When Robert and I travel, we like to get away from it all as much as possible. Cell phones and iPads? We leave those at home. Posh accommodations with nightly turndown service? Not our style! Reliable electricity and hot water? Don’t need it. We know we are in the right place when a flashlight is required to find our room at night. The one thing we can’t live without is access to cold beer and delicious food. Enter La Loma Jungle Lodge & Chocolate Farm.

La Loma is a tiny eco-retreat and chocolate farm located on Bastimentos Island in beautiful Bocas del Toro, Panama. Accessible only by boat, La Loma is a truly remote getaway. There are only four rancho cabins, one nestled into the heart of the jungle and three perched high up in the jungle canopy where the birds and monkeys live. Those last three require a steep climb, but the views from the top are well worth the effort. Each cabin was designed with privacy and an appreciation of the natural surroundings in mind. There are no walls—that would only detract from the view. A sheer mosquito net to sleep under is all you really need. Even the shower is outside!

It is clear that La Loma is a socially responsible operation. Each cabin was built by hand using naturally fallen trees and sustainably harvested lumber. Water is collected via rain catch­ment sys­tems and solar panels provide electricity. You can charge your cell phone, but only on sunny days. They have worked extensively with the indigenous Ngobe people to establish numerous community development projects, with a particular focus on improving the lives of schoolchildren in the area.

Owners Henry and Margaret make you feel welcome the moment you arrive. They have gone out of their way to make La Loma special. During our stay, the hosting and cooking duties were handled by Jak and Brie who are two of the sweetest you could ever meet. La Loma guides Roger, Mr. Kelly and Chapi (whose ability to spot wildlife is unparalleled) happily accompany you on whatever excursions you may choose during your trip. It is a very community-oriented experience. We felt right at home and made fast friends with our hosts and the folks staying in the other cabins (I’m sure the impromptu rum tasting we hosted in our cabin helped with that!).

Despite its remote location, La Loma is a perfect jumping off point for Bocas del Toro’s many activities. We filled our days fishing, snorkeling, hiking, and lounging on the many nearby beaches. The best activity of all was relaxing in a hammock in our cabin, letting the sounds of the surrounding jungle lull us to sleep.

Because you are so isolated, all meals are provided. I normally steer clear of all-inclusive resorts, but La Loma is developing quite a reputation for its food. Much of the food served is grown on the premises, and the focus is on seasonal, sustainable ingredients. As you might expect, considering it is located on a cacao farm, chocolate is featured heavily on the menu.

Your day begins with homemade muffins and a thermos of Panamanian coffee which are discreetly delivered to your cabin early in the morning. When you are finally ready to toss aside the mosquito nets and officially get out of bed, head down to the main lodge for breakfast. It is a casual, self-serve affair, typically consisting of yogurt topped with tropical fruit, homemade coconut granola, and cacao nibs, a rotating selection of freshly-baked bread with guava jam (the johnny cakes were my favorite), and fresh juice and coffee. Someone will usually offer to make you some eggs as well—perfect if you are craving some of the zingy Bocas hot sauce.

Lunches were hearty and delicious. On our first day, we were served homemade tamales which were—somewhat unexpectedly—stuffed with whole, bone-in chicken legs. The tamales were accompanied by a savory beet relish and a beautiful mountain apple salad with hibiscus flowers. If you are planning to be out on an excursion during the day, La Loma will pack a lunch for you. The highlight of a rainy trip to the Zapatillos Islands was sitting down with our fellow travelers to a to-go lunch of white bean falafel, cabbage slaw, homemade tortillas and tahini-coconut sauce. You also get “lunch dessert” which may be spicy ginger cookies one day or guava jam thumbprints the next.

Dinner at La Loma is a bit more elaborate. Served communally in the main lodge, the meal starts with a social cocktail hour allowing guests to get to know each other. After a day of fishing or sunbathing, you may have a serious hankering for a cold beer. You shouldn’t pass up the nightly cocktail, however, which is frequently made using ingredients straight from La Loma’s garden. I really enjoyed the basil gimlet and the noni fruit margarita. Once everyone gets settled, appetizers are served. Fried plantains topped with curried eggplant and chilled cucumber and chayote squash soup with red pepper oil were among my favorites of the trip. Main courses were equally delightful. Our first night, we were treated to a delicious seared tuna and rice bowl with coconut and katuk, a leafy green vegetable that is brand new to me. It tastes like peas. Knowing that we were staying on a chocolate farm, Robert was hoping for mole and he got his wish! He was right to be excited—it didn’t disappoint. The chicken was tender and the mole sauce was complex and not overly sweet (a common problem in Seattle’s Mexican restaurants). It was served with coconut rice and bele leaf, another new vegetable to me.

Unsurprisingly, desserts were predominantly chocolate-based. We celebrated a fellow guest’s birthday with chocolate cake one night. Another night—Top Chef style—we had “chocolate three ways” (two truffles and a demitasse of rummy hot chocolate). Most people preferred the chocolate desserts, but I liked Brie’s “bird of paradise” best. It featured many of the different tropical fruits grown in the garden such as passion fruit, jackfruit and surinam cherries, which are tart and tannic and a bit of an acquired taste. I loved them and immediately starting dreaming up all of the various cocktails I could make with them. Surinam mojito, anyone?

Robert and I rarely talk about returning someplace—the list of places we want to see is just too long. But Robert has already brought up what activities he would do on this next trip to La Loma. If you love great food and beautiful surroundings (and are willing to release your grip on your cell phone for a few days) then La Loma is the perfect getaway.

Robert and I recently got to experience The Willows Inn’s Fish, Forage, and Farm package. Building on the success of their acclaimed restaurant, The Willows has just started offering this all-inclusive, culinary getaway. For two nights, you get to stay in one of their seaside guest houses and learn how The Willows sources the food they serve in their famous restaurant. It is a hands-on adventure devoted to showing guests such things as sustainable farming, how to forage for wild edibles, butchery, and traditional food preservation techniques. As you might expect, you also get to eat plenty of great food prepared by Willows Inn chefs.

