Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Travel Dish: A Conversation with John Vlahides of 71Miles

Now that I have one year of blogging under me, I decided to expand my horizons—and my blog—so that it’s not always just about me. Today, I’m launching a new occasional feature where I go out and talk to interesting people about food and beyond. (But no bed or bath.)

I decided for my first feature to chat with John Vlahides, executive editor and co-founder of 71Miles, a Web site that focuses on regional travel. Currently the site provides travel features on short, local trips in Northern California and the Washington, D.C., metro area. I’ve seen John in the past on the KRON4’s weekend news show, where he would offer travel tips. I wondered what it was like as a travel writer figuring out where to eat.

John also has an interesting background. He worked for years as a luxury-hotel concierge before getting into travel writing. For the last eight years, he’s written for publications such as
Fodor’s, Lonely Planet and Condé Nast Traveler. And he once worked as an interpreter for the French culinary school LaVarenne Ecole de Cuisine in Paris.
I asked John out to lunch and suggested he pick a San Francisco restaurant that he would recommend to out-of-towners. That’s how we ended up at
Plouf, the French seafood bistro in the quaint Belden Place alley.

I had a lot of fun chatting with John, who doesn’t hold back when it comes to speaking his mind—about travel and food. (In fact, he got into it with our waiter and eventually the restaurant owner over a bowl of mussels we ordered. In the end, John decided that Plouf has “lost its luster” and is only saved by the outdoor dining experience, which we unfortunately didn’t get to do because it was cold and overcast on the day we met.)

The following is an edited version of our lunch conversation.

Chef Ben: So I asked you to pick a restaurant that you consider a signature San Francisco restaurant, one you’d recommend to people visiting. What made you choose Plouf?

John Vlahides: Oh I hadn’t realized you wanted a signature San Francisco restaurant or I would have chosen Tadich (Grill) for a seafood restaurant. Tadich is definitely a signature San Francisco restaurant for sure. In my years as a luxury-hotel concierge, I know that most people who come to San Francisco want fish. … And I would always be loath to send them to the wharf. I just don’t think the food is any good there, with a few somewhat good standouts.

Tadich is fine for the classic San Francisco experience with the waiters in the long, white aprons and the sort of timeless room, and the power lunchers and the little, white-tiled floors. But I’ve always liked Plouf, and I tend to send people to Plouf, especially on a warm day because you can sit outside.

CB: I like the whole alley atmosphere.

JV: Oh, it’s like Paris. It’s fantastic. The whole block filled with the little tables and umbrellas. But I’ve always liked Plouf because the focus is seafood. It’s fun and most people who come to San Francisco want a bit of a party when they go out to eat.

CB: When you recommend places like Tadich Grill, which is a classic, don’t you run the risk of it being too touristy because everyone is recommending it?

JV: It depends on which meal. If you go to Tadich on a Friday afternoon for lunch, it’s mostly going to be power lunchers from nearby banks and Montgomery Street. If you go to Saturday dinner, it’ll mostly be out-of-towners. So the question can’t be simply answered. It depends on who’s asking it, when they want to go, what they’re looking for.

CB: Now you’re part of 71Miles, which you co-founded. Are you the main person providing content for the site?

JV: I’m the sole content provider for the Northern California site. There are about 50,000 words, maybe more now, up there (on the site). It’s almost a book. It’s about three-fourths of an average travel book. (He holds up a travel guide and pinches more than half the pages.) There’s a phenomenal amount of content up there, but since I’ve been doing this for so long, writing for Fodor’s, Lonely Planet, Condé Nast and San Francisco magazine, and covering things for Channel 4 (KRON-TV), I have all this on the ready. And now I get to say everything that Condé Nast and Fodor’s, even Lonely Planet, won’t let me say. Lonely Planet is pretty liberal but they’re governed by the laws of Australia, and they’re not protected by the First Amendment. Only in the United States does the burden of proof lie on the accuser in libel and defamation cases. It’s the other way around in Australia.

CB: If someone wanted to plan a trip nearby focused on food, where would you recommend?

JV: Go where it grows. Go to Sonoma. Get a copy of the Farm Trails Guide. It’s a list of all the independent flower growers, fruit farms, cheese makers and gardens.

At this time, our mussels arrive and John demonstrates a trick where you take the meat out of the first mussel and then use its shell as a makeshift tong to eat the rest. That definitely comes in handy when you’re grilling at the beach. And if nothing else, it’s a neat trick at your next dinner party.

