Tag Archives: #travel

Narobi, Kenya: Where culture, cuisine, and class converge

Fresh off a Kenyan adventure, the CD takes you on a cultural and culinary tour of Nairobi, a city of contrasts. The food scene one finds in Nairobi as a wealthy expatriate is far different than what those less fortunate may eat, showing us all just how fortunate we are as travelers.


Many of us in the developed world (pretty much most of the northern hemisphere) take for granted our range of food options – our ability to travel internationally without ever leaving home; access to clean water and safe produce; the consistent access to electricity to transform those raw materials into something altogether different through heat or refrigeration/freezing. Many of us are fortunate to vary our diet at least a few times a week and count on at least two full meals.


My recent trip to Kenya reminded me of the contrast between the global “haves” and “have-nots” in terms of not only our food culture, but our opportunities as well. I have to confess a little uneasiness at my enjoyment of international dishes at restaurants catering to expats and foreign visitors while serving a nutritionally marginal – yet coveted with the desperation of hunger and unpredictable meals – breakfast to street children and teens in a Nairobi slum. It’s the luxury of trying crocodile or camel for the sheer novelty of doing so vs the monotony of porridge and starch that provide easy calories.

During my trip, I visited everything from international organizations and gleaming, modern business schools to a rural primary school with 1800 students, 50 students per class clamoring for the chance to learn math through donated computer based training, and to slum-based community empowerment organizations, including one where I met some of Kenya’s most promising rappers dreaming of international recording stardom. In Kenya, there is extreme hardship and opportunity around every congested, chaotic roundabout (more of those than corners on the streets of Nairobi!).


And in each community, a contrast between the homeless (porridge), the road to empowerment (street samosas; rice and beans with cooked greens from an organic community garden); the formal dining hall of the university business school; to the luxury of (the risk of!) eating sushi alongside a Mediterranean eggplant spread with a cocktail at a five-star hotel.

Kenya’s cuisine appears fairly simple relative to the spicy dishes loved in other equatorial lands, though it also draws from the heavy influence of centuries of trade with the Indian subcontinent. At its most basic are its simple Millet or maize (corn) porridges that expand to fill a hungry belly, served with Mandazi, a simple, savory, triangle of fried dough (the slum’s samosa, perhaps). A little further up the ladder – and a bit more egalitarian among Kenya’s social classes – is Ugali, a soft pancake or spoon bread-like starch made from a hardened maize + flour porridge. It’s sort of a softer (and, I’m told, more bland) answer to Ethiopia’s Injera. It typically is a vessel for fried beef or goat, or sometimes beans. Beef is Kenya’s cheapest meat, in contrast to many developed economies.

The Indian influence does make it through even the working classes, where street kiosks sell samosas and chai to those on the go; biryani, pilau, chapattis, and roti/naan are prevalent.

And the middle classes and above have the access one might expect to modern supermarkets and coffee houses, to international restaurants.


At this end is where I fell, carrying the white woman’s guilt from handing out greasy Mandazi and porridge in cups that had to be-reused without sterilization from child to child, reminded that I am fortunate – as are any of you reading this bougie blog! because of birth, not birthright, nor deserved by hard work. My own work ethic only serves to elevate me even more from my birth status as one of the global 0.1% (as I used to refer to my fellow business school classmates and myself as we studied business in the developing world). It’s a humbling reminder to be grateful.


The humility also killed my appetite a bit; ok, that and unreliable drinking water. One night, my British colleague and I dined at the uber-touristy Nyama Choma Ranch dinner theatre at the Safari Park Hotel. It, like other touristy meat-themed restaurants (yes, that’s you, Carnivore) offers patrons a smorgasbord of any sort of meat imaginable. From the mundane – roast chicken and dark meat turkey – to the less ordinary – goat, to the exotic – crocodile (tastes like turkey) or camel (tastes like alpaca), diners are encouraged to channel their primal appetites while watching a coed troupe of athletic young dancers serve as a human, tribal diorama.

