A Year In Food

From New York to Costa Rica to Europe to California: 365 Days of Dining Out

Sunday, February 27, 2005

Feb. 27.



Lunch -

Peking - 115 4th St., Charlottesville, Virginia
Wonton soup, Chicken with Cashew Nuts
$10

After Davin and Jason finished filming their scene in Colin's movie, we wandered down the Downtown Mall in search of grub. Because it was Sunday and two o'clock, a lot of options were closed. We settled on Peking, a Chinese restaurant that is perhaps one step above every other generic Chinese restaurant you've ever been to.

Charlottesville is a pretty good food town offering more variety than most other areas of the same size. But when it comes to Chinese, it is almost across the board depressingly terrible. The choices are bland and uninteresting, especially compared to all of the Chinatown restaurants I'd grown up on. There's almost no dim sum, no ambitious soups, no interesting noodle dishes, no entrees that rise above passable. Until Marco and Luca came around (I was eager to go, but it was closed on Sunday too), there weren't even any dumplings of merit.

But of what choices there are, I've decided through many disappointments that Peking is the best. It is at least, as far as I know, the only Chinese restaurant to attempt to bridge the dim sum gap, selling beef, chicken and shrimp dumplings (yes, this passes as innovation in Charlottesville). Also, for the takeout joint-traditional menu it serves, it does a fairly good job at executing it. Sure, it is sometimes just as bad as the rest, but unlike the other restaurants, it has good days.

We seem to have caught it on a good day. The wonton soup, while nothing special, was tasty and had good-sized wontons. The Chicken with Cashew Nuts was of similar caliber, filled with a nice amount of chicken chunks and lots of cashews. The brown sauce complemented the dish well. All in all, it was a nice, relaxing finale (and a pretty decent meal) to an exciting and busy weekend visit.
6/10

Saturday, February 26, 2005

Feb. 26.



Lunch -

Take It Away - 115 Elliewood Ave., Charlottesville, Virginia
Sandwich on French bread with pastrami spiced turkey, Edam cheese, sprouts, cucumbers and house dressing; an Odwalla Mango Tango
$8.12

Take It Away is proof that great food doesn't need to be complicated or expansive. It focuses on a fairly simple sandwich, letting you choose from their selection of quality meats, cheeses, breads, condiments and vegetables. That their sandwiches are so good is evidence that specialization can really work wonders.

Like Zazus (see Dinner today), I frequently ate at Take It Away but very rarely strayed from my usual. It was too good to risk branching out. At Take It Away, this means the French bread and the house dressing, a concoction so addictive that even 340 miles couldn't quell it. It means either Havarti or Edam (this time Edam) and getting both of their two available vegetables, cucumbers and alfafa sprouts. The meat was always the most variable decision, but I particularly enjoy the pastrami spiced turkey so I went with that again. Taken separately, all of these ingredients are pretty great, but put together, they form one of life's simple pleasures.
7/10



Pita Inn - 250 West prior to River Rd. intersection, Charlottesville, Virginia
Hummus; falafel sandwich with tahini, pickle and french fries
$10
6/10



It tastes so much better than it looks.

Dinner
-

Zazus - 2214 Ivy Rd., Charlottesville, Virginia
Thai Wrap
$7

In college, I may have spent more time at Zazus than in the classroom. Ben and I often went there for dinner after finishing our comic, relaxing from the stressful days among the dim lighting and widely spaced tables. He'd steal soda by asking for a cup for water. I'd try to hide from all the people we knew. And inevitably, he'd order his veggie wrap and I'd get my Thai wrap. No matter what final we were cramming for or what book we hadn't done the reading in, our wraps were always identically excellent. Going to Zazus felt as constant as inhaling and exhaling.

Since graduation, I haven't indulged in much nostalgia, but early night dinners at Zazus is one thing I have missed. The wraps I've found in New York just cannot touch the Thai wrap, with its generous splash of peanut sauce, the spinach, the slices of carrot, the sizable chunks of chicken and rice. It just all comes together perfectly. It was cool getting to go back there with Ben today to find out that even hype and hyperbole couldn't make the wrap taste anything but wonderful. I guess Thomas Wolfe doesn't know much about going home again after all. 8
/10




Cassis - 210 W. West St., Charlottesville, Virginia
Short rib with cassis BBQ and spicy remoulade, grilled venison with parmesan barley risotto and butternut squash chips, half of a vanilla creme brulee, Grey Goose vodka martini dry with a twist, glass of Cabernet Sauvignon
$52

New restaurants are a gamble. Odds are the service and cooking will have inevitable flaws that only months of operation will be able to work out. But now and then, a new restaurant can conjure up instant magic from the start, giving its first diners the bragging rights of being first, the chance to eat hype-free and the opportunity to tell their friends about the hot new restaurant in question.

