Where they ate: chefs’ and food/travel writers’ best meals of 2011, part II

Where they ate: chefs' and food writers' best meals of 2011, part II

I ate well this year. Maybe better than any other year. I spent a week in Hoi An, Vietnam eating cau lau–an obscure noodle dish that technically can only be made in the small coastal town. I ate my way through Barcelona, dining at restaurants whose chefs had a connection to the recently closed elBulli. I ate all kinds of offal at Incanto in San Francisco. I finally got to eat Ethiopian cuisine in Ethiopia. I had a four-hour meal at Degustation in Prague, where chef Oldrich Sehajdak is re-inventing Czech cuisine. And, here in New York, I was fortunate enough to eat at places like Le Bernardin, the Breslin, Riverpark, GastroArte, and Gramercy Tavern, among many other meals.

But I’m not the only one who spent the year digesting delicious grub. Part II of the annual “where they ate” round-up picks up where the first installment left off.• Homaro Cantu
Executive Chef, moto & iNG and host of Future Food (Chicago, IL)

EL Ideas in Chicago is an amazing BYOB tasting menu concept that is run entirely by Chef Philip Foss and Chef Andrew Brochu, who are true culinary perfectionists.

Del Posto in New York, Mario Batali’s fine dining flagship restaurant. was one of my best dining experiences of 2011; taleggio filled pasta with white truffles; ‘Nuff said.

Burt Katz is the “godfather of Chicago deep dish.” It’s an art in a pizza and it’s always perfect.

• Julia Cosgrove
Editor-in-Chief, AFAR magazine

After a friend’s wedding in Turkey this summer, I spent six days roaming around Istanbul. One afternoon, I dragged my travel companions–a German, a Turk, and two New Yorkers–to Ciya Sofrasy in Kadikoy, on the Asian side of the Bosporus. Everyone was cranky and hungry by the time we found it, but I knew the second we walked in, the trek was worth it. The chef, Musa Daðdeviren, comes from eastern Turkey, and his dishes reflect the diverse traditions of the region. We shared many small plates we picked from the counters at the front: fresh salads flavored with seeds and unusual herbs, stewed beans, perfectly tender eggplant, Turkish meatballs, and hot pide bread. For dessert, we tried candied pumpkin, which had a taffy-like texture like nothing I’ve ever tasted. I could eat there everyday.
In Cairo for the premier AFAR Experiences event, our group ate dinner at Abou El Sid, a traditional Egyptian restaurant in Zamalek. I sat down at a table filled with Egyptians, and our three-hour-long feast commenced. We ate platters of lentils, babaghanoug, tahini, foul (a fava bean dish), and lamb kofte. And those were just the mezes! Then came molokheya (a bright green soup made with molokheya leaves), stuffed pigeon, and koshari, my favorite combination of rice, lentils, and fried onions. My new Egyptian friends chided me into trying the dessert-om aly, a sticky and sweet casserole of phyllo dough, milk, and nuts.
To send off a friend moving to New York, a group of four of us tried everything on the menu at Plum, Daniel Patterson’s new restaurant in Oakland, California. Vegetables and grains have never tasted better or more surprising, and I’m still thinking about the rich dashi broth with yuba and mushrooms, as well as a dessert that is best described as a deconstructed Mint It’s It. The interior is earthy and woodsy, and the location, up the street from the classic Paramount Theater and a few blocks from Gold Teeth Master, is quintessential Oakland.

• Joe Diaz
Co-founder of AFAR magazine

Park Avenue Winter (New York City): A brilliant concept and one in which the restaurant is stripped down to its barebones during a 48-hour period and rebuilt to prepare for the coming season. Four times a year, Chef Kevin Lasko and team transform every detail of Park Avenue to reflect the season. It makes me feel like I’m in synch with the rhythms of the particular time of year, which is rare in our world where we’ve come to expect any food at any time, and during any time of year.

Sotto Mare Gigi’s Oysteria
(San Francisco): Walking into Gigi’s you’re whisked away to the North Beach of the 1970’s. Sit at the bar and strike up a conversation with waitresses who are busy rushing around but will always give it to you straight. If you’re lucky, you might even spot Gigi who in his 70’s still has the party animal inside him. The seafood is basic but fresh and the feel leaves you loving the San Francisco of old.

Dinner at the Pyramids: This is one of the most memorable meals of my life. On October 28, 2011 we had our final dinner of AFAR Experiences Cairo at the Pyramids at Giza. Our group of approximately 40 people sat underneath tents overlooking the Pyramids and dining on some of the most delicious foods catered by the Four Seasons Nile Plaza. It’s not everyday that you get to you get to eat with your closest friends looking out at the Pyramids and listening to one of Egypt’s most famous rock bands. Everything came together perfectly that evening and it’s one I’ll never forget.

