New York Times

Published: October 22, 2006

 

An Epicurean Pilgrimage: Meals Worth the Price of a Plane Ticket

Jock Fistick/Reporters, for The New York Times

In Brussels, a table with a view of the action at Comme Chez Soi, where food “tastes like what it is.”

 

By R. W. APPLE Jr.

Published: October 22, 2006

Editor’s Note: R. W. Apple filed this article shortly before his death on Oct. 4. Originally assigned to be part of a special issue on travel and food, it reflects a lifetime of experiences of a man who once referred to himself, when interviewed by Calvin Trillin for The New Yorker, as “more gourmand than gourmet,” one who took equal pleasure in Michelin-starred restaurants and the street food of Singapore.

Matias Costa for The New York Times

Imagination at work at Arzak in San Sebastián, Spain.

AFTER half a century of assiduous eating in restaurants around the world, first avocationally and more recently professionally, I have become accustomed to certain questions: “What’s your favorite restaurant?” “What will you order for your last meal on earth?” “Which is best — French cuisine? Italian? Chinese?” All unanswerable, of course. Now comes a more modest proposition: Name 10 restaurants abroad that would be worth boarding a plane to visit, even in these fraught days.

O.K. Here’s my list. Please note, this is neither an enumeration of my favorites (though some of those are included) nor a ranking of the world’s best (like those fatuous lists put out each year by Restaurant magazine in London). Rather than reciting a long list of two- and three-star gastronomic temples, I have chosen purlieus both grand and small, better to reflect my own eating habits. And rather than loading up my list with French and Italian addresses, I have arbitrarily restricted my choices to one per country, for much the same reason. I would expect no one else to choose the same 10, but on the other hand, I would be astonished if many of my nominations disappointed.

FLEURIE, FRANCE Auberge du Cep, Place de l’Église; (33-4) 7404-1077; perso.orange.fr/mercurebeaujolais/cep.htm.

French country cooking — or bistro cooking, as its urban variant is called — deserves, but is not often accorded, a place among the world’s culinary glories beside French haute cuisine. Based on regional products, honestly handled, “unfoamed and unfused” in the words of my friend Colman Andrews, late of Saveur magazine, it is the specialty of this small restaurant on the main square of a prettily named village in Beaujolais. It is a specialty unflinchingly embraced by its proprietor, Chantal Chagny, who five years ago banished lobster and truffles from her menu and turned her back on two Michelin stars in favor of the simpler dishes she adores, like herb-crusted, perfectly fried, never-frozen frogs’ legs, crisp-edged sweetbreads, soup made of garden herbs, roast wild duck from a local river and rosy tenderloin of regional Charolais beef, France’s best.

Love and skill are lavished on the simplest dishes — tiny, tender lamb chops, neglected freshwater fish like perch and pike-perch (sander), eggs poached in red wine (oeufs en meurette), toothsome squab, black currant sorbet, even snails — great fat ones, bubbling happily in their shells, bathed in garlic, parsley, butter and Pernod. Here is the food most of us travel to France to taste, and who can resist it once tasted? Here, too, are the little regional wines we search for — especially Beaujolais, 60 of them, including 30 from Fleurie itself, one of the 10 designated crus known for excellence.

SANT’AGATA SUI DUE GOLFI, ITALY Don Alfonso 1890, corso Sant’Agata 11; (39-081) 878-0026; www.donalfonso.com.

Americans of my vintage (b. 1934), weaned on the red-tablecloth food of the Italian south, were later taught that it was uncool, compared with the blander specialties of Milan and Venice. But we were also taught that in Italian cooking, the quality of ingredients is everything, and it is the south — the Mezzogiorno — that produces the juiciest fruits, the briniest clams and tuna, the best buffalo-milk mozzarella cheese, and the world’s most sumptuous tomatoes, known as San Marzanos and raised near Mount Vesuvius, just south of Naples.

Alfonso and Livia Iaccarino (she of the zippy white patent-leather boots) grow herbs, lemons and peaches, artichokes and eggplants and, of course, prize tomatoes, plus the olives for their own tangy, fruity oil, in a sun-kissed garden facing the Isle of Capri near their restaurant on the Sorrento peninsula. In their lovely pastel dining room, they serve fresh, understated, unmistakably Italian food in great profusion — ravioli with caciotta (a sheep’s milk cheese), wild marjoram, barely heated chopped tomatoes and basil; rolls of baby sirloin filled with raisins, pine nuts, parsley and garlic, atop a ragout of wild endive; rabbit simply but exquisitely grilled with herbs; squid and baby octopus of a very high caliber. The tufa cellar, first excavated by the Etruscans, is stocked with wines from all around the world.

SAN SEBASTIÁN, SPAIN Arzak, Avenida Alcalde Jose Elosegui, 273; (34-943) 27-8465; www.arzak.es.

I’ll take a pass here on El Bulli; for one thing, you don’t need me to tell you about it, and for another, Arzak is more to my taste. It is nicely poised between an older, French-inspired style of innovation, as represented by Juan Mari Arzak, who trained in the nouvelle cuisine kitchen of the Troisgros brothers in Roanne (where I myself spent a few happy days long ago), and the new wave of ground-breaking Spanish cooking, as exemplified by Ferran Adrià and his disciples, including Mr. Arzak’s daughter, Elena.

