Showing posts with label International Restaurant Reviews. Show all posts
Showing posts with label International Restaurant Reviews. Show all posts

Town Restaurant: Ottawa's Prince Charming

Delicious smells in a warm room make you realize that you're already in your Happily Ever After … welcome to Town.

Once upon a time in castle-laden Ottawa, Canada, lived fair maiden Lori Wojcik and her charming prince chef of a husband, Marc Doiron.

"Darling, I've got a bun in the oven," Marc announced. She widened her pretty eyes and agreed, "Of course, honey. You're a baker."

"No -- I have a dream. I want to open a full restaurant where I create the most delightful food in all of our Canadian capital's land."

And so it began. . .  after ten years of saving ducats, nigh on three years ago, they flung open the doors of their Bistronomy demi-castle.

Chef Marc is the stuff of which legendary cooks are made.
Upon entering the dark, bustling room a handsome footman greeted me and swept away my coat. The light popping out from the warm, open kitchen crackled like a welcoming fireplace.

warm light coming from a kitchen door

I sat and dined at the bar. I love bartenders as waiters -- they know the food as well as the hooch and they're trapped back there, easy to find should I panic. He extended his tattooed arm and held the menu in his palm like an apple, daring me to snatch it. His friendly smile punched in along with his offer of a local lager made me trust him instantly.

a long shiny bar with glasses on top

The menu reads like Michael Buble sings -- each dish sounds lovely, skillfully executed and interesting. And, like Buble, local.

I started with the Tomato tart: Tuscan bean salad, whipped ricotta, macron almond pesto, soft-boiled egg, tabikko caviar, ($15). I'd happily allow this first dish to end my mealIt's nirvana-esque -- one of the most completely composed plates I've met. Not only fully thought out, but also a story cleverly told that reads from right to left.   

a savory pie, cheese, bean salad all seemed on a wooden plank

Perfection on a plank. Chef Marc gets down on bended knee and humbly offers a deconstructed tart. He places his perfect pastry -- surely honed from his baker days -- as a base to the fire-roasted tomatoes onto his extended hand to ask his diners to dance. 

Alas, Mother Nature as the Fairy Godmother *poofed* tomatoes away after that summer's night; in their stead, future eaters will find sprung-up mushrooms from the dark forest floor. Chef Marc forages the fungi, and their woodsy, pungent replacement joins the other elements on this same dish while summer sleeps.

I reached over and plucked a bit of the house-made ricotta on my fork and suavely dipped it into a bite of the pie. This cheese is no chubby wallflower; she's a downright tart tap-dancing expert. A lemon pop of Fosse on a fork.

I tasted each element, harmoniously completing his intended flavor profile -- and I stopped.

I needed to be alone with the cheese. I closed my eyes and stole a bite, escaping to a secret room in the castle. Magical. Chef Marc waved a wand over his ricotta and sprinkled lemon zest on it. That touch cast a spell that spread to the neighboring Tuscan bean salad. On top of that, some sous chef in the back shook a chicken so hard that she not only laid the egg, but it came out cooked perfectly soft. I twirled every element on the plate in a mad rhythm with every bite I took -- this dish danced divinely, was the belle of the ball, and amazed everyone. Marconi almonds already shine; here they make his pesto shimmer. Caviar as salt? Yes, please --  and as impossible as it may seem, elevate the dish, sire.

Mid-meal, a proclamation rang out: "Town's staff is the best-looking in all the land!" I was new in town and no one seemed to be the Proclamator so I stepped up. Prancing studs like princes at a ball put one hand behind their back and in the other held course after course of fantastic fare on a velvet pillow.

a packed dining room with a waiter taking an order

Dashing dishes are dispatched from the kitchen like my next course, Crispy lamb. lamb belly, Israeli couscous, cherry tomato, cucumber, red onion, yogurt, grilled scallion, chili oil, vincotto ($16).

crispy lamb on couscous

I quickly scanned the menu for something familiar; my first glance told me that Chef Marc had braised a batch o' ubiquitous pork belly. But once my eyes adjusted to the hipness, I looked closer to discover the hidden lamb belly. This entree is tediously created; his vincotto reduction sticks to each morsel of couscous like a beggar. Chef channels artist Jackson Pollack, splashing chili oil and a bright slash of white yogurt that provided a tasty, million-dollar canvas. The meat is slowly cooked sous-vide, then slapped onto the grill, giving it a crispy character. It's a sassy drag queen sidling up next to you at the bar, whispering, That's right, Mary, you had a little lamb.

Legend tells that his meatballs cook for three days and three nights. Meat balls. Ricotta, soft polenta, San Marzano tomatoes ($11). Dreams do come true. . . 

a baking dish filled with  sauce-covered meatballs

Yes, they had ricotta inside, but they were still too tender, too smooth -- they contained secrets. pulled Chef Marc close to me and slung a guess of the mysterious ingredients like I was solving a riddle that would keep me alive for 100 more years. 

Flamingo sausage? Newly hatched ducks? Veal? His eyes widened (possibly from my choke-hold) and he confessed, Chicken, beef, pork. I released him, jealous of his skill that turned humble fowl into luscious, velvety globes. He cooks them for days and slaps that lemony ricotta on everything in sight -- had he a daughter, her prom dress would be made of that cheese. It's really fantastic cheese.  

