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I Thought I Was Made to Wander Up to Forty Days and Forty Nights…

7 Aug

I’m at the end of my travels.  I only just arrived in Budapest for the last three days of my journey through Europe, but you always know when a trip is over, last day or not.  How?  Some of you are thinking: “you know it’s over when you’re ready to go home.”  Others are waiting for me to say: “you know it’s over when your skin and the whites of your eyes are turning yellow from jaundice because you’ve been drinking too much.”  Still, some of you out there are thinking: “it’s over when you’ve completed your traveling goals, be it lessons learned or wisdom gained.  No!  It’s over when your goddamn bank account has nothing in it anymore!  That is when it’s over.  Therefore, as I mentioned, I am nearing the end of my trip.

This, I guess, is the part where I pass on unsolicited wisdom.  It’s not because I think I have become one with the world through my five weeks of mobile seclusion; not because I think this will enrich your life—it’s because, as I said, I have very little money, and it’s free to camp out in my hostel and entertain myself writing on this godforsaken blog of mine.  So here it comes.

Over the past four or five weeks, I have traveled through six different countries in the UK and Europe.  I have spent time sightseeing alone, meeting people along the way, and trying many different beers and regional dishes.  I walked a lot.  Not just a lot—like…Old Testament a lot—enough to wear out a pair of Toms to the nubbins and imbue them with the smell of rotting feet enough that washing them or whatever wouldn’t even be worth it.  I kept one for posterity, but the other fell out of my bag somewhere along the way.  And now that it’s all flip flops all the time, the front halves of my feet are like an American ass on a Brazilian vacation: tanned from pasty white to bronze with a thong line.  And in the foot of life…no…don’t worry.

So, anyway, back to didacticism: during my sojourning, I’ve gotten stuck with a couple takeaways I’m not a fan of.  One is that people are an important variable in experience, and the other is that America ain’t so bad after all.  For most of you, these might be ideas you’ve accepted a while now or never even rejected at all.  Some people appreciate both other people and the United States on purpose.  For me, though—a self proclaimed misanthrope and hopeful future ex-pat, these epiphanies come as quite a shock to the system.

First, the people.  This is sort of in two major categories: a) people are actually quite entertaining (easy to grasp) and b) if a tree falls and no one’s there to hear it, did it make a sound?  (I’ll explain in a bit).  So first, quite a bit of my trip has involved me running out of patience for my own stupid mind.  It gets old, walking around touristy places thinking about such inappropriately timed ideas as “does any of this really exist?” or “is Europe magical, in fact, because failing to understand foreign languages protects me from passing derisive judgment on overheard conversations?”

If life is a schnitzel...what does this lemon wedge mean???

If life is a schnitzel…what does this lemon wedge mean???

Sometimes, it would really pay to walk around with a friend who could distract you by making a lewd comment about the abundant number of sausages sold in Eastern Europe or forcing you to take his or her picture with one of those creepy guys painted completely gold/silver.  Therefore, I conclude that over a month of exile has caused me to go soft and has permanently damaged my misanthropy, forever dooming me to a fate of appreciating the people in my life.  Mom, you’re welcome.

So now for the more wonky, metaphorical tree explanation.  It may seem odd, but I feel like a lot of the activities I did didn’t actually occur, because I did them alone.  Have you ever been dragged out to do something kind of pointless on a family vacation?  Can’t think of one?  Have you ever been to the Grand Canyon with family or friends?  Have you ever been there alone?

If you go with family, you feel like you must appreciate the great abyss that is the Grand Canyon/gaping hole in the ground.  Never have you been so pressured to appreciate a lack of something (here, land).  However, you feel you must like it (sort of like in The Emperor’s New Clothes, when everyone pretends they can see his beautiful new robes, but the Emperor is actually naked).  So you take a picture with your family, and you make it your fucking Christmas card, so all the other (Insert Your Town’s Name Here) families can say: “Wow!  The (Insert Last Name Here)s went to the Grand Canyon!  What a great picture!

So, yeah.  I had a couple experiences that may as well have not happened because I was there on my own.  In Brussels, I went to the famed statue of the Pissing Boy.  That, I kind of don’t mind, because I stumbled upon it and didn’t go out of my way, but it would have been a waste, otherwise.  It was very small, and I think the only right way to do it would be to go with a friend late at night and take rudely posed pictures with it.  In Munich, I went to the Chinese Tower at the English Gardens by myself, which was pretty weird.  It was just another beer garden, and there was this Chinese tower randomly in the middle of it…no real point there…In Copenhagen, I went to the Museum of Copenhagen and took funny pictures of all the captions of the pieces on display…I did sort of entertain myself, but I could think of a few people I would have wanted there to have a near-peeing experience.

The Chinese Tower...why?

The Chinese Tower…why?

"Did the child fall through the ice?"  Really, credible, quotable source?

“Did the child fall through the ice?” Really, credible, quotable source?

Enough of this, though.  Bottom line, travel three weeks alone at most, and if you want to travel with someone, take a friend who a) doesn’t suck b) isn’t related to you unless you fill out extensive paperwork beforehand citing acceptable behavior in case of disputes c) will more often than not almost make you piss yourself out of laughter d) is not the kind of person who will wander off or make you babysit them during a night out, and, most importantly, e) IS the kind of person who will find you and babysit you during an ill-fated night out.  You will appreciate the travel buddy for more purposes than just holding your hair after too much palinka and helping you find the cheapest Kinder Eggs and Happy Hippos in town.

