Review: Sidney Street Cafe

5 May 2015

Another long day, including a quick trip up to Springfield, Illinois — just to find Lincoln’s Tomb to be closed (on anniversary week?!). No biggie. But it was a long trek back trying to take in smaller towns and getting lost on the way no thanks to that crappy thing called Google Maps… But I made it back just in time and was looking forward to dinner at the well-liked eatery just south of Downtown, the aptly named Sidney Street Cafe.

Sidney Street Cafe has an excellent reputation, and Chef Kevin Nashan is frequently listed as one of the best in the Midwest. This should be a good closing dinner for me here in St Louis. I certainly hope it shows off more of this city’s fine cuisine than The Libertine, as the only food in St Louis I have been drooling about so far are the ribs (and snoots) from Roper’s and Big Mama’s

I was seated at a table inside the annoyingly dark dining room and it was already a busy night with a lot of regulars it seems, as well as larger parties. I placed my order (only possible thanks to using my phone as a light) after a needed cocktail arrived in my hands. I needed to relax as it was a very long day, including becoming utterly lost in central Illinois on dirt roads trying to find a highway…and nearly being shot for “trespassing” despite not being able to tell when public and private lands differentiated…

Yes, I almost got gunned down at a rural cemetery. You can’t make this shit up…

I waited quite a long time and after seeing nearly everyone get their food before me, I was starting to wonder what happened. Then when a freebie showed up I figured something’s gone awry…

AB-crab

Anyway, the freebie, the Jonah crab. Not a bad starter at all, snappy and tasty. The shishito and turnip helped the overall dish, though the vinaigrette was unnecessary. Nice start despite the wait. Then after a bit more wait my starter finally arrived, the shrimp and peas.

1-stuffed_shrimp_head

Not quite what I expected as there was nearly no peas (in a puree form), but two solid shrimp. The bodies were cooked well. The heads were deep-fried and stuffed, but there was a problem there. Most tempura shrimp heads fried in Japan are done much finer, and does not go down the body into the layered shell area — because the texture and cooking time required becomes completely different. It’s like deep frying a whole fish and trying to get the bone and cheek to edibility in one go. Don’t work. See how it is in tempura places like Tenko Honten in Hiroshima or even Kiriko in Los Angeles.

Nice try, to be honest, but the sheaths of shell from the late end kind of ruins it for the whole thing. I know why they kept it, to stuff it properly, but this for me is a nice-try-but-no.

I switched to some wine and awaited my main course, which came out soon — the day’s pork special.

2-pork

Not a bad plate, several different preparations of various pork bits. I am not a fan of air-puffed type of crackling, it loses all the flavours. A little smaller than I thought, but enough on a very knackering day. Plus one of the adjacent tables was getting drunk and rowdy, so I thought that may be enough for the day.

Not blown away, but wasn’t mediocre as was The Libertine the other night. Maybe I ordered wrong, because these dishes were nothing like what I saw on the website’s photos page — not in content, creativity nor plating (the latter I care little as it was too dark anyway). But it was just not quite what it was trying to sell.

However, little did I know that night that the next leg of my trip, Oklahoma, would bring far better dishes from kitchens that get far less media attention. In any case, not bad.

Off to OKC…

Sidney Street Cafe
2000 Sidney Street
St Louis, Missouri

Old School Triumphs Over Hipsterism in St Louis…

3-4 May 2015

One huge aspect of travelling these days for me is to have as much local food as possible, not just the top-rated places and those award-winning restaurants, but the real local grub. That involves as much research, if not more, than finding the top places, as many such places may not be online. A recent good example is Naples. When I planned a few days in St Louis I certainly looked into all this.

