Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Amsterdam, Spring 2018

It has been an interesting month. Last Friday, I got notification that I can pick up my Residence Permit — I picked it up — this means I can stay 2 years. If I learn Dutch, I can re-apply to stay 5 (total?) and then apply for Netherlands citizenship.

All I have to do now is earn enough for housing, food, insurance, electricity, water, internet, gas, and that stuff that you wonder what happened to the rest of the money in your wallet and realize that it later went to q-tips, light bulbs, and a mysterious credit card entry labeled 'Goat rentals' which last you decide you might not really want to look into.

Meanwhile, taxes. Complicated! Quarterly Dutch filings, the Belastingdienst (NL Tax folks,) are right on top of things. It's an interesting exercize in financial management. They beat out the IND immigration people by weeks. Very attentive.

Amazingly, my horrendously expensive education finally earned me a few shekels doing tech resumes which made people happy, and, hopefully, some pro photography. I built a website, found out it was terrible, found a cheaper one, set up photo purchasing on it, fiddled with the tools, re-learned a bunch of DNS stuff, and considered doing User Interface Quality/Acceptance Testing for a living.

I've been visiting the Vishandels ('fishmongers'), and Harringhandels, the places that sell Herring-dogs, and I'm down to every three days or so.  (Thank you for all the concerned emails.) I'm starting to take notes. I may write an article, or even several - it seems a good thing to do with my time, although it will involve actual work, and unfortunately some eating, but the Amsterdam scene is ripe for some regular food writing.

I have been thinking about small countries. Having made some friends here, mostly related to the field of photography, but also neighbors, I've noticed that people here are highly direct and tolerant, and willing to share their stories, which is kind of what a street photographer or writer does. Or, exploits. Small country residents have fewer differences and seem to care less about them than the Giant US ofA. They are more approachable, too.

So, I've been working on my street photography game. 
Two cooks on a smoke break, De Pijp, Amsterdam
I started out photography in High School, and I got pretty decent, they even gave me a nice letter saying so, and that was a type of live shooting thing, with film which I processed from camera-store film to print, which made it all the harder and more enjoyable. I can't say I've got my game back.

I'm not the same person now, and I think I've forgotten how to do some parts of that right, specifically taking the actual shot. I think there's a digital thing I need to figure out. But, I've been practicing with friends and their kids, and they in combination tend to move a lot and fast, and that's both helping and making me nervous. I've also been meeting locals and hanging out with them.

I'm still not sure why people walk up to me and start sharing though, and it has happened while I've been hanging out with other Dutch people, at, say, a cafe outside or on a stoop, (the Dutch are great stoop-hangers, reminds me of 106th Street on the Upper West Side of Manhattan on a summer night,) even when I'm sitting in the back of a group, and they tell me a thing or story, and then say bye and amble off, and the group I'm with comments, "Well. That was weird." And then I have to tell them about the other times.

Meanwhile, jobs, jobs, jobs... language, as that guy says; I am vexed at my inability to study Dutch regularly.  I usually resist change, and then go over a hump of some sort and make a thing habit, but it hasn't been working here. If I was fluent in both Dutch and English, I'd have it made, and I kinna really need to pick up the speed if I want to stay. The Rosetta Stone should help. At 53, about to be 54, learning languages is hard, and I'm not talking Dutch enough with the natives, though the shop keepers happily assume I'm Dutch when I'm not wearing a baseball cap and chatter away very fast.

My landlord offered me the apartment below, which has a storefront, just before my lease runs out on this one, which is interesting, but when I suggested I'd use the storefront, she ghosted me for one round, suggested I keep my residence upstairs while I lived downstairs, and as she's a bit ...interesting, I don't want to rock the boat. But that would make a mess of internet, gas, water, mail, and my Registration. The alternative is a painfully large downpayment on a new place, farther out but not much, maybe larger with better light. I like my shoppy, lived-in neighborhood, though. De Pijp is pretty interesting. Hoping for good luck there.

Sunday, March 25, 2018

Amsterdam II

There are not many cities at Latitude 52.35 North. You have Battle Harbor Newfoundland, Canada, and Nikolski, Alaska, lots of Russia, and lots of other cold places. It is cloudy, it rains, it sleets, there is an occasional flash of hilarious sun and blue sky. There are some cities *north* of Amsterdam, but those people are nuts. I know this: several of them are very disturbed and entertaining friends of mine. They often liked to play evil characters in our D&D games, and they did some very bad things.

Uh, back to Amsterdam: Right now, there's some "Goddammit. Why not Hawaii? I mean, Hawaii, ...right?"  Hawaii is the only tropical/temperate climate in the world that's not dangerously, discouragingly chaotic to live in: South of France, Spain, Italy, Greece, Turkey, India, Indonesia all seem like a hot mess, for someone seeking The Least Amount of Annoyance. The whole equator, except Hawaii, is screwed, and Hawaii is a bastion of Liberalism. Normally that'd be great, but perhaps not under this regime.

Here I am, waiting for various documents, so that I can freelance. I prepare, I practice photography on a minuscule budget, I'm going to wedding boutiques and googling stuff. In a brief moment of terror, I misplaced my passport and all my apostilled (internationally certified,) documents, acquired with great mental and physical peril. I visit with my friends in Amsterdam-Noord. I walk around a lot building a mental map. Like many people with nothing to do, I'm inordinately busy.

I still have a bit of the Bilbo "I'm going on an adventure!" thing but finances being what they are, I hope to have until July at least, and there are a few promising things on the horizon.

As previously mentioned (see: Onions, Vol. 2) things are small: not just onions, but cars, tiny trucks, portions, motorized bicycles carrying six middle-schoolers at a clip, buckets in front of bicycles carrying two children, the rear-wheel bike platform that 7-year old girl was standing on in front of the Rijksmuseum, her hands on dad's shoulders while he pedaled blithely along. She wore no helmet. Concern for personal safety. Lots of small non-chain shops, selling kebbling (hot fried cod with a side of tartar sauce), clothes, photography equipment, meat, liquor, keys, food, lingerie, pastry and bread, coffee, 'coffee', you name it. The total number of bicycle helmets in the country, which, so far, approaches zero.

There's a lot of alert people — each time you have to cross the street as a pedestrian, you have to cross three to six lanes of lively, dangerous traffic: two bicycle lanes with people mostly going in the same direction at relatively high speed, who have the right of way and expect you to get the fuck out of it while they chat on phones, text, smoke cigarettes. Then two roadways often one in either direction of cars that are paying attention because if a car hits a bike an angry crowd assembles and summarily executes the car driver (that's what I was told) or gets run down by a tram, and one or two tram lines with 20-ton train cars that don't stop so fast. I nearly got creamed by a tram grabbing my hat off the windy street at the Dam Square. The driver rang the bell at me longer than usual, ding-ding-ding-ding-ding-ding-ding-ding, one or two being usual, more than that getting you a look... and when I boarded and thanked him for not running me over, laughed and said, "Almost!". Then I went home and put easily-found emergency numbers in my wallet.

