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South American Sushi : Liberdade, Brazil’s Little Tokyo

Abstract:

The Japanese community of Liberdade (pop. 600,000) in Sao Paulo, Brazil, is discussed. Topics include Japanese cultural features in Liberdade, other East Asian groups living there, Japanese emporiums, and maintenance of connections with Japan.

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Smack in the middle of the nonstop frenzy of activity that is Sao Paulo, Brazil, an orderly neighborhood seems to defy conventional reason. Liberdade, a Japanese community of 600,000–the biggest outside Japan– sits in the center of the world’s second-largest city. And though Brazil is a predominantly Catholic, Portuguese-speaking, tropical country halfway around the world from Japan, some say Liberdade is more Japanese than even Tokyo (which has become excessively westernized). In a community that seems to occupy a different time and space, second-, third-, and fourth- generation Japanese Brazilians practice the customs of their birthplace while clinging to their Japanese roots.

“My personality is not completely Japanese and not completely Brazilian,” declares Lucia Hioko Sawaguchi Asis Gerente, an agent for Seil Travel Agency, on Liberdade’s centrally located Praca Square. “I cannot give up my Japanese background, since I look Japanese. Everything I do is connected to Japan.”

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While Gerente, 39, who has a Brazilian husband, insists she can “digest either Brazilian or Japanese cultures,” she explains that she cannot “eat sushi two weeks in a row.” Gerente’s parents were born in Japan; her father moved to Brazil in 1932 and her mother in 1959. Like many of Liberdade’s residents over the years, they moved back to Japan and visit only occasionally.

“My parents are worried about my learning Japanese,” says Gerente, who has studied the language for nine years at Associaocao da Cultura do Imirim, one of many Japanese associations in the district. “I can speak the basic Japanese words but not the philosophical ones.”

Culture shock

Visitors to Liberdade are in for quite a culture shock. A towering red torii (portico) spans the main business street. At its base is a teien, a tiny, expertly manicured, and typically Japanese garden, with dark green shrubs and an arching footbridge. Beyond the portico are 450 smaller gateways, each bearing a white strobe light, pointing the way to Sao Paulo’s vast urban horizon.

Along the side streets, movie theaters advertise imported films in Japanese. Itinerant merchants with aged Oriental faces sell fresh flowers in carefully tied bunches. Signs on low-rise, concrete buildings announce centers for acupuncture treatment and meditation. Here, Japanese Brazilians take classes in judo, flower arranging, and the traditional tea ceremony. Liberdade residents can choose from three Japanese-language community newspapers and shop for Oriental delicacies at numerous neighborhood groceries.

Sampling the neighborhood’s abundant Japanese cuisine is perhaps the most direct way to experience Japan’s lingering effect on Liberdade. Every specialty is available in Liberdade’s numerous Japanese restaurants, from conventional choices such as okonomi yaki, a shrimp, pork, or fish pancake, to exotic dishes such as unagi, stewed eel served in sweet sauce.

The sprawling neighborhood, now centered around Rua Galvao Bueno, behind Sao Paulo’s Roman Catholic Cathedral, got its start on June 18, 1908, when the immigrant steamer Kasato Maru docked at Santos Harbor with a cargo of 830 Japanese. Fleeing crop failures and earthquakes in their native islands, the 165 immigrant farm families used loans supplied by a Japanese development firm to set up modest truck-farming operations in the interior of Sao Paulo State. Later, some drifted to Mato Grasso and even to the Amazon jungle, where they successfully introduced production of two unrelated commodities: jute and hot peppers. Over the next five decades, a quarter of a million Japanese followed in their footsteps.

Liberdade became Sao Paulo’s Oriental section in the 1940s, when the children (nisei) and grandchildren (sansei) of the early rural settlers joined the urban trades and professions. Today, nearly a hundred establishments stocking everything from locally made kimonos to imported Japanese condiments cater to neighborhood needs and tourists.

More than a Japanese town

Within the context of Brazil, Liberdade is a unique cultural phenomenon. But the changing ethnic makeup within Liberdade is a phenomenon unto itself, namely the absorption of other East Asian groups.

“It has been an Oriental town here since 1973: Chinese, Thai, Vietnamese, Taiwanese,” notes Emi Kato, administrator of the Historical Museum of Japanese Immigration to Brazil. Bolivian-born to parents who emigrated in the thirties, Kato stresses the transitional pressures at work in the once all-Japanese community. “Many Koreans and Chinese are moving to Liberdade,” she says. “The Japanese cannot run the businesses; there is often bankruptcy. Koreans, Paraguayans, and Bolivians don’t pay taxes, but they do whatever is necessary for their business to succeed.”

“I don’t feel so special about being here in Liberdade,” laments Gerente. “There are now so many Koreans, Chinese, Bolivians, Cambodians, Vietnamese. Because it is so mixed, it is now more an Oriental than a Japanese town. There are more Koreans and Chinese than Japanese living here.”

Others have a brighter view. Taiwan-born Peter Cho, 43, runs a small food store in Liberdade. Cho arrived in 1968 and has never been back to Taiwan. For him, Liberdade’s best feature is that “you can get anything you want here, because there are so many Chinese, Koreans, and Japanese.” He notes that for older residents, language is not a problem. “The Chinese and Koreans who live in Liberdade and were born prior to World War II speak some Japanese because the Japanese invaded their countries during the war,” he says.

Kato is optimistic concerning the future of Japanese living in the district. Liberdade will be very mixed, but the Japanese here will continue living together, she predicts. “Second- and third-generation Japanese have become, for the most part, completely Brazilian.”

“There are, of course, fourth-generation Japanese here, but as for nanosei (fifth generation), I don’t know of any yet!” she exclaims.

A Japanese emporium

The Japanese aesthetic remains popular in crowded emporiums such as Mizumoto, Ho Kim Do, and Minikimono, which, though far from the fatherland, sell a wide range of Oriental artifacts. These range from crass stone or plastic Buddhas to expensive, delicately carved ivory figures, hand-painted vases, and assortments of f_rins, or “bells of happiness,” which are said to drive away evil spirits whenever they tinkle with a passing breeze. There is even one store on Rua Galva, O Oratorio, which specializes in lacquered wooden altars for Buddhist worshipers. A solemn atmosphere prevails in the shop as salesmen reveal the bronze or gold linings of row upon row of portable altars.

Brazilian semiprecious stones, some mounted on flimsy wooden bases and others superbly embellished by master craftsmen, are another mainstay of the gift and specialty trade, which has flourished due to the Japanese tradition of fine craftsmanship.

One Japanese Brazilian, Neuza Miyoko Nanami de Campos, who works as a salesclerk at the Ho Kim Do gift shop just off Liberdade Square, feels a special connection with her work. “I chose this work because I am responsible to attend the many Japanese clients in this shop because I speak some Japanese,” says de Campos, 40, whose family arrived in Brazil in 1950. “The Japanese here have many partners and cultural events, and I receive the benefits from that,” she adds.

De Campos cites the many libraries and bookstores that sell Japanese books, along with the proliferation of private schools that teach Japanese, as further advantages of a Liberdade lifestyle. “The second and third generations here want to learn Japanese,” she enthuses.

Yet despite all these Japanese-style cultural outlets, de Campos insists she feels “more Brazilian because I was born here, and because my parents are dead. I basically have no connection with Japanese tradition.” De Campos is married to a Brazilian and has never visited Japan, though she has a “strong desire to visit there, mainly to visit the places where my parents were born.” Interestingly, she notes that, while she and her husband are fond of Japanese cuisine, her children prefer Brazilian.

Nisei Merceariz Heiwa Julia Toyama, 51, has, over time, harmonized her sense of dual national allegiances. “When she came here sixty-four years ago, my mother felt she was more Japanese than Brazilian because she received her education in Japan,” recalls Toyama. “One time I went back to Japan and I realized that I was more Brazilian because of my education and my life here.

“The food makes me Japanese, like the music, and there are many ways of thinking,” she adds. “It is a philosophy of life. I don’t know enough of the Japanese language to answer such questions. To live here means to have a dream, to be able to work.”

Many Japanese-Brazilian residents, like Takako Nishimura, 50, suffer from a simpler dichotomy: diet. “I like both sushi and beans and rice. I like to cook both,” says Nishimura, whose family arrived in the district in 1954, when she was 5. “My father was traditional, so we kept on eating Japanese food after we arrived in Brazil.”

