Articles in Cuisine

Harp Bar in Belfast, Northern Ireland. Credit: Copyright 2016 Clarissa Hyman

The wee city of Belfast, Northern Ireland, as its feisty residents describe their capital city, punches above its size. The Titanic was built here; Van Morrison was born here; “Game of Thrones” is filmed here. Wow. The litany of “firsts,” as recounted by the inimitable Billy Scott, cabdriver and tour guide, during a word-packed, whistle-stop zip around the muscular mercantile city, ranges from the invention of air conditioning and tonic water to the Massey Ferguson tractor. The city’s history is charted in the exuberant and vivid wall murals found on every spare gable end.

There is no lack of business acumen and ambition in the province of Ulster. Belfast’s 19th-century City Hall, awash with Italian marble, is still a striking monument to aspirational can-do spirit, and the superb Titanic museum is a tribute to epic shipbuilding skills and a tragedy that still grips the world. Add to that a hugely hospitable city that is vigorously redefining itself after the Troubles and a flourishing food-and-drink scene that boasts a wealth of native talent and artisan producers. Alongside the traditional breads and Ulster Fry gargantuan breakfasts, there’s now top-class game, beef aged in Himalayan salt, handmade butter, heritage potatoes, Armagh apple juice, watermelon pickle preserves, organic smoked salmon and the most delicious yogurt made by an aristocratic Marchioness.

Throughout 2016 Belfast and the rest of Ulster will celebrate the best from the lush countryside, wild hills and clear waters of Northern Ireland. Let’s raise a glass. With enough Dark and Stormies down the hatch you’ll soon be talking the talk, even if you’re too banjaxed to walk the walk.

Eating in Belfast

Cod, fennel, black olives, mussels and sprouting broccoli at Ox in Belfast. Credit: Copyright 2016 Clarissa Hyman

Cod, fennel, black olives, mussels and sprouting broccoli at Ox in Belfast. Credit: Copyright 2016 Clarissa Hyman

Ox: The Michelin star gained last year by Belfast-born Stephen Toman and Brittany, France, native Alain Kerloc’h typifies the new-look city. A spare Scandinavian look informs the interior, and the exciting, seasonal dishes indicate the influence of Parisian superstar chef Alain Passard, who has autographed the kitchen wall in approval.

Deane: Restaurateur Michael Deane dominates the local scene with his collection of restaurants that range from the sophisticated Michelin-starred Eipic to the relaxed vibe of Deanes at Queens, near Queen’s University, where the vegetables may be served in outsized money-box ceramic pigs and the fries are triple-cooked.

The Bar and Grill: This is an informal grill-room offspring of fine-dining James Street South. Don’t miss Hannan’s Himalayan salt-aged steaks cooked on the Josper grill, plus baked Alaska for dessert!

Wolf and Devour Street Kitchen: The brand-new pitch for the funky mobile canteen on the riverside already has lines for its signature Wolf Burger made with Hannan’s heritage beef, grilled halloumi wraps and sweet potato fries.  The breeze may be a tad Baltic, as they say, but it sharpens the appetite for the impeccably sourced produce and spot-on dishes served in biodegradable packaging.

Drinking in Belfast

A cocktail made from ShortCross Gin. Credit: Copyright 2016 Clarissa Hyman

A cocktail made from ShortCross Gin. Credit: Copyright 2016 Clarissa Hyman

The Merchant HotelGinnaissance has hit Belfast big time, and one of the best is locally distilled ShortCross Gin, made with botanicals and spring water from their own estate. When it’s gin o’ clock, head for the cocktail bar of the five-star Merchant hotel, housed in the grandiose former headquarters of the Ulster Bank.

Duke of York: One of Belfast’s most famous pubs crammed with a museum-worthy collection of memorabilia, the place can get so packed you may end up supping your “bevvy” on the cobbled street strung with fairy lights outside. The old advertising signs and mirrors, great Guinness and Irish whiskeys, plus live music (Snow Patrol first played here) and brilliant atmosphere sum up the Belfast zest for the good life.

Harp Bar: In the sister bar to the Duke of York, also in the Cathedral Quarter, there is probably the world’s most extensive collection of Irish whiskeys on display, including rare bottles by distilleries long forgotten. Live music also pulls in the crowds.

The John Hewitt: Run by the Belfast Unemployed Resource Centre, this fine public house, named after the late poet and socialist, offers artisan craft brews, good food and free, live music. It has an unbeatable cultured and artsy atmosphere — plus a not-for-profit glow from the open coal fire.

The Crown Liquor Saloon: Probably the most famous pub in Belfast, this fabulously ornate Victorian gem is actually owned by the National Trust. The period gas lighting, enclosed “snugs,” or private booths, and ornate tiles, carvings and etched glass are wonderfully preserved, as are the original gunmetal plates for striking matches and the antique bell system. This is an unmissable pit stop.

The Spaniard: Famous for its wide range of rums, this tiny, packed bar is an iconoclastic home to Hispanic curiosities and a candlelit shrine of religious kitsch.

Shopping in Belfast

St. George’s Market: Producers and street food vendors come every Thursday through Sunday to the huge historic covered market. Among the best buys: fruit and vegetables, flowers, fish and great locally made fudge.

Sawers: Northern Ireland’s oldest deli is crammed with virtually every product known to man, and then some. Belfast’s rival to F&M stocks hibiscus flower syrup and Sicilian almonds along with Loch Neagh eel, innovative Suki teas, Ditty’s oatcakes and fabulous Fermanagh black bacon. They also sell sandwiches the size of doorstops.

Avoca: The Belfast branch of this gorgeous Irish lifestyle emporium does not disappoint with its range of household objects, kitchen wares, fresh and specialty foods, and excellent cafe and restaurant.

Main image: Harp Bar in Belfast, Northern Ireland. Credit: Copyright 2016 Clarissa Hyman

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Freshly milled oil. Credit: Copyright 2016 Nancy Harmon Jenkins

It’s an old story — you’ve heard it before, and not just from me — but it’s coming around again. Predictably, just as U.S. specialty markets begin to trumpet the arrival of fresh new-harvest, extra virgin olive oil comes the warning that it ain’t what it seems.

According to journalist Tom Mueller, speaking on the popular CBS News program “60 Minutes,” an astonishing 80 percent of the extra virgin olive oil sold in the United States does not meet the standards for extra virgin.

That statement requires some clarification. To be characterized as extra virgin, legal parameters must be met. They are set by the International Olive Council, and they are liberal. The oil, for instance, must have only 0.8 percent free oleic fatty acid and a peroxide content of 20 milliequivalents, or meq.

But there’s more. To qualify as extra virgin, an oil must be free of defects, with perfect flavor and aroma. And that’s where a lot of extra virgin oil on sale in the U.S. falls down, usually because it is too old (Unlike wine, olive oil does not improve with age.) or has been exposed to damaging light, heat and/or atmosphere. The finest extra virgin will deteriorate very quickly. I know firsthand because once in Tuscany I deliberately exposed a glassful of extra virgin, milled just days earlier from my own olives. Within a week of exposure, it was unrecognizable, pale in color and with almost no flavor or aroma except for the slight development, as yet inchoate, of rancidity.

