Discovering Poland, Romania, Wales, Croatia, Montenegro, Bosnia and Herzegovina, revisiting Germany and Oman, and making a number of tasty trips to India and England - Life literally handed me a very full plate in 2014!
But there have been a few stand-out moments along the way that made this year particularly Platetrotter-worthy. So if you ever find yourselves in the very special corners of the earth listed below, these are some places you just have to try:
With its romantic Medieval centre and haunting modern history, Krakow is a city I would return to in a heartbeat. And all the other good reasons aside, the best one would be Ancora, the Modern Polish restaurant in which I possibly tasted the best bisque of my life. If you ever visit Krakow, this is the place to head to on a cold winter's night for a bowl of life-changing crayfish broth.
Other must-tries: Krakow's gorgeous cafes and "milk bars" are a cozy collection of places stuffed full of antique furniture, glowing candles and crocheted tablecloths that create an atmosphere unlike any other. My top picks are Cafe Camelot, Singer Cafe and Mleczarnia.
BRECON BEACONS, WALES
My trip to the Brecon Beacons may have been a bit drizzly, but the wet weather led to a series of incredibly fortunate incidents that gave me a whole new understanding of Wales' proud industrial past. What I was probably happiest about however, was its incredibly exciting culinary present. My top pick - dinner at the Felin Fach Griffin, a gastro-pub hailed for its focus on locally-sourced farm-fresh food. From the moreish cup of butternut squash soup that arrived as an amuse bouche to the palate-bursting poached rhubarb dessert, this was definitely a fantastic spot to spend a rainy evening in Wales.
Other must-tries: I was pretty keen to try some Welsh wine but sadly didn't get the chance - a constant drizzle didn't make for the best winery-visiting weather. But that's something for next time...
BUCHAREST AND BRASOV, ROMANIA
Romanian wine is universally excellent, but its bars are equally interesting. From specialist vinotheques with walls stocked floor to ceiling with the country's incredibly rich variety of grape, to others decked out like apothecaries where you can sip a cocktail out of a test tube, and even a furniture store masquerading as a bar where you can decide which of the antiques surrounding you as you sip your drink may make a good addition to your home (handy price tags on your chair or the lamp beside you help make that decision pretty easy) - a bar crawl around Romania is a must-do for the quirky gems you are guaranteed to find.
Other must-tries: Don't miss a meal in the capital's atmospheric old caravanserai Hanul Lui Manuc, a 19th century inn that is one of the last of its kind in this part of Europe.
SARAJEVO, BOSNIA AND HERCEGOVINA
How amazing could a kebab possibly be? I suggest you answer that question yourself after trying a cevapi (Bosnian kebab) at Sarajevo's most famous cevabdzinica, Zeljo. From the moist, minced meat to the warm pita bread, sharp onions and thick sour kaymak, this is one place whose reputation as a place of culinary pilgrimage is very well deserved.
Other must-tries: If you aren't sure what to expect from a bar named after a goldfish bowl, Zlatna Ribica will defy your wildest imagination. A jumble of randomness that is stylishly put together, head here for a drink and the chance to add your own little scraps of memory to the sideboards full of notes from previous patrons.
Almost everywhere you eat in Poland, you will come across a dish that might not be very welcome in Transylvania.
It might seem a pretty odd - and brave - choice (and one you'd probably venture only if you were planning on spending the rest of the day alone), but for those of you who do decide to dip your spoon into the aromatic broth, garlic soup in Poland is a creamy delight.
My first introduction to garlic soup was in Kazimierz - the old Jewish Quarter in Krakow whose forlorn squares and close lanes would seem oddly familiar to anyone who has watched Schindler's List. (The area at the time the film was made had been deserted and left to the city's more unsavoury elements, and while scouting for locations Spielberg felt it more closely resembled the conditions of the Podgorze ghetto of the 1940s, which in reality lies across the river from Kazimierz.)
Kazimierz was, however, the site of the forced exodus of Krakow's Jews, many of whom met their end at the hands of the Nazi's brutal killing machine.
But Kazimierz's heartbreaking past has given way to a more hopeful future. Today it is the centre of Krakow's hippest underground bar and restaurant scene (literally - as cellar venues are popular in Krakow). As most of the city's bar hoppers chose to stay ensconced inside those cozy, candlelit spaces rather than take to the chilly streets when I visited the area, I'd imagine it would be a lot livelier in the summer months.
