Think There’s No Good Southern Food Up North? Think Again

When I returned to New Jersey after I first traveled to New Orleans back in 2013, I didn’t want to eat anything.* Nothing tasted the same. Unlike my first bites of gumbo-this and beignet-that in NOLA, which were accompanied by gasps of delight and wide eyed realization that no, I’ve never actually properly tasted good food until that moment, every mouthful I chewed on afterwards was filled with despair because I consciously started comparing everything to the food they serve down South. Apples and oranges; it’s a little unfair, I know. 

Cut to June 6, 2016. Zach and I had just returned to New York City after a week of greedily eating beignets, having one too many Pimm’s cups, searching for the best jambalaya, shucking oysters at the Oyster Festival, and succumbing to a bunch of other gluttonous vices. And yet, soon after arriving back at my apartment to drop off our luggage and freshen up, we wasted no time heading back out in order to make it for lunch at one of our favorite restaurants, Jacob’s Pickles. 

Jacob’s Pickles, believe it or not is a Southern restaurant in the Upper West Side, and trust me, I never thought “Southern” and “Upper West Side”  would be in the same sentence either. But our skepticism, we soon realized, was largely unfounded since the meal we were expecting to be let down by, the sausage gravy, fried chicken and biscuit sandwich with a side of cheesy grits, actually turned out to be one of the best things we’d ever eaten (even after eating Southern food in the South). 

The hype is real

The hype is real

People like to remark on a restaurant’s decor and wait service, but Zach and I are of the mind that the food should always be center stage. I’m not trying to imply that Jacob’s Pickles is a restaurant that looks like it’s seen better days, on the contrary it’s styled in that homey, mason-jar-sporting, bygone Americana ambiance that most New York City restaurants now flaunt. No, what I’m trying to say is, even if the hipster-influenced decor irritated me (which it surprisingly doesn’t), I wouldn’t care what it looks like or if the wait service is absolute crap (it’s not). I’ll keep coming back because the food? It’s damn good. 

Bring your appetite, the portions are huge. 

Fried chicken, bacon, and pancakes

Fried chicken, bacon, and pancakes

Fried chicken, sausage gravy and biscuits with a side of cheesy grits

Fried chicken, sausage gravy and biscuits with a side of cheesy grits

Biscuit bread pudding. Zach and I have tried, but you really need 4 people to eat this

Biscuit bread pudding. Zach and I have tried, but you really need 4 people to eat this

Tip: if you order the rice pudding to go, you get a free mason jar. 

*to no one’s surprise, I got over it eventually

Myth: British Food Is Crap

Ask anyone about their experience with British food and the response is usually: bland, boring, or weird. And with unappetizing names like blood sausage, bangers and mash, welsh rarebit and spotted dick, no wonder people get turned off. What the hell is blood sausage and why are you eating it?! 

There’s also that question, what exactly IS British food? Beef and boiled potatoes? Oh... it’s chicken tikka masala. That’s the national dish. Riiight. When a country needs to adopt the flavors of a former colony to make up for its own lackluster fare, it’s got to be bad. It was writer Bill Marsano who said, “The British Empire was created as a by-product of generations of desperate Englishmen roaming the world in search of a decent meal,” and apparently that meal is chicken tikka masala. 

But is that it though? Is British food that bad? 

When everyone is determined to paint something terrible I’m of the mind to think: either people are just lazily buying into the stereotype  or someone’s not telling the whole picture. When it comes to British food I think it’s both.

OK, even the British admit their cuisine did take a bit of a nosedive as a result of two world wars and strict rationing. But so what? Hard times call for extreme measures. But things have changed. Sure there are some traditional dishes that get a bad rap (blood sausage) but for the most part I think the old clichés are getting a little tired.