I have a serious problem however. I'm wrestling with an addiction. It's not every day, but I'm irresistibly drawn to the insidious harring en broodje, a sandwich with two slices of Hollandse Nieuwe Haring in what looks like a hot-dog bun but is real bread, sprinkled with a tablespoon of raw onions and with three to five pickle slices. I want to have one a day, sometimes two by accident, but I'm hitting about every other day. I think about them all the time. It's really very disturbing. Some places use a pickle spear. I like the spear.

The herring is mild and smooth, boneless, pleasantly fishy, and cut by the pickles and onions.

The place selling these often has a host of other fried fish (kebbling, lekkerbek, shrimp, mussels, in various serving sizes, seared, sliced tuna in containers, smoked salmon, eel ('paling'), and a host, a plethora of other immediately edible fish things most of which you can get onna bun or hot in a paper dish with a side of sauce, which fish-munchies you generally order to eat right there, just outside the store's open-air no-doors front, in the -2° weather, steam coming from your hot food and your mouth, at one of those 3.5 meter tall cable-spool tables, on the street, onions going everywhere, and the world goes quiet about you.

Ok, not really, there are half-a-dozen people sharing and chatting and being friendly and telling you weird stories. I'll tell you about the Dutch-randomly-accosting-you-with-a-random-story thing when I put it together: right now it's a head-scratcher. But I know I'm not alone in observing it.

Amsterdam I

AT FIRST everything seems 25% more expensive, due to the € exchange rate. But once you start doing things, food is about the same in the Netherlands, and housing is about half as much as NYC. A friend has a 4-bedroom apartment for his family for €1,400.

There are many other weirdnesses.  The toilets are different.  the showers are inscrutable - who thought that putting a piece of glass half-way across a slippery bowl-shaped tub was a good idea for a shower curtain?  It's just not, ok? Showering in this configuration is bloody death-defying. Clothes dryers are rare, clothes washers are small, the food is disappointing, many vegetables come in plastic bags, there's no metal/can recycling. The onions are small.

Its a pretty great country, though, in general.  The public transport - trams and trains, subways and buses, work well, and the pricing makes sense... as a former New Yorker, I'm pretty put-out by that. I have a not-very secret desire to be a tram driver. People exiting shops in Amsterdam proper have a smile on their faces more often than not. Almost everyone speaks English.

The beer is fantastic, the bar menus, not so: tosti (pressed grilled cheese sandwiches), burgers (very rare), a meatball in gravy, hard sausage and cheese, omelettes. Most things are a bit smaller, except the seats on the bus - lots of very tall people here, tallest of any country or so I read. There is also a cultural attitude around getting along, and contributing to the general good. People in cars don't honk at each other impatiently. Taxes are high, but not a lot higher than the US, and go to infrastructure.

I stayed in an AirBnB on a street called Princengracht - the Prince's Moat - about 10 minutes south of Centraal Station. It looked out over a square that had a playground and a playhouse/restaurant. Huge windows, UNESCO building.  And, a feature shared with many houses in Amsterdam: a long set of terrifyingly steep stairs, 6 inches deep, and a spiral staircase set on top of that. I found there was indeed something scarier than going up or down these with a 50-lb suitcase - going up or down them when the light times out, in the dark!

My goal is to move here, so there's the DAFT - Dutch-American Friendship Treaty - and a lawyer. Consulting with the lawyer, my first assignment was to find a place to live where I can register as a resident at my local City Hall.

While at the AirBnB, I engaged in my usual "if it doesn't work, fix it," routine. I oiled door hinges, set the clock and replaced the light bulb on the stove, fixed a leak on the washing machine, took all the kitchen knives to the sharpener because cooking with them made me sad, fixed a leg on the faux-zebra chair, fixed a chain on a blind, and some other things.

Letting the host know I had done these things, and explaining I was there searching for a more permanent place, turns out she manages properties, rental and AirBnB, mostly working remotely from Portugal, where she now lives with her husband, who has had five bypass operations. She comes back about once a month to work on them. She had a tenant leaving a place down in De Pijp (pronounced de pipe,) a slightly fancy neighborhood, and offered to let me have a look.

It was a nice apartment, all on one level, 15 steps up from the street, and I put down 3 months on it. It is big enough and has enough doors to have a guest over, or even two, for a few days. Current resident, a pleasant young woman name redacted, is Indonesian, moved here by her company, just bought a place.  She said the landlord was very pleasant and predictable, even though there might have been some issue around late rent. I described the apartment, cost and area to my friend and he said, "Dude, you scored." Satisfaction in getting a good place for a good value was just as great as the one you get in NYC.

It helps if you say you are looking for just six months or a year to try out your new business and are willing to prepay rent, often called a short-stay lease. Mine is for 6 months; we printed one in Dutch off the Internet, I went over it with Google Translate's camera feature, and we signed.  I move in on Monday the 29th.

My second assignment is to get an opening balance for your new business from a Dutch accountant.  After trying to save €125 by using my own accountant, I realized I was going to have to screw around explaining how to work with my lawyer for three hours, and relented and used the layer's accountant, and had my accounting statement in about 3 hours instead of a week or more, last Friday.

Lawyer churned out my Visa application under DAFT by Sunday night. Sent it in by privatized, registered mail by Monday noon. Should have an appointment with Dutch Immigration in 2-3 weeks, at which point I'll get a BSN (Dutch Social Security number,) and will be able to work freelance and have clients, which means I can create or run a business, but I can't "get a job" or be an employee with an existing corporation or business here, even part time, except as a consultant.  If I do get a full-time IT Project Management job, that company will have to sponsor me, and I'll have to change my Visa application.

In the event, I'm still looking for a steady job as a project manager in IT with a company that will sponsor me, something of a long-shot, and, networking with photographers and models who know photographers.  I'm going to do a faux-wedding shoot in the apartment, by way of getting some wedding pictures into my portfolio, and see if a local photographer needs a helper/apprentice/second camera. I did a couple of portrait shoots with local models in the lovely airbnb. I also walk around the city creating a mental map and taking photographs.

I've had endless sausage and cheese, been unable to find stew meat at the market (oh, for England's gently-priced butcher shops!) Wine is plentiful and mostly comparably priced to US prices. Ingredient names are a pleasant puzzle - some are cognates, some not at all. I have not been eating out at all (with the exception of the herring, see below,) or drinking very much.  A Boston-based US model and advocate came by with her man, and we had a lovely dinner!

When the AirBnB ran out on Dec. 15, moved in with my friends and their 4 kids, ages 6-18, in Amsterdam-Noord... he owes me about a year of couch time, from about 15 years ago, and it has actually been rather fun.  I've been cooking dinner for them - tonight is spaghetti and meatballs.  We tried to see if I could just rent a room from them, but that didn't work out. A neighbor, Ben, is a retired teacher, knows German, French, English, Spanish and Dutch, and comes over and tutors us on Sundays.

One thing that is pretty amazing are the snack stands, in mall parking lots outside the supermarket, and on bridges over the canals... an amazing selection of herring, Hollandse Nieuwe - new holland herring, in January (! You can only get it in NYC at Russ & Daughters starting in June,) served sliced or on a nice hot dog-like bun but better, with chopped raw onion and pickles, a dish called Matjesbrötchen.  It is heavenly, and I try to have one every day. Another is the bakeries, which are plentiful and filled with a vast selection of fattening sweet and savory pastries, and loaves of bread, and sandwiches.

