It’s those beautiful artists’ impressions of the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan that make people say so many unjust things about Mexico City. The emerald-hued lakes, the slender causeways, the story of Montezuma, enthroned in his feathery splendor, warmly greeting Hernán Cortés – only to be betrayed by the duplicitous conquistador, cut down in his prime, and the Aztec empire crushed.
It’s true that when you fly into Benito Juárez International airport, you can’t help lamenting that such a wonder has been buried beneath millions of tons of concrete, and a sprawl of houses, apartment blocks, shanty towns and suburbs that shatters the human scale while housing 20 million human beings, or more – no one really knows. Nevertheless, Mexico City, or DF (pronounced day-efay, standing for Distrito Federal) as everyone calls it, is not the impenetrable, car-dependent maze of modern myth. Indeed, a pleasant introduction to the center, and one that subverts several stereotypes about the Mexican capital, is to walk it, slowly, calmly, flaneurishly, from Aztec heart to contemporary barrio.
I begin where you have to begin: standing at the center of the Zócalo, the vast main square; officially the Plaza de la Constitución, though no one ever calls it that. This is where Mexicans protest and march, celebrate and stroll, kiss and tell. The Spanish included grand plazas in all the major cities they built over pre-Columbian settlements, and one has to suspect that the Zócalo is one of the biggest of these because it had to symbolically bury the majesty of what stood here before.
Parades and expos occasionally invade the plaza, but today there are only strolling locals, a statue of Cuauhtémoc, the last native ruler of the city, and a massive Mexican flag, unfurling in the warm morning breeze.
A magnificent vestige of the pre-Hispanic city lies at the plaza’s northeastern corner. The Aztec Templo Mayor was Tenochtitlan’s sacred hub, continually expanded over two centuries by the city’s rulers. The archaeological site is no mere pile of stones, but rises, strangely, magnificently, with serpents greeting you as you turn a corner, and daubs of the red, blue and yellow paint that once glowed under the highland sky. The temple was dedicated to Huitzilopochtli, sun god and bringer of war, and Tlaloc, the rain god and source of fertility. Arid death and liquid life.
Right next door, the vast Metropolitan Cathedral is the biggest cathedral in the Americas. It’s a squat, hulking edifice, designed to crush any memory of what might have been worshipped here before the arrival of Cortés and his Christian soldiers. A medley of baroque, neoclassical and Spanish churrigueresque (elaborate stucco ornamentation) elements, it too has been built and rebuilt several times over the centuries.
Before exiting the Zócalo I duck into the Palacio Nacional to see Diego Rivera’s murals, which decorate the stairwell and the middle story of the central courtyard. The panoramic piece, titled México a través de los Siglos (Mexico Through the Centuries), conflates the dramatic history of this great nation into what looks at first glance like an insane group photograph – with Quetzalcoatl (the plumed serpent) rubbing shoulders with Zapata’s revolutionaries, who are in turn looking down on the dastardly inquisitors, Hidalgo the liberation hero, five-times president Benito Juárez, and many other assorted great and good, plus Rivera’s wife, Frida Kahlo, and Karl Marx, helpfully giving directions to the massed proles.
I’m dizzy with names and blinded by colors by the time I get back outside. I grab breakfast at the nearby Café de Tacuba. This handsome institution, all tiled walls and white-aproned waitresses, has been serving good coffee and sublime tamales – chicken-filled corn wraps served with spicy sauce – since 1912. It also lent its name to a well-known Mexican pop group.
I continue west along Calle de Tacuba, which lies along the axis of one of the lake-city’s original causeways. It’s an elegant part of the city, with a distinctly European feel, though I occasionally arrive at hectic, aromatic corners where streetfood vendors are whipping up filled tortillas and crispy tacos for the time-poor traders and political aides who work in these parts.
Billionaire investor and philanthropist Carlos Slim has been throwing money at the city center, and many facades look new or very well polished. Edifices that were little more than warehouses or squats have been taken over as office space, work-live accommodation and nightspots. Prone to seismic activity, Mexico City is a mid-rise city, though I occasionally catch glimpses of the lofty, 597ft, 44-story Torre Latinoamericana, a glass and steel quake-proof landmark that was once the tallest building in Latin America.
My next stop, in the shadow of the Torre, is the Palacio de Bellas Artes. Built during the 1876-1911 Porfiriato – the modernizing, if sometimes brutal, regime of Porfirio Díaz – and facing the Alameda Central, it’s one of Mexico City’s most beautiful palaces. Begun in 1904 and overseen by Italian architect Adamo Boari, a fan of neoclassical and art nouveau lines, its construction was interrupted by subsidence issues and then the Mexican Revolution. It was completed by Mexican architect Federico Mariscal in the 1930s, with the interior leaning towards the then-fashionable art deco style.
The three expansive floors of Mexican and international art merit a day or more, but I limit myself to viewing pieces by Rufino Tamayo, David Alfaro Siqueiros and Diego Rivera, including the celebrated El hombre en el cruce de caminos (Man at the Crossroads), originally commissioned for New York’s Rockefeller Center. The Rockefellers had the original destroyed because of its anti-capitalist themes, but Rivera recreated the work here in 1934.
The Alameda Central is one of relatively few green spaces in the Cuauhtémoc quarter. Created by Viceroy Luis de Velasco at the end of the 16th century, and enlivened by paved footpaths, decorative fountains and statues, it occupies what was once an Aztec marketplace. The name comes from álamo, Spanish for poplar tree.
These elegant gardens provide a natural border between old, romantic DF and the Paseo de la Reforma, the throbbing heart of modern Mexico’s economy. Skyscrapers loom over every block of the Reforma, including impressive landmarks such as the Torre Mayor, owned by George Soros, Torre HSBC, the Angel of Independence monument and César Pelli’s sleek Torre Libertad, home of The St. Regis Mexico City.
I make a slight detour to the Plaza de la República to admire the Monument to the Revolution, a towering neoclassical triumphal arch that doubles as a mausoleum for several heroes of the Mexican Revolution of 1910, including Francisco “Pancho” Villa.
