The Eating Traveler
Hello Enthusiasts –
This post isn’t going to tell you about any new, cool places (or at least, it won’t tell you about any that you can easily get to). Fair warning: this is one of my ‘big think’ish posts. I know – those are your favorite.
Anyhoo, as some of you know, your loyal Enthusiast just got back from a lengthy trip to Spain & Portugal (minor jealousy inducing pictures included).
(Respectively, mist over Arcos de la Frontera, sunset over Madeira, and a castle in Sintra)
Anyway, everywhere we went, I made a point of looking for good/interesting/local restaurants, even in the tiniest villages. We ate tapas in Seville, Italian food in the hill towns, Arab-influenced food in the shadow of the Alhambra in Granada, molecular gastronomy from a Ferran Adria protege in Madrid, and dinner in a salt cave on the island of Madeira.
Some people I know don’t really make an effort when it comes to eating on their vacations. They just grab something while running in between sites, seeing food as the fuel they need to get them to the next photo op. Or else, (at least in Europe) they sit in an outdoor cafe for lunch, order from the picture that looks the least gross, drink their water with bubbles, and feel like they are experiencing the local culture – all while grumbling that it took so long to get the bill.
Don’t get me wrong – that’s better than nothing. But I have a much deeper urge to find good restaurants in new cities, that hopefully have at least as many locals as tourists, with good food in good surroundings, and the impetus for that desire is not one that I can easily articulate. After all, it’s not like I’ll be able to go back any time soon. It’s not like I can send you all there. So … so what? Why try so hard to go to good restaurants in new cities beyond the general desire to eat good food (not that that’s a bad reason in and of itself)? Well, I found the answer on our second to last night of the trip, and in finding that answer, realized something about restaurants, cities, who we are, and why it matters.
We were in Lisbon. A friend had been given some recommendations, which were seconded by a couple of travel websites. We couldn’t get our first choice so, after a few tries, we ended up at a place called 100 Maneiras. (Go ahead and click the website, but I hope you’re up on your Portuguese). It got good reviews, seemed authentically Portuguese, and was available. Before I go further into the story, here’s the visuals. First, the inside:
That’s it. This is taken from the front of the restaurant looking back – this is pretty much all the tables. Look on the right, and you’ll see where all the food is served from – and just past that is what must be the tiny kitchen. And here’s a tilted picture of at least part of the outside (only one I could find):
European, cute, unassuming. OK, back to our story. So, off to 100 Maneiras we go. We walk in, see the place, looks cute, great. We sit down, server comes up wearing basic server whites with a pair of Chucks. Says, in respectable English (they always spot the English speakers without even having to ask…), “First thing I need to know is any food allergies.” When she notices the confused looks we are giving each other, she says “you know this is just a tasting menu, right? You don’t actually order anything.” Oh, OK. We’re traveling, sense of adventure on high, being militantly optimistic, so we roll with it. We let them know that Lisa can’t eat much fish – pretty tough in seaside Portugal. But they think can deal with it, and the food starts to come out.
