Garbo in "Anna Christie" (1930)
IN THIS ISSUE
BELFAST, Part One
By John Mariani
NEW YORK CORNER
By John Mariani
NOTES FROM THE SPIRITS CELLAR
NINETY-SIX BOTTLE OF
SCOTCH ON THE WALL
By John Mariani
By John Mariani
Several years ago a thoroughly clueless editor at Travel & Leisure magazine gasped at my proposal to write a story on Belfast, from which I’d just returned.
“Are you mad?” she screamed. “We don’t want our readers getting blown up in the streets!”
I remarked that there were plenty of places in the world where that was as good a possibility, but even in the days when Belfast had its grievous and enduring troubles between Protestants and Catholics, I still found it a beautiful city of great historic interest. I didn’t get to write the story.
Now, since the 1998 cease-fire Good Friday Agreement, Belfast has become a fine, thriving city, and its superb Georgian and Victorian buildings have been restored to all the color and brightness they possessed when they opened well more than a century ago, when red brick walls and slate roofs vied with the stone facades and marble columns of the Baroque Revival. In addition the arts flourish, not least in approved murals of great fancy (above) around Commercial Court near the Duke of York Bar (below).
There are still reminders of the bad times, poverty still has large pockets, and the events of political repression are still commemorated on murals in vivid color. Relations between Catholics and Protestants still simmer, and there is a duality in citizens’ self image, some feeling closer to Ireland, some to Britain. As Belfast’s finest poet, Seamus Heaney, once wrote, "Be advised my passport's green./No glass of ours was ever raised to toast the Queen."
Years of economic stagnation have lifted, and the peace dividend has resulted in Belfast now being ranked in the top five fastest growing regional economies in the UK, with unemployment well under five percent and an expanding boom in tourism. The city can even claim to have Ireland’s tallest building, the Obel Tower, completed in 2011. Such hubris has, of course, caused widespread construction, especially along the meandering Langan River, with the result that housing prices have skyrocketed.
As did the visionary leaders of Bilbao in bringing a Frank Gehry-designed branch of the Guggenheim Museum, the smart money in Belfast saw the city’s future along the waterfront by building the spectacular Titanic Quarter (formerly Queen’s Island), 185 acres now home to a very modern museum devoted to the doomed Cunard ocean liner, built in Belfast’s shipyards by Harland & Wolff, as well as to another Cunard liner, the SS Nomadic, and the Titanic’s Dock & Pump-House, whose length and breadth shows just how astoundingly huge the ship was. The surrounding area (right) is devoted to “urban village” space and parks, as part of a 30-year project of development.
The RMS Titanic Museum (left), opened in 2012, is a marvelous mix of the most modern light and sound shows spread over nine interactive galleries within five stories of anodized aluminum forged into four pointed hull-like shapes by Concept Design Architects and Todd Architects. The tour takes you up a gangplank, through rooms of historic artifacts—none, for ethical reasons, plumbed from the sunken ship itself—showing the regal majesty of the ship, its mighty power stations and beautifully designed passenger rooms. There are farewell letters and photos, ship’s logs, and original blueprints. You trace the ship’s departure from Southampton, England, on the fateful voyage that ended so abruptly on April 15, 1912, and, although I found the depiction of the moment of horror when the hull hit the iceberg wanting in drama, the tour as a whole is magnificently and tastefully done, and people peer in silence at the facsimile of the great ship sleeping in the sand 12,500 feet down. Small wonder it draws a million visitors each year and is indicative of the future of Belfast.
North of the Opera is the modern, glass-sided Castle Court Shopping Centre, with 80 stores and 15 eateries, then Great Victoria Street moves on to Saint Anne’s Cathedral, consecrated in 1904, almost destroyed by a German bomb in 1941, and topped with a 130-foot stainless steel spire named the “Spire of Hope” in 2007.
A few blocks east are the monumental City Hall (left), an Edwardian structure designed by Alfred Brunwell Thomas well worth a look-see inside (tours are offered), and the Linen Hall Library, commemorating Belfast’s eminence as a linen producer. Farther east towards the river is the vast, award-winning St. George’s Market, built between 1890 and 1896, which holds a weekly Friday Variety Market, the City Food and Craft Market on Saturdays and the Sunday Market.
Nearby is the Albert Clock (below), Belfast’s stand-in for London’s Big Ben, created in 1865 to honor Queen Victoria’s late Prince Consort. You need not look too closely to see that, like Pisa’s famous tower, the Albert Clock, having been built on marshy land, has tilted about four feet over the past 150 years; it is also one of the landmarks seen prominently in the fine 1947 film Odd Man Out. All these places I’ve described can easily be visited in a morning and afternoon; save the university and the Titanic Quarter for another day.
