Food and Memories in Paris

I remember a lot of food from our first trip to Paris in 2009, but I don’t remember anything as vividly as our dinner at A La Biche au Bois.  I remember eating at Le Timbre and having a delicious mushroom soup, but nothing else about the experience.  I remember eating our first escargot, but not where. I remember strolling through an outdoor market and getting baguette and my first taste of real goat cheese and falling in love. 

But when it comes to A La Biche au Bois, I remember sitting at the end of a longish booth; I remember how deeply flavored the coq au vin was; I remember the beat-up orange pots the coq au vin was delivered in; I remember the incredible cheese course; I remember the people sitting next to us giving us half their mashed potatoes because they were so good we couldn’t miss out on them—and they were; I remember being incredibly full but my girlfriend at the time, LeeAnne, forcing herself to finish the chocolate mousse because it was that good; I remember she couldn’t button her coat after dinner; I remember getting crepes on the way back to our hotel anyway.

I’ve been thinking about A La Biche au Bois and their coq au vin for 11 years now.

Over the summer, when my sister and some friends and I went to follow the Tour de France, I extended our trip by a day in order to be in Paris on a night they were open and finally go back to Biche au Bois.  We were arriving for our trip on July 20; I called for a reservation a few weeks in advance to find they, like much of the city, would be starting to take a month-long sabbatical starting—you guessed it—the day we arrived.  I think the lady on the phone could sense my disappointment, as she offered to let me join them on their holiday.

Champagne to start the evening in celebration

Luckily for my now-girlfriend Kaitie and I, our friend Nina moved to Paris in January to study, and we could justify a trip with a free place to stay.  I usually don’t go back to a place twice, let along three times—and especially less than a year after the previous visit—but the stars were aligning for us to justify the trip. I made a reservation for Friday the 14th, Valentine’s Day, remembering LeeAnne and I had first been to Paris thanks to a long Valentine’s weekend flight-and-hotel deal. I don’t remember which day we went to Biche au Bois, but my return could very well be 11 years to the day from the first time I was there.

As we made our way to the metro from Nina’s apartment, my excitement turned slightly to nerves.  2009 was a long time ago, and I knew nowhere near as much about food as I do now.  What if I had completely misjudged the food, and it really wasn’t that good? I had suggested the restaurant to Nina when she had visited Paris in 2017, so in addition to talking up the meal to myself for 11 years, I had been talking it up to her for almost three.  I had been talking it up to Kaitie for, I’m sure, as long as I’d known her.  What if I was giving up a quick, easy answer to any future “what would be your last meal” hypotheticals?

We walked in and, despite appearing smaller that I remembered, nothing had changed.  Coat rack immediately on the left, long booth where I had sat the first time on the right. We were seated in the very front of the restaurant at the window, and chatted up by the host/owner who had chatted us up 11 years ago.  I had worried that they might have a special menu for Valentine’s Day, because why not once again destroy my dreams of eating here, but they only had a few additions.  We looked over the menu and decided to start our celebration of my triumphant return with some champagne, and Nina ordered us a bottle of wine as well.

I can’t quite remember what we started with in 2009—nothing I’ve eaten before that first coq au vin matters anymore—but I will remember our first course from this year.  Kaitie ordered a ravioli salad, which came with a poached egg perched atop and covered in pickled red onion.  I had a special of the day, which was two poached eggs in a mushroom sauce—a deep, earthy, umami dressing that gave off the pure taste of mushrooms; and once the perfectly-poached eggs were broken and the yolk mixed with the sauce, we couldn’t get to the baguette on our table fast enough.  I think we went through a second round of baguette for Nina’s order of escargot, which weren’t only hiding in shells filled with perfect buttery parsley sauce, but were also sitting in pools of it.  We knew a lot was coming and we shouldn’t fill up on bread, but the food in France makes that an exceptionally difficult principle to stick to.

Next, the main course. On the strength of my recommendation and years of guarantees, we all ordered the coq au vin.  The pieces of chicken, cooked tender and floating in the dark sauce with potatoes, came out in the same battered and chipped orange pots I remembered.  And that’s not where the memories stopped—as I spooned a portion of chicken, potatoes, and sauce onto my plate, the smell was immediately familiar, despite not having smelled it in over ten years (and only having attempted to make it at home twice).

I am also happy to confirm the coq au vin at Biche au Bois will remain my last meal candidate.  The chicken fell off the bone, the potatoes were creamy, bits of bacon and mushrooms were a pleasant surprise when they came up, and I couldn’t get enough of the thick, meaty sauce.  When we ran out of baguette (our third serving, I believe), I resorted to spooning sauce from the pot directly to my mouth. It was thick enough that the spoon left a line in the bottom of the pot before it slowly filled in. I could not have been happier.

After we had finished with the coq au vin, we were presented with the cheese course: a large plate of cheese that you can take as much or as little from as you desire.  How much better could life be at this moment, transitioning from one of the best dishes I’ve ever eaten to the promise of, should I so choose, unlimited cheese? While Nina and Kaitie were a little more discerning with their selection in order to save room for dessert, I asked for a piece of each cheese on the plate. And ate them with more baguette.

