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Italy / China / Mexico / California / British Isles / Costa Rica / Canada

 

Ristorante "Pino al Flamino"
Rome, Italy

 

This is a fantastic little restaurant just north of Rome in Grotto Rosso. Mary and Pino create a special ambiance with typical Roman simplicity. A savory array of antipasti dishes and pastas begin your meal. Bruschetta al Pomodoro, Antipasto all Italinano (the finest cured meats) followed by Spaghetti Carbonara or Risotto al Pescatora. These, or other, savory dishes warm your taste buds up for the Secundi Piatti — second plates.


Pino grills local lamb and pork on a small hearth at the front of the restaurant. Simply prepared with rosemary and lemon, the flavors of the grassy hills of Rome come through. Traditional dishes like Saltimbocca alla Romana, are expertly prepared in the brick enclosed kitchen.


But there is more, selections of local cheese and fruits and vegetables procured by Pino at four every morning, precede dessert and after dinner drinks or espresso. All and all we had three consecutive dinners there and wish we could go back tonight.
 

Ron and Nancy

 

Osteria Far Niente
Florence Italy

 

After walking several times by the attractive wood and glass front of the restaurant during our wanderings, we decided to try it out. Perusing the menu on the door during the day we were quite impressed with the offerings. That night we walked back and were amazed to see how busy it was at nine in the evening.
The hostess surprised us by finding a table immediately. What luck. Our waitress brought the menus and we sat back to people watch. The elegantly dressed local clientele chatted energetically around us and we tried to eavesdrop in Italian. A black board on the wall listed several fantastic reasonably priced “Super Tuscan” wines by the glass. We requested two different choices and ordered our first courses.

Far niente means “doing nothing” but as the courses arrived we could see that they were doing something.

We shared a salad of house - made thinly - sliced goose breast Prosciutto on impeccable greens drizzled with a mature balsamic vinegar and extra virgin olive oil. All of the salads and desserts were constructed next to us in a brick exhibition kitchen. We also tried a zite pasta with a home style fresh sausage in a light cream sauce. The accompanying wines were fantastic.


Though the restaurant was extremely busy our waitress was incredibly attentive and expertly guided us to our second glasses of wine that would accompany our entrees.


As we have a penchant for the exotic, the next courses included fresh white truffles and guinea fowl.


A boneless chicken breast served in a fragrant cream sauce with paper thin slices of white truffles was placed in front of me, while Nancy started in on a half guinea fowl wrapped in pancetta with an intense game stock reduction. Both were amazing.

The owner came to each table during the course of our meal to insure that the customers were satisfied. After talking with us he discovered that I was a chef and proceeded to treat us like royalty. A sample plate of the desserts of the night was presented with brandies. The selection included a creamy tiramisu, chocolate tort and pastry with pears and apples. Afterwards he asked us to come with the table next to us a tour of his wine cellar. The wines kept there included the finest of French, Italian and German wines but very few Californian varieties. He did how ever have a cabernet sauvignon from the Far Niente Winery in Saint Helena, California.


Afterwards I asked to meet the chef and was given a tour his shiny stainless steel kitchen.

As we walked back to our bed and breakfast room, we commented again on the friendliness and cordiality of the people of Italy.

This fantastic culinary evening cost around seventy five dollars U.S., a bargain in any language.
Visit their web site at
www.osteriafarniente.it.
Ron and Nancy

 

Several Little Food Stands - Hong Kong, China


Across the Harbor from Hong Kong, in Kowloon, on the mainland of South China, I had many delicious and surprising standup meals at the numerous "workers" restaurants at the food stalls found along the waterfront. Tucked in the shadows of towering high rises and four star hotels, next to the neon-signed shops stacked with teetering wares on the sidewalks, you will find freeform shacks that look more suitable for tools than food. No tour guidebook will give you directions, just follow your nose and ears as the steamy aromas and the sharp metallic crash of woks and ladles leads you to some of the freshest Chinese country cooking anywhere in the city. The fancier ones will have a few stools next to a makeshift counter; most simply require you to elbow your way between dock workers hunched over their steaming bowls of broth, noodles, vegetables and very fresh seafood. Don't let the chaos of shouted conversation, the roar of the propane burners, or the view of the poorly iced raw ingredients deter you from the best fast food you'll ever have. Sometimes there is a board with chalked Chinese characters, which I assumed was the daily menu, most of the time it seems the diners know what they want, which is easy since everything is piled in bowls waiting to be woked or tossed into your bowl and the contents of the simmering stock pots ladled over the top. There are fresh noodles hanging along side strips of golden-brown smoked duck, fresh fish and shell fish waiting for the cleaver, Long Beans, Bok Choy, bright greens and tubs of white bean curd. I found the best way to order was simply to study what looked good in the bowls of the diners, and then point and nod. By the time you fish out your wallet, a fragrant, steaming bowl will be in front of you. Besides giving you a nourishing quick meal, and a taste of authentic cuisine, you will be paying the same price that a soft drink in the hotels cost.
 

