Holly Kisby, the general manager at Shriver's Salt Water Taffy & Fudge, where she's worked for the past 23 years.
Articles on this Page
- 04/13/16--07:00: _The Woman Who's Ded...
- 04/19/16--08:00: _The Filipino Food B...
- 04/20/16--05:00: _Asbury Park is Comi...
- 04/21/16--05:00: _Go Eat Pastrami at ...
- 04/21/16--07:30: _Bridge to Banchan: ...
- 04/25/16--05:00: _The Jersey Shore Se...
- 04/26/16--07:00: _Where to Shop and E...
- 04/28/16--05:00: _A One-Day Snacker’s...
- 04/28/16--09:00: _Don't Mess With the...
- 04/29/16--07:00: _Yes, New Jersey Mak...
- 05/04/16--05:00: _Apples and Calvados...
- 05/05/16--05:00: _Biarritz and the Cu...
- 05/06/16--08:00: _Bordeaux is France'...
- 05/10/16--05:00: _The Essential Tools...
- 05/12/16--10:30: _Top-Notch Middle Ea...
- 05/13/16--09:00: _The Eater's Cheat S...
- 05/20/16--05:00: _The Incredible Neon...
- 05/25/16--05:00: _One of America's Be...
- 05/31/16--07:00: _How to Eat Your Way...
- 06/01/16--08:15: _The Fourth-Generati...
- 04/19/16--08:00: The Filipino Food Boom of Jersey City
- 04/20/16--05:00: Asbury Park is Coming Back, With Better Food Than Ever
- 04/25/16--05:00: The Jersey Shore Seafood Scene is Changing—For the Better
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- 04/29/16--07:00: Yes, New Jersey Makes Wine—And It's Good
- 05/04/16--05:00: Apples and Calvados are the King and Queen of Normandy
- 05/05/16--05:00: Biarritz and the Cuisine of the Sun
- 05/06/16--08:00: Bordeaux is France's Next Great Food Destination
- 05/12/16--10:30: Top-Notch Middle Eastern Food Finally Hits the Bay Area
- 05/13/16--09:00: The Eater's Cheat Sheet to Normandy
- 05/20/16--05:00: The Incredible Neon Artwork of Boston's Vietnamese Restaurants
Before Holly Kisby started her first job at Shriver’s Salt Water Taffy and Fudge when she was just 14, one of their empty one-pound taffy boxes served as her childhood colored pencils container. For summer car trips to the Shore, her grandmother needed a way to keep all the pencils from rolling around her backseat and floor, and with an empty box of taffy on hand, it was an obvious choice. On the drive back home to West Depford, the car would be full of more boxes—these, instead, would be packed to the brim with a rainbow-colored assortment of wax paper-wrapped candies.
Talk to other people who grew up near the Shore and they probably have similar Shriver’s stories. A fixture in Ocean City, New Jersey, since 1898, the storefront has been churning out taffy, fudge, and chocolate longer than any other business on the boardwalk. It’s currently owned by Meryl and Blue Vangelov—Meryl being the great granddaughter of the family who purchased the business from the Shrivers in 1959—but Kisby, with 20-plus years at Shriver’s, has been there longer than anyone else. In a family-run business that’s not her own, she’s not related by blood, but she is by a passion for chewy, sugary taffy—which, sugar goes into your bloodstream, so basically the same.
“It was never my goal to work there forever,” she says. “But it just kept seeming right.”
Even more than hot dogs, water ices, or funnel cake, salt water taffy is pure Jersey cuisine. Though the exact origin of the chewy sweet candy is contested, most historians believe that a man by the name of David Bradley began stretching it in Atlantic City in the 1880s, just a decade after the boardwalk was built. The whole salt water part involves a story about his store getting flooded, and him joking that his taffy was now “salt water taffy,” but that’s all myth.
But what’s not a myth is the Garden State’s love for the candy. Back in the 1880s, when the Shore was hot and air conditioning was sparse, ice cream melted quickly; taffy did not. Between Shriver’s, and sister taffy companies Fralinger’s and James, beachgoers have been getting the candy stuck in their teeth for more than a century. And if you ask Kisby, taffy isn’t going anywhere.
“Everyone knows someone who’s been coming here for taffy for forever,” Kisby says of Shriver’s. But not everyone has dedicated more than half their life to the boardwalk staple.
Now the general manager at Shriver’s, Kisby started in the packing department after her parents bought a Shore house and told her that she needed to help make money. Her dad had worked there when he was in college, so after she suggested it, she went in and was hired on the spot. And she loved it. Through the years, she worked the storefront, learned how to make taffy and run the machines in her twenties, then moved back to the office and worked with the mail, and just over seven years ago began her current role. If you want to know the store regulars, Kisby will know their names; if you shoot Shriver’s a Facebook message or email, she’ll be the one to answer you. She doesn’t have any biological kids, but she thinks of Shriver’s as her own.
“I come to work, I take care of it, I feed it, I watch it grow,” she says. “This is my baby.”
And every day at 9 a.m., Kisby is there—it’s not a long walk from her home just two blocks away. At the height of the season, which spans Memorial Day through August, the staff churns out 2,300 pounds of taffy a day—that’s nearly 100,000 pieces of taffy. In the off-season, that number drops down to a meager 42,000 pieces (or 1,000 pounds a day). With chocolate accounting for nearly one-third of the candies, the rest of the taffy turns into 60-plus other flavors, including everything from trendy sea salt caramel to unpopular-but-classic (and delicious) molasses-mint. If you’ve ever gotten a peanut butter taffy that tasted richer than normal, you may have gotten one from Kisby’s batch.
“You’re supposed to put in one-and-a-half scoops of peanut butter, but I always put in two full scoops instead,” she says.
Because while she’s the general manager, she still operates the 50-year-old machines, works the cash register, and packs boxes. “We’re a small staff, so everybody does everything,” she says. Lately, she’s been thinking about her next flavors—honey-lemon and honey-mint have been on her mind. After a bout of sickness this past winter, during which she was sucking on cough drops, she couldn’t help but think those would make good taffy flavors.
She knew it was possible they’d flop like some of their past ones—apricot, rum, and Champagne came to mind—but one of her favorite things about working at Shriver’s is getting to play around with the flavors. Even if a flavor doesn’t sell so well that season, it’s no big deal. If there’s anything that Kisby has learned through the years, it’s that taffy’s here to stay.
“We have so many kids that come in for taffy with their parents—it’s always going to be relevant because of the history behind it,” she says. “I don’t think there’s something on the boardwalk that will topple taffy.
Shriver’s Salt Water and Taffy
9th Street and the Boardwalk
Ocean City, NJ 08226
The defining characteristic of pandesal is that you smell it before you see it. While this is accurate of most baked goods, it’s emphatically true when you’re discussing the foundational bread of the Philippines.
Despite its misleading, rooted-in-Spanish name—“pan de sal” literally means “salt bread”—pandesal is sweet. Flirty with sugar and yeast and best eaten hot from the oven (the closer you come to burning your tongue, the better), the pert little rolls broadcast their own brand of olfactory wi-fi, the kind of scent that makes your eyelids flutter and lightly perfumes your clothes.
The wire shelves at Philippine Bread House are stocked with all sorts of treats—sugar-crowned ensaymada filled with smooth ube, the ubiquitous yam the color of Barney’s skin; sapin-sapin, the rice-based layer cake that looks like it should be thrown from a Mardi Gras float. But pandesal, often eaten for breakfast but in no way limited to a.m. enjoyment, has paid the Bread House’s bills for nearly four decades.
Much like its most coveted product, the shop is a standard bearer of Jersey City, New Jersey’s anchor Filipino community. The state’s second-largest city is home to its biggest concentration of loyal and opinionated Pinoys, and the restaurants, bakeries, and stores they support capture a culture that’s struck an amiable balance with America.
Filipinos started coming to Jersey City in the 1960s, an influx City Council president Rolando Lavarro labels the “brain drain generation”—professionals like his physician parents, coming to America to chase opportunities both in-state and in New York. (The 2010 Census put Jersey City’s Filipino population at around 16,000; Lavarro says it’s grown since then.) They bought homes, started families, and opened businesses around hospitals and Catholic parishes, then slowly expanded out: downtown, around Journal Square; to the east, where a strip of Grove Street goes by “Manila Avenue”; and due south and west as well. Bergenfield, a 30-minute drive to the north, has a sizeable Pinoy community, too.
Everything in New Jersey is “near” New York in some sense, but those unfamiliar with the state’s geography might not realize just how close this area really is to Manhattan. Roughly a mile across the Hudson River, the big(ger) city is often within eyeshot to Jersey City’s dizzying, diverse populace, split nearly surgically between white, black, Asian, and Latino.
To put it in starker terms: In September 2001, as a sophomore at St. Peter’s Prep, Neal Santos watched the second tower fall from the window of his second-period English class.
He rattles off that fact with surprising nonchalance as we idle in his SUV, back tires still lingering on Newark Avenue, waiting for the right moment to pounce. ”What’s worse than three Filipinos in a parking lot?” Neal asks, counting himself, plus the two flustered motorists in front of us, attempting to circumvent each other with awkward thousand-point turns. The total Filipino head count in this claustrophobic stand-off is technically 3.5: My mom is from the Philippines, but growing up outside Baltimore, I didn’t have access to anything close to Phil-Am Food, the Jersey City stalwart we’re attemping to visit.
Neal, a food photographer, grew up in the Jersey City neighborhood called The Heights, but now lives in Philadelphia. In between our second and third lunches on a breakneck eating tour he’s chaperoning, we stop at Phil-Am Food so he can stock up on supplies for Pelago, a series of Pinoy pop-up dinners he organizes in Philly.
Since there’s no big Filipino cultural corridor in Philly, this is what he misses most about Jersey City—perusing packed shelves of patis (fish sauce) and rummaging through ample ampalaya (bitter melon), with chatty church ladies, cheery Top 40, and monitors blaring Manny Pacquiao’s ridiculous soy sauce commercials serving as the soundtrack.
Neal talks about returning home: “It’s about being able to find a representation of your culture somewhere—you’re not seeing it on TV.” But he’s also describing the spirit behind Pelago, whose events have been heavily attended by a young, energetic Filipino crowd hungry for a new way to reconnect.
As it turns out, a similar sentiment motivates Erwin Santos (no relation), whose family opened Phil-Am Food in 1973. Santos' mother, Florintina, along with two of her sisters and their respective husbands, started Phil-Am off small; the business eventually grew to include both an adjacent bakery and a wholesale arm.
The market went through a growth spurt all its own once those three branches split up and went independent in 2002. Santos added an online store and worked to expand his product line “a hundred fold,” making it a destination for local Filipinos, as well as discerning customers from as far away as Virginia and Ohio. He also focused on growing the store’s cooked food offerings, presented in steam tables filled with from-scratch dinuguan (pork blood stew) and pancit palabok, the Chinese-influenced noodle dish crowned with quartered hard-boiled eggs.
“I’m giving you a taste of back home, even if it’s only for 20 minutes,” says Erwin. He’s made the front end of Phil-Am as modern as possible—but the farther back you go, the more native it gets. The building’s cramped, bustling palengke, or wet market, isn’t far removed from what you’d find on the other side of the planet. And that’s on purpose. “Customers, they appreciate that,” he adds.
That steam table setup is known as turo-turo—a “point-point” joint—in reference to how customers tend to order. It’s easily the most common format for Filipino restaurants in America. At the sunny Casa Victoria, owned by Santos’ aunt, Angelina Ferrer, fried bangus (milkfish) and the congee-like arroz caldo sit pretty behind the sneeze guard, holding steady among potted calamansi trees and shelves of Virgin Mary statues. Hidden in the back, a brick-lined oven produces fresh bibingka and buko pie, sticky-sweet confections made with coconut.
Fiesta Grill, another trusted name in Jersey City turo-turo, has been around for years. The fanciest feature of the Newark Avenue branch’s spartan interior is probably the ceiling-mounted TV playing Tagalog sitcoms. The food is the thing—pinakbet, stewed vegetables served with the requisite white rice and bagoong, the building-block fish paste; or sinigang, a sneaky-sour soup of braised pork and whole okra. Rowena’s Delight & Cake House provides for the turo-turo faithful of on Jersey City’s West Side, dishing out lechon kawali, deep-fried belly in bite-size hunks—a crowd-pleasing gateway into the Philippines’ obsession with all things pork.
Establishments like these and the Bread House, just a few among dozens, are Jersey City Filipino at its old-school finest, and they’re supported by a dedicated clientele. More recently, however, the area’s been given votes of consumer confidence in the form of Filipino chains betting on the area. In 2010, Max’s, a polished Manila-based brand famous for its fried chicken, opened on Newark Avenue. Two years later, Jollibee, the most successful fast-food operation in the Philippines, debuted a branch in the southern enclave of Greenville. Red Ribbon, a popular sweets shop that offers electric-purple ube layer cakes and the psychedelic shaved-ice dessert halo-halo, holds down a corner in the heart of the city.
Lavarro, who helped these companies smooth out their pre-opening paperwork with City Hall, takes Filipino-focused commercial growth as a sign that the philosophy of the community has shifted. “Our parents were more about assimilation, trying to fit in and be unnoticed,” he says. Filipino families nowadays, in his eyes, are “more pluralistic”—openly celebrating their heritage, and more than willing to share it.
They’re also more than willing to sound off on what constitutes proper Pinoy food. As a Filipino-American chef, Dale Talde, who opened a branch of his eponymous restaurant in Jersey City in 2015, knew he was in for some interesting conversations. “You know how Filipinos are—they’re very picky [with food],” he says.
Talde’s menu features a few Filipino-inspired dishes, all of which he executes with little regard for the dogma of so-called authenticity. He serves personal interpretations of kare-kare, beef short ribs slow-cooked a peanut sauce, and the tangy-sweet native barbecue pork, classics that elicit strong opinions. Excuse me, but this is not really Filipino, guests have told him. I know, he’s quick to reply.
“It’s like any other community—it’s tight-knit, and you can tell the favorites are there,” says Talde. “I feel everyone has a chip on their shoulder, in a good way.”
Where to Eat Filipino in Jersey City
Philippine Bread House
530 Newark Avenue
685 Newark Avenue
691 Newark Avenue
655 Newark Avenue
Rowena’s Delight & Cake House
444 W Side Avenue
687 Newark Avenue
393 Danforth Avenue
591 Summit Avenue
(201) 795 1988
8 Erie Street
A century ago, Asbury Park was known as the “Jewel of the Jersey Shore.” There was an amusement park and a grand carousel, a casino, and the 1,600-seat Paramount theater. The town’s decline was slow and painful—the construction of the Garden State Parkway provided easy access to less crowded beaches farther south. The opening of a nearby shopping mall and a Six Flags amusement park cut into businesses. On July 4th, 1970, race riots broke out and everything on Springwood Avenue, a thriving retail and entertainment corridor, burned.
Middle-class white families fled. Businesses shuttered. When the state closed a number of mental hospitals thousands of former patients were moved into the Asbury’s deteriorating hotels and rooming houses. Bruce Springsteen wrote a song about his old, forlorn neighborhood: “Young men on the corner/ Like scattered leaves/The boarded up windows /The empty streets.”
Only 16,000 people reside in Asbury Park, and 34 percent of them live below the poverty line. The burned down buildings on Springwood are still there. Decades passed, and talk of a revival was perpetual, but nothing ever really happened. If change was going to come, it was going to come from outside forces.
Over the years, developers swooped into town with misguided notions of turning Asbury Park into the northern version of South Beach with luxury highrises. But nothing changed. Not until the mid-2000s, when a vibrant gay community took root there, rehabbing some of the town’s marvelous old Victorian homes. Hospitality entrepreneurs, young professionals, and out-of-staters followed, and now, in summer, the beaches are packed again.
But Asbury’s rebound isn’t just a seasonal phenomenon. It’s become the sort of place that folks from surrounding communities can be excited about again, and it’s due largely to a cluster of restaurants so good that on cold Saturday afternoons in February, parking spaces are hard to come by, the sidewalks are packed, and the host stations at neighborhood restaurants are always congested.
By the beach, in an old industrial building—not far from the famed rock club, the Stone Pony—there’s Porta, a rustic joint that pumps out piping-hot thin-crust pies from a set of massive brick ovens.
