By Assunta Ng
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
Do you live to eat or eat to live?
My aunt often grumbles when she eats a bad meal at a restaurant. My husband laughs at me and says I am getting more and more like my aunt. I don’t get annoyed with tasteless food. But I recognize incompetent chefs with ill-prepared ingredients and lousy cooking techniques or once-competent chefs who have lost their passion to cook. And I am not happy with restaurant management with no desire to improve or impress their customers.
Fortunately, I have found good restaurants whenever I travel, and many turn out to be an adventure. My recent trip to California was a showcase of fine dining. And I reject the millennial tendency to Google restaurants and read Yelp reviews. No, we don’t make reservations because planning exactly where and when we eat is impossible during travel.
Our trick is, we arrive at a restaurant around 6 p.m. We tell the hostess we eat fast, and we always get seated. As alcohol is not a part of our ritual, our table will allow the restaurant to serve two more rounds that night. By sheer luck and instinct, we often pick some of the most wonderful restaurants in town. As soon as we’re finished, the restaurant is packed with people waiting outside.
How do we select restaurants? There’s no magic formula. Usually, we walk to the heart of town, and observe what people are eating. We glance at the restaurants’ menu to see if the items would delight us.
In Palm Springs, we stood at the vibrant Palm Canyon Drive with restaurants looming on both sides of the street. Among a sea of pizza and Mexican restaurants, a sign caught my eyes — “Pomme Frite, French and Belgian cuisine.”
So we crossed the street and studied the menu on the window. Escargot… sounds delicious.
We had a salad and frog legs as starters. Then steamed clams in garlic butter sauce, and veal shank were ordered to share. What a treat! The frog legs did not taste fresh, but since I haven’t had them for a while, it was interesting to see the difference between French and Chinese cooking on the “little suckers.” We loved the fresh bread with its garlic butter. I would love to have the butter recipe. And the prices were reasonable, $50 for two.
The night before, we had a Japanese dinner at Kiyosaku, across from our motel. We had the best sana nabu, a delicious broth with fresh ingredients, including three kinds of baby mushrooms and seafood.
Palm Springs’ reputation is a retreat for rich people. What I don’t understand is, why the food is so much cheaper compared to Seattle? We shopped at Vons grocery store, bought six kinds of fruits (bananas, watermelon, an orange, apple, papaya, and grapes) and a big bottle of fresh carrot juice. The total bill was $18.08. In Seattle, it would have cost as much as $25.
And a breakfast we had at a little café was big enough for two people, at $6.95 with two eggs, multi-grain toast, turkey bacon, and potatoes. The latte cost $2 as opposed to Seattle’s $4.
On the cruise
Many friends said they were enthusiastic about cruise meals the first few days as passengers, as they can eat as much as they want and anytime they want. But after a few days, they were so sick of the food that they lose their appetite towards the end of the trip.
The secret is not to overeat.
We boarded a Norwegian cruise to Mexico from California, and I enjoyed all my daily meals. Make sure you eat fruits at every meal, and avoid greasy food. They can make your stomach feel bloated and overstuffed.
At the cruise, there are loads and loads of bacon and French fries every day. I love bacon and sausages, but I shunned them on the ship. The only time I ate a sausage was when they served turkey sausage. It takes a lot of self-control to see something you like and not put them on your plate. However, it can be done if you remind yourself of the consequences.
The best and worst at Norwegian
One of the Norwegian Jewel’s best restaurants is Cagney, a steakhouse. Its all-Asian chef staff also included females, which pleased me.
Ordinary people can grill a piece of beef in certain predictable ways. My husband ordered a porterhouse steak. Still, it’s quite a feat to grill the steak into a piece of tender, juicy, and delicious meat at Cagney.
The grilled sea bass I ordered surprised me. American chefs often make fish entrees very dry and hard to swallow. The chef who cooked my sea bass is Indonesian, and the steak chef is Indian. Many Filipino chefs were also there.
I expected the sea bass to be awful. But Cagney’s sea bass defied my expectations. The chef used a special herb, saffron, cooked with lobster broth, radish, champagne foam, and spring onion. No wonder it tasted so fantastic. (Next time, I will buy some champagne to cook fish.)
The soups have great flavors, too. My split pea soup was mixed with smoked pork rib meat. It added texture to the soup and I just loved every drop of it. I cleaned up the soup plate without sharing much with my husband.
Hard to believe, the worst restaurant on the ship was the Asian restaurant, Chin Chin. Of all the creative names in the world, why Chin Chin? Norwegian has received many bad reviews about this place.
As a journalist, I always give restaurants a second chance. It was one of the worst Chinese lunches I had ever tasted in America. However, the bad Chinese lunch was compensated with a nice Japanese teppanyaki the following night.
Chin Chin’s kitchen has no soul. You don’t just follow a recipe in Chinese cooking by dumping all the ingredients together. It takes skill and art. What we ordered was simple — lo mien (mix the sauce with the noodles), spicy udon, Singapore noodles, and steamed dumplings. Everything was not as it should be, I give an E grade for all the dishes.
I gave Chin Chin another chance by going there for its teppanyaki dinner. I couldn’t believe it was part of Chin Chin, too. Chef Marlo Jose of the Philippines not only cooked super food in front of the crowd, he performed a show with all kinds of tricks. He flipped a piece of egg into my husband’s mouth and stacked up onions to make it look like an active volcano (after he poured oil on top of the heated onions) flowing out with lava (soy sauce). The ingredients were fresh and the food was fantastic. We had fried rice, stir-fried veggie udon, steak, and prawns as the entrees.
How we ended up with a Chinese dinner at Wokcano in Long Beach, Calif., is a funny story.
We were on the streets close to the waterfront. “I want Chinese tonight,” I told my husband.
He asked a bartender walking out of a lounge, “Where is a Chinese restaurant nearby?”
He told us where. But we couldn’t find it until the second person gave us specific directions.
Wokcano, a fusion of Chinese and Japanese, is a yummy place and I would recommend it.
We tried lots of food on our 12-day vacation. But one thing I refused to have, especially at dinner, is pizza. I have nothing against the big flat dough. But I didn’t travel all the way to California and Mexico for pizza. Experimentation in all kinds of foods, including Italian cuisine, during this trip was my pursuit. I would argue that pizza is not so much Italian as it is fast food. Yes, I have succeeded to make every meal count.
Assunta can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.