Lory


Trio Puerto Vallarta, Mexico


Over the years the once sleepy coastal town of Puerto Vallarta has developed into a major tourist destination for people looking for a quick get-a-way or a more leisurely extended stay. I have watched it change over the course of 25 years and was amazed this last trip to find a wide array of fine dining choices. My most memorable dinner took place at Restaurant Trio. Opened in 1997, chef and owner Bernhard Guth, has done an exquisite job of building, designing, and creating a world class cosmopolitan restaurant. The cuisine is his own unique style of Mediterranean using the freshest local ingredients, accented by a masterful balance of fine herbs and olive oils, to create a "fusion" style menu that combines the best of both worlds.


When you visit, do not miss his first course of baked beets with parsley and goat cheese, the beef carpaccio with his special aged Balsamic vinegar, or perhaps his asparagus risotto. On my visit, Chef Guth treated each of us to a “small plate” composed of a pristine grilled shrimp on a bed of jícama and papaya with his own mochajito sauce of roasted tomato and three different chilies. The braised rabbit in a sauce of roasted tomatoes, onions, zucchini and carrots was heavenly. He is also famous for his paella with a three chile sauce, rack of lamb, grilled fresh fish, and medallions of venison. The three of us only had room to share one dessert. A warm crepe with sauteéd mangoes and coconut ice cream was quickly devoured by my daughter.


Restaurant Trio also offers a very unique wine list. You can choose from traditional French varietals, boutique California selections, the new up and coming bottles from Chile, or for the adventurous, Chef Bernhard will proudly walk you through his list of Mexican wines.


I had the opportunity to speak to Chef Guth at length about how he came to open his restaurant. Originally from Germany, he has experience working in Munich, Milan, and his second most favorite city in the world, New York. He first came to Puerto Vallarta in 1995 as the executive chef at Cafe Maximillan. He fell in love both on a professional and personal level. In October of 2001 he took on another partner, Chef Ulf Henriksson from Sweden. He has also worked as an executive chef in many fine world class resorts, from Switzerland to Costa Rica, and back to Puerto Vallarta.


If for no other reason, plan a trip to this charming town and make your reservation in advance. Restaurant Trio, Guerrero 264 Col Centro Puerto Vallarta, Jal Tel (322) 2-21-96.


The price? Dinner for three, including cocktails, first courses, entrees, two glasses of wine, coffee and dessert, and a 20% tip....hold on....$120 US total. A similar dinner in New York or San Francisco would easily cost this much per person.


Service is top notch, the art and atmosphere are fantastic, and the dinner music is provided by Trio Los Palomos. Enjoy!


You can visit them on the web at
www.triopv.com.
Nancy


Rancho Alta Mira
Puerto Vallarta, Mexico


If you are in the mood for a dining adventure and want to see some of the country south of Puerto Vallarta, I highly recommend renting a car and driving south on Mexico 200 just past the town of El Tuito. It takes about 45 minutes and a mid-point stop at Chico’s Paradise for guacamole and a refreshment is always fun (plus the little gift store has good prices on trinkets). The ranch is frequented by mostly upper to middle class Mexicans, and the owners and waiters were somewhat surprised to see three “gringas” come tooling up their road in a VW Beetle. We were the only ones for early lunch on a hot day in early August so needless to say the service was excellent.


The ranch is a working ranch and as we were seated we noticed the usual array of cattle, horses, geese, ducks, and OSTRICHES. The waiter explained that they will be on the menu in two or three years. Right now they use the eggs to prepare special omelets. These long necked creatures seemed quite content to wander amongst the fowl and have easily adapted to the climate.


The restaurant is open air with beautiful views of the surrounding hills and gardens. The menu is typical to the area, with local beef, chicken, and seafood from the coast. I had a whole small red snapper grilled in a banana leaf, served with an ajito sauce made on the premises by a masterful Mexican woman (
see photos). My daughter and sister-in-law had the grilled snapper with a fried garlic butter. You have to remove the bones yourself, so do order something else if you don’t care to do this. For tequila aficionados, the Riceo (rice-e-o) Tequila is a must. I’m not quite sure about the spelling, but if you say you want to try the local tequila made from the blue agave (right here on the ranch), they will proudly bring you a shot. The tequila is made in the village of El Tuito and can be purchased if you can find the woman’s house. I think that the restaurant will sell you a bottle if they have one to spare. Expect to pay $200 pesos (about $20) for this rare spirit.


