On a recent trip to Paris I was surprised to find that piment d'Espelette had made its way into the kitchens at Taillevent, Le Bristol and Alain Ducasse au Plaza. France's only homegrown chile pepper had been virtually unknown outside the Pyrenees, but its reputation has evidently spread since it won an appellation d'origine contrôlée last year, announcing that it is unique and worth protecting.
Piment d'Espelette has a fiery kick, but its heat is less fearsome than that of many other chiles, and its sweetness reminds you that peppers are first a vegetable, then a spice. The name is taken from the Basque village of Espelette, where the peppers have been grown, the legend goes, since Columbus brought them back from Haiti. In late summer, garlands of them hang on every whitewashed house in town, drying in the sun. Ground to a powder, piment d'Espelette replaces black pepper in local cooking.
When I came home, I talked with two San Franciscobased chefs, Laurent Manrique of Campton Place and Gérald Hirigoyen of Pastis and Fringale, who sneak the pepper into their dishes. (Hirigoyen seasons his seared tuna salad with it.) Now that Hirigoyen's wife, Cameron, is importing piment d'Espelette through her company, Igo, and selling it to Williams-Sonoma ($13 for 1 ounce; 877-812-6235) and other stores, I fully expect to see the rest of America succumb to the chile's charms.
Even though I knew La Rotonde was in a casino, nothing prepared me for the strangeness of making my way to the restaurant by way of the slot-machines. After all, this wasn't Atlantic City or even Las Vegas; this was Lyon, arguably the most serious place to eat in France. I also knew that the eight-year-old restaurant had been awarded its second Michelin star last year. Still, the dining room, with its oversize painting of a large-eyed Mediterranean beauty, had me worried.
When the menu came, it was dauntingly longfive pages of tasting menus even before I got to the à la carte dishes. But what a great read! Philippe Gauvreau's all-vegetable menu made parsnips, rutabagas and dried beans seem every bit as delicate and interesting as langoustines. And Gauvreau has a sense of humor, too. His lobster menu breaks down the crustacean anatomically: The left claw is added to a salad of grilled potatoes, edible flowers and raw oysters; the head intensely flavors a soup; the right claw is wrapped into hazelnut-flour ravioli; the tail is roasted and served with cardoons, salsify and bone marrow braised in a red wine sauce. I followed Gauvreau's anatomy lesson so avidly that I soon forgot all about the crap tables and roulette wheels.
Gauvreau, who is 36, started cooking in his uncle's pastry-and-catering shop in northern France, but he's clearly most inspired by the flavors of the sunny south, where he worked with Jo Rostang at La Bonne Auberge in Antibes and Jacques Maximin at the Chantecler in Nice. Gauvreau doesn't think it's odd to serve Mediterranean cuisine in Lyon. After all, he says, "the Lyonnais already know how to cook frogs' legs, snails and quenelles" (Casino Le Lyon Vert, La Tour de Salvagny; 011-33-4-78-87-00-97).
Like A Wok
Pity the wok. Everybody's darling in the '70s and '80s, it was relegated to the nation's basements when we collectively lost interest in stir-fried broccoli. But the wok has unexpectedly received a second chance, thanks to a new generation of cooks who've found that it's more versatile than we ever imagined. Arnold Eric Wong, the executive chef of Eos and French- and Italian-influenced Bacar in San Francisco, grew up using woks to make Chinese food. But at Bacar, he finds them perfect for pan-roasting lobsters or mussels.
Why the wok? It's all about heat. Restaurants have special wok ranges that run five to 10 times hotter than other cooktops. It may seem odd to think of the wok as a dangerous device, yet Wong jokes that it has permanently singed the hair from his arms. For cooks with ordinary household ranges, the wok still makes for terrific high-heat cooking. Wong's recipe for wok-roasted mussels can easily be made at homewith little danger of singed hair.
Nature and Nurture
It's an open secret that bucolic Ulster County has become the latest escape for weary New Yorkers who would rather hike the hemlock-covered slopes of the Catskills than fight the Hamptons traffic to the beach. But unless, like Uma and Ethan, you bought a piece of real estate in the area, there's been nowhere to stay. Until now.
The Emerson Inn and Spa, outside Woodstock, is just a few months old, but word is spreadingnot just because it's the only deluxe lodging around, but because it got everything absolutely right. An 1874 clapboard Victorian restored by local entrepreneur Dean Gitter to the tune of $7 million, the Emerson is stuffed with big-city accoutrements: Frette linens and goose-down pillows on the feather beds; Hermès goodies in the bathroom; Waterford crystal, Sheffield silver and Limoges china in the dining room.
Ah, the dining room! Gitter poached chef Gilbert Steiner from Ontario's Inn at Manitoua Relais & Châteaux propertyand set him loose on the region's amazing ingredients. Steiner's style balances rustic and classic (as in Hudson Valley foie gras on home-baked gingerbread), with a nod to his native Alsace (grilled Black Angus beef à la Strasbourgeois). The theme is civilization in the wilderness, and it continues into the freshly landscaped grounds at the foot of Mount Tremper, the terrace of locally quarried bluestone, and especially into the adjoining spa, with its stone floors, bamboo walls and menu of 40 revivifying treatments.
The name of the inn is significant. The American notion of nature was largely shaped by nineteenth-century artists and writers who visited the Catskills, including Ralph Waldo Emerson. Emerson's works in particular inspired the conservation movement, which in turn led to the creation of the Catskill Forest Preserve. Thus, all 24 guest rooms harbor a copy of Emerson's 1836 essay "Nature," right where Gideon should be (from $380 per night; 877-688-2828).
Queens's Chocolate King
To find some of New York City's most exquisite chocolates, you need to go well off the beaten path (translation: far from Madison Avenue). Wai Chu of El Eden Chocolates diligently makes and sells truffles in a storefront on 30th Avenue, an unprepossessing strip in Astoria, Queens. The unlikely location makes the discovery all the sweeter.
During stints in the kitchens of March, Clementine and other Manhattan restaurants, Chu learned that great food starts with great ingredients. He applies that lesson at El Eden: He calls the superb Callebaut and Cacao Barry chocolate he imports from Belgium "the star in our truffles." No machine ever touches his confections: Everything is done by hand, from beginning to end. You can try it yourself by making Chu's wonderful black-and-white truffles, with a bittersweet chocolate coating wrapped around rich dark-and-white-chocolate centers. Or you can just hop on a Queens-bound N or R train (46-20 30th Ave.; 718-278-6045).
Monica F. Forrestall