Sunday 11 December 2011

Home Sweet Home

Whilst my blog last had me riding camels in Morocco, I have returned home.

In the intervening time, there were trips back to London, to Hong Kong, to Phuket (at a Muay Thai fitness camp) and Seoul. I will, in time, write about the amazing experiences I had in those places and how wonderful those last six weeks of my trip were.

I hope to turn my blog into a photobook, if for no other reader than myself. As of yet, I have not decided whether to maintain this blog with tales of future travels or turn it into something else. In the interim, I hope readers will find the reviews useful in their trip planning.

Kind regards


Tuesday 22 November 2011

Essaouira, Morocco

So once the TV host of a travel show has visited Marrakech and Jemaa el-Fnaa, the next stop is usually Essaouira and a visit the dock for a seafood grill. So of course, that was my next stop as well.

The beach at twilight

Located about 2 ½ hours away from Marrakech by bus, Essaouira sits on the Atlantic coast and is famous for its seafood and wind, making it a base for windsurfing and kitesurfing enthusiasts from around the world.

The day’s catch is laid out in stands and grilled to order. We sampled a bit of everything: prawns, crab, sea urchin, sardines, snapper, squid and another large white fish. For $6 a head it was definitely a bargain considering the amount of food left uneaten could have fed another three or four people.

Just point to it and it will be cooked to order for you

A small sample of what we ate (sea urchin and sardines)

For the rest of our time in Essaouira, we hit the souks, the hamman and the beach; a perfect and relaxing couple of days, with the exception of the morning daily call to prayer at 4.30am coming from the Mosque’s loudspeaker which was located directly next to our hotel facing our window. However, when in Rome……

The obligatory camel ride on the beach

Sunday 20 November 2011

Jemaa el-Fnaa, Marrakech

Watch any travel show or read any magazine article about Marrakech and there is one place that is included each time: Jemaa el-Fnaa. The proverbial heart of the city, it is located across from the main mosque and is the centrepoint of activity. Fronting a large souk, the square is filled with musicians, snake charmers and other street performers by day, and by night, comes alive with the smells of roasted meats as the food stalls set up.

The view of the organised chaos from a rooftop cafe overlooking the square

It was the number one reason I wanted to go to Morocco and I had finally made it. The food stalls cover range of food from kebabs and sausages (packed with tourists) to snails and sheep heads (not so many tourists). I was travelling with a group so we ended up as the more unadventurous food stands but I still loved it.

First of all, you need to decide where to eat and the staff owners are experts at trying to persuade you to eat at their stall and not another. In perfect cockney accents, they would imitate Jamie Oliver, one said his food was “better than Heston Blumenthal” and others would try to charm the ladies with stories of how many donkeys you were worth.

The staff absolutely LOVE being in photos

Once a venue is selected, you then need to decide what you’d like them to grill or fry up for you, accompanied with fresh salads and bread. We ordered a bit of everything and feasted like kings.

A tiny selection of the food on offer

After dinner, we wondered the square, I tried some snails and we also went up to a rooftop café to see the view of the square from a different perspective. The smoke and steam billowing from the grills and fryers produces a fragrant haze that gets illuminated by the night lights: a truly chaotic and wonderful experience.

Snail time - not bad but not great

Friday 18 November 2011

Idina Menzel at Royal Albert Hall, London

One of the problems with travelling overseas for a long time and not bringing your normal computer is that you are stuck with the same playlist on your ipod and can’t add any new songs. The two albums that seemed to have gotten the most play over my trip were the Wicked soundtrack and Idina’s Menzel’s I Stand. Given that Ms Menzel stars on both albums, when I realized that her tour dates lined up with my travels, I leaped at the chance to see her live in London at Royal Albert Hall.

Idina is best known as a Tony-winning Broadway actress, originating both the role of Maureen in Rent and Elphaba in Wicked. For the non-theatre types, she was Nancy (the other woman) in Enchanted and is currently seen in Glee playing the role of Shelby Corcoran.

First of all, the hall is spectacular. The interior is grand and ornate but the theatre is small enough that even the “bad seats” aren’t so bad. My seat was pretty far away but still had a decent view.

