The Holiday Hangover

I hate the holiday hangover. It feels like shit to go back to work after the completion of an amazing trip abroad. Recently we spent a month going around the world, visiting fantastic places, seeing incredible people, and eating some of the best food of our lives. We spent time in Hong Kong, Milan, Rome, Positano, Bilbao, San Sebastian, Zaragoza, Barcelona, Girona, Zurich, and Boston. We ate at Bo Innovation, Tim Ho Wan, Cracco, La Pergola, Imago, Akelarre, Mugaritz, and Arzak with many others in between. Now that’s one hell of a trip!

But once we return home, face the reality of regular life, the enormity of the credit card balance, and the growing expanse of my waist, a sinking feeling sets in. Wouldn’t it just be easier and much less expensive to simply stay at home? Why do we have this insane obsession with seeing the world?

And then we reflect. We spend an afternoon gazing through the thousands of photos we took on the trip. We open the gorgeous cookbooks and remember some of the incredible dishes we tasted. We read some of the tweets from the new friends we made around the world. And then it hits us – these are the reasons we travel.

It’s the so friendly and helpful people of Hong Kong, who not only helped us find Tim Ho Wan (1 Michelin starred dim sum madness) but spent time translating the full menu into English for us. It’s chef Alvin Leung (Bo Innovation) sitting down with us and giving us tips on the Spain part of our trip.

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It’s seeing the Alps for the first time on the train ride from Zurich to Milan.

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It’s standing on our balcony next to the Duomo in Milan, Nastro Azzuro in hand, watching the world go by.

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And it’s standing in the middle of the Colosseum, right where the gladiators walked into the arena thousands of years ago. It’s talking ourselves into spending a couple hundred Euros each to visit La Pergola and being seated outside in time to see the sun set over Rome and the Vatican. And it’s the look on my wife’s face when she sees the dessert surprise. It’s also another amazing sunset at Imago, above the Spanish steps, and having the most incredible ravioli we have ever tasted.

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It’s arriving at our room in Positano and having our breath taken away by the view. It’s listening to my in-laws (they crapped on about it for years) and taking the little-red-fish boat to Da Adolfo and having one of the best seafood lunches on earth. And it’s growing some balls and climbing up to a little rock arch and jumping off into the Mediterranean. It’s also about spending the night on our balcony, eating luscious prosciutto, and drinking fantastic Italian wine.

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It’s seeing a pinxtos bar for the first time in Bilbao and diving right in.

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It’s checking into our room in San Sebastian and realising that not only do we have a gorgeous balcony but it looks right over the sea. Not only that but realising that it’s festival time in the Basque country and that we’re smack in the middle of a weeklong party! It’s the sunset at Akelarre and then having some of the best food of the trip, top that off with meeting Chef Pedro Subijana!

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It’s being complete idiots and booking the #4 and the #8 restaurants in the world, Mugaritz and Arzak, on the same day… for lunch and dinner. Yep, that’s thirty-nine courses, and seven hours of eating later! But it’s having simply the most enjoyable meal ever at Mugartiz. It was the food, the kitchen tour, scoring an authentic apron, enjoying dessert outside, buying a copy of Mugaritz BSO and then being lucky enough to have Chef Aduritz sign it in person and then thank US for coming.

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It’s meeting both generations (and genders) of Arzak chefs the moment we walk into the restaurant for dinner. And senior Arzak telling us he loves a “little restaurant in Sydney called Tetsuya’s”.

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It’s making the best decision of the trip and spending an extra 60EUR a night to get a balcony in our room at Hotel 1898 in Barcelona. And then eating mammoth amounts of tinned seafood with cheap-ass sangria each night. It’s also having the best sandwich on earth – nothing but tomato smeared bread and jamon Iberico.

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It’s being convinced to hire a car and visit Dali’s house in Portlligat. And being greeted by a freaky stuffed polar bear as we walk in the front door!

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It’s being bummed that we couldn’t get into El Celler de Can Roca in Girona, no matter how much I harassed them by email and Twitter. But it’s then finding an amazing gem in NU Restaurant, where we sat at the bar and the chef cooked a mind-blowing degustation menu for us.

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And then him loving our Spanish attempts so much that he started ad-libbing dishes for us, taking a photo of us together, and plying us with shots of an alcohol available only in Girona.

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It’s finding out that Zurich is fucking expensive. No, really. Really.

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It’s seeing my parents and best friend for the first time in two years and my mother putting on her annual luau. And it’s my best mate looking like a complete dumb ass.

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It’s $12 lobsters in New England.

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It’s taking my mom, dad, and wife to a Red Sox game and my dad wearing his Australia hat for the whole day. It’s dad and my wife pissing themselves with laughter during the sixth inning. And it’s the Sox winning and my dad smiling like a little kid.

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It’s finishing our trip with a freaking cool ice cream sandwich at Coolhaus LA...

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and then having what some consider the best burger in the world at Fathers Office.

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And it’s giving each other a kiss on the cheek on the flight home.

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Guess all that travel is worth it after all.

