Our hiatus (hiati’i? hiatuses?) have been so many and so prolonged, that it’s sometimes easier to refer to the sporadic bursts of activity as the exception to the norm …
With summer 2014 now formally kicked off and in full force, I’m excited to rejoin forces with Simika to rejuvenate our adventures and forays into the culinary worlds – dining out explorations to complement our Project 101 (and complete it, really, at least from a writing standpoint), experimentation in our test kitchens as well as sharing our evolving ideas and perspectives about food at the crossroads of science, culture, history, anthropology and life.
So, let the games begin? I know I’ll be taking any and all bets of how sustainably we’ll keep at it this time, and how shortlived (or not) our period of activity may be!
-Naina, June 7, 2014
State Bird Provisions may have been the ultimate best dining out experience. Ever. There, I’ve said it.
Dear State Bird Provisions – I want to be you. I want to be the unique combination of quirky and adventurous; the just-right blend of form and function, aesthetics and taste; the no-comparison daring innovation and creativity that leaves the diner stunned, paralysed even.
But I digress. Taking it from the top …
My friend picked State Bird Provisions for my birthday treat. It all happened very last minute, and when she tried to get reservations, she faced a few weeks worth of a wait. Yikes. Neither of us plan that ahead of time to comfortably commit to reservations (I’m breaking into hives just typing out the word commit).
I’d be up for pretty much anything, I told her, but she seemed pretty set on this idea. We called them anyway, disregarding their online reservation cautionary notes. Turns out they do have a handful of seats at the bar/counter that are first-come first-served and are not under the control of the reservations gnomes. Show up and wait, and the seat’s yours when it’s free, they told us.
We had to hatch a plan. Maybe we could get there an hour before the establishment opened and trip everyone who walked by. Not our brightest idea, admittedly. We mulled, we scribbled, and mired in the sea of crumpled paper and flipchart paper … In the end, our conniving settled down to a rather innocuous plan of getting there right at opening to try our luck. We identified a backup eatery in case we weren’t up for a two hour wait at the doors, and satisfied with our game plan, we dispersed.
Right at opening meant we were there about a half hour into dinner time. I had gotten there earlier, and I watched as throngs of twos and fours made their way through a rather nondescript door, merrily chatting amongst themselves and eagerly looking forward to their reservations.
When my friend did come, we hustled inside, eagerly waiting to hear how long of a wait we are facing.
Who knows? Today is January 1, 2013 – the first day of the new year. So much hope, promise and potential. Anything can happen! Well, almost anything … Right?
A lot has happened since this endless hiatus started in early October. Drafts of posts have accidentally appeared, and have been yanked back. The target of 101 new restaurants have been reached amid much fanfare on both the east and west coasts – both in Toronto and in San Francisco. I’ve moved, with a new job, from San Francisco to New York! New job, new apartment, much chaos, and a LOT of new restaurants.
Yet not a single new post transpired. First it was the 2 week long vacation and the drive across the country from SF to NY, leading to countless excuses of needing to settle down or catch up or what-have-you … November came and went, and the holidays hit. More new restaurants and oh-so-many memorable experiences to write about – and the excuses kept piling up.
So 2012 ended. We both met our targets, and had an amazing time doing it – and have been pleasantly empowered through the process of challenging ourselves outside our comfort zones. Even our failed experiments have had entertainment value! We just never got our act together to write about it all 🙂
So 2013 will be a year of catch up. We’ll look back through our list, keep writing when we can, and maybe even branch forth a little. I know I want to add a whole section on my experiments in the kitchen, so it’s both eating out and dining in. We’ll just continue to write, and reminisce about that year of the 101 new restaurants.
So what one thing will I remember the most about the 101 challenge of 2012? Hands down, it has to be the excitement and participation of my close friends, who researched new eateries to help me reach my target, who kept count with me, and cheered me on, encouraged me to write (even though I didn’t), and laughed with me about the fact that I wasn’t writing. Amazing gems you are – and you know who you are.
Pass me that gavel please. Consider this blog resuscitated. Maybe fleetingly, maybe more lastingly – who knows? Find out with us?
Just in case no one noticed …
We’ll be back in a couple of weeks! Unavoidable, what with life happening and all.
Please bear with us, and we’ll be back to writing up the amazing culinary experiences that we’re still amassing, by now, both of us reaching beyond our target 101 🙂
I’ve been meaning to try this local Cuban restaurant for quite some time now, and every time something or the other gets in the way. Mostly it’s been a case of “let’s go explore what San Francisco has to offer” – the side by-product of which is that local (or almost local) establishments with some amazing culinary offerings go unnoticed, unexplored, unsampled.
One of these days, I put my foot down, found a friend willing to forego the allure of San Francisco, and we headed to Palo Alto during lunch time. La Bodeguita Del Medio is comfortably ensconced among quite a few other culinary delights along California Avenue in Palo Alto, a stone’s throw away from downtown Palo Alto, and a hop-skip-and-jump away from Stanford University. There are some outdoor seating options, but faced with a day with high 80s to low 90s weather, we decided to sit inside.
The menu claims that this restaurant is a copy of the original version in Havana, where it is a popular hangout for cigars, food and cocktails. Ernest Hemingway was apparently a frequent patron – hm. In an attempt to recreate that environment, this restaurant opened its doors to its California patrons in 1997, offering a cigar lounge, authentic Cuban flavors and rum cocktails. You pick up your drink at the bar in the front of the store, and can amble onwards to the “Cigar Divan” – the separate lounge, where you can help yourself to their well stocked humidor.