• Andrew Evans
National Geographic Traveler’s Digital Nomad

A standout favorite for me was Alta Bistro in Whistler, British Columbia. Not even a year old, Alta is the runaway stepchild of some of Whistler’s finer-dining establishments–all that commitment to marvelous local cuisine minus any ski resort stuffiness. Food and drink are created equal here; the drinks menu is a tribute to the historic art of a well-mixed cocktail and the food menu is consistently fun and fresh.

O Thym
was my best meal in a week of eating my way through Montreal. By far the most culinary of Canada’s cities, Montreal kept revealing new surprises and O Thym did it best. I loved the atmosphere, the single oversized chalkboard with the entire menu scrawled out in French, the commitment to French standards in the kitchen, and plucky presentation that would make make Martha Stewart take up bowling instead.

I sniffed out SUNdeVICH just five blocks from my apartment in Washington, DC. Hidden in a back alleyway of Shaw, the one-room cafe is a global sandwich dream: your favorite flavor memories from the road brought to life on bakery-fresh bread. “The Athens” is loaded with tender grilled lamb and fresh Greek tzatziki, the “Berlin” has authentisch bratwurst and sinus-cleansing mustard. No doubt, this is food for the well-traveled and my best home discovery.

• Richie Farina
Sous Chef moto Restaurant and Bravo’s “Top Chef” Season 9 Contestant (Chicago, IL)

Not only is Del Posto one of the prettiest restaurants I have ever dined in, the pork ravioli with a whole white truffle on top was ridiculous.

The Bristol in Chicago is an amazing industry hang out spot, especially on Sunday nights. The pasta is amazing and the meat salad is one of my favorites. Really simple plates.

Coppa in Boston is one of the best places to get charcuterie in Boston, but the calamari pizza is awesome.

• Maria Fontoura
Senior Editor, Men’s Journal

I had one truly standout eating experience in the last year, and while this is perhaps old news in New York, it was at Takashi on Hudson St. in the West Village. The food is yakiniku, a sort of Korean barbecue (in this case by way of Japan) focused on offal. It was a totally transportive experience, just the most fun I’ve had at a restaurant in a long time. The waitress steered us toward the beef tartare, I thought at first because she suspected we couldn’t handle the real down-and-dirty stuff. But I realized after tasting it that I was wrong. It has such richness and depth of flavor and the texture is so unusual, because the meat is sliced in–this will sound disgusting but trust me, is delicious–these wonderfully marbled ropes. And there’s a dish that’s basically a little raw cube of steak, topped with uni, served on a shiso leaf, that is maybe the most perfect bite of food (sorry, Chiquita bananas). My favorite items to grill were the tongue and the sweetbreads. They have some delicious Japanese beers. And for the record we also got some kind of salad, which was very refreshing. In fact, I think I’m going there right now.

• George Mendes
Executive Chef, Aldea (New York City)

The best places I ate at this year were the following:

Townhouse. In Chilhowie VA. Chef John shields is doing fantastic work. Creative, delicious, spot on technique. And he’s foraging in his local hills and mountains

The French Laundry. Yep. After all these years I finally made out there. Just experiencing Chef Keller’s signature dishes at the original restaurant (other than Per Se) was mind blowing. One of my best meals of all time.

• David Muñoz
Executive Chef, DiverXo (Madrid)

Restaurant Aponiente (Cádiz, Spain):
It is absolutely a unique experience and one of the most personal paths we can find nowadays in Spanish cuisine.

Tippling Club (Singapore):
Because of its high creativity and the best “fine dining” in Singapore.

Soto (New York):
Because of its tact and kindness, simplicity, personality and creativity. Absolutely brilliant.

• Paco Roncero
Executive chef, La Terraza del Casino (Madrid), Gastrofestival participant

My favorite culinary experiences in 2011 include a gala dinner for the Elton John Foundation in London. It was very special for all the team preparing the event, and the reason of the dinner (against HIV). I also went to Venue in Hong Kong promoting Spanish Cuisine. We were very proud representing Spain and promoting Spanish cuisine.

• Sarah Rose
Author of For All the Tea in China

In Hawaii, on my first jetlagged morning, I had Vinha D’Alhos and pork fried rice at the Koa Pancake House in Kaneohe on Windward Oahu. Hawaii is the world capital of amazing pork. And it is authentic fusion, from every Pacific culture and colonial time period–Vinha D’Alhos is Portuguese-spiced pork (“The Meat of Wine and Garlic”) dating to the arrival of sugar cane workers in the 19th century. The restaurant is paneled in koa wood– gorgeous, rare and outrageously expensive; imagine a greasy spoon paneled in gold. Best breakfast in America that will kill you dead.

