Eating food not from the country you’re in

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It should probably come as no surprise that I spend a lot of time surfing the Travel subreddit.  Whether it’s just to look at nice pictures of different places, get tips and ideas for traveling somewhere new, or trying to help others with my limited knowledge, it’s one of my favorite places on the internet.  And one of the threads that popped up there recently has had me thinking quite a bit.

Traveling abroad and eating food NOT FROM THE COUNTRY YOU ARE IN?

The basic gist is, if you’re looking for the best food to eat while you travel, and somewhere like Vietnam has the best Italian food, why not eat Italian in Vietnam?

I know there can be a lot of variables to what you eat while abroad—sensitive stomach issues, allergies, fear, palate fatigue—but I’m going to take this from the perspective of someone with none of these issues who just loves food.  And for me, this would be a huge no-no.  Have I done this before?  Of course.  Is this why I go to other countries? Not even close.

bratislavaWhen I go to a country, I want to experience their culture.  I want to know everything about their food and try it all.  I never have enough time, of course, but I try my damnedest.  For me, there’s no time to really try Italian food in Vietnam, because I just want to eat all the Vietnamese food.  And not just one time, either—I wanted to try pho in the north and in the south.  We went to small places, had it at our bed and breakfast, had it at a hotel, and had it at a chain.  And they were all different.

When we were in Bratislava, as well, I was researching restaurants and there was a great-sounding sushi place.  Highly rated, one of the best restaurants in the city. But I just couldn’t bring myself to eat sushi when I was in Slovakia.

It really comes down to what you’re traveling for.  If you just want the best of the best, you’ll go for it.  But personally, I want to try the best of the best of what the culture has been making, because I can tell you from experience I can get great, top-of-the-line Italian food in Philadelphia, but I’ve never had pho that matches what we ate in Vietnam.  I’ve never tracked down half of the food we had in Hue.  The stuffed cabbage in Hungary was next level.

My former wife would always mention opportunity cost vs opportunity lost, which is something I still keep in mind when planning trips.  The opportunity cost of going to a Chinese place in Germany—no matter how good—is the opportunity lost of trying another, different German dish or getting someplace else’s spin on a dish you’ve already had, both of which can give you deeper insight into the history and culture of a place.

I also realize this could have sparked something in me because the first comment mentioned Italian food which I find, by and large, to be incredibly boring.  Yes, I’ve had some amazing Italian food, but I would also feel the same way about Chinese or Vietnamese food, which is probably my favorite.  At home, I could eat it anytime or anywhere.  Just don’t expect me to eat it in Italy.

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Would you eat a “foreign” cuisine while traveling abroad?

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Culturally Diverse. Unlike Anywhere Else.

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This is a “photo essay” I started about three years ago, highlighting how diverse and unique each place we go can be.  With the vast cultural differences found throughout the world, there will surely be more to come.

Arequipa, Peru: Culturally diverse.  Unlike anywhere else.

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Bogota, Colombia: Culturally diverse.  Unlike anywhere else.

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Bratislava, Slovakia: Culturally diverse.  Unlike anywhere else.

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Budapest, Hungary: Culturally diverse.  Unlike anywhere else.

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Cartagena, Colombia: Culturally diverse.  Unlike anywhere else.

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Eger, Hungary: Culturally diverse.  Unlike anywhere else.

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Hanoi, Vietnam: Culturally diverse.  Unlike anywhere else.

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Iceland: Culturally diverse.  Unlike anywhere else.

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Lima, Peru: Culturally diverse.  Unlike anywhere else.

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Medellin, Colombia: Culturally diverse.  Unlike anywhere else.

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Prague, Czechia: Culturally diverse.  Unlike anywhere else.

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Food: La Panarda, 2018

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At the end of January, my friend Ray and I continued our month of indulgence and finally ticked La Panarda off of our bucket list: an epic nine-hour feast with a menu of 42 courses at Philadelphia restaurant Le Virtu.  Though, saying 42 “items” would probably be more accurate, as the menu was broken down into nine “courses” that grouped like-minded dishes.

There were also nine different Abruzzo wines (four white, a rose, and four red), which were paired with each of the courses, and topped off as necessary.  Needless to say, I really could have used a nap about six hours into the meal, but I powered on.

We were told to wear “comfortable and expandable” clothing – I went with my Canadiens hockey jersey, which actually started a lot of conversations, in addition to being roomy enough for me to eat for nine hours.

If you would like to read more about La Panarda and the history behind it, I would suggest Drew Lazor’s piece in Saveur Magazine about it. If you would like to read about the absolute indulgence I feel I had been training my whole life for, please continue.

As a fair warning, the light started to wane near the end – compounded with hours of wine and people being less patient as the night went on, some of the pictures become a little less practiced near the end. But for the most part, everyone at our part of the table was very open to waiting until everyone had snapped their pictures before taking anything.

