I’m sure there are a lot of perks to being First Lady of the United States of America, but there are also (in my opinion) a few downsides as well. For one thing, they don’t let you keep your clothes.
This, I discovered last summer when I spent a couple of days exploring the Smithsonian. That beautiful ivory silk chiffon gown designed by Jason Wu that Michelle Obama wore to the 2009 inaugural balls? It’s sitting in the National Museum of American History. And the ruby-red velvet and chiffon gown (also by Jason Wu) that she wore exactly a week ago today is designated for the National Archives. (How is it I know the name of Michelle Obama’s designer, you ask? Let’s just call it an occupational hazard of my day job.)
The National Museum of American History is just one small part of the Smithsonian. James Smithson, a British scientist, bequeathed his estate to the United States for the founding at Washington DC of the Smithsonian Institution, which he envisioned as “an Establishment for the increase & diffusion of knowledge.” After much discussion by politicians as to what such an Establishment might look like (a museum? a library? a university?), they settled on a museum, and the Smithsonian was established in 1846.
The Smithsonian Institute Building, commonly referred to as “The Castle,” was completed in 1855. The earliest collections, many of them donated by wealthy philanthropists, were first displayed here, but today it contains all of the administrative offices of the Smithsonian.
I imagine it takes quite a bit of administrating. That’s because the Smithsonian isn’t your average museum ― it’s nineteen museums and galleries, and a zoo. Two are located in New York City, and the rest are in the DC area, with eleven of them scattered along the National Mall. And the best part? Admission to all of them is free. I managed to hit a grand total of three museums in two days. Even that was pushing it.
The National Museum of the American Indian is located in a splendid-looking building designed by Douglas Cardinal. It opened in 2004, and is the first American museum dedicated exclusively to the history of Native Americans. The exhibits are divided into four areas: Our Universes (Native beliefs), Our Peoples (Native history), Our Lives (contemporary Native life), and Return to a Native Place (Native peoples of the Chesapeake region). My time here was short, and I limited myself to a temporary exhibition entitled A Song for the Horse Nation ― an exhibit about how horses changed the lives of Native peoples. I’d like to go back and explore this museum some more.
My next stop was the National Museum of American History.
My goal here was simple: to see Julia Child’s kitchen. I succeeded by the skin of my teeth. The exhibit was in the process of moving and had been closed for months, but the museum opened up a temporary display for two weeks just for the 100th anniversary of Julia Child’s birth. Those two weeks overlapped with my visit ― did I luck out or what?
Also on display at this museum is the original Star-Spangled Banner ― the one that inspired Francis Scott Key to write the American national anthem after witnessing the bombardment at Fort McHenry by the British during the War of 1812. It’s massive, very old, and looks its age.
The exhibit on the American Presidency exhibit was particularly popular.
The Smithsonian has a nickname: “the nation’s attic.” Judging by some of the artifacts passed on to the museum by former U.S. presidents, it’s easy to see why.
I was a bit creeped out by the top hat Abraham Lincoln was wearing the night he died, until it occurred to me that he probably wasn’t actually wearing it when he was shot, since he was indoors at the time.
But the most popular exhibit? It was the one called, simply, The First Ladies. It included an impressive display of White House china, and display case after display case of gowns and dresses worn by the first ladies, including that Jason Wu gown worn by Michelle Obama I was talking about earlier.
My last stop was the National Air and Space Museum.
I lasted barely an hour here as it was extremely crowded and filled with screaming children. But I saw everything I wanted to see, including the 1903 Wright Flyer, the Spirit of St. Louis, and the Apollo 11 command module, Columbia. If you have even a middling interest in either aviation or space travel, check this one out.
I didn’t get to any of the art galleries (there are seven), nor the Natural History Museum. I’d like to check out that zoo some day as well. The National Museum of African American History and Culture is under construction and is scheduled to open in 2015; I expect it will be fascinating.
The Smithsonian is included on most Top 10 Lists of the world’s best museums. No wonder ― it has something for everyone.
In honour of today being Inauguration Day, here is another photo of the Capitol. I was rather bemused to find out last summer that the swearing-in ceremony on Inauguration Day used to take place here, on the East Portico of the Capitol — which, as you can see, faces a parking lot. The ceremony wasn’t moved to the West Front (which faces the Mall) until 1981 when Ronald Reagan was sworn in for his first term as President.
I guess they were having trouble fitting all those spectators into the parking lot?
