By The Restaurant Dieter

Tag: travel (Page 1 of 2)

Emilia-Romagna, Italy, review: What happened when I ate at Osteria Francescana, ‘The World’s Best Restaurant’

My spouse started urging me a year before: “What kind of special trip should we plan for your 60th birthday?”

That sent me off considering all sorts of once-in-a-lifetime trips: Antarctica and the basecamp at Mt. Everest in Nepal actually were on the list briefly.

But sanity prevailed. I decided that most important was to spend time with my husband and two dear friends who now live in Europe. We settled on a relaxing week eating our way through one of Italy’s best food regions, Emilia-Romagna. I’d gotten the idea from a travel article and was really sold by reading “Emilia-Romagna, Italy: A Personal Guide to the Little Known Places Foodies Will Love.”

The excellent guide emphasized small towns and quaint, humble, family-run restaurants that served fresh, unprocessed local food.

Emilia-Romagna, in northern Italy, extends along a line about 20 kilometers southeast of Milan to the Adriatic Sea. It’s home to Bologna, Parma, Modena, Ravenna and a bunch of cities with names you likely wouldn’t recognize.

More importantly, it’s the birthplace of amazing food known the world over: Parmesan cheese, prosciutto, mortadella (the Italian cousin of bologna), balsamic vinegar, pancetta, bolognese sauce and more.

The Parmesan cheese was plentiful and wonderful

It also happens to be home to…the 2018 World’s Best Restaurant, Osteria Francescana in Modena. That’s not the kind of coincidence that my husband, who relishes eating at big-name restaurants, could pass up.

He managed to snare a highly-coveted reservation for one of the 12 tables at this temple to high-concept cooking. It is owned and operated by celebrity chef, Massimo Bottura. He recently was featured in a Netflix video series called Chef’s Table, describing his creative process. He clearly relishes the role of culinary heretic.

With just 12 tables in the room, it was easy for Bottura to make the rounds, so all guests got to offer adulation to the genius himself. With a curt bow of introduction, he struck me as tiny and thin, with a thatch of mad-scientist, gray hair and fashionable black eyeglasses sized for a horse. Yes, our little foursome assured him, we were enjoying our dinner.

The seasonal tasting menu was over-the-top in concept, execution — and yes, definitely the size of the check. One of the courses was his famous “Five Ages of Parmigiano Reggiano in Different Textures and Temperatures,” which goes for 70 Euro a la carte. It came to the table as described — the cheese beautifully prepared both cold and hot and in forms from crisp to foamy to creamy. It’s well known as one of his signature dishes. In my mind, it compensated for two dishes that used eel to unpleasant effect.

(None of the photos of food accompanying this article are from Osteria Francescana. It did not seem like the place to whip out a camera, which I probably did a bit too much of anyway.)

No matter, really; dinner at Osteria Francescana was not even our favorite. In fact, we found the humble, family-run restaurants the most satisfying.

We went during the mid-October to mid-November season for truffles. A pasta came with a heap of meaty slices them, not a measly dusting from a fine grater. All the pastas — all homemade — came in reasonable portions of a cup or less as part of a meal, rarely as the whole meal. The salads and vegetables were as wonderful as the pastas and main courses.

At Corte di Ca’ Bosco, they don’t skimp on the truffles.

One night we drove to the foothills of the Apennine Mountains for dinner at Corte di Ca’ Bosco in Castello di Serravalle. We ate in a small, dark and romantic dining room that used to house the cows at night, now decorated with antiques and farm memorabilia. Mirella, one of the owners, waited on us. Her husband, Andrea, is known locally as Ringo, DJ della griglia or the “DJ of the grill,” as the restaurant’s specialty is grilled meats.

Our party nearly wept at a salad composed of radicchio, endive, sweet cherry tomatoes, parmesan cheese and grilled mortadella with a balsamic dressing. I started (my primi course) with a fresh pasta tossed in a walnut sauce and then moved on to a fillet of beef with shaved truffle. My friend had a mixed grill with the best sausage I’d ever tasted. After hearing my praise, Andrea fired up a few more links and sent them to our table.

