Delicious Events, Food for Thought

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.”

For more on how to help restaurants, check out the resources below.

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Food for Thought

Food for Thought: “The Fortune Cookie Chronicles” by Jennifer 8. Lee

Food for Thought is an occasional series covering creative works that are connected to a food issue or trend. See more.

Open Fortune Cookie

Earlier in the summer, I read Jennifer 8. Lee’s The Fortune Cookie Chronicles: Adventures in the World of Chinese Food. Within the first few pages, I was floored by this sentiment:

“American Chinese food is predictable, familiar, and readily available. It has a broad appeal to the national palate. It is something nearly everyone nowadays has grown up with – both young and old…Our benchmark for Americanness is apple pie. But ask yourself: How often do you eat apple pie? How often do you eat Chinese food?”

Thought-provoking, right? I enjoyed reading about each segment of her quest to understand Chinese food in America, from historical anecdotes to more personal discoveries. A former New York Times reporter, Lee turns thorough, detailed research into engaging storytelling. Here are a few paraphrased tidbits from the book:

  • A Chinese restaurant on the Upper West Side of New York pioneered food delivery in the mid 1970’s
  • Origins of the fortune cookie are disputed, but likely point back to Japan instead of China
  • One time, 110 people across 29 states all won the Powerball just from playing numbers they found on a fortune cookie
  • Chop suey exploded as a “national addiction” around 1900, which was what started the proliferation of Chinese restaurants
  • General Tso’s chicken is a completely American dish
  • One company in New Jersey makes the vast majority of soy sauce packets, chopsticks, and white cartons distributed throughout the country
  • Lee’s search for the greatest Chinese restaurant outside China culminated at a Vancouver strip mall

Fortune Cookie

You can find The Fortune Cookie Chronicles on Amazon, or watch Lee’s TED talk for her overview of the subject.

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Food for Thought

Food for Thought: “Every Good Endeavor”

Every Good Endeavor

I recently read this new book by Timothy Keller, a Christian author and pastor in New York City. I’ve attended Keller’s church a few times, and heard him speak elsewhere, and I’ve always found his words to be poignant, intellectual, and well-reasoned. This book centers around the purpose of work from a biblical perspective; its title comes from this idea:

“…every good endeavor, even the simplest ones, pursued in response to God’s calling, can matter forever.” (p. 29)

The book got me thinking about why I’ve been given this passion for food, and how I can use it to glorify God, so that’s what I want to reflect on here. All direct quotations from Every Good Endeavor are italicized; bolding is my own.

Your gifts have not emerged by accident, but because the Creator gave them to you…It’s liberating to accept that God is fully aware of where you are at any moment and that by serving the work you’ve been given you are serving him.” (p. 241)

This is hugely reassuring for me. Sometimes I wonder if my interest in food is petty, or self-indulgent, or simply the product of an advantaged upbringing and disposable income, without any lasting significance. But ultimately, this reminds me that regardless of those factors, God is keenly aware that I’m into food because it’s an intentional part of who he made me to be, and he wants me to serve him through it.

“Whenever we bring order out of chaos, whenever we draw out creative potential, whenever we elaborate and ‘unfold’ creation beyond where it was when we found it, we are following God’s pattern of creative cultural development.” (p. 59)

Cooking food is such a great example of this. As silly as it may sound, each time someone takes ingredients and unfolds them in new ways, it shapes culture just a little more. That’s part of what is most exciting about food: the vast possibilities it has, the way it can forge new connections and provoke new emotions with each tiny dose of innovation. The role of food in culture is truly a complicated one – I’m not the first to be fascinated by it, and won’t be the last – so it’s worth following developments and creative patterns as they arise.

God’s loving care comes to us largely through the labor of others. Work is a major instrument of God’s providence; it is how he sustains the human world.” (p. 184)

I love the idea that God provides for us through human labor, that we can glimpse his love through the myriad trades that people around the world pursue every single day. Food specifically is a concrete manifestation of provision and sustenance, so the connection is even more direct. Culinary traditions, dining experiences (including tasting menus), and food systems are all a result of God’s provision and others’ skills in action at each step of the way.

