Hunters and gatherers aren’t what they used to be, and the quest for food is no longer about mere sustenance. Today we seek out food that excites and delights us, and we’re willing to cross oceans and continents to find it. Modern food odysseys have become luxury travel experiences—educational, entertaining, sense-awakening journeys with penetrating insights into cultures through cuisine. Let’s explore three cities high on the list of globe-trotting foodies, each destination in the international spotlight for star-studded restaurants, inspired chefs and avant-garde gastronomy.
Basque flavors and star chefs are transforming global cuisine.
When art and architecture lovers descended on Spain’s Basque country in the late 1990s, it was to behold the spectacular Frank Gehry-designed Guggenheim Museum Bilbao. Serendipitously, they stumbled upon a regional cuisine informed by the Basque landscape: cured ham and dried bean stews in the hill towns, and fresh fish and seafood along the Bay of Biscay. Fresh ingredients are essential to both traditional and nouvelle Basque cuisines, including sauces designed to complement salted cod, among them a red pepper sauce called Vizcaino, or Pil-Pil, a mouthwatering blend of steamy hot garlic and oil.
Guggenheim Bilbao still ranks high on most Americans’ bucket lists. But today’s pilgrimages are increasingly designed around food—particularly around San Sebastian, the Belle-Époque epicenter of Basque culinary superstars. Just an hour’s drive from Bilbao, San Sebastian is a global epicurean resort with world-renowned, Michelin-decorated restaurants, including Arzak, Mugaritz, Restaurante Martín Berasategui and Akelarre.
Chefs at these restaurants are on the cutting edge of cocina de vanguardia (avant-garde cuisine), most notoriously the molecular gastronomy often attributed to Ferran Adrià and his celebrated but now closed El Bulli restaurant hundreds of miles away in Catalonia. Adrià’s wizardry with aerated gels and foams garnered international publicity, but insiders credit Juan Mari Arzak of Arzak restaurant in San Sebastian with paving Adrià’s way. Known as one of the fathers of New Basque cuisine, Arzak shares the kitchen with his daughter, Elena Arzak, named the World’s Best Female Chef of 2012 by Veuve Clicquot.
A must-visit on every foodie’s list, 110-year-old Arzak is consistently ranked in the top 10 of The World’s 50 Best Restaurants list and was the first Basque restaurant to receive three Michelin stars. While classic Basque recipes are the foundation of this fourth-generation family restaurant’s menu, science informs its dishes, among them monkfish with gooseberries served on computer screens instead of dinner plates.
The star du jour of Basque high-tech cuisine, chef Andoni Luis Aduriz of Mugaritz, actually apprenticed at Ferran Adria’s El Bulli, and his 11-course tasting menu is a 2 ½-hour epicurean adventure. Preconceived notions about food shatter with dishes like “edible stones,” presented to all first-time guests. The stones are potatoes cooked to look just like pebbles, and Aduriz wants his patrons to take a leap of faith by eating them. The reward is a meal that is shocking (the beef carpaccio turns out to be watermelon), entertaining and brimming with alchemy.
You’ll need a taxi to get to Rekondo, a favorite traditional restaurant halfway up Mount Igueldo with scenic views of San Sebastian and La Conca beach. The fare includes classic Basque asador or “grill,” with the most famous dish chulete de Buey, a perfectly grilled steak for two. A tasting at Rekondo’s 100,000-bottle wine cellar, named one of the top five wine cellars in the world last summer by Wine Spectator magazine, can be arranged through the local food tour operator, Foods of San Sebastian.
The company also tailors tours of insider Basque-style tapas bars known as pintxos bars, though you’ll find many of the finest in plain sight in the Parte Vieja (old section), including BordaBerri, Ganbara and A Fuego Negro, a Euro chic bar where the “coffee” is actually ham soup with almonds served piping hot in a coffee cup.
Where to Stay
Maria Christina, a landmark since 1912. The impressive Belle-Epoque building filled with marble and chandeliers has just been restored. Take advantage of the spa specializing in hydrotherapy.
Hotel Londres y de Inglaterra, with its lovely location on the renowned shell-shaped beach, Playa de la Concha, has also been refurbished, with room décor rivaling wonderful sea views.
Hotel Villa Soro, a charming boutique hotel in a renovated 19th-century palace, is just 10 minutes from Zurriola Beach.
