Risotto with Treviso radicchio

I don’t know about you, but after I come back from a place in which I’ve eaten really well, I’m often still craving the foods from that city or country for the following few weeks (if not longer). It doesn’t matter that I most likely overindulged (and that’s putting it mildly) while travelling. I just want to keep enjoying all the yummy local, seasonal dishes from those great places for as long as I can.

I know, on the flipside, some travellers experience food fatigue when overseas for too long. I remember, as a child, being dragged into Chinese restaurants in Europe by my own mother. “Enough!” She’d exclaim after going without Asian flavours for too long. A proper meal, in her mind, meant a meal centered around steamed white rice and a variety of savoury dishes. Cream sauces and big plates of one kind of meat just didn’t make sense to her.

My darling wife S and I, however, have the opposite problem. Inevitably, whenever we come back from a trip to Japan, we’ll spend the next 2-3 weeks recreating dishes and flavours, using both ingredients we’ve carted back as well as sourcing stuff locally. Similarly, since coming home from our pre-Christmas trip to Venice, we’ve been dipping into our various regional Italian cookbooks and been whipping up an endless parade of Venetian dishes, for ourselves and for friends.

One of the dishes we’ve really been enjoying is a simple risotto made with Treviso radicchio. (Keep reading)

Venice December 2009

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. I don’t care how cliched it may be, or how overrun with tourists it can get, Venice is still (and probably always will be) one of my favourite cities in the world. Maybe it’s the lack of cars, the addictively delicious tramezzini that stare out at you from countless cafe windows, the couples smooching openly everywhere, the stunning Byzantine-influenced buildings and palazzos, the bellinis, or the simple silliness of walking around and getting lost in the city’s labyrinth-like streets… I don’t know. I love being in Venice. Love being there for the craziness of the Biennale, with the hot sun pounding down and the glitterati of the art world fussing over themselves at exhibitions during the day and madcap parties come dark. Love being there at winter when, for once, the locals outnumber the tourists and cold winds batter at you ceaselessly. It’s a city of romance and splendor, and if you look hard enough, gastronomy.

My vicacious wife S and I, and several friends, spent a good part of last week in La Serenissima. We were there to attend the wedding of some very close friends. Of course, I also made sure that we planned a long enough break so that we could visit some of my favourite eating haunts and shops. I had a good reason for this. While I’ve been to Venice probably a half dozen times in the last decade or so, S has only been once, way back in 2000. I had brought her there in December 2000 in order to propose to her. We arrived on 26 December, got engaged just outside of Saint Mark’s Square, and saw in the new year there. But we didn’t eat well. In fact, except for a meal at Harry’s Bar, all of our other meals were less than memorable. Back then, I didn’t know Venice well. And my previous trips to the city were as a backpacker, when eating at good restaurants wasn’t really a priority. Since then, despite my insistence that there is great food to be found in Venice, and my postings on this blog, S has always been a tad skeptical. With this recent trip, I was determined to convince her that Venice has great food. (Keep reading)

Buon Ricordo, Sydney

There are a small handful of dishes, cooked by an equally small number of amazing chefs, that I’d travel for. At the top of my list is Chef Armando Percuoco‘s fettuccine al tartufovo. Chef Armando’s fettucine with cream and parmesan, topped with a fried truffle egg, and tossed at your table, is one of those life-altering dishes. To me, it might just be the best pasta dish I’ve ever had, anywhere in the world. This ridiculously simple yet rich and oh so delicious plate of food is, quite simply, worth flying all the way to Sydney for.

