I’ve never stayed at an all-inclusive resort before — it’s not really what I imagined to be my scene — so I had no preconceived notions of the quality, or lack thereof, of the culinary offerings at one. When I visited IBEROSTAR Grand Paraíso*, on Mexico’s Riviera Maya, last month, I was told that achieving a heightened reputation in gastronomy was the the brand’s mission. The Spanish hotel and resort company has released a cookbook that features recipes from their worldwide resorts — from Cuba to Mexico to Morocco — and have launched a new initiative of special events, training courses for guests.
I ate braised red snapper in pig’s trotter sauce at L’atelier gourmet restaurant, and shrimp agnoloti at the Italian Venezia. At the cooking demonstration in the resort’s Surf & Turf steakhouse, I learned how to slice a black Iberian pig’s leg and watched chefs trained in some of the best schools in Europe (and with a background in Michelin-starred restaurants, including Spain’s three-star Akelarre) prepare pumpkin flowers stuffed with lobster; paella; and a whiskey flavored crème brûlée with chocolate soufflé, coffee ice cream, and Halls menthol baked between silpat sheets garnish. Each course accompanied by pairings selected by IBEROSTAR‘s Cuban sommelier, Yamir Pelegrino Rodriguez, who holds both a law degree from the University of Havana and the 2006 title from the Gourmand Cookbooks & Wines Awards.
Here’s a few photos from the trip:
*Disclosure: I visited the Riviera Maya as a guest of IBEROSTAR and the Riviera Maya Tourism Board
While I have done a bit of traveling in the last few years, my trip to Mexico City was, according to the following rules, my first vacation for quite a while: I didn’t go to work, I didn’t go under the obligation of visiting anyone, and I didn’t go with the intention of setting up home.
My choice of vacation spot had not impressed one of the doctors at my work. “Mexico City? That’s not relaxing!” She said. Where some may find relaxation on the beach, I find boredom easily. I travel to not be bored; I travel to find new stuff; to learn, and to collect memories.
These are just a few of my favourites from one week in Mexico.
Casa Azula: Frida Kahlo’s House
Frida Kahlo is all over D.F: the city where she was born and died. And of every place you see her image, none is so significant as that of the Casa Azul, where her life began and ended.
Pre-Columbian sculptures and Communist memorabilia is scattered through the house, as well as items intensely personal — her corset, her bed, her kitchen — and functional — her easel and paintbrushes.
I felt a special atmosphere here, as if her spirit lingered in her timeless collection of items — of memories left behind. Each of those items tell a story and guided me through the house and through Frida’s life.
I was fortunate to travel to Mexico City with Julie, a writer whose mind, energy and professionalism I admire and envy. Julie had an article commissioned about Martha Ortiz Chapa, owner and executive of Dulce Patria in the Polanco district, and I got to tag along.
Martha delighted me with her talks about her passion for the femininity and sensuality of Mexican cuisine, as well as her love of literature and opera. I adored her. We got to sample Dulce Patria’s current menu — the menu changes monthly, and in September reflected el mes patrio (the patriotic month) — which included chiles en nogada, a traditional dish of poblano chile filled with shredded meat, fruit and spices, and topped with a walnut-based cream sauce and pomegranate seeds. Together the chile, cream and pomegranate seeds form the colours of the Mexican flag.
We had a dessert of rice pudding.
Then after dessert came the alegrías, small Mexican sweets presented on a tray under a spinning wooden airplane toy.
I can’t miss mentioning the expression of powerful femininity in Dulce Patria’s logo.
I’m not sure whether or not the novelty of la lucha wears off after the first visit or two, so if it does, I am especially grateful to Julie for taking me along to the Arena Mexico on a Tuesday evening to watch grown men in spandex, disguised with masks and ridiculous names, throw each other around and out of a wrestling ring, posture, and kick each other in the balls. I was hugely entertained; by the luchadores as much as the passionate crowd members who screamed and cursed, and by the awkward looking bikini-clad card girls.
