The Red Sox Cap Theory of Traveling

There they were, the choices. At first glance they seemed identical: blue ball caps with red “B”s. But one was not as vivid, it’s “B” lacked flourish, but it was fifteen dollars less expensive. The other was the official hat for the MLB. The salesman wanted me to be informed, but I knew I wanted a bona fide Red Sox cap. I didn’t fly across the nation, knowing nothing about baseball, for a less pretty hat.

He seemed pleased with my choice, and as he cut off the price tag and removed the card stock from inside the cap, he taught me how to speak Bostonian. “See this word?” He slid over a piece of a paper with the “khakis” on it. “This is how we say car keys.” He handed me my cap and nodded in approval as I put in on my head to head back on the tour of the Freedom Trail with my friend to try out my new lingo.

The Bostonian pronunciation.
The Bostonian pronunciation.

We arrived at Bunker Hill shortly after the time they stopped letting people in to climb up to the top of the monument. I asked the guard, “Are we too late to climb up?” He looked at me, looked at my hat, “How can I say no to someone wearing a Red Sox cap?” and let us up. At Louisa May Alcott’s house, the tour guide complimented me on my hat, as did other people in and around Boston. I was confused. This was Boston; didn’t EVERYONE have a Red Sox cap? What was so special about mine? But then again, everyone in Boston is really nice.

In my Red Sox's cap in front of Louisa May Alcott's House.
In my Red Sox’s cap in front of Louisa May Alcott’s House.

But a part of me thinks that they must have seen that I was not from around there. I was too bundled up (it was below freezing most of my trip) or my hat was just too new or I pronounced my “r”s. Their kindness and recognition of my cap may have stemmed from their appreciation that I took pride in their city. People are generally nice and want to be helpful, but when you show that you are enjoying their home, that’s where we get into what it means to travel.

This played out to almost comedic effect in London last fall. Steve wanted to eat at some top-tier restaurants, and we chose Pollen Street Social, a recipient of one Michelin star (a crazy hard achievement). I wore white jeans, a teal sweater, and pink loafers while Steve wore a short-sleeved plaid button down shirt, untucked with jeans. I kept asking him if we had on the appropriate attire, and he assured me that it was “semi-casual”. However, I suspected that London semi-casual is a whole different thing than America’s version. As we entered the posh and modern dining room, we knew we were quite underdressed.

Floor to ceiling windows separated the kitchen from the dining room revealing master chef Jason Atherton and his team working away at their creations. Our server showed us our seats among men in sharp suits and women in fancy dresses. We explained that we were from California. We tried to mask our discomfort of sticking out like sore thumbs. We had been to nice restaurants before, but this was something else entirely. I felt like a novice trying to play in the big leagues.

Servers came by with our wine and amuse bouches of mushroom tea with cream, goat cheese churros with truffle oil drizzled honey, polenta muffins, and black olive crackers. One asked me if I had food preferences. Finally Steve ordered the fourteen course tasting menu while I stuck with a regular entree of the red mullet with black and green olive purée.

Steve’s little courses started to appear at our table, and they surprised us by bringing me tastings, too. One of Atherton’s signature dishes is the Deconstructed English Breakfast– an eggshell filled with finely chopped sautéed mushrooms, a tomato purée, eggs made into something like a cream, and ham. Mine was made especially for me without the ham. Throughout the night various servers stopped by our table and chatted with us about the food, European wine versus Californian, and our homes. They wanted to know what they could convey to the chef, especially when I couldn’t finish my dinner. What was my reason for not cleaning my plate?

The Deconstructed English Breakfast.
The Deconstructed English Breakfast.

At dessert, they brought me out the tastings even though I said I was full. We had frozen caramel corn over sweet cream and creme anglaise, cucumber yogurt foam with strawberry coulis, frozen banana dark chocolate Grenache, and white chocolate sorbet with lime. One of the desserts was was topped with blueberries, and I told Steve that I hoped they didn’t bring me a taste since I dislike blueberries. I wondered if we were being recorded, because when that dessert came out, they only brought one for Steve.

We observed the other diners. They talked amongst each other; the food, the service, the ambience seemed to be an afterthought. This was just another Monday night and another dinner for them. They took it for granted that they could just go such a restaurant and have such a meal. All received good service, but none garnered the attention we received. We were there for the experience, and everyone who worked there responded in kind and seemed determined to give us the best experience possible.

When we went to Simpson’s so Steve could have the prime rib, we had a similar experience. Simpson’s is a London landmark; it’s been there since the 19th century and was even featured in Downton Abbey. They are famous for carving the prime rib table side. Steve researched the restaurant beforehand and learned that it is customary to tip the carver. When the carver came to our table, he and Steve got talking about prime rib, and he carved him an English cut, an American cut (thinner), and the much coveted end cut. When Steve tipped him, he smiled and said, “You know the tradition.” When he could, he stopped by our table and chatted some more, and before we left the manager stopped us to talk to us about our meal and the speech David Cameron gave that day. Again, they wanted us to have a good experience.

