Travel

Best Dishes: of 2016

Another year, another list. Who doesn't love a list?

I was very fortunate to have eaten some amazing food this year. Some dishes were indeed in NJ. Some were pretty close to NJ. Some were not very close to NJ. The one thing they all have in common is that made my eyes light up with joy for one reason or another.

Dishes can get my attention and fill me with glee for many reasons. They can be simple but executed flawlessly. They can be intricate affairs that leave me wondering what the hell is going on. And they can be something that I've simply never experienced. If there's one thing I love, it's eating something completely new to me.

Here are some of the bet dishes that I ate in 2016. And please, no arguing, these are the correct answers. They were all exceptional dishes.

 

Squid Ink Pasta with Guanciale and Squid
Jockey Hollow : Morristown, NJ

Jockey hollow pasta

I really can't get enough of this squid ink pasta, guanciale, and calamari dish at Jockey Hollow in Morristown, NJ. It is, without a doubt, one of the best pastas dishes, and best dishes, I've ever had.  A symphony of flavors and textures and perfectly executed. The whole dang restaurant is great.

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Eating in Philly: a.kitchen and a.bar

A bar interior-2

Another trip to Philly and several more visits to the outstanding a.kitchen and a.bar.

a.bar, which has a very limited food menu (but includes oysters and pickles) and extensive booze menu, is located on Rittenhouse Square, two doors down from a.kitchen, which is a full-service restaurant. Both are extremely well-run, with excellent staff both in the kitchen and the dining room.

The cocktails at each restaurant are as good as you'll need. The food at both restaurants is always excellent. Indeed this visit, the oysters at a.bar were so good that all other oysters consumed over the next few days paled in comparison. The burger at a.kitchen, well, it was perhaps in the top 5 burgers that I've ever eaten.

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Eating in Florence, Italy: L'Osteria di Giovanni and that lobster pasta

-Osteria Di Giovanni-L'Osteria Di Giovanni-3

While the truffle pasta dish at 4 Leoni lacked a bit of sauce, a similar dish at L'Osteria di Giovanni did not, and in addition, was served with white truffles, and not those run-of-the-mill black ones that you always see. And it was glorious.

L'Osteria di Giovanni is a pleasant little restaurant in Florence, focusing mostly on typical Tuscan cooking, in a mostly typically Tuscan environment. The place was jumping by the time we arrived at the very early time of 7.30pm. The three rooms filled up quickly afterward. A few large groups, families, tourists, all sorts of people were represented.

-Osteria Di Giovanni-L'Osteria Di Giovanni-6
-Osteria Di Giovanni-L'Osteria Di Giovanni-6

Service was polite and pleasant, as you'd expect from a restaurant in Italy. Bread was served with some of the most delicious olive oil we've ever had, and salt and pepper, making it palatable. An inexpensive bottle of Chianti Toscano red wine came in a straw basket that you'd see 50 years ago.

-Osteria Di Giovanni-L'Osteria Di Giovanni-2

To kick things off we ordered a special of porcini and truffle salad. With shaved Parmigiano-Reggiano. A simple, ingredients-driven dish.

-Osteria Di Giovanni-L'Osteria Di Giovanni-4

We also enjoyed a Caprese salad, which included artichokes, olives, burrata, and some excellent tomatoes that were, not surprisingly, infinitely better than those "Jersey tomatoes" I read so much about.

-Osteria Di Giovanni-L'Osteria Di Giovanni-5

The star of the meal was a special. Pasta and lobster. I really didn't know what to expect, and figured the dish would be pasta with some sort of light broth and a few pieces of lobster. And I was wrong.

The sauce was intensely flavored with lobster. It was the essence of lobster. And not just the essence of the claws and tail of the lobster. It was the essence of everything in and around that lobster. With just a touch of tomato. An incredible dish and certainly one of the highlights of the trip.

I'd return to di Giovanni for this dish alone.

