Showing posts with label International Restaurant Reviews. Show all posts
Showing posts with label International Restaurant Reviews. Show all posts

Harry's Cancun -- I'm Just Wild About Harry's

Mexico surprised me last week. I avoid hotel concierge self-serving restaurant recommendations. In Cancun last week, I used my private, personal Advisor, Trip. Yes, I've heard that online review sites are actually now victims of paid advertisers, and no longer of independent opinions. But I want to believe that good in the world still exits, at least virtually, so I entered best and top and even the dreaded hip restaurants in my browser and all bots led to an Argentinian joint called Puerto Madero. I wasn't excited that they had a sister location in cuisine-killer Miami, but I was getting hungry, so off I went. On the bus. Yes, the bus. It's a terrific way to get around Cancun's ONE street.

Cancun Beachline
I was surprised at the crowd in the lobby. Had a crime occurred? I stepped over some people, worked my way to the host, and asked to be seated. He asked if I had a reservation. He heard my eye- roll of an answer and returned my smirk; I left without incident.

Hungry and back out on the dark, busy, foreign highway, I felt like hooker Julia Roberts when the Beverly Hills store refused her money. Stunned and confused, I looked up and saw a refuge, my only hope -- a tall, stone wall with the name Harry's written in black iron. What kind of Latin name is Harry's?!
The stylish lobby was packed. I approached the host, leaned in close like I had huge boobs and seductively asked if there was any way he could squeeze me in? I stepped back to give him the full view, air, and time.

He broke out into a huge, bus-driver friendly smile. He nodded to his co-hort and they swept us in the swanky, huge dining room.

Harry's Cancun Lobby

Harry's is impressive. I passed a wall of glass doors, behind which millions of dollars of really old meat was napping. It seemed like a well-curated meat museum. A massive counter, where a man stood gently tending lobsters as if they were sheep, was on my left. Vast, stone walls on either side made me feel like I was being led into a secret bunker.

When I left my resort tonight, I thought I'd be doing some sad little Mexican restaurant a favor and toss a few million pesos their way in exchange for some guacamole prepared table side or watch a wrinkly old abuela hand-pressing tortillas in a display window.

The room was crowded with women wearing clothes one didn't normally pack on a Mexican trip -- fluffy dresses, good, chunky necklaces and jewel-encrusted sharp, high heels that looked painful to the wearer and the ground they stepped on. Everyone was tanned, perhaps by law or health code.

I had no idea what type of food Harry's served. I assumed Mexican food, so I sat and waited for my beloved basket of tortilla chips and salsa. I love the sweet, fat Mexican restaurant waitresses with tattooed eyebrows and a huggable attitude. They slam chips and salsa on your table before they say Hola. But here, a handsome waiter carefully slid a bread basket down, and I thought, que pasa? His Hermes belt buckle was looking me straight in my skeptical face.

Bread basket Harry's Cancun

The basket resembled a Latin boy band -- some were wafer-thin, and others were plump and hidden in the back maybe because they danced slower, but they were all spicy and well-managed. My dining companion took one bite of the chubby solo act in the back, and exclaimed, It's Christmas dinner in a bite! It actually was -- soft, fresh bread topped with sage and butter. I pictured exhausted yet happy elves in the kitchen, singing Mexican folk songs as they baked magic in a pan and couldn't dream of a better life. 

Commander's Palace in New Orleans has impeccable service and legendarily fun cocktails. But they can't beat Harry's who free pours your drinks table side. I have had ceviche, guacamole, Bananas Foster,  Salt-baked fish, Caesar salad, steak tartare all prepared table side, but this packed a refreshingly new service-as-performance punch.

Drinks poured tableside Harry's Cancun

I held the Captain's hand down onto my table and looked into his eyes. He looked nervous yet intrigued. I asked him how long they had been open, expecting this to be their grand opening and explain the jubilant crowds and hoopla. Five years, he smiled, pulling his manicured hand away. I felt uniformed and not hip, and being from LA, that's a fear only rivaled by earthquakes, parking restrictions and yard sales of the stars.

