The Food Diaries: Harvest.

The Food Diaries: Harvest.

Since buying our house, most of our spare time (and spare change) has gone into furnishing, finishing and improving our space. Skyler has been working tirelessly on finishing the basement, which will give us some much-needed additional square footage for entertaining, and I’ve been doing my best to make our house feel like a home and maximize said square footage. Say what you will, but choosing textiles and furniture and decor that will give you a beautiful and well-loved home isn’t as easy as it may seem! (If I see one more Live, Laugh, Love sign while searching for the perfect piece for an empty wall in our kitchen, I might lose my mind.)

Continue reading “The Food Diaries: Harvest.”

The Food Diaries: The Millworks.

The Food Diaries: The Millworks.

When charged with the task of choosing a restaurant for a work-related meet-and-greet dinner, I was thrilled. I love choosing restaurants, and since moving home, I had created a list that had yet to be explored. So, through a relatively uninspired process of elimination, I chose The Millworks, a restaurant in Midtown, completely sight unseen.

Skyler and I were the first to arrive, and as we stepped through the front door, I was struck by something I wasn’t expecting to find inside of a restaurant: art – and lots of it. It turns out, The Millworks is home to 31 different artists, each with an open-concept studio. Guests are able to peruse the entire 24,000 square foot space, watching artists create a variety of pieces. Some artists’ studios are even visible from your seat at the bar. Find something you like? Well, you can purchase a myriad of goods from gallery.

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As the rest of the gang trickled in, we took our seats in the dining area. Our waiter came over, and launched into a brief history of The Millworks, including its steadfast focus on local and sustainable food, sourced from growers in the Central PA region. Nearly 50% of the materials required in construction were recycled or repurposed. The table we sat around was made from lumber that occupied the building at purchase; the bricks surrounding the fireplace were from an 1830s farmhouse in Perry County; few of the light fixtures were taken from Broad Street Market circa 1920s. Every part of the decor spoke to the sustainability of the building as a whole. Even our water glasses were made from recycled wine bottles!

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We ordered the Urban Picnic as an appetizer – a charcuterie board filled with freshly baked bread, locally cured and smoked meats, local grass-fed dairy artisan cheeses and pickled vegetables. My winning combo? Bread, mustard, soppressata, goat cheese and pickled carrots. Sounds odd, tastes delicious.

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For dinner, I ordered the House Made Pastrami Sandwich, which wasn’t a far cry from my go-to Reuben. (Not pictured, because it was ugly. Seriously – not photogenic.) Skyler went with the Crispy Fried Chicken Sandwich (look at that adorable ramekin of ketchup!), and my boss ordered the Slow Roasted Meatloaf. Everything looked/tasted uhhhhmazing.

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And because no dinner is complete without dessert, we ordered two for the table: Peach Cobbler (my choice because, duh – peaches), and a Vanilla Bean Custard. The perfect end to a well-rounded dinner.

PS: Quick nod to The Millworks’ own beer offerings… I couldn’t keep my hands off of the Farmhouse IPA Skyler ordered! Delish.

The Food Diaries: Beer & Donut Flight Pairing at Market Cross Pub.

The Food Diaries: Beer & Donut Flight Pairing at Market Cross Pub.

When you think about food and beverage pairings, chances are, your mind drifts towards a decadent splattering of charcuterie with a few bottles of reds, whites and maybe a sparkling or two. Wine. You’re probably not thinking about beer.

I’ll be the first to raise my hand and admit that I love wine – not just the flavor that dances its way across my tastebuds, but its history, culture, and, yes, what foods best complement those qualities. Most people have a general sense about this, right? Even the most uneducated wine drinker (and that’s totally a judge-free statement) is probably aware that in general, like colors are a safe bet – red wines with red sauces (think: spaghetti and Cabernet Sauvignon) or white wines with white sauces (think: chicken alfredo and Chardonnay).

But pairing food and beer together – although it’s something people have been doing for decades – is relatively new to me. When the opportunity presents itself, I just order my favorite beer (Bell’s Two Hearted, in case you were wondering), regardless of the meal that I’m eating. But I’d never do that with wine – I choose my wines based on what I’m eating. So, when I saw that a local pub was offering a beer and donut pairing (who doesn’t love donuts?), my interest was piqued – I had to go.

