I’ve written another Adventures in Food column for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, this one about memorable meals during my family’s travels to other countries. Through the years, we’ve hit the U.K., the Netherlands, Italy, France, Spain and South Korea, and we’ve brought back delicious memories. Here’s the Super Deluxe edition of that column, with bonus meals and stories!
There might not be a lot of foreign travel happening right now, but some of the most memorable meals my family and I have had through the years have been while traveling abroad.
From rijsttafel in Amsterdam and pollo al forno around the corner from the Cavern Club in Liverpool, to steak-frites and secret sauce in Paris and risotto in the Lake District of Northern Italy, my family has brought back many dining stories (and delicious memories) from our trips.
One of the most unusual meals we’ve had in another country was during a 1984 visit my wife, Leslie, and I made to Amsterdam in the Netherlands. A guidebook talked about the influence that the colonization of Indonesia had on Dutch cuisine, and recommended tourists try rijsttafel, which means “rice table.”
What we were served was a big bowl of rice and lots of little bowls of different spicy-sticky-sweet dishes. We enjoyed the meal, but, frankly, we weren’t sure what we were eating most of the time. However, that may have been a good thing. We do remember beef rendang (slow-cooked, crispy beef in coconut curry sauce) and pisang goreng (crunchy fried banana fritters).
(For years after that, whenever we’d put together a meal of multiple little containers of leftovers, Leslie would say we were having “rijsttafel.”)
Easily the most unusual meal any of our family has had was when our daughter-in-law, Jenny, was working at a school in South Korea, and the teachers and administrators went out to dinner. The school’s principal ordered san-nakji, and offered her some. She didn’t want to try it, since it is a live octopus dish, but refusing food is considered bad manners there, so she accepted.
One of the teachers mimed to her that she should chew it really hard. “That was the opposite of what I had planned to do, since it seemed the easiest way to get through it would just be to swallow it as soon as possible,” she said. “But I’m glad I listened, because I later read that it is rare, but possible, to die from the suckers attaching to your throat!”
She used her chopsticks to pry the suckers off, since the octopus leg was still wiggling and sticking to the plate. “I chewed it hard,” Jenny said. “It didn’t have much taste, or else I didn’t notice the taste, because it was sucking onto my cheeks. I eventually chewed it enough that it stopped sucking, and swallowed it. I can’t say I enjoyed it, but I think I earned some respect from my colleagues for trying it!”
Memorable settings have made several of our meals abroad special, including the time we were staying with one of my mother’s cousins, Roden, and his wife, Mary, in Salisbury. One evening, we took them to dinner at the Old Mill, located in a building that dates back to 1250. The food was pretty much standard fare (Leslie had sole, I had fillet and our son Bill had sausages), but the view of Salisbury Cathedral, the same vantage point immortalized by painter John Constable, was beautiful.
Years later, Leslie and our daughter, Olivia, dined at the Sorza restaurant on the Ile Saint-Louis in the Seine River, near Notre Dame in Paris. Olivia said of the pesto risotto: “I would have licked the bowl if that was acceptable in public.”
And, Leslie and Livvy also made a 2017 visit to the very popular Le Relais de l’Entrecôte in Paris, where there is a set menu: steak-frites and secret sauce. All the waiter asks you is: How do you want your meat cooked, what do you want to drink, and what dessert do you want? The boneless steak is served in two portions, “so you think it’s small, but then you’re surprised,” Livvy said. It also is covered with an alarmingly green peppercorn sauce, she said, but was “one of the top meals of my life, thus far.”
They also were thrilled to find one of our favorite drinks, a kir, commonly available throughout Paris. And, Olivia said, “you didn’t have to explain to them what it was,” like you do in most Atlanta restaurants.
On a couple of trips to London, we’ve also enjoyed lunch at the Swan, a pub on Bayswater Road that started as a coaching inn, dating to 1721. On one trip, we had tasty ham baguettes, and, on another, fish and chips, but the atmosphere was the chief attraction.
Speaking of fish and chips, we’ve had many different servings of them throughout the United Kingdom over the years, but the most generous portions were at The Codfather in my mother’s hometown of Abergavenny, Wales (featuring a logo of a tough-guy fish toting a machine gun). When Olivia returned there in 2017, “I ate the entire plate after hiking 9 miles roundtrip up to the summit of the Sugarloaf,” one of the seven mountains and hills that surround the picturesque town. (By comparison, on the same trip where we discovered The Codfather, we also had fish and chips at our hotel in Liverpool, and it was half the portion, twice the price, and only half as good.)
Still, the absolute best-tasting fish and chips we’ve had were the hand-battered Atlantic cod and chips at the Pen & Parchment, a 17th century inn in Shakespeare’s hometown, Stratford-Upon-Avon, where even the wisteria winding across the front of the building is 150 years old.
Another traditional U.K. meal, which my mother often served us, is roast beef and Yorkshire pudding, which Olivia ordered when we dined at the Sherlock Holmes Pub and Restaurant in London in 2014. It was very good and, unlike what you’ll get in many British homes, the roast beef wasn’t overcooked! (In fact, when she revisited the Sherlock Holmes pub three years later, she had the same meal again.) Meanwhile, I had another British mainstay there: bangers and mash (sausages and mashed potatoes).