Of course, there are many other gustatory reasons to go to Sydney–like Kylie’s duck, Tets’ ocean trout, Bill’s scrambled eggs, Peter Gilmore’s Sea Pearls, or this week the Sydney International Food Festival’s World Chef Showcase. But none (to me) are as addictively appealing as Armando’s truffled egg pasta. I’ve actually written about this heavenly plate of food back in 2005; in fact, it was my 10th post. But that was just a little reminiscent musing. This weekend, thanks to Tourism Australia, Tourism New South Wales and the Food Festival bringing me in for a little song and dance on stage, I’m getting the chance to revisit some favourite restaurants, as well as try a few new ones. Of course, the first place I ran to, within hours of landing on the ground, was Buon Ricordo. (Keep reading)

Forlino Fabulous

Some restaurants, when they first open, need time to mature. Too often, restaurants open before they’re actually ready for public scrutiny. The food disappoints. The service is slow and inefficient. Sometimes, even the decor isn’t properly finished. But when an experienced, successful and talented restaurateur decides to open a new signature restaurant, chances are high that he will make darned sure that before his first paying customer ever steps foot into his new place, every single detail would be perfect.

Such is the case with Forlino, the new stunning Italian restaurant opened by Beppe de Vito and Chef Osvaldo Forlino. My always hungry wife S and I had the great pleasure of dining at Forlino on opening night and, well, quite simply, we were blown away. Forlino is stunning. It is easily one of the sexiest and chicest looking restaurants in Singapore. The floors are clad in a classic, polished black and white diamond-shaped pattern. The wood-panelled and ornately decorated walls are a warm bluish-grey. The furniture is rich and elegant. The overall space exudes power, sensuality and elegance, a rare thing for restaurants here today. (Keep reading)

An itty-bitty Venice guide

I know I promised to write about the amazing tonkotsu ramen I had in Fukuoka, and I will get to that within the next few posts, but I thought It would be fun to share something that I had created for a friend with all of you.

A really good buddy of mine told me a couple months ago that she and her husband’s family were going to be heading to Italy this Spring for an extended vacation. One of their stops was going to be Venice, which long-time readers will know is one of my all-time favourite cities in the world (seriously, top 5). She asked me to email her a list of recommendations. More specifically, she asked me, if I only had a couple days, which restaurants would I visit?

The answers, to me, were pretty clear. Emailing her a simple list would be easy. But I wanted to create something that she and her husband could slip into their pockets and carry with them as they travelled through La Serenissima. So, late one night, while watching TV, I spent a couple of hours fiddling away on Adobe InDesign and cobbled together an itty-bitty — well, technically it’s A7 — dining guide to Venice.

The guide should be printed on a sheet of A4 paper. You’ll need to print on both sides of the same sheet; there are instructions on how to feed the paper into your printer so that the alignment is correct. There are also some instructions on how to fold the paper up so that the guide reads properly.

Anyway, I’ve uploaded the guide to my server. You can download it here at http://chubbyhubby.net/wp-content/uploads/2013/08/venicedining.pdf. I had fun putting this together. And I was really stoked that my friend liked it. I hope you guys do to.

La Strada, new interiors, new beginnings

There are some restaurants that, no matter how good the food is, just don’t work. You might attribute their lack of success to bad feng shui, a case of ugly interior design, poor service, a less than desirable location, too much nearby competition, or a number of other reasons. Unfortunately, way too often, when a new restaurant is suffering, its owners don’t have the vision or experience to nip the problems in the bud, i.e. move in decisively to make smart changes that will put the restaurant on the path to profitability.

When Singapore’s well-known Les Amis restaurant group first opened La Strada a year ago, the group had high hopes. The restaurant offered two dining options in one location, a casual pizzeria and a fine-dining Italian. The food, I have to admit, was good but I never liked the space. The fine-dining area looked like a high school theatre set, i.e. slightly exaggerated and very temporary. And given the prices of the food, I couldn’t justify paying for a not-that-cheap meal in a space that just simply wasn’t appealing. As it turns out, I probably wasn’t the only patron who felt this way. The restaurant simply did not do well.

