Birthdays!!

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Feliz cumpleaños, Chaz

Written by Emmy on 21 December 2011

As I once mentioned in the early days of Absurdity Checkpoint, I believe birthdays to be very important. And though I could not be in Boston for the actual day of, I journeyed up north in order to take part in at least the celebratory portion of Chaz’s 23rd.

I arrived on Saturday afternoon in time for some last-minute party planning efforts and, of course, dinner at a neighborhood Thai/Vietnamese restaurant. As is apparently tradition with a checkpoint birthday dinner, little photographic evidence survived. (Monochromatic dishes in a dark restaurant just don’t pop well on a cellphone camera.) We celebrated afterward with Diana and many of Chaz’s new Boston friends.

My visit was brief, but there was obviously as much food stuffed in as possible. Sunday’s main event was brunch. We went to Masa, a southwestern restaurant not far from Chaz’s apartment that I had been to with friends the year prior and remembered as being quite excellent. There was a wait to be seated, as is often the case with a Sunday brunch expedition, and so we had coffees at the bar. At the peak brunch hour of 1 p.m., Masa was packed entirely with twenty-somethings just like us.

By the time we were seated, we were both feeling ravenous and so quickly devoured the homemade cornbread, served with three different spreads — apricot and habanera jam, molasses honey butter, and cranberry and chipotle jam.

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Chaz had the stuffed Mexican omelet, filled with fresh veggies and cheese.

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I ordered the “ultimate” breakfast burrito with black beans, veggies, cheese, chorizo and eggs. Much to Chaz’s chagrin, I ordered it with egg whites.

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We powered through our meal so that we would have time to take a tour of Chaz’s office before I set off on my train back to New York. The trip, though very brief, gave me a quick glimpse into Chaz’s new grown-up life. This was the checkpoint’s first reunion since we bid farewell in the Detroit airport and so much had happened in the few short months since. Since the checkpoint began, we’ve gone from college kids to carefree summer adventurers to “professional,” working “adults.” But the moral of the (still-evolving) story is that we’re still best friends, despite the daily separation of about 225 miles. And so the checkpoint lives on — one adventure at a time.

How do you say 23 with a Boston accent?

Written by Chaz on 20 December 2011

My friend Diana came up to Boston for my birthday right before Thanksgiving, and having not explored much of Boston’s restaurant scene, I was excited at the excuse to go out for a nice dinner. I picked Prezza, an Italian place in the North End.

Of course, the checkpoint has a long history of birthday coverage. Though this one fell under very different circumstances, and in fact on the other side of the world, I figured it was as good a time as any to bring the camera.

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We began with prosciutto served with roasted red peppers, buffalo mozzarella, olive tapenade and aged balsamic vinegar. Frankly, I think both of us could have done without the prosciutto, but the toppings were delicious, especially the mozzarella.

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We shared two entrees: potato gnocchi in a veal ragout with wild mushrooms and parmigiano cheese, and roasted halibut with butternut squash and sage risotto. The gnocchi were really good, as homemade pasta usually is, but it was not exceptional, especially considering my high expectations. The halibut, on the other hand, was out of this world.

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I didn’t even know you could cook fish like this halibut. The top was perfectly browned, while the rest of the filet was still tender. The butternut squash and risotto made a great mild complement to the fish. Though all of the ingredients were different, I was reminded of the composition of the amazing chicken dish we had at the Ahwahnee.

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After dinner, we took a walk down Hanover Street to Mike’s Pastry, where we contemplated our dessert options. Despite the late hour, the place was packed with people just like us, looking for a sweet bite after dinner.

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We ditched the crowds — always a questionable choice — to head next door to Caffe Vittoria, where we got a quiet table and shared a piece of tiramisu.

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Possibly the best birthday cake — and, in fact, birthday evening — that I could have asked for.

How do you say 22 in Thai?

Written by Emmy on 14 June 2011

I love birthdays. I especially love my own, but in general, I just love birthdays. An extra special feature of our trip to Thailand is the fact that I got to celebrate my birthday in Bangkok. Serious upgrade from the last two summers when I had to work on my birthday…

IMG_1078When I asked our friend at the front desk to help me make dinner reservations the other day, I casually mentioned that Saturday was my birthday. “Ohhhhhhhhhhhhhhh. Birthday!” she said. Clearly it was noted down, because on breakfast at Saturday, I got a mini cake with a candle in it from the hotel. Though it was awkwardly delivered to me while I was standing at the toaster, all up in the breakfast buffet, it was still very exciting.

