In 2010, the cash-strapped owner of the Willows Inn on Lummi Island, Washington, placed an ad on Craigslist for a head chef. Blaine Wetzel, who was raised in nearby Olympia and had spent the last two years cooking (and, of course, foraging) at Noma in Copenhagen, was looking to come home. “Home” soon meant a 9-square-mile island dangling in the Puget Sound just 30 miles south of the Canadian border.
At Travel + Leisure magazine in 2003, I pitched a story about my hometown of Milwaukee to the magazine’s Editor-In-Chief. I believe her exact response was: “Who goes to Milwaukee?” Uh, Harley riders and cheesemongers to start! Okay, perhaps they’re a bit outside of T+L’s demographic, but I was nonetheless given a page to amuse my Midwest pride.
Living in California now, I always enjoy a trip back to Wisconsin’s largest city to set my head straight (as long as it’s between May and October, ahem). Milwaukeeans bring a lot to the table: they have classic Midwest traits (down to earth, hardworking, hospitable) but they’re also informed, interested, and often activist. On a recent trip to Portland, Oregon, I thought of Milwaukee more than once. Perhaps most endearing, Milwaukeeans have a vicious sense of humor about themselves (Cheeseheads and the pervasiveness of Big & Tall stores will do that to you).
Maybe I visited too early upon its opening in 2009 before they worked out the kinks, but Marea, Michael White’s Italian seafood restaurant, left me disappointed back then. I am a fan of his previous ventures, Alto and Convivio, but at Marea the dishes were bland or simply not inventive–pasta with calamari and clams? As the months went on, people raved about the crudi (raw fish) and fusilli with octopus and bone marrow. Then, in May 2010, the James Beard Foundation awarded Marea best new restaurant. As far as I’m concerned, anyone with a stove and a sign has a James Beard award by now, but it was enough to make me reconsider (then again, Tom Colicchio won outstanding chef and Keith McNally won outstanding restaurateur).
Despite living in NYC for five years, I never made it to Peter Luger‘s historic 1887 steak house in Brooklyn. Rumors swirled about the surly waiters and the massive porterhouse, considered the best steak in the city by many. With a steak-loving friend in town one weekend, we also ended up at Strip House, so I thought it would be fun to conduct a NYC steak-off. (I was originally planning to have Minetta Tavern‘s NY strip in the running as well, but it was so bad I dropped it from the lineup.)
Oh, glorious pizza. Since San Diego’s restaurants are in some kind of purgatory of mediocrity, with pizza options just a step above Domino’s, I tend to seek out good pizza when I travel. Declaring the best “New York slice” engenders as much arguing and regional posturing as Mideast peace negotiations, so I’ve limited my research to the Neapolitan-style pizza served at relative newcomers Motorino and Kesté.
Tom Colicchio needs to stop spreading himself so thin. The host of Bravo’s Top Chef has five branded restaurants with 13 outlets across the country. ‘wichcraft, his casual sandwich eatery, has 12 locations in NYC alone! (I ate at one in my neighborhood; it doesn’t have the flair it did when it first opened next door to Craft on 19th street.) Even his renowned flagship Craft, which lets the quality of ingredients sing for themselves like à la carte presents, has lost its luster. Not surprisingly, Colicchio & Sons has followed in this vein: Good but not great.
Is it an oxymoron to have to call 21 days in advance and hear a busy signal for 30 minutes to make a reservation at a casual Mexican eatery? If the food were sensational, I can understand, but what’s all the hype about? Well, the secret entrance doesn’t hurt. From the outside, La Esquina looks to be, and is, a three-dollar taco shop. But if you report to a woman with a clipboard, she grants you access to the swanky brasserie below.
Eleven Madison Park, under bulletproof restaurateur Danny Meyer‘s direction, has been on my NYC hit list since it received a rare 4 stars from the New York Times in August 2009. They seem to be using French Laundry as a model (especially for food presentation) and, while the meal was highly enjoyable, it had some missteps.
It was a Saturday afternoon and I was settling into my usual routine of avoiding the masses of people that take over the city every weekend. I could get some work done. Or drink half a bottle of wine and watch Saturday Night Live. One never knows. Then Gabi, Time Out New York‘s Eat Out editor, called. Back when I was working at Travel + Leisure, we had met at Le Cirque during some kind of promotional dinner that you jump at when you’re young and broke, the so-called “perks of the job” that we rationalized as compensation for our meager salaries. We had kept in touch and been playing phone tag during my stay. She wanted to go to Brooklyn. In 20 minutes. I ran a comb through my hair and happily accepted.