Articles in Travel

The Café des Musées in Paris. Credit: Marguerite Thomas

From the nondescript exterior of the Café des Musées in Paris, you wouldn’t expect it to be one of the city’s best bistros. Yet inside you’ll find plenty of conviviality and good cheer, and a simply stunning Champagne, Drappier Brut Nature, being poured by the glass.  Even on a chilly rain-swept evening such as the one I experienced last month, a visit to this restaurant and a glass (or two, or more) of this sensational wine will be sure to warm body and spirit alike.

That the Café des Musées serves such an exceptional Champagne is a testament to the French approach to Champagne in general.  There, unlike here in the United States, Champagne is first and foremost a wine, not a luxury product, and should be enjoyed like all wines—without snobbery or pretense, but with good will and joie de vivre.

Drappier Brut Nature is a non-vintage, non-dosage wine. The first designation means that, like most Champagnes, it is a blend from multiple harvests, the winemaker’s goal being not only to display quality but also to maintain consistency. Wherever and whenever you drink it, a non-vintage Champagne should taste much the same as the last time you had it.

In the case of this particular wine, it will taste completely dry, “non-dosage” meaning a Champagne deliberately crafted without the sugary syrup that most winemakers add to their cuvées in order to soften and, yes, sweeten them. Because the Champagne region lies at the northernmost geographical limit for ripening grapes, wines there are naturally high in acidity, leaving a tart impression that sometimes can turn unpleasantly sour.

In recent years, due in part to improved winemaking but even more to a series of quite warm summers, dosage levels have gone down in Champagne, with the amount of sugar used now being roughly half of what it was 15 to 20 years ago. Entirely non-dosage Champagnes remain, however, quite rare. The base wine in them needs to be exceptionally good. Sugar can conceal faults, but its absence will magnify them. No matter how much the region’s climate has changed, these Champagnes still run the risk of tasting harsh and acerbic. That’s why only a handful of producers even try to make them.

Drappier’s Brut Nature tastes flawless. Surprisingly rich on the palate (surprising precisely because of the absence of sugar), it is enticingly aromatic and very yeasty in the finish. Made with 100% Pinot Noir, most of which comes from Drappier’s home vineyard in the village of Urville, it exhibits a depth of flavor typical of wines made with that grape variety but unexpected in a non-dosage Champagne.

Decant this Champagne

I would advise decanting this wine because it will really come into its own when in contact with air. The two glasses I had at the start of dinner at Café des Musées came from an open bottle, in fact a magnum, so had been exposed to plenty of air before being served. My enthusiasm for them surely was due in part to that interplay of wine and oxygen, a chemical exchange that helps the wine develop a softer, more appealing texture and a more complex so compelling bouquet.

Drappier Brut Nature Champagne. Credit: Paul Lukacs

Credit: Paul Lukacs

Much of my enthusiasm, though, surely also came from the situation. This was my fourth dinner over the years at this restaurant, and as with my earlier visits, I was enthralled. Although it’s located on the edge of the hip Marais district, the Café des Musées is no gastronomic temple, and its menu is anything but cutting edge.  Instead, this is the place to go for traditional French bistro fare — juicy steak frites, spicy andouillette, “black pork” loin, steak tartare and the like.

As that list suggests, the menu here is a carnivore’s dream. While the house-smoked salmon is some of the best you’ll find anywhere, and the chef always offers at least one fish as a main course, you’ll want to go only if you can bring a hearty, meat-eating appetite. Portions are large, the atmosphere joyous. You’ll be sitting close enough to a fellow diner to bump (not just rub) elbows. So long as the Champagne keeps flowing, however, no one will much care.

So reserve a table the next time you are lucky enough to be in Paris. And toast your good fortune with a glass of Drappier Brut Nature. Then hum this song. Though in reality spring in Paris tends to be wet and chilly, Vernon Duke and Y. A. “Yip” Harburg got the sentiment just right:

I never knew the charm of spring
Never met it face to face
I never knew my heart could sing
Never missed a warm embrace
Till April in Paris . . .

Drappier Brut Nature is imported into the United States by, among others, A. Hardy USA.  It retails for roughly $50 a bottle.

Café des Musées is in the third arrondissment, at 49 rue Turenne, 75003 Paris. The telephone number is 1 42 72 96 17.  (Dial 330 before the number if calling from the United States; dial 0 if calling from within Paris.)

Main photo: The Café des Musées in Paris. Credit: Marguerite Thomas

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A hot noodle dish from Honey Pig in the Koreatown section of Los Angeles. Credit: W.F. Tierney

People like chef-entreprenuer David Chang of Momofuku and Lucky Peach fame rave rhapsodically about ramen. These days, ramen is way more than the cheap stuff in a bag that has kept generations of college students alive.

My recent journey on what I call the Ramen Road begins in Gardena, Calif., near my old hometown in the South Bay area of the Los Angeles region. Gardena has a large Japanese community, and the Marukai Japanese market is practically the epicenter. When I lived in the area, I would go to Marukai often, bypassing the food court and heading straight for the Japanese hardware section for items such as barbecue supplies. Then I would hit the tea aisle and the fish counter, which smells like the sea. It turns over tons of fresh fish every day.