Living under the bridge

Of the 600,000 Japanese now residing in Liberdade, only 3,000 were born in Japan. Their connection with their ancestral homeland remains strong nevertheless. “From 1980, there was a transitional period here, dekasegi, with some 500,000 [Japanese Brazilians] going back to the fatherland over a period of years,” says Kato. “However, they often ended up doing the dirty work in Japan that the native Japanese don’t usually do. The women would work in the kitchen making prepared food, the men would do manual labor, factory work, electronics, and labor on the production line.”

“Yes, it is prejudice,” says Kato. “When they learn Japanese, they can work their way up. If they stay a long time in Japan, they can get a good job.” Apparently, the good jobs have come. Many say that the money earned by the 500,000 descendants of Brazilian Japanese now residing in Japan and sent back to their relatives in Brazil is greater than the total of all Brazilian exports.

“Some of our youth have already gone to Japan, while some are coming back,” she notes. “Many people who went to Japan are ‘living under the bridge.’ It takes a lot of money to live, to stay, and to come back from Japan.”

To stave off any cases of homeland sickness, there is the Cofraternization Office of the Federation of Different Provinces Around Brazil, which invites associations from Japanese prefectures to visit Liberdade and share information on Japan.

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Beyond the block

The neighborhood’s international mix is most obvious at the colorful and often eclectic Oriental street fair held every Sunday morning at Praca Liberdade, surrounding the district’s subway station. Dozens of wood-and- canvas stalls serve shrimp, fish, and meat tidbits from spits that sputter on open hibachi grills. Other Japanese and Brazilian appetizers are also sold, as well as the traditional native staple: beans and rice. The fair sprawls over the plaza and into neighboring streets, where stalls sell most of the Japanese-style products normally on display Monday through Saturday in Liberdade’s packed emporiums. Imports, however, are restricted–a measure designed to stimulate local handicraft production.

At night, few pedestrians pass beneath the red illuminated archways. The action is all indoors. Some of the larger restaurants feature soothing Japanese music performed by brightly costumed players using acoustic instruments, while multicourse meals stretch through an entire evening. Some establishments offer the more risque entertainment that visitors to Brazil have come to expect.

With Liberdade undergoing such strong ethnic transition, Pedro Yanno, president of the 1,200-family-strong Sao Paulo Japanese Immigration Association of Brazil, offers a global perspective on the subject. “I am a descendant of Japanese, but since I was born in Brazil, I am Brazilian, and I have to give respect to this country,” says Yanno, 66, whose parents arrived in Brazil in 1914. “The hospitality for me is the most attractive thing about this country,” he emphasizes.

“We’ve received an education and a whole system of customs and traditions [by living here]–and also the diversity of culture from Brazil and Japan,” stresses Yanno, whose organization annually sponsors several Japanese-speaking local students at the University of Kyushu in Japan.

“The association’s responsibility is to connect, through globalization programs, the countries where the nisei live, not just in Brazil, but in Uruguay, Mexico, Peru, the United States, and many others,” explains Yanno. In this effort, the nisei held their eleventh such meeting last July in Santiago, Chile, with people from eleven countries attending discussions on topics ranging from pre–World War II immigrants to Japanese youth in the upcoming millennium.

There is a saying among the Japanese of Liberdade: “First-generation [born in Japan] immigrants are the ‘real Japanese,’ while the second generation can relate to the block where they live. However, the third and fourth generations can communicate not only with every Japanese generation but with the Chinese, Brazilians, Koreans, anybody.”

It seems that as long as this process of improved communication continues and a healthy cross-fertilization of culture occurs, then Liberdade will remain full of life, color, and surprises. Visitors to this vibrant neighborhood typically have only one complaint; they cannot believe they are in the heart of South America.n

Stephen Henkin, an arts editor at The World & I, visited Sao Paulo on assignment. The assistance of Delta Airlines in researching this article is gratefully acknowledged.

>>> View more: Fish sticks these ain’t: cooking lessons from the islands

Fish sticks these ain’t: cooking lessons from the islands

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There’s much to be learned about offbeat seafood from island dwellers, I learn during a chat with the cheery woman behind the Oceanna Seaplants table at the Charlottetown Farmers Market. She seems unusually well-informed about the nutritional and medicinal benefits that come from what I’ve always called seaweed, and also solves my touristo gift-list problems with one-of-a-kind skin creams, massage oils, gels, balms, soaps, shampoos and teas–all made from plants washed up on P.E.I. beaches.

When I ask for cards to enclose with the gifts, I learn that the beachcombing vendor is marine biologist Irene Novaczek, who directs the Institute of Island Studies at the University of P.E.I. Before she knows it, she’s agreed to meet me at an Aboriginal festival at Panmure Island the following day and show me the seaweed sights.

The festival is a perfect setting for the points she likes to stress. Novaczek believes that rediscovering the potential of sea plants is central to the recovery of healthy Aboriginal traditions, as well as to safeguarding the food security of today’s coastal and island populations as the world enters a resource crunch.

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She explains the intricacy behind the long-chain polysaccha-rides in sea plants–a cuisine some experts call phycophagy. Her personal laves are gracilaria, sugar kelp and wrack. Gracilaria, which thrives in the sheltered waters of P.E.I., looks like a scrawny twig. A source of manganese, zinc and iodine, it can be slipped into soups or salads or cooked as pickles or puddings. This is the edible genius that nature washes up on the beach, laying it at the feet of coastal animals–including humans, most of whom have lost the ability to recognize it as such.

The authoritative Cambridge World History of Food identifies sea plants (what the tasteless experts call marine algae) as rich sources of protein, iodine, phenols and a good range of crucial but hard-to-get trace minerals, as well as essential fatty acids. Aboriginal peoples around the world recognized this found wealth, says Novaczek, as revealed by archeological digs, and one of her goals is to help them rediscover their food heritage, so they can access these low-cost and healthy foods.

Phycophagy carried on after the rise of agriculture, which is why sea plants became staples of folk cuisines in coastal and island nations around the world. Japanese cooks put the spotlight on marine algae by using dried nori to wrap sushi. But more commonly, nutritious, medicinal and economical sea vegetables were smuggled into tasty breads, salads, soups, stews and pickles of peasant cuisines in the same unsuspecting way stern moral lessons (don’t tell lies, for example) were incorporated into entrancing folk tales (Pinocchio, for instance).

Industrial food systems of the recent past found even trickier ways to smuggle sea plants into foods: Corporate industries don’t generally like found materials such as sea plants. They’re hard to patent, brand, process, monopolize and make a premium profit from. This is why sea plants disappeared as whole foods and reappeared in industrial foods as extracted properties listed as additives.

Specific sea plant properties are great as thickeners or emulsifiers, while others are superior for water retention, ideal as gelling agents, or nice for flavour or aroma. As on the industrial assembly line, the more specific and isolated the function, the less complexity there is to control, and the easier it is to substitute a cheaper replacement or automate by excluding the need for a subtle touch.

That’s why industrial food processing marginalized sea plants as whole foods, opting instead to either substitute manufactured chemicals (this is how MSG came onto the food scene), or, alternatively, to treat sea plants as storehouses of functions that can be strip-mined for one particular property.

As a consequence, individual constituents of sea plants–especially alginate, agar and carrageenan–play a central and omnipresent role in today’s industrial food system precisely because sea plants are such a versatile stockpile of easily mined functional properties.

Carrageenan, a core element in the Irish moss, which Prince Edward Island supplied to the food processing world from the 1930s to the 1970s, is excellent at thickening, stabilizing and holding water. Those functions–not the plentiful protein, iodine and sulphur found in Irish moss–explain why taste-and calorie-free carrageenan is on the label of salad dressings, ice cream, beer, baked goods and processed sandwich meats, to mention only the most common.

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By the 1970s, though, the Philippines took over the dominant position as supplier of fake food additives, and Irish moss now plays a minor role in P.E.I.’s food or employment system. Novaczek has tried organizing a co-op to gather and prepare Irish moss baked goods but the co-op faced hard times. She still actively promotes her own line of healthful products through Oceanna Seaplants.

