Category: Restaurant Review


Charlie at the subway entrance to the Museum of Natural History

I’ve been pressed for blogging time. That is, the time I formerly stole from my dissertation and used for blogging has been returned to dissertation-matters for the time being.

But my husband and I took a little jaunt to the Natural History Museum in New York City this past Friday.

[We used a Museum Pass from our local library. We got in free! Maybe a library near you has a similar program.]

It was wonderful, educational, everything a museum should be. (Except that art museums are my very favorite.)

Dinosaur fossils in foyer (which is under construction)

Afterward, we went quite a ways out of our way to go to Hanco‘s in Cobble Hill, Brooklyn. Now, their Yelp! reviews are great, but I might not have gone out of my way just for that.

[It was actually an easy subway trip on the B train downtown, switching at Rockefeller Center to the F train to Brooklyn. Having our iPhones handy certainly doesn’t hurt. Especially since the NYC metro transit system does not seem as user-friendly to me as others (London, Berlin, D.C.) do.]

Instead, I heard about Hanco’s from a recent episode of the best radio show ever, This American Life. (My husband and I are regular supporters of the program, which is saying something on a tight budget. I promise you, NEVER have I wanted to do housework more than when I have an not-yet-listened-to podcast of the show waiting on my iPod.)  Their episode called “Million Dollar Idea” starts with a story about Hanco’s.

Unassuming store front, Hanco's of Cobble Hill

There’s another location in Park Slope, Brooklyn, which I know to be a nice area. I’m not really sure how the locations compare. This was a small restaurant. A lot of their business is either take away or delivery, I’m pretty sure. If I lived in the area, it would be hard not to order from Hanco’s very frequently … or hourly. There were two other tables occupied during our time there, and several people were in and out over the duration. But the restaurant definitely wasn’t busy like it reportedly can be during lunch hour.

Inside Hanco's, looking at the entrance

I am quite a fan of Vietnamese food as it is. I love their cold, summer rolls (with shrimp and peanut/hoisin dipping sauce). I am a big fan of the vermicelli that mixes sweet and savory, cooked and raw, soft and crunchy.

So, it’s no surprise that I should love Vietnamese sandwiches. But until hearing about Hanco’s, I had no idea that Vietnamese sandwiches even existed! Now, I shall never forget:

Please witness the unmitigated deliciousness of the Hanco's original sandwich.

Patrons can pick the sandwich they desire based on their contents, which can be pork, chicken, or tofu, at least. Variations in spiciness are the second attribute one must choose. I went with “medium.” It was spicy, but a just right kind of spicy. The texture and flavor variations that I love in vermicelli were also packed into the sandwich, encased in a crunchy pressed roll.

Crunchy? Soft? Tender? Yes.

The other attraction at Hanco’s is the bubble tea. Unfortunately, they were out of tapioca (bubbles) the day we visited. Tapioca is, by far, my favorite way to have bubble tea. But we could choose between lychee jelly and mango jelly. I chose the former, Charlie the latter. We both got our “bubbles” with a coconut flavored milk concoction that may have included green tea. I’m not quite sure.

Lychee Jelly Bubble Milk

Again, the play with textures is just part of what makes bubble tea so much fun. I’ll have to try them again, since the jellies just can’t compete with tapioca in my book. The coconut flavor was very fresh and cool, perfect for a beautiful August day in the City.

So, Hanco’s, until we meet again …

Okay. I know that you, whomever you are who may read this beyond some of my friends and family, probably don’t want to read the innerworkings of my brain. You want to see food and read about food. Understandable!

WELL, SKIP OVER THIS:

I thought I was missing German food. And I was, in a way. Okay, I’ll admit it: When I tasted my Wurst, my eyes might have rolled back in my head a little bit. When I tried my German potato salad, I may have had to tone down my shriek of “Oh! This tastes just like the Kartoffelsalat I had at the Schwarzwaldstuben!” But I think, honestly, what I was and am missing is my time in Germany. I was there (alone, not counting when Charlie came to visit at the end) for two months last summer and it was a total learning experience of the grandest sort.

Me in front of Berlin's Brandenburger Tor (Brandenburg Gate)

There are lots of things I don’t miss:

1) Being away from Charlie.

2) Being away from Charlie.