Every August I return to the Midwest to eat tomatoes. I’ll have a tomato sandwich for breakfast and lunch (toasted white bread, mayo, Big Boys or Better Boys, salt). Suppers are straight from the garden: potatoes, green beans, beets, sweet corn, and likely another tomato sandwich. August is the best eating month. Hurricane Irene destroyed my CSA’s crop, so that weekend was the last real farm meal I got.

A boyfriend took me to Daniel, Daniel Boulud’s namesake palace in New York. That might have been one of the greatest nights of my life–but we broke up.

In Norway I had 10 different kinds of fish for breakfast while sailing the Hurtigruten through the fjords: four kinds of herring–wine, mustard, tomato and curried; two kinds of mackerel–peppered and tomato. There were sardines too, and sweet anchovies for topping soft-boiled eggs (who knew it was such a flavor marriage?). I tried some unrecognizable fish pate that looked exactly like a can of cat food but tasted much better, I assume. (If cats are eating this well I should rethink my grocery habits.) And there was all the smoked salmon I could eat. It was almost as good as a bris.

• Dan Saltzstein
Assistant Editor, New York Times Travel section

Sadly for me, I barely made it out of the country this year (thanks, Canada!), but that doesn’t mean my year lacked for great meals. Here in my home base of New York City, I had outstanding food at Eleven Madison Park (best dish: a simple roasted eggplant, speckled with bulger wheat and bright, intensely flavorful fresh herbs); Blue Hill at Stone Barns, just north of the city in Pocantico Hills (best dish: farm-fresh egg “carbonara” with thinly sliced squash in place of pasta, and bacon); and Momofuku Ssam Bar, which never fails to please (best dish: an umami-fest of chanterelles with pickled quail egg, marrow and juniper).

• Jiri Stift
Executive Editor at Essensia, Prague, Czech Republic

This year I had the pleasure to spend three weeks in Thailand and it was one big dining experience. I found excellent food in top hotel restaurants like Thai restaurant Le Grand Lanna in Mandarin Oriental Chiang Mai as well as great value for money street restaurants serving traditional Thai and Indian cuisine.

The best dining experience this year I would any way vote lunch in Dinner by Heston Blumenthal. I simply loved the restaurant for its original concept and absolutely superb quality of food.

• Gabriel Stulman
Owner of Fedora, Joseph Leonard, and Jeffrey’s Grocery in New York City

Joe Beef in Montreal: I went here with my wife over our wedding anniversary. Joe Beef is constantly one of my favorite restaurants. We sat at the corner table and had the awesome service of wine and the incredible storytelling and companionship of Dave. A few things stand out from the meal–but most memorably was their take on chicken nuggets: instead they made eel nuggets complete with all the classic dipping sauces of a spicy mustard, bbq sauce, etc but all homemade in the little paper, thimble sized ramekins. The other part of the meal that was ethereal was when they served us a warmed-up round of Epoisses cheese for dessert with caramelized shallots – it was emotional.

At Casa Rufo in Bilbao with friend and partner at Fedora Brian Bartels and my friend and chef at Fedora Mehdi we had the most simple and perfect meal. Casa Rufo is a market/restaurant concept that has been around for 60 years and is still run by the husband and wife team who inherited it from their parents. The menu is simple: croquettes and sardines and jamon for appetizers and an incredible 30-day dry-aged rib eye for three served with homemade French fries and a side salad. The meat was out of sight, perfectly marbled, heavily salted, and expertly cooked on the grill. The kitchen is run by one person 5 days a week. The setting is brilliant and the company the best.

For Jeffrey’s Grocery one-year anniversary my wife and I took out the entire management team for a 15 course tasting menu at Manzo restaurant in Eataly helmed by chef Mike Toscano. Mike’s food makes me smile. He is one of the more talented chefs of Italian food in the city in my opinion. The menu had everything: offal, multiple pastas, fish, meat, foie, cheese course, and on and on and on. A supreme dining experience with the team.

• Greg Sullivan
Co-founder of AFAR magazine

Indigo–a restaurant near the Gateway of India in Mumbai. I had some delicious snapper on their open air rooftop next to the frangipani trees. A real highlight last winter.

The Farm at Cape Kidnappers
in Hawkes Bay, New Zealand. Incredible views of the rolling hills and the Pacific, wonderful local foods and wines.

Cantina Siciliana
in Trapani, Sicily. Chef Pino Maggiore treated us to traditional Trapanese (?) meal of cuscusu (couscous), sardines and swordfish.

Park Tavern
. I just had another great meal at the new place in my ‘hood – North Beach San Francisco. They had me right off the start with the deviled eggs with jalapeño and I never looked back.

Where they ate: chefs’ and food writers’ best meals of 2011, part I

Where they ate: chefs' and food writers' best meals of 2011

For an increasingly large sector of humanity, eating has become more than just stabbing at something with a fork, putting it in our mouths and masticating. Chefs are perceived as rockstars, the food blog-o-sphere is inhaling Miracle Grow, and eating has been given a kind of reverence usually reserved for sex and spirituality. If there’s anything that sums up where we’re at as an eating species right now, it’s this: we’re rhapsodizing about Danish cuisine.

