24 Places To Visit For Fantasy Food Travel
Book your ticket for the food and drink alone
We all do it. In the shower, at the brunch table with friends, while running on the treadmill. We escape from our day-to-day grind to ponder where we want to travel next. Away from reality and, now more than ever, where we’d like to explore the best in food and drink. We dream of the dim sum parlors in Hong Kong and the fall harvest in Campania. Of lobster rolls sold near the docks in Maine and of sipping rum drinks in Havana. This week we bring you our second annual Fantasy Travel Week. Recently, on a frigid February afternoon, the editors sat around a table in their drafty Manhattan offices and came up with a list of places they'd travel to for the food and drink alone. They’d been to some of these places, while others are on bucket lists. And there are a few places they’re planning to visit in 2014, which they hope you will do as well. Check back throughout the week for stories from chefs, travel writers and other intrepid souls who know no boundaries or borders when it comes to searching out the most tantalizing food and drink.
By George Embiricos, Jess Kapadia, Richard Martin, Laura Neilson and Matt Rodbard
1. THE HIDDEN SOUTH
There’s a whole bunch of white space between the big-time southern food cities like Atlanta, Austin and Nashville. And so much to see. We suggest flying into one of them and hitting the road. From Atlanta you can hop to Decatur, where restaurants like The Pinewood Tippling Room and Cakes & Ale are getting national attention. After a stop to sip moonshine in Greenville, South Carolina and an overnight in Asheville, North Carolina (head to Cúrate for inspired Spanish cooking in the heart of lowountry), a weekend in Richmond is a must, where Jason Alley’s two farm-to-table gems (Comfort and Pasture) utilize the region’s fertile terroir in the most imaginative of ways. A stop at Dinamo for hearty Italian comfort dishes like gnocchi Bolognese and house-made broccoletti and provolone sausage is also a must. And of course barbecue is required during this Southern spin. While Austin and Memphis are obvious powerhouses, lesser known is the mutton of Owensboro, Kentucky. We would say a pilgrimage to Moonlite Bar-B-Que is worth a swing through the Bluegrass State. All good reasons to plan a road trip through the South with stops at some out of the way places.
2. CENTRAL VIETNAM
Vietnam is a country with a deeply rich food culture, but also one of mind-spinning urban sprawl, over-crowding and choking air pollution. At least in the country’s largest metropolises, Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, at least. Taking a quick flight to Danang, located on Vietnam’s pristine central coast near the ancient city of Hoi An, will award travelers with relaxing white sand beaches and some thrilling food adventures. Grilled seafood like prawns and sea snails can be found at quiet roadside restaurants. Also be on the lookout for two types of noodles: turmeric-laced mi quang and the slightly smoked flat noodles called cau lau, which are made daily at dawn by only a handful of families.
3. THE SAN GABRIEL VALLEY
People like to oversimplify the Los Angeles food scene. There’s tacos, power lunching and a whole lot of salad, or so that boring story goes. These statements are simply incorrect, and we’ve spent a ton of time covering the city. Let's talk about the Chinese food available in the San Gabriel Valley, located a 30-minute drive due east of downtown. SGV is a dim sum and dan dan noodle force, which critic Jonathan Gold has spent many words detailing. Here’s a list of some of his favorite places. There are dozens more worth traveling for.
De Kas really paved the way for farm-to-table dining in Amsterdam, and it's great to see so many other restaurants step up and offer seasonal seasonal dishes that are fresh and local, but also accessible — no snobbery. Merkelbach is one such up and comer, located in an old carriage house on Frankendael Park. They welcome everyone with a glass of something bubbly while you peruse the day's offerings. We've also heard good things about Chef's Table in the north, which is turning out some beautiful, avant-garde plates. And for any genever drinker, Amsterdam is obviously Mecca. Just don't call it gin here — the locals don't take kindly to that.
5. COLUMBIA COUNTY, NY/GREAT BARRINGTON, MA
Now that Zak Pellaccio's Fish & Game in upstate Hudson, NY has a James Beard nomination, expect more than just food critics to make the two hour trip north of Manhattan. More insatiable types should stay awhile and check out Brooklyn expat Mark Firth's excellent Prairie Whale in nearby Great Barrington, MA, and Josephine Proul's Local 111 back on the New York side in Philmont, where the slimmed-down locavore chef is now cooking healthier and yet somehow tastier starters and entrees. Before heading back to the hustle and bustle, it's advisable to visit a few of the region's farm stores for meat, eggs and in-season produce.
