food

On Dining Out Solo

A few weeks ago, Grub Street ran a great post on the benefits of eating alone at restaurants. Krista Simmons, the writer, broke down the stereotype that solo diners are “sad, lonely people with no friends” and gave a number of reasons why eating alone is actually kind of awesome. Chief among them: You can really focus on the food and make friends with the restaurant staff–which could lead to VIP service. As Will Guidara, general manager and co-owner of Eleven Madison Park and NoMad, confirms:

I don’t think there’s anything more flattering than someone sitting and having dinner in the dining room alone…With a single diner, we really get the opportunity to interact with curious eaters. You know they’re really there for the food.

I found Grub Street’s post very timely because I recently decided to dine solo more often. For all of my adult life, I’ve never had a problem doing things on my own: taking dance classes, traveling, going to concerts. I attribute my comfort in doing so to the traveling I did in college and my early 20s. Whether I was going solo to an all-day music festival in Sydney or seeking out amazing dim sum in Hong Kong, I quickly learned that not having someone to join you isn’t a reason to forgo an experience. You really can have a good time on your own terms.

I do a lot of activities alone in NYC, but I realized I’m way more apt to dine solo when I’m in any other city than my own.В I never hesitate to get a table for one when traveling. But that thought rarely crosses my mind in day-to-day life. I should be just as motivated to take advantage of great food in my hometown (which happens to be one of the world’s premier culinary destinations), as much as I do when I’m in a place where my time is fleeting.

Another motivating factor:В I live way uptown in Washington Heights, but recently joined a gym in NoHo. I work out there just once a week (on a non-ballet day, of course) and love having an excuse to be in the area–there are so many restaurants and new ones open all the time. I feel like I should take advantage of the eating opportunities, whether or not a friend can meet for a late dinner.

So a few weeks ago, when I didn’t have post-gym plans, I took myself out to dinner. I was craving a good cocktail and pork buns (I know, my four miles on the treadmill undone right there). So I went to Booker and Dax, the David Chang/Dave Arnold cocktail bar. I got a seat at the bar and chatted with the bartender and the guy next to me, who was also by himself. My “Son of a Peach” tequila drink and pork buns were phenomenal (as anyone who’s been to Momofuku knows). And I happily tucked into them, savoring the flavors and not missing a dinner companion one bit.

Do you ever dine out alone? What’s been your experience?

A Running Weekend in Saint Michaels, Maryland

Last weekend, the fam and I met Mal and Peter in Saint Michaels, Maryland, to participate in the town’s first annual running festival,В featuring a half-marathon, 10K and 5K. We had a great time! Not only did we have perfect weather, but our races went well, too.

The 10K–my race–was first. The course wound through Saint Michael’s cute downtown, opened onto a road flanked by fields, then looped back through residential side streets and a small park. My favorite part was running through a little covered bridge close to the finish line.В Coming from the city, I thought the scenery was gorgeous. (Mal and Peter–now accustomed to seeing farmland everyday–later said they found the course a little monotonous.)

It had been six years since I ran a road race. Before, I never thought about strategy–I just went off and hoped to sustain an even pace. I always felt like I was going to die toward the end, though. This time, I aimed for a negative split. I ran my first mile at a steady jog. As a competitive person, I’ll admit that it was tough to see tons of people blow by me. But I just reminded myself that I’d be passing them later–and that turned out to be true. I stepped up my pace in the second mile and really increased my speed in the final miles. I was especially glad I took it slow in the beginning because the course, while “flat and fast,” was also hot–there was almost no shade and the temperature was in the 70s by the end of the race.

I felt great when I finished–so good, in fact, that I wondered whether I should have pushed myself more.

My time was 57:28, which equals about 9:16 a mile. That’s well behind my best 10K time of 53:31, but I was still happy with my results–not bad, considering I only restarted running 2 months ago! And now that I have a new base time, my goal is to keep running to chip away at it and try to beat my personal record.

