Category: Restaurants


This isn’t about pho.  Well, indirectly, this entry was inspired by my recent experience with pho.  So the picture above says it all.  A bow of pho.  A plate of herbs.  Sriracha.  Wait.  Pump the brakes.  Back up to the herbs.  You see those 2 wedges of limes?  Those beautiful wedges of limes is what makes the broth sing.  Don’t get me wrong, the broth itself is already sexy.  But those limes?  They make the broth red carpet sexy.

But what I’ve noticed over the last year is that when the price of limes go up, the pho shops EVERYWHERE demote this very special ingredient to lemons.  LEMONS????  I mean, do they think I’m not paying attention here?  I recently went to a Vietnamese pho place and not only did they serve lemons instead of limes, they took away other condiments on another dish.  I mean, don’t take it out on your customers people.  It’s not our fault the limes are more expensive.  It’s not our fault you put the price of a bowl of pho at $5.  But don’t think I’m not watching.

I know some of you out there, you think I’m just being dramatic.  I mean, limes, lemons, they’re both citrus right?  It’s the same, right?  Well, it’s not.  It’s not the same.  The tartness of the lime is what accentuates the broth.  The lemons is like a bad substitute, like baking a cake with Equal.  It’s like telling yourself that the tofu cake you’re eating is really cake.  It’s like a vegan telling me that the tofu chicken I’m eating is chicken.  Well, IT AIN’T.  But that’s what so frustrating about these places.  The limes go up $0.10 a pound and we get lemons.  What are we going to get when the price of chickens go up?  Oh yea, LESS CHICKEN!!!  And what about beef?  Yea, that’s right, LESS BEEF!!!  Now you’re getting the picture.  It’s less of whatever the price is rising.  Or substitute it for something else, that’s kind of similar, but it really isn’t.  Can you imagine going to Panda Express and getting your fix of their Orange Chicken, but instead of using orange [or whatever flavoring substitute they use], they use tangerines?  But they still call it, Orange Chicken?  See, you don’t think you can tell.  But you can.  That’s the beauty of our taste buds as it interacts with our memory.  We remember.  We remember the first time we ate a great burger.  We know what that burger taste like.  You substitute that ground beef with ground turkey, no matter how much the other stuff stay the same, it’s not the same burger.  It’s just different.  And something’s just a little off.

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Recently, I had the pleasure of eating at Ikko in Costa Mesa here in SoCal.  While there are many, many Japanese restaurants in the OC, few have the elegance and thoughtfulness of Ikko’s approach to sushi.  And with the company I was dining with, the only way to really enjoy a place like Ikko is to have a gastronomical approach of “letting go”.  And in the Japanese approach, letting go really means, “up to you”, or omakase.

Omakase isn’t that popular, I’m guessing, because we all know what we like, and don’t like when it comes to sushi.  In the words of Anthony Bourdain [paraphrased], “If cooking is about control – controlling the heat, timing, ingredients, etc.  Eating is about submission.”  We have a problems with the word submission.  And rightfully so.  Submitting has this undertone of weak, someone lording over you, being under someone else’s control.  But with food, in particular with eating, submission is a good thing.  Submit to what the chef/cook has done because to try and control it from the dining room is not only insulting to the chef, but also not experiencing new things.  Omakase is one of the best ways to submit ourselves.  Don’t get me wrong, I’m not doing omakase at Sushi Boy, even if they offer it.  I’m doing omakase at places I trust and look forward to magical things happening.  It’s a way to relax and learn to experience new things for the next 2-3 hours.  It’s a way to experience sushi where tuna, yellow tail, and salmon [the staples of all customers ordering sushi on their own] is forgotten.  Instead, you get things like seared kobe beef [wait, is that sushi?], squid topped with squid liver, toro, and abalone.  No shoyu.  No wasabi.  Just you, your friends, and the chef.  Allow him to  serve you whatever he chooses.  The “up to you” is not only about submission, but it’s about granting trust to someone else to bring content and happiness with the meal.

