food

A Long Weekend of Great Eats in London

Whenever anyone asked me how my trip to London was, my automatic response was: “It was amazing! I ate sooooooooo much!!” Which prompted most people to respond: “Really? I thought the food wasn’t that great over there.”

I can’t speak to how London’s overall dining scene is, since I was there for such a short time. But everything I ate was fabulous. Reen planned an awesome itinerary for my trip, which revolved around two of my favorite activities: eating and wandering around. Each day, we trekked for hours, getting to and from every restaurant.

I couldn’t have asked for a better arrangement. Along the way, I saw tons of the city and walked off a fraction of the calories we consumed. And, best of all, we got to catch up on everything that’s been going on with us on opposite sides of the ocean, for the past year!

Some highlights:

Despite flying in on a red eye, I was still game for a long walk from Reen’s Marylebone apartment to Spitalfields. We had a late lunch at the English Restaurant, a wonderfully old school place. It’s housed in building from the 1670s, and the interior has gorgeous wood floors and dark wood booths. The restaurant has a lovely menu, which includes some refined takes on British standards. We shared a delicious salmon roulade and an omelet.

IMG_1106

Later, we had drinks with some of Reen’s co-workers. I don’t remember either of these two things from my previous trip to London, but I’m convinced we need both, in the States: The ability to stand outside a bar and drink. (As long as you’re in a designated area.) And mulled wine. Seriously, it’s one of the most amazing drinks I’ve ever had. How has it not infiltrated bars on this side of the pond?

The next morning, we embarked on another long walk to Maltby Market. Along the way, Reen led us down Drury Lane, which she knew I’d love for one reason:

IMG_1129

…there are a bunch of ballet shops within a few blocks of each other! Of course, we stopped into a few.

IMG_1119

The Bloch store was my favorite. It was new and pretty with all their shoes displayed on the bottom floor. At Bloch, and the other stores, women and girls were getting fitted for their pointe shoes. It’s funny—and comforting—how ballet rituals are similar, no matter where in the world you are.

IMG_1121

After crossing the Thames and walking along the south bank for a while, we came to what appeared to be a row of garages under a bridge. We’d arrived at Maltby Market.

IMG_1157

On weekends, each of the garages houses a pop-up restaurant or food stall—but they’re only open until they run out of eats, usually between 2 and 4.

Reen had chosen Bea’s of Bloomsbury for brunch. When we arrived at their garage, we were dismayed when we saw their door down—we’d thought we’d missed our window of opportunity!

Then we realized you could walk in through a small door within the door…

IMG_1142

…and into a cute, makeshift restaurant!

IMG_1141

Bea’s has a simple brunch menu with staples like pancakes, french toast and poached eggs. I opted for both the pancakes and a poached egg and a side of smoked salmon.

IMG_1138

Bea’s also has maple bacon, which is the most amazing bacon I’ve ever eaten—sweet, salty and crispy, all at once. Sadly, I was too busy chowing down on it to take a pic!

Afterwards, we stopped into the other pop-up shops. My Cup of Tea had gorgeous-looking blends and elegant accessories.

IMG_1145

A few steps down, Comptoir Gourmand was selling some of the prettiest pastries I’ve ever come across.

IMG_1151

IMG_1147

I wished I could have sampled everything, but I was so stuffed, that I just opted for one of their Portuguese egg tarts, which I devoured a few minutes later. So delicious! The filling was thicker and richer, and the crust more flaky than the Chinese ones I’m used to eating.

IMG_1149
On the other side of the bridge is Maltby Market’s Ropewalk—which meant even more amazing-looking food and cocktails!

IMG_1159

Again, I wanted to try everything. Reen highly recommended the Bad Brownie Company, so we got one to go.

IMG_1160

To return to Reen’s place, we walked back along the south bank of the Thames, passing sights like Tower Bridge.

IMG_1173

We eventually hit the Southbank Christmas market. Unlike Maltby, this place was packed—a complete sea of wall-to-wall people! It had a German theme, so all the booths looked like little wooden chalets. We purchased cups of mulled wine to sip as we walked. Though, thanks to the crowds, I could barely drink it!

