Day 191: The Man and the First Solo Culinary Adventure; ‘Exquisite’

Image result for no united airlinesOh my god. If you have to fly and you ever have the choice between United and literally anything else, I highly recommend you choose something else. My brother’s trip was off to quite the inauspicious start. I dropped my brother off yesterday at Newark airport with plenty of time to spare. His flight was scheduled to leave at 1pm, we were already hugging and saying goodbye by 10am. I made sure he had everything, told him he was going to be fine, to be safe, that I would miss him, and I saw my little brother walk off for his first real taste of adventure.

At least…I thought I did.

I get back to an empty, quiet home, and before I can finish contemplating how I feel about that, I get the text message from him.

Flight delayed. Won’t be leaving til 7pm.’

Okay, there’s a problem there. He has a connection in Hong Kong to get to Manila, there’s only a two hour window between the two flights. He’s definitely going to miss this.

Take your itinerary to the gate agent. Let her know what’s going on. Stress that you are traveling alone ESPECIALLY to surprise your mother in the PHILIPPINES. They’ll get you on the next best flight or take care of the connection.’

If any of you happen to follow me on Twitter, you’ll know what happened next. When this happened to me with JetBlue I took to Twitter and they not only helped me get on my next flight, they upgraded my seat, gave me extra miles and future travel credit, and when I jokingly mentioned how hungry I was and how much I love the blue Terra chips, they had an agent bring me ten. I’d never felt so special and so appreciated by an airline before. I told my brother to get a Twitter, and what followed was a complete mess of him telling his story on Twitter, me liking and retweeting, both of us trying to get United attention, and both of us trying to get him out of this situation.

For those of you who don’t follow me on Twitter, first his gate was changed last minute to Image result for travel stress gifbe across the airport. Second it was delayed further because they didn’t tell the catering crew and so their plane’s food was at the old gate. Third they were on board waiting to take off because the plane had to be ‘de-iced’. Fourth, as they are preparing for takeoff, the captain informs them they’ve reached their FAA limit and can no longer legally fly and they will need a new crew. Fifth, they can’t, so they end up CANCELING the flight altogether. Sixth, you’ve got an entire plane now of distraught travelers and only one gate agent and one customer service desk.

Ultimately they had to reschedule my brother for an early morning flight on Sunday. Which was still better than most, as a family of four wouldn’t be accommodated until Monday. They offered him only $20 food credit for the inconvenience and were going to put him up at a hotel, but I picked him up again and just had to bring him back at 4am. Fun times. United didn’t even give him extra miles or anything. Nada. Zip. Zilch. Come on guys, really?!

I dropped him off and there’s been no trouble at least since. He’s on his way to Hong Kong and by the time I wake up tomorrow he should be in the Philippines to surprise our mother. Meanwhile I’ve been living it up all domestic style. I did some grocery shopping, cleaned the house, cleaned the bathrooms, did the laundry, and prepped my meals for the week. I even hooked up some Bluetooth speakers around the house so I could play music from my phone while moving around the house. And some of you will be very happy to know, I kept all my clothes on, despite a past post to the contrary. Hahah.
Wanted to share with you all the first of the next couple weeks’ culinary adventures. Japanese umaki (eel omelet), shrimp tom yum noodle soup, and Thai iced tea. The eel was particularly tasty, marinating it first in eel sauce and grilling it before wrapping it in a sweet Japanese style egg omelet. The soup had a spicy richness that was cut with lemongrass and lime and the sweet shrimp. I made a whole pitcher of Thai tea and opened up a can of sweetened condensed milk so anytime this week I can make myself a cool tall glass of that uniquely dark, sweet flavor. My dinner was tasty, filling, and not to pat myself on the back too much but, dare I say, exquisite.

Good start to the month, looking forward to more!




Day 191

Man: 160 Loneliness: 31

Day 58: The Man and the Road; Chicago, IL

I’ve just finished a lovely meal here in Pittsburgh that I want to share with you all but before I do it has reminded me to bring you back in time to my first trip to Chicago. I had been meaning to write about this meal ever since I had it but right soon after was the craziness of retreat, meditation posts, weekend with friends, and busyness in Pittsburgh. There is some finally some quiet and peace in my life and so I’d like to revisit what I have to tell you all, with no exaggeration, was one of the best meals I have ever had. Chicago is now permanently engrained into my memory because of the fantastic food scene in the city and the gem that is…

Quartino in Chicago, IL.

