Last week, my husband and I celebrated 9 years of wedding bliss. We put a lot of stock in celebrating anniversaries, so it was a bit anti-climactic when we decided to celebrate from home this year. Generally, we like to get away for the weekend, and have in the past enjoyed trips to Wilmington, the Smokey Mountains, and even Italy (thanks Ryan and Kara!).
But with a gift certificate in hand for Taste Carolina Gourmet Food Tours (thanks—again—Ryan and Kara), we decided to at least make a day of it and head to the Big City for a little food, a nice movie, and some together time. Okay—a lot of food, but we’ll get to that.
As I have mentioned before, we live on a lake, which manages to be a tremendous blessing and a total curse all wrapped up in one big package. It’s everything we ever wanted, about ten years sooner than we thought we would actually have it. Well, the property, anyway. The house is everything we didn’t want in a house, but that’s a story for another day. But the dock, the screened porch with a view, the instant access to water sports fun—all of it is a dream come true. And that’s the problem.
We have a very hard time pulling ourselves away from it, and as a result, our time outside of the neighborhood drops off precipitously as the temperature increases. For some reason, I actually feel anxious and guilty when I want some time in the real world, like I am thumbing my nose at my dreams. (Why yes, I do hear voices in my head… why do you ask?)
Lucky for us, our anniversary this year coincided with Memorial Day Weekend (short pause to give a shout out to all past and present service men and women—you guys are my hero!). In a way, it was a perfect storm of events that led to a completely guilt-free trip to the Big City. First of all, no other weekend quite brings out the crazies like Memorial Day weekend when you live on the water. Even though we live on a relatively small lake, boaters are still thick on the ground-er, water. What’s more, these are the people who generally consider themselves boating experts, despite the fact their boat may only get wet once or twice a year.
The water is extremely choppy, the whine of dozens of engines fill the air, and you can’t spit without hitting a boat, tuber, or Jet Ski. So, clearly it’s a good time not to be on the water. Combined with the fact my husband had a full three days off in a row, viola! A day on the town.
We puttered around the house until around noon, then gussied up for our date *giggle* I dragged my husband down to the dock for an impromptu photo shoot, which he was actually a good sport about (he hates getting his picture taken).
What a guy :)
Having properly documented the occasion, we set off for Raleigh. We had no idea what to expect from the tour. It was at a weird time for food, starting at 2 and going until 5. I had no clue how much food would be involved, so we had had a very light snack around noon. By the time we arrived at the appointed meeting place on Wilmington Street in downtown, I was ravenous.
Now, a hungry Erin is like a hungry wildebeest. It is best not to look me in the eye, or get between me and something remotely edible. The website said to be there at 1:45, and at 1:48 I was tapping my foot angrily and checking my watch obsessively, waiting for the guides to arrive. Meanwhile, I was smiling as pleasantly as I could muster to the lovely people who would also be on the tour, while mentally coming up with a list of proper punishments for the late guides. Lets see, three minutes… I was thinking either the rack or forcing them to watch Sex and the City, 2. Either one seemed appropriately horrible.
At last they arrived: a lovely woman named Amy and a nice guy by the name of Tony (I think), and I decided that perhaps I could let the three minutes and 27 seconds slide, just this once.
And so, the tour began.
First stop: 18 Seaboard, an upscale (though not terribly expensive) contemporary American grill. At this point, I was a little woozy from hunger, so I don’t recall much of what was said before the food came out. When at last the food arrived, it was an upscale take on fried green tomatoes that would have made Izzy at the Whistle Stop Café weep with joy. It was beautifully arranged with a side of corn relish and a drizzle of balsamic reduction. I only know how lovely it looked because I glanced at my neighbor’s before mine was set before me, and I promptly went all National Geographic on it. At first I chewed quickly, in a hurry to satiate the wildebeest within, but slowly the flavor broke through my frenzy, and with an effort I was able to slow my pace. By the last few bites, I was finally able to really savor it. Truly, it was absolutely divine…possibly even literally. Is it possible to deep fry angel wings?
Interestingly enough, even though it was a classic southern dish, the preparation and presentation was so upscale, I suddenly felt as though we were at a trendy eatery in New York.
And here I thought we were stuck in Raleigh for the day.
We soon set off for our next stop, a small café-like restaurant called Market Restaurant that serves whole, all-natural, unprocessed foods from local sources. It was a pleasant little place with plenty of little tables and an ambiance that would have been right at home in Asheville, NC or Burbank, CA.
When they brought out frosty glass bottles of water with glasses garnished with fresh cucumber, I was strongly reminded of lunching with my sister somewhere eclectic in California. Only half a mile a way, and here we had already traveled from one coast to the other. Their offering included fish tacos, kale chips, and homemade spicy ketchup.
Frosty jugs of water for our cucumber garnished glasses
Kirk could not have been more thrilled, since I absolutely hate all things fish *shudders*, so he got both servings. The fried-in-olive-oil kale chips, however, were a totally new food for me, and I was surprised how much I liked the crispy little leaves. Who would have thought to fry a cabbage leaf? Oh, wait, this was the south, after all. We’ll fry anything that doesn’t run the other way—and even then if it isn't fast enough to get away. Fried pickles, Twinkies, or squash, anyone?
