Portland Dining Delights

IMG_0526A three-day visit to my home town of Portland, Oregon, and all I did was eat. Really. Thai food, bar food, fancy tasting menu, homey crepes. It was divine.

One highlight was a five-course lunch at Bleu, the restaurant of the Western Culinary Institute. Now, I don’t need five courses at lunch, but at $14.95, I managed to put them away, having skipped breakfast in anticipation. My very accommodating lunch date agreed to go halvsies on everything, and most courses included two choices, so we covered most of the bases.

Soup: potato leek or butternut squash puree.

Salad: shaved fennel and red onion, (too) lightly dressed with orange, garnished with orange and blood orange, or butter lettuce with peeled cherry tomatoes (had they been canned? in any case, very nice! they absorbed some of the excellent dressing) and bacon.

Appetizer: salmon mousse with asparagus tips, awash in beurre blanc, or a charcuterie plate showcasing two kinds of salumi, with 3 mustards, sliced apple and cornichons.

Main: clams (5 of ’em) with wide noodles, seasoned with curry, or pork loin with curry sauce and lentils.

Dessert: chocolate souffle with creme anglaise, or creme brulee.

All this, plus a coffee, tea or soda–a screaming deal. While the food was neither transcendent nor sublime, it ranged from fair (the fennel salad, grievously under-seasoned) to delish (the salmon mousse) and nicely portioned. We cleaned our plates throughout, until we were met with the substantial creme brulee, which defeated us both and returned to the kitchen unfinished.

Perhaps we ate too much bread: slices of an excellent baguette, served with three kinds of butter: plain, herbed, and honey-saffron. This last was delectable, although I’d prefer to see it on the breakfast table, not with my savories. On the whole, I will gladly be dining at more cooking schools.

Old San Juan, Puerto Rico

DSCN2570Strolling Old San Juan feels like visiting Europe, including the collision of heavy tourist traffic with stately old buildings. Narrow streets, statues, flocks of begging pigeons, wrought-iron railings–but huge American cars are squeezed onto the tiny roads. And it’s hot and humid. With the occasional tropic downpour.

There are a few heavily touristed streets, but when you get off that oh-so-trodden path, it’s quite charming. The whole place can be walked in a day, with fortifications from the various street vendors selling deep-fried goodies, ice cream and exotic snow cones.

I had my first sesame flavored snow cone. It will be my last. Imagine thin sweet tahini over crushed ice. As always, I’m happy to have tried something completely out of my usual sphere, even though it will doubtless stay there.

A more reliable–and expensive–frozen treat is the Pina Colada, alleged to have been invented in Old San Juan.

Escape to Carmel Valley


Sometimes travel isn’t measured by the distance or the time spent, but by the sense of escape attained. That’s what Saturday was like for me.

An author speaking at the Carmel Valley Village library caught my eye, so at 9 AM I embarked on a gorgeous drive, heading south from my parent’s house near Monterey over the Laureles Grade and into Carmel Valley. It was clear and warm, with sculpted clouds accentuating the far-flung landscape. Looking at a map, I realized that Carmel Valley Road runs roughly parallel to Highway One: the two roads embrace Los Padres National Forest, so I was viewing the back of the coast range, the back side of Big Sur. No wonder it was fabulous. Winter rains have left the grasslands brilliantly verdant and wildflowers are beginning to bloom. An orchard of still-dormant, gnarled mossy trees rose above a blanket of mustard flowers. Rugged mountains (yes! over 4,500 feet) soared up from the valley floor, a patchwork of oak and scrubland and rock and meadow.

It reminded me of Malibu: the wild terrain tamed by a few roads, the panoramic views, the multi-million dollar homes. It seems like the immense wealth actually does infuse the air out there–I could smell it and taste it. Wineries, horses, tennis courts, and those palacial houses, scattered in the wilderness. Vanity vineyards–small residential plots of grapes–dot the terrain. A store displayed statuary of a massive scale: marble columns, enormous fountains, carved animals.

All the rampant wealth notwithstanding, it’s a place of rapturous beauty on a spring day. After the library event, I strolled, I had a coffee, I popped into a few stores and then concluded with… a spontaneous photo safari! Mix is a store with a couple of acres devoted to large-scale imports for the garden from Southeast Asia. After a recent photography workshop, I was eager to try some of my new tricks on their photogenic merchandise.