That’s not to say that tribalism isn’t authentic or alive still in 21st century Kenya (or, perhaps it isn’t a stretch to see tribalism in political rivalries in the US and the Brexit divide in the U.K…?) Those dance numbers just feel a little too contrived for me to enjoy them. And it’s another reminder that the culinary traditions enjoyed by Kenya’s citizens and residents are largely a reflection of a stratified, uneven class structure – and that I fit into that top echelon as an American professional and visitor.


Yes, Kenya is a land of contrasts. I felt it traveling from the five star hotel to the slums, just as I felt it in a different sense during a drive through Nairobi National Park – a safari available within the Nairobi city and county limits. In the park, one can feel so remote, so close to nature – and yet there, the zebras, impalas, buffaloes, and giraffes coexist with the visible urban skyline of Nairobi. It’s every bit a surreal experience as the slum-to-hotel transition. It’s every bit quintessential Kenya, also.

Lest this blog seem super heavy, join me next time for my favorite meal of my trip at expat (and Trip Advisor) darling, The Talisman.

Explore Hawai’i and its Cuisine!

Pineapples, pork, Poké, and Passionfruit – oh my! But there’s so much more to explore in Hawaiian cuisine. From Japanese fusion of Musubi and Poké, Kalua pork, the buttery macadamia nut, the mai tai, a unique form of shaved (“shave”) ice, to its seeming obsession with Spam, cookies and potato chips – at least to pawn off on tourists, we’ll examine some of the Hawaiian islands’ culinary traditions.

It’s been a long time coming, but I finally made it to the state of Hawai’i. Was it worth the hype? It depends what you’re looking for.

View of O’ahu from the air

View of Waikiki Beach and Diamond Head


While the islands share many cultural similarities, not least of which involve their cuisine and the tough-to-pronounce 12-letter language (how are 12 letters so difficult?), each island has its own character. O’ahu is usually everyone’s first stop. Its southern shore features bustling harbors and the prominent joint US base, and Waikiki just east of downtown capital Honolulu. Waikiki is more urban beach town than resort area, with high rise hotels, endless shops, restaurants, and the islands’ only real nightlife. But amazingly enough, for a city, it has a stunning beach with a wide swath of sand and calm, shallow teal waters.

The “Big Island”, AKA Hawaii, lives up to its name in size and geography. It is the youngest island geologically and boasts 13 different microclimates – including the sole chance for snow activities near the peaks of volcanoes Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea. The cities of Hilo and Kona bookend opposite sides of the island. The latter gives us the namesake for delicious, nutty Kona coffee.

View from Wailea

View of Maui’s north shore from Haleakala

Heading just west is Maui. Maui is ridiculous. And by ridiculous, I mean paradise. It is much bigger than it appears on a map and is roughly barbell-shaped (ok, a barbell that maybe got melted with liquid magma and squished a bit). The volcanic Haleakala lost its peak long ago, and its crater beckons visitors.

Nearby Maui are lesser islands Lana’i and Moloka’i (In case you’re wondering, all these apostrophes are there to guide your pronunciation. Each vowel gets its own syllable, so the “ai”, “ii” and so forth are not single-sound diphthongs.) These islands are barely habited, but Lana’i has a few resorts.

Hop over O’ahu to the west and you hit adventurer’s paradise, Kaua’i. You will hit the most chickens and roosters per capita, thanks to an unfortunate typhoon that allegedly freed chickens used for cockfighting, and so they procreated like…bunnies? Good thing it’s now the Year of the Rooster!

Ok, island intro over. On to the food!

Fresh fish displayed at Maui’s Morimoto isn’t just a staple at sushi restaurants

Fish, fish, and more:
Ok, so when you are a chain of volcanic islands rising tens of thousands of feet from the sea floor and nearby deep blue waters hosting some of the biggest and best deep sea fish, you know you’re going to have an abundance of the good stuff. Tuna, tuna, tuna. White fish, like mahi mahi. Shrimp. Simply grilled is more than enough, but the shrimp trucks that dot O’ahu’s north shore showcase many styles of preparation. Skewers with garlic butter or soy and pineapple served over a bed of rice is a cheap and delicious meal.

Pineapple heaven:
A Western cultural symbol of hospitality, pineapples and Hawaii are as synonymous as Germany and bratwurst, or Japan and Cherry blossoms. Pineapple plantations aren’t quite as prevalent as they once were, but they still are a huge export and source of Hawaiian pride. You can even find wine made from pineapples – and it’s pretty tasty.