I tore bits of his incredible sourdough bread and wiped up every smidgen of the Italian heirloom tomato sauce. 

Our bartender leaned in to share a theory. See, the Chef thought of opening an all-meatball joint, and this was the main ball. But it takes a huge pair to serve only one dish and there were more types of food he wanted to offer. But should this dish ever disappear from their menu, mutiny would spread throughout the kingdom. Therefore, meatballs will always be served. 

I learned a chivalrous rule being raised in the South: You gotta dance with the one that brung ya. This lesson in loyalty is one I use to sleep well at night. I also carried it with me as a U.S. Marine. It's what keeps a good business in business. 

I came for the lamb, but stayed for the octopus. Grilled octopus. grilled fingerlings, red onion and cherry tomatoes, salsa verde, frisée, pig cheek vinaigrette, ($22). Deal with it -- it was a naughty pig that ended up in a delicious, lesson-teaching sauce.

frisee lettuce and grilled octopus
Chef Marc allowed me to see his brain working in this heavenly creature of an entree. His salsa verde foam sends his James Bondsian Octopussy rising up from the sea, angrily curled -- yet masterfully conquered. Every moment, every speck on the plate has purpose and destiny. A bite of uncooked tomato against the firm bounce of fish represents us losing our virginity. It's great to remember tender moments.

I could have dined at this Town ball all night. But I need to rest between each day's happinesses; it was nearing time to leave. However, I wouldn't dream of skipping sweets -- that'd be like leaving a party without making out in the coat closet.

Dessert at Town does everyone a flavor. Ice cream sundae: salted caramel ice cream, whipped cream, caramel popcorn and peanuts ($9). Some muscleman steps out of the gym and into the kitchen each night. He grabs a whisk and beats the cream, milked from a nearby cow, like a frenzied monkey obsessively pleasuring himself -- into whipped fluffiness.

ice cream in a cast iron skillet

The ice cream was the creamiest I've ever had, although I'm perfectly happy to keep searching the countryside for better. One of Cinderella's stepsisters must have found redemption and full-time work in Town's kitchen, crying into the ice cream vat, providing the perfect layer of saltiness. Chef tried to hide the melted, gooey dark chocolate against the bottom of the iron skillet, but scouring the countryside is nothing new to me --- I scraped it up and away. As I chewed the caramel corn, I prayed the toffee lingered in my teeth so long that my dentist would have to spank it off months later.

I felt more welcome at Town than at any other restaurant. 

In fact, the city of Ottawa itself held a small ceremony, tiny actually, and made me a First-Rate Citizen. Here's Mountie Lt. Ross Tyler, pinning me ceremoniously with the Canadian flag.  The last time I felt this proud about a promotion was in Marine Corps boot camp when they made me Private First Class, meritoriously. 

officer pinning medal on a man's chest

If you want the impossible accomplished, give it to a Marine. That's true, but if you want a sweet, passionate love story -- marry a chef. You'll fall in love over and over and over.

Every night Chef Marc gets down on one knee and glides on the culinary glass slipper -- and it fits perfectly.

glass of beer next to a menu on a bar

Town. 296 Elgin St, Ottawa, Ontario, K2P 1M3, Canada (613) 695-8696

Tuck Shop -- Love at First Bite

A friend of mine used to date Enrique Iglesias. Enrique was such an energetic and passionate lover that their sessions often broke furniture.
At the end they were breathless, totally satisfied, but anxious for more. Thankfully he had stamina.

I've never lustily busted up a Noguchi table, but I had a thrilling dinner at Montreal's Tuck Shop.

I swung open the door where smiling host Miles extended his arm which is lyrically tattooed with a musical note hinting that perhaps he was named for Miles Davis.

His friendly handshake told me that not only was he happy to have me there, he was happy to be there.

I walked past the en Francais chalkboard that seemed to tell a tale of wine and love, I might not speak French but I do speak dessert fluently so I was able to sense the end of my dinner's story.


If you build it they may come, but will they stay? Yep. Tuck Shop has been open three years, yet the only reservation I could get was to sit at the bar.

I was delighted because I regard those seats as choice because the bartenders can be waiters with extra powers, like at L.A.'s Mozza and I hoped for the same result here. Spoiler alert: Tiny Tuck triumphed mighty Mozza.

The 46-seat bustling room was stuffed with smart looking customers, but held its own with vintage chandeliers illuminating bright white subway tiles, and industrial work-lights dangling over the long marble bar in a terrific juxtaposition of old, new, funky and slick. It all works.

I studied the succinct menu like I was at an audition seeing the material for the very first time, because it isn't online. Instead they tweet it @TuckShopMTL to keep it as fresh as their seasonal and local ingredients.

We ordered a beer that was brewed three blocks away and served by Amelia Stines. She's one of the three owners, along with Jon Bloom and chef Theo Lerikos.

This angelic Superwoman was busier than a house on fire and gracefully proved my multi-tasking bartenders-are-better theory. Not only was she my completely food savvy waitress, she bar tended for the entire restaurant. Her eyes crinkled into a sincere smile that spread across her face even before she spoke about the pork belly. She can and does take her business belief to the bank.

