If you’re a person who cares about food, a person who treats eating like recreation — every bit as worthy of your energy and intellect as photography or painting or video games — you probably know what it means when I say “I collect dining experiences.”
Even if you’re not into food, you get the idea. It’s like any collectible, but with meals. There’s the haute cuisine meal that employs a blend of art and science to leave you absolutely baffled, the local meal that feels like it perfectly embodies a certain region, and the upscale rustic meal that takes timeworn comfort food and (annoying buzzword alert) “elevates” it. Then there are the specific, iconic dishes that you want be sure you’ve enjoyed at the hands of a master. Neapolitan pizza. Hungarian goulash. Mole enchiladas. Bunny Chow. These lists can (and should) go on for miles.
If food is fun for you, your lists will be forever expanding. I recently went on a search for the perfect poutine in Canada, the perfect meat pie in Australia, and the perfect ceviche tostada in Mexico’s Northern Baja. I’m still searching for the dream poutine and meat pie (I think I’ve gotten close) but I feel pretty sure I’ve already scored the best ceviche tostada I’m likely to ever taste. It comes from Sabina Bandera at La Guerrerense in Ensenada, Mexico.
Sometimes it’s just that easy. Sometimes someone can tell you where to find a dream execution of a dish, like I did just now, and you won’t need to go on a three-month trek through the Moroccan countryside or the Iranian highlands to find what you’re looking for. That’s how it went for me, recently, when a friend whose taste I deeply respect, started a conversation by saying: “If you want to be an expert on food, it’s time you taste some really good Peking duck.”
“I’m down for that,” I replied. “Do you have somewhere in mind?”
“If you’re in New York City, Hakkasan is a good place to start,” he said.
Now I’m not saying I’d never eaten the dish. I had. In China even. But I’d never found it transcendent. I’d never flipped out over it the way I did when I finally tasted that perfect ceviche at La Guerrerense. And I could sense that I was missing something. Because Peking Duck believers are a highly passionate bunch. The technique used in making the dish demands that (unless the place knows they’ll be selling plenty of ducks) you have to call your order in at least two days ahead.
Which is all to say that I took my friend’s advice to heart. I wanted to be in the Peking Duck club.