It was entirely by accident, but I found myself in Mexico City for the Independence Day celebrations of September 15th. The week leading up to the big day had been a treat; seeing flags hung from so many buildings, novelty costumes, hats and Zapata-esque moustaches on sale on every street corner, and bakery window displays stacked high with patriotic cakes.
A couple of days prior, Julie had an interview with Miguel Angel Escobar Ramirez, Food and Beverage Manager of Hotel Camino Real by the airport, for a Fox News Latino article. Escobar shared with us some interesting insight into the depth of preparation involved in putting on an Independence Day party. The three most important ingredients, he told us, are decorations, music and food — as you can see from the photo, he supplied the decorations and food … as well as what must be the fourth: the tequila.
And so to the day itself. The number of people in traditional costume or moustaches, or with green, red and white-painted cheeks steadily increased throughout the day and culminated with a gathering of thousands, in the zocalo (main square) in the evening. What a shame to watch as so many beautifully put together outfits, hairstyles, and face paintings got drenched in a torrential downpour that didn’t let up until the early morning. The vendors selling inelegant ponchos, however, had a great night of sales.
We all stood together, in ponchos, squatting under the umbrellas of strangers, in the rain watching Jenni Rivera (a glamorous Mexican-American singer who exuded glamour even while pulling her soaking wet hair off her face and wiping away her running mascara) until at 11 p.m. President Calderon marched to the Palacio Nacional balcony to repeat the “Grito de Dolores,” a call to arms made by Miguel Hidalgo in 1810 that began the struggle for independence from Spain, finally achieved in 1821.
I am no Calderon fan, but his grito (the last of his presidency) gave me goosebumps. As he repeated the names of the heroes of Mexico in a call and response with the crowd crying “Viva!” after each, I choked. It was a heartrending, precious experience I would love to repeat some day.
I fight the dissolution of these memories as I go back to my normal life; I want to hold on to them forever. I take a moment to stop and close my eyes so that I can envision the green, white and red patriotic decorations scattered around the city, hung from balconies and draped across shoulders. I imagine that I can smell chiles, hear the musical pitch of street vendors and taste thick, sweet atole.
Deep underneath the sensations of Latin America is a twisting regret. I could live here, I think to myself and I am reminded of the one year that I did. When I lived in Chile I was young and desperately missed a boyfriend I had left back in London. I had arrived in Valparaiso in August of 2001 and immediately began to count down the days, weeks, months until I would return to London. It is with a knot of shame that I try to avoid acknowledging that my time there was not as well spent as it could have been. I had a head full of London. The rhythm of Latin America, that I now romanticise, was too unchic; it stuttered and started where London’s had effortlessly flowed. I had an eating disorder and planned my days around trips to the gym and stared down the little bites of cookies and chocolates that came, without fail, with my espresso or cortado (cortados only occasionally, though: imagine the calories in the steamed milk!)
I travelled far and wide; from Iquique to Tierra del Fuego to Rio de Janeiro and to Montevideo. I accumulated books, knowledge, friends and modismos. I threw myself deep into the places I only passed through. I was enormously happy when I was moving, yet living in Valparaiso, which was travel without traveling, was a rhythm of which I delayed in catching the groove.
After a while I stopped counting down the days until I left and began to settle into my life in Chile. But, still, I regret that I was never as fully engaged with Chile as I could have, should have been.
Perhaps that is why I hold so tightly on to my memories of my all-too-brief visit to Mexico City.
My memories of Japan travel across all the senses, sometimes pausing on just one. Taste. Cool soba on a hot summer day; oden in the winter; fresh sushi from a tiny shop in Tokyo’s Hiroo district; sweet mochi from the nameless store on the backstreets of Nishi Azabu, and yakitori at the Azabu Juban festival.
Last year a little takoyaki stand sprung up on Columbus’ North High Street. The married couple (she is from Japan and he is Korean-American) had run a successful Japanese crepe truck the year before, and revived the name, Fresh Street, at their new venture. Popping the piping octopus-filled hot dough balls into my mouth for the first time late afternoon last summer transported my senses back to the street vendor on the neon-lit street of Osaka where I tried takoyaki for the first time. It was that good.
