I'm Appellate Judge James A. Stewart. I write, I watch travel shows, I eat—and I'm hungry for more.
Our review of Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations: Collection 4, published July 22nd, 2009, is also available.
"My history with livestock does raise the possibility of my reincarnating as one of my favorite snacks."—Anthony Bourdain
As host of Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations, Anthony Bourdain's life is a vacation. He travels the world, meeting new people, sampling great food, and taking on any adventure he can find, albeit with a little amusing whining.
Bourdain has become the face of cable's Travel Channel, with his show rerun constantly, and has spawned a cottage industry of TV foodie travelers, with Andrew Zimmern, Adam Richman (Man vs. Food), and Guy Fieri (Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives) joining him on the road with forks at the ready.
What would make a DVD reviewer's job as much of a vacation as Bourdain's? Well, I could grab a portable DVD player and head for the Himalayas, but spending a week with a DVD Bourdain-a-thon is cheaper and easier. It also saves the trouble of lugging bottles of oxygen. Heck, chances are I'd catch a few of these anyway, but with Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations—Collection 3, I get to skip the commercials.
Facts of the Case
Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations—Collection 3 contains 13 episodes on three discs:
• "Los Angeles": Tony rents a Delta Royale and hits the highway, facing a round in the rink and eating french dip sandwiches with the L.A. Derby Dolls, taking mariachis for a cruise, and getting tasered in SWAT training.
• "New York": Tony stays home, showing viewers some favorite haunts, including a couple you can't get into. He also has an offal meal with Andrew Zimmern, drives a cab, falls off a trapeze, and goes onto the field at Yankee Stadium.
• "Shanghai": After seeking out the perfect dumpling in Shanghai, Tony makes his way to Shangri-La. Along the way, he forgets his oxygen in the Himalayas and encounters a lot of stinky tofu.
• "Hong Kong": Tony eats a lot. Among the dishes: rice with smoked duck, crispy pork, goose, handmade bamboo noodles, squid balls, dim sum, liver sausage ice cream, and something that, um, looks like fish heads. He also does some kung fu faking.
• "Cleveland": Tony visits American Splendor writer Harvey Pekar and finds his life—and his rivalry with Michael Ruhlman—taking comic book form. Tony explores postmodern Cleveland cuisine with Marky Ramone.
• "Brazil": Graffiti artists help Tony make his mark in Sao Paolo. He also enjoys the famed beaches, watches Carnaval practice, and (briefly) gets his kicks from football. Testicles and a thick mortadella sandwich are on the menu.
• "Argentina": Tony rides with gauchos. He also meets a rock band that really cooks, learns an artist's recipe for tasty installations, visits an open air restaurant, and goes paragliding.
• "South Carolina": Tony dons a tux to stroll the streets and drink mint juleps in Charleston, tries Frogmore stew in a Gullah restaurant, joins a Civil War reenactment, enjoys a whole hog barbecue, and learns about fox chasing.
• "Berlin": Tony checks out the "underground sensibility" of art, cabarets, and hotels. He also visits the city's oldest biergarten, chats with a former spy over currywurst, visits a Turkish men's club, and drives a Trabant.
• "Tuscany": When "Italian auteur/director" Vincenzo takes over a stay in a beautiful Tuscan villa, will it be Mr. Bourdain's Holiday or a journey into his inner hell? The crew's dishing on his Italian cooking, but the great food at a roadside trattoria steers Tony in the right direction.
Perhaps the reason that Anthony Bourdain became an icon of TV travel is that he's not a bland, genial nice guy. He may not be still living the wild life he described in his memoir, Kitchen Confidential, but that life shows, from the tattoos he sports and still gets to the alcohol he downs to the slight hints of recklessness. "Every day, I google Keith Richards, and if he's alive, my lifestyle health plan is working," Bourdain tells viewers. His early excesses and his wisecracks give him a sense of danger that Samantha Brown just doesn't have:
• "This is the kind of car that says, Hello, I'm hiding a body in my trunk."
• "What happened to the good old days when New York was supposed to be scary, intimidating?"
• "If Paris Hilton comes here at night wearing a lot of jewelry, I'd [bleep] rob her."
At the same time, though, viewers know he's just having a good time and enjoys exploring the world. He seems genuinely fascinated by a Communist-era meat preparation poster or a chance to step onto the field at Yankee Stadium. Like Peter Mayle, though, what Bourdain seems to enjoy most is food. That's to be expected, since Bourdain's a chef. What makes Bourdain salivate most is street food.
"If Mom said it's good for you, I don't want it…This is an example of a food I don't care what's in it. I don't care if it's healthy. I just know it's so good, and I must have it," he tells viewers as he chomps down on a thick, greasy mortadella sandwich.
While he might cook fancy stuff, he's always biting into some kind of sausage or extolling the virtues of a vendor's kebab, with a comment like "Sizzling hunks of meat on a stick, always a shortcut to enlightenment and satisfaction." The episode that shows that the most is his visit to Hong Kong, where he says people eat out more than anywhere else in the world and little joints with memorable meals are found around every corner.
Of course, he also spends time checking out "molecular gastronomy," that mad scientist experimentation with "deconstruction" of food. I suspect that Bourdain may even try a little deconstruction in his spare time in his secret underground lair. Still, when I can see the joy of a mortadella Dagwood in his eyes, I want to see less of this deconstructing and even more street food stalls. The street food is the stuff I want to taste vicariously and try when I do travel.
Bourdain's bluntness is also appealing. He likes meat, period, so vegans are likely to have reservations about this show. He also likes to show how meat gets to be meat, so be prepared for the occasional hunting, fishing, or butchering scene. While he praises a lot of what he sees and tastes, he will complain about that icky stinky tofu or a cabaret act that irritates him. Big time.
Sometimes Bourdain can get a little schticky, as with the Italian filmmaker bits in the Tuscany episode. The surreal scenes of his inner hell are overdone, making it the low point of this season. My favorite episode-framing schtick was the comic book motif used in the Cleveland episode. Bourdain's Peter Mayle-on-acid personality and ironic cool, backed up by campy use of vintage film and retro music, has a love-it-or-hate-it quality. I love it and have seen all of these a few times already, but I realize it's not everyone's cup of bone soup.
The picture isn't perfect. You get some washed-out images, but you'd expect that from a travelogue shot with natural lighting. What was less expected and less acceptable was a strange halo that often follows people around. The sound's fine; you'll hear all that ironic retro music perfectly.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
If you wait a few weeks, you'll see all of these episodes on the Travel Channel. Why plunk down money for what you're already paying for with your cable bill?
There's also a parental advisory on the show, thanks mainly to some bleeped-out cursing, slaughtering of animals, and references to Bourdain's wild past. This may be rough stuff for the Travel Channel, but it's better for your family than most of what's on network TV. Plus, a few of Bourdain's weirder moments might scare them away from drugs and booze forever.
If you don't get Travel Channel or just don't want to mess with recording, it's worth buying since you'll want to watch these shows a few times. By few, I mean a lot. It looks like Travel Channel's trying to keep the price down with its barebones release.
Anthony Bourdain's not guilty, even if he's hardly innocent. Travel Channel is reprimanded by the court for failing to cough up some juicy extras for dessert.
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