Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Alpha and Beta's Adventures in Eating: Greek

I may have mentioned in a previous post that my children can be picky eaters. However, comparing notes with other parents leads me to believe that they are no pickier than your average four- or six-year-old child. If we must (and we must), a more accurate assessment would be to call them cautious eaters, especially when encountering new food. Usually, we can make a curry or stir-fry or risotto for dinner and know that one of them will embrace the challenge of trying something new, while the other balks. If we serve the dish often enough, the protests will eventually end.

All bets are off, however, when we visit the grandparents or go to a restaurant. The unpredictability of the meal is usually a force too great for either of them to handle gracefully. Seeing as Hambone and I are hauling the wee ones to France this summer, and seeing as most of the vacation will be about food and most of the meals will be taken in restaurants that I wouldn’t categorize as family-friendly, we have begun restaurant boot camp. Once a month, we’ll take Alpha and Beta to a different ethnic restaurant where we’ve promised not to order anything outrageous and where the only rule is Try everything.

For the inaugural event, we crossed the mighty Mississippi River and ate Greek in Minneapolis. It’s Greek to Me is located at one of the Twin Cities’ intersections of diverse foodstuffs. For a few blocks in each direction, you’ll find falafel, Peruvian, Spanish tapas, sushi, and upscale American, to name a few.

At It’s Greek to Me, the food is reliable and delicious. Travel posters, Aegean landscapes, and colorful textiles adorn the interior.

The boys were into the field trip, and I noticed that they were very comfortable in the environment. Ah, taking them out to eat is paying off. And, they were sports about trying new food. I found that if I speared something with my fork and told Beta (the more adventurous eater of the two) that it was meat, he would pop the morsel in his mouth and, often, ask for more. Both jockeyed for the last few calamari pieces. Beta, rather than asking to have the platter of calamari passed to him, would hop out of his chair, circle the table to the platter, and help himself—all before anyone could ask him to use his manners.

For the record, H & S chased their food with retsina. We ordered the following:

In all of the orientation we gave the boys, we neglected to prepare them for the saganaki presentation. When the fumbling server ignited the brandy-soaked slab of fried kasseri cheese, which audibly went up in flames, I saw two sets of eyes bug out. Owing to shock and amazement, I don’t think either of them heard the celebratory cries of “Opa!”

Cold mezes
This assortment included briny taramasalata (a rosy-hued cod roe dip); warm, soft pita wedges; kalamata olives, peperoncini, and tomato slices; salty chunks of feta; vinegary, rice-stuffed grape leaves, and octopus that had been marinated in red wine and herbs, then grilled and chilled before serving.

Warm mezes
AKA, the heaping meat platter came loaded with perfectly seasoned pork souvlaki, strips of lamb for gyros, and garlicky loukaniko sausages.

Divine, thick squid rings and tentacles, shrouded in a light and crispy batter.

Neither Hambone nor I had room for dessert, but after some consultation, I found a small corner into which a gooey little wedge of baklava might fit. Alpha, however, kept his eye on the prize: the loaded bakery case that greeted us when we walked through the restaurant’s doors. While we were waiting for our meal to be delivered, with Beta in tow, son #1 would make a trip to the case to make sure that no other diner had ordered his slab of dense chocolate-chocolate cake. Having no further appetite for dinner, Alpha was miraculously hungry for the cake. He also graciously shared with Beta, who, on the side, nibbled my baklava. Since he was so busy stuffing his mouth, Beta didn’t even have time to learn what this honeyed treat was called, so he simply referred to it as “that golden dessert.” Poetic.

Tropical Gastronomy 101

One doesn’t visit Costa Rica for gastronomic fare. One goes for volcanoes, cloud forests, unrivaled wildlife, spa treatments, possibly even surfing. At least that’s what I’ve gleaned from the way Costa Rica is presented in glossy travel magazines (Costa Rica is almost certainly never profiled in glossy culinary magazines). Never having visited the country, I’m not even really sure what constitutes typical Costa Rican food. But, as is fitting for any travel that Hambone and Spice endeavor, I boosted my knowledge-base by looking through a few travel guides. We learned that rice and beans would be the central component of each meal.

