Smoked eel

Smoked eel, red rocoto, white-coconut ice, and creamy coconut broth

El Club Allard was the first Michelin-star restaurant on our itinerary, and we were brimming with anticipation.

If only we could get in.

Blame it on jet lag, but it took us longer than necessary to enter the building. A sign affixed to the wrought-iron gate on the corner said, “Use other door.” The other door appeared to be locked. It was dark. Our cabs had departed. The street was not deserted or decrepit, but at the moment there was no one around to ask for help.

We checked our phones. A couple of us set off on an expedition toward the other end of the block – perhaps there was another door? Wrong night? Wrong time? We shrugged. One of us was dialing the restaurant when an amiable couple waiting inside the foyer apparently lost patience with our Keystone Cops routine and let us in. Saved!

Then, not a moment before 9pm, the ornate door at the top of the foyer’s marble staircase opened and the staff welcomed us inside.

El Club Allard exuded classic elegance. Comfy-looking upholstered chairs surrounded well-spaced, linen-topped tables. Glowing chandeliers reflected to infinity in mirrors on opposing muted gray walls trimmed in creamy white.

Amuse-bouche

Amuse-bouche at El Club Allard: an edible card with flavorful aioli.

We were seated in a room of our own, with a view through French doors into the general dining area. As we settled around the large, square table for eight, waiters drizzled bubbling Cava into flutes. Propped before us were place cards embossed with the restaurant’s logo.

A waiter placed small bowls of creamy spread on the table and explained: “Tonight you will find that our chef likes to have a little fun, and this amuse-bouche reflects that. The cards in front of you are edible. You are invited dip your card in the seasoned aioli and eat it. Enjoy.”

Well, why not? The potato-starch cards themselves were unremarkable, but they were made delicious by the aioli. We were undeniably amused.

After the Cava the waiters poured Naia Verdejo. Throughout the evening they ensured we rarely saw the bottoms of our glasses.

Servers glided in and out as the plates of our 10-course meal began to arrive. The first was a shallow bowl arranged with three triangular bites of smoked eel, crowned by red flower petals and accented with red rocoto peppers and tiny balls of coconut ice. Servers finished the dish with a creamy coconut broth, making a beautifully cool, composed soup.

Butterfish ale

Butterfish “ale” with Japanese salmon-egg crostini

Course two brought liquid comfort – a shot glass of “amber ale” alongside a crostini jeweled with Japanese salmon eggs. The ale was actually a warm butterfish broth beneath a white asparagus foam — a warming umami treat, craveable on a chilly, windy night. The staff promised without hesitation to package an order of the broth for Bob, who was under the weather and resting in the hotel. We couldn’t imagine anything more therapeutic.

Next came heavy stone bowls containing a single tiny pea ravioli and a light broth of Iberian dewlap, also poured at the table. (Dewlap, we found out later, is part of the pig’s neck. Who knew?)

Quail egg and truffle mushroom

Quail egg and truffle mushroom: the cupcake that made everyone cry

Everything was delicious, but the fourth course generated an unexpected reaction. Servers brought in chunky porcelain pedestals shaped like cross-cut logs standing on end. Atop each stood a mini-cupcake frosted electric green and studded with small crisps resembling Lucky Charms cereal.The scent of truffle engulfed the table. It was campy, a little gaudy, and slightly psychedelic.

“Here you have a quail egg and truffle mushroom, best eaten in one bite,” our waiter said.

We popped the morsels into our mouths and the table fell silent. Then came a chorus: “Mmmm,” “ahhh,” “ohmygod.” The cupcake, made of yucca, featured a moist canelé-like texture that transitioned to a soft interior, where the quail egg resided. The frosting was airy truffled custard. A bite of heaven. Sniffles came from the head of the table.

“Mom, are you crying!?” Kati said.

Her eyes brimming, Dorothy laughed and said, “I really needed that.” One charming bite had justified the effort of trip preparation, and perhaps released some of the stress she felt for her ailing husband. Soon nearly everyone teared up. Roxanne, sniffling and laughing, said, “This will be remembered as The Dinner With the Cupcake That Made Everyone Cry!”

Calamar "risotto"

Calamar “risotto”

Next, another gastronomical slight of hand: What appeared to be herbed risotto was really calamar cut to resemble rice. Alongside were green seashells that glistened like jellies, but were actually crisped rice. The flavors and textures were the definition of balance.

Orube Rioja began to flow as we moved to heartier flavors. The next dish was a beautiful plate of flaky black cod resting in a blue-tomato-infused broth, garnished with tiny scallions and a single purple flower.

