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  • 03/27/13--01:10: Postcard: 11 Madison Park
  • Postcard: A Widow's Kiss at Eleven Madison Park-photo
    by Betsy Andrews
    At a dinner at Eleven Madison Park recently, the swellegant Swiss watchmaker, Blancpain, a 278-year-old family-run company, honored chef Daniel Humm. The watchmakers presented Humm with a gorgeous timepiece, and the chef cooked a gorgeous dinner to match: a torchon of foie gras with maple, apple, and walnut; citrus-sauced poached lobster; duck roasted with kale and plums; a hazelnut mille feuille with espresso ice cream and hazelnut brittle, and more. As meals do at Eleven Madison Park, the whole thing started with a visit to the kitchen, where we were treated to a cocktail called the Widow's Kiss, a late 19th-century mixture of calvados, Angostura bitters, and the liqueurs Benedictine and chartreuse. Wielding liquid nitrogen and an iSi canister-a nitrous oxide-propelled dispenser normally used for whipped cream-Eleven Madison Park's Brian Wilkerson turned the drink inside out and upside down. He plunked diced apples that had been pressed in Angostura bitters into a syrup made from the anise-accented chartreuse. He blasted the Benedictine through the iSi canister, forming half-moons of boozy, herbal foam and then froze it, along with a shot of applejack, that American-made apple brandy, with liquid nitrogen, and poured the two into the glass with the apples and syrup. A Widow's Kiss has never been so aptly named; vapor swirled around the bittersweet potion like it was a witch's brew. -Betsy Andrews




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    Easter in Finland-photo
    by Elsa Sandauml;andauml;telandauml;
    Growing up in Finland, Easter was always one of my favorite holidays. I remember spending the four-day weekend together with my family, playing outside in search of the first signs of spring, crafting Easter cards, and decorating eggs. But as a real sweet tooth, my favorite part of the festivities was virpominen, when all the children in the neighborhood dress up like trulli, or witches, and carry brightly-decorated willow branches door-to-door to wish "Happy Easter!" to their neighbors, receiving candies in return.

    Most children recite a rhyme at the door:

    Virvon, varvon, tuoreeks terveeks, tulevaks vuodeks; vitsa sulle, palkka mulle!
    I wave a twig, for a fresh and healthy year ahead; a twig for you, a reward for me!

    This is an very old rhyme with roots in the eastern parts of Finland, and several different versions exist today. Some are quite long, colorfully wishing you a bigger home, God in your soul, forthcoming Easter eggs, and even happy wishes for your cow. Living in a bilingual neighborhood-and probably because we were shy-my sister and I stayed away from any long recitations, and instead just handed out our homemade cards in exchange for chocolate eggs and jellybeans (that's us dressed in trulli costume above). This Finnish Easter witch-custom has grown out of two older traditions-a Russian Orthodox Easter ritual in which willow twigs represent the palms laid down before Jesus on Palm Sunday; and a Swedish and Finnish tradition in which children made fun of earlier fears that evil witches roamed around on Easter weekend. Around my hometown Vasa, in western Finland, Easter bonfires are also still a common sight, though for the plain purpose of getting rid of excess wood, not to scare off witches.



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  • 03/18/13--02:53: Family Style
  • Brennan's family portrait-photo
    by Pableaux Johnson
    In the photo in Time-Life's 1971 American Cooking: Creole and Acadian, Ella Brennan stands behind her nephew Pip and a table loaded with "typical breakfast items"-including chilled rosé-on a balcony overlooking the courtyard at their French Quarter restaurant, Brennan's. But something doesn't look right. The woman who, to many, represents New Orleans hospitality, appears far too stern. When it comes to how the city eats out, Ella Brennan has been an influential person for more than half a century, matriarch of a dynasty of restaurateurs whose establishments define a kind of quintessential New Orleans dining. It started in 1943, when Ella's older brother Owen opened Brennan's in the French Quarter. With its lavish music-filled brunches and elegant service, Brennan's captured all that was grand about eating in New Orleans and almost overnight became the city's most important restaurant. After Owen's death, Ella took control. Then in 1974 after a family split (Pip's brother Ted, shown above with his daughter Alana Brennan Mueller, owns Brennan's today; the two sides of the family do not speak), she decamped with most of her siblings to the Garden District, where they had bought the century-old Commander's Palace. The laboratory for Ella's experiments in cuisine and hospitality, Commander's launched the careers of influential chefs including Paul Prudhomme and Emeril Lagasse, and its kitchen created dozens of iconic, beloved dishes-shrimp and tasso Henican, eggs Louis Armstrong, and more. Today, though Ella, age 87, is effectively retired, her children, nieces, and nephews preside over a local empire of 13 restaurants that constitute a bona fide genre in New Orleans. Different cousins own different places, and some are more posh than others, but each showcases the family's trademark style. There's always a Brennan in charge: Cindy Brennan Davis at Mr. B's Bistro; Ella's daughter Ti Martin and her cousin Lally Brennan splitting duties between Commander's Palace, Café Adelaide, and the new Sobou. On the menu, you may find a gumbo or a sherry-drizzled turtle soup. The list of entrées may feature Louisiana seafood, from oysters Rockefeller to sautéed Gulf fish topped with lump crabmeat. For a sweet finish, there may be some riff on bread pudding, perhaps topped with cherries jubilee or reimagined as an ethereal soufflé. At the fancier places, your meal will be served "gang style" in a well-choreographed routine wherein a group of waiters float to your table, set down the plates in unison, and retreat before you can pick up your fork. And in keeping with family tradition, a midday cocktail is always encouraged. Though it's out of fashion elsewhere in the country, there's still nothing quite like a three martini lunch (the house limit, at 25 cents a drink) at Commander's: It makes you feel like you're getting away with something, even in a city that revels in its excesses.


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  • 03/31/13--22:30: Ghanaian Local Flavor
  • Ghanaian Local Flavor-photo
    by Katrina Moore
    When I went to live and study in Ghana's capital of Accra last summer, I was expecting authentic Ghanaian food. Unfortunately, as in most major cities, what I encountered was a global mishmash of pizza, Indian curry, Asian noodles-there was even a KFC. But I soon found what I was looking for. Following the advice of a professor, I visited Asanka Locals, a barebones counter-service café in the city's Osu neighborhood that serves strictly Ghanaian dishes. The lunchtime staple that caught my eye was a spicy, deep scarlet stew made with black-eyed peas, called red-red, named for the hot red pepper and red palm oil that give the dish its vibrant color.

    I pointed to the steaming pot behind the counter, and a cook in a hairnet ladled some out, nestled a pile of twice-fried plantains alongside the thick stew, and handed me the plate.

    Taking a cue from the midday crowd, I smashed a plantain slice between my thumb and index finger to form a spoon, then scooped the stew into my mouth. Sitting there, I thought about how many dishes of the American South, where I grew up, were brought there by Africans from this region during the slave trade; how similar this dish was to the black-eyed peas my mother made for me in our Tennessee kitchen-and how strange it was to be eating something so familiar so far away from home.




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  • 04/01/13--01:37: Postcard: Restaurante Luis
  • Postcard: Restaurante Luis-photo
    by Camille Bromley
    The most memorable seafood restaurants in my experience are always no-frills beach shacks, the ones with rickety chairs, plastic silverware (when there is any at all), and too few napkins.

    Restaurante Luis, a seafood shack not 30 feet from the waves of the bountiful Samana coastline in the Dominican Republic, fits this profile to a T. On my table perched crookedly in the sand there are paper plates piled high with the fruits of the sea: langoustine, giant prawns, and whole red snapper, along with mafongo (a mash of fried plantains with garlic and onions), golden rounds of tostones, crinkly french fries, and rice and beans. If that weren't enough, boys are going around with pails of oysters, selling them by the shell. There's beer here, including the Dominican beer Presidente, but I prefer to refresh with sweet water sipped directly from a just-cracked green coconut. After lunch the only dessert I'm craving is a dip in the turquoise waters just a few steps from my table. With simple food this good, who needs luxury?

    Restaurante Luis
    Playa Coson
    Las Terrenas, Dominican Republic




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  • 04/01/13--22:30: Chocolate Turtles
  • Turtle Power-photo
    by Jane and Michael Stern
    In 1918, a candy dipper in Chicago commented that the pecan-studded chocolate-covered caramel patties a salesman was hawking looked like turtles. Though the name stuck, these days most turtles we encounter are just dull brown blobs with no more resemblance to a reptile than a burrito (Spanish for "small donkey") has to an ass. But when we stepped into Turtle Alley Chocolates, a charming candy shop in Gloucester, Massachusetts, the moniker started to make sense. The turtles here exude chelonian personality, the nuts peeking out like flippers from underneath glossy chocolate shells. Made by placing a nut-spangled round of soft homemade caramel atop a hand-molded chocolate base, then funneling on a bit more chocolate, each candy is as singular as a snowflake.