An hour of photography, half an hour from home, was a low-budget vacation. It was the sense of leisure, more than the activities, that I carved out of a pedestrian Saturday morning that left me feeling refreshed and transported, having had a brief window into the lives of folks just over the hill, in a destination predictably embraced by the Beautiful People.

Cheval Bwa: A Kreyol Carousel in Martinique (with video at bottom)


Our nearby town of Saint Anne was celebrating its saints day with concerts, vendors and a tiny carnival. I didn’t pay much attention to the carousel until I realized the music was live, flavored with the courtly precision of accordion, the stately march of a drum and snappy percussion. As soon as I approached it I felt touched by something magical. An innocent, simpler past floated with the music into the night air, captivating me.

It was acoustic and human-powered—a huge broad-shouldered youth pushed the carousel around and slowed it when the song came to an end. Somehow it gave me a heartache to see it. The worn painted horses, made over the years by the hands of many artists. The foursome in the middle playing casually and effortlessly together. The children clinging to the horses, looking a little baffled by it all.

Four musicians were in the center: a seated man in a felt hat played a gleaming accordion; a slender dreadlocked woman kept time with a big double-headed drum; a percussionist rapped his sticks on the metal supports of the roof and a length of PVC pipe tied between them; and a man shook a big shaker, the size of a couple of stacked soup cans.

The musicians wore t-shirts depicting the carousel and captioned Cheval Bwa (kreyol for cheval de bois, wooden horse). A change of clothes and they could be playing in 1908 or 1888, in St. Pierre, Martinique or Mexico City or Beirut or Bordeaux. Only the couple of electric lights, the minor amplification, and the wooden car among the horses took it out of the nineteenth century.

Watching the children riding in the balmy night air felt like a window into the ages. The kids rode in endless circles as the song looped, on figures carved generations ago by craftsmen and artists of the bygone Caribbean. Imagine the lives of these pre-industrial carnies who built it and transported it by horse and wagon or boat, bringing it to fairs where its magic was rare and spectacular, in an era before playgrounds, cars or videogames.

The horses were pure folk-art, the envy of any gallery. One was built like a sawhorse, with clear blue marbles for eyes, its neck artfully set off-center from its body. Several had heads with small ears and exaggerated curves, rounded like cartoons. Some resembled traditional carousel horses, but smaller and beautifully worn. A few showed very little detail, just ears and muzzle, rounded from raw branches, not from lumber, and covered with chipping coats of paint revealing every color of the rainbow.

The cheval bwa left such an unexpected longing in my heart—wistful and nostalgic for a past beyond reach, rich with such innocent pleasures and handmade fun. No electricity, no gas, no hum of motor or grind of generator, just simple tunes and an exquisitely pleasant ride into the past on the warm buttery night air of Martinique.

Click here for the video:



Visiting la plage in Martinique

2-kids-on-beachOn the beach in Martinique, being outnumbered by the locals is part of the fun.

More than at any other beachy place I’ve been to, the locals love la plage and spend plenty of time there. I never feel like I’m in a tourist zone at the beach, isolated from the people or targeted by enterprising hair braiders or jewelry vendors. Because the beach is such a vital social hub, an afternoon there is a cultural immersion as well as a sensory delight.

The sensory pleasure begins with the water–often strikingly clear and a delicious temperature, just cool enough to refresh as you ease yourself in. There are few waves, allowing you to bob gently up and down floating on your back as you’re cradled by the salty water.

Swaying palms and dense lower trees cast welcome shade on the sand, which ranges from beige to black. Strolling vendors offer tempting snacks, especially delicious home-made sorbets. The most common flavor is sorbet coco, coconut subtly flavored with nutmeg, lime zest and (almond flavored) orgeat syrup. Sometimes they make passion fruit, mango, or peanut–all of them fantastic.

Now, during summer vacation, the beach is always packed, especially on Sundays. The water is thick with people: grandparents dandling little ones, dads towing kids on rafts or tossing them giggling into the sea, teens flirting and laughing. Athletic boys wrestle and show off, outdoing each other in running down the sand and flipping into the water. Young sweethearts embrace, stealing solitude in the hubbub. Tiny kids wearing water wings play in the sand or brave the shallows with a parent or older kid.

