My Modern-Day Molotov Cocktail

I never ate shrimp on any regular basis when I was a kid. I really don’t remember having prawns as part of any childhood meal, certainly before man landed on the moon, the commercial introduction of the jumbo jet, and probably not until after Elvis’s untimely death. In the ‘70s a shrimp cocktail was the fancy appetizer of choice when you could afford to take a girl out on one of those rare real dates that included nourishment—also if she was fortunate enough to be allowed a starter. Nevertheless I found that I loved the stuff: At corporate functions a few years later in the ‘80s I could usually be found, drink in hand, in prawn proximity. Ah the lure of that bitter, crimson, horse-radished glop, complemented by freshly sliced lemons.

Since then, it seems that I’ve been living in shrimptopia, with large circular aluminum plates festooned with magnificent pink swirls of marine decapod crustaceans on a bed of smashed ice, continually within arm’s reach. Even when I find myself occasionally and inexplicably in a supermarket, there are shrimper dishes apparently everywhere: little blue or white rectangular plastic-wrapped polystyrene plates, packed with tiny anemic de-shelled prawns, identifiable only by their naturally convenient little red finger-food tails. Furthermore, the small frozen ones are dead cheap and they taste ok with a splosh of lemon and a dollop of magic sauce.

Sadly, I’ve never really thought to question the sheer abundance, availability, affordability and wholesomeness of this agreeable source of sustenance. I read online newspapers daily, I’m generally curious by nature and I travel a lot; heck I’m even a fairly avid diver and snorkeler. I always thought that shrimp was a good thing all around: nutritious, copiously available, and harvested honestly, in all weather by solid guys like Lieutenant Dan. Yet only now has it come to my full attention that I have been instrumental in helping to build the Death Star, one prawn at a time: One big modern-day Molotov cocktail.

Staying recently at the fabulous Tangalooma resort on Australia’s Moreton Island, I was engaging in various aquatic and other healthy outdoor activities: snorkeling the wrecks, whale watching, feeding the wild dolphins and so on. Between these marvelous activities I spent an hour in Tangalooma’s marine education center, which was fairly rudimentary though informative on ocean-saving topics ranging from turtle troubles to shark suffering. However, one small laminated flyer on the center’s window really caught my attention, and had the elevator speech on shrimp farming.

As I was now to understand, prawns were not good for my cholesterol, were processed by Asian slaves, and ultimately responsible for ongoing decimation of the world’s mangrove forests. Say what? Well I had read about the Thailand slavery issue a few months earlier and the European Union’s import ban threats, but the tropical shrubbery destruction was news to me, and since then I’ve read up on it a bit, and basically Asian shrimp farming appears to be responsible for obliterating large tracts of mangrove forest. I won’t repeat all the stats as they are a few clicks away for anyone, but those that jumped out at me are: five square miles of mangrove devastation yields only a few pounds of shrimp, after ten years the depleted land is useless for another forty, and twenty percent of the world’s mangrove forests are now lost to this inefficient practice (many sources including treehugger.com). Furthermore, when compared to the carbon footprint of beef raised to the detriment of tropical rainforest, shrimping is ten times worse! That’s ten times worse than pretty darn bad already. To me, these inefficiencies and collateral damage are truly staggering in any reasonable analysis of twenty-first century agriculture practices. The stats are also ugly for wild catch: For every two pounds of prawns that make it to your table, there are twenty-six pounds of ill-fated, unused by-catch.

So that’s it, I’m afraid. Deal me out on prawn Provencal and Szechwan shrimp and I must apologize to mother earth for unwittingly treating her like dirt these past few decades. I may be one step closer to veganism, but certainly slightly closer towards more responsible global citizenry. I thought I was doing my part already with all the recycling, energy efficient practices, and blacklisting other dodgy food sources, but the Cajun shrimp casserole came at me out of nowhere.

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My Musical Memorabilia Stratum

I enjoyed a Cobb Salad and Virgin Mary at Bengaluru’s new-looking and purpose-built Hard Rock Cafe; a veritable welcomed oasis of western civilization in an otherwise pandemoniacal megacity. Overall a great experience, my only suggestion or comment to these cafes outside of Europe and America: offer non-alcoholic beer. Aging fake rockers like me love fake beer as well as fridge magnets.

