review: geishas in the gion… (ifuki)

•August 28, 2014 • 1 Comment

Chef Yamamoto


Kyoto’s ancient Gion district is famous for its geishas.  Full of theaters, where geishas perform, the Gion also offers some of Kyoto’s best, and judging by the hoards of tourists who visit, worst dining.  This is where my friend and guide Tomo and I had our first dinner in Kyoto – at Ifuki, a one Michelin-starred kaiseki restaurant owned by chef Norio Yamamato (where, as it turns out, we shared the counter with three businessmen and their geishas*).

Despite the hushed formality of the restaurant, intensified for me by the fact that no one spoke English, Yamamoto’s warm smile and cheerful mood put me at ease.

Following the traditional kaiseki philosophy, Yamamoto’s multi-course meal celebrated the season by showcasing its best ingredients; highlighting their texture, flavor, and color; and presenting it all artfully on beautiful plates.  But, unique to Ifuki was Yamamoto’s use of live fire.  Almost everything he served had, in some way, passed over the open flame that flickered on the grill all night.   On top of excellent ingredients and simple, confident cooking, Yamamoto’s subtle use of smoke and char made this meal stand out.  Of the dozens of meals I had in Japan on this trip, high and low, this one was my favorite.

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travel: kimonos and kaiseki…

•August 27, 2014 • 2 Comments

Geisha in the night.


My only complaint about my visit to Kyoto is that it was too short.

The imperial capital of Japan for over a millennia (the capital was moved to Edo – modern-day Tokyo – in the second half of the 19th Century), Kyoto is full of history and culture.  Thankfully, much of it is preserved for us to explore today.  And forty-eight hours is hardly enough time to do so.

But my friend and guide, Tomo, helped maximize our hours there.

[This is the long-overdue second post in a series of posts about my trip to Japan in March.  You can read the first post here.]

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travel: sui generis…

•August 25, 2014 • 2 Comments



At its highest, the Bergen Rail Line climbs 1,300 meters above sea level, making it the highest elevated rail line in Europe.  Running over 480 meters (300 miles), the line anchors at both ends on the coast of Norway.

When I last left this blog, I had boarded the train on the west coast in Bergen, and was headed to the eastern terminus in Oslo.   In between those two cities, fjords and forests, mountains and valleys rushed by my big, picture window in a blur of grey and white.  It was the tail of winter, but most of the Norwegian highlands remained shrouded in clouds and blanketed with snow.

The train stopped about a half a dozen times, just long enough for passengers, bundled in snow and ski gear, to offload.  Outside, skimobiles, piled with people and packs, motored off towards silhouettes of cabins beyond, half-buried in snow.

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travel: farms, fields and fjords along the way….

•July 27, 2014 • 1 Comment

Sea urchins


Chef Christopher Haatuft pulled off the winding road that traces the craggy Norwegian coast near Askøy.  The gloomy sky hung low as we got out of the car and started down a marshy trail that stretched for a while along a creek, before rising over a rocky hill.

We arrived high above a small inlet of water.  There were three cooks with us: a Frenchman, a short Italian, and a Dutchman, who was unbelievably tall in the way that Dutchmen often are.  I only mention the height of these cooks because, comically, the Italian and Dutchman ended up sharing the same wader, which ended badly for the poor Italian, who began hooting halfway out, when his slack suit began taking on the cold, Nordic water.

The cooks fanned out, and began looking for herbs among the low-lying brush.  I followed Haatuft closer to the water, which was incredibly calm and clear, made inky only by its depth.  We were there to meet his sea forager, Arne Duinker.

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travel: flemish fling…

•June 23, 2014 • Leave a Comment

Coffee tins


All of the international flights from the Americas dumped into Aéroport Paris–Charles de Gaulle within minutes of each other, as they usually do, when I arrived in the early morning a few months ago.  I shuffled into the immigration hall along with the deplaning masses, a shapeless hoard that defied order, especially since very little was provided.

After a half hour of this incurable chaos, with border guards barking at us like sheep dogs at a herd, and our rather saucy herd barking back in various languages, the crowd suddenly began to move forward at a surprisingly fast rate.  How could this be?  How could the border police possibly be processing that many passports at once?  When I reached the front, I realized that they weren’t.  They weren’t processing passports at all.  The police had opened the gates and were letting everyone through unchecked.

