Starry Tables: My Best Meals of 2014

Food, Travel No Comments »

nahmIt’s a big, tasty world out there.  I know, I know, this sounds like quite the headscratchingly obvious statement, but sometimes, as I go through my daily perusal of online articles and social media, I’m just flummoxed at the number of Twitter fooderatis and food writers who seem to think the holy triumvirate of New York City-Chicago-San Francisco provides all the food-related news fit to print (or tweet or Instagram or happy dance to). Oh well, to each his or her own I guess. I’ve always been preoccupied with culinary context and as I said in last year’s dining roundup, I don’t believe you can really fully understand the cuisine and its historical, cultural, and sociological influences and associations unless you’re eating it within the geography it’s from. Fortunately, my life and job allowed me to eat well and thoughtfully this year in Chicago, New York City, San Francisco (yep, so I did traverse the triumvirate this year as well too, so, uh, sue me), Bangkok, Ho Chi Minh City, Sao Paulo, Hong Kong, Macau, Manila, Washington DC, Austin, San Diego, and Milwaukee.  I was lucky to eat at many great places this year, but though some of them had Michelin stars and World’s 50 Best restaurants rankings, my meals there were memorable and compelling because they were not only exceptionally delicious, but they clearly represented and illuminated the place of cuisine – ingredients, cooking techniques, the relationship of cooks and purveyors – within the larger cultural and historical framework.  Here then are my best meals of 2014:

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Krung Thep

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nahm_crab curryIn the monster 1980s pop hit “One Night in Bangkok” (which came from the equally monster Broadway musical flop Chess), Murray Head sings “One night in Bangkok makes the hard man humble.”  The city of Bangkok is indeed humbling for both first-time and returning visitors– with its dense urban sprawl (it’s in the top 20 biggest cities in the world); with its frenzied, often gridlocked traffic; with its pungent, lively, cacophonous city life in which you can get anything and everything your heart desires, it is a city like very few in the world, fascinating, mesmerizing, discomfiting. Bangkok is also universally acknowledged as one of the great dining cities in the world, especially when it comes to its deservedly-famous street food.  The culinary-focused flock to Bangkok and find themselves in street food nirvana, slurping beef noodles in the narrow alleys of Bangrak, tearing into skewers of grilled pork along Sukhumvit Road, sweating through the spiciest duck curry they’ll ever have on backpacker ground zero Khao San Road. I love visiting Bangkok and I’ve chowed down its sois during past trips (the memory of the gloriously crisp, sweet-salty fish cakes I had in a no-name stall along Sukhumvit Road in the mid-nineties continue to ruin any pleasure in eating  fish cakes in Thai restaurants in the US) . But two weeks ago, in early January, coming back to this great enthralling city after more than a decade, I was determined to experience the thriving fine (or finer) dining scene that many “foodie” visitors overlook. I was specifically interested in finding out what the big deal was about Nahm, recently anointed as #32 in the San Pellegrino World’s 50 Best Restaurants list and #3 in its satellite Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants list, helmed by controversial chef David Thompson.  So despite being tempted by all the grilled and fried delights so easily accessible even right outside my hotel on Sukhumvit Soi 24, I reserved my stomach (anxious for potential regrets if Nahm turned out to be a dud) for Thompson’s white-table cloth shrine to Thai cooking.

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Where Young People Go to Retire

Dance, Food, Theater, Travel No Comments »

campo still standing hereYou would think that with my day job which entails crisscrossing the country racking up both air mileage and time zone discombobulation, there would be few places in the US that I would not have been to. In reality though, I haven’t really spent that much time in the Pacific Northwest. For the past several years, I’ve stared longingly at the Portland Institute of Contemporary Art’s website, devouring the descriptions of the offerings in its Time-Based Arts (TBA) Festival, an international festival of cutting-edge theater, dance, and performance art which occurs for two weeks every October. The TBA Festival curator used to be Mark Russell, who also programs the highly-regarded Under the Radar Festival in New York City’s Public Theater. So over the past few years, the biggest names of edgy, unconventional theater from The Wooster Group to Nature Theater of Oklahoma to Australia’s Back to Back Theater to Baryshnikov dancing with the Donna Uchizono Company have shown up in Portland in the fall. So finally, this year, with cultural wanderlust and curiosity winning over work and Chicago personal life scheduling conflicts, I headed into what Fred Armisen calls the place “where young people go to retire”.  In addition to taking in a couple of performances at the TBA Festival, the trip was also an opportunity to reconnect with old friends and to satiate a non-theatrical, culinary curiosity: is Andy Ricker’s PokPok, winner of James Beard awards, subject of frenzied national food media coverage, and hot restaurant export warmly-embraced by usually skeptical, world-weary New Yorkers, truly the second coming of Thai food?

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Ciudad de los Reyes

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amaz dorado patrarashcaI’ve had a love affair with the great Latin American cities since those first visits a couple of years ago to Mexico City, and then Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro.  Being Filipino, the shared Iberian colonial legacy, from architecture to language to ways of life and gently fatalistic worldviews, has been seductively familiar and enticing.  Also, because I was born and bred in Manila, and having travelled extensively in the developing countries of Asia, I’ve always felt at home with- hey, feel energized by – these cities’ unruly grandness co-mingling with frenetic urbanization.   And then, there’s the cuisine.  All the great chefs in the world (who you think would care about these things) from Ferran Adria to his heirs Rene Redzepi and Jordi Roca, not to mention global culinary media, have proclaimed Latin America, with Mexico, Brasil, and Peru in the forefront, as the future of cuisine. So it was just a matter of time, then, that I would jaunt over to Peru, specifically Lima, and find out what the heck everybody’s croaking about.  And much like Francisco Pizarro (who established the city of Lima but is much-vilified in Peru as the symbol of the worst of Spanish colonialism) on his pursuit of the fabled city of gold, El Dorado, albeit with fancier footwear and sexier scarves, this Francisco embarked during the last week of May on a journey to explore the fabled, and excitingly hot and exploding,  Lima culinary scene.  And boy, was I not disappointed. Despite struggling with the Asian influences on Peruvian cuisine (more on that later), I had many, many excellent meals in Lima, and a couple of mind-blowing ones.

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Best Meal of the Year, so far

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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.

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Maravilloso

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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).

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