfect apricots, about the importance of pruning, of climate, about the seed that had been with her family for generations.

 

Why did that apricot taste so good? It had as much to do with the care and pride the madame took in picking it for me and the beautiful Provençal paper she wrapped around it as it did with its ripeness.

 

The perfect apricot or the first strawberries at the farmers’ market reengage us through a social and visceral experience, an experience that includes not just the right produce picked at the perfect moment, but the relationships that give texture to that experience. One becomes a better-informed eater, all in
the context of delight. What an enjoyable way to be in the world.

 

Dan Barber, the executive chef and co-owner of Blue Hill at Stone Barns in Pocantico Hills and Blue Hill in Manhattan, lives in New York City. His op-eds have been published in the New York Times.

 

The Venice That No Tourist Sees-By Julian Niccolini

 

I’ve spent my life in search of delicious food and spectacular wines. With little notice, I’d jump on a plane to taste an extraordinary Pinot Noir or hop on a boat to savor fresh Nantucket Bay scallops. What I've discovered is that, while it is possible to get a good meal almost anywhere you go, true greatness is much harder to find.

 

The most delicious meal I've ever had was at Al Mascaron, a small trattoria and wine bar in Venice, Italy. Owned by the gregarious Gigi Vianello and his partner, Momi di Momi, Al Mascaron is nearly impossible to find, but well worth the search on foot or by boat. Completely unlike Cipriani, where the tourists go to see and be seen, Al Mascaron is where locals dine on the freshest fish, tastiest pasta, and the kind of warm
welcome that only Gigi, the unofficial mayor of Venice, can offer.

 

Located in the middle of Venice and comprising several tiny dining rooms, Al Mascaron has, at most, 25 heavy wooden tables that look to be about 100 years old. The walls are whitewashed and feature paintings by local artists who barter their work for meals. The tablecloths are paper and the chairs are hand carved and not particularly comfortable, but once you are seated there for a few minutes, you will never want to leave.

 

While Al Mascaron accepts only cash, the food is insanely inexpensive. The atmosphere is casual, crowded, and too much fun, and the menus are handwritten in nearly indecipherable Italian. Start with a bottle of Prosecco. There is no written wine list, but ask Gigi for something special and he will produce a great bottle that has no label but will serve as the perfect start to the Al Mascaron seduction.

 

Here is where you will find the best seafood you’ve ever tasted (the fish caught in Venice’s legendary lagoon). My favorites include live shrimp bathed in spectacular olive oil and a pinch of sea salt, delicious sardines, tiny, sweet razor clams, miniature baby octopus, the tiniest soft-shell crabs you’ve ever seen dusted in flour and expertly fried to tender perfection, and small clams, sautéed in olive oil and garlic and served with just a hint of ginger.

 

Gigi, who struts through the dining room, also creates the kind of pasta and risotto you will never forget. I love the spaghetti with clams. It has no sauce, no garlic, just teeny-weeny, ridge-shelled clams, olive oil, heaps of parsley, and spectacular chewy pasta. Together, the ingredients combine to create the single most delicious pasta dish I have ever tasted. I also love the risotto with black ink: amazing.

 

Once I enter Al Mascaron, I never want to leave, so I linger there as long as possible and enjoy the end of a great lunch over a traditional plate of cookies and a glass of dessert wine. The way I figure it, if you stay there for hours drinking in the scene of Venice’s back stage, where tourists are few and local gondoliers take a break from transporting visitors through the city’s canals, you’ll be right on time for dinner.

n Al Mascaron, Calle Lunga Santa Maria Formosa, Castello 5225, Venice, Italy, 041-522-5995

 

Julian Niccolini, who grew up in Tuscany and today resides in Bedford, is the co-owner of the Four Seasons Restaurant in New York City. When he is not serving the colorful characters who dine in his restaurant or traveling the world in search of delicious foods and wines, he can be found foraging for mushrooms in the forests of Westchester.

 

For the Love of French-By Diane Weintraub Pohl

 

At 23, in the late ’70s, I had graduated college and returned to working-class Brooklyn.  I was dating a boy from around the corner, and we had decided to get married. I think we made about $38,000 between us. But we were newly engaged and wanted to celebrate with dinner out. Not neighborhood Chinese, not the steakhouse at the Kings Plaza mall. We wanted class and, to us, class meant French. So we set our sights north, on Manhattan. We couldn’t afford to live there, but we could afford to eat there—one lavish, glittering, very grown-up meal. But where? After many inquiries and much indecision, we made our choice: Le Lavandou, very haute, we were assured, and being in the East ’60s, very patrician.

