Thursday, August 25, 2011

"Dining with one's friends and beloved family is certainly one of life's primal and most innocent delights. One that is both soul-satisfying and eternal" -Julia Child

This post is not about food.

I know: you're doing a bang up job, Emily, writing a food blog that isn't about food.

Well, it is about food, in a way. But more importantly, it is about why food matters.

Some people say that scent is the strongest sense tied to memory. Here, I must disagree. I believe that it is taste. Let me explain: The act of eating is one that is both primal and communal, and has brought so many people together, it is no wonder that we often associate food with our past. Meal time is such an elementary universal truth. Sometimes, something so simple, so elegantly uncomplicated and downright pedestrian, can bring the joy of taste-bud memory, which hits your tongue like a lightening bolt and sends an electric shock all the way to your Temporal Lobe, triggering immediate warm and fuzzy thoughts of your grandmother as you bite into a warm piece of apple pie. Tasting your past is just so much more corporal than recalling a memory on your own.

For me, one such memory had laid dormant in my cerebrum for the past 9 years.

My dad used to take me camping. He was proud of the fact that we were "real" campers- no trailers, air mattresses or portable grills hitched to the back of your car. We camped at French Creek State Park with tents, sleeping bags, and stuck our dinner into the campfire because, damn it, we are outdoors and that is what you do.

I have so many memories of camping with my dad. The time we forgot the tent poles and had to tie the tent to a group of trees with laundry line. The time we could only get one tent up before it poured rain, and so my dad, my uncle, and five of us cousins crammed into a four-man tent and waited out the storm. Hiking, and looking for Sassafras plants, which, my dad explained, when you bit into the stem, seeped out a sap that tasted just like root beer. The smell of the campfire clinging to my hair and to my dad's flannel shirt as we zipped up our sleeping bags and I, a somewhat precocious child, asked, for the millionth time: Are you absolutely positive there's no bears?

But my favorite part was the S'mores.

I mean, come on. What kid doesn't like S'mores? It's a chocolate and marshmallow sandwich, and you get to light shit on fire.

For me, eating a S'more was always about more than the sticky sensation of gluing one's fingers together with melted marshmallow. It takes me back to A-42, our campsite at French Creek, and I can smell that musty, charcoal smoke of the campfire all over again, feel the heat of the blaze on my cheeks, hear the dull, hollow drill of a woodpecker in the distance, and remember being with my dad, proud of the fire we'd built, and the fact that I could be like him, a "real camper."

I didn't think I was ever going to have something that tasted even close to a S'more ever again. I did not have high hopes for gluten-free graham crackers- it's hard to find a way to recreate a brand-name product which is so instantly recognizable. Some flavors are just too ingrained in us to reproduce.

The Grainless Baker however, surprised me. They make a graham cracker cookie that is pretty damn close. It's denser, and not as flaky as its glutenous equivalent, but flavor-wise, it was pretty dead-on. It's more substantial consistency makes it more durable, so the S'more doesn't break apart as easily. I bought them at Wegmans, one of my increasingly favorite place to shop for gluten-free brands.

I roasted my marshmallow over the open-flame of our gas stove which, by all accounts, does not even come close to the perfection of a campfire-char, but hey, I'm working with what I have right now. I gingerly slid my toasted beauty off the kabob skewer which I had improvised as a stick, and layered it carefully between two perfectly portioned pieces of Hershey's Milk Chocolate and smushed the pieces of graham cracker down so that the warm, gooey marshmallow insides exploded and began melting the chocolate on contact.

One bite, and I'm there again, in the middle of the woods, crickets chirping and whirring around me, listening to my dad tell his favorite ghost stories, and keeping a constant, watchful eye out for bears.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

"Do you have anything here besides Mexican food?" -Chevy Chase

I was going to begin this post with a disclaimer: The fact that I worked for Garces Restaurant Group is in no way directly correlated to the fact that I consistently recommend their restaurants to anyone, but particularly those in search of a good gluten-free meal.

I had this whole brilliant manifesto penned in my head. I was going to write passionately and with conviction about how I do not speak highly of Chef Jose's food because I worked for him, rather, it was being given the chance to work around his dishes, and his employees, that made me care about food in the first place. I was going to offer my word that as I write about my meal last weekend at Distrito that I would absolutely give my impartial, unbiased opinion. It was all ready to go, and it sounded pretty damn good if you ask me, but when I sat down and started to type, I was struck with the overwhelming realization that it was all a bunch of bullshit.