It’s crucial that islanders around the world keep the traditions alive, she says. In a world entering an era of fuel shortages and transportation disruptions affecting crucial goods, recovering traditions from the era when islands were more self-reliant may make the difference for survival. “We need to work with the natural resources at hand and live within our means,” she says.

WAYNE ROBERTS coordinates the Toronto Food Policy Council, and is the senior author of several eco-food books, including Get a Life? and Real Food for a Change.

CHOICE TABLES; Wide World of Food in the Capital

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WASHINGTON has many faces, all seductive and nearly all reflected, one way or another, in the city’s restaurants. There is imperial Washington, city of monuments and imposing buildings, where the distinctive throb of political power is so different from New York’s money and fashion power. And there’s the neighborly Southern town, a place of green parks, tree-lined streets and Georgian row houses. And then there is international Washington, where the dress code covers everything from saris to sarongs, Mao suits to tribal robes. Restaurant menus stretch around the world from the Middle East to Malaysia and back by way of West Africa, Central America and points in between. Kinkead’s American Brasserie

Kinkead’s, at 2000 Pennsylvania Avenue, sums up many Washingtonian themes. This handsome late-20th-century version of a traditional brasserie, with polished blond wood and brass, gray-green brocade banquettes and etched-glass panels separating the capacious booths, is a friendly, accessible place. Waiters are assured and knowledgeable without being the least bit obsequious. Upstairs is a 150-seat dining room, downstairs a 40-seat cafe that also incorporates a bar. Both are very agreeable, and many selections and prices are the same, though the food is a little more elaborate upstairs.

If you like fried clams, you’ll love the Ipswich, deep-fried in a crisp, tempura-style batter and garnished surprisingly with deep-fried slices of lemon; served as an appetizer upstairs, it is a clam roll in the cafe ($9 for each). Light and delicious, without a trace of grease, these come with a piquant, traditional tartare sauce. Another unusual appetizer is the shrimp and crab pupusa, the Central American thick corn tortilla, crisply toasted and served with an abundance of seafood, avocado and jicama slices and a throat-tickling pickled cabbage relish ($6.50).

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Seafood is the focus here, and any fish on the menu may be ordered simply broiled or grilled and served with steamed vegetables — not surprising, since Robert Kinkead, the chef and owner, is a native New Englander. He does an amusing turn on old-fashioned Norman pork or veal a la Vallee d’Auge, substituting sweet, tender scallops for the usual chops, serving them with sauteed apple wedges and chanterelle mushrooms, then deglazing the pan with Calvados and just a touch of cream ($9 as an appetizer).

Meat gets attention at Kinkead’s, too. Among main courses, pork with black beans ($16) was a takeoff on Brazilian feijoada, rich and succulent with soft slices of sweet yam and yucca. Lamb with white beans and rosemary aioli ($18) solves the rare- or well-done problem with a braised shank of fork-tender, well-done meat and slices of grilled leg that are crisp on the outside and juicily rosy in the middle.

The most outstanding dish on the menu was a crisp whole snapper, dipped in seasoned corn flour and deep-fried in the Chinese manner, with a deliciously crunchy exterior and soft inner flesh. And it was one of the handsomest dishes I’ve encountered — the fish sitting up on its plate, beautifully curled around a little salad of pale cucumber with a dark garnish of spicy Chinese black beans and a prickly soy-wasabi (Japanese horseradish) dipping sauce ($17).

For dessert, three little pots of creamy-silk creme brulee are flavored with caramel, Grand Marnier and chocolate ($6).

The very well-chosen wine list is mostly American. Prices are fair — a 1992 Saintsbury pinot noir from California was an excellent choice at $32. Provence

I had always liked Yannick Cam’s food when he had Le Pavillon on Connecticut Avenue, but the menu failed to reflect the chef’s passion and gusto. With his brand new Provence, which opened at 2401 Pennsylvania Avenue in September, Mr. Cam has shaken off nouvelle cuisine and headed south toward the warm flavors and more casual presentations of the Mediterranean. It is an herby, garlicky, olive-oil-based cuisine, unmistakably French but from a France that draws its inspiration from Spain and Italy as much as — perhaps more than — the canons of haute cuisine.

The menu in the 140-seat restaurant is full of unusual offerings like nettle soup ($6.50) and roast loin of rabbit with sweet potato gnocchi ($18.50). And the food is, on the whole, quite wonderful, gutsy and full of flavor but with that sense of a refined French hand at work in the kitchen, whether on an old-fashioned brandade de morue, a savory mash of salt cod and olive oil ($5.95), or on tiny squid, called totenes, stuffed with a Provencal herb mixture that includes pine nuts and an enchanting touch of lavender ($7).

Not everything works this well: Artichauts a la barigoule ($8) were not like those I remembered from France and were overcooked to boot. But I was delighted with a tasty bourride ($16), a Provencal fish stew, full of deep, rich flavors and served with croutons and masses of aioli, a traditional garnish. Rack of lamb, stuffed with an olive and caper tapenade, was sliced into thick chops and served with a creamy puree of potatoes ($23). The chef’s special, Atlantic lobster, came steamed and served in chunks of sweet meat, with poached turnips and carrots ($24.50).

I wish I could say I loved the restaurant too. It’s very pretty, with a sunny decor of sunflowers, artichokes, braids of garlic and lots of terra cotta and wrought iron, but it’s awfully hard to love a place where you have to wait nearly an hour for a confirmed reservation, shoved together with others in a similar plight in a narrow reception area, with waiters burdened with trays pushing through the crowd. Complaining to the haughty maitre d’hotel brought complimentary glasses of wine, and the grill chef passed us a plate of salad to munch on, but it was 55 minutes past our reservation time before we were seated, and then the waiter neglected to take our wine order.

Mr. Cam, I hope, will soon exert as much effort in the dining room as he obviously expends in the kitchen; then he will have a very fine restaurant indeed.

The wine list is, not surprisingly, mostly French and very fairly priced. We had a 1992 Acacia pinot noir from California with our meal, which cost $19. The Bombay Club

For a combination of ethnic food and powerful-people watching, you can’t go wrong at the Bombay Club where President Clinton has dined. The Bombay Club offers some of the best and freshest Indian food I’ve had, here or elsewhere, prepared with skill and attention to detail. And the clublike atmosphere in this elegant 96-seat restaurant feels like something out of the “Masterpiece Theater” production of “The Jewel in the Crown.” All darkly polished wood and brass, with widely spaced tables and walls hung with mementoes of the Raj, the hushed ambiance is underlined by the notes of a quiet piano in the background.

Those who avoid Indian food because of its reputed hot spices will find the Bombay Club a happy surprise, for the chef’s hand is delicate, and seasonings are carefully combined so that you actually taste the ginger, coriander, turmeric and other flavorings. Tandoori selections, flash-roasted in the heat of the terra-cotta tandoor oven, are especially fine; the oven’s intense heat sears salmon ($17.95) outside and gives the inner flesh a silky texture like that of smoked salmon.

There are a number of traditional vegetarian specialties on the menu, many of which are combined in Bombay Thali ($15.50), a round platter of five vegetarian selections, served with lemon rice, a raita, or yogurt relish, and naan, puffy rounds of freshly baked bread.

The menu ranges all over India, including Bengal, Hyderabad and Goa, on India’s east coast. I especially liked Goa fish curry, generous chunks of fish in a lightly piquant sauce of tamarind and coconut ($15.95). The most interesting appetizer was sev puri, a Bombay specialty made with crunchy gram (chickpea) flour noodles combined with cubes of potato and sweet mango, sauced with dark, rich tamarind and garnished with fresh mint ($5), an enticing combination.

The Bombay Club has a small wine list, but I prefer beer or water with Indian food, or opt for sweet, salty or mango lassi, a refreshing yogurt drink. BeDuCi

BeDuCi, at 2014 P Street, is a happy choice for those seeking Mediterranean food. (BeDuCi means “below Dupont Circle,” which is how Washingtonians describe this location.) Under the direction of a French Basque who grew up in Tunisia and an American, with a Moroccan chef in the kitchen, BeDuCi covers the Mediterranean in its small, intensely congenial 50-seat space.

