Time Marches On…Harshly, Sometimes…

One of the inevitabilities of life is its conclusion. And as a person progresses further with one’s own journey, facing the loss of others is, sadly, also inevitable.

A few days ago I found out an old, dear friend had taken an unexpected turn for the worse, a total blindside. And yesterday as I marched into my dental appointment (I’m so glad I have 2 of the best dentists in the world) I get the news that the unexpected turn accelerated into a finality.

Sadly, I’m an old hand already when it comes to saying goodbye to friends. I’m in a point of life that I’m attending more funerals than weddings, although it never gets easier. However, this one caught me totally off-guard, and has numbed me…

Now getting blotto in Midtown and later in Westport and even later at home is probably not a great idea after that, but when the reaper takes such an unkind swipe of the scythe at such an undeserving individual, it chills one to the core…and I needed further numbing. Don’t know how many stupid things I did all day yesterday, and I’ll probably be paying for it for awhile, but it was necessary.

So as I say goodbye to yet another friend on this journey of life, I can’t help to think, despite this hangover, that life’s an unfair bitch more times than not.

Üksindus

This Estonian word is probably the best word for me to describe this post and the state of my life at this point. It basically means solitude, but within that word you have üksi, which means alone. As I near this life’s milestone running solo, it causes me to ponder this state at all hours. This explains my very odd sleep schedule and recent major insomnia.

For those of you who know me, or have read my previous post, you know why I am in this state of solitude right now. When I become attached, I become very attached. And I am not one to compromise my own feelings, and I know I have no capacity to devote myself to anyone else now or any time in the near future…maybe never again. I know my feelings, and I need to be true to them. Advice like “just get over her” doesn’t work with someone like me. It just reminds me of that George Jones song…he did stop loving her at some point…

I recently went to New Mexico to visit my grandmother’s best friend. She is one of the strongest and most independent woman I know, at 86 and living alone for the last 7 years since her beloved husband of 46 years passed on. He was a remarkable man, at one time the base commander of US Air Force bases in Taiwan (where he met my grandparents) and Crete, and was head of various foreign weapon capability research departments within the USAF (such as the Soviet Offensive Capability Branch).

I went to visit her because despite her independence, she is becoming frail — natural at that age. Her husband’s death in 2005 greatly affected her, and she still suffers from a form of PTSD that has morphed into short-term memory loss. It’s like her memory post-2005 has been clouded greatly, almost as if her brain’s marking her husband’s passing as its own. They had no children, and her family is full of drama, so she’s essentially alone.

I spent two days talking to her, driving her to the Santa Fe National Cemetery for her to visit her soulmate…and it was tremendously sad for me. It was such a sad picture of how tough it is to be alone, especially at an advanced age, with no family. And it’s hard for me not to picture myself in that same situation, although I doubt I’ll get anywhere near 86.

Although she was smiling and laughing (with bourbon in hand) while telling me stories about my grandparents, including various unfortunate episodes that marked the Jekyll-and-Hyde nature of my grandfather, there was a very lonely person under the smile. I know the minute I walked out the door for the airport she returned to the person that’s just counting out time and waiting eagerly to reunite with her husband in the beyond. Though she no longer tells me such things in the open, I can see it in her eyes. Life is a chore for her at many moments during each day.

So as I ready my adventure to mark my 40th birthday, I think about so many things that have happened in those years. I chose to make this journey alone, as there are many things I must ponder and reflect on. Even the most brilliant and special adventures are rather meaningless without someone to share it with, and my love of travelling and finding excellent restaurants and foods diminishes daily with that deficit.

Whether I return home at the end of September more focused or less focused, I won’t know until I get back. But I know I’ll be stepping out of my door by myself, and coming back through the door myself. That won’t change. I have accepted certain things in my life, and one key component is indeed üksindus.

Melancholia: the 20th of August…

The last few days have turned me rather melancholic. It is not the T-30 countdown to my 40th birthday, far from that. But every year, the date of 20 August always stirs up a cornucopia of emotions in me. Two events on that same day defines my life…

And the sad thing is that while both had been sources of incredible happiness, inspiration and creativity over the years, they are both proving to be lodestones on my soul at this juncture of my midlife crisis. The 20th of August gave me both my career and the love of my life, and sadly, both are in tatters.

