FOR MOST OF my adult life, I traveled constantly. I traveled for work, traveled for pleasure, even traveled at the end of a calendar year just to get myself to the next tier of Delta SkyMiles Medallion Status. The past two years, of course, have slowed all that travel down significantly, and although I have recently begun moving around the world again, it isn’t nearly enough to scratch the itch.
Luckily I live in New York, which, by way of food, has been giving me the opportunity to feel like I’m traveling without going anywhere. Just before the pandemic broke out, I took a trip to Shanghai. Along with visiting breathtaking temples (my favorite was Xiahai, set behind tall walls on an otherwise unremarkable street near the Jewish Refugees Museum) and a pig cafe, I got to eat dumplings at a different restaurant every day. This past year, I have been reliving the culinary aspect of that trip with regular visits to Joe’s Shanghai. Along with soup dumplings as good as any I had in China, the narrow surrounding streets, some of the oldest in Manhattan, are currently strung with glowing red lanterns. Zigzagging through them at night can provide a welcome sense of being in another place and time.
A recent visit to Jongro, a barbecue restaurant that occupies the second and fifth floors of an office building in Koreatown, provided a different kind of transportive experience, with K-pop blaring from the speakers while swiftly efficient servers grilled meat at the table. After too many meals cooked at home, I could have wept for the explosion of different flavors from the banchan alone.
This month I also headed to Flushing, Queens, for some more soup dumplings, this time from Nan Xiang Xiao Long Bao, recommended by Michelin for nine years as some of the best Shanghainese food in the city. After stuffing ourselves full of dumplings, noodles, and braised beef, we stumbled into an arcade filled with claw machines. It was similar to one I visited in China, only the machines were a little more generous, and this time I left with a prize for my daughter.
I was surprised to find, buried deep in the woods outside of Missoula, a one-of-a-kind dinner as refined as any I’ve experienced.
Heading to Montana recently for work, I anticipated a different kind of dining experience, with expectations of gorging myself on all the meat that cowboy country has to offer. Indeed, I had grass-fed beef, bison steaks, and wild game sausage, but alongside that, I was surprised to find, buried deep in the woods outside of Missoula, a one-of-a-kind dinner as refined as any I’ve experienced. The Social Haus is a restaurant set in a glass house in the center of the Green O, a new adults-only resort. It offers an ambitious seven-course tasting menu of locally raised and foraged food, and while I can tell you what I had (tarragon oil–poached tuna with pickled daikon, pork belly confit with sunchoke puree) and how delicious it was, the menu changes daily, so it won’t ever be the same twice. The only thing to do is go experience it yourself.
Back at home, I have been trying to spice up meals in any way I can. One of our editors wrote a glowing recommendation for preserved lemon paste, which I ran out to buy. I’ve also stocked up on Momofuku Chili Crunch. But my current favorite is Acid League vinegar. The one I’ve been using for everything is Saffron Tomato, a limited-run collaboration done with Salad for President for the release of her new cookbook, “Arty Parties.” (My kids were like, That’s a thing, limited-edition foods?) It’s so good that when it runs out, I plan to try others, like Pink Peppercorn Honey Yuzu or Meyer Lemon Honey.
Moving away from food, I have a strong callout for those with hair that suffers in the winter: R + Co Bleu Sleep Masque, an overnight serum that repairs while you sleep. I have also been using their Vapor Lotion to Powder Dry Shampoo in heavy rotation. I only discovered dry shampoo in the past few years, and find it to be a minor revelation. This one is silky, effective, and smells great.
Lastly, in these deepest days of winter, what I want to turn to most is reading, although with my kids bouncing in and out of in-person school once again, my time for reading (or anything, really) is scarce. As the pile of books by my bed grows by the day, rather than buying anything to add to it, I have been gathering what I want to reread from my own shelves. With Joan Didion’s passing, I pulled all her work, and found every word of “Slouching Towards Bethlehem” as stunningly crystalline as the first time I read it when I was 20. Under it is “To Kill a Mockingbird,” my own copy from fifth grade, crumbling a bit as I read it with my 10-year-old daughter for the first time. (Before it, we finished “My Side of the Mountain,” which left me wanting to run away as much now as I did when I read it as a kid.)