Here’s one last post on food, and then I’ll let you all go back to your New Year’s resolutions. (Which I know you’re following religiously.)
This post is about how I discovered Naples on the Danforth. The Danforth, for those of my readers unfamiliar with Toronto’s Greektown, is Souvlaki Central. A decade ago, there wasn’t much variety in the way of restaurants on the Danforth ― it was all Greek all the time. Every time I went back to Toronto for a visit, I made sure to get my fill of the best souvlaki in the country (in my humble opinion).
But during my most recent visit to the Centre of the Universe, I realized the Danforth is undergoing a transformation. There is still a heavy Greek influence, to be sure, but there’s a whole lot more as well.
My friend insisted while I was in town that we eat at least one night at Pizzeria Libretto, a neighbourhood pizzeria that serves Real Neapolitan Pizza certified by VPN. (Verace Pizza Napoletana is a non-profit association that protects and promotes real Neapolitan pizza around the world.) She promised me I wouldn’t regret it.
Pizzeria Libretto is about the closest I’ve been to Italian pizza outside of Italy. Libretto is Italian for “booklet.” You fold the pizza at Pizzeria Libretto like a booklet ― that’s the only way you’ll get it in your mouth, unless you deign to eat your pizza with a knife and fork. Pizza crust that soft and that thin ― that’s a true Neapolitan pizza. Our pizza Margherita had a super thin, soft crust, the thinnest layer of tomato sauce, the freshest basil, dollops of fresh mozzarella cheese … and it was baked in a wood-fired oven. Heaven on earth, truly, for pizza lovers.
There was no room upstairs when we arrived (we didn’t have a reservation), but lots of room downstairs and the attentive service was excellent. Pizzeria Libretto has a stylish but down-to-earth décor ― I went dressed in a T-shirt, shorts, and Birkenstocks. I really liked the water bottles they used, with the name Pizzeria Libretto stamped on the side, and asked to buy one to take home with me. Our server said he was sure it wouldn’t be a problem, but then someone with a higher pay grade vetoed his decision. To help me get over my disappointment (I’m thinking), our server brought us complimentary after-dinner digestifs.
Before my evening at Pizzeria Libretto, I would tell people that the best souvlaki outside of Greece is made on the Danforth. Now I will tell everyone that the Danforth also has the best pizza outside of Italy. It was so good, in fact, I went back the next week with another friend for lunch. I never did get my souvlaki fix.
Update: Acadia closed in December 2013.
My friend was so impressed with our experience at Jean-Georges in New York City last summer that she decided we should check out some fine dining options in Toronto as long as I was in town. We decided on Acadia, which features the “flavors and techniques of Acadian and Lowcountry cuisine” and was rated by enRoute magazine as Canada’s fourth-best new restaurant of 2012. My friend (“C”) spends part of every summer in modern-day Acadia (aka Nova Scotia), she and I had travelled together many years ago to Louisiana, and I once spent a month in South Carolina, so we were both rather curious to see what Acadia had to offer on its menu.
Plus, a friend of C’s (“J”) ― also from Nova Scotia and in town for TIFF ― would be joining us. There was no debate. Acadia was our #1 choice.
(And we pause here momentarily for a brief history and geography lesson: Acadia, as I’m sure you all know, is that part of North America (present-day Maine, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, and Prince Edward Island) settled by the French in the early seventeenth century. Its connection to Louisiana is that, when the British deported most of the Acadians between 1755 and 1763, many of them ended up in Louisiana, which at that time was still a colony of New France. Their descendents are known as Cajuns.
Not so well known (OK, yes, I admit it: I looked this up on Wikipedia) is the Lowcountry region. It’s the South Carolinian coast, and food typical to the area is known as Lowcountry cuisine.
That’s it for today’s lesson ― we now return to our regular programming.)
C and I arrived early, so we each ordered a bourbon-based cocktail to start. As we waited for J to arrive, we devoured an order of chicken cracklin’ with hot sauce and blue cheese. The cracklin’ are like thin, smooth potato chips, but they’re made from stretched chicken skin, not potatoes. I know, I know … it sounds disgusting, but trust me ― these are addictive. The blue cheese was foamy and light, and we scooped it up with each cracklin’ like dip.
When J arrived, appropriately famished as well, he ordered a beer and we ordered another round of the chicken cracklin’, as well as the spiced beer nuts, flavoured with brown butter and paprika, and Acadia’s cornbread, which is served with whipped pork butter and mesquite.