Can’t-miss tasty ramen dishes

But when I read a Los Angeles Times article by Jonathan Gold about his favorite ramen dishes, including one from Ramen Iroha in Marukai’s food court, I knew I had to go. Make a right turn as you enter the front door, and Ramen Iroha is there. Gold raves about the black ramen, which gets its color from a combination of soy and black beans. My own preference is for the delicious red ramen, made with a spicy red chili oil.

From Gardena, I went south to Orange County. A few years ago, I made one of the culinary discoveries of my life, almost by accident, when I stumbled upon Diamond Jamboree in Irvine. I was totally unmade by what I found.

Diamond Jamboree is a sprawling center anchored by an HMart, the Korean chain. On this Sunday night, it was teeming with Asians of every ethnicity. Why? You can find nearly all types of Asian foods there, from noodle shops to sushi to dim sum to shabu-shabu. Almost all of it is wonderful. There’s even a great bakery with a long line snaking out the door at 9 at night.

The statue in front of Ajisen in the Diamond Jamboree complex. Credit: W.F. Tierney

The statue in front of Ajisen in the Diamond Jamboree complex in Irvine, Calif. Credit: W.F. Tierney

One shopfront that won me over was Ajisen — in part because of the statue in the entryway that looks like a transgendered Bob of Bob’s Big Boy. But Ajisen, a casual chain with outlets in the United States, Japan and several other countries, also has great noodles. It serves about 20 types of ramen, with everything from pork to eel.

Tokyo Table also serves up some decent ramen. The last time I was there I had a spicy chicken ramen that was delicious. But the nod goes to Ajisen, if only for the plethora of choices.

Diamond Jamboree, like Marukai, is now a real destination for me when I travel south from the Los Angeles area. If you don’t live in Southern California, Hotel Terrace Drive in Santa Ana is a convenient place to stay during a visit. The roadway is one long arc of middle-tier hotel chains just off the 55 Freeway at Dyer Road. It’s an easy drive over to Diamond Jamboree, which is on Alton Parkway, just past Von Karman Avenue. Use the parking structure, or you will be cruising the main lot for half an hour.

Ramen by way of Koreatown

On another recent trip to Los Angeles, I had lunch at Honey Belly in Koreatown. The eatery is on Eighth Street near Harvard Boulevard. All the signage is in Korean, so look for a storefront with a big, fat, smiley pig.

Korean noodles aren’t exactly the same as ramen, but they are close enough. The noodles are a bit thinner, but for most people they are indistinguishable from ramen. Honey Belly is a traditional Korean barbecue place, but I’m visiting for the noodles.

The menu is almost entirely in Korean, and it includes only two noodle dishes, one served cold and the other served hot. I went with the hot one. I asked my server to transliterate the name of the dish for me so I would remember. She frowned a little and then wrote down Jang Kook Soo Den.

Marukai market. Credit: W.F. Tierney

Marukai market in Gardena, Calif. Credit: W.F. Tierney

The soup that came out was delicious, chicken broth based with noodles of course. It also included meat (either beef or pork), tofu, jalapeno and enoki mushrooms. There were also small plates of ban shan, spicy pickled bean sprouts and very good kimchi. It all added up to a delicious meal.

So get out there on the Ramen Road and eat your noodles. You will feel better for it.

Main photo: A hot noodle dish from Honey Belly in the Koreatown section of Los Angeles. Credit: W.F. Tierney

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Japanese-influenced ceviche with weakfish. Credit: Hiroko Shimbo

Five years ago, I visited Peru and tasted ceviche, the national dish of raw fish cured in citrus juice, for the first time. I am a trained sushi chef and the author of a definitive book on Japanese sushi, but this meal was a revelation. The combination of lime juice and chile pepper with firm-tender cubes of a local white fish was strange, but utterly refreshing.

Ever since that meal in Peru, I have wondered again and again whether ceviche could be related to sashimi, the Japanese dish of sliced raw fish. (Sushi is raw fish combined with rice.) Both preparations are popular menu items today in high-end restaurants around the world, with creative interpretations that extend well beyond Japanese or Peruvian cuisine. Japanese celebrity chef Nobu Matsuhisa launched his restaurant career with a sushi bar in Peru, where he developed his signature style blending South American and Japanese takes on seafood.

Ceviche and sashimi were born in countries that share a similar geographical blessing. Warm and cold currents blend along the coasts of Japan and Peru, allowing high-quality plankton to flourish, and in turn, nourishing the fish to produce exceptionally tasty seafood.

At a time when not much ice was available and no refrigeration system existed, early residents of both countries devised these ways to enjoy good quality seafood longer and more safely. According to Claudio Meneses, a Peruvian with a great depth of knowledge on Peruvian gastronomy, ceviche originally was developed before the Spanish conquest, as a way to prevent rapid spoilage of fresh fish. In this original method, fresh or dried salted seafood was cured in tumbo (banana passionfruit) juice or chicha, a fermented beverage made from corn, along with aji chile and sometimes local aromatic herbs. The word “ceviche” is said to be derived from the Quechua word “siwich,” which means fresh fish.

