Tag Archives: Restaurants

How the Other Half Lunches

Painted in Waterlogue

It’s been one of those weeks–a lot of work, a lot of travel, some dinners out, some very late nights. We haven’t done any significant cooking. I won’t say the cupboard was bare, but I had a feeling it would be one of those Stump the Cook meals where you scrounge around the back of the fridge and hope for the best. We’d both had very long days. Between her work and phone calls dealing with an ailing relative, and my back-to-back-to-back rehearsals, I  wasn’t sure we had the energy to be creative enough to come up with something we’d both like enough to be satisfied.

We were in separate cars, so when we left choir practice she went home to feed the cats–I’m not sure what it says about us that we made sure there was plenty of cat food in the house!–and I headed to forage.

I went to Subway. It might not be a fine-dining experience, but it would be fine. There are worse options, certainly.

I looked at the menu board with thoughts of choosing a foot-long sandwich to share, and then decided to make lunch easy, too. I ordered two foot-longs, quite different. Sandwich #1 was rotisserie chicken with provolone, lettuce, and pickle on Italian bread. #2 was pastrami on whole wheat with swiss, spinach, and cucumber. Tomato and brown mustard on both.

I gave her half of the chicken sandwich and took half of the pastrami for myself. I wrapped the rest and stored them in the fridge. She took the rest of the pastrami for lunch, and I brought the rest of the chicken with me.

 

I’m not delighted to have served sandwiches for dinner and lunch, but neither of us had to scrounge in a desk drawer to find a granola bar under the extra staples. I can attest that both sandwiches were tasty, and that’s good enough for now.

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What the Doctor Ordered

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I’m a healthy guy, generally speaking. I eat a relatively healthy diet, I exercise vigorously several times a week, I don’t drink to excess or use any other unhealthy recreational substances. But, owing to a congenital condition that I won’t bother detailing, I need to have a minor surgical procedure every few months. Every three is optimal; four is passable; five is pushing it; if I wait six months, I end up having to have the procedure done under anesthesia in a hospital setting. Obviously, I try for the three-month interval–sort of like an oil change or tire rotation. It’s more uncomfortable than painful, and I don’t want to be a baby about it, but I try to leave the rest of the morning clear and perform a little self care afterward.

By “self care,” of course, I mean donuts.

Time was, I’d walk home from this appointment by way of a Perfectly Adequate Well-Known National Chain Donut Shop, pick up a couple of crullers and a mocha latte, and return home to sit on the couch with a cat purring nearby and British game shows on the television. But I’ve come to prefer my house blend coffee to their weak and over-sweetened brew. And, once, having to rush to the train station after an appointment, we stopped at a local shop I’ve been passing for years without visiting and discovered the wonder that is the Apple Spider.

A spider isn’t a donut, but it’s made of the same sort of dough, filled with spiced apples, fried and glazed. It’s a wonderful combination of crunchy exterior, cake-like interior, sweet glaze and crisp filling.  I don’t know why it’s called a spider. In some parts of the world it would be called a fritter. In some parts, it’s probably spoken of only in the hushed tones befitting contraband. But considering the Moderation Rule, I’m happy to enjoy one a couple of times a year. Yesterday’s was accompanied (in the interest of dietary balance) by some slices of fresh apple and a wedge of cheddar cheese–along, of course, with excellent coffee, a purring friend, and a single episode of Pointless.

I’m not sure it’s exactly what the Doctor ordered, but it’s what I needed to recover a bit before the rest of a very full day.

Something Old, Something New

Midweek date nights are challenging when they involve a long commute home, but it was the Wednesday before a long weekend. There could be a Thursday morning sleep-in if necessary. I bought theatre tickets and she made the dinner reservation.

Pongsri is a small, family run restaurant chain that began in 1972. There are three locations in Manhattan, and the original in Bangkok. We chose the one on 47th St. in Midtown.  It would be nice to travel to home base, but we had theatre tickets nearby; dinner between work and theatre almost always means choosing by proximity. I’ve probably walked past this restaurant a hundred times without noticing. The sign out front is old and not a bit flashy; the dining room–a step below street level–is small and far from lavish. I hoped this meant that their emphasis was on the kitchen.