Here are three meals I enjoyed (and greedily ate again and again): 

Afternoon Tea

You might be asking, really? Are you serious? Dude, totally serious. Prior to my arrival in the Ham Yard Hotel in London, I had spent zero minutes thinking about afternoon tea, craving afternoon tea, or noting why I didn’t have enough afternoon tea. Because it was at Ham Yard that I realized that 1) I really like British scones; 2) Welsh Rarebit is basically cheesy bread and it’s oh so good; and 3) Clotted cream, where have you been my whole life??

I'm not really a girly-girl but even I had to admit the transparent pink tray and prancing mythical creatures printed on the gold-rimmed ceramic plates and teacups were pretty darn cute.

I'm not really a girly-girl but even I had to admit the transparent pink tray and prancing mythical creatures printed on the gold-rimmed ceramic plates and teacups were pretty darn cute.

Unlike American scones which are heavy on the butter and sugar British scones have a lower fat-to-flour ratio and rarely have fancy mix-ins except sultanas or raisins. The texture is more akin to American biscuits, although purists won’t like you comparing it to that. But what British scones lack in fat you make up for in thick slatherings of clotted cream and jam. 

Which brings me to my next obsession: clotted cream. It’s a silky, golden-yellow cream made by heating full-fat cow’s milk in a shallow pan to allow the surface to form clots. It’s… heavenly and unlike anything I’ve ever tasted. 

What’s not to like about afternoon tea? A three-tier stand of mini sandwiches and desserts accompanied by a properly brewed pot of Earl Grey (or whatever you prefer) -- LIFE IS GOOD. And those mini sandwiches, tarts and cakes - bursting with flavor but regrettably so small in size! I’d happily eat 3 more of each. 

Scones fresh and warm from the oven

Scones fresh and warm from the oven

I then spent the rest of my time in England rearranging my schedule to have more afternoon tea:

Having tea at in the Lake District. There's only one scone but you can bet I slathered all the clotted cream on it.

Having tea at in the Lake District. There's only one scone but you can bet I slathered all the clotted cream on it.

I had tea at a cafe in Stratford-Upon-Avon (Shakespeare's hometown) and I was going to take a picture but got distracted by these monsters. If I didn't care so much for my arteries I would've had one.

I had tea at a cafe in Stratford-Upon-Avon (Shakespeare's hometown) and I was going to take a picture but got distracted by these monsters. If I didn't care so much for my arteries I would've had one.


Dinner at The Conservatory Restaurant in Exeter

Do you remember the meal I totally fan-girled over in Cape Town? This was the same experience. 

There’s nothing boiled, bland or boring about these dishes. 

English asparagus, pea panna cotta, crispy parma ham and egg yoke puree

English asparagus, pea panna cotta, crispy parma ham and egg yoke puree

The pork tenderloin was perfectly cooked and paired deliciously with the crispy-topped potato and crisp vegetables. 

Roasted pork tenderloin, broad bean and spring cabbage, dauphinoise potato, calvados sauce and fresh green vegetables

Roasted pork tenderloin, broad bean and spring cabbage, dauphinoise potato, calvados sauce and fresh green vegetables

And holy crap the sticky toffee pudding! Yes it’s definitely sweet but not exceedingly so. Who can resist that warm sponge cake lovingly speckled with finely chopped dates and deliciously soaked in a buttery, gooey caramel sauce -- I’m salivating. Quintessentially British, it’s heaven on a plate.  

Sticky toffee pudding with banana ice cream

Sticky toffee pudding with banana ice cream

Traditional Full English Breakfast

Are you paleo? Afraid of carbs?* May I present the English breakfast. A plateful of fried eggs, buttered toast, sausage, baked beans, and a couple of fried tomatoes and mushrooms are the perfect antidote to the carb-loaded pancakes and waffles you’d find across the pond. For the uninitiated, the baked beans are meant to be eaten slathered on top of your toast. 

