Russia: Enigmatic and Clandestine

Mariinsky Theatre, St. Petersburg

It can be argued that modern European history runs parallel with that of Russia. It was instrumental in the defeat of Napoleon, when in 1812 it blazed its own cities and starved the French. The balance of power, as set up by the Congress of Vienna, held until the decline of the Ottomans. Russia’s hopes of displacing the Turks and gaining influence there resulted in: the Crimean War, which it lost; the Russo-Turkish War, which was its last great victory; and arguably the First World War, which it withdrew from. By then Russia had suffered an embarrassing defeat in the hands of the Japanese, and the monarchy that had so defined Russian culture was done. Perhaps the most important contribution of the Russians to modern history is ideological. The monarchy was overthrown by a so-called bourgeoisie revolution and followed by a communist revolution led by Lenin. The communist regime would last until 1992 and spread to other parts of the world. The majority of the 20th century was characterized by the ideological struggle between capitalism and communism.

Peterhof, St. Petersburg

It is owing to these events that Russia has two histories. And perhaps it can be represented in the two main cities: Moscow and St. Petersburg. Like Beijing and Shanghai, the two cities are worlds apart. Moscow is the dark and dreary bastion of communism, propped up by foreboding towers of Stalin, marked by glitzy restaurants and cafés frequented by oligarchs. St. Petersburg is the birthchild of Peter the Great, a reformist Czar that endorsed European traditions and practices, opened up Russia to the rest of the world, and essentially created a European country with cities to mirror Paris and Vienna.

In any case, it is important to recognize Russia as a European country. It has many of the characteristics of Europe. It is developed, it is Christian, it shares in much of the same common history. As stated earlier, Russian history is an important cornerstone of European history, running back at least a thousand years. Russian Czars are essentially European emperors in every way except in name. It is from national pride that Russians are ever abhorrent of the notion of being European, but that is a luxury afforded to them by its convenient geography, sprawling across two continents. Culturally, it is certainly not Asian and most of its population lives squarely in European quarters. So Russia is a part of Europe, lest it moves to create a continent for itself.

Moscow State University

Moscow is characteristic of the planned communist cities of the 20th century. Like Beijing, the streets are wide; the city is made for driving. The centre is the Kremlin, which carries an air of secrecy in foreign journalism, but is actually a space open to tourists. Nearby, the notable Red Square has the famous multi-coloured, onion-domed St. Basil’s Cathedral. Off to the side, defined by queues is the mausoleum of Lenin, the father of modern Russia. In general, the museums of Moscow are unimpressive. The Pushkin State Museum is criticized of having too many copies and the Tretyakov Gallery, both the classical and modern (Krymsky Val) galleries, have too many unskilled paintings in between the masterpieces. For real art, go to St. Petersburg. Moscow, afterall, is not known for culture.

Strelka Bar

The most rewarding thing to do is to get off at Kropotkinskaya metro stop (the subway system revels in communist grandeur) and take a glance at the gold domes of Cathedral of Christ the Saviour. Then walk across the pedestrian Patriarchs Bridge to get to the artsy island district that previously housed a chocolate factory. A favorite in these parts is Strelka Bar, for both food and drinks ($40 a person with drinks).  Now, cross another bridge to south of the river and follow the shore southwest until you get to Gorky Park, where you can buy communist-era ice cream, play ping pong, or rent a bike. We rode it to Moscow State University, and along the way went up sparrow hill for a grand view of the city.

Kvartira 44

Food anywhere in Russia, as it is anywhere in ex-communist Europe, is bad. One local place that bucks the trend is Kvartira 44, which has gooey mushroom soup in cored Borodinski Black Bread, though the mixed meat dish is disappointing ($85 for two people with drinks). Dine like an oligarch at White Rabbit, a top 100 restaurant. The greenhouse dome and comfy couches adorned with stuffed rabbits is pure luxury. At night, it is fashionably expensive; at lunch, a set can be had for only 900 RUB ($30 a person). Start with a blue-cheese arugula salad, then have a creamy green nettle soup, and a perfectly cooked trout in a white wine sauce. There’s nothing Russian about this restaurant, except the dressed up maids that clean after you in the washroom, but the best restaurants in Russia are rarely Russian.

White Rabbit

The best way to St. Petersburg is by overnight train. It is comfortable. A ticket for about $100 buys a pretty comfortable spot in a four-bed train carriage. Most trains leave a bit before midnight and arrive early in the morning. Since the Russian day starts quite late, it gives you a bit of time to check in and have a coffee. Like the Moscow subway, the St. Petersburg metro is grandiose and often filled with art. It is also the deepest subway in the world. Most of St. Petersburg is reachable by foot (unlike Moscow) so use of metro is generally limited. Many places, like the Mariinsky Theatre is quite far from any subway stop.

Militarism in front of the Hermitage

St. Petersburg in summer is a pleasure to stroll through with temperatures in the high 10’s or low 20’s. That is also to say, avoid it in the winter. It is the closest large city to the Arctic Circle. It is also touristy city, and requires a full two days to finish. At its centre is the famous Hermitage museum, the art museum that takes up four buildings on the riverfront. Its rooms of Rembrandt and the impressionists are legendary. Nearby is the gold-domed St. Isaac's Cathedral, which holds both a museum and a “colonnade” that you can climb until the wee hours of the day and behold the beautiful city from afar. Across the rivers is the Peter and Paul Fortress where Alexander and Great and Nicholas II, the last Czar of Russia are buried. Close to the Russian Museum, which has exclusively Russian art, is the Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood, the onion-domed monstrosity to mirror the one in the Red Square.

1812 room in the Hermitage

Finally, take a hydrofoil from where Nevsky Prospekt meets the Neva river to the Peterhof, a palace with fountains and gardens to rival Versailles. Budget about 3 hours for the visit, which means book return hydrofoil tickets four hours after onward tickets. By now, it should be obvious that Russia is an expensive travel destination. In that, it mirrors the Nordic countries that aren’t too far away. Most tickets for attractions are $10-20, and audio-guides are another ~$10. St. Petersburg also has the characteristics of a touristy city with its long lines and a plethora of tour groups. It is essential to plan ahead. Book tickets in advance, either online or at the counter. Some attractions have off-peak hours. The line at the hermitage dwindles close to closing time.

Raising of the drawbridges, St. Petersburg

St. Petersburg is an essential city to see in the summer. In the few months of summer it does have, it lights up as the city awakens from hibernation. The most notable feature is the “white nights”. The sun sets only a bit before midnight and the ski maintains a gloomy blue until the sun rises again at 3-4am. A quintessential activity, then, is to take a night river Neva cruise. They usually leave a little after midnight and proceed to show the city from the water before parking for the bridges to rise. As a large port city, the draw bridges disconnect the north from the south for the few night hours. When they rise, the alcohol-fueled youth celebrate with great hurrah both on land and water. You would be remiss not to join them.

But finding something to do until this late hour is sometimes a challenge. One suggestion would have been to see a ballet or opera at the famous Mariinsky theatre. But the rendition of Verdi’s MacBeth was a complete sham. Ugly walls of the stage were showing. So perhaps attend a concert instead (~500 RUB), and then have a late dinner at Jamie Oliver’s Italian Kitchen and maybe take a look at the Van Gogh alive exhibition. If the next day is a Sunday, go to L’Europe for an over the top champagne brunch (4900 RUB). With all the orange juice and alcohol you could ever want and a whole range of meats at the carvery, chocolate fountains, and of course, caviar. The atmosphere is indicative of Russia: fully suited servers that suggest wines to pair whatever you’re eating, and live music that draws from well-known oldies – the Four Seasons included. The only thing missing are oysters and lobster, which are kind of expected at this price.

