This tip originally appeared in the Jan. 31 - Feb. 28, 2019, issue of Wine Spectator, "Editors' Notebook."
In Wine Spectator's annual Editors' Picks issue, our senior editors go through their most memorable wines, experiences and travels of the past year and share what stood out to them most. This week, we follow them on their travels to four different cities, where they discovered special restaurants that are worth bookmarking for your future adventures in Europe and stateside.
Brooklyn, N.Y.: Camperdown Elm
I live in New York City, home to thousands of restaurants, including many of the greatest in the world. The opportunity to eat so well is one of the many reasons I'm here.
More specifically, I reside in Brooklyn, a borough whose world-renowned restaurants include the sophisticated River Café and the old-school steak house Peter Luger. But mostly, Brooklyn offers the quieter pleasures of neighborhood restaurants—convenient, reliable and friendly.
But because Brooklyn is part of NYC and shares its energy and ambition, its best neighborhood restaurants find a balance, creating a space where they can express their personal vision while still providing diners with comfort and value.
Camperdown Elm in the Park Slope neighborhood hits those higher goals. Since it opened in June 2017, it has become my go-to for occasions that demand special attention but don't require a trip to "the city." I've taken friends and family, and even threw a 90th birthday party for my mother-in-law there. Over these visits, I got to know the staff and learned about their backgrounds and goals.
The restaurant is owned by chef Brad Willits and general manager Ignacio Monclus (and a silent partner who manages the financial side).
Willits, 37, is from South Florida, where his father owned a restaurant. He worked his way up the kitchen ladder and steadily north geographically until he landed at New York's Aldea in 2013, where chef-owner Georges Mendes has a reputation for elevated Iberian cuisine. When Mendes opened Lupulo in 2015, Willits shifted over, and there met Monclus. "I tasted Brad's croquetas de jamón and said, 'Let's open a restaurant together,' " recalls Monclus, 33.
But first, they split up. Willits went to Agern, an ultracontemporary Scandinavian restaurant, and Monclus to Amada, a Spanish spot by celebrity chef Jose Garces. "Amada was a terrific restaurant," explains Monclus, "and our all-Spanish wine list was full of benchmarks. But I wanted to do something on my own, with a little more soul."
Monclus grew up in Huesca, Spain, and as a teenager read the novels of Paul Auster, who lives in Brooklyn and has set some of his fiction there. They whet his appetite for the borough, and while reality hasn't exactly matched fiction (nor has Monclus met Auster yet), the Spaniard has found himself at home. "For me, the amazing thing [here] is this combination of diversity and community," he says.
Camperdown Elm replaced a popular, more casual restaurant and immediately set itself a challenge with a more ambitious menu and higher prices. At first, there was resistance.
"There was a time when we asked ourselves, should we make the food simpler," Monclus admits. "But we decided to stick to our vision. And then people came around. We found that in Brooklyn, here in Park Slope, people are open to trying new things."
Some of those "new things" are on the menu. Willits focuses on local and seasonal ingredients but gives them an Iberian accent. Cauliflower is served with the classic Catalan sauce romesco. Rice crackers are topped with a mackerel pâté, which bridges Spain and South Florida. Atlantic scallops get an Asian touch with charred onion dashi.
The wine list skews Spanish but also looks abroad. "I choose wines that complement Brad's cuisine," Monclus notes. "The food is bright and vegetable-focused. So it wants lighter, fresher wines. I also want to serve what I love. And I find that people are willing to try them."
The list is short, at about 40 entries. I've enjoyed a Txakoli rosé; a white from Etna in Sicily; and the Rioja classic Viña Ardanza from La Rioja Alta. One day I had a thirst for Garnacha, so Monclus opened three versions, all from different regions in Spain and with very different characters. My most recent discovery was Pedro Parra's Imaginador, a Cinsault from the remote Itata Valley in Chile.
Monclus says that on any given night, about half the customers are regulars, while positive press and word of mouth have drawn diners from Manhattan and beyond, especially on weekends. But while the 26 seats in the dining room may be reserved, the 18 seats on the patio and 15 seats at the bar are for walk-ins. And most of the time, they are comfortably filled with people having a good time.
Park Slope has welcomed Camperdown Elm and supported it patiently as it figured out what it truly wanted to be. "We have to do what we believe," Monclus says.
That's a fine theme for a business, and for a community. A neighborhood that can offer a restaurant like Camperdown Elm is a fine place to live.—Thomas Matthews
441 Seventh Ave., Brooklyn, N.Y.
London: Applebee's Fish
My husband's IT consulting work sometimes takes him to fun places, so I tagged along on a recent trip to London. We had one fancy meal already scheduled for our short trip and figured the rest of the time we'd keep it simple and sup on pub fare along with cold pints.