The huge menu folds out to reveal a full artistic triptych, but no doves fly out -- it's well-organized and not too ambitious. What the menu can't warn you is that each appetizer is enough to share among a busload of tourists.

I was excited to see Kobe beef sliders. The soft, creamy meat was nestled between soft, puffy buns that reminded me that I'd miss Jennifer Lopez when she left American Idol. These burgers were topped with caramelized onions that tried to sneakily abandon the melted Vermont cheddar when I applied a little pressure, but I caught them, pushed them back in and devoured the dish intact, with no defectors, as it was intended by the dictatorial chef.

Kobe Sliders Harry's Cancun

I needed to remember where I was so I ordered the Kobe beef taco appetizer as my own homage to Mexican cuisine. I know they love large families in this nation, but when they delivered four tacos on my plate, it made me feel like a father who has a tiny house and gets the news he's just had another child he doesn't have space for: I love you, but I don't have room.

Taco meat is usually cheap ground beef, disguised and spiced up with toppings. Kobe meat tastes special, so the delicious, tender meat can be regarded separately from the rest of the taco team, the same smooth way that Kobe Bryant stood apart from the other players when they were all jammed on the court -- as star is a star. I barely have to chew this tender beef, so I have time to note that I'd like to spend a summer on a Kobe farm, shivering in a cold Japanese barn massaging these cattle as a volunteer; I need to give back.

Kobe Tacos Harry's Cancun

When a waiter in Toronto warns you that a sauce is spicy, it's okay to swat him away like a fly. When a waiter in Mexico warns you, listen bitches. The accompanying roasted habanero pepper sauce on my plate already looked ominous. It was black and slimy, hiding in a corner like a gooey poisonous spider. It had dangerous seeds, which jumped onto my fork as I drug it through the sauce, like tiny little terrorists whose intent was to harm me. My lips burned for two delicious days like a lover's perfume lingering on my neck I wouldn't dare wash off, reminding me of my passionate night and this sauce.

Octopus is my new scallops. I embrace the long, sucker-laden tentacles. Sure, I eased into the relationship by cutting my teeth on rings of squid, safety-coated in batter and gently fried to make the concept palatable. When my twin nieces were three, I used to get them to eat calamari by telling then it was Ursala from The Little Mermaid and they were ridding the world of evil. They, and I, felt like heroes.

Black ink risotto with octopus Harry's Cancun

Harry's promised me black ink risotto. The chef must have interned in an old Italian grandmother's kitchen, who beat him senseless each time he turned her precious dish to mush, because this dish was perfectly al dente. The densely black squid ink was as rich and black as Bill Cosby, and a surprise came in the first bite -- the only octopus in my dish wasn't the curvy, showgirl leg on top.  Chunks of octopus were hidden in the dish like illegal immigrants, and I would smuggle them into America in my belly. Hopefully Customs agents wouldn't slice me open as I crossed the border; no one should ever see all I have eaten. The dish was superb; some fan even tossed accolades of confetti all over it as it left the kitchen, that tasted like Parmesan cheese.

 More surprises came to my table. I  pulled succulent, local lobster pieces out of my coleslaw on another dish, worried that I had exceeded my limit. Fried shrimp were so huge I was nervous to eat them, convinced they were raised near a nuclear plant. I ate them, thinking, What a way to glow!

The dining room is fun. Large parties feel free to be noisy, seated at family-fun round tables. Hosts hoisted their shimmering martinis in one hand, and a grandchild in another. Razor-thin foreign socialites knocked their non-knockoff David Webb bracelets against their Onassis-tanned boyfriend's muscled necks as they embraced the exciting food served and relished in the convivial atmosphere.

I questioned any restaurant situated on the West side of the street, seemingly to me the wrong side -- the East featured views of stunningly turquoise water. But Harry's founders were as smart as the once ruling local Mayans -- when the sun set, they gave their diners one last look at the glorious sun, setting with the same grace that the Captain's at Harry's used to remind your busboy that your water glass looked half-empty. To me, this place made it look half-full.

