Despite her 2006 memoir Eating My Words: An Appetite for Life, former New York Times restaurant critic Mimi Sheraton calls her latest book 1,000 Foods To Eat Before You Die: A Food Lover's Life List her actual autobiography. "It was supposed to be done in two years; it took almost 10," Sheraton says of selecting and researching the 1,000 items that ultimately comprise her "Food Lover's Life List."
The 1,008-page book separates Sheraton's favorites by region, reflecting her six decades of traveling the world as a reporter for Time and Conde Nast Traveler. "I think searching for the best, and getting it from far-off places, really makes the world go round," Sheraton says. "If you want something from a far-off place, you go there and find it — there's an interaction between countries, between people of different nationalities, relationships are established, dependencies are established."
As a result, 1,000 Foods swings from continent to continent in order to document what Sheraton calls a "geography of flavor." In each section, she identifies dishes (like the Alsatian Christmas bread bireweche), emblematic restaurants (like New England's Jasper White's Clam Shack), and ingredients (India's alphonso mango). "I think to get an overall picture of what the world eats, and what there is out there to eat, you have to do high and low, simple and fancy, familiar and exotic," Sheraton says of the wide-ranging items.
Within the American and Canadian section, Sheraton's egalitarian approach particularly emerges in her collection of chosen desserts: MoonPies, ambrosia, and frozen Milky Way bars all make the cut, the latter for its "ecstatic rush of contrasts" that remind Sheraton of her New York childhood.
"What I was trying for is a jigsaw puzzle that when put [it] together gives you an idea of what the world eats."
"What I was trying for is a jigsaw puzzle which when put [it] together gives you an idea of what the world eats," Sheraton says. "I wouldn't quite call it a lesson in tolerance, but it is an example of learning and respecting and knowing about other cultures. Food is so much a part of a culture: the seasonings, the flavorings, the ingredients." For those interested in recreating those food moments, the book includes nearly 70 recipes Sheraton deems emblematic. Some, like one for Chinese dong bo rou (glazed pork belly), are culled from her personal friends.
As Sheraton admits in the introduction, the most difficult part of the autobiography was paring down a lifetime's worth of loves to just 1,000 — two emblems of Americana, chicken pot pie and strawberry shortcake, missed the final list. But they're not the dishes Sheraton laments the most: "One [dish] on my original outline that totally got lost in the shuffle, one of my most favorite dishes in the world, is the Chinese Szechuan mapo tofu," Sheraton says. "I meant for that to be in, and only when we were practically in bound galleys did I realize, 'Oh my god,' and I went through all of the notes and all of the versions, and I just forgot to do it." She laughs. "By way of penance, I might have to write a whole book on mapo tofu."
But first, in an exclusive excerpt, Sheraton provides takes on two of the U.S.'s most iconic restaurants: Thomas Keller's the French Laundry and NYC's Grand Central Oyster Bar. 1,000 Foods To Eat Before You Die: A Food Lover's Life List is now available at booksellers everywhere; for an early taste, read on, below:
Grand Central Oyster Bar & Restaurant | Under the Sidewalks of New York
When it opened in 1913 in New York City's Grand Central Terminal, the restaurant now known as the Grand Central Oyster Bar didn't specialize in seafood. If it had an identity beyond its marvelous architecture—a cavernous subterranean space designed with the great Valencian architect Rafael Guastavino's celebrated arches of interlocking terra-cotta tiles—it was as a coffee shop. Only after the place was relaunched in 1974, having been closed for several years, did the new owners decide to parlay what was allegedly the old restaurant's best dish, oyster stew, into the cornerstone of a menu dominated entirely by the treasures of the sea.
"The place remains the best reason in the world to miss a train."
