Negril, Jamaica: Day One (Or, Ossie’s Jerk Center)

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I landed in Montego Bay at two in the afternoon, after a short stopover in Miami. Flying over the Carribean, I was amazed to see how clear the azure waters are, all the way up from the window seat. After a short wait in customs at Sangster International Airport, I was on our way. I had arranged for transportation to Negril through Clive’s Transport, a service which I was happy to use again later during my time in Jamaica.

The drive to Negril from Montego Bay is about two hours long, and not at all harrowing as some accounts I’ve read online described it to be. Sure, the roads are narrow and drivers have a habit of passing other cars in one-lane traffic, but that’s normal in many (if not, most) parts of the world. Jamaica’s west coast is beautiful and I loved getting to see so much of it right off the bat.

I soon checked into our cottage at Country Country, a locally-owned place on Seven Mile Beach.

Country Country

Once we settled in, it was getting late, but I managed to take a quick dip in the ocean before the sun set. By that time, I was famished and had heard of a great jerk shack nearby, so we walked down Norman Manley Boulevard, the main thoroughfare in Negril, until we found what we were looking for: Ossie’s Jerk Center.

I ordered the jerk chicken and couple of Red Stripes. While I waited at the porch, a group of men played dominoes and tourists and locals alike stopped by to order take-out meals. Our chicken soon arrived, grilled to perfection and covered with a sweet sauce.

Jerk Chicken

I’m pretty sure I ate every last morsel of meat off of those bones. The meat was juicy, the skin had a smoky flavor and though I usually don’t like sweet sauces, it was a good contrast to the chicken’s spicy kick.

After a long day of being in transit, Ossie’s was the perfect place to kick back and take in the sights, sounds and tastes of Negril.

Washington, D.C.: Day Three (or, Ben’s Chili Bowl)

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On my third (and last) day in D.C., I wanted to take things easy. I was craving something casual yet satisfying and so I went to Ben’s Chili Bowl for lunch, where only a few months ago Obama famously said “What’s a half-smoke?”

Admittedly, I didn’t know what a half-smoke was at the time, either. But I do now, and Internet, it is good. I ordered one along with a side of chili cheese fries, which was so heavy that our dining group of five easily shared.

The Infamous Half-Smoke

Chili-Cheese Fries

Touted as Bill Cosby’s favorite, the chili half-smoke is a quarter pound of smoked sausage on a steamed bun, topped with onions, mustard, ketchup and spicy chili sauce. The sausage was hefty, strong and smoky. With the chili cheese fries, they made for an exceptionally big lunch, one that kept me full (and happy) well through the day.

I spent the rest of the day at the Smithsonian, revisiting the Freer and Sackler Galleries and the National Air and Space Museum that I enjoyed so much when I first played tourist in D.C. a several years ago. After a quick Korean dinner in Virginia that evening, I packed up and was ready for the next leg of my trip: Jamaica.

Washington D.C.: Day Two (or, Cafe Atlantico)

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Consider this a supersized entry, because it’s a travel post and a restaurant review in one. On my second day in Washington, D.C., I met up with a group of our friends in Dupont Circle to have lunch at Nando’s. The last time I had eaten at Nando’s was in Windsor, England, so I was thrilled to learn they’ve crossed the pond into the U.S. (Hey, Nando’s, now open one up in California, please!)

I split a plate of their chicken wings with Peri-Peri sauce, corn on the cob and mashed potatoes. I would have liked to have a full plate to myself, but I had to save up my appetite for my eagerly anticipated dinner reservation. That being said, Nandos’ mashed potatoes are among the best I’ve ever had. So good that I kind of ate the whole thing before I remembered to take a photo.

About two hours later, my dining companion and I arrived at Cafe Atlantico, Jose Andres’ flagship restaurant. I’m in love with Jose Andres. He’s like a Spanish muppet who gets really, really excited about food, and that in turn makes me really, really excited about food. Oh, and he’s friends with Anthony Bourdain, which certainly doesn’t hurt.

We opted for the chef’s tasting menu, which began with an amuse bouche from Minibar: “sun dried tomato” with mozzarella and olive oil.

"Sun Dried Tomato" with Mozzarella and Olive Oil

The tomato flavor was super intense and the mozzarella ball’s liquid center exploded in my mouth right after I ate it. For as much of a pretentious reputation molecular gastronomy gets, it can really be delicious.

I sipped on my Pisco sour while we waited for our next course to arrive: uni “asado.”

Uni "Asado"

This was easily the most visually striking of all the dishes we were served, and it was fun to eat too. I’ve never eaten uni outside of a sushi setting, but this combination of miso-pineapple dressing, shaved pineapple, and buttery uni worked really well. The crispy quinoa on top added crunch to otherwise very creamy dish.

Foie gras is hard to come by in San Francisco, so I eagerly anticipated our next course: foie gras soup.

Foie Gras Soup

Served with morel mushrooms and “floating islands of corn,” the bits of corn were akin to Corn Nuts (which in keeping with Cafe Atlantico’s Latin theme, is originally Peruvian).

