Hospitality

257 274 MAHA KIMBERLY AKHTAR

A Virtual Dinner Party: Lamb Ragù

About a quarter of a century ago, I went to Sardegna…the one and only time I’ve visited this island in the Mediterranean, but one that I swore I wanted to go back to…and I will.

One summer, a few years after we both graduated, my best friend from college, a Roman girl told me she had rented a small cottage on the West Coast of Sardegna.

“It’s the un-chic side of Sardegna,” she said. “Not the Costa Smeralda…” which is an obligatory pit-stop for the jet set and their magnificent yachts as they cruise the Mediterranean in the summer.

“Why don’t you come visit?” she suggested. “You’ll have to fly into Caligari and take a taxi.”

Why not? I thought and booked myself on a flight to Rome and onwards.

As the taxi trundled north to the address that was not much more than the name of a farm and a general area rather than a ‘street address,’ I was amazed at the scenery. It wasn’t anything like what I’d imagined. It was wild.

Along the coasts, gigantic cliffs plunged into a sea so blue that it redefined ‘turquoise,’ and inland, when the road took us there, the hills were craggy and rugged and the valleys green and rich with local vegetation, the air redolent of the scent of herbs that was reminiscent of the Languedoc region of Southern France.

Shepherds snoozed under the heavy foliage of trees as their flocks foraged for fresh, sweet grass, whilst a strong wind swept through, cooling the effects of the hot summer sun. As we got closer to the house, a flock of flamingos rose up into the sky in a perfectly choreographed formation that took my breath away.

I honestly can’t remember exactly where the cottage was, but it was charming and the view and place made up in spades for what it didn’t have in the more modern comforts of life.

Besides the scenery, what has stayed with me from that trip were some of the meals we had: one a pasta dish made by the farmer’s wife when I arrived, mallerodus, a local pasta, in a simple sauce and lots of pecorino cheese; two, the lunch on the boat that we took to see the coast, was another simple pasta in a red sauce, made by one of the crew. Why is it that pasta in Italy just tastes better?

But the third meal was at an agriturismo, an Italian table d’hote, the dinner table of a local farmer.

At this agriturismo, the table was outside under the star-filled, inky sky of a summer night. I remember it was hot and humid and the air was quite still. Candles lit the area and the smell of wax mingled with the scent of wildflowers.

The table was laden with platters of antipasti and cheese and hot, homemade bread. There were pitchers of cold water and bottles of a homemade rose wine. The pièce de résistance was the incredibly beautiful sucking pig that everyone thought was the star of the show.

But for me, it was the pasta, the primo piatto that came before the pig that I have never been able to forget, the layered flavours of the lamb ragù creating an indelible memory of a dish that I recreated years after the trip, re-building it step by step from the flavours I remembered and the few pointers given to me by the farmer’s wife.

Three years ago, I was in East Hampton for some much-needed time off and my very close friend, K, came to visit. And as we sat drinking a Sicilian rosé by the pool enjoying the August sun, talking about places we’d visited and hoped to go back to, Sardegna was one that came to my mind and I told her about that meal at the agriturismo.

Inspired, I conjured up the dish, feeling a little bit like a witch stirring her cauldron, relying on my palate and olfactory memories from so many years ago. We had it that night, sitting outside, the table lit by candles, a couple of bottles of wine to keep us going and crickets chirping in the bushes. And…I have to say, it was pretty darned good and came very close to being exactly what I had eaten twenty-five years prior.

Last week, following the success of our first FaceTime virtual dinner party, my friends, K and L, suggested we do the lamb ragù next. Problem was that I had never written down the receipe in East Hampton, but, unbeknownst to me, K had taken notes as I cooked. So, we decided to go for it…K, L and I cooked on FaceTime, took a break to take our respective dogs out as the ragù simmered in three kitchens across Manhattan, and came back to it, served it and sat down and ate it…alone, yet together.

Wine was copiously consumed, L decided on a Marsanne from Yves Cuilleron, K a greco di tufo from Campania and I had a monica from Sardegna.

We ate too much and we drank too much and talked far too much, but this time, we didn’t have to get in cabs to go home. We were home.

Not yet sure what we will do next week, but there was some talk of Mongolian steak…

Stay tuned!

 

Meantime, the ragù receipe is below.

