Friday, April 08, 2005

New Parking Spot!

cabkingheadero1f, originally uploaded by azurenath.

I'm moving the blog: from now on, check out See you there!


Tuesday, February 08, 2005

Dinner at The French Laundry; or, the Realization of a Well-Worn Dream

The first time I ever heard anyone talk about Thomas Keller or The French Laundry was in a book called “The Soul of a Chef” by Michael Ruhlman. I was a sophomore home for Christmas in Miami, and the story was so captivating that I stayed out in the sun way too long and burnt myself to a crisp. That day I swore I’d make it to the French Laundry at some point. And that day came last week.

I started plotting my trip to the French Laundry as soon as I knew I’d be coming to San Francisco. Started calling for a reservation on the day their phones opened after the holidays.
It took me four days of calling every thirty minutes until someone picked up on the other end (I was hearing busy signals in my sleep). And when that someone was Laura Cunningham (the general manager), who said curtly that I was welcome at eight o’clock on February second, I whispered breathlessly that I was looking forward to it, we hung up, and I punched the air triumphantly, did a constipated little jig, then ran around the house looking for somebody to tell.

February second, I went to the park and did a solid hour and a half of yoga. I did not smoke any cigarettes that day. I did not smoke any pot. I ate austerely; saltine crackers, apples. Before I left the house for dinner, I put on a fresh change of underwear. You never know.

On the way to dinner, an hour away in the Napa Valley, I hit every green light. But after one somewhat suspiciously rural turn in the road, I popped into a sleepy 7-Eleven to make sure I wasn’t lost. I had gotten a sleek haircut the day before and was wearing a red linen Chinese jacket and black pants, fancy shoes that clattered on the concrete. A Mexican dude outside was slammed up against a cop car, getting handcuffed by a cop. It was the night’s last encounter with reality.

I am seated after a few minutes’ wait in the gray stone building, which actually used to be a laundry circa 1900. I’m the only one alone, and other diners steal discreet glances at me, which makes me feel rather glamorous. Other diners, that is, excepting the ones who are eating; at those tables, people look contemplative or ecstatic, thoroughly engrossed. Conversation only resumes as people finish their plates.

The maitre d’ brings me a ‘gougère with gruyère,’ (a light poof of cheesy pastry), and a glass of pink Champagne, and tells me that the French Laundry appreciates solo diners, who have obviously come wholly for the food; would it be okay if the chef sent out a few extra courses for me? It would, I tell him. That would be fine.

A waiter sails out bearing salmon tartare and red onion crème fraîche scooped into a crispy sesame tuile cornet, whisks it away as soon as I finish, and then presents me with a soft and creamy chestnut and black truffle soup in a tiny cup. So balanced. So smooth. Dots of truffle, chewy chestnuts. Like water ballet, I think to myself. And we haven’t even reached a dish that’s on the menu yet.

The French Laundry does things differently. Thomas Keller has carpeted the kitchen with special mats so that the staff will feel more comfortable on its feet, for example, and installed skylights to flood the kitchen with breezy light. This philosophy extends to the food as well. Instead of lying on its side, the asparagus in Keller’s walk-in stands straight up, a logical call considering the way asparagus absorbs water, but one few bother to think through. His fish, too, is set on ice in the swimming position to avoid unnecessary stress on the delicate flesh. Before he makes stock with veal bones, he actually scrubs them clean, and he peels his fava beans before they’re cooked (ridiculously time-consuming), because their color is better and they stay fresher that way. Some of his sauces are strained twenty times. And his dishwashing staff scours pans so mercilessly that they retain their brushed silver bottoms instead of accruing the well-worn carbon black usual to heavy-duty kitchens; eventually, the pans must be thrown out because so much metal has been scrubbed off that the handle’s weight topples the pan. Thomas Keller bothers to bother with. The man takes pains.