Macadamia:
This buttery, decadent nut finds its way into every tourist market, grocery store, gas station prebaked cookie, and almost every restaurant in Hawaii. Whether eaten alone as a snack, baked into Honolulu Cookie Company’s unexpectedly addictive shortbread cookies, worked into the crust on a pan-seated fish fillet, or the secret ingredient in a savory
dish, there’s just something about the macadamia nut that is always a treat.

Poké:
Perhaps Hawaii’s signature dish, poké is Hawaii’s answer to ceviche. With a soy-laden, teriyaki-like marinade, fresh cubes of raw Ahi tuna and onions, along with optional specialty ingredients are coated with so much flavor. I could eat good Poké every day myself.
Musubi:
These nifty little sushi-like rolls filled with an array of flavors, most often as Spam, fried Spam, or edamame for you vegetarians, are sold at hole-in-the wall Japanese shops throughout O’ahu, particularly in the cities of Honolulu and Waikiki. Unrefrigerated, you’ll want to buy them in the morning to enjoy for an early lunch or mid-morning snack.


Sushi and Ramen:
Of course, if you’re looking for more pure Japanese cuisine, sushi spots and ramen bars abound. My friends raved about hotspot Marukame Udon in Waikiki that is never without a line snaking outdoors – even in a downpour, which was the case when we visited.

The menu at Matsumotos Shave Ice

Ichiban with guava


Shave ice:
Nope, it’s not a typo, in Hawaii, it’s always “shave ice” and not “shaved ice.” That bugs the grammar nut in me, but decorum flies out the window once I’ve had a few bites of the good stuff. Combining traditions from various Asian nations, this shaved ice is nothing like the sno cones or Italian ices that come to mind. The ice is so finely shaved it more resembles fluffy snow at low temperatures and has an oddly creamy texture. Add to it any one of a variety of fruit or even edamame purées, and it would be refreshing and delicious in its own right.

But in Hawaii, one shouldn’t try it without going all out. Sweetened condensed milk is a revelation. Adzuki (red bean) seems another odd topping for the Hawaiian shave ice sundae, but its subtle earthy flavor is a nice balance for the sweet ice. Many other versions bury delicious vanilla ice cream in the volcano-like summit of shaved ice. Overkill? No way! The ice and ice cream are like my sister and me – same components, different flavors. But we work well together (most of the time). For an over the top delicious Hawaiian treat, that, much like a banana split, should be shared among friends, try the Ichiban at Matsumoto’s Shave Ice along O’ahu’s charming north shore town of Haleiwa. It features everything I’ve mentioned, plus a few chewy, tapioca-like Mochi to dip in the toppings, whipped cream, and it is served in an edible tray (it tastes like a cake cone/wafer cone).


Mai tai:
If you’ve ever been to a tiki bar , a Trader Vic’s or other Hawaiian-themed restaurant, you’ve likely been assaulted with a server upselling a premium mai tai. The bad ones are sickly sweet and cheap; the good ones are strong and yet somehow delicate. The best I tried was at Monkeypod Kitchen in Wailea on Maui. It was a perfect balance of dark rum and fruit, and its foamy passion fruit merengue topper was an outstanding addition.

All this talk of Hawai’i is making me crave a mai tai and Poké and an ocean-front beach chair in Maui. The lady can dream…and you can plan your next vacation, even if it’s just a trip to your nearest Hawaiian restaurant.

An introduction to the cuisine of the. Greek Cyclades, Part 2: The dishes

The second in a series featuring Greek cuisine and the restaurants of Mykonos.

Two posts ago, we set the stage for a Greek drama: The wonderful cuisine of Greece. We discovered the raw ingredients that comprise some of Greece’s beloved dishes; today, we will explore the dishes themselves. Some are so beloved they have been adopted the world over, while others may be an undiscovered culinary frontier.

The meats:

Souvlaki/Souvlakia

Skewers of marinated, grilled meat, or what most know as kebobs (kebabs) are a staple of many culinary traditions. In Greece, they come from a range of meats – pork, chicken, lamb, and sometimes, beef.