IMG_1196

We crossed the river right near Big Ben, which looked gorgeous in the sunset. So much so, that we asked someone to take this touristy photo of us!

IMG_1203

The following morning, we walked to Notting Hill for brunch at Granger & Co. Reen had warned me that we’d have to get there early, because there’s always a line. She wasn’t kidding!

IMG_1265

Luckily, it moved pretty quickly.

I loved the aesthetic of the restaurant—the big windows and wooden ceiling.

IMG_1271

Everything on the menu looked fantastic, as well. Since I was already doing a great job of eating my way through every place we hit up, I opted for the full Aussie breakfast. It was great, especially the eggs—though I wasn’t able to finish it!

IMG_1269

Even though it was drizzling, we walked around Notting Hill. The neighborhood is adorable, with pretty little houses and boutiques.

We stopped into Ottolenghi, the deli/patisserie from the chef/cookbook author of the same name. (He wrote that Jerusalem cookbook, that’s been everywhere!)

IMG_1279

The salads looked so good, but at that point, I was stuffed nearly to the point of self-loathing.

IMG_1274

So Reen and I got a few treats (a cupcake, chocolate-dipped macaroon and lemon tart) to go.

IMG_1277

I was still full on the walk back to Reen’s place, but since I was so hooked on mulled wine, I couldn’t resist the chance to stop for a glass. We ducked into the Swan, one of Reen’s go-to spots. The owners of the pub were super-friendly, and they gave us two very tasty mince pies to go with our drinks. (I think we could use some more mince pies, here in the States, as well!)

IMG_1282

That evening, we went to St. John for dinner. The restaurant features local, seasonal ingredients, and its menu is comprised of small plates for sharing. Reen and I each selected two. I chose the kohlrabi, brown shrimp and cucumber salad. It ended up being my favorite dish of the trip—and that’s saying a lot! The salad was light and refreshing and perfectly dressed. I also chose the whole crab with mayonnaise, which was among the most popular dishes at the restaurant, that night. Nearly all the other diners were eating it, too. I don’t think you can go wrong with whole crab. We ate ours sans the mayo, and were glad we did, a few minutes later.

IMG_1286

Reen’s two picks came out next, and they were probably the two richest plates on the menu. The fois gras and duck liver toast was amazing, but also the heaviest thing I’ve ever eaten in my life. After just a few bites, I was stuffed to the point of self-loathing. Reen was, as well. We were nearly in pain when the Jerusalem artichokes came out—covered in a creamy sauce. Yet, we still managed a few bites.

At that point, we were ready to explode. Still, we got two of the puddings, anyway—because we had to try dessert, as well!

IMG_1288

The next morning, Reen had work, so she recommended I get breakfast at the Providores and Tapa Room, a cute restaurant in her neighborhood.

IMG_1296

Even though I was meeting her for lunch just a few hours later, I had to try the Turkish eggs: poached eggs on yogurt with hot chili butter. I would happily eat that for breakfast every day, if I could!

IMG_1295

My last meal in London was at Spuntino, another awesome place Reen knew of. It’s nondescript from the outside; I’m don’t even remember seeing a sign. Inside, it has an underground feel, thanks to the distressed subway tiles, exposed brick and bare lightbulbs.

IMG_1315

We shared a pulled pork slider, the slaw and the mac and cheese—one of the creamiest and most delicious I’ve ever had. It was more than enough to fortify me for my tube ride to the airport and flight back to NYC.

IMG_1312

…I also cannot thank Reen enough for being the best host (and friend!) that I could ask for! Thank you, thank you, Reen for making my trip so wonderful!

Adentro Dinner Club

I spent my last night in Buenos Aires at Adentro Dinner Club, another puerta cerrada. This one was in Palmero, and run by Kelly, another American expat, and Gabriel, her Argentine boyfriend.

Adentro’s defining characteristic is that the evening revolves around an asado—a BBQ. Similar to American BBQs, asados are an Argentine tradition where friends and family gather and hang out for hours, drinking wine and eating an array of grilled delights.