Not long after arriving on Lummi Island, we joined our friends who would be sharing the weekend with us. We all hiked down to the beach where we were greeted by Ben and Mike, our expert guides for most of the weekend’s activities. They welcomed us with steaming bowls of clam and seaweed soup that had been warmed over an open campfire. I love anything smoky and/or briny so this soup was right up my alley. To my mind, soups like this are the ultimate comfort food: simple, clean flavors made from stunningly fresh ingredients harvested straight out of the waters in front of us. It doesn’t get much better than that. As we stood around the fire, warming up with our soup and getting acquainted, I knew we were in for a wonderful weekend.

The weekend’s activities were mostly centered around food. But our nature walk with island local, Sharon Grainger, took us beyond food as she told us stories of the island’s rich history. Sharon is a photographer who has worked extensively with the native peoples of the Pacific Northwest. She is a funny, sweet, all-around awesome woman with a great knowledge of the area. As we hiked along the beach, Sharon pointed out some of the island’s amazing geology, shared interesting tales about the local tribes, and provided information about the indigenous flora and fauna. She even showed us which of the many seaweed varieties we were spotting are best to harvest. Although the vibrant green sea lettuce was tasty eaten straight off the rocks, my ears perked up as soon as Sharon mentioned that you could pickle bull kelp. It’s no secret that I love pickles, and I immediately started dreaming about what I could make with kelp pickles. Our nature walk ended back at the guest house where we returned to the world of food by learning how to fillet and can steelhead trout. This was followed by a delicious lunch of cedar-roasted trout with seaweed butter. It was what I would consider an ideal day in the Pacific Northwest

Later that day, Ben gave us a brief demo on how to butcher a venison leg. I doubt I’ll ever need to butcher a leg of any kind, but it was still very interesting seeing it done in-person and having the ability to ask questions. It brings you closer to the food you are about to eat which is the goal of the Fish, Forage, and Farm experience. Once the leg was carved, Ben ground up some of the meat using an antique meat grinder, and it became a “mix your own tartare” dish. Available toppings included dried blackberries, dried chanterelle mushrooms, juniper oil, horseradish and pine salt. We were instructed to grab a helping of venison, garnish it to our liking, and eat it with freshly grilled flatbread. Tartare isn’t something I would normally go for, but the experience was so much fun. I loved the DIY aspect. As nice as it is to sit down for a gourmet meal with friends, I sometimes enjoy standing around and eating casually like this even more.

We ate so much great food over the weekend, it would be impossible to cover it all. Highlights for me included a young kale salad with croutons that had been cleverly fused together with anchovies, beef marrow with razor clams, wilted chard, and Olympia oysters (which I helped shuck!), a mixed grain breakfast porridge with stewed blueberries and–my favorite dish of the trip–simple grilled oysters with brown butter and wild capers. I was a bit leery of oysters before this weekend, but now I’m officially sold. Last but not least, I absolutely fell in love with the fantastic sourdough bread made by Isaac, another member of the Willows Inn team. It has inspired me to try my hand at sourdough bread again.

In fact, I was inspired by many things during our Fish, Forage, and Farm weekend. As much as I love discovering new, unusual ethnic cuisines and ingredients, the food available in my own backyard is pretty hard to beat. Now that I’ve learned how to shuck my own oysters, I’m excited to tackle that at home sometime. And next time we backpack at Toleak Point, I may just whip up an impromptu seaweed salad. The overall experience was unforgettable, and I am so happy to have been able to share it with good friends. Thanks to Ben, Mike, and Isaac for the wonderful food and thanks to Jason for inviting us on this adventure!

Robert and I spent the second part of our vacation in New York City. New York City has a reputation for being home to just about any type of food or cuisine you can imagine. Although DC had a few surprises, most of it was food we had seen before. In New York, we made a point of seeking out unusual ethnic cuisines and classic New York foods. We wanted to find things we knew we wouldn’t be able to get back home in Seattle. 

A visit to New York wouldn’t be complete without sampling some pizza. Though wood oven pizza has recently surged in popularity, if you want classic New York style pizza, you should visit a coal oven pizzeria. There are only a handful of coal oven pizzerias in Manhattan, and most of them are very old. We decided to check out John’s of Bleeker Street, a well-respected pizza joint located in the West Village. John’s has been serving up thin-crust, coal oven pies since 1929. With its well-worn wooden booths and red checkered tablecloths, John’s epitomizes an old-school pizzeria. We split a sausage and green pepper pizza. The toppings were fresh, and the pizza wasn’t overloaded with cheese which we appreciated. The crust–arguably the most important part of any pizza–was crunchy, chewy and slightly smoky. It is a shame that coal ovens are so rare; the subtle difference in flavor was a treat.

Since Seattle doesn’t have any real celebrity chefs, we thought it would be fun to splurge on a dinner at one of Manhattan’s famous restaurants. After a little debate, we finally chose Babbo, Mario Batali’s classic Italian eatery. I’ve always liked Mario’s recipes, and Babbo seemed like a good fit for us–upscale but unpretentious. We started off with an arugula salad and the lamb’s tongue vinaigrette with mushrooms and a poached egg. Lamb’s tongue isn’t something I would normally order, but it was an excellent dish. For our entrees, we tried two pastas: beef cheeks ravioli which was rich & meaty and the rock shrimp & green chili spaghetti which was spicy & briny, if a bit oily. We cleansed our palates with an assortment of gelati (the green apple was amazing!). So, did Babbo live up to the hype? Yes and no. The meal was great, but probably not for the price, especially considering how much other fantastic food we ate elsewhere in New York at a much lower cost.

Have you ever heard of soup dumplings? I hadn’t until I visited New York. Now they are one of my favorite foods. Officially known as Xiao Long Bao–sometimes shortened to XLB’s–these Chinese dumplings are filled with a pork meatball and a savory broth (the “soup”). We went out for soup dumplings twice at Shanghai Café Deluxe, which is widely regarded as having some of the best dumplings in the city. Our waitress could tell we were newbies and graciously showed us how to properly eat the dumplings. You hold the dumpling in a large spoon and nibble a little hole near the top to let the steam escape; then you can either slurp the soup out slowly or wait until it cools and eat the dumpling in one bite. Despite the lesson, I still managed to burn my mouth and spill soup down my shirt. The dumplings were so good, I didn’t even care. At $5 per order, soup dumplings are seriously good cheap eats. Now that I’ve had them, I’m not sure I’ll be able to live without them.

