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Cheesesteaks & Dinosaurs

One of the things I love most about living on the East Coast is the proximity to big cities. From our cozy home in the suburbs of northern Maryland we are 30 minutes from Baltimore and 90 minutes from Washington, DC to the south, and 60 minutes to Philadelphia and another 2.5 hours to New York in the north. This is ideal, decadent, and positively laden with food and cultural options.

That said, last Saturday we hopped in the car in the late afternoon and headed north to cash in on a Christmas present: Tickets to the Jurassic World exhibit at the Franklin Institute in Philly. One of my favorite museum perks is discounted tickets for a certain time of day. In this case, adult evening admission for the exhibit was $19.95 for entry after 5 p.m. and through 9 p.m. That said, you can’t access the rest of the FI’s permanent exhibits if you enter after hours. You may also run into hordes of Scouts lined up to camp-out, and families lining up for the IMAX theatre which closes at 7 p.m. So, choose your own adventure. Dinosaurs are on through April 23, so don’t miss it!

 

Say what you want about Philadelphia sports fans but be advised that some of the best food on this coast is in the city. One of our favorite all-time pitstops when in Philly is the Reading Terminal Market. It has grown over the years, and we’ve grown smarter in scheduling our shopping there, too. Never show up without a re-usable bag, and avoid Saturday like the plague.

Although we were mired in the Saturday crowd this time, we were ready to rock with a cooler, and bags. What the hell are we buying, you ask? Oh, everything. RTM has chocolate, coffee, seafood, burgers, produce, baked goods .. you get the point. Here are some of our personal favorites in the market:

  • Miller’s Twist – Hand-rolled pretzels. A must have sweet or savory snack while shopping.
  • Mueller Chocolates – Purchase your chocolates by the pound, and look for oddballs like the chocolate covered onion that was featured on Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmern.
  • Martin’s – Our favorite sausage stop, although the butcher has many other options. From turkey chorizo to chicken feta spinach sausage, always look to see what’s on the board for the 3 lbs for $9 special. Go all out, and freeze it at home to enjoy later.
  • OK Produce – Absurdly cheap vegetables. Think 3 avocados (ready to use asap) for $1, three medium red peppers for $1, bundles of potatoes for the same. Your bags will be heavy if you stop here, make it your last stop.
  • Beiler’s – With two locations in the market: Beiler’s Bakery, Beiler’s Donuts & Salads. We aim for the Salads (surprising, I know) for the giant vats of pickles (less surprising now, right?)
  • Hatville Deli – New for us on this trip, and yielded thick cut pepper encrusted bacon that barely lasted a day at home.
  • The Head Nut – Tucked in the back corner of the market (by the restrooms) you will find a little haven of bulk nuts, seeds, flours, spices, and every other thing. Prices are right and the staff does a nice job of navigating the very tiny shop to serve their customers.

After intense shopping and running from dinosaurs we made our way to Sonny’s Cheesesteaks in Old City. This is the fourth stop on our recent Tour de Cheesesteaks, and the results were mixed. Sonny’s ranked highly in several food critic romps through the city, so our hopes were high. Sadly the steak was lukewarm (literally and figuratively) and the whiz was without. Sonny’s lands the third spot on our list while Pat’s remains strong at #1 with Geno’s at #2, and Campo’s dead last at #4.

All that, and home before midnight. Thank you, Philadelphia! #seeyousoon

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Dining & Dunks in DC

It started with snow and sleet but ended in blue skies, as most winter days are prone to do in Maryland. We took a quick weekend in Washington, DC to celebrate our two year anniversary. An interesting time to be in town, just a few days before the inauguration of Donald Trump. Every souvenir shop stacked full of the face of the President Elect, and this morning found soldiers lined up in the street practicing for the Presidential parade.

But we weren’t there for the President, we were there to eat. We were also there for my first NBA game – Wizards vs. 76ers at the Verizon Center. Jahlil Okafor had a slow night and John Wall was ablaze in attitude and points – entertaining to say the least. Almost as entertaining as the college kids sharing our row who spilled beer on the people in front of us, and spent the next 3 quarters apologizing at top volume. While that didn’t make it on #SCTop10, two other ridiculous moves did.

