Ronnybrook Milk Bar & Austin Eats

Some of you thought my last post was depressing. Others found it open and honest. Either way, I'm still in "this city makes me crazy" mode. Not even a Kiefer Sutherland sighting last night could cheer me up. Ok, maybe it did temporarily (I practially floated down 16th street after seeing him), but I'm still battling a bad case of urban blues. Hopefully after a Police concert and trip to Montauk this weekend, I'll feel like myself again.

Until I'm back (and in a better mood), check out my latest posts on Feeding Frenzy.

Ronnybrook Milk Bar: The newest addition to Chelsea Market, this place should not be missed!

Austin Eats: No trip to Austin, TX, would be complete without a visit to The Salt Lick. Now THAT is what I call barbecue.

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Pasta with roasted summer vegetables and basil

Publishing my El Bulli post felt like turning in a thesis. I vowed to step away from the computer and give myself a break.

I never expected to be gone so long.

To be honest, the past few weeks were really bad. First there was the midtown pipe explosion. Luckily, I was at home in Brooklyn that day. My Mom, whose office is in the Empire State building, called at 6pm. She was frantic and talking fast. From her window, it looked like Grand Central had been blown up.

A few of my friends were in buildings right next to the explosion. Hearing them talk about how they ran for their lives, convinced that our city was being terrorized once again, was too much to bear. Of course September 11th came to mind, but also the fact that we might have to relive that fateful day sometime soon. It made me wonder, as I often do: why are we all still here?

As I was leaving for work the next day, I thought to myself about how much I love my new apartment, and how it's the one place where I feel so safe. Seconds later, a sign about a robbery in my building snatched away the little security I had left.

At first, I wanted to throw myself down on the ground and kick and scream like a three-year old. I felt defeated. Trapped. Suffocated by the fact that no matter where you go in this city, doom is sure to follow.

I thought 9/11 had taken away all my naivety, yet somehow, I never worried that my personal space could be terrorized in some way. After talking to our neighbors, Daniel and I convinced ourselves it was a fluke. Three days later, there was another burglary in the building next door.

I love New York so much, but living here is starting to make me crazy. So crazy that sometimes, especially lately, I just don't think I can take it anymore. The fast pace. The constant fear. All the people. There's barely any space to spread out and breathe. And now, on top of everything else, I feel unsafe everywhere. And it really sucks.

I'm sure that many of you can relate, and I know that there are people in this world who have it way, way worse. It's just that when horrible things keep happening, I feel paralyzed by fear.

Food, as I've said before, is usually the one thing that gets me going. The problem is, I've been so overwhelmed by certain decisions (choosing between a high-tech deadbolt, a window bar or an alarm system, for one), that I just want to be told what to make.

That's where Everyday Food, Martha Stewart's TV-guide size monthly magazine comes in. Small enough to tuck in my purse, this collection of fool-proof recipes gets me in the kitchen even on the nights when I just want to crawl under the covers and cry.

Everything I've cooked from Everyday Food (except one bad, bad clafouti) has been close to perfect, and I've made more than a few recipes multiple times. It's all fairly simple, satisfying stuff, but since I'm not a magical cook who pulls amazing recipes from her sleeve, I like being given ideas that I can tinker with and tweak.

Everyday Food always has an in season section, so it's been matching up perfectly with my CSA shipments. On the day after the pipe explosion and robbery, I had a pile of tomatoes, zucchini and purple peppers to use. Starving and unwilling to run to the supermarket for some obscure ingredient, I opened Martha's mag and settled on a light, summery pasta.

As I started cooking, I felt the urge to write. I hadn't felt inspired in weeks, so I put down my knife and quickly typed out my thoughts. Then I roasted the veggies till they were charred and blistery, tossed them in a bowl with whole wheat fusili, a few pats of butter, fresh mozzarella, a few sprigs of basil, and for a few seconds, I forgot about explosions and robbers and stress. My mind was so focused on the food and how good it felt to use my hands to chop and slice. I even forgot to photograph the final product, but trust me, it was good.

