Friday, January 31, 2014

Tazio Wine Bar (Rome, ITALY) ★★★☆☆

After traveling six hours to Ristorante Reale to see Chef Niko Romito and his wonderful creations, we agreed not to do anything fancy for dinner on this evening. We took a little walk along Repubblica subway station. Rain continued to pour as it did all day.

Instead of continuing to wander in the rain, we decided it was the right time to settle down and grab a quick bite. Located on the ground floor of the nearby Boscolo Hotel Exedra, Tazio Wine Bar provided the perfect venue for us to have a casual dinner while we waited for the rain to stop.

I seldom write about bread coz normally I don't eat them but these were different. They were soft, warm and very yummy. But then perhaps we were just too hungry.

We were a little surprised when our server presented us with an amuse bouche. The wine bar was an unlikely spot for fine dining but hey, we would welcome it with open arms!

This was a well prepared salmon roll with zucchini and cream and finished with a strong passion fruit emulsion.

Forget about starters, it was getting late so I went straight to my main course with this creamy barley with lobster and a pesto of celery. The barley had a lot of bite but the celery pesto was way too overpowering for my liking.

Perhaps simple is the best? Just a simple dish of fresh spaghetti tossed with seasonal seafood was all it took to keep us happy (and warm).

Food Rating: 4.5/10
Price: €€
Address: Piazza della Repubblica 47, Roma, Italy   
Closest Metro Station: Repubblica
Tel: +39 06 4893 8061

Website: Link

Ristorante Reale (Castel di Sangro, ITALY) ★★★★☆

Congratulations to Chef Niko Romito and his team on receiving their third star in the 2014 Michelin guide. This brings the total number of 3-star restaurants in Italy up to 8, still 3 behind Germany and 19 behind France.

Located in a small Central Italian town called Castel Di Sangro, Ristorante Reale was about a three-hour drive from Rome. It made its steady climb up the Michelin ranking quietly this past decade. The restaurant was awarded its first star back in 2007, its second in 2009 and finally the elusive third star in 2014.

Housed in a former monastery, the restaurant and adjacent hotel Casadonna are run by chef-owner Niko Romito and his sister Cristina.

There are only 6 tables in this spacious dining room.

Chef Romito is best known for his simple and unsophisticated interpretation of traditional Italian dishes. A similar approach is reflected in the way his dining room is decorated. A minimalist design at its best.

Our parade of nibbles started with a lovely presented plate of ricotta cheese crouton with sun-dried tomato, meatball with baby goat cheese, croquette with cheese and spinach, tuna ball stuffed with candied orange and finally sun dried beetroot with foie gras. 

That was quite a brilliant start to this highly anticipated lunch.

The next nibble was a black olive tartlet with extra virgin olive oil. It has such great depth of olive flavor.

That was soon followed by an array of warm bread served with some really delicate smoked bacon.

Just when we thought we were done with our amuse bouche, a final nibble came in the form of a mini codfish burger. That was another excellent nibble. The buns were so fluffy and tender combining well with the slightly salted codfish.

This helped to put the finishing touches on an impressive collection of small bites for us (8/10).

We had a choice between two set menus - Essence, a 5-course set (€100) and Ideal, an eight-course surprise menu (€150) consisting of Chef Romito's best traditional and innovative creations. Being an idealist that we are, we wasted no time going for the latter.

Kicking off the surprise menu for us was a beef tartare with extra virgin olive oil and mayonnaise. The reddish color came from a special raspberry vinegar giving it a very nice sour flavor (7.5/10).

A sushi-like scampi dish came next. A lovely half-cooked scampi was served on a bed of spinach before finishing with an almond cream on top. That was easily the best dish of the afternoon and it had us setting the bars high for the remaining dishes (9/10).

But things quickly went south with the next three dishes. First it was the onion soup that was served with cheese gnocchi and saffron. The soup carried a strong vinegary taste that proved to be too overpowering for our liking (4/10).


I am not a big fan of sweetbreads so it would be hard-pressed for the next dish, calf sweetbread with lemon cream to impress (4/10).

Rounding out the trio of disappointing dishes was this buffalo ricotta cheese ravioli in buffalo cheese water, black pepper and capers. It looked and tasted strikingly similar to the onion soup we had a little while ago but even more bland and dull (3/10).

Our last pasta dish was a semolina fettuccelle pasta with red prawns and pink pepper. Other than the pasta being slightly undercooked, I thought it was a decent dish (5.5/10).


The one and only meat course was a cherry glazed crunchy duck. It was deboned and marinated nicely with cherry leaving it with a lovely sweet taste (6.5/10).


Dessert was a meringue pie with raspberry and caramel. Never thought raspberry and caramel could go so well together (7/10).

Finally we got to meet Chef Romito in person and he was kind enough to show us around his casadonna.

Castel di Sangro is such a beautiful community. Too bad the sun was about to set so it's time to hit the road again.

