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Luang Prabang, Laos: City of Smoke and Mirrors

Buddhist monks out and about in Luang Prabang

He’s about four feet tall and looks like any one of a hundred classic poses of the Lord Buddha. He rests behind bars in an exterior open gallery with a twenty-something female guard sitting at a desk (no guns).  Photos are forbidden. Because Laos’ a Communist nation? No… the statue’s a cultural icon, it’s worth a zillion dollars and the Luang Prabang National Museum would like visitors to buy a postcard. The statue is THE Golden Buddha – the Phra Bang of Luang Prabang, and it’s 90% solid gold. For centuries it sat in an inconspicuous corner of Wat Ho Prabang on the Palace grounds in this city of over 40 Buddhist temples and monasteries until someone noticed it after the 1975 revolution.

the confluence of the Mekong and Nam Kahn Rivers
Royal Palace (Luang Prabang National Museum)

For nearly a thousand years Luang Prabang, in the northern highlands at the confluence of two great rivers, the Nam Kahn and the Mekong, served as capital for the kingdoms of Lang Xang, Luang Prabang and, finally, Laos. The French, under their “protectorate,” built the 1904 Royal Palace (now the National Museum) for the revered national hero Sisavang Vong, King of Luang Phrabāng and Laos for 55 years (1904- 1959). Ironically, in 1975, it was at the same palace that Prince Souphanouvong (the “Red Prince”) arrested his half brother, King Sisavang Vatthana sending him, the Queen and Crown Prince to die in a “reeducation camp.” Prince Souphanouvong became the first President of the Lao People’s Democratic Republic. It’s a much more peaceful city today.

In 1995 Luang Prabang was rightfully declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site and today is the most popular tourist attraction in Laos. The city is gorgeous, at least the old historic core and the stunning surrounding countryside. Luang Prabang is a classic Southeast Asian provincial city and one of the few remaining – villas next to woven bamboo houses, residents cooking in the alleyways on charcoal and wood, aging French colonial buildings and 600 year old Buddhist stupas with monks everywhere, backpackers from Australia and Europe, people in business suits in Toyotas and motor bikes and fisherman throwing nets in the river. For me the preservation of this wonderful collage is what I hope the UNESCO designation will maintain, although there are an increasing number of upscale hotels and amenities geared to the well-heeled Western and Asian tour bus crowd which could alter this reality.

Luang Prabang: people at work
novitiates at work on temple grounds

What to see? Wander into any number of the Buddhist temples and monasteries. At first sight “they all look the same,” but fix your eyes on each one’s decorations – gold leaf stencil on teak wood carvings and walls, enamel and mirrored murals depicting holy texts and everyday life, young novitiate students in saffron robes talking on cell phones while taking a break from temple chores, the beautiful sounds of temple drums and the monk’s devotional chanting several times a day.

(top left) Wat Xieng Thing, 1590, (bottom left) Wat Mai, 1788 (bottom right) Wat Ho Prabang

 Discover the hundreds of Spirit houses with individualistic statements – the elephant manifestation of the god Ghanish next to Japan’s “Miss Kitty,” sticky rice, glasses of water, incense and candles in trees, on walls – all of nature is sacred. Unfortunately, the much vaunted morning ritual of offering food to the monks at dawn has devolved into a mere tourist attraction/photo op. Local people now simply bring food or make cash donations directly at the Temples. (In other areas of Southeast Asia, especially in the rural countryside, this tradition is still strong.)

Temple details (note Miss Kitty in bottom right picture)
view from Mt. Phousi: fires to clean/clear forest combines with humidity

Climb the 350+ steps up Mount Phousie in the center of the Old City passing dozens of Buddha images – the seven daily Buddhas, a magnificent Sleeping Buddha – and a rusting anti-aircraft gun emplacement left over from the Vietnam War era – to the small 1804  That Choms – one of the city’s most revered sites. If lucky, the temple fortune teller will be present. It’s the highest point in Luang Prabang with a  panoramic view of the city and countryside, even if there is a humid haze in the air caused by late winter burning in the surrounding mountains (both controlled burning of underbrush in the teak forests and clearing land for Spring planting). You can purchase, for a pittance, flowers in cone shaped banana leaves, sticky rice and incense as devotional items to leave after your prayers. Women sell pairs of small live birds in bamboo baskets that you carry to the top of the hill and, after saying your prayer,  release from their cage. They will take your prayer to heaven.

That Chomsi (1804) at Mt. Phousi, (bottom left) temple fortune teller
ethnic set menu at TATC Museum

At the base of the Mount Phousie is the small but exquisite museum Traditional Arts and Technology Center. The artful displays detail the ethnic groups and spiritual influences that comprise Laos. The gift shop sells excellent and authentic handmade crafts and will advise as to the best shops in town. The café offers a stunning seven course set menu consisting of classic dishes from all of Lao’s ethnic groups. There were dishes I had not seen on any menu. The cost was $12.50 for 2 people – the menu doesn’t say “for 2,” the Lao’s assume no one person would stuff themselves (don’t even try to eat everything yourself).

Traditional Arts and Technology Center (TATC)

There are numerous eco-tourism companies that offer excursions into the beautiful surrounding hill countryside. The best is Tiger Trails – it seems every company slaps on the moniker “eco-tour” these days so make use of the internet and do some research. There are a host of “made for tourist” attractions in the area that are really not worth your time unless you’re in town for a few weeks – the “Whiskey Village,” the “Silk Village,” the Pac Ou Caves – and simply want a diversion. Whereas the Elephant Village – a non-profit that rescues abused elephants from the lumber industry – is a must see excursion.

scenes of the countryside surrounding Luang Prabang

Luang Prabang is a Mecca for well made high end silks, art, jewelry and furniture representing both traditional northern Lao and contemporary designs (prices are still a fraction of what they’d be in Europe or North America). The best shops are in the compact Old City, which is easy to navigate on foot. Do not purchase antiques since many “antique” stores sell fakes knowing full well it’s next to impossible to remove genuine antiques, and even contemporary fine art, without a difficult to obtain export license for each item.

Morning Market, Luang Prabang

There is the Morning Market (4:00am – Noon) that’s a serious food emporium. Discover hundreds of foods Westerners never would think could be used in the kitchen – I will detail this market in a future blog.  The lively Night Market (5:00 PM – Midnight), unfortunately like so many in Thailand and Cambodia, has devolved into a tourist attraction offering the same old cheaply made clothes, crafts and souvenirs you’ll find in any tourist shop – obviously factory made and, despite labels, probably not even in the country you’re visiting. Yet for prepared street food, the Luang Prabang Night Market is fantastic! One can feast on freshly grilled meats and fish, create a salad using dozens of greens, fresh herbs and produce or add them to savory soups and stews. Along with a refreshing Beer Lao you’ll have a banquet that will cost anywhere from a couple of dollars to maybe $5.00.

