Monthly Archives: September 2013

The Glamour of Business Travel

As at least some of you know I work in consulting. I don’t do strategy or IT so I’m generally not on the road 4-5 days a week like some of my consulting brethren, but I do travel a fair amount for work. While I don’t really like being away from home, I do look at work travel as an opportunity to try foods in places I wouldn’t otherwise go to (if you travel for work and all you do is seek out the nearest Applebees come dinner time you are doing it wrong). There have been many hits and many misses, but here’s how I approach each meal.

Breakfast
Usually eaten (very) early in an airport or in a hotel. Let’s start with the airport. There is no finer airport breakfast (or any meal really) than a torta at Tortas Frontera at O’Hare. Of course, this is generally only possible if flying out of Terminals 1 or 3, but it is a real treat. An eggs and rajas torta and a cup of coffee make 7:30am flights so much more bearable. If I’m flying out of Terminal 2, well, there are no winners there. If it’s breakfast at the hotel, I’m eating oatmeal. Not even a debate.

Lunch
Most of the time this will be whatever non-offensive sandwich assortment the client brings in. That’s fine. I usually have turkey sandwiches (or some version of them) for lunch anyway. But occasionally my schedule will allow for a little detour for lunch. My favorite of these was probably Mike’s Famous Ham Place. The menu is basically limited to ham sandwiches and split pea soup with ham, but you really don’t need anything else. I mean come on, look at this bad boy.

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Yes, that is a piece of ham on top of the ham sandwich. You can also get a junior ham sandwich which doesn’t have quite as much ham as the regular ham sandwich.

Dinner
Now here is where most of my energy is focused. I’ve usually either just arrived in a city for a meeting the next morning or I’ve just wrapped things up with a client for the day. Either way I’m ready for a drink and a good meal. When seeking out dinner I try to stick to two rules: First is no national chains. Second is if I’m not in a major city I try not to go to what is described as “the best restaurant in town”. If you’re in a smaller city, this will probably be a steakhouse-like restaurant and it will be fine. It may even be good. But it probably won’t be memorable. So I’ll do some digging on Yelp, LTHForum, Chowhound, Trip Advisor, Twitter, etc. and try to narrow down the options. I’ll also talk to my clients who actually live in the city I’m visiting (in some places this will yield infinitely more valuable information than the Food Internet). All of this can lead to some great finds (the now closed Sea Saw in Scottsdale used to be one of my favorite restaurants to go to while traveling). The flip side though is you can find some real duds. This especially happens when proximity to the hotel (due to exhaustion) trumps my other natural instincts. That’s how you wind up eating something like this.

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This is “spicy tuna tartare” as served at Li Asian Cuisine in North Canton, Ohio. Yes, those are strawberries. Yes, those are Pringles. So what happened? I was tired and this was the closest non-chain restaurant to my hotel where I could also get a beer. It was bad, but hey, now it makes for a good story.

So there you go. The glamorous life of a traveling consultant who loves to eat. Jealous?

 

Edited now to include a link to more information about Mike’s Ham Place, which is in Detroit (and is awesome).

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Cream Cheese and Mayo – We Can Do Better, Chicago!

The other day on the Twitter I was poking some fun at Time Out Chicago’s review of some new Japanese place in Bucktown. You can read that review¬†here. As with any review of any new Chicago Japanese restaurant you get a description of some roll with as many ingredients as your average Kuma’s burger. In this case we get the “Bears Maki Roll” (“stuffed with salmon, avocado and crunchy sweet potato and topped with a layer of salmon as well as spicy mayo and unagi sauce”). Somehow TOC describes this as “successful” and not “too busy”.

I’ve been saying this for a while and it remains true: for a world class city our Japanese food is pretty bad. Arami and Juno are gems if you’re looking for sushi (which you will rightly pay for) and Sunshine Cafe is the place to go for comfort food. Ginza and Itto are both good places one level down from the very best, and after that the pickings get very slim.

My theory when it comes to why we don’t have much good sushi comes across as little snobby. I grew up right outside New York City and was eating sushi from a very young age. When I moved to the Midwest I encountered plenty of people who had either never had sushi or had started eating it much later in life (and in many cases their first sushi came from a grocery store). I certainly didn’t consider those people rubes, it was just a matter of logistics. It hasn’t always been easy to get fresh fish shipped just about anywhere as quickly as we see today. If I were living in the Midwest 20 years ago, I probably wouldn’t have been too excited about eating raw fish either…who knows what you were getting?

But here we are today. You can get high quality, fresh fish whether you’re one mile or one thousand miles from the dock. And yet I still don’t think people in Chicago really demand the good stuff. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been sitting at the sushi bar at Arami or Juno (or any other now closed space that I may have liked at one time), and have watched a parade of rolls make their way out to the dining room. Meanwhile I’ll be sitting there eating a plate of pristine sashimi, feeling bad for everyone else who was missing out. At least for me, the beauty of Japanese food is in the simplicity and the quality of the ingredients (but appreciating the underlying complexities). Eating a plate of rolls that are doused in sauce and stuffed with God knows what runs directly counter to that experience.

And that’s where we run into the problem. Go read Yelp reviews of Japanese restaurants, or even the TOC review linked above. There are so many that take the form of “the sushi is great…we loved Roll X”. My response to that is “well, then how did you know the sushi was great?”. Of course we should be paying attention to all of what a restaurant is serving. Rolls are part of the equation just as much as anything else on the menu. But let’s not miss turning a critical eye to sashimi and nigiri. Talk to me about how the chef slices the fish. Take a moment to consider whether or not the fish is being served at the right temperature (otoro is great, but is significantly less great if I can taste ice crystals). Pay attention to the rice, including flavor, texture, and temperature. We need to adjust the critical lens that most sushi is viewed through.

We can have better sushi in Chicago. We just need to demand it.