Before the game we made our way to hot spot Founding Farmers in Foggy Bottom. True to form, the menu boasts a farm to table commitment and did not disappoint. So thanks to the farmer that raised the pig that made the bacon that wrapped this date stuffed with blue cheese, a highlight of the meal. Gold star to the FF take on Southern shrimp & grits with slices of spicy andouille sausage that stole the show.

Our love for the TV show Master Chef took us to Christina Tosi’s late night Milk bar for a post game snack where we tried the vanilla soft serve with Cereal Milk (Captain Crunch esque) crunch. The truth? I could have passed. If there’s a next time I’ll aim for the crack pie instead. Compost cookie gets an honorable mention.

We enjoyed two prime museum galleries this weekend. First, George Washington University’s Textile museum that boasted brightly colored kimonos from Okinawa, campaign kerchiefs from elections past and an onslaught of Washingtonian stuff. Next, Ford’s Theatre, known for the Lincoln assassination. The theatre itself was our favorite part of the four-part tour, complete with brief talk from a National Park Service ranger. Word to the wise: the theater can only be viewed at certain times when a play is running, so choose your timed ticket online and watch for which of the four inclusions is highlighted.

Before we left the city we wound our way to B Too to satisfy J’s craving for waffles. The donut waffle was curious, the cornbread & pulled pork waffle was wet, and the egg in a hole waffle was a thin French toast. Our fault for not keeping the waffle in its pure form? You decide.

Washington Marriott Metro Center gets a shout out for a centrally located, inexpensive, comfortable stay.

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April in Atlanta

April 2016 finds me in Atlanta, Georgia for work and I’m fortunate to stay, play, and explore for the long weekend. To say I ate well in Atlanta is a gross underestimate. While the downtown left a bit to be desired, we found plenty of fabulous food, charming markets, and walked at least 8 miles a day in an unexpectedly chilly weekend.

Downtown:

Alma Cocina: 191 Peachtree Street NE – Three cheers for scallop ceviche and lamb barbacoa tacos with a great indoor / outdoor atmosphere.

Pittypat’s Porch25 Andrew Young International Blvd NW – A surprisingly large and unsurprisingly Southern spot that lays the charm on thick. We accepted a kind biscuit donation for the next day’s breakfast and enjoyed awesome shrimp and grits, and fried chicken on separate visits.

Sweet Georgia’s Juke Joint: 200 Peachtree St NW L05 – How much barbecue can I eat in one week? Took a timeout here for excellent fried green tomatoes.

Meehan’s Public House: 5 locations – An easy walk from our conference hotel, I was expecting standard pub grub and was wildly impressed with a grilled feta sandwich with chicken and out of this world brussel sprouts.

Around:

Ponce City Market is a gem near the Old Fourth Ward. Skip the Wholefoods a few blocks away and focus on H and F burger and Hops chicken.

The Atlanta BeltLine is an awesome project. Per their website, “a sustainable redevelopment project that will provide a network of public parks, multi-use trails and transit along a historic 22-mile railroad corridor circling downtown and connecting many neighborhoods directly to each other.”

Sweet Auburn Curb Market, gave us a cookie break, and showcased huge bags of collard greens, pork in all ways, including a whole pig for sale (tempting.)

MLK Historic Site is a must do while in Atlanta. Recognized as a US National Park, you can view the Ebenezer Church, MLK’s home, and the grave site.

Oakland Cemetery -boasts “oldest” and “largest” superlatives in Atlanta. We made an unsuccessful attempt to visit at the end of a hot day. Don’t come down from the MLK site and go left. We had to walk 3/4 around before we saw a gate, and then didn’t end up going in due to timing.

Sugar Shack was a schlep from our dinner location but worth the haul via MARTA (Atlanta’s public transportation.) We opted for cheesecake and key lime pie (the winner.)

Coca Cola World was worth the tourism, if only for the world café of carbonated drinks toward the end of the exhibit. And we took a photo with the polar bear, of course.

Swan House at the Atlanta History Center, a “classically styled mansion built in 1928 for the Edward H. Inman family” also boasts film fame for The Hunger Games: Catching Fire. While we didn’t see President Snow (thankfully) we did enjoy the self guided tour and elegant space.