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As I walked to our table near the back of the restaurant with my friend Kayla, I was eyeing up the servings on the tables of those around us. It was 11 o’clock in the morning; I hadn’t eaten anything yet, and I’d barely finished a single cup of coffee. We immediately ordered two rounds of the pre-selected pairings – one for each of us – and waited what seemed like forever (but was probably only a few minutes) for the beer and donuts to arrive. #SundayFunday

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For the tasting, Market Cross Pub paired their Raspberry Wheat with a Vanilla Coconut donut. Both were incredibly sweet when standing alone, but when the two flavors came together to recognize each other, a much more palatable harmony appeared. This sweet/sweet combination has always interested me, especially in wine pairing. Every time, I expect to be overwhelmed by the double-dose of sweet, but instead, the flavors combine in some magical scientific way to eliminate the mouth-numbing sweetness of both parts. Blows my mind.

Next, we paired the Red Ale with a Cinnamon Sugar donut, drizzled with salted caramel. This one took the opposite approach of the first and offered a slightly less sweet donut with a beer that had a little more of a bitter bite to it. But, as you know, opposites do attract, so these paired together nicely.

Then came the Porter paired with a chocolate donut, coated in chocolate icing, topped with raspberry drizzle and hot fudge. The key flavor here was the raspberry. Pairing chocolate with a porter is sort of like a no-brainer, right? The beer already carries notes of coffee and chocolate, but when paired with chocolate, this like vs. like combination simply overlap. But when you add in a dash of bitter or tangy flavoring (like the raspberry), it plays off the sugars in the beer, making it a more complex (and tasty!) pairing. Boom. Science.

Finally, we made our way to the stout, paired with a maple bacon donut. Is there truly anything more welcome on a sleepy Sunday morning than the taste of bacon and a cold beer? So, regardless of the pairing, I knew this would be one I’d love. Mmm, bacon. Stouts, like porters, have an intrinsic coffee/chocolate flavor, and are often silky and creamy to taste. These smooth, cool qualities are opposed by the saltiness of the bacon, and complemented by the creamy maple flavor. Altogether a killer combination. 

And altogether, a killer Sunday morning. Yum.

The Food Diaries: Char’s Tracy Mansion.

The Food Diaries: Char’s Tracy Mansion.

I’ll openly admit it: one of my biggest hesitations about moving back home was the food. More specifically, the lack thereof.  I love food, and that’s not an exaggeration. I love the taste, the smell, and mostly, the experiences that come along with a great meal. And, well, I grew up here – it’s an area where people congregate at the local diner or a nearby Applebee’s for a night out. If they want something a little fancy, they drive a few extra miles to the nearest Red Lobster or Olive Garden. This area offers little else besides the stereotypical splattering of uninspired chain restaurants.

At least that’s how it was when I left in the fall of 2008, and I never really bothered to look beyond that or expect much else.

But, now that I actually live here, I’m realizing that over the past 8 years, central Pennsylvania has stepped up its culinary game ever so slightly, and there are some hidden gems nestled somewhere in between the TGI Fridays and Red Robins.

Enter: Char’s Tracy Mansion.

Harrisburg, PA has climbed its way into the level of cool that a city must reach to host a Restaurant Week. While it has not quite developed into the all-out crowd-drawing food fest that cities like Pittsburgh and Philadelphia offer to its residents, it’s a start.

I shot my mom a quick text, followed by a link to all of the restaurants that were participating in Restaurant Week, she chose the venue and we set a date for a Girls Night. I’ll admit, I had never heard of (or even noticed) Char’s Tracy Mansion, even though it’s the only restaurant in Harrisburg situated on the Susquehanna.

The mansion was built in 1913 as a Tudor Revival home for an industrialist. It was a sprawling 30-room home, equipped with hardwood floors, fireplaces, an iron cage elevator and a coal bin so large it was later used as a dining room. In 1951, it was converted into a osteopathic hospital, and later into mental health facility, before it was finally purchased in 2012 with the intent of turning it into a restaurant.

We were fortunate enough to score a seat on the front porch with our chairs angled forward towards the river. The sun was setting, the air was cool – it was a beautiful night!