Kefta

These skewers of mixed, seasoned ground meats are ubiquitous in Greek and other Mediterranean cuisines. In Greece, they’re typically a blend of lamb and beef.

Grilled octopus

The simplest is best. Succulent octopus is at its best when grilled fresh. And Greeks are picky about their octopi, so you’d be challenged to find a poor version of it in the isles.

 

Langoustine pasta, a common site at restaurants in the Greek Ies

 

Langoustines 

Europeans and South Americans are well aware of the difference between what North Americans know as shrimp and these massive prawns. Here, they often top a steaming bowl of pasta, sometimes in concert with other forms of seafood.

Mezes

Tiramousalata
Spreadable herring or cod sounds unappetizing, but it’s fluffy, masculine whipped that puts tuna salad to shame. The secret ingredient is soaked bread (or sometimes another starch, such as potatoes), which gives this meze its thick, creamy consistency.

  

Pitta bread
The pita pocket bread many of us grew up with is a poor representation of Greece. True Greek pita bread is slightly puffy and chewy – not quite as thick as its Turkish cousin. As an appetizer or compliment to Tzatziki or meat, topped with herbs, it’s all good!

 

Delicious spanakopita

 

Spanakopita and Tiropita

No, they’re not stuffed pita breads! These delightful pastries, typically made of flaky phyllo dough, are definitely not a weight loss staple. Spanakopita, at least, incorporates a vegetable: its spinach, herb, and cheese filling with hints of lemon is deliciously complex and not so much as guilt-inducing as tiropita. Tiropita consists of flaky pastry stuffed with a savory soft cheese. It’s up there as one of the most unhealthy things one could eat in Greek cuisine. It is rich, yet addictive. Buttery, tart, salty, tangy with a feta alternative, it surely is a crowd pleaser. And waistline expander.

  
Kolokithokefthedes, or Zucchini fritters
The Greeks know how to make vegetables fun. If I had tried these as a picky child, even I would have enjoyed them. Like crab cakes, wide variation exists – some by adding more breading, some egg, some garlic. In general, the best are fluffy, almost weightless, and are easy to overdo. Others are quite heavier

  

Domatokefthedes
I laughed when I first saw “tomato balls” on an English-language menu. Really? I couldn’t picture anything other than fried green tomatoes. Then, I tried them. I would call them an expressionist’s version of tomato. Not unlike the most heavily traded zucchini fritters, most variants were more like heavily breaded fritters or croquettes, where the tomato enhanced the delicious, carbohydrate laden base than the other way around. Still, they were way more delicious than your average tomato!

  
Tzatziki
Calling it a condiment is insulting. The irresistible combination of thick, Greek yogurt, fresh cucumber, garlic, and dill is on every Greek menu, yet every chef or cook seems to put his or her own spin on it – perhaps a bit of lemon juice, red wine vinegar, or a heavier dose of garlic. Good enough to eat on its own, Greeks love to slather French fries in it, and I love scooping it up with Greek pitta or topping burgers with it.

 

Greek salad

 

Greek salad…
…is another item poorly misinterpreted by the Western Hemisphere. We overdo it out west, with our romaine, black olives, and heavy dressing laden with fillers. 

 

Another variant of Greek salad

 
The Greeks go simple: tomatoes, cucumbers, and feta with herbs, thick croutons, olive oil, and perhaps a touch of vinegar. But with that simplicity comes a staggering range of variations. Substitute torn, chewy pitta for baked bread, and the result is more like an Italian panzanella.

Sweets

  

Baklava
Oh, baklava! Your comforting honey and cinnamon-drenched pine nut or walnut filling and flaky phyllo layers are one of my favorite desserts that do not involve chocolate. What separates it from other Mediterranean, Turkish, or Arab versions? Pistachios are far more common in the Levant than in Greece.

  

Loukoumades
Doughnut holes on steroids are a good way to describe these airy clouds of fried dough, drenched with – you guessed it – honey. They may be a bit messy, but they are a delicious mess!

If these Greek specialties don’t make you want to run out and Yelp the best Greek restaurant in town – or travel to Greece, I don’t know what will do so!

