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World’s 10 best cities for foodies
London for offal, New York for pork, Shanghai for dumplings. Some cities go above and beyond the normal call of culinary duty
Increasingly, there is a particular type of person that travels to eat.
For us, monuments and museums have had their day; shopping is passé, and the hotel is all but irrelevant. The eating is everything.
After all, you have to do it three times a day anyway, so you might as well make it the center of the trip.
It takes effort. Research is done before you leave, options pored over, reviews consulted. And it can be disappointing: all cities have dud restaurants, all cities have tourist drags, most restaurants have a bad night every now and then.
But the good cities have restaurants that make the duds fade from memory.
My rule of thumb? A successful trip is when you find a couple of meals that stay in the memory. Food that resounds and stays with you for years to come, comes to mind when you detect a particular aroma or eat a particular dish that makes you long to return.
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1. London, for offal
Think English food and some still think watery vegetables, overcooked meat and chips. Fools.
In the past couple of decades, London has emerged as a serious place to eat -- brilliant tapas, high-end French, the best pizza outside of Naples (Franco Manca, unit 4, Market Row, Brixton, to be precise; +44 20 7738 3021).
But modern British food is what makes this place such a pleasure to eat in, and it’s best at Fergus Henderson’s St. John (26 St. John St.; +44 20 3301 8069) -- there are two restaurants, a hotel and a bakery, all functional and white.
Henderson is known for exquisitely plain food -- think ox heart with beetroot, or Jerusalem artichokes, gently roasted. But the bone marrow salad is what defines this place: chunks of shin, roasted, served with chopped up parsley and sourdough.
Deadly simple, and sublime.
2. New York, for pork
New York has more obsessive eaters per capita than anywhere else, and pork is chiefly in their affections.
There’s Southern-style barbecue at Williamsburg’s Fette Sau (354 Metropolitan Ave., Williamsburg, Brooklyn; +1 718 963 3404) and the life-changing roast pork sandwiches of Porchetta (110 East 7th St.; +1 212 777 2151).
But if there’s a chef who has typified modern New York eating, it’s David Chang and his three Lower East Side restaurants, all called Momofuku.
Chang is Korean-American and Momofuku serves modern Korean, where we can recommend the whole slow-cooked pork butt (book ahead; take a lot of people) and the pork buns, which are a twist on classic Peking duck, only 10 times as good.
When I was last there, it was a toss-up between the Empire State Building and Momofuku. Momofuku won.
3. Portland, Oregon, for punk locavorism
A year or so back, one of Portland’s best-known chefs got in a fistfight about local pork.
Across the city, menus change daily depending on what’s available, while chefs play with local heritage ingredients and single-source meat and your waiter, likely, has tattoos.
All of which would be very boring if the food weren’t this good. You can see this at Gabe Rucker’s Le Pigeon (738 East Burnside St.; +1 503 546 8796), in the city’s northeast -- all brick walls and distressed timber.
There are wooden tables and a long bar looking into the kitchen. Think local organic pork chops, brined and pan-roasted, served with flash-roasted green beans, ricotta and chili. It’s a punk take on French food, and it is very good indeed.
4. Singapore, for street food
There is fine dining and there are international chains, and often these have air conditioning.
But we go for streetfood: some decades ago, city authorities moved the island’s ubiquitous hawker stalls inside huge covered halls, where you can get hawker classics that come with hygiene standards.
You will find yourself making excuses to have a second lunch, or perhaps a pre-dinner -- there’s everything from Malay-style curry laksa to the city’s specialty, fish ball noodle soup to mee goreng.
Start at the Maxwell Road Food Centre near Chinatown, two long halls filled with some of the best food you will find anywhere.
5. Shanghai, for dumplings
It is a dumpling that somehow speaks for the Shangainese food, which is possibly the most under-rated in China. All dumplings here are good, xiaolongbao are the best.
You can find them all over the city, a delicate parcel filled with pork or crab and stock, carefully gathered closed at the top and steamed. When you eat them, you bite a hole in the top, suck out the soup and then eat your way through the rest of it.