L'Osteria di Giovanni : Via del Moro, 22, 50123 Firenze, Italy

 

 

 

 


Eating in Florence, Italy: Trattoria 4 Leoni

4 Leoni florence italyMeat in the kitchen at 4 Leoni

The first day is always the hardest.

We arrived in Florence at about 10am, long after leaving JFK at 4:20pm, with a brief stop in Paris.  This connection was not ideal. First off, we landed in Paris at about 11:30 our time, so there was simply no sleeping on that leg before having to get on the shorter flight to Florence. Additionally, I really dislike CDG airport. It's a mess, and we decided we're never going to Paris again because of it. au revoir.

Now that I have that off my chest.

Needless to say, we went down for a nap immediately after checking in to our hotel, which was right in the middle of everything, right across the street from Piazza dell Repubblica (and down the street from The Hard Rock Cafe). A few hours later, bleary-eyed and really hungry, we went off to find some food.

Screen Shot 2016-10-17 at 10.02.25 AM

I had done quite a bit of research on restaurants and, as I do, set up a "my google map" with the names/notes/etc. This is a really handy way of organizing your travel options, by the way.  Since we brought my mom along on this trip, we made sure we did some of the more touristy things, like walking over Ponte Vecchio (which I had forgot is just a bunch of jewelry shops) and shopping for leather gloves. Around the corner was Trattoria 4 Leoni.

Truth be told I wanted to go to Osteria Tripperia il Magazzino for, you guessed it, tripe, but the ladies weren't all that thrilled with jumping right into the organ meat. So 4 Leoni it was.

4 Leoni is set right on a nice little piazza, with spacious outdoor seating. Very pleasant service, which is something we've seen in Italy time and time again.

We jumped into the food immediately, immediately after ordering that bottle of Chianti of course.

The bread in northern Italy is atrocious, as you might know. It's just awful. It's not made with salt. It's dry. It's bland. And they make you pay for it whether you like it or not. Unless you're putting olive oil and salt on it (which I highly recommend) or a slice of lardo (which I even more highly recommend), don't fill up on it.

But we tried some bread for laughs, and then it was pasta all around.

4 Leoni florence italy-2

Fresh pasta with truffles. We thought the dish was a bit "dry" and could have used a bit more in the way of "sauce," but other than that it was spot on. No shortage of truffles here.

4 Leoni florence italy-5

My mother is not an adventurous eater and went with a pasta pomodoro. Fresh pasta with tomatoes and cheese. Completely fine, but not something that excites me.

What does excite me is organ meat. Organ meat friggin' excites me. So I went full Florentine and got the Trippa alla Fiorentina, which translates I believe to "a bowl of tripe you muthafuckas!"

4 Leoni florence italy-6
This is a great dish, and done quite well at 4 Leoni. The tripe pretends it's pasta, but pasta that tastes like meat. It's like having a pasta with meat sauce but without having pasta or meat. It's pretty incredible stuff. I forget if I did, but I sure hope I ordered this dish again. It would have been a sin to not.

Boboli Garden is right around the corner, and I foolishly decided we should take a walk to the top and explore. That's a lot of steps, and we were still in pretty bad shape from the long flight. But from the top, you can get a decent view of the city on one side, and rural Tuscany on the other.

Boboli garden florence italy-6
Boboli garden florence italy-6
Boboli garden florence italy-6

Trattoria 4 Leoni : Via de' Vellutini, 1r, 50125 Firenze, Italy

 

 

 


Staying in Ronda, Spain: Enfrente Arte Hotel

Balcon del Cono

Balcón del Coño, Ronda, Spain

Hotels aren't normally my thing, and I tend to stay in hotels that are functional, clean, well-situated in the town, and somewhat reasonably priced.  That is to say, I don't put much thought into them, and I don't usually remember much about them.  And I certainly don't stay at B&Bs, mostly because I have no interest in eating breakfast with strangers (and they don't want to eat breakfast with me...don't catch me before 11 am because I'm more of a bear than usual).

Enfrente Arte Hotel may have changed that forever.

