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Entries in La Vielle Cave (1)

Monday
Nov152010

The Gourmet Side of Corsica and Some Amazing Corsican Beverages

This is my fourth and final post about the extraordinary island of Corsica. I hope you have enjoyed reading about this wonderful place as much as I have enjoyed writing about it. I know I will return to this island someday. I just hope I don't have to wait too long!

I started off talking about Corsica's natural beauty. Then there was the glorious Specialty Food Scene (check out this cool website offering awesome Corsican specialty food products you can order online). In my most recent post, I talked about the cuisine of Corsica and some of the yummy meals we enjoyed in inland Corsica and on the coast. Now I'm wrapping up this series by talking about the more "gourmet" side of Corsican cuisine.

Chocolate Sphere with Coconut Ice Cream and Poached Mango Much of Corsica's cuisine is hearty comfort-food or simple grilled meat or fishes. The flavor of the food is bold and striking and fantastic. And everything we had was always expertly prepared. But, as in all places, there is a difference between the world of comfort food and the world of haute cuisine. It turns out Corsican cuisine happily and deliciously exists in both arenas. During our stay on the island, we enjoyed some very refined, sophisticated meals that elevated Corsican cuisine to the next level.

Filet Mignon of Veal with Macaroni Gratin at L'Antigu L'Antigu is in the heart of the old city of Porto Vecchio. It is an elegant restaurant with a giant open window that runs along the length of the room and offers a great view of the port below. The food is a perfect example of the French-Italian fusion that defines all Corsican cuisine.

Homemade Linguine with Barely cooked Shrimp and Pesto at L'Antigu To start, we shared an eggplant Mille Feuille, or napoleon. The dish was French in name, and the delicate layers of eggplant, tomato sauce and goat cheese lived up to the Mille Feuille title. But it was really Italian in flavor, tasting much like a delicious eggplant parmesan. Matt's dish of Filet Mignon du Veal, on the other hand, was a tender, seared medallion of veal with a veal stock reduction sauce, accompanied by a cheesy and yummy macaroni gratin. Very French. My dish took us back to Italy with fresh linguine tossed with barely cooked shrimp in a light and buttery pesto sauce. It was a seamless and delicious blend of French and Italian cuisine. An excellent meal.

Charming Main Square in Corte lined with bars, restaurants and shops In the inland city of Corte we had a great dinner at Le 24, a sort of upscale, modern Corsican restaurant. Corte is the former capital of Corsica and it is a beautiful place, surrounded by granite hills and mountains. There are charming cobblestone streets, an old church with a bell and watchtower, colorful houses with terra-cotta roofs and a striking Citadel perched above. Corte is tucked away in the mountains and it seems like a million miles from the touristy town of Porto, where we had stayed the day before. This feels like a real city, independent and proud, like the "real" Corsica. We loved Corte right away.

Main street in Corte. You can see the surrounding mountains in the distance And we loved our dinner at Le 24. We began with a "Petit Claufoutis de Morelles." The dish arrived in a mini cast iron crockpot, a luscious sort of scrambled egg custard chock full of big earthy morel mushrooms. It was a satisfying and comforting dish.

Earthy Custard with Morel Mushrooms at Le 24 For our main course Matt got the Filet Mignon du Porc: thin slices of seared pork tenderloin with baby yukon gold potatoes and a delectable pan sauce.

Matt's tasty Filet Mignon du Porc at Le 24 I got the Filet du Bouef. It arrived, much to my surprise, topped with a giant piece of seared foie gras. There was no mention of foie gras on the menu. And the steak itself was sitting in a rich foie gras sauce! It was very decadent. Earthy, honest food with sophisticated but familiar flavors. Delicious.

My filet mignon dripping with Foie Gras at Le 24 Another great restaurant was in the magical city of Bonifacio on our last night in Corsica. When we arrived at L'Archivolto, there was a line outside the door. A very good sign. There was an outdoor seating area that was roped off to prevent people from wandering in off the street. It was the first time I felt my New York instincts kick in while on this trip. I was anxious. I found myself eagerly peering into the restaurant, waiting for some indication that someone was about to get up. An empty plate…a napkin on the table…a signal to the waiter for a check. When a table finally opened up, someone tried to walk in and cut in front of us. I snappily told them we were here first. I'm sure they had no idea what I was saying. But my tone was clear. Don't mess with a hungry New Yorker.

