Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Top 20 Best Eats - Around the World

People always ask me what was my favorite meal on my trip. Well, here is my Top 20 from abroad - my best of Spain, Greece, Turkey, Czech Republic, Germany, Italy, and Japan, 2012.

Honorable Mention:
Raw chicken tossed in wasabi - Teshigotoya Fukunotori (Tokyo, Japan)

20. Home Cooking by Ana Lia: pasta, frittata, wine, yum! - Casa Riva (Arese, Italy)

19. Garlic Soup with potatoes, cheese, croutons, and dried herbs - U Bulinu (Prague, Czech Rep)

18. Fried Moray with lemon - Warayakiya (Tokyo, Japan)

17. Padrón Peppers fried with sea salt - Pinotxo, La Boquería (Barcelona, Spain)

16. Canelons de bolets de temporada amb salsa de ceps (mushroom canelones) - D.O (Gracia, Barcelona, Spain)

15. Meatballs with rice and horseradish braised with potatoes - Taverna Tu Psiri (Athens, Greece)

14. Chicken and Sausage Skewer with peppers and mustard - Prague Wine Festival vendor (Prague, Czech Rep)

13. Sushi Selection - Tokyo Station (Tokyo, Japan)

12. Pork Belly Skewer with yuzu and green pepper sauce - unknown izakaya (Tokyo, Japan)

11. Spit-Roasted Chicken with potatoes (my dinner with Kapnos Team) - unknown taverna (Thessaloniki, Greece)

10. Visneli Yaprak Sarmasi (grape leaves stuffed with sour cherries, rice, onion, and pine nuts) - Asitane (Istanbul, Turkey)

9. Sultan's Favorite (baked smoked eggplant and lamb) - Haçi Baba (Istanbul, Turkey)

8. Lamacun (flatbread with meat sauce, with cucumber, tomato, peppers) - unknown restaurant (Istanbul, Turkey)

7. Exohiko (chicken fried with paprika, tomatoes, and pita, with feta) - unknown taverna (Thessaloniki, Greece)

6. Pork Okonomiyaki with omochi 
Kiji (Tokyo-Shinagawa, Japan)

5. Mougatsa Me Crema 
(phyllo with custard and cinnamon) 
Blé (Thessaloniki, Greece)

4. Formatge de cabra a la planxa amb puré de pinya 
(seared goat cheese with pineapple purée)
D.O (Barcelona-Gracia, Spain)

3. Patatas Bravas 
(fried potatoes with tomato sauce, alioli, and pimentón) 
DO. (Barcelona, Spain)

2. Baklava "Mixed Plate" 
Karaköy Güllüoglu (Istanbul-Karaköy, Turkey)

1. Straw-fired Bonito with wasabi, shallots, sea salt, and garlic
Warayakiya (Tokyo-Roppongi, Japan)

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Back to the Future

This is the longest day ever! I woke up in Tokyo this morning, and that was 26 hours ago. I haven't eaten dinner yet. However, I did have sushi for lunch and three meals on two planes. Time travel, my friends; I'm always happy when the Libyans come through with the plutonium. Imagine if I told them that at customs in LAX! Great Scott!

Yes, I'm "home" in California and in the US of A, but no, the trip is not complete! However, being abroad is finished for now, and boy, what a whirlwind! Interestingly, my body stopped paying attention to time zones about two weeks ago, as I've decided to just sleep when I see fit. It's not quite yet appropriate to write a journey recap just yet, but as I go seek out my Mexican dinner, I will just say, there's a lot to see out there; a lot to do, a lot to taste, and many friends you haven't yet met. Thanks to everyone who kept it interesting.


No, five days is not sufficient to explore and truly appreciate Tokyo, let alone get an accurate sense of the country of Japan. The same can be said of all of the countries on the Mark Porter 2012 Birthday World Tour, but that doesn't mean I regret my choice in itinerary planning. The point is that each of the seven countries I visited on this trip have been enlightening, unique, and fascinating in their own ways and deserve more attention than I was able to give. I was, however, very fortunate to meet and reconnect with some great people along the way through whom I was provided invaluable insight into each country's human nature.

