The Willow Street Café is my brother’s favorite kind of restaurant. It surprised me to hear this because it is so far from mine. Not that it isn’t a good place to eat. It is good. Everyone that we were with enjoyed everything that they ate. My chicken was cooked perfectly and tasted exactly the way I expected it to taste. I’ve eaten a lot of other chickens that tasted exactly the same as this one, so I knew I would like it. It’s the kind of place where you already know what a thing will be like when you order it, so all you have to do is decide whether you feel like eating, for example, a big salad or a chicken dinner. This is fine with me; it’s an easy place to go with a group of people. It’s even the kind of place I would gladly agree to, and maybe even suggest, if I were super hungry and just wanted to be someplace I could trust to feed me. But it would never occur to me to call it a favorite.
But here I’ve just exposed a part of myself that I should maybe not feel so proud of. I get deeper into my 30s every moment and yet I’m still stuck with an adolescent need for cool and exciting. I might truly love the Willow Street Café, but if you ask for my favorite dining experience, I’m going to try to impress you with a story of some vegan-organic-raw-Eritrean-Burmese fusion cuisine that was so spicy I had to go to the emergency room, but boy was it ever a memorable night. My brother, however, will just say that he loves the Willow Street Café. The food will always be good, you will always be able to find things for everyone to like on the menu. It makes me think that my brother will get to be truly happy in his life, while I keep chasing cool.
Some time ago I wrote to you about a Persian restaurant that I really liked to go to. This was, for a long time, the place that I would go when I wanted to have Persian food and I told you nice things about it because there are nice things to say about it. But last weekend they made a big mistake and if you’ve noticed that I’m not naming my former favorite Persian restaurant, it’s because I probably won’t be going back there. No, I didn’t get food poisoning or bad service. There were no stray hairs or roaches in my food. The thing is, I went there on a night when they were booked out for a private party. Disappointed, I asked the hostess to recommend another Persian restaurant and she told me about Yas. I think that she should probably stop telling her customers about Yas.
Before I went to Yas I think I didn’t understand how soft rice could be. It’s light and pillowy there and I instantly knew that this was the way rice was always meant to be. Plus mine had sour cherries in it. It tasted the way donuts smell, to me. I don’t know that my experience of feeling like donuts don’t taste as good as they smell is universal, but, again for me, this was the taste I’ve been looking for in vain in donut shops for all these years. And all this is just about the rice! My chicken was excellent too, my stepmother’s lamb was perfect and my father’s vegetarian kebabs were, he said, the best he had ever had. Plus the waitress was above average nice. And also the restaurant itself is cozy, comfortable and full of sunlight. This is a place to go back to over and over again. A new favorite, and though I’m sorry to lose the old one, now that I know more about what Persian food can be, I just don’t see myself going backward.
My understanding of Afghanistan is that it is not an easy place to live. The climate and geography define harsh, or so I’ve read in books, seen in photos. You and I would not survive a night in the mountains of Afghanistan without some serious assistance, and even with help it would be difficult. Assuming that you, my reader, are not a highly trained, experienced mountaineer, that is.
People live there, though. Thrive, even. Over time they’ve adapted to their surroundings and know how to take care of themselves in a place where Mother Earth seems more like an angry dictator than a loving provider.
One thing I know, not from a book but from actual experience, is that a part of Afghan culture is a robust and hearty diet. I learned this at Kabul, the neighborhood Afghan restaurant. This is food for mountain men, warriors. Huge portions of meat and rice, no frills. I go there when I feel battered and need to regain my strength. After a long flight, followed by a full workday, for example. Can anyone out there relate? If so, give Kabul a try.
I would like to announce a new diet craze. Or, rather, I would like to try to spark a new diet craze. Meaning that I would like to be responsible for a moment of pop-culture hysteria and I have a good idea about something that has not yet been exploited. Ok, ready? Vietnamese food! Specifically those bowls, bun is what they’re called, heaped with cold rice noodles, salad greens, mint, carrots and cucumber with your choice of grilled meat on top. Sauce always served on the side. It’s a healthy, complete meal, low in fat and fun to eat. It’s wheat free, for those that are into the gluten intolerance thing, dairy free for the lactose intolerant. It’s culturally exotic, but simple and non-threatening. I think it has all it needs to become a real trendy item, like when all the super skinny actresses were saying that they weren’t on diets, they just ate a lot of Japanese food. Speaking of which, I do need a celebrity or two to really get this thing going.