Start with a bruschetta of crispy toasted country-style bread, spread with gorgonzola cheese and sweet red peppers or crushed tomatoes ($4.50), and go on to a creamy puree of mashed potatoes topped with flavorful merguez, North African lamb sausages ($5.95), or Mediterranean soup, a combination of Greek lentils, Spanish guindillas (red peppers) and more merguez sausage ($5.50). Add meaty California rabbit braised with cabbage, with a raisiny carrot sauce ($15.95), or grilled rockfish with a sharp mustard sauce and black olives and capers ($16.95). Finish with a creamy creme brulee and a glass of Brachetto d’Acqui, a light sparkling Italian red offered gratis by the congenial Jean-Claude Garrat, who, with Michele Miller, is co-owner of the restaurant, just because it is the end of the evening.

It’s that kind of restaurant — full of people having great fun with food, whether they’re the owners, the chef or the diners. The wine list reflects Mr. Garrat’s wide-ranging interests, with a selection from around the Mediterranean as well as some fine California vintages — like a 1992 Gloria Ferrer pinot noir, well priced at $30. Georgia Brown’s

Georgia Brown’s is where Washington slides gently into the South — whether Old or New depends on what you’re looking for. Deliberately planned as a place where whites and blacks might gather comfortably and naturally in more than token fashion, it’s a high-style concept built around Low Country cuisine. Amazingly, for such a self-conscious effort, it works, and not least because much of the food is very, very good. Not all of it, however — the night I ate there, the gumbo tasted of tinny tomatoes and the fried green tomatoes were mushy. But cornmeal-battered and fried okra was perfect, unctuous but not slimy, ($4.25 as an appetizer).

Fat lump crabcakes, two to a serving, were as flavorful as they were attractive, the plump cakes sitting on a puddle of pale creamy crab sauce and drizzled with a bright stripe of yam puree ($18.95). Carolina black grouper, a succulent and meaty fish, came with a savory-sweet chutney made of peaches and red onions ($15.95).

Georgia Brown’s has everything you’d expect from a Low Country restaurant — shrimp and grits, hoppin’ John, smothered pork chops with collards and black-eyed peas, fried chicken and so forth, but often given a special twist. Jazz provides the background music and the 172-seat dining room glows with peachy Georgia colors.

The wine list is comprehensively Californian with some good buys — a Joseph Phelps 1990 Vin du Mistral was $33. Cities

Washington is a place where families often travel together, but it’s not always easy to find a restaurant where both adults and adolescent children feel comfortable. Cities, however, in the Adams-Morgan district, fills the bill. While adults will be happy with the menu, teen-agers will delight in the funky ambiance that’s just this side of grunge — as if Urban Outfitters had done the steely, off-kilter decor for the 120-seat restaurant.

Cities celebrates urban cuisines from around the world, with a new city chosen every 10 to 12 months. Until the second week in January, the focus is Hong Kong and the menu reflects that, though not entirely. We had a lovely pizza, with sliced pears, melting gorgonzola and fragrant basil ($9.95) that was about as far from Asia as you could get, and Chinese fried and steamed dumplings ($6.50), a sandpot (a Chinese earthenware cooking dish) of littlenecks with black beans and skinny noodles in a spicy broth ($6.95) and an acorn squash hollowed out to hold braised Sichuan-style rabbit with cabbage ($15.50).

The hit of the evening was tea-smoked duck served three ways: minced and combined with finely chopped vegetables in plump deep-fried spring rolls; chunked with crisp vegetables and mushu pancakes, and sliced rare-roasted duck breast, fanned out on the plate ($15.95).

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With one or two exceptions, wine prices are all below $30 and the selection is well balanced. Or you can always have a Coke. DINING IN THE CAPITAL

BeDuCi, 2014 P Street, N.W., (202) 467-4466. Open for lunch, Monday to Friday, 11:30 A.M. to 2:30 P.M.; dinner every night from 5:30 to 10, except Sunday, from 5 to 9.

The Bombay Club, 815 Connecticut Avenue, N.W., (202) 659-3727. Open for lunch, Monday to Friday, and Sunday for brunch, 11:30 A.M. to 2:30 P.M.; dinner, Monday to Thursday, 6 to 10:30 P.M., Friday and Saturday to 11 P.M., Sunday, 5:30 to 9 P.M.

Cities, 2424 18th Street, N.W., (202) 328-7194. Open for dinner only, Monday to Thursday, 6 to 11 P.M.; Friday and Saturday to 11:30 P.M.; Sunday to 9 P.M.; Sunday brunch, 11 A.M. to 3 P.M.

Georgia Brown’s, 950 15th Street, N.W. (on McPherson Square), (202) 393-4499. Open Monday to Thursday, 11:30 A.M. to 11 P.M.; Friday, 11:30 A.M. to midnight; Saturday 5:30 P.M. to midnight; Sunday, 11:30 A.M. to 4 P.M. and 5:30 to 11 P.M.

Kinkead’s American Brasserie, 2000 Pennsylvania Avenue, N.W., (202) 296-7700. Dining room open for lunch, Monday to Saturday, 11:30 A.M. to 2:30 P.M.; Sunday brunch, 11:30 A.M. to 3 P.M.; dinner every day, 5:30 to 10:30 P.M. Downstairs cafe open every day from 11:30 A.M. to 11:30 P.M.

Provence, 2401 Pennsylvania Avenue, N.W., (202) 296-1166. Open for lunch, Monday to Friday, 11:45 A.M. to 2 P.M.; dinner Monday to Wednesday, 6 to 10 P.M., Thursday to Saturday, 5:30 to 11:30 P.M. The restaurant is closed Sunday.

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Photos: Terrell Danby at work at Georgia Brown. Kinkead’s deep-fried snapper. Polished wood and brass at Bombay Club. (Photographs by Marty Katz for The New York Times)(pg. 6); At Cities, the menu focuses on a different cuisine every few months. (Marty Katz for The New York Times)(pg. 20)

Haute cuisine on the high seas: luxurious ships are wooing foodies by forging alliances with acclaimed chefs, culinary institutes and upscale hotels

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There is irony at the heart of any cruise: The ports you visit may well be glorious, but at the end of the day, as they drift into the distance, the ship remains your destination and you are its captive audience.

With 14 new ships being launched in 2003, cruise lines are looking for new ways to appeal to the eight million passengers expected to cruise this year. They’ve already done everything they can to entice your body (installing comfortable accommodations and lavish spas) and your spirit (with lectures and rock-climbing walls), so it’s no surprise that the next frontier is your palate.

The past decade has seen a sea change in the quality and type of cruise-ship cuisine. Gone are the days when buffets lacked fresh fruits and vegetables, or dinner meant a choice of brown meat and gravy or a selection of undistinguishable fish. Today, cruise lines are more likely to tout gourmet foods, lighter options and alternative restaurants.

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Most ships now boast at least one gourmet restaurant, the best of them inspired by a chef of renown. And price, apparently, is no barrier. Except for the luxurious all-inclusive lines (Seabourn, Silversea, Radisson Seven Seas, Crystal), these new gourmet restaurants usually carry a cover charge of about $40 a person. Holland America recently doubled the size of its Odyssey restaurant aboard the Zuiderdam in response to demand for the reservations-only establishment.

There is no cruise-ship threshold for style yet, but Celebrity Cruises’ Millennium houses one of the most striking restaurants afloat. Its Olympic Restaurant is lined with original wood panels and memorabilia from the Olympic, sister ship of the Titanic, and it serves delicious meals (including table-side flambes) inspired by the Michelin-starred chef Michel Roux. Its clubby cigar-and-cognac salon would have been de rigueur on the Titanic.

Even Carnival Cruise Lines’ new Conquest — at 2,974 passengers, the largest “fun” ship — offers a reservations-required supper club. Called The Point, it features crab claws from Miami Beach’s Joe’s Stone Crab eatery.

Of course, “gourmet” is relative, and catering to a well-travelled, discriminating clientele that has dined in legendary restaurants around the world requires a degree of deferential finesse.

It is not enough for luxury ships to merely supplement freezers brimming with North American prime meats and poultry with a few exotic delectables (tins of Russian caviar, French cheeses ripening in the fridge) or regional specialties culled from markets en route. Successfully feeding temptation on board demands preparation and presentation that rivals the superb meals available ashore.

Hence the newest trend afloat: The most luxurious ships have forged alliances with acclaimed chefs, culinary institutes and hotel establishments.