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As I sipped my virgin I wondered: How many outfits has Steven Tyler worn on stage anyway? And what’s with John Entwistle’s endless bass guitar collection? Bass guitars are kinda same-same are they not—I mean, once you’ve got a Rickenbacker and a Fender Precision that’s about the range of sounds, n’est-ce pas? Unless you want to go fretless, but that would’ve muddied Pinball Wizard.

You don’t necessarily think about that when you just pop briefly into a Hard Rock for a drink or a snack. But I found that I started analyzing it a little as I made a point of visiting many of them throughout Asia, Europe and the Americas. While all the collections are certainly different there did seem to be an awful lot of Tyler outfits and Entwistle basses. However, the numbers add up I suppose if you do a little bit of math; it really wouldn’t be that difficult to find hundreds of items displayed from the same rockers that had toured relentlessly for decades. And what’s Steven Tyler going to do with the fringy leotards when he’s not on stage anyway? I doubt he wears them around the house; although I don’t know that, I’m just coasting on assumptions here. “Fedex for Mister Tyler.”

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Sometimes you have to read the fine print closely: Ah the guitar was merely signed by Ritchie Zambora, and Jerry Garcia only played that one in his hotel room. Well Ok, there are varying levels of authenticity: a musical memorabilia stratum if you will. For certain, what I don’t want is, “similar to that used by,” or “the style used by,” and so on, although I’ve only come across that once or twice, and I’m going to have to call them out on that going forward I’ve decided. If I’ve gotten anything out of this American presidential election cycle it’s that I should just speak my mind if something bothers me. Anything at all.

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In my rhythmic collectible stratification, drumsticks and guitar picks don’t even make the cut: those I categorize as supplies. For me, that would be like displaying an actor’s used eyeliner brush at Planet Hollywood. And the more I think about it, what would be my pinnacle rock n’ roll collectible, my ultimate boogie bric-a-brac? Indisputably, that would be Brian May’s original guitar, the one he made as a kid from an old fireplace and then went on to play that killer riff at the end of Bohemian Rhapsody. Other than that, the stuff at the Bengaluru Hard Rock Café was pretty good.

Korma Karma

From the briny depths of a dark mysterious ocean a tiny air bubble begins a determined journey and races immediately towards the distant surface. Adhering firmly to Boyle’s law, the volume of air expands swiftly as the growing bubble ascends more and more rapidly. From a tiny bead it quickly becomes the size of a pea, to a marble, then a golf ball, an apple, a coconut and finally a watermelon before it bursts ferociously at the surface. I wake up gasping violently from this nightmare with the burning sensation of a man who just had a broken car battery emptied down his throat.

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It is my peculiar, present-day Indian food jinx: my Korma Karma. I love it but it considers my gastrointestinal system unworthy. In this culinary caste I am cast away. I am continually bullied by Biryani, menaced by Madras, and, worst of all, victimized by Vindaloo. It wasn’t always this way, being a proud alumnus of Khan’s Restaurant in Bayswater, London. My old Indian flame, she flirts and taunts me but I cannot indulge in her forbidden spices lest I revisit Mysore stomach in the wee hours in a hotel room in the middle of nowhere. And that is a price too high to pay in any currency.

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Given my lifelong preparation and culinary upbringing in Glasgow, Scotland I am surprised at my present lack of fortitude in these matters. Although not an overly ceremonial place, we did have certain cherished traditions when it came to spicy food. On the last Friday of the month it was typical to enjoy a fish supper, drink until closing time at the local pub, then eat Chicken Vindaloo with Poppadoms and chutney at midnight. Of course, these meals were always take-out, usually consumed outdoors within 100 yards of the premises, regardless of the weather. It’s fair to say that it’s more of a guy thing. (Hey Dave, remember your twenty-first birthday?).

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Visiting many temples throughout Mysore, India, as you do, I was inclusively invited to pray to the Hindu gods Vishnu and Shiva. And with everything going on in the world today that merits an idolic plea, I must admit that it crossed my mind to footnote curry tolerance on my way out the door. Could be worth a try, I thought. Probably a very reasonable, albeit minor request given the broad scope, magnitude and severity of appeals these gods have to deal with. But I stuck with world peace, which, in my mind annexes poverty, disease and climate change. I’ll just have to go heavy on the yoghurt sauce tonight.