It felt like we had on London’s version of the Red Sox cap; everyone responded to our enthusiasm. People take pride in what they do, and they want to share what they know or their skills. It seems to come down to the fact that no one wants to take the other for granted. We don’t often have dining experiences like these, and it also appears that they don’t get a plethora of diners who are there for the experience.

Two thoughts come to mind as I write this post:
1. I realize that I am preaching to the choir. My readers (who mostly consist of my friends and family– Hi, friends and family!  Thank you for reading!) are those who would enjoy everything a place has to offer.

2. Much of this joy that we experienced is a result of being present in the moment. We were paying attention; we weren’t diverted by our phones or other concerns.  In my quest of focusing on how to “be”, these moments provide a good lesson on how to give attention.

Now the question is how to create this sense of wonder here at home. How can I break out of taking my hometown for granted?

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Bucking Tradition: A Reflection and A Review

Before I went to London and Paris last summer I wrote some posts that I set to be published while I was gone.  This was a challenge since I was already at that time writing a post a day– this goal forced me to write two or three.  Instead of trying to create something entirely new, I mined my past and came up with my prom.  More specifically, how I did not go to prom and how this act changed the course of my life.  Since it posted in June, this reflection has been one of my most viewed posts ever, and the search term “not going to prom” has lead many a people to my site.

Prom, or not going to prom, apparently is a big deal.  As someone who has taught high school seniors in the spring, I know how all-consuming prom is for the teenage brain.  There is a lot of pressure to go and even more pressure to have it mean something, so it’s not surprising that there is more than one kid who would want to opt out.  Some may even see it as akin to Valentine’s Day, an event that everyone gets so wrapped in because it’s supposed to “mean something” but ultimately only means something to the corporations hawking their red, pink, and white wares.  Prom is good for business– it tides companies over between Easter and the Fourth of July.  These consumerist tendencies are kept alive because of “tradition”– it’s what everybody does every year.  It is no small thing to buck tradition, but doing so can teach you a lot and may even be the key to survival.

The Michelin Guide, the little red book that lavishes stars on restaurants they deem worthy of praise, is like prom.  Restauranteurs do everything to be titled prom king or queen and when they do not win, it’s crushing.  More puzzling is how were the winners chosen.  Was it a popularity contest?  Did the winners have a whiter, brighter smile? Did they deserve to win?  In the meantime, Michelin turns a profit: people buy their guides and their tires.  Michael Steinberger explores the impact of the Michelin Guide and other social and economic forces that lead to the downfall of French cuisine and culinary greatness in his book Au Revoir To All That:Food, Wine, and the End of France.

Steinberger is a Francophile who remembers the France of his youth: the one that set the standard for the world to follow.  Now he laments its fall from grace as other cities such as New York and London, yes, London, have taken over the reins as as the culinary capitals.  He set out to discover how this came to be so, and wrote not only an engaging and entertaining book, but one that sheds light on the impact of economic policies, the rise of businesses and celebrity chefs, the non-integration of immigrants, and the control of societal expectations.

The decline of French food and wine cannot be traced back to one source.  It is the result of government policies and regulation run amuck.  First of all, we need to consider the traditional fine dining experience; it included not only top-flite cuisine, it also meant that the meal would be served on fine china, with crystal stemware and silver on crisp, white linens in an opulent dining room run by a legion of suited servers.  This cost money.  With a history of high unemployment and a 19% value added tax, most French cannot afford go out to eat.  For a successful French chef to remain successful, it means opening restaurants in the States, Japan, and England.  This results in less time behind the stove and less time involved in quality control.

The economy has also hit cheese-makers and vintners.  Most French consumers cannot afford to purchase the expensive small-batch cheeses that are made in the traditional ways.  Instead they turn to mass-produced cheeses that are less expensive but also have less quality.  Regulations against using raw milk for cheeses hurt the industry, too.  The extra bacteria in raw milk cultivates the complexity of flavor that traditional cheeses are known for.  Regulations have hurt the vintners as there was a massive crackdown on drunk driving and the advertisement of alcohol.  In addition to these prohibition-like moves, the wines are categorized as AOC (supposedly the best), vin de pays, and vins de table.  Wine sellers are required to display each group separately, rather than displaying the best together.  The AOCs often had many bad wines, while the vins de tables represented many of the good wine-makers.  Of course, the French vintners rested on their laurels and were blind-sided by the quality and affordability of California wines, and soon those made in Chile, Argentina, and Australia.  They experienced competition like never before as the French consumed less wine and the Americans consumed more.

