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Friday, April 30, 2010

Hungry? The 50 Best Restaurants In The World-- And The 100 Best... And Good Dining In L.A. Too

molecular gastronomy

Roland seemed pissed off yesterday when he told me that CNN reported that the new San Pellegrino list of the 50 best restaurants in the world was out and that there isn't one single Los Angeles restaurant on it. It probably didn't cheer him up any when I said that if Pellegrino expanded to the top 100, L.A. still would probably not make it. (I was right.) And the kinds of restaurants that Roland and I favor these days-- healthy ones-- don't even get considered. In fact, we were sitting in Life Food Organic when he mentioned it, munching tiramisu as delicious as anything we ate at Il Canto in Siena's Certosa De Maggiano Hotel-- only not harmful to our well-beings.

On the other hand, except for professional gourmands, who's eaten in as many of these restaurants as we have? The shock of Noma in Copenhagen being named the best restaurant in the world over El Bulli in Roses, Spain came as a bit of a shock-- although probably more to Ferran Adrià than to us-- but neither of us is that big a Scandinavian food fan anyway. And El Bulli (between Barcelona and Perpignan)... any time! El Bulli has been numero uno over and over again. This review by Sue Dyson and Roger McShane will give you an accurate idea of what we love about it.

A visit to El Bulli requires a willingness to suspend the reality that eating is a basic fundamental of life, something we do in order to survive. There is little about a meal here that bears any relationship to notions of eating for living. It's an experience that will give you sensual and intellectual pleasure, as far removed from eating to live as reading Kafka is to following a set of instructions on how to program a video recorder. The connection is there but it's not immediately obvious.

In a world where too many people struggle to get the calories they need just to survive, it is a luxury to eat just for the pleasure of a series of tantalising games, where the satisfaction of hunger doesn't seem to have any part in the motivation for preparing and offering the meal.

Once you accept all that, and it doesn't take long because from the moment you arrive it's so beguiling, then you're in for a memorable experience, one which the restaurant staff appear to enjoy as much as the diners. If you choose the degustation menu, and on a first visit almost everyone does, you'll experience some 25 different tastes, each one memorable and some exquisite.

...The meal is progression of some eleven courses. Some are a single dish. Others are a collection of three or four exquisite tastes. In all, you'll eat about 25 different dishes. Sometimes, you're given strict instructions on how to eat something, for example the famous pea soup, served in thin cone-shaped glass. Drink it all in one go is the advice. While the texture and colour remain constant, as you drink the temperature changes, starting hot and finishing cold. It's a fascinating education as the flavour changes along with the temperature, its ‘peaishness' more obvious as the temperature lowers.

Every dish is served with purpose-designed crockery. In fact every element of this place appears purpose-designed, not least the streamlined and beautiful kitchen, where each small masterpiece is constructed, and which chef Ferran Adriá's partner and master of the front of house, Juli Soler, shows off proudly.

Highlights? Although famous for his ethereal foams, which aim to capture the essence of a flavour, and which have now crossed the Atlantic and have even been sighted in Singapore, for us two of the most memorable flavours were ravioli. One, sea-urchin ravioli, served with a sea-urchin jelly, had a rich, creamy intensity. It was served with pineapple and mango jelly, a fennel jus, and a raspberry-coloured foam made from aromatic herbs! Another ravioli was almost transparent, revealing ahead of the first bite, small bright-green broad beans and just a hint of a strong ham. A later ravioli was filled with oysters, served with oyster jelly, with seaweed and tea foam. Hidden inside this were two tiny, invisible, pieces of extraordinary-intense lemon zest, revealed only in the mouth...

But this is Noma's year and everyone is raving about the young, aggressively Nordic chef René Redzepi. He's all about "a regional, seasonal agenda that is right on the cutting edge: if it isn't available in the Nordic region, he won't cook with it. The result is a very idiosyncratic style of food that speaks to concerns about the way a global food culture turns our eating experiences a uniform beige."

But it goes much further than the agenda: Redzepi is a gifted cook with an extraordinary palate who does amazing things with wild herbs and flowers, bitter green leaves and the freshest local seafood.