Lovely arrangements, but, Eww—fish.
Directly next door we found Escazu Chocolates, small-batch artisan chocolatiers. Brace yourselves, ladies, for you are about to take the journey with me.
Upon entering the shop, my attention was immediately drawn to the tiny, perfect little chocolate pieces beneath the glass of the display. Vibrant colors, artful designs, and exotic flavor combinations would have tempted even the most picky of chocolate connoisseurs, of which I am not. Picky that is—I wanted to eat them all!
Elegant, unique, and perfectly portioned
The co-owner, Danielle, is a Venezuelan native with lovely, exotic features and an enchanting accent that emerged as she spoke of the South American origins of their cocoa beans. Before the tasting, she took us on a tour of their operations, showing us the time-consuming process of taking the bean from its raw form to the gorgeous confections displayed in the shop. It was wonderful to see that, in the age of robotic and assembly-line manufacturers, true artisans still exist, practicing their crafts with talent, attention to detail, and imagination. And by imagination, I mean things like chocolate with goat’s milk, chipotle chili, and even pumpkin seeds.
The whole facility smelled of mouthwatering decadence, the sort of richness that can make one fat simply by breathing the air. And breathe I did, in deep, satisfying drafts, much as a sommelier would sample the fine bouquet of a perfectly aged red. I couldn’t wait to get started on the tasting.
We returned to the shop and sat down to await our first sample: 67% cocoa dark chocolate with coarsely ground sea salt. We were advised by the expert not to chew; instead, we were to lay it on our tongues and wait for the flavors to come alive as the chocolate melted in our mouths. It took quite a bit of will power, but it was worth it. The divine texture and flavor of the chocolate blended beautifully with the punch of saltiness, smooth silk merging with sharp mineral, awakening the senses in a nearly primal experience.
When at last my eyelids fluttered open and my eyes were able to focus, I eagerly accepted the next sample, the 60% cocoa dark chocolate with goat’s milk. As unbelievable as it sounds, I liked this combination even better. The creamy, slightly acidic twang of the goat’s milk was the perfect foil to the earthy, almost fruity essence of the dark chocolate. As I savored the heavenly flavors dancing over my tongue, I knew then that the fruit of the tree which had so tempted Eve must have surely been the cocoa bean, waiting only for the touch of an artisan as skilled as those who toil away in Escazu’s kitchen.
By the time the tasting concluded, I felt as though we had sampled the finest delicacies ever to leave the humid jungles of South America. Of course, we simply couldn’t leave without purchasing a few extra treats for later. I chose an inviting square of chocolate-covered marshmallow, while Kirk decided on a tiny truffle of chili and lime. While my choice was classically yummy, the chili lime proved to be an instant favorite, with an explosion of flavor so vibrate one can not help but wonder how so much zing can fit in such a tiny little package.
As we gathered outside in preparation of heading to the next venue, I couldn’t believe what a truly wonderful time we were having. Who knew such lovely delights awaited us within the city we had called home for eight years? As is so often the case, we take for granted the city we live in, never seeing it for all of the amazing options that await us if we but look.
As we headed out, Kirk and I laced our fingers and matched our footsteps like we used to all those years ago when we were dating in high school. It was fun to share such an adventure with each other. So far, we had flitted from New York, to California, all the way to South America, and I eagerly awaited our next stop.
So, drunk with happiness from the chocolate shop, our little group headed on to Zely and Ritz, a totally unique dining experience off of Glenwood South, downtown.
Chef Sarig, greeted us upon our arrival, and quickly and efficiently seated us at a long table laid with a brightly colored and mouthwateringly aromatic pesto and sausage topped pita pizza. Sarig, who is Israeli-born, incorporates Mediterranean and Middle-Eastern spices with local and organically grown meats and produce to create truly unique dishes. As we tucked into the yummy little pizzas, I was amazed to learn that nearly everything served in the restaurant, from the sausage to the tomatoes, is grown or raised on their very own family farm in Hillsboro. How awesome is that? According to the chef, the menus change weekly in order to accommodate whatever is in season at that exact moment in time.
Little Sausage and Pesto Pizzas
With the foreign flavors of the Middle East still fresh on my palate, we said goodbye and went on to Solas…and straight into Miami Beach.
Kirk turned to me with wide eyes and instructed me to take copious pictures of the outdoor area, because, when I am massively famous and fabulous, he wanted an exact replica at our house. I have to admit, I do to:
Enough to make Don Johnson homesick for a white suit, feathered hair, and the biggest cigarette boat money can buy.
Once inside, we were treated to a perfect little slice of rack of lamb and a glass of wine. Again, Kirk was happy since, thanks to my wine allergy, he got yet another double serving.
As for the food, it was my very first taste of lamb, and honestly, it was every bit as good as any filet I have sampled. Kirk and I exchanged conspiratorial looks, each wondering if it would be worth the risk of being booted from the restaurant to pick it up with our fingers and suck every last bit of taste from the bone.