Crispy pork belly, aged gouda, oyster mushrooms. I read this starter as three separate ingredients, and imagined them perhaps served on a plank where I took a bit of each and spread them together on a baguette. 

What I got was a magic trick in a bowl. The meat was as tender and luscious as the plump lips of a young lover, yet the crisp skin reminded me that love has nights where you get pinned against a wall and kissed hard. Chef Lerikos melted the gouda into a sauce that wrapped each bite in an expensive mink coat -- you smile as you stuff your hands in the pockets and discover succulent mushrooms inside. The dish was $12, I would have paid $20 and whispered in its ear, how do you like your eggs?

There wasn't one thing on the menu I wouldn't try, but I used restraint since the portions are generous and I'd like to remain tiny. Being from California, I had to try this Canadian chef's audacious tribute: Crispy fish taco, avocado, pico de gallo, red cabbage slaw, homemade tortilla.

This is the best attempt by a Canadian to interpret California since Pamela Anderson stuffed herself in a bikini and ran down the Malibu beach. Like a Hollywood producer, Chef Theo nailed this dish. The pickled red cabbage and tangy sauce were as bright and hot as Pam's career.

I glanced back at the open kitchen, past the envious chef's table smacked up against the busy line. The expeditor is a happy chap in a baseball cap. He hops up and down the line like a fisherman working a busy stream, talking to the chefs and the waiters, keeping the food flowing like a babbling brook.


The chefs are focused and work as a team -- entrees popped out with precision and appeared on the bar next to me like sharply dressed soldiers presenting themselves for inspection.

The Butchers cut, french fries, chimichurri led me to a choice between a rib eye at $32 or a flank steak at $28. I went for the flank because that's the cowboy cut I first fell for in Miami's Cuban food scene. Cuba might be a country too poor to enjoy the sweet taste of freedom, but they have one fantastic, garlicky chimichurri sauce that I have brazenly slathered on everything, completely inappropriately.

This cut was not above the rest. The meat was good and with a little extra chewing effort I was rewarded by extraordinary flavor in each bite. This was not your Cuban madre's lumpy chimichurri -- the chef went all Quebecois and blended it as smoothly as the last note of a Celine ballad.

The fries were not to be disregarded like refugees floating by on a raft. They were so tasty that I wanted to march into the kitchen and steal the oil. Bits of the oil's flavor hopped on the fries, like a kindly old geezer picking up hitchhikers on the road of life. But not in a movie-of-the-week creepy way.

I focused on what Amelia had recommended with her confident smile: Grilled wild striped sea bass, rainbow Swiss chard, asparagus, crispy zucchini blossoms, grilled vegetable salsa.

The firm, tall portion of fish had been cooked at a high heat, resulting in a crispiness that tap danced on my tongue as I first placed it inside my mouth, then softened into a ballet as I chewed.

I played with the squash blossom that looked like a toy rocket ship some midget alien abandoned and leaned up against the side of a barn. This beautiful rare vegetable, caught in its delicate flower-state, is often lily-gilded and stuffed with cheese. But here they honor the pure, tender lovely blossom, keeping it light and young forever.

The colorful stems of the chard held a delicious welcome to summer, surprisingly without the hint of bacon, which I don't object to, but it gave me the chance to enjoy the clean taste against the snappy asparagus.

My meal was almost over, and I was full. I've had dinners in uncaring, busy restaurants where I get caught up in the jaws of the bustle and when I'm finished, the place just spits me back out onto the cold pavement and I stand there dazed, wondering what just happened.

But here, the whole room spun harmoniously as if I were at a family's joyful holiday celebration. The guy next to me was dining with his best man before his wedding the following day. Amelia knew them both, and assured the stressed out groom that it was all worth it.

This is Quebec, and Amelia spoke to me in English and to others in French, as effortlessly as she pulled another draft beer in a frosty mug. Sure, most in Montreal can do it -- but she painted a gorgeous scene of dedicated service and was my bridge to a great experience.

I thought of the blackboard I'd seen scribbled with desserts in French, which now seemed like graffiti because I was so full. I considered skipping it altogether rather than have it translated but Amelia leaned in and whispered she'd be right back. When a lover does that in bed, they usually return with a can of whipped cream and rope.  

Instead she brought Brownies and rhubarb pie. Read the fine print to understand the reason she chose these over all of their other sweets. The chef's mother makes them!


The rhubarb pie was super tart, and it huddled down into the amazingly comforting crust. The suction sound as I lifted a heavy, dense bite from the plate was mimicked by my puckering cheeks as I took the first, exciting bite. The homemade ice cream surrendered into the pie within seconds and I used two spoons to scoot it all up.

The chef's mother caused the brownies. They were thick and dense, and full of solid chunks of chocolate. I imagined her furiously grabbing ingredients off the shelf and breaking them into a bowl with sheer muscle. This woman bakes like Enrique Iglesias makes love.

Tuck Shop is a love story. Their great food, passion and commitment have made them a successful restaurant. Like a great relationship, it takes work that they are all tirelessly willing to do.

And they are living their happily ever after -- one plate at a time.

