ShrimpÂ sautÃ©edÂ with plum tomatoes, olives, feta cheese, ouzo, and plenty of crusty bread to soak it all up. Enough said.
Because a visit to the local market did nothing but whet myÂ appetiteÂ for Thai food, IÂ press-gangedÂ Chef Noon into a brief cooking lesson in the show kitchen at Paresa. Three courses plus dessert sounded a little daunting at first but with lots of room to spread out, ingredients at the ready, andÂ theÂ guiding hand of Chef Noon leading me step by step, it was enlightening.Â Nothing too fancy; just a beginners excursion into Rattanakosin, the modern era of Thai cooking, which happens to feature a strong Chinese influence: woks, deep-frying, noodles. Goong Sarong would be our starter, a simple yet visually impressive prawn marinated in pepper, salt, and coriander root, wrapped in vermicelli noodlesÂ andÂ deep-fried. Next, we moved on to a red curry. The secret, I learned, is to first cook the curry paste in a little oil, add your meat – we used duck breast – then coconut milk and bring it to a boil. Take it off the heat and stir in eggplant, grapes, pineapple, to allow the flavors to be drawn into the soup. Bring it to a boil a second time, adding chilis, basil, and a soupcon of ever-present fish sauce and remove from heat again. The whole process takes about five minutes. Letting the curry rest infuses the broth with the fruits and herbs, giving it a heady smell and marvelously rich taste. (And in so short a period of time – I was amazed.) Chicken stir-fry was the most easily accessible of the courses: deep fry lightly breaded chicken pieces until golden brown and allow them to drain on a paper towel. Heat aÂ littleÂ oil in a wok, quickly frying peppers, onion, chili, and cashews. Season with oyster sauce and soy before mixing in the cooked chicken and voila, dinner is done.Â The results were more impressive than I had imagined, but dessert is where things really got creative. Tiny sweet Thai bananas battered in rice flour and coconut, deep-friedÂ and served with a scoop of ice cream. There was enough batter left over that I thought I might show the chef a few tricks of my own. Thickening the batter with a bit more coconut I tossed spoonfuls into boiling oil, rolling the resulting pillows in a mix of white sugar and coconut. Beignets, I told her: fried dough balls. A bit frightened at first, Chef Noon and Fern, theÂ curious Sales Manager who stopped in to watch us, soon gobbled them up, proving that in theÂ kitchenÂ we’ve all got something to learn.
When a Bangkok local makes a point of urging you towards an out-of-the-way restaurant with the delectable promise of good food, take heed: opportunity is seldom a lengthy visitor. So it was that I found myself traveling down a winding alley to the fortuitous gates of Gedhawa, a homey establishment specializing in the subtle, herb-fragrancedÂ plates of Northern Thailand. Decorated in silk lanterns, rough-hewn wooden tables, and all manner of mid-century pop culture ephemera, it could easily come off as kitschyÂ in less skilled hands. Yet when you’re escorted to table byÂ a kindly older woman who could easily pass as your grandmother – if your grandmother was Thai, that is – the illusion suddenly becomes clear: you’re in an idealized version of someone’s home, so get ready for home-cookin’ Thai style. The accordion-style menu proved exhaustive – and exhausting; after all, there’s only so much one can reasonably eat, despite the temptation – and eyes ten times larger than my stomach. In the end I settled on a couple of favorites,Â mixing in a few adventuresomeÂ unknowns: sai oua, a spicy pork sausage fragrant with lemongrass and galangal; coconut-flecked shrimp, crunchy, sweetÂ andÂ irresistible when dipped into a sauce of palm sugar, vinegar and chili; green papaya salad – a masochistic addiction of sweet meets heat – was practically combustible; wrap-it-yourself pork larb redolent with spices and fresh mint; pad thai, simple and elegant, with just enough unexpected fire to make it interesting. I couldn’t have planned a better meal for my Â last night in Bangkok if I tried. And a good thing I didn’t.
