Tag Archives: #USA

The Willows: When a cheeseburger alone just isn’t enough

Yes, your eyes didn’t deceive you. That featured photo was neither your standard grilled cheese, nor your standard cheeseburger. It is an insane, lusty menage a trois wherein two textbook American grilled cheese sandwiches surround, yet manage not to completely overwhelm, a meaty cheeseburger. Yes, what I’m describing is food porn and nearly almost is too obscene to write about.

I can give you a million reasons why I shouldn’t have given into the Willows’ heart-stopping concoction. Why would anyone need to make a burger anymore artery-clogging, triglyceride spiking, carb-laden, diabetes engine than the restaurant burger already is. Western society, thanks to the plethora of burger joints in the past 10 years, each of which constantly fights to be distinctive, has moved far beyond the paltry fast-food hamburger. (Hey, don’t knock the McDonald’s classic cheeseburger! Yes, it might be short on actual meat or “meat products”, but it’s tasty and only a respectable 320 calories). A quarter-pounder? Not enough. You’ll rarely see a restaurant burger that is less than a third of a pound on any menu. So to substitute grilled cheese sandwiches for the standard buns?

It’s emblematic of everything stereotypically wrong with America and yet its iconography. I wonder what first-time visitors to the U.S. would think if exposed to this maddening concoction. The Willows, a San Francisco-based gastropub, certainly isn’t the first or only restaurant to throw down the gauntlet with such a sinful mash-up, which I fondly refer to as the Turducken of burgers.

I could have lost my willpower somewhere or another time else, but thanks to some work stress and open-minded co-workers, I lost my burger innocence in San Francisco, thanks to The Willows.

That morning, I certainly began the day, like many of us, with every intention of eating healthfully. But after hearing a coworker describe that his daughter found a place where one could get a burger with grilled cheeses instead of buns, a few of us were intrigued. I opted to ask them to mule me back one of these burgers, going to a yoga class while they ate in the restaurant. It was a weak attempt to earn that burger.


Any of their amazing burgers can be customized with the grilled cheese “buns.” I chose The Mary burger. It wildly exceeded my expectations. The burger itself was fantastic – excellent quality meat, perfectly salted and seasoned, cooked to juicy pink center. Cheddar cheese to compliment the American grilled cheese, bacon, and avocado, as well as pickles and crisp lettuce added so much flavor and texture. Then, adding the grilled cheese – completely upped the game. The grilled cheese sandwiches themselves are your childhood variety – not the gourmet, raclette and gruyere filled versions you might see at your average San Francisco gastropub. These are all basics – basic white bread and that slightly metallic tasting tang of processed American cheese slices. Underwhelming alone, these sandwiches make the perfect bookends for that awesome burger. It’s a truly terrifying sight, not to mention the pangs of regret one feels a few hours later realizing the extent of the sin.

So yes, I felt pretty terrible after eating it. Terribly awesome…! Sometimes, one just has to throw common sense to the wind for a spectacular experience. The Willows was just such an occasion, and it didn’t disappoint.

Trading Ski Boots For Elegant, Organic Cuisine at Vail’s Terra Bistro

After a cold day on the slopes, pizza and beer are an obvious apres ski choice. But for those in search of fine dining in Vail, Colorado, look no further than Terra Bistro.

  
 It’s easy to be skeptical when one’s hotel recommends a restaurant, and you find that practically everyone in your hotel ends up with reservations. Hmm. There goes the unique find!

But Terra Bistro in Vail is worth every recommendation. Great “new American” cuisine in Vail village instills confidence in ski resort fare. Terra Bistro markets itself as 90% organic, farm to table.

The restaurant lacks the typical rustic mountain/ski chalet atmosphere. It feels more like a modern escape, a sleek, modern – if not urban – vibe.

  
Pappadum – thin potato flour and pepper crisps, a staple rarely seen outside Indian restaurants – were a welcome departure from bread, paired with a lentil spread that resembled grey wasabi in appearance and texture but had a pleasant cumin scent. 

I started with the vitality salad (pictured in the featured photo, above), which features the restaurant’s own sprouted seed mix, goat cheese, cherries, and more. It was a great palate cleanser.

  
The hangar steak was a solid bet. I requested it cooked to medium rare, and it was perfectly cooked and tender with a salty crust that the scant bleu cheese crumbles only enhanced. A cocoa-chipotle ketchup was not necessary, but with a hint of Worcestershire, it seemed a bit more A1 and less ketchup, far more suited for a poorer cut of steak.