Although people sometimes say that ceviche is “cooked” in the citrus juices, this curing technique does not kill the parasites that are common in even the healthiest of marine and freshwater fish. Therefore, like sashimi, ceviche must be made with absolutely fresh seafood of the highest quality.

Ceviche for lunch

“Peruvian cevicherías, that is, restaurants that specialize in ceviche, only open for lunch because fish used for ceviche traditionally had to be picked up from the fish market the same day it was going to be served,” Meneses said. “While this is not exactly true today, tradition has kept and so far I only know of one cevichería that opens for dinner.”

Japanese sashimi preparation can be traced to nama-su, which appeared around the 14th or 15th century. “Nama” means fresh or raw, and “su” means vinegar. Seafood for nama-su was pickled in vinegar with ginger or wasabi, or in ume plum-infused sake (rice wine) before serving. All of the pickling ingredients had anti-bacterial functions. The Japanese, like the Peruvians, cured fresh seafood to prevent spoilage and extend its life as a food source.

As time passed and world commerce increased, the transformation of sashimi and ceviche was peppered with foreign influences, political changes and technological advancement. The first change in ceviche preparation came when the Spanish brought bitter orange trees to Peru in the 15th century. Bitter orange quickly replaced the local fruit juice as a curing ingredient.

Kozue sashimi

Modern Japanese sashimi at Kozue restaurant at the Park Hyatt, Tokyo. Credit: Hiroko Shimbo

In Japan, commercial production of shoyu, Japanese soy sauce, began and shoyu became widely available by the middle of the Edo period (1600-1868). Shoyu, which is high in sodium, was perfect for curing and preserving fresh tuna and skipjack tuna. Both are naturally dark in color, so the soy sauce does not affect their appearance. Shoyu also changed the way to eat raw fish in Japan. The umami-rich, savor of the shoyu, which masks any fishy taste, improves the overall flavor of raw fish.  It therefore became an indispensable condiment to accompany sashimi. After World War II, more dramatic changes occurred in the Japanese sashimi kitchen. The refrigeration system introduced from America, efficient ice-making technology, development of high speed transportation networks and improved methods of fish catching and slaughtering allowed Japanese chefs to serve most seafood for raw consumption as sashimi at any place across the country, including areas far from the water.

From Japan to Peru

And then these developments in Japan began to influence ceviche in Peru, where the late 19th and early 20th centuries saw an influx of Japanese immigrants. By the 1970s, Japanese chefs living and working in Lima introduced modern Japanese sashimi preparation to Peru and these techniques migrated to the Peruvian ceviche kitchen. The Japanese chefs introduced a new way to cut ceviche seafood, in thin slices rather than the traditional cubes. This type of ceviche, known as tiradito, takes less time to cure because the large surface area and the thinness of the slices allow the marinade to penetrate more quickly. This resulted in the development of more subtly and interestingly flavored ceviches.

So although they originated on different continents and evolved in different ways, sashimi and ceviche were created around the same time for similar reasons — to make the most of a bounty of delicious fresh seafood. And over the years, these historical cousins have become even closer relatives as the culinary world has globalized.

This realization encouraged me to try to make my own ceviche dish, which I want to share with you. I happened to find a very good quality weakfish (sometimes called sea trout, though it is not a member of the trout family) locally and sustainably harvested in the northeastern U.S. by Blue Moon Fish, an operation on Long Island, N.Y. You can use any very fresh white fish available in your area. I recommend that you purchase the whole fish, so that you can confirm the freshness of the fish by looking at its eyes, which should be naturally bulging and not collapsed, and stomach, which should not be distended. You can find detailed filleting techniques in my book, “The Sushi Experience.” If you cannot find fresh fish in your area, then professionally frozen fish sold as sushi fish can certainly be used.

Hiroko's Sashimi-Influenced Ceviche

Prep Time: 35 minutes

Cook Time: 10 minutes

Yield: 4 servings

Ingredients

  • 1½ pounds weakfish or other locally available, high-quality fresh fish
  • Sea salt
  • 1 garlic clove, chopped fine
  • 1 yellow or red fresh cayenne pepper or other fresh chile pepper, chopped fine
  • ½ red onion, sliced into fine thin rings, soaked in cold water for 30 minutes, then drained
  • 1 lime
  • 2 tablespoons coriander leaves

Directions

  1. Scale, clean, bone and skin the fish. Rinse the chopping board frequently during this process to remove any scales and blood attached to the chopping board.
  2. Fillet the fish, removing both the belly bones and center bones. You will have two back fillets and two belly fillets.
  3. Slice each fillet as thinly as possible and place the fish slices without overlapping on a large, clean serving platter.
  4. Sprinkle little sea salt over the fish. Garnish it with the chopped garlic and chile. Squeeze the lime juice over the fish. Decorate the fish with the onion and coriander leaves.
  5. Serve immediately.

