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Has this happened to you? Your first meal at a restaurant is enjoyable, maybe even in 5-star territory. You rave about the place to friends and family. You can't wait to go back. And when you do, it, well, kind of sucks. This happens to me more often than not. WTF?

Best Breakfast Ever
Best Breakfast Ever from Sunny Point Cafe in Ashville, NC

First of all, I dread eating somewhere new to me. It's a risk. You have to accept the possibility of failure, something I'm not always willing to do. Sure, I'll do it when I'm on vacation, but it's not like I have much of a choice. In more familiar haunts, though, the good dishes I know call out to me. It's when I get bored that I take the risk.

The First Visit
The First Visit

So, I walk in to a new place. I'm in borderline panic mode. What do I do? Do I seat myself? Who do I talk to? There's too much noise, I can't concentrate? Oh, yes, table for two. I sit down, grab the menu. What the hell does this mean? Why can't they call things by normal names? A burger for $12?!? Ga! What? Yes, I'll have the special. No, just a glass of water, wait, what's on tap?

Then the food comes, it looks wonderful and smells even better. And, damn, it's tasty. Before I know it, my plate is empty. If I'm not eating with my wife, I may even lick the plate.

Maybe that's it. I start with such low expectations that the meal can't help but seem good. When I return, though, I'm more familiar, better able to judge. I notice the lapses in service. This time I'm expecting good food and disappointed when it's not the best I've had.

I still take the risk, though. How else will I find the gems?

Cerritos Pupuseria, A Great Find
Cerritos Pupuseria, A Great Find

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What in the hell does Star Wars have to do with food? Let me explain.

It is too easy to mock these movies. The acting is so wooden and the writing stilted that it's not much of a challenge to pick it apart. But there's got to be more to it than that. There are poorly made movies that I still enjoy despite their flaws. For the longest time I couldn't put my finger on what was truly wrong with Star Wars.

Stake Land
I'll take mine medium rare.

Then it hit me while I was watching Stake Land. (This is actually a pretty good movie, I don't mean to damn it by including it with Star Wars.) There's a scene, very brief with no dialogue, only the sound track playing, in which we see the characters sharing a meal. It cemented their bonds and filled me with warm fuzzy feelings despite it being a world over run by zombie-like vampires. IT FELT GOOD! That's what's missing from Star Wars.

Yodo Serves a Stew
Apparently the Force cannot be used to enhance Yoda's cooking skills.

I can only recall two scenes in any of the six movies where you see someone eat. Once in The Empire Strikes Back when Luke visits Yoda in his hut. Though hungry, the young Jedi cannot seem to stomach the bowl of whatever Yoda served. Not very encouraging. The other instance is in The Return of the Jedi when Leia shares a candy bar with an Ewok. Close, but not enough.

Kaylee eats a strawberry
Damn, that tasted good.

Thing is, a good scene with food is not hard to do. In the first episode of the greatest TV show ever, Firefly, you just know that fresh fruit is hard to come by, and there's Kaylee with a dearly bought strawberry, clearly enjoying it. Again, a short scene, but it conveys so much. This is what's missing from Star Wars: the sensuousness of food and how it can bind characters together in a meaningful, believable way. If you can see characters letting down their hair, talking frankly while emphasizing a point with a chicken leg, you can believe that they just might take down a galactic empire. A jug of an Italian red table wine with that couldn't hurt.

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Eastern Inferno
Eastern Inferno by Hans Roth

The Journals of a German Panzerjager on the Eastern Front, 1941-43 by Hans Roth, Christine Alexander (editor) and Mason Kunz (editor)

When you're very hungry, the simple things taste great. When you're frequently hungry, such opportunities take on an almost religious significance, like this devotion to a piece of toast.

