the new mexican gastronomy

IMG_2820When chef Enrique Olvera opened Pujol in Mexico City’s upscale Polanco neighborhood almost 14 years ago, the budget was so small that his wife had to paint the walls. Things have changed at what is now widely considered Mexico’s best restaurant, with its platoon of 27 cooks. The subtly lit interior is like a fine suit: understated and elegant. Service is hushed and artful – if just a bit quirky – so you can focus the food. One of the leading exponents of new Mexican gastronomy, Olvera is deeply immersed in his cultural legacy. Dried insects feature heavily, like in the elotitos tatemados, a take on Mexican street food: smoked baby corn glazed with coffee mayonnaise and dusted in salty ant powder. Brilliantly served in a hollowed out gourd, it’s an addictive umami snack. In a minimalist version of the salad course, acidity and herbal freshness are explored in foraged wild greens, pinon, and native seasonings. Olvera continuously re-invents traditional dishes and their presentation—you might not recognize something as a flauta, a taco, or a tamale, but with an artist’s flair for combining regional ingredients and modern techniques Olvera lays a foundation and builds on it to create something new. If Pujol is any indication of how sophisticated (yet wholly unpretentious) fine-dining in Mexico can be, I’m in for a whole lot of sensory overload.

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wish list: faraway, so close

13063619536535391028_1If you’re like me you’ve long dreamed of Cuba, the faraway, so close island off the coast of Florida that’s been off-limits to US citizens for more than fifty years. Rich in history, culture, and all that glorious music, it’s an American traveler’s version of Snuffleupagus: a rare creature able to be seen by everybody but us. Insight Cuba, a leader in small group people-to-people travel, is about to change all that. As travel to this enigmatic island is made legal for only the third time in fifty years, this licensed tour operator has me salivating at the chance to explore the once-forbidden island with a sweepstakes, running now through June 17th. To take part, ‘Like’ the Insight Cuba Facebook page and enter via the “Win a Trip to Cuba for Two” tab at the top. A winner will be selected at random on June 18th and receive a free trip for two on the tour of their choice: Undiscovered Cuba, Cuban Music & Art or Classic Cuba. The grand prize includes round-trip airfare from Miami to Havana; first-class accommodations, meals and activities; an Insight Cuba tour leader and Cuban guide; entrance fees; in-country ground transportation and transfers; 24-hour emergency service and maybe most important of all, a U.S. Department of the Treasury License and Letter of Authorization. Underdeveloped, stubbornly unchanged for decades, the revolution and the resulting embargo may have decimated the travel industry in Cuba, but it didn’t kill it. And the irresponsible policies of our own government have done nothing to squelch the abiding curiosity about our neighbors 90 miles to the south.

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kaffeeklatsch

vienna coffeehouse conversations

Visitors to the Austrian capital now have an opportunity to get to know the Viennese from a totally different angle. Informal Vienna Coffeehouse Conversations bring together locals and tourists for an evening meal and coffee accompanied by stimulating conversation in that quintessentially Viennese environment: the coffeehouse.  (Organizers were inspired by Viennese coffeehouse culture, which was added to the UNESCO list of intangible cultural assets in 2011.) A special “question menu” inspires the newly acquainted companions to talk about travel, friendship, and family as they enjoy a three-course dinner together in one of a pair of Vienna’s most popular coffeehouses, the Adolph Loos-designed Café Museum and Café Am Heumarkt, a bohemian relic from another era. Conversation-based meals have become a quirky trend in travel, having popped up at street festivals and art galleries from London to Singapore in recent years and even finding their way into the world economic forum in Davos. Think of it as a blind date with guaranteed benefits – or at least a great cup of coffee.

