Day 332: The Man and the French Lessons, Part 4: Where I Ate; ‘Uniform’

Now comes the very very best part of this entire trip and really, the best highlights of them all. Montreal and Quebec have long been on the lists of go-to destinations for gourmands everywhere and for good reason. There is a very strong and established history and identity with traditional dishes, an exciting influx of new chefs with new ideas and new innovations, and a multiculturalism and diversity of cuisines and culinary adventurousness. Pair all of this with some of the best, freshest, and highest quality produce and meats, and you have a culinary hot spot. But you don’t have to take my word for it (though you really should). Here’s what my culinary (and lifestyle) idol, Anthony Bourdain, has to say about this city.

I had a light lunch on the train heading into Montreal my first day because I knew I was Kinka Izakayagoing to be feasting straight from the get-go. My first stop late night after checking into my hotel would be Kinka Izakaya, only a block away from my hotel. Coincidence? You should know me better by now. Their Montreal location is the newest of this Japanese bar food empire which started in Toronto and has since expanded to other parts of Canada, Tokyo, and with an anticipated addition in New York. I’ve been to the one in Toronto back when I was a poor and struggling college student, and now I was prepared to return with a vengeance, wreaking havoc on their menu. I started with a gallop. A pint of Sapporo to wash down marinated jellyfish, beef carpaccio, and seared salmon. Jellyfish is a popular dish in Asian restaurants, especially bars. The texture is firm but has a slight bouncy give to it, making it fun to eat. It is a bit bland, but takes on flavors incredibly well. In this instance it was marinated with soy sauce, sesame oil, and sweet sake. It has that satisfying crunch that most people crave when drinking,Kinka First Round and a slightly sweet but deep flavor from the sesame. The beef carpaccio is Wagyu beef slightly seared and then served with ponzu sauce, a light wasabi mayo, fried garlic chips, and daikon radish with green onion garnish. The meat was wonderfully tender with a strong beef flavor, expected of what is essentially beef sashimi. Swirling it a bit to pick up the complex salty sweetness of the ponzu really elevated the taste and the fried garlic and mayo rounded it out well. The vegetables even picked up some of that marinade and meat juices so I had no problems eating even the daikon. The seared salmon was served in the same ponzu, mayo, garlic combination as the beef though of course it had a completely different reaction. The salmon was super fresh and firm, with a great color and texture. The light sear on the outside and the still cool and raw center was a great contrast of texture, flavor, and temperature.

After the first round of dishes I was ready to really get into a party mood, so I ordered a 1st Flightflight of sake, rice wine from Japan. Kinka actually makes a house sake that was one of my favorites of the night. Crisp dry finish and a slightly sweet polished taste. Sake is categorized by how much of the rice grain is polished before the fermentation process. The more it is polished, the clearer the sake, and the more pronounced the flavor. But just like anything else, this is a game of preferences. Just because a sake is super polished (usually2nd Flight to around 50% of the original grain) doesn’t mean it is necessarily the best tasting. It’s all down to what you prefer, and the only way to figure that out is to try as much as you can! Over the course of the night I had two sake flights that helped me figure out my favorites. Kinka‘s original sake is highly recommended, as well as the Yawari which is a bit sweeter.

I drank because I ate, but now I have to eat because I just drank! It’s a vicious, wonderful Kinka Spicy Salmon.jpgcycle. So what better way to chase my sake flight and second beer than with another beer and more dishes? First I ordered their negitoro which, translated is literally ‘green onion’ (negi) with ‘tuna’ (toro). This is a popular sushi dish in many Japanese sushi bars, and Kinka turns it into more casual bar fare by serving it like a dip or make your own taco. The negitoro is finely minced Albacore tuna that is mixed together with some spicy mayo and plenty of green onions. You spoon a little (or aKinka Short Ribs lot, it’s your party) onto the nori seaweed sheets, dip it into the soy sauce, and enjoy the bite size morsels that pack plenty of flavor. Just the right amount of heat is balanced with the green onion and there is nothing quite like the texture of roasted seaweed to bring out the best in fresh fish. I also had kalbi, which is admittedly a bit more Korean than Japanese, but who is going to complain about grilled marinated beef short ribs? The marinade is sweet and salty and the ribs are grilled with just the right amount of char and smoky flavor. The rib meat is chewy and firm (though for Asians this is a good thing, as we enjoy a bit of bite to our Kinka Baked Oystermeat) but still yields well enough and peels right off the bone. It was also in the second round that I had the absolute highlight, must have, cannot be missed dish of all the Kinka establishments. You. Must. Have. Their. KAKIMAYO. ‘Kaki’ meaning ‘oyster’ and mayo. This is the BEST. Oh man. My mouth waters just thinking of it. Giant behemoth sized oysters are shucked and prepared with tiny button mushrooms, spinach, garlic, Japanese mayo, and cheese and then baked in the oven until the cheese is bubbling and and the oyster liqueur begins to simmer. The oysters themselves firm and plump up with a super concentrated flavor and that gratin like effect of the cheese and mushrooms makes this dish savory, salty perfection. Do. Not. Share. If you want this, and you’ll want this, get your own.