And now it is time for toasted bread. Our stove has reached the right temperature and now the pleasant ceremony of the soldier starts. We cut large slices of the dark bread and place it on a plate in the stove. The slices turn brown and crispy; the unforgettable smell of the bread fills the cramped space of the bunker. It is a smell which reminds us of long lost days, of the coziness and the pleasantness of the world. There are many ways to toast the bread, which permits you to distinguish the characteristics of the people in the bunker: the greedy person, the easy person, the unconcerned person, and apathetic person. The experienced toaster is patient, but will start dreaming when he stands at the stove and becomes distracted from the bitter reality, if only for a short time.

Much of the war between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union was fought during the bitter Russian winters. Surviving in such conditions burns lots of calories, so you are constantly hungry. It didn't help that usually when it was needed most, food was scarce. This reverence for the humble slice of bread is unsurprising.

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You cannot brood over a prosecco.

— Eric Asimov, A Sip, a Smile, a Cheery Fizz, New York Times.

For most of my drinking life, I was a beer man. Oh, I usually had red wine with dinner ( I've never been into white wine unless it was truly good), but my go-to drink was beer. I enjoyed a good hopped up pilsner (Tuppers' Hop Pocket Pils) or a mellower ale like Fuller's ESB.

Alas, real life intervened to change my drinking habits. It started when I had to do something about my growing belly. Damn, there's a lot of carbs in beer. I backed off a bit. Then I began to have stomach issues. I haven't completely given up beer. I still enjoy it once in a while (Sweetwater Tavern's Pale Ale continues to delight my tastebuds), but too often, after just one, I feel uncomfortably full. What am I going to do? I ain't givin' up drinkin'.

Veuve Clicquot

The Good Stuff

My wife and I have a tradition of shelling out some bucks for a good bottle of champagne when the occasion calls for it. As I'm sure you know, it's easy to pay a lot of money for a bottle. While I have tried bottles in the $100+ range (Dom Pérignon most recently) and have found them to be quite good, they're just not THAT good. I have found that the $40 range is where you'll find the intersection of quality with value. There are many good choices: Moët & Chandon White Star, Perrier-Jouët Brut, but we find ourselves returning again and again to Veuve Clicquot. It hits our spot on the dry/sweet continuum and the flavor plays out well on the tongue. At that price, though, I cannot afford to drink it regularly.

Jaume Serra Cristalino

Every Day Bubbly

My drinking habits changed when my wife bought me a bottle of Cristalino Cava Brut (now called Jaume Serra Cristalino). At first, I admit, I was leery. It's $7.95 a bottle, how good can that be? Very, actually. And I've discovered it at Whole Foods for $6/bottle. It's a little sweeter than the good stuff (don't get the extra dry, it's sweeter than the brut). Cava is now my go-to drink. I still have choices, too. Rondel is another bargain Cava Brut and 1 + 1 = 3 if I want something a little more fancy. You're far more likely to find a glass of one of these in my hands these days than beer.

Carrot Cake with Cream Cheese Frosting

Italian Bubbly

There's a subset of bubbly that's far sweeter than I usually like, but goes real well with dessert. Prosecco and Moscato d'Asti are excellent with a slice of cake, scoop of ice cream or even some cheese and fruit. They are among my favorite wines, but they're specialists, not something I'd pour a glass of at the end of a long day.

So, come on over. We'll pop a bottle and I'll pour you a glass. The bubbles will take your bad moods away.

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The Witch of Hebron
The Witch of Hebron by James Howard Kunstler

by James Howard Kunstler

After a hard day of brigandage, a man needs to eat!

"Put them onions there into the mush and mix them in good," Bill Bones told his protégé, Jasper Copeland, as they prepared their feast in the abandoned house on Goose Island Road. Billy had his goat-meat skewers jacked up on a couple of concrete blocks over the fire, and the meat juices dripped aromatically into the coals.

"Okay," he said, "now take them cheese crumbles and stir them in."

"Now taker her off the heat and just keep stirring until the cheese gets melty."

A good meal can take your mind off the fact that the world as you knew has ended. This book is full of good meals and food references.

