Jan 5 2011

Dining at Morimoto in New York City

January 5th, 2011 at 7:16 pm (AST) by Jake Richter

I was in New York City for a week at the beginning of December (last month), and made sure to have dinner reservations set up ahead of time for just about every night. One of the reservations I snagged was for the Omakase Bar at Morimoto, named after Iron Chef Masaharu Morimoto.

At the back of the restaurant is a sushi bar where people walking in might be lucky enough to find seating (the restaurant is usually otherwise fully booked a few days in advance). However, you can also reserve seats at the bar for a chef’s “omakase” – basically the Japanese version of a chef’s tasting menu. I made that booking for two, and then scrambled to find a dinner companion as Linda and the kids were still back home on Bonaire.

I was happy to learn that my friend David Gelles was in town and free, and so come December 9th, after a drink at Bobby Flay’s Bar Americain in midtown, we made our way to Morimoto in the warehouse district of New York City for our 7pm reservation.

That's me at left and David Gelles at right, with our chef for the night in back (and I feel terrible because I forgot his name)

We spent the next five hours enjoying a dozen courses, each specially made for us, and we even order seconds of one dish.

This was by far our favorite dish - raw oyster with foie gras, uni, a sweet sauce, and black truffles. We liked it so much we ordered seconds.

Along with the meal we consumed a couple of bottles of sake, and some nice desert wine after that. Details blur, but thanks to my trusty Canon S90 point and shoot camera (the best small camera I have found so far for natural light photography in restaurants), I have a visual record of the entire feast.

Toro tartare with ossetra caviar

The full set of 36 photos from our gastronomical engagement can be found here on Flickr.

Sep 1 2010

A Foodie Moment in First Class

September 1st, 2010 at 5:15 pm (AST) by Jake Richter

Linda and I are featured in a photo and story about dining in First Class over on CNN’s Eatocracy web site today. Fun!

The story is based on a post on one of our other blogs, The Traveling Richters.

Our week here on Bonaire has been filled with sous vide cooking in our new Sous Vide Supreme (killer pork chops) and making various sorbets and ice creams in our Lello ice cream machine. Lots of photos but not enough time yet to document it all.

Jul 10 2010

Gloria’s Cafe – Los Angeles

July 10th, 2010 at 7:15 pm (AST) by Jake Richter

We spent yesterday in Los Angeles as a quick stop along our trip from New Hampshire to Hong Kong. Our friends Todd and Jenna were in town and took us out to dinner at a delightful small Salvadoran/Mexican restaurant called Gloria’s Cafe.

I should mention that Jenna is a huge fan of food truck cuisine – an amazing revolution in quality restaurant food on wheels, akin to the gastro pub revolution which hit England by storm a couple of years back, in that ordinary eating locales have been upgraded with gourmet and foodie offerings. In Los Angeles, the food truck movement appears to be the result of chefs being able to set up a food truck for a mere fraction of what it costs to open an immobile restaurant, and with lower overhead and more flexible hours as well.

So why is the food truck movement relevant to Gloria’s Cafe? It’s because Jenna was trying to find a spot where we could dine at an assorted set of good food trucks (something she tracks via Twitter feeds from the truck chefs), but last night they had scattered with the wind, all over the greater Los Angeles area. Had we been available a week ago, for First Fridays, we could have enjoyed them all on a particular hopping street in Venice Beach, however.

With food truck gastronomic nirvana out of reach, Jenna went to Plan B, and that was Gloria’s Cafe, in the Culver City section of Los Angeles. Gloria’s is in a little strip mall with limited parking, but definitely make the effort to find a parking spot even if you have to walk a bit. You won’t regret it.

The sign for Gloria's Cafe can be seen from afar at night

The sign for Gloria's Cafe can be seen from afar at night

Something about Gloria’s looked familiar to Linda, and when we got to the front door she finally figured it out – she and Bas had seen the restaurant featured on Guy Fieri’s Food Network show, Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives (making it the second such restaurant I had been to with Todd – we visited China Bandido in Phoenix, Arizona together in March 2009).