There are few things in life more appealing to me than a good BBQ. After reading about Adentro, I immediately made a reservation.

adentro

The evening started in the back of Kelly and Gabriel’s house, near the grill. Sausages and a few dishes of cheese were already being fired up…

cheese and sausages

…and heaping platters of veggies and meat sat nearby, awaiting their turn on the flames.

veggies

mushrooms and asparagus

In addition to having an outside area for the grill, Kelly and Gabriel also have a rooftop space. We headed up there, and I sipped a cocktail of champagne and passion fruit liquor, snacked on empanadas and the grilled cheese, and chatted with the other guests who were arriving. I met a couple who were in BA celebrating their third anniversary—and, coincidentally, live just a few blocks away from me in Washington Heights! There was a travel writer who was working on Lonely Planet’s BA content, and a group of three American women, two who lived in BA and one who was visiting from the States.

empanadas

After we polished off the empanadas, we headed inside to the dining room. Once we sat down, the food kept coming—and it was all delicious and super-fresh. We started with grilled shrimp and salad…

shrimp and salad

…followed by sausage, blood sausage and intestine, accompanied by chimmichurri and potatoes. (This was my first time eating intestine and I really enjoyed it!)

sausages

Unlike at the other puerta cerradas, Kelly and Gabriel sat down and ate with us. While all puerta cerradas have a dinner party vibe, this one especially did, thanks to that. As we chatted, I learned that they both have day jobs (he as a chef and she as a graphic designer), and that’s why Adentro is only “open” once a week, on Wednesdays. Kelly is also a vegetarian, which explained the abundance of veggies on the menu—something I appreciated, after so many days of meat. Though I did eat plenty of meat, as well!

I thought the sausages were the main course, but it was actually the veggies I’d seen waiting to be grilled earlier—and lots of steak. (I must have been too excited to dig in, since I didn’t get a shot of it!)

grilled veggies

The meal concluded with not one, but two desserts: black cocoa creme brulee…

creme brulee

…and a grilled poached pear with marscapone whipped cream.

poached pear

Even though I was beyond stuffed, I ate every bite of both desserts. Afterwards, everyone lingered for a while, just talking and sharing stories. It seemed like a fitting meal to end my time in BA.

The Argentine Experience

A few years ago, I was in Beijing for a travel story, and one highlight of that trip was going to Black Sesame Kitchen. At the cooking school/private dining space, I met chefs and then watched them make knife cut noodles, stuffed my own dumplings, and chatted with others in my group over good, paired wines. The meal was one of the best I’d ever eaten, and a hell of a lot of fun, too.

Ever since then, I’ve wanted to do something similar in another country. And while researching stuff to do in Buenos Aires, I found what looked like an equivalent.

The Argentine Experience started out as a puerta cerrada, but has since moved into a large, new space in Palmero Hollywood. It emphasizes that it’s not a cooking class, but rather a dining experience where people participate in a few key steps.

So basically, they have chefs who do all the hard work (mixing, measuring, seasoning), and guests do one or two things at the end. (i.e. stuff that can’t mess up the meal.)

As a New Yorker who rarely cooks, that sounded fine to me!

I went to the Argentine Experience on my third night in BA. Upon entering the space, I was given a welcome cocktail that I quickly gulped down once I saw that we all had to don crazy-looking checkered aprons and chefs hats. (Luckily, glasses of Malbec followed!)

Once again, I was lucky to have a diverse group of dinner-mates. Besides me, there was a Brazilian couple who lived in Switzerland, two Australians, a travel agent who was from Peru but lived in BA, and an American who was interning in BA. Our hosts for the night were a Brit and an Argentinean.

They introduced the first task at hand: Making empanadas.

empanadas of argentina

We each received a round of dough…

empanada dough

…which we then stuffed with stewed beef, cheese, veggies and Malbec-reduced onions.

empanada fillings

Everything smelled so good that I overstuffed mine—I could barely pinch it closed. (You can see a little of the filling spilling out!)

uncooked empanada

Once we’d stuffed them, they were whisked away to an oven somewhere behind the scenes. We were then given another piece of dough—but this time, our empanadas had to be in the shape of something, and our hosts would select the best one as the winner.

…they assured us that they’d already seen X-rated empanadas formed to look like every possible body part.

Once we’d all finished our entries, they, too, were taken to the oven.

