Articles in Travel

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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Peruvian chef Emilio Macìas in the cloister in Faenza. Credit: Carla Capalbo

Chef’s Table: As the Latin-American food movement continues to gather pace, and cities such as Lima, Peru, and Sao Paolo, Brazil, are joining the world’s hottest foodie destinations, it’s time to ask what contributions Latin America is making to modern cuisine.

“I would say unique ingredients and flavors,” says Emilio Macías, one of Peru’s rising stars. “Many young chefs from South America have traveled and worked in kitchens the world over learning about techniques and modern trends, and now they’re back cooking in their native countries. We’re cooking to raise awareness about the value of our native products and setting up direct links with their producers.”

Chef's Table

The first in an occasional series about the food and ideas of today's most influential chefs.


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Macías was born in Mexico but trained in Japan and Europe (including at Mugaritz and Santi Santamaria in Spain). He was drawn back to Latin America by the successes of the Peruvian leaders of the movement, Gastòn Acurio and Virgilio Martínez Véliz — both ranked in the top 20 of the World’s 50 Best Restaurants. Macías opened his own restaurant before taking a leading position in 2012 at Acurio’s award-winning Lima restaurant, Astrid & Gastòn, in the gastronomic and development kitchens. He recently flew to Faenza, in Emilia-Romagna, Italy, to cook two meals at Postrivoro.

“Postrivoro is not a pop-up restaurant but a nonprofit association that creates occasional ‘itineraries for gastro-pilgrims’ by inviting talented young international chefs to cook for just 20 paying guests seated at a communal table,” says Enrico Vignoli, its co-founder, who works in Modena with 3-star Michelin chef Massimo Bottura. “The chefs are usually employed in the kitchens of trend-setting restaurants or are in the process of starting their own. We want to tell stories through food and share gastronomic experiences.” For each of Postrivoro’s six events per year, the chef is paired with a sommelier or drinks specialist and an artist to decorate the space.

Macías’ dinner and lunch were held in the crumbling medieval cloister of Faenza’s Chiesa della Commenda. Each course was matched with a drink created by bartender Oscar Quagliarini, who is famous for his imaginative cocktails. The Goth-styled “mixologist” seems more like an alchemist than a barman. He spices his drinks with exotic but home-made ingredients such as yellow sandalwood syrup, or seaweed, eucalyptus and ylang ylang tinctures. The décor was by Fototeca Manfrediana, a cooperative of young photographers shooting on film.

 

The crispbreads with purslane (green), cuy (orange) and mole (beige). Credit: Carla Capalbo

The crispbreads with purslane (green), cuy (orange) and mole (beige). Credit: Carla Capalbo

An inspiring lunch with Emilio Macías begins

Macías brought many of his principal ingredients and seasonings from Peru in his luggage. He complemented them with seasonal foods from Emilia-Romagna. Sunday’s inspiring lunch began with three irregular crispbreads arranged like natural elements on a plate of branches and leaves. Each was topped with the chef’s interpretation of a Latin American speciality, from a fiery mole con pollo (Mexican chicken with a sauce of 100 ingredients, including chocolate), to verdolagas y tuetano (purslane and bone marrow with Mexican salsa verde), to shredded cuy pibil (slow-roasted Peruvian guinea pig) accented with pink pickled onions. Cuy is popular in Peru for its tender, nutritious meat. “I wanted to bring one very special ingredient from Peru, as well as a little transgression,” says Macías.

Macías’ elegant Peruvian ceviche of tiny raw oysters, Adriatic scallops and cactus followed, in a refreshingly sour leche de tigre: a cool fish broth lifted by lime, ginger and chilies, topped with fresh acacia blossoms and cinquefoil (or potentilla) leaves. In esparrago y hoyas de mais, crisp local asparagus, grilled on one side only, gave focus to herbaceous poblano pepper couscous sprinkled with dark Peruvian Sacha Inchi nuts and spooned into a charred corn husk, its smokiness reminiscent of fire-roasted corn.

Memory featured in the dish called Papa Genovese too. This came from Astrid & Gaston’s recent tasting menu, “The voyage from Liguria to El Callao, 100 years of flavor,” which focused on the gastronomic influences brought by the thousands of Italian immigrants to Peru in the early 20th century. The dish was a visual and cultural play on pasta al pesto. In the original Ligurian version, diced potato often accompanies the pasta in the green basil sauce. Here, spaghetti-like strands of potato starred with toasted pine nuts in a pure-flavored extract of basil and spinach chlorophyll. They produced a new, but equally soulful, version of the classic dish.