So now for this whole patriotism thing.  It’s not that I miss the USA.  It’s not.  It’s just that I miss drinking in the USA and also having my groceries bagged.  For starters, we know how to make a drink (depending on where you are, of course), and because of our short man complex, we tend to brew a danker beer.  Secondly but no less importantly, we bag our damn groceries for the customer!  Right now, these are the two redeeming US qualities I miss the most.

At the bar: in much of Europe, you go into a mediocre bar and order a gin and tonic and find yourself with a shot of gin in a glass, maybe with a lemon slice of sketchy provenance and a small bottle of barely cold tonic on the side.  In the USA: you go to a mediocre bar and order a gin and tonic, and you get gin and tonic water on ice with a damn lime wedge, so help you god.  I’m not kidding.  Ice is a question around here, and it’s about a hundred degrees out.  I got out of the shower today and immediately started sweating; I do not want to have to ask for ice in my damn cocktail.  As for beer, the beer in Europe has been pretty great.  Cask ale in London, strong ales in Belgium, Munich Helles and Dunkel, various indie-brand Danish offerings, Czech Pils—it’s all good.  But the only thing that’s come close to the microbrews I miss from home has been those cool, indie, Danish beers.

It’s not fair, really, because a lot of the Euro styles are appreciable for their traditional roots.  And we learn a lot about brewing from European base styles.  But…I miss the feeling of hop resin on my teeth…I miss the lifting of a day’s stress you enjoy when you finish a 12-oz American Double IPA…I miss getting some convivial spirit out of a couple beers before getting full of carbs and carbonation.  It’s the hardcoreness of it all…the USA takes the cake in the hardcoreness.

And then the grocery bags.  I keep forgetting that not bringing a bag to the local supermarket in Europe means I’ll be walking down Googlymooglystrasse dropping loaves of bread, bottles of conditioner, Happy Hippos, and tampons all over the place.  It’s a shame, really.  Aside from “would you like another beer?” the only words I want to hear right now are “paper or plastic?”

I Don’t Knowpenhagen

5 Aug

This is supposed to be a food blog, but I’m trying to document some travels, here, so this one particularly unfortunate post is mostly N/A with regards to categories–food, especially.  Before coming to Prague, I spent a week in Copenhagen, and having left, I realize that aside from a few key activities, I have no idea what I really did there.  I’ll attempt to explain and forewarn that the moral of this story is that four days is probably the max you want to spend in Copenhagen if you aren’t working there (mostly just because it’s not budget-friendly)…

Nothing is ever just as it seems.  Take this hostel in Prague, for instance.  It makes my Copenhagen hostel look like Alcatraz.  But had I gone from actual prison to the hostel in Copenhagen, then maybe the City Public Hostel would have seemed like the Taj Mahal.  I don’t know.  What it comes down to is that I have no real convictions about Copenhagen.  So comparisons help define the experience.

For instance:

Hostel:

a)     Copenhagen’s City Public Hostel was more expensive than Prague’s Arpacay Backpacker’s Hostel

b)    City Public Hostel also charged me sums of money for a pillow and sheets, while Arpacay provides these commodities for everyone without charge.

c)     City Public Hostel gave me a bunk in close quarters with smelly, travel-y dudes, while Arpacay gave me a bunk in a spacious room with circulating oxygen.

d)    At City Public Hostel, you have to stand on your head while reciting Hail Mary’s to get wifi reception, while at Arpacay, it just works on its own.

e)     City Public Hostel has black mold in its showers, while Arpacay has no mold to be found anywhere.

f)     City Public Hostel has 0 hostel bars, while Munich’s Euro Youth Hostel had 1 full service bar.

g)     Drinks sold at City Public Hostel all contain 0% alcohol, while drinks sold at Arpacay include beer

Money:

a)     Finding decent beers for $3-$4 is common in Belgium, Prague, and Germany, while in Copenhagen, you will pay around $6 minimum.  Glass wine?  Ask me where all my money went.

b)    In Copenhagen, signs advertise burgers for a mere 100 dk.  That could easily make you think…oh…maybe that’s $10.  It’s $17.  Meanwhile, in Prague, I get potato soup, duck, and dumplings for 160 kc, which is about $8. 

Beer:

a)     I didn’t go to Copenhagen for the beer, but overall, the beer scene there is weak outside of the Mikkeller brand and a few others.  Most cafes serve a lot of Carlsberg and Tuborg, which are OK but not too exciting.

Culture:

a)     Copenhagen has fewer amputees than Munich, resulting in more total legs per capita.

b)    People ride more bikes in Copenhagen than anywhere else I’ve been.

c)     People speak great English everywhere in Copenhagen, especially compared to…everywhere…

d)    Danish men have good hairstyles (including the buzz-cut/top knot combo that’s been gaining popularity recently).

That’s pretty much all I can really tell you.  Copenhagen is just a relaxed little city and a good place to take a boat ride or camp out in Mikkeller Bar.  I’m not hating…I’m just saying.

Munich: The Best of Times, The Wurst of Times

24 Jul

If this isn’t already starting to sound familiar, I am sitting on a leather couch in my hostel, thinking about the past week.  On the bright side, all these hostels have leather couches.  On the down side, I might be getting set in my ways.  I’ve spent the last week in Munich, once again getting to know a small city slightly too well.  Most people come here for a couple days only, but I’ll leave Friday and arrived last Friday.  It’s been fun.  Overall, I’ve experienced more food and beer in quantity, and the social scene has been a little more happening.  Also, the German culture is pretty different from the culture I experienced in Brussels.  Since I’ve enjoyed Munich so much, I will begin this post writing about the bad and the goofy of Munich and then proceed to reveal what I liked most about the place.  It’s only right, right?  You’ll see.