Only being in Charlottesville for one and a half days, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to risk my one dinner on a wild card. But with an inventive French menu, reasonable bistro prices and a storied space, I decided that Cassis would be worth the challenge. Occupying what used to be Metro before it used to be Metropolitan, Cassis was standing in a large shadow though. The young chef behind Cassis, Sean Lawford, also worked at Bizou and Mas, some of Charlottesville’s favorite restaurants, before striking out on his own. To even measure up to any of these standards would be an accomplishment.

Because they don’t take reservations (strike one), my friend Casa and I decided to meet at the restaurant at eight and get a drink while we waited. There was no discernible host or hostess to greet us or take down my name though. It seemed like whichever waiter was passing by would (or wouldn’t) talk to the people gathering by the door. After being told the wait would be about forty-five minutes, we opted to get that aforementioned drink at the too small bar.

Easier said than done. Because there weren’t any seats left, we stood in a free space and waited for the bartender to approach us. That didn’t happen. A few minutes later, one of the patrons pointed out that two of the seats had freed up. We sat at the bar, thinking that might be a better clue for him. Again, he seemed oblivious to us. Finally, Casa ruined the mystery and told him we wanted drinks. He asked for IDs and stared at hers for ten seconds and mine for about fifteen. If this wasn’t bad enough, I was treated to a repeat performance of “The Invisible Bartender” when I tried to flag him down to pay my tab.

The service at our table wasn’t as bad (that would require serious effort), but wasn’t great either. Uninspired bread arrived noticeably late and the waiter was hard to find. Thankfully though, (some of) the food was able to remedy the sloppy, confused service.

My appetizer, the Short rib with cassis BBQ and spicy remoulade, was easily the best course I had. The beef was falling-off-the-bone tender and paired well with the novel barbecue sauce. It looked and tasted like a dish that could be in a New York restaurant at a New York price. It gave me high hopes for the courses to come, but unfortunately, it was mainly the unique presentations of dishes that held up.

The grilled venison entrée was a study in unevenness. The barley risotto was delicious and a nice departure from more conventional risotto, but the venison tasted gamey and too dry. (Bizarrely, Vince, who ate here earlier in the day, said his venison was too raw.) Worst though were the butternut squash chips, which added a clever element of color and height to the dish. I couldn’t detect any flavor of squash in them, because they must have been soaking in the Dead Sea all day. I had to take extra gulps of my cabernet sauvignon just to wash away the salt.

To finish, Casa and I split the vanilla crème brulee from a fairly uninteresting dessert list. (In contrast, the appetizers and entrée selections appeared much more creative.) It was technically competent but lacked any spark to distinguish it from the many other crème brulees I’ve tried. Desserts in my mind should wow the diner so that he leaves on a high note. Instead, Cassis offered a sigh.

I have little doubt that the restaurant will improve once the service issues are solved and Lawford’s cooking becomes more even. Some dishes will fall by the wayside and new ones will be added. Ingredients and portions will be tweaked. Seeing how a restaurant starts out and where it ends up is part of the fun in being one of the first in the door. Unfortunately, this time, the gamble didn’t pay off and I don’t see myself returning for the conclusion. 4/10

Monday, February 21, 2005

Feb. 21.



Breakfast -

Veselka - 144 2nd Ave., East Village
Cup of spicy carrot soup, kasha-mushroom pierogies (appetizer portion), hot chocolate
$13

After just missing the last food at Schiller's, Vince and I trekked up to our old Ukranian stalwart Veselka in the snow. We've come here countless times and its always glowing halo on the corner of Ninth and Second is as comforting as a fireplace at a ski lodge. Or to get even more metaphorical, Veselka reminds me of my dog: loyal, constant and friendly in its own way.

We took seats by the window, watching the snow pour down and people clutching their jackets skidding by. As I often do, I shook things up by sticking to the specials, posted reliably in black and white signs. That's one very nice feature of Veselka: no matter how many times I've been, there's always some new special to sample.