Mal and Peter’s race–the half-marathon–started around the time I finished. So we hung around the finish line to watch the runners come in. I’m always wowed at how fast other people are. The top finisher clocked in at 1 hour, 12 minutes–not much longer than it took me to run less than half the distance.

Mal and Peter came in a little after the 2 hour mark. (They ran together the whole time–so cute!)

We rented a cottage for the weekend, which turned out to be way better than staying at a hotel. I felt more relaxed staying in an actual house and being able to make our own dinner and breakfast before the race. Plus, the aptly named River House, which I found via VRBO, was charming and in a gorgeous location. It had an expansive green yard complete with Adirondack chairs…

…sunny sitting areas…

…airy bedrooms…

…amazing views…

…and, best of all, a long wooden dock perfect for sunbathing and sipping drinks–which I promptly did the minute we got back.

The town of Saint Michaels is equally as charming. Boutiques, restaurants, mom and pop shops, a winery and brewery line the quaint main street. We had a great post-race meal atВ Ava’s,В a local pizzeria and wine bar. Their pies were fantastic–light and crispy with fresh toppings. (I hate to admit it, but they topped the pies I’d eaten a few days earlier atВ Forcella, a newish downtown NYC pizza place.) The previous day, we also had tasty sandwiches at the Big PickleВ and great cookies and doughnuts from Sweetie Bakery.

For our celebratory post-race dinner, we headed to the Crab Claw. To get there, we walked through part of the harbor, passing stately waterfront B&Bs along the way.

The Crab Claw is right over the water and has the perfect ambience for a summer meal. The tables are close to the edge of the pier and there are no ropes or guardrails. We joked about falling in–and then a little kid did, while we were eating! His mother and another patron fished him out. According to our waitress, it happens all the time–and the staffers usually have to jump in and rescue them!

Our waitress told us that due to the weather, the blue crabs they had that weekend weren’t the best. So we opted for snow crab. I was initially disappointed–until the snow crabs came out. They were fantastic and cooked perfectly–a great way to close a super-fun weekend.

Have you taken any running trips/vacations? I’d love to hear where–I’m already looking forward to planning another!

Restaurant Recipe Recreation: Stella’s Orecchiette with Cured Tomatoes and Sausage

When I was in Boston a few weekends ago, I ate a lot of great food. But one meal that particularly stuck in my mind was Stella’sВ orecchiette with chile flake, sausage and cured tomato. I was surprised at richness and the depth of flavor in such a seemingly simple dish. It was hearty with a fresh, robust tomato sauce. I was still thinking about it this weekend, so I recreated a version of it on Sunday.

I hadn’t cured tomatoes before, so I used this recipeВ as a guide.В I washed, scored, boiled, peeled and cut 2 pounds of grape and cherry tomatoes. (The recipe called for Romas and I would definitely use them next time. I just happened to have these little guys on hand and used them anyway because I’m a pro at making things more difficult for myself, even though it took much longer to peel all of them.)

Next, I seasoned the tomatoes with balsamic vinegar, olive oil, salt and pepper, placed them on a baking sheet and sprinkled sliced garlic on top. They went into the oven at 200 degrees F for 45 minutes.

Later in the evening, I prepared a box of orrecchiette. While the pasta cooked, I browned spicy chicken sausage. (I opted for that over pork to make the dish a little healthier.) When the meat was almost cooked, I added the cured tomatoes.

Once the pasta was al dente, I mixed the orecchiette with the tomatoes, sausages and a generous handful of chopped basil. В I was so happy with how the dish came out. It was a little less rich than Stella’s (due to swapping pork for chicken) but just as tasty–and so pretty, too!

