A Year In Food

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

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Dec. 13.

On The Move - So I arrived in San Francisco last night and today, I already had my first day at work. I'm now a copy editor at a small publishing house and I'm already waist-deep in manuscripts. As such, I'm taking a brief hiatus as I get adjusted to a whole new city and a whole new set of circumstances. (Anyone have a great cheap studio for me to move into?) But with a new state comes many exciting new food possibilities, along with a lot more posts from Europe and New York still to come...

Update: I now have a great cheap studio!

Friday, December 09, 2005

Sept. 21.

Copenhagen, Part Three - Supermarkets in Europe can be a real experience. They can range anywhere from the palatial Auchan in Bordeaux to the dingy, depressing aisles of Netto in Copenhagen. The latter looked like some holdover from a Bolshevik-era Baltic state, with sparely stocked shelves and unappetizing options. Even exiting was an issue, as the only way out involved pushing past the staggeringly long lines at the one open checkout. After giving Netto a few chances, we resolved to go to the Irma a few doors down instead. It was more expensive, a concern in already-expensive Copenhagen, but its relatively large layout and recognizable products made it seem like a Whole Foods in comparison.

At the Irma, I bought my breakfast that morning. Once again, I went with a jar of trustworthy taramosalata, but in the name of innovation, paired it with a package of garlic-coriander naan. Vince and I found a nearby park to sit in, not a difficult task in Denmark, and I proceeded to attempt my Greek-Indian fusion. It was mostly a tasty success, though the bread itself was too dry and boring. Still, I wouldn’t be surprised if my idea inspires a trailblazing restaurant called Curry Roe or Athen’s Delhi.

From there, we set off on our day’s itinerary. Because it was Wednesday, all of Denmark’s museum were free, so we started with visits to the Staten Museum for Kunst and the National Museum. The Staten Museum for Kunst, or the State Museum for Fine Arts, was renovating its gallery space, so walls that usually displayed four paintings now had fifty. It made for a novel though overwhelming viewing experience, as any one room saturated hundreds of works mere inches away from each other. Still, the power of the collection, which spotlighted Danish art and covered the centuries admirably, made it a valuable visit. Less interesting was the National Museum. There, we checked out a special exhibit about toys, but it was only a paltry few rooms of stuffed animals and soldiers.

After the museums, we went to Christiania, a spot that I’d been eagerly awaiting. It was a commune that operated independently from the rest of Copenhagen, populated by hoards of hippies, squatters and radicals. It was, until 2003, considered very dangerous, because of the heavy sales of hard drugs and a tendency toward violence, with the worst offender being the notorious Pusher Street. Since then, the increasingly conservative government has cracked down on alternative Christiania, with aggressive raids that closed down the drug shops. It's tried to bring the “free state” under control, while threatening to shut it down permanently.

Christiania ended up being very interesting though also at times, uncomfortable and depressing. On the positive side, the omnipresent graffiti was beautiful and passionate. For an aficionado like me, it was startling, almost as inspiring as all the walls of the Staten Museum. Also, it was nice to see a self-sustaining community, complete with bars, homes, vegetarian restaurants, and communal meeting areas. (It’s impossible to buy property in Christiania. When a space becomes available, the community decides who can move into it.) On the other hand though, so much of the area was in disrepair, with bare barracks and broken-down shacks serving as shelters. Many of the inhabitants looked dirty and unhealthy, smoking and drinking throughout our visit. Dirty dogs roamed around too.

There were many other downsides. For one, the police presence created an uneasy tension between the residents and the officers. At one point, some of the drunk and angry residents got into the faces of the cops, chanting and screaming for them to leave. Also, in order to supplement their incomes, some of the Christiania population sell cheap souvenirs to tourists and operate more expensive, tourist-friendly places, diluting the character of the independent-minded community. Lastly, for all of its trouble over drugs, the problem still lingers, both for residents who use and visitors. Throughout our walk, men in trenchcoats whisper-asked if I wanted hash or coke. My stress-free experience in Amsterdam seemed to make more sense by the minute.