The steak was served with roast cauliflower and au gratin potatoes. The latter were not my grandmother’s au gratin – the cheese was ever so light, but the potatoes and cheese were baked to a wonderful level of caramelization. The resulting preparation was light and flavorful.

Our friends donated their heaping side order of honey-lemon Brussels sprouts to a good cause (my stomach). While they were slightly overdressed with a sweet and tangy vinaigrette, the flavors were a nice departure from the salty Unami variety that is more prevalent.

Sadly, we didn’t try one of their desserts, but I heard their chocolate stout cake was fabulous.

When typically hearty ski fare just won’t cut it, taste the elegance of Vail Village’s Terra Bistro.

Chai Pani: “Evolved” Indian street food seduces American taste buds in Decatur and Asheville

If you enjoy Indian cuisine and live or travel near Atlanta, Georgia or Asheville, North Carolina, you must sample the street food tour of India that is Chai Pani. From pakora to Pani puri to thali that will satisfy the heartiest appetites, your palate might never want to leave!

(North) Indian restaurants are as plentiful in major cities around the world as is the Indian diaspora, but Indian street food is a bit more elusive for most of us not of Indian descent. Small snacks, known as chaat, are often foreign to the casual Indian restaurant goer in the USA. Intense explosions of sweet, savory, and crunchy flavors – often with a fried component – are the hallmark of chaat. Each state and region within India creates its own style of favorite chaat. And so does Chai Pani.

Husband and wife team Meherwan and Molly Irani created Chai Pani (literally “tea” and “water”) to bring the diverse flavors enjoyed throughout India as both snacks (street food), meals, and beverages to the American southeast. Launching in Molly’s hometown of Asheville, NC, their restaurant was such a hit that they expanded to Decatur, Georgia, a suburb of Atlanta best known as home to Emory University.

I can’t rave enough about Chai Pani. Brought by relatives for a “fun” (their endorsement) Friday night dinner outing, I found myself a little skeptical when I saw what looked to be a diverse, yet very educated, bourgeoise crowd and mostly Caucasian wait staff. I know, I know, that’s bias, right? But please tell me that you have never once done the same. We all tend to crave authenticity of cuisine – and superficial indicators of it don’t hurt.

But then again, this is the Culinary Diplomat. Who really is to judge authenticity? What does it even mean? Are we all really that comfortable with the culture shock of truly “authentic” cuisine (here, I mean food that natives/expats recognize and identify as our home cuisine)?* Truly, aren’t all national cuisines continuing an evolution that started millennia ago, influenced by both travels abroad and outsiders?

  
Chai Pani seems to appreciate that point. Chai Pani believes in the “evolution and innovation” of food; serving dishes that evoke both “traditional” and 21st century influences? Chai Pani’s ingredients – with responsible sourcing and high quality – are geared towards the globalized foodie seeking new flavor adventures.

Romantic, intimate dining it is not. Like the traveler’s experience of India, the restaurant’s open, food hall-esque dining rooms buzz with the excited chatter of its many group diners. I hear that it is always busy. While it was bustling when we arrived, we were fortunate to be seated immediately, but unfortunate to miss out on the nightly special chaat sold at the bar for those hungry patrons waiting on their table. As we left, a long line stretched hungrily awaiting each turn to purchase Pani puri for a very nominal price.

If you’ve never tried Pani puri, you must at once. Small, thin, deep fried dough shells are filled with a mixture of potatoes, chickpeas (garbanzo beans), onions, and whatever veggies, starches, or garnishes the cook chooses, and splashed with a slightly diluted chutney (the puri, or water). When done right, they are perfect little packages of contradictions: savory, salty, herbed, and even sweet; a crunchy exterior surrounding a very soft interior.

But I digress.

  
The meal I actually ate that night started with kale pakora. If you are not familiar with pakora, think of it as its cousin, tempura, but battered with chickpea flour. One might consider battered and deep fried kale to be blasphemy both to whole food purists and actual Indians, but Pani Puri notes that kale does grow in southern India, so why is the idea so far-fetched? Though I generally am not a huge fan of deep fried food, one bite convinced me that kale pakora might be the best idea ever. Or at least of the day. I later described it to a friend as “kale chips on steroids”, and it seems an apt description as any. It was served with both traditional green chutney and a tangy yogurt dip (not raita). Other appetizers ranged from bhel puri to samosas to Bombay chili cheese (Kheema) and okra fries.