Smoked salmon is ubiquitous in Seattle, but we don’t have great lox and we certainly don’t have a smoked fish emporium like Russ & Daughters. Russ & Daughters has been selling smoked fish delicacies to New York residents since 1914. We headed there early one morning craving the most traditional of all New York breakfasts: bagel and lox. I felt like a kid in a candy store at Russ & Daughters. Smoked sable, pickled herring, chubs, they have it all! For a smoked fish lover like me, the choices were truly overwhelming. The kind gentleman working behind the counter could tell we were tourists, and he patiently walked us through our order. We each opted for plain bagels with cream cheese and their most popular lox: Norwegian Salmon. The lox was unlike any I’d had before. It literally melted in your mouth. The secret is in how they cut it. A perfect cut keeps it from being mushy or chewy. I can’t think of a better way to start the day than with a bagel and lox from Russ & Daughters.

Most Thai restaurants in Seattle feature the same limited menu of overly sweet curries and noodle dishes, completely ignoring all of the amazing regional cuisine that Thailand has to offer. I would love for Seattle to get a really great Thai restaurant that showcases some of Thailand’s less famous dishes and isn’t afraid to use exotic ingredients like fermented shrimp paste. The East Village’s Zabb Elee is a perfect example. Zabb Elee serves Issan cuisine which comes from Northeastern Thailand and borrows heavily from neighboring Laos. Issan dishes tend to be sour, salty and very spicy even by Thai standards. Sugar and coconut milk are used infrequently–you won’t find pad thai or coconut curry on the menu at an Issan restaurant. At Zabb Elee, we ordered one of the green papaya salads (they have seven kinds on the menu!), crispy fried catfish with tamarind sauce, and a side of sticky rice. Everything was good, but I especially loved the green papaya salad. It tasted very fresh and had that perfect balance between salty, sweet, sour and spicy that good Thai dishes strive for (it might have veered a bit heavier toward the spicy, but that’s no problem for me). Portland has Pok Pok, and New York has Zabb Elee–it is time for Seattle to get it’s own standout Thai restaurant.

Something else that is missing in Seattle are Halal carts. Halal carts are everywhere in Manhattan. Originally catering to hungry cab drivers, New York’s Halal carts are now extremely popular with midtown workers, tourists and late night drunks. After working up an appetite fighting the crowds at Moma, we decided to grab lunch from the Famous Halal Guys at 53rd and 6th. We split their combo platter which is comprised of turmeric rice, chopped lettuce, diced grilled chicken, gyro lamb, and pitas. This is generously drizzled with their signature white sauce and a spicy red sauce. The food was oily but delicious! The combination of cooling, tangy white sauce and hot sauce really made this dish for me. There is nothing fancy or complicated about this food. It is comforting, tasty and cheap–exactly what food from a street cart should be. Food trucks are relatively new in Seattle so perhaps it is just a matter of time before we get our first Halal Cart. One can only hope.

After falling in love with the gua bao at Chino’s, I couldn’t pass up an opportunity to try the famous pork belly buns at Momofuku. David Chang, chef and mastermind of the ever expanding Momofuku empire, has been credited with bringing pork belly buns to the forefront. Pork belly buns are showing up everywhere these days, but Chang’s are still rated among the best. We headed out for dinner at Momofuku Ssam Bar, a casual, bustling eatery featuring modern twists on Asian cuisine. Momofuku’s cocktail menu had some interesting choices. I was immediately drawn to the McKenzie Shrub made with rye, cocchi americano, pomegranate, and coconut vinegar. I love any cocktail that contains vinegar. We split an order of the pork belly buns and a seasonal pickle & kimchi platter. The pork buns lived up to the hype without question. They were fatty, salty, rich and delicious. Some restaurants go too light on the meat. Not so at Momofuku. These buns were stuffed with giant slabs of roasted pork belly and adorned simply with cucumbers, scallions and a touch of hoisin sauce. Between the pork belly buns, the unusual pickles, and the intriguing cocktail specials, Momofuku Ssam Bar is my kind of restaurant.

The most exotic food we ate in New York was at Xi’an Famous Foods. Xi’an is an ancient city in central China with its own unique cuisine. Noodles and dumplings dominate Xi’an cuisine. Due to the large Hui community, Muslim food is also common. In some ways, it is a blend of Chinese and Middle Eastern food. Xi’an Famous Foods is most well-known for their exotic lamb face salad. Not a fan of face, I chose a somewhat tamer order of cumin lamb hand-ripped noodles. Cumin isn’t a spice normally associated with Chinese cuisine, and my noodles were indeed strangely reminiscent of Mexican food. The springy, spongy hand-ripped noodles made an ideal base for the spicy, flavorful lamb. Robert ordered the spicy and tingly lamb leg salad. Emphasis on the tingly. This dish contains so much Sichuan peppercorn that it almost has a menthol flavor. If I wasn’t already familiar with the mouth numbing qualities of Sichuan peppercorns, I might have thought we were poisoned. I liked the mix of flavors in this dish but thought it could have been improved by adding more vegetables and maybe some noodles. It was a bit too heavy on the meat. Still, when you’re paying $7 a pop for such exotic foods, there isn’t much to complain about.

It might be famous and touristy but Katz’s Delicatessen is also damn good! Your first visit to Katz’s can be disorienting. Over the last 124 years, a ritual for ordering has been established. Grab a meal ticket upon entry, wait in a line to order your sandwich, tip your sandwich maker a buck, and he’ll offer a delicious slice of deli meat for you to nibble on while he finishes making your sandwich. Grab a table and then sit back and enjoy one of the best sandwiches in the city. There are many sandwiches on the menu, but we were here for one thing: the famous pastrami on rye. Robert ordered a whole sandwich, and I chose a half sandwich with a bowl of matzo ball soup. It was undeniably great. The pastrami was succulent and peppery. Sandwiches at Katz’s are piled ridiculously high with meat–they are impossible to eat politely so don’t even try. A common complaint is that there aren’t any good New York style delis on the West Coast, and I think I get it now. There certainly isn’t anything like Katz’s.

