Bordeaux’s $93M Wine Center Takes Global Approach to Education


Bordeaux's $93M Wine Center Takes Global Approach to Education

October 16, 2018

When the dramatic $93 million multimedia Cité du Vin (City of Wine) opened on the banks of the Garonne River in Bordeaux this June, it signaled an epic shift in the way the world’s most famous wine-making city thinks about wine. For centuries, the feeling of Bordeaux’s wine culture has been that connoisseurship is the prize of hard-earned and exigently disciplined study; it was a privilege neither accessible nor comprehensible to all comers. La Cité du Vin takes a dramatically friendlier and more inclusive approach to both consuming and understanding wine. It is designed to be as rewarding for the novice as it is for the expert.

It also provides previously flummoxed travelers and wine pilgrims with a glamorous 21st-century focal point for their interest in wine. Though Bordeaux has always had a variety of fine wine bars and other places in which to buy or sample wine, and a small wine museum—the charmingly musty Musée du Vin et du Négoce—visitors to the city never had an oenological epicenter to visit. Until now.

Designed by architects Anouk Legendre and Nicolas Des- mazières, founders of the Paris-based architectural firm XTU, the Cité du Vin is a horn-shaped, 180-foot-tall, 10-story metal- and-glass structure perched on the banks of the Garonne just north (and pretty much out of sight) of Bordeaux’s exquisite 18th-century heart. Marvel at its exterior and then head inside, where 19 permanent spaces, many of them interactive, cover various wine themes. The center has three tasting laboratories that include specially designed multisensory experiences for a total immersion in wine; a viewing platform; a boat dock from which to embark on visits to the wine chateaux up and down river; a temporary exhibition center; a wine bar and snack bar with an outdoor patio; a wine cellar with more than 800 different wines, including 200 from France, and a panoramic restaurant on the seventh floor that offers a superb variety of wines by-the-glass.

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“La Cité du Vin is transformational for Bordeaux,” says Sylvie Cazes, president of the Foundation for Wine Culture and Civilizations, which operates La Cité du Vin, and the doyenne of one of the most famous wine-making families in the region. Her company, the Domaine Jean-Michel Cazes, owns a variety of the most prestigious vineyards in the Bordelais, including Chateau Lynch-Bages and Chateau Les Ormes de Pez, along with Le Chapon Fin, one of the city’s oldest and most distinguished restaurants.

The project originated in 2008 under the auspices of Bordeaux’s then mayor, Alain Juppé [France’s former prime minister]. “He recognized that wine tourism was vitally important for Bordeaux, both for economic reasons and also as an affirmation of the city’s viniferous identity,” explains Cazes. In 2009, a feasibility study group was created and the results were presented to the Bordeaux Interprofessional Wine Council and other partners in the project, including the Aquitaine region of which Bordeaux is the historic capital.

“The guiding idea for the project was the decision that the content of the cultural center would be international, or treat the wines of the world and not just the Bordelais or other regions of France, and this was overwhelmingly approved by all of the partners in the project,” Cazes says. “The point of La Cité is to present the complexity of wine in an appealingly simple way.”

What she found more delicate to expound upon during a recent pre-opening chat was the extent to which this decision was strikingly radical; Bordeaux is a city fiercely wedded to tradition. Or it had previously. One well-known local wine- maker observes, “There was a fair amount of pretty strident back-and-forth with regard to what the aims of the Cité du Vin should be, with some of the old guard insisting that it should be a showcase for Bordeaux wines, and this makes
the final decision on the pedagogy of La Cité that much more surprising and innovative.”

The center also amplifies the new urban boldness of Bordeaux, which was an aristocratic sleeping beauty of a city before Alain Juppé launched a wholesale renovation of the town. Under Juppé, Bordeaux got a new tramway system with discreetly chic forest-green carriages, carefully cleaned thousands of its darkened facades and also re-landscaped its river embankment. Formerly the riverbanks through the city were an ancient venue of commerce or, more recently, a busy roadway. Today they are a stylish promenade of gardens and bike paths and walkways. Then, too, Cité du Vin will accelerate a shift in the city’s center of gravity—from its traditional core around the Palais de la Bourse and the Opera northward to Bassins à Flot, a rapidly developing new neighborhood in a former docklands district.

Where the Cité du Vin succeeds immediately is that a visit to the permanent exhibit will be just as interesting for you as for your 12-year-old. This is because the lighting and graphics of the displays are sophisticated and modern, but warm and approachable. Similarly, the themed content is presented in a layered, didactic way that achieves just the right pitch of seriousness without ever becoming academic or too complex.

The exhibit includes a section devoted to drinking responsibly. “The place that wine occupies in different cultures varies a lot, so of course we address the possible dangers of alcohol and drinking responsibly,” Cazes says. This message is communicated with great Gallic subtlety at the module “The Chair of Despair,” a reference to the most common result of overdrinking, the hangover. The stop includes an actual Chair of Despair, where you sit alone and listen as artists and poets who drank too much tell their woeful tales of the damage it did them. It is certainly thought provoking.

London-based Casson Mann, which specializes in the design of museum interiors and exhibition spaces, conceived the displays and content of the center in collaboration with the Cité du Vin’s staff. Visitors are taken through time and space with a state-of-the-art, hand-held, infrared audio guide that detects their location and automatically launches the appropriate content as they explore the civilizations of wine.

The first stop of any visit, “World Tour of Vineyards,” includes a short film shot from a helicopter by the same production team on five continents. The only continent where wine is not produced is Antarctica. Shown on three huge screens, it conveys the universality of wine and also highlights the dramatically different geographical and climactic regions where it’s produced. (Annually, La Cité showcases three temporary exhibitions and a different wine region. “The first guest of honor is Georgia, which has been making wine since 7 B.C.,” Cazes explains.)


Next up, “The Terroir Table” introduces the concept of winemaking’s geographical specificity. Where grapes are grown affects the flavors of the wine made from them. French winemakers cherish terroir, and it is also the natural structure upon which the classification of French vineyards is officially based. To wit, a great winemaker will have an encyclopedic knowledge of the differing personalities of the grapes produced by every square foot of his or her vineyards, and this knowledge underpins the blending that creates a truly magnificent wine. Terroir explains why French wines are marketed and sold according to the geographical regions from which they originate and are named for the farms where they were produced instead of by grape variety (cépage). New World wines made in North and South America, Australia, New Zealand and Africa are often described by cépage.

“Our approach at La Cité du Vin is reportorial,” Cazes explains. “So there are no judgments offered in terms of different wine-production methods. It is our intention that the Cité become a place where people make connections and that it should be a place of learning, sharing and having a good time,” she says.

Answering a question about how La Cité du Vin addresses the qualitative differences between the world’s wine-producing regions, she continues, “I think that it’s in every winemaker’s best interests to sell to the most educated consumer possible.”

The “Terroir” segment is ultimately one of the most important. It’s comprised of video interviews with winemakers from 10 renowned wine regions, including Spain’s Rioja and Australia’s Barossa Valley, who explain how the geographical and climactic conditions in their particular area impact vines. This may sound dry but their passionate knowledge makes it extremely interesting.