Submission is not a bad thing when it comes to food.  We shouldn’t always be scared to try something new, especially when you go to a place like Ikko, where the chef knows more about fish than I ever will.  And to not use the shoyu and wasabi as a crutch where most people drown their perfectly good sushi with the stuff.  Let the chef prepare it the way it was meant to be prepared and then take that piece of sushi and put it in your mouth to savor.  And in the end, just say a simple “thank you”, or “arigato” and know that submitting can be a good thing.

Yountville.  The West Coast mecca of 2 and 3 starred Michelin restaurants.  Our good friends Snoopy and Peppermint Patty [yes, those are their aliases, not their real names] made a push for us in calling for reservations.  Our best showing?  Wait listed for any meals while we were in the Bay Area.  In fact, we opted to stay another day longer to try and see if we can get a Friday or Saturday lunch time seating.  For 5 days, my cellphone didn’t get any calls from an area code number starting with 707.  The closest we came to dining at the French Laundry was actually visiting the restaurant, just down the road from their Bouchon bakery.  We walked around in the garden and just sat at their bench for about 10 minutes.  Taking it all in.  Looking around to see the staff coming in and out with flowers for that evening’s service.  Seeing the kitchen still buzzing and prepping for what will most likely turn out to be a busy night.

Like a giddy school girl waiting to see her own David Cassidy, I gushed when I saw Thomas Keller walk around the restaurant from the front to the kitchen.  We were across the street in the French Laundry garden, seeing the vegetables they were growing for their daily menus.  I’m sure if it wasn’t for all the hype and press around food over the last 10-15 years, we wouldn’t have even thought about who he is and what he does.  But I think we all need to admit and accept that food is becoming more crucial in how we live our lives now.  Organic versus non-organic. It all plays into where we are at with our overall health these days.  On the other end of the spectrum, we have bog food conglomerates who continue to want to have us buy crappy frozen foods laden with just the things we can’t afford to have in our diets: sodium and sugar.  So to see Thomas Keller is not just seeing another celebrity.  It’s about what he and the restaurant represents.  The highest quality both in food and service.  Yes, it’s expensive and yes, it’s a meal that many people will never get a chance to eat due to its price.  But we were close.  We were thisclose but still so far away.  Next time.  We will have to plan our whole trip around this meal.  A meal that can set the standard of all meals to come.

Trucks and More Trucks

 

 

Food trucks have been a part of our food landscape for a while, but we used to know them as “roach coaches”.  A truck where you can get tacos, sandwiches, burritos, and almost anything fried.  Those days, clearly, are gone.  Kogi has upped the ante.  And they’ve placed the bar rather high.  With the use of Twitter to tell potential diners where they will be, and an infusion of Korean and Mexican cuisine, I’m not sure where we go from here with “roach coaches”.  Now, there are food trucks galore.  The Nom-Nom [Vietnamese Bahn Mi], Grilled Cheese, and numerous knock offs, it’s almost overwhelming.

But the thing with these new trucks is that they’re not what you would consider “cheap” foods.  A good size meal at a Kogi truck could ring you up $10-$12 with a drink.  And you don’t get to sit, unless you find a nice rock or a comfy curb.    But what you do get is a much better quality in the food that we grew up.  For one, I am really happy to know that there are dozens and dozens of these little mobile kitchens all over SoCal.  I realize that these food trucks aren’t for everyone, but of the ones I’ve eaten, they really are doing something to be excited about.  It’s not going to blow the Michelin guide reviewer’s hats off…yet.  While I don’t think the Michelin Guide would ever pay attention to these food trucks, I hope that they continue to churn out good food.  I would certainly pay $10-$12 from a Kogi truck than to pay the same amount at a big box restaurant if I can help it.

 

When Do We Say When?

Is there anything relevant in this Steve Jobs interview from years ago to the type of restaurants we visit?  Even though Steve Jobs is the furthest figure from any culinary entry, his bold accusation that “The only problem with Microsoft is that they have no taste” is a very subjective opinion.  Steve Jobs’ issue with Microsoft is that all the while when Apple was slogging through the 1990s and early 2000s, Microsoft became the quintessential corporation where hefty revenues were to be had as they dominated and almost monopolized the world of PCs.

