Category Archives: Chomping Around Town

Food, food, food and where to eat it

Chomping Around Town: Philadelphia Cheesesteaks

We were in Philadelphia this past weekend for a retreat with Jon’s department. The last time I had been in Philadelphia, other than a quick trip last fall to a spa for a story in DAYSPA magazine, was in 1994, when my sister was graduating from college. That was probably around the same time Jon had last been in Philly, on a school trip to visit America’s great beginnings (imagine the poor teachers who had to supervise hundreds of kids on an airplane!) In any case, both of us did not feel obligated to re-visit the Liberty Bell or the Franklin Institute with its giant heart.

Instead, Jon’s only requirement was to hunt down the best Philadelphia Cheesesteak.

The problem was that we would only end up at one because there’s only so many cheesesteaks one can eat in a weekend. So, would it be Jim’s, or Pat’s? Tony Luke’s or Geno’s? Those four cheesesteak creators were apparently topping the lists from Jon’s research, which included a visit to this comprehensive cheesesteak site, a consultation with his friend David, a former Philly resident and adoring food consumer, and the concierge at the Sofitel in Philadelphia.

In the end, we couldn’t find parking near any of them except Jim’s, so Jim won. However, I gather they are all very similar experiences: long lines and waits. Pictures of celebrities, mostly from the 80’s, standing with Jim/Pat/Tony/Geno. Low-maintenance eating area. Perhaps giant cans of Kraft Cheez Whiz lining the wall with cans of mushrooms. The sounds of metal spatulas chopping up steaks on the stove and cooks yelling out orders.

We ordered cheesesteaks with provolone, peppers, onions and mushrooms with ketchup squeezed on top. And the verdict: Jon thought it was tasty, but he didn’t think it was any better than the ones served at the Hoagie Hut in Chicago. Though I’m really not a hoagie or cheesesteak connoiseur, I also admit I did not think it warranted all the hunting for parking spaces and waiting. It wasn’t like there were any hidden or secret ingredients in the steaks: plain steak browned with onions and peppers and canned mushrooms. New York has its advantage of high-fluoride water to make the best bagels and pizza, Boston has its swarm of Maine lobsters and clams to make New England chowda, and Chicago has its audience who desire deep-dish pizzas. Sorry, Philly, you’re going to have to try a little harder.

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Chomping Around Town: Ciya Sofrasi (Istanbul)

**My Travel Hats is featuring its own Restaurant Week, in which a not-to-miss restaurant from around the world is showcased each day.**

ISTANBUL 256There’s an astronomical clock tower in Prague where statues of the Four Evils hang out:  Greed, Death, Vanity and the Turk. I suppose back in the day, the Turks and their Empire weren’t terribly popular, but if their food was anything like it is today, there’s good reason for the Czechs to be awfully jealous and resentful of the Turks.

But this is not about a restaurant in Prague. Sorry, I didn’t encounter any mind-blowing eating in Prague. We head south, to a more exotic land, where darvishes whirl and carpets fly: the land of Turkey; and more specifically, to a culinary treasure: Ciya Sofrasi.

This restaurant lies on the Asian side of Istanbul, and is far from a best-kept secret: many a Western publication has visited, reviewed and raved about it. And now you can see why. The restaurant’s purpose was to uncover ingredients and recipes lost in Turkish history, or to bring secrets from remote parts of Turkey to the great city and incorporates them into some of the most amazing dishes ever conceived. The restaurant sees its fair share of tourists enough to be patient while they try to read the all-Turkish menu. You won’t be finding the typical kebabs and whatnotbabs here. The waiters, in turn, will ask you to trust them as they bring out a selection of deliciousness, such as hummus and falafel and lamb and eggplant dips and fancy kebabs and soups and grain salads, accompanied with pita. The highlight is dessert: fruits, nuts and even tomatoes pumpkin candied into sugary bites with creme fraise. Even if it looks and sounds skeptical and strange, as I thought, it’s a worthy experience that, tragically, can’t be replicated anywhere in the U.S.

The restaurant is actually split into two locations across the street from each other, and require a ferry ride from the historic center. A absolute must visit. What really should be one of the Four Evils is Missing Dinner at Ciya.

Address: Caferaga Mah. Güneslibahce Sk. No:43 Kadiköy – Istanbul
Tel: (216) 330 31 90

Dress Code: Casual

Price: $6-$9 plates

Directions: ask your hotel. I can’t remember.

