(From top) Crab, trout roe, avocado, and apricot cream ‘pate’ | tomato bread | cod croquettes with honey foam | Catalan monkfish with romesco | lobster with chicken broth, mango, and anise | hazelnut coulant with mango sorbet | more hazelnut coulant (for good measure), Compartir, Cadaques, Spain.

Food has a unique power to build anticipation. Sometimes which food hardly matters—we’re so hungry that the expectation of any food gets us salivating. Ending the day after a long hike with just enough trail mix to sustain our blood sugar, we’ll often take anything, the simpler and hardier the better.

When traveling, on the other hand, it’s easier to anticipate a single, specific meal, all the better if it has an aura of luxury or idiosyncrasy. When we travel, we spend the day exercising our ‘taste’ in the first place—appreciating works of art at a museum, appreciating the sights and architecture of a city, appreciating local culture. Our metaphorical taste buds grow well-honed, our physical ones ready for the promise of an exceptionally good meal.

Of course, this kind of anticipation requires either advance planning or a serendipitous guide. While my parents would plan family trips down to the lunch and dinner (sometimes plan the trip around them), I’m lucky if I have all my accommodations reserved the moment my plane touches down.

That leaves outside help. Lean on locals, this goes without saying. But often it’s up to chance whether those locals really, truly know the quality of their local food. (El Farolito is the most ‘local’ restaurant in the Mission, but that doesn’t mean it’s the choice for a traveler with limited time.)

I spent a day in heavy anticipation of Compartir, a recommendation of fellow travelers during a scuba diving excursion in the Cap de Creus. It came unexpected—out of a calm casual conversation about their travels in Cadaques, they grew suddenly animated, like they needed to share this experience. ”Best food experience I ever had,” or some variant thereof may have passed their lips, but “former elBulli employees” and “molecular gastronomy” sold me. The restaurant was started by three elBulli sous chefs, elBulli being the Catalonian Michelin 3-star restaurant judged by Restaurant magazine to be the world’s Number One restaurant a record five times.

Upon further investigation, Compartir was itself ranked the number one restaurant in Cadaques on Trip Advisor, a less prestigious if far more accessible honor. (And yes, I’m someone who can’t help but corroborate an individual recommendation against an ‘objective’ review site. Life’s too short for bad food.)

It felt like striking gold—a well-received restaurant with a strong culinary pedigree recommended serendipitously at the end of a long, fulfilling day. And it boasted a menu with dishes no more expensive than your typical San Francisco mid-ranger.

While not reaching the molecular gastronomic complexity of elBulli, Compartir has plenty of tricks up its sleeve. The first dish of crab, trout roe, avocado, and apricot cream ‘pate’, served in a studded porcelain gourd and served with a thin toast, was what you’d imagine a gem mine to be like as a child—studded with color, almost inexhaustibly rich. You pass through a cluster of salty roe and puffs of apricot cream to unearth layers of avocado and crab meat, all of which soaks up the oil and the salt from the tiny explosions of the roe. The porcelain gourd gives it a somehow living quality, like this is some magical shellfish you just popped open (my imagination might be getting the better of me, but doesn’t that roe cluster look like a delicious sea creature brain?)

The cod croquettes came accompanied by the most discernably molecular gastronomic touch to the meal: honey foam. (Microgastronomy is most famous for its transmogrifications of foods from one form to another—a solid to a liquid, a scent to a solid.) A relatively simple touch, the foam was, however, perfect with the cod balls, giving it an almost kettlecorn-like quality: just the right level of sweetness to balance the salty softness.

While tasty, my memories of my Catalan monkfish entree were outshadowed a little by conversation and a lot by my jealousy of my friend’s lobster dish. I spent more time plotting how to get more of his than I did appreciate my own, which had a California cuisine-like way of emphasizing the monkfish’s light, plump flavor with subtle accoutrements—crushed almonds, a sort of squash puree, olive oil, parsley, and scallions. The lobster was a fascinating kitchen sink, ingredients pell-melling around but still keeping themselves confined to the limits of the shell. It would be entirely deserving of the sobriquet ‘Lobster a la Picasso’ for its angular, cubist presentation. (It looks like like one of those guitars, doesn’t it?) Flavor-wise, imagine lobster reimagined as chicken stew—topped with chicken broth and stew-cut carrots and celery.

