Troy Hightower



Oaxaca-born chef Luis Arellano worked under Enrique Olvera at Pujol in Mexico City, where, among other things, he was tasked with perfecting the tortillas. In a partnership with Olvera partnership and architect Javier Sanchez, he opened Criollo in 2017.

Set in an old colonial mansion, the entrance is through the kitchen and into a tranquil triangular courtyard dining room, at the point of which is a large clay comal where all the house tortillas are made, and adjacent, a mesh grill where some are toasted crisp for totopos.

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Artisanal mezcal has gained greatly in popularity in recent years—production has risen more than seven-fold in the last decade— and much of the best comes from Oaxaca and Puebla, so we have a chance to get a decent introduction to this other distillation of agave heart.

Tequila and mezcal are both similar and different. Tequila can only be made using blue agave grown in specific regions of the Mexican states of Jalisco, Guanajuato, Michoacán, Nayarit, and Tamaulipas. Mezcal, on the other hand, can be made with any of over 200 types of agave, known also as maguey, grown in many more Mexican states, including Oaxaca and Puebla.  These range from from the spiky-leafed espadín to the short, wavy-leafed tobala to the treelike barril. Like tequila, mezcal is made by harvesting mature agave, cutting away to the heart, or pina, roasting that—in mezcal’s case, in a wood fired stone-lined pit—hence the smokiness—and fermenting the result in open air vats with natural yeast. The result is then distilled, either in copper or clay pots, and then after a second distillation becomes joven mezcal.

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Serai Desert Tented Camp

Sujan the Serai Desert Camp is a Relais & Chateau luxury tented camp set on a 100 acre private estate in the Thar desert, only about 70 km from the Pakistan border. (We will be continually confused about whether the place is called Serai or Sujan, as staff seems to use the words interchangeably)  A permanent tented camp, with golden limestone floors in public and private tents, Serai is one of the most luxurious we’ve stayed at. At the entrance, there is an enormous multi-tent housing reception, bar, library, and dining room. A large stone deck a few steps down is cut with a maze of shallow water-filled channels, which are bottom-lit at night, forming a glowing symbol. Beyond lies the elevated pool built on a golden sandstone plinth, with waterfall cascading off the back, and paths from there lead to 21 large tent rooms. Mature desert landscape fills the areas between paths and tents—austere, but beautiful. Only the photos do it justice. Each tent has an entry terrace with seating, a front sitting area with camp lounge chairs, and a writing desk. The 20 by 20 ft. bedroom features king bed, and two wooden clothing storage racks. Behind is the bathroom with enormous rain shower and double sinks.

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Royal Island Palace

Arriving at a hotel by water is always a fun experience. We pull up, after a complex day of travel, to an elegant pavilion at the edge of Lake Pichola in Udaipur, Rajasthan. This is actually the hotel"entrance" and the antique wooden  aunch whisks us to the serenity of the Taj Lake Palace Hotel—surely on of the most interesting luxury hotels in the world. We are escorted up the steps under a tassled sunshade by one of the Royal Butlers, a red clad turbaned fellow—this group are said to be descendants of the earlier palace retainers. As we reach the entrance, a shower of carnelian bougainvillea petals gently fall around us....kitschy, but fun. We are welcomed with a cool drink and towel, checked in efficiently, and shown to a deluxe room on the ground floor overlooking the Udaipur Palace on the near shore. The room is not huge...they maximized the number of rooms on the palace view side, but quite luxuriously appointed, with two couches, coffered ceiling, elegant bathroom and of course--killer view.

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David Toutain

David Toutain trained under Pierre Gagnaire, Alain Passard and others, and made his name at the curiously titled restaurant Agape Substance.  He left there abruptly, supposedly with a disagreement with the owner, and in 2013 opened his eponymous restaurant on Rue Surcouf in the 7th—a calm and almost spartan small space in grey tones and wood containing just 22 seats. The more recently inaugurated annex IdentiT has a single long slab of oak that seats 18. Toutain is a serious and inventive cook, and likes to combine unlikely ingredients: cauliflower purée with coconut and white chocolate, and oyster purée with raspberry, for just two examples. Menus are prix fixe and courses change frequently. They have curious names such as Berce, Pansy and  Poppy,  and are 4, 6 or 8 courses, with a 3 course available at lunch. Those are deceptive, however, as they don’t count 2 or 3 amuse, and a couple of pre and post desserts. Also included is his signature poached egg yolk in corn sabayon with cumin, served in its shell along with a tiny herbed cornbread stick to dip in.


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Roman New Years

It’s 7 pm on Sunday, New Year’s Eve and all the bells in all the churches in Rome are ringing at once. And all the church domes and bell towers are lit up against the moonlit sky. This spectacle we observe, glass of chilled, bubbly Franciacorta in hand, from the enclosed rooftop terrace of our cozy Roman apartment at 13 Via della Pace—which we dub Tredici, a couple of short blocks from Piazza Navona, in which the annual Christmas market continues until the Feast of Epiphany on January 6th.

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Florentine Food Tour

In Florence, just before Christmas, we had booked a “Traditional Food” tour of the city, and a half-hour before noon, meet our guide, a charming young woman called Paola, as she is scurrying to avoid some pigeons outside the entrance to the Cappelle Medicee, at the rear of Brunelleschi's Basilica di San Lorenzo. A few blocks away is the vast cast-iron and glass Mercato Centrale, originally built in 1874. The market has changed since we last visited a dozen years ago. The ground floor is still meat, fish, salumeria and vegetables, but the entire top deck, which used to be given over to more market vendors, was converted in 2014 into an enormous food hall, with cooked foods of every description, from asparagus risotto to roast chicken to fritto misto to Chianina beef burgers, with hundreds of tables crammed with lunchers. There are also specialty food vendors, an Eataly grocery section, enoteca and a cooking school. One could make a several-hour food tour here alone.

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Eight Tables--Nine Flavors

Restaurateur George Chen has been around quite a few blocks. His latest opus is Eight Tables, a small, sparse elegant space on the second level above his new food emporium—dubbed by some the "Chinese Eataly"—China Live.

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