And, I’m back! Yes, 2011 has been a bountiful and memorable year, my dear readers, but it has also been quite the frenetic, stressful, distraction-filled year too, so my sincerest apologies for not posting on this blog as much as I’ve done in the past. The main benefit, however, of continuing to be on the travel circuit for another year (yep, once again, I flew more than 90,000 miles across three continents) is the opportunity to spend time with family, colleagues, and new and old friends alike over convivial meals either rediscovering the past, exploring the present, or creating the future. And sometimes, with those closest to me, all three.
No one with even a passing interest in food and restaurants could have missed Chicago’s palpable, almost manic anticipation for the menu that would follow the highly-lauded “Paris 1906” opening menu of Grant Achatz’s Next restaurant. When it was announced days after Paris 1906 closed that the next three-month concept for Next was a “Tour of Thailand”, I was a little taken aback. First, I thought that Next’s whole raison d’etre was to portray the cuisine in a location during a specific time period. Tour of Thailand didn’t sound at all like that. Second, and more worryingly for this particular diner, Achatz, arguably the best chef in the US currently, Chef de Cuisine Dave Beran, and their talented team, would be treading onto “dangerous” territory – other than Los Angeles, there is no other city in the US (yes, kids, not even New York City), in my mind, that has the diversity, the energy, and the authenticity of the Chicago Thai restaurant scene. Between TAC Quick, Spoon Thai, Aroy Thai, and Sticky Rice and their widely-consumed “secret Thai menus”, not to mention Arun’s (Chef-owner Arun Sampanthavivat is widely-credited with introducing elevated, white-tablecloth Thai cuisine in the country in the 1980s), Chicago ain’t a city of pad-thai-and-crab-rangoon-eating queasy-palated Midwesterners. The educated diners in this city (some of whom are, hopefully, my blog readers as well), know their Isaan sausage from their som tom. The bar, the expectations, would be set so high. So when someone posted a “review” of the opening weekend of Tour of Thailand in a widely-read Chicago culinary chat board and commented on the seeming lack of heat and “funk” (the non-technical term the poster used for the salty, musky, embracing flavors of fish sauce and shrimp paste, integral elements of Southeast Asian cuisine), I responded back with: “I have been to Bangkok multiple times and I have eaten through Aroy’s, Spoon’s, and TAC’s Thai menus, so what is the compelling value proposition for me to try Next? Is Next’s Tour of Thailand menu then targeted towards those who have passing or limited knowledge/exposure to Thai food? The lack of heat and “funk” seem to be indicative.”
Tags: Next Restaurant
I recently came back from Hong Kong, a city that in my and many of my travel-savvy friends’ opinion is in the top five destinations in the world. It’s a dazzling, vibrant, breathlessly fast-paced city where the whiff of money, ambition and futuristic visions permeate the air more than tradition, history, or East Asian exoticism do. The limitless energy and intoxicating buzz of the city is unmatched by very few other world capitals (New York City and Tokyo come to my mind), and these qualities extend to a dynamic, diverse food scene. In my opinion, there is absolutely no possibility of getting a bad meal in Hong Kong. The city has 63 Michelin-starred restaurants (in contrast, New York City has 57 and Chicago has a surprisingly paltry 23). Alain Ducasse and Joel Robuchon have flagship restaurants in the city, while Hong Kong superstar chef Alvin Leung has the highly-acclaimed Bo Innovation, the preeminent Asian take on molecular gastronomy. Spectacular food can be had in its many teahouses and dimsum restaurants as well as in its unique dessert-only cafes, and dai pai dongs or the cooked food stalls in street markets. And then there are Hong Kong’s private kitchens, unlicensed, covert restaurants housed in residential flats or within the upper floors of commercial buildings.
