(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.

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Indian sweets, Vik’s Chaat, Berkeley, California.

One of my favorite cultural experiences is to discover, all at once, the existence of a genre or subgenre of ethnic food that I had no previous awareness of. At their best, they leave a charged, atmospheric memory that informs impressions of that food from then onwards—the shared excitement of encountering Southern Indian dosas and uttapams for the first time in college, stumbling on ethnic Russian restaurant Gostiny Dvor in the alleys of Dongdaemun in Seoul to get my first taste of the sweet and doughy sourness of Russian dumplings, or pelmeni.

Despite my Proustian introduction to this post, Vik’s Chaat’s Indian sweets were unlikely to brand my memory with chamcham and mava jamun. I suppose I was already pretty familiar with the rudiments of Indian desserts anyway—no stranger to rosewater, pistachio, khoya (dried evaporated milk solids, like in gulab jamun), or cardamom. If you’ve experienced the mainstays of Indian dessert menus—gulab jamun, kheer, rasmalai—you’ll have a pretty good sense of what you’re starting with here.

Still, walking into the enormous cafeteria of a restaurant, in the warehouse-y region of North Berkeley, I expected myself to walk away bedazzled. Kid-in-the-candy-shop, like. The display cases of sweets are impressive—you wrap around them while waiting in line to order your meal (in our case a delicious cholle bhatura and a lamb baida roti, though pass on the dhokla, a fermented rice and chickpea cake that is made in advance and relatively flavorless.) The classic supermarket checkout tactic, the tempting ambush of candies and sweets.

Needless to say we went for it, ordering the following:

  • Pink chamcham – paneer, rose syrup, khoya, pistachio, sugar
  • Yellow chamcham – paneer, saffron, khoya, pistachio, sugar
  • Mava jamun – milk, khoya, rose syrup, sugar
  • Petha – ash gourd vegetable and sugar

Flavor – 2 / 5. I likely would have been significantly more awed by these desserts if they tasted better. They were too sweet, though, and had that quality that syrupy desserts have when they’ve been sitting in their own syrup for too long—stagnant, cloying.

Note that this shouldn’t dissuade a visit to Vik’s Chaat for their meals, which are exceptional and cheap. If you want to sate a sweet tooth, stick to their tasty rose lassi.

Fun – 4 / 5. There is a reason I got excited by these in the first place. It has the variety and visual stimulation of a candy shop. Of course, candy shops get old quickly when you can no longer stand pure, undiluted sugar.

Funkiness – 1.5 / 5. Most of these desserts aren’t very funky at all—again, consisting of ingredients you’ll find in any Indian restaurant dessert menu. The petha was the item that caught my attention—“Ash gourd vegetable? Intriguing.” I’m too often a sucker for quirky sounding food names—turns out this is nothing more than winter melon.

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Lobster and clams, Round Pond Lobstermen’s Co-op, Round Pond, Maine.

Lobster roll, Fisherman’s Grill, Portland, Maine.

Saison Dell’Aragosta, Oxbow Brewing Co., Newcastle, Maine.

LOBSTER BEER. *Mic drop*

I’m going to be completely candid off the bat that I’m largely using the excuse of lobster beer to talk about my experience of lobster across the state of Maine. Since at least 1836 when the Burnham & Morrill Company started to can lobster for general consumption, lobster has been a universally recognizable foodstuff, if a little exotic seeming (just look at the damn things). Since the 1920s, it began to gain an aura of luxury, in stark contrast to its early years when prisons would serve lobster to prisoners—and prisoners complained about it.

To soapbox briefly, the history of the lobster lends a certain perspective on our culinary mores. If lobster, the very archetype of American luxury food, was once considered repulsive and bizarre, then the future-minded eater ought to be looking to what we find disgusting today for inspiration *cough* insects *cough*. Entomophagy, baby. I bet we’ll all be eating tarantula all’arrabbiata and grasshopper pie (the literal kind) in a decade’s time.

In the meantime, we can all agree on lobster’s luxurious virtues—and Maine’s special claim to crustacean excellence. My only resolution, visiting the state for a recent wedding weekend, was to eat as much lobster in as many forms as I could find it.

Round Pond Lobster Fisherman’s Co-op offered the most conventional lobster experience, a stone’s throw away from Damariscotta, the cute, quaint, very New England town the wedding was held.

  • Flavor: 4 / 5. It’s a lobster—you know what that tastes like. But these are lobsters fresh off the boat, boiled by pros, meaty and messy with their simple melted butter dipping sauce and boiled corn sides. All for only $7 a lobster.
  • Fun: 3.5 / 5. Right on the water, the view on a foggy, quiescent summer afternoon is gorgeous. Add to that lobster’s status as the only food that you not only can wear (a la lobster bibs), but kind of have to. It’s an interactive eating experience—learning how to crack open lobsters is second only to learning how to use chopsticks in the childhood pride you get in honing your dining chops.
  • Funkiness: 1 / 5. Just a lobster.