Fan favorites:

Wrecking Bar Brewpub in Inman Park was a Food Network find that we turned into a destination for our trip. In the hassle of MARTA we got turned around and arrived too late for the brewery tour, or so we thought. Our hostess said game over, but our waitress said, “No problem!” and walked us outside and downstairs into the cellar. There we met Justin an Air Force veteran, our age with an engineering degree who happily spoke to us about beer for almost an hour. We were impressed and grateful by his kindness and knowledge, and even more so later when we treated ourselves to a flight of their beers and outrageous crispy pig ears, pulled pork and “corn pups.” We would happily return to this area for another round.

Joy Café in Buckhead was also a Food Network find, and we were terrified by the line of customers for Sunday brunch but were quickly shepherded to a table for two in the tiny space. We were spoiled for choice and settled on biscuits and gravy with chorizo (have mercy) and an Argentinian steak and egg sandwich to die for. Our sincere compliments to the chef!

 Next time: A Braves game!

 

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Dining in the Dark

* Spoiler Alert: If you’ve considered dining in the dark but don’t want the details – stop reading! *

Last fall we had the opportunity to eat at the restaurant ONoir while in Toronto. The premise is that diners will enjoy an entire meal in absolute darkness, served by a wait staff that is legally blind. I admit that is a foodie my primary motivation was to see if I could truly taste better, or differently, if I wasn’t able to see my food. I am a big believer in presentation so this is particularly intriguing for me. The experience ended up being much more than simply turning off one of my senses to embolden another. I won’t give away too many details in case you decide to see (?) for yourself, but here are my general impressions.

The setup is such that you begin your dining experience in an anteroom of the restaurant with a hostess that is not blind. You review the menu, and make your choices. You are able to choose a surprise for any of your dishes or you can choose something that you recognize. We decided to choose a surprise appetizer, and both decided on filet for the entree. I think we figured that the experience alone would be a surprise, and since we are constantly experimenting with food, we also wanted something familiar so we could see if it’s really taste a difference when we couldn’t see it.

Once the order was complete, we were taken down the hall where the hostess knocked on a heavy door. One of the blind wait staff came out and introduced himself. What followed was series of instructions to get us into the room and seated at our table. When they say that you will eat a meal in complete darkness, they’re not kidding.

With my hand on the shoulder of the waiter in front of us, we walked into a completely dark room. I could hear other diners around us, nervous chatter filling the air at the 6:30 p.m. seating, one of two for the evening. The hostess told us that the restaurant could seat up to 120 people in four separate rooms. While walking into the dark room to find our seats, this is one of the first things I tried to reconcile. Where is everyone? How close is the next table to me? John and I spend some time waving our arms about trying to figure out the makeup of our immediate area. I was particularly glad there was a wall to our left, I continually used it when placing my wine glass back on the table after taking a sip: down, left to touch the wall, place it on the table.

Throughout the meal we received cues from our waiter on how to receive the food that was brought to us. A raised hand here, a reach to a bread basket there, or both hands out to receive an entree dish. Our waiter did not stay with us the whole time, but filtered around the room serving other guests.

I noticed that when I was concentrating particularly hard on doing something like buttering my bread, I would shut my eyes. Odd reflex in a pitch black room, to be sure. When the surprise appetizer came, the first thing I did was put my face close to the dish to smell what was on the plate. Not something you would normally do in a restaurant, put your face directly in your food. The next thing we both did was reach for the plate with their hands to feel what was there. It mad me feel a bit like a kid, when’s the last time that you played with your food?

What our nose and our hands told us was that we had a salad in front of us with a spicy piece of breaded chicken. It was delicious. We alternated between using our fork which was particularly hysterical when trying to spear arugula and get it to your mouth successfully. Let’s be honest, that’s difficult when you’re in broad daylight. When the steak arrived, one of the first things we asked ourselves is whether or not it has already been cut for us. It had, thankfully. I tried to navigate my plate and eat in the way I normally do, a bite of this, a bite of that. I kept taking bites of steak and wanted something else. John described his own plate like a clock, “my steak is at 3 o’clock. My potatoes are at 6 o’clock. Have you found yours yet?” I did eventually locate all of my food and shamelessly used my hand to confirm that I had eaten every last bite from the plate.