Deconstructed pecan pie in a shot glass finished me off. My grandmother made perfect pecan pie, but had she tasted this, she'd have buried her recipe in the backyard and given away her dog so he couldn't dig it up. I tried to take a picture, but like an African tribe afraid they lose part of their soul each time a photo is snapped, it eluded me. Or I ate it too fast, I'm not sure.

We were two men at this dinner. I think they were afraid to serve us their signature, and impressive post-amuse bouche, their dining denouement as it were -- giant cotton candy reminiscent of my Aunt Nelda's beehive. Perhaps to them it looks romantic and they feared us sharing it like Disney dogs sharing a noodle, but they had no fear --  I was stuffed tighter than a pinata. Though grateful not to have had the tempting sugar placed in front of me, I would have appreciated being spun the same finale as the other diners. 

Word-a-licious Ruth Reichl penned the term Ballet of Service when she witnessed the perfect balance in a dining room provided by a perfectly working team. Harry's has it. The host, as conductor, flits about the flatteringly-lit rooms, smiling at diners, cooing over the plates as if it's his first glance in a new lover's eyes, the Captains smoothly direct professional waiters who direct discreet busboys, who I guess go home and kick the dog.

We chose not to eat fresh green salads this trip, and even though the hunky male diners here at Harry's were jabbing their forks into huge hunks of iceberg lettuce, I stuck to my guns so I wouldn't be stuck to the toilet. I didn't get ill this trip, and I enjoyed the dishes I can't easily find at home. No regrets is among my best vacation memories.

Without ever eating at their easier-to-find online next-door neighbor, I knew Harry's was superior, and felt like running into the kitchen and releasing the legions of chefs into the wild, along with the lobsters, where they could do more good in the world. I would send them up to Miami to convert their faithless chefs.

Harry's isn't a cheap meal, but a great value. I considered walking back next door to Puerto Madero to hold up my hefty receipt, raise my shirt to reveal my full, extended belly and proclaim to their smug rejecting host, in a toothy, Julia Roberts smile, Big mistake!

But I just flagged down a bus and took my seat. I allowed the giddy driver's wild ride to help me digest. As he careened through down the dark, curvy highway, I made a note to self: Delete Trip Advisor.

Au Pied de Cochon: Montreal -- Baby, It's Cold Ootside

Never name your pets if you live on a farm.

Montreal's most innovative eatery, Au Pied de Cochon (foot of the pig), is owned by a pig and duck farmer who also harvests prize maple syrup. He concocts gastronomical masterpieces where he features each item singularly or combines them in a brash, showy combination that ends up on the news, or on the plate of a Michelin rater. He also specializes in foie gras, a dish at which I am never angry.

Au Pied de Cochon is in an older part of Montreal where the buildings are low and the cobblestone streets seem too narrow for cars. It's the kind of hood with low trees, the part of town where witches live and drunkards gather in pubs and plot to overthrow the tyrant king.

The restaurant is tiny and packed -- exactly like the sausages so tastefully created by the chef. There was a party of four huge men (probably Yanks) attempting to sit at a table by the entrance, but they literally wouldn't fit and had to leave. We were first at a table near the entrance, but the host had the good sense to avoid a fit and move us to the best table in the house, in front of the window on the old, picturesque street.

The busgirl laid a small loaf of bread directly on a napkin on the table, as if to say, This bread is so fucking amazing that it stands alone and needs no plate or basket. I wasn't going to touch the bread but within seconds, I was on it like a priest on a choirboy.  It was fantastic bread, with the thickest, crustiest crust I had ever had -- the veritable John Huston of breads.  Later, I regretted eating the bread, only because we noticed the busgirl suffered from a terrible case of eczema. She obviously felt that a sleeveless shirt exhibited that best and to clear a table, and that tucking the bread under her scaly arm made it easier to manage the dirty glasses and cutlery.