If California’s wines were surprising, then their other form of competition is even more surprising: McDonald’s.  In a depressed economy McDonald’s acts as a salve to many.  It’s cheap and only has a 5.5% value added tax; most of the youth are poor, need something, anything to eat, and cannot afford fine-dining; it employs large numbers of youths, including immigrant youths who have been disenfranchised from traditional businesses; and most people do not have time for long meals anymore.  McD’s won over the French by reaching out to the consumers and using French beef, bread, and vegetables.

Steinberger also puts much of the blame on the Michelin Guide.  Michelin put out the guide to get Parisians out and about, on the road, to experience fine dining and gain product recognition for its tires.  It doled out one, two, or three stars to various restaurants; two stars cemented the success of any chef who received them.  Chefs, in turn, worked hard and did anything they thought was necessary to receive a star, including piling up millions of dollars of debt.  Unlike our Zagat ratings, which lay out the standards by which a restaurant is judged by, Michelin’s methodology is unclear, nor do they feel the need to explain themselves.  The result is restaurants of inconsistent quality being awarded stars and those of quality not receiving them or having stars taken away.  This guide dominated the food scene for almost one hundred years.

But is this ultimately the end of France?  Steinberger points to some new trends that signal the revival of French dining, but they do not include expensive tabs, fine linens, or le Big Mac.  One involves a group who turns out to be more French than the French: the Japanese.  From a culture devoted to making a superior product, many Japanese chefs have learned French cuisine and often stay in France to open restaurants.  If not, they go back to Japan or elsewhere in the world and recreate the bistros and brasseries.  Another group is a new generation of chefs who have bucked the traditions of large dining rooms with opulent decor.  They focus on smaller restaurants that provide quality local food at reasonable prices.  They do not aim to create culinary empires but prefer to stay behind their stoves.  The result?  They’re getting the French interested in French food again.

Au Revoir To All That‘s first half is reminiscent of Robert Grave’s WWI memoir Goodbye To All That in that it shows the death of a way of life.  The last part of the book twists the meaning as the new trends say goodbye to much of what has held the culture down.  New chefs are carving their own paths, creating new experiences, and reviving their culinary greatness.  They do not chase after anyone else’s stars, but instead chase their own.

A Fall Day

I craned my neck to get a glimpse of the sky through my hotel window.  Shards of crystal blue peaked between the corners of the buildings, letting me know that weather-wise that day was going to be A DAY.  The sun shone so brightly that it was difficult to see even with the help of my sunglasses.  Everything it seemed, shined and reflected off of each other.  A perfect Friday, really, to go rowing in Central Park and then hang out in Greenwich Village.

Here comes the sun.
The wonder of Central Park is that there is always something to see and admire.  It ranks right up there with baseball games as a people-watching venue: New York natives jogging, tourists wearing their I [Heart] New York sweatshirts, musicians and artists displaying their talents.  It’s all here.  Then there are the trees.  Fall colors shyly emerged from the tips of still verdant leaves– drawing rapt attention from those sluggish of summer and eager for fall.

The very fun Tin Roof Jazz Band with a splash of fall in the distance.

This avenue is one of my favorite parts of the park.

Capturing Shakespeare in the fall light.
Steve gallantly rowed me around the pond by the Boathouse.  Renting a rowboat for an hour is probably one of the least expensive excursions available in New York: $12 for an hour and $2 for each subsequent 15 minutes.  Out on the water with the other boaters made me feel like we had entered a Seurat painting.  The nature and light dappled around us.

Out on the water.

Stewart leads the way!

Looking back at the city.

Queen Anne’s Lace!

Afterwards we meandered to the other boat pond.

We finished our row with lunch at The Boat House.  The outdoor patio seating was full with forty minute wait, so we opted to eat inside from their to-go counter.  As we turned to head over there, a woman behind me, who spoke to her husband of their “usual table”, tapped me on the shoulder to let me know that the prime rib sandwich was excellent.  I passed this tidbit to my red-meat eating husband.  He tried it and concurred.  I ordered the veggie burger; should have got the salmon salad instead.

We had tickets to see Ravi Coltrane at the Village Vanguard in Greenwich Village, so we walked down to Times Square, a haven for tourists opting to spend their money and time buying tennis shoes, visiting the Hershey’s Store, hoping to get spotted on MTV, and eating at the Olive Garden.  Basically it’s one loud, raucous, crowded shrine to commercialism.  We kept walking until we finally took the subway for the rest of our trip.

Out of the subway station in the Village, it was like we entered a different world.  Quiet surrounded us as we strolled along New York’s older buildings and brownstones.  It was conceivable that we would spot the cast of Sesame Street along one of the tree-lined avenues, or Carrie Bradshaw running out to meet Mr. Big’s (sigh) limo.  Since Grover or Mr. Big were not around to catch my eye, Three Lives and Company book store did.  Nestled on a street corner, it provided a selection of literary fiction, poetry, travelogues, cookbooks, and reflections on the craft of writing.  It was like the book gods created a store just for me– my own little bit of heaven.