Three minutes up the road is the Asbury Festhalle & Biergarten, a massive, airy space that offers a well-rounded selection of German brews as well as a menu packed with huge, butter-smothered soft pretzels and traditional weiners, wursts, schnitzels, and brats.
On Cookman Avenue, just around the corner, there’s Brickwall Tavern, a gastropub with a rotating selection of rare and off-beat beers from local breweries like Kane and Bolero Snort. Across the street, Cardinal Provisions, a new breakfast and lunch spot, has been packed since the day it opened this winter.
I live in a small community 20 minutes north of Asbury, and I make the trip down to AP every weekend with my wife and kids for Saturday dinner or Sunday lunch. My favorite restaurant in the neighborhood is Talula’s, a small, bright restaurant that offers standout salads (kale with roasted kabocha, pumpkin seeds, pecorino, and perfectly balanced lemon vinaigrette) and brunch (blistered kale and soft egg with garlic-loaded aioli and cheddar on a housemade ciabatta). That might sound like standard Brooklyn grub, especially when you consider the house crocks of pickles, but in Jersey—the land of Asian Fusion and Trattorias—it’s a welcome change.
The staple at Talula’s, though, is sourdough pizza, thin, light, and crisp. There are old favorites like margarita or pepperoni. There are quirky are brunch pies, like the Green Eggs and Ham (chermoula, fresh arugula, aged Benton’s ham, and egg). The Bee Keeper’s Lament, my personal favorite, comes topped with Calabrian soppressata and honey for an interplay of hot and sweet.
Talula’s, opened in the fall of 2014, and is owned and operated by the husband-and-wife team Shanti Church and Steve Mignogna, New York transplants and veterans of beloved kitchens like Roberta’s and Red Hook’s Mile End. A few years back back they decided to strike out on their own. Instead of opening a place in Manhattan or Brooklyn—over-saturated markets with outrageous rents—they wanted to find an emerging city. They took a road trip, hitting New Paltz, Montreal, Detroit, Louisville, and Asheville. They settled on Beacon, New York, but were having trouble finding a space that fit their needs, until a friend who works in commercial real estate suggested they consider a modest space with a good light and exposed brick on Cookman Avenue in Asbury Park.
On an early excursion, Church says, “we met a handful of people, all super welcoming, helpful, and passionate about their community. Asbury Park is beautiful and has a lot of charm, but I would say it was the people that convinced us it was the right place.”
Church and Mignogna took ten months to build and open the restaurant. “We spent five of those months getting to know everyone and involve our new community with what we were doing. We took every opportunity we could to do different community events around town, hire local talent for projects around the restaurant, and to host tastings and get feedback. Now an insane percentage of our business is from regulars.”
Since opening Talula’s, Church and Mignogna have forged deep relationships with the other local merchants, even their competitors. “We discuss our collective problems and challenges, how to make this place better,” says Church. The couple has bought into Asbury Park, literally: they recently purchased a home in what they hope is an improving neighborhood. “When you have that many open-minded, driven, smart creative types, growth and positive change is inevitable.”
Where to Eat in Asbury Park
550 Cookman Avenue
911 Kingsley Street
Asbury Festhalle & Biergarten
527 Lake Avenue
522 Cookman Avenue
513 Bangs Avenue
Alex French is a Monmouth County-based journalist. His work has appeared in the New York Times Magazine, GQ, New York, Grantland, and elsewhere.
Walking into Harold’s New York Deli in Edison, New Jersey felt like stepping into the pages of Alice in Wonderland. I was certain I drank the tincture that shrunk her down to teapot size, as all the food seemed made for giants. I walked past tables of foot-tall deli sandwiches and a buffet table of pickles pizza-sized pancakes dripping with maple syrup, and a 16-inch chocolate layer cake the size of my oven and shellacked with frosting—before I sat down to what I thought might be a simple matzo ball soup.
One matzo ball took up the entire bowl; it was enough for five people. I dug in with a ladle for my portion that was loaded with carrots, celery, and tender chunks of chicken, and was surprised to find that the soup wasn’t just oversized, but delicious—by far the best matzo ball I’ve ever had (homemade included), light and fluffy all the way through, saturated with broth.
The comical portions are what first draw people to Harold’s; owner Harold Jaffe’s care with the food and service is what keeps them coming back.
Matzo ball soup is a staple on the menu of over 100 items, but for the upcoming holiday of Passover, Harold’s will sell over 5,000 balloon-sized matzo balls. Jaffe describes how the Jewish ladies from the area come in to pick up their orders. “There is a line to get out of the restaurant that day. Many make their own soup and pretend that they made my matzo balls.” I’m sworn to secrecy on what makes the Matzo balls so good, but he’s willing to share a nugget of wisdom: “The trick is not to let the soup burn, that’s when it turns cloudy.”
Others choose to spend their Passover at Harold’s, and the scene is surreal; Jaffe describes the 300-seat restaurant as booked for 6 p.m. with 50 families that each order brisket, latkes, kugel, and chopped liver, then read the traditional Jewish stories aloud as they each conduct 50 simultaneous seders.
Jaffe started in the deli business after finishing as a marine in the Vietnam War; he took a class on pastrami-making and then put it to use. He has been involved in 40 different delis, including a partnership at the famed Carnegie Deli, and still employs waiters from those days (now 25 years ago). He learned most of the recipes from his Russian grandmother and pays homage to her heritage with a humorous Yiddish glossary on the inside of the napkins teaching “How to Speak Deli.”
Jaffe grins as he discloses that there is a secret ingredient for every item on the menu; he calls it tam, a Yiddish word meaning special taste. The coleslaw is mixed with celery seed, the cheesecakes are baked in a water bath, and the potato knishes include caramelized onions alongside homemade horseradish mustard. Both my dad, who ate his Jewish grandmother’s version growing up, and the Italian man sitting near us who remembered his family recipe, agree the knishes (“potato pie” in Italian), are better than their childhood memories.
It’s not just the holidays that draw crowds at Harold’s, nor are the customers only those nostalgic for the old world; on any given day the deli has a full house of customers representing at least ten different nationalities and religions. Harold’s is nestled in a business park at the intersection of the New Jersey Turnpike and interstate highway 287, drawing local customers during the week and travelers all weekend. One couple from Philadelphia said Harold’s is part of their summer ritual; they drive to Mets games at Citi Field and stop for a good luck lunch along the way. Families return for birthdays and graduation celebrations and there have even been a few weddings. All the customers I spoke to excitedly say the same thing: “It's the best (fill in the menu item) that I’ve ever had,” and “I can’t believe I ate the whole thing!”
Dr. Feingold, chief cardiologist at nearby JFK Medical Center, eats at Harold’s several times a week, and prescribes that his patients stop by after their appointments. He says, “as long as they eat in moderation, it will make them happy, and that is freilach, a Yiddish expression meaning good for your heart.”
One of the biggest draws of Harold’s is the pastrami, which, unlike most delis, even famous ones like Katz’s and Carnegie in New York, is made entirely in-house. Jaffe walked me through the kitchen teaching the intricate pathway to pastrami perfection. The meat is injected with special brine for two days, smoked for three hours with wood chips, and then steamed. The long cooking process brings the flavors of the fat into the meat while shrinking each piece from six to four pounds, keeping it moist while retaining the subtle tastes of garlic, coriander, and peppercorns from the rub. The next step is precision machine-slicing against the grain, all done to order so customers can control the thickness. Finally, it is all layered on fresh rye bread from 100-year-old Pechter’s Bakery in Elizabeth, New Jersey. The bread is one of the few items not made in-house; the bakery delivers 3,000 three-pound loaves of bread a week, twice a day so it’s never stale.
Gary Timari, a retired police officer from Tampa, Florida enthusiastically relayed how he always makes a stop at Harold’s when he comes to town. Gesturing a two foot-gap with his hands, he says “the sandwich is THAT big and so juicy and delicious! I’ve tasted pastrami everywhere and this beats them all.”
He is not alone; the entry wall is covered with celebrities and locals offering Harold’s their praise, from the cast of the Sopranos to 95-year-old Rose “Nannie” Cheroff. Adam Richman, the now-former host of Man v. Food, writes, “I worship you as the Deli Lama.”
Richman actually lost his battle with the over-sized triple-decker sandwich. Don't let the size of the food (or the prices) scare you: None of it goes to waste. When you order a sandwich it’s accompanied by loaves of the rye bread (seeded or seedless) and unlimited visits to the “world’s largest” pickle bar; it’s designed to be shared at no additional charge.
A large sandwich, which serves three, is $45, the triple decker which contain four pounds of meat and serves eight to ten is $86, and the average dinner plate, which serves four is $65, all of which translates to an average check of $10 to $15 a person—far less than the vaunted pastrami shops across the river in New York City. Leftovers get packed up to go and customers leave with bags of food for the next few days.
Like all the other customers, I left full, happy, and loaded with shopping bags filled with food. Before I come back next time, I’m going to try to eat the cake that made Alice grow, in the hopes of cleaning my plate.
Harold's New York Delicatessen
3050 Woodbridge Avenue, Edison, NJ
Welcome to Asian Food Adventures, where Dan Holzman, chef-owner of The Meatball Shop, and Matt Rodbard, author of Koreatown: A Cookbook, dive into the foods they love so much in search of higher meaning, expert advice, and a great bowl of noodles. Or all three.
Before Hollywood, there was…Fort Lee? It’s true! Quick research (insert typing sound) reveals that in 1912 the town that today stands at attention on the New Jersey side of the George Washington Bridge was the center of the movie-making universe.
Universal Studios founder Carl Laemmle set up shop there, founding the first movie mecca in America—where silent-era stars like Lionel Barrymore and Mary Pickford crossed the Hudson River to film in the massive backlots that had been erected. The “cliffhanger”—a Film History 101 term referring to a moment of cinematic suspense? It originates from early scenes filmed along the nearby cliffs of the Palisades. But, like with the Brooklyn Dodgers four decades later, Southern California came a calling and Laemmle packed up his Bell & Howell Filmo and moved west.
But ask any New Jersey resident or New Yorker about Fort Lee today, and they are likely going to land on a single topic: Korean food. And they’ll just as likely give you a story of eating one of the best Korean meals of their lives. Maybe it was while seated at humble little soup restaurant, or after soaking their body in scalding water with hundreds of naked strangers. It likely involved some beer or soju, and perhaps a half-remembered taxi ride back across the towering bridge that opened in 1931.
“It is one of the most vibrant ethnic communities, and richest cuisines, in Bergen County,” says Bergen Record restaurant critic Elisa Ung of the region’s Korean population, which according to the 2010 Census numbers at least 100,000. “But it’s a culture many still do not know about.” Ung says that many Korean restaurants in the area, Fort Lee, but also Leonia and Palisades Park, are mostly concerned with “Koreans serving Koreans.”
Our story begins on the bridge on Easter Sunday. There is no traffic (and no cones causing traffic). We take the first exit and soon find ourselves in front of Masil House, an exceptional restaurant that I’ve visited a few times before while writing the Koreatown cookbook, but haven’t taken Dan to yet. Masil specializes in soups and stews, the more rustic, stick-to-your-ribs side of Korean cooking that is sometimes skipped or overlooked for the more popular grilled dishes—known universally as Korean barbecue).
There are a couple things you notice right away once walking in. First, the humming tanks of salt water holding schools of menacing eels, which are plucked, butchered, and grilled in a sectioned-off area in the front. Second, people are sitting on the floor of Masil House, a tradition still found throughout Korea, but less in the United States.
Our server kindly, and swiftly, takes our order: mandu (pan-fried dumplings), pureed tofu stew called kongbiji, and the ultimate in Korean rustic dishes: gamjantang, a pork neck, perilla seed, and potato stew that is just outstanding. A deep and rich pork stock ladled into a caldron with meaty link bones, root vegetables and the dish’s focal flavor: perilla seeds.
The bubbling pots arrive along with a banchan spread of kimchis, seasoned vegetables, ridiculously fresh pan-fried croaker, and a righteously mayonnaise-forward potato salad. I love gamjantang so much and order it near constantly. The meaty neck—steaming with the stock, halved potatoes, black pepper, and the earthy seeds—is plucked from the bone with our metal chopsticks. Dan’s chef sensibilities are shocked at how perfectly it’s braised, falling off the bone but still moist and delicious. It’s a great contrast to the sour and funky soups Koreatown is most associated with, and everybody loves it.
We’re stuffed but want to make the most of our trip with a second lunch, so we take a short walk up the street to Myung Dong Noodle House. But first we make a brief stop at a small, one-woman storefront selling plastic containers of banchan packed with delicious things like cured lotus root and fermented fish guts. The owner of Fort Lee Korean Catering House gives us the tour—showing us photos of her work (and deft knife work)—and we promise to stop by on our way out of town. This is the kind of Korean specialty shop that you don’t find in rent-squeezed Manhattan. It’s pure Fort Lee.
Myung Dong Noodle House is a Korea-based chain known for serving a dish called kalguksu, a workaday and delicious soup loaded with knife-cut noodles. The Fort Lee outpost opened in 2013, and on this holy Sunday the place is packed with tables of families, in some instances three generations slurping up wheat noodles swirling around in chicken stock. I’ve found that kalguksu broth is oftentimes clear and light, but this was quite the opposite. It was thick, with a hint of cornstarch. I threw in some forcefully funky napa cabbage kimchi to kick things up a bit and slurped away.
Walking back to our car, we stop back in at the banchan store and made a couple purchases. The woman points to her small but immaculately clean kitchen in the back and tells us how everything in the shop, some 30 or so different side dishes, condiments, and desserts, are made there. She presses a well-worn brochure into my hand showing photos of meticulous trays of a soy sauce and vegetable sweet potato noodle dish called japchae, and reveals that she can cater any event. She asks if I have a wedding or baby shower coming up. I sorta wish I did! But, no dice, and I tell that I’m not from around these parts and it gets me off the hook. We then drive a quick 13 minutes across the bridge (thankfully still no cones!) back to Manhattan. Fort Lee Koreatown is a world away, but much closer than it seems.
Bring it Home
Where to Eat Korean in Fort Lee
400 Main Street, Fort Lee, NJ
Fort Lee Korean Catering House
2024 Center Avenue, Suite D
Myung Dong Noodle House
2013 Lemoine Avenue, Fort Lee, NJ
You’re sitting on a faded deck at sunset. You still have some leftover beach sand in your hair and a cool sunburn even though you applied lotion twice. For a second you think back to the long day on the Jersey water—to the grooves of the wiffleball as you shuffled your grip to throw a curve, to wind riffling the dune grass, to that first cold saltwater dive.
Ah—a waiter is bringing food to your table. Broiled snapper? Steamed lobster? Grilled swordfish? Nope. Saffron pappardelle with dandelion greens and Jersey fluke. And then you think: Man, seafood down the shore is changing.
New Jersey has 125 miles of coastline overlooking countless miles of ocean. The shore starts at Sandy Hook and ends where the Delaware Bay meets the Atlantic, way down south where a county lists oysters as a top export and there’s a town called Bivalve.
Crab shacks and white-tablecloth sit-downs still pepper the shore’s pebble-lawn roadside. But as the local food scene has changed and grown, a new crop of seafood spots has sprung up down the shore. Now you can find chefs powdering basil oil with tapioca maltodextrin evaporating ocean water to make sea salt.
These spots are where Jersey seafood hits new heights every summer, where each year the food sails further beyond the beachside classics and edges closer and closer to world-class coastal eating.
Where ‘Seasonal’ Really Means Something
Down on the shore’s south end you’ll find a seasonal restaurant called The Diving Horse in Avalon, one of a few South Jersey restaurants leading the charge into a new era of Jersey seafood.
Late spring: shore season arrives, and the Diving Horse’s staff migrates from Philly to Avalon, moves into a shared house for the season, and gets to work on the latest version of the evolving sea-to-plate menu. Chef Paul Carrier designs dishes based on what vegetables are locally available. For example, his fluke: Jersey-caught, a Diving Horse staple. In May the seared fish comes in a shallow broth with ramps and preserved lemon. As spring ends, snap peas and baby fairytale eggplant hit the plate. Later in the season, heirloom tomatoes and local onions fill in, clean and sweet. High summer ebbs, and in slips zucchini. And finally, acorn squash may adorn the fluke when summer fades into fall.
