I travel a lot, and so I often get asked to nominate “winners” in a variety of travel-related categories. As in: “What is the nicest beach you’ve ever been to?” “Which is your favorite city?” “What’s the strangest travel experience you’ve ever had?” And of course the all-encompassing “What is your favorite place in the whole wide world?”
I always find these questions a little hard to answer, a lot like being asked to pick a favorite child – an impossible task seeing that each is unique, each is different, and you love them all equally. How can anyone possible compare – much less rank and choose between – walking the streets of Paris, spotting a lion on safari in Africa, or the thrill of getting to see the Great Wall of China with your own eyes.
But there is one question I never have trouble answering: “What is the best food you’ve ever had?” Because when it comes to eating, and despite a very long list of weird and wonderful contenders, two experiences always jump to mind. Two very different experiences that occupy complete opposite ends of the food spectrum, in every possible way. Yet both of which live on in my memory – bite for bite – as vividly, and as tastily, as if they happened just yesterday.
So the best food I’ve ever had? It’s a two-way tie, pitting Tokyo, Japan vs Florence, Italy.
In 2008 I had to attend a business meeting in Tokyo, and traveled there with my now ex-wife. On landing at Narita Airport I turned on my mobile phone and received a text message from a friend in Australia who knew I was going to be in Japan. The message read simply enough: “Eat at Kanda. Trust me.”
At the hotel in which we were staying the receptionist, after checking us in, asked if there was anything further she could assist with. I said: “Yes, could we book a table at a restaurant called Kanda?” The young lady looked at me, her eyes widened, and in a very un-Japanese way she actually began to laugh. “Sir, I can try,” she giggled, “but Kanda is a Michelin 3-star restaurant with only 12 seats. There is normally a waiting list of at least three months.” I blushed, feeling like an idiot for even asking.
Still, the receptionist dutifully picked up the phone. A short conversation and a few moments later she paused, putting her hand over the mouthpiece. “Sir, this is almost unbelievable,” she said, “but they have just had a cancellation for tonight, if you confirm now….” I nodded immediately. A bit more conversation and then she put her hand over the mouthpiece again. “Kanda only offers a set course meal so I need to let them know in advance – do you want the standard, deluxe or royal menu?” What a question! Without hesitation I opted for the royal menu, arigato….
Four hours later we were in a taxi, trying to locate Kanda. Although for a restaurant in such high demand, it was ridiculously hard to find. Specifically, the cab had veered off from the main road into a warren of small suburban streets and driven around for about fifteen minutes, seemingly at random, before dropping us outside of a residential apartment block on the corner of a dark, slightly ominous looking alleyway.
I was convinced we were in the wrong place and would have turned back, but for a small sign we spotted next to a sliding wooden door that looked vaguely restaurant-ish (albeit all in Japanese). We went in, walked down a flight of stairs, and emerged into what looked to be a pretty ordinary – and quite tiny – sushi bar. It was all light wood and sparse white walls, with minimal decor, no tables, and just twelve high chairs lined up in front of the counter. Every chair but two was occupied, and we were the only non-Japanese there. The other ten diners had been waiting patiently for us to arrive – service at Kanda was for all of the guests, all at once, so in showing up late we had delayed the start of everyone else’s dinner.
Feeling bashful, we quickly claimed our seats. Moments later, five men in white aprons entered and took up position at stations behind the counter. The man in the middle was Hiroyuki Kanda, head-chef, owner, and namesake of the restaurant.
Huroyuki, I later read, is a bit of a legend in Japanese culinary circles. He is the eldest son of a restaurant owning family, and has worked as a chef ever since finishing high school. At age 23 he went to Paris to work as head chef in a Japanese restaurant there; five years later he returned to Japan and worked at one of Tokyo’s best sushi restaurants for 13 years. He then opened his own place, Kanda, in 2004. And in 2007 (so about a year before I was there), when the first Japanese edition of the hallowed Michelin Guide was released, Kanda was awarded the coveted Michelin 3-star rating, which it has held ever since. Explaining why people were waiting months for a chance to sample his cuisine.
In any case, Chef Kanda came over and introduced himself. He spoke good English and asked if there was anything we didn’t eat, if we had any food allergies or preferences, if there was anything in particular we wanted to try. (The Kanda menu changes daily, based on seasonal ingredients and availability. On top of that, in the course of service Chef Kanda customizes every dish – and even its specific portion size – to the wants of each individual customer.) “No, no, and no” were our answers. Chef Kanda smiled at us, he and his assistant chefs lined up in front of the 12 expectant diners, bowed low, and then they got to work.
