Barolo is the kind of place you eat at if the architecture of early 90s fine dining appeal to you, but that doesn’t mean the food is any less appealing. Classic Italian with a modern twist. For two weeks a year the entire restaurant shuts down, and the staff travels abroad to Northern Italy to learn what they can about new wines, new techniques, and bring something back to inform their guests and complete the experience of the meal. There once, for my birthday, where an inlaw served us the seven-course dinner that her fiance was prepping in the kitchen. We spent about $100 on a bottle of wine, a handful of cocktails. Who knows how much the food cost.
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Leaving the island 10 lbs heavier than I arrived. Now I will have to consult with all my chef friends about the season/glaze on this fish. The thing about real Mexican food: it's not usually "spicy" in the American sense, but goddamnit if it ain't wonderful all in the same. #fuckyourfoodie #islamujeres
Somewhere on the western coast of Isla Mujeres after a morning spent on a rocky boat taking us on a snorkeling tour, I’m salted and sunburnt and drinking down a sweaty Sol under a restaurant with open windows, a palapa roof, and a woman sitting outside the bathroom charging a peso for soap. The group meal, included with the tour, is served out to us on styrofoam plates and plastic utensils on a folding table with a vinyl cover that has been reconstructed with packing tape a dozen times. The meal, a bit of rice, some slaw, and a healthy serving of grouper with Yucatan seasoning. Even with the abundance of flies and mosquitos, within sight of a shark petting zoo, it is one of those recipes I am still after today. I find it twice more on menus around the island, so it can’t be so uncommon.
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Well damn if that wasn't a fine little dinner. Walking up the throngs of Larimer on a Saturday evening, all the bars packed, tables loaded, crowds bustling with a need for attention and validation. We we're hungry, but not desperate. No sense in chancing a bad experience. And here was Call. A large patio, a handful of bites, a collection of blankets to warm under with the rapidly cooling evening. Planets and moons perched above. Our seat was quiet, though the Saturday night life of the RiNo was easily observable.
We are on Larimer past seven on a Friday night, a dangerous hour for us. We wonder where all the kids – barely drinking age themselves – have come from. They weren’t here two years ago. It was the first nice spring day and everyone is out in shorts and tees but now that the sun is setting and things cool off, it’s time to think of dinner. Dinner, on Larimer Friday night, is a promised wait of a half hour or more. We nearly resign to go home as we cross paths with Call. One of those restaurants with more seating outside than in, an expansive patio dotted with propane heaters and chairs adorned with blankets. Carly and I eat by candlelight. A collection of shared dishes. Pickled this and that, some strange slices of bread, I don’t remember what any of this is called, but it sits well as the sun drops, the temperatures leave, and we wrap a fleece blanket a bit tighter. And it’s empty here. Hundreds of people walk by on the sidewalks from one brewery to the next, lines pour out of the kitchens and off the food trucks that are adjacent. Call, though, doesn’t have the lacking personality these bingers are looking for.
There was a time I didn’t care at all about food or what I ate. The interest is relatively recent. I’m sure my snotty attitude growing up had my mom limiting diets to baked chicken and microwaved frozen vegetables (steamed) over the whitest rice. In college the interest dived down to what was cheap and easy — frozen pizzas and hot pockets, cases of Coca-Cola, fast food was never a second thought. On dates, I was the cheeseburger guy. Every time. Dating, and eventually marrying, a vegetarian changed that up (our first date included a stop-in at a local vegetarian restaurant I had been consciously avoiding). Bourdain entered the equation. Travel shows to exotic places where they ate dishes I wasn’t aware could be considered food. My curiosity piqued.
Making friends with cooks helps. Watching them work and seeing how ridiculously simple the process is has helped. Food isn’t a mystery, cooking isn’t hard (though it can be), and together they may be the last genuinely analog experience we can treat ourselves to.
Assuming analog is something you want to experience anymore.
ANALOG: relating to or using signals or information represented by a continuously variable physical quantity such as spatial position or voltage.
I am confident there is a great deal of science behind the conveyance of flavor. Touching something to the tongue, feeling the texture, the combination of smells to set of a reaction somewhere deep within our brains. It all comes together in an outright sensation of joy and relief (we are fed! And how amazing it is) or dread and terror (sugar where there should have been salt? Rancid?). And how oddly it comes together – the shape of the food, the ingredients, spices, condiments, temperatures of the food and the room, the company you share the table with, the endless conversations that happen with them and the bottle of wine to wash it all down. It is an equation without an exact answer even if we happened to be looking for it.
Yet, it is an experience we know we want and are never entirely sure how to get it. I’ve sat down at white tablecloths and been so spectacularly underwhelmed I had to eat something fried and full of cheese from a late night dive on the way home. I’ve had dishes served to me from across the bar (my preferred seating area) with greens that were maybe fresh two weeks ago and took me another 20 minutes to get enough attention to finally send it back. There are moments where the conversation has stalled out and become uncomfortable because of something on the table.
Food works to deliver flavor, and flavor drives emotions. Analog may not be the antithesis of digital. Analog might serve better defined as the effectiveness to inspire an emotion. A digital copy of your favorite album feels different than seeing it live. The smell of a book will drive something different than the Kindle edition. With food? And flavor? We haven’t yet figured out a way to digitize that.
When we do, we are all going just to feel empty.