    While no match for nature with its upward of 330 species of hard-shelled reptiles, Turtle Alley proprietor Hallie Baker, who opened the store in 1999, is the creator of an ever-expanding turtle population with unpredictable physiognomy that includes domestic white, milk, and dark chocolates; gargantuan roasted macadamias, cashews, and almonds, in addition to pecans; and under-the-shell surprises that range from East Coast cranberries to chipotle chile, Turkish apricots, and bacon. "What I love most about the turtle is that it's a launching pad for so many different combinations," Baker says. "Whenever I find a great new product, chances are it will inspire a turtle." When we last visited, she only recently had come across extraordinarily delicious dried strawberries. When she combined them with milk chocolate, pecans from Georgia, and her buttery caramel, a new luxury turtle was born. Although some of what Baker makes is seasonal-cranberry-pecan turtles are generally a fall and winter offering, and white chocolate-blueberry a spring and summer combo-you can special order any flavor in her repertoire any time. Baker believes that the secret of turtle excellence is balance. Her caramel is especially supple, a gentle presence that provides a tender counterpoint to the crunch of the nuts, which are covered by just enough chocolate to ensure their maximum exposure. "If you are using good nuts, fully enrobed turtles are a mistake," Baker says. "Underneath the veil of chocolate, those nuts are going soft. That's why I want them sticking out as much as possible. A turtle needs to breathe."

    Turtle Alley Turtles, $24 a pound at turtlealley.com


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    Blue Ribbon Winner: Cordon Bleu in Zurich-photo
    by Adam H. Graham
    Zurich's working-class taverns often plate up Swiss comfort foods like rösti, kalbsbratwurst, and raclette melts. But they are especially beloved for their generous portions of cordon bleu, made with fried cutlets of veal or pork (rarely chicken), and served with a lemon wedge, fresh greens doused in creamy dressing, and a heap of pommes frites.

    While some taverns are being replaced by contemporary eateries, there are still a handful known especially for their cordon bleu. You can enjoy the dish in a variety of ways-stuffed with prunes, Gorgonzola, even sundried tomatoes. But most of us prefer the classic version, made with ham and a melty cheese like Emmentaler or Gruyère. And one of my favorite cordon bleu dishes, by far, is served at Rheinfelder Bierhalle.

    Located along a cobblestone street in the city's Old Town neighborhood, this comfy wood-paneled tavern serves a pork version called Jumbo Jumbo, which edges off both sides of the plate, and oozes cheese when its golden crust is cracked. Here, the dish is eaten at communal tables, and washed down with mugs of Feldschlösschen lager beer. Owner Walter Schöb tells me he sells about 2,700 plates of Jumbo Jumbo each month.

    I have long tried to figure out why cordon bleu is so popular in this city, but its origins are elusive. While many associate the dish with the French cooking school of the same name, some Swiss defenders trace its origins back 200 years when, facing a shortage of veal at her tavern, a native chef pounded cutlets down, then stuffed them with ham and cheese. No matter the history, here's hoping Zurich's cordon bleu tradition is one that's here to stay.

    See the recipe for Zurich Cordon Bleu »




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  • 04/02/13--23:30: New Orleans Restaurants
  • New Orleans map-photo
    by Sara Roahen
    Founded in 1718 by French colonists who saw the promise of commerce in this soft, curving land near the base of the Mississippi River, New Orleans has always been a city of entrepreneurs and idealists, the gutsy and the fanciful. Spain arrived. And Africa. Sicily, the Caribbean, and others. The creative interplay between cultures gave birth to the jazz, Mardi Gras, and incomparable cuisine that make this place extraordinary. Hurricane Katrina dealt a blow in 2005-the current population (around 360,000 in 2011) falls far short of prestorm numbers. Yet, from the historic French Quarter at the city's heart to the tree-shaded boulevards of Uptown to its west, the streets of shotgun houses in the Bywater to the east, the Treme to the north, and beyond, the music remains strong. The pageantry is spectacular. And the classic restaurants-Creole, Cajun, and otherwise-make food that's as delicious and vibrant as ever. Here are some of our favorite legendary places to eat, drink, and stay in New Orleans. -Sara Roahen

    RESTAURANTS

    Galatoire's
    (209 Bourbon Street; 504/525-2021)
    The lion's share of old-school New Orleans dining rooms is located in the French Quarter, where the zing of paprika-laced shrimp rémoulade punctuates the Friday lunch at the centenarian Galatoire's.

    Antoine's

    (713 St. Louis Street; 504/581-4422)
    Antoine's, the originator in 1889 of oysters Rockefeller, spoils patrons with butter-soaked seafood like trout Pontchartrain topped with lump crabmeat.

    Arnaud's

    813 Rue Bienville (504/523-5433)
    Between courses of Pernod-spiked escargots en casserole and buttery speckled trout meunière at Arnaud's, diners may tour the restaurant's Mardi Gras museum, a spectacle of scepters and gowns.

    Brennan's
    417 Royal Street (504/525-9711)
    Nearby Brennan's is most beloved for its multicourse breakfasts (cocktails encouraged) and flaming bananas Foster.

    Credit: Todd Coleman
    Tujague's

    823 Decatur Street (504/525-8676)
    Rounding out the French Quarter's quintet of classic Creole restaurants, Tujague's is the biggest stickler for tradition, offering only a six-course table d'hôte menu at dinnertime, with specialties like brisket in spicy Creole sauce; its standing-room-only bar serves up red beans and rice on Monday nights.

    Dooky Chase
    andYe Olde College Inn
    2301 Orleans Avenue (504/821-0600), 3000 S. Carrollton Avenue (504/866-3683) Gumbo remains a constant in the city's classic restaurants, high-end and hole-in-the-wall alike. A gumbo excursionist can eat for days without ever tasting the same gumbo twice, from the version made with seafood and chaurice sausage (a Creole chorizo) at Dooky Chase, the restaurant that desegregated fine dining during the Civil Rights era, to the turkey and andouille gumbo at Uptown's beloved Ye Olde College Inn.

    Mr. B's Bistro
    201 Royal Street (504/523-2078) Mr. B's Bistro in the Quarter is famous for its gumbo ya-ya. The dish, whose name is Creole slang for "all talking at once," is chockful of chicken and sausage in a dark long-cooked roux.

    Upperline
    1413 Upperline Street (504/891-9822) A few miles uptown at Upperline, the signature is a rich duck and andouille gumbo.

    Brigtsen's
    723 Dante Street (504/861-7610) Farther along, in Riverbend, Frank Brigtsen uses filé (cured and ground sassafras leaves), a seasoning and thickener adopted from the Choctaw Indians, in a refined gumbo made with rabbit at Brigtsen's.

    Charlie's Seafood
    8311 Jefferson Highway (504/737-3700) At Charlie's Seafood, Brigtsen's casual spot out west in Harahan, he prepares it homestyle with okra, shrimp, and oysters.

    Commander's Palace
    1403 Washington Avenue (504/899-8221) You never know what style of gumbo might be in the pot at Commander's Palace, the Garden District Creole grande dame, which offers a rotating selection of the Creole soup, along with originals like bread pudding soufflé.

    Credit: Todd Coleman
    Bon Ton Cafe
    401 Magazine Street (504/524-3386) The gumbo is good, but the crawfish bisque is the soup to try at the Cajun restaurant Bon Ton Cafe.

    Felix's Restaurant andamp; Oyster Bar
    739 Iberville Street (504/522-4440) Fried Gulf oysters are po'boy staples, but the bivalves find their true calling in raw form at the city's classic oyster bars, like the no-frills Felix's Restaurant andamp; Oyster Bar.


    Casamento's
    and Pascale's Manale

    4330 Magazine Street (504/895-9761), 1838 Napoleon Avenue; 504/895-4877 The chatty shuckers consider the gift of gab part of the job at Casamento's and Pascale's Manale, old-line Italian restaurants and oyster bars whose cuisine arrived from Italy in the late 1800s.

    Tommy's Cuisine
    746 Tchoupitoulas Street (504/525-4790) Tommy's Cuisine, in the Warehouse Arts District just west of the Quarter, features a full slate of traditional Creole dishes such as oysters Bienville and crabmeat Sardou.

    Cafe Du Monde
    800 Decatur Street (504/525-4544) For 'round-the-clock coffee and dessert, Cafe Du Monde is the city's most popular attraction. The café's chicory-darkened roast and hot-from-the-fryer beignets are unparalleled-unless you're a partisan of Morning Call Coffee Stand.

    Morning Call Coffee Stand
    3325 Severn Avenue, Metairie (504/885-4068) The newest location of the 143-year-old local institution brings café au lait and those powder-sugar New Orleans-style donuts to City Park, the town's ever-improving expanse of green.

    NIGHTLIFE

    Victorian Lounge Bar
    3811 Saint Charles Avenue (504/899-9308) The city's storied hotels and restaurants are among the best places for a well-crafted drink. There is no more picturesque spot for enjoying a Sazerac, the city's official cocktail made from rye whiskey, bitters, and liquorice-flavored Herbsaint or absinthe, than the front porch of the Columns Hotel in the Garden District, thanks to its Victorian Lounge Bar.

    Credit: Todd Coleman
    Swizzle Stick Bar
    300 Poydras Street (504/595-3305) At the Swizzle Stick Bar in the Loews Hotel, bar chef Lu Brow revives vintage cocktails like the hair-of-the-dog Corpse Reviver #2, a lemon-spiked combination of gin, Lillet, Cointreau, and absinthe.