Stop in!
From there we made our way to Washington Square Park.  On a beautiful Friday evening everyone was out to enjoy the last vestments of nice weather.  It was predicted to get chilly and overcast the next day, and no one knew if this was it– the final time to don shorts and t-shirts and sunglasses.

Famous arch in Washington Square Park.

Everyone enjoys the afternoon. I don’t know the dude in the yellow shirt, or the green one for that matter.

A jazz band played. Notice– he’s playing two trumpets at once!

Even the bee comes out to enjoy the festivities.

Summer’s last bloom.
We made our way to Apiary, a restaurant run by Scott Bryan, a chef who Anthony Bourdain considers a god.  Steve, who has a little man-crush on Bourdain, was eager to experience the culinary delights there.  I, on the other hand, was a little skeptical.  Was this going to be a pretentious meal with pretentious service?  Was this going to be some manly place that puts pork belly on everything?

The restaurant’s pink font and pink chairs let my worries be put to rest.  The decorations were whimsical, soft, and feminine with a modern spin.  Our server was kind and knowledgable.  I don’t recall seeing pork belly on the menu.  I ordered the Apiary salad, a perfectly mounded pile of greens dressed in olive oil, vinegar, and chives.  It was so lightly dressed that there was not even a puddle on the plate.  For dinner I opted for the Scottish Salmon dusted with horseradish with braised artichokes topped with trout roe and a light cream sauce.  Everything about the meal was subtle.  The fish had a smooth salmon flavor as opposed to the strong flavor found in Atlantic salmon; the horseradish gently asserted itself as a supporting role rather than a key player; the roe’s mild saltiness balanced the sweetness of the artichokes.  It was superb.  Steve ordered the ricotta ravioli with sage-butter starter, followed it up with steak, potatoes, and creamed spinach, and completed his meal with the peach galette topped with creme fraiche ice cream and caramel sauce.  The only disconcerting moment arrived when I listened in on the girls sitting next to us.  One also ordered the salmon, but scraped off the roe and sauce.  Their only comment about their meals was, “Yeah, this is good,” before continuing on their conversation about one of them locking herself out of her house.  I wondered if this was a problem among New Yorkers: being spoiled by too much good food.  My home town doesn’t give me easy access to Scottish salmon so perfectly cooked, and I was going to enjoy every bite.

If you find yourself on 3rd Avenue and you’re hungry…

Cute!

Isn’t that the prettiest salmon you’ve ever seen? I hated to demolish its loveliness.

A modern take on Steve’s favorite meal.

Again, almost too pretty to eat.
Our evening ended at the Village Vanguard– the jazz mecca of New York.  There is no assigned seating, so Steve wanted to get there early to be first in line.  We weren’t first, but as finished our descent down the red staircase, Steve was surprised to learn that the very, very, very, very front seats were vacant.  Steve snatched them.  I rested my feet on the stage.  When Ravi Coltrane came out, he stood in front of us, looked at Steve, and asked, “How ya doing?”  While Coltrane didn’t know this, I knew Steve was in heaven.  He was about two feet from us, and we could feel his reverberations through the stage and see him play every note.  He channeled his dad’s spirit, and it was the most “jazziest” show we have seen to date.  Later on, Steve stunned by the experience, had to go have a drink.  I, sated by the sun, sounds, and tastes, went to sleep.

The Ravi Coltrane Quartet

Steve’s version of heaven.

The Grilled Cheese That Got It Right

I dodged a bullet.  Literally.

On Tuesday morning I woke up feeling a little “off”.  I spent the first few minutes trying to pinpoint it, only to have it overtake me.  The stomach flu had me in its grip for the next four hours, and it was four hours after that that I could muster enough strength to get off of the couch.  Four hours later I could bear the thought of eating a meal.

How is this dodging bullet?  Twelve hours after sipping chicken noodle soup and 7-Up, I shuffled onto a plane gripping my Tums and double-checking the seat pockets for barf bags, dismayed at their small size.  Had I gotten the stomach flu any later than I did, there would have been no way that I could have gotten on that plane, and our  two-years worth of planning to visit New York would have also hit the shitter.

This is how I ended up in New York, the culinary capital of the world, with the worst possible accessory: no appetite.

After checking into our hotel, Steve slowed his pace to meet my trudge along 9th Avenue into Hell’s Kitchen to Eatery, a modern and fun bistro that served sizable portions.  While Steve heartily chowed down on his Caesar salad, filet medallions with mashed potatoes, beer-battered onion rings, and malbec reduction followed by pumpkin cheesecake that “tastes like fall,” I picked at my lemon-pepper salmon with brocollini, fennel, and romesco sauce.  I sipped at my water, having turned down a glass of wine, appetizer, and dessert.  The waiter, I’m sure, thought I was a cheap date.