The Full English (sans blood sausage)

The Full English (sans blood sausage)

*Neither of which apply to me

10 Reasons To Travel To Cape Town

It wasn’t until a random Google Images search that Cape Town, South Africa entered into my radar. I wish I had a greater story for choosing this jaw-droppingly beautiful port city, but c’est la vie, it really is as humdrum as that. 

And if you’re curious about any other ways I decide on a place, there aren’t any, because Google Images really is it. I mean, haven’t we all experienced the moment when we first laid eyes on something and immediately thought, I’ve got to have it! To me, destinations are no different. And I figure, if the images I’m seeing through a screen are enough to take my breath away, imagine how it’ll make me feel once I actually get there. 

But for those of you still on the fence about Cape Town’s wild beauty, here are 10 reasons I hope will persuade you: 

The view from Table Mountain

Accessible by cable car, hiking or rock climbing, Table Mountain is Cape Town’s most iconic landmark. One of the new 7 Wonders of the World, the flat-topped mountain rises 3562 feet above sea level and boasts sweeping views of the City Bowl, Table Bay, Camps Bay, Robben Island, the Twelve Apostles, Lion’s Head, and Devil’s Peak. 

I Instagram-filtered this one, if you can tell. Lion's Head and Signal Hill to the left with Robben Island just beyond

I Instagram-filtered this one, if you can tell. Lion's Head and Signal Hill to the left with Robben Island just beyond

With these views, it’s hard to deny that Cape Town has one of the most beautiful natural settings of any city I’ve ever seen. 

Devil's Peak

Devil's Peak

The Twelve Apostles and Camps Bay

The Twelve Apostles and Camps Bay


Wine tastings with a view (and $5 award-winning wine)

Even if you’re not a fan of wine (I’m one of the heretical few) there’s much to enjoy while out exploring some the Western Cape’s most famous wine-producing regions: Constantia, Stellenbosch, Paarl, and Franschhoek Valley. Don’t worry, the spotlight is definitely on the wine - and if you’ve chosen wisely, a pairing or two of chocolate and cheese - but this is an experience where the drive is not only a means to an end. 

En route you’ll be greeted by vast stretches of mountainous terrain, Cape Dutch architecture, and historic estates. 

And if you do happen to enjoy a glass or two? You might want to research ways to properly pack bottles in your checked bag. Award-winning wines are available for purchase at the estate it was produced for around $5. As ignorant as I am about wines, even I couldn’t resist buying Neethlingshof estate’s award-winning Pinotage (it was delicious!). 

Cage diving with great white sharks

There are only a handful of places whereyou get to check this off your bucket list, and South Africa’s small harbor town of Gansbaai in the Western Cape is one of the hotspots. 

Not as terrifying as it looks, I promise!

Not as terrifying as it looks, I promise!

I highly recommend booking with Marine Dynamics. Not only is the company founded by a marine conservationist, you get served a breakfast buffet upon your arrival, get treated to hot chocolate during your dive, and are greeted by a well-deserved meal after your trip (trust me, you’ll get hungry!). 

The V&A Waterfront

South Africa’s oldest working harbor, the Victoria & Albert Waterfront is bustling with activity 7 days a week. Set against the backdrop of Table Mountain, it’s here that you can browse its many specialty shops, craft markets, theaters and restaurants, take a day trip to Robben Island Museum (where former South African president Neslon Mandela was imprisoned), visit the Two Oceans Aquarium, and book a helicopter tour. 

The Cape of Good Hope

“Hey, do you mind if you took a picture of me with the sign?” 

Words you’d be hard pressed to hear me say, but when you’re in the southwestern-most point in Africa, it’s OK to take a super touristy photo every once in awhile just to prove you’ve been there. 

You can’t tell from this picture but there were about 50 other people waiting their turn.

If you travel solo like I do,  asking someone to take a picture of you with this iconic marker is a great way to make new friends (in my case a pair of charming Irish girls from Limerick). 