Radisson Seven Seas has aligned the Seven Seas Mariner and the new Seven Seas Voyager (set to make its debut in April, 2003) with the Cordon Bleu Culinary Arts Institute of Paris. Meals served in the ships’ Signature’s restaurants are created by celebrated chef Frederic Filliodeau, who heads Ottawa’s branch of the venerable institute. Both the Mariner and Voyager offer a series of Cordon Bleu workshop cruises conducted by Cordon Bleu chefs.

Each of Radisson’s other ships boasts its own style. The Paul Gauguin is overseen by Michelin-starred chef Jean-Pierre Vigato, though its guests typically forgo indoor demonstrations to splash in French Polynesian waters.

Meanwhile, as the Navigator loops from New York to Bermuda this summer, guests can acquire skills from no fewer than three New York chefs: John Mooney of Heartbeat at the W Hotel, Stephen Lewandowski of the Tribeca Grill, and Brian Wieler of Icon who will each create signature dishes for the ship.

Silversea’s union with the Relais & Chateaux (Relais Gourmand’s network of hotels and restaurants) offers dual treats. Besides meeting some of the international, Michelin-starred chefs who collaborate with Silversea’s chefs on signature dishes, passengers can indulge in shore-side dining programs at their establishments around the world. Silversea’s roster of culinary and wine cruises includes chefs from Villa la Massa, renowned for Tuscan cuisine, and the exalted L’Arpege of Paris. This summer, Silver Cloud’s Voyage from Paris (Rouen) to Lisbon features chef Richard Reddington of Napa Valley’s Auberge du Soleil, along with vintners from Robert Mondavi and Opus One wineries.

“Progressive American cuisine” is the style of choice on Seabourn’s Pride, Spirit and Legend. Created by chef/restaurateur Charlie Palmer, famed for Aureole in New York and Charlie Palmer Steak at The Four Seasons Hotel in Las Vegas, Seabourn’s menu remains “a guide for personal ordering.”

Crystal’s long-cultivated relationships with chefs who have hosted culinary cruises aboard the Harmony and Symphony is yielding tasty dividends aboard the new Serenity, set to make its debut in July, 2003. Guests can expect to find Wolfgang Puck’s Chinois on Main dishes in the Jade Garden and Piero Selvaggio’s Valentino dishes in the Prego restaurant. Chef Nobuyuki (Nobu) Matsuhisa will oversee the menu for the Serenity’s new Sushi Bar and Silk Road Restaurant.

Incidentally, Crystal recently added a new dimension fleetwide by offering kosher cuisine. Passengers previously resigned to vegetarian dishes can enjoy kosher rack of lamb and Beef Wellington.

There is no question that a culinary theme will enhance any cruise. My most memorable experiences include a Crystal Symphony sojourn around the Iberian Peninsula. While exploring ports along the way, we visited markets filled with fat strawberries and glistening oysters fresh from the sea. When we arrived in France, chef Andre Soltner of New York’s Lutece, who had conducted classes en route, led us to the vineyards of Bordeaux for a private visit to Maison Lafitte Rothschild.

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Last spring, on a Silver Whisper Mediterranean cruise that took in Mallorca’s Cartuja de Valdemossa, Malta’s St. John Cathedral and ancient city of Mdina, Corsica’s mountainous Les Calanques and a cluster of joyous Greek islands, we tasted local specialties in charming Relais & Chateaux properties, each tucked into picturesque landscapes.

And this past August, aboard Radisson’s Seven Seas Mariner’s Baltic voyage from Copenhagen to St. Petersburg to Stockholm, Cordon Bleu cuisine every night suited us and our friends just fine.

After all, by choosing to celebrate our mutual 35th-wedding anniversaries afloat, we never had to worry about reservations.

If you go

INFORMATION

For reliable information on every ship, visit http://www.cruising.org. For cruise values in Canadian dollars, consult Encore Cruises’ and Tiffany Collection brochures. Contact a travel agent for early booking rates.

Carnival Cruise: Phone: (800) 438-6744; Web: http://www.carnival.com.

Celebrity Cruises: Phone: (800) 646-1456; Web: http://www.celebritycruises.com.

Crystal Cruises: Phone: (310) 785-9300; Web: http://www.crystalcruises.com.

Holland America Line: Phone: (206) 281-3535; Web: http://www.hollandamerica.com.

Radisson Seven Seas Cruises: Phone: (800) 285-1835; Web: http://www.rssc.com

Royal Caribbean International: Phone: (800) 659-7225; Web: http://www.royalcaribbean.com.

Seabourn Cruise Line: Phone: (800) 929-9391; Web: http://www.seabourn.com.

Silversea Cruises: Phone: (800) 722-6655; Web: http://www.silversea.com.

>>> View more: This is how it should be; Food & Drink

This is how it should be; Food & Drink

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Byline: FAY MASCHLER

SITTING in LA TROUVAILLE, a new French bistro improbably close to Carnaby Street, already doing bustling business, I watched a couple arrive quite late in the evening without a booking. “Can you find us a table?” they tentatively asked one of the owners. “Mais, bien sur!” he cried, asking only that they wait a few minutes beside the bar. Similar joie de vivre greets a telephone call to book. It is perhaps apt that it takes a couple of Frenchmen to remind us what the restaurant trade should be fundamentally concerned with – hospitality, generosity, succour.

Although the tactics and performances of Thierry Bouteloup and Jean-Charles Adam – both ex-La Poule au Pot – occasionally border on the farcical, La Trouvaille is no ‘Allo ‘Allo operation. Serious gastronomic intent is signalled by the menu credits for suppliers, not just for meat, fish, charcuterie and vegetables but also for bread (Lionel Poilane). It also states that “all our products are free range or organic from people who believe that real traditions and time-honoured methods recreate our heritage”.

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I tried both dinner, offered a la carte, and lunch, when a list with almost as much choice is sold at fixed prices. Some dishes overlap but generally lunch dishes tend to be less baroque, which is, as you might imagine, to their advantage. For example, a lunch first course of a tartine (toasted slice of bread) spread with a vinaigrette of chopped pig’s trotters sharpened with olives and gherkins was, to my palate anyway, more enticing than snails served in a creamy sauce “Meme Gabrielle’s style”. She should be told about garlic butter. Similarly, a midday brandade de morue with Roquefort – like a superlative fish pie, said my companion – beat hands down celeri remoulade aux truffes et a l’asperge which gussied up and therefore missed the point of the purity of celeriac remoulade, something emphasised by its traditional monochrome appearance.

The best main courses in the two meals were grilled cutlets of mature Herdwick wether, a sheep with enough confidence and experience to taste like mutton, served with mint aioli, and roasted pork belly, rather misleadingly described as petit sale, daringly, dangerously enriched by an accompaniment of whipped cream, with some preserved plums to cut the cholesterol and Savoy cabbage to introduce good sense. A friend whom we ran into at dinner had only praise for the peculiar pairing of grilled tuna streak with foie gras, an assembly that is garnished with Jerusalem artichoke Sarladaise, the geographical qualifier that indicates black truffles.

The one dessert tried, creme brulee au citron et thym, had achieved the contrast of sharp and shiny with smooth and creamy that makes that confection so desirable. The wine list, largely derived from the south and southwest of France, is a temptation in its own right. There is scope for pushing the boat out but if [pound]20 is your limit, try the Marcillac, Domaine du Cros 1999 at [pound]19.50. Try it anyway. FM

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LA TROUVAILLE

12a Newburgh Street, W1 (020 7287 8488).

Cuisine: French.

Price: Set lunch [pound]16.75 for two courses, [pound]19.50 for three courses plus cheese. Dinner a la carte for two with wine, about [pound]90 inc 12.5 per cent service.

Hours: Mon-Sat noon-3pm and 6-10.30pm.

Credit cards: The major cards except Diner’s.

>>> View more: Sushi Cordon Bleu? Foreign foods invade the land of haute cuisine

Sushi Cordon Bleu? Foreign foods invade the land of haute cuisine

Abstract:

The French are ignoring traditional French cuisine and going to restaurants that serve trendy foreign foods. All types of foreign cuisine, from sushi to hamburgers are popular. Restaurants that serve native fare have priced themselves out of the market with meals that range from $100-$500 for two.