Main photo: Ceviche with weakfish. Credit: Hiroko Shimbo

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A Grateful for Gluten sign hangs in a window at Red Fox Bakery in McMinnville, Ore. Credit: Deborah Madison

The revolution in food we’ve been witnessing for decades — the chefs, the farm-to-table movement, the pop-ups, the food trucks and all that — has spurred eateries galore featuring good food. Often awesome food.

Usually it’s urban food. A friend who just returned from Brooklyn told of how wherever she looked there was exceptionally good food to buy and eat, and how much of it she sampled.

My own recent experience in Portland, Ore., was similar. It was impossible to walk down a street without being tempted by good things to eat that were beautifully prepared and presented. My friend and I ate food when we weren’t even hungry simply because it was so enticing.

A tiny shop across from Ace Hotel on Stark Street had but a few small tables, excellent brewed loose tea and a very small number of perfect pastries — from homey oatmeal-date bars to an exquisite Paris-Brest. Who could resist? We couldn’t and we didn’t, even though we had just had a very satisfying lunch at Clyde Common.

In the very short time we spent in this city, we ate much, drank much and spent much to support Portland’s edible economy. And it was all worth it.

Good food making its way out of the big cities

But what I really value about the sea change in cooking is not so much the excess of goodness on a city street, as gratifying as that might be, but what you might find in a small town, away from an urban center.

Take McMinnville, Ore., an hour away from Portland and a place that qualifies as a small town. On this trip, it was the Red Fox Bakery that seduced us. I’d been there before and especially enjoyed the sandwiches. They don’t read as if they’re going to be exceptional — it’s the usual sandwich fare presented on the bakery’s sliced bread. But the bread is so good and so fresh you can’t believe how delicious what seems to be an ordinary-sounding sandwich can be.

Not only are the sandwiches tasty, but they are substantial without being heavy, and it feels like a meal. Real food. Nourishing. The macaroon that comes with each sandwich is a generous nod to dessert, although you might be tempted by a fruit pastry as well. I always am.

Because it was chilly and wet when we arrived in McMinnville, we first paused at the Red Fox just for a look, but the look turned out to be for a cup of hot soup to warm us, a thick slice of that good, fresh bread and then a rhubarb galette.

The next day was Mother’s Day, and although they said they’d open at 8, so many people came by to pick up pastries for their wives or mothers that they were serving by 7. That day our breakfast was a galette as well, this time filled with the blackest of blackberries. And a cup of Illy coffee.

Red Fox cares about its wheat more than forming the perfect croissant. The pastries may look a little funky, but they’re good to eat. Not only do the bakers bake with the best local wheat they can get, they sell it at the counter in flour sacks printed with flowers, the same sacks of wheat we had encountered at the farmers market in Portland. Red Fox is a farm-to-table establishment and not that unusual except for being in McMinnville rather than Portland. As it says on its website, “We’re an artisan, small-batch bakery that specializes in unique flavors, wholesome and all-natural ingredients, and that strives to support locally grown produce and agricultural goods.” And so they bake with this local wheat. It’s not necessarily old-variety wheat, but it’s good wheat. And they use the good local fruits that grow so well there.

The building that houses the bakery is the kind you can find only in small towns and big cities that haven’t yet “arrived” on a food scene — a barn-like space that hasn’t been touched by a designer of any stripe. There’s the big stack oven, the sacks of wheat on the counter, the racks of bread behind, a menu board, a few tables and stacks of cups for the Illy coffee brew.

The tables are mismatched, which hardly matters, but my favorite touch is the bumper sticker slapped on the door that reads “Grateful for gluten,” a courageous statement in a day when so many are, or claim to be, gluten intolerant. Again in the owners’ own words, “… We believe the healthiest sweets and baked goods aren’t necessarily low-fat or gluten-free. … Cost and profit isn’t the bottom line. Seeing a person’s eyes light up as they bite into one of our cupcakes is.”

I like that sentiment. Both of them. It sounds big city, but it’s actually small town.

Another good little find in McMinnville is Thistle, a restaurant with a window facing a side street that recalls the mood of Kinfolk magazine — a small wooden work table, some old equipment, the stove in the background, the promise of something “artisanal.” The small bar (“… an ode to the pre-Prohibition era, a time when the cocktail was king …” its website says) and few tables provide space for some very good wines and farm-to-fork food that rivals any Portland restaurant. No doubt other treasures like these are around, but for a short visit — less than 24 hours — these were good to find and ones to return to.

I love that good food is not just stuck in urban areas but is showing up in smaller places more and more. This is hardly the only example of that, but being such a recent experience, it reminds me how good it is to be able to eat well in small towns too. And shouldn’t this be the ultimate result of all those kids going to culinary schools?

Now, if we could just find this food in our schools, I might be tempted to think that all is well, or at least getting there.