I’m drinking a Txomin Txaconis, a Basque white, when the first dish off the nine-course tasting menu arrives: a sabayon made with a beau soleil oyster, tapioca and Russian sevruga caviar, served with a mother-of-pearl spoon. The custard is lemony and creamy, and bubbles of supple tapioca and salty, high-strung caviar flex and burst in alternating rhythms against the roof of my mouth. Ruhlman writes about how Keller “achieve[s] irony and humor, not only with contrasting textures and products, but also with wordplay and associations from mainstream, middle-class America, transforming the ideas of America’s oft-maligned lowbrow food into bona fide, often extraordinary haute cuisine.” The dish above is classic Keller: he plops an oyster into what is basically glorified tapioca pudding, tops it with a little caviar, and calls it “Oysters & Pearls.” (He does another with braised beef cheek and calf’s tongue, and calls it ‘Tongue in Cheek.’) But god, what an oyster, what tapioca. What with all the alternately popping textures and tastes, I feel like I've got a perfectly orchestrated fireworks display going on in my mouth.

The next dish out is a white truffle custard with a black truffle ragu in half an eggshell, with a chive chip sticking out like a proud mast. According to the division of labor in Keller's kitchen, it takes five cooks to make this truffle custard: one person to cut and clean the eggs, one to make the custard, one to make the sauce, one to chop the truffles that go into the sauce, one to make the chive chip. And it isn’t even on the menu. Just one more of those little trans-course freebies that lucky patrons get. It’s creamy, delicately pungent, and when I accidentally break a piece of eggshell after straining to get the last drop with my spoon I feel like a criminal. I almost don’t want to drink my wine because it’ll flush the warm, melty taste out of my mouth.

Bread comes out with two butters; a sweet Californian and a hand-rolled salted Vermonter. I’m taking swipes at both, giggling and smiling as if I’ve never tasted butter before, when my waiter comes out with a small risotto. The maitre d’ follows him with a varnished box out of which, with great ceremony, he removes a black truffle the size of a fist and elegantly grates a massive, fluffy mound of truffle over the rice. I drink a 2003 Cotes du Rhone, Eric Texier’s Brezeme.

Time for fish. I’ve never tasted Japanese suzuki before, but after my first bite I conclude that it’s the best fish I’ve ever had, ever. It comes with celeriac puree, ruby red grapefruit confit, and a tellicherry pepper ‘gastrique,’ but they fall behind; all I can taste is this divine crispy-skinned fish, its sweet clear notes. The unifying principle of Keller’s food, I decide, is clearness, clarity. Every taste is unambiguous and lucid, like the best kind of symphony, where listening closely reveals each individual instrument, but zooming out lets them meld into a harmonious (but clear!) whole. This food is trans-pa-rent, I scrawl in my notebook. I am definitely getting drunk.

Next is a 2002 Beaune pinot noir from Louis Boillot, and on its heels “Beets and Leeks,” or Maine lobster poached in butter with melted green leeks, pommes maxim and red beet essence. Best lobster EVER, I scribble. Leekiest leeks EVER. Clearly, note-taking has become futile at this point. Then comes a set of rabbit rillettes with braised red cabbage from the French Laundry’s garden, glazed chestnuts and juniper berry-infused jus. Following that, grilled beef from Snake River Farm with roasted king trumpet mushrooms, broccolini and sweet carrots in a marrow sauce, with FL-blended Modicum wine. At this point I write in big letters, loopy as hell, “If I die, it’ll have been worth it,” and sign my name at the bottom as testament.

I'm puzzled at feeling so stuffed, because the portions have been minuscule, but then I realize that several hours have passed during which I’ve been focusing intensely on food. What I am is more saturated than full, really; it’s grueling, tasting so much! But the onslaught continues.