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Ray and I arrived about 15 minutes early, just as they were opening the restaurant and letting us take our seats.  We picked seats at the end of a table, against a wall and close to the door to Le Virtu’s outside porch area.  Not only did it afford us great lighting for photos, but we had a quick way out of the table as well as a wall to lean back on when the going got tough. Owner Francis Cratil Cretarola and his brother Fred, the manager, immediately commented on my Habs jersey, as they’re both hockey fans.

At the table in front of us was a bowl of mushroom sott’olio, a variety of cooked mushrooms in oil.  We nervously eyed them as we waited for the rest of the guests to arrive, for our welcome champagne to be poured, and for Francis to give his welcome talk. The best piece of advice he gave us was the line, “The race is not always to the swift.”

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The first item that was actually delivered to our table was the Salumi and Formaggi meat and cheese board, which contained pancetta, coppa, guanciale, ‘nduja, mortadella, and mangalitsa cacciatorini for the meat, three types of pecorino (canestrato, muffato, and brigantaccio – with the muffato bring slightly softer, stinkier, and more delicious), as well as a 36-month aged parmigiano that was delightful.  Also on the board was pepperonata, eggplant, carrots, pickled onions, and grilled bread.

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Once we were nearing the end of the board, with people hesitantly picking at what was left.  The first course, and already the mental strategy had to kick in: Ray and I are the type of guys who will pick at food as long as it’s in front of us, and we’ll finish shared plates if no one else wants them.  But today, we had to stay strong and not overdo it.  We’d have to have tastes, and then leave the rest until the next course.

Then, they brought out another board.  “Ohh, what’s this?” we asked.  “More of the same.”

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More picking, and then came the oliva ascolana, little fried balls filled with green olive and shredded meat.

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The opening course also included palotta cac e ove, which are basically vegetarian meatballs made with bread and cheese.  They were just as good as any “regular” meatball.

 

Thus ended the “Sfizi” and “Salumi and Formaggi” courses, and thankfully ended the piles of meat and cheese still sitting on the table.  Next came the “Crudi” course, starting with Ikijime fluke with olive, fennel, and citrus.  There were also some peppers on top that helped spice things up a bit.

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It was about this time that we could look outside on the porch and see the chefs preparing the roasted suckling pig in their box outside – another of the perks of sitting near the window.

 

As we were watching the pig be prepared, another dish was brought to the table, this time a bowl of bay scallops with Calabrese chili and mustard oil. This was a standout, and would become one of the dishes I had to take multiple servings of.

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Following the scallops was a top-notch tuna with porcini powder, celery root, and pomegranate seeds.  I knew it was early, and I knew I had to pace myself, but I also knew I had to have more than one piece. It was so good.

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Next in our parade of food was the peppercorn crusted venison carpaccio with arugula, grana, and lemon. Some people complained about the arugula for some reason, but I loved it and as such had no problem with it.

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Finally, rounding out the “Crudi” section and quickly becoming what everyone thought of as the dish of the night was the charred wagyu with sunchoke, black garlic, and capers. This may have been the only bowl that was sent back completely empty.  We couldn’t stop raving about it, and couldn’t stop eating it.  If you ever see this on the menu at Le Virtu, do not hesitate.

 

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After this cluster of dishes, we had our first break.  People got up, walked around, hung out in the courtyard outside for a bit.  We chatted, stretched out legs, and just generally relaxed.  Our plates were changed, our wine was refilled, and preparations for the next course were begun.  When it was time to go back in, the owner rang a little dinner bell and we all headed back to our seats to continue the feast.

Up next on the docket was “Antipasti” – and crazy to think that we had gone through 15 dishes already and hadn’t even made it to the appetizers. First up was a heavy and rich fegato – a duck liver mousse with Amarena cherry and fennel puree. At this point, it was the heaviest thing we had eaten all day, and would remain so until the pasta courses.

 

Following the mousse was a much lighter grilled baby octopus with Umbrian chickpeas and chicory. The idea of chickpeas didn’t thrill me from a trying-not-to-fill-up perspective, but it was still worth eating.

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Alongside this was a house-made Calabrese sausage with broccoli rabe, chili, and agrumato. I don’t know how many times I can get away with just saying “this was delicious.”

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Up next were some “real” meatballs – Mangalitsa pork meatballs with marinara and ricotta salata.  It was nice to have them as a counterpoint to the palotte we’d had, and I almost wish we could have had them side-by-side to compare.

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Rounding out the Antipasti was arrosticini with rosemary, garlic, and preserved lemon.  It was a bit of a surprise, because in my mind I was thinking arancini, and so expected another little fried ball rather than the skewered and grilled pork that we got.

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After this course was another break, and from here on out everyone seemed to be in full agreement that after every course or grouping, we’d need to wander outside and stretch our legs, walk around, or get fresh air.

When we came back, we had the prospect of the “Primi” course – pasta – staring us down. As much as I absolutely love carbs and all things noodle, this was the course that made me nervous, and could easily derail the entire meal if you weren’t careful. As I’d read in the Saveur article ahead of time, if you can make it past the pasta course, you’re home free.