I thought Seattle had the market cornered when it comes to unusual ice cream flavors, whether it’s salted licorice ice cream from Molly Moon’s or the Elysian Stout ice cream at Bluebird. I was pleased to discover that New York has its own collection of wacky ice creams. At Momofuku Milk Bar, I couldn’t resist trying the cereal milk soft serve. Remember when you were a kid and you would drink the leftover milk at the bottom of your bowl of cereal bowl because it tasted so good? That’s the concept behind this dessert. They make it by steeping milk with caramelized corn flakes, straining it and then turning it into soft serve. This is served in cones and topped with additional corn flakes. It was milky, sweet and a bit salty. It’s a comforting dessert that reminds you of childhood. At Big Gay Ice Cream, cones come in suggestive shapes and are named things like Salty Pimp. I tried the choinkwich, an ice cream sandwich made of chocolate ice cream sandwiched between two chocolate cookies that have been smeared with bacon marmalade. The bacon layer was thin but added just the perfect hint of salty, smoky flavor–a nice pairing with the rich chocolate cookies. I may need to pick up a jar of bacon jam from Skillet so I can make my own choinkwiches this summer. 

I had high hopes for the food in New York, and I am happy to say that it exceeded those expectations. One of the greatest pleasures in traveling is getting to sample foods you can’t back home. Unfortunately, when you fall in love with these foods, it can make coming home that much harder!

Robert and I just returned from a fantastic vacation to Washington, DC and New York City. I had never been to either place before so I was determined to soak up as much city life as possible. Naturally, my biggest priority would be to check out the local food & drink scene. Our first stop on the agenda was Washington, DC. We stayed at a small B&B in Dupont Circle where many of the city’s great bars and restaurants are located. Here is a roundup of where we ate and drank.

Rainy weather and a late arrival kept us from wanting to stray too far from the B&B our first night in town. Lucky for us, St. Arnold’s was just a few short blocks away. This bustling, old-world style pub specializes in mussels and Belgian beer. We couldn’t pass up an order of their signature mussels which are steamed with beer, caramelized shallots, thyme and duck fat. Yep, duck fat. They were rich and delicious–a comforting treat for two weary travelers. Note: if you come during happy hour, mussels are half off!

The National Mall is huge so a morning of museum and monument hopping is guaranteed to leave you famished. Unfortunately, good lunch options are limited in this area. If you happen to be near the Capitol Building, I recommend trekking down to Market Lunch located inside the Eastern Market. Market Lunch is something of an institution in DC. They are known for their crab cakes and blueberry pancakes. We opted for the crab cake & soft shell crab combo which comes with two sides (Market Lunch owner, Tom Glasgow, steered us toward the coleslaw and fried green tomatoes). Comprised of little more than solid chunks of sweet, flavorful crab meat, the crab cake lived up to its reputation. I enjoyed the fried green tomatoes most–they were perfectly fried and had a pleasant lemony flavor. Market Lunch is cash only. Lines can be long so be prepared to wait if you come during the lunch rush.

For dinner on our second night, we headed to Churchkey, a beer bar located in the Logan Circle area. The place was packed when we arrived, but we somehow managed to snag a table. I was overwhelmed by the monstrous beer list but finally settled on the DC Brau “Public” Pale Ale–when in doubt, might as well go with something local. The dinner menu at Churchkey surprised me–you don’t see ramps and house-made kimchi on the menu at many beer bars. We split a prosciutto and fig flat bread which was tasty, if a bit too sweet. I loved the grilled Caesar salad I ordered. Smoky grilled romaine hearts topped with white anchovies and crispy garlic twists–yum! I’m a sucker for grilled salads.

In search of a good spot for an after-dinner drink, we decided to check out Black Jack in Logan Circle. This dark cocktail lounge is known for their intriguing specialty cocktails (mezcal with smoked peach ice and charcuterie anyone?). Their spirits list is equally impressive. I went with a classic Sazerac and Robert sampled High West’s Silver Oat, one of the many new unaged “white dog” whiskeys currently on the market (unlike most, this one is actually good!). Black Jack is a great spot for anyone who likes unusual cocktails or is looking for a little something to sip neat. If drinking at a bar isn’t entertaining enough for you, Black Jack has two bocce courts (with stadium seating!) in the back room.

One night, we were looking for a quick meal on the go so we headed to Julia’s Empanadas. Julia’s Empanadas are cheap, filling and tasty. This place is very popular with the late night drinking crowd. The empanadas we tried were delicious while sober so I imagine they must taste phenomenal after a night of drinking. We sampled the Jamaican, Chorizo & Black Bean, and the Salteña which is filled with chicken, potato, peas, raisins, and green olives. The Salteña was our favorite. It reminded me of a cross between chicken pot pie and a samosa–very spicy and very comforting.

Hotel bars might not be your top choice when looking for places to drink, but the bar at Tabard Inn is worth a visit. Located inside of a small Victorian hotel, the Tabard Inn bar is a charming spot for a nightcap. We didn’t sit in the bar itself, opting instead for a cozy fireside couch in the lounge area just off the lobby. Tabard Inn mixologist, Chantal Tseng, has designed a lovely cocktail menu. Cocktails veer toward the classic but with some unique twists. Her Franco-Amero Digestif, made with rye whiskey, bitters and a brandied apricot, proved to be a perfect post-dinner treat.

Feeling adventurous, we decided to take the metro up to Fast Gourmet in the U Street/Shaw area. Fast Gourmet offers delicious sandwiches and salads in an unexpected location: a gas station. The food is eclectic with a strong Latin American bent. We split the Chivito, a Uruguayan sandwich filled with–bear with me now–beef tenderloin, black forest ham, bacon, mozzarella, hard-boiled egg, mayonnaise, lettuce, tomato, green olives and pepper and mushroom escabeche. Oh, and it comes with a side of fries too. At $13, the Chivito is a pricey sandwich, but you really shouldn’t eat a whole one by yourself. We split it and were full for the next day and a half. It was worth it! This is one seriously good sandwich (the best bites are the ones with green olives). Don’t let the location scare you off. The food at Fast Gourmet is great, and eating in a gas station can be entertaining–we ate our Chivito while watching a guy replace someone’s busted windshield!

