Wednesday, June 06, 2007

destination dining


When I was growing up, my family frequented Chef Chow's, Chef Chang's, and Mary Chung's. We were motivated to eat out when grandma wanted a break from cooking, and we needed to nourish our bellies. We expected decent food and drink and little else - bottom line was that it would never be as good as grandma's anyway.

But today most restaurants strive to appeal not only to our bellies, but also to our hearts and minds. They invite us to indulge in different moods and settings. They broaden our global awareness, exposing us to the unfamiliar spices, wines, utensils, and music of various cultures; they deepen our respect for nature and the environment as our teacher in the philosophy of eating seasonally; and they constantly challenge our understanding of how a "meal" can be defined.

Restaurants in the U.S. are delivering on more human needs than ever before. As such, many have become "destinations" that people are willing to traverse anywhere from 3 -or 3000- miles to experience. The Michelin Guide has finally granted its internationally-respected nod to those restaurants in San Francisco and NYC it considers "worth the journey" (more recently it also added LA and Las Vegas). Chicago has become a notable culinary destination in the U.S. after the city's Board of Tourism created an official position called the Director of Culinary Arts and Events in the late 90s.

Several years ago, I traveled to the Mad River Valley of Vermont, about 3.5 hours from where I lived at the time in Boston. Food and Wine had run an article about American Flatbread's primitive wood-fired stone and clay ovens set in a converted horse barn in Waitsfield. I felt compelled to witness this experiment in "post modern bread baking" founded on principles of environmental sustainability, community building, and "global forces of peace and understanding".

The pizza was good - it was as good as it gets for any handmade pizza topped with fresh, natural ingredients. But you can find pizza that good elsewhere (The Cheese Board in Berkeley, CA and Arizmendi in San Francisco, to name two). It was the flavor of the wood-fired crust coupled with the triumph of my journey, and the introspective and restorative nature of the property - that made American Flatbread such a fulfilling dinner destination worth every stretch of my 200 mile trek.