a long drive and a good meal

We went on a road trip!

Four of us, David, Kayla, Jake and I, piled into a Zipcar, rented for the day, along with our bags, cameras and water bottles. There was a distinctive lack of snacks, which seem to be the natural companion of long drives. That’s okay though; our destination eliminated all desire for cheap snacks.

On the beautiful, 70 degree day, we drove down the open highway, through Vermont and into upstate New York. As it happens, upstate New York looks at lot like Vermont. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing. We saw green rolling hills, trees with brand new spring leaves, and insurmountable numbers of adorable cows basking in the sunshine.

“HEY COW” was shouted out of the windows many times as part of a game. As you drive by a cow farm, someone rolls down their window, puts out their head and shouts “Hey Cow”. Whoever turns the most heads wins. Go figure. I guess the game was invented by college-aged boys.

Hungry, we pulled into Saratoga Springs, NY, the famous home of horse racing. The turn off the freeway took us up a main road, up past the racetrack which, bathed in the lazy sunlight, looked like a postcard. As it was midday, there weren’t any races going on, but I remember being there with my aunt, mother, and sister on a warm summer day and taking our leftover fried chicken and boiled collard greens from Hattie’s Famous Fried Chicken for a picnic on the lawn next to the track to watch.

Obviously there was no fried chicken on this trip.

Instead we wound our way through the downtown area, taking in the old style architecture and the beautiful brick buildings, past the Starbucks, Eddie Bauer, and Coldstone Creamery, down a side road. On the way we strolled through the local natural foods store, which was surprisingly full of business, and examined the buffet, complete with gluten free braised meatballs and vegan gluten-free lemon raspberry cake. It’s kind of heartwarming to know that dietary restrictions can be accommodated even in close to the middle of nowhere. Regardless of the allure of the natural foods store, we decided to try out the whimsical looking Thai restaurant a block away.

The restaurant was a pleasant surprise.

Gluten-free was understood in an instant, and I enjoyed a wonderful, spicy chili shrimp and green papaya salad with lime. Kayla had an amazing looking coconut chicken curry, complete with dipping skewers. Jake received what resembled a Thai-style hash: fried rice with vegetables and meat, complete with a fried egg on top. David’s classic pad Thai seemed to be more than satisfactory. Most importantly, the ginger tea that was served without meal was simply incredible. I had to ask what went into the magical drink, and the answer was dried ginger and honey. That tea made the meal complete, and the meal was a wonderful and satisfying reprieve from the stuffy car ride.

After a post-lunch meander the other way through town, we tumbled back into the seats of our trusty Zipcar and continued down the road and thorough the countryside. We sang badly to 90s music and shouted along to country music. Jason Aldean and Tim McGraw carried us to our next stop. Two hours passed and we pulled through an immaculate marble and wrought-iron gate. We followed a little road over a pond, through a strand of trees and out into the sunlight parking lot of the Vanderbilt estate in Hyde Park, NY.

The gothic mansion cast a rather large shadow, both literally and figuratively. Our jubilant tour guide, Dave, ushered our enormous tour group into the foyer of the immaculate marble house. No luxury was spared on building the house: marble from Italy (even though, as Dave pointed out, Vermont IS right up the river), exotic woods, a ceiling from Venice (yes, the ceiling was imported from Venice back in the day). My favorite room was Mr. Vanderbilt’s office on the main floor. It was tiny, yet had a literal escape hatch. Apparently, when he got tired of parties, Vanderbilt would sneak into his office, claiming that he had work to do, and sneak out a secret door to go for midnight strolls in the garden. A real outdoorsman, as Dave put it.

Anyways, on to the real purpose of this trip.

After the hour and half long tour and saunter through the Italian gardens, the four of us rolled onwards to our final destination: the CIA.

Yup. The Central Intelligence Agency. We went there for dinner.

Just kidding! We did go to the CIA though. This one was the Culinary Institute of America, where we enjoyed a beautiful meal at the restaurant Caterina de Medici. The four of us managed to order eight different dishes between our appetizers and entrees, a rather amazing achievement. The first course consisted of octopus salad with octopus, potato cubes, red peppers, lemon and capers, arugula salad with balsamic strawberries and pecorino, a goat cheese frittata with asparagus, and poached veal. When I first listed off all my allergies, our waiter (who was in his second week of waiting tables) looked like he was about to die. Then his face lit up as he remembered that he had a list of all of the dishes with and without gluten and dairy.

I’m awfully glad that he had that list; it put both of us at ease.

Because CIA dishes are so fresh, clean and always made 100% from scratch, I didn’t have to make any substitutions or special alterations to any dish I ordered, for the first time in a long time. It was wonderful.

The main dish was herb-stuffed duck with shoestring potatoes and a fruity relish. Kayla had an amazing piece of lamb with dandelion greens and fava beans. Jake enjoyed the veal shank and David had the sea bass. Dinner was rather silent as we all took in the amazing, light but comforting food and shared little bites with each other. I think whilst we were eating our main dishes, less than 20 words were exchanged. That’s how you know when the food you are eating is truly delicious: when it steals the moment and becomes the center of attention.

After our dishes were cleared, we were presented with dessert.

Yes! Dessert!

The raspberry, lemon and mango sorbets, which Kayla and I were served, were so pure and refreshing; a perfect end to the meal. The boys, of course, went with the 10-cheese dessert platter, complete with a champagne-cured pecorino, a walnut-leaf wrapped cheese, and a buffalo milk bleu. They also split a tiramisu, which was devoured in about 5 minutes between the two of them and Kayla.

No one was left wanting.

The meal was one of the best I’ve ever had. If you’re near Hyde Park, the CIA is definitely worth the trip (our drive was 4 hours one-way). We paid and meandered out of the room as if floating on clouds. It’s been a long time since I’ve left a meal that satisfied and content., even before food allergies.

We drove back in sheet rain and heavy winds. It was one of the scariest drives I’ve ever done, but the moment when we glimpsed the first building on the edge of campus felt incredible. After our long adventure, we were glad to be home.

Too bad the dining halls don’t serve food like the CIA.

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