One hard part about doing “real” local food is also distinguishing those old school places that have earned their reputation the hard way — with hard work, proven quality and longevity — versus those hipster-centric places lauded by Eater and other “foodie media” that thinks anywhere full of bearded guys drinking craft beer with some minor twist to traditional foods is the best thing since “ramps season” was invented. I experienced both in St Louis…

My first day in town, I dropped into the famous Roper’s Ribs for some food to take after that long cemetery hike. Roper’s is an institution in St Louis, and its ribs are known across the country. It is just down the road from the worst of the civil unrest in Ferguson, just down West Florissant. Seeing those damaged businesses was unpleasant, and I did my small part to bring some extra business into the area — even if it was just a quick unnecessary fill-up or an iced tea or water. But Roper’s was gonna be a treat…

ribs-1

I got the very last order of their famous St Louis ribs — all those who came after me were bitterly disappointed! I was lucky…

ribs-2

These were fabulous! not over-sauced, but the smokiness was utterly fantastic! Excellent texture and it was just delicious. One of the best ribs I’ve ever had in my life, the best I’ve had in years I’m sure of that — over all the Memphis and Owensboro places certainly. Mmm… What a treat this was! Definitely not to be missed in St Louis!

Later that night I had the wee mediocre dinner at The Libertine. The next day, after yet another long cemetery hike (yes, I enjoy them, as a nature lover, as a historian, and as a someone who is strangely morbid!), I dropped into the infamous Schottzie’s Bar and Grill, hoping to have their most famous item — the brain burger. But I was told they were out of brains until later in the week, so I left very disappointed.

I actually was planning to head over to the Illinois side of the river so I decided to stop at another well-loved BBQ institution in the area, Big Mama’s BBQ. Now everyone knows East St Louis is not exactly a fun place to be and it’s certainly that. This small eatery sits lonely in a large parking lot with a state prison right across the road…

I was already smelling the food from that fine smoker outside. I wonder how that aroma must drive the inmates crazy across the street…seems almost cruel… I ordered one of their specials, the snoots and 1/2 rib-tips.

snoots-rib_tips

Yes, snoots. Fried snoots. Pig snout. You gotta love it, this method of prep (frying) makes it very much like crackling. Excellent. And the rib-tips were excellent, almost as good as yesterday’s at Roper’s — though too much unnecessary sauce. The smoking was fabulous. Actually worth a trip to East St Louis!

Later that evening, still enjoying the aroma of those ribs and snoots, I headed out to grab some chicken. I chose Old Standard Fried Chicken, a new hip place catering to hipsters that does cocktails, bourbon and fried chicken. I didn’t want to drink much so decided to take half a bird away. Waited with a cocktail and then took the stuff home.

fried chicken

Nice box, kept the heat in the food definitely. But the chicken was really not that impressive. It lacked a kick or a distinguishing taste in the wide world of fried chicken. Worse, I suspect the different pieces came from different birds and prepared at different times — despite the long prep time. The wing and drumstick were underdone (the wing was bleeding badly), while the breast was good but thigh was fried internally to a crisp. For what they charge, not worth it. Mediocre at best.

So the lesson for St Louis? Go to old school places like Roper’s Ribs and Big Mama’s BBQ — and take a pass from the hipster, trendy places that overcharge for mediocre products that get all that media (and Eater) attention for no reason except they have craft beers and bourbon and are filled up with dudes with craft beards.

Roper’s Ribs
6929 West Florissant Avenue
St Louis, Missouri

Big Mama’s BBQ
5900 St Clair Avenue
East St Louis, Ilinois

Old Standard Fried Chicken
1621 Tower Grove Avenue
St Louis, Missouri

Review: Libertine

3 May 2015

My first dinner in St Louis on a very, very busy Sunday, was destined to be at The Libertine, located in the suburb of Clayton slightly west of the centre. I was staying not far away, so it was an easy drive. That’s good, cuz for all the hiking I did today (yes, before you ask, at another cemetery, and it was 5 hours of very hilly terrain and I got a nice tan too) I needed to enjoy a good meal to soothe away all my aches.

It was not very busy this Sunday evening. The Libertine bills itself as a local, family friendly restaurant, and sure it was — and the joys of dining alone when there’s a loud child on the next table… In any case, a cocktail later and I chilled.

I ordered my food and they brought out some roasted chickpeas as a snack. Wee lacking in flavour but no biggie. I enjoyed my drink as the first course arrived, the pig tails.

1-pig_tails

Hmmm. I usually love pig tails, but one of my pet peeves is unnecessary saucing — and this time, the sauce I hate the most on this planet, buffalo sauce. I tried to wipe away as much as I could (as I had planned since I ordered it), but it was not really possible. The sauce just eats so much away from the food I could have been having wings. Utterly unnecessary. Oh well, my bad for ordering.

