The Pacific Northwest
July 27, 2014 § Leave a comment
I could say many things about our trip to Seattle and Portland in early June. That it feels like ages ago, that I never wanted to leave, that every part of Portland I fell in love with over and over again, and that, like any vacation, we had to come back from it. In essence, we ate. And we drank. And that’s about it. One morning we stopped to look at some cute backyard gardens in the Greenlake neighborhood of Seattle, and another afternoon we walked along the Willamette river, but mostly we ate and drank. Here’s what we did.
Some of our favorites – (Portland) Biwa with its Japanese pickles, gyoza dumplings, Japanese style fried chicken with nose-cleansing mustard sauce, ramen, and my favorite, the special snap peas and radishes, so creamy and crunchy and just singing freshness. PokPok and it’s signature papaya salad, fried mussels in crispy, broken crepe, and catfish marinated in turmeric and sour rice with vermicelli, fresh herbs, and peanuts. Also the best papaya salad we’ve ever had. We also managed to track down my favorite Lao dish, Nam Khao, or crispy rice salad, at a neighborhood restaurant along 23rd Avenue – I was so excited!
Then there were spicy seafood noodles at the downtown food trucks and Jalapeno cheddar bagels and savory thyme croissants at Nuvrei. Endless beer tastings, Stumptown coffee (which we are told is too mainstream for Portlanders to be into anymore), and a stop by the newly-opened Coopers Hall with it’s open floors, wide light, and industrial exterior for an impromptu wine tasting. We followed that with a visit to Eastside Distilling and topped off the night on the cushioned swing bench on the patio at the Roadside Attraction. Portland having the most breweries per capita in the world, we sampled tons of beers at Rogue, Deschutes, Lompoc, and Harvester, which in addition to having gluten-free beer that’s actually good, also has some great sourdough cornbread with honey butter and beer-braised collard greens.
And then there was my first meal in Portland, which I ate alone at a sunny table on 23rd Avenue, a tuna “poke box” sushi pictured below from Bamboo Sushi, a branch of the first certified sustainable sushi restaurant in the world. I was still blurry-eyed from travel but eager to cram in as much eating as possible into my three days in Portland.
More of our favorites – (Seattle) If our eating in Portland had an Asian theme, Seattle was pretty Mediterranean. I died again for the assorted kebabs with Greek salad, tzatziki, and crushed, fried potatoes at Lola (who doesn’t like crispy fried potatoes?). But by far the best meal we ate in Seattle was at Mamnoon, where my lovely friend Taylor works. We plowed through about five baskets of fresh, warm pita (so good!) while feasting on muhammara, a thick spread of roasted red peppers, walnuts, cumin, and pomegranate molasses, bateresh, charred eggplant and minced lamb, kufteh chicken meatballs with cherries, pistachios and almonds and saffron rice, and habbar charred octopus with a smooth squid ink hummus.
Our waiter not only kept refilling our pita basket, but also recommended we reserve a table at the Knee High Stocking Company as our next stop. A real-life speakeasy with a locked door, doorbell, and a host that comes to answer the door when you ring, you have to text ahead to make a reservation to get in the door. Once seated, we settled into a little dark room and an extensive menu of cocktails. Dan ordered the Widow’s Kiss – Calvados Boulard, Green Chartreuse, Benedictine, and bitters – a choice for which he received compliments from the waiter for ordering.
And then what trip wouldn’t be completed by a bourbon Moscow Mule and a stop in the photo-booth at Montana?
Chef chaouen, Morocco
June 22, 2013 § Leave a comment
Ever since seeing photos of Chef chaouen, a small Moroccan town in the Rif mountains outside of Tangier, I’ve had my heart set on going. Until the logistics of getting there looked complicated and I began to think maybe it was too much hassle, maybe this is one of those moments in life where it’s better to be flexible, do what makes sense instead of what you’re longing for, accept that the world will not end if you don’t get your way today. So as I started backing down, saying we could skip Chef chaouen in favor of the coastal Essaouira, which is much, much closer to Marrakech, Dan staunchly insisted there was no way we were skipping the once place I really wanted to go.
And so, that’s how we found ourselves dumped in a parking lot at the bottom of a hill, after a 7-hour bus ride from Casablanca, confident that we knew how to find our hotel from there, but really, not even beginning to understand the road that lead up to the medina. We walked that road up, and then back down, several times before finally finding the way (with a little help).