I wouldn’t say it’s as easy as that, but it is a large hump in the middle of the meal.  We started with probably the best dish of the group, cavatelli with mushroom ragu, egg yolk, and grana padana.  The egg yolk was fashioned into a firm kind of custard, and I could’ve eaten the entire plate of this stuff if I hadn’t still had 23 dishes ahead of me.

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Alongside the cavatelli, we were treated to gnocchi with sweet shrimp, piennolo tomato, Calabrese chili, and basil. Thanks to a meal at the French Laundry a few years ago, all gnocchi is basically garbage to me, but this was still good.  And sucking out shrimp heads is always a delight – which is why I went through four of them.

 

Once those two were done, we were served crespelle with sheep’s milk ricotta and artichoke ragu. These were like little Abruzzo crepes filled with cheese, which makes them infinitely more delicious than regular crepes.

 

After the crespelles was chitarra with lamb ragu alla Silvana at Villa Vetiche and pecorino.  It looks like normal spaghetti, but was cooked so perfectly al dente I had to take a second helping.  I’ve eaten lots of pasta – at expensive Italian restaurants and all over Italy, but I had never had al dente pasta like this.  It was a real eye-opener.

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The final course of the pastas was the mugnaia with peperoncino, aglio e olio. This comes out as a single six-foot long thick noodle, which makes it a little difficult to eat family-style, but we made do.

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Another break – this one the longest of them all – and we came back in for some heavy hitters in the “Pesce” courses.  We returned to find a large pot on the table and bowls in front of us for a seafood stew: brodetto vastese with monkfish, sea robins, shrimp, tilefish, clams, mussels, and saffron.

 

Along with the stew was stuffed calimari with ‘nduja, caper, and raisin. These were delicious, but spicy.  As in, eat too much of the sauce and start coughing spicy.  This, of course, I know from experience.

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Next up was scungilli with button mushrooms, veal jus, parsley salsa verde, and grilled bread. Scungilli is a kind of mollusk that when cooked came out very similar to snails, but is much more fun to say.  Scungilli.  Skoon-jee-lee.

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Rounding out the fish course was a platter of fritto misto: whole fried branzino, tentacles, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, greens, and aioli. One of our tablemates said this was his favorite thing that Le Virtu did.  It was good, but we’d already had plenty that I’d preferred.

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Another break, and then we were back in for the course I had probably been looking forward to most: “Frattaglie (offal) e Fermentati (fermenteds).” Ray and I love this stuff, and a lot of these dishes were no different. I think it may have been about this time that we had our first espresso to keep us going.

We started with honeycomb tripe with Reid’s corn polenta and parmigiana, which turned out much better than I’d hoped and shot to the top part of my experience thus far.  It was a bit chewy, but not unpleasantly so, and certainly not as stringy as the stuff I’d had in pho that, for the most part, turned me off of tripe.

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Following the tripe was probably the oddest dish of the night, made even more so because it was served cold.  It was neonata di sardelle: fermented baby eels on black garlic bread. As horrifying as it sounds, it was just as delicious.

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Next up were spiedini: grilled duck hearts with Agrodolce. These duck hearts would have a lot to live up to – the version at Zahav is one of my favorite dishes – but these were cooked perfectly and tasted almost as good.

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After the hearts was another one of the best dishes of the night, animelle: glazed veal heart sweetbreads. These were topped with a chili sauce that made them taste like chicken nuggest with sriracha multiplied to the 1,000th power.  I could eat a bucket of these things.

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The final offal dish turned out to be my least favorite dish of the night.  I love delicious and interesting innards, but when you get too much of the pasty, mouth-coating kidney flavor in something, it just ruins it for me.  This was the mazzarelle teramane: lamb, goat, and pork offal in a grape leaf. I’m not even sure what kind of pieces and parts were in there, but the one flavor dominated the entire roll.  Thankfully, Ray and I split one so I only had half.

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Now we were nearing the end.  Only two more sections of the menu to go.  We were still feeling good, and not nearly as full or as drunk as we thought we would as we neared the 6.5-7 hour mark.  We were really more sleepy than full after all of that, and I took a cue from a helpful gentleman outside.

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By this point, some people had even abandoned the meal and left early.  I couldn’t imagine paying all that money and not sticking around to have some more drinks and maybe a bite of everything, even if you were full.  And I certainly can’t imagine leaving after seeing the pig being taken in.

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Which happened to the the beginning of the next course, “Carni arrosto (from Four Story Hill Farms).” This was maialino (suckling pig) with fennel pollen and potato. The skin wasn’t quite done enough to chew on, but the rest of the meat was delightful.

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Along with the pork came roasted chicken, which was not on the original menu. While this probably would have been delicious on any other night, chicken was a little boring after everything else we’d had. Accompanying it was a delicious crock of beans, because we needed more filler at this point.

 

Following the chicken was probably my favorite meat course, also accompanied by a crock of beans, in the salt baby lamb in a China box (which is what they cooked the pig in).