The next morning we found our breakfast place at Europan Bakery at the corner of 58th and 9th.  Our hotel offered a continental breakfast– pastries, yogurt, fruit, juice, and coffee– for only $21.00 a person (a steal, I know), but Europan provided oatmeal, orange juice, a breakfast sandwich, and coffee for about $16.00 total.  There I timidly ate my oatmeal, feeling stronger.

This strength did not carry over to our morning walk through Central Park.  We passed all of my favorites, food stands selling ice cream and roasted nuts, and I said “No” to it all.  After visiting the Frick Collection, the Apple Store (aka. the zoo, there were so many people), and FAO Schwarz, so Steve could look at more toys, we meandered to Rockefeller Plaza, the home of one of my favorite shops, Le Maison du Chocolat, a purveyor of very fine chocolates and macarons, and where I stunned Steve by saying, “Not today.”  What I really wanted was some soup.

The Bouchon Bakery across from the Today Show set with its bustling lunch crowd looked promising.  We got in line with trendy New Yorkers and tourists clutching their blue Tiffany bags, and the menu made an offer that even my weak stomach couldn’t refuse: the grilled-cheese and tomato soup combo.

The Bouchon Bakery. Former home of Dean and Deluca.

The grilled-cheese and tomato soup combo is part of the trinity of comfort foods for me, followed by the open faced turkey sandwich on white bread with mashed potatoes and gravy and my grandma’s oven-baked Kraft Ultimate Macaroni and Cheese with the buttery cracker topping.  As a kid I ate so many grilled cheese sandwiches that my granny nicknamed them the “don’t-you-dares” as in “don’t you dare order another one of those grilled cheese sandwiches.”  She became more adept at spotting them on a menu before I could, and would utter her phrase in a low voice.  I never heeded her advice.  I dared.

Recently in the grilled cheese world, the offerings have been rather dispiriting.  Everyone it seems wants to put their own stamp on it.  Many places use rustic bread or add accoutrements as meats, tomatoes, mustards, or apples.  These additions are nice, but they take away from the very nature of the meal.  Grilled cheeses should be simple, comforting, and easy to eat; tearing and pulling my way through a crusty Italian loaf is work.  I wasn’t sure what Bouchon would serve up, but I took the dare and ordered it anyway.

Perfect lunch. All is good in the world.

Readers, it was perfect.  Bouchon used fluffy, light white bread that was lightly buttered and browned to a gentle crisp.  When I lifted one half, the white cheddar cheese ribboned apart. It was cut on the diagonal– ideal for dipping a corner into the tomato soup.  The soup was made with San Marzano tomatoes and had just the right amount of tartness.  Like the sandwich, it was simple and unadorned.  For the first time in three days, my stomach perked up.  I ate the whole thing.

Readers: What is your favorite comfort food?  Who makes the best version of your comfort food?

A Tale Of Two Dinners: Part Two

We walked by the bustling tables decked with businessmen, shoppers, and young, shiny girls embracing their new adulthood.  They flocked to the sidewalk dining of The Whiskey and Carmine’s on Chicago’s Rush Street, and enjoyed their drinks and apps on a clear evening.  We continued walking looking for Elm Street, soon we were past the hustle and bustle and onto a quiet street offices whose employees were making merry behind us.  I didn’t know if this boded well.  We were headed to Table 52, a restaurant known for Southern-style cuisine, and it felt like we were swimming against the current and away from the places “to see and be seen”.  This place, a couple of blocks down, stood apart from the rest.

Does it get much cuter?
The dining room.

Steve and I were trying to recoup a nice dining experience– our previous night’s dinner at David Burke’s was mediocre at best– and we decided to give Table 52 a try.  We arrived at a small cream colored house with a celery trim with a small outside dining area.  We walked through the glass-paned front door into a dining room where Savannah charm met the south of France.  The walls were a buttery yellow, topped by thick crown molding that framed a burnt umber pressed tin ceiling.  A staunch white farmhouse hutch anchored the room and housed the evening’s wine selection.  The tables were all set with a small vase of purple flowers, nice linens, and rustic floral plates.  If attention to detail was lacking at David Burke’s, Table 52 did more to make up for it.  The hostess seated us immediately– probably because we were the first people to arrive (not for long– it filled up quickly).  Our server brought us complimentary deviled eggs topped with smoked trout.  The bottom of the egg had been sliced so it would lay solidly on the plate– a nice nod to detail.  The smokiness of the fish complemented the tanginess of the yolk; I would have gladly eaten Steve’s.

Unlike our server at David Burke’s, who went through the motions, our server this night was personable and didn’t speak from a script.  She was genuinely interested in the food, wine, and where she worked.  When I asked her opinion of which wine I should choose, she described them both and provided a tasting of each.  As we discussed our food orders, another waiter brought us complimentary goat cheese biscuits right out of the oven.  (If pepper jack cheese is taking fast food by storm– then goat cheese has got a hold on the classier joints.) They were light and savory with warm chunks of goat cheese throughout.  For our appetizer we selected the pickle plate, and for dinner Steve chose the steak and I chose the catfish after our server let me know that the collard greens that accompanied it could be made without bacon.  She was mindful of our time since we told her that we were headed to the Rush concert.