I switched to a rose and tried to tune off the noise around me as my foot and calves were still strained, before my next course arrived.

2-she_crab_soup

Hmmm. I usually love she-crab soup, but there’s a distinct bitterness to this version. Not a shellfish-based bitterness, but something I couldn’t really put my finger on. It also lacked strength, almost like a shy turtle soup you’d get in Charleston when they didn’t have enough turtle… The rolls on the side, with crab meat, was nice, but I wanted a she-crab soup that knocked me out. Oh well…

I ordered another wine waiting for my final course, which was a special of the day. It soon arrived, a bluefish from Boston.

3-Boston_blue_fish

Hmmm. I usually like fish like bluefish that has good oil but for some reason it didn’t do much for me. Part of it seemed overcooked, which really defeats the purpose of all that awesome fish oil. I am starting to sense the curse of the Sunday kitchen…

I was not blown away by this dinner at all, but I was talked into a dessert — a banana pudding.

4-banana_pudding

Well, I wish there was more banana. That was nice, as was the gelato. But all that roasted meringue was not very edible after all this food. Probably not on an empty stomach too. Just kinda took the focus away from what was supposed to be a banana-centric dessert. This was nothing like what you’d expect from the menu description…

Oh well. I paid and got out of there and limped back to my car. Another long hike tomorrow, and this meal didn’t really help. Perhaps I ordered badly and got the Sunday evening curse, but sadly The Libertine did very little for me. Too bad, cuz Josh Galliano is a huge talent, but tonight? Sigh…

The Libertine
7929 Forsyth Blvd
Clayton, Missouri

Riches of the Sea and Earth — Eating the *Real* Naples

14-16 April 2015

One of the greatest joys of being in Italy, especially Mezzogiorno, is to find the small, hidden-away places that locals adore, where you can find foods you cannot get elsewhere. The freshest seafood, prepared expertly but with utter humility and simplicity, or parts of animals that others — especially foreigners — turn their noses to. It is finding the real heart of the historic city. That was my goal for my three lunches in Napoli.

My two dinners at refined restaurants had mixed results. Il Comandante the first night was rather disastrous in so many ways, from the terribly cooked pasta to the annoying wine upselling; Palazzo Petrucci the next night was utterly superb, from the dreamy crudo to the fabulous duck. But lunches were about the real Napoli, the one with locals only, and I did a small exploration of the heart of Naples cooking.

My first lunch was somewhere I had targetted for awhile now. When I was doing research for this trip, far before the aforementioned dinner locations I had zeroed in on this place. As you know I have a love for offal, and this is one of those temples of offal in the chaotic maze of old Napoli, Le Zendraglie.

Actually a tripperia, but they also do a solid lunch business. I saw the unmistakable tiny storefront window, with the various stomachs of a cow hanging, with a lonely snout sitting at the bottom. I should have taken a photo but was too hungry (you can see one if you Google the place).

I sat down and zeroed in on the item on the menu I wanted and ordered it, with a quartino of house white. I relaxed for a little as I hear the chopping at work for this item. Yes, I’m having a salad for lunch, but not quite what you think…

insalata di trippa

Oooooooh yes, a salad for lunch… Now this is offal heaven, folks. I love all the stomachs, and they had a lot of it, You have the different parts, from the rich omasum to the more delicate abomasum (reed tripe), to the texture of the reticulum (honeycomb tripe)…and throw in some snouts too! What an amazing and huge lunch! I’ve not had such a great offal lunch since Hong Kong’s Block 13 Beef Offal street stand

That plate and 3 quartini of wine cost me just around 15 euros, which is ridiculously cheap for this beauty. Expensive for this area, but it was well worth it. I had a long walk back to my hotel to walk this off… And to think, later that night I had the amazing dinner at Palazzo Petrucci. Now you know why I said this was as close to a perfect food day as I’ve ever had!

The next day, after another busy morning, I went exploring again. I had a list of possibles in the older parts of Naples again, all just being tiny local eateries with fresh foods. Yesterday’s lunch was tripe, and instead of hitting the other tripperia-cum-trattoria that I have found (too much of a good thing!), I decided today I should focus on seafood.