After spending about forty minutes there, I was glad to have seen Christiania, but I was also glad to leave. While I respect the counterculture, my experience there also highlighted many of the shortfalls of isolated life. So we headed back to society, where we again had to choose a dinner option for the night. Tonight, Vince suggested Middle Eastern, which seemed just as curious an experiment in Copenhagen as pizza. I ordered a falafel sandwich with hummus and hot sauce, and the owner filled it up with lettuce, tomatoes and cabbage. I was shocked at how good it was, and Vince, who got a sampler of dishes including baba ganoush and hummus, agreed. Unlike the pizza, it wasn’t just good for ethnic food in Scandanavia, but flat out delicious, with every element at its prime. Best of all though, it meant that I’d never have to see the Netto again.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Nov. 27.

Lunch -

Tacobite - 905 Lorimer St., Greenpoint, Brooklyn
A chicken taco, a pork taco

I was helping Pat move from his Greenpoint apartment out to Boerum Hill. Along with his brother Jim, we loaded his CDs and books into boxes and drove them through the borough. Around two, whenever our mild hangovers started to wear off, we all went out in search of food. Jim suggested a new taco stand down by McCarren Park. I hadn't had a good taco in ages, so I quickly and optimistically agreed.

The cold was muted, even letting through a thin sun, as we walked up to the stand. It was attached to perpetually empty Monsignor's Restaurant and next to a mechanic's shop. The large board listed beef, pork and chicken tacos, as well as burritos and burgers. There were also Styrofoam plates taped to the window that listed specials such as chicken quesadillas and Coronas. The Mexican man behind the window pulled it open and took our orders. It turned out we all wanted the same thing, a chicken and a pork taco. As per usual, I asked for mine sin cebolla.

While we waited for the food to be made, Jim, Pat and I checked out the sale next door. In front of the mechanic's were tables and tables of fun junk, including John Kerry dolls, creepy frog statuettes, extension cords, coloring books and floodlights. To think, I could've done all my Hanukkah shopping right then and there! A few minutes later, our lunches were ready, the warm soft tortillas wrapped in aluminum foil. We brought them back to Pat's still-messy apartment and dug in.

The tacos proved to be very good, with their most admirable quality being their spicing. Far more dynamic than most Gotham Mexican, they had a complex mix of herbs and spices. Surprisingly, they even had a little heat and also came with lemon wedges, for fans of an extra citric touch. I did prefer the chicken to the pork though, the latter being ground and less satisfying. Also, they needed to be eaten right away, because letting them linger a little too long caused the lettuce and tortilla to soften. Still, Tacobite was a pleasant Sunday surprise, well worth its price and the walk. If Pat didn't have to be out of his apartment by the end of the week, I could see us making a lot more visits to the stand. 7/10

Dinner -

Sripraphai - 64-13 39th Ave., Woodside, Queens
Fried Watercress Salad w/ Chicken, Shrimp and Squid; BBQ Pickled Pork Spare Ribs; Beef Drunken Noodles; Southern style Curry with Chicken; Fried tilapia filet with Chu Chee Curry; coconut rice; Doughballs with Coconut; Coconut and Tapioca in Banana Leaf; a Thai Iced Tea

In Spain, I dreamt of curries, red or green, with splashes of coconut milk. In Germany, I longed for the fried crunch of watercress stalks. In Prague, Budapest, Sarajevo, I craved a heat as complex as multivariate calculus and flavors that lingered for days. In other words, all through my trip, I was dreaming of Sripraphai (see Jul. 10, Feb. 5, Jan. 8). When I left the country for three months, I knew that I’d miss my friends and my CDs and constant Internet access, but I was surprised to learn just how painfully I’d miss that excellent Thai restaurant in Woodside.

I shouldn’t have all that surprised that good Asian food was hard to come by in continental Europe, and that spicy Asian food was even more of an anomaly. Even here in New York, Thai kitchens frequently douse the heat to appeal to a larger audience. But I’ve yet to have a bad experience at Sripraphai, or even one that hasn’t had me speedily reaching toward the water glass with a fire-stricken grin. So since my return, I’d been counting down the days until I could fill the table with some of the best and most affordable plates in the city, until I could pour another classic concoction over the mound of coconut rice, until I could fill my plate with noodles, seafood, and greens. That moment finally came on Sunday.