“That’s my style,” says Carrier. “I like using a couple components and pretty much having vegetables taste like vegetables, fish taste like fish.” Carrier cooks a small, thoughtful lineup of food sourced from nearby. What’s nearby? The bay (one block) and the ocean (three).
You can taste the salt wind on the tree-enclosed patio, where beach bums dressed for the night relax at wooden tables under string lights with BYO Pinot and Prosecco and IPA. You can taste that same stirring brine in the scallops (light and sweet with corn succotash and oregano pesto last Labor Day), in the airy fried calamari with cool green salsa, in the mussel and clam stew with blended red pepper broth, and in the lettuce wedge translated to the shore via crabmeat and Old Bay. Dishes evolve not only over the season, but from year to year. Last September, coriander-spiked yogurt and candied orange spiced up Yellowfin tartare. This May, Carrier plans to give the citrusy tartar a yuzu-charged remix.
Carrier also turns basil oil into powder with tapioca maltodextrin. The powder brings an herbal electricity to an artful plate of heirloom tomatoes, house-made ricotta, and Jersey strawberries. And he isn’t the only sheriff in town with a cool trick or two.
Out on the Water
Which isn’t to say the 20th century classics don’t have their place. They certainly have more real estate. The best nail both catching and cooking seafood. At Mud City Crab House in Manahawkin, traps float through the tides behind the restaurant, and the blue claws they catch are steamed and tossed in garlic, butter, and breadcrumbs. Down south, generations have raked the Great Bay for clams, and at Allen’s Clam Bar in New Gretna they come raw, fried, baked, deviled, and chowdered.
“We kill it, we grill it” is the slogan of Hooked Up Seafood in Wildwood, where a retired commercial fisherman reels in tuna and swordfish, docks behind his family eatery, and fires up the grill. Viking Fresh off the Hook in Barnegat Light nabs line-caught albacore for tuna salad from a few doors down, from the fishery Viking Village, where boats can hit the spotless pier with 25 tons of fish.
Classic or cutting-edge, all Jersey seafood starts with people who harvest food from water. The state’s commercial fishermen catch more than 100 varieties of fish. In 2013, they caught 120 million pounds of seafood worth $133 million, scallops accounting for $65 million. Fishermen keep busy on the main dock strip. They fix engines, pilot forklifts, make ice, wait for tidal conditions to be right, greet returning fishermen, and unload tons of fish from boats caked with rust. Some know how to carve a 100-pound tuna into all the right pieces; some know how shuck scallops like lightning.
The fishermen at Viking Village catch some of the best fish around. Some 40 boats float in the Barnegat Bay behind Viking Village, one of six major commercial fisheries in the Garden State; it sells five million pounds of fish a year. Viking Village does 500 tons of scallops a year. They end up all over the country, but also all around the state, including at the Diving Horse.
A bike ride away from the Diving Horse, in Stone Harbor, Lucas Manteca is doing insane things at Quahog’s, his “seafood shack.” Actually, he’s doing these insane things in Cape May County, because they start way outside town.
Lately, Manteca has become a commercial hot sauce maker, a bakery owner, and a partner in two local farms that supply produce to his restaurants: Quahog’s, and The Red Store (in Cape May Point, on the southernmost tip of New Jersey, and where you’ll get that saffron pasta with fluke and dandelion greens). He also makes his own salt from ocean water in the 27 pools on his farms.
“Now we’re brining everything,” he says. “Now we’re fermenting everything. Now we’re roasting our own salt. It’s fantastic.”
On a summer afternoon, you could sit at Quahog’s forever; it’s the kind of place where time slows, where you lose count of how many drinks you’ve had. The menu is a hybrid: part New England shack (chowder, clam bakes, lobster rolls), part South American (Manteca and his co-chef Carlos Barroz, who also cooks at La Pulperia in New York, are from Argentina), and wholly impossible to taste in one trip.
Manteca cooks moqueca, a Brazilian seafood stew rich with achiote oil and coconut milk. Soft shell crabs get tempura-fried, plated with zucchini slaw, and a gazpacho of strawberries and hot and sweet peppers. Jersey bluefish gets turned into sweet disks shaped like crab cakes, calamari gets crusted with cornmeal, and oysters plug mojito shooters. From Brazil the kitchen gets pacu, a round Amazonian fish related to piranha, and grills its fragrant, meaty ribs before slicking them with orange barbecue sauce.
Manteca packs hamachi with flakes of his own salt. He cuts the fish into six steak-like slices and arranges them on a plate. Then he brings in the cavalry—a sauce of truffle oil, egg yolk, and yuzu vinaigrette—and, the kicker, dusts the sashimi with (his own) smoked salt.
This is seafood down the shore in 2016. The best of the new guard can outclass the old, unless you crave nostalgia trips every night. And even if you do, there’s no better place to grab summer by the bathing suit drawstrings than the porch of a place like Quahog’s, under fishing poles in the rafters and the giant night, sipping cool Albariño from a vineyard 15 minutes down the road and slurping Cape May Salts with a group of friends fresh off the sand.
Chris Malloy is a writer, photographer, and law student from the Philadelphia area. He has a Master's in Food Studies and has lived in Italy for two summers, one working on farms and vineyards. Chris blogs with his wife at Made in Rome.
In 2014, Le Servan, an airy, light-filled bistro, opened its doors in Paris' 11th arrondissement, an up-and-coming neighborhood that has since become the hub of cool. At its helm: Tatiana (left) and Katia Levha, two Philippine-French sisters. Tatiana honed her skills at L'Arpège and L'Astrance, and in her small, open kitchen, turns out inventive yet comforting dishes, like clams in Thai basil broth and asparagus with tandoori cream. Katia sources the impeccable wine list and runs the warm, informal service. Sit down for a meal, and Katia comes over to recommend a glass or answer a question about an appetizer. As she goes to confer with Tatiana about something, you feel as if you're dining at the home you wish you had—a feat all the more impressive because of the sisters' youth. Here are a few spots around the city that are run by the people who inspire and feed the two restaurateurs.
Deck & Donohue
Located in a suburb on the outskirts of Paris and started by American Mike Donohue and his college buddy from Alsace, Thomas Deck, this brewery makes craft beer that is quickly becoming some of the best in the city. “We started our businesses around the same time,” says Katia, “and have watched them grow.” Visit their workshop on Saturdays to learn about the production process, meet the founders, and sample beers. Pay close attention to Trouble #6, the sisters' favorite, a riff on a traditional farmhouse ale that pairs well with spicy foods.
71 rue de la Fraternité, Montreiul; deck-donohue.com
Two sisters—“Kind of like us!” says Tatiana—and one of their husbands run this new shop, which fuses typical French pastry techniques with Lebanese flavors. Tatiana and Katia find themselves noshing on pastries here frequently. “It's simply impossible to stay away!” says Katia. Don't miss the lemon cake, topped with a hard, almost crispy icing.
57 rue de Bretagne
Marie Quatrehomme—the daughter of the business's founder, who opened his first shop in 1949—is the first woman to win an M.O.F., a Meilleur Ouvrier de France, a designation that marks her the best in her craft. “It's fascinating to go into the shop and hear the stories behind each cheese,” says Katia. One of the sisters' favorite offerings from Quatrehomme is the cheesecake—not a pastry but layers of cheese alternated with layers of jams, nuts, or truffles.
Multiple locations; quatrehomme.fr
This narrow wine shop, where you can also grab a drink before dinner, is situated next to Inaki Aizpitarte's Le Chateaubriand restaurant and was opened by its sommelier, Sébastien Chatillon, in 2013. It specializes in non-French wines. The sisters enjoy pinot grigio from Dario Princic and gin from Belet in particular. Infused with citrus, rose, and pepper, it's perfect as an aperitif, or with a splash of tonic.
129 avenue Parmentier
Located a two-minute walk from the sisters' restaurant, this neighborhood épicerie sells everything from locally grown organic produce to bread and sausages, and serves as Le Servan's unofficial pantry. “We go there almost every day when something is missing,” says Tatiana.
75 rue du Chemin Vert; lezingam.com
Watch how to make the perfect quiche
The best General Tso’s you’ll ever eat comes from an Indian restaurant in New Jersey called Dimple’s Bombay Talk.
It’s a dish made with idli, fluffy South Indian steamed rice flour cakes, cut into chunks, given a hard fry until they’re crisp all the way around, and cooked with an unbelievably good spicy-sweet sauce low on goop, high on heat, and with just enough rounded, gingery sweetness to get you going back for more. The idli retain their crisp edges while softening just a little to a satisfying chew, and while they may seem to the uninitiated like an odd substitute for chicken, they manage to work even better—more sauce absorption, less mushy crust.
Much as I’d like it to be, the dish’s name is not General Tso’s Idli. It’s ‘Chinese’ Idli, and it’s one of the excellent items on the Indo-Chinese section of Dimple’s menu in Edison, New Jersey, which is home to one of the largest Indian populations in the Northeast and, if you didn’t see it coming, where you’ll get some of the tastiest Indian cooking in America.
The neighboring towns of Edison and Iselin have long been home to a diverse population of first- and second-generation Indians from Gujarat, Punjab, and beyond, and along a couple miles of Oak Tree Road through the two towns you’ll find dozens of restaurants (estimates put the number around 60) catering pretty much exclusively to locals, along with Indian groceries, fabric shops, and jewelry stores.
My neighborhood, Jackson Heights in New York City, has a reputation as an Indian food destination. Several decades ago that reputation was earned. Today the most proficient cooks in the tristate have set up shop elsewhere; some on Long Island, in and around New Hyde Park, but mostly in New Jersey, which is why I’ve spent a few weekends in a car, passing my local kebab shops, to drive an hour to taste my way down Oak Tree Road. For students of Indian cooking, there are few better places to see a wide range of cooking styles, techniques, and flavors in such close proximity.
That sheer number of restaurants means picking a starting point is difficult. Enter this quick-and-dirty cheat sheet on what’s there and worth an order, for a one-day snacker’s guide to the best of Edison.
Dimple’s is actually an international chain, which bodes well—Indian chain restaurants that make it overseas are, by and large, really good, from Saravana Bhavan (respected even in India for its dosas) to the Chettinad restaurant Anjappar and Moti Mahal Delux. At Dimple’s, the specialty is Mumbai-style snack food, so in addition to that excellent idli you should also order yourself some chaat: mixtures of potato, legumes, raw vegetables, little crunchy fried bits of chickpea flour, and a hurricane of sauces designed to hit all your bliss points: cool and creamy, fresh and herbal, hot and spicy and tangy and sweet.
Of these, one of the most impressive (visually and taste-wise) is the tokri chaat, in which shredded potatoes are arranged into a nest shape and fried as an edible bowl to hold your chaat components, from the perfectly cooked potatoes to the topping of crisp sev.
Dimple's Bombay Talk
1358 Oak Tree Ave #1
Iselin, NJ 08830
The marks of a great dosa: paper-thin with a smooth, lacquer-like exterior that’s toasted and buttery, contrasted by the flavor of the batter itself, which should taste bright and tangy from its time spent fermenting. Dosa Express nails all those points for a textbook dosa and some cool coconut chutney on the side.
For a good dosa, fillings are secondary; the point’s really the crepe itself, and that’s where the cooks’ attention lies at Dosa Express. But the plain spiced potato filling is more than worth an order.
1170 Green St
Iselin, NJ 08830
A small, blink-and-you’ll-miss-it sweets shop in one of the many shopping centers on Oak Tree Road, the go-to at Jassi isn’t actually the sweets (see below for a better dessert recommendation), but the chole bhatura, a specialty of Delhi consisting of a bowl of gently spiced chickpea curry and two fat bhatura: puffy, flaky maida flour fry breads that fill with air like pillows when they hit the oil.
You’ll see the dish all over Oak Tree, but Jassi’s may be the best in town. Those chickpeas are loaded with ginger, bright and almost refreshing beneath their layers of spice, and delicately creamy but not yet falling apart. The bhatura are also remarkable: tender with a touch of chew, and practically greaseless.
1404 Oak Tree Ave
Iselin, NJ 08830
A favorite of chef Floyd Cardoz, Swagath is a good place to sample a lot of South Indian flavors at once. The restaurant specializes in thalis: big serving platters full of lots of little things designed to come together for a full meal. In the photo above, that’s a puffy fried puri, various pulses and vegetable curries, yogurt curry, sambar, and a small dessert. It’s all well done, particularly the vegetables, which retain their flavor and freshness despite getting cooked down to a collapsing softness. Swagath also recently introduced a North Indian thali, coming soon to the menu, which offers a standout butter paneer and gulab jamun.
1700 Oak Tree Ave #17
Edison, NJ 08820
Alka and Ashok Patel’s mom-and-pop operation opened in Edison in 1999, and since then Jhupdi has been serving some of the finest Gujarati cuisine in all the land. What is Gujarati cooking? Purely vegetarian, heavily spiced but also enriched by an intriguing sweetness from jaggery (Indian raw sugar). It’s rib-sticking food that’s pulsing with heat, fresh herbs, and deeply caramelized vegetables, best shared with as many people you can gather around the table so you can eat as much as possible.
Go for the thalis here so you can experience the full range of Gujarati cooking in one dish, and be liberal with the dark, moody chile paste that sits on the plate next to a clump of sugar to further season your food. But do save room for the menu’s “small” dishes, which are really anything but, especially when it comes to khandvi: seasoned chickpea flour batter flavored with herbs and spread into a thin, flat sheet, then rolled up into little curls. It’s tricky work—you have to manipulate the batter by hand while it’s still piping-hot to ensure it’s thin enough—but the lithe rolls are remarkably delicious for how simple they are. Tender, floppy, and full of that classic chickpea nuttiness.
1679 Oak Tree Ave
Edison, NJ 08820
Indian sweets have a reputation for being treacly without much else going on, and most of the desserts you get in American restaurants and bakeries back up this point. But done right, Indian desserts are rich but full of flavor, with textures from fudgy to feather-light and everything in between. For an education in how good such sweets can be, head to Mithaas, which has a far wider selection and overall higher quality than the competition.
Start off with the tall dairy-heavy cakes in the photo above, ringed with pomegranate seeds or orange blossom water, for something almost tres leches-like that’s delicate and not too sweet. Chewy fig cakes take on an almost gummy candy-like texture. There are marzipan-like fruit made from cashews and, of course, crisp-crusted gulab jamun. These are just a few of the dozens of sweets made from milk, chickpeas, and cashews that you can purchase by the piece or pound for comparative nibbling. But skip out on the savory items—the Mumbai-style snacks won’t do you any favors.
1655-170 Oak Tree Ave
Edison, NJ 08820
A bouchon is not a bistro.
Bistro: a term deprived of meaning, splashed about globally, indiscriminately. Toulouse has bistros. So, too, Tuscaloosa and all points in between. The bouchon, by contrast, is a fixed type, a local phenomenon, stubbornly immutable even as the world around it insists on changing. The bouchon does not travel. Only here—where the snaking Rhône and Saône rivers meet, and the charcuterie shops in the old town are hung with swaddled, pear-shaped pork sausages called Jésus de Lyon and the windows of the pâtisseries piled high with the distinctive hot-pink pralines that figure into nearly all local pastry variants—do we encounter this endemic species, the true workingman's bouchon lyonnaise. What does it look like? Not much. Plain butcher's paper over red-and-white-checked tablecloths. Buttery light on plastered peach-colored walls hung with chipped enamel strainers, whisks and ladles, posters advertising extinct liqueurs and Marcel Pagnol films, patinated copper pots and garlands of drying garlic.
And at the center of the room, anchoring it, or circulating with the chatty patrons, pastry-bound multi-meat pâtés so massively voluminous they are named after pillows.
Quality of fare varies, but there is a comforting conformity of ritual in these establishments. They are built to welcome, to err on the side of over-feeding. Bouchon means “bottle stopper” and there is certainly wine here, lots of it and none very fancy. (A local partisan once noted, approvingly, that, in addition to the bodies of water mentioned above, the city was served too by a “third river, the Beaujolais, which never dries up and is never muddy.”)
There's another explanation for the name: Bouchonner un cheval refers to the act of brushing a horse with straw.
“In the old days these were places where you could have your horse cleaned and fed and you could also get a little bite,” Daniel Boulud said, quickly glancing at the menu at La Munière. The bouchon menu is not meant to be lingered over or debated. One just orders a lot of everything, much of it shared in communal, all-you-can-eat platters and cocottes. That evening we began with a frisbee-sized slice of the house terrine, or oreiller (“pillow”).
