Saturday, May 04, 2013

Island Eating on Orcas

Today, sitting at work in Portland, a text comes through on my iPhone.  “Any chance you remember the divey Mexican place we ate at en route to Scottsdale?”

I quickly racked my brain to recall this 3-year-old memory. “Are you thinking of the dive we ate at in Reno on the way to Tahoe?”

“Was it???”

“Totally Reno.”


“God, we’ve been around.”

Audra was on her way to her sister’s bachelorette party in Arizona, where we’d been some years back on a trip to the desert. In those seconds trying to remember that little roadside restaurant, I flashed to a few of the places we’ve traveled together over our 15+ year friendship: Brazil, Maine, Italy, Australia, London, New Zealand, Chicago, Singapore and the Hudson River Valley.

A couple of weeks ago, I traveled to her new home, on the exotic island of Orcas, surrounded by the Salish Sea, north of Seattle, almost in Canada. If this sounds like a mythical place, it feels that way too. Separated from the mainland by deep ocean crossed only by ships, it’s more isolated than anywhere I’ve been in the U.S. -- in a good way.
Each San Juan island seems to have its own character, unique beauty, and food production. That weekend, we ate grass-fed burgers from Lopez, drank gin cocktails with spirits distilled on San Juan, and reveled in a abundance of produce both cultivated and growing wild on Orcas. An afternoon walk to a salty cove revealed a field of wild stinging nettles which we turned into this dreamy green risotto for dinner, topped with local spot prawns.
Audra’s a talented cook, and everything in her well-equipped farmhouse kitchen is made from scratch. Almost everything in her larder is locally grown. She has a huge garden, a flock of hens laying eggs, and a serious hobby of making jams and preserves that is currently evolving into a business.  I got to sample some of these sweet and savory forthcoming products (just you wait), while I was up there, and to cook with her from her garden. One morning, we picked a bunch of lemony sorrel and made this frittata with fresh eggs.
Down the road from her property is Maple Rock Farm, a bountiful organic farm committed to quality and community. Both times I’ve visited, they’ve had an open house, and their outdoor pizza oven’s been fired up and turning out rustic pies adorned with produce grown steps away. The guys from Maple Rock had just opened a small pizza restaurant in town (Eastsound), and we checked that out too. On our visit, the chefs at Hogstone's Wood Oven personally served us Neapolitan-style pizzas topped with local goat cheese, green garlic and greens, complimented by crisp salads of Maple Rock lettuces.

During my stay, another local entrepreneur was in the process of building the town’s first cocktail bar, the Barnacle, in what looked like an old shed down the street. I took one look inside at the old wooden slats on the floor and the bar top made from a thick maple plank with a curvy burl edge and thought,  "this is where I want to hang out." The plan there is of course to utilize local spirits, make bitters in-house, and serve Washington wines on tap. There’s a pretty garden beside the building, next to another great little restaurant, the Kitchen (which also provides food for the bar). Orcas also has its own brewery now.

It seems like these islanders have figured out how to live deliciously in isolation. The rest of us are lucky that the ferries keep running to the mainland, so that we can visit and take little bites of this piece of paradise.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Sunshine Therapy in Palm Springs

I didn't go to Palm Springs to eat. I went for the sun and heat, and for my friend's 30th birthday. But I was surprised find many tasty things in that desert oasis, surrounded by shockingly magnificent mountains and date farms.

