“No Reservations” season 4, episode 18: Egypt

Location: This week Tony finds himself in Egypt, home to the Great Pyramids, the Sphinx and plenty of other tourist stereotypes. Egypt is one of the world’s great cradles of civilization as well as a crossroads of many cultures (and great cuisine) from all points north, south, east and west.

Episode Rating: Three bloody meat cleavers out of five. Bourdain indeed delivers the unexpected when it comes to Egypt. Some interesting culinary discoveries but also some “snoozefest” segments that could have been left on the editing table. Also, I must say…you came all that way and didn’t go to the Great Pyramids? I don’t care how jaded you are towards tourists – how do you skip that?

Summary: Egypt is the kind of place most of us know at least a little something about. Whether you’ve already been, or it’s the trip of your dreams. most of us with an urge for exploration and discovery reasonably know what to expect. Ancient pharaohs, the Nile, papyrus, mummies. But then again, we are talking about Anthony Bourdain here…

Bourdain sets a manifesto from this episode’s outset – he’s going to skip the prototypical Egyptian tourist spots. Why you might ask? He doesn’t want the view to be cluttered by all of those tourists. But still, one has to admit the man has a unique method to his madness. Much like a Egyptologist cracking open a pharaoh’s tomb for the very first time, Tony’s urge to push his boundaries leads us into some interesting culinary crevices. Was Tony attacked by mummies? Does he eat more camel like in the Saudi Arabia episode? Read on to get the full story.There seems no more obvious place to start an Egyptian visit than in Cairo, the country’s largest city and one of the biggest of any across the Middle East. Of course, upon getting off the aircraft in a foreign country, my usual first instinct is to find something to eat. And Tony is no different. He heads straight to his element – the backstreets of Cairo for a breakfast of the local favorite, fuul. Basically a mix of mashed fava beans, simmered slowly with oil, garlic, chili pepper and a few other spices, fuul is typically served with the ubiquitous flatbread. It’s a filling meal, especially for the many poor Egyptians who will not have another meal until dinnertime.

Having satiated his post-deplaning hunger, Tony heads to the famous Khan el-Khalili marketplace. It is just as you might picture the many vast bazaars that dot the cities of the Muslim world – tiny shops selling all manner of handicrafts, tiny curios, antiques, clothing and of course, spices.

It is precisely these spices that have brought Tony here, and he meets up with Dr. Sayeed of the American University of Cairo to tell him more about this ancient and venerable industry. Egypt was conveniently placed at the crossroads of the ancient world, between medieval Europe and the spice plantations of India and Far East. As these many spices came through Egypt, they revolutionized the country’s cuisine. Dishes like stuffed pigeon are a direct outgrowth of this fact. Tony takes his history lesson to heart and sits down for a stuffed pigeon lunch with his teacher. The bird is stuffed with (what else?) spices then simmered until tender, rolled in more spices and then seared in a pan until carmelized. Is pigeon good? Absolutely yes, says Tony. All you city dwellers, go grab that bag of feathers sitting on your windowsill and throw it in the broiler. Tony says it’s good!

Ok, we’re “stuffed” now with pigeon. Is it too soon to mention dinner? Why no in fact, and Tony has linked up a with a local Egyptian businessman to make sure the gluttony train keeps on moving. They visit fast food chain Abou Tarek to get a taste of local specialty kushari. Kushari is practically the Egyptian national dish – as Tony points out, to not try it while in Egypt would be like going to New York and not eating at a deli. The simple meal is composed of a starchy mix of rice, spaghetti, black lentils, chickpeas and then topped with fried onions. The choice of topping sauce is a matter of personal taste – a tomato-cumin, vinegar-garlic and hot sauce are all on offer.

To wrap up his night, Bourdain and his Egyptian companion go to a traditional Egyptian cafe to drink tea and smoke from hookahs. Though Tony has given up smoking, he can’t resist a pull off the old hookah pipe. The editors got a little too cute here – was the Bob Marley-style reggae music in this scene really necessary? He’s smoking flavored tobacco, not ganja!

Too much urban living can make anybody anxious, so Tony takes his cue to get outta town for some Egyptian-style R&R. The Bourdain crew stops at a small farming village along the Nile River Valley. The town is emblematic of the narrow slice of land which runs along this fabled body of water – the fertile silt of the river provides the perfect soil for all manner of agricultural products.

