Tuesday, July 8, 2014

A Mini World Food Tour, Europe Edition

I do not pretend to be a food critic, the kind who picks apart all aspects of a restaurant and detect every seasoning used in every dish. However, I know what I like. That is all that is needed for this blog entry.

That said, here are my top three meals during our smorgasbord tour of west central Europe:

3) Bavette the Grill, Brasserie Nobel, Haarlem, The Netherlands: This was a lucky choice as Deb and I selected a place to eat on our first night in Haarlem. We took a charming walk along the Spaarne River and decided that the Brasserie Nobel looked like a good option for a meal. The bavette option made that come true for me.

The dish is flank steak (an overlooked cut of meat) with grilled vegetables and topped with bernaise sauce.  The vegetables included nicely seasoned potatoes and mushrooms (both personal favorites) and green beans in a savory sauce. The bernaise was a nice touch, adding another layer of flavor. I took the waiter's advice and ordered a Joppen beer, which is the wheat beer brewed in Haarlem. It was a nice complement to everything on the plate. In fact, it was such a nice complement that I had two Joppens.  (When in Haarlem, do as the Dutch do.)

Here's a good tip on checking out a restaurant: If there are many locals eating there, it's a good place. That became apparent as the various members of the wait staff conversed with diners. They talked like old friends as if the patrons ate there often. If the locals like it then it's thumbs up.

2) Mediterranean tuna in wasabi cream sauce, La Terrazza Metropole, Bellagio, Italy: I could have eaten the worst meal of my life at this place and still felt like I was in heaven. This is the patio restaurant at the Hotel Metropole Bellagio where we stayed. The restaurant is open air with a commanding view of the lake at table side, and ducks and swans swim by as you dine. The heat of the day (it only got into the 80s during our stay there) dissipated and the lake's cooling factor took effect. It was as romantic a setting for a meal as any I have had in my life.

OK, let's up the ante on this idyllic spot. I am not a big fish eater, but the tuna dish looked intriguing enough to try. I ordered it medium rare, which ended up being a nice choice for my tastes. They served two bountiful chunks of tuna encrusted in sesame seeds. The wasabi sauce was drizzled around the outside edge of the dinner plate, and I could choose just how much of the spicy sauce I wanted with each bite. The combination was delectable. Deb and I started our meal with mixed green salads that had abundant amounts of tomatoes, shaved carrots and other treats, accompanied by the ever-present olive oil and balsamic combination on the table. And this was the really good balsamic, a higher grade from Modena, Italy, where you have to be licensed to produce balsamic under the Modena banner.

1) Lamb sausage, Le Cafe du Commerce, Paris: OK, it's Paris so great gastronomic offerings are commonplace, right? Well, we had one so-so meal while in the City of Lights so great meals aren't guaranteed. We chose this restaurant on the advice of the young man at the front desk of our hotel. He said it was a place where a lot of the locals gather for dinner (there's that tip about a good restaurant again) and it was well worth the time. I also had seen mentions about the restaurant on blogs, and that added a layer of trust in my book. We actually showed up here twice for dinner, but the place doesn't open until 7 p.m. so we went elsewhere on our first visit. We arrived properly late (by our usual dining schedule) the second time, and, oh, my, was it worth it.

Again, I don't usually order lamb or veal. It's that "eating a young animal" thing. But they didn't have my first choice on the menu available that night, and I took a chance on this second option. Well, Little Lambie was delicious. It was a big sausage like a quality brat that you would throw on the grill on a football Saturday. Everything from the texture to the seasoning (not too little, not too much) was perfect. They added roasted potatoes, cooked apples and a small green salad on the plate.

I also got to try out my limited French vocabulary. "Deux sauvignon blanc, petit, s'il vous plait." And I must have done it correctly because my waiter replied, "Merci, monsieur." And the resulting wine was pretty darned good, too. Deb and I topped off our meal with dessert. She had the creme brûlée, which was delicate and delicious. I ordered a lemon sorbet with just a hint of vodka that was poured over a French cookie, and it was all contained in a bowl of molded white chocolate. Magnifique.

Here's another reason Le Cafe du Commerce gets so many recommendations: The bill was paltry by Parisian standards. Deb and I had salads, the main courses and desserts, and the entire cost was 58 Euros. In Paris, that's a steal.

I left some really good meals off this list. There was the salmon with bernaise at a little bistro along the Rue de Grenelle in Paris (the place also had the best pinot noir); pork steak at the Hotel Alpenruh in Murren, Switzerland; cheese fondue with a side of roesti at the Hotel Eiger in Murren; pork cordon bleu at the Hotel Rheinfelderhof in Basel, Switzerland; cannelloni at Taverna Capitan Uncino in Venice ... the list could go on. And that overlooks our favorite breakfast spot, Grand Cafe Brinkmann on the Grote Markt in Haarlem. The breakfast menu was small, but ordering the Turkish yogurt with fruit was a must, as was the coffee. OMG, the coffee was magnificent. They serve Smit & Dorlas, which is brewed in Aruba and earns the top ranking in my best cups of coffee ever. My wife loved that they served a small cookie with each cup, so there's that, too.

I rolled out the superlatives in this review, but all of them were earned. That is one thing that makes Europe so wonderful. I will follow in a couple of days with my top three cities we visited. That's going to entail some hard choices as well, but I love to examine fond memories.

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