Extended families gather around tables laden with elaborate picnics. The tantalizing smell of poulet Colombo (creole chicken curry) drifts out of enormous pressure cookers as overflowing plates are passed. Grandparents, kids, aunts and uncles nibble on drumsticks and pour plastic cups of soda or pop open icy cans of beer. They might have come for a week, what with the awnings, clotheslines, hammocks, coolers, folding chairs and inflatable toys that surround them.

Big groups of teens and twenty-somethings cluster in the shade, giggling, wresting and roughhousing. Some of these kids come on organized excursions from other parts of the island, arriving in huge buses out of which massive sound systems are unloaded and erected on the beach for dancing and flirting in the sand.

The beach is Martinique’s summer-time living room, alive with laughter, shouting, volleyball and music–a riot of activity which turns our afternoon swim into a complete cultural experience, like visiting a baseball game in the U.S. or a bullfight in Spain.

Martinique: Paradise in the French Antilles

Martinique 047I leave tomorrow for five weeks in Martinique, where I’ll be cooking for a group of students. My brother is a professor of archaeology at the University of South Carolina and is leading a dig there. Here’s a picture from my previous cooking gig there in 2005.

Memories of black sand beaches, white sand beaches, rum, coconut sorbet, snorkeling, poulet colombo (creole chicken curry), daily baguettes, and swaying palms lure me back to this lush volcanic island. I’ll post updates when I can, so I hope you’ll check in occasionally.

Also, if you listen to NPR’s “Weekend Edition Sunday,” you may hear me! They are doing a segment on listeners’ summer vacations, and plan to call me in Martinique for a brief interview while I’m there.

Martinique 053

A Truly Divine Pastry — Paris, September 2007

DSCN3639DSCN3640Here is my only record of possibly the best pastry of my entire life. Because they wrapped it so beautifully, I took a picture of the exquisite little package before tearing into it, and thus documented the name of the establishment: Y. Chantrelle, Patissier – Chocolatier, Paris 12eme. It was on a corner, it was packed with hungry fans, and the window display was delicious to behold.

The sublime pastry is the fig-topped one on the left. Layers of moist, dense, chewy coconut cake cradle mango mousse, topped with a passion fruit glaze. The name, Arawak, reflects its tropical inspiration. We ordered the Arawak and its brother pastry (topped with rhubarb mousse, it was also quite delicious) and carried them across the street to a sidewalk table at a cafe, where we ordered two coffees, unwrapped the jewels, and savored them with our tiny coffee spoons.

A Truly Beautiful Pastry — Paris, September 2007

DSCN3665Could there be a more princessy pastry than this? Look–it even matches the china! I was invited to this tres charmant, elegant, old-world tea house by my family friend Jeanne, who lives in a very stylish apartment with a view of the Eiffel Tower. The interior is all heavy drapes and gilt columns and marble-topped tables. One can easily imagine stylish big-hatted ladies meeting here for coffee and gossip a century ago. Founded in 1862, Ladurée is celebrated for its French-style macarons, but I preferred my choice.

 It is a double-decker cream-puff, filled with a rose custard and raspberries. The pastry was as delicious as the atmosphere and the company. Thank you, Jeanne.

Danes Love Ice Cream!

AK trip May 2006 denmark 1 084

At last, I begin a blog. Here I will share my experiences eating & traveling, locally and abroad. Enjoy!

In my signature photo at the top, I’m fondling a giant ice cream cone in Copenhagen in May 2006. Danes are said to eat more ice cream per capita than any other nation, and Denmark is the source of the celebrated giant freshly made waffle cone. A special treat is the so-called “Americaner” (a random name–I’m sure it got its name before my brother and I became addicted to it) which is composed of several assorted scoops of ice cream in a big waffle cone, topped with whipped cream and strawberry sauce, and crowned with a flodeball.


A flodeball is another beloved Danish delicacy: a thin wafer cookie piled high with soft marshmallow-y meringue and coated with chocolate. Exhibit B, below. My brother Ken is diving into one purchased from the confectioners counter in Magasin, the Nordstoms of Denmark. Flodeballer are also available in molded plastic clamshell 6-packs from the grocery store: a fraction of the cost and quality of the version seen below, but still beloved.

My aunt in Denmark used to have two golden retrievers, Bonnie and Olford. On the dogs’ birthdays, my grandmother would come over with a 6-pack of flodeballer and feed them to the dogs one by one. Lucky dogs! And when she’d fly to LA to visit us, she always managed to bring 6 or 12 of the treats carry-on for the poor deprived American grandchildren to enjoy. Lucky us!