I hate to disappoint those who are seeking a gluttonous New Orleans food tour dripping in butter and hot sauce (okay, there’s a little of that), but this post will be a little different. I made the trip as a guest of Rachel’s Network, an alliance of women that supports female leaders who want to be agents of change for environmental protection. Some highlights: Mayor Mitch Landrieu talked to us about the city’s reliance on the oil industry, a local fisherman steered us through the bayou (which loses the equivalent of a football field of marshland per hour), architects cooperating with Dutch water control experts walked us through the Ninth Ward (devastated by Hurricane Katrina) to see the new “green housing” pioneered by Brad Pitt, and—I didn’t forget you, foodies—we dined with Chef John Besh, who is decidedly an agent of change in his own community.
Per Se, Jean Georges, and Blue Hill at Stone Barns have been visited, and a couple of them left me wishing I’d spent my money elsewhere (though one did indeed take the prize). But now to the fun stuff: Dining at critics’ darlings like Torrisi and the Breslin, eyeing up Veritas’s new chef (will he prove his three stars from the New York Times?), and debating Thai chicken wings at the Las Vegas import Lotus of Siam (you might want to stick to Vegas).
After somewhat disappointing meals at both Per Se and Blue Hill at Stone Barns, I was ready to throw in the towel and eat hot wings for the rest of the trip since, clearly, the Fancy Category wasn’t cutting it. Little did I know the winner would be, yes, a fancy restaurant—Jean Georges’s flagship on Columbus Circle—but for its decidedly affordable two-course $38 lunch offered Monday through Saturday (dinner is $98 for three courses).
I am lucky to say that I have been to Per Se once before. It was a little over two years ago on the day my brother Oliver got married. Everyone agreed that the five-course lunch was breathtaking. My Japanese sister-in-law, a professional collector of breathtaking meals (who inexplicably remains a size zero), called it “possibly the best I’ve had.” We nodded in agreement. Regretfully, we could not say the same about our most recent trip. Sure, the food was intricately prepared and beautifully presented, but—hang on—the fish was overcooked and the frog’s legs were underseasoned? My brother Matthew, who had chosen the 9-course vegetarian menu, was left deflated as well. There were some amazing high points, like his Salvatore Brooklyn ricotta agnolotti, but then perplexing dishes like a massive hunk of Amarelo da Beira Baixa cheese that he would have had a hard time finishing if it were the only thing he ate. Chef Thomas Keller has created a global reputation that rests on his OCD-like demand for perfection. But this wasn’t it.
Let’s talk logistics. Blue Hill at Stone Barns is in Westchester, 45 minutes north of New York City by train. Unless you have a car, you have to be able to eat your three-hour-plus meal in time to take the last train back to the city at one in the morning. Or pay an exorbitant fee for a taxi to drive you back at that hour. My advice? Either find a way to eat at 5:30pm or plan a lunchtime outing on the weekend when you can take in the sights of the farm and its surroundings (or, on a personal note, have enough light to take photos in the “no flash zone” dining room). The lake and trees looked nice by moonlight, but are much more enjoyable by day, I’m sure.
PHOTO ESSAY: Visiting my brother and his family in Santa Cruz with a stop at Manresa restaurant in nearby Los Gatos
“30th on 30th“—held on 30th Street on the 30th of each month in North Park, San Diego—is a food and drink event that promotes a handful of neighborhood restaurants while also encouraging the community to come together and celebrate chefs who value sustainable and local ingredients. Eaters can enjoy an affordable bite and one of San Diego’s renowned craft beers in front of the establishments, so people can essentially “food hop,” if you will, from one place to another. In the end, it’s a bit like a food-obsessed block party, and—in the eighth largest city in the country—patrons are able to enjoy the communal bounty of just one tasty street.
Never have I seen such a seductive town as Madison, Wisconsin. Nope, not New Orleans, not New York, but this capital city between two lakes in the northern Midwest, renowned simultaneously for educational research and drinking prowess, tempered by what is at times unbearably frigid weather (but that can be fun, too—who gets a “snow day” in grad school?). Yes, as a double graduate of the University of Wisconsin–Madison, I have watched time and again an eye-rolling high schooler dragged on an admissions tour by her alumni parents (a gleam in their eye so bright with nostalgia they’re practically planning another toga party) only to watch that student show up the next day with the same wide smile and a bright red UW Badger hat, exclaiming, “This place is awe-some!!” Legendary UW football coach Barry Alvarez said when recruiting athletes he just had to take them down State Street, the pedestrian-only main drag that connects the capital building to the campus, populated with restaurants, bars, and shops. The city takes care of the rest.