Then first empanadas we made reappeared. They were delicious.

cooked empanada

And soon, our funny-shaped empanadas returned, as well.

Because I have zero artistic talent and a one-track mind, I made a pointe shoe empanada. The winning entry was a crab.

My pointe shoe might not have been the most attractive, but it was certainly tasty!

pointe shoe empanada

The main course didn’t require any work, on our part. We just had to choose how rare we wanted our steak.

steak

After eating the steak (every bloody, juicy bit) with potatoes, carrots and more Malbec, I was ready to fall into a food coma. But there were two more components to go.

First, we learned how to prepare and drink mate, the traditional Argentinean tea-like beverage. We filled our mate cups with leaves, shook them a few times to get the dust out, put the straw in, and poured in water. (I only had a few sips because it’s very caffeinated, and enjoyed its bitter taste! Normally, mate is a social drink, where everyone sips from the same straw, but due to the nature of the dinner, we all had our own.)

mate

For the grand finale, we made our own alfajores: cookies with dulce de leche sandwiched between. And rolled in shaved coconut and dipped in chocolate.

…can someone please open an alfajores shop in NYC? We have specialty food places for practically everything else!

alfajor

Before saying goodbye, we posed for silly group pictures. Here, we’re saying, “Que te pasa?”—or, “What’s wrong with you?”—with feeling!

que te pasa

(I actually ended up having dinner with the Brazilian couple the next night! I needed a break from all the meat I’d been eating, so I went to Osaka, a Japanese place across the street from the Argentine Experience. As I was sitting at the bar deciding what to have for dinner, the couple was seated right next to me. We ended up having the bartender select an array of dishes to share, and chatted as we each sampled all of them. It was one of those serendipitous moments that tend to happen when you’re traveling, but rarely at home!)

(Group photo via the Argentine Experience)

NOLA Buenos Aires

The second puerta cerrada I visited was NOLA Buenos Aires—and I was glad I did! It ended up being one of my favorite meals of the trip.

NOLA’s chef, Liza Puglia, grew up in the Big Easy. She lived in NYC for a few years, attending the French Culinary Institute and working as a line cook at Hecho en Dumbo. While backpacking in El Salvador, she met her boyfriend, Francisco, a BA native. Three years ago, she moved to BA, and for the past year and a half, they’ve been running NOLA out of their gorgeous Palmero Viejo home.

I had apartment envy from the minute I walked in. The space has a high ceiling with exposed brick and beams, and a gorgeous open kitchen.

nola ba

Liza and Francisco were lovely, and the perfect hosts—so warm and welcoming that I felt like I was visiting old friends. I was first to arrive, and I chatted with them over a glass of champagne, as we waited for the other guests.

Soon, an Aussie solo female traveler, a few years older than me, arrived, as did the British couple I’d met at Casa SaltShaker the night before. (Like me, they were making the rounds of BA puerta cerradas!) Five American women on a girlfriend getaway rounded out our group. (The Americans, I might add, were almost an hour late. Note to anyone planning to visit a puerta cerrada—please come on time! Otherwise everyone ends up waiting or starting without you!)

True to NOLA Buenos Aires’ name, the flavors are inspired by Liza’s hometown, along with her affinity for Mexican cuisine.

Everything was fantastic.

soup, tartare, pork shoulder

The first course was gumbo with homemade bread. As a nod to the local cuisine, the gumbo had chorizo instead of andouille. Next came salmon tartare with avocado and roasted corn on a sope—it was a perfect, refreshing palate cleanser. The main course was slow cooked pork shoulder over grits.

Dessert was one of the best I’ve ever had: bananas foster bread pudding.

banana foster bread pudding

As each course was served, Francisco introduced the paired wine. Each one was local, mostly from Mendoza, and all were fantastic.

rose

NOLA also hosts a weekly beer night on Thursdays, featuring Francisco’s home-brewed beers and Liza’s southern recipes.

I was bummed I wouldn’t be able to make one of those events—but it’s on my list of stuff to do the next time I’m in BA!

nola

(Liza also has an awesome blog—check it out here.)

Casa SaltShaker

When I was researching what to do in Buenos Aires, puerta cerradas kept coming up. These “closed door” restaurants are basically supper clubs where a local cooks and serves a multi-course meal in his home to a small group of guests.