For dinner our last night, we headed to another Dupont Circle favorite: Hank’s Oyster Bar. Here, we selected a light meal of oysters on the half shell (we stuck with East Coast varieties only to keep things local) and a spring vegetable salad featuring thinly sliced asparagus, haricot verts and radishes over watercress and arugula. It was a very refreshing meal–much needed after the Chivito we had gobbled earlier in the day. My crisp, slightly smoky vodka & Ardbeg cocktail was an ideal pairing for the briny oysters.

Our favorite of the bars we visited was The Passenger which is located in a slightly off the beaten path area near the convention center. With Fernet Branca on tap and cocktail specials all named after Billy Idol songs, The Passenger may seem gimmicky at first glance. Still, owner Tom Brown knows his stuff and is happy to fix you a custom cocktail tailored to your specific flavor preferences. Tom saw us eyeballing a bottle of Corsair Triple Smoke Whiskey on the shelf and graciously poured free shots for us to try. Excellent service! The Passenger is casual, often crowded and might play too much 80’s music for some. If you prefer a quieter cocktail experience, head to the back room where you will find Tom’s brother, Derek, whipping up fancy cocktails in a more intimate setting (reservations recommended).

DC isn’t really known as a food city so I wasn’t expecting to eat as well as I did, especially on our budget. I would have loved to try DC hotspots Rasika, Komi, and Little Serow, but they are a little outside of my price range. Nothing that I ate was particularly unusual or mind-blowing, other than perhaps the Chivito, which I had never heard of before and am now on a mission to recreate at home. Still, DC’s food scene greatly exceeded my expectations. Stay tuned for my New York restaurant report.

Last weekend, I had the opportunity to dine at the Willows Inn on Lummi Island. The Willows Inn restaurant has been receiving nonstop accolades ever since Blaine Wetzel took over as head chef in 2010. The New York Times declared it one of ten restaurants worth a plane ride. Chef Wetzel, who is only in his mid-twenties, is widely regarded as a rising star in the American culinary scene. He was trained at the renowned Noma restaurant in Copenhagen which many say is the best restaurant in the world. At Willows Inn, Wetzel has combined his expert training with a near-obsessive focus on local, seasonal ingredients—with very few exceptions, everything served at the restaurant is foraged or grown on the island or very close by. Buzz like this is hard for a food fanatic like me to ignore–it was finally time to give Willows Inn a try.

Lummi Island is located about two hours north of Seattle. To get there, head north on I-5 to the Gooseberry Point ferry dock near Bellingham. For the best views, take scenic Chuckanut Drive (be sure to stop by Taylor Shellfish Farms on the way for a picnic lunch of fresh oysters). A brief but thrilling ride on the Whatcom Chief Ferry takes you across the bay to Lummi Island (note: the ferry is tiny & open to the elements–keep your windows rolled up to avoid getting hit with sea spray!). From the ferry dock, Willows Inn is just a short drive north around the tip of the island. You will be treated along the way to amazing views of the water, mountains and neighboring Orcas Island.

After checking into our suite a few miles down the road, we headed back to the main building for pre-dinner cocktails. The bar at Willows Inn is cozy and cute with limited seating. You can hang out there or do what most people do and take your drinks into the main lobby/living room/social area. Here you will find a crackling fireplace and a fantastic view of the water. Guests mingle with drinks in hand, anxiously waiting to be called in for dinner. The excitement in the air is palpable, and it gains in intensity as the dinner hour approaches. Sipping my Boulevardier Cocktail by the fire, chatting with friends, and looking out on the beautiful scenery–I was already having such a good time, if dinner ended up being a disappointment, I almost wouldn’t have minded. Of course, it wasn’t.

Immediately upon being seated, we were welcomed with champagne flutes of hard cider from nearby Friday Harbor. This cider was unlike any I’d had before—it was incredibly light and effervescent making it a great match for the food we were about to have. Moments later, the snacks started arriving, brought out to the table by the various chefs responsible for cooking the meal. Technically, dinner at the Willows Inn is five courses. However, you are provided with so many additional small bites, that the meal seems never-ending. We were served twenty separate treats throughout the evening. Early highlights included a crisp potato chip topped with homemade sauerkraut and buttery black cod and a kale “toast” with roasted porcini mushrooms and rye bread crumbs. A tiny cube of seared venison heart seasoned with red currant and rose was a delicious surprise. Naturally, given the setting, we were served smoked salmon. As expected, it was the best I’ve ever had—delicate, tender, smoky, and a bit sweet.

Entrees included hearty whole grains dressed in an impossibly green puree evocative of fresh grass in the springtime. This was topped with slices of geoduck which the chef oh-so-casually informed us had been “alive three seconds ago”. A nettle and fiddlehead fern salad was garnished with cheese so fresh that it was practically quivering. My favorite of the entrees was a seared steelhead trout garnished with foraged sea beans and house-pickled capers. The richness of the fish was nicely balanced by the briny sea beans and capers. Desserts were equally exquisite. Sweet and tart rose hip ice cream was followed by a cheese and venison prosciutto plate and a bite-sized caramel with flax seeds. The most exciting dessert was the gin candy! It was like a boozy, piney after dinner mint.

My dinner at the Willows Inn was one of the top five dining experiences of my life. You leave the restaurant with such a strong sense of what the island has to offer. Throughout the entire meal, the forest and the sea are front and center. A meal like this just wouldn’t be the same in the city. There is something about being surrounded by the things that you are eating that makes it taste so much better. As I was exploring the island the next day, I kept having different taste memories from the meal. A whiff of the briny sea reminded me of the pickled oysters with sorrel I’d just had. Stepping over a mound of damp, mossy earth, I couldn’t help but think of the earthy shiitake mushrooms, perfectly grilled and adorned with nothing but sea salt.

Dining at the Willows Inn is not cheap. You also have to factor in the cost of a ferry trip and a room on the island (believe me; you won’t want to have to drive back to Seattle after this meal). I could try and tell you that it is worth every penny, but that really depends on who you are and how far you are willing to go for a great meal. To my mind, the adventure and the meal is worth the cost, but it’s not something I’ll be able to do again any time soon. If you are looking to treat yourself to something unique and local and don’t mind splurging, then dinner at Willows Inn is worth checking out. When I strike it rich one day, I know where I’ll be celebrating!