Much of the 80% of substandard extra virgin oil cited by Mueller (if indeed the figure is accurate, which I tend to doubt) was probably legally produced, bottled and shipped. But once it left the producer’s hands, all bets were off.

Buyer beware

An olive tree. Credit: Copyright 2016 Nancy Harmon Jenkins

An olive tree. Credit: Copyright 2016 Nancy Harmon Jenkins

Let me give a disturbing example: In my local Whole Foods I bought a bottle of oil from a Sicilian producer whom I know well, one who makes his award-winning product with scrupulous care. And it shows: The oil has a robust flavor you associate with new oils made from barely mature olives and picked just 12 to 24 hours before pressing. Yet, the oil I purchased was pale yellow, indicating exposure to too much light, and it was unmistakably rancid, so much so I had to spit it out at the first taste.

So buyer beware, or caveat emptor, as they said back in Rome.

The conclusion of this somewhat misguided “60 Minutes” report was simple: The problem with Italian olive oil is a creation — like so many Italian problems — of the Mafia, a catch-all for everything wrong with Italy. And we Americans, who sometimes seem to fear the Mafia as much as we fear ISIS, certainly don’t want to give any support, financial or otherwise, to the dons. So should we all stop buying Italian olive oil?

Hang on a minute. If Italy is ground zero for olive oil fraud, the country is also recognized as ground zero for fraud protection, with not one but three national police forces responsible: the Carabinieri (like state police only national), the Guardia di Finanza (the tax police) and the Corpo Forestale, park rangers who also have the responsibility of investigating counterfeit foods and pursuing anti-Mafia activities. It was the Carabinieri in Turin last November who charged seven top olive oil companies with commercial fraud, among them Carapelli, Bertolli, Sasso and Coricelli. All were accused of selling as extra virgin, at extra virgin prices, oils that barely qualified as second-tier virgin, resulting in a 30% rip-off on the price.

Do the names sound familiar? They should. All these brands are in wide distribution outside Italy (as well as within), and especially in the U.S. through supermarkets and big-box stores. Although media have targeted the brands as “Italian,” in fact Carapelli, Sasso and Bertolli, which all began life a century or more ago as Italian family companies, are now owned by the Spanish multinational Deoleo. On its website, Deoleo promotes itself as “the world leader in the olive oil market.” That’s no stretch — Deoleo owns seven of the most widely sold olive oils in the world, including the abovementioned.

As frauds go, I have to confess, I don’t find this one all that shocking. Selling oil that barely reaches the cheap virgin qualification as more expensive extra virgin? It’s a bit like selling cheap toilet water as Chanel No. 5, and it’s tempting to fault consumers for their ignorance. If you can’t tell the difference between eau de toilette and a Chanel classic, it’s your problem, honey, not mine. Nonetheless, fraud is fraud. While this may be fairly entry-level fraud, it is still deceptive. And illegal. And possibly dangerous to the health of people who consume a great deal of what they believe is heart-healthy extra virgin olive oil.

The core of the problem is that, even in Italy and other regions known for producing fine oil, most consumers, including experienced chefs, have little or no idea what top-quality extra-virgin olive oil ought to taste like. Here’s a simple tip: It should leave your mouth feeling clean, not the least bit greasy, and it should have the fresh, herbal fragrance and flavor of just-cut grass. You’ve never actually tasted fresh-cut grass? Get out there behind the lawn mower and try it. It’s not going to kill you!) The flavor and aroma of fine, fresh olive oil can get a lot more subtle than that, and experienced tasters will detect nuances, from roasted nuts to citrus to green tomatoes and tomato leaves, but basically if you keep in mind the adjectives fresh, grassy, herbal, clean, you’ll be on the right track.

What to look for in olive oil

Quality olive oil abounds, if you know what to look for. Credit: Copyright 2016 Nancy Harmon Jenkins

Quality olive oil abounds, if you know what to look for. Credit: Copyright 2016 Nancy Harmon Jenkins

A well-made olive oil will have a good balance of three basic characteristics: the fruity flavors of sound, healthy olives, and the bitterness and piquancy (pepperiness) that are indications of the presence of antioxidants that make olive oil the fat you want on your table for all its great health benefits. What should be avoided is oil that has a flat, tired flavor, that tastes of rancidity, that leaves your mouth feeling coated with fat or that tastes like a jar of commercial tapenade that was opened three weeks ago and got lost in the back of the refrigerator.

Fortunately, now is a perfect time to educate your palate with the outstanding flavors of fresh, well-made olive oil. From the Mediterranean — especially Italy — and from California, producers are rushing olio nuovo, new-harvest oil, to market. It is expensive, but worth investing in, if only to give you a firm base-line sense of what excellence is all about. Once you’ve tasted it, you will never again mistake bad oil for good.

Here are just a few I have tasted and liked. Please note these are not by any means the extent of fine extra virgin olive oils; these are specifically new oils that I have tasted recently.

From Gustiamo in New York:

Pianogrillo from Sicily, $38.25 for 500 milliliters.

Tratturello from Molise, $44.50 for 750 milliliters.

Rio Grifone, organic from Tuscany, $39.50 for 500 milliliters.

From Market Hall Foods in Oakland, California:

Séka Hills, top-ranked Californian oil, $18 for 250 milliliters.

Titone, award-winning Sicilian organic, $28 for 250 milliliters.

Olio Verde from Sicily, single cultivar, nocellara del Belice, $38 for 500 milliliters.

From Olio2go in Fairfax, Virginia:

Capezzana from Tuscany, $44.50 for 500 milliliters.

Frescobaldi from Tuscany, with the prestigious Laudemio seal, $32.95 for 250 milliliters.

Villa Zattopera from Sicily, single cultivar, tondo Iblea, $36.95 for 500 milliliters.

Direct from the producer, California Olive Ranch:

COR Limited Reserve, $19.99 for 500 milliliters.

Main photo: Freshly milled oil. Credit: Copyright 2016 Nancy Harmon Jenkins

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Green and yellow plantains at Carniceria Mimi in Canas, Costa Rica. Credit: Copyright 2015 David Latt

I was intimidated by plantains. Having eaten them in Latin American restaurants, I knew they were good when served with roast chicken, rice and beans. But seeing them in the market, I had no idea how to cook them. A trip to Costa Rica changed all that when a chef demonstrated how plantains are easy to prepare and delicious.

Like bananas, their sweet cousins, plantains are naturally fibrous and a good source of potassium.

Although they look like large bananas, they are not edible unless cooked. Primarily starchy, especially when green, plantains also have a stiff, bark-like peel. Delightfully easy to cook, plantains are used to create delicious side dishes.