Japan was the most highly anticipated destination on the list, due in no small part because I have had a personal connection with their people for about as long as I can remember. My family hosted several exchange students over the years, and one year in particular we got to know several in the group quite well, and participated with them in several of their events. I took it upon myself to dabble into foreign language study as a hobby at this point, as I learned as a young teenager that communicating with cute Japanese girls is most impressive when attempting to utilize words that were most familiar to them. I hadn't really thought about this until my friend Tomoya and I were fortunate enough to wind up sitting next to two Japanese (what are the odds?) ladies at the izakaya last night. Typical of izakaya, it was a relaxed, convivial pub-atmosphere with several diners seated as an audience around the working chefs. Our new friends wanted to know what I like about Japanese girls, so without much need for thought, I said, "What's not to like? You smile, you're friendly, you're polite..."

Now, I don't remember the Japanese being so savvy, or say... skeptical, in response to my compliments, but they taught me a hand gesture (not what you're thinking) that basically means they detect b.s. It turned out to be an interesting conversation, and we had a great time at dinner. This leads me to a further conclusion that, while there are good people everywhere, the Japanese culture is surprisingly friendly and cordial. This is not to say I am completely surprised, but the overall level of courtesy and politeness to strangers is amazing. Now if we could just get rid of the guys (not Japanese) who pester relentlessly outside the "gentlemen's clubs" in Roppongi; geez-louise, at least the guys in Prague would leave you alone when they see you're not interested!

In any case, Tokyo is one of my new favorite places. Oh yeah, I think I'm supposed to return next week... Might not make it.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Ciao Italia

Ah, Milano...
To me you have always been a gateway - a transition point to other points in Italy. Sometimes it's been to Venice, sometimes Rome, Florence, or Barolo, or back home to the United States. It's like DFW... except that it 's not. Perhaps Milan is deserving of being thought of as more than a convenience. It is something of a magical place, where you can sip a Super Tuscan on a sidewalk cafe and watch models and impeccably dressed businessmen saunter to and fro. There you will find fashions fit for a queen, nothing of which I can speak intelligently, of course. For me, though, I generally go see the Duomo, have a meal and a gelato, and then jump on a train.

However, there are real people who live in this part of the world. Some of them don't wear excessively high heels or fancy Italian suits. Some of them have families and think less about photo shoots or gem- laced dresses and more about getting their children to do their homework. There are kind and decent people in northern Italy - the kind of people to treat a weary foreign traveler like family. I have been fortunate, now twice, to have been a guest here. It's not the Europe that we think about from afar, but it all makes perfect sense. Italy has been a special place for me for some time now, and I'm constantly impressed.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Oktoberfest Prelude

Germany was such an unremarkable part of my trip twelve years ago that I almost viewed stopping through Munich this time as merely a necessary transfer point and little more... Almost. That would have been a mistake.

After the initial getting lost hullabaloo, trying to find my hotel from my vague directions, and dodging random beer bottles, used cigarettes, and wayward teens on a Saturday night frolicking around the dark surrounds of the train station, I found a new destination that should be a part of everyone's list of places to see and be - Munich. First, this should be no indication of my competence in the German language, however it was surprising, and a thrill, that I was finally in a city again where I could at least order my dinner without the use of hand gestures, picture cards, and/or PowerPoint presentations. Oftentimes, even on an international journey, a food lover will take solace in what they know - even if it adds no country-specific cultural value - and this time it was the döner kebap. Next, to get my bearings in the dark of night, I decided to stay close to the hotel, but find significant forms of life (apart from wayward teens). Eventually, I found the Anna Hotel bar, that was a stylish place, and three lovely local German ladies who spoke English (the loveliest of whom spoke unimpeded sober English) and were kind enough to make my acquaintance. Once again I strive to keep up foreign relations for you people; you're welcome. It was a rather nice time, as I do so enjoy meeting new and interesting people on my journeys.