Still to come: Indonesian food, farmers markets, discount grocery stores (thanks, !) wandering through Jordaan district in search of a sandwich, the Dutch Resistance Museum, some not-Van-Gogh/other museums, the FOAM photography gallery, getting paid to do something.


Sorry this is all out of order, but then, we are in no particular order. And we found this half-finished, this morning.


About 45 minutes by double-decker bus northeast of London is the village of Walthamstow. Getting there from Gatwick was quite a slog dragging 30 kilos of not-very-many personal belongings, all that you thought necessary to start a new life.  That's 66 pounds, which unless you practice a lot, or have wheels on your luggage, is a great deal of weight to carry. Alas, I did not have wheels or practice, a mistake I shall not repeat. My friend had a nice EMS backpack.

It is actually two villages: quaint "old" Walthamstow, whose main street is Orford Road, and the new more modern center of town, about a 10 minute walk westward.

We stayed in Connaught Court, which used to be the town hall on the main street of old Walthamstow, and is now a set of apartments: in front, up top, it has a dark, square, shingled third-story turret with a small fence around the peak that would be appropriate on an old haunted house. Behind that, there are two stories of apartments arranged around a gated square courtyard that you can imagine people riding horses into, cloppity-cloppity-clop, where a groom, probably named Freddie, would hold the reigns while you dismounted, and then walk it off for a good brushing and some oats.

Arriving in 'old' Walthamstow, we were early for AirBnB check-in, and stopped at the pub across the street, called ...the Village Pub. The street 150 yards long consisted of a few residences like ours, and row of shops with residences above, all except ours two-story buildings: 3 pubs, a deli/bakery, a wine store, a small supermarket, 4-5 restaurants/eateries, a sausage store (OMG A SAUSAGE STORE) called the East London Sausage Co., an art gallery, a few package/bodega-like stores (OFF LICENSE... meaning, they have a license to sell you liquor you can take off premises,) and the Queens Arms pub. Apparently, "The Queen's Arms" is an extraordinarily popular name for pubs in the UK. A local street market on Saturdays had many marvelous things, including cheese. a lot of cheese.

We had snacks of "Houmous" and shrimp scampi at the bar, and a couple of decent pints served by a surly Eastern European who seemed pretty annoyed at having to pour beer.  Our not-very-modest pile of bags were widely ignored by the locals, as were we. We went and checked in with our host across the street, a charming, willowy 30-ish redhead. We returned only once to the Village Pub, the evening we got Bobbed.

In the event, a few nights later in for a pint of something different than at The Queen's Arms, and oblivious to Rory-the-bartender's urgent warning look, I asked the fellow to my left, Bob, what he thought of the Brexit. I know the words he replied with were technically English, although, a foreshortened, non-rhotic, h-less, T-glottaled, metaphor-filled, alveolar stopless version of English that left it quite a puzzle. Eventually, I think probably that he didn't hold with this whole EU thing, had some troubles getting his pension from the government after a lot of years of service, and there were troubles with the wife.

The Rory-the-bartender rolled his eyes every few minutes.

Bob talked on.

My friend and I exchanged a look about 10 minutes in... no way to get a word in edgewise. Not a chance. We managed to escape politely deep into the teens, or was it more, thanks to a brief opening made by the compassionate Rory. As we hit the street, we heard Bob continuing his curiously dialectic discourse.

The rest of our pubbing occurring at the Queens Arms, where we became regulars, partly because we took the time to learn every staff member's name, and partly because we went there most days for 2 weeks for a pint, or on a few occasions, dinner, and mostly because they had lots of really great beer that was quite cheaper than elsewhere, usually £3, though we got a feeling that we were getting a 'local's price' or maybe a 'not an annoying pain' price of £4,30... our budget was pretty tight. It was clean; lots of parents and children from 4-6 pm, and a good place to stop at on the way home from the bus station after a day of walkabout.

Double-decker buses are fantastic.  For one pound fifty (no cash, only your Oyster card please, and keep it topped up,) you can cross all of London in any direction in about two-and-a-half hours. You can sit upstairs in the front with your camera, watching people and bicycles dodging out of the way, a wide variety of ethnic people going about their London day, buildings, neighborhoods, every shop in every town center; you can take different buses with different routes to see different towns along the way, thus expanding your mental map of London, and if you are going to spend a month there, you need a mental map.

Every bus trip in London on a double decker is more than a little like that bus trip at the beginning of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban - the Knight Bus scene. How they turn that large tall vehicle around those sharp corners and hairpin turns, along narrow streets fitting only one bus in one direction at a time, and manage not to destroy people and the bus over the frequent speed bumps, while missing bicycles, other buses, trees, signs, roadside fences, posts, and cars by a very few inches, is more than a bit magical.

Walthamstow 'downtown' has a bus/rail/Tube station. I like the tube, or trains of any sort for that matter, such a pleasant and efficient means of travel. If only all the trains leading out of London weren't such a decentralized, expensive mess. Downtown also has a long outdoor mall, the longest in much of London, which I was assured wasn't nearly as long nowadays, that ran for about 1500 feet.

On the street were many of those blue-tarp tents you see at outdoor markets, hosted by a largely Muslim population: underneath the tents were greenmarket things: fruits and vegetables, a few of them strange and new even to me; clothing; two men who had baskets of every kind of power cable, adapter and charger you could imagine; a wide selection of luggage; household amenities like toothbrushes paste band aids; clothing; cell phone accessories; a few food carts; and other miscellany.

Arrayed in shops behind and in gaps between the tents on the wide walkway are many many shops: banks, cell phone stores, Caribbean/Pakistani/Indonesian specialty food markets, fabric shops, five butchers (four halal, one crowded British, with lots of amazingly priced Scottish beef in oddly-named cuts), two fishmongers, a couple of pubs and countless and diverse small, inexpensive ethnic restaurants.  You wonder how they all stay in business.

Days were spent catching the bus or Tube into Central London to engage in the activities outlined in the prior London story. Evenings were spent cooking (pasta, oatmeal), reading, or at the pub: my friend did some Tindering and went out a few times, eventually running off in late December, as our trip wrapped up, with a chef from Plymouth.

Often I'd go across to the (OMG) East London Sausage Co. and look at the 16-or-so kinds of sausage arrayed, with a dreamy trance-like look on my face that annoyed the proprietor; staring at the streaky bacon, a few steaks, shanks, lamb, chicken, eggs... and get some inexpensive garlic or Toulouse or Old Spot or venison sausage from the gruff butcher. With this in hand, and a proper, fist-sized onion, I'd make bangers and mash for us for dinner, along with some Swiss chard, or, surprise surprise, brussels sprout greens, which seemed to come with every order bangers and mash, anywhere. A lot like collard greens, not as soul-destroying as kale.

Lots of exercise walking about, lots of areas of London learned, didn't get to some places I wanted to, namely Trafalgar Square and the Naval Observatory at Greenwich. I did have several very good savory pies. I look forward to returning.

It was nice to be living in an active village, clean, middle class. I could imagine moving there... actually yes, I did imagine moving there.

London I

I arrived in London December 1, 10:30 Am or so.  It was grey - usual for me for London, but there were some nice sunny days, too.