Outside L'Archivolto, where I nervously wait for our table We scored a great seat right outside. I glanced at the people who had tried to elbow their way into the table we had so patiently waited for, standing there behind the rope. Maybe I smirked at them a little.

Anyway, now that we were seated I could relax and focus on the task at hand. It was clear from the moment we sat down that this was a serious place. The plates coming out of the kitchen looked amazing, not only delicious food, but wonderful presentation. The menu and wine list were both outstanding and we could tell right away that this was a real "foodie" restaurant.

Excellent Tomato Tarte Tatin at L'Archivolto Our first course was a tomato tarte tatin which was so delicious that I have tried to reproduce it ever since, without success. The gently roasted tomato sat on a flaky round of puff pastry, topped with a mixture of scallions and fresh herbs bathed in olive oil. To the side there was a salad of baby greens and fennel flowers in a lemon vinaigrette.

The flavors were fresh and clean allowing the natural sweetness of the tomato and the buttery goodness of the pastry to shine through. The salad tasted as if it had just been picked straight from the garden, practically bursting with freshness. Each element of the dish was perfectly executed and it was as fine an appetizer as you would find in any New York City restaurant. We were very impressed.

Matt's amazing Goat Cheese and Eggplant Lasagna at L'Archivolto For the main course, one of the dishes on the menu was a goat cheese and eggplant lasagna. Matt could not resist. The taste of the lasagna we had in Evisa still lingered in our minds. We wanted more! And if the tomato tarte tatin was any indication of the quality of this restaurant, it promised to be a damn good lasagna. It was.

Corsican eggplant is particularly delicious. It is very tender, sweet, almost creamy. We had many dishes featuring eggplant while in Corsica but this was perhaps the best. Layers of homemade pasta alternating with delicate disks of fried eggplant and dense, fabulous goat cheese. Tomato sauce was used sparingly, just enough to bring the dish together without overpowering the other ingredients. A generous layer of grated parmesan cheese topped it off, along with some shredded basil and olive oil. It was a delectable lasagna. Different from the one we had in Evisa, but just as fantastic.

Awesome spaghetti with herbs, breadcrumbs and bottarga at L'Archivolto It was hard to compare anything to the wonder that was Matt's lasagna. But my dish came pretty close. Spaghetti with a generous portion of shaved bottarga (dried tuna roe), roasted almond slivers, breadcrumbs, lemon juice and an assortment of fresh herbs. It was a simple dish, but packed with so many different flavors and textures. It was crunchy, salty and briny with a burst of citrus freshness from the lemon juice. I loved every bite.

The evening before we went to L'Archivolto, we made the mistake of going to the restaurant Stella D'Oro. It was our only bad meal of the trip. The restaurant was stuffy and old fashioned and the food was boring and uninspired. I was pretty upset after that dinner--a whole meal wasted! But L'Archivolto made up for that meal, and then some. It is a must go to if you visit Bonifacio.

Outside the outstanding restaurant Le Troubadour in Porto Vecchio Our most "gourmet" meal was at the restaurant Le Troubadour, back in the town of Porto Vecchio. Le Troubadour is off the beaten path a bit. You have to wander outside the loud, busy central streets of Porto Vecchio's Citadel to a more quiet area just beyond. At first glance the restaurant is a bit off putting. The downstairs is a modern room, almost all white and shiny, brightly lit with televisions and uncomfortable looking seats. We almost walked away. But then Matt spotted a greenhouse on the second floor, jutting off the side of the restaurant. It was decorated with pretty lights and we saw tables full of happy people dining. It looked intimate and inviting. We decided to take a chance.

We feel right at home in the cozy upstairs dining room of Le Troubadour We were led up a flight of rickety wooden stairs into a completely different universe. While the downstairs was cold and uninviting, the upstairs was like walking into a charming farmhouse. Attractive copper pots hung from iron racks on the ceiling. Wooden tables and benches complimented the textured whitewashed walls. The greenhouse was off to the left looking just as lovely as it had from the outside. There was an air of tasteful elegance that made us feel instantly at home. This was gonna be good.

Perfect and refreshing Kir Royale's at Le Troubadour For our aperitif, the waiter offered us a Kir Royale flavored with black currant. We sipped on our drinks and began to peruse the menu.

