Monthly Archives: March 2015

Why Champagne is champagne, Part I

Champagne. Is any other beverage so widely equated with “the good life,” social status celebrations, and special events around the world?

“Champagne” has become so well-known in popular culture and yet so misunderstood. The term has become so synonymous with sparkling wine that it is easy to forget that it is really a brand, a stamp, like the Kleenex or Xerox of wines. Put this way, could you imagine if we tended to refer to all red wines as Napa, Bordeaux, Tuscano – no matter where in the world they came from? Are all dessert wines automatically lumped together as Ports or Sauternes?

In the diverse world of sparkling wines – generic bruts, the cuvée bruts, Sekts, Cavas, Proseccos, a good Australian or Californian Brut – why is Champagne the one we all know?

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Many – including myself – would argue that Champagne is the best. It saddens me when friends who don’t shy away from wine or beer avoid all sparkling wines like it screams automatic illness (as if is tequila!). If you’ve ever had a really, really good glass of Champagne from champagne, my guess is it would change your perspective.

I’m not making this claim snobbily (ok not fully). I am not anti-sparkling wine. I enjoy Prosecco. I like Cava as a base for mimosas. I do not like cheap sparkling wine. It does cause headaches.

So why is Champagne so special? In Champagne-Ardennes, France centuries-old techniques have been perfected and legislated to ensure no bad champagne ever leaves the barrel…well, with the Champagne label, at least.

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I’ve always enjoyed sparkling wine, but it took a visit to the lovely Reims, the largest city of the Champagne-Ardennes region, and northeast of Paris, to educate me to the particulars of champagne making to appreciate the smooth, balanced edges, soft bubbles, and subtle aromas of Champagne.

Eye-roll alert! I realize that I might lose most of you with that supremely pretentious description. Bear with me. I had some great teachers. And teachers, I mean several side-by-side flutes of champagne to tour and taste at a few of the champagne houses and vineyards. Yes, I also had a few helpful tour guides along the way.

So allow me to pass along their sage knowledge, from France through the Interwebs to you in the next post: Champagne, demystified. Join me on a crash course in champagne – how it is made and how to read those labels.

Healthy Diplomat: Four tips for staying healthy away from home

Frequent or long trips away from home can wreak havoc on one’s body. Overdosing on new food, exposure to new germs – especially during air and rail travel, limited access to fitness facilities, and altered routines easily can lead to illness, weight gain, and falling out of shape.

When I travel, I try to follow a few principles to stay healthy and fit.

1 – Focus first on positive nutrition.
We all need to eat. So before I indulge, I try to make sure that I get enough fruit, vegetables, fiber, and protein each day. Ok, so this strategy can (and has for me) backfire if you’re in an area without potable water. Eating fresh produce can do more harm than good under those conditions – if you’ve ever had food poisoning, you know exactly what I’m talking about. Cooked veggies are a safer bet.

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2- Plan for fit time. Yes, that includes vacation. Not every hotel, hostel or family/friend’s home has access to a gym, but no worries. With exception, you have options for exercise. I often do yoga in hotel rooms. If I have enough space (or a lackluster hotel gym), I download and adapt crossfit workouts for my time and space constraints. WODs (workouts of the day) often require little equipment and tend to run less than 20 minutes, perfect for busy schedules. Crossfit.com and others are great resources. If you have access to a terrible gym, chances are you may have more privacy – so YouTube a Zumba workout or yoga session; try circuit and interval training to fight the monotony of having 3 pieces of equipment at your disposal.

In safer cities, jogging and walking outdoors is easy means of medium to high impact exercise. Europe has no excuse, as most cities as towns are very walkable. Try walking instead of public transportation. While working in Germany, some of us frequently walked over two miles (3+ km.) at least one way to/from dinner, for example. You save money, learn a new environment, and maintain your girlish/boyish figure in the process. That’s a win-win!