The cheese comes out, a nude reclining on beans. It's an Edel de Cleron on a three-bean salad with a Spanish caper vinagraitte: unctuous, balanced, tangy, ripe. Then an espresso granité with a Meyer lemon chiboust and biscotti. The granité is about as good as Lecce’s most famed; the biscotti is better. A Banyuls Rimage arrives on the elegant arm of the maitre d’, my last wine of the night. And then, the dish I’ve fantasized over for two years, Keller’s ‘coffee and donuts:’ homemade sugar-cinnamon donuts with an espresso semifreddo topped with milk foam. If they started serving these at Dunkin' Donuts, cops would never arrest anyone again. So light. So perfect. Beats Krispy Kreme to the fucking ground.

Out comes a timbale of Valrhona “guanaja mousse” with ice cream; a devil’s food cake base topped with a silky chocolate mousse, the whole locked inside a chocolate crust that looks painted on. And then a deluge of mini-desserts floats out on the arms of these glorious server-angels: crème brulée the size of three fingers, lemon tartlet, orange financier, coffee macaroons, caramel candies, chocolate tartlets. A mini cappuccino with six different chocolates. Finally, “mignardises,” little candies, that I ask for in a take-out box, because as much as I would like to, I am really, really unable. The last thing I write in my notebook is “I can’t believe I’ll ever actually be hungry again.”

I look for flaws all meal long, testing. Will a server attempt to fill my glass of still water with sparkling? Will an inapt dot of sauce appear on a plate rim, a bone in the flesh of my fish? Will anyone, in this gleaming ballet dance of silverware and plates, forget a fork? Not one slip, one oversight. The French Laundry, I conclude, is perfect. I’ve eaten crystal and diamonds all night.

I pay $309 for this four-hour, six-wine, sixteen-course sensual extravaganza. Once it’s over, I want to cry. Not because I spent too much money. Because it’ll be far too long before I can afford to go again.

Tuesday, January 25, 2005

Taking Stock

Well, it's been a hell of a ride.

To be specific: Providence—Miami—Tokyo—Beijing—Xian—
Shanghai—Kunming—Guilin —Dali—Lijiang— Hong Kong—
Ho Chi Minh City—DaNang—Hanoi—Seoul—Miami—Gossau—
Lecce—Rome—Geneva—Annecy —New York—Lecce—Corfu— Patra—Peloponneseus—Lecce—Milano—Zurich—Geneva— Annecy—Charleroi—Tournai—Bruxelles—Paris—Bruxelles— Barcelona—Bruxelles—Annecy—Charleroi—London—Oxford —Cambridge—London—Charleroi—Cairo—Assouan—Abu Simbel— Luxor—Bruxelles—Gossau—Boston—Providence— New York
—Miami—San Francisco.

Thirty-five flights (when you fly cheap they fuck you on the stopovers…), over eleven trains, countless buses. A ferry across the English Channel (the white cliffs of Dover!), a boat ride up the live, lush Nile, a rickety tin dinghy on the Yangtze.

An overnight train up Vietnam in a four-person cabin shared between seven, an overnight ferry to the Peloponneus on a ghostly vacant, rusty Greek liner, an overnight train to Milan. A Chinese taxi we had to get out of and push.

Pho (beef soup) for breakfast in heat that made the air throb, melted asphalt. Kilos of British cheese. Little yogurts made in the morning, eaten on a dock lit by moonlight.
Transport food: a gooey, oozy Cinnabon in the Phoenix airport. Cantuccini nibbled on the train from Lecce to Milano. Swiss bread and chocolate from Zurich’s airport Co-op.

Getting so lost on my way to the train one morning that cops took pity on my overstuffed suitcase and looming departure time (5:30 a.m.) and drove me to the station. Buying a Barcelona-Bruxelles plane ticket for the wrong date and not realizing it until I’d gotten to the airport. Flagging down farmers in rural Belgium to help me fix Amélie’s broken-down wreck of a car.