During one visit to London in the early 1980s, Leslie and I stayed at a smallish hotel called the Devere Gardens in the Kensington area and I tried oxtail soup, a British comfort food. Thought to have originated in London’s East End in the 17th century, the dish combines beef tails in a vegetable stew. It wasn’t bad, but I’ve never had it again since. (Of course, it’s not something you’d run across very often in Atlanta.)
I first encountered another British classic, the “full English breakfast,” on a 1982 visit to Liverpool, but the best I’ve had was during our 2001 stay at the Angel Hotel in Abergavenny, where you could avail yourself of juice, tea, toast, fried egg, fried bread, hashbrowns, sausage, bacon, tomatoes, baked beans, mushrooms and cereal.
The Brits have a thing for baked beans. Olivia had a “jacket potato” (baked potato) at the Cwtch Café in Abergavenny that was topped with baked beans. It might sound awful, but she said it “spoiled me for jacket potatoes now — I can’t enjoy them plain.”
Elsewhere, I’ll never forget having a warming bowl of porridge at a bed-and-breakfast in Edinburgh on a rainy August day that was so chilly I had to buy a wool hat in town. Also staying at the same place was a group of young Japanese women, and Leslie recalls one of them asking the innkeeper, “When will it be summer, and how long will it last?”
On that same trip, we dined at a local pancake place, only to find that they didn’t serve their pancakes with syrup. We had to smear our stacks with jam!
The ploughman’s lunch is another U.K. favorite. Traditionally, it’s a cold lunch consisting of bread, cheese, maybe meat, pickled onions and perhaps a hard-boiled egg. On a visit to London with a couple of friends, Mark Gunter and John Sosebee, to see Paul McCartney perform at Wembley Arena, we stopped into a pub that was offering a ploughman’s lunch.
Mark saw what he thought was a bowl of salt on the bar, so he spooned a little onto his egg. We found out why the bartender gave him such a strange look when he discovered it wasn’t salt in the bowl, but sugar. We still laugh about the infamous “sugared egg.”
And, then there was the time Leslie and I rose early at a B&B in Llandudno, in the north of Wales, in order to catch a train. The owner slipped us a paper bag that included bacon sandwiches (or butties, as the British call them), made with slabs of good white bread, butter and those thick slices of British bacon that put even the Canadian version to shame.
Interestingly, we also had some memorable meals in Britain at U.S.-style restaurants (and I’m not counting quick lunches grabbed at McDonald’s). We especially liked Chicago Meatpackers in London’s Charing Cross district, where they had a lot of railroad memorabilia and a model train chugging around the room. We got a kick out of a notice on the menu (aimed at British customers, I assume) advising that good steaks should not be eaten well-done!
There also have been numerous visits to London’s Hard Rock Café, which, amid all the rock ’n’ roll memorabilia, serves an American diner-themed menu.
But, we were very disappointed when we tried Pret a Manger, a popular London-based chain patterned after American sandwich and coffee shops. The food was awful.
Getting back into traditional British fare, on a solo visit that our daughter made to the U.K. between college degrees, she had afternoon tea at Chatsworth House, a grand estate owned by the Duke of Devonshire that was used for the Pemberley scenes in the Kiera Knightly film version of Olivia’s favorite book, “Pride & Prejudice.” (She had to book it two months in advance.)
And, she spent some time in the ancient city of Bath, where she dined at the Sally Lunn house, around the corner from the Roman baths — and itself dating back to 1483. There, she had the famed Sally Lunn bun, a teacake made with yeast dough, cream and eggs, similar to the sweet brioche breads of France, served warm and sliced, with cinnamon butter.
Livvy also got to celebrate her 23rd birthday in Cardiff, the capital of Wales. Her birthday is March 1, the same date as St. David’s Day, the Welsh national holiday, so she got to march in the parade and then enjoy lasagna made with Welsh beef at the Duke of Wellington pub.
Probably the most memorable mealtime view we’ve ever had was during a stay in Northern Italy’s Lake District in 2009, where dinner every night at the four-star Lido Palace hotel (originally built as a villa in 1865) offered a majestic vista of Lake Maggiore and three of its palace-studded islands.
Also wonderful was the food at the hotel’s Terrace restaurant, overseen by the ever-helpful Roberto, who would address Leslie as “Signora,” Olivia as “Signorina” and me as “Datore,” an Italian term of respect that roughly translates as “Boss.” My son, as the younger male, didn’t get any special honorific.
On the day our tour group arrived, they served us a “light” lunch buffet that included breaded turkey slices, quiche, pizza squares, pasta, puff pastries, fruit, cake and gelato.
The two-hour, four-course dinners (five, if you wanted a salad) sometimes didn’t start until 7:45 in the evening, and included such starters as cauliflower muffins and a tartlet with squash, leeks and taleggio cheese; a different cream soup every night; and a different pasta, except the last night, when we had risotto, one of the area’s specialties. Each night, you also had the choice of fish (usually from one of the nearby lakes) or meat, for your entrée, along with some sort of potato dish. Favorites included the eggplant and Parmesan lasagna al ragu, the veal escalope, and, our farewell meal there, when we chose trout with butter and sage.