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Thirty-Three Apple Pies

Late one afternoon in mid-march, as winter stubbornly continued to dictate the weather patterns in North America, I had a sudden and unforeseen yearning for apple pie. This was unusual as I was in the midst of a highly successful low-carb diet and had steadfastly committed to my austere regimen. Also, I have always had some fondness for that particular dessert, but it was never my favorite, nor was it ever really in my top ten, should I have decided to build such a list. Nonetheless Malus sieversii flan thoughts and neuroimagery began to feature more conspicuously in my consciousness.

This undeclared craving was ultimately revealed a few weeks later, when driving home late at night from a rock concert, without warning, I turned and said to my amazingly supportive wife, “Fancy some apple pie and coffee at the Silver Diner in Tysons Corner?” “Sure,” she fired back enthusiastically, never being one to miss out on any form of culinary excursion, regardless of time or place. And so my journey began. Over the next three months I would eat thirty-three apple pies.

I loved the apple cobbler they used to serve at J. Gilberts Restaurant in McLean, VA.  For some reason an apple croustade has replaced it, which I suppose is a little more upscale in presentation when compared to a big splotchy dollop of cobbler, which looks as though it fell on your plate from a great height.  It comes with cinnamon ice cream and bourbon-maple syrup and the croustade (pie crust) is tres formidable.  Very tasty and great consistency, with an excellent crust to apple ratio, although I lament the replacement of the cobbler (8/10).

I loved the apple cobbler they used to serve at J. Gilberts Restaurant in McLean, VA. For some reason an apple croustade has replaced it, which I suppose is a little more upscale in presentation when compared to a big splotchy dollop of cobbler, which looks as though it fell on your plate from a great height. It comes with cinnamon ice cream and bourbon-maple syrup and the croustade (pie crust) is tres formidable. Very tasty and great consistency, with an excellent crust to apple ratio, although I lament the replacement of the cobbler (8/10).

My thirty-three pies were consumed at western-style eateries throughout North America, Central America, and Asia in a variety of establishments ranging from diners to high-end restaurants. I did not set out to make a Morgan Spurlock (Supersize Me) Apple Pies Me type of documentary but I found myself increasingly taking mental notes and making comparisons nonetheless. Oh, and there is a handy little camera built into my phone which now has a purpose. I did end up using a few Spurlockian ground rules, for example, I would ask the server for apple pie and ice cream or the closest dessert item fitting that general description. If an item was not suggested as a close alternative I would forgo the feasting experience.

Costa is an upscale restaurant in Washington DC where you generally need reservations for lunch and the waistcoated servers scowl if you come in with a cup of Starbucks.  Of course, asking for an apple pie is akin to expecting fish and chips to be on their menu, but the waiter offered a lavender tart as a pretty good substitute.  And a fine tart it was—very tasty, very dense, but in a good way and could have been improved in my opinion if it were served heated.  I generally tend to assume that all apple pie equivalents are served warm with the ice cream melting on top or on the side.  I did ask and I still don’t get the lavender part, which I usually associate with talcum or air freshener (8/10).

Tosca is an upscale restaurant in Washington DC where you generally need reservations for lunch and the waistcoated servers scowl if you come in with a cup of Starbucks. Of course, asking for an apple pie is akin to expecting fish and chips to be on their menu, but the waiter offered a lavender tart as a pretty good substitute. And a fine tart it was—very tasty, very dense, but in a good way and could have been improved in my opinion if it were served heated. I generally tend to assume that all apple pie equivalents are served warm with the ice cream melting on top or on the side. I did ask and I still don’t get the lavender part, which I usually associate with talcum or air freshener (8/10).

The best pie I had in this adventure was from the Little Apple Pastry shop in Aldie VA. This is a bakery in a tiny little drive-through, one-street kinda town run by delightful old ladies who look as though they have been working there since the civil war. The pie was sooo good, measured by the fact that the naked apple slices rivaled the pastry for my attention (10/10).

Vermilion in Old Town, Alexandria, VA is a chic upscale restaurant that served up apple pie with bacon on top.  Yes really.  I have to say I do like it when folks try to do something different, and their apple pie tasted really good.  Nice crisp pastry and not dominated by way too much apple.  I thought the bacon was an interesting touch but I didn’t eat it.  The server said, with apparent seriousness and firsthand experience, that it was a great experience to eat the salted bacon alongside spoonfuls of pie and ice cream.  I was left thinking he doesn’t get out much to other restaurants (8/10).