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3- Hold yourself accountable for limiting the “bad foods” and physical activity. Having a workout buddy is an accepted means of accountability, so why not do it away from home? Your significant other, friend, relative, or coworker might begrudgingly join you, but it’s for everyone’s own good. I also have participated in the eight-week Whole Life Challenge several times during longer trips to hold myself accountable for maintaining a healthy lifestyle while leaving some wiggle room to experience a place fully – to indulge a bit with and beverages. The WLC’s point system helps me shame myself into better behavior.

4 – Life is short; don’t go too hard on yourself. Personally, I am so fortunate/blessed to have the opportunity to travel near and far. I believe in living life to the fullest, part of which includes appreciating each and every trip – no matter how close or far from home my journey may take me. Depriving oneself of a place’s best and most representative foods and experiences is not something I consider to be healthy – physically and mentally.

For more on The Healthy Diplomat’s health and nutrition philosophies, check out our Healthy Diplomat page. The CD also encourages all you readers to share your own tips and tricks!

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The best (restaurant) Indian I ever ate

The best restaurants tend to be those recommended by locals.

For a foreigner, I think it’s safe to say that a recommendation from a native who happens to be an expat or immigrant to your own home country is an even better bet. I call this the restaurant that is the best of both worlds: it makes the locals happy but is not too deviant from an outsider’s palate. That is exactly what happened when friends took us to one of their friends’ newly opened restaurants in Mysore, Karnataka (state), India. Oyster Bay served the best restaurant Indian food I’ve ever eaten.

Many – if not most of you – may know nothing about Karnataka. It is one of India’s 29 states, in southern and southwest India, and it’s also the name of its state language. High-tech Bangalore (Bengaluru locally), with which you may be more familiar, is its capital and largest city, but Mysore was its historic capital and seat of its kingdom. In fact, the King of Mysore still exists nominally and he himself was onboard one of my flights within India. I’m still waiting to meet you, King of Mysore! If you are a yogi and practice Ashtanga yoga, Mysore may ring the proverbial memory bell. Ashtanga originated there, and Mysore Ashtanga remains a specific thread of yoga, so it is ripe with numerous ashrams, including those that cater to foreigners. If that is your jam, then you may in fact make a trip to Mysore, and thus you should keep reading this profile! End of context lesson and self-promotion!

After several days traveling around Karnataka, including a very eerie experience at the grand – if not creepy (think: The Shining meets India) – Lalitha Mahal Palace Hotel, Oyster Bay was unexpected in its classy, urban chic ambience and resort feel, with even more amazing food. While Indian cuisine has a special place in my heart already, I can safely claim that this was the best Indian food I have ever eaten at a restaurant. The kitchen toned down the spice level for some of my friends’ more delicate palates, and even without the spice (which I missed, personally), the quality, flavor, and texture was outstanding.

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The best dish by far was the dal (lentils). I’m not sure which type of dal it was, makhani? Regardless, both carnivores and vegetarians alike absolutely raved about that dish. In fact, Oyster Bay’s lentils/dal were even better than the so-called house specialty dal served at Bukhara at the ITC Mukaya in New Delhi, which is supposedly one of the best restaurants in all of Delhi. Bukhara’s dal did not even come close to the creamy, rich texture of Oyster Bay’s.

Typically, most murgh (chicken) dishes in India are bone-in chicken, so it was quite nice to have boneless chicken breast meat in several of the curries. Of those we tried, I give highest praise for the Murgh Saagwala (chicken and spinach) which was very flavorful and colorful. This dish is one of my favorite Indian dishes; I probably order it 70% of the time I eat Indian. In other words, this version was exceptional. My friends who were Karnataka natives themselves loved this food – though it couldn’t compare to Mom’s!

In addition to the quality and flavor of the dishes, the facility itself was designed and built as an open air concept. In hot India, that may seem a bit odd, but the shade and overhead fans ensured it felt as if we were at a temperate resort. Facilities at Oyster Bay were outstanding for Mysore, and the service was wonderful. The only downside was a brief water outage in the washrooms and a faucet that broke off in one of my friends’ hands. Overall, I found this restaurant to be a welcome respite after a long day of sightseeing at Mysore Palace, no matter how hot the weather!