Diego Rivera’s panoramic mural, ‘Mexico Through the Centuries’, conflates the dramatic history of this great nation into what looks at first glance like an insane group photograph
A hop away at Calle Antonio Caso No. 58, is the Cantina La Castellana. Established in 1892, it’s one of a dozen or so traditional cantinas left in the ever-evolving, fad-hungry capital. It has 13 big TV screens, six of them showing a soporific, scoreless Mexican football match, six an overacted soap opera, and one a grisly news bulletin. There’s a cheap buffet, into which the clientele of working class men is diving with gusto, filling soup bowls and piling up plates of potato, meat and beans. I opt for the daily special, which today is the very Mexican chamorro enchilado al horno – oven-baked, chilli-peppered pig’s leg – superb with a well-iced bottle of beer.
Buzzing, cozy, laid-back, this cantina, like all the best ones, is timeless. Some of the men are playing dominoes. Several are just having beers and botanas – salty snacks. Mariachis sometimes drop by, usually in the afternoon, not because they think tourists will reward them but because they are appreciated here. La Castellana also has some cultural cred: past visitors included author Renato Leduc, who hung out with Antonin Artaud in Montparnasse, and songwriter Álvaro Carrillo, who composed more than 300 songs, most of them romantic boleros. Poet Pablo Neruda, Communist activist and essayist José Revueltas and poet Efraín Huerta were also habitués.
After lunch – the match still at zero-zero, the dominoes still clacking – I’m back on to Reforma, which is busy with lunchtime traffic. The thoroughfare was commissioned by Habsburg Emperor Maximilian I to seal his authority on the city after overthrowing Benito Juárez in 1864. Designer Ferdinand von Rosenzweig’s intention was to grace the imperial capital with a grand boulevard equal in grandeur to the Ringstrasse in Vienna. It would also serve as direct route to – and an imposing sightline for – the Castillo de Chapultepec, the imperial residence.
Reforma these days feels very modern, with police zipping along the wide pavements on Segways, and the mainly modern and functionalist architecture and bank and brokerage HQs attesting to the power of commerce rather than conquering viceroys. After the narrow grid of the old city, it’s good to see some sky, too. I don’t generally do shopping, but I decide to stop briefly at Fonart at Paseo de la Reforma No. 116. Buying local handicrafts is a minefield for travelers, but these government-run, fixed-price outlets are a joy: superlative textiles and art are on display and browsing is more like a museum visit rather than mere retail.
The Altar a la Patria, six white marble columns honoring six teenage cadets who died in the 1846-8 Mexican-American War, marks the entrance to the Bosque de Chapultepec – a name that means Chapultepec Wood but doesn’t quite capture the magnitude of this verdant megaspace. Spreading over some 1,695 acres, it’s one of the biggest city parks in the world. Made especially delightful by its hilly contours, it invites you to breathe deeply, take in a view over DF and enjoy a few minutes of silence – well, subdued traffic hum, anyway. Native carpenter birds and hummingbirds sing and tweet, and the park is a refuge for migratory birds from Canada and the U.S., including the red-tailed hawk and Harris’s hawk. Dozens of tree species provide shade, including the Montezuma bald cypress, Mexico’s national tree.
Overlooking all this is the Castillo de Chapultepec, accessed via a winding, gently inclined road. A sacred spot for the Aztecs, the mansion we see now is a reminder of Mexico’s bygone aristocracy. It was begun in 1775 but not completed until after independence, when it served as the national military academy. When Emperor Maximilian and Empress Carlota arrived in 1864, they gave it a regal refurbishment and it was the presidential pad until 1939 when it was converted into the Museo Nacional de Historia.
The displays chronicle the periods from the rise of colonial Nueva España to the Mexican Revolution. Even more impressive than the sumptuously furnished salons, swords and banners are the dramatic interpretations of Mexican history by muralists Juan O’Gorman and David Siqueiros. Huge, overpowering and full of the everyday chaos of humanity, Mexican mural art enfolds and moves the viewer in a way sedate, framed gallery art can’t. I leave the museum feeling uplifted as well as informed.
It’s only a 20-minute walk to my final cultural pit stop, one of the world’s greatest museums. This is only my second visit to the Museo Nacional de Antropología but I know what not to do: try to take in 23 rooms and more than 4,000 years of pre-Columbian art and culture in a single sweep. Instead I focus on a couple of eras. The Olmecs – the first major civilization in Mexico, present from the 16th to the fifth centuries BCE – tend to get less attention than the Aztec and Maya but, as the colossal heads, clay dolls, vases and figures on show demonstrate, theirs was a bold and brilliant culture.
The museum’s building is an artwork in its own right. The umbrella-shaped edifice was designed by three visionary Mexican architects, and when it opened in 1964, the soft, tropical brutalism was considered audacious. The exhibition halls surround a courtyard and a large pond so that as you move between rooms you find yourself suddenly in a serene, airier space. It readies the spirit for the next bout of learning and awe.
My second specialism for the day is the Maya. While I’d seen many of the magnificent sites around Yucatán, it filled in gaps to see the altars and artworks shipped from the peninsula to be exhibited in the capital. Indeed, when it comes to everything in sprawling, multi-faceted Mexico – from food to art to music to commerce – in the end all roads lead to DF. The capital sucks in energy and creativity and concentrates it here.
The sun is slipping away and the gardens around the museum are cooling down, breathing out their evening perfumes. I walk slowly towards the north, exiting into Polanco – Mexico City’s most upscale neighborhood. As barrios go, compared with the shabby chic of Condesa and the hip, emerging buzz of Roma, Polanco is sedate and civilized. Which is a relief – because after a longish walk (only about six miles but lots of zigzagging and art-filled corridors along the way), I need some leafy luxury and lounging.
Polanco was originally a hacienda (rural estate) and then a suburb until the early 20th century, when mansions began to pop up surrounded by old-growth trees and high walls. First retail moved in and then, from the Seventies on, companies fed up with the gritty flavor of the Zona Rosa relocated here. Embassies, restaurants and boutiques followed, and sleek towers were erected to house their well-heeled employees. As a result, Polanco has also become one of the city’s best spots for high-end dining.
Before I partake, I need a drink. Jules Basement prides itself on being Mexico City’s first speakeasy. The term means very little nowadays but there’s still something exciting about passing through a big fridge door and some rubber drapes to find yourself in a shimmering space – all black, white and silver: cool in the shivery sense – with cocktail tables inspired by Mexican skull art. A bit industrial, very theatrical, and somehow very Mex-urban, it’s a good spot for a pre-dinner cocktail. I have a mescal-based Negroni that wipes out the day’s toils and then a cool artisanal beer.
