côté mas (in the kitchen with taïchi)

beef tatakiThe daily menu at Côté Mas is short, seasonal and mostly locally sourced. San Miguel cured ham is sliced to order on an antique slicing machine; Aveyron beef and lamb are cooked Mediterranean-style and served with garden vegetables; desserts, such as Ile Flottante, are all contemporary takes on French classics. The surprise comes in the subtle use of Asian ingredients, such as in tuna tataki, marinated with garden herbs and served with black radish, wasabi spaghetti, soy jelly and yuzu. The reasoning becomes clear as soon as you notice Taïchi Megurikami leading the kitchen. A Japanese chef at the helm has long been part of proprietor Jean-Claude Mas’ plan. “They will take something as inspiration and make it better,” he says. “They will create something sublime.” Like spheres of duck foie gras with very three distinct flavors: soy sauce, honey, and red mulled wine. Then again such an unorthodox approach to French cooking is in keeping with Mas’ attitude towards making wine, full of the spicy, new world aromas and flavors of the Languedoc.

IMG_2412 ile flotante Taïchi Megurikami

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in the garden with cindy

IMG_2224Chef Cindy Pawlcyn is one of the original Napa Valley trailblazers. On the eve of her pioneering eatery Mustard’s Grill celebrating it’s 30th anniversary of dishing up heaping plates of honest American fare with worldly sophistication, she took time out to take me through her gardens and sound off on what it’s like for a one-time hippie to suddenly find herself part of the establishment, the importance of educating diners about what’s on their plates, and why she can’t stand reality shows like Top Chef. Alas, you’ll have to wait until the story is published later this year; I can’t give away everything here for free.

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please pack your knives and go

ObesityNZ1New Zealand is – surprisingly – the third most obese nation in the developed world (after the United States and Mexico) yet a 266-pound resident and successful chef from South Africa is currently in the process of being deported after 6 years in the country. The reason is simple: he is too fat for New Zealand. The fat guy is Albert Buitenhuis, who is five feet ten inches tall and has a body mass index of 40 – making him clinically obese. Immigration New Zealand (INZ) says that an applicant’s BMI must be under 35. But Buitenhaus is not leaving without a fight. “INZ’s medical assessors have said to consider to what extent there might be indications of future high-cost and high-need demand for health services,” an official said, as quoted by the Huffington Post. The chef has appealed to the country’s immigration minister, citing a recent weight loss, but the incident begs a larger conversation which, frankly, nobody wants to initiate: what is the collective cost of endemic obesity? The INZ might be coming at this from out of left field – and surely there will be charges of unfairness, even discrimination – but that shouldn’t negate the promise of government to promote the general welfare.

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top 100: gordon ramsay at the london

IMG_1444Gordon Ramsay‘s noxious, narcissistic television persona might put you in the mind that he’s more clown than chef, but the man and his various entrepreneurial gambles collectively boast an impressive 14 Michelin stars, considered by many to be the ultimate benchmark in the hospitality industry. (To wit, there are only four 3-star restaurants in all of the UK, one of which is Ramsay’s flagship.) The bad boy of British cooking might be an unbearable bore, but his cooking is the real deal – even if Gordo is rarely seen in any of his kitchens these days. His first, and so far only, foray into the hyper-competitive world of New York fine dining was greeted with bemused detachment when he arrived with yet another eponymous restaurant inside the former Rhiga Royal, newly christened as The London hotel. Who was this Glasgow footballer-turned-chef come to teach New Yorkers about French food, the foodie demimonde decried. The reception – to be kind – was cool. Yet despite the collective ennui of my neighbors, I must give Ramsay some props. As fine dining it’s all too pretentious, let’s just get that out of the way. The presentation may be classically – and meticulously – French but the complexity of flavor doesn’t always hit the mark. And neither does the suffocating ambiance, which feels more like a temple to Ramsay’s unmitigated ego than one dedicated to dining. But that doesn’t mean the food isn’t often delicious, because it is. The secret is counterintuitive to how Ramsay see himself: treat his dining room as a relatively casual pre or post theater dinner spot. Get there early or late and order off the prix-fixe menu; it’s fantastic and a relative bargain. The simpler the plate, the better, like a perfectly poached hen’s egg over artichokes and basil puree. Or crispy skate wing with roasted fennel. Ramsay is at his level best when he’s humble with his ingredients, proving that sometimes less really is more. Does anyone dare to try and tell that to the chef himself?