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Eating Thai…Or a version of Asian in Bolivia

If you’re a foodie, frequent traveler and tend to have longer stays in a particular city, at some point, your objective might shift from “let’s try good local food” to “let’s try something different.”

Perhaps you’re sick of your limited choices and just want anything you haven’t already tried. Perhaps you don’t like native dishes. Or perhaps you miss food from back home. Whichever is the case, necessity (or boredom, maybe a death wish!) is the mother of change.

Enter La Paz, Bolivia. If you read my last post about Rendezvous restaurant, you saw a great example of fusion between European recipes and Andean ingredients. In Mephrao On, I’ll share a different sort of restaurant phenomenon: the unlikely bedfellows created when you group together an entire region of cuisines and “adapt” them to a different palate.

Mephrao On appears to be a Thai restaurant; in reality, it serves somewhat unrecognizable renditions of Thai, Indonesian, Indian, and Chinese stars. You may read “unrecognizable” as a negative, but to the contrary, I would assert that I simply mean that the dishes bear little resemblance to their namesakes, and I’m certain anyone from those countries would argue they are inauthentic, but the bottom line is that they tasted good.

By La Paz standards, I would give rate the restaurant a relative four out of five stars; but for general Thai/Asian fusion quality and authenticity, I would rate it as average.

Whatever dish is ordered will bear only a passing resemblance to its namesake Thai, Indian, Indonesian, or Chinese dish; however, flavors are good, if not light on spice. Bear in mind that most food in La Paz tends towards the low side on heat/spice. If you haven’t traveled much, if at all, to South America, you might be surprised to learn that the majority of more native dishes (I stress majority, not generalizing!) are not hot. So for those of us expecting a bit more heat, requests for chili sauce on the side were the way to go. Their homemade chili sauce has a wonderful flavor and subtle heat that builds.

I ordered a tofu pad tai on one visit and a peanut curry with chicken, the latter of which was not curry spiced but had a thick, rich, and mild peanut sauce. I had a hard time trying to control myself from eating the entire dish, because the sauce was so tasty.

I enjoyed my beverages and food. For drinks, I would recommend the fruity caipirinha with real fruit puree, though the cachasa is definitely not top shelf, be forewarned.

I would describe the ambience was amusing and not exactly Thai or even Asian themed. The two-story restaurant’s exterior almost resembles an English Tudor house with white stucco, dark wood beams, and inside, blond wood tables and chairs on the ground floor. The second floor required climbing a treacherous, wooden spiral staircase. Seating areas and the bar upstairs were dark and primarily lit by lamp and candles. On one visit, our large party sat upstairs on a bizarrely configured series of wide benches around a large, low, and dark wood table. I am confident that these benches must make for constant entertainment for the waitstaff, as they watch very awkward mounting and dismounting activities as patrons attempt to climb and sit on these benches.

The second floor of the restaurant also has some…um, different stained-glass windows of the female countenance that would probably be banned in more conservative countries. But then again, I’ve visited Thailand, and I’ve seen things that would be banned elsewhere, too. So perhaps Mephrao On has a theme, after all!

Service was slow – as is advertised on the menu and is common in La Paz. I suppose that just gave our appetites extra time to anticipate the food and puzzle over our surroundings.

Overall, Mephrao On was a nice change of pace from other restaurants in La Paz. Both times I visited, I found a new discovery awaited – whether in terms of decor or dishes. I would recommend it, so long as one enters expecting the unexpected!

Rendezvous: Continental flavors meet the Andes in La Paz

I’d like to share with you another restaurant that embodies the spirit of The Culinary Diplomat. Rendezvous in La Paz, Bolivia brings the techniques and flavors of continental Europe and North Africa to one of the more insular capital cities of South America. While most people will never make the trek to Bolivia, I found this restaurant to be such a great find that it helped ignite the passion I have for food and culture to start this blog in the first place. End cheesy philosophical statement.