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I once announced in the typically grandiose way I use when I pontificate:

All that is wrong with American food culture can be traced to the recipe. I am suffering under its tyranny.

Rather than eliciting the usual eye-rolling, a vigorous debate ensued. My wife quickly pointed to the glaring weakness of my proposition: Recipes teach you new ways of cooking. And yes, she is right, if you already know how to cook! She is a master and almost never follows a recipe to the letter. For her, it is a starting point that she's riffs off of to produce an amazing meal. But therein lies the trap that recipes pose for the rest of us. Allow me to make my case:

  1. Recipes Set Unreasonable Expectations

    Things don't always work out as planned. Even the best chefs have flops when they try something new, but they learn from their mistakes. That flawless salmon Gordon Ramsay plates on camera is probably the thousandth time he's done that dish. Give him a recipe that uses an ingredient he's never seen before in a style that's new to him and, well, he's probably got a better than even chance at success. But for the rest of us? I wonder how many potential cooks were turned off by an initial failure?

    I believe the overall quality of food in America would increase with the number of people who cook. I don't think we need a nation of Michelin starred chefs, just people who know what it takes to make the basics. We'd be less likely to put up with crap from others.

    What can we do to get more people into the kitchen?

  2. Recipes Teach the Wrong Thing

    You cannot learn to cook from a recipe. There are too many variables at play for any one recipe to be the definitive answer: My oven behaves differently than yours. The meat I buy today is different from what I bought last week in size, shape and fat/connective tissue content. Etc., etc., etc... How can I be a success in the kitchen if I don't understand these fundamentals?

    Rather than learning recipes, I should be learning techniques. How much easier would it be to follow a Coq au Vin recipe if you've mastered a basic roast chicken? Sure, they're not same thing (braising vs. roasting), but you'll already grok what heat does to connective tissue and the absolute lusciousness that follows.

    Also, if you master a technique, it becomes easier to branch out (for example, making your own stock with the left overs from a roast chicken). You have the building blocks that make good dishes. The more techniques your learn, the easier it is to assemble and reassemble these blocks into different meals.

    Pick a basic technique and a general ingredient, then keep doing it until you feel comfortable.

  3. Recipes Subvert the Shopping Process

    I ideally, you should go to the store with an open mind, to see what's good today. A recipe driven approach makes this difficult. Unless you're able to memorize hundreds or thousands of recipes, what are you going to do? Flip through every recipe you have to find a match for what you bought? Sure, the internet and recipe searches make this easier, but how much effort are you willing to put into tracking down something worth cooking? This would be more manageable if you limited the number of items you bought, but you may need to make a second trip.

    It's more likely, though, that someone is jonesing for a particular dish and goes searching for the ingredients. This is how we've ended up with flavorless tomatoes that are available year round. And the meat department? How often do you see something with a bone in it? They're usually arrayed in ready to use cuts. Please, don't get me going on boneless, skinless, all white meat chicken.

    If you start with a technique, though, shopping becomes a zen-like journey of discovery. "Oh, look, duck. Hmmm, can't be that much different to roast compared to a chicken." You'll find yourself asking questions of both staff and other customers and actually getting answers you understand.

    When you feel confident enough to take home a new ingredient, you'll know that you're beginning to master your craft.

Let me reiterate: There is a place in the world for recipes, but they should not serve as your entry point into the world of cooking. I find it interesting to leaf through Le Guide Culinaire. Most recipes are a few sentences, maybe 2-3 paragraphs. There are no lists or explicit steps. Here's one selected at random, Sole à la Dieppoise:

Prepare the sole and shallow poach in a buttered dish with 1/2 cup white wine and the same amount of mussel cooking liquor. When cooked, drain and place in a suitable dish, surround with a Dieppoise garnish and coat the whole with Sauce Vin Blanc containing the reduced cooking liquid from the sole.