3)      “          “         “          “     [repeat]

29) No free refills on drinks and having to buy water at restaurants.

30) Meeting no one who understands what on earth I do professionally.

But I suspect I miss the adventurous feeling, wherein every day held something new. I miss speaking German out of necessity, not just as a novelty. I love that language. I miss the strange array of people, architecture, and foods that make Berlin such an amazing global city. I miss having a singular focus into which all of my activities (leisure, classroom, study, sight-seeing) fit in some aspect: learning German. I miss the amazingly comprehensive public transportation.

Adventures like that most likely live on as a golden-hued chapter in our memories precisely because they are short-lived. My scholarship didn’t go on forever. I am a wife and Ph.D. student and I couldn’t stay away from my husband and study a field (German) only tangentially related to mine (New Testament). And I didn’t want to.

But in retrospect, what I remember isn’t the heartsickness for my beloved husband nor the loneliness of being in a new place where I knew not a soul. I don’t remember the times when I embarrassed myself terribly by calling something by the wrong name or committing some social faux pas (like sniffing repeatedly or putting a hand in my lap at the dinner table). Instead I remember the joy of discovering new things, new foods, unique places, hidden alleyways, city quirks, local haunts, new worlds of history in unequaled museums, new stories on walking tours with Berliner guides, cultural particulars both of Germans and other nationalities in my class, and the sheer loveliness of the German language (NO naysayers allowed. I adore German!).

On a fantastic walking tour (Spaziergang) of Berlin's Mitte

So, I shouldn’t have expected a restaurant featuring the cuisines of the countries of the Alps (Switzerland, Germany, and Austria, namely) to have been the balm to cure  all of my wistful feelings regarding Berlin. First of all, Berlin is nowhere near the Alps. Second, a Berliner is much, much more likely to be found munching on an organic salad topped with sprouts and flaxseed, or eating a Turkish kebab on the run, or snacking on tapas and drinking wine for hours and hours in an outdoor cafe than they are to be eating anything we Americans would classify as “German cuisine.” In fact, many “German” restaurants in Germany are geared toward tourists. And, third, what I hadn’t considered, but really should have known is that no one in Allentown, NJ would be speaking German at a German restaurant. In fact, they’d be butchering it (in speech or, a couple times, on the menu) to a degree that would make me cringe. And I’m an American, not a German! This lack of German conversation should have been a given, but it took me by subconscious-surprise and made it impossible for me to even pretend that I was in Deutschland. So, that was a bummer that shouldn’t have bummed me out, but did anyway.

START BACK HERE, O FOOD-CENTRIC READER:

The Alps Bistro opened on Allentown, NJ’s picturesque, historic Main Street (the perfectness of which, for me, makes it the standard by which any small town American main street will henceforth be judged) on July 6, 2010. So, it had not even been open a month when Charlie and I decided to check it out. I, see previous post, felt compelled to have some German food, so we made reservations. The restaurant is open for lunch most days and dinner only on Friday and Saturday. The dining room is also quite small, so reservations are recommended.

The Alps Bistro

It was full when we got there. As many nice NJ restaurants are, The Alps is a BYOB place, although they have sodas, coffee, and water at least. We just had water, but folks around us had brought along wine. I thought it was kind of cool that the local liquor store had suggested some wine and beer pairings that would go well with German food (they were German, mostly). This, along with other signals like the small lace table adornments, showed me that the management is really trying for authenticity. I appreciated that.

* I apologize that the food photos that follow are really quite grainy. I tried to use my iPhone for subtlety, but I’ve learned my lesson. These photos do not really do the food justice. I apologize. *

Charlie's salad (It came with a three-bean salad, too)

The mood of the restaurant was upbeat. Owners, employees, customers were excited about the new business. They were excited to try something new or, for the many people of German descent in the area, they were excited for a taste of the familiar or nostalgic.

We had printed out a coupon (good until August 31) for a free appetizer when you purchase a dinner entrée over $11. This was not, given the menu, a hard amount to top. The restaurant’s menu incorporated German titles, always with translation, and was very focused. That is, they’re not attempting to offer everything under the sun. There were two soup choices, for instance, and about five options for appetizers. There’s a daily menu and the schnitzel changes daily, as well as the options for wursts.