While the service warranted the three stars, I thought the surprise menu did not do enough to surprise us.

Food Rating: 6/10
Price: €€€
Address: Piana Santa Liberata, 67031 Castel di Sangro L'Aquila, Italy
Tel: +39 086 469382 

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Antico Caffè Greco (Rome, ITALY) ★★★★☆

Antico Caffè Greco is an historic landmark café near the Spanish Steps in Rome. It is one of the oldest cafè and coffee shop in Italy, second only to Caffè Florian in Venice. 

Located in the middle of the shopping streets next to the biggest brand names in the fashion business, the cafè is also known as a haven for poets, politicians, artists and celebrities.

Founded in 1760, Antico Caffè Greco still maintains its 19th century decor. Marble-topped tables and classic red velvet sofas matched perfectly against a backdrop of gold framed paintings, antique mirrors, chandeliers and sculptures.


I was told that the cafè has its own brand of coffee but I was more in the mood for a latte this afternoon.

They also have a pretty good selection of cakes and desserts available.

We had the mimosa cake, a layered sponge cake with custard cream and sponge cake crumbs/cubes on top. It was so soft and spongy!

Expect to pay a premium for sittings inside the tea room but if you opt to stand at the bar, the prices are more than reasonable -  €2 for an expresso or latte. 

Food Rating: 5/10
Price: $$$$
Address: Via dei Condotti, 86, 00187 Roma, Italy
Closest Metro Station: Spagna
Tel: +39 06 6791700

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Ristorante Alla Rampa (Rome, ITALY) ★★★★☆

I can't believe it's been already 6 years since we last visited Rome. The city hasn't changed much except it looks a lot cleaner now.

We arrived at our hotel in the late afternoon after a short flight from Lisbon. After a quick shower, we decided to head out to the Spanish Steps, which was just steps away from our hotel.

While we were still contemplating our plans for dinner, look what we found - Ristorante Alla Rampa. We have been here for dinner 6 years ago!

Tucked away in a quiet corner near the Spanish Steps, the restaurant provides the perfect break from the hustle and bustle of the shopping district.

Ristorante Alla Rampa always has some of the best homemade pasta. Tonight, we decided to start things off with their homemade spaghetti tossed with shrimps and tomatoes.

Meat course turned out to be a little bit of a struggle. What should we pick between the roasted duck, escalopes with Calvados and ossobuco? 

I recalled having the roasted rabbit Tuscany style last time around and finally picked the roasted duck in an orange sauce as my meat course tonight. Love that orange zest to go with the duck meat.

For me, this was my main course - their signature "Lift me up". I don't think I will ever get bored with this dessert. Just perfect.

I won't wait another 6 years to come back to this restaurant for sure. I will be back for the "Lift me up" tomorrow!

Food Rating: 5/10
Price: €€
Address: Piazza Mignanelli, 18, Rome, Italy
Closest Metro Station: Spagna / Barberini
Tel: +39 06 6782621


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Rome Times Hotel (Rome, ITALY) ❤❤❤

As much as I love to stay near the Spanish Steps to explore the heart and soul of buzzing Rome, conventional wisdom tells me to better stay a little further away. Perhaps that's a good idea considering the amount of tourists in the area and so I started checking out different lodging options online before finally finding Rome Times Hotel.

Situated on the southeast of the Spanish Steps, Rome Times Hotel was strategically located near most of the tourist attractions in the city with the historic centre of Rome, colosseum, Altare della Patria, Pantheon and the Spanish Steps all within a 15-20 minute walk.

Most rooms come with a balcony overlooking the front of the hotel on Via Milano. It was a nice feeling stepping out to the balcony and enjoy the fresh air while admiring the neighborhood which includes the Palazzo delle Esposizioni right across the street from the hotel. But on the down side, expect a bit of noise in the evening since Via Nazionale, one of the main roads in the area is not too far away.

I like the design of the bedroom which was pretty classy with a nice modern touch. But there are some design deficiencies out there that kind of ruined the whole thing. For example, there was no lights near the cupboard and worse, no place to put the shower gel and shampoo inside the shower room (We had to put everything on the floor so each time we needed shower gel/shampoo, we had to bend down to get it). 

However, apart from the small list of improvement areas, I thought we had a pretty pleasant stay. The staff was generally very helpful and attentive. They had a very comfortable breakfast lounge on the ground level where we enjoyed a few good breakfast. Combining that with the location, I say it's fairly good experience overall. 

Price: €€€
Address: Via Milano, 42, 00184 Roma, Italy
Closest Metro Station: Barberini / Repubblica
Tel: +39 06 9934-5101

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Pastéis de Belém (Lisbon, PORTUGAL) ★★★★☆

Our search for the perfect pastel de nata has brought us to the Belém quarter of Lisbon this evening. Pastéis de Belém which was rumored to have the best pastel de nata in the city, was the name of the bakery shop we were after.

