Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Astrid y Gaston

And the award for the best lunch I've ever eaten goes to....drum roll please...Astrid y Gaston in Lima, Peru!

In conjunction with Oscar season and the newly announced winners, I can't help but hypothetically hand out my own awards for outstanding performances. There are so many people that deserve recognition and Gaston Acurio, chef and owner of Astrid y Gaston, is one I'd like to acknowledge, praise, and thank for an unforgettable three-hour, mid-day feast and some of the best food I've experienced in the world.

My husband and I entered a taxi at Jorge Chavez International Airport in Lima, Peru. The car took us along a series of congested streets, past dire poverty, a labyrinth of whirling cars and motorcycles, and then through a seemingly abandoned neighborhood of narrow corridors and ominous characters. Palm trees danced to the rhythmic honking of car horns and the howl of the gusty sea breeze.

We entered the barrio (neighborhood) of Miraflores, an upper crust district of Lima famous for shopping, gardens, flower-filled parks, beaches and restaurants. After a turbulent ride, I stepped out of the car at Astrid y Gaston, ranked the 42nd best restaurant in the world by 2011’s San Pellegrino World’s 50 Best Restaurants Guide, widely considered the ‘Oscars of the Restaurant World’.

It was an honor to step into Gaston Acurio’s flagship restaurant. We were seated at a table in a cozy room, reminiscent of a 1920s style French mansion. The menu is French-influenced Nuevo Andino. Acurio features seasonal Peruvian fare, with exceptional fusion specialties. We started out with Peru’s national cocktail, Pisco sour, and perused the comprehensive menu. The aperitif was potent, properly frothed, sour and sweet. After a couple refreshing swigs, we decided on the three-hour, 12 course tasting menu to try a sampling of the best on offer.

Pisco Sours

The 20-hour braised veal cheek and potato croquettes deserves an honorable mention but as the Pacific ocean is mere meters away, the seafood certainly stole the spotlight. Highlights from the 12 course meal included...

Love Ceviche- oyster, clam, sea urchin, squid, langoustine, scallop – all served raw together with tiger milk and three different aji (chili) purées. Ceviche is Peru's most famous dish and countless varieties are available throughout the coastal regions of the country. 
Love Ceviche
Peking Cuy- Crispy Guinea Pig with chifa pickles, rocoto hoisin chili sauce and purple corn crepes. Guinea pig (Cuy) is widely eaten all over Peru. I sampled it in other Andean restaurants but this preparation was hands down the most delectable.
Peking Cuy
Sea Urchins for the Soul- squid ink-colored black noodles with sea urchins, crab essence with seaweed and a sea urchin ceviche shot. This dish was truly soulful and embodied the sweet and briny taste of the sea.
Sea Urchins for the Soul
Octopus Cilindro Style- baby octopus marinated in Anticucha sauce with purple olive bubbles and yellow potato cream. Anticuchos are a common street food that date back to colonial times. This is an elevated version that was smokey, salty, creamy and delightful.
Octopus Cilindro Style
Lima is an immigration center, a vibrant melting pot of cultures and the gastronomical capital of South America. A trip to Astrid y Gaston displays the diversity of Peruvian produce, mix of culinary styles and is a not to be missed stop on the itinerary.

Acurio is a master of melange; he incorporates the old with the new, Peruvian ingredients with international flare, formality with playfulness. He creates unique, forward-thinking dishes that will turn any foodie into a fan. Acurio is a South American superstar, largely responsible for putting modern Peruvian cuisine on the map. He's a celebrity truly worthy of a 'Food Oscar'. Buen Provecho!

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

There's No Place Like 'Ohhhmmm', Away From Home

Happy Valentine’s Day and Happy Blogaversary to Faraway Pillow! The blog is 2 today and after nearly 50 posts- hard work, passion, challenges, and ultimate commitment, Mama’s going to the spa! 

Sit back, free your mind, meditate with a choral ‘ohhhmmm’… and allow me to massage your wanderlust with a rundown of rubdowns around the world.

Going to the spa is a special, ephemeral, and meditative experience that I like to indulge in especially on vacation. Sometimes travel from point A to point B; sitting on a cramped airplane in ‘fake air’ for hours on end, hoisting massive suitcases to and fro calls for a massage, facial, or other body treatment. Holiday is a time of presumed gratification, so go on...treat yourself!

I’ve been to all sorts of spas abroad and have had a mixed bag of experiences; from fabulous to frightful, ridiculous to just plain weird. The following experiences were particularly noteworthy…

The strangest and decidedly most uncomfortable massage treatment I ever received was at a Hungarian thermal bath, the last vestige of the Turkish occupation of Budapest.  Some of the city’s 1,300 baths have been used for over 2,000 years and draw tourists and locals alike. The baths are built around naturally occurring hot springs and most offer spa services.
Hungarian Thermal Bath- Budapest
I decided to take advantage of the ancient, and very cheap, services and opted for a massage. I was taken back to a private room by a chatty masseur who was very interested in America and me being an American. He began a full body massage and as his hands grazed my hiney, I started to wander was this the standard treatment for all clientele? As he continued and interjected comments like, ‘you work out, don’t you?’ and ‘are you a cheerleader?’ I began freaking out. As he attempted to untie my bathing suit top to, ‘better access my shoulders’ I was dashing for the door. Oh so Creepy.