Gloria’s is tiny – seating perhaps three dozen people, and featuring a rustic sort of ambiance and a pleasant homey convivial atmosphere. We arrived at around 7pm, early enough to get seated within minutes. We started with one of the house specialty libations – a pitcher of Sangria, which was very good indeed (Jenna and I polished off a second pitcher over the course of the evening).

One of Gloria’s sons, a wonderfully congenial man, soft spoken yet exuberant about the food served in his mother’s restaurant helped guide us through the menu. We settled on a number of typical Salvadoran items for our appetizer, include green tamales which were almost creamy in texture, chicharron (fried chunks of pork), and papusas.

Papusas, as Gloria’s son passionately explained, started with corn flour – masa – which was specially treated to created round fluffy (and, oh my, were they fluffy!) pancakes. A filling is placed on one pancake and then a second pancake is sealed over the top. The fillings available all included a Salvadoran cheese, and then either pork, beans, or herbs (or nothing extra at all). You then eat the papusa with a pickled cabbage called “curtido” and some non-spicy salsa. We split three different types of papusas amongst us and were very happy. Add the green tamales served with a Salvadoran cream similar to sour cream but cheesier in flavor and we were in masa heaven.

Our main courses all came on huge platters featuring rice and beans, refried beans, and the main course itself. Linda chose the house specialty, Carne Adobada – simmering chunks of pork in a wonderful sauce. Jenna had the garlic shrimp which were swimming in a pungent and heady garlic butter sauce (as were my pork chops), and Todd settled for well marinated steak in the form of Bistek Encebollado.

Mama Gloria came by several times to check on us herself and make sure we were enjoying her food (which, without doubt, we were).

Dessert was another delight – with a nice thick flan offered (reminding me of Quesillo, the local flan we can sometimes get on Bonaire), and an dessert empanada, featuring a sweet milk custard wrapped in a sweet plantain (banana) shell, and sprinkled with sugar. Terrible for our low carb lifestyle, but oh so delicious.

Gloria’s was an excellent plan B, and I am already contemplating ways to arrrange a return visit. And maybe we’ll see actor Brian Doyle-Murray there again – he was there last night, and had to wait for a table for quite a bit longer than we did.

Thank you Mama Gloria! And thank you Jenna & Todd!

Jake with the gracious Gloria and one of her wonderful sons

Jake with the gracious Gloria and one of her wonderful sons

Mar 23 2010

The James Beard Foundation Awards Nominations

March 23rd, 2010 at 7:59 pm (AST) by Jake Richter

The James Beard Foundation Award nominees for 2010 have just been announced and feature a number of chefs and restaurants that we have had the good fortune to enjoy in the last couple of years.

Named after one of the best known figures in American culinary history, James Beard, the James Beard Foundation Awards have been described as the Oscars of the food world, focusing exclusively on U.S.-based entrants. Judging for the awards is performed by experts in the fields they are judging – effectively by the peers of those who are under consideration for an award. The judges may not enter in the awards category they are judging, in order to prevent any sort of conflicts of interest.

Among the categories being judged are Outstanding Restauranteur, Outstanding Chef, Outstanding Restaurant, Rising Star Chef of the Year, Best New Restaurant, Outstanding Pastry Chef, Outstanding Wine Service, Outstanding Wine and Spirits Professional, Outstanding Service, Best Chef by region in the U.S., and a number of categories covering food journalism in various media (including cookbooks).

The winners will be announce on May 2nd and 3rd in New York.

Of the nominees, we are personally familiar with (and appreciative of) the work of:

– José Andrés, Minibar, Washington – Nominated for Outstanding Chef
– Tom Colicchio, Craft, New York – Also nominated for Outstanding Chef
– Amanda Cook, Cityzen at Mandarin Oriental, Washington, D.C. – Nominated for Outstanding Pastry Chef
– Alinea, Chicago – Nominated for Outstanding Service
– Wylie Dufresne, wd-50 – Nominated for Best Chef: New York
– Sean Brock, McCrady’s, Charleston, South Carolina – Nominated for Best Chef: South Carolina
– Linton Hopkins, Restaurant Eugene, Atlanta, Georgia – Nominated for Best Chef: South Carolina

Congratulations to all those who were nominated, and we wish all the nominees the best of luck in the upcoming judging, and hope to enjoy a meal created by or at some of the other nominees in the coming year. Certainly the ones we’ve listed above have created a fantastic foodie experience, which speaks well of those we have yet to try.