L’Europe

And so with that alcohol-fuelled Sunday, the trip to Russia is over. This land of intrigue that has also made it to the airwaves everywhere doesn’t feel out of place in our Westernized, modern world. Of course, it has always been a bit of an oddball. Getting a visa just to go there is expensive and annoying. But all the effort is worth it. Moscow is beautiful in its ugliness and St. Petersburg is a cultural hub with an extraordinary atmosphere in the summer. 

Accessibility: The principal language, Russian, uses the Cyrillic alphabet, which despite its similarities with the Latin alphabet, is generally unreadable by English speakers. Google maps converts effortlessly between the two alphabets so searching for places is not difficult. However, navigating the metro where signs often only appear in Cyrillic can be challenging. Credit card is accepted almost everywhere and ATM’s that accept international cards are easy to find. However, some ATM’s do not have English options. Sim cards are about 200 RUB and come 3gb of data and credit for calls.

Dubai: Middle Eastern Kitsch

Dubai literally rose from the dessert. Indeed, this was prophesized by Isaiah. For most people, it is a gateway into the Middle East, a scary and unsettling region not for the faint of heart. But with capitalism and relative freedom, Dubai is a city Westerns can get used to. In the summer, it is characterized by the most scorching heat, often flirting with the mid forties and dipping to a humid mid thirties at night. Being outside for any protracted amount of time is untenable. Thankfully, the unmanned Dubai metro, which links the airport with all the important buildings along the coast, is now complete. This engineering marvel, following much in the city’s other splendors, allows effortless transportation without ever leaving an air-conditioned space.

Burj Khalifa

Dubai is probably best described as the Las Vegas of the Middle East, full of tourists and kitschy attractions (aquariums and fountains), buffets for breakfast, lunch and dinners. But it is also a stronghold of the ultra-rich. The Burg Al Arab, the famous sail-boat shaped hotel has gates and only allows guests and people with reservations inside (so get one to the Skyview bar, for a $100 entrance ticket). Otherwise ascend to the top of the tallest tower in the world, the Burg Kalifa. On a clear day, the views should be stunning; on most days, it’s a bit of a letdown ($35). But the main way to spend time in Dubai is to gallivant in the gigantic malls that resemble self-sustaining communities. The Mall of the Emirates has a ski slope (~100 for a day pass), Dubai Mall has a skating rink and an aquarium. Window shopping is the touristy activity of choice. Take a look at the uncrowded shake shack, imported wholesale from Manhattan. Or go to the Armani café, situated near the Armani store. This glitzy part of the mall could be mistaken for a five-star hotel, or a modern art musuem. In one section, origami birds are suspended from the ceiling, regulating the lights that beam down from the skylights.

Burj al Arab

The best experience of Dubai is at the Dubai International Financial Centre. Aside from the posters that bare the Queen’s Business School insignia, there is La Petite Maison, the 81st best restaurant in the world. We had met Raphael, the owner, at a tapas bar in San Sebastian so I was ready for a bit of wining and dining. The restaurant is an installation near an art district so it, itself, is beautifully adorned with modern paintings. Otherwise, the bright white interior is reminiscent of French luxury. Door-crashing is almost impossible as Dubai’s ultra-rich seem to have booked off this restaurant to themselves. I was kindly seated at the bar, which affords nice people-watching opportunities, though the smoking might be a turn-off. Safely in the hands of the maitre d’, I ordered some house specialties. Most notably, the buttery caprese salad made with the most luscious burrata cheese tasted almost too good to be real. The stretchy cheese almost disintegrates in the mouth, letting out bursts of sweetness. I almost wish there were more tomatoes so I wouldn’t feel as guilty eating the cheese. Then, thinly sliced octopus arranged in a disk, topped with a sweet lemon dressing. Finally gargantuan, halved prawns are succulent in simple olive oil with herbs. The sunny radiance of the dishes and the utter simplicity is deeply reminiscent of Provencial cooking. Seafood, herbs and olive oil are expertly used in this Nice-inspired restaurant.

La Petite Maison

Burrata et Tomates    95
Burrata with Tomatoes and Basil 

Poulpe Finement Tranchés   105
Thinly Sliced Octopus in Lemon Oil 

Grosses Crevettes Grillées   135
Grilled Tiger Prawns  

Haricots Verts   35
Green Beans  

 

Dubai Mall

After, take a walk through the art district that showcases contemporary Middle Eastern and international artists. Hop quickly between air-conditioned rooms; the brief sweats are worth the often thoughtful exhibits.

But the novelty of the city wears off quickly. They’ve tried to bring the world to Dubai, but it’s rarely the real thing. The food is mostly unimpressive international fare, and painfully expensive. One iced tea I ordered, which was advertised as “original” was actually an artificial-lemon-flavoured iced tea that tasted like sugar syrup. Undrinkable. The actual city is an urban sprawl, unlike the dense Las Vegas. Unless you’re looking for tacky entertainment, the city fails to impress beyond its initial hurrah.

Barcelona: A Bastion of Youth and Foodie Paradise

MNAC, waterfall, by Placa d'Espanya

There is no city more beloved by youth than Barcelona. The street of Las Ramblas is filled with them far into the night. At a convivial bar Kalderkold Cerveseria, the less wasted youth swoon in between soccer matches and order expertly concocted drinks. It’s supposed to be a craft beer bar but the mixed drinks are its specialty. (The place is unfound online but is near Carrer del Cardenal Casañas, 4; 4.5€ sangria.) On subways, the youth can sit in peace as by the looks of it, no one in the city is older than 50. A particularly raunchy group, wearing face paint and other world cup adornments, was going to Sónar, the base-pumping music festival that drove up hotel prices two-fold. I looked at my ticket with embarrassment: Miley Cyrus. The poster-child of teenage rebellion and angst also received a substantial following from the too young to watch Miley ride a hotdog crowd to the why aren’t you at Sónar crowd to the hip moms snapchatting every moment of a performance in a language they do not understand. By all counts, Barcelona is a lively, happening city.

Residential building in Barcelona

 The epicenter of the city, where Sonar fanatics congregated, is home to the gorgeous waterfall that was constructed to fall from Montjuic. The palace that sits atop is the MNAC (Museu Nacional d'Art de Catalunya). Its modern art section was closed but it still has a venerable selection of medieval and gothic pieces. Many frescoes taken from churches and other religious buildings had been re-plastered in this building, in the name of conservation. It also affords a breathtaking view of Plaça d'Espanya and Barcelona proper. Nearby, CaixaForum always has an interesting range of exhibitions (this time, of the talented sea painter Sorolla) and Pavelló Mies van der Rohe, an architectural museum. Or take a walk up to the Funicular of Montjuic to get a ride up to the Montjuic castle. Along the way, the Joan Miro Foundation showcases the modern artist’s disfigured subjects in all sorts of mediums. On the other side of town is the Museo Picasso, which primarily showcases the artist’s earlier works, but most importantly exhibits his “Las Meninas” collection, which is a reinterpretation of Velazquez’s famous work currently in the Prado. A few steps from the Picasso Museum is the Museu Europeu d’Art Modern, which seems to specialize in nude paintings.

View from Sagrigada Familia

 Of course, go see the half-complete gothic cathedral of Sagrigada Familia, a towering and ominous work of the late Gaudi. Definitely book tickets ahead of time. With audioguide and a ride up to one of the towers cost 20€. On the way down from the tower, be sure to look down the centre of the winding staircase for the perfect spiral, as if the staircase connects the earth directly to the heavens. If 20€ is too dear, then you can see the two facades on the east and west side of the building. One is of life and the other, death and the artistic style augments the contrasting motifs.

Passion facade, Sagrigada Familia

After missing Tickets in 2013, I tried to avoid the same fate this time. But reservations at the most sought after restaurant in Barcelona are near impossible to secure. Instead, I tried walking in early in the evening. A circus master called my rejection but offered two pieces of advice: one was to go across the street to Bodega 1900, another project by the elBulli brothers; the second was to come back the next day at 2pm and ask for cancellations.