After this round I had another Sapporo and another sake flight, after which I was ready to wind down the night’s meal with juuust a few more dishes. Because it’s vacation, andKinka Kimchi Udon what do we have on vacation if not license to live in the excess of what we deny ourselves normally. I begin the end with some kimchi udon. A fusion dish of chewy, firm, broad Japanese udon noodles mixed with a combination of spicy cod roe and kimchi, Korean spicy pickled cabbage. After the super savoriness of the oysters, this spice, as well as the crunch of the cabbage, was most welcome. In Japanese restaurants, it is not taboo to slurp your noodles, though it isn’t exactly expected or a ‘compliment to the chef’ either, as some click bait travel articles might have you believe. It is simply the way of doing things. Kinka Kara AgeThe udon noodles are incredibly slick and smooth, and with the weight of the broad noodles and the length, they are particularly fun to slurp. In between noodles a bite of the spicy cod roe and kimchi will waken any dulled senses, and the green onion and nori strips serve as balanced accompaniment. No visit to a Japanese pub would be complete without some of the best fried foods to grace your cholesterol count. Japanese frying techniques have been elevated to art forms, from the world famous tempura, to the humble home style frying like ebi furai and kaki furai. First, karaage, fried chicken pieces served with a garlic mayo. You can see in the pic that these are not just some popcorn chicken to shake your fork at. These are giant pieces. Juicy thigh meat is cut up into sizable chunks and then fried with very little batter, so the skill of the person frying is important as there is no batter to shield the tender meat inside. Good karaage has a crispy exterior with a juicy tender interior. These pieces wereKinka Ebi Fry just like that. Some bits of skin perfectly fried crisp, juicy dark meat, and that Japanese mayo is like sweet golden nectar on EVERYTHING. If you have not ever known the joys of Japanese mayo, I feel for you. Kewpie Mayonnaise. Marvels of the modern world, get that delivered. The last dish I had was the ebi furai. A simpler, homier version of shrimp tempuraebi furai is battered deep fried shrimp with spicy mayo and served with fried shrimp crackers. I grew up with these crackers but for those who are not familiar, they are puffed up chips made with powdered shrimp that have a strong fishy taste. The ebi furai kept the shrimp inside juicy, tender, and plump and the fried breading had no excess oiliness or greasiness. A uniform texture with no overdone or underdone bits, perfect to be eaten tail and all. Oh yes, you have to eat the tail.

This was only my first night in the city, and honestly you would have thought I was in Tokyo. The entire environment and ambiance of Kinka Izakaya is incredible. You are greeted with the standard ‘Irasshaimase’ and a super attentive and cheerful staff. Orders are yelled out in Japanese and the open kitchen acknowledges in equally loud, forceful, and energetic cheers. Order a sake bomb and the staff lead you on a cheering ritual to drop shots of sake into a glass of beer. Great food, great staff, and an authentic and energetic environment really set the mood for a great trip. As I stumbled back to my hotel, full and happy, I knew this was going to be the beginning of a lifelong obsession and love with this city.

Day 332

Man: 299 Loneliness: 33

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 40 Supplemental: The Man and the Daily Prompt; ‘Maybe’

A timely daily prompt to remind myself to look optimistic amidst all the recent loss and struggle in my life. A prompt to remind me of the positive and freeing powers of Maybe.

Being in a new city for the very first time is exciting and an opportunity for exploration. With so much city to see and so much time to see it in, I feel spoiled for choice.

I am enjoying a freedom of possibility that I have not relished in a long while.

It starts simply enough. I am in my rental car after visiting my one store for the day and I am hungry. So I get to choose where to eat. Maybe I eat at the mall I am already at. There’s a Panda Express here and believe it or not, there actually aren’t many of those where I’m from. Or maybe I get something by my hotel. It is an hour’s drive from Schaumburg to Chicago and I have not had anything to eat aside from a wonderfully named ‘Stroopwaffel’ courtesy of United Airlines.

Or maybe…

Jimmy's Red Hots.jpg

Maybe I take a page out of Anthony Bourdain’s playbook. Jimmy’s Red Hots is at the halfway point, give or take, between Schaumburg and Chicago. I have no idea how to get there, it is in a more…questionable…area, but it promises 100% pure Vienna beef hot dogs with all the fixins’.

I took a risk. I acted on a maybe. And it was totally worth it.