In May this year, the restaurant closed its doors in order to recreate itself. Re-opening on 12 June 2007, the new La Strada is a chic, hip, trattoria that serves good, modern Italian dishes. The new space is modern and cool. It’s neither too stuffy nor too casual. It looks like the kind of well-designed space that you’d head to with friends and colleagues for a fun lunch or dinner. There’s a small al fresco area that is surprisingly breezy and a private room if you want to host a special meal or a business dinner. On the menu, there’s a well-rounded selection of starters, pizzas, pastas, main courses and some delicious desserts to choose from. Since La Strada has re-opened, it’s been buzzing. Every time S and I have been, it’s been pretty much full, proving that sometimes what a restaurant looks like is as important as the food being served — which is something way too many local restaurateurs often forget.

As said, the food is very good. Chef Leandro Panza, a young Aussie-Italian, has a deft hand at creating hearty yet refined classics. Dishes that we recommend include Chef Panza’s fritto misto, 4 perfectly battered and fried pieces of seafood, plated elegantly with some warm saffron mayo, capers and herb salsa; his quail and foie gras raviolo, which is served with chanterelle mushrooms and roasting jus; the pappardelle with asparagus, avruga and grated egg yolk, and served with a parmesan beurre blanc; and the coral trout baked in a coal fire oven with clams, potatoes and cherry tomatoes. My current favourite dish on the menu, though, is the homemade spaghetti carbonara (pictured above), which Chef Panza makes with truffle butter, Spanish ham and a soft-boiled egg. It’s a deliciously elegant yet sinfully rich dish which I’d be more than happy to have weekly (if S would let me, that is). S’s fave, on the other hand, is typically feminine; she loves the French baby spring chicken, which is marinated then char-grilled and served with some salad. I have to admit that the chicken is delicious but the overall dish is a tad too healthy for me.

Finally, Chef Panza’s desserts are really good. I had heard great things about his opera style chocolate and salty peanut caramel with chocolate feuillitine dessert, which is served with a milk sorbet (pictured above). And I was thrilled that it more than lived up to its hype. In fact, I’ve now had this dessert 3 times in the past 2 weeks and am already planning my next visit to have it again; it’s that good! Also good is Chef Panza’s Italian doughnuts filled with orange curd and served with warm chocolate sauce. (The flavours also reminded S and me a little of the doughnut dish that S created for last year’s New Year’s Eve dinner.) The peach and almond tarte served with truffle honey ice-cream is good also. The pastry could be a bit thinner and more delicate, but the ice cream was heavenly.

The new and very much improved La Strada is a nice addition to the Singapore dining scene. It’s nice that the restaurant seems to not only have found its feet, but is sprinting ahead of many of its competitors.

LA STRADA
1 Scotts Road,
Shaw Centre 02-10/11
Singapore
Tel: 6737-2555

Fave recipes: Squid Ink Risotto

risottosquid.jpg

In a recent post, I mentioned that my darlin’ wife S and I have a pretty big collection of cookbooks. And while some books are rarely used, there are others that have become well-worn kitchen companions. We all have favourite recipes and favourite cookbooks that we turn to first when looking for something to make for friends, loved ones or even if we’re just cooking for ourselves. Over time, these books become worn out, their pages over-thumbed, occasionally dog-eared, and often speckled with sauces; their spines cracked and their jackets frayed and wrinkled. Books that we use the most will open to our favourite recipes when flipped open on a desk. If the recipe is one that S particularly likes, chances are that it will be annotated (in pencil) with her own notes and conversions. If the recipe is one that I gravitate to regularly, while I’ll keep the book open while cooking, chances are I’ll deviate from the specified amounts or instructions a fair bit.

While both S and I have common favourite foods, i.e. dishes we both love to eat, we enjoy cooking pretty different things. If we were to list the recipes–and the cookbooks they’re from–that we’ve come to love making the most, those lists would be completely different.