 

Following the lamb was roasted milk-fed avian poularde with red wine prunes. I usually like my duck rare, but this was extremely rare and I wasn’t very into it.  I’m sure it was delicious, but the nearly raw bird texture turned me off.

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Finally, the final savory dish and one of the most delicious of the night, was the 50-day dry-aged PA pasture-raised cote de beouf. This beef was seasoned perfectly and cooked perfectly.  I’m not usually one to get hyped up over beef (there’s so much more out there.  I mean, look at everything that came before this!) but this was well worth the wait and a worthy cap to the meal before dessert.

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One more break, and then we were ready for dessert. While there was unfortunately no dessert wine (which I’m a sucker for), Ray and I each ordered an espresso and a limoncello to help us chug along through the “Dolci” course.  This began with a biscotti plate: polenta, pine nut, raspberry, biscotti, red wine, pizzelle torrone.

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The cookies were nice, but the chocolate olive oil cake with pistachio and cannoli cream that came next was much better.  And, as I’ve mentioned before, I generally hate chocolate.  As it turns out, though, my love of olive oil cake trumps that.

 

The penultimate dessert, a cannoli with pistachio and chocolate chip, was one of the highlights of the night.  The cream was the lightest, fluffiest cannoli cream I’d ever had, and Ray and I both agreed it was the best cannoli either of us had ever eaten – and Ray is a baker. Who makes cannoli.  I’ve never had much of a sweet tooth, but I’d eat one of these every day.

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Finally, the last item: buttermilk panna cotta with brown butter cake, cranberry and apple. It wasn’t as firm as you would expect from panna cotta – it was more of a pudding – but man was it good.  I probably would have preferred to end the night with the cannoli, but this was just as nice a way to finish.

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In the end, the meal was as much physical as it was mental, but we never ended up as drunk or as full as we thought we would.  We paced ourselves well, and we made it through relatively unscarred (though I did drag a bit at work the following day).

The food was wonderful – over 40 or so dishes, there is bound to be something you don’t like.  But to only find two or three plates that I didn’t prefer, I feel, is really something astounding.  Especially with as many dishes that would just flat out delicious.  And it was a great tour of the cuisine of Abruzze, besides, which was something I didn’t have much experience with.  Plus we got a gift bag, which is always cool.

We had a great all-around experience, and it quickly changed from “this is a once-in-a-lifetime meal” to “what are we going to wear next year?”  Whatever we decide on, I hope you’re there to see it.

 

Food: Alinea, 2018

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Fair warning: this post will be extremely photo-heavy.  I wanted to document every detail of our meal, and my friends did as well. The photos used come from everyone at the table. Any of the smaller images can be clicked on to see full-sized.

For my birthday this year I wanted to go back to Chicago, a city I love but haven’t been to in years, to eat all of my favorite things as well as to try things I’d previously missed.  Hot dogs, pizza, Italian beef, my favorite sandwich in the world, Tanta, XOCO, Avec – we definitely didn’t hold back on the food consumption.  But the shining star, and the real reason for the trip, was the ultimate food splurge: the kitchen table at Alinea.

I had to buy all six seats for about $3,000, but I didn’t think it would be hard to fill them.  And while it came down to the wire, we got it done: my girlfriend Kaitie bought a seat, of course, and my best friend Ray’s wife bought him one.  My good friend Brett and his girlfriend Michelle took two, and the final seat was taken by a random person on Reddit, who actually turned out to be great to hang out with.

After meeting at Goose Island and having a few beers to calm our nerves, we all walked through the cold Chicago winter to the unmarked, unassuming grey building that houses Alinea.  We turned in our coats and were taken to the table, already giddy that we could see the entire kitchen and, most importantly, Grant Achatz.

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After we were seated with a welcoming glass of champagne, we were brought cloches filled with smoke.

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The cloches were removed to reveal osetra caviar and sturgeon.

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Which was then topped with the heaviest, creamiest, most delicious parsnip soup I’ve ever had.  We were then given a banana-flavored meringue to accompany the soup.

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Following the soup, we were asked to leave our table and to enter the kitchen – Grant Achatz’s actual kitchen – for the second part of our meal.  Here, one of the chefs constructed a pomegranate cocktail in front of us using The Imperial Shaker – a hand-cranked cocktail shaking machine.

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It was accompanied by a sponge cake with black walnut sauce.

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Once done, we were invited to head back to our table. Having watched the Chef’s Table documentary on Alinea, we knew to keep our eyes opened and immediately noticed that the light fixture had been removed.

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There was also a bowl of oranges at the center of our table, as well as a mysterious card filled with letters.

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Once we were all settled back in and had time to examine the card, we were presented with a small covered bowl and a lime with a wedge of compressed romaine. Inside the bowl was “wet snow” that tasted of Asian pair with roe and shiso.  The romaine was topped with avocado and tosaka.

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Next, we were brought a leaf of dehydrated cabbage that covered spanner crab, coconut, and curry.

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To accompany this, liquid was poured into the bowl of oranges, which began to smoke as the scent of orange filled the room.

