I was in Portland, Oregon, last weekend, dipping into events at the International Association of Culinary Professionals conference (where I had my fair share of food celebrity sightings: Hey, there's Ruth Reichl! And Judith Jones and Michael Ruhlman! And wow, Madhur Jaffrey!). During my quick two-day trip I managed to squeeze in dozens of incredible bites around town, starting with The Swamp Shack, one of the hundreds of food carts that add so much to the city's culinary character. Wolfing down an order of those delicate fried pies made by owner Trey Corkern, who used to cook at Galatoire's in New Orleans, I shouted compliments to the chef through the screen window. That's something I never would have done if I were trying to fly under the radar as a critic. It's such a sweet relief to be "out" from behind the cloak of anonymity.
Yes, of course, being a critic was an absolute dream job for 15 years. Getting paid to dine? I realize I was so, so fortunate. But it was still work. Dining as a critic is entirely different than as a consumer. Friends and family would often get annoyed when I wouldn't join in the conversation, as I scanned the crowd, taking in the big picture. Is everybody happy? Or are they steamed? When dishes arrived, the food was scrutinized before it could be eaten. Did what showed up on the plate match the description on the menu?
Then, everybody at the table discreetly passed a portion of their meal my direction. I know one critic who liked to pass plates, but that juggling act can attract attention. It was my mission to stay under the radar. And I did that pretty successfully in Seattle, using my daughter's name to book reservations.
Since my career as a newspaper critic ended last year, I haven't been going out a whole lot. (I do miss my expense account!) That's what made last weekend such a treat. I didn't have to worry about rushing home and making notes. I could just give into the pleasure of the dazzling flavors at Ping (Asian street food from the genius behind Pok Pok; loved the braised duck, the pork meatballs, and the cocktails made from flavored vinegars) and got a huge kick out of ordering the old-school preparation of Bananas Fosters at Wilf's. I need more flambé in my life!
I swooned over the spicy sipping chocolate at Cacao and was over the moon eating a ginormous order of nacho fries (crispy hand cut taters topped with béchamel cheese sauce, sautéed onions and mushrooms) from Big Ass Sandwiches, a food truck I follow on Twitter.
Now, if I were wearing my critic cap, I might have found something to pick on. But, boy, oh, man, it sure was fan-freaking-tastic to be a regular old diner again.
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