Available all year round and grown primarily in the southern hemisphere, plantains are cooked in a great many ways — steamed, deep fried, sautéed, boiled, baked and grilled. The same fruit is prepared differently when it is green than when it is yellow or black. The first time I visited a Mexican market in Los Angeles, I noticed bunches of very large bananas with mottled yellow and black skin. I thought the blackened fruit was spoiled. In point of fact, when the peel turns yellow and then black, the starches in the fruit have begun to convert to sugars.

Plantains, yellow or black, will never be as sweet as a banana, but when cooked in this ripened state, they produce a deliciously caramelized side dish or dessert.

In his kitchen at Villa Buena Onda, an upscale boutique hotel on the Pacific Coast in Costa Rica’s Guanacaste Provence, Chef Gabriel Navarette demonstrated in a cooking video how easy it is to prepare plantains. In fact, they are so easy to cook, now that I am home, I make them all the time.

Chef Gabriel Navarette with a plate of patacones. Credit: Copyright 2015 David Latt

Chef Gabriel Navarette with a plate of patacones. Credit: Copyright 2015 David Latt

The only difficulty with cooking plantains is finding a market that sells them. Not available in supermarkets in many U.S. cities, markets serving the Spanish-speaking community will have plantains. Seek them out because besides selling plantains, the markets will also be a good source of mangoes, papayas, tomatillos, chayote, fresh chilies, Latin spices and a good selection of dried beans and rice.

Navarette demonstrated how to prepare plantains three ways. He stuffed green plantains with cheese and baked them in the oven. He flattened green plantains and fried them twice to make patacones, thick, crispy chips served with pico de gallo, black beans, guacamole or ceviche. And, he caramelized yellow plantains to serve alongside black beans and rice on the wonderful Costa Rican dish called casado, which always has a protein such as chicken, fish, pork or beef.

Villa Buena Onda, or VBO as it is known locally, is an intimate destination. With only eight rooms, the hotel fells like a private home with a personal chef. The price of the room includes all three meals. Navarette and his fellow chefs make each dish to order.

Navarette studied at Instituto Nacional de Aprendizaje, a prominent school training professionals in many fields. He worked in resort and hotel kitchens, moving up the ranks from server to line cook, then as a sous chef and finally as the head chef at VBO for the past eight years.

Cooked yellow plantains. Credit: Copyright 2015 David Latt

Cooked yellow plantains. Credit: Copyright 2015 David Latt

What attracted me to his food, as well as that of his cousin Diego Chavarria on the weekend and Rosa Balmaceda in the morning, was that each dish tasted home cooked but was plated in the most beautiful, five-star way.

Aided by César Allonso Carballo to translate, Navarette was happy to show me how to cook plantains. I was amazed at how easy they are to cook.

Cooking yellow plantains to use as a side dish or dessert is the essence of simplicity. Simply peel each plantain, heat a half-inch of safflower or corn oil in a carbon steel or cast iron pan over a medium flame, cut the plantain into rounds or in half lengthwise and then cut into 5-inch long sections, fry on either side until lightly browned, drain on paper towels and serve. All that can be done in five to eight minutes and the result is delicious.

The crisp and savory patacones are slightly more complicated to prepare but not much more so.

Patacones from the kitchen of Villa Buena Onda

Yellow or black plantains should not be used to make patacones because they are too soft.

In the restaurant, Navarette uses a deep fryer to cook plantains. That is fast and easy so he can keep up with the orders, but I discovered at home that by using a carbon steel pan I was able to achieve the same result using less oil with an easier clean up.

The oil may be reused by straining out cooked bits and storing in a refrigerated, air-tight container.

Enjoy the patacones with an ice-cold beer and, as the Costa Ricans say, Pura vida! Life is good because everything is OK.

Prep time: 5 minutes

Cooking time: 10 minutes

Total time: 15 minutes

Yield: 4 servings

Ingredients

2 green plantains, washed

1 cup corn or safflower oil

Sea salt and black pepper to taste (optional)

Directions

1. Cut the ends off each green plantain. Using a sharp knife, carefully cut along the length of the tough peel being careful not to cut the flesh of the plantain. Pry off the peel and discard.

2. Preheat oil in a deep fryer to 350 F or a half-inch of oil in a large sauté pan over a medium flame.

3. Cut each plantain into 5 or 6 equal sized rounds.

4. Place the rounds into the deep fryer for 3 to 4 minutes or until lightly browned. In the sauté pan, turn frequently for even cooking, which should take about 5 to 8 minutes.

5. Remove, drain on paper towels and allow to cool.

6. Prepare one round at a time. Put the round on a prep surface. Place a sturdy plate on top of the round. Press firmly in the middle of the plate until the plantain round flattens, then do all the other rounds.

7. Place the flattened plantains back into the deep fryer for 2 minutes, or 4 minutes in the oil in a sauté pan as before. Turn as necessary in order to cook until lightly browned on all sides.

8. Remove from the oil, place on paper towels to drain and cool.

9. Season with sea salt and black pepper (optional).

10. Serve at room temperature with sides of black beans, pico de gallo, sour cream or ceviche or all four so guests can mix and match.

Main photo: Green and yellow plantains at Carniceria Mimi in Canas, Costa Rica. Credit: Copyright 2015 David Latt

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Manjit S. Gill, executive chef for ITC Hotels, champions a greener approach. Credit: Copyright 2015 Carla Capalbo

Chefs can play an important role in the fight against climate change by helping to reduce carbon emissions and sourcing local foods, even when working in luxury hotels.

Manjit S. Gill, executive chef for the eco-award-winning Indian group ITC Hotels, is a champion for a sustainable, greener approach to dining. He oversees the food for all 11 of the company’s Luxury Collection hotels, many of which have multiple restaurants within them.

Showcasing traditional ingredients

Finger millet and charoli nut pancakes are on the breakfast menu at the ITC hotels, Credit: Copyright 2015 Carla Capalbo

Finger millet and charoli nut pancakes are on the ITC hotel breakfast menu in Delhi. Credit: Copyright 2015 Carla Capalbo

“Each ITC hotel maintains a connection to its region through food and architecture,” he says. “In the case of our local foods, we are working alongside Slow Food to showcase forgotten grains and traditional ingredients that can be sourced nearby. In Delhi, for instance, our breakfast offering includes finger millet and charoli nut pancakes with aloe vera and black currant relish, as well as a complex porridge made from seven ancient grains. You can’t be competitive today if you’re not practicing sustainability.”

Indigenous Terra Madre

Carla Capalbo reports from the Terra Madre event in India. This is the last in a series. Previous stories:

»  Native cultures push for sustainable food solutions

»  The fight to preserve traditional pastureland

» In India, remote villages hold fast to food traditions

ITC is the world’s largest green luxury company and has achieved platinum-level status with the U.S. Green Building Council, LEED: Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design. The hotels recycle their water and solid waste while producing 70 percent of their energy from wind, sun and other renewables.

