Monday, May 10, 2010

The Morel of the Story

First, I should reiterate that I am actually thrilled to be living in Minneapolis again. I must make this very clear. It is exactly the direction I have wanted my life to take, and I can't wait for the many, many food adventures I will have here. Including, but not limited to, learning how to effectively go foraging for morels, per my recent Twitter post (morels are in fact the Minnesota "state mushroom," so they must be around here somewhere). The point being emphasized because I am about to whine, just a little, about how desperately I miss New York today. And not because it snowed this past weekend. Well, maybe that has something to do with it. Just a little bit.

Morel photo courtesy of (read: "courteously borrowed without permission") Wikipedia.

I mainly miss New York because one of my dearest friends is there, and she happens to be my foodie soulmate. I've mentioned Genny in previous posts. She is a no-nonsense 100% Mexican force-of-nature who has opened the restaurants of famous chefs (you may have heard of Philippe Chow), speaks rapid Spanish (much to my awe and envy) during margarita happy hours, and can make a kick-ass rack of ribs, along with just about anything else. Not to mention she has guided me to some of my most memorable new food and dining experiences, fed me many comforting meals during movie nights at her apartment, and is just an overall sweet and amazing lady. We are in the process of considering business plans needed to open a taco truck, and travel the country tortilla-style. But that's a whole different story altogether.

We celebrated my last week in New York the best way we knew how - with eating. She took me to one of her favorite restaurants, one that she'd been telling me about for ages but we never seemed to make it there until it was almost too late. Mario Batali's Casa Mono is a place that Genny would frequent with her Spanish boyfriend, Frank, so my lack of ability to fully translate the menu didn't matter because she already knew what to order. It's probably better that I didn't know what I was getting myself into anyway. I'm all about trying new foods, in fact I would say with confidence it's something I live for, and I also trust Genny with my life and taste buds. But when I hear "cow stomach lining," aka tripe, will be one of our main dishes, images from the 2001-2006 TV show "Fear Factor" begin to develop in my mind. However, when Genny explains, 1) the care in the process that the restaurant goes through to clean and prepare it, and 2) that it was a key dish in her childhood, much like meatloaf to me, and how much it would mean to her if I gave it a shot, I am much more at ease with this whole situation.

The entire Casa Mono experience was one of my most exciting dining experiences to date, a perfect way to end my 2-year stint in NYC. I wish I had taken photos of each dish we tasted, but since I had fully embarrassed my lunch date with this very sneaky and quite un-glamorous self-photo below (dining next to signature orange Croc-clad Mario Batali himself) I decided to "play it cool" for the rest of the meal.

We sampled the "Fois Gras with Cinco Cebollas," which tasted like butter. I've never had fois gras that was seared so perfectly; I actually didn't know what it was at first. Paired with the five varied onions and a subtle reduction sauce, it was heavenly. We also tried the "Pork Croquetas with Green Tomatoes" which was warm croquetas served over diced tangy green tomatoes, and some special seasonal additions of cuttlefish (which reminded me of fish french fries, because they were firm and mild, almost like calamari - cuttlefish and squid are Cephalopod Mollusk cousins - but were shaped like french fries and were garnished with a fresh herb aioli) and some delectable little clams topped with fried angel hair pasta.

I was toiling over how to effectively describe the unique look and texture of the tripe dish ("Tripe and Chickpeas with House-Made Morcilla." I asked Genny, "What's morcilla?" She wisely replied, "Eat first. Ask later." Morcilla, also known as "black pudding" or "blood sausage" is essentially sausage made from dried blood. I thought it was morbidly delightful.), and I found the tripe itself impossible to describe. I literally could not think of anything to draw a parallel. Until I was obsessing over morels earlier today! See the morel photo above? That's what the tripe looked like. It was thin and holey, tender and apparently has no real flavor - I could only taste the chickpea and morcilla and whatever the spicy, middle-eastern inspired sauce was. Genny informed me that tripe actually absorbs the flavors of whatever you cook it with. One of her personal favorite tripe dishes is "Warm Tripe 'alla Parmigiana'" on the antipasti menu at another Batali locale, Babbo Ristorante. It's tripe that's been simmered with a robust tomato sauce and topped with fresh parmigiano cheese. She claims it's the best tripe dish in the city.

We also polished off a bottle of wine, and after fighting over the check, we strolled through the Gramercy neighborhood, loopy and laughing, totally blissed-out from the meal. It was a perfect way to spend one of my last afternoons in the city.

I'm looking forward to a lifetime of discovering all that there is out there to try. While I do miss NYC for so many reasons, it doesn't offer everything. Now, who wants to go foraging with me?

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