I am not impartial. I have had the unique opportunity to pull back the curtain. I have seen firsthand how the dishes are prepared and the kitchens are run. I know with certainty that when my or any other ticket rings through to the kitchen with the words "GLUTEN FREE" printed in bold type-face that every single person in the kitchen knows what this means and, furthermore, will not sacrifice your dining experience because of it. I cannot offer an unbiased opinion because my opinion is unquestionably colored by a well-deserved, complete trust in each person in every restaurant in his organization.

Chef Garces' first restaurant, Amada, opened in October 2005 and since then he has opened 6 more restaurants in the city. Spanish, Peruvian-Cantonese, Basque, American, Mexican- Garces' current lineup reads like a culinary United Colors of Benetton ad. Each restaurant offers a distinct menu- rich in both cultural and seasonal influence, meticulously designed and executed by extremely talented Chef de Cuisines, yet all tied together by a commonality which can only be attributed to Garces' immeasurable talent and passion.

After a fairly terrible meal the previous night at a neighborhood Mexican restaurant, I left work last Saturday overcome with the urge to have my faith restored South of the Border. When Aaron came home later that evening, top button undone and tie askew, I asked innocently, "Rough day?" He dropped his briefcase on the floor. "Yeah." He sighed. I nudged him. "Tequila?"

Enough said. Five minutes later we were in the car on our way to University City. Distrito has always been one of my favorite Garces Restaurants to visit because, like so many other Mexican restaurants, the menu lends very naturally towards gluten free. In fact, with the exception of a few fried dishes, the menu is almost entirely devoid of flour.

Here's the deal. When little baby mushrooms are born, they grow up wanting to be one of two things.

A SuperMushroom

Or a delicious morsel of love laid to rest on the Los Hongos Hurache. Because, if you are going to die a slow, fiery death followed by masticational dismemberment, you are going to want to do it surrounded by cheese and chopped black truffles.

The hurache is a traditional Mexican pizza which uses masa, a corn-based dough made from hominy, and black beans. It is topped with an array of melted cheeses which work together to create harmonious mouth- joy, earthy, delicious Forrest mushrooms, corn shoots, a huitlacoche sauce (don't look it up, just try it) and of course, those beautiful chopped black truffles. The dough is naturally gluten-free, which earns it major points to begin with, but one bite of this delicious pizza and you will understand, gluten-free is the least of it's selling points. Its salty, cheesy and mushroomy without being too mushroomy- and it's savory flavors linger on your jawls long after the last few crumbs have been discreetly licked from the plate. This thing puts pizza to shame.

The Queso Fundito, besides being ridiculously fun to say, is another one of my absolute favorite dishes. Beware, this dish, on it's own, comes with flour tortillas. However, just let your server know that you are gluten-free and they will gladly substitute a basket of warm corn tortillas. Trust me, it's worth it. I mean meat + cheese = delicious, right? It's basic math, really. The queso fundito is just that: slow roasted duck confit and strips of poblano chilis happily lounging like little old naked men in a sauna of bubbling hot melted cheese. It arrives to the table in a cast iron skillet, the cheese sizzling and browning to perfection at the edges as it struggles to resist the pull of my spoon, clinging to the steaming hot edges in long elastic strings and crisping to utter perfection. Cradle a spoonful of this in a corn tortilla, fold, and try not to burn the shit out of your mouth as the duck falls apart in your mouth and sends little sparks of ecstasy bouncing throughout your brain waives.

The Atun Ceviche is a dish that I can't quite seem to wrap my head around the words to describe. Yellowfish Tuna is presented simply and uncomplicated-ly: served rare with bite sized tortilla chips and tomatillos, atop a Serrano-Coconut Sauce which is mind-numbingly good on it's own. However, the dish reaches it's "but this one goes to 11" moment when you manage to somehow squeeze a bite of the lime sorbet onto your fork. Holy. Shit. The sorbet is like a miniature margarita for your tuna- it gives it that tangy bite that you know is going to make it take off it's clothes later in the night.

Chase it with a shot or two from their over-the-top tequila list, and work doesn't seem so bad after all.

But don't take my word for it...
Check out Distrito Restaurant and see if you agree

3945 Chestnut Street
Philadelphia PA 19104