There’s an extremely humble little place with no sign that anyone in the world would miss, as it’s sitting in a small alley obscured by a roadside shrine, but the local food bloggers call it Vini e Cucina da Mario e Fabiana — now how simple is that? The proprietress smiled when I walked in and zapped off today’s menu (everything’s fresh so no printed menu) in quick vernacular. I wasn’t sure how much food I can take so I just ordered a first and some wine.

I enjoyed the wine in the tiny eatery as I see more locals showing up for lunch. Then my dish arrived. Ahhh…how neapolitan is this?

pasta clam

The pasta was cooked absolutely perfectly. Goodness, those cooks at Il Comandante really need to learn how to cook pasta. Maybe a trip out of their sheltered tower may help… Fabulous fresh bivalves, pasta with some spicy oil — a simple and hearty dish here. Beauty in simplicity and humility.

Turns out I could eat more, so I told the proprietress I changed my mind and will have a second, so she rattled off the day’s offerings — and I went with the octopus.

octopus

Again, a simple preparation, but the octopus was fabulously fresh and the texture was perfect. No stringiness, no inedibility here. An excellent octopus. As I was eating this simple dish I had a flashback to that terrible first lunch in Tokyo earlier this year at the venerated Mizutani and that utterly inedible octopus. That lunch was nearly 400 dollars. This lunch was just over 10 dollars, even with 3 large cups of wine and 2 dishes.

I left this simple eatery very happy, and see the local bloggers were spot on about this being a simple yet solid place with a good eye for seafood. Excellent. Always read local bloggers when you do your research.

The next day I was actually running quite late for lunch as I was stuck near the airport visiting the city’s famous hillside Poggioreale Cemetery. Thanks to all the insane construction around town (Metro stations that never seem to finish), they had suspended most of the trams — so the replacement buses had to fit in the tram lanes. Which caused further traffic chaos…and it’s usually already chaos in Napoli, so…

Many of the places in town were already winding down lunch service when I got back and 2 of the places on my list were oddly shut for the day. Time with running out and with an already early dinner planned (early flight out tomorrow), I didn’t have time to run back to the same neighbourhood where I found the other two places, so I stayed on one of the main roads and dropped into Baccalaria.

Yes, this popular lunch-time restaurant is supposed to feature only baccalà; unfortunately, despite my love for Portugal and Portuguese cuisine, I really am not enamoured with this dish. I don’t like cod. Not even for my fish & chips. It’s the most flavourless fish on the planet, and what you’re tasting is the salt, oil, etc…

Now this place has the service attitude of Madrid. They are almost incompetent. Took 10 minutes to get a menu, took another 10 to order. All that time I sat outside (too cold for most locals) watching construction workers on a cherry picker argue with locals… Oh, how Napoli…

paccheri

Eventually (that’s saying a lot) my first arrived, a simple paccheri dish. Nothing much, with a baccala-based sauce. However, the pasta was still cooked better than at Il Comandante. Even this incompetent crew did a better job…that’s saying a lot for that very disappointing 1-Michelin restaurant. Not bad. Then my second.

alici fritti

This was solid, fried local anchovies. I love this dish. Though it took me another 10 minutes to get someone to pour me some wine… Good stuff, but the service was infuriating. Now I see drivers arguing with the construction workers blocking traffic. This was entertaining to say the least…which made up for the crap service. Now this is live comedy & drama that you can’t pay to see!

At the end they wouldn’t budge to bring me the bill so I had to go in and force it out of them…geezus, what shit service. I headed back to my hotel to rest and do some packing as I have 1 dinner left in this 3-country trek before I head back to London and then back to the States.

Though the last lunch was pretty lame, it was still good in some ways. But the previous lunches, especially Le Zendraglie’s offal heaven on a plate, will live on in my mind for a long, long time. The chaos of Napoli is, however, what I will really miss.