 

I don’t remember how we arrived, after the hour-long subway ride, by foot or by taxi. But there it was, a burgundy awning with ivory cursive letters above a revolving door two steps down from the sidewalk. We pushed the glass, and the placid night dissolved into crystalline light, glinting silver, hushed talk, and intoxicating smells in a windowless sliver of a room. It was the most beautiful sight I’d ever seen. We were led along the narrow center aisle, a single row of tables on either side, past gold-coiffed ladies lifting heavy forks and heavier rings, and graying men in pinstriped suits. But I was in my best tweed with a boy who loved me, in a French restaurant in Manhattan, being led by a tuxedoed captain to my future: a red banquette against a gilt-mirrored wall.

 

There must have been wine, and probably flutes of Champagne, but the food of Jean-Jacques Rachou, the great chef/owner of the now-gone Le Lavandou and La Côte Basque, remains certain. The scallop mousseline swathed in puff pastry, the satin revelation of foie gras, the whole boned sea bass sauced with cream, the lobster bisque summoning the sea. I remember ethereal soufflés spooned with a river of chocolate, coffee poured from silver pots, petit fours arrayed like jewels. There was the bill, with its separate gratuities for captain and waiters that confused us, and almost immediately, stomach troubles from such unabashed gluttony. But we didn’t care. We were weak, but we had tasted heaven and knew there was no turning back.

 

Food writer Diane Weintraub Pohl’s culinary passion has led her through cultural travels, cooking school, and into the pages of many publications. She lives with her husband and two sons in Hastings-on-Hudson.

 

Time and Place-By Philip McGrath

 

My best meal ever? After 30 years in the restaurant business and a few more on the planet, I have had more than my share of memorable gastronomic moments.

Family repasts are the first special taste memories I can think of. Our annual Thanksgiving dinners, lovingly prepared by my mother, Eleanor; my Aunt Ann’s Christmas Day extravaganzas of antipasto, lasagna, and steaming platters of meatballs, sausages, and braciole; my father Phil’s sautéed corned-beef hash “burgers” with fried eggs on top; my mother-in-law Kitty’s crisp lemon chicken and artichoke patties. And, more recently, I think of the from-scratch pancakes my daughter Deirdre prepares paired with my son Garrett’s fluffy scrambled eggs.

 

Then there are the celebratory dinners I remember. There was the first-anniversary dinner my wife, Cathy, and I enjoyed many years ago at La Grenouille in Manhattan. And last April, our 25th wedding anniversary at Per Se (15 courses; three hours). I have been lucky enough to have dined at a number of Michelin two- and three-star restaurants. I’ll never forget the saumon a l’Oseille at Troisgros in Roanne; the cromesquis at L’Esperance in St. Pere Sous Vezelay; the côte de veau en cocotte at Bocuse in Lyon; or the “cappuccino” of wild mushrooms at La Côte St. Jacques in Joigny. And I’ll always remember the homard au vin jeune et trompette de la morte at Arpege and the lievre à la Royale at Guy Savoy, both in Paris, the boeuf en cigarette at Pierre Gagnaire (when Gagnaire was in St. Etienne); and the jambonettes de grenouilles at the late Bernard Loiseau’s Côte d’Or in Saulieu.

 

Since moving to Westchester more than 15 years ago, I also have had many meals that are equal to any that I have had anywhere else in the world: Peter Kelly’s perfection at Xaviars; the farm-fresh fare at Blue Hill at Stone Barns; the rustic elegance at La Crémaillère in Bedford; the wine and food pairings at Crabtree’s Kittle House in Chappaqua; Mark Filippo’s Mediterranean fare at Cafe Mezé in Hartsdale; the cassoulet at Buffet de la Gare in Hastings; the romantic setting at Purdys Homestead in North Salem; the elegant food and décor at La Panetière in Rye; the Nuevo Latino magic at Sonora in Port Chester; and Hunan Village’s Chinese New Year’s Banquet in Yonkers.