I’ve become really interested in Chinese food over the past few months. Perhaps it is due to the recent explosion of Chinese restaurants opening up in my neighborhood, or maybe it’s because I’ve started fully embracing meat as part of my diet and am now free to enjoy all of China’s wonderful meat-based dishes. Whatever the reason, this is a cuisine that’s really hitting it’s peak with me right now. It is also one I haven’t explored much beyond simple stir-fries and noodle dishes, most of which weren’t very authentic anyway.

My fascination with Chinese food started earlier this year when I sampled the Gua Bao (pork belly buns) at Chino’s, a new Taiwanese-Mexican joint that opened up down the street from me. Gua Bao are steamed buns filled with braised pork belly and topped with pickled mustard greens and chopped peanuts. They are a perfect food in my book: sweet, savory, rich, crunchy, and a bit sour thanks to the mustard greens. I could happily eat these every day for the rest of my life. Chino’s also offers other interesting Chinese dishes such as Zha Jiang Mian (rice noodles with minced pork and hot bean paste), 1,000-Year-Old Egg with Tofu, and Pig’s Ear Salad (which I haven’t been brave enough to try…yet).

Inspired by the new and exciting and food I’d sampled at Chino’s, I decided to try my hand at Hong Shao Rou (Red-Braised Pork), a traditional dish from the Hunan province of China. For this dish, I braised pork belly for several hours in a mixture of dark & light soy sauce, caramelized sugar, Chinese rice wine, ginger, cinnamon, and star anise. The aroma of the braising liquid as it was cooking was incredible. Pork belly can be overwhelmingly fatty and, although my Hong Shao Rou tasted fantastic, I actually found it to be unbearably rich as a standalone dish. On the other hand, a little bit tucked into a steamed bun for Gua Bao or (as I did with my leftovers) inside a toasted baguette with carrot and daikon pickles for bahn mi, and this dish goes from too rich to absolutely perfect.

This week, I decided to try another famous Chinese dish: Mapo Tofu. Mapo Tofu is a casual, everyday dish from the Sichuan province that is known for being especially spicy. It is easy to make but will require a trip to your local Asian grocery store for some specialty ingredients. To make this dish, you need fermented Chinese black beans, chili bean paste (also called hot bean paste) and Sichuan peppercorns. If you’ve never had Sichuan peppercorns before, be forewarned: eat enough of them and your mouth will go numb. I picked some up during my lunch break from work and then nibbled on a few once I got back to my desk. They start off with a deceptively mild peppery flavor, but that soon gives way to a tingly numbing sensation. It’s a strange feeling but one that is somewhat addictive. After the numbness had died down, I couldn’t resist grabbing a few more peppercorns to chew on.

Once you have the necessary ingredients, Mapo Tofu is exceedingly easy to prepare. Simply brown some ground beef or pork in a hot wok, stir-fry your various flavorings, add stock and tofu, simmer until thickened, and garnish with chopped scallions and ground Sichuan peppercorns to taste. The result is a very spicy, highly flavorful dish. Depending on how much Sichuan pepper you add at the end, you will either experience a mild tingly sensation or a full-on mouth assault. Since I love spicy foods, I brashly added 2 heaping teaspoons of pepper to my dish. It felt slightly more like a trip to the dentist than dinner–Sichuan pepper may be one of those things you need to slowly become accustomed to (once again, however, after the numbness was over, I found myself craving more). I made a second batch of Mapo Tofu a few days later using less pepper, and it was perfect. If you love spicy dishes, you won’t want to miss this one. I wonder what new, exciting (and possibly tingly!) Chinese dish I’ll discover next?

Mapo Tofu

3 tbsp peanut oil
6 oz ground pork or beef
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 tbsp fermented black beans, rinsed and minced
2 1/2 tbsp chili bean paste
1 cup chicken stock or water
2 tsp sugar
2 tsp soy sauce
1 lb soft or medium tofu, drained and cut into cubes
1 tbsp cornstarch mixed with 2 tbsp cold water
4 scallions, thinly sliced
1/2 to 2 tsp ground toasted Sichuan pepper*

Heat a wok over high heat, then add the oil. Brown the pork or beef in the hot oil, breaking it up into small bits. Turn the heat down to medium, add the garlic and black beans, and stir-fry for 30 to 60 seconds. Add the chili bean paste and stir-fry for another 30 to 60 seconds. Stir in the stock or water, sugar and soy sauce. Add the tofu cubes. Mix gently to avoid breaking up the tofu too much. Simmer for a few minutes, then add the cornstarch mixture and cook until the sauce has thickened (this should happen right away). Sprinkle with the scallions and Sichuan pepper, to taste.

Makes 3 to 4 servings

*Sichuan peppercorns are typically toasted before being ground. Heat the peppercorns in a dry wok over medium heat, stirring often, until fragrant, about 2 minutes. Allow to cool, then grind in a spice grinder or using a mortar and pestle.

My family continued our tradition of bouncing around the globe for Christmas Eve dinner. This year, we landed on North Africa! This is a region we’ve never explored which meant experimenting with lots of new spices and flavors. We were inspired in part by Golden Beetle, a new Mediterranean and North African restaurant close to my parents’ house in Ballard. My mom and sister and I actually did some of our menu planning over lunch at Golden Beetle. We sorted out the last details and received some final inspiration while sampling Golden Beetle’s delicious and exotic cuisine.

The evening was kicked off with Pomegranate Bellinis and appetizers. We made several tasty dips which we served with warm pita triangles. The Chevre with Pistachios and Honey was surprisingly delicious given how few ingredients the recipe called for. The Muhammara was the true hit of the evening. Muhammara is a walnut and roasted red pepper dip flavored with cumin and pomegranate molasses. It is fruity and spicy and quite exotic. My mom loves the Muhammara at Golden Beetle. Ours turned out different from theirs but no less delicious. Rounding out the appetizers was a Fava Bean Puree, Marcona Almonds, and Mixed Olives.