I started with 100 grams of foie gras, seared in maple syrup from the chef's farm, and tossed with chunks of ham raised by the chef, and pineapple. Normally I would think the ham was gilding the lily, but this was a terrific pairing -- and all elements were from the same farm! It was tasty, not too sweet, and gone in sixty seconds. I would have hit the table and yelled, "Encore," but I had a lot of food coming and it was kind of noisy in there.

For my main course, I ordered the Pied de Cochon Melting Pot because it was touted as the most comprehensive sampling. Blood sausage, garlic sausage, super-slow-roasted pork shoulder, and a tiny pork chop, protecting the softest, gooiest mashed potatoes I have ever had, all snuggled together in the little pot:

Each meat was tastier than the previous one. My fork darted around the pot, jumping from meat to meat like a promiscuous tap dancer on Smash. I reached over more than once and helped myself to Bob's Duck Magret. He didn't really notice because the woman dining next to us had really shiny, dangling earrings, the kind bought at a craft fair that included a "story," and that kept distracting him. Later he wondered why he wasn't full.

Two tourists, likely from China, Korea, or Viet Nam, you know, one of the richer countries, sat at the table next to us and were relishing in this Montreal "must do." One ordered the duck in a can -- a marvelous presentation where the chef heats the duck they canned right in that restaurant. Once ordered, the chef heats the whole thing up, and the waiter opens it table-side with a hand-cranked can opener, and in a flashy show, once opened, the tin is dumped onto the diner's plate -- amid flashing of cameras and tiny oohs and aahs. By me.

that's the can in the center of the table.
My mashed potatoes were so gooey that I vowed to replicate them at home, but I had to know the secret to do that. See this shot of the kitchen? I took it through the plants, so the kitchen looks like a Viet Nam jungle and the chef looks like Rambo before he had a facelift. (These little hanging bags hold just-spun-with-maple-syrup-fresh-from-the-farm cotton candy.)

I hopped over the half-wall and grabbed Chef Rambo by the neck and wrestled his chubby body to the ground. I demanded to know how he got those potatoes so gooey. He wouldn't even give me the courtesy of a reply. I began bashing his bandana-wrapped head against the bricks, spitting out my demands between bashes -- "How (bash) did (bash) you (bash) get (bash) those (bash) fucking (bash-bash) potatoes (bash) so (bash) gooey (really hard bash), you (bash) French (bash) bitch (big final bash)?!"

He still wouldn't speak, and probably couldn't after all the bashing. I was spent, and released him. We both collapsed against the grimy, duck-greased wall, heaving, gaining our breath back. I wiped my brow, reached up, grabbed a loose duck confit leg and nibbled.  I wiped my chin and struggled to get up.

In court, I will say I never touched that non-English-speaking chef.  The waitress cheerfully offered up the secret to the potatoes -- they add an obscene amount of cheddar cheese curds, the fattiest part of the cheese. I over-tipped her and left. 

Although we had taken the luxurious subway to the restaurant, I obviously needed to walk off my hostility, and meal.  After walking about half an hour, we happed upon a fantastic chocolate joint, where I resisted eating any chocolate.  I did, however, have a crepe laced with salted caramel and fried bananas. I took a picture of it, but I'd rather show you the type of chocolate this family-themed cafe features.  This confection puts the Kama Sutra to shame. It depicts many naked, obviously limber, and sexually aroused men and gravity-defying women engaged in what most would call a sex act. I left immediately, out of shame and guilt. 

As I walked away, I thought of the dude ranch where I worked one summer in Colorado and adopted a little pet pig, Arnold, and why one should never, ever name your farm animals. They might end up on my plate.

Momofuko: Toronto - Avoid the Crowd

Toronto is like if NYC and LA had a baby, then abandoned that baby in the cold, expecting the endless community of new, towering skyscrapers to raise him.

Toronto has theater, nightlife, beautiful parks, and sits on Lake Ontario which is so vast you will think you are staring at the sea. They also have some terrific restaurants.  I was most excited about eating at Momofuko, without actually fuko-ing some host in NYC to get a table. Since it's currently #93 on the 2013 list of the world's best restaurants, the Big Apple branch has a wait list as long as, well, what I would fuko them with.

