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Thursday, January 26, 2012

Is Paris The World Champion of Gastronomy?

That’s the question French food critic Francois Simon posed to a little panel: Nick Lander, Carlo Petrini, Ken Hom, Anissa Helou, Yumiko Inukai and…yours truly. For a recent article in Le Figaro’s magazine, Figaroscope.

Here’s my response in Version Originale…

World capital? That’s loaded question.

Twenty years – even 10 – ago, the question was bandied about for fun but we already knew the answer, but now, just using the places I know well, it’s a legitimate debate. Barcelona combines an unquenchable curiosity and solid base to keep themselves on cuisine’s front edge. Sicily combines incredible raw ingredients with solid value and New York could win on sheer numbers yet it is Paris’ equal in quality and exponentially more diverse. India is a time machine whose cuisine never ages.

Plus, in Paris, coffee is awful and the beer second rate. It’s also pricey. That said, you forget all problems instantly when the former butcher who can hold four bottles of wine in one hand and owns Le Severo puts a côte de boeuf aged 40 days under your nose. You forget it when Pierre Gagnaire boils down a great vat of red wine to make a tiny component of a sauce. You forget it when Laetitia at Le Bistro Paul Bert greets you with a smile, seats you at your favorite table and gifts you with a glass of wine and when it comes to choosing a bottle of wine doesn’t foist something you can’t afford on you. You forget it when three bottles, two glasses of Calvados and one conversation into a meal, you realize with a start that it’s 5 a.m. and you’ve been at the table for nine hours.

Undeniable world champ? Not anymore. However, the French exception still reigns. Let’s call Paris first among equals.

Follow me on Twitter: @joe_diner and on Facebook.

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Monday, August 22, 2011


PALERMO - There are moments when I come back to this city and wonder if it isn’t the coolest place on Earth.

(This is before I’ve been here too long and the too-close buildings become too close, but till then, hoo boy.)

I cooled my heels after some field research for my WSJ gelato story, sat outside of Caffè Malavoglia, ordered a whiskey (they were out of Fernet), and slow-sipped until peckishness settled in and I realized that even on a Monday, I could roll down to the nighttime fest of the Ballarò market for a panelle sandwich.

Who would have thought that a chickpea fritter sandwich from a street vendor could be so good?

Here’s why: extra-fresh bread laden with sesame seeds, extra hot fritters, along with a shot of lemon and a spritz of salt to wake it up, all in an atmosphere that makes you feel alive.

Hoo baby. So good, I burned the roof of my mouth. Twice.
After that, as my good friend Francesco says, the shutters go down. Time for bed.

This is Joe Ray reporting from The Motherland.

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Friday, June 04, 2010


We roll out of “the place with the amazing anchovies” and head next door to the new Cal Marino - which, with walls lined with bottles, barrels and a bar full of tasty vittles, looks like Quimet & Quimet’s little cousin.

Toni brought me here for a quick snack a month ago and I wanted to check in again and see what’s cooking.

They don’t cook much, actually, they source. There are gourmet snacks a gogo - lots of good things to skewer with a toothpick and a few combinations à la Quimet. There are plates with excellent olives, tasty shrimp, or little bites of octopus; you’d have to make a concerted effort to make a meal out of it, but paired with, say, a good cider, they get the appetite racing, the conversation moving.

They’re still working out a few kinks; I tried flagging the waiter for some tomato bread and he made a long-distance stiff-arm gesture that said, “Can’t you see I’m overwhelmed?” Come in at a quieter time, however, and the barman/owner will be happy to teach you about the products he stocks.

They’ll work it out. Can Marino is a great launching point, a future neighborhood reference as a watering hole and part of a great one-two punch after you have some of those anchovies.

Count on 5-15€ depending on how much of a meal you want to make of it.

Can Marino - MAP
C/ Margarit 54
+34 93 329 45 92

Follow me on Twitter: @joe_diner.

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Friday, May 21, 2010


BARCELONA - While we’re prepping the calcot sauce in Toni’s kitchen, we get talking about our favorite artery-cloggers and I mention steak Rossini - a big steak with a slab of foie gras, preferably seared, melting over the top - at Le Tambour.

Or, well, anywhere.

He grins and walks toward the fridge which, is a Pandora’s box of high-cal goodness and pulls out two steaks and a slab of foie gras.

Lunch is served.

Follow me on Twitter: @joe_diner.

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Saturday, May 01, 2010


I did something with this place I don’t usually do: I recommended a restaurant to a friend without having been there to eat in a long time. A friend from London was coming into town for what the Brits call a ‘hen do’ (a.k.a. a bachelorette party) right around the time another friend who runs Slow Food Barcelona was talking about a favorite restaurant: Mam i Teca. There seemed to be a bit of serendipity involved, so I went with the flow. Now that I’ve gone, I can’t decide if it was a good idea.

At first, I thought the tiny restaurant lacked a bit of soul, but I figured out that it feels like that you’re eating in the semi-industrial living room of the guys who run it, right down to the Johnny Hallyday on the radio and the waiting for the waiter/barman to finish up his conversation with the client/friends at the end of the bar before you can ask for another napkin.

If you like that sort of stuff - it can have its charms - you’re in for a treat. I love that feeling that the two guys who run the joint are clearly doing exactly what they want to be doing, but I wonder how many other people come out of there feeling a little weirded out by the experience. The cuisine is Catalan and you can understand the Slow Food connection; product is excellent. Xató - a salad of escarole with salt cod and olives with romesco sauce wasn’t much to write home about, but it was counterbalanced by a sweet and salty rabbit stew with apricots and prunes. Mmm!  Our favorite dish, a mix of just-cooked mushrooms, asparagus and garlic drizzled in olive oil was so good, we ordered it twice.

