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.