Pasta with Roasted Summer Vegetables and Basil
Serves 4

4 yellow summer squash (about 2 pounds total), sliced 1 inch thick crosswise, halved if large
2 pints grape tomatoes (about 4 cups)
2 medium red onions, halved and sliced 1/2 inch thick
4 garlic cloves, peeled and smashed
1/4 cup olive oil
coarse salt and ground pepper
8 ounces short pasta, such as campanelle or fusilli
2 tablespoons butter
1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese, plus more for serving
1 cup torn fresh basil leaves

1. Preheat oven to 450 degrees. Divide squash, tomatoes, onions, and garlic between two large rimmed baking sheets. Drizzle with olive oil, and season with salt and pepper; toss to coat. Roast without tossing until tender and starting to brown, 30 to 40 minutes.

2. Meanwhile, bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Add pasta, and cook until al dente, according to package instructions. Drain and return to pot.

3. Add vegetables, butter, Parmesan, and basil to pasta (I added in some fresh mozzarella too); season with salt and pepper, and toss gently to combine.

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Dinner at El Bulli

As most of you know, I've put off this post for awhile. 47 days to be exact.

Would it make you feel better to know that I've barely given my friends and family the full scoop? I haven't even sent out the online album from our trip, and no, not because it takes for-freakin-EVER to upload 600 photos one by one on Kodak Gallery. I didn't want to give any El Bulli sneak peeks.

The thing is, it's hard enough remembering a meal you had back in May. But writing about a 30 course meal at what many believe is the best restaurant in the world? Much more difficult than I imagined.

I thought about all the ways I could share my El Bulli story. A part of me just wanted to let the pictures do the talking, but that seemed too easy. (However, if I ever eat at a restaurant like this again, I might just go that route).

Daniel suggested an interview-style post and even used a tape recorder to ask me a bunch of questions. Halfway through our discussion, I worried that it was too weird. A poem crossed my mind, but truly seemed to be the only word that rhymed with El Bulli. When I really had no idea where to begin, I tried to come up with a rap.

How about if I start at the very beginning and tell you that we almost didn't even make it to the dinner.

For those of you who don't remember, I went to El Bulli with my Mom, Daniel, Daniel's Dad Andreas and his step-mom Guida. Daniel and I built an entire trip around the dinner, my Mom flew from NY for the weekend, Andreas arrived from a business trip in Barcelona and Guida came from Portugal (where she and Andreas live).

Daniel and I were the first to arrive on the day of our dinner, and Roses, the town that's closest to El Bulli, looked overcrowded and dingy.

But from the Almadraba Park, our swanky hotel with lush gardens, a nice pool and panoramic views, run-down Roses looked pretty good. Good pick, Mom!

At 8:30pm that night, we all squished into one rental car and prepared for the 30 minute drive to El Bulli. After a few wrong turns, we finally found one sign for the restaurant and continued on a long, winding road (a road I remembered reading about on Chocolate & Zucchini). But after driving for awhile without another sign in sight, it felt like we were in the middle of nowhere. Everyone started to worry that we'd gone the wrong way.

We had a 9pm reservation and it was right about then that we decided to turn around. My Mom was starting to look flushed, but remained silent. Daniel's Dad was nervous and franctic. Daniel was trying to keep everyone calm and I just kept referring to the Chocolate & Zucchini post over and over saying that based on Clotilde's description, we had to be going the right way. Everyone worried that we wouldn't make it. I remember wondering how I would address the situation on this very site. This Little Piglet DID NOT go to El Bulli. How pathetic!

We flashed our lights at the first car we saw and pulled up alongside a group of tan teenagers, fresh from the beach. They confirmed that El Bulli was back the way we came. We did yet another frightening three-point turn on a steep mountain road and quickly sped away.

We arrived more than half an hour late. Waiting for us was Luiz Garcia, the man who had made our day (not once, but twice!) five months ago. He assured us that we still had our table, then took us on a quick tour of the kitchen.

Lab-like and full of stainless steel, it was immaculate. We watched in awe as gourmet oompa loompas diligenty prepared a dizzying array of dishes.