We didn’t have room for dessert and were anxious to return to Puerto Vallarta before the summer storm began. I can hardly wait to return to try a beef or perhaps an ostrich specialty.


Directions: Drive south on Mexico 200. About one or two miles past the town of El Tuito, you’ll see the sign for the ranch on the left. Drive up the hill, park, and prepare to enjoy a cultural dining experience away from the resorts.
Nancy


The Sandpiper House
Elk, Mendocino County, California


Ron and I just returned from two romantic days touring the wine country of Anderson Valley and staying in an absolutely fabulous B & B in the little town of Elk, which is about 15 miles south of Mendocino. The five-room inn is owned and operated by Althea Haworth and her husband Ed. Her goal is to spoil you rotten, and so she does. Our room overlooked her gorgeous garden (recently featured in Bride's magazine) and a small cove separated from the ocean by rock formations. We were told that she would be up at around 5 with a tray of hors d’oeuvres and wine. Althea takes great pride in her cooking and we were treated to a large platter of perfectly fried calamari and crostini with a sun-dried tomato and mushroom spread. The next morning we began with coffee and freshly made banana-pineapple bread with a warm pineapple sauce. Heavenly! An hour later we found ourselves seated in the antique furnished dining room and presented with a fresh fruit compote over yogurt, followed by her special frittata with local smoked salmon and potatoes béchamel. It is no wonder that Sunset will be doing a special featuring her B & B and her recipes in an upcoming article. We have done a lot of traveling throughout our years together, but our stay at the Sandpiper reminds us that often times the best treasures are right in our own "backyard". Visit the website at
www.sandpiperhouse.com, get your calendar out, and get ready to make a reservation so that you too can be spoiled! (See photos)
Nancy

 

Che
London, England.


Che, with Modern International Cuisine, was named after Che Guevara and is known for having one of the best cigar lounges and cocktail bars. The restaurant scene does not happen till after 8 pm. The meal began with a complimentary cup full of cream of potato and onion soup. Just excellent! Next we ordered a Caesar salad served with white anchovies, that are delivered fresh every day, shaved pecorino cheese and croutons. The best. A filet of steak came next — very tender. Béarnaise sauce with cooked plum tomatoes to die for accompanied it. We also ordered duck with a lime and potato mash and a sauce similar to hoisen that made our taste buds howl. Completing the meal a bit of decadence, chocolate tart with honey ice cream, which we could have bathed in it.


Other menu items include pastas, fresh fish, lamb, pork loin and venison. A large and creative assortment of desserts including: apple tatin with rosemary ice cream, rhubarb crumble with buttermilk sorbet and a selection of British and Irish cheeses.


Telephone 020-7747-9380, 23 St James’s Street, London SW1A 1HE
Dukes Hotel
 

Tea at the Dukes Hotel on St James’s Place is an experience not to be missed. You enter the hotel through a secluded driveway that is off of the beaten track. It’s no wonder why Princess Diana frequented it.


Tea is served in a drawing room with a small garden in the center. Wonderful and different, I highly recommend a book and an appetite.


Selections include: finger sandwiches with cucumber, smoked salmon or egg and chicken, scones with Cornish clotted cream and strawberry jam, hot buttered crumpets, cream cakes and fruit cakes and of course, a choice of international teas. — £14.50
 

Americas Bar


A must do is a visit to Americas Bar after the theatre. It is very small, located downstairs in the upscale Stafford Hotel, just off a back alley near St. James’s St. Jackets are required for men (loaners available). Great martinis. It has a most interesting international business and political clientele. It has a good small menu that starts with a complimentary tray of nuts, crackers and olives stuffed with anchovies. We found out where you could buy these and came home with a case.
Al Duca, .


