André is Back In The US And Has Stories To Tell
First, I guess an apology is in order. As some of you may know, I am producing the worldwide and domestic broadcast of LIVE EARTH on 7.7.07, and the workload and schedule of this project hasn’t allowed me the opportunity to contribute to this blog as often as I wish… so I’ll use this opportunity to talk about world travel and eating across the globe.
Not to ignore New York or LA where much is happening on the scene…. In New York, where the Dept of Health continues its post-Taco Bell rat rampage, some of the city’s more famous spots continue to shutter...and then reopen. The NYC scene is the most vital and everchanging in the world today, so I would suggest you hit www.eater.com to stay on top of it.
In LA, where the newest Pinkberry location shares headlines with the stargazing at the insanely popular Mozza, the scene is heating up. Culver City is becoming a destination (did I actually say that?) and West Hollywood continues to blossom. While the new Katsuya may be the sexist joint in LA, this is a town where the new Dougboys location gets the same amount of press in the blogs.
Traveling around the world the last few months have been a culinary eye-opener for me… as I revisited several of my favorite spots, and discovered new gems. To try and keep these thoughts somewhat organized, lets blast through the world in an orderly fashion, shall we?
THE UNITED KINGDOM
My airline of choice remains Virgin Atlantic, where even a coach seat feels more special than some business class trips I have been on. On Virgin, Premium Economy is now the deal of all deals, as these seats have been exchanged for wider, more comfy reclining seats for a slightly higher price, and Upper Class… well, it’s simply the best class of service in the air today. Is there another airline that offers flat beds with duvets, order-at-will meals, a fully stocked bar and in flight massages? Thank you Sir Richard Branson.
The pub scene remains unchanged, although a smoking ban is on the way. Still, is there nothing better than a plate of fish and chips with a cold pint in a pub that’s been around for 200 years? I think not. Sure, the Indian food remains the best in the world, the Chinese food in SoHo is killer and the mini celeb-chef community (Brian Turner, Gordan Ramsey, etc) continue their dominance, but the sum of these parts still equal a rather boring and lifeless scene compared to NYC, and Tokyo. Maybe this will never change.
The money situation. Already expensive hotels and restaurants are now insane, thanks to the Pound dominance over the US dollar, now nearly 2-1. Broken down this means your taxi ride from Heathrow into the city will cost you $100 US dollars, a decent lunch $40 and a pint of beer $7. Ouch.
Not much has changed here in the last 10 years, other than the giant wheel on the Thymes and the decline of the dollar. Do yourself a favor and hit Spain, where the scene is a bit spicier. Hell, Paris may be a better deal these days.
A number of airlines fly into Johannesburg, but again I recommend Virgin from London if you begin this trip on the other side of the Atlantic. The red-eye flight from London is smooth, and waking up with your feet on South African soil is cool as it gets.
Jo’berg (as it is referred to) is one of the most evolving cities in the world today. Known for its natural beauty, extreme poverty and renown crime streaks, the city is bursting at the seams with creative expression… evolving from a society now free of apartheid. The warmth of the people in South Africa is infectious, and their climb to become recognized as one of the world’s great destinations is inevitable.
Not knowing much about South African food, I was lured to “The Butcher Shop”, one of the more famous eateries in the country, at Nelson Mandela Square. Having been told that the beef would be some of the best I had ever eaten, I was skeptical…. I mean, I live in NYC.. give me a break.
Well, I stand corrected. This restaurant serves the best steak I have ever put in my mouth.
The secret? A small farm outside of Jo’berg that raises the cattle. The aging process. The preparation. Flawless. I’ve had Argentinean beef, Kobe beef, USDA Prime. Forget them all. This is the real thing. On top of the astounding quality of the meal itself, I scarfed down a large steak, giant baked white sweet potato, asparagus, 2 glasses of wine and desert for $37.25. And that was with a generous tip. Amazing.
Well, there are many things not great, although signs point to continual improvement. The poverty is obvious as you drive through the city. The poor line the streets in affluent neighborhoods selling wares and cooking food on the sidewalks for those who work for the rich. Safety is a concern. Like in all cities, you need to be careful in Jo’berg as the areas change quickly.