Subsequent modules cover grape varieties, the wine trade, wine in history, wine in art and wine in love, or as part of the art of seduction. The most interactive exhibit is “The Five Senses Buffet.” Here, everyone becomes an expert-in-training on the “nose,” or scent, of wine. A series of glass bell jars contain different products wine experts commonly use to describe the perfume of a wine, including flowers, strawberries and wood shavings. Squeeze the rubber bulb attached to the display and you get a bracing burst of the scent of the product displayed.

At the end of the average two- hour-long visit to La Cité du Vin’s permanent exhibition, odds are you’ll be ready for a nice glass of wine. The Belvedere, on the eighth floor and the entrance to which is included in the ticket price, offers a selection of quaffs by the glass. For a more formal and meditative viniferous experience, book a table at Restaurant le 7, which has an expectedly excellent wine list. For a final surprise, stop by the wine shop. Run by Régis Deltil, a famous wine merchant from nearby Pessac, three-quarters of the wines on sale here come from countries other than France.

Author Frances Mayes Explains Why Tuscany Tastes Better


Author Frances Mayes Explains Why Tuscany Tastes Better

September 12, 2018

It’s summer in Tuscany and Frances Mayes, author of Under the Tuscan Sun, is shopping at a fruit stand in her adopted home of Cortona. “Are these plums local?” she asks the elderly woman at the stand as the sweet scent of the fruit perfumes the air. “Oh no, signora,” the vendor apologizes. “They’re from Castiglion Fiorentino,” which is 5 miles away.

This exchange reveals Tuscans’ preference for hyper-local food, one of the essential qualities that make the region’s cuisine so heavenly. Italians in general and Tuscans in particular revere simple dishes made from ingredients found near (or at) their homes, but their appreciation for food goes deeper than taste.

In Tuscany, food isn’t just something to eat—it’s something to do with family and friends: harvesting wild mushrooms, picking olives, canning tomatoes, sharing bowls of pasta, and gathering for dinners where everyone helps cook and conversation flows into the night. “There is an intense passion for local food, and it’s particularly focused on what you can find yourself,” Mayes told me last fall. “And that’s what I see that is so different from living [in the United States].”


“In Tuscany right this minute [early October] everybody is out looking for the mazza di tamburo, the mushroom of the moment. That means drumstick—it’s shaped like a drumstick with a long stem and a big, flat head. You find them on your own land and saute them with garlic,” Mayes says. Italians “don’t even want them on pasta—they just want them on little crostini because they so want to taste this wild mushroom. In the spring it’s strange things like green almonds. Everybody loves crunchy green almonds before they turn into a nut. To me that’s very much an acquired taste, but local people like them.” Foraging for food, she says, is “profoundly different” than shopping at Whole Foods.

These days, Mayes, who grew up in Georgia, divides her time between an estate in North Carolina and her home in Tuscany. Both homes have names: Chatswood, a 4,500-square-foot Federalist farmhouse built in 1806, was once an inn and is steeped in Southern history; Bramasole, named for the big Etruscan wall near the house, is the Tuscan villa that Frances and her husband, Ed, began refurbishing in the early 1990s and where they’ve spent much of the past 25 years.

Located a couple of miles from town, Bramasole is an imposing three-story stone house in classic Tuscan peach- orange hues that glow in the setting sun. It’s approached by a path flanked by roses, sage, and rosemary. The land on which it sits, a plot that would take “two oxen two days to plow” as stated in the property’s ancient deed, is lined with olive trees.

“When I came here and got out of the car the first time, a real estate agent said, ‘Bramare, to yearn for; and sole, sun— something that yearns for the sun,’” Mayes told me when I interviewed her in 2003 for my book, A Sense of Place, a collection of interviews with travel writers. “That just really hit because metaphorically I was hoping for a connection with the light, something transformative, something big.” The locals thought Mayes was nuts to buy the house because no one in Cortona wanted it. “Now they say to me, ‘I could have bought that house.’ ”

Under the Tuscan Sun, Mayes’ 1996 memoir about restoring Bramasole, had an initial print run of 5,000 copies and quickly leapt to the top of the best-seller lists where it stayed for years. “The expectation I had of it was of course minimal because I had only published books of poetry before then. You don’t know when you write a book whether it is going to sink or swim,” she says. It swam, of course, and has been translated into 52 languages, selling millions of copies and becoming a film of the same title starring Diane Lane.

To mark the book’s 20th anniversary last fall, Broadway Books published a special paperback edition with a new afterword by Mayes in which she speaks of how gathering for meals helped make her part of the local community. Calling herself a “product of a lavish Southern table,” Mayes writes, “Food was the defining point of turning me half-Tuscan. The life around the table reminds me of the South. Every time I pull up my chair to a friend’s table I know that I am home.

Relaxation around food is extraordinary. No need to ask if you can bring an extra guest or two. Throw in another handful of pasta; grab a chair. … Just found mushrooms translate into an invitation to come on over.”

Part of the tremendous response to the book was based on the leap of faith Mayes took, leaving a comfortable life in the U.S.—she’d been a professor of poetry at San Francisco State University—and starting anew in Tuscany. “I think she is beloved for many reasons,” says Elaine Petrocelli, owner of Book Passage, which operates three independent bookstores in the San Francisco Bay area. “Her tales are both fascinating and accessible. She followed her dream to live in Italy, and then as she became part of the fabric of her new Italian community, we laughed, cried, and cheered.”

Early on, Mayes connected with her neighbors by collecting food. Foraging in Italy is seasonal, Mayes says, and part of what knits together Tuscan communities: “In August everybody is out looking for wild fennel” which is when wild blackberries are also at their peak. At other times of the year it’s wild lettuces or purslane, an herb that “grows between the cracks of stones. It’s great in salads and is supposed to be good for your liver.”

Gardening is a big part of Italians’ approach to food as well. “Everybody who has even a little plot is growing some food, particularly in the summer, [such as] tomatoes and basil. I’m in rural Tuscany, and everybody still has a garden. Part of this wonderful aspect of connection with the land is that it’s very involved with the generosity I’ve always experienced among the Italians. When you’ve got your garden, you share it, and people share with you: ‘I’m bringing you figs, you’re bringing me melons,’ that kind of thing.” Sometimes Mayes finds food on her doorstep— squashes one day, bags of spinach the next—and doesn’t even know who left them.

Harvests bring out the best in the community. “The biggest thing of all is the olive harvest. Anyone who can has an olive grove—or their uncle does or their cousin or their friend. Being able to take for granted the most sublime olive oil in the universe is just such a gift and part of that great heritage of connection with the land,” Mayes says. “We pick mid-October. We make lunch, everybody gathers at a rickety old table; they even bring their coffee pots and put them on little burners. There’s a lot of storytelling, a lot of singing and whistling—you’re picking all day and you get really tired, and you’ve got crates and crates of great olives.” The harvest from each tree after pressing produces about a liter of olive oil.