Gill, a Sikh and lifelong vegetarian, recently participated in Indigenous Terra Madre, held in Shillong, in the northeastern Indian region of Meghalaya. The event brought together representatives from food-making communities around the globe to share knowledge and strengthen connections. He was there with other Indian members of Slow Food’s Chefs’ Alliance, a network of international chefs committed to biodiversity and local food sourcing.

“Food can feed our minds, bodies and souls, but only if it’s ethically sourced,” he says. “In India we also believe that food can’t be nutritious if it’s not tasty, and that it should be a balance of the six tastes: sweet, salt, sour, bitter, pungent and astringent. You must have some of each at every meal. That’s why it’s important to know how to use spices, working with whole spices and only grinding them as they are needed to retain maximum flavor.”

Luxury and sustainability

The Grand Bharat, just outside of Delhi, is an award-winning ITC destination hotel with four restaurants. Credit: Copyright 2015 Carla Capalbo

The Grand Bharat, just outside of Delhi, is an award-winning ITC destination hotel with four restaurants. Credit: Copyright 2015 Carla Capalbo

Gill has plenty of opportunity to expand these ideas in his busy schedule. In Delhi, where the group has several high-end hotels, Gill works closely with the executive chefs of each hotel, as well as with ITC’s state-of-the art training facility.

Not only does the Hospitality Management Institute have full amenities — from teaching kitchens to lecture halls and IT rooms — but trainees get to fine-tune their skills at the five-star Grand Bharat hotel that opened in 2014 in the countryside just south of Delhi. It is already considered one of the world’s top luxury hotels.

“The Grand Bharat was a dream project. It was designed from the ground up, with lots of space, so we were able to include a large farm for growing herbs and vegetables for our own use, as well as construct windmills and solar power stations to supply its energy,” Gill said. Other projects support women in the hotel business, local farmers and animal husbandry practices.

Chef focuses on modern fusion, traditional cuisine

Naan bread bakes in the tandoor oven at Bukhara restaurant. Credit: Copyright 2015 Carla Capalbo

Naan bread bakes in the tandoor oven at Bukhara restaurant. Credit: Copyright 2015 Carla Capalbo

The food within the hotel restaurants varies in style. The Grand Bharat’s four restaurants showcase modern fusion dishes as well as traditional Indian cuisine, like the succulent Mewati barbecue specialities. At the Hotel Maurya, in the heart of New Delhi, Bukhara restaurant has won numerous awards — including a place in Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants list — for traditional Indian food cooked in tandoor ovens. Bukhara, which has been open for 35 years, also offers a complex lentil dal that is simmered for 18 hours and some of the city’s greatest naan breads.

Chef Gill is particularly excited about the Royal Vega restaurant in ITC’s recently opened Grand Chola hotel in Chennai. “As a committed vegetarian, I’ve finally had the opportunity to create a high-end vegetarian restaurant, something I had always dreamed of doing,” he said. “Many Indians from all walks of life are vegetarian, yet ambitious vegetarian restaurants are few and far between. So this project is providing me with great happiness.”

Main photo: Manjit S. Gill, executive chef for ITC Hotels, champions a greener approach. Credit: Copyright 2015 Carla Capalbo

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The iconic Katz’s Delicatessen is known for its sandwiches -- and a starring role in a movie. Credit: Copyright 2013 Thomas Hawk

Boasting 567 entries, “Savoring Gotham: A Food Lover’s Companion to New York City” serves up a feast of foodie knowledge for the Gotham native and novice alike.

savoring

"Savoring Gotham: A Food Lover's Companion to New York City"

Edited by Andrew F. Smith

Oxford University Press, 2015,

760 pp

»  Click here to buy the book

Edited by Andrew F. Smith and featuring the writing of more than 150 contributors, the tome includes entries on notable foods and beverages, restaurants and bars, historical sites and events, cuisines, personalities and brands from throughout the city’s five boroughs.

“Mention New York City food, and most people think of the white-hot restaurants of the moment, with their media-savvy celebrity chefs, glittering patrons and sky-high prices. Upscale restaurants have long been an exciting part of the city’s foodscape, but they are at one far end of the broad, colorful spectrum of New York eateries,” Smith says in an introduction. “Inhabiting the starry heights are temples of haute cuisine, such as Per Se and Le Bernardin; at the low end are hot dog carts and old-school Mexican taco trucks. In between, over the past 300 years, have been all kinds of eating places: cafeterias, diners, luncheonettes, drugstore counters, fast-food chains, delis, cafes, coffee shops, juice bars, doughnut shops, ice cream parlors, cocktail lounges, dive bars, and corner sweet shops, not to mention theater snack bars, supermarket delis, farmers markets, social club dining rooms, kiosks and vending machines. Today, New Yorkers have more 50,000 eating places to choose from.”

Combining food history with current culinary trends, the text richly explores New York City’s diverse food cultures, as well as its contributions to global gastronomy. A hefty volume that even dons a New York bagel on its spine, it makes for a smartly dressed member of any foodie library sure to be referenced again and again. (Full disclosure: I am one of the book’s contributors.)

Here’s just a taste of “Savoring Gotham”:

Baked Alaska

Although named for the 49th state, baked Alaska had its roots in New York City. Credit: Copyright 2012 VXLA Photo

Although named for the 49th state, baked Alaska had its roots in New York City. Credit: Copyright 2012 VXLA Photo

A delightful amalgamation of dessert foods, baked Alaska is a sponge cake topped with ice cream and covered with delicate peaks of meringue, browned in the oven. Although named for what would become the United States’ 49th state, baked Alaska found its name in New York City. The igloo-shaped dessert was first christened in the late 19th century by Charles Ranhofer, French chef de cuisine of Delmonico’s, one of New York’s most prestigious restaurants from 1837 to 1923. Baked Alaska’s naming was purportedly to honor and commemorate the United States’ purchase of Alaska in 1867.

Eggs Benedict

Eggs benedict may have originated at Delmonico's or The Waldorf in the 1890s. Credit: Copyright 2010 Ariel Dovas

Eggs Benedict may have originated at Delmonico’s or The Waldorf in the 1890s. Credit: Copyright 2010 Ariel Dovas

Whether topped with ham, bacon, salmon or spinach, all signs point to New York City as the origin of brunch favorite eggs benny. While it is unknown for which wealthy Benedict the dish was named, the velvety and savory dish probably originated at Delmonico’s or The Waldorf in the 1890s, though New York’s Hoffman Hotel and Union Club both lay claim to it as well.

Ellis Island Food

The first meal for many immigrants may have been a box lunch at Ellis Island. Credit: Copyright 2005 Wally Gobetz

The first meal for many immigrants may have been a box lunch at Ellis Island. Credit: Copyright 2005 Wally Gobetz

What did the millions of immigrants who entered the United States at Ellis Island between 1892 and 1924 eat for their first meal on American soil? Most likely they purchased a boxed lunch for 50 cents or a dollar, depending upon the size. Some boxed meals included roast beef, ham, cheese or bologna sandwiches, while others featured foods like a loaf of bread, sardines, sausages, apples, bananas, pies and cakes.