Royal Albert Hall interior

Idina was touring with Marvin Hamlisch, a famed conductor and one of few EGOTs (winner of an Emmy, Grammy, Tony and Oscar). He led the first act and was highly entertaining. After a short intermission, it was time for Act 2.

Idina graced the stage, in a white evening gown and bare feet. Her concert had a similar style to Bette Midler (without the cursing and “mermaid in a wheelchair skit”): she would tell a story to set up the song and then sing.

The set list covered her Broadway roles (Rent, The Wild Party & Wicked), Police, Streisand and others. Stories of how she unsuccessfully tried to seduce her college professor without knowing he was gay, or how Ms Streisand reacted to her rendition of “Don’t Rain on My Parade” were thoroughly entertaining.

Besides Defying Gravity, which of course was the “song we had all been waiting for” the hit of the night was Poker Face. Idina famously sang it on Glee as a duet with Lea Michele, but when accompanied with the full London Philharmonic Orchestra and sung with her vocal power and range, it’s a completely different song. What made it memorable, however, was Idina’s running commentary about how lyrics such as “I’m not bluffin’ with my muffin” were completely inappropriate for the mother/daughter reunion scene that the song was used for. In addition, she humorously chided the Philharmonic Orchestra for playing the song for her, noting (in jest) that they must all feel that they have reached the pinnacle of their careers after all those years of studying by finally getting to play Gaga.

In summary, I loved it, loved her and would see her again any day.

Friday 11 November 2011

St John, London

I had plans for three signature meals in the London area: The Fat Duck, The Ledbury and St John. The Fat Duck refused to seat a party for one so they were cancelled and although I got a reservation at The Ledbury, I awoke the morning of my reservation feeling less than great so that was cancelled too. That left Chef Fergus Henderson’s St John, which in truth was the one I was looking forward to the most.

Milk-board located outside the restaurant

Located near Farringdon tube stop, it is easy to walk straight past the restaurant. Yes, it is well signed, but from the outside, you would not guess from the exterior that it is one one of the world's great restaurants.

Restaurant entrance

I found the food to be honest, simple (in a good way) and delicious but my server was so indifferent and unhelpful that I left with a sour taste in my mouth.

Restaurant interior: note the open kitchen


The menu items do not contain any descriptions; for appetizer I had “Terrine”. It was delicious – meaty with the perfect texture; not too smooth, not too chunky.

When it was delivered to my table, the waitress simply plonked it down and left. When she came to clear my plate, I asked her what the meats were and she simply replied “pork or duck” and walked off.

Roast Bone Marrow & Parsley Salad

The service did not improve at all for the main course. First of all, a plate of duck was delivered to my table. When I advised that I did not order duck and had, in fact, ordered the Bone Marrow, she replied “you said mallard”.

Now, even though I said “bone marrow” when I ordered and pointed to it on the menu, I can forgive the error. I was the one with the foreign accent and mistakes happen. What I didn’t care for, however, was that when the waitress returned to the kitchen, which is open to the dining room, she loudly complained about me and I could hear every word.

The kitchen fired up a new dish for me in record time and it was lovely. The parsley salad had a good bite and the marrow just perfect. I love the taste of marrow but it still remains for me a dish that I need to eat without thinking about what it is. I am usually OK with offal but for some reason, marrow still gives me the mental shudders.

Bone marrow and parsely salad

Assorted cheeses

For dessert, I ordered the cheese plate. Again, my waitress just dumped it on my table and walked off. It was only after another staff member noticed the perplexed look on my face and came over that I was able to ask for a description of the cheeses. This “alternate” server was wonderful; friendly and helpful and the polar opposite of my waitress. The cheeses were a good selection of local or artisan British cheeses (available from Neil's Yard at the Borough Market) and all were enjoyed.

Assorted cheeses (Stichtelton (blue), Caerphilly (cow), Tunworth (cow) and Timsborough(goat))

As a lover of food, I understand why Chef Ferguson and his restaurant are so important. He was the Chef to make offal cool again; to resurrect long forgotten ingredients and/or preparations and to encourage the return of nose-to-tail cooking in the West. For me, however, the poor service made the meal very difficult to enjoy. That was really unfortunate because the food was lovely and it seemed that the service provided by every other staff member was attentive and warm.