If you’re saying to yourself, “so… is that it?”, mercifully no, the whole Cape Peninsula is a wild and rugged national park with many spectacular views: 

Endless roadside attractions

The Western Cape is the perfect place to visit even if you’re terrible at photography. It’s hard to take a bad picture! I mean take a look at the following shots; I took them from the front passenger seat of a moving van (maybe my amateur shots are obvious but they don't look half bad considering!).

And just in case you forget you’re in Africa,  there are wild baboons just chilling on the side of the road. 

Sapphire beaches

If you’re a lover of coastlines and mountains prepare to get blown away - the Cape Peninsula boasts some of Africa’s best sky blue beaches. 

Clarence Drive

One of the most scenic coastal drives in the Cape, Clarence drive connects the towns of Rooi Els and Gordans Bay, It winds down the False Bay coast and passes between the sea and foothills of the southern end of the Hottentots Holland Mountains. 

Numerous viewing stops allow one the opportunity to soak up the magnificent sights. 

Penguins!

Where else can you get this close to wild penguins? Believe it or not, these little guys just hang out here (this ain't a penguin enclosure!)

Boulders Beach in Simon's Town

Boulders Beach in Simon's Town

Stony Point in Betty's Bay

Stony Point in Betty's Bay

Trivia: these little guys are commonly called Jackass Penguins, because of their cackling calls, but for tourism purposes are known as African Penguins. 

Milan: No Carb Left Behind

One day my boyfriend Zach asked me during a video chat what I’d been eating in Milan. “The kind of food a loving grandmother feeds a sad and depressed grandchild,” I replied.

Italian food, and by that I mean food prepared in Italy rather than a country’s local version of it, is more about restraint than extravagance. Instead of getting something that has a triple meat topping and a pepperoni-and-cheese stuffed crust, you’ll get served a pizza dotted sparingly with fresh buffalo mozzarella and a single basil leaf. And rather than fettuccini pasta swimming in Alfredo sauce (which I hear is not an authentic Italian sauce; and also, who is Alfredo?) you get pasta coated with just enough creamy emulsion that not one part of the dish overpowers the other.

Italians understand the value of minimally-processed, and dare I say it, “fresh” ingredients. They don’t need to overload a dish with sauce or sprinkle layers of mozzarella in order for you to taste it. Because when the ingredients are good, you can do with less.

It’s this simplicity that I’m celebrating every time I sit myself down to a nice Italian meal, which almost always happens to be bread-, dough-, rice-, and pasta-based; because when I’m in Italy, why would I eat anything else?

These are the restaurants I’d happily go to again:

Ilia Ristorante (where I ate my first meal in Milan)

Or, my awakening. If there’s any dish that exemplifies, “less is more”, it’s the spaghetti with tomatoes and basil I so greedily devoured.

10 Corso Como Cafe

This little cafe is situated in a roofed garden courtyard adjacent from the Corso Como concept store and art gallery. A walkway surrounded by green flora and vines that rise up the building facades caused me to feel like I was entering some gracious Italian family’s countryside villa. The main wasn’t my most favorite - braised beef with polenta - but the little biscuits they bring out before your meal were delicious. 

Paper Moon

I’ve been told this is a hot spot, so reserve a table! I have fond memories of this place because during on of our Milan workations this was where a bunch of my coworkers and I celebrated our  last night. Befitting a last meal in Italy, we went ham on the antipasti and then struggled to eat our mains because we forgot we ordered them, and yet we still managed to order and finish two desserts.  They’ve got a delicious truffle pizza and one of the best ossobuco alla milanese I’ve ever had. Prior to my visit, I was ignorant of the Italian tradition of eating prosciutto-wrapped melon slices, but I’ve since been schooled. 

