Is there something readily identifiable as Czech cuisine? Though I’ve spent time in Prague, I can’t for the life of me remember any food. (At that particular time in my life the city’s chief attractions wereÂ Kafka, Havel, and bottomless pitchers of Budvar.) Blame the Soviet Union, but I think if you put a gun to my head, I’d lump the Czechs in with every slavic variant of Eastern Europe: grey meat, grey veg, and some form of potato – lard binding it all together, natch. Not so much a cuisine as communism on a greasy plate. No wonder I’ve blocked out the memories behind an Iron Curtain. Yet as the Velvet Revolution proved all too well, sometimes change – like God – comes so quickly. Hospoda, a new restaurant on the ground floor of the Bohemian National Hall – itself a recently renovated holdout fromÂ theÂ days when New York’s Yorkville and Upper East Side were a hive of mittel-European emigration – is doing for Czech food what the PlasticÂ PeopleÂ of the Universe did for the CzechÂ people:Â expanding the perception of possibilities. And it starts, as you’d expect, with Czech beer. There’s no gettingÂ aroundÂ it as itÂ comesÂ to the table like an aperitif, whether you want it or not: lightly sweet pilsner with a creamy head of foam that’s so tasty you’ll toss aside the wine list and ask for a proper Krug-full. An appetizer of grilled hen of the woods is the nextÂ pleasantÂ surprise. On a bed of tuscan kale and topped by a perfectly cooked parmesan poached egg there’s a meaty earthiness to the dish, complemented by a slow flow of viscous yolk that pools in a puddle of chicken jus and creates a sauce I’d be happy to lap up as soup.Â Fried egg bread sounds like something Elvis might have conjured up: Prague-style smoked ham, mustard, pickles, horseradish and apple relish on rye bread, dipped in egg and pan-fried. It’s like the bastard child of a grilled cheese and a croque monsieur – and equally delicious. A crispy veal schnitzel is fork tender and surprisingly light – even with a Yukon gold puree that has more cream and butter than I Â generally consume in a week. TheÂ additionÂ of pickled baby beets is a deceptively smart idea, bringing another taste and texture to the plate and elevating whatÂ couldÂ have simplyÂ been (very good) meat andÂ potatoes. Prawns are another unexpected dish: perfectly cooked and succulent. I would have liked a bit more seasoning in the schmear of fennel puree but a brightly dressed salad of arugula with raw fennel actually made the pureeÂ unnecessaryÂ except as plate decoration – which it very well may have been, setting off the vibrant red heads of the prawns. I hope you’re noticing the trend here: traditionally rich, hearty foods updated and elevated side by side with seasonally appropriate yet geographically non-specificÂ modernÂ plates rich in flavor. It’s satisfying without being too heavy – or guilt-inducing. And global – as thought through by a Czech palate. Over dessert it all intertwines – and beautifully so, I might add. Crispy Czech pancakes layered with soft-poached granny smith apples would have beenÂ satisfyingÂ unadorned. Ringed with a crazy-deliciousÂ beer foam creme anglaise, however, it becomes a dish worthy of taking to the streets for. Hospoda chefsÂ Oldrich Sahajdak and Katie Busch might not be rock stars – though with chefs you never know – but together they’re cooking up an altogether more appetizing kind of Prague spring.
The conundrum of sushi in New York City is that it covers the waterfront, so to speak: from an exorbitantly priced kaiseki degustation to anÂ all you can eat chop shop or chain, the options very often existÂ cheek by jowl. For many fish lovers the sushi experience in this cityÂ has been both dumbed down and made uncomfortably pretentious, leaving little precious middle ground.Â Behind a Mondrian-style glass facade on a nondescript block near Grand Central Station, however, there’s an antidote:Â Sushi Yasuda, an airy interior composed almost entirely of butter-colored bamboo planks. Slightly different finishes and a geometric pattern on a few of the walls, creates a sense of dimension and calm. This is most definitely not Haru. Nor is it Masa. And while the service isÂ tolerable, if just a little brusque, I’d gladly chalk that up to the vagaries of cultural difference for Chef Naomichi Yasuda’s empyrean expertise. His sushi is simple. It’s delicate balance reduced to the selection of impeccableÂ raw ingredients treated with respect. A starter ofÂ morokyu is the perfect example. What could be simpler than cucumbers with soybean paste? Yet these cukes are like none you’ve tasted before. Blanched to draw out a bit of the excess moisture, the translucent knobs become sweet, almost creamy, and an ideal foil for salty, piquant soybean paste.Â Yasuda is renowned as a tuna specialist – he typically offers seven or eight options for tuna fattiness – but theÂ hagashi toro,Â the super high-fatty tuna taken mainly from the top of the tail, drops like rain onto my tongue. I’ve never had sashimi like this before. So, too, the giant clam, often tough and chewy but here as sinewy and delicately fibrous as young artichoke. King salmon, in both red and white varieties is so silken and pure of flavor that I wish I had ordered more. In fact, I wish I hadn’t made theatre plans and could – asÂ traditionÂ dictates – move on to a course of sushi with rice. (I’ve eaten all my fish without pausing to dip into the chef’s specialÂ shoyu, or soy sauce!) When the bill arrives – with a pristine box of bamboo toothpicks – I appreciate that I’m paying to have eaten something special without the guilt that comes from seeing a comma in the total. On one hand, Sushi Yasuda isn’t your quotidian fish bar, but on the other, itÂ shouldn’tÂ be restricted solely to special occasions or expense accounts either. Three cheers for the middle ground; it’sÂ the closest you’ll get to an authentic TokyoÂ dinner in the Big Apple: refined, informal, wonderfully sublime and worth every penny.