As I was leaving South Africa, I was already thinking about a return trip. For all of the problems here, the people and natural beauty are too much to overcome. There is a love of life and enduring spirit here that makes us pause in thought… this is the place where we evolved as humans (Maropeng is an hour north, where many believe is the birthplace of man). Humans shares over 99% of the same DNA… and nowhere is this more evident than South Africa… where you feel part of one human race.
Take your pick. Americans can fly from the US into many Germany cities (I was in Hamburg). Inter-euro flights on airlines like Easy Jet are cheap and fast. Train travel may be the most efficient in the world, next to Japan.
Well, I have a soft place in my heart for Germany, and it’s mainly the street food. Yes, the wiener.
Is there anything better than walking up to an immaculate streetside kiosk, and ordering a hot, grilled bratwurst with mustard and crusty roll? Or a currywurst, in its sweet and tangy sauce? I think not. Forget German restaurants. I’m thrilled drinking cold German beer and eating off of the street.
Did I mention that Germany is clean? Having been to Berlin many times, my first trip to Hamburg was a completely different experience. This is one of the greenest cities on the planet, with lush, leafy trees lining nearly every city street. The inland lakes are stunning, and the Hamburg residents take every advantage of their natural surroundings by crowding beer gardens and cafes from morning to night.
Oh yea, you can buy just about any shoe on earth here. Hamburg folks dress to impress and love their shoes. Not to mention this is the birthplace and home of Nivea, so skincare and cosmetics are a big deal, too.
Where Germans in Hamburg are polite, they are not downright friendly like the Italians or Polish. Don’t expect to get invited into someone’s house for dinner. Additionally, our friends in Hamburg don’t cater to english tourists. You’ll rarely find menus in english unless you are in a touristy area, and that’s if you are lucky.
It’s all about the sausage. And the cigars. Yep, you can find good deals on Cubans here, so remember to take the bands off when you walk them through customs. Germany is a wonderful place to visit, but this isn’t one of those trips you begin looking for people with your same last name in the phone book or pretend you are apartment hunting. Enjoy and move on….
I prefer ANA Airlines. The folks at ANA may have the best service in the air, and the business class cabin looks like someone’s apartment. It’s that clean and nice. And you get cool ass Japanese slippers, too. The seats are built into beautifully crafted wooden encasements that include privacy dividers. The seats are comfy, even for those of us of large girth, and the food is terrific.
Well, Japanese service. I’ve said for many years that Asian hotels set the world standard in service, and I still believe it. My stay at the Hilton Tokyo wasn’t the Park Hyatt in terms of opulence, but was terrific in it’s own right.
The other thing that makes Japan remarkable is its ability for the ancient and modern to coexist side by side. Make no mistake about it, Japan leads the world in technology and they use it in all facets of daily life, including urban planning. It’s fascinating to watch the millions of people in Tokyo move effortlessly through the city, and even more amazing to stumble across a Buddhist Temple a block away from a Starbucks.
Food wise, Japan is loaded with what you might think… sushi and noodles. My favorite dish, Tonkatsu, or a fried pork cutlet with steamed rice and Japanese pickles, is such a staple that there are outlets in the city that serve only that dish. There are still street side robato bars with tender, marinated grilled meats as well as steamed buns filled with sweet red bean paste. But believe me, there is more to Tokyo than traditional Japanese fare.
American and Euro-styled cooking is hot in Japan. Four and Five star restaurants abound in the city… and now more than ever, young upcoming chefs are traveling to Japan to craft their trades.
Well, being from North America, jet lag still remains the #1 challenge of a trip to Japan, closely followed by the overwhelming amount of non-english signage. Did you see Lost in Translation? To top it all off, the longer then life airplane trip over is followed by an hour and a half train trip to the city from Narita Airport. Ouch. Lastly, as easy as it is to find people on the street who speak English in Europe, it is equally as difficult in Japan. You’ll be fine in tourist areas, but veer off the beaten path and you are on your own.