Finally, on to dessert. We had to decide which we were each getting, and briefly considered some sorbet to cleanse our palates, but then gave up on that idea. Nina ended up ordering the daily special apple tarte, and I went with the house opera cake.  We had looked up opera cake to see that it was a cake of layered almond sponge cake soaked in coffee syrup and layered with ganache and coffee buttercream, which sounds incredible. The Biche au Bois version, however, was more along the lines of a traditional chocolate cake, though gooey in the middle, and sitting on a pool of crème anglaise. As a non-chocolate person, it was a little too chocolatey for me, which is a surprise, because I had convinced Kaitie to order the chocolate mousse with Grand Marnier, and I couldn’t stop eating it. The slight orange flavor countered the deep chocolate flavor, as did the fact that the mousse was so light and fluffy it was like eating a chocolate-flavored cloud. As someone who has hated chocolate his entire life, I was as surprised as anyone to not be able to stop eating this.

In addition to the food being just as good as I remembered—and in some (chocolate) cases, even better—the price hasn’t changed much either.  Even with the glasses of champagne, a bottle of wine, and the extra supplement for the escargot, the entire meal for three ran us about €150. This was as reasonable a price for the quality food we got as I’ve ever had.

I know I can eat at the upper boundaries of gastronomy in France, and especially Paris; the French, afterall, practically invented cooking.  But it is this kind of food—the homey, slow-cooked dishes that are somehow comfort food even though they have no ties to your childhood. Coq au vin, boeuf bourguignon, onion soup—these are what I crave in Paris.  This is what I go there for.  And these are the memories I will always keep of Paris, no matter how long it takes me to get back.

La Panarda, or How To Give Up On All Your New Years Resolutions at Once

As we arrive in the Le Virtù dining room, there is a saying written on one of the chalkboards: “Three are the powerful: the pope, the king, and he who doesn’t give a damn.” RayRay and I are feeling decidedly in the third category as we take our seats for our third La Panarda in three years. La Panarda, the 40-course, eight-hour meal, is as much a test of intestinal fortitude as you’ll find anywhere. But this isn’t the reason RayRay and I aren’t giving a damn; it’s just creeping on noon, we’re staring eight hours of unlimited wine in the face, and, idiots that we are, we’ve already had two beers.

We take our usual seats (we arrived an hour before the meal started to get the same seats we’ve sat in the last two years). We happen to be sitting with two of the same people from last year, so the same rules apply: pictures come first, and we cheers with every new wine.

The event starts off much the same as it has in the past: Le Virtù owner Francis Cratil Cretarola makes a quick speech, Sean from Artisan’s Cellar briefly explains the wine, and we are treated to some music from the zampogna, or Italian bagpipes. Throughout the fanfare, we’ve got our first glass of Cantina Frentana Cococciola Spumante, and the food begins to make its way out.

We begin similar to last year with a torta rustica, though we all agree that, from what we could remember, this year’s seems creamier. We also have crostini assortiti made with Abruzzese ricotta passita, mushroom, and cannellini. Finally, we’re treated to the olive all’Ascolana, which are stuffed with veal and beef and fried. With the olives, we already break our initial promise to try one taste of everything. They’re too delightfully salty (and too small, we tell ourselves) to eat only one.

For the next bit, we’re served a trio of raw fish dishes, starting with oysters with mignonette. Following the oysters is a tuna crudo with apple and fennel, which also demands multiple tastes, and scallop crudo with citrus. While raw scallop may have a texture most people don’t value, the salty taste of sea and the sweet citrus really make the dish pop. The tuna’s texture with the crunch of the apple is probably more palatable to most, however, and the flavor pops just as much.

Our next grouping leads with beef carpaccio with pecorino and salsa picante, burrata with brussels sprouts and anchovy, and sardines in salsa verde. As much as I eat, I’m never sure the proper way to eat a sardine, but the consensus at the table is to eat them whole – including the head. This isn’t a problem, and the fishy taste with the salsa is better than I thought it would be; there is a slight crunch from the bones. The real standout, however, is the burrata. Anything with fried brussels sprouts is a winner, and the fish complements the cheese perfectly.

To round out this section, we get our first non-family-style dish with the scrippelle ‘mbusse, a delicate crepe filled with cheese and floating in a light but heady broth.

Bringing the first third of the menu to an end is an Abruzzese tribute to Philadelphia by way of a smoked lamb hoagie with a stuffed pepper. After the hoagie is a hot cast iron tray of fried potatoes and scamorza, a cow’s milk cheese reminiscent of mozzarella.

After these dishes, we take our first break to stretch our legs, and everyone outside on the patio can’t stop talking about how good the lamb hoagie is. Basically made with lamb prosciutto, a red pepper-like spread gives the sandwich a nice zing and the oily, vinegary stuffed pepper plays perfectly beside it. Most people we talk to agree it is the best dish so far, and it should be added to the menu.

We come back in after our break, refreshed and rejuvenated by the slight chill in the air, which is by no means cold (especially for late January). We’re eased back into the meal with pizz’ e foje, a salad of cornbread over stewed mixed greens. The cornbread is a bit dry for my taste, but the next two dishes have plenty of sauce to fix that. First is a dish of shellfish with ‘nduja sausage, though a lot of the clams didn’t open, and prawns with garlic, peperoncino, and lemon. The prawns have a nice bit of heat to them, and as always sucking on the head is immensely enjoyable.

