BRAD A JOHNSON – TOP STORIES

This page features a collection of Brad’s most popular and award-winning articles. For the most recent posts, check out the blog.

photo by Brad A Johnson

The Ultimate Guide to Basilicata

Basilicata, in southern Italy, is the land of wild boar. And wine. And the best bread in Italy. It’s a place to which few people travel, a region that has gone from being the shame of Italy to one of the country’s greatest hidden treasures – especially for anyone who likes to eat. Basilicata has never been a wealthy region, like Tuscany, Campania or Emilia Romania. Instead, this sparsely populated state has always been one of the poorest, an arid, mountainous, dusty, no-man’s land between the Tyrrhenian Sea and the Gulf of Taranto. There are no major airports or train stations in Basilicata. You don’t pass through here on your way to somewhere else more important. You really must choose to come. To do so, you travel first to neighboring Puglia, then rent a car and drive past the hookers who solicit truckers on the roadside on the outskirts of Bari…

photo by Brad A Johnson

Review: Blossom

Sommelier Simon Wang uncorks a bottle of French rosé Champagne and pours me a glass. “This should go nicely with your first course,” he says.

I don’t yet know what that course will be, because I’ve asked the chef to surprise me tonight. I hold the glass up to the light. The wine is a beautiful salmon color, with ultra-fine bubbles that reflect the sparkling light of the chandeliers overhead. And then a waiter arrives and presents a dish with three petite appetizers. “Jellyfish, beef tendon and shrimp,” he says. “You might start from the left.”

I do as he suggests, and I take a bite of the jellyfish, a coil of translucent threads that cleverly avoid my teeth as I start to chew. It tastes remarkably like cellophane noodles, at least texturally. There is an earthiness, a savoriness to jellyfish that’s almost like a black truffle crossed with a scallop. It’s been lightly dressed with sesame oil, which coats my tongue with a thin layer of fat, the way a great piece of sushi would. The Champagne cuts through the submissive fat and leaves my mouth with a minerally blast of fruit that I can almost chew. In the presence of the Champagne, the jellyfish seems to come alive. Everything becomes animated. It is indeed an expert pairing. And it’s the last sort of thing most people would expect from a Chinese restaurant. It’s a sad fact that most of us never associate grace and finesse with Chinese restaurants. You go to Chinese restaurants to eat, not to dine. But I’m at Blossom, at Aria, in Las Vegas – and this is no ordinary Chinese restaurant…

photo by Brad A Johnson

One Night in Florence, for a Steak

Buca Lapi has survived many things. This is the oldest restaurant in Florence, serving since 1880 in this same dank basement of Palazzo Antinori, a city palace owned by the famed Antinori family, who have been making wine in Italy since before the Duomo was finished. And for as long as anyone remembers, this has been one of the hardest reservations in Florence. I requested my reservation one month in advance, to the day, which is when they open the books. They emailed back two days later. I was in.

The kitchen occupies a small corner of the restaurant, just inside the front door. Pots clang against the stove. I can hear oiled steaks sizzling over red-hot charcoal as they hit the grill. The visibly misty scent of grass-fed, dry-aged Chianina beef dominates the foyer. A waiter rushes through the crowd with a bottle of wine, a crisp white napkin draped across his arm. I hear a loud “thwack!” I turn toward the kitchen. The chef has just slammed a meat cleaver into a 4-foot slab of porterhouse steaks, lopping off a single T-bone that weighs probably 5 pounds, the quintessential bistecca Fiorentina. I want that.

Zihuatanejo Mexico

Pozole Thursdays in Zihuatanejo

The air is hot and sultry, weighted with smoke and sea salt and the heady balm of pig fat. It’s not exactly soup weather. It’s the rainy season, July, when I’m in Zihuatanejo, which doesn’t translate to any actual rain but rather a steamy, lazy heaviness that’s boxed in by an unrelenting sun, with the Pacific Ocean in front and the Sierra Madre del Sur behind. The smoke hints at something delicious. It wafts over residential walls from busy kitchens whose stoves are powered by wood. The aroma of simmering pork broth outpaces the idle breeze that carries it from El Profe, a pozoleria on the outskirts of town, on an unmarked road just off the empty highway.