Enfrente Arte Hotel Ronda-10
Enfrente Arte Hotel Ronda-10

Checking into this small, funky, 14 room hotel, you'll find yourself standing at the front of a car hood. The car, you see, is in the lobby. Or at least the front of the car is in the lobby. If your room isn't ready, take a step into the bar, where you can help yourself to an espresso, beer on tap, or a glass (or bottle) of wine. It's all included in the very reasonable price, and it's all there 24-7 for your entertainment.

Entrente Arte Hotel pool
Entrente Arte Hotel pool

Explore the hotel grounds a bit a more, and you'll come across plenty of interesting artifacts, many of which are related to music, some of which conjure memories of A Clockwork Orange. There's also one of those pools of water with the fish that "massage" your feet. The fish eat the stuff off of your bare feet. It's stimulating, creepy, and relaxing all at the same time.

Enfrente arte viewView from the balcony

Make your way outside to the courtyards and you'll find two seating areas with grand views of the mountains. A perfect place for a nightcap. Or morning cap.

Enfrente Arte Hotel Ronda-15
Enfrente Arte Hotel Ronda-15View of the hotel and outskirts of town from the tower room's balcony

The rooms are all different, tastefully and unconventionally decorated. We stayed in two rooms during our stay, one of which was the "tower" room, which is a three story room in a tower that was built in the 1500s. A very interesting room for sure (although these old bones had a hard time getting down the two flights of stairs in the middle of the night to get to the head).

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Eating in Jerez, Spain: La Taberna del Segura with Holy Week in full swing

Jerez spain La taberna del holy week5Our little plaza was transformed early in the day

The amazing processions of Holy Week were really closing in on us by our third day in Jerez. The quiet little plaza across from the hotel was transformed by a lively crowd of people and several processions the entire day. It's a wonderful sight, but trying to find a place for a drink or meal became next to impossible.

Jerez spain La taberna del holy week3
Jerez spain La taberna del holy week3

So I did some quick searching on my phone and found a restaurant a bit out-of-the-way. After taking in the processions for a few hours, off we went, against the massive flow of people to get dinner.

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Eating in Jerez, Spain: La Cruz Blanca is doing the right stuff

Jerez spain la cruz blanca figuresFigurines for Holy Week, which was in full swing during our trip

If Restaurante Albores was our favorite restaurant in Jerez, then the race ended in a photo finish with La Cruz Blanca a very close second. Who am I kidding. They're both equally exceptional and I'd never get tired of sitting and eating at either.

La Cruz Blanca, which is about 3 doors down from Albores, also serves traditional Spanish food and dishes with a modern twists. It's a stunning restaurant (as is Albores). We mostly stuck to classics for this meal, and it's the meal where we first enjoyed seafood with black rice.

Jerez spain la cruz blanca croquettes

But first, as usual, croquettes.

Again I don't recall if these were fish-based, had leeks, who knows. These places do have a way with croquettes no matter what the ingredients. Creamy and dreamy. We were addicted.

Jerez spain la cruz blanca seafood salad

Seafood salad was another salad was another dish that I ordered multiple times. So fresh, light, bright, and filled with all sorts of textures and flavors. Top notch stuff here.

 

Jerez spain la cruz blanca artichokes pork belly

One of the specials that afternoon included a dish of pork belly and artichokes. I believe it could have been with a foie gras cream. You're kidding, right? We obviously had to order this dish, and were very pleased that we did. Blasted with black pepper and mint. Jeez that was good.

 

Jerez spain la cruz blanca black rice

And then the seafood in black rice. When we ordered it the server warned that it would take 20 minutes to prepare. So you mean we have to sit here at our outdoor table with the blue skies and sun of Jerez over us and sip wine and watch the world go by for 20 minutes? I think we're up to the task.

This was certainly one of the top ten dishes of the trip, and probably will end up in the top ten dishes that I'll end up eating all year. I just finished lunch yet as I'm typing this and my stomach started growling just thinking of it. And my heart hurts because I would like very much to be in Jerez. Jerez, I think, was our favorite stop on this trip (which included the beautiful Sevilla and the magical town of Rhonda).