In some quarters, of course, the decision will be read as a slap in the face for the modernists, especially for El Bulli and the Fat Duck.

Heston Blumenthal, chef and owner of the Fat Duck, responds-- quite reasonably, I think-- that if his or Ferran Adrià's restaurants had plummeted down the list, then that might well be a viable argument; as it is, what we are really seeing is just a little bit of jostling in the rankings.

What other stories are there? The UK has just three entries, with Claude Bosi's Hibiscus making its first appearance, alongside Fergus Henderson's St John. There are a couple of other places in the UK I would happily see in there, but I can't argue with that overall result: three out of 50 for the UK seems about right. It was always absurd that London restaurants such as Nobu and Hakkasan ever made a showing. The best Japanese and Chinese restaurants in the world being in London? Ludicrous.

The fact that Chateaubriand is the highest ranked French restaurant, ahead of all the over-gilded gastro-palaces, is a breath of fresh air. It is a low key bistro, with apparently fabulous food (I've never been) and if the food is what matters more than the decor then that has to be a good thing. I'm delighted that Japan, with two restaurants, makes a showing, though it is still grossly under-represented.

We keep trying to fiddle with the judging system to up Japan's representation but it's very tough, because the interplay between Japan and the rest of the world remains low key. And that's what's needed for a restaurant to break through: lots of people from outside the country in which it is situated eating there.

Of course, lots of people will take issue with the list: in some European countries it has been decried as some sort of fix (though god knows how you are supposed to fix the votes of 800 people). As I've said in previous years, that sort of thing is taking it far too seriously.

Is it the definitive ranking of the world's top restaurants? Absolutely not, because there is no such thing as a definitive answer to the question. It is just a list, and we all love one of those. Each year, as a result of its publication we argue for a few days about the merits of certain restaurants over each other and, while it is only a tiny part of the conversation to be had around food, that has to be a good thing.

Aside from El Bulli. my faves from the list this year are-- in order of list rankings, not mine-- Daniel in NYC, Per Se (NYC), Pierre Gagnaire (Paris), Le Bernardin (NYC), Iggy's (Singapore), L'Atelier de Joel Robuchon (Paris), the French Laundry (Yountville, although they also have a wonderful affiliate, Mozaic in Ubud, in the middle of Bali that we love), the aforementioned Il Canto, Alain Ducasse (in my favorite place to stay in Paris, the Plaza Athénée), Biko (Mexico City), Hibiscus (London), Eleven Madison Park (NYC), and then in the bottom 50, Jean Georges (NYC), Chez Panisse (Berkeley), The River Cafe (London), Enoteca Pinchiorri (Florence), Masa (NYC) and La Pergola (Rome).

If there's a restaurant remotely like Spain's El Bulli in Los Angeles it's a new Basque, not Catalan, restaurant opened by José Andrés (who actually trained under El Bulli's Adrià) at the SLS Hotel on La Cieniga. The L.A. Times described the experience of eating there as "Fellini-esque, a gastronomical circus, a flirtation with the flavors and soul of Spain? Los Angeles has never seen anything remotely like this..." If any L.A. restaurant is ever going to wind up on that San Pellegrino list, it's El Bazaar. We took a friend from out of town there last weekend. When it first opened, the Wall Street Journal reviewed it and came away saying it "may be the future of fine dining." It cost over $12 million to put together. "It serves no appetizers or entrees: All meals are made up of tapas, and signature items include drinks and canapés dipped in vats of liquid nitrogen. First-time visitors might wander the ground floor of the SLS Hotel looking for the restaurant-- and not realize that they are already standing in it. A palm-reader roams the floor, offering predictions... A mobile cart of liquid nitrogen wheels up to tables that order a $20 Brazilian cocktail, which is dipped and instantly frozen in the steaming brew. Another cart offers 'Cotton Candy Foie Gras,' a block of rich paté that a waiter twirls in spun sugar. A third cart serves "caviar cones," fish eggs served in paper-thin pastry cones... Half the menu belongs to the category of avant-garde cuisine, or molecular gastronomy, which uses advances in culinary science to create new flavors and textures. Mr. Andrés's "olive oil bon bon," for example, looks like a tiny glass sculpture but is in fact olive oil encased in solidified sugar; bite down and it bursts flavorfully in the mouth. Avant-garde cuisine has transformed fine dining in Europe. American avant-garde chefs, from Grant Achatz of Chicago's Alinea to Wylie Dufresne of WD-50 in New York, are heroes to many young chefs."