My last stop is a place I first read about in the influential S. Pellegrino World’s 50 Best Restaurants listings. Polanco boasts three top-rated places within a few blocks. Quintonil and Biko are two, but I opt for Pujol, where El Bulli-inspired chef Enrique Olvera specializes in refined versions of native cuisine. He cooks with ant larvae and grasshoppers and, in a nod to local streetfood culture, prepares one dessert with a 20-day-old banana.
The tasting menu is a series of taste volleys, from fried pork to delicate sweetbreads to a succulent tamal (closing the circle I’d begun at breakfast) to a range of moles – Mexican sauces, some with chocolate and sweet spices – and a glass of Baja Cal white. The meal is deeply indigenous, and as exquisite on the palate as anything the Old World has to offer. A DF mini-banquet. A megalopolitan treat. A fitting finale to one of the world’s great city walks.
Your address: The St. Regis Mexico City
A relief sculpture of an Aztec calendar, in the Museo Nacional de Antropología,
showcase for 4,000 years of pre-Columbian art and culture
A church doorway
A stylish menswear
boutique in New York
by Jonathan Adler
Grahame Fowler, 138 W 10th Street, grahamefowler.com
Grahame Fowler is located in Greenwich Village, which happens to be where I live and where I have one of my four New York stores. I may be biased but I think it’s the best neighborhood in the city. When I first moved to New York in the early 1990s, the Village was an alternative universe where any creative dream could become a reality. That spirit still infuses the neighborhood. The store is a petite little thing with curiosities piled up in the single window. It’s tiny, twinkly and alluring, filled top to bottom with everything you need – and everything you didn’t know you needed – to be a smart, stylish dude. Even if you’re not naturally smart or stylish, if you shop here, no one will know. The owner, Grahame Fowler, is as divine as his West Village jewel box of a shop. I hate it when people use the word “curated” for anything other than an art exhibition, but Grahame has done an impeccable job assembling the best bits and bobs from around the world. He’s the nicest guy and has the best taste. With everything piled high, it’s like the chic-est yard sale you’ve ever been to. It’s my go-to shop to stock up on Trickers wingtips. They’re simultaneously chunky yet refined and if you re-sole them they’ll last longer than you will. Whenever I’m there I also look at the vintage Rolexes (but never buy) and I’ve never said no to a cardigan. Your granny had it right when she warned you that you never know when you might catch a chill.
Jonathan Adler is a potter, designer and author
Your address: The St. Regis New York
A Room at the National
Air & Space Museum
by Nick English
NASM, Independence Ave, 6th Street SW, airandspace.si.edu
Having grown up in and around aviation, and being a pilot myself, one of my favorite places is the National Air & Space Museum in Washington, D.C. I love the juxtaposition of the old and new in there, the earliest inventions and the latest in aviation and aerospace technology. When you first step through the doors, above you is the Spirit of St. Louis, the plane Lindbergh flew across the Atlantic, which is thrilling, and then up on the first floor is the backup lunar module, which gives me chills every time I see it. Although the building is enormous – holding more than 60,000 objects, as well as photographs, videos and documents – within it is a small space that’s particularly special. This is the room in which the 1903 Wright Flyer is kept: the first successful heavier-than-air powered aircraft made by the Wright brothers. Around the pavilion, there are illustrations, artifacts and instruments associated with the Wrights’ pursuit of flight, and in the center of the space is the plane itself. Although it appears to have little in common with today’s aircraft, resembling a bundle of wire and cables, parts of which are covered in cloth, there’s much of it that remains the same in aircraft today. It’s an extraordinary piece of engineering – and one I love so much that we persuaded the Wright Family Foundation to give us some of the original material from it to put into a few of the limited-edition watches we make. I can visit this room time and time again, to see the plane and hear stories about it, told by volunteers. These folks exude the same passion for aviation that drove many of the pioneers of flight. Whenever I leave this museum I feel even more inspired to achieve my goals.
Nick English is co-founder of aviation-themed watchmaker Bremont
Your address: The St. Regis Washington, D.C.
A Lebanese sheesha
restaurant in Doha
by Dominick Farinacci
Lebanese Village Restaurant, Salwa Road, facebook.com/lv.qatar
This sheesha restaurant on the busy Salwa Road is easy to miss; the best way to identify it is by the sign above the door, which is in the colors of the Lebanese flag, decorated with a cedar tree. Inside, the first thing you see is a cloud of delicious-smelling sheesha smoke, and then beyond that, a lovely Lebanese man with slicked-back hair who finds you the perfect table, takes your order (my favorite is Double Apple), then delivers a three-foot-high sheesha. Another man walks around with a cast-iron pot full of glowing charcoal to make sure everyone’s sheesha is perfect. You often hear people shouting “Fahem, fahem”, calling him over to replace their charcoal. Because everyone knows it’s one of the best sheesha places in town, it’s always filled with locals and Gulf residents in national dress, either relaxing on weathered white leather couches or passionately conversing beneath walls lined with photos of Lebanese icons. The menu is illustrated with beautiful photographs of Lebanon, and the dishes are equally appealing, from hummus and spicy potatoes to kibbeh neyah. The latter is something I thought I’d never eat and now adore: raw beef or lamb with spices, to which you add olive oil, a mint leaf and a piece of raw onion before wrapping it in bread. Delicious! Another thing I love here is that everyone is treated like family; having lived in Doha for two years, I have come to realize how hospitable, caring and respectful the Arab community is. For me, coming here with friends, hanging out on the couches with great food and service, all make for the perfect night out.