Le Zendraglie
Via Pignasecca 14

Vini e Cucina da Mario e Fabiana
Vicoletto Rosario a Portamedina 25

Baccalaria
Piazzetta di Porto 4
Napoli, Italia

Review: Palazzo Petrucci

14 April 2015

After my rather disappointing dinner at Il Comandante I was reconsidering whether to just bypass any other “haute” cuisine destination on this trip. However, I have heard real good things about Palazzo Petrucci and its chef, Lino Scarallo, so I decided to press on with this evening’s booking.

I had a very busy day around the centre of Napoli. Took me a few minutes to get my Mezzogiorno senses back — meaning how to cross busy roads — but I was soon back to normal. I feel bad for some of the tourists I saw that just could not get across these streets. When you travel, best thing is to go native — in every way.

Busy day and I was knackered. My lunch was utterly fantastic…which I will chronicle in the next post, but my Twitter followers would have seen it that day the offaly goodness that was lunch… I made my way back to the Piazza San Domenico Maggiore that cool evening (I was there at the church earlier) and found my way to Palazzo Petrucci.

A cool little space next to the historic church, I was shown a cozy little table in this 1-Michelin eatery. There’s a pizzeria connected, but tonight was another try at going all out. But after last night’s misstep I did not want to commit to another tasting menu, so I went with my senses for tonight.

The service here was fantastic as well, and there was no attempt to upsell overpriced bottles of out-of-region wine at all. It was truly a better restaurant experience from the opening moment. And when you see tourists and locals all enjoying the food, you know it’s much better than listening to various tables gabbing in Russian only…

I ordered my courses and relaxed with some nice white, and a mozzarella amuse. I like this place, it’s a historic building but they built this into a modern inside — with the kitchen upstairs. Reminded me a little of Maaemo in Oslo, but imagine it with the character of a centuries-old building meshed into it. Soon my starter arrived, and I gasped…

1a-crudo

Oh. My. Goodness. This was my crudo starter. I have never seen a crudo starter like this before… It was actually rather hard to keep my drool from dripping — or my tears from falling. This was about as close to crudo paradise as I’ve ever seen… There were different types of prawns, shellfish, and fish, too many to name. The brown prawn in the centre was fantastic, as was the oyster. The tuna was superb, as was the amberjack. Even the chunk of mozzarella was just gorgeous, still dripping with milk.

I was in heaven for the 20+ minutes I spent feasting on this dish. Utterly fantastic. One of the dishes of the year easily… Now I know where my dear friend Salvatore Marino at Il Grano in Los Angeles gets inspiration for his famous crudo (he spent many years in Napoli). Wow. I finished this dish with more drool and tears…this was just bloody awesome!

I enjoyed more wine and just enjoyed this nearly orgasmic experience… What a dish. They gave me a little time to relax — the FoH staff was brilliant on timing by, well, actually watching the diners’ reactions. This is the sign of a professional shop that deserves more than 1 Michelin star. My first then appeared.

2-Spaghettone con alici

Mmm, now this was Naples on a dish. Spaghettone with anchovy and seaweed. Lovely stuff. Now this pasta was cooked perfectly! After last night’s disastrous pasta dishes, I nearly cried again tasting perfectly cooked pasta again. This was a wonderful dish, full of flavour and just the perfect texture. Fabulous!

I was absolutely happy already with this dinner. This place is excellent both FoH and kitchen, producing top notch food with fabulous service. As I said before, this place deserves more than 1 star — no way this place can be equated with the poor Il Comandante!

Then my second arrived, and my smile grew even bigger — if that was possible…

3-Petto d’anatra

Oh my, what quacky goodness! I love duck, especially cooked right — and this was just awesome. Fabulous cut, excellent preparation, temperature just perfect. The flavour of the duck breast comes straight out, laced with a tiny bit of anise. Oh my! The duck dish of the year, certainly!

I was almost sad when I finished this dish, as this was the end of the dinner. That was a hell of a three course, one of the best overall dinners I’ve had in ages. I couldn’t end it here, so there was some dessert coming.

4-Stratificazione di pastiera Napoletana

A small but nice end to the evening, an assortment of traditional sweets with a twist. All excellent, especially that cannolo with pistachio! I had some grappa and espresso to finish this wonderful evening off before I trekked downhill for the stroll back towards the Castel Nuovo and my hotel.

