Twelve Remarkable Things I Ate in 2015
Two thousand fifteen was an extraordinary year for me – I traveled extensively to Europe, Asia, USA and throughout Mexico in search of the delicious, the elusive, the weird. It would be a formidable task to even attempt to remember everything I ate this year. I avoid writing “best” lists (unless I am paid handsomely to fabricate them). So instead of recalling my favorites, I offer a list of memories that I harbor like pots on the stove of the best chef’s demi-glace, reducing, but never disappearing completely, in a slow steady simmer. Some of these culinary experiences were divine, others horrific, but I would trade none of them in for all the rice in China.
1. Tex-Mex BBQ tacos, Valentina’s – Austin, Texas In February I accompanied a group of professionals from Foodiehub on a whirlwind filming tour of Texas in search of the perfect BBQ. It was reassuring to find that regional cooking still exists in the USA and all great, from the famous to the off-the-beaten-track dusty small-town sleeper. But the revelation came at Valentina’s Tex Mex BBQ in Austin. I usually refrain from the panegyric, but here two gastronomic worlds met and fell in love – I made it a threesome. In a stationary food truck, the finest of Texas smoked BBQ is ‘Mexicanized’, i.e., presented as a taco. Sounds simple, obvious. But nobody had done it so artfully until the Valentina’s came along.
2. Shakshuka – Dr. Shakshuka, Mahane Yehuda Market, Jerusalem, Israel Yes, I’m Jewish, and no, I had never been to Israel until this year when I finally took my resident cousins up on a long-standing invitation. I didn’t expect to find those Ottolenghi delights of which I (and seemingly every other home cook) have been dreaming, so I was pleasantly surprised by the extraordinary quality of the food in the homeland. Shakshuka (eggs poached in a spicy north-African style tomato sauce) from this hallowed hole-in-the-wall in Jerusalem’s beautiful market was perfectly balanced: sweet, spicy, aromatic of cumin and roasted red peppers…I salivate to think of it.
3. Torta Ahogada, El Guerito, Guadalajara, Mexico The torta ahogada (drowned sandwich) is an iconic plato tapatío. Carnitas (confit of pork) are heaped on a crunchy roll called a birrote, and bathed in a piquant sauce fragrant with clove, cinnamon and cumin. It’s a mess to eat (bibs are offered) but well worth the effort. Don Ignacio has been putting these tortas together in this atmospheric spot that I happened upon by accident since 1959 and shows no signs of slowing down. Crunch, punch and umami take the stage.
4. Fruits de mer @ L’Ecaillier du Bistrot, Paris On a work-based search of traditional dishes in an increasingly globalized Paris, I came across this oft-recommended venue for coquillage - raw seafood. My distingué French tablemates were duly impressed so I woke up and smelled the oysters. “It doesn’t get any better,”exclaimed Mme C. as she dug into the spectacular plate of clams, oysters, crabs, shrimp, scallops, snails. You can taste the sea.” The bread and butter that accompany this seafest are the best in Paris. L'Écailler, set in an old-fashioned antique bar, is part of the Paul Bert group of eateries, whose bistrot and small restaurant are located on the same street. L’amour, l’amour, toujours l’amour.
5. La albóndiga de Mamá, Huset, Mexico City Smoke pervades almost every dish on the menu at Venezuelan-born chef Maycoll Calderon’s pretty new venue in Colonia Roma. His technique is to grill then sauce. The chef explains, “We have a wood oven, use seasonal ingredients; it’s fun, simple and delicious. And it’s my restaurant!” And the recipe for this beautiful single meatball is his mother’s. And you DO get bread with “one meatball”; here, anyway.
6. Pre-hispanic bug-taco platter @ Casa de los Tacos, Coyoacán, Mexico City Eating exotic foodstuffs is like watching an Ozu film. You avoid it because you think it won’t be fun, you have to pay a lot of attention and little happens, then it begins to draw you into its psychological vortex and you end up learning something about yourself. It was Rosetta’s renowned chef Elena Reygadas who said that she loves to eat insects because they “taste of the earth;” I think I’m beginning to know what she means. Some of them even taste good.
7. Lengua en Adobo at Pujol, Mexico City Enrique Olvera has done more to draw attention to the beauty of Mexican cuisine than anyone. He’s a good chef and a great guy. Yet I’ve never been on the Pujol-adoring bandwagon and I remain a luke-warm fan. That’s why I was pleasantly surprised by the lack of pretention of a recent San Pellegrino 50 Best dinner I was fortunate to attend. A simple bowl of red adobo sauce was as complex and evocative as a Tolstoy novel, and I can’t wax any more elegiac over the buttery bits of tongue it harbored This apparently simple little dish is Mexico at its best.
8. Snake tacos at Cien Años, Tijuana, Mexico If it looks like a snake, slithers like a snake, it is a snake. Brought to the table boiled but unprepared, the steaming viper smelled fishy. Delivered as a taco, it tasted…well, it tasted like chicken. What more can I say?
9. Pastrami sandwich at Katz’s Delicatessen, New York Fragmented memories of ‘my’ New York float around like specks of dust in a city sunbeam. Many of those recollections are culinary: a 25-cent slice of pizza burning the roof of my mouth; a crusty, smoky pretzel, sweet, woodsy coal-roasted chestnuts. There’s a Jewish deli in my mind where I fondly recall the sweet and acrid smell of pickles, the aroma of smoked fish, sliced pastrami waiting to be piled onto corn-rye bread, sweetish cole slaw and potato salad heaped on the plate. Black & white turned to Technicolor, Oz-style, the moment I walked through Katz’s doors. I hadn’t been since I was 9, but I knew at which table I had last sat.
10. Tian shui mian at Zhanglaoerliangfen, Chengdu, Sichuan, China A highlight amongst a gastronomically high-lit year was a week-long trip to China featuring a food tour of Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan province. Arranged by Jeffrey Merrihue CEO of Mofilm and www.foodiehub.tv, led by the incomparable Jenny Gao, of www.jingtheory.com fame, and accompanied by my pal Luís Chiu chef/owner of Asian Bay in Mexico City, we started at this locally famous noodle joint housed in a typically Chinese faux recreation of an old neighborhood. These rice noodles are hand fashioned like Italian malfatti, irregular and therefore delightfully surprising to the tongue and palate. They are served room temperature and dressed in a mixture of dried chilies and those renowned Sichuan peppercorns which do that “ma la” thing, numbing the mouth on contact then burning it.
11. Rabbit heads, Chengdu, Sichuan China The spit-roasted rabbit itself was indeed delicious, skin crisp, meat succulent, redolent of the smoke imparted by the wood-fed grill on which it had whirled. The heads, however, are the most sought after, so I valiantly gnawed on one, trying not to think too much of the cute little bunny whose soul it had once housed. But when I was cajoled into downing a brain by our resident chef - “It’s the best part, Nick!” – I almost became a vegan on the spot. It was not delicious. It was rancid tasting, mealy textured - nasty. An experience both funny and macabre.
12. Mackerel heads at Soie, Bangkok The variety of Thai foods is mind-boggling. I could keep exploring Bangkok forever – a recent two-week stay was nothing more than a scratch on the surface. Soie is an open-roofed eating place housed in a regional train station north of city center. Locomotives whizz by not five meters from where in-the-know diners devour seafood plates, deep and wok fried, soupy curries, many fiery piquant. Most order a plate of mackerel heads, which are deep fried, to a papery crisp nothingness. They are little tangled faces which are consumed whole – it’s like eating a fish-flavored potato chip if such a thing is imaginable. There’s something intangibly poetic about them.