If had to foresake all cuisines of the world tomorrow except one, it's probably no surprise I'd choose to keep Italian. There's a variety and simplicity available there that I never tire of, and it's a great match with a cycling lifestyle. If you want to make it a package deal and throw in Italian beverages, I could do quite nicely living on Italian wine and coffee, thank you very much. Moving down the list you'd find Vietnamese, for its brightness and freshness, then maybe French, maybe Japanese.
What those cuisines have in common is that in their common execution, they make decidedly light use of spices. They derive their flavors from herbs and other ingredients, in contrast to the foods of India and North Africa, where spices abound. Whereas I find the cuisines that use spices abundantly to be delicious and fascinating, they're decidedly not home turf. And with a technical background mostly in French cuisine, I simply don't use a wide variety of spices regularly, but I'm increasingly intrigued with them the last 6 months.
When we were in NYC in late January for a meeting, we ate at Elettaria, a small restaurant in the Village where chef Akhtar Nawab deftly matches “western” food with spices (crab with tumeric, octopus with szechuan peppercorns, duck with cardamom, you get the idea). He uses a light touch, and the spices augment, rather than call attention away from, the main ingredients. I personally found the main course plates a little too busy with individual pieces, but the flavors were terrific. The delicately curried rabbit samosa is high on the list of Most Delectable Things I've eaten this year.
I thought of that meal when we had dinner at at Le Pré Verre in the 5th, blocks away from the Cluny and Notre Dame, several days BFP (before food poisoning). The chef there, Philippe Delacourcelle, is known for his use of spices in his otherwise pretty straightforward French cuisine. Giddy up.
We had an enjoyable meal there, though I don't know that we found the chef at his most adventurous. The ginger in my ginger-scented cuttlefish starter was pretty hard to discern, though the faux caviar, I'm guessing tapioca (or maybe Israeli couscous? A bit firm for tapioca) soaked in squid ink and topped with sesame seeds a little salad, was fun. Karen had shrimp with pea-guacamole. Good shrimp, not very pea-y guacamole. Still a little early for peas. The mains were stronger, with lamb with salt-preserved lemon and cumin over quinoa and a very intensely orange but lightly flavored bell pepper sauce. The lamb was cooked perfectly, and everything went together nicely, though I'd leave the pepper sauce off in favor of more extensive use of the lemon-- can't get enough salt-preserved lemon. Karen had the veal liver with tamarind sauce and grilled polenta. The liver itself was very good (and abundant), and I thought the tamarind sauce was the both the best executed and best paired sauce of the night. A little sweet, but still deep and savory to play off of the liver. Quite a revelation.
Dessert brought a crème caramel with salt and pepper. Who doesn't love salted caramel, and what's not to like about the subtle heat of black pepper with cool, creamy custard? The firm texture was disappointing, though. A crème caramel should just threaten to jiggle itself apart, and if not overmixed and overcooked, should not have hard-edged bubbles at the bottom of the inverted custard. This is France, people, these details matter! Karen's cheese course was a nicely balanced selection of good quality cheeses.
The modest check (28.50 euros apiece for the 3-course dinner) came with 2 small, very shallow dishes of almost black chocolate pot de crème, flavored lightly with – hmm, what is that – wow, it's anise. Licorice and chocolate isn't a combination pursued in the mass-market candy biz, but the pairing worked beautifully in this format. I might just have to try that one myself. Or maybe get my mom to try making chocolate springerles this year.
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