Tuck Shop. Tuesday-Saturday. 4662 Notre Dame Street West, Montreal, Canada. (514) 439-7432

La Luna at Gaia... Sweet Bird of Youth

Every morning at 3:30, a young Costa Rican boy stood in the kitchen doorway, wearing brightly colored pajamas, rubbing his sleepy eyes open to watch his mother make sandwiches to sell to the local fishermen. As soon as he could hold a knife, his mother taught him to slice vegetables.

By age 12, Miguel Monge Solís was a vital part of his mother's kitchen operation. He learned to reach outside and grab the bountiful flavors, and cook. In Costa Rica, banana trees are like pop-up restaurants -- coconuts, plantains, coffee, and tamarind grow for the taking, and making, of creative food.

After professional training in San Jose, Miguel "Mayky" is now the executive chef at La Luna, the diamond-in-the-rough Costa Rican jungle fine-dining restaurant at Gaia: Manuel Antonio's unrivaled luxury hotel, spa and nature reserve. Everything about this resort is overwhelmingly refreshing. Even Chef Mayky -- he's 22.

Gaia sign on gate Gaia Hotel Costa Rica with purple flowers on the ground

During my luxurious stay, I had three glorious meals a day at La Luna. Four, if you count the tapas they serve in the afternoon. 

I started each day with a reverse lullaby; in Costa Rica, birds sing you awake. You then climb the stairs to La Luna and walk into the world's best tree-house restaurant.

Waiter setting table in Gaia's restaurant La Luna

They left the front wall open to the bright blue sky -- Gaia puts you in nature and nature in you. The Japanese phrase feng shui translates to "wind-water," honored here with a pool fronting the entire length of the room.

You notice a distinct smell in the air and turn around to see Chef Mayky holding a basket of warm, magical baked puffery.

bread basket La Luna

Don't ask questions -- open one up and all will be revealed.

pastry cut open at Gaia hotel

From their expansive fantasy dining perch, the lush, sweeping hills and ocean coastline are yours for the gawking. The generosity of the country's resources is offered on a silver tray by the friendly staff. The local star fruit at breakfast points you toward its source, the jungle and farms nearby where most of the ingredients come from.

bacon, eggs, toast, potatoes, star fruit

Chef Mayky only needs to import 15 percent of his inventory. As I walked up the steps that very first morning, I swore I heard a rooster wake a chicken up with a cocky Lay his eggs, woman!

Nothing traveled far to hop on my plate -- they really did bring home the bacon and fry it up in a pan. Care itself cut the potatoes, and a gentle hand turned the eggs. As I ate, I watched huge hawks circle in the sky and wondered what they were searching for. After breakfast I went to find out. 

Hiking through the humidity-enriched rain forest made me so hungry that one of the lusciously colored toucans started looking tasty. Darn that cereal box. My appetite rose proportionately to the mid day sun. 

Being the reflection of his country, Chef Mayky served up a fitting lunch with his Chef's Garden Salad, local vegetables over pineapple carpaccio with fresh mint sorbet. He saw the same salad-green sloth clinging to a tree that I saw in the jungle and sketched it for me on a plate.

pineapple carpaccio salad with mint sorbet

A carrot fence held the sorbet back, possibly out of fear the mint would be too strong a flavor. I released it to melt gently into each bite. The icy mint was a perfect complement to the freshly picked greens without stealing the show. I wished I were alone to lick the bowl. I held the pineapple carpaccio up and wiggled it, marveling at the Chef's innovative taste of things to come. It was tart, sweet and perfect. 

In Costa Rica, the ancient "teach a man to fish" lesson is just some guy pointing to the sea, The fish are waiting for you, go get them. Once caught, the fish are traditionally and kindly "cooked" without fire by simply being soaked in citrus till they reach a lovely state.

Cold, lime-drenched ceviche is what a hot, sun-soaked body wants.

ceviche in a dish

The fish is firm, and the citrus driving the cooking process takes a back seat to other flavors once it reaches its destination. The pickled red onion and cilantro play good cop/bad cop -- and it's effective.

The Spicy Tuna & Mango Wrap that my companion greedily ate was stuffed with tender, succulent mango and tuna -- I tried to paw at it but he wouldn't share. This sandwich cost $10 but I'd have paid $20 for a taste.

A little dish of pineapple sorbet slid onto our table. Like a blonde at UCLA, she got noticed. A sorbet palette-cleanser at lunch -- a welcome respite. 

mango sorbet in a small bowl

I dove into the Seafood Risotto and dug through the seafood-encrusted rice, mining pale rubies of fantastically fat shrimp, but it was drier than risotto -- still really good, but my tongue sensed paella. Tart tomato sauce deliciously confirmed it.

tomato seafood risotto

Lunch ended. I got what I needed and pushed back from the table with renewed energy and enough strength to float in one of the hotel's tiered pools, holding onto my breath and a smoothie prepared by La Luna chefs. I couldn't help singing the local TV theme song I Love Juicy.

glasses of fruit smoothies

Costa Rica knows how to show you a good time all day long, then gets so excited about the sunsets that she can't wait past 6 p.m. to get on with it. The Ambar Lounge offers tapas and cocktails from 5 to 7 p.m., the perfect chance to belly up to the bar and buckle up for daylight's final dazzling show. Hear the sizzle as the fiery sun slips into the sea -- a deliciously gentle way to ease you into the night.