The appetizers threatened to steal the show, but the main dinner certainly didn’t disappoint. Our two main courses were Moroccan Spiced Lamb Meatballs with Yogurt-Mint Sauce and Fish Tagine with Preserved Lemons and Olives. The fish turned out excellent, especially considering that we sort of made it up as we went along (ours was loosely based on this recipe from Paula Wolfert). The fish is marinated in a charmoula sauce made from cilantro, parsley, paprika and preserved lemons. After marinating, it is layered in a tagine (or large pan in our case) with sliced carrots, celery, green bell pepper, tomatoes and more charmoula. This is then topped with olives and preserved lemon peel (we actually used fresh lemon slices since they looked prettier) and cooked over low heat until the fish is done and the vegetables are tender. It was a very spicy and flavorful stew which I am looking forward to making again.

Side dishes included Saffron Couscous with Toasted Almonds, a Spinach Salad with Harissa Vinaigrette, and Roasted Cauliflower and Shallots with Chard and Dukkah (recipe courtesy of Seattle’s own The Corson Building). Dukkah is a very interesting Egyptian spice mix made from hazelnuts, sesame seeds, coriander seeds, and cumin seeds, all toasted and finely ground. It was so tasty that I couldn’t stop snacking on it throughout the day. Even my two year-old nephew kept asking for more.

This year’s Christmas Eve feast was somewhat experimental for us, but it turned out fantastic and we came out of it with several new favorite dishes. I plan on making Dukkah on a regular basis (as a topping or possibly just as a snack) and given how much she raved about it, I’m pretty sure my Mom will always have some Muhammara on hand. I’m excited to find out where in the world we will land next Christmas!


1/3 cup walnut pieces, toasted
2 tablespoons bread crumbs
2 large roasted red bell peppers
1 tablespoon freshly-squeezed lemon juice
2 tablespoons pomegranate molasses
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1/2 teaspoon dried red pepper flakes
1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper
Pitas, for serving

Add the walnuts and bread crumbs to a food processor and process until the walnuts are finely ground. Add the remaining ingredients and process until smooth. Add salt to taste. Serve with warm pitas.

Makes 4 to 6 servings

After decades of apartment living, one of the things I was most excited about when Robert and I bought our home last year was finally having my own outdoor patio. Although we were heading into winter when we moved in and wouldn’t be able use it right away, I spent all winter and spring imagining myself lounging outside on the patio in the summer with a book and a delicious cocktail. As summer approached, I realized that our patio gets unusually hot. It’s great for morning coffee and perfect for evening cocktails, but step outside in the middle of a warm, sunny day and you’re wilting within minutes. My patio my be too hot for the summertime lounging that I had imagined, but it turned out to be ideal for growing my first crop of tomatoes.

I had never grown tomatoes before so I knew I was going to need some help. Early in the summer, my mom and I headed to the nursery to pick up supplies and tomato starts. I chose three varieties: Sun Gold, Carmello and Matina. Sun Gold was an obvious choice. Everyone in Seattle grows these cherry tomatoes and for good reason. They grow well here and are amazingly sweet with an irresistible tropical flavor. Carmello, a French variety, is a basic red slicing tomato. My last choice, Matina, was perhaps most interesting to me. With its unusual potato-style leaves, the Matina is a small red tomato with a flavor said to rival that of the larger beefsteak. It ripens early and often making it a great choice for our cool Pacific Northwest climate.

I planted the tomatoes on my birthday in mid-June and then sat back and hoped for the best. I can’t say I took great care of them. I learned a little too late about this stuff called “fertilizer” which is supposed to be helpful, and I probably over-watered at times and under-watered at others. My attempts to keep the tomatoes tied to bamboo stakes in an orderly manner were sub par at best. The tomato plants held in there, though. Watching them grow taller and bushier and then sprout beautiful yellow flowers which later turned into tiny pea-sized fruit made me happier than I had anticipated. However, when August started and I still didn’t have any ripe tomatoes, I started to worry. The summer had been cooler and grayer than usual—maybe I wouldn’t have any tomatoes at all!

After so much anticipation, three Sun Golds were finally ready. I brought them inside, gently sliced them into halves and carefully set them on top of a salad. They were the most delectable tomatoes I’ve ever had! Ten days later, I had my first ripe Matina. It was about the size of a golf ball, perfectly round and with a striking red color. I served this in a salad as well. Unlike the Sun Golds, which have their own unique floral flavor, the Matina tasted more like a traditional tomato (a super-delicious traditional tomato). I found that I prefer the smaller size of the Matina compared with a regular tomato—it’s small enough that you can quarter it for salads but still large enough to be sliced for sandwiches. One by one, my tomatoes were finally starting to ripen. Then, we hit a patch of nice weather and things got crazy.

Suddenly we were faced with an overabundance of tomatoes, more than any normal person could handle. We had treated our first few tomatoes like rare, precious jewels. Now we considered throwing them at passing cars for fun. I gave them away to family and co-workers, but that still barely made a dent. Just when I thought I had a grip on things, I’d step outside and see even more tomatoes ripening! Tough life, I know. While the Sun Golds and Matinas were numbering into the hundreds, the Carmellos were a disappointment. I only harvested a few ripe Carmellos and half of those had sun scald. They were also my least favorite tomato flavor-wise. I know lots of people love Carmellos, but they didn’t work out for me this year. Our cooler-than-normal summer really favored tomatoes with a shorter growing season such as the Sun Golds and Matinas.

As for what I have done with all of these tomatoes? What haven’t I done! BLTs, salads, salsas, soups, tomato tarts and broiled tomato sandwiches—we’ve been sneaking tomatoes into everything. At one meal, in very Top Chef fashion, we had tomatoes served “two ways”. One of the best dishes I made was pasta with clams and Sun Golds—with a chilled glass of wine and some simple steamed green beans, it was a perfect summertime meal. I frequently resorted to slow-roasting tomatoes in a low oven, a great way to reduce a lot of tomatoes to a small pile of sweet tomato candy that can be used in a million different ways (we enjoyed it over pasta and on crostini with goat cheese and basil).

Desperate for yet another way to use the tomatoes, I looked to my other favorite pastime: cocktails. Sure enough, the Internet provided plenty of ideas. I tried the Sun Gold Zinger, a gin based drink featuring muddled Sun Golds and lemon juice. Somehow it tasted exactly like fresh-squeezed orange juice. Now that the season is coming to an end, I’m turning my attention to recipes for green tomatoes. I probably have enough unripe tomatoes left to make a few batches of salsa verde and maybe, if I’m feeling adventurous, a green tomato pie. I spent all of last winter imagining myself lounging on the patio during the summer. This winter, I’ll be dreaming about what next summer’s tomato crop will look like!