Only open a few months, the Torontonians haven't caught the Korean-American fusion fare fever. While I wish culinarily hung chef/owner David Chang much success, me rather love his food long time than wait in line long time. Did I mention it's freaking cold up there?

Ignore the crazy-ass sculpture out front. Obviously Barbara Walter's asked Chang what tree he would like to be and he said A dragon, with birds all over my body like flying leeches and maybe it can look like a jellyfish too or a scratch on my back from the birds.  Walk past fast.  I'd post a picture but you're aboot to eat.

Once safely inside, the warm walls with their dark colors are wombishly comforting.

Momofuko Toronto dining room

A womb is where babies are grown, and must have inspired his most popular dish --  the steamed pork buns. This must be what baby tastes like. The pork is so tender it seems more than steamed, more like it formed from vaporous meat and an angel gracefully floated the newborn down, gently placing it between the firm, yet comfy soft-as-a-baby's-bottom buns.

steamed pork buns

The welcoming bowl of chilled spicy noodles (noodles here are served as authentically cold as a Korean mother-in-law) with sichuan sausage, spinach and cashews was next.

spicy sauasge over rice noodles with spinach

I took the warm bowl from the kind waitress, thinking how different the service might be in NYC.
I dug my chopsticks fearlessly down to the bottom of the bowl, careful to grab just a bit, then pausing as I pulled out to pick up a little passenger of each ingredient on my way out.  As I took the first bite, I wanted the flavors to introduce themselves to me, one by one, so I cleared my throat to get their attention. The shockingly hot spice took advantage of my open gullet's hospitality and settled in nooks and crannies of my throat. I tried to warn my dining companion but I sounded like Stephen Hawking trying to spell h-o-t.  This might burn three times, I noted.

I know people come for the Fuji apple kimchi, but after trying it, I don't care to know those people. It's not the nasty feet-like taste of kimchi, that's not it, really, I promise.

fuji apple kimchi salad

This dish was missing the acid from the apple as much as Apple misses acid-dropping Steve Jobs. I wanted the dish to be better. But life's too short so I left the wimpily flavored salad and fortified my strength with mussels.

mussels in fermented soy garlic broth

As I forced the shell open as if I were a mean gynecologist, strong garlic wafted up protectively and let me know this dish was no pushover.  Trace amounts of fennel and fermented soy could be found as I dredged the bowl with the porcelain spoon, wishing for bread.

The service was caring, warm, and most likely not to end up in fisticuffs like perhaps in might down South in NYC. The waiters took turns bringing dishes to our table; maybe to get a look at the guy who was ordering so much food, or maybe because they understood the higher concept of cooperation and wanted to get the food to the guests as quickly as possible both to ensure better quality of the chef's art and to get us out faster and have another party seated to perpetuate a clever but logical lather-rinse-repeat interpretation of order-serve-repeat.

Other benefits for crossing over to the cold side is that Toronto is a great place to film movies and television shows. Parts look enough like NYC to use it as NYC, and those Cannuck rubes are attitude and union free, so you don't have those grumpy Teamsters and pesky SAG rules that get in the way of completing your project. Their streets are wider so you can close them to film, unlike NYC, where only parades, natural disasters and babies-in-a-well shut down 5th Avenue.

Americans like to cast stones after we cast our ballots if the election doesn't go our way; disgruntled yanks threaten to yank themselves right over into Canada if the wrong party prevails -- handy since most Canadian cities are a stones throw away from the US border. That vast tundra holds the promise of free-health care and a lack of guns, which may be connected.  And they don't hurl paint on you for wearing fur.

As I left, I was really, really rude to the hostess. She was shocked and as the tiny tear streaked down her tender, gentle face, I told her that it was for her own good. Soon, the New Yorkers would find out the Momofuko Toronto secret. She needed to get used to it.