A great restaurant for a 'splurge'

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To celebrate an anniversary or a spouse’s birthday while traveling overseas, have you ever decided to hang the expense and really “splurge” on a meal? We asked those of you who did so — and found that it was worth every euro, pound or whatever — to write in about the experience.

In addition to the name of the restaurant and its address or location, we asked you to tell us when you went, the approximate price of the meal and what made it so great. We also wanted to know if there were any special dishes you’d recommend, particular tables to sit at, etc.

Great restaurants for a splurge? Two come quickly to mind: The Ritz in London (150 Piccadilly, London W1, ENGLAND; phone 020 7493 8181) and, in Hôtel Ritz Paris, L’Espadon (15 place Vendôme, 75001, Paris, FRANCE; phone 01 43 16 30 80 or fax 01 43 16 33 75). Both have outstanding food, although neither is rated the best in town. In addition, each has incredible atmosphere and decor.

The Ritz

I love going to The Ritz in London for the Saturday night dinner dance. The crowd will usually include romantic couples of all ages (often with an engagement ring being presented during the evening) as well as family groups, perhaps three generations, celebrating a 40th or 50th wedding anniversary.

The room, in marvelous pinks and greens, is decorated with mirrors and gilded flowers, like a scene from an English Romantic painting. If you arrive early, you will be treated to a background of piano music, but at 8:30 or so the band members will arrive, half a dozen in number, and begin by belting out that old, pre-WWII classic “Puttin‘ on the Ritz.” For the rest of the evening the music will always be danceable, but it gets progressively livelier as the evening wears on.

There is always a wonderful, fixed-price multicourse dinner offered, as well as a complete à la carte menu. Last time I was there, June ’03, the bill for two of us, with champagne throughout, came to about $450. Yes, a splurge, but I will go back.

L’Espadon, in Hôtel Ritz Paris, also is a favorite destination. The decor is much like that of the London Ritz. The menu is quite similar as well. The crowd is a bit different, however. There will be the romantic couples but also more foursomes and maybe a larger group. I’ve yet to see any family groups there.

And there is no dancing. Rather, a harpist provides the background music.

While eating inside is wonderful, eating outside on the enclosed terrace is, for me, about the most wonderful romantic setting in the world. Combine the elegance, service, food and music with the flowers and fountains and it’s like a dream come true.

Again, the bill, with drinks, will top $200 a person, but for a splurge it can’t be beat.

Ann Thomas
Potomac, MD

La Tour d’Argent

My first trip to Paris, in December ’75, consisted of a $7-a-night Left Bank hotel room and meals in the self-service cafeteria on rue Rivoli. During a walk one night, I saw a penthouse all lit up across the River Seine and was told it was the great restaurant La Tour d’Argent (15-17, quai de la Tournelle, 75005, Paris, FRANCE; phone 01 43 54 23 31, fax 01 44 07 12 04 or visit www.latourdargent.com). On that trip, such a meal was a fiscal impossibility, but I vowed one day I would dine there. It took 26 years to fulfill that dream, and it was more than worth the wait.

I dined there twice in 2001, in March and October, and made reservations for each visit more than three months in advance through the American Express Platinum Card Concierge service.

The La Tour d’Argent townhouse was magnificently furnished with a small elevator that took us up to the dining room on the top floor. The dining room, offering panoramic views of Paris and the Seine, was decorated beautifully in gilt and red, and our table was in the back by a window. From there we could see the rooftops of Paris, and at about 10 p.m. the lights were dimmed in the restaurant for a better view of the flood-lit Notre Dame cathedral.

The food was superb. The first time, we dined on duck à l’orange and received a postcard certificate indicating that our ducks were among the more than 900,000 served at the restaurant (that framed certificate is one of my prized souvenirs). The red wine was full-bodied and delicious, as were the desserts of crêpes suzette and pear custard topped with meringue.

My second visit was just as memorable. We sat in the front room, again by the window overlooking the Seine, and dined on lobster in brandy, butter and cream sauce with desserts of pear custard meringue and crème brûlée.

The owner, Claude Terrail, came to our table on each visit to say “Hello” and inquire as to our satisfaction with the meal. He was warm, charming and humorous. His staff was personable and expert in their duties — they didn’t “hover” but were quick to inquire as to our needs.

In each instance, the bill was over $350. I’m sure it would have been much more had we had an appetizer.

Lasserre & Le Jules Verne

We have dined at Lasserre (17 Avenue Franklin D. Roosevelt, 75008, Paris, France; phone [0] 1 43 59 53 43 or fax [0] 1 45 63 72 23) and at Le Jules Verne (Eiffel Tower, 75007 Paris, France; phone 33 [0] 1 45 55 61 44 or fax 33 [0] 1 47 05 29 41) and each was a wonderful experience. Lasserre is located in a beautiful townhouse, and Le Jules Verne is on the second tier of the Eiffel Tower.

Lasserre’s retractable roof was a novelty, the pianist was excellent and the food and ambiance were sumptuous.