One night, a strawberry and vanilla cake topped with a sparkler was wheeled out to celebrate the birthday of our 24-year-old son and a lady in our tour group. Young Bill got to slice the cake.
And, always, gelato of various flavors was part of the dessert buffet. (Olivia also soon got us all in the habit of a midafternoon gelato break, no matter where we were. In Italy, you’re never far from a gelato shop.)
In general, the food at the hotel — and in the various restaurants where we had lunch — was wonderful, especially the simply prepared pasta (usually in oil and a light, creamy tomato sauce, not the heavy sauces favored in southern Italy). Zucchini was a frequent ingredient, as was eggplant.
We had other delightful meals on day trips during that visit, including a lunch on Isoladei Pescatori (Fisherman’s Island) that offered pasta with tomato sauce, olives and eggplant, and fish with a spinach and cheese pattie; ham and cheese and chicken and cheese panini in Milan; and pizza at a covered outdoor café in Stresa, another town on the lake.
Five years later, when Olivia did a study-abroad stay in Rome, her most memorable meals included a pasta dish at La Fiaschetta in Rome (she liked the place so much, she ate there four times); and cacio e pepe served in a bowl made of Parmesan cheese.
Of course, you can find fine Italian cuisine in other countries, with one of the best meals I’ve ever had being at Casa Italia in Liverpool. We’ve dined at the restaurant on several visits to the hometown of The Beatles, but the high point was when my son and I went there one night in 2001 and both had the pollo al forno — shell pasta and chicken and mozzarella in bechamel sauce, sizzling hot in a skillet and sprinkled with Parmesan and black pepper. Delicious!
And, in 2017, Leslie and Livvy split an excellent pizza at Bar Remo on Oxford Street in London.
Seafood always has been a favorite of ours, too, and we had a couple of fine meals at the original Manzi’s, which was near London’s Leicester Square, and was known for its curried halibut and strawberry flan. (There’s a new Manzi’s in Soho that pays tribute to the departed original.)
We also enjoyed seafood at Geales in Notting Hill, where, on our most recent visit, we had cod and chips, whitebait (a small battered, fried fish), salmon fish cakes, fried plaice fillet with new potatoes, and fish pie (with cod, prawns, salmon and smoked haddock in cream sauce, topped with mustard mashed potatoes).
I first discovered Geales, which unfortunately closed for good this past spring, while in London with my friend John in 1990. As John recalled recently, “I think I had cod and chips, and kept my eye on that damn cat wandering through the dining room, looking for a handout.”
John might not have been crazy about a restaurant with a cat, but Olivia (who loves cats) enjoyed dessert crepes from a crepe restaurant in Paris “that had a resident cat who wandered around.” She also dined at Lady Dinah’s Cat Emporium in London.
Our son and daughter-in-law had another memorable seafood meal in Barcelona, Spain, where they signed up for a class to learn to make paella mixta, which also includes chicken and vegetables.
“A big part of the work was chopping veggies,” Jenny recalled. When it came time to cook the dish in a large pan, the teacher did it, though she allowed the students to take turns stirring. They also enjoyed sangria while they cooked, and, for dessert, learned to make a Catalan cream, similar to a crème brûlée. Said Jenny: “It was one of our favorite meals and experiences in Spain!”
We’ve also had some unforgettable servers during our foreign meals. One time, when we met up with our longtime friends Carl and Randi Rehm at the Pavement Café in the Royal Lancaster Hotel in London, we had a terrible waiter, who apparently got fired midway through the meal and was replaced by another one, almost as slow — though we didn’t really mind, since it gave us a lot of time to catch up.
On the positive side, the day after my son and I visited Liverpool’s Casa Italia, we went in there again for focaccia and pizzas, and we also got a taste of the famous Liverpudlian wit. The waiter we’d had the night before recognized us and, with a grin, asked if we’d like our “usual table.”
Another meal, in 2014 at the Angel in London, featured not just delicious food (including soup with gnocchi for Leslie, halibut for me, an upscale burger for Livvy, and a superb dessert combining strawberries, vanilla ice cream and sugar cookies), but also a charming French waitress. While I was skeptical, she managed to talk me into trying something on the menu called Jasmine Pearls. It proved to be a delicious green tea scented with fresh jasmine flowers, and I enjoyed it, in spite of my doubts.
And, also in 2014, we returned to a London restaurant called Olio, in a hotel on Lancaster Gate near Hyde Park, where, 13 years earlier, we’d enjoyed a wonderful Italian meal, including fettucine arrabiata, pizza margherita and, for dessert, a chocolate torte with vanilla ice cream, chocolate sauce and powdered sugar (the best dessert of that trip).
We were excited to revisit that earlier experience, but, unfortunately, in the interim Olio had switched to a European-Malaysian menu. When we expressed our disappointment, the waitress, who hailed from Turkmenistan, convinced the management to serve us from the Frank Sinatra Night menu that one of their other restaurants offered just one night a week.
We appreciated the effort — and, of course, she received a very generous tip.