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The Restaurant Week menu was predetermined; each guest could choose from three options for each of the three courses offered. My mom chose the beef tenderloin roll, served with a side of horseradish cream, as her appetizer. I’m a sucker for a good egg roll, and this one was downright delicious. For her meal, she went with chicken and eggplant parmesan, served on a bed of fettuccini noodles with marinara sauce. The eggplant melted in your mouth and made me realize that I really don’t eat enough of it. Yum. For dessert, she chose the peanut butter pie, made with an Oreo crust and accompanied by a caramel sauce: decadence in its tastiest form.

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I, being a creature of habit, chose the spicy shrimp taco as an appetizer. The spice of the seasonings was off-set by the avocado aioli, tomato, greens and pickled red onion – I truly could have eaten 100 more of them. I love tacos. (Heart-eyed emoji.) For my second course, I went with the grilled pork tenderloin, which I’ll award the winner of the night. It was coated in a dry coffee/cocoa rub, and served with Yukon mashed potatoes, braised cabbage, onion and green beans, all atop herbed pork jus. I honestly could have licked the plate clean. For dessert, I chose the apple-cinammon bread pudding drizzled in creme anglais, and enjoyed it very much after I picked out all of the raisins. Ick.

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Cheers to you, mama, and thanks for introducing me to this hidden gem!

The Food Diaries: Tulum.

The Food Diaries: Tulum.

One week ago, I was dipping my toes into the salty blue waters of the Caribbean Sea, completely immersed in the sound of waves gently slapping against the white, sandy shores. We were on vacation, and we had one mission: complete and utter, melt-into-a-puddle relaxation.

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Most days, we lounged around the pool, laying lazily under the shade of the cabana, only emerging into the sunlight to refill our empty glasses. But, as a first-timer in Mexico, I had one requirement: I wanted to go to Tulum.

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Tulum (whose name stems from the Yucatan Mayan word for fence or wall) is an uber-populated resort town just south of Cancun, home to a 13th century, walled Mayan archeological site overlooking the sea. Every photo I’ve ever seen painted this incredible picture of paradise. Of course, I had to go.

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We arrived in Tulum nearly an hour after we hopped into a taxi and told our driver vaguely where we wanted to go. She dropped us off at the entrance to the ruins, an area that has been hyper-gentrified and filled with tourists. But the energy was palpable. Spanish songs filled the air, and dancers in costume could be seen near and far (and dangling in the sky). Dozens of shops pushing their commemorative trinkets lined the outer edges, and stray cats darted through the crowds.

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We were ravenous; it was past noon and we hadn’t eaten anything all day. My eyes glazed over the Starbucks and Subways and overtly-Americanized restaurants, and settled on a little hole in the wall joint near the back. Up until this point, we had existed on burgers, pizza, sandwiches and Asian cuisine. We were in Mexico, for goodness sake. I was craving some authenticity.

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On the most basic level, the fish taco can be reduced to a very simple equation: Fish + Tortilla = Fish Taco. When you consider it in this capacity, there’s no question that people have been eating fish tacos in the coastal areas of Mexico for an awfully long time. It probably goes back thousands of years to when indigenous North American peoples first wrapped their offshore catch into stone-ground-corn tortillas. Today, this humble delicacy typically consists of a lightly battered mild white fish that is deep-fried, then served in a corn tortilla (often two) with shredded cabbage, a thin sour-cream- or mayonnaise-based sauce, a bit of salsa, and a most vital spritz of lime.

Well, my fish tacos didn’t come with that essential sauce or salsa, but my oh my were they delicious. Maybe it’s my bias towards the first authentic Mexican meal I ate in while in — wait for it — Mexico, but it was absolutely, finger-lickingly delectable. And when served with an ice cold mango margarita on a hot and sticky day, there really isn’t anything better. Except for maybe Skyler’s chicken fajitas and Dos Equis.

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The Food Diaries: Futo Buta.

The Food Diaries: Futo Buta.

