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Make most of trips as a culinary tourist

THE BALTIMORE SUN

It used to be that I would plan my vacations around the things that everyone plans vacations around. Theme parks. Sightseeing. Family gatherings. Maybe the occasional sporting event.

Then I became a devotee of the Food Network. And I started planning my vacations around dinner.

It began simply enough. I went to New York in 1996 for the U.S. Open tennis tournament, and I thought I'd check out the restaurants of two of the Food Network chefs who were just starting out. Po and Mesa Grill. Mario Batali and Bobby Flay. Now they're Iron Chefs, but back then, they merely had crazy cult followings.

I didn't know what I was doing in a fancy restaurant (and I now know those places weren't even all that fancy), but I enjoyed the experience, even with long waits for tables, the cramped Manhattan quarters and the menus written in a vernacular that I didn't quite comprehend.

I liked the food. I liked the way we were treated. And I liked the feeling of being in the presence of people who were doing something better than I could ever hope to do it.

My strategy for planning these kinds of vacations has changed over the years. First of all, Food Network has only had a handful of chefs with restaurants. Flay, Batali, Tsai, the Tamales, Puck and Lagasse. So I started watching the shows on PBS and was introduced to Bayless, Bastianich and Trotter.

I get up early every year on the day Disney starts taking reservations for the Epcot Food & Wine Festival. I take mental notes while reading Food & Wine (particularly the Best New Chefs issue) and Gourmet (particularly the Top 50 Restaurants issue). I study James Beard Award nominations in a way that probably would've resulted in a much better GPA in college. All to find someplace worth going to check out.

After New York, I went to California, and at the Santa Monica Farmers' Market, while trying to figure out what I could do with baby candy stripe beets, purple carrots and insanely beautiful heirloom tomatoes, realized that I want to cook when I'm on vacation as much as I want to eat.

I bought olive oil in Napa from the guy who pressed it. I Mapquest every Whole Foods within a 50-mile radius of my destination so I can see regional differences from store to store. I stood in front of a mushroom store in the San Francisco Ferry Building for almost an hour trying to decide whether the fresh porcini which I had only read about, never actually seen, would survive a plane ride. On a different trip, I did come home with a pound of chanterelle mushrooms carefully wrapped in my luggage. They were the stars of an awesome risotto the day I returned.

You can turn your next vacation into a culinary quest without necessarily devoting the trip to it. Once you figure out where you're going, find out what's good there. Use the accompanying tips and recommendations as a starting point and go from there. And make a reservation.

* When planning your vacation, go to the Web site of the newspaper in that city and read its restaurant reviews. See if it has an archived list of the top tables in the area. What sounds good?

* Don't plan a spectacular meal every day of your trip. It can be tempting, especially on a short trip to a big city. Better to limit yourself to every other day or so, at most, to keep your palate fresh. And it will give you a chance to "discover" something you stumble across.

* Go with a friend who's as into it as you are. Or atleast a good sport who is willing to humor you as you gawk over the menu.

* If there's a tasting menu, and you're adventurous, have that. You often won't know what's coming, and it's probably the most expensive thing on the menu, but this is where chefs show off, often both in quality and quantity. These menus are usually not a good choice for picky eaters, though, and everyone at the table usually must participate.

* Don't be intimidated by the menu. Chefs like to use a lot of big cooking words. Sometimes they're in French. Or Italian. Don't know what a word means? Ask.

* Budget breakers aren't the only places to find good food. I still remember the takeout we had at a Chinese place in New York and a hole-in-the-wall taqueria we hit in Hilton Head, S.C., as much as I remember any white-tablecloth place. Dinner for two at each was covered with a $20 bill.

* Don't eat anywhere that you can go to at home. This can be a hard one to follow, especially on a road trip. But I always consider it a major defeat when I break it. There are a lot of regional fast food places that can fill the role of the Golden Arches but give you a taste of the area, too. Look for the unfamiliar logo on the "Food This Exit" signs on the highway and go there.

Check out farmers' markets. Even if you aren't going to be in a position to cook, it can be illuminating to see the different produce that's available in different regions. You can usually pick up a fresh, reasonably priced lunch. And some fruit for the ride.

DESTINATION DINING

Here are a few of America's best, but there are many, many more.

Spago

-- Beverly Hills. Wolfgang Puck's trough to the stars is a block off Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills and is as hip and cool as you might suspect. It's not hard to get a reservation, and at lunchtime it's not ridiculously expensive. wolfgangpuck.com

Babbo

-- New York City. Mario Batali's flagship can be a tough reservation unless you're OK with dinner at 11:30 p.m. But all indications are that it's as authentic as Italian gets on this side of the Atlantic. babbonyc.com

Charlie Trotter's

-- Chicago. An elegant townhouse in Lincoln Park is home to the namesake chef who once got angry that he was voted the second-meanest person in Chicago. He thought he should be No. 1. You have two options on the multicourse tasting menu: meat or no meat. Either is an excellent choice. charlietrotters.com

Chez Panisse

-- Berkeley, Calif. At Alice Waters' ode to organics in Berkeley, we tried the upstairs cafe. I still remember how green and fresh the peas were. chezpan isse.com

French Laundry

-- Napa Valley, Calif. Thomas Keller's Napa Valley shrine is virtually impossible to get into and can require a second mortgage if you do. Getting on the waiting list is an achievement. It may be the definitive destination restaurant. frenchlaundry.com

Mesa Grill

-- New York. The Lower Manhattan restaurant that made Bobby Flay a household name gets credit for bringing Southwestern cuisine to New York before it was cool. Flay gets flak for being everywhere, but Mesa is the goods. mesagrill.com

Michy's

-- Miami. This is the only Florida restaurant on the latest Gourmet list of the U.S.'s Top 50 restaurants. The chef is Michelle Bernstein, who beat Flay on Iron Chef America and was nominated for Best Chef-South in the James Beard Awards. No Web site.

Topolobamp

-- Chicago. Rick Bayless has been called the Gringo Guru of authentic Mexican cuisine. You might see words you are familiar with on the menu, but unless you've spent quality time south of the border, you probably haven't seen them prepared this way. The guacamole was complimentary, and it was nearly the highlight of the trip. fronterakitchens.com

Emeril's

-- New Orleans. The man who made the Food Network a viable concept has outposts in several cities, but New Orleans is the original. A lot of purists decry his persona, but a lot of smart chefs openly appreciate the market his popularity has created for them. And no one complains about the menu. emerils.com

[JIM WEBSTER]

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