This post is terribly tardy, largely due to a rapid resumption of life after a year arrested by a pandemic.
The fair winds of 2019 sent me sailing confidently into 2020.
Even before the calendar turned, the new year was already brimming with work and travel. There were new partnerships and exciting prospects shimmering on the horizon. Familiar ports of call crowded the calendar. And squeezed in between all of that, of course, was adventure.
Treasures from the scandalous affair between Mrs. Fitzherbert and George IV were appearing in a special exhibit at the Royal Mews in London. As soon as tickets were opened to the public, I booked my flights and hotel.
In Paris, I had reservations at Maison Sota Atsumi and Poule au Pot – both high on my bucket list.
And my belated 40th birthday dinner at le Louis XV – which had to be postponed in 2018 when the restaurant initiated an extensive, two-year renovation – was finally rescheduled for spring of 2020. It had been nine years since my last meal at Ducasse’s gilded terrace on the Côte d’Azur, and I was overjoyed to be finally returning. Friends across the globe had been corralled, deposits were paid, arrangements finalized: with no foreseeable roadblocks, after two years of waiting, it was Monte-Carlo or bust.
Of course, all of these plans, and more, were suspended in March when a new and novel virus swept across the globe. And by May, it was apparent that the remaining year had gone over a cliff.
Thankfully, I had hit 2020 running and crammed in quite a bit of work and travel in the first three months. In fact, before the first day of the year was over, I was already somewhere high over the Atlantic on my way to Copenhagen. It was my friend Per Thøstesen’s birthday, and his semicentennial fête was not to be missed.
Faced with going big or going home, Per never goes home. He shut down his restaurant Bistro Bohème on the Esplenaden, lined it with tinsel, and crowded it with friends, food, drink, and music. In retrospect, it was a particularly special gathering in those unwitting days on the edge of a global crisis.
I lingered a while in Copenhagen, splitting my time between familiar routines and exploring new places. There were quiet mornings with a coffee and laptop at Apollo Bar, tucked inside the courtyard of Charlottenborg Palace. I love the space and the simple menu. It has become a reliable ritual. So has Kong Hans Kælder, where I’ve had the great privilege of returning with high frequency. My dinner in January marked my sixteenth meal there since Mark Lundgaard Nielsen became head chef in late 2014. I’ll be writing more about this latest visit in a subsequent post.
For most, winter in Denmark is too bleak, too cold, and often too wet. I think it’s paradise. Not only does this clime suit me, but it’s a natural deterrent to tourism, yielding a double-fold pleasure: in the post-holiday lull of the new year, Copenhagen is blissfully empty and quiet.
Have you ever met a Scandinavian in winter? They’re miserable. Chronically sun-starved, they’re like heat-seeking missiles, hurling themselves at anything with greater proximity to the equator – like Thailand, or avocados. It’s one of the few things I’ve witnessed cause reason (and sometimes dignity) to completely vacate an otherwise sensible and sober Dane. It would be troubling if it weren’t also amusing.
I suspect this Apollonian cult contributes to their obsession with Mexican cuisine, and obsession that is only intensified by the scarcity of Mexican restaurants in Denmark (and, of course, because it’s delicious). So it was unsurprising that my friends lunged at the opportunity to take me to Rosio Sanchez’s new restaurant, Hija de Sanchez Cantina. Here, the menu expands beyond the tacos that Sanchez has been serving at her taqueria at the Kødbyen (the meatpacking district). We had a whole, fried fish served with a stack of warm tortillas and garnishes, for example. There were tostadas and empanadas. It was very good.
I also ate at Beau Clugston’s newcomer Iluka, which focuses on seafood from the cold waters of the North Sea. We had raw langoustines and shellfish from the Faroe Islands, ling liver on toast, a beautifully roasted cod collar, and meaty rings of giant squid stuffed with grains. Like Yves LeLay’s nearby restaurant á terre, Iluka has a neighborhood bistro feel that belies the ambition of the kitchen.