Luang Prabang Night Market's prepared foods
View Pavillion Hotel

Accommodations range from $20/night guest houses (many have A/C even at that price) to boutique hotels (fortunately – cross fingers – there are no large chain hotels) surrounded by lush gardens tucked away all over the Old City that range from $55 to $155/night. Many in the $55/65 night range are just as beautiful and comfortable as those at the higher end. It’s not always easy to find these gems on the Net. I did use a good booking site – Agoda – but since hotels subscribe to booking sites it’s hardly a complete list. TripAdvisor is another good source but since it lists only ones reviewed by members, it does not have a complete list as well. My advice for anyone traveling to Southeast Asia is to book a hotel for the start of your stay in each city through a booking site and then check out what’s available. If you are pleased with the booked hotel, inquire if they’ll extend your stay at the same rate – booking sites are always discounted. If not, you can just move down the street. We stayed at The View Pavilion at over $90/night but, although it had a terrific staff, the hotel needed maintenance from its absentee owners. (Following my own advice for a change, in Chiang Mai, Thailand, at The Rimping Village Hotel they willingly extended our stay at Agoda’s discounted rate after they proved to be a mini-paradise – more on that in another blog.) Lao courtesy and concern with customer comfort is so effusive they would be insulted if you did not ask them for help making dinner reservations, advice on excursions and making the arrangements as well as securing a taxi or tuk-tuk and negotiating the fare. Take advantage – it makes them happy.

Tamnak Lao Restaurant: Fish Amok, Purple & White sticky rice, Soup with Vine Leaves, Luang Prabang Salad, Water Buffalo sausage
Restaurant L'Elephant

Laotian cuisine is neither as sweet as Vietnamese nor spicy hot as Thai – although they still love their chilies. This allows the abundant use of basil, cilantro, mint, green onions, garlic, roasted vegetables and dozens of flavorful greens to shine through their masterful dishes complimented by grilled and steamed fish, pork, beef, chicken, frog, prawns and many other forms of protein. Like the rest of Southeast Asia, they use a number of vegetable/herb/meat pastes, freshly made with mortar and pestle, to add additional layers of flavor. Fermented fish sauce, which in my experience the average Westerner finds disgusting, adds subtle flavor to most dishes and was/is a salt substitute. Fish sauce – of which there are many varieties – does smell vile to the Western nose, but when added to food, that smell dissipates and actually results in a slightly sweet under taste. (I will be writing an article on a wonderful all-day cooking class offered by Tamarind restaurant.) Like most Asian dining, a number of dishes should be ordered – depending on the size of the party – with all diners sharing. We found, for our own dining comfort that for two people, three dishes – along with steamed or sticky rice – was enough. One cold salad, one fish/seafood dish and one meat/poultry dish was satisfactory. Soups are usually substantial consisting of noodles, greens and protein and can be part of a main course. It is easy for a vegetarian/vegan to eat well anywhere in Southeast Asia, but don’t expect this to be the norm among locals. Dishes will be served as they are ready not in a Western order (appetizers first followed by the main course, etc.) Two people in even the most expensive restaurants in Luang Prabang would be hard pressed to spend more than $40/couple, and it is easy for most meals to cost less than $10 – $15/couple. (Note: adding a bottle of wine will more than double to triple the cost, so don’t bother unless you can’t live without wine.)

Tamarind Restaurant: Lao appitizers, Pork/ginger/cilantro balls in lemon grass, steamed fish in banana leaf

My top picks for traditional and fusion Lao restaurants in the Old City are Tamarind and Rosella Fusion Café both on the Nam Kahn river front. The Australian/Lao owned Tamarind is probably the best in the city, and it is moderately priced serving imaginative dishes (lunch or dinner for 2 $15 – $30).  Reservations are essential for dinner. The young Lao staff of Rosella Fusion Café serve much better than average traditional Lao dishes at low prices ($10 – $15/couple) while you sit at attractive teak tables surrounded by orchids at the edge of the high banks overlooking the Nam Kahn. Tamnak Lao, on Sisavangvong Road (the main street) in a classic stucco and wood Lao structure offers tasty traditional Lao dishes, also at moderate prices, while Joma coffee shop on the Mekong side river road has great French coffee and imaginative thin-crust pizzas. Ignore most hotel restaurants. Although many are in attractive surroundings, they serve food geared to the tourist palate – mediocre – at high prices (unless you really crave your Angus beef steak).

Rosella Fusion Cafe: minced pork & cilantro, Luang Prabang salad, squid with chilies

There are excellent French restaurants in this Communist nation where road signs are still written in Lao and French, bilingual schools are common and the French government funds many projects. L’ Elephant is in an elegant art-deco building offering classic French and French Indochina cuisine at prices in the very high end. Unfortunately, it’s become popular with tour groups as well. Café Ben Vat Sene (my favorite) has the feel of a French bistro in the “colonial” tropics – which it is – and too small for tour groups. Under the slowly moving ceiling fans, sitting at rustic tables with brightly colored Lao fabric napkins and placemats, eating such classic French country fare as Pommes de Terre Savoyard (au gratin potatoes with smoked ham) and freshly made Tarte au Citron (lemon tart), don’t be surprised if you conjure images of Noel Coward, Somerset Maugham and Jean d’Estray at the next table enjoying an absinthe. Orchids, the tropical evening and fine food do that to you – give in.

Café Ben Vat Sene

The Three Reincarnations of Vientiane

Modern Laos - old and new

The baritone sounds of the giant drums resonate calling monks to prayer. Soft chanting can be heard in the stillness of pre-dawn. In the near pitch blackness dozens of men and women jog, walk and exercise on modern machines one sees in any American gym except these are free and in the park. In front of the Vientiane Times, men are stacking rolls of the daily newspaper on their motor bikes for delivery. French bakeries are opening for business. There is barely a car in sight on the streets at 6:00 AM. The air is still cool and moist before the sun raises the winter temperature to 90 degrees (F) by midday. Welcome to the reincarnated city of Vientiane, capital of the Lao People’s Democratic Republic

 

 

everyday life: fresh charcoal, knife sharpeners, bottle cap checkers, tuk-tuk cab, bocci ball and bamboo construction ladders

 

 

 

 

martyred Prince Anouvong (King Chaiya Sethathirath V: 1767 – 1829) last ruler of the Kingdoms of Vientiane and Lan Xang.

On the South Korean financed and constructed 2.5 mile long Mekong River Promenade/flood control wall (completion by 2013) stands the largest political monument in Laos – a Pathet Lao leader? A vitriolic monument to Western imperialism? No…it’s a memorial to an early 19th century national hero, the martyred Prince Anouvong (King Chaiya Sethathirath V: 1767 – 1829) last ruler of the Kingdoms of Vientiane and Lan Xang.  He led a failed war against their enemy, Siam (the Kingdom of Thailand) who had occupied Vientiane, and he died in captivity.

a small sample of Buddhist Wats in Vientaine (bottom center) prayer at That Dam - the revered centuries old Black Stupa - (bottom right) sticky rice offering on a protective naga (snake)

After 400 years as the on-again/off-again capital of the Kingdom of Lan Xang (Land of a Million Elephants), the city of Vientiane was utterly destroyed in 1827 by Thailand and remained a wasteland until the arrival of the French in the 1890’s. They rebuilt Vientiane as the administrative capital under their colonial “protectorate” and many structures retain early 20th century French colonial designs. Where are the memorials to the 1975 Communist revolution? They exist in only two places – the former Royal Palace (National Museum) and at the former American compound of the USAID/CIA outside of the city that became the home of Kaysone Phomvihane (1920–1992) co- leader of the Pathet Lao along with the “Red Prince” Souphanouvong (brother of the last King of Laos).  Thus is the complex history of this beautiful country with its stunningly friendly people, as well as an indication that modern Lao is still the traditional, conservative Buddhist culture that has been its history for over a thousand years.

