Court Square Diner

I have always been proud of my self reliance, my ability to be responsible, get things done, and act like I think an adult should act. I pay my bills on time, only ever have had good debt, coordinated an international move all on my own, and regularly see the doctor and dentist. Selfishness and ego developed these skills. Once I saw an opportunity to do things on my own, I did them, likely at too young of an age. Because the ways that I did them were preferable to the ways my parents would do them. I was also faster. My parents didn't even have the chance to parent in some cases because I had already finished the task. But how well I did (and do) these things is questionable. I get things done and on time; my functional life cannot be questioned. But I rarely do my tasks with much self care. I can feed myself, but that means oatmeal for dinner. I don't live beyond my means, but I don't save for the future.

I value self reliance over self care because I've never needed the latter. It's superfluous and foreign to my daily needs for the most part. It adds time to getting things done.  New shoes or a restaurant meal constitute my self care. I'm over effort dinners for myself or any manner of beauty product that isn't highly practical or proven effective. I don't fuss over myself. But obviously, I like being fussed over (read: cared for). And I've learned I like being fussed over even in the getting-things-done department. #parentalissues

I learned this the hard way with an incident last summer.
"What happened last summer, Rhianna?"
"Oh, well, you could say that I spent most of July in the bathroom."

clostridium difficile (C. diff) infection was to blame. I went to the Urgent Care knowing I would likely need my poop (stool is too clinical) tested after a few days of the Big D, and the resident who saw me suggested they would have to test for C. diff. My jaw dropped. I know how evil C. diff is. Not because I work in health care, but because there are enough tabloid-like stories about it in the news regarding how it plagues hospitals and can even kill. I met someone once who dealt with an infection for… years. Nooooooo, I couldn't have C. diff. It was surely only salmonella or e. coli or any of the other bugs. Not C. diff. But it was. And I partied with it for 10 days before I was properly diagnosed.

So, let's talk poop. Because I am a poop friend. We're not going to talk about it because I like to chat medical stuff or overshare. We'll do so because I want to scare you into ALWAYS washing your hands after you use the bathroom. Because that is the only blame that can be given. Where/when/who I got the bacteria from is impossible to know. I got it because there are poop particles everywhere, and C. diff particles are difficult to get rid of. When you buy your Clorox wipes and see that they kill 99.9% of germs? C. diff is in the 0.1%. That's why it's the scourge of hospitals. That's why you need to sing "Happy Birthday" while you wash your hands—you have to really fucking scrub it off.

But, here's the thing. Because I'm good at getting things done, all was well and good for about seven of those 10 days. I've had gastroenteritis numerous times. After a few days of it sticking around, you go get your poop tested. You eat fiberless foods and drink Pedialyte. No sweat. But then after these few days, even after I got the test, I noticed that this Big D was not quite the same: I used the toilet between 15 and 20 times a day; the intestinal cramps were so intense that I would start shaking my arms and legs to distract myself from the pain; unknown muscles in my legs started hurting because of all the toilet sitting; and it didn't matter what I ate, everything came out liquid. So, after a few days of shitting myself silly and getting all my nutrients from essentially saltines and bananas (fewer and fewer as time progressed out of fear of the cramps), I was a bit weary. So much so that I had a bit of a breakdown in the gastroenterologist's office because I was too afraid to leave from all the running to the bathroom. I wasn't getting things done very well.

The fact that my diagnosis came probably five days later than it should have also didn't help. Already long story shorter: I spent two days in the hospital. My first time. The C. diff meant I got a private room. The C. diff meant that no one could enter my room without an additional gown and gloves—although I was promised I was not, in fact, Typhoid Mary. The C. diff meant my room got a 45-minute cleaning with bleach while I watched Food Network on the $10/day rental.

While perhaps one of the most traumatizing moments of my life, it was also one of the best (and not because I got a hit of morphine). Being admitted to the hospital meant I was no longer in charge; I no longer had to get things done.  The relief at not having to rely on myself was beyond sweet. For the first time in forever, I could just be. My worries were with other people now, other people with expertise to make them not worries and to get the things done. I didn't sleep but was beyond relaxed. I was free of myself for 48 hours. I was being cared for.