Some of the main awkward and bad things about Munich are very strange:

  • I’ve noticed an oddly high number of single-leg amputees around here, including a dog.
  • I’ve also noticed quite a few people rocking gout ankles.  They may make up the pre-amputee crowd, but I don’t know.  Just a guess.
  • Germans are allowed to walk around with open containers and serve alcohol to 13 year olds, but no one will cross the street until the little man on the traffic light turns green.  Even if a car hasn’t passed in two whole minutes.
  • Germans will run you over with their bikes, no matter how obvious it is that you don’t know they’re coming.  (I have not been run over yet, but I’m guessing there’s some kind of 9-lives style expiration on my luck, since I’ve almost been hit about six times.)

Therefore, anyone who doesn’t want a high likelihood of having a leg amputation or getting run over by a bike…or having to wait to cross the street…should not stay in Munich for a very long time.

On the other hand, there’s something about Munich that has kept me in the city for the past five days; I could have done some day trips, but I seem to have a hard time leaving.  Now, that may be because the German language makes so little sense to me that I can’t fathom looking at a map for fear of getting a headache, but I’m not sure.  Most street names appear to sound something like Flabbergabberbundergartenstrasse.  That is slightly paralyzing.  I might have stayed here, though, because it’s kind of awesome.

Overall, Munich is a busy city with a very relaxed vibe.  I made friends with an Aussie dude from my hostel, and when we went to Munich’s English Gardens to grab a beer and stick our feet in the river, we noticed there was an alarmingly large German population lounging around like they were on vacation.  Did they have jobs?  Was it a national holiday?  We weren’t sure and never figured it out.  But if they were all employed, wouldn’t we all like to move to Munich and spend most of our time in the sun with a beer in hand?

 

People straight chilling in the English Gardens.  Don't forget a bottle opener!

People straight chilling in the English Gardens. Don’t forget a bottle opener!

We weren’t sure about Munich’s workforce in general.  When we went to Hofbrauhaus one afternoon—one of the most famous biergartens in Germany—we got beers in somewhat of a timely manner, but when we decided to get food, it took about twenty-five minutes to track down a waiter.  Most of them averted their eyes and ignored us or promised they’d be right with us before heading for the hills.  One dude seemed to only be in charge of emptying ash trays but then took another table’s order right away.  Was it because those dudes were wearing lederhosen?  I bet it was.  But we couldn’t afford those sexy pants-and-suspenders-in-one.  It wasn’t our fault.

sneak shot of a dude in lederhosen with a sick feathered hat who got served before us

sneak shot of a dude in lederhosen with a sick feathered hat who got served before us

 

Conclusion?  Move to Munich and get a job as an ash tray-emptier for four hours a day and spend the rest of your time at the English Garden drinking Helles lager and floating downstream with the current.  Over time, get very out of shape and start wearing less and less clothing to the park until one day you are old and jaded and don’t care that you’re naked and drunk all the time.  That might be the Munich way, or else I have it all wrong.

I’m not kidding about the lederhosen though.  People wear those bad boys around here like it’s totally fine.  And I would love to bring that don’t-give-a-shit-ery to the US, but I don’t know if paying two hundred dollars for embroidered suede Bermuda shorts with straps is a good idea.  Instead, I got a really long feather to put in one of my fedoras.  It’s not the same, but beggars can only choose so much.

Regarding the food of Germany: it is good.  I have eaten more here than in England and Belgium combined, possibly.  Day one, I got very drunk on a beer tour with my hostel and ate a slice of pizza that easily equaled two actual slices in real life.  Day two, I drank a lot of wheat beer and survived mainly on a big hostel breakfast.  Side note: for some reason, the Germans missed the memo about not having to dye all the hard-boiled eggs.  They are all so bright.  Why.

Day three, I ate a pretzel and the sketchiest curry wurst in Munich in addition to a plate of cured meats and cheese at Hofbrauhaus.  Day four, I kind of just drank beers and ate some dry-cured sausages from a local charcuterie store.  And then had this really dank braised pork platter at the Schneider Weisse beer hall.  Yesterday, day five, I recovered from the worst hangover of my life eating kinder eggs and pizza from across the street.  And today, I tried another version of curry wurst to try to give curry wurst one more chance.

 

bad curry wurst.  did i happen to get served someone's half-finished plate?  I couldn't row a boat across that much ketchup.

bad curry wurst. did i happen to get served someone’s half-finished plate? I couldn’t row a boat across that much ketchup.

Pizza: get in my hungover belly right meowww.

Pizza: get in my hungover belly right meowww.

The highlights of this week of feasting include dry cured sausages, the braised pork dish from Schneider Weisse, and the pizza.  Why have I eaten pizza three times in Munich, like a crazy, American heathen, you ask?  Because this pizza joint up the street may serve the best goddamn pizza I’ve ever tasted.  So much so that I went back twice in one day.  The poor dude working there told me when he got out of work, not realizing I was just back for some more of that crispy, chewy crust they had going on there.  First, I had one slice covered in vegetables.  I don’t even think it had cheese on it, and I gobbled it up like a wild animal in about two seconds flat.  Second, I got this ham and mushroom calzone and ate the whole thing.  Really, I still have a ball of pizza in my stomach, and it’s been about eighteen hours since I’ve used.  I don’t know why this place isn’t on our hostel map.  Maybe because it’s two feet away.

 

The Peasant Plate: braised pork, pork sausage, bread dumpling, roasted pork.  AKA the Jewish special.

The Peasant Plate: braised pork, pork sausage, bread dumpling, roasted pork. AKA the Jewish special.

