Best non-edible purchase of the weekend

I don’t just love food, I even love things that only look like food too. Which is why I knew even though it was somewhat unnecessary, a little ridiculous, and totally an impulse buy, that I just had to own the cookie look-a-like coin purse that I saw at the MoMA bookstore and giftshop.

Food-shaped accessories, a win-win situation.

The MoMA store is awesome, filled with enough artsy gadgets and gizmos to keep me entertained for hours. Even though I’d been there often, I’d never seen these: a line of coin purses and pencil pouches (I’m assuming that’s what they were) shaped like food items. There was a slice of pizza, a taco and a chocolate chip cookie, each one hilariously real looking.

I debated back and forth on whether I really needed it, but in the end lost the fight. C’mon, who was I kidding? When have I ever been able to say no to a chocolate chip cookie?

A Ruskie surprise

A wise man once said, “Life is life a box of chocolates, you never know what you’re gonna get.” But so is New York. You just never know what you’ll come across. Or what, randomly on a 14°, bitingly cold Friday night, you’ll stumble upon when walking down an otherwise quiet, unsuspecting street on the way somewhere else.

The bf and I (who from here on out will be called Flaneur) were making our way through the Lower East Side, killing time before our late dinner reservations, when something across the street caught our eye: a tiny, almost literal hole-in-the-wall bar. No name, no neon Bud Light signs, no smokers milling about outside. Not even a clear indication that it was open.

Forget your scarf, this’ll keep you warm.

Intrigued (and slightly frostbitten), we crossed the street and opened the door.
Inside was a small cluster of tiny tables, maybe enough for about 30 people tops, all crammed into a dimly lit, cozy space. Some people were eating, others just drinking, so we sat down, still not even knowing what the place was called or what kind of bar it was. Could’ve been the meeting place for swingers for all we knew.

The waitress came by and dropped off the menu: Anyway Café.

Ahh! That’s where we are. Hmm, never heard of it.

One side of the menu listed food and the other drinks. Looking to put our liquid jackets on, we skipped straight to the booze. Listed were a few beers, a few wines, and lots of vodka. Organic vodka by the shot or carafe in every infusion imaginable from chocolate to mango to lychee to apricot. Then a whole listing of vodka brands and a slew of martinis. We opted for the latter of the three vodka offerings. Honey ginger martini for Flaneur and chocolate for me. (Was it even a question that I would get anything else?)

Artsy bars call for attempts at pseudo artsy photos.

Sometimes chocolate martinis are dense and syrupy, like someone squirted half a bottle of hot fudge into a martini glass, but this one was different. Smooth and light, with a cocoa powder rim, this was sweet and warming. With the couple of floating coffee beans and a maraschino cherry at the bottom, I felt like this drink was made specifically for me. Flaneur’s was a little less sweet and a little more dry, with the ginger giving it a slight zing.

We only stayed for one drink because we still had to find our restaurant but as soon as we were back on the sidewalk, cold wind seeming to seep into our bones, I wished I was inside. Skip the martini this time. Make it a carafe.

In vino veritas… unless the vino’s boxed

Way back when, during a carefree college semester spent in Italy, a couple of friends and I learned a valuable lesson we’ll carry with us forever: never, ever trust boxed wine.

We were taking a daytrip to the small, mountain town of Abetone and like many of our fellow classmates abroad, thought that adding wine to the equation would be a fantastic idea.

Wrong.

Unsuspecting fools that we were, Daphne, Cortney and I chose the wine on sale, the fermented-Juicy Juice-tasting liquid that came in a box and cost one euro a carton. We bought three and walked out ready for a good time.

Maybe 15 minutes later, as the bus lurched up the twisting and turning mountain road, and the warm, acid Tavernello sloshed around in our stomachs, we realized the error of our ways.

“Pleeease don’t let me puke on this bus,” I silently begged God, “I promise I’ll never drink boxed wine again. Lesson learned. I swear!”

Boxed wine: no longer just for budget-conscious drunkards

And I stayed true to my word, until this Saturday when the $35 dollar wine we ordered at Washington D.C.’s Farmers & Fishers at the Georgetown Waterfront showed up in you guessed it, a friggin’ carton.

“Who ordered the boxed wine?” people at our table asked mockingly, before the Yellow + Blue box of Argentine Malbec was planted in front of me and a couple others.

Cortney, who was on that vomit-inducing bus ride years ago and also at dinner in D.C., looked at me with eyes that said, “Uh oh.”

We should’ve seen it coming, though. F&F is a trendy restaurant with a lot of talk of green this, eco-friendly that and lots of sustainability packed in between. Before we even ordered, our plaid-shirted, gauged ear, shaved-head waiter rattled on and on about F&F’s fresh, farm-sourced ingredients and sustainable ag practices.

“Well the box is completely biodegradable,” he explained when we politely masked our horror and asked about the bottleless wine. “The inside is lined with balsa wood so it doesn’t affect the taste. It actually makes it taste better.

Hmm. Well, uhm, ok. Boxed wine it is, we agreed at the table.

I can always count on dessert to save the day.

The rest of dinner went well, with most of us opting for F&F’s Restaurant Week menu ($35 for a three course meal, boxed wine not included). Mini cheese pizza to split with the group, table-made guac, Chesapeake style Mahi Mahi, and my favorite from this particular food line-up: Key lime pie tartlet.