In order to completely submerge myself in all things Soccer Shots, I spent my first week in Charlotte, North Carolina, learning and learning and learning alongside my team. My brain was in overdrive for hours each day, simply trying to absorb all of the information that was being tossed around the table. Fortunately, when our long days were over, we decompressed over some of the most delicious food I’ve eaten in a long time. Who took the cake? Futo Buta, a self-proclaimed “hip Japanese noodle house with a patio.” (I should also note that each time Futo Buta was said throughout the week, I genuinely thought they were saying Food-ha Buddha. I was wrong. Clearly.)

We were seated outside on the patio, and I was sweating through my shirt, chugging luke-warm water and using the menu as a fan. It was hot. Conversation was happening all around me, but the only thing I could focus on was how disgustingly sweaty I had to look. Great first impression, Abby. When the waitress came to our table, she rather quickly recommended the Rice Crispy Squares as an appetizer. I hardly heard her description of the delicacy, as I was pretty busy trying to regulate my body temperature. But we took her word for it, and added a side of fried brussel sprouts to our order as well. As she walked away, Tim, my new boss, said, “What a saleswoman! She recommended the most expensive thing on the menu, and we took the bait!” He had a point, and we all began to wonder how good it really would be.

Photos from Futo Buta   Fried brussels sprouts Pork belly bun Miso ramen  Tuna and rice cakes Hamachi Crudo Chef/owner Michael ?????? Photographed in Charlotte, NC on June 18th 2015 Photos by Peter Taylor

When the Rice Crispy Squares were placed in front of us, I was immediately intrigued. Deep-fried sticky rice provided the base for a DIY sushi-esque snack. I spooned out a bit of spicy tuna on top of my square, dipped it into the wasabi soy sauce, and gave it a whirl. As it turns out, our waitress was right – this was the most delicious appetizer. (Not to mention, I’ve always been a fan of food I have to work for. Like fondue!)

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Then, it was time for the main event. I asked the two Futo Buta regulars on my team for their suggestions, and quickly decided on the Chizu ramen, a dish served with copious amounts of pecorino cheese (one of my favorite cheeses in the world), whipped egg, shiso pesto, yuzu and black garlic. As I stirred my dish together, the cheese began to melt, and I scooped up each bite ever-so-gracefully and slurped the noodles off of my chopsticks. If I ever return to Futo Buta, I will never get anything else. It was wonderfully delicious, and deliciously salty. It was at that point that my sweatiness didn’t matter anymore. This dish took priority. Yum.

The Philadelphia Food Diaries: Cheu Noodle Bar.

The Philadelphia Food Diaries: Cheu Noodle Bar.

Do you ever have the kind of day where focusing on the task at hand seems nearly impossible? The kind of day when you’re sitting at your desk, headphones in, really trying to focus, but then a really good jam comes on and you start humming and shoulder dancing, and then all of a sudden you remember — shoot, I’m still at work. Or the kind of day when you ask your coworkers (in rotation because it’s less obvious that way) if they’d like to go grab a cup of coffee. Not because I needed any more coffee, but because I needed some fresh air, some movement, some of anything that would get me away from my desk. I was unmotivated, uninspired. Plain and simple.

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So my boss, picking up on my coffee-every-hour-on-the-hour kind of antics, asked if I wanted to go out for lunch with one of our vendors that was coming in town from New York. YES. Yes was my answer. (She also made me promise that I would actually do some work when we returned. Fine.) She chose Cheu Noodle Bar, a small Asian Fusion joint in Washington Square West that opens at noon each day. We stepped through the front door at approximately 12:07PM, and Cheu was already packed and the wait was 20 minutes. (Pro: More time out of the office, coddling my ADD. Con: I’m generally impatient, and I was also very hungry.)

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When we were finally seated at the bar, we agreed on two different appetizers: broccoli, served with Vietnamese sausage, peanuts and soy, and General Tso’s brussel sprouts, cooked with kimchi, rice pearls and tofu. As Jenee (my boss) placed the order, some gut-wrenching desire for the sweet potato rangoons kicked in. So I Psst‘d her. She rolled her eyes at me, and added them to our order. And thank god she did because they were crispy and wonderful and the perfect combination of sweet and salty and I honestly wish I could have eaten 173 more of them. The broccoli and brussels were also incredible, and even though we had just started to nibble on our appetizers, I began to realize how Cheu Noodle Bar had made its way onto the list.

