Friday, September 13, 2019

Eating at a Michelin-Starred Restaurant: Worth It?

The first thing I did in Chicago as part of our epic two-week road trip for home leave was go to a Michelin-starred restaurant for the first time! Anyone who knows me knows I am a big foodie, so this type of experience had been on my bucket list for a while. M is not that into fancy meals, so he skipped out and had fast food while my friend S and I enjoyed a girl's night at Smyth.

So why did we pick Smyth? Well, there was something just too perfect about two ladies from Virginia meeting up all the way in Chicago to go to a fancy restaurant that was inspired by Virginia of all places! We figured it was destiny.

We arrived and the decor was very rustic with even an open kitchen. The whole restaurant's vibe was much cozier than I expected. For some reason, I imagined that all very fancy restaurants were Dubai-esque, hyper-modern establishments. I was pleasantly surprised. S and I sat down and immediately ordered lavender drinks. (The only thing better than lavender scents are lavender consumables.) We didn't get the menu (nine courses and a drink) in advance, so we knew we'd be getting whatever the chef had planned. The server confirmed my dietary restrictions (no coffee, tea, or alcohol since I'm Mormon/a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints), which I appreciated. I know they really followed my request with care because they did remove kombucha from one of my later courses. Anyway, the menu was exactly the type of thing I had imagined. Just check it out:

Someone who is not into fancy food definitely would've laughed at some of the items on this menu. There were moments (like when they brought out the cucumber course with just a few very thin slices of cucumber) that I almost chuckled because it was so stereotypically luxurious. Each minuscule course was plated like a work of art and then presented to our table by staff who explained everything with words like "emulsion" that made me feel pretentious for even patronizing the place. But once I got over the spectacle of the experience and dug into the food - it was incredible. I've eaten great food around the world, but Smyth's was some of the best I've ever had.

My favorites included the pickled shima aji (a cold fish dish), but S and I agreed the biggest stars were the mushroom chocolate (pictured above) and the signature dessert egg (pictured below). Somehow, they combined shiitake mushrooms and chocolate so brilliantly that every bite was filled with both flavors and neither contradicted the other in any way. I am a true chocaholic, and that was an epic concoction I wish I could eat every night. The dessert egg was also a technical masterpiece, with a caramelized egg yolk sitting in a frozen yogurt egg white bed. It's been weeks and I'm still thinking about how stunning and scrumptious that food was.

So what's the verdict? Is it worth eating at a typical Michelin-starred restaurant? Honestly, I feel like it is probably not worth it for most. I do think it's worth it if all of the following conditions are met:

  1. all participating are foodies who appreciate haute cuisine,
  2. you value quality over quantity (even if there are a lot of courses, the portions are small),
  3. you're celebrating a special occasion or you're just loaded (because that price tag's no joke),
  4. and you're open-minded and not that picky (because you may be trying some weird stuff... see: mushroom chocolate above).

At the end of the day, I'm glad S and I got to share this really fun and unique experience. It was a delightful way to spend an evening and catch up, and I would absolutely do it again.

Thursday, September 5, 2019

What's Home Leave?

Our home leave just came to an end (you may have seen the blog post about the road trip we took)! Those of you who aren't in the Foreign Service might be asking: what's home leave? Is it just when you use your annual leave or vacation time to go home? Well, not exactly. It's more like a Congressionally-mandated special vacation.

Home leave is different from other types of leave in a few ways. First, it's mandatory, not optional, for those like us who are going from one overseas tour to another. Second, you have to spend the whole thing in the United States. You're not supposed to spend even one night in another country (including Canada or Mexico) during home leave. Third, even the duration range is set: we're required to take a minimum of 20 workdays. All of these regulations serve to give us adequate time to reacquaint ourselves with the United States, which is not only our home but also the nation we serve when we live overseas.

If you're interested in learning more, feel free to indulge yourself in the details of the relevant section of the Foreign Affairs Manual (FAM): 3 FAM 3430. The FAM reiterates very explicitly what I mentioned above: "The purpose of home leave is to ensure that employees who live abroad for an extended period undergo reorientation and re-exposure in the United States on a regular basis." It makes sense to us, especially when some Foreign Service families may not serve a domestic tour for 10 or more years.

Members of the Foreign Service community seem to have very strong feelings--both positive and negative--on home leave. Many struggle with the financial costs of a month of vacation while managing the advance expenses of an international move and limited options for housing. Others struggle to see family scattered all across the country in only a month. You can read an article from 2003 (as it seems not much has changed) that sums up some of the emotions and accompanying suggestions here. After our first home leave, we can easily see how this unique requirement can be both a blessing and a challenge at the same time. Although we loved the extra time with loved ones and the break that home leave provided from work, we were glad to finally settle down in our apartment and get back into a routine.

Tuesday, September 3, 2019

Our First Tesla Road Trip

Yes, we bought a Tesla Model 3! This is our first-ever all-electric car, and we've wanted it for a long time. (Big thanks to our friends A and S for getting us a sweet referral code after they bought a Model 3, too!) So what better way to break in our shiny new car than with a home leave road trip?

We drove over 2,000 miles in two weeks from Virginia to Illinois (to visit my bestie S, who visited me in Kenya) and back. We typically charged our car for free at hotels and other places we visited. The total amount we spent on charging at superchargers when we needed to in order to cover that whole 2,445 miles was just $55. (Compare that to the $200 we probably would have spent on gas!)