Next is a selection of charcuterie, beginning with sopressata (supersod for any South Philly Italians out there) with vegetable agrodolce, followed by capocollo (gabbagool) with eggplant oreganata, and finally chilled porchetta with roasted peppers. And while the meat is good, it’s surprising how tasty the accoutrement are – especially the lightly picked vegetables with the sopressata: tangy, but not overly so. This does not apply, however, to the porchetta, which itself has a slight vinegar essence to it, and is thin enough that multiple pieces aren’t out of the question.

Moving along, we’re gifted polpette all’Abruzzese, delicious little meatballs of which we don’t leave any leftovers. We are also brought sweet potatoes with golden raisins and pine nuts, which are better than any sweet potatoes have the right to be. Pine nuts add great flavor, but the raisins (which I usually don’t prefer in my savory dishes), brighten the salad and give it an extra dimension. Finally, we have a pure di fava with chicory, which may be the first time I’ve ever had chicory – at least as a main part of a dish.

For the last section of part two of the menu, we begin with mushrooms sott’olio, which is simply a variety of roasted mushrooms in oil. Simple, woodsy, and bursting with a variety of umami mushroom flavors. We’re also given a bowl of arrositicini, or lamb skewers. Rounding us out is a personal-size bowl of sausage and lentils, which sounds like it is going to be a stomach bomb but is surprisingly light in its heartiness.

We take our second break at this point, and are greeted on the patio with a small fire and glasses of warm, mulled wine. This year may be the chilliest Panarda I’ve been to, even though the temperature is still in the mid- to high-40s. While I wouldn’t say we needed coats, the warm mulled wine keeps it that way.

We return from our break warmed with wine and heartened to be more than halfway through the meal, though the tough part looms: the pasta courses. They are upon us quickly, beginning with one of the restaurant’s specialties, maccheroni alla mugnaia with aglio, olio, and peperoncino. The pasta is a single-strand that can reach up to six feet long, and is wonderfully al dente. It seems if I’ve learned anything from Le Virtù, it’s that I want my pasta to be toothsome.

The other pastas include sagne e ceci, a rhomboid, flat pasta in tomato sauce with chickpeas, anellini with pistachio pesto, and orecchiette with spicy sausage and rabe. While they are all excellent, a grab a few more rings of the anellini before they’re gone, even though I know there is more pasta, and it’s the pasta last year that almost pushed me over the edge. I stay strong.

And then: more pasta. First, Chef Menapace joins us in the dining room to show off the full timballo alla pescolana, which we had a version of last year and we are all looking forward to. In addition to the timballo, we have tagliatelle with boar ragu and chitarra with lamb ragu. In hindsight, with the lack of large portions of meat this year, it almost seems like they are doubling up the meat and pasta dishes. This is fine with me, and my stomach.

Following the pasta is another break, and then lighter fare in the form of fish. A whole porgy with acqua pazza (the broth used to poach it), which we peel back the skin and dig in to. There is also a dish of meaty monkfish with potatoes and olives. Potatoes aren’t particularly appreciated at this point, but the saltiness of the olives help with the heaviness. Finally, as more of a side dish, are long hots – however, the one I take a bite of is more hot than anything. It may be the hottest long hot I’ve ever had, and the gentleman across from me agrees. We need a glass of milk – not the best idea this late in the evening – to counteract the heat.

Finally, we come to the final savory courses of the evening. The first out are a favorite from last year, the pork ribs agrodolce, which remain a favorite this year. We know the end is near, so we each take two ribs: we still have room, and the sweetness and flavor is worth the indulgence. If we were offered another plate, we would take it. Along with the ribs are roasted lamb with polenta and broccoli rabe. As good as the lamb is – and it is good – it pales in comparison to the ribs.

Before desert, we all take another break. Night has firmly set it, even though we are moving along quickly. Music plays throughout the restaurant, and every once in a while the band will come into the main dining room to play for us. Whether or not we know the words (and they’re mostly in Italian, so we don’t), after six-plus hours of drinking, everyone is singing along.

We come back in to a refreshing sorbetto, followed by some house-made digestivi. The digestif flavors include fennel, watermelon and pepper, and two others that it’s far too late to process. The watermelon was the best. We are also served a board of Abruzzese unpasturized formaggio with honey, preserves, and fruit, as well as dolci assortiti, and assorted dessert board. I am excited to see the return of cannoli, as our first Panarda had the best cannoli I’ve ever had. The board also has a favorite of RayRay’s, the olive oil dome cakes covered in chocolate.

We have a round of limoncello to finish the evening, and some of us stick around to enjoy the company, listen to more music, and chat with the owners. The meal has been wonderful, but the food is only part of it. To be able to want to spend an entire day at a restaurant, no matter how good the food is, speaks more to the company than anything else. And not only the fellow diners: Francis, Cathy, Freddie, Chef Menapace, and everyone else busting their asses to put together a massive meal and convivial atmosphere should be incredibly proud of what they are able to accomplish every year.

I used to look forward to Thanksgiving above all other meals throughout the year, but now Thanksgiving is just a training ground. It’s spending hours with people I enjoy and food I love in order to train for the same thing, only longer, bigger, and better. And you’ve got to love anything better than Thanksgiving.

Chef Menapace celebrates the end of Panarda with his crew.