Mar 23 2010

Dining at The Hump – No Longer

March 23rd, 2010 at 7:32 pm (AST) by Jake Richter

When we read last week that The Hump, a Japanese restaurant located at the Santa Monica, California airport had been nailed selling whale meat (from a sei whale) we were shocked and saddened.

The Hump at Santa Monica's airport

The Hump at Santa Monica's airport

We have just returned from three weeks in Antarctic waters, and were privileged to actually see the rare sei whales in the open ocean. To imagine that these graceful, beautiful, and most importantly, endangered animals were being surreptitiously served to some diners at The Hump is quite distressing.

The Hump is now closed, permanently. And that too is distressing – much in the same way that a popular and talented performer becoming a train-wreck through stupidity and bizarre behavior is distressing. I say that because I happened to have had one of the best Japanese meals of my life at The Hump just over two years ago (and no, no whale meat was involved).

Small crab treats at The Hump

Small crab treats at The Hump

We were in Santa Monica after having just returned from a trip to Fiji, and I was taking out my brother David and his family for David’s birthday dinner. He suggest The Hump. At first we thought he was kidding – after all, “The Hump” does not evoke visions of great food – to us it sounded more like a strip joint, and the fact it was at the airport was not encouraging either.

The lobster course at The Hump

The lobster course at The Hump

But we humored David, and when we got there we found it to be a small, quirky, Japanese-themed restaurant. Those of us who were more committed to culinary experiences opted for the omakase, a special tasting menu available at most Japanese restaurants where the chef determines each course of what you eat, either on the fly or by having prepared a special menu at an earlier time. “Omakase” is apparently a Japanese phrase that means “it’s up to you”.

Our lobster course - close up

Our lobster course - close up

The sushi course at The Hump

The sushi course at The Hump

David and I had an extra course or two while Linda and Krystyana stopped a bit earlier. And each course was excellent. There was a lobster course, a Wagyu beef course, a sushi course, a crab course, a mollusk course, and several more I cannot remember a couple of years later.

The grand finale - eight special ice creams (including black truffle ice cream)

The grand finale - eight special ice creams (including black truffle ice cream)

Most memorable to my kids was the grand finale however, which consisted of eight different custom ice creams, including a black truffle ice cream which no one other than I liked. And I liked it very much.

I should add that the service we received was also excellent. And looking around us, we could tell this restaurant was a hidden treasure. At the table next to us was an actress we recognized from the TV show Frasier, for example. For a restaurant with a weird name, in an unusual location, this was quite the place to dine.

With such pleasant memories, I find this reckless behavior by the restaurant stunning. Why did they feel the need to cross the line into meat from an endangered species when they already were so good at what they did? I just don’t get it. Just like I also don’t get the train-wreck stupidity and hubris of famous and talented people like Tiger or Britney. But it happens altogether too often, sadly.

I hope the sei whale that was served at The Hump is in some type of whale heaven now. Rest in peace.

Feb 4 2010

Adventures in Cooking with the La Caja China Roaster

February 4th, 2010 at 4:58 pm (AST) by Jake Richter

I am a tough person to buy presents for – at least that’s what my family tells me. They claim that if I want something, I will just go out and buy it. So about a year ago my family decided to surprise me with something they knew I didn’t have nor even knew about to order it for myself: a La Caja China roasting box. Linda and Krystyana saw the La Caja China on Bobby Flay’s Throwdown show on Food Network and thought it was the perfect gift for me. It was a nice coincidence, as I was fortunate enough to have had a great birthday lunch at Flay’s Mesa Grill in New York City a few months prior.

