Monday, November 29, 2010

Something to be Thankful for.

Don't hate me because my lattice work is beautiful.
This year we were in Abu Dhabi for Thanksgiving and we had the good fortune of being invited to a fellow American's house to celebrate, along with some Kiwi friends who were very much looking forward to their first Thanksgiving ever.  We had Native American headbands for the kids, Turkey coloring sheets and an abundant buffet line-up.  The dinner went off without a hitch and even though we celebrated on a Friday, there was no football, and we rounded off the evening with one child projectile vomiting all over her dad and half the table, there was still enough good cheer to watch a couple of rounds of hilarious SNL skits and gorge on delicious desserts.

I made the Turkey, stuffing and gravy, as well as corn pudding and a cherry pie (Matt's favorite).  Luckily there were no huge train wrecks in my food offering, and in fact everything turned out great.  As if wonderful friends and family weren't a good enough reason to be grateful, that definitely is. The cherry pie filling sold here is different from the one we like in the US (and fresh cherries are prohibitively expensive from what I can see), but the pie was still good and I am really proud of my crust and lattice work which is the best I've ever done, generally ending up with a wonky, anorexic looking version of Martha Stewart creations when I make pies.

Hope everyone had a great Thanksgiving.  We are headed to the states shortly but there is a forthcoming post on the culinary and aesthetic pleasures of Italy, I promise...
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Saturday, November 6, 2010

Frankie's Revisited: Abu Dhabi-Style

Eroticus Ramazzotti, in a choice moment of musical passion.
And yes, that is
a keyboard resting on the piano.

Remember when Matt took me to Frankie's for Mother's Day in London this past May and I became a devotee of Proscuitto and Avocado platters?  That was almost as great as when we went back to Frankie's the other night, here in Abu Dhabi (as if I needed anymore reasons to obsess over Italy!).  Yes, the Marco Pierre White empire does extend into the Middle East!  He has two restaurants here in AD, both in the swankified uber-modern hotel called The Fairmont Bab Al Bahr.

As hotels go, The Fairmont is somewhat extraordinary, even in the overbuilt, over-hyped world of luxury hotels that is the Middle East.  So far in Abu Dhabi I have not seen anything like it; nothing even close, to be completely honest, and I've done my fair amount of due diligence when it comes to luxury hotels because in the Middle East that's where all the best (read: alcohol-serving) restaurants are.

What makes the Fairmont unique?  Its innovative design.  Its tasteful, somewhat minimalist decor.  Its great view.  Its mini-Corniche.  And its fab restaurants.  Well, I know at least one of them is good: Frankie's Italian Restaurant & Bar.

In a shameless throw back to my original Frankie's post, here is the top 5 reasons to visit Frankie's at the Fairmont Bab Al Bahr, in list form.

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Top 5 Reasons to Go to Frankie's Abu Dhabi
despite there being no pork on the menu
(sacrilege, I know)

5. The Unabashed Swank.

the dining room
The decor at Frankie's in Abu Dhabi is significantly posher than that of the Putney locale, and the setting, it almost goes without saying, on a completely different level of swank.  You won't find white and red checkered table cloths or disco-balls here.  You get velvety upholstered lounge-chairs and fine, white linens.  You've barely taken a bite of your gourmet breadstick before the porcelain bread-basket and tray of tri-colore dips (tomato, pesto and olive tapenade) is replaced with a new one.  There are semi-private booths and round table rooms lining the medium-sized dining area, and an open-kitchen to watch mostly-Asian chefs at work.  There is also an outdoor patio area which is enclosed by 3-stone walls which are also full-size navy blue waterfalls, giving the entire room an ethereal but really pleasant feel.
In the end Matt and I both agreed that the more informal setting in London was preferable, especially if you're going to have an adjoining borderline 80's style bar and live jazz / karaoke pianist.  But more on that later.  It is swanky, and if you're looking to feel special in that waiter-at-your-beck-and-call sort of way, it works.

4. Shockingly Enough: Kid Friendly.
We went on a Thursday night (the equivalent to Friday night in the Western world) at 8pm and the place was about half-full.  By 9pm the place was entirely buzzing and every table was being used both in the restaurant and at the bar.  When we left at near 10pm, I counted at least four families with more than one child eating at the restaurant.  

