I've been traveling at an increasing rate these past couple years and have had some amazing food moments, including eating king crabs in a Norwegian hut just minutes after they were pulled out of an ice-capped fjord. Sometimes though it's nice to skip the trip and stay home. With that in mind, here are four food, wine, and beer experiences from Spain, France and South Korea that are just a subway ride away.
Tucked in nondescript projects of 9th Avenue in Chelsea, Alex Raij's Txikito is a true gem in casual dining. The Basque small plates restaurant produces a wide range of Pintxos that rivaled the ones I've had in San Sebastian. Highlights include creamy croquettes and homemade pork sausage. Fresh head-on shrimp and salt cod are vibrantly fresh, while the slow cooked suckling pig is as good as it sounds.
Across town the following week, I snagged a table at Jimmy's No. 43 for a Beer and Cider dinner celebrating all things Spanish with guest chef Patti Jackson (formerly of Trulli). The five-course occasion began with Boquerones with Cauliflower crema. There were the requisite croquettes (I never get tired of these) along with a pork belly served with chickpeas and kale. The latter was paired with a terrifically bitter bottle of unfiltered cider, delivered in a traditional long pour that's as fun to watch as listen to. It brought me back to Bilbao. Iberian Beer United supplied a number of interesting beers for the other courses including an extra stout served on draft from l'anjub.
Just this past Sunday, Jimmy hosted a Homebrew Jamboree organized by beer writer Josh Bernstein that showcased some of the best beers being brewed in homes, DIY style. Some like the Strong Rope Brewery are on the verge of switching into commercial production while most are just guys with a passion for beer. One of my favorites, Doug Flamm, was pouring coffee milk stout that walked a nuanced line between bitter and sweet, creating a depth that lingered pleasingly on the tongue. Another favorite was Ryan McMahon's Rye Guy PA, made with Centennial, Amerillo and Sterling hops. It's worth noting: I didn't taste a bad beer throughout the event.
Uptown, wine was the focus at the French Institute Alliance Francaise where Eric Asimov kicked off the winter wine tasting series with a fascinating talk on French wines. Using a map of the country for illustration, he broke down key components of a number of regions and why some were undervalued, the Loire Valley in particular. We tasted a superbly drinkable yet complex muscadet that kept revealing itself till the last drop and a chinon that was possibly my favorite wine of the evening. Produced by lauded vineyard Bernard Baudry in the Loire's Chinon, this cabernet franc is perfectly smooth on the palate with fruity undertones. The Loire, Asimov pointed out, is a great source for undervalued wine -- one of the many notes I took that evening.
I spent Valentine's Day on the other side of the world (or the east village) where the Korean fried chicken joint Mono + Mono hosted a lavish multi-course dinner with pan-fried porky appetizers, impeccably fresh octopus (the whole tail was left on for the "just caught" effect), their awesome double fried chicken, and filet mignon marinated in red wine with raspberry puree. After that desert was a blur but the bottle of pomegranate-infused soju that came with the meal was a nice accompaniment of mellow deliciousness.
Asia's been on my mind as of late and have been plotting to plan a trip to Japan since seeing Jiro Dreams of Sushi. In the meantime, I'm looking forward to Japanese Restaurant Week (March 4 - 18) when 35 restaurants will prepare special local dishes to capture the country's dinning experience. Look out for Ekiben, bento boxes sold in Japanese train stations. Here, they'll be available at Grand Central.