Customers sitting down, lunch only
Over the next few weeks, dined at several places that make me happy: twice at Sweetings, just Southeast of St. Paul's Cathedral, a simple, ancient lunch fish place where they serve about a dozen kinds of very fresh fish, two kinds of oysters, smoked eel or trout, fat scallops roasted in bacon, and a thing called a Black Velvet, which, at Sweetings, is a dented, worn and loved silver tankard of Guinness and champagne: first made by a bartender at Brooks's Club in London in 1861, to mourn the death of Prince Albert, Queen Victoria's Prince Consort. My server told me she has a customer that comes in and drinks ten of them, which I was not able to do, even a little bit.
Begonia, at Sweetings, London

You enter for (only) lunch, you sit with your server-for-life, (mine, Begonia, from the Canary Islands, has been there 9 years,) you order an appetizer, some of the simple, unfussy cooking here - fried grilled or baked dover sole, hake, cod, salmon... perhaps some lobster mash.  You eat in the peaceful sunlight, get to know your neighbors a bit, and have a better time than you would have at the Grand Central Oyster Bar in New York.

Another fine place to eat simple, unfussy food a few times was St. Johns Bread and Wine, the eastern outpost of Fergus Henderson's 'Nose-to-tail' empire of five places. Cauliflower, Leeks and White Beans; Beetroot, Red Cabbage and Creme Fraiche; Snails and Oakleaf; Dried Salted Pig's Liver; Radishes and Egg; Ham and Gubbeen; Fennel and Berkswell Cheese; Smoked Haddock; Mussels and Leek; Beef Mince on Duck Fat Toast; Pork Pies; Roasted Marrow with toasted bread and parsley salad; A Cheese course, Madelines, Eccles Cake and Lancashire - very simple old school British cooking at its finest, in a dining room that is painted white, unadorned except for coat hooks and a counter of bread for sale.  No music, no rugs, no art, just the wild, unusual food, and company.

If you like your food fussy and complicated, this is not your place: I took my friend and a young chef there: she ordered a single dish (cod's roe on toast, kind of like a taramasalata mayo) and knowing nothing of the chef or it's history, or, apparently, the history and current state chefs sharing her profession, pronounced it 'rubbish!', and pledged her devotion to multi-course tasting menus of clever combinations of half-a-dozen ingredients. All based on one dish. I wasn't impressed with her opinion.

Under her suggestion, later we went to a pace called the Frog and had the tasting menu for dinner and I was confirmed and had a disappointing evening.  I also went to the Jugged Hare and had a decent meal. It is possible to pick delicious bargains at these places and not spend an enormous amount, but you have to pass on the drinks, and choose wisely. 

Some British drink an enormous, disabling amount. Out on the street in front of the pubs in the cold. I didn't try to keep up: young people lying on the curb dresses up, no coats, showing their undies and laughing, young men throwing up or arguing or staggering around. 

I did, however, have many good (full) pints of English bitter (NYC pints are no longer a pint, they are a sham.) 

I have mastered saying "sorry," at every possible opportunity, have come to recognize, without taking my glasses off the coins for a penny, two pence, five pence, ten pence, 20 pence, 50 pence, a pound, and two pounds.

I visited the Tate Modern, the National Portrait Gallery, the Churchill WWII Museum under Parliament, and the British Museum.  The British Museum is/can be endless, especially if you go quarterly - I went in September and there was all new stuff now in December! You can spend several days there and not go over the same thing twice.  The Tate was a bit like a larger MOMA, but without Tilda Swinton in a glass box being weird.

The other museums are all startling, sometimes a bit worn (Churchill's needs a refresh,) and I hope to hit some other places before I leave on Jan 2.

I went to Mattins at St Paul's Cathedral, on a couple of early Sundays, the home of the Episcopalian Church I was raised under.  Though an atheist, I do enjoy Mattins - a purely sung service with its choral work, majesty and beauty, and the chance to tell Oprah Winfrey in my head that my sense of wonder is doing just fine without her cruel, capricious, childish 'god' and give her a virtual finger-up, as they sometimes call it here.

I rode three kinds of buses, buses everywhere: I was staying in the NE, in Walthamstow and Upper Clapton/Hackney, so the bus was cheaper, and I got to see a lot more of the villages/townships as I went about my touring, and it was a lot less expensive and more photogenic, especially up top up front on one of the two kinds of double-decker bus. One has one entrance and one set of stairs up front - the other, three entrances, and front and back stairs. The other is a regular bus but still has lots of handholds and easily reached buttons for getting off, better than NYC.

I went to book stores, camera stores, walked until my feet hurt, went to a photography exhibit including shots of Prince, at Proud near Trafalgar Square and the National Portrait Gallery: ...  I also went to The Photographer's Gallery and saw some amazing works: including Orkney and Shetland Islands in early winter.

Time to move on, almost. But I do love London, and I'll not likely get a chance to do that again.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

The List

"* BEST Disclaimer: All "Best of" represents only this Fat Guy's opinion. Happy to have a lively debate.

Lower East Side/East Village Area:

Russ & Daughters* Cafe (smoked fish)
DBGB (sausages & beer)*
Angel's Share - get bombed on Martinis on an early Friday evening in a window seat
Sushi Dojo: very good sushi, good price, tiny
Brindle Room: Best Cheeseburger
Mighty Quinn's (BBQ) (ok)
Katz's Deli (ok)

Union Square Area:

Union Square Cafe*
Gramercy Tavern
15 East - Sushi, pretty good at the bar
Al'Onda @ bar
Shuko* - Kaiseki & sushi - not as good/dreamy sushi as Nakazawa, but pretty good and interesting kaiseki
Strip House (My "usual" local steakhouse; nothing crazy, but reliable. Watch your check and receipt in 30 days, they fuck around)
Old Town Bar: great burger, Nachos; old-school place

Midtown and South of Midtown Area:

Bobby Van's (Just N. of grand central, steak, better than either Wollenski's)
Resto/The Cannibal (terrible owner, decent food)
The John Dory (fish, small dishes)
The Breslin
Sushi Yasuda
Grand Central Oyster Bar
Keen's (steak, mutton chop)

West Village:

The Dutch - Esp fried Chicken
Sushi Nakazawa*
Del Posto $$$
Little Owl (tiny)
Hakata TonTon (pigs feet, other pork)
Blue Ribbon (Small; open late; Opens @ 4 pm, nice to have the place all to yourself for an hour plus, they burn the sweetbreads)
Blue Ribbon Sushi
Takashi (Japanese grill, weird parts)
Spotted pig
Minetta Tavern
Fedora (warning: much red peppers)
Faccio's Pork Store: No seating - best Italian Sub in NYC*

Ippudo (IMHO Best Ramen)*
Balthazar - don't go crazy
Lafayette - don't go crazy
Vic's - (Replaced the restaurant called "5 Points")

Have not been to in the last 12 months, but still fond of:

The Modern
Jean Georges - dress up
Daniel (fine) - jacket
Cafe Boulud (fine) - jacket
Peter Lugers (steak, cash only)

Still to go to:
Charlie Bird
Black Seed bagels
La Folie in SF
Virginia's @ 11th and C

went to Upland - meh.