About the curry wurst situation:  it’s not what it should be.  Curry wurst could probably be a lot more than a hot dog with too much ketchup and curry powder on it.  But it’s not.  And it’s served with this ubiquitous fucking stale role.  Why!  I so wanted it to be good, but it’s overly sweet and kind of doesn’t go as well with a pint of Helles as could a sausage with mustard or a pretzel.  It almost has a gingerbread flavor altogether, and that’s slightly awkward.

 

Stupid stale-ass role.  Stupid everything with the highest glycemix index out there.  Still beats the first curry wurst.

Stupid stale-ass role. Stupid everything with the highest glycemix index out there. Still beats the first curry wurst.

When I was eating my curry wurst today, I thought, I wish I got weisswurst instead. And then some people came and sat at my table with weisswurst.  And I was like, staring at these awkwardly pale links, wondering if it’s possible for German men to eat weisswurst without getting chills.  And then I saw a dude casually knifing the shit out of a weisswurst link, and there’s our answer.  They’re too busy thanking God it’s not curry wurst to have their mind in the gutter at all.  Pardon my unabashed review of the German sausage situation.  I appreciate their encased, emulsified meats as the art they are, in all seriousness.

As for the beer situation: I have not found the majority of the beers available here mind-boggling.  But in the way that English cask ale was tame and quaffable, so is the German lager.  Even if some of it might be more mass-produced.  The major difference is no one thinks anything of grabbing a mass (a liter glass) of Helles lager to start the night.  That is like two pints of a regular strength beer.  And although my one-mass test proved that a petite woman (albeit with a high tolerance) will be fine after a mass, it also showed strong evidence that the one mass will encourage the purchase of a second beer and then possibly two rounds of cocktails.  And then drunk pizza.  So although a mass won’t kill, it really begins the slippery slope to poor health, gout, and, ultimately, becoming a single- or double-amputee in Munich.  Just saying.

 

But you can always count on Schneider Weisse Hopfen Weisse beer for a good time :)

But you can always count on Schneider Weisse Hopfen Weisse beer for a good time 🙂

I do have one more day here, and my only real goal is to load up on kinder eggs before I leave.  Today, I walked all around and ended up sitting in a church for a good hour.  I don’t know why.  It almost got depressing, thinking that people construct such crazy, huge, ornate buildings for a cause that isn’t proven.  But it was a peaceful place and very impressive nonetheless.  When you travel alone, you get to thinking too much.

 

Very impressive building.  Good place for conjuring up dark philosophical crises.

Very impressive building. Good place for conjuring up dark philosophical crises.

The moral of this story is: if you live in Munich, you should hit up the fruit stands along the main drag to attempt improved health and avoid da betes and gout.  Also, wearing lederhosen is a lifestyle.  And even though German lagers tend to be lighter than Belgian beers, you will spend more time hungover in Germany.  It’s just how it is.  Deal with it.

 

When you say 'prost,' you better look those damn people in the eye...Otherwise you're a suspicious drinking buddy.

When you say ‘prost,’ you better look those damn people in the eye…Otherwise you’re a suspicious drinking buddy.

Prost!

Brussels: Food, Lack Thereof…

18 Jul

Last time I posted, I had just gotten into Brussels from London.  I was exhausted and penned my English sagas on a comfy leather couch in the lobby of my hostel/hotel.  I am once again exhausted on that same couch, mulling over the last week.  You see, I feel you have to go kind of hard at least one night in each city, and last night was kind of it.  So I’m sitting here with a fat bottle of sparkling water and a (hopefully) safe “sandwich Americain”—steak tartare on a baguette.  Tales of last night come later.

To preface this post, I will mostly be discussing activities rather than food, because I barely ate here.  What?  No Belgian food?  I know.  Well, I ate a little, but I can basically count the items on one hand, because I drank so much beer that I was basically running on straight abbey ale the whole time.  Sorry.  For a detailed run-down of the beers I tried here, check out my post on Getinmegullet.  I know it seems sacrilegious not to consume all these great beers alongside classic Belgian dishes, but to be honest, I have a budget and little interest returning to the US the size of a sumo wrestler.

I arrived in Belgium Friday and had a kind of relaxed evening.  I got settled in the hostel, which is really actually a very inexpensive awesome hotel (Hotel Meininger).  The only reason it’s cheap is that it’s six to a room, but there’s housekeeping daily, a full bar, a roomy lounge, a kitchen, a pool table, outdoor tables for sunny weather drinking—pretty much everything you could think of short of a full restaurant.

full bar at the hostel--holla!

full bar at the hostel–holla!

Anyway, I met this Aussie girl in my room when I got in (these Aussies are everywhere; I guess there was a prison break down under).  We decided to go to the bar and drink, since it was kind of late to start exploring.  We got talking with another Aussie (told ya) and a “lad” from Scotland.  It was then I found out that no one stays in Brussels very long.  Each of these travelers was only staying the night, and I was staying six days.  Cool!  Well, it was for the best, since fitting in all my beer and food into one day might hurt a lot.

The next day, I walked around Brussels for a while and went to A La Becasse, a beer bar recommended to me by a friend.  I got a flight of sour ales, which was delicious and a good start to the trip.  Afterwards, I went to Delirium Café, the destination beer bar with a record number of beers in stock.  I had a few beers and then joined some random British dudes for a round of framboise lambic.  They were pretty entertaining, and because of my high level of beer consumption, they were enthused about becoming fast friends.  Even if I couldn’t even really understand one of the dudes due to some awkward other-English accent he was rocking.  I left them to their English devices after the bar and went to grab some dinner.