So, forget about the food. We specifically chose lying on the beach in colorful Costa Rica as our destination over watching the spring cycling classics in cold, dreary Belgium. With
Arthur Frommer’s Budget Travel magazine as our guide, we made reservations at the Ylang Ylang resort in Montezuma. Why? Fearing a weeklong diet of rice and beans, we were seduced by this resort, which promised a French-trained chef on site, as well as the requisite beach-side bungalow, crystal-clear swimming pool with waterfall, and jungle with howler monkeys—all that one needs for relaxation and rejuvenation when one is faced with a Minnesota March.

We were pleasantly surprised by the food we ate that week. One element stood out: fresh. Fresh fruit, vegetables, and fish were the staples of every meal at Ylang Ylang resort and its sister restaurant, El Sano Banano (the healthy banana).

Breakfast came with the price of our room. If you think we were noshing on the typical complimentary hotel breakfast—stale pastries, chased by weak juice from concentrate and bitter, lukewarm coffee—you would be wrong. First, Costa Rica is the coffee mother ship, and the coffee served by the hotel was top-notch. If we spent enough time hanging out in the restaurant, especially near the bar, we’d hear the juicer running. And each morning at breakfast, we were offered fresh-squeezed orange, passion fruit, or tamarind juice. Who would choose orange? The passion fruit was sweet and lively, but the tamarind was singular. Despite coming in a rather unappetizing brown-color, speckled with microscopic seeds, tamarind juice is slightly spicy and sweet.

We noticed that almost everyone ordered the yogurt-granola-fruit parfait, but not Hambone and Spice. We tried everything but that one thing we can eat anytime at home. Instead we ate our fill of huevos rancheros (fried egg perched atop black beans and a hearty corn tortilla, then smothered in a tangy, fresh salsa),
tipico (an egg made to order, rice and beans, cheese, and fried plantains), and French toast redolent with cinnamon and topped with a tropical fruit (papaya, mango, and pineapple) compote.

At lunch, one could from order a variety of sandwiches, enormous composed salads, and a few house specialties, such as rich mushroom crepes. The restaurant also had a carefully edited sushi menu, and Hambone diligently worked his way through it. Perhaps it’s most apt to say that sushi techniques had been applied to vegetables and fish. None of the sushi resembled what we were expecting. Needless to say, it was amazing.

The hamachi was prepared nigiri-style, but what we were served was something that looked like it had passed through a nuclear reactor. A generous slab of hamachi had been seared, then drapped over a large, dense pillow of seasoned rice. The fish was shellacked with a soy sauce-sesame oil concoction before it was sprinkled liberally with sesame seeds. In a few words, this sushi was amazing, succulent, unique. Hambone made a sport out of watching the moment when each hotel newcomer received their first sushi order. Many asked, “What is it?” Some appraised the morsel on steroids, trying to determine how best to eat it and concluding that knife and fork would keep their hands tidiest.

By dinner, the restaurant was bathed in torch- and candlelight, which made a romantic setting. The portions were enormous, and the food was served hot, which I found challenging to eat in weather well over 80 degrees. Truth be told, it was no hardship to tuck into the spectacular meals on the dinner menu, which was replete with shrimp, tuna, mahi mahi, and pasta. The mango-habenero-slicked mahi mahi was one stand-out. Kabobs (shrimp one night, chicken the next) arrived tableside arranged like a tepee. One end of the skewer was stuck into a pineapple slice, the rind of which had been peeled and unfurled to anchor the top of the skewers—an artful presentation of food that required a blueprint to disassemble.

If one were so inclined toward dessert, and we were, a short menu kept us amused. My favorites were the chocolate crepes (avocado played the supporting role in the chocolate filling) and the sundae (vanilla ice cream, bittersweet chocolate sauce, and granola).

As for the rice and beans—I couldn't get enough. In fact, back in Minnesota, I crave them as they were served Costa Rica-style: in a timbale and enlivened with chicken stock, green chiles, and cilantro.