Mu isamaa, mu õnn ja rõõm…
Some 21 years ago I was glued to the TV watching what was happening in Europe, especially on the eastern coast of the Baltic Sea. I remember watching news reports for many months, including those on CNN filed by Teri Schultz (who later became a good friend) on the events in Tallinn, Estonia. But it was that day, with the catalyst of the coup in Moscow, that led the brave people of Estonia to finally remove the shackles of their Soviet oppressors after 51 years of brutal occupation.

Though I did not know it that day, that event created my rewarding career for the next two decades. My work brought me around the world and I felt honoured to be called on as an expert by many. I relished my role as an analyst pointing out where Estonia needed to improve, as well as a promoter that spread the successes of Estonia to unknowing parties. I was most humbled my my dear (and ailing) friend Mart Laar, the guru of Estonia’s rapid development and two-time prime minister, would always introduce me to people as the ‘world’s expert on Estonia’. As much as that humbled me, I essentially ‘succeeded’ myself out of a career. Estonia did not need the deep analysis at this stage, and it was doing just fine by itself. Like a parent watching a child grow up and succeeding, it’s time to let go…

Разбитото ми сърце…
And coincidentally some 8 years ago, when my career was already staggering, I met the love of my life. It was odd when I first met her, because I had pictured her — her face, her voice, everything — in my dreams since I was a teenager. It was so shockingly strikingly clear all of a sudden. To be honest, that dream kept me going during a very tortuous childhood, one which still haunts me today. The first look I was struck dumb…like the proverbial Italian fulmine full-on, that my hopes have been answered.

Over the wonderful years she became my soulmate, my best friend, my confidant, my lover, my hopes and dreams, my everything. The happiest moments of my life were spent with her, as well as some of the most desolate when I missed her. I watched her grow up from a college student to the entrepreneur that created a major business on her own, and I remain extremely proud of her amazing accomplishments and success. Sadly, I lost her after more than 6 years in a rather turbulent relationship, and I have to absolutely blame myself for losing her. I guess in a way she didn’t need me anymore…

So now as I live through the 20th of August without her, and with my Estonia-related career in tatters, it makes me think of what’s left on my plate. I am drained emotionally to ever try again; I doubt I can ever commit in the same way to anyone else. I am too old and uninspired to create a new career.

It’s hard to examine a life when the one single thing you’ve devoted your life to has ground to a halt, and you had to let your soulmate go.

So with those twin albatrosses around my neck as I sit on this leaky boat of my life, I sail on into the storm of the midlife crisis. Something’ll come through the storm. I just don’t know what will. And the skies are now fully darkened…

Review: Arcodoro & Pomodoro

Dallas,
11 August 2012

I arrived in Dallas a day late thanks to me stupidly continuing my hangover from hell. Already suffering from a monumental one, I had such a good meal at Alla Spina so I decided to carry on back closer to my hotel…stupid, as it turned into 6 hours of cocktails and a hangover even worse than the earlier. I literally could not make it to my flight…

So after paying a stupid penalty, I arrived at a “cool” Dallas — it was only 99F (37C), one of the cooler days this summer. I felt utterly dreadful and slept through most of the flight, and was a miracle I was sorted enough to drive out of the airport with my rental. Yeah, this was one of the worst hangovers, ever.

So after grabbing some so-so BBQ at Big Al’s Smokehouse (I could not run to Fort Worth to Off the Bone BBQ, widely regarded as the best in the Dallas-Fort Worth area), I went to get more kip at the hotel. By the time I had to run to the Sardinian specialty restaurant Arcodoro & Pomodoro, I was feeling much better. Not great, but better.

Knowing I was going to keep the drinking to a minimum tonight, I drove there. I was seated in a nice table, although I really was going nuts from the Romney-Ryan love-fest on the table next to me… If anything made this evening less than awesome it was having to overhear their conversation (about anything from Obama’s unamerican tactics to evil Brits at Barclays screwing everyone to never having eaten wild boar), and the lack of ability to take down too much wine… Nevertheless, I had an excellent meal.

For a starter I had mista mare, the simple seafood salad, which was utterly Texan size. The assortment of squid, octopus, prawns, clams and mussels, on a bed of greens, was fresh and flavourful on its own. The consistency of the squid was excellent; no stringy stuff here (a common failing in even good Mediterranean places). A beautiful plate.