Red Hot.jpg

The hot dogs have an incredibly satisfying snap and bite. The flavor of the meat is able to penetrate through the generous toppings of mustard, onion, relish, and hot peppers. There is something to be said about unapologetic tradition. Let’s not fool ourselves, the establishment has seen better days. The dogs are still served on sheets of parchment paper with generous handfuls of roughly cut and deeply fried potatoes. There is a gritty, natural, naturalization process that turns someone who eats here into part of the city and its culture. I am strangely and uncharacteristically okay with the oil on my fingers. The open air dining area is hot and I am standing against the counter. But I can see the image of Anthony Bourdain munching on his red hot, with his arms against the same counter, and the same smile that I smile to myself. ‘This is food, this is history, this is life.’

Dinner was no maybe. Dinner was set. I’m in Chicago! What do you do your first night? You go to where it all began. Pizzeria Uno. Home of the deep dish.

Pizzeria Uno.jpg

Let me tell you, I am a big eater. I can put it away just as well as the next guy. Do not let the place fool you. Do not underestimate these pizzas. That pan goes into forever. I thought the individual was child’s play and that the small would be easy. ‘It’s only four slices,’ the waitress told me.

DeepDish.jpg

I knew I was in over my head after the first slice. I was overwhelmed by the second. This is a heavy pizza. But it was good.

Tomorrow I get the chance to spin the wheel once more. Maybe I’ll stick in my area. Maybe I’ll go further south to the loop. Gotta check out the ‘bean’ after all. Maybe I’ll go to Quartino’s or Portillo’s. Maybe I’ll spend the entire night in my room. Maybe I’ll get dressed and go to the Vertigo Sky Lounge at the dana hotel nearby.

A new city gives new chances to explore ‘maybe’. ‘Maybe’ is not about uncertainty or doubt. It is about the expression of freedom of choice and the luxury of decision making.

And the end of a relationship, after some heavy healing and growth, means that ‘maybe’ becomes ‘maybe her’ or ‘maybe now’. I am not tethered to the painful memories of my past relationship. I am loosening the collar that has hung around my neck and prevented me from venturing out and enjoying the life I have. But here in a city where no one knows me and nothing reminds me of my past, I remember the joy and the pleasure of chance and of opportunity.

I am a free man in a new land. Maybe my next career opportunity is waiting for me in one of these cities. Maybe I’ll find my new home. Maybe the next beautiful woman who walks by me becomes the love of my life. I used to feel weighed down by the gravity of ‘maybe’. Maybe she never loved me. Maybe I am not good enough for someone. Maybe this is the best it gets.

But then again, maybe not.

Day 35: The Man and the City of Brotherly Love

Reading Terminal.jpgI was thrilled that my work would send me to Philadelphia again. I had just been there about a month ago. Last time I got to stay by the waterfront, walking distance to Market Street where my go-to cheesesteak place is (Sonny’s) and the Franklin Fountain for ice cream afterwards. Now I would be visiting Central Philly by Reading Terminal Market.

The City of Brotherly Love was a landmark for Beautiful and I. I started my love affair with the city when I brought her here back in college. We were dirt broke, just kids, and a day trip to Philly was like a week in Monte Cristo. It was a big, bright, and beautiful adventure. Waking up early that morning, heading out. First time heading to Philly, we had the GPS, our cell phones, and I even printed out directions from MapQuest (blast from the past much). We were excited and giddy. We had no idea what to expect. No plans, no schedule, just pure exploration. We got into the city around noon and parked at the Visitor’s Center. Went in, checked out some of the exhibits, and played with the toy muskets in the gift shop. It was actually the woman at the Visitor’s Center who gave us the map of the city and recommended Sonny’s. We saw the name ‘Philadelphia Magic Gardens’ and had no idea what to expect so we decided to check it out as well. Taking the bus, wandering, seeing the foundation of Benjamin Franklin’s original dwelling, we were living it up on a nonexistent budget. Lunch at Sonny’s, a brat at Brauhaus Schmitz across the street from the Magic Gardens, and pho at Pho Ha, which is still my staple for best pho in the country. Since then I’ve been to Singapore, Saint Lucia, Cabo, Jamaica, Toronto, etc. No trip has touched my soul more than that first visit to Philly. We took control of our destinies that day. I’ve never again traveled so freely and with so little reservation and expectation.

Traveling with limited resources meant we had to be creative. We split a cheesesteak at Sonny’s, we split a brat at Brauhaus, we had student discounts at the Magic Gardens, and we only sampled the ice cream at the Franklin Fountain. So when we got back together this year and I wanted to take her back to Philly for Valentine’s, I knew I wanted it to be bigger. I wanted to reflect the time that had passed and how much we had grown but at the same time recreate some of the magic of our first visit. This Valentine’s was one of my most ambitious plans yet and also one of my favorites. For a bleeding-heart romantic, I was on top of my game. It could never be anything less than perfect for my Beautiful.