“Foie gras, Guinea hen, chicken, duck gelée,” Boulud said, itemizing the pillow's layers. He took a sip of wine and continued: “truffle, duck heart, the rest of the duck…”
Boulud, the celebrated king of French gastronomy in New York, operates a posh constellation of restaurants in Manhattan, Singapore, Palm Beach, and beyond. But Lyon is where he is from, where he studied and mastered his craft and it's the food of this region that runs in his blood. The first Café Boulud operated on the family farm in Saint-Pierre-de-Chandieu, twelve or so miles southeast of the city. The family Boulud hunted, raised cows, pigs, goats, chickens, squab, and rabbits; made wine; and sold their cheese, vegetables, and eggs at market. The only thing imported was fish, which was bought off a truck that drove by on Fridays.
“I wanted to get out of the farm so bad!” Boulud said, smiling. The grow-your-own self-sufficiency—fetishized and in vogue now—would have felt cloying to a starry-eyed 14-year-old trainee peeling carrots in the kitchen at Nandron, then an estimable Michelin two-star temple on the quai Jean-Moulin.
Boulud is the most unstoppably curious, energetic, and gracious of chefs, which is why he allowed himself to be lured away from his parents' farm and vacationing family for a series of meals during which I pestered him with a trio of repetitive questions: What's so great about Lyonnaise cuisine? Why does the rest of this prideful country allow this one city to proclaim itself as The Gastronomic Capital of France without putting up a fight? And: Could you please pass the pig's snout salad?
Geography and supply, Boulud advised, were keys to understanding its place in French cooking.
“The bounty of the region created a cuisine that's rich in diversity. All around there is wine. You have the poulet from Bresse nearby, the brochet, or pike, coming from the rivers and lakes, crayfish, frogs legs,” he said.
“South of Lyon it is California, a garden all the way down to Provence. North there is the bounty of vegetables and to the west, mushrooms and Charolais beef.”
“In Paris the cooking was fancier, more refined but it was a different clientele,” he said. “Here it was the cuisine bourgeoise. The food was gutsier, not so cheffy.”
Hungry for un-cheffy things, I mentioned the snouts. “Ah, the schnoz,” Boulud said, enthusiastically. “Rolled, poached, and sliced thin.”
The mustardy salade museau was part of a perverse onslaught of platters that soon filled the table. Jellied veal trotters, lentils, cervelat (a dense and delicious pink boudin) and potato salad tossed with more saucisson. We had no horses but these “salads” alone would have fed a calvary.
“Don't get comfortable!” Boulud advised the table. It was our first day in Lyon. We were filling up too quickly, like amateurs. Anyway, we were already late for our second dinner of the evening.
The first chef in France to be awarded Michelin's highest three-star rating for two restaurants at the same time was not the globetrotting restaurateur Alain Ducasse in the 1990s, but a stout and feared Lyonnaise woman named Eugénie Brazier in 1933.
La Mère Brazier as she was known was part of a remarkable lineage of female chefs that helped define the culinary identity of the area and make its restaurants legend. It's hard to think of an example (in or out of France, before or since) where a group of women have exerted such explicit, lasting influence on a restaurant culture as the mères of Lyon.
“She had the biggest cojones in all the region,” Boulud said admiringly as we entered the elegant quarters of restaurant Mère Brazier on rue Royale for our second dinner. Her restaurant in the country closed years ago and Brazier herself passed away in the 1970s. But her presence is firmly felt, both in terms of her creations still served here (Bresse chicken demi-deuil, or “half mourning,” with black truffle tucked under the skin) and the lasting influence over Lyonnaise chefs.
“No other city had a matriarchy like this one,” Boulud said. Many women were working as private chefs for bourgeois families. After the devastations of the first World War, some of these women stepped into the public realm, filling a void left by the men who didn't come home.
“The young chefs who followed, they loved these mothers because they were more macho than the men.” We are served another pillow (partridge, wild duck, pheasant—sweeter than the first and more refined) and the truffled poulet in silky sauce suprême by Mathieu Viannay, suave inheritor of Mère Brazier's kitchen.
There's pleasure, even a certain logic, in alternating meals between these high-gloss dining rooms with their pinpoint lighting, table-side service and velvety drapes and the more cluttered, low-ceilinged rooms of the bouchons.
At Mère Brazier the quenelle is called a mousseline de brochet and is served with fingers of lobster meat and an absinthe-laced seafood sauce. It costs €55 and is expertly constructed, elegant, and altogether pleasant. At Daniel & Denise, a bouchon we ate at the next day, a more rustic but altogether serviceable quenelle with sauce Nantua will run you €18 and might easily be the centerpiece of a stabilizing lunch on its own—if, that is, one hadn't signed on for the immersive Daniel Boulud experience. As it happened, chef Joseph Viola (cropped grey hair, blue architect's glasses, sneaky smile) sent out seemingly everything his kitchen knew how to make, much of it exceptional.
I'm a sucker for tripe and Viola's gras-double à la lyonnaise is addictively good, both deeply meaty and buoyantly light, layered with strands of sweet onions and tart with vinegar. Perfectly pink pan-fried calf's liver was followed by an entire saucisson with pistachios, stuffed, like a prison-break weapon, inside a buttery brioche loaf.
“Ok, that's a feast,” Boulud admitted. Then the sabodet arrived and a low moan (exhaustion, elation) floated over the table. Sabodet is like a louche French cousin to Italian cotechino, less a cohesive sausage, more a purple-skinned loose amalgam of pork head, skin, and belly meat, braised in red wine.
This is when you really want to be dining with someone like Daniel Boulud. Someone who can speak about the process and seasons and importance of properly seared pig's skin.
“In the winter when you kill the pig it's also the same time you're pruning your vines,” Boulud said. “So you burn the pig on a fire made with the vine trimmings. Ideally you are making eau-de-vie too, so you cook the sabodet in the skin and stems of the grapes so there's this wine flavor and alcohol flavor and nothing on the farm is wasted.”
It's an eloquent disquisition on a scenario nearly none of us can relate to (pigs, vines, foods dictated by the rhythms of the seasons as opposed to the on-demand desires of hungry travelers).
Paul Bocuse's restaurant sits a few miles north of Lyon, on a bucolic compound just past the spot where the Pont Paul Bocuse crosses the Saône river.
Passing through its gates feels a bit like crossing the border into a slightly surreal land of food worship, a Vatican City of haute Lyonnaise gastronomy. A cobblestoned rue des Grands Chefs winds past a lengthy fresco depicting the history of French cuisine: Napoleon through the great Fernand Point, the mères, Julia Child, and leading to the 90-year-old godfather of cuisine nouvelle himself, Bocuse. The maison is green with pink shutters and painted with large images of the crowing rooster, Bocuse's spirit animal.
Bocuse has had three Michelin stars for 50 years. It's understandable to fear that an institution like this would be resting on its laurels—and a great pleasure to realize that i's not.
We pose for pictures with Bocuse in the kitchen, among the toques and gleaming copper, before the great man is lead away.
“We're in the temple of Lyonnaise food now!” Boulud said, as genuinely excited as I've seen him.
We eat poached foie gras on sweet cooked quince; a salmis of Bresse pigeon in a sauce of liver, heart, onion, more foie gras. This is luxury food, indulgent food, but there's nothing dainty about it. It's as lusty in its refined way as the nose-and-feet salad of a bouchon.
A loup de mer, or sea bass, the size of a skateboard is presented to the table wrapped in acres of puff pastry.
“Ah, I cut the lemons and cleaned the loup for this dish when I was a stagiaire here at 15!” Boulud exclaimed, pleased to see a dish he's known in some capacity since 1972.
And the fish—big, buttery, in a sharp sauce Choron—was…perfect. An un-updated throwback worth a dozen new-fangled smeared plates at restaurants you can't remember the name of after you leave.
Cuisine nouvelle was meant to be an answer to the aspic-laden old ways. Now here it was, decades later, preserved in its own kind of protective aspic of time and reverence and pride.
“I think what is special about Lyon is you have this rich cuisine bourgeoise,” Boulud said. “And then, you have the bouchons where you really see the talents of the charcutier, the pâtissier, the boulanger. Then you had the mères, and then the legends like Fernand Point, and Bocuse who trained with him. People had money to spend on food because it was an industrial city, plus you had hundreds of incredible auberges nearby in the countryside.”
It added up. Here was a culture of eating that is, like the bouchon, specific, local, animated by some proudly out-of-step distillation of pure retrograde Frenchiness.
While we waited for the cheese cart to roll our way, I asked Boulud what Lyonnaise cuisine could teach the world.
“Oh Lyonnaise food don't care a damn to teach the world anything!” he answered, laughing. “As long as they keep themselves happy with what they love the most, they are fine.”
Get the recipe for Meringue Floating in Crème Anglaise (Île Flottante)»
Get the recipe for Calf's Head (Tête de Veau)»
Get the recipe for Ravigote Sauce»
Get the recipe for Pike Quenelles with Sauce Nantua (Quenelles de Brochet)»
Get the recipe for Fromage Blanc Spread (Cervelle de Canut)»
Get the recipe for Lentil Salad with Pork»
Get the recipe for Lyonnaise Salad with Sausage and Walnuts»
Get the recipe for Potato Salad with Herring»
Where to Eat in Lyon
This classic bouchon lyonnaise has been given a gentle makeover by Chef Olivier Canal and his partners.
11 rue Neuve
Gâteau de foie blonde, pretty chicken liver cake, and tête de veau sauce ravigote are two Lyonnaise classics reimagined at this warm and welcoming modern restaurant owned by husband-and-wife team Yun Young Lee and Grégory Stawowy.
106 cours Gambetta
Mathieu Rostaing-Tayard turns out inventive, seriously delicious dishes from the small kitchen of this lively neo-bistro with a bit of Scandinavian style. There's something of the Lyonnaise swagger in Rostaing's pairings of delicate rabbit kidneys with purple cabbage, and pork confit with chard and maple syrup.
46 avenue Jean-Jaurès
L'Auberge du Pont de Collonges
Paul Bocuse's restaurant, situated just a few miles north of Lyon, and where he's known as the grandfather of cuisine nouvelle, has had three Michelin stars for more than 50 years, longer than any other restaurant in history.
40 rue de la Plage, Collonges-au-Mont-d'Or
La Mere Brazier
Mathieu Viannay's cooking offers a refined polish on dishes that are elemental and gutsy.
12 rue Royale
Denise & Denise
Joseph Viola's trio of simple but elegant dining rooms offer an exemplary introduction to the classics of a bouchon menu: tablier sapeur (“fireman's apron”) which is tripe—pressed, breaded, and fried in the manner of a schnitzel—saucisson in buttery brioche, and perfectly cooked calf's liver.
What to Drink with Your Lyonnaise Meal
In Lyon, diners mostly gravitate toward robust Côtes-du-Rhône and lots of rounded and textured beaujolais to pair with the region's hearty food. Below are four picks from Michaël Dell'Aira, the general manager and sommelier of Lyon's Le Suprême restaurant.
Clusel Roch Côte-Rôtie (2012 vintage; $50; garnetwine.com): A refined syrah from just south of Lyon, with hints of ripe red fruits (like cherries), truffles, and leather. Serve with red meat.
Yves Gangloff Condrieu (2012 vintage; $100; hitimewine.net): A dry, aromatic white from the viognier grape, with elements of dried apricots, lemon confit, and exotic fruits. Pair with pan-seared foie gras, cooked rind cheeses, and apricot tarts.
Jean Louis Dutraive “Domaine de la Grand'Cour” Fleurie (2014 vintage; $30; mwcwine.com): A superbly elegant and balanced gamay, with notes of kirsch, violet, and iris flower. Pair with sausage, pork, and charcuterie.
Alain Graillot Crozes-Hermitage (2013 vintage; $30; whwc.com): A full-bodied yet softly tannic syrah, with notes of blackberries and spices. Serve older vintages with red meat and younger with charcuterie.
To most New Yorkers, myself included, New Jersey is incomprehensible and impassible, an urban calamity. The timeworn cities and towns close to Manhattan are linked by decaying roads with incomprehensible signage, accessible only via gridlocked bridges and tunnels.
We all shudder at the infamous George Washington Bridge fiasco of 2013, when the malevolent staff of governor Chris Christie deliberately tied up traffic in some kind of sick political retribution.
I dread venturing into New Jersey, and I was born in New Jersey.
When I contemplated going to New Jersey for a day of tasting New Jersey wines—yes, wines made in New Jersey, of which there are many—I thought the best plan would be to get drunk before I started out. Friends convinced me this would be unwise.
We don’t get much New Jersey wine here in New York. Maybe none. Nobody in New York that I know has ever served a bottle of New Jersey wine at a dinner. For that matter, and this is alarming, nobody I know in New Jersey has ever served a bottle at dinner.
Somewhat out of desperation, New Jersey winemakers in 2012 conducted a competition they called Judgement of Princeton, modeled after the famous 1976 Judgment of Paris that compared California wines to French wines and vaulted American wines—at least those from that state—into prominence. The New Jersey competition mimicked the proceedings of 1976 but failed to bring glory to New Jersey, in part because the organizers selected mediocre vintages of French red wines and yet were unable to declare unconditional victory. The struggle has continued.
Not a single bottle of still wine from New Jersey can be found in the New York wine shops I patronize. (When I typed “New Jersey” into the search engine for Varmax Liquor Pantry in Port Chester, I got many delightful sauvignon blanc selections, but only because it confused New Jersey with New Zealand.)
I always knew New Jersey wineries existed. My parents drove by them when I was a kid, pressing a little harder on the accelerator as they came into view. Yet there exists a Garden State Wine Growers Association, which publishes a little booklet recommending that you “follow the wine trail through New Jersey’s most scenic and historic towns.” New Jersey, it seems, is the seventh largest wine-producing state in America.
It even has a city by the name of Vineland, although the official city website makes no mention of vines. In April it was still warning of incoming snow and ice, not a harbinger of a successful growing season ahead.
In fact, New Jersey has more than 50 licensed wineries, stretching from the very top of the state to the very bottom, a distance of about 200 miles. Logically, most are located toward the west, the more rural regions, although I was unable to identify any magical district, no Napa Valley of the East. I suspect that in the unlikely event such an incomparable region exists, it remains undiscovered, hidden in the virgin pine barrens of southern New Jersey.
When friends and I set out to visit four wineries reasonably close to New York City, we headed for the center of the state, in and around Lambertville. For our final stop, we drifted east, crossing Interstate 95 to arrive at Cream Ridge Winery, and we did so for a specific reason: One of the major eccentricities of New Jersey wine-making is the creation of wine from products not ordinarily utilized in wine. Cream Ridge excels at that, producing wine from native grapes such as Catawba, old-world grapes such as elderberry, and all sorts of fruit, from cranberries to mangoes. Almond and chocolate accents also appear.
We did not follow any of the New Jersey wine trails that purportedly exist. We never saw any signs indicating that we were on or near a wine trail. We mapped our own route, heading almost due west from the Lincoln Tunnel. Soon we were in what to me passes for paradise: those aforementioned historic towns, rolling hills, other low-key rustic thrills. One of my passengers was so giddy with happiness that upon arriving at Alba Vineyard, in Finesville, our first stop, she cried out, “It’s just like France!”
Perhaps not quite that, but the winery is charming, with a sloped driveway and stone walls covered with moss. No winery tour was offered, but one need only to request bathroom privileges to embark on a self-guided excursion. The winding path takes you past fermentation tanks, the bottling line, and, on my visit, a very intense wine geek hunched over his computer.
The place mat before each seat in the tasting room listed all the grapes that go into Alba’s wines—10 in all, which is certainly more than any one winery needs. Overhead is a banner citing awards won, including several New Jersey Winery of the Year honors.
I wasn’t fond of our first wine, a 2015 dry rosé made from the Chambourcin grape, an assertive, dark-skinned, French-American hybrid that turned out classier than its problematic parentage suggests. I found it oddly pungent. To be fair, my friends liked it.
The 2014 Estate Chardonnay was delicately oaked, light, fresh and clean, just right, and any thoughts I had that this adventure might end in disaster vanished. The 2014 Gewürztraminer possessed a spectacular nose of rose pedals, but the flowers faded upon tasting. The 2013 Pinot Noir was darker than expected and a touch earthy, all for the best, and the 2012 Chambourcin, which I feared after the rose experience, was delightful. We also tried three wines made from grapes shipped to the winery from Washington State --- Merlot, Syrah, and Cabernet Sauvignon. All were pleasant, but none worth the cross-country journey.