Black cod

Black cod with blue-tomato infused broth

Following that: collagen-rich confit of suckling pig that melted on the tongue, accompanied by sweet-savory onion compote. Would it be bad form to lick our plates?

Desserts began with a refreshing, palate-restoring pisco-sour ice in a hibiscus flower cup – a nod to the chef’s Latin American roots.  The second dessert, understatedly billed as “chocolate clusters,” was a playful presentation of color and flavor: chocolate “rocks,” green minty “sponges,” olive toast, and pepper ice cream. Finally, a whimsical slate of petit fours – marzipan shaped like chalk, erasers, and refrigerator magnets.

Kati, Chef Marte, Dorothy

Kati, Chef Maria Marte, and Dorothy

Our meal complete, we asked if we could meet the artist behind the flavors. Chef Maria Marte obliged with a stop at our table, where she humbly accepted our praise. Dominican Chef Marte’s story is remarkable. Ten years ago, she was a dishwasher at El Club Allard, piecing together a living, working mad hours, trying to get ahead. Today she is the head chef of the two-Michelin-star restaurant in Spain’s capital, a testament to her drive, determination, and talent.

Of all of our meals in Spain, this one would stand out for the elegance and gracious service; Chef Marte’s whimsy, creativity and humble kindness; the colors, flavors, and balance; and, of course, the cupcake that made everyone cry.

 

 

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Raviolo

Mushroom and cheese raviolo.

A beautiful Saturday in every way: sunny, unseasonably dry, and at the end, a truffle dinner.

Hosted at Tabor Bread on Hawthorne and presented by Chef Kathryn LaSusa Yeomans in conjunction with Roger Konka of Springwater Farm, the Farmer’s Feast was a seven-course meal featuring locally foraged wild truffles  — white and black — and other seasonal ingredients prepared and presented simply and beautifully.

We four — Zandra, James, J and I — are very fortunate to have participated in some unforgettable truffle dinners. Even so, our little section of one of three long communal tables spanning the bakery’s dining room was wowed by the big flavors that Chef Yeomans shared with us. Among them, a marble-sized white truffle warmed in parchment with an addictively delicious jus and served with a toasted piece of Tabor Bread brioche; silky, sweet Tamworth heritage pig liver mousse topped with slivered black truffle alongside a ramekin of maitake mushroom and leek custard and shaved white truffle; a triangle-shaped raviolo filled with creamy cheese and topped with wild mushrooms in an earthy broth; pork saltimbocca and luscious truffled celery root puree. At the end, a pear granita and warm almond cookies.

A beautiful Saturday, and a beautiful meal. Life does not get much better.

Setting up for wine tasting at Dalmeran.

Setting up for wine tasting at Dalmeran.

“Daddy, I want a chateau!”

Zandra said aloud, in jest, what the rest of us were thinking as we filed, dumbstruck, through the beautiful Dalmeran castle. (Why not speak up if your father is in earshot? Bob responded with a smile and an arched eyebrow.) Had we stepped into an issue of Architectural Digest? Million-dollar mosaics and paintings by masters — originals! — decorated rooms that exuded elegance but also comfort, a tricky balance. The inclination was to kick off the shoes and drop onto a lavishly pillowed sofa for a nap. But no, we were visitors here, and there were wines to be tasted. So we soldiered on.

Jeff's new best friend.

Jeff’s new best friend.

Earlier that morning, Kelly’s million-dollar connections had secured a private tour of a well-respected winery nearby, Domaine de Trévallon. We briefly met the winemaker, Monsieur Dürrbach, before his daughter gave us a tour of the property and the barrel cave. A jolly yellow lab had joined us, eager to be friends, propping himself heavily against each of us in turn, hoping for a scratch on the ears. We ended with a sampling of wine in the early stages of fermentation, drawn from the huge vats where that process takes place.

We then drove to the beautiful estate Dalmeran where we were treated to the quick chateau tour. We were there for our second degustation of the day, this one to be conducted by Kelly. The tasting room, located in a side building, was a warm den carved out of stone, with arched ceilings, a long stone bench along one wall with cushions for seating, and a central tasting table. Kelly poured and held forth in his spirited, passionate way on the unique qualities of the area’s wines — Châteauneuf Du Pape, Gigondas, Côtes du Rhône, wines farmed in soil so rocky it looks unsuitable to grow anything, let alone the productive vines it somehow nourishes.

The beautiful Dalmeran estate grounds.

The beautiful Dalmeran estate grounds.

James, the groundskeeper.

James, the mower.