What to Do
The Guggenheim Museum Bilbao is a must-see as much for its Frank Gehry architecture as its permanent collection by Basque and Spanish artists Eduardo Chillida, Juan Munoz and Antonio Sauro. Stay for lunch at Nerua: Chef Josean Martínez Alija’s restaurant in the museum received its first Michelin star in 2012.
Detour to the Rioja wine country two hours away and head to Bar Los Caños in Haro. Built into the vaults and arches of what was once the former church of San Martín, the bar serves local Crianzas and Reservas.
Book a tour of a sagardotegia (cider houses like Zelaia, Lizeagaor Gurutzeta), where between January and April visitors can visit cavernous fermenting rooms and taste new cider straight from wooden barrels.
Where to Shop
Buy a traditional Basque beret at CasaPonsol, where the Leclerq family has had their clothing store since 1838.
Rifle through Spanish designer fashions at Does En La Carreta, including the popular Madrid house, Tormeto.
Bring home a traditional Spanish fan from Darlington, which also boasts a nice selection of Spanish jewelry.
Study the selection of Basque gastronomy produced by local artisans at Jurlan, which carries everything from Rioja wine to foie gras.
The Gulf Coast Connoisseur Club is hosting a “Discover Spain” trip Sept. 5-15 with an itinerary that includes San Sebastian and some of the hotels and restaurants featured here. Info: authentescapes.com.
Thirteen million people, and almost as many tantalizing tastes and innovators.
This year, the Michelin Guide awarded its coveted three-star ratings to 17 restaurants in the Tokyo area. By comparison, Paris eateries earned 10. But where does a foodie begin in a city teeming with 13 million people, scores of restaurants and cuisines to be explored, and a language barrier that seems insurmountable?
We went straight to the source: Japanese food writer Shinji Nohara, the go-to translator and guide for celebs like Anthony Bourdain and food critics around the globe. Shinji’s moniker, the “Tokyo Fixer,” makes sense when you learn that many of Japan’s temples of gastronomy still follow the tradition of not accepting reservations from newcomers. It’s a cultural thing—restaurateurs show respect for longtime customers by requiring newcomers (locals as well as tourists) to be accompanied or referred by a patron.
Another cultural nuance became apparent when we asked for Shinji’s pick of Tokyo’s not-to-be missed dish or menu items. He composed a list of 17, each with his preferred restaurant for experiencing that item. That’s the way it is in Japan. In a land where food kings are crowned for masterful skill, locals seek out the top tempura, soba, sushi or kaiseki (a traditional multi-course dinner) prepared by a specialist.
That’s why Shinji’s tours are always customized. He grills potential clients on their food preferences, adventurousness, allotted time and budget. His fee starts at $250, and tours can be tailored to include sightseeing, art and museums and shopping.
A visit to Tsukiji, the world’s largest and most famous fish market, is on most culinary travelers’ itinerary. With some 65,000 employees, the sprawling wholesale market sells more than 400 different kinds of seafood and includes countless shops, from those selling Japanese cooking tools and groceries to restaurants. “Many sushi restaurants in the fish market are overrated, because even though everything is fresh, the quality also depends on how it is caught [single line, troll or huge net], which port it is from and how it is shipped to the market,” Shinji cautions. He recommends Sushi Dai and Ryu Sushi. Visit now, because Tsukiji, which has been in the same location since 1935, is scheduled to move to the Toyosu neighborhood in the Koto Ward in 2014.
If you’re confident in your own restaurant editing skills, you might plan a tour that ticks off choices from the Michelin Guide. Topping most foodie lists are chef Seji Yamamoto’s three-star Nihonryori Ryugin and Yoshihiro Narisawa’s two-star Narisawa. They are the only two Tokyo establishments named to the S. Pellegrino list of the world’s top 50 restaurants for 2012.
A luxury food experience should also include up-and-coming superstars, and Shinji’s picks are standouts. He likes Shinobu Namae’s new L’Effervescence for contemporary French cuisine done with Japanese élan (Namae worked at Heston Blumenthal’s Fat Duck in Bray, England, and has already earned his first Michelin star). Equally intriguing are Seizan and its 32-year-old proprietor, Haruhiko Yamamoto, who trained for more than a decade at the renowned Takada Hassho kaiseki restaurant.