Beneduce Vineyards, in nearby Pittstown, is a visual joy, a miniature version of Blue Hill at Stone Barns, the spectacular agricultural and dining complex in Westchester County, New York. My first thought: Somebody has put money into this place, and that person turned out to be Michael Beneduce, a gardening mogul.
We purchased the $5 basic tasting package—all the wineries charged small fees for tasting—and we didn’t appreciate any of the five wines offered to us. The 2014 Chardonnay was easily the best, very oaky with a hint of citrus. (To be fair yet again, the Beneduce website is packed with kudos from other tasters.) One of my friends said of the 2014 Shotgun, a blend of three local red grapes, “It smells like firecrackers.”
The highlight of our visit to Beneduce was the Sky Café of Pittstown’s Sky Manor Airport, just next door and easily reached by strolling across a field onto the airport grounds. It was like being back in the 1950’s. A window seat in the restaurant comes with a view of single-engine planes and tiny helicopters taking off and landing. My sandwich was so huge only a Lockheed C-5 Galaxy strategic airlifter could have lifted it off the ground.
Unionville Vineyards, located in pastoral Ringoes, is another esteemed New Jersey winery. As we drove up, one of my friends said, “This looks like the set of a movie starring Hayley Mills,” a child actress of the 50s and 60s. Unionville is a collection of four farms operated by local landowners, a kind of wine collaborative, although it doesn’t call itself that. The winery sources grapes from five vineyards spread across three counties.
The tasting room offered three different vineyard-designated chardonnays, two at a relatively hefty $35.95 and a 2012 Pheasant Hill at $42.95. The Pheasant Hill easily outclassed the other two. A tart 2013 Counoise—Counoise is one of 13 grapes varieties that appear in France’s Chateauneuf-du-Pape—proved why this red grape requires assistance from 12 other grapes in order to taste good. The 2012 Syrah had a terrific nose, but was otherwise insubstantial. I admired the 2012 The Big O, a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc, all Jersey grown. It was dark, opaque, and peppery. I bought a bottle for slipping into a future Bordeaux-style blind tasting. We also admired the Vat 21 Port, blended from multiple vintages of Chambourcin.
Cream Ridge Winery, located in the flat plains of horse country—who knew that New Jersey had horse country?—is one of those quixotic New Jersey wineries that brews concoctions virtually unknown to most of the wine world. We got a taste of 11 wines for a fee of $5. The glass wasn’t included, but our pourer said, “If you swipe it, nobody is going to care.”
The winery was feverish with fun. Visitors, generously served, were roaring. From a printed sheet we checked off the 10 wines we wanted to taste, and the server poured us a little pomegranate wine as a bonus. We tried ChocolateBerry, blackberry wine infused with cocoa (oddly reminiscent of a Tootsie Roll pop) and JavaBerry, blackberry wine and espresso (smelled like candy-covered espresso beans). Our favorite, easily, was strawberry wine, with a pure strawberry nose. The myriad fruit wines of Cream Ridge are a reminder of the once-lauded agricultural diversity of the state.
A friend thought almost all the wines were too juvenile for adults, and said, “This place is like a soda shop.” She thought they would be just perfect quaffed on a quiet afternoon while playing with My Little Pony.
When the journey was over, we all realized that we had come to appreciate New Jersey wineries. The efforts were heroic, the results unforeseen, and the settings delightful. Most New Yorkers head due east to the North Shore of Long Island for their local wine excursions, but New Jersey wineries are a little closer, more euphoric, and much less predictable. Those multitudes of grapes, like them or not, make for stimulating tasting experiences.
In most wine-growing regions of the world, a stop at four wineries would mean a taste of wines made from five or six grapes. The wines we tasted were made from 28 different grapes and other fruits, plus accents of almond, espresso and chocolate. A USDA report in 2012 pointed out that more than 80 varieties of grapes are now grown in the state and made into wine.
Plenty of New Jersey wines are good. The crucial flaw in wine production here is that growers have yet to determine what grapes are ideal for New Jersey, so they plant them all, seemingly with good intentions. Those 200 miles, north to south, Sussex County to Cape May, encompass a variety of terroirs. Rieslings are promising in the higher northern elevations; Bordeaux varietals could eventually thrive in the coastal plains of the south.
When I asked John Cifelli, general manager of Unionville Vineyards, why it has taken so long to sort through all these grapes, decide which ones grow best, he pointed out that Prohibition-era laws remained in effect until the mid-1980’s, hindering wine production for decades. “Until 1984,” he said, “the state allowed only one winery for every one millions citizens. There was no reason to grow grapes because there was nobody to buy them.”
I’ve never thought of wine-making entirely in terms of grape selection. That’s probably because almost all wine-growing regions I’ve visited figured out what grapes were appropriate long before I showed up. Few wine-producing regions are as young as those of New Jersey, a state we often think of as old and exhausted.
The New Jersey wine business might eventually prosper. That will happen when the winemakers stop doing much of what they do now and learn to do what they can do best. When word of that spreads, New Yorkers will realize that beyond the creaking bridges and crumbling tunnels, the detours and the skid marks, lie lavish landscapes, startling serenity, and wines too distinctive to ignore.
I used to love climbing the single crabapple tree across the street from my childhood home. Its pretty pink blossoms would erupt into perfume each summertime. By autumn, when the waxy, golden-green fruits would appear on its branches, I'd be in an almost delirious state of overexcitement, wild for these wild fruits. Then I'd taste them and they were…awful. Excruciatingly sour and bitter, mealier than uncooked potatoes. Certain that there must be a secret to figuring out how to enjoy them, I tried everything: waiting for them to mature on the branches; picking from the tree's upper reaches; eating fallen fruit; trying to ripen them on the my bedside table. Nothing helped. They never mellowed.
Cut to an apple orchard in Normandy, many years later, beneath a tree covered in fruit just like the crab-apples of my youth. I pick one off the branch and take a bite; it's like sinking my teeth into a raw turnip. The flavor is intensely astringent. It's juiceless and tannic, almost pointillist, as individual flecks of pastel dust explode all over my taste buds. “Oui, a classic cider apple,” Julien Frémont exclaims, smiling as I grimace my way through it.
Frémont, whose apples these are, is a young, soft-spoken cider maker whose family has been tending these trees in the Pays d'Auge since 1759. I've come here in search of resolution, to redeem that crabapple tree—to finally understand its true purpose. “To make the best hard cider,” Frémont continues, “you need these bitter, tannic cider apples—apples that aren't pour croquer.” Not for munching. “Every apple has its purpose: Some are for snacking on, others are for cooking, others for distilling.”
The gnarled trees all around us are glowing with red and golden and green and orange and purple and nut-brown russet fruit. As we amble through the orchard, Frémont hands me a Transparente de Croncels—an heirloom varietal he considers perfect for eating out of hand. Its exterior is pale yellow, almost white hued, with a dreamy crimson blush on its sun-kissed side. The apple is soft skinned and mildly granular, its mellow, vinous sweetness shot through with hints of nutmeg, cloves, and myrrh. It tastes the way I imagine apples might have tasted in the three wise men's days. “It's a variété à couteau,” Frémont explains: an apple you eat with a knife, for dessert, on its own.
As good as that apple is, it's those bitter cider apples that Frémont is really after. “These are the ones,” he continues, picking up a few other knobby orbs, “that taste incredible when you transform them into juice and spirits.” He leads me into his ramshackle old barn to show me what he's talking about. The half-timbered press house is about as rickety and cobwebbed as a structure can possibly be and still stand. Generation after generation of Frémonts have stored, juiced, and distilled their harvest right here.
As soon as I take my first sip of his Cidre Brut par Nature I realize that I've waited my whole life to find out what that crabapple from my childhood is really supposed to taste like. It's as good to the grown-up me as I wished those crabapples had been as a kid, with the complexity and elegance of a grower champagne, but with a rustic, cloudy undertow. Imagine a cult pét-nat crossed with a Belgian gueuze or any other on-trend sour beer, yet with a distinct, low-alcohol personality all its own. I also notice something else: His cider tastes emphatically like cheese—like one of those runny, mold-encrusted treasures of Gallic civilization, only in drinkable form.
When I ask Frémont whether that's possible, he nods. “You aren't the first person to make that comparison,” he says. “After all, this vegetal quality—which comes from the grass that feeds the cows that make the milk that turns into cheese—is also present in the apples. These trees grow in the same earth. The trees and the cows need each other, in a symbiotic way. They eat the weeds and fertilize the land—all naturally. And the native yeasts in the air must affect the cheese and ciders in similar ways as well.”
Frémont actually lives in the bucolic, meadow-filled heart of the Livarot, source of that namesake washed-rind, fiber-bound, raw-milk masterpiece. The designated production areas for Camembert, Pont-l'Évêque, Neufchâtel, and Pavé d'Auge are all near here as well. Frémont leads me back outside, pointing out the herd of lyre-horned Salers cows. They're munching away contentedly on grass and fallen apples, as they've always done. I'm a couple of hours west of Paris, though it feels like I've traveled back through time, not just to my crabapple tree of youth, but also into a real-life version of an old Impressionist painting.
It makes sense in a way: Normandy is the birthplace of 19th-century Impressionism. And places like Frémont's farm are still as old-fashioned and picturesque as they were in Renoir's days. This particular area is called Calvados, which is also the name of the brandy made from the region's famous apples. Even in France, industrialization has radically altered the way most agricultural goods are made, but some holdouts—like Frémont—still do things the way locals have always done them. By hand, traditionally, à l'ancienne.
To properly understand how his ciders are meant to be drunk, Frémont suggests pairing them with local cheeses. Not just any cheese will do, he cautions. Hundreds of millions of tons of cheese pour out of this region annually, but only a handful of producers still use milk from their very own cows. As we say good-bye to each other, Frémont meticulously writes down the names of some producers whose cheeses I should seek out in the region: Durand for Camembert; Spruytte for Pont-l'Évêque; and his neighbors, the Fromagerie de la Houssaye, for Livarot.
He steers me toward the nearby town of Vimoutiers, a drowsy, pretty village that qualifies as an urban center in these rural parts. I stock up on Frémont's suggestions at a small cheesemonger's shop and then pop into Au Chant du Pain bakery on rue du Docteur Dentu. The hearth here seems to have been around since the Middle Ages, and they sell slices of their immense yard-long loaves of walnut bread and chestnut-flour bread by weight.
These almost prehistorically flavorful and nut-packed breads turn out to be the ideal accompaniment to the cheeses and Frémont's cider I learn while enjoying an impromptu picnic overlooking the trickling Vie River, feeling very much like someone who's fallen into an Impressionist painting.
Driving north through Normandy's green and gold landscapes, I end up on the coast in the town of Honfleur, with its heart-stoppingly beautiful port. Old schooners are still docked here, and you can stop in for a glass of cider at many of the establishments lining the harbor. The main attraction here is the vibe: Honfleur and its outlying region was the primary setting for paintings by the likes of Monet, Courbet, Boudin, and many others. Those Impressionist masters didn't come to Honfleur randomly; they came for the light. It coats falling leaves in its golden-orange aura. When rain gusts in off the ocean, dimming rays make the raindrops glint in a brilliant, silvery way. And when the dampened sun bursts back, everything becomes almost blindingly bright and vibrant.
It's hard to look at the ocean around Honfleur and not want to be a painter. The clouds and waves resemble swirling brushstrokes, all blues and whites and pearlescent pinks. It's almost too much. Even the sound of the wind blowing softly through the trees is vividly heightened. Walking through the town before dinner, I wonder whether it's possible that Impressionism is more than merely a visual experience. Night-blooming flowers cast their fragrant spell over the evening air. A black cat appears like a figure out of a Toulouse-Lautrec painting and disappears into a hole in the wall. Orchards abound, and the boughs of fruit in the gloaming seem to be radiating vitality. Is Impressionism about succumbing to these sensations, dissolving into the mists of sensation?
That evening, I have dinner overlooking the apple trees at La Ferme Saint Siméon, a magnificent old inn that preserves Normandy's artistic past (the Impressionists stayed and painted there). In between courses, the sommelier suggests I partake in the local custom of a mid-meal glass of calvados, the esteemed local apple brandy. They call it a trou normand (Norman hole), as in the hole in your stomach that calvados purportedly creates that stimulates the appetite and allows you to keep forging your way through course after course of classic Norman cuisine. A newcomer soon detects a pattern in the sorts of dishes eaten in this part of France: mussels with apples, tripe with apples, partridge with apples, steak with apples, and so on. Everything is washed down with jugs of fresh cider. For dessert, they serve you bourdelots, whole apples baked in a pastry crust. This may be followed up by a sweet apple omelet. And then comes the requisite platter of local cheeses, each one more demoralizingly delicious than the last. Whether or not that calvados is actually creating any more space inside a person's digestive system is moot. You don't need to believe; you just do it. And eating food this heavy requires drinking something as pleasantly potent as calvados.
There are apparently 800 different varieties of apples grown in Normandy today, and if you weren't so busy marveling at the hillside castles overlooking the vast blue sea, you'd probably be able to identify many of them on the old coastal road, going southwest from Honfleur to Trouville-sur-Mer. The view is glorious, all fruit-dappled orchards and meadows and wild apple trees. As glimpses of the ocean stretching out toward the horizon flash by through the passenger-side window, you can imagine Courbet setting up his easel out there to paint the spray and the waves and the rocks. When a brief storm comes in, my car is enveloped in billowing sails of fog; it's like driving through a living canvas.
That afternoon, I meet up with Jean-François Guillouet-Huard, a seventh-generation calvados maker, at Domaine Michel Huard. He recently took over the business from his grandfather, Michel Huard. Like Frémont, Guillouet-Huard too has Salers cows in his orchards. “It's essential to have the cows tending the land if you want to make good calvados,” he explains. “It's always been this way. It's all interconnected.” His operation seems to me to be the platonic ideal of a farm: a preternaturally quiet and peaceful medley of animals, fruit trees, and rolling hills. “It's beautiful to see the cows in the orchard at sunrise,” he murmurs. “I love walking through the dewy grass at dawn. That's what I've always done. It still makes me happy.”
We head into his barrel rooms to try some back vintages of calvados, which taste like fine cognac, only made out of apples, not grapes. The younger vintages are quite bracing and raw—like drinking flames. As they age, their bite mellows, taking on cardamom overtones and earthy cave notes, as well as elusive herbal flavors. “To understand calvados, you have to spend a lot of time smelling it,” Guillouet-Huard explains. “It isn't easy to fully comprehend it. But it's that complexity that is at the heart of calvados. That's why it's good after dinner. You have to be in a state of calm.”
He cracks open a bottle of 1976—which happens to be both Guillouet-Huard's and my birth year. It's like staring into the soul of 100,000 apples. Its florality floors me; it's more like perfume than any drink I've known. In fact, the aroma reminds me of the blossoms on that tree across the street when I was a kid. Although it's nearly 40 years old, Guillouet-Huard thinks the calvados might still be too young. (I, of course, agree with this assessment, not caring whether he and I may be biased by the fact that we're the same vintage as that too-young calvados.) “It's not in the culture of our domaine to rush things,” he adds. “We believe that you have to be patient to make proper calvados. But we are out of step with this consumerist society where everything has to go really quickly.”
The best parts of Normandy are all out of step with the modern world. What else would you expect from a place where the cows that mow the lawn beneath the apple trees give milk that makes cheeses that taste ever-so-slightly like apples? You don't need to go down some magical rabbit hole of a trou normand to feel close to the cycles of nature here. This place is a simple place, a region intimately connected to the past. It's an Impressionist garden of earthly delights, and I hope to return again and again.
But for now, it's my final dinner in Normandy, and I'm meeting with the cider maker Eric Bordelet, formerly the sommelier at the Michelin-starred L'Arpège in Paris, a restaurant famous for using the finest, freshest vegetables possible, many of them grown on its own farms. When he worked there, he felt that certain dishes were better served by cider than by wine. When he couldn't find ciders made in the elegant farmhouse style he loved, he returned to the familial domaine, which had fallen into disrepair, and began making ciders his way. “I don't want to replace wine, I want to complement it,” he tells me, as we sit down to the table at Le Manoir du Lys, located inside a nature preserve in the Andaine Forest. “A good sommelier is someone who knows how to link food and wine, and cider is excellent at the dinner table—especially when you have it with the right dish.”