Our seats at the bar overlooked the kitchen, and the chefs had no qualms about making casual conversation with us as they chopped, swirled, sizzled, diced, fired and grilled our food. Right in front of us! But my favorite part was something that Cheu has received a lot of heat for. It’s not authentic. It’s Asian fusion. It’s not authentic Asian; it’s whatever the heck they want it to be. With an Asian flare. And I respect that.

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Admittedly, I had already fallen in love with the place. And then the cook placed my bowl of fried chicken tan tan in front of me. Stop. A bowl of the most perfect ramen noodles, buried under broth, collard greens, a sweet tea egg, a big ol’ piece of fried chicken and cornbread furikake. I did what every over-confident, noodle-loving foodie would do, and I clumsily attacked this sensational dish with some chopsticks. I comically failed, but it didn’t even matter. Every bite was better than the last.

Cheu, I could cheu on your noodles all day. (Sorry, had to. Buh-dum-dum-psh.)

The Philadelphia Food Diaries: Talula’s Daily.

The Philadelphia Food Diaries: Talula’s Daily.

Today, I’ve lived in Philadelphia for exactly 88 days. One third of those 88 days, however, have actually been spent not in Philadelphia. I went back to my hometown for the holidays (a few of them, actually), to Georgia, to DC, to New York, all around. And there is even more travel on the horizon – more trips to Georgia, DC and New York, a little bit of Tampa and then a whole lot of Portland. And that’s just in the next two months.

So, I think it’s safe to say that Philadelphia doesn’t quite feel like home. My feet haven’t been on the ground long enough for that to be true. Besides, that feeling of “home” doesn’t just show up because I have a residence here. Home is people, home is memories.

I’ve always been a little slow when it comes to change. I get into a routine and the instant that something – anything, big or small – changes what I’ve become comfortable with, it can be jarring. That said, I’m still adjusting here. Every now and then,  something will happen – I’ll hear a song, or overhear someone crack a joke, or see a small trinket at a store – and I’ll think of the people and places I’ve called home. I’ll get this tightening feeling in my chest – you know, the one you get when you’re watching the saddest part of a heartbreaking movie – and I’ll be reminded that I’m far from home, despite the fact that geographically, I’m not very distant at all. It’s surprising how little it takes to send me barreling backwards in time to a different place, a different set of circumstances. But each time, I get a little more thankful to have been where I have, and to know who I’ve known.


Day 66 as a Philadelphia resident: I’m finally going to cross off the first restaurant on my list: Talula’s Daily. That was my whole schtick in Pittsburgh – culinary exploration – but here? Now? Not so much.

In fact, I had even broken the cardinal food rule of being a Philadelphia resident just a few days earlier. I ate (and enjoyed) a cheesesteak outside of city limits. I had been warned though: this non-Philly cheesesteak was the best. My unreasonable allegiance to Philadelphia cheesesteaks was unwavering – I had already decided I’d get my usual (cheese – not whiz, onions) and it wouldn’t compare to Jim’s before I even tasted it. Fortunately, my pride isn’t so great that I’m unable to admit when I’m wrong… because I was. This cheesesteak from a small, Cheers-like joint (where everybody knows your name) lived up to the hype. It’s also worth mentioning that I didn’t even take my first bite while it was fresh. I finished my beer (Coors Light, cash only) and rode back to the house, all while this cheesesteak rested inside a styrofoam container on my lap (with holes, though, so it wouldn’t get too soggy). And it was still probably the best cheesesteak I’ve ever had.

So, fast forward a few days and I’m ready for Talula’s: the first entry into the Philadelphia Food Diaries. (Because, let’s be honest, anything I could have written about up until this point were the cheesesteaks I’d tried from various places around town, and they just didn’t live up to the hype anymore.) The premise of the dining experience at Talula’s Daily is unique, creative and intimate. There is a pre-set dinner menu of several courses, served at a slow and intentional pace across the span of several hours (and across several bottles of wine). Each course is cooked in the open-style cottage kitchen, situated directly next to the long, wooden farm table in the dining room, and served family-style in the middle of the table. You take what you want, and share the dishes with everyone else around the table. The cups and serveware are slightly mismatched, and it feels like home. In fact, every thing about this meal reminded me of home in some far-removed way.