“You go to the mill and that’s another big community thing,” Mayes says. “People are visiting at the mill and getting their new oil. It’s just such an amazing life around food; everybody talks about food. They take a very high level of quality of ingredients totally for granted. They just have no idea what they’ve got.”

In the U.S., where a half-century ago Wonder Bread, Velveeta cheese, and canned string beans were the norm, the trend today is toward artisanal food. Far more Americans now appreciate organic vegetables, fine chocolate, premium coffee, craft beer, whole-grain breads, and non-processed cheese. But in Tuscany, Mayes notes, eating quality food has long been a way of life for just about everyone.

“Things taste better” in Tuscany, she says. “I’ve never figured that out. Even getting apples from the farmer down the road [in North Carolina], compared to the apples in Italy, they just don’t have the depth of flavor. I don’t know why. I guess it’s the Tuscan sun. We found that with so many things—it’s just the flavor in the fruit particularly—you just want to cry.”

With her husband Ed, Mayes is co-author of The Tuscan Sun Cookbook, published in 2012. She includes two recipes from the cookbook in the 20th anniversary edition of Under the Tuscan Sun: one for Baked Pasta with Sausage and Four Cheeses, another for Massimo and Daniela’s Wine Cake.

In the cookbook, she includes a passage from Every Day in Tuscany, her follow-up to Under the Tuscan Sun, simply and poetically evoking a sense of kitchen spirituality. “The choreography of the kitchen—I peel, you scrape, wine spills, bag splits, beans simmer, sink slurps, petals fall, flours drifts, crust splits, aromas spread, lights flicker, chocolate melts, … and dough rises in soft moons the size of my cupped hand as planet earth tilts us toward dinner.” And in the cookbook she writes, “Etruscan tombs from 800 B.C. show men and women reclining around the banquet table. Their archaic faces reflect the joys of dining that are cherished in Italy—and have been forever.”

It’s worth noting that Under the Tuscan Sun opens with a worker at Bramasole asking Mayes: “What are you growing here?” She replies, “Olives and grapes,” and he says: “Of course olives and grapes,” as though that’s the most obvious thing in the world. Then he tells her: “Grow potatoes. They’ll take care of themselves.” Five summers later, she writes, digging up the potatoes is “like finding Easter eggs. … Just a rinse and they shine.”

Today at Bramasole, Frances and Ed grow eggplant, parsley, “five or six different kinds of herbs, tomatoes, fennel, carrots, and radishes.” And “we have tons of lemon trees—that’s my favorite ingredient in the kitchen. It’s such a luxury to have endless lemons all summer.”

In Tuscany food isn’t just enjoyed—it’s honored. The sagra is a uniquely Italian festival, a big community meal in celebration of a particular ingredient or product in its season. In autumn there’s a sagra for chestnuts and another for porcini mushrooms, Mayes says, and the sagra for the cherry is in June. There’s even a sagra for wild boar. “All around Tuscany if you see a sign that says sagra, something ’s about to be celebrated. You see the signs posted outside towns: the sagra of the tomato, the sagra of the snail—we have that in Cortona in the spring. People are out on the old castle wall in the middle of the night picking these snails—it’s intense.”

Of course not everything that Tuscans enjoy on their plates is local. At Camucia’s farmers market near Cortona, shoppers find produce from throughout the country, such as artichokes. “As soon as they’re in season in the south of Italy, big trucks come up in the night and sell the artichokes at the market.” The medieval market has changed in one aspect since Mayes arrived in the early 1990s: “I know a lot of the Italians aren’t running the stands—it’s people from other countries. But other than that it’s still the same market.”


Farmers markets remain a locus of community where people meet and greet, Mayes says. “Old men from the country come in with their tweed suits and stand around while the women shop.” The love of community has much to do “with the strong influence of the piazza in rural Tuscany, and the rest of rural Italy as well,” she says. “The piazza is still that place where people gather. They’re talking about recipes—they’re shopping. Food is so paramount, it’s just what they talk about. So when they get together in the piazza, you hear, ‘well no, you don’t put it in the oven; you grill it.’ When you’re standing in line at the meat market somebody is always going to ask you what you’re going to do with what you’re buying and will offer how they’d do it, which is much better.”

When I first met Mayes in 2003, she and Ed surprised me by picking me up at the train station, about three miles from Cortona. Ed drove assertively, Italian style, while Frances pointed out historical sites: “That’s where Hannibal defeated the Romans in 217,” she said, pointing to a valley below. In Cortona, Frances took me to the Teatro Signorelli, a historic theater. She said she loved Audrey Wells’ film adaptation of her book, even though it took liberties with her story. Walking along the narrow streets, we stopped to chat with a florist, then had a simple yet richly satisfying pasta lunch. To complete the meal, the osteria’s owner brought us each a chilled glass of sea-green alloro (bay laurel) liqueur, a gesture emblematic of the generosity Mayes so eloquently evokes in her books. Then she gave me a tour of Bramasole, showing me a fresco they uncovered during the renovation.

Today, Mayes still sees many visitors gazing up at her home from outside its walled garden. “Sometimes I open the window in the morning in my nightgown and I think, oh God, there are 40 people down there,” she says.

What’s next? Mayes just completed a novel scheduled for publication in spring of 2018 called Women and Sunlight about three women who are slated to go into an active retirement community. Instead, they decide to take off together and lease a house in Italy. “It’s about reinvention of yourself later in life,” Mayes says. There’s also a book about 100 secret places in Italy coming, which Mayes realizes means the places she includes will no longer be secret.

More than a quarter century after arriving in Tuscany, Mayes remains propelled by curiosity and eager to explore. When she arrives in a new place she doesn’t rely solely on guidebooks. “I walk and walk and walk,” she says, and she starts conversations with locals, asking where they eat or where they’d go on a special occasion. “I think it’s fun to follow your nose and try and make a discovery, not just go where Mario Batali said he went. Look at the menus posted on the streets—look inside the door.”

Chef Jeremy Ford Cooks for Cadillac’s Road to Table Series


Chef Jeremy Ford Cooks for Cadillac's Road to Table Series

September 11, 2018

Like most fans of Top Chef, I watched Season 13 winner Jeremy Ford cook on television long before I ate his food. Episode after episode, the Florida-born, California-trained chef wowed judges Tom Colicchio, Padma Lakshmi, and Gail Simmons with his artfully composed plates and charmed them with his laid- back attitude (in Ford’s world, everyone is his “bro”).

The show’s judges were especially taken with the four-course, cook- anything-you-want meal in the finale that secured Ford victory over Amar Santana, an Orange County chef and Charlie Palmer protégé. I remember watching Simmons coo at the Mediterranean sea bass that Ford—who proved to have a particular prowess for fish cookery—roasted and served under a bright green, herb lime sauce with fresh tomatoes. And I wanted to have it.