But I digress. The reason I began talking about the area was the restaurant where I tasted this incredibly comforting soup - an evocative place called Once Upon a Time in Kazimierz (Dawno Temu na Kazimierzu) that recreates the spirit of the little family run stores that once kept this industrious old quarter alive.
Occupying the corner of one of Kazimierz's main squares, the restaurant is a higgledy-piggledy jumble of tailoring, carpentry and grocery store paraphernalia which, lit by candlelight, makes you feel like you were walking into someone else's life from long ago.
The restaurant, as depicted in its clever menu which is made to look like a community newspaper, furthers the story by describing the owners of these old shops - we weren't quite sure if the stories were real but it didn't really matter, the concept was an original and charming one.
The menu, unsurprisingly, was heavy on Jewish staples such as czulent - a hearty stew that to me tasted a bit like the Brazilian favourite feijoada (although I'd imagine beef rather than pork most certainly formed the meaty base). The other main was a fruity stew called cymes, which was sweet and richly flavoured and I could have gotten through a lot more of the stuff than I managed to steal off the other plate :)
But as good as the other dishes were, my favourite was a buttery liver pâté that was, for some reason, called Jewish caviar. I haven't been able to figure out why and I'd imagine living in Dubai I may not be in the best place to start making too many inquiries about Jewish food, but the dish intrigued me.
It was velvety smooth and seemed to be made almost entirely of chicken liver and butter (although recipes online seem to suggest there may be a few other ingredients involved). Whatever it was, I would happily pick it off a menu if I ever came across it again :)
Actually, come to think of it, I may actually try to recreate it at home. Although I might have to rename it if I ever decide to serve it in the UAE ;)
If anyone knows the origins of the dish's name, I'd love to know the story behind it.
If there was one word I would use to describe dining in Poland it would be "surprising".
Surprising for the ingredients - like stuffed goose necks and smalec (pork drippings used as a spread on bread); the names of dishes - like Jewish caviar (which turned out to be largely chicken liver and boiled egg); and the locations of restaurants -including those housed in converted old bathhouses and brothels.
However, in terms of surprising flavours and presentation, there was one place that left a mark - the Copernicus, as intimate a restaurant as you could hope to find in the heart of Krakow's romantic Old Town.
The restaurant is part of the Hotel Copernicus - the only Relais & Chateaux property in Poland, and given the French brand's rich culinary roots, it's not hard to see why the food and service had a certain je ne sais quoi.
The surprises started pretty early with the amuse bouche, a moreish trio of pastry cones stuffed with a cream made from ricotta and forest mushrooms, and an appetizer of sharp Baltic herring with a beetroot salad.
And they kept coming...
Boldly flavoured starters of foie gras layered with gingerbread and plum, and sweetbreads served on a bed of saffron-spiced risotto...
Palate-pleasing mains that played with flavours and textures, including a creamy cabbage mash served with seabream and octopus and little balls made of what I believe was egg white. (The mysterious white balls definitely had me fascinated - I might try recreating them with egg white to test my theory.)
The other main - which I preferred - brought together autumnal flavours such as saddle of venison and a pear and pumpkin souffle.
Dessert also strayed away from the predictable, with refreshingly new flavours and textures such as pine ice cream served with a pine nut and poppy seed brittle that had that satisfying airy crunch of honeycomb...
And my favourite surprise of the evening - the sweet egg pre-dessert, which turned out to be an inventively constructed concoction of coconut cream and mango (the egg that isn't an egg pictured at the very top of this post).
Even the alcohol pairings eschewed the norm - with an Italian Recioto Di Soave being paired with the foie gras rather than a classic French Sauternes, and a deeply sweet quince liqueur accompanying dessert.
The best part about a meal at Copernicus Restaurant?
You don't have to head far to sink into bed after a decadently delicious dinner :)
The restaurant's location tucked away on the lower floor of what is one of Krakow's most atmospheric and storied hotels would be reason enough to pick it. The restaurant and most of the Hotel Copernicus' rooms feature Renaissance-era wood-beamed ceilings - and two of its suites even have beautifully preserved medieval frescoes, the staff were good enough to let us sneak a peak!
But even if you stay in one of the regular rooms as I did, I doubt you would find them lacking. The rooms have an easy elegance and have been thoughtfully restored with ingenious glass-paned roofs encasing the marble en suite bathrooms to preserve the original 14th century wood ceilings. Period furniture, full-length velvet drapes and hand-painted detailing on the walls gave the room a luxuriously warm feel in the depths of a chilly Polish winter.
