Monday, June 30, 2014

Little siblings

When I travel, I try to have a fantastic lunch and generally try to get a low-key dinner. Not only does this often save money, but it lets you eat your biggest meal at a time of day when you're likely to burn some of it off. Furthermore, it often happens that you're sightseeing in the pricey end of town, but staying in a neighborhood or a place that's more sparsely populated with decent meals.

But sometimes the high-end restaurant is too rich at any time, or doesn't serve lunch at an affordable price or even at all. There's a workaround for that: the little sibling from the same celebrity chef. In Chicago, these restaurant interrelationships are so numerous that they're almost incestuous. Instead of visiting Girl and the Goat for dinner, we dined at Little Goat just across the street (which is possible nearly any time of day). We eschewed BellyQ for Urban Belly, which shares the chef, the building, and a few of its big sib's menu items. And we got a three-fer of chefs Scott Harris of Mia Francesca, Tony Mantuano of Spiaggia, Jimmy Bannos and Jimmy Bannos Jr. of Heaven on Seven by choosing the small-plates restaurant The Purple Pig.

Marinated Chinese Eggplant with Thai Basil & Crispy Shallot at Urban Belly

The technique for uncovering these places is easy. First, find the well-regarded chefs in a place you're visiting. This is probably the easiest part. If you're already stumped, visit food sites such as Food Network and Bravo's Top Chef and use the city's name as a starting point.

Maybe there's a profile article somewhere that lists all of that chef's restaurants to study further. If not, couple the chef's name (or just the term "chef" with the name of the city) with "affordable" or "approachable" and search away. Even if you don't find the most famous candidates for affordable meals that represent the local cuisine, you'll definitely find something worth exploring.

Monday, July 8, 2013

On recipes and receipts

As a traveler, you're limited in what you can know about a restaurant to visit. Guidebooks tell you not to patronize places that post photos of the food (a notion I find ridiculous on a tourist trail). But it is true that you might not know enough about the language to scope out ingredients or preparation. (I had my eyes open before I tried tripe soup in Turkey, but disliked it anyway. Sorry, Turkey.)

Furthermore, restaurants in tourist areas, after all, don't have to worry too much about repeat business that they'd get from providing great experiences to diners.

Knowing something about local laws can provide a window into what you're getting. In Italy, it sometimes happens that a policeman will stop someone leaving a restaurant to inspect the receipt (the proof of restaurant revenues for later taxation.) But the receipt doesn't have to show up until the meal is finished.

In Greece, a reputable place won't bring even a bottle of water to the table without providing a receipt (often rolled up in a little Lucite holder.) Again, this is to ensure, upon inspection by a visiting authority, that the restaurant is obeying laws.

Greeks have a long history of caring about freshness from the sea

Greek restaurants are also required to state on the menu whether the ingredients in a dish are fresh or frozen. In my anecdotal experience, this doesn't happen as often as it might.

Why do you care, as a traveler? Because in lots of places you can't do your own inspection of the place. To me, whether the eatery follows the rules in the dining room provides an insight into how it works the rules inside the kitchen. That matters to me.

I wish I'd thought about this idea that time in Acapulco when I petted the restaurant's monkey and then ate my lunch.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Could we have a word?

One of the problems you encounter with foreign menus is that the locals are on a first-name basis with dishes that you’ve never met. Or, in the south of France, they can tutoyer the meals, referring to them by the familiar tu form when you haven’t yet been introduced to them. Let’s say you’re in France, and you see some menu choices.

Well, you could get aïoli. Excellent selection, madame. It’s often the plat du jour on Friday. So you look it up in your guidebook’s food section. And I can nearly guarantee that you’ll be told, correctly, that aïoli is a mayonnaise strongly flavored with garlic. As it turns out, I’m not a mayo fan normally, but I can lick aïoli right off of a spoon. But that doesn’t mean I could have it as my whole lunch.

And luckily for me, neither could anyone else. The main dish called aïoli (short for grand aïoli) actually comprises a portion of seafood or vegetables (Friday remains a fish day in France, a repealed religious principle that people continue to observe while breaking most of the still-standing ones.)

The point is that this isn’t just a big mess o’ mayo, it’s a plate in which the mayo plays a starring role. They just never mention the food that goes with the mayo, arguably an important oversight. Come to think of it, this reminds me of fondue, which simply means “melted”. But nobody’s dipping pricey shellfish into melted cheese.