To this pile I just added “No Mud, No Lotus” by the Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh, who passed away in late January. This tiny book is packed with practices and wisdom about the path to joy, something I’m sure many of us could use right about now. Spoiler alert, for better or worse: The secret of happiness is suffering.
— Skye Parrott
I could have a beautiful bespoke cocktail and then literally dash a couple of blocks over and dip my sun-starved body into the ocean.
BECAUSE I GREW up in the middle of the United States (in Oklahoma, far from any ocean) during the dark ages of the 1980s, my mental associations with Miami will forever be tied to either “The Golden Girls,” “Miami Vice,” or some variation of a neon palm tree. In reality, Miami is much more chic and urbane than people tend to give it credit for. This is a fact I was reminded of recently when, on a whim, I decided to make a last-minute trip to the city to help celebrate a friend’s birthday. Though Miami Beach itself is dotted with lots of glittery luxury properties, I was lucky enough to snag a room at Esmé, a new boutique hotel right in the heart of Miami Beach, just alongside the pedestrian plaza Española Way. The hotel, which recently underwent a five-year renovation, now boasts 145 guest rooms, a rooftop pool, and five different dining options. Given that the property was originally known as the “Spanish Village” when it opened in 1927 under the auspices of being an artists’ colony, it makes sense that the entire space still has Spanish-Mediterranean vibes — all gold-green color palettes, tasteful textures, and gorgeous in-room amenities (our room not only had a balcony overlooking Española Way, it included gorgeous Italian linens by Bellino and an aquamarine- and pink-tiled bathroom that I wanted to magically teleport back to my Brooklyn apartment). Given the calming vibes of the hotel and the sanguine nature of the various dining and snacking options (I started each day with fruit cocktail and some fresh ceviche poolside at the rooftop bar), it’s easy to forget the hustle and bustle happening just a few feet away on Española Way, which itself is packed with bars and restaurants.
After a day spent running around Miami and replenishing our depleted vitamin D reserves, my boyfriend and I ended our last day in town by enjoying a couple of hand-shaken piña coladas at Esmé’s restaurant, El Salón, and chasing the drinks with a beautiful selection of charcuterie, some charred lobster tostadas, handmade empanadas, and coconut mousse, before shuffling back to our room to pass out. The hotel feels like a bungalow hideaway; I appreciated that I could have a beautiful bespoke cocktail in one of Esmé’s moody interior bars and then literally dash a couple of blocks over and dip my sun-starved body into the ocean. It provided the perfect (if all too brief) respite from the grim NYC winter.
The whole experience actually alleviated a lot of the anxiety I have around asking dumb wine questions.
It’s kind of astounding to me that even though I was a bartender for the better part of 20 years, I still know amazingly little about wine. (This might be because I worked almost exclusively in dive bars where your wine option was simply “red,” “white,” or “pink.”) While I know enough to fake my way through a dinner party or not totally embarrass myself when ordering at a restaurant, I never absorbed enough information about fine wines to speak authoritatively about specific varietals or, say, identify the actual difference between an expensive merlot or a bargain-basement cabernet sauvignon.
For these reasons (and because I continue to spend most of my time stuck at home), I was excited to test out an at-home wine tasting with Vivant, a company that offers immersive, interactive wine experiences from around the world. After signing up on their website, I was sent a personalized tasting kit (arriving in an elegant box, the wine samples are housed in what, at first glance, look like giant glass vials of blood). At your leisure, you can then sit back and sip along with your guided online experience. In their press materials, Vivant is eager to point out: “All the wines are organic or biodynamic and can be purchased by the bottle and delivered anywhere in the world. Free of pesticides and herbicides, these hard-to-find wines are better tasting, better for your health, and better for our planet.” All of this makes sitting in your pajamas and drinking wine in front of your computer feel like a much more holistic, urbane experience than it might otherwise.
