Postcard from Oaxaca, Mexico: Flavors to rouse the dead

Levanta muertos (awaken the dead). The spicy hot seafood soup at Cabuche hooked the Mister simply with its name, and it lived up to it. Two years ago it seemed as though Cabuche was a cloned offspring of La Biznaga, but now the restaurant has asserted its own distinctive character. Cabuche’s offerings are more diverse than its menu might indicate at first glance because of the ability to customize tacos, tostadas and tlayudas with selections from a long list of house guisados. Oh, almost forgot to mention: great margaritas and generous pours of wine are offered in the small cozy interior or patio.

We know the photo of El Olivo Gastrobar‘s arroz negro is unappealing, but look closely. Cloaked in the inky black sauce is a rich array of seafood. Wearing black definitely is recommended for consumers of this dish. Lazier than the Mister, I much prefer the plump, pre-peeled shrimp topped with jamon in a flavorful Pernod bath. These dishes are ample enough for sharing and pairing with a shared salad or tapas.

An unusual amuse bouche of what they call “fish meal” gets dropping into Zandunga Sabor Istmeno off to a good start, particularly if accompanied by a hibiscus mezcal cocktail called La Llorona. Watercress and roasted peanuts add interesting textural dimensions to Zandunga’s guacamole. The ceviche is fresh, and the pork falling-off-the-bone tender. The vegetable-starved can find a mountainous platter of simply prepared vegetables on the menu.

We had resisted the call of a French-style bakery, Boulenc, in prior years but now find ourselves huge fans. We first stopped by for loaves of incredibly good breads, and I was particularly pleased to find “chunky” peanut butter for my apples at breakfast – particularly as the ingredient list for the peanut butter reads simply “peanuts.” The pizza oven beckoned us next, but the spinach focaccia and vegetable bahn mi are among the best sandwiches anywhere. Never walk out of Boulenc without treating yourself to an affogato made with espresso poured over savory rosemary gelato.

We had trouble locating the new home of El Morocco but were rewarded with the same wonderful caramelized onions topping the couscous. The stacked eggplant, roasted sweet potato and herbed goat cheese that arrived under the title of moussaka was unexpected, but a lighter innovative approach.

The main reason to visit Mezquite is the pleasant rooftop patio. The food presentation is attractive, and I wonder if anyone has ever been able to consume the entire enormous tlayuda with cecina unassisted. Staff seemed to struggle with the logistics of the two-floor set-up, and delivering a spoonful of salsa at a time to a table of Texans meant a multitude of extra trips.

The patio is beautiful and service old-school-formal perfect at Las Quince Letras. The Mister loved his meat platter there and would gladly have returned. The pescado en papelote (foil?) left me disappointed though. Maybe next trip we will return, and I will switch my order to their famed chile en nogada.

Other featured photos are from Casa Taviche and La Popular.

Oh, and the surprise bonus on the trip: a bowl full of unexpectedly good plump shrimp with garlic and chiles snagged at the airport restaurant just prior to our always-too-soon departure from Oaxaca.

Postcard from Saluzzo, Italy: Meals from last summer

My apologies to the restaurants of Saluzzo. Although they delivered a rich sampling of the foods of the Piedmont region of Italy, the “postcards” are so slow to be delivered everything is now a jumble.

Le Quattro Stagioni d’Italia is a surprisingly large restaurant with a spacious patio always packed with locals. We found ourselves drawn to both food and patio several times. Taverna San Martino is small, cozy and intimate and regarded by many as the best in town. Osteria Nuovi Mondagli is completely unpretentious, with its magnetic draw a shaded patio perched above one of Saluzzo’s picturesque petit plazas.

Obviously, the town kept us well-fed.

Postcard from Turin, Italy: Home to many a food “invention”

Some of the members of the House of Savoy you were introduced to in the prior post get credit for additions to Turin’s distinctive flavors. Grissini, thin crispy Italian breadsticks, were invented to meet special dietary needs of Vittorio Amadeo II (1666-1732). Perhaps most significant to Italians, Emanuele Filiberto (1553-1580) brought the first chocolate to Italy.

As in Spain, the earliest ways to consume chocolate imported from the New World were in a liquid form. This has survived through the centuries in Turin in the form of bicerin, a rich triple-layered beverage (more like a dessert to me) consisting of thick hot chocolate, espresso and foamy cream. Numerous major chocolate factories are found in the city. With hazelnuts the most popular nut, it is not surprising Nutella was created there. Vermouth and Campari originated in Turin; the city is home to the Slow Food movement; and the first Eataly opened there.

The region’s lean grass-fed beef, fassone, seems most popular when consumed ground and raw. Locals eat huge patties of the meat tartare. I was happy my sampling of it was restricted to a petite amuse bouche. Which is partially why I expected the area cuisine to be dominated by head-to-tail meat offerings.

Much to my pleasant surprise, Turin residents prize their locally grown vegetables. There were a remarkable number of vegetarian restaurants, such as the highly regarded somewhat pricey Soul Kitchen. But even our humble homey neighborhood restaurant, Trattoria Alla Locandina, offered several vegetable dishes, including grilled eggplant and fried zucchini blossoms filled with cheese.

Our go-to lunch spot in Turin, E Cucina Torino, was like a reunion with an old friend. We first encountered Chef Cesare Marretti’s concept of providing limited-menu fixed-price meals in Bologna three years ago. Expect locals to be lined up here for the 10-euro special: a starter; a choice of a meat, seafood or vegetarian entrée; a small dessert; a glass of wine; and an espresso. I found myself always falling for the vegetable platter which included a side salad, a mountain of fresh vegetables hiding a vegetable flan underneath and a ball of fresh mozzarella too massive for me to ever conquer. The Mister was more apt to explore the other options.

Then there is the featured photo above, perhaps my favorite dish in Turin: a layered vegetable tian with a gorgonzola and almond sauce at Ristrot Guviol. We encountered wonderful creations emerging from this kitchen. An impressive crab shell arrived atop a dish of spaghetto with crab and grape tomatoes. A ribbon of raw salmon made a bright stripe across a rich risotto, and there was a tagiolini with squid and a crown of mullet roe.

The food of the Piedmont region is without a doubt among the best in Italy.