Don’t let the boarded up window on the side of the road dissuade you, Jemma’s Sea View Kitchen has one ofÂ theÂ best views in Tobago. And yes, like the sign says, it’s a proper treehouse, too, resting in the boughs of an Indian almond tree. (Which goes a way towards explaining why the breeze from the sea – and the panorama of Goat Bay and Little Tobago – isÂ so fine.) It’s also a popular location for home cooking, Trini-style: curried shrimp, fish stew, grilled lobster, and a handful of old-fashioned herbal drinks like maundy fizz. Beyond having a niceÂ pieceÂ of fish or fruit, I’ve never had an affinity forÂ CaribbeanÂ cuisine. It’s so boring – and starchy. Not so TrinidadÂ and Tobago, however; the influence of FrenchÂ andÂ Indian flavors combine to create dishes that are unique, like roti, a thin Indian bread piled with potato, chana and curried chicken, doubles, which I’ve already gone on about, and pelau, a rice and chicken jambalaya that’s closer in spirit to paella. Two new additions to the favored list, thanks to Jemma: breadfruit pie,Â whichÂ has all the texture and taste of a really creamy mac ‘n’ cheese and tanya fritters, a crunchy hush puppie made of ground provisionsÂ with a healthy kick of cayenne. Does the rest of theÂ CaribbeanÂ know what’s going on here – or do they just not care?
Knowing my fondness for food oddities, a dear friend of mine who originally hails from Iowa – where the cult worship of corn might be considered to border on devotion – occasionallyÂ presents me with some archaic grain or obscure spice or the culinaryÂ equivalentÂ of an abacus. Few surprises, however, are as eagerly received as a bag of dried corn. What exactly isÂ driedÂ corn, you might ask. I, too, once wondered the same thingÂ becauseÂ it sounds like something Pa Ingalls would have hitched his horses to the wagon for and picked up atÂ Oleson’s Mercantile. Drying, I’ve since learned, was onceÂ theÂ preferred way to preserve a fresh, sweet crop like corn. It’s harvested just as it’s about to mature and then air-dried. The result, once reconstituted, has a sweet, nutty,Â caramelizedÂ flavor with a pleasantly chewy texture. It’s also incredibly versatile: creamed corn, corn pudding, corn chowder, baked corn supreme, anyone? I gravitate toward stewed because you can keep it light – and vegan – letting the flavor of the corn take focus instead of the butter and cream called for in otherÂ recipesÂ Plus, as good as it is for dinner, it’s strangely even better at breakfast: warmed in a little soy milk on a cold winter’s morningÂ it’s Iowa’s corny answer to oatmeal.
Taking a breather from the official Top 100, let me briefly sing the praises of a worthy spin-off. Wunderkind chef Alex Stupak reinvigorated New York’s tired ideas about Mexican food two years ago when he opened Empellon in the West Village.Â The casual, convivial tacqueria with theÂ unpretentiousÂ atmosphereÂ belied the chef’sÂ interpretiveÂ – and elevated – take on Mexican: chicharonnes arrived at the table piping hot, noisy as a bowl of Rice Krispies; sweetbreads, maitake muchrooms, and pastrami Â became fodder for tacos the likes of which you couldn’t stop eating; and then there was the seductive slate ofÂ outrageous salsa – habanero grapefruit, spicy salsa de arbol,Â pasilla mezcal, and my favorite, smokey cashew. For New Yorkers too long forced to endure the banalities of overstuffed enchiladas, or even worse, burritos, Empellon was a beacon of hope,Â appropriatelyÂ south of the 14th Street border. With Empellon CocinaÂ at the front lines of theÂ East Village,Â Stupak continues his journey, refining his Â cuisine by way of creatively composed plates. No need to worry about things getting too haughty, however: a pistachio-flecked guacamole is still an essentialÂ beginning. Served with earthy crisps ofÂ warm masa, you’ll never be able to look at mere mortal “chips” the same way again. Roasted carrotsÂ tangle with mole poblano and watercress in a beautifully calibrated starter. TheÂ lusty flavorÂ of fried lamb sweetbreads is set off by nuggets of parsnip and cleverly cut with sliced radish and a sweet salsa papanteca made with pumpkin seeds. Chef Stupak obviously believes that texture deserves a pride of place usually accorded solely to flavor and he proves it in dish after dish. (Even the mezcal comes with slices of orange dusted with ground, salty chapulines.) WithoutÂ sacrificingÂ the integrity of any single element, his plates come together greater than the sum of their parts.Â The sociableÂ atmosphere at Cocina is as buoyant as the list of tequila is long, but don’t be fooled by the noise: there is serious business going on in the kitchen.