One of my all-time favourite cookbooks is The Harry’s Bar Cookbook. It was one of the first cookbooks I ever bought. I picked it up when I was in university, after having been taken by some of my parents’ friends to dine at Harry Cipriani in New York. (Back then, this small but ultra-chic Fifth Avenue restaurant was Cipriani’s only outlet in the Big Apple; today, they have five branches.) After just one visit, I was hooked. I loved everything about the restaurant, its signature Bellini cocktail; its excellent and efficient service; its dignified air; and most of all its delicious, traditional but elegant cuisine. The Harry’s Bar Cookbook was the third cookbook I had ever purchased for myself. And over the years, it has remained one of my favourite and most trusted resources for great recipes.

One recipe in particular that I love to both make and eat is squid ink risotto with squid. To prepare this traditional Venetian dish, you have to first make a batch of squid cooked with squid ink. For this, I use Cipriani’s recipe, which is pretty much faultless. The resulting squid is tender, savory and truly delicious. You can eat this over some polenta but I prefer it mixed into risotto. The finished risotto is gorgeously dark and deliciously comforting. More importantly, it’s the kind of dish that you can make over and over again, for yourself or for friends, without ever tiring of it.

Squid Ink Risotto with Squid
serves 8-10 small portions

Risotto
1 small onion, diced finely
300g arborio or carnaroli rice
1.25 litres chicken stock (preferably home-made), heated
1 batch of the squid cooked in squid ink
45g unsalted butter
20ml vermouth or dry white wine
110g grated Parmesan
salt and pepper

Squid cooked in Squid Ink
675g cleaned squid
100ml olive oil
1 large celery rib, finely chopped
1 medium onion, finely chopped
1 garlic clove, chopped
4 plum tomatoes, peeled, seeded and diced
400ml dry white wine
125g finely chopped fresh herbs (basil, parsely, oregano and thyme)
salt and pepper
3 sachets of squid ink (approximately 12g worth of ink)

For the squid (adapted from The Harry’s Bar Cookbook): Cut the cleaned squid into small pieces, roughly 2/3 cm each. Set aside. Heat the olive oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add the celery, onion, and garlic, and cook until soft and golden but not browned. Add the tomatoes and cook for about 3 minutes. Turn the heat to high and add the squid. Stir the squid, cooking it evenly for a few minutes. Then add the wine and herbs and bring the liquid to the boil. Turn down the heat. Add the ink from the sachets, season with salt and pepper to taste and cook over low heat, partially covered, until the squid is soft and tender. This should take about 90 minutes. Stir occasionally.

For the risotto: Cut 20g of the butter into small cubes and keep chilled in the fridge. In a wide or deep pan, heat the rest of the butter over medium heat. When foaming, add the diced onion and cook until soft but not browned. Add the rice, stirring it for a minute or two until lightly toasted but also not colored. Then add the vermouth or dry white wine, stirring continuously. Turn the heat to low and then add one ladleful of the stock. Stir constantly. When the liquid has been absorbed, add another ladleful of stock, then add the squid that you made earlier. Cook until most of the liquid has been absorbed. Then add another ladleful of stock. Continue to cook this way, adding stock whenever the liquid has been absorbed. When the rice is soft but al dente, and the liquid has been absorbed, turn off the heat. Then quickly beat/stir the chilled, cubed butter into the rice (preferably with a wooden spoon). Then beat/stir the grated parmesan into the risotto. Taste and season with salt and pepper. Serve hot.

Tagliatelle al ragù alla Bolognese

bolognese.jpg

What do you cook when the person you delight in sharing the pleasures of the table with most isn’t with you? Sardines on toast, baked beans on toast, cheese on toast—you get the idea. I actually lose my appetite when CH isn’t around. The only thing that inspires me to get into the kitchen when he’s away is the prospect of cooking the meals that we will share when he returns. This accounts for the supply of duck leg confit, pork prime rib and Italian sausage stew, and home made stocks crowding our refrigerator and freezer right now. This past week, I had a craving for home made pasta, but going through all that trouble for just one person didn’t make sense given that I was also juggling a bunch of projects at work.