This time, it meant spicy carrot soup and pierogies filled with kasha and porcini mushrooms. Both dishes were more interesting than excellent, but they were fittingly warm and hearty for a drunken winter a.m. The soup had a nice tanginess and a pleasant flavor that was unlike other carrot soups I'd tried, but the cup portion was all I needed of it. The pierogies weren't as good, mostly because I really don't like kasha. Foolishly, I'd expected the mushrooms to be the dominant flavor and the kasha to be more of a filler. Instead, the kasha was quite pronounced and I could barely detect the mushroom taste. Not a bad thing for kasha lovers, but not what I was looking for.

That's how it can be at Veselka. Some things are better than others and some things are better for certain tastes. But we were satiated, I was mildly drunk and we were witnessing the best time for the snow - the pure white glaze before it inevitably turned to slush and sludge. Veselka had once again been there for us when we needed somewhere to kill a few post-midnight hours
with conversation and reminders of Eastern Europe. 5/10


Sweet-n-Tart and Seafood dumplings

Shrimp rolls and Chicken

Glutinous dumplings and two tong shuis

Dinner -

Sweet-n-Tart
- 20 Mott St., Chinatown

Steamed seafood and asparagus dumplings, wonton soup with shrimp wontons, shrimp rice rolls, chicken with mushrooms and black bean sauce, braised pork leg lo mein, papaya with snow mushrooms double-boiled tong shui (hot dessert soup), nut-filled glutinous dumplings, fresh strawberry juice with black tapioca pearls
$29.50
8/10

Saturday, February 19, 2005

Feb. 19.


Scallop and crab meat and Sturgeon

Lobster and Lamb

Goat Cheese Sorbet and Souffle

Dinner
-

Danube - 30 Hudson St., Tribeca
Danube cocktail (complimentary), a glass of champagne (complimentary)

Nine-course chef's degustation menu with wine pairings: Salmon with creme fraiche and horseradish (Amuse), Waltz of Appetizers (Kumamoto Oyster with Apple Mint Gelee, Foie Gras Terrine with Crisp Porcini, Japanese Yellowtail with Wasabi Tobiko, Crisp Portuguese Sardine) (Appetizer), Diver Sea Scallop and New England Crabmeat with Paradeiser Coriander and Fresh Lemon Thyme Sauce (Appetizer), Smoked Sturgeon and American Osetra Caviar in Spinach Puree (Seafood Course), Maine Day Boat Lobster with Sunchoke, Mango, Hon-Shimeji Mushrooms and a Saffron Curry Broth (Seafood Course), Carinthia "Schlutzkrapfen" High Altitude Austrian Cheese Ravioli with Harvest Corn Sauce and Smoked Wild Mushrooms (Appetizer), Roasted Rack of Colorado Lamb with Pumpkin Barley, Glazed Cippolini Onion and Sweet Potato Puree (Meat Course), Goat Cheese Sorbet with Apple Cider Gelee (Dessert), Tahitian Vanilla Parfait with Pumpkin Seed Oil, Butternut Squash and White Chocolate, Oven Roasted Quince and Pomegranate (Dessert), Austrian Chocolate Hazelnut Souffle with Chocolate and Vanilla Ice Creams and Apple Sorbet (Dessert), Walnut Cake and Mignardises, four white wines, two red wines, three dessert wines
$248.60
10/10

Tuesday, February 15, 2005

Feb. 15.



Dinner -

Dumpling Man - 100 St. Mark's Pl., East Village
Seared pork dumplings (6)
$4.62

Racing back from JFK to beat the midnight deadline, I was seriously craving dumplings after eight days in Costa Rica. Because they were almost closed by the time I got there, I was stuck with ordering whatever Dumpling Man had left. For me, that wasn't a big problem. I'd happily eat anything on the menu and I decided to pretend I was having a very low budget omakase.

I got six seared pork dumplings with a container of their hot red sauce. The dough skin is thicker than many other dumplings and the pork is mixed with Asian chives and a little ginger and scallion juice. Generally, I prefer the steamed shrimp, but I've got to say, after being welcomed back by a cold wintry New York, to the traffic and the blaring horns, to the rush of skyscraper lights and startling nightscapes, the seared pork tasted like a wonderful homecoming. 7/10

Monday, February 14, 2005

Feb. 14.




And how about the view?