Roasting instructions for a whole pig for he La Caja China Model #1

Roasting instructions for a whole pig for he La Caja China Model #1

The La Caja China, which comes in three sizes (I have the Model #1 – the smaller of the two larger units – it can hold a 70 pound pig), is a metal roasting box in a wood frame with wheels. You put the charcoal on top of the box, and the heat emanates through the metal lid into the enclosed space below, roasting any meats found there. Incidentally, the name “La Caja China” translates from Spanish into “The Chinese Box”, based apparently on a roasting box that Chinese workers in new world used to cook meals, but the actual design stems from pig roasters of Cuban origin, as I understand it.

Alas, while being on the road for most of last year, I did not have a chance to use the La Caja China beyond one initial experiment with a small pork shoulder (which turned out excellent).

However, we were having a dozen and a half people over a couple of weeks ago for a barbecue, and I figured it would be the perfect opportunity to put the La Caja China to the test with multiple types of meats. So I planned to use a large 20 pound pork shoulder we found here, a 14 pound turkey, a pair of ducks, and 11 three pound chickens. It was a great experiment, but not without some complications, as I relate further below.

The first step after thawing out all the meat (because fresh meat other than goat is pretty much impossible to find on Bonaire) was to brine the pork shoulder and turkey overnight in a blend of brine and a marinade. The marinade brine mixture I used was the Mojo Criollo sauce found on the La Caja China web site. This mixture features sour orange juice, garlic (which I had fortunately prepared just days before), and a blend of other spices. And lots of brine (salt water), of course.

Marinating and brining a turkey and a pork shoulder in Mojo Criollo

Marinating and brining a turkey and a pork shoulder in Mojo Criollo

After using a huge syringe and needle to repeatedly inject both the pork shoulder and turkey with the mixture (something Krystyana took great delight in doing – should I be worried?), we submerged both meats in a cooler filled with the marinade/brine mixture and ice cubes to keep it cool overnight.

The next day, in the morning, we used the remaining batch of the marinade/brine mixture to soak the eleven chickens and two ducks (no needles this time).

We had carefully plotted out the projected cooking times based on the directions from the La Caja China web site in order to try and have all the meats ready by about 6:30-7pm.

It should be noted that the directions require something on the order of about 40-45 pounds of charcoal to run through a complete cooking cycle with the La Caja China. Most of the charcoal on Bonaire is charred wood chunks, but over the prior couple of weeks I managed to locate sufficient quantities of briquettes (I bought about 55 lbs.) to meet the project requirements of the roasting box.

Starting the charcoal for the La Caja China

Starting the charcoal for the La Caja China

You start with about 15 pounds of charcoal in a mound in the middle of the top tray. Not ever having been very good with getting charcoal going, I used copious amounts of charcoal lighter fluid. Because of the design of the La Caja China, any petroleum odors rise away from the box instead of affecting the meats inside, so I welcomed my ability to liberally apply the flammable liquid in as great a quantity as possible.

The charcoal is ready

The charcoal is ready

I started the charcoal at about 2:30pm, and by 3pm had it all nice and gray and hot, and spread it out over the surface of the box after putting the pork shoulder inside the roaster.

At 4pm we (it’s a two person job to move the charcoal laden lid off the box) flipped the pork shoulder and then added the turkey. And then another 8 pounds of charcoal on top. We also inserted an electronic meat thermometer into the pork shoulder, which the directions said should read 179°F before we should remove the pork shoulder. The pork already smelled fantastic and the part facing up had started crisping up nicely, but the temperature was pretty low, below 100°F. But, after that was after only an hour, for a chilled piece of meat. So far, so good!

The first meats - the pork shoulder and the turkey, done on one side - note the meat thermometer at lower left

The first meats - the pork shoulder and the turkey, done on one side - note the meat thermometer at lower left

At 5pm we opened the box again to find the pork nice and crispy except for a small piece of extra crispy (black) skin and the temperature was rising nicely. We covered the pork with aluminum foil to prevent further burning of the skin, then flipped the turkey over, and then added the two ducks and ten chickens. We couldn’t fit the eleventh chicken.