Panificio Luini

Sometimes you just want something fatty, cheesy, fried, and QUICK. Panificio Luini near the Duomo is a place lovingly recommended to me by my boyfriend Zach, who’s observed my eating habits long enough to know that fried dough and cheese is always a win. Luini is known for their panzerotti, a warm and delicious mini calzone composed of a light springy dough (a sort of cross between a doughnut and pizza) and your filling of choice. Served sweet or savory, it’s hard to choose just one, but I finally decided on the spinach and ricotta. 

Lactose-Intolerant? You Might Want To Check Out This NYC Ice Cream Shop

Victory Garden in New York City (on Carmine and Bleecker) uses goat’s milk for all the items on their menu. Goat’s milk is supposedly one that most closely resembles human milk. 

Yeah, I found myself saying “oh, ew” too. I’m glad I saw that sign ~after~ I’d already eaten half of my Alfajores (an Argentinian sandwich cookie made by spreading dulce de leche between two shortbread cookies. Yum!) sundae because it was pretty damn good. 

I chose salted caramel as the ice cream base for my sundae so I can’t attest to the goat-milkiness of the flavor. I can tell you that if you hadn’t told me it was goat milk, I wouldn't have known. The goat’s milk caramel they drizzled over it did taste different -- almost floral. 

Victory Garden has its share of traditional flavors but it also like to keep in line with its “garden” theme of infusing their soft serve and gelato with lavender, rosemary, and the like. 

On the day that Zach and I went, honey lavender seemed to be the favorite since the tin had only about a couple scrapes in it left. Surprisingly it didn’t taste like bubble bath. I had a couple mouthfuls of Zach’s honey lavender order and it tasted like a lemon granita without the grittiness. I liked it, but it didn’t compare to the rich salted-caramel goodness of my sundae, which also had chunks of alfajores cookies, a sprinkling of desiccated coconut, and topped with goat milk caramel. 

I Traveled To Cape Town To Eat

I could never be one of those people who eats to stay alive because for me, food is more that just fuel, it’s the closest tie I know to understanding culture. I plan my days around what meal I’m craving to eat next.

If you’ve ever traveled to New Orleans, many locals and guides use gumbo as a way to teach people about the amalgamation of cultures  that have crossed paths there. The stew combines the culinary practices of the French, Spanish, German, West African and Choctaw. New Orleans takes its food so seriously that you’ll be hard pressed to find anyone talking about the city’s history without mentioning its local (and unique) cuisine.

A big reason Cape Town intrigued me so much, aside from its photogenic coastlines and inviting landscapes, is because I have no idea what Capetonians actually eat. A port city and a mix Dutch, German, Italian, Malaysian, Indian, and African cultures, Cape Town is very much like the melting pot that is New Orleans (sans humidity).

MY FIRST MEAL/MY FAVORITE MEAL
Harbour House Restaurant at V&A Waterfront
While not traditionally South African (it’s more international if you take a look at what I ordered), I couldn’t have picked a better place to have my first meal in Cape Town. First impressions are important! Harbour House is located at the Victoria and Albert Waterfront and features a serene view of the harbor. It’s considered as one of the more upscale restaurants but if you’re traveling from the United States (or live in New York City), after the exchange rate the prices are a bargain. For a three-course meal + a bottle of water, I paid less than $30. Everything I ordered was so freaking good. And the presentation is so fancy! For this kind of service in New York City I’d be paying at least $70.

Appetizer - Potato and Parmesan gnocchi garnished with roast butternut, grilled artichokes, mushrooms, pine nuts, sage and a truffle Parmesan sauce:

Main - Grilled fillet of beef with fondant potato, fine green beans, mushroom ragout and a truffle cream sauce:

Dessert - Chocolate tart with vanilla ice cream and cookie crunch, caramel corn, fudge and caramel sauce:


FAST FOOD
Eastern Food Bazaar at Cape Town City Bowl
If you’re on the fence about where to stay in Cape Town, check out the Airbnb listing for the Mutual Heights apartments. Not only are you centrally located in city bowl, you’ve got a pharmacy downstairs that open late nights (think Duane Reade and CVS) and the Eastern Food Bazaar. A long corridor that spans the width of the block, the bazaar sells Turkish, Indian, and Chinese food as well as pizza and gelato. The portions are enormous and almost everything costs around $3. Add to the fact that this place is open on Sundays while everything else in the city is closed, this place ensures you don’t go hangry.  