Not that this is a bad development. After all, a couple decades ago, in the United States you had to go to a specialty shop to get olive oil. Not surprisingly, when I did the first annual “Where they ate” in 2010 (here and here), it went viral. We want to know where food writers and chefs are eating and then we want to eat there too. Or at least eat vicariously through them.

So, without further ado, after the jump and in alphabetical order: where the ate: chefs’ and food writers’ best meals of 2011, part I.

• Alexander Basek
Travel and food writer, co-founder of Fortnighter

Zahav in Philadelphia. Michael Solomonov continues to absolutely kill it, and was justly lauded this year for his efforts. His Israeli restaurant in Society Hill is so enjoyable from the moment you walk in (and they fire the pita bread for your table as you do, often with Chef Solomonov in front of the oven doing it himself) to the house-ground spices to the insane lamb shoulder cooked for three days with pomegranate and chickpeas, it totally upended my opinion of Middle Eastern food. Also it’s probably the only place I’ll order Jordanian wine.

Van Horn sandwich shop. Had lunch with my girlfriend and established that the BLT and fish sandwiches are two of the best things you could possibly order in the city, all the more so by hunkering down on a cold, blustery day. Van Horn is ever so quietly turning out some of the best Southern items in the city where you’d least expect it.

• Michael Ferraro
Executive Chef, Delicatessen & MacBar (New York City)

This year, one of the most memorable meals I had was at Tapas24 in Barcelona from Chef/ Owner Carles Abellan. With a mission to eat my way through Barcelona, we sat at the bar and started the meal with local beer from the tap. We told the servers behind the bar that we were open to anything and to serve us whatever the chef recommends, which turned out to be all the right choices. At Tapas24 we experienced simplicity done to perfection with every little plate. Just to name a few of the dishes we had were baby octopus that were so sweet they barely needed anything but a drizzle of fine Spanish olive oil, lemon juice, a bit of squid ink and coarse sea salt. Another simple but amazing dish that we had were these little tiny fried local fish that again were simply perfect all alone, but we enjoyed them a top of crisp bread with tomato puree and olive oil. The dishes continued for about 2 hours, one just as amazing as the last, as did the local beer and Rioja.

As you walk in the door of Salumeria Roscioli in Rome the smell of perfectly cured meats takes you over. The front is an amazing bakery/delicatessen/wine bar and the back is the restaurant. While reviewing the menu we enjoyed a perfect negroni and snacked on a sampling of Italian breads that came from the Roscioli bakery that has been operative since 1824. Our first course consisted of an array of antipasti, house made burrata with slow roasted cherry tomatoes and baby artichoke, a selection of house cured meats followed by the pasta courses. This is where I experienced some of the best octopus I’ve ever tasted. In typical Italian fashion the table did not turn very much around us or we never felt rushed, everyone truly enjoyed their meal and the company they were with just a did.

• Gabriella Gershenson

Senior Editor, Saveur magazine

When I was reporting this month’s Saveur article on bûche de Noël, I tried the latest Atelier de Joël Robuchon restaurant in Paris, called Etoile, which refers to its location on the Champs Elysées, one of the streets that spin off the axis of the Arc De Triomphe like a star. I’ve heard otherworldly things about Robuchon in Paris for years, and I was eager to experience it for myself. When I arrived with my mother, who was traveling with me, we were seated at the end of a long bar. The restaurant is well known for fusing bar seating and haute cuisine, so the experience feels swift and contemporary, rather than the needlessly drawn out ceremony that fine dining can be.

Then, the magic began. We were waited on by a parade of 4 or 5 young French men, each good looking in his way, each eager to please. One fellow talked to us about our visit so far, another about what’s especially good on the menu. They’d take their time making recommendations, engaging in polite chitchat, presenting-with the utmost seriousness-one beautiful glass of wine after another, rotating in and out of their duties like gears in a clock. One of my secret pleasures of dining is the flirtation that comes with it; the opportunities for eye contact, the giving and receiving, the artificial relationship that comes as a result of somebody’s job being to serve you. I fell in love with every single one of them.

The food we ordered was exquisite-a potato salad with black truffle slivers, tender leaves of arugula, and shavings of cool foie gras torchon; bite-sized pieces of glistening jamon iberico; beads of caviar trapped in lobster gelée, lavished with cauliflower cream; a melting lobe of seared foie gras with sweet bits of sautéed apple; tender chops of Italian milk-fed lamb; a carnivorous puck of zesty steak tartare with hot salted French fries. I often hear about people’s amazing meals, where each bite goes straight to your soul. This was one of those meals. And combined with the wine and the attention, it was a pure aphrodisiac.