Main photo: A Grateful for Gluten sign hangs in a window at Red Fox Bakery in McMinnville, Ore. Credit: Deborah Madison

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Pasta with tuna, mushrooms and strawberries at an Italian eatery. Credit: Ruth Tobias

I am not an expert on Italy. Though I’ve studied the cuisine in-depth for many years and visited more times than I can count, I’ve never lived there, and my grasp of the language (despite a full load of coursework in college molti anni fa, many years ago) is middling. That is not a disclaimer; rather, it’s exactly what qualifies me to write this article.

You see, the wonderful lesson I’ve learned is that you really don’t need to stock up on guidebooks or do exhaustive research or even speak much Italian to eat exceedingly well in Italy, though a basic culinary lexicon certainly helps. All you have to do is pack a pair of good walking shoes — and be prepared to unpack a few truisms. Here are a few I’ve taken to heart, with some amendments, through the years.

1. Look past the obvious, it’s not far

The maxim that best, most “authentic” dining is off the beaten tourist path has its merits, but the implication is that you must go some prescribed distance, say, deep into residential areas, to find the gems. That’s not necessarily so. Let’s take Venice as an example. Yes, the overwhelming odds are that in any of the large-scale restaurants along the Grand Canal or in Piazza San Marco, you’re paying for bells and whistles — picturesque views, live music, relatively elegant service — rather than a memorable meal made from fresh local ingredients.

But in the magical maze that is Venice, getting off the beaten path is often simply a matter of turning a corner to find yourself on a calle (street) or in a corte (courtyard) that’s either refreshingly quiet or filled with locals going about their business. I recently discovered a remarkable osteria — a veritable sanctuary of superb cicchetti (essentially bar snacks) and some of the best seafood I’ve ever had, from classics like sarde in saor to creations like spaghetti with fresh tuna, mushrooms and strawberries — not by dint of its virtually unmarked entrance right on the jam-packed Ruga Vecchia San Giovanni, but rather by turning onto the seemingly empty alley behind it only to find a few tables around its back door lined with Italian-speaking patrons digging into plates of what looked like (and was) perfectly fried calamari. Which brings me to the next lesson:

2. Less is more when it comes to advertising

The claim that the less a restaurant advertises itself, especially in English, the better is largely true. Elaborate displays of ingredients, florid greetings from waiters stationed at the entrance and/or prominent signs reading “Menu turistico” (tourist menu) or “No frozen food!” are generally bad omens, for the obvious reason that the best eateries needn’t resort to such promotional ploys. They survive on genuine word of mouth, just as they do here.

3. To eat like an Italian in Italy, look at menus through their eyes

Relatedly, beware of menus that are translated into several languages, offer a broad range of dishes and/or contain pictures. This rule’s also true. If you’ve come to eat as Italians eat, look for kitchens that cater to them, not to foreigners who haven’t done their homework.

4. A little research goes a long way

On that note: Do your homework. I promised earlier that you don’t have to embark on a comprehensive research project, and I meant it. But if you spend even 30 minutes online with the aim of getting to know a given region’s specialty dishes, you’ll have the rudiments of an education that perusing menus will only reinforce once you’ve arrived at your destination.

I specify a regional rather than a national search because historically, Italian cuisine has not been a monolithic entity but rather has varied greatly from the Alpine northwest to the Mediterranean coast to the bread basket of the southeast.

The same goes for wine. In a country with thousands of native grape varieties unheard of on our shores, it’s far more fun in my view to take a chance on a hyper-local discovery than to go with what you know, even if what you happen to know is world-class. You can have Champagne or even Barolo at home anytime, but you can’t drink, say, Pignoletto frizzante outside of Emilia-Romagna. (Of course, if you’re in Piedmont, by all means sip Barolo to your heart’s content.)

5. Know a tavola from a trattoria

Be aware that there are various classes of establishments and adjust your expectations accordingly. The word bar has a different connotation in Italy than it does here. A bar in Italy is open all day for coffee, spremuta (fresh-squeezed juice) and booze, plus pastries, sandwiches and snacks, and features counter or minimal table service (or, more usually, a combination of both). A tavola calda (“hot table”) is set up in the style of an American cafeteria. Think of the osteria (spelled hostaria around Venice) as a tavern and the trattoria as a bistro, while the ristorante is the fanciest class of eatery. And finally, there’s the enoteca, which tends to be a hybrid between a wine shop and a wine bar.

None of these classifications concern quality; you could have some of the best food of your life in a tavola calda, followed by an overpriced bummer of a meal at a ristorante. The point is that you should consider what sort of experience you’re looking for, and then follow the guidelines above.

6. The best gelato may not look it

Gelaterias are a bit of a crapshoot, so proceed with caution. The labels nostra produzione, produzione propria (“our production”) or artigianale used to be guarantees of excellence. In my view, that’s no longer true — no surprise given how the concept of artisanship has been hijacked here in the States. Which leaves color as the best indicator: If the hues in the bins are garish, artificial flavoring is likely the culprit. Gelato shouldn’t be too fluffy, either. I hate to put it this way, but the less appealing it looks on display, the better it’s likely to be.

Of course there are exceptions to every rule. But the above have consistently worked for me — and the more you follow them, the more attuned you become to the nuances therein. In short, travel to Italy often, wander lots and trust your instincts.