Saturday, March 09, 2013

Current circulation:

And as usual, WTF is with restauranteurs and click-through splash pages?  You are paying the wrong people.  Get rid of the idiotic "click here to enter" pages, and put the hours and res number and address on the FRONT PAGE.  I mean, seriously.

Chez Sardine
Spotted Pig
The Breslin
The Marrow
Mighty Quinn:
Union Square Cafe:
Gramercy Tavern:

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Buttermilk Biscuits

Please do not make your biscuits from a can. If you do, you go to Hell per all Catholic and Proddy rules, not sure what happens to the Jews among us. I am just trying to save you from eternal damnation. I like making these a lot because people always really really enjoy them and no matter how many you make, look sad when they are gone.

Makes ~12

3 cups AP flour (or soft/cake/low-protien if you can get it, generally better for non-yeast breads)
3 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 + a bit teaspoon salt
3/4 cup (1 + 1/2sticks) chilled unsalted butter, cut into 1/4-inch pieces
~1 + 1/2 cup buttermilk
2 sticks butter, leave out at start of baking to soften, for spreading on biscuits

  1. Preheat oven to 425°F.
  2. Whisk flour, baking powder, soda, salt in a large bowl.
  3. Rub 3/4 cup chilled butter into dry ingredients until mixture resembles coarse meal.
  4. Add buttermilk and stir until evenly moistened. Roll out and cut with circular thingy: Soup can, coffee cup, don't panic, using ~1/4 cup dough for each biscuit, onto baking sheet, spacing ~2 inches apart.
  5. Bake until biscuits are golden brown on top, about 8-12 minutes.
Serve hot with soft butter, sausage gravy, fried chicken, steak, chicken friend steak, go nuts, but ideally these go in the oven as the steak or chicken comes out to rest... but you don't go to Hell if the timing is off.

Where I'm Eating

I'm going for breakfast or lunch at Maialino once or twice a month. Dishes are not large which I find pleasant. The Malfatti al Maialino is addictive, wide strips of pasta with a sauce made from thickened pork stock, strips of braised suckling pig, it is freaking delicious!

Also recommended: Eggs Trippa (baked in a bed of tripe-in-tomato-sauce), ok, frankly anything with pork in it, one or two glasses of red by the glass.

I've been to Empellón four times now, and the Chicharrones are snap-crackle-pop crunchy goodness, with a roasted tomato, olive and caper sauce that is perfectly sized. Also the Sopes, little pastries with meatball or quail-egg and bean content; the Octopus is a strange bowl of chunks of the sliced cephalopod and potatoes, tomato sauce, and smoky peppers, with dots of crema, served cold, thick and with a spoon, I'd go back for that.

Not so much with the tacos: I find the flour tortillas gummy. The lobster one is good enough; the sweetbreads are overwhelmed by some tough roasted mitake mushrooms, too chewy by comparison with the sweetbreads, and too heavy a hand on the ancho sauce.

I am fond of all of April Bloomfield's places: the specials at The Spotted Pig, as well as the deviled eggs and devils on horseback: bacon-wrapped dates. The cloudy Gnudi with its creamy parm-bechamel is one of the finest dishes in New York at this time.

The burger is good; the fries I'm not wild about, April has good beers; I also go to The John Dory and order everything on the menu as often as I am able. At The Breslin, I'm into the tongue sandwich for lunch; the pigs foot is a feast, and: the Scotch Egg, the Beef and Stilton Pie, the Chicken Liver parfait, the terrine board is a wow, the Caesar Salad is the best I have ever had, it has ruined me for others with its creamy dressing, and the perfect, super fresh, never-brown leaves. The Lamb Burger here is even better than the the Spotted Pig's. Have the chips, if you don't get the burger, with the curry mayo.

Prune, Brunch, getting there before 10am, and having a variety of bloody marry relatives, and the small glasses of beer is encouraged. Try everything on the menu.

Sorry about the Prune website - why do chef's insist on 1. Not having the damn hours and location RIGHT UP FRONT, its an informational service after all, and 2. Having those damned "click here to enter" splash pages?

Note to Chefs about your websites: That splash-page is just fucking totally idiotic. Knock that shit off.

BauHaus: Yummy!

Joe Dough: The Conflicted Jew, chicken liver and bacon, and the L. E. S. French Dip, with tongue and horseradish causes NOM-NOM-NOM issues, handle with care.

This Little Piggy: Fantastic, have to cut back on these!

The Redhead for martinis, fried chicken, shrimp and grits, the rest ain't bad neither.

I have been to Momufuku ssäm Bar for lunch quite a few times for the Duck Over Rice Set. So should you.

There is more but I'll save it for another post.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Centrico, Aaron Sanchez


Some good food, some bad service, the chef (and *cough* staff) MIA every time I've been there, every day of the week and more. Fantastic tongue tacos; great chicken mole, nice margaritas etc.

Because the food is not fancy but the prices are, the staff does not measure up when the boss is away.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Veritas, Late Summer 2011

I have been to Veritas three tiems since it got its new management, new chef Sam Hanzen, and face-lift.

I've wanted to like it as much as I did the old one with one of my favorite chefs, Scott Bryant, or even his successor Gregory Pugin who made an awesome tete-de-veau.

However, each time I have been there, the food has been quite a let-down. Now, this is on the basis of just three appetizers, so take it with a grain of salt, but three bad times is three bad times.

Park B. Smith wines are still spectacular, of course - you can always get a great white or red Burgundy, and maybe that's enough... and what you should limit yourself to.

Most recently, I had the "Ocean & Land: Lobster and bone marrow." The lobster had a strongly fishy flavor. Having spent a significant portion of my childhood at clambakes and on (and off) the Maine coast, with a Grandfather and father who both were lobstermen for periods, its not something that the nose can miss. Before that, I had the Beef tartare, and there was an off-flavor to it.

Both times I strongly wanted to order a second dish, but was so put-off I could not, especially not at the current prices, $29-48 bucks, given the risks. Of 10 mains, 7 are more than $35: I thought the new idea was to lower the prices, which hasn't seemed to have worked out. I dont' remember my many meanls of old being quite this steep.

I also have a nameless objection to the style of the Menu, but I can't put a finger on it.

I know Sam Sifton wrote nicely about Veritas on March 15, 2011, but each time I've ordered an appetizer and cancelled the main, or tried an app and been discouraged enough to not order further.

Sorry to say that about Veritas, because the staff is friendly and the service good, but I've been been less than impressed with the cooking.

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

St. John Bar and Restaurant, Smithfield, London

On a recent pair of trips to London, on the way to and from Kyiv and Moldova, I had the honor of eating at St. John Restaurant, at the Smithfield Market in London. The second visit was on December 8th, 2006.

The Menu changes daily.

It specializes in organ-meats and wild game birds, and also does whole roast pigs for parties.

Three Not-so-little Pigs

Over two visits, two of us had the follwing:

Eel w/ Bacon & Mash (twice),
Brown Crab Meat on toast (save your space for other things, unless you really dig crab,)
Duck Gizzards and Dandelion which came in 2nd,
Langoustines and Mayonnaise, terrific,
Cold Rolled Pigs Spleen & Bacon (came w red onions and red wine vinegar dip) came in a close 3rd,
Cold Roast Goose & Pickled Quince,
Roast Bone Marrow with parsley salad, a small bowl of salt and toast,
of course, Sweetbreads,
something else I've lost track of.