Bodega 1900 is supposed to be time travel back to the turn of the century, following the Spanish tradition of sipping vermouth before a real meal. From a corner seat, I stare at the ceremonial Jamón carving station. Beside that is where much of the food is prepared. The menu is a simple one pager, but the best things are off-menu. Choose the carte-blanche option where the server brings you troves of food until you say stop. Most competent are the veggies, like the pudgy white asparagus or the leeks in vinegar. They are deceptively simple dishes that accentuate the core flavour of the vegetable. Tuna roe comes pressed and pickled, making for a salty sashimi that breaks on contact. The fish roe returns with garlic; this time the sweet garlic is the operative ingredient. But the most redeeming dish is the white vermouth soaked melon. It looks like a hami-melon but where the white flesh has turned into a translucent lime green. It is soaked in dill-infused vermouth, giving it a fresh and aromatic quality. Melon has never been so refreshing.

Bodega 1900

Crispy seaweed

White asparagus

Pickle

Small leek in vinegar

Tuna egg

Smoked Mackerel

Fish roe and garlic

Sliced beef

Small meat pie

Spicy squid’s “mollete”

Melon infused with White Vermouth

80€ including drinks

Again, following the circus ringleader’s advice, I returned the next day to Tickets at 2pm. In an unprecedented turn of luck, I was alone and another singleton had cancelled. I was let in. I had won the lottery. The restaurant is an odd one, glowing in red and adorned with odd knick-knacks, like waving Buddha cats. Several stations around the perimeter supply the endless stream of food that comes out. At times, a wistful ice cream trolley is pushed around, with bells ringing.

Again, the best thing to do is to give the chef a carte blanche. As is customary in these post-elBulli establishments, the meal begins with a spherified olive. It looks and tastes like an olive, but yet is not an olive. Then, anchovy is served on two slices of tomato over bread so it takes the shape of a camel back, perfect for two bites. The tomato is exclusively the seedy, watery part, and so bursts on each bite, neutralizing the saltiness of the anchovy. Of all the anchovies served up in Spain, this one wins. An oyster lies in a mojito mix, a perfect palate cleanser after going through the oyster. The octopus, eaten with tweezers, is gummy and fun to chew through. Mushroom is shred to make spaghetti, lying in a mushroom sauce. It’s a king oyster mushroom overload. The beef cheek sandwich looks like it could have been bought off the street. It looks like a breakfast sandwich. But a bite into the soft, sweet and chewy beef allays all reservations. For dessert a halved wine bottle is loaded with wood chunks and holds two corks – one edible and another inedible. The edible one is a cylinder of dark chocolate mousse wrapped with pastry. For 60€, elBulli ingenuity has never been so affordable. Fine food has never been so accessible to the general public, the ones that can get a reservation anyway.  See https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ghf5gGKgAkg.

Tickets

~60€ with drinks

Solid cocktail with watermelon infused in sangria

Ticket’s Pizza

Tempura of pistachios

Tickets’ olive-S

Bread, olive oil, anchovy, tomato

Tuna in a nori seaweed cone, piparra jus and tomato seeds

Mojito oyster

Octopus with ginchi sauce

“King oyster mushrooms” spaghetti with porcini pil pil sauce

Beef cheek sandwich

Nori seaweed jelly, mango, marshmallow

Chocolate shaped like a cork

Gaig

An affordable Michelin-star experience presents itself at Gaig, a white tablecloth restaurant in the l’exempli district, known for its bougie shopping and dining options.  At lunch, 32€ affords you a 3-course tasting menu. Most memorable is the hearty cacao e pepe, a welcomed carbo explosion after a string of fine dining. A block of moulded lamb breaks apart effortlessly and melds well with mash and sweet sauce. The dessert was a block of egg tart, though it tasted like Chinese moon cake, according to one commentator.

For more tips on Barcelona and a guide of Madrid, see /blog/2013/2/14/48-hours-in-barcelona-and-madrid-feb-7-11.

Basque: Modernist Food and Architecture (Bilbao, San Sebastian)

The Matter of Time, Guggenheim, Bilbao

From Malaga, fly to the Basque city of Bilbao. What had been a sad and dilapidated city was given a thrust of culture, opening it to tourism that eventually made it the stunning metropolis it is today. Exiting the chic airport, you wonder if you’re still in Spain. Everything ticks forward a quarter century. The climate is cool. Lush mountains around gleaming lakes replace the red ochre of southern Spain. The language and architecture is definitively Germanic. On a speedy bus that flies through some vaulted tunnels, the first glimpse of the city is the beautiful Guggenheim museum. This bastion of modern art looks like a metallic super-ship of the future, resting on the Nervion river. It features such celebrated works as a flower-covered puppy by Jeff Koons, the Louise Bourgeois’s metal spider that also appears at Ottawa’s National Gallery and the Tate Modern. The flagship display is The Matter of Time by Richard Serra, a football field sized room with cylindrical torqued steel that patrons can walk through. The last installation, entitled Blind Spot Reversed redefines reality by playing an optical illusion on visitors who think the exhibit is over only to dig themselves deeper into the eye-shaped layout. Upstairs, a floor is dedicated to Yoko Ono, the weird widow of John Lennon who grunts and shouts songs in a fashionable top hat. In a recent performance, Ono makes bad dancing into an indigestible art piece (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d3mvEfON2CI). In a live performance in some art museum, she does a splendid and well-practiced cover of Katy Perry’s Fireworks (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lrJz9Dh5MsM). According to the New York Times, Ono has mastered non-existence in art in a world where there are too many people that do too many things (http://www.nytimes.com/2012/10/21/magazine/how-i-learned-to-love-yoko-ono.html). This is emphasized in the Bilbao exhibition: a line of gumball machines that sell air; a revolving door that has an entrance but no exit; another is simply an instruction for people to bring a container for water. A good creative one, I thought, was the sponge.

Jeff Koons in front of the Guggenheim, Bilbao

There is also a fine arts museum, anbustling old city (“Casco Viejo”), a supercharged community centre (“Alhondiga”) and a view via the Funicular de Artxanda. But the real reason to enter the Basque country is for the food. This culinary hotspot that essentially invented molecular gastronomy punches much above its weight on every guide and ranking. 20 minutes outside of Bilbao (30€ taxi; bus requires some walking and planning) is Azurmendi, which translates literally to azure mountain. There isn’t much blue but this modernistic, mountain-top restaurant is surrounded by gardens and greenhouses. And that is where the culinary adventure begins. A chef, uniform and all, leads guests up to the seemingly magical greenhouse, where delectable amuse-bouches ‘grow’ alongside the plants that bore them. Crunchy Jerusalem artichoke chips are disguised as tree bark; vinegar-soaked carrots are planted in test tubes; orange, pomelo, hisbiscus form a citrusy juice in a corked vial; exploding skinned tomatoes go back on the vine; avocado is reconstituted to look like the pit. 

Back in the main hall, a picnic basket is served with a glass of white wine. Start with a jar of salty sardines. Then a pizza pocket filled with unctuous pork fat and topped with a piece of Jamón. Finally, a ball that bursts in Caipirinha flavor. The adventure continues in the huge kitchen staffed by 18 chefs. It’s as large as the dining room, it seems. At the front is head chef Eneko Atxa, working on his new menu to be introduced the following week. I notice I had met him before at the entrance, but didn’t think much because of his earrings. Here, a few more amuse-bouches are given: a black pudding croquette and a viscous red bean soup. The ones served inside did not inspire the taste buds or the imagination, as did the ones served in the green house. Yet as we finally sat down at our table, it was already 2pm, we were impressed, yet the menu had not even started.

 The options are 135€ for 10 courses or 160€ for 13. Substitutions are encouraged so choose the smaller course but pick the best things from either. There is also a wine pairing option (40-65€) but a cheap and cheery bottle of wine (22€) is the better option.