Dominick Farinacci is the former Global Ambassador
to Jazz at Lincoln Center. Your address: The St. Regis Doha
An East meets West interiors
store in Kuala Lumpur
by Evelyn Hii
Ambiance, G Village, 35 Jalan Desa Pandan, ambiance.com.my
Ambiance is a fabulous collection of Asian furnishings, paintings and curios that I discovered only recently. Located in a new building, G Village, with stunning views of Kuala Lumpur’s city center, it’s a large, airy space stuffed full of treasures, many of them small enough to put in your suitcase if you’re just visiting KL. The atmosphere in the store is very relaxed; you’re free to browse to your heart’s content, which you really need to do – even on the fourth circuit I always discover special something that I hadn’t spotted before. The owners, Jim Moore and Jason Long, are Scottish and Malaysian respectively, a character mix reflected in the fusion of products they sell. They personally source every item – many of which are one-off discoveries they’ve made on their travels around Asia – and they can always give you a great deal of detail about each piece. Jason’s mother, sister, brother, niece and brother-in-law also work at Ambiance, making it a real family business, in classic Asian style. The whole shop bursts with color in its lamps, furniture, ceramics, fabrics, candles, gems, trinkets. They have two other stores in KL but, like a box of chocolates, I’m saving each to savor separately. Best of all, twice a week Jim and Jason open up their home in Damansara Heights to regular customers for coffee mornings. Ambiance is unique to Kuala Lumpur, a treasure trove of all things Asian. That makes it a very special place for me.
Evelyn Hii is the owner of No Black Tie, Kuala Lumpur’s
most famous jazz club. Your address: The St. Regis Kuala Lumpur
With its curvaceous black façade, The St. Regis Istanbul is a hymn to the style of art deco: a reflection of Istanbul’s golden 1920s, splendid in a palette of black and silvery gray, and standing in a prime location in the city’s most celebrated neighborhood, Nisantasi.
But in Turkish architect Emre Arolat’s hands, the hotel, which opened last year, doesn’t represent a backward step. For art deco – the sleek, streamlined style associated with the interwar era – has once again become a popular taste in the luxury domain: part of a new spirit of urban glamour. “We tried for the aura of the 1920s,” Arolat said, “but with the feel of a contemporary building in style-conscious contemporary Istanbul.”
Art deco is having a moment: amazing for a decorative style that celebrates its 90th birthday this year. Well, more or less. The term was coined in 1926, following an agenda-setting exhibition at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris the year before, and became shorthand for a style that celebrated streamlined luxury. Once again it’s back: both as a historical style and as a muse to new designers. For example, at London’s Pavilion of Art & Design (PAD) fair last autumn, Parisian gallerist Jean-Jacques Dutko showed striking art deco pieces, including new work by sculptor Eric Schmitt, amid other new designers channeling the deco essence.
Meanwhile, the energy of the early work sings anew. Coming between the wars, art deco proposed an optimistic new world despite (or possibly because of) the economic woes of the 1920s and ‘30s. Not only pleasingly muscular, those clean lines and strong curves combined with new materials such as concrete, chrome and bakelite to herald the new sense of progress, optimism and mobility, both social and physical. Art deco became well represented in the exciting new world of travel and leisure, plentifully applied in cinemas, restaurants and lidos – not to mention ocean liners and hotels where it made an enduring mark: indeed, other St. Regis hotels channeling the art deco idiom include The St. Regis Bal Harbour Resort, with sumptuous interiors by Yabu Pushelberg, and The St. Regis Singapore, which has softer deco-accented rooms. As Bevis Hillier, the historian and great post-war popularizer of art deco, put it in the 1960s, art deco was the “last total style”: scalable from pepper pots to skyscrapers.
It’s had some ups and downs along the way of course. Following a 1970s flourish, deco disappeared from view. But expert Mark Oliver of Bonhams auction house, which holds four art deco sales a year, has seen the style return in popularity and a new generation embrace its sleek lines. “Interest is really growing and 25- to 55-year-olds seem to be particularly interested,” he says. “They like its stylish glamour and the fact that it’s a more sensual alternative to mid-century modern.”
Other influences may have been bought to bear. In 2013, Baz Luhrmann’s cinematic romp The Great Gatsby showed the style to a new generation, just as Ken Russell’s 1920s-themed The Boy Friend had in 1971. But it’s also true that our era shares a sense of opulence with the 1920s and 1930s, and that a generation of renowned interior designers, including Candy & Candy in the U.K. and Geoffrey Bradfield in the U.S., have re-imagined art deco as an imprint of modish new living.
The St. Regis Bal Harbour Resort, with interiors by Yabu Pushelberg,
channels the art deco aesthetic
Art deco architecture was known for its graceful, sweeping staircases
Meanwhile, there’s also been an explosion of interest in the architecture of deco and as Mark Oliver notes, a global network of enthusiasts has emerged. “Art deco is associated with Europe and the U.S., but you can also find it in Russia, South America – anywhere that has ever wanted to appear aspirational and stylish,” he says. “Fortunately you’ll now find a great eagerness to restore rather than demolish.” Thus, you’ll find art deco gems in Asmara in Eritrea, Casablanca in Morocco, Melbourne in Australia and Napier in New Zealand, which has a deco festival each year. Of course, many readers will have visited the wonderful art deco strand of South Beach Miami: a necklace of sub-tropical pastel-colored edifices along the oceanfront. It’s incredible to remember that many were run-down in the 1980s and came close to being demolished.
What the renewed interest in art deco means is that you’ll have to dig deeper to own classic deco antiques. As Jean-Jacques Dutko says, “Rare pieces with impeccable historic provenance are increasingly hard to find, and many good pieces are now in museums, private collections or foundations.” In the early 1980s, he adds, many collections were sold, following what he calls “the evolution of taste”. Simply, it became unfashionable – and this is when the clever money landed on it.
Anyone still interested in collecting art deco should acquaint themselves with the canon: a host of names including Émile-Jacques Ruhlmann for furniture and interiors, Edward McKnight Kauffer and Paul Colin for graphics, Paul Poiret for fashion and René Lalique for glassware and jewelry. In Paris last April, a Christie’s sale of French art deco fetched $34.3 million – including a 1929 ski-chair by Ruhlmann that took $4 million (it had previously sold in 1999 for $380,000). And art deco-style jewelry is also selling well. Chanel’s Café Society high jewelry collection, launched in 2014, is a tribute to the 1920s, while French designer Raphaele Canot’s Skinny Deco range also references classic art deco.
From the wearable to the walkable: art deco’s spirit now also imbues modern cities. There is, for example, an element of “starchitect” Zaha Hadid’s thrusting curves that evokes deco lines, while in New York, architect Mark Foster Gage is preparing to build a residential tower block with all manner of art deco-like decoration upon it – channeling the feel of that shimmering gargoyle-clad icon, the Chrysler Building. Meanwhile, in London, the art deco Battersea Power Station site is currently being refurbished as the smartest block in town. And as with The St. Regis Istanbul, something of that glitzy Hollywood excitement comes through, as an art deco building can turn anyone into a star. As Mark Oliver says of deco’s return: “It’s that sense of glamour. Nothing else is quite like it.”