We heard stories about the Pastéis de Belém secret recipe originally designed by two Catholic nuns in the Mosteiro dos Jeronimos. This wonderful pastry was first served only in monasteries and it was until 1837 when it was finally available for the general public.

Apart from pastel de nata, there are other house specialties including the Kings' cake, Queens' Cake, English Cake etc.

The cafe takes a free seating approach. Simply grab your favorite pastries at the counter, then sit down and enjoy!

We were told by the counter staff to sprinkle our custard tarts with cinnamon powder and were glad we did. The flavors of cinnamon worked very well with the custard.

Having sampled quite a number of pastel de nata over our 3-day stay in Lisbon, the custard tarts here were the best we've had hands down. I especially enjoyed the crust which was very crispy and flaky while the custard was creamy but yet not too sweet in taste. The balance was perfect!

After enjoying some of the best pastries in town, we walked around the corner to visit the Mosteiro dos Jeronimos at night and what a historic building it was. This was a little far from where we stayed but it was totally worth the effort!

Food Rating: 7/10
Price: $
Address: Rua Belém 84-92, 1300-085 Lisbon, Portugal
Closest Metro Station: N/A
Tel: +351 2136 37423

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Restaurant Eleven (Lisbon, PORTUGAL) ★★★☆☆

Restaurant Eleven was our final dining destination in Lisbon before we head back to Rome. The restaurant was set high on the hills of Parque Eduardo VII, next to the Amália Rodrigues Gardens. It is one of the three Michelin starred restaurants in the city having re-gained its one-star status after losing it in 2011. 

After exiting the São Sebastião subway station, we found ourselves climbing the slopes at Parque da Casa Ventura Terra before finally arriving at our destination - Restaurant Eleven

From the dining room, we got a perfect view of the neighboring Eduardo VII Park and the city of Lisbon all at a glance.

Born in Germany, Chef-partner Joachim Koerper started his career working for some of the world's most renowned restaurants such as L’Ambroisie, Hostelerie du Cerf and Moulin de Mougins but it was the cuisine and ingredients of Southern Europe that he fell in love with which made him one of the masters of Mediterranean cuisine today. 

Chef Koerper made a name for himself following the opening of his own restaurant, Girasol, in the seaside town of Moraira. In just nine months, he was awarded his first Michelin star and three years later his second. 

What a pleasant surprise to see Chef Koerper on hand!

Not only is Chef Koerper's cuisine full of Mediterranean flavors, even his dining room has added a little Mediterranean touch as well.

Bread was a good start to our lunch but I was too focused with taking photos and ended up forgetting about snapping a photo of our bread!

Chef Koerper's cuisine focuses a great deal on using natural, fresh and seasonal products and that philosophy was immediately put on display with our amuse bouche.

A beetroot purée with green apple and crumbs, sautéed shrimp, crispy mushroom risotto ball with oatmeal and a cup of creamy porcini soup rounded out an excellent amuse bouche (7/10).

Our first starter was a combination of tuna salad, tuna tartare, seared scallop and smoked oysters served with a complicated mango vinaigrette and oyster lemon foam (5/10).

While we were still warming up our palates, a green cabbage soup soon followed. Checking closely, we realized there's a lobster tail and foie gras on the bottom of the soup.

Comparing to the previous dish which was refreshing and light, the green cabbage soup was surprisingly flavorful and in my opinion perhaps way too flavorful that even the taste of foie gras took a backseat. I didn't enjoy this dish at all (3/10). 

Then it was our fish course, a nicely executed sea bass with ravioli and shellfish sauce. I thought they tried to do a little too much with the ravioli by preparing it with curry meat (5/10).

Moments later, my main course arrived in the form of a roasted Alentejo black pork with black truffle and eggplant pudding. Unlike the famous pork dish coming from the Alentejo region of Portugal, it didn't have any clams in it.

Like many of the dishes before this one, I thought the seasoning was a little too much (5/10). 

Slightly more successful was the other main course, Challands duck with caramelized cherovia, chestnuts and poppy spaetzlis served on a lemon and ginger sauce (6/10).

We were so full by now and therefore were quite relieved that they didn't bring us their cheese trolley. Instead it was a trio of cheese the chef has already prepared for us, some from France and others locally made in Portugal. 

But what I enjoyed most on this plate was the special apricot sauce. That was awesome to go with the cheese.

Onto dessert we go, it was an analogy of mousse as our server explained. Orange, chocolate, mango and a flavor made with a Brazilian fruit (whose name I forgot). 

A simple petite four before we head towards the doorway.

After lunch, we took a slow walk along Eduardo VII Park towards the Old Town.

Thank you, Lisbon. It's been a lovely three days. We will definitely come back some other time.

Food Rating: 5/10
Price: $$$
Address: Rua Marquês de Fronteira, 1070-051 Lisboa, Portugal
Closest Metro Station: Parque / São Sebastião
Tel: +351 2 1386 2211