Both the restaurant and the hotel are named after Nikolaus Copernicus - yup, the very same Polish astronomer you may remember from your old science texts who proposed the Earth revolved around the Sun. The famous astronomer used to visit the building in his day, at a time when it served as housing for the rich bishops who lived in the area.
The Hotel Copernicus is perfectly located for a post-dinner stroll, as Krakow's Wawel Castle, stately Old Town and popular Kazimierz district - home to the city's hippest bars and clubs - are all within striking distance.
If you prefer staying within its charming Gothic confines (it's very easy to succumb to that temptation), the hotel has a subterranean swimming pool housed in a medieval brick cellar of the same sort as you are likely to find many of Krakow's bars located in - and it's open 24 hours a day!
The Hotel Copernicus is meant to have an amazing rooftop, offering a panorama of the city's perfectly-preserved medieval skyline. Unfortunately as it was a fairly biting winter's evening, that vista remained unseen and I had to make do with the final surprise of the evening - a plateful of home-made Copernicus chocolates.
Needless to say, I wasn't complaining :)
I have to confess that while the sight of food (any food, generally!) makes me happy, it has been a while since I have been really, truly excited to pay a particular restaurant a visit.
I'm not sure if it's because of the bewildering array of restaurant openings that constantly pop up on the Dubai dining scene that leave one a bit baffled as to which dinner table to grace next, or the fact that I am a bit of a sucker for novelty.
I enjoy fine dining as much as the next person, but food I've never tried before always gains the edge in my dining escapades.
So it was very exciting to find them both at one Polish restaurant that caught my fancy when doing my pre-trip research before a recent visit to Krakow.
(On a side note, the dining scene in Krakow in general got me really hungry - so many quirky places to visit, so little time to cram as many meals as I could into a three-day trip to the city. Yes, I know most European capitals - or for that matter, Dubai - have a more varied and vast dining offering but Krakow had the thrill of the unknown and the unfamiliar, and for that reason, the more exciting.)
Anyway, back to the restaurant that had got me salivating even before I boarded the plane...
Anyone keen on the grand facade and grander interior may be a bit skeptical about my choice - the entrance to Ancora, tucked down a narrow cobble-stoned street in Krakow's Old Town, is unassuming at best. The interiors may have incited euphemistic descriptions of "smart-looking" and "clean decor" but would in all honesty be best described as bare. White walls with brick trimming and very spare tableware - if the restaurant's patron, Polish Chef Adam Chrząstowski, wanted to put the focus on nothing but his food, he has definitely succeeded.
But then again, when the food is this good it can confidently stand up to the scrutiny. Forget pierogi and golabki, this is Modern Polish (affectionately known as MoPo) at its best!
Chef Adam is considered by many to be at the head of the MoPo pack. His time spent in the kitchens of Switzerland, Poland and China have given his food the layered appeal of Swiss finesse, Polish appreciation for local produce and tradition, as well as the Eastern spice of experimentation.
Our meal was equal parts foreign and familiar in terms of flavours, textures and presentation which made for an excellent meal indeed.
Despite a rather interesting seasonal menu, we decided to opt for the a la carte offering as there were too many things on it that I wanted to stick my fork into. So the picks for the evening involved a mix of a few dishes that caught my eye and some of Chef Adam's graciously-guided favourites.
But enough chatter, it's time to let the food do the talking! Here are a few of my personal highlights from the night:
First Course - Crayfish soup with herb kulebiak
My dinner definitely hit a high note right at the very start. Ancora's crayfish soup - a smooth-as-silk creamy bisque - was the culinary highlight of my trip to Krakow. I'm not quite sure how Chef Adam managed to pull so much flavour out of those little crustaceans but it was so good my dinner companion claimed he would happily bathe in it! I definitely could have put away a great, big basin of the stuff myself :) The soup was served with a slice of kulebiak - a pastry pie traditionally stuffed with fish and the dish as a whole was the cause of much plate envy during the first course, despite the fact that the other appetizer - a fresh trout sausage served with crisp green apple - would have beaten most seafood starters in the flavour stakes.