It was impossible to obtain dinner reservations at Le Jules Verne (even making reservations six months in advance), but lunch reservations were quite easy to get. We had a table by the window, and the view of Paris and the Seine was marvelous.

But La Tour d’Argent has become my favorite restaurant in the world, and I cannot wait to return to Paris to reexperience it.

Rita D. Murray
Bronx, NY

Hôtel Chambard

In November ’01 we stayed at Hôtel Chambard (9-13 rue du Général de Gaulle, 68240 Kaysersberg, Alsace, FRANCE; phone +33 [0] 3 89 47 10 17 or fax +33 [0] 3 89 47 35 03). This is a lovely hotel in the heart of the vineyards of Alsace, complete with old fortress walls, bridged stream, castle ruins and Albert Schweitzer’s birthplace.

The hotel had excellent double-room accommodations and two restaurants on site that were run by the family. These were much frequented by German tourists, and on our visit, due to 9-11, there was only one American couple on the premises.

Of the two, the first was a formal French restaurant with both prix fixe and à la carte offerings. I had a small appetizer sampler followed by newly made foie gras with fig confit, scallops St. Jacques, John Dory with vegetables, salad, an extensive cheese platter and profiteroles. Along with the meal we had Muscadet, a half bottle of local Riesling, mineral water and a glass of Sauternes. Including tip, the price was $145 for one person. The service was eager and the food extraordinary.

The second restaurant was a Stube (tavern), a great setting with arched stone walls, fireplace and wood tables. I had an aperitif, foie gras appetizer, choucroute garni (huge portion of sausages, sauerkraut and potatoes), salad, cheese and dessert, accompanied by two glasses of house wine and a digestif provided by the chef. All this cost $60 including tip.

Connie Sickels
Edgewater, MD

Gundel

To celebrate a “big” birthday for my husband in June ’03, we dined in Budapest at the restaurant Gundel (XIV, Állatkerti út 2, Budapest, HUNGARY; phone 1/321-3550). This venerable establishment has been in existence since 1894. Set in a lovely garden, the restaurant offers both indoor and outdoor dining. It is billed in most promotional material as “one of the finest restaurants in Europe,” and while we thought that quite a reputation to uphold, Gundel lived up to its billing.

The indoor dining room was 2-tiered, and a string quartet played beautifully and unobtrusively throughout dinner. Service was impeccable and the food outstanding.

As part of their extensive offerings, Gundel offered two prix fixe menus, one of five and the other of six courses. Dishes ranged from caviar to pâté to medallions of veal to crème brûlée. Each course was accompanied by wine, from Chardonnay to an exquisite “5 butts Tokaji.” The meals were in the price range of $60-$70 per person, including the wines.

We were thrilled to have discovered a venue whose food and service were so totally satisfying that the dinner actually relieved part of my husband’s distress at turning another year older.

Judith Beiner
Boca Raton, FL

Bacchus

In October ’03 we spent a week in MALTA. One afternoon we toured the city of Mdina by horse-drawn carriage until well past dinnertime. Our driver, a native of Mdina, recommended Bacchus (Inguanez St., Mdina, Malta; phone +356 454981, fax +356 459437 or e-mail bacchus@maltanet.net).

This restaurant is located in an old Roman cave, and the dining area seats only about 50 people. The food was exquisitely flavorful, and the service was leisurely — giving us time to enjoy the surroundings, the meal and the wine. The dessert was some of the best we have ever eaten.

To top it off, we were told that the U.S. Ambassador was seated with her family and friends at the next table.

We paid approximately $75 for the meal, which included one appetizer, two entrées, one dessert and a half bottle of wine.

Only one caveat — they do not open until 8 p.m.

Harry & Barbara Hubinger
Danville, CA

Castello Oliveto

To celebrate our 50th wedding anniversary on June 27, ’03, my wife and I spent a week in Tuscany with our family group. The highlight of our week was a dinner at Castello Oliveto (Via di Monte Olivo, 6, 50051 Castelfiorentino [FI], ITALY; phone 011 39 0571 643222 or e-mail castellooliveto@tin.it), a hilltop 18th-century castle converted to an excellent restaurant.

All arrangements were made by e-mail with Elisabetta Barsottini, who acted as event manager for the restaurant. She suggested we have our dinner on June 25 because a special event had been planned in the courtyard. The festivities included an open bar with premium liquors, wine made by the Castello’s own fattoria, a 5-course Tuscan feast with after-dinner liqueurs, and a 2-piece combo (female singer and keyboard accompanist) for our listening and, later, dancing pleasure.

The Castello’s courtyard was lit by floodlights on the rampart walls and by large candles in terra-cotta planters arranged on the floor, creating a romantic mood perfect for our occasion. Besides our group, there were about 20 other people, mostly locals from Florence and vicinity. Festivities started at 7:30 p.m. with cocktails and hors d’oeuvres; dinner started about 9.