I simply love Japan. From the modernist buildings and amazing hotels, to their ties to ancient tradition, this is a country that everyone should visit, if only once. Once the most expensive city in the world, Tokyo is now somewhat affordable… opening the doors to many who are now making it a destination of a lifetime.
Good luck. It’s so far that no matter who you choose, your butt is going to be on fire by the time you get there.
My trip to Shanghai was an adventure. I had been to Hong Kong, but let me tell you, Shanghai is about as different from Hong Kong as two cities can be.
Shanghai is the fastest growing business hub in the world today. In fact, 1/5 of the world’s construction cranes are in Shanghai. It’s taken Shanghai to build as many buildings in 12 years as it took NYC to build in 40. The buildings in Shanghai are unlike any you have ever seen… incredibly modern, gleaming structures, that look like a hybrid and Manhattan and Las Vegas. Really.
The hotels in Shanghai range from just OK to downright fantastic. The Westin Bund, a 10 minute stroll from the famous “Bund” walk, is an incredible facility with what I firmly believe is one of the best breakfast and lunch buffets in the world today. Imagine a buffet scattered throughout an opulent, lofted hotel lobby, that includes every item in an American, English and Japanese breakfast… and then add Chinese dumplings, steamed buns, noodles, tender pork, chicken, well you get the picture. Unreal. We ate for 2 hours.
Outside of the hotel, the experience is one of a kind. Walking the streets of Shanghai, vendors wok noodles and veggies on the sidewalk, shopkeepers water their produce and salesmen hawk cheap wares and cigarettes. I visited one of the most expensive restaurants in China as a special guest, and was rewarded with a setting that resembled a palace from the Ming Dynasty… almost like a movie set. While the food was delicious, the meal of my trip came later in the evening (or about 2:30am in the morning when the restaurants are still doing business) when I ate the best salt and pepper crab I have ever tasted in my life. Did I mention the pork dumplings? Wow.
By the way, the stuff I bought on the street was 1/10th the price of the hotel and airport shops. Do some street shopping and you’ll be well rewarded. I filled a bag with goodies and had spent $11 bucks.
Getting around ain’t easy. Additionally the airport is an hour out of town, and in the middle of nowhere. Do yourself a favor and arrange a pickup from your hotel before you leave. Also, hailing cabs can be tricky, as the color of the cab usually dictates the expertise of the driver. Consult your hotel staff before you start hailing cabs off of the street in Shanghai. Believe it or not, many have no idea where even some simple places are located (or at least they pretend not to).
Go. Go to China. They love meeting Americans, and they love selling their wares. Also, many of the misconceptions you may have about the far east will be put to rest. China has much to offer the world, and we should all be connected with their society as 1 in 6 humans live here. This is a fascinating culture, and I continue to understand more and more about them on each visit. Here is your opportunity to do the Olympics and visit an amazing place.
Any way you can, that doesn’t include a flight on Delta, the worst international carrier on the planet. If I meet one more 60 year old flight attendant, I’m going to jump out of a window.
Well, Rio starts and ends with its beaches. The beach life here is hard to put into words, as life itself revolves around the sand on Copacabana, Impanema, Leblon and Bahia beaches. They hit the sand at dawn and remain until the wee hours of the morning, when they go home, take a nap, and repeat. They love life and enjoy simple pleasures.
Food in Brasil is rather straight forward… its all about meat. Churrasaria Porcao remains the favorite of the locals in Rio (you can find locations in NYC and Miami as well) but recently, more international friendly if not upscale restaurants have been stealing the headlines. That said, you can get the cutting edge fusion food anywhere, so why not embrace the meat? When in Rome.
Well, it’s hard to look at the window from the ride into town from the airport without a lump in your throat. The poverty is so overwhelming, you can’t imagine anyone living in those conditions. Brasil has a long way to go to elevate their social classes and they know it.
Additionally, traffic is a major problem here, and continues to worsen. As the population grows, the roads continue to crumble… meaning that city leaders will need to take serious measures, and soon.
Rio is unlike any city in the world. The terrain is special…and the city rests within the steep cliffs and green mountains of what you could call a visual paradise. Even though crime continues to be a real problem, you can have a safe and enjoyable trip as long as you stay in main areas and surround yourself with lots of people.
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