Cracco - Advante Garde Italian Fare (Michelometer at 5*)

When we were planning our world food journey earlier this year I wanted to visit Osteria Francescana in Modena to experience Massimo Battura's cooking. I had met him at last year's Crave Food Festival in Sydney and the stories he told about his creations were inspiring. Unfortunately, August is holiday season in Italy and the restaurant is closed. So we decided to visit Milan instead and see what great food we could find there. I booked Cracco after seeing it at #82 in the World's 50 Best Restaurants (yes, I get the irony in that statement!) and was hoping we'd experience some of the leading edge Italian cuisine that chef Carlo Cracco is known for.

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I have to say, at the last minute I got spooked. The reviews on Trip Advisor were not at all positive and I was worried we would blow a good amount of cash on a meal that wasn't what it professed to be. To say the least, we're glad we stuck to our instincts as it was a beautiful meal and well worth the visit. 

To be fair, the dining room is a bit sterile with no windows and limited ambiance, and the waiters to indeed hover closely. But to be honest, we liked the place and the attention we were given by the staff. The only two drawbacks we experienced were that a) they didn't enforce their dress policy (a group of Japanese tourists wandered in wearing shorts) and the heaviness of some of the dishes could have been balanced better (more on that later). But all in all it was fantastic. 

We decided to go with the "... in ten years" menu, which is the chef's idea of what an Italian tasting menu will be like in ten years. It started with a few amuse bouche, our favourite of which was a light piece of bread with salmon roe and caviar. A good sign of things to come! After that came a caramalised Russian salad. It's hard to explain what this was like but it had a hard, crunchy candy outer shell filled with creamy vegetables. By far this was our favourite dish from the night.

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Next was a crème brulee with vanilla oil and sea snails. I know that the idea of snails may put some people off but trust me, this is absolutely divine. The savoury custard base was light and fluffy and the vanilla oil and snails added a richness to the dish that really scored with us.

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The next two dishes were really light, which was good as later on we faced an onslaught of amazing but very rich dishes. The red shrimps with cocktail sauce was a play off the traditional shrimp cocktail but the chef added thin strips of prawn meat that were constructed using some technique I couldn't place. Maybe there is meat glue at work here? Not sure...

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Next up was the sea scallops, cucumber salad, wild fennel, with almonds and black olives. The scallops were incredibly tasty and the mix of ingredients (including the powerful wild fennel) made for a great dish. We definitely wanted more of this one.

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And this is where the wheels started to come off for the Gourmet Female. The marinated egg yolk dish was incredible but it was so very rich - even I had a tough time finishing it. With the mixture of egg yolks, parmesan (heaps of it), and other rich ingredients it was quite a bit to eat in one go, let alone as the sixth dish of the meal. Luckily, it was followed up by our second favourite dish of the night, rice taglionlini with Calvisano caviar.

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I would love to recreate this dish at home. I know the caviar would be astronomical in Sydney but it just simply blew us away. It was the perfect balance of light and heavy, simple and complex, and it was the perfect size to recover from the marinated egg yolk. 

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By this time I was into a groove, devouring dish after dish. One thing I'd recommend if you do visit Cracco is to either go very slowly or to ask the wait staff to space out the dishes some. We had only a couple minutes between dishes which didn't give us much time to recover. So while I was ok, the Gourmet Female worried about the heaviness of the next dish, slow roasted pork cheek with scampi and green tomatoes. Now, this dish got a special mention on Trip Advisor, with some woman complaining about the fat to meat ratio in the pork cheek. Seriously, if you don't know that pork cheek is almost all fat then you shouldn't be spending your money on a 2 Michelin star meal. Stick with pasta. In any case, the dish was a guilty pleasure and we thoroughly enjoyed it.

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What would have been ideal at this point is another light dish but the next bite was goat milk ravioli with mushrooms and herbs. As you have probably guessed by now, I ate all of mine straight away but the Gourmet Female began to fade. The tastes were sensational and the goat milk cheese was phenomenal, but it was very rich and was a hard dish to back up from the pork cheek. On its own it would be a great starting dish to a three course meal but it was quite heavy in a ten course degustation.

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The chef called an audible with the pigeon dish. This wasn't what was on the menu but I have to say, it's the first time I've eaten pigeon and if it's usually cooked like this it won't be the last! Fantastic. The only thing I had to get used to was staring down pigeon feet while I nibbled on it's tasty meat (this wasn't intended to be poetry, apologies).

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Once we started to get into desserts things got interesting. I remember picking strawberries as a very young kid back in Massachusetts and I would love the taste of the fresh berries as they matured and got sweeter with age. But to be honest, I'm beginning to think they were a different fruit. The strawberries in this dish with wild strawberries and  marscapone cheese were out of this world. Beautiful! 

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And it was all finished off with coffee jelly with rum zabaione. We did find this dish in a couple other restaurants, including Imago (review to come) but this was unique and a great way to cap off our meal at Cracco.  

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If you're ever in Milan I'd encourage you to take time (and the cash) to visit. The creative degustation menu is incredible, albeit sometimes very heavy and rich. But this is advant garde Italian food at its finest and you'd kick yourself if you missed out on one of the best meals in Italy. Ciao!