In 1989, the world was mesmerized when two million people linked arms to form an unbroken human chain stretching over 400 miles from Lithuania through Latvia and into Estonia. I remember watching this event, dubbed the “Baltic Way,” on television. These peaceful protestors wanted self-governance. And by the end of the following year, all three Baltic states had declared their independence from the Soviet Union.
It has now been three decades since the Iron Curtain lifted. And while I gathered, during a brief visit to two of the countries in early 2020, that many aspects of life in the Baltics have improved, it was apparent that the road to economic stability is long yet. The global financial crises of the late aughts devastated the region anew, resulting in a protracted economic depression out from which locals are still clawing over a decade later. A cheerful Latvian woman told me that she’s thrilled to be making around a thousand Euros a month now, which is just above the average for Riga residents (and fairly close to the national average for neighboring Lithuania).
But the devastation wasn’t just financial. Locals in both Lithuania and Latvia told me that, more significantly, it has crippled the Baltic states’ ability to successfully escape Russia’s orbit, which has wide-ranging social implications (a concern, I’m sure, that many former Soviet states are now experiencing in stark relief).
Those with ties to Russia – mostly generational Russians and Russian immigrants in the Baltics – have more access to money, and therefore still dominate commerce in the country. As a result, most Baltic natives are forced to learn Russian in order to remain competitive and viable in their own country, whereas Russians in the Baltics often don’t speak the local language. I was told, for example, that Russo-Latvians often send their children to Russian-speaking schools, where Latvian is never taught.
Winter was probably not the best time to visit. Vilnius was depressingly dreary, even for me. But nighttime walks – to the cathedral square, for example, where the yuletide market still twinkled with lights – improved the city’s charm.
Once an independent kingdom, Lithuania merged under the Polish crown as a grand duchy in the 14th century. But starting in the 1600s, the Polish Commonwealth became a battleground on which the titans of the day fought, subjecting Lithuania to centuries of foreign occupation – batted about between Sweden, Russia, Prussia, and Germany.
Now a republic, Lithuania is able to comment candidly on its past. And thankfully for us, it does so with great wit at the Palace of the Grand Dukes in the heart of Vilnius, which has restored to Lithuanians, rather splendidly, a noble piece of their history. While I was there, an elderly Lithuanian couple walked up beside me to read a display, which recounted:
“Having ‘liberated’ Lithuania from the Nazis in 1944-1945, the Soviet Union’s Red Army ‘forgot’ to go back home. The second Soviet occupation commenced.“
They openly scoffed, and moved on.
More interested in the culture and history than the food of Vilnius, I had not done much research about local restaurants. And for my lack of preparation, I was punished with a couple of pretty bad meals.
Cepelinai are considered the national dish of Lithuania. These grenade-sized dumplings, shaped like zeppelins (hence their name), consist of a meatball encased in a thick layer of riced potatoes. They’re traditionally served with, what is, to an American, an alarming amount of sour cream flecked with bits of bacon. Hearty and comforting, it sounds like the ideal companion for muscling through the Baltic winters. While I’m sure they can be delicious, I am equally sure that the version I had was bad. The potatoes had been tragically gummed into a nearly impenetrable mass of rubber. And whether by textural association or in actuality, it tasted of rubber as well. I was only able to finish one cepelinas, which I was still digesting well into the next day…
Thankfully, Aiste Miseviciute (Luxeat), who is Lithuanian, came to my rescue. On my last night in Vilnius, she pointed me to Džiaugsmas. Chef Martynas Praškevičius’s multi-storied restaurant is surprisingly sleek, with clientele to match. His food was simple and tidy, with great flavor. I was especially impressed by a crispy schnitzel topped with an herb butter, chunky with fermented gooseberries. On the side came a beautiful, golden-brown “hundred-layer potato pie,” a pan-fried deck of potatoes gratin.
A four-hour bus ride proved to be the most sensible way to get from Vilnius to Riga (the capital of neighboring Latvia). The hassle of flying, as well as renting and returning a car, would have taken much longer, and cost far more. And you know what? It was pretty great. The coach had wifi and video entertainment on seat backs, and the terminus was right in the middle of Riga.
