I was talking to a buddy of mine on the phone a couple of weeks ago and he rather surprised me when he told me that he and his wife were going to rein in some of their restaurant spending and eat at home more. I was thinking, ‘It’s about time.’
Maybe it’s only when a person is younger and they think restaurants and dining out is about romance and glamor but for someone like me I’d pretty much killed the dining out twenty years ago which coincidentally was about the same time my very liberal expense account expired.
I still do eat out occasionally but only for three reasons. One. Lunch. When I lived in the city I’d eat lunch in the city. And now here, lunch out is an inexpensive and tasty diversion from my own cooking. Two. If there are foods or dishes I can’t make better at home myself. Examples: Mexican, Korean, phở, and so on. And three. If someone I am visiting or is visiting me insists on eating out then well, I will. But I’d much rather not.
My friend finally figured out the whole food value proposition. His wife is a damn better cook then just about any restaurant he can afford within three hundred miles. Case in point. When they took a long weekend trip to Chicago and the highlight meal was at some fairly famous big name steakhouse for dinner. They had wine, desert, an appetizer; the whole shebang and the bill was something like 300 dollars. Was it worth 300 dollars? Not the way I heard him tell it.
As for me, I cook. Why? Because I love to cook and I’ve been a serious kitchen enthusiast for something like 40 years. As I said earlier, the only things I won’t cook are those dishes I can’t or won’t make myself. The ones that are too demanding or those that are just way beyond my skill level. Indian food. Love it, but it’s too damned labor intensive and too damned specialized for me. And besides, there is pretty much nothing on an Indian restaurant on the menu you can’t have for twenty bucks.
Korean, forget about it. I don’t have access to the spices and besides to do Korean right, I think you pretty much have to be Korean. Mexican food? You got to be kidding me, right? I live in Mexico and there are at least two dozen places within a 10 minute walk of where I live that are running generational recipes and kitchens. I could spend the rest of my life trying to learn how to cook like some of them. Knowing that, the smart money says to just go eat their food.
But I do love the kitchen. It’s my favorite room in the house, any house. And I am comfortable there because I like cooking. I even like thinking about cooking. In fact I dedicate the entirety of my cocktail hour to simply fine tuning the plan for the evening meal.
And there is only one thing I like better than meal planning and cooking. And that’s doing both with my daughter. She’s been in and out of my kitchens since she was 8 years old, and she’s 29 now. When she was just a tiny thing I’d cook her 3 and 4 course Chinese meals because my reference point in those days was Asia. For a dilettante I was fairly handy with some of the more simple vegetable and fish dishes only because I learned with one of the masters. My girlfriend at the time was Singaporean of Chinese-Burmese descent. And she learned her art from her mother, a tiny Burmese woman who from what I could tell practiced two things with a straight single-hearted devotion: Buddhism and cooking.
My daughter I would like to think learned to love and appreciate some of life’s finer things from her dear old dad. Running and biking, reading, traveling and of course cooking. And for the two years she spent in Washington, DC getting her masters degree, we got to spend a significant amount of time exploring the local restaurant scene and cooking together.
So when I had finalized my travel plans to see her in Oregon this past June, I asked – given her busy schedule – if we’d be able to spend some time in the kitchen together. She quickly replied with a laugh, ‘I should hope so.’
The first night in Portland we ended up at her third pick for a brew pub – Rogues Brew Pub – because Deschutes Brewery, her first choice closed early to remodel/repair and her second choice was closed for a private party. For my mini review I will say the beer there was awesome. I had a very citrus tasting IPA followed by a very smooth and delicious chocolate stout. Sadly, the food did not match their beer in quality. The charcuterie platter was pretty damn lame with some crumbled nondescript cheeses, a couple of thin slices of grocery store quality prosciutto but even more bogus was the cheap store bought honey cured ham (Come on! It’s charcuterie. Just how does American style honey cured ham fit into that?). And with such seriously under-performing food don’t the owners/managers realize that getting something only half right is still a failing grade?
The second night we cooked in. I hadn’t time earlier that day to do an adequate recon of the stores and markets so we fixed an easy ingredient, classic pasta dish with cream, smoked fish and capers. That has long been one of my easy go-to dishes with lots of flavor.
The next day I sussed out a good seafood market well over on the other side of the river – Pacific Seafood at 3380 SE Powell Blvd – where after 2 buses and fair amount of walking I packed 2 pounds of clams and a pound of mussels on ice back to the apartment (for something like a 3 1/2 hour round trip). We steamed them all in a little white wine (I would have preferred a little dry vermouth) along with garlic, ginger, and chilies which we then ate with a little bread to mop up the broth. Delicious. This dish, like the first, I can’t do in Mexico because I can’t get the ingredients.