The menu was gourmet Tuscan. Appetizers included Toscano salami, prosciutto, crostini with liver pâté and sautéed mushrooms. “Primi” included cannelloni filled with ricotta and served with a brown butter sauce, followed by panzanella (a typical Tuscan bread salad). “Secondi” was roast veal accompanied by herbed roasted baby zucchini and grilled tomato. “Formaggi” comprised platters of various local cheeses with fruit. “Dolci” was assorted fruit tarts, small pastries and biscotti. We also had coffee and liqueurs, including excellent grappa that had been made on site.

Wines flowed freely throughout the repast. The red was a Chianti Riserva, the white a mixture of Chardonnay and trebbiano, plus prosecco (Italian champagne).

Elisabetta introduced us to the other guests, noting we were celebrating our 50th anniversary. The combo played a slow song for my wife and me to dance to, and then the affair turned into a big party! Other guests came over to congratulate and toast us, and everybody started dancing to an assortment of music ranging from soft rock to old ballads. The festivities ended about midnight, and we drove back to the villa savoring every minute. It was truly an evening we will never forget!

This special dinner was the first of monthly events the Castello had planned for the summer, and it was offered at a special price of 35 (about $40) per person, all inclusive. Because of the special service we received, we gave the three servers and the combo an extra tip. The final cost came to less than $50 per person, which is a great value, considering the food, liquor and wine we consumed.

Chet DiPol
Woodland Hills, CA

El Bulli

As our 40th anniversary approached, June 25, ’02, I wanted to celebrate at a truly special place. For a dedicated “foodie,” that meant not only an exceptional restaurant but one that had something unique about it.

A table setting inside the restaurant.

Since we had planned a trip to Provence, France, for our annual summer vacation, including a tour to Carcassonne (with its reconstructed medieval village, La Cité), near the Spanish border, I began to focus on that area and saw that we would be near El Bulli (30 Cala Montjoi, Roses, Girona Province 17480, SPAIN; phone +34 972 150 457, e-mail bulli@grn.es or visit [in Spanish] http://elbulli.com), a renowned restaurant not far from Figueras. In the region of Catalonia, it is at the northern end of the Costa Brava.

We could make a quick 2-day incursion just across the French border to Figueras to see the Salvador Dalí museum, his home and the château he built for his beloved wife, Gala, then celebrate our anniversary at El Bulli.

El Bulli is given three stars in the Michelin guide, and it was difficult to get a table, but through the intervention of a friend we were able to do it. (The restaurant is open for lunch and dinner, Wednesday to Sunday. Major credit cards are accepted.)

Although the restaurant is not well known to most Americans, it has been a training ground for some outstanding American chefs. Its celebrated chef, Ferran Adrià, is known as “the king of foam.” Some of his “sauces” consist of these light-as-air foams, frothy and delicious. He also is known for his utterly weird combinations of ingredients that seem to be incompatible yet work sublimely together.

We stayed at a small hotel, the Vista Bella (17480 Roses, Girona Province, Spain; phone 0034 972-256200 or e-mail info@vistabellahotel.com), on a beautiful beach in Roses, the town nearest to El Bulli. The room rates during high season start at €167 (near $210).

That evening, tingling with anticipation, we asked the front desk for our car. “Oh, no,” said the concierge. “You don’t want to drive it yourself. I will call a taxi.”

El Bulli is in a cove, Cala Montjoi, which is seven kilometers from the town of Roses, Spain.

We understood why as we started the half-hour drive. It went over a steep mountain with hairpin curves, reminiscent of the Amalfi Drive. We were in the outside lane with no guardrail whatsoever, and although my husband kept saying, “Look at that beautiful little port below,” I would glimpse quickly and look away as the drop got steeper and steeper.

Nearing the restaurant, we made our descent into a tiny, exquisite cove on the sea surrounded by steep cliffs. There was absolutely nothing there but the restaurant.

We were immediately taken into the kitchen to meet Ferran Adrià, with the maître d’ acting as interpreter. He was very gracious, and we had a chance after dinner to tell him that we enjoyed every one of the numerous dishes served. He replied, “Ah, I will sleep well tonight.” Quite a modest fellow!

The kitchen, all stainless steel and glass, was huge and spic-and-span, with 35 sous chefs and no one shouting or stumbling over each other. Calm prevailed.

The restaurant itself was small, divided into rooms, whitewashed, arcaded and beautifully furnished with lavish table settings. There was plenty of space between the tables. With a capacity of only 50, no wonder it was difficult to obtain a reservation!

The solicitous waiter’s first question to us was, “Are you allergic to any foods or is there anything you don’t care to eat? If so, we will substitute a dish.”

How thoughtful! Upon an explanation of the tasting menu (the only one available), I understood why it had been especially difficult to book a table. 2002 was El Bulli’s 20th anniversary and the chef had made up the menu from his favorite dishes of the previous 20 years! It consisted of 26 courses: 10 snacks, eight tapas, four main dishes, three desserts and coffee. With each course, an explanation was forthcoming, including suggestions as to “how” to eat it (for example, entirely in one swallow and wait for the aftereffect). Wines were at the suggestion of the waiter.