It started on Saturday night, after I finished at work. I rushed home, changed, grabbed my bag, and went to pick Beautiful up. The sun was beginning to set and we had a beautiful backdrop of sky as we went down to Philly. Our first stop would be Pho Ha to warm ourselves up. If you recall, this past February was ridiculously cold. I loved it but she definitely needed some warmth. What Beautiful didn’t know was that I had secretly brought along seven individually wrapped long-stem roses that I would surprise her with along our journey. We had our delicious pho, and while she was in the restroom (I can always count on her tiny bladder) I rushed to the car, took out one of the roses, and in very hurried broken English explained to my waiter that I wanted him to bring out the rose and present it to her when I asked for the check. She had no idea. Afterwards she told me that as the waiter approached with the check and the rose she thought it was sweet that our waiter had a date and was probably on his way out after giving us the bill. When he handed the rose to her instead and the restaurant started clapping I have never seen her face so red with embarrassment. It sounds almost cruel but that alone was so totally worth it. It was adorable and sweet and it went off without a hitch and I loved her. Afterwards we checked in to the Hilton Penn’s Landing (highly recommended, the only waterfront hotel in Philly with a great view and excellent location) where, once again, unbeknownst to her I had already coordinated with the concierge to have another rose presented to her upon check in. That’s two so far. I had her put the room key in and enter first. This way she could see that I had also arranged for the petals of a dozen roses to be scattered across the room. A trail of petals led from the door to the bed where there were more arranged in a giant heart on the bedsheets. The bathroom was also adorned with petals around the sink and the bathtub. We didn’t linger too long in the room (yet) as I wanted to take her to a new attraction very seasonally appropriate, the Waterfront Winterfest right across the street. Firepits, little private mini-cabins, spiked hot chocolate, an ice rink and a giant Christmas tree, we snuggled against a fireplace with hot cocoa and listened to the music from the rink. I stroked her hair and kept her warm in my embrace. After a bit we walked to Market Street to pick up some cheesesteaks (we were big on the midnight snack thing). In case you didn’t already expect it, I of course had planned this part of the itinerary as well so another rose was waiting there for her. Three, not counting the petals in the room. We went back, I opened a bottle of champagne I had chilling in the fridge, and we feasted on cheesesteaks and chocolate strawberries that I had brought from home. We toasted to our love, laughed, and exchanged gifts. She gave me romantic scratcher cards, playing on my love of gambling and assorted amorous activities. I had bought her a book, Totto-Chan the Little Girl at the Window, about a young girl who goes to a very unique school, and I was going to read her a chapter each night on the phone or in person. That night we had incredible, passionate, loving sex on a bed of roses. I held her against me and we made ourselves inseparable. I fell asleep inside her with her clinging to my arms, her head buried in my chest.

Love Philly Then.jpgThe next morning we had breakfast at the Franklin Fountain. Warm apple cider and apple pie with ice cream. I told her to ask for the ‘Beautiful special’ and it came with another rose. I had woken up an hour before her and ran to every spot we were going to hit that day. After breakfast we went shopping for chocolates and candies at Shaw’s Candies. Another ‘Beautiful special’, another rose. Took a picture in front of the LOVE statue in Philly. It was freezing that day and her cheeks were so red. Nearby was Reading Terminal Market where we walked, browsed, perused wares, and had our lunch. No need for a big plan here, there’s a florist in the market so I simply purchased a rose on the spot for her. We were able to catch a few wedding ceremonies being performed inside as well. If you haven’t been, you absolutely have to check this space out. There are so many different vendors all with their own style and specialty. We visited the Magic Gardens, just like in college, and when Beautiful got her ticket, there was a rose that came along with it too. So if you don’t know, the Magic Gardens is a giant indoor outdoor mural project started by a local Philly artist using bits of recycled materials. Glass bottles, broken tiles, bike wheels, all of these are valid mediums for what has become a living artwork, slowly growing and spreading beyond the borders of the artist’s work space, which is a modest indoor studio and an outdoor exhibit. We ended the night at the same place we went to so long ago when we could only afford one brat for the two of us, a romantic Valentine’s dinner at Brauhaus Schmitz, a wonderfully authentic and lively German restaurant and bierhaus with an excellent array of cured meats, sausages, and of course, beer. And you know a rose came for her when the bill came for me.

I loved planning that weekend. One night and one day in Philly and we were able to do so much, share so much between us and our love. I believed I had truly made her happy that weekend. And I thought it would last.