Keller also brings up the “ministry of competence,” or using talents as competently as possible in order to serve God and love others through whatever work you’re doing. Keller expands on this idea:

“…[It’s] consciously seeing your job as God’s calling and offering the work to him. When you do that, you can be sure that the splendor of God radiates through any task…” (p. 80)

I believe Keller’s right that if I’m consciously aware that tasting and learning and writing about food is a way that God has uniquely gifted me, and give him praise through my skill and competency, then I’m confident that he’ll be glorified in it as well. In short, it’s all about perspective.

You can find Every Good Endeavor on Amazon.

And I would love to hear what you think about this!

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Food for Thought

Food for Thought: A few words on tasting menus

Three-part pea course, Alinea

Three-part English pea course, Alinea, August 2011

This week, Chicago magazine’s Jeff Ruby has created some interesting dialogue around the downfalls of foodie culture. I was inspired by his response to a recent Vanity Fair feature in which Corby Kummer, as Ruby put it, “spends nearly 5,000 words bashing tasting menus.” I agree with Ruby’s take on it all, and wanted to add my own reflection.

I was lucky enough to enjoy lengthy meals as a teenager at such legends as Charlie Trotter’s and Trio, both of which were long enough ago that I sadly can’t recall many details. More recently, I’ve been wowed by tasting menus at the likes of One Market, Mexique, and Alinea.

Simply put, these have been my most exhilarating dining experiences. At Alinea, the three hours flew by as each of the 18 courses brought a different kind of surprise and delight. The three English pea variations in the photos above – warm on top of the bowl, room-temperature in the bowl’s first layer, and frozen in the bowl’s second layer – were explosively flavorful and artfully presented. Chef Grant Achatz succeeded in showing me an unforgettable new way (or three) to look at the humble pea. I count this among many insights during that meal and others that I’m convinced wouldn’t have occurred, or at least had the same impact, if part of a traditional menu. It just doesn’t work for a diner to produce the same kind of rhythm, variety, and intermittent revelation by placing a personal order.

In the article, Kummer laments that in their heyday, icons Ferran Adrià (El Bulli) and Thomas Keller (The French Laundry) “shift[ed] the balance of power from diner to chef.” But really, isn’t that what you want from a great restaurant anyway? I don’t visit a much-lauded restaurant expecting to be in control and dictate my every whim from start to finish, as if I were preparing my own meal in someone else’s kitchen. Instead, I visit the restaurant – and pay good money – so that someone extremely skilled in their trade can demonstrate that skill through the meal they prepare and the experience they orchestrate. It goes back to the “is food art?” debate, which Kummer touches on; for me, chefs demand the same respect as any other kind of artisan.

However, I trust Kummer that some tasting menus can just be too long (thankfully I can’t speak from personal experience). Of course a menu that lacks the proper attention to detail or fails on some other level would drag on and on, just like a bad movie or poorly produced album. Kummer also gets it right with the following sentiment, in describing what he called a “tedious” meal at Eleven Madison Park: “Certainly, surprise and delight and originality shouldn’t be banished. But in meals this long and ambitious you hope to see the soul of the chef—as you do with Keller and Achatz.” That is truly what made our meal at Alinea: amid all the fancy culinary tricks, we caught a glimpse of the unmistakable heart that Achatz puts into that restaurant, and saw why he demands excellence in every aspect of his business.

I think there will always be a place for both kinds of menus. There is much to be said for selecting a dish that sounds best to you or suits your taste at that moment, and then finding it to be brilliantly executed, delicious, and satisfying. For that reason, there will always be chefs who aim to give you the best “___” (fill in the blank) you’ve ever eaten, after you’ve first indicated that it’s what you’d like to eat. But why not trust a chef to dazzle you with his or her own decisions? When it comes to dining at the best of the best, I’m gleefully willing to be passive and go along for what promises to be a tasty, inspiring ride.

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