The last column by the NY Times' esteemed food critic. Mumbai's Trishna figures.
An Epicurean Pilgrimage: Meals Worth the Price of a Plane Ticket
By R. W. APPLE Jr.
Published: October 22, 2006
Editor's Note: R. W. Apple filed this article shortly before his death on Oct. 4. Originally assigned to be part of a special issue on travel and food, it reflects a lifetime of experiences of a man who once referred to himself, when interviewed by Calvin Trillin for The New Yorker, as "more gourmand than gourmet," one who took equal pleasure in Michelin-starred restaurants and the street food of Singapore.
AFTER half a century of assiduous eating in restaurants around the world, first avocationally and more recently professionally, I have become accustomed to certain questions: "What's your favorite restaurant?" "What will you order for your last meal on earth?" "Which is best — French cuisine? Italian? Chinese?" All unanswerable, of course. Now comes a more modest proposition: Name 10 restaurants abroad that would be worth boarding a plane to visit, even in these fraught days.
O.K. Here's my list. Please note, this is neither an enumeration of my favorites (though some of those are included) nor a ranking of the world's best (like those fatuous lists put out each year by Restaurant magazine in London). Rather than reciting a long list of two- and three-star gastronomic temples, I have chosen purlieus both grand and small, better to reflect my own eating habits. And rather than loading up my list with French and Italian addresses, I have arbitrarily restricted my choices to one per country, for much the same reason. I would expect no one else to choose the same 10, but on the other hand, I would be astonished if many of my nominations disappointed.
Auberge du Cep, Place de l'Église;
(33-4) 7404-1077; http://perso.orange.fr/mercurebeaujolais/cep.htm
French country cooking — or bistro cooking, as its urban variant is called — deserves, but is not often accorded, a place among the world's culinary glories beside French haute cuisine. Based on regional products, honestly handled, "unfoamed and unfused" in the words of my friend Colman Andrews, late of Saveur magazine, it is the specialty of this small restaurant on the main square of a prettily named village in Beaujolais. It is a specialty unflinchingly embraced by its proprietor, Chantal Chagny, who five years ago banished lobster and truffles from her menu and turned her back on two Michelin stars in favor of the simpler dishes she adores, like herb-crusted, perfectly fried, never-frozen frogs' legs, crisp-edged sweetbreads, soup made of garden herbs, roast wild duck from a local river and rosy tenderloin of regional Charolais beef, France's best.
Love and skill are lavished on the simplest dishes — tiny, tender lamb chops, neglected freshwater fish like perch and pike-perch (sander), eggs poached in red wine (oeufs en meurette), toothsome squab, black currant sorbet, even snails — great fat ones, bubbling happily in their shells, bathed in garlic, parsley, butter and Pernod. Here is the food most of us travel to France to taste, and who can resist it once tasted? Here, too, are the little regional wines we search for — especially Beaujolais, 60 of them, including 30 from Fleurie itself, one of the 10 designated crus known for excellence.
SANT'AGATA SUI DUE GOLFI, ITALY
Don Alfonso 1890, corso Sant'Agata 11;
Americans of my vintage (b. 1934), weaned on the red-tablecloth food of the Italian south, were later taught that it was uncool, compared with the blander specialties of Milan and Venice. But we were also taught that in Italian cooking, the quality of ingredients is everything, and it is the south — the Mezzogiorno — that produces the juiciest fruits, the briniest clams and tuna, the best buffalo-milk mozzarella cheese, and the world's most sumptuous tomatoes, known as San Marzanos and raised near Mount Vesuvius, just south of Naples.
Alfonso and Livia Iaccarino (she of the zippy white patent-leather boots) grow herbs, lemons and peaches, artichokes and eggplants and, of course, prize tomatoes, plus the olives for their own tangy, fruity oil, in a sun-kissed garden facing the Isle of Capri near their restaurant on the Sorrento peninsula. In their lovely pastel dining room, they serve fresh, understated, unmistakably Italian food in great profusion — ravioli with caciotta (a sheep's milk cheese), wild marjoram, barely heated chopped tomatoes and basil; rolls of baby sirloin filled with raisins, pine nuts, parsley and garlic, atop a ragout of wild endive; rabbit simply but exquisitely grilled with herbs; squid and baby octopus of a very high caliber. The tufa cellar, first excavated by the Etruscans, is stocked with wines from all around the world.