In that same seafood run I bought some nice big fat ocean scallops which we sauteed and served the next night with a fairly realistic pasta putanesca we prepared classically with anchovies, capers, olives, garlic, chilies (a deviation) and cheese. Lovely food. I can’t get anchovies where I live so this dish provided a very welcome medley of longed for flavors.
Out exploring around the town, somewhere along the way, I found a great Korean restaurant – The KTown Korean BBQ Restaurant located at 5450 SE 82nd Ave – where we stopped and had dinner Friday night before driving down to Sarah’s home (and husband, Ryan) in Corvallis; an hour and a half to the south of Portland.
Side Note: Sarah is doing her 2 year post-doc at OHSU in Portland but her house, home and husband are in Corvallis. So, she works M-F then drives home every weekend. She’s only been married a year but her and her Ryan went into this eyes wide open. And they are seriously grateful in hindsight that Sarah didn’t accept the post-doc position that was offered to her in Paris as the separations would have been longer and greater.
The next morning the plan was to forage for food at the Corvallis’ Saturday Farmer’s Market. I was looking forward to this as so many of the so called cultured and educated people these days consider these local weekend markets to be proof that America is winning the fast food fight and is returning once again to their birthright of flavorful, delicious, organic food all joyously raised in a harm free environment. I suspect the purveyors of all that over the top expensive produce must go home laughing their asses off because their able to sell mostly common vegetables at a much inflated price because the stuff is pretty and labeled organic.
Sarah and Ryan were hunting the vegetables so the protein choice was left to me. I was looking for some meat or fish to grill and I about choked when I saw salmon for 45 bucks a pound. I ended up buying a skinny-assed organically raised rabbit for 20 dollars when what I really wanted was a duck from the same vendor but I refused to cough up the 65 bucks she wanted for a single specimen. 65 dollars for a duck! It makes me think some of these folks had a federal government contracting background the way they priced their stuff.
(The last whole duck I bought was at the Eastern Market in Washington, DC some 7 years ago and I remember paying closer to 20 – maybe 25 – dollars for one. And I wring full value from those fat little ducks when what I do first is render all the fat from the breast – you get close to a cup – and then save all that delicious fat for other meals. Have you ever tasted potatoes roasted in duck fat?)
My son-in-law was looking forward to firing up his grill as the day was looking to be rain free so I turned the duck over to him although in retrospect I should have braised the damn thing after chopping it up Asian style into small savory pieces and finished it in a nice sweet soy sauce. But one doesn’t get between a man and his grill. Oh, no. And it turned out moist and sufficiently well prepared so I did the right thing by keep my nose out of it. (Still, it would have tasted better braised…)
After we returned to Portland, Sarah and I ate in for the next couple of nights. Clams in red sauce, salad and bread one night and then a simple veggie and tomato pasta the next night.
By the third night back we were both wanting some phở so we drove to a Vietnamese place that served up a pretty good bowl of that delicious noodle soup. I like getting mine with the tendons, tripe, and all the other whatnots for those extra chewy flavors.
The fourth day back I made another trip across the river to Pacific Seafood where I picked up some fresh halibut cheeks (trendy I’ve read, but cheap there – as in 4 bucks a pound less than the halibut fillets) which we sauteed that night and served with veggies and rice. Quite delicious.
And again in that same seafood run I bought some more of those nice big fat ocean scallops where Sarah, going all southern Californian hip cuisine on me, added them to a spinach salad with walnuts, goat cheese, balsamic vinegar served with bread. Kinda gay but still pretty tasty.
The two nights that followed were a blur – poor note taking – in which we did a night out (some spectacularly unremarkable Italian food) and a similar unremarkable night in which we recreated some veggie/pasta thing for convenience.
Sarah had made reservations early on at a popular and well written up Peruvian seafood place called Andina for Father’s Day. As much as I wanted to like the place, I couldn’t. Most American’s have their heads so far up their ass they’ll believe good restaurant reviews somehow magically translate in great food. My daughter should have known better – she’s actually been to Peru with me. And then more so, knowing me as she does, her loquacious food critic oft times food bully of a dad who could, when need arose, be an extra sufficiently supercritical prick.
But she’d only been in town a few months and wanted to believe the fellow who recommended the place, an older German research colleague at OHSU; and that this man actually knew (he didn’t) his way around a dinner table.
Anyway, to wrap up another annoying memory of yet another overpriced, overhyped, under performing meal. We had just gotten through a pair of rather tepid ceviche appetizers when I had to hit the head. A man in the men’s room looked up at me while finishing washing his hands to exclaim, ‘What great food!’, or some other such equally repugnant statement of ignorance, so extreme – so hyperbolic in the banal – as to warrant the just reply of an immediate ass-kicking.
Yet I stood there. White-knuckling the edges of the porcelain basin and summoning all the power of restraint I had in my possession, fighting back the bile, splendidly managing to bite off a very acerbic reply, to only merely ignore him.
I love my daughter more than anything in the world but bloodshed was narrowly avoided.