The menu was dauntingly long, but I picked a page–“Pongsri specialties” seemed like a good one–and limited myself to it. I wanted vegetables, but not exclusively. Pra-Ram-Long-Song—shrimp served “on a bed of broccoli”—was exactly what I was looking for. The shrimp was tender, the broccoli perfectly crisp, and the spicy-sweet peanut curry sauce was wonderful. She wanted beef, and tried Nya-Yang-Sa-Tay. Sliced steak with a cucumber salad. The “house special” peanut sauce on her steak was the same terrific stuff that accompanied my shrimp. No complaints there. We skipped appetizers, shared both entrees, and were too content with both to want dessert. If this is what Thai “home cooking” might be like, it makes me want to travel there.

On the way to Pongsri, I passed lots of businesses with flashier signage. Thinking about names, and flashy signs, I asked her: “If this kitchen staff opened a catering company that specialized in wedding banquets, would they call it Thai the Knot?” She laughed, and a companionable walk around the block brought us to the theatre.

As a cheerful usher brought us to our seats, my mouth dropped. Fifth row center for a Broadway musical. “Well, this will do,” I said, and she laughed again. We seldom know where we’re going to sit, since most of our theatre tickets come through a terrific organization that sells discounted seats to theatre professionals and educators. In exchange for the great prices, the theatre gives you whatever seats they can. Usually it’s on the side of the orchestra section, or in the mezzanine; seldom is a location this perfect.

It Shoulda Been You is a show created and co-written by a composer friend of mine. She developed it in a somewhat unusual way. After a series of weddings she’d attended at which guests behaved very oddly, she asked a bunch of her friends to collaborate on a song sung by a wedding guest.  Eventually a bookwriter signed on to help her clarify the story that was forming, then a director, then actors and producers and designers and technicians and musicians. I’ve known about this project for over a decade, but it wasn’t until a Wednesday night in April we got to see the whole show.

It was charming. Delightful. Funny. Heartfelt. Full of interesting music, clever lyrics, and great roles for strong actors. It’s still in previews, so it’s hard to tell what might yet be altered. Scenes and songs can be adjusted almost as quickly as the mother of the bride can change her mind about whether to have a Panini station at the reception. Whatever they do, it’s a show we were glad to see and to recommend.

As for the story itself, well, a musical that starts with a young woman who’s helping to organize her sister’s wedding and ends with the maid of honor in quite a different relationship than she expected with an old friend–let’s just say that we both had plenty to smile about there.

A new-to-us restaurant, and a new-though-it’s-been-in-development-for-a-long-time musical, and we liked them both: it was a perfect midweek date night.

We didn’t see any of my writer friends in the theatre, but they might have headed backstage immediately to give notes to their collaborators.  Or maybe they were in the downstairs lounge doing rewrites.  Or, comfortable with the day’s work, maybe they’d gone out to eat. Maybe for Thai food.

The Real Thing

We hadn’t expected to see her mother again so soon after her parents began their cross-country motor home odyssey, but the death of an uncle occasioned a quick flight back north.  She met her mom at the airport after work, and they traveled together by bus and train to where I could collect them for dinner, a quiet evening, and a hearty breakfast before the next leg of the journey.

It was a beautiful day for travel, the snow staying, as I prefer it, on tree branches, fields, and roadsides, and leaving the pavement clear. The memorial gathering was as joyous as such a occasion can be, and remarkably stress-free for the new guy who never had the chance to meet the deceased. I like her family a lot, though, and they seem to accept me without question though I’m not officially a relative.  All told–even including the odd quasi-eulogy given by the family friend who talked a lot about her dinner theatre career–it could have been much worse.