    French 75 Bar
    813 Rue Bienville (504/523-5433) Another new-wave bartender with old-timey sensibility, Chris Hannah turned the French 75 Bar at Arnaud's into an international destination by perfecting old favorites and concocting updated New Orleans-inspired ones like the Moviegoer, gin blended with orange curaçao, Averna amaro, and lemon.

    Old Absinthe House
    240 Bourbon Street (504/523-3181) At the Old Absinthe House, you can sample all manner of Big Easy cocktails-brandy milk punch, Ramos gin fizzes, mint juleps-as well as admire the marble fountains that bartenders once used to drip water over sugar cubes into absinthe.

    Blue Nile and The Spotted Cat
    532 Frenchmen Street (504/948-2583), 623 Frenchmen Street (504/258-3135) Frenchmen Street in the Faubourg Marigny east of the Quarter is the place to go for a nightcap and its natural New Orleans pairing: music. At Blue Nile, you might catch country bluesman Washboard Chaz or the raucous Big Sam's Funky Nation, while The Spotted Cat features all kinds of jazz.

    Vaughan's
    800 Lesseps Street (504/947-5562) In the Bywater, the iconic trumpeter and singer Kermit Ruffins packs Vaughan's every Thursday night, serving barbecue and red beans as a lagniappe.

    Preservation Hall
    726 St. Peter Street (504/522-2841) The Quarter's legendary Preservation Hall carries on its mission to preserve and present Dixieland jazz.

    Tipitina's
    501 Napoleon Avenue (504/895-8477) Uptown at Tipitina's , Sundays are usually reserved for a Cajun-style fais do do, or dance party.

    HOTELS

    Credit: Todd Coleman
    Windsor Court
    300 Gravier Street (504/523-6000) Though it's only 29 years old, the Windsor Court drips old Southern luxury, from afternoon teas to lavish marble baths. In the Polo Club Lounge, choose a Vieux Carré cocktail (imagine a dressed-up Manhattan) to accompany the sounds of live music.

    Roosevelt Hotel
    123 Baronne Street (504/648-1200) The restored Roosevelt Hotel, where Louisiana's notorious Depression-era governor Huey Long allegedly had his own suite, still offers some residential-size accommodations. The Sazerac Bar, with its controversial Paul Ninas murals depicting the Old South, is a fancy setting for the namesake cocktail or a Ramos gin fizz.

    Hotel Monteleone
    214 Royal Street (504/523-3341) The Hotel Monteleone boasts the Carousel Bar, a revolving bar in the round. Hotel suites are named for writers who loved the place, including Eudora Welty, Tennessee Williams, and Truman Capote.

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  • 04/03/13--01:00: Oysters in New Orleans
  • PandJ Oyster Company's Jerry Williams-photo
    by Todd Coleman
    As I found out while photographing this story, New Orleans is an oyster lover's town: They're emblematic, hungrily sought after, and seemingly everywhere. At the raw bar at Pascal's Manale, shucker Thomas Stewart opens them by the thousand to be eaten the Gulf way: raw on a saltine with hot sauce and horseradish. The white-tiled oyster sanctuary Casamento's charbroils them, each shell a vessel for gurgling butter, garlic, and Parmesan cheese. At Upperline, they're deep-fried and served atop a zesty, garlicky sauce. My oyster consumption reached a fever pitch with the Antoine's platter known as the 2-2-2: oysters Bienville, baked in a white wine-cream sauce; Rockefeller, smothered in puréed greens; and Thermidor, with bacon and tomato sauce. New Orleans' oyster cookery is so evolved largely due to abundance: Louisiana is a prolific oyster-producing state. (Though 2010's Deepwater Horizon oil spill and its cleanup decimated the mollusks, populations are bouncing back.) The type in the Gulf of Mexico, Crassostrea virginica, are large, plump, mild specimens that lend themselves well to both raw and cooked preparations. Early on, the plentiful mollusks were swapped in for escargots in Creole versions of classic French dishes, and cooks kept going from there. Tenney Flynn, the co-owner and chef of the seafood restaurant GW Fins, took me to Pandamp;J Oyster Company, a supplier since 1876. At 7 a.m., brothers Al and Sal Sunseri, Pandamp;sJ's proprietors, plied us with oysters, while Sal explained what he looks for in one. "Louisiana oystermen say they're looking for a 'cock' oyster, because it has the colors, like purple and copper, you'd see on a cockleshell. Those show that the oyster's feeding well, and everything's salty and good-all you have to do is suck it up."

    See a gallery of New Orleans oyster recipes »


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  • 04/03/13--08:00: New Orleans
  • Galatoire's restaurant New Orleans-photo
    by Lolis Eric Elie
    In 1948, Louis Armstrong, my city's most famous jazz practitioner, told DownBeat magazine: "I always think of them fine old cats way down in New Orleans…and when I play my music, that's what I'm listening to. The way they phrased so pretty and always on the melody, and none of that out-of-the-world music, that pipe-dream music, that whole modern malice." I came late to Louis Armstrong, at least for a New Orleanian. I spent my high school years training to be a jazz musician. But I was more interested in Miles Davis's modernity than in Armstrong's tradition. It wasn't until years later that I realized the genius of Armstrong: his phrasing, his bravura, his audible insistence on technique.

    By contrast, I came to the classic New Orleans restaurants early. My parents were among the first in their families to become professionals and thus make good on the promises of desegregation. Wanting the best for themselves and their children, they took my sister and me to the finest restaurants to celebrate birthdays and graduations. We'd dress in our Sunday clothes and sit beneath the chandeliers at Brennan's, a 67-year-old restaurant in the French Quarter, where the gumbo was presented in a metal cup, and the bow-tied waiter served it to us, rich with shrimp, crab, and oysters. The entrée might be trout amandine, the white filet moist within its nutty crust, or at brunch, eggs Hussarde, one-upping Benedict with the addition of red wine sauce laden with ham and mushrooms. For dessert, we'd move on to bananas Foster, decadent with butter and brown sugar, and flambéed in front of us on a burner in the dining room. The waiter never failed to astonish me when he poured in rum and banana liqueur and tipped the pan toward the fire to ignite that flaming finale.

    Credit: Todd Coleman
    I can't say we had our own account at Galatoire's, the bastion of the leisurely Friday lunch, or our own waiter at Antoine's, the city's oldest restaurant. These were the hallmarks of the truly well-heeled families of old New Orleans. But my parents afforded the occasional extravagance. Then they sent me away to college. After a decade of working and studying in other American cities, I returned to New Orleans and its restaurants, but not to the old places. In the 1990s I was interested in trends: truffle oil, peekytoe crab, fingerling potatoes-ingredients that young maverick chefs were using to make their names. When visitors came to town, I steered them away from "the places your grandfather would take you," as I called them. Turtle soup, barbecued shrimp, bread pudding: There was little sense of discovery for me in the dishes I had been raised on, which as far as I understood them, hadn't changed much in more than a century.

    To sit in Antoine's with its hand-painted wallpaper and fireplaces and historic photographs is to feel like a time traveler, a favorite sport in my nostalgia-steeped city
    But then a funny thing happened: I got older. I won't quite say I'm grandfather age, but I am old enough that it had been years since I'd been to these classic restaurants. I wondered if I knew anymore what was going on beyond their doors. The city had certainly changed: Hurricane Katrina had scooped out New Orleans and sent its survivors scattering. Many restaurants, both new and old, closed, and newcomers have arrived in their place. The face of the city is changing, and so is the cuisine. I suddenly felt protective of the traditional restaurants, worried that they, too, would disappear. What did these old-line places have to offer anymore? I decided to return to them and see.

    Credit: Todd Coleman
    I have to admit, I adored what I found. The roots of many of these kitchens is Creole cooking, a cuisine developed over the centuries in New Orleans, with its West African ingredients and techniques, its butter-drenched classic French foundation, its Spanish and other melting-pot layers (see Creole Versus Cajun). It's a cuisine in the service of simple deliciousness. As for the ambience, a lot of these places haven't changed their look for 50 years; to sit in Antoine's with its hand-painted wallpaper and fireplaces and historic photographs is to feel like a time traveler, a favorite sport in my nostalgia-steeped city. And they haven't changed their style of service, either; there is a clear desire to entertain and to please.

    On a recent Sunday at Brennan's, the house was as packed as I remembered it from my childhood. Of the 550 seats in the restaurant, the only ones empty were at tables being bussed for the next diners. All around me, tourists and locals alike were digging into the flavors of old New Orleans. Such a meal officially starts with gumbo, the city's signature soup, as thick and rich as any stew. Brennan's refined version eschews the roux, that French combination of flour and fat that colors, flavors, and thickens most of the city's gumbos. Rather, this gumbo is thickened West African style, with okra. Unlike in the darker, murkier gumbos that have come to dominate around town, I could see the crab and shrimp and okra and taste them distinctly, but they were all harmonizing, all in tune.

    To truly test the ancient waters, I ordered an old warhorse, filet Stanley. An unlikely pairing of grilled steak and sautéed bananas draped in horseradish sauce, it didn't taste arcane; with its sharp, sweet, and mineral flavors, it tasted as novel and delicious as it must have six decades ago when Owen E. Brennan put the 19th-century dish on his menu in honor of the protagonist of A Streetcar Named Desire.