However, as I have not yet found my celebrity, I’m starting with you. All you have to do, when you’re here staying with us, is take a little stroll down the street to a place called Pho Saigon. The fluorescent lighting is a bit off-putting, I know, and I’m sorry for that, but the food is the exact example of simple and clean that I think can become a very strong fad. Plus, everyday at lunchtime, the place is packed with Vietnamese people, which is not a bad sign of authenticity and means that I’m actually encouraging you to have a genuine multicultural experience. So, head on over there, eat, enjoy, and then tell all your friends how good it makes you feel. The best, actually, would be if you would go every day for a week or two, and then start reporting your feelings of clear energy and general well-being. And if you were to drop a couple of pounds, well, that, also, would be very good indeed.
Do me a favor, though, if you’re going to be doing this with me, lay off the pizza and French fries and donuts and stuff. You will only do harm to my movement.
In Amarillo, Texas, there’s a place that serves a 72 oz steak and says that if you, one person alone, can eat this steak, and the salad and baked potato it’s served with, in one hour, you can have it all for free. I had heard rumors about this place from my brother, but now I know it’s true because I’ve driven through New Mexico and seen billboards that promise exactly that.
Last night I went to a restaurant in Saratoga called The Basin. The woman sitting behind me was served something that was, at first, kind of difficult to recognize. (If my family is the only one in the world that looks around at other people’s food in restaurants, then we sincerely apologize and promise to never dine out again. Somehow, though, I think maybe other people do it too.) So, anyway, she had this big thing on her plate that kind of looked like an entire meatloaf, but clearly wasn’t, and we were all looking and guessing, and it took quite a while for us to figure out that it was, actually, a steak. It was the largest steak I have ever seen in my life. Maybe it wasn’t 72 oz, but it was about the size of a paperback copy of War and Peace. My stepdad was excited and gleefully ordered one of his very own, but neither he nor the woman sitting behind me did much serious damage to their respective dinners. Each, in fact, ate about a normal steak size portion and had as much and more to save for the next day’s lunch.
Here, then, is my challenge to you: Finish this steak, plus all the broccoli and potatoes that come with it, and I’ll buy you as many drinks as you can take in two hours. You’ll have to take a witness, but the menu is full of amazing, delicious things and it will not be a chore to find someone who will go with you. And you’ll have to take photos of your plate, before and after. When I get one email with photos and one email from your witness, I’ll meet you, and your friend, too, down in our lounge at cocktail hour and for two full hours, whatever you and your friend drink will be my treat. Happy eating!
For me, the best thing about having lunch or dinner at Il Postal, is doing it as someone coming from this hotel. Of all the relationships that we, as a business, have with other businesses in the area, this is among, if not the, most genuine. Our dear general manager has been known to call her Il Postal counterpart at odd hours of the night with, for example, a desperate request for several pans of bread pudding, ASAP, and has found herself met with the accommodating kindness she does not deserve in such circumstances. Said Il Postal manager, for his part, has been known to call our sales manager on occasion when he’s looking for someone to have a beer with. I would not think the word friendship would be inappropriate, even. And those relationships are ours to take advantage of! Try it out for yourself! Go into Il Postal and tell them you’re our guest, and then pay attention to the difference between the service you get and the service all the other diners are getting. Not that anyone else is being treated badly, but we all know what it is to get special treatment. It feels nice, especially when you’re away from home and finding your comfort is not as easy.
Il Postal, as you may have gotten from its name, is an Italian restaurant. The food is excellent, the space small and elegant. In the summer there’s a sunny patio to sit on. You would want to go here anyway, I assure you, it just happens to come with the extra added bonus of unearned friendship and preferential treatment.
My sister grew up with an instinctive aversion to a restaurant called By Th’ Bucket. Instinctive, meaning that she hated it without ever having been there. Never, never would she agree to go, and a youngest sibling’s refusal can be a treacherous thing to try to overcome. Which is such a shame because, in fact, it’s the perfect place for a family to go for dinner. The menu is enormous and includes everything that, to me, is normal American cuisine, with an Italian bent. Steaks, fish, chicken, lots of pasta, pizza, big salads. What makes it worth recommending is that, for all the many, many different things you can order, you can’t get anything bad. The place gets zero points for originality, but I think you can’t find a better standard, hearty meal in the area.
We won my sister over, finally, by tricking her. We started getting take-out, but salads only. Enormous Greek salads with all her favorite stuff: feta cheese, Kalamata olives, hummus, grilled chicken. We said they came from “the salad place,” and waited until she started being the one to suggest “the salad place”. Once we were sure she was a proper fan, we let her in on the true identity of the mysterious “place”. She was very confused for a bit, trying to maintain her position of hatred in spite of evidence to the contrary. It could never last. Just a few weeks ago, I watched her go three days in a row.