8 Favo(u)rite Places to Eat in Halifax

As I’ve mentioned before, Halifax is indeed one of my favorite cities in all of North America.  I don’t know if it’s the idyllic weather, the excellent waterfront, or the fact that despite continuously growing it still retains a small-town walkability, but I always love going there.  And one of the thing that keeps me going back is the food—of which Halifax has plenty.  The scene there is always growing, and it will keep you satisfied from early morning to, well, early morning, if you want to stay up that late. So whatever time of day you’re out and get a craving for some food, here is a list of my favorite places to give in to that craving.

Stillwell

I’ve mentioned Stillwell before in our beer roundup, but—surprise!—it also has great food.  You should start, without question, with the Okonomiyaki fries: a pile of fries with kewpie mayo, okonomiyaki sauce, sriracha, nori, katsuobushi, and sesame seeds.  The southern-fried chicken sandwich and General Tso’s squash, if on the menu, are also worth trying out.  As is anything they list, because I’ve never had a bad dish there. 1672 Barrington Street

Studio East

I’m a sucker for Asian-inspired anything, and Studio East is no different.  The quirky space has some great good and a solid drinks list, which makes it the perfect spot for a nice dinner out.  Start with the fried cauliflower and brussels sprouts topped with parmesan, and then move on to the Ultimate Pork Ramen Bowl. The bowl includes braised pork belly, char siu BBQ pork, crisp pork cheeks, marinated egg, cabbage, sprouts, cilantro, and Chinese fried donut swimming in house broth.  It could have used about twice as much broth as it came with, but it was still worth buying. 6021 Cunard Street

EDNA

Breakfast steak sandwich

EDNA is a top spot for brunch and should not be missed on a sunny weekend morning.  They have a nice mix of standards and more inventive items, whether you’re talking about their cocktails or their food.  We tried one of their specials—a steak sandwich with breakfast potatoes, but also peeped their hummus and eggs, Scotch egg, and breakfast burger, which looks incredibly good despite Canada’s ridiculous laws about cooking burgers.  While we only stopped in for brunch, on the strength of that meal I would go back for dinner without question. 2053 Gottingen Street

Stubborn Goat

Chicken & waffle tacos

Stubborn Goat is another great brunch spot, and in the heart of downtown.  What would make it an even better brunch spot would be if their chicken and waffles had a full-time spot on the menu; the waffles were thing and served as taco shells for the chicken, corn salsa, bacon, and chipotle cream.  One of my favorite dishes put into taco form? Why would you serve anything else?  But they do serve other food—and quite a bit of it.  This spot should not be missed as a hangover cure, or hangover jumpstarter. 1579 Grafton Street

Pizza Corner

No food rundown of Halifax would be complete without a mention of the junction of Blowers and Grafton, known as the infamous Pizza Corner.  Often crowded in the wee hours of the morning on weekends, the spot is home to—you guessed it—some cheap pizza, as well as other great drunk food like donairs at Johnny K’s and the best newfie fries in Halifax at Willy’s.  Regardless of what else I do while I’m in Halifax, Willy’s is a must-stop for me: their poutine portions are robust and their gravy is perfect.  Add on some turkey stuffing and you’ve got the perfect late-night (or early morning, or any time) snack.  Supplement it with a donair (and, of course, donair sauce) across the street. Blowers and Grafton Streets

Bicycle Thief

Bicycle Thief is your stop for a nicer meal, as well as a meal closer to the beautiful waterfront. It will probably require a bit more forethought than the other spots on the list and you should get a reservation, but a nice night out in Halifax should include this restaurant. They’ve got quite an extensive menu, full of everything you would hope for from your general Italian playbook.  Their fall-of-the-bone short rib was a standout, as were the tuna tartare, mussels, and varieties of seafood pasta. 1475 Lower Water Street

2 Doors Down

Smokehouse burger

With 2 Doors Down and, right across the hall, 2 Door Down Bar + Bites, you can’t go wrong stopping in either one, since one or the other has the propensity to be crowded on a weekend night. Their starters and small plates are tops (I couldn’t resist their chili cheese fries, and the haddock tacos are knock-outs), and even their burgers are good—especially the smokehouse with gouda, bacon, bbq sauce, onion jam, and chipotle aioli. And if you ask nicely, they may even take the burger off the grill a few second before it becomes completely well done. 1533 Barrington Street

John’s Lunch

Best fish and chips (and gravy) in Halifax

Okay, so John’s Lunch isn’t necessarily in Halifax but across the harbor in Dartmouth. However, it is well worth renting a car or taking whatever transportation is available in order to get there.  I’m a sucker for fish and chips, and this is the best I’ve ever had.  I mean, it’s a lunch counter that’s been specializing in fish and chips for the last 50 years, so they know what they’re doing.  You can get a few other items on the menu, but the fish and chips is where it’s at.  You should also order a side of gravy for the fries, because trust me.  Let’s just say it’s a good thing the gravy comes in a little cup, because you’re going to want to drink every last drop. 352 Pleasant Street, Dartmouth, NS

Six Places to Eat in Montreal

One of the great drawbacks—if you can call it that—of trying to see as much of the world as possible is that it doesn’t leave a lot of time for re-visiting any favorites:  I’m dying to go back to Vietnam; I want to give the Inca Trail another shot now that I’m a little more in shape; I want to eat more of Montreal. It’s also for this reason I try to make the most of a place when I am there, and I think in my limited time I’ve eaten pretty well in Montreal. This is just a small collection of a few standard places in the city, but no trip would be complete without at least trying some of these.