   My family convinced me to order a full thali so that I could experience the restaurant fully. A thali is a traditional meal that consists of a variety of small dishes and bites. Think of it as the Indian equivalent of a bento box. At Chai Pani, it is equally as beautifully presented as any bento. Their thalis consist of a main dish, choices of which vary daily and an accompanying, complementing side dish; along with dal (stewed lentils), various starches – crispy, salty papadum, wheat roti (tortilla-like flatbread), and basmati rice, condiments, and a small dessert.

 

the daily special Arangaon Chicken curry thali with a side of cholle (chole), a chickpea dish

 
On this night, one meat (chicken), one vegetarian (paneer, or cheese), and one vegan curry were offered. With only three options, I somehow managed to have a difficult time deciding. I finally picked the Andhra vegetable kurma. Cauliflower, peas, and carrots bathe in a velvety, smooth tomato curry made rich with cashew and coconut. It was a bit spicier than usual, I was told, but I thought it had a perfect level of heat. My sister ordered the Arangaon chicken curry, which prominently features cinnamon but is decidedly more savory than sweet with a hint of bitterness. Her husband went for a more “evolved” fusion choice, ordering the lamb burgers from their street sandwich menu, which are like slightly oversized, spiced sliders.

   

mixed vegetable Andhra kurma

   Every bite was delicious. While my thali leaned more to the traditional side than many of their menu items, I would love to make a return trip to try whatever shows up on that oh so difficult to choose, eclectic all-India menu.

So the next time you’re in Atlanta or Asheville and seek a food adventure, I recommend making a night of Chai Puri. If you’re in Decatur, follow up the spice with some Butter and Cream, my favorite ice creamery.
*I dearly love Indian food and have traveled around India myself, but even I don’t find “authentic” Indian street snacks incredibly appealing. Case in point: I also visited an Atlanta suburban eatery called Thali. A vegetarian restaurant specializing in chaat and located within an all-Indian strip mall that clearly caters to those in the Indian expat community, I found its chaat to be excessively starchy, with few homemade ingredients. As in mass quantities of deep fried dough with fried chickpea noodl, etc. perhaps tasty as a snack but overwhelming as a meal -for my Healthy Diplomat’s tastebuds.

Tony’s Pizzeria Napoletana:  A San Francisco North Beach landmark

Walk into Tony’s Pizza Napoletana in the heart of San Francisco’s Little Italy in North Beach on most days, and without fail, you’ll encounter a bustling, boisterous vibe – and a wait for a table. See what the hype is all about as you sample both Italian and American pizza making traditions and watch the hoarded of locals, tourists, and business meetings alike.

Tony’s is one of those establishments that successfully caters to everyone. Who doesn’t like pizza? With so many styles from across the boot of Italy and coast-to-coast America, the menu can seem overwhelming with possibility. Love Neapolitan pizza? Try their prize-winning Margherita (limited availability), fired in a 900 degree (Fahrenheit) wood-burning oven. Or go Roman – long and thin from a 700 degree gas oven. Of course, who could forget their Sicilian pizzas, which also have garnered international recognition. 

Perhaps you’re feeling a bit more nostalgic for Americana. Maybe massive New York – or Trenton – style pies are your taste. Or head to the Midwest, where you can try a Detroit style pie in a Detroit steel pan, or a super-thin St. Louis style pizza. If those don’t hit the spot, go California-style with the state’s trademark alternative spin on tradition, with a crust made from a range of flours (including whole wheat and spelt), fired to 900 degrees in a wood-burning oven, and with toppings one might not expect. The Hang Ten, for example, pairs Korean BBQ short ribs, pickled vegetables, and mozzarella.

So what did I choose? Both times, or selections were from the Classic Italian lists. 

  
I couldn’t resist the combination of basil and Rosemary, so on my first trip, I chose the Di Napoli (pictured above). Slightly more complex than a traditional Margherita, the savory rosemary and basil were perfect for a cool, damp evening.

 

Classic Italian Diavola

 
On the second visit, my local friend – a regular well-known to the staff – was convinced to revisit her favorite pizza, the Diavola (substituting prosciutto for the sopressata). This pizza is a wonderful juxtaposition of salty meat and cheese with slightly peppery, fresh arugula all on a thin, not quite Neapolitan crust.