I can’t remember the last time I did that.

Maybe it was a good idea to send the hens here.

Mam i Teca - MAP
Carrer de la Lluna 4
+93 441 33 35

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Thursday, March 25, 2010



“It’s too expensive,” was the first thing out of a friend’s mouth when I mentioned we were heading to Xemei.

“But it’s goooood,” was the second.

“Best risotto of my life,” said another friend, “made with cod tripe!”

I was sold, plus there was serendipity involved. Food writer Carme Gasull proposed going at right around the same time.

On the weekend, Xemei is bustling with the open concept kitchen with the restaurant’s namesake Venetian twins running the show. It’s a loud, fun and casual atmosphere that stimulates the mind and the appetite.

We start, sharing a giant appetizer dish that’s an Italo-Catalan tapas with cod fritters, anchovies in vinegar on a fresh tomato salsa, a tender slab of mackerel. It’s all fine, but I’m thinking of the “expensive” comment more than the “good” one.

The waiter stops by, proposing a new bottle of wine and when I ask about the screw cap, he launches into a bizarre, five-minute explanation about screw caps, corks, evaporation and, to synthesize, how this case of special Italian wine, initially bound for America happened to end up in their restaurant.

It’s harmless fun, but I want to ask the guy if he actually believes what he’s saying.

“We’ve got a phrase here: he sold you a motorcycle,” says Edu. “He just wanted to sell you the bottle.”

The wine is peculiar but fine, but more important, the mains knock our socks off. All of them. The girls get mushroom risotto and Edu has spaghetti in squid ink that tickles our umami sensors and is served looking like cross between a Sicilian sfogliatelle pastry and a perfect beehive hairdo. I get a squid and artichoke dish - each element cooked separately and perfectly, the whole with fantastic textures.

Expensive? Motorcycles aren’t cheap, but it’s not that bad. Goooood? Yep.

We’ll be back.

Count on 40€, with wine.

Xemei - MAP
Passeig de l’Exposició, 85
+34 93 553 51 40

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Friday, March 12, 2010


OLOT, Spain

The first thing you notice on a tour of the kitchen at Les Cols is that there’s a water garden fed from the heavens in the middle of it. This makes sense. An ardent but not annoying locavore, chef Fina Puigdevall is intent on building your relationship to the ground beneath your feet - this volcanic area where she was born.

She immediately shines spotlights on local ingredients - buckwheat, cured sausage from Olot, wild mushrooms, the cabbage that gives the restaurant its name and even wonderfully fragrant black truffles. One dish features an egg from the black chickens running around outside the window.

The clever thief would begin by swiping Puigdevall’s purveyor list;  in retrospect, what’s odd is that there’s no standout dish, nothing so wildly good that it makes you want to do cartwheels between the tables, yet hers is is food with roots. These are deep and wild flavors, strength pulled up from the soil - a geothermal cuisine.

Puigdevall is like a wayward member of Rene Redzepi’s New Nordic cuisine gang - you half-expect to find Sigur Ros jamming in the henhouse.

You spend a bit of time like this, thinking of where she fits into the scheme of things - some say she’s the next Carme Ruscalleda but you quickly realize their styles don’t match, give up the ghost and start enjoying things.

There is pea soup - a bright and happy green canvas supporting tiny cubes of balsamic, a micro-scoop of peanut ice cream, a bright yellow dollop of saffron sauce and a deep orange sea urchin. Squint from above and it looks like abstract art made with a set of Crayolas.

‘Pumpkin in five different ways’ has similar beauty, showcasing an ingredient that deserves the attention. Tendrils might grow from our fingers, roots from our feet.

In another dish, salt cod floats on brandade, those under spinach and chard everything heating the truffle (see above). You stare, you smell, you think, you hesitate to destroy it with a fork, then you smile. The beauty in the presentation of these dishes is subtle when looked at individually and breathtaking when considered together.

Equally as sublime is the space.

Using iron, glass and stone, the design of this restaurant hits what they missed at Can Fabes. While spots inside Santi Santamaria’s nearby restaurant can feel like the inside of a tank, Puigdevall clearly spent a long time talking to an architect who listened.

The sliding and pivoting glass doors and arches make the chef’s 13th century home modern and the main dining room are set slightly into the earth, so your eyes are level with the grass. We’re here on one of those winter days where you look at a picture of the backyard in summertime and it’s so green it might as well be another planet, yet even in winter, that subtle shift makes you notice shoots and buds you wouldn’t have seen otherwise.

When your gaze extends upward, it might linger on clouds clinging to the hills or you might spend two minutes watching a drop of water work its way down the giant window. On any other date, this much time spent gazing outside would signal disaster. Here, you’re simply taking time to reconnect to the world around you.

The hotel rooms here are minimalist glass and metal cubes and I would love to return and spend the whole afternoon - post lunch - in the bathtub with a bottle of wine watching the clouds stick to the hills and contemplating the meal I just ate.

Service is well done, without hovering, and low key. Bravo for the bravery to offer a cart full of very worthy Catalan cheeses.

A tasting menu is 70 euros plus wine.

Les Cols – MAP
Carretera de la Canya
Olot, Spain
+34 97 226 9209

Follow me on Twitter: @joe_diner and on Facebook.

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