(Clockwise, Tender Duck Gizzards with Dandelion Greens, Rolled Pig's Spleen with Red Wine Vinegar and Red Onions, and Cold Roast Goose with Pickled Quince.)

And for mains:
Teal and Jerusalem Artichokes,
Snail-Chorizo Sausage-and-Chickpea stew (that was rockin'),
Tripe and chips,
Veal Kidney w/ Lentils and mushrooms (twice),
Sprout Tops (twice, you gotta get your vegetables),

And for dessert:
and Eccles Cake and Lancashire cheese - mmm,
Bitter Chocolate Cream and Prunes,
Pear and Almond tart...

...over two visits.

Accompanied with:
- Echezaux Grand Cru 2001 by Alex Gambal and some other stuff on the 1st visit,
- Reserve de la Comtesse 2001 Bordeaux,
- a white Cotes de Provence Ile de Porquerolles 2003 Domaine de la Courtade,
- a Vin de Pays Coteaux du Libron, Domaine La Colombette, 2005 Pinot Noir on the 2nd trip.

I struggled with them on some of the more expensive wines - it seems to happen to me sometimes, they like to steer me to the more intersting but less expensive bottles they are proud of or just like.

All in all, a lovely pair of meals, served by generally great staff. At first, even after Nick asking for a larger table and warning them it was going to get a bit ugly, they asked if I was really going to eat it all, then they got used to us.

The bar which you walk through to get to the restaurant has its own board of yummy stuff:

Friday, November 24, 2006

Thanksgiving at Daniel

Thanksgiving at Daniel, 11/23/2006

We went to Daniel for Thanksgiving for the fourth year in a row, my Mom and me. We were a bit unsure about how many times, but they were quite.

There were some lovely choices - the menu was not online this year, but they had Venison with Foie Gras and Galette of Turkey and walked about with some great stuffing, and Fricassée of Dover Sole with Cauliflower, Golden Raisins and a Light Brown Butter Emulsion and those were just the mains.

Peeky Toe Crab and Risotto with white truffles and Butternut-Kabocha Squash Soup with Oregon Huckleberries, Caraway and Cinnamon Marshmallow. But Mom had the crab.

She also had the turkey. I actually switched up, having the Grain Crusted Millbrook Venison with Foie Gras, Lambic Stewed Red Cabbage, Celery and Glazed Honeycrisp Apples. It was luvverly.

© 2006 Alex Whitney

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Kasha Varnishkas

Kasha Varnishkas

2 tablespoons olive oil
1 medium minced onion
1 large carrot, diced
2 cups thinly sliced trimmed crmini mushrooms
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 cup kasha (whole only!)
1 egg
Salt and pepper
2 cups chicken stock
1/2 pound bowtie pasta, al dente

Sauté the onions in the oil until soft.

Add the carrots and saute until the onions get a little brown.

Add the mushrooms and garlic. Saute for 2 + minutes.

While it is cooking, mix kasha with the eggs and salt and pepper.

Add the kasha-and-egg mixture to the saute pan with the vegetables and cook over medium heat until dry-looking and the kernels separate.

Add the stock and turn it down as low as you can, and cover it, until the liquid is absorbed and the kasha is tender, say 15 minutes.

Mix in the bowtie pasta.

Serve with gravy!

Friday, November 10, 2006

NYC Dining: La Petite Auberge

First published 4/24/01

La Petite Auberge: A Neighborhood Gem by Steve Levine

116 Lexington Ave
New York, NY 10016View Map
(212) 689-5003
Directions: 6 at 28th St.

In the midst of Curry Hill is a small French restaurant with a local following named La Petite Auberge. My friend Dave and his girlfriend Lena had come here once before with my fiancé and I, and so when we wanted to go out again we decided to pay a repeat visit, especially because it was two blocks from his apartment.

We called ahead for a table a little before 9, but had to wait in the crowded front room by the coat check for about ten minutes. There wasn,t any more room for us at the tiny bar. The restaurant is a step-down space, with kind of a basement feel. The décor is timeless, though a bit dusty. The clientele is largely middle-aged and "senior," and except for one couple, the four of us were by far the youngest there while we were eating.

The service was attentive. We were seated for perhaps five seconds when the maitre ïd inquired after beverages and brought us a wine list. We selected a Chablis first, and a nice red Cotes du Rhone of some sort for after. A busboy came by immediately after with bread and a bowl of cold pieces of butter. He dropped two on each of our bread plates with a fork quickly and departed to fetch water. None of the staff looked down on us for our age, and our waiter actually remembered us from the prior visit. Water glasses were kept full, and standard serving conventions were observed wherever the close quarters allowed.

The menu is classically French. For appetizers Dave had asparagus with Hollandaise, Lena had oysters, Marci got standard escargots, and I had a lovely Shrimp Provençal. This part of the menu also featured basics like onion soup, shrimp cocktail, artichokes vinaigrette, and smoked salmon, all in the $4.50-$8.75 range.

For entrees, Marci had filet mignon with sauce Bordelaise, Lena had a special, veal tenderloin with Béarnaise, Dave ate a sirloin au poivre, and I went with a house specialty, Coq au Vin. These were all extremely well prepared, and the meat was cooked as requested. I normally never order chicken in a restaurant, but this preparation was stupendous. It was moist, flavorful, and was accompanied by some garlic mashed potatoes and blanched vegetables. Our waiter apparently agreed with me, because when I ordered he stated that he never orders chicken out, but loves this dish here. The entrees are priced reasonably, most between $12-19, with steak dishes priced at $23.

For dessert, we ordered the house specialty, souffle for two, ordered with our entrees, of course. Dave and Lena shared a Grand Marnier souffle while Marci and I had a chocolate one. These were textbook souffles, probably identical to the first one ever baked.

All in all, for a quiet neighborhood place La Petite Auberge is exceptional. Its food and service are on a par with far pricier restaurants.

NYC Dining: Oceana

May 29th, 1999

Oceana by Steve Levine

55 East 54th Street
New York, New York
(212) 759-5941

Oceana was the restaurant in which our gastronomic odyssey began, in early December. Alex and I had wanted to try it for lunch for several months, but were unable to pull it together. Finally, in frustration, I made a reservation for 4 for 6:30 on a weeknight and got Alex, Josh, and Spencer to show up. We enjoyed the experience so much that we took up going to more of the finest restaurants as often as we could afford to.

The four of us enjoyed the $90 six-course tasting menu, with 2 dozen extra oysters at the start and a couple of bottles of good wine. The total bill was about $160 each with tip. The pricing was consistent, as my bill from Saturday night was comparable. Since we didn't decide to start keeping notes until the trip to Café Boulud later on, we had very little material to base a review on. Therefore, devoted diner that I am, I resolved to return with my girlfriend and show her what started this mad craze of mine.

