top 100: danji

danji

I’m one of those strange people who hates chicken wings. I’ve never quite grasped the attraction of eating with my hands and getting all messy for the sake of a few strands of meat and a mouthful of fatty, slippery poultry skin. Until the sticky, spicy, chili-flecked ‘k.f.c’ (Korean fire chicken) wings at Danji made a carnivorous convert of me, that is. Artfully piled five to a plate these honey-glazed wings are meaty and succulent, encased in a firm sheath of crispy skin. In place of the pure heat that too often overwhelms what could be a tasty tidbit, there’s a pleasantly lip-smacking piquancy that is divine – especially when paired with a cool glass of makgeolli, an unfiltered Korean rice beer that’s slightly sweet, like nigori, with just a hint of fizz. My only issue at this casually elegant version of a Korean tapas bar is that the plates are made for sharing. How do two people split five chicken wings? At one point I feared a stand-off, like a couple of dogs staking their claim. Good thing a silky bowl of wild mushroom jook and truffle oil arrived to distract us, followed by a plate of panko-dusted tofu with ginger scallion dressing hot on its heels. Dinner shifted into a new, less abrasive terrain. Like a palate cleanser, we had moved into the velvet course. I became doubly impressed once I realized how the kitchen had organized the arrival of our small plates. We had ordered everything at once and in no particular order. The chef had cleverly grouped our random selections into a composed menu of flavors and textures. Vermicelli noodles with beef and Korean pepper came next, alongside the most curious dish of the evening, spicy bulgogi beef rice cakes. I couldn’t discern the dish at first: it looked like gnocchi and kimchi with a fried wonton on top. Once the server explained that yes, we were close – the gnocchi was in fact a chewy rice cake; the wonton a vegetable dumpling designed to add some crunch – the dish made perfect sense: beef was an accompaniment, not the main attraction, as this was our rice course. It was also the course where we realized we were full. Poached sablefish with spicy daikon arrived to a palpable groan but we gobbled it up nonetheless. The buttery flesh was cut with the tang of a soy reduction, making for a star protein. Small plates can be deceiving, even more so at Danji, where anyone with a taste for a multiplicity of flavors will be easily seduced by the menu of a dozen and a half options. My sage advice: pace yourself; there’ll be plenty of time for bossam and spicy pork belly sliders tomorrow.

kfc chicken wings

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skewered and spit-roasted

Named after the symbol for the Santa Ana Pueblo, Corn Maiden is the fire-roasted restaurant at Hyatt Tamaya. Blending local Southwestern flavors with traditional tapas plates meant for sharing in an adobe-style home, chef Sam Reed incorporates native tradition into present day concepts beautifully with such starters as Crispy Quinoa Fritters with piquillo pepper coulis and razor-thin Buffalo Carpaccio dressed with shaved Reggiano and a chiffonade of basil. Skewered, spit-fired meats however are the specialty of the house and they, too, do not disappoint. Brought to the table on a sword, the house classic, k’uchininak’u, includes a fiery local chorizo, Fresno chile chicken, and a hunk of chile-rubbed heritage rib eye. A trio of sweet and savory sauces – mole, peach salsa, and a cactus chutney - sets off each of the individual meats, leaving barely any room for the accompanying potatoes au gratin, let alone any desert dessert.

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meet me at the mercado

The Mercado de San Miguel food market is housed in a fantastic glass and cast iron structure that dates from 1916. It strikes me as the type of building that might have once been abandoned and earmarked for demolition due to its prime location in the heart of the city – until a few savvy foodies with a vision for what it could be came along, that is.  Renovated and opened as a boutique delicatessen in 2009, the Mercado is a locavore’s heaven, with individual market stalls selling everything from fruit and veg to meat, fish, bread and baked goods.  This being Spain there’s a good wine bar, too, so you can feel free to enjoy a glass of Rioja with your shopping. Or even better, make it a lunch date and tapas hop your way from stall to stall to stall.

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no mas pulpo, por favor

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a sort-of tapas crawl

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:  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.  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?  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.

 

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casa labra (and cod)

Tucked behind the busy plaza of Puerta del Sol, Casa Labra has taken on an almost mythical status in the history of Madrid. A clandestine backroom meeting here in 1879 led to the founding of the Spanish Socialist Party, which today rules modern Spain. And despite its lefty leanings, it somehow managed to be one of the few tabernas to escape Franco’s sweeping remodeling of the plaza, so there remains an authenticity and character to it all – like the bacalao, which is still sold by the piece at a small stand in the front bar.  Served with a toothpick the lightly fried salt cod also goes great with a crisp glass of beer.

