When it first came out, Michael Pollan's Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals was definitely on my radar but was something I chose to actively avoid. I already had a certain level of frustration and paranoia when it came to food industry -- especially the industrial corn engine: high fructose corn syrup has been on my "avoid if possible" list for a while now -- and I figured I'd rather stick to my semi-ignorant partial bliss. Eventually, though, my curiosity won out and I listened to the audio volume of OD on my commute.
It's seriously one of the most frustrating/educational/shattering/enlightening things I've done to myself in a long while. I highly recommend it, though it always comes with a warning. It's either going to piss you off, make want to throw your hands up, or make you figure "Fuck it! that's too much to care about!" Or all three. Or more.
Then I immediately moved on to Pollan's In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto, which is basically his answer to all of the people who read OD and wrote him to ask "Well, WTF can I eat and where the hell can I find it?!?" to which he replies with his zen koan of a "manifesto":
Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.
It's a bit trickier than it sounds, believe me. In particular, when he says "food" he means real food, not engineered and manufactured "food products". He does go on to lay down some more specific - but still simple - definitions and rules that all make perfect sense, but have almost nothing to do with the average Western (more specifically, American) diet these days. I'm happy, though, to hear our new president is at least aware of Pollan's open letter about the state of food in the Union.
These two books have made quite an impact on me, obviously. Thanks to Michael Pollan, I am now researching things like local farmers markets, CSAs, polyculture farming, "slow" food, grass-finished beef, pastured poultry and eggs, and on and on and on. And this stuff doesn't come cheap. Pollan notes that himself, but he also points out that the percentage of income spent on food in the US is almost ridiculously low compared to other countries with healthier-seeming diets/lifestyles, so maybe it's worth it.
It also tends to balance out a bit if you actually cook for yourself, which this shift to whole and real foods has definitely inspired me to do.
That said, I certainly haven't stopped dining out. I have, however, become a bit more discerning in where I take my lovely wife for a meal. Now I look for establishments that do their best to use local and natural ingredients. Luckily, many of these places also make some kick-ass food. I talk about three examples in particular after the jump:
Park Kitchen, Portland, OR
This place was the absolute highlight of our trip to Portlandd. This is saying something fairly significant, because we totally fell in love with that place.
The first time we ate there, we stopped in on our way to see Gogol Bordello in concert at the Roseland Theater. Since we had plans, we went with cocktails and a trio of Park Kitchen's "small plates". The Wife had a martini variation called the Beekeeper, which is knock-your-socks-off delicious and I had a "Summer Sazerac", which was made with herbsaint rather than the traditional absinthe and was quite tasty (though not my favorite Sazerac, see below). The pseudo-tapas consisted of all cold plates: flank steak with bleu cheese and parsley, gin soused tomatoes and cucumbers, and marinated mussels with corn and lobster mushrooms. We finished the night with a corn cannoli desert that featured the most amazing spiced caramel that had such a fantastic sweet and salty combination we couldn't get over it.
We loved the place so much, that we had our wonderful and crush-worthy server, Jenny, make us reservations for the next night, mentioning that it was out wedding anniversary and requesting a corner booth for proper cuddling action.
The next night we came in to the feeling that folks were expecting us and word of our celebration had spread. Jenny came out to welcome us with small glasses of cava and to let us know she was working a private party but would be checking in on us through the night. Our waither for the night, Jack, gave us the best advice of the night when he responded to my "So, what's the story with teh tasting menu?" with a solid "All I can tell you is, do it." And so we did. More cocktails and more beyond excellent food, including rabbit and fried green beans and bacon (by which I mean there were thick strips of bacon that were battered and fired!). Absolutely wonderful. Made even more so by the company of Shane (who, it turns out, concocted the aforementioned Beekeeper, and his father at the table next to us.
We cannot recommend Park Kitchen enough.
SoBo American Bistro, Boulder, CO
My bosses (and good friends, happily) love this place, and so do I. SoBo is the home of the best Sazerac and the best Old Fashioned I've ever had -- all of which are apparently inspired by a book called The Art of the Bar. They also crank out some mighty fine food. I had a parpadelle with chicken meatballs that seriously tasted like pork sausage. It was so incredible that I sent our care-taker, Eileen back to the kitchen to find out how they did it. The answer: pork fat! ;) After that, Eileen sent us home with some cherry-vanilla bitters that she had made herself. Can't beat that with a stick.
I've been to SoBo several times, and I've encounter an item here or there that hasn't knocked me out, but I've never had a real failure there. I think this just comes from exploring more of the menu -- You're bound to find something that isn't up your alley eventually.
SoBo is great people and fantastic food. I also love that it's the best thing going in South Boulder.
The Kitchen Cafe, Boulder, CO
We just experienced The Kitchen for the first time last Saturday before we saw Henry Rollins in Boulder. I've known about it for quite some time now, but have never gone because until recently I've had an aversion for both Pearl Street and restaurants that require reservations be made days in advance. In the case of The Kitchen, it's well worth working through those aversions.
This time out, I started with a Talisker, an Islay single malt, neat while The Wife had a fruity grapefruit/lychee gin drink that was really delicious. For the first course we shared the roasted bone marrow. This was the first time trying bone marrow for both of us, and wow! Our server called it "like the best butter ever", but I'll stand by The Wife's "Colorado lobster" analogy. Our main courses were an incredible hanger steak with root vegetables for her and a pair of small but succulent lamb rump chops for me. To compliment the meat we took advantage of the wine prix fixe deal, having a full glass of a Loring pinot noir from Oregon first and and then switching to a half glass of Catena, an Argentinian malbec, to finish with a bolder note.
This place approaches the (probably unreasonable and unattainable) standard set by Park Kitchen in our minds. Well worth planning ahead for the experience.