Once entering the medina, we were hit with an onslaught of blue, at once expected but in such a vibrant, calming hue that the entire town seemed lost in a permanent shade of cheer. Blue staircases melted into the walls of buildings, doors open jumping out in a different hue of blue. Once we stumbled upon a pot of dried paint, the same color as the rest of the medina – just add water and repaint the nearby staircase! I was in awe every time I emerged from the hotel.
The hotel, Casa Perleta, was probably the favorite of the trip. Chef chaouen had quite a large Spanish denomination, a vestige of its part in Spanish Morocco, and my French was virtually useless here. The Casa was run by a very helpful Spanish family and was, itself, lost in the blue hue. On the rooftop terrace overlooking the rest of the medina and the surrounding hills, we enjoyed bread with goat cheese, dates, olives, and a sugary-liquid orange marmalade, alongside coffee, Moroccan mint tea, and fresh-squeezed orange juice. Breakfast began with a ring of fried bread each, I still wish I knew what they were called!
June 21, 2013 § Leave a comment
The call to prayer begins at 4:30 a.m., a sudden awakening from exhausted sleep by a vaguely monotone voice over the loudspeaker, originating from the mosque rising above the roofs of the old medina, just a couple of buildings over. It lasts about ten minutes, in which we lay, in the darkness of our room, in silence, waiting it out before sinking back into sleep. Outside, shopkeepers might already be making their way to their daily posts, a small cafe selling miniature honeyed almond confections, or maybe a fresh-squeezed orange juice stand in the market square, Djemaa El Fna. By 8 a.m., we’re slinking out of our room at the top floor of the Riad Marrakiss, down two staircases to a pot of coffee and some bread with jam.
The breakfast might not have been as plentiful as those at our previous Riad’s (a small hotel in the old medina, ranging from a family home to a boutique hotel) but we made up for it with a lunch of those pretty almond confections, and one peanut-dense square of honeyed pastry. Our days in Morocco tended to follow my wandering pastry-nose and Dan’s unspoken quests for coffee, happily skipping over palace tours in favor of our stomachs.
More often than not, we were stopped by a dead-end alleyway, a young boy persistently offering directions (in exchange for money, of course, though this was less aggressively prevalent than in Fes), or the seemingly random operating hours of some of the more sought-after attractions. Occasionally, we fell into tourist traps; occasionally, into alleys dead-ending in the laborers’ district, where the air filled with the smell of polish and men bent over metal works.
Happily, our initial cab driver to the gates of the medina upon arrival in Marrakech was one of the more talkative, advising a trip to the Jardin Majorelle, a botanical garden in the Nouvelle Ville (otherwise known as the French district), partly a memorial dedicated to the designer Yves Saint-Laurent. Once entering the garden gates, the pressing noise of the city faded, the harking, bargaining of the vendors and the wizz of motorbikes replaced by plentiful displays of cacti, lily ponds, and bamboo forests. While many of the plants weren’t native to the region, many even brought over from South America, the calm and beauty of the garden was a welcome respite.
That evening found us amidst a cluster of locals in one of the narrow streets leading away from El Fna, stumbling over a sandwich order in front of a plastic case filled with ground meat and unidentifiable animals brains. After a highly confused conversation, in which we attempted to order something we had yet to identify, we had in our hands a circle of bread, much like the ones we were served for breakfast, stuffed with spiced ground meat, a fried egg, onion, and sauce piquante. Not bad for a second dinner.
In the evenings, I often went without a camera, feeling liberated without a need to be constantly checking that yes, my purse was still there. So there are no pictures of that dinner, or of the large huddle of women scooping soup into bowls at a low, dark table, street-side, or of the masses of young men beckoning you to their respective restaurant table in the square, an onslaught of aggressive noise, deals that never seemed to be followed up on, and some humorous expressions (“See you later, alligator”) delivered in Australian accents.
I will always be surprised at how quickly one can go from noise to silence in Marrakech. As we slipped back into our Riad in the evening, the city seemed to stop at the door and, in the calm, we overlooked the hundreds of roofs surrounding us in the hazy evening light from the rooftop terrace.