Marci and I had a 9:00 reservation, which was honored promptly. We had pink gin-and-tonics and a choice of three breads with Taramosalata -- a pinkish Greek fish roe and garlic spread -- rather than butter, which I'd had out in Astoria before. The teaser course was smoked trout over orange-onion marmalade, but I didn't quite believe them at first. Expecting a little piece of fish, I saw a white blob the color and consistency of marshmallow fluff. It did taste right, though, and I realized that it was a mousse, which absorbed some of the sweet marmalade to offset its own saltiness.

Once we'd eaten this, service was immediately cleared, and we were given a few minutes to chat and drink our cocktails before looking at the menus. The main upstairs dining room was kind of small and busy, but comfortable. The décor was wood paneling in a light shade, some brass fittings, and a skylight, with cruise line posters on the walls. There were a few other younger couples and groups in the room, which added energy, but at least half were middle-aged or older. The captains were younger than I had remembered, but attentive, and knowledgeable about the menu and wines. One gaffe that annoyed me slightly was not to have received the wine list when they did present me with a menu. I asked for it, and received it quickly, but it struck me as amateurish.

The menu choices were easy for Marci, but I had a tough time with entrees, as I remembered what had stood out the first time. The menu influences were a split between Asian and Mediterranean. There was no meat or fowl whatsoever, but there was enough variety to warrant the inclusion of fair number of reds on the wine list. This list was mid-sized, and fairly reasonable in price. After I finally declined the roasted monkfish "Rossini Style," with foie gras, red onion confit, Fondant potatoes, and sauce Perigeaux, in favor of the miso bass (described later) I selected an old friend, a 1996 Domaine Weinbach Tokay Pinot Gris. This was $92 here, and I believe we'd paid like $110-115 at Boulud or Le Cirque 2000. It was sweet, but not overly so, with good complexity and a lingering flavor that matched well with all of our food. As for food, we decided to stick with the standard $65 prixe fixe 3-course menu.

As appetizers, Marci got lobster ravioli in a tomato basil broth, and I had "Kung Pao" style calamari and rock shrimp stir-fry, with Moroccan spiced glaze and cashews. The lobster ravioli were plump and sweet, with a mild broth. This was one of the finest preparations of this common dish I've encountered to date. My squid was cut in the traditional Chinatown manner, and tender in the thick, spicy-sweet Kung Pao sauce. This sauce was very close to that which I'd had with chicken over pork-fried rice dozens of times before, but with nicer vegetables and goodly spice.

Following a reasonable interval, we got our entrees. Marci, on my recommendation, had ordered the "Everything" crusted yellowfin tuna steak, with warm mixed grain salad, sugar snap peas, Caponata, and roasted red pepper sauce, served medium. "Everything" means all of the different seeds and toppings normally found upon the outside of an everything bagel: sesame seeds, poppy seeds, garlic, onion, salt, etc. The hearty grains and strongly flavored pepper sauce complemented the tuna.

I got the dish that stood out most in my mind from the first visit, revisited as one of the two best things at Nobu when we went there. This was miso-glazed Chilean sea bass, served with crisp root vegetable streamers, ripe mango & scallion, and Yuzu vinaigrette. The miso marinade gave the bass a wonderful sweetness, an incomparable moistness through and through. The vegetables were crunchy with a salty sauce, and offset the bass. These two were Oceana's signature dishes, and most of those around us were eating them as well.

For dessert, Marci got the chocolate praline tart, which consisted of praline parfait, cocoa nibb crisp, and chocolate gratin. This tremendous confection was crispy and creamy, and rich enough to fill the bill. I had her drink a glass of a 1995 Finger Lakes Icewine, rich, complex and sweet.

I had a Bananas Foster Napoleon with hot chocolate banana sauce and vanilla ice cream. I was at Breakfast at Brennan's, in New Orleans, and had the original Bananas Foster about a month ago, and was a little disappointed by this variation. That said, it was delicious, composed of sliced banana and ice cream, with a brown-sugar-butter-bannana-liquer topping. Fairly simple, but elegant. I selected a Fonseca Port with it, which was exactly what it was supposed to be.

Oceana was a fine restaurant, but not the same caliber of a Lespinasse, Daniel, or Bouley. Perhaps I caught it on a bad night, as the first visit was quite grand. If I were to base my opinion solely on this visit, it would be in the 7-7.5 range, but since the first time was great, I'd say more like an 8. Still, it's well worth a trip.

NYC Dining: New Orleans

April 27th, 2001

New Orleans Special Edition: Our Second Favorite Eating City

by Steve Levine

We don't confine our extreme dining to our hometown. Road trips are an excellent time to explore and overindulge in cuisine based upon different ingredients and techniques than are available here in New York City. One of our favorite road trips is the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. I went once, with Alex and a whole bunch of the crew. Alex has gone many times, and will likely write his own account of his experiences there. I went back to New Orleans last summer with my wife (then fiancée) for a long weekend to celebrate her birthday, and feel compelled to ruminate about our food adventures.

We arrived late on Thursday night, checking into the Royal Sonesta Hotel on Bourbon Street, after 11. We immediately went out for a light dinner, running into the Acme Oyster House for crawfish etouffe and po' boy. The Acme isn't my favorite spot, as their food isn't great and it's kind of grubby, but they were close and open. We had a quick bite and a few drinks to celebrate the coming of Friday, Marci's birthday, and then crashed.

Friday, we were determined to go to Uglesich's, a legendary diner open only for lunch in a shady section of town. We went right after getting up, so we could beat the lunch crowd, but had a tough time finding it, and finally discovered that it was closed. Starving and heartbroken, I determined that we would go to a place that my friend Darryl, a N'awlins native, had taken a bunch of us during Jazz Fest the previous year.

Unfortunately, I couldn't remember what it was called; I just had a vague notion that it had a two-part name and that it was sort of uptown. We stopped into a drug store on St Charles Avenue to try and figure out where it was. After asking about 10 people, (everyone was very nice) someone figured out that I was talking about Frankie & Johnnie's, and gave me directions. After taking a wrong turn through a depressed neighborhood, we wound up in the warehouse district uptown, maybe a block from Tipitina's, a legendary club where I'd seen the Radiators the year before. I recognized the place on sight, and warned Marci about the large roaches we'd seen then.

It was perfection. We had cold Abita beers, a Louisiana original, and feasted like we hadn't eaten in a week. The appetizers consisted of rich, yummy gumbo, and a crawfish pie. Their gumbo was thick with meat and dark roux, with just the right bite. The 4" pie was filled with meat and vegetables, and topped with breadcrumbs. Next, we had po'boys, the local version of the hero (or hoagie, sub, torpedo, or grinder as you please). Marci had fried oysters on hers, while I went for a very large one with no less than four soft-shell crabs on it, with what the fine folks here call "dressing": lettuce, tomato, mayo, and pickle slices. The lightly-seasoned cornmeal breading was just right for the fresh seafood, and the light French-style long roll made these portions just right to hold us until our 9 PM dinner.

After a day of sightseeing, a tea interval, and a nap, we went to our birthday dinner reservation at Commander's Palace, generally considered the finest restaurant in New Orleans and the place where great chefs such as Paul Prudhomme and Emeril Lagasse made their names. Located in a huge and spectacular mansion in the beautiful garden district, this restaurant is a feast for the senses. We had a drink at the gorgeous bar, where Marci developed a new love for the Absolut Mandarin Cosmopolitan. To get to the bar and the large dining areas towards the back of the mansion, one must pass through the kitchen. Being from New York, I was more than a little impressed by its size. Chefs back home tend to do more with less, but these guys had room to spare. There is even a large booth on one side, where parties can be seated by special reservation and be fed by the chef directly.