St. Viateur Bagel

Regardless of where you fall on the New York vs Montreal bagel argument, Montreal bagels are damned good and should not be missed.  There are plenty of popular places, but St. Viateur is one of the most popular—they even have a 24-hour storefront in case you need an everything bagel at 3am.  Be prepared for a line if you go on the weekend, but don’t skip it just because there’s a line.  Any wait is worth your time. 263 Rue Saint Viateur O, Montréal, QC H2V 1Y1, Canada

Schwatz’s Deli

Another stalwart of Montreal cuisine, this one serving up the ubiquitous Montreal smoked meat sandwich.  Not quite pastrami but just as good, the generality of “smoked meat” may be off-putting, but a trip to Montreal without having some is no trip to Montreal.  Schwartz’s another cramped little spot you will have to wait in a line for, but once again it is worth every second.  Sit down, have some pickles, and stuff your face with layers of supple smoked meat. 3895 St Laurent Blvd, Montreal, QC H2W 1X9, Canada

La Banquise

If there is such thing as a perfect food, it may be poutine.  Quality French fries, delicious hunks of partially-melted squeaky cheese curds, and a special gravy all on one dish—I don’t know how you can go wrong.  And if you go to La Banquise, a 24-hour spot offering dozens of varieties of poutine, you absolutely can’t.  And while I can be somewhat of a poutine purist (I mean, what else could you possibly need), some of the combinations here are way too good to pass up. 994 Rue Rachel E, Montréal, QC H2J 2J3, Canada

Dieu du Ciel!

While this isn’t necessarily a food establishment, Dieu du Ciel! is one of Montreal’s best breweries.  As far as stouts go, Peche Mortel is a flagbearer of the style. The brewery has plenty of other great beers, though, and stopping in for as many as you can taste is highly recommended. The sample sizes make it easy to try a bunch, and should be taken advantage of. They do have food, though, in case you happen to take advantage of too many.

Au Pied de Cochon

If you have a problem with foie gras, do not eat here.  Au Pied de Cochon is a shrine to not only foie, but indulgence in general, as memorialized in the early Quebec episode of No Reservations. And while we didn’t eat the sheer amount of food Bourdain did, I still couldn’t get to sleep for hours after eating here due to the richness of the food.  We started with foie gras croquettes, followed by chicken nuggets with foie gras and a warm maple syrup dipping sauce.  I of course had to get the foie gras poutine, and then the special of that night: a pizza topped with arugula, cured ham from the Au Pied du Cochon sugar shack, house-made ricotta, black truffle, foie gras, and drizzled with maple syrup. And then add some maple bread pudding for dessert. Holy shit, what a decadent meal. Thankfully it was within walking distance of our AirBNB, because I needed some exercise afterwards. 536 Avenue Duluth E, Montréal, QC H2L 1A9, Canada

Joe Beef

Consistently ranked one of Canada’s best restaurants, it’s not hard to see why.  Joe Beef is tiny, but they pack a huge punch.  As LeeAnne said afterwards, “It’s been a long time since food has been so good I’ve burst out laughing.” You can’t go wrong here with their extensive chalkboard menu, and I would suggest doing what we did—we told our server that we just wanted six or seven courses of their best shit (those words exactly) and her eyes lit up.  My one requirement from the menu was the terrine as pot au pho, a terrine with pho spices topped with thinly-sliced tendon and herbs—it was incredible.  Also topping the list was was off-menu “pancake sandwich” of two fluffy pancakes with a fried egg, foie gras, maple syrup, and hollandaise. Despite how much I loved the over-the-topness of Pied de Cochon, Joe Beef was not only the best meal we had in Montreal, but the best we’ve had in all of Canada. 2491 Notre-Dame St W, Montreal, QC H3J 1N6, Canada

Montreal has a lot of great things to do—and if you’re a hockey fan, taking in a game at the Bell Centre should not be missed—but as a food town it ranks as highly as anywhere I’ve been. With its French influence and chefs that don’t hold back, though, be prepared to indulge. 

7 Places to Eat in Budapest

In between trying out as many Easter markets as we could, we fit in a surprising number of restaurants on our recent trip to Budapest.  And I could have eaten at many more—at the time my great-grandfather was born in Slovakia, it was the Austro-Hungarian Empire, so the food very closely mimics much of what I have been eating my entire life.  Especially the stuffed cabbage, which is a family favorite and something I tried at every opportunity in Budapest.  Among many, many other things.

1. Paprika Vendéglő

Being a short walk from Keleti, the main train station in Budapest, Paprika makes for a great first or last stop in the city. The corner restaurant doesn’t look like much from the outside, but inside is fashioned to look like an old country home, with cozy traditional Hungarian food to match.  This was our final meal in Budapest, so I’d already tried most of the local food and, with a train ride to Bratislava on the horizon, didn’t want to overdo it, so I only tried to goulash over spaetzel, which was delicious.  The place was packed, so be prepared to either wait or go during off-hours.  Dozsa Gyoergy ut 72, Budapest 1071