How does this tie in to food, restaurants, and experiences that I so passionately want each of us to explore?  The more I travel around Southern California, the more I read about other people’s experiences with their culinary adventures, and the more I travel outside of the US, one thing is certain:  The way Steve Jobs describes Microsoft is how I feel about the culinary landscape in America.  It’s a gigantic generalization that doesn’t work on every level, but here in SoCal, slowly but surely, we are being boxed in by big box franchise restaurants.  Almost everywhere I look, there is another BJ’s going up, another Macaroni Grill, another CPK rearing its nasty head out of the wood works.  These franchises are owned by large corporations and the tally of these chains are both staggering and sad:

  • BJs operates and owns 102 locations in the US.
  • CPK operates and owns 230 locations 32 states.
  • Macaroni Grill operates and owns 230 locations globally.

Think about that for a second.  That’s a lot of pizzas CPK is defining for our palettes in our culture.  And I’m not even tallying Dominoes, Pizza Hut, and Round Table.  Of course, it’s not all about the food.  It’s all about the bottom line.  The revenue and profit margin these chains generate, either for the owners or the share holders if they’re a public company.  It’s all about money.  And a lot of money.  CPK’s average annual revenue is $550M.  That’s a lot of Peking Duck Pizzas being sold and eaten by us.  And like Steve, I share the same view of: “The only problem I have with BJ’s/CPK/Macaroni Grill is that they have no taste.  And I don’t mean that in a small way, I mean that in a big way.”

I’m not saying CPK and the like ought to be eliminated.  There is surely enough white space in the food industry for restaurants like CPK to thrive.  Hell, every once in a while, I also get a craving for Carne Asada Pizza, but I don’t want or need to see one in every city in Los Angeles.  What I am saying is, do these companies ever say “Wow, we’ve made $550M this year, I think that’s good enough.”  Of course not.  It’s the endless chase of “just a little more”.

Recently, I had the chance to watch an interview [click here] to hear Thomas Keller talk about his time in preparing an 8 course meal at the Mandarin Oriental Hong Kong.  In it, he talks about being a good example of what they do at the French Laundry and introducing it to a place like Hong Kong.  They have flown in some of their ingredients here from the States from Californian Caviar, to Vermont butter, and to Michigan dried cherries.   Taking 7.5 months to plan the menu where each diner will be charged $830US.  One of the questions the interviewer asks is whether Keller is going to open a restaurant in Hong Kong.  His answer?

TK: At the end of the day, how many restaurants does one need?

Interviewer: How many do you need?

TK: [laughs] I don’t need anymore.

Clearly, he has his limits.  6 restaurants.  Maybe one day he’ll open another one.  But his reach has limits because he has a brand and quality to maintain and he will not sacrifice all that for an extra million.  I’m not suggesting that we all now go and only eat at a Thomas Keller restaurant.  That’s not feasible both economically or realistically.  All I’m saying is that some of these American “iconic” restaurants perhaps also lack the “taste” that Steve Jobs is referring to.  They are clearly more interested in making money than the food they serve, even if the food they serve are not all bad.  As Thomas Keller says, “how many restaurants does one need?”  I’d rather have a restauranteur give us 6-8 good restaurants [does not have to be Thomas Keller-esque] than 230 CPK locations.  Even though this is reality, we don’t have to partake in equating pizza with CPK.  Or Italian food with Macaroni Grill.  There can be places in our stomachs and hearts for both CPKs and Pizzeria Ortica’s.  There can be places in our hearts for both Macaroni Grills and Roma D’Italia’s.  It’s not all or nothing.  We can say “when”, and we can do that today.

Whether you trust the reviews on Yelp is immaterial.  It’s another social website where food mongers like me write reviews of places we’ve been and share them with thousands of people we will never meet.  Whether it’s Yelp, Chowhound, CitySearch, or Zagats, it’s really where people try to measure a potential dining place to see if it’s going to be money well spent.  Unless you’re working for a food reviewer or news publication, there aren’t too many rules people really live by.  Other than having actually dined at the restaurant, you write what you please and do it with a flair that suits your personality.