In the city’s western neighborhoods there is still a good deal that is run-down and derelict, and the scars of civil war and the continuing uneasiness are evident in the ironically named “peace lines,” long, somber walls dating to 1969, some of rusting iron, some of dark brick, rising up to 25 feet above the street. They serve as unyielding border barriers between Catholics and Protestants, an eerie echo of the Berlin Wall, and their gates are still shuttered at night by the police.
Sadly, the walls have increased in size and number since the Good Friday Agreement, and a 2012 study indicated a majority of the residents insist they are still necessary to prevent violence. Total removal is now scheduled by 2023, but for now many are painted with large murals and pictorial graffiti showing the various heroes and villains of both sides of the strife—murals I hope will be preserved in museums in Belfast, when the walls come tumbling down and its people come and go with renewed faith in the future.
• Check in at the new Welcome Centre Visitor Information, 8-10 Donegal Square, which offers free wi-fi access, tickets, and gifts. Utilize the website visit-belfast.com.
• Most banks are open Mon.-Fri. and ATMs are everywhere.
• Most shops are open daily till 6 p.m., on Thurs. 9 p.m.
• Belfast is a smoke-free city and most hotels no longer offer smoker’s rooms.
• Tipping at a restaurant is 10-15 percent on the bill.
In my next installment I shall write about the restaurants of Belfast.
NEW YORK CORNER
By John Mariani
43 West 24th Street (off Sixth Avenue)
I claim no first-hand knowledge of traditional Peruvian cuisine, much less a modern take on it, but if what the kitchen is cooking at Raymi is any indication, then I regret what I’ve been missing.
I do know that, thanks to Japanese immigrants, Peruvian food adapted sashimi to ceviches—Nobu Matsuhisa was once a resident of Peru—and the ingredients on the menu at Raymi include items like white soy, jasmine rice, bok choy, Chinese sausage and others that give it a contemporary, global flourish. For me it all seems to work well, without the forced clash of disparate foods that once went under the useless term “Fusion Cuisine.”
Raymi’s flavors are well conceived, well thought out, and beautifully executed, served up on ceramic plates, woks, and in black skillets, the result of two heads being better than one in executive chefs and brothers Felipe and Jaime Torres (right). After graduating from culinary school, Felipe worked at several of NYC’s finest restaurants, including Eleven Madison Park, Jean-Georges, and Esca, then decamped to northern Italy before returning to Peru to learn how his native cuisine had evolved.
Jamie had studied business in Colombia before joining his brother in Peru, then furthered his education at Madrid’s celebrated Astrid & Gaston. When the opportunity to work together arose in NYC, they became partners with others at a restaurant named Nuella, which folded; then, they took complete control and reconfigured the space as their own.
My words won’t do justice to the color and openness of the dining areas, so I direct you to the photo above to see the open kitchen and counter, the good space between tables, and the use of lighting to enhance its overall vitality. I am not a fan of dining on the high chairs in one room, but I got used to it quickly.
The service staff is fleet-footed and cordial, and I could hardly have asked for more geniality from our waitress, who was, ironically, from Budapest.
The wine list is modest, but you should try one of the frothy Pisco cocktails.
There are several overlapping categories on the menu—piqueos (snacks), ceviche and toraditos, and small plates and salads, all easily shared by two people. The unexpected appearance of wontons ($13) on the menu seems odd, but, filled with pork, aji amarillo, ginger and scallion, they would pass muster in any Chinatown dim sum house. The clasico ceviche ($16) comes with lustrous corvina, lime, red onion, sweet potato, cilantro, and habanero chile pepper (left), all working in a spicy-tangy-sweet delicate balance. Hamachi toradito ($18) is flavored with aji amarillo, aguayamanto (Chinese gooseberry), poppy seeds, crispy quinoa and a touch of fresh thyme.
You could easily make a meal of these and a few small plates, like the hearty charred octopus with aji limo mayo, endive, radicchio, and crispy quinoa ($18), or the sweet pastel de choclo ($12) toasted corn cake with roasted mushrooms, their juice and watercress.
The next category is entrees, from which I chose juicy carapulcra ($25), a plate of very rich roasted pork belly, Peruvian potatoes, roasted peanuts, and salsa criolla, and a jasmine rice dish called arroz chaufa ($26), abundant with egg, broccoli, ginger, char shui chicken, shrimp, Chinese sausage, and peanuts.
“To Share” are dishes like a superbly rendered duck confit with cilantro, jasmine rice, aji amarillo mayo and crisp quinoa, all braised in dark beer ($24/$48). Nicely chewy skirt steak is a popular cut in Peru, and here it is lashed with spicy chimichurri, aromatic roasted garlic and crispy yuca fries dusted with parmesan cheese ($26/$50).
The plates are generous, and a side dish of papa a la huancainia ($12), baby potatoes, Alfonso olives, watercress and a quail egg, is sufficient for a table of four.