The next morning, I seemed to find the largest church in town for a noon Sunday mass by way of some very quiet and mostly empty streets. The people who were out were already enjoying some steins of beer with/for breakfast. I had a cappuccino. Afterwards - and what I would most like to communicate to you - I found Munich to be a very clean, modern, relaxing, and beautiful place to be. It is a big city, but it is safe and inviting. There are biergartens everywhere, which seem to be imbedded in the culture, that can be simply patio dining for a restaurant or tables in the park where you can bring your own picnic or go grab some house ribs and potato salad. Oh yeah, and enjoy fresh and simple really big beers. The places I sampled were quite festive and family affairs that weren't about intoxication, but about conviviality. Biergartens are celebrations of life, and perhaps much like the impending Oktoberfest that I missed by a week, seemed to me a last opportunity to enjoy perfect outdoor relaxation before the coming cooler months. However, my guess is that this part of culture endures, in some form at least, indoors when necessary. The best part of my day, though, was walking along the river through the trees and into the very large English Garden, complete with streams, hills, frolicking (yes, don't forget the frolicking), and of course, what else but another biergarten! Lovely.

You should go here. It may have been even better on bicycle, but perfect for walking. And if you surf (that's what I said)... there's even a part of the river for that as well. I would definitely return.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Czeching Out

Oh, where to begin? Prague is quite a lovely city. Too bad my first impression was being scammed out of my money, but after the initial two days and nights of picketing in a pirate costume, I moved on as I remembered the sage advice of Yoda, that "anger leads hate; hate leads to suffering." That's not my bag, baby. Different movie, I know, but this is my blog, and I can do what I want. Sufficed to say, I've been more discriminating in my dining choices and have had better luck as of late. However, as some people claim to be true, there is more to life than food, so I've done a lot of wandering, especially by the river. This city is old and wondrous, with magnificent architecture and many photo opportunities - no compromising shots of members of the British Royal Family, but I guess that's why I'm still small-time.

Speaking of things other than food, does wine count? I actually had no intention of furthering my wine studies after Greece, but I happened upon a wine bar here in town. I figured, "okay, one glass of tasteless grape juice, and I can say I tried it." Well the owner saw me taking notes and discerned that I was a professional (I get that a lot), so he kept pouring me tastes of some of his favorites. A lone Argentine, who may or may not be gay (definitely suspect), and I start conversation... you know: fashion, favorite actors, pink things, etc... Wait a minute... Well, next thing I know, these eight sixty-something English women traipse in looking for a good time. The Latin music was on, the lighting was right, so we started a dance party. Usually, I'm nervous competing in this arena with a hispanic guy as my competition, but these were married British senior chicks; I'm golden. Well, we had fun, but we cleared the place out of younger locals; I guess they just weren't into it. It's like the old Bohemian saying goes, "when life hands you cheap obscure wine, dance salsa", or something like that. Sam would approve.

I gotta go. Train to Munich tomorrow. Happy Friday.

Thursday, September 13, 2012


I was not in Athens very long - just a day. I ate delightful moussaka by candlelight at Daphne's (a restaurant, not someone I met), scrumptious meatballs by daylight at Taverna Tou Psiri, and studied wines at a great place called Brettos. This is a wine bar dedicated to Greek wines from many different regions. Thank God; if you ask for a glass of wine in Thessaloniki, they ask you, "red or white?" Oh, yeah, I climbed up to the Acropolis and spent the afternoon on the top of that hill overlooking all of Athens. It was quite warm, but it was also quite breezy. Again, all photos published here so far are from my phone.

*Note to Self: Always agree on a price for a cab ride in advance where the bus drops you from the airport - easy prey! 12€ to go about a mile? You're welcome, Greece.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

All Roads Lead to Roam

Istanbul may just be the center of world civilization. It is where Europe meets Asia and where east meets west. IT'S HUGE, by the way, and it is ancient, vibrant, and enchanting. Istanbul is a sprawling metropolis that is home to nearly 14 million people. While the cityscape is dotted with huge mosques that belt out periodic songs on their loudspeakers with regularity, (I refrained from dancing) this is a liberal democracy inclusive of other religions and varying degrees of piety. Like I eluded to earlier - nothing is what it seems.

Istanbul is an ancient giant, rich with history. I remarked to a friend while visiting one of the city's many museums that a certain clock was older than my country. I quickly realized what a ridiculous statement that was, since just about everything in Istanbul is older than my county. That's an exaggeration, but many of the city's most prized artifacts go back not centuries, but millennia. I'm still rather in shock to have viewed David's sword (yes, that David), Moses' staff, and Mohammed's footprint. (We may have had Mohammed Ali's handprint at one of the Planet Hollywoods, but not quite as intriguing.) INCONCEIVABLE! They had mummies too, etc.

