Welcome back to AVQ&A, where we throw out a question for discussion among the staff and readers. Consider this a prompt to compare notes on your interface with pop culture, to reveal your embarrassing tastes and experiences, and to ponder how our diverse lives all led us to convene here together. Got a question you’d like us and the readers to answer? Email us at email@example.com.
This week’s question comes from our Supper Club editor, Kevin Pang:
What’s the best meal experience you’ve ever had?
Somewhere near downtown Terre Haute, Indiana, there’s a small concrete building with no sign on the outside (except the graffiti scrawled across its thick frosted windows). Inside there’s an older, hippie-ish guy named Jeff, probably listening to jazz or reading the newspaper on one of the place’s scratched Formica tables. If you enter his restaurant (by appointment only, please), he will ask you if you want sparkling or still water, probe you with a few quick questions (“How do you feel about shrimp?”), and then go back into his tiny kitchen to cook you the best five-course European dinner you’ve ever tasted. Harry And Bud’s (as the place is called) is one of my hometown’s weirdest secrets, an eccentric, single-table gourmet dining experience hidden in the middle of a very normal Indiana town. Jeff himself is a little prickly (he once told me he screens people making reservations, telling them his schedule is full if he hears a crying baby that might be brought in to disturb his peace) but also very kind. And the food is amazing: homemade bread, ideally grilled pork, veggie-filled crepes, handmade pasta, delicate chocolate mousse, and all of it spiced and cooked to perfection. But equal to the food—which comes in such massive quantities and variety that you’ll inevitably leave weighed down with five or six to-go boxes—is the sense of mystery and ritual surrounding the place. I once asked him, “Why are you doing this in Terre Haute?” Jeff just shrugged. “It’s where I live.”
As I’ve spent the last decade professionally eating, this is an impossible question. The biggest problem when you’re a restaurant critic is that you view dining out as work, and much of its inherent joys—eating for pleasure, the relaxed conversations, the ability to turn your mind off—is pushed aside. You end up ordering twice as much food, you’re taking notes on your phone every 30 seconds (and looking like an asshole), and your brain is set to critical mode, and it’s mentally taxing. At the height of my job as a reviewer, I was eating at restaurants four times a week, and few of those meals were enjoyable in the “let’s dine out on a Saturday night” sense. All of which is to say the best meals were the ones cooked at home. For one New Year’s Eve, my wife and I followed a Thomas Keller recipe for fried chicken that required 14 hours to brine and another few hours to prepare. Perhaps it was the anticipation from the time invested, but the ability to cook and eat purely for our edification—and the fact that the fried chicken turned out stunningly delicious—made it the one meal that’s most stuck in my mind.
Runners have an intense relationship with food. There’s the obsessive carb loading before races, consisting of endless plates of pasta; the precious morning-of conversations in which food is referred to only as “energy,” during which vets tuck little bags of walnuts and hyper-nutritious gruel into their Batman-like utility belts; and then, of course, there is the post-race bacchanal, during which all bets are off. It is standard to be showered with bananas and pretzels and various branded sports drinks and chocolate milk and beer after you cross the finish line, but that is just the tip of the iceberg. I once ran a chocolate-themed race in which, after five miles of jogging, I was handed a sombrero hat full of melted chocolate along with dippable chocolate cookies, chocolate-covered fruit, supplemental pieces of chocolate, and so on. It’s a weird cultural thing, where running begets eating, which begets running, an endless cycle of extremely purposeful consumption that looks a little strange from the outside.
That being said: When you’re in that little loop, it all makes perfect sense, and in the right context that post-race meal is a full-body experience. After I ran my first marathon, I hobbled home on my freshly shattered knees, took an ice bath, and then ate the lion’s share of a large pepperoni and mushroom deep-dish pizza from Giordano’s. It was methodical, exhausted, biological, and passionate consumption. I didn’t even talk; I hate-watched the (ugh) third Hobbit movie with my girlfriend and fell asleep on the futon, after which I woke up and finished the pie. No pizza has ever tasted better to anyone.
Shortly after I moved to Minneapolis, my wife and I went on an unexpectedly long bike ride that culminated at the beautiful Minnehaha Falls. We were famished, and there was no restaurant in sight. Fortunately, a friendly passerby (probably a god in disguise) told us about a grocery store just over the river. Walking through the doors of that upscale grocery store was like alighting on Xanadu itself, and we took to the shelves with Augustus Gloop-like abandon. We returned to the falls with a spicy sopressata, some meaty kalamata olives, a nice crusty baguette, fresh mozzarella di bufala, a bottle of decent wine, and some premade grocery store sushi and trail mix with M&M’s in it just for the sheer pleasure of excess. We had no utensils or cups, so I was ripping off hanks of salami with my teeth between swigs of mid-shelf Malbec straight from the bottle while we sat in honest-to-god bucolic splendor on a sun-dappled hill overlooking a clear, still pool at the base of the waterfall. I’ve been fortunate enough to enjoy some amazing meals all over the world, but that beautiful combination of providence, location, and actual hunger made this the meal my thoughts return to most often.