I couldn’tÂ really say if Ben Benson’s was one of New York’sÂ better steakhouses because funnily enough I’d never sampled one of their steaks but for my money they served the best crab cakes I’d ever tasted. Lump crab meat, onion, celery,Â Old Bay seasoning and a little egg to bind it allÂ together. Somewhere between the size of a hamburger and a pancake they came seared and served two on a plate, unadorned save a wedge or two of lemon and a few flecks of parsley thatÂ alwaysÂ looked like an afterthought. They tasted like crab and the sea at the same time: sweet and briny. And although they cost a jaw-dropping $42, itÂ alwaysÂ seemedÂ like a bargain once I had the first forkful in front of my gob. Ben’s did a lemon pepper shrimp, too, with shellfish half the size of your fist. It, too, tasted as it was supposed to taste – like shrimp. Simple, to the point,Â withoutÂ any pretensions or airs about it, I hate that I have to speak about the place in the past tense, yet after 30 years on West 52nd StreetÂ theÂ restaurant was forced to close up shop in June when the landlord decided to treble the rent. I’m just glad I happened to be in town for one last meal before the inevitable curtain came down.
Lest you think Memphis is little more than barbecue, biscuits and yardbird, I’d like to turn your attention toÂ Restaurant Iris – a sterling example of what owner/chef Kelly English has coined “progressive Southern” cuisine. The beautiful thingÂ aboutÂ that phrase is how perfectly it encapsulates the essence of what chef EnglishÂ is doing: farm-to-table cooking rooted in honestÂ SouthernÂ traditions. Which means that of course the salad has a bacon component – yet it’s lardons ofÂ artisanal pork belly from Alan Benton’sÂ local smokehouse. (If you don’t know Benton’s Smoky Mountain Country Hams, I suggest you familiarize yourself with the miracle of their mail order.)Â AndÂ theÂ lettuces are a peppery local arugula, dressed with grilled scallions in a ginger-soy vinaigrette. Topped with crispy “croutons” of sweetbreads – a bit of genius – there’s nothing outwardly Southern about this dish, yet the counterpoint of tastes and textures is undeniably comfort food at its most refined. Shrimp and grits might be a classic ofÂ Southern cooking but it, too, transcends expectations in the hands of chef English: the coarse-grind Delta grits are closer to polenta, bathed in tomato broth au pistou that’s thick with the taste of the sea. A refined dice of andouille adds just enough heat to prickle the palate while six meaty Gulf shrimp top it off as regally as a crown roast. When it comes to dessert, I’m not at all surprised there’s a cheese course on offer. (It’s at this point that I berate myself for not indulging in the degustation menu.)Â As if the food were not enough, Restaurant Iris also has an ideal genteelÂ setting: an intimate Victorian house on midtown’s Overton Square. Marked by exceptionalÂ service (a waiter drove to my hotel to return anÂ accidentallyÂ left-behindÂ credit card) and stellar cocktails to boot (the Sazerac sings)Â Chef English will upendÂ everythingÂ you thought youÂ knewÂ about Southern dining. And masterfully so, I might add.
Why would anyone opt for a plain old room when the Ritz-Carlton offers an amazing Club Level option? You get a dedicated concierge, plus a private 24-hour lounge stocked with an ample bar, multiple food offerings throughout the day, and oodles of homemade treats. And all gratis, of course. To wit, todays east-meets-west breakfast of champions: an egg white omelette, shrimp dumpling, steamed pork bun, vermicelli, toast, watermelon juice, and a chocolate donut.
One of Madrid’s culinary highlights is tapas. In fact, you can’t properly say you’ve done right by this city until you’ve gone out on a tapas crawl, eschewing a proper dinner for a series of small plates (and glasses of beer) at a handful of tapas bars. In the Barrio de las Letras I discovered a string of respectable looking joints lined up as if for just such an exercise, starting with Los Gatos, where the beer came accompanied by a plate of camaron and the salmon and goat cheese canapes were served with potato chips freshly fried in olive oil. I quickly – if just a little too late – learned an important lesson of the tapas experience:Â pace yourself, these are nibbles. If four sandwiches and a plate of ham is your starting off point, you probably won’t last very long.Â And I didn’t. Moving next door to La Dolores that salient fact hit me when the man behind the counter asked why I stopped digging into a plate of Galician-style octopus. Was there something wrong with the food?Â No, I tried to explain more through gesture than words, it’s me. I’m full, I said patting an imagined Santa belly. He looked at me like the amateur I was. Filling up on tapas, I later found out, is tantamount to eating all the wasabi peas.