There was a vibrancy about Riga that I didn’t feel in Vilnius. The Old Town was beautifully preserved. Though there were many buildings that sat empty and dark (ripe for investment), the ones that were occupied were brimming with life.
Beyond Old Town, I found a bustling city dotted with coffee shops, restaurants, office buildings, retail, and museums, including the Latvian National Museum of Art, which featured a diverse roster of Latvian artists, like Jānis Osis (“Rowing Race at a Latvian Fishermen’s Festival,” 1958) and Janis Rozentāls. [Unfortunately, there were no works in this museum by Latvia’s most famous artist, Mark Rothko, whose body of work was exclusively produced in the U.S. In 2002, Rothko’s children donated 40 museum-quality reproductions of their father’s work to his hometown of Daugavils as the foundational collection for the Daugavils Mark Rothko Art Centre.]
Dinner at Vincents Restorans – a Riga institution – is not worth mentioning. However, dinner at Barents is.
Chef Ivans Smigarevs’s restaurant was shiny in ways that I suspect its Riga peers cannot afford. Anchoring the capacious dining room was a breathtaking service station wrought from a giant boulder, mounded with ice, showcasing wine and fresh seafood. Beyond that was a bright, open kitchen with a “chefs counter” seating about half a dozen guests. It’s an exceedingly handsome restaurant, and knowing the average income of Latvians, an unaffordable one for most as well – first courses averaged in the mid-30€, with a tasting menu priced at 120€.
As its name suggests, Barents focuses on seafood from the icy waters off the coast of Latvia, in addition to proudly featuring locally grown produce. Like most contemporary chefs, Smigarevs takes a globalist approach to putting these ingredients together. For example, there was a decidedly Japanese-inspired sashimi course of cured kingfish with fresh shiso and Icelandic wasabi, as well as yellowfin tuna tartare with teriyaki. But in that same meal, he also touched the Mediterranean with a beautiful filet of mullet with tomato sabayon and mushroom ragout. And then there were dishes that seemed entirely borderless – raw scallops with yoghurt, cucumbers, and cranberries, for example; or kingfish with beans, mint, and razor clams in a meaty broth.
While I found the food to be a bit all over the place (I struggle to embrace the prevailing genre of pan-cultural cooking) and over-garnished (a pandemic among chefs), it was clear that Smigarevs was keen on high ingredient quality. And perhaps more importantly, he and his cooks knew how to cook those ingredients. There was an earnestness about Barents – both in the cooking and in service – that I found endearing, especially in a corner of the world that I perceive to be isolated from the mainstream, culinary world. At the end of the day, the ingredients were fresh, the technique was sound, and the food was hot and generally tasty. That was enough to get me back for a second dinner the next night.
Next door to Barents, Smigarevs has a more casual cocktail and seafood bar. I regret I didn’t visit, especially since the menu seemed more likable to me – a straightforward slate of raw seafood and bar staples. If I get a second chance at Riga, you’ll find me there.
Aside from my international adventures at the top of the year, the rest of my travel in 2020 was exclusively for work, which included trips to Los Angeles and the San Francisco Bay Area.
At the end of January, I returned to Palmetto Bluff in the Lowcountry of South Carolina one last time to photograph Field & Fire, a multi-day event that focused on outdoor sporting. There was hawking, a mounted fox hunt run, and clay shooting, in addition to terrific food, drink, and music.
I was lucky to get to Blackberry Mountain and Blackberry Farm in the Appalachia of eastern Tennessee twice. I photograph the two properties in late February and early March – on the cusp of a national shutdown – and again in late-summer.
At home in Kansas City, I hosted what will surely be my last Friends of James Beard Foundation dinner at The American Restaurant, the longest running benefit dinner of its kind.