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a royal send-off

royal guards

Just when you think there’s nothing left to do, no corner left unexplored, Incheon Airport travels back in time as the Korean Royal Family of the Josean Dynasty make a ceremonial procession through the terminal. Dressed in colorful traditional costumes, an enfilade of noblemen and women (staff from the Cultural Heritage Foundation actually) re-enact a scene from a bygone era: the daily walk of the Royal Family. It turns out that transit travelers spend an average of 5.2 hours at Incheon waiting for connecting flights and the procession is part of a push to make the gateway more than just an airport but also a destination representing Korean society. A Cultureport, if you will, which also includes a Traditional Craft Gallery, the Korea Culture Museum, and the Korean Traditional Cultural Experience Centre, all within the terminal confines. Delirious after five hours of shopping and walking and eating and staring at the departures board it made for one of the more intriguing distractions I’ve ever witnessed in an airport and a fun photo-op, too – not to mention a very royal send-off.

the royal procession

the royal guard

a royal nobleman and woman

me and the royal guard

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the return of the apsara

apsara dance

The relatively recent history of Cambodia is horrific. Under Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge the country was subjected to a radical social engineering project in the 1970’s that aimed to create a purely agrarian Communist society. Around two million people were forced from the cities to take up agricultural work in the countryside. The party controlled what they wore, whom they could talk to, how they acted. Children were believed to be tainted by the capitalism of their parents, so they were separated, indoctrinated in communist ideology and made a dictatorial instrument of the party, given leadership roles in the torture and execution of anyone suspected of being a traitor. And almost everyone could be considered a traitor: intellectuals, artists, minorities, city-dwellers and anyone with an education. In little more than four years the Khmer Rouge killed an estimated 1.5 million people – a fifth of the country’s population – through torture, forced labour, starvation, and executions. Unbelievably, one of the many groups targeted were the Apsara Dancers, practitioners of the classical Khmer dance which dates back to the 7th century. (The Angkor temples are festooned with thousands of images of the Apsara. During this period, dance was ritually performed at the temples as both entertainment and as a means of delivering messages to the gods.) Although 90 percent of all Cambodian classical artists perished in the genocide, the tradition of the Apsara was resurrected in the refugee camps in eastern Thailand with the few surviving Khmer dancers. Yes, I had come to Cambodia because I wanted to see the temples, but what I needed was to see this dance: elaborately dressed, performing a slow and figurative set of hand gestures and poses, invoking the gods and enacting epic poems; a testament to the power of art and a point of national pride. (Plus, anyone with even a passing familiarity with The King & I will immediately notice where Jerome Robbins stole his best ideas.) The return of the Apsara augured not only a reestablishment of civil society but,  more importantly, a resurrection of the country.

apsara dance 2

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wipe your wheels & take off your shoes

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live blog: eating at windmills

What is there to do after church but eat?! Wandering downhill I noticed a few scattered cafe tables outside a windmill overlooking the sea. Thinking it might be the perfect spot to while away the sunset with a snack and a Metaxa – the savory Greek brandy that has quickly become a part of my evening routine – I was surprised to discover a makeshift restaurant behind the crumbling facade. The menu looked inviting, peppered with a handful of distinctive regional dishes, so I ordered a pitcher of wine and settled down for a somewhat breezy early evening dinner: fresh seagreen salad, briny and crisp and unlike anything I have ever tasted; dolmades and zucchini blossoms stuffed with rice; pan-fried lamb meatballs, or keftedes, with a healthy sprinkle of lemon juice; makarounes, the local pasta, served simply with fried onions and a few grates of a hard ewe’s milk cheese, was a minor miracle; and for dessert, loukamades, Greece’s answer to the beignet, drizzled in aromatic wildflower honey. Maybe it was all the sea air, maybe it was the atmosphere, or maybe there was some unexplained emotional connection I was having with eating food so basic and so closely connected to this island, this village even, but I devoured absolutely everything, as if I was consuming a culture and not just a meal. What else does it say that I left the taverna not feeling remotely full?

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quote for a presidential weekend