And then, well, nothing could hold a candle to the hazelnut coulant which ended my meal. The coulant (a meltier souffle) cracks open to release a molten hazelnut essence. If peanut butter prays to any god, this is it. The mango sorbet guarantees multiple harmonies: the cool and the tart matching the warm and the rich.

Flavor: 5 / 5. I would give it 5 / 5 for the pate dish or hazelnut coulant alone. The latter was probably the most memorable dessert I’ve eaten all year. Despite my food envy, my Catalan monkfish was delicious and entirely deserving. But do yourself a favor and order that lobster 😉

Fun: 5 / 5. While the ingredient combinations and the touches of molecular gastronomy were among the more creative I’d seen, the fun chiefly came in the presentation. Just look at those dishes! Food done well is a visual art, too—we call it ‘food porn’ for a reason.

Funkiness: 2 / 5. Outside of the salmon roe, there wasn’t too much about this that rocked my weirdness world. The honey foam was certainly novel, but not revolutionary. But it’s a fantastic way to dip your toe in the water of molecular gastronomy without breaking the bank.


Clam Chowder Puff Pastry, Scotland Yard, San Francisco, CA.

As a youngster, I always found clam chowder bread bowls among the most exciting mainstays of Fisherman’s Wharf or any similar oceanfront neighborhood. The way the bread soaks up the creamy broth, the joy of scraping and eating the resultant flavor-packed slush, the mischievous pleasure in ripping and eating large chunks of your bowl before you finished the soup.

Stopping off at Scotland Yard in the North Beach, I couldn’t pass up this riff on the classic. Served in a large ramekin, the clam chowder broth is topped with a giant, flaky puff pastry crust instead of the classic sourdough bowl.

Flavor: 2.5 / 5. The puff pastry was nice—soft, flaky, well-balanced in its oiliness. The soup itself left a little something to be desired—a little too briny, a little too watery and insubstantial. Soaking slivers of the puff pastry in the broth was eminently satisfying, but it was the satisfaction of someone who likes to play with his food, not someone who needs to fill his stomach. Get another meal on the side.

Fun: 4 / 5. A fun, welcome twist on a classic, nostalgia-inducing dish. Plus it’s just fun to punch holes into a puff pastry cap and find soup underneath. It’s like a monster-sized xiaolongbao—soup surrounded in dough always has something delightful about it.

Funkiness: 1 / 5. Nothing particularly crazy about it—more novel than weird. But I still love the mashup.

The Pig & Kraut, Brasserie St. James. San Francisco, California.

I have real respect for a dish that’s so massive and imposing in its dimensions that the photographer struggles to get a shot that does it justice. Due to low light conditions and an irresistible urge to start eating, I failed. The above will have to do.

No regrets. Brasserie St. James’ pork knuckle is something that has to be lived anyway—felt, picked up, pulled on, stabbed at, and of course eaten—not simply seen. Crispy and braised, its landscape is one of the most varied of meats I’ve ever experienced. Tender pulled pork here, the chewy goodness of pork rind there, the flavor concentrated skin surrounding it, steaming pockets of fat throughout, and that moistness you only get with meat cooked close to the bone. Topped with a stone-ground mustard and parsley and served with bacon apple kraut and mashed potatoes, the dish does one of the best jobs I’ve seen of the Germanic meat and potatoes model outside of central Europe.

Flavor: 5 / 5. The perfect meat-eating experience if you like your meat more on the wild side—big, bone-in, unwieldy, and a little confusing (“Where do I start?”) This pork knuckle is tasty, well-textured, nicely sauced, and accompanied by sides that are delicious in their own right.

Fun: 2.5 / 5. Anything dish looks as big as your head is bound to be fun. And digging into a boney dish is always more interactive than a straight cut of something.

Funkiness: 2.5 / 5. One of the more offbeat varieties of pork out there—the pig knuckle (or ham hock) is roughly the equivalent of the human thigh. Its boney protrusion and general shape makes it seem slightly more identifiable (and thus a little more “eww”-inducing) than your typical pork cut, but not by a whole lot.