How many assumptions are built into this recipe? You can't make money selling a book like this since only trained chefs will buy it. And that's the answer to my conundrum. Cookbook publishers want you to buy their books. They need to appear to contain doable recipes. I think it would be antithetical to their business model, though, to actually produce a truly useful volume. Most people would then limit their purchases. I'm looking at 6 shelves of cook books and magazines in my study, most of which are pure lists of recipes. I'm guessing that we've averaged cooking 2-3 from each book.

These are the types of food books I'd like to see more of:

The Tex-Mex Cookbook

The Tex-Mex Cookbook by Robb Walsh
The Tex-Mex Cookbook by Robb Walsh

by Robb Walsh

Yes, there are recipes here with your lists of ingredients and steps. But that's only a part of the book. The author goes into the history of Tex-Mex; how it came to be and how it straddles the border between Mexican and Anglo cuisines. Not only do I have a recipe for an excellent chili gravy, but I also have a counter move when someone swings the term "authentic" like a club. This is a cookbook that can be read cover-to-cover.

The Big Oyster

The Big Oyster by Mark Kurlansky
The Big Oyster by Mark Kurlansky

by Mark Kurlanksy

This is not a cookbook, though it does contain recipes (pickled oysters, anyone?). It's a history of New York City told from the context of this bivalve. It's a fascinating read (dang, the oysters were the size of dinner plates when Europeans first showed up), but I appreciate the insight it gives me to one of my favorite foods. I understand this shellfish better.

Well, enough of my rant. I need to figure out how to prepare a flatfish.

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Francois Haeringer
Francois Haeringer

I note with sadness the passing of François Haeringer. He introduced me, through his restaurant L'Auberge Chez François, to what a really good meal can mean. There is an obituary in The Washington Post that's worth reading.

I first ate at his restaurant in the late Eighties, at a time in my life when sitting down to dinner was an event purely about eating. I grumbled when I had to put on a suit and tie, muttered various synonyms for quaint when I first glimpsed the place and panicked when I saw the menu. I don't remember what I ordered, but I do recall that it had the element of randomness to it. The effect was immediate. I walked in as Saul and left converted to the total experience that a meal should be. The man himself said:

Listen, when people go to the restaurant, what do they want? A good time. A nice atmosphere. A good meal. It's simple.

Frequently at home, when remembering a place, we'll recall a great meal we had there or, just as likely, when making a dish at home, we'll reminisce about eating it on vacation somewhere. The sensual experience that is a meal – flavor, aroma, the sights and sounds, the very feel of it – all work to tightly bind your memories.

I have not dined at L'Auberg Chez François for a while now. Twenty years ago, it was practically the only place of its kind. Now, however, someone looking for a high-end experience has many options. I moved on. I feel really guilty about that. I am happy to see that his sons will continue to run the place. I shall make a reservation soon.

Thank you François Haeringer, you made the world a better place.

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Olive Garden: Not Bad for What It Is
Not Bad for What It Is

I plead guilty to yucking other people's yums. To wit: I have mercilessly mocked Olive Garden and those who think it fine dining. I realize now that it was wrong of me to do so. I committed the sin of expressing subjective opinion as objective fact. Olive Garden just couldn't be good food, but who am I to tell you what is or is not good? More to the point, though, how can I pass judgement on the place if I have not eaten there?

Clearly, I have never had the desire to eat at Olive Garden. I like real Italian food and felt that this place would be an abomination. The only reason why I went was the $50 gift card I had won in a raffle and a guilty sense that I should know that of which I rant. Now, any restaurant can be a good restaurant (supposing it's run with a modicum of skill and a desire to do a good job). The key is to set the right expectations. I prepared myself for this meal by repeating the mantra: "This is not an Italian restaurant, it is Corporate American cuisine made in the Italian idiom." Oh, and I promised I would not complain about over-cooked pasta.