El Bulli is in a cove, Cala Montjoi, which is seven kilometers from the town of Roses, Spain.

The price for this splendiferous feast was a modest €115 per person.

Although each dish had really bizarre combinations of ingredients, it all worked wonderfully well. The presentation was magnificent; the china plates were huge, often rectangles, and the food was artistically arranged with decorative sprigs of plants and herbs. Even the breads, crackly on the outside and soft on the inside, were oddly shaped with long points on each end.

With three waiters, our service was impeccable.

The weird but wonderful meal began with a Cuban cocktail, Mojito en Sifo, followed by snacks of pork, rose petals tempura, a tapioca-saffron snack, a yogurt combination and a mini “pizza.” A consommé was served in a 2-inch-high beer mug with anise foam on top. Then came a brochette of watermelon, a caramelized quail egg and a final parmesan treat. All were delicious.

The next category were the tapas (appetizers), beginning with a consommé with thyme ice cream and gold parmesan croutons. This was followed by couscous (which we were to eat from the center outward in order to taste the spices ringed around it); a light-as-a-feather mousse of foie gras and artichokes with a caramelized top (another specialty of this chef); a ravioli with truffle oil and then another foam, in the form of a codfish with caramelized onions and fennel.

Out, too, came a grilled melon with mint, packets of beets stuffed with raspberries and pistachios and baby shrimp. We were told to eat the cuttlefish stuffed with coconut milk in one mouthful so that the flavor exploded all at once. Smoked eel with ravioli stuffed with pineapple and fennel ended the tapas section of the menu.

Co-owner and chef of El Bulli, Ferran Adrià.

The larger “main dishes” were listed next. Afraid we’d be unable to get to the dessert, we requested that these dishes be served to us in tapas-size portions. The first to appear was a cold soup, similar to a white gazpacho (typical of Andalucia), with almonds, mushrooms, asparagus and shrimp. Fried sardines in bread with garlic and fish eggs (from Sweden) were paper thin and crispy. Ending this section of the menu was rabbit with foie gras and cold apple jelly, followed by a lemon sorbet with fieur de sel (a strong flavor) and olive oil ice cream to clear the palate.

For the finale, the desserts were as beautiful to look at as to taste. The presentations were exotic, and the combinations were, again, wild but wonderful.

The three textured desserts that began the “Postres” section were made up of passion fruit and coconut foam with mint. Another triple whammy was chocolate ice cream over a mousse-like layer, all resting on a dense chocolate square.

Just when I thought I could not eat another crumb, out came the “Petites Bogeries,” presented on modern silver sculptured forms. It was like viewing an art exhibition — white chocolate with truffle oil, pineapple with ginger, yogurt with chocolate bonbons, sechuan peppers with chocolate, thin sheets of white-chocolate-dotted olives, orange candy with lime, paper-thin lollipops of yogurt with raspberries, and red fruit with caramelized corn.

Last, but not least, came mini ice cream cones with raspberry sorbet. In addition to all that excess, we were presented with a tiny chocolate cake with one candle — they hadn’t forgotten our 40th anniversary!

The waiters and patrons at the surrounding tables sang to us, and I made a small speech saying “Thank you” and remarking that, as Americans, many of whom change partners often, we were probably setting a record, to which our charming waiter replied, “Ah, Madame, not everyone in America is Elizabeth Taylor!”

June Evans Goldberg
New York, NY

Gaddi’s

On my way to Bhutan in 1992, I stopped off in Hong Kong. I’d read somewhere about a great restaurant, Gaddi’s (The Peninsula Hotel, Salisbury Road, Hong Kong, CHINA; phone 852-2366-6251), in the Peninsula Hotel, where I was NOT staying.

I knew Gaddi’s would be a splurge, but I truly wanted to have dinner there, although I was intimidated about being a woman eating alone. Then I thought of something that might help. I went to the concierge (one of the most handsome men I’ve ever seen!) at the Peninsula and explained that I wanted to eat at Gaddi’s but was shy about being alone.

The concierge asked my name, picked up the phone, spoke rapidly, then hung up and with a smile said, “They will expect you at 8 o’clock. Take the private elevator at the side entrance.”

Fortunately, I had packed a nice dress and shoes (one never knows) so didn’t feel too out of place as I exited the elevator.

Well, talk about worrying in vain! I was greeted by name and shown to the perfect table, one with a view of the entire room and the piano and located in a spot where I wasn’t conspicuously alone.

I ordered pigeon, which I knew in advance I wanted. I asked my waiter to surprise me with an appetizer and was served a delicious soup. I had two glasses of wine. My chocolate dessert was “to die for.” Every mouthful of the entire meal was fantastic.

However, as wonderful as the food was, it was the people who made this meal so memorable. During the course of the dinner, everyone working there (even the piano player) came to my table to say “Hello” — not to take an order but just to welcome me and make me feel comfortable.

It turned out to be the most expensive meal I’d ever paid for, myself (about $125 with tips), but I didn’t dine alone; I dined with my Gaddi’s “friends.” The memory is priceless.