Similarly, in Provence, they will serve purée alongside your meat or fish (and sometimes underneath it.) Purée, unadorned with further description, is what we’d call mashed potatoes. And potatoes can be ignored in another popular Provencal dish called “farcis”. The word “farcis” means “stuffed.” And without further elaboration, it means that veggies – peppers, eggplants, zucchinis, potatoes, or tomatoes, for example – are stuffed with a mixture and baked until they are caramelized. But the dish is called “stuffed”, not telling you anything specific about either the stuffing or the stuffee. And once in awhile, you’ll see elaboration for it on the chalkboard: ”Petits farcis” or “little stuffed”. Hmmm, does that mean that the vegetables are small or that they’re only a little stuffed?

So it’s a dish, in a word. And if I remember my poetry studies at all, the word is either “metonymy” or “synecdoche”, though I never remember which one is which. In my opinion, though, a more accurate word is “yum.”

Friday, May 11, 2012

Marching Orders: Deconstructing the menu of the day

Much more often than in the US, restaurants in Western Europe will offer a multi-course menu that changes every day. Most places limit this meal to weekdays, but you sometimes see one on Sunday and less often, on Saturday. Sometimes there are two courses (a starter and a main or a main and a dessert), and rarely, it’s all three. The menu might include some wine or a coffee. Strangely, when wine is offered, most often you can’t substitute a soft drink or even sparkling water. The menu of the day just is what it is.

The menu of the day will always cost less than the sum of its parts, if you had ordered the sum of its parts or even if the sum of the parts were available in the printed version. It’s usually advertised on a chalkboard or some other temporary place. The daily menu might be a loss leader to tempt patrons to stop in. So it’s a value meal. But it’s revealing that the elements of the meal are unique to a particular day. It's not a menu item for less money. It’s a blind date for the restaurant, not a mate.

Sometimes the restaurant has more menus than one to choose from, and the difference in quality as you step up should be apparent.

The daily menu at a fine restaurant will be always better and pricier than the one at the cheap place, but the meal that’s included will almost certainly include dishes that would be at the low end of what’s generally on offer wherever you are. So it’s not surprising that today’s cut of beef is a tough one, or the main is a pasta dish that’s easy to make in quantity, or the starter is soup rather than some carefully composed appetizer.

Here’s a menu at about the price of a normal main, with a dessert bonus. This dish, hachis parmentier, is basically shepherd’s pie wearing a cheese hat, but in France, even peasant food is yummy, and the portion is generous.

The benefits of selecting the menu of the day are numerous:

  • You will be full when you finish it.
  • You’re eating a better meal than you’re paying for. At the normal price, lunch could cost nearly twice as much.
  • You might be benefiting from the savings on an ingredient that happened to be available in quantity at a low price.
  • You get to eat the way the locals eat. Restaurants sometimes call it a tourist menu, but it isn’t really for us.
  • An inexpensive big lunch can mean that you can spend less money on a smaller dinner (and eat a little healthier in timing, if not calorically).
  • Dessert doesn’t have any calories if you don’t order it outright.

So here are my rules of the road for choosing a place with a menu of the day:

  • If the main ingredient in any course is expensive, the portion will be small.
  • Spend at the middle or upper end of what you’d pay for a single course at the same restaurant, or you might be disappointed with what you get.
  • Don’t hope that a steak will be a good cut of meat. It just won’t. Still, most cuisines have figured out how to disguise less-than-perfect fare with sauces.
  • Experiment with the local cuisine. Restaurants might put crazy options on the menu for the local adventurer, but they won’t take big chances with the meal that everyone will eat today. This is a chance to eat like the locals without taking a large risk.
Lunch should be a special part of any travel day, and the menu of the day can help.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

A national cuisine is a quilt, not a blanket

Countries don't spring up all assembled into a unified culture, and cuisines and habits vary according to ancient tribal borders. Some cuisines find their way across the nation, like hamburgers, I suppose, but others are ubiquitous in some places and endangered in others.

We found this out the hard way when we discovered the tomato-topped tostada (that I wrote about earlier) in Cartagena, Spain. We thought that our second-breakfast was set for the remainder of our visit. Soon after that, we left Cartagena and worked our way north. We should have seen it coming. First, the breakfast specials stopped including the tostada. They'd make one for us, if we asked. As we moved along the coast, the tomato puree would be wrong. Then the tostada disappeared.

But you always gain something (we've been gaining a bit too much all summer) when you leave one set of food customs in one region and find another in the next. For example, as we crept north, the montadito appeared. This appears to be the result of interbreeding between tapas and sandwiches. A bit of fish or cheese or meat is placed on a slice of baguette. You eat as many as you like. Often, they're impaled with sticks (for accounting purposes, apparently) and priced at something under two euros. You might take them to your table on your own, and the waiter simply has to count sticks and empty bottles to figure out what you owe (a bit too close to the honor system to work in the US.)