SAN SEBASTIÁN, SPAIN
Arzak, Avenida Alcalde Jose Elosegui, 273; (34-943) 27-8465;
I'll take a pass here on El Bulli; for one thing, you don't need me to tell you about it, and for another, Arzak is more to my taste. It is nicely poised between an older, French-inspired style of innovation, as represented by Juan Mari Arzak, who trained in the nouvelle cuisine kitchen of the Troisgros brothers in Roanne (where I myself spent a few happy days long ago), and the new wave of ground-breaking Spanish cooking, as exemplified by Ferran Adrià and his disciples, including Mr. Arzak's daughter, Elena.
The result is an enriched, reinvigorated Basque cuisine that retains a sense of tradition and place. One fine Easter day, my wife, Betsey, and I ate our Paschal lamb — a custom throughout Christendom, and especially among the sheep-herding Basques — at the Arzaks' 110-year-old roadside tavern, rated three stars in the Michelin guide. Rather than run-of-the-mill gigot, however, a faintly gamy deboned chop came to the table wearing a tissuelike coffee-flavored "veil" — a taste-enhancing shroud made by baking a layer of café con leche between sheets of Silpat pan liner. With the pan juices poured over the meat, partly melting the "veil," you get a sauce remarkably reminiscent of American red-eye gravy.
Arzak's food is modern and entertaining like that, often witty, never overwrought, limited largely to local ingredients — white tuna, fresh figs, fino sherry. Or a hyperfresh egg, seasoned with house-made truffle oil, wrapped in plastic film, poached and served with a slim txistorra sausage made not just with the traditional paprika but with dates as well. The egg emerged looking a little like a flower, and cutting into the ravishingly milky white revealed a richly orange yolk. Magic.
BRUSSELS Comme Chez Soi,
Place Rouppe 23; (32-2) 512-2921;
I'm an unapologetic classicist, no particular fan of foams and chemical legerdemain in the kitchen (although I have maintained a fondness for the then-revolutionary cuisine of Haeberlin, Bocuse and Guérard since encountering it for the first time in the 1960's). I can still find refined food that tastes like what it is, to quote Curnonsky's maxim, at Paris three-stars like Taillevent, but no place there or elsewhere excels Comme Chez Soi in this genre — and at Comme Chez Soi you dine in a superb décor of warm, tawny wood in the style of the great Belgian practitioner of Art Nouveau, Victor Horta. Nor is price a minor matter: a set-price meal is served at lunch and dinner, for 67 euros (about $85, at $1.30 to the euro), no snip but a real bargain in these days of watery dollars.
There is originality, even alchemy, in Pierre Wynants's sole stuffed with crab, which comes to the table with shrimp in a tarragon sauce, but there is no trickery. Betsey and I feasted years ago on a saddle of lamb that was merely perfect, a triumph of technique.
Even on the small menu, generous to a fault, there is no dearth of imagination or regional and international inspiration; on one recent visit, it included a shimmering green pea soup with oxtail and Chimay beer, filets of eel with Espelette peppers from the Basque country, chicken with turmeric and apple chutney and the silkiest, most delicate floating island of my life, better even than my sainted grandmother's.
55 Jermyn Street, SW1; (44-207) 629-9955;
Clubbish in location, in looks and for the most part clubbish in clientele, wonderful Wilton's in fact affords a cheerful, courteous welcome to all who show up in properly sober clothes, ready to pay the sobering prices. The best English food (as opposed to the best food in England, which is so grandly cosmopolitan these days) is still that which has been least messed about with. That is just what Wilton's delivers. "Noted since 1742 for the finest oysters, fish and game," it says of itself, with every justification.