Located in the dead center of the massive People’s Republic of China, Chengdu is the capitol of Sichuan, which is famous for the tongue-numbing cuisine that has become all the rage back in the States. While dishes like tea-smoked duck and mapo tofu are what people are mostly talking about, there is much more than basic stir-frying and braising. Our tip is to book a tour and let your guide prepare you for the heat. Andrew Zimmern is also a fan. “I would travel around the world to have one more meal in Chengdu, the most underrated food town on the planet,” he once told us.
If you asked us three years ago to put Uruguay on this list, we probably would have shrugged. But after Jose Garces (of Iron Chef fame) came back from a recent trip he covered for us via Instagram, and we’re pretty much booking our tickets now. He told us about the “most verdant chimichurri” served at the restaurant at Bodegas Carrau in Montevideo and his fondness for Bar Arocena. And of course if you are visiting, a trip to Francis Mallmann’s asado restaurant and hotel Garzon is worth looking into.
The relatively slow buildup of this reunited German capital revolves around its art scene, but with such stamps of approval as a Soho House (0pened in 2010) and endorsements from respected globetrotters like David Byrne, not to mention the cheapest and most delicious currywurst on the planet, Berlin is starting to merit a spot on the food-hunter's travel schedule. It doesn't hurt that the city's restaurants earned four new Michelin stars last year.
9. AUSTIN, TEXAS
Who would have ever guessed that it'd be possible to travel to Austin, never touch a plate of brisket or a breakfast taco, and still leave town having eaten some of the best meals of your life. This once-sleepy Texas capital has become an intriguing culinary outpost, with names like Tyson Cole, Bryce Gilmore, Paul Qui and others moving into the national spotlight, with no Tex-Mex or barbecue on the menu. If you haven't visited Austin for the food and drink alone — there's a pretty good music scene here, too, while you're at it — then head there immediately.
Even though New York City chef Andrew Carmellini worked for years in northern Italy, when he travels to the Boot he likes to head south to Sicily. “There have been many cultures that have passed through there — the Greeks, Saracens and Moors, and you really see that reflected in the cuisine,” he says. He suggests eating octopus in the street-side shops in Modello or grabbing some granita from one of the pastry shops during the summer. He loves restaurants Il Duomo in Ragusa and Nangalarruni in Castelbuono. Sicily also has an incredibly underrated wine region. Once synonymous with Marsala, the fortified wine most people associate as an ingredient in a saucy chicken dish, Sicily now produces wines ranging from fresh and mineral whites to elegant and refreshingly un-manipulated reds.
London hit the new millennium running, and we’d argue that in the past 13-plus years, no other Western city compares with the improvement in eating and drinking here. The new year isn’t stopping Londoners from hurtling forward, either. The much-discussed new Ace Hotel in Shoreditch cements the eastside’s place as a global destination for in-the-know travelers, and stylish restaurants and innovative cocktail lounges keep spreading into distant corners of the city. Sure the tried-and-true pub is said to be suffering, but the rapid pace of change here isn’t as accelerated as New York, which is perhaps losing its historical spots faster.
12. MEZCAL IN MEXICO CITY
When hip single-topic food magazine Swallow dedicated their recent issue to Mexico City, it was yet another reminder about how far the food and drink scene in the Mexican capitol has come over the past year. While we can go long about the taco trucks and the craziness going on at Enrique Olvera's restaurant Pujol, allow us to suggest something a little more spirited. Stay in Roma, a gentrifying neighborhood teeming with public art and hip watering holes. Hotel Brick is a stylish boutique of choice. After checking in, it’s on to the mezcal, which you can think of as tequila’s more rustic, smokier cousin. La Botica Mezcaleria can be credited with much of the spirit’s resurgence. One of the most popular mezcalerias of the moment is La Clandestina, a hole in the wall with no sign that still manages to be easy to find. See: Throngs of people waiting outside on a busy night. The wrap up the evening try some pulque, the fermented agave drink that predates mezcal and tequila. A good place to find it is Pulqueria La Nuclear.
13. SAINT JEAN DE LUZ, SAN SEBASTIAN AND SURROUNDING AREAS
Carmellini also tipped us to this region that straddles France and Spain. According to the chef, Saint Jean de Luz is really one of the world’s greatly undiscovered market towns. “I love the cross-over regions where you see the influence of two countries converge," he says. "You will find seafood, cured meats, amazing whole fish and Espelette peppers all coming together. Basque cheese and Bayonne ham are key. The market in Biarritz offers great shellfish.”
14. OAKLAND, CALIFORNIA
Oakland? Yes, really. Once overshadowed by nearby food and wine powerhouses Napa, Berkeley and San Francisco, Oakland has carved out its own identity as a destination on the rise. Michelin-starred Commis has gotten the most attention with its refined new-American prix-fix. But other places like the wood-fired Camino and the great supply of Vietnamese pho houses make a trip to the East Bay worth it. And don’t skip out on a giant sundae at Fentons Creamery. It’s an institution that buzzes year-round.