First, a trio of re-imagined nuts in molecular style. The best is hazelnut – made with foie gras shaped with dark chocolate. The flavor is intense, and keeps the intended nuttiness. To go with the nuts, the earthy flavor of mushrooms form the leaf (a maple leaf, might I add). Next is a signature Azurmendi dish: an egg yolk with insides replaced with truffle. A slight jostle and it bursts into delightful full-bodied flavours. This style of spherification is the poster child of molecular gastronomy. It was first started at elBulli (see Tickets and Bodego 1900 from Barcelona guide) and now seems to be everywhere around the world. Here, it’s an egg; at tickets, it’s an olive; at Gaggan, halfway around the world in Bangkok, it’s a yogurt lassi. Still firmly in amuse-bouche territory, I must say I am terribly amused. Next, an explosion of tomato flavor, provided by either skinned, crisped or puréed tomatoes. You might expect it to taste like a capresse salad with the cheese and basil. But the Idiazábal milk cheese is runny, much like a yogurt. It glues all the tomato components together. But why there are two of these, side by side, I do not know. Perhaps it each represents a hemisphere of the tomato. Finally, the Idiazábal milk cheese comes back in ice cream form. Think of it as the best frozen yogurt you’ve ever tasted. It’s hearty despite being cold, and not at all sweet.

The lobster on chive emulsion and oil is perfectly cooked, retaining a bounce without being too tough. Cutting through this wonderful piece, let alone eating it, is quite the experience. But the dish begins with an odd Te Maki (a hand roll) of lobster tartare that was a bit salty and didn’t seem very fine, nor did it complement the rest of the dish. Squid noodles that are only identifiable by its wrinkles have the texture of pasta. They’re made by freezing and slicing, and finally coating with a sweet squid reduction. The first off-dish was the Duck Royal “à l’orange”, a beautiful terrine of duck covered with duck sauce and foie gras coated with orange jelly with a spray of orange blossom perfume, tableside. The duck, stuck laboriously in a terrine, fails to be eventful. In a normal duck à l’orange, the heaviness of the sauce is balanced out by the medium-rare juices of the duck. Here, the duck takes a confit texture with not enough orange to bring out its oily flavours. The foie gras seemed gratuitous and made this weighty plate heavier. Then, slimy Kokotxas, or fish throat, with pommes soufflés, fails to make an impression. The recovery is the pigeon on deuxelle and truffle. This is what the duck à l’orange should have tasted more like. The pigeon was blushing pink with a crispy crust that soaked up the glimmering pigeon jus. Puréed and quartered mushrooms added some varied texture. Delicious. But the side salad of mushroom, truffles and cress was disappointing. It was flavourless except the copious amount of salt that made it a bit of an appetite killer.

Finally, some dessert. The first is a beautiful rose-themed strawberry dish. Tiny hearts of strawberry lie on strawberry sorbet and then on mushroom. The liquid nitrogen, another nouveau-cuisine fave, was added fanfare for no benefit in taste. A rose petal jutting out is beautiful but made the dish difficult to cut through. Yet it was still an excellent ode to the strawberry. Then, on a reflective black glass lay a beautiful arrangement of “egg and dairy products”. It included milk ice cream, butter toffee, exploding eggs with caramel, milk skin and jelly of yogurt. It was a fun plate that you can stuff in your mouth in whatever order and always get a different sensation, though still centered around the sweet and buttery main ingredients. It is a bit like Nomad’s famous milk and honey (see America Restaurant Guide section) and perhaps struggles to meet it. The petit fours are a cool assemblage of sweets, some placed in a box filled with chocolate crumbs. Some were rich and delicious. The balls filled with lime or lemon filling were a little too sweet and too sour. The meal ends with paying the 135€ ransom, meeting the chef (who passed on his regards for the restaurateurs of Arzak, see below) and receiving the personalized menu stamped with an Azurmendi seal.

In the final analysis, the meal is worth its weight in gold (about 165€ all in). Perhaps moreso in the experience (e.g. the garden tour; the immaculate service) but maybe not entirely in the food, which had some highlights but some disappointments as well. Especially on the first pass, it is an essential place to dine at for its beauty and philosophy. Does it need to be revisited at the going price, probably not.

Azurmendi, near Bilbao, 3 stars, 26th best restaurant in the world

 

Hazelnut, peanut, almond and mushroom leaf

Egg from our hens, cooked inside out and truffled
Tomato, cheese and basil tartlet

Roasted lobster out of the shell on oil herbs and sweet chives

Roasted squid on its juice and its ink sponge [originally Traditional fisherman style charcoal-grilled rice]

Duck Royal “a l’orange” and orange blossom aroma

“Kokotxas” with tomatoes

Pigeon, deuxelle and truffle

Strawberry and roses

Egg and dairy products; Farmhouse milk ice cream, butter toffee, “homemade Eggs”, milk skin and gelée of yogurt

Petits fours

135€

 A bus took us to San Sebastian, the heart of Basque country and one of the first travel destinations of wealthy people, preferred for its temperate climate so the rich could wear out their best fashions. San Sebastian is still a huge tourist destination, but because of the esoteric interests it satisfies, it is unencumbered by the masses. Needless to say, the Mandarins, who have discovered Barcelona en masse, have missed this pearl only an hour away by flight. The main reason to go is, of course, for the Michelin stars. The most per capita, apparently. But before any stars, experience the run-off effect of star status on pedestrian food. The transformation is outstanding. The lowly “tapas” style of eating that has given rise to potato bravas (i.e. Spanish poutine) take on foodie status. In fact, they even have a different name. In these parts, they’re called pintxos. The best is La Cuchara de San Telmo, a narrow eatery that doesn’t have a phone number. Some star dishes are the perfectly al dente orzo mushroom risotto with a dash of goat cheese, the gargantuan slice of seared foie gras on apple compote and a beautifully pink slice of rib-eye. With drinks, it comes out to 20€. Only in San Sebastian.

La Cuchara de San Telmo

In this tiny tapas bar, foodies of all shapes and sizes rush to get a slice of Basque heaven. Of them, is Raphael, head chef of Dubai’s La Petite Maison (see Dubai guide). Out of the blue, he asked us what was good, and we recommended everything we had. We got into a foodie discussion. Three-star was not his style, he says. Instead, he prefers simple food. One small problem: Raphael owns the 81st best restaurant in the world. It is called La Petite Maison, in Dubai. I was delighted because in an attempt to cover the top 100 restaurants in the world, I had already reserved his simpleton restaurant for my short leg in Dubai. We swapped emails and he told us to arrive hungry in Dubai. Again, only in San Sebastian. His words, not mine.

The next day, in an affront to Raphael’s code, we went to Arzak. It is the most notable of all of San Sebastian’s three-stars, of which there are four. It is largely responsible for bringing Spain into the foodie spotlight, as the first restaurant to earn three stars from the French guide. Now Spain is at the forefront. Going to two three-star restaurants two days in a row might be categorized as excessive behaviour. But purpose was juxtaposition. Compared to Azurmendi, Arzak is an ugly hole in the wall. It is cramped, service is slow, there is no show-and-tell. The price is much higher at 189€, though that hasn’t stopped people from filling the restaurant completely. “Everyone in San Sebastian has been here,” proclaimed head chef Juan Mari Arzak, who runs the family affair with his daughter Elena Arzak Espina who came out to greet us.