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at home with the masai

A large proportion of the Masai live, for the most part, traditionally. Which means despite the middling efforts of the Kenyan government to integrate the Masai, they choose to eschew the trappings of modern culture and its relative proximity. Life revolves around two things: cattle and village life. Cattle are everything to the Masai:  a source of meat, milk, and blood; a system of currency and hierarchy. A man without cattle is a man without position in society – and one who lacks the ability to feed his family. When the Masai come into money, they buy more cattle; when the drought wipes out their herd, they’ll steal another village’s cattle. Culturally, it’s a crippling cycle because it leaves no room for error – there can be no long-range planning when life is lived entirely in the here and now.  To an outsider, like myself, this might be read as poverty but the Masai do not think of themselves as poor, as lacking – it is simply how it has always been and shall be. The community is small and tightly knit – no more than a dozen families inhabit this particular village, which is ringed by a circular twig fence and gated in the traditional style. Simple abodes line the perimeter, reserving the majority of the area in the center for cattle.  (I cannot tell if the ground is soil or dung or a mixture of both.) Francis, above, is the son of the village chief and he invites me into his home, which is a simple two-room hut like all the others: one room for the baby animals and another for the family. In the family’s sleeping area there is a small cooking area, too, with an open hole to the roof, providing some daylight as well as ventilation. It is dark and claustrophobic and it smells to high heaven because the Masai use a mix of twigs and cow dung as their primary building material. There are no sanitary facilities.  There is no running water. By Western standards there is no sign of anything resembling progress – and nobody here seems to mind.

 

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at the theatre: houston’s alley

Who’d’ have thunk my little trip to Houston would turn into such a cultural orgasm?  I had few expectations coming down here and most of them revolved around craft beer and indoor shopping -  so far I’ve had neither.  What I have had is a feast of fine art. Now it’s finally time to take in some performing arts.  My friend is at the Alley Theater performing George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion, which I’ve never actually seen on stage before. (the Wendy Hiller film, yes; Lerner and Loewe’s musical adaptation, My Fair Lady, many times, of course, including a brief stint playing Colonel Pickering in the 9th grade.) What is oddly made crystal clear to me while watching the Alley’s entertainingly lush production is just how perfect a musical adaptation My Fair Lady really is.  Sure, it cheats a little for the sake of a happy ending but ultimately it doesn’t simply add songs to Shaw’s play, it augments the discourse on English class structure and the emancipation of women while packaging it up as romantic entertainment. Those subversive underpinnings are what this production nails quite strikingly: Henry Higgins and Eliza Doolittle are both fools,  mutually dependent and inextricably linked. Perhaps that’s why modern audiences always seem to yearn for them to go off into the sunset together. Touched as he was by his own lackluster love life, Shaw railed vigorously against the implausible success of the couple’s Romantic love, yet he, too, got it all wrong: Henry and Eliza do belong together, if for different reasons. It would take another forty years – and the arrival of both Rex Harrison and Sartre – for us to figure out exactly why.

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le grand macabre

If you knew that the end of the world was imminent, that a comet was about to crash into our planet and obliterate it forever, how would you choose to spend your final hours? That’s the question posed by György Ligeti’s opera Le Grand Macabre, receiving its long-delayed New York premiere under the steady baton of Alan Gilbert and the impeccable New York Philharmonic.

Having raised the issue, Ligeti  offers an answer that may seem oddly consoling: people will spend their final moments doing pretty much whatever they have done before. They’ll jockey for power, they’ll revel in stupidity, they’ll engage in posturing, and they’ll get drunk and screw. In his absurdist treatment of our collective foibles, Ligeti manages to make the unthinkable approachable by rendering it comical.  It’s a Rabelaisian world where two opposing parties, both completely corrupt, pursue the same crooked policies.  And the arrival of the sinister, demagogic Nekrotzar – the Macabre of the title, who’s eerily secure in his faith and hell-bent on destroying the world – sets the  whole topsy-turvy carnival in motion. The overture alone – scored for 12 pitched car horns, snippets of Beethoven’s “Eroica,” ragtime, laughter, jazz, and Viennese waltzes – is as good an indication as any that you should buckle up tight; its going to be a bumpy, wild ride.

“The threat of collective death is always present,” Ligeti told Claude Samuel in a broadcast interview, “but we try to eliminate it from our consciousness and to enjoy to the maximum the days that are left to us.”  With major earthquakes rumbling, volcanoes spewing, and the Mayan calendar predicting our imminent demise in 2012, this is timely stuff.   It reminds us of how precious and fleeting our presence is here on earth – and how much effort we spend fanning the flames of our own fears rather than embracing the mysterious miracle of simply being.  And it’s rather baffling that Ligeti’s opera, which premiered in Sweden in 1978 and immediately assumed iconic status in Europe, has never before been performed in New York.  (You might not know Ligeti’s name, but you’ve certainly heard his music:  Kubrick inserted three of the composer’s composition into 2001: A Space Odyssey – without his permission! – and later did the same in The Shining and Eyes Wide Shut.)  There are just two performances left, tonight and Saturday evening.  If you happen to be stuck  in town this holiday weekend, you couldn’t be luckier:  party like its 2012 and beg, borrow or steal for a ticket