As I was not as hungry, and I had guessed the Texas portions would be huge, I opted for risotto as my main. I had been buying my bottarga from this restaurant for years, and they noted that, so they made me a risotto with mussels using bottarga. It was extremely tasty as it resembled a dish that used saffron lobster stock. However, I could not really pick up the bottarga, which was disappointing. If it was there, it was drowned out by the other flavours or cooked to oblivion. Nevertheless, the dish was excellent.

I was not going to have a dessert as the portions were huge, but I had to have seadas al miele, a cheese-filled Sardinian pastry strewn with organic honey. I know the proprietor is very proud of his honey, so I wanted to try this. It was okay, but frankly the honey dripped was a little lacking. Sorry, the photo came out so out of focus I’m not going to embarrass myself by posting it here.

Overall Arcodoro & Pomodoro is a solid, good restaurant that has so much potential for pursuing its Sardinian side seriously, to make it stand out even more. I really wished it would have pushed its two most special ingredients — bottarga and honey — much more. I felt this would have been a memorable meal if both had been used in an adequate amount for their respective dishes. Alas, it was not to be.

Perhaps harder to appreciate in Texas than let’s say the North-East, but A&P is truly a good place for a meal. Smooth and friendly service, very personable, makes the entire dining experience smooth and relaxing — especially for someone nursing a deadly hangover.

Back to the hotel, and off to bed with more headache pills…

Arcodoro & Pomodoro
100 Crescent Court, Suite 140
Dallas, TX

Review: Alla Spina

Philadelphia,
9 August 2012

I set off for dinner at Alla Spina with mixed feelings. First of all, I was still disappointed from the rather depressing chef’s tasting at Lacroix the previous evening. Second, I was fighting a monstrous hangover that was exacerbated by a lengthy 2am stroll in the horrible humidity that left me drenched and utterly dehydrated. Third, I was oddly not in the mood for a feast… But still, as a big fan of Mark Vetri and his brand of food, I wasn’t gonna give this a miss.

It was yet another warm and humid day, but it wasn’t too bad in the casual eatery that had the front opened. I was a little worried at first when there was a big TV showing the Eagles game near me, but that concern soon evaporated. This is a food place first. Then a beer place. Those two things trump everything, to my delight.

As Alla Spina is a beer specialty place, not surprising considering its name, I decided to play along and embark on a flight of sour beers. Usually not my taste, but I thought with this menu these unique-tasting beers would really add to the dimension of the flavours.

The three, from left to right, are: the locally-made smooth Victory Weißbier (Vetri has been promoting them heavily), a sweet-and-sourish Monk’s Café Flemish sour, and the much hoppier but adequately sour Trois Dames Saint Ni Touché. These complex flavours really fit the first round of food that was to appear.

I had ordered the lamb speck to start, though originally I had thought of the German Speck rather than the Tyrolean. The generous portion of cured meat was delicate and not very strong, so worked well over toast with the accompanying horseradish butter. I wished it was stronger, but it balanced okay — especially with the complex beers. The back-of-the-house was nice enough to comp me a chicken terrine, which was nice and smooth. It was joined by a sweet-and-bitter combination of cherries and endive. A very nice and filling start to the feast!

I decided on another beer flight to accompany me into the stronger dishes, so took the recommendation of my excellent server Kristen and went with a more determined trio of ‘triples’. I’m sorry I can’t do much better than the photo below as I was by then trying to cheat and remember the ones on the menu — but the menu online has a different list! But just ask for the ‘triples’ flight…sorry! It is my midlife-crisis blog, right?

Then the feasting really began, and it was clear I totally over-ordered. I ordered two vegetable sides — a tasty (if slightly too salty) oyster mushroom trifolati and an excellent citrusy zucchini. But the stars were the two main savoury small plates. The first was the fried lumache (snails, escargots). I prefer the Italian word, since this is an Italian-influenced place. Maybe a little too much batter, since snails are generally not strong flavoured on their own. But these were uniquely made, and a very nice snack or appetiser for anyone.

The next dish, the one that defeated me, was Alla Spina’s tribute to nose-to-tail eating: pig tails with fennel agrodolce. These fried morsels were brilliant, with a blend of sweet and sour, but not overwhelming the natural taste of the tails. Hard to eat in any other way, I just dug into them by hand like wings or ribs…now wouldn’t it be awesome to find a pub that had these as a snack? Well, you have one, it’s called Alla Spina in Philly!