After the tasting, we strolled through the Dalmeran estate’s garden, admiring the sprawling grounds and perfectly manicured lawn. We pitied whoever was responsible for mowing until the groundskeeper introduced us to him. His name, coincidentally, was James — a squat little four-wheel contraption parked under a shrub. The groundskeeper explained that James mowed the lawn on a schedule, without human interference or instruction, venturing out every couple of days to glide over the expansive green until no blade was left unshorn. Then he would return to his roost under the shrub and connect himself to the charger until duty called again. I imagined what it must be like to own this beautiful place, sitting on the veranda, drinking coffee, looking up over the newspaper to see James dutifully patrolling the premises, back and forth, section by section. Good man, James. A fine servant indeed.

Private chef #1 a La Verrière – Vaucluse Region

Our chateau for three nights.

Our château for three nights.

The Setup: Departing from L’Isle-sur-la-Sourge, we drove north toward our destination for the next few nights: La Verrière. We left paved roads near Crestet after dusk and headed deep into what, in the darkness, seemed like wilderness. After a good 20 minutes of bumping along the rugged dirt road, we rounded a corner and saw the lights. Nestled in the hills at the foot of Mont Ventoux, La Verriere is a winery and estate with quarters that can be rented — and we had the place all to ourselves. Seeing the welcoming glow from within the expansive villa, we could only chuckle at our increasingly opulent accommodations. “Eh,” we joked, “this’ll do.”

The sitting room at La Verriere.

The sitting room at La Verriere.

Home dining at its finest.

Home dining at its finest.

A former priory dating to the 9th century, the estate has been beautifully renovated with attention paid to its history and environment. The guest rooms, each with a theme reflective of the area, have beautiful views of the surrounding vineyards, rolling hills and the looming mountain. (Jeff and I stayed in Lavandes — the lavender room). But the living and dining rooms with their arched white stone ceilings and thick stone walls inspired awe. Even more awe-inspiring: Chef Guilhem Sevin from Avignon restaurant Christian Etienne was preparing dinner for us when we arrived.

The Feast: After we settled into our various wings of the estate, oohing and ahhing over each other’s rooms, we gathered in the sitting room, sinking into comfortable chairs and couches. Kelly opened a bottle of wine and the staff served nibbles from the chef: a spoonful of fresh clam in a light mignonette; a luscious little cup of artichoke puree; tender sweetbreads. After the aperitifs, we assembled at the grand table, each setting furnished with two wine glasses that portended the goodness to come.

First course: fish.

First course: fish.

First course: flaky red mullet alongside a tender artichoke heart stuffed with mushrooms, served with a dark bouillabaisse sauce reduced to a thick, deeply rich gravy. Sopping with bread was the natural thing to do, though no one would have questioned motives or etiquette had someone licked his or her plate clean.

Main course: partridge.

Main course: partridge.

The main course brought partridge topped with Spanish jambon Bellota pata negra, the same kind that we encountered our first day, alongside a mushroom terrine and a crouton cradling a little slather of foie gras and a slice of mushroom.

A small bit of cheese served with dandelion greens followed, and finally, for dessert, a nest of angel-hair pasta fried crisp and topped with basil cream and stewed quince. Light, crunchy, bright, green and delicious. Two different glasses of wine per  course allowed us to compare flavors and food pairings.

Most Memorable: Let’s recap: A private chef in our private 9th century abbey-turned-winery. Two wines with each course. The biggest exertion of the evening was to walk upstairs to our separate wings for a restful sleep, breathing in the crisp Provençal air. God, we’re so lucky.

Truffle Hunting in the Var – Richeranches

Fresh black truffle.

Fresh black truffle.

The Setup: A beautifully sunny morning greeted us as we headed out for a pre-lunch truffle hunt. Only slightly reluctant to leave our estate for the day, we piled into our vehicles: James, Zandra, Brett, Amy and Aiden in the Jumpy with Kelly; Jeff, Bob, Dorothy and I with Jack. We started down the hill toward our first appointment, chatting with Jack about how much we’d loved the trip. Having had a large hand in the itinerary, he was pleased that we were enjoying ourselves. When he arranges trips, he said, he strives to orchestrate that “wow” moment, the one a client will remember forever. Sometimes it’s as simple as a perfectly timed sunset dinner; sometimes clients require a grander experience to achieve the moment — he called them “tourgasms.”  To which we responded we’d had multiple.

We drove to the town of Richerenches to meet truffle producer Erich Devontue. He and son Franck offered us coffee in the dining room of their establishment, with its open sunken kitchen and grand stone fireplace. We learned the farmhouse had been converted to an inn and Franck, who had attended cooking school, was in charge of the kitchen.

Ready for the hunt.

Ready for the hunt.

One of many finds.

One of many finds.