Tony visits the home of a local family to eat. To get the meal ready, they head to the roof, where they keep their livestock. Tonight’s menu includes duck, freshly made bread, freshly made cheese and freshly made butter and a local soup made with a plant called Melokhia. It is a warm and friendly outing – the food delicious, the people friendly, the setting – majestic. All is right with the world in Anthony-Bourdainland.

The final portion of Tony’s Egypt trip is a visit with a group of Bedouins. Though the word “bedouin” frequently conjures visions of robe-clad peoples riding on camels, modern-day bedouins defy easy categorization. For one, their transportation of choice is now Toyota Land Cruisers. To celebrate his visit (when isn’t a visit by Anthony Bourdain cause for celebration???) the bedouins prepare a feast of lamb.

The animal is killed according to proper principles – they dispatch it with the head facing southeast towards Mecca and all blood is drained before dressing the carcass. While the animal cooks, Tony spends an inordinate amount of time waxing philosophical about the desert – its emptiness and solitude and stark beauty and blah blah blah. If he didn’t have so many tattoos, I think I might have mistaken him for a desert-bound version of Thoreau. Tony, it’s quiet, empty and picturesque, we get it! When it’s time to eat the lamb, they accompany it with rice and some “sun bread” – hardened bread that travels well a
nd is softened in water for consumption. Mmmm mmmm!

That’s it. No visit to the Pyramids. No visit to the Sphinx. For some tourists, that’s a failure. But then again, for Anthony Bourdain, famous landmarks are not really his narrative and a famous place like Egypt was really no exception. Instead, we find an unexpected side of Egypt. A place where cuisine is dictated as much by thousands of years of precedent as it is by the country’s remarkable crossroads of cultures and influences.

“No Reservations” season 4, episode 17: Spain

Location: It’s about time, Mr. Bourdain. Tony makes a culinary pilgrimage to one of Europe’s, and arguably the world’s, most famous culinary destinations of the moment: Spain. It is a country that is thoroughly grounded in the cuisine of tradition yet remarkably forward-thinking in its gastronomic outlook.

Episode Rating: Four and a half bloody meat cleavers (out of five). I’m sorry, perhaps I’m biased, but it’s hard to characterize an episode that features such fascinating, delicious, forward-thinking food as anything but awesome. If you’ve seen any episodes of Bourdain’s previous show, A Cook’s Tour, then you’ll know why this works so well. It’s enjoyable without trying too hard.

Summary: Spain is a country with a cooking style that is thoroughly traditional – we are talking after all about an area of culture that dates all the way back to the ancient Romans, Greeks and beyond. Yet recent years have seen the rise of a very different and highly original brand of cuisine that defies easy convention. Famous chefs like Ferran Adria have pushed what was once one of Europe’s best-kept culinary secrets into the pantheon of global “foodie hotspots.” in much the same way that people have long romanticized France or Italy, Spain is now arguably just as well-known for its local and delcious food culture. Tony comes to Spain expecting to be wowed and rediscovers a country that does not disappoint.Bourdain kicks off the Spain episode by describing Spain as “the best place in the world to eat,” and for anyone that has ever visited, its hard to argue with him. Particularly observant Spain travelers might have noticed this is a bit of generalization. The regions where Bourdain spends his “Spain” trip – Catalonia and the Basque Country are hardly representative of an entire country – but nevertheless, it would not be unfair to describe this region as among the most fertile and innovative culinary “zones” of anywhere on earth.

Fittingly, Tony begins his Spanish culinary odyssey in Vilassar de Mar, a small coastal town just northeast of Barcelona. Not surprisingly this town on the sea is well known for its seafood. Tony joins his friend for a snack at Ca l’espinaler, one of the region’s most famous tapas bars. The bar serves an assortment of some of the freshest ocean creatures on earth – razor clams, cockles, mussels, and toro-quality tuna. The most surprising perhaps, is that it all comes from cans. Though canned food is regarded as less fresh, Tony points out that seafood if canned at the height of its freshness can actually enhance the food’s flavor. And considering a 6 ounce can of seafood at the bar will set you back 156 euros (!!!) it better be damn good.