At one of the cafés near the center of the city, I got a behemoth order of moules frites.  It was pretty good.  The mussels were a little small, but it was a whole pot of mussels, so I found it worth the price (over $20).  To be honest, I couldn’t stop eating the fries with mayo, which was really the saving grace of the meal.  I think I just went back to the hostel and passed out after that, because all the beer followed by a big meal sort of snuffs a person out.

moules frites

moules frites

The next day, I got up at a decent hour to go to the international market a couple miles from the hotel.  It was pretty cool but very crowded.  For the first time since I’d gotten to Europe, fresh fruit and veggies abounded, so I got some apricots, a giant fig, and some tomatoes for breakfast.  And then I grabbed a demi baguette.  And then I couldn’t resist trying this bread that looked like a twelve-inch English muffin, so I got that too.  But it lasted for days, so I didn’t have to buy food until about Wednesday.

After the market, I went back to the hostel and chilled.  One of the girls that arrived the day before was down to go out for beers, so we walked to a Delirium Café offshoot.  She was stressed about her adapter getting stolen, so I insisted she drink it off.  Just one Delirium Nocturnum later, she was telling stories of her boyfriend who enjoys listening to Taylor Swift.  Since I was on a comfortable drip of Tremens, I was OK with it, though.  And T-Swift doesn’t kill me too bad.  When we got back to the hostel, I grabbed an Orval downstairs, because sometimes enough is never enough, and beer for dinner is usually OK with me.

Delirium Tremens, AKA my appetizer

Delirium Tremens, AKA my appetizer

Monday, I mostly subsisted on some remnants of bread and tomato and sort of vagabonded about, drinking beers at various cafés and bars along the way.  I believe Monday is the day I went to see a Leonardo da Vinci exhibit in a museum.  What that basically entails is that the museum was showing constructed machines/inventions from da Vinci’s notebooks.  It was a little depressing, because most of them seemed really funny and apparently would never have worked.  But actually, da Vinci’s shit really paved the way for much of our modern engineering, so yay for da Vinci.  I am bad at museums.  They make me really tired, and I always feel like I should be more excited while walking through them.  Maybe they should have Red Bull check points along the way.

Da Vinci designed this scuba suit...

Da Vinci designed this scuba suit…

Most of my entertainment Monday and Tuesday came from these two new Australian girls in my hostel room.  They were really chatty and kind of just sat in bed all day eating Belgian chocolate and watching British and Japanese game shows.  I don’t really know what they were doing.  But they probably didn’t really know what I was doing either, because a lot of my days involved taking beer naps around three in the afternoon.

As an aside, I am really digging this steak tartare sandwich.  It’s doing wonders for my head.

So Tuesday, I again ate a little bread and a tomato.  Sorry.  Mostly, I walked all over Brussels to find out how much there was outside the center of the city where all the tourists hang out.  I found a couple of churches, the financial district (yawn), some cool little streets with cafés and boutiques, and that’s pretty much it.  I scored a fairly inexpensive Van Halen record, which is always nice.  During my sojourning, I happened upon a beer bar I meant to go to—Moeder Lambic.  The bartender was really friendly, and he guided me to some cool beers that really hit the spot after all that walking.  I meant to go back there, but it’s a little depressing, because they have a cool bottle selection that is mostly 750 ml bottles and therefore out of my loner price range.  It’s cool, though.  After that, I went back to the hostel to hang and drank double gin and tonics for dinner.  Always a good choice.

A church.  Everywhere's got em.

A church. Everywhere’s got em.

Yesterday was Wednesday, and if you already haven’t stopped reading this fairly mundane post, you will find out that I finally ate some Belgian food.  I got a waffle for breakfast, which had to happen at some point.  It was good, but nothing beyond my expectations.  For lunch, I got sausage stoemp, one of the quintessential Belgian dishes I’d been hearing about.  Yep, it was just mashed potatoes and sausage.  But it was good, and it went well with my Kwak beer.  It was also really filling, so I kind of rolled home after it.  Later yesterday evening, I kind of craved some sort of nightlife.  Or something.  Maybe a social environment.  So I went to Celtica, a bar that serves decent beers for two euro a pop.  And I drank three strong beers in rapid sequence.  I was talking to a dude at the bar who was fairly impressed with my beer-consuming abilities, but he didn’t offer to pay for any of them.  It’s really a shame, but I read somewhere that the Belgians think of it as feminism.  I think feminism is when girls never have to pay for alcohol.  So that’s the one downfall of Belgian culture.

Sausage stoemp.  Had I eaten more than half of it, I might've had a chance later that night...

Sausage stoemp. Had I eaten more than half of it, I might’ve had a chance later that night…

Anyway, after beer 3 and no solid food, I realized I was full on beer but also tanked.  I decided to leave but got a little lost, which is pretty hilarious considering I’ve made that walk many times since getting here.  I stopped somewhere on my way home and got a drink, but then I must’ve gone back the way I came, because it took my about an hour to get home when it should’ve taken about twenty minutes tops.  But I have to admit, some of that beer needed to be walked off anyway.  And I might’ve gotten some frites with mayo somewhere in there.

Anyway, it’s time to leave Brussels.  I don’t know if I would have liked it so much if the first map/guide I read hadn’t started with something like, “Brussels is ugly, but you have to either love it or accept it.”  It really kind of is in a lot of ways.  When I got here, I was like, ‘da fuckk?’  But because of the self-deprecating honesty of the guide writers, I became psyched about it.  I would say Brussels wins the beer category, gets a decent mark in the food category, and loses in the feminism category.  In addition to the non-purchasery of drinks for girls, there is a high incidence of street harassment happening here.  And I’m like, if I lived here, I’d want to wear a burqa every day too (fairly present Muslim population here).

Tomorrow, I’m going to Munich.  The moral of this story is: you can successfully replace food with beer as long as you drink water.

