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GP 2 May 2007: Better Than Best—First

Best of Class.  The Global Province looks for products, and companies, and experiences that reek of quality.  Our Best of Class section is strictly about bests, though you will find riffs about quality in several places, such as Big Ideas and Agile Companies.  This week and next we are citing a few better-than-bests that stand out from the pack.  We hope they will inspire you as you get ready for summer vacation.  Now, above all, it is time to celebrate the restful and civilized, well away from the madding crowd.

  1. Soba at Nippon Restaurant Nippon is the classic Japanese restaurant in New York—ostensibly the first to serve sushi there and certainly the first to serve fugu, or poison blowfish.  But we most cherish Nippon’s soba noodles, homemade from buckwheat harvested at Nobuyoshi Kuraoka’s own farm in Canada.  The difference between this delectable and the packaged imitations you are presented at most Japanese restaurants is striking.  Many other dishes here are worthy of your attention if you need variety: fluke is nicely presented, without fear of the parasites that may inhabit it at lesser places.  Highly distinguished Japanese avail themselves of this restaurant, and we first learned of it in Japan in 1976.  On one occasion food was sent from Nippon to a Japanese heart attack victim being treated at Bellvue: it was thought to be healthier than the hospital fare.  In fact, it was just more savory.
  1. The First Church of Christ, Scientist.  Bernard Maybeck’s Christian Scientist Church is an oddity for a Berkeley where we suspect the most sacred object these days is organic lettuce and perishable conversation.  Maybeck, a regional architect of the early 20th century who is nationally revered, went on to do things for the Christian Scientists in other parts of the country.  Maybeck’s charming homes—about Berkeley and San Francisco—form a very restful backdrop for a Bay Area that is conflated with rhetoric and marginal passions.  Maybeck did get it right here: one does not even have to enter the church to feel its persuasive spiritual power and the architect’s simple combination of artistry and piety.  For more on Maybeck, read about his “Regional Solution to Modernity,” on the Global Province.  Maybeck himself lived in Berkeley, and the parcels of land he bought there often tided him over during thin financial times.  He was a great friend of geologist Andrew Lawson, the crusty author of the report on the earthquake of 1906, and he built a rock solid house for the flinty Scot in Berkeley.
  1. Mushrooms at La Boqueria or Mercat De La Boqueria.  Early in the morning Barcelona’s top chefs gather here to put together their market basket.  The Observer has called it “Probably the best market in the world,” and we would not quibble.  Years ago, after sailing around the Balearics, we took in Barcelona and in no time at all knew that the best thing about the city was La Boqueria and the assorted creations of the architect Gaudi.  Soon enough we were taking its several delights back to our hotel room, feeling not at all compelled to go out for all meals.  While it is renowned for all manner of thing, we remember particularly the mushrooms, and the legendary Petras may sell 600 cases in a day.  To one side is an all-mushroom restaurant that begs to be tried.  We did—with great pleasure.  It is only matched by a small café that offers choice morels in the old city of Bergamo.
  1. Sculpture al fresco at Lousiana.  As in so many things, the best museums in the world are the small ones, usually stowed in out of the way places.  Such is Lousiana, north of Copenhagen.  Denmark is an unusually civilized country: it protected its Jews during World War II with many of the citizens donning the gold stars the Nazis wanted to pin on the Jews.  Copenhagen has a kindly zoo: the animals are sent to the country for recuperation when they seemed a bit tired, needing a rest from the crowds.  Fifteen percent of the country’s electric power is generated from the wind, making it a world leader in greening.  It is home to Vestas, the leading company in wind turbines.  It is such an environment as this that produces Louisiana which we alluded to in “Museums: Is There a Muse in the House?”  As we said in “Museums as Special Places,” Louisiana is mightily blessed.  It is set near the water on a beautiful estate that needs no art, but the works outside and in remind one that the right art can be a complement to nature.
  1. Always The Thin Man.  If you were holed up in a Southwestern motel where the beds lacked springs and the food were only an afterthought in the town’s formica bars, what would you want to have with you?  Well, we hope even this 50’s motel would have a DVD player.  Then you could watch The Thin Man and marvel at the way America used to blend together simplicity and sophistication.  The Thin Man (all six episodes are available on DVD) is number one on our family movie list.  William Powell and Myrna Loy trollop through six adventures, martinis in hand, with never a thread out of place, and plenty of witty lines to help us ignore the plots.  It is almost unthinkable that these two never got married, for they were so well matched in the movies.  Nick and Nora Charles were dreamed up by Dashiell Hammett, but he never got very far with them, The Thin Man being his last novel.  His career and personal life was rather abortive, but Nick and Nora live on as a fond way of looking at a mixed era in American life.
  1. Mario Villa’s Domestic Wares. It is most appropriate that the Nicaraguan designer Mario Villa should have settled so firmly in New Orleans.  With all its troubles, it is, at its best, the city where comfortable and beautiful domesticity is most ingrained.  Both uptown and in the French Quarter, we will find locals out eating the food at better eateries, not entirely surrendering their restaurants to outlanders.  One shop of antiquities holds only an assortment of wares for the kitchen: we have a crustacean painting from Lucullus that reminds you of what the town is all about.  Once, down the street on the other side, was a shop that had furniture and such, with every item having the shape or at least the image of an animal.  Villa has designed everything from flaring metal beds to lamps to jewelry—each a genuine appeal to the imagination.  Katrina closed his gallery, but he stills sells out of his abodes.  He has degrees from both Tulane and the University of New Orleans—one in architecture and one in anthropology.  New Orleans Homes captures the breadth of his work.

Destination Restaurants.  A week or two back a business friend wrote to thank us for pointing out a new restaurant in his part of the country.  He said, “We had to go twenty or so miles, but it was worth it.  There are,” he continued, “very few destination restaurants in our part of the world, but surely this was worth the trip.”

Strange it is that you have to travel to the margins, to unlikely places around the globe, to find the experiences and the craftspeople who excel.  In a globally connected world, one is looking for artisans and individuals who are disconnected enough to rise above the herd.  They are not on Main Street or Wall Street.

P.S.  We recommend you visit our companion site Spicelines, where you will find endless examples of the excellent and the exotic.

P.P.S.  Maybeck once appeared before Berkeley’s city government to save a tree—in the middle of LaConte as we remember.  He called it “a noble and thrifty tree.”

P.P.P.S.  Strategy World is doing a voice and web seminar with John Hagel on May 9, 2007 (11 A.M. EST).  Hagel gives us some of the answers for dealing with today’s short product cycles, where every product and every service becomes a commodity before you can say, “Jack Robinson.”  Global economics and new technologies have so changed the playing field that traditional corporations have to morph their strategies, organizations, and just about everything else to remain viable.  He and John Seely Brown have summed all this up in The Only Sustainable Edge.  If, implies Hagel, the organization can get smarter at a faster rate, it can deploy those smarts in ways that give an edge.  While we clearly don’t believe Hagel has found the ‘only’ sustainable edge, he does make us think about how to out-scurry the competition.  Instead of just running scared, maybe one can learn to run smart.  You can get some of his drift at www.hagel.com and at edgeperspectives.typepad.com.  We, on the other hand, have said that you can create experiences that cannot be duplicated.  We call it “splendid customization,” remembering well that England once rejoiced in its splendid isolation.

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