But over time being on Yelp, I’ve come to realize that there is a social responsibility, however minuscule it might be, that one must bring to writing food reviews.  This applies more for people like myself, who do not work for any publication, then true professional food critics because we have no “code” to write by.  It’s pretty much thought vomit.  No guts, no glory, no filter.  But  when I read food reviews to see if restaurants are worth the time and money to go, I tend to read reviews from people who are reasonable and responsible.  I often see people giving 1 or 2 stars [out of 5] because they felt they got the shaft because the restaurant charged them $30 for 4 scallops.  Indeed, that is criminal, but when I’m reading the review for a high end restaurants like Mastro’s, Le Bernardin, or Bouchon, I think we have the obligation to tell it like it is.  For example, I’m not giving Bouchon 1 star for giving me steak and fries for $28.  Yes, the steak and fries for that price might be criminal, but to give it a 1 star rating is even more criminal because the quality of the meat, the almost perfect execution of the dish, and the whole dining experience.  While to many, the dish may not warrant $28, it is a great dining experience and the food is damn good.  Unless it is outright and blatantly wrong and egregious, I don’t take the price of the food into account too often, if at all.  To me, it really depends on the restaurant.  If Red Lobster is charging me $30 for scallops, I’m not ordering it.  Because to order any dish at Red Lobster for $30 and then turn around and give them 1 star for that is telling me and the rest of the internet world that I’m just not that bright to begin with.  I would hope that we would have realistic expectations for our meals on the places we dine at, but having one rigid standard and applying that across the board  would be irresponsible.  Not only to others who read the review, but to the restaurants where we dine at.

I probably take this hobby a little too seriously.  I often think about the whole experience first, the decor, the service, and most importantly, the food.  Does it fit the expectation the restaurant is wanting to achieve?  I mean, let’s be real.  Red Lobster is not marketing itself to the same clientele as Le Bernardin.  So as amateur reviewers, we ought to take that into account.  You can’t compare these two restaurants in the same breath.  It wouldn’t be fair to Red Lobster and it sure as hell wouldn’t be fair to Le Bernardin.  I don’t mind paying $45-$50 for sea bass at Le Bernardin, but I sure as hell wouldn’t pay the same at Red Lobster, not that they would even have sea bass.  I think we need to know what it is that we’re writing because whether we know it or not, people do read them, and people do make their decisions based on what we write as a community.  Our weight is not the same for an LA Times or NY Times food critic, and nor should it be, but I think we still need to be responsible in writing the reviews.  And now that I’m going into the second year of being an Elite Yelper, I think about this more.  I’m not giving a place 1 or 2 stars because I am reacting to the fact that the server didn’t bend over backwards for me.  Just like I wouldn’t give 5 stars to a place that has mediocre food and the service was awesome.  At the end of the day, it’s still about the food – first and foremost.  Not all restaurants are created the same, and that’s a great thing.  We need the hole-in-the-walls as much as we need Le Bernardin.  There’s enough white space to go around in the food industry.  But we shouldn’t expect the same from each and every single restaurant.  That’s just not realistic.  I can’t wait for a food truck to get its first Michelin Star.  I can’t wait for the Michelin Guide to return to Los Angeles.  I can’t wait to read reviews from Yelp, Chowhound, and Zagats. It’s all part of an experience of being a novice foodie.

 

The Lost Art: Service

At some point during the last 20 years, the service industry took a turn.  I don’t know where it went or why it left, but it’s gone.  Gone are the days when customers are taken care of at a restaurant, especially ones that pride itself for charging upscale prices for upscale ambiance and food.  I don’t expect great service at a burger joint, and even less at a Chinese restaurant.  But I do hope for some standard of service when we dine at a restaurant that is going to charge us 3 figures for 2, with or without wine.