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We also had glowing plates with small one-bite spheres that contained spiced orange juice.

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After the orange course was finished, the oranges were removed.  After seeing the documentary, we had all assumed there was something hiding in the bowl, but there was not.  However, another bowl was brought out, filled with salt and grain alcohol, which was promptly lit aflame.

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We were presented with a large rock-slab plate, which contained squid with black garlic and chrysanthemum, and also contained squid ink.

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Next to our plates, we were also presented with a dish of rocks.  As our server noted, “You’ll also see a dish of rocks.  Some of them are squishy.  Eat those.”  They were flavored with olive oil and artichoke.

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Next, a large branch of juniper was brought out and placed over the fire, so we could experience its aroma for the following course.

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With that, we were brought out some small crunchy nori rolls.

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We were also brought a bowl with what looked like rice paper.

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This turned out to be a piece of pressed langoustine, which when combined with a broth, turned into the consistency of a noodle.  A delicious noodle.  We were then instructed to drink the broth straight out of the bowl.

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Oh, but that wasn’t all.  Remember the decorative balls on the juniper branches?

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As it turns out, these were savory donuts filled with pork and venison.

But, in true Alinea fashion, that wasn’t to be the only surprise.  The juniper branches were removed, and a few accoutrement were brought to the table.

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As it turns out, there was a potato cooking in that flaming pot the entire time.  A potato that had previously been sous vide in butter for 10 hours.

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The potato was then dusted off and mashed table-side, where the bacon and onions and celery were added.

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Once divided into bowls, the potato was then topped to make a velvety clam chowder, which is what the house-made tobasco sauce and Old Bay oyster crackers were for.

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Following the clam chowder, we were brought beautiful (and large) plates containing black truffle and maitake mushrooms covered in blueberry “glass.”

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We were also given a tea made with matsutake mushrooms, lemon, and thyme. It was like drinking pure butter and is the best tea I could ever hope to have.

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We also had some liquid poured into small bowls of lavender, once again to present a pleasant aroma as we ate.

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Oh, but in case you hadn’t noticed (and I hadn’t, as I was too busy looking at everything else), there were small “sandwiches” of black truffle and foie gras mousse perched in the lavender to eat at our leisure.

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After this progression came our last savory course, which I found odd because it felt like we had only been there for about an hour (though we had been there longer) – but Grant has mentioned that no one wants to sit through a four-hour meal anymore, so it made sense.  I guess it’s true what they say about time flying when you’re having fun.  And this meal was extremely fun.

For this course, we were brought a piece of squab with a white-hot coal (known as binchotan) on top to sear it while it was brought to the table and accompanied by forbidden rice.

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Along with this was a tightly-wound spiral of beet in a sauce made of mustard and chili.

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We were also presented with jars of vanilla beans.

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But, as our server said, “It looks like vanilla.  It smells like vanilla.  It ain’t vanilla.”  As it turns out, they were pieces of beef jerky fashioned to look like vanilla beans.

Following this, huge bowls were placed in front of us for our first dessert course, which included the flavors of sweet potato, miso, and chocolate.

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As we were told, the “river rock” was filled with liquid chocolate.  Even as someone who hates chocolate, I found it delicious.

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The next dessert course, which was labeled “Nostalgia,” presented us with a very Alinea take on pumpkin pie, which turned out to be tiny and invisible.

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As well as “s’mores,” which was dark chocolate wrapped in marshmallow – which was, of course, cooked – and served on birch branches.

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After everything we’d been through, we weren’t sure if the branches were edible or not.  Ray tried it out. They weren’t.

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After this, finally, came the course that we had all hoped for but didn’t want to get our hopes up for: the balloons.  If you’ve seen the documentary, you know all about it.  It’s a special kind of taffy that is inflated with helium and is 100% edible – “string” and all.  This one was green apple flavored, which just so happens to be one of my favorite flavors.

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As you can see, we were all delighted by our balloons.

But, as happy as we were for the balloons, they were not the end.  Next came the grand finale.  It began with our server climbing a ladder and taking down one of the pieces of art hanging above us, which would become our “plate.”

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The folks sitting nearest the two entrances to the room were asked to shuffle their seats a bit, and we were then told that a few chefs would be coming into the room.

Then, suddenly, all the lights turned off – including those in the kitchen – except for the light above our table.  Eric Clapton’s “Cocaine” began to play throughout our room and the kitchen.  Grant Achatz led off the proceedings.

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We were awestruck. It was quite the finale, and left us with flavors of coconut, mint, cinnamon, almond, and raspberry, which we were invited to dig into.

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And, since you only live once…

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To finish, we were also brought a small tray of chocolate truffles wrapped in gold leaf.  The entire presentation was edible, and is officially the first time I’ve eaten gold.

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But wait, there’s more.  I did say this was my birthday dinner, and I made sure to let Alinea know when I booked the reservation.  Why wouldn’t you? After all was said and done, I was presented with a candle, which I blew out.  The smoke was caught in a champagne glass, which was then filled with champagne.