Lucky for me, the most popular dish at Matador Room at the Miami Beach EDITION, where Ford is executive chef, is reminiscent of his winning bass entree. And it was on the menu for a four-course, anything-goes dinner that Ford cooked at Matador Room last fall as part of Cadillac’s cross-country Road to Table series. Ford says his crispy-skin Florida red snapper with a chile-lime-garlic sauce is not only a guest favorite—it’s his, too. “I probably eat that dish three times a week,” Ford says. “It has everything I enjoy when it comes to a composed fish dish: crunch, spice, and—my favorite—lime zest.”

Ford’s cooking at the Road to Table event in Miami—the series also traveled last year to restaurants in New York, Dallas, Chicago, and Los Angeles—made me a believer in this 31-year-old disciple of celebrated French chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten. (Matador Room is a Vongerichten restaurant, and Ford edged out 30 competitors for the executive chef job when the space opened in 2015.) Ford’s food stands out not because of an abundance of salt or butter—although his dishes all are perfectly seasoned and sauced—but for his skillful balance of contrasting elements. Every plate he puts out has something soft and something crunchy, something hot and something cold, something sweet and something spicy, something fatty and something acidic.

Ford also likes to dabble in the unexpected. His first course at the Road to Table dinner paired wild Florida shrimp in a fiery “agua diablo” sauce with pieces of banana. Banana! The sweet kiss of the soft fruit cooled down the spicy sauce, and cracked almonds threw a textural curveball to the meaty pink shrimp. It worked, and it turned skeptics into smilers. A tablemate commented that the combination of shrimp and banana was something he’d “never order in a million years,” yet he found himself devouring every bite. That was music to Ford’s ears.

“As a chef, it’s always a huge compliment to hear that someone went outside of their comfort zone and enjoyed the adventure,” he says, adding that his Top Chef experience helped encourage him to push the envelope in terms of diners’ expectations. “There is definitely something to be said about cooking ‘safe’ dishes. But there truly is nothing better than seeing the look on someone’s face who was completely surprised by a combination. There are so many unique textures and flavors that can be on a plate to complement one another.”

Ford says he picked four of his favorite dishes to serve at four dinners over the course of two nights at Matador Room for the Road to Table series. This was Cadillac’s fourth year hosting the events at restaurants across the country. Last summer’s dinners began in New York at Mario Batali’s La Sirena. It featured a guest appearance by Gwyneth Paltrow, whose lifestyle brand, goop, is a co-sponsor. For his Miami meals, Ford says he wanted to showcase as many local ingredients as possible. Besides Florida snapper and shrimp, he also roasted local mushrooms, plating them in a salad with an earthy pine nut mustard, a tangle of chicory, and a fresh tarragon dressing.

“Being chosen as the fourth destination [on the 2016 Road to Table tour] was an honor,” says Ford. “I wanted to highlight some of South Florida’s most prized ingredients. Our Key West pink shrimp are some of the only shrimp you can get fresh, not frozen, in the Southeast.”

Ford, who was born in Jacksonville, relies on local purveyors like Swank Farms, located about 80 miles north of Miami in Loxahatchee, and Triar Seafood, based near Fort Lauderdale. “I am definitely one of those loyal chefs who only buy certain things from certain farmers,” Ford says. “When Swank Farms’ tomatoes are in season, I only buy those for our restaurant. They are absolutely delicious—sweet morsels from heaven. Triar Seafood and I have been working together for nearly a decade. They stay true to the old-school style of fishery, line-caught only, and the result is a beautiful product that surpasses everybody else with its quality.”

Before tasting Ford’s food, Miami Road to Table guests arrived at the chic W South Beach, where the aromas of lemon verbena and beach air send an immediate dose of euphoria through your veins. Cadillac representatives in khaki pants, light-blue Oxford shirts, and navy-blue blazers greeted us with mocktails and light bites to start the evening. (Alcoholic beverages were waiting once we finished taking the all-new 2017 XT5 crossovers for a test spin.) After sips of cucumber- and thyme-infused lemonade and bites of caviar-topped tater tots, we made our way to a fleet of XT5s idling in front of the hotel under a dusky Florida sunset.

The Cadillac reps let us take our pick from among the vehicles—a glistening silver one called out to me—and, after a very brief interview (“You’ve driven a car before, I assume?” my tutorial began. “Then you should be good.”), we were on our way. The sturdy, midsize SUV hardly had any miles on it and emanated that unmistakable new-car smell. I fantasized about cranking classic rock on the stereo, revving the engine, and letting it roar down Interstate 95. In reality, I tuned the satellite radio to NPR, eased into drive, and got into formation with the rest of the 10-car convoy. We never topped 15 mph as we cruised along a few miles of South Beach, following a black Escalade on a route that snaked past the Miami Beach Golf Course, paralleled Lincoln Road, and continued onto the touristy main drag, A1A.

Glasses of chilly chardonnay and a jammy Grenache were waiting upon our arrival at EDITION, and the wine continued to flow generously throughout the night. The bracing acidity of the chardonnay proved to be the best match for Ford’s shrimp, salad, and snapper dishes, accentuating their bright flavors without overpowering anything. A server wisely suggested trying the Grenache with Ford’s finale: a deconstructed strawberry sundae featuring the berry in 12 different variations, including a sweet jam, dehydrated slivers (every Ford plate has a crunchy bite on it), and several sorbets. The wine’s red- berry notes played well with the dessert, coaxing out all of the strawberry flavors of each element in the dish. Even the difference in temperatures—the 60-degree wine and the icy sorbet—fit into Ford’s repertoire of complementary contrasts.

Ford and other chefs who cooked for the Road to Table experiences say they want to give diners a taste of their personal cooking styles. In Dallas, the Road to Table stop prior to Miami, chef Matt McCallister, a James Beard Award semifinalist and 2014 Food & Wine magazine Best New Chef, emailed guests recipes of the dishes they ate at his restaurant FT33: escarole salad, roast chicken, beet tartare, and chai-poached cherries. He says the idea was to inspire and empower amateur cooks to experiment at home.

“The recipes I provided are geared for home cooks,” McCallister says. “They either have components removed, or they are simplified versions of what we would normally do, or both. Most of the food we make at FT33 is pretty technical. The recipes I gave out are a good baseline and relate to what I would cook at home.”

In true chef fashion, McCallister had to improvise on at least one of the courses he cooked for the Dallas Road to Table crowd. He roasted Chioggia beets and diced them into fine cubes to resemble beef tartare. To finish the dish, “I made it up that day based on what I had in our pantry,” he says. He reached for brined coriander seeds, lime juice, and tons of fresh herbs: chives, parsley, and mint. “The coriander berries are very floral and herbaceous, so they balanced well with the herbs and citrus.”

In Miami, Ford’s guests went home with more immediate gratification: bacon-covered doughnuts from The Salty Donut in Miami’s trendy Wynwood neighborhood. While I certainly didn’t leave dinner feeling hungry, there was no way that doughnut was making it back to my home untouched. My Uber driver declined my polite offer of a bite, leaving me to that sweet orb glazed with porter from local craft brewery J. Wakefield and topped with pieces of smoky bacon. It’s Salty Donut’s best-seller, and for good reason: The salty- sweet combination of sugar, salt, and fat is undeniably addictive—and delicious.

