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A Lovely Meal at Home: Take-Out from 12 Bones BBQ, Asheville, NC

Hard to beat a home-cooked meal: Jason's German-style dinner - organic, western NC sausages, German potato salad, cucumber salad, Coconut cake from the Well-Bred Bakery in Weaverville, NC

Last night my husband and I decided to have our long-awaited date night at a cute tapas bar on the upper west side, which will remain nameless, but I have indeed been there before — twice, in fact —  and was reasonably pleased both times — enough to go back.  I’ll keep this as succinct as possible so as to get to the point of this post.  We had a lovely time, mostly because it was the one time in the last month that we’ve actually sat down face to face with no reason to hurry through a meal and/or a conversation (our lives are crazy…seriously).  I do like this tapas bar.  It’s candlelit, cozy without being too cramped like many NYC wine bars, and the service was attentive and friendly — the host even inquired about the book I had on the table.  Nice touch…I mean, I like when people are inquisitive without seeming too nosey.  The wine was fine.  $13 for a quarttino of Pinot Grigio (so-so)…Jason had a spicy, full-bodied red (Crianza???), around the same price.  Anyway, the food was really just so-so, and we ended up spending waaayyyy too much for the quality.  We had grilled calamari, which was just weird…I mean, it’s not even worth describing.  Brussel sprouts which badly needed salt and had a presentation that would perhaps even scare off the most die-hard brussel sprout lover.  The meatballs were pretty good, though Jason thought they too needed salt.  The bread & olive oil was lovely, though we ended with this little “snack” for $3.50, which was basically a slice of slightly stale baguette, a piece of serrano ham, a piece of unexciting cheese, an olive, all toothpicked together.  It kind of reminded me of something from the infamous Ohio relish trays to which I was introduced Thanksgiving 2008.  Bottom line: lovely date, disappointingly so-so food, too much money spent.  We could’ve prepared every single thing better at home.

So hard to find a great restaurant sometimes!  Since the above comments are about a tapas bar, I should say that two of my favorite wine bars EVER are on the upper west side, but we opted for tapas, because the other 2 tend to be crazy busy & just a tad too expensive for what we were looking for.  I’ll go to my staples next time: Bin 71, Barcibo for uptown; 8th Street Wine Cellar for downtown.  You can’t go wrong with those.

Here’s the question: how do so many restaurants — cute, pretty, inviting restaurants with attentive servers — get away with such subpar food?!?!  I’m realizing as I’m writing this that I sound like a total snob…but it’s really about standards, isn’t it?

I recently started working at a really fabulous restaurant in Tarrytown.  I’ve really been enjoying the job so far & it’s been a much-needed break from so much of the stuff I’ve been doing for so many years.  And I have to say, the food is STELLAR.  And THAT’S what makes me enjoy going to work.  I used to find waiting tables to be demeaning.  Waiting on snooty people?  No, thank you.  Waiting on people who treat you like you’re below them?  No, thank you.  But I (knock on wood) haven’t encountered those attitudes at my current job, and I notice that people are just blown away by the food.  What a difference a high quality meal makes!  The food is almost all locally produced/grown, with the exception of a few seafood items.  The presentation is beautiful, I literally want to eat every single thing on the menu, the restaurant cozy and inviting with a really beautiful bar as well.  I just can’t say enough good things about this place.

But then I come home to Manhattan, meet my husband out at a cute little chic tapas bar on the UWS…and we’re disappointed.  We also experienced another recent disappointment when we did dinner on the UWS back in July at a restaurant that I had absolutely raved about to Jason — and we were so incredibly disappointed!  It was just subpar quality and (big surprise) too much money!  Maybe they went downhill???  Or maybe my standard just suddenly got higher.

I should write a quick disclaimer here that I am not a picky eater…and not really a picky drinker either.  I’m pretty good at identifying shitty wine, but I’ll gladly settle if that’s what’s offered.  (I can’t say the same for Jason…but then I just get to drink his crappy wine, so it all works out)!  But J & I really do good food at home, we know how to eat, how to savor food & wine…but we’re just not in the budget to go to Le Bernardin.  So what to do.  Either cook at home or go to a place that you KNOW is going to be good.  No more risk-taking a la last night’s date.  The tricky thing here is that both of our not-so-good UWS dining experiences these last few months were at places that I thought were good.  Perhaps my standard really has gotten higher.  But if we’re going to go out and spend, say, over $50 on food, it should be absolutely stellar in my book.  Anyway…  So I’m making a relatively short list here of places that rarely, if ever, disappoint (the first 5 are in Manhattan).  As for any new places to try, I’m going to go with friends’ recommendations.  So here are my picks:

1. 8th Street Wine Cellar  http://8thstwinecellar.com/

2. Bin 71  — Their meatballs in lemon broth is one of my all-time favorite wintertime meals.  http://www.bin71.com/

3. Barcibo  http://barciboenoteca.com/

4. Supper  http://www.supperrestaurant.com/

5. Otto — go for the wine & cheese & of course, the famous olive oil gelato; the pasta is so-so.  Sorry, Mario.  😦  But it’s still a go-to place and doesn’t seem to break the bank.  http://www.ottopizzeria.com/

6. Sweet Grass Grill — Tarrytown, NY http://sweetgrassgrill.com/

7.  Rezaz — Asheville, NC (this is one of my favorite places of all time).  http://www.rezaz.com/intro.html

8.  Laughing Seed — Asheville, NC  http://laughingseed.jackofthewood.com/

And lastly, chez Rigby, Washington Heights, NYC.  🙂

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Buss up shut

The legendary Doubles

Various fruit chows

This past summer, I returned to Trinidad for the 3rd time to work/perform as a tutor/cellist for the National Sinfonia Orchestra’s summer workshop.  I always have a great time in Trinidad, and being the foodie that I am, I pay close attention to the food of whatever culture in which I find myself.  The food in Trinidad is, generally speaking, fabulous!  And they really, really know how to season, that’s for sure.  Spice abounds!  Some highlights:

1. Doubles: 2 pieces of fried, rather soft flat-bread, onto which is spooned a split pea & chickpea stew of sorts; then they put a tsp or more of tamarind and pepper sauce (if you request it).  Trinidadians loooovvvve pepper sauce.  You can even find it at Subway & KFC!  Anyway, Doubles are fabulous, filling, and CHEAP.  I recommend UWI Doubles in St. Augustin.

2. Aloo Pie: a relatively small fried potato “pie” of sorts (the “crust” is potato), typically served with a garlicky chutney.  Fabulous!

3.  Pholourie: I actually just had this for the first time this past visit.  A couple of the orchestra mothers make dinner for us on rehearsal nights, and they cook spectacularly.  One of them made this huge bucket of pholourie, which are split pea fritters.  One eats them with the fingers, dipped in mango chutney or tamarind yumminess!

4. Pineapple/mango chow: chopped or sliced fresh pineapple or mango, marinated in a spicy concoction of what tastes like salt, pepper, and cilantro.  It is tangy & spicy & utterly delicious, though I prefer the pineapple.  Many times they make the mango chow with pretty unripe mangos, so they’re a bit too tart for my taste.  They do sell chow in the supermarket, but the best is bought roadside in little plastic baggies (see photo).  I love the chow on the way to Maracas Beach!

5. Buss-up-shut: I’ve only had this a couple times, so I’m not really an expert.  It’s basically roti bread (similar to naan bread, but a bit more moist/soft) which one dips into whatever yummy veggie or meat stew he/she has ordered.  Kind of reminiscent of Ethiopian cuisine with a distinct Indian vibe.  I think roti is technically Indian.  The last time I had it, I ordered the veggie plate, which had a pumpkin puree, a chickpea/split pea concoction (much like what they put on doubles), and a mango chutney.  ***One odd thing about the mango thing: they like to put pieces of the pit in the dish.  It’s a little strange to me, because mango without the pit is terribly yummy…so why the big pieces of pit?  It is perplexing to me.  (The chow, however, is just fruit pieces; no pit, thankfully).

6. Breakfast sandwiches at Subway (Port of Spain airport) with pineapple…need I say more?  And yes, you can get pepper sauce and/or garlic sauce and/or Shadon Beni (Indian green chutney) on your sandwich.

I always seem to have a vegetarian roommate in Trinidad, and they always seem to find lots of things to eat there.  In fact, I found a great blog (also on wordpress) called, “Vegan in the Sun: Caribbean Vegan Delights.”  http://caribbeanvegan.wordpress.com/2009/12/13/buss-up-shut-green-split-pea-dhal-and-curried-pumpkin/

Sadly, there is one thing in Trinidad I do NOT like, food-wise: callaloo.  Too much reminiscent of mucus.  I almost don’t even want to include it in my blog (I mean, I just used the word “mucus”), but it seems to be very popular in Trinidad.  It’s a pureed green thing, often made from okra (slimy!).  Not really to my taste, but it’s worth mentioning.

Overall, there are a myriad of culinary delights in Trinidad.  When I come back to NY, my husband and I always make a trip to Otto, Mario Batali’s more casual restaurant on 8th Street & Fifth Ave., since I so get my fill of Caribbean eats that I desperately need a cheese plate & some marinated veggies.  But it would be very hard to be disappointed by the cuisine in Trinidad.  Am already looking forward to next year!

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Three of my favorite things: cats, cheese, wine

Two things: 1) I love to eat.  2) I am and have been extremely skeptical of anything even remotely resembling fad diets, no-carb funny business, vegan or macro-biotic malarchy, etc.  It all just seems so silly.  I mean…right?