Thursday 10 November 2011

Avec, Chicago

Throughout my trip I had met hundreds of people and made countless new friends. One such person was Mike. Well actually, we hadn’t really officially met. Mike was seated at the table next to me when I ate at Arzak in San Sebastian. He then ran into my dining companions that night and ended up eating with them at Mugaritz who I understand told him about me and gave him my blog address.

As a result, Mike and I had been e-mailing back and forth, swapping restaurant recommendations and offering travel advice. We worked out that we were both going to be in Chicago at the same time so agreed to meet at Bin 36 for their annual Fall Harvest Wine Blending event.

Bin 36 is a restaurant, wine bar, cheese bar and market located in central Chicago. Annually they have a wine tasting and blending event. For the price of $40 admission there is unlimited wine tasting, a lesson in wine blending and a chance to design and order your own unique blend with personalized labels (which makes great Christmas presents) and unlimited finger food. My palate for red wine is not yet fully developed so whilst I enjoyed trying the wines, the food was the star. There was truffled popcorn, three cheese mac & cheese with truffles, assorted cheeses, assorted charcuterie, dips, breads and crudités.

Most people at the event were ordering bottles of their signature blends but there was no way for me to take the bottles back to Australia so I had to pass.

After the tasting, we headed for dinner at Avec; a restaurant that I had wanted to try. I had seen it on No Reservations and understood that it was highly popular in Chicago for its style: focus on the food and good company and ditch the white tablecloths and stuffy service. The food is served family-style so it was perfect to go to as a group. I loved the restaurant; it was laid-back and casual. The setting was communal style and the food was divine. I will be definitely trying to copy their dishes for my next party.

oven-roasted shishito peppers with pickled feta

Good smoky flavour, slightly spicy but not too overpowering with the feta nicely complimenting the peppers and providing a cool element.

chorizo-stuffed medjool dates with smoked bacon and piquillo pepper-tomato sauce

The hands down star of the menu and since I located the recipe on, it will be one the first things I cook when I return to Australia. They were smoky, spicy and sweet and absolutely morish. The first couple of orders were demolished in such record time we had to immediately reorder another few servings.

Align Centre

deluxe focaccia with taleggio cheese, ricotta, truffle oil and fresh herbs

OK, put cheese and truffle together in just about anything and I am happy. What surprised me most about this dish however, was the quality of the focaccia; crispy on top but still fluffy in the middle. Again, we were fighting over this as can be seen by the photo. By the time I got my camera out, it was pretty much gone.

atlantic salmon with sweet corn, market tomatoes, soy beans and mojo de ajo

Perfectly cooked salmon, nice flavour, tasty but not overly memorable.

whipped brandade with garlic bread and chives

Wow – full of fish flavour without being overly fishy and wonderfully creamy. The crispy garlic bread was the perfect crunchy base for the gooey warm brandade. This is definitely my favourite preparation of salt cod.

chitarra pasta with parmesan and mushroom bolognese

This dish was real surprise. The pasta was thick and toothy, perfectly cooked. The star of the dish, however, was the bolognese. The mushroom flavour was meaty and earthy and as the mushrooms were finely diced, the texture was pleasant and reminiscent of ground beef rather than slimy mushroom.

wood-oven roasted pork shoulder with roasted baby carrots, black rice and basil pistou

Unfortunately by the time this dish arrived, most of us were full but the pork was fork tender and the flavours melded well together.

Mike and his friends were very kind and welcoming and it was great to meet another set of foodies from the other side of the world.

Sunday 6 November 2011

Alinea, Chicago

So here it is. The meal that I had been waiting for for months. The meal that was significant enough to convince my father to fly from Australia to meet me. He says he came because he missed me but I know better.

I had first heard of Grant Achatz and Alinea in late 2008. I was browsing for new cookbooks to buy and stumbled across his cookbook. His name and reputation had not yet made it to Australia in the way that Chefs Keller or Ripert had, but I was intrigued. The pictures looked amazing and, although I was certain there wouldn’t be much in the book for the home cook, I knew it needed to be on my bookcase.