Huana Pucllana: Where archaeology, and fine dining meet in Lima

The CD finally traveled outside the US again, and you reap the benefits! Today, we travel (back) to Lima, Peru, arguably the food capital of the Andean community of South America, for an impeccable experience dining at the Incan ruins of Huana Pucllana.

“Napa and Sonoma need a break,” my father texted me after reading last week’s post. Well, I have to agree. After a year of no travel outside the USA, I have to admit this blog has bored even me. I needed to get back to this blog’s roots with real international food and travel experiences. So when I traveled recently back to Peru for a wedding (more on that in a coming post!), I took copious notes and photos. I look forward to sharing a few of these experiences with you.

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Many museums may take pride in their in-house restaurants or cafes, but few – if any others – can boast that the artifacts become backdrop for a spectacular meal and attentive service as can Huana Pucllana, an indoor-outdoor restaurant set amidst Incan ruins.

 
Huana Pucllana, in the heart of Lima, Peru’s coastal Miraflores department, would be ranked as one of Lima’s top restaurants in its own right, but surrounded by intricate, ziggurat-like structures and ongoing archaeological dig sites, it gives the diner a glimpse into native Peru. Having reached the 35th anniversary of the initial excavation of the site, the project remains a work in progress, but it would be difficult to improve upon the restaurant’s Peruvian dishes.I’ve had the pleasure of dining at Huaca Pucllana twice in a two-year period, and both visits exceeded my expectations.

  
The dining room includes a fully enclosed area and a larger, canopied outdoor dining space perfect for large parties of business colleagues l, tourists, and celebrating locals alike. At night, the ruins are well lit and provide a dramatic backdrop to food worthy of such a setting. 

  
Their Pisco Sour is a perfect aperitif to start an evening. To start the meal, the restaurant has two pages of smaller starters and larger appetizers (first courses).

 

fried ceviche with fried onions and pureed camote (sweet potato), along with canchita (fried Indian corn)

 
On this second visit, we tried the fried ceviche. That dish is exactly as it sounds: tender fish “cooked” in a citrus marinade, coated with a thin layer of breading, and then deep fried, topped with fried red onion, and accompanied by sweet potato puree and canchitas (dried/fried Indian corn). It was surprisingly light, not greasy, and tender inside without a hint of acrid fishiness. It put any other fried fish to shame. 

 

traditional Peruvian causas

 
Other starters include corn croquettes, potato and seafood causas (photo below), traditional ceviche, and more. If you’re feeling more adventurous, try the chicharron de cuy (Guinea pig – yep, that Guinea pig), an Andean specialty.

  
Its wine list featured an impressive selection of South American wines – even those from Peru (not known for its wines, as most grapes are grown for Pisco – you can read more about Pisco in a previous CD post here), but more extensively, from Chile and Argentina. We selected a 2013 Malbèc from producer Terrazas de los Andes for our meal.

  
For my main course, I couldn’t turn down the alpaca steak, a rare delicacy I cannot find outside of the Andean community. For those who have never heard of or tried alpaca meat, think of it as the llama’s smaller cousin. While llama meat more resembles pork in color and texture, alpaca is a more tender red meat, more like rare beef or non-gamey venison. Most of you probably have not had access to either meat, but if you have the opportunity, try a medium rare to rare alpaca steak. It is tender and inoffensively meaty. The steak was served simply with a mushroom au jus reduction and a small, airy corn soufflé. I’m fairly certain that I also ordered the alpaca on my first visit, but I vaguely recall that it may have been served with a barley risotto instead of the corn soufflé.

 

Peru’s signature dish, lomo saltado

 
One of my friends chose Peru’s (and Huana Pucllana’s) signature dish: Lomo saltado. This dish consists of strips of beef steak, sautéed with tomatoes, red bell pepper, and onion in oil and soy sauce. As is typical, is served with both French fries and white rice. Why two starches? The carb overload boggles my mind. Huana Pucllana’s is one of Peru’s best renditions, its steak far more tender and flavorful than in most restaurants.

 

aji gallena

 
Another friend ordered aji gallena, another Peruvian specialty. Essentially it is a mildly spicy chicken stew, resembling yellow curry in appearance but not flavor. Its thick aji Amarillo (yellow) sauce is more sweet and creamy than one might expect. In some restaurants, that flavor is almost single-noted, but it is far more complex at Huana Pucllana.