Soup (Suppe)

I started with the Alsatian Sauerkraut soup, which wasn’t “sauer” at all, but faintly sweet. It was brothy and just perfectly flavored to be a light starter. Charlie had a salad which came with a 3-bean salad and blanched carrots, in addition to a more traditional green lettuce salad.

Other people seemed to get a bread basket, but we didn’t. I’m not sure whether I observed this incorrectly, or if there was some reason why we didn’t qualify. I would have liked to compare The Alps Bistro’s breads to German Brot, since breadmaking is one of the areas in which Germans are vast culinary superiors to Americans. German breads are not only staple of their daily meals, but are always fresh, artisanal, with many whole grain varieties to choose from. Wonder Bread is not an option in Deutschland. But bakeries (Bäckerei/Konditorei) are on every corner, offering full loaves, sweet and savory pastries, desserts, and vast varieties of flavorful sandwiches, fresh every day.

Pierogies

Venturing outside of Deutschland for our appetizer, we selected potato pierogies. The Alps Bistro’s self-diagnosis of their gastronomical territory is as follows: “Join us for a culinary adventure through the Alps region of Europe–feature the foods of Germany, Austria, Switzerland, and France. We’ll even make stops to Poland, Hungary, and Russia to tempt your tastebuds.” So, we figured we’d allow them to take us to Poland with a pierogie. Since we’d only eaten ice cream in that nation (when we barely crossed the border last July) it seemed fitting to try something a little more Polish when we had the opportunity.

The appetizer plate came with three potato pierogies, hot and sprinkled with bacon and onions (which had clearly been cooked with the bacon). Delicious! We definitely ate every last morsel.

Pork Schnitzel

Charlie had chosen the day’s Schnitzel as his meal. It was a pork schnitzel in a dark gravy with mushrooms. He asked for Spätzle as his side and, in addition, it came with carrots. Everything was well-cooked and not overdone. The Schnitzel was really tender, flavorful, and lightly breaded. It certainly rivaled any Schnitzel we had in Europe. Charlie was wholly satisfied.

Being a bit of a Wurst-fan myself (and not being tempted at all by anything with a “Leber” in it—that means “liver”), I ordered the three-Wurst platter. It came with German potato salad and sauerkraut (this was actually sour, not sweet like the soup with the same label). The smaller Wurstchen were the tastiest.

Lots of Wurst

Apfelstrudel

I was too full by the end of the meal to want a dessert, but Charlie thought an Apfelstrudel was in order. I was afraid to chance tarnishing my active memory of amazing Strudel. But I agreed to have a couple bites. The apple strudels are made on-site and it was, itself, quite tasty. One fun ingredient was chopped nuts (maybe walnuts?), which I don’t think I’d had in any of my German or Viennese strudels. As I predicted, I didn’t think it lived up to my memory, but that just means it didn’t ascend to demigod status. So, it was good. I’d recommend it.

All in all, I’m impressed at the new restaurant in town. People are clearly trying hard for Alpine authenticity. It’s a quaint place for a meal and a good alternative to the sea of Italian restaurants that are [Kara scans the horizon] just about all that is available around here. I do want to do a German spell-check of their menu, but Charlie told me to hold off with the red pen until after we’d eaten. Sigh.

True confession: I expected more than a single restaurant could ever truly provide—more than anything short of a plane ticket, Bahn pass, and a fistful of Euros could offer—but I still greatly enjoyed my meal and hope to return.

Right before I went to Germany for two months, I was chatting with a professor of mine. She mentioned that one of her favorite places in Berlin was Einstein Café on the broad thoroughfare Unter den Linden, and she recommended the Apple Strudel. I tucked away that advice and, although I don’t typically pick apple desserts when given other options (like chocolate-anything), I planned to get the stereotypically Austrian/German sweet pastry.

Apfelstrudel in Vanilla sauce (from Einstein)

Thus began my love affair with Apfelstrudeln (apple strudels). A particular German song, which I happen to love, seems apt:

“Lass Mich Nie Mehr Los” by Sportfreunde Stiller

[Note: Below are only two verses and the chorus, the song continues further.]