sunset over the jungle

If I find a sweater I like, I want it in every color. Chef Mayky's Ambar Lounge tapas menu reads like a sweater I like and I wanted to order everything on the menu, but I decided to pace myself -- dinner was in two hours. I chose Enyucados -- sweet, lively corn cakes that put the national motto, Pura Vida, on a small plate. They're like Costa Rican blinis, upon which I loaded the olive tapenade that's like vegan eco-friendly caviar. The crisp corn disks had picked up bits of flavor from the griddle, and the olive paste was so smooth that it must have been blended by the trampling feet of millions of howler monkeys.

corn cakes tapas on small plates

The Beef Pasteles sprang to life immediately when dipped in the accompanying sour tamarind sauce -- one of my favorite flavors. The taste, when mixed with tiny beef pasties, took me to India, but wild birds outside broke out into a cat fight, and their screeching snapped me back. In Costa Rica, birds announce sunrise and sunset like bickering butlers.  

I took a short break before dinner like I was a band, slapping the beautiful wooden counter and winking to the bartender a We'll be right back.

By the time I returned, dinner was in full swing and I was played to my table by a Latin jazz duo on a small stage. There are no windows to close here, leaving your heart open to the love that Chef Mayky serves course by gorgeous course.

The smiling waiter offers an amuse bouche of feta on toast with basil and tomato. This kiss from the chef was as warm as a hug. We were offered a taste of every wine we asked for, even those sold by the glass.

This restaurant was built from the ground up by three well-traveled and perfectly seasoned owners with a foundation of great service. The waiters support their mission with sincere enthusiasm and expert knowledge. Point outside and ask what the distant cluster of lights is to the right. It's a village, and they'll recite the details as if a live-action Wiki page. I'm instantly aware that I'm dining in a place that wants me there; they've locked me into a luxuriously long dinner with foreshadowing rows of flatware emanating from either side of my recently tanned arms.

Like separated lovers staring at the same moon, Chef Mayky must have watched the sunset because he served me seared, just-caught tuna that was the same sunny-hot pink. He curled it around a tropical cabbage salad that flattered the fish with a flirty kimchi vinegary glance -- just the right amount of an advance by rice wine not to insult the shy, soft tuna. He plopped it on a supportive stack of dried banana chips. The melt-in-my-mouth fish was still pleasingly chilled on the inside.

I paused to appreciate Chef Mayky's detailed, precise plating and artistic garnish. This dish had the makings of a deliciously edible bonfire.

seared ahi tuna salad

His Peruvian sea bass ceviche surfed in on boards of crisp tortilla, with an aioli sea foam still clinging to it. Unlike a surfer chick, the creamy little avocado fin had a reason to be there other than to look pretty. I loved the contrasting textures of this dish -- it's exciting to transition from the crisp, cold ginger into springy fish, then back to crunch with the tortilla. The rich avocado finished the bite like a firm hand smoothing down wild hair in a strong wind. 

sea bass ceviche on tortilla chip

I leaned in to taste the entree of mushroom risotto my companion ordered, but first admired the chef for shaping his rice into quenelles. Before my hand was knocked away I stole a forkful and found it too salty, but before I could protest, my mouth was pleasantly and immediately slapped shut by the chef's follow-up flavor: a strawberry jam-like sauce. That unexpected weirdo smashup cut the salt and turned it into a very well-balanced dish.

My Chilean clams on yucca majado and seafood fume wore a flashy-fried basil headdress of a Vegas showgirl. The clams opened just as easily as those high-kicking legs, exposing tender, plump smoked seafood mixed with mashed yucca. I decided right then that I wanted all the potatoes in the world sent back to Ireland and my luggage filled with yucca.

smoked fish salad with yucca, fried basil leaf sticking out on top

I was surprised to find smoked fish, and really good smoked fish, but I shouldn't have been. Costa Ricans held the key to smoking and drying fish way before U.S. delis offered lox. 

At just the right time, a dab of fruity paint was picked up from the jungle palette with a brush, and frozen into a house-made sorbet -- a palate cleanser to pace the meal. I love being reminded to slow down.

fruit sorbet in small dish

The Gorgonzola & sun-dried tomato tart, with mushroom ragout is in a pastry shell so rustic it could have been stolen from a windowsill by this mischievous kid of a chef. The sauce was slowly cooked and given the chance to mature; it calmed down the stringy cheese inside.

But the balsamic vinegar used to caramelize the onions, not just in this dish but others as well, is too heavily relied upon. It made me too delirious to take a good, clear photo. 

cheese tart with balsamic onions and mushroom sauce

Think of balsamic vinegar as an exotic and intense dancer. We can't send her on stage for every number, she's too strong and the audience will get overwhelmed by her performance. Send in that milder, gentler dancer, Citron, every now and then. Or Chardonnay; she's lovely. Reserve Butter for special occasions -- she's a little fat, but can still jump in when needed.

Shrimp, calamari and chorizo trio with a chipotle gelée won the trifecta. The shrimp was grilled in the shell to keep it soft, and the calamari must have been fried in oil so fresh that it squeaked. The hot chorizo spicily twisted the dish into surf-and-turf.

shrimp, chirizo and mashed potatoes

In an homage to molecular gastronomy, cubes of tangy chipotle gelée were dolloped on before the dish left the kitchen. By the time I dredged the mashed potatoes, the gelée had surrendered and melted. Substance+Style+Purpose+Whimsy+Flavor=Relevant.