vendeglo

2. Belvárosi Disznótoros

This one was care of Anthony Bourdain, and with a name that translates to “Downtown Pig Slaughter,” it’s not hard to see why.  One half of the counter is food that is ready to go and be plated up right away, the other half is a selection of marinated meats that they will cook to order—though you have to order from each counter separately, which can be confusing.  We stuck with the ready-to-go food and ate upstairs (where it was hard to find a seat), feasting on a pile of red cabbage, mashed potatoes, sausage, pickles, and a healthy schmear of mustard.  I opted for blood sausage, which was delicious, though like all Eastern European food, the meal was extremely heavy.  Be ready to nap afterwards. Király ut 1d, Budapest 1075

disznotoros

3. Szimpla Kert

Budapest is known for its “ruin bars”—cheap drink spots that pop up in old, rundown spaces—and Szimpla Kert is the original and most well-known of them.  Tucked into the Jewish Quarter, the spot offers plenty of options for cheap beer and a relaxed place to hang out for a night.  There are food options (as well as a weekly farmer’s market), but the real draw here is the drinking.  Swing by with some friends—or to make some friends—before or after your meal. Kazinczy ut 14, Budapest 1075

kert

4. Hungarikum Bisztró

Another restaurant offering traditional Hungarian food in a quaint checkered-tablecloth setting, Hungarikum Bisztró was still well worth stopping by.  It felt almost as if we were eating in someone’s home.  I, of course, had the stuffed cabbage (and immediately fell in love with the Hungarians’ propensity for topping everything with incredible amounts of fresh sour cream), which turned out to be the best stuffed cabbage I’ve ever had.  We also tried the Hungarian spaetzel and sausage, braided pork loin with spaetzel and paprika sauce, and our first sample of langós—fried bread with various toppings—that had me searching it out at every opportunity afterwards.  Whether it’s because we had just come from a long wine tasting or because it really was that good, this was one of the best meals we had our entire time in Budapest. Steindl Imre ut 13, Budapest 1051

hungarikum

5. Faust Wine Cellar

Located below the Hilton in the Buda Castle District, the stairs to this small wine cave lead through the remnants of a 13 century Dominican Cloister.  The atmosphere could not be better or more relaxed as one of the proprietors, Gabor, pours you Hungarian wine and explains the varietal and where you can find the region on a map.  I would strongly recommend going for the full tasting of 9 wines (which comes with water and small snacks), which also has the final option of a “call back” so you can re-taste your favorite.  Needless to say, these were all new wines to me and I learned quite a bit (and reinforced my love for the Hungarian sweet wine Tokaji). There are very few tables, so I would strongly recommend booking in advance, which you can do for 2pm or 5pm.  The 5pm booking is especially nice when you leave and walk out into the castle district at dusk, slightly buzzed, and take in the lighted beauty of the area. Hess András tér 1, Budapest 1014

faust

6. Café Ruszwurm

Also in the Buda Castle District, this small pastry shop seems to always be packed, so be ready to hang around and vulture a seat when someone gets up.  The wait is worth it, though, for some solid coffee and amazing pastry—especially Ruszwurm‘s cream cake.  The cream cake is a cooked egg cream mixed with vanilla and then cooled and mixed with whipped cream, making it one of the fluffiest, most delicious cakes I’ve ever had.  Cake isn’t even an apt description—more like “clouds between phyllo.” This is easily one of my fondest food memories from our trip, and should be considered a must-have.  We also tried the caramel cake, which was layers of caramel custard cream between layers of salty, chocolate sponge cake.  While fantastic, this was overshadowed by the cream cake. Szentháromság ut 7, Budapest 1014

ruszwurm

7. Great Market Hall

If you’re not quite sure what you want, swing by the Great Market Hall, where you’ll be able to get anything that catches your eye.  There are a bunch of touristy stands with knick-knacks and Budapest shirts, but there are also tons of food stalls, selling anything you would imagine a market would sell (and now may be a good time to pick up some paprika).  Upstairs there are some quality food stands, and a lot that feature langós with a variety of toppings to add on.  A great way to get a quick meal and also do some quality browsing and shopping. Vámház krt. 1-3, Budapest 1093

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Decisions, decisions.

Our Favorite Cleveland Eats

It should be obvious that, being one of my favorite places in the world, Cleveland would have some excellent food.  From cafeteria-style Polish food to haute cuisine, there’s a little something for everyone.  Hell, even if you like shitty fast food (and who doesn’t?) there is a wonderful local option.  Be sure to check out some of these spots when you head in to the Best Location in the Nation.

Jonathon Sawyer

While Michael Symon put Cleveland on the culinary map, while he’s off in Hollywood being a celebrity chef, Jonathon Sawyer is holding down the position of best chef in Cleveland.  He has the Greenhouse Tavern on the pedestrian-friendly East 4th Street downtown, where you can order a whole pig’s head (and Symon name-checked their gravy frites on The Best Thing I Ever Ate).  Among his other restaurants is personal favorite Noodlecat, a fast-casual ramen spot that originated in the West Side Market, moved downtown, and has finally (and unfortunately) ended up in the suburb of Westlake. This seems to be poised to be franchised, though, so there may be more in the near future.  The ramen is great, but awesome sides like their grilled ramen and cheese and fried kimchi balls are must-orders.

