I know, I know. I am woefully behind on sharing most of our summer travels, but when I saw the September travel linkup topic was centered on food, glorious food, I knew I couldn’t skip it (like I have the last two because … busy).
If you’ve seen pictures of me, you’ll know food plays a very important role in my life … but it wasn’t always that way. Thanks to the wonder of genetics, I’ve always been a bit pudgier than any girl wants to be and back in high school I struggled mightily with that fact. For a couple of years in high school I skipped breakfast, gave away my school lunches, and ate the absolute minimum I could during family dinners to avoid being questioned about why I wasn’t eating. Even being very nearly anorexic, the lowest weight I could ever achieve was 119 pounds. How I managed to endure regular dance team practices without collapsing is a wonder. When I got to college, my relationship with food was a little bit better, but by no means healthy. Many of my dinners in the university dining hall were either baked potatoes or Belgian waffles. I ate and drank a lot of carbs that year and my weight surpassed the freshman 15 quite fast. It was also around this time that I met Alan and he began broadening my food horizons. The first time he took me to a Chinese restaurant I told him I would only eat sweet & sour chicken and he looked at me like I was insane. When I visited him at home in Oakland our first holiday season together, his family took me to dim sum and it blew my mind. (For as adventurous an eater as I’ve become, I still don’t like the meatballs though; I don’t trust the texture.)
That first Chinese meal was over twenty years ago now, and in the ensuing years, both of our palates have matured and expanded. During this time, we’ve had some amazing – and not so amazing – dining experiences together. I’m sure there are more than the five below, but these are the ones that are standing out to me right now (in no particular order).
The First Meal I Cooked For Alan (1996)
It was the summer of 1996 and I was subletting a room in my friend’s off-campus house. Since I’d lived in the dorms the year before and had never cooked growing up, my grasp of how to cook was extremely limited. I also hadn’t discovered the wonders of Martha Stewart yet either. Still, I was living on my own and I wanted to have my boyfriend over for a romantic meal so I went to the local grocery store and bought chicken, soy sauce, and rice. Not knowing what to do and not having access to the internet, I threw all the chicken pieces in a pot (skin included), dumped a bottle of Kikkoman over it, and set it to boil. And then I undercooked the rice. Needless to say, it was not a great meal. Also around that time was an experiment using Le Choy products which was equally disastrous.
This photo is not from the night in question, but rather from the same era. Since digital cameras didn’t exist then, I wasn’t taking pictures of my food quite yet.
The First Time I Ate Sushi (1996)
I think we’ve established that I didn’t have a wide repertoire of meals in the early half of my life, so you might not be surprised to know that I hated sushi the first time I tried it. It was Alan’s 21st birthday and I told him to come home from work early so I could take him to a sushi dinner at a nice restaurant at Pittsburgh’s Station Square. Much to his horror, instead of sushi dinner, when he arrived at my house I had a surprise party waiting for him. He was less than pleased by this turn of events. Not only does he hate surprises, but he was really looking forward to sushi since he loved it but hadn’t eaten it in a very long time. Somehow, he managed to endure the party and a couple of nights later, I made good on my promise for dinner at the restaurant. Having never eaten sushi and having no desire to do so, I stuck to teriyaki chicken but finally caved and at a piece of maguro. Needless to say, I didn’t love it. I’m not sure what I disliked more: the texture of the raw tuna or the taste of the ginger, which I said tasted like Lysol. These days I eat the stuff like candy! Strangely, a few days later I suddenly developed a craving for sushi (!!!) and as they say, the rest is history.
Our First “Fancy” Meal in New York City (2006)
The year is 2006 and we’re visiting NYC for the first time alone. We’d gone a few times in college, but it was always with friends and we were crashing at apartments. This was the first time we rented a hotel and did it up all fancy like. By this point in time, we’d also developed a love of fine food and drink and because this trip was for our anniversary, I tried to get a reservation at Mario Batali’s Babbo Restaurant. Even though I began calling the moment reservation slots were made available for our date and time, everything was already filled by the time I got through the busy signal. That’s one of the downfalls, I suppose, of having your anniversary so close to stupid Valentine’s Day (… which is a rant for another day). In the end, it turned out just about every other nice restaurant I’d read about was booked as well, but Todd English had just opened English is Italian and since the space was HUGE, we were able to get a reservation for an early dinner before our tickets for Spamalot. Going in, we knew nothing about what to expect and maybe if we had, we might have gone elsewhere. Not to say the food was bad, just that there was so much of it. Not knowing that dishes were served family style and that we’d have more than we could possibly eat with the regular menu, we ordered the special appetizer of hand-pulled mozzarella done at your table. It was a novel experience and tasted great, but the ball of cheese they gave you was more than two people should ever eat as an appetizer before your appetizer. By the time we’d gotten through our cheese, antipasto, and primi and were ready for the secondi, we were stuffed to the gills. We told the waiter or waitress – I can’t remember which – that we were fine paying for the full meal but to please NOT bring us any more food. They refused to listen to us and before we knew it, there was a giant slab or meat sitting in front of us. I recall tasting it and pushing it away before they then brought us dessert, but as Alan often reminds me, I have a habit of mixing up my stories if something occurred more than three years ago. What I do recall – vividly – is them taking forever to bring us the check and then us not being able to get a cab to the theater and having to take a bunch of subways and then basically running into our seats as the show was almost starting. I was in 3.5 inch spike heels and not at all dressed for that type of galavanting, not to mention the food was roiling in my stomach. I thought for sure I was going to puke at one point on the way there. Thankfully, once we took our seats and the first act was well on its way, my belly settled and I was able to enjoy the show, including Hank Azaria’s quip about Cheney shooting someone in the face. It’s my understanding the restaurant has long since closed and English has moved on to more refined dining experiences, but for a first “fancy” NYC dinner experience, it certainly was memorable. (Oh! We did finally make it to Babbo when we visited NYC again in 2013!)