A doughnut with bacon seemed like an appropriate end to a meal that began with shrimp and banana. For Ford, cooking is all about the unexpected, about finding novel ways to surprise people with food. In the year since his Top Chef victory, Ford says he’s been fortunate to explore new cities, seeking out new techniques, ingredients, and flavors, and bringing them back to the Matador Room.

“Life has dramatically changed, that’s for sure,” he says before departing for a cooking event. “I am getting opportunities to travel the world and experience a completely different side of cooking. It’s an absolute dream come true.”

A Perfect Foodie Weekend in New York City


A Perfect Foodie Weekend in New York City

August 21, 2018

There’s no place quite like New York, New York. Songs have been written about its charm, movies have been filmed in its streets, and people from all over the world have relocated to enjoy all it has to offer. The largest city in the U.S. boasts over 8 million residents, and it’s become a hub for culture, commerce, cuisine, and more.

So if you’re a foodie who’s planning a quick trip to this metropolitan hotspot, you want to make sure you’re prepared to soak in as much as you can. A minute should never be wasted in New York City, so our team of travel experts compiled a list of the top restaurants, hotels, and experiences for your trip.

Let’s begin with food because, honestly, is there a better place to start? If you’re a foodie, you’ve found your paradise. Classic cuisines and fusion dishes from all over the world can be found in New York City. From curry to Cuban, you’ll be able to find almost any type of international food you want to try.
Mercer Kitchen, New York City Perfect Weekend

Michelin-Rated Restaurants 

Top chefs from all over the country have opened restaurants in New York, so to say you’ll enjoy the best of the best could be an understatement. NYC is home to some of the most incredible restaurants in the world like Michelin-rated MasaLe Bernardin, and the Mercer Kitchen pictured above.

Affordable Options

NYC is also notorious for its affordable options that are just as delicious. Find world-class dumplings in Korea Town, NY-style pizza on (almost) every corner, or stop in at a Shake Shack and eat your fill without breaking the bank.

Foodie Weekend New York City Pizza


And when your sweet tooth strikes, every option you need is a quick walk or train ride away in Manhattan. Levain Bakery, home of the world’s best chocolate chip cookie, is a must visit, and if you’re not cookie-ed out after that, try one of Milk Bar’s 9 NYC locations. Regardless of what dessert you choose, top it off with one of NYC’s famous frozen hot chocolates (pictured below) from Serendipity.

If you’re looking for a more gourmet dessert experience, check out the Dominique Ansel Bakery or sit down at Max Brenner, the restaurant wholly devoted to chocolate. After you fuel up, you’ll be ready to experience the best activities and little-known tourist spots New York City has to offer. For foodies, there really isn’t a better place to spend a quick weekend trip. The diverse options and price points will keep you moving along. The best part? Even foodies get full, and when you do, there are plenty of activities to keep you busy until your next meal.

How Local Restaurants in Cabo San Lucas Do Sea to Table


How Local Restaurants in Cabo San Lucas Do Ocean to Table

August 17, 2018

We got one!” shouts first mate Salvador Flores. “Grab it!” He puts the fishing rod in my hand and I sit in the stern- facing captain’s chair. “Now pull back,” he says. I lean back against the force of the fish tugging at the end of the line. Then, “Lean forward. Adelante! Reel, reel, reeeel!”

After a few minutes of pulling back and reeling in, I see the slender 45-inch-long (we measured it later) yellow-green fish with blue markings that Mexicans call dorado, the Spanish word for golden. We don’t have it quite yet though. With a last, desperate lunge, the singular-looking creature—in addition to its vivid colors, its head has a blunted shape like it swam, hard, into a wall—tries to toss the hook. Salvador’s ready though. He grabs the line and pierces the fish with the gaffe, landing it on the back deck of our fishing boat.

Catching that feisty dorado, also known as mahi-mahi, was just one highlight of a perfect weekend in Cabo San Lucas, at the southern tip of Mexico’s Baja peninsula, where a friend and I spent mornings fishing, afternoons feasting on our catch, and sunsets sipping cocktails overlooking miles of coastline. Cabo is a place where you can pack so much into a short stay, and for many American visitors it’s a nonstop flight from home.

We’d booked our fishing excursion in advance with Pisces Sportfishing, one of Cabo’s most established outfitters, operating since 1980. Just after sunrise, we start our day with mochas at The Cabo Coffee Co., then walk down to Cabo’s horseshoe-shaped marina. Pisces Dockmaster Eduardo Vasquez welcomes us and introduces us to Captain Roberto Sandez and first mate Salvador Flores.

Cabo Ocean to Table Fishing
I ask about the gleaming white boat, Valerie, and Eduardo says it’s a 35-foot-long Bertram with twin Cummins engines. Captain Roberto, a grizzled and affable 55-year-old mariner who’s been working at sea for 40 years, asks us if we’d like to chase marlin, which can weigh 100 pounds or more.

I can’t imagine keeping such a large fish and he says that if we catch one, we can release it. But I have visions of enjoying my catch dockside so I ask what else we might find. Well maybe tuna, he says, definitely dorado. “Then let’s go get some
dorado,” I say as he kicks the engine into gear. We motor up the west coast of Baja at 18 knots, passing mile after mile of deserted beaches in front of hills pocked with pines and cacti. Salvador extends the tangones, the arms that put the fishing lines out to the sides of the boats, baits the hooks with small mackerel, and tosses them into the ocean.

For a while we don’t get a bite. I go up to the bridge and chat with el capitan, asking what he likes best about his job. “Pescar,” (fishing), he says enthusiastically. “Pescar, pescar, pescar, pescar!” Suddenly there’s a tug on one of the lines. Then it starts flying out.

Salvador grabs the rod from its holder and hands it to me. I pull back and reel and soon see a flash of gold in the water. I keep pulling and the fish keeps fighting as the base of the rod digs into my lower abdomen just above my waist. When the dorado is just a few feet away, Salvador takes the line and gently pulls the hook off the shimmering fish as he cradles it in his arms. “Not so big,” he says, holding it out to me. It looks pretty big to me, at least 18 inches long.