It’s the middle of the afternoon. It’s Thursday. And in Zihuatanejo that means only one thing: It’s pozole time…

Faith & Flower

Review: Faith & Flower

We eat with our eyes. This is confirmed at lunchtime at Faith & Flower.

First come the deviled eggs. The filling is tinted orange from kimchi paste. The eggs are speckled with black sesame seeds. These aren’t colors and textures I’m used to seeing in my eggs, but the artistry is spectacular. I can already taste them before I take a bite. There’s a slight pickle effect, a spiciness, a tickle in the throat.

A dozen freshly shucked oysters arrive, resting in a bowl of shaved ice. The simplicity is stunning: the sparkle of the ice, the pearly shimmer of the shells, a lemon. I can taste the freshness before I touch anything.

Agnolotti are equally pornographic. Pasta wrappers bulge with oxtail as they bathe in a nage of bone marrow and tangerine. They are topped with the most angelic chicharrones — if chicharrones can indeed be called angelic. They are wispy and light, like cirrus clouds hovering above the plate. I can feel the melted bone fat on my lips. I can taste the tangerine in my throat. I can feel the pasta between my teeth. And I haven’t yet taken a bite. My mind is salivating, racing, anticipating…

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La Dolce Grotta: Italy’s Best-Kept Secret

The woman in the linen tunic leads me along the candlelit path around a curve in the cliff’s slope. We climb a narrow flight of stone stairs polished by thousands of years of footsteps. She slides a skeleton key into the clunky lock and turns it, then pushes open the heavy door. “Do you like your suite?” she asks.

I find myself impotent for language, able only to nod my head in awe. I’m struck by the absolute void of color and sparseness of furnishings. A wooden chest lies next to the door. On it, a vase is stuffed with fistfuls of herbs, lending an invigorating scent to the air. Five steps up from the foyer, the living room stretches long and wide, with a slender bench and wooden table draped in linen at the far end. A thick board protrudes from one wall—a rudimentary sofa of sorts—and next to that, a burlap cushion is slumped into the corner. It is unconventionally luxurious. Beautiful…

Where to Eat Now: Singapore

Singapore’s dining scene, like the city itself, is a melting pot, influenced as much by the West as by the East. The island covers a mere 265 square miles, and its agricultural industry all but vanished with the demise of the opium trade. Though most of its cooks rave about the local birds—chickens of American and Japanese origins, plus guinea fowl, squab, and quail are the only farm products raised in the country—they have always had to import and adapt the foods of other nations. In the early days, this meant borrowing from neighbors in Southeast Asia, China, and Japan; more recently, however, Singapore’s chefs have looked to Western Europe, the United States, and Australia for inspiration.

Outsiders tend to hear about the wave of global culinary celebrities who have recently opened satellites here: Wolfgang Puck, Guy Savoy, Mario Batali, and Joel Robuchon. But these chefs have merely leveraged a prospering food scene that had already taken hold. The out-of-towners flock to Singapore because it is a place where innovation has boomed along with the economy, which is among the world’s fastest growing. At Restaurant André—and at other restaurants, such as FiftyThree, Waku Ghin, the Tippling Club, and Iggy’s—the average price for dinner with wine easily exceeds $300 per person. And reservations are gobbled up weeks in advance…

The World’s Best Steaks. Period.

A waiter rushes through the dining room carrying a steak, and heads instantly turn. Eyes follow. Fingers point. “Did you see that?” a guy at a nearby table says, leaning into the aisle to get a better look.

“There goes another one.” Heads turn again, jaws drop. Barely contained on an oversize platter of industrial heft, one of these steaks lands on my table with a graceful thunk—a 2-pound USDA prime ribeye, nearly two inches thick and still smoldering. Steak for one. The heady aroma of perfectly charred beef does not just perfume the air at LasVegas’s Old Homestead Steakhouse, it consumes it, intoxicating everyone within finger-pointing range. Wine glasses clink. Laughter mingles with the racket of nearby slot machines. Another cadre of strong-armed waiters bearing massive hunks of meat hustles by.

