On our recent weekend getaway to Oregon, I really wanted to let myself live in the moment. I disconnected myself from work communication and tried not to think about blog posts, pastry orders, or responsibility in general. I wanted to sink into our snacks, our meals, and the planning process between all of them. I wanted to actively get into the culture and cuisine for whatever we were having. For example, we stopped at Kenny & Zuke’s, a Jewish delicatessen next door to the Ace Hotel, where we were staying. I read the whole menu. I looked at all of the decor, kept my phone in my purse (read: no pics to prove it), and just really wanted to live it up. Living it up meant I got a warm, toasted caraway-filled pumpernickel bagel (SO much caraway, it was amazing), whitefish salad, herring, and lox. And lots of mustard. Russell had pastrami on Jewish rye. It was definitely not a fancy meal, but it was an awesome experience. Every part of that restaurant made me feel like I was somewhere special; somewhere unique that people cared about.
Later that night, we stopped at Kachka, a Russian restaurant that I had been wanting to try. They serve vodka by the gram, have several kinds of caviar, blini, pomegranate syrup over Russian pancakes, the most amazing propaganda decor – and they have dumplings. We had savory dumplings that were really lovely. They were great. But then, then we had the sweet dumplings, varenyky. The only reason I ordered the varenyky with sour Oregon cherries was because they were out of the pancakes with pomegranate syrup. They were definitely my second choice. But what happened next was amazing. They were absolutely insane. The dough was soft and squishy – totally fresh and unctuous. The filling was hardly sweet, with really tart, soft, perfectly cooked cherries. They were just barely laced with a tart butter sauce, and dusted with chiffonades of mint and basil. The absolute and extreme joy I felt and experienced when I ate each of those cherry dumplings was incredible. And it’s hard for me to explain. I felt like I was both at a Michelin-starred restaurant because the execution was so perfect, but also like I was at a Russian grandmother’s kitchen table.
The entire environment at Kachka lead up to the experience with these dumplings. It was a no-bullshit situation. We were at a dark table with standard-looking, unremarkable eastern European/Russian plastic tablecloths like my Polish grandmother uses, lots of silver work in the glassware and interior design, and beautiful lace pieces were strategically placed throughout. The menu didn’t have definitions. You either figured it out, didn’t care what you were getting, or asked your server. I faked knowing what I was ordering a couple of times. But that made it so much more fun! I wasn’t being catered to – I was given a proper Russian experience. I got real-deal food with a real-deal environment. This is a special experience that I don’t think one gets to experience often.
My giddiness was not only because of the food or the place. I want to set the bar higher for my dining. I want to demand a great experience. I deserve it – we all do. I deserve to go out of my way to find something that really satisfies me. I deserve to put away my phone, think about active, fun dinner conversation. My fellow diners deserve to be engaged in witty, interesting stories and they deserve to have bites of what I ordered! As Pilar Guzmán says, taste is our most primal memory keeper. So why don’t we make that experience more special, if we are really just running around making memories at every meal?
I know none of us can afford the time or finances to make every snack and meal a really special occasion – or something incredibly elaborate. But what we can do is to really think about what we are eating and try to make some kind of experience out of it. Does that mean just using nicer cloth napkins, as opposed to sloppily wiping your mouth with a paper towel? Maybe. Does it mean actively thinking of interesting things to talk about with a dining partner? Yeah, for sure. I was in a hurry this morning, before leaving the house, but I sat down with my almost-burned English muffin and eggs, and I really took a good look at it and my surroundings, I took a deep breath, and I ate breakfast.
But on a larger scale, we owe it to ourselves to seek out dining experiences that challenge us and excite us. Our days are slipping by very quickly, and if we don’t sink into some of the minutes during those days, what’s the point? I’ve spent too many days rushing. I’ve spent too many meals being unsatisfied. We deserve to seek out opportunities for great food and we deserve for restaurants to give us a fantasy experience.
I know I want that. Don’t you?
Photography Credits: Nicole Franzen Photgraphy, Willamette Week, 101 cookbooks