While I do have almost no standard for service levels at fast food, movie cinemas, or your local body shop, it is amazing to me that even those establishments have zero standard anymore.  I was recently at an Edwards Cinema and the high school gentlemen who took the order for the couple in front of me simply looked at me and left after serving them.  Being relegated to standing there like a jilted significant other at the altar, I simply slid over to the cashier next to me.  As an isolated incident, that doesn’t really warrant a soap box response.  But it seems time after time, place after place, the attitude that comes across is, “If you don’t like it, you can go elsewhere”.  I don’t need someone to be my buddy when I order food, so it was kind of a shocker to me when I was at a Panera Bread, the cashier said, “What can I get you, man?”  And then to say, “Here’s your smoothie buddy.”  Yes, it’s a Panera Bread and let’s not over react, but seriously?  And let’s round out these stellar experience with “Dick’s Last Resort” in San Diego.  During a business trip w hile back, our company hosted a dinner at Dick’s Last Resort.  While infamous for it’s rude and fiery service as a humorous way to dine, why ANYONE would pay $20-$30 to get yelled at by a total stranger, no matter how fun it could be, is beyond me.

It’s not just this country or just the “younger” generation that has no sense of service.  We were in Paris and we decided we were going to eat at the Musee Le Cafe Du Musee near the Hotel Invalides.  The crotch-ity old server gave us a menu, grunted, and never came back.  Though angry and disappointed, I thought maybe it was us being a tourist, not speaking French, etc.  When I wrote the review on Yelp after we returned, I was validated by a Parisian who agreed that this cafe has the absolute worse service in Paris.

You know where we had absolutely excellent service?  London.  While I admit we didn’t dine at all the places in the city and I am sure they have quite a number of cafes and restaurants that could make it on this list, we had really excellent service overall.  Polite, attentive, reserved, and an attitude of “aim to please”.  From a place like Rock and Sole Plaice [fish and chip shoppe] to J Sheeky [higher end seafood restaurant] to Pret a Manger [local Starbucks want to be], all had consistent polite and gentle service.  Is that so hard?  Are we that bitter we can no longer smile at a customer?

I don’t know the answer to the lost art of service.  It’s truly gone, for the most part.  I have a theory though.  Recently at the same Edwards Cinema, I saw 2 boys in the men’s restroom doing number 1 while moving laterally to try and hit every single urinal in one stream.  That’s just GREAT home training.  Theoe two, I’m sure, will grow up to ask their customers, “What do you want to order, dude?”  I can wait on that.

Sagniaw, Michigan this isn’t.  I wonder how Paul Simon would have weaved a planned community into his epic song, “America”.  This could be Anywhere, USA circa any year post 1995.  To be honest, it doesn’t matter where this is or isn’t.  What it represents is something that was meant for good, but now has turned to something so antiseptic, you wonder if there’s a pulse.  When you take a look at the surface, there really is nothing wrong with any of the planned communities in America.  In fact, they’re a great place to live in many instances.  Clean, safe, well landscaped, always cloud free it seems, and for home owners, a great relief that housing prices did not fall precipitously in the last 3-4 years.  How can it be wrong?

Well, it isn’t so much wrong as it is just safe.  And I’m not talking about physical safety.  What I’m referring to are the safe choices these communities make about the dining experiences it’s offering to its residents.  It’s almost depressing.  Hordes of Macaroni Grills and CPK’s will not stop me from saying that our culinary experiences are diminishing to the opposite intent of these city planners.  When family run places cannot afford to open cafe’s and restaurants because not only are the rents high, but also the city takes a percentage of your gross above a certain level.  This makes it impossible for anyone outside a national franchise to survive.  And in trying to create a Utopian bubble, these city planners have robbed us of a diverse spectrum of foods that isn’t being corporately pushed by the likes of Cheesecake Factory and Chili’s.  The good meaning men and women who run the city have prioritized the right to approve the color of our stucco, the endless list of approved plants and flowers, and whether or not your garage is being used as storage unit than giving us a culinary experience, however shallow, that could take our imaginations to different cultures and cities.  Baja Fresh, mind you, is not indicative of the Baja area of Mexico, nor is it anything remotely Mexican.  So, while one can argue that planned communities offer up ethnic cuisines just like Hollywood and West LA because they have Baja Fresh and Thai Spice, it is criminal to call some of these places “ethnic”.