Love Philly Now.jpgHow do I express to her how I am not just haunted by the ghosts of our past when I visit this city. How do I tell her that the city I had turned into her giant living Valentine was now just a cold, dead grave marker. Someone else now stands happily in front of the LOVE statue. I have to create new memories in this city because the old ones I have I cannot even enjoy or relish anymore. It is not that she left, it is the nature and the way in which she left that has robbed me of even the pleasure of our memories. When she left she took everything with her, and what she left behind has been so tainted I no longer want it. I thought I was enough. Or at least more than what she had. I am not even missed. I am left because she misses someone else. Someone else she left. She is forgetful and will be racing to create new memories. So as bitter as they are in my mouth, I have to protect these. I have to save all these images and reminders, because I worked so hard to create something beautiful for someone who did not want me or my creations. To lose these forever would hurt me still more. So I hold on to and cling to these painful memories because no one else will and because I truly believe it is worth remembering. Maybe all those people who I involved in my crazy Valentine’s plan will remember bits and pieces. I wonder if they ever stop and talk to their coworkers or friends and wonder what happened to the couple with the guy who ran across the city with roses. He is still running. He still believes in roses. He just has no destination anymore. I still love Philly. And when I am in the city I feel the city loves me too. I have only respect and care and affection for it. But my memories there are right now stained.

I never did get to finish reading the book to Beautiful. And I have no desire to find out the ending on my own. So it stands, unfinished, unappreciated, buried among the rest of my books in my library.

Day 35

Man: 25 Loneliness: 10

Day 22 & 23: The Man and the Power of Routine, Executing a Plan P.2

FLLAirport.jpgWritten at 4pm in Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport waiting for my flight back home.

Well, day 2 and 3 in Fort Lauderdale, and this time when it comes to my delay, I was more busy dying than I was living. To be honest the days themselves weren’t that bad. But the after effects leave a bitter taste in my mouth and I am none too proud of how I’ve spent my time. In relation to goals, plans, and priorities, I fell completely by the wayside. And for what. In pursuit of temporary fleeting comforts and indulgences.

We begin with the night of the 18th, end of Day 1. I can’t sleep. Thinking too much of plans and schedules and as the night goes on, my mind wanders to thoughts I’m better off pushing back til daytime. Why is it that the night brings up so many of our fears and insecurities. What is it about the night that I love and live for and thrive in that, given the chance, it would turn on me and punish me with past memories, past hurts, future worries. To stave off the impending panic I go online in search of movies. I remember last week in Massachusetts I caught a bit of the animated film ‘Book of Life’ and it looked interesting. So at 3am I begin ‘Book of Life’. It will run for about two hours, and I am supposed to be getting up at 6am.

This obviously does not happen. In fact I do not wake until 9am, on my own accord. I have missed my morning exercise on Tuesday and breakfast at the hotel has already finished as well. I am left with naught but some of the cookies I took courtesy of the hotel lobby the day before when checking in. I get up and prepare for my day and check my emails. Apparently the store I visited the day before has asked for an additional visit today, and my fatal mistake was letting them know my schedule. They know I am available and demand of me like it is their right. Maybe it is, I’m not sure. I don’t really know how to classify my position in the company anymore. I am no longer a consultant, I’m off the front line and part of the bigger corporate machine running in the back. In some ways I believe I am supposed to be higher than them but if the nature of my position is to be their support, perhaps I am nothing but their lackey, a glorified IT guy whose purpose is to continually coddle and babysit and hand-hold them through all of the new changes. I find my patience recently has dramatically decreased. When the program first started I understood that the nature of my position was to coach teams with the new systems. I knew the stores I was visiting were just starting the new system and so would need my help and guidance to navigate the changes. But it has been two months. It is unbearably irritating and grating to walk into a store of people who have still yet to touch the new program. That to me is unacceptable. It is unprofessional and shows a disregard for any proper work etiquette. I do not want to reward this behavior with the same full thorough walkthrough I provided in the beginning. The nature of this, and next, month’s visits are supposed to be to review CatfishDewey.jpgand strengthen an already existing grasp of the system, no matter how weak. It just must already be there. This frustrating and unforeseen obstacle, compounded by the extra store visit, pushes back my schedule by three hours. I find myself lacking the time and energy to commit to the afternoon session in the fitness center. Yet, for the sake of my happiness and self-indulgence, I still go to Catfish Dewey’s for their AYCE specials.
That night I opt for the AYCE snow crab legs. It comes with two sides and with a variety of choices like steamed broccoli, coleslaw, corn, collard greens, string beans, and the like, I shamefully go for mac and cheese and hush puppies. In what I perceive to be a futile attempt at balance, I do not go for some beers and instead drink unsweetened iced tea. How reasonable. The mac and cheese is incredibly decadent, with thick al dente noodles and that rich baked cheesiness. The hush puppies are light, fluffy, crisp and pair perfectly dipped into the melted butter that accompany my crab legs. The crab legs are brought out fresh from the steamer, warm and bursting with flavor and juices. They are clean and fresh and the flesh slips readily out of the shell. I pride myself in how expertly I can extract whole legs with no breaks cleanly from the shell. I alternate between pure sweet crab and dipping into the luxurious melted butter. Again, at the sake of some long term goals and benefits, I have proven how good I am at answering my needs and wants to be happy in the moment. For truly, in the moments of my meal, I was enjoying each cluster of legs as they came out of the kitchen. I feast for a good hour and a half, until the flesh, originally salty-sweet and complicated in its taste, is nothing more than soft salty flesh, lacking of any pleasure. Still in the moment I have no regrets as I have eaten to my heart’s content and stopped at the precise moment that the routine of cracking the legs becomes more burden than Zen. I at least have made sure to stop at the peak of enjoyment. I return to my hotel room and still there is the opportunity to exercise, as the fitness center is 24 hours. But I am full of crab and am enjoying the lull of a food coma. Amazon Prime recommends some great classic Stephen Chow films, and I oblige. It is 2am by the time I fall asleep, and yet still I believe that my day of indulgence will be reconciled with my 6am wake up Wednesday to visit the fitness center, avail myself of a warm breakfast, and then enjoy a movie before my flight.