The first morning in the hospital room, a porter delivered a standard breakfast because I had been admitted too late to make any choices. Orange juice, a banana, grits, white toast, and scrambled eggs. As I was now being medicated, I had (incorrectly) been given the okay to eat anything. The previous day's sustenance was largely a handful of saltines and a yogurt, so I attacked the eggs with gusto. They might have been the best scrambled eggs I had ever had despite actually being completely rubbery. My hunger and feeling of safety corrected all imperfections when they entered my mouth. The taste of the salt and pepper and then the (by now) cold, buttered toast normalized the strangeness of it all. The day before I cried because I was afraid I would poop on the ambulance gurney, and this morning I was eating eggs. All was okay again.

Hunger being rewarded with unremarkable but satiating food is a typical diner experience, and the Court Square Diner is all that you want in a typical diner in terms of ambiance, service, and food. The satiation and familiarity of diner fare reels you in, but you can easily raise your brows at the impressiveness of a perfectly cooked order. The under-appreciated skill of a line cook, that is. I'm being unfair to call it unremarkable when these eggs filled me with as much joy as the ones from the hospital but were significantly better. They were perfect.

I incorrectly associate self care or being cared for with excess, especially with the extreme of hospitalization. I tell myself it can be easier, but my default mode thinks otherwise. The compromise will have to be nostalgia via scrambled eggs.

 

Annisa

 

When I received word last summer that my Uncle Wayne was not continuing with cancer treatment and would likely move to a hospice soon, I was not shocked. Wayne had been fighting illness the past few years, and the man I knew wouldn’t continue on with something that ultimately would not cure him. I hadn’t seen or spoken to him in at least eight years. Family dynamics, distance, and changing modes of communication (if I’m digital, he’d be analog) all factored into this; fear and insecurity compounded the first. I hate the phone, but death gave me the courage to pick it up. So, too, did the memories of my favourite uncle.

Wayne and his family were my only immediate relatives who didn’t live in Edmonton.  Ottawa was so far away when I was little, and I imagined it as a place much more interesting than what I had experienced in Edmonton, especially as my uncle worked for the federal government in the capital of the country. When I finally visited at age eight, the novelty of a faraway family home confirmed my suspicions more than fact did. What wasn’t fantasy was how easily I was made to feel like daughter as much as niece in that home. Being the only niece and only granddaughter often affords unfair privilege, but this blurring of place was because of my aunt and uncle’s inability to draw strict boundaries—and I am forever grateful for that. When I would visit them in Ottawa subsequently, even as an adult in university, I relished the role and structure I had in their house, things I never felt in my own. I can’t describe the sense of purpose I got from being expected to set the table. Yes, yes, that grass, it’s always greener. But obviously not enough that I could go eight years without seeing it.

All I had left was a phone call, to close that long gap, to say hello, and to say goodbye. I was afraid my drama with other family members would creep in and poison the conversation, but I underestimated Wayne. He led the call like the gentleman and father figure I loved. There was no talk of pain or sadness. There was no interrogation or hint of disappointment. He wanted to know how things were going with me and to make sure I was good in life. The truth didn’t really matter. They were glossy, almost small-talk questions to underline the purpose of the call: to have a happy connection on the eve of death. And we did.

Beloved restaurants close here all the time, often without warning, leaving regular customers and neighbourhood residents saddened by the abrupt shutter.  “The rent is too damn high” darkens everyone’s life here, even those who seem to not have such worries. Although I’d never been, the announcement that celebrated West Village restaurant Annisa would close with advance warning felt a little like a terminal cancer diagnosis. If you are going to make that phone call, you better plan on making it pretty quickly.  Chef-owner Anita Lo was someone who I enjoyed watching on Top Chef Masters, and the restaurant was always on My List, but it just never was a priority destination—like so many others.  A death knell proves motivating, however, and I eventually made a reservation knowing that as its closing date (May 27/17) drew near, I’d likely get a non-stop busy signal, literally and figuratively.

As with my call to Wayne, there was fear of disappointment and a sense of futility about the whole dinner. It was not going to be cheap, so would it be worth it? For the time with my friend and companion that night, of course. We could easily have quality time at a less expensive restaurant, and one that we both wholeheartedly liked. But the allures of an ending and having an experience at a place much loved were too great. And thankfully, the apprehension lost its legs once we passed through the doors. Catching up with someone you haven’t seen in months usually means a good time regardless of setting, but its occurrence at Annisa meant for an excellent one. We swooned over our food, were well taken care of by our server, and repeatedly said how we must try to get back before the lights go out.

But, I will not. I had my night to learn why Annisa is a good restaurant and will be missed. I appreciated the chance to say goodbye. I made the phone call and put the receiver down, half heartened, half heartbroken.