Fast forward to 2011 and I had decided that my backpacking holiday needed to be an “eat your way around the world” holiday instead. I had already selected the restaurants I must eat at but one final review of San Pellegrino’s Best Restaurants List reminded me that Alinea was a glaring omission. It had three Michelin stars, four stars from the NY times, had won the James Beard award. It was Gourmet magazine's Best Restaurant and had numerous other accolades.

So the day the reservation line opened for September, I was on the phone. I was actually in the middle of seeing La Traviata in Verona when I got through to Chicago on my cell phone (not a cheap proposition). I tried to secure an almost-impossible-to-get reservation. I believe I told the reservationist that “I’ll take anything you have at any time” and the date was set. September 29. I needed to be in Chicago on that date at all costs. My entire US trip was built around this reservation. The cruise had to fit in, my plans to tour the North East were trimmed back and Texas was dropped completely.

In preparation for my meal, I had also read Chef Achatz’s newest book, Life, on the Line: A Chef's Story of Chasing Greatness, Facing Death and Redefining the Way we Eat; a gut-wrenching (literally) yet enthralling read. The first part of the book chronicles Chef’s life and early career up to the opening of Alinea. It is a brutally honest insight into the culinary world and how to get a restaurant off the ground. The second part of the book is a horrifying read about Chef’s battle with Stage IV cancer of the tongue, the doctor’s advice to cut out his tongue and his battle for survival. You couldn’t help but be moved by his story and my desire to eat his food increased greatly.

As the reservation date approached, I started to have doubts. I had begun to experience “fine dining fatigue”. Too many once in a lifetime meals were had in Europe and New York and I started to long for something simple or home cooked. After being uncomfortably full after my nine course meal at Per Se, the thought of a 25 course meal at Alinea was daunting. Added to that was Anthony Bourdain’s less-than-flattering review of Alinea where he stated he found it "lethally self-serious, usually pointless, silly, annoying, and generally joyless... a misery from beginning to end" and I too worried that I would hate it.

The reality however, was that Alinea will be remembered by me as the best restaurant experience of my life. Whilst I enjoyed the food as much as I did at Asador Etxebarri, the quality of service, sense of wonder and enjoyable dinner company (my Dad) made the meal a truly memorable experience. With El Bulli’s closing, I believe Alinea is the restaurant destined to take its place as best in the world and the one reservation you must simply get in your lifetime.

From the moment you enter the restaurant, you know you are in for something special. After entering an austere corridor from the street, sliding doors right out of Star Trek open to the restaurant’s hive of activity. To your right you have a clear view of the kitchen and to your left is the dining space and in front, the staff standing poised to greet you in front of the floating staircase.

The restaurant’s interior was modern and sleek without looking like it would date. The tables were made of heavy wood and bare. As I recall from his book, Chef Achatz says restaurants often have white tablecloths to hide the fact that the tables are cheap; which is generally true. How often have you been to a nice restaurant, only to have the waiter jam a coaster under one leg because the table’s rocking?

So to the food… they say a picture is worth a thousand words. In this instance, however, neither words nor pictures will be enough; you simply must try it for yourself.

Steelhead Roe: watermelon, kaffir lime, oxalis

Ginga Shizuku “Divine Droplets” Junmai Daignjo-shu, Hokkaido-ken

The first mouthful of food signaled that I needn’t have had any doubts; tonight was going to be splendid. The watermelon consommé was cool and refreshing and the trout roe, which was sitting atop watermelon mousse, popped with flavour. The dish was light but with an abundance of flavour.

Hamachi: West Indies spices, pineapple ginger

The presentation was highly inventive (although almost nigh impossible to take a decent photo as a result). The vanilla bean was used as a skewer and handle that you used to eat the fritter in one bite (as advised). The scent of vanilla imparted on the fish but did not overpower it and the taste of the spices and ginger combined nicely with the pineapple. A very difficult taste to describe so I’ll settle on “delicious”.

The next four “courses” were presented together, perched on a log covered in seaweed. From my seat, I had a clear view of three other tables that were all a couple of courses ahead of us. Whereas Dad had a view of myself and a wall. Periodically, my mouth would gape open and I would start shaking my head in disbelief watching the procession of future courses pass by and this one certainly evoked a strong reaction. The waiter advised the suggested order to eat the items and advised all should be consumed in one bite.

