Top 5 Meals of 2015

It has become an annual tradition. Each year, I write a blog about the 5 best meals I ate. This is very hard to do since my job involves eating and traveling “for a living.” This year, I traveled to 14 countries and 5 states in the US. Needless to say, I ate a lot of good food!

After considerable thought, these memorable meals made it to my top 5 picks of 2015:

Machneyuda Restaurant in Jerusalem – This concept restaurant is run by three genius chefs – Yosef “Pappy” Elad, Assaf Granite, and Uri Navon. They run the business like a party. The quirky website and non-descript menu that offer dishes like “Entrecôte Django Unchained Style,” and “Lamb with lot of tasty stuff,” with pairings like “yummy stuff, some sauce” offer some clues. The waiters are not just friendly, they are singing, dancing and even doing shots in the kitchen…at work! The food is served in unpretentious sharing plates and is absolutely to die for. Ingredients are sourced from the surrounding Machneyuda market.

The biggest surprise for me was the dessert. Our server cleared out our table (we were 5) and laid out aluminum foil to cover it. On it, was orchestrated a symphony of cake, chocolate sauce, caramel, candies, nougats, cookies, ice cream and whipped cream – spread around the entire table within matter of minutes. It looked very haphazard as it was happening, but then appeared to be a delicious pile of artful looking happiness. We dug in with our spoons feeling like kids, and started dancing to the Israeli pop tunes.

Catalina Rose Bay in Sydney – Located on the world-famous Sydney Harbour, this family run restaurant is known for serving the highest quality meat and poultry sourced from all over Australia. Sydney Seaplane Highlights Flight Fly/Dine experience, included lunch at Catalina overlooking the Rose Bay. We start by enjoying fresh oysters on the shell paired with an Australia white that is produced not too far from the bay. The warm Sydney sun refreshed us as we watched the Seaplanes go by. I had the Poached Western Australian Marron Tail (something I had not had before), and the small sushi plate with delicious fresh tuna, salmon, prawn, kingfish, tataki tuna and Catalina roll. Dessert was caramelized fig with bitter caramel mousse, brik pastry and sugared pistachio. It was a memorable dessert, though the others I took bites off were pretty good too.

best seafood in Sydney

Boulanger Patissier Le Fournil Notre Dame in Marseille, France – My husband and I got to this bakery in the South of France early Sunday morning when the aroma of fresh baked goodies were oozing out of this tiny neighborhood bakery. There were sleepy residents, some still wearing pajamas, lined up to get bread, croissants, pastries, macrons, and Tropezian cakes. We got a few assortments to share with our cappuccinos. Till this day, we still talk about how the croissants flaked into a thousand pieces and melted the moment it touched our tongues. It was so good, that we had to eat another. Though so simple, it was by far the best breakfast I had this year!
best croissants in France
Marea in New York City – My close friend know that I am a big snob when it comes to Italian food. I can just about dismiss majority of the Italian restaurants in the U.S., but when I find a good ones, my heart melts into clarified butter. This is what happened at Marea, 2 Michelin star restaurant located on Central Park South. My friend and I had to wait for a long time to a spot at the bar (reservations few days in advance are highly recommended), but it was great people watching too. Everything at this high end Italian eatery boasted freshness of ingredients, integrity of flavors, and perfection in cooking. Some of my favorites were the tender Noca Scotia lobster and burro found in Astice; al dante and earthy Funghi Risotto; flaky and dressed Branzino: as well as the fried doughnuts dipped in lemon ricotta and dark chocolate Bomboloni. The portions are not small and you may end up eating 10k calories, but now you can die and go to heaven on earth.
best Italian in New York
Yachiyo Ryokan at Himeshima Island in Japan – It’s hard to imagine that one of my top 5 meals was at a 1-lady run Bed and Breakfast in a sleepy island off the coast of Kunisaki. I stayed at this beautiful family run 8-room inn surrounded by gardens, where we were served a delicious seafood dinner with ingredients that were probably swimming just a few hours ago. I had eaten a lot of good sushi throughout my stay in countryside Japan, but this was an unbelievable spread. Every inch of the table was covered with a fresh piece of fish or vegetable that was delicately prepared and artful served. The Japanese chefs take great effort in presentation as you can see from this picture. Unfortunately, this place doesn’t have a website and the manager, Michuri-San, speaks limited English, so good luck finding it.
best sushi in Japan