Fraunces Tavern

Fraunces Tavern is still a restaurant, as well as a museum, in the financial district. Credit: Copyright 2011 Dan Nguyen

Fraunces Tavern is still a restaurant, as well as a museum, in the financial district. Credit: Copyright 2011 Dan Nguyen

By the mid-18th century, taverns increasingly served as centers of community life. In fact, General George Washington dismissed his troops at the end of the Revolutionary War at Fraunces Tavern. Built in 1719, the tavern is now a museum and restaurant in the financial district open for Gothamites and tourists alike to visit.

Hellmann’s Mayonnaise

Richard Hellman began his food career between 83rd and 84th Streets in Manhattan. Credit: Copyright 2005 Thomas Edwards

Richard Hellman began his food career between 83rd and 84th Streets in Manhattan. Credit: Copyright 2005 Thomas Edwards

The creamy roots of America’s best-selling mayonnaise are also in Gotham. While Richard Hellman began his food career with his wife running a delicatessen between 83rd and 84th Streets in Manhattan, he also developed the first shelf-stable mayonnaise. He began selling it in 1912 in glass bottles affixed with a label featuring three blue ribbons to indicate its “first prize” quality, which can still be found on supermarket shelves today.

­Jane Nickerson

The New York Times' first food editor was Jane Nickerson, from 1942 to 1957. Credit: Copyright 2009 Scott Beale/Laughing Squid

The New York Times’ first food editor was Jane Nickerson, from 1942 to 1957. Credit: Copyright 2009 Scott Beale/Laughing Squid

Often overshadowed by her successor, Craig Claiborne, Jane Nickerson was The New York Times’ first food editor from 1942 to 1957. Her daily column was titled, “News of Food.” Writing with a strong sense of ethics and news, her reviews paved the way for the Times’ expanding food coverage.

Manhattan Clam Chowder

Manhattan clam chowder is known for being made with tomato broth, rather than milk. Credit: Copyright 2011 Julia Frost

Manhattan clam chowder is known for being made with tomato broth, rather than milk. Credit: Copyright 2011 Julia Frost

Although its name might suggest otherwise, Manhattan clam chowder actually has no real connection to New York City. An important dish in early American cuisine, chowders made effective (and delicious) use of New England’s plentiful seafood resources. Manhattan clam chowder’s defining (and highly contentious) characteristic is its substitution of tomato broth for milk.

Katz’s Delicatessen

The lines are always long at the popular Katz's Delicatessen. Credit: Copyright 2010 Scott Beale/Laughing Squid

The lines are often long at the popular Katz’s Delicatessen. Credit: Copyright 2010 Scott Beale/Laughing Squid

Well-known as the location of Meg Ryan’s famous faux orgasm in “When Harry Met Sally” (1989), Katz’s was founded a century earlier in 1888. Serving sandwiches topped high with cured meats, Katz has been turning swift and savory business ever since. Figures from the 1950s claimed the deli served more than 10,000 sandwiches a day. Today, Katz’s is even open all night long on weekends for those looking to order “what she’s having.”

Main photo: The iconic Katz’s Delicatessen is known for its sandwiches — and a starring role in a movie. Credit: Copyright 2013 Thomas Hawk


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Pasta with Spicy Sausage and Chickpeas. Credit: Copyright 2015 Rinku Bhattacharya

As the new year emerges, the world welcomes a fresh start, usually with hopes of a new beginning with some luck thrown into the mix. The practice of welcoming a new cycle in the calendar is probably one of the most universal holiday celebrations in the world, and it is often celebrated by eating legumes for luck. I love the idea of a new start as much as I love the seasons, and over the years I have relished the idea of welcoming the new year with simplicity and good, wholesome food.

Legumes, including beans, peas and lentils, are considered to be symbolic of money, and thus considered a harbinger of prosperity and good luck in the new year. Several of them resemble coins, and the fact that they swell up when soaked in water also extends the analogy that the prosperity grows with time.

Traditions vary in different parts of the world. In Italy there is a preference for sausages with green lentils eaten just after midnight. In a similar vein, in Germany they ring in the new year with split peas, while in Japan lucky foods eaten during the first three days of the year include sweet black beans. Closer to home in the southern United States, it’s traditional to eat black-eyed peas in a dish called Hopping John. When the dish is served with collard greens, the odds of prosperity are increased, because green symbolizes the color of money.

On an Indian table, legumes are a cornerstone ingredient, soul food actually, something that we celebrate on days good and bad, so the idea of a bowl of legumes served any which way easily translates to good luck for me.

The new year often comes with resolutions for eating healthy, and legumes are healthy and readily available during the winter months when other things are somewhat lean. The cornucopia of red, yellow, green and white lentils, along with the dozens of red, white and black beans, ensure we have plenty of options to pick from at the beginning of the year and beyond.

Legumes are rich in protein and high in fiber and are lower in calories than most meat-based sources of protein, offering a healthy and filling option for your plates and palates. While most legumes will cook down to soft and satisfying goodness, they have a whole variety of flavors, tastes and textures to ensure your palate is interesting and innovative.

Most beans and complex lentils can be cooked ahead of time in a slow cooker for four hours or for 20 minutes in a pressure cooker. Cook legumes with water and a little salt and use in your recipe as needed. Cooked beans and lentils can be stored in your refrigerator for up to five days or alternately place them in a zip-lock bag and freeze to use as needed.

The water the beans are cooked in is actually fairly tasty and good for you and can be added to soups and stews. On any given week, I have a few of these bags handy and ready to be added into flavorful dishes, assuring me full-flavored stews without the trappings of extra sodium and preservatives.

For your new year, I offer you two versions of classic dishes the way we enjoy them in my household and a recipe for collard greens to ensure we are in the green for the coming year.

Hopping John (Rice Cooked With Black-Eyed Peas)

Hoppin John. Credit: Copyright 2015 Rinku Bhattacharya

Hoppin John. Credit: Copyright 2015 Rinku Bhattacharya

For my recipe for this Southern dish, I have actually ditched all meat-based products to create a dish that is flavorful and delicate. If served with love and affection, it will indeed convince you that this year you shall be lucky with or without money. My secret ingredient is that I do, in fact, cook my black-eyed peas from scratch and save some of the simmering liquid to use for cooking my rice dish. The dish resembles a pilaf, which probably takes it closer to the Senegalese roots of this traditional dish.

Of course, to maximize the green, I garnish my variation of Hopping John with finely chopped green onions. New Year’s or otherwise, add this dish to your table and you are bound to feel well-nourished on a cold day. For a quick visual of how to make this dish, watch this video.

Prep time: 10 minutes

Cook time: 25 minutes

Total time: 35 minutes

Yield: 6 servings

Ingredients

2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

1 tablespoon butter

1 medium-sized onion, diced

2 cloves garlic, minced

1 or 2 ribs of celery, finely chopped

1 or 2 carrots, diced

1 cup white rice (I used basmati rice, which will give this recipe a very delicate and elegant finish.)