We're having dinner at Cru tonight. The food is organic, healthfully prepared, delicious and... well eating there will add years to your life, rather than cut it short. Here's the menu (click to enlarge it):

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Same Sex Marriage In Nepal-- And A Very Different Kind Of Attitude In Morocco

I'll never forget the first sight I had of Morocco as I approached on a ferry from Spain early in 1969; I was in Africa. The smells, the sounds and the sights all hit me at once and I fell in love with it-- even though I wasn't really in Morocco yet, but approaching Spain's last toehold in Africa, Ceuta. Funny, how I've been back to Morocco a dozen times since then but never to Ceuta again. Even the first time I got there I left almost immediately, anxious to get to "real Morocco," hightailing it out for Tetouan and then on to Ketama in the Rif Mountains with its infamous kif (a kind of hash) fields; never been back to that part of the country either. I always gravitate to the south-- Fez, Marrakech, Essaoura, Taroudant...

Earlier this year I read about the life of Moroccan ex-pat writer Abdellah Taïa in Out. Taïa's from Salé in the north; he one of Morocco's bets-known writers and he lives in Paris. He's openly gay and living in Morocco would be uncomfortable. He lives in Paris.

Last year, when Morocco’s interior ministry announced a crackdown on writing and books “seeking to attack the moral and religious values” of Moroccan society-- code for supporting gay rights-- Taïa responded with an open letter, “Homosexuality Explained to My Mother.” “There is a generation of Moroccan people trying to express itself, and the government’s response is aggression,” he says. “I knew I couldn’t write to a minister-- he wouldn’t respond because they don’t recognize people like us-- but I could write to someone related to me.”

Taïa’s campaign goes beyond gay rights. After two young brothers died in a suicide attack outside the U.S. consulate in Casablanca in 2007, he wrote an editorial for Le Monde titled “We Have to Save Moroccan Youth,” in which he addressed the exploitation of teen disaffection by Islamic extremists. “But I realized I had to go further than that,” he says. “I had to break the isolation of young Moroccans.” Inspired by Rainer Maria Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet-- a series of 10 letters written to a young man entering the German military-- Taïa approached artists and writers of his generation to contribute essays for an update. Eighteen responded, including Tahar Ben Jelloun, one of Morocco’s most famous writers-- a measure of Taïa’s success in transcending knee-jerk prejudice. “Books have given me a legitimacy that I might not have had without them,” Taïa says. “That a homosexual writer-- the one who is demonized, criminalized-- can unite these forces behind him is amazing to me.”

Letters to a Young Moroccan was published last August, but Taïa didn’t stop there. Aware that his target audience could not afford books, he approached millionaire philanthropist Pierre Bergé, who had owned a home in Marrakech with his lifelong partner, Yves Saint Laurent. Bergé agreed to fund the printing and distribution of 90,000 copies of the book in French and Arabic-- the kind of bold gesture Taïa himself would never be able to make if he still lived in Morocco. “They would say I’m crazy, and who do I think I am-- a political leader? Life is when you can think of something and make it happen.” He pauses and shrugs. “But maybe I’m talking too heroically.”

His newest book, a kind of autobiography, is Salvation Army, his first book to be translated into English. "Taïa has defied Moroccan society’s don’t-ask, don’t-tell attitude toward homosexuality-- and prison sentences that are still on the books in the North African kingdom-- to write five autobiographical novels about growing up poor and gay in the northern coastal city of Salé."

The novels, peppered with sexually explicit passages, have catapulted him to fame in his native country and made him the de-facto poster child of its budding gay rights movement.

His work has sparked harsh criticism. Taïa said some outraged critics have called on him to renounce Moroccan citizenship so as “not to bring shame” on the country.

It’s also alienated him from his parents and eight siblings, who figure extensively in the books and complain that Taïa has publicly humiliated them.