Long story short, it wasn't that bad. The four of us ordered:

  • For an appetizer, we chose to create our own sampler and selected stuffed mushrooms, toasted raviolis and the calamari. Surprisingly, the squid was well cooked, with only a hint of rubberiness. The mushrooms were a tad on the greasy side, but edible. Nobody else seemed to like the raviolis, but I noshed big time.
  • We cycled 3 bowls of soup and an overly large serving of salad amongst us. The soups weren't bad, if a tad salty. The salad was an uninspired assembly of greens headlined by iceberg lettuce.
  • My youngest and I both ordered the special: 4 cheese stuffed pansotti (hers with chicken, mine Italian sausage). The pasta was (tss, tss!), er, um, drenched in a tomato-y cream sauce that actually went well with the sausage. The stuffed pasta seemed almost an afterthought that I wouldn't have missed.
  • My wife and eldest went with items from the appetizer menu. I questioned their selection of steamed mussels, but was proven wrong. The liquid was half way decent, even if overly salty (alas, this was turning into a theme here). They also ordered the Lasagna fritta, which was a disappointment. It looked nothing like the picture on the menu.

As I waddled out, I felt like we got our money's worth (the additional $40 it cost us), but don't think we'll be coming back. For that amount of money (or just a little more), we can get better food elsewhere. The place is not cheap unless you stick to water and the unlimited soup, salad and breadsticks.

One conclusion I reached, though, is that it's no wonder we're an obese nation:

  1. Portion sizes are gigantic. Those weren't plates, they were platters!
  2. Everything is drenched in cream and/or cheese. Why? Perhaps to cover up the fact that the pasta is (Dude! NO!), um, not the best.
  3. There is way too much salt. Telling sign that the dishes weren't made in house, but somewhere else and shipped here.

I felt miserable for the rest of the day, like I had swallowed an indigestible rock. I then made the mistake of looking up the nutritional value of the meal we just ate.

  • We consumed enough calories for the whole day for all four of us.
  • We ingested over 350 grams of fat! The equivalent to 7 Big Macs and 7 large orders of fries.
  • The salt intake was equivalent to the recommend daily amount for nearly 7 people.

I'm still in shock over witnessing a women who had to have been half my size who had ordered something that looked to be twice the size of my meal and she was furiously shaking salt on to it.

Now, I can rationalize crappy nutrition if the food is really good (bypassing for the moment the argument that good food doesn't need so much salt or fat) and I had a good time. This was not the case for me, yet others seem to truly enjoy the place. I won't try to talk them out of it. I would suggest, though, that they might try other places.

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Coming from the south, I figured I knew fried chicken. Then I had my eyes opened on a visit to Asia. The whole eastern reaches of that continent knows chicken. From a high-end Chinese restaurant in Singapore to a local chain outside of Seoul, I was never disappointed.

I am heartened that this style is making it to the US. The Korean chain Cheogajip Chicken has a location in the Centreville, VA area. There is also BBQ Chicken and Beer, which widens the typically narrow Korean menu with more options. Even the local Grand Mart had an excellent spicy fried chicken.

Note that I used the past tense on that last sentence. Apparently, customers have been complaining about the bones, so the curse that is boneless, skinless, all-white meat (BSAWM) chicken has claimed another victim.

I don't understand this. When you strip out the skin and bones, and limit yourself to only the breast meat, you're stripping out all of the flavor. All a whole chicken really needs is salt and pepper. A sauce is never a bad thing, but you don't need too much. I can no longer eat the spicy fried chicken at Grand Mart. The meat is rather dry and there is way too much sauce which, I assume, is to compensate for the lack of flavor normally supplied by the skin, bones and dark meat.