Michael Symon

Symon does still loom large in the city, with plenty of outposts around town.  Near Noodlecat is his B-Spot (burgers, brats, and beers), which features the Fat Doug—a burger with coleslaw, pastrami, stadium mustard (more on this later) and Swiss cheese, and is well worth the trip to any of the Cleveland suburb locations. There are also some awesome shakes; the vanilla bean apple pie and bacon shake with the added shot of bourbon is just what you need after a stomach-busting burger.  On the aforementioned East 4th Street, you’ll also find Lola Bistro and Mabel’s BBQ, Symon’s “Cleveland-style” barbecue joint.

West Side Market

While the market is packed with butchers, cheese sellers, pierogi makers, and other take away and make at home style places, there are a few great stops for food.  Steve’s Gyros is probably chief among them, and always has a line.  This is a line you’ll want to wait in, and it goes pretty quickly because you can either order a gyro, or a gyro with extra meat—though, after eating the regular one, I’m not sure how extra meat is physically possible.  Though, if you want, you can cut to the front of the line to just buy a bag of pita.  There is also Maha’s Falafil, which has a pretty extensive menu for a small falafel stand, though the falafel is still the best.  I take umbrage with their “Philly” sandwiches, but I can ignore that for their other delicious food.  Finally, don’t pass a stop at Czuchraj Meats, which has all manner of cured meats for you to snack on, chief among them their variety of house-made jerky.  It’s thick, chewy, and slathered with sauce—definitely a requirement if you stop by the market.

Beer

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There is a lot of great beer in Cleveland, and if you’re in Ohio City (where West Side Market is), you’re in a good stop. Directly across from the market are Cleveland’s craft beer kings, Great Lakes Brewing Co. Swing in and get some swag, have some beer, and taste some of their ice cream creations they’ve partnered with local Mitchell’s Homemade Ice Cream to create (like the Edmund Fitzgerald porter chocolate chunk). Right next to the market is Market Garden Brewery, another local favorite with an extensive taplist.  On our last visit, their Nano OG Lager became a quick favorite, and Kaitie fell for their Hella Mango.  Do pop in for some refreshments after a long day of wandering the market.  Also, if you’re downtown, head over to Noble Beast, the open, garage-like brewpub with excellent beer and good food.  It’s a few blocks from the middle of downtown, but a great way to get away from the traffic if the Browns are playing, and a nice stop if you enjoy drinking quality beer.

Mr. Hero

Yes, of all the places on the list, the shitty fast food joint gets its own heading.  This is because everywhere in Cleveland is optional when I visit except Mr. Hero.  And the crazy thing is, I’ve only ever had one item there.  My entire life has been spent either living in the city, the suburbs, or visiting regularly, and the one constant has always been the Mr. Hero Romanburger.  It doesn’t look like much—and my description won’t improve upon that—but I’ll be goddamned if it isn’t one of my favorite sandwiches in the world.  Greyish hamburger patties with fried salami, onions, mayo, cheese, tomato, and lettuce that is wilted and soggy from the sheer amount of grease in the sandwich, it is a fatty, salty overload of joy.  Since I don’t get there as often as I would like, I can usually justify the gut-busting 14” version, but it also comes in 10” and, for the faint of heart, 7”.  Throw on an order of waffle fries with warm cheese sauce, and my trip is complete.

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Greasy, fatty, salty, perfect Romanburger

Odds & Ends

Sokolowski’s University Inn is a Polish cafeteria-style mecca for all your pierogi and stuffed cabbage needs, among other things. Hot Sauce Williams, which has two locations, is the place for barbecue in Cleveland.  Big Al’s Diner is great for breakfast, and their corned beef hash is unrivaled.  If you want to get out of the city a bit Corky and Lenny’s is a great Jewish deli with massive sandwiches and pickles on the table. Finally, if you want to take home some souvenirs, swing by the local Malley’s Chocolates to grab some sweets, or any grocery store to get the famous Bertman’s Original Ballpark Mustard served at Indians games.

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Picking up some Ballpark Mustard…among other things

As you may have noticed, I can go on and on about Cleveland, whether it’s things to do, places to eat, or just dumb facts about the city.  I love it there with my entire being, and am already looking forward to going back—as I always do, just after I leave.

While you’re eating in Cleveland, you might as well check out some things to do.  Here are a few of our favorites.

FEASTIVAL Changes Direction for 9th Year

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Jesse Ito’s dish, the highlight of last year’s event

Feastival has long been one of Philadelphia’s top food events, always gathering the city’s top chefs to raise money for the FringeArts program.  This year’s edition—taking place on Thursday, September 27—is no different, though the concept has changed slightly.  To more fully honor the city of Philadelphia’s extraordinary food scene, chefs will be paired together to represent cuisines from five of Philadelphia’s most iconic neighborhoods.  The pairings were chosen by two of the event’s co-hosts, Michael Solomonov (Zahav) and Nick Elmi (Laurel).

The event, presented by Audi, will as always go beyond the food and offer a night of live art and music to accompany the delicious drinks and dishes. Running from 7-10pm, tickets will set you back $300.  If you’d like to spring for the VIP experience, which gets you into the event an hour early, tickets will cost $450.  Each ticket includes a year-long FringeArts membership (which gets you 30% off all tickets for the season) and benefits the FringeArts program.