I think it’s fascinating that, unlike other conversations I have had about Chicago restaurants, whether it’s The Girl and The Goat, or Hot Doug’s, or Tac Quick, or Avenues at the Peninsula, which always begin with “Did you like the food?”, the conversations I’ve had in the past week or so since I went to Next (with regular people, mind you, not with bloggers, journalists, or any self-styled “foodies”) always began with “How did you get in?”, then almost always promptly followed by “Was the hassle/stress/anxiety to get tickets worth it?” If you haven’t heard of Next, Grant Achatz’s much, much (over?)- ballyhooed, scrutinized, and talked about follow-up restaurant to Alinea where menus change every three months and where a supposedly cutting-edge (for the restaurant industry at least) pre-paid ticketing system is part of the diner experience, then you must either not have a pulse or had been hiding in a crevice deeper than the one James Franco found himself in 127 Hours. Either people assume that the food is spectacular because Achatz is at the helm so there is no need to ask about it, or that the buzz/myths/gripes that have surrounded the restaurant’s ticketing system have outshone all other aspects of the dining experience. I’m not really sure – all I can say is that the food at Next’s initial menu, Paris 1906, which pays tribute to Auguste Escoffier, the father of French gastronomy, is mind-blowing and gravity-stopping, simply one of the best meals I’ve had this year; but the ticketing system I can emphatically say I could do without, and actually dampens my overall enthusiasm for the restaurant. As TimeOut Chicago’s food critic Julia Kramer says in her spot-on review of the restaurant: “…to dine at Next at all is to experience a certain amount of privilege….it’s because of how hard it is to get tickets and the resulting self-satisfaction and cultural capital that one accrues (or believes, with varying levels of distortion, he or she accrues) by having dined there.” This sentence accurately, wrenchingly captures my ambivalence about Next, one of this demandingly food-focused city’s best, potentially greatest restaurants, because, until that ticketing system is revised or thrown out, any discussion of it can never be just about the food.
Tags: Next Restaurant
So I guess I’ve broken one of my New Year’s resolutions (actually, to be exact, pre-New Year’s resolution), which was to blog more often, and we’re just barely into the first month of 2011. The hangover I nursed after a super fab X-Marx New Year’s Eve dinner had hardly subsided before I was traipsing back along the pat-down central that is O’Hare airport. Yes, my travel grind is in full swing so blog entries may be a little sparse in the upcoming weeks (ok, ok, I’ll try as much as I can to be up-to-date with the postings!). Last week, I was in Mexico City for the first time, a city that has always intrigued me since I first saw Alejandro Gonzales Inarritu’s masterful Amores Perros, truly one of the best films of the ‘naughts, during the 2000 Chicago International Film Festival. The city was like another character in that film – insanely frenetic, morally corrupt, colorful, careening, lascivious, an urban metaphor for complicated lives. Although Mexico City is one of the world’s grand, great cities (at 25 million people, two Chicagos can fit into its urban density), I was a little apprehensive when this business trip came up on the schedule, given its track record on crime and violence. When I heard though that Rick Bayless, Top Chef Master and Chicago’s pride, said that Mexico City was currently one of the hot, up and coming cities for dining in the world, I resolved to explore its culinary scene as much as I could during my visit, crime and violence track records be damned. And thank you Rick – since I had some really terrific meals, which could be in the running for my year’s most memorable dining list, in Mexico City, a rambunctious, contradictory, stimulating, cosmopolitan place (and parts of it did remind me of my hometown of Manila).
Yes, this year felt a little bit more glorious than years past. Not only because I had really, really great food – in restaurants, in homes, in hawker centers – but also, since I flew close to 80,000 miles for work and a little play, I was very fortunate to have shared many generous, heartwarming, unforgettable meals with family and old and new friends not just in Chicago, but in New York City, Los Angeles, Washington DC, Boston, Scottsdale, Minneapolis, Houston, Manila, and Singapore, as well. I’ve had meals this year with the highest-quality ingredients sourced from the best purveyors (and in one X-Marx Chicago dinner, foraged from a patch of green in Humboldt Park), spectacular culinary inventiveness from chefs at the top of their game, and unexpected pairings, combinations, and cooking techniques; but more importantly, most of these meals were also celebrations with people I cared a lot about, full of remembrances, excitement, and possibilities, with personal bonds strengthened or re-ignited or instantaneously created.