Wie New York ohne Sinatra
Wie Wien ohne den Prater
Wie ein Herzschlag ohne Blut
Wie Lindenberg ohne Hut
Wie ’ne Eiszeit ohne Schnee
England ohne Tee
So als ob bei Steve McQueen die ganze Coolheit fehlt

Jeder Boxer braucht ’ne Linke,
Kiss braucht viermal Schminke
Tonic braucht Gin.
Wie wär ein Leben ohne Sinn?
Wie ein leeres Paket
Wie ein Rad das sich nicht dreht
So als ob anstatt ’nem Sturm nur ein leichter Wind weht,

So bin ich ohne dich
Du hältst mich; mir fehlt nichts.
Lass mich nie mehr los.
Lass mich, lass mich nie mehr los
Lass mich nie mehr los.
Lass mich, lass mich nie mehr los

English Translation by Kara (it rhymes nicely in the German, not in my translation, though):

Like New York without Sinatra, Like Vienna without the Prater, Like a heartbeat without blood, Like Lindenberg without a hat, Like an Ice Age without snow, England without tea, Like if Steve McQueen existed but without any coolness …

Every boxer needs a left, Kiss needs four times the makeup, Tonic needs gin, How’d life be without meaning? Like an empty package, A bike you don’t pedal, Like if there was a storm but only a faint wind blew …

Chorus – That’s how I am without you. When you hold me, nothing’s missing. Never let me go. Never, never let me go. Never let me go. Never, never let me go.

Romantic black & white photo of APFELSTRUDEL (notice the edge blur? Oh yeah!)

I propose a new lyric that I think would fit perfectly in my food experience: “Wie Deutschland ohne Apfelstrudeln” (“Like Germany without apple strudels”). Germany without my beloved strudel? It’s inconceivable. Such an idea goes against all that is good, right, and real in the world. It cannot be! Like the band Kiss requires makeup and a heartbeat intrinsically requires blood, that’s how German food would feel to me without the sweet Nachspeise of Apfelstrudel. It’s totally love-song-worthy.

(Isn’t that sweet German love song? You’ve got to hear it. So lovely.)

Einstein menu

That's me, all by my lonesome, at Einstein in Berlin

I had a lovely first taste of the dessert at the recommended locale: Einstein Café on the wide boulevard that leads to the Brandenburg Gate, Unter den Linden. I sat outside, enjoying the sun (like a good German would, I’ve observed). The prices were pushing my budget, for sure. But this is a famous café and, after all my wanderings in Berlin, finding a table gave my feet a chance to relax.

Einstein menu

I had a “Braune” coffee, which meant that along with my dark coffee, I was served a small, warm pitcher of steamed milk to mix as I saw fit.

Kaffee

And I had a piece of Apfelstrudel in vanilla sauce.

My table at Einstein

Mmmm. I ate it slowly to savor the perfectly cooked apples in the crisp, yet buttery, pastry. The creamy sauce added to the sweetness. Heavenly.

The next time I had Apfelstrudel was as a dessert at a dinner in celebration of a fellow student’s birthday. We’d gathered at a somewhat grungy pub, Tiergarten-Quelle, located directly under the Tiergarten S-Bahn station.

Tiergarten-Quelle entrance

The dinner was delicious and I insisted that I couldn’t eat another bite. Until a friend suggested splitting an Apfelstrudel with me. Why not twist my arm a little? Of course, I said yes. And I’m so glad I did.

THE BEST Apfelstrudel (... at least that I tasted)

Tiergarten-Quelle has the best Apfelstrudel I’ve ever stuffed in my mouth. It was piping hot, topped with ice cream and whipped cream, dusted with cinnamon and powdered sugar.

Oh gracious! If I hadn’t been so full, I might have resorted to wicked tricks to steal the other half from my friend. But I knew this dessert was not just a line Maria von Trapp/Julie Andrews sings from “My Favorite Things.” This was one of my favorite things!

Charlie's enthusiasm is rightly invested in this dessert

As it turns out, once my husband met up with me in Berlin, this was the first (and then third) Apfelstrudel he tasted. It was, thus, my second, third, and fifth.

So, from whence came the elusive fourth (or Charlie’s second) Apfelstrudel? Where else but in Wien (Vienna, Austria), its purported birthplace!

We had visited a strangely wonderful architectural experiment called Hundertwasser in Wien.