“I think we could put this one back, but it’s up to you.” I hesitate for a moment, thinking: This is our first catch of the day; what if we don’t get another? Salvador seems to read my mind: “There are more fish out there, hay mas!”
Let her go then, I say with a nod and as soon as Salvador holds the young fish over the water it bolts away, splashing back into the sea and living to see another day. I go back up to talk with the captain and ask how much has changed during the four decades he’s been working Cabo’s seas. “Oh, mucho,” he says. “Even 10 or 20 years ago there were many more fish—dorados grandes! But now they’re harder to find.” Another line starts flying out and Salvador shouts at me to grab that pole. I get in the captain’s chair and put my feet on the foot bench for added leverage. This one is stronger: I fight it for a couple of minutes—then the line goes slack. “Salvador, I think I lost it.”
“No, no,” he says, “Keep reeling!” I pull in the slack then feel a powerful tug, the fish trying to get away, and see an amber flash about 50 feet behind the stern. A couple more sets of pulls and reels and he’s in—a gorgeous golden fish more than 3 feet long. “We’ll keep this one,” Salvador says as he grabs it with the gaffe and tosses it into a tank. Then he hoses down the deck until the blood is washed away.
Inhaling the fresh salt scent of the Pacific, we keep motoring north until we can see the pueblo of Pescadero near Todos Santos, almost 30 miles north from where we began the day. The crew has our lunches stashed in the cooler: chicken burritos and yellow cans of Pacifico beer, yet I’m not eager to eat on the rolling sea.
A pod of dolphins gracefully arcs over the water, a manta ray floats by, and then a sea turtle swims slowly, as if she has all the time in the world. Later there’s a big splash beyond the bow. Captain Roberto shouts: “Marlin! A big one, maybe 5 feet long and 100 pounds.” But I’m content to watch it swim away.
It’s been an exhilarating and full day. After eight hours of fishing, we’ve caught eight large dorados—five that we’ve kept and three tossed back—and one skipjack: in total, they equal about 15 pounds of meat. Salvador has hung flags across the boat’s starboard side showing what we’ve kept: five golden dorado banderas and one white skipjack banner. On the port side are three more dorado banners, each paired with a flag with a T on it: The T is for “Thrown back.”
Since there’s no way my friend and I will be able to eat even a fraction of our catch over this weekend, I ask if we can take some home. “Will the fish get through customs?” I ask Captain Roberto. “Si, no problemo,” he says. Pisces will cut and freeze the fish—all we have to do is buy a cooler and pick it up at their marina office on the morning of our departure.
But we don’t send all the fish home—we keep the smallest dorado, have it sliced by the Pisces crew, and carry the fillets in a plastic bag with ice to a highly recommended Japanese restaurant just a few blocks from the marina.

Daikoku has an outdoor seating area beside a manmade waterfall that feels like a Japanese garden. The restaurant is accustomed to people bringing in their catch, and the chef says he’ll be happy to prepare a meal from it for us. We entrust our well-fought-for cargo to him, take a couple of hours to get cleaned up and reflect on the day, then return to the restaurant after sunset.

The chef ’s advice is to start with sashimi to get the purest taste of the fish. Daikoku has a light touch, thin-slicing the sashimi and topping it with rice vinegar, layu (a type of chili oil), and dashes of sake, soy sauce, and orange juice. It’s heavenly and so fresh. The added flavors are subtle, enhancing the taste of the fish rather than overwhelming it.
We pair our sashimi with the house margarita, made with pure agave tequila and not too much sweetener. Next, we enjoy some nigiri sushi (slices of fish atop rice) and then a seaweed roll with our dorado, some avocado, and rice inside. Both are perfect. Over dinner we decide to change our plans for the next day: originally the idea was to lounge on the beach, but we’d both had such a good time fishing that we decide to go out again.
We haven’t reserved ahead for the second day so we get up at dawn and head back to the marina where we strike up a conversation with Captain Josue “Arturo” Moreno. He says he’ll take us out for a half day for $200, cheaper than Pisces but with fewer amenities. We’re on our own for lunch and water, and we need to get our own fishing licenses. (Pisces gets licenses for its guests.) By mid-morning we’re back on the water as frigatebirds with forked tails soar overhead, and rays of sunlight sparkle like diamonds on the rolling waves.
Just 15 minutes from the dock the ocean erupts in thrashing splashes and silver flashes. “Hay atun!” Captain Arturo says. “There’s tuna!”

Swarms of sardines are in the area, luring the tuna into a feeding frenzy. The first mate, Plutarcho, prepares the lines and just a couple of minutes later we get a bite. He puts the rod in my hands and I’m stunned by the tuna’s strength: I’m in for a fight.

Plutarcho reiterates the lesson I’d learned the day before: Pull back then lean forward and reel in. Compared to the long, lean dorado, tuna are shorter and stouter, true powerhouses, especially this one. The fight lasts about 10 minutes; finally, the tuna is close enough to pull into the boat with a gaffe. It battles ferociously even after thudding against the deck of the boat. Soon we’ll catch another tuna; then Plutarcho reels in two more, one for himself and one for Captain Arturo.

“This was the best possible day,” the captain says. We had “buena suerte—good luck—100 percent.” Motoring back to the marina, Plutarcho cleans our fish and cuts it into fillets. We disembark and head straight to Captain Tony’s, a restaurant with a sign outside reading, “YOU HOOK IT WE COOK IT.” We did our part, now we’re ready for Captain Tony to do his.

Cabo San Lucas Ocean to Table Fishing

The restaurant’s host that day, Pablo, warmly welcomes us and offers us a waterside table. He takes the fish to the kitchen, then asks how we’d like it. We start with sashimi, then have three different preparations: tuna with garlic, with a cilantro cream sauce, and, finally, lightly battered with salt and pepper. All are fantastic and the fish couldn’t have been fresher. I had a twinge of guilt when I’d pulled the tuna out of the water—it was so majestic and had such a ferocious will to live, but feasting on our own catch proves to be immensely satisfying.

Later that afternoon we hire a taxi to go to Sunset Monalisa, a bar and restaurant about 5 miles east of Cabo San Lucas. Its deck offers a sweeping view of Cabo’s beaches and postcard- worthy arch over the sea. The main attraction at this bar/restaurant is watching the sun slip into the sea. Sunset that night is at 5:39 p.m., so we arrive around 5. I sip a raspberry mojito as surfers below catch the last waves of the day.

The setting sun turns the hills golden as a behemoth cruise ship sounds its horn and chugs out to sea. At sunset, a restaurant staffer blows into a conch shell four times, turning each time to honor the four directions, paying tribute to the day as it ebbs away.

On the taxi ride back to Cabo we ask our driver to recommend an authentic local restaurant with handmade tortillas. Walking into Maria Corona, we feel like we’re being welcomed into someone’s home. We choose outdoor seating, an area festively decorated with colorful banners and illuminated with hanging lanterns and gas torches. A trio of middle-aged men wearing matching outfits— two acoustic guitarists and a standup bassist— play traditional Mexican songs on the spacious restaurant’s stage. When they take a break, two women in frilly white dresses perform a butterfly dance, before two men with tap- dancing boots join them. The diners are a mix of locals and visitors—Maria Corona is perfect for travelers but not touristy.

We start with guacamole—local avocados, garlic, serrano peppers, and cilantro—made tableside in a molcajete, the traditional Mexican mortar and pestle hewn from volcanic rock, typically basalt. The server grinds the chilis in the three-legged bowl then mashes in the avocados. Of course, there are margaritas, too.