The sommelier explained that everyone had to have cake on their birthday, and at Alinea they’d made just a plain old Duncan-Heinz chocolate cake.  Only, the cake was distilled into a liquid – which he then poured into my glass of champagne.  The end result was a glass of champagne that tasted of chocolate cake and had the remnants of candle smoke, as you would usually get at any birthday party.  It was absolutely perfect (and you can see Ray’s delight).

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After we settled the tab for the drink bill, we were given actual copies of our menu. The back also included the key to the mysterious card of letters we’d had on our table the entire time: it was a word search that had the menu on it.

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Finally, since chefs are my rock stars, we requested to have our picture taken with Grant, where he shook all of our hands.

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One million thanks to Kaitie, Jeremy, and Brett for allowing me to use their photographs and videos.  Check out Brett’s website, and if you’re in the Chicago area, he’s a great photographer.  Also many thanks to my friend Matt Spade for editing together our different angles of the dessert presentation.

Travels: Colombia, 2016

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Fernando Botero’s “Birds of Peace” – there is another one exactly like it next to it. This one was used in a bombing in 1995 that killed 29, whose names are listed below it. They are both on display to represent the changes Medellin has undergone.

When my then-wife LeeAnne decided our next vacation would be to Colombia, a variety of friends and family gave us the same response: “Why?” Whether they had been hearing about the drug cartels and violence for the last 50 years or had just been watching too much Narcos, everyone seemed to believe we would be landing in a war zone.  I admit, as a seasoned traveler, I even let the nervousness get the best of me and had to have to good people of r/travel on Reddit cool me down.

The entire time, I should’ve just remembered my favorite travel quote: “No place is as savage as you think it is.”  I really wish I remembered who said this, because they deserve infinite credit.  Nowhere is ever as bad as you hear or think it is; and besides, isn’t traveling about getting out of your comfort zone a bit? Experience new things that may make you feel nervous or uncomfortable?  It brings to mind another favorite travel quote, this one from Anthony Bourdain:

“As you move through this life and this world you change things slightly, you leave marks behind, however small. And in return, life – and travel – leaves marks on you. Most of the time, those marks – on your body or on your heart – are beautiful. Often, though, they hurt.”

And the marks that Colombia left were all beautiful.  The people were some of the nicest we’ve encountered in our travels, and most seemed genuinely happy to have outsiders experience their country which had been getting such a bad rep for so long.  Even Medellin—ground zero for the drug cartels and once known as the most dangerous city in the world—was a vibrant and lively city that was intensely walkable.

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A kitty cat mural on the mean streets of Bogota.

Bogota was no different.  The few warnings I had received revolved around the La Candelaria neighborhood (where we happened to be staying, unbeknownst to the people warning us) and being careful at night, but despite walking all over the city and specifically that area at all hours of the day and night, I never once got the creeping nervousness you sometimes get when your body feels you may have entered a dangerous situation.

It really all comes down to situational awareness.  Keep your eyes open to your surroundings, especially at night.  Don’t walk away from an ATM counting your money.  Don’t flash your iPhone all over the place to take pictures.  Keep any valuables—wallet or passport—in some kind of zippered or fastened pocket.  It doesn’t make it impossible for someone to rob you, but it makes it more difficult for pick-pockets.

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Night in a small square in Cartagena: breakdancing in the street.  Super dangerous people.

Over our 10 days in Colombia, only once (in Cartegena) was I propositioned to buy cocaine.  One time.  In Colombia.  And even in that heavily-touristed city, the type of city where petty crimes usually thrive, I didn’t feel ill-at-ease.

I don’t know if this post is more about traveling smart or about going to Colombia, but I will say you need to do both—be aware of your surroundings as you travel, and definitely go to Colombia.  See the cities, learn the history and what the people have been through, and watch Narcos if you haven’t just to see how drastically things have improved. Just don’t expect much from the food—its boringness is inversely proportional to the vibrancy of the cities and especially the people.

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One of the vibrant streets of Guatape.

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A street in the walled portion of Cartagena, where the most dangerous thing was the heat.

All photos courtesy LeeAnne Mullins.

Food: Paris, 2008

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When I think back on all the trips I’ve taken, I think Paris might be the first food-focused trip.  LeeAnne and I went for Valentine’s Day weekend in 2009 (only because Air Canada was offering a deal on flights out of Toronto). Everyone I knew thought it was going to be proposal time, since we’d been dating for a while—what could be more romantic than Valentine’s Day in Paris?—but I was more concerned with eating and, if we’re honest, paying my respects to Jim Morrison’s grave.  Now that is romantic.

While we did see all the tourist sites—The Champs-Élysées and the Arc de Triomphe, The Louvre, Notre Dame, Shakespeare & Co bookstore, Père Lachaise cemetary, and the Eiffel Tower on actual Valentine’s Day (the line of nervous-looking men waiting to get to the top to propose kept us from getting in line to go up; well, that and my fear of heights)—the most important part, as it always is in France, was the food. Unfortunately (or fortunately) this trip pre-dated our obsession with taking pictures of everything we ate.

