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A Top Ten List to Avoid

OA_logo_eggplant I’ve written before about Steve Plotnicki’s outstanding restaurant guide for serious foodies only, Opinionated About. Now he’s taken another step in listing the top ten most overrated restaurants in New York, the USA and Europe. This is an extremely useful list as these restaurants are expensive, and when I mean expensive I mean expensive. These are restaurants that have main courses that cost as much as filling up your SUV so pay attention. I’ve eaten at a few of these restaurants, especially in Vegas, America’s most overrated dining destination, and I concur with these reviews. Have you been less than impressed with any of these restaurants?

Overrated Restaurants on Opinionated About

Pie in the Sky

baraonda atlanta Finding good pizza in the USA used to be a pie-in-the-sky proposition. All that was available was the soggy mush made with loads of waxy fake mozzarella and way too old vegetables. When you picked up a slice the sodden crust would collapse under the weight of mediocrity. Of course, the vast majority of pizza in America is still like this, but there is light at the end of the tunnel.

That light hit me the other night while traveling on business. Often you arrive too late and too tired to seek out fine food and the restaurant at hand is the only thing you have the time and energy to consider. This is what happened just the other night in Atlanta when I was lucky enough to walk through the door of Baraonda, an excellent pizzeria a block from my hotel. I ended up with a great pizza, but what’s exciting here is that crisp thin crust pizza made with fresh ingredients and cooked in wood-fired ovens are getting a lot easier to find. There seems to be a growing pizza revolution baking in America these days. Everywhere you turn there are pizzerias investing in wood-burning ovens and paying attention to their ingredients.

Now that there’s good pizza to eat, the next question is what to drink with it. The Italians tend to drink beer or fizzy local red wine, both of which are great matches. Woody or high-alcohol wines are absolutey terrible with pizza, but fresh, zesty young reds that appreciate a bit of a chill are perfect. Dry pink wines are also great for pizza. Good draft beer is a match made in heaven and most pizzerias that invest in these expensive ovens can be depended on to have a range of good micro-brews on tap.

Often when presented with really good pizza like Baraonda’s, I can’t resist trying a bottle on the list that normally would be considered too elite for pizza. That night I was inspired to try the 2001 Vigneti La Selvanella, Chianti Classico Riserva, Fattoria Melini, this Gambero Rosso Tre Bicchieri winner is made predominately from sangiovese grosso aged in large old barrels. It is a complex, balanced and elegant wine that reflects real sangiovese character. The combination of an excellent wine with an excellent pizza made for a lovely dinner. I admit a chilled frizzante barbera would have been a better match, but each glass and each bite was so good on its own I could have cared less.

A great pizza is the ultimate comfort food. Drinking this wonderful Chianti Classico Riserva with it my not have been the ultimate match, but it was very, very comforting. 

B and B - Molto Vegas Style

 vegas 9 07 047 

When you hear B and B you think of some charming Victorian farm house in a beautiful and peaceful setting. There is nothing beautiful and peaceful about Las Vegas so as you might expect B and B  means something absolutely different. The B & B here is part of the edible empire of Mario Batali and his partner, Joseph Bastianich. These two have created an intertwined empire that includes restaurants, wineries, books, television shows and consumer products.

Their two newest ventures are located in the massive Venetian Hotel on the Vegas strip. I was prepared to hate these corporate eateries packaged in the faux glitz of the casinos, but I was won over by the food. The prices as you would expect are painful unless you just hit the jackpot.

Located in Piazza San Marco itself is Enoteca San Marco, the more casual version of the two. In the photo above Proscuitto di Parma is thinly sliced while the pageant that is San Marco rolls on in the background. My meal here started vegas 9 07 039with an Insalata Caprese and this dish was the only disappointment of either meal. Not that there was anything wrong with any of the ingredients as each was wonderful, but they just did not fit together. Instead of simple fresh basil, they used pesto, which, while it was excellent, overpowered the delicate flavors of the spectacular mozzarella di bufala. Some dishes just can’t be improved. This was followed by an almost perfect bavette cacio e pepe. A more simple dish you vegas 9 07 041won’t find and they blissfully left it alone presenting it in all its simple glory. This was like eating pasta in Italy as it was perfectly cooked and sauced. It’s not cheap to eat here, but then it’s not cheap to eat on the real San Marco either. You have to give them credit as they could have offered mediocre food and the tourists would still crowd the tables just for the view, but this restaurant is the real thing and offers better food than most restaurants in Venice itself.