Quartino is located three blocks off Chicago’s famous Magnificent Mile, very close to the equally famous Pizzeria Uno, originator of the deep dish pizza. It is a two-storey building with seating on both levels and an outdoor patio. When I was there it was hustling and bustling and with the temperature not nearly cold enough, I opted for a seat inside. Eschewing my normal post at the bar I took a seat at a table in the main dining room.

Quartino Dining.jpg

I am a big proponent of the open kitchen. I think it allows diners to engage with their food long before it arrives at the table and I believe people should know more about their meals. A look, even a cursory glance, at the amount of skill and the techniques used to coax out every incredible flavor heightens your awareness of the dish and informs your senses in a very tangible way. What I love about Quartino’s layout is how comfortably casual and intimately informal it is. The seats and tables are all wood and the plates are piled high for you to grab and share with the people you’re with. In the back you’ll see the full kitchen and can watch as the chefs shuffle from station to station preparing orders. In-between is their charcuterie and fromagerie. All kinds of incredible imported and house-cured meats hang from the display window and their entire selection of cheeses is housed there as well.

Ambiance and the best scenery aside, it was time to get to the meal itself. Before diving into the dishes, it is important to note one of Quartino’s key appealing features. The restaurant addresses the age-old dilemma of reconciling the fact that the best Italian restaurants serve family style, meaning to share, but with portion sizes so large that often times diners who wish to try a lot are limited to only one or two or three (depending on company) dishes. Borrowing from their neighbors, Quartino serves some incredible Italian dishes in a very Spanish way, as tapas-sized portions still meant for groups to share and enjoy. Or you know, one very hungry man. This meant a lot of dishes and a lot of good drink. Now did one affect the other, perhaps, but you can’t break up a good pair.

On to round 1!

Quartino Round 1

Drink: Negroni

Dishes: Angus Beef Carpaccio and Taleggio

If possible, and especially in Italian restaurants, I like to begin my meals with a classic, THE cocktail of Italy and perhaps the world, the timeless Negroni. To me this is the best cocktail in the world. Perfectly balanced sweetness and bitterness to open the palate and excite the appetite.

The Angus Beef Carpaccio was served with a crunchy, bitter salad of shaved celery and arugula. A generous helping of shaved Parmiggiano Reggiano and a drizzle of EVOO to add that richness and salty creamy tang. The beef was so toothsome. A wonderful play of textures. Tender but meaty slices of Angus beef. Crunchy crispy celery and soft arugula. The thin slices of Parmiggiano Reggiano crumbling and melting in your mouth.

The taleggio, made from cow’s milk, was complex and tangy. The aroma of the cheese fills your head when it arrives at the table. There was a nutty, earthy, slightly bitter taste in the rind that holds together a semi-soft almost creamy texture of cheese on the inside. It spread so tantalizingly on their house-baked rye bread and the apricot jam paired beautifully. The sweetness of the jam balances with the rind and the rest of the cheese rounds out the flavor.

The thing about carpaccio and formaggi is that there is very little involvement in the kitchen with the preparation of these dishes. But it is a great indicator of the level of quality and attention to ingredients that the restaurant chooses to present. I knew very quickly from these two dishes that I was not going to be disappointed. The meat was fresh and flavorful with a strong taste and texture. The cheese was pungent and aromatic.

On to round 2!

Quartino Round 2

Drink: Coletta

Dishes: Wild Arugula Salad and Pappardelle

The Coletta is a very versatile pre-or-post meal dish of bourbon enhanced with vin santo (an Italian fortified wine often served as desert) and Ramazotti, a type of Italian bitter. Much more spirits forward with less sweetness than the Negroni and a wonderfully velvety feel as the bourbon coats the mouth and lingers on the tongue. The drink is smooth and silky with just the right amount of body.