A stark contrast to the sleazy Hungarian was my very proper, professional masseuse at the luxury Four Seasons resort in Carmelo, Uruguay. Aside from being highly qualified and trained in various methods of massage, my therapist was a woman… a definite preference due to the aforementioned experience.  I lay down on a terry cloth-covered massage table in a darkened room that smelled of warm citrus. Soft new-age music was in harmony with a gently trickling water fountain. The massage was so calming, it took every effort for me to not fall asleep. It was blissful.

Four Seasons Spa Lobby- Carmelo, Uruguay
South America has actually been the pinnacle of my spa experiences. I enjoyed another delightful massage at the luxury Tambo del Inka resort in Urubamba, Peru. While the massage was spot-on, the aqua circuit treatment was actually more notable. Valle Sagrado Spa serves up hydrotherapy with water used as the principal agent. Clients benefit from the various health benefits of moving from different water pressures and temperatures.

Pool area at Tambo del Inka where Aqua Circuit Therapy is Performed
A trained therapist guided us through each of the steps of the aqua circuit, which she endearingly pronounced ‘cir-kwit’. We started with fifteen minutes in the smoldering sauna followed an ice cold shower. We were then directed into a dark, sweltering steam shower and under the fiber optic stars my heart was racing and my muscles were relaxing all at the same time. Next, back into the cold shower for another icy drenching and then to the hot tub to warm up again. The next step was the pool where we were guided in and out of separate compartments; there was a chilly swirling pool, a warm fizzy pool, and one with jets and submerged chaise lounges, there was a freezing bath that felt like needles, and an array of spouting and spraying fountains. Then we were taken into three separate shower cabins and lastly walked across a bed of river rocks that misted water from beneath jagged massaging stones. The aqua ‘cir-kwit’ therapy was unquestionably exciting and invigorating, albeit bizarre.

Sometimes spa treatments get you clean and sometimes it’s all about getting dirty! Near Marmaris, Turkey I visited the Dalyan Mud Baths, which are thermal sulphuric pools of mud that like the nearby hot spring contains radioactive elements that are believed to cure a host of ailments. Visitors wade around in the earthy liquid, laughing at one another covered in sludge. I submerged myself in the muck and resurfaced as ‘Swamp Thing’. The sulphur was very smelly (think rotten eggs) but worth it. After a high pressure shower to clean the caked-on mud, I left with skin like a baby.

Dalyan Mud Baths
My skin can’t always be baby-perfect and that’s when a facial comes in handy. In Lagos, Portugal my face was the target of what I deemed the ‘Zit Zapper’. As I lay in the dental chair seat, the facialist used a gun shaped tool to shoot each of my blemishes, creating the exact same sound as a bug zapper. ‘Zap’! Perhaps my face was more radiant but this facial felt like a trip to the dermatologist's office and was anything but relaxing. 

While weird can be bad, weird can also be very good. In Koh Samui, Thailand I received a traditional Thai massage from a tiny Thai therapist who used her feet to massage my weary back and legs. She got right up and walked all over me and it was strangely wonderful. The massage was given outside on the veranda of our resort, enclosed in a shaded gazebo. The swaying palm fronds rustled in the salty sea air. The taste of the coconut water that we were welcomed with lingered on my tongue. My mind drifted away to the sweet scent of jasmine.

Amari Palm Reef Resort
On the massage table sometimes your mind drifts away out of pure relaxation and sometimes it’s out of necessity. At the Feel Good Spa at the Ace Hotel in Palm Springs, California I shielded my eyes from the fluorescent ceiling lights and dingy, old carpet of the HoJo convert from the 1960s. My masseuse, a he-man/she-man in cropped cutoff scrubs, gyrated around me, in sync with the blaring techno pool party outside. I was naked, under a thin sheet, trapped for sixty l…o…n…g minutes in a dumpy motel room and subjected to an hour of strange African bird call music, an obvious attempt to cover the noise of the 'Meathead Convention' happening just outside my door. I laid there quietly, trying to mentally escape. While the complete experience was comical, the hemp spa robes really took the cake. The hybrid prison uniform/potato sack garments were consistent with the absurdity of the Feel Good...rather, 'Doesn't Feel Good Spa.'

Product Image of Hemp Spa Robe at the Ace Hotel, Palm Springs- Yes, They're Actually for Sale
This is a story of the Notable. Despite occasional letdowns and eyebrow-raisers, most spas around the world maintain an excellent standard. Typically, I’ve found you get what you pay for. If a massage is advertised to be $10 US…expect an amusing story out of it. Generally, a sixty-minute treatment in a reputable resort or spa should cost anywhere from $100-$200+ US.

It’s not cheap, and it isn’t always perfect, but it sure does feel good and what better way to start a vacation than to pamper yourself…or an interesting story to regale your friends and family with?

In the spirit of regaling, I begin another year of travel and writing for Faraway Pillow. My mantra for this year is to....... R-E-L-A-X... Enjoy, more than I ever have before. Let the stress of daily life melt away; truly appreciate  and feel every experience, every adventure. Live. Love. Travel. ‘Ohhmmm.’