Intermezzo - Cucumber sorbet with bison grass vodka
Forget the lemon sorbet, there are few flavours cleaner than cucumber and this intermezzo was both punchy with the vodka and quenching. Not to mention served in a very generous size that would put most miserly intermezzo shot glass- servings to shame. Krakow restaurants in general offer excellent value, especially at the higher end - which makes eating out all the more fun.
Main Course - Quail stuffed with apricots and rose petals
This wasn't the main I picked although it was the first dish that grabbed my attention, so the main course was my turn to suffer from some serious plate envy! I'm generally a fan of sweet and savoury combos and the addition of flowers to the usual fruity selection of flavours was a nice touch and an example of experimentation gone right. My only regret is that I didn't get the chance to steal more off the other plate!
Dessert: Chocolate and blue cheese souffle with grape chutney
A bit of a controversial choice - my dinner companion described it as "weird", I was more favourably inclined and thought the notes of bitter chocolate worked well with the saltiness of the blue cheese. But then I like salty chocolate... anyway, the souffle was not as fluffy as I generally like it but was an interesting choice and I didn't regret picking it overall.
The other dessert was a more crowd-pleasing platter with three out of the four mini bites - a burnt butter ice cream, a white chocolate and ginger bar and a coconut concoction - leaving us hankering for more.
The restaurant prides itself on its extensive wine list which features more than 400 wines, although regrettably a Hungarian red was the closest one you could find from the region. Most of the rest of the wine selection was French, Italian and New World wines. Saying that, the Chianti we did pick didn't really disappoint :)
Considering how keen I was to visit Ancora after everything I'd read and heard about it before even stepping foot in the restaurant, it sure had to deliver on some lofty expectations.
So, did it do the job?
Let's just say I'd happily bathe my taste buds in that delicious crayfish bisque any day!
A new year, a whole new set of opportunities to go platetrotting! And since we are already a week into 2014, I thought it's definitely time to make some dinner plans :)
My New Year's resolution is to eat African food in Africa... We shall see if that one gets ticked off the list. But for now, here’s another list of some of the things I hope to be chomping on in 2014.
Caribbean food at Negril Brixton
All those Food Network shows on chefs cooking up delicious pineapple-strewn curries against a backdrop of blue sky and sea are starting to have an effect on me. It’s time to finally answer the craving for fried plantain and coconuty curries that has been haunting me for several months now. In the absence of being able to board a plane to the Caribbean islands (much as I’d like to) I’m going to settle for the next best thing – Brixton Hill in London. The destination is the little Caribbean restaurant Negril, whose menu of saltfish fritters, spicy jerk ribs, pumpkin curry and plantain wedges is already making my mouth water. Definitely a stop the next time I find myself in London.
Matzah Balls and Latkes
Obviously the UAE isn’t the best place to find authentic Jewish food, so I am super excited to be heading to Poland next month where I hope to finally get a taste of some matzah balls and latkes. I’m already a certified pancake fan, so the latkes I am sure will be a hit. As for the matzah balls, apparently these little balls of dough traditionally made out of matzah meal and schmaltz (chicken fat) can vary widely in texture and density – ranging from light-as-air pillows to dense, stodgy, stomach fillers (floaters or sinkers). I will have to see what the ones I hope to taste in Krakow turn out to be!
Following the Cuban government’s slow easing of policies regarding private entrepreneurship in recent years, the number of paladares - the little family-run restaurants in people’s homes that provide a great counterpoint to touristy state-run restaurants – have increased in number and quality. Travelers to Cuba can rejoice as a result! With most of them run out of old private residences, the paladares sound like just the sort of places I would love to eat at when I hopefully make my way to Cuba this spring. This list of paladares has already whet my appetite!
More travel inspired by TV, this time by Anthony Bourdain's Mozambique episode of No Reservations that I watched on a flight a few months ago. All those African and Portuguese flavours melding together in recipes featuring fresh seafood and veggies sound like my idea of heaven. This is the eat-local-in-Africa goal I WANT to fulfill this year.
Olive Oil Tasting
I will happily go to as many wine tastings as I can get myself to but last year friends who went to Italy mentioned something else that made my ears prick up - olive oil tasting. As someone who gets through far too many bottles of olive oil in a year (and requires a LOT of willpower to walk past the aisle of gourmet oils in the supermarket) this is something I would be very keen to try. Fingers crossed there's some olive oil-tasting in my future!
So what are you looking forward to eating this year?
Named Best Blog for Food & Travel
Top 10 UAE Food Blogs in UAE