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The Sensuous Pleasure of Dining Outdoors

Fabulous Food Al Fresco

by John Mariani

Civilized Relaxation at Bouchon

I loathe picnics on the ground. Dining al fresco, on the other hand, means just eating well in a wonderful outdoor setting with a full menu and professional waiters who bring good silverware and wine glasses that ping to the touch. Indeed, whatever pleasures I might enjoy inside a fine restaurant are increased immeasurably outside when the weather is warm and the passersby on the street provide a continuous parade for people watching.

Fortunately, restaurateurs are well aware of this and so offer al fresco dining for as many days and evenings as possible during the year. It adds a soft charm to good food and wine—and if there are birds in the trees and the sounds of the sea in the distance, so much the better. (And if you can work it so that you take Dad out for an al fresco Father’s Day meal, you will be in his good graces for the next year.)

At the Sea Grill in Manhattan, you sit beneath Rockefeller Center’s gilded Prometheus, surrounded by some of the world’s most majestic art deco skyscrapers, overlooking a space where winter’s ice-skating rink is covered in summer with tables and umbrellas. And you feast on some of the finest seafood in New York, prepared by master chef Ed Brown. You might begin with tiers of cold shellfish, every one plump and delicious, served with traditional cocktail sauce and a saffron aïoli. In season, there are Nantucket bay scallops with black truffles and chervil, and superb tuna wrapped in prosciutto with foie gras, red wine and Sauternes jellies. Brown poaches his lobster in butter, then serves the pieces in a frothy, creamy cappuccino, while his wild mushroom soup is laced with a truffle essence. And there are also a number of daily fish cooked on the plancha, a Spanish griddle.

Smart SoCal Setting at Michael's

On the opposite coast, Michael’s, a leafy patio-focused restaurant that first opened in the early 1980s and set the template for many to follow, still serves the kind of sophisticated California cuisine it helped to kick-start. Inside the converted, modernized house in Santa Monica, owner Michael McCarty has assembled a collection of striking art by top contemporary painters like Jim Dine, Richard Diebenkorn, Sam Francis, David Hockney and Jasper Johns, while a fountain and sculptures by the likes of Robert Graham grace a coveted dining patio with big umbrellas that keep the California sun at bay. Chef Nadav Bashan offers the kind of fresh, casual yet elegant cuisine that has become a Michael’s hallmark, with excellent, reasonably priced tasting menus that might include butternut squash and Parmesan soup with goat’s cheese tortellini and pumpkin oil; grilled Mediterranean loup de mer with lobster-scallion olive oil mashed potatoes, grilled asparagus and roasted tomato coulis; and seared squab and foie gras with roasted plum and balsamic glaze. The open air seems the final perfect garnish.

Just a short drive up the coast brings you to one of the most laid-back yet serious restaurants in the lotus land of Santa Barbara, bouchon. The outdoor tables here are a prime draw, a space of civilized relaxation as you choose a terrific wine from the nearby Santa Ynez Valley and feast on chef Michael Boyce’s sumptuous food, typified by dishes like Sonoma foie gras served on brioche with plum preserves in a reduction of late-harvest wine; roasted duck breast with nutty wild rice, sautéed pears, cippolini onions and a blackberry jus; and apple-strawberry cobbler, hot from the oven and dripping with vanilla ice cream.

Breakfast at Brennan’s

If I had to choose one place to eat Sunday breakfast outdoors, I’d be tempted to head for Brennan's in New Orleans, a French Quarter mainstay since 1955 and as much a Big Easy institution as Mardi Gras. It's easy to see why. The courtyard is still one of the most glorious in the French Quarter. They make a superb turtle soup; eggs Hussarde (a rich variation on the usual eggs Benedict with the addition of marchand de vin sauce as well as the usual hollandaise); eggs à la Nouvelle Orleans with lump crab meat; and, to end the meal with a fiery flourish, bananas Foster, a dish created here. The wine list at Brennan’s is as stellar as ever—certainly the best in the city.

Watching the Sunset at La Mer

But why stay in the mainland U.S. for an outdoor culinary fantasy? Eating in the breeze is a Hawaiian specialty, but dining at the top of the food chain is best appreciated there at La Mer at the Halekulani Hotel in Honolulu. Large windows open to the Pacific, and the menu caters to gourmets ravenous for chef Yves Garnier’s impeccable hybrid of French and Pacific Rim cuisines, which might include such dishes as Kobe beef three ways; roast squab with salsify and golden gnocchi; and coconut soufflé.

And one of my favorite places to eat outdoors is in Mexico City. Casa de las Serenas (32 Republica de Guatemala; 5704-3225) is a lovely, colorful, utterly gracious restaurant that overlooks the city’s cathedral and the vast, bustling Zocalo plaza, and you can dine on the terrace or with the windows open here most of the year. I was amazed at the more than 150 tequilas stocked at the bar, and I enjoyed the terrace dining room's unusual dishes like black bean soup with chorizo sausage and epazote greens, a Cornish game hen in sesame seed mole with mango slices, and a corn flan with little wafers similar to those received at Holy Communion.

If you’re in search of someplace quieter in Mexico City, seek out El Bajio (2709 Avenue Cuitlahuac; 5341-9889). I felt very fortunate to have been steered to this locally popular place that isn’t yet overrun by tourists. Chef-owner Carmen Ramirez Degollado is an impassioned advocate of the cookery of her native Veracruz, and her food is complex, with every dish having layers of flavors, perhaps 20 spices, and a richness drawn from vegetable essences. She served me sopa de xonequi, made with small piquant herbs from Veracruz; a flaky red snapper in a vivid green mole sauce; and then a full-flavored chicken in a dark unsweetened chocolate mole fragrant with spices. With each bite, I felt as if I was sitting not in Mexico City but on that country’s Caribbean coast, a perfect example of food’s power to transport you—to the great outdoors, no less!

John Mariani is well known for his frank and poignant writing in Esquire, Wine Spectator, Diversion and the Harper Collection. He is author of The Encyclopedia of American Food & Drink, The Dictionary of Italian Food and Drink and co-author, with his wife, of the Italian-American Cookbook.

(Updated: 09/13/10 NW)

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