Although its hard to choose, this next course was probably my overall favorite of the evening: grilled octopus.

Grilled Octopus

Served with bacon air (yes, I said bacon air), chorizo and lentils, this octopus was deliciously tender and smoky, which is no small feat. The chorizo was out of this world and I almost wish there was more of it in the soupy lentil base.

While I sipped on my Faux Syrah, Syrah cocktail of Hangar One Straight Vodka, blackberry purée, black pepper and smoke infusion, our scallops arrived.

Scallops

You know when you eat scallops that are extra sweet and succulent? Okay, multiply that times a hundred and you’ll get these scallops. Served with cauliflower purée and American caviar, the entire dish had a sweet and briny flavor, down to the purée.

Our heftiest dish of the evening was the braised beef short ribs and to my delight, they included ramps!

Braised Beef Short Ribs

The beef and ramps came atop a bed of baby turnips and morel mushrooms, proving that comfort food can successfully meet haute cuisine. The ribs were incredibly succulent and needed no knife, while the ramps were slightly crunchy and oniony.

At this point in the meal, I was stuffed, but dessert was yet to come. We were served warm white chocolate mousse, which was more like a sweet soup than a mousse (in a good way).

Warm White Chocolate Mousse

The mousse came with a chocolate ice cream orb and brittle, and the orb immediately melted with a liquid center as soon as I popped it in my mouth. I’m not sure if it was coincidental, but it reminded me of our tomato and mozzarella amuse bouche, and made me feel like I’d come full circle at the end of the meal.

I wish Jose Andres had a restaurant in the Bay Area, because this was one of the best meals I’ve ever tasted and I wish it wasn’t so far from reach. But hey, Andres has just opened The Bazaar in Los Angeles, so maybe a trip down south is in order soon. Either way, my evening at Cafe Atlantico remains one big happy memory.

Washington, D.C.: Day One

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I’m back from from a food-centric week-and-a-half whirlwind trip to Washington, D.C. and Negril, Jamaica and already I’m missing both places. I flew to the east coast for my friends Monica and BJ’s wedding and then to Jamaica for a few days because, you know, it’s sort of close to D.C., right?

On our way to D.C., we had a stopover at Chicago’s O’Hare airport. I hadn’t been there since I was nine, when, on a stopover, I enjoyed a hot dog and blue icee. Keeping with tradition, I used this layover to try a Chicago-style hot dog at O’Brien’s.

Chicago-Style Hot Dog

Topped with sport peppers, onions, tomatoes, cucumbers and celery salt, this was about the best airport food I’ve ever tasted. And where have sport peppers been my whole life? I’ll be keeping my eyes peeled for a jar of those.

Once in D.C., I had about fifteen minutes to get ready for the wedding, and soon I arrived at the Top of the Town in Arlington, Virginia, a venue with possibly the best view in the entire D.C. area.

The Washington Monument

The wedding hosts were serving mojitos galore pre and post-ceremony, but the real epicurean highlight of the wedding was the cake. Monica’s gift to Brian was a cake from none other than Charm City Cakes of Ace of Cake fame. The level of detail on it was beautiful, down to the stitching on the cake version of Monica’s fondant hoodie.

Monica and Brian's Wedding Cake

The wedding also included a candy bar, complete with Pop Rocks and Krispy Kreme donuts.

Pop Rocks and a Wedding Mixtape

I love weddings with a generous dose of fun, and this was exactly that. Plus, mojitos, Pop Rocks and Charm City Cakes? These guys know how to throw a wonderful wedding.

Bouchon Bakery

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I’ve never had much of a reason to visit Yountville. It’s a long drive and not centrally located to a whole lot, except for oh, you know, Thomas Keller. Even though its a sparsely populated, sleepy town, it’s the holy grail of Keller’s food empire, home to not only The French Laundry, but also Bouchon, Bouchon Bakery and Ad Hoc. I knew I’d have to make it to Yountville for these reasons alone.

I had read online that Bouchon Bakery serves pesto-filled croissants that are to die for. While waiting in line at the bakery, I imagined how warm, buttery and oozing with basil-y goodness my croissant would be. I was a little disappointed that it turns out the Yountville branch of the bakery does not serve these pesto-filled goodies. I ordered a plain croissant instead, along with espresso macarons, a pecan sticky bun and the best iced coffee I’ve ever tasted.

Croissant

The croissant was good: flaky and baked fresh that morning. Still, I couldn’t help but miss the imaginary pesto that they don’t even serve.

Espresso macarons

The macarons were tasty, but very sweet. But these babies sold out quickly, so it could be just me. I don’t have much a sweet tooth after all.

Pecan sticky bun

The sticky bun was just as its name suggests: a very sticky bun. It went perfectly with my drink: one bite of nutty gooeyness, one sip of strong coffee.

I ate my breakfast outside at the tables lining the bakery. The vibe was slow-paced, with diners taking their sweet time finishing their breakfasts (they had lap dogs and newspapers to tend to while they ate, after all).

As much as I love the city, I wouldn’t mind a weekend or two like this every once in a while. Yountville is worth the drive, after all.