The colorful architecture of Hundertwasser Village

But we were getting hungry and cranky. Charlie was hungry and saw several eating establishments that could easily fit the bill. But we didn’t have much time in Vienna and I didn’t want to waste a dinner at any ol’ place. We noticed a café at the entrance to the village and walked up the stairs to get there. I am so glad we did.

Cafe in Hundertwasser Village

What we had for dinner has since left my memory. But we had, on our last night in Wien, a trinity of strudels as our shared dessert splurge. I can’t remember with precision their contents, but …

The three strudels

I know one was apple (that is, Apfel).

Apfelstrudel

One was custardy.

Filled with a custard of sorts

And one involved berries of some sort.

Berry?

It was all kinds of YUM. And quite fun to try different breeds within the Strudel species.

Variety is the strudel of life

So, in conclusion, here is my Ode to the Strudel:

Ach, Du schöne Apfelstrudel,

Viel besser als einige Nudel,

Wieviel süßer, und leckerer,

Und schneller gegessen.

Ich ess’ Dich am besten.

Speaking of quickly eaten ... Charlie and I must have been racing!

Warning: I’m sure poetry in honor of food should never be written by a non-native speaker, if at all. But here’s my translation:

Oh, you pretty Apple Strudel,

So much better than any noodle,

How much more tasty and sweetened,

And more quickly eaten,

You’re my very favorite to eat.

The best-seller listed above, The Help, was recommended to me by my friend Kristina. It’s pretty popular presently. I think it’s a bit unfairly reviewed here, but the review provides enough information for you to get a sense of the story, if you don’t have the time or interest in reading it. I think, however, that you should read it. It took me a few chapters to get over the affected writing in the “voices” of the characters, but it turned out to be the characters that won me over.

A few of my recent trips have given me a better taste of the South than I believe I had previously. I was enchanted by New Orleans’s French Quarter while there for a conference this past November. To get to my 50th U.S. state before I turned 30, Charlie and I traveled down to Charleston, South Carolina for Easter weekend. Boy, the South sure can be grand. But I felt myself conflicted while appreciating the glory and architectural splendor of the South, all the while remembering the history of slavery that brought that kind of affluence, as well as the ongoing struggle to end the disparity between black and white. I didn’t live through the Civil War or the Civil Rights movement, but why did it still haunt me as I visited the pretty parts of southern cities with a long, checkered past?

(I don’t mean to sound ignorant of the great human evils inflicted in any geographical region, North or South or West or Midwest, Stateside or otherwise. A look at the history of any place is a look at triumphs mingled with errors and horrors.)

This book took a long stroll through the kind of questions I had: How might a white person have experienced the tumult of the Civil Rights Movement in the South? How might a black person have? Was there ever good mixed in with the pain?

As I read the book, I thought of Jestine’s Kitchen. It’s an extremely popular (and rightfully so) restaurant in Charleston, famous for its Southern cooking. The restaurant is named after Jestine Matthews, the long-time household cook of the restaurant owner (and the previous generation of that family).

The reflective front window of Jestine's Kitchen

You see, as the story goes, Jestine helped with at least two generations of the family, as she lived to be 112. The restaurant’s Facebook page has a summary of her story. And the food is so good. The fried green tomatoes, the sweet tea, the fried chicken … all delicious. We loved the desserts we tried, Pineapple Bread Pudding and the Coca-Cola Chocolate Cake.

Jestine's famous Coca-Cola Chocolate Cake

But when I learned about Jestine herself and about the apparent love and loyalty between her and her long-time employers, I just couldn’t figure out how a relationship of “unequals” in many ways, socio-economically and in the power structure of employer-employee, could seem (to a total outsider of course) to have been so loving and appreciative.

Of course, I’ll never know about Jestine, but the book The Help gives a variety of examples of the potential both for wickedness and for love, compassion, and bravery that humans possess.

My breakfast at Shades in Ocean Beach

Well, I didn’t name the blog the “Wandering Palate” because I like to stay put …

My last post was about the U.S. Botanic Garden in Washington, D.C., to which I’ve been twice (once in May 2008 and the second time in July 2009). In this post, I’m recollecting a breakfast spot on the opposite coast. In San Diego, to be more precise. When we were in San Diego in March, a family friend took me to breakfast at Shades in Ocean Beach. I think it’s a popular breakfast spot. Admittedly, many people have been to the restaurant more often than I have. Many people have tried more menu items than I have.