Lunch
-

El Avion - Manuel Antonio, Costa Rica
Crema de langosta (cream of lobster soup), pepper mahi-mahi, Negocio de Monos (Monkey Business - Malibu rum, vodka, Bailey's, banana)
10209 colones (~$21.95)

For our last day in town, Pat proposing going somewhere nicer for lunch. This wasn’t too much of a challenge because Manuel Antonio is so geared toward tourism and leisure. Driving down the main road connecting Manuel Antonio and neighbor Quepos, we noted the various options, many of them run by the pricier hotels. We ended up choosing a place called El Avion, because I think Pat liked the airplane at the front of the restaurant. (We then learned this Fairchild C-123 was one of the actual planes bought by the CIA in what became the Iran-Contra scandal.)

Even before we ordered, El Avion was eager to stun. Taking a table at the edge of the restaurant, Pat and I were treated to a gorgeous view of the Pacific. A smiling waiter came over and shared the sight with us. “How do you like my office?” he said. “This is my office.” It was a charming introduction, but it would’ve received a bigger laugh if I weren’t about to be stuck in my all-too-real office in the all-too-near future.

I started with a lobster bisque. It had a strong flavor I haven’t encountered in American bisques and was a dark orange color that was closer to France than New England. It was also topped with a green olive oil drizzle, another touch new to me. Overall, the soup was good, the creamy consistency broken up by the drops of oil. But the taste wasn’t compelling enough to make me want to finish off the large bowl and disappointingly, there weren’t any chunks of lobster in the bisque.

On the other hand, I was ready and willing to finish the entrée. Going with the pepper mahi-mahi over the Cajun mahi-mahi on my waiter’s recommendation, I suspect I made the right choice. He was also right to warn me that it’d be spicy, because the fish was far from shy in asserting its peppery personality. But the level of spice worked well here, giving the fresh seafood a lively charge. The sides that came with the fish were once again predictable and simple, but still an improvement from many of the other sides I’d tried on my trip. Adding corn to the rice and seasoning the vegetables well at least showed that El Avion took some care in choosing sides.

Still, the highlight of our lunch had to be my drink, the Negocio de Monos. Whoever dreamt up this cocktail deserves an honorary Ph.D. in mixology. It contained fresh-pureed banana, coconut rum, Bailey’s and vodka, with each ingredient represented in generous proportion, and each working together in delicious unison. The use of real bananas rather than some cobweb-coated packaged substitute made a massive difference and the coconut and coffee were inspired additions. Tropical, refreshing, fun and relaxing, the Negocio de Monos epitomized “vacation” in a sip, and it’s honestly one of the best drinks I’ve had.

We ended up sitting at the restaurant for hours, too enchanted by the serene view to leave and too reluctant to admit our time was swiftly coming to an end. El Avion had done its part by being the nice restaurant we were looking for, hitting a few noteworthy heights while providing a comfortable ride free of turbulence. 7/10




Cantina Salsipuedes - Manuel Antonio, Costa Rica
Pinchos de cerdo (pork shish kabob), calamari, filet de dorado (fileted mahi-mahi), carnitas mexicanas (Mexican beef carnitas), dos vasos de vino rojo de casa (two glasses of house red wine)
6250 colones (~$13.44)
7/10

Sunday, February 13, 2005

Feb. 13.




Lunch
-

Marlin Restaurante - Manuel Antonio, Costa Rica
Toro y langosta (tenderloin steak and lobster tails), a mango daiquiri, a cappuccino
12177 colones (~$26.19)
7/10

Saturday, February 12, 2005

Feb. 12.


Pizza, fresh fruit juices and
amazing pesto sauce


Lunch
-

D'Pepe - Monteverde, Costa Rica
Half of a grande pizza con jamon y hongos (large pizza with ham and mushrooms), jugo de papaya (papaya juice), jugo de mora (blackberry juice)
4182 colones (~$8.99)

I like eating foods in countries that aren't known for those foods. For example, when I was in Vienna, I couldn't resist having a Shanghai-style Chinese lunch. More surprising than anything was how unsurprising it was. It was just like the kind of food you would find in an American Chinese restaurant. Thankfully, my experience with pizza in Monteverde proved a little more novel.