We made a lot of stops, so I'll keep the recap of each one brief so this post doesn't get too long. The highlights are listed by city below:

Pittsburgh, PA

The Heinz History Center was hands-down our favorite part of Pittsburgh. It had displays on Heinz ketchup (which were very expected) and exhibits on random things like the history of the Vietnam War (way less expected). They even have a special collection for Mister Rogers' Neighborhood, including the set and props from the show! It was so cool.

Cleveland, OH

Obviously, the main attraction in Cleveland was the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. We learned a lot, such as the fact that rock music is defined pretty broadly and you can only be inducted into the hall of fame 25 years after your first album is released. We also coincidentally happened to visit during the 50th anniversary of Woodstock, so they had a special exhibit where uptight folks like us could gain new insights into festival and hippie culture. I would recommend anyone plan to spend at least half a day there to appreciate more fully the vast collections celebrating legendary artists, classic and new. (I was particularly excited to see Lady Gaga's outfit from her "Bad Romance" music video on display.)

Detroit, MI

In Detroit, our main stop was the Motown Museum in the same building where Berry Gordy cultivated the Motown sound enjoyed around the world from the 1960s to today. We even got to see the recording studio where legends like Diana Ross, Marvin Gaye, the Supremes, the Temptations, the Jackson 5*, and Stevie Wonder made magic happen. We also learned how Motown music became such a powerful force for social change and desegregation in the arts and ultimately general society. It was hard not to sing and dance along to the great soundtrack playing there the whole time!

Chicago, IL

We made it to Chicago and finally saw S! She and I enjoyed a super fancy ladies' night out at Smyth, which was my first time eating at a Michelin-starred restaurant. (Trust me, that experience is going to get its own blog post later.) M and I did some sightseeing the next day, and then we met up with S to see Hamilton. Y'all. Hamilton definitely lived up to the hype. It was expensive, but we thought it was worth every penny. It combined the best of musical theater, rap, hip-hop, and history. It was unforgettable.

M and I also spent a freakishly long time at the Museum of Science and Industry (MSI). We have been to a lot of museums all over the world, but MSI was truly a standout--one of the best we've ever experienced. The exhibits were very interactive and interesting for pretty much all ages. Just check out this Tesla coil in action, for example:

Cincinnati, OH

We spent our time in Cincinnati at the Underground Railroad Freedom Center, an institution devoted to educating the public about slavery and fighting it in all its modern-day forms. The real stories in there were heartbreaking, but it gave us a lot of hope to hear about the incredible rescue efforts under way around the world to help victims break out of slavery and start a new life.

Louisville, KY

The main attractions in Louisville were definitely the Kentucky Derby Museum and the Muhammad Ali Center. At the Kentucky Derby Museum, we enjoyed the exhibit of over-the-top hats people wear to the Derby and the tour, which included walking out to the racecourse and learning more about the amazing history of horse racing in the United States. At the Muhammad Ali Center, we learned more about the life, career, and activism of this extraordinary boxer and philanthropist (and I will admit I totally had a celebrity crush on him when I was younger).

Nashville, TN

Nashville was such a cool city! Of course, we had to spend some time at the Country Music Hall of Fame, which did a fantastic job of balancing history and present-day trends. Next to classical, country was probably the genre of music I most grew up with living on the rural edge of suburban Virginia, so it was a nice trip down memory lane. (Also, I saw that dress Taylor Swift wore in her "Love Story" music video! Wow!)

Greensboro/Chapel Hill, NC

We hung out with M's family and met up with B, one of my best friends from college! We didn't do much sightseeing in North Carolina, since we were just there to meet up with people, but we did drive through the breathtaking Great Smoky Mountains on the way over from Tennessee.

Charlottesville, VA

We spent most of our time in Charlottesville catching up with my first-ever boss and one of my favorite professors. (Definitely stay in touch with your favorite teachers and mentors later on in life, y'all! It's so fun and enriching for everyone involved.) We also visited some of the places I spent a lot of time in as an undergraduate at UVA, including Rev Soup (a soup-focused restaurant with some socialism-inspired flair that can even be enjoyed be capitalists like us) and the Twisted Branch Tea Bazaar (a tea house with a hippie vibe). We also tried MarieBette, an adorable French cafe that definitely didn't exist when I was there. It's now right up there with Paradox Pastry on my list of favorite places in Charlottesville! We also strolled the Downtown Mall to see what had changed and what had stayed the same. I was surprised to see an alley with so many chalk messages of love and peace, and then I realized it was a beautiful memorial to Heather Heyer. I loved how the walls both mourned her loss and celebrated the values she stood for when she was murdered by a white supremacist two years ago. May she rest in peace.

Home Sweet Home, VA

So we had a whirlwind two weeks that was fun but exhausting. I'm so proud of myself for staying awake in the car the whole time we were driving between cities (a total travel time of 48 hours). I've never been able to pull that off on a road trip before. (Special shout out to the NPR Invisibilia podcast for helping with that!) Anyway, we can say that just a few weeks in we really felt like we've "broken in" the Tesla, and we're loving every minute of it. We both highly recommend the Model 3 (and two-week American road trips in general).

*Neither the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland nor the Motown Museum in Detroit seemed to even hint at child sexual abuse allegations against Michael Jackson, even though he was prominently celebrated in photos and exhibits and these accusations had already re-emerged as major news in 2019 as a result of the Leaving Neverland film.