First dish arrives, picture here (and for those of you who remember that I don’t take pictures of food, I have to give a shout out to Lucy Okumu. I mercilessly teased her for taking these pictures at the time, but now I owe her – and so do you – for getting to show you what I’m talking about):
We pretty much immediately know that we’re in for some interesting food. You see, these are dried “chips” of salt cod, made to look like hanging laundry, mini clothes pins and all. And, with that, we are off on a food adventure, all paired with solely Portuguese wines. Next, cauliflower with truffle cream, shrimp, and hazel nuts – another picture (yes, served in a martini glass):
… carpaccio made with duck and foie gras (how do you make carpaccio out of foie gras??) with a Madeira reduction and pumpkin seeds. Check it out:
Then, cannelloni made out of game stew … seared scallops with potato foam … sea bream (a local fish) with lime and saffron risotto … a palate cleanser of black pepper and basil granita (which we all wanted a lot more of) – another pic:
… Then, pork loin crusted in, get this, smoked sausage with a chestnut puree … banana ice cream with cookie foam … and chocolate cake with pennyroyal jelly. Every single dish was incredible. Every single wine paired perfectly – blindfolded, you would have never known that these weren’t incredible Spanish or California wines. We finally figure out that the restaurant is by a chef named Ljubomir Stansic – Yugoslavian/Serbian by birth, now Portuguese through and through – and he’s basically their Iron Chef. He judges their food shows, has books, is pretty famous. But certainly not coasting. This is some of the best food any of us have ever eaten – rivaling the heavy hitters (yes, including Thomas Keller). And if you’ll notice, most of it is very authentically Portuguese, but with a gourmet twist. Here he is:
At some point, delirious with happiness, we think “whatever this costs, we don’t care.” In case you lost count, that’s 10 courses. All impeccably executed. Great, but relaxed service. I get the bill. I steel myself. Whatever this costs (because we still haven’t seen a menu at this point), I remind myself, it was worth it. I look down. 40 euros per person. FORTY EUROS PER PERSON! And, not to put too fine a point on it, but that includes the 13% tax! For those of you not up on your exchange rates, that’s about $52. And also in case you forgot, look again at the interior, notice again where the food comes out, and try to imagine how big the kitchen is (or isn’t). They do all this in that space. The wine was an additional 35 euros per person (about $45), but that included probably the equivalent of 6 glasses each of very good wine (yes, including port). It was jaw droppingly cheap. Well, not “cheap”, but an amazing, truly unbelievable value.
So, back to my point. What did finding this unsung gem of a restaurant (unless you’re in Lisbon, in which case it’s decently sung) tell me about culture, cities, our innate desire to search out these kinds of places? It reminded me of something that’s easy to overlook: restaurants are, or can be, a microcosm of their city, their culture, and their environment. Think about it. You get a little bit of everything. You see what kinds of food different people eat, which tells you a little bit about their surroundings, what’s available, what *they* like. If you talk to your servers, you learn a little bit about where you are, what’s around you, how this place fits into the scheme of things. You get a sense for what’s important and what isn’t. I don’t think anywhere in America would serve this kind of food in that kind of place – but in older cities, where the outside doesn’t always reflect the inside, that’s not unexpected. You don’t judge books by their covers, to use the cliche. And the price – the price reflects a culture that doesn’t maximize everything. He could charge more, way more. He could cater to foodie tourists. Heck, I bet even the locals would pay more. But, however it works, he’s charging what he needs to. Not what he can … what he needs to. The point is, from that one experience, I felt like I understand that city, at least on that night, just a little bit better.
And isn’t that what the best restaurants do for Los Angeles, or any city? Don’t they tell us something about that city, in that time, at that moment? Our relationship with our surroundings, the kinds of foods we use to sustain ourselves, what we value, how we value it? A visitor who sees an LA restaurant menu bragging about its local sourcing, or its organic ingredients, or proudly displaying its vegan options, or showing off its new cocktail menu is actually learning more about this city. Maybe their waiter lives Downtown, and they didn’t know anybody actually lived in Downtown LA. They look around, they see what people are wearing, how people are interacting – they might notice that people are wearing jeans to a restaurant that they’d think you would need a jacket for back home.
And just to bring this whole thing full circle, I think that’s yet another reason I like, and write about, Downtown restaurants so much. Downtown restaurants (and bars) are “of” Downtown. I can’t think of any restaurant Downtown that you’d find on the Westside (and, really, vice versa). Downtown restaurants – the good ones – are more than restaurants; they’re an expression of this City at this moment. And both the restaurants – Artisan House, WP 24, Rivera (yes, for these purposes, Rivera), Church & State, Perch, many others – and this City are pretty exciting right now.
So searching out good restaurants, wherever you are, is about so much more than finding good food. It’s about finding the soul of a city.
Happy travels. (and for this post, I mean that literally)