After something of a long wait, we were led across an outdoor patio studded with flowering trees and into a large greenhouse-like structure, with high ceilings that attached to another wing of the mansion. It was mostly empty, and we were led to a table in the center of the room and at least two tables from anyone else. Service was black-tie and impeccable. They were friendly, helpful, and knowledgeable. The menu was a Creole dream, and very difficult to choose from. The wine list was somewhat brief for the caliber of restaurant, but had some quality stuff. We wound up ordering a Stag's Leap Chardonnay to go with the fish we both wound up ordering.

Marci started with a long-time house and state specialty, turtle soup. This recipe has been used and refined over generations by the Brennan family, who own Commander's Palace and several of the other great restaurants in town, such as Mr. B's Bistro, Brennan's, and more. It was meaty and rich, with fresh herbs and a drop of sherry. For my appetizer, I got a special of the day, which absolutely blew my mind. It was four very large gulf oysters, with a fragrant bread, parsley, and fennel stuffing. These oysters were placed on a bed of rock salt studded with cloves, peppercorns, and herbs, and baked until golden brown. The aroma alone was enough to drop my jaw three inches, and infused the breadcrumbs and even the underlying oyster. I would have to rate this among the three best appetizers I've ever had. It hurt to give one to Marci, but a couple of spoonfuls of her wonderful soup eased my pain.

For entrees, we had dishes that were superficially similar in composition, but really quite different in flavor. Marci had the Barbecue Stew, which was kind of like a bouillabaisse, but with all of the ingredients grilled beforehand. The centerpiece of the dish was blackened redfish, surrounded by local shellfish taken off the grill and simmered in a delicious broth. Being a glutton, I was able to sample it thoroughly. My entrée was a "Napoleon," of layered grouper, shrimp, crawfish, scallop, and a potato thing, covered in a creamy wild mushroom sauce. It tasted as good as it sounds. Excepting the local ingredients, this dish could have walked right off of the menu from Le Bernardin.

Unfortunately, by the time we hit dessert my memory got a little hazy. I'm pretty sure we had port, and I know there was really good coffee with chicory. I know that Marci had their signature dessert: bread pudding soufflé. Imagine the best aspects of a vanilla bread pudding, poofed up with egg whites: Oh my gosh! I think I had something chocolate, possibly with banana, but this is largely a guess. We'd told them it was Marci's Birthday, so they brought out a chef's hat and a bouquet of balloons for her with dessert. This place is definitely special, and will be revisited. The only bad thing was that as a Manhattanite, I am unaccustomed to having to drive us home from celebratory dinners.

The following day, I took Marci to Brennan's for breakfast. This is something of a New Orleans institution, and was one of the high points of my earlier visit to the city. Located in the French Quarter, two blocks from our hotel, Brennan's has the special local charm of the neighborhood, combined with white-glove-quality service and a menu heavy on Creole standards. We had cocktails at the bar while waiting for our table, and Marci loved the treat of a pickled green bean in her Bloody Mary.

Breakfast was two courses plus dessert for $35, I believe. Marci started with perfect berries and cream, while I had oyster chowder, a variation on the turtle soup at Commander's. We enjoyed a bottle of Louis Jadot Pouille-Fuisse alongside. For an entrée Marci had a ham and cheddar omelet, and I had Eggs Shannon, which was two poached eggs atop two fried trout fillets and creamed spinach, topped with Hollandaise. This was a heart-stopper in every sense of the word.

At dessert, we each selected Bananas Foster, a Brennan's invention. For those of you who've never seen it, Bananas Foster is made tableside, starting with a big frying pan on a hot plate on a cart. The waiter melts a stick of butter and cup or more of brown sugar together, and then sautés sliced banana in it. After a few minutes, he dumps in a generous splash of banana liqueur, and flambés it. When the flames die down, the resulting mixture is spooned over vanilla ice cream. This is probably one of my five favorite desserts. After one of these and some more of that chicory coffee, it was pretty tough to stumble around the French Quarter in the summer heat, but we managed.

We had a late reservation for dinner again, and were able to take our time enjoying the French Quarter. In our hotel was the Desire Oyster bar, where we enjoyed a few huge gulf beauties on the half-shell with cocktail sauce - we each made to our own taste - when we needed a light bite. There were many drinks, and a nap and shower before dinner.

All the way at the end of St. Charles Avenue, and a little to the right, is Brightsen's, set in a decent-sized house in a residential neighborhood. The chef-owner is Frank Brightsen, who can be seen occasionally on various cable cooking shows and spins his own version of Creole cuisine. The restaurant is bright and welcoming, and the staff extremely professional. One waitress I'd talked to the previous year had been the first female captain at Commander's Palace.

By this time, Marci was feeling an extreme need for a salad, so she had one with the two amazing appetizers that I insisted we get anyway. One of them was a loin of rabbit in sesame batter, served on top of a cornmeal cake and greens in a pool of warm mustard remoulade. The bitter greens married the sauce to the rabbit, while the corn cake and sesame seeds in the batter made sweet music in the background. The other, equally delicious appetizer was the largest soft-shell crab I've ever seen, deep fried in a light batter and sitting in a pool of red wine sauce. A soft-shell crab fanatic, I was in heaven.

For entrées, I have to admit my memory is weak, but I'm pretty sure I had a piece of fish with some crab meat and an oyster cream sauce. Marci had some kind of veal dish, but she was getting stuffed, and I wound up eating most of it. Feeling guilty, I finished her dinner and the bottle of wine and we went home without dessert.

Our flight home was early the following afternoon (or so we thought). We got up somewhat early and went across the street behind our hotel for some beignets and coffee. A beignet is the local version of the doughnut, only it's got an irregular shape, depending upon where you get them, and the only flavor is "lots of powdered sugar." They are heavenly, but heavy, and one and a half of the large ones at this place was enough. We were going from there to check out of the hotel and go to the airport, so we got a muffaletta to go. A muffaletta is another New Orleans specialty, invented many years ago at the Central Grocery. It is a sandwich of Italian salami, ham, bologna, mortadella, and provolone cheese stacked on a 12" round Tuscan loaf and topped with an olive and pepper salad that they now sell all over town. It is a mountainous meal, which we shared in the airport waiting area. The only other thing we ate on this journey was McDonald's, when we were stranded in O'Hare for several hours.

I would have to say that this hit-and-run commando raid represents the perfect way to sample the culinary charms of the Big Easy. If we'd stayed any longer we might have hurt ourselves, but we were still sorry to leave and vowed to return. The next time we might check out Antoine's, Uglesitch's, and there would likely have to be a return to Commander's Palace, though there are many, many more. Another good way to understand the local cuisine would be to come to the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, usually held the last two weeks of April. It's held on an enormous fair ground, and the food courts have amazing stuff, like crawfish in all its forms, fried turkey po' boys, and more kinds of jambalaya than you can dream up. The music isn't bad either.