A foodie for decades, I was thrilled to have the once-in-a-lifetime experience of traveling through some of Europe’s renowned regions for fine dining for 21 days. From Zurich, Switzerland, to Venice, Florence, and Monte Carlo, my husband Dan and I were fortunate enough to find fabulous cuisine and pair those meals with superb wines. What I didn’t expect—laughable in hindsight—was how difficult it would be to find them. My usual resources for finding good restaurants are Google Places and The New York Times. The first is preferable once you’re at your destination, and the Times has always been helpful for pre-planning our travels. This time, however, the Times wasn’t much help. Thankfully, local servers at the restaurants we liked a lot turned us on to the best eateries in their popular cities, which I was eager to share New Times readers.
- PHOTOS BY DAN HARDESTY
- GLOBE-TROTTING FOR FOODIES : Trattoria Gargani's spaghetti with spicy garlic marinara and lobster and grilled veal chop with arugula and tomatoes was one of the highs amongst a surprisingly varied tour of Europe.
The one restaurant we were particularly excited about dining in during our visit to Europe was Le Grill at the Monte Carlo Hotel in Monaco. Under the direction of renowned chef Alain Ducasse, it’s a more affordable version of his premiere restaurant in the hotel, named Louis XV. That restaurant, I’m afraid, was unaffordable no matter how much I would like to dine there. Le Grille appeared a top-notch experience, but it didn’t come close to living up to my expectations. Honestly, that floored me. It was undeniably upscale, yet lacked the pizzazz I love about great restaurants where you’re wowed by extraordinary dishes. And I can tell you of many such dishes I have enjoyed here at home.
We ordered the prixe fixe menu: a starter, main course, and dessert with extras including wine, coffee, and cookies. The best dish was my starter of German wheat with chanterelles with a heady broth that made it difficult to resist. I didn’t eat it all so I wouldn’t ruin my appetite for the rest of the gigantic lunch—yet no other dish was of equal caliber. My beef entrée was unexciting and raw when I requested medium rare, and it didn’t have the lovely sauté of baby veggies that Dan enjoyed with his braised lamb entree. The lamb was far tastier than the beef. Dessert was the greater letdown in a seriously undercooked dark chocolate soufflé. Dan’s vanilla bean ice cream with sliced nectarines was tasty but nothing special. I did not like the simple Bordeaux served, our only other choices a Chardonnay or Rose by no producer of mention. We finished with watered down “American coffee” (common in every city visited—while I’m not used to espresso, I hate weak coffee) and simple, uninspired cookies. Do I sound too critical? I think anyone would have expected better at 200 Euros for lunch.
Amazingly, we had better dishes at our hotel, Le Meridian’s L’Intempo Restaurant, which is open 24 hours daily. The salmon sashimi was pleasant enough, but the sea bass was far better, served with truffle-scented mashed potatoes and asparagus, beautifully paired with a Provence Rosé. We shared the two dishes although the waiter argued it wouldn’t be enough, and in fact they were generous portions. He also told us no service was included on the 118 Euro bill—apparently huge lie, we found out the next day at Bilgo, a small café with unexpectedly tasty food. When asked if service was included, the waiter retorted: “Madam, in all of Europe, service is always included in the bill!”
That little tip would help us in Florence where we heard it again twice from honest servers. At Bilgo, we enjoyed the freshest tiny mussels in their own heady juices, which begged for dunking bread. The tuna Niçoise was of the superior canned variety in olive oil, and the salad of impressive quality. With a tasty bottle of 2011 Provence Rosé (we had many of these from producers I never heard of and are not available here), we paid less than 30 Euros for the meal with service included. Despite his insistence the service was included, we tipped him five Euros for the valuable info and delicious experience; he earned it.
In Florence, our favorite out of many disappointing eateries during our five-night stay was Trattoria Gargani. It was way better than the New York Times recommendation of Cammillo for good-quality casual dining. Gargani’s quality was far greater overall, and the moderately priced wine list featured very good Tuscan wines. I’ll try to convince one of SLO’s excellent Italian chefs to re-create the spaghetti with lobster in a spicy garlic marinara for me, and Dan’s simple but perfectly grilled veal chop was the best I have tasted anywhere. With our meal we had a wonderful Antinori 2007 Chianti Classico DOCG Riserva Badia A Passignano (which can be found in the United States).
In Venice, we found ourselves amid the film festival stars and dined at the breakfast table next to Pierce Brosnan (007). Movie stars were everywhere. So were bad eateries—until we met a restaurateur named Fabio at Osteria San Marco, whose restaurant we favored for its simple but high quality food and fine wines. We asked Fabio, a resident, where he ate in Venice. He recommended L’Osteria di Santa Marina, adjacent to a church of the same name. There we relished the finest meal we had on this trip. We ordered an excellent Franciacorta Brut Rose (it was brunch after all) and feasted on the finest veal osso buco style I have ever been served. Dish after dish, everything made by hand in the kitchen, impressed us at every bite. It provided a genuine taste of classic Italian cuisine.
I have returned from the experience with far more respect for our local chefs who strive to provide us with outstanding cuisine that’s fresh from the farms. If you love French food, Bistro Laurent in Paso Robles is undeniably serving the best such food on the Central Coast. For authentic Italian, we all love Buona Tavola, Giuseppe’s, and Rosa’s, but don’t miss out on the fabulous newcomer in Paso, Il Cortile. For those seeking fine contemporary cuisine, you’ll find it at Cass House in Cayucos, and Artisan in Paso Robles. Many foodies have believed for too long that our restaurant scene has not yet caught up with the boom of outstanding wines on the Central Coast, but don’t believe it for a minute. ∆
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