Friday, April 2, 2010

Food From Afar

Silly of me to think I wouldn't blog anything from my trip to the States and Canada, but, as I've said, I'm trying to keep the focus on France. Still...

I started in Austin, of course, to attend SXSW, and naturally found myself headed to Mexican restaurants a lot. No new discoveries this trip, although Sazón, recommended from last year, is no longer recommended: the menu has gone mainstream, the service a bit better than you'd get at a minimum-security prison. The salsa's still good, but the experience isn't worth it. Instead, I had a couple of dinners at Azul Tequila, which has one side of the menu Tex and the other Mex, and a list of tequilas which should send any connoisseur into ecstacy. Me, I'm violently allergic to the stuff. For lunch, La Michoacana Meat Market on E. 7th St. is still the best place in town, and I also ate breakfast tacos there on my last morning in town. The egg-and-broccoli one was a bit disappointing, but egg-and-nopales (cactus pads) was fine. Another evening, I wound up in a weird Jaliscan taqueria during narcocorrido karaoke night. Food wasn't anything to rave about, but the scene was pretty amazing. And, thanks to a Facebook recommendation by Mark Rubin, I had superb fajitas, char-grilled, well-marinated, at Enchiladas y Mas, pretty pure Tex-Mex, but a place I'll return to.

The idea, as always, was to eat stuff I could never get in France, which included not only Mexican food, but Indian (my tastebuds failed me there), Vietnamese (how can I live in a country with so many Vietamese people in it and yet no Vietnamese restaurants -- wouldn't those amazing bánh mi sandwiches go over well here?), and, of course, Southern.

I only had two days in New York, so I didn't get up to much, although in one day I attempted a bagel for breakfast (disappointing, but the place was near my companion's place of business and conversation was the important thing), raw oysters and fried clams at the Grand Central Oyster Bar for lunch, and a bunch of great stuff at Grand Sichuan on lower 7th Avenue with a gaggle of friends ranging in age from 14 to 71 for dinner.

Then it was time for a brief vacation. There are two great scenic train trips that I'll take any time I can. One is between Oslo and Bergen, in Norway, so I don't do that very often, but the other is between New York and Montreal, and seeing as how I know folks up there, that's one I try to take every time I go to New York.

The trip starts with the Hudson River on one side of the train, with its odd islands (one with a "castle," which is really the ruins of a munitions company), lighthouses, and magnificent views of the far shore, which included snowcapped mountains this time, then moves on to Albany (hint to travellers: there's a 15-minute stop here and if you hustle you can buy cheaper and better food than the awful Amtrak fare), after which you get treated to Lake George and Lake Champlain, and the occasional small town. The sights on the way back were even better: the weather was awful, but the warm rain hitting the cold water caused sheets of mist to hover over the scene, making it spookier and more atmospheric, if harder to photograph from a moving train.

Two tips for Montreal: my friends were going to put me up, but had an unexpected guest, so I wound up with three nights at a B&B called L'Imprévu, run by a French Canadian guy and his Dutch wife, whose breakfasts are magnificent. It's not downtown, but it is right by a Metro station that'll get you anywhere you want to go. And one night, we went to this place, whose decor is about as glitzy as its business card:

Atmosphere be damned: if you order correctly, you wind up with scrupulously authentic Szechuan food. The New York restaurant's shredded pumpkin with green chiles wasn't there (that was truly stellar), but this place served the best dry-fried green beans I've ever had, a vegetarian home-style tofu that was also excellent (I'm used to it with sliced pork, but sure didn't miss it), and chili chicken which was, unfortunately, authentic in that the chicken was cut into tiny cubes (good) but without removing the bones or cartilage (bad). We started with something advertised as "pickled vegetable salad," which was Szechuan pickled turnip and turnip green and agar-agar, a pain to chopstick, but really tasty. I'd take Fuchsia Dunlop here in a flash! Next time: one of the soups, which are served in a bowl you could hide a basketball in.

* * *

How, some of you may be asking, could I taste this stuff? The answer is: semi. My sinus polyps continue to ruin my sense of smell, and yet I've discovered that I can taste certain things part-way with just my tongue working. I can taste sour and bitter very well, sweet to some extent, and anything fragrant not at all. This meant, for instance, that doing my annual survey of American IPA beers went pretty well, since the bitter hops tastes were pretty much there. But it also meant that, staying at my friend Mike's place in New York, I was sitting, reading, for a couple of hours one afternoon when I heard the key in the lock. Mike walked in and immediately said "Ack! One of the cats shit somewhere!" And I hadn't a clue.

One thing I did in Austin was to visit an ENT clinic, where a doctor examined my nose, said that I did, indeed, have polyps (the plural was news) and an infection (more news) and said that the drug regimen my doctor here has prescribed was a good treatment, but obviously wasn't working. He recommended endoscopic sinus surgery, which will necessitate a CT scan and sticking a baloon up my nose to get the polyps somehow. Fortunately, I have health insurance, although obviously some money for this is going to be needed up front. I had some very optimistic talks with a couple of agents in New York and of course it's too early for anything to have come of them, but I hope to be able to raise enough to get this done this summer.

Right now, though, I'm only a day off the plane and curious to see what tomorrow's market will have in it. The train from Paris yesterday showed a lot of stuff in bloom, but I suspect not much is ready yet. Still: spring is obviously settling in, and it's good to be back.

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