 

a very adult main course for a nine-year-old

 
My friends’ relatively adventurous son ordered an adult main course of pork belly over stir-fried rice, a nod to Peru’s Chinese chifa” (also known as “chaufa”) culinary fusion.

The menu offers so many more tempting main dishes, including fish, beef, duck, pastas, and vegetarian options. It would take many visits for me to try everything I wanted to try.

  
With a tantalizing menu of postres (desserts), I couldn’t turn down what I did two years before. We ordered two desserts for the table. The first was a dark chocolate “truffle bar” (more like a slightly less sweet brownie) topped with lucuma mousse and served with a side of homemade chocolate sauce (similar to but less thick than that served with churros). Sidebar: Lucuma, in my opinion, is a fascinating fruit. It has the smoothness and texture of pumpkin but almost as if that pumpkin had a hint of vanilla or floral character. I absolutely love it paired as a delicate, cool counterpoint to chocolate. 

 

a trio of dessert pots (from left to right): rice pudding, lemon suspiro, and chocolate-lucuma mousse

 
In fact, our second dessert was a trio of dessert pots (literally served in miniature flower pots) and included a lucuma-chocolate parfait. A subtly lemon-flavored suspiro (custard made with condensed milk) was served atop the slightest bit blink-and-miss, fluffy cake and topped with merengue comprised the second pot. The third was rice pudding flavored heavily with cinnamon and vanilla. He three pots would have been enough for the four of us, but we would have lost out on unique flavor combinations had we not ordered both desserts.

I had a short window during which to dine in Lima on this visit, but I was more than happy to have made a return visit to the lovely and historic Huana Pucllana.

The oddest ice cream I ever ate: The corn sundae

Ice cream.  What could be more perfect on a sweltering day? When you’re traveling in foreign lands, you might get a reminder of how something that seems universal really means something different to other cultures.  When I visited Thailand, several years ago, I had that realization when I encountered the corn sundae.

‘DipNote’:  Before I continue, I’d just like to take a moment to thank all of you readers – whether you are followers or casual friends or fellow bloggers who happened to ‘stop by.’ As of yesterday, The Culinary Diplomat is six months old!  It’s been a lot of work, three food adventures per week for six months, and it would mean nothing if not for each of you!  Thank you!

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Corn is more American as apple pie!  Yet corn is not something Americans typically eat for dessert, much less with ice cream.  It didn’t take long in the great city of Bangkok  to realize that the Thai people (and other southeast Asian people) view corn differently than my own culture.  Where we Americans look at fresh corn and see animal feed; July 4th corn on the cob or perhaps spicy, cheesy Mexican elote; and maybe cornbread or corn pudding, Thai restaurants treat it as a sweet delicacy.  It was an exotic topping for pizza (also, I’ve seen that in Europe and India) and also a sweet filling even in McDonald’s fast-food pies.

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So when I walked by a KFC storefront and saw a sandwich board propped outside advertising a corn sundae, I was intrigued. Yes, Americans, it was that KFC; it is huge in Asia, much more popular these days as an export to Asia than in the States. After passing by several more times, I finally decided to convince my friends that we had to try it.

Try it we did. The corn sundae consisted of vanilla soft-serve ice cream, followed by a parfait-like layer of creamed corn (the very stuff your grandmother made you eat as a child), then more ice cream, all topped with canned yellow corn.  Now, I like corn pudding and sweet cornbread.  I thought it would be a bit odd, but doable. One bite … and it was horrendous.

I still giggle, years later, when I see the photos of the look on my face while eating it, and then watching my friends go through the same. All three of us couldn’t eat a bite with a straight face.  We meant no insult to Thai taste buds, but it wasn’t a flavor combination that was remotely pleasing or familiar. And by trying it in a fast-food sundae, I’d hoped to ease into that flavor profile – something not too foreign, but even that was a bit much.

Later in the same trip, we had a similar experience with what looked identical to a giant Rice Krispie treat in a Hong Kong convenience store. It turned out to have no sugar or sweetness whatsoever to it, which was unexpected and thus disappointing!