If you’re wondering exactly what you’ll get for that money, take a look at the chef pairings and the neighborhood cuisines they’ll be representing:

West Philadelphia

Aaron Bennawit (The Good King Tavern) & Scott Schroeder (Hungry Pigeon)

Eli Collins (a.kitchen) & Adan Trinidad (Sancho Pistola’s)

Nick Elmi (Laurel) & Nick Macri (La Divisa Meats)

Matt Fein (Federal Donuts) & Jon Rodriquez (Mission Taqueria)

Nate Horwitz (Morimoto) & Todd Lean (Pod)

Armando Jimenez (Harp & Crown) & Charlie Schmidt (Philadelphia OIC)

South Philadelphia

Chris Baretta (Continental Midtown) & Abigail Dahan (Parc)

Jezabel Careaga (Jezabel’s) & Clark Gilbert (Louie Louie)

Jason Cichonski (Ela) & Andrew Farley (High Street on Market)

Joncarl Lachman (Noord) & Ben Puchowitz (Bing Bing Dim Sum and Cheu Noodle Bar)

Richard Pepino (Drexel University’s Center for Hospitality) & Michael Yeamans (Audrey Claire)

Seth Petitt (Urban Farmer) & Rakesh Ramola (Indeblue)

Chinatown

Nich Bazik (Kensington Quarters) & Aaron Gottesman (Oyster House)

Camille Cogswell (Zahav) & Manny Perez (Walnut Street Café)

William Kells (Capofitto) & Peter Woolsey (La Peg)

Michael Loughlin (Scarpetta) & Jeremy Nolen (West Reading Motor Club)

Michael Strauss (Mike’s BBQ) & Michael Sultan (Revolution Taco)

Kensington & Fishtown

Kenneth Bush (Bistrot La Minette) & Richard Landau (V Street and Vedge)

Jonathan Cichon (Lacroix) & Ari Miller (Lost Bread Co.)

Christopher Curtin (Eclat Chocolate) & Ari Miller (1732 Meats)

Chris Kearse (Will BYOB) & Joe Thomas Jr. (Bank & Bourbon)

Francisco Ramirez (Tredici and Zavino) & Greg Vernick (Vernick Food & Drink)

Northeast Philadelphia

Kiki Aranita and Chris Vacca (Poi Dog) & Marc Vetri (Vetri Cucina)

Michael Brenfleck (La Calaca Feliz) & Doreen DeMarco (American Sardine Bar)

Rob Cottman (World Cafe Live) & Andrew Wood (Russet)

Jesse Ito (Royal Izakaya) & Townsend Wentz (Townsend, A Mano and Oloroso)

Samuel Kennedy and Matthew Hettlinger (The Farm at Doe Run) & John Patterson (Fork)

I, for one, am excited to see what teams like Poi Dog and Vetri can come up with, as well as how some of these chefs represent my neighborhood of Fishtown. And as I can attest from years past, the event is always worth the price and one of the best food- and drink-related nights of the year.  For more information and to order tickets, you can check out Feastival’s website. While it remains to be seen whether or not this is the most delicious incarnation of Feastival, it will certainly be the most interesting.

Easter Markets in Budapest & Prague

buda-eggFor whatever reason, when we did our Hungary – Slovakia – Prague trip over the week of Easter, it never occurred to me to be excited for the Easter markets.  I had marked the main one in Prague on a map for things to do, and I had the vague notion that the Catholic holidays were a big deal, but I guess when I was looking for places to drink beer and eat great local food, it had totally gone over my head to pay attention to these markets.

So it was with great glee when we happened to walk into an Easter market on our first night in Budapest.  My eyes were immediately drawn to one of the food vendors, and I couldn’t have been more excited—Eastern Europe is well known for its meat-heavy and vegetable-light food, which has never been a problem for me.  Add to that fact that I immediately saw a tray of stuffed cabbage, a food my family makes often and that I had been looking forward to trying in its natural habitat.

buda-food3The markets were pretty evenly split between food vendors and those with trinkets and souvenirs.  I didn’t worry about the latter, because I was there for the former.  We found huge buffets of local food, including full meals, snacks, desserts, and even people who had made their own beer for the occasion.  At the first market, I sat down with a beer and a huge piece of stuffed cabbage atop a potato latke, appropriately slathered with sour cream (which, if you’ve been to Hungary, you’ll know is the only way to eat anything).

The markets also offered local delicacies like langos (fried dough usually topped with sour cream and cheese, but those toppings can expand to include just about anything) and trdelnik, also known as chimney cakes.  The trdelnik quickly became our favorite snack, and involved dough being wrapped around a roller and rolled over hot coals until it was cooked, and then dipped in sugar, with the option to add nuts or Nutella.

buda-langos

The markets were incredibly pleasant—none of them were packed, and between the cool spring weather and the people enjoying themselves, it was a great time to sit outside and enjoy some food or a drink.  Especially the one we got to in Prague’s old town—while it was a bit chilly, the sun was out and the sky was blue; it was an ideal day to hang out.

The food was a tad different at the markets we hit in Prague, with much more focus on what you would consider typical German food – sausages, potato salad, and huge hocks of ham.  The attractions and the market itself was pretty similar, though.  They even had their own trdelnik, though that may have been surpassed snackwise by a ring of potato put on a stick and fried.  It was like a long, homemade potato chip.

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With the two things that I need to enjoy myself—beer and food—the markets delivered.  They made for quality people-watching, and even better eating.  And while both cities may have been a tad more packed with tourists than they normally would be due to the holiday (we were told thousands of people travel to Prague around Easter), I would highly recommend visiting during this time of year, if only for the food.