The salads and vegetables were as great as the other courses.

Here’s the kicker of the whole trip:

We traveled the region by car and did not get a lot of exercise — yet I only gained a couple of pounds. (Truth be told: Some days our ONLY activities were driving somewhere for lunch; napping in the afternoon and driving to another restaurant for dinner.)

The fact that I didn’t come home feeling bloated and overstuffed can be chalked up to two things: the moderate portions and the famous Mediterranean Diet, which is all about eating fresh and unprocessed food.

Viva l’Italia!

Why exotic locales are hell on your diet

Going on vacation is hell on a diet, period. This is doubly true in a country where one has to be careful about what he eats and drinks — say Mexico, China and Cuba.

Two of the three above landed The Restaurant Dieter on an antibiotic. For the Mexico trip some years back, I thought those fears about the water were overblown. So I ate lots of produce washed in the local stuff and consumed water and ice cubes with abandon. I brushed my teeth with the bottled water the hotel provided and figured that was enough. Until it wasn’t.

For China in fall 2015, I followed the U.S. Department of State’s advice on eating abroad and returned without incident. But my diet was lacking in satisfying, uncooked and low fat fruits and vegetables. I came home heavier than I’d been in quite awhile.

Earlier this month, in Cuba, I took a Pepto Bismol before every meal and tried to strike a balance. At the start, I skipped the healthful vegetables and ate meat-and-carb-laden meals: pork, chicken, lobster, black beans and rice; and ropa vieja, the shredded beef that is the national dish.



But I missed raw vegetables and gradually added them back in as the week went on. The result? Cipro again.

The problem, of course, is that while the water in many countries is perfectly safe for those used to drinking it, there may be pathogens that our bodies cannot tolerate.



Of course, complaining about dieting in Cuba misses the point. Cuba’s economy is reeling from the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 and a U.S. embargo that was strengthened in the 1990s. During that period, our guide said food was so hard to come by that every Cuban lost 25 percent of his body weight.

Although the Cuban state provides a guaranteed allocation of food for every person in need, it’s meager. The state-run ration store we visited had mostly empty shelves, and the extras were expensive. A can of beans cost 56 cents — in a country where the average wage is $20 a month. Cubans are pinning all their hopes for a stronger economy on President Obama’s visit and a subsequent thaw in U.S.-Cuban relations, but nothing is certain.

It makes you realize how much of a privilege it is to be eating from the cream of Cuba’s burgeoning restaurant scene and dieting at all.

A 60-cent can of beans is expensive on a $20 a month salary

A 60-cent can of beans is expensive on a $20 a month salary

Travel makes it hard for Weight Watchers

Nothing upsets Weight Watchers progress like travel does. In October, The Restaurant Dieter returned from 21 days in China, close to 10 pounds shy of his all-time-high weight. It’s more muscle this time around, but it was still too close for comfort. Literally. The pants were too tight.

Travel makes eating right and dieting hard

Travel makes eating right and dieting hard

He started the current holiday at The Lodge at Sea Island, a luxury golf resort where the staff was so obsequious that it almost hurt. Breakfast was a winner: 3 egg omelet with spinach and shrimp. By leaving the hash browns, he started yesterday off right.

Now he’s at the Lodge on Little St. Simons Island, off the Georgia coast, with friends for a long weekend. The private island is owned by former Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson. This annual weekend is the kind of holiday that could be all about the activity and recreation — or about the food. This one is both. There are all kinds of activities from which to choose: biking, hiking, kayaking, fishing, bird watching.

But the whole group of about 30 gets together over meals. What comes out of the kitchen is invariably good. This morning it was vegetable frittata, fresh biscuits, butter and jam, creamy cheesy grits, bacon, fruit. A normal breakfast is a single egg, a slice of low-fat cheese and two pieces of dry, whole wheat toast. When you’re traveling on holiday, things just add up.