By this point my stomach was about to breach my struggling frame, so I had to quit the feasting. The desserts looked quite amazing, but I just could not fit anything else solid… I did have a few more drinks, despite my horrible hangover…including a nice negroni from the tap (nice touch), onto a huge cube of ice. Perfect on a steamy evening.

It was a challenge to go down into the SEPTA and head back after this feast. After the previous evening’s disappointment, my faith in Philly restaurants has been restored by this wonderful experience. Casual, relaxing, but excellent service and execution. Staff deserve a special shout-out. Everything you can ask for. Fantastic.

Alla Spina
1410 Mount Vernon Street
Philadelphia, PA

 

Review: Lacroix

Philadelphia,
8 August 2012

Ever since I first discovered Lacroix many years ago it has been my favourite restaurant in Philadelphia. Always solid and innovative without being too experimental, it served its purpose well as the primary restaurant in the much-hyped Rittenhouse Hotel. I have never had anything close to a bad experience here, and was very much looking forward to a wonderful evening. I really needed it, as I was getting a flood of bad news during the early evening that would really create many, many problems for me.

The one thing Lacroix always has is a friendly and cheerful staff — one that really knows how to deal with lone diners. Many restaurants fail at that deceptively simple task, whether it is timing or attitude, but this place masters that rare talent. I never feel out of place here, and they go out of their way to make their diners comfortable. And this has not changed.

I began with a house cocktail of their summer sazerac. Nice, but on the bitter side — from their house-made vanilla and apple bitters. It cleansed my palate for the tasting menu, of which I was hoping to see some fabulous plates from chef Jon Cichon. I remember him showing me the kitchen years ago when he was sous chef, when I used to still have the late, lamented Elettaria

The amuse-bouche soon came, a combination of a few interesting tidbits. The creamy soup brought out tastes of heart of palm and leeks, while the sturgeon offered a very strong but salty taste. Sadly, the pastry was flaky and dry, and the bacon on the oyster tasted as if it sat there for hours soaking in oyster juice and tasted like bad imitation bacon by that time. Not worried yet, it’s just the amuse-bouche…

My server hinted to me that the tasting menu is mostly based from the a la carte menu, but I had hoped for some creativity from the kitchen. I was told that chef Cichon was running the kitchen, so my expectations went up for something interesting over the 6 savoury courses. I also hinted very indiscretely how much I love mushrooms, seeing some nice mushroom usage on the a la carte.

The first course came out lightning fast alongside a New Zealand sauvignon blanc (did I mention I went for the full pairing?). A nice rolled fluke ceviche garnished by mango foam and coconut chips. Tasted nice, but there seems to be some rogue salting being done upon plating…a little uneven. But a nice start.

And almost a minute after my plate was cleared the second course appeared, alongside a very fragrant late South African Gewürztraminer, was the foie gras torchon. The foie gras was gone well, as well as the figs and ice cream on the side. Nothing too special, as the foie gras was its own star as usual. However, as both items were on the regular menu, I’m starting to worry about the next 4 savoury courses being just straight from-the-menu.

Again, lightning fast upon me finishing my second course, the third arrived alongside a rather dry California chardonnay. This wine missed a bit, though worked with the course — grilled Spanish octopus with some agnolotti in a chicken consommé. The octopus was tasty as it was sweetly glazed, but the angolotti was a bit bland. Again, from the normal menu. I was getting worried, as I suspect this tasting menu was heading downhill in predictability…

My fourth course arrived and I was actually right in guessing what it was — the halibut. Served alongside a rather boring dry Chilean rosé, the fish really didn’t do much for me (especially considering my very good lunch). Very little creativity on the key item, the fish topped a bed of beans that didn’t fit the tasty crabmeat that it was combined with. The fact I guessed what the dish was going to be left me a little sad…this was a very, very unimaginative chef’s tasting menu…just simply items from the a la carte.

And to this point, not a single mushroom…it’s like they skipped every dish that had mushroom from the a la carte menu! I asked for a slowdown as it was coming way too fast. A 8-course tasting menu should not be finished in 75 minutes…

I wish I had more time when dish number five came…a horrible chicken that was injected with miso. It really reminded me of the smoked chicken rolls that I used to see in Russia and elsewhere, but I wish it tasted like it. The chicken here was like some horrible reconstituted nightmare that made me wish for a McNugget… The polenta on bottom had more flavour than this thing that tasted of utterly nothing. No miso, no chicken, no anything. NASA food? Designed for MRE?