After the nibblies and drinks were gone, we were ready for the serious stuff. We each ordered a different starter. C choose Anson Mills grits with Gulf prawn, oyster mushroom, pimento cheese, and ham hock consommé. Anson Mills is located in South Carolina, so these were the authentic southern grits I remember. I came to like grits mixed with scrambled eggs during my month of South Carolinian breakfasts. I like grits with eggs; I like grits for breakfast. But as a starter? With prawns? Never mind — C was happy. She gave me a taste, but I’ll be honest: not my favourite and I found it a curious dish.
J ordered the charred octopus served with crispy pork belly, tomatillo, new potato, spicy collards, and a black vinaigrette. He summed it up as simply the best octopus he’d ever eaten. I’ll admit I had some regrets on not ordering it when I saw his plate.
I had chilled corn soup with andouille, yellow plum, smoked cream, and tarragon. All the texture was in the andouille and plum that lay at the bottom of the bowl because the soup was as smooth as consommé. I soon got over my octopus-regret; my soup was delicious.
Before the arrival of our main courses, our server came by with the most sincerest of warnings. We needed to prepare ourselves. More accurately, I needed to prepare myself, because, in her words, I was about to experience “some serious food envy.”
She wasn’t kidding. C and J had ordered the special of the night: an entire braised veal shank to share. It left all three of us speechless. It was encircled by chanterelle mushrooms and tomatoes of a variety of colours.
I had scallops (miniscule, our server teased me, compared to the veal shank), with shaved foie gras, celery purée, pecan, Concord grape, and scuppernong mustard. Scallop is one of my favourite types of sea food, so I can be quite forgiving, but no need this time. They were excellent. But I also had a few bites of the veal shank, and had to admit that it too was delicious.
It didn’t take long before J and C admitted they were defeated. Truthfully, that hunk of meat was enough for four people. Our server grinned. “Oh, so it’s going to be lunch tomorrow?” she asked.
C piped up that she would appreciate some suggestions on what to do with the veal in the way of leftovers. “I don’t want to ruin it,” she said. We were surprised and delighted to see Acadia’s chef, Patrick Kriss, come to our table after we had been served our desserts, speaking most earnestly, and advising C to braise the leftover meat in chicken stock to retain the moisture. “Don’t put it in the microwave,” he warned. “That will dry the meat out.” We were all impressed by the attention he gave us ― although, if I think about it, it was probably the veal shank he was most concerned about.
For dessert, I had wild blueberry sorbet with peaches, lavender, and ricotta, while J and C shared a dark chocolate cremeaux with milk sorbet, pistachio, and cherries. Espresso to finish, and we were sated. My Toronto readers: if you’re interested in a medley of cuisines and a lesson in geography, check out Acadia. I highly recommend it.
Now that you’re all firmly resolved, and well and truly into your New Year’s diets, I thought I’d write a few posts about food. Any objections? I thought not.
And since I have at least eight friends and/or family members who are looking forward to visiting New York in 2013, I’m going to return to that city to talk about a fabulous meal I enjoyed there last summer.
It would not be a stretch to say that, once I knew I was going to New York, what I was most anticipating was eating at Jean-Georges. Ever since my first meal at Market here in Vancouver, after which I discovered Jean-Georges has no less than eight restaurants in New York, I was determined to one day eat at his flagship restaurant in the Trump Tower. Last summer, I had my chance. Before leaving Vancouver, I made reservations for Sunday lunch the weekend we would be in New York.
The décor at Jean-Georges is lovely; very light and airy with floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking Columbus Circle. We had a great table at the far end of the room against the wall. The furnishings are almost identical to the Vancouver Market restaurant. I especially loved the silverware. Call me old-fashioned, but it’s such a treat to eat with real silver at a restaurant. Feels more like an occasion, in my mind.
We perused the menu, made some tentative choices between ourselves, then asked for some tips about which wines to choose with the courses we were thinking of ordering. Our server offered to check with the sommelier, then came back with his recommendations. Wine at Jean-Georges is served by the glass, which I appreciated as I wanted to vary what I would drink with each course.
After we made our selections, we were offered a choice of four types of bread. Then came a trio of amuse-bouches: a small glass of carrot purée, sea urchin on a small piece of dark toast, and fried okra over a miso purée. These were amazing bites of wonderment. So much flavor in one tiny bite.