Your address: The St. Regis Istanbul; The St. Regis Bal Harbour Resort; The St. Regis Singapore
Images: Getty Images, Corbis
“Stromboli” and “Fuji” pedestal tables by Eric Schmitt, as seen at PAD
A classic art deco facade
Cool elegance at The St. Regis Istanbul
Having first started cooking at the age of 15, Egyptian-born chef Michael Mina made a name for himself at Aqua in San Francisco, from where he established – with tennis star Andre Agassi – an empire of 18 restaurants across America. Since being named the James Beard Rising Star Chef of the Year in 1997, he has won several awards, fronted a TV program and written an eponymous cookbook.
What’s your favorite dish to cook?
Anything cooked outdoors. At home, in northern California, I am blessed to have an outdoor kitchen in the garden with a wood-burning oven. Often, I’ll give guests a basket to pick vegetables from the garden, which we then cook over wood. I love things like fresh vegetables on pizza, or côte de boeuf cooked on the flames. I adore shellfish, too, particularly abalone from the Bay area, which I grill with lemon, egg-batter with brown butter or sauté, niçoise-style, with olives, capers and lemon.
What do you eat when you’re home alone?
Spaghetti with thinly sliced garlic, cooked nice and slow in olive oil with a hint of red chili and lemon.
Anything local you’ve been inspired by?
Greens that we don’t get anywhere else, exceptional seafood and wonderful tomatoes. My wife makes the most amazing Bloody Mary using them.
What’s the dish you’re most proud of?
A dish I made for my wife on our honeymoon in Hawaii. She wanted caviar, so I found some and served it to her in bed with warm potato cake, smoked salmon and eggs. It’s a dish I now serve in all our restaurants.
What’s been the most memorable moment of your career?
Winning the James Beard Award for Rising Star Chef in the United States. I was so proud, as it was my first award, and because there are so many young talented chefs. Another great moment was my son being accepted into the Culinary Institute of America.
Are there any foods that are overrated?
Anything that’s out of season. And beef that’s called “Kobi” or wagyu beef but isn’t. Real wagyu is one of the most amazing products there is, but the term can be used rather loosely.
Are there any particularly fine ingredients in California?
So many. Particularly good are sanddabs, which are like little sole. We fry them in a pan with a little oil and butter and serve them with lemon.
What do you like most about Dana Point?
The community, which is made up of arty surfers. They’re very social and love interacting with our staff, which makes the restaurant relaxed and fun.
If you could revisit any meal in your life, what would it be and why?
A dinner at Sushi Kanesaka in Tokyo, which was the most perfect meal I’ve ever had. The chef cooks for only four people at a time and everything he did was unbelievable. We had 28 courses, including several kinds of tuna, each of which had a different fat content, and spiny crabs that were cooked, taken out and mixed with their roe, then put back into the crab shell.
What’s the secret to running a restaurant?
Having balance; precise but engaging service; and connecting, making friends and building long-term relationships with each other and our clients. Having the right chef and the general manager is essential, too, as they are the mother and father of your new restaurant family.
What was your favorite food as a child?
Hamburgers, which I still love. But they have to be perfect. The bun (ideally potato) has to be toasted right. The meat has to be ground quite coarsely, then flattened just before it’s cooked, so it’s still full of juicy air pockets. Extras should be simple: I like a piece of cheese, ketchup, onion and pickle.
What meal most reminds you of home?
Kusheries, which my mother has made all my life. It’s a typical Middle Eastern dish, made with rice, lentils and chickpeas in a spicy tomato sauce with caramelized onions. It’s not something you can just whip up: the lentils and chickpeas need soaking overnight and the tomato sauce has to cook for a couple of hours. But it’s worth the effort because it’s so delicious.
Michelin-starred chef Michael Mina
Whole fried jidori chicken for two, one of Stonehill Tavern’s signature dishes
The restaurant’s imaginative tasting menu uses the freshest local ingredients
Natalia Vodianova looks incredible in red. Don’t get me wrong, she also looks incredible in white, black, pink, or even sludgy brown. But it’s in red that she really shines. Perhaps that’s because she wears it whenever she’s hosting one of her Naked Heart fundraising events, which she did in February of this year during London Fashion Week – a red sequined dress made specially by Francisco Costa of Calvin Klein to accommodate the model’s five-and-a-half-month pregnancy bump.
Vodianova, the 34-year-old Russian supermodel who is based in Paris, but regularly jets between New York, London, and Moscow, does not do things by halves. As well as being one of fashion’s most successful and instantly recognizable stars, she’s a leading figure in the charity world. Her first Love Ball in Moscow’s Tsaritsino Estate, held on Valentine’s Day in 2008, featured a 220-ton ice palace specially constructed for the event, the auction of a Damien Hirst work that fetched $1.2 million, and a performance by the Bolshoi Ballet. She set her sights high – and the rewards matched. The ball raised $6 million.
When I first met Vodianova, at her house in the English countryside, it was a few weeks before her now legendary London Love Ball, which included a sit-down dinner for 420 people and an auction conducted by Christie’s that raised $1.7 million. In typical Natalia fashion, she juggled the interview between a snowball fight with her children in the garden, a photo shoot where she slipped straight into cover girl mode, all dreamy eyes and soft lips, and negotiating logistics for the event. She had the air of someone who is very capable, used to taking control of situations – and getting things done.
“Looking back, I realize that growing up in Russia gave me tools that other people don’t necessarily have,” is the explanation she gives for her extraordinary drive, “such as the will to push that bit further, to make things happen, to succeed. I try to use these now to help other people.” Nor has her lavish lifestyle left her suffering celebrity amnesia: she is happy to talk frankly about her impoverished childhood and the difficulties of growing up with a disabled sister.
Vodianova set up the Naked Heart Foundation as a response to the 2004 Beslan school siege, when at least 334 hostages were killed, including 186 children. “I guess everyone who does charity has a moment when it strikes them, and it is unfortunately something horrible most of the time,” she told me. Her response to seeing the siege unfold on her TV screen in Moscow at the time was to cry. But through her tears, she had a vision. She decided she wanted to build a playground so that the children who survived would at least have some moments when they were lost in play and could forget the horrors of the siege.