Finding himself satisfied with his main course, Bourdain returns to Barcelona to satiate his sweet tooth with some dessert. He meets up with the famous brother of Ferran Adria, Albert, to sample some of his famous dessert creations. Albert is working to “reimagine what is possible with food,” using combinations like flavored sorbet and gelatin to recreate strawberries that are then paired with a light fluffy sponge cake. It is not much of a leap from Albert then to understand Enric Rovira, a food artist who creates uniquely sculptural works crafted entirely out of chocolate. Not content to construct his creations by hand, Rovira makes his sculptures by hand and then sets them out in the sun to melt, resulting in a uniquely organic and artistic edible creation. An edible work of art.

To set a sharp contrast with the sweet chocolate and sponge cake, Tony heads to a field southwest of Barcelona to learn more about onions. In the spring, the nearby residents gather to feast on Calcotadas, a unique local onion that is roasted and grilled and then served with a healthy serving of romesco sauce and some flagons of red wine. It looked disturbingly like eating a blooming onion at Outback Steakhouse, but in a much more appetizing way.

However fun his Spanish eating experiences to date, Bourdain is ready to move on to more “serious” culinary experiences and heads north towards San Sebastian. He meets up with the Arzak family at Bar Haizea, one of the city’s better known tapas spots. Despite its simplicity, Tony finds the meal a revelation. Pickled peppers with anchovies, tortilla espanola, salmon mousse, and stuffed eggs are firmly grounded favorites of Spanish cuisine yet foods that are uniquely complex and surprising with their contrasting flavors and textures.

Tony then heads to the renowned restaurant Mugaritz to dine with head chef Andoni Aduriz. Bourdain is given the choice between two cards for his meal – 150 minutes “submit” and 120 minutes “revel.” Not one to back down, Tony chooses “submit” and is not disappointed. The courses of his meal, stretching from potato baked in an edible clay shell, to charcoal foie gras with sea urchin (blackout good), to beef served over cinders and crispy radishes, are exquisitely prepared yet still manage to be fantastically surprising and somehow still “traditional.” This is a theme that Tony returns to time and again here and it seems especially true of the unique food on offer at Mugaritz.

As if this one life-changing meal was not enough, Bourdain then proceeds to Asador Etxebarri, a restaurant named after the town where it is located that specializes in grilled foods. Despite the essential simpicity of the grilling technique, restaurant owner and chef Victor Arguinzoniz manages to create food that is at once creative, complex and delicious. Foods like beluga caviar and tiny eels are grilled quickly over an open flame, searing in a unique smoky set of flavors. We know Bourdain has a weak spot for grilling – it’s not a surprise he’s so enchanted with this place. He looks like he wants to be adopted by the owner as his next of kin.

Tony returns to San Sebastian for a final meal with his friends the Arzaks. It’s not even worth describing the mind-bending combination of flavors they consume. Instead, it is instead evidence of a larger truth about Spain. For a country with such fantastic local ingredients – produce this ripe, seafood this fresh, meat this flavorful – it’s a wonder the citizens of this diverse country didn’t just stop there. Why mess with a good thing? But an impulse persists in the Spanish psyche – something that pushes them forward, forcing innovation and experimentation, yet never quite
leaving behind the traditions of the past. An inspiring, delicious and simply awesome place to eat.

“No Reservations” season 4, episode 16: Tokyo

Location: it’s Tokyo time! Bourdain finally makes his pilgrimage to every food host’s favorite culinary destination, the capital of Japan and one of the world’s largest cities.

Episode Rating: Three bloody meat cleavers out of five. Bourdain made a concerted effort not to do the traditional “this is Japan” food show. It made for interesting subject matter, but the episode also seemed a bit disjointed as well.

Summary: In Anthony Bourdain’s mind, Japan is all about the relentless pursuit of perfection. No matter if it’s food, art or sport, the Japanese are almost religious in their attention to quality and detail. It is through this lens that Bourdain takes us on a tour of Tokyo, one of the most famous but also most confusing places to visit on earth (after visiting earlier this year, I would have to agree). After an earlier No Reservations visit to Osaka, where Tony proclaimed he was not going to “do the traditional” Japan visit to Tokyo, it was interesting to get an entirely different Bourdain perspective on the country, one which was noticeably more subdued than his previous visit.
There’s no better insight into Japanese culinary culture than noodles, and Tony starts his visit by meeting up with famous Japanese chef Masaharu Morimoto for some soba. Made mostly from buckwheat, soba noodles are “one of the most fundamental foods” in Japanese cooking. The noodle shop they visit has been perfecting the art of making the perfect noodle since 1789. Each noodle is cut to the exact width of 1.6mm to ensure proper cooking time and consistency. It was clear Tony was loving his noodles, and the camera work here confirms this – we see some serious “noodle porn” with plenty of close-ups and slow-mo effects for good measure.