The chickens, also brined and marinated, get added to the La Caja China

The chickens, also brined and marinated, get added to the La Caja China

Not a big problem – I just went and popped that last chicken into the oven in the house to slow roast there. We then covered our box of roasting meat with the metal lid and applied another 8 pounds of charcoal. Things were still looking good.

Our La Caja China held 10 chickens, 2 ducks, a turkey, and a pork shoulder

Our La Caja China held 10 chickens, 2 ducks, a turkey, and a pork shoulder

At 6pm we took a quick peek. The turkey was looking pretty good, but the smaller poultry had not browned very much at all, and the pork shoulder was only at about 132°F. Hmm. A 6:30pm or 7pm dinner was looking a bit tenuous at best. We added more charcoal. Around now our first guests arrived as well, so we started plying them with beer and wine, hoping they wouldn’t notice food being served later than expected.

Turkey is done, but nothing else is yet

Turkey is done, but nothing else is yet

At 7pm we looked again. The little red doohickey on the turkey had popped. It was done. But the pork was only around 145°F – still far off from being done properly. And the smaller poultry? Just barely browning. Obviously something was not going right, and we figured the problem was that we had been letting far too much heat escape each time we added meat or flipped things. But we had to take the turkey out before it overcooked. So we did. I also pulled the chicken out of the oven in the house. It was perfectly cooked.

Then we added another 8 pounds of charcoal in the hopes this would somehow accelerate the cooking inside the roasting box.

It didn’t.

Cooking extended well into the evening, with the glow of charcoal obvious

Cooking extended well into the evening, with the glow of charcoal obvious

When we checked things again past 7:30pm, with people starting to get a bit cranky due to hunger and enticing smells from the roasting box, it was finally time to flip the chickens and ducks, but the pork was only around 150°F. Argh!

The turkey and 11th chicken (cooked in a regular oven) are gobbled up as we wait for the rest to finish

The turkey and 11th chicken (cooked in a regular oven) are gobbled up as we wait for the rest to finish

Bonnie enjoys a well roasted turkey leg

Bonnie enjoys a well roasted turkey leg

We punted and served the turkey and one chicken we had cooked in the oven. Both got rave reviews. Several people commented that they had never had a moister, juicier turkey (and I agree – it was phenomenal). However that meant it was devoured altogether too quickly. Our guests were polite and claimed to be full when I apologized for the delay in having an edible pork shoulder and the other poultry ready for them. More wine was poured, more beer was consumed.

All that was left was the turkey carcass

All that was left was the turkey carcass

At 9pm things were looking grim. The pork shoulder was finally just a bit north of 163°F, but still a far cry from the target temperature of 179°F. The poultry had not browned yet sufficiently either. I added more charcoal.

I discovered I was almost out of charcoal.

Not good. But the smells from the roasting box were amazingly wonderful, offering just a glimmer of hope of a feeding ahead.

People starting leaving soon after 9pm, and my entreaties to have them stay “just a bit longer” to help us enjoy the pork were insufficient to get them to stay. I don’t think they believed me. I didn’t really believe me either.

By 10pm the last of the charcoal had been used. The pork’s temperature was promising – we were at 172°F – almost there! There were only six guests left. I bribed them to stay with some of the nicest wines from my wine cellar-fridge (a Rusack 2006 Syrah and a Rusack 2006 Pinot Noir), served in my best Riedel stemware instead of the plastic cups we had out earlier due to the larger volume of people present.

Finally, the roasted pork shoulder is ready to enjoy

Finally, the roasted pork shoulder is ready to enjoy

And the chicken and ducks are done to perfection as well

And the chicken and ducks are done to perfection as well

At 10:31pm, the meat thermometer related glad tidings. The pork shoulder was finally, amazingly, at temperature. And just in time, as our remaining guests had been making very serious noises about finally getting ready to go. We emptied the La Caja China’s edible delights onto trays and cutting boards, and then brought both ducks, a couple of chickens, and the fabled pork shoulder to the sole populated table in our backyard.