This was all wonderful, except I was sitting next to my mother, so it was also embarrassing. Each visit from a charming server or sommelier, each sip of stunning wine, each bite of gorgeous food, brought me closer to the edge. I can’t speak for my mom, who was reeling from her own gastronomic epiphanies, but I felt like a sausage whose casing was about to burst (phallic imagery for a woman, but that’s how I felt). Eventually I just averted my eyes, shifting in my seat so I wouldn’t be facing my mother while I was navigating my sensual overload. In retrospect, it’s probably a good thing we didn’t have time to stay for dessert.

• Jonathan Gold
Restaurant Critic, LA Weekly

I have this thing: I don’t eat eggs. They fill me with terror, etc., although I cook them for my family almost every day. But I was in Noma, a restaurant on the Copenhagen waterfront that is considered the best restaurant in the world at the moment. And the center of a meal there, the moment the rest of this extraordinary procession of Nordic foodstuffs is anticipating, is a wild duck egg, gathered that morning, fried right in front of you on a hot iron skillet with hay oil, goat butter and a handful of wild garlic leaves also gathered just before service. And I failed it–the best fried egg in the world is still a fried egg. Shame? Regret? Surprise at the deep, slightly marine taste of the bright yolk? Something.

• Sara Jenkins

Chef/owner of restaurants Porchetta and Porsena (New York City)

I can’t tell you where this is but just that it was the sort of old fashioned Roman restaurant that I thought didn’t exist anymore. In a slightly out-of-center yet still historic area this was a large restaurant where surprise of all surprises we actually were the only non-Italians in the room, a concept I thought was impossible. The large rustic tables and decor were matched by a classic menu of Roman food, a cuisine which more often reflects the working-class tastes of Rome’s majority rather than the elevated tastes of the decidedly non-working clergy. To begin with exquisite mozzarella served with prosciutto as it was not tomato season, cacio e peppe, rigatoni w/ pajata (lamb or veal esophagus w/ undigested mothers milk) an exquisite parmigiana di gobbi (cardoons) and then the mother of all Roman dishes which I have never been able to unlock the key to, abbachio with potatoes roasted in the lamb fat dripping but with a uniquely soft texture, every cell of the cooked potato reeking of lamb fat. To end strawberries with lemon and sugar which weren’t in season either but were still delicious!

Porchetta sandwich at a butchers in Bevagna, Umbria. As the owner of Porchetta I feel it is my duty to eat as much porchetta as I can when visiting Italy just so I can make sure I remember what its supposed to be. In recent years however I am sad to say that the environment usually blows away the product. Like everything else the truck stands I loved as a child seem to have become industrialized shadows of their former selves. The bread is dry and tasteless the porchetta even more so. But stumble into the dark butcher shop in Bevagna where the ceiling is covered with house-made hams, guanciale, pancetta and lonzo and in the back behind the case is a glorious porchetta. The skin is crisp and crackly, the tender moist meat perfumed with all the aromatics that it was stuffed with, sliced thick with ample pieces of crisp skin its placed into bread from stone ground wheat fired in a wood fired oven. This is where the inspiration comes from, this is what it used to be and this is still something for me to strive to reach.

New England’s classic fried clams used to be good everywhere but its more of a search these days. At this fry shack on the tidal inlet of the Bagaduce river in Brooksville, Maine the clams are perfect, salty briny and encased in the perfect amount of crispy shell. I can never decide whether to go for a combo of fried seafood, (haddock, scallops, clams) or just straight up clams. You sit down at a picnic table and take in the scenery, the beautiful water, blue skies, pine forests all around and for a minute you think you could just about stay forever

• Paul Liebrandt

Executive Chef, Corton (New York City)

For me the best dinning experience over the past year would have to be restaurant Pujol in Mexico City. The chef, Enrique Olvera, is a friend of mine. The meld of classic and non-classic Mexican cuisine is simply beautiful: green mole sauce with smoked bass and charred onion petal is one example.

Second would be Agape Substance in Paris, My old sous chef David Toutain is a genius and the style of the cuisine is so pure and simple.

• Greg Morabito

Features Editor, Eater New York

My most memorable meal of 2011 was at Romera, the wacky and absurdly expensive Manhattan restaurant from Spanish neurosurgeon-turned-chef Dr. Miguel Sanchez Romera. I went with a group of fellow food writers, all of us ready to tear the place apart based on what we’d heard about the “flavored water” pairings and cryptic “menu cards.”

The windowless, clinically white dining room was mostly empty that night, and the stereo was playing what sounded like the Twin Peaks soundtrack, if the hi-fi had been submerged in Vaseline.