Not to be outdone by Japanese noodle-making is the Japanese fanaticism for quality cocktails. To better experience the phenomenon, Tony visits Bar IshinoHana, world-famous for its exquisitely-crafted cocktails. According to Tony, the bartender spends an “agonizingly” long time making Tony’s drink – relax man, it’s going to be one-of-a-kind! In the pursuit of his hypothesis that the Japanese are obsessed with perfection, Tony asks the bartender what inspired him to become a bartender. Amusingly enough, the bartender answers his idol is Tom Cruise in Cocktail. How’s that for an odd source of inspiration?

In order to work off his designer-cocktail hangover the next day, Tony visits a sports complex to learn more about Kendo. The sport, involving the ancient martial arts techniques of sword fighting, is as much a mental exercise as it is a physical one. Participants use their shinai, or bamboo sword, to try and outmaneuver and out-think their opponent, aiming to strike body hits.

Back in Tokyo’s Roppongi district, Tony reunites with chef Morimoto after-hours at his restaurant, XEX. Morimoto prepares Bourdain a surprisingly delicious multi-course dinner using a whole Monkfish. Not a single organ is wasted – Tony gets to sample the liver (tastes like foie gras), fried monkfish with seaweed and bamboo shoots, and a “Nabe” (NAH-bay) made with Monkfish cartilage and skin. All unexpectedly prepared and unexpectedly delicious.

Tony seems to be tired of Tokyo, so he hops on a Shinkansen bullet train to take in some of the other nearby sites. I think Bourdain must be getting up there in years, because the next 5-10 minutes of the show take an unexpected turn into HGTV territory while Tony learns about the art of Ikebana, or Japanese flower arrangement. Really? Look, I don’t doubt that it’s a cool art form, but it really did seem out of place in your typical No Reservations episode that centers on gluttony, shooting firearms and killing animals. Perhaps Tony is becoming more mellow as he ages?

All the arts and crafts have made Tony hungry, so he heads to a famous Yakitori joint known for their top-notch chicken skewers. Let me tell you – there is not a single fingernail of that chicken which Tony did not eat in this scene, where he devours rare chicken breast, spleen, chicken sashimi, the chicken tissue connecting the liver and heart, chicken skin, and chicken tataki. I swear, I will not make any “tastes like chicken” jokes here. Tony makes a point of commenting on the raw chicken, which he finds surprisingly delicious. Apparently illness is not an issue, as the chicken is killed immediately before preparation.

Tony ends his adventure outside Tokyo with a visit to a knife-making shop in Sakai City, and with a traditional Kaiseki meal with chef Morimoto, prepared using fresh seasonal, regional ingredients. Tony samples some Cod sperm during his meal, but this kind of weird food indulgence almost seems routine at this point.

Appropriately, Bourdain ends his Tokyo visit with a trip to one of the city’s most famous sushi establishments. The sushi is simply made, amazingly fresh and accompanied by perfectly-made rice. Tony can’t help but hide his glee, proclaiming it the best sushi he’s ever had. Another reminder that when it comes to anything in Japan, the “devil is in the details.” Anthony Bourdain’s Japan is much of the same – an idealized vision of perfectly crafted foods, supreme attention to the little things and an overarching philosophy of minimalism. In modern Japan, that’s perhaps only half the picture – there are plenty of elements of Japanese culture, technology and bizarreness that Tony intentionally leaves out here. But for a show with a singular focus on food and spinning us a pretty narrative, it makes for a nicely packaged hour of television.

“No Reservations” season 4, episode 14: Uruguay

Location: it’s a Bourdain family vacation to Uruguay, the hidden secret of South America. Quietly tucked between beach-strewn Brazil and boisterous Argentina, Uruguay is the unsung hero of grilled meats, beautiful scenery and a quintessential “laid-back” lifestyle.