As a frequent reviewer on Yelp!, it’s getting more and more difficult to write reviews that doesn’t include Claim Jumper, BJ’s, and Corner Bakery, because for the most part, that’s really the epitome of what is around these parts.  It’s disheartening to see places that offer up some semblance of soulful food be overtaken by another Bucca di Beppo because they no longer can make a profit.  I don’t know what we can do about this, but one thing that I’m not going to do is to give up and have my Friday or Saturday night meals dictated by Olive Garden.  I’d rather drive 30 minutes to experience a place like Memphis Cafe or Mama D’ Italia than be resigned to dining at Islands and Ruby Diners.  The less that we spend at the franchises, the better off we are in experiencing something unique and real.  And maybe, just maybe, they too will wither away from The Bubble and we can invite the mom and pops back to pitch their tents.

Behind The Curtain

 

I have been curious and in some ways, completely enamored about what goes on in the kitchen when we go out for dinner.  What is going on back there that’s making our food taste so good/bad?  One thing’s for sure, you cannot compare a franchise restaurant, like a Cheesecake Factory, to a non-franchise/big box restaurant.  It’s clear the menu at Cheesecake factory will be the same, pretty much 365 days out of the year.  They don’t care that asparagus is not in season, it’s on that damn menu.  But if you truly care about food [yes, that’s somewhat of an indictment on Cheesecake Factory, although I think it’s a fine place to eat], you bring in seasonal and locally grown ingredients.  Not because you want to be posh, but because it’s the responsible thing to do.  It’s the sustainable thing to do.  I’ve never worked in a kitchen, nor have I ever even worked in a restaurant, but it’s clear when you eat at a restaurant that truly cares about the ingredients and how it is prepared.  Here in Los Angeles, I’ve eaten at Providence, a 2 star Michelin restaurant on Melrose near Hollywood.  The food is exceptional.  You can taste the craftsmanship in each dish.  To be fair to the Cheesecake Factory, the cooks also work damn hard.  When it’s the lunch/dinner rush, that kitchen is a hot bed of cooks pushing out orders like there’s no tomorrow.  So why isn’t the Cheesecake Factory sporting any Michelin stars?  Everyone works hard in both restaurants, right?  Right.  But not everything is created equal.  The people who run and work at Providence is not just about turning tables all night long.  The food is the center piece of something more than just feeding hungry mouths in the dining room.  There’s thoughtfulness to the ingredients, creativity, balance of flavors and texture, finding that niche where it’s pushing the envelop of one’s dining experience.  And I think if you’re honest with yourself, that is not Cheesecake Factory’s M.O.

Alinea is considered the best restaurant in America today.  It’s surpassed the French Laundry and Per Se to become the star of the culinary circle in this country.  It is ranked number seven in the world and it has, of course, 3 Michelin stars.  I’ve never eaten at Alinea.  Shoot, I’ve never even been to Chicago [egregious, I know].  I don’t know that I will ever get to eat at Alinea, where people wait in line to pay over $200 per person for a 20 course tasting menu.  It’s a restaurant that isn’t for everyone.  In fact, the sheer intensity of chef and owner Grant Achatz will probably turn off a lot of potential diners.  I think many of us want something familiar to eat, even if we think it’s so drastically different.  Alinea pushes the envelop to the nth degree.  They do it, not out of arrogance, but out of total respect for food and their diners.  They do it because, as chefs, they are in many ways, artists themselves.  To picture Picasso, Van Gogh, or Michelangelo giving anything less than their creative best would be unthinkable.  As masterpieces are created, artists go through a process of creating, executing, failing, and starting over again.  One can argue that I’m being extreme in calling chefs artists, and maybe so, but to understand just a little of their thought process in creating dishes would help us see that they are not that different than painters and composers.  They all go through a creative process in throwing out bad ideas and embracing new and exciting ones.