The remaining stalwarts are rewarded for their patience with succulent meats and excellent wines

The remaining stalwarts are rewarded for their patience with succulent meats and excellent wines

The smells of the meat and skin were overwhelming. People stopped talking, and were salivating instead. And their patience and involuntary bodily response (salivation) was rewarded. The pork meat was moist, hot, and heavenly, and the pork skin even better.

Close up of the carved pork shoulder roast - incredibly juicy and flavorful

Close up of the carved pork shoulder roast - incredibly juicy and flavorful

The duck skin was perfectly crisp, the meat moist, and the chickens were great too

The duck skin was perfectly crisp, the meat moist, and the chickens were great too

In the words of Jim, one of our guests: “Oh (pause) my holy God!!!”. And the duck was a hit too (although I found some of the meat to be a wee bit dry – the skin was excellent though).

For some time after that, the only sounds heard were lips smacking, groans and moans of culinary euphoria, and “Oh, you have to try this part – it’s even better than that other part”.

Our last six guests stayed until nearly midnight, and we had the best time together, eating, drinking, and being generally convivial (or “gezellig” as the Dutch would say).

As we wound down, we still had an abundance of food left, so we vacuum packed eight chickens and many pounds of pork meat (no skin left to save – it all got eaten), gave a duck to our friend Dan, whose wife was ill and had asked for some duck leftovers. Another of our guests (who, amusingly enough, works at KFC), took home a chicken as well.

We then put most everything that was left in the freezer.

The charcoal got dumped on the gravel in our backyard, but upwind, so in the morning everything downwind was coated in gray dust.

Overall, the evening was quite the learning experience. But we had a great time, and our guests, even those who missed out on the crowning event of roasted pork shoulder, said they did too (I hope they are not just being polite). And the food, oh my. It was heaven.

Here are the lessons I learned (or re-learned) that night:

1) I love my La Caja China, but will do a better job of using it properly next time.

2) Roasting boxes work via heat (duh!). Open them too often or introduce cold things and they don’t work nearly as well. Work with that concept.

3) Buy twice as much charcoal as you think you will need.

4) Budget more time to cook more meat.

5) Patience will be rewarded.

6) Wine can make life good, and really good wine can make it even better.

7) Good food makes people more relaxed and social. Thus it is a good idea to plan social events around good food.

8 ) Brining meats is good! Do this more often for moisture whole birds and pork.

9) Charcoal should be dumped downwind from where you are, not upwind.

10) Use the La Caja China more often.

The way a pork shoulder should truly be enjoyed

The way a pork shoulder should truly be enjoyed

Nov 28 2009

Legal’s Test Kitchen – Logan Airport

November 28th, 2009 at 9:54 pm (AST) by Jake Richter

Our flight from Manchester to Newark got canceled earlier today due to high winds, so we ended up having to get rebooked via Boston’s Logan International Airport. Here we found another eatery worth mentioning for good airport food – Legal’s Test Kitchen.

Legal's Test Kitchen in Terminal A of Logan International Airport in Boston

Legal's Test Kitchen in Terminal A of Logan International Airport in Boston

Located in Terminal A across from gate A5, Legal’s Test Kitchen (or “LTK” as it’s referred to) is an off-shoot of the popular Legal Sea Foods chain. Geared towards travelers, the menu features fare suited for faster delivery than Legal’s typical restaurant entrees, like whole lobsters.

But that doesn’t prevent LTK from offering hamburgers made with beef from Niman Ranch (a farm known for high-quality grass fed cattle among other animals), Legal’s tasty clam chowder, lobster wraps and rolls, a variety of shellfish served in several ways, and even some pretty tasty Buffalo wings. This is complemented by a small but complete wine list. The menu can be found here.

Prices are, as with any table service restaurant serving above-average fare, quite a bit heftier than that of fast food places (main courses run $15-$27), but in my opinion well worth it.

One of the cool technological advances LTK offers is that when you ask to settle your bill with a credit card, you are given a wireless credit card terminal which allows you to add, if you wish, a tip via a flat percentage (10, 15, and 20 percent are all options), an entered dollar amount, or a custom percentage. You then confirm the total, swipe your card, print a copy for the restaurant to sign, and print your own copy of the receipt. Sign their copy and you’re ready to leave – no need to wait for a server to take your card and then return it to you, which saves precious minutes when at an airport waiting to board a flight (and arguably gives you more time to enjoy your meal).

