So — summer is over. I won’t make empty promises and say I’m going to recap that lovely period (because, honestly, it wasn’t that exciting anyway! I spent nearly all my time lying around, with nothing to do and loving every malaised moment of it).

It is now undeniably fall, and I am halfway through the second semester of my second year of graduate school… and I am struggling to stay afloat. The downside of making progress in your career is that people actually start pressuring you to be productive. And that sucks.

Naturally, because I am stressed out beyond belief and have insane deadlines on the horizon, I’ve decided now is the perfect time to revisit my trip to Denver. If not now, then when, right? (Nobody ever said grad students were smart.)

(Really, though, I’ve been meaning to start documenting life more often. I’m especially inspired by this recent post by a blogger I’ve followed for a long time. I, too, am feeling the siren call of travel. As much as I’ve grown to love Houston [eek! the L-word], I’m acutely, intensely missing being in nature — and that found in the Pacific Northwest, most of all. I miss the salty breezes of the ocean and climbing over the feet of enormous, ancient trees. I miss traipsing through fields of wildflowers, hiking up peak summits, and smelling the fresh air and dirt underneath my shoes. I even miss my daily commutes to my workplace in San Francisco — feeling the fog hit my cheeks as I walked past the many colors of the city: the gray of Ocean Beach, the greenery of Golden Gate Park, the pastel of outer Richmond’s ticky-tacky houses, stacked on top of hills and each other.)

… and, now that I’m thoroughly homesick, I think it’s time to think about another place that pressed all those nature-loving buttons for me. In April, we spontaneously found cheap airfare and, a few weeks later, ourselves in Denver.

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Stockholm: to do

Nine people, six days, one house in a foreign country. Sounds like the premise of a new reality television show, no?

Fortunately for me, my friends are more Real Simple than Real Housewives. The most dramatic thing we did was book the trip itself in the fall. One serendipitous day, our little jetsetter A received an alert about cheap direct flights on Norwegian Air. An hour’s worth of breathless emails later, we were officially Stockholm-bound!

Knowing next to nothing about Sweden before my trip, I imagined a fair land full of fair people. This, it turns out, isn’t far from the truth. Stockholm is full of blonde-haired, blue-eyed beauties, many of whom ride bike around the city with effortless grace (often while wearing black cocoon coats and wood-soled heels). The Swedes truly own their aesthetic, including beyond fashion. Stockholm itself has very clear architectural identities, capitalizing on their gorgeous natural setting. At times, I felt like I was on a Disney set; the streets were so clean, the parks so green and the buildings so chic. It nearly felt sterile, in a way that made me miss the diversity and nitty-gritty of American cities. Soon enough, however, I found myself warming up to Scandinavia’s prim, proper charms. As an American, I felt welcome; as an Anglophone, I had no trouble communicating. I studied the simple design elements around me, from pot lids to cafeteria seating. I enjoyed the mild weather, which mirrored Northern California’s quite closely. “I could get used to this,” I thought to myself… and then, of course, it was over.

I now find myself back in the mists of San Francisco, dreaming about my week of spring in Sweden.

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NYC: CCCs at Jacques Torres and Levain Bakery

Once upon a time, I endeavored to bake the ultimate chocolate chip cookie. To this end, I used a beloved recipe: Jacques Torres’ 36-hour labor of love, made famous by The New York Times. While the end result was delicious, my curiousity wasn’t sated; I had to know if my rendition did the original justice. Obviously, then, when I found myself in NYC, a trip to Jacques Torres Chocolate found its way into my agenda.

However, I’d also heard whispers in the streets about a competing cookie. From the sound of it, Levain Bakery made a pretty penultimate CCC. In the name of science (and future holiday cookie bake-offs), I also scheduled a stop by their storefront. I scuttled from Manhattan to Brooklyn in the interest of testing out these two different sweets… and how did they compare?

One thing was certain. Even if there’s not a single “best” recipe for a chocolate chip cookie, there does appear to be a formula. That, my friends, is as follows:

Big + buttery = success.

Jacques Torres’ original CCC.

Frozen hot chocolate!

Goods to go.

Whereas Jacques Torres’ are broad, pliant discs marbled with oblong dark chocolate fevres, Levain’s are craggy heaps of tender dough and melted chocolate. Torres caramelizes his cookies until they achieve a rich mahogany color, with thin crispy edges and a chewy center. Levain’s cookies, on the other hand, are clearly underbaked, resulting in a lightly browned exterior and nearly custard-like center. We requested the Torres cookie warmed (highly recommended); the Levain cookie magically retained its gooeyness straight off the shelf.

Because we can’t control ourselves, we also tried an extra treat at each store. At Jacques Torres, Jay ordered the “frozen hot chocolate” smoothie – a delicious treat for a hot day. The drink was a bit bittersweet to pair with such a sweet cookie, however, and was nearly too rich for even three people to share. Speaking of rich, Jay bought another cookie after tasting our first at Levain; the dark chocolate chip flavor delivered dreamy cocoa-based fulfillment after only a few bites.