The ham and mushroom pie that Pat and I split at D'Pepe wasn't particularly good, the thin crust too charred in spots and the lackluster cheese too lightly applied. The toppings were also so spare that they didn't reach certain slices. (Whether these shortcomings can be applied to Costa Rican pizzerias in general I can't really say.) Still, as mediocre as the pizza was, the pesto sauce that accompanied it was magical.

It came in a clear, fat-bottomed bottle, the kind you'd expect a sorcerer to keep on his shelf. It very well could've been a spellcasting elixir because it made every bite of my iffy slices exciting. It also made me realize that I'd never seen pizza served with pesto, a vast omission from the New York dining scene. So while D'Pepe can keep its pies, it needs to start air-mailing its magic portions immediately. 5/10

Friday, February 11, 2005

Feb. 11.




Lunch
-

Tom's Pan German Bakery - Arenal, Costa Rica
Plate of assorted meats and cheeses, a German pretzel, some of Pat's sauerbraten and bacon dumpling, a bottle of Evervess ginger ale, a cappucino, an apple strudel, a bobo (pastry filled with macademia nuts, caramel and chocolate)
$18
7/10


Pretending we're Lebowski

Dinner -

Taberna - Monteverde, Costa Rica
Chuleta ahumada (smoked pork with rice, mashed potatoes, and lettuce and tomato), a White Russian and a Vodka on the Rocks
3567 colones (~$7.67)


The road to Monteverde was a rocky one, complete with extended detours, rough roads and missed turns. We got there at night after a long drive, but decided to go out anyway. The nightlife paled to the scene in New York, but we managed to find a hotspot called Bar Amigos still going strong at ten.

It was the Costa Rican equivalent of a country western bar, with some of the men even dressed in cowboy hats and denim. An energetic live band charged into song after upbeat song, and for every number, the dance floor filled up with couples performing an elaborate variation on swing dancing. The few groups of tourists in the place watched in curious awe on the sides, a few of them even clapping along. I had a few Imperials and an extremely potent Rum and Coke and happily watched the men and women swerve and turn and twirl like ballroom champions.

After we left Amigos, we had trouble finding another place to go. I was also starving as I hadn’t yet had dinner. The prospects in the small town looked bleak as we drove around. Then on our way back to the hotel, another brightly lit bar blaring tunes appeared like an oasis. It was called Taberna and the sign advertised “Full Party and Dancing all nigth” [sic]. Even better, it said they were serving food.

Spending time in Taberna, I started to feel like a character in a soap opera. It was as if the only people in the town were the ones I knew. Even after only being in Monteverde for a few hours, I recognized about fifteen people dancing to the three-year-old hip hop and drinking. It seemed like Pat and I were the only ones there to eat, not much of a good sign. Another question mark was the menus, which were printed in the shape and style of a vinyl record. Since Taberna was the only game in town though, I shrugged and went for the smoked pork. Pat selected the fried fish.

His came first and from the first bite, he raved. He said it was some of the best fried fish he’d had, and as a former Long John Silver’s employee, his expertise was especially prized. My anticipation, not to mention my incredible hunger, built for my dish as more people packed into the crowded club. Half an hour passed. I slugged back a bitter but rockbottom-cheap glass of Stoli on the rocks. Just as I was about to ask, my pork appeared. It could have been disgusting and I would’ve wolfed it down. Thankfully, it proved mostly very good.

The pork was lean and very well seasoned, its taste falling somewhere between ham and corned beef. The lettuce, tomato and rice were nice healthy counterbalances to the meat, creating a filling meal. The only problem was the mashed potatoes, which were lumpy and strange. This was the second time I was trying a Costa Rican take on mashed potatoes (the first at a hotel breakfast) and both times they were misses. Either I hit upon two bad versions or, as I was starting to suspect, mashed potatoes were not a specialty in this country.

Still, as yet more familiar faces poured onto the dance floor, I knew it’d been a very good night. I was glad to have reached Monteverde safely and to experience their nightlife for myself. Next time I happen to stop in at Taberna, I’ll have to try the fried fish. Or at the very least, ignore the lumpy tuber lurking next to the delectable pig.
6/10

Thursday, February 10, 2005

Feb. 10.




Lunch -

La Choza de Laurel - La Fortuna, Costa Rica
Patacones con queso y frijoles (fried plaintains with cheese and beans), la pechuga rellena y vegetales (chicken breast stuffed with ham and cheese and a side of vegetables), two cappuccinos
5200 colones (~$11.18)
4/10