2 1/2 cups stock or water

1 cup cooked black-eyed peas

1 teaspoon salt (or to taste)

1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

2 tablespoons red wine vinegar (optional)

Chopped green onions for garnish

Directions

  1. In a pot with a tight-fitting lid, add the olive oil and butter and heat until the butter is melted.
  2. Add the onion and garlic and sauté for about 5 minutes, until the onion softens considerably and begins to turn pale golden.
  3. Add the celery and carrot and stir well.
  4. Stir in the rice and mix well. Add the stock or the water and cup of black-eyed peas.
  5. Add the salt and the pepper and bring the mixture to a simmer. Cover and cook the rice for 18 minutes. Note: This time works for basmati rice; for other rice varieties allow a few more minutes. Essentially the rice should be soft and all the water should be absorbed.
  6. Let the rice rest for about 10 minutes, then remove the lid and fluff. Sprinkle with the red wine vinegar if using and garnish with the green onions if using.

Note: If you are cooking the black-eyed peas yourself, save the cooking liquid and use it for the rice, in lieu of the stock or water.

Pasta With Spicy Sausage and Chickpeas

This southern Italian dish is often made with brown lentils and spicy Italian sausage and often enjoyed on New Year’s Day. I make this with chickpeas and add lots of fresh basil to provide a fresh touch of brightness. Since we like our flavors spicy, I use andouille chicken or turkey sausage and add in some freshly ground cumin and fennel. For a quick visual on how to make this dish, watch this video.

Prep time: 10 minutes

Cook time: 25 to 30 minutes

Total time: 35 to 40 minutes

Yield: 4 to 6 servings

Ingredients

3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

3 cloves garlic, minced

1 small red onion, very finely diced

1 1/2 cup of crushed red tomatoes or tomato sauce

1 teaspoon sugar

1 teaspoon salt, or to taste

3/4 cup of cooked chickpeas

1 cup of chopped spicy sausage (Italian or andouille)

1/2 teaspoon freshly ground cumin

1/2 teaspoon freshly ground fennel

1 1/2 cups pasta cooked until al dente (a small shape such as a pipette or ditalini)

2 to 3 tablespoons finely chopped basil

Freshly grated Parmesan to finish

Directions

  1. Heat the oil and add the minced garlic and cook until the garlic is pale golden. Add in the onions and sauté until soft and wilted (about 4 to 5 minutes).
  2. Add the chopped tomatoes and the sugar with about 1/2 cup of water.
  3. Stir in the salt and bring to a simmer.
  4. Add the chickpeas, sausage cumin and fennel and cook through for about 2 minutes.
  5. Add the pasta and mix well.
  6. Turn off the heat, garnish with the chopped basil and Parmesan and serve.

Collard Green and Roasted Root Vegetable Slaw

Collard Green and Roasted Root Vegetable Slaw. Credit: Copyright 2015 Rinku Bhattacharya

Collard Green and Roasted Root Vegetable Slaw. Credit: Copyright 2015 Rinku Bhattacharya

This dish is a beautiful medley of root vegetables, tossed with very finely chopped collard greens tossed in an assertive Asian-inspired marinade.

Prep time: 15 minutes

Cook time: 20 minutes

Total time: 35 minutes

Yield: 4 to 6 servings

For the roasted vegetables:

2 medium-sized turnips
3 medium-sized carrots
4 small to medium parsnips
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 tablespoon freshly grated ginger
2 tablespoons maple syrup (I have a strong preference for Crown Maple Syrup)
3 tablespoons tamari or soy sauce

For the greens and the remaining dressing:
1 medium-sized bunch of collard greens
2 teaspoons sesame oil
1/2 teaspoon to 1 teaspoon red cayenne pepper
1 tablespoon olive oil
3 tablespoons red wine vinegar
Sesame seeds for garnish

Directions

  1. Preheat oven to 350 F.
  2. Peel the turnips, carrots, parsnips and julienne into thin strips.
  3. Place the vegetables in a roasting pan. In a small bowl mix the olive oil, ginger, maple syrup and the tamari, and drizzle the vegetables with the mixture.
  4. Roast the vegetables for 20 minutes.
  5. Meanwhile, stack the collard leaves over each other and thinly slice the leaves, to create a chiffonade. Place in a large bowl.
  6. Add in the roasted vegetables, reserving the pan juices.
  7. Pour the pan juices into a mixing bowl, add in the sesame oil, cayenne pepper, olive oil and vinegar and mix well.
  8. Add the dressing to the collard and vegetable mixture and toss lightly. Sprinkle with the sesame seeds and serve.

Main photo: Pasta with Spicy Sausage and Chickpeas. Credit: Copyright 2015 Rinku Bhattacharya

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In Provence, Christmastime comes to an official close on Feb. 2. This is not just maddening French bureaucracy but a recognition that Candlemas Day denotes the feast of the purification of the virgin and the beautiful Provençal Nativity scenes made from clay figurines called santons are to be put away for another year.

It will mark the end of several weeks of festivities starting Dec. 4, the feast day of St. Barbara, when everyone plants a few seeds of wheat or lentils on a bed of damp moss. Gradually, these seeds turn into tufts of green, which will be used to decorate the festive tables over the coming weeks — although the celebrations may be a bit muted if the seeds have failed to sprout. This is not a good sign, but perhaps an excuse for an extra glass of elegant Chateau Simone white or rosé or a licorice-based Ricard from Marseille.

Christmas traditions have diminished in the south of France much as they have elsewhere as time moves on. This is not an indication of any less enjoyment, but an evolution to suit more modern mores. The famous gros souper (grand supper) used to be eaten before Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve, followed by the réveillon, the “awakening” supper, on return. For many families, however, this has merged into the meal taken on Christmas Day around a table decorated with holly and roses of Jericho, white cloths and candles.

The gros souper was traditionally a meatless yet hearty meal, hence its alternate name of souper maigre (lean supper); it remains essentially simple, fresh and abundant. As Gilles Conchy, owner of Provence Gourmet cookery school, explained at his country house near Aix-en-Provence, there is no single set menu and meals are adapted to regional produce and local availability.

In inland Provence particularly, vegetables play a major role: spinach with garlic and parsley, chard and cardoon, raw celery with anchoiade, olive tapenade, the small but sweet vibrant orange-bronze potimarrons (pumpkins) of the South mashed with black truffle. As elsewhere in France, festive meals frequently begin with oysters and foie gras — in Conchy’s case, violet artichokes with pine nuts, tomatoes and fresh goose foie gras — but thereafter it may include a light garlic and herb broth, Sisteron lamb with herb butter, a chestnut-stuffed turkey or goose, capon, guinea fowl, salt cod with aïoli or a fish bourride, and Banon cheese. The poet of Provence, Frédéric Mistal, recalled a gros souper at the turn of the 19th century that also included snails and gurnard with olives.