Upon arrival, I discovered that the date shake is the requisite liquid refreshment in Palm Springs. We tried a healthy version at Nature's Health Food and Cafe, which was more of a date smoothie made with hemp milk, but I preferred the thick vanilla milkshake version at the Ace Hotel, which I bought as a palliative measure to soothe myself on the ride to the airport.
Who am I kidding? The official beverage of this trip was the cocktail, in many shapes and forms (poolside, under trees, on patios, in restaurants, in manicured hotel gardens and in rat pack piano bars).  My favorite of the weekend was a Lemongrass Ricky on the shady patio at Birba. Tart and refreshing, I loved the visual effect of the muddled lemongrass, lime and cherries in the glass with gin and ice (on the right, above). The owner of Birba, and it's sister restaurant Cheeky's, gave us a tour of the property and its adjacent secluded boutique hotel, Alcazar, which looked so peaceful and Mediterranean, it instantly jumped to the top of my list for a return trip. They also own Jiao, an Asian fusion cafe at which a group of us shared probably every item on the menu. I thought that the vegetarian dishes (stir fried eggplant, red cabbage and grapefruit salad and the congee with egg) served to start were the most unexpected and refreshing.
Back at our hotel, I was impressed by the freshness of the food in the diner-style restaurant, King's Highway. It's open for breakfast, lunch, dinner and Stumptown espresso, and most everything is house made and quality sourced (the Ace's Portland influence is evident). Get the kale salad. We took the hotel's bikes and rode down to Nature's for lunch, where we found a seemingly bottomless menu of fresh smoothies and juices, and the ultimate California-style sandwich (sprouts and avocado!) that I can't seem to find in Portland.
The biggest flavor bomb of the trip was a late night fish taco at Shanghai Red's, a dive in an alley behind a seafood restaurant. I think the (perfectly) fried fish was cod, topped with shredded lettuce, sour cream sauce and salsa. Such a satisfying meal at the end of a day laying in the sun. I could eat a plateful of them right now.

My Palm Springs top five:
  1. Fish tacos at Shanghai Red's - 
  2. Veggie sandwiches and fresh juice at Nature's Health Food Cafe -  
  3. BBQ dinner at Pappy & Harriett's in Pioneertown, an hour away (for the awesome* live music and atmosphere, not necessarily the food, but dinner gets you a prime seating and the chili fries are ridiculously good) - 
  4. Cocktail hour in the elegant gardens at the Parker Hotel (go for just one or expect to break the vacation bank) - 
  5. Any meal at King's Highway - 
Wish list for my next trip, which I wish was next weekend: stay at Alcazar, visit a date farm, have brunch at Cheeky's, and explore Joshua Tree National Park.
*I use the word "awesome" here with the most genuine intention: I was blown away by the quality of the band that played the night we were there (Sunday), with musicians seemingly coming out of nowhere to join the band and play a few songs. They were the "Pappy and Harriett's Allstars," fronted by Victoria Williams.

Wednesday, March 06, 2013

I landed in New York with a packed schedule and a horrible cold, and the weather forecast was something like 38 degrees and raining. My sickness lasted all week, but the rain let up, and so did the work I was there to do. With what was left of my sense of taste and smell after a week of blowing my nose, I enjoyed good food and great company at hot spots like ABC Kitchen, the Marrow and Jeepney. But the meals that really left an impression on me on this trip in New York were my version of comfort food, which apparently comes down to eggs and pasta. I highly recommend these dishes and the restaurants that serve them...

1. Perfectly baked eggs for brunch, served over the cult-status kale salad (lacinato kale, aged cheddar, sweet potatoes, pecorino and almonds) at Northern Spy in the East Village. It seems that they do simple food really well -- my friend was talking about how good her porridge was all day.
2. I've always wondered what it would be like to eat ramen at a noodle bar in Tokyo, and I think I got a little taste of it at Totto Ramen. It might have been the hour+ wait at 4:30 in the afternoon in the cold vestibule outside of the restaurant (tip: buy a huge hot tea around the corner to sip while you wait), but this was possibly the best ramen I've ever had: the chicken paitan ramen broth was rich and concentrated, the straight noodles cooked perfectly chewy, and we asked for rayu (spicy sesame oil) on the side which added a peppery flavor and refreshing heat to clear our heads.
3. I had just watched this video of Cathy Whims making cooking gnocchi look so easy, and was lucky to soon satisfy my immediate craving for the pillowy dumplings during a business lunch at Union Square Cafe. The restaurant has been around for a while, but the food there is so solid, which I think is really highlighted in their use of produce and house made pastas. The two were beautifully combined, along with duck confit, in this half portion of gnocchi.
4. And last, but definitely not least, my friend and I were wandering around looking for another great brunch spot on Sunday, and without settling for less (we even sat down in one place but got up and left when we looked around and saw that none of the diners were finishing their meals), we stumbled into  Tertulia when the restaurant was almost completely empty! I imagine that it still may be tough to get in for dinner, so brunch is a great time to go, and I recognized some of the dinner menu items available during the day. I ordered this incredibly flavorful lamb stew with tomato and peppers, with eggs baked into it, and crispy olive oil toast to dip inside.
Despite my run-down state and the chilly weather New York, as always, embraced me with open arms and fed me well. My chic room at the Ace Hotel, with its cozy Pendleton blankets, big windows and daily doses of Stumptown espresso served right downstairs definitely helped with that.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

