Restaurant reflections in the time of Covid-19

Homemade pasta yia yia from Lula Cafe
My own homemade pasta yia yia, the closest thing to dining at Lula Cafe right now

It’s May 2020, and my most anticipated restaurant experience this month was a Zoom virtual meeting.

I cooked along with Lula Cafe chef Jason Hammel as he demonstrated how to make the restaurant’s famous pasta yia yia. I ordered it for the first time five years ago and it’s been an all-time favorite ever since. As I put it back then, the combination of feta, cinnamon, brown butter, and garlic is the purest form of pasta magic. As much fun as it was to learn to make a dish that has such a special place in my heart, and as heartwarming as it was to see a screen full of more than 100 other Lula devotees and staff members, I couldn’t help but reflect on our current reality. Will we ever gather and dine the same way again?

I join so many others in mourning the uncertain future of restaurants as we navigate the Covid-19 pandemic. I’ve done my best to compartmentalize, to focus on supporting through takeout and delivery, as we stay at home week after week. But there’s no way around it: I deeply miss dining out and cannot conceive of the fact that it may never be quite the same. Restaurants have always felt like safe havens to me, so the current necessity to approach them with fear and caution is heartbreaking.

Combing through years of blog posts has brought back so many memories of meals that were significant not only for the food, but for what they represented in that time of my life. I’m sharing some favorite moments below (in no particular order) as a reminder that meaningful dining experiences go far beyond the plate and utensils, and with the hope for new innovations that inspire the same kind of awe and joy.

Birthday dinner at Le Cirque, Las Vegas. “I’m happy to report that from the moment we walked into the restaurant, our party was treated in a way that befit such a special occasion. The whimsical and strikingly colorful “circus tent” ceiling set an appropriately celebratory tone, and the window beside our table afforded a view of the famous Bellagio fountains, making the whole thing just a bit more magical.”

Any dinner at Girl & the Goat, Chicago. “And then the salmon, which you ordered partially because the server told you the fish was flown in from New Zealand and partially because you can’t believe that salmon could really work with strawberry and beef and peanut and yogurt, could it? But of course it does, all of the distinct components tangled together in the best way. And then there’s the chicken. You’ve come to expect at this point that it will be unlike any chicken dish you’ve had before, especially since the server explained it would be brined to order, glazed with maple-y goodness, and baked in the wood-fire oven. And indeed, you can’t stop talking about how good this chicken is, not to mention the soft, buttery naan and remarkable ramp goddess dressing that come with it. You’ll order dessert without question.”

Four-course brunch at Beast, Portland. “The prix fixe menu that’s posted outside the door is your first glimpse of what you’ll be eating…the staff treated us 24 or so diners with the utmost care, ushering us in right at 10 a.m. and meticulously plating each course in the open kitchen that comprised nearly half of the intimate space. In the other half, two large communal tables were filled by a collection of food-lovers from all over the country… it was just a delight to [share] the experience with people who wanted to soak it in the same way, iPhone-photo-snapping and all.”

Omakase at Shiro’s Sushi, Seattle. “Shiro was a “disciple” of Jiro, as in Jiro Dreams of Sushi, and had built something of an institution. We arrived before it opened and stood in line. Two hours and 40 minutes later, we were finally seated at the counter and settled in for omakase, or “chef’s choice.” On it went: red snapper, three cuts of salmon, four cuts of tuna, geoduck (my first time eating it!), king crab leg, octopus, eel that I can only describe as ethereal…and more. The fish was impossibly fresh and masterfully prepared, and the whole experience felt personal and special.”

11-course tasting with wine pairings at Acadia, Chicago. “Soon after, the first course appeared in a shimmering bowl, complete with a pearl spoon that matched the opalescent oyster shell in the center. Hints of black garlic, chive, and eggplant added bite and depth to the salty caviar within the shell. After seeing plating that was so beautifully in tune with the glitzy champagne-and-caviar theme, we knew we were in for a treat.”

Honeymoon pancakes at Eggs ‘n Things, Honolulu. “The nut-studded cakes were unbelievably fluffy underneath their griddled exterior, and the addition of fresh pineapple and the restaurant’s signature coconut syrup made them truly remarkable. I loved these pancakes so much that they merited a repeat visit: we went back for our last meal before heading to the airport to fly home.”

Croissant at Pierre Hermé, Paris. “[We spent three days] in Paris at peak springtime bloom. Brilliantly colored flowers seemed to show up everywhere we looked, and I have to believe that made the food taste even better…Isaphan is the patisserie’s best-known flavor combination: rose, raspberry, and lychee, and the croissant version infused those flavors into the filling, glaze, and candied petals on top. It was so uniquely delicious that I was genuinely forlorn about taking the last bite.

Five-course tasting at Forest Avenue, Dublin“I knew that my last weekend in Dublin had to include a special meal, and after a little research, Forest Avenue fit all the criteria: seasonal and locally sourced Irish cuisine, tasting menu format, reasonable price. But this restaurant was even more of a gem than I ever expected. I stayed impressed through the entire dinner, including an especially dreamy pasta course with buttery, truffle-scented agnolotti and Jerusalem artichoke.”

Momotaro tartare at Momotaro, Chicago. “Not only was the three-floor Japanese-styled interior completely stunning, but every dish was beautiful in its composition and purity of flavor… I’d already heard great things about the momotaro (Japanese sweet tomato) tartare, and was indeed blown away by how texturally interesting and umami-rich it was, especially as a fully vegetarian dish. Even on a dauntingly extensive menu, this tartare cemented its place as a must-order on all future visits.”

Tiki cocktails at Lost Lake, Chicago. “There’s just so much to love about this tropical oasis. Immediately upon stepping inside, you’re effortlessly transported to a warmer, happier place. The interior features leafy wallpaper, thatched bamboo, and stone walls, all of which strike an impressive balance between kitschy and fashionable. The retro island soundtrack hits the same sweet spot. And Paul McGee…makes tiki drinks that are just so, so good.”

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