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Flagels. Credit: Barbara Haber

When I hear about a tantalizing version of a food I love, nothing will stop me from going to the ends of the earth to find it, and I mean this literally. I am way too fond of confections and have been known to track down the best almond candy in Seville, the most delicious licorice in Helsinki or Amsterdam, and, when in Italy, the tastiest hazelnut chocolates. I go off in crazed pursuit of an obsession, tasting along the way to ensure I find the best. These hunts in foreign countries are no easy task since I have no sense of direction, so I try to take along a willing friend on these missions.

Of course I do not have to be abroad to find favorite candies. American cities often have unique treats worth seeking. When in California, I always visit a See’s candy shop. Although See’s boxed assortments are available east of the Mississippi, the shops are located mainly west of the river and only there can I buy whole boxes of my favorite piece, the delectable peanut crunch. In New Orleans I seek out the best pralines, and in Nashville Goo Goo Clusters, and I have recently discovered in Milwaukee the resurrection of the Giant Bar, a milk chocolate bar studded with peanuts, a grade-school favorite I thought was extinct.

But sweets are not the only foods I seek to satisfy a yen. I also have a weakness for bakeries that produce excellent bread, and for years have been in pursuit of the perfect bagel. What I was finding in most stores was far removed from the bagels I remember from my childhood. Handmade by bagel professionals, those objects of my desire were small with a hard and shiny crust, a chewy interior. These days, bagels are being churned out by machine and have become bloated and doughy, and even have pretension of being muffins in that some are made with blueberries, a hideous travesty.

But those days of responding sullenly to present-day bagels came to an end when I discovered flat bagels or “flagels” as they are lovingly called. I was at a brunch in New York when the hostess put out a basket brimming with a kind of bagel I had never seen before. They were large and flat, mostly crust with very little interior so there was no gummy stuff to contend with, and they were studded with poppy seeds or sesame, my favorite. And so I went on a hunt for the best flagels in NYC and found them at David’s bagel bakery on 1st Avenue. I bring back a bagful when I am in the city, and now think of this bagel as being the most important and satisfying resolution to any of my food odysseys.

Making someone else happy

Food pursuits can be about appeasing someone else’s desires rather than your own. I have a dear friend who spent great chunks of her life trying to please her 90-year-old, very particular mother. We all know how favorite items can disappear from grocery shelves, and this woman had lived long enough to endure many such disappointments, or, as her daughter put it, “my mother had only to like a product for it to go belly up.”

To buy up a remaining supply of a discontinued breath mint her mother claimed helped her digestion, my friend spent hours running around from one Greater Chicago gas station to another, scooping up all she could find to deliver to Mother. Another disappointment had to do with the demise of freeze-dried instant Sanka coffee, much beloved by her mother who adamantly rejected the powdered kind. This product was wiped out when Folger’s took over the market and crushed its competitor. In a relentless search for any remaining Sanka, my friend scoured large and small grocery stores, going farther and farther from her neighborhood with only an occasional payoff — a dusty jar at the back of a high shelf. Soon, those sources, too, were depleted.

The Cronut food obsession

I love to hear about other people’s food obsessions, and am happy and relieved to say that I seldom get caught up in them, since I have enough of my own. Most notably, we are seeing the stampede for Cronuts, that clever alliance between a doughnut and a croissant invented a little over a year ago by a New York pastry chef. His shop opens at 8 a.m., and people start lining up hours before for the privilege of buying two Cronuts, a rationing system that was put in place in response to demand. I would add that the lines and the rationing also keep up the hype. Each Cronut costs $5 and is filled with cream and topped with a flavored glaze. The fervor to get them has led to scalpers standing in those lines and profiting by reselling the pastries to well-heeled stayabeds.

Although the name “Cronuts” has been trademarked, the idea is available to all bakeries that want to bake and sell impostors. Imitations with such names as “doissants,” “crodoughs” and “kronuts” have shown up, and even the quite literally-named “doughnut croissant.” I have buzzed around and tasted a couple of these knockoffs and shrugged, although I would concede that the original is probably better, and someday I may get to try one.  But, all in all, I’d rather be eating a flagel.

Main photo: Flagels. Credit: Barbara Haber

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Mikey's Original New York Pizza owner Michael Helfman (left) and chef Andrew Bellucci at the pizzeria. Credit: Aida Ahmad

The shelf life of eateries in the posh Kuala Lumpur suburb of Bangsar, Malaysia, can be volatile. I have seen restaurants come and go all in the span of less than a year.

A few months ago, when I came across another new eatery in the area, I hardly gave it a thought. Soon after, though, a friend asked if I had been to this new place called Mikey’s Original New York Pizza. She assured me the place was worth checking out, and on her recommendation I did.

The pizzeria is the work of Michael Helfman, born and bred on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, who has brought New York-style, sliced pizza to Malaysia. Until now, we have never had a restaurant that sells pizza by the slice, and many Malaysians are not used to the slice concept, let alone referring to a whole pizza as a “pie.”

