It’s been a long while since I posted about food, which is a shame because it means, unfortunately, that I haven’t eaten too much memorable food recently. But this past Sunday night, I was graciously invited to a dinner party at a friend’s place in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, and it was a lot of firsts for me: My first time in Greenpoint. My first time riding the phantom G train. (It exists! I live to tell the tale!) And even some food firsts: my first time eating smelt and raw scallop.
There was, as you may recall, one overwhelming obstacle that almost prevented me from accepting the invitation: rain. But not just oh, a passing afternoon shower. The sky opened up around 9pm on Saturday night and continued to gush out sheets of cold, dreary, miserable rain straight through Sunday night. And did I mention the said event was out in Greenpoint? How many of you can really locate that on a map right now without looking at the names printed on it? (Admittedly, I am a Brooklyn noob, and have spent much of my New York life in lower Manhattan.) I very nearly chocked it up to the universe trying to conspire against me and turned in for a night in my warm, dry sweatpants.
But, as my wandering heart never lets me sit easy with such resignations, I decided that I should live by my own mantra and take up the opportunity for a new experience in a new place. Also, I love food. A lot. Rain sucks, but I love food more.
After navigating the 2/3 to the 7 to the G, of course I dropped my phone in the rain trying to find the address of the apartment, and of course it burst open into several pieces on the sidewalk, and of course a passerby, seeing all of this happen, audibly lamented, “Ohhhh”. Upon arriving to my friend’s home, thoroughly soaked and frustrated, I was in need of a drink. And a drink was immediately placed into my hand!: A tall glass filled with a golden, frothy concoction with bits of lemon zest garnish. The best part? It was mixed with whiskey, my favorite. The Meyer lemon-whiskey cocktail and the warmth of the kitchen, abuzz with my friend’s guests, immediately put me into a happy and familiar place–I was ready to get my dinner party on.
Attempt to imagine this scene (lamentably without photos, as I didn’t have enough forethought to take any). One person standing over a huge wok–in this case used more as a bucket–filled with ice, as he shucks oysters (right there! in the kitchen!) and places them on the half-shell over the ice. My friend is at the stove frying smelt, a small fish that is meatier and fresher tasting than sardines. Another guest is small-dicing a chili peppers and mixing together a homemade aioli dipping sauce for the fried smelt. Another friend is whipping up cocktails. All of this over a gorgeous, farmhouse-style, long, wooden table. This is the stuff (foodie) dreams are made of. And what I loved so much about the gathering was that it was casual: no place settings, no excessive dinnerware or silverware, no quaintly folded cloth napkins, or napkin rings (who buys these things?). Just people standing, drinking (sometimes accidentally out of other people’s glasses), using their fingers to dip the little fish in sauce, and slurping down chilled, briny, naturally sea-salty oysters.
The best was yet to come. Somewhere amidst the second bottle of white wine, our host presented us with a plate of raw scallops in a guava-soy-garlic-chili sauce–which is what the Italian apparently call, a scallop crudo, though if the soy and garlic didn’t give it away, this one had an Asian twist. Absolutely incredible. Everyone at the table literally gasped as the scallops hit their tongues, and sexual innuendos were made about the experience. The scallops, so simple and delicate and so extraordinarily fresh, were one of the best things I have ever eaten in my life–and I’m not using hyperbole loosely here. The sauce, too, was the perfect accent–light and complimentary. This whole crudo thing has changed my life–and apparently others, too, as one guest exclaimed: “I don’t think I can ever eat cooked scallop again.”
And this concluded only the first, second, and third courses of the meal. We later had a tender red leaf-lettuce salad and a baked chicken and rice dish, that felt rustic and homey and perfect for a meal eaten at that lovely wooden table (which if you can’t tell, I’m kind of obsessed with). After every last grain of the rice dish was spooned away into our happy stomachs, we were given morsels of dark chocolate with almonds. And then another first: Hawaiian banana-flavored honey, eaten with cheese and crackers. (I can’t remember now what the cheese was, but it was ever-so-slightly creamy in a brie-esque way, but not as creamy.) The combination was bomb. Dot gov. Officially. Needless to say, I was extremely pleased that instead of watching The Voice at home in my sweats, I had dragged myself out to be treated to such great hospitality and eats.
The dinner party and the joy of eating and laughing together made me start thinking about a universal human experience that I especially love: gathering to eat and share a meal with friends and loved ones. To me, it is one of the most satisfying things in life. All people, of every country, society, race, religion, and creed participate in this simple tradition, and simply put: it is awesome.
It got me thinking: I’ve been lucky enough to experience this tradition in many different cultures. In Shanghai, when I studied abroad there, one of our favorite things to do was to gather at the restaurant across the street from our apartment building. We’d eat a big family-style meal around a big round table, and always made sure to order the cie-zi (eggplant). On Ko Phi Phi, Thailand, my backpacker friends and I would always meet at Papaya Restaurant to fill up on crazy delicious Thai food before heading back out to bask in the sun. In Argentina, the tradition was the asado, the barbecue. We would sit on someone’s terrace or the roof of their apartment (every Argentine apartment worth its rent had an asado, a grill) and eat chunks of grilled steak and drink red wine for hours and hours on end. In Brazil, we would have churrascos, barbecues as well, but with more sausage and chicken hearts (!), black beans and rice, and light beer instead of heavy red wine. And of course, some of my fondest memories from both Argentina and Brazil were when I hosted Thanksgiving for my expat and native friends.
So long live dinner parties! I can’t wait to continue to experience more of these wonderful gatherings as I travel more, and to continue to eat, drink , and be merry with friends here at home in New York as well.