Barbara Malley
New York, NY

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To celebrate an anniversary or a spouse’s birthday while traveling overseas, have you ever decided to hang the expense and really “splurge” on a meal? We asked those of you who did so — and found that it was worth every euro, pound or whatever — to write in about the experience.

In addition to the name of the restaurant and its address or location, we asked you to tell us when you went, the approximate price of the meal and what made it so great. We also wanted to know if there were any special dishes you’d recommend, particular tables to sit at, etc.

Great restaurants for a splurge? Two come quickly to mind: The Ritz in London (150 Piccadilly, London W1, ENGLAND; phone 020 7493 8181) and, in Hôtel Ritz Paris, L’Espadon (15 place Vendôme, 75001, Paris, FRANCE; phone 01 43 16 30 80 or fax 01 43 16 33 75). Both have outstanding food, although neither is rated the best in town. In addition, each has incredible atmosphere and decor.

The Ritz

I love going to The Ritz in London for the Saturday night dinner dance. The crowd will usually include romantic couples of all ages (often with an engagement ring being presented during the evening) as well as family groups, perhaps three generations, celebrating a 40th or 50th wedding anniversary.

The room, in marvelous pinks and greens, is decorated with mirrors and gilded flowers, like a scene from an English Romantic painting. If you arrive early, you will be treated to a background of piano music, but at 8:30 or so the band members will arrive, half a dozen in number, and begin by belting out that old, pre-WWII classic “Puttin‘ on the Ritz.” For the rest of the evening the music will always be danceable, but it gets progressively livelier as the evening wears on.

There is always a wonderful, fixed-price multicourse dinner offered, as well as a complete à la carte menu. Last time I was there, June ’03, the bill for two of us, with champagne throughout, came to about $450. Yes, a splurge, but I will go back.

L’Espadon, in Hôtel Ritz Paris, also is a favorite destination. The decor is much like that of the London Ritz. The menu is quite similar as well. The crowd is a bit different, however. There will be the romantic couples but also more foursomes and maybe a larger group. I’ve yet to see any family groups there.

And there is no dancing. Rather, a harpist provides the background music.

While eating inside is wonderful, eating outside on the enclosed terrace is, for me, about the most wonderful romantic setting in the world. Combine the elegance, service, food and music with the flowers and fountains and it’s like a dream come true.

Again, the bill, with drinks, will top $200 a person, but for a splurge it can’t be beat.

Ann Thomas
Potomac, MD

La Tour d’Argent

My first trip to Paris, in December ’75, consisted of a $7-a-night Left Bank hotel room and meals in the self-service cafeteria on rue Rivoli. During a walk one night, I saw a penthouse all lit up across the River Seine and was told it was the great restaurant La Tour d’Argent (15-17, quai de la Tournelle, 75005, Paris, FRANCE; phone 01 43 54 23 31, fax 01 44 07 12 04 or visit www.latourdargent.com). On that trip, such a meal was a fiscal impossibility, but I vowed one day I would dine there. It took 26 years to fulfill that dream, and it was more than worth the wait.

I dined there twice in 2001, in March and October, and made reservations for each visit more than three months in advance through the American Express Platinum Card Concierge service.

The La Tour d’Argent townhouse was magnificently furnished with a small elevator that took us up to the dining room on the top floor. The dining room, offering panoramic views of Paris and the Seine, was decorated beautifully in gilt and red, and our table was in the back by a window. From there we could see the rooftops of Paris, and at about 10 p.m. the lights were dimmed in the restaurant for a better view of the flood-lit Notre Dame cathedral.

The food was superb. The first time, we dined on duck à l’orange and received a postcard certificate indicating that our ducks were among the more than 900,000 served at the restaurant (that framed certificate is one of my prized souvenirs). The red wine was full-bodied and delicious, as were the desserts of crêpes suzette and pear custard topped with meringue.

My second visit was just as memorable. We sat in the front room, again by the window overlooking the Seine, and dined on lobster in brandy, butter and cream sauce with desserts of pear custard meringue and crème brûlée.

The owner, Claude Terrail, came to our table on each visit to say “Hello” and inquire as to our satisfaction with the meal. He was warm, charming and humorous. His staff was personable and expert in their duties — they didn’t “hover” but were quick to inquire as to our needs.

In each instance, the bill was over $350. I’m sure it would have been much more had we had an appetizer.

Lasserre & Le Jules Verne

We have dined at Lasserre (17 Avenue Franklin D. Roosevelt, 75008, Paris, France; phone [0] 1 43 59 53 43 or fax [0] 1 45 63 72 23) and at Le Jules Verne (Eiffel Tower, 75007 Paris, France; phone 33 [0] 1 45 55 61 44 or fax 33 [0] 1 47 05 29 41) and each was a wonderful experience. Lasserre is located in a beautiful townhouse, and Le Jules Verne is on the second tier of the Eiffel Tower.

Lasserre’s retractable roof was a novelty, the pianist was excellent and the food and ambiance were sumptuous.