When it was time to go, our waiter had told us that all we had to do was say his name. This is another part of the experience that we found interesting. Normally when you’re looking for the check you put your hand up, or you catch your waiters attention. I had been listening to his footsteps around the room, and thought I knew where he was in relation to our table. I said his name at regular volume and he heard me right away coming over to our table to help us back out of the room.

So is this experience really about dining in the dark? It certainly included two hours of thinking about what it would be like to live a life without sight. In the room, everyone was in the dark. So if you spilled your wine or got sauce on your shirt or used your hands to find your food, no one could judge you because they couldn’t see you. Something to think about.


ONoir – 620 Church Street, Toronto, Ontario, Canada
http://www.onoirtoronto.com/

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Oh, Canada

In September 2015 we set out on my birthday weekend for a trip to Niagara Falls. We drove from Maryland to Buffalo, New York where we made a required stop at Anchor Bar, “home of the buffalo wing.” Fortified on spices we had an easy border crossing into Canada where we checked into Niagara Falls for the night.

Thank god our hotel was far from chaos of Clifton Hill which is all lights, noises, people, smells. It is a cross between Las Vegas and the Atlantic City boardwalk. I smell funnel cake, my eyes spin with bright white of the Ferris wheel at the top of the hill, and my ears are full of pop music from the wax museum, evil laughter from the Haunted House, and the chatter of hundreds of people. We hope for Friday night fireworks but the wind is too high and we leave the falls without any pyrotechnics. We try a “beaver tail” for dessert which is basically an elephant ear – flaky puff pastry, sugar, and covered in toppings.

Morning comes and the place is absolutely silent. John goes for a run and I photograph the empty streets, my favorite. The Midway is empty, wax museum Taylor Swift is silenced. The falls (THE falls) are just at the base of Clifton Hill and the mist is already churning through the humid air. The boats are out and cruising with poncho-clad tourists and we’re about to be among them.

We chose the Hornblower cruise on the Canadian side after many people recommended we stick with Canada (as opposed to the U.S. Maid of the Mist). The day was perfect for a quick ride and it also won the day as the most efficient tourist attraction. People constantly moving, mobile tickets available, and easy to get where we were going. After the kitsch of the town, the falls were a beautiful and welcome respite from the heat.

We also decided to do Journey Behind the Falls for a different perspective. The attraction itself was not particularly efficient but the views were worthwhile. Walking through tunnels behind the falls the noise is muted but thunderous when you turn the corner to two separate portholes that allow you to see the water up close. Walking out onto the platform next to the falls is unbelievable.

We hopped back in the car to head north to Toronto, a new city for both of us. Another first: a snafu with our Air BNB condo that bears mentioning (they do happen) but doesn’t bear dwelling on (too much time spent griping already.) Toronto was a welcome change after the chaos of Niagara Falls. Here were the high rises and apartment buildings, the baseball stadium and the needle of the CN Tower. We had a great time wandering the city, especially down near the Harbourfront Centre in the evening while a food festival was on.

Several memorable places from Toronto, mostly food-related of course:

O Noir needs a blog post of its own for the sake of the experience. Just know that if you’re in town and you’re an adventurous eater.. you should book yourself a dinner here.

Caffe Demetre was revealed to us in a search for best desserts and that is no joke. We shared a gigantic apple pie a la mode on a waffle and were glad for the walk afterwards. With several locations in Toronto this is a must-do for anyone with a sweet tooth.

Kensington Market is a unique neighborhood in Toronto full of street art, fresh fruit, vintage shops, and you know I found the bakery. It was a now closed bakery that introduced me to the Nanaimo bar – a Canadian classic made of crumbs, chocolate, coconut, and magic.

Steamwhistle Brewing Company is a wonderful way to spend half a day. First, snack on a Soloways hot dog  from nearby baseball stadium vendor. It’s the best damn hot dog I’ve ever had, and we actually stopped by the factory on the way out of town to buy a case. Seriously. Then head to Steamwhistle to (you guessed it) wet your whistle. They do pilsner. Only pilsner. They also have a deep commitment to sustainability, green energy, and product quality. As a former bartender something that stuck with me is their agreement to clean the tap lines for any bar that taps their beer – guaranteeing the same clean taste every time. That’s classy.

Catch you next time, Canada.