Sadly, Fresh Street were just borrowing the street stand on afternoons from the Mickey’s Late Night Slice pizza vendor, who decided they wanted to expand their business into the daytime, and now the takoyaki stand is no more.
But, joyfully, Fresh Street is open for business at the Double Happiness bar in the Brewery District, serving yakitori, kushiyaki and small-plate Japanese bar snacks. And, as of this week, they will be serving a special lunch-only menu too. As for takoyaki, I have been getting my fix at Tensuke Express next door to the Japanese grocery on Henderson and Kenny.
I had been looking forward to visiting Columbus’ Asian Festival the other month and widening my appreciation for Columbus’ surprisingly healthy Asian food scene. But I had the flu for three days and missed it. I have done my own investigation around the city and these are the best places I have found so far:
Arirang, 1526 Bethel Road
There is whole bunch of Chinese, Korean, Vietnamese and Thai businesses on and around Bethel Road. It seems to be some kind of hub. I absolutely love the Korean market, Arirang. Here, you can pick up Korean groceries at the grocery store then sit down for a meal at the tiny attached restaurant. My favourite dish so far is the Dolsot Bibimbap (a mixed rice, vegetable and meat dish served in a hot stone bowl). All dishes come with traditional banchan, a selection of small dishes that change every day, and hot barley tea is complimentary.
Bangkok, 3277 Refugee Road
Like Arirang, Bangkok Restaurant is attached to a grocery store. This Thai restaurant lies in unappealing surroundings but is filled with charming images of Thailand and delightful service staff. While Bangkok offers a handful of Chinese-American dishes as well as Thai, I feel that to order them here would be a shame. I liked the pad prick pao ground pork dish.
Lan Viet, North Market, 59 Spruce Street
Lan and her husband Thanh Lee run the Lan Viet stall at the North Market. Their pho is the best, I think, in the city — though the banh mi and coffee is better at Mi Li in Northland.
The first time I ever went to New York, I travelled with my friend Jane and a torn out map of Sex in the City locations. In my early twenties, finishing up college in the early years of the millennium, I thought that a designer shopping, martini sipping lifestyle was what I was supposed to be moving towards because that was the message I was reading via the fashion magazines I used to buy.
The first time I went to New York City alone, a train conductor spied me puzzling over a map and slyly asked if I was running away from home.
I usually try to return to NYC every year, but vapid thoughts of SATC stay where they belong: the early 2000s. I don’t visit to run away anymore, although I often visit alone. Strangely I find a closeness in the big city; that there’s a space for me among the differences I see between everyone. Now that I live in a city where I have to drive everywhere, riding the subway gives me a feeling of connection that is missing in my current (temporary) hometown.
My relationship with the city has changed in the ten years since my first visit. NYC isn’t something to be feared or conquered; I don’t approach it as if attending a job interview anymore.
I stayed at the Jane Hotel in the West Village. The red-brick building used to house sailors and was occupied by Titanic survivors in 1912. Staff are dressed in red old-timey bellhop uniforms — the lady that checked me in owned hers; complementing it with huge red-framed oval glasses. The rooms are tiny, befitting the nautical theme that runs throughout, and country accents, such as a stuffed peacock and antlers in the lobby, lend a bohemian air.
During the day I took the subway to and from Brooklyn.
Walked through Brooklyn Botanic Garden and Prospect Park.
I walked along the High Line.
…And through the streets of Manhattan.
I saw Pulp at Radio City Music Hall.
I went to the Weegee exhibit at the International Center of Photography, and the Diego Rivera and Cindy Sherman exhibitions at the MOMA.
Dessert is my favorite meal, as if that were not quite obvious already. O’ahu was good to me in this respect; the variety of sugary tasty goodness comes in many forms and is widely available. Here’s my recommendations for a sugar fix on O’ahu.
