Since it’s now mid-February, that means it is starting to become Mapling season throughout the Northeast and Quebec, and that also means it is time for the annual Au Pied de Cochon (PdC, for short)’s Cabane à Sucre harvest breakfast! It’s one of the Montreal-area’s toughest reservations (usually involving getting up at midnight on 1 December, cursing at the constantly-crashing website, and then waiting weeks for your callback on the wait list), but as you can read about in my previous writeup, it really is worth the trouble, since it’s one of the most amazing culinary experiences. When we last went in 2014, we had an amazing time. But there were two lessons we took from that experience: (1) to starve ourselves more beforehand, since it truly is a massively excessive amount of food, and (2) the experience you got as a party of two was just a fraction of the experience the larger, full tables got, since many of the items are best served up table-side (better to receive entire cakes than just slices, for example). So this time, when they opened up the waitlist in December, I immediately signed up for a table of 8 and got a combination of local and online friends to come up and join me. Thus, on 18 Feb 2017, we found ourselves again in the outskirts of St Benoit de Mirabel, QC in an enlarged sugar shack, waiting for items to arrive from the kitchen.
In addition to the places we visit on each “Death March”, we traditionally try to have a nice dinner outing the evening beforehand. Like finding a place to have breakfast the day of the March, it’s always a bit of a challenge, since it usually involves finding a spot that can handle a reservation for a large group (usually all of the hikers, plus a few spouses, so it’s usually around 20 people), that’s not terribly crowded, and can handle the ephemeral nature of large groups always needing to adjust their exact arrival time and number in their party. However, a check of the usual online resources had indicated that one place in Seattle was particularly good for this: Orfeo.
Well, sometimes one of my “Death March” hikes goes according to plan. And sometimes, you’ve got to adjust the plan. In the case of Seattle, our initial plan was to hike through the SoDo neighborhood and cross over to Alki Beach, potentially ending at Sunfish. But like a lot of plans (especially those put together by folks not completely familiar with a metropolitan area), a few hitches arose: first, we got behind schedule. Looking at our watches, it was obvious that even if we hustled, we’d probably get to Alki beach right as most places were closing up shop. Second, most of the Marchers were getting tired, enough so that “hustle” wasn’t really in the vocabulary anymore. Third, the SoDo neighborhood, aside from having the rather cool ORB (Old Rainier Brewery) isn’t the most exciting neighbor. So, as we started to thread our way over to the bridge to Alki (which also isn’t the most pedestrian-friendly), a short stop at Burger King to use the restroom turned into more-or-less of an insurrection. A quick check of the map and Yelp indicated that SoDo isn’t exactly a food mecca, either. But then we noticed one place on the list that had a lot of good reviews: Schooner Exact Brewing. And the single mention of “beer” made it official, Schooner Exact, at approximately 21 miles into the route, became our new, official destination.
Starting with one of my trips to Seattle more than 20 years ago, I had noticed that the Seattle area has a distinct love of fish and chips, with the region having more fish and chips joints that I’m accustomed to, even for a fairly large area. Indeed, I’ve remembered more than a few trips out for fish and chips at Spud Fish N’ Chips after having beers with college friends in Kirkland, and even having more than one person in Alki get in an argument over which of the two Alki establishment (another of the Spud locations, or Sunfish just down the way) was the One and True[tm] place for fish and chips. Seeing that our Death March route had us looping around Green Lake in northern Seattle, it seemed almost mandatory that we at least stop by for a quick mid-day snack (at this point, we were right about the nominal halfway point). (And, confession time: we had originally planned to finish at Sunfish for comparison, but we got behind schedule and didn’t make it out there).
One of the challenges of planning one of my “Death March” 20+ mile hikes through is city is figuring out a route of the right length. Some cities (like New York) this is pretty easy, but for the more compact cities (like Boston) this often means taking some interesting loops through the city. In the case of Seattle, I wanted to do a basic “S” curve, starting near the center of Seattle, looping up through University of Washington to Phinney Heights, down through Downtown to Georgetown, and over to Alki Beach (we didn’t quite make it that far…). The map had a nice, fairly intuitive route if I started from Volunteer Park, but looking over the map, Volunteer Park and the surrounding part of Capitol Hill is still strongly residential. But I did notice one place that had fairly consistently good reviews: Volunteer Park Cafe.
One of the things I enjoy about visiting more metropolitan areas than my own is seeing the food fads that show up in particular cities. Like the sudden resurgence in fruit juice in 2013, or 2015’s bone broth craze, or the still-with-us circa 2005 cupcake craze (we’re past Peak Cupcake, but there are still a lot more cupcake places about). In Seattle, one of the 2016 trends was poke: the Hawaiian dish made from cubed, raw, marinated fish served over a bed of rice with a selection of toppings like garlic, the infamous “krab stick”, edamame, ginger, and various seaweed products. It’s actually a dish I rather enjoy (or, more usually, the closely related Japanese-inspired donburi, which is more common out my way). But it was definitely one of the current food trends in Seattle, since during our march we saw no fewer than a dozen places advertising their poke. And there were few better examples of the craze than the 45th Stop N Shop Deli.
Okay, it’s now time for Offbeat Eats to get back Stateside. Last August (yes, yes, I’m behind again), we joined friends of ours from college and TivoCommunity in our annual tradition: a Death March. That’s a 20+ mile hike through an urban area exploring all the food options, and this year we decided to give Seattle a try. There were a few reasons for this: (a) it’s been a perennial top finisher in the polls when we’ve been selecting cities to visit, and (b) my college roommate Steve had just moved there from San Francisco back in 2015. So we rounded up the usual cast of Death Marchers plus a few locals from the Pacific Northwest, and set out on our hike (basically a giant loop starting by Volunteer Park and looping through University of Washington, over to Phinney Ridge, and through downtown, ending up down near Georgetown). One of our first stops was a find by Steve: Mighty O Donuts.
As I mentioned in my last article, despite the immense wealth of information available on the internet these days, there’s still a good niche for a properly-written travel guide. And since I’m hot off the heels of my last trip to Edinburgh, I though this would be a good opportunity to review Only In Edinburgh by Duncan J. D. Smith. One of his “Only In” series, these guides are based on his own personal travels, and aim to give you a lot of detailed insight into some of the unique and hidden attractions of a city. And Edinburgh, in particular, makes for a rather nice city for one of his guides.
Our visit to London this time was a short one, so after just a few days we found ourselves looking for one last good ethnic meal before our departure, and my brother decided that it would be good to head over to Kilburn and get some Afghan food. Kilburn has an interesting assortment of ethnic restaurants, with more than a few places serving Afghan food, but Ariana II is one of the best-regarded (for those curious, the original Ariana is in New York City. I’ll have to check it out sometime).
One of the fabulous things about London is that it has has a lot of ethnic foods available that aren’t easy available in the US (on the negative side of things, there are also ethnic foods that still haven’t really arrived there: most Latin American food isn’t really available aside from Mexican, which is still somewhat a developing scene). One of these is Xinjiang cuisine. Xinjiang is a really good example of how China isn’t a monotlithic country; as one of the northwest provinces, much of the population is historically more Turkic than Chinese, much of the population is Muslim Uyghurs, and the resulting culinary tradition is a blend of Turkic and Chinese traditions. Lamb soup and kebabs are standard fare, and there’s even a variation of naan. And, in the London district of Camberwell, there’s actually a well-regarded source for Uyghur cuisine: Silk Road.