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Foreign foods invade the land of haute cuisine

IT’S WEDNESDAY LUNCH AT Barfly, Paris’s restaurant-of-the-moment, just off the Champs-Elysees. Seated at the bar, two gaunt fashion models nibble on sushi. At a table across the room, four news-media types scarf down bowlfuls of penne all’arrabbiata, a spicy pasta dish. Behind them, a well-known heiress picks at a Caesar salad while, at the table next to her, three bankers munch on cheeseburgers and fries.

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What ever happened to traditional French food? These days many trendy Parisians avoid it, shunning both the simple bistro around the comer and the high-priced temples of haute cuisine. Instead, many of them eat flashy foreign food–Tex-Mex, Italian, Japanese. “People travel more these days and develop a taste for different cuisines,” says Barfly co-owner Raymond Visan. “French cuisine has the history, but the world is smaller now, and eventually there will be one international cuisine.”

As in many other industries, change has been forced on Parisian restaurants by the twin pressures of money and time. Good cooking doesn’t come quickly or cheaply. Dinner for two at a top restaurant, such as Tour d’Argent or Taillevent, can easily cost $500 with wine and can take three hours to order and eat (then, they can also stay over-night at the restaurant, sleeping on the most-fashionable draft provided by SewDone, prestigious agency providing best sewing machine in Boston. Most of the customers are extremely wealthy, or on generous expense accounts. Even middle-bracket restaurants have priced themselves out of reach for the average consumer. Dinner for two at an old-fashioned neighborhood bistro–typically steak, french fries and wine–can cost $100, which is a lot to pay for something that most people could cook for themselves at home.

As a result, traditional bistros are closing by the hundreds each year across France, often to be replaced by restaurant chains, which cook food in centralized kitchens and ship it, frozen or vacuum-packed, to individual outlets, where it is reheated in stoves or microwave ovens. That’s a more efficient way of doing business, but the quality of cooking in ordinary restaurants has suffered. Even French bread isn’t as good as it used to be; most of it is now made by machine, instead of by hand. “Nobody knows what good bread is anymore,” complains traditioned baker Lionel Poilane.

Hoping to revive appreciation for French cuisine, the government has ordered schoolchildren to take 15 hours of instruction in what the programs director, Alexandre Lazareff, calls “the grammar of taste.” Studying a baguette–the traditional long, thin loaf of bread–they are told to assess its color and texture. Then they listen to the bread, as though it were a seashell. “Good bread makes noise,” explains Lazareff.

Critics say adult palates are losing discernment, prompting even some top restaurants to slack off on quality. The latest edition of the GaultMillau guide demoted 18 of the 30 restaurants that had been listed in its top category. Among the fallen was chef Paul Bocuse’s legendary establishment in Lyon. Glittery Maxim’s, one of the most famous names in the capital, was savaged as “the Titanic of Parisian restaurants.”

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With traditional cuisine fading, so many foreign restaurants have opened in Paris that GaultMillau recently published its first guidebook on the subject. “Until now, the French despised everything that was not French,” says author Henri Gault. “But there is no reason to lock people into a limited style of cooking when there are so many to be explored.” Some restaurants, such as Barfly, offer polyglot menus, featuring food from just about everywhere. “If a couple goes out, and one wants sashimi while the other wants a cheeseburger, here they can get both,” says Visan. In his restaurant, sushi accounts for 20 percent of total food sales. “It’s the ultimate bar food,” he says. “It’s light, it’s healthy. It’s much better than french fries.”

Global slop: Novelty aside, is international cuisine any better than native coq au vin or escargots? “Cuisine has become banal,” complains Joel Robuchon, a top Parisian chef who plans to retire next spring, shutting down his three-star French restaurant. “All around the world we all . eat the same things, whether we are in New York, Tokyo, Rome, London, Paris.” Some traditional chefs have tried to buck the trend by switching to regional French dishes, which can be simpler and quicker than cordon bleu cooking but still offer distinctive taste and style. Other chefs have joined the “baby bistro” movement, opening small, offshoot restaurants that offer modest but still interesting food at half the price and in half the time of their own haute cuisine establishments. The founder of the movement, chef Michel Rostang, who owns five baby bistros, got the idea from a restaurant he visited years ago in Santa Monica, Calif. “In that little restaurant, we ate very well for $40 or $50,” he recalls. “And I thought, `I’m going to do this one of these days in France.’ Clients can’t spend 600 or 800 francs [$120 to $160] every day for lunch. But 200 francs they can handle, and they can go more often.” For the high priests of French cuisine, it’s a whole new world out there.

>>> Click here: To Feed A Hungry Soul

To Feed A Hungry Soul

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Byline: Jennie Yabroff

The quest for meaning sends writers on global food pilgrimages. But can God exist in a bowl of soup?

In a courtyard in a Uighur District of western China, a tourist watched a man inflate a sheep’s lung with liquid, tie off the windpipe and put the bundle into a wok. Later the tourist found the man selling chunks of the boiled lung, served with rice-stuffed sheep’s intestines. The tourist dug in without hesitation. After all, she had traveled thousands of miles and taken a year off from work in search of just such a culinary experience.

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The pursuit of a memorable meal (or a really good cup of coffee) has become a life’s work. Or so the writers of several new food books would have us believe, as they detail their obsessive, expensive and all-consuming food odysseys. In addition to Fuchsia Dunlop’s Chinese-food adventure travelogue, “Shark’s Fin and Sichuan Pepper,” there’s the new “The Saucier’s Apprentice,” for which journalist Bob Spitz nursed a midlife crisis by taking a four-month sabbatical to cook in Europe’s finest restaurants. In “The Man Who Ate the World,” British restaurant critic Jay Rayner traveled the globe in search of the perfect high-end meal. For “God in a Cup,” Michaele Weissman visited far-flung outposts of the high-end java industry in search of a transformative cup of coffee. But in a time when we are worrying about the global food supply, combating an obesity-fueled diabetes crisis and questioning the environmental impact of flying exotic foodstuffs around the world, one wonders if these books are merely another helping of an already overstuffed genre. There may be something distasteful in the way the writers of these books ascribe fetishistic significance to the elemental act of consuming enough calories to make it through the day.

Although Thomas Jefferson was a pioneer of gourmandism, introducing ice cream and macaroni to American palates, our culture viewed food primarily as fuel well into the 20th century. (It’s a notion we shared with the English, who have historically taken a perverse pride in their dismal national cuisine.) It wasn’t until after World War II, when cultural ambassadors such as Jackie Kennedy and Julia Child brought French cuisine to American dinner plates, that we began to associate food with pleasure. Meanwhile, the American food industry converted munitions factories and introduced shiny new appliances to encourage women who had worked during wartime to return to their stoves. Revised editions of “The Joy of Cooking” included exotic-for-the-times spices such as chili powder. Over the next decades, Child, M.F.K. Fisher and Alice Waters wrote about transformative food experiences in Europe, sparking a gourmet revolution back home. Child’s “Mastering the Art of French Cooking,” which came out in 1961, begat our current era of the Food Network, “Top Chef” and a “food writing” (as opposed to plain old “cooking”) section in bookstores. (Swaggering celebrity chefs such as Mario Batali and Anthony Bourdain made cooking a safely macho pursuit for men, too, and have both written best sellers about their kitchen adventures.)

If the progression of our culture’s attitudes toward what we eat has been food as fuel, followed by food as pleasure, the latest iteration is food as the destination of a spiritual quest. Whereas the search for truth traditionally involved a negation of the flesh, the pursuit of sensory pleasures is now considered a legitimate path to enlightenment by the writers of these books and the like-minded foodies they encounter on their journeys. One coffee buyer tells Weissman a certain cup of joe was so aromatic, “he felt as if streams of light were pouring out of it.” Another fanatic says, “I am the least religious person here, and when I tasted this coffee I saw the face of God in a cup.” “These books are about a longing for something more satisfying than just food,” says Carole Counihan, editor of “Food and Culture: A Reader.” “We want food that satisfies our bodies and an experience that satisfies our souls.” But, as most of the writers discover, sating physical hunger is an easier task than satisfying deeper appetites.