As for the fancy meal, I'm here to announce that my husband was right—the heirloom tomato tartare with tomato and basil mousse and grilled-tomato dressing at La Belle Époque in Heathrow's Sofitel was every bit as good as he said it was. I've never heard him rave about a dish so much, and he was doing it for good reason. It was particularly delightful with the glass of Perrier-Jouët Brut I had in my hand.
The rest of the trip went as predicted—we snacked on fish and chips and on ham-and-cheddar baguettes we'd purchase in London Underground shops.
One afternoon, we made our way to the Borough Market, one of the largest food markets in London, where we explored the cheesemongers, butchers, street food and stalls selling honey, truffles, preserves and more. I was ready for a break anyway when it started to rain, and suddenly I couldn't believe my nose. It was the most magical scent, a mix of butter, white wine, garlic, parsley and seafood. I convinced him we must eat at this aromatic, albeit crowded, seafood restaurant, ignominiously named Applebee's Fish.
It took so long to get a table that we nearly bailed a couple of times, but I'm so glad we didn't—in a strike of serendipity, it turned out to be one of those times when everything clicked between food, drink and conversation. We spent hours there.
I ordered a bottle of Clos Henri Sauvignon Blanc Marlborough Petit Clos 2015 off the list, and it was perfect with the seafood—minerally and crisp, with an intense, juicy finish.
And, oh my goodness, the seafood! It seems like we sampled everything, including the tuna tartare, crab salad, sashimi, and yes, we even ordered the fish and chips—delectable turbot in a light batter, served with the best mushy peas. When we saw they offered a Neal's Yard Dairy cheese plate, we knew we had to order that for dessert. Everything was delicious.
It was such a delightful find, and a reminder to keep an open mind (and follow your nose!) when traveling.—MaryAnn Worobiec
5 Stoney St., London
Paris: Le Clarence
I tend to be a creature of habit. One of those habits is enjoying a refined meal in Paris when I finish a work trip to Bordeaux or the Rhône Valley. And since it opened in 2015, I've made Le Clarence, a dining spot created by Domaine Clarence Dillon owner Prince Robert de Luxembourg, my regular stop.
First off, there's the feel of the place, which combines comfort and luxury. Walking in through a cobbled courtyard, you have the sense of entering a grand home. There's a regal feel to be sure, while the warmth and professionalism of the staff allows you to sink into a chair and relax fully. Built in 1884, the mansion that houses Le Clarence is in a tony part of town and its elegant staircase leads up to small dining rooms with views of the Grand Palais. After your meal, another flight up finds you in the salon to linger with a digestif.
There's the wine list. Actually, there are two of them. Presented in small tomes disguised as books right off the library bookshelf, one has an exhaustive list of all the Domaine Clarence Dillon wines—Haut-Brion, La Mission Haut-Brion and Quintus, with a run of large-format bottles that is more than fun to browse while you daydream. The other book contains the rest of the wine world, a smart selection of France's top domaines from all its wine regions. You can take your time flipping through—there is absolutely no rush here.
And then there's the cuisine—classic French refinement under the guidance of chef Christophe Pelé, who garnered two Michelin stars within just two years of opening. The menu is easy to read, because there is no set menu. Choose the number of courses you want, and the kitchen does the rest, preparing dishes with a daily market approach.
The experience that hooked me for good on the place happened during a lunch. As I looked around at other tables, I saw that fish was the main course of the day. I don't adhere to strict pairing rules, and so despite the lighter fare, I ordered a bottle of Henri Bonneau Châteauneuf-du-Pape. It wasn't long after the venerable old-school vigneron had died, and there was a bottle of his 2010 on the list for a reasonable price (considering how hard his wines are to find). I knew the wine would be big, young and perhaps a bit bruising, but I felt like paying homage to Bonneau, and so it seemed like the right moment to drink it. At worst, I thought, I could get through the fish course with minimal wine-food disruption and then consume the majority of the bottle with the cheese course. When my main course came, instead of fish, a perfectly roasted pigeon appeared. The waiter mentioned that the chef thought it would be a better dish considering the wine I had ordered. It could have been game, set and match right there, as I finished the bottle, heavenly with the gamy, earthy notes of the pigeon. But then what to do with the cheese course? Just as I was ruing draining the red too soon, the sommelier came around with a Maury that he served with a pipette from a glass demijohn. That's when I realized that no great seduction can ever be overdone.