Jerez spain street vendor

After lunch we found a seat at another restaurant on nearby Plaza Plateros where we enjoyed a few glasses of vermouth, as we did pretty much every afternoon. Just sitting around, watching the people stroll by, under the sun, is a pastime that we enjoyed thoroughly. The locals are colorful. Everyone seems to be in a wonderful mood. And you have a chance to see vendors on foot, who sell cones filled with tiny dried shrimp or meat. Yes, tiny dried shrimp, served in a cone, on the street. How awesome is that.

Calgon, take me away.

Jerez spain la cruz blanca interior Jerez spain La Cruz Blanco exterior

La Cruz Blanca : Calle Consistorio, 16, 11403 Jerez de la Frontera, Cádiz, Spain

 


Eating in Jerez, Spain: Albores Bar and Restaurante

 

Jerez spain holy week1Holy Week Procession

Jerez is the home of sherry and the home of some of the most laid back and friendly people I've encountered in Spain. It's also the home of some wonderful food.

Albores Bar and Restaurante is likely one of the best restaurants in Jerez. It seems to be a mix of classic and nuevo Spanish cooking. We enjoyed our dinner here so much that we returned for lunch later in the week. We returned specifically for the outrageously good clams in marinara. They didn't disappoint the second time, either.

Here's a rundown...

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Eating in Jerez, Spain: La Concha I

Jerez tio pepe1Bodegas Gonzalez Bypass

The fact of the matter is that sometimes the food isn't the only important thing.

Case in point: La Concha I (not II) in Jerez, Spain. (Please note, I'm not sure this is the name of the place. I know where it is, and I could bring you there if we were both in the neighborhood, but figuring out the name has been a challenge)

We had left Sevilla that morning, picked up our rental car, drove the quick hour to Jerez, had a hard time finding our hotel because roads were closed due to Holy Week (more on Holy Week later), found our hotel, dragged our bags up two flights of stairs, brushed our teeth (as you should), found the nearest plaza for a cold Cruzcampo (which this article claims is the "worst beer in the world"--note to writers: if you're from the US and you find yourself in southern Spain, you'll enjoy it, unless you're an ungrateful heathen), and made our way over to Gonzalez Byass, the sherry producer, for an (interesting) hour tour. After the tour, we were dead hungry, and hadn't done any research on Jerez. I even had no idea how large or small the town is (it's quite small), which is odd for me, since I typically, but not this time, study maps incessantly before visiting a strange place.

Jerez tio pepe manOne of those sherry guys at Gonzalez Bypass. Pride. Tradition.

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Eating in Sevilla, Spain: Mercado del Barranco

Sevilla mercdo del Barranco exterior1

As we tend to do when we travel to Europe, we booked the hotel for the day before we arrived in Spain. It seems like a waste of money to many, I'm sure, but we've spent too many first days of our trips walking around like zombies until a 2 or 3pm check-in, lugging around camera bags and other stuff that we want don't want to leave at the hotel, that we really think it's worth it to get to the hotel at 9am, sleep for 3 hours, and wake up, energized, and go out trying to find a place that is actually open for lunch at 12pm. Restaurants typically aren't--open at 12pm--and if they are, we're the first customers. Bleary-eyed Americans. At the very least, somewhat well-rested Americans who had a chance to brush their teeth. Well worth it, again. Please, people, brush your teeth more often.

But I'm not here to tell you about my breath or complain about yours. I'm here to tell you that the first thing we did in Sevilla, after napping, brushing our teeth (as far as you know), and having an uneventful meal, was meet a neighbor-friend, who has a semester abroad Sevilla. Kids these days, with their privilege.

This young friend gave us some information about Sevilla and the culture that may or may not have been news to people more than twice her age. But the one thing she told us, which had us on the edge of our uncomfortable little Spanish outdoor table seats, was that Mercado del Barranco, one of the more famous markets in Sevilla, has an outdoor seating area with couches and comfy seats down by the river, and you can get food from the market, and a bottle of wine, and sit there down by the river, and well she had me at "couches."

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