For my first course, I had tomato gazpacho, which was poured from a silver pitcher overtop grated fresh, soft mozzarella and a bed of olive oil foam. The gazpacho had a nice spicy touch, and I could taste summer in the tomatoes. My friend ordered charred-corn ravioli, tomato salad, and basil fondue. This plate consisted of small, bite-sized ravioli, heirloom cherry tomatoes, and a basil-based sauce. It was very tasty, and I regretted not ordering it myself.
I wanted to taste one more course and so I ordered a second appetizer: a warm green asparagus salad, with Hollandaise sauce and a truffle vinaigrette, served on a bed of mesclan. This turned out to be my favourite course of the meal; I could eat asparagus every day for the rest of my life and never tire of it. The Hollandaise wasn’t too heavy, and the asparagus was perfectly steamed.
For my entrée, I selected the sesame-crusted salmon, which was served over a grilled eggplant purée and red chili butter. The butter provided a nice contrast, both in flavour and colour. It had a real kick, but was delicious with the salmon, which was perfectly cooked and a lovely pink colour.
My friend ordered the parmesan-crusted confit leg of organic chicken, with artichoke, basil, and lemon butter. She thought the lemon was too strong, but her chicken was moist and tender, just as a confit should be, and the parmesan crust was perfect. (Travel tip: Always travel with a friend who doesn’t mind you trying her food. You get to taste two meals for the price of one.)
Desserts at Jean-Georges are served as tastings: my friend ordered the cherry and I had the chocolate. She got sour cherry crème brûlée and marzipan, cherry sorbet, and deconstructed black forest ― the cream, cherries, and chocolate were served individually on a black slate slab.
My chocolate tastings included white chocolate meringue with a layer of meyer lemon ice and cinnamon over top. I can’t say I tasted the cinnamon and, like my friend with her chicken, I found the lemon overpowering, almost to the point where I felt I was eating a dessert laced with household cleanser. However, Jean-Georges’ signature molten chocolate cake was delicious, with the vanilla bean ice cream on the side.
To go with our desserts, we each ordered a glass of Banyuls Reserva from Domaine La Tour Vieille in Roussillon. I know Banyuls from my visit to Roussillon many years ago, and it was the perfect accompaniment for both the chocolate- and cherry-based desserts.
But wait! There was more! We had scarcely made a start on our desserts when we were served a plate of homemade chocolates, another plate of miniature raspberry macaroons, and Jean-Georges’ homemade marshmallow, which is most definitely a step above the Kraft variety.
Although we had one server who seemed to be in charge of our table, we were waited on by several people throughout our lunch. The service was impeccably timed. Each dish was delivered in unison by two servers, and cleared the same way.
After we had ordered our desserts, I asked to see the main menu once again, and when a server (not one of ours) noticed I was taking photos of the menu, he offered to give me a copy of both menus to take home. As he handed me the dark brown folder, he asked where we were from. He was very excited upon hearing I was from Vancouver, and told us he had a colleague from Vancouver. At this point, my friend jumped in and explained that I had eaten at Jean-Georges’ restaurant in Vancouver, and had been impressed, which was why we were here.
“That’s where my colleague worked!” he said. He then asked how the food compared and whether the meal I had just had was quite different from how food was served in the Vancouver restaurant.
“It’s very similar,” I said. “Just as delicious, but …” I paused as I thought for a second how to explain the difference, then said, “… but this is New York!”
He smiled knowingly and nodded. “Yeah,” he agreed. He reminded me of a young Woody Allen. Right down to his Noo Yawk accent and dark-rimmed glasses.
It was a delightful way to spend a Sunday afternoon in New York City. Lunch at Jean-Georges is a great deal as it’s prix fixe for two courses, with the option to order additional courses as I did. It was my first experience in a three-star Michelin restaurant, and now I have a new goal: to go back and try Jean-Georges’ seven other New York restaurants.
I can’t believe I’ve lived in this neighbourhood for 14 winters, and today was the first time I witnessed the annual New Year’s Day Polar Bear Swim. My reaction? They’re all nuts.
Vancouver’s Polar Bear Swim has been going on since 1920, and is one of the largest in the world. There are more than 2000 registered swimmers, but estimates of how many actually go into the water are as high as 10,000.
I’ll let the photos speak for themselves. (Note the guys in beaver hats enjoying their Timmy’s coffee and Timbits.)