    The air of strict formality faded slowly from New Orleans restaurants, then disappeared all at once
    I wandered outside to the restaurant's elegant brick courtyard, the de facto waiting area, where dozens of people were enjoying their bloody marys and brandy milk punches. I could easily imagine this scene playing out in the 1950s, only the gentlemen would have been in white suits, the ladies in linen dresses. These days things are much more casual. None of these restaurants require gentlemen to wear ties anymore. None refuse service to ladies in pants. The air of strict formality faded slowly from New Orleans restaurants, then disappeared all at once.

    "After Katrina not everybody was carrying coats and ties, so we sized it down," Eddie Tassin, who has been a waiter at Antoine's for nearly 30 years, told me. "You get a few that say, 'They should still have kept it the same.' But if we'd have kept it the same, we might not still be open."

    Credit: Todd Coleman
    Tassin was serving me a plate of scalding-hot oysters Rockefeller, or as the menu refers to them, "huitres en coquille a la Rockefeller (notre creation)." In good years, Louisiana leads the nation in oyster production, and there are a number of essential Creole dishes based on the theme of oysters on the half shell, topped with a sauce and baked (see Oyster City). Oysters Rockefeller is the king of the genre, invented at Antoine's in 1889 and named for John D. Rockefeller, then the country's richest man. The mounds of seasoned puréed greens under which my oysters were buried were perfumed with anise-flavored liqueur. Contrary to popular myth, the original (and secret) recipe contains no spinach. Concurrent with popular opinion, it is delectable.

    But my favorite oyster dish, oysters en brochette-skewered with bacon, lightly battered, and deep-fried-I discovered when I ate at Galatoire's, the clubby Quarter restaurant where upper-crust locals like to kick off their weekend on Friday afternoon.
    Stories abound of notables such as President Gerald Ford being made to wait on the sidewalk for a table
    It was a Wednesday when I went, so I walked right in and ate my oysters in shirtsleeves, a sea change for a restaurant whose no-reservations policy and old-fashioned dress code were once legendary. Stories abound of notables such as President Gerald Ford, French president Charles de Gaulle, and Mick Jagger being made to wait on the sidewalk for a table, and wear one of the notoriously ill-fitting jackets the restaurant kept to clothe underdressed gentlemen. Despite its bending to 21st-century fashions (at least at lunchtime), Galatoire's holds firm on its food: The signature pommes soufflées, potatoes twice fried so they plump like zeppelins, are as crisp and golden as ever, the béarnaise sauce just as creamy and fragrant with tarragon. And the atmosphere, fueled by table-hopping regulars, is just as festive.

    Like so many of New Orleans' older establishments, Galatoire's, opened in 1905 by Jean Galatoire, who hailed from Pardies, France, has always aspired to Gallic standards of fine dining. But not all of classic New Orleans is so highfalutin. Though raw oysters are iconic New Orleans, you won't see them shucked at the city's older white tablecloth restaurants; the kitchens are tucked discreetly away. Looking for a break from the pomp of the Quarter, I ventured uptown to Casamento's, a narrow, tile-floored storefront where the shells have been pried open in full view at the counter since 1919. Their signature is the oyster loaf, a slew of Gulf oysters breaded in corn flour and served on thick white slices of bread. CJ Gerdes, the owner and chief fry cook, says he uses only the largest oysters so the meat stays tender in the heat. He insists on frying them, and everything else, in lard for the golden color and savory flavor it imparts.

    Credit: Todd Coleman
    Casamento's is among a handful of vintage New Orleans restaurants with roots not in France but in Italy, where Gerdes' grandfather and predecessor, Joe Casamento, was born. Other such places, like the fancier Tommy's Cuisine, serve Italian dishes such as chicken rosemarino, roasted in white wine, olive oil, and rosemary-laced jus, with a side of pasta, alongside more Gallic-style fare like pompano en papillote, baked with crabmeat in a delectable cream sauce.

    Then there are the dining stalwarts that have origins just a little more than 100 miles west in Louisiana's Cajun country, settled by French Canadians in the mid-18th century. Those folks lived off the bounty of the land, hunting wild animals in the fields and the bayou, and also raising pigs, and their cuisine also influences the city's. Andouille and boudin sausages, and the spiced smoked ham called tasso-pork-based building blocks of the Cajun larder-often appear on New Orleans menus. My father first took me to the 60-year-old Bon Ton Cafe, likely the city's first Cajun restaurant, more than 20 years ago. On a recent visit, we were both pleased to see that the food had held up.
    In this era of celebrity chefs, many of New Orleans' most vaunted kitchens aren't helmed by stars.
    I would say that the crawfish étouffée, smothered in a sauce chunky with vegetables and bacon, spiced with paprika and cayenne, has a buttery richness, but Wayne Pierce, the nephew of the founders, takes a non-Creole stance on butter; he doesn't much use it. Yet the fare at Bon Ton has, over the years, taken on something of a Creole character: Sitting on the red checked tablecloth was a carafe of sherry, an extra jolt for our turtle soup, a throwback dish in most other places but not in New Orleans. Bon Ton's version of this mainstay is thick with tomatoes, unlike the thinner versions I've tasted in Cajun country.

    In this era of celebrity chefs, many of New Orleans' most vaunted kitchens aren't helmed by stars, but by cooks who have come up through the ranks without culinary degrees or European stages. Most of them are African-American. Dot Hall, Lazone Randolph, and Milton Prudence, the chefs at Bon Ton, Brennan's, and Tommy's Cuisine respectively, are largely anonymous, though the proof of their expertise is on the plates.

    Credit: Todd Coleman
    That's not to say there aren't tradition-minded chefs whose names are recognized in New Orleans. Many of them own their own places. Frank Brigtsen, of the beloved Brigtsen's and the new Charlie's Seafood, both uptown, has been turning out loyal renditions of Creole and Cajun classics for the past 27 years, dishes like pan-fried drum fish with shrimp Diane sauce enriched with cayenne and other Creole seasonings. At one or two of the old-line places, too, chefs have become stars. At Commander's Palace, these include Paul Prudhomme, Emeril Lagasse, and the current chef, Tory McPhail. It's a sign that they do things a bit differently. In the airy Garden District restaurant, I devoured a Commander's original: shrimp and tasso Henican, the ham-stuffed shrimp and pickled okra arranged in a pattern resembling a fleur-de-lys, the city's symbol, atop a sauce flavored with pepper jelly. It wasn't a traditional dish, but with its regional ingredients and references, it was New Orleans through and through. In the cookbook Commander's Kitchen (Clarkson Potter, 2000), Ti Martin, who runs the place with her cousin Lally Brennan, writes of one mash-up of beloved local foods: "When we called it poached eggs with red bean sauce and pickled pork hash cakes, we couldn't give it away. But when we renamed it eggs Louis Armstrong, it started flying out of the kitchen." Like Louis Armstrong, Commander's and the rest of these restaurants have stubbornly defined their own standards, and the standards of New Orleans. They've got integrity that, if you allow it to, proves irresistible.

    One evening after dinner, I sat amid the mirrors and polished wood in the French 75 Bar, which is attached to the classic Creole restaurant Arnaud's. Revived by the craft cocktail craze, the pre-Prohibition bar was packed with young cognoscenti. Once having dismissed such places, now I wanted to implore the crowd around me to explore Arnaud's menu, too, to mine it for its age-old delights. I thought of Louis Armstrong then; he was considered old school, but the man had a record, "What a Wonderful World," that became a hit more than a decade after he died.

    Once having dismissed such places, now I wanted to implore the crowd around me to explore Arnaud's menu, too, to mine it for its age-old delights
    It had been only upon reexamination that I could see Armstrong as the innovator that he was. When I speak of these classic places, I still describe them as the spots your grandfather would have taken you to. It's an apt description, but tasting the food now, I realize it's also an insufficient one. In the hands of these experienced cooks, served with dignity and eaten amid the trappings of New Orleans history, the time-tested recipes still shine.

    Finishing my drink, I recalled something I had noticed a few days before in a dining room at Antoine's. There, the walls are crowded with framed celebrity tributes dating back more than a century. One is by Carl Anderson, who created the popular "Henry" comic strip in the 1930s.

    "Henry speaks for the first time," Anderson says in a caption beneath a drawing of his famously silent character. In the bubble above, Henry says one word: "Grand."