As an American, who has not only practiced law, but has practiced some immigration law, I was horrified.  This kind of reckless laxity would never happen at our borders – and this not from a sense of patriotic superiority.  The United States has many weaknesses, but border control – especially at its international airports – is not one of them.  You will not find more humorless human beings than the employees of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

By allowing foreigners to pass through unverified, the French police were not only endangering their own national security by opening their borders to shady international characters, but they were also putting the Schengen at risk. Once inside the Schengen, a foreigner can travel through any of its twenty-some member countries unchecked, as I did on this trip.

A little over a week later, as I prepared to return to the U.S., Malaysian Airlines flight 370 disappeared over the South China Sea, raising questions (among many others) about two passengers onboard who were traveling with stolen passports.  In the weeks since, those two passengers have been ruled out as possible terrorists. But the fact that they were able to travel on stolen passports is disturbing.  According to Interpol, “In 2013, passengers were able to board planes more than 1 billion times without having their travel documents checked against Interpol’s data.”

That’s billion with a “B.”

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save the date: kansas city…

•June 9, 2014 • 1 Comment

Justin Cogley and Bryan Voltaggio


This year marks the sixteenth annual Friends of James Beard Foundation dinner at The American Restaurant in Kansas City, the longest-running fundraising dinner for the foundation in the country.  Over the past decade and a half, this event has brought some of America’s most respected chefs to my hometown to raise money for the James Beard Foundation, including Jean-Louis Palladin, Tom Colicchio, and Takashi Yagihashi in its earlier years, and, more recently, Christopher Kostow, Paul Qui, Joshua Skenes, Michael Cimarusti, Justin Cogley, Bryan Voltaggio, and John Shields.  The list is long, the roster has been impressive.

For the fifth year, I have been asked by the hosting chef – now, Michael Corvino –  to help invite the guest chefs and participate in the event.  Having just finalized this year’s guest chefs list, I am pleased to share it with you now and to announce that this year’s Friends of James Beard Foundation dinner at The American Restaurant will take place on Sunday, September 28, 2014.  Please save the date.

* * *

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travel: until tonight becomes tomorrow…

•June 1, 2014 • 3 Comments



When a volley of pink blossoms overtakes Gramercy Tavern and the big, picture-windows on Fifth Avenue begin blushing with brighter, bolder colors; when chefs get grabby for ramps and peas at the Union Square greenmarket, and the walls at casa mono finally swing open to seduce those turning the corner of 17th and Irving with the smell of pork and clams; when asparagus and morels make their vernal debut at Jean-Georges, and the Seussical flock on a field of seersucker and roses at Madison Square Park to lap at a pool of bourbon and mint; when the crowds at Balthazar and Barbuto begin spilling onto the sidewalk, and Central Park fills with rowboats and tourists, I get excited.

New York in May: for eight years, it’s been the only trip that has been permanently affixed to my travel calendar.  What began as a weekend jaunt to attend the James Beard Awards nearly a decade ago has, for me, and for the many who find themselves in the city that first weekend of the month, become an annual excuse to visit New York, to see friends who have gathered there from near and far, and to table-hop high and low.  Although Monday night at Lincoln Center may be the reason for the season, it’s rarely the highlight, eclipsed by the weekend’s lingering lunches that bleed into a succession of cocktail hours, dinners, and assorted asshattery and hot messery, to which I have learned to give a wide berth.

No other weekend brings the restaurant industry together – the bigwigs and we, the insignificant satellites who trace the periphery, alike – for a city-wide eat-and-drink on this scale.  At its best, it’s the greatest culinary social of the year.  At the same time, no other weekend does more to commercialize, commoditize, congratulate, and, often, over-congratulate those in the culinary arts.  After eight years, cynicism has crept in.

Yet, I go. And for as long as I am able, I will continue going, because no other weekend fills me with as much anticipation and excitement, or comforts with as much familiarity as that weekend.

New York in May: for me, there is and will never be anything like it.

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