Nonetheless, the prospect of having home made pasta some time in the near future kept me going. I decided to attempt Giuliano Bugialli’s tagliatelle al ragù alla Bolognese because I love tomato-based pasta sauces, but CH doesn’t (he prefers his sauces cream-laden). Bugialli’s ragù offers a happy marriage of both. It also reminds me of a similar sauce the original chefs at La Smorfia on Purvis Street served in their seafood spaghetti when they first opened (sadly, this great restaurant is now long gone). It also gave me the opportunity to pull out my new KitchenAid meat grinder for a spin. It is truly easy to use as long as you remember to cut the meat into long strips that will fit easily into the feeding chute. Semi-freezing the meat makes it easier to cut into strips and freezing the strips after that also makes grinding them easier.

It took significantly longer to prepare this dish than the spaghetti Bolognese I used to make as a university student (back then, my taste preferences were limited to Dolmio’s), but I must declare that it was well worth the effort. The blend of ground bacon (it was easier to find than pancetta and prosciutto), pork and beef provided a tasty mix of richness, smokiness and subtle meatiness. The long, slow-cooking made it tender and moist. And the inclusion of stock and cream tempered some of the astringency (if one can describe it as that) of the tomatoes in the sauce. In all, it tasted like an enthusiastic welcome home to me. I hope CH thinks so too! (He’s actually standing behind me, reading this over my shoulder, nodding vigorously; he had some for lunch today and he said it was “awesome!”)

 

 

Big on bigoli

pastamaking1.jpg

Regular readers will know that I am a little obsessed with Chef Roberto Galetti’s Bigola Di Spinaci Al Brasato D’Anatra (homemade spinach noodles with a braised duck sauce). I could (and have) had a second portion of it for dinner in place of dessert. There is something extremely comforting, yet indulgent about it. After having played with his braised duck sauce recipe, I have taken to making large vats of it and freezing it in portions just enough for two. However, it has never quite tasted the same when it isn’t served with bigoli, the traditional pasta of Veneto which Chef Roberto pairs with his duck sauce. Traditionally, the long pasta has a thin hole running through the length of it (like bucatini). To make this pasta, one requires access to a bigolo, a hand-operated gizmo which every Venetian home used to have. Perhaps one day, I will get my hands on one. But I was thrilled to chance upon a recipe for bigoli all’anitra (bigoli cooked in duck broth) in Giuliano Bugialli’s Bugialli on Pasta which had instructions for making plain bigoli without the aid of a bigolo.

makingpasta_stirring.jpg I loved the idea that it called for lots of eggs and some butter (I’d never made fresh pasta with butter before). Bugialli’s instructions for making fresh pasta alone make his book well worth purchasing. The initial steps are common enough: make a well in the centre of your mound of flour and place all the ingredients in it. For the bigoli, I placed the flour in a large bowl, made the well, and added the salt, butter (which I had diced ahead of time) and milk first. I cracked the three eggs into a separate bowl and lightly whisked them with a fork. Then I added some of the egg into the well and used the fork to incorporate the flour from the inner rim of the well. This helped to prevent the liquid from overflowing. As I incorporated more flour into the dough that was taking shape, making sure that flour was also getting under the mixture so that it would stick to the base of the bowl, I gradually added more of the egg until all of it was incorporated.

makingpasta_kneading.jpg Once you are able to gather the mixture into a moist, shaggy ball of dough with your hands, remove it and set it aside. The remaining bits of dough and flour should go into a sifter. Sift the unincorporated flour onto a clean work surface. The bits of dough that remain in your sifter should be discarded. Bugialli says that they will not integrate into your wet dough and will cause lumps.

