So I was walking around the hood recently and I spotted a squirrel in the road squished like a jelly donut. It was gruesome and sad and got me thinking about mortality, careless drivers, blameless rodents and, yes, Italian food.
I envisioned the shockingly good meals I ate last year in Rome and Naples: pizza margherita, caprese salad, pasta carbonara, ravioli, gelato, etc. And that led to thoughts about the kinds of food I might eat on my upcoming journey to Scotland.
This was tricky, because I don’t really know what native Scottish fare is, except for the shuddering national dish haggis, dubiously defined as “a pudding composed of the liver, heart and lungs of a sheep, mixed with beef or mutton kidneys and oatmeal and seasoned with spices, which is packed into a sheep’s stomach and boiled.”
Suddenly, I see that pulverized squirrel.
This is a job for some A.I., I mused, too lazy to grab my Scotland guide books. So I asked ChatGPT to spit up some famous Scottish dishes and it gave me haggis (#1), smoked salmon, porridge (!), black pudding (sausage made with pig’s blood) and other grub that doesn’t sound wildly appetizing on paper, but rather Dickensian.
That said, I’ve made reservations at seven restaurants in Edinburgh and Glasgow that seem delicious, and almost all of them boast Scottish cuisine (the exception is an Indian joint that looks otherworldly). I’m particularly amped about Makars Gourmet Mash Bar in Edinburgh, which merrily touts affordable farm-to-table dishes featuring lots of mashed potatoes and scads of fresh meats and veggies. Bangers and mash? Um, yeah.
I was watching “Top Chef” the other night and the show’s deceptively sweet host Padma Lakshmi — she of the cutting parting words, “Please, pack your knives and go” — reminded me how food is of paramount consideration when choosing where to travel. I go partly for the local cuisine, be it sushi and takoyaki (octopus balls) in Japan or jamón ibérico and patatas bravas in Spain (or, gulp, haggis in Scotland).
This trip is different. Despite my A.I. research, nothing but the cursed haggis stands out, and yet the menus at my reserved restaurants are thoroughly enticing. A quasi-foodie — sort of a Foodie, Jr. — I’m all about adventuresome eating, be it silkworm cocoons in China or that whole cobra in Vietnam I’ve mentioned here a thousand times. Will I try haggis? Maybe. Yet I don’t want to order an offal-filled sheep’s stomach only to gag on the first bite and then where will I be? Embarrassed and out 20 bucks.
I rarely strike out in my gastronomical exploits — OK, the silkworm cocoons were disgusting — so anxiety is low. I bet I can do haggis. Right? After all, it really isn’t like it’s roadkill or something.
Farting thunder and crackling lightning preceded the cloudburst that tried its damnedest to drench our small tour group at Pompeii, the ancient city of dramatically preserved ruins just outside of Naples yesterday. Umbrellas aloft, my brother and I winced at each other and agreed we didn’t want lightning to blast us into human beef jerky like the displayed bodies caught in squalls of volcanic gas and ash from a spewing Mt. Vesuvius way back when (79 A.D., to be exact).
Weather-wise, Rome was better, but Naples, Italy’s third largest city, set south and known as the country’s black sheep and mischievous scamp, might be more atmospheric, vaguely sketchy and intimately enthralling. It’s got kick and fizz.
Sure, Naples has offered lashing schizophrenic weather — enveloping sunshine, then muffling fog, then a glimmer of sun, then a 10-degree temperature drop and downpours — but it has character to burn: crazy winding backstreets streaked with old churches, lavish, looping graffiti, bristling bars, sensational food, boisterous people. And do mind that Vespa tearing down the cobblestone street bustling with fleet-footed pedestrians.
Speaking of food I might kill for — last night’s grilled octopus and the pasta carbonara in Rome surely count — we waited about 40 minutes for a seat at the famed Sorbillo pizzeria, known for the best pies in the world and certainly in Italy. Get the basic Margherita — mozzarella, basil, zesty homemade tomato sauce and thin, chewy crust (huge and about $5). It will recalibrate your pizza expectations for life.
But I’m not here to peddle pizza. I’m here to report that we tracked down the three (stunning) Caravaggio paintings in Naples; found a go-to watering hole, Libreria Berisio, which is a cozy working bookstore by day, heaving with volumes, and at night dims the lights and serves a boggling array of cocktails, with funky seating, including stacks of hardbacks for stools (books and booze!); and took a private four-hour city and food tour with the spectacular Gennaro. Just the three of us.
Gennaro, who speaks with a lilting, comically tangy Italian accent and shoots off sparks of wound-up energy, whisked us along in a gust of breathtaking erudition, knowledge, information and raw charm. Food, history, literature, opera, architecture, art, politics both local and global, film, geography — he seems to know it all, an effusive polymath who makes you feel intellectually undernourished.
But we weren’t undernourished, because Gennaro fed us a feast, including pastry, fried seafood, buffalo mozzarella, deep-fried pizza (!!), beer, Limoncello (a local lemon liqueur), pasta with meat sauce, and more.