After all this, desserts are mere indulgences that won’t make a difference in your opinion of what preceded them.
The Torres brothers are clearly committed to bringing their style of food to New Yorkers’ attention, and they succeed in both careful cooking and presentation. The added spice, the crunch of peanuts, the unexpected Asian notes make this kind of food very rare, if not unique, in NYC, so Raymi becomes as much a culinary education as it does a happy night out.
Raymi is open for dinner nightly.
NOTES FROM THE SPIRITS CELLAR
NINETY-SIX BOTTLES OF
SCOTCH ON THE WALL
By John Mariani
To paraphrase the opening
of Thomas Wolfe’s Look
Homeward, Angel, “A destiny that leads the
Scots to Bangkok is strange enough, but to
create a unique Scotch whisky for a single hotel
halfway around the world from Speyside is
“This is the first time in the history of the luxury whisky brand that it has blended a whisky exclusively for one specific partner,” Job said at an opening night party March 8 that I was in town to attend. “Only 96 bottles of the Chivas Exclusive lebua Blend are available, with each bottle individually numbered.”
The bottling was created by Chivas Regal’s master blending team led by Colin Scott (left, in the middle) and is composed of selected whiskies distilled in 1985 or earlier and laid down in a selection of casks, including American Oak. The final blend was then left to rest in a First-Fill Oloroso Sherry Butt for nine long years—something Chivas has never done before. The whole experiment was aimed at creating an elegant, very rich Scotch whose fruitedness was complemented by the oloroso sweetness and deep color absorbed from the barrel, yet it still had to have the characteristic Chivas style, which begins with the distillery blending the malts and grains separately, the former from Speyside, the latter from Paisley. Chivas is known for its vanilla-toffee flavors and a hint of chocolate.
In an interview at the hotel with Colin Scott, I asked if this individual blend was something Chivas would be doing for other clients. “Never say never,” he answered, “but we promised this would be a one-time, unique effort on our part, made from the finest whiskies we have, so there will never be more than 96 bottles. That’s just 300 glasses, then it’s gone forever.”
The reason CEO Ohri gave for what is a canny marketing event was to give an added incentive for people to visit the hotel. “It’s very easy to sell rooms, especially when you’re in the deluxe market,” he told me, “so the food and spirits gives people more to talk about, draws them in, even if they’re not staying at the hotel. They spread the word. It’s the reason we do not hire celebrity chefs who are never in their restaurants; we stand by great cuisine, service and spectacular scenery.”
In fact, lebua competes mightily against a great deal of luxury competition in a tough market—the Peninsular, Mandarin Oriental, Shangri-La and St. Regis hotels, with a Ritz-Carlton coming soon—all within view of lebua’s 64th floor.
Alfresco 64 straddles other bars on that floor, which after 6 p.m. are usually packed with visitors who come as much for the food and drinks as the view. You come off the crowded elevator and are greeted by a number of charming women in traditional Thai dress, their palms together to greet you with a nod and a smile. Then you enter into Alfresco 64-A Chivas Bar, which is designed to look like a luxury yacht, jutting over the side of the building and set with lounge chairs and couches, with teak flooring. Glassware was specially designed for the cocktails served. (There is also a more private Heritage Room available for events.)
It seems unlikely those 96 bottles will last very long, even at $260 per glass—I decreased the supply by one tot—especially since on opening night a Chinese fellow bought two bottle outright, at $7,000 each.
HOW DO SAY “BIG OOPS!” IN FRENCH?
Guide to France mistakenly awarded a coveted
star to a small café in the central French town of
Bourges called Bouche à Oreille (left)— “word of
mouth." When the owner, Véronique Jacquet,
heard thew news on the radio, she said, " I laughed out
was impossible that this could happen to me. I run a
small working-class brasserie, nothing to do with a
gourmet restaurant.” A three-course menu costs $13.25
(12.50 euros) per person. Michelin mistook the
café for Bouche à Oreille in Boutervilliers, which has
had its star since 2015, where main courses start at
$29.75 (about 28 euros).
SOMEHOW WE HADN'T NOTICED
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I consider this the best and savviest blog of its kind on the web. Potter is a columnist for USA Weekend, Diversion, Laptop and Luxury Spa Finder, a contributing editor for Ski and a frequent contributor to National Geographic Traveler, ForbesTraveler.com and Elle Decor. "I’ve designed this site is for people who take their travel seriously," says Potter. "For travelers who want to learn about special places but don’t necessarily want to pay through the nose for the privilege of staying there. Because at the end of the day, it’s not so much about five-star places as five-star experiences." THIS WEEK:
Eating Las Vegas
JOHN CURTAS has been covering the Las Vegas
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Wagners on KSNV TV (NBC) Channel 3 in
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