She went back to New York, and with the help of her friend Diane von Furstenberg, set up a charity auction and raised $350,000. She had to wait five years before she could open the playground in Beslan, but that didn’t stop her opening her first in her home town of Nizhny Novgorod, and then opening playgrounds in more than 30 cities across Russia – many in the remotest, most forgotten towns.
Since starting the foundation, she has built 158 playgrounds across 103 Russian cities.
Born in 1982, Vodianova had a childhood that could not be further from the lives of her own four children (three from her previous marriage to Justin Portman, half-brother of the 10th Viscount Portman, who she met when she was 19, and one with her boyfriend Antoine Arnault, the son of LVMH founder Bernard Arnault). Vodianova’s mother Larisa, who raised her three daughters alone, had a stall selling fruit and vegetables. Natalia looked after her sister Oksana, was born with cerebral palsy, while her mother worked long hours.
In her teens, Vodianova was spotted by a French model scout. She moved to Paris in 1999 and was soon swept up in the glamorous new life as an A-list model. In 2004, Steven Meisel shot her for the cover of American Vogue in 2004 alongside Gisele and Daria – the three models of the moment. Calvin Klein booked her for the most lucrative fashion contract of them all (a seven-figure contract she held for an unheard-of eight seasons) and ten years later, she became the face of the brand’s Euphoria fragrance. In 2012, Forbes named her as the world’s third most profitable model, estimated to be bringing in a very handsome $8.6 million in one year.
What is most striking about Vodianova is her incredible work ethic and her philanthropic drive. Anyone would forgive a mother of four (soon to be five) if she wanted to take a break from professional life. But Vodianova was back on the catwalk two weeks after giving birth to her first son Lucas. And she is utterly committed to the Naked Heart Foundation. As well as opening playgrounds, she has extended her focus to work with orphanages with the campaign Every Child Deserves a Family, which works with children who are abandoned by their families because of unemployment or disabilities.
Small wonder, then, that Vodianova’s nickname is “Supernova” – a tag Diane von Furstenberg would surely endorse: “The more you know Natalia,” she says, “the more you are impressed with her. She’s a remarkable woman – and I don’t say that easily. She’s probably one of the strongest women I’ve ever met. Her beauty is nothing compared with her character.”
Natalie Vodinova's Charity: nakedheart.org
1. Seville, 1962
I was born in Morocco, but my earliest memory of traveling was going to Seville with my parents when I was five. I can still remember the scent of orange blossom. I love Seville because it’s a crazy city. The people are so full of life. They enjoy every day because they have a constant tension between life and death: flamenco is life and the corrida [bull-fighting] is death.
2. The Louvre, Paris, 1972
When I was a teenager we moved to Paris. At the age of 15 I visited The Louvre for the first time. It made a big impression on me, and after that I went there nearly every week. My favorite place was an amazing room with 13 paintings by Rubens. The walls were a deep red. Today, we have 20 Assouline stores around the world and in all of them the walls are that same red.
3. St. Paul-de-Vence, 1976
I was 19 when I first discovered La Colombe d’Or [a restaurant in the Provençal town of St. Paul-de-Vence where famous artists would settle their bills with artworks]. It was my first real understanding of what luxury means. It’s not necessarily marble floors and vases of flowers but a simple restaurant with good tomatoes and great olive oil, where you’re surrounded by wonderful art and there’s an amazing view. I took my wife Martine there for the first time in 1992, a year after our wedding. She said, “We should do a book about this place.” So we did. We did it just for ourselves, as a hobby – I had an advertising agency at the time, Martine was a lawyer – but it was thanks to that book that we ended up going into publishing and working together.
4. New York, 2001
My first memory of New York was sitting on a step on a sunny day in SoHo eating a hot dog. It’s kind of a cheesy, touristy thing to do, but for me, that was a real New York moment. That was when I decided to set up an office in New York, and after that I was back and forth from Paris every two weeks until 2008 when Martine and I finally said to each other, “OK, New York is going to be our home.” I didn’t speak English at the time, but in a way that’s not a problem, because lots of people in New York don’t speak English.
5. Capri, 2006
I resisted Capri for a long time. I thought it would be superficial and snobbish. But then 10 years ago I decided to go there with my wife, to see what everyone was talking about. Now I can’t live without going to Capri every year, because it’s the most beautiful place on the planet. The best time to go is in June – you feel like you’re on the Côte d’Azur in the 1950s. There are no cars, and we enjoy being on our own, just strolling around, swimming and eating pasta. That’s true luxury.
6. London, 2013
I never liked London. I had nothing but bad memories of the city. But the first time I saw the building that would later become Assouline’s first “maison”, it was a revelation. This building [196A Piccadilly] had been a bank for nearly 100 years and then an art gallery, so it was completely empty and it had no windows, but for me there was something magical about it. I had always dreamed of combining a café, a cocktail bar, a gallery and a bookstore – and here my dream became a reality.
7. Costa Mesa, California, 2009
Henry Segerstrom was one of the most impressive people I’ve ever known. He was a true visionary – he created a mall in Southern California called South Coast Plaza, which became the most important mall in America. I met him eight years ago – when he was 84 – and he invited me to visit him in Costa Mesa, where he gave me a tour of the mall at night, with a glass of champagne. What impressed me most was that even in his eighties, he still had the enthusiasm of an eight-year-old. He was still dreaming every day. He died two years ago, but I think about him a lot.
The Brooklyn-based artist Mickalene Thomas has every right to be frustrated when people only associate her work with hip-hop. “It’s so easy and lazy to do that,” she rails. “Just because it’s all black women and bling!” But this spring, visitors to Aspen’s Art Museum – housed since summer 2014 in an exceptional new building by the Japanese architect Shigeru Ban – will be left in no doubt that there’s rather more to it than that. Here’s a diptych Super 8 film of Eartha Kitt spliced with lesser known artists singing Paint Me Black Angels; elsewhere are stunning silk screen acrylic panels of stills from the film The Color Purple. “That book and the film, with Oprah Winfrey and Whoopi Goldberg, are touchstones for women about breaking the silence around abuse, and how to be strong in spite of being a victim,” says the curator Courtenay Finn. The exhibition is called Mentors, Muses and Celebrities.