Second only to my fondness for Mexican food is my west coast craving of the In-n-Out Burger. It’s without question one of the best quality burgers out there. The fact that it’s a fast food chain makes their uncompromising standards even more remarkable. Meat, onion, lettuce, tomato, pickle and bun combine to create an idealized work of art as artistically pureÂ as the french fries which are cut and cooked to order. Conceptually this led to me to have a little fun stripping away the nostalgia and experimenting with a bit of digital data-mashing. Corrupting the code of the image aboveÂ brought about a number of interesting surprises – kind of like discovering there’s a “secret” In-n-Out menu where the fries come Animal Style.
One of the things I love most about Southern California is how I’m able to indulge in my fetish for Mexican food. Proximity to the border combined with an abundant Latino population make this part of the country one of the best areas outside of Mexico to go in search of regional flavors. MoreÂ surprisingÂ is when you happen to stumble upon a place that’s creatively marrying authenticÂ ingredientsÂ with the ethos of California cuisine. Chef Deborah Schneider’s Sol Cocina is such a place. Simple, quick and fresh are the bywords of Baja-style cooking and Sol, with an open kitchen and counter seating not unlike a Baja taco bar, embraces the peculiarities of that peninsula with a winning menu heavilyÂ dependentÂ on seasonal ingredients. Like pomegranate seeds, which pepper a guacamole already studded with walnuts and crumbled queso fresco. And white corn, blended withÂ spicyÂ roasted poblanos into a velvetyÂ pureeÂ with crema and pepitas. (Applause, too, for the brilliant idea of offering a substantial ‘taste’ at the bargain price of $2.50) Â There’s onlyÂ one word that can accurately encapsulate the sweet corn onÂ theÂ cob, grilled with butter, lime, chilesÂ andÂ drizzled with chipotle and cotixa cheese and that’s “sick,” as in I would be happy to eat this in such reckless quantities that I ultimately make myself sick. Tacos have their own surprises: the Vampiro is a double tortilla stuffed with melted cheese and serrano chile, topped with locally sourced carne asada, pico de gallo and cotixa; wild-caught fish isÂ pan-roastedÂ with lemon and garlic in the Gobernador, a refreshing change of pace from your bog standard Ensenda-style deep fry. I should have planned better in preparation forÂ thisÂ meal; there are too many temptations onÂ theÂ menu: Â shortribs braised with guajillos, green pozole, pork pibil roasted in banana leaves, and aÂ mammothÂ grilled burrito that looks like a panini on steroids as it passes me by en route to some lucky table. Then again, such seduction is all part of the fun of eating here in SoCal: otro hermoso dÃa, otra comida magnÃfica.
I’m not one of those devoted fans of frozen yogurt. And ice cream – except for those summer days when the pavement is practically melting – leaves me cold. (Ba dum dum) I am, however, addicted to the goaty goodness of strainedÂ Greek yogurt. Given the fact that Greece has been about as temperate as a wok this summer and almost every person I’ve passed in the street these weeks has been unabashedly lapping at giant cups and cones of soft serve, it is a wonder I’ve not put the two together. Soaked in sweat I at last made that correction today in Crete with a simple dish of frozen Greek yogurt topped with sour cherries. Delirium ensued with the first spoonful – along with a palm smack to the forehead. Cool, creamy, thick and spunky,Â this fro-yo can be summed up in one word: fierce.
Surrounded by the lush gardens at theÂ Sheraton Rhodes Resort,Â MediterraneoÂ showcases modern Mediterranean cuisine with a strong emphasis on seasonal local ingredients, likeÂ Memezeli salad – a traditional Greek salad of tomatoes, soft goat cheese, fresh onions, capers, barley rusks and garden basil – and Gemista, tomatoes and green peppers stuffed with aromatic rice, onions, and fresh herbs. Although I sat down to lunch craving an authentic platter of lamb gyros, I wasÂ ultimatelyÂ swayed by Chef Patrick van Velzen’s take onÂ shrimp saganaki: a dozen plump shrimp, pan-cooked with tomato, green peppers, ouzo and feta cheese. At long lastÂ I am starting to understand the appeal of shrimp!