Shallows.jpgNope. I wake at 10am to the persistent knocking of the housekeeping. No fitness center. No breakfast. Well, let’s be honest here. No breakfast because they stopped serving. No fitness center because my movie is at 11:30. Now here’s the situation: the fitness center is still there, still open, and as a Gold status member I have a late checkout for 2pm. Plenty of time to exercise, shower, leave the hotel, and arrive at the airport with time to spare. The option was there. I just…didn’t take it. I brush my teeth, pack, and sans shower, head out to catch my movie because a morning movie reminds me of the freedom I used to have and it makes me feel good. But I feel groggy and slow and I cannot wait to get home to take a long shower. Until then, I arrive at the movie theatre and am pleased to find that no one wants to watch The Shallows a month into its run at 11:30am on a Wednesday in Fort Lauderdale. I’ve hit the jackpot of movie watching experiences. For an hour and a half I enjoy Blake Lively’s performance, though ‘single woman seeking adrenaline on her own’ rings a bit too true to Beautiful and I am reminded, watching her struggles and how she obliviously walked into EmptyTheatre.jpgher own danger, of the life that Beautiful wanted that I could not condone nor join her for. Still it is enjoyable and not too tiredly clichéd and I have a sweet iced tea and shrimp carbonara flatbread to pair with it. The AMC was a dine-in. With some extra time to spare I wander about the mall, catching some Pokemon and visiting a few stops before heading back to the airport to return the rental car and await my flight.

I have been waiting at the airport now for about an hour, and my flight is about to board. And with the end of this trip I have to realize…I’ve done nothing, accomplished nothing, followed through with nothing. The self-indulgence has to end. The pursuit of momentary pleasures needs to give way to more structured long-term goals and priorities. With tremendous effort and growth, one day I hope to not just be a single, lonely, heartbroken man. And when that day comes, I want to be better than the man I am today. There must come a time in every person’s life when they realize the horizon is further than just what their eyes can see. I know I am an expert now of personal indulgences and self-care. If I want to treat myself there’s no doubt in my mind no matter where I am or what I am doing I will find a way. But what do I have to show for it. How am I better today than I was on Monday. How have I grown or improved. If anything, I’ve taken a few steps backwards. I am fuller, bigger, and the truth of the matter is my past behavior of self-indulgence has now left me with feelings of disappointment and regret. I must be better than this. The question I ask myself is, how have I made myself better? Do I know more than I used to? Am I more experienced, worldly, healthy in mind or body? There is a recovery stage, to be sure, after a breakup. I need to lick my wounds and slowly learn to get up. But I think I am past that stage now. I know I haven’t been able yet to fully comprehend and process the events and my emotions but I can do that along the way, on my road to betterment. The truth of the matter is the best thing I’ve done for myself long run so far has been starting this blog, and even then, I could devote more time to it. I will. I will be better. Not for her. Not for anyone else. Not for any future. But for me.

Day 22 and Day 23

Man: 17 Loneliness: 6

P.S. After a bunch of complications I am finally on the flight home, posting this from on-board WiFi…AT 11PM! Supplemental will explain the madness that ensued.

Day 21: The Man and the Power of Routine, Executing a Plan

It’s 12:40am and I have my past post up on another tab to compare and contrast. Today was…interesting. Plans, am I right?

Flight got in early, nice tail wind. I worry that this means on the way home the flight will take longer than anticipated since we’ll be going against the wind. As a former travel agent I am supposed to hate JetBlue for its bully tactics and refusing to work with the industry, but after my third bag of those blue Terra chips, I had to give in.