Mickalene’s work has never been short on content or visual drama. She’s known in the art world for her elaborate paintings – often of Afroed women who recall the heroines of the Blaxploitation movies of the 1970s – depicted in oils and acrylics and then bedazzled with copious quantities of glitter and rhinestones. “Those women, like Pam Grier and Foxy Brown, I’d grown up with them,” says Mickalene. “I loved their directness, their fierceness.”
In others, she delves into art history, stealing Manet’s Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe from 1863 and reworking it with three modern muses, her friends Mnonja, Din and Qusuquzah. “When I use people as subjects, it’s important I know them,” she says. “I never want anyone to feel exploited or used or victimized.” Sometimes, she’s turned to the grids favored by the British artist David Hockney to create a work, and even included the tiles from Monet’s own house in the background décor in another. In 2011, she completed a three-month residency at Giverny, the property in France where Monet created, and painted, his famous garden between 1890 and 1926. “I’d never understood his sincerity as an artist until I spent time there,” she says. “It made me realize that when you’re sincere, it doesn’t matter what people think – it’ll work itself out.”
Now 44, Mickalene sold her first painting in 2004, at a group exhibition in New York – a self-portrait called Rumor Has It, showing the artist stripped down to her underwear in a super-size Afro wig, and stroking her cat She-La. “It was one of my last self-portraits,” she says. “And it felt great to sell it. It meant I could stop doing house-cleaning and I could stop being my own model.”
Nowadays Mickalene’s work is significantly sought after (Solange Knowles had her create the cover of her EP True in 2012) and costs rather more than the $8,500 which that early painting fetched. But it continues to be an exploration of black female beauty and sexuality, along with the underlying complexity of women’s lives. “Look at Eartha Kitt,” says Courtenay Finn. “An amazing performer with a strong presence but a difficult life, who went on to speak out against Vietnam.” A woman, then, who combined beauty and politics and was not averse to be covered in sequins – rather like a Mickalene Thomas work of art.
Mentors, Muses and Celebrities is at Aspen Art Museum from 10 March to 12 June. Your address: The St. Regis Aspen Resort
Untitled 15, 2015
Mickalene Thomas (below), creates explosive large-scale collages in rhinestones,
glitter, dry pastel, acrylic and oil paint on wood panel. “The conversation between
the patterns is what works, brings life,” she says
Portrait of Mnonja with Flower in her Hair 2, 2011
Mickalene’s friend brings to mind the singer Billie Holiday. The painting was
created using rhinestone, acrylic paint and oil enamel on wood, and the
background is a collage of found fabrics
Edythe Broad clearly remembers buying her first artwork. “It was a Picasso print, on a school trip. I saw it, I liked it and I bought it. The excitement was like someone had hit me in the stomach. But then, I’m like that: buying for me is an emotional process. Eli’s the smart one.”
More than six decades later, Edythe and her husband Eli, the American property developer and philanthropist, own so many works of art that last summer they opened a $140m museum in the heart of downtown Los Angeles to house them. Today, The Broad, an elegant white space a few doors from the Frank Gehry-designed Walt Disney Hall, houses more than 2,000 artworks amassed by the couple since the 1960s.
The first “serious work” they bought, Edythe recalls, was by Van Gogh. “But the more we looked at art, the more we enjoyed contemporary pieces. So, we exchanged it for a Rauschenberg.”
Today their contemporary art collection includes works by 200 of the world’s biggest names, including Damien Hirst, Andreas Gursky, Jasper Johns, William Kentridge, Barbara Kruger, Charles Ray, Ed Ruscha, Cy Twombly and Andy Warhol. What’s impressive is not just the number of important works they have but how many by the same artists. Today, they own the largest collections of works by Cindy Sherman, Jeff Koons, Roy Lichtenstein (outside the Lichtenstein Foundation) and Joseph Beuys.
This, says the museum’s director/chief curator Joanne Heyler, is because “Eli and Edythe have been collecting for more than 50 years, and have known many of the artists. They’ve been friends with Jeff Koons, Roy Lichtenstein, Cindy Sherman – so they have access to many of their finest works. When Eli first bought Basquiats, he understood that they were more than just graffiti; he’d met the artist when he was living in a basement.”
Although initially the couple bought art for their own pleasure, their collection has now been put in trust for the nation. “We feel it’s important for people to have access to works that reflect our times, so they have a greater understanding of what’s happening around them,” says Eli. “Art is a mirror that reflects the world. We want people to be able to look into that mirror and get a better picture of what’s going on – whether it’s Barbara Kruger’s Your Body Is A Battleground or photographs of the Missouri riots.”
To ensure that the collection remains current, the Broads buy about one new work a week. “It’s a passion and an addiction we’ve had for 30 years,” Eli admits. “Thankfully, we’re privileged enough to keep doing it. By opening The Broad, our hope is that others can enjoy what we have too.”
Unlike many other American institutions, entrance to The Broad is free, and will always be so, thanks to a substantial endowment created by the couple. That, says Eli, “really makes us proud. It’s a great feeling knowing that everyone has access to something that we love.”
The Broad, 221 South Grand Avenue, Los Angeles (thebroad.org)
The luxury minibus pulls up outside a scruffy door in a back alley somewhere in the vast metropolis that is Shanghai. Ten expensively dressed, if somewhat confused, figures step out and survey their insalubrious surroundings.
In terms of age and ethnicity, they are an eclectic bunch that includes American business executives, newly wealthy Chinese entrepreneurs and cultured young Europeans. But they have one thing in common: each has paid a small fortune, and many have traveled here especially for this one evening, to embark on a multi-sensory gastronomic journey. Welcome to the new frontier of food tourism.
These experience-hungry global travelers have bagged a coveted seat at Ultraviolet, a restaurant in a mystery Shanghai location that has achieved cult international status over the course of its three-year existence. A black door slides open to reveal a large pod-like capsule which serves as the dining space. Each guest’s name is projected onto their spot-lit place at the single communal table before the 20-plus course tasting menu is presented.
Crucially, every plate is coupled with music or sound effects (such as rain lashing on a roof); films and graphics are projected onto all four surrounding walls; bespoke lighting is directed onto the dishes themselves; presentation and service are frequently dramatic in the extreme.