When I think of Bolivian food, I think of salteñas. I’ll address that in a future post. Most people would not associate French or Moroccan food with the exceedingly high altitude of La Paz (which ranges from about 10,500 feet to over 13,000 feet above sea level). The altitude is a killer. The locals warned us not to eat heavy meals at night, but after I tried Rendezvous, I chose to ignore that instruction. Oh, did I ever pay for it! But the food was so good that it was more than worth it.

This restaurant is a must try for anyone – tourists or locals alike. If I transplanted the restaurant in the sea of great restaurants in Europe, it would still measure up. Even better and particularly for foreigners, the restaurant offers an incredible value that is the “icing on the cake.” It may not be the finest meal you might ever have, but it is great food, a lovely, refined and yet cozy atmosphere; a broad, French-inspired international menu with something for everyone; and service that might frustrate if not for the context: good service typically is lacking in La Paz, and on many nights, Rendezvous is understaffed. Taking all that into account, the service and speed is actually pretty amazing.

Food tends to be cheap in La Paz by outsiders’ standards, but finding truly outstanding food for a third to fourth of what we might pay at home or on vacation made this place a repeat visit for myself and my group…four times. Of about 25 total meals, I heard not one complaint about the quality or presentation of any dish.

The must-haves:
Steak. Any steak. The Llama steak impressed many who tried it, including myself; however, I preferred the beef medallions. For anyone that hasn’t tried Llama, it has a mild, non-gamey taste; it is surprisingly light, tender, almost not needing a knife.

The lamb tagine (tajin de cordero):
Lamb is not one of my favorite meats (sometimes it tastes like the smell of wet wool); however, the lamb in this Moroccan-inspired dish is akin to beef pot roast, but exceptionally more tender and well-flavored (not overly salty; I actually added salt myself). As is typical in Bolivia, the Moroccan flavors are a bit more subtle than you might find elsewhere, but everyone raved about the Moroccan vegetables. The accompanying minted yogurt sauce is a nice addition, if not a bit too thin in consistency. Still, this dish was a major crowd hit and my personal favorite at Rendezvous. In fact, it was as good as any tagine I had in North Africa.

The trout piccata (trucha):
I did not try this dish myself, but my dining companions tried it multiple times and praised its delicate flavor. It was trout elevated to another level.

The chocolate mousse:
This dish outshone the other desserts. It is intense, rich, not overly sweet and elegantly presented. Having tried it multiple times, I can safely say this was the crowd favorite – and my own as well.

Other notable dishes:
The duck two ways: It was good but not great. I did enjoy the fig sauce (it is also used as an accompaniment from the French-inspired Bolivian cheese and charcuterie starter), but thought it could use a bit of citrus or tart flavoring to balance the sweetness. The confit was outstanding; perfection. My duck breast was a bit fatty for my taste, but duck breast does tend to be a bit on the fatty side, in its defense. Another dining companion also tried it on another day and found it to be a perfectly cooked and textured cut of meat.

Tierra y Mar: Dining companions loved the pairing. Be advised that it is a bit heavier on the tierra (steak) and less on the mar (shrimp), portion wise.

Starters: The charcuterie plate had a great variety and flavor for sharing. It included both imported and local ingredients. Calamari appeared to be well flavored.

Desserts: Rendezvous’ tiramisu is excellent – light and airy. I am a creme brûlée fiend, but I have had much better and felt it was just a bit too subtle (no vanilla bean seeds) and fluffy (not dense and creamy) for my palate, though I did really enjoy it. Hey, this is Bolivia, so creme brulee here should be judged accordingly and not by my standards.

Sides: The papas gratinadas (potatoes au gratin) were my favorite side dish, though slightly inconsistent in texture. Most, if not all, dishes also come with a ‘default’ small side of vegetables, the composition of which varied slightly each time I came. They were typically well-cooked and seasoned. While their mushroom risotto (risotto con champignones) drew me in on one visit, it’s not quite risotto in my book.

Rendezvous truly elevates international cuisine in La Paz.