I loved this idea. I’m not a tour person and I’m not good at befriending strangers while traveling. But this sounded like the perfect way to meet people. Plus, I’d be able to get locals’ recommendations about what to do—and eat a ton of delicious food.

Once I started researching, I found so many puerta cerradas I wanted to try, that I booked one for almost every night I was in BA. I only opted for ones that had a communal table, though.

The first one I visited: Casa SaltShaker, just a few hours after my arrival in the city.

Casa SaltShaker is one of the older puertas cerradas in BA. For nearly nine years, Dan Pearlman, an American ex-pat and chef, and his partner, Henry, have been serving dinners out of their Recoleta home. (That’s actually the reason I selected it for my first night—it was in walking distance from my apartment.)

The evening felt very much like a dinner party. After Dan and Henry welcomed us into their home, we guests had cocktails on their outdoor patio. My dinner companions were an eclectic bunch: a British couple celebrating their 25 wedding anniversary, an American couple and their two friends, and three men (Canadian, French and Belgian) who were installing a flight simulator at the BA airport.

Dinner that night had an Amazonian theme, inspired by Dan and Henry’s travels in the region. Each dish came paired with wine.

casa saltshaker menu

Our first course was a salad of tomato, avocado and hearts of palm…

salad

…followed by a hearty soup of perjerry, cilntro and pureed chickpeas. This was easily my favorite dish of the night—I’d happily eat it every day.

soup

Next came a baked pasta stuffed with cream cheese, soppressata and leek, over a pea puree…

IMG_0743

…and a main dish of pollack and a sweet potato/quinoa cake.

fish and qunioa cake

The dessert was delicious: a huge slice of chocolate cheesecake topped with chocolate honeycomb. I had no trouble polishing it off!

cheesecake

My dinner companions were awesome—throughout the whole meal, everyone was talking and joking like old friends. (I was especially fascinated to learn about the simulator team’s work: The Canadian was part of the team that built the simulator, the Belgian was a veteran KLM pilot who was testing the simulator, and the French guy was the one who fixed the problems they came across.)

I was also impressed at how well paced the evening was. I was afraid that it might be long and drawn out (since I’d just arrived earlier on a red eye). But everything was timed perfectly, with enough opportunity to chat after one course but not so long that you wondered how long it would take the next to come out.

Dan and Henry were nice and polite, though they have the air of veterans who’ve been doing this for a long time. I was expecting them to be a little warmer, but they were a bit businesslike—though that’s what their puerta cerrada is: a business.

Still, I had a ton of fun eating, drinking and sharing stories with the other guests—and it was a great way to kick off all the eating I’d end up doing in BA.

A Bit of Summer in Fall

One of my favorite summer traditions, as of the last few years, is downing blue crabs by the dozen during trips to the Maryland coast. (I know I’ve certainly posted enough photos of them on this blog!) It’s one of those experiences that’s so quintessentially summer—and a ton of fun when you’re with a group. Mal, Peter and I joke that that was the best part of their year living in Maryland—easy access to crabs after a day at the beach.

Apparently, the best crabs come at the end of the season—after they’ve had months to fatten up. I never made it to Maryland during September or October. But luckily, this weekend, some blue crabs found their way up to New York—and Mal and Peter stumbled upon them in Fairway.
blue crabs

They purchased a few pounds and invited me over for dinner. Have I mentioned that they’re my favorite people in the world? (As well as good cooks—I don’t consider the dinners I throw together for myself to be real cooking, so eating at their place, where they actually cook, is always a treat!)

The crabs were big…
burg and blue crab

…check out the claw on this guy!

blue crab

The crabs sat on ice for most of the day, so Peter moved them to a box to bring them to room temperature before cooking—and make sure they were still alive. Then, he dunked them in water, and steamed them over water and vinegar. With lots of Old Bay sprinkled on, of course.