Dinner with Alice in Wonderland

Fancy eating inside a fake train car, ordering off crucifix shaped menus, sitting in a prison cell, served by video game characters, ninjas or maids, or being surrounded by cats – all in the name of dining at a restaurant? Tokyo is perhaps the leading city in the world when it comes to the number of concept restaurants. Locals and visitors fancy themed ambiances, that are more of an amusement park, that also serves food and drinks. In fact, the quality of food at these kind of restaurants is average, but what you go for is the look and feel.

alice restaurants japan

I decided to give it a try and visited “Alice in a labyrinth” or simple “Alice” restaurant in Ginza district of Tokyo. Based on the storybook, Alice in Wonderland, this place is accurately themed when it comes to the decor, outfits, and food. Customers are granted access through a large door, which opens like a page of a book, and led down a rabbit hole corridor adorned with passages from the story. Young waitresses are dressed in blue and white frocks – all known as Alice, while the manager sometimes appears as a Cheshire cat.

alice teacup

Playing cards surround the ceiling and floors, lamps are made out of vintage hats, and we sit in a tea cup shaped booth. Alice comes to our table and greets us. She brings a menu the opens up like a pop-out puzzle book. Items point to themselves saying “Drink me, Eat me!” Yes, there is a potion – non alcoholic soda – you can drink to make yourself bigger or smaller (it’s a gimmick of course).

drink me potion

There is no Alice in Wonderland soundtrack, cartoon or movie running in the background; just an American pop channel. The restaurant suggests “Welcome to the tea party of Alice” but there aren’t any high-tea snacks on the menu. Food options include an assortment of international dishes like salads, pizza, pasta and ice cream.

Focus is mainly on presentation. Characters like Cheshire Cat, the Caterpillar, and the White Rabbit make their way on the plates. Everything is made to look cute, but doesn’t taste like restaurant quality food.

alice restaurant tokyo


Even though the concept may seem attractive to kids, it is more popular among young girls. People in their 20’s may come for a date night or a girls night out.


Alice’s Fantasy Restaurants has branches in Tokyo, Osaka and Nagoya, each with a different name, but similar theme. 8May_Alice_in_Wonderland_Cafe_Restaurant_1

Cooking Teriyaki in Tokyo

Before I even recovered from my 12-hour time change, I headed to a Japanese Cooking Class on my first day in Tokyo (because that’s what I do when I first arrive in a new country). After an intense walk through the crowded Tsukiji Fish Market, where “tuna fish” is more of a prized commodity than food, I arrived at a small place than didn’t look like much of a cooking school from outside.

At Tsukiji Cooking School, everyone had to take their shoes off outside the door and put on slippers, as the local tradition dictates. There was a tiny kitchen where the chef and her two assistants were prepping our recipes. In the middle of the room was a dining table and chairs. We were given an apron, hand fan and printed recipes. Our instructor did not speak much English, but she had a translator.Tsukiji cooking class

During the 2-hour class, we learned to make miso soup, chicken teriyaki, spinach salad and Okonomiyaki (Japanese pancakes) – all from scratch! Although I consider myself to be a savvy chef, there were things I had not known about, especially because I never cooked Japanese before.

This Miso soup had very strong flavors. We first made a broth using whole seaweed and dried fish skeletons.

We made a delicious dressing of freshly ground roasted red sesame seeds with soy sauce, dashi, and lots of sugar, to flavor local greens that tasted sort of like spinach but crispier.

spinach salad with sesame

Okonomiyaki was fairly easy to prepare as most of the work involved only chopping. It is a savory dough full of vegetables, topped with sauce, mayo and seaweed. Apparently, there are parties around this dish where everyone sits around and grills their own pancakes.