July 25, 2012 § 1 Comment
I took off from Athens for a couple of days for a real vacation — a tour of several Greek islands. And somewhere between piling my clothes into my backpack for what feels like — and is probably close to be being — the hundredth time, conquering the scorching heat in rickety buses, where the driver yells at you to get on board without answering your question about the destination of said bus, with sweat pouring down your face, and dipping my toes in the water, as the sun finally starts to set, things started looking up.
I think I forgot that it is summer. That I am in a foreign country, where everything I look at is brand-new to my eyes. That this is the time for exploring, for pushing myself, for doing me and for doing the incredible amount of things waiting to be experienced around me. Volcanoes. Black-sand beaches. Ferry rides watching the clear, vibrant blue ocean drift past. Dancing on tables. Souvlaki — pita stuffed with meat shavings (traditionally lamb) vegetables, tzatziki sauce and a smattering of French fries — at five in the morning. And while I may be experiencing Greece mostly as a tourist, I am rounding up some awesome Australian friends. So guess what continent we’re exploring next?
Meanwhile, I’ve been stepping back and actually enjoying time to myself again. Time just sitting still and taking it all in — except I rarely actually sit still. After a day of lazing around poolside, with a walk along the harbor and an ocean-side skype sesh with the boyfriend, I finally deemed the temperature low enough to attempt a run. Boy, was I wrong. But run I did, up every damn desert hill on the island. Beet-red, panting and pouring buckets of sweat, I finally made it back to the hotel, where a dip in the Mediterranean and a watermelon slice twice the size of my head were exactly what my body ordered.
And then, I also wanted to share the site that I’ve been working for in Athens, and also in Barcelona — Culinary Backstreets. It just launched yesterday, and you’ll see my photos popping up here and there in the next few weeks. Here are some from a delicious lunch at Melilotos in Athens. I got to go into the kitchen here one night to take photos — lots of fire action for a traditional chicken pasta dish. When we returned in the afternoon, it was too hot to attempt eating pasta, but the veggie options were not scarce.
Beet salad with balls of creamy herbed goat cheese.
The best citrusy tabouleh I have ever had, served with a row of freshly fried, salty sardines.
Deep-fried tomatoes and cheese.
Zucchini very thinly sliced and flash fried. Crispy, crackly, and served with tzatziki yogurt for dipping.
I still dream about that bittersweet chocolate pie with buttery biscuit crust and may have to make a quick stop before heading to the airport.
July 8, 2012 § 1 Comment
I am obsessed with the old yellowed buildings, gothic balconies and small alleyways of Barcelona, cut by the wide boulevards lined with palm trees and grassy areas. I am enthralled, and have managed to overcome my dislike of walking to wander about the city for entire days at a time. Hidden pockets of stores, bakeries and tapas joints, just off the main streets, but somehow secluded, guarded by the intricate maze of alleys, which act as fortifications against the throngs of tourists that pack the city center at all times of day.
What I am not quite so taken with is Spanish food, which is unfortunate, since that is the reason why I am here. I am simply failing to grasp the obsession with anchovies, why a perfectly good pepper has to be stuffed with some strange cream cheese in order to be served as a tapa, and why shrimps are cooked with delicate care, except with their shells on so that the diner can strip away all the oils and herbs, leaving nothing but a bare shrimp, with his intestines still intact. I know the latter is typical (and traditional) in many cultures, but I still just don’t get it, unless the satisfaction lies in your fingers smelling like shrimp for the remainder of the day. I have however, braved a sardine head, before eating the entire fried fish (yes I know they’re tiny, but eating a sardine is a big deal for me), pulling out the teeny skeleton as I went.
And, of course, I have managed to embrace several sweets, along with the architecture: donuts filled with dulce de leche or rolled in flaked coconut, and crispy, chewy churros, served alongside hot chocolate so thick it can be eaten like pudding — or simply used as a dipping sauce, as is traditional. Desserts so rich they ooze guilt and indulgence.
When I was not wandering aimlessly — I somehow managed to not go to the majority of the monuments, Gaudi houses and churches, mostly due to my impatience with waiting in long lines — I sat on the patio in the hostel, with 2 euro wine. And then, later on, laid by the rooftop pool of my hotel, taking in the sun and feeling the breeze from the sea drift over my face.