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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Fresh strawberries over biscuits. Summer.

Fresh strawberries over biscuits. Summer.

Portland is twitchy for summer.

For the past few weeks, a wet gloom has settled in, granting only brief merciful glimpses of warmth and sun. Then, June 1 dawns, and with it a glorious Saturday.

After a walk around the neighborhood, a drink or two at one of our favorite wine bars and dinner on Alberta Street, a sweet treat beckons. On the stroll home we duck into Pine State Biscuits for this beauty: Two biscuit halves topped with fresh, sweet strawberries and whipped cream.

SOS: summer on a shingle.

View from Saint-Émilion church tower.

View from Saint-Emilion church tower

“Nine a.m. sharp.” Those were Kelly’s parting words on the eve of our departure from Bordeaux. Our next destination, Sarlat, was 200 kilometers away, and we had appointments en route, so we would hit the road early.

At 9:10 the next morning, two of the Jumpy’s seven passengers were missing.

A phone call was made, slumber disrupted, belongings were hastily collected. Several choice vulgarities, delivered in standard American English, undoubtedly resounded up and down the third floor of Le Grand Hotel de Bordeaux. Sixteen minutes later, Zandra and James burst out of the building, luggage clattering, with damp hair and linen-marked features.

All but two of us enjoyed a nice chuckle — this was, after all, a vacation. By the time J&Z recovered their sense of humor, we were 20 kilometers east of Bordeaux headed to Saint-Émilion, and we all had learned a lesson: Don’t trifle with jet lag. Jet lag always wins.

Wine Tasting in Saint-Émilion, Evening Picnic in Sarlat

Fonplegade Wine Tasting

Wine tasting at Chateau Fonplegade.

The Setup: In Saint-Émilion we began with tours and tastings at two quite different chateaux: Chateau Fonplegade, American-owned and très élégant; and Chateau Pavie Macquin, also lovely but a bit more rustic. At both, the wine and the hospitality were first-class. Thanks to Kelly’s contacts and expertise, finding a mediocre bottle, or a less-than-breathtaking venue in which to sample it, or an ungracious host, all were proving difficult.

After the tours, we drove into the centuries-old village of Saint-Émilion, a World Heritage site with daunting world-heritage-class verticality. We parked at the base of the hill and labored up the winding cobblestone streets to the town summit for lunch at bustling L’Envers du Decor. Afterward, Dorothy, Zandra and I thought we’d do a little shopping, but ended up climbing (more climbing!) the steep spiral steps of the tower of Saint-Émilion’s famous monolithic church, from which we enjoyed a splendid panorama. Meanwhile, the guys descended to Terres Millesime, a wine shop at the bottom of the hill, for another tasting appointment. We joined them after our excursion and were early enough to have missed only a couple of selections. Lucky us.

Terres Milleseme

Enjoying Saint-Émilion’s hospitality.

Many tastings — les dégustations — are polite, sedate affairs. The one at Terres Millesime was performance art.

Our amiable host, Manu — reminiscent of a young Joe Pesci — seemed unable to sit. He repeatedly leapt out of his chair to deliver a generous pour, a fist-shaking advocacy of the home-country viticulture, a boisterous celebration of his Burgundian heritage. Mostly in French. At one point he broke into song. He offered toasts, shook hands, patted backs. He sipped a fragrant Bordeaux, gazed heavenward and kissed his fingertips. Kelly, as translator, cheerfully tried to keep pace.

By the time we finished the tasting, we were entertained, a little tired, and a little buzzed. The performance, if that’s what it was, succeeded. We chose wines and placed orders, which given the work involved in arranging shipping took the better part of an hour. When we were ready to leave, most of Saint-Émilion was dark, and we were still 150 kilometers from our beds.

Boulangerie

La boulangerie, France’s answer to fast food.

The Feast: Figuring we wouldn’t find much to eat in Sarlat at that hour, James, Zandra, Jeff and I hurried down the street to a little boulangerie and bought a baguette, a couple of quiches and a sackful of ham and cheese croissants. Then back to the van. Kelly tested the speed limit, James navigated, and we made Sarlat in good time.

We arrived at the B&B, Les Cordeliers, and were greeted by innkeepers Chris and Amanda, an affable British couple who set us up in our rooms and then joined us in James and Zandra’s room for a picnic. Chris contributed plates and napkins as well as ham, cheeses and crudite, and we drank the wine left over from Manu’s tasting — a simple, light meal that struck exactly the right chord on our first night in Sarlat.

Most Memorable: Our gracious hosts, all of them — Manu, Chris and Amanda — and those flaky, buttery ham and cheese croissants. When it comes to fast food, the French boulangerie wins hands down.

Lunch with Edouard and Carole Aynaud — Pechalifour

Retired truffle dog

Retired truffle dog, enjoying the good life.