Fisherman’s Grill in Portland was the product of Yelping “best lobster roll” on the long drive up from Boston. It boasts a four-lobster lobster roll. Four lobsters. Four. Lobsters.

  • Flavor: 5 / 5. Four lobsters hits the spot in a way that fewer lobsters can’t. The roll comes full to overflowing with perfect lobster meat—juicy with just the right level of chewy, perfectly mayoed, succulent with flavor. Doesn’t get much better than this. Which is why it was $35.
  • Fun: 4 / 5. It’s huge! And you don’t have to crack any shells or anything, just chow in on some lobster meat. Instant fun. Lobster just feels fun, doesn’t it?
  • Funkiness: 1.5 / 5. Again, just a lobster.

Oxbow Brewing Company was the weird detour for the sake of getting their Saison Dell’Aragosta, a beer they boil lobsters in (they eat the lobsters themselves, otherwise that would be something I’d love to get my hands on). I couldn’t resist trying it, especially as I’m already a fan of saisons.

  • Flavor: 3.5 / 5. A good, solid saison. Ultimately it didn’t taste much like lobster (often the case with crustacean beers—see oyster stouts for a more findable example). But it was a good, refreshing, tart and crisp beer.
  • Fun: 3 / 5. Most beers are fun to drink—this one is also fun to talk about.
  • Funkiness: 3.5 / 5. Lobster beer! Say no more. This one gets instant quizzical looks from companions and onlookers, regardless of whether or not you are getting strong lobster tail notes from it.
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Eating out in Guangzhou, Guangzhou, China.

My first restaurant meal in China. Where do I begin? The key expectation you need to have when eating out in China (really: eating, period) is that you will eat. Like, marathon-style. You don’t stop just because you are full. God help you if you ‘simply can’t fit anymore’—this isn’t the way it works out here. Someone will put more food in your bowl and look at you with that most Chinese of facial expressions: “Well, you do like it, right? Good, eat more then!”

Looking at the timestamps on my photos, we had new dishes coming out for a solid hour (they never come all at once). The whole meal lasted nearly two hours, which is not at all untypical, and doesn’t get broken up into appetizers or dessert, so you really just keep eating. And eating, and eating. In order of appearance above:

  • Appetizer plate with stuffed lotus root, “Five Treasures” (shrimp, peanut, scallop and two other things), fried oysters, fried pork, and squid and vegetables
  • Red wine, in this case not of the typical disgustingly sweet Chinese variety
  • Crispy pork belly with lotus roots in casserole
  • Mixed mushrooms and seafood stuffed in beancurd pouches
  • Fresh fish of the day (as yet unidentified) in a ginger soy sauce
  • Braised big head fish with pork belly, black mushroom and turnip in garlic
  • Sweet dim sum dumpling with something in it, unidentified
  • Fried chrysanthemum with orange tangy sauce
  • Mushrooms and winter squash in a cream broth (not pictured)

For seven of us.

Flavor: 4 / 5

The appetizers left something to be desired—the lotus root was mushy and the rest of them nothing memorable. But the chicken (especially around that beloved bone) was tasty, moist and well-flavored. The smaller catch-of-the-day fishes had a distinct kick of flavor which was nicely matched (not overpowered) by the soy ginger sauce, and the beancurd pouches were yummy and fun to eat—just like the tofu-wrapped rice you get at Japanese restaurants, with better filling.

My favorite was the fish head, which was smooth, moist, exceptionally flavored by the rich pork belly and garlic sauce, and far too much fun to eat—this one in particular had a bit of a crispness on the outside to contrast the softness inside. For all you still walking on the vanilla side of culinary life, please go out and get yourself some fish head.

Fun: 3.5 / 5

Few food experiences compare with a first outing at a true Cantonese restaurant, family-style—especially not when you have a real Cantonese family to do it with. From the giant ornate glass lazy-susans to the flashy gold gilt interiors to, of course, the absolute butt ton of food, it’s a no-joke feast. The wine helped it all go down, but my stomach still had some expanding to do at the time of this dinner.

Funkiness: 3 / 5 

If Mr. Chicken in picture #3 puts you off, this may not be the meal for you. But there wasn’t much else that was so terribly strange (and I don’t think anyone tackled that shriveled Mr. Chicken head). Pork belly: boooring.