“We tried to imagine how Italian immigrants felt about Peruvian food before they made their long journeys in the 1900s,” Macìas says. “Were they afraid of what they might have to eat there? Our dishes stir emotions as well as appetites.”

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Asparagus with couscous and corn husk. Credit: Carla Capalbo

Other courses featured langoustine smoked a la Veracruzana and slow-roasted Mexican pork neck in salsa roja. The meal ended with a delicate, chilled peach stew strewn with elderflowers, raw bitter almonds and rose petals, and a crisp chocolate ball stuffed with the makings of a tiramisù scented with charred guajillo chilies, mescal and sal de gusano de maguey: ground agave worms spiced with salt and chilies.

“Gastòn Acurio has been inspirational in the Latin American movement, moving private and government people to raise awareness about the value of our native products and setting up direct links with their producers,” says Macìas.

Macías' oyster and scallop ceviche. Credit: Carla Capalbo

Macías’ oyster and scallop ceviche. Credit: Carla Capalbo

Concentrating on local products

“The result is that we now can go straight to the fishermen, requesting, for example, only large-size fish. They release anything smaller back into the ocean. They’re paid well for the adult fish and simultaneously safeguard fish stocks.”

How does this apply to farmers? “Potatoes are a big staple in Peru: There are 3,000 known species with more being found all the time. Some only grow above 3,000 meters of altitude, far from the cities, with short seasons and limited yields. Demand from restaurants and enthusiasts can create fair distribution and markets while teaching people in the cities about the value of these ingredients.” Other foods being developed this way are quinoa, amaranth and some corn varieties.

“Peruvian food events such as Mistura, now in its seventh year, where farmers and chefs meet and exchange ingredients and information are helping spread the word about our continent’s gastronomic riches.”

So are memorable meals such as this.

Main photo: Chef Emilio Macías in the cloister in Faenza. Credit: Carla Capalbo 

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Unika, a cheese shop, at Torvehallerne in Copenhagen. Credit: Trine Hahnemann

Noma has regained the top position on the list of the world’s 50 best restaurants. A lot of opinions and discussions have stemmed from this: Does it make sense to name a restaurant the world’s best? Is the competition fair? Is the 50-best list accurate? How is the ranking decided? Is the list controlled by tourist boards, and on and on.

No matter how that discussion ends, Noma, in Copenhagen, Denmark, is a leading star in the restaurant world. It was founded on some radical ideas that changed the restaurant experience:  a more informal setting with cooks who come to the table and serve guests;  ingredients that are local and 100 percent seasonal; and dialog with the food producers is at the center.  And although the meals at Noma are really well thought out,  there’s also playfulness — eating with your fingers, eating things you never thought possible.

These ideas have turned dining out into a much more interesting and relaxed experience. But they have also added another dimension: Eating at Noma is about being told a story of time and place — it takes you on a poetic journey, the same journey other creative disciplines do: trying to get a better understanding of who we are.

Ripple effect of Noma on Copenhagen cuisine

Locally, Noma’s history on the list of the 50 best has had evident consequences. Copenhagen is now a global gourmet destination for people willing to travel long distances for food. I grew up in Copenhagen and have worked in the restaurant business for almost 30 years. Never has there been a more exciting time to be part of the business in this city. The ingredients have never been more varied, the food is better executed, and in a lot of places even the service is really good.

But would that have happened without Noma and René Redzepi? Probably not, because it did not happen by itself. It happened when the world saw what was going on and Noma and Redzepi brought the world to Copenhagen. So the importance of the 50-best list for my hometown cannot be underestimated.

Noma is unquestionably the best restaurant we have. Try to get a table there and enjoy the incredible experience of tasty food with great ideas, playfulness and a really convivial service where you feel at home. You walk away feeling enlightened and included.

Much more to see and eat in Copenhagen

But when you’ve done that and still have more time to spend in Copenhagen, where else to go? If you want to experience what was before the Noma era, go to Lumskebugten for lunch to have the classic Danish smørrebrød. Head chef Erwin Lauterbach rules here. He has been around since the 1980s and was one of the first to introduce local produce, thus helping people understand the season. Lauterbach also brought traditional recipes back to life in a new way, but his main focus has always been vegetables.

If you still have the budget for another high-end meal, visit Kadeau, a New Nordic restaurant whose staff works with ingredients from the island of Bornholm in the Baltic Sea. You’ll experience very interesting ideas, great fun and a stunning room in a great location not far from Noma in an old neighborhood of Copenhagen called Christianshavn.