He’s also something of a one-man chamber of commerce for Naples, fervently defending the city, exalting its virtues with fist-shaking passion, and angrily blaming city leaders for underrating and underselling their jewel in the rough. Five years ago, he says, Naples still carried a bad rap — piles of garbage, crime, mafioso, and other underbelly lesions — but it’s enjoying a surge of respectability and much-needed tourism. He wants the world to see his native city as he does: a top draw, a world-class player, a tourist mecca. He wants it to be loved, adored, appreciated.
In two weeks I head to Japan, one of the best food and drink cities in the world. Last time I was there, I was green, gullible and a little lost. I ate at places I stumbled on that simply looked good — I had no reservations — and bought drinks at random bars or even from beer vending machines. This time I’m prepared. My eats itinerary is tight and structured, and I’ve wisely left a few days open for discovery. Below are eight of my top food and drink destinations in Tokyo and Kyoto:
1.Tokyo boasts more Michelin Star restaurants — 230 — than any other city, making the neon-marinated metropolis the world’s number one food destination, according to France’s revered (and feared) Michelin Guide. I can’t afford a 2-star or 3-star outing — like Sushi Jiro, whose stardom skyrocketed after the worshipful documentary “Jiro Dreams of Sushi” — nor will I subject myself to the fussy rigmarole of trying to reserve a spot at one of them, itself an Olympic event demanding backflips, secret handshakes and blood oaths. I did, however, after some patient, nimbly maneuvered reservation action, land lunch at Ginza Iwa Sushi, a 1-star Michelin destination, whose fixed-menu fee ($101) makes me blanch. One of the most popular sushi joints in Tokyo, Iwa serves a 12-course lunch and is known for its elegance, tradition and finesse. And wallet-thinning powers.
2.Though I never dream about it (unlike Jiro and his sushi) and only eat it about every three years, yakitori is one of my tongue-tingling tops. It’s primarily grilled chicken skewers, but also features eel, myriad meats and grill-happy veggies. For my yakitori fix I’m going to Sumiyakisosaitoriya Hitomi in Kyoto, an unpronounceable place so popular I had to secure a reservation through my hotel concierge months ago. It’s considered the best yakitori in Kyoto. Online reviews speak of chicken transcendence.
3. I know, well, nothing about one of Japan’s national drinks, sake. (It’s rice wine, right?) I’m here to learn. And drink. Hence the Sake Tasting and Lecture I’ve booked at the foolishly early hour of 1:30 p.m. (on Halloween, no less). It’s set in an izakaya — a snug local bar where a variety of small dishes and snacks are served with alcoholic drinks — where pupils of the potent potable will taste eight to 10 kinds of sake under the affable tutelage of a guzzling guru named Murata. I’m actually not a big sake sipper, though I had some the other night at, what else, a sushi dinner, and it was cold, smooth, savory. Teach me, master (small bow).
4. My last time in Tokyo I visited the legendary Tsukiji Fish Market at the crack of dawn, extremely punchy from staying up all night, mildly partying before quaffing Starbucks. I was a beet-eyed mess, weaving through the warrens of stalls and stands filled with fresh-off-the-boat fish and sea creatures, snapping zesty photos, lost in the briny commotion of frenetic commerce. Rudderless, I just wandered where my soon-soaked sneakers took me. I didn’t know where to eat some of the fresh catches, which is something you definitely do at the market, and I didn’t know where to go next. I needed a guide. That’s what I’ll have with the Tsukiji Fish Market Food and Culture Walking Tour, a 3.5-hour expedition, starting at 8:30 a.m., through the largest wholesale fish and seafood market in the world, and one of the largest wholesale food markets of any kind. Sushi, sake, fried fish cake, tea and a Japanese omelette are just part of the menu. Sobriety is another part.
5.I’m in Japan, one of the supreme culinary capitals in the world, and what I’m craving, with impish urgency, is … an egg salad sandwich from 7-Eleven. This, I swear, is a thing. Convenience stores (or conbinis) are rampant across the country — there are at least50,000 — with three reigning chains: 7-Eleven, Lawson and FamilyMart. Here’s where you find whack Japanese to-go cuisine, from dried squid and deep-fried quail eggs; to insta-noodles and syrup-filled pancakes; to 9% alcohol beer and ongiri (seaweed-wrapped rice stuffed with savory fillings). And, of course, the homely, homey egg salad sandwich (tamagosando). Celeb chefs Anthony Bourdain and David Chang have sworn by their tastiness and websites are devoted to them. 7-Eleven, Lawson and FamilyMart offer variations on a simple theme, using fluffy crustless white bread and the Japanese mayonnaise Kewpie. “Japanese mayo tends to be more tart than American mayo, with a mild sweetness and robust umami that gives it a bit more flavor,” writes a blogger, who conducted an egg sandwich showdown between those at the three major conbinis. (Spoiler: 7-Eleven stuffs the most egg in its sandwiches, as seen below.)