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top 100: sushi yasuda

sushi yasuda

The conundrum of sushi in New York City is that it covers the waterfront, so to speak: from an exorbitantly priced kaiseki degustation to an all you can eat chop shop or chain, the options very often exist cheek by jowl. For many fish lovers the sushi experience in this city has been both dumbed down and made uncomfortably pretentious, leaving little precious middle ground. Behind a Mondrian-style glass facade on a nondescript block near Grand Central Station, however, there’s an antidote: 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 is 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 impeccable raw ingredients treated with respect. A starter of 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. Yasuda is renowned as a tuna specialist – he typically offers seven or eight options for tuna fattiness – but the hagashi toro, 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 – as tradition dictates – move on to a course of sushi with rice. (I’ve eaten all my fish without pausing to dip into the chef’s special 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, it shouldn’t be restricted solely to special occasions or expense accounts either. Three cheers for the middle ground; it’s the closest you’ll get to an authentic Tokyo dinner in the Big Apple: refined, informal, wonderfully sublime and worth every penny.

morokyu - cucumber with soybean paste

sashimi like butter

toothpicks

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chef’s market

banzaan

Ok, I lied. After lazing around for two days I needed to get off my duff and do something, so I hijacked the chef from Paresa to take me on her morning rounds to the local market in neighboring Patong. And what a far cry from Siem Reap it was! The banzaan, or fresh market, is a contemporary two-story affair with specific sections for meat, seafood, vegetables, flowers, and a bizarre-looking selection of fruits. Everything is neatly presented – even the pigs hanging upside down are artistically arranged – and more importantly, nobody is scaling fish or beheading chickens in their bare feet. It was like Citarella, albeit with a more herbaceous, Asian flair.

black crab

half chicken

strange fruit

curry paste

super squid

sorting herbs & chilis

sweets

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bookshelf: the sorcerer’s apprentices

When The Sorcerer’s Apprentices was first published last year the book was heaped with praise on all sides. The New York Times and The Huffington Post both declared it one of the best food books fo the year. Now available in paperback, I finally got around to reading Lisa Abend’s peek into the kitchen at el Bulli. Named best restaurant in the world an amazing five times by Restaurant magazine before it caused international headlines by closing in 2011, el Bulli was the hugely popular, site of Chef Ferran Adria’s innovative culinary creations, which have now entered the popular lexicon as “molecular gastronomy.” Yet few people know that behind each of the thirty or more courses that comprised a meal at el Bulli, an army of stagiares or apprentice chefs labored at the precise, exhausting work of executing Adria’s vision. Abend’s behind-the-scenes look into el Bulli’s kitchen explores the remarkable system that Adria used to run his restaurant and, in the process, train the next generation of culinary stars. And there’s the rub: Abend’s book details the quotidian grunt work when it should  be investigating the mysteriously creative mind of one the world’s most influential chefs. Focused strictly on what’s tangible, the writer leaves no room to ponder what’s unobservable. That’s not to say the book is unenjoyable. Au contraire, it’s as dishy as they come. Abend brings to life the stagiares’ stories, following them over the course of a season at el Bulli as they struggle to master the long hours, cutting-edge techniques, and interpersonal tensions that come from working at the most famous restaurant on the planet. Taken together, the stories form a portrait of the international team that helped to make a meal at el Bulli so unforgettable. But Abend is no food writer. Her descriptions of the gastronomic efforts are so remarkably antiseptic that I have the sneaking suspicion she doesn’t really care for food at all. This could have just as easily been a book about a season in the offices of Norman Foster. Or the studio of Jeff Koons. It’s about teamwork – the men and women behind the genius but not about the mad rush of genius itself.  That book remains to be written.

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hotel paradise

For all their friendly hospitality, Mexican hotels almost uniformly miss the mark to some degree. It’s never tragic mind you; in fact it’s often nothing more than a curious detail that leaves you to scratch your head, bewildered by a corporate thought process which somehow led to a jar of mustard arriving alongside an egg white omelet, or an artful turndown arrangement of bed pillows in the bathtub, or plush bathrobes atop paper slippers in the spa. (I will go on record, however, with enthusiastically vocal admiration for the novel Mexican art of twisting humble bath towels into fancifully shaped flowers and swans.) Brain power has obviously been extended into these little flourishes. But to what end? What does it add?  All this blather is just a long introduction to telling you how Paradisus Playa del Carmen La Perla & La Esmeralda, twined resorts which share a common zocalo yet somehow manage to navigate the task of catering to – and keeping separate – both families and adults, proves a refreshing exception to the rule. Attention has been paid here. And a great deal of thought and design have gone into Paradisus: La Esmeralda is for families, while La Perla is adults-only. Opt for Royal Service – a semi resort within the resort – and the two need never intersect. Royal Service features a private pool, bar, and an exclusive restaurant surrounded by palapas and Bali beds – in addition to a private stretch of  beach. Discrete butlers are at your beck and call, available for everything from ironing trousers to finding a preferred table at Passion by Martin Berasategui, a restaurant collaboration with the seven Michelin-star Basque chef. (Surely that’s a first for an all-inclusive resort.) Each resort is its own oasis, overlooking the Gulf of Mexico – with the stress-free luxury of never having to reach for your wallet.