Along with sea urchin, there is one other ingredient that I can never resist when I see it on a menu: heirloom tomatoes. Maybe it's because I used to hate tomatoes that I am so passionate about them now. But I just can't get enough of them and when I see an heirloom tomato salad on a menu, chancing are I'm going to order it. Some heirloom tomato salads are better than others. But when it's done right, and when a chef knows how to coax the maximum sweetness and tomato-y-ness out of these beautiful fruits, it can be an example of simple perfection.

Heirloom tomato salad perfection at Le Troubadour This heirloom tomato salad was so wonderful. The tomatoes were juicy, almost bursting with ripeness. Tiny leaves of pungent basil and spicy arugula adorned the top. The tomatoes were dressed, just right, with a heavy dose of an excellent local extra virgin olive oil, lemon juice, sea salt and cracked black pepper. When we had eaten all of the tomatoes, we were delighted to find that the juices from the tomatoes and the olive oil had gathered at the bottom of the bowl, creating a perfect sauce to sop up with a piece of crusty sourdough bread. Simple and spectacular.

Matt's homemade Pappardelle with Braised Veal Ragu Then came the main course. Matt wisely went with one of the day's specials: Pappardelle with Braised Veal Ragout. This was as fine a pasta dish as you could find in any restaurant in Italy. Thick, chewy Pappardelle with an unbelievable ragout that was exploding with flavors. Rich, herbaceous, creamy, a little citrusy. Unreal. There was a heaping pile of pecorino cheese to top it off and more of that excellent local olive oil. Wow.

Fine dining doesn't get much better than my main course of Filet Mignon with Gnocchi at Le Troubadour But my dish was equally as delicious. A rare-seared piece of filet mignon wrapped in bacon drizzled with a meaty pan sauce. The beef was sitting on a bed of asparagus and delicately blanched haricot vert. The chef won major points for the presentation of the asparagus. Peeled at the bottom in what must've been an excrusiating task for some poor prep chef. But there was a really cool texture contrast between the peeled and un-peeled parts of asparagus that made it worth the effort. Accompanying the beef was a little cast iron dish of tender gnocchi bathing in that same salty beefy pan sauce that went with the beef. Awesome.

Painstakingly peeled asparagus at Le Troubadour. Worth the effort. For dessert, we ordered the chocolate and coconut "globe": a dark chocolate sphere containing a layer of light and airy coconut ice cream and poached mango, sitting on a disk of more dark chocolate. It was delish. And when you broke open the sphere, the inside looked exactly like a Cadbury Cream Egg.

Does this not look exactly like a Cadbury cream egg? At the end of the meal, Matt told the waiter that I was a caterer in New York City. The waiter insisted on telling the chef and bringing him out to meet me. We were shocked when head chef Julian Diaz walked out of the kitchen. He was only 28 years old! His cooking reflects an amazing complexity and depth that you would expect from a chef twice his age. Chef Diaz told us he was born in Marseilles and that he trained alongside the head chef of one of the top, Michelin starred, restaurants in Corsica, Casa Del Mar. He also worked as a chef in Bolivia, London and Iraq.

Photo op with Head Chef Julian Diaz He was shy and humble. Matt and I gushed over the meal. To our surprise, Chef Diaz seemed almost shocked that people from New York City would be so blown away by his cooking.

Because Corsica is so insular and seemingly isolated from the rest of the world, it may seem like this restaurant in a relatively small town on a relatively small island could never be compared to a restaurant in New York. But that couldn't be farther from the truth. Le Troubedour, and Chef Julian Diaz, could easily stand up to many of New York's finest. And if you look at the larger picture, the current world-wide trend of sourcing out local and seasonal ingredients puts Corsica at the forefront of today's foodie scene. In fact, in many ways, Corsica's food culture is the ultimate example of the local food movement. This is foodie paradise. And Le Troubedour is only one excellent showcase of just how good Corsican cuisine can be.

THE BEVERAGES OF CORSICA

Inside the magical La Vielle Cave in Corte It may seem strange to dedicate a whole section to beverages. But the drinks here are just that good! And we were surprised to find that Corsica's commitment to serving local products extended beyond just food and speciality food products. When you are on this island, you will drink local Corsican beverages almost exclusively.

First off, there's the nonalcoholic drinks. I know it may be crazy to say this, but even Corsican water is distinct and outstanding. Orezza, the local sparkling water, is bottled in Corsica and sourced from an ancient spring. It tastes clean and fresh and really very different from other mainstream sparkling waters. The still water, Zilia, is equally as pure and clean, almost sweet, and comes from a spring located in the mountains. Corsica even produces it's own Cola: Corsica Cola, which tastes like a mix between Coke and Dr. Pepper.