Oyster leaf: mignonette

Found off the coast of Scotland, the leaf tastes overwhelmingly of the sea, and oysters in particular: weird but yummy.

Taylor Bay Scallop: hitachino, white ale, old bay

The single scallop was served with two types of beer and old bay seasoning; the scallop retained its sweet taste and the beers gave a nice contrast.

Top Neck Clam: carrot, soy, daikon

Asian flavours combined to give this tiny little clam a good boost of flavour. I’ve never really liked clams but now can’t wait to try to recreate this dish at home.

Mussel: saffron, chorizo, orange

Josef Letiz, “Rudescheimer Berg Schlossberg-Alte Reben” Riesling, Rheingau 2009

I don’t really care for mussels either but this was my favourite of the four offerings; the seasonings matched perfectly and worked well to slightly overpower the “fishy” taste of the mussel that I usually find too strong.

Yuba: shrimp, miso, togarashi

Yuba is tofu skin that was cooked almost like a breadstick. Wrapped around it was prawn, sesame and green onion flavoured with togarashi spices. It was sitting in a miso and orange(?) dipping sauce.

Mackerel: mango, radish flower, juniper

The presentation of this course was definitely inventive. Suspended on a fine wire was a piece of mackerel sitting atop a roll of mango with radish flower. The weirdest part of this course is that it was suggested that it be eaten “without using your hands”. The flower had a real punch of flavour that helped to cut through the oiliness of the mackerel.

Wild mushrooms: pine, sumac, ramp

Lignier Michelot Morey-Saint Denis “Faconieres” 2006

I enjoyed this dish but Dad absolutely loved it! It had a strong “earthy” taste but the creaminess underneath muted any overpowering elements.

Hot Potato: cold potato, black truffle, butter

This was absolutely amazing and I longed for more. I wanted the waiters to go back into the kitchen and bring me a pitcher of this! Suspended above a cold potato soup was a pin loaded with a ball of hot potato, a slice of black truffle, cubes of butter and parmesan and a slice of chive. As you pulled the pin, these elements dropped into the soup and the whole bowl was then to be eaten in one go. The truffle flavour was strong and robust (no skimping here), the potato ball was perfectly cooked and the contrast of temperatures and textures was just sensational – a party in my mouth!

Agneau: sauce choron, pomme de terre noisette

Cedar Knoll Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley 2007

The only course on the menu not designed by Chef Achatz, this dish was taken from an old Escoffier cookbook. The lamb rounds were sitting on a small crouton and topped with artichoke, asparagus and served with sauce choron (béarnaise without tarragon and chervil but with added tomato puree).The tiny balls of potato were so cute and delicate and another idea that I will be incorporating into my repertoire.

Short Rib: olive, fermented garlic, blackberry

Costers del Slurana “Clos de l’Obac” Priiorat 2005

A few courses into our meal, our waiter brought over to our table a centerpiece that consisted of two red “flags” held up on individual mini flagpoles. He said “these may be for later, or maybe not…..”.

For this course we were presented with a glass plate of smoked salt, blackberry, roast onion, black garlic, turnip, olive, cherry, tomato vinaigrette and salsify with tobacco gel.

We were then instructed to lift up the glass plate to reveal the metal puzzle underneath and to assemble it. The waiter than retrieved our flags and advised that they were actually made from tomato pasta and would serve as the base for a short rib “wrap”.

The waiter placed a portion of beef into our pasta and we loaded the rest, folded it and ate it with our hands. The dish was somewhat messy to assemble and very messy to eat but it was a welcome and fun change and I enjoyed the interactive element.

Black Truffle: explosion, romaine, parmesan

I believe this is the only dish that Chef Achatz brought over from his previous restaurant, Trio. I now understand why; this dish should never be removed from the menu. It was perfection on a plate, or spoon in this case. Similar to Chinese xiao long bao in the sense that it is small dumpling filled with a hot soup, this incarnation is a pasta type dough filled with liquid black truffle and then topped with romaine and parmesan. The waiter advised that it should be eaten in one bite and to “be careful because it will explode”. And explode it did. With just a tiny bit of pressure, the pasta burst open and the truffle juice filled the mouth. It was inventive, full of flavour and presented beautifully. A homerun for Chef Achatz!