I believe great wine and food comes in all combinations and works at all levels, from the BYOB taqueria a block from my office to destination restaurants you build a day's vacation around. From overladen Thanksgiving tables to a salad and glass of rosé alfresco. When it comes to a little self-pampering after a long stretch of work, I like to be cradled in the lap of luxury, however temporary or aspirational it may ultimately be.
Le Clarence affords me exactly that experience, with a remarkable consistency of quality coupled with the anticipation of knowing that every meal there is unique and different.—James Molesworth
31 Ave. Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Paris
Prague: La Degustation Bohême Bourgeoise
Like any foodie, when I travel, I want to enjoy great food and wine. That's easily done in cities like Paris, for example. But my expectations for Prague were not quite as high. Maybe some stick-to-your-ribs guláš or some interesting cabbage preparations?
What I wasn't expecting was far and away my most delicious and creative meal of the past year—maybe even the past decade—accompanied by fantastic wine and finely honed service. This is exactly what I found at La Degustation Bohême Bourgeoise, a restaurant in Prague's Old Town area and a must-go for any visiting food lover.
La Degustation's chef and co-owner, Oldřich Sahajdák, offers a single, daily-changing tasting menu consisting of eight courses—seven savory and one sweet ($150). Sahajdák says he was most influenced by chef Thomas Keller's California restaurant the French Laundry, where he dined during the course of his studies at the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone.
"For the first time in my life, I tried a tasting menu with nine or 10 courses," Sahajdák says. "This was the crucial moment that inspired us when we opened La Degustation Bohême Bourgeoise."
Before leaving for the restaurant, I checked the online menu to see what they would be serving that evening. Each course was concisely described in three ingredients. It was not exactly enough to make your mouth water, and in fact, the menu that day included some ingredients I deemed questionable, even for my adventurous palate. But we had reserved weeks in advance after reading great things about the place, and the 500-bottle wine list was calling to me.
Upon arrival, I was impressed by the warm and elegant dining room. Minimalist table settings outfitted the 14 wooden tabletops, and the brightly lit kitchen hummed with activity at the back of the room. As befits a Michelin one-star restaurant, the fleet of service staff was a quiet presence, attending to a well-heeled crowd typically comprising about 80 percent foreigners, according to the general manager, Tomáš Brosche.
Perhaps something was lost in translation, but as we began our culinary adventure, none of the written or even the lengthier verbal descriptions really got us excited. And as each beautifully plated dish was placed in front of me, I still wasn't always sure what exactly I was about to eat. But every course was exceptional.
Sahajdák explained that the menu is inspired by recipes from a cookbook of Czech cuisine first published in 1894 by Marie B. Svobodová. "In 2006, before we opened La Degustation, we decided to try working based on [her recipes]. And we haven't opened another cookbook since: It's French cuisine, which intertwined with Czech cuisine—or rather Austro-Hungarian—at the end of the 19th century."
Sahajdák takes recipes more than a century old and folds in modern twists, playing with ingredient texture and temperature to give greater expression to each plate's flavors. A well-prepared piece of lamb loin with demi-glace could stand alone, but the addition of a savory grain mustard gelato takes the dish to another level. Before dining at La Degustation, if you had asked me if I would ever recommend mustard ice cream, the answer would have been decidedly no.
Like the food, the wine list was intriguing. Compiled by wine director Zdeněk Oudes, it is entirely Old World in origin, with good coverage of all Europe's major wine regions but additionally highlighting selections from Eastern Europe, including local Czech bottlings.
After some consultation, I opted for a round, dry white made from Hungary's Hárslevelű grape, Gizella's Hárslevelű Tokaji Barát 2015 ($45). This was my exploration wine for the evening. The second bottle I ordered, the Produttori del Barbaresco Barbaresco Muncagota Riserva 2011 ( $86), was an opportunity to revisit a familiar friend, now with a little bit of age.
About half the restaurant's clients order from the wine list, while the other half opt for the offered wine pairing menu ($92). Oudes' pairings are heavy on Czech producers, but he finds most guests are open to trying local vintners. He sees it as an opportunity to create complementary combinations that are also informative for the diner. A pairing menu of fruit and vegetable juices is also available as an interesting nonalcoholic option ($33).
Prague is a beautiful city. Prior to this visit, my last trip there was in 1997, not too many years after the fall of communism, and the city has incorporated dramatic modernization since that time. La Degustation Bohême Bourgeoise is a fitting flagship dining experience for a city of Old World charm combined with graceful modernity.—Alison Napjus
La Degustation Bohême Bourgeoise
Haštalská 18, 110 00 Staré Město, Czechia