Orecchiette with Cured Tomatoes and Chicken Sausage (inspired by Stella‘s Orecchiette with Chile Flake, Sausage and Cured Tomatoes; cured tomatoes adapted from Cork’s Oil-Cured Tomatoes)

Ingredients:

2 lbs tomatoes (I used a mix of grape and cherry tomatoes, though it’s probably best to use Romas)

1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar

1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil, plus 2 tablespoons for cooking the sausage

Salt and pepper to taste

6 cloves garlic, sliced

1 lb orecchiette

1 lb spicy chicken sausage, casing removed

a handful of fresh basil, chopped

Directions:

1. Wash and score tomatoes on the side opposite stem. Place in boiling water for 20 seconds. Scoop out and immediately dunk in an ice bath. Remove skin and seeds. Cut into halves or quarters.

2. Toss tomatoes with balsamic vinegar, olive oil, salt and pepper. Spread onto a baking sheet and sprinkle garlic on top. Bake at 200 degrees F for 45 minutes. Once cool, let tomatoes marinate in a container for at least two hours.

3. Cook orecchiette according to package directions. Once done, drain, reserving one cup pasta water.

4. In the meantime, heat olive oil in a skillet over medium heat. Add sausage and break up into pieces. Once nearly cooked through, add cured tomatoes, pasta and pasta water, if needed. Toss in basil before serving.

A Weekend of Good Eats in Boston

Two weekends ago, Reen, Karen and I escaped to Boston for a girls’ weekend. In the years since we graduated college, we’d made separate whirlwind trips back to catch up with friends. But the last time the three of us had been there together was eight years ago–and we felt we were overdue for a return trip.

Originally, we planned to have a ridiculous nostalgia fest. We came up with a long list of places to hit up to relive our college days: Cactus ClubВ (um, it was going to be Cinco de Mayo, after all), Whiskey’s, People’s Republik, Mike’s Pastry,В Anna’s Taqueria. We even considered going to Allston bars like Common GroundВ before deciding that would be too sad and embarrassing, nostalgia weekend or not!

But once we got to Boston, we scrapped those plans. The city had changed so much in our time away. Instead of drinking like college kids and going to our old faithful places, we decided to experience Boston in a more “age-appropriate” way–especially now that we’re no longer dirt poor, like when we lived there, as Reen said. (Though in my case, I’d say I’ve barely moved up one step from “dirt poor.”)

We basically ate and drank our way through the weekend. Some highlights–and lots of food pics:

Dinner at Stella: One thing hasn’t changed about Boston: the lack of late-night dining options. By the time we checked into our hotel on Friday, it was 11 p.m., past the hour most restaurants stop serving. (Our concierge actually told us IHOP was our only option.) We wanted a relaxing, sit-down meal, so we headed to Stella, in the South End–and were so pleased with our choice. The restaurant is stylish with a chill vibe and the crowd mostly 30-somethings. Plus, Stella has a great (i.e. girly) cocktail menu and fantastic food. We loved the short rib flatbread pizza and orecchiette with sausage.

Brunch at theВ South End Buttery:В When I lived in Boston, there weren’t many brunch options. There seem to be quite a few now, and Reen made a great choice for Saturday. We had Bloody Marys and amazing eggs Benedict with shaved ham on homemade biscuits. The dish was so good that I wish I knew a place in NYC that made a variation on par with it.

Dinner and Drinks atВ Island Creek Oyster Bar:В I love the decor here. The mix of weathered wooden planks with ultra-modern lighting fixtures really makes the space feel like a fancy seafood shack transplanted into a city. The cocktails were great (I’m planning to make/drink my own version of the Bergamot Buck all summer) and the oysters and lobster roll were among the best I’ve had.

Mint julep–because it was also Derby day.

Margaritas at Lolita Cocina and Tequila Bar: We met up with our Cambridge pal Doug for Cinco de Mayo drinks. Loved the margaritas–especially the Diablo and Naughty Pineapple–but not the long line we waited on to get into the place. We had a great time once we got inside, though!

SoWa Open Market:В Apparently, this farmers/design/vintage market has been around since 2003 but I didn’t recall hearing of it before. It was totally cool and reminded me of Smorgasburg in Brooklyn. We browsed the artisans’ wares and had great sandwiches and tacos from the BBQ Smith food truck before hitting the road back to NYC.