    See the rest of our April 2013 special feature on New Orleans »
    See classic New Orleans Recipes in the gallery »



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    Cradle of Wine-photo
    by Karen Shimizu
    Georgia is home to a unique winemaking tradition that stretches back thousands of years: Grapes here are crushed, then fermented skin-on for several months in buried earthenware vessels called qvevri. Prolonged contact with the skins produces wines that are rich in tannins, which lend depth and dryness, plus great stability and structure. After fermentation, the wine is typically transferred to another qvevri to age, where it acquires even greater dimension. There are more than 500 grape varietals in Georgia, but in Kakheti the most common white variety is rkatsiteli, which yields vivid amber wines that go perfectly with Georgian food. The flame-colored Alaverdi Monastery Rkatsiteli 2010 ($25), made by monks who have been producing qvevri wines since the year 1011, offers heady notes of walnut, strawberry, and honeysuckle that can stand up to savory dishes such as chicken with walnut sauce.Pheasant's Tears Rkatsiteli 2009 ($18), an earthy wine with mouth-gripping tannins and deep aromas of dried apricot and pu-ehr tea, complements bitter greens and sautéed eggplant. Dergi Rkatsiteli 2009 ($20), a dry, austere wine with a bright, floral lift and a lemon-zest finish, is a match for the salty, buttery Georgian cheese bread khachapuri. The region's most common red grape, saperavi, is used to make Nika Saperavi 2009 ($20), a deep purple, earthy Bordeaux-like wine that's a good match for veal and sour plum stew. All of these wines open up particularly well with decanting.

        

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    Everlasting Feast: Food in the Republic of Georgia-photo
    by Karen Shimizu
    I've thought about this meal so many times now that the memory of it feels like a dream: I'm seated at a table whose surface I can no longer see-it has disappeared entirely underneath dozens of overlapping plates. There are only six of us, but the food laid out could easily feed 30. There are loaves of bread; plates of white, salty sulguni cheese; platters of peppery raw radishes, pickled tomatoes, and palate-freshening parsley, tarragon, and green onions; earthenware dishes called ketsi filled with grilled mushrooms and fried potatoes; jars of fresh yogurt and little bowls of rose petal jam and honey to add to it; bottles of tarragon soda; and pitchers of wine, some purple-black saperavi and others amber, apricot-scented rkatsiteli.

    It's early autumn, and I'm in a town called Bodbiskhevi in Kakheti, the easternmost region of the Republic of Georgia. We're an hour into a dinner in the backyard of Gela Patalashvili, a winemaker here. His vineyards stretch for miles in every direction. If I squint, the tawny, arid landscape, thickly planted with grapevines and dotted with pomegranate and cypress trees, reminds me of Tuscany-that is, if Tuscany were bordered by the snowcapped Caucasus Mountains and home to a 7,000-year-old winemaking tradition. Gathered around the table are my husband, Chris, and a handful of Georgian and American expat friends. After a day of helping Gela pick plums from his orchards, we've been invited to join him for dinner, which, as dinners tend to do in Georgia, has turned into a several-hour feast called a supra (meaning "tablecloth" for the way the food covers the table), a celebratory meal involving structured toasts, wine, song, and lots and lots of food.

    Credit: Landon Nordeman
    Gela's wine propels the feast forward. As our host, he takes on the role of tamada, or toastmaster, walking us though a series of rousing salutations on which we're invited to riff, or if we prefer, simply raise our glasses and affirm, "Gaumarjos! Victory!" He reminds us that no sipping of wine is permitted between toasts-just when the toast is made. We nevertheless empty quite a few glasses before the night is through. The wine and the toasting suffuse the meal with a sense of purpose, with an ongoing poetic conversation, and an intensifying sense of communion.

    Just when I am certain that there is no more room on the table, Ekaterina, Gela's wife, brings in mtsvadi, skewers of sizzling pork that have been grilled over a fire of last year's dried grapevines. As Ekaterina approaches the table, Ketevan Mindorashvili, a folk musician and the wife of our friend John Wurdeman, bursts into song, and others join in, singing a dissonant three-part harmony that gives me goose bumps:

    Mtsvadsa mas mshveniersa da dadgromilsa momtansa amisasa ats vadidebdet.
    Let us now praise this beautiful and roasted meat, as well as the one who brought it to us.


    Between the food, the wine, the song, I want to freeze this moment in time forever
    Someone hands me a skewer, and I pull off the piping-hot meat with my fingers, dunk it into a sour plum sauce, tkemali, and devour it. It's perfect: juicy, smoky, with a salt and pepper crust, the fat buttery and full of flavor. Between the meat, the wine, the song, and the feeling of deepening friendship, I want to freeze this moment in time forever.

    I first visited the Republic of Georgia in 2002, when I was 21 years old. I was traveling with my mom, an ethnomusicologist who'd been coming to the country for years to study the local music. We landed in Tbilisi at a dimly lit airport, a faded modernist building constructed in the waning years of the Soviet Union. From the capital, we took a taxi two hours into the countryside to the town of Sighnaghi, where Mom had purchased a dilapidated dacha to use as a retreat for her choral group. We entered, expecting it to be empty, and found the house lit up, full of the good smells of cooking: Her musician friends had already let themselves in, taken over the kitchen, and laid out a feast in the backyard-my first supra, though I didn't know the word for it then.

    On that weeklong visit I fell in love with Georgia. I swooned over its dramatic landscape. Though just the size of West Virginia, as it stretches from the Black Sea in the west almost to the Caspian Sea in the east, it traverses everything from Alpine mountains to deserts to subtropical citrus groves. I was intrigued by the ancient language, which, with its loop-de-loop script and mellifluous tones, bears no relation to any other. And while its food was clearly influenced by its neighbors-Persian ways of using fruit to enrich meat stews; a penchant for mayonnaise-y salads that were a remnant of Soviet rule-Georgian cooking was still utterly its own: bold, with an emphasis on fresh ingredients and pure flavors. Instead of fat and flour, walnuts, which grow here in abundance, were used to thicken sauces, and it seemed that fenugreek, coriander, and tarragon were in nearly everything. But I was moved most of all by the generosity of the people, strangers who would insist I stay for a meal if I so much as asked for a drink of water. It got under my skin, and I wanted to get to know this place.

    Credit: Landon Nordeman
    I returned to Georgia a few times over the next several years, eventually spending ten months there in 2006 when Chris, a poet, became as obsessed with Georgia's verse as my mother was with its music, and received a grant to translate Georgian poetry. The two of us lived in an apartment in Tbilisi. While Chris crunched through translations, I wrote a food column for a local English-language paper that paid $12.50 a story-not quite enough to live on but more than enough to cover the cost of dinner. It was a year of extraordinary eating: We lived on beans stewed with walnuts; platters of khinkali, dumplings stuffed with everything from pork to farmers' cheese and mint; flatbread filled with molten cheese and topped with an egg; and pkhali, cooked vegetables seasoned with a heady blend of ground walnuts, spices, and herbs. I loved every bite.

    Easy as it was to eat our way through Georgia, it was hard to feel at home there. I spoke Georgian at the level of a two-year-old and was frustrated with my inability to communicate.
    However alienated I sometimes felt, I always had a seat at their tables
    I was clueless about how to accomplish everyday tasks; because I couldn't figure out how to pay the phone bill, the wire connecting our apartment to the grid was repossessed. And we were lonely. When we tired of feeling like strangers, we went back to Sighnaghi, where my mother's friends-now our friends, too-would welcome us with wine, food, and a place to relax. These visits had a way of restoring us. However alienated I sometimes felt, I always had a seat at their tables.

    After the grant was up, we moved to New York, imagining we might return in a year or two. Instead, I ended up taking a full-time job. I gave birth to our daughter. I grew up a bit. As the years passed and our lives changed, the months we had spent in Georgia felt more distant. But as time went on, its grip on my imagination grew stronger. I was worried that it might have all changed, that if I went back, I would no longer recognize it. I was hungry to return and renew old friendships. I wanted to reassure myself that it was real-that it was still there.

    Six years later, I finally make it back to Georgia. Gela, whose supra years ago had come to symbolize what I love about this place, has partnered with our friend John Wurdeman to found Pheasant's Tears, a boutique winery and wine bar in Sighnaghi, and they've invited me to visit. From the moment the plane lands, I can see change. Georgia has been looking for ways to align itself culturally, politically, and economically with the West, and it shows. In Tbilisi there's a shiny new airport, and modern hotels dot the skyline. In more remote areas, change is happening, too, though it's not as obvious. On the drive over to Sighnaghi, factories and massive fields give way to vineyards, farm plots, and orchards, and tin-roofed two-story brick houses with figs, pomegranates, and grapes-always grapes-growing in the yard. The car rounds a bend, and the town comes into view, the familiar silhouette of its 18th-century steeples and red-tiled roofs on a hillside jutting out over a vast valley. As we drive through the town, I notice the main road's been repaved, and that the historic buildings all look freshly painted.

    Credit: Landon Nordeman
    We pull up in front of a doorway marked Khokhbis Tsremlebi-"Pheasant's Tears"-and I exit the cab and walk through the doorway, which leads to a cobblestone courtyard. I first see a baker making bread in a tone, a tall tandoori-like oven that has existed in this part of the world since time immemorial. Coals smolder at the very bottom, and the clay walls radiate heat. The baker slaps dough against its inner walls. After a few minutes, she hands me a loaf. It's damn good-fragrant and crisp on the outside, white and fluffy within.

    I walk past her to the wine bar's tiny kitchen, which issues forth the most amazing smells. I find Gia Rokashvili, who owned a convenience store when I was last here. "Gamarjoba! Hello!" Gia exclaims. As we catch up, he explains that Sighnaghi was the recipient of a grant for historical restoration and tourism development-which accounts for the smooth road and fresh paint. New shops have opened up, and his store has gone out of business. Hence, he says, his job as a cook.

