Michele Peterson Freelance Travel Writer
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Local Flavor
Here’s a trio of destinations sure to please even the most discerning global gourmand      

If you’re interested in experiencing a foreign culture, why not do so through your taste buds? Each of the following epicurean adventures is guaranteed to excite your palate and satisfy your wanderlust.

Hot and Steamy

Whether it’s pho – a steaming broth brimming with rare beef and rice noodles best eaten streetside in Hanoi’s Old Quarter – or juicy lemongrass prawns sizzling in a wok amidst the colourful markets of Ho Chi Minh City, a visit to Vietnam offers a cultural feast that will wow your taste buds and inspire your imagination.

But don’t count on experiencing the genuine article in fancy restaurants or tourist hotels. Many of the most unforgettable meals are to be found in humble surroundings. “As long as the food is being freshly cooked in front of you, you should consider local street stands and family restaurants,” says Naomi Duguid, co-author with Jeffrey Alford, of Hot, Sour, Salty, Sweet the award-winning cookbook that chronicles the culinary landscape of Southeast Asia.

A good place to begin your exploration of Vietnamese cuisine is the town of Hoi An located on Vietnam’s central coast. This UNESCO World Heritage Site is best known for its white sandy beaches, 17th century colonial architecture and silk shops, but its fusion cuisine is what draws food aficionados. You can trace the culinary legacy of centuries of Chinese, Japanese and European traders among the modest family restaurants along the historic Thu Bon River.

Adventurous diners are rewarded with dishes such as white rose, an incredibly light rice dumpling stuffed with shrimp or cau lau, a rice noodle dish topped with slices of pork, bean sprouts, tiny bits of crispy fried onion and assorted greens such as basil, lettuce, and mint. Visitors can also experiment with traditional cooking utensils and participate in cooking classes. 

Details: Horizons & Co., a Canadian boutique travel agency offers epicurean expeditions to exotic destinations. Pricing for trips to Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia begins at $4,650 CDN per person/double occupancy, excluding airfare. Visit www.horizon-co.com to find out more.  The Viking Life, a venture of the people who make Viking cooking ranges, offers trips created by The Culinary Institute of America. Pricing for Vietnam is $5,295 US per person/double occupancy, excluding airfare. For further details visit: www.thevikinglife.com.  

The Other Spain       

While Barcelona is already firmly established on the foodie trail thanks to Ferran Adrià, the superstar chef of El Bulli, and Madrid boasts a bounty of enticing tapas bars, a growing number of culinary pilgrims are heading to a new frontier: Spain’s Basque country. Where else do thousands of men gather weekly to shop, cook, eat, drink, swap recipes and sing? While these exclusive sociedades gastronomicas are off-limits to outsiders, food lovers can get a taste of traditional Basque fare such as cogote (hake’s head served with garlic-infused oil) and marmitako, a light summer fish casserole made with fresh tuna, potatoes and tomatoes if they head to the region’s culinary hub, the city of San Sebastian.

This seaside resort boasts 250 gastronomic societies and reportedly has more Michelin starred restaurants per capita than any other city.  Revered chefs such as Juan Maria Arzak and Pedro Subijana, credited with shaping modern Spanish cuisine, draw fans who want to experience seasonally-inspired dishes based on ingredients such as wild autumn mushrooms foraged from the Basque hills or scallops, sole and mussels purchased straight from fishermen’s boats.

One favourite is Martín Berasategui’s restaurant, located in the village of Lasarte just outside San Sebastian. Treasured for its blend of modern techniques and local ingredients, it offers classic Basque fare served withTxakoli, a Basque white wine. Meals often conclude with Idiazabal, a local dry sheep’s milk cheese that originally drew its smokyflavour from shepherds’ night fires.  Another favourite is Elkano, a fish house in nearby Guetaria that overlooks and draws its inspiration from the sea. It is well known for its deliciously simple treatment of char-grilled lobster, wild barnacles and fresh turbot.

Details: Book reservations online for Arzak (www.arzak.es) located in a Spanish farmhouse outside San Sebastian or Akelare (www.akelarre.net) a modern restaurant overlooking the sea. Prices range upwards from €110 for a set meal without wine, tax or tips.    

France revolution

It’s easy to spend as much on a meal in a top-tier Parisian restaurant as on the plane ticket to get you there, but an upheaval in dining is underway. Several top chefs have opened casual restaurants that promise affordability and creative French cuisine in laid-back  surroundings. Known as “gastro bistros”, they are swiftly growing in popularity.

Food lovers are flocking to Benoit, one of the first bistro restaurants to be launched by a top chef and the only Parisian bistro to boast a Michelin star. Although Benoit first opened its doors in 1912, the comfortable bistro was purchased by superchef Alain Ducasse in 1995. It now offers spectacular food for about a third of the cost of dinner in one of his lavish three-star establishments. You can accompany your meal with any one of 400 carefully selected wines.  

Another hot spot is Le Comptoir where Chef Yves Camdeborde has developed a cult following. His inventive €40 prix fixe menu often features unexpected treats such as cream of celery soup with black truffles or green pea and mint soup with pieces of foie gras hidden within. If you want to dine here, book your table the same time as your plane ticket.

Other bistros with buzz include Mon Vieil Ami, launched by three-star Michelin chef Antoine Westermann, where the €39 menu can include luscious sweetbreads with wild mushrooms, a perfectly poached egg atop a white-bean salad with delicious slivers of smoked haddock, herb risotto and a spicy poached pear in red-wine sauce.   

Details: Meals at top Parisian restaurants can easily reach €400 per person while set meals at traditional bistros average €25. Expect to pay up to €50 at a gastro bistro, although ordering a la carte can easily double this.  Good choices include: 
Benoit, 20 Rue St. Martin, Paris, 42-72-25-76
Le Comptoir, 9 Carrefour de l'Odéon, Paris 43-29-12-05
Gaya, 44 Rue du Bac, Paris 45-44-73-73
Chez Michel, 10 rue de Belzunce, Paris, 44-53-06-20
L'Os à Moëlle, 3 rue Vasco-de-Gama, Paris, 45-57-27-27

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