Vientiane, like so many Southeast Asian cities, is undergoing an economic and building revival unheard of since the end of Western domination (the Vietnam War) in 1975. It still retains vestiges of a relaxed colonial town that has to deal with tropical weather which rarely gets cooler than 85 (F) on any day – and always humid. I was told that the number of cars has doubled in the last three years and building cranes can be seen in numerous locations. Chinese, Vietnamese, South Korean and European investment money is pouring into this Buddhist nation.

His Majesty Sisavang Vong, King of Luang Phrabāng 1904-46 and King of Laos 1946-1959)

Capitalism in a Communist nation? Let’s get real. Before the creation of the unified Kingdom of Laos, after the French withdrawal, under His Majesty Sisavang Vong, ( King of Luang Phrabāng 1904-46 and King of Laos 1946-1959) – another celebrated national hero –   the nation we know today as Laos – drop the “s” and say “Lao” – was a feudal society of several kingdoms who pledged loose allegiance to the Kings of Lan Xang and, later, to the Kings of Luang Phrabang. The monumental statue on the grounds of Luang Phrabang’s National Museum (former Royal Palace) depicts the King’s right hand in a classic Buddha position for peace and the left hand holding the 1946 constitution.

infrastrusture? Repair?
a few of the many Spirit Houses in front of shops, homes and a pizza restaurant

The current Lao People’s Democratic Republic is not much different, with many of the same families in power, except allegiance is to the Central Committee that resides in Vientiane. Over 90% of all Laotians are self-employed small business entrepreneurs and farmers and always have been. Buddhism and its teachings still remain the greatest cultural and political influence within the nation. There are more Buddhist temples and monasteries than I can count – independent of  government influence –  and travel within Southeast Asia for Laotians is unencumbered. The excessivly bureaucratic government is considered incompetent and government workers have decent middle class jobs – just like the former Royal Courts. There is a visible lack of infrastructure planning in this developing country.

Pets - which are not eaten

All of this makes Laos, Vientiane and the ancient northern capital of Luang Phrabang (a UNESCO World Heritage Site – and another blog) a fascinating country. Laos cuisine is wonderful. Less sweet than Vietnamese and with fewer hot peppers than Thai, the dozens of flavors from herbs, meats and spices shine. This will upset vegans who believe Asians are basically vegetarians and are eating more meat due to the influence of McDonalds, but Laotians have always been large meat/fish eaters. I was told by numerous chefs that currently more vegetable dishes are becoming part of the cuisine because of Western vegetarian trends! Laotians eat EVERYTHING – beef, pork, duck, frogs, rats, some dog, river fish, shell fish, all the innards and the blood – both liquid and congealed. (OK, please don’t stop reading – I won’t add recipes.) But they lavish love on their pet dogs and cats – they don’t eat their pets – unlike other Southeast Asian cultures (although this is rarely a part of the modern urban diet).

(Top) fresh roasted peanuts, smoked ducks, grilled fish in rock salt, frogs (Center) fish for stew, cockles, prawns and a variety of deserts (Bottom) produce, French bread, strips of Water Buffalo and an ivy-like vine leaves used for salads and soups

Life is on the street and in the markets – typical of Southeast Asia. The “morning markets” are primarily food (4:00 AM – to mid day.) “night markets” tend to be crafts, clothing and prepared foods and “weekend markets” are a great mixture. At any market you will find fresh frogs and the latest Apple I-Pod – it’s “one stop shopping” – the American dream…

La Silapa: Cream of Pumpkin Soup, White fish with Laos vegetables, salad with a lime dressing, tamerind sorbet, ginger cakes in creme anglaise

Inexpensive restaurants abound and spill onto the streets. Lunch or dinner for 2 will rarely cost more than US$15 – unless you stuff yourself. A large 3/4 litre bottle of Beer Lao – a pleasant lager – costs $1.25. A few outstanding restaurants exist. The best being La Silapa, owned and operated by a French Canadian with a menu that is an excellent fusion of French and Lao flavors. Lunch for two is less than $30. (Note: wines are expensive anywhere in Southeast Asia. Costs are frequently more than the entire meal.) Nos serves excellent sushi at prices that make a Westerner believe they were in a Sushi nirvana – about $.25/each with salad and miso soup. There are a number of pizza restaurants using wood fired brick ovens and make terrific paper thin crusts. For genuine Lao cuisine eat on the street. Look for the most popular, crowded street restaurants. The rapid turnover means the food is fresh and has not lingered in the heat – what, no ice to keep the food fresh? Get real – I’ve yet to get even the slighest stomach problem.

Nos

Poverty, as judged by Western standards, is the norm for most people – especially in the rural countryside – in all of Southeast Asia, but not starvation. For a visitor from the “First World,” luxury is quite affordable – beautiful hotels for less than US$70/night, restaurant meals for 2 with drinks for less than $25 (and this is the average high end.) A person/couple can travel for less than a third of that amount or waste money on  ultra luxury accommodations that will run in excess of $650/night. Yet if peace and stability remain in this fabled land they just might achieve the Lord Buddha’s dream of the Middle Path – neither lose one’s self in sensual pleasure nor deny one’s self the gifts of living.

The Floating Villages of Tonle Sap

A floating village on a lake, awakening each morning to the chirping birds and the dawn reflecting on serene water surrounding one’s dwelling. Casting your net to gather fish for breakfast and buying fruit from a passing market boat laden with produce – the dream of an unfettered life. Yet  the  Floating Villages on Tonle Sap  are less romantic as they are a last resort.

The great lake of Tonle Sap is the largest body of fresh water within Southeast Asia. Since 1994 it has been a UNESCO World Biosphere Site and a major world bird sanctuary. In Khmer, Tonle Sap means “large fresh water river” since it’s both a commercially important river system and an immense lake connecting Siem Reap in the north with Cambodia’s capital Phnom Penh to the south.

It is the color of mud. On a typical hot, muggy day when the humidity shimmers in the air, both lake and sky meld on the horizon. I had the sensation of floating in a beige bubble.

The villagers are mainly Vietnamese – refugees from wars – and other displaced social outcasts from the Cambodian hills. They live in six floating villages scattered around the lake eking out a living fishing and selling trinkets to tourists like me. Comments from visitors in many travel guides and internet sites are either horrified at the “waste of their travel time” or, like me, stunned that life actually survives in such conditions.

Tonle Sap is teeming with life – alligators, dozens of fish, poisonous snakes and enough parasites to populate billions of human bodies. The water is fetid with raw sewage and we’re told to keep our mouths closed so that we don’t ingest spray from the boat’s wake while it’s in motion. We do as we’re told.