Vermilion in Old Town, Alexandria, VA is a chic upscale restaurant that served up apple pie with bacon on top. Yes really. I have to say I do like it when folks try to do something different, and their apple pie tasted really good. Nice crisp pastry and not dominated by way too much apple. I thought the bacon was an interesting touch but I didn’t eat it. The server said, with apparent seriousness and firsthand experience, that it was a great experience to eat the salted bacon alongside spoonfuls of pie and ice cream. I was left thinking he doesn’t get out much to other restaurants (8/10).

The worst experience was at the Cheesecake Factory in Tysons Corner, VA, where they served me the biggest portion of stuff that looked as though a fire extinguisher had gone off in the kitchen next to the pie. It was just a big caloric soupy mix of ice cream and other whitish-brownish creams with some sunken apple creation underneath. This was a real shame, and a surprise to me, as the Cheesecake Factory is excellent for most other items including their signature desserts (1/10).

Two pies served up at the Hard Rock Café in Washington DC and Singapore.  The crumble on the Singapore version was a bit powdery and indeed could have been more crisp on each pie.

Two pies served up at the Hard Rock Café in Washington DC and Singapore. The crumble on the Singapore version was a bit powdery and indeed could have been more crisp on each pie.

The apple was too densely packed in the Singapore version (5/10) compared to Washington (6/10).  I can always rate the apple experience by how much I leave on the plate, and I left a fair amount at the Hard Rocks.

The apple was too densely packed in the Singapore version (5/10) compared to Washington (6/10). I can always rate the apple experience by how much I leave on the plate, and I left a fair amount at the Hard Rocks.

Other notables include the Silver Diner in Tysons (7/10), the Metro Diner in Arlington VA (7/10), Old Angler’s Inn in MD (8/10), Cooper’s Hawk Winery in Tampa, FL (8/10), and Barrel and Bushel’s in the Hyatt hotel in Tysons (7/10).

The Clyde’s restaurant chain is pretty good at most items and their offer of a rhubarb pie was no exception.  There was just enough tartness in the cooked rhubarb that worked well with the overall balance of the crumble and ice cream.  (8/10).

The Clyde’s restaurant chain is pretty good at most items and their offer of a rhubarb pie was no exception. There was just enough tartness in the cooked rhubarb that worked well with the overall balance of the crumble and ice cream. (8/10).

In any event, my culinary experiment is over for now, as I must, for the sake of my skinny jeans, return to the rigor of my low-carb diet. But what a journey! I will most certainly seek out and enjoy apple pies in the future but for the time being I need to earn that luxury.

The Restaurant at the End of the Concourse: Review of Bistro Atelier

To the front and back of me, the blue and gold geometric pattern in the industrial grade carpet repeated every few feet as far as I could see. I had not really noticed it before, as I am typically enveloped in a sloshing sea of people moving with a great sense of purpose in both directions. But today, concourse D at the John Foster Dulles International Airport is uncommonly uninhabited. The rectilinear aging corridors and the 1980s–era sagging black pleather and scuffed aluminum sling-style connected chairs are eerily empty. It is Saturday May 23rd and slap in the middle of the highly popular Memorial Day weekend, which I assume is the reason for the lack of air travelers. I suppose most folks prefer to jam roads instead of airports for this particular holiday. Nevertheless it does not seem as though this vacationer lull was fully anticipated by the Metropolitan Washington Airports Association, or at least by some of the businesses in the terminal.

Part way through an endless several billion dollar upgrade program, the antiquated people movers or “mobile lounges” as imaginatively titled by the busy airport have been mostly replaced by a train system. The train, which seems to be modern and efficient, appears to work well, except that there are some really time-consuming ambles at either end. Presumably when the airport modernization program is complete there will be more of a seamless integration, but today at each end we have an amateur maze of meandering corridors, ubiquitous stairs, and near-vertical escalators like you might find in parts of the London Underground. And the train does not even go to Terminal D, for that you have to endure the mobile lounge black comedy or you can take the train part way to Terminal C and hoof it to Terminal D. Should you manage to look the part, you can flag down and appeal to golf carts for assistance on your expedition. After the protracted march to the train, and the even longer trek from the train stop in Terminal C, you enter the extensive, snaking corridor of Terminal D.