London: That Happened

12 Jul
cask ale is good mkayyy

cask ale is good mkayyy

So I’m sitting in my hostel in Brussels right now.  I just got off the train from London and I’m running on about 3 hours of sleep.  I don’t know what to do besides deliriously blog about London, because I can’t get into my room for another 3 hours.  This hostel, Meininger Hotel, beats the shit out of London’s Phoenix Hostel.  That’s just a fact.  I’m not complaining; The Phoenix had a bar and all, but this place is huge, hip, and has a giant bar and really good Belgian beer just everywhere.  I am definitely giving it the thumbs up.  It was also only around $20/night or something stupid like that.

Anyway, London.  I had a weird experience there, because I didn’t feel like I wanted to take part in any of the typical reindeer games.  By that I mean I didn’t want to go back and look around at palaces and guards and crowned jewels and shit.  They’re very cool and historic, but I checked them off my life about 9 years ago and felt little need to re-do any of those tourist attractions.  And let’s be serious: would I rather spend money to go on a glorified Ferris wheel (the London Eye) or beer and food.  That’s not even a question for anyone with whom I’d associate.

So the day I got into London, I just sort of randomly chilled out and ate a sandwich and drank Jack and Cokes at a nearby bar to try to cope with jet lag.  It worked out alright, and the next day I felt pretty good.  I guess that was Monday.  On Monday, I putzed around London to get a feel for where everything was and went shopping.  I have a budget and all that good shit, but that didn’t stop me from blowing around $200 on a really cool scarf and shirt at a sick boutique I found.  Oh well.  I never think of it as spending.  It’s just investing in my personal brand.  It’s all just accounting (making categories for spending to justify everything).  I digress.

Monday night, I met up with my friend, Giselle, who I’ve known since the good old days of pre-school.  She is spending her summer interning for an English bank, so we met up for dinner to catch up at a random bar.  We didn’t eat anything quintessentially English, and since the bar had little in the way of interesting beer, I went to my go-to gin and tonic mode.  Anyone who was excited for me to go to London and immerse myself in the mysterious, sexy traditions of real ale is probably face-palming hard right now (because I totally have an abundant following like that).  Don’t worry though, all you fans out there; after dinner I made a small pilgrimage.

Since Giselle is currently “real person” status, she went home to go to sleep like a responsible intern.  I decided to check out a pub recommended by Time Out London for its cask ale.  The Jerusalem Tavern.  I was being lazy and defeatist about figuring out the tube situation, so I splurged on a cab over.  When I got there, I walked into this cramped hole-in-the-wall bar at which an Italian bartender (Italian Stallion, to be honest) was busy flirting with a Spanish girl at the bar.  In a very English comedy kind of way, an average looking English dude came to take my order while the picturesque couple switched to Spanish and ignored everyone else in the bar, even though Italian Stallion was on the clock…So average dude’s name was John.  John the bartender became a fast friend that night, since I am now That Person Alone At The Bar.

After my first pint, the St. Peter’s Best Bitter, I was ready to talk beer with Señor John.  All the cask ales on draft there were from St. Peter’s brewery.  And try them all, I did.  John was very chill about letting me taste the beers first, just as any bartender might be, but a taste tended to be about 4 oz of beer.  Over the course of the night, I bought 3 pints of beer but probably drank 5. It wasn’t my fault; John said from the outset that English cask ale is meant to be had about 10 of.  That just kind of sat at the back of my head the whole night.  The beers I tried included the Best Bitter I mentioned, a St. Peter’s Mild, a St. Peter’s Porter, a St. Peter’s Grapefruit Ale, a St. Peter’s IPA, and a St. Peter’s Ruby Red Ale.

The beer I was most surprised to enjoy was the grapefruit beer.  I like fruit beers, but I’m wary of them, because they often taste bitchy. This grapefruit ale was actually really refreshing and citrus-y.  I think it was cool because the smell of grapefruit really livened up a pale ale that was being served close to room temperature.  Maybe I should take a second to introduce the idea of cask ale, for those of you who don’t know the ways.

Cask/real ale is a style of beer rooted in English tradition.  Basically, instead of a brewery force-carbonating and kegging their beer, the brewery will “prime” their beer with sugar and yeast to facilitate natural carbonation, and then the beer will be served out of a cask in a direct draw pump.  That means the beer continues to change over the course of its useful life, drying out more toward the end, and morphing flavors slightly over time.  The beer is not refrigerated, so it comes out closer to 60 degrees F–something offensive to many people who aren’t used to it.  Those who appreciate cask ale are said to think of its changes like a change in the weather.  Maybe the ale isn’t as good one day over another day, but it’s just a fact of life.  John definitely had opinions about which beers were doing the best the day I was there.  It’s kind of like aged cheeses, if you can think of it from that perspective–sometimes a harder, crumbly bloomy-rinded goat cheese is good, but of course everyone loves it the more it ripens and gets all gooey and dank and delicious.  These are living foods, so we have to recognize them as such.

After drinking those beers in addition to other classic English cask ales, I joined the side of the divide that likes cask ale.  It reminds me of a Spring day; it’s not cold but not overly warm.  It’s refreshing but not overtly quenching.  Restrained hopiness and maltiness allow you to just sit and think about other things as you drink it as opposed to getting punted in the mouth by an American Double IPA, for example.  That’s what this beer is for.  Drinking while hanging out and shooting the shit with friends or getting some work done.  Or if it’s too early to start drinking and you don’t want to admit you’re about to start drinking anyway.  Most of them hover around 4% ABV, so they really are sessionable beers.