Culinarily, there is much cross-over, or shared tradition, between Turkey and Greece. How insightful of me to do a Greek/Turkish/Greek sandwich (sounds like an after-hours party at... nevermind) trip, when their cuisines are so related! And if you're just tuning in, my journeys are always, in addition to photographic, an exploration of food and beverage. This goes back to when I said we are more alike than different; evidently we all like pizza, meatballs, and fire- roasted meat on a stick... except you vegetarians - see "Greek Salad", but that's another entry for another day.

I hesitate to draw a conclusion about Turkey from a few days in Istanbul, but what I will say is what I've already said, which is it's amazing what you will find if you dare to explore... that, and any Turk who visits should never pay for a thing! Thank you, friends. Thank you.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Bad Eats in Prague

Speak of the devil - it's one thing to have poor customer service, but it's quite another to prey on tourists' disorientation and cheat them out of their money. I'm no Rachel Ray and have minimal clout to force some sort of positive outcome for my experience, but if the blogosphere has any say as to which level of hades the man at this establishment should be sent, then here goes:

At the north end of Old Town Square in Prague, there are a number of food vendors that appear to have some lower priced take-away items. I opted for the spit roasted ham "staroprazska", and potato salad. The menu lists the portions as 1 kilo with price in Czech Koruna. I thought I was in for a simple economical dinner. They gave me enough food to satiate a small family and charged me 640 CZK. I hadn't yet acclimated to the exchange rate, so without thinking, I paid... about $33! I inquired about the price moments after my calculation, and was basically told "too bad, sucker" with a smile - "just like when you buy nice steak at restaurant, by weight!"

Yeah, just like that.

I spent the next hour telling prospective victims in line that he is a horrible person and a cheat. So please never visit this deceptive tourist trap. I will be very careful with my calculations from here on out.

Turkish Delight

Much like Zaytinya's interpretation of the famed treat that is a national treasure - Turkish Delight, many things in this world are often different in reality than in the imagination, or even first impression. I suppose that is part of the exhilaration of travel; it is a unique insight into alternative realities. This world is made up of so many cultures, traditions, and ideas about life in general, yet all are intertwined in a giant web of coexistence. The point is that despite all of the world's forces of language, religion, politics, and power - barriers to international harmony - we are all more alike than we are led to believe. It is this universal truth that I discover time and time again no matter where I go. Unfortunately, there is always the competing human force that is divide and conquer. It is blatantly clear that this is rampant in American politics, as well, no doubt throughout the world and throughout human history. It is pretty much everywhere. People will often use ignorance as an opportunity and fear as a tool. I do not pretend to offer a remedy, however you may care to settle for a simple insight - be not afraid; scratch the surface and don't settle for first impressions or someone else's version of the truth. You might find something really great.

Monday, September 3, 2012


I was so pleased to arrive in Thessaloniki to celebrate the finale of Birthmonth 2012 with one last something new - Country #20! I feel like I should have so much more than 20, however those pesky little countries like Mexico, Peru, Italy, and Spain kept pulling me back like a tractor beam. Well, sometimes you have to use Harrison Ford's definition of "the force", and just "force yourself." So, I got on ANOTHER airplane and went to a NEW country... Hello, Greece! Someone must have told them I was coming, because my first evening's walk landed me in Aristotelous Square where they had a symphony already set up for me outside, under the stars, with the sea as the backdrop! Not too shabby. Check out this line-up: Mozart, Rossini, Offenbach, Bach, Strauss, Pachelbel, Stravinsky, Vivaldi, and more. For the finale, they played a Star Wars medley! What a welcome!

Thessaloniki is in the far north, in the Macedonia region, not to be confused with the Former Yugoslavian Republic of Macedonia, which is just to the north. As I mentioned, we are on the coast, and the weather has been perfect. They keep claiming that the temperature is in the 20s, but I think their thermometers must have frozen in the wintertime or something. The people are quite friendly, which is something I'm told will change once I get to Athens. I believe my stomach is still on DC time, so I've mostly been eating at nighttime. I had the pleasure last night of dining with the Kapnos research team, and it was quite an experience. Speaking of food, I have to get back out there... So good!

Happy Labor Day!