LTK also offers take-out and even a counter at which you can order lobsters and other seafood to be delivered to friends, family, or even yourself. So, if you’re flying out of Terminal A at Logan any time soon, make sure to budget a bit of extra time for a stop at Legal’s Test Kitchen and a bit of New England seafood or other better-than-normal airport fare options.

Nov 25 2009

Airport Food Can Be Good

November 25th, 2009 at 9:27 pm (AST) by Jake Richter

While airplane dining has deteriorated (see previous entry) over the years, one nice air travel related dining change in the last few years is the introduction of upscale restaurant options at a growing number of airports around the world.

For decades, the “best” food at airports was limited to bags of snacks, McDonalds, and Chilis Too. But we’ve been finding that as we spend ever more time at airports, our options for a decent meal with reasonable table service have drastically improved from pedestrian fast-food fare. Note that you will pay a premium for such dining experiences, so if you’re looking to dine at an airport on the cheap, you’ll unfortunately still need to stick with fast food for the most part.

In the last couple of months, we’ve been in about a half dozen airports. We have had time and opportunity to have real meals at four of those: Houston’s George Bush International Airport (IAH), Newark Liberty International Airport (EWR), Miami International Airport (MIA), and Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport (DCA).

In Houston, where we typically end up for hours waiting for our red-eye flight back to Bonaire, we’ve become fans of Pappadeaux Seafood Kitchen, a southern chain of restaurants which specializes in creole-style seafood. They have a reasonable wine selection, a broad menu (try the Oysters Pappadeaux and the Blackened Catfish Opelousas), and consistently decent service. The prices are pretty good as well. The only negatives are that the tables are a bit close to each other, making for snug seating, especially when you have large carry-on bags. Pappadeaux is located near gate E5, and is open daily 9am to 10pm.

In Newark, another airport we pass through whenever we use the Newark/Bonaire connection, has a steak house called Gallagher’s. Service has been variable, and while pricey, the food has generally been very good (I particularly enjoy their ribeye steaks), and the wine list better than we’ve been used to in airports. Make sure to ask for a table in the back, where you can overlook the airport’s plane traffic. There’s also ample space in the back section for the storage of carry-ons while you dine. However, make sure you budget an hour for your meal at Gallagher’s in order to properly enjoy your steak or other selection. Gallagher’s Steak House is located at terminal C and is open daily 6am to 9pm.

At Miami, the best dining option we’ve found is actually outside of security, the Top of the Port Restaurant, appropriately enough on the top floor of the MIA Airport Hotel at the entrance to Concourse E (at least until MIA renames its terminals in the coming year or so). While the MIA Airport Hotel is a truly horrid place to stay, at least in my experience – with closet sized, dingy rooms, the restaurant is actually quite good and reasonably priced, and there’s a nice view of the airport from one side of the restaurant. My favorite items at the Top of the Port are the Caesar salad and their grilled fish. Service is generally good and efficient. But make sure to give yourself ample time to dine (budget forty-five minute or an hour) and then another at least a half hour minutes to clear security (which can take a long time in Miami) to get to your gate. Open daily 7am to 11pm.

A cup of tea at Sam and Harry's at Washington's National Airport

A cup of tea at Sam & Harry's at Washington's National Airport

And a couple of days ago, at Washington D.C.’s Ronald Reagan National Airport, we were fortunate to find a newly opened extension of the Sam & Harry’s family of restaurants. They opened their doors this past Saturday for the first time, and while they are still working out a few kinks in service, I can truly say they served the best breakfast I have ever had in an airport. Sam & Harry’s is located at the end of the terminal near the security lines for gates 35-45,and offers ample seating and a diverse breakfast and lunch menu. And their wine list on the lunch menu features mostly wines from small boutique vineyards which should make for fun wine tastings. Monday morning we had Eggs Benedict and a short rib hash with poached eggs. The egg yolks (from organic farm raised chickens, incidentally) were perfectly gooey as they should be, with a rich orangey yellow color and fresh flavor, and the short rib was delicious. They were also able to accommodate variations as all their food is cooked fresh to order. They will soon also be offering free Wi-Fi and a special area near the bar where power computers can also find power jacks. And you can get an inside table overlooking the jetways and runways of the airport if having a view is your thing. The menu is a bit pricey though, so review it first so you don’t get a surprise when your bill arrives. The next time I fly through National airport near meal time, I will make extra time to come back to eat here.