So after I drank more than my fair share of cask ale (learning happens fastest in total immersion), John gave me a free Scotch quail egg, since I had the drunk munchies.  I walked around for a bit after leaving before going home and noticed that the bars and clubs in London close pretty early.  It seemed last call was mostly around 1:00 AM.

The next day, I wandered aimlessly again during the day.  However, I stumbled upon Regent Park, which was a really nice walk.  Later that evening, I had a dinner reservation at St. John, a restaurant I’d been dying to go to since I was about 15 or whatever.  When I got there, I found the interior pretty cool if fairly bare-bones.  I sat down and perused the menu for a while before inevitably ordering the famous bone marrow with parsley salad in addition to mussels with cucumber and dill.  I originally planned on drinking beer with the meal, but the restaurant’s beverage list was 100% wine, so I decided to just let the beer thing go for a night.  I ordered a glass of the house Bordeaux to start, just because I was being super indecisive.

I have to be brutally honest: that wine was really pretty not great.  Besides it just being a little simple and too high in acid, the restaurant really served it too warm.  That was a sad experience for me.  The next glass I ordered, a Provencal red, was better but also far too warm.  Why, St. John?  Why?  Anyway, I didn’t let the wine get me down.  The food was delicious.

The mussels dish was really fresh and so up my alley.  I don’t know what to say about it besides…how could chilled mussels with cucumbers, dill, capers, and vinaigrette be bad?  It was definitely one of those dishes that reminds us that simple is often better.  So did the bone marrow.  What is better than hot, fatty cow substance spread on toast with coarse salt, parsley, shallots, and capers?  This is one of those dishes that’s kind of not fair.  I mean, when you have bone marrow, it’s kind of a gimme.  You just put it in the oven and know someone’s going to have beef fat dripping down their chin with a stupid smile on in a short period of time.  That’s just a life fact.  And I was the goof smiling that night.

On my way to dinner, I was having a cynical discussion with myself in my mind about the institution of dessert.  Where did it come from?  Why do people want to eat random sweet food after having a full meal?  “I want diabetes after I finish my dinner,” said no one ever.  Well…the answer came to me in the form of eccles cake with Lancashire cheese.  It was my waitress’s suggestion.  Looking back, I just don’t quite know what happened.  It came out with the Balvenie 12 year old Scotch I ordered, and I kind of just went crazy on it.  I’ll admit it was my first time with an eccles cake…But I will never see life the same again.

It’s just a pastry filled with spiced dried currants, but it was so damn good.  With the cheese, it was just so fucking delicious.  It reminded me of the holidays, but I don’t even care it’s July right now.  Any time my mouth is like twerking after eating something, I’m open to the situation.  Anyway, I left feeling like a whale.

The next night, I went out to some bars with a group of girls from my hostel.  It was a good-ish time, but I spent about $90 on drinks without successfully getting trashed, and these betches were a little crazy.  Not that they could out-drink me or anything.  Definitely not that.  I just didn’t expect a group of 26-year olds with lives to act like they were in high school.  It made me question all those young teachers I had in elementary school.  Were they out hooking up with random dudes at bars while I was at soccer practice on the weekends?  I shudder to think.  Anyway, moving on.

Yesterday was my last day in London, and I just didn’t do much of anything.  I had a beer and a sandwich only to make up for the previous night’s wonky spending situation.  And then I went to see “Thriller,” this Michael Jackson musical.  By myself.  And that is when I knew it was time to leave London.

The moral of the story is: cask ale is good and don’t expect 26-year-old girls to know shit about life or even heavy drinking for that matter.

Hello, Brussels.

Atera-fying Epiphany

4 Jun

Great restaurants strive to not only deliver excellent meals to guests but also to change the way the guests see food altogether.  The goal of the restaurant is to wow the guest and keep them coming back for more.  Last weekend, I dined at Atera in Manhattan on my birthday, and unfortunately, the epiphany I had during my meal was not about how food should be or about how excellent the cooking was at such an establishment.  Rather, I was confronted with an existential life crisis of identity.

What have we done?  I asked myself.

Having just turned 21, I grew up appreciating food in a slightly simpler time, when restaurants by Mario Batali and Daniel Boulud were at the top of the food chain, serving very high-end Italian and French food, respectively.  By the time I was in high school, more cutting edge restaurants were on the rise: Momofuku had gained traction, wd~50 was getting a lot of attention, and then Alinea was getting popular.  Chefs were playing with their food like never before, and it was exciting.

During high school and college, I got the opportunity to stage at wd~50 and Momofuku Ssam Bar and learn what their cooking was all about.  I ate at both restaurants multiple times and found that the chefs were spot-on in their creativity and talent and that their teams of cooks did a great job.  I ate at Alinea during a visit to Chicago and had arguably one of the best meals of my life.

In the past couple of years, I have kept up with the popular food scene in a less hands-on way, because I’ve been away at Cornell and I haven’t had as much money to spend on eating out and traveling to Manhattan.  During my time in college, Noma in Denmark rose to the top of the restaurant scene.  Across the ocean from Noma, I could only admire the food from afar through cookbooks, magazines, and online journals; however, I found it incredibly innovative and beautiful.  Its allure lies in its connection with the wild and the way Noma’s chefs translate the flavors and beauty of Denmark’s land onto the plate.

One voice in the back of my head always asks me: “are we playing with our food too much?”  I think a lot of people in the world of food ask themselves the same thing.  What ever happened to channeling nostalgia to create wonderful dishes?  Are the plates some chefs are putting out these days too precious?  Over-done?  Devoid of soul?

Although I found the food at Atera beautiful and in some cases, delicious, I think that was my first real dining experience at a restaurant of its caliber where I felt sure that some chefs lost the meaning behind cooking.  I won’t go over every single course, but I will cover the highlights in addition to courses I felt let me down.