It was impossible to obtain dinner reservations at Le Jules Verne (even making reservations six months in advance), but lunch reservations were quite easy to get. We had a table by the window, and the view of Paris and the Seine was marvelous.

But La Tour d’Argent has become my favorite restaurant in the world, and I cannot wait to return to Paris to reexperience it.

Rita D. Murray
Bronx, NY

Hôtel Chambard

In November ’01 we stayed at Hôtel Chambard (9-13 rue du Général de Gaulle, 68240 Kaysersberg, Alsace, FRANCE; phone +33 [0] 3 89 47 10 17 or fax +33 [0] 3 89 47 35 03). This is a lovely hotel in the heart of the vineyards of Alsace, complete with old fortress walls, bridged stream, castle ruins and Albert Schweitzer’s birthplace.

The hotel had excellent double-room accommodations and two restaurants on site that were run by the family. These were much frequented by German tourists, and on our visit, due to 9-11, there was only one American couple on the premises.

Of the two, the first was a formal French restaurant with both prix fixe and à la carte offerings. I had a small appetizer sampler followed by newly made foie gras with fig confit, scallops St. Jacques, John Dory with vegetables, salad, an extensive cheese platter and profiteroles. Along with the meal we had Muscadet, a half bottle of local Riesling, mineral water and a glass of Sauternes. Including tip, the price was $145 for one person. The service was eager and the food extraordinary.

The second restaurant was a Stube (tavern), a great setting with arched stone walls, fireplace and wood tables. I had an aperitif, foie gras appetizer, choucroute garni (huge portion of sausages, sauerkraut and potatoes), salad, cheese and dessert, accompanied by two glasses of house wine and a digestif provided by the chef. All this cost $60 including tip.

Connie Sickels
Edgewater, MD

Gundel

To celebrate a “big” birthday for my husband in June ’03, we dined in Budapest at the restaurant Gundel (XIV, Állatkerti út 2, Budapest, HUNGARY; phone 1/321-3550). This venerable establishment has been in existence since 1894. Set in a lovely garden, the restaurant offers both indoor and outdoor dining. It is billed in most promotional material as “one of the finest restaurants in Europe,” and while we thought that quite a reputation to uphold, Gundel lived up to its billing.

The indoor dining room was 2-tiered, and a string quartet played beautifully and unobtrusively throughout dinner. Service was impeccable and the food outstanding.

As part of their extensive offerings, Gundel offered two prix fixe menus, one of five and the other of six courses. Dishes ranged from caviar to pâté to medallions of veal to crème brûlée. Each course was accompanied by wine, from Chardonnay to an exquisite “5 butts Tokaji.” The meals were in the price range of $60-$70 per person, including the wines.

We were thrilled to have discovered a venue whose food and service were so totally satisfying that the dinner actually relieved part of my husband’s distress at turning another year older.

Judith Beiner
Boca Raton, FL

Bacchus

In October ’03 we spent a week in MALTA. One afternoon we toured the city of Mdina by horse-drawn carriage until well past dinnertime. Our driver, a native of Mdina, recommended Bacchus (Inguanez St., Mdina, Malta; phone +356 454981, fax +356 459437 or e-mail bacchus@maltanet.net).

This restaurant is located in an old Roman cave, and the dining area seats only about 50 people. The food was exquisitely flavorful, and the service was leisurely — giving us time to enjoy the surroundings, the meal and the wine. The dessert was some of the best we have ever eaten.

To top it off, we were told that the U.S. Ambassador was seated with her family and friends at the next table.

We paid approximately $75 for the meal, which included one appetizer, two entrées, one dessert and a half bottle of wine.

Only one caveat — they do not open until 8 p.m.

Harry & Barbara Hubinger
Danville, CA

Castello Oliveto

To celebrate our 50th wedding anniversary on June 27, ’03, my wife and I spent a week in Tuscany with our family group. The highlight of our week was a dinner at Castello Oliveto (Via di Monte Olivo, 6, 50051 Castelfiorentino [FI], ITALY; phone 011 39 0571 643222 or e-mail castellooliveto@tin.it), a hilltop 18th-century castle converted to an excellent restaurant.

All arrangements were made by e-mail with Elisabetta Barsottini, who acted as event manager for the restaurant. She suggested we have our dinner on June 25 because a special event had been planned in the courtyard. The festivities included an open bar with premium liquors, wine made by the Castello’s own fattoria, a 5-course Tuscan feast with after-dinner liqueurs, and a 2-piece combo (female singer and keyboard accompanist) for our listening and, later, dancing pleasure.

The Castello’s courtyard was lit by floodlights on the rampart walls and by large candles in terra-cotta planters arranged on the floor, creating a romantic mood perfect for our occasion. Besides our group, there were about 20 other people, mostly locals from Florence and vicinity. Festivities started at 7:30 p.m. with cocktails and hors d’oeuvres; dinner started about 9.