All it takes is the nudge of my knife to slice completely through a steak bigger than what my local grocer passes off as a pot roast. Juices puddle underneath. And after 21 days of dry aging, the meat delivers a serious, full-bodied punch. Steak does not get any better than this. It is dizzyingly good. Revelatory—even for me, the son of a fifth-generation cattle rancher.

photo by Eugene Garcia (OC Register)

Review: Arc

The air is thick with the scent of brown butter and duck fat and smoldering embers. The musk of charred meat seduces the room like a flirtatious ghost. First it’s here, then it’s not. Sparks flutter up from the grill like a swarm of fireflies. And if you look into the mouth of the kitchen’s fiery brick hearth, you can see its throat pulsing with fury. Servers hurry through the dining room carrying sizzling cast-iron skillets, cautiously shielding their hands with thick rubber mitts.

“Don’t touch that!” warns the waitress, gently but firmly, as I’m reaching for the handle of a pan she’s just plunked on our table. “That came straight from the fire.” …

photo by James Morgan

Moveable Beast: Maiden Flight of the A380

Singapore Airlines flight SQ380—the first commercial flight of the Airbus A380—taxied down the runway of Singapore’s Changi International Airport. I was strapped into seat 26F, in the second-to-last row of business class on the upper deck. I cinched my seatbelt tighter than I normally would, and then I pulled it tighter still. The view was roughly the same as from the top-floor window of an eight-story building. From nose to tail, the plane is about as long as a football field—with its wingtips dragging through the bleachers on both sides—and we were now accelerating down the runway.

At precisely 8:15AM—roughly two years late and billions of dollars over budget—the world’s largest aircraft levitated upward with 455 passengers and 35 crew onboard. Whistles, whoops and catcalls filled the cabin, but as I looked out the window and watched a series of tropical islets grow smaller beneath a massive, hulking wing, I couldn’t help but wonder if we should hold our applause until we had landed safely in Sydney. We still had more than seven hours to go until the A380’s first commercial landing…

photo by Brad A Johnson

Review: Sushi Murasaki

When I stop in for lunch, the dining room is thronged, yet strangely no one is sitting at the sushi counter. “Can we sit there?” I ask, pointing to the counter. The hostess gives us one of those polite little bows. “The counter is for omakase only,” she says, apologetically.

My eyes light up. “Perfect,” I say, rushing to sit.

Within seconds of our sitting down, the first dish arrives. It’s a bowl of lightly pickled cucumber slices. “Pickled” is perhaps too strong of a word for these cucumbers, though, which taste not of vinegar but of sake. Almost immediately after this, the first course arrives. “Halibut fin,” the chef says, timidly, handing two small plates across the counter, each sporting a single piece of nigiri sushi. The glistening sliver of halibut clings to an equally proportioned lump of rice. The flesh is vaguely translucent on one end, fading to an opaque white on the other. It’s topped with a single fleck of orange and red relish of some sort. It’s the perfect size for a single, civilized mouthful. It tastes like fresh tears, and with this one bite, I know I’m in for an extraordinary ride…

photo by Brad A Johnson

The Beautiful Conflict of Tea in Hong Kong

There are two ways to take afternoon tea in Hong Kong—both revered, both steeped in tradition, but with a different culture and practice. And while one is flourishing, the other is fading. This clash of traditions is what makes Hong Kong the most fascinating place in the world to drink tea. The British model is grand and excessive, an unapologetic excuse to celebrate life’s luxuries. Chinese tea, on the other hand, is stripped raw, never diluted with such princely luxuries as milk and sugar. It is contemplative and reverential. Two worlds so intricately entwined, yet so far apart—separated by tea for mere hours at a time…