I arrived on time, and while waiting for my friend, I picked out the corner table – the better to get a good look at the rest of the restaurant as I waited. The decor is cheerful, with artwork lining the playful yellow walls. Ceiling fans whirr with a barely perceptible pleasant hum. The bar seemed well visited, even during lunch hour. I did like they have high chairs with backs at the bar instead of the standard stools – makes for a more inviting and stay-longer vibe.
The light fixtures looked pretty stunning. Beyond the main dining area, beyond heavy curtains that coordinated with their ceiling color, there seems to be more dining space. A fairly spacious venue – with potential for private events for much larger groups. Note to self!
Interestingly enough, I really liked their table settings. Simple elegance seemed to be the central theme, while the choice of colors helped inject a burst of playful energy to buoy up that elegant vibe. You never really think of playful and elegant together, until you see it so well executed and well presented!
I always think that I will like Cuban cuisine. I am not sure I really understand what is typically Cuban, but I do have some mental images of tomato based curries and strong flavors, yet mild on the heat. I think of plantains, beans, sweet and smokey. I think mainly of a confluence of several influences – Spanish and African, with some Carribean thrown in for kicks.
We started off with shrimp ceviche. It came out adorned in a glass, heaped high with lemony shrimp and plantain chips. Not your ordinary ceviche at all! This one has black beans in it, for that Cuban flair. In addition, there’s coconut milk and cilantro. And then, if that was not confusing/thrilling enough for your palate, there’s habanero layered throughout the dish. Oh yes: spicy! The tang from the key lime and the warmth of the chile settling down at the back of your tongue and throat all combine into a firework of an experience. That’s when you crunch onto that plantain slice! Lip smacking good.
I had ordered the arroz con pollo – chicken rice. It might sound a tad humdrum, but hello, have some faith! This was no ordinary chicken rice. The menu reads it as “Cuban braised chicken” with plantains and yellow rice. A deceptively simple description.
You had me at “Cuban braised”. I imagined all sorts of fall off the bone tender meat, marinated masterfully in amazing spices that combine together in a cacophonous melody of sheer perfection of flavors. My choice was pretty clear.
And I wasn’t far off. Cuban cuisine boasts a pheasant-style: a lot of slow-cooked items, less of a focus on technique and more on the freshness of ingredients, and a clever combination of spices, flavors and textures. Conceptually similar to Bangladeshi cuisine, in my opinion, though the flavor profiles are actually quite distinct. Culinary philosophical cousins of sorts, if you will. I am a HUGE fan of the slow-cooked tenderness in meats. From a technique standpoint, the braising, when done right, can bring out these hidden flavor profiles from the meat and bones that will transform the experience. But I digress. Back to the arroz con pollo.
The chicken came slow-simmered in spices in a thick tomato based curry sauce. I could barely touch with the top of my fork before it disintegrated off the bones. Not in strands of over-cooked dried out sadness, but rather in clumps of moist and flavorful chicken chunks. I dug in, marveling at the infusion of flavors into the meat – masterfully marinated, as I had anticipated. Would the dish have been closer to perfection if there wasn’t a pool of oil lying at the bottom of the plate as I worked my way through? Probably 🙂 I stopped eating 75% way into the plate, so there was a protective layer of the arroz between the grease and my fork: I was pleased.
My friend ordered the Fideos con camarones: thin pasta with shrimp. Again, innocuous, bordering on the humdrum, you say? Oh not at all. This was a creamy pasta dish with sauteed shrimp, with asparagus and avocado. The pasta was generously coated with manchego that imparted both a nutty flavor and a dense creamy texture. The asparagus was crisp tender and tasted fresh. The avocado helped with the overall creamy texture of the dish, lending both a vibrant touch of green to complement the asparagus, as well as a subtle variation on the creamy texture of the cheese.
Yet the show-stealer was the jalapeno-conch butter sauce. Layered with the mild heat and flavor of jalapeno, and heavily infused with the seafood depth of flavor from the conch, this butter sauce opened my eyes (and taste buds) to a brand new flavor profile. Oh. So. Yum.
La Bodeguita Del Medio – I’m still debating whether it was an “authentic” experience or an exceptionally well executed fusion experience based on Cuban influences. I may need to mull that over a bit – but it does not take away from the remarkably tasty culinary foray into a tastes of Cuba.
Pei Wei’s helps. It reaffirms my faltering faith in the ability of convenience and culinary acceptability to mesh in harmony at airport eateries.
They call themselves an Asian Diner. They offer fairly standard options – but they do it right. The taste is average – nothing to really write home about but also nothing you will gag on and perish. The meal is freshly prepared after you order (or at least freshly tossed up together and packaged as you wait), and you get a piping hot meal. It’s a pretty decent deal if you consider the context of zipping off a flight and on your way to a meeting, and being able to grab a hot meal instead of that stale sandwich on your way to or from that flight.
After I’ve ordered and been handed my ticket, I usually like stepping away, finding a table, and then turning back to gaze at the collection of their woks and massive strainers hanging from behind the flattops and the counters. Its mesmerizing. Even more so when you’ve just come off a mind-numbingly unexciting one hour flight. And they have suspended flat panel tvs with pictures of their dishes and descriptions circulating. Trust me, its hypnotic.
Pei Wei’s makes me happy. Most weeks, I try not to experiment around, and make a beeline to Pei Wei’s, assured that whatever I will get will be ok enough to get me through until I get home later on in the day! I’m not a big fan of air travel (specially for work), but something about the familiar comfort of Pei Wei’s has made my frequent trips to the Santa Ana airport a wee bit less traumatic. Good job!