Did I miss anything? What other places should I check out on my next trip up? (Boston peeps, I’m hoping to return sometime this year!)

DIY Banh Mi

Two weekends ago, while unexpectedly sitting on a runway in Philly at 1 a.m., I stumbled across a recipe for grilled banh mi in Food & Wine‘s new travel issue. In addition to looking delicious, it appeared super-simple, just requiring a few ingredients, little prep time and two steps. I immediately knew that’s what we’d be grilling at Mal and Peter’s place the following weekend.

Maryland’s eastern shore, where they live, is, without doubt, the country’s best region for blue crabs. But other than that? Let’s just say, it’s definitely not New York. Thai, Korean, Vietnamese, Ethiopian, non-sushi Japanese, authentic Chinese and Italian are practically nonexistent. Mal and Peter have taken to getting their ethnic food fixes whenever they’re in NYC, Philly or DC–or they make it themselves. So we were all excited to try assembling our own banh mi.

The sandwiches came out great! It was so tasty and summery that we’ll definitely be grilling them all season long. And they really were effortless to make:

The marinade is just fish sauce, garlic, scallions, honey, sugar and pepper. We chopped and pureed the ingredients and poured the mixture over thinly sliced pork tenderloin.

After the pork marinated for two hours, Peter skewered the meat and grilled it to perfection–every piece was tender and juicy!

Then came the best part: assembling the sandwiches with hoisin sauce, Sriracha, pickled veggies, sliced cucumbers and lots of cilantro–and eating them. The recipe’s definitely a keeper:

Grilled-Pork Banh Mi (from Food and Wine)

Ingredients
1/4 cup Asian fish sauce
1 tablespoon honey
2 tablespoons sugar
1 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
6 scallions, white and tender green parts only, thinly sliced
2 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
1 1/2 pounds pork tenderloin, thinly sliced
Six 8-inch-long rolls or 2 baguettes, cut into 8-inch lengths and split
Hoisin sauce and Sriracha chile sauce
Vegetable oil, for grilling
1/2 seedless cucumber, cut into 2-by-1/2-inch matchsticks (We also used pickled veggies in addition to the cucumbers)
1 1/2 loosely packed cups cilantro sprigs

1. In a blender, puree the fish sauce with the honey, sugar, pepper, scallions and garlic. Transfer the marinade to a bowl, add the pork and toss. Refrigerate for 2 to 4 hours. Thread the pork through the top and bottom of each slice onto 12 bamboo skewers.

2. Spread the rolls with hoisin and Sriracha. Light a grill and oil the grates. Brush the pork with oil and grill over high heat, turning, until just cooked, 4 minutes. Place 2 skewers in each roll, close and pull out the skewers. Top with the cucumber and cilantro and serve.

First Crabs of the Season

I had such a nice weekend in Maryland with my favorite people. As I’d guessed, it was too chilly to go to the beach (will summer please start, already?) but we did manage to indulge in our second favorite Maryland activity:

Maryland’s blue crab season runs from April through October. The best crabs are, admittedly, in September and October, after the crustaceans have had months to grow and fatten up. But the first crabs of year are always fantastic, too–I think that’s partially due to anticipating them for six months!

Last year, we tried out a number of crab joints along the Atlantic coast and unanimously decided that the best blue crabs are not in Maryland, but in Delaware. They’re at the Blue Crab in Bethany Beach. We stumbled upon the restaurant about a year ago, on another chilly, pre-summer day. Little did we know that it would become our favorite crab place in the region. The crabs are always fresh and meaty and the hush puppies are amazing.

As usual, Peter and I got the All You Can Eat blue crabs and Mal opted for snow crab. As we eagerly awaited our meals, we readied our tools…

…and tried not to eat all the hush puppies and fried chicken they bring out first in an attempt to fill you up.

Finally, the main event arrived!

It’s funny; eating crab is like riding a bicycle–it takes a minute to remember how to do it, after it’s been a while. But once we did, we were cleanly breaking those guys apart, effortlessly extracting big chunks of meat and savoring the meal for a good hour or so.