My friend wants to watch the cooks make tortillas and is invited into the kitchen. She asks the young chef, Emma Bonilla, what her favorite dish is and Bonilla recommends the pork Chamorro, a Yucatanean specialty. It’s made with six different chilis including ancho, pasilla, and guajillo; and spices including cinnamon, clove, and allspice. We take Bonilla’s advice— she recently worked in the Yucatan for two years—and order it. The pork is succulent and flavorful, the portion beyond generous. To top off the night we watch as our server deftly makes Mexican coffee, a potent, and potently theatrical, concoction. It’s made tableside with coffee, tequila, and Kahlua, and poured into a blue- rimmed glass in a flaming cascade.

Later, at Pancho’s Tequila Bar, over a glass of Los Abuelos añejo, I recall that just a few hours ago I’d been fighting tuna, and in a few hours I’d be on the plane home. Yet for the moment I’m still in paradise, savoring the flavors of Mexico, and there’s nowhere else I’d rather be.

Why the World’s Best Lemons Come from Italy’s Amalfi Coast


Why the World’s Best Lemons Come from Italy’s Amalfi Coast

August 15, 2018

One of the most delicious lessons I’ve ever learned was delivered in a most unforgettable way. 
Sudden thrashing sounds of someone— something—approaching had scared us to death. But happily, it was two Italian farmers that finally appeared, and they grinned at us, because they could see we’d made a mistaken assumption about the thrashing heralding danger. Then, with bashful pride and patience, they taught us why the world’s best lemons come from Italy’s Amalfi Coast. Let me explain.

A couple of hours earlier, in the dappled shade of lemon trees,
we had spread the bed sheet we borrowed from a hotel in Rome.
We then rested quietly for a few minutes. The path between the terraced slopes that brought us here had been steep. In the welcome heat of the day, the plump, dimpled, yellow fruit overhead dangled like lanterns. The warm air was infused with a soft, fruity perfume that would have made us sleepy, were it not for the fact that we were already in a dopey kind of ecstasy induced by the dumb beauty of being in an Italian lemon grove on the Amalfi Coast.

After all, this fragrant clearing with a spectacular view of the distant lapis-lazuli-colored Mediterranean Sea was exactly what I’d pictured when I’d read a description of southern Italy by the German writer Goethe: He described it as “the land where lemons grow.” I was in a stuffy car that smelled of rain-soaked wool on the London Underground, and, reading Goethe’s words, I knew the Amalfi Coast was where I wanted to go for my term break—it would be a respite from the endless rain and pewter skies of autumn in London, where I was spending a year studying abroad.

I dragooned three friends into joining me, and after a few days in Rome we arrived on the Amalfi Coast, where we were instantly spellbound by its beauty, its weather—even in October, it was warm enough to wear nothing but a T-shirt—its stunningly good food, and a shockingly delicious and instantly addictive locally made yellow elixir called limoncello. The latter was made by infusing pure alcohol with the rinds of lemons and then mixing it with sugar syrup. Many restaurants served it after dinner and on the house.

Since we were students traveling by the seat of our pants,
we probably would have liked anything served on the house. 
But limoncello…it was so delicious that we almost yelped with pleasure when the nice, old woman who owned the Sorrento restaurant where we’d eaten returned with the bottle and poured us a second round. She sweetly reassured us that this round,
like the first, was free, “A gift from me!” We followed these two servings with a third limoncello in a café that definitely wasn’t free but was delicious enough we didn’t care.

We met the morning a little fuzzy-headed but still caught a local bus to Amalfi. Here we visited the iconic Amalfi Cathedral, and then, not having enough money to eat in a restaurant again for a few days, we shopped for a picnic of bread, cheese, ham, fruit, and a bottle of alarmingly cheap wine. In search of a pretty spot to have our picnic, we trekked up and past the town and into the steep slopes behind it.

“These must be the lemons they use to make limoncello,” my friend Joel said as we set up our feast. We knew he was right from their lovely perfume. Though tempted to taste one of the lemons bobbing overhead, we didn’t; an unspoken sense of propriety reminded us they were private property growing on private property where we likely shouldn’t be. So we satisfied ourselves with our picnic and were happily dozing or reading when the thrashing sounds started. All four of us sat up straight.

Two men, one white-haired, the other much younger, dropped from the terrace above and landed next to us with a thud. “Tedeschi?” the older one asked us. “No, siamo Americani,” I replied, using the tiny bit of Italian I knew to explain that we were American and not German. “This is our farm,” said the younger one in English. “It’s very beautiful, and your lemons are delicious,” I said. “Oh, did you taste them?!” “No, no, of course not, but we had some lemon pasta last night in a restaurant, and it was delicious.” He yanked a lemon off a tree, twisted it open, and offered it to me, adding, “Our lemons are so good you can eat them like fruit. They’re the world’s best lemons!” He introduced his father as Gaetano and himself as Daniele and explained that he’d worked in the merchant marine. He had traveled all over the world and recently come home to take over the family lemon farm because his father wanted a rest. Gaetano, a sturdy, nut-brown man with bright blue eyes and a full head of black hair, spoke no English but smiled and nodded as his son spoke. “My father’s 90 years old and has been working on the farm since he was 11,” Daniele told us. Gaetano had a good hard laugh when
he saw our jaws drop. He looked barely 60. “Hard work is good for you,” he said, and his son translated. “Also, eating lots of lemons!” he added, and we all laughed.

Daniele explained that his family had been growing lemons for generations and that the fruit has been cultivated on the Amalfi Coast since Roman times but really developed between the 10th and 12th centuries. Local farmers had created the distinctive local variety known as Sfusato d’Amalfi (fuso means spindle in Italian and is a reference to the elongated shape of the fruit, which also has thick nipples at both ends). They crossed the bitter oranges indigenous to the area with lemons that had come from the Middle East (scientists using genetic testing have discovered lemons originated in China). Originally, the Italian lemons proved useful to navies and business owners who bought them in bulk to stave off scurvy by providing vitamin C on long sea voyages. Eventually the lemons found their way into local cooking in a variety of guises and attracted the attention of the world beyond Italy when the Amalfi Coast first began to emerge as a tourist destination in the 17th and 18th centuries.

Slowly, the Amalfi region turned into a major lemon-producing zone, and the fruit was exported all over Europe and even as far as the U.S. It was prized for its thick, perfumed skin, low acidity, and very low concentration of seeds. The peak year for Amalfi lemon production was 1915. It went downhill after that because the two world wars caused many locals to trade farming for better-paid factory work in the north of Italy or abroad.

Amalfi Coast Italy

As we picnicked on Daniele and Gaetano’s lemon terrace, many of the other farms in the lemon belt—Minori and Maiori, traditionally the largest lemon-producing towns, but also Amalfi, Atrani, Cetara, Conca dei Marini, Furore, Positano, Praiano, Ravello, Scala, Tramonti, and Vietri sul Mare—were falling into disrepair. Because the steep terraces on which the lemon trees grow are essential to keeping the landscapes of the Amalfi Coast healthy—the terraces prevent landslides and flooding and their green canopy also keeps the region a little cooler—Daniele worried that no one was replacing his father’s generation of farmers. A loss
 of lemon farmers didn’t just mean fewer lemons, but increased risk of landslides and warmer temperatures. Many farms were being lucratively sold as building sites. “The problem is that it’s basically impossible to mechanize the production of Amalfi Coast lemons, because the terraces are too small to support heavy machinery of any kind, so everything must be done by hand,” he told us.