Her beloved Nana insisted on taking a bunch of us to dinner afterward.  She’d intended that we go for pizza, but the nearby place she had in mind closed early on a winter weeknight. Her second choice was a well-respected Chinese restaurant that everyone was delighted about; it is apparently the only place to go for Chinese food in the area–which is not to say that there are not other such restaurants, only that this is head and shoulders above the rest.  It was farther away, though.  “Just keep going,” her mom said after one turn, “until you get to Vermont.” It wasn’t quite that far, but my geography is not good.

The Plum Blossom is beautiful, with intricate woodwork at every turn. It might become a Buddhist temple if the kitchen ever closes, though from what I hear there’s no chance of that happening. I’m not sure who designed or fashioned the 10-foot-tall wooden flowers–lotus blossoms, I believe–but I’m not sure the artisan would have been pleased to discover that their bases were used as sites to store bottles of sriracha sauce and the sound system’s remote control.

I have never visited China, nor grew up eating Chinese food. My dad hated it, so I don’t recall tasting it until college. I like it now, though I don’t feel like I know much about it. I have a favorite dish, but I understand that it’s completely inauthentic. Although General Tso was a real person, there’s a TED talk and a feature-length documentary discussing how the dish named for him is completely unknown in his home country. I’ve had versions that I like better than others, but General Tso’s chicken is my default choice.  And it was, of course, on the Plum Blossom’s menu.  Still, I looked further.  In a restaurant this beautiful, it seemed like a better idea to choose something “authentic.” (I want to call the restaurant itself “authentic,” but since I know nothing about what an “authentic” Chinese restaurant might look like; the Plum Blossom might well be the Disney World version.) I’ve never encountered a waiter rolling his eyes at my choice, but I didn’t want to chance it.

I looked past columns of …lo meins and …fried rices and with broccolis and so on, hoping to find something that seemed just right.  There’d been a plate of cabbage-and-carrot salad presented as an amuse-bouche: sweet and spicy and altogether delightful, I considered asking of a bowl of that salad with some extra salad on the side, but thought it might not be the most digestively prudent move. Still, if the kitchen turned out something that appealing, I was sure that I didn’t have to settle for a potential eye-roll.

“Lovers in a Bird’s Nest” was high on a list of Chef’s Specialties. Shrimp, chicken, and many vegetables, in a light sauce, served in a “birds nest” made of shredded potato. This sounded pretty, and like it might be everything I was looking for. I chose it happily, with no buyer’s remorse, even as she chose “Dragon and Phoenix,” a two-entrees-in-one meal that included General Tso’s Chicken.  (Or, perhaps I had no regret because I suspected she’d offer me a taste.)

The wonton soup could not have been better: a rich broth surrounding paper-thin dumplings bursting with matchsticks of beef. I had high hopes. I also had another bite of the cabbage salad.

Lovers in a Bird’s Nest arrived–or, more accurately, Lovers in Birds’ Nests: her Nana chose the same entree, which I considered a good omen since she is a regular at the Plum Blossom. It was lovely.  Maybe not quite as color-corrected as a food stylist might have presented it, but it was certainly appealing.

The snow peas, broccoli, and carrots were crisp-tender.  The shrimp was cooked perfectly–which is to say, not a second more than necessary. But the slices of chicken breast were bland. The light sauce was flavorless–cornstarch and water, maybe? The potato nest was pretty, but any idea I’d had that it was meant to be consumed like a hash-brown was swiftly dispatched after I tried to break off a piece. It might have served as packing material for a piece of expensive electronic equipment.

Meanwhile, to my left, her Dragon and Phoenix arrived.  I’m not sure whether the General Tso’s portion was the Dragon or the Phoenix, but it looked fabulous, nothing like the bright orange versions one might find at the food court. She offered a bite. The shrimp side–whichever of Dragon or Phoenix wasn’t the chicken–looked just like the shrimp in my nest, but, oh, the chicken. It was coated with the thinnest imaginable layer of batter, and meltingly tender. The sauce was sweet, spicy, delicate, and not a bit gloppy.

A completely underwhelming chef’s specialty, side by side with a remarkable execution of a dish that wouldn’t be on the menu at an “authentic” Chinese restaurant. I’m not sure what lesson is to be learned from this experience, but I am confident what I’ll order the next time we visit. I hope that visit will be for a happier occasion, but even this trip was not maudlin.  There was much laughter. Good food is good whether or not it is ethnically authentic, and a big family dinner is a celebration whatever the reason for gathering.