And sitting in the corner was Ferran Adria, El Bulli's very own Willy Wonka, and perhaps one of the most influential chefs of all time. I'm easily starstruck, so yes, you better believe I stared. He looked up for a second when we walked in, then went back to flipping through a book that had his name in emblazoned on the cover.

I was fine just admiring from a distance, but Daniel made sure to call him over for a picture (while my Mom stood by BEAMING).

Call me crazy, but I think he's kinda cute.

After our tour, we were led to a terrace that overlooks the beach. When a swarm of servers surrounded us, some mixed welcome cocktails while others set out a selection of snacks.

This was, without a doubt, my favorite part of the entire evening. The sun was setting, I could hear the ocean in the distance, I had just wrapped my arm around Ferran Adria's back and it was still the beginning, the very first few moments of a night I never wanted to end.

Our cocktails -- cold blackberry cosmos poured on top of tangy, lime-flavored foam -- were served in silver bowls and we each got a big spoon for easier sipping.

The snacks, a mix of hand-held nibbles, were all unusual, but the faux olives were one of my favorites.

Made with a thin, yellowish green casing, they were delicate and wobbly. We ate each one whole and they popped like balloons to reveal an olive oil filled center. There must have been a good teaspoon or so in there, and it was intense, fruity and the type you'd want to drink directly from the bottle.

These are beet and yogurt meringues that I could have eaten by the dozen. They were delicate and slightly sweet and I loved how one bite turned them to dust.

We sampled eight different snacks, although we forgot to take photos of them all. I remember thinking that this one -- a rice and parmesan cookie topped with edible flowers -- was so cute and frilly.

And that these freeze-dried pineapples that had a styrofoam-like consistency were the most bland of the bunch.

There were also cocoa-dusted chocolates that melted with one bite, golden rice balls and something with pistachio and gorgonzola, but it's hard to remember everything.

After we polished off the snacks and cocktails, we were led into the restaurant, an eclectic space that felt like an artist's home.

Bulldog paintings lined the wall (El Bulli means bulldog in Catalan) and there were all sorts of unusual trinkets, and a vase with one long stem rose topped our table.

The almost 5-hour meal was just as smooth and relaxing as our time on the terrace and the unbelievably attentive staff made us feel like we were the only people in the place. Many of the dishes came with eating instructions -- "Have one bite of this, a sip of this, eat the whole thing at once! Immediately! It will melt!"-- and you really feel like you're on a rollercoaster ride of textures and flavors from the very beginning. Below is the list of our other 22 courses, in the order they arrived.

Sesame sponge cake with miso and pistachio sponge cake with acid milk mousse: When eaten in one bite as our servers instructed, the pistachio sponge cake (on the right) was a sweet, melt-in-your-mouth creation. When my Mom Mom insisted on biting into hers, the whole thing crumbled onto her lap.

Tiger nut milk flowers: Tiger nuts are a type of plant that's used in Spain to make horchata, a refreshing summer drink. At El Bulli, the tiger nuts were frozen and served as a palate cleanser.

They melted quickly and had a slightly sour flavor. Oh and Daniel believes they have a similar pee-altering effect as asparagus.

Tangerine bon bons with peanut and curry: At El Bulli, sweet and salty flavors seemed to always overlap as they did with this chewy peanut curry caramel which we were instructed to eat first, followed by a tangerine-flavored candy.

Raspberries fondant with wasabi and raspberry vinegar: A definite favorite. A frozen, sugar-coated raspberry topped with wasabi, followed by a sip of sweet, ice-cold raspberry vinegar. We were told to alternate between the two which helped enhance the flavors.

Spherical mussels: Mussels encased in seawater. They were a strange, squishy texture and each spoonful tasted like a sip of the ocean.

Haricot bean with Joselito's iberian pork fat: Certainly not the prettiest dish but definitely one of the most memorable. The big blob in the center is a super smooth white bean puree encased in some of Spain's most delicious ham and the whole thing is floating in a rich, delicious broth. Pure heaven.

Fever-Tree tonic merinque with strawberries and lemon: A refreshing, puckery palate cleanser served with freeze-dried strawberries. I liked the flashy gold plate.