Le Timbre: French for “the stamp,” because the place is the size of a postage stamp, Le Timbre was one of the highlights of our trip.  The place has 24 seats and, when we were there, employed a single server and the chef.  The food was well worth the stop, and was very affordable at about 36 euros for the basic tasting menu.  I remember the mushroom soup being particularly good.

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Open-Air Market: Being almost 10 years ago and not having a lot of pictures, all I can say is that we waltzed through an open-air market at one point and picked up some items for lunch in a park, which I would highly recommend if you ever find yourself in Paris.  Crusty bread, some pate, and fresh goat cheese were perfect for a cold February afternoon.  Until then I hadn’t liked goat cheese much, and this was the moment that it clicked for me.

Pierre Hermé: This was my first experience with macarons, and I guess waiting in line and getting them from the master probably ruined me on them, but these little guys were another eye-opening moment in Paris.  I remember white truffle standing out to me (as I was—and really still am—quite the truffle slut).

A La Biche Au Bois: As I will get around to writing about, I’ve been lucky enough to eat at a lot of great places in my life, some of them ranked among the best restaurants in the world (and one making #1 in 2017). Of all the fancy places I’ve eaten, and all the dives, and all the streetcorners, and all the bars, the coq au vin at A La Biche Au Bois stands out as the single best dish I’ve ever eaten.  It is my death row meal, the one I think about most, and a meal I would fly to Paris to eat and then fly immediately back. The stew was served in a dented-up old pot in a restaurant we were crowded into, but it was fucking amazing.  I can’t even describe the way it makes me feel, which may have to do with nostalgia and the time and place, but I fantasize about this meal.  I recommend it to everyone who ever goes to Paris, and I recommend it to you when you go.  Don’t skip the mashed potatoes, and I hear the chocolate mousse is to die for (I don’t like chocolate).  We stuffed ourselves so much LeeAnne couldn’t button her coat on the way out—in February.

But we still got a crêpe on the way back to the hotel.  Because that’s what you do in Paris.

Travels: The Inca Trail

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To quote Jim Gaffigan, “I’m what you would call ‘indoorsy'”—but when my then-wife LeeAnne suggested we take a vacation to Peru to hike the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu, I agreed instantly.  I’ve always had a thing for seeing historical sites, and Machu Picchu is right up there among the best of them.  The fact that we would have to hike for four days to get there just added to the allure of the place.

As the Inca Trail is well protected, there are a limited number of passes issued to hike the trail each day, and you must go with a registered guide.  We picked Intrepid Travel based on a friend’s recommendation, and they were great.  From our tour guide Elias to the unbelievable porters, the trip was made much better with them in it.

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We began with a day and a half in Cusco to get acclimated to the altitude.  At the time, we were both smokers and had had almost no experience at altitude (we did all of our practice hikes outside Philadelphia), so the day and half was not enough.  But we made it work with plenty of altitude medication and coca tea.

The night before our trip, our guide dropped off the bags we were to give the porters with extra clothes, snacks, or whatever else we wanted during the hike as long as the bags were under 6 kg. We could also carry our own backpacks with whatever we wanted to have on us.  He went over the route and what we could expect from day to day, and then we were left to pack up.  The hotel we stayed at would be stashing most of our stuff while we were away, so we’d be bringing minimal gear with us.  From Intrepid, we were able to rent sleeping bags, a sleeping mat, and hiking poles.  Everything else, we had.

And then, just like that, it was time to embark.  The hotel let us in the breakfast room early so we could get some food before we left, and that’s when it hit me: diarrhea.  That’s right: I had felt fine the past few days, and then just as I was about to embark on a long trek where I’d be outside in the middle of nowhere for four days, I get hit with a bad case of the tummy struggles.  I went from excited anticipation to absolute dread.  Was it the nerves? The aji de gallina I’d had the night before? The alpaca burger? All the coca tea I’d been pounding? Who knows.  Who cares.  This was about to suck.

11134144_10153145221022209_2780531494105828084_nWe took a two-hour van ride with our guide to the small town of Ollantaytambo, where we stopped for a more substantial breakfast, a few trips to the bathroom, and to meet up with the rest of our group.  There were eight of us total, and we’d be joining a group that was on a longer Intrepid trip.  They were nice enough people, but we didn’t end up spending much time with them outside of our camps each night.

We drove up to the trail entrance, had our passports stamped, and were underway. The first day was hot and arid, mostly uphill.  I made the mistake of trying to keep up with the more fit non-smokers on the trip and ended up getting winded pretty quickly, and in the altitude (even though we were nowhere near as high as we would eventually go) was getting the best of me. It wasn’t long before I fell behind.  Luckily, LeeAnne was there to keep me going, because I almost immediately wanted to give up.  I absolutely hate the feeling that I am holding someone back, and I didn’t want to feel like that with a group of strangers the entire time.