My first word was "flower." At least that’s what my Mom’s told me since I was a kid. Maybe even since I was two years old, about when I started spending a lot of time with my Tutu. We’d walk around her yard in Kilauea, picking hibiscus and plumeria to decorate the costume hats she crafted for me from paper bags.

The first job that I was ever paid for was making leis at a flower shop. I think I was twelve. Before that, my friends and I sold leis and bouquets to tourists for pocket money, from the side of the road in front of our houses. Peacefully stringing flower leis is one of my favorite things to do, possibly even more than cooking. The sheer beauty that exists in a single flower is only amplified when multiplied or variegated in a thoughtful pattern. Gathering the blossoms from your garden, the yards of friends, or wild areas is also part of the pleasure.
If you live on Kauai, you know where the good plumeria trees are. In June, when the flowers were blooming, I arrived on the island to find the trees partially picked over after the string of recent graduation ceremonies (6th grade, middle school, high school, college…). In Hawaii, it’s common for high school students to be virtually unrecognizable under a pile of leis following their graduation ceremony.

There used to be plumeria trees all over Anahola, on every school ground and in most yards, but these days they seem harder to find. If you have a plumeria tree and a couple of ti leaf plants, you have the resources to make a lei if an occasion arises to bring one. My family still has a couple of trees, but there are far more that line the road that borders my old high school campus, so that’s where my sister and I picked them for my Tutu’s memorial celebration.
I woke up the next day on Portland time, 6:00 a.m. in Hawaii. I quietly took the pretty pink plumerias from the refrigerator onto the porch, and strung the flowers together as the neighborhood rose. We draped those leis around my Tutu’s photograph, and sent baskets of loose plumeria and orchids out on a fishing boat into the ocean with her ashes. 
After Tutu passed last year,  we were looking through old photos (in most of them, she was wearing a lei) and letters, and I found a couple of typewritten sheets on how to make different types of leis from a class taught in the 80s by the esteemed Kauai leimaker and florist, Irmalee Pomroy. Someday, I hope to have a yard of my own where I can grow lei flowers, pick them and learn those more sophisticated lei making techniques. They say that people rarely make leis anymore, but I want to be someone who does.

I love to sing for you a plaintive melody

And give a lei to you to make you happy 

It’s just an old Hawaiian custom

When I say aloha to you
-Excerpted from the lyrics of the song, “An Old Hawaiian Custom” by John Noble

Wednesday, June 06, 2012

Searching for Sustenance in Ohio

I snuck out of my hotel in downtown Ohio this morning with a pair of running shoes on, determined to get a taste for more of this city than what I’d seen. I was in Columbus for a three day conference, and as conferences often go, I spent most that time in one place, eating conference food. Thus, one of the last seminars had to be sacrificed in the name of culinary exploration.

I’d read a bit about this midwestern city and its budding local food scene. I knew at the very least I’d be making a pilgrimage to Jeni’s, one of the country’s most craveworthy ice cream companies, known for their local sourcing (cream from Ohio grass-pastured cows, no less) and creativity. I recently thumbed through Jeni's new cookbook, spotting things like Bangkok Peanut ice cream (with cayenne pepper) and other crazy flavor combinations, and was instantly infatuated. 

So I ran down High Street to one of Jeni’s scoop shops, housed in a gourmet haven known as the North Market. This indoor public food market holds rows of vendors facing an inner arcade. It's reminiscent of other historic North American food halls like Pike Place Market in Seattle and Grandville Island Public Market in Vancouver, B.C.), with prepared foods, fish, produce, meat and poultry, ethnic groceries and locally made goods.