Rental car is standard. Because my company pays for the rental and adds the CDW, I drive these cars like I stole them. The traffic in Fort Lauderdale is…almost nonexistent. The freeways are relatively open and the speed limit is already pretty high. But god damn Florida…use your blinkers!

Store visits took a bit longer than anticipated. The consultants here are just so averse to change; they hit one obstacle in the new process and they just walk away and don’t try again. It’s frustrating because it makes me almost not want to help them. The new systems have been up for two months now. Are you telling me for two months you never tried to use the system because you couldn’t get it in five minutes. How lazy are you. If I had not been sent down here, what would you have done. It’s deplorable. Terrible work ethic. Having to work straight out of the gate, I didn’t have the patience to deal with this.

Okay first, and really only, major obstacle of the day! I have learned that sleep is the great momentum killer. I check in to my hotel at 3pm, as planned, and decide to take a quick nap to restore my energy after the early morning flight and work.

I didn’t get out of bed until 7pm.

What the hell?!

ShirtSleep is terrible for someone who is trying to accomplish things. Or maybe it’s just me. I don’t have the discipline or the persistence to get myself out of a relatively comfortable bed. I lost all momentum at that moment. Luckily after dinner I still went to the fitness center and still did my time. I’ve never been an Adonis or anything. But there was a time that I possessed the perseverance and the motivation to look my best, and I did. I’m ashamed, embarrassed, and scared that a good portion of my clothes don’t fit me well anymore. Look right now I’m not even trying to be better than I was, I’m just trying to maintain some semblance of what I was before, to prove that I can balance everything with this new job and not forsake my own health.

About dinner: Old Heidelberg’s is a…fascinating kitschy German/Bavarian themed tavern style restaurant in Fort Lauderdale. I am sad to say that I did not get a picture with the accordion player as live music is only on Wednesday and Sunday. But theOldHeidelberg.jpg decor inside was pretty cool, and it’s nice that some of it is actually tied to heritage and not just gimmick. There are lines from some famous German writers painted onto the rafters: Goethe,
Hesse, Schiller. The beams are adorned with assorted kinds of mugs and steins. I will admit the waitresses in the Bavarian dresses is a bit much but they own it and enjoy it and no one is doing fake German accents and singing birthday songs so it’s not that bad. The tables are remnants of the former oyster bar that used to be where the restaurant is now and are made of reclaimed wood from ships. Pretty cool history.

LambShankThe food was excellent as well. Of course for a German restaurant I had to start with the sausage sampler to test the quality of their kielbasa, bratwurst, and knockwurst. The sausages had a satisfyingly crisp skin with a great bite and you could taste all the seasonings mixed into the meat inside. The star was my ‘Munich Lamb Shank’. Two generously sized lamb shanks slow cooked in a creamy bell pepper sauce with onions and a slight spicy kick served with spatzle and red cabbage. The lamb was incredibly succulent and had a good amount of meat on the bone. The meat was so tender I could have carved it with a spoon. I love that gamey slightly sweet taste of lamb and it was perfectly complemented by the bell peppers. The spatzle could have used some more butter and nutmeg but I forgot all about that when I was using the little noodles as sponges for the lamb sauce anyways. Never much of a fan of red cabbage, I will have to admit that theirs was actually quite enjoyable. Not mush and not bland. All in all a very filling and satisfying meal.

Once I finish this I’m off to bed. First day a success. Second day will be important. I will have to be sure to wake up at 6 to accomplish everything I want.

Day 21

Man: 17 Loneliness: 4

Day 13: The Man and the Best Seat in the House

Whenever possible, always sit at the bar. Though I can’t speak to personal experience for every case, I imagine that this should ring true regardless of whatever form of bar you find yourself in.  I guarantee your experience will be that much more fulfilling and engaging if you find yourself in the heart of the action, at the very front of the bar, in what I consider the best seat in the house.

OldEbbittWhenever I am anywhere that has the option to sit at the bar, next to where all the creation takes place, I jump at it. When you’re seated that close to both the artist and the audience, you have a very different experience.

Today I want to talk specifically about the experience sitting at the bar for a good, strong cocktail and some incredibly comforting and honest food. The sushi bar experience, just like the cocktail experience, deserves its own attention one day.