 The menu is a four-hour hostage situation, so loose belts and scarce plans are a good idea. The amuse bouches are rather anti-climactic, especially against Azurmendi’s selection. Some similarities are noticeable: thin marinated carrots with ssamjang and jamon on a stick. The jamon corks a gazpacho, though the raspberry and apple make the fruity difference. The most visually spectacular dish is the chorizo wrapped in mango soaked in citrus “tonic”. It sits in the dimpled contour on the bottom of a crushed Schweppes can. Cool. But in taste, all reliably unmemorable. The real food begins with the famous beet-dyed apple paper over foie gras. The filmy and soft apple is still texturally responsive against the creamy foie gras. Strips of orchid flower on a light pimento sauce accentuate the clever balance. Foie gras comes back indulgently in stone-shaped pockets of tea and coffee flavored caramelized onion, shaped by manioc hydrated with huitlacoche. It manages not to be over-powering. A nicely cooked lobster wears a star crepe as a crown while dipping in a pool of tomato seeds. This is Arzak at its best: the sauce is deceptively simple but works in a citrusy edge into the lobster.  The next dish is probably the highlight of the meal. It’s designed to look like tomorrow’s breakfast. But the egg is slow-poached, oozing in flavor. More importantly, gargonzola is disguised as ham, and pairs with egg just as well. The fish is confidently cooked, with resplendent paper-thin veggies as sides. Even a stray pistachio packs a popping flavor. The sea bass is playfully served on a video of the sea, though it might be considered frivolous. The ribeye is especially tasty, its own fatty sweets accentuated by the paper thin caramelized vegetables and rainbow coloured couscous. The pigeon is perfectly cooked, paired with an abrasive puréed grape seeds that ran slow on the tongue. Of course, a playful stack of “seeds” lie in the background.

The dessert begins with the anticipated “big truffle”; the name is a good start. A giant asteroid-like object arrives, only to be deformed by hot chocolate poured atop tableside. The chocolate disintegrates slowly. The planned result is achieved: pieces of chocolate truffle in all sorts of sizes, lying in a puddle of syrup. This is the best chocolate dish I’ve had. To balance the sweet, a black lemon shell reveals a creamy lime-green innards – a kinder surprise in San Sebastian. Some anti-climactic, half-melted chocolate and basil ice creams are served.  Thankfully, the meal is saved by some bolts and nuts of sweets organized in a “ferreteria,” a hardware store. So the most expensive meal (225€ all in) ends with a weighty bill of honour. Was it worth it?

The food, indeed, was exceptional. Unlike Azurmendi, there were no missteps. However, any exceptional moments were also rare. The taste was rarely influenced by the molecular gastronomy that has iconized Basque cuisine.  Any flourishes seem to have been isolated to presentation: the range of colours, the video of the sea. Indeed, the price tag is too much for what was essentially a very tasty tasting menu. Go to Azurmendi for the experience. Or better yet, go to Narisawa in Tokyo.

Arzak, San Sebastian; 3 stars, 8th best restaurant in the world

Scorpion fish mousse with kataifi

Chorizo with tonic [mango]

Marinated anchovy and strawberry

Bitter raspberry [tomato, apple; corked by melon and hamon]

“Gilda” of carrots and ssamjang

Beet root blood apple. Apple injected with beetroot accompanied by creamy foie gras and potato “Mother of pearl”

“Cromlech” Onion coffee tea manoic

Lobster “Sea and Garden”. Grilled lobster with a crispy star shaped crepe and fresh greens [crispy cucuma]

Light ovolacto. Poached egg cooked at low temperature served with crispy milk and sacha inchi [gargonzola]

Red mullet. [miss print]

Fish steak with potatoes. Fillet of seabass lightly marinated with gin and served with several flavours of potatoes

Pigeon and seeds. Breast over a selection of dried fruits accompanied by an elaboration of seeds like pumpkin, grape or sunflower

Lamb with plaster and Jerusalem artichoke. Lamb served with roasted and plastered Jerusalem artichoke, fried manioc, and their joice

The Big Truffle. Large cocoa and sugar truffle with a creamy chocolate and carob filling

Black lemon. Crispy black lemon image with a sweet citrus cream interior sprinkled with the same fruit

Ice-cream assortment

189€

Bodegón Alejandro

It is easy to eat cheaply in San Sebastian. Bodegón Alejandro, a subterranean eatery, serves a three-course meal with wine and water for 16€ a person. It’s reliably good with a touch of fine-cuisine, like squid in murky squid ink, and streaks of strawberry reduction with yogurt and brownie chunks. At Sebastian, a seaside restaurant recommended by Raphael, fresh fish and prawns are simply cooked and adorned with lemon (~20€ each). It shows how simplicity is so underrated. For more pintxos, go to the grimy Astelena  (Calle de Iñigo 1, cheap) and bite into piping hot pistachio croqueta or slurp foie gras flavoured risotto.

Sebastian

Astelena 

All this gastronomical galavanting can induce guilt. So rent a bike (16E a day at Ciclos Luma) and take a tour of San Sebastian on the miles of bike paths that surround the city. Most importantly, take your bike up to Mount Igueldo via the funicular (5€) and breeze down the winding streets. Along the way, you will see the beaches, the original tourist attraction. For a tougher ride, climb to the hospital counter-clockwise and, again, breeze down the street back to city centre (http://www.donostia.org/info/ciudadano/t_bicis.nsf/fwHome?ReadForm&idioma=cas&id=A434305447891). Afterwards, take a boat out to Santa Clara Island. It is an uninhabited wilderness with unkempt trails and breathtaking views. Tickets are sold on the south side pier (4€). The island takes about 30 minutes to complete. Back on the mainland, the San Telmo Museoa is a trip through Basque history. The juxtaposition of the new swiss-cheese grey-washed building with the well-preserved Dominican convent is reminiscent of Basque sensibilities. Don’t miss the Sert canvasses that are fiery wallpaper for the church that show the various components of Gipuzkoa society. The art gallery is small but filled with treasures, ranging from medieval to modern art.

It is difficult to think of a destination that is so rich in art and culture, is affordable, is small and manageable yet is undiscovered by the masses. The food is the major attraction and the selection is wide enough to please any demographic (except maybe the chicken-finger gobblers). But more than that, it is a beautiful coastal city with all the modern luxuries without the quotidian stress. It feels a world away from Barcelona.

Andalusia: a cultural palimpsist (Seville, Malaga, Granada)

View from Alhambra, Granada

Spain. The frontier of the Mediterranean, the centre of political upheaval, the first modern-day tourist destination, the former empire and colonizer of south America, the sun-bathed country-side and beaches, the birthplace of modern art, the epicenter of gastronomy, the profligate spenders, the home of youth unemployment. This country is not easily generalized, or stereotyped. Culturally, the relatively small country is far from congruent. The two most powerful economic regions are not very Spanish at all. The Basque country, home of new-Basque cuisine that has tilted the world of gastronomy, was settled by Germans. The mountainous ranges near Bilbao and San Sebastian will invoke images of Switzerland or Austria.  The nearby region of Catalonia, centered by Barcelona, has a language closer to French. Neither of the inhabitants of these regions would call themselves “Spanish”.

Metropol Parasol, Seville

 The Spain that we know and wins Fifa World Cups is very much defined by Madrid, the landlocked city plopped in the middle of everything. This capital, we can confidently say, is Spanish. Everything around the edges is a bit varied. It seems like the Spanish can take a vacation to all corners of the world without leaving their own country. We began the Spain trip in Andalusia, the southern region. The area is a stone throw from North Africa, and so was in history once dominated by Muslim moors. The Arab culture lasted late into the 15th century, leaving behind a strong Arab style to the architecture. The cities to visit here are Seville, Granada, Malaga and Cordoba. They’re all day-trip cities an hour or so away from each other.

