Restaurants: Soto: Uni-licious!

Jay and I are a little obsessed with uni. So we were really excited when we first went to Soto a couple of years ago for my birthday: The chef, Sotohiro Kosugi, ran a successful sushi restaurant in Atlanta before opening this intimate place in the West Village that specializes in uni in many guises.

Events: Vino 2010: Wines of Apulia

The seminar's moderator, Italian wine expert Charles Scicolone, noted that people often dismiss Puglia wines as "too jammy, pruney, and lacking in acidity," but most of the wines we tasted today proved that perception wrong. I learned there are three main grapes grown in Puglia: negroamaro, primitivo and uva di troia, also known as nero di troia and often combined with malvasia nera, which is used mainly as a blending grape.

Events: Vino 2010: Calabria’s red wines

The cool thing about Calabria is that the region’s wine producers almost exclusively use regional varietals – primarily gaglioppo, plus arvino, greco nero, and magliocco canino in lesser quantities. (Other regional grapes I've never heard of include nerello calabrese and lacrima nera.) We learned that the Calabria region produces varieties that have disappeared or never existed in other regions.

Restaurants: J’s Oyster Bar: Order Everything But the Oysters

From the outside, the place wasn’t much to look at – and from the inside, it wasn’t either. J’s was more like a dive bar with food than a restaurant, with many diners eating at the U-shaped bar that dominates most of J’s interior and a few at tables scattered near the windows. The clientele appeared to be mainly locals sharing gossip about other locals (and easily identified by ordering non-seafood dishes like chicken salad) and a smattering of tourists ordering many, many plates of shellfish in all its forms.

Events: Fat Duck Chef in NYC!

One of the only exceptions was at the Fat Duck outside of London, where we figured the chef (Heston Blumenthal) was cooking since we had read he's nearly always in the restaurant, but we didn't see him. And we opted against buying the cookbook since it cost something like 160 pounds, or a whopping $300. (Most of the other cookbooks we bought were around $60.) After the most expensive meal of our lives, we couldn't justify spending even more on the book, nice memento though it would be. So we were totally excited when we read last week that Heston would be signing a less expensive version of his book that had just been released for a much more affordable $50. Jay and I headed after work to the Alessi store in Soho where, champagne in hand, we finally met the man himself and told him the story of how we managed to eat at his restaurant in July due to a fortuitous last-minute cancelation.

Restaurants: Cal Pep: Don’t be afraid, just eat.

Jay and I had been wanting to go to Cal Pep for years. Seven years, in fact – since the last time we visited Barcelona. At that time, we actually wandered by the restaurant (one of the top-rated tapas places in the city) several times, but first were put off by the long lines outside of it, and then when we actually went in, totally intimidated by the lack of a menu. With our poor to non-existent Spanish, we weren’t sure how we would order beyond pointing at the glorious seafood piled in the cases behind the counter.

Restaurants: Mugaritz: Oh, that’s how they do it!

Just after we were seated and started to calm down, our server asked if we’d like to see the kitchen. Not really knowing what was going on, we were led back into the kitchen where the 40-something chef himself, Andoni Luis Aduriz, shook our hands and started chattering away in Spanish or Basque (we couldn’t be sure), translated into English by his sous-chef. He explained that his philosophy was to use pure, simple, and local ingredients, with nothing fancy like “foams.” (Interesting because Aduriz used to cook with Feran Adria at El Bulli, which pioneered the entire foam movement.)

Restaurants: Arzak: Friendly celebrity chefs but not enough pizzazz.

Another change from any of the restaurants we’d visited so far: The server actually walked us through the menu (in English, also unlike any of the places in France where it was pretty much French or nothing), and gave us choices for several dishes (lobster vs. squid, as well as choices for the fish and the meat), and even asked us how we would like everything prepared – how progressive! And Jay and I didn’t even have to choose the same things, imagine! Our server also steered us toward a bottle of the house red, a 2001 Arzak Rios Alta Rioja, which actually turned out to be really good with most of the dishes – light with red cherry flavors.