For all serious food-lovers who saw “Julie & Julia,” I think we all nodded (and perhaps giggled) with understanding at one key scene in particular:  Julia and her husband are discussing possible activities and potential professional endeavors with which she may want to become involved — this was before she was a chef.  Paul asks her, “What is it  you really like to do?”  Julia’s answer, plain and simple, is “Eat.”

Honestly, I couldn’t relate more to Julia’s answer.  I am profoundly passionate about food & cooking (and all permutations thereof, involving cooking classes, cook books, talking about food, wine, etc), and am unbelievably thankful to have some absolutely fabulous cooks & food lovers around me – almost all the time, in fact.

But I’m also, as many die-hard food lovers are, quite concerned about health, fitness, and maintaining a healthy weight.  Herein lies a bit of an obvious dilemma.  How often does one indulge?  What does “indulge” mean when looking at the scope of, say, a week?  To what extent should or can we indulge when we do?  Is indulging really that important?  How strict should we be with our diets?  How can we enjoy food passionately – and even cook with butter once in a while – and not turn into a pork chop?  Trust me, I was a chubby kid — these are serious questions, esp. considering I’m part of the “eat fervently” and “clean the plate” club.

Before I get into the aforementioned “fad” diet, I should explicitly state that I am not overweight.  In fact, I’m more fit than I’ve ever been in my entire life, and I’m probably a mere, say, 5 pounds above what I would consider to be my “ideal” weight, that is, the natural weight at which my body seems most happy.  I’m too tall & too athletic to expect to be much less than my natural weight.

I state this to emphasize that I have not entered into this diet because I have unreasonable expectations of how my body “should”  look.  Someone close to me was interested in trying it, and so I’ve joined in solidarity.  And I’m happy I did because my indulgences the last few weeks were over-the-top, and I do feel this has gotten me a bit back on track health-wise.  But there, of course, is another question mark — were my indulgences really that bad?

Okay, so the diet: I’m not doing to mention it by name, though I have managed to disclose the secret to a couple friends.  In any event, this post is not an advertisement for the diet itself, but rather a diary documenting two things I love – eating and being healthy – and how I’ve entered into something of which I was extraordinarily skeptical. Alas, it seems…well, so far, so good!

The key points of the diet (many of you will know what this is right off the bat, but it’s more fun for it to remain nameless):

1. Stay away from refined carbs – so no bread or pasta or fruit (esp. during the first 2 weeks)

2. No alcohol during the first 2 weeks; after that, wine is fine.  THANK GOD.

3. Eat lots of veggies & lean protein – that includes eggs & turkey bacon at breakfast

4. No butter, no fatty cheeses; low-fat cheeses are fine

5. No sugar or honey; artificial sweeteners are fine.  This I have trouble with because I just don’t see how artificial sweeteners are good for you.  How can they be?  In any event, they seem to be doing the trick right now.  Mix in some splenda with non-fat Greek yogurt, a little bit of vanilla or almond extract, and you have quite a yummy treat.

I actually think this diet seems quite reasonable and balanced, and I’m finding myself pleasantly surprised.  I’m on day 3 and I feel pretty good – definitely way, way better than I did after I pigged out at a friend’s Memorial Day BBQ…it’s indulgences like that that make me glad to be on this path right now.  I mean, super sugary sangria, heavy cheeses, guac, greasy burgers, chips & salsa galore…oh, and someone brought a chocolate-peanut dessert treat that basically tasted like a combination of 10 different delectables from the Halloween bag, all chocolate in nature.

Here is a downfall of this diet I’m on: the creator says that exercise is not key to losing weight on this particular plan.  Now, that might be true, but no exercising?  Really?  That is an absolute key ingredient of good health and is usually my excuse for allowance of excessive culinary indulgences.  I wouldn’t recommend the latter attitude towards exercise, but I think if I didn’t run as much as I do, I most definitely would be a porker.

In the last, say, 10 years of my life, I couldn’t have begun to imagine that I would be doing a diet like this.  It seems to go against my philosophy of eating, cooking, enjoying food, enjoying what the earth provides for us without much fuss or worry or obsessing or indulging our body-insecurities we probably picked up in our terribly awkward youth.  But I have to say, I’m pleased with this current – and perhaps longterm – lifestyle choice.  It seems to be reasonable & I feel pretty good.  I’m eating tons of veggies, which is great, and I haven’t had to contend with that horrible full feeling after a decadent bowl of pasta.  So my body seems to like this.

Pumpkin custard profiteroles; a holiday treat since 2002 and no, it is not an acceptable dessert on this diet I'm doing

Thanksgiving in Maine last year; what a spread! No dieters around that day, that's for sure.

I will follow-up this post with a couple homemade recipes and an update on how I feel 10 days from now…when I can FINALLY have a glass of wine.

Best wishes for health this summer.  🙂

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