Pakora-fried oysters with cucumber, yogurt, and fennel

Broiled Spanish mackerel with garlic fried milk, satsumaimo, and Korean chili

Poppyseed bread and butter pudding with Meyer lemon curd

Amass at Contra

I never grew up eating in courses. Not that I think many people did. The only early dining experiences I can think of that involved them would be at weddings and Olive Garden. When bruschetta started becoming a thing in the 90s, I remember that being ordered when out for (non-OG) Italian, but it was a slow embrace of a longer meal in my circle. I am now someone who loves eating in courses, but I can see how my preference started from eating one thing at a time, in a specific order, not from minestrone soup or frozen breadsticks.

In choosing to go to an academic high school, I chose to face a mountain of homework each night. Most of my friends went to the neighbourhood school, so socializing was less of a distraction. I quit recreational sports. I committed to the notion that good marks meant a fruitful university path which meant an opportunity to leave Edmonton. Dinner was my study break, and my family situation and picky eating ways meant that dinner was almost always of my own making and eaten in front of the little television in my room—nascent solo dining days. A toasted supermarket bagel with jam, a yogurt cup, a banana. Consumed in that order. No bite of bagel then spoonful of yogurt. No hunk of banana taken while bagel remained. With commercial breaks used to fetch each course, my meal could almost cover a sitcom. I followed suit at school, eating my lunch one element at a time to avoid cramming for a test or getting a head start on homework.

Now, lengthening a meal through courses and eating one element at a time is an act of prolonging my joy rather than procrastinating. I want a meal to linger because of derived pleasure. My regular sack lunch is about six courses, and most dinners at home are four. When ordering at restaurants, a common question is, “Can the dishes be coursed out?” When the answer is yes and I receive a dish before the current one is finished? I’m the difficult one who will send it back because of its premature arrival. #sallyalbrightforever

Not surprisingly, I am especially fond of tasting menus. The longer the better. When a restaurant gives the heads up on a reservation that a meal will take more than two hours, I get a twinge of excitement. (And not just because it’s likely there will be a bread service.) I am absolutely one of those people who views her time at a restaurant as the night’s entertainment; it is not merely what comes before or after. While there are other reasons I like tasting menus (no sharing, curtails indecisiveness), the opportunity to settle in and fully experience the talent and creativity of a kitchen is the main one. The price of tasting menus, however, makes them prohibitive for a typical night out. Weekday asceticism helps out a great deal with atypical nights, but full-on tasting menus are still largely for special occasions.

Except with Contra. The Orchard-Street restaurant has become my favourite in the city, and their regularly changing tasting menu never fails to impress. The price for the six courses (ha, like my lunches) is reasonable and can easily be less than a lot of other places a la carte. That gives me the opportunity to indulge my preference more often than just birthdays. Warm service and a comfortable room add to my fondness.

Thus, I had a less stringent attitude when it came to booking a table at Contra for a much pricier menu—a one-night collaboration with the chef from Copenhagen’s celebrated Amass. With a trip to Denmark still unlikely anytime soon, I didn’t want to say no to the unique event, to the special meal (a few highlights below) that didn’t require a plane ticket. With a wink, my devil argued to my angel that it would be a Christmas present to myself.

She bought it. Literally.

 

Carrot, ricotta, preserved elderflower

Potato and uni

Duck, smoked quince, charred kale, black pepper

 

Sage cake, dried green strawberry

Pizza from Arcade Bakery

My choice for desert island sustenance after bread and butter would probably be ice cream. But my New York self (the one where I incorrectly go by Ree-ahhhh-na instead of Ree-anna) would advocate strongly for pizza. Not a shocking factoid given its origins in yeast and flour. It’s baked in a hot oven. It gets topped with something fatty and/or sweet-acidic. You eat it with your hands. Pizza is just my beloved all tarted up.

I would hire a lawyer to petition for pizza to be included in my bread and butter (perhaps for the court’s purposes, bread and fat) desert island food choice if I was to be banished. The border between them is loose enough that I think I’d have a strong case. I could call witnesses. There are notable places here where there’s a successful mash-up between pizzaiolo and baker. Dan Richer at Razza makes fantastic pizza and bread. There’s Jim Lahey of Sullivan Street Bakery who branched out with pizza at Co. And now that I’ve tried the delicious pizzas of Roger Gural at Arcade Bakery, I’m confident a judge would listen to me.

