Honestly, the real reason I went to Paris this year was that I've always wanted to type "April in Paris" in a dispatch from France (it's true!), and until recently, I'd visited the City of Light only in summer, fall or winter. Never spring.
By luck, I snagged a reservation at one of the toughest tables in town, coincidentally called Spring, a divine restaurant from the American chef Daniel Rose. The evening was full of highs, and how cool that Karl Lagerfeld strolled in at one point and left behind a fashion doodle on a cocktail napkin. Yet I ended up not writing about Spring because it wasn't new, because I wanted a break from having to recall every morsel of a meal for public consumption and, well, it's no fun being the 410th food writer to wax poetic about a transporting dinner. (Noma, you're no longer my reason for catching a flight to Copenhagen. Not that you need my help.)
My second reason for going to Paris was to take the temperature of the bistro scene, but here's what a handful of fair-to-pleasant meals in some of the newer places taught me: San Francisco is a more significant place to eat, at least as far as this dedicated eater and trend watcher is concerned. Indeed, one of my most exciting meals away from Washington, better even than at some of the four-stars in New York, was at Coqueta in San Francisco. Lusty food in the company of loved ones in a waterfront setting was a reminder that while food is important, it isn't everything.
You know how some travel experiences are so vivid you just know you'll never, ever forget them and you decide not to take notes or even a photo because you're trying to live in the moment? And the free-flowing pastis/mojito/pisco sour/soju is only encouraging you to relax and trust your memory?
Banish those thoughts. Put pen to paper, even if it's the butcher paper on the table. Tap Instagram, at least for a shot or two. Believe me, I'd love to tell you more about the pig roast I went to on a little island with a sunset view of San Juan, the one where local hooch was passed around in little paper cups and everyone danced while a grizzled butcher lovingly carved a mahogany porker into at least 10 different courses. Trust me, I also knocked back some pretty good chow during a nighttime crawl of food stalls in Seoul, where one of the stops included an edible fire show served inside a tent (a learning experience despite a young guide who seemed more dedicated to teaching us drinking games than describing what was on our plates). In those and other situations, I didn't record my impressions because I wasn't on a deadline - or an expense account - and I didn't want to interrupt the mood.
Still, there are plenty of meals I dutifully remembered, and described in some length, via dining postcards sent from Atlanta, Charlottesville, Philadelphia, Richmond and Wilmington over the past 12 months.
As for those cities I grazed in but didn't tell you about? Here are some of the highlights, retrieved from my iPhone, a kimchi-fragrant business card, the margins of a hotel map - and a frequent traveling companion with a much better memory than mine.
Hands down, the most joyous meal of my year was dinner in August at the youthful Coqueta in San Francisco. A waterfront address helps. So does a corner perch in a dining room where cowhide rugs pad the floor, the ceiling goes on forever and your first taste of the menu is a big board of skewered snacks, what the Basques know as pintxos, washed back with a gin and tonic that's so beautiful, you want to take it home as a table decoration.
Michael Chiarello is the vision behind the fiesta, which might prompt head-scratching from followers of his Italian work, foremost Bottega in Napa Valley. The veteran Bay Area chef jokingly calls his switch to Spanish "my midlife crisis."
There's not a single dish at Coqueta, helmed by chef de cuisine Ryan McIlwraith, that I wouldn't be eager to eat again.
Meatballs rich with duck and pork (anything with pig demands your attention here) get jolts of flavor from tart cherries and fried shallots. Shrimp gathered with shoestring potatoes and a gently cooked egg get a little wild when mixed with their chunky chorizo dressing. A sense of whimsy infuses other dishes, including the pickled mussels nestled with shaved fennel in a little tin. "Canned fresh daily," reads the menu. And the reason the paella, cooked to splendor over a wood-fired grill, tastes as though you're eating it on its home turf: "We spend a lot of time on the broth," made with ham stock, lobster shells and sofrito, Chiarello says. Come dessert, there are more pintxos, and more surprises: tomato-basil jellies in summer and bite-size manchego cheesecake anytime.
Surveying the scene, I can't help but feel at home; the faces of some of the overseers appear familiar. Chiarello lured so much talent from Washington uber-chef Jose Andres, the Italian says that the Spaniard told him that next time, "we demand first-round draft picks."
Coqueta is "flirt" in Spanish. If this restaurant doesn't make your heart beat a little faster, none will.
