Starry Tables: My Best Meals of 2014

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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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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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