Atera did put out some really solid food that night, even if it wasn’t the majority.  Some of my favorites included the quail egg, the chicken liver mousse on pork blood wafers, beef tendon chicharron with uni fish sauce, the bread course, the uni with roasted sweet potato, the roasted squab, the rhubarb dessert, and the white chocolate dessert.

For the most part, I enjoyed these dishes because they achieved the harmony others didn’t because they were seasoned properly and executed well.  These dishes had a little more soul than did the others, in my opinion.  Although it may sound silly, the bread and butter at Atera might well have been the best thing I ate all night.  One piece of bread was a dense, grainy bread, and the other was a sourdough roll “heavily basted in pork fat.”  The butter was cultured, giving it an intense, cheese-like character that was really unique.

Of course, although I had a good time at Atera, I was fairly disappointed in a number of courses I ate.  Some of the flaws were the food, but some were actually mechanical issues I’ll get into.

First of all, it was a muggy, ninety-degree day in Manhattan.  That meant all the crisps and wafers Atera produced suffered and lost their crunch.  Of course, Atera cannot control the weather, but if the kitchen staff couldn’t find a way to de-humidify or store these items in a drier area, it probably should not have had so many delicate wafers and crisps on the menu during the humid summer days.

Another mechanics issue was that some of the flatware was pretty difficult to use.  I’ll blame the chopstick dysfunction on my own rustiness, but I really did want to ask one of the cooks for their tweezers when I was trying to pick up a slice of scallop with those smooth, polished-wood chopsticks we got for one course.  One real problem, though, was that the fluke crudo, which was topped with a sheet of vinegar ice, was served with an odd little wooden spoon.  The spoon was really difficult to use as a device to crack the vinegar ice, and I actually ended up catapulting the ice onto the table outside the bowl.  Even for scooping up the minced raw fluke, the spoon was kind of clunky.

Most importantly, much of the food I ate was underwhelming.  A “lobster roll” of meringue “rolls” and a tiny bit of lobster salad was too sweet and far less exciting than the lobster roll my friend ate at The John Dory the next morning.  And the waiter chided my friend and me for waiting a few minutes to eat it.  I understand that the meringue might have sogged a bit, but this kind of just illustrates that more and more, we are designing meals around the chefs’ ideals over the customers’.  I realize that sounds silly, coming from a cook, but we are in this business to make the customers enjoy the full experience and feel happy.  Not for the customer to follow orders, necessarily.

"lobster rolls"

“lobster rolls”

A piece of beautifully pickled rutabaga was coated in beeswax…which kind of covered my teeth for a little while there.  Don’t we take the wax off of rutabagas before we cook them on purpose…was this some kind of an ironic joke?

waxy 'bagas

waxy ‘bagas

A painstakingly piled up crudo of razor clam, almond, and garlic lacked acidity and reminded me of an underseasoned almond gazpacho.

razor clam crudo

razor clam crudo

Sepia noodles in chicken bouillon could have been poorly prepared Top Ramen, if I had been blindfolded.  A beautiful cube of halibut, cloaked in a layer of buttermilk whey was cooked perfectly but left me wanting for excitement beyond the flavor of fresh fish with yogurt.

halibut with buttermilk whey

halibut with buttermilk whey

The desserts seemed a little better, but a lot of them tasted very basic.  The cracked egg ice cream, made to look like a cracked egg, was little more than sweet cream or vanilla ice cream surrounding slow-cooked egg yolk, molded in the shape of an egg and coated with a sugar crust.  It looked like a cracked egg, sure.  The technique was outstanding, sure.  But it just tasted like vanilla ice cream with a sugar crunch, in the end of the day.

cracked egg ice cream

cracked egg ice cream

The walnut sundae that followed it was nothing spectacular, although I do love a good walnut sundae.  But I could have gotten a full-sized walnut sundae at an ice cream parlor for the same price, really.  Despite the subtle nuances, it would have brought me equal or greater pleasure.  Not because I’m a fatty who wants more ice cream, but because I would get what I was expecting.

One last thing.  Atera makes beautiful food, but the restaurant is also a poster child for the issue all chefs with a penchant for foraging or a love for esoteric herbage should think about: are those micros and flowers adding flavor or not?  The answer better be yes before the herb or flower goes gratuitously on the plate.  Or else they should be used sparingly—with discipline.  I think I left Atera with a damn bridal shower in my stomach, and many of the petals, et cetera did not add much to the dishes.

Now, I’m not writing all this down because I think Atera is a bad restaurant; on the contrary, I enjoyed going and learned a lot.  However, I won’t be going back.  Because I don’t know what we’re all getting at here, and now I have to go explore the world to find out what I want out of food.  I watched a team of cooks in blue/gray aprons fiendishly plate each course with tweezers for two hours to put out plates that I found over-manipulated and slightly uninspired.  In a way, what I saw could have been a parody of what cooking has become.  I want to believe we haven’t grown into a generation of cooks (and diners, for that matter) so busy talking about amaranth, spirulina, nettles, and sorrel varieties, that we forget what cooking and eating is in the first place.

I voiced my concerns to a friend the other day, and we both hoped we could come out the other side of this one day.  Will we all step back to get the macro view anytime soon?  Will we look back on the early 2000’s penchant for choosing odd ingredients over cooking with soul and laugh?  Or will everyone in the world wax poetic about amaranth by 2023?

What even is food?

2012 in review

30 Dec

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2012 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

600 people reached the top of Mt. Everest in 2012. This blog got about 5,800 views in 2012. If every person who reached the top of Mt. Everest viewed this blog, it would have taken 10 years to get that many views.

Click here to see the complete report.