1 Perhaps my favorite fancy meal of all was at a magnificent palace of delight and wonder called the Flower Drum on Little Bourke Street in Melbourne in the late 90s. The lunch slash FEAST was served to a table of ten including some wicked smart Aussie journalists, including Matt Preston and Necia Wilden, (my two ozzie scribe heroes), Melbourne food and wine festival big wigs and Mark Ladner from Del Posto then, and myself. It was a celebration of ten whole animals and 10 spectacular wines from Oz and beyond that started with magnums of Krug 1982 and whole steamed abalone and then went thru, among others, king prawns, whole white new Zealand crabs, barramundi, drunken squab, Peking style duck, a whole suckling pig, a baby lamb and a molten toffee apple dessert with fried ice cream and ended with magnums of Chateau Y’quem, 1970. The conversation and excitement danced a parallel path with the wine and the food and crescendo, with each course led and described in exquisite detail by erudite genius owner Gilbert Lau. The meal was unforgettable.
2 I sat with Gwyneth Paltrow and Michael Stipe at Inopia in Barcelona at the unlikely early hour of 7:45 p.m. and the place was packed anyway. With Isabel and Alberto Adria, we ate just about the whole menu. The fact that there were cameras on us the whole time faded into oblivion, as the food and conversation were both so delicioso. The “bodas” made of a knot of both salted and vinegar-brined anchovies blew my socks off, and Gwyneth still fixates on them anytime we get together. The ensalada russa was as if I had never had it before and the green tomatoes with tuna ventresca blew everyone’s mind out thru their palates. The place was jumping, fun, delicious and satisfying on every level, something I hope that most of my places are in the US.
3 Every year in late April, around the weekend nearest my son Leo’s birthday, we head up to my wife Susi’s family’s farm in Pine Plains, N.Y. for our annual rampage. We start out in the late morning to pick ramps from what seems to be an infinite field about a quarter mile down a two-track path from our cottage towards the Roeliff Jansen Kill River. I always cook with the kids’ help. We start with fusilli with ramps, garlic, hot chili flakes and pecorino. I try and make everyone eat a “first course portion” to save room for the main course, but everyone inevitably eats much more pasta than they should because the ramps are local and they just make a lot of sense when you eat them where you pick them. The second course is roasted chicken stuffed with ramps and lemon rind, served with sautéed ramps along with a plate of bruschetta with ramps. We usually finish two birds off between eight of us, but we also probably eat a good three pounds of ramps with the succulent and juicy hens. The point of the fable is that often the goods make up more of the experience than the locale or the service or even the chef. Our annual birthday celebration/ramp fest sings more of the flavor of the local dirt and a celebrated weed than any fancy restaurant ever could.
4 Mark Ladner and I were in New Orleans to help our pal Emeril Lagasse raise money for the Emeril Lagasse Foundation and its spectacular work helping kids with difficulties at his annual Carnival du Vin one November. The third day fell on Mark’s birthday weekend. To celebrate, we went to world famous Emeril’s on Tchoupitoulas Street with only one directive to the kitchen staff: serve only the Creole and Cajun classics from the remarkable and deep repertoire of the Lagasse legacy in America’s greatest gastronomic mecca. And so they did. From raw oysters with mignonette and oysters rockerfeller, to turtle soup, then boudin noir. Then a warm rabbit and crawfish remoulade with fried green tomatoes and on to Grand Isle shrimp Etouffe. Speckled trout with crab succotash and watermelon pickles turned the final corner and the meal was pure traditional perfection. I am not sure how many courses we ate, but it was like a Bunuel movie of magnificent beauty with course after course of supremely delicious food in just the right portion size rolling over us like a tidal wave. By the time Emeril sat down with us over a slice of his mythic mile-high banana cream pie and some cannoli, we were wordless, high above the physical earth in food orbit joy.
5 One day Susi, the boys and I went fishing on our favorite boat in the Caribbean, the Double Header, captained by Chris Berry out of St Thomas. We usually start to catch fish with Chris within 15 minutes of dropping the first line and it was the same this time. Leo started with a beautiful bonito and about two or three minutes later Benno landed a four-pound mutton snapper and then BANG!!!, Susi had a seven-foot sailfish on her 20-pound test line… 20 minutes later Susi landed (and released of course) a magnificent 60-pound sailfish!!!
So, the meal?? The eventual full catch for the day was about two dozen hard-body bonitos, (which we released) five or six king mackerel (one of which we kept) and a yellow-tailed snapper, which we brought, along with the mutton snapper and the lone small mackerel, to our fave St John restaurant “la Tapa” in the port/village of Cruz Bay. We are longtime friends with Chef/owner Alex Ewald who is always delighted to help us feast. Alex and her team cooked the fish in the oven with caramelized fennel, onions and lemons and the result was pure foodie heaven. We ordered as antipasto a few Spanish cheeses, some fried local flying fish filets with caper remoulade and some Spanish charcuterie. Then out came the perfectly cooked fish, whole, as all small fish should be served. To filet the fish, Alex left a couple of spoons and regular table ware and the family descended on the perfectly cooked, succulent and geo-specific flavor of the water we swam in that morning, with the breeze as it blew on our faces on the boat and the briny scent of the island we love. The bones and a couple of pieces of the magnificent creature’s tail and fins were all that were left at the end of the meal. We washed the baby down with a bottle of Verdejo and all was bliss, all was bliss.