Squab: inspired by Miro

Lorentz “Altenberg de Bergheim” Pinot Gris, Alsace 2004

This course made full use of the fine wooden tables at Alinea. Inspired by Miro, the waiter would artistically place forks on our table each topped with a different ingredient. There was no suggested ordered to eat each fork so I went from least interesting to most interesting. I can’t recall all the items but there was squab, foie, fried pasta and roasted eggplant among the offerings. I found the presentation fun and the items on each fork all seemed to fit with an autumn theme. However, because each ingredient was eaten separately, you weren’t able to enjoy any combined flavours.

Octopus: eggplant, coriander, red wine

The Rare Wine Co. “Charleston Sercial Reserve” Madeira

Nestled atop a Vidalia onion soup was a fork topped with baby octopus, a cube of eggplant seasoned with coriander and red wine. The fork was eaten first and then washed down with the soup. The octopus was tender and the soup was smooth and delicious enough to be a course on its own.

Snow: yuzu

Alinea’s version of a palate cleanser: a frozen yuzu snow cone. I love palate cleansers because it usually means one thing: desserts are coming!

Peach: jasmine, basil, balsamic

Disznoko 5 Puttonyos Tokaji Aszu 2005

A cheese course of sorts, this was one of the prettiest plates of the evening. There were cubes of ricotta, peach, jasmine, basil puree, tomato and balsamic. It was reminiscent of a modern-Caprese salad. I loved experimenting with the different combination of squares to create different tastes with each mouthful.

Lemongrass: dragonfruit, thai basil, finger lime

A shooter arrived with an invisible stopper. We were advised to suck on one end and the edible “plug” will come loose allowing us to down the shooter in one go. Dad had no trouble but it took me a lot of effort to get the plug out. Once successful, the taste of South East Asia burst onto my palate. It was cleansing, refreshing and tasted like summer.

Dark Chocolate: pumpkin pie, ligonberry, stout

Domaine Madeloc “Robert Pages” Banyuls NV

Having a view of the other tables, I saw this course being plated and was very excited that it was finally our turn. I had also seen that Chef Achatz was in the house and was serving the dessert tableside himself for most tables. I had my fingers crossed all night that he would come to our table when it was our turn and my wish paid off.

The waiters arrived at our table and rolled out a rubber(?) tablecloth for us and then brought over some small bowls, a sphere of dark chocolate and a mug of what I believe was liquid nitrogen.

Then Chef Achatz arrived. He poured the nitrogen into the chocolate sphere and then started to “plate” the dessert directly onto the table. First was ligonberry, then pumpkin, then stout. Finally, he picked up the chocolate and smashed it onto the table.

Once exploded, it revealed the various fillings including nougat, fruit rollups, gingerbread, candy floss, cookies and popcorn. Armed with forks, we fossicked in the pile of dessert getting giddy every time we came across something new. It tasted like Thanksgiving and I loved it. The presentation was fun and we both had huge grins from ear to ear.

After the meal, Dad and I toured the kitchen and were able to meet with Chef Achatz. I was so thrilled to meet him. I really didn’t expect to see him working the line given that he has just opened a new restaurant, Next. To not only see him, but have him personally serve our dessert and show us the kitchen was a wonderful experience for foodies like Dad and I.

The word “Alinea” means ¶, which is used to define a new paragraph or train of though. The name is perfect. Alinea is a restaurant unlike any other. The quality of the food and service is unmatched but it is the spirit of inventiveness and playfulness that really won me over. Compared with my meal at Philippe Rochat that was suffocatingly stuffy, Alinea was fun.

I thank/blame my father 100% for my love/obsession for food. Some of my earliest memories are sitting on the kitchen counter fitting in the space underneath the overhead cabinets and watching him cook and offering to “help”. We trade recipes and cookbooks, critique cooking shows and when we travel, it ends up being a food tour, sometimes at the expense of sightseeing. For me, this was the food highlight not only of this trip but my life and I was so pleased that I could share this meal with my Dad. It was a perfect evening from start to end and will forever be remembered as one of the great moments of my life.