You might start with a half-dozen oysters. They will set you back a pretty penny, but then they are imposing creatures, five inches across, pale beige rather than silver-gray, in shells as flat as saucers. They come from West Mersea, on an island off the Essex coast, from beds that are harvested exclusively from rowboats, lest oil or gasoline pollute the waters. They are opened by London's best oysterman, Patrick Flaherty, a 40-year veteran when I last checked. None of the briny juices escape. No nasty bits of shell creep in. Then maybe a wild salmon from the Spey in Scotland (increasingly rare), or a snowy hunk of halibut — "a nice piece of fish," as I once heard Rex Harrison call it.
But whole Dover sole is the overwhelming choice of English connoisseurs: brushed with melted butter, sprinkled with salt and pepper, turned quickly on the grill so that the grill bars burn a dark lattice pattern into the fish, then cooked under the intense heat of the broiler for roughly 12 to 15 minutes. Perfectly simple, simply perfect and entirely sufficient. This is the porterhouse steak of fish. No sauce is needed, partly because cooking the fish whole ("on the bone") helps to keep it moist. You may well come across an occasional apostate who insists upon tartar sauce (much too robust, in my view) or hollandaise (too rich). In game season, both partridge and grouse are exemplary.
GOTHENBURG, SWEDEN Sjomagasinet,
Klippans Kulturreservat 5; (46-31) 775-5920;
I envy the Swedes their social conscience, their gift for design and urban planning and their fish. Especially their fish. And among their fish — sole, cod, plaice, scallops, langoustines — especially their unmatched herring. Leif Mannerstrom, who owns and cooks at this charming former warehouse of the Swedish East India Company, built on the waterfront in 1775, is so widely admired for his knowledge of things piscatorial that he is pictured on a national postage stamp, and more than 10,000 people come from all over Scandinavia each year for his Christmas-season feast of 16 herrings.
Matjes, pickled, fried or bathed in mustard-and-dill-sauce — the richly flavored herring — is, of course, available all year long at Sjomagasinet, to be devoured with well-aged, Cheddar-ish Vasterbotten cheese, with or without cumin, and icy draughts of O. P. Anderson, Gothenburg's favorite aquavit. And all year long, Mr. Mannerstrom turns out a definitive version of Janssons Frestelse, or Jansson's Temptation, a confection of scalloped potatoes, onions and herrings cured in the style of anchovies, which I find an inspired combination of salty and creamy flavors.
BUENOS AIRES Avenida Cabaña las Lilas,
Alicia Moreau de Justo 516; (54-11) 4313-1336;
I can hear you sputtering from here. What? Fly all night to Argentina to eat in a parilla when every big city in the United States boasts steakhouses promising (some even delivering) prime U.S.D.A. beef? Well, this is grass-fed beef, raised on the vast ocean of chlorophyll called the Pampas. It's different. Some, including me, would say better, with a rounder flavor, leaner texture and sweeter fat. You eat in a handsome wood-and-leather room in the redeveloped Puerto Madero docklands area, and drink from a wine-wall stocked with fine Mendoza reds like those of Nicolas Catena.
Octavio Caraballo, the owner, supplies all the beef from his own ranch, or estancia. We flew there with him — big guy, bigger cigar, even at 8 in the morning — on his private plane, admired the spread and ate beef (what else?) for lunch. The selection was bigger at dinner back in town, with medallón de lomo (tenderloin) and cuadril (rump) and ojo de bife (rib-eye) covering every inch of the big grills. Little "bombon" sausages and sweetbreads, too.
Warning: They will ply you with so many delicious breads, so many salads and such superb cheese and olives and peppers, that you might not be able to do justice to the beef. Which would be tragic.
3 Zhongshan Dong Yi Lu 1; (86-21) 6321-7733;
I have lived in Asia and eaten more than my share of Chinese food, Lord knows, but I remain a man of the West, not the East, and I still find the Chinese passion for "gristly, slithery and squelchy textures," as the English writer Fuchsia Dunlop calls them, hard to cope with. Delicacies like sea cucumber and bird's nest have little taste, Asian friends tell me, but great "kou gan," or mouth feel, which escapes me.