But we wanted to. Oh, did we want to.
After exploring the second-floor dance club (with a glass floor – I hope the ladies remember their unmentionables lest the restaurant goers below get a little more than they bargained for) and the third floor patio and bar, it was time to move on to the final stop of the tour: The Mint.
At this point, I was stuffed. Even though we had only had a small sample from each place, man did it add up quick. As we walked through the sumptuously decorated dining room, up the curving staircase to the bar area, I sighed and accepted the fact that I couldn’t eat another thing.
And then they brought us our final dish: shrimp and grits.
My eyes got huge. My mouth began to water. My stomach groaned in protest, but my taste buds quickly won the fight. Inordinately glad that I was wearing a high-waisted , flowing dress, I dove into this classically southern, perfectly prepared low-country staple with gusto. The grits were creamy, the shrimp firm and sweet, and, as if that wasn’t enough, little bits of sausage added even more rich-bodied flavor.
So good… it was too bad I was so full I couldn’t breathe. Totally worth it. On top of the deliciousness of the food, I was happily put to mind of sultry summer nights in historic Charleston, warm salty breezes blowing in from the marshes while the distant sound of waves serenaded more beautifully than Mozart.
The tour guides chose that moment to produce a box of cupcakes from The Cupcake Shoppe. Grateful for the knowledge that no store-bought cupcake could be better than my own (despite how delicious the other tour-goers proclaimed them to be), I wrapped a vanilla on vanilla one in a napkin, and stuffed it in my purse for later.
As we strolled to the car (any faster pace was out of the question, though being rolled might have been a good option), Kirk and I linked arms and reminisced about these nine wonderful years of marriage. With big goofy grins on our faces, we piled into the car and headed for our next destination: the movies!
Indulging in a very rare treat indeed, we paid full price to see Letters to Juliet. Though the film was a delightful little love story sure to bring a smile to anyone’s lips, it was the gorgeous Tuscan scenery that had us sighing with pleasure at the memory of our time in Italy.
Afterward, we weren’t ready to let the feeling go, so we decided to treat ourselves to some wonderful gelato from a fabulous little shop in Wake Forest called A-La-Mode. The cool, creamy goodness instantly transported us to the heart of Rome, where we had sat gazing upon Trevie Fountain only a year earlier while partaking in the exact same treat.
As we licked the last traces from the bowl, Kirk checked his watch – it was already past 9:30 pm. We got into the car once more, and paused to look at each other. Neither of us wanted our perfect date to end.
Finally Kirk grinned. “I have an idea,” he said, and put the car in gear.
Within moments we arrived at Shuckers, a local oyster bar and grill that serves absolutely wonderful seafood. “Oh, no,” I said, laughing. “I couldn’t possibly eat another thing!”
I was wrong.
Not only did I eagerly devour my cooked-to-perfection bacon wrapped scallops and mixed veggies, I even had a little of Kirk’s shrimp appetizer. Everything was delicious, and I have to say, it tasted like… home. Sitting on the patio, with the buzz of neighbor’s around us and the unique smell of Raleigh in the air, we had come full circle on our journey.
It was midnight before we finally made it back to the house. Hand and hand, we walked inside, sated, content, and totally in love. In twelve hours, we had managed to sample the whole world, and at the end of the day, we were exactly where we wanted to be.
What is your most memorable date? I’d love to hear the special ways that you guys like to celebrate, and whether or not you have ever experienced a perfect day.
PS - I had to use my little backup camera since we couldn't find the battery charger for the good one :( Have no fears, it has since been found, and my pics should be back to their normal, high-quality selves from now on :)
After such a luscious chocolate experience, I thought perhaps a chocolate recipe was in order…
This is slightly modified from the Bakers One-Bowl Chocolate Cake Recipe printed inside the Semisweet baking squares (red) box.
6 ounces (6 squares) BAKER'S Semi-Sweet Chocolate
3/4 cup (1 – 1/2 sticks) butter
1 – 1/2 cups sugar
2 tsp. vanilla
2 - 2/3 cups cake flour (or sifted all-purpose flour)
1 tsp. baking soda
1/4 tsp salt
1 -1/2 cups water
2 Tbsp sour cream
Preheat oven to 350°F.
Microwave chocolate and butter in large microwaveable bowl on HIGH 2 min. or until butter is melted. Stir until chocolate is completely melted. Stir in sugar and vanilla. Add eggs, 1 at a time, beating with electric mixer on low speed after each addition until well blended.
Combine the flour, baking soda, and salt in a separate bowl. If you are using all-purpose flour, it is best to simply sift it all together.
Add 1/3 of the flour, then ½ the water and the sour cream, then another 1/3 of the flour, the last half of the water, and finally the last 1/3 of the flour.
Distribute evenly into 24 paper-lined medium muffin cups. (I always add the batter to gallon sized Ziplock bags and cut a small hole in one corner for easy distribution. This batter will be very thin)
Bake 19 to 21 min. or until toothpick inserted in centers comes out clean. Be careful not to overcook! Cool in pan 10 min.; remove to wire racks.