Like when I indulged in the laminated baguette, the weekday-only, daytime hours of the bakery mean I can only have an Arcade pizza on a day off. That rarity definitely increases its allure. As does its location. The lobby of an office tower sounds as comfortable as a bus station, but the effort that Arcade has put in to create wooden wall nooks for seating has paid off. They’re comfortable, and despite not completely forgetting you’re in a corridor, they create enough of a sense of place to make you feel like you’re eating at Arcade, not the lobby of 220 Church St.

It is hard to ignore Arcade’s sandwiches, bread, and pastries, but when I want pizza, I want pizza. The cornicione presents puffier than most Neapolitan pies I eat, but it doesn’t eat as fluffy. The chew and pliability are there, and some char that’s not textbook leoparding. There’s the traditional margherita-like pie (fat + sweet-acid) that can be embellished with extras, and there’s also a daily special, usually a white variation. It might be an affront to other pizza lovers that I prefer white pies, but I think I do. Tomato sauces easily overwhelm me if they’re not balanced with both their own sweetness and the other toppings; a white base doesn’t take the spotlight away from what else might be on the pie.

Does this come from me preferring my bread with butter only and rarely with jam? My lawyer might advise that I should take the plea deal if offered to include white pies only…

 

Special with butternut squash, ricotta, pumpkin seed pesto, parsley, and pickled onions

Tomato, mozzarella, basil, with addition of pepperoni, onion, garlic

 

Momofuku Noodle Bar

Whether you agree with him or not, there’s no denying that The New York Times restaurant critic Pete “The Punisher” Wells has become a bit of lightening rod for the role and impact of restaurant criticism. Leaving the recent controversy of his review of Locol in Oakland aside, I always look forward to reading his reviews and trying to understand a restaurant from his viewpoint. Thus, I devoured the profile of him that The New Yorker published a few months ago. Learning about his work and process was all well and good, but I think my favourite aspect of the profile was the participation of chef David Chang. I thought it was fantastic that he would go on record with his emotions (anger/disappointment/frustration) about the impact of Wells’ review of the young Momofuku Nishi in Chelsea. Regardless of his motivation for doing so, I think his willingness to take part was admirable, especially given the forum. It is easy for him or anyone to respond to a review, to discount it, but to respond to a review within a profile of the reviewer is more rare. I think it ultimately is a respectful nod to the strange, but at times crucial, relationship between restaurants and esteemed publications. If David Chang has the opportunity to tell his side of the Nishi story and feelings about Wells, then why wouldn’t he do it when The New Yorker comes asking? I think it was an all-press-is-good-press moment.

But it’s not like David Chang needs good press. The crowds come and business stays. And I don’t think it stays because of a brand. Whatever my opinion might be worth to you, I have never had a bad meal at a Chang restaurant. I’ve only been to Nishi once, but I very much enjoyed my meal. I loved the one I had at Ko. If I was a bigger fan of fried chicken, I’d be at Fuku more. Ssam Bar never disappoints. And then there’s Noodle Bar. The place that started it all.

Momofuku Noodle Bar opened a few months before my first trip to New York, and I remember reading about the ramen place that had everyone talking. But I was like, ramen? Really? I wasn’t going to New York to seek out ramen. (Hindsight is 20/20?) In any case, all these many years later, and Noodle Bar still commands a wait. As it should. The food is always excellent, and for me, serves as a reminder of how Chang can take something like ramen or pho or fried chicken or cacio e pepe and tweak it in such a way that makes it innovative and yet still leaves it familiar and comforting. The vegetable dishes at Noodle Bar always grab my attention, easily moving me away from ordering the more popular buns. The pea shoot salad (I think it’s currently being made with chard) is one of my favourite dishes anywhere. Fresh, crunchy, crispy, spicy. I never fail to inhale it. I had a thing for the Hozon chickpea ramen, then the ginger scallion noodles, but now the chicken pho tempts me.

I know that listicles and Best Ofs can often be more about PR than actual tastemaking (I’m looking at you, Grubstreet), but I like reading them, especially the year-end ones. I agree with Bill Addison of Eater who keeps Noodle Bar on their list of Best Restaurants in America. It has been around for more than a decade and is a consistently packed place that both locals and tourists—and critics—like to eat at. I would bet even Pete the Punisher.

I like sitting across from the kitchen.

Soy sauce egg

 

Pea shoots – Asian pear, sesame, kimchi vinaigrette

 

Shaved fennel – dan dan, cilantro, ricotta

 

Chicken pho – culantro, fried shallots, jalapeno oil