Next, knead the dough using the palm of one hand, folding the dough over with your other hand while making sure that it absorbs some of the leftover flour on your work surface. (Do not sprinkle flour over the dough.) By gradually incorporating more flour this way, you are better able to gauge just how much flour is needed in the pasta (depending on the flour you use and the climate you’re working in, the liquid to flour ratio can vary). Continue kneading for 2 to 3 minutes, absorbing the flour until the dough is no longer wet and all but 4 to 5 tablespoons of flour have been incorporated. You should end up with a ball of smooth, elastic dough. (It felt like fresh Playdoh.)

makingpasta_machine.jpgI covered the ball of dough with a damp kitchen towel while I set up my pasta machine. It was easiest to work with a quarter of the dough at a time. Flatten the dough portion with the palm of your hand so that it can fit between the rollers positioned at their widest setting. Roll the dough once, gently sweep one side of it over the remaining flour and fold the dough into thirds like a business letter (this means that you end up with a squat rectangle NOT an extremely skinny rectangle). Press down with your fingers so that the 3 layers are melded together. Pass the dough through the widest setting again. Repeat rolling and folding 8 to 10 times until the dough is very smooth and elastic. Next, stretch the dough by moving the rollers to a narrower setting (do not fold anymore). Flour the pasta sheet on both sides by drawing it across the flour on your work surface. Pass the dough through the rollers once. Move the rollers down a notch then pass the dough through the rollers once and sprinkle with a little flour. For the bigoli, this was pretty quick since the pasta needs to be kept 1/8 inch thick. Cut it using the narrower, taglierini cutter. Traditionally, bigoli is kept 15 to 16 inches long. You end up with a noodle that has an almost square cross section. Let the bigoli rest on clean kitchen towels until they are needed. I must confess that I eagerly cooked a batch of pasta in salted boiling water once I was done with cutting the sheets. I loved the rich flavour and bite of the noodles. Paired with Chef Roberto’s duck sauce, they tasted heavenly.

Bugialli’s book gives more detailed instructions (with illustrations) and has recipes for a slew of different fresh pastas.

Eating Italian in Bangkok

It might seem a little odd for some of you that I’m writing about Italian restaurants in Bangkok as opposed to recommending places for delicious Thai food. But what I, and many other foodies, have discovered over the past few years is that Bangkok is home to some of the best Italian restaurants in Southeast Asia. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that the quality of Italian food there is, on average, much better than in any other place in this region. Whenever I visit the city of angels, I make it a point to have at least one or two good Italian meals. Sometimes, more than half my meals end up being at Italian restaurants. Anyway, here’s a short list of places to try on your next visit.

Biscotti
I haven’t eaten at this lovely, airy, and chic restaurant in the Four Seasons hotel for a little while. But over the past half-decade or so, I’ve had some really great meals there. The pizzas, baked in a wood-fire oven, are always good. So too are the pastas. Very popular are the penne with lamb ragout, young leek and red wine reduction and the squid ink angel hair with scallops, shrimps sprout and garlic cream. This is a very popular place and is almost always packed at lunch with businessmen who like the set lunch that includes a generous appetiser buffet.
Four Seasons Bangkok, 155 Rajdamri Road
Tel: 0-2255-5443

Zanotti
Zanotti is the restaurant that most hip Thais mention when you ask them what their favourite Italian restaurant is. For over a half-decade, chef-owner Gianmaria Zanotti has turned his homey establishment off Sathorn Road into a little slice of Northern Italy. His ingredients are always fresh. The place is always busy (you MUST reserve a table if you plan on going for dinner). From what I’ve seen, many regulars never actually crack open the menu. They trust the chef will know what they want and serve them food that keeps them coming back for more.
Saladaeng Colonnade Condominium, 21/2 Soi Saladaeng, Silom Road
Tel: 0-2636-0002, 0-2636-0266