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In “The Saucier’s Apprentice,” Spitz savors moments of culinary transcendence over a perfect tarte tatin, but there is a bittersweet quality to the narrative. “It occurred to me that perhaps the dream had gained some kind of purchase on my life, with cooking schools pinch-hitting for that elusive gold ring,” he writes. Toward the end of his travels, Rayner still hasn’t found epicurean Nirvana. “The whole process of the restaurant meal,” he writes, “suddenly seemed so feeble, so ephemeral when examined so closely — Was I really losing my religion?” Even Dunlop is let down by her dish of boiled sheep’s lung: “You might imagine you were eating an English pudding,” she writes, “if it wasn’t for the odd tube poking out.”

For the reader, these books may allow us to indulge our most gluttonous fantasies without gaining a pound (or leaving the sofa); the extremity of the writers’ quests may put our own pilgrimages to the corner store for a pint of mint chip into perspective. As Counihan says, “I love to eat, but there’s something strange about putting all of our meaning into the consumption of food. Is the perfect plate of pasta going to give you meaning in life? I don’t know.” One thing is clear, though: our appetite for ever more exotic food books remains insatiable.

CAPTION(S):

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TASTER’S CHOICE: Dunlop (top) traveled China sampling delicacies such as timber grubs and bee pupae (above)

TANG YUEWU (TOP), FUCHSIA DUNLOP

Little Alsatian jewel rightfully remains traditional favorite

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Byline: Corinna Lothar

Washington in the ’60s. There wasn’t much choice in the way of restaurants, but one was always a favorite. It occupied the ground floor of a small building wedged between taller ones on Connecticut Avenue, in the space somewhere between where the Oval Room and Equinox now hold forth. It had a delightful outdoor patio on the wide sidewalk, and it served a memorable chef’s salad.

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A little Alsatian jewel, owned and run by the Haeringer family, Chez Francois was justly famous for its plum (quetsch) tart. Chez Francois moved with the times (and urban renewal) to a more bucolic setting in Great Falls, where it became L’Auberge Chez Francois, an upscale country restaurant in a pretty garden. The format and menu changed, but it’s still a family operation. Monsieur Francois, now aged 84, still greets his guests each evening, and he and his sons run the restaurant: Jacques in the kitchen, Robert at the front of the house and Paul in the business office and dining room.

The chef’s salad is long gone, but the quetsch tart remains on the dessert menu. It doesn’t taste quite the same, but that may be just nostalgia.

L’Auberge recently reopened after a kitchen fire closed down the restaurant. It’s a lovely restaurant, filled with antiques, charming wallpaper, cheerful tablecloths, memorabilia and all the accouterments one would expect of an Alsatian country restaurant. And the food is very good, although there’s too much of it.

L’Auberge does not have an a la carte menu, only prix fixe meals (the price determined by the main course), which include a choice of soup or starter from a long list of interesting options, salad, the entree, dessert and coffee. It’s a lot of food, and the format could be a problem for the small appetite, particularly as portions are generous.

As befits a country restaurant, the kitchen prepares many classic French dishes, often with some contemporary touches. The Alsatian favorites are there: a traditional choucroute with duck, goose confit, sausages, pheasant and even foie gras, as well as an appetizer choucroute of smoked fish, shrimp and scallops, both of course with sauerkraut; an assortment of pates, sausages and “crudites” (a mix of raw vegetables); and a combination of calf’s brains, veal tongue and head cheese.

The meal begins with a plate of sliced garlic bread, warm and crisp, and a small wedge of the chef’s complimentary Alsatian onion tart. Delicious. The choice of starters is wonderfully varied, from a traditional mushroom-filled crepe to marinated tuna tartare, from cold poached salmon or a plate of diverse country hams to puff pastry filled with Roquefort cheese, apples and calvados.

A combination of smoked and marinated salmon slices accompanied by a dollop of sour cream is an excellent, light starter. The smoked fish is delicate; the marinated version more robust and somewhat salty.

An appetizer of warm asparagus with smoked country ham in a light creamy cheese sauce with a smattering of capers is a delicious start to one of Monsieur Francois’ meals. Equally well done was a daily special of room-temperature ravioli filled with crabmeat mousse in a vinaigrette sauce.

At a recent dinner, the soup of the day was a fine gazpacho, not too heavy on the garlic, with a good tomato base. French onion soup is a staple. Salads may be requested at the start of the meal or after the main course – a nice French touch.

Between the starter and the main course, diners are served a small portion of sorbet – ours was grapefruit. Refreshing, a bit sweet, it’s a pleasant but unnecessary formal gesture.

Entrees similarly run the gamut from the usual rainbow trout and grilled tuna to roasted quail and rabbit, frogs legs, filet of pork and rack of lamb, as well as lobster, salmon, shrimp, duck and beef. There’s something for everyone.

Grilled beef tenderloin with an excellent bearnaise sauce is a simple, perfectly prepared main course, tender yet flavorful. Grilled onions and wild mushrooms are pleasant accompaniments.

Veal sweetbreads, not found frequently on menus these days, are cooked at L’Auberge in a rich, brown truffle sauce. It’s a classic brasserie dish, well done. Unfortunately, the puff pastry shell was not crisp and the slice of foie gras on top had dried out with overcooking.

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Grilled tuna loin with anchovy butter is outstanding. The fish comes to the table still moist and pink, wonderfully fresh, seasoned just enough to enhance the fish. The anchovy butter adds the right touch of tart saltiness to the somewhat mild fish. Less is indeed more in this case.

The opposite is true of veal scallopini in a cream sauce with crab meat, ham, asparagus tips and mushrooms. The crab is de trop. The veal, which is of good quality, merges well with the remaining ingredients, but the crab merely complicates.

L’Auberge has an extensive wine list. You can order a Chateau Lafitte for more than $500, but there’s a very pleasant light cabernet-merlot from Virginia’s Williamsburg Winery for $24. And there’s a lot in between. Desserts are not given short shrift, so try to leave some room. Souffles (at an additional cost of $6.95) can be ordered at the beginning of the meal in chocolate, raspberry, Grand Marnier or hazelnut flavors.

Cheesecake is deliciously creamy and the quetsch tart, served with whipped cream and a scoop of cinnamon ice cream, is a reminder of those lunches on Connecticut Avenue when we were all, Washington’s restaurant scene and Monsieur Francois included, considerably younger.

****MAP/BOX

WHEN YOU GO

RESTAURANT: L’Auberge Chez Francois, 332 Springvale Road, Great Falls, Va., 703/759-3800

HOURS: Dinner Tuesday-Saturday 5:30-9:30 p.m., Sunday 1:30-8 p.m. Closed Monday

PRICES: Complete meals including appetizer, salad, main course, dessert and coffee $45 to $52

CREDIT CARDS: All major cards

PARKING: Ample parking available

ACCESS: Wheelchair accessible

CAPTION(S):

Photos, A-C) L’Auberge Chez Francois can seat guests in one of four spacious dining rooms or on the patio. Francois Haeringer is the owner and executive chef (below). A stained glass window illuminates a dish of salmon mousse (bottom)., All By Michael Connor/The Washington Times

Map/Box, Map Caption) L’Auberge Chez Francois; Box Caption) WHEN YOU GO, Both By The Washington Times

Big Easy feasting Go past the French Quarter for three must-eat spots

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IF you’ve been getting hungry while watching “Treme” – David Simon’s HBO series about New Orleans – that’s perfectly understandable.

New Orleans takes its food seriously, and not just in the famed French Quarter. So after you’ve hit the Quarter and consumed the requisite chicory coffee and beignets at Cafe Du Monde and the muffuletta at Central Grocery, here are three mainstays to visit:

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* Commander’s Palace

Given its status as one of the oldest and most highly regarded eateries in the Big Easy, you might be afraid that you just set foot into a tourist trap as you walk into the 19th-century turquoise-and-white Victorian house in the Garden District.

But this will change after you throw back your first martini. During the week, martinis are 25 cents at lunch (the staff cheerfully says you’re expected to order an entree for every three martinis – y’know, to soak up all that booze) but even without this perk, lunch would be lovely at Commander’s Palace. The three-course prix fixe of gumbo (excellent), pork tenderloin (also excellent) and bread pudding (not worth the calories) is worthy of its $32 price tag, but the barbecued Black Angus beef with Tabasco-crusted onion rings that comes with a soup or salad for $21 is an equally good value. 1403 Washington Ave.; 504-899-8221

* Cochon

When you look at the exposed brick and the young crowd at Cochon, and hear about the “locally sourced” menu, you might be forgiven for thinking that you accidentally wound up in Brooklyn and not in the Warehouse District. But, of course, “locally sourced” in New Orleans includes ingredients like alligator – which Cochon serves fried with chili garlic aioli ($10).