    Gia sings "Let It Be" under his breath as he prepares khashlama, a regional meat stew he's making with veal and sour plums. He cuts veal shoulder into chunks and places them in a pot with water, not quite enough to cover them. Then he chops a heap of green onions, tarragon, cilantro, and mint, along with a few salt-fermented plums-an intensely sour and biting ingredient that Georgians use to bring piquancy and depth to all kinds of slow-cooked dishes. I want to eat standing in the kitchen, but Gia shoos me out. Instead, John joins me at a table in the barroom for a few glasses of wine and some of Gia's food.

    It's this moment that really drives home how far things have come in the six years I've been gone. Gia sends out dishes, and each is recognizably Georgian but with a twist. For one, the food is plated tapas style. Fresh yogurt is drizzled with smoked sunflower oil; a vegetable salad, made not from blanched vegetables as is common but from smoky eggplant and red peppers that have been grilled over the tone. And the khashlama, usually a hearty, stick-to-your ribs dish, here is delicate and fall-apart tender.
    I'm skeptical for about half a second, until I start eating
    I'm skeptical for about half a second, until I start eating. It's all delicious. And the veal, infused with tarragon and accompanied by the salty-sour plums, is as astonishing as ever, with those big contrasting flavors that are the hallmarks of Georgian cooking. The setting and presentation may be different, but the soul of the food is the same: forceful, honest, awesome.

    The next day I visit John's home where his mother-in-law, Leah Beroshvili, is making lunch. Having eaten Leah's wonderful cooking on every visit to Georgia, I am looking forward to this meal. Leah, 73, her dark brown hair pulled back into a bun, wears an ankle-length black skirt, sturdy black shoes, and an apron with a chile pepper print. She smiles and waves me to a seat next to John and Ketevan. Today she is making katmis satsivi, chicken in walnut sauce. "Es chemi saquareli sachmelia," Leah says. "It's my favorite dish," one that's been in the family for generations. Her mother-in-law made it especially well and with a sense of joy that inspires Leah's cooking to this day. "You always felt warm when you ate her food," she says. It's exactly how I feel about Leah's cooking.

    Leah throws several handfuls of walnuts into the bowl of a food processor, followed by spoonfuls of blue fenugreek, a subtle Caucasian variety, and coriander seeds, cloves, cinnamon, plus an orange-gold spice that I can't immediately identify. Leah gestures to the ceiling strung with garlands of drying marigolds. "Es zaprana aris," she says. "Marigold flour." I taste a pinch; it reminds me of thyme.

    Then she breaks down a boiled chicken, cracking the breastbone and peeling the meat from the rib cage. In a skillet, she heats sunflower oil and adds the meat, turning it with her knife until it's browned all over. While the chicken cooks, she pulses the spices and walnuts until they're velvety and fine, then spoons in chicken fat from the frying pan and a few ladles of broth that she's reserved. She warms the sauce until it's thick enough to coat the tip of her finger. While the satsivi finishes, Leah sautés some eggplant until it's blistered, slathers it with a sauce she's made from walnuts, fresh herbs, and spices, then scatters red onion on top-she would have preferred pomegranate seeds, she tells me, but couldn't find any at the market this morning.

    Credit: Landon Nordeman
    Finally, Leah makes khachapuri, a cheese-filled flatbread that's griddled until crispy on the outside and gooey within. When it's ready to serve, Leah slides it from the pan and quarters it. The crust is browned in spots, and as the knife cuts through, cheese oozes out. She shuttles it to the table and we eat it hot, balancing the scalding buttery wedges on our fingertips and trying to catch every melting drip. Ketevan brings out a carafe of chacha, a grappa-like spirit that she infused with violets picked from nearby meadows. It's crystal clear, with a sweet fragrance: spring in a bottle. "For the grace of the morning," John says. We clink glasses.

    We sit and eat, murmuring over the creamy walnut sauce of the katmis satstivi, helping ourselves to the silken slices of eggplant, nibbling grapes from the front yard and local pears that taste of honey.

    "May bitterness be away from us and sweetness be in our lives," John says, raising his glass. We drink.

    I look around the table, savoring the food, the company, the feeling of being here. I know that the moment can't be trapped in amber, but I no longer want it to be. I know that whatever changes come for Georgia, for my friends, and in my own life, these simple but important things-the pleasure that comes from cooking and eating with people whom I cherish so much; the sincerity and spontaneity of the supra-will endure.

    John offers one more toast for the road: "To what you do with love." I raise my glass and say wholeheartedly, "Gaumarjos!"

    See what to eat and where to stay in our Georgia Travel Guide »
    Read more about Georgian winemaking in Cradle of Wine»
        



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    Travel Guide: Republic of Georgia-photoDinner for two with drinks and tip
    Inexpensive: Under $15; Moderate: $16-$30; Expensive: Over $30


    International flights land in Tbilisi, a 1,500-year-old city on the Kura River that's worth exploring. The two-hour taxi ride from Tbilisi to Sighnaghi costs about $40.

    Where to Stay


    Radisson Blu Iveria Hotel
    Rose Revolution Square 1, 0108, Tbilisi (995/32/402-200). Rates: $250 for a double. This 18-story luxury hotel is perched above the Mtkvari River in the center of Tbilisi, within striking distance of the restaurants and shops on Rustaveli Avenue, the city's main drag. Rooms are serene and spacious, with free Wi-Fiand, on the upper floors, spectacular views.

    Nana's Family Hotel
    2 Sarajishvili Street, Sighnaghi (995/559-79-50-93; kkshvl@yahoo.com). Rates: $17 a person. This homey guesthouse is in Sighnaghi's picturesque town center. Proprietor Nana Kokiasvili speaks some English and cooks excellent Georgian meals. Her house, which doubles as the hotel, is spacious with clean, modern facilities and hot water. She can also arrange excursions to local sites.

    Where to Eat


    Shemoikhede Genatsvale
    Leselidze Street 25, Tbilisi (995/32/243-9646). Moderate. This welcoming restaurant (whose name means "Come in, darling") in the heart of Tbilisi's Old Town serves four types of delectable khinkali, Georgian dumplings, as well as a wide range of traditional offerings, including badridzhani nigvsit (eggplant with walnuts) and shekmeruli, chicken in a butter and garlic sauce served, still sizzling, in an earthenware dish.

    Salobie
    Mtskheta Road, Mtskheta (995/99/548-229). Inexpensive. About 20 minutes outside of Tbilisi is "where the beans are"-the literal meaning of the restaurant's name. The thing to eat here is the lobio, a flavorful bean stew served in red clay pots along with chadi, Georgian corn bread. Also very good are the mtsvadi, skewers of grilled meat; pork, beef, and fresh herb khinkali dumplings; and the acharuli khachapuri, a canoe-shaped bread cradling a puddle of hot butter, molten cheese, and an egg.

    Pheasant's Tears Wine Bar
    Baratashvili Street 18, Sighnaghi (995/599/534-484). Moderate. This recently opened wine bar in Sighnaghi features traditional qvevri wines, including shavkapito, a beautifully balanced red, paired with updated Georgian classics served tapas style: mushrooms with tarragon and mint; khashlama, stewed veal with sour plums or quince; bread crisps with tahini and sunflower oil. You can also tour the winery and vineyards by car or on horseback.
        



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  • 04/12/13--09:30: Thai Farms in Florida
  • Thailand, Florida-photo
    by Cory Baldwin
    If you're looking to open a restaurant in Miami Beach, Florida, a farm-to-table eatery serving authentic dishes from the Mekhong River region in Thailand may not be the most obvious concept. But John Kunkel, CEO of Miami restaurant group 50 Eggs, is nothing if not persistent in his passions. It's been nearly ten years since he started the process of convincing chef Piyarat Potha Arreeratn-a.k.a. chef Bee-to open Khong River House, a restaurant featuring the foods of Bee's native Thailand. The two met in 2004, when Kunkel was in the process of opening a fast-casual taco franchise, and Bee had a restaurant in North Miami. John would frequently stop by, not to eat the dishes on the menu, but to share the kitchen's family meal-the hearty, flavorful, authentic stuff that Bee and his line cooks were making for themselves, as opposed to the more Americanized take on Thai flavors they sent out to their customers.


    Khong River House was born in early 2013, and became a buzzing success almost immediately. When I visited, I was struck by how fresh and bright the dishes tasted-farm-to-table flavors with a cuisine not normally known, in America, for its use of regional ingredients. But in South Florida, local produce takes on a whole new meaning: With the same micro-climate as Thailand, the area is home to a thriving Thai farming community, which supply fruits, vegetables, and herbs to immigrant enclaves and Thai groceries, sometimes in addition to growing other foods for profit.

    In Homestead, a farm town a short drive from the Miami Beach neighborhood where Chef Bee runs his kitchen, the Buddhist temple Wat Buddharangsi acts as the cultural epicenter of the Thai immigrant community, hosting cultural festivals and holidays. A frequent visitor to the temple, Bee had cultivated the right connections to call on the Thai farmers to supply his restaurant, recreating the foods of his childhood with produce that was both authentic and local. Intrigued by the idea of a slice of rural Thailand hiding out within an hour's drive of Miami, I asked for a tour-and so I found myself sitting in the passenger seat of Bee's new car, with Eddie Acevedo from 50 Eggs in the back seat, speeding off towards the horizon to meet up with the restaurant's forager, Pranee, at Wat Buddharangsi.