A Weekend in Chicago

Last weekend, I went to Chicago to visit my good friend Lindsay, who moved there a few years ago. Even though I got in late Friday night and left Sunday afternoon, I still managed to see/do/eat a ton. Lindsay was a fabulous host and planned a great weekend–we really packed in as much as we could for my very first trip to the Windy City!

Lindsay lives at the intersection of two great neighborhoods–Old Town and Gold Coast–and is just a few minutes from the lake. So on Saturday morning, I woke up early and went for a run along the Lake Trail. It was chilly but sunny and I was excited to see so many other runners out. I thought Boston was a big running city, but it’s got nothing on Chicago–I’ve never seen so many runners out at once.

I planned to go for a short jog, but ended up running about 5 miles from North Avenue to a little past Belmont Harbor. The scenery was so pretty that I didn’t want to stop, not even to take pictures. I did manage to snap these few, though:

Afterwards, Lindsay and I walked south through the Gold Coast. Her neighborhood is so pretty–lots of stately old houses, leafy green trees and tulips blooming along the sidewalk.

We made our way to North Michigan Avenue, which is basically Chicago’s Fifth Avenue. Once we reached the downtown area, Lindsay headed back and I continued on.

Before going to Millennium Park, I inhaled a few tacos at Frontera Fresco (I figured I might as well try Rick Bayless’ Macy’s outpost since I didn’t have a res at the actualВ Frontera!) and made a cupcake pitstop at the super-cute Sugar Bliss Cake Boutique for a red velvet fix. (Yum!)В 

Millennium Park is just as cool as it looks in photos. Thanks to the nice weather, lots of other people were out photographing themselves at Cloud Gate

…and scoping out the animated Crowd Fountain faces.

I spent some time admiring the tulips (they were blooming all over the city!)…

…and chillaxin’ in the Lurie Garden.

Then I headed into the Art Institute to explore the gorgeous modern wing and some special exhibits.

I met Lindsay in the West Loop for dinner. The industrial area has a hip, up-and-coming vibe that kind of reminds me of Williamsburg–except without swarms of hipsters. We had dinner at The Publican, a fairly new restaurant that focuses on beer, pork and seafood. (Um, how can you go wrong with that?) The space was designed with a beer hall in mind, so there’s lots of natural wood and large, communal tables.

We ordered a few small plates. My favorite was squid with farro, oranges, cheese and chorizo vinaigrette.

We topped off the evening with drinks at Maude’s, a cocktail bar with a retro vibe. (Slightly blurry photo–I’m still getting used to using my new camera in low light!)

Next morning, we walked through Lincoln Park to Floriole Bakery and Cafe, one of Lindsay’s favorire daytime spots. I can certainly see why she frequents it–I’m already planning to try to replicate the bacon and arugula sandwich I had there.

On the way back to the Gold Coast, we stopped at the Lincoln Park Nature Boardwalk. Check out the amazing view of the skyline!В 

Of course I couldn’t leave Chicago without having deep dish. So before I boarded the bus for the airport, Lindsay and I had an early dinner at Lou Malnati’s. The local chain’s Gold Coast location has a nice seating area with comfy chairs looking out onto the street and we were lucky to snag window seats. (Especially since all the pies are made to order and take at least a half hour.)

The pizza was exactly how I’d hoped it would be–thick and bready with a crispy crust and a fresh tomato sauce. I inhaled two slices. (And now that I’m writing this, I wish there was a good deep dish place in NYC!)

It’s a good thing I had that pizza, because my flight home was a bit of a disaster. It was delayed, due to bad weather in NYC. And when the pilot attempted to land at LGA, the wind made him overshoot the runway–which we skimmed before taking off again so we “didn’t end up in the water.” We ended up flying to Philly, refueling there, then turning around and flying back to LGA. I got home at 3 a.m.

But that was the only dark spot on the weekend. Thanks again, Linds, for being such an awesome host–can’t wait for my next trip out there or your next jaunt out east!