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The first course was an apple beignet, served with bacon jam and quick pickled cabbage. A seemingly odd trio of flavors, I proceeded with caution. It wasn’t necessary. The sweet fried dough that encompassed the warm and tender apples was balanced by the saltiness of the jam and mouth-puckering acidity of the pickles. These reminded me of my friend Cheryl. The last time I ate a beignet was with her at Cafe du Monde in New Orleans.

 

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We then moved on to Meyer Lemon Scallops, served with Belgian endives, candied citrus butter and chunks of grapefruit. Another unexpected combination done incredibly well. This reminded me of my Grammy who first introduced me to the sour, biting taste of grapefruit.

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Then came the meat of the meal. No pun intended. The juicy short rib genuinely melted in my mouth, and was served on a plate with glazed seasonal vegetables and horseradish whipped potatoes. This reminded me of my mom. When I was younger, I remember she would often make a variation of this meal. Let’s be honest, whose mom didn’t? Meat, vegetables, potatoes. A childhood classic in my book. The whipped potatoes, while scalding hot, were glorious. The perfect amount of butter, the perfect amount of horseradish.

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Dessert was perfect – a chocolate tasting. A trio of white, milk and dark chocolates in a festive presentation. This reminded me not of a person, but of a place: a chain coffee shop in Southside Works where I would frequently visit before/after/during work for years. I became such a regular that I was on a first name basis with the baristas, knowing when to expect each of them to be working on different days. Each year around Christmas time, they would give me a tiny cup of the newest holiday beverage they had concocted to taste – tiny cups just like the one I had at Talula’s.

I left dinner that night feeling full – literally and figuratively. I couldn’t put another granule of food into my mouth or drink another sip, but I also felt oddly comforted. I realized that I could be seated at a table of (mostly) strangers, in a city that doesn’t quite feel like home, and still feel close to the people I love.

The Philadelphia Food Diaries: Georgetown Edition.

The Philadelphia Food Diaries: Georgetown Edition.

“Hi”

A few weeks ago, this was a text I received from my cousin Elliot. No punctuation, no emojis, no indication of any emotion whatsoever. Just “Hi”. A few hours and one ghetto Air BNB later and it’s 2:00 in the morning at Jim’s Steaks. I sat at a table next to him and Heather, chowing down on the best cheesesteaks in town and tossing back cheap beers. A short little text ended in a top notch night.

So, fast forward a little while, and I figured I’d try my luck with a quick “Hi” back to Elliot. The last time one of our conversations started that way, it ended pretty well, so I figured my odds were good. I was heading to Georgetown for a work trip that night, and was hoping he could provide me with a few dining recommendations since DC used to be his ol’ stomping grounds. After a little bit of back and forth, I had it. And I couldn’t wait.

But, before I could get there, I had to get through two other meals: dinner and breakfast the next morning.

For dinner, we chose this amazing Greek restaurant, Kapnos. We ordered an impossibly unreasonable amount of food (most of which I couldn’t even pronounce), and a lip-smacking delicious bottle (or two) of red wine. Each of us left stuffed to the brim with the happiest tastebuds in all of DC.

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The next morning, my mission was singular – I wanted coffee and a cupcake from Baked and Wired, a small, family-owned coffee shop and bakery in Georgetown. Autumn first told me about this place when she spent a summer in DC, and after I visited a few years ago, I fell in love with the joint. The coffee is excellent – I ordered an Americano, as usual – and the cupcakes served there are actually called cakecups. They’re huge and deliciously moist and (dare I say?) worlds better than anything you’d get at Georgetown Cupcakes. I chose the Elvis Impersonater, a banana cupcake with peanut butter icing, drizzled in chocolate. If you’re gonna have something sweet for breakfast, you might as well go big or go home, right?

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After a few hours of work, my wait was over. I was finally going to get my hands on a fish taco from Farmers, Fishers, Bakers before I had to hop on a train (literally my worst nightmare) and head back to Philadelphia. A fried white fish taco on a sweet corn cake, to be exact. Served with radishes, mangos, cashews, dates and coleslaw, every bite was light and refreshing and everything Elliot had said it would be… and then some. Even good enough to get me through a train ride home. And that’s sayin’ somethin’.