Yet this is home to thousands of people. Mini-market boats laden with everything from cans of Coke to fresh produce float past. A floating pen holds several fat pigs. The Catholic Church is a modest floating blue painted building. There’s a school and a huge floating gym complete with basketball court.

Babies are washed in the stinking lake water. Several floating gardens are anchored to the lake bottom and some houses have Martha Stewart touches with bright tropical plants in contrast to the gray/brown of the floating huts.

For tourists there is even a floating cafe, museum and gift store. Even before we dock, we’re surrounded by boats that look like they could barely float no less contain the mothers clutching babies begging for money and children wrapped in snakes for photo ops. It’s well rehearsed but genuinely wretched and dirty and smelly.

Exotic items are for sale – crocodile skins, bottles of  Vietnamese rice liquor with small pythons and scorpions floating inside  and crocodile jerky.

Rice liquor with python and scorpion – strictly a male elixir…

You can buy beer and ice cream as well. The museum contains displays of live crocodiles, large river fish, a mainstay of the Cambodian diet and quite delicious properly prepared, and ingenious fish and eel traps created over the centuries.

fish and eel traps
tourist boat

So why visit? Because you have to, not out of sympathy or prurient interest but human experience. Just seeing Angkor Wat or dodging the hordes of tourists and tuk-tuks in Siem Reap are not the totality of this ancient kingdom. Yet in contrast to the mud of Tonle Sap the lush green of adjoining rice paddies is soothing eye candy.

When you go:

It is best to arrange for  private certified guides for exploring Tonle Sap and Ankor Wat. Your accommodations will help with arrangements. Guides are well educated in the lore of the region.

Bangkok: What defines a fabled city?

 

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What defines a fabled city? Age? Diversity of cultures? Tolerance of differences? Quality of life? Art and architecture? By using any of these terms I’m not sure if “fabled” is a moniker that can be applied to Bangkok. Fascinating certainly is proper terminology.

Bangkok is young and chaotic. Founded only in 1782 (Philadelphia, USA, is a century older) after the Burmese destroyed the truly fabled capital city of Ayutthaya, the site of Bangkok was chosen for strategic purposes – protection from the Thai’s arch-enemy the Burmese. Like Venice, it was marsh land surrounded by rivers. The king immediately constructed a system of canals creating a virtual moat around the city – and like Venice the elevation of the city is sinking.

It’s a city of contrast; not only rich and poor but architectural styles as well – condo skyscrapers next to river shanties, 19th century shopping districts and modern malls, dubious electrical infrastructure, scorching heat/ humidity (even in “winter”), cooling parks, trees, flowers everywhere and exquisite topiary.

Would you believe Bangkok’s a clean city? Believe it ! Trash on the streets is virtually non-existent despite the constant and lively street life. Legions of street sweepers and building maintenance workers constantly sweep up even leaves and fallen flower petals.

Sky Train and traffic

Traffic is horrendous! I spent one hour in a taxi to travel less than 4 miles – of course the fare was modest and the cabs are mostly new, comfortable air-conditioned Toyotas. Yet for less I could have taken a Tuk-Tuk – a motorcycle pulling an open air covered wagon – or, for even less, rode on the back of an orange shirted motorcycle “taxi.”

Yet, built within the past decade, the ultra modern, ultra clean and comfortable Sky Train elevated and the subway system will whisk one around the central core of the city (about one-third of Bangkok) for less than taking the average city bus in the USA. Despite the chaotic traffic I’ve yet to see a dented car.

(top left) shrine in a shopping mall, (center) Buddha statues for sale, (right) Holy Rosary Catholic Church, (bottom left) Temple of the Sleeping Buddha

There are over 35,000 Buddhist temples (Wat) in Thailand, 300,000 Buddhist monks, shrines everywhere – street corners, in malls, in front of every house, in parks, restaurants and hotels with burning candles, incense, flowers and food offerings. Just about every other world religion is present as well. In the Robinson Department Store just down the street from my hotel is a Muslim prayer room.

Shoes and hats are never worn in Thai houses of worship, or, for that matter, in any Thai home. The dirt of the outside is left outside. Floors are immaculate – not a speck of dust.

street life: (top left) eggs roasting on charcoal, (bottom left) street vendor dentures maker

Everything is available from street vendors, especially food. The Thai’s seem to eat constantly yet I have not seen a single person you could call even slightly overweight. For a Westerner, the cost of food is embarrassingly cheap. In the pictures below, the sushi and superbly grilled trout, plus a rice salad and miso soup in a small nondescript Japanese restaurant in a shopping mall cost  less than a Big Mac in the States.

In the three days I have wandered the city I have experienced nothing less than the utmost courtesy whether in a tourist attraction, on the Sky Train or the street. I have yet to see any public display of anger or bad behavior. The police are friendly and helpful – what a contrast to so many countries.

Children seem to be revered and the photos below sums up my impression of Thai friendliness – figures of laughing children are everywhere, especially in the gardens of the Wats (temples) and street the vendor’s baby in the crib is cooled by a battery-powered fan. Bangkok may be intolerably hot and humid, chaotic and perhaps not “fabled,” but it has a more valuable treasure – it’s friendly.

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43 Days: The Things I’ll Carry

 “The things they carried…P-38 can openers, pocket knives, heat tabs, wristwatches, dog tags, mosquito repellent, chewing gum, candy, cigarettes, salt tablets, packets of Kool-Aid, lighters, matches, sewing kits…they carried diseases…malaria and dysentery…lice and ringworm and leeches…and the land itself…the endless march, village to village, without purpose, nothing won or lost. They carried all the emotional baggage of men who might die. Grief, terror, love, longing – these were intangibles…They carried their own lives.”

from The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien (Haughton Mifflin, 1990)

It’s been a quarter century since peace finally came to the  lands of Southeast Asia. For centuries it was part of the fabled “spice route” between the eastern and western worlds, yet in the 20th century more than twice the tonnage of bombs were dropped on Indochina than in all of World War II. I’ll be leaving Sunday to spend 43 days in Thailand, Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam. I’ll have no worries or fears, unlike the brave but misled soldiers of that ill-fated war.

For me who narrowly escaped experiencing the horror of those past times, it feels odd that I’ll enjoy first class hotels, renowned cuisine, stunning scenery, cities and sites that have survived millennia of wars and legendary hospitality. From all my research of the past six months in preparation for this trip I expect to see, or even feel, little evidence (except in museums) of last century’s strife. As a chef, historian and travel writer I’m preparing myself for a flood of experiences that will test my ability to process this trip with all five senses – especially taste. Foods that few westerners ever have the opportunity to see, no less taste, await me, with fusion cuisine developed over centuries of east-west contact – durian cheesecake anyone?

Oddly, I’ll carry some of the same objects listed by Tim O’Brien – can opener (cork screw in my case), pocket knife, wristwatch, mosquito repellant, bottled water, sewing kit and malaria pills (one-a-day for 51 days). I’ll have to still be mindful of bed bugs – carrying bed bug repellant (fortunately I’m  already aware of what they look, and feel, like.) Lice, leeches, dysentery are all still present – this is the tropics – which means swimming in lakes and rivers is out. I’ll carry my ignorance of customs – no pointing either with fingers or, especially, with one’s foot. I’ll be ignorant of the languages. For the first time in my life as a traveller I’ll be hopelessly unaware of what anyone is saying (with the exception of tourism workers that speak English). Language will become music, much nicer than the karaoke sounds my research says is the favorite throughout all four countries.

