Friday, September 28, 2012

Playa de Palma: Before


I can't say there was much more to this apartment of 1247 ft. when we saw it and bought it, just a view. It had nothing to do with the bad carpeting that had just been laid by the heirs of the owner, who'd just passed away. They'd done a quick beautification job in hopes that the value would have gone up, but we saw the bad carpeting as nothing more than a "tear down," as they say in the States. We saw only a view.


A view of the Inland Waterway, as it's called, the lagoon between West Palm Beach and the "island," and yes, that's the open Atlantic Ocean in the distance—we're looking south here.

I'd insisted on looking south in fact. But our view is south-southeast, better still, as I'd wanted to have breakfast in the sun on a January morning, on a balcony, just off my bedroom. We're looking at Palm Beach in this photograph, the heart of it.

As for the interior, oh well, we'd do it up. That's me (last May) in the red pants, talking to our builder Chip Valle. I was probably saying, "gut it, get rid if everything, the mirrors especially!" And that's Gil taking the photo.

And the kitchen? Away with it! All of it!

But as for the view, don't touch a thing!

This is the living room, with the guest room off to the left. We've opened that door to more than double its size, unifying the spaces.The track lighting is gone. This is before. I'll show during and after in upcoming posts.

This is the master bedroom. Breakfast will be served out on the balcony, right there on the left. A light bathrobe is the only attire required—there's no one looking in. Bliss.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

A Kitchen of Art & Science


When we go to a restaurant, let's be honest, do we really want it to about the food? The Lucca Center of Contemporary Art started out life as merely a museum, picking up a few touring shows including a very good one of Dubuffet. It's current offering is photography by David LaChapelle.

But recently the museum decided to be a restaurant as well. Where once there had been merely an entry hall and reception/ticket desk there is now a chef, a charming one—that's him peeking out, Cristiano Tomei, and his most extraordinary restaurant is called L'Imbuto.

Cristiano recommended this wonderful Riesling for lunch on a hot September day, and we very much appreciated its low alcohol and zingy zest—zesty zing?!

There is a movement afoot of art and science in the kitchen. It's been around for a while—among its earliest practitioners being Ferran Adrià of El Buli in Spain. I'm one of those who feel that his singular contribution to European haute cusine has made a total mess of fine dining on this continent. In the 1970s and on into the 80s great restaurants in Europe, especially in France, were memorably enjoyable, the pleasures of quality and elegance abounding. I regret to say that all this came to an abrupt end about ten years ago when Adrià's gastronomic science and casual Fridays caught on. That said, this artfully produced dish above, a "marshmallow" of scampi with a confection of Parmigiano in Malaga was quite good. To produce it, however, you need a kitchen that resembles Frankenstein's laboratory with its bubbling tubes of polystyrene, copolymers, and polypropylene in perfectly clear and high impact plastics full of mounting viscous juices and their froth. Chefs today! It's a fine line between giving pleasure and grossing you out!

I very much liked this "fish & chips," as Cristiano called it, a new twist on fish sticks in a potato crust with a sauce of Tuscan savory bread pudding and a parsley foam.

The potato crust takes four days to make—it's like paper before it's cooked.

But things went downhill for me here. This, above, was described as a "risotto non risotto," as there was no rice in the dish at all. I'm not sure I've got it right, but the glutinous liquid from the heads of shrimps was used to thicken this vegetable concoction so that it had a risotto-like starchy thickness. The rest of the shrimps was used to make the shrimp ball sitting on top. Instead of salt, dried Tuscan cavolo nero was ground up to make a salty powder. The idea is huge, I suppose you could say, and the man is an artist, a master chef, but I didn't appreciate the sliminess of the end result nor the strange cabbage aftertaste. The Philistine in me would have preferred a bigger dish with, say six or seven of these balls on it and forget the stuff underneath.

This was a sort of homage to Cristiano's father's homeland of Friuli, where many of Italy's apples are grown. The agnolotti are filled with apple and they're served in a fish sauce with onions and chopped oysters.

Home made spaghetti served here with a seafood sauce—and the unthinkable in Italy: Parmigiano on fish. There was something else daring about this dish, but I don't remember what.

A foamy desert! I forget.

This is where we sat.

I loved the wine!

This was a hit!

This apple thing had a rather unsatisfying taste of fermentation to it, like cider brewing—not what I would have wanted to find. Cristiano, bless his heart.