Seeing Emily in Brussels, John in Vietnam, Judy, Alex and Mike in Korea, Alisha in London, Eric and Andrew at Oxford, Russ and Tris in Cambridge, Justine in Geneva, MPJ and Cecil and Crystal and Chris Blair in Barcelona, Alex in Greece, David, Jess Grose, Laura, Russ Baruffi, Meg Robson, Seb, Matty, and Jamie in New York, Josh and Ben and Josh Gang in Boston, Lizzie and Tibet and Wilson in Providence, Kevin in San Francisco, Gordie and Shantal in Los Angeles, Benita in San Francisco. (Friendship transcends place.)

I’m surprised I was able to afford it this long. The secret is limiting expenses to food and transportation tickets; I can’t remember the last time I bought a t-shirt, and I think only like three pairs of my underwear lack holes.

I took 3,590 pictures. Posted 36,898 words on the blog. Slept in fifty-two different beds.

Damn, guys. It’s good to be home.

Sunday, January 23, 2005

Finally Home

miami, originally uploaded by azurenath.

I love Miami. Have I ever told you that? I love it. In the past week I’ve engaged in a ritual that I repeat, or try to, every time I’m down. That is, seeking out and consuming, in no particular order:

--Knaus Berry Farm cinnamon buns (the Amish come down for the winter and bake them, or pretend to; it’s actually Mexican migrant workers that do the work),
--Whip & Dip ice cream,
--McDonald’s fries dipped in a McD’s vanilla milkshake because the dentist found no cavities and that’s always my reward,
--a Coke Slurpee from the 7-Eleven, although I didn’t have the heart to smoke a Black & Mild, its most appropriate accompaniment,
--an A.C.’s Icee, the model to which all frozen lemonades should aspire,
--a Cuban sandwich at Latin American Cafeteria,
--tostadas at La Carreta on Key Biscayne,
--a Caesar salad, which is what I always crave when I’m out of the country, although none ever compares to my fantasy and I always end up disappointed,
--Hawaiian pizza from Miami’s Best Pizza,
--key lime pie that I baked for Alisha’s mom but then dropped on the floor, ruining it for Alisha’s mom but thus able to eat the remnants myself,
--Sunday-night cheese fondue, only it was Monday this time,
--fresh-squeezed Florida orange juice. Fucking ambrosial.
--White Mountain bread, although it was disgustingly freezer-burnt, since I’m the only one who eats it and I haven’t been home in six months, and it rots a little every time someone opens the freezer door,
--a Publix cupcake,
--hörnli mit gehacktes und apfelmües (macaroni with ground veal and applesauce, a Swiss specialty—mark my words, Swiss cuisine is the Next Big Thing, and I am not kidding),
--and one of my dad’s famous banana milkshakes: banana, Publix vanilla ice cream, and orange juice, only no one at home drinks them any more, so I had to make it myself.

It’s lucky I was here a whole week. Sometimes I’m just down for a long weekend and it gets really stressful having to cram all these in.

It’s been warm enough to wear a bathing suit, and sunny every day but one, when it was partly sunny. I read, I cooked, I slept a full eight hours, I took luxurious showers. My mom did my laundry, mountains of it, and all I had to pay her were hugs and compliments. I drove around with the sunroof open and my arm dangling out the window, hands surfing the waves of wind. My dad took me up in the helicopter and we grazed over the endless flat sawgrass of the Everglades, punctuated only with herons, then east towards the latest housing developments to push into the swamp, terra-cotta tile roofs grouped into precise manicured clusters, identical ad infinitum. Farther east the complex circuitboard of the city, suffused everywhere by luxuriant, willful green growth, and skyscrapers thrusting like missiles out of the streets. Finally: a gleaming gold ribbon of sand, and then the ocean, water the color of turquoise and indigo and lapis-lazuli, depending on the angle of light.

When people ask me what’s new in Miami, I have no idea, because I always do the same damn things. I went to Matheson Hammock to watch the sun set, took a walk on Key Biscayne. Went to an art show in Wynwood and scoped the mansions of Gables Estates like a sketchball, just for old times’ sake. Val and I had a drink at the Bougainvillea Tavern. But mostly I just stayed home. Rented Mrs. Doubtfire and The Birdcage. Caroline came home holding A Cinderella Story and I watched the end of it with her, then we rewinded it and watched the whole thing again. Anyone who watches that movie will automatically lose at least 10 IQ points, guaranteed—I shudder to think of what the repeat viewing did to our brains. Then again, I picked out my ten-year-old self’s favorites to rent. Not much better.