I can hear you sputtering from here. What? Fly all night to Argentina to eat in a parilla when every big city in the United States boasts steakhouses promising (some even delivering) prime U.S.D.A. beef? Well, this is grass-fed beef, raised on the vast ocean of chlorophyll called the Pampas. It’s different. Some, including me, would say better, with a rounder flavor, leaner texture and sweeter fat. You eat in a handsome wood-and-leather room in the redeveloped Puerto Madero docklands area, and drink from a wine-wall stocked with fine Mendoza reds like those of Nicolas Catena.

Octavio Caraballo, the owner, supplies all the beef from his own ranch, or estancia. We flew there with him — big guy, bigger cigar, even at 8 in the morning — on his private plane, admired the spread and ate beef (what else?) for lunch. The selection was bigger at dinner back in town, with medallón de lomo (tenderloin) and cuadril (rump) and ojo de bife (rib-eye) covering every inch of the big grills. Little “bombon” sausages and sweetbreads, too.

Warning: They will ply you with so many delicious breads, so many salads and such superb cheese and olives and peppers, that you might not be able to do justice to the beef. Which would be tragic.     Done Jan 2007.  Above description is fairly accurate;  pretty good but NOT SO great as to justify an airplane trip. 

SHANGHAI Jean-Georges, 3 Zhongshan Dong Yi Lu 1; (86-21) 6321-7733; www.jean-georges.com.

I have lived in Asia and eaten more than my share of Chinese food, Lord knows, but I remain a man of the West, not the East, and I still find the Chinese passion for “gristly, slithery and squelchy textures,” as the English writer Fuchsia Dunlop calls them, hard to cope with. Delicacies like sea cucumber and bird’s nest have little taste, Asian friends tell me, but great “kou gan,” or mouth feel, which escapes me.

Hence I tread lightly here. I would happily fly to Shanghai to eat the seraphic — yes, seraphic — soup dumplings at Nan Xiang, or the snails with chopped, spiced pork at tiny Chun. But I would be more likely to go to Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s glamorous place on the Bund, the best of all his places, in my view, where the food is a little Eastern, a little Western.

A year ago, as I reported in the Travel section, Betsey and I ate a nearly flawless meal there. A single Kumamoto oyster wreathed in Champagne jelly was followed by raw tuna brightened by Thai chili paste. Then cubed raw kingfish with Taiwanese mangoes and chili-lemon granita was utterly irresistible — peppery, sweet and acidic, yellow and orange and red, all at once. A second trio, equally satisfying, comprised crab dumplings with black pepper oil and tiny local peas; seared sweet scallops from Dalian, nestling with clams in a tomato jus; and superbly fresh snapper with crunchy cucumber strips. Vaut le voyage, as Michelin would have it.

MUMBAI, INDIA Trishna, Birla Mansion, Sai Baba Marg, Fort; (91-22) 2270-3213.

This, I think, is the only truly remarkable restaurant I have ever discovered solely on the recommendation of a friend of a friend. Dubious, Betsey and I made our way there one night years ago and liked it so much that we went back 72 hours later. It was not the décor, which is shabby, or the service, which can be surly, and certainly not the menu, which is very nearly useless. It’s the food, stupid, the seafood.

Enormous king crabs fresh from the Indian Ocean, awash in butter, and seasoned with garlic and pepper until they make the lips tingle but not sting, draw an eager crowd of Mumbai businessmen and Bollywood stars to this little establishment on a crowded, noisy alley in the old Fort district. If you like, your crab will be brought to the table before cooking, still alive and dangling from a string held by a waiter.

These are among the world’s choicest crustaceans, and I say that as someone who lives 25 miles from the Chesapeake. But Ravi Anchan has plenty of other savory delights up his sleeve, including tender little pomfret (a kind of butterfish) barbecued in the style of Hyderabad, with black pepper; deep-fried squid; and gorgeous, never-frozen tiger prawns grilled with mint. Don’t mind the waiters; insist and they will bring what you want.

SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA Billy Kwong, 3/355 Crown Street, Surry Hills; (61-2) 9322-3300.

Among Sydney chefs, Tetsuya Wakuda, with his confit of Tasmanian ocean trout, and Neil Perry of Rockpool, with his mud crabs, get most of the international ink, and rightly so; they are as gifted as any of their counterparts in Europe or America. But I would head from my Qantas jet for Billy Kwong, my favorite neighborhood restaurant (whose neighborhood, unfortunately, is exactly 9,758 miles from mine). This is the trim, dark, bustling domain of Kylie Kwong, a 36-year-old wunderkind whose mile-wide smile and black-framed glasses are as well known Down Under as is Jacques Pépin’s cherubic face Up Here.

Her food is delicious, and her place gives off none of those Chinese-speakers-only vibes that plague us Anglophones; Ms. Kwong, Australian-born, speaks no Chinese herself. So order to your heart’s content, in English, and flail away as the plates arrive, rat-a-tat: prawn wontons, little flavor bombs bursting with the tastes of shellfish, black vinegar and chili oil; star-anise-flavored tofu and black cloud-ear fungus, with Thai and Vietnamese herbs; chive crepes with smoky caramelized eggplant salad; steamed line-caught blue-eyed cod with ginger and shallots; spectacularly crisp-skinned duck with a sauce made from ruby grapefruit; and sung choi bao — wok-fried mouthfuls of moist, gingery pork and vegetables, wrapped in crisp lettuce leaves. The inspiration is Cantonese, absorbed by Kylie at her mother’s table, but the execution is all her own.

I have shortchanged Turkey, Thailand and Japan. I know, and I apologize. Put it down to limited space and inadequate depth of knowledge. There should be enough here to hold you — hopefully to set you soaring — for a few weeks or months, or even years.