Here are a few things I learned about Japanese cooking –

  1. Japanese chefs cook with chopsticks. It was actually not that difficult and more practical, since the “spatula chopsticks” are much longer than the eating sort.
  2. There are different kinds of seaweed, each with its own purpose. Depending on the texture and flavor, some are better suited for dashi (broth), others for toppings.
  3. None of the recipes call for salt or pepper. In fact, there are no seasonings, spices or herbs added to the dishes we prepared.
  4. Soy and sugar always find their place in most dishes. Contrasting flavors add enough seasoning to satisfy Japanese palates.
  5. Teriyaki is a sauce added at the end, not a marinade. Common myth we have in the West since we tend to grill our meats.
  6. You taste food with your eyes first. I was fascinated by how much time and effort the chefs put into making each component on the plate look perfect. Presentation is definitely very important.
The smell of seaweed remained on my hands the rest of the day, but I surely learned a lot at the Tsukiji Cooking Class. Once I returned to Atlanta, I tried all of the recipes and a few more.

Chicken Teriyaki Recipe (authentic Japanese style)

2 large pieces Boneless Skinless Chicken Thighs
1 tablespoon Vegetable or Canola Oil
1 1/2 tablespoon Dark Soy Sauce
1 1/2 tablespoon Mirin (rice cooking wine)
3 tablespoon Sake
1 tablespoon Sugar
2 tablespoon Green Onions, sliced
Heat oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Place the chicken in the skillet and remove excess grease using a paper towel. Cook for 8-10 minutes until golden brown on both sides.
chicken teriyaki recipe
Combine the soy sauce, Mirin, sake and sugar in a small mixing bowl. Pour the sauce over the chicken, cooking on low heat with a lid on. Flip the chicken few times so that it absorbs the sauce thoroughly.  When the sauce is thick and well coated, remove from heat and travel to a plate. Slice the chicken into bite size pieces. Garnish with green onions and more sauce, if needed.
chicken teriyaki

Portrait of Life on Himeshima

Himeshima meaning “Princess Island” is a village island located in Ōita Prefecture of southwest Japan. The sleepy little town of 7 kms is easily accessible by Imi Port. From here you can get nice views of Kyushu, Honshu and Shikoku mountains, where we had been trekking for the past few days.

The island has its own laws, under which village employees earn about a third less pay than public servants elsewhere in Japan, though they work the same hours. This has allowed the village to create more jobs: it now directly or indirectly employs a fifth of all working islanders. The main occupations on the island are fishing and shrimp farming. To keep things balanced, prices of goods are also considerably less than mainland.

Every August, there is a Shinto religious ceremony, Kitsune matsuri (Fox Dance festival) featuring dancers dressed as foxes that attracts many visitors. Otherwise, people from mainland Japan come here to get away from the hustle and bustle of city life. The best way to explore the area is on a bike or on foot.

Here are a few snapshots of life around the island.

The lighthouse on the eastern tip is a good spot to get a picture perfect view of the island. himeshima lighthouse

A crescent shape beach looks exceptionally clean, but there are no people here on a sunny afternoon. The Japanese people only hit the beach during auspicious 3 weeks in the summer.

himeshima beach

One can wander through the maze of streets, looking at well kept homes that have traditional Japanese gardens, shrines and vegetable plots.

himeshima homes

The streets are quiet all times of the day. You wonder where the 2k inhabitants are!

himeshima streets

Himeshima’s most famous product is the kuruma ebi (tiger prawn) that is exported to restaurants across Japan. It is fresh and delicious, as you can see the shrimp farms all over. October is the main season for the prawns and in that month the island also hosts a kuruma ebi festival. Traditionally, it is eaten alive!

himeshima shrimp farms

The most scenic spot the island has to offer is in the north east. Here you will need to climb a hill to reach Sennin-do – a tiny temple building that sits on a rock looking out over the sea, and wind-bent pines gripping the obsidian stones right next to it.

himeshima temple

We pause at an old post office in ruins, as we make our way to the oldest mayor’s home. This is now a open house museum where visitors can see traditional floors, kitchen equipment, and the ancient life.

himeshima house

The people in Himeshima are very friendly and the island has a certain relaxed charm about it. You can walk around the entire place in less than a day, but if you want to sit back and do nothing, come for as long as you want.

Himeshima was one of our stops during the Kinisaki Trek with Walk Japan tours.

Know Your Japanese Hotel Etiquettes

Ryokan is a traditional Japanese style hotel or inn, with its own customs that guests must follow. These are mostly found in the countryside or small towns all over Japan. If you choose to stay at a ryokan, which may be your only choice of lodging in some locations, then you need to know few things beforehand.

