Cozy Lucerne, Switzerland, just got a surrealist love letter from Jean Nouvel. Commissioned to transform a 100-year-old stone house into a boutique hotel, the French architect came up with The Hotel, a minimalist fun house of strategically angled mirrors and silk-screened ceilings depicting erotic movie stills. In Room 5402, Brando and Schneider smolder overhead in Last Tango in Paris; in 5101, Malkovich and Pfeiffer enact their dangerous liaison.
But the steamiest scenes take place downstairs in the kitchen of Restaurant Bam Bou, where chef Andrew Clayton is creating dishes that no subtitle can adequately describe. Clayton got his classic licks under Gary Danko at the Ritz-CarltonSan Francisco, then studied Asian cuisine during stints in Phuket, Jakarta and Singapore. He manages to merge Spanish chorizo, Thai lemongrass shrimp and cilantro risotto in Tandoori Breast of Chicken Jambalaya—a real feat of global diplomacy. In Rack of Lamb Tandoori, the chops, cooked in a clay oven, rest on a classic potato gratin alongside spicy date puree and tomato confit. Clayton dislikes the word fusion, but whatever name his internationalist cooking goes by, it's got serious Swiss diners dropping their fondue forks in delight (Sempacherstrasse 14; 41-41-226-86-86).
The world is rediscovering modern Finnish design in everything from Marimekko fabrics and Arabia dishes to Nokia cell phones. But perhaps the best place to enjoy the national aesthetic is in Helsinki's restaurants.
At Kartano, a dramatic stone wall sets off the simple, muted rya rugs, blond paneling and spare, angular chairs. Just as understated is the seafood. Finland has some of the best in the world, and Kartano lets it shine in dishes like crayfish tails with vendace roe, known as Finnish caviar. The restaurant also makes good use of the country's dense forests: Wild mushrooms and game turn up in dishes like noisettes of venison with a puree of cèpes (Simonkatu 6; 358-9-586-0701).
Pulp makes a more striking statement: It sits in a large, transparent glass cube that serves as headquarters for Finland's leading media company. The chef, Samu Koskinen, previously cooked at Aquavit in Manhattan; in dishes like miso tuna and grilled scallops with taro chips and soya foam, he exhibits a pan-global bent that suits the avant-garde setting (Mannerheiminaukio 3; 358-9-684-4290).
More traditionally Finnish flavors, and a more subdued environment, are found at Kanavaranta. Its Albatross Room is clubby and nautical, but in the Wine Room, soaring walls and simple chandeliers strike a beautiful balance between elegance and austerity. The menu of Gero Hottinger and Eero Makela—the country's first Michelin-starred chef—has firm seasonal ties, with Jerusalem artichokes and horn-of-plenty mushroom soup featured in winter (Kanavaranta 7E; 358-9-622-2633).
Here, as in the other restaurants that have opened in Helsinki lately, don't expect either architectural or culinary artifice. On the plates as in the interiors, each component is an integral part of the whole scheme.
Before flying to Toronto not long ago, I made inquiries into the local restaurant scene. I was hoping, as usual, to find something new and noteworthy. I certainly didn't expect to hear that one of the world's premier chefs had set up shop, but that's just what has happened: Susur Lee is back in town.
Nearly everyone I met in Toronto seemed to have the sense that the opening of Susur "raises the net worth of the city by more than a point or two," as the critic James Chatto wrote. Lee first won acclaim at a tiny local place called Lotus. The outside world beckoned, though, and in 1997 a hip Asian restaurant group lured him to Singapore. Fortunately for Toronto, he seems to have spent much of his time in the East dreaming up his ideal restaurant and shopping for props. At Susur, solid-teak candleholders from Indonesia and handsome, modern silverware from Thailand now sit, improbably but delightfully, on tables set with Frette linens. As for some other memorable bits of scenery—a chorus line of Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man dolls and a wall of black-velvet paintings—they can only have come from some private corner of Lee's imagination.
Somehow, it all adds up to a coherent vision, and this is the hallmark of Lee's cooking, too. He's able to mix and match any flavors and techniques that strike his fancy and make them seem like they belonged together all along. Who would believe that Reggiano cheese and Korean chili paste had any business on a plate of gingered beef tartare and carpaccio of filet mignon? But they do. Or that pork belly would taste so delicious marinated in rice wine with five-spice powder, then blasted in a Chinese steamer before being braised and set on corn flan with orange marmalade? On my way to the dining room, I was advised by another customer, who was on his way out, to "go for the venison." I read the menu, learned that the meat was being set up on a blind date with gorgonzola sauce, and lost my nerve. Next time, I'll know better (601 King St. W.; 416-603-2205).
Flamenco dolls, castanets and miniature bulls with espadas piercing their backs still fill every souvenir shop in Madrid, prompting the question: What are they doing here? What were cultural icons just a few short years ago are now cultural relics. Sure, Madrileños still cling to their siestas—and yes, bullfights live on—but in most other ways the city feels utterly international, more Nike and Gucci than chocolate y churros.
The restaurants especially. While for decades Madrid specialized in a distinctly insular and native, if excellent, cuisine, today its best new restaurants could pretty much pass for the best new restaurants in any cosmopolitan city. They're terrific, inventive and gorgeous—just don't go looking for paella.
Take Nodo, a Mediterranean-Asian fusion place with a dramatically mood-lit modernist dining room and a spectacular Japanese garden, where wasabi coats steak, and red-pepper-and-potato marmetako sauce tops tuna sushi. Who needs gazpacho when there's chef Alberto Checote's crispy fried spinach salad with lime and cardamom, subtly sweet and as melty as cotton candy? (Velázquez 150; 34-91-564-40-44)
Then there's La Broche, where the chef, Sergi Arola, is so wildly talented that he can make bacon ice cream taste amazing—as in creamy puree of kidney beans with Perol sausages and bacon ice cream. Duck liver coca is pizza gone berserk, with an almost crackerlike crust, gooey duck liver standing in for tomato sauce and multicolored vegetables subbing for cheese (Miguel Angel 29-31; 34-91-399-34-37).
Slightly less out there, De Vinis is also the most homegrown: Cod is prepared with three Spanish sauces—dorado, Vizcaína and pil pil—and sommelier Daniel González suggests a different wine, including many domestic ones, for every dish on the menu (Castellana 123; 34-9-556-40-33).
If there's a Spanish common denominator to these places, it's espuma, or foam: vanilla foam with frozen passionfruit at Nodo, mushroom-and-truffle vinaigrette foam at La Broche, cheese foam with vermouth aspic at De Vinis. Madrid is awash in it. Ever since mad-scientist chef Ferran Adriá began inserting everything from asparagus to saffron into a whipped-cream canister at El Bullí, outside Barcelona, foam has turned up in trendy restaurants around the world. In Madrid, though, it's threatening to become a national dish. But who knows? Those canisters could go the way of the squirt bottles that used to paint dishes with Miró squiggles, and today's cultural icon could become tomorrow's cultural relic.