The good back-beat of the jazz band's music was the metronome for the smooth rhythmic flow of the evening. The attentive waiters served from the left, the direction expected for fine dining. They presented the plates all at once, gracefully hovering until they were all in place, and then gently lowered them down. This moved the service of La Luna into exemplary.

With every dish I was learning more about this chef. His youth stands for hope, his smart Costa Rican cuisine represents promise for his entire country.  His coconut and plantain crusted sea bass makes use of what he has to work with. You'd think it wouldn't make sense, but it does.

He wove sliced jalapenos into angel hair pasta to serve with his Peruvian-style seafood casserole, and I wonder why this isn't always done. The peppers were a tiny bit hot, and although it was a side dish for the richly-traditional and tasty casserole, I moved the pasta to center stage and ate it alone and naked.

angel hair pasta with jalepenos

Ginger and panko crusted tuna with orange juice risotto is one of the stars of the menu. The tuna was so fresh it still glistened. I poked at the crust a bit to see if I knew this fish; maybe he swam by me earlier. Japan will want to slap this wonderful ginger/panko combo crust on everything. They will trend it so thoroughly that by autumn it will be a verb.

seared tuna in ginger and panko crust

Orange juice brightened the risotto; it just needs another name so we don't confuse it with the creamy Italian preparation. Each has its own separate merits. A rose by any other name may smell as sweet, but we also need to call a spade a spade. I humbly suggest his side starch be known as arroz con jus de naranja -- fittingly exotic.

Next I was presented with this gorgeous bundle of Costa Rican Fish Papillote. It was as strong a Polynesian/French fusion as a Gauguin landscape. But no soft, fleshy, Tahitian girl emerged -- the banana leaf can't be sealed like parchment so the fish was dry, making the entrée more like a gift that's wrapped prettier than the present inside. 

fish wrapped in banana leaf

The coconut and cinnamon sauce inside helped the dish a great deal, but not enough to save it texturally.

Chef Mayky is surprisingly accomplished for his age. His food is thrilling now; I imagine how advanced it'll be once he's traveled more. I can see him in Napa -- smilingly wide-eyed -- having his own innate belief confirmed that local, fresh ingredients make the best cooking partners. He might find inspiration that supports his own practices and broadens his culinary horizons.

If I had 12 children I'd love them all, but I still might have a favorite. Honey garlic calamari salad served in a rice paper basket is that child. A vast array of impressive flavors and ingredients mixed into an array of countless preparations was paraded by me. One assumes that calamari can't possibly be the special one, but this one was.

honey fried calamari in a rice basket

The calamari was chunky and, although it tasted unbelievably good like honey-coated fish, it felt like chicken. These nuggets were nestled down in an edible bowl that looked like a sea-fan coral waving in a strong current.

The amount of honey was so dead-on right that I presumed it was applied by the fluttering wings of bees. I used the same imagery Meryl Streep does before a fight scene. I viciously tore the gentle fan apart and dragged it through the garlic sauce, sobbing with joy as I ate.

For my three days at Gaia, Chef Mayky prepared seven-course dinners every night, and even though I was full, I hadn't had enough.

He tosses salads with papaya and Parmesan, shaves truffles in cream sauces (then shaves in a little more), brashly plays with delicate combinations, and is never afraid to try a new recipe. He keeps his ego tucked under his toque and enjoys the admiration of Gaia's owners, diners, and the respect of the large kitchen staff he manages.

Dessert came as this Chocolate volcano cake with crème brûlée ice cream and it seems so final, but kind. Dark cacao beans were once used as currency in Costa Rica, and this cake was so rich I can easily imagine immigration accusing me of melting down money and trying to smuggle it out of the country in my stomach. I rolled it around with my tongue as if I were painting the inside of my mouth with the warm, gooey, bittersweet, half-baked cake.

Chef Mayky created the crème brûlée ice cream and found a great balance between burnt sugar and sweet milk. I loved finding bits of the hardened candy; it made me pause and think how lucky I was to be there. Another chef would just plop a cherry on top; here, it's a clever, deceptively sliced grape. 

chocolate molten cake wth creme brulee ice cream on the side

Chef wasn't through with me yet -- he pawed this plate like a jungle panther digging through the soft earth to unearth a treasure, and laid Gaia's Secret Sin at my feet. Paper-thin pineapple slices formed into ravioli filled with ricotta and dulce de leche.  

pineapple raviloi filled with ricotta cheese

This puff of a ravioli is dough-tender pineapple stuffed with creamy, luscious, sweet Jesus it's cheese! filling. The sour pineapple puckered my lips to kiss each loving spoonful.

From the dining room each day, I watched the sky go from sunrise to sunset and then moonless, void of any light. Staring into the night, the air was so black it looked like the sky just ended and was now a wall I could reach out and touch.

Emily Dickinson waxed poetic,
Hope is the thing with feathers that perches in the soul, and sings the tunes without the words and never stops at all.  
She'd have loved Gaia. She could have finally gotten a great tan and written about Chef Mayky's passion and love of other-worldly cooking.

