Do you ever think about the memorable meals you’ve eaten? I do, especially when I’m planning to go to a special restaurant on a special occasion. Here are two that I always remember, not only for the dining experience but also because each taught me a valuable lesson about living.
A SAFARI DINNER
One doesn’t expect 5-star dinners at safari camps in Africa. Still… On our second safari, my husband and I did the usual circuit in Tanzania. In camp after camp, we gazed in awe at the
beautiful and exotic landscapes with their animal inhabitants: elephants, giraffes, lions, monkeys, rhinoceros, and more. The food was something else. With one exception, a lovely hotel at the Ngorongoro Crater, it ranged from blah to sad to dreadful. To cap it off, our last dinner in Tanzania was in an ugly, enormous, noisy dining hall serving atrocious food that I could not choke down. I substituted two glasses of Kahlua. The next morning, after a meager breakfast of rolls and coffee, we started for Kenya in a private car, knowing that we would have no opportunity for a meal until we reached our destination. It was a long hot day over repair-free roads. We were able to purchase some crackers at the border, but they hardly made up for my Kahlua meal or for my husband’s limited intake. We finally, in early evening, arrived at Tortilis Camp in Amboseli, totally starved, wondering anxiously how edible the food would be. But how important can food be when you are atop a hill, looking out over a valley to the next hill where, under lights so all could see, elephants were enjoying their evening drink fest at the large pond maintained by the Camp. It is still so clear in my memory. A cloudless cold night, the sky filled with stars, sitting at a rustic table in a warm room, sipping red wine, marveling at the magnificent scene of elephants drinking and playing across the way.
My food worries lost their importance in the face of such a glorious experience. But, starved, we did look forward to EATING. The menu listed no choices - not a good sign, I thought. And the first item - risotto! I have eaten risotto at Felidia in Manhattan which, according to the NY Times at that time, had the best risotto in NYC. It was, indeed, a joy. Most other risottos have disappointed, probably because many restaurants cannot afford the labor-intensive care needed to produce a good risotto. So - risotto in Africa?
Ok, I thought, it will probably be edible. First bite - OMG, I could not believe it! Perfect, fabulous risotto, its tastes and texture composing a luscious symphony: creamy, cheesy, umami taste; creamy, slightly slick texture followed by the al dente crunch so critical to the risotto experience. 5 stars!
Next came leg of lamb, roasted with rosemary. Again, perfect, as delicious as the dish ever gets. Asparagus with parmesan cheese and red-skinned potatoes accompanied the lamb. The potatoes were super delicious, tasting as only freshly dug potatoes taste. They were quartered, then roasted to crispy, brown edges. Plus, excellent Italian wines. 5 stars! I don’t recall which of the array of gorgeous desserts I sampled. I just remember that they were as wonderful as everything else. After-dinner imbibing was just as perfect: espresso with that touch of tartness from the coffee itself (lemon peel not required) followed by a liqueur, my choice - Amaretto. 5 stars!
Such a fabulous meal! Made all the more wonderful because it followed the nasty food we had in Tanzania. Gone were hunger and worries, replaced with joy and satisfaction. And puzzlement: 5-star meals in a Camp with rough accommodations? No private shower or electricity in the tents. and a long, uphill walk to the dining room? But every meal was a gourmand’s delight. After lunch on our third day there, I stood outside the dining room, enjoying the view. I struck up a conversation with a man doing the same, eventually commenting on the incredibly delicious food and wondering how it came about. “Well,” he said, “my grandmother trained all the kitchen staff and, from time to time, comes from Italy to check on everything. She’s here now.” WOW! Trust the Italian nonna to produce a 5-star, absolutely marvelous, memorable meal!!!!!
Lesson: Be an optimist. Don’t give up. There really is, somewhere, greener grass.
DINNER IN NAPLES
I was in magnificent Naples for the day, a hellishly hot one. Worse - it was a local holiday with, unexpectedly, shops and restaurants everywhere closed - SHUT! This is not good for visitors who are traipsing the city when hungry, thirsty and weary, desperately looking for an open restaurant. Finally! With sighs of relief we entered and were seated at a nicely laid table. The menu was in Italian, of course, and the waiter did not speak English. Not to worry, I said to myself and my companion. I had a year of Italian 101 and I read the librettos of Italian operas. I can translate the menu! HAH! I thought I had ordered something which I had not. Out came a wide, shallow bowl filled with a red sauce containing black olives and (YIKES!) whole - WHOLE - baby octopus. So cute: curvy little body, thin arms stretched out, eyes staring ahead.
Squeamish me thought - OMG, these dear little creatures; I can’t eat them. Hungry me said - EAT! Hungry me won. Gingerly, I forked one, closed my eyes and brought it to my mouth. I chewed. It was delicious - really, really tasty. That Naples meal, happily, entirely changed my view of food. I got over my foolish rejection of foods that were jiggly and jello-like, or of odd color, or quite fibrous or of, especially, whole creatures or food with recognizable body parts. Grateful doesn’t do justice to that change. Over the years, I’ve traveled to different parts of the world where I was able to experience and truly enjoy exotic foods like highly spiced dishes in India and Sri Lanka (they do take getting used to), chicken feet and lamb cheek in China, internal organs of squid in Japan, curried buffalo balls in Sumatra, curried bat in Sulawesi, pigs’ ears in Spain and fried ants in Brazil. The ants were bland, nothing special, but the others were both interesting and pleasurable for their unusual and great tastes. Rewarding experiences - thank you, baby octopus!
Lesson: Expand your experiences. Toss your taboos.