The best thing I’ll carry? A sense of wonder.

My first blog, from Bangkok, will post Tuesday, 8 February.

New York, New Year, 3 Restaurants

What am I saying? I had a pleasant, imaginative, moderately priced lunch in a major urban museum’s cafe? An oxymoran….0r lack of oxygen….?

Petrie Court Cafe & Wine Bar

Just off the multi-storey glass atrium of the striking American Wing at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, is the airy, glass walled dining space occupied by the Petrie Court Cafe & Wine Bar. My experience in most museum cafes is to forgo the over priced, microwaved offerings in favor of a coffee, but the menu at Petrie is neither overpriced nor nuked.

Petrie Court Cafe & Wine Bar, the MET, New York City

Perhaps the Pennsylvania Dutch were Italian, because Petrie’s pappardelle noodles (top left) are as rich as anything eaten in a Lancaster farmhouse. Tossed with a light buttery cream sauce, earthy sautéed wild mushrooms and spinach with a garnish of spinach puree, it was an inspired pasta dish ($17.95.) The Cream of Pumpkin soup (bottom left)was velvety and light – not the thick vegetable puree served in so many restaurants. A flavorful stock underpinned the soup, but the aroma of the roasted pumpkin seed oil garnish raised this common dish to a new level of flavor ($8.95). Salads should delight the eye and the taste buds. (bottom right) Spicy arugula and mixed greens tossed in a light citrus vinaigrette with slightly salty manchego cheese, pears, bright fresh pomegranate seeds and deep red pomegranate puree garnish accomplished the task nicely ($9.95). Fresh sourdough rolls accompanied the meal. Most wines were in the $8 – $9.00/glass range. Despite a busy lunch time, service was smooth and professional. Interestingly, there are few restaurants of any type within walking distance of the MET in its wealthy Upper East Side location, making the Petrie Cafe & Wine Bar a welcome, and much-needed, addition to the neighborhood.

Lower East Side, near Orchard Street, (left) Katzs Deli, since 1888

Little Giant cafe, on the corner of Broome and Orchard Streets, certainly would not have existed in 1870’s Lower East Side New York –  or even 1970’s. Not that eating establishments didn’t exist back then. Taverns and street vendors have flourished from the city’s founding nearly 400 years ago. In the picture above, left side, you can see the sign for famous Katzs Deli serving the (then immigrant) Jewish community since 1888. Now an institution, but still terrific, its 21st century clientele is an ever-increasing affluent population of “post-immigrant” residents. Just a block down from the Tenement Museum, Little Giant is a laid back cafe in a renovated, exposed brick store front in an early 20th century Lower East Side building. In earlier days maybe it was a cloth store? It’s small space – seats 20/25 –  is filled even at 3:00 pm on a weekday and keeps the small staff busy. The menu is brief but items are freshly made so be patient. The Angus Beef burger was fresh ground and grilled medium rare as requested ($9.95).  A “little giant” portion of their own Mac and Cheese was excellent. Like Petrie’s Pumpkin Soup, Little Giant’s Baked Macaroni and Cheese eschewed thickeners and relied on a well seasoned, but medium, cheese sauce to bind the macaroni and garnished with a nice crust of browned bread crumbs for texture ($7.00/$14.00). A well seasoned “salad” of sautéed kale with oyster mushrooms was tasty and nutritious for anyone wondering about all that red meat ($9.95). The bar served a nice selection of micro beers on tap and bottle, wines by the glass and a great Bloody Mary with horseradish-infused vodka ($10.00). With its large store front windows, it was pleasant leisurely having lunch while watching the bustle which is always New York.

Sante Fe Restaurant

Finding imaginative Southwest American cuisine in New York is as difficult as in Albuquerque. Face it, real Southwest/Tex-Mex/Mexican-American is comfort food – like pasta with red sauce for Italians. To find chefs that create new dishes using old techniques is always nice and not common in the commercial world of the food industry.

Sante Fe, 73, West 71st Street, in the leafy but happening Upper West Side of New York, serves recognizable southwest dishes yet tweak the recipes giving them new life. Citrus and herb marinated thin-sliced grilled skirt steak is wrapped in a tortilla and served with a micro green salad ($12.95). A fresh lump-meat crab cake topped with a poached egg and covered with a roasted smoky tomato sauce is a flavorful variation on a brunch standard, with a green salad and rice pilaf ($14.95). Excellent house salsa accompanied corn chips and the house Margarita ($8.00 or $11.00) was citrus fresh and tequilla rich – not a mix. The restaurant itself is a relaxing space in light airy southwest peach, art, a fireplace and good acoustics (quiet!)

New York can be expensive, but it doesn’t have to be. It’s easy to find great food in this “world capital” at prices most people tolerate at their local shopping mall’s food court!

Upper West Side, 70's, looking downtown, New York City

Published: 2 Articles/2 Journals

I have two articles on Argentine themes that are now published on-line by respected travel journals.

Rio Parana from Casa Quiroga & bamboo maze

Horatio Quiroga’s San Ignacio: Home to Madmen and Missionaries appears in the British journal Hack Writers  http://www.hackwriters.com. It has been publishing for 11 years and is associated with the University of Portsmouth, England.

               (I am posting some photos not printed with the articles)

 

(Top)model of San Ignacio Mini, stone carving detail (Bottom) ruins of church facade, on-going restoration work

 

 

 

 

 

 
 
 
 
 
 

 

 

(Top) native Guarani, ruins of mission housing (Bottom) irrigation canal, school and countryside

 

 

 

 

 

 

(Top) Quiroga's motor bike & first house, (Bottom) interior and exterior of second house)

 and

Global Writes, the 54 year old journal of the International Food, Wine and Travel Writers Association (http://global-writes.com/ ) published Sweet Fire in Ushuaia, my article on the incomparable food enterprise Dulce Fuego in Ushuaia, Argentina run by 20-something-year-old chefs.

staff of Dulce Fuego, grilled Patagonian Trout, and Ushuaia, Argentina (the southernmost city on Earth)

Affordable Manhattan – an oxymoron? (Part 1)

fireworks, Central Park, 6 November 2010

The unexpected fireworks were free, in celebration of the 2010 New York Marathon that would be run the following day. We had just stepped out of Pasha Restaurant on West 71st Street, when the booming commenced. It was an unexpected end to a pleasant Turkish dinner, one of the great cuisines. The interior of Pasha is comfortable with soft lighting and well modulated background music. From 5:00 to 7:00 PM the $23.95, 3-course, prix fixe menu is well thought out attracting repeat customers with five choices from the main menu (not the boredom of so many prix fixe selections.) My wife had the prix fixe with a salad, Piya (Cannellini beans tossed with sweet onions, scallions, parsley, tomatoes, and extra virgin olive oil) with warm flaky rolls to absorb the herbs. Alabalik Tava followed (Boneless brook trout dusted with cornmeal and pan seared). Dessert was a wedge of perfect baklava – (non-syrupy) –  spice, nut and honey infused pyhllo pastry. For $24.95, I had the fish entrée of the day: a whole, wood-grilled Chilean Sea Bass.  Its moist white meat was encased by its crispy, herbed skin. Side dishes were crisp, steamed vegetables and an herb-infused rice pilaf. It was not wise to arrive on a Saturday night without a reservation – even if it was only 5:30 PM. Yet Pasha was gracious and had a table that was not booked until 7:30 PM, but I would recommend reservations since the dinning room was full by 6:30.