Every time we visit NYC in February we experience a strange mixture of warm and completely and utterly frigid weather.
Our First Martini Brunch at Commander’s Palace in New Orleans (2011)
New Orleans is one of my favorite U.S. cities to visit and the food is a large part of the reason. When we first visited in 2005, we had dinner at Commander’s Palace, where we learned about their $0.25 martini brunches. Yes, you read that right. Martinis for a quarter! Naturally, when we decided to visit Nola for Thanksgiving that year, the first reservation I made was for Commander’s Palace, sitting upstairs in their Oak Room. The weather in Nola can be a strange thing, and that year was no exception. I ended up packing a linen tunic and white capris for our lunch date, which looking back, probably horrified the little old southern ladies who were also dining in the restaurant at the same time. You know, since it was after Labor Day and all that. Thankfully, the ladies sitting next to us were anything but proper and in addition to the food being as wonderful as I remembered, eavesdropping on their (drunken) conversation proved fun entertainment during our meal. We had such a good time doing brunch this way that when we returned in 2014 with our friends Tom and Sarah, we booked again. Unfortunately we got quite liquored up the night before and, nursing some pretty serious hangovers, were only able to consume one martini each. Come to think of it, I’m not certain Sarah even drank hers. We loved getting our bill at the end of the meal and seeing our four drinks costing a grand total of $1.00.
La Taverne du Sergent Recruteur in Paris (2008)
This was by far one of the funniest dining experiences we’ve ever had. We really had no food agenda when we visited Paris beyond eating all the baguette, cheese, and pastry that we possibly could. This made dinner time a bit of a conundrum since I hadn’t researched restaurants beforehand and this was in the days before iPhones and tablets. Wander through the Ile de la Cite, we passed by a few restaurants before circling back to this one. We were jovially welcomed inside the 600 year old tavern, decorated with all sorts of “classic” French decor. We were shown to a table where our waiter, again, quite excitedly, brought us a basket of raw vegetables and sausages and told us, in broken English, to eat whatever we wanted. And then he came back with the wine. Bottles of it, to be precise. Much to our delight, the wine kept coming throughout the entire meal. Our next course was soup and then bread and cheese, followed by our main dish – duck confit for Alan and cassoulet for me. I love cassoulet – this cannot be overstated – and I thought this was an excellent version of it with thick, succulent cuts of meat and duck mixed in with the beans and bread. And still the wine kept flowing. When the jovial man came back to our table with the THIRD bottle of red, we tried to push him off, but he opened it and poured more into my glass which I assure you, was not empty. By the time we left, we were completely full of good peasant style food (my favorite!) and way past shit-faced. We were so drunk, in fact, that when trying to find our metro back to our hotel, we inadvertently stumbled down into a station that was closed for remodeling. Realizing our mistake, we ran back up the stairs laughing like hyenas. So what was going on with this place? Why were they plying us with food and alcohol? Well, it turns out Le Taverne du Sergent Recruteur was a place where the sergeants for Napoleon’s army would go and get men extremely intoxicated (or “bourré” en français) then have them sign up for the Army. A little like the shanghai’ing that occurred in Portland, then. While the experience was novel and our main dishes good and tasty, an experience like the one we had at SR is not for everyone. Several people gave the restaurant terrible reviews, citing all the things we found so fun. In the end, the restaurant closed down and is now a high end establishment with a €150/person 9-course tasting menu.
So there you have it, some of my most memorable dining experiences. I realize there’s a huge gap between 2011 and now, but that’s not because we haven’t been eating good food during that time. Maybe I’m feeling a bit nostalgic right now, but these are the ones that pop into my head first … and not necessarily because the food was great. In retelling each story, I realized the experience is so memorable because of who I was with and how the meal went. In many cases, the food was a supporting player, not the main star of the show. For straight up best food, the award goes to Quince (San Francisco), The French Laundry (Napa), and Atelier Joel Rubochon (Las Vegas).
So … what are some of your most memorable dining experiences?
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