A Night at the Not-Quite Disco

I don’t travel all that often, but when I do I try to eat something that I can’t get at home–a local specialty.  Jane and Michael Stern’s Roadfood has never steered me wrong; in Minneapolis, for instance, it helped me find the best roast beef sandwich I’ve ever encountered. But asking those you meet is a good idea, too.

Nobody in Fish Creek, Wisconsin, could agree on what one thing I had to eat before I left. Almost nobody, in fact, had any strong opinions at all. “Cheese curd, I guess,” said one fellow. So, when I stopped for lunch during a little sightseeing trip between rehearsals, I saw them on the menu and asked for a serving.  They’re deep-fried bits of cheese (imagine a solid-cheese Cheeto) served with ranch dressing. If that’s how they’re served, that’s how I’m trying them–though after a couple of bites the combination of buttermilk and cheese was dairy overload. I asked for some cocktail sauce and tried not to notice the waiter looking at me as if I’d grown an extra head. (Tomato, lemon, and horseradish were, to me, the perfect foil for the fried cheese, though to look at that combination in print makes me understand why the waiter looked at me strangely.)

This isn’t a story about Wisconsin, though. There will be lots of stories about Wisconsin, but those for other days.

When I told her about the cheese curd, she said, “Oh, poutine!” It turns out that cheese curds aren’t especially local to Wisconsin; they are part of the national dish of Canada. Poutine is a plate of french fried potatoes topped with cheese curds over which brown gravy is ladled. I have no idea who first came up with this idea, but if it was a customer at a restaurant, I suspect the waiter may have given a little eye-roll.

This isn’t a story about Canada, either. (I’m not sure that she’s ever been to Canada, and I’ve only been there a couple of times–and I’ve never ordered poutine when I was.)

It turns out that there are many versions of poutine, and plenty of them don’t involve cheese curds. I am not so closed-minded as to say I will never try the one that involves feta cheese and vinaigrette dressing, but it’s not high on my list of enthusiasm.

A particularly swanky version of poutine is served at one of her favorite restaurants. Not her favorite spot; as discussed previously, that is not a spot for a pre-theatre bite. Seeing A. R. Gurney’s Love Letters with Alan Alda and Candice Bergen–our Friday night plan–was a bit of an occasion, so we decided to go her fancy poutine spot.  If our history was any indication, drinks and appetizers would be plenty for dinner.

On Wednesday, as we walked to the train station after work, we realized that it was going to be late enough that we should have dinner before boarding. But not fries, she said. “No, that’s for Friday,” I agreed. “And surely not Disco Fries,” she said. I laughed, trying to imagine fries in a white polyester suit, doing the Hustle under a mirror ball. “You know, American poutine,” she said, and I laughed all the harder her name for the American diner version of a Canadian dish.

We ended up at a diner, with an omelette and a BLT and a chocolate shake in a glass as big as her head–but not Disco Fries.  Which were actually on the menu.  I thought it was a very amusing coincidence until, meeting for coffee with a collaborator at a different diner, I saw Disco Fries listed there, too.

She laughed harder than I had at the thought the she had invented the name.  (She maintains she isn’t that clever, though I know better.) In the Northeast, fries with cheese and gravy are called Disco Fries, though I can’t find an explanation why. Even in this regional variation no sources agree what kind of cheese or gravy is supposed to be used.

Nios’s variation is as lavish as I had been led to understand: excellent fries with shredded mozzarella and julienned strips of pepperoni, sprinkled with chopped parsley, set under a broiler to melt the cheese and crisp the pepperoni, then bathed (but not soaked) with beefy gravy that most decidedly did not come from a can. Salty, crunchy, and rich; with a little salad alongside, and very well-made cocktails, it was a perfect pre-show dinner.