At West 78th’s  Drilling Company Theater, we attended a moving and jarring new play, superbly acted and produced by this award-winning 11-year old company. Eric Sanders’ Reservoir is a heart wrenching look at the psychological detritus of war – the “survivors”. At $18/ticket, the Drilling Company proves that top theater is found everywhere in New York before it moves on to $200/ticket on Broadway. Saturday evening’s dinner, theater (and fireworks) cost less than $130/couple.

(Bottom left): beer flights w/schnapps, (center & right): "boots" of beer at Lederhosen

Actually, Lederhosen Bierhaus is not nearly as kitsch as their home web site suggests. On Grove Street, off Christopher Street in the trendy East Village, Lederhosen has the atmosphere of a neighborhood bierhaus. In my two visits, over a six month period, I’ve yet to see any staff wear either lederhosen or  rhinestone decorated milk-maid dresses. Of course, I’ve yet to order the decidedly college-fraternity sized boot of beer. In smaller, more manageable quantities, their superb selections on-tap, and in bottles, set the stage for equally authentic Bavarian bierhaus food. Main courses ranged from the classic Schnitzel to sautéed herring fillets with mushroom sauce (I had that).  Each generous portion comes with a variety of sides, minimum four  – green and red cabbage slaw, potato salads, sautéed potatoes, bean salads, spatzzle. (average entrée $10 – 19)  Soft, aromatic, in-house pretzels are served with german mustards ($3.00)  along with a variety of wurst on crispy rolls with toppings ($5.00), appetizers for pickle and herring lovers ($5.00) and generous soups and sandwiches ($5.00- $10.00) round out a menu to be enjoyed in a convivial atmosphere that’s hard to top – unless you just really don’t like German food, but then…you can always try their flights of beer (8, I believe) with shots of schnapps.

On our first visit to Lederhosen we were with an Austrian friend who was impressed with the quality of this everyday German pub faire. In the picture above the three dishes are from left: Boneless Herring Fillets with a choice of sauces ($10), Currywurst grilled beef sausage ($5.00) and  Wiener Schnitzel ($17) Ah yes, those are lederhosen hanging from the ceiling (top left). The restaurant has three small rooms that fill quickly for lunch and dinner. Reservations are not accepted except for special occasions, but waiting times are typically not long, and you can always have a beer while you stand in the social bar entrance area.

a rare 1930's WPA reverse painted glass mural (protected with a plexiglass cover)

Marie’s Crisis Cafe, 59 Grove Street, is oddly unique in bridging a number of Lower Manhattan social stages. The below street level bar is dark as should be expected when in an 18th century building  – once home to Tom Paine, where he penned his famous revolutionary essays The Crisis Papers.  It went down-hill after that going from bar/brothel to worse until Prohibition (by the 1920’s it was known as Marie’s). After Prohibition’s 1930’s end, Marie’s somehow qualified for a stunning WPA funded reverse painted glass wall mural depicting both the French and American Revolutions, launching a new era.

On Grove Street just off Christopher and 7th Ave, (and only 4 or 5 blocks from the Lederhosen) this area of the Village was always known for being largely gay, hip and culturally cutting edge. For over 35 years the latest reincarnation of Marie’s Crises Cafe has witnessed the neighborhood’s transformation from grunge to designer chic. Yet Marie’s Crises Cafe has remained a relaxing, straight-friendly,  singing piano bar and neighborhood hangout. My wife, friends and I have spent several evenings enjoying the ongoing concert with professional theater pianist playing at the separate piano bar. The pianists of the evening have terrific voices and encyclopedic musical theater repertoire, but its the participation of patrons that take Marie’s to a different level. We’re not talking karaoke here. Regular patrons at Marie’s are often the seasoned professional as well as the young aspiring male or female stage singers.  There is more standing room than sitting room and the bar is basic but inexpensive ($6 – $7/beer and $8 – $10/shots and drinks). Yet there’s no cover for this top-notch entertainment.

Between Lederhosen Bierhaus and Marie’s Crisis piano bar, a Friday evening in Manhattan’s Village for two, with dinner, entertainment and drinks cost us  less than $100.00

Lower Manhattan from the Staten Island Ferry

We were staying with a friend on Staten Island, a pleasant, free, 20 minute ferry ride that passes  Governor’s Island, the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island, but it’s viewing Manhattan at night that’s magical. Staten Island’s an article in itself, but one restaurant stands out, amidst a sea of mediocrity.

(Top) Oysters Rockefeller, Rack of Lamb, Seafood Stew, (Bottom) Seafood bake, antique Italian glass chandelier, and Gumbo

We had Sunday dinner at Bayou Restaurant, 1072 Bay Street, in the middle of a nondescript commercial strip. Yet there’s nothing nondescript about the execution of its Louisiana inspired menu. My wife, a New Orleans native was impressed with the Cajun Seafood stew, our friend’s Seafood bake and my rack of lamb –  all with Cajun spices and Louisiana’s French/Spanish inspired sauces. Dinner per person, with wine and tip, for 3 was $136.00 ($46/per person). Everything else we did that day of the Marathon was free(no, we didn’t run…now if it was a hike…).

True, we spent the weekend at a friend’s apartment, but before the invitation, I had planned to use some rewards points for two-nights at a first class Manhattan hotel that, without points, would have cost $600 for the weekend. Responsible use of travel reward  credit cards can result in significant savings on future trips.

For a bit over $350/couple we had dinner and entertainment for three weekend days, two nights, plus subway fares on the city’s efficient, renovated system. Manhattan on a budget? Actually, no – Manhattan on the smarts. With a little reading/skimming – New York Times  (paper or on-line), New Yorker magazine and blogs – it’s easy to create a list of favorites.

window poster on office building on Madison Ave.

There’s nothing like New York…at least to visit for a weekend.

“Don’t put Cheez Whiz on my Gingerbread”

I didn’t say that. It came from a Facebook exchange…no more explanation. Yet it got me thinking about this ubiquitous American “food” and the human love for cheese.

There are thousands of cheese varieties on Earth – that’s no exaggeration. France alone certifies over 400 different cheeses. We’ve been making cheese for at least 10,000 years and I’m sure a simple search will produce just as many recipes. Cheese turns highly perishable milk from cows, goats, sheep and buffalo (I’m sure there must be a few other animals…koala?) into products that are preserved for years.