We stopped to see some ruins, and then we stopped for lunch.  I didn’t have much of an appetite, but I ate what I could in order to have as much energy as possible, and then took a quick nap in an adjacent field.  One of our follow hikers gave me some coca leaves to chew on. They weren’t as good as the tea, but they definitely helped.  Now, the coca leaf is indeed the raw material for cocaine, but the amount in a leaf is miniscule.  The leaf itself is a mild stimulant that combats thirst, hunger, pain and fatigue, but is nothing like cocaine.  Although I did become pretty addicted to coca candy while I was in Peru.

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Day two started with a great breakfast and I was feeling much better, but our guide sent us out with one of our companions a bit early so I could get a head start.  It wasn’t long before the rest of the group caught up with us, though, because we kept going higher and LeeAnne started developing some altitude sickness.  We were slowed immensely by this, and now it was she that needed the convincing not to turn back.  She stuck it out, though, despite having to stop every few meters on our climb up to Dead Woman’s Pass, which tops out at 4,215m/13,829ft above sea level, the highest I’d ever been outside of an airplane.

At some points, our guide had to make LeeAnne smell rubbing alcohol to keep her wits about her, and it took us way longer to get to the pass than everyone else.  It was also a complete climate change from day one, being freezing cold and windy at the top of the pass.  Having not prepared as well as I should have, our guide lent me his gloves.

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After a brief rest, we went down the other side of the pass to where we were supposed to stop for lunch.  Recognizing that we were struggling—as well as a few others in the group that had some problem—Elias made the decision to camp there for the rest of the night.  This did, however, mean that the porters who had gone on ahead to set up camp for dinner would have to break down the camp and come all the way back.

It should be noted that these porters are nearly superhuman.  They wear sandals for the entire trip and carry 50 kg of gear on their backs and practically run the trail in order to get to the next stop, set up camp, and cook the next meal.  And the meals were not your typical camping food—they were miles above what any reasonable person would expect on a trip like this.  Watching them get through the trail was awe-inspiring, and if you do it be sure to bring enough cash to tip them well.  They are amazing.

Day three, our guide had LeeAnne and I get up even earlier.  This time, we set out with a porter to accompany us and woke up while it was still dark and while everyone else was still asleep to get a 2-3 hour head start.  It was slow going, and we were able to meet pretty much everyone else on the trail with us because we had to stop so frequently and all the groups passed us, making sure we were okay.  Right before our lunch stop (which was supposed to be our dinner stop and camp the night before), the rest of our group caught up with us. Right after we stopped atop the high pass for the day for some yoga.

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After lunch, Elias and a porter accompanied us once again as the rest of the group went on ahead. We were slow as cold molasses, but we made it through to camp eventually—tummy struggles, altitude sickness, and all.  Luckily, even though we were there right on the edge of rainy season, it didn’t rain at all.  The combination of being wet and miserable with being on slippery rocks next to some pretty heady cliffs (I’m afraid of heights) would have made the trek that much more nerve-wracking. We heard later from some folks who had experienced rain on the trip that it made everything excruciatingly worse.

On night three, we had one last group dinner and tipped out our porters, who would be leaving the next morning in order to get a train back to the city. That morning, we woke up early—probably around 3am—in order to get in line to get into the actual national park that includes all of the sites.  We climbed along cliffs, up higher, finally coming to the “gringo killer” stairs that lead up to the Sun Gate, which are so steep they basically need to be climbed like a ladder.

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It should be said that, with all the struggles we were having, I was pretty nonplussed by the idea of seeing Machu Picchu at this point.  I stopped caring and figured it would be anticlimactic at best.  At the Sun Gate, which looks down upon Machu Picchu, the clouds were still in and we could see nothing.  We stopped for a brief snack, and at one point the sun came out and the clouds parted and we could see it, and I was immediately enthralled.  The whole thing was so incredibly impressive, it was almost breathtaking.  Once I saw it, all the hard work and the talking myself out of leaving and the diarrhea and everything else suddenly became worth every minute.

We took the walk from the Sun Gate down to Machu Picchu, where we got some touristy pictures and proceeded down to tour the city.  I immediately hated all the people who had taken trains and buses to get there—the ones in jeans, wearing perfume or cologne, the ones who had clearly bathed in the last three days—they didn’t deserve this! They didn’t suffer for it! Jerks.

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Though I don’t have much hard going to compare this to—running a marathon probably comes the closest—hiking the Inca Trail was without a doubt the most difficult thing I’ve ever done.  With everything we had to deal with on top of the altitude, it was a struggle to say the least.  But the struggle paid off with one of the most impressive sites I’ve ever seen, and I would do it again in a heartbeat.  If only to prove that I could do it a little quicker.

After leaving Machu Picchu, we grabbed lunch in Aguas Calientes, the town below, and then hopped a train back to Ollantaytambo where a van drove us back to Cusco.  Back at our hotel, it was immediate showers, followed by devouring two massive Peruvian pizzas and a long, hard sleep.  By morning, of course, my tummy struggles had ended—but not my love of coca tea.

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All photos taken by LeeAnne.