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passionate play

Every 10 years a mountain village cradled in the German Catholic stronghold of Bavaria nails an actor to a cross as part of a play depicting the crucifixion of Jesus Christ.  A communal effort, with more than half of the village’s 2,500 residents either onstage or behind the scenes at the massive 4,800-seat Passion Play Theater, it’s a tradition born out of a promise made to God during those nasty plague years – one that’s been taking place regularly since 1634. It’s the Oberammergau Passion Play, which opened this weekend with all the ceremony befitting a five-hour, once-a-decade spectacle.  Irregardless of your religious views, it makes for epic theater.  Here’s a great short video about the village and the play courtesy of The Telegraph.

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glasgow – part two

Stravaigin restaurant

Stravaigin restaurant

In Glasgow, the reality of Scottish food need not strike fear in your heart. The restaurant scene is as scrubbed and polished and locally sourced as Edinburgh or London, with well-served – even Michelin-starred – spots catering to every taste: Gamba, for the best fish in town; Stravaigin for truly eclectic (and often experimental)  fare like rook; Rogano’s for Art Deco splendor; One Devonshire Gardens for stars -  Gordon Ramsay cut his teeth at the hotel’s restaurant, Amarylis, before making for the bright lights of London and New York; and Rawalpindi for your curry fix. However, you simply cannot go to Scotland and miss out on trying haggis.

haggis1Poet-laureate Robert Burns may have written an ode to the humble haggis, but surely no other national dish causes the uninitiated to quiver in quite the same way.  It’s mythology of unmentionable bits ‘n’ pieces wrapped in a cow stomach and deep fried is quite untrue for the most part.  Certainly you can get your “haggis bits” from any number of chip shops – and downright disgusting they are; go for a deep fried Mars bar after a late night out instead – but real haggis is a dish of offal worth savoring. Along  Ashton Lane, in the cobbled boho West End, Ronnie Clydesdale’s Ubiquitous Chip has been serving homemade versions of vegetarian and venison haggis with neeps and tatties (mashed potatoes and turnips) for thirty years.  And you’ll think it ever so strange, but trust me, haggis tastes even better the next day, cold, for breakfast.

Once your appetite gets whetted for all things edible and Scottish (it has been known to happen) a visit to the Babbity Bowster in Blackfriars should be in order.  Fill up with Stovies, a traditional Scottish version of beef stew; Cullen Skink, a thick, rich soup of smoked Finnan Haddie or smoked haddock, onion, and potato;  and Potted Hough, a very unhealthy – and addictive – version of pate, as the jive-talking barman with the pirate’s patch spins a yarn as thick as the Skink.  Now you’re ready to roll out for the night

trainOne of the lasting glories of the Victorian architects are the grand, glass-roofed train stations that defined an age of industrialization and Empire.  Glasgow central station is no exception. Yet underneath that crystal palace lies The Arches, one of the liveliest subterranean attractions in the UK. The cavernous underground railway vaults seem to stretch on forever in various states of conversion and disrepair, simultaneously hosting a diverse range of cultural activity and breaking down entrenched notions of what an arts venue can be.

The Arches

The Arches

The cross fertilization between clubbing culture, visual art, live music and theater is electric; conceivably you could go from one room to another into the wee hours.  And why not? A fizzy can of orange Irn Bru will cure what ails you come the morning.

The laid back confidence of Glasgow and its citizens is as addictive as its effortless cool.  Loitering here seems to be a national pastime and the simple act of hanging out is one of the great pleasures of the city:  in the streets, at bars, pubs and restaurants, through the parks and museums.  Sure, there is still a bit of rough about, an edgy air of occasional uncertainty. But straddling the best of both worlds, Glasgow is a cosmopolitan city and unhomogenized small town at once: there is room for individuals and room for innovation.  It’s left more than one New Yorker seethingly jealous.

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