We love its creamy texture, ok parmesan isn’t creamy.  If most fastidious, ultra sanitized Americans actually knew what went into cheese over the centuries it most likely would cause the industry’s total collapse, so let’s just make ignorance bliss. Needless to say, we spend billions of dollars on cheeses each year.

Then why in 1911 would a Swiss, Walter Gerber, apply science to create a food – processed cheese? Perhaps Michigan State University has the answer.

“Processed cheese is made from natural cheeses that may vary in degree of sharpness of flavor. Natural cheeses are shredded and heated to a molten mass. The molten mass of protein, water and oil is emulsified during heating with suitable emulsifying salts to produce a stable oil-in-water emulsion. Depending on the desired end use, the melted mixture is then reformed and packaged into blocks, or as slices, or into tubs or jars. Processed cheeses typically cost less than natural cheeses; they have longer shelf-life, and provide for unlimited variety of products.” https://www.msu.edu/~mdr/vol14no2/ustunol.html

Basically if you can make it, why not? Yet it took American marketing savvy to change the perception of cheese for generations of kids.  James Kraft was granted a patent for the process in 1916, and in 1927 he purchased the recipe for Velveeta, a cheap and easy food that brought comfort to many during the austere days of the Great Depression.  The early 1950’s brought a real revolution with the invention of Cheez Whiz and sliced American Cheese. Processed cheese entered middle class bridge and dinner parties throughout the post-war suburban boom, not to mention millions of lunch boxes.

Yet it wouldn’t be long before science did it again with the 1966 introduction by Nabisco of Snack Mate, Cheez Whiz in an aerosol can (and Spain’s Ferran Adria thought he invented molecular gastronomy). After Nabisco’s merger with Kraft we know this gourmet item as Easy Cheese. (I once had a catering client specifically ask for Easy Cheese on crackers as hors d’oeuvres).

Processed cheese, especially Cheez Whiz, has a fiercely loyal following. Here in Philadelphia there is no more evidence than two monumental debates (1) who invented the Philly Cheese Steak, and (2) is it best with provolone, American Cheese slices or Cheez Whiz. Both Cheez Whiz and Pat’s Steaks seem to win, but please, if you disagree – meaning you buy from his relatives that own Gino’s Steaks across the street, don’t put a contract out on me…

Here’s the recipe for 4 servings from Philadelphia’s Pat’s King of Steaks, 1237 E. Passyunk Ave
Philadelphia, PA 19147-5060 (215) 468-1547

Prep Time: 8 minutes 

Cook Time: 8 minutes 

Total Time: 16 minutes

Ingredients:

  • 32 oz. thin sliced rib eye or eye roll steak
  • 6 T soya bean oil
  • Cheez Whiz, recommended
  • 4 crusty Italian rolls
  • 1 large Spanish onion
  • Optional: sweet green and red peppers sautéed in oil
  • Optional: mushrooms sautéed in oil

Preparation:

Heat an iron skillet or a non-stick pan over medium heat. Add 3 tablespoons of oil to the pan and sauté the onions to desired doneness. Remove the onions, then add the remaining oil and sauté the slices of meat quickly on both sides.

While the meat is cooking, melt the Cheez Whiz® in a double boiler or in the microwave. Once the meat is done, place 8 oz. of the meat into the rolls. Add onions, and pour the Cheez Whiz® over top. Garnish with hot or fried sweet peppers, mushrooms and ketchup.

Vache qui rit.png

It’s not just Americans that like processed cheese, even the French have The Laughing Cow!

In Canada, Quebec did not create a distinctive processed cheese but came close. Poutine has become a beloved national dish that I have never been able to bring myself to eat. Poutine is traditionally a combination of fresh cheese curds, a light gravy made from chicken, veal or turkey stock poured over hot French fries. What are cheese curds? At the very start of making natural cheese, rennet is combined with warm milk and allowed to rest. Shortly, the milk solids separate from the whey. Those milk solids are the curds. The average person would be most familiar with fresh curds when eating dry cottage cheese or mozzarella. In Canada, fresh packaged cheese curds are available in many grocery stores. For me, it’s the gravy part of poutine that puts me off. So if you want to make poutine, put fresh, hot French fries on a plate, top with the fresh curds and then the hot gravy. Serve immediately.

Whatever you do, please do not put any of this on George Washington’s favorite dessert: (I think it may be a federal crime…)

Colonial Gingerbread

Ingredients:

2 cups all-purpose flour

1 egg

1 cup molasses 1 teaspoon baking soda

3/4 cup buttermilk 1 teaspoon ginger

1/2 cup sugar 1 teaspoon cinnamon

1/2 cup softened butter 1/2 teaspoon salt

powdered sugar

Directions:

Preheat oven to 325 F. Grease and flour 9″ square baking pan.

Into large bowl, measure all ingredients except powdered sugar.

With mixer at low speed, beat until blended, constantly scraping bowl. Increase speed to   medium and continue beating for 3 minutes.

Pour batter into pan and bake 1 hour or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Cool completely on wire rack. Sprinkle top with powdered sugar.

 

Leave the Cheez Whiz for the kids.

4 Cities 5 Restaurants

Houston, Seattle, New York and Philadelphia
TOP: Houston and Seattle BOTTOM: New York and Philadelphia

I have two reasons to travel: explore and eat.  I can accomplish this goal in my own hometown or 14,000’ in the Andes. Add an interesting dish or a great market, an elegant restaurant or a hot plate in a hostel and I’m the proverbial happy traveler.

Pappadeaux at Houston Intercontinental Airport

I’ve had the opportunity to explore Houston airport (George Bush Intercontinental) over a dozen times in the past couple of years making flight connections. Airport food, in general, is barely a cut above airline food and it’s over-priced. Yet occasionally there is a surprise.  Pappadeaux, on concourse E, although part of a corporate chain, does manage to present Cajun/Louisiana style food that even my New Orleans born wife thinks is pretty good. In the past I’ve sampled lots on their menu including good Asian sushi type rolls, burgers and imaginative entrée salads. Portions are generous, the atmosphere is congenial – you forget you’re in an airport – and it has a lively bar scene. On my last visit just a few weeks ago, I had three sautéed soft shell crabs on a large bed of dirty rice. I’d never had dirty rice before and it was a nice combination of nutty/spicy, although my wife said it could have been more seasoned,  but this is Cajun/Louisiana for the general public. My wife’s crab cakes were all crab held together with a crisp coating that had been lightly sautéed. The crab flavor was fresh, but we both agreed they lacked any distinctive seasoning (and she makes excellent Cajun crab cakes). It was served on top of an odd lemon white wine sauce with small crawfish that did not add to the dish, especially since it was served with shoestring potatoes –  an odd choice. Dirty Rice would have been a more appropriate accompaniment, with or without the sauce, and it would have been interesting if the crawfish had been in the crab cakes. We shared Pappadeaux’s excellent version of a lettuce wedge salad with blue cheese and it definitely was a major improvement for this ubiquitous American favorite. A generous wedge of iceberg was smothered with sliced yellow and orange sweet peppers, scallions, crisp smoky bacon, chopped tomatoes and crumbled blue cheese. The entrees were in the $18.00 range and the salad was $9.00. I’ll be back in Houston airport in the near future and will return to Pappadeaux.