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indian superfood

Exec Digital is a new digital-only magazine that randomly dropped into my in-box earlier this month. Although more geared toward “executives” – whatever that means – it nevertheless features an interesting pastiche of travel, food and lifestyle writing. One piece in particular really struck me where it counts: the belly. Chef Gurpareet Bains’ favorite curry houses around the globe made for a quick read yet left me with a fistful of notes-to-self for future reference. You can read it below or catch it in situ HERE, courtesy of the folks at Exec Digital.

International House: The Best Curry by Gurpareet Bains

Gurpareet Bains, chef to A-listers and royalty, author of Indian Superfood and most recently winner of the 2011 Chef of the Year ‘Curry Gong’ at the English Curry Awards, takes a breather from his book tour to share a select handful of his personal favorite Indian restaurants dotted around the world.

Devi, New York, USA - Average $60 per head

Only in the last few years have dapper Indian restaurants started popping up in New York. And although it is most definitely the pioneering days of curry in the US, New York just had to deliver in style…

Devi is America’s only Michelin star Indian restaurant, and accordingly worth a visit. Chefs Suvir Saran and Hemant Mathur are sure to whip your taste buds into a frenzy with traditional Indian home cooking fused with the bold flavours of the new world.

I’m salivating just musing over fond memories of the grilled scallops with roasted pepper chutney and bitter orange marmalade, and the signature Tandoori lamb chops with pear chutney. Or for something a little more traditional, how about Phool Makhanee Kee Sabzee (lotus seeds and cashews in a creamy sauce) or the all-time-favourite, and must have Indian street food, Bombay Bhel-Puri?

With an ambience akin to an old worldly Rajasthani boathouse palace, this is the place to entertain and astonish. Be sure to invite your Indian business clients to a dinner at Devi. Deal done and dusted!

Cinnamon Kitchen, London, England - Average $60 per head

With London widely recognised as the curry capital of the world, restaurants on this side of the pond have a mighty high bar to aspire their standards upon – and the Cinnamon Kitchen doesn’t fail to astound. Right in the heart of London’s financial district, the Cinnamon Kitchen is located in a courtyard abuzz with activity. Start with a Cinnamon Spiced Martini in the Anise Bar, sipping it just to the left of the main dining room.

When you’re ready, the main dining room is a converted warehouse with 20 foot ceilings that reverberates a debonair ‘007’ style.  With an exceptional wine-list, a flawless brigade of staff and most importantly, award-winning chefs Vivek Singh and Abdul Yaseen on-hand, you’re really in for a spectacular night.

The menu is short; instead, it focuses on a select few dishes that they get right every single time. Although the meals are presented in an aptly contemporary fashion, with subtle hints of fusion, the food is truly Indian at heart. To start, I’d recommend the Fat Chillies with Spiced Paneer or Hyderabadi Lamb Mince.  As an entree, try Scottish Angus Fillet with Masala Chips or Seared Sea Bass with Kokum Curry and Rice (kokum is slightly sour, although less so than tamarind). The dessert menu is as equally as spectacular – so remember to leave room.

Dhaba, Claridges Hotel, New Delhi, India - Average $30 per head

Dhaba specializes in Punjabi Highway Fare. In the Indian state of the Punjab, locals consider highway eateries – better known as Dhabas – to serve up the best food…and they are absolutely right. It’s rather a kind of street food for people on wheels, who miss home cooking.

Dhaba’s menu is comprised of many traditional family recipes handed down generations. Try something suitably rustic, and typically Punjabi, such as Baingan Ka Bharta (spicy barbecued eggplant), Dahl Makhini (lentils slow cooked overnight, until rich and silky), and accompany this with flaky Tandoori Rotis and some of the more familiar suspects such as meat kebabs and  balti curry dishes – and you will be eating just as heartily as any Punjabi farmer. If you’re not sure what to order, or if you want to try a bit of everything, go for the Thali, which is the chef’s taster menu, and is very much the avant-garde thing to do.

But at Dhaba, it’s not only about the food. The ambience is also of the classic rural highway eatery, complete with a truck fresco, rustic interiors and waiters dressed in traditional Punjabi dress. There is even a thatched ceiling and walls replicating the irregular mud painted texture of a village hut. An old wireless belts out golden oldies from the silver era of Indian cinema, putting the final touches on a perfect evening. 

Ravi’s Restaurant, Dubai, United Arab Emirates - Average $10 per head

Ravi’s on Satwa Road (near Satwa Roundabout) is an institution, and arguably Dubai’s number one curry house. Set amidst the hustle and bustle of old Dubai, and bounded by spiraling minarets and the haunting sound of muezzins’ calls, this is the place to eat curry.

It’s very much a rough-and-ready diner style restaurant with Formica tables; fortunately, the tacky decor only enhances the experience of Dubai before it became an international tourist destination.

Ravi’s is frequented by the legions of Indian and Pakistani expats living in Dubai – which is always a good sign of authentic food. If you can imagine classic dishes, such as Butter Chicken, Tarka Dahl, Biryani and Naans, all served up in monumental portions, and for just a few dollars – this is Ravi’s!

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