Giusto
This pricey but slick restaurant is on Sukhumvit Soi 23. It’s the kind of place you’d take someone to show off a little, while also having a good meal. Chef Fabio Colautti has prepared a really long menu of dishes that come from all over Italy. If you get a tad confused reading it, feel free to ask Giulio Saverino, who runs the front of house here, for advice. On my last trip, Mr Saverino put together a great antipasto plate which I and my companions devoured. Everything on it was delicious. The wine list is just as extensive as the menu and has some lovely choices available. Sadly, I recommend against asking for help here. On my last visit, when I asked about a specific wine, the sommelier then proceeded to suggest several alternatives. All were priced at least twice as much as the wine I had asked about – a sure sign that he was thinking more about his commission than my interests (and limitations). The restaurant also has a nice bar, perfect for pre or post dinner drinks.
16 Sukhumvit Soi 23
Tel: 0-2258-4321

Delicatezza
delicatezza.jpg This cheap and cheerful little restaurant is a favourite, secret haunt for hi-sos that prioritize substance over style. The decor is simple – some might say non-descript – but the food is excellent. It’s not fancy fare though. It’s good, rustic Italian food cooked simply and with love. The chef-owner, Zariya Charoenphol, tends to be a tad heavy-handed with her pepper, but that suits me fine. I usually end up adding extra pepper on a lot of the food I eat, so for me, her seasoning is spot-on. On my last visit, I had a side order of sauteed spinach and a big plate of pasta with mushrooms and bacon in a rich, cheesy (and peppery) cream sauce. It was yummy. Order some of the homemade ice creams for dessert. These are also fabulous.
351/3 Soi Thonglor, Sukhumvit Soi 55
Tel: 0-2382-2850

Antonio’s
This charming, intimate restaurant is perfect for a first date. It tells your potential partner that while you appreciate beauty, you aren’t into flashy things. It also tells him or her that you value quality. Antonio’s, run by Aussie-Italian Tony Armenio, serves excellent food of the highest quality. His starter of ravioli stuffed with porcini mushrooms and sauced in a truffle cream is excellent. From what I hear, it is also becoming something of a cult dish. On my last visit, I had a breaded veal chop. It was great, both crisp on the outside and amazingly pink and tender inside. Antonio’s, while not as popular as Zanotti nor as flashy as Biscotti or Giusto, is perfect for people serious about their food.
59/1 Soi Sawadee, Sukhumvit soi 31
Tel: 0-2258-4247, 0-2258-4108

Curried Shrimp

I’ve written previously that I’m a huge fan of Harry’s Bar in Venice. No trip to La Serenissima, to me, is complete without a stop into this famous restaurant and bar. Ideally, I’ll find time for a leisurely dinner with friends. At the very least, I’ll drop in for a quick Bellini and a Croque Monsieur. Of course, I’m not alone in loving Harry’s Bar. For decades, this little two-story eatery has been a must-visit for countless gourmands, celebrities, writers, and (of course) tourists.

But for every Harry’s Bar supporter, there are another two or three people that like to deride and criticize the historic institution. The biggest complaints are high prices; the number of tourists packing the place; bad food; and poor service. I agree the prices are high. But so long as people are willing to pay (and the restaurant is full every night), then the restaurant has every right to charge whatever it wants. Yes, there is an annoyingly high number of tourists, but fortunately, most of them stay downstairs, having popped in only for a quick drink; book a table upstairs and dine with the locals. I’ve eaten at Harry’s Bar in Venice several times and I have never, ever been disappointed by my food. But maybe my standards are lower than other people’s. As for the service, I don’t think it’s so much rude as it is brisk. Which given how crowded and busy the restaurant gets is fine with me.

My love for Harry’s Bar began 14 years ago. I was in University then. Three friends and I decided to head to Italy for Spring Break. Tickets round-trip from New York were only US$200. Our itinerary was Milan, Florence and Venice, with a few stops at scenic locations in between. We stayed in dirt-cheap places, hostels and pensions that charged us no more than US$4-US$10 per person a night. Fortunately, I had found 3 friends who were as in love with good food as I was (one of them would go on to help me start our school’s culinary society). We had agreed at the start of the trip that we would spend as little as possible on our accommodation and travel but splurge on our meals.