Pizza shop is a slice of New York

“When you walk into Mikey’s, you are walking into New York,” said Helfman, who decided to adorn the interior’s brick-red walls with pictures of New York City, from the famous skyscrapers to the Wall Street bull to the New York Mets’ 1986 championship poster. And what New York pizza place would be complete without photos of the cast of “The Godfather” and “The Sopranos”?

“That is the environment I want to create. I miss New York, but now I love Malaysia, too,” said Helfman, who is looking forward to marrying his Malaysian fiancée, Gabrielle, in September.

About five years ago, Helfman arrived in Malaysia for work as a media consultant. When his contract was up, he stayed behind because he didn’t want to move. “Malaysia is going to be a permanent part of my life, so I figured I would bring a part of my life from the U.S. to Malaysia,” he said.

Having been to New York City myself not too long ago, I decided to partake in the nostalgia of the Big Apple with Helfman. He has fond memories of eating his first pizza from a pizzeria called AJ’s in Queens. “I don’t know if it is still there or not, but pizza was always a big part of New York life. I mean, everywhere you go there is a pizzeria.”

Most of the framed pictures on the walls were taken by Helfman and his fiancée. “If I see something that’s cool, I take a picture. It’s the age of smartphones, where you always have a camera in your pocket. You can capture those small moments that otherwise you won’t remember. All of a sudden, I have 200 pictures of New York in my phone.”

Helfman also has an important sidekick at Mikey’s, chef Andrew Bellucci, the man who helped reopen the famous Lombardi’s Pizza, which was the first licensed pizzeria in the United States.

 

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Michael Helfman, owner of Mikey's Original New York Pizza in Malaysia, stands on front of wall of photos in the pizzeria. Credit: Aida Ahmad

Bellucci arrived in Malaysia in February, and describes the country in two words: “It’s hot!” That also goes for the heat in the kitchen at Mikey’s, where it’s Bellucci’s job to make sure the pizzas are flying out of the custom-fit oven, which reaches temperatures up to 752 degrees F (400 degrees Celsius). That’s the ideal temperature to make good pizzas, Bellucci said.

“When you have a good crust, sauce and cheese, it’s good. The dough is key … a soggy crust is not good. The bottom should be just a little charred. If you go to most of the pizzerias in New York, the gas ovens go up to only 550 degrees Fahrenheit, and that is not hot enough. Instead of eight minutes, it would take 13 or 14 minutes to cook, and the pie would be dry,” Bellucci said.

At Mikey’s, the menu includes Classic New York Pizza, the Meatball Pizza (also known as Mikey’s Favorite), the Tony Soprano and Pizza Bianco (Chef’s Favorite). A slice of the Classic is a minimalist’s favorite, consisting of cheese, sauce and dough. The Meatball Pizza is topped with roasted peppers, roasted garlic, cheese, sauce, a healthy sprinkling of Grana Padano cheese (all the pizzas here have this) and, of course, meatballs.  The Tony Soprano is a meat-lover’s favorite, with pepperoni, steak, meatballs, roasted peppers, garlic, mozzarella and sauce, while Pizza Bianco is a four-cheese pizza with goat, ricotta, mozzarella and cheddar cheeses.

These were even better than the pizzas I had eaten in New York, I must say.

“I really missed slices of New York-style pizza, so we thought, ‘Why not just bring the concept here?,’ ” Helfman said. “You can get a little bit of Mike at Mikey’s — my heritage and personality is reflected in the design and theme.”

Helfman is confident Malaysians are ready for pizza in slices. “It’s like at 3 p.m. … You’re hungry, but you don’t want a full meal because you have dinner plans. You get a slice, and you’re done,” he said.

From a business standpoint, Helfman said he has been lucky. Mikey’s has been open for a couple of months, and people love it. Who doesn’t want high-quality pizza at an affordable price (the average price for a slice is RM12.40, or $3.80 U.S.) prepared in a reasonable amount of time?

And if it’s not pizza but another slice of Americana that you crave, Mikey’s has more to offer: You can try the Waffle Fries, Boneless Buffalo Chicken Wings and “Hot Heroes” such as the Philly Cheesesteak. Everything at Mikey’s is homemade, even the sodas, which are made with fresh strawberry, pineapple and lemon.

It’s worth noting the rents of eateries in Bangsar are sky high, at about RM48 or $14.85 U.S. per square foot. But Helfman is confident he’ll be able to make it, saying, “If you put out a good product, you’re good. Plus, we are on a great street.”

Main photo: Mikey’s Original New York Pizza owner Michael Helfman (left) and chef Andrew Bellucci at the pizzeria. Credit: Aida Ahmad

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Chaya and lime drink at Casa Azul in Mérida. Credit: Philip Sinsheimer

Getting a little tired of kale? Chaya can feed your appetite and your curiosity. The best way to discover it? Take a trip to Yucatan where it has been used for centuries and is integrated into the Mayan culinary tradition as much as the habanero pepper and Xtabentun — the honey-based and anise-flavored liqueur — that are also typical to the Mexican Peninsula.