It’s not that I haven’t tried. Yesterday, before arriving on the island, I made the car stop at the local market. I bought apples, clementines, walnuts, humus, shredded wheat and a couple of packages of baby carrots. Yesterday before dinner, I had some carrots and humus in the hope of reducing consumption once things started rolling. But then, once among the crowd, I engaged with the cheese platter, had the pretzels with hot mustard and then at dinner, ate a couple of pieces of the crusty raisin walnut loaf, two-and-a-half crab cakes, cous cous and roasted cauliflower. I tasted but left most of the too-sweet caramel ice cream.

But still, by the time I went to bed, heartburn — from eating late, from eating rich, from eating too much. Ugh.

Lunch is likely to be a shrimp boil at the beach. Most years, we bike to the beach for this event. But it was rainy yesterday, and the road is likely to be full of rainy potholes. The shuttle it is. Weenie.

Dieting aboard the Queen Mary 2 is nearly impossible

Scones with clotted cream and jam in Bath, England; we started eating them before we even got on the ship

For a chunk of June, healthy eating disappeared for this Weight Watchers member. Once aboard the floating luxury hotel that is the Queen Mary 2, all diets were escorted quickly to the gang plank and marched off the end into the Atlantic Ocean.

And the passengers cheered: “Bring us tea with sandwiches, pastries and scones with clotted cream and jam!”

The Restaurant Dieter’s Spouse had wanted to do an Atlantic Ocean crossing for some time. Note the choice of words. A cruise is a trip on which one sails from port to port, getting off for day trips. In fact, the QM2 has some cruises on its schedule.

But this was a voyage on an ocean liner. It crossed the 7.8 million square mile body of water in seven days. We  boarded at Southhampton, England, and disembarked a week later after passing the Statue of Liberty on our way to New York City.

The QM2 never stops, leaving plenty of time for on-board activities. These include reading, exercising, playing board games or shuffleboard, watching movies, listening to live music or a lecture, dancing, competing at trivia and napping to the sound of the waves.

Oh, did I mention eating? Yes, that, too.

In fact, food was available all day. And much of it was excellent, whether in the second-class dining room or at the buffet. Cunard, which operates the QM2 and other ships, prides itself in the quality of its high-end cooking and celebrated chefs.

To secure a stateroom with chaise lounges on the balcony, we booked for what is essentially second class. That meant we took our meals in the fairly intimate Princess Grill. Third class dined in the cavernous Britannia Restaurant, with two assigned seatings every night. For those with the big bucks, there was the Queens Grill. Everyone was welcome to partake in the Kings Court buffet, which was fairly well mobbed during lunch and dinner.

The QM2 is notable for its partnership with the health spa, Canyon Ranch, which we’ve visited both in Tucson and The Berkshires. The exercise and spa facilities were branded Canyon Ranch, and a Canyon Ranch balanced meal was on the menus at both lunch and dinner. They provided enough information to accurately assess how many Weight Watchers points were in a meal.

But did I order the CR selection? Hell no I didn’t. You think I’m nuts?

There was one night when the Princess Grill menu offered chateaubriand and grilled lobster tails. Pasha, our ever-diligent waiter, suggested that both could be combined into a really nice surf-and-turf. But he brought them out as separate plates, so I wound up with the steak plus two meaty lobster tails. Of course we ate them both.

The menu offered rich selections such as gratin dauphinoise potatoes, baked Alaska and duck a l’orange, some of it dramatically finished at the table. It was possible to have both a dessert and a cheese course. The servers didn’t stint: the latter might include 2-3 ounces each of five different cheeses.

The servings on the cheese plate were huge

Tea was every day at 3 or 3:30 p.m. — barely after lunch. It included little finger sandwiches with cucumber, egg salad or shrimp salad, but also pastries and scones with clotted cream and strawberry jam. In the Queens Grill Lounge, where first and second classes took their tea, the scones came out hot, soft and fresh in the hands of white-gloved waiters.