Pike Street Public Market

Seattle has no shortage of fresh ingredients, from its fruits and produce to the incomparable oysters of the Northwest Pacific Coast. Pike Place Market is a symbol of the region’s bounty and its dependence on the Japanese Americans who have grown its products and sell at the market. A sobering experience is both seeing the mural painted in their honor and the plaque that restates the infamous, and racist,  Federal order of 1942 stripping all Japanese Americans of their civil rights, property and herding them into concentration camps for the next four years – a disaster for both the nation and the Market. Rapidly recovering after the war, Pike Place Market thrives on both abundant tourism and copious patronage by Seattle natives. (See my blog Seattle: Just a Tease).

Pear

Pear Delicatessen & Shoppe, 1926 Pike Place, is just opposite the Market. It’s a combination deli and gourmet shop. Every day it prepares superb, imaginative hot and cold sandwiches and salads for take-out and eat-in. Both sandwiches (click to enlarge collage and read the menu description) were excellent, and I’d return to have them again. Sitting at the counter looking out onto the constantly changing tableau on the street was great entertainment.

view of Puget Sound from Elliott's Oyster House Pier 56

At first when I heard of Elliott’s Oyster House Pier 56 I thought “tourist trap” because despite my weakness for dining with a water view, I’m frequently disappointed with both the quality and prices of such establishments. Yet Seattle seems to be an anomaly. Not only is the waterfront a major tourist attraction, but like Pike Place Market, the waterfront and Elliott’s are a beloved gathering place for all Seattle age groups. Elliott’s not only has stunning views of Puget Sound but moderate prices and excellent fish and seafood. We ate twice and would come back for more, especially for the incomparable Monday through Friday Oyster Happy Hours (hours is correct: 3:00 – 6:00 PM). I am an oyster freak – raw, steamed, and baked – and Elliott’s features over one dozen varieties of Pacific Coast oysters each day depending on the catch.  Beginning at 3:00 PM, the Chef chooses the variety of the day. Each person may order one dozen – or a maximum of three dozen per table – each half hour. The oysters come beautifully displayed on mounds of shaved ice with lemons and cocktail sauce. From 3:00 to 3:30 the price is $.50 per oyster! Each half hour until 5:30 the price increases only $.25/per to a maximum of $1.75 an oyster – still on an average $.25 less than normal Seattle restaurant cost.

Elliott's Oyster House Happy Hour

 When I heard of Elliott’s system, I devised a strategy that proved successful. I figured any deal like this at a very popular restaurant had to be sought after. We decided to arrive around 2:00 to have a late but light lunch. At that time, the dining area was two-thirds full. For $7.00 per person, I had a generous bowl of New England clam chowder, full of clams, thick with cream and the aroma of good smoky bacon. My wife had an equally flavorful bowl of seafood chowder.  Both chowders came with Caesar salads. By 3:00 PM there was a waiting line outside the restaurant with all the outside/dockside tables full plus the bar. We remained until 5:00 enjoying a dinner of three dozen briny, ice cold raw oysters – all for a total price for the oysters of $21.00. A Happy Hour drink menu did have reduced price mixed drinks, beer and wines from their extensive bar, but the star drink was their signature, the Oyster Shooter. It’s an inspired variation on the Bloody Mary. In a double shot glass is peppered vodka, their fresh tomato Bloody Mary mix and one raw oyster – at $3.00 it’s so good, it’s dangerous.

New York City is considered to be the “capital” of many things in America including the food industry, and like most superlatives, it simply is not true. Having lived less than 90 miles from Manhattan most of my life, I have had just as many disappointing and over-priced restaurant meals in New York as I’ve had at interstate rest stops. There are always those finds when one explores. In the past few years I have discovered the neighborhood of Little Brazil in Mid-town Manhattan next to the Diamond District. After three dinners, where I’ve never been disappointed with either the atmosphere, quality of food or the price, Ipanema Restaurant is a true find. Brazilian cuisine, like Argentine, is heavy on beef – lean, tender aged cuts – grilled to perfection and seasoned with the classic Chimichurri Sauce. River and ocean fish – trout, monk and cod – along with chicken are well featured. My wife had a tender breast of chicken smothered in stewed tropical fruits with creamy whipped potates. Side dishes include superb steamed collard greens, rice and beans and home-made lightly fried potato rounds. Prices are moderate – entrees in the $18.00 range – service friendly and professional and you will hear more Portuguese and Spanish spoken than English – always a good sign that the restaurant cooks authentic cuisine.

some of the dishes from a Han Dynasty "tasting" banquet

Philadelphia, my home city, was a culinary desert when I was growing up in the 1950’s and 60’s. Known for “rolling up the sidewalks” at 7:00 PM, Blue Laws that closed most restaurants on Sundays and overcooked vegetables, meat and potatoes. Everything changed in the mid-1970’s. A new generation of trained chefs tapped into a new generation of worldy clientele and the Philadelphia Restaurant Rennaisance was underway. Today it is difficult to get a bad meal – cheesesteaks are upscaled. Even ethnic restaurants delve deeper into their native cuisines to present the diner with authentic dishes. Rarely though does a dinner have the opportunity to participate in a 20 course Chinese banquet. Every first Monday of the month, the Philadelpia location at 108 Chestnut Street of Han Dynsty Restaurant does exactly that – and for $25.00 per person!

Before you reach for the phone, as of last week they had a few seats, of the 70 reservation maximum for each banquet, available for February 2011. It is worth the wait.

Han Dynasty Restaurant presents a Chinese “tasting menu” for 70 people (one sitting at 7:00 PM) but after 20 satisfying (aka: filling) courses I call this a banquet. The 20 Dishes span Chinese cuisine with nearly half containing an amount of hot peppers many Americans may not prefer. Yet keep two points in mind: (1) many of the tiny red peppers are whole and can be removed – some dishes are in sauces and you cannot, (2) the bowl or platter of food is served communally, the 70 diners are seated at group tables, so each diner controls their own portion size, (3) There are an equal number of soothing, non-pepper dishes. The structure of the 20 courses involves meat, poultry, fish, noodles, rice, spices, hot, cold, and vegetable – in small portions. That is the cultural ideal of a Chinese Banquet – the four elements (earth, fire, wind, water) and Han Dynasty achieves this goal. There is no set menu for the dinner, it changes each month and you’re going to know when it’s placed in front of you – be open to an adventure, and some noise since the downstairs room gets crowded.

I do have three recommendations for the excellent chef  to take the expertise to a vaulted level: (1) each hot pepper dish should be followed by one without hot peppers, (2) even though it may raise the cost, the diners’ plates should be refreshed a few times during the dinner to exclude blending of previous flavors onto the next superb dish; and instead of fish for a final course  (3) there should have been some dessert (sweet element) preferably chilled.

Han’s regular dining room menu is just as imaginative having eaten there previously, but the “tasting menu” is a true experience well worth the wait for a reservation. (BYOB, $25/person not including tip).

 

20th century design at New York's Museum of Modern Art, (upper far left: Nixon/ Khrushchev Kitchen Debate and bottom far right: Andy Worhol boxes