The first time I heard and tasted chaya was six-plus years ago in a little restaurant in Playa del Carmen in the form of a drink. The leaves were blended in an ice cold beverage made with water, sugar and lime: beautiful green, discreet herbaceous flavor and definitely refreshing. Chaya’s aficionados, however, focus on its health benefits, recommending it for countless ailments, including diabetes, kidney stones, obesity and acne.

Chaya, also called tree spinach, is consumed as a diuretic and a stimulant for circulation and lactation, and it is believed to harden fingernails, improve vision, help lower cholesterol, prevent coughs, improve memory and combat diabetes, according to the Mexican National Institute of Nutrition. Scientific research has not been done to support these claims, but the nutritional value of the plant has been studied. It has more calcium and protein than kale, and two times more iron and crude fiber than spinach. It also has very high concentrations of potassium, vitamin C and carotenoids.

There is a cautionary note: Many sources say chaya should not be eaten raw. In that form it is toxic, with traces of cyanide. According to Dr. Andrew Weil, chaya leaves, like several other plants and leafy vegetables, “contain hydrocyanic glycosides, which are toxic compounds, but they are easily destroyed by cooking.” To use chaya raw, Latin American vendors have employed other techniques to counteract the toxicity, such as soaking the leaves in vinegar and water.

In Los Angeles, I looked for chaya in Latin supermarkets, but found none. A couple of months ago, I went back to Yucatan and headed toward Mérida, determined to try chaya in as many forms as possible. Mérida boasts some of the most beautiful colonial architecture of Mexico, and the population, which is primarily Mayan, has carried on the language and culinary traditions.

But before reaching Mérida, I made a stop in the small town of Valladolid and had dinner at the elegant Taberna de los Frailes where I tasted a delicious velvety soup that was made with chaya and beautifully garnished with cream. It tasted like spinach soup with a hint of watercress.

Empanadas de Queso with Chaya at Kinich restaurant in Izamal, Mexico. Credit: Philip Sinsheimer

Empanadas de queso with chaya at Kinich restaurant in Izamal, Mexico. Credit: Philip Sinsheimer

The next morning, at the traditional restaurant of the hotel Meson del Marques, I was served sauteed chaya with eggs for breakfast, which, I was to discover, is a classic all across Yucatan. The sauteed leaves alongside a simple tomato sauce made for tasty reflection of the green and red of the Mexican flag.

I made another stop in the beautiful “Yellow City” of Izamal, where most of the buildings are painted yellow and where the traditional restaurant Kinich came highly recommended. Besides the chaya drink, referred to as agua de chaya, the highlights of the meal were the empanadas de queso (cheese empanadas), which showed little resemblance to Argentine empanadas except for their half-moon shape. The dough was masa, also used for tortillas. The masa was mixed with finely chopped cooked chaya leaves that brought a beautiful freshness to the delicacy, oozing with cheese and accompanied by pickled red onions, a sauteed chaya leaf and a vibrant fresh tomato sauce.

Once at Mérida, chaya found me. It arrived at the romantic Casa Azul hotel, where the welcome drink is a chaya and lime virgin cocktail. Agua de chaya is served all around town, from inexpensive joints to high-end restaurants like the one inside the classic Mansión Mérida on the Park hotel.

Bags of chaya leaves in a market in Mérida. Credit: Philip Sinsheimer

Bags of chaya leaves in a market in Mérida. Credit: Philip Sinsheimer

Chaya seems to transcend social barriers. The popular ice cream parlor on the central square served kids and families some sticks of agua de chaya that was turned into a sorbet mixed with diced pineapple. The luxurious Hacienda San Jose, about an hour east of Mérida, served a wonderful dish of chaya leaves with chopped tomatoes and cream to diners with means.

I was eager to see how chaya was sold at the local markets. There were a few bags of the leaves, but not mounds of it as I suspected. Why? Chaya grows wild as a bush and many people get it from their backyards or in the wild, I was told by the vegetable vendors, but any reason beyond that was unclear.

After a week of eating chaya in many forms, did I feel in better health? I couldn’t say so, but the flavor and texture of this green that is close to spinach and Swiss chard had grown on me. Once I returned to the United States, I feared my search for chaya would again be fruitless. Research online led me to think that only Texas had good chaya, and I wasn’t hooked to the point of changing my residence for my fix.

Chaya plants at Chichen Itza in Los Angeles. Credit: Philip Sinsheimer

Chaya plants at Chichen Itza in Los Angeles. Credit: Philip Sinsheimer

What a happy surprise to discover that a restaurant in downtown Los Angeles called Chichen Itza not only sold “agua de chaya,” but also offered the plant for amateurs to grow. Buyers will be warned, however, that the vinegar-and-water method is a must for those who intend to use the leaves raw.

The allure of the trip to Mérida to taste chaya in its natural and cultural environment remains, but it was heartening to know there was another place closer to my home in Southern California to sample the wonders of chaya.

Main photo: Chaya and lime drink at Casa Azul in Mérida. Credit: Philip Sinsheimer

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