Visiting the Amalfi Coast again last fall—some 25 years after Daniele gave me my first lesson in its famous lemons—I was happily reassured about the future of these groves. I walked the magnificent Sentiero dei Limoni (literally “The Footpath of the Lemons”), which runs from Minori to Maiori. Both above and below the hiking path, there were still, as far as the eye could see, lemon orchards under thick netting. I heard the crashing noises of the i contadini volanti, “the flying farmers.” Like a troop of acrobats, they scampered above and under the sturdy trellises of chestnut wood stakes that hold up the lemon trees, pruning, training, and harvesting lemons in an annual cycle that hasn’t changed in centuries.

After the two world wars, Spain’s entry into the European Union
in 1986 challenged Italian lemon producers with a flood of cheap citrus. But that same year, the Slow Food movement was founded in the Piedmont town of Bra; it helped Amalfi lemons. With Slow Food came an appreciation for geographically specific, traditionally farmed Italian produce, especially lemons bearing an Amalfi Coast I.G.P. (Indicazione Geografica Protetta), a label that legally attests to their authenticity as having been grown there.

Recognizing that thousands of travelers who visit the Amalfi Coast every year are fascinated by their lemon farms, several locals have
set up tours of groves, which include explanations of their history,
 the growing cycle, and usually a tasting or two. The Amalfi Lemon Experience begins on the steps of the cathedral in Amalfi and includes visits to the groves and a small-but-fascinating farm museum before a tasting of various products produced with organic lemons.

My favorite way to celebrate the fruit, however, is to head to Ristorante San Pietro, a locals’ favorite in Cetara. I always have
the same meal there—spaghetti with butter, Parmesan, and freshly squeezed lemon juice and then a tartare of ricciola (amberjack) with a light sauce of lemon juice and olive oil. (The former is not on the menu—you have to ask for it.) The last time I ordered this meal, it was from a friendly older waitress and the day was drizzly. She nodded approvingly and said, “Even when it rains here, there’s always plenty of sun stored up in our lemons!”

California’s Newest Michelin Two-Star Restaurant


California’s Newest Michelin Two-Star Restaurant

August 14, 2018

Every acclaimed restaurant aspires to achieve a moment that wows diners. At SingleThread, the Sonoma County restaurant that earned two Michelin stars last fall, less than a year after it opened, that moment happens before you take your first bite. On your table when you arrive is an edible work of art, an assemblage of more than a dozen delicacies—in shells, on little wooden planks, and on handmade ceramic plates— garlanded with greens and flowers from SingleThread’s farm, just five miles away. The tablescape is so beautiful that, like a waterfall or Japanese garden, it can take your breath away.

“These are beets, roasted in the hearth with shaved purple cauliflower from our farm,” says our server, explaining that every item is emblematic of the season. “This is a salad of lotus root with silken tofu made by one of our sous chefs; he’s been working on the recipe for about a year.” There are also mustard greens from the SingleThread farm, and Golden-eye snapper wrapped around braised kombu and sea palm. There is sesame-dressed young broccoli from the farm with a broccoli blossom. Moving on to the boards, there is Fort Bragg sea urchin, which was just coming into season in Northern California, served raw with some ahi tuna and a little bit of tamari dressing. And all this was just part of the first course.

Perhaps most remarkable: the tablescape and many of the dishes in the 11-course procession of Japan-meets-California cuisine were custom-made for my wife and me after conversations with chef Kyle Connaughton and his crew. Up to two months ahead of a guest’s arrival at SingleThread, a staff member gets in touch to ask about allergies and preferences, and whether you’re celebrating a special occasion. There’s no menu— until you leave when you receive an elegant paper folder listing each of your courses (mine was different than my wife’s, as I try to avoid milk products) and the wines or non-alcoholic beverages you enjoyed. (There’s a non-alcoholic pairing with creative juice mixes and infusions.)

“We create maximum flexibility for our guests,” Kyle says. “So if someone doesn’t like seafood or shellfish or they’re vegetarian or vegan or they have a nut allergy, we customize and tailor the experience individually.” Almost uniformly, reviewers have praised SingleThread, owned and run by Kyle and his wife Katina Connaughton, for opening with a fully realized vision. “Every aspect of the experience was buttoned downand polished,” wrote San Francisco Chronicle restaurant critic Michael Bauer shortly after the restaurant opened in December 2016. “I’ve never seen that before in a restaurant shooting for the stars. But then I’ve never seen a husband-and-wife team with such a focused and well-formed idea of what they wanted and how to get there.”

The restaurant occupies the site of a post office that burned down in 2009. After the fire, the Seghesio family, Sonoma County winemakers, bought the site and started building a tasting room, but during construction they sold their winery so no longer needed the space. The Connaughtons put together an investment group, acquired the property and halted construction. Then they brought in their own design team, which included San Francisco-based AvroKO, and built the restaurant of their dreams.

The structure is impressive, formidable without being foreboding. In good weather, which is most of the year, guests are invited onto the roof to enjoy a welcome drink and survey the view—if not for a ridgeline they’d be able to see SingleThread’s farm. I ask about the herbs growing in tall wooden planters, and Kyle pinches off a bit of pineapple sage. “Try one of these red flowers,” he says. The scent of pineapple hits my nose before I taste the piquant flower. In other planters are lemon verbena and kaffir lime leaf (often used in Thai cuisine), their citrusy aromas unmistakable. “It’s nice,” Kyle says, “because chefs can just run up and get some herbs.”

singlethread restuarant california

Back on the ground floor, the portal into the dining room is a 9-foot wooden door made at Sonoma Millworks in Healdsburg, a mile and a half away. And the interior of the 55-seat dining room is an earth-tone masterpiece of understatement and hidden touches, such as the fabric screens. Each screen’s pattern, a server explained, is based on the DNA sequence of a vegetable at its peak at that time. The November screen, for example, reflects the DNA pattern of kale. But there’s no pretension here: I wouldn’t have known about the screens if I hadn’t read about them and asked a server to reveal their secrets.

All these subtle notes, from the dining room door to sourcing produce from their own farm, are part of the single thread that ties the restaurant to its communities. On the kitchen shelves are donabe, clay cooking pots made in Iga, Japan, by master potters for eight generations, the Nagatani family, to whom the Connaughtons have become close. The Connaughtons buy miso from a family in Kyoto that they know well—their kombu comes from Hokkaido, where the couple once lived. Their vinegar producer is “the only one in Japan who grows its own organic rice. We go to them and they come out here, so there’s that connection,” Kyle says. “It’s personal.” The rest of this article can be read in print in Inspirato Magazine.