Seville is the stateliest of the cities, best known as the titular city in Rossini’s comedic opera. It is a good candidate for arrival given its relatively large airport. The main area of interest is the old-city, a cheap and cheery, vibrant rendition of the Spanish life. It is easily mistakable with a small Portuguese coast-town with narrow streets lined by dwarfed buildings in danger of toppling over. In the middle of everything is the Metropol Parasol, a hard-to-miss structure that expresses the Spanish love for modern art and architecture. It is looks like a supersized intersecting wood-cutout in a monochromatic version of Avatar forest. The Alcazar of Seville is a Moorish fort turned royal palace. Muslim architecture is apparent in the vibrant shades of blue, the lofty arches and walls overridden with engraved script. Another decidedly cool thing to do is to knock on the gates of convents and buy from them nun-made treats. For example, Convento de Santa Paula sells jars of jam. For a full list, http://www.tripadvisor.com/Travel-g187443-c105097/Seville:Spain:Convent.Sweets.Dulces.html. For a detailed tour, see the recent 36 hours in Seville post, dated April 10, 2014, http://www.nytimes.com/2014/04/13/travel/36-hours-in-seville-spain.html?_r=0.

Río Darro, Granada

From there, a three-hour train ride takes you to Granada, the last stronghold of the Muslims before it was lost to the Kingdoms of Castile and Aragon in 1492. Until you see it, it is the city of lore – a European city that seems to have belonged to another place and time. At its centre is Alhambra, the mythical fort and pleasure palace that Boabdil, the leader of the Moors, had sighed at before handing it over to Catholics. Salman Rushdie, the death-listed artist, had written The Moor’s Last Sigh, that had made the Red Fort seem almost unworldly:

View of Alhambra from Mirador de san Nicolas

“And so I sit here in the last light, upon this stone, among these olive- trees, gazing out across a valley towards a distant hill; and there it stands, the glory of the Moors, their triumphant masterpiece and their last redoubt. The Alhambra, Europe’s red fort, sister to Delhi’s and Agra’s — the palace of interlocking forms and secret wisdom, of pleasure-courts and water-gardens, that monument to a lost possibility that nevertheless has gone on standing, long after its conquerors have fallen; like a testament to lost but sweetest love, to the love that endures beyond defeat, beyond annihilation, beyond despair; to the defeated love that is greater than what defeats it, to that most profound of our needs, to our need for flowing together, for putting an end to frontiers, for the dropping of the boundaries of the self. Yes, I have seen it across an oceanic plain, though it has not been given to me to walk in its noble courts. I watch it vanish in the twilight, and in its fading it brings tears to my eyes.”

El Huerto de Juan Ranas

Indeed, the gigantic stone structure, lit up appears like a castle in the sky. It is best viewed from the restaurant El Huerto de Juan Ranas, or the adjacent plaza Mirador de san Nicolas (free). 100€ for two buys admission to dinner with a view. We made reservations day-of and got ledge-side seats for coming a bit early. The food was delicious. Begin with a refreshing Gazpacho, a traditional Spanish dish originating out of Andalusia to offset its hot summers. This one dish would make several reprises over the week. Then silky foie gras wrapped with melon and topped with torched caramel. A raunchy lamb tagine is a little too chewy at times. For dessert, a few chocolate truffles, a molten chocolate cake and a scoop of basil. The restaurant reverberates the qualities of fine food, like the butterfly wings drawn in mango and strawberry syrup in the dessert. And while the food comes slowly, the darkness settles in, showing the Moorish fort in a new light.

Intricate dome in Alhambra

As you might stare pensively at the glorious structure, and perhaps let out a small sigh, there will be an unbearable inkling to visit it. Tickets sell out in advance so reserve online. Then go to a Caixa ATM to pick up the tickets (15.4€). The inside of the palace is so splendid that it, itself, justifies the trip to Andalusia. Most important is the Nasrid Palaces, the equivalent of Seville’s Alcazar on steroids. Looking at the carefully chiselled roof is like starring at the stars. Resplendent tiles, marble floors, the quiet drizzle of running fountains, gleaming stain glass windows and stone that has lost its blue colour to the test of time – this palace must have been the envy of all its contemporaries. It manages to surprise and delight even the most seasoned royal palace visitor. It is special.

To witness the true multicultural nature of Granada before the Catholic invasion, go to al-Yahud Garnata, Granada of the Jews. For some food and drinks, there is Campo del Principe. Then climb up to the Sephardic Museum at Placeta Berrocal 5 (5€). The museum wins the worst museum of the trip award, but the trip up there affords a beautiful view of the city.

View of Malaga from Alcazaba

A one-hour bus ride takes you to Malaga, a relatively ugly coastal city with a decent sized airport. Its beaches have been labeled unsanitary; its river-canal has dried up to reveal a slew of garbage. It was the birthplace of Picasso, though even he never went back after leaving at a young age. The Museo Picasso is probably worth seeing. A nice view of the city can be found at the Alcazaba, accessible by the infrequent bus 35 so plan ahead. Walk along the beach Costa del Sol, which takes a reasonably naturalistic approach. Then go into the park that runs along Paseo del Parque for a seriously green artificial garden.

By now, you will be inkling to get out of this troubled city. A perfect spot is the Villa Guadalupe hotel and Amador restaurant inside. The room and meal are cheap but the taxi to town costs about 15€ and the trip to the airport is 25€. The views of suburban Spain and the Mediterranean are spectacular from this mountain-top resort. The meal begins with an unexpected serving of Gyoza, dipped in a light vinegary sauce. Then lush greens on creamy avocado and slices of pork. Then, as is a specialty in these parts, a skin-on seabass on potatos, taziki spread and poached tomatoes. Surprisingly, the fish was not the freshest, perhaps because it was a Monday. 60€ for 2 people.

Andalusia is the sun-bathed touristy destination with trills from Muslim architecture. The only essential site is Alhambra, the impressive and gorgeous palace that deserves a longwinded sigh. Add a few other cities, cheap sangria and acceptable, cheap food, and a relaxing, if not eventful, destination arises.

Bangkok under Curfew

Traffic Jam near Siam

I had the pleasure, and luck, of picking Bangkok as my final travel destination before returning to Canada over the tumultuous days of the bloodless coup d’état that has recently ravaged the country. The military, which holds extra-congressional an extra-judicial power in Thailand, imposed martial law in the capital on May 20th to control pro-democratic riots. My fear of traveling was further validated when the army enacted a full-blown coup d’état a few days later. The biggest fear would have been a full-scale shutdown of the airport over the 48 days I was there, trapping me in a politically unstable country until further notice. This scenario played out in in 2008 (http://etravel.org/news/4381/). A similar coup d’état also happened in 2006. In many ways the recent turn of events was met with a business-as-usual attitude. 

In my two days in Bangkok, I did not see one military personnel. I did not witness any violence, or enforcement of the 10pm curfew. The only change seems to be the persistently profiteering taxi-drivers who use the curfew as an excuse to over-charge. In some ways Thailand was an improvement over the perpetual military-ruled country I came from. A $10 sim card granted me unlimited access to Facebook, Google and New York Times; I felt unshackled from my chains as I entered into the supposedly tumultuous state. As I entered my hotel room, many of the TV channels were indeed blocked. All that you could watch were talent shows with scantily clad girls with skin too white to be natural, or sports - the opium of the masses, or HBO’s newest episode of Game of Thrones. Censorship, of course, is problematic. But again, it is completely normal in these parts.

What Saket

Bangkok conjures a wide-ranging and often opposing list of stereotypes. First off are ping-pong shows against saintly shrines. Second is rickety tuk-tuks driving through an architectural hotspot brimming in modern art. The final might be fly infested markets and splendid foliage. It turns out the city is not the poster child of these stereotypes as tourists might hope for. It is a fairly normal city, as evidenced by its recent emergence in the world foodie scene (taking 6 of the top 50 spots in Asia). Through all my gallivanting, it was hard to witness anything borderline weird (admittedly, I could not witness the atmosphere at night given the curfew). As a point of comparison, the innuendo-filled Akihabara district in Tokyo was much more outwardly suggestive than any district in Thailand. 