For as many amazing food adventures as I’ve had since that trip, these are examples of ones that were taste failures.  Why? Not necessarily because they were terrible, but because we had different expectations, and the reality was beyond underwhelming.  Despite that, they were wonderful adventures shared with my best friends. So they were worth every grimace!

I’m still avoiding corn sundaes these days, but I’ll take Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams‘ Sun-Popped Corn in its American kettle corn, candy-sweet glory!

Getting fancy in the mountains: Knife and Fork in Spruce Pine, North Carolina

I invite you to sample seasonal North Carolina meat and produce at their freshest, most respectfully prepared at Knife and Fork. Located in the breathtaking Blue Ridge Mountains in northwestern North Carolina, Knife and Fork’s delicate dishes are a surprising find far from the typical, big city devotees of the farm to table and slow food movements.

It didn’t seem that long ago (really? 15 years?) since the concept of farm to table took root in New York City and other urban metropolises starved for fresh, local, and seasonal food prepared with reverence. Yet the concept became a movement, joined in parallel by several others that has swept the developed world – and which I’ve seen firsthand (you can find a few great examples in my posts such as Neh and Ribe in Tallinn, Estonia; Bistrot Glouton in Bordeaux, France; Zielona Kuchnia in Krakow, Poland; and basically any of Gaston Acurio’s Peru-based restaurant empire). Check out the second episode of Netflix’s doumentary series, Chef’s Table, which features New York’s Dan Barber and his Blue Hill, to learn more about the origins and philosophy of the movement.

So it shouldn’t have surprised me to find another gem in rural, mountainous North Carolina, but having grown up in the American South, Spruce Pine’s Western Sizzlin’ and heavy fast food were more in line with my snobby expectation. My world traveler’s snobbery got the best of me until I saw the light that is Knife and Fork.

Spruce Pine's former train depot

Spruce Pine’s former train depot

Spruce Pine’s historic ‘downtown’ is one street that parallels railroad tracks and a long-abandoned train depot. It’s not much to look at, but charming local businesses have staked their claim to Main Street fame (for the record, it’s actually Locust Street. But it works to say that with the Main St. vs. Wall St. comparison that popped up after the 2008 Global Financial Crisis). Knife and Fork, and its adjacent sister, Spoon cocktail lounge, have subtle signage. It’s almost as if they want to be the area’s most closely guarded secret for only those most worthy.

As soon as I walked in the door, Knife and Fork’s decor spoke my language. I didn’t need to so much as look at a menu to get its concept immediately: The blond wood, simple furnishings, antiqued gilt frames surrounding mirrors and art told me that it was going for the best and freshest presentation of local ingredients. If it wants to be western North Carolina’s culinary ambassador, it does its state proud.

Ok, enough rambling from a guilty yuppie. Onto the restaurant and its food!

First of all, I have to say that the menu is not straightforward.  It requires a bit of interpretation or explanation for most laypersons. Local trout, rabbit, and famous Carolina pork are easy enough to recognize, but obscure names for often lesser-known greens, herbs, and cheeses may be a bit confusing. I will admit that I had to shrug my own shoulders when trying to decipher a few offerings for my friends and humbly accept explanation from our waiter. Cavolo nero? No?  How about dinosaur kale, anyone? Nah, I was familiar with neither; they’re one and the same.

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The menu changes daily, depending upon seasonality and availability, so I can only help you, the prospective traveler, but so much! Nevertheless, you can expect a perfect sourdough loaf (above) accompanied by a homemade compound butter infused subtly with thyme, honey, and rendered pork fat to welcome you as you ponder the sometimes perplexing menu. I’ll share a few highlights from our group’s choices (menu pictured above in the featured image).

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The charcuterie board (above) is an over-the-top smorgasbord that successfully reimagines the European model with house-made jewels like smoked trout, head cheese terrine (you read that correctly. Google it if you’ve never made its acquaintance. If it turns your stomach, don’t write it off. My group loved it), a spring rabbit and asparagus terrine, beef pepperoni, smoked pork shoulder, and slightly blackened crostini.