But let me recommend the one I had: the Calamari Benedict. The menu described it this way: “Our famous Eggs Benedict with a tender, breaded, grilled Calamari steak in place of the traditional Canadian bacon.” Charlie’s the eggs benedict lover in our family, but I’ve always liked the dish from the tastes off his plate that I’ve had. What sold me on ordering this, however, was the promise of calamari steak.

The texture took some getting used to because there was just so much calamari. I’m not complaining! But the hollandaise was rich and creamy. The coffee was good and the view is wonderful. Try it, if you’re in the area.

I’m a follower in the U.S. cupcake craze. I love a tasty cupcake, but I won’t seek them out far and wide. Sometimes I’d prefer a slice of pie or a cookie more than a cupcake. Hence, I’m a mere pretender to any cupcake expertise.

I tried Princeton’s House of Cupcakes first, but I think the far, far superior cupcake shop (in taste and welcoming atmosphere) in the area is Sugar + Sunshine Bakery in Plainsboro, NJ.

This review is adapted from the one I posted on Yelp!, which you can find, along with other reviews, here. See the ranking scale in the previous post. As I stated there: I’m an effusive rater.

I want to give this place FIVE STARS.

But, as a coffee drinker (and moderate coffee snob), I must say their coffee warrants a two-star rating. I’ve had far better. Sorry! I suggest the management get someone from Small World (a Princeton coffee house from which Sugar + Sunshine wisely buys their beans) to come teach them how to brew a good strong cup. They’ve got the right coffee materials (good beans), but there’s something amiss when the product comes out quite weak.

EVERYTHING ELSE, however, is so five-worthy. I’ve tried several different flavors (chocolate, coconut), but my favorite are the Red Velvet cupcakes. Love them: the perfect mix of creamy frosting and mid-level-density cupcakes … they’re so good. In fact, I haven’t had a cupcake I didn’t like. I’ve been at least four times and had cupcakes a friend brought another time. They’re awfully gooooood.

Something very interesting about their Red Velvet is that it’s not red, per se. It’s reddish. As they state here, they use only natural ingredients and – apparently – bottles of red food coloring just don’t make the “natural” cut! They rely, rather, on the natural reaction of the cocoa with the other ingredients to lend the cupcake a reddish tinge. The flavor, I assure you, isn’t lacking in the least.

Since coffee shops and bakeries are, for me, academic resources–that is, places in which I can bribe myself with food and caffeine to get writing and reading done–I also need to give Sugar+Sunshine points for study-ability. It’s a very bright, comfortable atmosphere. It’s busy enough to not feel awkward (as though you’re hoping to establish squatters rights by camping out for hours in silence), but quiet enough to not prove a big distraction (they have business off and on, but few people stay for too long). I don’t think they have Wifi, which would be a nice addition.

Plainsboro is close enough to Princeton to make it completely convenient. The bakery is not far off Rt. 1, which means its business could multiply tenfold if the right wind blew. Visit it before it gets overrun!

I do love food (too much – I’m still trying to learn to balance) and I thrive on new experiences. Making new recipes at home, as well as tasting someone else’s cooking, is a chance to embark on a mini journey of flavor.

My idea when starting this blog was to post about my wanderings (as in, world and domestic travel) and my culinary wanderings (as in, experiences with food – eating out and in). Well, blogging while I was bombarded with new places, people, and subject matter in Germany in the Summer of 2009 turned out not to be my specialty. I was constantly on the move, trying to soak everything in, which made it hard to edit photos and to write (in English – when I was supposed to be immersed in German) about my experiences with enough background for anyone else to understand it.

But, now, we’re fully settled in New Jersey. We’re starting our fourth year here together (my fifth year!). And we’re even further settled into a new house with more space. I’ve cut back on responsibilities at school (and we’re cutting back our budget). So, maybe this is a better blogging atmosphere for me.

I’ve recently been posting quite a bit to the website Yelp!, adding reviews of places I’ve been, or that Charlie and I have been together, mostly in the last year. I think I’ll be expanding and reposting several of those reviews here.

The Yelp! website has the following star scale to guide reviewers:

1 = “Eek! Methinks Not”

2 = “Meh. I’ve experienced better.”