The river in front of Wat Arun

Of course there is the famed Khao San road, which has gained international recognition as a backpacker’s capital. The area is unconnected by public transportation and is not worth visiting unless you want to see big white guys in tank tops. But the area around there is filled with goodies: the Wat Saket (Golden Mount) reaches for the heavens and provides an excellent view of the city (closes 17:30), the stately Grand Palace (closes 15:30), the paired Wat Pho (reclining buddha) and the Wat Arun (Temple of Dawn) across the river. The blistering heat and humidity is dangerous. The shacks selling iced milk teas (the thai version is orange) and freshly squeezed juices are the oasis, as are trains and taxis. As tempting as a tuk-tuk is, you will regret it. The last important sight in this part of town is Chinatown, where you can get a huge, stinking Durian fruit. Just don’t bring it into a taxi or a subway station.

Som Tam at Or Tor Kor

The aforementioned sights are all tourist-ridden (though less-so given the coup when I went), forming the west side of Bangkok. Arguably, the cooler parts of the city can be found in the centre and east sides - connected by sky train and metro. Note that the sky train and metro tickets are in general more expensive than taxis. However, they are faster during rush hour. For example, take the dark blue line to Chatuchak, a market that is open on the weekends. If you’re there on a weekday, then you can at least go to Or Tor Kor (directions: take the dark blue line to Kamphaeng Phet station and exit number 3) which is a farmer’s market. Most sources suggest getting a som tam, a green papaya salad. In the middle of town, connected by the Sky Train over the stops “National Centre” and “Siam” is the glitzy (and most congested) part of Bangkok. It is filled with high-end hotels, brand names, and signs that have Chinese, English but no Thai. Of course, shopping in Thailand is no fun so you can go to Bangkok Art and Culture Centre, which currently has a cool exhibit on architecture by Foster + Partners. They’re the firm that designed the bullet-looking building in London, A few blocks away is the Buddhist sanctuary of Erawan Shrine lost in the hustle and bustle of the capitalist sanctuary of Siam square. 

Sri Nakhon Khuean Khan Park

Without a doubt the most enlightening experience in Bangkok was going to Bang Krajao - a patch of land south of the river. Getting here is not difficult but requires a little adventurism. Exit the Khlong Toei MRT and take a taxi to the Wat Khlong Toei Nok Pier (g: Wat Khlong Toei Nok Pier). The taxi will drop you off at customs for a port. But head towards the Buddhist shrine and then you will notice the passenger pier. From there, a tiny motorboat with a single driver will ferry you and other commuters to Bang Krajao, where you need to rent a bicycle (100 baht/day). On a weekend you can go to the floating market but otherwise there is a peaceful park called Sri Nakhon Khuean Khan Park that is well kept and looks out of place in its lowly, dilapidated surroundings. But bike a little more and you see some wooden bridges that are crumbling under their own weight. I wouldn’t recommend you go over one but I did. The worst case is falling into a moss-infested pond.

But back to the real reason I came to Bangkok. It seems like within a year, it has overtaken Tokyo as the foodie capital of Asia, taking both first and third spot in the San Pellegrino Top 50 Restaurants award. Indeed, I was hoping that it would be the San Sebastian of Asia, a bastion of innovative Asian cuisine in a city known for less fine things. In general the food was excellent and some accolades are deserved. But none of the restaurants come even close to Narisawa, the Tokyo restaurant that was booted down to second by Nahm. I booked five of the six restaurants in the top 50, the real reason why cancelling this trip would be unpopular. At the same time, my iPhone literally fell from grace, leaving the main camera unable to focus and leaving in its stead only the front facing camera. Overnight, I became an expert in the “selfie” though the image quality is not at its best. But at least it allowed me to focus on the food instead of showing it off.

Nahm 1100 baht Set

 

Pineapple triangle topped with chilli, pork, peanut and prawn

Prawn and coconut      wafers with pickled ginger

Blue swimmer crab      with peanuts and pickled garlic on rice cakes

Green curry of chicken with thai eggplants and basil

Deep fried grouper with fish sauce

Salad of fresh river prawns with pork and asian pennywort

Thai dessert [mangosteen, lychee]

 

It begins with the amuse-bouche that is on everyone’s blog - a pineapple triangle (“Ma Hor”) topped with chilli, pork, peanut and prawn. I appreciate what Nahm is trying to do here. It stays true to Thai cooking and uses traditional ingredients and replicates traditional flavours. Unfortunately, as this amuse-bouche already shows, the cooking fails to push the envelope far enough. It’s just a ball of sweet on top of a sourish fruit. A few courses later, you wonder if anything interesting has happened. There is excellent, shattering crunch of the “coconut wafers” and a fresh salad of ginger and prawns inside. The rice cake offers much less texture discovery. Unfortunately, it is mostly downhill from here. The deep fried grouper is hopelessly dry, and again, boring. It amounts to a glorified deep-fried fish in vinegar. The green curry offers little new. The dessert is somewhat redemptive, especially the lychee soaked in a icy, sugary water. Unfortunately, the meal was far from the best meal in Asia. This experience reveals some telling things about the 50 best restaurants list. Most simply, it is one opinion as is mine. It is also dependent on mindset and experience. I went for lunch and could not order anything spicy. Perhaps the spicier dinner options are more inventive. For example, a guinea fowl comes highly recommended that was not on the prix-fixe. Maybe I ordered the wrong things or played it too safe. Furthermore, the top 50 restaurant guide might better be named the 50most talked about restaurants. It often rewards names that are controversial instead ones that are good by consensus. Nahm’s main controversy was how a white man could bring Thai food back to Thailand. After consulting other reviews from other bloggers, I am happy my concerns are echoed everywhere. There is no wow-factor. It leaves me wondering how this can be the best restaurant in Asia.

 

Taste of Gaggan 1800 Baht

Street Eats from India: Yogurt Chaat, Samosa, Spiced nuts in an edible plastic bag, pain puri

Viagra: Freshly shcuked oyster, spiced marinated apple and Yuzu chutney with lemon air

Sandwich: Foie gras mousse, onion water baguette, onion chutney and hazelnut candy

Down to Earth: Summer vegetables: asparagus, morels, mushrooms, artichokes with 62 degree C egg yolk and truffle, chill air

River King: Fresh water prawn grilled in a tandoor with a curry leaf infusion and mango chutney

Keema Pav (Lamb Ragout): Minced lamb curry with dehydrated tomato bread and chutney

Bong Connection: Red mullet in green chill herb marinade with Bengali mustard, sweet potato, all spice gel

British National Dish: Home-style chicken tikka masala accompanied by naan bread

Made in Japan: White sesame cake, wasabi ice cream and miso leaves

Divine: Fresh Mahachanok mango with cardamom ice cream, pistachio gnocchi and yogurt cookie

 

Dubbed “progressive Indian,” this experiment in molecular gastronomy is rated the best Indian restaurant in the world. Its only criticism might be that it isn’t very Indian. How is Foie gras even Asian at all? Yet from the first bite - a Yogurt Chaat with an raw egg consistency - you know the meal will be special. This amuse-bouche turns molecular, using techniques from Spain, giving the chaat a thin membrane. When it breaks, an eruption of traditional indian flavours break loose and serenade every point in the mouth. Fast forward to the controversial foie gras dish. the “baguette” is made of onion water - a foam that dissipates in your mouth, leaving just the succulent duck mousse. Then a perfectly cooked “62 degree” egg comes in a stone bowl with copious servings of mushrooms and truffles. The egg alone, the sunny yolk running lusciously, makes the dish. The meal continues to be interesting - with a good sense of humour too: one dish is named “Viagara,” presumably for the aphrodisiac in the oyster; another is named “British National Dish”, alluding to how the tikka masala chicken is more widely eaten than fish and chips. At time, the food feels almost too experimental. The pistachio gnocchi, for example, misses on flavour and the slobbering of concentrated mango feels anything but fine. And indeed, some dishes are not Indian at all. But perhaps that’s not the point (one dish is called “Made in Japan”). This menu is about Gaggan, the chef, who is adept at Indian cooking. But when he successfully puts in dishes from other cuisines, I am not complaining.

