How could a Jew best describe kugel, a lynchpin of Jewish cuisine? This casserole-mimicking side dish comes in infinite varieties, from savory, to sweet, to noodle, to non-noodle, all often described as the best, or the way someone’s grandma once made it. Like my Mom-Mom used to make “the best” sweet apple and raisin kugel with matzo and then Fed-Ex frozen squares of the stuff to me in college. One thing is certain: kugel is not healthy. Laden with butter, sugar, eggs, and dairy, any attempt to create healthy kugel is an attempt to strip the kugel of its righteous place in our lives; like having a low-fat Thanksgiving. Who diets on Thanksgiving?
Our first anniversary would not happen for another month, but the reservation called for a special occasion.
As a warm August sun slipped behind the mountains in St. Helena, we left the main road and drove into our journey. Deeper into this fantasy forest, trees soared alongside both sides of our car. We had travelled down this road before, it seemed. Our honeymoon, eleven months earlier, brought us high into the remote mountains near Porto Ercole, Italy, where we discovered the enchanted Hotel Il Pellicano. That same unknown quiet existed here, magnetically inviting us deeper in.
Lit cottage windows peaked through the darkness. Then, a guard gate.
“We’re here for dinner. The Restaurant at Meadowood.”
He received notice in the mail four times. And four times, he dodged, ducked, dipped, dived, and dodged, citing the gamut of personal and professional obligations to noodle around his civic duty. The fourth notice, however, displayed the inevitable: must serve. Douglas would become a juror in New York County, whether he liked it or not.
In trying to sympathize with his lament, I, his loving wife, devised a task to spice up his jury duty experience: ten days in Chinatown. Every day for lunch, he would walk to the neighborhood nearest to the courthouses in search of its finest delicacies, seeking greater personal purpose in his public service. He accepted the challenge.
“I love Asian food, and I never had enough time to explore Chinatown the way I wanted to, so what better time was there?” he said. “With Bayard Street a block from Centre Street, walking from the jury room to lunch only took a few minutes.”
Abandoning our lives on concrete and flat surfaces, if only for a short time, we descended on California’s Napa Valley, an expansive treasure of rolling mountains, upon vineyards, upon rolling mountains. Driving north on I-80 in our Dodge Charger rental, windows all the way down, I huffed in the crisp wind—and out, and in, and out again. That was all it took to activate my vacation mode, a rare mental state combining the extremes of heightened self-awareness and utter poo brain.
On either end of the scale, it meant leaving New York City in New York City, for once. Our one-year anniversary deserved as much. Although we may fancy the occasional cocktail in a coconut, we are not beach-squatters or island-hoppers, and do not truly find our joy in those settings. Doug and I share a common desire to learn and be enriched by new places. California’s wine region naturally makes students of its visitors because of all you can learn about its climates, its soils, its harvests, and how these factors translate into making wine and preparing locally sourced cuisine.
We covered serious ground on this trip—more than one story’s worth of food, libations, and natural disasters. Leaving for later posts our epic anniversary dinner and our 24-hour stint in San Francisco, these are the highlights of what we tasted and learned.
Approaching the corner of Bowery and 2nd Street on a lazy Tuesday night, I hoped for déjá vu. My best friend and I met for my belated birthday celebration at Bar Primi, which is housed in the shell of an old favorite, Peels, home to successful birthday meals' past. The ever-bustling Peels shuttered abruptly in January, evidence that this town may not be big enough for so much fried chicken, even if it tastes really good. Repurposing the familiar space with Chef Andrew Carmellini at the helm, Bar Primi would have every opportunity to build off the good will of diners like us who, despite the turn from casual comfort to casual pasta, would still expect food that tastes really good, if only for the familiarity and comfort with our surroundings.
Our surroundings felt recognizable, indeed, but that feel-good warmth of enjoying a thoughtfully executed meal felt lost. A far departure from the colorful illustrations on the restaurant's website, the execution of our first course selections were phoned-in, at best. Eggplant bruschetta arrived one skinny slice of toast to an order, topped with an ungenerous puree of nondescript eggplant and a thin slick of goat yogurt. Stuffed meatballs confused, as we could not determine what the three ping-pong balls wading in a lake of red sauce were supposed to be stuffed with—cheese, perhaps? Straightforward by design, the Brooklyn arugula salad tossed with lemon and shaved grana cheese could have been pleasing, if not forced to carry the weight of our other appetizers. In such instance, it was just a plate of greens.