What do you do when you plan a trip? Do you check out the local attractions, the museums, the nightlife? So do I, but the first thing I look into is the dining scene. Okay, maybe I’m hopelessly addicted to good food. Maybe food is the reason I live. I wouldn’t have any trouble admitting either of those things with no shame whatsoever. For me, one of the great joys of travel is discovering new foods, new preparations, new culinary experiences. That doesn’t mean I have to be at a fancy place, as we’ll see. It just means that I appreciate a fabulous meal, an interesting or unexpected gastronomic pleasure, a comfy coffeehouse, or a new piece of foodie knowledge. What better thing to do with friends than share a nice dinner? What better way to get to know a destination than through the food that is served there and grown there. There are so many ways in which good food enhances our lives.
So in honor of my freely admitted attraction to food and drink, Passport magazine and I are inaugurating this column, and we’re calling it, based on my philosophy, Traveling Gourmet. I’ll take you on all kinds of food and drink adventures in the coming months, so stay tuned. Meanwhile, here’s our first adventure: a dine around to beat all dine arounds! You might have experienced this kind of thing before, where you have each course of your dinner in a different restaurant. Here, we’re going to let our imaginations run wild and have each course in a different city. It might not be pragmatically possible to do the necessary flying and end up at the restaurants in time for our next course (in fact, I’m pretty positive it isn’t), but hey, that’s what imagination is for. Let’s unleash ours and have an incredible time.
We’re going to start in Sebastopol, California, and my favorite pizza place in the entire world, Vignette Pizzeria (6750 McKinley St. Sebastopol, CA. Tel: 707-861-3897. www.vignettepizzeria.com). I know you’re going to be tempted to have one of Mark Hopper’s amazing pizzas, but slow down, we’re only here for an appetizer: the uniquely delicious cruschi fritti (fried sun-dried peppers). With a slightly spicy bite, a crunchy texture, and a deep, almost smoky taste, they’re the perfect start to our meal, halfway between potato chips and vegetables. You might want a local ale to wash them down with, but I’ll leave that to you. All I know is that more than once I’ve polished off a plate piled high with these deep-red wonders, I am seriously tempted to order a second plate. Shall we do another plate full? I see you looking at the four-cheese bianco and the meatball Parm pizza, and with their handmade Neapolitan dough they are pretty damn great. Control yourself. We’re moving on.
Since we’re out West, let’s hop a flight to Phoenix, where in nearby Scottsdale we’ll hit the venerable Cowboy Ciao (7133 E. Stetson Dr. Scottsdale, AZ. Tel: 480-946-3111. www.cowboyciao.com), which recently celebrated its 20th anniversary of providing its signature globally inspired American food. Our dish here? It’s a no-brainer. We’re having their famous Stetson chopped salad. It’s as much a visual work of art as a culinary one, with rows of multi-colored ingredients lined up on the plate like a flag: pearl couscous, diced tomatoes, dried sweet corn, arugula, ciao “trail mix” (currants, Asiago cheese, pepitas), and smoked salmon. (You can get chicken or avocado instead, but I love the color contrast the salmon provides.) You can sit and admire the multi-hued stripes or go ahead and dig in. A basil-tinged dressing adds to the flavor, and it’s your choice whether you eat each stripe individually or combine them all into a huge, delicious rainbow. Whatever you choose, finish every last bite, because in this imaginary trip of ours there is no limit to how much we can eat!
In that spirit, we’re going to get on another fictional flight, this one to Washington D.C., where we’ll indulge in our main course at Radiator (1430 Rhode Island Ave. NW, Washington D.C. Tel: 202-742-3150. www.radiatordc.com), the hip and friendly restaurant in the Kimpton Mason Rook hotel. I’m going to have the scallops, served with calasparra rice (which is typically used to make paella). The tender scallops are deepened in flavor not only by saffron but by chorizo—an unusual combination but one that works beautifully, the whole thing is also given a little crunch by a pea shoot garnish. That’s what I’m doing, but you might want to go vegetarian with the harissa-roasted Romanesco, an odd cauliflower-like vegetable liven by the zesty Moroccan spices and the flavor palette deepened by an intriguing black-bean hummus and cilantro tabbouleh. It’s up to you, but I’m sticking with the scallops!
Side dishes? Let’s do two vegetables. For the first, we’re going to New World Home Cooking (1411 Route 212, Saugerties, NY. Tel: 845-246-0900. www.newworldhomecooking.com), in the Catskills town of Saugerties, where chef Ric Orlando specializes in an international mix of cuisines, usually with a pretty spicy bent. The blackened string beans are no exception, and these charry wonders, served with a mustard remoulade, will redefine the way you think of this had-to-eat-as-a-kid veg. Here, they’re like a foray into some exotic country, a bit spicy, all mellowed and softened by the remoulade, and they’re so amazingly good you might actually forget they’re string beans. While Orlando lists them as an appetizer, we’re going to have them as a side dish. If we can fly all over the country for our different courses, we can certainly have an appetizer as our vegetable!
What’s more, we’re going to do the same thing with the roasted cauliflower at Nashville’s wonderful Etch (303 Demonbreun St. Nashville, TN. Tel: 615522-0685. www.etchrestaurant.com), where chef Deb Paquette dishes up beautifully updated Southern cooking. This is an entirely new take on roasted cauliflower, served with a glistening pea pesto. Salted almonds, feta dip, and red bell pepper essence make you marvel that you actually fell in love with a cauliflower dish, from the main vegetable to the slightly sweet pea pesto, and the almonds that add a little crunch and a little salt. It’s a riot of colors, consistencies, and tastes that makes it something way beyond just a vegetable.
Ready for dessert? Let’s make a relatively short trip to Philadelphia and Tria Café (1137 Spruce St. Philadelphia, PA. Tel: 215629-9200. www.triaphilly.com), the best wine bar in the history of wine bars. There are several branches in town, but we’re going to visit the one on Spruce Street, in the heart of the Gayborhood. While a wine bar might seem an odd choice for dessert, you have to taste the flourless chocolate torte here, which is rich without being overwhelming, satisfying without being overly sweet. Two little rectangles of the dense, rich flourless cake are topped with blackberries and a “coffee crunch—little crystals of caffeinated goodness. A layer of espresso custard slides between the two pieces of cake, making it even richer and more stimulating. Add a drizzle of saba and you get a dessert that’s not only incredibly good but perks you up!
Obviously Tria, being a wine bar, has a great selection of vintages to choose from, but in the spirit of this story, we’re going to go back to California and Deerfield Ranch Winery (10200 Sonoma Highway, Kenwood, CA. Tel: 707-833-5215. www.deerfieldranch.com) for the wine to accompany our torte. Besides, I like the idea of sitting simultaneously in a buzzy, split-level East Coast wine bar and in the soothing and nearly silent atmosphere of Deerfield Ranch’s “wine cave.” From among their “clean” (low sulfite and histamine) wines, let’s go for the 2012 Estate Syrah, made from organically grown grapes right on property and aged in barrels made of French, Hungarian, and American oak. The long aging process results in a depth and fullness of flavor that perfectly mirrors those qualities in the torte.
So, we’ve come full circle. Hopefully you’re not too exhausted from all that travel, or too stuffed from all those courses, but if we’re going to indulge in flights of culinary fancy I wanted this one to be as rich and varied as possible, offering a plentiful sufficiency of my favorites. I wish we actually could go together on this gastronomic journey, which, to me, adds up to more than the sum of its parts. You get the point, though: this is the fondest fantasy of a foodie fanatic, and as the months go on, I’ll lead you on more trips that illustrate the only motto we need to truly enjoy ourselves: Live to Eat!