This is a tough one for me, because I love to eat, and I love nice restaurants. I’m not lavish in many ways, but I have no compunction about dropping a couple hundred bucks on an amazing meal. (Wanna watch me eat? Watch our video series, The Hi-Lo Food Show!) It’s hard for me to pinpoint one, so maybe I’ll cheat and say that memories of various meals at Chicago’s Schwa over the years have combined into one amazing meal. It’s a tiny place whose storefront looks almost abandoned. There are no servers, per se, just the chefs who bring out their amazing creations and explain them. They are frequently blasting metal and hip-hop while you dine. But the food is incredibly elegant, playful, and most importantly delicious. It’s a tasting menu that changes frequently, so if you go once a year (should you be lucky/patient enough to get a reservation), you’ll have an entirely different experience, except for a single quail-egg raviolo that’s slurped in one incredible bite. Sorry to get crass, but David Cross and Brian Posehn ate there once before one of our secret “redacted” comedy shows, and one of them made the joke that the dish tasted like the, um, ejaculate of an angel.
Like Josh, I also like to eat fancy, and I’ve also been to a lot of fine, fine restaurants—many of them with Josh, several of them (like the David Cross/Brian Posehn meal he mentions) in entertaining and esteemed company. While I’ve eaten at some incredible restaurants all over the world like Schwa, Alinea, Next, Manresa (that one was with Josh and Eric Wareheim!), and Compére Lapin, etc., and eaten my weight in Franklin Barbecue and Hot Doug’s, I’m reminded of this quote from Glengarry Glen Ross: “Great meals fade in reflection. Everything else gains. You know why? ’Cause it’s only food. This shit we put on us keeps us going. It’s only food.” Because the thing is, I mostly remember everything about these places but the actual dishes. That’s why I think the best “meal” I’ve ever had was a bagel and cappuccino that I picked up from some random New York deli in 2001, which I ate in my friend’s car while he drove me up to Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (where he was an adjunct). I was incredibly, laughably broke at the time, but I’d still managed to scrape together enough to fly to the city to see my favorite band, The Fall, play its first U.S. show in years—and see my friend, of course!—a mere month after 9/11, goaded to action by the anxiety we all felt right then that death could arrive any minute, so we’d better get to living. Eating that bagel while watching the sun set over the ravaged Manhattan skyline, I just felt so happy to be there, so in awe that I’d actually made the effort to do something I really wanted to do, that a thoroughly ordinary roll tasted transcendent, and it’s permanently etched in my sense memory. I haven’t had a bagel that good since (and I’ve had some pretty fancy bagels).
My husband and I had a low-key wedding so we could go to Italy for our honeymoon, where we took a gastronomical tour across the country, starting in Rome and ending up in Venice. Pretty much every meal I had there is in the running for the best ever, but one stands out significantly. It was in Florence at La Giostra, a recommendation from our wonderful vineyard guide in Tuscany. She said it was helmed by an actual Habsburg prince turned incredible chef, and to this day I am grateful she insisted we visit it. Prosecco freely flowed from the moment we entered the cramped, cozy quarters (which was a bit hard to find in Florence after dark), and I impulsively went for the pear and pecorino ravioli, to this day the greatest meal I’ve ever had. After all the rich gnocchi and deep tomato-based pastas I had been devouring since Rome, this relatively light dish offered an intoxicating juxtaposition between the sweet pear and the savory cheese that I’ve never been able to find since. After we told the waiter that we were on our honeymoon, the prince himself came out from the kitchen to say hello and praised me for ordering the pear dish, saying that the pope had it so often that they called it the “el papa” pasta. The pope has good taste; 13 years later, and I’ve never forgotten that dish.
When The A.V. Club had local editions, we received an invitation from a guerrilla dining collective called A Razor, A Shiny Knife. The New York-based group came to Chicago to cook an insane 20-course tribute to superstar chefs Grant Achatz (Alinea) and Thomas Keller (The French Laundry) at some random person’s apartment on Lake Shore Drive. When I arrived with my wife, it had the markings of an Eyes Wide Shut situation. I even said “fidelio” when we buzzed the intercom, probably to the confusion of whoever answered. Inside, it was not at all Kubrickian, because no one could have sex after eating so much. How much? Master of ceremonies Michael Cirino informed the dozen or so diners that each of us would be consuming roughly 7,000 calories and a pound of butter. (I’d add at least one bottle of wine per person to that.) It was madness—delicious, incredible madness.
Like just about everyone else, my greatest meal had as much to do with the circumstances surrounding it as the food itself (though the food was also excellent). Early in our relationship, my significant other and I spent a summer half a continent apart from one another. It shouldn’t have been a big deal, given we spent the next three years doing the long-distance thing every weekend between New York and Philadelphia, but it was. So after being separated for a couple months, I was incredibly excited when they arrived in the Twin Cities, where I was staying with a friend. We went to the Triple Rock Social Club for dinner, which is a Minneapolis institute of which you should avail yourselves posthaste, if you have yet to discover its pleasures. (It’s a great music venue, to boot.) The anticipation of finally being in one another’s company again led to an orgy of consumption—veggie buffalo wings and nachos for appetizers, followed by two of the biggest sandwiches you’ll ever encounter: the Minneapolis Po’ Boy, with veggie sausage, and tater tots replacing the chips that usually accompany it. Did I mention we also asked for the tots to get the cheddar cheese treatment? It was heaven. I’ve never had a bad meal there, but that one was superlative. (Lots of drinks were also involved.) It looks like they’ve since removed the mystery “Chef’s Revenge” option (you get whatever they feel like making) from the menu, but we went back for that, and many other meals, in the subsequent days. It’s far from the fanciest food you’ll ever taste, but it’s probably the most satisfying.