But the 35-year-old author insists he’s never been cowed by fallout from his work.

“When I write, I feel a sense of urgency, as if my life depended on it,” Taïa said in an interview in Paris, where he has lived for almost a decade. “When I first started writing, it never occurred to me to invent some fictional character and talk about made-up things.”

His latest novel, L’armee du Salut, or Salvation Army, focuses on his decision to move to Europe. An English translation recently came out in the United States, with an introduction by author Edmund White.

Though Taïa immigrated legally-- he was awarded a scholarship to study in Switzerland-- his experiences in Geneva paralleled those of thousands Moroccans living in Europe without papers.

After his older Swiss lover who was supposed to pick him up at the Geneva airport never shows up, a penniless Taïa seeks refuge at the Salvation Army, where he lives among illegal immigrants from throughout the developing world.

...Like nearly all Arab countries, Morocco considers homosexual relations a crime, punishable by fines and prison sentences of six months to three years. Such penalties are rarely applied, though, and in practice Morocco has a long history of leniency toward homosexuality and other practices forbidden by Islam.

Last week my friend Danny, knowing of my affinity for Morocco, sent me an article from Carnal Nation, First Arabic-Language Gay Magazine Scandalizes Morocco. The name Mithly has a double-meaning in Arabic: "homo" and "like me." It was published this month-- in Rabat... and in secret. "The editors and publishers of this bold new publication emphasize that Mithly is first and foremost a forum for those suffering under Islamic laws that criminalize homosexuality. Indeed, the appearance of the magazine has so incensed conservative officials that some have called upon the government to hunt down "sleeper cells" of homosexuals like terrorists.

Gay pride parade in Kathmandu

A couple of years after my first visit to Morocco, I found another country I fell in love with and have returned to many times, Nepal. It's more remote and, in many ways, even more foreign. But very live-and-let-live, at least in practice, and not homophobic, at least not for foreigners. It's a Buddhist kingdom that is mostly Hindu and now-- as of 2008-- a republic. And now live-and-let-live has turned into a gay-oriented marketing theme as tourist promoting Nepal looks for gay dollars by offering same sex weddings... on Mount Everest. I sure hope the grooms don't have to trek to the base camp the way I did in 1971.

“We’re completely changing this country. It’s a newborn republic-- and we want to showcase this change,” Sharat Singh Bhandari, the Tourism Minister, told The Times. “We also want to re-establish tourism as a major industry.” He aims to attract one million tourists in 2011, more than double the number last year.

He kicked off the marketing campaign in October with a written message to the International Conference on Gay & Lesbian Tourism in Boston-- an unprecedented gesture for an Asian minister. “As the world knows, Nepal is the land of Mount Everest, world’s highest peak and the birth place of Lord Buddha, light of Asia,” the message said. “I, therefore, would like to take this opportunity to invite and welcome all the sexual and gender minorities from around the world.” ...The tourism board is already talking about same-sex weddings on Everest, elephant safaris for gay honeymooners and other specialist activities.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Is Thailand Falling Apart? Is It Safe For Tourists?

Thai teabaggers demand fascism

Yesterday I picked Roland up at the airport. He had just returned from a couple weeks in Thailand and northeast India. Neither is on the list of the top 10 spring break destinations, which is more about Cancun, Acapulco, South Beach and South Padre Island. Not Roland's cup of tea. No, he wanted to see Benares (Varanasi) and visit a friend living in Bangkok. He got to Bangkok just as the government declared a state of emergency, flew to Calcutta and then took a train, the Vibhuti Express, to Varanasi just as reports came out about 76 Indian soldiers being slain by Maoist rebels. He was more concerned with the filth and sewer-like conditions that he experienced in town. "Why didn't I listen to you?" he asked, rhetorically, when he arrived.

China has already halted tourism to Thailand and the U.S. State Department is warning Americans about travel there. Roland said the atmosphere was "festive" in Bangkok, including among the Red Shirts.

"U.S. citizens are reminded that even demon-strations intended to be peaceful can turn confront-ational and escalate into violence with little or no warning," it said. "U.S. citizens are urged to avoid the areas that may be targeted for demonstrations and to exercise caution in their movements around Bangkok.