After last night’s poor experience at Il Comandante, this place completely justified me continuing to try these types of restaurants. Adding my amazing lunch today, this day has been as close to food perfection as I’ve had since Japan. I have rarely enjoyed a food day as much as today, and I smiled all the way down the hill.

Oh Napoli, this was wonderful…

Palazzo Petrucci
Piazza San Domenico Maggiore 4
Napoli, Italia

Review: Il Comandante

13 April 2015

I was glad to leave Madrid after days of headache (and footache) for the more enigmatic city of Napoli (Naples). And it would start bad, as the queues were crazy at Barajas with people arguing with staff over baggage rules… Oh, I can’t wait to get out of Spain… The flight, the “Bourbon Express” you could call it (remember, as in Spain, at one point Napoli was the capital of a Bourbon-family-runned kingdom), was uneventful, and I was back in il Mezzogiorno for the first time in over a decade…

Was so good to see, smell, and feel the chaos that is Mezzogiorno again. I got to my chaotic hotel after a chaotic ride, totally Neapolitan and comforting in an odd way. I feel so much more comfortable here… I relaxed in my hotel room as dinner wasn’t too distant — time nor walking.

Dinner tonight was at the 1-Michelin restaurant called Il Comandante. I was told this was one of the best places for a balanced menu in town. Though I normally eschew Michelin-tainted places in Italy (especially the south), I will be hitting the small, local places during lunches so decided to do 2 haute cuisine places, and this was the first. I headed out into the cool evening.

Il Comandante is on the top floor of the Romeo Hotel just near the port for cruise ships, convenient I guess for those tourists going to boats and not wanting to see the real Napoli. The restaurant is beautifully decorated, including its famous “cannon” table (see the website). The view is also spectacular. They offered me a nice prosecco and I relaxed.

The service was very fluid, a great relief after my Madrid experiences (especially at similarly 1-Michelin Álbora). Of all the menus they offered, I decided to try their “Three Years of Romeo” tasting, which featured the top dishes over the past three years. It looked very interesting and some of it looked quite exciting. The first set of amuse bouche arrived pretty quickly.

AB01

Wow, I was now intrigued. This is a fabulous selection of nibbles, from a cod-filled puff to crisp with carpaccio and roe. Nice and tasty. Fantastic visuals in this place, including the dishes.

AB2

The second amuse was also nice, a ink crisp. I like the presentation so far, and you can see this place really placing a lot of priority on visuals.

It was at this point when the night, which was going well, took a rather unpleasant turn. I asked for wine pairing but they didn’t do it. They just recommended wines, and they were desperately upselling wines at this stage. It was so bloody obvious… I just took a nice bottle and had to run with it. The wine was opened just before the first dish arrived.

01-three_prawns

This was a tasting of local prawns. The first, a carpaccio on the left, was nice but a little bland to be honest. The centre, featuring local red shrimp with citrus, was nice. The right, an Asian-themed version with sesame, was also good. Good start so far.

02-pasta_mista_mussels

Dish two of the tasting was pasta mista with mussels. I’m a huge fan of pasta of all sorts, but not fried. They become tasteless and distracting. The broth was rich and mussels nice, however. Still puzzled why they used the fried stuff. I enjoyed more wine and awaited the third course. Service, aside from that wine thing, was excellent.

03-65_degree-egg-mozzarella

The third dish was one I didn’t care for, a 65-degree egg with smoked mozzarella and foam, with a touch of caviar. Just as I said for my amazingly good tasting at Lisbon’s Belcanto, I don’t like these type of gimmicky egg dishes. This was cooked well, but it just didn’t work for me.

04-linguine_eel

The fourth dish was one I was really exited about, linguine with grilled eel and dried tomatoes. Oh dear, no… The pasta was noticeably undercooked. Gragnano pasta are excellent with a slighly tougher texture, but if cooked poorly it can be grungy or soggy. This was grungy. It seem they were too worried about overcooking they massively undercooked it… Very poor execution. The first proper pasta dish I’m having in Naples on this trip and it’s cooked badly, in a Michelin-starred restaurant? Oh dear… The eel actually became a side item at this point as the poor pasta cooking just devastated me…