But once the food arrived, it was impossible to be snarky. Of the eleven courses we sampled that night, eight of them were fantastic, and the rest were wonderfully odd. Most remarkable was a plate of 49 tiny, precise squares of powdered herbs and spices (we counted), topped with fresh micro-greens, and then a light bouillon, poured tableside. As we dragged our spoons through the sludge, the dish turned into a vibrant vegetable stew. I’ve never had anything like it, and I don’t think I’ll have anything like it again.

• Eric Ripert
Executive Chef/Co-owner, Le Berndardin (New York City)
In Cambodia I tried a great roadside dish—it was a sticky rice in bamboo. Every day I went visiting the temples of Ankor Wat with my driver and guide and we would take a break in the afternoon and get this dish at a roadside stand. The rice is cooked in coconut milk inside a piece of roasted bamboo. It then continues to cook over charcoal or wood at the roadside stands. It is the ultimate snack. I just loved it. Sweet, sticky, smoky and delicious. I literally had to get some everyday.

Whenever I go to New Orleans I am compelled to get beignets from Café du Monde. I always make sure to get them when they are just out of the oil and very fresh. And then I get amused by the exorbitant amount of powdered sugar they put on them. I eat them walking in the street and usually make the mistake of doing so when I’m wearing a dark colored shirt and end up covered in sugar.

Last June I went back to the legendary restaurant La Tour d’Argent where I had my first job in 1982. I had the pike quenelles which were perfect and amazing. It was so nostalgic for me, I was so happy to be in that timeless and beautiful restaurant and having a dish that tasted even better than what I remembered when I made it as a cook so many years ago.

• Ben Roche

Pastry Chef, moto, Chicago, IL

The best dining experience of 2011 was definitely elBulli. It was a five-hour meal, 40 something courses, the most amazing location, beautiful dining rooms, more cozy and warm than extravagant or fancy. That restaurant changed “restaurants” and their chefs, Chef Ferran and Chef Albert Adria, are arguably the most influential chefs I have ever come across. The restaurant is unfortunately now no longer open.

• Alyssa Shelasky
Editor of New York magazine’s Grub Street, food blogger and author of forthcoming book Apron Anxiety

Making my last deadline for the book was brutal. I went days without sleep, food intake was little to none, and my levels of stress and self-doubt were actually scaring me. But eventually, I had to hit SEND. And four seconds after I did, I threw a blazer over my pajamas and walked down the block to Almondine, where the baker was just taking the almond croissants out of the oven. I didn’t even know I liked almond croissants (I always go for chocolate-involved pastries), but I had to have one. I ordered a café au lait, and took my croissant and coffee around the corner to the beachfront in Dumbo. Like a strung-out zombie, I inhaled every last crumb, staring into the water, slowly coming back to life, and NOTHING has tasted better.

My first day at Grub Street really freaked me out. I hadn’t had an “office job” in years and felt really overwhelmed by the pace, the system, the scene…When I finally escaped for the day, I started walking home from Tribeca towards Brooklyn. Starving and shell-shocked, I picked up my first banh mi–because I felt like I had to eat things like that now that I was officially a “food blogger.” It was a corned beef banh mi (which is kind of cheating, but whatever) at Mangez Avec Moi on W. Broadway and I ate it while walking over the Brooklyn Bridge, taking in the fresh air, and literally moaning over what I was tasting. That banh mi was the best sandwich of my life, and the beginning of a new career and perspective on food.

After a particularly draining week, my sister and I decided to get dressed up and go to a fancy restaurant. She’s a very simple eater (Kraft Mac ‘n Cheese has been her favorite since childhood), so we’ve never really gone “all out” for a meal. We booked a table at Corton, and wore pretty dresses and dabs of perfume, and when we got there, we were immediately transported into this fantasyland of champagne, foie gras, truffles, and all these ingredients and flavors that she’s never experienced, and I’m not that accustomed to. We both felt so radiant and the food was so beautiful. I kept looking at us, all grown-up, swirling our wine, tasting exceptional things, as close as ever…it was truly one of the best nights of my life.

Japan wins World Rafting Championship

The World Rafting Championships were won by JapanAs we mentioned last week, the World Rafting Championship took place in Costa Rica over the weekend, with 48 teams (29 men, 19 women) competing against one another on a wild stretch of the Pacuare River. The competition, which began on Friday and finished on Monday, consisted of a variety of events that rewarded teams for their speed, agility, and endurance on the water.

After four very long days on the water, the Japanese men claimed victory over the field with an impressive showing all around. They finished ahead of the Czech and Slovenian squads who were two and three respectively. In the women’s competition, it was the Czech Republic that took home the crown, with Japan finishing second, and the Netherlands in third. Both the American men and women finished in seventh place.