One common annoyance I have with dining out is feeling like I’m a number– the 1,526,782nd served.  I don’t want a perky waiter trying to up-sell us with the coconut shrimp and sitting at our table like he’s part of the family, but I do want to be recognized as a human being who enjoys good food.  Good restaurants are the ones that make you feel at home and special at the same time.  One of the chefs, who also happened to be a Rush fan, heard that we were going to the concert. He specifically requested to bring out our appetizer, so he could talk to us about Rush.  He and Steve shared their favorite songs while I dug into the pickle plate.

Okra: Love at first bite?

The pickle plate is a misnomer.  Included with the pickled vegetables– mostly celery and okra– was more goat cheese, sesame cracker, red pepper relish, and little corn biscuits topped with salmon roe.  It was artfully presented and different from the standard appetizer.  Okra, for me, is categorized with avocados and blueberries: food I don’t want to see on my plate.  But I tried it anyway, and it was crisp and tart, the antithesis of the over-cooked slimy vegetable I’m used to.  The platter served up a lovely contrast of textures– the crunch of the veggies against the smoothness of the cheese; the sweet of the relish with the savory items.  The cornbread biscuits balanced out the saltiness of the roe.

One fish, two fish, catfish.
It’s the cheesiest!

After the pickle plate was taken away, I anxiously awaited my dinner.  I ordered the catfish, not because I’m a huge fan of it, but because it came with cheesy grits, collard greens, and a hush puppy.  The hush puppy sealed the deal.  My plate arrived with three oven-fried catfish croquettes resting on the collards and grits.  I moved the hush puppy to the side to save it for last.  We also ordered a side of the macaroni and cheese because we were told that they top it all with more cheese and stick under the broiler to let it get all brown and bubbly.  There would be plenty of burned cheese bits.  Just can’t pass that up.  I can’t.  The mac and cheese arrived and broiled cheese encased its bowl.  Dinner alternated between eating my cheesy grits and scraping the burned cheese off the macaroni (the pasta and cheese sauce were very good– just no match for crispy cheese coating).  The catfish was okay, the coating could have used a bit more seasoning.  The collards were tangy, and the grits were creamy with the hint of sharp cheddar– probably a Vermont white.  The hush puppy was as good as a piece of fried cornmeal batter can be– very good.  Steve’s steak, he declared, was better than the one the night before from the “steakhouse”.

We made the wise decision to share. It was huge!

We determined that we had enough time to eat dessert, and our server steered us toward Art’s Hummingbird Cake– a tall concoction of banana and pineapple cake layered between thick clouds of cream cheese frosting served with a scoop of vanilla ice cream.  It was everything one could ask for in a dessert.  The cake was moist and I could taste both fruits, plus coconut, but neither overpowered the other.  The frosting was smooth and creamy, but not as sharp as most cream cheese frostings.  This cake did not have the same pungent spices as a carrot cake, so the toned-down frosting complemented it well.  Vanilla ice cream doesn’t do a whole lot for me… it’s just, well, vanilla.  This ice cream was smooth and had a rich vanilla flavor, and I found myself choosing between eating the cake or the ice cream.

It was worth swimming against the current away from the popular restaurants on Rush Street who cater to tourists and those wanting to be seen.  With its eye for quality ingredients and service, Table 52 stands apart from the rest.  If you find yourself in the Windy City, make sure you find yourself there.

A Tale Of Two Dinners: Part One

The first thing I noticed was that the lampshades on the light fixtures were askew, and this filled me with trepidation.  Granted, lampshades have nothing to do with the quality of the food, but they have everything to do with detail.  If Carson from Downton Abbey was working the floor, the lampshades would be level.  I told myself to lighten up as Steve and I walked into Chicago’s David Burke’s Steakhouse, a place that one of his colleagues raved about.  The decor was modern with chocolate brown leathers, touches of ivory and bursts of red.  It was tasteful, but the feeling of “eh” couldn’t be shaked.  Everything on the surface looked good, but I was haunted by the little details and sense of complacency that lurks around restaurants that have been popular for awhile. Everyone who works there knows that the place is good, and instead of striving to make it better, they rest upon their laurels and begin to be negligent in the small details that transform good into amazing.