Travel and struggle and betrayal and death. Temptation, seduction, power. I know all of that was in there, but all I ever remember from the Odyssey is food. Droves of animals being slain and cooked over open fires. Mounds of fresh figs dripping with honey and being dropped into Odysseus’ mouth by grateful attendant goddesses. Everything, in fact, dripping with honey. Rich, sweet olive oil being drunk from goblets and used for bathing, I suppose to give the hero sweet and necessary respite from water. Wine glasses refilling themselves. It’s been so many years since I read that grand epic and I hope that any Greek scholars out there will forgive the amendments that my imagination has made to Homer’s record, but those decadent feasts will stay in my fantasies forever.
Walking into Athena, even with a raving recommendation as motivation, I did not expect to be reminded that this was the native cuisine of immortal mythology. The light is garishly bright, it is furnished entirely in white plastic with bright blue detail (the Greek flag, I know, but still there is the question of how) and I supposed that I would get Mediterranean fare that was pretty good, on account of the recommendation.
And now, I think, in lieu of describing what I ate, I will say this: Thank you Athena, goddess of wisdom, for allowing me to believe, for one brief meal, that if I cannot live as the immortal heroes before me lived, at least I can eat like them. Sounds like silly hyperbole, I know it even as I write it, and I guess it probably is, but those words come straight out of the languid torpor I left the restaurant with. Roll your eyes at my childish enthusiasm, then, if you will, but remember that it has a source that you, too, can access.
One of my favorite things to try to do in this job, since I grew up in this area and so am often writing to you about things I’ve known all my life, is justify something that I’ve loved since I was a little girl. There are things that I don’t know if I would start doing today, but that I learned the value of so long ago that the truth of said value is second nature to me. So then, in this space, I am charged with convincing you of that truth, while acknowledging a perhaps less-than-inspiring exterior. Eating at Happi House, for example, our local Japanese fast food chain. I will admit that one of the big draws for me will always be emotional. I can’t ever go to a Happi House without remembering a sword fight my brother and I once had in one, after an aikido class, with the theme song from Karate Kid playing in the background, nor can I expect this to help motivate you to eat lunch there. I will also concede that once, maybe 15 years ago, a different brother could not understand why his Happi House chicken strips looked “sweaty” and that that made us all drift away for a while. But we went back.
What I can say positively is that those chicken strips were grilled and not fried. There are some tempura options on the menu, it’s true, but the majority of what you’ll find at Happi House is just plain grilled meat and comes with simple white rice and a crisp salad. Japanese food is notoriously healthy and the overall longevity of the Japanese people has been the subject of enough study to relieve me of any guilt of stereotyping. Is the fast food version going to give you all the benefits of fresh, careful, artful Japanese cuisine? I guess not. However, I am speaking to the part of you that indulges, from time to time, in little treats that may not lie on the straightest path toward becoming a supercentenarian. Happi House, I am pretty sure, veers closer to that original, true road than, say, a Big Mac. This is what keeps me going there. I have strong memories of eating five or six Dunkin’ Donuts at a time, too, but some things have to just become memories. I do know the difference. I sure hope you believe me!
I’m about to recommend a restaurant to you and I have no idea whether or not it’s a good restaurant. I’m sorry to say that, but it’s the truth. I had an amazing experience there and we all understand that any recommendation is entirely subjective, so you may be feeling like I’m just letting myself get a little inappropriately self-conscious here. But first let me explain the nature of my bias, because this is not just going to be a case of whether or not your taste buds are wired the same way as mine.
The Armenian Gourmet was my first true Armenian restaurant. It may well be yours also, but, if you will permit me to share a little personal detail, I happen to be half Armenian. (And yes, for those of you out there who are in the know, our dear general manager is fully Armenian. So, if you’ve ever wondered how I possibly could have gotten this job, let’s all take a moment to acknowledge that the world has not so many Armenians left in it and that there is a certain preservation of the species instinct that cannot be denied.) So, here I am in this restaurant and, for the first time outside of my mother’s kitchen, the pilaf has egg noodles in it! The grape leaves were stuffed with meat and served hot, just like at Christmas dinner. But by far my favorite surprise of the day was lachmajun, a thing I had almost ceased believing in. We used to call it Armenian pizza, I guess because it was made on flat bread and smeared with a red mixture that turns out to be lamb, beef, tomatoes, onions and some spices. I was in Proust heaven that day. But, as you can see, I have no way of anticipating your experience of this place. The most I can say is that if you’re interested, it’s authentic.
Ooh, but I just remembered one truly objective fact: The baklava is the best in the entire world!