Today, a couple dozen varieties of fresh fish are offered daily—almost all in your choice of simply broiled, steamed, grilled, or fried—as are oyster stews and pan roasts, chowders, seafood salads, and a selection of favorite seafood dishes from around the world. Here are coquilles St. Jacques, the Maine lobster roll, a bouillabaisse, and the English fish 'n' chips. The famed oyster stew (oysters poached in cream and butter) is a thin, milky, slurp-worthy delight. The oyster pan roast is thicker, the aforementioned ingredients spiked with hot paprika and chile sauce and lovingly ladled, usually by a hassled yet generous waiter, over a slice of good toast. They're dishes that work thanks to the juxtaposition of the oysters' sharp sea saltiness with the milk's neutrality, and both are worth the price of admission—as is the quintessentially New York experience of eating oysters underground in a train station. (There's now a Brooklyn location as well.) Take your pick of a table covered in a red-and-white-checked cloth, the long, U-shaped counters in the wood-paneled salon, or the oyster bar itself.
Best of all, of course, are the impeccably fresh bivalves for which the place is named: thirty kinds, from the usual suspects—Belons and Wellfleets—to the Beaver Tails (Rhode Island), Duckabushes (Washington State), and Lady Chatterleys (Nova Scotia) of the world's waters. The list of beers—stout and oysters being an excellent and overlooked combo—and wines is impossibly long, and is part of why the place remains the best reason in the world to miss a train.
The French Laundry | A Wine Country Dream of Paradise
Thomas Keller, the impeccable chef-owner of the French Laundry in the eucalyptus-scented Napa Valley, is doubtlessly the most elegantly low-key member of the American "celebrity chefs." He has no buzzwords to hurl, no slogans to espouse, no signature plastic shoes. What he has instead is a legendary, almost spiritual quest for perfection, which manifests itself in his exquisite French-inspired, American-informed cooking. In the space of what was once actually a laundry, Keller opened his restaurant in 1994, after cooking in France (Taillevent, Guy Savoy), New York (Rakel), and Los Angeles (Checkers). And ever since, his ethereal food has won the kind of accolades that keep his fans booking reservations exactly two months in advance of their hoped-for dining dates.
Set in an utterly serene, peaceful wine country landscape, the old stone house filled with the glow of many candles bears an instant, low-key mystique. But the food, of course, trumps the atmosphere. From the beginning, Keller's cooking has never been about convenience or shortcuts. His menu has always been built around many teasingly small courses, sublime and often whimsical, "tastes" meant to tease the palate and haunt it, simultaneously leaving you wanting more of what you had but eager and able to experience the next sensation. This was considered a revolutionary way to eat when Keller began, and diners took to it with abandon. Dining at the French Laundry became a symbol of food connoisseurship, and Keller was among the first chefs to take charge of exactly where his ingredients came from—often growing his herbs and vegetables in the gardens adjoining his restaurant, or importing from as far away as necessary to get what he considered the best.
"His menu has always been built around... 'tastes' meant to tease the palate and haunt it."
Keller was also an early innovator in the realm of food puns that surprised and delighted the palate as they amused the mind. There was "tongue in cheek" (braised beef cheek and veal tongue served with horseradish cream, baby leeks, and garden greens), "oysters and pearls" (sabayon of pearl tapioca with poached Malpeque oysters and caviar), "coffee and doughnuts" (cappuccino semifreddo with fried dough topped with cinnamon and sugar), "macaroni and cheese" (butter-poached Maine lobster with mascarpone-enriched orzo) and "salmon tartare ice-cream cone" (smoked salmon and crème fraîche in a cornet of house-made crackers).
After winning every imaginable award for both his restaurant (his was the first in America to receive three stars from the Michelin guide) and his own wizardry (James Beard Foundation Chef of the Year), what's a tireless perfectionist to do? Keller decided to take on New York City. In 2004, he opened Per Se in the Time Warner Center on Columbus Circle. To be sure of excellence in two places at once, he even linked the kitchens of both restaurants by live camera.
Per Se is an ethereal experience and an example of truly modern dining, with just sixteen tables overlooking the fountains of Columbus Circle and Central Park; it's an oasis for calm, adult meals in a bustling town full of food-lust. Keller's customers' favorites can be found on the menu, all turned out beautifully. Still, the rarified ambience of the original stone house in Napa cannot be duplicated amid the hurly-burly of Gotham, so there can be only one French Laundry.
Excerpted from 1,000 Foods to Eat Before You Die by Mimi Sheraton. Copyright © 2014. Used by permission of Workman Publishing Co., Inc., New York. All Rights Reserved