Even after this expedition, due to the absence of throngs at security and elsewhere we had some pre-flight time to kill and the long white marble bar at the Bistro Atelier, close to gate D15, beckoned. We had indeed arrived at the restaurant at the end of the concourse. The bistro looked authentically European, a welcoming watering hole for an espresso and a read of Le Figaro, such as you might find on busy Boulevard Haussmann in pre-Nazi occupied Paris. It seemed to have been mysteriously supplanted into this 1970s era, dingy airport terminal, 20 miles to the west of Washington DC. In front of the extensive line of empty, comfortable 1930s-style barstools there were no less than five smiling, welcoming servers, each wearing matching white waistcoats and dark, once-stripy pants.

It became abundantly clear that the wait staff was experiencing a very slow day at this distantly placed locale, which as we all understand in the American bistro business goes straight to the wallet.  A subtle but noticeable competitive spirit materialized as servers jostled and independently motioned towards empty tables all around us, to our left, right, and to the front and back. Five eager pairs of eyes rapidly scanned and roved like searchlights attempting to make contact as we strode with an appearance of urgency, eyes forward, heads down, directly to the inviting elongated bar, where F.C. Barcelona was hammering some other La Liga team on the TV.

Outside of our direct line of sight and earshot some paper-scissors-rock competitive process had to have taken place and the winning attendant appeared suddenly on the other side of the bar just as we were seating ourselves. The other four servers remained faithfully standing in place with large, fake wooing smiles, as they continued to hold the greet line at the bistro’s entrance on what could be the slowest day in the restaurant’s history. Rajendra, the winning waiter, appeared to be highly proficient and somewhat hurried, as he welcomed us loudly and quickly whilst simultaneously handing us menus and expectantly placing drink napkins on the clean empty marble surface. He hovered with intent as we scanned the underwhelming menu choices, which was one long, plastic covered page with drinks on one side and food on the other.

“Got any fish?” I asked bluntly as that is always my lunch-out preference these days. “Oh yeeesss, we have fiiish,” as he hastily motioned his hand around the menu in an inwardly spiraling fashion before arriving at the solitary fish offering of Tilapia. In real time I read the French-y sounding description and ordered the Tilapia with the salad dressing on the side. Raj then turned his complete attention to my wife, successfully pressuring her for an equally quick order. Under insurmountable stress she complied reluctantly with his enthusiastic suggestion of the French dip sandwich. Resplendent in the speed of the order, Raj brusquely entered the data into the lonely machine over by the till.

But then havoc wreaked. Make it snappy Raj had entered the wrong selection for me, and my wife, now having had the chance to actually read the menu, saw an opportunity to change her order to the curried chicken crepe. Raj was visibly startled and sweating and called urgently for help from the other non-working servers to input complex change instructions into the computerized ordering system. It was taking valuable time as Raj fidgeted and kept looking at his watch. To make matters worse the idle kitchen staff had instantaneously started preparing both wrong orders. Knowing that the bored chef had jumped on the first opportunity to prepare food in an age, Raj started loudly calling out order changes in the general direction of the kitchen as he and two others fiddled with the order machine. “The Tilapia platter, not the sandwich,” he cried out losing part of his waiter-ly demeanor. “With the dressing on the side.” “You ordered the sandwich,” said some loud faceless voice from the kitchen order hole-in-the-wall. “The customer changed his mind,” Raj yelled back. “No I didn’t,” I said to my wife, “You changed yours.” “And it’s a curried chicken crepe not a French dip sandwich,” yelled Raj adding insult to the chef’s injury.

After another few minutes of nouveau vaudeville, Raj, with great aplomb, proudly placed both correct orders directly in front of us. “It’s the end of my shift,” he said matter of fact-ly, “and my boss wants me to clear out my checks,” as he near-simultaneously presented the bill for the food that we hadn’t yet started eating. “We might want dessert,” I replied. “Ooooh we don’t really do desserts,” he retorted. “What about apple pie?” I pressed with a genuine sense of interest. “No apple pie, no cheesecake, nothing like that at all—just a couple things that you probably wouldn’t like,” was his monotonic response, accompanied by a hand swoosh towards the kitchen.

No longer in sales mode, Raj was trying fervently to realize his exit with at least one paying customer on this slowest of days. Sensing that my body language conveyed a continued sense of interest in dessert he relented and reproduced menus and an offer for another lonely server to take over should we desire one of their unappealing puddings. He rapidly picked up the signed check from us while wearing a mix of server and street clothes, thanking us as he bolted from the bistro presumably to get to his next job or his beach house for the remainder of the holiday weekend. At least the food was pretty good.

Note: The waiter’s name was changed for this true story so as not to unnecessarily expose someone who was perhaps just having a bad day.

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