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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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Jason outside of Cafe Hans in Cashel -- I think this was one of our very favorite lunch spots in Ireland

Lunch in Port Magee, Ireland: Seafood Chowder, Brown Bread, Hot Whiskey, Guinness

I’m very proud to state the following: I love food.  I love wine & hot whiskeys.  I don’t ‘diet,’ and therefore don’t count calories or fat grams. I don’t do anything fad-oriented such as no-carb eating.  I’m not vegan or even vegetarian.  BUT…I do put a great deal of thought into what I put into my body.  No question about it, health is one of my #1 concerns in life.  I love to eat (and drink!) and I love to feel good physically & mentally.  I eat for pleasure & sensuality, I eat for energy, I eat for life.  And a good wine can help with all of that too.  🙂

In August, 2009, the Riley-Rigby-Rooney clan embarked on a journey to & around Ireland.  A truly momentous trip…one of the best of my life.  At the airport, Jason & I purchased two of Michael Pollan’s well-known bestsellers: the Omnivore’s Dilemma & In Defense of Food (subtitled: Eat Food, Not too Much, Mostly Plants).  Jason read the former, I read the latter.  The irony here is that I spent a good 7-8 days eating my way through a very NON-plant-centric diet in Ireland, which was truly fantastic!   Lots of shepherd’s pie, Guinness stew (with beef or lamb), seafood chowder, brown bread with butter, the occasional fish ‘n’ chips, etc., etc.  Oh!  And porridge with Irish Mist or Jameson in the morning!  Garnished with milk & sugar, of course.  The Irish know how to cook, that’s for sure (quite opposite, I might add, from my & J’s culinary experience in Scotland, which was unfortunately horrid to say the very least).

Anyway, I’m not interested in giving a book report on In Defense of Food, but there are a few poignant morsels of information that I’ve carried with me these last few months.  Basically the main idea presented in the book is that, historically speaking, people who have followed ‘traditional’ diets (for most of us this means our ancestors and/or those who probably grow their own food, and consistently don’t consume processed foods with 500 ingredients, 99% of which have names we can’t pronounce…said foods wouldn’t have been around for our ancestors anyway) are by far the healthiest people on the planet.  (But processed food aside – I mean, really, did our ancestors do the no-carb thing?)

Anyway, I think a lot of this is common sense, but it’s always nice to have guidelines….Some of these are mine, some straight from Pollan’s book, more or less…

1.  Buy local food when possible (i.e. Farmer’s markets & such)

2.  Eat LOTS and LOTS of fruits & veggies, preferably organic.  Especially leafy greens.

3.  (Try to) stay away from refined flour — this was not about to stop me from enjoying the freshly baked baguettes from our December dinner excursion with Bert & Noel (see below for info on their amazing books) at L’Ecole, the restaurant of the French Culinary Institute on Broadway, btw. Broome & Grand.  Such a fabulous dinner!  We went home with FOUR baguettes.  🙂  🙂

4.  (Try to) stay away from refined sugar (This & #3 went out the window over the holidays and I do very occasionally indulge with a sugary treat such as candy corn or gummies).

5.  (This is more my own tip) Cook when possible, i.e. don’t go out so much…this is also economical!  And you know what’s going into your dinner.

6.  Try not to pig out.  This is a biggie for me since I find myself feeling like I have the appetite of a 16-year old boy.  Maybe because I’m so active???  Not sure, but I absolutely hands-down know how to EAT.  Alas, try not to pig out…even if you have run 6 miles that morning.

7.  This is obvious: stay away from processed foods, which for me is no problem since I’ll eat pretty much anything BUT chef-boyardee, cheese whiz, & wonder bread.  I do, however, like marshmallows.

8.  Don’t do fast food (sadly, I really think this includes a great deal of the food at places like Starbucks – even their fruit cups are pitiful.  Thumbs down to that, though I will give them credit for telling people the INSANE number of calories in one of their little muffins or cookies.  Sheesh.  I don’t count calories, but I’m not about to buy a 400+ calorie muffin from said coffee purveyor).

9.  I don’t have an exact number in front of me, but Pollan talks about purchasing foods that have very, very few ingredients, so I’ve been paying more attention to that.

10.  Last but not least, stay away from high fructose corn syrup.  Read the book for an explanation as to why (try not to let your eyes glaze over), but it’s nasty stuff for your body and the production of it has all sorts of seriously negative environmental implications.  I was shocked when I discovered that Special K with berries has corn syrup in it.  I haven’t had cereal in probably 4 months, though apparently Kashi makes a good health-conscious one.  I opt for oatmeal (but no, I don’t put Irish Mist or Jameson in it).

Ps — This isn’t hugely pertinent to New Yorkers, but try to stay in the perimeter (i.e. away from the center) of the grocery store.

Foodies abound in my family, I’m happy to say.  Another book to check out!  My “uncle” Bert Sonnenfeld (really my second cousin’s husband…I think that’s right) wrote the English edition of Food: A Culinary History (Penguin Books, 1999).  And Bert’s wife, Noel Riley Fitch, wrote Appetite for Life: The Biography of Julia Child and also has a gorgeous book with amazing photographs entitled The Grand Literary Cafes of Europe. She another gem entitled the Literary Cafes of Paris.  Thanks to Bert & Noel, I got to sit right across from Julia Child at a dinner in my freshman year of college.  Julia was giving a class at BU, so I think it was a student prepared meal perhaps???  I have a vague recollection of her forgetting to put the lobster in the soup, so I’m sure she was assisting the students.  I believe I also remember her talking about what a lovely person Yo-Yo Ma is.  🙂  What a memory!  Truly special thanks to the Riley-Fitch-Sonnenfeld pair!

I truly feel food should be good for you, yes, and enjoyed to the absolute fullest.  Food should be savored, shared, ritualized into our lives for health…and hedonism!  And I say this mostly for (what I think) are the crazy dieters — the no-carb eaters, the vegans, the macrobiotics — I don’t think some slices of baguette with yummy Saint Andre triple cream (in moderation) is going to kill you, particularly if you’re an active individual and you care about what you put into your body.

Best wishes for health, hedonism, & happy eating in 2010!  Let’s hope it’s a good year for wine as well.  🙂

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