Friday, September 28, 2007

"Expateries" - a (Delicious) Traveling Phenomenon

In my travels to various countries, I’ve encountered one ubiquitous feature in just about each place I’ve visited: the expat-run gourmet eatery. On the one hand, these establishments stick out like sore thumbs – imagine an amazing gelateria on a remote Kenyan beach. On the other, they also channel their strangely cosmopolitan environs – remote towns often chalk-full of international visitors. For all the assumed contradiction between the local and global, however, these kitchens often manage to fuse the best of both realms.

While the category encompasses a wide variety of restaurants, cafés, bakeries, etc., these expat eateries tend to share a few traits. For one, their offerings usually meld elements of two countries. Indeed, the owners are often aspiring and adventurous cooks from other countries who have made a new home in distant lands. A green chili-white chocolate-vodka cheesecake that I had in Mumbai’s Theobroma dessert café (run by sisters Tina and Kainaz) comes to mind, for example. Yum!

Second, their décor and ambiance offer a little taste of home and respite for the travel weary or home sick. They can channel aesthetics that seem to appeal to citizens of the world. At Yacout in Marrakech, for instance, I remember recalling flashbacks to The Park lounge in New York, with its indoor trees and chic fairy lights. As a result, they often stand apart from typical restaurants – just like their food.

More often than not, they rely on imports – imported food items, wines, and recipes. Even décor is inspired or borrowed entirely from far away places. In a sense, their offerings are real fusion food – melding local ingredients with foreign recipes or techniques, which are sometimes acquired with real effort. In Zanzibar’s Stone Town, for example, Amore Mio (see photo above) is a real labor of love run by an Italian family that moved to the East African island and set up a bonafide gelateria – with an imported gelato maker! In pursuit of such eclectic visions, great pains can be taken. In Santo Domingo, for example, the owners of Hotel Ataranzana bed and breakfast (
Bernhard and Suzanne) imported their own cheeses and salamis from Europe for the delicious daily breakfast service!

But the most recent ‘expatterie’ experience I’ve had, which really inspired this whole entry, was a chic-comfy Peruvian joint called Cicciolina in the heart of Cusco. Its owned by, as you probably guessed, an Italian replanted into the Inca heartland. The café-resaurant- tapas bar serves delicious food to the hike-weary, fresh from its imported gourmet oven, stellar tapas with a local twist, and great cocktails. In fact, the owners have also gone into the wine importing business, opening a distributor called Baquito, that supplies other area restaurants with imported South American and European bottles.

The décor in Cicciolina deserves special praise. The restaurant is on the second floor of an old colonial building, with a gorgeous bar bedecked in red flowers and hanging ornaments, and black or espresso tables, mirrors – very chic. Someone’s clearly put a lot of effort and love into the place. Perched from one of those corner high tables, I enjoyed a whole range of offerings – the Pisco sours are excellent, and the bartenders offer an informative intro to various types of the grape-based liquor.

I was so enamored with Cicciolina’s foods that we ate there three times in our three days in Cusco. I can strongly recommend their brunch foods – I had a great poached egg-asparagus and brown bread open sandwich. Not sure what they put in the balsalmic sauce, but it had a nice special sweetness to it. And the evening tapas are wonderful – showcasing typical Peruvian flavors in a classic Spanish form. Savory mushroom bruschetta and a roasted red pepper bite come to mind. What a delicious postcolonial concept!