The series, which is now in its 5th season (the episodes here include a bunch from the third season and a few from the fourth) has gradually changed over the course of the show, from a darkly funny spin through kitchens around the world (such as season one's "Fear and Loathing" parody in a Vegas episode or the same season's hilariously snarky "Iceland" episode, where a miserable Bourdain sits and drinks in the middle of absolutely nowhere and gives more than a few digs at the local tourism board.)
By the third season, the series had started to shift a little from its bitter, cynical nature and move a little more towards a straightforward travel guide with reflections on life and the current state of the world we live in (not to mention a few more "zen" moments.) While it's impossible for Bourdain to completely level down the snark, the series has - dare I say it - seems to have matured over the seasons. Bourdain no longer seems to show his misery in uncomfortable situations and there's a different attitude about the series. It's not necessarily better or worse, but an interesting evolution for a series and its host. While many may not agree, the "No Reservations" of the current season is very different in look and feel from the first season or even these third season episodes.
The third season is an interesting mix of episodes, but it also includes one of my favorites: "Cleveland". The episode sees the return of Michael Ruhlman, who has collaborated with chefs Eric Ripert and Thomas Keller to write cookbooks. In this episode and the "Las Vegas" episode, Ruhlman serves as something of a nemesis for Bourdain on his adventures and the two have an amusing banter, clearly evident when Bourdain starts his visit by taking Ruhlman to a chili restaurant whose main dish seems to be made up of dumping a pound of shredded cheese over chili, which is dumped over a plate of spaghetti. Describing the cheese to his pal, Bourdain cracks: "The colors, Rulhman! The colors! Just because they don't occur in nature doesn't mean it's bad."
The episode also sees Bourdain visit with legendary comic book artist Harvey Pekar (who illustrates several scenes in the show), who was played by Paul Giamatti in "American Spelendor". Pekar is not only a fascinating character, but provides an interesting discussion of the city, which - as he notes - now has half as many inhabitants as it once did in the '50's. While aspects of the city remain vibrant, the loss of the manufacturing industry has clearly had an effect on the city. Still, we see one business - a ginormous used book store - has taken over where industry has left. The store took over a former Twinkie factory, and there are still gallons upon gallons of filling left in the pipes, which still seems preserved years later. Bourdain also goes on a tour of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame with Marky Ramone.
"New York", where Bourdain heads back to his home turf, is another solid episode included in this set. The episode also includes one of the more amusing moments of the series, where - in a bit of cross-promotion - Bourdain meets up with fellow Travel Channel host Andrew Zimmern ("Bizarre Foods"), as the two couldn't be more different in terms of personality or appearance - there's an amusing moment with the two walking down the street in their usual "uniforms": Bourdain in an old leather jacket and Zimmern in a dress shirt and coat with hankerchief in pocket. Zimmern even provides Bourdain with a new ad line for the series: "Shut up and eat."
Other highlights include "Russia" (where Bourdain once again joins up with pal Zamir), "Hong Kong" (a fascinating journey through the crowded streets and vibrant lights, as well as the wide array of foods) and the gorgeous scenery of "Tuscany". While there are some episodes that are a little drier or more uneventful (such as the "South Carolina" episode), this is otherwise a terrific collection of episodes from the series.
Episodes: Russia, Los Angeles, New York, Shanghai, Hong Kong, French Polynesia, Cleveland, Brazil, Argentina, Singapore, South Carolina, Berlin and Tuscany.
VIDEO: "No Reservations" is presented in 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen. The episodes looked largely terrific, matching the quality of digital cable. Sharpness and detail were above-average throughout much of the running time, although a few scenes appeared mildly softer than the rest. Aside from a few minor instances of pixelation, the picture looked crisp and clean, with bright, well-saturated colors.
SOUND: The show's stereo soundtrack remained crisp and clear throughout the proceedings, with clean, well-recorded dialogue and ambience.
EXTRAS: Sadly, nothing. Fans who already watch the series on the Travel Channel (and it's hard to miss on the channel, given that it's shown endlessly in repeats) aren't going to find anything like deleted scenes here.
Final Thoughts: Informative and entertaining with a engaging character serving as host, "No Reservations" remains a terrific series. However, this set is primarily recommended for those who don't have access to the series on cable.