3 =  “A-OK”

4 = “Yay! I’m a fan.”

5 = “Woohoo! As good as it gets!”

Cafe Du Monde, New Orleans (taken by iPhone)

For the most part, except if the visit was very recent, the places I remember were my very favorites. The result is that at the time of this post I have never given any place a 1. I’ve given two places a 2 (one was a recent visit and bad service; one was because I was stretching to think of someplace I’ve been displeased with to balance out my ratings). I’ve given two places a 3 (and I felt really bad about one of them, even though it’s a nice rating!). I’ve given a whopping eight places 4 stars (which is pretty stinking effusive). And I’ve awarded the highest honor, 5 stars, to six different establishments.

I trust Yelp! because the reviewers are real people with real budgets and real preferences. We’ve used it to pick several restaurants and hotels and have, basically, never been led astray.

So, what do my overly-enthusiastic reviews mean about my reviewing mantra? Am I just uncritical? Have I, perhaps, majored in my favorite restaurants and forgotten about the poor or average dining experiences?

Kara, “The Simon Cowell of Life”

I am trained to be critical in some things: biblical scholarship, for instance. And, according to my husband, I’m really critical about “everyday life.” He’s taken, on occasion, to calling me “The Simon Cowell of Life” (referring to Simon Cowell of American Idol fame; he was my favorite of the judges the one season I watched, by the way).

But, thinking about my reviewing stats (see restaurants above; or, just ask me about TV shows or movies I’ve seen = probably 75% positive), I felt like I needed him to clarify. So I asked him: “In what way am I the ‘Simon Cowell of Life’?”

Under some duress (since he doesn’t want to be critical), Charlie said, “I just notice it with anything that’s on TV, you feel the need to criticize things. Sometimes it feels like, ‘What did that person ever do to you?’”

I asked him to clarify. He said it’s mostly “people’s appearances and voices on shows.” (I can actually think of two very specific examples of the latter that drove me c-r-a-z-y!)

My husband insisted, “I’m not trying to be meeeeean.” But then he went on: “To say you’re the ‘Simon Cowell’ is like to be so brutally honest that it’s mean. Maybe that person didn’t deserve such a harsh critique.”

Hmmm.

Cooking Brussels Sprouts at home

I mean, I think he’s right. I can get bugged by something (a systemic evil, administrative red tape, electronics not working, a mistake I’ve made, a terrible Boston accent on a show, a grammatical mistake) and harp on and on and critique it ad nauseum. My verbosity and my willingness to “speak the truth” combine in a nasty way sometimes. (Note to self: Work on that.)

But how does that part of me—the critical Simon Cowell part—become (if you’ll allow the metaphor to extend slightly further) the Paula Abdul of Food. That is, I love it all, with the rarest of exceptions.

Kara, the appreciator of little things in life

More flattering than the Paula Abdul comparison, I guess, I’d say, I appreciate the little things. I notice beautiful trees on the side of the highway as we’re whizzing past them and point each one out to Charlie. I worked hard during seminary and college to find something I liked in every class I took, which made education a wonderful experience, even outside of my interest areas. When I don’t like something at first (music, an artist, a vegetable), I try it again to see if I missed something about it.

And as a kid, disliking the food I was served wasn’t an option. We were praised for adventurous eating. In that regard, I blame my parents both for my wide expanse of tastes … and my wide expanse of backside.

So, sometimes when I read other people’s Yelp! reviews I think: “Ouch. Why are these people so picky?!” I mean, I can find something I like at McDonald’s, at Ruby Tuesday, at random roadside grills in Turkey, at open air cafes in Vienna (see photo below for proof!), at the swankiest restaurants in Princeton, etc. Anywhere.

Our shared dessert of Struedels in Wien (Vienna)

I don’t think it’s that I’m undiscerning. I have favorites and some things impress me more than others. There are places I’m happy to have gone once and there are places that, as I exit, I’m planning my return trip. There are recipes that I toss out as soon as I’ve made them, and others that I mark with a quick “We loved this!” notation.

But on the whole, I like the experience of trying new food, or familiar food at a new place.

So what if my Yelp! reviews make me look like a wide-eyed big-eater from Idaho? That’s not so far from the truth. And I hope to recount here on “the Wandering Palate” what I’ve tried and just how good it was.