Ingredients:

Olive oil

4 cinnamon sticks
10 cloves
10 whole black pepper

2 bay leaves

8 cloves garlic minced
2 red onions chopped
4 pepperoncini or 3 fresh serrano chilies chopped or 4 dried
2 pounds minced lamb
2 of each sweet and hot sausage, without the casing

Salt

4 fresh tomatoes

Pinch of sugar

3 – 4 sweet potatoes, cut in chunks

A palmful of finely chopped parsley

1 box of a short pasta, rigatoni, fusilli, cavatappi or celentani
Pecorino cheese to taste

 

Method:
Heat a good glug of olive oil, enough to coat the bottom of a pot
Add whole spices to perfume the oil
Add garlic

Add red onion and chili
Add a pinch of salt to make the onion sweat
Once onion is soft, add meats and brown

Salt to taste
Peel the tomatoes, puree, and add to mixture
Add a teaspoon of sugar
Cover and cook on low fire, about an hour.

Pre-heat oven to 375 degrees
Toss chunks of sweet potato in olive oil and salt and roast, about 25 to 30 minutes until soft.
About 5 minutes before ragù is ready, add roasted sweet potato to the pot.
Top with parsley.

Boil pasta in salted water until al dente.

Drain and return to the pot and add the ragù to the pasta and allow it to mix.

Top with pecorino cheese and serve.

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The Great Chef, Floyd Cardoz

“I’m so sorry,” sad a tearful voice on the other end of the telephone early this morning.

“About what?” I asked, groggy, rubbing the sleep out of my eyes.

“Chef Floyd…” came the response.

“Oh no,” I sagged back down against the pillows. “It’s not possible…”

I knew he’d been ill…but it couldn’t be. Not Chef Floyd.

My thoughts immediately turned to his beautiful wife, Barkha, and his two sons. I knew Justin better than I knew Peter mainly Justin had been part of the opening team at Paowalla, his gorgeous big bright smile, welcoming in the droves that summer of 2016.

I, too, was part of that opening team.

I had been introduced to the great chef, of whom I already knew so much, by the opening GM. I was shaking when I met Chef Floyd, his reputation as a star in the firmament of New York’s culinary scene being so stellar. But Chef Floyd was not in the least intimidating. He was kind and gentle and had the biggest heart.

He hired me as a server and I promised myself to be the best he had. I knew about Indian food and spices and how the addition of even a pinch of something would change the flavour of a dish and how spices would affect the taste of a wine, when paired with it, often leading to pairing wines that were unexpected.

I loved the job and I loved learning even more about food and wine as the months went by and I absolutely adored Chef Floyd and his wife, Barkha, who together created a real family, looking after all of us as they did their own sons.

But the time came for me to leave when I decided to dedicate myself full-time to writing. But I never lost touch with Chef or Barkha and they often, over the past four years, kept asking me to come back in some way, shape or form. I tried, a couple of times, but somehow or the other, the timing was never quite right.

The last time I saw Chef Floyd was when he held a cooking class at Paowalla: he made clams in green coconut curry and a classic Hyderabadi biryani and my greatest honour was to have been there to help.

He was brilliant: a born teacher with his patience, his smile and his self-deprecating humility that was so very endearing.

I am beyond sad that he is no longer. But I know that he will live on in my memory as someone who helped me when I needed it most and taught me so much about food, wine and hospitality. But more than that, he was just a beautiful soul and great man. Thank you, Chef for everything.

 

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A ‘Golly’ Moment

Yes, it is a bit of a ‘golly’ moment in New York isn’t it?

Uncertainty is awful. But, it is a necessary step towards reinvention, which is what I’ve been doing for the past year and a half.

On average, over the past 30 years, I must have reinvented myself a good half a dozen times…an average of once every five years or so. But why?

I suppose I could say that I’ve been acquiring new skills, honing in on existing talents…but that would really be a load of bull feathers.

Honestly, I never intended on reinventing myself. I would much prefer a quiet life in the Cotswolds or the Lubéron. But reinvention seems to be my lot in life.

To be truly frank, I’ve never really had a plan or a career path. 

Opportunities are presented to everyone, every day: it’s part of life. Some recognize them and take them, others watch them go by.

All I’ve done is see them, seize them and taken them as far as they would let me.