Tomato cous-cous with oil-olives, basil and parmesan cheese water: I absolutely loved this dish. The presentation was striking and although we were told to taste each thing separately, I liked mixing the highly concentrated tomato cous cous with the chilly basil sorbet.

And to wash it all down? A glass of parmesan water!

Anchovy with ham and yogurt yuba: Call me a baby, but I thought this was too fishy. The yuba, a thin casing filled with sour yogurt helped a bit. And yes, a waiter really did pluck teensy flowers (using tweezers) onto our plates.

Gnocchi of polenta with coffee: Dishes at El Bulli aren't really craveable. Except for this one. Dusted with coffee and nestled next to capers and some lightly cooked egg, the gnocchi was soft, not doughy, and eating them whole revealed a silky center.

Asparagus in different cooking times: This is one of the few dishes we forgot to photograph. There were a group of asparagus tips, all of which had been cooked at different temperatures for various times. One steamed till it was almost mushy, another only partially cooked so it remained almost crunchy, and one that was was practically raw. Draped on top were frozen egg yolks that had been injected with liquid nitrogen. They looked like those bizarre Dippin' Dots. Very cool.

Razor clams "escabeche": An impressive dish and quite a hefty serving, don't you think? Each clam was draped over a cloud of coconut foam and that's a streak of sesame paste on the side.

Liquid won-ton of mushrooms: Another favorite. Won-tons plump with mushroom-flavored water and seaweed sprigs on the side.

Snails "A La Lluana": What you see below are snail eggs, and in my opinion, I would have gotten the gist with just a small scoop of them. They had a blister-like consistency and were way too salty for my taste. Fun to try, but I could live without them.

Marinated mackerel belly: There wasn't anything unusual about this dish, and I would have been fine with just one piece. After all, this was our 25th course!

Hare juice: This was one of just two meat dishes the entire meal, and the funny thing is that there wasn't even a piece of meat, but rather "hare juice", a very rich rabbit stock. That thing in the middle is a red jelly and it tasted as weird as it looks. If I had to pick, this would be my least favorite dish.

Noisette butter with rabbit brains: Yes, bunny brains for our last course (before dessert). They tasted like a cross between sweetbreads and foie gras. Good, but not worth the guilt.

For someone who loves dessert as much as I do, I'm embarrassed to admit that the end of my El Bulli meal is kind of a blur. In my defense, we were in the place for almost five hours and the wine just kept coming! And to think I was complaining on the ride home that there weren't enough sweets. As I sit here typing, I see that there was plenty.

The Wool 2007: This snow white cotton candy, piled on top of caramel sauce, was so good and very fun to eat.

Sweet frost fruits: This dessert is a bit more fuzzy. According to Daniel, these are blackberries encased in foam and syringes filled with a blackberry liquid. I'm sure I enjoyed it immensely!

Mango with black olive and smoking tea: Let's face it. By this point, I was long gone, so I'm not even going to try and act like I remember this one. Sorry!

So there you have it, 47 days after the fact, my experience at El Bulli. A part of me wishes I had taken notes throughout the entire meal. It would have made it much easier to write this post, that's for sure. But to be honest, I'm glad I didn't. Who cares if I can't perfectly explain exactly how every dish tasted or how I felt the minute they touched my lips.

What I can say is that I will remember my dinner at El Bulli and all the fun Daniel and I had traveling in France before our big meal, forever. The setting was magical, the service impeccable and even though El Bulli's been called the best restaurant in the world many times, it was refreshingly laid-back and not overly fussy. At what other top-notch restaurant do you eat with just a fork, spoon or your hands? Daniel thinks I'm crazy, but I would definitely consider going back. Anyone care to join me?

For those of you who are interested in going (and if you're passionate about food and travel, I highly recommend a visit), the tasting menu costs 185 euros (which is apparently reasonable considering El Bulli has three Michelin stars), and Roses is about 1 1/2 hours from Barcelona.

The restaurant is only open from May-September (Ferran spends the rest of the year in his Barcelona lab experimenting with new dishes), and reservation requests can be sent to bulli@elbulli.com starting around October 15. When we wrote, we said we'd be willing to come any time they had available, so it's best to be as flexible as you can. And if you really, really want to go, make sure to send requests from a few different email addresses to ensure that at least one gets accepted.