Our favorite Corsican red wine, Oriu But we weren't just sipping on glasses of sparkling water. Corsica produces excellent wines, specializing in Rose, Red Wine and the sweet dessert wine, Muscato. While we were in Corsica, we only drank Corsican wine. In fact, the wine list of every restaurant we went to in Corsica only offered Corsican wine. And that was fine by us. The wines are sophisticated and complex and delicious. We sampled wines from vineyards all across the island, drinking crisp and refreshing Rose's during lunchtime, and deep, rich reds at night. Our favorite wine was called "Oriu" from a vineyard near Porto Vecchio.

Refreshing fruity Cap Corse We began every meal with the traditional Corsican aperitif, a fortified sweet wine called Cap Corse. Cap Corse is served over ice with a thin slice of lemon. It is a dark colored and intensely grape-y drink. We brought back a bottle with us and one friend said it tasted like a Fig Newton. It totally does. If you go to Corsica act like a local and order "Un Cap." The waiter will nod approvingly.

Ah, Pietra Corsica also produces whiskey, liqeuers flavored with local fruits and herbs, brandy, and an amazing beer called Pietra. Pietra is brewed with local chestnuts and malts. It is a lovely amber color, light enough to be very drinkable, but also rich in flavor and very well balanced. The Pietra website describes the beer as "Strong and delicate, solid and soft with a touch of bitterness…" I'd say that's accurate. What a great, great beer. I really miss Pietra.

To end this series of posts, I will share one of our most memorable experiences in Corsica. I think it sums up everything we love about this island.

Entering mysterious La Vielle Cave Before we left Corte to drive to Porto Vecchio we walked around the city a bit more. We did some shopping, bought an inviting baguette at a cute bakery and took a quick visit to the Citadel. As we made our way back to our hotel we just so happened to look down a small side street and catch a glimpse of an inviting and mysterious looking shop: La Vielle Cave.

Wine filled barrels at La Vielle Cave We immediately walked over. We went down a few stairs into a dark, musty, cave-like room. Bottles of wine lined the walls, along with bottles of unlabeled liqueurs and giant, unmarked barrels. On the far end of the room hams and salamis hung from the ceiling. There was a strange looking contraption that looked like some sort of home-made distillation machine. In one corner a group of red faced, balding Corsican men sat around a bunch of overturned barrels now being used as tables. They were drinking wine and having a heated discussion about soccer (which later turned into an even more heated discussion about Corsican politics).

Distillery contraption at La Vielle Cave Upon entering, the owner beckoned us over to a barrel table and instructed us to sit down. We had only intended to look around but within seconds he had produced two wine glasses and filled them to the brim with a pretty pink Rose. He looked at us and smiled. Another few seconds went by and a shell-shaped aluminum ash tray was placed before us filled with thickly sliced salami.

Brimming glasses of excellent Rose wine at La Vielle Cave We sat back, taking in the bizarre and wonderful scene. We drank our Rose and it was magically refilled. One of the louder, more passionate of the Corsican men suddenly broke into a mournful song. Some of the other men raised their glasses and joined him, singing along in harmony. After a few minutes they returned to their argument. At one point a guy parked his Vespa outside the door of the shop and walked in carrying a tall empty water bottle. The owner took the bottle over to one of the barrels, filled it up with Rose wine and handed it back to the guy. Matt and I looked at each other in amazement. Was this place for real?

Salami on the house at La Vielle Cave We both would've happily stayed at La Vielle Cave for the rest of the day. But we had to get going. We asked the owner to recommend some wines and liquerrs for us to buy to take home. He insisted we try a couple to see what we liked. We did not refuse.

There is meat hanging everywhere at La Vielle Cave. What a happy place. We left with 3 bottles of wine, 1 bottle of Muscato and 2 bottles of liqueur. La Vielle Cave was probably the main reason we ended up paying a hefty overweight charge for our luggage on our return home. But it didn't matter. Because anytime I want to remember that magical place, and the magical island of Corsica, I just open up the golden honey and myrtle flavored home-made aperitif and I'm right back in that room, sitting by those barrels, sipping a glass of Rose, Corsican singing drifting through the air…

Au Revoir from Corsica!