In addition to the aforementioned restaurants, I think that terminal D at Dallas Fort-Worth Airport (DFW) deserves an honorable mention. There are a number of sit-down restaurants there with table service and good food, such as Cantino Laredo, but the feel of the restaurants is a bit rush and impersonal. However, there’s no question the food there is a notch up from typical airport fare.

Nov 15 2009

Airline Food

November 15th, 2009 at 1:10 pm (AST) by Jake Richter

We fly a lot.

Enough so that we typically have elite status with at least one or two airlines every year.

One thing we have found is that airline food quality has not improved much over the last couple of decades – it’s actually gotten worse, and certainly when flying coach domestically food quantity has gone down significantly as well. Nowadays you’re lucky to get a small bag of nuts or pretzels for free, with anything else needing to be paid for. And the things available to buy are mass-produced and laden with chemicals, refined flour, and refined sugar (or worse yet, high fructose corn syrup).

We typically use the large quantities of frequent flyers we earn on getting upgrades to business class or first class, off a base paid economy class ticket. As such, we fly in first class most of the time. And I can say that first class food, while far better than what’s in economy, is also nothing exciting from a food enthusiast’s perspective.

For example, on this morning’s flight from Bonaire to Newark, we had a choice of Cheerios or an egg “omelet”. I’m pretty sure it was really egg, but it was flat and rubbery and tasteless. My cat could probably cook a better omelet. The sausage patty had a puffy texture and was bland (it did not get eaten) and probably didn’t much meat in it. The only “real” thing on the plate were scalloped potatoes (reasonably tasty, but not noteworthy enough to sacrifice my carb allowance on) and a thick but small (and dry) slice of ham (which made the egg “omelet” slightly more edible).

Accompanying the main dish (omelet or Cheerios) were a bowl with fresh fruit (strawberry, cantaloupe, pineapple, grapes, and watermelon) and a sweetened berry yogurt. A croissant or muffin were were also offered. Okay, but again, nothing special. But still better than the cereal-only option in economy class.

The real issue with airline food is that it is mass-produced, formulaic, and designed to be reheated (when applicable) in the limited quarters available in the airline galley. That’s a recipe for mundanity. Airline food provides calories but no real culinary joy.

One solution to the unsatisfactory airline repast problem we have come up with is to pack a small bit of extra food for ourselves which is, almost always, of higher quality and food enjoyment value than airline food. It can be as simple as hard boiled eggs (which still look and taste like eggs, unlike this morning’s “omelet”), cold cuts, and nice cheeses, along with fresh fruit. However, if traveling internationally, note that you cannot bring any meat or produce into many countries, so such items need to be consumed or thrown out before landing.

On a related note, did you know that each airline has systems in place to determine where in the first class/business class cabin they start to offer meals? If you know the system for the particular airlines you travel, and book early enough, you can secure yourself a seat in the right area to have a better chance to have an option in terms of the types of meals available.

For example, on Continental Airlines, the flight attendants always start at the front of the cabin, meaning if you sit in the first half of the first class cabin, you’re more likely to have a choice, but if you get sit in the back, you’ll get whatever item the other passengers didn’t want as much of. If, like me, you avoid meals with empty calories (high carb, like pasta and pizza), this means you may well get stuck with a dish you don’t want or can’t eat.

On American Airlines, if the flight number is odd, they start asking for meal choices in the back of the cabin, while for even numbered flights it’s in the front. In economy, they always start in the front. This is very important nowadays when many airlines only sell food in economy, as they are very likely to run out of what you want as they progress towards the back of the plane.