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The Philadelphia Food Diaries: Augusta Edition.

The Philadelphia Food Diaries: Augusta Edition.

Two weeks ago, I spent a few days in Augusta, Georgia, a town that I had imagined to be small and uninteresting. I had mentally prepared myself to exist on a mostly-caffeine diet for my marathon days, fully expecting the culinary options to be sub-par.

I quickly learned, however, that Augusta is neither small nor uninteresting. It didn’t take long for someone to inform me that Augusta National Golf Club is home to the annual Masters Tournament, so I did my tourist duty and picked up a commemorative golf ball, and then I set my sights on what really mattered: leveraging a few food-loving locals to unearth some culinary gems.

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Stop #1.  As we waited for everyone to arrive at Abel Brown, a southern kitchen and oyster bar, Maddie and I decided to order a drink. The bartender, a quirky and talkative man with a southern drawl, started chatting about Pittsburgh (a surefire way to my heart) as he expertly crafted my “Sorry, Hank!” cocktail, a silky smooth concoction of gin, elderflower and lime. I asked about the name; Sorry, Hank! isn’t something very familiar. Two of Abel Brown’s usuals – Hank and Anne, a couple in their early 70s – were sitting at the bar one afternoon. After Anne had already downed a martini or two, she asked the bartender to whip up something else he thought she might like. It was the very drink I held in my hands, and when Hank leaned over for a taste of his wife’s, she said in her sweet southern drawl, “Sorry, Hank! It’s all gowne.” Hank rolled his eyes and looked lovingly at his wife, laughing. Now, her drink is a staple on the happy hour menu at Abel Brown.

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We took our seats inside the crisp, brightly lit and minimally decorated dining room and got down to business: appetizers. We started with a cheese plate (because when you’re lactose intolerant, obviously), smoked and fried chicken wings, johnny cakes, a drool-worthy scallop ceviche and a Caesar salad, complete with real life anchovies (yuck). Maddie and I agreed without hesitation – these were the best wings we had ever had. They had an incomparable smoky flavor, and when delicately dipped in the creamy horseradish sauce served on the side, it felt like the world stopped.

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Despite already feeling full, we quickly moved on to the main event. For me, that meant Georgia White Shrimp and Grits. (Because, when you’re in the South, is there really anything else to order?) Served with andouille sausage, fried okra, blistered tomatoes and jalapeno butter, it was everything I could have possibly imagined and more. I love grits – I mean, I really love grits – and these were creamier, saltier and more wonderful than any I’ve ever had before. (Sorry Emeril.)

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Fast forward 24 hours, and we’re seated in a dimly lit booth towards the back of Stop #2: Craft & Vine, a restaurant whose name alone piqued my interest. Walking through the front door was like crossing the threshold into a different era entirely. The waiters were dressed in varying shades of blue pants and cream shirts, each outfit held together (literally) with a pair of suspenders.  If you closed your eyes, the sounds could remind you of what a speakeasy sounded like. Hushed voices, bursts of laughter, and the shimmering, shaking and slamming of cocktails being crafted behind the long, wooden bar. The leather seats felt cool on the back of my legs, and the house rules lent an air of exclusivity to the whole joint. And to think – I almost decided to stay in. But now, I was hooked.

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Craft & Vine is less of a place to get a traditional dinner, but instead, a communal tasting space at your table – more tapas than individual meals. So, I ordered a French 75 (my favorite cocktail of all time – yum), and we slid our fingers down the menu, rattling off to our young waiter everything that caught our eye. We began, in our typical fashion, with a selection of charcuterie, and then layered in the weekly adaptation of deviled eggs, which were served with crispy chicken skins and a light layer of buffalo sauce. We added in some rabbit “wings,” a beet salad and a plate of Cab Sirloin, served with roaster fingerling potatoes, bravas sauce, romesco and wood oven grilled onions. The sirloin, by far, was the winner of the night. It melted in my mouth in the most delectable way imaginable.

Maybe it’s true what they say: everything is better in the South. And maybe the anonymity of Augusta (aside from golf-lovers around the world) works in my favor. These hidden gems will always be mine.