CB: In your bio it says you had culinary training in France. Did you want to become a chef?

JV: I did, and it’s just grueling work. So I decided not to. I did it for a little while and I thought it sucked. ... There’s a high rate of alcoholism. The stress, the timing, you’re working your ass off until midnight and then you stop working and as the express train is slowing down you have a couple of glasses of wine or scotches. Restaurant people are really fun but they party their asses off. And you sleep all morning and then it’s time to go back. And you get stuck in a rut. You really have to be disciplined about it. I think I lacked that critical piece.

CB: Do you still do a lot of cooking?

JV: I cook sometimes, but I don’t have a big kitchen. I love to cook.

CB: I originally started my blog for the single people out there who don’t have time to make big, fancy dinners but want quick, easy meals, especially after work. As a single person, what do you end up making?

JV: There’s a classic northern French dish that I really like. You take endives, trim the outer leaves, take out just a little bit of the center core, just a little, and then steam them and then wrap pieces of Virginia ham around it. Lay them side-by-side in a small baking dish and pour over them a Mornay sauce. And what, it’s like 2 tablespoons butter, 2 tablespoons flour, one and a half cups of milk, nutmeg, and salt and pepper. Then sprinkle grated gruyere cheese on top of the sauced endive before baking it.

CB: Do you have a favorite style of cuisine?

JV: I think my favorite food is those that use few ingredients. That’s why I like country French and Italian—five ingredients to a dish so that everything shines. And then it’s really about using the best ingredients you can get.

CB: What are your tips for people who are traveling and trying to find a good place to eat?

JV: Advertisers do something, it’s called “finding the maven.” Every group of friends has an expert, the go-to person for all their questions. My uncle and aunt are coming to town, where should we go for dinner? I need to get my shoe fixed, where should I go? I need a nice leather jacket, where should I go? And every group of friends has one person to ask. It’s called the maven. So you do what the advertisers do and you find the maven.

The mavens don’t like everything. Don’t trust anybody who says everything’s great because they’re not discerning.

CB: How do you find the maven in a place you’ve never traveled to before?

JV: You find a cool café. You chit chat and smile at everybody. And whenever a conversation comes up, you say you’re from out of town and you pick their brain. But you do so with a critical eye. They can say, “Oh, this place is wonderful” and then cross check the information with the next person you talk to. Don’t accept nice as an answer. “Oh, it’s a really nice place.” What makes it nice?

Also determine your price point. People will rattle off all sorts of restaurants. … Tell them how much you want to spend so you don’t get this long list of places and you find out they’re wicked expensive.

At this point, the waiter walks by and John starts speaking to him in French, pointing to our bowl of mussels. I feel like I’ve transported myself to a sidewalk café in Europe, where you see people carrying on in a very animated conversation. John explains later that he felt the mussels had been doused with cheap, acidic white wine that washed away any hints of the liquor (the natural juices of the mussels that create this wonderful broth you can sop up with bread). He says he felt we were robbed of this sublime pleasure, and I agree. While the mussels were plump and fresh, they were drowned in a bowl of broth and wine that wasn't very tempting to slurp liberally. A few minutes later, the restaurant owner comes out and, again, John talks to him in French. This is when I wished there were floating captions.

CB: When writing for a travel guide, what criteria do you use to decide which restaurant to recommend?

JV: It depends who I’m writing for. For 71 miles, I’m writing for my forgotten friends, if you will. Condé Nast is for a very specific niche, high-end market. Fodor’s is a sort of bland, middle-of-the-road traveler. Lonely Planet is for a younger, more dynamic audience. But I kind of like to write with an eye toward my varied group of friends, be they older adventure travelers or middle-aged luxury travelers or younger people who don’t have much money to spend and who want to splurge on a dinner and then stay in a cheap hotel. So I give a wide variety of options. But I’m usually writing to my friends.

CB: Do you feel pressured to list the hot and trendy places?

JV: I don’t feel pressured to. I feel it’s important to. But I look at them with a more critical eye because everybody’s talking about them. Like West County Grill in Sebastopol. There’s a big to-do about that place. Very flashy, with Jonathan Waxman (the New York restaurateur) and Stephen Singer (the ex-husband of Alice Waters of Chez Panisse). But there are too many chiefs and not enough Indians. There’s all these people huddled around the computer looking at orders and all this. The food’s good but the portions are too precious. Anyway, so I went there and I said OK, so this is a hot place, let’s see what the deal is. And it was good, but because it’s such a hot place I’m a little more critical of it.