Hence I tread lightly here. I would happily fly to Shanghai to eat the seraphic — yes, seraphic — soup dumplings at Nan Xiang, or the snails with chopped, spiced pork at tiny Chun. But I would be more likely to go to Jean-Georges Vongerichten's glamorous place on the Bund, the best of all his places, in my view, where the food is a little Eastern, a little Western.
A year ago, as I reported in the Travel section, Betsey and I ate a nearly flawless meal there. A single Kumamoto oyster wreathed in Champagne jelly was followed by raw tuna brightened by Thai chili paste. Then cubed raw kingfish with Taiwanese mangoes and chili-lemon granita was utterly irresistible — peppery, sweet and acidic, yellow and orange and red, all at once. A second trio, equally satisfying, comprised crab dumplings with black pepper oil and tiny local peas; seared sweet scallops from Dalian, nestling with clams in a tomato jus; and superbly fresh snapper with crunchy cucumber strips. Vaut le voyage, as Michelin would have it.
MUMBAI, INDIA Trishna,
Birla Mansion, Sai Baba Marg, Fort; (91-22) 2270-3213.
This, I think, is the only truly remarkable restaurant I have ever discovered solely on the recommendation of a friend of a friend. Dubious, Betsey and I made our way there one night years ago and liked it so much that we went back 72 hours later. It was not the décor, which is shabby, or the service, which can be surly, and certainly not the menu, which is very nearly useless. It's the food, stupid, the seafood.
Enormous king crabs fresh from the Indian Ocean, awash in butter, and seasoned with garlic and pepper until they make the lips tingle but not sting, draw an eager crowd of Mumbai businessmen and Bollywood stars to this little establishment on a crowded, noisy alley in the old Fort district. If you like, your crab will be brought to the table before cooking, still alive and dangling from a string held by a waiter.
These are among the world's choicest crustaceans, and I say that as someone who lives 25 miles from the Chesapeake. But Ravi Anchan has plenty of other savory delights up his sleeve, including tender little pomfret (a kind of butterfish) barbecued in the style of Hyderabad, with black pepper; deep-fried squid; and gorgeous, never-frozen tiger prawns grilled with mint. Don't mind the waiters; insist and they will bring what you want.
SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA Billy Kwong,
3/355 Crown Street, Surry Hills;
Among Sydney chefs, Tetsuya Wakuda, with his confit of Tasmanian ocean trout, and Neil Perry of Rockpool, with his mud crabs, get most of the international ink, and rightly so; they are as gifted as any of their counterparts in Europe or America. But I would head from my Qantas jet for Billy Kwong, my favorite neighborhood restaurant (whose neighborhood, unfortunately, is exactly 9,758 miles from mine). This is the trim, dark, bustling domain of Kylie Kwong, a 36-year-old wunderkind whose mile-wide smile and black-framed glasses are as well known Down Under as is Jacques Pépin's cherubic face Up Here.
Her food is delicious, and her place gives off none of those Chinese-speakers-only vibes that plague us Anglophones; Ms. Kwong, Australian-born, speaks no Chinese herself. So order to your heart's content, in English, and flail away as the plates arrive, rat-a-tat: prawn wontons, little flavor bombs bursting with the tastes of shellfish, black vinegar and chili oil; star-anise-flavored tofu and black cloud-ear fungus, with Thai and Vietnamese herbs; chive crepes with smoky caramelized eggplant salad; steamed line-caught blue-eyed cod with ginger and shallots; spectacularly crisp-skinned duck with a sauce made from ruby grapefruit; and sung choi bao — wok-fried mouthfuls of moist, gingery pork and vegetables, wrapped in crisp lettuce leaves. The inspiration is Cantonese, absorbed by Kylie at her mother's table, but the execution is all her own.
I have shortchanged Turkey, Thailand and Japan. I know, and I apologize. Put it down to limited space and inadequate depth of knowledge. There should be enough here to hold you — hopefully to set you soaring — for a few weeks or months, or even years.