Episode Rating: Four bloody meat cleavers out of five. The cleavers are extra bloody this week from the insane amount of meat Tony eats during his Uruguayan odyssey. It’s worth noting that the high ratings so far this season are not inflated – every single new episode this summer has made for highly-watchable television.

Summary: Little did we know, but the Bourdain family has a colorful family history, starting with Tony’s grandfather who headed across the Atlantic in 1918 to settle for a few years in Uruguay. It is this mysterious voyage across the ocean which frames Tony’s trip. Who were his ancestors? What was life like in early 20th Century Uruguay? To help in his quest, Bourdain invites along his brother Chris, and the siblings set off to try and find some answers (and possibly eat some animal flesh during their downtime).
There’s no better place to begin a trip to Uruguay then by visiting the country’s capital, Montevideo. It’s a majestic old gem of a city, full of crumbling old buildings and picturesque streets. And perhaps no landmark is more emblematic of Uruguay than the Mercado del Puerto, arguably the “beating heart” of the country. The market is filled with vendors selling a virtual cornucopia of meat of every shape and size, slow-cooked a la parrilla (on the grill) over the burning coals of a huge wood-fed fire.

It’s here that Tony lays out his “meat manifesto” for his brother while the two gorge themselves on steak, sausages and loins served with a side of the ubiquitous chimichurri sauce. The consumption of potatoes, vegetables or bread of any kind while eating meat is forbidden! It only serves to fill you up so you can eat less meat. Mercado del Puerto truly seems tailor-made for Mr. Bourdain.

But this is Uruguay after all – there’s much more grilled flesh to be eaten, so Bourdain and his brother travel to “Gaucho country” near the village of La Galleja to visit a Uruguayan estancia. While there, Tony is hosted by a family originally from Canada that has made the Uruguayan countryside their home. The family cooks a huge feast in honor of Chris and Tony’s visit, including a whole piglet a la parrilla, an Estofado (a South American stew) made with sweet potatoes and Nandu and the centerpiece: an armadillo. Tony’s reaction: it tastes like chicken. Really Tony? Is this not the cardinal sin of food television?

Next up is the sleepy village of Garzon, population 200, where Tony pays a visit to renowned chef Francis Mallmann. Mallman has retreated from the glitzy dining scene of nearby Punta del Este to focus his energies on simple, traditional Uruguayan cooking. To demonstrate his new focus, he prepares Tony a meal using the traditional styles of asado – meat cooked between two iron grills, meat cooked in salt crust, vegetables cooked in hot ash and a pascualina spinach-egg pie on the side. As they eat this simple, delicious meal, Francis and Anthony discuss virtues of patience and the ultimate simplicity and primal nature of barbecue. The normally vitriolic Bourdain is downright mellow and rightfully so – an enormous simple meal of grilled meats seems to be perfectly suited to Bourdain’s temperment.

Seemingly satisfied with his time in the interior, Bourdain heads for the coast where he relaxes in Punta del Este, Uruguay’s infamous summer beach retreat for the rich and famous. After sunning himself on a beautiful stretch of sand, Tony and Chris have dinner seaside at La Huella, where they dine on fire-roasted prawns and sauteed octopus. Not surprisingly the Uruguayan seafood is just as good as the barbecue.

The two brothers then head up the coast to the hippie enclave of Cabo Polonio. They drink at a small bar with a local named Raoul, downing shots of the local moonshine made from grapes while the bar’s pet penguin, Pancho, scurries about beneath their feet. How did the penguin get there? He just sort of got lost one day and decided to stay. About the same way most wanderers find themselves in Cabo Polonio.

Upon their return to Montevideo, Tony and brother Chris conclude their visit at a raucous street fair featuring chorizo sandwiches, some drum based candombe music and siete y tres cocktails made from a mixture of red wine and coke. Though Bourdain and his crew clearly planned the event for television, the scene quickly becomes a full-fledged party as the friendly locals notice the commotion and begin to gather. It’s fairly typical of Uruguay – it just sort of sneaks up on you with its beauty, its surprising and fantastic food and the unassuming friendliness of the locals. But don’t expect Uruguay to stay under the radar much longer – a place this good can only stay a secret for so long.