Little Saigon

The Ultimate Guide to Eating in OC’s Little Saigon

An intoxicating perfume of jackfruit and bananas and the vanilla-y scent of pandanus leaves wraps itself around me in a warm, tight embrace. It’s a sunny Friday afternoon, and the line to purchase something cold and sweet at Thach Che Hien Khanh in Garden Grove stretches out the front door and down the sidewalk, past a vendor of exotic fruits and knickknacks — chopsticks, paper lanterns, plastic Buddhas, various figurines of the lunar zodiac. Incense from a nearby shop muscles itself into the mix. As I get closer to the dessert counter, I see dozens of wildly colorful puddings and cakes and sheet-pans filled with fluorescent mounds of sticky rice. The young woman directly in front of me is nervously eying something in the display case. “Ohhhh,” she says, anxiously tugging on her friend’s arm every time someone orders one…

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Las Vegas Chinese: Finest in America

Chinese food is supposed to be cheap and quick. The best, or at least the most “authentic,” Chinese restaurants require a certain amount of funk and grime. We gladly put up with service that is gruff or indifferent, even downright rude because, well, that’s the way it is. Or so goes the stereotype. But when I’m dining at Pearl in Las Vegas, and the amuse-bouche – for lack of a better word – arrives, a far different reality emerges. The waiter leans in and gently speaks, almost whispering: “This is homemade tofu with shredded thousand-year-old egg, along with flying fish caviar and XO sauce, compliments of the chef.”

Review: Gjelina

“You can stand over there by the wall,” the hostess says cheerily, pointing to a cramped, narrow path along the edge of the dining room behind a packed, boisterous communal table. “Or else you can wait outside on the sidewalk.” Several people are already crowded against the wall, single file (which is all the space allows), like scolded children, hands in their pockets as they stare longingly at the thin-crust pizzas, still bubbling-hot from the wood-burning oven, being set upon a table practically under their noses. “Something should free up in about 40 minutes,” the hostess says, “but it might be sooner because I think a few people might have just given up and left.”…

Review: El Corazon de Costa Mesa

“Two and a half hours.” That’s how long I’m told the wait is running the first time I attempt to dine at El Corazon, the beautiful Mexican restaurant that recently opened on the upper deck of The Triangle in Costa Mesa.

“Do you want to put your name on the list?” the hostess asks, smiling…

photo by Brad A Johnson

San Miguel’s Moment: Rosewood Hotel Review

It is an hour before midnight, and a large crescent moon has risen above San Miguel de Allende. The clangs of a church bell mark the hour, but silence soon returns to the Mexican city’s historic core. Suddenly, the whinnies and snorts of horses and the clippity-clop of hooves slapping against cobblestone streets signal the approach of a band of vaqueros. The ranch hands, at least a dozen of them, from perhaps three different generations, in sweat-stained straw hats and scuffed boots, pull up to a bare-bones saloon with swinging wooden doors. They tie their horses and one ancient-looking donkey to a railing that has been used for thi s purpose since the Wild West days. A 12-piece mariachi band strolls over from the town square, a half block away, to greet the men with a song. Twangy guitars set a quick rhythm. Trumpets blare. An accordion joins the melody…

Twist Las Vegas

Review: Twist by Pierre Gagnaire

The Eiffel Tower sparkles in the distance. A helicopter swoops down on New York’s skyline before making a sharp turn towards Lake Como. A goliath-sized image of Bette Midler dances across a JumboTron above Caesars Palace, while fireworks spew out from a volcano on Treasure Island… The full-sensory stimulation of a Saturday night in Las Vegas is unfolding brilliantly outside the windows of Mandarin Oriental, Las Vegas, at Twist, the latest restaurant from the French world-renowned chef, Pierre Gagnaire.