What it is: Finely shaved ice soaked with syrups (preferably home-made) and topped and filled with your choice of mochi balls, azuki bean or haupia cream. Just don’t call it “shaved ice.”
For a different (even sweeter) take on the traditional Hawaiian-style ice, try a Taiwanese shave ice that makes use of brown sugar and condensed milk. I recommend City Cafe on Makaloa Street.
Where to eat it: Hands-down Shimazu has, in my opinion, the best shave ice on the island. The servings are huge; the consistency strikes just the right balance between fluff and crunch, and the syrups are home-made and inventive — think mojito, crème brûlée, red velvet, even durian.
2. Mochi Ice Cream
What it is: Japanese pounded rice cake filled with ice cream. Traditional flavors include matcha (green tea) and strawberry.
Where to eat it:Bubbies is probably the most famous purveyor of mochi ice cream in Honolulu. I am going to admit, however, that I preferred Shirokiya. Maybe it is just the ambiance of the Japanese grocery store, or maybe it was the delicate handling of each mochi ball by the counter staff, but selecting a piece or two at Shirokiya, wandering around the store just long enough for it to melt just enough, was one of my favorite food-related rituals in Honolulu.
What it is: Yes, cake. But not any old cake; cake that makes use of those distinctly Hawaiian flavors: lilikoi, haupia and, if you go to Otto Cake, “Big Island Honey Cheesecake.”
Where to eat it: The afore mentioned Otto Cake specializes in cheesecakes; (more that 80 flavors) Ted’s Bakery on the North Shore is home of the famous Haupia Pie, and Hokulani Bake Shop has cupcakes in flavors like strawberry-guava. Little Oven supposedly makes the most amazing cakes in Honolulu but is this place ever open? If you manage to eat here, you are luckier than me.
What it is: Mmmmm mmmmalasadas; originating from Portugal and traditionally eaten on Fat Tuesday, these little deep-fried balls of goodness most closely resemble the humble donut — a Portuguese donut, if you will. Malasadas arrived on Hawaii alongside the 19th century laborers that came to work the sugar plantations.
Where to eat it:Leonard’s Bakery; crispy on the outside, chewy on the inside and available in a multitude of seasonal flavors — mango, pineapple, coconut, chocolate… And they have the best retro-neon sign.
5. Cream Puffs
What it is: A choux pastry ball filled with cream. That’s it.
Where to eat it:Liliha’s Bakery sells around 5,000 of these things a day — for a good reason. Liliha’s fills the pastries with chocolate pudding and tops it off with chantilly frosting. They start baking at 2am every morning.
What it is: Halo-Halo is a a Fillipino dish that features shave ice, condensed milk, and various toppings that can include fruit, kidney beans, rice, flan and yam.
Where to eat it: Shimazu makes a good halo-halo but, I think, only on certain days. Try Mabuhay Cafe and Restaurant in Chinatown.
What it is: In a place with year-round high temperatures, sometimes your thirst needs more quenching than your sweet tooth. You don’t need to compromise though, O’ahu offers some delicious frozen slurpable treats that will satisfy all cravings.
Where to drink it:Rainbow Drive-In‘s strawberry slush float is the perfect blend of sweet and refreshing: a blended strawberry juice topped with a huge heap of vanilla ice cream. Yum.
Food is memory. My memories of places are informed by the taste of the sweet things I ate there.
Kuchen in Chile
I arrived in Puerto Varas after a long journey south from my home, Valparaiso, via Puerto Montt. I had one thing on my mind: kuchen.
Kuchen, a sweet tart with crispy exterior, arrived in Chile with mid-19th century German immigrants, many of whom settled in the cute little European-styled southern town of Puerto Varas. There are all sorts of adventurous things to do in Puerto Varas; whitewater rafting, hiking, sailing, but my mission was purely gastronomic. I was going to have a slice of kuchen from every cafe in town.
I don’t think I quite met my goal but I distinctly remember eating four slices on my first evening.I tried it in all kinds of flavors, like strawberry, rhubarb and something called murta — something like a small cranberry.