“No Reservations” season 4, episode 13: Saudi Arabia

Location: This week’s episode takes us to Saudi Arabia, where Tony is guided by the winner of the No Reservations FAN-atic contest, Danya Alhamrani. The master of strange destinations heads to the land of camels, deserts and oil to take a “peek behind the veil” of one of the world’s more mysterious destinations.

Episode Rating
: Three bloody meat cleavers out of five.

Summary: Last year, No Reservations put together a contest to find Anthony a co-host for one episode. After sorting through more than 1300 entries, ranging from creepy, to boring, to downright strange, Mr. Bourdain settles on his winner, Danya, who plans to take Tony on a grand tour of Saudi Arabia.

Saudi Arabia was certainly an interesting episode – it is well off the beaten tourist path, allowing for interesting insight into a country not particuarly well-known by many Americans as anything but a source of oil and terrorism. Tony and Danya set out dispel such notions with a journey into finer points of Saudi cuisine and daily life.
Things get started in Jeddah, a surprisingly cosmopolitan metropolis bordering the Red Sea. Little more than a minute into the episode and Tony launches into the “dont’s” of Saudi Arabia – bemoaning the country’s lack of alcohol, gambling and women covered head to toe. But Bourdain’s host Danya is having none of it – the two set off on a tour of her hometown. Danya’s Saudi home is surprisingly western – a plasma TV, nicely appointed with tasteful furnishings and all the modern conveniences. Amazing – they don’t live in tents! For those that didn’t catch the sarcasm there, this seemed a bit unnecessary, but one can hardly fault Tony, as his co-host Danya is calling the shots.

Down in the historic center of Jeddah, Danya and Tony stop for some breakfast, a mix of offal involving liver, kidneys and other sundry animal parts. The meat is cooked in ghee with tomatoes, red onions, parsley and some chili sauce. Bourdain digs into the meal with characteristic gusto, though his host looks less than enthusiastic. Having second thoughts Danya?

To complete his Saudi transformation, Bourdain is fitted for a Thawb, the traditional ankle-length robe worn by men. Let me tell you, even with the local garb, it’s hard for a 6-foot tall American to “blend in” – but it’s a humorous moment nonetheless. Tony ends his visit to Jeddah on the roof of a house, where the group feasts on a whole lamb roasted in a traditional coal oven. A stunning view and a stunningly delicious feast – how’s that for unexpected?

The next day, Tony and Danya head to the Camel Bazaar. Will they be riding them off into the sunset a la Lawrence of Arabia? Not a chance, dear viewer – our carnivore-in-chief has the pleasure of picking a camel that he will be eating later in the show.

While we await the senseless slaughter of the dinner camel, Bourdain and Danya take an intermission for a few other activities. They visit a Saudi mall, a favorite destination for locals to hang out and participate in some conspicuous consumption. I found it amusing that they sell a huge variety of westernized women’s clothing at the mall – women are required to be covered head to toe to maintain “modesty,” yet sexy lingerie and high heels are easily available. Seems like a bit of a contradiction, no?

Shopping would make anyone hungry, so our two hosts stop at Al Baik, Saudi Arabia’s favorite fried chicken joint. The seating at the restaurant is separated into “singles” and “family,” allowing Tony a chance to discuss the interesting differences in status between genders inherent in Saudi society.

In the afternoon, Bourdain and Danya go lizard hunting. Considered a Bedouin delicacy, they watch as the hunters try to trap lizards coming out of their underground burrows. The meat is then charred over an open flame while stewed in tomato and onions. The verdict? Not nearly as bad as expected.

But this odd meal is only the appetizer for what is yet to come. Our sojourn in Saudi Arabia, ends fittingly with the consumption of the much-anticipated camel. Tony, not surprisingly, finds the meat to be delicious, and he and his 20 new Saudi friends spend their meal laughing and joking in between bites of meaty camel hump. Finger-licking good!

So ends Tony’s voyage to Saudia Arabia. The addition of a co-host provided an interesting twist which proved a welcome change. Tony was out of his element at times without his obligatory alcohol binges, but came away with interesting insight into a country with a lot of misconceptions among foreigners. By no means the best episode ever. The episode’s food choices rank high on the “weirdness” index, but perhaps a bit lower on the “I love this and want to eat it again” ranking. Nevertheless, it was an interesting chance to challenge to the assumptions of many viewers and their relative lack of knowledge about this Muslim country.