Chef Mayky Monge and Greg White

I looked up to see him rightfully preening in the doorway of his kitchen, wearing a bright blue chef's jacket -- reminiscent of the luminescent brilliant color covering the neck of a fantastic peacock. 

La Luna. Gaia Hotel & Reserve. Km. 2.7, Manual Antonio, Costa Rica (506) 2777-9797

Antico Martini: Venice, Italy -- Old & Improved Since 1720!

As we wind through the untraceable narrow streets of Venice, darting into dark alleys and hearing creepy echoes of invisible feet walking across St. Mark's Plaza, my Venice tour guide, Marco, points to an alabaster white, ancient marble bust stuffed above a doorway. Once painted with vibrantly colored detailed faces, it has now faded back to the plain white blank, Marco waxes on. I reply, You can't swing a cat in Venice without hitting great art but you can't eat the art. Yeah, yeah, the busts are stunning but I'm hungry. It's been hours since I've had gelato. Marco holds a finger up to my trembling lip to hush me, In Venice, everything is art. Even his gestures have a sexy, Italian accent.

Venice is Atlas, holding a world of endless beauty on her bridged shoulders. She's now sinking under the weight. Every angle is a photograph, and even the simplest of pastas at any cafe is a triumph. A child could dust some fettuccine with truffles and poof! It's perfect.

I love dining at the venerable Venice restaurant, Antico Martini, serving since 1720. Being from the States, I am lucky to eat in a place that has been serving since Wednesday.

Americans tend to disregard their old everything, always looking up, ready to toss their tried-and-true people or plate to see what new and exciting dish has entered the room. In Venice, they respect their elders, and stay at the table, savoring each flavor and honoring the institution.

Antico Martini's restaurant is tight, and everyone maneuvers beautifully about the several marvelously sexily lit separate rooms, politely squeezing between chairs, touching your shoulder as they whisper scusa. The Italians don't mind contact. When in Rome includes all of Italy. They live in the streets as one big mound of semolina flour crowned by a giant egg.  The people walk around, swirled together by a common, strong, masculine hand, happily resulting in soft, delicate breast-like gnocchi.

Antico Martini has their beloved practices and entrees, but have wide open minds and doors. If a chef thinks he has built a better mousse trap, and hopes that this new dish can join the menu, they are given a chance --  just as any new girl trying to marry into a good Italian family. She has to go through a tough family approval process. If worthy, she's in. Forever.

The restaurant's decor reflects this mash-up of old and new. We sat in one of the many small rooms, surrounded by terrific murals that depicted art-deco era women interacting with 18th century characters.  Guide Marco had been spinning yarns about the decadent, Carnival days, where wanton anonymous sex and booze parties went on and on and on for months. Any dinner here is a tiny peek into that experience.

I excitedly creaked open the big menu, and my eyes were immediately drawn by the flashing lights of familiar letters in the universal food language: Foie Gras! I taste two things for distinction in every country where I find them: Coke, and foie gras. The fatty food is now too cruel and therefore illegal in my home state of California, so I have to take advantage of sources outside of the jurisdiction of PETA and the ACLU.

As soon as I placed my order, I gasped as the tuxedo clad waiter placed his hand on my menu flirtatiously, then he snapped it shut and whisked it away, leaving and making me miss both. Within minutes, the most adorable amuse bouche ever, appeared, calming my petulance.

We eat with our eyes first. This presentation -- a tiny crock with a sealed lid, that when popped open offered me tangy, crisp gazpacho that had to be eaten with a demitasse spoon was like a yummy midget. The chef was obviously a culinary tease. I could have eaten a bucket of this soup, but he taunted me with a morsel, like a Baldwin brother keeping his shirt buttoned up. 

I dug my spoon around the bottom edge, wishing it was my more pliable finger. The tomatoes were local, and had plumped up under the Tuscan sun and burst with pride right into the chef's pot. He wistfully sprinkled just salt over the top as he thought of his first love, sighed and sent them out of his kitchen, crying from onions. I wanted to pocket the tiny pot.

The Italian description of my foie gras oozed off the page like Gina Lollobrigida whispering in my ear:  Scaloppa fi fegato d'oca al porta e marmalatta di arrange amare...

The porcelain spoon held palazzo-made marmalade, and the generous, seared slab of foie gras was protected from the harsh white plate by a thick, sweet port reduction.

I put a bit of marmalade on a bite of foie gras, then dragged it through the port sauce as if I were dragging Gina to bed. I deftly swooped it up off the plate and into my watering mouth. Bolero played in my head and my hand-to-mouth movement was in perfect sync. 

When I eat out with Bob, I have this strategy I call ishky-pishky. The concept is everyone sharing a least a taste of their food. I get to try more different dishes. If you can't decide between the beef and the fish -- have both.  If I hear a fellow diner protest, Sometimes you just want to have your own, it sounds like Charlie Brown's teacher,Whaaa-whaooom-wha.

So on this night at Antico Martini, I convinced two diners to go ishky-pishky, a new triumph and personal best. I should have gotten their names or emails.