I remember sitting in a little cafe where the menu was in Spanish and German, watching the rain beat against the window, sipping tea, writing in my journal and taking slow bites of raspberry filled kuchen. I remember feeling that I had finally found a cozy feeling I had been missing since leaving London six months earlier.
Food is memory. My memories of places are informed by the taste of the sweet things I ate there.
Chocolate in Argentina
First there was Bariloche. We crossed the border from Chile here; it was our very first stop in Argentina. There was a street called the Street of Chocolate Dreams; a chocolate department store; a chocolate cafe with giant Russian dolls in the window; a forest-themed chocolate restaurant/factory…there was a lot of chocolate. By the final cafe we all said we were sick and tired of it all; we never wanted chocolate again.
Then there was Buneos Aires where the women were almost all whippet-thin, but cortados were always served with a glass of water and either a bite of chocolate or a small medialuna on the side. I later read in Bad Times in Buneos Aires that, amongst well-heeled Porteñas, the chocolate serving was a test: you were supposed to make a show of being able to resist it.
When I think back to Buenos Aires I can see a picture of myself in El Ateneo Gran Spendid. Sitting at a small table on what used to be the stage in the theater-turned-bookstore sipping a cortado and not even trying to resist the delicately wrapped square of dark chocolate on the saucer.
A topic of this importance is not to be taken lightly, so I can assure you that I have done some very thorough research before posting this list.
If you visit O’ahu, you will probably be told that Matsumoto’s is the place to visit for your shave ice because, well, that’s where everyone goes. I think, however, that a visitor who only tastes the shave ice at Matsumoto’s is cheated. There’s just so much better out there.
Number 1: Shimazu
Shimazu’s cups come big, bigger and huge (get the smallest; believe me it’s enough). They have a size known as “The Larry,” but no-one I know of has ever attempted it. The flavors at Shimazu are the most inventive I’ve come across: they have creme brulee, mojito, red velvet, even durian (though you may be ordered to eat it far outside the store).
The texture is fluffy like cotton, with just a little crunch, and optional fillings and toppings include standards like mochi and red bean, as well as haupia (coconut cream).
My favorite is the sour apple li hing mui, with mochi — although Shimazu’s mochi could be better, and I don’t like that it is cubed.
The only cons are the usual: almost no parking: long lines.
Number 2: City Cafe
At City Cafe you can choose from regular Hawaiian-style or Taiwanese-style shave ice. This was the first place I ever tried Taiwanese shave ice, and, although Sweet Home Cafe is good, I think it is still the best.
The ice is shaved fine and covered in brown sugar and condensed milk. Toppings include taro, tapioca, pudding and big, firm mochi balls — I think the mochi here is the best.
It’s a small space but I’ve never had a problem finding seating or parking. The owners are quite lovely too.
Wailoa was my favorite for a long time. Their ice is shaved to the finest consistency I have found on the island. The selection of syrups and toppings is small but adequate — I usually get the li hing and lilikoi with mochi. The cups are pretty small for the price and service can be brusque, otherwise there’s not much to fault Waiola.
Honoray Mention: Matsumoto’s
It’s definitely not the best, I find the ice too thick and crunchy, but you have to visit Matsumoto’s at least for the atmosphere. A North Shore institution, it’s been in the same spot since 1951 and is almost always packed with tourists. Braving the long line and finding a spot on the bench outside is just one of those things you have to do on the North Shore.
In Estonia I am eating the most chocolate since, I think, those few days in Bariloche, Argentina.
Velvet sofas, red silk tablecloths, thick coffee and rich, dark chocolate: Chocolaterie Pierre has been the best chocolate experience of my trip. It is hidden away down a side alley in the Old Town, but still is almost always busy, though never too busy. I preferred to take a seat in the cozy, dimly lit, bohemian-styled cafe, where but there is also summer seating in the courtyard.
The hot chocolate is a thick, gooey dream of cream, rum and melted chocolate. Hot chocolate will never taste the same after trying it here.
Pierre shares owners with Josephine café just down the street.