For my chosen experience, I took a class on Bordeaux essentials with wine expert Owen Huzar. I learned a lot about the wines included in my box through the beautifully produced video tutorials with the actual vintners who make the wines you are tasting, shown strolling through their vineyards and showing off their grapes. There is something thrilling and novel about sipping your wine along with the instructor as he explains exactly what you are tasting and why. It’s the kind of interaction that feels comfortably intimate and also truly informative in a way that I can’t imagine experiencing in a restaurant or a bar. In the comfort of my own home I was schooled on geography, grape varieties, climate, soil quality, and, in particular, how all of these elements conspired to produce the beautiful wines swirling around in my glass.
In addition to the informative visuals — and, in my case, Huzar’s deep dive into the terroir of each individual wine — you get to take periodic quizzes based on what you’ve hopefully just learned (“Which of the following rivers is NOT found in Bordeaux? Rhone, you fool!”). I didn’t score many wine IQ points during my lesson, as I found myself too distracted by drinking the actual wine, but I found the interactive nature of the tasting in tandem with my online instructor to be really fun. (I did an on-demand class, but Vivant subscribers can also take live classes that allow you to interact and ask questions in real time.) The whole experience actually alleviated a lot of the anxiety I have around asking dumb wine questions, not to mention introducing me to half a dozen really delicious wines. It was unclear if I should actually drink ALL the wine provided (each glass test tube contains enough wine for one glass) or simply swirl and taste each one. Unsurprisingly, I chose to get to know these wines really well by drinking every last drop of each.
— T. Cole Rachel
Finally, the time has come: I have the floor and can tell you about the wonders of plum kernel oil.
FINALLY, THE TIME has come: I have the floor and can tell you about the wonders of plum kernel oil. Over the past six months, I have mentioned Le Prunier’s Plum Beauty Oil at editorial meetings with such frequency that it’s a running joke among my colleagues. But it’s only because I’ve been determined for months to say something in print about the naturally hydrating, fine-line-softening, aromatic gift. It’s the flagship product of a small, California-based company run by three sisters who grew up in a plum-farming family. I have been using the oil since last year and I’m a hardcore devotee. (For the holidays, I bought a bottle for my mother, one for my boyfriend’s mother, and an extra for myself — I'm running low since gleefully realizing that I could also smooth it through my hair.)
This plum oil, derived from the plum’s kernel (the seed inside the pit), is anti-aging, noncomedogenic, not tested on animals, gluten-free, and rich in antioxidants, polyphenols, and omega fatty acids. And it smells as sweet as a dessert, but in an organic, non-cloying way, like fruit and marzipan. That’s all great, but I really love it for the results. Since adding Le Prunier to my regimen, my skin is clearer, plumper, and more visibly hydrated. Therefore, I was over the moon when the company released Plumscreen recently, a sheer, creamy broad spectrum SPF 31 sunscreen with non-nano zinc oxide, so it doesn’t harm coral reefs and applying it leaves none of the white residue common to mineral sunblock.
I should mention that I typically loathe sunscreen and resent having to wear it daily — I’ve cycled through numerous brands looking for the one that is least obtrusive. But Plumscreen, which contains plum oil as well as Le Prunier’s patented Plum Superfruit Complex, feels like the silky cream equivalent of my favorite oil, and I swear, it too has been improving the quality of my skin. If you want a luxurious, delicious-smelling natural sunscreen you can feel good about slathering on, try it. It’s a bit of a splurge, but well worth it. My colleagues can now have some peace as I vow to shut up about Le Prunier until the next time they release a new product.
I was terribly sad to miss the recent Joan Mitchell show at SFMOMA, but I’ve chosen to console myself with this book, a gorgeous retrospective of the abstract painter’s work, from early drawings to the large-scale multipanel works she made later in life while living in France, her adopted home. This volume also contains articles and scholarly work on Mitchell’s formidable contribution to American abstract painting.