Not all of them were teenagers either - I even ran into a little boy (2 years) who goes to nursery with Roman, dancing to the pianist's version of "I'm Pround to Be an American!"  Long story.  Anyway, I'm still a little weirded out by that, but on the other hand, having the kids around brought levity (one boy and his nanny came in carrying a bunch of 15 helium balloons to his table for him to play with) and it was nice to know that if we were ever in a babysitting pinch, Roman would be more than welcome (and eat for free!).

3. Eroticus Ramazzoti.
I had suggested to a friend of mine that we go to Frankie's a couple of times in the past and she always declined, commenting that the "karaoke" was so loud they could barely talk to each other at the table.  Imagine my surprise when we arrive to the sound of a live jazz pianist, gently but confidently crooning Frank Sinatra classics to the sophisticated clinking of silver ware and sautee pans.  I suppose that's not everyone's cup of tea, but I have to admit I was a little shocked at how contrasting the description I had been given was to the apparent truth.
Fast forward to an hour and a half later - I'm on my second glass of wine (which these days is the equivalent of everyone else's fourth), and I'm tapping my foot and singing along to a gusty rendition of "Volare" by the Gypsy Kings along with what revealed itself to be the most bizarre bar performer and set I have witnessed in a long time, and no he wasn't a midget.  Not technically.  But he was highly Leprechaun-esque.

We never found out his name - and maybe that's a good thing -  but our jazz pianist gave such a convincing performance of "Se Bastasse una Bella Canzone" (please go watch that video) that we decided to call him Eroticus Ramazzoti (because Eros just wouldn't be enough).  Besides playing the aforementioned patriotic American songs, he also did an unforgettable rendition of Happy Birthday that involved prolonged and somewhat disturbing animalistic guttural noises at certain traditional pause-moments in the tune.  I also joined in on those, against my better judgment and to Matt's horror.  His voice was karaoke quality, in all truth.  He was a good imitator but no Pavarotti, and I suddenly understood my friend's aversion to the whole thing, and yet, I couldn't help but revel in this one-man-show and the absurdity of it being allowed in a pricey, swanky restaurant like Frankie's.

Then again, it is an Italian restaurant.  And where else do you get that inseparable combination of swank and cheesiness like you do in Italy?  When we asked the manager where he was from, the answer came swiftly and pointedly, almost like an accusation: "He's Roman."  Of course he is.

2. Because You're a High-Roller.
Or at least feeling like one.

One thing I loved about Frankie's in London was the Pris Fixe lunch.  There was nothing overpriced or pretentious about that restaurant, and that sat well with me in a city of overpriced, pretentious eating establishments. 

Here, on the other hand, where good restaurants are shockingly affordable and the quality of food relatively high, Matt was shuddering as he handed his credit card over with the bill.  Granted, wine is a lot more expensive in these parts (ah to be in Italy!), and I always end up ordering seafood which is naturally costly, but we both agreed there was a built-in glam factor to the prices. 

People in the UAE love to splash out money.  Here, it's just as much about how much you spend as what you get for the money, if not more.  So for those of us who are more practically-minded and less economically-frivolous, that can suck.  But I have to say, despite the high-dosh-to-food  ratio, I'd go back in a New York minute, dragging Matt behind me.

1. The Tagliolini with Langoustines.
The first time I ate at Frankie's in London, I had the Spaghettini with Lobster.  This time I decided to order the homemade Tagliolini (think thinner, finer linguini) with Langoustines.  It was cooked in a light white-wine sauce dotted with garlic, onion, parsley and cherry tomatoes and with a nice kick of pepperoncino.  The only thing missing was a splash of lemon juice, but that was quickly remedied by yours truly.  

