Tuesday, April 27, 2010
Last fall, I worked as a private teacher for the three young children of a Hollywood movie producer. My job was to accompany the family on location and teach the children--age 3,5, and 6--their respective school subjects simultaneously. I soon found that occupying the 3-yr-old while teaching her brothers two different curricula was an impossible task (and in fact, when I accepted the job I was under the assumption that I would not have all three of them at once; I should have asked). As anyone who has spent time with 3-yr-olds knows, they have an attention span that lasts ten minutes at most, and my various attempts at busying her for long stretches of time with Play-Doh, puzzles, and art projects so that I could teach her brothers were unsuccessful. When I explained this difficulty to her parents, the father asked me if she was "really bad or something," and suggested using separate cubicles for each of the children so they could study independently.
In the midst of the severe anxiety caused by the differences of opinion the father and I had over what his young children should be doing with their school time, we moved from Manhattan to a gated housing complex situated on the dividing line between Las Vegas and the desert. Just outside my window was a golf course where we could see retirees putting balls during our morning school activities. In the valley beyond the golf course, the hotel casinos of Las Vegas gleamed, and yet, if I took a five minute bike ride in the other direction, a seemingly endless stretch of unforgiving desert terrain unfolded before me. Almost every night, I woke up to the haunting sound of coyotes howling, which is like a demented, high-pitched whooping. I was especially disoriented the first night, roused in the darkness and convinced that there were demons on my balcony.
Life was lonely and surreal, and I am thankful to Mario Batali for providing the only glimmers of happiness I experienced during this period. One night early on in our stay, I turned on the television and saw Mark Bittman and Gwyneth Paltrow strolling through a sultan's palace in Granada, then meeting up with a gorgeous Spanish woman to drive along the Andalucian coast and stop for gastronomic goodies along the way. I researched what I had just seen and found that it was a program called Spain on the Road Again that Batali had produced for PBS a number of years back. I proceeded to download all of the episodes on itunes and every night I would eat manchego, drinking tempranillo, and escape to Spain with chefs and movie stars.
It's strange to think that I'm supposed to be in London with that family now. Just when our differences were becoming insurmountable and I was about to quit, I got a call from my boss saying that the father's next movie project had been canceled and they no longer needed my services.
My current situation in Seoul is not so lonely or strange as it was in Nevada, but I am still far from everyone I love and lacking in friends. I watched several episodes of Spain on the Road Again this Saturday over half a bottle of red wine and felt every bit as content as I had the first time. On Sunday, however, I was thrilled to discover something even better: a restaurant in Noksapyeong that includes many of the culinary comforts from that program come to life.
When I stepped into Mi Madre, the windows had been thrown open to the last of the evening sun and the restaurant was bathed in the diffuse golden color of "the magic hour." The atmosphere was cozy, colorful, and unpretentious. I should have taken a photograph then, but the picture below is from a couple of hours later. Still lovely.
Best of all, I discovered the menu contained nearly all of the foods that I had salivated over in Spain on the Road Again: ham and manchego, pulpo a la gallega, paella, and on. The most difficult part was selecting a few tapas and entrees instead of ordering the entire menu.
For our tapas, the tortilla espagnola was filled with delicate layers of thinly sliced potatoes and the squid was grilled perfectly before being doused with olive oil and lemon. I always order squid ink dishes when I have the opportunity, and I'd read very positive reviews of Mi Madre's paella, but for me, the Moorish chicken was the stand-out of the two entrees we tried. The squid ink paella was nice, but slightly on the salty side for me, and the squid was just a little too chewy.
The Moorish chicken, on the other hand, was soft and succulent, and the saffron rice accompanying it was moist and perfectly seasoned. The sauce was bursting with rich spices (I think I tasted cloves, but I'm not sure what else was in there) as well as blanched almonds, quail eggs, dates, and green olives. As much as I want to try the menu's other offerings, it will be hard not to order that chicken again. I also had two glasses of their crisp sangria, which was full of very small diced pieces of apple and lemon and tasted of nutmeg.
This Spanish feast set us back just 66,000 won, and I will surely be back soon to try the dishes I had to neglect this time around. The fried eggplant drizzled with honey and the ham and manchego plate are at the top of my long "to eat" list. Hopefully I'll be able to visit Spain someday soon, but in the meantime, I'll rely on Mario and Mi Madre to supply me with a bit of my version of heaven on Earth.