We chatted for a few minutes and then left Franck to his cooking. Erich led us to his shop for an abbreviated truffle lesson, similar to the one we received in Périgord. We then crossed the road in the company of Erich’s spirited hound and ventured deep into rocky groves of green and white oak. The dog, a stout wiry-haired mongrel, did all the work. We dutifully followed, careful not to interfere. As soon as the dog pawed the ground, Erich would call him off, dig up the truffle with a pick and place it in his canvas bag. The outing netted a good number of black beauties and after 90 minutes we headed back to the house where Franck was preparing a grand, truffle-laced lunch.

Truffles and chickpeas.

Truffles and chickpeas.

The Feast: We warmed ourselves on the sunny patio and Kelly opened a bottle of crisp Chardonnay to accompany the small bites: a cup of creamy pumpkin soup topped with shaved black truffle; warm chickpeas drizzled with truffle oil and infused with flecks of truffle; and truffled oeufs brouilles, this version a bit more scrambled than Carole’s smooth rendition.

Pork cheek and gnocchi.

Pork cheek and gnocchi.

Then we headed indoors and sat around the large square table next to the crackling hearth, where we were served beautiful butter-seared scallops over spinach and dandelion greens in a light vinaigrette, topped with shaved truffle. The main course was comfort food defined: fork-tender pork cheek served with a veal stock reduction and, of course, more shaved truffle. On the side, a terra cotta dish of creamy, cheesy gnocchi atop red onion jam. One bite and Jeff declared that he’d just had a porkgasm. Flushed and dizzy from the earthy flavors, we knew exactly what he meant.

A cheese course followed: warm Camembert with truffles, and a soft truffled Corsican sheep’s cheese on a crouton. Finally, dessert: truffle infused creme brulee with — what else? — shaved truffle on top.

Most Memorable: Decadent. Rich. Delicious. Gracious hosts. A wine and truffle education in one. A tourgasm and a porkgasm, all in one day. This was, hands down, my favorite meal of the trip.

Private chef #2 at La Verrière – Vaucluse Region

The Setup: Our late, leisurely and rather large lunch at the Devontue farm ended around 4 pm, and as we drove home we realized that dinner was not far away. When we arrived at La Verrière, we had a short time to digest before our second personal chef of the trip arrived to cook us a truffle-themed meal.

Still absolutely stuffed, we mentally prepared ourselves. Day 12 of the gavage was coming to a close, and we were beginning to feel the effects.

Working for our supper.

Working for our supper.

This night was different, however, because chef Pascal Ginoux of nearby Les Bories would involve us in the cooking. While it was a fantastic concept, the idea of preparing of a gourmet truffle meal under the tutelage of a Michelin-star chef, I couldn’t help but feel the cruel beauty of it all. Already bursting with truffles from an earlier feeding, now we were helping prepare the ingredients for our next. Sort of like building your own gallows.

Chef Ginoux plating croquettes.

Chef Ginoux plating croquettes.

Jeff, Dorothy, Amy and Brett peeled root vegetables. James dismantled a pineapple. Zandra and I were in charge of dredging and breading foie gras croquettes that were to be fried for our first course. But how could there be so many? Were we expected to eat them all? We briefly contemplated staging a croquette “accident.”  A nudge of the tray over the edge of the counter — “oops!” Perfectly innocent. But after careful consideration we decided that standing and moving our hands from flour to egg to breadcrumbs was the only exercise we would have that evening. We told ourselves to suck it up.

Our work done, we retreated to the media room for a final rest before the re-gorging began, coaching ourselves with words of encouragement: We can do this. Sit up straight and take little bites. We’ll be fine.

Three wines per course was now the standard.

Two wines per course was now the standard.

Veal and root vegetables.

Veal and root vegetables.

The Feast: As we tucked into the meal, the delicious flavors and spot-on wine pairings made it all go easier. The first course, our breaded foie gras croquettes, appeared: fat little fingers deep fried to a golden brown, served with celery puree and a truffle olive-oil foam. Gorgeous and light-tasting despite the decadent ingredients. The second course featured tender veal served with roasted vegetables, the very ones so lovingly prepped by our crew. Chef Ginoux  supplied extra veal reduction to augment the rich gravy already on the plate. My bloated belly forgotten, I poured extra sauce and grabbed a piece of bread for sopping. Finally, dessert: a delicate meringue cylinder with deeply caramelized pineapple and a passionfruit puree. Bright, sweet and light. After dinner, the chef sat at the table with us, drank wine and chatted. Kelly translated. We snapped a few photos with our new friend before trudging up to bed for a much-needed night’s sleep.

Most Memorable: An incredible meal prepared by a very talented chef. But the whispered words between Zandra and me still echo in my head: “Are all of these croquettes for us? They can’t be — there are so many!”