One ordered the John Dory in corn crust with topinambur. When an Italian menu boasted a corn crust, I pictured one of those salt crusts that the waiter busts up with his shoe, then digs out the food treasure. When it arrived, it looked like a piece of catfish my grandfather Pop might have caught, rolled in cornmeal and deep fried at our cabin on Lake of the Pines.

This Italian version was crisp and delightfully fishy. The soft, white fish was fluffy, and the corn crust held it together well. Perhaps Venice could use this to bolster up its crumbling foundation. The top two swirls of topinambur, Jerusalem artichoke, made a deliciously starchy and substantial side dish.

I wished my grandfather had known about it for his fish-frys -- he'd shake things up at that old lake. Well look who's all fancy now that he's been to Eataly.

Next came the sliced Angus beef served with their special sauce - tagliata di angus alla rosa canina. The beef was so tender, I am sure it was raised lovingly by a swarthy Italian farmer and massaged daily, albeit begrudgingly, by his equally swarthy sons, Luigi and Pepe.

Pepe was named so because the father wasn't sure Pepe was his son, as his wife had disappeared one week and came back ten pounds heavier and speaking Spanish. But the star of this dish was the sauce, and I am proud to say that I wasn't the only one dredging bread through it, or sopping up the gravy as it is traditionally known in the South. It was laced with peppercorns cracked by just a gentle but stern glance from the chef in order to ensure the dish maintained a harmonious balance and didn't taste all bitter from hate.

I ordered lamb chops, costolette d'angello al pan d'erbe, made in a crust of herbed bread, primarily to see how they made it, compared to my version. I love to eat out and to cook so I get new ideas, and try to replicate them at home. What did I learn from this chef? To add tarragon to my rosemary, pepper and garlic crust, and that I liked each chop individually crusted -- not like they do here, where they crust the entire rack. Then they slice it, leaving the inside chops all naked, crust less and vulnerable.  It was still really delicious, but they looked so unprotected and I could just feel the inside chops embarrassment.

I recalled that just outside of my hotel was the Venice Prada boutique. They featured their winter coats, open, with the mannequins naked underneath. This revealed beige plastic bodies that, just like Oprah needed makeup, would have benefited from a sweater. So would the lamb chops.

I want you to know that the service here, and all over Venice was top-notch. The waiters don't often ask you, in the middle of your meal, if everything is to your liking -- they don't have to, they know it is.  They presented the catch of the day on a sliver tray. That sums up their level of service, held confidently and assuredly. Your fish, sir. 

This is one of the longest-running productions in the world. The waiters do a precise dance around the room -- black-tie costumed with white napkins draped over their arms, politely bowing and offering bread, wine, water, some slicing meat or de-boning fish, one guy setting something on fire, another putting it out.

They know their menu and their positions. Any question you have is answered, in English. Their deft Italian tongue makes our droll English sound romantic. They have a  lengthy wine list, but they know wine personally and could recommend the right one highly, like a pretty cousin they were eager to marry off.

When dining with particular eaters who are having trouble deciding on what to order, I often remind them that this probably isn't their last meal, and they can order one now, and the other dish another time. The ishky-pishky concept was a hit and continued onto dessert. At this rate the entire restaurant would be entangled in an all-out orgy, like the ancient Mardi Gras Carnival celebrations we had learned about from Marco.

I ordered a frozen raspberry souffle. One runs the risk of tasting the fridge with a pre-made dessert, but the raspberry prevailed. It was like a slutty virgin --light and tart.

The next guy ordered these terrific, crisp crepes that once pierced, revealed their perfectly sweet cream filling. The last guy ordered tiramisu. We had all been in search of a tiramisu that equaled the one we had the night before at Da Fiore -- and I will report in advance that none ever did. Or probably ever will. Da Fiore's tiramisu freaked me out.  If Miuccia Prada tasted it, she'd cover her nekkid mannequins in it.

Our forks and spoons ram into each other on the plates. We normally private grown men were publicly spoon feeding each other bites of souffle, smacking our lips like cushioned spankings.

Sugar rushed my mind off to those old rascally Carnival revelers, whose identities were safely hidden behind whimsical masks.

During this specific two-week period, sanctioned by the Catholic church, Nobleman could slip chambermaids into their Palazzo's private bedrooms, and have their wicked way with them and be anonymously absolved. But the maid felt a responsibility, like my waiter at Antico Martini who kept the dinner flowing at a perfect and professional pace, discreetly turning away as I caressed the bread. The chambermaid, caught up the rapturous thrusts of her titled tryster, reached up and ran her finger along the headboard to dust it. Everyone is a pro in Italy, so in that same responsible and loving spirit, the waiter smiled, bowed, and allowed his hand to linger on the smooth, leather folio just a bit as he presented me the bill.

This meal was so great, so satisfying, that I wouldn't have minded if I had been hit by a bus on the way home. But in Venice, there are no buses, and I doubt that any gondolier could get one going so fast that it would jump the canal and wipe me out, so I am certain I will dine another day.

To find this, or any restaurant in Venice -- just leave your hotel, head down any alley, turn left, then head straight down that alley, then another, go over three bridges, pet the meowing cat but don't feed it, head past the first well, turn right at the pile of laundry, and it's right there on your left:

Antico Martini. Campo San Fantin, 2007, 30124 Venice, Italy. Phone:+39 041 522 4121