I can’t tell you how many times people have been awestruck by the fact that I speak 6 languages, have traveled the world, worked for a rock ‘n’ roll band, been a journalist at a top news network, opened a luxury clothing storage business that is now a staple of Park Avenue matrons and celebrities, danced across Europe as a professional flamenco dancer, wrote and published five books and now a wine director at what was one of the hottest restaurants to open in New York City this year. 

Even as I write it all, I think I’ve just impressed myself! But seriously, all of this was simply because of an idea, an opportunity, and in a couple of cases having the luck of the stars being perfectly aligned in my favour.

Now, as I sit here in my apartment, I wonder what’s next? My most recent avatar was in that wonderful world of wine.

I do not honestly believe the restaurant industry in New York will come roaring back, or actually, perhaps it will, but it will have a different character, a different personality. I don’t know that I will readily see someone spend $9000 + on a bottle of 1990 Petrus as I did a merely couple of Saturdays ago.

Friends of mine in Spain are terrified: one of my best friends, one of the top sommeliers in Madrid, had to take her mother for her chemotherapy today. She had no mask and no gloves and she described the feeling in Madrid as apocalyptic, where the secret enemy lurks on every corner, waiting to engulf you.

Today, when I walked out towards the Park with Baxter, it was too pretty a day to be scared or panicked. Yet, I know the end of the month is coming and that brings with it the spectre of bills. What will I pay with? There’s no money. 

Perhaps we ought to look at what is happening as a reinvention? What comes out the other side, we don’t really know so there’s no sense driving oneself nuts speculating. Let’s just keep our eyes open for the next opportunity.

I thought this morning about what I feel when I’m in my tunnel of reinvention, I don’t struggle, I don’t strain, I allow myself to be. There are an awful lot of disappointments along the way, and yes, of course, I am human and I do worry and I chafe and I rant and rail, but one soon comes to the conclusion that it is futile. What will be will be.

And whilst we may not get what we want on the other end, we will most certainly get what we need.

That…is perhaps the most important thing to keep in mind in this time of uncertainty. 

And take this time to reconnect with friends, whether by text, email, facetime, however you want, but reconnect. There are a couple of girlfriends of mine I had not seen in months, mainly because I’d been working 15 hours a day, 7 days a week on this new restaurant opening. And now, for the past week, we get together on Facetime every day for a drink at 6 o’clock and catch up. Another friend, I hadn’t spoken to in a good two years, I reached out to her and when she said, “It is so good to hear your voice,” I almost cried.

Living in New York, working in jobs that rob us of what our lives should be filled with: friends, family, laughter, companionship and support…that for me is something I will change after this is all over. I want to make more time for the people who add something to my life, I want to work to live, not live to work. 

And years from now, when I sit in front of the fire with nothing but my memories, I want to know in my heart that I was a good, loyal friend, not a fair-weather one.

 

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Wine & Warmth

These days, when you tell someone that you’re a wine sommelier, they inevitably register a look of awe: eyebrows raised, eyes wide, mouth gaping…

“You must be really smart,” is the opening line that invariably follows.

Thank you “Somm,” the 2013 documentary that follows four wine captains in their quest for the Master Sommelier certification.

And whilst a good sommelier indeed should know his/her wines, varietals, flavour profiles, terroirs, geology and geography, I believe the job of a good sommelier requires a few other qualifications: namely a hospitable nature, of which warmth is the most important ingredient; good instincts and some psychological insight that gives him/her the ability to read the table.

I am one who admittedly goes out to eat at restaurants a lot, and have worked in my fair share of them and therefore have come across many a sommelier…and the ones who remain indelibly etched in my mind are the ones who smiled when they greeted me, the ones that made me feel good about the wine I had chosen and gently waltzed around a few suggestions of their own, explaining in simple words why their choices might be more appealing. Sometimes I agreed and sometimes I didn’t, but either way, we both ended up extremely pleased with the choice.

Years later, I may not remember much else, but I shall not easily forget Luis Garcia de la Navarra, the owner and Master Sommelier at his restaurant that carries his name on the Calle Montalban in Madrid.

Luis is tall for a Spaniard and handsome to boot. The first time I ate there, I had picked a simple Verdejo for lunch. It was a hot summer day and he applauded my choice and came back with:

“Perhaps the Senora would like to try a wine that just arrived in my cellar?”