For more on Mitchell’s life and work, check out Mary Gabriel’s fantastic group biography, “Ninth Street Women,” which evokes the cold lofts and drunken parties of the 1950s downtown New York City art scene, and chronicles the lives of Mitchell and her contemporaries, namely Lee Krasner, Elaine de Kooning, Grace Hartigan, and Helen Frankenthaler.
— Nina Renata Aron
I RECENTLY WENT to Zou Zou’s for dinner with one of my dearest friends. The interiors are big and grand — a brasserie Gaudí-fied. We caught up over sliced persimmons arranged like flower petals, which we ate folded taco-style to hold in salty, citric chopped cucumber. Their dips were delightful: whipped ricotta with sweet, saffron-spiced apricots, tangy tahini topped with a froth of aquafaba, smoky eggplant, and sweet-as-dessert kabocha squash. Though I often find myself dining in smaller holes-in-the-wall, I appreciated the sheer size and theater of the place. A bubbling plate of cheese brought to our table was drizzled with a clear liquid then promptly set ablaze, flames licking up into the air. Our wonderful sommelier presented our wine in a bulbous decanter, like a chubbier porrón, lifting the spout impossibly high to release thin garnet streams all the way down into our glasses.
The pièce de résistance was their fire-roasted lamb, which we ordered like fools (this lamb can be comfortably shared between four to six, depending on appetites). An entire leg was brought out and sliced for us off the bone at our table, served with chewy bread, sauces, and pickled vegetables. We sheepishly asked for the rest to go, ending on another surprising touch of theater. What came back was packed up in the Hermès of to-go vessels: a matte orange shopping bag with silky rope handles and gold lettering bearing the restaurant’s name. The next day, I ate the meaty remains with my hands, between work calls, hunched over my sink, doing a little happy dance.
My kitchen’s been bearing witness to some other fun food action this month. I’ve started cooking with Burlap & Barrel spices, beloved by chefs and home cooks alike. They wake up my food, adding depth and complexity. A favorite is their Wild Ramps. Adding a savory, almost protein-like roundness and richness, I sprinkle them on top of everything. Kosterina Extra Virgin Olive Oil has been another little upgrade. Cold pressed from a single blend of early harvest Koroneiki olives grown in southern Greece, the flavor is robust, with a fruity pepperiness better savored as seasoning than in cooking (a glug on salads, pastas, in yogurt for riffs on tzatzikis, etc.). Lastly, I was recently sent some wildly fun salts. Mezcal company Madre Mezcal and DeVonn Francis of Yardy World, a creative studio using food as a medium to explore culture and identity, collaborated on a collection of blends fusing the Oaxacan and Jamaican flavors of each partner’s background. There’s a Black Citrus Salt, Healing Herbs Salt, and Chile Blend (my favorite) — which, as I write this letter, I’m actually licking off the edge of a glass full of Madre Mezcal, seltzer, and lime. I plan to put more inside a quesadilla shortly.
— Sophie Mancini
Skye Parrott Writer and Photographer
Skye Parrott is the executive editor of Departures. A magazine editor, photographer, writer, and creative consultant, she was previously a founder of the arts and culture journal Dossier, and editor in chief for the relaunch of Playgirl as a modern, feminist publication.
T. Cole Rachel Writer
T. Cole Rachel is the managing editor of Departures. A Brooklyn-based writer, editor, and teacher with over 20 years of experience working in print and digital media, his writing has appeared in the New York Times Magazine, Interview, and the Creative Independent.
Nina Renata Aron Writer
Nina Renata Aron is a senior editor of Departures based in Oakland, California. She is the author of "Good Morning, Destroyer of Men's Souls." Her work has appeared in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the Guardian, the New Republic, Elle, Eater, and Jezebel.
Sophie Mancini Writer
Sophie Mancini is an editor at Departures. Born and raised in New York City, she holds a degree in creative writing from Johns Hopkins University and has a background as a writer in brand and editorial.
Jess Rotter Illustrator
Jess Rotter is a Los Angeles–based illustrator and artist. Rotter’s work has frequently featured in the Washington Post. Her clients range from Natalie Portman to Questlove.