Montaditos appeared when we arrived in Alicante, but only in the form of "100 Montaditos", a restaurant chain that will be opening thousands of worldwide locations even in the US (called by Business Week "the Spanish Starbucks of Sandwiches".) By the time we were in Barcelona, montaditos were everywhere, and nary a franchise in sight. They're lovely to look at even only as a still life, and delightful to eat. Just don't expect to see them in Galicia.

The lesson we drew from this is that cuisines aren't national; they're very local. The folks on one side of a mountain range will eat very differently from the people over yonder. And if you really like to eat a certain local dish, get as much of it as you can in the place that it's on every menu. Because you never know if you'll see it again.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Putting the Pi in paella

One of the virtues of eating in restaurants, whether home or away, is that you can have something that you'd never make for yourself. When the local dish is complicated, or it has to be made in large quantities, or needs a pan you don't have, or it contains a lot of something that you don't normally have around the house, you should be sure to look for it when you're traveling.

In Spain, paella is that dish. Like tagine in Morocco or casserole at home, paella is named for the cooking vessel it uses. The paella pan can be as small as a stove burner and as large as 20 meters (more than 65 feet) in diameter. We know this because a paella of that size is listed in the Guinness Book of Records and fed more than 100,000 people. That's a big dish. It's often cooked outdoors, and guests have been known to eat it right out of the pan.

Though it's widely believed that paella is Spain's national dish, Spaniards associate it regionally with its birthplace in Valencia. The Valencian and therefore official version of paella contains some ingredients you might not want to ponder while you're eating this delightful dish: chicken, rabbit, and land snails, flat beans, large white beans, and other beans, and saffron, which gives it a delicate flavor and that rusty, caramelized color. Yes, there are snails in this dish, and this might explain the gigantic bags of snails that are piled on every seafood counter in Spanish markets. On the plus side, early versions of the dish contained water vole (a rodent) and eel, and lucky for us, that's not how paella is made anymore.

An alternate version of the dish uses seafood instead of meat, and is often available alongside Valencian paella in restaurants, as is shown above. Valencian paella is on the left side of this photo, and seafood paella is on the right. There's a "mixed" version that can include sausage, a variety of vegetables, and even different seasonings. You'll find that version elsewhere in Spain and around the world, but it horrifies Valencians. Somehow sausage and seafood doesn't work for them, but eel and marsh rats are a match made in heaven. In any case, I'm nearly positive I'll never cook paella. But it's a joy to let someone else do it.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Marching Orders: Adjust your body clock

Let's assume that you've arrived in a very new place, and there's a time change. Everyone knows that you need to adjust your sleeping habits. But it's important to reset your meal clock as well, and not just to the new time zone. You have to adjust to the rhythms of the culture. If you don't, well, you'll be swimming upstream for your entire visit.

Spain's a great example, a place where eating matters, and restaurants abound. But Spaniards eat snacks when we eat meals, and they tend to eat meals when we're off doing something else entirely, like going to bed. On our very first arrival in Spain, we tried to conform to our own food schedule as best we could. But restaurants don't open for dinner until eight or nine in the evening, and few local people are ready for the evening meal until well after that. We'd have our noses pressed against the restaurant door waiting for them to open up at eight, and then we'd eat dinner in an empty place. Depressing.

How do they wait for such a late dinner? By eating lunch at about three or four in the afternoon. How can they wait that long for lunch? They eat breakfast when we do. But they have a snack at about noon.

We often have what we call "second breakfast" when we're traveling. It's normally a cup of coffee and a pastry mid-morning. It's handy if you're running around ancient sites or you've just absorbed a museum, or if you just want an excuse to sit at a table portside. And face it, pastry is delicious. But our conventional second breakfast is too early (and probably too empty) to sustain us until lunch in mid-afternoon. So while we're in Spain, we have adjusted to a noon snack, and we're doing what we see around us.

Here's a tostada, with café con leche and fresh orange juice (normally, you'd get one or the other of these beverages.) This happens to be pan intégrale (whole-grain bread), but there's a white toast version of this as well. You can ask for a variety of toppings, but if you don't specify, you'll often get pureed tomatoes and a large drizzle of olive oil.

You might as well adapt. If you don't, you'll limit the number and type of places that will be open when you're hungry, you'll limit your ordering options, and worst of all, you'll be missing life abroad.