Robert and I recently traveled to Santa Fe for a family wedding. On the day of the big event, just as we were getting ready to head out the door, we were overcome by a serious storm. I’m talking hail the size of grapes and the fiercest rain I’ve ever seen. Leaving the house was out of the question, especially since we were wearing our finest wedding duds. What to do when you’re all dressed up and stranded indoors during a rainstorm? Make sangrita, of course!

Sangrita, which means “little blood” in Spanish, is a traditional accompaniment for tequila. With origins dating back to the 1920’s, this non-alcoholic beverage is meant to highlight the flavor of the tequila and alleviate some of the burn from the alcohol. It is traditionally served with blanco tequila but may also be served with reposado. Although some may call it a chaser, it is really meant to be sipped alternately with the tequila, complementing the tequila’s flavor and cleansing the palate between sips. The original version, hailing from the state of Jalisco, was made using Seville oranges and pomegranate juice, with powdered chilies added for heat. Lime juice and savory ingredients such as salt or white onion are sometimes added. Somewhere along the way, people started adding tomato juice to their sangrita, most likely in attempt to mimic the red color of the traditional versions. This modern style is extremely popular in America and many parts of Mexico these days—so much so, that many people insist this version is, in fact, the real sangrita. Whether you prefer authentic recipes or creative new approaches, it seems there is a sangrita out there for everyone.

We first learned about sangrita from Robert’s mom and her husband Mario. They sampled it during a trip to Mexico and started making their own version after returning home. Based on their rough description and a few recipes found online, we decided to give it a try. Our first attempts were less than spectacular. Now, trapped by the sudden rainstorm, we had an opportunity to watch the master at work! For his sangrita, Mario juiced 2 oranges, 1 grapefruit, 2 lemons and a handful of limes. To this, he added the tiniest amount of minced garlic and ginger and a few pinches of red chile powder. He then blended everything to get the chile powder to mix in uniformly. We took a moment to relax and admire the power of the sudden storm while sipping our sangrita and tequila. It was a nice treat. Citrus and chile are always a perfect match for tequila. The garlic and ginger provided the right amount of savory while keeping the sangrita from being too salsa-y. Mario’s sangrita is not complicated or fancy, but it was the perfect pick me up for an otherwise dreary afternoon.

Robert and I decided to give mixing up our own sangrita another try this weekend. We opted for a simplified version of Mario’s sangrita, using only freshly-squeezed lime and orange juice rather than the full citrus spectrum (I don’t have a fancy automatic citrus juicer like Mario does, and my spindly arms can only do so much with a hand-held juicer). We then added powdered red chile and a touch of garlic and ginger as a nod to Mario’s recipe. For an authentic touch, we added a splash of pomegranate juice. It definitely gave the sangrita that deep red color that the name implies. We blended it up and served it alongside Aha Toro reposado. It was delicious! It really highlighted the tequila’s sweet flavor.

Sangrita is one of those things just encourages experimentation. I wouldn’t mind trying a version made with cucumber or jicama. Or, you could use blood oranges for their red color. Robert and I even pondered the possibility of experimenting with beets. They would certainly fill the red requirement, and I’d be curious how their earthy flavor would pair with tequila. If you enjoy sipping tequila and are looking for a new way of serving it this summer, give sangrita a try. It’s a fun way to drink tequila with friends, whether you’re relaxing out in the sunshine or suddenly stuck in a rainstorm.

Living in the city certainly has its advantages—our neighborhood has a couple of great community parks and many of our favorite restaurants are within walking distance. One of the downsides of city life is having limited personal outdoor space. After spending the last decade and a half living in apartments without any deck or balcony whatsoever, Robert and I finally have our very own sliver of outdoor space. It’s not much, but I’m thrilled about it! This summer, I plan on doing many of the things that people with large yards do…just on a much smaller scale. Relaxing outdoors with a book and a margarita—yes! Planting my very own herb and tomato garden—already done! Grilling all manner of delicious foods—absolutely!

Sure, you can “grill” indoors using a grill pan or a broiler, but it’s not the same and usually results in a smoke-filled apartment. It’s difficult to enjoy dinner when you are coughing and fighting with the smoke detector. Now that I finally had my own mini deck, I needed to find a grill to fit it. As much as I’d love to have a big, swanky grill, that just wasn’t realistic. Small and efficient was the goal here. I decided to go with the O-Grill 3000 Portable Gas Barbecue Grill. This grill is great—completely portable, easy to set up and it comes in cute colors too! At 225 square inches, the grilling surface is surprisingly large for a portable grill. The O-Grill turns on in seconds and is fully heated in five to ten minutes. It couldn’t be easier!

I decided to give my new O-Grill a whirl for Robert’s birthday dinner. I chose something I knew would work well—mackerel. Mackerel is a delicious, flavorful fish that works magically on the grill. It is so oily that perfect grill marks are pretty much guaranteed. I threw a couple of fillets on my hot O-Grill, and they immediately started sizzling and smoking furiously. It smelled amazing. A few minutes later, I had some beautifully crisp and moist mackerel fillets. I served them over Sicilian-style pasta with fennel, currants and pine nuts.

Since then, I’ve had success making grilled zucchini (a personal favorite), grilled lemongrass shrimp with Vietnamese rice noodle salad, and beef sliders which we topped with kimchi and fried eggs! For my birthday, Robert and I decided to celebrate by grilling some fresh trout. We kept things simple, filling the fish with lemon slices and a little rosemary (freshly harvested from my very own outdoor space!). We grilled the trout along with some beautiful Alm Hill Garden’s asparagus. The trout ended up being perfectly cooked—moist and tender with grill marks rivaling those of the mackerel. Another perfect birthday meal! The O-grill might not seem like a serious grill, but compromise is another part of city life and so far I am quite happy with the results. I’m looking forward to grilling many things this summer. Corn, pizza, fruit—the possibilities are endless. What’s your favorite thing to grill?

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