Later in the year, when the James Beard Foundation abruptly canceled its annual Restaurant and Chefs Awards, allegations of serious ethical violations, wrongdoing, and an ensuing cover-up in the awards process surfaced, thanks to excellent reporting by Pete Wells of The New York Times. Having served as a regional judge for the awards for 14 years, I was troubled by Wells’s allegations and began my own informal inquiry. In so doing, I caught the foundation’s leadership in multiple lies and corroborated many of Wells’s claims, all of which pointed towards an unfortunate (and spectacular) comeuppance for years of using culinary awards to kill meritocracy in favor of identity politics.
Believing strongly that those responsible for wrongdoing at the foundation needed to be held accountable, I reached out to numerous members of the foundation’s board of directors, sponsors, chefs, and members of the awards’ national committee with my concerns. When my alarm was met with off-the-record finger-wagging and hand-wringing, but public silence, I broadcasted my discoveries in an article I wrote for Eater: “The James Beard Foundation Failed the Biggest Restaurant Awards in the Country.”
Despite overwhelming evidence of wrongdoing, to date, no one at the foundation has admitted to the corruption and cover-up, and no one has been held accountable. As a result, I ended my participation and support for the organization, and I remain deeply disappointed and critical of the foundation’s leadership, and those, who through silence, inaction, and continued participation with the organization, are complicit.
In May of last year, during the height of the pandemic, when I issued a review of 2019, I wrote:
“The specter of uncertainty haunts all of us. And this post – actually, all of my annual walks down memory lane – serves as a personal reminder to be grateful for all of the opportunities that I’ve had, and, especially, for having maximized every one of them. I can happily say that I have no regrets from 2019. I squeezed every ounce of pleasure from it. And if I am to have no more, I am content knowing that I’ve already enjoyed more than my fair share.”
I apply these words to 2020 as well. Though it was a fraught year, it was tremendously edifying as well. It was a year of some adventure, and a whole lot of reflection. I am grateful that I have no regrets about it. And I look forward to telling you about 2021.
In an abbreviated year of dining, an equally abbreviated list of restaurants:
108 Corner (Copenhagen, Denmark)
Angler (San Francisco, California)
Animal (Los Angeles, California)
Apollo Bar (Copenhagen, Denmark) (3x)
auburn (Los Angeles, California)
Barents (Riga, Latvia) (2x)
Bell’s (Los Alamos, California)
Birdie G’s (Santa Monica, California)
Džiaugsmas (Vilnius, Lithuania)
East Bay Provisions (Berkeley, California) (3x)
Great China (Berkeley, California)
Iluka (Copenhagen, Denmark)
Italala Café (Vilnius, Lithuania) (2x)
Kong Hans Kælder (Copenhagen, Denmark)
Limewood at the Claremont (Berkeley, California)
Nico “Gap Year” (San Francisco, California)
Sanchez Cantina (Copenhagen, Denmark)
Seven Swans Crêperie (Kansas City, Missouri)
Stikliai Tavern (Vilnius, Lithuania)
Tartine Sycamore (Los Angeles, California)
Verjus (San Francisco, California)
Vincents Restorans (Riga, Latvia)
Lidia’s (Kansas City, Missouri)
Paros Estiatorio (Leawood, Kansas)
Tacos el Gallo (Kansas City, Missouri)
Barn at Blackberry Farm, The (Walland, Tennessee)
Firetower, The (Blackberry Mountain; Walland, Tennessee) (4x)
Joe’s Kansas City (Kansas City, Kansas)
LC’s Bar-B-Q (Kansas City, Missouri)
Rye Plaza (Kansas City, Missouri)
Three Sisters (Blackberry Mountain; Walland, Tennessee) (3x)
Barn at Blackberry Farm, The (Walland, Tennessee)
Firetower, The (Blackberry Mountain; Walland, Tennessee) (3x)
Three Sisters (Blackberry Mountain; Walland, Tennessee) (4x)
Banner Photo: A marquee dinner at Field & Fire 2020 at the Inn at Palmetto Bluff in Palmetto Bluff, South Carolina.