I would start out in Kyoto at a 400-year-old restaurant called Hyotei, set in a garden next to a temple. The chef there now is the 15th or 16th generation in his family. Their famous egg – hardboiled with a soft centre – comes out first with a little sushi. They make their own tofu and you will eat a bowl of that with little enoki mushrooms. Next, you might get seaweed and crab daikon, followed by more tofu, laced with roe and served with kinome and yuba. Then there’s a broth and, finally, rice porridge, with a thick, sweetened soy sauce, tiny fish and pickled turnip. It’s a kind of poetry to start the day.
I almost never spend time in New York without going in for a hot dog with onion sauce at Gray’s Papaya. One bite and I’m back with my brother on 8th Street. I peg it down to the river to walk while I’m eating. To me, there’s always an emotional aspect to eating; it’s never just food. It’s the same with cooking – when I cook, the person who taught me that dish is in the kitchen next to me.
I’m heading to Sperlonga, halfway between Naples and Rome. It’s a little medieval seaside town that hangs over the water. I was there only once, with my son. It was out of season and we saw a fisherman carrying a basket of fish. I said, “Let’s follow him,” and we found ourselves in this tiny restaurant called Gli Archi. The waitress pulled another table next to ours and covered it with seafood antipasti: mussels on the half shell, various kinds of shrimp and oysters. Next she brought out a pasta with sea urchin on it; I love sea urchin. Then there was the fish that the fisherman had brought in, simply grilled with a little olive oil on top.
I would take savoury over sweet anytime, so I’m thinking of the guacamole at Nico’s in Mexico City. It’s a 50-year-old restaurant that’s only open for lunch but there are still people coming in at five o’clock. You end up getting to know everyone. They make the guacamole at your table – no lime, just the pure expression of avocado in all its silken glory. But more than anything, I loved the feeling that I wasn’t a tourist, but entering into the life of the city.
Even when I’m not hungry I can always eat. I was once in Paris with a friend, on our way to our third dinner that night. I said: “Can you eat another meal?” She replied: “Am I not professional?” If I could only eat at one restaurant for the rest of my life it would be Chez Panisse in Berkeley, California. Alice Waters has the truest taste of anyone I’ve met. She only does one meal a night so you eat whatever is on the menu. I’ve never had anything there I didn’t like and she has persuaded me to like things I didn’t think I could. I remember once, about 35 years ago, I was horrified to discover lamb kidney on the menu. But here was this tiny kidney, as beautiful as a rose, and delicious. Alice wants to find a flavour that will change your life. It may just be a little mandarin orange, but it will be the best mandarin orange you will ever eat.
Ruth Reichl was talking to Joanna Weinberg