Miami changes at the speed of light, but classic So-Fla moments still abound. My dad and I burst into laughter when we saw a Harley pulled over to the side of Kendall Drive, the biker suckling a coconut like it was a goatskin flask and he was fortifying himself for battle. This morning cold air from the New England blizzard trickled down to Florida, and at noon it was like sixty-five degrees. The joggers were wearing leggings and long-sleeved shirts, the walkers sweatsuits. Some people had even dressed up their dogs.

Man, I love this town.

To not miss next time:
--Casola’s or Sir Pizza pizza
--Sun Juice smoothie
--Chai tea from Starbucks. I know it’s ignoble, and I never go to Starbucks anywhere else, but I swear, it brings me back…
--Pillsbury cinnamon rolls or biscuits, although I think I saw a package in the freezer, I might be able to squeeze some in tomorrow before the flight…

Thursday, January 06, 2005

egypshan contradicshan

The Jordis go on McVacation; or, Boogers Bring Peace

I am on vacation with my family in Egypt. We have, for the first time in our lives, gone on a tour-bus vacation. Not just any tour-bus vacation, either. This year, the Jordis are spending eight days with the Club Med.

To me, the Club Med calls to mind middle-class French families taking lambada lessons under a foreign sun while natives prepare the damp towelettes and lemon slices. Maman’s eager about aquaerobics at 12:10 in the Jade Lagoon, Papa’s on the putting green plotting his golf ball’s trajectory between miniature Pyramids and the Eiffel Tower. Pierre’s fastening Croakies to his Oakleys before his first windsurfing lesson in the sparkly turquoise bay, and Suzanne’s tippling on daiquiris by the pool as charismatic “G.O.” (Grand Organisateur) Abdul skillfully rubs suntan lotion into her slowly roasting skin. Think Dirty Dancing set in what ten years ago was a quiet Moroccan/Mexican/Thai fishing village.

This is unfair, I know. I am a ghastly snob and horribly judgmental. Club Med gives people in developing countries jobs. It gets hard-working, stressed-out Europeans relaxed, tanned, out of the country, and if they’re lucky, laid. After all, it’s ridiculous to think that staying in concrete-box roach motels, suffering long lapses in hygiene, eating dubiously cooked food prepared with mystery ingredients, and initiating awkward conversations in pidgin English are the only “genuine” ways to travel through countries like the ones Club Med sets up shop in. Club Med certainly doesn’t own the monopoly on travel clichés—many backpackers (I am not exempt) share a set of criteria for the “consummate traveler’s experience” that aren’t any less trite.

But come on. Look at this picture:

club med ad, originally uploaded by azurenath.

“Here’s a fisherman who lives in a place that is warm, cheap, and far away. We have realized that if we build a diving board on his boat off of which you can jump and let your wife take pictures of you doing it, you will flock in great numbers. There will also be lots of drinking and eating involved. We take checks and credit cards. Welcome! Or should we say, Xin Chao?”

The thing that appeals about Club Med is that it’s so easy. There’s no spending the day wicking sweat away from under your shirt because the secret plastic pouch that contains your passport and money is plastered to your stomach—your bags are secure in Club Med hands, and you never carry them anywhere, either, just leave them outside your room when you leave a town and they’ll be outside your room in the next one, whisked across deserts and jungles by invisible cross-country bellhops. There’s no lugging linens and towels around—in fact, when you travel with Club Med, some (again, invisible) towel-folding specialist will expertly fold your towel into whimsical shapes, different every day, left on your bed for your surprise and enjoyment. There’s no scary, turista-giving food, although you may be in a country whose citizens don’t even trust the tap water. The lavish buffet’s chafing dishes offer impeccably presented but watered-down versions of ethnic food, plus standard scalloped potatoes and grilled chicken, and fries and hot dogs for the kids. And a flock of doves carved out of turnips, and the Sphinx carved in butter, and lilacs sculpted from of carrots. I am so not kidding.