This was the only dish I did not even finish half of…and I did let them know. They offered to replace it, but not necessary at this late stage. I was pretty full already anyway. Despite the massive shortfall of the back of the house this evening, the front was doing a wonderful job. Oh, and the merlot was the best part of this course, even if it was a rather boring one… It killed the taste of this bad “chicken” dish…

I was becoming extremely disappointed. I wanted an experience to cheer me up from my dreadful afternoon; instead, I am questioning one of the few restaurants that has never let me down — until tonight. When course six, the last savoury, came, I was dejected. Alongside a fine Sonoma cabernet came the “wagyu” brisket. Again, from the main menu. Of the 3 pieces of beef that came, only one was relatively good. Piece 2 was nearly all gristle, and piece 3 I ended up spitting out (sorry) because it was half gristle too. Don’t let the picture fool you, the gristle bits were hidden from view at first…

What really upset me at this point was that they pushed 6 on-the-menu items on me, showing absolutely no creativity that I had been used to from Lacroix in the past, and in most top restaurants that offer a chef’s tasting menu. It’s like they used me to get rid of stuff they didn’t sell all night. All that for $120 (not including the pairing) is a total insult.

And not one mushroom in my dinner! That was the ONLY thing I asked for!

I was so dejected by that point I barely tasted my 2 dessert courses and didn’t even bother to take any more pictures. It was not enjoyable at all. I was saddened, as one of my standbys is now completely off the list. A one-off bad night is one thing, but this experience was insulting. They knew I was a long-time customer and a person that has raved about the place. I asked for little in the tasting menu. They did nothing right in the back of the house on this one.

As I nurse my disappointment at the bar chatting with the front-of-the-house staff, I feel sad that I had to remove Lacroix from my list of 10 favourite restaurants in North America. It had been so good. I had such good memories in the past, including a morel fest a few years ago. But this was an insult, an expensive insult for any serious food person. And as a coup de grâce for me on this horrible evening, I ended up getting some messages that would really rock my evening that would screw up many, many things…

Do NOT bother with the chef’s tasting menu at this place. Million of other places with better, more interesting, and cheaper ones. I think I have entered Lacroix for the final time. Sad. Another one bites the dust.

Lacroix
at the Rittenhouse Hotel
210 West Rittenhouse Square
Philadelphia, PA

Review: Sammy Chon’s K-Town BBQ

Philadelphia,
8 August 2012

I came to the City of Brotherly Love for a convention, but it turned out to be a major bust within minutes. Waste of my time. However, was a good excuse to feast for the two days I am here, before I head south for the dreaded Texas heat. Walking out of the Pennsylvania Convention Center, I headed to a part of town I very rarely go — Chinatown.

But instead of hunting for good Chinese, which was just not in the books on a very humid and hot afternoon, I found Sammy Chon’s K-Town BBQ. I walked into what looks like any other restaurant in Chinatown…but to my relief, the food was solid Korean. And as good, the beer was cold.

Instead of going after my usuals (such as kalbi or kimchee jjigae or japchae), I was in a fish day. The pictures of the mackerel pike (saury) on the menu looked so good, and it was ridiculously cheap for 4 whole fish: $10.99. I ordered that and a side of mandoo (steamed dumplings) and drowned my first beer…ah, perfect to beat the humidity.

I enjoyed several traditional small plates alongside my beer, my favourite of course being the well-made kimchee. However, as a broccoli lover, I took down most of the green stuff too. All this in anticipation of the main event.

Maybe I ordered too much…the fish were huge… But they were excellent. Extremely oily, just the way I like my fish. It was grilled simply with just enough salt. No need to adulterate such a strong and distinct flavour. The grilling was done well enough that the bones were mostly edible, as was most of the head.

By now when the plate of mandoo arrived it was an afterthought…the fish was so nice and flavourful that the dumplings became more of a palate cleanser. I somehow finished all the fish and dumplings and a few beers, thanked the very nice staff and made my way into the horrible Philly humidity.

Oh, I can still taste that oily fish…mmm…

Sammy Chon’s K-Town BBQ
911 Race Street
Philadelphia, PA