For more casual dining, noisiness and more of a city atmosphere, get a table at Pluto. Fast, fun and lively, you’ll be served mountains of great food prepared with ideas from the whole world mixed with a bit of New Nordic. Shared plates get handed to the table, and the service is great, which isn’t always the case in Copenhagen.

On a gourmet trip to Copenhagen, the best way to get around is by bicycle. They can be rented from shops, or city bikes can be rented by the hour. Spend an afternoon at the food halls, called Torvehallerne. For Danish products, visit the stall called Omegn, which means the local area around us. It has a great selection of cold cuts, cheese, beer and Danish wine. Outside the halls, Omegn has a vegetable stall with 100 percent organic vegetables from local growers.

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Torvehallerne, or food halls, in Copenhagen, Denmark. Credit: Trine Hahnemann

Torvehallerne is also a great place for an after-work drink at about 6 p.m. on Thursday and Friday nights. Try the cava bar outside and enjoy the light during summer nights. Also look for spices at Asa and organic chocolate at Summerbird, which also sells quality marzipan, for which Denmark is famous.

For coffee and cake, go to Café Rosa. The baker bakes everything on the spot using organic ingredients and is often there herself. She is Swedish and inspired by Scandinavian children’s literature. The place embodies that playfulness and quirkiness, which belongs to Pippi Longstocking. You’ll get a great cup of filter coffee made to order and the best cardamom snurre, which can be enjoyed mornings or afternoons or taken home.

Adjacent to the city center, called Indre By, Copenhagen has three boroughs a 10-minute bicycle ride from the where a lot of interesting things are happening. In Nørrebro, for example, is Jægersborggade, which is a foodie street with coffee, restaurants and small independent shops. There is also a place where they produce toffee. Here you can by beautiful ceramics in New Nordic style. For restaurants on this street, don’t miss Relæ, which has 1 Michelin star. It is owned by Christian Puglisi and is almost 100% organic. Alternatively, try the little brother Manfred on the opposite corner. For a late-night snack and glass of wine along with some real local atmosphere, visit the wine bar Underwood.

After several late nights, an early-morning walk in Copenhagen can be a real treat. The city is a slow starter with amazing, clear blue morning sunlight. Walk to Vesterbro, another borough, and go to Café Risteriet, which is a small room in a basement with very good coffee and a simple breakfast consisting of a soft-boiled egg and home-baked bread and lots of friendly atmosphere.

Main photo: Unika, a cheese shop, at Torvehallerne in Copenhagen. Credit: Trine Hahnemann

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Picking Grenache at Grover Zampa Vineyards. Credit: Mira Honeycutt

India is trending toward wine. The favorite beverage of Dionysus is fast becoming the gateway drink for the nation’s younger generation. The tradition of two scotches before dinner is morphing into a wine-by-the-glass culture.

Noticing this change, France’s legendary House of Moët & Chandon has made its initial foray into India with the premiere release of Chandon India, a sparkling wine produced for the domestic market. The wine is made in the emerging wine region of Nashik (or Nasik), a four-hour drive north of Mumbai. The uncorking of Chandon Brut and Brut Rosé in October 2013 drew Mumbai’s glitterati and Bollywood superstars.

Most wine regions are known for their distinctive grape varietals: New Zealand’s Marlborough area for Pinot Noir and Sauvignon Blanc, France’s Chablis for Chardonnay, Germany’s Mosel region for Riesling and so on.

On my recent visit to Nashik, I was impressed by its Chenin Blanc. It was so good, I suggested to a few winemakers that they brand this region as “Chenin Blanc Country.” This is the varietal that goes into Chandon’s sparkling wine. Nashik’s diurnal temperature creates an ideal growing condition for Chenin and Sauvignon Blanc — wines perfectly suited for India’s hot weather and spicy foods.

Wine just beginning to emerge in India

India’s wine industry is in its embryonic stage. In a country of 1.2 billion people, wine consumption in 2013 was estimated at 1.6 million cases, with an annual growth rate of 20% to 25%. The country has 70-plus wineries with more than 260,000 acres under vines spread among 11 Indian states. The noted areas are Bangalore in Karnataka state in the south and Nashik and Pune on the west coast, both in close proximity to Mumbai in Maharashtra state.