To win the WRC, teams compete in four distinct rafting disciplines, earning points for how they place in those individual competitions. The team with the highest score at the end of the four days is then declared the champion. On the fist day of the event, the teams take part in the Sprint, during which they simply try to cover a certain length of the river in the fastest time possible. Day 2 brings the Head-to-Head competition, during which the teams are paired up tournament style based on their standings following the Sprint. Teams that win advance in the bracket, while losers are eliminated, until a Head-to-Head champion is crowned. The third day of the competition brings the Slalom, during which the teams navigate around a series of flags as quickly as possible, and the final day is the reserved for the Down River, a long distance test of endurance.

While crowds at the WRC don’t exactly rival those at the Super Bowl, there was an enthusiastic and dedicated group of fans from across the globe on hand. The “stadium” wasn’t bad either, as the Pacuare is a wild and beautiful river, surrounded by lush rainforests and towering mountaintops. It served as the perfect backdrop for event.

Congratulations to the winners.

Holy Water and Wafers in the Czech Republic’s Karlovy Vary

Holy Water and Wafers in the Czech Republic's Karlovy VaryI had walked for an hour in the northern Bohemian spa town Karlovy Vary looking for a place to eat. I have a general rule when I’m in these tourist-crammed towns: no hotel restaurants and no obvious tourist trap eateries, of which this town formerly known as Carlsbad has plenty. I walked along the babbling Tepla River reciting the words to the Joni Mitchell’s heartbreaking “River,” a song I haven’t been able to get out of my head lately. I strolled until the prettied-up 19th-century buildings faded into grim 20th-century Communist-era apartment blocks and the over-priced restaurants morphed into pubs where the night’s main entertainment was two dogs wildly humping each other in the corner as bar patrons gleefully rooted them on (well, at least at one of the places I popped my head into).

As darkness began to envelope the town, I turned back toward the center and walked until I found a pub with a sign for Platan, an excellent south Bohemian beer, a rare sight here among the signs for Pilsner Urquell and Budweiser (the Czech variety). I stopped in to the five-table pub. There were no amorous hounds inside; just quiet-talking couples taking up all the tables but one. I sat down, ordered a beer and a klobasa and dove into a book, figuring I’d settle in for another melancholy evening of sipping better-than-average beer and reading about Burma. Within a few minutes, though, three middle-aged women joined me at the table. They didn’t speak English, so they began asking me questions in Czech. Where was I from? How did I speak Czech? Do I have children?

They laughed at my bad jokes and feigned interest in what I had to say about my life. Finally, I was able to ask something: “What brings you to Karlovy Vary?” All three of the ladies put their hands to their chest and said, in unison, “We’re sick.”

My heart sunk, but I should have known better. It’s the reason why most people come to Karlovy Vary. After all, for centuries everyone from the rich and royal to the ordinary have been gravitating here to “take the waters,” which flow liberally from fountains throughout the colonnaded center of town. The mineral waters are said to have curative properties and today people the world over limp around Karlovy Vary, drinking from the natural springs in between spa treatment appointments.

I was glad the women didn’t ask me why I was here. They probably just assumed I was there for the same reasons they were. But my survival didn’t depend on being in Karlovy Vary. Not that I had the ability to explain in Czech my own struggles, the dark quicksand with which my mind has been sinking; I can barely explain it in English except to paint a picture of being at the bottom of a dark pit with no way out except to ponder the worst scenarios. I had no idea what I was expecting to find in this famous spa town. I knew I’d encounter sick people and pickled-looking Russians and sick pickled-looking Russians (Russians, in fact, own 65 percent of the town and nearly all of the city center), but I came here not just for work but I wondered if this town, which for hundreds of years has been a metaphor of last hopes and survival, would somehow help me too.

Travel, I had rationalized on the two-hour bus ride north from Prague a couple days earlier, comes from the word “travail,” suggesting, inherently, struggle and pain and challenge. And with that, we hope, comes renewal. And wisdom. Either that or death, metaphorically or physically.

As I strolled through the town the morning after my encounter with the three women in the pub, on my way to catch the bus back to Prague, I pulled out the porcelain cup I’d bought on the promenade my first afternoon in town and, like the rest of the visitors, began sampling one last time the various springs. And then, when I saw someone in the distance selling fresh spa wafers, I got an idea. In addition to being where people go to hopefully not die, Karlovy Vary is the wafer capital of Central Europe.

Maybe because they’re light and not too unhealthy, wafers became an in-between-therapy-session snack for the rich and sickly. I’d always heard that you could buy these thin cracker-like circular treats (with chocolate or vanilla smeared in between) on the streets of Karlovy Vary.

There were boxes of wafers piled up to the heavens (at the low, low price of $1.40 each) with flavors that went way behind the traditional chocolate or vanilla: sour cherry, Algerian coffee, gingerbread, tiramisu, white chocolate and orange peel, and even chili pepper.