I hoped it was an anomaly and just had more wine. It was honestly difficult to eat as it was significantly undercooked. Not just a little, but really undercooked, almost breaking off pieces at points. The next dish is also a pasta so let’s see…

05-candele_spezzate-tuna

Dish number five is a candele spezzate pasta (Genovese style) with dried tuna. Oh dear, it was not an anomaly. These were horribly undercooked too. Ever tasted raw dry pasta? This wasn’t far from it. Wow, whoever is on the pasta station on the line back there is really screwing up tonight… Or is me dining alone screwiing up their timing? Oh this was so disappointing…

To make things worse, they asked me if I wanted also a bottle of red with this dish (and for later ones), and tried to upsell an out-of-region, overpriced wine so badly (I heard the same spiel to other tables) I said no, and would just nurse this bottle. They looked disappointed. I was disappointed.

My appetite was dropping with 2 very poorly executed pasta dishes and this comedy with the wines. These are supposed to be the bread and butter of anyone competent to be called a cook in Naples. Whoever is doing the pasta back there, his/her mother would be running into the kitchen yelling if they tasted this. Terrible.

06-mullet

The next dish came out looking good, the mullet. However, it was executed (again!) poorly. The skin, which should be crisp and a delicacy, was soggy and undercooked — thus inedible. It’s like eating a piece of wet thick paper that would not break up. Awful. The meat was fine, but I left the skin in an obvious way on the plate to indicate its inedibility — to give the kitchen a clue.

I was really disappointed at this stage and this was not how I wanted my Naples trip to begin. Service, aside from the ridiculous wine up-selling, was solid, but the kitchen was failing. Beautiful plating, but just very poor execution. Then my next dish arrived, which was not what was on the menu…

07-pork_loin

I looked at this, which was supposed to be pork belly, and enquired… Server seemed confused… A few minutes later she came back saying it was pork loin. Chef apparently wanted to try something new and forgot to tell the staff… Oops. It was honestly very dry and probably overcooked (or they didn’t know the sourcing of the pork, which would be scary for such a restaurant). They have some serious timing issues at this kitchen. Chef wanted feedback so I was honest and told the server what I thought.

I was so disappointed I pretty much lost my appetite. The belly dish showed up and I just had a bit of it. I totally lost interest in this dinner. I didn’t even take any more photos. I just finished the dessert and tried to get myself out of this place.

Sadly, Il Comandante is all about appearances. Beautiful space, beautiful plating, solid service (aside from the wine comedy). But behind that facade it’s all a mess. So many dishes were executed poorly you gotta wonder what was going on. The pasta dishes were beyond disappointing. Safe to say nowhere else the next few days I had pasta cooked so badly.

Maybe it was a clue that there were no local diners in this restaurant, and I frankly heard more Russian being spoken than any other language. That is a big clue.

Maybe the curse of Madrid followed me here on the “Bourbon Express”…now how to shake this off…sigh…

Il Comandante
Via Cristoforo Colombo 45
Napoli, Italia

A Bumpy Downhill Road Out of Madrid…

12 April 2015

It’s been a bit frustrating the last few days in Madrid, to be honest. The food has been spectacular for the most part, but the dining experiences have really marred my enjoyment. In fact, I really can’t wait to get out of Madrid. I think those who follow my Twitter feed saw that first hand…

On my final day I had a very light schedule, partly because of an unplanned deadline that kept me at my hotel glued to my laptop writing and doing research. Oh well, I wasn’t planning to do much anyway, as I grow very tired to Madrid in general.

I popped out to lunch after getting some fresh air walking around a few neighbourhoods. Was near the centre and I had no plans, so I just walked into anywhere that looked (1) not touristy, (2) not overrun, and (3) interesting. The place I found was a little bar called Taberna San Fermín de Puerta Cerrada that the hoardes of tourists seemed to have missed.

It was doing a increasingly brisk early lunch business with locals and regulars, and I stood at the bar and enjoyed some early wine. I wasn’t too hungry so I ordered a dish of “gulas”.

gulas

These “fake” baby eels I enjoy almost as a pasta dish, with a heavy dose of garlic. It is actually delicious even if it doesn’t compare to the real thing. I really should get a dish of the real stuff before I go; it’s been many years since I’ve had real baby eels. These were good though.