I am not usually a salad man but I love arugula and could not resist. That bitter peppery bite is just so irresistible and Quartino further enhances that with oranges, farro, hazelnuts, and a house-made goat’s milk ricotta. You need no further dressing as the oranges give off their sweet aromatic juice and the ricotta spreads as you press down with your fork. The hazelnuts were such a good addition to the dish. They were slightly roasted to give warmth and smoothness.

Housemade pastas are very difficult to prepare properly. If you’ve ever made pasta from scratch you’ll know that the big difference between that and dried pasta is you can never fully get yours to al dente. Still their housemade pappardelle was thick, broad, and had just the right texture. You could hold a ribbon between your fingers and feel that bounce and firmness to the touch. I am usually not a fan of tomato sauce but this was almost like having a meat dish. Shredded juicy chunks of braised beef short ribs were all over the sauce. The tomato sauce was just tart enough to separate the flavors of all the ingredients. You could pay attention to the pasta and the sauce independently and see that both were prepared with care.

I absolutely could have knocked myself out just gorging on their selection of housemade and imported pastas. The portions were as advertised and so I knew there was still more left in me to continue. I’m glad I ordered the salad because the lightness and freshness of the vegetables and fruits lifted the heaviness of that beefy meaty robust tomato sauce and thick pappardelle.

On to round 3!

Quartino Round 3.jpg

Drink: No Nino of Mine

Dishes: Roasted Baby Octopus and Procini & Truffle Risotto

Sticking to the whiskeys, my third cocktail was a mix of amaro, rye, Luxardo Maraschino Liqueur, and bitters. Sweeter than I would have anticipated or liked, perhaps wrongly times in my meal, but still a strong cocktail.

Let me tell you, this was the best round of all. I could have contented myself to repeat this course tenfold, forgetting all the rest. It all came together right here. Clearly, as you can see in the picture I had forgotten myself and dug in before I could take the pic. The aroma of the truffles in the risotto was so luxurious. The porcini with the intense flavor. That firmness of the mushroom compared to the creaminess of the risotto. There was bite in each smooth mouthful. Luxurious and rich yet light enough to enjoy more than once. I usually feel with truffle dishes the aroma drowns out other senses and it becomes heavy on the palate. Luckily the cocktail and the octopus were able to cut that. But man alive, that octopus. I miss it already. Just…they should have sent a poet. There was just enough char to make the edges of the tentacles crispy and smoky. I loved the feel of the crunch on each tentacle, especially over the suckers as that was where they had the most interesting surface area and char. The meat was tender but spry. You would take a bite, there’d first be the charred surface and then this wonderful texture of flesh. Not at all rubbery or runny. I love when my meat has just enough fight to make the eating interesting. I couldn’t decide if I preferred the thinner, crispier ends of the roasted octopus or the slightly chewy meaty part closer to the main body. Underneath the tentacles are some braised escarole as well with some thinly sliced red chilis that invigorate and revitalize. One main taste seriously lacking in the meal up until this point was heat and the chili provided just the right amount.

I loved every course of that meal. I think there were some real stars though. That octopus blew me away. The carpaccio was a delight to the senses. Such a pleasure to bite into. The salad captured my attention and my imagination. The added complements to the arugula were so intelligently chosen. If you are ever fortunate enough to be in the Windy City, please do visit Quartino and see for yourself. I have not even begun to scratch the surface of their offerings.

Day 9 Supplemental: The Man and the Man Vs Pho

Pho Saigon in Catonsville, MD

It was, at one point in the day, 100 degrees outside in Baltimore. I packed a couple bags of popcorn as late night snacks for my hotel room, and during the drive in I could have sworn I heard them popping in the back. I sweat more than a pregnant nun at confession.

So why the hell am I having pho for dinner today?!

Pho is more than just soup. It’s comfort and nurturing for an Asian boy in very non-Asian lands. It’s really very easy to explain. Some people have their chicken noodle soups, I have my pho.

Soups are big in Asia. They’re big in my family. I love my wonton noodle soup from HK Wonton Garden in Chinatown. I love soondobu from BCD Tofu House in Fort Lee. Ramen from Mitsuwa in Edgewater. Don’t judge, but I love my instant ramens too. Dosirac. Bowl Noodle. Gomtang. But none hold as much significance as pho.