The Setup: Our final full day in Sarlat took us to the hamlet of Pechalifour to meet Edouard Aynaud. “Le Truffe,” as he is known — lanky, bespectacled, with a beak like a raptor — vibrated enthusiasm for his work: pursuit and promotion of the elusive Tuber melanosporum, or black Périgord truffle. The Aynaud cottage, which looked from outside like it might have been put up by masterful medieval stonemasons, was cozy and modern inside, and included a classroom featuring a resident retired truffle hound, an easy-going golden Lab who needed no invitation to show you his belly. Before leading visitors out into the truffière to hunt, Edouard conducts an introduction to truffles — the species and their differences, aromas, flavors, the risks of fraud. Turns out the Tuber indicum, or Chinese truffle, is tasteless and bounces when you drop it.

After class, we headed into the orchard led by the current top dog, Farrah. A spirited border collie mix, Farrah shares Edouard’s passion for unearthing truffles, because doing so means she wins a tasty prize hidden in her master’s pocket.

Truffle

Périgord black truffle.

oeufs brouillés

The beginnings of oeufs brouillés.

After the hunt (Farrah found two truffles, but neither was ripe), we returned to the house and met Edouard’s wife, Carole. She directed us to the kitchen and demonstrated classic oeufs brouillés: Grated truffle and butter mingle at room temperature in a pan on the stove; crack two eggs per person into a bowl and pour the eggs into the pan; over a low fire, whisk furiously for 10 to 15 minutes (taking care not to perspire into the mixture) until you have a smooth texture, neither scrambled nor lumpy.

Truffle honey

Truffle honey and cheese curls.

The Feast: After the demonstration, we gathered around the dining-room table, where we were treated to the silky oeufs brouillés with their earthy hint of truffle, followed by succulent roast pork and fluffy truffle mashed potatoes. Next came a green salad and a cheese course. The cheese had been shaved with a cheese curler into delicate carnations, which drizzled with truffle honey were a bite of heaven. Last, we were served a small cup of ice cream with brandied plum and a dash of cognac. The meal alone made this outing worth every minute, not to mention we saw a truffe agriculteur in action.

Most Memorable: Edouard and Carole’s generous hospitality made this day one of the more exceptional of the trip. And while it was not the last time we encountered oeufs brouillés, it was the best.

Le Parc Franck Putelat – Carcassonne

Carcassonne

The walled city of Carcassonne.

The Setup: We ate many incredible meals in France, but Le Parc Franck Putelat in Carcassonne featured one of the top pedigrees. Putelat is a Bocuse D’Argent winner. His restaurant, a recipient of two Michelin stars, is a sleek, modern establishment at the foot of the beautiful walled old city. The muted earth tones and clean lines of the warmly lighted dining room contrasted perfectly with the adventurous dishes that emerged from the kitchen.

Bob, the senior omnivore of our party, ventured boldly through the menu, choosing the “Action Reaction,” a nine-course dégustation that showcased the chef’s latest inspirations. The rest of us opted for the six-course “Emotion,” our first real attempt at restraint on this vacation.

Pumpkin soup

Pumpkin soup topped with a cheese crisp.

Empty Plate

Le Empty Plate.

The Feast: The meal started with beautiful foie-gras-laced bites, including savory foie gras macaroons. A rich, creamy pumpkin velouté followed, served in a gourd capped with a lacy cheese crisp. Whenever Bob received a dish that was not included in the shorter menu, his tablemates were served empty plates over which they salivated until the Smartest Guy in the Room finished, dabbing the corners of his mouth with a napkin. Everyone’s plates were then whisked away.

IMG_1056

Pink duck breast and duck terrine.

The entrée for the table was duck breast, pink and perfectly tender. That was followed by a cheese cart laden with more than 40 varieties. From the cart the steward drew out hidden compartments to reveal additional aromatic selections, while diners at a neighboring table shielded their noses from the vapor drifting across the room.

It was in the course of this five-hour marathon that we were introduced to the concept of pre-dessert — that is, the warm-up dessert before the main desserts. (Yes, plural.) The pre-dessert was no smaller or less significant than the desserts that followed, just an addition to them. God, France is a beautiful place.

desserts

Pre-dessert (left), dessert (top right), post dessert (bottom right). Glorious.

Most Memorable: More than a delectable meal, Le Parc gave us the empty plate and the pre-dessert, two unforgettable but starkly conflicting concepts. I’ll also remember the nod of deference Le Parc’s silver-pinned sommelier proffered when he noticed the golden cluster on Kelly’s lapel. Not wanting or expecting any special treatment, Kelly was embarrassed — he had meant to remove his pin, which signifies his status. As far as we were concerned, it’s always good to have friends in high places.