Room Charge – Most ryokans charge per person, not by room. So you can get a single room and pay $100 or a shared room and pay $200. This is because the room charges include breakfast and dinner as well. Many hotels are small with 5-12 rooms, therefore during peak season, sharing is encouraged. Additionally, there is a bathing tax of 150 Yen per night per person, whether or not you use the bath during your stay. There is no tipping for bellboy or housekeeper.

Slippers – It takes a day or two getting use to the slipper change traditions of Japan. Just like entering a Japanese home, the hotel guest are requested to take off their shoes, and instead putting on slippers at the entrance. These are not to be worn in the bathroom or sleeping areas. When you enter your room, you will find a separate pair of slippers for the bathroom. Only bare feet and socks are allowed on the tatami areas where guests will sit and sleep on the floor.

Japanese slippers

Room – The floor of the major sections of the Japanese room is typically covered with tatami (Japanese floor mat). Japanese rooms are described for size according to the number of tatami. The usual sizes are 6, 8, 10, etc. During the day, the tatami section is used for a multipurpose way as a living and dining room, and at night, as a sleeping room.traditional Japanese hotel room

It is funny to walk into one’s room for the first time and to see nothing but a table and low seats or cushions on the floor. There is a tv, phone, air conditioner,refrigerator and tea set, but you will find no bed in the room. Instead there will be thick padded blankets and mats called futons stored in the closet. You can layer the futons if you need additional padding. The pillow at Japanese inns is hard and beady, something westerners may not like. Bring your own pillow if you need extra comfort. Sometimes you will need to make your own bed, other times the chambermaid will make it while you are out for dinner.

futon in Japanese hotel

Yukata – Yukata is a light cotton kimono used at home for relaxation, and these days worn by young ladies at summer festivals. Yucatas are provided by the hotel for all guests to wear in the evenings. Both men and women wear yucata (gown) with belt, and tanzen (a padded jacket to wear over). Always, the left side of the yucata goes over the right. If you wear it incorrectly, a staff member will point it out to you.

couple wearing yucata

Baths – Very few hotels have private toilets or baths attached to the rooms. There are onsens – hot spring bath houses for the guests, and sometimes even locals for a charge.  These are separated by men (look for blue flag) and women (red flag). When you enter the onsen, leave your slippers at the door. Individual bins are provided for clothes and personal items. You must go in the bathing area complete naked. No swimwear is allowed. Here you squat onto a low stool to bathe with a tumbler or shower. Once you are clean, you can soak in the hot springs (still naked) along with the other guests. Soap, shampoo and conditioner is provided. Hair dryers are available. Generally, the towels are very small washcloth size, so  bring your own towel if you need a bigger one.

Japanese onsenJapanese onsen bath house

Lucky fish

If you are a regular patron of sushi, keep your past notions and experiences aside when you come to dine at Uchiko. The restaurant describes itself as “contemporary Japanese dining” but I say it’s an entirely new cuisine waiting to be discovered.

2011 James Beard Award winner for Best Chef Southwest, Tyson Cole has married the finest ingredients from around the global to create a mouth-watering taste retreat in the heart of Austin. When my friend, Dianna and I pulled some strings to get last minute reservations at this popular eatery, we were in for an experience of a lifetime!

While waiting at the bar, I noticed they had an extensive list of sake and a few good wines. However, I was disappointed there weren’t any cocktails. Perhaps it’s not suitable to have a cocktail in a traditional Japanese farmhouse (that description lost me). The ambiance appeared to be more of contemporary and hip, than a farmhouse. Dark wooden panels and subdued lighting made it perfect for a date night, even though we were two girlfriends enjoying a gastronomical night out.

Our wonderful waiter, a young gentleman from Croatia suggested we order 5-6 plates to share. Each dish was handcrafted and took a while to prepare, especially when they were so busy on the Saturday night we were there. The menu is divided into different sections and we decided to try something from each of them. There are also specials offered that change daily.

We tried yokai berri from the cold tastings. It was the perfect blend of melt-in-your-mouth Atlantic salmon with crisp dinosaur kale, sweet Asian pear and yuzu sauce. We  devoured as we watched our neighbors playing with their order of the hot rock (sear it your­self wagyu beef served on a sizzling Japanese river rock.) An attention grabber for sure!

