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But now I was just short of reaching the caffeine-scented Garden of Eden, stuck in an apparent showdown between us and a machete-wielding man.
The contents of the bowl in front of me looked familiar. In it, eggy noodles swirling with some variety on the theme of bacon. It was recognizable but at the same time it wasn't. That's because it also included kimchee and – wait for it – Doritos.
[Record scratch across the heavens.]
Welcome to King Noodle in Brooklyn's Bushwick neighborhood, the stoniest stoner restaurant you'll come across this side of San Francisco. Mirrored walls and a disco ball (relics from the space's previous incarnation as a Dominican bar) and a ceiling lined with strips of red, blue and purple Christmas lights illuminate the spray painted walls of corral reefs on a Martian-like landscape (done by local artists at Secret HandShake). If the space seems like an electric Kool-Aid acid test, the menu reads like it was concocted after several hits from an evil wizard bong and a trip to the kitchen to see what's in the fridge: Spam fried rice, mapo tofu with chili cheese fries, and rice cakes with krab and mozzarella in a spicy sauce.
And then there's that dish I described above: kimchee carbonara. When I first heard about it – the restaurant just opened last month – I knew I had to try it.
When the campers next to our site broke out the drum kit and plugged in the electric guitars for a Christian rock concert, I knew that my sister (and most people) were right. Camping isn't for me. But I did have access to a car. And what does one do with a car in Westchester County? According to a set of food-loving friends, the answer is to visit the Blue Hill at Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture.
That's not to say that Italian cuisine outside of Italy can't be good. It certainly can. Carbonara is a simple dish. Just pasta, eggs, guanciale (or pancetta), garlic, parmigiano, and black pepper. But, as I found out, it's not necessarily easy to make buonissimo, as the Italians would say.
Case in point: I was in Rome last week. And given that I'm so carbonara crazed and hadn't been in Rome for five years, I decided I'd put myself on a mini quest: I'd try to seek out the best carbonara I could find. There were, though, parameters that were out of my control: I was filming a documentary about my book. The days were long and we would finish shooting around 10 p.m. every night. Not a lot of time to figure out a good place to eat. The film crew left it up to me to find a good restaurant in whatever neighborhood we finished shooting for the day. A challenge, for sure.
I'd always felt that the wildlife of Africa got far more attention in travel publications than the people of Africa. For this reason, I eschewed going to Africa. But I'd never been on a safari and felt like it was time I see what it's all about, to do some wild animal gawking that wasn't in a zoo. For the most part, I was enjoying myself. I saw mountain gorillas and chimps and everything else such a safari has to offer – everything except a lion.
All that changed the next day.
Let me explain. I've always appreciated good coffee but I didn't really know what made coffee good and not good. But in December 2011, a magazine sent me to Ethiopia to discover why the coffee of this East African nation was so great. I traveled there with Intelligentsia Coffee's Geoff Watts. Mr. Watts, introduced to me by the owner of a coffee house in my neighborhood, is possibly the most important coffee buyer on the planet. Geoff was on a mission too: to buy superlative coffee for the hip coffee roasting company (which just opened its first outlet in New York City, by the way).
A while later, I was in Uganda, an East African country not particularly known for its java. I was staying at Kyambura Lodge near Queen Elizabeth National Park. When I commented on the coffee, one of the employees said they grow and roast the coffee themselves. A few hours later, I was standing in front of Nicole Simmons, the director of the program. Simmons originally came to Uganda to study the troop of 20 chimps that live down in the gorge near the resort. She liked it here and when the opportunity came to run the program, she jumped at it.
If there was a grand tour of eating in the 21st century and we had to corner it to one continent only, it probably wouldn't be Europe. It would most likely be Asia, which has a tremendous diversity of flavors and ingredients and seems more and more clear that 21st-century eating habits are adopting Asian cuisine as its own.
There was no better place to explore this idea than at the annual Lucky Rice Festival. At the Grand Feast, housed in the Mandarin Oriental Hotel in New York City, I asked a slew of well-known chefs what the best country in Asia is for eating.
Here's what they had to say:
It was nearly a whim that brought me here, booking a ticket on the new JFK-to-Cartagena route on JetBlue. It was almost a personal anomaly for me but I had no itinerary and I did little research. What did I know about this part of the world? I knew that singer Shakira and actress Sofia Vergara were from near here. Perhaps on some level I pathetically half expected (or hoped?) all the women to look like Ms. Vergara, whose physical appearance reminds me of a woman I still wish I was dating. I was wrong. I also thought I could maybe kickstart a book idea I had after visiting Bolivia a few years ago – a book about the coca leaf. But like Sofia Vergara lookalikes, there's no coca leaf culture in Cartagena like there is in Bolivia or the southern parts of Colombia. Two stereotypes down, several more to go.
I recently attended the James Beard Foundation Awards, the Oscars or Grammys of the restaurant world, where every top toque in the United States congresses to (hopefully) receive awards, shake hands, talk food, have a good time and, of course, eat.
As per usual, the awards were held at New York City's Lincoln Center. And as chefs and food personalities were walking in on the red carpet, I accosted them and asked one simple question:
What is the best restaurant city in the world right now?
Meet Wilson Garcia. He's like the Clark Kent/Superman of his workplace in Cartagena, Colombia. He looks, by first appearances, like an ordinary security guard, the ubiquitous sort one sees all over this handsome Colombian city. But look closer and you might get a clue as to his other job: he doubles as the official caretaker of Mateo, the on-property pet of the Santa Clara Sofitel hotel. Mateo is a toucan and hangs out in the courtyard of the 17th-century former convent that houses the hotel. I sat down with Garcia to ask him what it's like to be the official caretaker of an exotic bird.