Disclaimer: The time comes in every writer’s life when you have to take a day or two off and pirate your own work. If you were to search a particular, well-known travel website, you might come across a review that looks suspiciously like this post. That is because I wrote said review. Apparently, over 1,000 people have found it “helpful,” which I take as the start of a good blog post. It also begs the question: 1,000 people wanted fancy food in La Paz?! Hmm. Please forgive me for recycling old work. But it’s new to you, right?!

I also ask any of you reading for feedback. What would you like to see more of in The CD? Less? I’m still on the hunt for guest bloggers, so please! Share your own culinary adventures – even if in your own backyard!

The best plat I ever ate: Parisian seared foie gras ravioletti

It is a rare moment in life when you experience something so spectacular you know you’re going to remember the rest of your life. Whether it’s people, a natural wonder, a concert, a work of art, or food, you typically know soon that the moment will remain with you for years – if not a lifetime. Memories are powerful. They aren’t perfect photographs, but the more important to us an event feels, the more we remember it. When they stand the test of time – when they are all but impossible to replicate, then we know we were on to something.

Several food memories stand out to me clearly. I’ve already talked about the best ice cream I’ve eaten. In honor of the new classic tradition of #tbt (Throwback Thursday for those of you who haven’t quite joined the ’10s. No judgment; I’m sure a 13 year-old would tell me how lame I am for still using the term), I’m sharing my best entree experience around this date a few years ago.

It was Paris. It was March. At the end of a ski trip, a friend and I decided to weekend in Paris. I’d only been to Paris once before at that point, and I’d really looked forward to taking the city by storm. So live it up we did. At the end of a long day packed with food and sightseeing adventures, I didn’t think I had much of an appetite for a late dinner, but I was willing to try. The setting? Scossa, a cafe-restaurant on Place Victor Hugo in the 16th arrondissement.

You know how food tastes better when you’re hungry? In this case, I was the opposite of hungry before I started eating. After snacks, bread, great wine, and escargot, I was even less hungry.

Sidebar: My first experience with escargot was surprisingly good. I liken it to calamari – odd texture but no odd taste. It is somewhat chewy, but it takes on the flavors of its cooking liquid and seasonings – in grand French tradition, typically butter and garlic. My take on escargot is this – why eat something that has no flavor of its own, if it’s already odd or expensive? How is it much different than, say, tofu, in that regard? The answer is the experience.

So, we get to the main course (I can’t say entree without confusing the American – main dish – and French/Continental – appetizer – meanings) or plat in French. One of my friends and I both ordered a seared foie gras over ravioletti. We weren’t quite sure what to expect, and perhaps that was best. It overwhelmingly exceeded expectations. A significantly sized portion of foie gras was delicately seared to a crisp outer coating and firm, yet melt-in-your-mouth interior, with that rich, earthy and meaty flavor of foie gras. It was perched atop a dish of mini ravioli – ravioletti – filled with cheese and coated thickly with a perfect, cheese and parsley-accented cream sauce. Heart attack waiting to happen? Yes.

It was worth it. I definitely had several eyes-rolling-back-in-my-head moments while eating it. I left no bite untouched.

Already uncomfortably full, I still forced room for dessert – a warm, molten chocolate moelleux (before lava cake got old). I still managed to eat all of that too.

The meal was so wonderful that when I returned to Paris a few months later, I went back to the same restaurant to try and have a repeat experience. But that’s the curious thing about ‘best ever’ experiences. They’re all but impossible to replicate. Dishes can be made again, but are they ever truly as good? I find that when I make the perfect cookie, pasta sauce, or steak, it never seems to taste as good as when I nailed it – unexpectedly. Is it really ‘less good?’ That question also is all but impossible to answer, because perception is subjective and expectation gets in the way. If we experience something amazing – part of the ‘amazing’ is because it exceeded expectations. So when we try to experience it again the same way, we’ve set the bar much higher. Maybe the experience comes close to meeting the bar we built up in our memories, but because it didn’t exceed expectations, it doesn’t seem quite as good.