Lest you not feel like pizza, or you’d like a vegetable main or side dish, don’t skip their other offerings. The quinoa salad is a light, satisfying meal or side dish, with a citrus vinaigrette bringing together arugula, quinoa, red onion, and feta.

 

Insalate Quinoa

 
The best insider secret is to customize their insanely mouth-watering deep fried green beans by asking for them to be topped with burrata and shishito peppers (that addition does not appear on the menu, and it went far too quickly to photograph). I never would have thought to pair creamy burrata with garlicky green beans, but the combination is a wonderous taste and texture explosion. How is this not a thing?! It almost made me forget about pizza entirely, had it not been for a few glasses of rosé wine.

Whether it’s your first or 18rh visit to Tony’s the experience will never grow old. Your options would take a lifetime to cover!

Stoneacre Pantry: The Bounty Of New England’s Surf and Turf

Island hop to charming Newport, Aquidneck, Rhode Island for a food scene that is unexpectedly diverse and refined for the town’s size and relatively remote island location. Along the foodie’s paradise that is Thames Street is Stoneacre Pantry, a small, locally owned and sourced restaurant that emphasizes the quality and sustainability of local farm produce.

   
 Both the restaurant itself and its menu are intimate, like offerings from a private chef at a dinner party. The wait staff certainly are attuned to their customers’ needs, ensuring a fabulous experience by the end of the meal. As an example, the first wine I tried (a boutique French red) was not a match for my palate. The accommodating waitress allowed me to try two more reds before I found one I really enjoyed – and switched my friend’s glass when she discovered this red’s deliciousness.

  
To start, we enjoyed an amuse bouche – elegant, simple spoonfuls of green gazpacho along with grilled bread. The soup’s refreshing, earthy tang was a great palate cleanser.

  
We both chose a starter salad of kale massaged with a pungent, salty miso Caesar dressing, asiago cheese, and confit chicken. It was a satisfying portion with vibrant flavors.

  
For our main courses, we went for vegetarian and fresh New England seafood, respectively. The vegetarian plate consisted of a red bell pepper roasted over high heat and stuffed with a fluffy mixture of spinach, ricotta, and pine nuts. Lightly seared eggplant and decorative swipes of red pepper coulis and a potato purée accompanied it. The dish was cohesive and perfectly executed.

  
My friend’s seared scallops had an exemplar wisp of crust on two sides. An unexpected farro pilaf, interspersed with a touch of cauliflower florets, was the sort of side dish that signifies the promise of nutrient-dense foods when prepared with a deft hand. It was wonderful and could have been made into an entree in its own right.

  
You know you have stumbled upon an irresistible dessert when you order one to share and immediately realize that in no way is it possible to share. Stoneacre’s milk chocolate mousse was that dessert. Like a parfait surprise with its hidden layers, the first bite is a slightly tart, subtly sweet whipped creme fraiche and cocoa streusel that only adds to the anticipation of what is next to come: The light cloud of the milk chocolate mousse. Lest one feel disappointed to near the bottom of the jar, one reaches the dessert’s most unexpected element – a perfectly intense salty-sweet, liquified toffee. While toffee might have been a more apt descriptor for the salty butterscotch, we couldn’t get enough of this sauce without equal.

Full and satisfied, we couldn’t turn down the simple homemade truffle served upon delivery of the bill, it was a perfect sweet way to ease the pain of the end (and $) to a wonderful dining experience. I enthusiastically recommend Stoneacre Pantry to any visitor to Newport.

DC’s best sandwich: The new American cuisine of Farmers, Fishers, and Bakers

Stop by Washington, D.C.’s Farmers Fishers and Bakers for the best (vegetarian) sandwich in the city. It is a meal, much like many of its fellow menu items, that is emblematic of the city’s wholly American integration of its multicultural influences.

If I had to pick a restaurant that truly represents Washington, D.C. and the America of its residents, I would pick Founding Farmers and its sister restaurant, Farmers Fishers Bakers (FFB). Their similar menus’ fusion cuisine – influenced by a wide range of inherently pan ‘American,’ European, and African styles – exemplifies Washington’s cosmopolitan, educated melting pot of transplants from both across and outside of the USA. Washingtonians may see themselves and their adopted city – well-groomed and presentation-conscious, traditional yet adaptive, diverse and transient, working to be. I mean this in the most loving sense of the description.