While everything was pretty good, the dessert stole my heart. Key lime pies just always take me back to the good things about Florida, the few that I actually like, like warm summer days spent at the beach, trips to the Keys and stuffing my face full of tangy, sugary goodness.

In the end, the Malbec-in-a-box wasn’t bad either. After a couple of glasses, we got over the carton stigma and went on with our meal. One thing is worth noting, though: the balsa wood-lined interior. Curious to see what the inside of our box looked like, someone at our table tore it open (once it was empty, of course) and well, there was another surprise: no balsawood, just the standard waxed cardboard you’d find in most boxed beverages.

So, with that being said, I stand by my original lesson learned: never, ever trust boxed wine.

Life, liberty and the pursuit of hamburgers

Say what you will about America, but it really is a great country. After two years in Italy, a land overrun by ass-backwards behavior, I now have an empowered sense of patriotism for the good ol’ U.S. of A. A renewed appreciation for its ideals of freedom, justice and opportunity. But most of all, a sincere gratitude for one of its best attributes: the hamburger.

Got a little squished in transit, but still deeee-lish!

Now, that’s not to say you can’t find good burgers abroad. You can. They’re just better (and more prevalent) in the U.S. So when a weekend trip took me, the bf and a friend to our nation’s capital, it only seemed right to eat burgers while we were there.

Washington, D.C. has lots to offer: museums, monuments and Good Stuff Eatery. Vanessa, the friend who came with me this weekend, was the one who told me about Good Stuff, and well, I basically owe her a kidney for it. Started by Chef Spike from Season 4 of Top Chef, Good Stuff is a casual place with an easy menu: burgers, fries and shakes, with a couple variations on these standard American good eats.

A burger with no fries is just wrong.

So in honor of our being in the capital, I went for a burger named after its most famous inhabitant: Obama.  A juicy beef patty topped with applewood bacon, red onion marmalade, horseradish mayo and Roquefort cheese, all squished between two soft, buttery buns. The President might not have won everyone over, but the Prez Obama Burger? A landslide victory.

But no burger-eating experience would be complete without fries so we split an order of Sunny’s handcut fries. These were good- perfectly salted and just a bit soft, how I like them- but what made them great was definitely the mayo bar: chipotle, siracha, mango and Old Bay mayos to choose from, in addition to the standard ketchup, mayo and mustard. Naturally, I got all of them.

This isn't just good... it's genius.

And last, but absolutely not least, was my favorite part of the meal: the toasted marshmallow milkshake. Thick and creamy, with a couple slightly browned marshmallows sitting on top, this shake was concentrated, glorious gluttony at its finest.

And in my book, that is always good stuff.

(Someone cue the Star Spangled Banner…)

Tea for two and two for tea

Spot of tea, anyone?

I used to hate drinking tea. Growing up, being sick always meant getting a hot cup of chamomile from my mom. As a kid with easily triggered motion sickness, I drank A LOT of the grassy-smelling brew. And hence, for a very long time I equated tea with puking and all-around malaise.

But being a when-in-Rome-do-as-the-Romans type of traveler (especially when it comes to local grub), I was forced to confront my tea feelings during a visit to London, where my boyfriend was studying at the time. After bangers and mash, bubble and squeak, and the requisite fish and chips, it was time for the iconic hot English drink.

So I went to Sainsbury’s (side note: British supermarkets? SO much better than Italian ones) and scoured the tea isle, looking for something that would make me feel local without requiring barf bags. Although I started with the fruity stuff that tastes almost like hot Kool-Aid, I gradually worked my way up to green tea (also first with fruit and then without), and then finally took the plunge into Earl Gray, English Breakfast, chai and other tea standards. I still, however, refuse to drink chamomile. Sick or not, just can’t do it.

Now that I’m in New York, by and large a city fueled by coffee, I was intrigued when I read about a little East Village teahouse called Podunk. If for no other reason than to see how it might work in such a frenetic city, I decided to check it out.

On a recent, cold and gray Sunday afternoon, the beau and I set off in search of Podunk. We found it tucked away on a quiet street, looking more like something out of downtown Gainesville than the funky, artsy East Village. The décor was a cutesy hodgepodge of mismatched furniture and grandma’s house- style knick-knacks. At the front counter (a wooden table topped with assorted teapots in glass display cases) we found gingham-covered menus and a sweet woman whose soft voice and flowered apron reminded me of Mrs.Claus.

“Tea’s proper use is to amuse the idle, and relax the studious, and dilute the full meals of those who cannot use exercise, and will not use abstinence.” Samuel Johnson

I ordered toasted coconut vanilla white tea while my sweet-disdaining boyfriend got sage black tea, both of which came on a wooden tray with different colored and shaped metal teapots, teacups and saucers, milk and sugar. Let me tell you, on crap-weather days in a city like this one, tea at Podunk is the way to go. Warm and soothing, the tea was delicious (at least mine was, can’t speak for the sage drink) and comforting. Add the tranquil setting, and you could almost forget that you’re in one of the noisiest, most hectic cities in the world.

To really win my heart, Mrs.Claus behind the counter offered us each a freshly baked butter cookie on the way out. Left to my own devices, I could have polished off two dozen of those simple, sweet, buttery cookies.

I’ll gladly go back to Podunk, especially on dreary winter days, but I know this much, I’ll never ask to try their chamomile.