To illustrate, he pours us each a glass of his “sydre,” a spelling borrowed from Old French, to go with a plate of just-picked, raw cèpes (porcini mushrooms) served with tomatoes from L'Arpège's farm and fleur de sel. The dish is sensational—but it is even better with a glass of Bordelet's cider, which tastes like apple pie topped with buttered popcorn and caramel sauce. It is outlandishly good—less funky than Frémont's, but deeply flavorful and satisfying. “When I think of cider, I think of our terroir,” Bordelet says. “Our trees, our land. Cider is our wine: It's our culture, it's our history.”
I tell him about the bitter, sour, small crabapples from my childhood. “Those sauvage apples are simply more expressive than domesticated apples,” he answers, pouring us another glass. “And they make wonderful cider, don't they?”
Get the recipe for Honey-Glazed Roast Pork with Apples»
Get the recipe for Apple, Celeriac, and Carrot Salad»
Get the recipe for Caramelized Apple Omelet (Omelette Sucrée à la Normande)»
Get the recipe for Baked Apple Terrine with Calvados»
Normandy's Best Cider & Calvados Producers
Bordelet makes crisp, pure, and perfectionist Normandy ciders (whether spelled “sidre” or “sydre,” as per ancient local tradition) as delicious—and well-priced—as any you will ever try.
Whether it's Frémont's all-natural apple juice, his highly funky sparkling Cidre Brut par Nature, or his exceptional calvados, everything he makes with apples turns into drinkable gold.
Huard's vintage ciders and his entry-level Calvados Hors-d'Age are ideal introductions to Normandy's apple spirit.
The Lemorton family makes some of the finest calvados from the Domfrontais region. The appellation requires 30% of the cider to be made from pears. A number of its vintages from the 1980s—mellow, profound, rich—are available in stores.
Zangs Brut Cider is the sort of super-natural, ultra-chic hipster cider favored by the likes of Le Chateaubriand in Paris and Wildair on the Lower East Side of New York City.
It's an August night in Biarritz, the pedestrian-only streets packed in equal measure with bronzed surfers and linen-suited high rollers. The sun is still bright in the sky, and the sound of clinking glasses, laughter, and music is layered on a thrum of waves lapping at the shore. Off rue des Halles, in a kitchen goods store turned occasional pop-up restaurant, the warm scent of star anise and cardamom settles over a long table filled with old friends. Chef Hélène Darroze, blond hair shoved under a Panama hat, has succumbed to the lure of the stove and decided to make a simple dessert of figs cooked in butter and spices. Yes, she's on vacation, but so what?
She peels a huge curl of orange rind, which blooms and perfumes the air the minute it hits the butter. Not to be outdone, Bob Jourdan, the store's proprietor, longtime friend of the Darroze family, and the evening's alleged host, flicks off the lights and brings out a pineapple with a sparkler on top. A fuzzy recording of “L'Hymne de L'Aviron Bayonnais,” the rousing song of the Bayonne rowing team—a sort of unofficial anthem of southwest France—comes on the stereo, and everyone joins in. Hélène's younger daughter Quiterie runs in from outside, her brow furrowed.
“Maman, qu'est-ce qui se passe?” she asks, voice raised over the din. Hélène pulls the seven-year-old onto her lap and comforts her with a fig. Quiterie grins and settles in, happy and unfazed to be serenaded by her mother's friends over midnight desserts garnished by sparklers, as if this happens every night of her life.
Hélène used to come to this beach town on the Basque coast in the summers as a child—she grew up in the neighboring region of Les Landes. Here, a half-hour drive from the Spanish border, streets overflow with noshers who wash down cheesy toasts with ice-cold txakoli, a crisp Basque white wine that hits the glass from an arm's length away, to stir up its gentle effervescence. Fresh fish and oysters, shells so big they fit in your palm like softballs, are hauled in each morning a few miles down the beach in Saint-Jean-de-Luz before traveling to Les Halles, the main Biarritz market, where they're stacked on ice next to heaps of dark red fraises des bois and festoons of red piment d'Espelette. And here you can become so enchanted with the cerulean blue of the ocean, its waves breaking as if on a timer, that when you finally turn your back on the water to get your bearings after a beach walk, you might find yourself in an au naturel cove by mistake and have to scamper along the rocky shore away from naked Frenchmen, wincing at every step.
This is Biarritz life, and Hélène kicks off her espadrilles and slips into its informality as seemingly effortlessly as she decided to start a family on her own.
“I got to a certain age, wanted children, and there was no man,” she explains simply. So she adopted first Charlotte, now age nine, then Quiterie, from Vietnam, a country she'd long loved because of a great aunt who lived in Hanoi.
It's the same gutsy attitude that allowed her to take over the family restaurant, Chez Darroze, in 1995, after three generations with a Darroze male at the helm, then head to the city to strike out on her own, and climb the ranks of a male-dominated industry.
She splits her time between two eponymous Michelin-starred restaurants, one on the Left Bank in Paris, the other at the Connaught Hotel in London. Until the two girls started formal school, they accompanied their mother back and forth on the Chunnel every week, because, pourquoi pas?
At her restaurants, she wows diners with dishes such as oyster tartare and white coco bean velouté, topped with caviar jelly, osetra caviar and a glinting flourish of edible silver paper. But the food-as-art, the reductions, the silky-smooth purées bolstered with generous glugs of cream and swirls of butter, are all rooted here, in the southwest of France. Though surely there is adequate poultry nearer to Paris or London, she sources special yellow chickens from Les Landes—“They are corn-fed and roam freely in the forest, making them expensive, but worth it”—red mullet and tuna from Saint-Jean-de-Luz, buttery sheep's milk cheese known as Brebis from the Basque region.
“The cuisine of my home, of the south, is the cuisine of the sun,” she says.
Marc Darroze lives in a converted farmhouse in the tiny town of Roquefort, down the road from the family's former restaurant, where both he and his sister grew up.
“When I'm here, I have a religion,” Hélène says, standing in Marc's kitchen, prepping for an informal dinner with extended family that will include her father and uncle, both serious and revered chefs from the old guard. “I season everything with piment d'Espelette and cook everything in duck fat.”
She tips a ladle of fat over a tray of tomatoes, each stuffed with a filling pour les dieux—a mixture of foie gras, duck confit, and black truffle juice—then adds a hefty dash of powdered piment d'Espelette, perches each tiny tomato hat back on top, and shoves the tray in the oven. Piment d'Espelette is nearly ubiquitous in Basque dishes and appears in neighboring regions too—by law, true ones must be grown in one of ten designated communities in Basque country. The peppers are used fresh, puréed, pickled, or dried and powdered, lending their mild heat and signature vermilion stain to everything they touch.
Les Landes, about an hour's drive north of Biarritz, is as known for its duck as Basque country is for its fish, and fittingly, above Marc's kitchen sink is a framed black-and-white photo of a regal canard, surveying the kingdom below its beak. Outside, sheep lazily chew on grass in a nearby enclosure, a warm cat stretches out in a patch of sunlight, and Charlotte and Quiterie, hair wet from the pool and clad in sundresses and tiny wellies, pick wildflowers for the night's dinner table. Hélène's father, Francis, quietly cleans squid in the sink while her mother, Annick, tidies up, and outside at the table by the pool, Uncle Claude, formerly of a Michelin-starred restaurant in Langon (his son Jean-Charles now runs it), painstakingly shucks mussels for his summer signature, moules vinaigrette. He's donned a white apron over his pressed checked button-down. (“But I cannot cook without an apron!” he'd protested after arriving.)
All is calm in the kitchen, the older generation ceding any authority it once had to the next—“We worked together for one year, and it was difficult,” is all Hélène will say about her and her father—until Claude shrieks from outside.
“Viens!” he calls to his wife, who rushes outside, alarmed. He motions to his brow. Rolling her eyes, she fetches a towel and delicately dabs his forehead. He shucks throughout.
Even as a young girl, Hélène was unafraid to throw her toque into the ring with her elders.
“I would make a whole trolley of pastries when my parents had guests over,” she remembers. “The dream everyone had was that I'd take over my mother's pharmacy and my brother Marc would take over the restaurant. But it didn't work out that way.”
Marc was more enamored with the family's armagnac business that his father had started in 1974 (“My grandfather was very harsh,” he says, deflecting the reason why he avoided the kitchen). He studied wine for years, took the helm in 1996, and now sells the regional honey-colored brandy in 50 countries (see “The Darroze Family's Armagnacs,” page 74). It was Hélène who, after university, headed to Monaco to see if she could work in the office of Alain Ducasse's Le Louis XV. Sensing innate culinary talent, he persuaded her to work on the line.
“He used to say I was a terrorist of taste,” she recalls, grinning to reveal a charming gap between her two front teeth. After her stint with Ducasse, she returned home to officially take over her father's restaurant and became the first woman head chef in her family line. Her grandmother, who'd passed down the stuffed tomato recipe Hélène now cooks in her honor, was a chef, too, “but in the shadow of my grandfather, ” Hélène says. In 1999, she decided to relocate to Paris and open her own restaurant, a move her family did not initially understand.
“For them, you should be loyal to your origins,” she says. “After I moved to London, years later, they got used to it and now understand that it's possible to be loyal to your origins even if you're in another place.”
But today, at least, honoring the tastes of her childhood is effortless, innate. She adds some powdered piment d'Espelette to a pan of red and green peppers, onions, and tomatoes, which will cook down all afternoon into the Basque country signature dish known as pipérade until the flavors meld and each spoonful becomes sweet and tender. Sometimes it is served with eggs. Tonight it will be a bed for thick slabs of tuna belly. Paying more attention to her girls, flitting in and out, than to the large knife in her hand, she perfectly hulls tiny fraises des bois, wild strawberries that will be tossed with fromage blanc and crumbled meringues for a slightly more refined version of a childhood treat: She used to tromp through the forest with her grandfather gathering the berries, which they'd eat with cottage cheese.
By the time dusk settles, Marc has set up the table outside, decorated with the wild flowers the girls had gathered earlier, and friends and family settle down to the potluck. They select a few mussels from the platter of Claude's moules vinaigrette, each plump, rich bite cut perfectly with the vinaigrette's acidity, then move on to slices of marbled cured Noir de Bigorre, made from black pigs raised in the region and so fatty it's slick and shiny and almost spreadable. More wine is poured as the focus shifts to the squid Francis cleaned, which has been kissed with grill marks and tossed with cubes of chorizo; to the pipérade now topped with tuna; and to a local yellow chicken served en crapaudine, or “in the style of a toad,” split down the back, flattened, and garnished with slices of lemon and a scattering of herbs.
Hélène spoons a stuffed tomato onto Claude's plate and is handing it over when he says, sternly, “Attend, attend! Le jus est plus importante!” He's right. His niece placates him with a spoonful composed largely of rendered foie gras and duck fat before returning the offending tomato.
A full moon has risen above the farmhouse by the time a bottle of the family's 1976 armagnac, a pack of cigarettes, and a tourtière landaise, warm from the oven, hit the table. The tart is a true celebration of the region's bounty, stuffed with armagnac-spiked apple compote and sheathed in crisp phyllo dough brushed with—what else?—duck fat. Baptiste, Marc's 12-year-old, wipes his mouth with the back of his hand after inhaling a slice and says, to no one in particular, “Un peu sec, non?” A little dry. He may have a Darth Vader mask hanging in his room and an oversize teddy bear guarding the bed, but their days appear numbered. It is clear that the fifth generation of Darroze chefs is awaiting its turn.
“Baptiste told me, ‘I want to be a chef, but not like you,’” says Hélène, laughing. “‘You never cook! You just stand there and delegate.’ It's true, I delegate. But I create. I cannot delegate creativity.”
Quiterie assumes her usual position on her mother's lap, Francis swirls and sniffs his armagnac glass and lets out a contented sigh, and Baptiste scoops up the cat, who tolerantly submits to being carried around, zombie-like, paws straight out in front.
After a particularly long toke on his cigarette, Marc exhales, smoke curling up into the air, then turns to his sister.
“Three generations all gathered around a table… La vie est simple, non?”
Get the recipe for Tomatoes Stuffed with Foie Gras, Duck Confit, and Chanterelles (Tomates Farcies)»
Get the recipe for Mussels with Herbed Vinaigrette (Moules Vinaigrette)»
Get the recipe for Basque Pipérade with Seared Tuna Steaks»
Get the recipe for Basque Seafood Stew (“Bouillabasque”)»
Get the recipe for Apple and Armagnac Phyllo Pie (Tourtière Landaise)»
The Darroze Family's Armagnacs
It is said the French brandy known as armagnac is the oldest distilled spirit in all of France—perhaps the world. Though Darroze Armagnac was founded only in 1974, the small, family-run brand is now considered a national treasure. In the 1970s and '80s, revered Landaise chef and company founder Francis Darroze, Marc and Hélène's father, traveled the Bas-Armagnac region, which has consistently produced the most complex brandies in France. He visited small, relatively unknown estates, buying a cask here, a bottle there, and curated a cellar that now holds 70 vintages, some dating back to 1904.
Made from grapes grown in one of three regions—Bas-Armagnac, Haut-Armagnac and Ténarèze—all armagnacs start as white wine before going through a single distillation process to produce an aromatic, bold final product. Traditionally, armagnacs are made from a blend of vintages and estates, which, along with the occasional addition of water, allows the producer to refine each batch and smooth out the final taste. Darroze Armagnac, conversely, made its name by taking a different tack: For the majority of the production, neither estates nor vintages are blended, and no water is added. The result is an armagnac that tastes particularly distinct. You'll find the name of the estate, the year of the bottling, and the year of harvesting on most Darroze labels.
In 1996, Marc took over the family business from Francis.
“My father used to tell me if I didn't do well at school, I'd have to go into the kitchen,” Marc says, only half joking. He studied winemaking all over the world, and he and his small team produce 100,000 bottles each year.
Here are three representative Darroze Armagnacs, all available at klwines.com.
Les Grands Assemblages, 12 Ans ($70)
This blended armagnac spends 12 years in contact with oak, resulting in a spicy final product with undertones of licorice and cinnamon. Let the spirit breathe for a few minutes, then use as a base for cocktails or enjoy on the rocks.
Domaine de la Poste, 1980 ($180)
Swirl this golden vintage in your glass and you'll be hit with the smells of the Bas-Armagnac region: almonds and hazelnuts, vanilla and cloves, and a hint of violet. Serve with cheese or tarte Tatin.
Domaine de Martin, 1995 ($130)
This vintage is still relatively young, so the finish is spicy and bright, though you'll still get a hit of baking spices and gingerbread on the tongue. A glass goes perfectly with chocolate or an after-dinner cigar.
For centuries, the pride of the city of Bordeaux has been the wines produced in the vineyards that surround it and the magnificent 18th-century limestone façades lining the Garonne River. But starting June 1, the Porte de la Lune—the southwestern city's lyrical sobriquet describes the way it hugs the river banks in a crescent—will have a racy new landmark: the €81-million new wine museum, La Cité du Vin. This architecturally provocative glass-and-metal building, built on the edge of the redeveloping docklands district by the Parisian firm XTU, has a curling shape, perhaps inspired by either a glass of wine or something a dog might leave on the sidewalk. In any case, the museum represents an embrace of a more modern and accessible way of thinking about wine.
“Our goal is to tell the story of wine everywhere in the world, which is why each year a different wine-producing country will be the subject of special expositions, lectures, and wine-tastings,” says Sylvie Cazes, president of the museum.
La Cité du Vin is the culmination of a spectacular 15-year renovation and rehabilitation of the historic center of Bordeaux, which has given a game-changing boost to the city's once quiet and conservative restaurant scene.
“Bordeaux is in the midst of a gastronomic evolution,” says chef Tanguy Laviale, a Parisian who arrived two years ago and whose excellent restaurant-and-wine shop Garopapilles (62 rue l'Abbé de l'Epée) is the city's most popular recent opening. The menu changes regularly, but dishes like pan-roasted scallops on a bed of shiitake mushrooms and parsnip cream, and veal mignon with poached pears, cockles, and squid ink gnocchi show off Laviale's style.