For the ultimate immersion in old-Tokyo elegance, Shinji recommends chef Koji Koizumi‘s new Kohaku, which serves nouveau kaiseki in a charming neighborhood called Kagurazaka. In less than a year, Kohaku has earned two stars from Michelin. Shinji also recommends the gourmet Italian fare at Aroma-Fresca and Ristorante Aso and the Kyoto-style cuisine at Kyoaji, among Tokyo’s finest. Notorious for his refusal to accept the Michelin Guide’s three-star award, chef Kenichiro Nishi admits new diners at Kyoaji only if brought by a regular.
Where to Stay
The Peninsula Tokyo in the heart of the city’s chi-chi Ginza district (some rooms have views of the Imperial Palace), and within walking distance of coveted restaurants and designer boutiques.
Four Seasons Hotel Tokyo at Marunouchi, a haven of high-end design and high-tech luxury In Pacific Century Place, the work of architect Kenzo Tange.
Park Hyatt Tokyo will be forever remembered for its role in the Sofia Coppola movie Lost in Translation. The lobby is perched on the 41st floor of the sleek Shinjuku Park Tower and is noted for its popular New York Bar.
The Ritz-Carlton Tokyo offers rooms with incredible views on the top nine floors of the Midtown Tower. Book early to reserve a Japanese-style room with tatami mats and futons or private dining in a 200-year-old teahouse.
What to Do
Visit the new Tokyo Sky Tree, now the world’s tallest tower, which opened in May 2012 with two observatories with a glass outer “air corridor” to get to the 450-meter deck.
Show them America’s got talent at Tokyo’s top karaoke bars: Big Echo, Mancy’s or Karaoke Kan (where Bill Murray sang in Lost in Translation).
Admire the cherry blossoms in April at Kitanomaru Park and Ueno Park.
Get a sense of history at Sensoji (Asakusa Kannon Temple), Tokyo’s oldest temple, and visit Meiji Shrine in Harujuku, a Shinto shrine in a 175-acre evergreen forest.
Where to Shop
Omotesando Hills, a 34,000-square-meter complex with 100 shops and restaurants.
Roppongi Hills for international high-end brands and Japanese shops.
Rub elbows with Gwen Stefani’s Harajuku Girls, who like to shop in the world-famous Harajuku fashion district.
Online Exclusive: Shinji Nohara’s list of where to go and what to order in Tokyo.
Sushi, Sushi Sho
Wagyu Beef, Shima
Unagi (fresh water eel), Kabuto
French Pastry, Hidemi Sugino
Japanese Pastry and Macha, Higashiya
Chocolate, Toshi Yoroizuka
Craft Beer, Baird Harajuku Taproom
A city known for commerce and architecture now sets the standard for food.
Chicago’s growing reputation as an international haute cuisine destination may surprise those who associate the Windy City with steak houses and deep dish pizza joints. But celebrity chefs like Grant Achatz of Alinea, Jean Joho of Everest and Giuseppe Tentori of GT Fish & Oyster are generating a buzz that’s attracting tourists who, in a recent survey, rated the food even above the city’s famous architecture as a star attraction.
Chi-town threw down the gauntlet when it defied New York in the pizza wars, first branding its pastry-inspired thin crusts with the prefix “Chicago,” and then with Ike Sewell’s invention of Chicago-style deep dish at Pizzaria Uno in 1943. Fans of Sewell’s buttery crusts (with the caramelized edges of a fruit pie engulfing sinful amounts of cheese) are still queuing up at the original Pizzeria Uno—and at Due, a second outpost around the corner.
Today, revolution and invention continue to drive Chicago’s restaurant scene. While diehard steak lovers still flock to Gene & Georgetti for the best wet-aged T-bone in the city (and perhaps the world), globe-trotting foodies angle for reservations at the flamboyant new David Burke’s Primehouse, a modern iteration of the classic steak house where innovative dry-aging techniques produce a bone-in rib eye that borders on sublime.