As soon as I think that I have narrowed down my choices, more meals come to mind, and the more I think about it, the more difficult it is to choose. Was it the lobsters that Cathy and I ate which had just been picked from the tanks and were steamed for us right at the dock in Rockland, Maine, accompanied by nothing more than a beer, a bunch of napkins, and a few seagulls? Maybe it was that luncheon on the terrace of a rustic restaurant in the Beaujolais overlooking the vineyards where we drank the fruits of those same vines? The more I think about it, the hungrier I get.

 

One thing that all the great meals I’ve eaten have in common is a sense of time and place. Universally, the food tastes better, the wine seems more robust, and the setting is more memorable because of who you are breaking bread with and where and when you are dining. When that synergy happens, the culinary sparks really start to fly. Whether it is an intimate dinner for two, a family gathering, a festive gala, or a picnic in the park, the magic of the moment takes over and almost any meal can be the best ever. 

 

Philip McGrath, a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, and his wife, Catherine, opened the Iron Horse Grill in October of 1998 in Pleasantville, where they reside with their children, Garrett and Deirdre.

 

Paradise Found in Piermont-By Judith Hausman

 

In my nearly 10 years of reviewing local restaurants,the
dinner that remains most vivid was at Xaviars in Piermont. The little miracle that chef and owner Peter Kelly regularly pulls off in his jewel-box world of red roses, crystal, and gold, has two components.

The first: a staff that makes you feel as if you are both “the knowledgeable insider” and, at the same time, “the willing innocent.” No matter what my companion and I ordered, from a moderately priced Argentinean wine to the cheese course with its perfect accouterments, we felt like the savviest diners, yet were still ready to be surprised at every turn. The second component: Kelly communicates abundance with intense yet subtle details. Small portions of flavorful garnish and entremets ingeniously highlight: two roasted chestnuts, a spoonful of cassis, a few batons of salsify, or a small cluster of chicory. So much is interesting on the plate that quality triumphs over quantity.

 

Our meal twisted and turned deftly from clever Asian to French-style traditional and back again. A miniature soup-and-sandwich opener paired asparagus soup with sweet crabmeat and shrimp toast. Squid was sauced with bitter greens, red pepper, sesame, sake, and a Japanese spice blend. A dreamy second course included chewy veal cheeks with a light lemon-pomegranate sauce, saffron-sauced scallops nestled in a cauliflower mousseline, and wild striped bass in good company with a ragoût of smoked bacon, porcini mushrooms, and baby Brussels sprouts.

Even the third course of meat entrées did not leave us overstuffed: pink
venison with intense and gingery sweet potatoes; tournedos of beef with haricot verts and mashed potatoes; breast of duck with honey, orange, and Chinese-style dumplings filled with minced duck confit.

 

“Pre-desserts”—pomegranate granita, green-apple smoothie, and pear
sorbet—refreshed us and sent us on to unctuous, pungent cheeses. After that,
a brownie-like cookie base covered by a Valrhona dark-chocolate dome, an ensemble of dense marzipan cake, a demitasse of butterscotch pudding, and a tiny flan—each wonderful.

 

A meal at Xaviars is often a way to honor a special occasion. But it is one also. You ooh, you aah, and the loving details keep coming. I’d return in a heartbeat.

n Xaviars at Piermont, 506 Piermont Ave., Piermont (845) 359-7007

 

Judith Hausman, a resident of South Salem, is a culinary journalist whose work appears regularly in local publications and occasionally in national ones. Food is her window both on memory and on the world.

 

By the Sea in Portugal-By Marge Perry

 

It wasn’t the most dazzling food I’d ever eaten, or the most innovative. It was not meticulously prepared by highly schooled chefs; there were no exotic ingredients; in fact, the total number of ingredients in the entire meal probably hovered around a dozen.

It was 25 years and thousands of meals ago, but I can see it, smell it, and taste it as though I am at that Portuguese taverna now, listening to the ocean lap up against the narrow shore. Three walls of the place were painted the mellowed cobalt blue of an early-evening summer sky. An assortment of wooden tables—round, square, large, and small—and chairs spilled onto the walkway where the fourth wall would have been. At one end of the opening, positioned out of reach of the piercing afternoon sun, a tall, bulky chef, his jacket a splattered testament to the hours he’d already put in, stood,  dragging now and then on the cigarette wedged between his teeth.

 

We walked in, two Americans, and he nodded at the waiter, then thrust his chin out to point to our table. We spoke no Portuguese and they spoke no English; the waiter simply brought us food.

 

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