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The three cheese board (above) is restrained in a very non-Southern manner. On this occasion, it featured small portions of regional blue and goat cheeses and also Manchego, which forced me to savor every tiny bite so that others could enjoy it too. Such a shame. I could have polished it off singlehandedly.

Our party’s overwhelming favorite entree was the flat iron steak, served that night with dandelion greens, crispy potatoes, and a mushroom butter. The steak was tender and simply cooked, and the greens and potatoes were hearty compliments without weighing down the meal.

Homemade pasta is one feat. Homemade spaghetti is another challenge entirely. Knife and Fork’s flat spaghetti was almost translucent in its fragility, served with Italian sausage, that dinosaur kale, and a light goat cheese whose Italian name escapes me -all form an assertive yang to the delicate pasta’s yin.

We also ordered several vegetable small plates. They were simply dressed, beautifully presented, and not at all overcooked. Broccoli came paired with shungiku (the bitter, leafy green of a daisy-like flowering plant), shiitake and chèvre. Summer squash (AKA zucchini) took on Italian simplicity with breadcrumbs, fresh flat leaf parsley (in lieu of basil as listed on the menu), black peppercorns, and just a hint of tomme de savoie cheese.

Unfortunately, I can comment on neither their lovely wine selection or desserts, as I was trying not to overdo it that night, but at a glance, their wine selection was varied enough to keep it interesting. Judging by the full house that night and Knife and Fork’s six years in business, its daily menu iterations keep patrons coming back and gaining new customers. It’s attracted so much positive buzz, in fact, that the Southern cultural icon, Southern Living Magazine named Knife and Fork one of its Top 100 restaurants in the South. K&F shares that distinction with standouts both new and established from across the South, such as Rose’s Luxury, Fiola Mare, and Rasika (West) in Washington, DC and Crook’s Corner in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.

I wish I could have made a second trip – both to Knife and Fork and its bar, Spoon, to truly appreciate their ingredient selection and creativity. Regardless, this experience reminds me that often, the most interesting food adventures are the ones closest to our own backyards. End Carrie Bradshaw-esque, cheesy reflection!

The General Muir: New York deli meets Atlanta’s rising food scene

Far from the Big Apple, The General Muir, one of Atlanta’s hottest restaurants, combines modern precision with the vibrant traditions of New York’s Jewish delis: matzoh, pastrami, the reuben, bagels, lox, trout, and of course, a great brisket find an unexpected home alongside an eclectic mix of food trends that include burrata, lentils, beets, hangar steak, and poutine.

During a stay in Atlanta, The General Muir came highly recommended. With an open mind and empty stomach, we headed there for a weeknight dinner. Like most hot cosmopolitan restaurants, The General Muir changes its menu frequently and prints it daily. Don’t worry, many of its cult favorites, like The Burger (I’ll get to that!), are mainstays through the seasons.

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A wonderful wine flight whetted my appetite instantly. A prescribed Sonoma pinot noir was unavailable, but a wonderful rose took its place beside a smooth Sicilian Tascante nerello and Spanish Petalos mencia with smoky tannins. Their cocktail list, like their food menu, is subject to change but applies its own spin on current mixology trends. Bourbon, St. Germain, sparking wine, pisco, and ginger make obligatory but welcomed appearances.

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The three of us shared a burrata appetizer complimented with shaved beets, dark sweet cherries, and pesto.  It was fabulous and not too heavy.

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I continued my vegetarian theme by ordering stewed lentils with curried cauliflower (featured photo above). It was a hearty, filling combination for a rainy evening. One of us ordered the entree special, which was a strange but delicious hybrid of chicken noodle and matzoh ball soups. And of course, the third in our group ordered The Burger. The Burger deserves the capitalization of its name. It is renowned throughout not only Atlanta, but the nation’s burger scene, having been featured in several high-profile reviews, such as Eater. The Burger marries its ground beef patty with pastrami, caramelized onions, Russian dressing, and gruyere. It is a force to be reckoned with.

We skipped dessert at The General Muir to experience Decatur’s Butter & Cream once more, so I can’t comment on The General Muir’s dessert offerings – which were tempting. Dessert wasn’t necessary for us to appreciate The General Muir’s eclectic mix of traditional and trendy.

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