I headed out and wandered a bit more and I did get a little hungry after about half hour, so I stepped into the only place that didn’t look overly busy — Can Punyetes. I later found out this was a chain out of Barcelona that had many locations. I was originally interested in various items they had on the menu, but each one I tried to order they told me they had run out. Huh? Sunday lunchtime…

ventresca

So I settled with this rather disastrous dish. I generally don’t like ventresca — tuna belly that’s been preserved. It loses all its oily fatty goodness 99% of the way they do it. Very, very rarely would ventresca work in my opinion. So I just consumed this and headed out and back to my hotel — to work…

After a few hours of crunching my keyboard I finished the piece and sent the item off in question, and I got ready to head to dinner. I usually have better luck with old school places, so I went for one this evening — Casa Lucio. Some call it a tourist trap, some say it’s proven itself. Whichever way, I headed there.

After fighting a drunken crowd out doing the horrible modern Spanish custom of botellón (really, at 8.30pm on a Sunday night in such numbers?), pushing some people out of the way, I found Casa Lucio. They eventually put me at a table upstairs. Looks very old school…

I ordered my food and yep, I decided to do the baby eels. The good thing about this place, tourist trap or what, is that they have a reputation of having the hardest-to-find treats available when in season.

I ordered a bottle of white and a starter and chilled out, hoping for a good final meal in Madrid. I relaxed and was starting to enjoy my wine when they came back and told me they had run out of the baby eel… Crap… I was already on the white but then the only other dish I’d do is the oxtail here, so I ordered it… So deflating!

pata negra

The jamon starter arrived and it was good, but frankly I don’t think it was preserved well. It was starting to really dry out. The fatty parts were glorious but the meaty parts were tasting a bit off… Maybe this is a tourist trap…my mistake… It took ages before my main course came.

oxtail

The oxtail was very good, strong flavours and a good portion, but goes a bit odd with the weak white house wine. Plus, they stop pouring it for some reason and I couldn’t get anyone’s attention. What the hell is wrong with the service sector here? Is 9pm still siesta time that they can’t function normally?

I ended up complaining to the manager using my broken Castillian about the service and they ended up apologising. They thought that the white didn’t work with the oxtail so they just stopped pouring it… But they forgot that I had bought the bottle…oops! So at the end they brought me a brandy and a free dessert. A good gesture, but I’ve had enough of Madrid’s maddening service sector and I quickly left this tourist trap…

Frankly I was underwhelmed and I didn’t want to leave Madrid with such a terrible taste in my mouth — even if I never come back here again — so I hopped on a cab (after fighting through the drunken crowd outside) and headed across the El Retiro park (Metro was inconvenient) and…well, went back to where I closed my first night in town, Rafa.

They were surprised to see me again and I just chilled with some wine. They fed me some olives again and I ordered some food at that point…

erizos

Look at this first item, sea urchin at its best. This was delicious, deep and flavourful. What a nice change of pace. I then had a plate of percebes (barnacles); I apologise I forgot to photo this plate, but you know what it looks like (it’s a bit larger portion than the one I had at Cervejaria Ramiro in Lisboa a few days earlier). Then the final dish, to close my Madrid account…

Manos y morro de ternera a la madrileña

Manos y morro de ternera a la madrileña. In other words, the “hands and nose” of veal. Now this is a fabulously rich dish, full of collagen and flavour. I love it, even better than the oreja dish at Casa Alberto the other day. An excellent end to this rather disastrous stay in town. I’m glad it ended this way.

I headed back to my hotel by Metro knowing that this is probably the last time I will ever be in Madrid again, probably all of Spain. Life’s too short. Food is fabulous but I don’t need this type of aggravation. There’s a big ol’ world out there, and every place has to sell itself to me for me to return. I gave Spain 4 chances over the years, Madrid 2 of them, and each time it’s been a dismal failure to convince me to come back.

Adiós, Madrid. Adiós, España.

La prossima?

Taberna San Fermín de Puerta Cerrada
Calle de Gómez de Mora 1

Can Punyetes
Calle de los Señores de Luzon 5

Casa Lucio
Calle Cava Baja 35

Rafa
Calle de Narváez 68
Madrid, España