At the end of the day, both Jacques Torres and Levain produced top-tier chocolate chip cookies, with personal preference being the deciding factor. Levain’s chunky, rich cookie won Jay over, while I leaned towards Torres’ golden-brown, chewy version. We acknowledged each other’s choices and respectfully agreed to disagree. Emotions often run high when discussing things like politics, religion, and classic chocolate chip cookies. Unlike debates over the former two, however, discussions over baked goods typically end well. After all, they involve sugar.

Levain’s mind-blowing CCC.

Double the chocolate if you dare…

Levain Bakery
167 West 74th St.
New York, NY 10023

Jacques Torres Chocolate
66 Water Street
Brooklyn, NY 11201

NYC: noodles at SobaYa and Xi’an Famous Foods

… And now, back to recapping NYC!

Jay and I were pretty excited about hunting down Asian food while we were in Manhattan. Luckily, it wasn’t difficult to get our fix, being that we were staying only steps away from Eastern eateries of all stripes. We stopped by a mid-range restaurant and a low-brow shop for variations on a favorite: noodles.

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NYC, Williamsburg: Pies N Thighs, Traif

Williamsburg, your reputation precedes you.

In an attempt to prepare myself for the well-publicized hipness of the ‘hood, I did a visualization exercise. If Brooklyn is to Manhattan as Oakland is to San Francisco, what would that make Williamsburg? I pictured, as its equivalent, the Temescal district: young, eclectic, and cool. I quickly discovered that both areas were every bit their caricatures of 20-something-dominated gentrification. Unlike its West Coast counterpart, however, I found Williamsburg sprawling, residential, and cleaner cut. I also found it full of delicious eats.

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NYC, Brooklyn: Smorgasburg

Last time I was in NYC, I didn’t step foot in Brooklyn. As I pictured it, the borough was just too much to do justice within a single trip. This, I now realize, can be said of nearly any metropolitan area. I had to accept that I was never going to see it all, neither in breadth nor depth, and still give travelin’ my best shot. With that in mind, on a Sunday afternoon, Jay and I boarded a ferry bound for BK.

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NYC: parent pleasers at Pylos and Pio Pio

While Jay and I particularly enjoyed pinching pennies at Manhattan’s finest holes-in-the-wall, there were occasions where the pendulum swung the other way. Take, for example, the dinners that we shared with Jay’s parents, who were coincidentally visiting New York at the same time. Lovely and easygoing as they are, I couldn’t imagine digging into chicken and rice with them in some dingy corner of the city (as amazing as that sounds…). It just wouldn’t do. The situation called for real, sit-down restaurants, with ambiance, class, and a discernible lack of drunk people puking in trashcans by the front door. (Not that that ever happened, but it’s not outside the realm of possibility, right?)

Anyway. Twice in New York, Jay and I put on our best business-casual and headed out to respectable establishments for Dinner with the Parents. We had delicious Peruvian at Pio Pio and to-die-for Greek at Pylos. The wine flowed, the family feasted.

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NYC: classic cheap eats at Halal Guys and Mamoun’s

The Bay Area is often painted as a food-lover’s paradise — the cradle of the slow-food movement and a modern-day mecca for local and sustainably-sourced cuisine. Nowadays, turn a corner and you’re bound to stumble upon artisanal, gourmet goods. As spoiled as we are, however, there’s one area in which SF’s food scene can be found wanting: cheap, good eats.

There are a few places where one can stretch a dollar — but, for the most part, dining out in San Francisco is generally pretty pricey. Not so in NYC. Inexpensive eats abound. I like to imagine an alternate East Coast life wherein I live in a shoebox and subsist off of bagels, coffee, and dollar slices all the livelong day. Anyway… back to the food. In particular, Jay and I made sure to try the Mediterranean street food impossible to find in our fair city. It came as no surprise that these unpretentious meals were among our very favorites in all of New York City.

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NYC: sandwiches at Katz’ and Café Habana

Sandwiches tell stories. That’s true for any food, really, but especially so for sandwiches. For one thing, they’re ubiquitous; I can walk into a corner store in Anytown, USA, and rest assured that there’ll be bread and meat waiting for me behind the counter. Their universality, however, doesn’t mean predictability. The simple, unassuming sandwich has yielded endless permutations, each representative of specific places and times. There’s the New Orleans muffuletta, the Kentucky hot brown, Los Angeles’ French dip, the New England lobster roll, and so on and so forth. Sandwiches are culinary traditions, carried across geographical boundaries, merged with other foodways, and engrained into new cultures; take, for example, the Vietnamese banh mi. Pretty special.

All that is to say: Jay and I found some damn good sandwiches in NYC.

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NYC: brunching at and around Clinton Street Baking Company

One cold February day, I found myself at the computer, dreamily clicking through a photo gallery of pancakes. I stared, enraptured, at combinations like fresh coconut batter + kumquat syrup + bruleed bananas. I fantasized about trying Japanese pumpkin pancakes with pumpkin seed streusel and warm maple butter. A single tear trickled down my cheek when I read, “If pancakes were a churro, they would be like this.” Later that night, I laid in bed and paged through the #pancakes hashtag on Instagram for nearly an hour.*

To those in New York, it was pancake month at Clinton Street Baking Company. To those not (e.g., myself), it was torture.

On our recent trip, however, we made up for lost time/calories by breaking fast in and around the East Village.

* My Instagram-browsing also led me to discover #porncakes, which is (mercifully) more about food and less about freakiness.

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