So, what goes into running and cooking at a place like Alinea?  Why is it the best restaurant in America?  What would make anyone pay $200 per head to eat at a place like this?  The video below shows how utterly dedicated these men are to their craft.  Led by Grant Achatz, these men discuss, debate, and embrace a world where their starting point is the Sistine Chapel, not Michelangelo’s sketch drawings.  It is a menu development meeting where you get to experience 2nd hand, anyway, the kind of creative process and healthy debate on how they want to give their customers the very best they can possibly give.  It’s amazing to me the passion and soulfulness of their approach to something as simple as squid and green beans.  Many out there may think, “Who cares?  Give me a slice of pizza and I’m in heaven.”  And that would be missing the point.  It’s not just about preparing food, it’s about excellence and most of all, a true passion to create something new and exciting.  This should inspire us to do the same in our own lives.  Push the envelop, even if the process is slow, as Grant says.  That’s OK, but we always have to be mindful of what’s “out there” in the landscape and strive for being the best.

I can still hear my friends and family telling us before we went on our trip to Italy a couple of years ago, “You are going to have the most amazing food in Italy!”  Logically speaking, I thought that was obvious.  I mean, how bad can Italian food be in Italy?  For those who have traveled or lived there, you know there is good Italian food and then there is horrific Italian food.  All can be found all over Italy.  In particular, we found the good, bad, and ugly in Rome.  We realized, even though not quickly enough, if the menu of the restaurant came in English, it would be horrific.  Bad pasta, bad seasoning, poor products, and generally, it’s to rip off pour tourists like ourselves.  As I wrote in another post, some of the worse pizza I have ever had was in Rome.  And yet, a place like Dar Poeta, one of the best pizzas I’ve had, can be found just on the other side of the city.

One place that we stumbled upon that turned out to be an amazing restaurant is right around the corner from the Colosseum.  Very close, in fact, to the church St. Peter In Chains [San Pietro in Vincoli] along Via Del Fangutale in the Piazza di San Pietro in Vincoli .  Along Via Cavour resides a restaurant that blends in well with the surrounding architecture and a little nondescript.  But we read about this restaurant in our guidebook and decided to take a chance, even though the menu was all in Italian and the people in the restaurant did not speak English.  Adjusting to the “laid” back life of Italy was tough, waiting for someone to finally come around to take our order after about 15-20 minutes seemed like an eternity.  And yet, I wouldn’t be surprised if that’s how the rest of the world lives, and only in America do we expect instant service.  In many ways, we responded to this foreign restaurant like many Americans, ordering something familiar.  We ordered a vegetarian lasagne and a plate of mixed meats [salami, ham, etc] and cheeses.  What we got was truly sublime.  The lasagne was truly homemade and the flavors were both delicate and robust at the same time.  The photos below were taken during the days when I would still snap photos of food [back in 2008], so I get to share them here:

Beyond those dishes, were the desserts.  The homemade pistachio gelato and nougat with chocolate sauce was truly beyond reproach.  Never had I had ice cream, much less gelato, with cracked black pepper right on top.  It sounds weird and maybe even disgusting to put pepper on desserts, but as my friend once told me, “When the chef puts cracked black pepper on ice cream, he’s almost daring you to eat it.”  And dare we did and we were rewarded with the most amazing pistachio gelato I have ever had, still to this day.  Yes, these superlatives are well warranted and although it may appear that I’m merely exaggerating to make a point, I am not.  It was truly that good.

And so we learned another lesson in traveling and eating, especially in Italy.  If you see items in English, just walk away.  Find places where they only have menu items in Italian.  We were rewarded time and time again when we followed that golden rule.  From a trattoria in Florence, to Cavour 313 and Dar Poeta in Rome, and a typical Tuscan restaurant in the small medieval village of Bibbona, we never left angry or feeling duped.  I would never tell anyone to not be a tourist when you travel, because that’s part of the reason why people go to places like Rome and Florence.  To see the Sistine Chapel, to see the Colosseum, and to walk across the Ponte Vecchio.  But with food, I feel that’s where we can be more like the locals.  We ought to really try things that truly IS foreign to us, even if that might mean we just plopped down $60 for 2 for a dud.  But what this experience has taught us is that the duds are far and few between than plopping down $40 for 2 for the crappiest pizza on this planet in Rome because the menu is in English.