The bar represents controlled chaos, a hectic frantic frenetic vortex of energy and booze. It is the heart and the nexus of the restaurant, connecting the haves with the have nots; the wants with the unwanted. Though the façade may be different, architecturally, spiritually, emotionally, each bar is essentially the same. Firstly, there is your seat. Your grounded connection to the physical world. Secondly is the counter where you lay down to rest your arms, your drinks, your hopes, your dreams, your ambitions, your fears, your doubts, and your insecurities. This is why good counters are designed to carry hefty loads. Lastly and most importantly, is the forbidden land behind the counter. It is only at the counter that we get a glimpse of the man behind the curtain and watch him work his magic. From the order to the pour, you are witnessing firsthand every drop, every nuanced addition, every calculated measure. You don’t have to be Dale Degroff or Tom Cruise in Cocktail to appreciate what is happening right in front of you. You only have to experience it once for yourself to understand, as I have understood these past five years, that there is nothing like being that close to the creation of something just for you.

HoneyHillA good bar is a connection between many disparate peoples, and a good bartender is a skilled ferryman. It doesn’t matter how exciting or innovative or distinguished the ship may be, it goes nowhere without a good captain. To appreciate the special kind of tortured artistic soul that is preparing your dirty martini, you first have to understand what kind of sick twisted person could possibly enjoy a job like this. A job that, were I less responsible, more transient, less spoiled, and more reckless, I would have loved to have. A good bartender must be part guru, part rock star, and of course, part chef. Make no mistake, for the uninitiated who have never bought their own home cocktail kit, a well-constructed cocktail requires no less than the same utmost attention to detail than the meal you enjoy with it. The guru is who we want the bartender to be when it is too late and we are too poor for a proper psychologist. Frank Sinatra has sung songs about the virtues of man telling his woes to the bartender and the Chairman of the Board never lies. The rock star is the man you engage with. The man who makes it seem like second-nature to be able to tell a joke to the person to your right, make the drink of the three people behind you, settle the tab of the person to your left, and still somehow make you feel like you and he are the only two people in the bar. I don’t need flipping liquor bottles or three foot long arching pours. I just expect my bartender to be able to be actively engaged with his or her patrons and to carry the spirit of the bar. I think it is fundamentally harder to be an authentically involved human being than it is to learn a parlor trick. Call me old-fashioned. (Get it. Old-fashioned. Like the cocktail. You know what I’m talking about Don.)

OysterShooterHad I not sat at the bar of Mid-Atlantic Seafood I still would have enjoyed my clam strips, my crab legs, and my steamed shrimp. I would not have struck a conversation with the two men next to me over the very picture you see here. I would not have met two people who
had similar job as I, travelling up and down the East Coast to train and promote their small electrical wiring company. I would not have talked to my bartender about the freshness of oysters. He would not have invited me to test for myself. We would not have taken oyster shots together. I wouldn’t have ordered a dozen to split with my new companions to teach them how to enjoy the briny delicacy. I wouldn’t have been reminded of the value of even fleeting, temporary, inevitably doomed connections.

Had I not sat at the bar of the Old Ebbitt Grill I would Negroninot have gotten to talk real shop with the seasoned veteran bartender who appreciated my Negroni. I would not have discovered the Honey Hill martini, a drink I now cannot wait to prepare and share with my friends. I would not have heard the people next to me ask the people next to them if the shrimp were any good. Then I would not have seen them, emboldened by the recommendation, order a dozen. Which then inspired me to order as well. And when they ordered the Blondie with vanilla ice cream…if I had not sat at the bar I would not have had the opportunity to ask them what they thought of it and they would not have offered me a spoon to try for myself.

Sitting at the bar is an experience of your own will and creation. All of the necessary components of whatever night you are looking to have are set before you. Pick the right bar, and it is very easy to have a quiet, solitary, singularly focused night of drinking to set your mind in the right place or to Zen it out of place completely. Pick just about any bar really, and your night of socializing can range from the meeting of minds and like-minded souls to a soul-ripping Pandora’s Box of raucous and rowdy romps. Through it all will be your spiritual guide, your bartender. There are times when I have contented myself with the passage of time and alcohol and others when my restlessness gets the better of me and I look to meet and make connections with my fellow bargoers. Purpose, proximity, and patience. Much like real relationships, the bar offers a microcosm for you to experiment with. Take your time and remember why you are here. Sit down. Get comfortable. Feel your feet on the stool. Feel your arms on the counter. Is it warm, like wood and leather, or is it cool, like glass and metal. Take in the senses. If you were at a table, you wouldn’t hear the ice being poured into the shaker. Smell the different liquers and infusions that imbibe your cocktail with life. Feel the electricity of a thousand things happening all at once. See the sureness of the fingers that pour your ingredients and the peaceful concentration of the bartender. Taste the cocktail at its freshest, when it has been thoroughly mixed and chilled without any chance of the flavors dulling down or the ice melting. At least once, and if your party size allows it, gift yourself the experience to see what it is like in a real bar with a real bartender making real drinks and understand you are part of a theme, a motif that occurs and reoccurs across all nations and cultures and times. Where there is good drink to be had, there is good company and good times as well.

Day 13

Man: 10 Loneliness: 3

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.