At Miles (33 rue du Cancera), an inventive modern bistro menu includes veal tartare with a sesame oil—marinated egg yolk and tapioca chips, as well as swordfish with Madras curry leaf gelée and coconut-cilantro gremolata. L'Etoile de Mer du Petit Commerce (19–22 rue Parlement Saint-Pierre), where chef Stéphane Carrade cooks dishes like grilled red mullet with herring caviar and sea urchins, is this gastronomic city's best seafood restaurant.
Eating in China when you don't speak a Chinese language is not hard: Hotels provide astonishing multi-cultural buffets every morning for breakfast, and tourist-packed restaurants in city centers offer menus with pictures and fractured English. But if you want to find the last bamboo-pounded noodles in Hong Kong, slurp long-simmered soup made by a grandmother in her kitchen down a Beijing hutong, or eat at the hole-in-the-wall dumpling shop Anthony Bourdain visited, breaking through the language barrier to find the location, order the right dish, and then pay for your food—that’s more difficult.
As a food and travel writer, my life revolves around traveling and finding food, more often than not in places where I don't speak the language. More than any other country I've traveled, China challenges my communication skills. The language has no cognates to English and the character system rules out learning the alphabet to sound words out or quickly find them in a phrasebook. And, even if you could get that far, many Chinese foods bear whimsical, idiomatic names, such as “phoenix claws” (chicken feet) or “lion heads” (meatballs).
There are few resources for non-Chinese speakers navigating China, and even fewer for those with an eye towards top-quality food beyond the hotel buffet. Until my Mandarin skills improve, I've devised a system of cobbled-together strategies, smartphone apps, and a bit of knowledge to find off-the-beaten path noodle shops without signage, ask for the specialty I want, and figure out how much I owe.
Want to travel China seeking out the spiciest soups, best knife-cut noodles, and crispest duck—before you've mastered more than ni hao? Here's how this food writer finds her favorites.
Tom Petty was wrong: the waiting isn't the hardest part—it's the best part. A recent psychological study in the Netherlands suggests that much of the enjoyment of a trip comes in the anticipation. To heighten that, it suggests reading novels or watching movies set where you're going. Traveling to China, you also need some background information: ordering Chinese food in China is more of a conversation than it is in the U.S. Understanding how both Chinese people eat meals and the language views food will help you locate and order the best food once you're on the ground there.
Swallowing Clouds and The Eater's Guide to Chinese Characters both give culinary context about the Chinese language and teach a few basic food-related Chinese characters—while getting your mouth watering for what you'll eat when you're there. Or, at the least, what I'll eat: noodles, lamb, and alcohol all are early on in the lessons.
Look for books about food set there as well: Fuchsia Dunlop's Shark's Fin and Sichuan Pepper for Sichuan, The Last Chinese Chef by Nicole Mones for Beijing, parts of On the Noodle Road by Jen Lin-Liu for western China, or The Emperor Far Away by David Eimer for some border regions. All name specific dishes, present background information on iconic ingredients, and demonstrate what typical restaurant or street stall interactions will be like. In other words, these books offer a model of what eating in China might be like—while piquing your anticipation. Dunlop's early-on noodle-shop confusion as a lonely white person in Sichuan is relatable, but also a teachable moment for the astute reader, as well as a mouth-watering description.
Finally, give yourself some eye candy by watching Bite of China, a Planet Earth-style documentary series on Chinese food produced by China's state-run CCTV (available on Amazon Prime Video, Hulu Plus, and in pieces on its own site).
Don't Get Lost
Google Maps (and the company's customizable "My Maps," which I often use to plan eating adventures around the world) doesn't work in China—you can't even download maps for offline use. Maps.Me is the next best thing: it works totally offline, you can bookmark favorite spots, and it even has major landmarks pre-programmed in. The only thing it doesn’t include is a pin for that little cubbyhole that sends pork-scented steam down the block from its incredible wonton soup.
The hardest part, I discovered, of finding these tiny, highly recommended places, is that outside major city centers, a restaurant name or address is likely printed on the building only in Chinese. That's where TripAdvisor's app comes in. I don't condone using the reviews, which tend to range from vaguely ignorant to completely racist. But the app has a wonderfully useful feature for use in China (and anywhere else with an writing system unfamiliar to you): It shows the name and address of a restaurant in Chinese in large print; convenient both for showing a local to ask for directions and for matching to a sign. In big cities, it's available for download offline, but for smaller cities like Hangzhou, just take a screenshot before leaving the comfort of your hotel wi-fi.
How to Order What You Really Want
The easiest way to get food on your table in China is to point at what the table next to you has: chances are your neighbors are eating what's good there (China's nice like that). But what if you don't like what they're eating? Or if you are allergic to it? Then you've got two options: Barge into the kitchen and point at what you want, or figure out a way to know what's on the menu. If the former scares you, know that it's generally accepted at casual places (though not high-end ones) and you might not even be the only one in there.
For the later, you'll want Waygo, a live-translation app for Chinese, Japanese, and Korean characters to English. When you are up against a wall of characters, this app will save you--and it even works offline. I've pointed my phone at dozens of rows of characters as it translated everything from sesame noodles to deep-fried duck bones.
Because the app is designed specifically for food, it doesn't leave you with confusing things like "Meat patty explode the stomach" (an actual sign in Beijing), nor idiomatic names like the classic Sichuan dish, "ants climbing a tree" (Waygo offers "sautéed vermicelli with spicy minced pork"). The app translates 10 items each day for free, or more for a minuscule fee. It translates quickly enough that you can easily order before the people behind you in line get annoyed (plus everyone is fascinated watching you do it). An added bonus feature is that you can "favorite" a dish and show it to a server if you've found something you like and think another place might have it. Whether you want to know what you're eating because you're curious about what you love (river eels!) or because you aren't big on trying new foods (river eels?), Waygo makes it easy to order with confidence—no kitchen barging required.
Note: If it's an allergy rather than a preference, have a Chinese-speaking friend (or, at worst, Google Translate) text you a message about what you are allergic to, and underscore that you cannot eat anything with that ingredient, then screenshot it to show to servers at restaurants.
Know What You Owe
Why is the stinky-tofu vendor at the night market making her fingers into the shape of a gun? In places frequented by Westerners, most shop owners have a calculator they'll show you the price on, and higher-end restaurants will write you a receipt. But that street stall owner in Hangzhou wasn't pointing an imaginary pistol: she was telling me a price to pay.
Chinese sign language is the same as American for numbers one through five, but diverts above that. Look up a chart before you go—it's only five more symbols to keep in mind. Some are easier to remember—six is basically a Hawaiian shaka (pinky and thumb extended, all other fingers folded down), eight is that finger gun, and ten—well, there are multiple versions, but the one I saw most makes an x with both forefingers, which, incidentally is a lot what the both the Chinese character and Roman numeral for ten look just like.
If You Want Help, Look for Young People and iPhones
Once, while recovering from pneumonia over hot pot in Beijing, I tried everything I could to order water in the restaurant. Eventually, an old man a few tables over helped out--he had lived in Vancouver for a few years and spoke some English. But he was the exception: if you've given up on other means of communication and you really want to ask something in English, the populations most likely to speak it are well-to-do and under 25. Students are often excited to practice their English, and people are extremely helpful: One woman on a Beijing street corner was so kind as to actually use her iPhone to call the restaurant we were looking for and ask where, exactly, it was. Even young kids learn English in the cities; at that same hot pot restaurant, we'd ordered using the food section of owner's child's English homework. Which brings me to my final point.
Bonus Step Six: When All Else Fails, Laugh About It
On my first trip to China, I got into a fight with a street vendor selling the ubiquitous shiny candied hawthorns on a stick. After he indicated the price, I misunderstood and gave him about a quarter of what I owed. There was much confusion, he threw my money back and stomped off. I left sad and without my crunchy sweet treat.
I've since learned how far a smile goes in these situations. It says, "I misunderstand," rather than, "I'm driving a hard bargain." It indicates that you're excited about what you're about to eat, that you appreciate what they do. It means when you don't understand her Chinese sign numbers and hold out a fistful coins, the jian bing vendor will just giggle and pick out the right amount. And you'll walk off with a hot-sauce-slathered doughnut wrapped in a perfect egg pancake, which is, of course, why you’re in China in the first place.
Naomi Tomky is a Seattle-based food and travel writer. Learn more about her at The GastroGnome.
Watch: How to Make Perfect Scallion Pancakes
When Jamil Ajrab wanted a taste of his home in Ramallah, he depended on his brother Tamer (“Tim”) to provide it.
“My family is far away, and I miss my mother’s food,” he says. “My brother had learned in my mother’s kitchen—from her and from my grandmother.” At barbecues the two brothers hosted, guests were regularly blown away by Tim’s hummus, kofta, and moussaka, so much so that they insisted he needed to open a restaurant.
Jamil, a tech engineer, agreed, and last October he and Tim opened Sumac together in Belmont, about 30 minutes south of San Francisco.
The gamble: Where nearly every other Middle Eastern restaurant in the Bay Area used frozen tubes of gyro meat, the brothers insisted on quality meat and produce cooked to order. And it worked. Tim’s gyros, citrus-laden baba ganoush, and shatter-crisp falafel boasting bright green, herb-rich interiors earned the restaurant a loyal band of customers almost immediately.
Sumac’s success reveals something about the Bay Area’s Middle Eastern food scene. Sure, hummus is as ubiquitous guacamole here. There’s no lack of fresh ingredients and adventurous eaters, not to mention a substantial population of immigrants. But overall, Middle Eastern food in the Bay Area just isn’t that good. Where’s our Taim, our Zahav? Why is our culinary scope of the region so limited, and relegated to greasy, dense, deep-fried pucks masquerading as falafel?
That’s starting to change, and it’s a movement that goes beyond the Ajrabs. A steadily growing group of chefs and businessmen—natives of Israel, Jordan, and Palestine—are beginning to redefine Middle Eastern cuisine in the Bay Area, bringing a long-overdue focus on quality to the foods they grew up eating.
The Holy Falafel Grail
Guy Eshel immigrated from Israel to Boston at a very young age, but remained a diehard falafel lover through his childhood.
“There was this one place in Brookline that I’d go with my parents pretty regularly, and their falafel was super legit. Even then, I think I saw how popular it could be when it was done right.”
He’s quick to acknowledge that in and around San Francisco, spots that get it right are few and far between.
This lack of accessibility, and quality, is part of what inspired Eshel to open Sababa, his own fast-casual take on Israeli street food, due for San Francisco’s Financial District this month. The format, and the food, is something of a departure for him—he’d worked in fine dining at San Francisco restaurants One Market and AQ. But a series of very popular “Mediterranean Monday” staff meals at AQ and desire to cook the food that he loves, and grew up with, made for an obvious restaurant idea.
“Ever since I got into cooking, I realized that Israeli cuisine wasn’t that well represented, especially in the Bay Area,” he explains. He believes serious attention to detail will set Sababa apart from other downtown lunchtime options. All of their pita is freshly made in house using a gas-fired, stone hearth oven. And the falafel is a work of tireless dedication.
“I did so much experimenting with the falafel to get the flavor and texture we wanted!” he says, laughing. “Changing the herbs, the spices, the method. I found that using a meat grinder on the vegetables gets the consistency just right.”
It’s not all about the falafel, too. Take a bite of his nutty, tahini-heavy hummus, and spice-laden shawarma topped with amba, a sauce made from pickled mango, curry powder, and turmeric, and you see Eshel’s commitment to getting everything right—as good or even better than pita stands in Israel.
“At the end of the day, I’m a chef. I’m going to keep tasting and changing everything. I always want to make it better.”
A Salad a Day
Mica Talmor hadn’t planned on opening a restaurant, let alone an Israeli one, when she and her husband Robert Gott heard of an available restaurant space on Piedmont Avenue in Oakland. The two had a successful catering company, Savoy Events, and had just finished a very successful run providing recipes and ingredients for meal delivery service Munchery.
“I’m Israeli, and when Munchery hired us, they asked us to do Middle Eastern food,” Talmor explains. “And, it did super well.”
When the Munchery contract ended, the two were eager for a new project. They were also reluctant to lay of the employees they’d brought on to help with the Munchery load. Soon, Ba-Bite was born in a former pizzeria, with a menu showcasing a large number of mezze, salads, and hummus.
“Before Munchery, this kind of food had never been part of what we’d done—we’d largely worked in Asian restaurants,” Talmor says. “But, I’m Israeli. I was born and raised there. This food is an enormous part of who I am.”
Similar to Eshel’s Sababa, Ba-Bite puts ingredients front-and-center, double-soaking their chickpeas (this makes them more tender, easier to digest, and, per Talmor, more nutritious) showcasing as much fresh produce as possible. Talmor also believes that her specific Israeli perspective is essential.
“The dishes and ingredients at Ba-Bite are pulled from a variety of cultures and put together in a way that only an Israeli would do! Only an Israeli would put wild mushrooms on hummus. Or serve tagine and mejadra side by side.”
The food, which is as bright and flavorful as Ba-Bite’s interior, has won the restaurant a dedicated stable of customers since they opened last May.
“A lot of our customers are here at least four days a week,” Gott says. “Some of them, seven! A lot of them are from the neighborhood, but we have regulars who will travel here weekly.”
It’s not difficult to see why, thanks to their unbelievably creamy hummus, topped with everything from the aforementioned wild mushrooms to falafel and lamb; the technicolor, meal-sized salads, tossed with sheep’s milk feta and fresh pomegranate vinaigrette; and Talmor’s near-legendary shakshuka, four iterations of which are now available at their new weekend brunch.
“It’s because they feel good!” Talmor interjects. “You eat this food, and you feel good. You want to come back.”
Azhar Hashem has positively banned hummus from the menu at Tawla, which is opening in San Francisco’s Mission neighborhood at the end of May. “I have very strict rules about what’s allowed on this menu! No hummus, tabbouleh, or kebabs. I don’t want people to have those as a crutch, to be able to order what they think they know about the food of this region.”
Hashem, a native Jordanian, conceived of Tawla as a place to showcase “the other 80% of this cuisine.” Specifically, the kinds of dishes you’d find in homes and not at street stands.
“Think about it. Whenever you tell a friend, ‘Hey, let’s go out Middle Eastern food,’ they’ll say ‘Yeah, I love hummus, I love falafel and shawarma.’ And they’ll assume it’s a hole in the wall.”
In addition to wanting to break away from street food stereotypes, Hashem is determined to shape this food in the context of the “Eastern Mediterranean,” comprised of Greece, Turkey, Iran, and the Levant (Syria, Lebanon, Israel, Palestine, and Jordan).
“It’s very important that our menu expands across these borders—in part, because they’re superficial. The cuisine is 80 to 90% shared. The regional differences between, say, baklava in Greece and baklava in Syria are what make it interesting. It becomes the focus of conversation!”
Hashem started her career in tech, becoming increasingly “obsessed,” in her words, with the food she had grown up with, and the role it played in bringing people together. A dedicated home cook, she teamed up with chef Joseph Magidow, formerly of Delfina, to help realize her vision in menu form. He’s taken to the challenge with relish, speaking with farmers about growing ingredients for his dishes, and tracking down exactly the right wild herbs to create his own za’atar blend. There are plans for an extensive bread menu, baked in house, large shared dishes, and hummus-free mezze, which instead focus on dishes like labneh and muhammara instead.
What’s more, Magidow is interested in taking Hashem’s traditions, and making them something new.
“This is, first and foremost, a restaurant in the Mission, in San Francisco,” he explains. “My challenge is to take what I’ve learned, talking to Azhar, cooking with her and her mom, and turn it into an experience that translates to San Francisco diners.”
Whether falafel-centric or -averse, bound to tradition or committed to breaking it, all four of these restaurants have a focus on quality and flavor that sets them apart from the greasy falafel shops you find elsewhere. It doesn’t take more than one bite of Eshel’s amba, Talmor’s shishlik, or Ajrab’s kalai to immediately recognize the difference.
It may be an overdue renaissance, but Sumac and Ba-Bite’s success, and the heightened anticipation around Sababa and Tawla, is evidence that it’s a welcome one. And, per Hashem’s philosophy, there’s plenty of room for growth.
“I think this kind of food is due for its second wave,” she says. “I think diners here are ready for it.”