First time I had pho was actually with Beautiful in Philly. She took me to this place her family always went to and ever since I have strongly advocated that Pho Ha in Philly serves the best pho in the country. No trip to Philly is complete without stopping there, regardless of the season or the temperature.

It’s about more than just the taste or the ingredients. It’s about the practice of eating pho. It is like zen meditation with a hint of ginger and star anise.

PhoBaltimoreIt’s all about the timing and the preparation. You have to understand that to eat pho you have to be part of the process of making it. There is a mandatory aspect of audience participation and it follows a logical and satisfying process that promises incredible rewards.

Behind the scenes, the chef is perfecting the broth. Without good pho broth you have beef in water. Good pho broth is an investment of time and attention. The master broth is simmered for at least 6 hours and it is where all the flavor and power is derived. You trust your chef to provide you with good broth as he trusts you to finish the product.

You can choose whatever you want to have in your pho. Traditionalists will only want those rich, meaty, thin slices of super flavorful brisket, delicately placed on top of your piping hot broth, cooking in the residual heat to a tender medium rare. Ever the iconoclast, I always order mine packed to the brim with flank, tendon, tripe, and beef balls.

As your bowl of pho is being prepared in the back, your waitress brings your accouretrements. A generously piled plate of raw bean sprouts, Thai basil, jalapeno slices, and lime. Meanwhile you take a small plate and place equal amounts of hoisin sauce and hot sauce on the side. With everything prepped and laid before you, you are ready to receive your bowl of pho with all your meat and those deliciously slippery rice noodles. It is now your turn to take over. The timer is ticking as your soup gradually goes from blisteringly hot to a perfect soul and stomach satisfying warmth.

Before anything else, you must lean in, smell the broth. Like a fine wine, search for those taste notes that will inform you of the journey you are about to take. Smell the pure beef richness. The freshness of the ginger. The complicated candy-spice of the star anise. The earthy pungency and funk of salty fish sauce. The smell of a well-seasoned and powerful broth is unmistakable.

Now, as your soup is still at that too-hot-to-handle stage, customize your pho. Add handfuls of the bean sprouts and watch as they slowly poach in the broth. Punctuate the richness of the beef with the sweet aroma of Thai basil as you tear the leaves and scatter them in the bowl. Add freshness and zest with the lime. Some jalapeno wouldn’t hurt either if you are able to handle it.

This is the moment you’ve been waiting for. This is why you were prepared from the very beginning and had all your ingredients in front of you. It is exactly at the moment you finish adding your ingredients that the broth is ready to taste. Take that first pure sip of broth and let the warmth and flavor transport you.

Now you begin your ritual. Enjoying pho is very active and requires attention and due diligence. You alternate between rich, filling sips of that incredibly unctious broth, enjoying tender rare pieces of beef, and slurping those slightly chewy, satisfyingly slippery, luxuriously lengthy, rice noodles. Forget the temperature outside. Forget the sweat that gathers at you brow and threatens to freefall off your face. Forget everything and engage in your meal and actively be a participant in its enjoyment. Broth, sip. Beef, dip in that combination of hoisin and Sriracha. Noodles, slurp. Repeat. Enjoy. Zen. Be.

Before you know it, you’re at the bottom of your bowl. You don’t want to believe it. Your spoon presses against the deepest part, hoping to gather from the depths enough for one more fulfilling sip. Chopsticks in one hand, spoon in the other. When your hands are full you can’t hold onto a cell phone. When your mind is engaged you can’t hold on to regrets and fears. There’s no time to steal away. Your pho is getting cold, and you cannot miss the golden time in between. You can’t really recall the last time a meal demanded so much of your attention and returned so much satisfaction.

You can’t mess up good pho. If the broth is good and the meat is fresh and the noodles are al dente and the vegetables are crisp, life is good. Even sub-par pho is still in its essence incredible for the stomach and the soul.

Pho Saigon is good pho. Pho Saigon is honest pho. Pho Saigon is an opportunity in Catonsville, MD to experience Zen. The portions are generous, the meat is toothsome yet tender and flavorful without being too fatty.

And if a satisfied soul isn’t as important as a satisfied stomach to you, forget everything I said because they also have the Man vs Pho challenge which is quite literally two pounds of beef, two pounds of noodles, and like a gallon of broth.