Sweet treats for the holidays

Treize Desserts for Christmas in Provence, France. Credit: Copyright 2015 Clarissa Hyman

Treize Desserts for Christmas in Provence, France. Credit: Copyright 2015 Clarissa Hyman

Thirteen loaves of bread were once offered to symbolize Jesus and the apostles. Today that reference is incarnated in the Treize Desserts, the plate of 13 desserts. These are not, as I discovered to the relief of my waistline, a succession of creamy concoctions, but a ritual lineup of delicious things to nibble, most famously four types of nuts and dried fruit or mendicants to represent the Catholic religious orders that require vows of poverty.

After that, it’s a question of region, town or individual family, but items generally include a flat cake made with olive oil (around Aix they add anise seeds and orange-flower water), black and white nougat flavored with lavender honey and Provençal almonds, clementines, candied fruit, quince paste, dates, prunes, green melon, white grapes and the lozenge-shaped almond Calissons d’Aix sweetmeats. According to tradition, guests must sample a little of each dessert with some sweet vin cuit prepared in the autumn.

The appearance of the three wise men on Epiphany is celebrated with a galette des rois (cake of the Magi), as it is in the rest of France. The Provençal version, however, is quite different from the traditional puff pastry one and takes the shape of a crown-shaped brioche encrusted with candied fruits symbolizing the jewels of the Magi.

In Marseille, Candlemas celebrations are dazzling — their roots are in ancient pagan rites of preparation for the end of winter. The blessing of the navettes takes the edible form of biscuits in the shape of the rowing boat that reputedly brought the Saint Maries to the shores of Provence.

Winter in Provence is not just luminous blue skies, Cezanne landscapes and the scent of wild herbs; it is also animated Christmas markets, Nativity scenes, santon fairs, Mass in the ancient Provençal language and time-honored pastoral plays, processions and ceremonies. Soon after Candlemas, the first of the almond trees will bloom — once, Aix was the celebrated center of the almond trade. With this, the cycle of the year begins again in this most magical of French provinces.

Rack of Lamb With Pink Fir Apple Potatoes

Rack of lamb. Credit: Copyright 2015 Clarissa Hyman

Rack of lamb. Credit: Copyright 2015 Clarissa Hyman

Recipe courtesy of Gilles Conchy of Provence Gourmet.

Yield: Makes 6 servings

Ingredients

2 racks of lambs of 6 chops each (about 3 1/2 pounds)

Half a stick of unsalted butter

Salt and pepper to taste

Provençal dried herbs (thyme, rosemary and savory) to taste

2 pounds of small pink fir apple potatoes, unpeeled

12 cloves of garlic, unpeeled

3 to 4 tablespoons olive oil

Directions

1. Cover the lamb with slightly softened butter into which you have mixed salt, pepper and herbs. Place in an oven-safe dish.

2. In a bowl, mix the rinsed but unpeeled potatoes with more herbs, salt, pepper, olive oil and the unpeeled garlic cloves. Arrange these around the sides of the lamb.

3. Cook at 375 F for 40 minutes.

4. Remove the lamb from the oven and slice the chops from the rack. They should be slightly pink on the inside. If not cooked enough, put the chops back in the dish and in the oven for a couple of minutes.

5. Serve the lamb with the potatoes.

Mashed Potimarron With Truffles

Mashed Potimarron With Truffles. Credit: Copyright 2015 Clarissa Hyman

Mashed Potimarron With Truffles is shown with tapenade canapés. Credit: Copyright 2015 Clarissa Hyman

Yield: Makes 8 servings.

Ingredients

2 medium-size potimarron (pumpkins)

5 teaspoons heavy cream

1/3 to 1/2 ounce black truffle

Salt and pepper to taste

Parmesan cheese to taste

Directions

1. Open the potimarron and remove the seeds. Peeling is optional, but it is advised if you can’t get Provençal pumpkins.

2. Cut potimarron into large diced chunks.

3. Steam for 20 minutes.

4. Once steamed, mash the potimarron with the cream, grated truffle, salt and pepper.

5. Turn into an oven dish, top with a little grated parmesan cheese and broil till it browns a little.

Cardoons With Anchovies

Yield: Makes 6 servings.

Ingredients

1 cardoon, about 3 1/2 pounds (Choose the curvy, white variety.)

Juice from 1 lemon

1 handful plus 6 tablespoons flour

3 tablespoons olive oil

1 onion, finely chopped

2 garlic cloves, finely chopped

12 anchovy fillets

4 cups of milk, gently heated

Grated Swiss cheese

Directions

1. Separate the cardoons into branches. With a knife, remove the “threads” on both sides of each branch.

2. Rinse and cut into 1 1/2-inch slices.

3. Drop the cardoon pieces into a pot of water acidulated with lemon juice as you go.

4. Heat another large pot of salted water and stir in a handful of flour. When it boils, drain the cardoons from the first pot, add to the boiling water and cook for an hour.

5. In a frying pan, heat the olive oil, onion, garlic and anchovies over medium heat. Drain the cardoons and add to the pan. Turn the heat to low.

6. Combine the remaining flour and the milk in a saucepan and stir until it thickens.

7. Place the sauce in an oven dish with the cardoons. Top with a little Swiss cheese and broil until it browns a little.

Bourride (Fish Stew With Aïoli)

Bourride made with monkfish. Credit: Copyright 2015 Clarissa Hyman

Bourride made with monkfish. Credit: Copyright 2015 Clarissa Hyman

Yield: Makes 4 servings.

Ingredients

For the fish stock:

Salt and pepper to taste

1 fish head

1 onion

2 leeks

1 celery branch

7 ounces white wine

For the aïoli:

2 cloves of garlic

1 egg yolk, at room temperature

1 teaspoon mustard

Salt and pepper to taste

4 ounces olive oil

4 ounces sunflower oil

1 soup spoon lemon juice

For the bourride:

1 ounce olive oil

1 yellow onion, thinly sliced

2 to 3 branches of dried fennel

1 bay leaf

Orange peel (a coin’s worth)

4 large potatoes, sliced a quarter of an inch thick

Salt and pepper to taste

2 egg yolks, at room temperature

4 slices white fish (conger eel, cod, angler fish, whiting or bass, for example)

Salt and pepper to taste

4 slices of grilled bread

Directions

For the fish stock:

1. In a saucepan, combine 3 1/2 pints of water, salt, pepper, the fish head, onion, leeks and celery and slowly bring to a boil.

2. Skim off the top layer, then lower the heat.

3. Add the wine and simmer for 30 minutes (no more). Check the stock occasionally while cooking and skim if necessary.

4. Filter the stock through a colander.

For the aïoli:

1. Peel and crush the garlic, then combine the garlic paste with one egg yolk, mustard, salt and pepper.

2. Mix the oils and start to add the garlic mixture drop by drop very slowly, whisking all the while. This process is delicate, so never stop whisking and only when your aïoli starts to come together can you start to dribble in the oil a little faster.