6.Hailed by many cocktail connoisseurs as one of the best bars on the planet — and easily the best in Tokyo — Bar Benfiddich, in the city’s sleepless Shinjuku district (where my hotel is, conveniently), pours classics with radical twists. Show-runner Hiroyasu Kayama has been dubbed an alchemist, whose design for the bar was a “moonshine den, dark and mysterious, with dusty 19th-century bottles and jars of arcane herbal infusions.” It is intimate. How so? Try eight seats and two tables. I’m lining up. Now.
7. I lust for ramen — I’m partial to mazemen, or brothless — and it had better be excellent. I like my noodles thick and savory and chewy. The best ramen in Kyoto, they say, is Kyoto Engine Ramen. No reservations, so I’m crashing the place. I only know what I’ve read in the noodle-sphere, the bulk of it stellar, exalting the omnivorous varieties and vegan options. Ordering’s a breeze: From a vending machine you purchase a ticket with your selection on it, then slip it to the server. “The space itself is groovy and modern. Cool jazz was playing. A nice touch was the cute little Shintō shrine behind the bar,” writes a guest. I wanted more about the ramen (photos show mouthwateringly complex bowls). Then I read this: “The ramen is bomb!!!” Pow.
8.Beyond the go-to Suntory brand Bill Murray shills in “Lost in Translation,” Japan distills several top-shelf whiskies, most of which can be sipped at LiquorMuseum Pontocho in Kyoto, a seatless, stand-at-table whisky pub run by surpassingly knowledgable whisky whizzes. They serve 1,000 types of drinks at the esteemed bar. All drinks are 500 Yen (including tax), or about $4.65. And there’s no service charge. I’ll have another one, bartender-san.
I’m a relatively adventurous eater — I’ll nosh bone marrow, chicken hearts, snails, frog legs, foie gras, raw oysters, sea anemone, roe, goat, buffalo, pigeon, octopus — but, like most of us, I cleave to a less exotic, much less expensive daily diet. Those delicacies are for singular occasions, mostly while I’m traveling and living a bit high on the hog. (Hog, too, I eat that.)
Mulling a trip to Chicago, I’ve made a short list of restaurants offering casual to fine dining, from Rick Bayless’ Frontera Grill (Mexican) to Paul Kahan’s Avec (Mediterranean). Squeezed between those is Stephanie Izard’s popular Girl & the Goat, an ambitious family-style spot located in the city’s Randolph Restaurant Corridor in the West Loop.
I always scan the online menus before I make a reservation. Pushing past the goat plates, two dishes at Girl & the Goat had this fledgling foodie hooked: crispy duck tongues and wood oven roasted pig face. After a flinch, I promptly decided I’m having both.
These delicacies are inarguably a vegetarian’s writhing apocalypse. I know. We must move onward.
I have of course never had duck tongue. Beef tongue, perhaps. No idea what to anticipate, so I’ll allow the gustatory gurus at Serious Eats explain the specialty:
“Surrounded by a faint hint of meat and papery thin layers of cartilage, duck tongue is predominately a vehicle for juicy pockets of fat. At barely two inches in length, the tongue may seem small and insubstantial, but its flavor is intensely duck-like. When freshly fried, duck tongues are positively addicting with a crisp surface and a creamy, slightly fatty interior that melts in your mouth.”
… becomes this:
Like duck tongue, no appetizing euphemism masks what pig face actually is: the meat and fat sliced off the face of a pig. I may have eaten pig cheeks before, but this is different, a full facial. Again, Serious Eats explains:
“It’s the multitude of harmonized flavors and textures that make the roasted pig face of one my favorite dishes ever. From the succulent wood-fired pig face patties, sweet maple gastrique, and tart tamarind vinaigrette, to the crispy potato sticks and gooey sunnyside-up egg, it’s clear why this is one of Girl & the Goat’s signature dishes.”
… becomes this:
As I momentarily salivate (daub, wipe), it strikes me that both meals are commendable for their use of animal parts that might otherwise, and usually are, thrown out with the beaks and snouts, offal rejects. This is mindful, sustainable cooking, but it’s also, let’s face it, delicious, deeply indulgent cooking, sinful, decadent, irresistible. (It’s a lot like the bone marrow I adore, seen below from my recent Russia trip.)
Right, I haven’t tasted the duck and pig yet — maybe I’ll gag into my linen napkin — but my experiences with exotic, zany foods comprise a solid track record of gastronomical daring and concomitant success. In other words, I enjoy this kind of food, and I’m not only amenable to it, I’m beguiled by it, too.
Omnivorous by nature and choice, I will pursue my culinary escapades for the foreseeable future — that is, a very long time. Vegetarians may scowl and harrumph, and I get it. I can only respond with a lusty chomp and gulp and the thrill of tasting whole new worlds.