We spent the bulk of the day at the Chatuchak Weekend Market. One of the world’s largest markets, we never could have navigated it without the well-renowned Nancy Chandler’s Map of Bangkok. The 27-acre 15,000-store market had its layout posted on a couple big signs and there were relatively clear markings about which “street” was which, but our map — or Nancy, as we called her — helped us understand where to find textbooks versus beach dresses versus live fish.

Official Chachutak map

IMG_1139Wandering from booth to booth, we checked out the wares, inspecting everything from gimmicky t-shirts to elephant-shaped pillows. We perused the book aisles and spotted several back issues of various American magazines, Chaz’s ninth grade Spanish textbook and our summer reading from freshman year: “How Proust Can Change Your Life.”

IMG_1138Some of the market stalls seemed more legitimate than others; we walked through the Fifth Avenue of the marketplace, which was lined with fancy clothing stores that had real doors and air conditioning. The entire market was packed from wall to wall; frequent signs warned about watching your valuables and I noticed the police chiding tourists for being too cavalier. One saleswoman did complement me on my super secure zipper-and-snap closure messenger bag and double-zip wallet. (Thanks, mom!)

IMG_1136In the middle of the shops was what the map called a Thai “food court.” And this was unlike any mall food court I’ve ever seen. Woks over open flames, with noodles being thrown into them; roasting spits; frying spring rolls; rapidfire chopping and assembling; and a whole lotta Thai people yelling. We chose a picnic table filled with people and their emptied plates. Always a good sign.

IMG_1123We ordered iced coffees and pad thai. Pad thai is the most common dish in American Thai restaurants, from the cheapest holes-in-the-wall to the fanciest, and the same is true in the motherland. Pad thai is made and consumed everywhere from grungy street corners to Bangkok’s Mandarin Oriental. The recipe is always the same: rice noodles tossed in a tangy-sweet sauce and garnished with lime, bean sprouts, scallions and peanuts. The best pad thai recipes — from my totally objective standpoint, of course — contain chicken, egg and tofu, and maybe a few vegetables. The risk one runs with ordering pad thai in a restaurant is often that it is too sweet. Alternatively, Chaz and I once tried to make pad thai and put in way too much soy sauce, resulting in a dish far saltier than intended.

The pad thai we ate in Chachutak was perfect: the sauce was not too sweet, the tofu was browned to perfection and the noodles were soft, without being gummy. Our waitress was clearly amused by the degree to which we fawned over our food, but trust me, it was worth it.

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Revived by our lunch, we continued perusing the market, getting lost in its many sections and alleyways. After finding our way out of the maze a few hours later with souvenirs in hand, we boarded the SkyTrain to head back downtown. Throughout our time in the bazaar, the weather was sweltering. Right now, it’s the rainy season in Thailand, which means that Bangkok is about 90 degrees at all times, except during the mid-afternoon monsoons we’ve found ourselves in a couple times. On Saturday, the rain held off (it never rains on my birthday! Seriously!), and so the heat was rather oppressive.

On our first day in Bangkok, we had wandered into one of the city’s nicest five-star hotels to check out the restaurants and the air conditioning. While inside, we had taken note of the luxurious pool. We had also taken note of how easy it would be to return to said luxurious pool. And so as a bit of birthday adventure, we did exactly that — this time with bathing suits. It could not have been more amazing. (Special shout-out to my Uncle Steven, for planting this idea in our heads long ago.)

We made a brief trip to the top floor of the State Tower, one of the city’s tallest buildings, for a drink and the view. On the ground, Bangkok is hectic and gritty, but from up above, the skyline is beautiful. It helps that at night you can’t tell that the river running through the city is, well, brown.

IMG_0881We ended a fantastic birthday at Blue Elephant, Bangkok’s most renowned (and fanciest) cooking school, where a gorgeous restaurant serves all of the dishes that have been perfected within the school. We began with a complementary house tasting: a bite of a fresh spring roll and a betel leaf with something spicy inside. The difference between a fresh spring roll in a gourmet restaurant in Thailand and one in the U.S. is that in the states, it kind of just tastes like rice paper with some vegetables hanging out inside. Here, every single flavor is pronounced — from the fresh scallions to the crunchy carrots to the shrimp. We ordered what basically amounted to a banquet, but given the setting and the occasion, we felt compelled to just go all out.

We started with the betel leaves we have come to enjoy so much already, golden bags stuffed with shrimp and crab and fish cakes.

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Due to technical difficulties (i.e. we did not bring my big camera and I am incapable of using Chaz’s iPhone), we do not have photo evidence of the main course. However, the crab curry and the spicy mango salad were both absolutely phenomenal. Both were very hot, but in different and very flavorful ways.

The meal finished as all birthdays should. There were some language barriers when Chaz tried to covertly order my birthday dessert, but all turned out beautifully nonetheless:

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