Of course, I’m a complete hypocrite, a whited fucking sepulcher. I’m being critical here—but yeah, I took a beach towel for the lounge chair and another one to use as a pillow. I gorged myself on the buffets, and didn’t even really try the ‘ethnic’ food when it looked weird. I barely spoke words other than “Thank you” and “How much?” and “Please may I have another…” to the Egyptians I came in contact with. In fact, I learned exactly one word in Arabic: shokran, or thank you. I wrapped a towel-turban round my head and rimmed my eyes in kohl for the Egyptian-themed dinner. I got excited about the whimsical towel shapes. I joined the conga line on New Year’s—even did the goddamn Macarena under a twirling disco ball. And I must admit I had a great time. I met fun people and saw some incredible monuments and got a fabulous January tan.

Egypt is an unbelievable country from an ogler’s perspective. The monuments are the most exceptional I’ve ever seen. It boggles the mind to think of the level this civilization had reached while my ancestors were still living in huts chipping flint into arrowheads or whatever they were doing. The craftsmanship of the artifacts that remain is astounding, and the country’s cultural heritage has been remarkably well preserved. We saw temples that had spent centuries buried in sand or under water or both, and the carved inscriptions trickling down every flat surface were still perfectly legible. Even the busloads of tourists smoking cigarettes and making peace signs in front of cameras couldn’t ruin the timeless, regal atmosphere that surrounds these temples.

Our tour guide knew his shit fully—he was very impressive, and I wouldn’t have learned nearly as much from a guidebook. Our particular Club Med tour was hardcore, too—there were two 8 a.m., two 6 a.m., two terrible 4 a.m.., and a fucking awful 2 a.m. wakeup. And I mean, Club Med notwithstanding you’re still occasionally interpellated by real-deal Egypt; I got held back at a security check for having tampon in my pocket and had to explain away the potential weapon. The day was constantly interrupted by the muezzin’s call to prayer—and, inspired to stretch my legs at midnight on the boat’s top deck, I found myself staring at a guy twiddling his fingers atop a Kalashnikov. Sweet.

Examples like these were hooted and tooted over as oh-so-authentic. But they’re few and far between. Make no mistake: there’s nothing local about the Club Med. The risk of running into hairy situations is practically nil, because you’re always chaperoned and surrounded anyway by a mass thick enough to discourage any leering, ill-intentioned personage. Any vendor you meet will speak your language’s key words, and even though he’ll later tell his friends, guffawing, how much you paid for your scarf or hookah, you’ll feel like you got a bargain because you talked him halfway down his asking price.
My field of vision the entire time I was in Egypt was far more filled with other tourists than it was with Egyptians. More than marvel at the ruins I stared unabashed at the other tourists. It’s one of the things I like most about visiting places that attract all sorts of different people—seeing who shows up. People who wear shirts that say “Bad Girl” in a Muslim country. Hats that say “Teenage Millionaire” in a developing country. People with bad hair, fat in funky places, absurd mannerisms, or curious choices of footwear, like stilettos in a desert. Hello!?! Lady, the only sure bet in a desert is SAND! Did you think they’d pave it over for you?

But I ate crow when, bored with the market’s kitschy wares and my mind on the good book waiting for me on board, I went back to the boat early and missed a spontaneous mourning ceremony my family stumbled upon that was so affecting, they said, that nobody could bear to photograph it (photographs, the pink triplicate proof of an Experience Consumed). The only serendipitous glimpse of Genuine Egypt, and I was probably ordering a piña colada. I’m a jerk.

jordis go wild

jordis go wild, originally uploaded by azurenath.

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