This is what's wrong with BSAWM-ness:

  1. First of all, it lack's flavor. Try eating a chicken breast prepared with nothing but salt and pepper. Sure, if you brine it first, it will be moist, but it will still be flavorless. Look at how this is prepared in most restaurants: This type of dish is usually swimming in sauce or served with a side dish that has an intense flavor.
  2. Because of point 1, it's not as healthy. What do you think is in that sauce? I'll bet half a paycheck that it's loaded in sugar and salt.
  3. It encourages unhealthy eating habits. You eat boneless chicken much faster than a bird with bones. It's better to eat slowly. Your body will feel full with less food in your belly. I find it interesting that the BSAWM version of Grand Mart's spicy fried chicken had about twice the meat of the original dish.
  4. BSAWM encourages animal cruelty. A natural chicken does not have enough white meat to make for an economically viable business producing only BSAWM. The factory bird with large breasts cannot move, even if it was given a free range opportunity. It is a freak of the industrial process.

BSAWM is a lie perpetrated on a gullible public. I am angered and saddened that my yum has been yucked.

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I may be naïve, but is it truly asking too much of restaurants to provide me with information that actually helps in making decisions? Yes, I know the answer to that. They're out to make money, so why would they risk sending me to somewhere else? This post, then, reflects yet another windmill I'll charge.

The source of this rant is this sign at my local Baja Fresh:

Baja Fresh Sign

I don't mean to pick on Baja Fresh. I do like the place (though not as much as Chipotle). It's just a convenient example of restaurant speak: It's not meant to provide you with real information in order to make up your mind; but rather to convince you that you've made the right decision. Let's take a look at these statements:

Our salsas are made fresh daily using only top quality produce.

"Made fresh daily," that's useful information that differentiates Baja Fresh from others. "Using only top quality produce," oops, this violates a rule of mine. Descriptions should have plausible alternatives and make a meaningful distinction. Top quality? Would anyone say they are using low quality ingredients? And produce? How else would you make salsa? They should have stuck with just the first half of the sentence.

We use only boneless, skinless chicken breast marinated and charbroiled.

Boneless, skinless, all white meat chicken is evidence of the depths to which American cuisine has sunk. And these guys are bragging about it! Of course you're going to have to marinate the stuff; otherwise, there would be no flavor in the meat. You might was well be using cardboard. At least then you could brag about the fiber. And that's just the point. They're trying to convince you of how healthy their food is in a way that's easy to demonstrate, but then they overcompensate in other areas they don't tell you about, like the fact that any entree with that chicken has nearly a whole day's recommended allowance of sodium. Just what is in that marinade?

Our lean steak is trimmed and charbroiled.

Again with bragging about the removal of the flavorful parts of the meat. Maybe if you left the fat in, you wouldn't have to load your burrito up with cheese, sour cream and guacamole. I'd be that you'd wind up consuming less fat that way. Go to any street food vendor in Mexico and order a taco. All you'll get, in general, is nicely cooked meat in a tortilla. No toppings are needed.

Our special recipe beans are made fresh daily using no lard.

OK, we have something moderately useful here. It's good to know they make the beans daily. I'd like to know more about their special recipe, but that's probably too much information for a sign. However, the "using no lard" is a non sequitur since lard would only be used in making refried beans, which Baja Fresh does not do. Now, I could get into an argument with you about why you should use lard in that case (dang, they taste so much better that way), but that's not the point. Again, they're trying to make you feel good about your choice for lunch regardless of how healthy the meal actually is.

Our fresh chips are made in 100% cholesterol free canola oil.

This sentence seems to have the highest density of helpful data: fresh chips, cholesterol free and canola oil. OK, that last might not be a meaningful distinction since I'm not sure why canola would be better than any other vegetable oil. However, what is important here is the word that they do not use. How are chips made? They fry those suckers! Can't have that word up there, I guess, since it would shoot to hell any health credibility they might have garnered in the 4 previous sentences.

Don't let this stop you, though, from enjoying their fried fish taco. They're quite tasty. And 3 of them have fewer calories, less sodium and about as much fat as any of their burritos. This is the point I'm making: If you're primary concern when eating is health, then you shouldn't be relying on the health claims made by the person selling you the food.