The whole thing is witty and theatrical and, most of all, great fun. Ultraviolet’s diners find it difficult not to smile and laugh throughout much of the globe-trotting four-hour extravaganza, created by French chef Paul Pairet. A dish called “Foie Gras Can’t Quit”, for example, is a crisp fruit-skin “cigarette” filled with an airy and delicious foie gras mousse sitting in an ashtray dotted with black cabbage “ash”.
We’ve long been led around the world by our stomachs, of course. The idea that food and wine might play a role in determining our next travel destination is far from new; indeed, France’s tourism industry has been built on it. It’s the new extremes that we will go to, and the real sense of discovery that so many seek, that makes this such a notable phenomenon.
A new generation of foodies is harnessing the power of social media – after all, Instagram’d pictures can induce travel and food envy simultaneously – and racing to notch up far-flung culinary experiences before anyone they know gets there first. It’s an extension of the metropolitan social cachet of eating in a new restaurant within days of its launch, taken to the global level. “Our customers usually secure their reservations here before booking flights and accommodation,” confirms Monica Luo of Ultraviolet. “We recently had five gentlemen come from France as a surprise birthday gift for one of them. They were in Shanghai for only 48 hours, but they certainly had a blast.”
Others of a similarly inquisitive nature will seek out the world’s very finest sushi, served at Tokyo’s ultimate specialist restaurants such as Sukiyabashi Jiro or Sushi Saito. Each will seat only 8 to 12 diners at a simple wooden counter, with the venerated sushi master hand-preparing each piece of fish in front of them. Securing a seat (for non-Japanese at least) will involve working your charms on the concierge. Diners are often in and out in just an hour or so, but they are still prepared to go to such lengths for the ultimate nigiri.
Litti Kewacha is a Thai entrepreneur who regularly criss-crosses the globe in search of outstanding meals. “People travel for sightseeing, some for art, concerts, sporting events. I travel for food. My trips around the world are driven by a desire to explore the world of gastronomy, and to appreciate and enjoy not just the best food but the greatest minds in gastronomy,” he says. “For me, a meal at Noma [in Copenhagen, Denmark] or El Celler de Can Roca [in Girona, Spain] is like going to an exhibition of masterpieces by one of the world’s leading artists.”
This is not a trend, however, that is restricted to a super-wealthy high-culture elite. Young creative professionals are replacing the adventurous backpacking of their youth with intrepid and immersive food experiences in destinations as diverse as Bangkok and Bogotá, Mexico City and Osaka. Increasingly, travel companies are getting savvy to this – often supported by national tourism boards – and arranging itineraries revolving around food. Already over one-third of western travelers’ spend is devoted to eating and drinking, a figure that’s growing steadily – and any nation’s overall appeal is massively enhanced if it’s seen to be an epicurean hotspot.
American-born Mason Florence has lived in Bangkok since 2002, and has documented the changing food scene. While the city “oozes food, and the culture of Thai people is deeply rooted in the art of cooking, with locals frequenting late-night street food meccas like Yaowarat and Banglamphu”, these days more adventurous food-hunters are finding their way to lesser-known hot spots: “places like Wang Lang Market and Talat Phlu, both a short ride across the river from central Bangkok”.
In recent years the Thai capital has added higher-quality restaurants to its roster. “Bangkok has developed an international reputation for its restaurants, in large part due to their success in the Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants list,” says Florence. “More than ever we’re seeing hardcore foodies flying into town with one sole purpose: to eat. Many of them journey from other parts of Asia, while others come from as far afield as Europe, Australia and the Americas.”
As well as restaurants such as Nahm, where Australian-born David Thompson uses his deep knowledge and extensive research of historic Thai recipes to produce super-authentic dishes, the city has produced a new raft of cool, informal bar-restaurants such as Namsaah Bottling Trust, Quince and Opposite Mess Hall, as well as Eat Me, run by New York chef Tim Butler, where the city’s glammed-up crowd sample edgy cocktails alongside razor clams with spicy nduja pork.
On the other side of the world, Mexico is rapidly becoming another promised land for fashionable-food devotees. Each of the country’s regions has its own distinct identity and signature dishes, from the Baja peninsula on the west coast to Oaxaca in the south. Mexico City itself boasts enough great restaurants, bars and markets to sate the hungriest and most demanding traveler’s appetite – literal and metaphorical.
The menu here is certainly about much more than tacos and tortillas – think fried insects at Rosetta or the 400-day aged “mole madre” at Pujol, two of the Mexican capital’s most acclaimed eateries. At the same time, it’s also about an extraordinary array of tacos and tortillas, tamales and tequila in bars and cafes, street stalls and markets across this food-loving land.
For those without the opportunity or time to explore such exotic culinary landscapes, finding the niche foodster hotspots within New York, London, Paris and San Francisco satisfies a similar urge. At hip Brooklyn food market Smorgasburg, for example, the weekend throng is replete with numerous nationalities and languages (not to mention artful facial hair). It also happens to boast almost 100 seriously good local food purveyors.
Tellingly, uber-foodies like Kewacha are now switching from blogging to Instagram as their preferred medium through which to share their culinary escapades. In fact, notching up particularly hard-to-access restaurants is prime social currency among proud gastronauts, as witnessed by the meteoric success of Fäviken in Sweden. Magnus Nilsson’s restaurant set in an old lodge on a 24,000-acre hunting estate is famously situated in the country’s frozen north, just 200 miles south of the Arctic Circle. First, you have to make your way to Stockholm, then fly an hour up to Östersund, followed by further hours (depending on the season and weather) up to Järpen. The 12 seats are booked many months in advance, so it’s not really the place to simply show up hoping for a “walk-in” – and don’t be late for dinner or you may be refused entry.
Once in for the night (accommodation is also on-site) and lighter by some $700, diners are treated to rare delights such as trout roe in dried pig’s blood and potatoes cooked in decomposed leaves. In short, the more remote the location, the more outlandish and outré the food is likely to be. Next stop, penguin brains in Antarctica?
Your address: The St. Regis Bangkok; The St. Regis Mexico City; The St. Regis Osaka; The St. Regis San Francisco; The St. Regis New York
Chef Paul Pairet’s wittily-named Foie Gras Can’t Quit “cigarette”
at Ultraviolet restaurant in Shanghai.
Diners make pilgrimages from all over the globe to experience Ultraviolet’s theatrical gastronomy
For the culinary jet-set, a meal at Noma in Copenhagen, “is like going to
an exhibition of masterpieces by one of the world’s leading artists”