Pat, Manny and I met up at seven, where the smells of crispy pork and peppers were already exhilarating me. Manny, in his first visit to the restaurant, suggested I take the lead and order for the table. He knew how to win me over. The problem though wasn’t in choosing the few star dishes, but the stars among stars. “You can’t go wrong here,” I explained. “It’s more about what you really like or want to try.” After some brow-furrowing deliberation, I set us on a path of action, with two appetizers, a noodle dish, a curry and a fish, mixing in old favorites with some new ideas. Manny wisely asked our very sweet waitress to stagger the meal.

First up was the fried watercress salad, one of my desert island picks. Every time, it astounds me with its abundance of textures and flavors. Manny claimed too that he was “blown away,” a very high compliment considering that he can be a tougher critic than Henry VIII, and Pat happily agreed. Our other appetizer, the pickled pork ribs, were also dead-on, a sour, piquant glaze jazzing up the familiar taste of ribs. They disappeared far quicker than the well-sized portion would’ve suggested.

Arriving next were the drunken noodles, the Southern curry, and the tilapia filet. The noodles were just as delicious as I remembered them, but somehow the other bolder dishes managed to outshine them. The curry, Southern because of the region’s even greater predilection toward heat, didn’t disappoint with its blazing taste. More importantly, the temperature didn’t mute, but instead elevated, all the other wonderful flavors. The winner of the night though may have been the fried fish, which all of us kept helplessly returning to. The fish itself was fresh and succulent, soft inside and crispy outside, and the sauce served as an addictively interesting complement. I also enjoyed the large halves of Thai eggplant scattered throughout.

Finally, we decided to finish with desserts, even though I warned that they were kind of peripheral to the Sripraphai experience. We pressed on anyway, and picked out two of the plastic containers our waitress brought over. One was soft balls of dough topped with coconut and the other was a base of tapioca pearls topped with a firm coconut cream wrapped in a banana leaf. I enjoyed them the most, probably because I knew not to expect too much. Of all the courses, dessert was the only one I didn't dream about. However, just about everything else about Sripraphai turned out to be a dream come true. 9/10

Monday, December 05, 2005

Sept. 20.

Copenhagen, Part Two - Vince found a walking tour in a tourist magazine, so we set off exploring the sights. Many of the buildings on the walk were from the 14th and 15th centuries, mostly fledging churches and royal offices that survived the years. More recent but still very pretty was the Radhaus, or town hall, which occupied the center of the city. Continuing on to the more pastoral part of Copenhagen, we pushed on to Frederikstaden, where den Lille Havfrue, or The Little Mermaid, sat waiting. Mournfully overlooking the water, the small sculpture by Edvard Eriksen looked appropriately trapped and conflicted, as tourists jostled to join her on her rock.

For lunch, we again had to look for bargains. Figuring it would be appropriate for Scandanavia, we bought a jar of pickled herring and a bag of black bread. This was a new experience for Vince, but, having grown up with hearty Russian eaters, I was well-versed in the ways of the briny, metallic fish and the dark, porous loaf. He scooped up the nubs of onion floating in the murky liquid while I avoided them. Reaching the end of the herring, I felt the same way about it as I always do. It's not bad in occasional doses, but it's not something I want more than that.

Afterward, I went into a clothing store to look around. I had only brought four white undershirts for the trip, and, over a month into a trip, that was proving to be a challenge. Now and then, I'd wash them in the sink with detergent, but it only seemed to mask the smell. I was looking at a pack of shirts when the unthinkable happened. My camera toppled out of my pocket and slammed against the linoleum floor. I raised it up and cradled it against my body, wailing a slow-motion "Nooooooooooooo!" After the loss of my laptop (see May 19), it was too much to take. I raced it to numerous camera shops, begging them to save my damaged camera. They shook their heads sorrowfully, with stares as helpless as the Mermaid's. Out of options, I stretched the black fabric of the camera bag over my poor Minolta and buried it in my backpack.

Still, I was determined not to let the loss ruin the day. After a full day of walking, Vince and I headed back toward Nørrebro, the area by our hostel. We decided to go back to Toppoli, the pizzeria we'd visited the day before. Even more than the affordable prices, I think we both wanted a place where the owner recognized us, where the menu was as familiar as a nursery rhyme, where we felt like we belonged. In other words, a Danish Veselka. But although we were just here yesterday, the pizzamaker showed no sign of recognition. Undaunted, we put in an order of a Quatro Stagioni which came out bubbling from the oven. We coated the semi-good pie with red pepper bits and ate up, again looking to find solace in food.