This is a restaurant not to be missed. It is about two blocks from Piccadilly Circus and is a favorite of the theatre crowd. The atmosphere is modern with an Italian setting, yet warm and cozy. It has good wine and the service is impeccable. All guests begin meals with a complimentary “mini salad” of baby greens tomato and a drizzle of wonderful balsamic vinegar. Menus change often. Menu selections this night included: first courses like; Insalatina di granchio con mango, olio e limone (crab meat salad with mango, olive oil, and lemon dressing on seasonal leaves), Pomodorini e cornetti con formaggio di capra (French bean salad with marinated tomatoes and warm goat cheese), Pastas — Linguine alle vongole (linguine with clams, sweet chili and parsley), Reginette all’ uovo con piselli e pancetta (house made fresh flat pasta with peas and bacon). Main courses included: Gamberoni allo zafferano con patate croccanti (butterflied tiger prawns with saffron and crispy potatoes), Medaglioni de manzo alla griglia con salsa alle erbe e purea di patate (char – grilled medallions of beef with herbs sauce & black olive potato puree). Entrees also included rabbit, veal chops, tuna, cod and sea bass. For dessert try the chocolate tart with blueberries, raspberries, strawberries and blackberries. They are noted for their fresh – purchased daily - produce.
 

A pre theatre two - course menu is also available from 6 to 7 pm for £12.00.
45 Duke of York St.


Take note that most restaurants add a 12.5% service charge to your bill.
Charmaine and Chooch

 

Pura Vida Hotel
Alajuela, Costa Rica


Our family of six has just returned from an amazing trip to Costa Rica. Sixty-five percent of the country is protected by national parks. We had the opportunity to visit the park in Manuel Antonio where wildlife abounds. The beaches are spectacular; the people are friendly, warm, and understandably proud of their national treasures.


If you are planning a trip to Costa Rica and are arriving in San Jose, by all means try to book your night at the Pura Vida Hotel in Alajuela, just 4 Km from the airport. The owners, Berni and Nhi, are ex-software engineers from Santa Cruz who have embarked
on an "Under the Tuscan Sun" adventure of their own.


The gated compound has five individual "Casitas" separated by lush gardens. There is a tranquil dining terrace where Nhi serves a three-course gourmet dinner every evening at 7:30 for guests only. Berni will be happy to make any arrangements for excursions in and around the country. Airport pickup, continental breakfast, and outstanding personal service are included in the unbelievable price of $85 per night. Dinner is an additional $14 and Bernie has an Italian friend who makes a fabulous white wine.


We had two three-course meals there. The first consisted of - first course, an iceberg lettuce wrap with dice zucchini, eggplant, tomatoes and peanut sauce was refreshing and competed well with the finest restaurants in our home area. This was followed by chicken sates served on sizzling platters with sides of pickled cucumbers. It was completed with an amazing mango cream mousse.


Our second meal on our way out of the country was even more spectacular than our first experience. Nhi had created an Asian influenced salad of shaved green papaya that grew on the property. She had salted it first to soften it and then washed it and marinated the paper-thin slices in a rice wine vinaigrette. The overall effect was so refreshing as a chef I became jealous of this new technique and its simplicity. She then served Corbina, a local white bass with a sherry and soy sauce. The fish was steamed first then topped with ginger and julienned scallions. This was hit with very hot oil, which brought out the flavors, the fresh light flavored fish made the combinations of flavors superior. The dinner was completed with coconut milk gelato; light and creamy it was the perfect end to the meal.

Contact: Berni & Nhi at info@puravidahotel.com,
www.puravidahotel.com, phone (506) 441-1157. If you are in the planning stages of your trip, make sure you visit the hotel's guest book link on the web site for suggestions on other places to visit and stay within the country.


Ron and Nancy

The Blue Monkey – “Hotel Mono Azul”


We stayed at this fantastic hotel for five days and I cannot think of better accommodations. Our rooms were clean, large and had kitchenettes which we took advantage of. The hotel staff is knowledgeable and friendly and the several swimming pools were refreshing and perfect for children.
We had several meals there. Our first night we enjoyed a gourmet dinner.


We began the repast with wine and a few “blue monkeys” - the signature beverage of the restaurant that is made with blue Curacao, rum and sweet and sour mix. This became a vacation favorite.
Dinner included Filet mignon with Gorgonzola sauce, hamburgers, a local Costa Rican rice dish that included chunks of chicken, bacon, shrimp and vegetables, a chicken dish with a garlic butter sauce and a light Chilean Chardonnay rounded out the meal.


We also had breakfast one morning this included banana and pineapple pancakes, French toast and fresh tropical fruit. All items were tasty and reasonably priced.


We are planning to return soon. Visit thier website at
www.hotelmonoazul.com.
Ron and Nancy

For the whole story of our 2004 trip click here.

Costa Rica Cooking Trip 2005

Nancy, Gina and I along with my best friend from high school went back to Costa Rica in April of 2005. We planned to rent a 4 - wheel drive SUV and drive out to the coast to explore and surf (another great story altogether). However the major impetus of the trip was to return to the Pura Vida Hotel to visit Bernie and Nhi and cook for the guests. Of course, I was also going to write a newspaper article on this adventure at the same time. Here is the article.