3. About halfway through the process, add the lemon juice.

4. Set aside in the refrigerator.

For the bourride:

1. In a cooking pot, layer the ingredients in the following order: the thinly sliced onion, 2 tablespoons of olive oil, the fennel branches, the bay leaf, the orange peel, the sliced potatoes, salt and pepper.

2. Brown these ingredients 2 to 3 minutes on high heat without stirring. (Shake your pot a little so the onions do not burn.)

3. Add enough warm fish stock to barely cover the ingredients. Cover the pot and cook for 10 minutes at medium heat.

4. Place the slices of fish on top and as much stock as is needed to cover the fish.

5. Cover the pot and cook for 6 to 8 minutes. Check to make sure the fish and potatoes are cooked, then remove from the heat.

6. Soak the grilled bread in fish stock and set aside.

7. Remove 2 tablespoons of aïoli for each serving and set aside.

8. Put the remaining aïoli in the cooking pot, add 2 egg yolks and 9 ounces of fish stock. Mix over very low heat and keep stirring until the sauce thickens.

9. Pour the sauce on the soaked bread. Place a slice in each serving dish and top with the fish and potatoes. Use the reserved aïoli as a mayonnaise and offer a little extra fish stock for those who want extra moisture.

Main image: A Provençal Nativity scene made from clay figurines called santons. Credit: Copyright 2015 Clarissa Hyman

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“Tours,” as the Tram Experience calls them, run Tuesday through Sunday, and cost 98.50 euros (six-course menu), and 119 euros (seven-course menu, only on Fridays). Credit: Copyright 2015 Eric Danheir

Brussels has one of the largest tram networks in the world, but there’s one tram ride in the city where it’s not the journey, nor the destination that pleases — it’s the food.

To paraphrase the Belgian surrealist artist René Magritte, “This is not a Tram.”

Indeed, this is not a restaurant, either — this is the Tram Experience, one of the hottest gourmet dining tickets in town.

A dining adventure

People book tickets for the Tram Experience to celebrate birthdays, anniversaries, and even Christmas day. At least two marriage proposals have been made on board. Credit: Copyright 2015 Eric Danheir

People book tickets for the Tram Experience to celebrate birthdays, anniversaries and even Christmas day. At least two marriage proposals have been made on board. Credit: Copyright 2015 Eric Danheir

“Eating out is the national sport in Belgium,” writes Bill Bryson in his book “Neither Here nor There: Travels in Europe.” This small European country, about the size of Maryland, has 127 Michelin-starred restaurants, with 24 in Brussels, compared with 20 in Berlin and 14 in Milan.

But increasingly, the residents of this cosmopolitan city are eager to try fine dining in novelty venues, especially restaurants with a view.

The Tram Experience serves up a two-hour gourmet meal, during which guests can take in the scenery as they ride through Europe’s de facto capital in a souped-up tram from the 1960s, fitted with four ovens and two induction plates. Another popular haute-view experience is Dinner in the Sky, where starred chefs, cooking facilities, guests, food and table are suspended by a giant crane high above Brussels’ Arc de Triomphe.

The concept of the Tram Experience’s quirky, moveable feast is simple: Serve up some of the world’s finest restaurant meals, created by chefs from around the globe, on board one of the city’s most humble and historic people-movers.

World-class cuisine

Chefs from Belgium and all over the world are tapped to develop a six-course menu (three appetizers, starter, main course, dessert), to be faithfully reproduced in the tram’s tiny kitchen area, down to the last garnish, by chef Denis Roberti and his team. Credit: Copyright 2015 Eric Danheir

Chefs from Belgium and all over the world are tapped to develop a six-course menu (three appetizers, starter, main course, dessert) to be faithfully reproduced in the tram’s tiny kitchen area, down to the last garnish, by chef Denis Roberti and his team. Credit: Copyright 2015 Eric Danheir

This year’s theme is “Lady Chefs,” and the night I went, the Japanese and Swedish-inspired menu — including a starter of scallop sashimi and a main course of venison and lingonberry — was from Sweden’s Frida Ronge, head chef at Restaurant vRÅ in Gothenburg.

The Tram Experience is the brainchild of Olivier Marette, project manager for gastronomy at Visit Brussels, the city’s tourism agency. Online booking opened in early 2012, with no advertising, and in three days, around 6,000 tickets were sold, forcing the computer booking system to crash.

Two hours of bliss

Word of mouth has been key to the success of the Tram Experience. The black-and-white tram is instantly recognizable to passersby on the streets, who often wave as it rattles and rolls though some of Brussels’ iconic neighborhoods. Credit: Copyright 2015 Eric Danheir

Word of mouth has been key to the success of the Tram Experience. The black-and-white tram is instantly recognizable to passers-by on the streets, who often wave as it rattles and rolls though some of Brussels’ iconic neighborhoods. Credit: Copyright 2015 Eric Danheir

Customer satisfaction is extremely high, with 97% of customers who gave online feedback saying they would recommend the experience to others. One woman wrote, “My husband is a tram driver in Antwerp, and it was to celebrate his birthday. He enjoyed the experience very much and was very happy to chat with the tram driver…!”

As for minor complaints, some people thought the two-hour journey was too short, so eventually the Friday itinerary was changed to a seven-course meal lasting nearly three hours.

But no matter what the night or the occasion, “the star of the journey is always the food,” said Mr. Marette.

The comfort of good food

During Brussels’ recent lockdown, the Tram Experience was cancelled Friday-Sunday, but currently, the entire city—including this charming “meals on wheels” Brussels attraction—is almost back to normal. Credit: Copyright 2015 Eric Danheir

During Brussels’ recent lockdown, the Tram Experience was canceled Friday-Sunday, but currently, the entire city — including this charming “meals on wheels” Brussels attraction — is almost back to normal. Credit: Copyright 2015 Eric Danheir

My husband and I, and our good friends Chris and Karen, booked tickets weeks in advance and were looking forward to this playful, almost childlike culinary adventure. On the night, however, our mood was dampened by global, and very real, adult fears: Terrorists had attacked Paris the night before, at venues that included restaurants and bars.

Parisians eventually found some solace by flocking to buy copies of “A Movable Feast,” Earnest Hemingway’s affectionate portrait of the city, including its bars and cafes.

“We ate well and cheaply and drank well and cheaply and slept well and warm together and loved each other,” he wrote in the book, published posthumously in 1964.

The following weekend, Brussels itself was in lockdown, and the Parisians’ rather eccentric cousins, just north of Paris, were tweeting cat photos — one cat was drinking Belgian beer, another was dressed up as a burrito, for example — in support of an official police force request not to share police movements in Brussels on social media.

The police responded to the levity by tweeting a photo of a bowl of cat food: “For the cats who helped us last night … help yourself!”

Main photo: “Tours,” as the Tram Experience calls them, run Tuesday through Sunday and cost about $107 (98.50 euros) for a six-course menu, and $130 (119 euros) for a seven-course menu, only on Fridays. Credit: Copyright 2015 Eric Danheir

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