On the banks of Godavari River, Nashik (with a population of 1.5 million) is steeped in mythology. It’s among the four locations where Kumbh Mela — a Hindu pilgrimage — is held, making it one of India’s holiest cities. With more than 100 temples, temple tourism is a big draw. The city is also an automotive and pharmaceutical manufacturing hub. And now comes its newest attraction — wine tourism, with some 30 wineries, fancy tasting rooms and harvest festivals.

Chandon’s winemaker, Australian Kelly Healey, was my daylong guide in Nashik. The company purchases fruit from local growers, and production, started in 2011, is done at the local York winery. Chandon’s own winery is under construction in Dindori, a subregion of Nashik, and scheduled for completion later in 2014. New Zealand’s Cloudy Bay Winery is Chandon’s technical partner in Nashik, Healey said.

Avoiding soil that’s better for table grapes

Healey gave me the lowdown on Nashik’s geological profile. Hillside vineyards, some at an elevation of 1,300 feet, contain porous, red-brown, rocky basaltic soil with a slightly richer brown soil on flat land.

“The one we want to avoid is the black soil on alluvial plains,” Healey said. The rich organic matter with water-retaining property is better suited for table grapes. And there’s a lot of that going on, because table grapes exported to the United Kingdom and Russia fetch a better per-ton price than wine grapes.

From October to February, temperatures dip to mid-40 F. Harvest season is from February to March. “There’s no dormancy, so the vines are all confused as there’s year-round growth,” Healey mused.

Annual prunings are in April and September, and most farmers create artificial dormancy in April. “They spray with a hormone so the vines drop leaves,” Healey said. During monsoon season, June to August, vines are sprayed to keep them healthy. “It’s a difficult place to do organic farming,” he admitted.

Nashik’s popular varietals range from Chenin Blanc and Sauvignon Blanc to Cabernet Sauvignon, Shiraz, Merlot and Malbec. Some producers are experimenting with Tempranillo, Grenache and Sangiovese. Nashik does not have an appellation certification, but the bottles bear the name. The region was pioneered in the 1980s by Chateau Indage, followed by producers like Sula and Zampa.

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Lunchtime for farm workers at Vallonne. Credit: Mira Honeycutt

I visited four wineries, starting with Sula, which was launched in 1998. Back then, visitors lacked wine culture, recalled winemaker Ajoy Shaw. “They didn’t know what wine was. ‘Can we mix with water?’ they asked.”

Sula ushered in California-style wine education with an upscale tasting room and winery tours. All Sula bottles have screw caps because many consumers don’t own corkscrews. “And waiters struggle to open bottles in restaurants,” Shaw said.

Sula is clearly the leader in the Indian market, with an annual production of 700,000 cases and 29 different labels. The flagship wines are Sauvignon Blanc and sparkling wines. The reds include Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel and Shiraz. In tasting the Nashik reds, especially Cabernet Sauvignon, I found they lacked the tannin structure. No wonder, because Cabernet requires a longer growing season, which this region does not offer. So what you get here is sugary ripeness, not flavor ripeness.

I tasted an exceptional Chenin Blanc at York Winery, a wine I feel could stand up to any world-class Chenin in a blind tasting. Owned by the Gurnani family of Nashik, York is run by brothers Ravi, in charge of marketing, and winemaker Kailash, who studied oenology at Adelaida University in Australia.

In 2008, they produced their first vintage of wines from sourced fruit and the six-acre estate vineyard. Annual production of 10,000 cases includes Sauvignon Blanc Cabernet Sauvignon, Shiraz and a Zinfandel Rosé.

In nearby Kavnai village, Vallonné Winery sits on a 20-acre estate. Founder Shailandra Pai conducted a tasting of a fragrant 2013 Rosé of Cabernet Sauvignon and a 2011 fruit-forward  Malbec. I was impressed with the barrel tasting of the 2013 Merlot, which showed integrated tannins.

A few miles further, Grover Zampa’s 13-acre vineyard is set on a 35-acre estate. Its annual production of 25,000 cases includes 18 to 20 wines. The whites lacked fresh acidity. What stood out was the flagship 2010 Chêne Reserve, a blend of Syrah and Tempranillo showing structured tannins and fruit.

The Nashik trip was quite an experience — modern hotels in the city yet bullock carts, corn fields and sun-dried cow dung cakes along wine country’s rural trail. But Ravi Gurnani is positive about the future.

“Chandon being here is a good push for others,” he said.

Main photo: Picking Grenache at Grover Zampa Vineyards. Credit: Mira Honeycutt

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