For example, our waiter did everything he should do, but it felt like he was on auto-pilot telling us the specials– being a waiter was almost like his affectation. The staff  brought out complimentary popovers, which were good, as were our goat cheese puffs served with honey and beet relish.  We both ordered salads, and our waiter noted that Steve’s Caesar salad would be prepared table-side. This, we thought, would be pretty cool.  In a few minutes the Caesar salad preparer wheeled his salad cart to our table and silently began mixing the egg, vinegar, oil, anchovies, and what-all into a big bowl that we couldn’t even see the inside of.  He did not greet us, nor tell us about any of the ingredients.  Were the eggs free range?  Did the vinegar come from Modena?  Were the anchovies packed in oil from off the coast of Greece?  Was the lettuce locally grown?  Any funny anecdotes about the restaurant?  We’ll never know.  It also seems to me that having your salad prepared table-side is a special treat and should be treated as such.  The other waiters did not seem to think so, since they interrupted him twice, and he had to wheel his cart to the left and then to the right to accommodate them refilling our water and bringing out my salad.  All had forgotten that the salad making was a mini-performance, and I wondered why they just didn’t make it in the kitchen.

The rest of the meal was like our Caesar salad performance: unremarkable.  My tomato and mozzarella salad, which was good, and to be honest, it’s really hard to screw up that salad, but it looked like they scooped it from a vat and plopped it on my plate.  There was zero thought put into the presentation.  The roast chicken with the burnt smashed carrots looked really good to me (I love burned bits), so I ordered it anticipating carrots smashed like potatoes with swirls of burned bit goodness.  My plate arrived.  My roast chicken covered with some indistinct brown sauce (never a good sign– what are they covering up?) rested upon a pile of small roasted onions, sugar snap peas, and small-diced carrots, that were in fact, burned.  Nothing on my plate looked smashed.  The vegetables derived their flavor from having been burned, and my chicken tried to derive any of it’s flavor from the sauce.  My annoyance grew with every bite; I could make this meal– including the salad, better at home for less than what the chicken dinner cost me.  Steve ordered the 55-day aged steak– which should, based on the quality of the meat, the length of the aging process, and the cost (!), blow his socks off.  His verdict: it was good, but the steak he had at a local restaurant back home was better (and half the cost).  We also ordered a couple of sides: potatoes with bacon jam and green beans.  I didn’t try the potatoes, but the green beans were the equivalent of the kind that you steam in a bag at home.  They were limp and had that same rubbery texture.  Yum.  I can honestly say that absolutely no thought went into the green beans.

Goat cheese puffs on a stick.
Plop.
Do you see any smashed carrots?
All style. No substance.

The coup de grace of this meal was my dessert.  It was a carrot cake described as “Ginger rooibos cake with candied pineapple and black walnut ice cream”.  It’s true. It was.  A note about a weird quirk I have: I do not like to mix up my food.  If it is served separated, then I will eat it separated.  No mixed-mixey for me.  My carrot cake was served deconstructed.  There was a slice of the ginger cake, which was dry and did not taste like ginger; a round of cream cheese frosting (which was good), a mound of black walnut ice cream which did not taste like walnuts unless you ate one of the walnuts on top, three small pieces of candied pineapple, topped with long strings of fried carrot.  It looked very pretty.  However, if everything is going to stand on it’s own, it all needs to be good on it’s own.  There should be no reliance on the clientele who do mixey-mixey to to mask the inferiority of the food.

Why am I so critical? This meal cost a lot of money.  If someone, especially in today’s economy, is going to spend a lot on a meal, it needs to be an experience.  It needs to be worth it.  Restaurants are like movies, books, and performances; they ask someone to give up their time to see what they have to offer.  It requires investment from the client, and their investment should be rewarded.  Clients should not leave thinking, “I can do this better myself.”  Nor should  clients leave thinking of other restaurants where they had similar meals that were much better and half the cost.  Take the lowly green bean, for example.  I know I run the risk of sounding like Mr. Collins in Pride and Prejudice who wondered which sister he should commend for the exemplary boiled potatoes, but I’ve had some exemplary green beans in the past, and I left thinking about those meals and how good they were.  And that, for David Burke’s, is a fail.

Part Two is about the next night’s meal– the antithesis of this one.

A Rant And A Recipe

At my grandma’s house I read her Better Home and Garden’s Cookbook from the late 1940s.  The descriptions of how to entertain guests, the pictures of the food, and the fact that some ingredients were a “No. 2” can of tomatoes (what’s a No. 2 can?) were a kick to see. Reading the most important part of the cookbook– the cookies section, of course– I landed on a recipe that called for one cup of molasses.  One cup!  As a molasses lover, I could not pass this up. These cookies I had to try.  These would be perfect to share with my friends at the dinner picnic for Shakespeare in the Park. We planned to see A Comedy of Errors.

The title was rather prophetic as there was an error, but not at all funny.  On Wednesday night, someone stole the theater’s lighting and sound equipment. The Thursday show was cancelled.  My friend, Pat, who had already made the main course, salvaged the evening by inviting us all over to her house for dinner. I baked my cookies and had a good time visiting and meeting new people.  Pat served a light chicken salad mixed with celery, green grapes, almonds, pecans, and mayo with a green salad on the side. We ate off of lovely pink china and used the silver. Even though every thing was high class, nothing felt pretentious. It really made me wish I had nice china and kept my silver at home, so I, too, could enjoy nice things everyday.