BREDIE (SOUTH AFRICAN STEW)
Karibu Restaurant at V&A Waterfront
A case for ordering lamb (my favorite kind of meat) and whatever I couldn’t pronounce. This dish sounded super exotic. I mean how do you even pronounce waterblommetjiebredie? In case you were wondering, waterblommetjiebredie is an aquatic flowering plant native to South Africa. If you’re in the mood for traditional South African food, stop by Karibu and enjoy your dish with a view.

The view from my seat

The view from my seat

BILTONG
J&M Bilton at V&A Waterfront

Also known as the place where I realized biltong actually tastes pretty good. Is it just me or does anyone else think biltong = jerky? I mean, yes, bilton is technically jerky but when I think of jerky I think it’s one of those vacuum-sealed meat sticks you get at gas stations. But unlike those tough, gummy meat Twizzlers, the biltongs from J&M are air- rather than oven-dried. The result? A well-seasoned, soft, chewy, and tender piece of dried cured meat.

INTERNATIONAL/THE HOT NEW SPOT
Hemelhuijs at Cape Town City Center

If you like places that feature an all-day breakfast, this is the place considered by many Capetonians as *the best breakfast*.

French toast with apricot marmalade and sour cream, a side of bacon, and scrambled eggs with avocado

Just As Ridiculous As It Sounds: Getting Stopped By Agave’s Bouncer During Brunch

I really don’t like lugging around a handbag -- and why would I? I only really use about 10% of what I carry around at any given time. If it wasn’t for the fact that I need to carry a bulky set of keys, emergency Excedrin, my Iphone (which Apple can’t seem to make up its mind whether to make it bigger or smaller), some money and a Metrocard, I’d never carry a bag at all.

And it was on a sunny Sunday morning, sans handbag, that I traveled to Agave to meet my friend for brunch. With phone in hand and money, Metrocard and keys strategically stuffed in my jean pockets I thought I was all set. That is, until I was barred by some boorish looking bouncer/security guy asking me for my ID. In my rush, I hadn’t bothered to take it. I’m going there to stuff myself. Drinking alcohol just gets in the way of eating.

But this is besides the point. Is this the WASP/hispter-infested spot I always assumed it was or is it a club because let the record reflect, I have *never* been refused entry into a restaurant, with a bar or not,  for not having my driver’s license.

I told the bouncer I’m not there to drink. And then I told him again. And again. And again. Taking his job way too seriously, he finally went over to the host to whisper “She doesn’t have her ID, make sure she doesn’t drink”. The host nodded and a waiter showed up to direct us to our seats.

You’d think that was the last time I’d see that guy. But, no. In an absurd show of self-importance he comes to our table while the waiter took our orders to tell him, rather loudly, that I didn’t have my ID and I can’t drink the bottomless mimosas. “Yes, dude,” I said with more force and aggression, “I didn’t order the mimosas, I’m already covered with the eggs benedict and blueberry pancakes I just ordered.” The waiter was even impatiently nodding his head as if to dismiss home boy. “Yes, yes everything is fine,” he said. Do you think he’s just as tired of him as I am?

Agave, I get it. You’re popular and want to protect yourself from giddy underage brunch-goers who want to sneak a drink or two. But hiring such an antagonistic bouncer (who looks to be overcompensating for years of being bullied) so ridiculous he is a caricature of “bouncer” makes your whole establishment look silly.

Not to take away from your food, which was more or less average but still delicious, I’d like to share with the audience my obligatory food pictures:

Eggs Benedict

Eggs Benedict

Blueberry pancakes

Blueberry pancakes