Le 6 Paul Bert
The perfect start to a visit to Paris in April (or anytime, really): Le 6 Paul Bert. Awash in light by day, the trim storefront from the esteemed chef Bertrand Auboyneau opens with a picnic's worth of jams, meats and cheeses and a fetching light fixture fashioned from old wine bottles.
My companion and I are led past a cozy zinc bar and a communal table to a snug spot in the rear that initially feels like Siberia but turns out to be prime real estate. What food lover wouldn't want to watch his meal being cooked in front of him? Indeed, the open kitchen is so close, we hear every high note sung by hot oil and smile with pride as we survey the kitchen's reading material, including the "Momofuku" cookbook on a nearby shelf.
The bread, delivered in a paper bag, is wonderful, and it comes in handy as a swab for the savory dishes that follow. Happy memories are soon made of crisp mackerel with a vivid green herb puree, tender chunks of pork scattered on a creamy puree of potatoes and sunchokes and an ethereal vanilla panna cotta made refreshing with grapefruit. And the price is right: $25 for a three-course lunch that's as beautiful as it is luscious.
Our server doesn't know the food very well (the menu changes daily), but his lack of detail turns out to be a boon: We chat up the cooks instead.
Here's the co-owner of Revel in Seattle explaining why she and her husband chose the name: "Revel means to have a lot of joy," says Rachel Yang, who alternates cooking behind the restaurant's long butcher-block counter with Seif Chirchi, the mate in question. "We want diners to have fun with our food, to be excited."
Not a problem. She's from Seoul, he's from outside Chicago, they both worked at Alain Ducasse in New York. For Revel, in the hipster Seattle neighborhood of Fremont, the couple created a menu of Asian-accented small plates that's so compelling, you really want to show up with a crowd so that you can try one of everything in their industrial-but-gracious environment.
House-made kimchi and braised pork belly make for a dynamite pancake that relies on ground mung beans instead of flour. Caramelized beef short ribs fatten the supple dumplings, each bite of which reveals ginger and chili in the seasoning. A salad of peppery mizuna and corned lamb gets tossed with a dressing that ricochets from sweet to sour to spicy and back. Yang isn't kidding when she says, "We both like big flavors." And you know that you're on the West Coast when the crab-seaweed noodle salad stars sweet Dungeness crab.
Nearing the end of five days of eating in Seoul in November - at street stalls, in the shadow of Buddhist temples and at restaurants so tranquil they felt like museums - I was chagrined to hear a resident tipster tell me that I had been grazing in the wrong places. "The really good cooking is outside the city," my informant said - just as I signed the check for an unremarkable dinner for four for $600 (NZ$736).
Panic set in. There wasn't time for me to venture outside the capital of South Korea, but I did have another opportunity to eat before heading to the airport. So I dashed off an e-mail to Joe McPherson, founder of the online food journal ZenKimchi: Where should I have lunch the next day, and could he join us? McPherson pitched a few ideas. I stopped him when he mentioned a source for North Korean food, prepared in the cook's home. And so it was that my guide met us the next day at Yaksu Station, a subway stop, and we ventured into a nearby residential neighborhood in search of lunch.
The gate outside Cheogajip, our destination, was cracked open a few inches, and thank goodness for that, because there's no way we would have found the place otherwise. Expecting us, the cook beckoned three appetites into a small courtyard, where a yapping dog and a clothesline signaled a private residence. Our hostess motioned to a small room with a sliding door, where we gathered around a low table and glanced at the brief menu posted on the wall.
"There are five choices," McPherson translated from the Korean script. "Two of them are beer and soju," Korea's spirit of choice. The rest of the selections turned out to be among the highlights of my trip. First came floppy, crescent-shaped dumplings, their skins so thin you could see the filling of pork and onions. A big steamed chicken followed. Using chopsticks, we coaxed the ivory meat from the bones, then dipped the morsels in a racy paste of chilies and leeks. Bliss. Helping crowd the table: a big bowl of chilled, spaghetti-thin buckwheat noodles. Garnished with neat batons of cucumber, the bolt of beige rose from a pond of clear broth with a delicate vinegar sting.
There were smiles all around as we unwound our legs, nodded our thanks to the cook and exited through the courtyard, where woven trays of daikon radishes basked in the early afternoon sun. For less than $10 a head, we got a feast and a story to take home.