The big show is B & B , which is located just off the Venetian casino floor. Filled to the brim with beautiful people with beautiful bank accounts every night, this would have been another easy opportunity to offer less than exciting food to an audience more interested in the Mario brand than vegas 9 07 052the food itself. Yet this is an outstanding restaurant with food that both challenges and caresses your palate. I started  with refreshing marinated fresh anchovies giardiniera, which mixed crisp veggies with delicately flavored anchovies. These kind of anchovies are a revelation for those that have only tasted the canned version. Next was another pasta wonder, spaghetti alla vegas 9 07 055chittara with heirloom tomato and miszuna. The fresh pasta was once again cooked perfectly and the richness of the tomato could not have been challenged by a tomato from your own garden. So few restaurants can resist the urge to over sauce their pasta dishes, but Mario grants his wonderful pasta equal billing with his sauces. It vegas 9 07 056was a tough act to follow such a fine pasta, but the rabbit with baby carrots, pearl onions and carrot vinaigrette stayed true to the essence of Italian cooking in its clean and simple preparation and presentation. The rich caramelized flavors of the meat and carrots were countered by the sweet tartness of the vinaigrette. Once again the dish was expertly cooked arriving juicy and tender throughout.

As you would expect both restaurants have extensive and expensive wine lists. However, there are plenty of excellent wines available at moderate prices for those with a sharp eye. You can also rely on the surprisingly enthusiastic wait staff or one of the sommeliers to find you a bottle if you’ve left a little more money than you wanted at the craps table. However, if you won big there are plenty of big names with big prices to relieve you of your ill gotten gains. At the Enoteca I had the 2005 Bastianich Refosco Rosé and the 2004 Cerasuolo di Vittoria, Maskario, Terre di Gurfo, both were pleasant, but  that’s about it. At the Enoteca they offer their wines by the glass by the quartino or quarter bottle, which is a great way to share and try several wines. At B & B we set our sights a bit higher, but still found a reasonable buy in the outstanding 1998 Cavallotto Barolo Bricco Boschis, which is everything a great Barolo should be: unbelievably aromatic, dramatically complex and not ready to drink. This is simply a great wine that should be ready to drink in another five years or so. That being said, it was so delicious we loved and enjoyed every sip.

The bigger than life image of Molto Mario fits in well with glitter of Las Vegas, but it’s no gamble when it comes to eating at his two Vegas ventures.

Pizza Wine

Pizza

Several years in Italy is guaranteed to destroy your appreciation of American-style pizza. Like so may American wines, pizza here features too much of almost everything. The vast pile of cheese and other ingredients turns the crust into a soggy mess. Delivered pizza is even worse. As easy as it is to make pizza at home and as bad as most American pizza is, why would anyone bother with delivery?

Pizza, like all Italian cooking is based on one thing: get great ingredients and don't screw them up. The most important part of any pizza is the crust, and good pizza crust is one of the easiest thing to make - especially if you have a food processor or KitchenAid. Here you go...

  • 2 packages quick-rise yeast
  • 1 cup very warm (not hot) water
  • half-teaspoon sugar
  • 3 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
  • 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
  • 1/4 teaspoon sea salt

In the bowl of the food processor with the kneading blade in place, put the warm water, yeast and sugar. After a quick spin to mix, let stand for about 15 minutes until there is a thick foam on the top. Then add the flower, salt and olive oil and turn on the machine for a minute or so until the dough is kneaded. It should easily form into a smooth ball that is just a bit sticky. If not forming into a ball, you will have to add either a bit of flower or water depending on your climate. Put dough into a bowl rubbed with olive oil, cover and put in a warm place to rise for 3 or 4 hours. After tripled in volume, roll out and top with your preferred toppings. Please - not too much cheese: simple pizza is beautiful pizza.

Nothing can replace the searing, smoky heat of a wood burning oven, but you can still get good results at home. Be sure to pre-heat the oven to its highest temperature – you want fast hot cooking. A pizza stone is best, but if you don't have one get a pizza pan with holes in the bottom so your crust doesn't steam and get soggy while cooking. You are looking for a crisp crust. 