The best can be found at Jia Jia Tang Bao (90 Huanghe Lu, near Fengyang Lu; +86 21 6327 6878), a bare-bones place just of Nanjing Road where the dumplings are heavenly. There is no English sign, no English menu and where you’d better not muck around ordering -- though they know what you’re here for.
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6. Barcelona, for tapas
Barcelona scrapes onto this list: just avoid the tourist traps on La Ramblas and you will have a very fine experience indeed.
This is the city that invented tapas, small plates to go with a bit of booze, late at night. There are many iterations around the city, and they are often excellent.
But the place that somehow captures the essence of the city? El Quim (La Boqueria, Boqueria Market, Rambles; +34 93 301 98 10). The service is fast and brusque, and it’s only open during the day.
Muscle your way past old ladies with sharp elbows at the bar, sit down, and ask what’s good today.
7. Sydney, for modern Thai
Sydney would make this list for any number of reasons. But it is the city’s love affair with modern Thai food that is still the thing that sets it apart -- the city’s chefs have taken something that has become so ubiquitous, so ordinary outside Thailand and created something magnificent.
There are two restaurants you must not miss, and they are but a block apart: the fast and furious Spice I Am (90 Wentworth Ave., Surry Hills; +61 2 9280 0928), where you cannot book, there is no liquor license and the food is magnificent -- punchy, fresh, and not expensive.
A block away is the restaurant that started it all: Longrain (85 Commonwealth St., Surry Hills; +61 2 9280 2888), which kicked off a Thai revolution in Australia and which is still, 12 years later, busy every night. (Can’t get in there? Try Shortgrain downstairs for lunch.)
8. Melbourne, for restaurants that look like bars
There’s something about the city -- from its narrow laneways to its scruffy inner suburbs -- that means Melbourne’s natural inclination is towards the casual, despite the grandness of its central city.
Here, you’ll find restaurants halfway between bar and restaurant, at once casual and slick. The food is uniformly inventive and the service is fabulous.
But MoVida (1 Hosier Lane; +61 3 9663 3038) is still the restaurant that continues to set the pace for casual dining in Melbourne -- four restaurants across the CBD, serving some of the most sublime tapas you’ll find anywhere on the planet, Barcelona included.
9. Naples, for pizza
Naples might be dirty, corrupt and disorganized, but it is also the home of the food we think of as Italian -- dark, ripe tomatoes, basil, pasta, seafood, all of it fresh and bursting with flavor.
And then, then there is pizza. Neapolitans didn’t exactly invent pizza, but you could say they defined it -- they were the first to put tomatoes on it and a Neapolitan chef was the first to add Mozzarella, at Antica Pizzeria Brandi (Salita S. Anna Di Palazzo 1-2; +39 081 416 928), which still exists.
The pizza here is rustic, robust, unruly -- it is wood-fired, with puffy edges blackened from the oven, a chewy base and minimal ingredients.
As you’d expect, no one can agree on the best, but you should start with Da Michele (Via Cesare Sersale 1; +39 081 5539 204), a traditional 19th-century pizzeria which only serves two types of pizza -- Margherita and Marinara. They’re both mind-bogglingly good.
10. San Francisco, where modern eating began
It has some of the world’s best restaurants, but it was San Francisco’s cult restaurant Chez Panisse (1517 Shattuck Ave., Berkeley; +1 510 548 5525) that ushered in a new generation in dining.
Alice Waters focused on seasonal food and organic ingredients before anyone else knew there was a problem with the food chain; it still serves up fabulous food, night after night -- best of all, on Mondays you can eat a three-course meal for US$60. But you knew that.
So we would also direct you to Tartine (600 Guerrero St.; +1 415 487 2600), in the city’s Castro district. It started as a bakery: a loyal following and one gorgeous cookbook and it has expanded along the block. We insist you go to the original, and eat a pecorino and toasted almond sandwich.
Bread will never be the same again.
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