Meanwhile, the mood inside is joyously peaceful. Well, for a moment it’s peaceful. Suddenly, an army of waiters surrounds my table, and a parade of bite-size canapés begins to land. First is a duo of quivering, translucent brown cubes. ‘A cocktail to start,’ the waiter says, winking. I pop these into my mouth, and instantly the flavours of ‘Guinness!’ and ‘Jack Daniel’s whiskey!’ scream across my tongue…

photo by Brad A Johnson

Where to eat in Basque Country (Spain and France)

Fast cars. Soccer. Surfing. Fashion. Even women. To the men of the Basque Country, nothing is more important than food. This semiautonomous region has been inhabited by the ethnic Basques for tens of thousands of years. It’s an area roughly the size of Maryland that straddles the border of Spain and France where the two curve together between the Pyrenees Mountains and the Atlantic seaboard—and its restaurants famously boast more Michelin stars per capita than anywhere else in the world except Tokyo. The Basque influence is more intense on the Spanish side, but being on either border is quite unlike anywhere else in Spain or France…

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Best Pizza in the World (a Whirlwind Pizza Tour of Naples, Italy)

The goal: Find the best pizza in Naples.
“But hasn’t it already been determined that Michele makes the best pizza in Naples?” asks a friend in London who travels to Italy often just to eat.
“Really?” I ask. “Says who?”
“I don’t know,” he says. “Everybody?”
I email a chef with long ties to Naples. He emails back: “Michele makes the best pizza.”
I obviously need more opinions. So I email the chef at the new Romeo Hotel in Naples. He’s a native Napolitano, just back from a stint at the acclaimed Fat Duck in England. His reply comes in. “Il Pizzaiolo del Presidente makes the best pizza in Naples.” But his boss, the hotel general manager, chimes in, too: “No,” he insists. “You must try Sorbillo!”…

photo by Brad A Johnson

Best Sushi in America (or at least Orange County, California)

For anyone who loves sushi, as I do, we’ve got it good here. Nowhere else in the United States — not New York, not San Francisco, nowhere — comes even remotely close to the quality of sushi widely available in Southern California.

And while Los Angeles has always been the sushi capital of America, Orange County is right up there. To be clear: I’m not talking about sushi rolls, which are largely a California invention and can be enjoyable. I’m talking about authentic Japanese nigiri sushi and sashimi. I’m talking about omakase.

Omakase is that Japanese tradition of putting yourself in the hands of the chef, letting him (sushi remains a male-dominated industry) prepare whatever he desires. Omakase is a simple word with deep cultural meaning that translates to, “I trust and respect you. I am in your hands.”…

Rooftop - night view

Hong Kong Nightlife: Sky is the Limit! 

As the sun sinks toward the horizon, another martini-fueled night is officially under way—Monday, Saturday . . . it is all the same.   Cocktail hour in Hong Kong has long been a point of honor, a glamorous pastime pursued with equal abandon by natives and expats alike. The drinks are big and potent. The hours run late. And nobody—not even the most urbane socialite or top executive—is too high-powered or self-important to partake in a few tequila shots or kamikazes. Even here at the posh Ritz-Carlton, the 20-page drink menu includes an intriguing roster of shooters—B-52s, lemon drops, absinthe boxers, tequila booms—that are best consumed in multiples, and in rapid-fire succession.

Nightlife here has been thrust further into overdrive lately as the city’s bars race to one-up each other with rooftop terraces and sky decks. The trend began after an indoor-smoking ban took effect in 2007. Merely having a view was no longer enough; there had to be an alfresco extension. Thus the city’s nightlife scene began shifting outdoors, making innovative use of the vertigo-inducing nooks and crannies—skyscraper rooftops, penthouse terraces, and balconies—that were formerly reserved for CEO office patios, presidential suites, and helicopter pads…

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Going Ape: Tracking Highland Gorillas in Uganda’s Impenetrable Forest

Moses greets me wearing knee-high rubber galoshes and what looks like a military uniform. His outfit will camouflage him nicely as he and I head out for a private walk through the swamp-lined savannah to sneak up on hyenas and hippos in a remote corner of Uganda’s Lake Mburo National Park. An AK-47 hangs casually from his right shoulder.

I figure the gun holds at least 50 lethal rounds. It’s 5:30AM and the rain is finally letting up as I climb out of our Pathfinder and step into a puddle of mud. I’m three days into a mountain-gorilla safari—knee- deep in the wilds of Africa—yet I am barely halfway to the apes…

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