In Italy, the preferred beverage with pizza is beer, but in the USA many of us think of wine. Deeply fruity, high acid wines go perfectly with pizza, but oaky, tannic or alcoholic wines taste jarring and overwhelming. An excellent example of the perfect pizza wine for someone serious about their wines is the 2004 Rosso dei Dardi by Alessandrio e Gian Natale in Monforte d'Alba in Piemonte. A blend of barbera, nebbiolo and friesa from the famous Dardi area, this delicious wine would be just as adept with grilled steaks as it would with pizza. My all time favorite pizza wine would be the Poderi Colla Friesa, whose light effervescence is a great compliment to any pizza. It's too bad this style very lightly sparking dry red wine, so  popular in Italy, is almost impossible to sell in the USA.

 

New is not always better

Crab at aquaThe  usual foodie goal when they hit a city is to get to the new hot spots. To touch the new culinary buzz. This often means not only an expensive disappointing meal, but missing established restaurants that are still making your palate shiver with joy. Often it takes a situation out of your control to balance this drive to see the new and trendy and it was reservations made by someone else that brought me back to San Francisco’s Aqua. I have dined at Aqua about a dozen times and each visit was excellent, but this recent trip really brought home to me that new is not always better. Great restaurants are like great vineyards, they both make exceptional products year after year.

We chose the tasting menu, which was the right choice as, when visiting Aqua, or any other great restaurant, you want to taste as many dishes as possible.

This parade of palate stimulation went like this:

  • Tartare of Ahi Tuna with Moroccan Spices
  • Artisan Foie Gras with almonds, grapes, smoked duck and shallot sherry sauce
  • Hawaiian Walu (escolar) with potato/fennel fondue, mussels and a golden raisin emulsion
  • Alaskan Black Cod wrapped in smoked bacon with tomato and date chutney with glazed carrots
I replaced the suggested dessert course with a cheese course that include two lovely cheeses:
  • St. Vrain: a cow and goat milk cheese from Colorado – really wonderful
  • Pierce Point: A very nice cow’s milk cheese with a herbed crust from Point Reyes California

Each dish shimmered with enticing balanced, restrained, but complex flavors. Every plate was a small piece of edible art. As befitting a restaurant of this caliber, the wine list is excellent with a wide range of choices that go beyond local California wines. The food, wine, service and ambiance were exciting.

On my own I would have hit only the latest and that would have been a mistake. Consistent excellence seems to bore the public today and restaurants and wineries that make outstanding wines for many years often get ignored. Thanks to this wonderful meal, this will be a mistake I will try to avoid.

Aqua, 252 California Street, San Francisco CA - 94110 (415) 956-9662

The Oregon Winter Blues

The days have now turned into months and I can’t tell you how much I miss it. I had heard about the dismal Oregon winter, but I never expected this – gray after gray day of…

No farmer’s markets!

Farmers marketI can only take heart from the telltale signs of coming springtime that our farmer’s markets will soon return. These markets are everywhere from early spring through late fall and Oregon is blessed with many small farms that bring their produce directly to the consumer through these markets. Every type of fruit and vegetable, meats, cured meats, cheeses, wines and anything and everything delicious you can imagine comes to market in this way. The market for the small farmer is strong in Oregon, where consumers go out of their way to buy local produce – even at the chain stores, which are forced to identify goods from local farms due to consumer demand. The fact that consumers here demand local produce means that new farms are popping up throughout the state and the fact the producers can command retail instead of wholesale prices for their goods creates a situation where a small farmer can succeed.

Without the farmers markets, we would be faced with only the bland choices offered by large corporate farms and grocers. Even the Whole Foods stores and their type cannot compete with the freshness, variety and great flavors brought to us by farmer’s markets. They are a national treasure.

Thanks to Adam Mahler at The Untangled Vine, we have become aware of the efforts of Congress-person Marcy Kaptur of Ohio (do we need to mention she’s a Democrat) to introduce legislation that will support the growth of farmer’s markets on a national scale. Needless to say, I think this is a great cause, not only for our stomachs, but for our environment, as small farms are less damaging to the planet than large scale corporate industrial farming. Check out The Untangled Vine for more details and here for Kaptur’s article in The Nation.

Take a few minutes to support small family farms and organic agriculture and write to your Congress-person in support of this effort. If your representative is a Republican, you may want to write twice.