I personally found the vegetable dishes more intriguing than the meat and fish dishes. Lotus root, while not terribly uncommon in Asian restaurants here, is indisputably unique, with its light crunch and hole-y shape. The spiky chrysanthemum, in the last picture, was a fascinating little treat (especially because I have no idea what it actually looks like in real life). The flower itself was very light tasting, with more of a starch than a vegetable texture. Deep-fried, with the orange sauce, it made for a great post-dinner snack.

And OK, OK, I’ll admit fish head is weird. I’ll give you a little Weird Dish secret tip, though. You don’t really need to dig through the whole fish head to get the biggest payoff. Fish cheeks have all the soft moistness of the rest of the fish with much less of the work—and there’s a lot of it. Next time you get a baked or fried whole fish, try probing the sides of the fish head for a bit to find those cheeks—its well worth it.

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Sweet and sour duck, China day 2 lunch, April’s mother’s house, Wuyangcun district, Guangzhou, Guangdong province, China.

We only ate half of the duck in our dinner my first night here. A literal, symmetrical half, right down to the organs. The other half was prepared in a delicious sweet and sour sauce this morning, and so began my first introduction to the Cantonese culinary mantra: eat everything.

Flavor: 3.5 / 5

Prepared here (top photo) with sweet and sour sauce, water chestnuts and a crunchy fishy tasting vegetable (which I’m just calling a sea cucumber for now), this tasty and moist duck was practically flaking off the bone.

Fun: 4.5 / 5

And I mean every bone. Oh, like the thigh bone and the shoulder bone, right? Sure, those, but also, pictured below, the skull bone and the foot bone, which is apparently ubiquitous in Cantonese culture. Each has their own unique texture, and part of the idea behind all the bones is that the flavor and tenderness of the meat is at its best the closer you get to the bone. Guangzhou folk squabble over who gets which bones in almost every meal. This was my first real bone-chewing experience, and it took every bit of my chopstick dexterity to simultaneously keep a hold on the slippery duck skin and probe the crevices of bone, joint and cartilage to find the last little bits of tender meat.

Funkiness: 4 / 5

The experience of chewing around the bones of a freshly slaughtered duck would be weird enough if I weren’t also given the choicest bits of the duck (bottom photo), the duck feet (middle) and duck skull (bottom), pictured here next to the putative “water cucumber”, dried (left). Duck feet is nothing but bone chewing, and to properly suck off all the meat, fat and skin, you need to tear through the joint tissue connecting each segment of toe bone. So yea, doesn’t get much weirder than breaking and sucking on duck toe bones—at least, not until weirder things than duck come along.

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Breakfast in Guangzhou, day 2. 

Breakfast is a simple meal out here, unless you manage to wake up for an all-out dim sum feast, likely lasting well into lunchtime. In this case, we had the straight-to-the-point ‘Powder tea’, featuring a ground up melange of different fruits and nuts mixed into hot water. The second picture shows the ingredients: goji berry (called wolf berry out here), black sesame, red bean, oats, apple, date, some unidentifiable vegetable known in Chinese as huaishan, and walnut.

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China day one dinner, April’s mother’s house, Wuyangcun district, Guangzhou, Guangdong province, China

My first night and first meal in Guangzhou, which managed to make up for my 18 hour plane transit and my luggage lost in Shanghai (since returned).

I already had my suspicions, but I immediately learned that there is no such thing as a single dish in Cantonese dining—not by a long shot. Giant cod, cross-sectioned, topped with soy-and-ginger-infused winter vegetables (center, top photo). Songyong Tibetan dried mushrooms and local donggua winter squash (middle photo). Duck on the bone with a soy-scallion dipping sauce (top left) and cilantro tofu with pork (top right).

Flavor: 4 / 5

The cod stole the show, with a great sweet soy flavor and silky smooth texture, especially around the skin and bonier areas (more on the Guangdong obsession with bones later).

Fun: 2.5 / 5

And just look at the size of that chopped cod’s circumference. Aside from the fun of simply being in a new culture eating homemade food off of a newspaper tablecloth, there was plenty of “What in the world…” value at first glance, on the count of the giant cod circles, the squishy-soft local squash with the texture of boiled pear (admittedly another dish you’d likely only find in China) and the reconstituted dried Tibetan mushrooms (bottom photo)—dried foods being another local motif that will come up again in future meals here.

Funkiness: 2.5 / 5

While still a relatively new cultural experience, the shock value of this meal was very quickly dwarfed by subsequent Cantonese meals. The “what in the world…”, in this case, was quickly explained by my hosts, and the meal could be roughly recreated from ingredients at Whole Foods—although, of course, the unique way they threw it together was still plenty to sate my appetite as both a blogger and an eater of weird foods.

Five more days jam-packed with crazy Cantonese cuisine to come.

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