 Tico Time - Cooking in Costa Rica

More Costa Rica 2004

 

Ron -- Thanks for the nice e-mail and recipes which received today and which acted as a reminder to get back to you.  I'm aware of that website but I really think the funny thing is that my experiences with Costa Rican cooking are that of native foods being used in "foreign" dishes.
 
Our most memorable meals were:
 
Balcon de Europa in Central San Jose -- I had a really superb fettucini which I believe was because of the cream and cheese used in preparation.  Granted, the chef couldn't understand a word I said when I praised here highly but I think she got the idea.
 
Aberdeen Angus in Jaco -- This is a small open front place on the main drag.  The Canadian owner has managed to concur the heat and humidity and bake melt in your mouth toast.  The omelets using a local white cheddar were also superb.
 
Hotel California in Manuel Antonio -- I mention this hillside hotel owned by Californian Robbie Felix because of dinner's being served poolside overlooking the ocean.  Talk about romantic!  But food wise, Robbie sells locally made chocolates which rivaled those from Belgium or Switzerland in terms of the flavor of the chocolate.
 
And my favorite, equal to anything I've ever taste and I'm not a fan of either beef filets or tuna.
 
Hotel Bula Bula in Playa Grande has a large open air dining room/bar facing the pool on one side, the estuary on the second  and the jungle on the third.  Owner Wally is Ritz Carleton trained and is imparting his skills to locals to prepare foods and serve them in a manner reflecting the surroundings.  The first night, I had a 2" seared filet that one could cut with a fork while my partner had an ahi grade slab of seared tuna.  Superb on both counts.
 
As I mentioned, I was really impressed with the mutual contributions Gringos and Ticos are making together and we're looking forward to spending the Fourth of July Weekend at Bula Bula while wondering what American dishes with a Tico touch will be served.
 
Have a good weekend.
Kent

 

Cooking in Canada

 

This is not the usual correspondence that I receive or write but I thought that it was worth posting on our site because it represents the global interest in good food. By the way we met these lovely people on vacation in Costa Rica.

Hi  Ron and Nancy,
Hope all is well in your part of the globe and that this message finds you healthy and happy  :^)
I hope that you received some recipes from the chain letter that you sent out.  I have dropped into your web pages from time to time and been reading your columns, always an interesting read, so I wanted to tell you about my latest accomplishment.


As a party idea my buddy Al and his wife Lisa decided to have an iron chef completion, inviting 18 people and 3 chefs.


The rules were; 1 hour time limit, a secret ingredient and of course judging based on presentation originality and taste. We had to make our meals from what ever Lisa had out on the counter. We couldn't bring anything from home except our own utensils, cutting boards pots pans etc. As there was 3 of us in one kitchen we decided that only one serving had to be prepared for presentation, the rest dished out later. Because we knew it would be too much of a challenge with our limited experience to make a desert we decided before hand that everyone could make a desert at home including picking our own ingredients and completing all the prep work but we had to assemble it there.

So Last Saturday night at 5:00 Lisa brought out 3 huge fillets of Halibut and started the timer. By the way an hour is an incredibly short time to rummage around in a strange kitchen and try to come up with something original that looks good and tastes good, never mind bumping elbows with two other guys and arm wrestling for a burner on the stove and a bunch of boozing looky-lues wandering about wanting to see what we are making.

For an appy I prepared a Cajun halibut mousse that I presented on a wedge of cucumber (1 inch thick slice cut again on the bias to create a wedge) then I took a melon baller and remove some of the seeds making a small cup to fill. I garnished with a celery leaf. Trying to contrast the spicy fish with the cool cucumber.

For the entrée I made a ginger crusted halibut fillet, (ginger snap cookies crumbs) with an apricot jam sweet and sour sauce.  I plated it with white rice, steamed carrots and asparagus wrapped in prosciutto. To add a little flare I made a tomato skin rose garnish with basal leafs.

For desert I made a lime, basil and honey-due melon sorbet. I presented it in a margarita glass rimmed with sugar and garnish with a wedge of lime and semi-sweet chocolate rose leaf.

I was up against some stiff competition, Shawn prepared halibut wrapped in bacon, followed by curried halibut and rice dish with a simple banana and straw berry fondue,  while Al came up with a halibut salad and finished with a pink pepper-corn sauce on his main dish but he hit the desert button with a port poached pear with a delicious vanilla custard.

 The long and the short of it was fun was had by all , and the night was even sweeter when they announced the winner was me.

Well I have to get back to work so until later
Take care
Randall and Dena

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