    Credit: Rolando Diaz
    As soon as we arrived at the first farm, I felt like I was on a different continent. I was struck with a feeling of luck and gratitude: that Bee and Eddie were introducing me to this strange glimpse of Thailand; that Florida's humid, sunny climate can support this kind of trans-cultural farming; that I got to stand there surrounded by curry leaves, jackfruit, lemon grass, holy basil, and knowledgeable, welcoming farmers encouraging me to smell this, and taste that. We walked by a humble two-room house with peeling blue paint, the air fragrant with lemon grass, and a short walk brought us to field overlaid with a tarp. My tour guides began rapidly speaking in Thai-everyone was excited by a plot of Chinese watercress growing out of plastic kiddie pools. The invasive species has to be closely controlled, and can be difficult to find in the states. "You have to cook them very quickly," Pranee instructed. "Never more than two minutes."

    Credit: Rolando Diaz
    We visited three farms in Homestead, with Pranee and Bee gathering up herbs, peppers, greens, and mangos for us to eat for lunch, in addition to the bags of watercress we carried with us. Each farm is small but robust, and to keep up with Bee's ingredient needs, Pranee needs to source from a half-dozen different places: She finds fruits from one farm, vegetables from another, and so on. A smiling middle-aged woman who doesn't speak much English, she was a dervish of energy, plucking and bruising herbs for me to smell, and half-climbing trees to make sure she grabbed the best, ripest sweet sop for us to taste. She and Bee kept up a running commentary that served as a primer for the Thai pantry: "The curry flowers we use for making a soup when you have an upset stomach," Bee pointed out. "Pandan leaf is for sticky rice and wrapping up desserts, and my mom always used them to test if the oil is hot enough before cooking. The large leaves of Elephant tongue are used for curries or salads, or the leaves can be folded to form a makeshift drinking cup." Rows of Thai chiles were laid out to dry everywhere-on tarps, in kiddie pools, in aluminum trays. Mango and lychees hung heavy on the boughs, and though dragonfruit season had just passed, the snake-like vines climbing down the trees still made an impressive backdrop for our morning.

    Before leaving Homestead, we returned to the temple, slipping off our shoes to sit by the altar. We made an offering of fruits and herbs to the temple, where the two resident monks eat just meal a day, and rely on donations for all their food. On the drive back, hungry and a little sun-fried, we chat about how Bee uses his local bounty. "In the U.S., most Thai food is Bangkok-style," Bee explains. "It's very sweet, so it's been easy for Thai people to open successful restaurants with this style of cooking, because it suits the American palate." But Bee's focus on the food of northern Thailand-and his emphasis on authenticity-means he can bring more balance to the flavors on his menu. "Some people equate authentic Asian food with spicy," he says. "But the flavors are more nuanced than that-they're bitter, sour, salty, and sweet." Back at Khong River, we laid into our haul: quick-sautéed Chinese watercress greens with garlic and chile, a papaya salad made with just-picked fruit, herbaceously aromatic gin cocktails. The flavors are vibrant, colorful, and alive-it almost felt like I was eating and drinking in Thailand. And in a very South Florida way, I was.

    See more from Homestead's Thai farms in the gallery »
        



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  • 04/16/13--08:00: Scenes from Georgia
  • A shared lunch in Republic of Georgia-photo In the Republic of Georgia, bold, unique flavors, ancient methods of winemaking, and epic meals are at the center of a way of life. See some of the places, people and moments senior editor Karen Shimizu encountered while writing her feature on Georgia, which first appeared in our April issue.

    See the gallery »

        



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    The interview: Philip “Skip” Lomax Jr., Line Cook at Mr. B's-photo
    by Sophie Brickman
    How long have you been at Mr. B's?
    This May 17, it'll be 33 years.

    How did you start cooking?
    I was in high school and got a job working at a country club as a dishwasher. They put me on pots, and I'd come in after school and wash them. I did such a good job that the manager said they were the cleanest pots he'd ever seen! One night when it was really busy, someone needed a sizzle platter, so I ran to get it, and the chef said, "How did you know I needed these? And how did you know what a sizzle platter was?" And I said, "I know what a male spoon is, a female spoon, a China cap," because when I got through with my pots I'd go watch the cooks.

    And then?
    A bit later the Chef came to me and said, "I want you here at 11 o'clock on Tuesday. I'm gonna make a prep cook outta you." I stayed at the country club for 10 years, and was the sous chef when I left.

    What are you responsible for at Mr. B's?
    I started as the sous chef, but that meant I had to work every weekend and didn't get any time to spend with my daughter. I talked to my boss and he gave me daytime shifts and now I have every weekend off. Three items come off my station: barbecue shrimp, pasta jambalaya, and catfish.

    What's your favorite to cook?
    The barbecue shrimp. I put them in a bowl with cracked black pepper, garlic, and Creole seasoning we make in-house. Then I dump my shrimps into a hot skillet, squeeze a handful of lemon on them, and when they start to turn a light pink, I fold in a lot of butter. I can do it in my sleep. I've been making it since 1985.

    Are you sick and tired of it?
    No! You'd be surprised, when people see how good the barbecue shrimp is, they want to come in and take their pictures with me!

    What's the secret?
    I'm consistent, I love what I'm doing, and I have the patience for it.

    How many shrimp do you go through a day?
    We get up to 120 pounds delivered for the weekends, fresh, heads on and everything. That makes...whoo!...you're lookin' at probably 200 orders right there, easy.

    Does your daughter come in often?
    She came in once.

    What was her verdict on the shrimp?
    I think she had the pasta jambalaya.

        

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    The Interview: Charles Carter, Waiter at Antoine's-photo
    by Sophie Brickman
    How long have you been at Antoine's?
    This is my fifteenth year. I started as an apprentice waiter and was the second youngest person ever to be made waiter there, at 18. It's in my family. My great uncle, Chester Laviolette, he's retired now, but he was a waiter here for 52 years. And my dad, Val, was here for 29 years. We all worked together.

    So did you scamper around there as a child?
    Oh yes, when I was a little bitty kid, there were four of us boys, and between the lunch and dinner shift, after school, my dad would bring me and my brothers in. We'd always have a coffee cup with ice cream in it.

    What's the training process to become a waiter?
    There are about 30 waiters and 30 apprentice waiters. You learn the 5-star way. Our menu has over 100 items on it, and there are lots of different sauces, so a waiter has to know exactly how every sauce is made, what's in it, that kind of thing. And there are over 600 wines on the menu. Then you have to learn your customers. There's usually a five to ten year apprenticeship, where you work under a waiter until they see that you're fit to handle everything. I guess I might have took it in a little quicker.

    Antoine's is famous for having waiters-by-request, so loyal customers have a designated waiter. Do you have lots of request customers?
    I'd say about two or three a night, sometimes more than that. They call up, say "I'd like Charles as my waiter," and then they always have their set table, and I have their drinks waiting for them because I know what they like. A lot of them are generational customers: my great uncle's and my dad's customers? Now I'm taking care of their kids. I've served four generations of one family: the great grandpa, now the great grandkids. You get to watch them all grow up.

    How have things changed at the restaurant since your itty-bitty days?
    To tell you the truth, that's one of the things about Antoine's, and why people keep coming back: It hasn't changed. The only thing I've seen change is that you can't smoke cigarettes or cigars anymore. We used to carry four things in our jackets: a wine opener, a cigar cutter, a matchbook, and an ashtray. Now my jacket is lighter.

    Any particularly notable customers?
    The most famous person I waited on was President Bush, when he was in office. He had Pompano Pontchartrain. It was right after 9/11, and it was in the book but of course under another gentleman's name. I was 18 and had just made waiter. My uncle was supposed to wait on him, but he was off, and so was my dad, so it fell to me. Fifteen minutes before he came in, we had to move the table to another room because of security reasons, and then we ended up having to move the table again because of the windows or something.

    Was it swarming with Secret Service?
    Well, I wanted to do a Café Brûlot [an alcoholic coffee drink made by flaming a brandy-drenched orange peel]. But the Secret Service wouldn't let you do anything strange, like set things on fire, so I shut off all the lights and closed the door and flamed the brandy in the middle of the table, so the Secret Service didn't know!

    What did the president think?
    He doesn't drink alcohol, of course! So he didn't have any.

        



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  • 04/18/13--01:30: Khao Soi Affair
  • khanom jeen ngam niaw-photo
    by Jamie Feldmar
    Plenty of people fall in love with a dish while traveling, return home raving about it, and launch a quest to find the most authentic version they can get in their own city. Before a recent trip to Thailand, I operated in reverse: I first read about khao soi, a northern Thai coconut curry soup, on one of New York's myriad food blogs. I then set about sampling every version of the dish my city has to offer-which turned out not to be all that many-and was smitten. So when work took me to Thailand earlier this year, I set out to Chiang Mai determined to eat as much khao soi as humanly possible.