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Chomping Around Town: Joe’s Restaurant (Venice, CA)

**This is part of My Travel Hats’ Restaurant Week series of select restaurants from around the world**
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Go West, young man! We switch over to my former home, where I’ve left my heart. No, not San Francisco, but Santa Monica. Here we visit one of Southern California’s most exquisite restaurants, Joe’s Restaurant, where I spent many a dollar and many an evening, including my 30th birthday (photo, left, Joe’s chocolate gateau goodness). I will admit, I am ripping this from a review I wrote for Not For Tourists – Los Angeles, but only because I think I captured it so well there. (It’s not really plagarism if it’s your own, right?)
Chef Joe Miller has taken fusion cooking to a whole new plateau that few others in LA can reach. His Abbott Kinney location in Venice makes this casually hip French-Californian restaurant a hot spot in a nonpretentious manner, as local Venetians prefer. Securing a table is nearly impossible without a reservation, but the long wait for a walk-in can be filled at the glowing blue bar with a drink from his impressive and extensive wine list. Waiters might bring by not just one, but two amuse-bouches, compliments of the kitchen.
Diners can choose from either a prix-fixe tasting menu or a la carte. Joe’s accents on the very French, with truffles in almost anything (even dessert). The foie gras is mouth-melting, and delicate handling of entrees—with potatoes Anna shaped to resemble fish scales on an actual red snapper filet—illustrates the dedication and high level of detail Joe’s staff puts into its dishes. Many a celebrity has dined here, but the staff—from table host to Joe himself—makes the rounds to every table to give each customer the star treatment.
Address: 1023 Abbott Kinney, Venice, Calif. 90219. 310-399-5811
Dress code: Dressy casual
Price: $27-$30 entree (dinner), $12-$16 (lunch)
Directions: Get in your rental car, pop the address into your GPS, and you’re there! Just kidding. Take Main Street south to Abbott Kinney, then left on Abbott Kinney. Joe’s is on your left. Valet, of course, is available.

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Chomping Around Town: East Coast Grill (Boston)

***This week, My Travel Hats is having its own Restaurant Week, in which I’ll feature a not-to-miss, must-dine eatery in select cities.***

Across the Charles River of Boston, there lies a nice little community of Cambridge, where some of the smartest scholars in the country come to teach and do research (Harvard and MIT). How do they feed their brains? I’d like to believe, if they are truly smart, that they go to East Coast Grill.

And if you’re a smart visitor, you’ll skip the touristy gooey clam chowdahs and lobster rolls on stale bread for East Coast Grill’s version of Clam & Corn chowder with sweet potatoes and chiles. (Of course, you can be dumb and eat there too – but if you’ve chosen to go there, clearly you are intelligent.)

This little casual pocket on Cambridge Street in Inman Square  has arguably the best oysters in town, along with a complete raw bar, seafood platters and a grill pit. It’s a chill atmosphere, where the smoky air smells like hickory and beef and Handi-wipes are a necessity. Combining New England seafood with southern grill and meats, this dinner-only and Sunday-brunch joint leaves you heartily filled, content and happy. Try a dozen PEI oysters and a platter of fall-off-the-bone spare ribs, Memphis style. Or perhaps some local Jonah crab claws and a 1/2 chicken, spit-grilled. It’s where comfort food came to grow up. Reservations are accepted on Sundays through Thursdays for parties of five or more, but it’s first-come, first-serve on the weekends. Be prepared to wait, as it’s a popular restaurant, but all that waiting ideally makes you hungry, which is essential. Start with a drink from the bizarre tiki lounge.

Address: 1271 Cambridge St., Cambridge, Mass. 617-491-6568
Price: Entrees are $15-$27.

Dress code: Jeans-and-Tshirt. Watch for splashes of BBQ sauce.

Directions: Take the Red Line to the Central Square T-Stop. When you come out to the street, head down Prospect St. Follow Prospect St. to the 5th light. Turn left at the 5th light onto Cambridge St.

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My Travel Hats adds: Chomping Around Town

 

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(above: an amazing food stall at the market in Florence)

Surprise! It was about time I started in with one of my favorite activities and highlights of traveling: eating. Soon you’ll start to find entries specific to food highlights, ingredients, and all those deliciousness that will make your mouth water from reading my blog. Kind of like when Jon and I went to see Ratatouille, and started getting very hungry watching the characters cook the cartoon dishes. If you click on the “Chomping Around Town” category on the right, you’ll see I’ve already labeled some previous entries with this one so you can enjoy a little gastronomique tour around the world. Keep your eyes – and appetites – open. Bon appetit!

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Getting Lost In: Eastern Shore, Maryland

DSC03016How to crab:

-Find an empty place along the Eastern Shore of Maryland. (We chose Janes Island State Park near Crisfield).

-Tie a chicken neck to a piece of twine and toss into water. Hold other end. Wait to feel a tug. Start yelling “Jon! Jon!” because Jon has the long-poled net. Get your visiting college roommate and husband to do the same. When Jon is too slow to respond, start screaming “JON! THE CRAB IS GETTING AWAY!”

-You and Jon pull the crab out of the water. Check to see if it is a boy or a girl. Do not try to touch the crab as Jon did, causing it to pinch his finger mercilessly and causing Jon to start shrieking in pain, flinging his hand violently to shed his finger of the clamped-on crab, and then toss the crab I worked so hard to catch back into the water. If it is a she and/ or less than five inches wide, toss back in.

-Repeat until you have more than a dozen crabs (to feed four people). Then steam crabs in stockpot saved from college over campfire grill, which roommate cannot believe you still own (the stockpot, that is), season with Old Bay, and dig in. If you didn’t catch enough, you can order them from a restaurant in town.