I’ll try Canadian poutine when I have a chance, and I might even take her for cheese curd next time we’re in Wisconsin.  Until then, when fries, cheese, and gravy meet, it will be at Nios. With no disco music.

 

 

 

The Second- or Third-Best-Laid Plans

Our plans began, as is so often the case, with an iMessage.

I know what to make for dinner! Mulligatawny Soup.  It’s usually served over rice, but crumbled cornbread will also do.

I was driving when the message came in, so I didn’t respond right away. I like her Mulligatawny Soup, rich with chicken, peppers, and spices, and thick with rice. I started trying to remember how many of the ingredients we had on hand.  When I arrived at the station to meet her train, our conversation didn’t go straight to food, though if it had, I might have said, “Mulligatawny is a good idea, but I could really go for a pile of vegetables, a little protein, and maybe a dinner roll.”

We headed off to the very large home improvement store to purchase electrical supplies. Her parents were arriving the next morning for a visit; her dad, a skilled electrician, was going to teach us how to install new electrical outlets. By the time we’d found everything on our shopping list, neither of us was in the mood for going to the market, much less cooking afterward.

“Let’s go out,” she said. “But to a place where it’s okay to be dressed like I am.” I was in dark jeans, a sweater, and a tweed jacket. She had worn jeans and a blouse to the office, and looked good enough to get into any restaurant I’d want to go to.

At a traffic light, the plans amended again. “We could just get take-out…”

We cruised slowly down Route 1, neither of us quite sure what would be on the menu. A favorite casual Italian place presented itself, and we stopped. And the plan amended again. “While we’re waiting for our entrees, let’s have a drink and an appetizer.”

“You’re going to laugh at me,” she said, looking up from the menu. (Plans were apparently changing again.) “Instead of a full meal, why don’t we share some appetizers and a salad?” I would never laugh at a girl who doesn’t particularly like vegetables ordering a salad. We considered the merits of the salad she had in mind, and settled instead on a sampler of appetizers–a few meatballs, a few chicken wings, and some breaded mozzarella–and a platter of roasted vegetables. We placed our order, and, as we sipped our drinks and toasted the good fortune of friends who’d just had a child, the waiter appeared with a bread basket.

It was my turn to smile. We had started by thinking about mulligatawny soup and ended up with a pile of vegetables, a little protein, and maybe a dinner roll. And we were both delighted with the evening.

I’m Going to Go Back There Someday

I’ve never been to her favorite restaurant. We’ve talked about it many times, but we haven’t gone there for a meal yet.  It’s a very nice place, she tells me. It’s a place where a meal has a real sense of occasion.

And it’s a place where she went for memorable meals with a person she was once engaged to.

That’s not the biggest reason we haven’t gone to her favorite place. Mostly, it’s because we don’t go out to eat. We visit a restaurant before or after we’ve done something else that we’ve gone out for: to see a show, for instance. Her place isn’t somewhere you go to grab a bite before the show. When we do go there, it will an occasion, not a meal to rush through.  We’ll go there, in part, to create new memories–to reclaim that restaurant for herself, and for us.

We met a friend for dinner last week before a rehearsal. He chose a Japanese restaurant we knew he liked. We liked it, too, and not simply because it was conveniently down the block from the rehearsal space.  We’d gone there after a performance once–with him, and with the woman he was then dating. Subsequently they became engaged, but that relationship recently, suddenly, and very painfully ended.  This was the first time we were seeing him since the breakup.

Dinner was excellent, maybe the best sushi I’ve ever had. The fish was meltingly tender, incredibly fresh, and  perfectly seasoned by the sushi chef.  The addition of extra soy sauce or wasabi was thoroughly unnecessary. I’m glad the food was so good, but I wouldn’t have cared if I’d been served a bowl of Cheerios that had been left out in the rain.

He may chosen the place because of its location, or because he especially likes the food there, but we hope it was because he wanted to reclaim the restaurant as his, rather than theirs. Although the memory of having dinner with a hurting friend isn’t exactly a joyous one, it’s one that we will cherish. We may not always think of this restaurant as the place where he told us what happened, but at least it won’t any longer be the place we went with them.