Two of my father’s closest friends, Mr & Mrs M, a wonderful couple who split their time between New York and Europe, were regulars at both Cirpriani’s in New York and at Harry’s in Venice. They were also my guardians during my time in university. Very fortunately for me, this meant that they regularly treated me to exceptional meals all over New York. They had brought me to Cirpriani’s several times. By the time I made my way to Venice for the very first time, I was already a huge fan of both the Bellini and the restaurant’s simple but delicious food.

The four of us walked up to Harry’s on a lovely Spring evening. I had totally forgotten by then that I had mentioned to Mr & Mrs M that my friends and I had made reservations there. From the second we gave my name to the manager just inside the door, we knew something strange was afoot. We were greeted like visiting rock stars and whisked immediately upstairs to what looked like the best table in the room. A round of Bellinis was presented as soon as we sat down. And then another as soon as we finished the first ones. The manager then stopped by and informed us that he had received a fax earlier that week from Mr & Mrs M. Not only was he asked to take extra special care of us, all of our drinks were both pre-ordered and paid for by the very generous Mr & Mrs M. After our Bellinis, we were presented with first one, then two bottles of La Scolca Gavi di Gavi (black label). Suffice it to say, we had an amazing and memorable dinner. And I’ve been a devoted fan ever since.

Each time I step into Harry’s Bar, I can’t help but remember that first meal I had there. More importantly, I think about a very kind and very generous older couple who spoiled me rotten and helped make me the foodie I am today. My favorite dishes are the tagliorini gratini al prosciutto (egg pasta with ham au gratin); scampi al curry (curried shrimp), carpaccio; seppie in tecia col nero (squid cooked in its own ink); salmone agli zucchini (poached salmon with zucchini sauce); fegato alla venezia (calf’s liver and onions); croque monsieur (ham and cheese sandwich); meringata al limone (lemon meringue pie); and torta di cioccolato (chocolate cake). All are classic, exceptional dishes. If you want to make these and other dishes, pick up a copy of the Harry’s Bar Cookbook. It’s an excellent, easy to follow book. And one that will make you want to visit Venice as soon as possible.

Harry’s Bar Curried Shrimp with Rice
2 pounds medium shrimps, peeled and veined (900g)
Salt and pepper
Flour for dredging
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 tablespoon brandy
Curry sauce (see below)
¼ cup cream

Rinse the shrimps and dry them. Season with salt and pepper. Then dredge in flour. Shake them in a sieve to remove excess flour. Heat the oil in a large skillet over high heat. Add the shrimps and cook, tossing constantly, until they turn pink and a tad brown. Pour off the oil, add the brandy, and ignite it. Swirl skillet until the flames die out. Add curry sauce and the cream to the pan and cook, stirring, until the sauce and shrimps are hot. Serve with rice pilaf.

Curry sauce
1/4 cup olive oil
1 small onion, chopped
2 leeks, white part only, washed and thinly sliced
1 carrot, peeled and thinly sliced
1 green apple, peeled, cored and thinly sliced
3 tablespoons brandy
salt
pepper
sugar (optional)
3-6 teaspoons curry powder, to taste
1/4 cup flour
3 cups fish stock, heated
1/2 cup heavy cream

Heat the oil in a large saucepan over medium heat. Cook the onion, leek and carrot in the oil for 6-8 minutes, or until the onions are soft. Add the apple, lower the heat a little, and cook for 20-30 minutes, or until the apple slices are very soft. Pour in the brandy and carefully flambé the ingredients in the pan. Then mix in the flour, curry powder (which should be adjusted to your own taste–because I like a slightly stronger flavor, I add 6 teaspoons), some salt and pepper (again, to taste) and cook for 2-3 minutes, stirring frequently. Whisk in the fish stock. I like to add a teaspoon or two of sugar, but this is optional. Cook uncovered over very low heat, again stirring frequently, for 30 minutes. Then strain the liquid into another saucepan. Stir in the cream and simmer for another 10 minutes.