So here’s the thing: Kanda may be a Michelin 3-star restaurant, but it has no kitchen to speak of. Everything we ate that night was prepared, cooked, assembled and plated in front of our eyes. Fish was sliced, rice was molded by hand, and slivers of eel were slow-roasted on a small counter-top coal brazier, all as we watched.
The five chefs worked together as if they were one person, in near total silence but without a single slip or moment’s hesitation. It was like getting to see a company of world-class ballet dancers in action. And slowly, over the course of the next three hours, one dish after another was placed in front of us, adding up to 15 courses in total. Each dish was little more than a few bite-sized morsels, but composed of any number of ingredients, and masterfully arranged on the plate with such care it felt like we were looking not at food, but at works of edible art.
And when it came to the eating, each and every one of the dishes Chef Kanda served us was sublime: a fusion of delicate, finely balanced, perfectly composed tastes and textures, on the one hand unmistakably Japanese, but on the other elegant, modern and clean.
As each dish was delivered, Chef Kanda came over to present his creation in person, explaining the provenance of the ingredients, the cooking technique used, and the subtle differences between the standard, deluxe and royal menus. Because while all 12 diners may have been receiving the same general dish at the same time, higher-grade, extra or more exotic ingredients were used in the deluxe and royal menus. We were the only ones enjoying the royal menu that night, so had Chef Kanda’s full attention.
Thus, for example, somewhere along the way we were served a piece of fish lightly poached in a broth of sorts. Everyone else in the restaurant was eating one type, whereas, as Chef Kanda explained, the fish we were eating was different. It only lived in one particular lake in Hokkaido Province, the season for catching it was limited to only a few weeks each year, and one of these freshly caught fish had been air-flown to Tokyo that very morning, especially for our eating pleasure. Or something like that.
I must confess I felt like a Neanderthal eating that small piece of fish. Sure, it was pure, sweet and exquisitely cooked. But to me, it was still just fish, and not being Japanese I don’t think I was able to appreciate how truly special it was. Unlike our fellow Japanese diners who were having near orgasms as each new plate landed on the countertop in front of them.
Other highlights included sashimi of fugu (the famously toxic Japanese puffer fish), a slice of toro tuna, a dish featuring black truffles, and various creations focused on unique Japanese vegetables, like matsutake (a rare and highly prized Japanese mushroom). And also cubes of seared miyazaki wagyu – while all the other diners were eating Kobe beef, we got served a rare kind of beef I’d never had before (or since), that among Japanese aficionados is considered to be the absolute pinnacle when it comes to meat. Suffice it to say, I don’t think I have ever had a tenderer, more melting, more unctuous mouthful of animal.
The bill, as you’d expect, was stratospheric. Although I paid without complaint: I mean, what price would you put on seeing Elvis Presley or Frank Sinatra perform one last time, if you got the chance? And for me, that meal at Kanda was no different a proposition really. Not only had I eaten 15 truly exceptional dishes – many of which involved ingredients and tastes I had never experienced before. Not only did I get interact with one of the world’s top chefs, as he cooked. But it felt like at the same time I had enjoyed a three-hour-long, once-in-a-lifetime, cultural and gastronomic show.
And that is why, more than ten years on, dinner at Kanda remains one of the two greatest food experiences I’ve ever had.
In early 1990, when I had just finished high-school, I backpacked in Europe with my cousin. In the course of which we visited Florence, Italy, like most tourists making the pilgrimage there to see the city’s great attractions: the Duomo, the Uffizi Gallery, the Ponte Vecchio, and so on.
One day, in the late morning, we went to check out the Mercato Centrale, which is a food market in central Florence. Many Florentine’s do their daily grocery shopping there but it is also a tourist attraction in its own right, owing to its grand iron and glass structure designed by the renowned architect Guiseppi Mengoni (he also designed the Galleria Vittoria Emanuele II in Milan). It was erected in 1870-1874, befitting of a time when Florence was the capital of Italy.
The market, as you’d expect, is a showcase of Italian food, so wandering around the Mercato Centrale is a sensory overload: stalls overflowing with cheeses, meats and salumi, pastas, fresh fish, marinated vegetables, olive oils, nuts and spices. As well as a lot of Tuscan specialties – things like truffles, tongue, and budelline (a local preparation of tripe).
Anyway, my cousin and I wandered about the market for a few hours and at around noon we found ourselves quite hungry (no surprise given all the deliciousness surrounding us). In a back corner of the market we noticed a long line of people waiting outside one particular market stall. A sign above it said simply “Nerbone”, and had the date underneath: “dal 1872” (since 1872). This meant that the stall had been there as long as the market itself.