The menu was gourmet Tuscan. Appetizers included Toscano salami, prosciutto, crostini with liver pâté and sautéed mushrooms. “Primi” included cannelloni filled with ricotta and served with a brown butter sauce, followed by panzanella (a typical Tuscan bread salad). “Secondi” was roast veal accompanied by herbed roasted baby zucchini and grilled tomato. “Formaggi” comprised platters of various local cheeses with fruit. “Dolci” was assorted fruit tarts, small pastries and biscotti. We also had coffee and liqueurs, including excellent grappa that had been made on site.

Wines flowed freely throughout the repast. The red was a Chianti Riserva, the white a mixture of Chardonnay and trebbiano, plus prosecco (Italian champagne).

Elisabetta introduced us to the other guests, noting we were celebrating our 50th anniversary. The combo played a slow song for my wife and me to dance to, and then the affair turned into a big party! Other guests came over to congratulate and toast us, and everybody started dancing to an assortment of music ranging from soft rock to old ballads. The festivities ended about midnight, and we drove back to the villa savoring every minute. It was truly an evening we will never forget!

This special dinner was the first of monthly events the Castello had planned for the summer, and it was offered at a special price of 35 (about $40) per person, all inclusive. Because of the special service we received, we gave the three servers and the combo an extra tip. The final cost came to less than $50 per person, which is a great value, considering the food, liquor and wine we consumed.

Chet DiPol
Woodland Hills, CA

El Bulli

As our 40th anniversary approached, June 25, ’02, I wanted to celebrate at a truly special place. For a dedicated “foodie,” that meant not only an exceptional restaurant but one that had something unique about it.

A table setting inside the restaurant.

Since we had planned a trip to Provence, France, for our annual summer vacation, including a tour to Carcassonne (with its reconstructed medieval village, La Cité), near the Spanish border, I began to focus on that area and saw that we would be near El Bulli (30 Cala Montjoi, Roses, Girona Province 17480, SPAIN; phone +34 972 150 457, e-mail bulli@grn.es or visit [in Spanish] http://elbulli.com), a renowned restaurant not far from Figueras. In the region of Catalonia, it is at the northern end of the Costa Brava.

We could make a quick 2-day incursion just across the French border to Figueras to see the Salvador Dalí museum, his home and the château he built for his beloved wife, Gala, then celebrate our anniversary at El Bulli.

El Bulli is given three stars in the Michelin guide, and it was difficult to get a table, but through the intervention of a friend we were able to do it. (The restaurant is open for lunch and dinner, Wednesday to Sunday. Major credit cards are accepted.)

Although the restaurant is not well known to most Americans, it has been a training ground for some outstanding American chefs. Its celebrated chef, Ferran Adrià, is known as “the king of foam.” Some of his “sauces” consist of these light-as-air foams, frothy and delicious. He also is known for his utterly weird combinations of ingredients that seem to be incompatible yet work sublimely together.

We stayed at a small hotel, the Vista Bella (17480 Roses, Girona Province, Spain; phone 0034 972-256200 or e-mail info@vistabellahotel.com), on a beautiful beach in Roses, the town nearest to El Bulli. The room rates during high season start at €167 (near $210).

That evening, tingling with anticipation, we asked the front desk for our car. “Oh, no,” said the concierge. “You don’t want to drive it yourself. I will call a taxi.”

El Bulli is in a cove, Cala Montjoi, which is seven kilometers from the town of Roses, Spain.

We understood why as we started the half-hour drive. It went over a steep mountain with hairpin curves, reminiscent of the Amalfi Drive. We were in the outside lane with no guardrail whatsoever, and although my husband kept saying, “Look at that beautiful little port below,” I would glimpse quickly and look away as the drop got steeper and steeper.

Nearing the restaurant, we made our descent into a tiny, exquisite cove on the sea surrounded by steep cliffs. There was absolutely nothing there but the restaurant.

We were immediately taken into the kitchen to meet Ferran Adrià, with the maître d’ acting as interpreter. He was very gracious, and we had a chance after dinner to tell him that we enjoyed every one of the numerous dishes served. He replied, “Ah, I will sleep well tonight.” Quite a modest fellow!

The kitchen, all stainless steel and glass, was huge and spic-and-span, with 35 sous chefs and no one shouting or stumbling over each other. Calm prevailed.

The restaurant itself was small, divided into rooms, whitewashed, arcaded and beautifully furnished with lavish table settings. There was plenty of space between the tables. With a capacity of only 50, no wonder it was difficult to obtain a reservation!

The solicitous waiter’s first question to us was, “Are you allergic to any foods or is there anything you don’t care to eat? If so, we will substitute a dish.”

How thoughtful! Upon an explanation of the tasting menu (the only one available), I understood why it had been especially difficult to book a table. 2002 was El Bulli’s 20th anniversary and the chef had made up the menu from his favorite dishes of the previous 20 years! It consisted of 26 courses: 10 snacks, eight tapas, four main dishes, three desserts and coffee. With each course, an explanation was forthcoming, including suggestions as to “how” to eat it (for example, entirely in one swallow and wait for the aftereffect). Wines were at the suggestion of the waiter.

El Bulli is in a cove, Cala Montjoi, which is seven kilometers from the town of Roses, Spain.