For a hotel, I highly recommend the Almadraba Park. Single rooms cost 101 euros and doubles were 137. All come with balconies and offer very pretty views.

El Bulli
Cala Montjoi
Roses, Spain
34 972 150 457

Almadraba Park Hotel
Platja de l'Almadraba
Roses, Spain
34 972 256 750

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Three cheers for Collioure

Ok, I know I promised we were just a post or two away from the bell of the ball: El Bulli. But then I couldn't contain my excitement about my CSA, my blog for Food Network and whoopie pies. Now I'm proud to present the second to last post from my trip. After this will come the one you really want to read.

When, you ask?

Next week.

Why not sooner, you wonder?

Well, I'm leaving today for Austin, Texas to visit my dear friend Nicky. (If you have any restaurant or food recs for what everyone tells me is one cool city, please send them my way!).

We'll celebrate Nicky's 30th birthday and I'll finally get to see her 7-month pregnant belly. I'll start writing my El Bulli post on the 4-hour flight there, and hopefully I'll edit it on the way back. I've already uploaded all the impressive photos Daniel took. How about this: my post on El Bulli will launch by Wednesday of next week. Scout's honor!

But now, before I catch my plane, I have to tell you about Collioure, a sweet seaside town in southeastern France. Just a few miles from the Spanish border, it was the perfect place to spend some time before making our way to Spain.

Truth be told, Collioure didn't have the best food. What it did have, however, were pretty pebbly beaches and color. Lots and lots of color.

Magenta houses next to soft sage ones, stone homes dressed up with indigo windowsills, and the loveliest pastel shutters. Even the pipes outside these places were lavender, teal, peach, you name it. I'd heard that artists such as Matisse and Derain were inspired by Collioure (in fact, it's said that the Fauvist movement began after the two of them spent the summer of 1905 here), and walking through the tiny winding streets, it's easy to see why.

Many reproductions of their work are hung throughout the town, precisely where the paintings were originally done. It's a real treat to see exactly what inspired them.

Even I felt inclined to capture Collioure's charm -- in the form of over 200 photos.

Our routine in Collioure? Walk and eat, then repeat.

The town is known for its sardines, so we sampled some at a little cafe on our first afternoon and while they were good, I was more enchanted with the pan com tomate, a Spanish-style bruschetta made with olive-oil soaked pieces of bread and a sweet and silky tomato sauce. After that came a big salad, grilled dorade, plus some wine and beer.

Somehow, less than an hour later, we were in a sea-blue shop handing over a couple euros for an anchovy tasting.

Anchovies really aren't my thing, especially when eaten all alone with toothpicks, their strong, briny flavor that much more intense.

I had a few nibbles and let Daniel eat the rest.

For dinner, we ate at L'Amphytrion (1, rue Jean Bart), an open-air spot that overlooks a small, stone-covered beach. Lovely view aside, the place was pretty pathetic. Our waiter was rude and unattentive, and our main course -- a big, boiling pot of seafood stew -- was chewy and flavorless. When a German couple ended their meal with a scene about the poor service, Daniel and I were secretly kind of happy. We left soon after and had dessert at Les Templiers, a popular place where famous painters used to hang out. Today, many of their original paintings line the walls.

On the morning we left, I picked up a baguette Catalan. Flat with curled up edges, it had a slight citrusy flavor, a crunchy sprinkling of sugar and a texture that reminded me of pita.

It was interesting, but I prefer regular baguette.

Good food is one of the main things that draws me to a place, but when a town is as pretty and relaxing as Collioure, it's easy to make an exception. Our hotel (don't let the website fool you) was a big letdown. Daniel describes it as a French Super 8, though in its defense, our room did have a lovely view. But if we ever return, I think we'll rent one of those rosy homes and cook lots of good food ourselves.

Speaking of renting, we spotted this sign on one of our afternoon walks. Enticing, n'est ce pas?

See you next week when I'm back with my post on El Bulli. Happy 4th of July!

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