The tempura nasu were perfectly battered and fried circles of Japanese eggplant served with a sweet chili sauce. I could eat an entire bowl of these and still be wanting more! From their cooked menu, we had the suzuki yaki, pan fried scrumptious pieces of grilled Mediter­ranean sea bass in a bed of cherry tomatoes and tarragon. It came close to a seafood dish you would find at an American seafood restaurant. Note to self – don’t order cooked fish at a sushi place. 

The sushi rolls were perhaps the most disappointing section of the menu. We didn’t quote enjoy our selections of p-38 (Japanese yellow­tail, avocado, yuzu kosho, grilled negi, cilantro) or the crunchy tuna.  Our charming waiter brought us complimentary pieces of madai, a good luck charm traditionally served at festivals and special occasions in Japan.

Needless to say, every single item we had was number one in terms of quality, creativity and freshness. Uchiko swears by sourcing only sustainable and responsibly fished ingredients, which clearly reflects in the taste. Each piece of fish is given individual attention, making sure it is sliced and served to reflect the most optimal texture and flavor. You are a lucky fish to be served here…

What made my evening was the fried milk dessert. It was a piece of art that I hated to destroy but couldn’t resist it’s rapture in my mouth. Deep fried frozen custard was served with iced milk sherbet and thin layers of toasted chocolate. Dianna watched me as I finished the last crumbs. Yummm!!!

Sushi with Suchi

Making Sushi is actually not as complicated as one might think. I learned to make Sushi in the Dominical Republic, out of all places! One afternoon I signed up for the class along with a few global trotters who were vacationing at the beach and wanted to invigorate their desires for learning a new skill.

The chef at an Asian restaurant gave us a brief demonstration, then let us make our own Sushi.







Here are the essentials…

You need the right tools – A rolling mat, wooden bowl, stainless steel Sushi knife,

Stock your cabinet – Sushi rice, Wasabi, Black Sesame, Soy Sauce, Ponzu Sauce, Vinegar

Get the cut right – Fresh sushi grade fish, Avocado, Cucumbers – all should be cut finely

Roll it up – Nori sheets, A bowl of water

Prep Work…

Cook the sushi rice (always short grain) with water, rice vinegar, salt and sugar

Slice the fish finely

Chop the vegetables according to the recipe

Step by Step instructions…








Learning to make Sushi in the Caribbean

1.    Lay the Nori on the rolling mat with the rough side facing upwards.

2.   Wet your hands and make about a handful of rice into a ball. It’s important to keep your hands wet while working with sushi rice because it is sticky. When you work with the nori though, you should keep them as dry as you can.

3.   Gently put the rice ball in the middle of the nori sheet, and start spreading it equally on the nori, creating a layer of rice covering almost the entire sheet except the upper margin of about 2 cm that should be kept uncovered. Be careful not to compress the rice, but merely spread it over the nori.

4.   Place a slice of fish on the edge of the nori, along with 1-3 pre-cut slices of vegetable.

5.   Using the closer edge of the rolling mat, close on the filling with the nori making a rectangular shaped hill and tighten it from above.

6.   Continue rolling in the rectangular hill steps, keeping it tight with every move until you reach the end of the nori. Put pressure on the roll from all three sides at all time, especially on stops to allow it to roll tightly.

7.   Use a wet, sharp knife to cut the roll in to little sushi 6-8 units per roll.

These are the basics of Sushi-making. Once you know the concept you can mix-and-match the fish with the vegetables to make any recipe.

Neighborhood fundraiser for Japan

The connection between people knows no geographic or cultural boundaries. An Indian couple, Durrain and Navaz Porbandarwala organized a fundraiser for victims of the Japan earthquake, in their neighborhood in Kennesaw, Georgia. Durrain, who is a cooking instructor, prepared a scrumptious dinner with the help of her neighbors. They put out flyers, invited friends and held the event at their subdivision Clubhouse on a Saturday evening.  

50 people attended and over $800 was raised. All proceeds will go to American Red Cross towards Japan relief fund.

It is impressive to see how people come together for a greater cause. It’s a small drop in the bucket but we all have to do our part in order to make an impact in this world. Imagine if each neighborhood around the world was to organize a similar dinner fundraiser, how much aid we would generate for the unfortunate Tsunami victims. Even if you are unable to make a financial contribution, do take out a few minutes to send your prayers and loving thoughts to these families.

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