Sunday, July 7, 2013

Park City, Utah: The Best Sushi

I'm Asian.  I love noodles, I love tofu, I love stir-fry.  My love for the "authentic" flavors that I have grown up with means that I'm usually quite picky about my food.  Therefore, it was with great reluctance that I allowed my mother to drag me to what she claimed to be the best sushi she had ever tasted. While we were surrounded by the mountains. In Utah. Which happens to have a desert, with desiccated plants and cacti.

“Sushi” conjures up images of Chef Jiro, of Japanese backgrounds and of colorful fish wrapped in seaweed. “Sushi” does not usually conjure up the image of a cheerful, inventive American. Except when it's used in the case of Scott Benson, sushi chef at Lespri in Park City, Utah.

Lespri is a hotel, spa and restaurant, located not on Main Street, but instead on the residential Sidewinder Avenue. The area is calm and quiet; in fact, we almost drove past it.  The building shares a parking lot with a few other stores, including a 7-Eleven.  The sign is done in beautiful, almost-cursive lettering and painted white.

Behind a sushi bar that seats four people, Chef Benson freely admits that he “doesn't like recipes.” After graduating high school at 15, Benson landed his first job in a kitchen. While the kitchen was fascinating to learn in, it lacked the personal interactions with clients that he preferred.

He serves us the first course: a beautiful interpretation of a tostada, covered with tuna, soy, cucumber and maguro, instead of the usual beef or pork.  The shell crunches and the sauce is sticky sweet, with a bit of spice and savory richness.  Of course, it gets a little messy near the end, when there is just a bit of shell and toppings falling over it.  I refrain from licking the sauce off my thumb, but barely.

Meanwhile, with only my mother and I at the bar, Benson continues to tell us his story. Once he started learning how to make sushi, it was yet again another struggle. Sushi chefs are notorious for keeping secrets, about the process of making sushi, about where they get their supplies, about how they serve their food. However, he does not share the same reticence.

Scott Benson continues with a second dish: hamachi nigiri.  He happily explains his goal to find suppliers who will allow him to serve sustainable sushi, that is both flavorful and fresh.  His goal starting at as a sushi chef was to learn as much as possible.  But when your teachers hide secrets, sometimes the best way is to improvise.  Benson ended up improvising: he made his own sauces, tried out different rolls and styles, and even mixed his cuisines (like the tostade-inspired dish).

The third dish is served up as soon as he finishes his story.  This time, it is a sushi roll, with salmon.  Salmon from Scotland.  I feel my eyebrow raise up as he explains calmly: the season is not right for sushi from Alaska, that the salmon for Scotland are more eco-friendly and that the method that his supplier uses is highly sustainable.  Regardless, the sushi roll is delicious.

Finally, as my stomach sighs and stretches, there is one last dish: a martini glass, filled with one of the most colorful concoctions that I can imagine. Tuna, covered with avocado, mixed with cucumber, on a bed of seaweed.

At the very end, Scott Benson deserves his own category of sushi chef.  He was remarkably engaging the entire time and absolutely courteous (he even tried to convince us to eat dessert!). All in all, the cost was less than 40 dollars, my mother earned her "I-told-you-so" (and wore it with aplomb), and I will be dreaming of more sushi.

Monday, July 1, 2013

Texas Roadtripping: Houston, San Antonio, Austin, Galveston

I stretch out my hand and want to laugh.  The windows are down, the radio is turned up, and there is a feeling of pure freedom. It's a classic image: a car zooms by on an open stretch of road, sun shines down, and the people inside are smiling

I've just gotten back from Europe and am now on a road trip through Texas (my mother's idea).  It's a graduation present of sorts.

The plan: my mother and I are going to Houston, San Antonio and Austin.

What ends up happening is this: in Houston, we get lost on the highway because the GPS decides to conveniently put us on the beltway, which is the same as the tollway, but we don't know that. I end up meeting up with an old friend and a new friend that night. We talk of old times and new times, smoke hookah, drink smoothies (an odd combination that works very well).

The next day, it is a three-hour drive to San Antonio.  Along the way, we stop to meet one of my mother's friends.  At this point, I realize that I've developed an "allergy" to American soda: I can't drink the soda without breaking out in hives (this is still ongoing).

In between my hives, my mother getting lost, and a sudden rainstorm we end somehow make it to San Antonio before the evening.

We walk around the area.  There's lunch at Schilo's Deli (rye bread, split pea soup, homemade root beer which triggers another round of hives), I take a picture with an adorable military man (whose name I don't know) and somehow convince my mother to get a margarita on the River Walk. We walk around The Alamo, I find canned armadillo meat and armadillo milk, my mother decides to take an old-time-y black-and-white WANTED poster picture.

I wish that I'd gotten his name. But he was very sweet.

There was a statue in the middle of town, and a group of people fighting and screaming on the sidewalk in front of it.
After San Antonio, we head to Austin. There, we wanted to watch bats swoop out from under the Congress Avenue bridge.  No go that day (we ended up getting turned around with the GPS and couldn't find a nearby place to park).  However, we did get a chance to try the famed Franklin's Barbecue.  There's a Chase credit card commercial (look up "Chef Nobu in Austin").  My mother, who despises red meat, ended up loving it!

On a whim, my mother wants to go to the Mexican border and I want to go to Galveston. So we drive.  We drive through a five-mile stretch of road filled with butterflies.  We drive up to a roadside stand selling turkey jerky, alligator jerky and elk jerky.  We drive up to the bridge that crosses into Mexico.  And then we drive some more. We drive even when TripAdvisor tells us to stop and see this sight or that attraction, when I am so tired that we have to get ice cream, when there's almost no gas.

When we end up in Galveston, it's the afternoon.  There are clouds covering the sun and everything is this hazy mix of humidity, sunshine, and clouds. Disclaimer: the beach at Galveston smells disgusting.  The air is thick and rancid, but the view is pretty nice.

We end up back in Houston after a week of sun, Spanish and siestas. I don't have a sudden understanding about Texas, but given what I did learn, I like it a bit more.