Populated with apple orchards, calvados-swilling locals, and many a wheel of Camembert, Normandy is impossibly bucolic. Like something out of an Impressionist painting, this northwest corner of France was, indeed, ground zero for painters like Monet, Courbet, and Renoir in the movement’s heyday. Today, handmade Camembert and small-batch cider is rarer than in the 19th century, but glimpses of Normandy’s heritage can still be found—provided you’ve got an expert guide. Here’s our cheat sheet to the region’s treasures, breakfast pudding to wild mushrooms. And to dig deeper, read our full feature on how apples rule Norman cuisine.
Out-of- the-way locals’ restaurant
The woods surrounding the Manoir de Lys, a tranquil, stylish hotel nestled away in the Andaine Forest, are full of wild mushrooms, which feature heavily at the hotel’s restaurant.
Famous quote about the region by a local
“It is beautiful here my friend; every day I discover even more beautiful things. It is intoxicating me, and I want to paint it all—my head is bursting.”—Claude Monet
Teurgoule, a kind of baked rice pudding-porridge hybrid flavored with cinnamon that locals eat for breakfast.
Hotel worth a splurge
La Ferme Saint Simeon is a gorgeous inn with an apple orchard on the edge of Honfleur where the impressionists once stayed and painted. The artist Eugene Boudin once described it as “the most ravishing spot in the world,” which remains true. Try to book room 22, where Monet used to stay.
Read this novel/book before you go
Me Talk Pretty One Day by David Sedaris
The one phrase to know in the local language
Un trou Normand, s’il vous plait! (One mid-meal calvados, please!)
Best village to explore
Vimoutiers, which is located five miles from the ancient hamlet of Camembert, is somewhere between a village and a small town—and full of the sort of bakeries, cafes, and brasseries you dream of finding in rural France.
Film to watch before/after going
The Umbrellas of Cherbourg
Best local market to explore
Don’t miss the grey shrimp (crevette grises) at the fish market in Trouville.
The world's great neon cities are dimming. Hong Kong. New York. Bangkok, Vegas, and LA. As analogue glass lighting gives way to modular digital displays, the sculptural neon sign is a dying art with few new entries in the field. But—for now at least—neon is alive and well in one neighborhood in Boston, and it looks pretty incredible.
Welcome to Dorchester, a 30 minute T ride from downtown Boston, and home to one of the densest and most delicious stretches of Vietnamese food in the Western Hemisphere. On a one-mile stretch of Dorchester Avenue you'll find over a dozen restaurants, sandwich joints, and bakeries. The pho and banh mi here range from merely good to extraordinary, and that's before you get to less common Vietnamese specialties like seafood soups, pickled lotus roots, and greaseless fried fish.
It's hard to go wrong eating your way through Dorchester, but if you pause from scarfing down your banh mi long enough to look around, you'll also likely be struck by the intricate neon signs that hang in the window of nearly every restaurant. This is impressive work: glass shaped into undulating noodles, sandwich fillings, and the curlicued accent marks of Vietnamese script.
This signage is hardly unique to Dorchester. Wherever you find Vietnamese restaurants in the U.S. you're likely to find similar, if not identical neon pieces. You can even buy your very own online. But Dorchester's density of restaurants offers a more unique opportunity to see a whole museum's worth of neon in just a couple hours.
Try to dig into where exactly these signs come from and you'll likely be disappointed. A SAVEUR reporter in Boston spent months hitting the pavement to no avail. Instead, pay a visit to the neighborhood and make the most of it on a long stroll. Have a sandwich or two or six when you get peckish. And share some hope with us that these iconic pieces of a dying art form stick around a little longer.
Welcome to Hawk’s Illustrated America, a monthly series following illustrator Hawk Krall’s journeys through the back roads of the U.S. in search of our country’s most obscure and delicious regional specialties.
On a road trip to New Orleans 15 years ago, before writing about or drawing food was ever on my mind, I randomly stopped into a gas station somewhere between Maryland and Mississippi and had the best fried chicken of my life. And then I forgot where to find it again.
A line of people out the door were waiting at the seemingly non-descript station for what turned out to be a full-on fried food operation inside. The chicken was perfect. Spot-on seasoning, a moderately thick crust that was golden brown and not greasy in the least, incredibly juicy; just a goddamn perfect piece of fried chicken. And then came the potato wedges: the world’s best steak-cut potatoes dunked in fried chicken breading and deep fried for something warm and soft in the middle but with the full crunch of a drumstick.
It was the kind of roadside find that felt like magic, all the more so because, in those days before we all meticulously documented our every food experience, I’d completely neglected to take note of where it was. In the days that followed, I realized I’d probably never find it again. And for years after, that chicken became something of a holy grail of regional food. Would I ever eat fried chicken that good?
Fast forward a decade and a half and I started to hear whispers of a fried chicken trail in and around Charlottesville, Virginia: gas stations known locally for the quality of their fried chicken, no famous chefs or secret recipes. So I took off to drive through the beautiful Blue Ridge mountain area to check out some of the more notable Virginia chicken spots I’d heard so much about. And maybe—just maybe—find my holy grail again.
The first few were decent enough. Some even sold really good fried chicken. But in most cases, they had that certain air of once-hidden gems that capitalized on their newfound fame. Maybe the owners changed, or they reworked their logo, or they generally streamlined their operation to service the crowds. The side dishes seemed very standard and thrown-together, not too different than your average fast food operation. They just didn’t have that gas-station magic I was looking for.
45 minutes south of Charlottesville, I stopped at Mac’s. It was the only gas station for miles around, a no-name Exxon, and my main goals were to fill up the tank and grab an iced tea. At this intersection of two small highways with 20 minutes of winding mountain road in every direction, I had no expectations of fried chicken greatness—until I stepped inside.
Mac’s isn’t the holy grail of fried chicken I visited 15 years ago, but it’s close. Inside is a full-on country store with a dining room, jars of homemade relish, and chalkboard menu loaded with parts of chicken that they’ll fry. Those excellent potato wedges too. It’s the kind of place where, if they’re working on a fresh batch of chicken, they’ll direct you away from the ones sitting in the warming tray so make sure you get a taste of their best work. And their chicken is out of this world—as crisp and juicy as you could hope for.
A few days later I paid a visit to confirm their greatness and grab some breakfast. Don’t sleep on the breakfast biscuit, made with a perfectly cooked wobbly egg atop a freshly fried hunk of boneless chicken on a buttery biscuit, which is made with as much care as everything else on the menu. If I lived up in these mountains I’d be here three times a week in the corner with a 32-ounce can of Bud Light Lime, just scarfing down chicken.
When you’re eating on the road, it’s easy to be swayed by the romance of middle-of-nowhere joints like this with hand-lettered signs advertising cole slaw by the pound. And plenty of chefs in plenty of cities have cracked the fried chicken code to perfectly crisp and flavorful bird. But these small joints have an inarguable asset that those big bird restaurants never will: time. At Mac’s, the flow of customers is slow enough that the staff here can take care of every little detail without worrying about a lunch rush. And when you have people far off the main food trail, with nothing to prove except their own pride, magic happens.
Mac's Country Store
7023 Patrick Henry Highway
Roseland, Virginia 22967
Hawk Krall is an artist, illustrator, and former line cook with a lifelong obsession for unique regional cuisine, whose work can be seen in magazines, newspapers, galleries, and restaurants all over the world. He focuses on editorial illustration, streetscapes, and pop-art style food paintings.
La Merced is only a short walk from the main tourist area of Centro Historico, but if you don’t enter it through the dedicated metro station, it’s easy to be overwhelmed by the tangle of tianguis—unofficial markets, covered in yellow and blue tents—that surround the main market buildings.
Instead, deposit yourself right in the middle. That's what the guides of Eat Mexico, a food tour company based in Mexico City, recommend, and they'd know. The company gives regular tours of La Merced and helped direct me to some of the market's best food.
Coming up the stairs, navigate through a warren of zapatarias selling shoes for all ages and herbal remedy sellers. The mix of low plastic and corrugated metal ceilings mask the true scope of the market, which has been in this place in some form since long before Hernan Cortes conquered the area in the early 1500s. After the Spanish conquest, the neighborhood of La Merced grew up around the Nuestra Señora de la Merced de Redención de Cautivos monastery, which is a mouthful to call a neighborhood, so it was shortened to “La Merced.” Eventually the market organized around a handful of large, central buildings, with smaller sections around the periphery, only to be encircled by the omnipresent tianguis along the fringes.
“It’s the one place in Mexico City where you are completely overwhelmed by food, scents, smells, and aromas,” says Eat Mexico founder Lesley Tellez. “Even now I still walk in and feel lost—just dazed—for several minutes at a time."
The zapatarias leads into “Pancita Alley.” Here there are many good options for pancita, a restorative, bright red soup made with chiles and cow stomach, so follow the cauldron getting the most action. El Yaqui is a relatively sprawling family operation, occupying two opposing counters. Get a bowl—roughly 35 pesos (about $2) for a small and up to 60 pesos (about $4) for a large—and sop up the soup with the thick, freshly made tortillas the cocinar continuously doles out until you say “no mas!”
Along the same narrow alley is McTio, a can’t-miss taqueria featuring a trademark-infringing golden arch sign in the middle of all the bustle. Sit at the long counter on a ubiquitous low, plastic stool and place your order. Don’t hold back. Opt for a combinado or campechano, two- and three-item combinations (one of which should include griddled queso) that cost a little over a dollar each. I prefer the chuleta (smoked pork chop) or the cecina (dried, salted beef). Befitting his namesake, fresh fries top every taco and you should insist on lightly charred nopales, too, before going crazy at the salsa bar.
More antojitos (little tastes) await further down the alley, like brilliant blue corn quesadillas and huaraches spiked with fresh vegetables like flor de calabaza (zucchini flowers) or quelites (greens), but turn to the main building of the market and prepare to be amazed as a fresh produce version of a Raiders of the Lost Ark-sized hall beckons.
The main hall’s immensity is initially intimidating, but its height makes it surprisingly calm and pleasant, especially on a weekday. Maybe it’s the fact that that you have to travel through dense passageways to get here, but the air is different and cleaner, perfumed with the scents of thousands of fresh and dried chiles. Vendors hawk stacks of dried, raisin-textured chiles, far softer and meatier than I’ve ever seen at a supermarket, in one section, while fresh poblanos, jalapeños, serranos, and habaneros tower at other stalls nearby.
Omnipresent along the fringes of the hall are the Nopales Shearers. Some work with fervent speed, while others take a more zen approach, resigned to the unending replenishment of nopales. To clean, the Shearers first use the back of a wickedly sharp knife to scrape off the thorns. Then, a single delicate maneuver with the knife removes the perimeter of the nopales and they are either sold whole or chopped into batons, ready for cooking.
Amongst these nopales shearers, my Eat Mexico guide Victor points out an odd vendor selling guisanos (worms), escamoles (ant larvae), and small fried fish similar to smelts. They have room-temperature chicken intestines, bathed in chicken fat, if you are so inclined.
Periodic fires have engulfed parts of the market. The damage from a recent early morning fire in 2013 is still apparent in the main hall, and bales of fresh cilantro mark a violent contrast beside the burnt-out shells of vendor stalls.
Enter the meat market and the change in mood is palpable. Masculine and stuffy with the smell of aging meat and bleach, it’s far more cramped than the main hall. Pig heads, cow snouts, tongues and sausage links threaten to lick your shoulders on the slightest misstep. Omnipresent and ever popular salsicha—hot dogs—are stacked everywhere. A brick of ice is dragged through the floors, wet with mud and blood as patrons sidle against baskets full of chicharron to avoid it. “This is a market, not a hospital,” Victor says.
A sunny day can be jarring as you leave the market to venture back outside. Close to the meat market is a massive reservoir of cooking supplies and equipment, where you could easily outfit a restaurant or small kitchen that could blast 500,000 BTUs with no problem.
Sweets are sequestered because of the bee hordes. And because local tastes run towards gum-achingly sweet, sugar-preserved fruits are extremely popular. Crystallized pineapples, mango, guava, papaya, and limes have each been rendered saccharine, and all can potentially fuse into giant pyramids in the heat.
I prefer the peanut-engraved balls of dulce de leche, but even if you’ve exhausted yourself wandering through this massive, teeming market, make time to browse the selection of lollipops, where the intricate handiwork of the candymakers is rendered stunningly cheap, at less than a dollar each and hardly more than five dollars for items that could keep a child occupied through adolescence.
Noah Arenstein is a lawyer, cook, writer, and event planner based in Brooklyn, NY. He co-founded Real Cheap Eats, which sought out the best food under $10 in NYC. Noah recently opened El Atoradero Brooklyn, which relocated from the Bronx to Prospect Heights. Follow him on Twitter: @NMArenstein.
The country of Bangladesh broils underneath an eternal, equatorial sun, surrounded on three sides by India and the fourth flanked by the hazy Bengal Sea. But in the city of Rajshahi, not even the searing sun above can match the collective heat of hundreds of people crowding an ancient courthouse. Yet everyone is cheery. It’s here that their deeds are finalized, their debts squared away, and where they arrange the purchasing of new homes.
Hoba Ghos Sweets perches in the alleyway of this 200-year-old courthouse. It does well here. The final thumbprint pressed onto the pages of court documents is cause for celebration, which in local tradition means handing out sweets to your entire village.
The cooking in Rajshahi is as fiery as the sun, but Bangladeshis also have serious sweet teeth. They flock to sweets like hummingbirds crowding a fragrant blossom. The sweetest nectar comes from the syrup perfuming Hoba Ghos Sweets, blooming along the wall of the courthouse.
Rana Ghos stands tall but demure. He’s a fourth generation mishti wallah, a sweets maker, born and raised within five miles of the same courthouse that houses his family’s sweets stand. He’s a nod-while-you-talk kind of guy, but that’s because he’s also too busy ladling the most deliciously sweet syrup you’ve ever tasted onto your perfectly formed rasgulla. One of Bangladesh’s many mishtis (literally: sweets), these silken white balls of sweet cottage cheese are bathed in sugar water and ghee so they melt into syrupy pools on the tongue. In the canon of South Asian sweets, rasgulla is perhaps the simplest of mishtis. Every auntie and their grandmother has a recipe for one. But unlike the aunties, Rana refuses to add any cardamom or rosewater to his recipe. Instead, he chooses to let the dairy speak for itself.
Rana’s rasgulla are more tender than anyone’s, his ghee more pure. Each ball is supple, but so tender that you question if it was even a solid in the first place. It has the kind of melt-in-your-mouth quality you can only get from two masterful hands that have been transforming crumbly cottage cheese into the wagyu of sweets for over three decades. I’ve scoured the birthplace of rasgulla in Calcutta, which is incidentally my father’s birthplace as well, and none compares to Rana’s more tender version.
The sugar will inevitably make you chatty. That’s when you learn he gets up everyday before dawn to visit his own cows—he has a family of ten cows and calves—and to prepare his homemade milk curd with lime juice as well as tamarind to bolster the sweets’ silkiness. Then he forms the sweets and bathes them in a syrup of sugar and triple-refined ghee, the clarified butter all South Asians swear by. The secret to the finest sweets is in that syrup—and how he lets the balls bathe in it all night. He serves it alongside a piece of soft bread to mop it all up.
Under the tent sprawled across a two shabby brick walls, I can’t seem to shake the feeling that I’m sitting in an oasis. “Hoba Ghos Sweets couldn’t exist anywhere else,” Rana says. “My great-grandfather knew. We’ve been here as long as this courthouse has. The air here is too perfect, just enough flow, just warm enough to tenderize the mishti even more.”
As I look up from the last bit of syrupy bread glistening on my plate to Rana ladling syrup for doe-eyed newlyweds, I realize why his stall has been so successful. There are three generations of mishti-perfecting hands resting on Rana’s shoulders. In this blazing country, family is everything, and these sweets are the celebration of family, new and old. I look over to my father talking with attorneys in the next table. I call out to Rana for one more plate of mishti. “This one’s for my father,” I whisper.
He doesn’t look up from the pot. “All the world’s happiness is in mishti. No one’s ever angry while they’re eating it.” A smile spreads on his face as wide as the pool of syrup in his ladle. It makes him look a little more like his father, who watches over the stall with his son, still tinkering with his own mishti. I wonder if Rana’s son’s sweet tooth has come in yet, and how wide his smile will one day be when he forms happiness with his own hands.
Hoba Ghos Sweets
Rajshahi Court, Rajshahi, Bangladesh