    While Northern Thai dishes lean toward the intimidatingly spicy, funky, and pork-centric, khao soi is an easy introduction to the region's cuisine. The red curry broth is rich and mild, made velvet-soft with a splash of coconut milk and fortified with tender braised chicken or slices of fried pork. Flat wheat noodles appear twice in one bowl: fresh and chewy in the soup itself, and as a crispy nest of fried strands on top. It's served with a do-it-yourself condiment platter of pickled mustard greens, shallots, and lime, plus a roasted chili sauce called nam phrik pao.

    The dish's origins are murky, at best: Bangkok-dwelling author and Thai food authority Austin Bush explained that there's a Shan/Burmese coconut broth noodle dish called ohn no hkhauk hswe that likely inspired the northern Thai version ("khao soi" being the Thai pronunciation of the Burmese general term for noodles "hkauk hswe"). Bush conjectured that Chinese-Muslim traders may have introduced the dish from Myanmar to northern Thailand via their caravan routes. "The fact that khao soi is generally sold with halal chicken or beef seems to lend this theory some weight," he added.

    In Chiang Mai, the khao soi path is a well-trodden one. Over the course of a week, I tried a dozen versions of the dish: I compared the two old-guard restaurants, Khao Soi Samerjai and Khao Soi Lamduan back-to-back on Faham Road; I visited the Chinese-Muslim area to try Khao Soi Islam's halal version with homemade egg noodles; I even gave the newfangled, squeaky-clean Just Khao Soi in the trendy Nimanhaemin district a chance. I sampled street-side renditions from unnamed vendors and an excellent bowl at a basement food court in a mall outside of the city. I picked out subtle differences between each broth, took copious notes on the size each establishment cut their pickled vegetables into, and soon felt as if curry paste was seeping from my pores.

    Despite the differences from bowl to bowl, one thing was a constant at nearly every khao soi vendor I visited: In the kitchen, alongside the vat of coconut curry soup, there was another liquid simmering away, thinner and redder than the khao soi broth. They also had baskets of the thin rice noodles called khanom jeen, draped elegantly into figure-eight shapes.

    One vendor told me she makes khao soi for the tourists and gam niaw for the locals. I was at once heartbroken and enthralled by this discovery.
    What other soup, I wondered, could be sold alongside khao soi and possibly be worth eating? The answer: khanom jeen ngam niaw. The broth is a sort of soupy Thai bolognese made with tomatoes, spices, a dried flower called dok ngeaw and a variety of pig parts including minced pork, spare ribs, and blood cakes. Ladled over the soft noodles and topped with crunchy raw vegetables, sweet-tart khanom jeen ngam ngiaw is a favorite for breakfast and lunch across Chiang Mai. One vendor told me she makes khao soi for the tourists and gam niaw for the locals.

    I was at once heartbroken and enthralled by this discovery. I started asking for ngam niaw at khao soi vendors. I tried bowls at restaurants and on the street, peering into endless vats of murky red broth. A stooping grandmother across the street from my guesthouse sold it for breakfast from an electric crockpot plugged in to her home kitchen, so I awoke before the sun one day to watch her cook. She didn't speak a word of English, but she happily showed me each ingredient as she reached for it, slipping me halved cherry tomatoes as she chopped.

    As the sun rose and Pa Jinoy's first customers arrived, she shooed me out of her kitchen. Unsure of where to go, I lingered near the door for a few minutes, until she reemerged with a steaming bowl of khanom jeen ngam niaw. She set it down on a tiny plastic table on the sidewalk and pointed at me, then disappeared as soon as I sat down to eat, vanishing into a haze of simmered pork and spices.

    Where to eat khao soi and ngam niaw in Chiang Mai, Thailand:

    Just Khao Soi
    108/2 Th Charoen Prathet, Chiang Mai

    Khanom Sen Men
    Kad Suan Kaew Shopping Center (food court), 21 Hauy Kaew Rd

    Khao Soi Lamduan
    352/22, Charoenrat Road, Wat Ket, Muang, Chiang Mai

    Khao Soi Samerjai
    391 Charoenrat Road, Faham, Muang, Chiang Mai

    Khao Soi Islam
    22-24 Soi 1, Charoenprathet Road, Chiang Mai

    Where to stay:

    CM Bluehouse
    30-1 Moonmuang Rd. Soi 6, Chiang Mai
        



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    The Interview: Karry Bird, Pot Cooker at Pascale's Manale-photo
    by Sophie Brickman and Kellie Evans
    What are your main responsibilities?
    All the back cooking. Oysters Rockefeller, Bienville, gumbo, the soups...well, basically the majority of everything in here, now that I think of it. I started out just frying.

    How long have you been cooking at Pascale's Manale?
    About 40-some years. I was born in Waterproof, Louisiana, then I came to New Orleans. I started cleaning up outside Pascale's in the afternoons after school, and then in 7th grade started in the kitchen.

    How do you make the gumbo?
    Start off with a little oil, flour, brown it and then cook the roux for about 30 or 40 minutes. Then you add your stock, seasonings, then the rest of the ingredients-your meat, that stuff. I make about five or six gallons in the course of a day, depending on how business is going.

    Given your gumbo mastery, has another restaurant ever tried to persuade you to jump ship?
    Yeah, a couple o' times. But why leave a good thing? Work is work.

    Is there a secret to your gumbo? Do customers ever try to get it from you?
    Not really, it's just me. And yeah, they ask, but there's nothing to tell.

    Do your clothes smell of it when you leave?
    Yes. For 40-some years.

    And you're responsible for Oysters Rockefeller and Bienville. Do the oysters come to you shucked?
    Yes! I can't shuck. Well, maybe if I had a hammer.

    After your eight-hour shift, do you cozy up to a big bowl of gumbo and some Oysters Rockefeller?
    I eat Louisiana food, red beans, steaks. Something different. Anything different.

    Did you always dream of being a cook?
    Naw, it was just something that happened. I didn't want to cook at first.

    Do you consider your cooking to be Cajun or Creole?
    A little of both, I guess. Cajun is a little more work though.

    What do your kids think of your cooking?
    Well, I got two boys. One is 24, the other's 13. I don't think they care much about it, they just like to eat...a lot!

    After a 40-some-year career, do you think you'll retire soon? And what will you do when you retire?
    Yeah, in five years hopefully. Don't know how much cookin' I have left in me. I plan on just kickin' back and enjoyin' life.

        



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    Polpettine¿Meatballs in Tomato Sauce-photo
    by Jamie Feldmar
    Italy may be the destination for countless romantic fantasies, but I arrived in Emilia-Romagna alone, nursing a bruised heart from a recent uncoupling. The portico-covered cobblestone streets and towering Medieval frescoes tried their hardest to woo me, but I am the type who seeks solace in food, not scenery.

    Few regions in Italy are better are better suited to eating your feelings in than Emilia-Romagna. Nicknamed la grassa ("the fat") for its production of gut-busting regional specialties like mortadella, tortellini and ragu, Emilia-Romagna will happily cradle its visitors in calories. But although I'm generally not self-conscious about dining alone, the freshness of my heartbreak, combined with a shoddy grasp of Italian, left me sensitive about lingering solo for too long. Waiters gave me strange looks when I said no one would be joining me in sidewalk cafes. One busboy shook his head and took away my bread bowl. My confidence shot, I began looking for a meal that would nurture on all levels, laced with comfort as well as Parmesan.

    That's where Mara stepped in. A Bolognese lawyer and mother, Mara invited me into her baroquely adorned apartment, sat me down beside an ancient fern, and cooked for me. She made polpettine, tiny meatballs in tomato sauce; béchamel-coated pasta rosettes filled with mortadella and soft cheese from Castel San Pietro; and creamy fior de latte panna cotta from family recipes. Hair graying but perfectly teased, with brown eyes accented by both crow's feet and liquid liner, Mara fussed over my plate while picking like a bird at hers, watching me eat and eat and eat.

    Mara is a cesarina, or "little Caesar," with the Italian nonprofit Home Food, which I was introduced to through ItalyVacations, a bespoke travel company specializing in regional experiences. The people of Home Food are dedicated to protecting and promoting traditional home cooking across the country, which they accomplish mainly through at-home dinner visits, like my meal with Mara. Cesarine must apply and are carefully vetted as both cooks and hosts; guests must register with the organization in advance to sign up for a meal. Founded in Bologna in 2004 by Egeria Dinallo, a sociology professor interested in traditional foodways, Home Food now has about 50 Cesarine around the country, each cooking the traditional foods of their region, and some 20,000 registered members.

    "For us, taste is not mechanical," explains Dinallo over a glass of Lambrusco, Emilia-Romagna's local sweet wine. We are sitting in Mara's living room as she insists on clearing the dishes by herself. "It's an experience, with many meanings-a mix of physical sensations and sentimental emotions." I look at Dinallo, a kindly grandmother type herself, and wonder if she is actually reading my mind. Mara and Dinallo know nothing of my failed relationship or my subsequent desire to be restored through food. They cook to protect traditions, to educate, to elicit an emotional response; and from Mara's tiny tiled kitchen, they gave me-hungry for comfort food in the most literal way-exactly what I needed: some good Italian home cooking.

    Home Food
    39/051/22-0797
    info@homefood.it

        



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