South Korea is by no imagination an easy place to visit. English is relatively scarce and a cultural gap between East and West is more than apparent. But sacrificing a little accessibility and ease will reward you with one of the most exciting eating cities on earth. Between the pancakes and pig trotters sold at the open air Gwangjang Market, the refined tasting menus of two Michelin starred Jungsik and the party-til-dawn vibe in Hongdae and Itaewon (along with some pretty insane beef and pork barbecue restaurants), a visit will have you craving “good Korean food” for basically a lifetime.
Melbourne often plays second fiddle to Sydney. What,with those beaches, shopping and all that nightlife. But if you talk to serious food people, it’s Melbourne by a mile. Sitting 55 stories above the city Vue de Monde offers incredible venues and an ambitious tasting menu from chef Shannon Bennett. Ben Shewry is probably the city’s most well-known chef in America for his work at Attica. And Andrew McConnell runs a pair of seasonal gems in Golden Fields and Cutler & Co. Last but not least, do not sleep on the power of the Huxtaburger.
From star-studded debuts by NYC ex-pats to decades-old Italian-American stalwarts, Philadelphia is a boon for culinary travelers. There’s world-class Italian at Vetri, vegetarian goodness at Zahav, Nordic cuisine mastery at Noord and eclectic small plates at Serpico. The City of Brotherly Love certainly does not lack in diversity. And we didn’t even mention its cheesesteaks (but go to Pat’s).
While the food in Music City has been written about extensively, Nashville’s most impressive strength may be its continuous evolution. Pinewood Social, Lockeland Table, Husk, 404 Kitchen and Etch — all worthy of tremendous buzz — have opened within the past year alone. Add on a tasting menu at Catbird Seat, a Bacon Old Fashioned at Patterson House and an order of hot chicken from Hattie B’s and you’ve arrived at the country’s newest culinary mecca.
19. GREEK ISLES
There are archaeological sites in Crete, romantic sunsets in Santorini and all-night fun in Mykonos. There is grub worth traveling for on all three. Make the party isle your base and explore a bustling restaurant scene that ranges from local fare and seafood (Nammos, Sea Satin) to sophisticated French (Katrin) to stellar sushi (skip Nobu and go to sleeper pick Coo).
It’s the world's most recognized wine district, home of the famous Premiers Crus (first growth) wines of Margaux, Mouton Rothschild, Latour, Lafite Rothschild and Haut-Brion. Travel throughout the French countryside, visiting magnificent chateaux and tasting the world’s best wines. Stay overnight in the charming city of Bordeaux at the elegant Grand Hotel de Bordeaux & Spa and visit upscale bistro La Tupina, as well as the fancier Jean Ramet.
21. SOUTH AFRICA
South Africa introduced people to more than just vuvuzelas while hosting the 2010 World Cup. Visitors discovered a “rainbow” cuisine that traces the country’s history from various European settlers to spices brought by the Dutch East India Company to influences from a large influx of 19th century Indian laborers that is still noticeable today.
Sure, Hawaiian beaches are among the most spectacular in the world, but just as vibrant is the dining scene. The state capital is worth a visit for its fresh seafood (La Mer is a must), and a wide array of exotic, tropical fruit is incorporated in local cuisine (try Chef Mavro). Throughout the smaller islands, Hawaiian cuisine is a colorful fusion of American, Chinese, Filipino and Japanese flavors. The loco moco, an island specialty, is the perfect example of fusion done right.
23. STOCKHOLM/SWEDISH COUNTRYSIDE
Yes, Copenhagen is an existentially rewarding food experience, but the Danish city's emergence thanks to Mssrs Redzepi, Puglisi et al. has wrongly knocked neighboring Sweden off the map. There's a lot going on here, however, and chefs like the Thai-born Sayan Isaksson of Esperanto are shaking up Swedish traditions to stunning effect. Stockholm's thriving restaurant scene and chefs like Magnus Nilsson luring visitors out into the insanely picturesque countryside (more than three hours from Stockholm, mind you, in Nilsson's case) make this a place to dream about.
The great thing about eating in Goa, India, located at the very southernmost tip of the subcontinent, is that the food has been different from the start. Colonized by the Portuguese in the 1500s, the region's cuisine has a pronounced European influence, with popular hybrid dishes like vinegar-spiked pork curry. While plenty of your favorite South Indian favorites abound — no shortage of massive, crispy dosas and rich sambar and chutneys — Goan fish curry is a greatest hit of Asian cuisine. The freshest fish and most torturously spicy brew of spices, coconut and chiles is like a tropical savory ambrosia.