Friday, July 10, 2009

Alone Again

This week's focus on Serious Eats Weekend Cook and Tell is "going solo." Either cooked and enjoyed at home or eaten at a restaurant. We want you to share what you make or eat as well as your thoughts and reflections on eating alone. For those of you who aren't big fans of eating by yourself, take this as an opportunity to expand your horizons and experience the joys of going solo.

I thought there would have been at least one occasion when I'd be able to prepare a meal at home and eat it alone this weekend. As an early riser (~4 a.m.) when I don't have to go to work, I will often catch Bug, the late night owl, for an hour before he winds down to go to sleep. This weekend, however, he made an effort to be up when I was, so there was no time to cook for myself and dine alone. The trade-off was a lot better, as I would rather spend the time with him...but I'm glad I lugged my camera to work and started this entry during my lunch break on Friday.

My favorite meal pairing is a bowl of soup and a half-sandwich, any time of day. Fortunately, we have numerous soup and made-to-order sandwich choices at work, with Au Bon Pain (ABP) at the top of my list.

ABP Meal
Advertise much?

After eyeing all the pastries, hot entrees, and their diverse soup and salad bar selections, it was 11:15 when I settled down to eat my favorite soup, one of 12 offered each day, curried rice and lentil soup, with a recently discovered favorite, Mayan chicken hot wrap without onions ($9.48), along with a palmier ($1.99) as a closer, and a frozen watermelon lemonade ($3.69) to wash everything down. The drink was refreshing and not cloying, made with lemonade and sliced watermelon chunks blended with fine slivers of ice. What a lovely ice crushing machine.

Dining alone at a restaurant feels awkward probably because of the environment. At the dining areas where I work, at least half of the diners are alone so it doesn't feel quite as odd. The table arrangements also reflect this.

Having never really noticed or, more accurately, never cared, solo diners appear to fall under two categories here; those who splice their minutes and seize the moment to inhale their carbohydrates and protein, as they work on their laptop, and those who are killing time for themselves or waiting on loved ones, each globular tick oozing into the next tock in deep contemplation.

I woefully discovered that I fall under the former group during my lunch breaks, unappreciative of the food before me; whether I've brought leftovers where we spent half the day in the kitchen cooking together, where Bug stayed up all night to prepare lunch for me, or buying the tray of spicy shrimp tempura maki on the counter at one of the cafeterias.

When I pulled the camera out of my bag, I began to feel a twinge of guilt. Taking pictures of food in public places still weirds me out. It feels wrong, like propping your feet up on a chair in front of you or picking at food in your teeth in public. That feeling is amplified when alone.

ABP Curried Rice Lentil Soup
Curried Rice and Lentil Soup

ABP's curried rice and lentil soup always hits the spot. Lentils, tomatoes, curry, onions, carrots, and peppers. How could it not be delicious? My other favorite soup is their Portuguese kale soup. While I find that even their low-sodium soups are salty, sandwiches are a great counter to this.

Dining alone in my office is significantly different from dining elsewhere. [I suppose this is what, at times, makes seeing other solo diners' eating habits somewhat gross.] While this may be obvious, I previously never gave it much thought. When I eat in my office, I always lock the door, so I can be left alone.

Dining outside with someone is almost the same experience, except the sphere is expanded a little. My environment is often blurred, while I concentrate on my food and my meal partner(s). Alone, it's as if someone has lifted a screen. The scent of coffee and sweet pastries, the drone of people shuffling, Arabic, Spanish, English, and other indistinguishable chatter fluctuating with the overhead music bleeding within my periphery.

I was reminded of what a friend and I used to do in college, as we sat in the middle of the cafeteria during peak dining hours. No, we didn't do anything gross or obnoxious, at least not in college. We would lean back in our chairs and close our eyes. The spacious 3-story high ceiling with carpeted floor and walls of mostly glass would reflect so many conversations, the auditory bombardment could drive one insane.

Barely discernible was Michael Stipe crooning overhead, as the Damned's Alone Again Or, a song I had not thought about since the late '80s when I was in college, bucked stubbornly into my thoughts, desperate to blot out the whining.

ABP Mayan Chicken Wrap
Mayan chicken wrap

I have a feeling Mayans given this sandwich would probably furrow their eyebrows much like I do when I am presented with many dishes labeled "Hawaiian" or "Japanese." Name aside, the blend of flavors is agreeable.

A slightly spicy jalapeno mayonnaise is slathered atop a tortilla with a sufficient balance of diced cucumbers, tomatoes, and a sprinkle of carrot slivers cut to order. Jasmine rice is layered atop the salad, followed by chicken stewed in a thick, smoky, peppery tomato base. I could have done without half the rice, as it was an overcooked mass. As impressive as they may look, I have recently come to the conclusion that over-sized burritos are an abomination born from a modern epidemic. More isn't always better.

The second half of the wrap was dissected as effectively as possible without breaking the flimsy plastic soup spoon. The saucy spiced chicken, cool tomatoes, and cucumbers, were picked out and consumed. The rice, wrap, and 1/4 of the soup were abandoned as I headed back to my office, sated, toting the palmier and lemonade.

ABP Palmier
P is for palmier

Later in the afternoon, the palmier was om nom nom nom'ed while I was working on updating one of my Sharepoint sites.

Palmier aren't easily found in these parts, but when I have found them at other bakeries, they've been lackluster. At ABP, they are crisp on the outside and flaky on the inside, but not painfully dry. As a result of the thin layer of caramelized sugar, there is a slight chew. Large sugar crystals are sprinkled for a smile-inducing crunch.

The Damned's version of "Alone Again Or"

It has become easy to slip into living each day in eat-sleep-work mode, where countless moments are not fully appreciated that should be.

- Cassaendra

Au Bon Pain
2049 E 100th St
Cleveland, OH 44106
Tel: (216) 421-8672

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