While we had a great evening with good food and company, my mind drifted back to those who stole all of the equipment and the fallout of their actions.  Everybody’s plans were changed. The theater company is going to lose money– from a cancelled show to rescheduling subsequent shows to an earlier time to make use of the daylight. They have to reimburse for Thursday’s tickets and are selling the rescheduled shows at a reduced cost.  The theft deteriorates the sense of community and undermines the theater’s work. This is a constant in life, but I was reminded how the actions of a few hurt the many.

Turning on the news this morning and learning of the massacre in Aurora, Colorado only built upon this theme.  I can’t even begin to wrap my mind around the terror and fear felt by those in the theater felt and will feel for a long time.  And the question I have, as well as many others do, is why did this happen?  Not why did James Holmes do it, which can possibly be answered by his desire to live out a fantasy as he did call himself “The Joker”.  It is senseless to ask for a logical reason “why he did it” when his act defied logic and doesn’t make any sense.  No answer that he can provide as to why he did what he did will suffice.  There is no “why” for his actions– there’s only the “what”.  The news networks have replayed, reanalyzed, and reported what he has done.

The only “why” in this tragedy that can be answered in any real way is “why was he allowed to do what he did?”.  When James Holmes walked into that theater, he had riot gear, a gas mask, four guns, possibly 600 rounds of ammunition, and smoke bombs.  All of this he purchased legally.  In the aftermath of the tragedy, both Obama and Romney sent forth the usual platitudes: “Solemn moment… time of reflection… hug your family… be considerate of others… blah, blah, blah.”  What I’d really like to hear is, “Look, I know a lot of you mo-fos love your guns and all, but it’s time to get your heads out of your asses and give up some of your ‘rights’.  WTF is a 24 year old doctoral student doing packing major heat?  More gun control.  Now!”  Neither man running for office mentioned guns today.  I know, I know, guns don’t kill people, people kill people.  But our lax gun policies make it very easy for people to buy guns which make it very easy to kill people.  I know there are background checks in place, but James Holmes only had a traffic violation to his name.  This doesn’t raise a red flag.  Background checks on someone’s past cannot predict their future behaviors.  How many stories have we heard about of nice normal people who snapped?

I don’t own a gun, never used a gun, and do not plan on doing either.  Having one in the house would not make me feel safer, but instead would make me feel less safe.  Knowing that other people own guns and possibly carry them doesn’t make me feel safe.  I know many people disagree with me, and they would state how guns make them feel more secure.  But would having the likes of George Zimmerman living nearby make you feel safer?  The pro-gun camp most likely would remind me of the poorly worded 2nd amendment, “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.”  Therefore, I should not infringe on their right to own weapons.  However, this right is not an absolute right.  The First Amendment does not protect all language– slander, fighting words, are hate speech not shielded from scrutiny.  And the language of the second amendment suggests regulation.  Many scholars see the connotation of “Militia” and “right of the people” to mean individual rights, while others see it as the past need to have an armed populace for the lack of a standing army.  The pro-gun camp believes that it is their individual right to own guns.  I want to zero in on the second clause, “being necessary to the security of a free State.”  The point of keeping arms is to provide security, but what happens when that security has been breached?  Are semi-automatic weapons necessary for security?  Are endless rounds of ammo necessary for security?  Our history of mass shootings and daily gun violence show that we are no longer in the realm of security.  We need to provide real gun control that honors people’s rights to own guns (it is constitutional), but also protect people from guns.  We do not need guns that fire 50-60 bullets per minute.  Limiting those types of guns and magazine cartridges can go a long way to limiting the amount of damage one can do when they decide to live out their violent fantasy.  As of right now, not “infringing” on the right to own guns is killing us.

Anyway, I made the molasses cookies. They were a hit at the impromptu dinner party and at Steve’s band practice.  Here is the recipe:

Molasses Cookies

Cream together 3/4 cup shortening with 1 cup sugar.

Add two well-beaten eggs and 1 cup molasses; beat well.

Sift together 4 cups of flour, 2 tsp. ground cinnamon, and 1 tsp. each of salt, baking soda, and ginger.

Add dry ingredients to batter alternately with 3/4 cup cold, strong coffee.  Beat after each addition.

Drop by teaspoon onto a greased cookie sheet.

Bake at 350 for 15 minutes.  Cool on cookie rack.

Makes 7 dozen cookies.

These are cake-like cookies that are very plain aesthetically.  To jazz them up, you may want to create a glaze to drizzle over them.  A regular confectioner’s sugar glaze or a lemon glaze would work well.

The resource I used regarding the Constitution is The Words We Live By: Your Annotated Guide to the Constitution by Linda R. Monk.