That said, the second experience with this dish was not the same as the first. It was very good, but the pasta wasn’t cooked quite the same; it seemed to not have been fully drained, so the sauce didn’t cling and flavor the ravioletti quite so well. Still, over time, it didn’t dampen the amazing memory of that first time. It didn’t make the dish any less exquisite. It remains – to this day – the best main dish I ever ate.

I’ll still keep seeking that next, elusive best dish I’ve ever eaten. Challenge accepted!

What was the best dish you ever ate?
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Pisco, national spirit of Peru…or is it?

If, for no other reason than as the namesake of the Pisco Sour, cocktail of (often upscale) Latin restaurants, you are probably familiar with pisco.  Many may associate the pisco sour with Peru.

But did you know that Chile produces, consumes, and imports more pisco than anywhere else? Fun fact: Pisco originated roughly at the same time in Peru as Chile in the 16th century.

So what is pisco, exactly? Pisco is yet another type of brandy made from grapes, and actually is made by distilling wine. So it then may make sense why Chile produces over 30 times as much pisco as Chile – they certainly have enough grapes around!

The difference is in Peru’s stricter control over pisco production. I won’t say it’s not an art in Chile – that would be ignorant of me, but pisco production is serious business in Peru. Specific varieties are created in reference to the variety of grapes used; only eight grape varieties, or a blend of those, are permitted. Peruvian pisco is distilled once from wine, while Chilean can be distilled multiple times.

In Peru, pisco puro is made from a single type of grape; Aromaticas are made from single uh, aromatic varieties of grape (e.g., Muscat or Italy). Acholado is a blend of any number or proportion of the eight grape varieties. Mosto Verde piscos are made from grapes that have not been allowed to ferment completely, which produces a sweeter product. Quebranta is both a type of non-aromatic Peruvian grape, distilled puro without blending, and it also is a primary grape blended in acholado versions. Muscatel and Torontel are both specific aromaticas, varietals made from grapes that connoisseurs characterize by lemon and floral notes, respectively.

While in Peru, it would have been helpful to have done this research before trying to buy pisco – both for a gift for friends and to bring to a Peruvian beach costume gala for Carnaval. Bring to a gala? Why yes, that was a surprise to me. With a gala-like ticket price, band, and setting, I was surprised that alcoholic drinks were strictly BYOB (bring your own beverage). So of course, I had to contribute. As the only non-Lima resident in our group, I wanted to avoid an amateur mistake by choosing the wrong kind of pisco for chilcanos.

Sidebar (but an important one at that): Many of you may not have tried a chilcano, but they are fantastic. Chilcanos commonly are made with pisco, ginger ale, and lime, though fancier, more complex versions exist. I’ve also seen them made with lemon-lime soda, but I prefer the ginger-pisco combination.

Chilcanos in Lima.

Chilcanos in Lima.

Anyway, I wished I knew pisco varieties before trying to purchase them. I was overwhelmed by the breadth of varieties and dearth of descriptions at a fairly tiny supermarket. I was too embarrassed to ask someone, though it wasn’t exactly the level of store with uber customer friendly staff to ask in the first place. So I chose a quebranta for the chilcanos and an acholado for a gift. Oops, so the puro quebranta was fine to mix, but the flavor wasn’t particularly memorable. They call it puro for a reason! It didn’t seem to matter. Our large group had several bottles to choose from and combination of sodas. We made piscolas (pisco-cola, what you’d expect from the name), chilcanos, and other concoctions based on what everyone brought. Varieties? Nobody complained; it was all good. It was a bit odd, though, to be squeezing limes and retrieving ginger ale from a cooler to make my own cocktails at an impressive gala. Yet it made for some great memories, as we won big for our group costume and danced to reggaeton, salsa, merengue, and other great music from a lively band.

An enchanted night under the sea for Carnaval, unofficially sponsored by pisco.

An enchanted night under the sea for Carnaval, unofficially sponsored by pisco.

I may not be able to weigh in to a discussion of who does pisco best – Peru or Chile, but I can definitively say that I’ve experienced firsthand that pisco is part of Peru’s cultural identity. The next time you see pisco on a drink menu, try a pisco sour or chilcano for a sip of Peru.