Of course, I agreed.

That lunch, my friend Maria Jose and I ended up drinking the most delicious Godello…it was ‘As Sortes’ from Rafael Palacios, a honey-coloured liquid made from grapes that came from Palacios’ seven oldest plots. It wasn’t even that much more expensive than what we had originally picked, but it was so much more interesting than the Verdejo, and way more complex and layered.

And Luis suggested a simple plate of Pata Negra Jamon to start out with and rounds of juicy tomatoes drenched in a spicy green olive oil and warm bread to go with.

I must say it was probably one of the best lunches I’ve ever had.

And Luis…well, he won my confidence with his smile and twinkling eyes.

Then of course, there are the sommeliers who take themselves far too seriously and when they approach a table, they live up to their reputation of being unapproachable and borderline arrogant. Why? I’ve often wondered. Why be in the hospitality world if you’re not hospitable? Why can’t they smile. Why so stiff? In fact, I recently bumped into one who came off as quite rude. After all, it’s about the wine, not about them; and isn’t it all about the guest and helping their experience to be an unforgettable one?

Somm Time in New York City is a wine bar where a warm smile and hospitality go hand in hand with a spectacular wine list…the kind of list that wine aficionados might put up with a dour, dull sommelier, just for the pleasure of drinking the bottles curated so thoughtfully by Maria Rust. But in fact, you get it all at Somm Time: the warmth and the wine.

And with that combination, you just can’t lose.

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A Time To Wine

Back in the day, there was a bar on Greenwich Avenue called “The Bar.” It was truly a neighbourhood dive, with a great jukebox and a man called Johnny with a long ZZ Top-style beard behind the bar. Open until 4am, it attracted all kinds: nurses getting off their shifts, servers, other bartenders, writers, artists and the occasional lost soul.

I used to go in there for the odd dirty martini and put coin after coin in the jukebox, listening to The Cure and The Rolling Stones over and over.

I remember once asking Johnny for a glass of wine and he looked at me and raised a sardonic eyebrow.

“Lady, this is a bar,” he said.

That was in 1995.

A few years later, just as I had begun to gravitate towards the wine world, I happened to be at “The Bar” late one night and asked Johnny the same question.

“What color?” was the reply this time.

“White…” I said, shrugging slightly.

He bent down and pulled out a box, put some ice in a rocks glass and poured some of the golden liquid over the ice. “Here you go,” he pushed the glass towards me. “Wine.”

15 years later, after a particularly superb dinner of paella with Maria and Angie, two of my closest gal pals that included five bottles of vintage Burgundy and Bordeaux, I decided they needed to know about “The Bar.”

We piled into a cab and off we went downtown.

It was just as I remembered it. A real dive. Except that the jukebox now took debit cards and Johnny proudly served Pinot Grigio, Sancerre, Pinot Noir and Cabernet.

All this to say that wine is now a beverage of choice, and not just among aficionados and connoisseurs, but it is now accessible and available to all. And wine bars have cropped up all over the city. But they’re not all alike.

These days, I hang my hat at Somm Time, a wine bar par excellence, that is the brainchild of Maria Rust. A sommelier and wine maverick, she had always wanted a wine bar where wine was celebrated and enjoyed…and not for any particular reason, but just because.

When we worked together several years ago, we always said, we would have such a bar and lo and behold, now there is Somm Time.

Somm Time is a wine bar with a list that is extraordinary, filled with wines that appeal to everyone: from the sommelier and master of wine to the young law student who lives next door. But it’s not just about the wine: it’s also about the atmosphere, the ambiance and the sheer warmth that emanates when you walk in. People say it feels like their living room…and there may be some truth to that. But that is what we want. We want people to feel comfortable and happy…whilst they try new wines and teach their palate about something new.

None of us who work at Somm Time (and there are only three) preach about wine…it’s a conversation; we put people at ease with a smile and let them tell us what they want before we make gentle suggestions.

And for us, the greatest reward is when someone’s eyes genuinely light up when they take that first sip. That is what makes the very hard work we put into Some Time worthwhile.

Somm Time isn’t just any wine bar. It is a quintessential wine bar run by people who care not only about the wine but about the experience…because while the average person may or may not remember the wine, he or she will most certainly remember how we made them feel and hopefully come back again and again.