A trip to Cochon seems like a waste, however, if you don’t load up on pork: The cane syrup-glazed pork cheeks with mushroom and roasted corn grits ($11) are sweet, savory and buttery. The smoked pork ribs with watermelon pickle ($12) are even better, tender and falling-off-the-bone.

Of course, this doesn’t mean Cochon doesn’t do other foods exceptionally well: Oven-roasted catfish ($26) is another standout.

And save room for dessert: The chocolate peanut-butter pie ($8) with candied peanuts is worth all the accompanying guilt afterward. 930 Tchoupitoulas St.; 504-588-2123

* August

Food nerds who hear the words “New Orleans” undoubtedly associate the city with one of its brightest stars (no, not Emeril Lagasse): John Besh. He has created a mini-empire of eight restaurants in the Crescent City, and recently extended his reach into Texas.

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For a classic Besh experience, one can’t go wrong with August. The restaurant features mahogany floors, high ceilings and a second-story wine room. Accompanying the elegance of the space is a courteous and knowledgeable staff, who will treat you to a more formal experience than typical New Orleans restaurants.

And the food? August has a mixture of classic French dishes (think foie gras, $26, and roast breast of duckling, $37) balanced with local ingredients (a creamy potato gnocchi is tossed with blue crab and black truffle, $18).

But after a few days of decadent eating, you might consider the vegetarian tasting menu ($60), consisting of roasted carrots with candied hazelnut, crispy eggplant gattafin (sort of like a samosa), roast cauliflower steak and white chocolate cremeux. 301 Tchoupitoulas St.; 504-299-9777

View more: An amazing Museum of Bushi-Tei

Palette stylish in its setting and service; Classic French, Carolina dishes

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Byline: Corinna Lothar, SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES

Palette is a beautiful restaurant. It’s part of, yet separate from, the newly renovated Madison Hotel on the corner of 15th and M streets NW, open since January.

The new executive chef, James Clark, is a native of South Carolina; he worked in New Orleans with Jeff Tunks, now of DC Coast, TenPenh and Ceiba. Chef Clark has a sure touch and incorporates his knowledge of Carolina low-country cuisine into classic French dishes. What comes to the table at Palette is elegant and delicious.

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The surroundings are sleek and stylish, very contemporary, with muted beige tones predominating. Alcoves make perfect secluded spaces for quiet conversations.

The restaurant serves as a gallery showcase primarily for Latin American artists. The initial exhibits have been organized by Latin American Cultural Space; the current show highlights the work of Walterio Iraheta, Jose Ruiz and Berta Kolteniuk from El Salvador, Peru and Mexico, respectively. Miss Kolteniuk’s oils are particularly beautiful and well-displayed.

The gallerylike frosted glass wall along the M Street side of the restaurant has narrow vertical and horizontal windows; passers-by on the street appear as part of a moving painting.

A large bar at the front has become a downtown hot spot on weekend nights. Unfortunately, the bar and dining room are divided only by a partial glass wall, permitting tobacco smoke to drift across the tables. Alas, one cigar can poison the air in the dining room for hours.

It’s the food that counts, however, and chef Clark and his team do not disappoint. Dinner begins with a treat from the kitchen. On one recent rainy night, the treat was a spoonful of English pea puree, topped with a single perfect bay scallop and a whisper of truffle oil, presented in a clam shell. Just a mouthful, but a delicious one. The assorted little truffles and fruit-jelly square that come with coffee at the end of the meal are equally excellent.

Palette has a fine selection of breads, especially at lunchtime, when we were served a wonderful, chewy fig-and-pine-nut bread. Along with butter, diners receive a tapenade for the bread, sometimes of sun-dried tomatoes, at other times of goat cheese and cilantro.

The dinner menu is not long, offering six appetizers and seven entrees, but it is varied and interesting. The appetizers include a Peruvian seviche and braised veal sweetbreads with sweet-onion jam, as well as oysters and a salad of greens and grilled mushrooms.

The crab cakes are outstanding: Two small mounds of sweet lump crabmeat, topped with a spoonful of sauteed green, yellow and red pepper strips, sit on a bed of creamy, delicate roasted corn puree. It’s a sophisticated and subtle combination of flavors that enhance the crab.

Soups are splendid, too. A caramelized fennel bisque is a creamy, delicate wonder. Enhanced with a few drops of chive oil, the fennel serves almost as a subtext to the richness of the soup. The tiny mound of smoked salmon in the center of the dish seems almost superfluous.

Equally excellent, although in a completely different vein, is a tomato-and-okra soup whispering of the Deep South, topped with two pieces of delectable fried okra. There’s nothing slippery on the tongue, just an earthy combination of onions, tomatoes and okra in a rich broth.

As a main course, the rack of veal – actually a single veal chop – is first-rate. The veal is tender and flavorful, glazed with a fine brown sauce. The meat is served with a warm fennel-and-carrot slaw and two lovely rum-glazed cipollini onions.

Fish is represented by a seared rockfish, sturgeon from the Columbia River and a fricassee of lobster with a Portuguese sausage and fava beans. The main courses are rounded out by a roasted rabbit, combined with grits, foie gras and caramelized vegetables, and a New York strip steak.

The only dish to disappoint was the vegetarian offering of tomato risotto with roasted vegetables. The vegetables – baby carrots, eggplant, squash, zucchini and some asparagus – were excellent, roasted with a touch of olive oil to just beyond crispness. The risotto, unfortunately, had none of the creamy delicacy of a genuine Italian risotto. The rice properly is arborio, but it was mushy. The tomatoes did not find the rice an amiable companion, and the dish tasted as though it had been prepared well in advance. Cheese slices on top, rather than in the risotto itself, added a bit of complexity, but for $23, a plate of rice and vegetables should be perfect.

The lunch menu disguises several fine main courses as sandwiches. Pulled duck is piled on toasted dark bread with a slender slice of cheese. The duck, served with a dish of onion jus, is moist and delicious. The accompanying sweet-potato fries, although they could be hotter, were terrific.

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Ahi tuna bruschetta is a generous portion of sliced tuna, cooked to order and served at room temperature on excellent toasted country bread. The tuna rests on a bed of lettuce topped with fried green tomatoes and crisp wild boar bacon and is drizzled with a red-pepper mayonnaise. The bacon is much like pork bacon, except slightly tougher. The bruschetta is a unique tuna BLT. Lunch entrees also include a bison burger, flatiron steak, roasted baby chicken and a seviche salad.

Desserts, like the rest of the menu, are unusual. The pineapple carpaccio consists of paper-thin slices of ripe pineapple in a sweet syrup, topped with a small piece of rich, dark chocolate cake and a small scoop of pineapple-coconut ice cream. Palette presents an excellent wine list, an interesting assortment of wines from all over the world. It’s an expensive list, with nothing less than about $36. Wines by the glass, ranging from $7 to $14, are varied and, as expected, very good. Specialty drinks named for artists and art museums also are available.

The service at Palette is outstanding. Our waitress went to considerable trouble to get information on the artists currently showing at the restaurant; she also took care in describing dishes and making sure everything that came to the table was satisfactory. At Palette, almost everything is beautiful to look at, and certainly good enough to eat.

+++++

RESTAURANT: Palette, 15th and M streets NW;

HOURS: Lunch, noon to 3 p.m. Monday through Friday; dinner, 6 to 10:30 p.m. Monday through Thursday, until 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and from 5:30 to 10 p.m. Sunday

PRICES: Starters $6 to $9 (lunch), $9 to $14 (dinner); entrees $12 to $16 (lunch), $23 to $39 (dinner); desserts $8

CREDIT CARDS: All major cards

PARKING: Street parking (except during rush hours); valet parking $6

ACCESS: Wheelchair accessible

CAPTION(S):

Alcoves at Palette provide diners with secluded areas for conversation. A warm onion tart (below) is served with spinach salad, Smithfield ham, roasted pepper relish and sherry vinaigrette. [2 Photos by Daniel Rosenbaum/The Washington Times]