If the regular dining room or the buffet didn’t tempt, there was a grill on the top deck serving burgers and a pub a few decks below that offered fish-and-chips, cottage pie and bangers-and-mash every day. After a night out, walking back to the stateroom could involve passing through the buffet, where the late snack might include sandwiches, Chinese food, prepared salads, pizza, pasta and cakes and pies. The Commodore Club, where we stopped for a drink nearly every day before dinner, had a 12 page menu with no food. Whew! But even then, waiters came by with pate or brie-and-grapes on crackers or battered shrimp and chicken bites.

For breakfast in particular, I tried to be good, at least after I started ordering a vegetable omelet, made using cooking spray instead of butter. It took a couple of days of British-style scrambled eggs first, however. I didn’t know then that their soft, fluffy texture comes from using cream, whole milk or creme fraiche in the preparation.

One day, I badly needed a large salad, which wasn’t on the menu. Pasha merely asked the kitchen to double one of the salads on the menu, put the dressing on the side and add a grilled chicken breast and hard-cooked egg.

But that was one day in an otherwise wild-ass food orgy. I went to the gym every day and ate right the week I returned. I managed to weigh in only 1 pound over my typical 207 pounds.

And that felt good. Not nearly as good, mind you, as the food coma that comes right after tea, but good.

Canyon Ranch Day 3: Hiking with Iman

On nearly every trip to Canyon Ranch, the fitness resort, we’ve encountered a celebrity. I’ve taken an aerobics class with Sweet Baby James Taylor and gossiped with actor-playwright Harvey Fierstein. The Restaurant Dieter’s spouse took a boot camp class with the pop star Pink. She kicked his ass.

After the first day, we thought this might be a celebrity-free visit when my spouse noticed a tall black woman, big eyeglasses, reading quietly at dinner. It looked to be the supermodel Iman, wife of rock star David Bowie. As frequent visitors to New York, we know the rules on celebrities: No pictures and for heavens sake, pretend you don’t recognize them.

Today, however, the supposed Iman was on our hike in the Catalina Mountains. The woman pretty much kept to herself and was silent on the bus ride to the trail head

So halfway through, when the group stopped to snack, she sat alone a couple of yards away. I kept a respectful distance.

The conversation at Canyon Ranch often turns to healthy living and eating. So while we consumed our fruit crisp (no sugar), hard-cooked egg, cheese and trail mix (unsalted), we gabbed about eating.

At one point, the group was talking about the obscene sodium levels in restaurant food.

Suddenly, a deep and accented voice boomed into the conversation from over my shoulder. It was the same distinctive voice I’d heard on TV from the Somali-born model. This was Inman.

She said never found it necessary to read food labels until she came to the United States, where so much of the available food is processed. She agreed it was awful how much fat and sodium are in restaurant food. She was incredulous that people have criticized Michelle Obama for advocating on behalf of efforts to combat childhood obesity.

And why not? She and Bowie have an 12-year-old daughter.

Here’s The Restaurant Dieter and his husband on the hike. Iman asked me to take her picture with her cellphone, but I respected her privacy and did not take one with mine.It’s followed by a couple of pictures from what I ordered at lunch in the dining room: BBQ chicken sandwich with jicama salad and macaroon and chocolate chip cookie for dessert.

Canyon Ranch, Day 1: A good day, especially considering what came before

Today is my first day at Canyon Ranch, the fitness resort in Tucson, Arizona. It went OK. It was a little less action packed than normal for a visit here. I was so worn out from a couple days of work travel, eating poorly, lack of exercise and a minor car accident. My normal get-up-and-go CR experience turned into lunch, a loooong nap and then a massage I hadn’t earned.

So I just did an hour of weights, which felt good. I also did the body fat test today and came in at 19% fat, still in the acceptable range for men, on 206 pounds. Here’s a pic from Day One. Tomorrow I start with a 5 mile hike

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