Now, even as an 18-year-old, I’d figured out one of the great truths of travel: if you see a long line of locals waiting for food, it is probably good. So we joined the queue, and I asked the guy in front of us what we were queuing for. “Panino bollito” was his instant reply.
I had no idea what that meant, but fortunately the guy spoke decent English, and explained. “It’s a boiled beef sandwich.” I think I must have scrunched up my nose because he immediately added: “No, my friend. I promise you, the panino bollito from Nerbone is the best thing you will ever eat in your life.”
It took about ten minutes before we got to the front of the line, during which time our self-appointed guide had coached us in all things Nerbone. He told us that in addition to the boiled beef sandwich, Nerbone was famous for tripe sandwiches and other regional favorites. But, so he explained, the panino bollito was the stand-out, and it would be unthinkable for us to order anything else.
He then proceeded to instruct us in correct ordering procedure. Apparently, when ordering a Nerbone boiled beef sandwich, the only choices to be made were (i) do you want none, one or both of Nerbone’s secret sauces – the first a mildly spicy red-sauce; the second a home-made green salsa, the recipe of which is a secret more closely guarded than the formula for Coca-Cola; and (ii) do you want the bun natural, or dipped in the meat juices that come off of the beef as it is boiled.
By the time it was our turn, I was ready to order like a local: “Un panino bollito con tutte due le salse, bagnato. Per favore.” (One boiled beef sandwich, two sauces, dipped. Please.) In return, I was handed something that looked pretty average: boiled meat, piled onto a bun, topped with a lashing each of red sauce and bright green salsa verde, and wrapped in a piece of paper. “What could possibly be so good about this?” I remember immediately thinking to myself.
And then I took a bite, and almost fainted.
First of all, the meat was beautifully cooked, juicy and fatty and meltingly tender. Second, it had been sliced thick, and piled high onto a crunchy yet also chewy, totally moreish bread roll. Third, as a result of being dipped in the meat juices, the whole sandwich literally oozed with meaty goodness. And finally, the drizzles of green and red sauces bound the whole thing together into something that was so simple, yet at the same time utterly scrumptious and completely satisfying. Honestly, if they served sandwiches in heaven, this would be it.
Needless to say, after scoffing down one panino bollito, I immediately got back in line, and enjoyed a second. Then, largely because it was so incredibly tasty, but also because each sandwich cost the equivalent of 2 Dollars (in Italian lira – back then, Euros didn’t exist) and I was a backpacker with almost no money, I had a third. In fact, that panino bollito was so good (and cheap) my cousin and I returned to Nerbone for boiled beef sandwiches twice a day for the next three days.
Now, you may well be thinking to yourself that I am exaggerating. I mean, seriously, how could a simple boiled beef sandwich be so off-the-charts amazing? And I don’t blame you – indeed, for a long time, I thought that my memories of that sandwich were born of the circumstance rather than the food itself. I was only 18, so my palate was pretty unsophisticated; it was my first solo overseas trip and I was in Florence for the first time, so I was overwhelmed; it was cheap and I couldn’t afford anything better, so of course it was going to taste magical.
But then I went back to Florence seven years later (a post university trip), and then I went eight years after that (on my honeymoon), and again ten years after that, and then again, most recently about six months ago. So I have been to Florence four times in total since that first visit. And on each of these later visits, the first thing I have done is head straight to Nerbone for a boiled beef sandwich.
And on every subsequent visit, the panino bollito has been as frikking delectable as it was that first time, way back in 1989. Never mind that over the years the Mercato Centrale has changed a lot (it has slowly gentrified and in 2014 the top floor was remodeled as a tourist-friendly food hall – a Disneyland of ‘artisanal” Italian cuisine, if you will). Never mind that the lines have got longer, the currency has changed, and the price has slowly crept up (it is now around 5 Euro a sandwich, which is still ridiculously cheap). And never mind that my personal circumstances have been different on each visit: from backpacker hostel to pensione to luxury hotel; from high-school grad to middle-aged executive; from single to married to divorced.
No, the Nerbone panino bollito has always been the same brilliant, unbeatable dish, each and every time. Which is why, across a span of almost 30 years, that simple boiled beef sandwich continues to be one of the two greatest eating experiences I’ve ever had.
I have said it many times before in this blog: good food is good food, regardless of what it is or where you find it. Sometimes, it can cost almost nothing, and be found where you least expect, like at a nondescript market stall. And other times, it will be artfully served to you in a Michelin 3-star restaurant.
But wherever it is, the chance to eat something extraordinary – to put something in your mouth that is so delicious and memorable it blows your mind – is one of the great joys of travel. I wouldn’t have it any other way.
My first book, MAN MISSION, is now available. Go to www.manmissionthebook.com for details and where to buy.