Not very adventurous am I?  I don't care.  This pasta was orgasmic.  I highly, highly recommend it.  And I'm 99.9% sure I will order it again the next time we go back.  And believe me, we'll be back.

beef carpaccio
NB: There's No Pork on the Menu.
Pork is, for obvious reasons, not allowed at most restaurants in the UAE.  This doesn't bother me on a philosophical level (I'm all for respecting other peoples' religions), but it does bother me on a culinary level, and especially at Italian restaurants.  I can't help but feel that an Italian restaurants' soul is heavily intertwined with the quality of pork products it serves: good prosciutto, good salami, good pancetta.  What kind of pathetic antipasto platter could you have without pork?!  But, happily, Frankie's of Abu Dhabi does an excellent job of making you feel like you're not missing much without the pork.  
Instead of Prosciutto and Avocado platters, they served a truly magnificent beef carpaccio with arugula, fresh parmesan and
Frankie's dressing (which was creamy horseradish).  Again, the only thing missing was a heavy splash of lemon juice, quickly remedied by yours truly. :)

* * *

And now, a pictorial journey through our night at Frankie's and 
(mostly) the Fairmont Bab Al Bahr.

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Tuesday, November 2, 2010

(un po') Brutti Ma (molto) Buoni: Italian Pistachio Biscotti

Biscotti al Pistacchio: Brutti Ma Molto Buoni
 I have this great biscotti recipe that I make every year for Thanksgiving and Christmas.  It's my thing.  I've been doing it for years and it has sentimental value to me, both because of its familiarity and the recipe's sentimental provenance (yet another Payard favorite).  But as far as biscotti go, that is where I get off the train.  I'm not into "dry" cookies.  Plain cookies suck, as far as I'm concerned.  Give me chunks and chocolate and nuts or go home  - right?  Any self-respecting American would hold this philosophy on a pedestal because American cookies are generally pretty involved affairs.  Even the plainer ones can't compete with the simplicity of Scottish shortbread or Italian biscotti.  That razzle-dazzle style is what non-Americans have come to love about "cookies" versus "biscuits."

But then there's this place I have to try in Rome - recommended by no less than David Lebovitz and Heidi of 101 Cookbooks via Lebovitz - Innocenti Biscottificio Artigiano.  It's a biscuit bakery in Trastevere and it's run by an Italian family.  And all they make is biscotti.  Doesn't exactly sound like my typical cup of tea and yet the idea of these freshly made biscotti and their scent wafting down beautifully uneven cobblestone streets has had me enraptured since I first read about this place.  And despite the plethora of choices I'm sure they'll have, I am especially interested in the "brutti ma buoni" (ugly but good) biscotti which Lebovitz specifically recommended.  I am a strong believer that good food does not have to look pretty - and that, in fact, a certain rusticity and lack of manipulation in a dish is an aesthetic that is pleasing unto itself.  These "brutti ma buoni" could be just the "plain cookies" for me.

But with that in mind, and to continue my Italian-inspired blog rampage - I decided to try out a biscotti recipe recently posted on 101 Cookbooks.  I am intrigued by Heidi's obsession with "itty bitty cookies" as I have recently discovered that if I make cookies smaller I tend to eat the same amount and actually consume less calories. :)  But in additon to this, I am also hosting a play-date cum Mom's Coffee hour at my house with some of my new Abu Dhabi friends and thought this would make a great accompaniment to the hot beverages we will theoretically be consuming.

While these biscotti aren't actually completey brutti (ugly), the batter kind of is.  It's made entirely of ground pistachios, egg whites, sugar, honey and vanilla.  Wow.  I don't know exactly what it is about that magical combination of nuts and honey, but it serves Mediterranean and Middle Eastern cuisine time and time again, and while I used to not be a huge fan (again with the chocolate dessert obsession) I am slowly growing to truly love it.  The ground up pistachios give the batter for these biscotti the appearance of a green whole-grain mustard (not exactly cookie-ish).  But once they are rolled in icing sugar and golden-baked, the green center is a beautifully pleasant and semi-chewy surprise.  Molto buoni.

Anyway, these biscotti are simplicity itself.  And for this, among other things, I love them.  Don't judge a book by it's cover; don't judge biscotti by their batter.  It's an easy, healthy way to live.
If you want the recipe, check out this post on 101 Cookbooks.  My only cooks' notes are:

1. Make the cookies 1 tsp size, and use spoons to roll them in the icing sugar (or it will get molto brutto and molto messy).

2. Cook them the entire recommended time (15-18 minutes) even if you make them "itty bitty" or they will be a soggy mess.  At least that's true with my oven.  Maybe just check on them after 10 minutes (Heidi's modified itty bitty baking time).

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And now, a pictorial journey through making these biscotti. 

Innocenti Biscottificio Artigiano
Via della Luce, 21, Trastevere
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