In the meantime, Mal and I fried hush puppies—our favorite crab side.

frying hush puppies

In my humble opinion, hush puppies taste better with a sprinkling of powdered sugar, so we dressed ours accordingly.hush puppies

We couldn’t get authentic wooden mallets and plastic crab knives, so we made do with nutcracker sets.

nutcrackerAnd the crabs were amazing—super-meaty and tasty! For the time we were eating them, it really felt like summer again.

blue crabs

Now that we know how easy (and fun!) it is to make a crab feast at home, we’re thinking of catching our own and holding a crab boil at our rental next summer. Something to look forward to in 2014…
crabs and hush puppies

A Weekend in Boston: Old and New Favorites

Two weekends ago, I spent a whirlwind few days in Boston. Every trip up, I feel like I never have enough time there. Nevertheless, I managed to catch up with a few friends and check out my dad’s booth at the New England Flower Show. I also went to a few places that were new to me, as well as some old favorites from when I lived there. The highlights:

Area 4

Area 4_coffeehouse

Area 4 pizzas
Kind of crazy to say, but I wish we had more places like this in NYC. For whatever reason, NYC has a lack of good cafes/restaurants/communal spaces to do work, in my opinion—and I say that as a blogger and former freelance writer! That’s why I was wishing I could somehow transport Area 4 from Cambridge to Manhattan. This bakery/coffeehouse/bar is located in tech-centric Kendall Square and looks the part. It’s bright, glassy and airy and has a sweet front area for laptoppers—I could see myself happily pecking away at my keyboard for hours there. It also has a back area for sit-down diners. We went for a late lunch and split a few of their delicious wood-fired pizzas. (I was especially excited about topping off our Carbonara pie with an extra egg—my fave pizza topping!)

Legal Sea Foods Harborside

Legal_Harborside_From_Water_Landing_Page_Hero

Legal_Harborside_Floor_1_Dining_Room1

Sure, it’s cliche to go to Legals. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t! I’ve ended up at various Legals during the years I lived in Boston, and the ones after, and enjoyed every experience. In fact, I look forward to eating there, each trip! This time around, we had dinner at Legal Harborside, which is right on the South Boston waterfront (conveniently close to the flower show). The restaurant has a great view of the city skyline, which, I’m sure, is even nicer in summer, when you can eat outside. And my lobster was pretty awesome.

Boston Ballet

boston ballet school

Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to catch the ”All Kylián” program I’d hoped to see. I did manage to take a class at the Boston Ballet School, though. Back when I lived in Boston, I attended a few classes there. At the time, I thought the studios were the prettiest I’d ever seen, but the classes intimidated me! Even the advanced beginning level was daunting. But on trips back, over the past few years, I’ve enjoyed taking the open classes. I still find the studios gorgeous—they’re sunny and spacious and it’s a luxury to be in the space. The instructor, Arthur Leeth, is good—I especially like his lengthy adagios. And now that I’m no longer scared of the classes, it’s fun to just go there and dance. (Which helps offset all the eating I do in Boston!)

Brookline Booksmith

brookline booksmith

brookline booksmith

I spent my first few post-college years in Brookline for one main reason: I wanted to be close to the big Trader Joe’s in Coolidge Corner. Since I could barely afford to eat, that was the only place where I could get a week’s worth of groceries for $25. (For ALL meals—with my entry level newspaper salary, my budget didn’t allow me to eat out or order in!) Luckily, the neighborhood also had a few good restaurants, bars and shops.

During this trip, I met up with my all-time favorite dance buddy, Jackie, who still lives in the ‘hood. We had a nice brunch at Hops N Scotch, one of many places that had opened up since I’d lived there. (The breakfast biscuit sandwich was exactly what I was craving!) Before and after, I went to the Brookline Booksmith, right around the corner. I’d forgotten how much I loved that place. And how great it is to have an awesome book store nearby. The Booksmith has it all going on. It draws fabulous authors for talks and signings; displays new and recommended books in a way that encourages browsing for hours; has a rainbow-ordered wall of Moleskines (!!!); offers amazingly curated tables of gifts, art supplies, housewares, bags, jewelry, etc. that you never knew you wanted but now do; buys and sells used books in their basement. It’s just one other place I wanted to pick up and transport to NYC.

What are some of your favorite Boston places?

(Images via Area 4’s Facebook page, Legal Sea Foods, Boston Ballet School’s Facebook page and the Brookline Booksmith’s Facebook page)