 

Issaya ~1300 Baht à la Carte

Yum Hua Plee: Banana blossom and heart of palm salad, crispy shallots and roasted peanuts a chill jam dressing

Gai aob: All natural Sankhaburi chicken “Issaya-spiced” rubbed and charcoal grilled 

Wok sautéed short grain rice with “Hed por”: Asian multi grains, shanghai mushrooms and garlic sprinkled with mushroom-scented oil

 

In an environment quite like Bo.lan, situated near a well-off gated community in a white mansion, Issaya Siamese Club comes right out of colonial times (though Thailand was never colonized). The most famous dish of them all - a salad with banana blossom and heart of palm with lots of nuts and strips of crispy shallots, is addictive. The ingredients seem like they are from another world, and to most of us, they are. Then, flaming whisky is poured over grilled chicken, rubbed with a strong but not spicy mix. It is a lot of chicken, best eaten with pot-sticking rice with mushrooms. The chicken starts off tender and juicy. After a while, it turns a bit dry but you’re done eating by then. Another fun dining experience, thanks to Thai cuisine.  

 

srabra by kiin kiin ~ 1300 baht à la Carte, lunch

Kaffir lime leaf scented lotus Root 

Prawn Cracker with Chilli tomato Dip [prawns, garlic, dried prawns, chill, tomato]

Soy roasted cashew nut meringe [soy sauce, sugar, cashew nut]

Frozen red curry [Red curry paste, lobster, lychee, lemon juice, chill, coriander, keffir lime, Lychee foam]

Tom Kha Soup with Quail and Sauteed mushrooms [Quail, mushrooms, tapioca, coconut milk, galangal] 

 

My favourite of the restaurants in Bangkok, not least because of its preference for the modern. It is an offshoot of Kiin Kiin (Copenhagen), the only Thai restaurant to have a michelin star. Srabra is in the ritzy Kapensky hotel in Siam square, as ‘downtown’ as it gets. And in Bangkok, you can eat at a fraction of the price in Copenhagen. To start are three amuse-bouches. A crunchy deep-fried lotus root sprinkled with sugar. A prawn cracker dipped in a airy but defined tomato paste. Finally a sweet and salty piece of soy cashew meringue. To begin, a modern take on the widely eaten red curry. Except it is frozen. Giant pieces of lobster in a lemon juice share a helmet-shaped bowl with a scoop of red curry ice cream. The “inside” of the bowl is filled with liquid nitrogen, which regulates the temperature of the curry and more importantly, looks cool. Between the liquid nitrogen and the lychee foam, it feels a bit like digging for treasure in some ancient hot-spring. The prize is curry-soaked lobster, in a cool sauce - a perfect antidote for the heat. The next dish is just as heavenly. It is a (again) modern take on the traditional Tom Kha (Coconut) soup. Instead of chicken, a tender quail is used, sitting with mushrooms and tapioca. The beauty of this dish is how defined each of the strips of ingredients (either quail or mushroom) are, each maintaining its own flavour and pairing together perfectly. The coconut milk with hints of galangal (a ginger) does not ruin the integrity of the quail as if the quail is water-proof. Instead, the sauce adds a gentle, milky touch. This is an inspired meal.

 

Bo.lan balance 1980 Baht

Welcome Drink - Chilled Lemongrass & Pandanus.

Ya dong grachai dum served with sour fruits

Bo.lan amuse bouche

Single plate of the day - prawn

Salad of chicken, pork & prawn with grilled banana blossom served with chill dressing

Central-plain chill relish of Andaman shrimp paste and acacia leaf omelet & local greens

Quail

Green curry of “KU” beef

Bo.lan clear soup

Bo.lan dessert du jour

Petit fours to accompany your cup of Bo.lan blend

Bo.lan blend: Chiang Mai tea with spices, mint, ginger & honey

 

Bo.lan is the most traditional of the five, serving course after course of traditional Thai fare. As you step out of the humid Thai climate and enter into this nice cottagey restaurant, you are given a refreshing welcome drink - a Chilled Lemongrass & Pandanus water. The main ingredient is the extract from the Pandanus flower, which is a bit like coconut - sweet and nutty. Then another two drinks come as part of the set course. The “whisky” is much too boozy but another serving of Pandanus water is again, refreshing. There was also an odd selection of sour fruits that were much too sour and chilli crumble and salt that didn’t seems to be useful. Five amuse-bouches, are served. Many follow the sweet-stuff on weird Thai fruit formula. Most of them work - the succulent ramboutin fruit topped with a chewy prawn. Using the amuse-bouches, the restaurant solicits your spiciness tolerance. Apparently, I was intolerant. The set menu appropriately caters to the uninitiated like me - not by putting less spice in a dish, but rather by making a new dish together. I was that the dishes were not being changed or compromised because of a personal weakness. After a final starter of chilli relish with a omelette inside a “acacia” leaf, the real onslaught begins - salad, soup, curry, rice - all served together. It is a mountain of food and choosing what to try next is mentally difficult. It turns out to be a lot of fun. Picking apart the dense quail with your fingers while pouring green curry over the brown rice, and of course digging into the traditional thai salad - full of coriander and sweet and sour sauce. The food itself is top notch, though the point of this meal is not to deconstruct or necessarily push the boundaries. It is traditional Thai recipes cooked properly with good ingredients. More importantly, Bo.lan is a comfortable experience with thoughtful service and lots of food to eat. 

Most fruits you will not have seen before, except maybe at Chinese supermarkets. See http://www.frangipani.com/wordpress/thai-fruits/ for a pretty comprehensive guide. First, a purple Mangosteen, which looks like a plum with a four-leaf cover atop. It opens up to fibonacci-perfect cloves of juicy white fruit - the perfect mix of sweet and sour to some. It is the subject of a splendid NYT article that expresses the power of food in some people’s lives (http://www.nytimes.com/2003/09/24/dining/forbidden-fruit-something-about-a-mangosteen.html?src=pm&pagewanted=2&pagewanted=all). Particularly fascinating to me is the scientific beauty in the fruit - like how the number of petals at the bottom match the number of cloves inside. Also, the ease of opening it up, and the balance in flavours all seem to possess an order. If the Mangosteen is the queen of fruits, then the durian is the king. This prickly, ugly and smelly fruit could be used as a weapon or at least a practical joke. I have not tasted one out of cowardice but I’ve heard it is creamy. Then there is the Rambutan, which looks a bit scary - like a hairy deepsea shellfish or something. It opens up and tastes like a lychee (which is also prevalent in these parts).  A very sweet fruit with a plushy texture and lots of seeds is called a custard apple. It tastes nothing like an apple. Of course, there is the watermelon, and the mango. In short, the fruits here are worth writing about.

So despite all the fears, going to Bangkok was actually liberating. It undid the shackles of the Chinese government for a quick few days. While the coup erupted in the background, not a single weapon could be seen. Nor any soldiers. The politics here are a nightmare. The heat is unbearable. But somehow it attracts adventure-seekers again and again. After seeing the youthful atmosphere and the opposing dichotomies that make this place hard to generalize, it makes a lot of sense.

Accessibility: The predominant language is Thai, though most people have a working knowledge of English, especially in nicer areas. Taxi drivers, generally, do not speak English. Google maps often accepts Romanized Thai and conveniently spit out the location in Thai, which you can show to the taxi drivers. Rarely will you have to enter directions in Thai into Google maps. Sim cards are available at the airport for about 300 Baht. Taxis are cheaper than subway and light rail, but subway and light rail are faster in congested periods. Always use the metered rate in Taxis. Some drivers will ask for a negotiated charge. There are enough taxis that you should be able to find one that is metered.