Saturday, March 26, 2011

A Practice Run, or A Top Chef Surprise

So, I was going to officially start this blog when I arrive in the Netherlands, but I had kind of an exciting meal recently and wanted to share, plus I am bored (and completely stressed about packing, and therefore procrastinating). So, let’s just call this a practice run, shall we?

My little sister is on her spring break and flew out from New York for a four-day visit. Steph is two years younger than me and in her last year at Binghamton University, also my alma mater. She’s studying Biology and is gonna be a zookeeper! Isn’t that neat? So I figured – Riverside not being the most exciting place on the planet, and the weather being uncharacteristically dreary here this week – what better diversion than a trip to the zoo? But not just any zoo: the crème de la crème, San Diego! Of course Steph was psyched, so the day after she arrived we got an early start and drove down for a parent-sponsored two-day trip to the San Diego Zoo.

Our hotel was lovely, right next to Balboa Park and only a 20 or 30 minute walk from the zoo, so we could just leave our car in the free hotel lot and no worry about driving around a strange city. The zoo itself is obscenely expensive ($40 per person per day, WTF??? Thanks, Mom and Dad!), but fantastic of course, and within the two days we managed to see the whole thing. It was a lot of walking, but the weather was great, cool and sunny, and most of the animals were awake and moving around (if you’ve ever been to a zoo when it’s hot out, you know how disappointing it can be when every animal except the birds is asleep).

And, get this, we ate at a Top Chef restaurant!!! This warrants multiple exclamation points, as Top Chef is my all time favorite TV show ever! The latest season is almost over and I think I’ll probably cry when it is. I have Steph to thank for the discovery in San Diego, as she was the one who picked the restaurant: we were just wandering up and down a street near our hotel, reading menus and trying to figure out what we were in the mood for, and Steph was intrigued by the menu of a place called R Gang: it was kind of funky, American comfort food. The owner, who was acting as host, looked really familiar to me, and after a moment’s contemplation I was about 90% sure that he was a contestant on Top Chef, specifically season 5 (the one that took place in New York and was won by Hosea, for any other fans out there). The more I watched him throughout our meal, the more convinced I was, and when I googled him the next night, back home in Riverside, I discovered I was right! His name is Richard Sweeney, and he’s originally from my old stomping grounds, Long Island.

So how was the food? Richard was eliminated fairly early on in his season, but let me tell you, the food at R Gang was excellent. Neither of us was very hungry (we had just shared a delicious street cart tamale in Balboa Park), so we each got a salad and then shared a side of Gouda mac n’ cheese. I got the house salad – spring mix with gorgonzola, cherry tomatoes, white balsamic vinaigrette and candied pecans. I’m a sucker for candied nuts and will order any salad that includes them, but at first I thought these were too weird: they seemed more like they had been glazed with balsamic vinegar and were very strong by themselves. I found though that if I ate them together with the other salad components it really worked. Steph had a duck confit and spinach salad with red onion, pears, and a Dijon-rosemary vinaigrette. It was topped with two pieces of sugar-coated orange zest, which we shared, and four of what what seemed to be a restaurant speciality, tater tots. While the name may evoke greasy cafeteria food, don’t be fooled: these were some high end tots. About twice the size of the traditional frozen tater tot and expertly fried in duck fat, they were to die for. Needless to say I helped with those too. And finally, the mac n’ cheese. Oh, the mac n’ cheese! From now on any macaroni made without Gouda will taste deficient to me.  Obscenely rich without being overly gluey, it was delicious, the goopy cheese sauce offset by the crunch of light and airy butter cracker crumbs on top (not sure what a butter cracker is exactly, but I’m thinking something like a gourmet Ritz). A side dish was just enough indulgence for both of us. We skipped dessert, mindful of the richness of the meal (and trying to keep the bill in check; we’re both unemployed after all), but I kind of regret that now. The S’mores fondue sounded wonderful, and there were a couple iterations of desserts involving the combining of ice cream and bacon that looked intriguing. Maybe next time. I’d like to eat here again when I’m hungry enough to try some of the main courses, like the chai-spiced sea scallops or the beer & chocolate mussels (I’m a sucker for seafood in almost any form, too). Next time I’m in San Diego I definitely plan to return. Hopefully it’ll be with Todd: the man loves him some mac n’ cheese, and I think he’d flip for this version.

1 comment:

  1. Tater tots in duck fat - WOW

    Can't wait to read about the slightly bizarre boyfriend story!