Whether you, reader, have scoped out Washington’s restaurant scene as a resident or visitor, Founding Farmers is likely to have popped up on your list. With its broad appeal and the packed tables to prove it, these four restaurants have lost some of the buzz the brand garnered a few years ago, but each of the Founding Farmers iterations are worth a visit – or a few.

Farmers Fishers and Bakers is my top choice of the bunch. FFB is located in the ‘horseshoe’ Washington Harbor complex at the Georgetown Waterfront. From its outdoor tables and looking out through its large, wall-to-wall windows, one can people watch groups passing through the complex, skating on its winter rink, playing in its summer fountains, or watching you from the popular outdoor bars of neighboring Sequoia and Tony and Joe’s. But the people watching quickly takes a backseat when their fun, internationally-inspired-yet-truly-American cocktails and food arrives.

 

purple kale salad

 
From sashimi to mussels, meatloaf to vegetarian cauliflower steak, and southern ham hock with succotash to purple kale salad, its expansive menu offers something for every taste. For such breadth, FFB delivers well.

But for all the fanfare, my favorite menu item is its vegetarian sandwich. It would be easy to miss it on the menu, as its title and description cannot do it justice and relegate it to the token sandwich for vegetarians. I urge you, reader, to consider it, should you venture to FFB. It is the best vegetarian sandwich – dare I say best of any sandwich, meat or not – I’ve ever had. It starts with a sweet, thick raisin-walnut bread that pulls its own weight, paired with a salty brie, roasted red peppers, avocado, sprouts, and tomato. It needs no dressing, sauce, or spread. It pairs well with a light, tangy peanut cabbage slaw as a choice of included side dish. In its simplicity, its sweet-salty-earthy contrast, Washington meets California with the best of both coasts in this meal (pictured above).

This is my love letter to Washington, D.C., the city that has inspired and written my own story for over a decade of my life.

Il Casaro – A cosmo-Neopolitan newcomer to San Francisco’s Little Italy

San Francisco’s Little Italy might not have the notoriety of New York’s. Within the city, it takes a backseat to SF’s more famous Chinatown. But newcomer Il Casaro is one example that proves it is worthy of the neighborhood monicker. It has added more youthful vibrance to a neighborhood steeped both in tradition and the trappings of tourism, which include several strip clubs.

When it opened in March 2014, Il Casaro attracted attention from the food media, including from industry powerhouse Eater. Public relations aside, Stopping in for a bite at this small but open, bright pizzeria, the true to form flavors and crisp, cosmopolitan ambiance will bring joy to your palate. 

  
The open dining room features a marble bar surrounding the visible oven and work area. This layout is perfect for watching the delicate clockwork with which the 3-4 cooks prepare everything from spiedini di calimari (skewers of calimari and zucchini roasted in the pizza oven) to bruschetta to fresh pastas to their signature Neapolitan pizzas.

Il Casaro serves Italian beer and an all-Italian wine list. On a hot day, the light rose I chose was perfection with both my salad and pizza.

  

Salad course

Needing a dose of vegetables, I chose the beets salad [sic] for a starter. This eye-catching salad pairs golden beets and goat cheese (the PB&J combination of the ’00s, but it still more than works) among spiky frisée and walnuts, all simply dressed in lemon juice and olive oil. It’s a synchronous combination that highlights the freshness and compatibility of each component of the dish. In my own case, I hit a stroke of good luck: My server informed me that the typical golden beets were supplemented by the fortunate purchase that morning of fresh purple beets. What a lovely, delicate plate.
Pizza Norma

Il Casaro’s menu is indicative of only small deviation from the purist’s Neapolitan pizza-making techniques. (I haven’t seen indication that any of their pizzas meet the strict standards for D.O.C certification). A fan of pizzas that skew vegetarian, I picked the Nonna (pictured in the featured image) for its eggplant and two cheeses. Its thin crust is layered first with a base of simple, but naturally sweet and tangy San Marzano tomato sauce. Salty, soft ricotta salata and fresh mozzarella offset lightly fried eggplant, the latter of which is kissed by a nutty extra virgin olive oil. Not a touch of excess grease remained, which made me very happy. Further, no single ingredient or flavor overpowered the others – a sign of a well-constructed pizza. The crust was nicely charred but not burnt, and the edges were nicely soft and chewy.
Il Casaro was a solo dining experience I more than enjoyed. For simple Neapolitan flavors in their natural habitat, and modern ambience, I’m hard-pressed to find anything for the restaurant to improve upon. I certainly will return.