Tourism, which accounts for 6 percent of the Thai economy, is suffering after scenes of heavy fighting in Khao San Road.

The State Department said travel to Thailand remains "generally safe" but the possibility of explosive attacks could not be ruled out. "U.S. citizens are reminded to exercise caution and vigilance at all times." it said.

It's likely that the Thai tourist industry will be devastated by the unrest there as thousands of tourists cancel plans. It's probably a great time for intrepid risk-taking travelers to look for bargains. It's certainly safer than Kyrgyzstan.

UPDATE: Violence Escalates

I love Thailand and I've been there over a dozen times. But I wouldn't think about going there now. The pro-government yellow shirts and the teabagger/pro-fascist red shirts are turning increasingly violent. Suddenly the fireworks are now grenades and there are people dying in the Land of Smiles. Although the burgeoning medical tourism industry (mostly intra-Asian) hasn't been impacted much (at least not yet), the big, mainstream tourism industry is in really bad shape... again. The grenade attack at the Sala Daeng intersection and the adjacent BTS Skytrain station on Silom last night is a place where all tourists in Bangkok visit. The Federation of Thai Tourism Associations (FETTA) says tourists have been canceling their trips.
FETTA earlier estimated that if the political turmoil continues, the number of travelers to Thailand will fall by 2-2.5 million because the tourists have lost confidence in Thailand's safety measures.

Due to the escalating tension, Mr Apichart said, it is hard to see that there will actually be 15 million visitors traveling to Thailand this year as the government previously had projected.

Last year tourism accounted for 6.5% of Thailand's gross domestic product-- the country's single largest foreign-exchange earner. This year hotel occupancy in Bangkok was off by a third even before the grenade attack. And the hotels near the protests, including the big 5-star joints like the Four Seasons and the Grand Hyatt Erawan Hotel are closed as are malls, department stores and restaurants that cater to tourists. The carefully crafted "just like Disneyland" image is going down the drain-- with billions of dollars-- and, at least for a while, Thailand is going to be an adventurer's destination again.

UPDATE: Violence Escalates More... Much More

Going to Thailand now would be walking into the middle of a pitched battle. Soldiers have been told to shoot-- to kill. And they have. Thirty have died and hundreds are injured from this weekend's fighting. The government is fighting fascism with... fascism. What a mess! The Australian Embassy closed down and warned its nationals to leave the country at once and the British Foreign Office has told its nationals to avoid Bangkok, even if just for transit purposes. (Israelis, on the other hand, are ignoring the danger despite government warnings.) The Thai stock market is crashing and the bond market is soaring. The baht is a bargain against the dollar (32.41 per dollar). Meanwhile, Malaysia is trying to take advantage of the situation to horn in on Thailand's gigantic tourism industry, currently moribund. Tourists are generally avoiding the trouble spots but the trouble spots aren't always static and tourists are among the injured. In central Bangkok, a small number of hotels have either been caught up in the crossfire or have been used as sniper nests by the army. The tourist authorities are hoping people visit Phuket and Chiang Mai instead of Bangkok.

The 5-star Dusit Thani Hotel has one of my favorite restaurants in Bangkok, the Benjarong, and I always eat at least one meal there on any trip to Thailand. It was hit by a couple of grenades Sunday night.

Executives at the Dusit Thani Bangkok Hotel are in shock after the hotel was targeted in a grenade attack that is believed to be linked to suspicions that Maj Gen Khattiya Sawasdipol, a red-shirt leader, was fatally shot by a sniper who was hiding in the property.

Both the allegations and the attacks have shocked hotel staff and executives.

Grenades fired from an M79 launcher hit the five-star hotel late on Sunday night. The blasts sparked off fires on the 14th and 22nd floors when they exploded... The attack on the Dusit Thani may have been motivated by rumours that it was a sniper positioned in the hotel who shot Maj Gen Khattiya, also known as Seh Daeng, last Thursday night just moments after giving an interview to journalists from the protest camp outside Lumpini Park. Maj Gen Khattiya died from his head wound yesterday.

Revenues are down 13% over last year and the hotel posted a net loss of 107.9 million baht (around $3.3 million).