A young woman was smearing chocolate between freshly baked wafer crackers. I bought one and continued down the promenade, breaking off pieces and stopping at each spring to refill my cup. At the last spring, inside an arched high-ceilinged room with a sculpture of a water nymph placed above the spouting water (the most cathedral like of all the springs), an old frail woman watched as I filled up my cup one last time before I would flee this town perhaps forever. I sipped from the piping hot, fresh-from-the-earth water. The old woman looked down at her empty plastic cup. Signs warned against using plastic cups and bottles. The heat of the water will melt the plastic and could be dangerous for one’s health. I walked over to the old woman and handed her my sipping cup.

“Here,” I said. “Would you like my cup? I’m leaving town.”

Her trembling hand extended toward me. She wrapped her miniscule fingers around the cup, overlapping on to my hand. She didn’t pull away and for about five long seconds we stood there in the empty vaulted room, the sound of splashing water echoing through the space, joined together by this cup–this, as some might say, life-restoring vessel–staring at each other.

Finally, we let go and she took the cup. I then handed her the rest of my host-like wafer. She thanked me profusely in Czech. I smiled and walked out of the sheltered space, my eyes welling up with tears for some reason. On the way back to Prague, I kept thinking about the people I’d encountered there: the three women at the bar, the old woman I’d given my cup to. The history-making events they’d probably been through. And now they come here to this spa town, one last gasp, one last hope, one last wish, in their own personal struggles for survival. They’d traveled here, like me, with hope.

After two days, I felt no real change. No epiphanies. No great insights. No clarity. No rope thrown down to me from the top of the pit. It was silly for me to think otherwise. Yes, the travail of travel sometimes changes people, but not always on the spot. Not always as quickly as we’d like. I might only hope I someday to have the courage of the people I met in Karlovy Vary.

I turned my iPod on and listened to the song I’d been humming the last few days and quietly sang along, “I wish I had a river, I could skate away on…”

The Most Dangerous Beverage in Prague

The Most Dangerous Beverage in PragueThere’s a specter haunting Central Europe. A very quaffable, sweet-tasting specter, that is. And no, it’s not absinthe. This bibulously inspired drink is only around for a few weeks in September. Which means there’s much debauchery happening right now in the center of Europe. If, like me, you’re in the Czech capital this week, you’ll understand when I say that it’s the most dangerous beverage in Prague.

Meet Burcak [pronounced Bur-chahk], a Central European phenomenon where vintners take a batch of the young wine just after the grapes have been crushed, add sugar, and let it ferment a bit. The result is something that’s no longer grape juice yet not exactly wine. And it tastes dangerously close to an addictive juice concoction, which nearly ensures a hangover in the morning. As far as I can tell, it’s only available in the Czech Republic and Austria (in the latter it’s called sturm)

The word “burcak” is just starting to pop up in Prague right now, scrawled across chalkboards that hang outside wine bars. So if you’re in or heading to Central Europe, don’t miss the small window with which burcak is available. Burcak purists, however, will tell you it’s best drunk in southern Moravia, the main wine region of the Czech Republic, particularly in the town of Znojmo.

The last time I took a trip to the region, it was as if some alien intoxicant had overtaken an entire town. When my Czech friend Libor and I pulled into Mikulov, a small castle-topped town on the Czech-Austrian border, there were guys weaving down the tiny cobbled lanes, women vomiting into rubbish bins on the main square, and couples passionately disrobing each other behind trees. What was going on?

It wasn’t that there was something in the water to make the villagers both ill and amorous. It was the first day of the weekend-long annual burcak festival and the town was already collectively inebriated.

But besides its dangerously good taste, here’s how burcak is even more cause for alarm: There is a curse of burcak. While it only contains about five percent alcohol, it continues to ferment while inside your body. Despite the thoughts going through your head right now that some kind of yeast-reeking alien beast is going to explode through your stomach, it means that the alcohol level of the beverage you’ve been consuming the last three or four hours has grown to that of a normal, matured wine (about thirteen percent) while still in your body. Hence, the reason why this entire town of Mikulov was drunk on the day I arrived.

While I’m in Prague this week, I decided to seek out some burcak for myself. At one wine bar, situated next to The Globe, a pretentious and condescending (though I’m referring to the staff) English language bookstore and café, the burcak was overly sweet with a coarse texture. I still finished the half-liter jug, but was looking forward to finding something better. I found it at U Sudu, a cavernous wine bar that has always had a good reputation for good burcak. It didn’t disappoint. The “young wine” was smooth with a more subtle hint of sweetness. U Sudu, by the way, is only for serious drinkers, evidenced by its 9am opening time on most days.

I stumbled away from U Sudu, on my way to meet a friend for dinner. He had been, it turns out, drinking burcak as well. Which was good because he had no way of detecting just how intoxicated I may have been becoming from the still-fermenting burcak we’d already drunk.