Alinea is the top-ranking American restaurant on the 2012 World’s 50 Best Restaurants List sponsored by S. Pellegrino. Chef Grant Achatz is known for pushing the envelope with “mad-scientist” vapors, gels and foams, his technique-driven deconstructed cuisine best sampled in the prix-fixe Tour menu, with items like “woolly pig with fennel, orange and squid” or “scallop acting like agedashi tofu.” Diners are advised to allocate at least four hours to experience the 20-course tasting of bite-sized courses suspended by wires or served directly onto the table.
By contrast, Relais & Chateaux grand chef Jean Joho is renowned for reinventing the great classics of French cuisine with American ingredients. At four-star Everest, he combines delicacies like foie gras with diced pineapple or caviar with the humble potato and turnip; to honor his homeland, Alsatian wines star in dishes like roasted Maine lobster in Alsace Gewurztraminer butter and ginger.
Achatz’s groundbreaking new restaurant is aptly named Next. It features a ticket-only reservation system and a menu that changes every three months. Chefs Achatz and David Beran pay homage to luminaries like Escoffier or Ferran Adria with the quarterly menus, or to culinary destinations like Sicily (through Sept. 9) and Kyoto (Sept. 15 through Dec. 31).
Goosefoot is a tiny 34-seat restaurant where chef Chris Nugent incorporates classical French techniques into a menu crafted of artisanal farm ingredients. Choose from eight- or 12-course tasting menus brimming with creativity with items like sunchoke soup with potato, shrimp and truffle essence.
Celeb chef Stephanie Izard, who opened Girl &The Goat two years after winning Season 4 on Bravo’s Top Chef, has been named one of Food & Wine magazine’s Best New Chefs. The Goat (a Chicagoan term of endearment) serves up irresistible small plates (a misnomer because each is a fully executed dish). The selection is divided into three categories: meat, fish and veggies, with standouts royal red shrimp ceviche with white asparagus or creamy pork liver mousseline.
Hip new Nellcôte is high on Chicago’s hot list for its decadent glamour and chef Van Camp’s French American soul food with an Italian twist. Try the Sunnyside Up organic egg pizza with fontina cheese and Perigord black truffles, or the stinging nettle tagliatelle with morel mushrooms and pecorino.
Headed by Michelin-starred chef Giuseppe Tentori, the sleek new GT Fish & Oyster does inventive takes on classics like oyster po’boy sliders with kimchi and peanuts, or Sitka Sound king salmon with sticky rice, mushroom dashi and fiddlehead ferns.
Where to Stay
Radisson Blu Aqua Hotel in Chicago’s new 82-story architectural marvel, Aqua, designed by Jeanne Gang and anchoring Lakeshore East.
Public Chicago, Ian Schrager’s reinvention of the Gold Coast’s famed Ambassador East Hotel and its historic Pump Room restaurant, with food by James Beard award-winning chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten.
Ritz-Carlton Chicago for stunning dining and service and an exclusive venue, with Magnificent Mile shopping right at your doorstep.
Park Hyatt Chicago for rooms with spectacular
unobstructed views across the city, and for
the opportunity to sample chef Ryan LaRoche’s award-winning cuisine at the hotel’s Michelin Star NoMI restaurant.
What to Do
Explore Chicago’s newest neighborhood, Lakeshore East, a 28-acre enclave just south of the river and north of Millennium Park. Don‘t miss the amazing taste treats at the frenetic 55,000-square-foot Mariano’s Fresh Market.
Wet your whistle with a signature Smash cocktail at Maude’s Liquor Bar, a chic new interpretation of a Chicago speakeasy.
Go to a concert at Pritzker Pavilion, where you’ll hear everything from gospel to rock.
View the newly renovated Indian Art of the Americas and African Art galleries at the Art Institute of Chicago. If there’s time, renew your love of Impressionist art at the world-renowned collection, featuring works collected by Sarasota’s own Mrs. Potter Palmer.
Where to Shop
Don’t miss the treasures gleaned from shopping across the globe by A-list interior designer Alessandra Branca at her Pearson Street boutique, Branca.
Shop with Chicago’s social elite on Oak Street, where elegant boutiques like Hermès and Prada are found in wonderfully converted town houses.
The Miracle Mile offers luxury brands from Bulgari to Polo Ralph Lauren. Follow the length of Michigan Avenue from Chicago River to Oak Street.
Shop the Sample Sale Suite at the Chicago Merchandise Mart; the Design Center’s annual furniture sample sale is Nov. 18 and 19.