The price for this splendiferous feast was a modest €115 per person.

Although each dish had really bizarre combinations of ingredients, it all worked wonderfully well. The presentation was magnificent; the china plates were huge, often rectangles, and the food was artistically arranged with decorative sprigs of plants and herbs. Even the breads, crackly on the outside and soft on the inside, were oddly shaped with long points on each end.

With three waiters, our service was impeccable.

The weird but wonderful meal began with a Cuban cocktail, Mojito en Sifo, followed by snacks of pork, rose petals tempura, a tapioca-saffron snack, a yogurt combination and a mini “pizza.” A consommé was served in a 2-inch-high beer mug with anise foam on top. Then came a brochette of watermelon, a caramelized quail egg and a final parmesan treat. All were delicious.

The next category were the tapas (appetizers), beginning with a consommé with thyme ice cream and gold parmesan croutons. This was followed by couscous (which we were to eat from the center outward in order to taste the spices ringed around it); a light-as-a-feather mousse of foie gras and artichokes with a caramelized top (another specialty of this chef); a ravioli with truffle oil and then another foam, in the form of a codfish with caramelized onions and fennel.

Out, too, came a grilled melon with mint, packets of beets stuffed with raspberries and pistachios and baby shrimp. We were told to eat the cuttlefish stuffed with coconut milk in one mouthful so that the flavor exploded all at once. Smoked eel with ravioli stuffed with pineapple and fennel ended the tapas section of the menu.

Co-owner and chef of El Bulli, Ferran Adrià.

The larger “main dishes” were listed next. Afraid we’d be unable to get to the dessert, we requested that these dishes be served to us in tapas-size portions. The first to appear was a cold soup, similar to a white gazpacho (typical of Andalucia), with almonds, mushrooms, asparagus and shrimp. Fried sardines in bread with garlic and fish eggs (from Sweden) were paper thin and crispy. Ending this section of the menu was rabbit with foie gras and cold apple jelly, followed by a lemon sorbet with fieur de sel (a strong flavor) and olive oil ice cream to clear the palate.

For the finale, the desserts were as beautiful to look at as to taste. The presentations were exotic, and the combinations were, again, wild but wonderful.

The three textured desserts that began the “Postres” section were made up of passion fruit and coconut foam with mint. Another triple whammy was chocolate ice cream over a mousse-like layer, all resting on a dense chocolate square.

Just when I thought I could not eat another crumb, out came the “Petites Bogeries,” presented on modern silver sculptured forms. It was like viewing an art exhibition — white chocolate with truffle oil, pineapple with ginger, yogurt with chocolate bonbons, sechuan peppers with chocolate, thin sheets of white-chocolate-dotted olives, orange candy with lime, paper-thin lollipops of yogurt with raspberries, and red fruit with caramelized corn.

Last, but not least, came mini ice cream cones with raspberry sorbet. In addition to all that excess, we were presented with a tiny chocolate cake with one candle — they hadn’t forgotten our 40th anniversary!

The waiters and patrons at the surrounding tables sang to us, and I made a small speech saying “Thank you” and remarking that, as Americans, many of whom change partners often, we were probably setting a record, to which our charming waiter replied, “Ah, Madame, not everyone in America is Elizabeth Taylor!”

June Evans Goldberg
New York, NY

Gaddi’s

On my way to Bhutan in 1992, I stopped off in Hong Kong. I’d read somewhere about a great restaurant, Gaddi’s (The Peninsula Hotel, Salisbury Road, Hong Kong, CHINA; phone 852-2366-6251), in the Peninsula Hotel, where I was NOT staying.

I knew Gaddi’s would be a splurge, but I truly wanted to have dinner there, although I was intimidated about being a woman eating alone. Then I thought of something that might help. I went to the concierge (one of the most handsome men I’ve ever seen!) at the Peninsula and explained that I wanted to eat at Gaddi’s but was shy about being alone.

The concierge asked my name, picked up the phone, spoke rapidly, then hung up and with a smile said, “They will expect you at 8 o’clock. Take the private elevator at the side entrance.”

Fortunately, I had packed a nice dress and shoes (one never knows) so didn’t feel too out of place as I exited the elevator.

Well, talk about worrying in vain! I was greeted by name and shown to the perfect table, one with a view of the entire room and the piano and located in a spot where I wasn’t conspicuously alone.

I ordered pigeon, which I knew in advance I wanted. I asked my waiter to surprise me with an appetizer and was served a delicious soup. I had two glasses of wine. My chocolate dessert was “to die for.” Every mouthful of the entire meal was fantastic.

However, as wonderful as the food was, it was the people who made this meal so memorable. During the course of the dinner, everyone working there (even the piano player) came to my table to say “Hello” — not to take an order but just to welcome me and make me feel comfortable.

It turned out to be the most expensive meal I’d ever paid for, myself (about $125 with tips), but I didn’t dine alone; I dined with my Gaddi’s “friends.” The memory is priceless.

Barbara Malley
New York, NY