A pudding topped with shaved chocolate and served in a mini flowerpot had its charm. But I want to discuss the problem I have with all this if I may—and this is not an indictment against L'Imbuto, which is a very impressive and valid effort indeed. The best restaurants once succeeded in giving you the utmost satisfaction with memorable, delicious food served with style and quality. Back then if a restaurant had a star or three you could count on having a good dinner. These days I avoid "starred" restaurants at all cost—we're headed to Paris later in the week and I've already made our reservations and there isn't a single starred restaurant among them. And now there's a new crop of "gastronomic" restaurants out there that people seem to flock to. Paris has dozens, Le Chateaubriand, Claude Colliot, Pirouette, etc. Le Chateaubriand is so popular you have to stand out on the street for hours before they let you in, even with a reservation, and people do it. The food is like this stuff above, I imagine. I know the scene. No tablecloths. Set price. No menu. What comes out comes out. A New York Times article about Le Chateaubriand says that the chef "doesn't care if you like it or not." And who are the clients? They're usually young, he has a beard and curly hair, she, perhaps unawares, shows quite a lot of the wrong underpants above jeans which give her a "muffin top." They both carry backpacks which sit at their feel like a couple of well-behaved pugs. They take notes in a spiral notebook. They discuss each bite between themselves. They gangplank their knives and forks with conviction. They could be from anywhere. They're good kids. They're "foodies." But to get back to the thrust of my complaint, this kind of gastronomy has found its way even to restaurants with tablecloths, where you or I might eat, even to the world's "best" restaurants, and this is sad. You might remember that wonderful meal you once had at Le Baumaniere or Moulin de Mougins? Well preserve that memory as best you can because those days of eating coherently are gone! And what has taken its place you may ask? Oyster ice cream and foie gras soup. When we go out to a restaurant, let's be honest, do we really want it to about the food? I'd appreciate your thoughts on this, thanks! And one other question, Are there restaurants like this outside of Europe?

Sunday, September 16, 2012

A Collector's Capri Home


 Built upon the site of an ancient Roman imperial villa, whose ruins were preserved by author and esthete Axel Munthe and now form part of the garden, it's called Villa San Michele, and it's just a short walk from the center of Anacapri.

San Michele was Munthe's residence between 1896 and 1910. The fanciful architecture was the ideal environment for its owner's vast art collection, reflecting a Romantic, Symbolist point of view. Roman, Etruscan, and Egyptian antiquities are displayed handsomely just as Munthe himself had placed them.

Examples of Roman sculptures are mostly funerary monuments and fragments of sarcophagi.

And yet Munthe lived in almost monastic simplicity with furnishing dating from the alta epoca.

The construction of San Michele began a year after Munthe purchased the site, in 1895, the architect being Munthe himself. A building is characterized by its many central courtyards open to the sea and the sky. Munthe described this plan in his book about San Michele: "My house must be open to the sun, to the wind, and the voice of the sea, just like a Greek temple, and light, light, light everywhere!"

In the garden you find mostly Mediterranean and sub-tropical plants, and from the uppermost colonnade you can enjoy an extraordinary view of the Gulf of Naples.

On the rooftops of the villa they've recently opened the splendid Café Casa Oliv where you can pause and reflect over a cold drink and sort though the souvenirs you've purchased in the interesting little museum shop below.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

A Bite of Capri


In Capri the sea can seem so far away. It's forever in the distance, and down at the bottom of a steep and sometimes frightening slope, a winding and traversing walk across the ancient rock, and down still further. And yet we all make our way there, lured on hopefully by that shimmering promise in view of a refreshing swim in the warm and buoyant waters of a Mediterranean isle. And we end up in places like this one shown above, the bagno of La Fontelina.

The restaurant there has everything in the world to do with it, however. Yes, the swim is lovely, and so is the oddly old fashioned world of the Italian bathing concession where you're given a mattress and a few square meters of rock and a striped umbrella to shade you after lunch.

But when lunchtime comes, you happily shift gears and put on a shirt and make your way up to the rustic covered terrace with a sigh of contentment and relief.

You can avoid the steep walk down the cliff at Punta Tragara by taking a little gozzo, a boat like the one pictured on the plate illustration—a motorized version however. They'll pick you up at Marina Piccola for the ten minute trip.

I've always said that octopus is true essence of Mediterranean seafood cuisine. Here it's served as a cold salad.

This is a wild fish from local waters, whose name we can't recall.

And I adore the locally fished anchovies, cooked in the oven with white wine and parsley and served with grilled bread. Unfortunately, I poured a little balsamic vinegar over the distant ones thinking I had an olive oil bottle in hand. Balsamic vinegar, now enjoying worldwide popularity, is expressively shunned by most Italians, who prefer conventional vinegar. But fashion knows no bounds—to the point that even a place like La Fontelina, in a region of Italy where balsamic vinegar had never ventured until recent years, gives in to the demands of sophisticated foreigners (who've learned about such things at Fabio's in Vienna, or Eatily) even going so far as to put a bottle of it on your table in spite of the fact that you hadn't asked for it. Is nothing sacred?

Note: To those of you who notice a change in my graphic format, ask Blogspot why they no longer allow me to alter the color of my titles!