I quickly jogged around the place perusing my breakfast options, and decided on a fresh carrot-celery-grapefruit juice from Bubbles, the Tea and Juice Company, and a scoop of Chana Masala over rice from Flavors of India. Delicious. It was only 9:30 a.m. but I couldn’t resist the smell of their curries, and also bought a couple of spice blends to take home with me. Then I grabbed a ham (from local Bluescreek Farm) and Swiss cheese croissant from Omega Artisan Baking (oh my, was that good) to eat on the plane.

On my way out, I stopped by Jeni’s for a taste of just one flavor, which turned into at least eight. I could have tried them all, all day long. My favorites were the limited editions -- Goat Cheese with Cherry, Lemon Curd with Juniper, Grapefruit Frozen Yogurt, Backyard Mint, and get this: Wheatgrass, Pear and Vinho Verde. Seriously! I normally can’t handle wheatgrass, but this complimentary combination captured the bright flavors of springtime.

Visiting North Market was a fabulous way to get a quick hit of the thoughtful food you can find in Columbus if you look (and of course where I ended up finding the latest issue of Edible Columbus). I wish I had time to venture further.  On my last night there, I got the chance to try a dish from The Coop, one of the city’s stellar food trucks: duck confit salad with ramps. Fantastic.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Ode to Ding Dongs, and the Seattle Coffee Shops of My Dreams

There was a time that the neighborhoods of Seattle felt a little like Southeast Portland does now. When I was in college, Capitol Hill was this area with cute houses and apartment buildings, vintage clothing stores and independent coffee shops every few blocks. But these were the coffee houses of the 90s-- mismatched vintage furniture, open at night. They were where I learned to love lattes and scones (and later paid for it), and how to read under low lighting over a loud and crackly stereo system. The espresso tasted sublime to me then (mostly Caffe Vita and Vivace) and the pastries were satisfying but not ambitious. Leafy trees covered most of their windows to provide just enough of a mid-page distraction. My favorite coffee shop back then, and still today when I return, is Bauhaus on Pine Street.

About half way down the hill between Broadway and downtown, its floor-to-ceiling windows stretch two stories. Sitting at a table on the second floor, you're treated to a view of the iconic Space Needle, perfectly framed. The place is almost exactly as it was ten years ago – black walls and tables, two stories of library-style bookshelves, loud music, free alternative newspapers and a chalkboard menu listing the coffee drinks, Kool-Aid and Ding Dongs. The way those Ding Dongs were wrapped individually in foil and stacked on a cake stand inside the pastry case was timeless, and too tempting to resist. Their presence seemed both rebellious and retro in that dark space.

Like so many places that I developed a fondness for in Seattle, I just found out that the building’s been sold to a developer, and Bauhaus will soon be no longer, making way for condos and other commercial development. The thing about those developments that have changed Capitol Hill are that they destroy all of the character that made people want to live in the area in the first place, replacing cozy coffee shops with cold chains. Huh. I just read that the shops's tagline is: "brilliant. and less cold than elsewhere." Get your Ding Dongs and your free views while you can.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

The large antique wall clock that hangs above the Saveur test kitchen is the same as the one that hung over the door to my mom’s office in her grocery store. It took all of my focus to pay attention to the editor giving us an office tour instead of staring transfixed on that clock, daydreaming about its twin back on Kauai. That clock kept the time of the moments in my life. I’d stare at it, while waiting for her to finish a meeting, check in a vendor, talk story with a long-time customer, or whatever else it was that kept me from getting the attention that I wanted. That clock told me when I had to finish eating my snack on the counter beside the register, and go to soccer practice at the ballpark behind the building. And later, when I ended up working there, it told me what time my shift was over. The aging brown face and antique hands presided over that neighborhood hub, keeping time of all the lives of which that grocery was a part of everyday. It timed the milk delivery, the start time of the farmers market in the parking lot next door, the time the movie started in the adjacent theater, then the church service when it was converted from an art house to a house of worship. Residents of the town moved in and out, old-timers stopped coming in for their newspapers in the morning, and the ownership eventually changed, but the clock remains, keeping time for Kilauea.