-Take rain cover off tent so you can see the stars through the tent at night and allow for more air circulation. In the middle of the night, when it starts raining on you, start yelling “Jon, Jon! Go outside and put the rain cover back on!” Get other members of the tent to say the same thing.

Yes, poor Jon, but he’s a good sport.DSC02980

I first read about Maryland’s Eastern Shore in the award-winning classic, Jacob Have I Loved, about two rivaling siblings growing up on a fictional island off Crisfield. The resentful sister spent much of her days poling around on her skiff and fishing out crabs in the same manner. Today, on consulting Googlemaps, I would gamble to say that it is actually Smith Island, which is served by two ferry routes – one to Crisfield, the other to Sunnybank on the Maryland-Virginia border.

The second time I heard about the Eastern Shore was in Wedding Crashers, when Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson don plaid pants and boat shoes to hang out with a politician’s family on their waterfront estate.  No crab was involved, which was too bad, but the romantic moment on the beach bike ride is on Assateague Island, where we tried to get a campsite, but had to book it back in winter.

Upon moving here, I started getting wind of the Eastern Shore as DC’s Hamptons or Cape Cod, except with less hoity-toity pretend-high-class and more digging into crabs. The idea is to one day get a joint vacation house with my sister and her husband so we can pile all our “extras” (furniture, bedding, pre-marriage dishes and pots, artwork, etc) into this joint house and have a place to go together, like at Christmas and random weekends. Turns out, in the six years that they’ve lived here, my sister and husband have never made it to the Eastern Shore. So this past weekend, Jon and I took my friend Grace and her husband Chih, who decided to escape the clutches of New York for a nature retreat, to explore this chunk of Maryland, the “right lung” as I described to Chih. Grace and I, who hadn’t lived together since 1998, decided to get re-acquainted as roommates by squashing into one tent with our respective husbands.

DSC02986We packed for camping on Janes Island State Park, right next to Crisfield, overstuffing the back of Jon’s Xterra with camping supplies galore, including pillows and sheets. We drove across a few bridges, several cornfields, farm stands with Double Yolk eggs, small towns, big towns, strip malls, waterways, until we reached our camp site, 20 feet from the water. The camp sites were separated from the water by a long green lawn, where people set up dinner to enjoy by the sunset. We got bitten by hundreds of mosquitoes, some which splattered blood when we slapped them dead, and Chih and Grace took home a few ticks in their clothes (more nature than they really anticipated). People were fishing for crabs all along the waterway and pulling up enough for dinner, so we decided to try it ourselves the next night.

We scored only four crabs, one which I killed when I threw it in the DSC03017cooler of ice and it suffocated in fresh/ ice water. The other one we also had to drown because it was completely wrapped in our net and Jon did not want to get pinched again. The other three died of natural cooking causes. They were delicious. We ended up buying another half dozen because we didn’t catch enough. The couple at the campsite I really wanted had taken their canoe out into the middle of the Janes Island waterways with the net and bucket and caught a dozen giant crabs. We had taken out canoes to the same area and spent lunch time on the beach and splashing around in the warm ocean, but didn’t think to go crabbing in the area. Well, I did think about it, but I could only picture the crabs getting loose in the canoe. At least now we have a crab trap and net to add to our future vacation home.

Some more pictures. Enjoy!

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above: Jon walking along the dock at Janes Island.

 

left: Chih and Grace paddling

right: Chih sleeps in

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Above: Beach along Chesapeake edge of Janes Island.

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Getting Lost In: Southern Florida

I have to admit: after living in southern California, I could never quite extend the same warm fuzzy feeling to Florida. Particularly when it rains practically your entire trip. There I was flying into the coastline with the waves beating into the sand, gray clouds leering over the skies threatening to pour torrential rain on my friend’s wedding day (with a swimsuit and sunscreen in my carry-on). In our rental car we drove up the I-95 towards Jupiter Beach, about 35 miles north of West Palm Beach, marveling at how well the windshield wipers worked compared to on my own car. 

Anyway,  there is really very little to do except go to the beach. Well, on a rainy day, you’re stuck going to the mall or staying in the Best Western on US Highway 1 watching TV. Amy and I finally dragged ourselves out of the oddly comfortable down comforters of the BW and drove over to the Food Shack for lunch. Normally, a place called the Food Shack in Jupiter, Fla. might steer us back to Chili’s where we had lunch the day before. But since it was suggested by the wedding guide provided by the groom and bride, and then at the rave reviews of one bridesmaid, a British girl who proclaimed it “the best meal I’ve ever had in America”, we decided to take a chance.

Well, with that, it really was an incredible meal. Definitely the best I’ve ever had in Florida. It was a fish place, a specialist, with at least six varieties (three that were Florida-only), and a variety of preparations. It could be crusted in macademia nuts, or sweet potato crunchies, garlic, or tandoori. I went for the sweet potato crunchies on tile fish on top of a bed of greens with papaya, and sweet coconut rice on the side. We split the macademia-nut encrusted white chocolate creme brulee cheesecake. Amy was so transfixed by the restaurant that she would probably fly back specifically to dine there just one more time.

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