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what’s good for the belly

What better introduction to a country than a fashionable and defiantly cool lunch?  Relaxed and oh so chill atop the clubhouse at Penha Longa, Arola is chef Sergi Arola’s modern twist on Portuguese cuisine.  A disciple of Ferran Adria, Arola spent eight years in the kitchens of El Bulli and it shows. His respect for tradition and heritage, while contrasting unexpected flavors and textures, is an obvious homage to his mentor. It begins with a bowl on the table that I at first mistook for the centerpiece: garlic cloves, cherry tomatoes, and small toast squares.  I soon learned the trio is a classic Catalan tapa served DIY before the meal in every village in Spain: tomato toast. Halve a clove of garlic, making sure to leave the skin on so as to not get the smell all over your fingers.  Rub the cut side across a piece of the toast.  Halve a tomato and do the same.  Drizzle with a little olive oil, a sprinkle of sea salt, and voila: ridiculously simple perfection that also happens be a convivial, participatory start to the meal.

The fun doesn’t end there either. Rather it’s delivered via the kitchen on plate – no work required: thinly sliced pata negra with spunky  Saõ Jorge cheese, Royal and King crab salad, foie gras-topped oxtail ravioli, ethereal Bravas potatoes dolloped with crême fraiche, John Dory on a puree of boletus mushroom with ox tail. I’m tempted to order the rest of the menu, but I’ve already devoured every tasting plate put in front of me – helped along in no small part by an unassumingly fresh bottle of red from Portugal’s Douro Valley. Partridge cannelloni, Iberian ham croquettes, and Massuça goat cheese will have to wait another day.  I can’t even imagine dessert until something called Arola’s Sweet Moment arrives.  It’s a petite timbale of custard with various textures of lemon that refreshes the palate and brings me back from the brink of a food coma.  I fleetingly think I might be able to go another round but wisely opt instead for a cortado and a glass of muscadet, the lighter, honeyed cousin of port.  Fresh off the plane, I am sated.  And I know I am going to love it here.

 

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small spa bites

I’m not a big fan of slavishly following the trends but it’s hard not to notice the sudden ubiquity of mini spa services turning up like tapas on so many menus these days. With 46 percent of International Spa Association member spas seeing an increase in shorter (30 minutes or less) treatment bookings, and 86 percent offering shorter treatments, it looks like we’re officially knee deep into a major trend.

And it’s hard to argue with the practicality of smaller bites, as it were.   For the neophyte, it provides excellent value at lower price points and is a great way to pick and choose something new from a variety of treatments.  For the spa veteran, multiple appetizer-sized spa treatments are now an affordable indulgence, even during the recession.

Here are just a few places where you can go sampling:

The Stillwater Spa at Hyatt Regency Newport recently transformed itself after a resort-wide $35 million renovation and offers treatments designed with innovative, marine-based products in harmony with five key elements – plant, water, stone, salt and air – and focused on achieving four states of well being – physical, spiritual, emotional, and social.  For anyone looking to experience the elements without spending all their time doing that math in their heads, the spa has affordable 25-minute installments, like Tapas Soles Foot Massage, Color Shot Tasting, Tapas Soles Foot Massage and Tapas Facial.   Spa tapas are available Sunday through Thursday between the hours of 3-7 pm – kind of like a spa Happy Hour.  Order one for $50, order two for $95, order three for $145, or order four for $195.

With a lush, welcoming design and a host of innovative treatments,  Seagate Spa is a select serenity stop for hotel guests and local clientele.  Located within Delray Beach’s newly opened The Seagate Hotel, the spa offers several mini spa treatments, each under $65, including a sea salt body polish, reflexology, the express facial and a relaxing massage. The spa also features seven treatment rooms, a full wet room with Vichy shower, two large steam rooms, a Bikram yoga studio and a manicure/ pedicure suite.

The Yachts of Seabourn’s Spa Villas offer express spa services where guest receive the utmost in pampering on the outdoor spa deck.  Services range from mini-hot stone massages, facials and acupuncture to manicures, pedicures and paraffin treatments.  With the waves serving as the backdrop, these mini-treatments are available aboard all Seabourn yachts, including Seabourn Sojourn, which will be unveiled in June 2010.  Prices start at $15.

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