I’m on San Juan Island this weekend, specifically in the town of Friday Harbor. My work paid for me to drive up and do a couple science shows at the local fair today. I decided to stay an extra night and check the place out, since it’s not too likely that I’ll get back here any time soon.
I’m staying at the Wayfarer’s Rest Hostel, which totally rocks. It’s $25 for a dorm bed. My room has six beds, bunk-style (with these cool bunks supported with driftwood pillars). Linens are provided, but you bring your own towel for the shower. There are two other rooms with a similiar set-up. I could have paid $40 for a private room, but it turned out that I had the room to myself last night anyway. Each room has a shared bathroom. Then there are two full kitchens with microwave, oven, etc, and a couple of sitting areas. Also, there are cute chickens that live in a groovy henhouse in the back yard. Definitely worth it, especially when you consider that the local campgrounds all charge $20/night.
I stopped at the little internet cafe down the street earlier today, but it’s one of those places that hasn’t figured out that wireless internet is just a marketing ploy for whatever else you’re trying to sell, not a commodity that is worth money in itself. They weren’t trying to sell anything else, and they wanted to charge me $4 for 30 minutes of wireless access. So I just moseyed on down the street a mile or less to the public library where they have free wireless and you don’t even have to buy a coffee, let alone pay cash.
While at the library, I did some internet searches for places to eat in Friday Harbor and decided that since I got paid to come up here and all, I deserved a good meal. Like, a really good one. I went to a place downtown called 120 Nichols (oddly enough, that’s its address as well). Their menu was posted online and it sounded really good. It said reservations recommended, so I made one for the earliest time possible and spent the intervening time browsing around in the little local yarn store. The yarn was pretty much your basic stuff, but I loved listening to the two women and one man sitting at the back table, gossiping about everyone in town while they worked on their knitting. Does every local yarn store have this group of people? Every one that I’ve been in has the same basic grouping. (The man said, “Well, she started the class by saying ‘Okay, ladies…’ and I tell you what I got right in her face and said, ‘Excuuuuuse me, okay who??’ You know it’s not that I mind it so much, it’s just that women have made such a big deal about changing the way we use male gender words that they should have to do the same thing.”)
And finally it was time for dinner. There was no one else at the place when I showed up, and I was a little worried. But the place was beautiful. The walls are light blue with white trim all round, including a really tall baseboard. The windows and doors all have really wide trim also. The floors are old hardwood. All the tables were nicely set in the converted living room. Pocket doors with frosted glass windows seperated the dining area from the really big kitchen area. John met me at the door, let me pick my seat, and explained that he would be waiter and cook tonight. It was soon clear that he was the owner, chef, and sole staff person. Again, I was a little worried. I can’t even keep track of one meal long enough to get it all right. Imagine if you were trying to wait on a dining area full of different orders, cook all of those orders, and refill everyone’s water all at once. Fortunately, I was still the only one in there.
I ordered the Grilled Hearts of Romaine salad and the Pork Tenderloin as an entree. As soon as I saw the salad, my spirits lifted. It was Presented. You know, in that way that chefs do it in the fancy cooking magazines (I know because I see them on the covers as I am looking for a magazine that I’m actually interested in looking at). The grilled hearts of Romaine were topped with really thin slices of Gala apples, then some Roquefort cheese crumbles, and then all of it topped with a few pieces of shaved proschiutto. You can not appreciate how miraculous this salad was. Also, there was some sort of dressing that he makes himself, and I have no idea what was in it. Anyway, words do not express.
I was in Happy Food Land already when the Pork Tenderloin arrived. It was sliced, and topped with apples, rhubarb, some sort of onion, with a side of the richest tenderest gold potatoes you ever did put in your mouth. Over it all was a Cabernet sauce that did not make me want to gag, which is what wine sauces usually do. It was terrifically fantastic, and the pork was perfectly tender, no chewy-ness to it at all, like how it always is when I try to cook it.
I thought about asking John to marry me, even though his hair was kinda greasy. I could have finished the Tenderloin, but it was at the point where my enjoyment of it was diminishing because I wasn’t as hungry any more, so I decided to save some for leftovers (since the fabulous hostel has a fridge where I can keep it). John came back and let me know that whenever he’s working on his own, he offers complimentary creme brulee for desserts, and I bit my tongue to keep from offering him inappropriate sexual favors. I just nodded my head in response to his offer, and he brought me a fabulous creme brulee with, on the side, three rasberries drizzled in a bit of melty vanilla ice cream and topped with a sprig of mint. I ate the raspberries first. And then the creme brulee and then the bit of ice cream and I even ate the sprig of mint because it was That Good. And then I died and went to heaven because it felt like that was the only possible thing that would make the meal any better.
A little later, walking down the street with my little box of mouth-watering tenderloin to have later, I thought about how good I felt. I don’t usually feel that good after I eat. Especially when I eat out, I usually eat too much, and I feel too full and really sleepy afterwards. But I ate a whole lot at this dinner, certainly more than was strictly necessary, and I never felt bad. And even when I don’t overeat, the food I usually eat just makes me feel okay. Like normal at best. Like curling up and waiting for the cramps to pass at worst, and that happens more often than I think it should. And I realized that it’s silly to eat in such a way that makes you feel bad.
Obviously, I can’t afford to eat at fancy grilled lettuce restaurants every night, so I need to figure out how to make this experience happen without it costing Preston and I a hundred dollars a day. We already spend a lot of money on food, but not that much. So I’ve been thinking about what it was that made that meal so spectacular, and I have a few ideas.
1) Local and organic. I don’t know what the percentage of local and/or organic food was in that meal, but the owner advertises that he makes it a point to use local and organic ingredients whenever possible.
2) Prepared by someone who cared about my experience. From the presentation to the repeated requests for feedback, John really wanted me to enjoy the meal. This is different from the standard cheaper restaurant where the cook and the waiter both earn their salary whether you like your meal or not, and neither of them sees the direct connection between your enjoyment and their job security. Also, the cook rarely interacts with the actual people at the table, and so just spits out one plate of food after another (some more literally than others). In this case, the cook and waiter were the same person, and if I didn’t like the meal he would lose his restaurant as well as his house (he lived upstairs). And also, there was this sense that he wanted to own a restaurant because he wanted to make good food for people, not just because he needed a job.
3) My intention. I went into the meal with the attitude that I was treating myself to something special. I didn’t read while I was eating (although I did knit in between courses), and I didn’t rush through each bite trying to get done and on to the next thing on the agenda. I truly enjoyed the mixture of flavors, and appreciated how the ingredients combined and recombined to make this really rich experience. I mean, there are an almost infinite variety of porportions that can be made between romaine, cheese, apple, and proschuitto on each forkful, so each bite deserved attention.
4) Talent. He was just a darn good chef. He combined ingredients in just the right way and cooked the tenderloin just the right length of time and did whatever he did to the potatoes just exactly the way the potatoes wanted to have done to them.
So, to start at the bottom and work up, and have a bit of work to do before I can create this fabulous culinary experience on a regular basis. Cooking has never been one of my fortes. I just need to find some good recipes and learn to make them. I suspect this is just a matter of practice. Numbers 2 and 3 go together when I am both the cook and the customer. I need to prepare food as if I cared what went into my body, and I need to eat that food as if it mattered how it tasted (and smelled and felt and everything else too). And probably the easiest one is to use local and organic ingredients whenever I can. We just moved to within an easy bike-ride of the local Co-op. I intend to shop there as much as possible.
And also maybe I can stop eating food that doesn’t make me feel good.