CB: When you list trendy restaurants in your guide, don’t you run the risk that it won’t be trendy by the time the guide gets published?

JV: I tend to avoid overly trendy places. It’s hard to say. Because you really don’t know what a restaurant will be like until it’s been open for about three months. So if it’s not 3-months-old yet, I try to shy away from it unless I know there’s a star team behind it.

CB: What is it that you’re looking for in a good restaurant? Is it strictly the food?

JV: No, the service is really important. When Michelin gives its stars, they do so on food alone. So a place like Dry Creek Kitchen in Healdsburg got a star from Michelin but the service is terrible there. I look critically at service. But the measure of good service is not how they do day-to-day, it’s how they handle problems.

CB: Would you recommend room service when traveling?

JV: When I’m on an expense account, I recommend it.

CB: Is it because room service is always expensive?

JV: Oh, ridiculously. Don’t order room service if you’re not on an expense account because you’ll hate yourself when you get the bill. … Room service is tricky. I like to order room service but usually the selection is limited. If you’re at a hotel that has a top-notch restaurant, find out if that restaurant is doing the room service. And then it’s a different story altogether.

CB: For a food experience anywhere in the world, where would you recommend?

JV: San Francisco. Paris. Um … such predictable answers. Bangkok is a blast. Bangkok has really good food but you have to be willing to eat on the street. … Everything is so redolent with spice. When you get a bowl of tom yum, it’s an earthy, spicy broth and you typically put seafood in it. But in the bottom of the bowl there’s a big pile of sticks and leaves and branches of all of these spices and herbs. And they’re not afraid to put whole, big inedible chunks of plant matter into the food. I love that earthiness. You just kind of eat around it. But they add such thrilling spices to the cooking.

CB: Now you’re planning a trip to Dubai. That’s not for 71Miles, is it?

JV: 7,100 miles. (laughs) That’s for Lonely Planet.

CB: Will it be your first time there?

JV: Yes, and the first time the editor is working with an author who hasn’t been to the destination. But he said “I really need your expertise in luxury travel.”

CB: That’s pretty much all Dubai is, heat and luxury, right?

JV: There’s a 7-star hotel. Yeah, it’s their own marketing spin. It’s over the top. There’s an underwater hotel. There’s an indoor ski slope in the Arabian Peninsula. What?

Near the end of our lunch, the owner has sent out a second bowl of mussels after John told him about the poor preparation of the first batch. This second bowl has less wine but still needs a bit more seasoning. John asks me what I think about our lunch overall. He ordered the skate wing and fried ravioli and I had a big prawn salad. My salad had an abundance of fresh ingredients, but it was drowned, just like the wine, with too much vinaigrette. This is when John says he probably won’t include Plouf in his update of Lonely Planet’s California guide.

CB: Any last dining tips for travelers?

JV: Do a little research before you go and find out what the local specialties are. And then find out who does them best. Rather than finding out when you get there and you stumble into a diner and they say it’s the specialty of the town and you go, “Oh, we’ll order that.” But then you might get a bad version of it. … If you can, chase the season.

CB: What do you mean by that?

JV: Eat what’s in season. There’s a great restaurant called Seaweed Café in Bodega Bay of all places. And everything served there is within 30 miles of the restaurant and in season. So chase the season.

Soon John will be chasing the dunes as he goes “sandboarding” in Dubai for six weeks. My many thanks to him for being an entertaining lunch partner and having such a discerning palate, especially when it comes to mussels.



Alison said...

Very nice, Ben! A great addition to your blog.

Chubbypanda said...

You've really outdone yourself here. Bravo!

agent713 said...

Wow you're amazing! Great interview. I love this feature already!

Anonymous said...

Very enjoyable-Ben. I look forward to more of your interviews- what a well rounded blog!
It's interesting that 71Miles also features the D.C. Metro area-since I've moved from the Bay Area, and I'm closer to D.C. now. I'll check his blog out.

chez stella
p.s. the first time I tried Plouf, my friend, who was a concierge for a nearby hotel, was the one who took me there. It must be a concierge thing...

Mrs. L said...

Ben what an awesome interview. I've already been to 71miles (which I knew nothing about) and am checking out their stuff on Bodega Bay since I'll be there in a few weeks. Thanks!

Michael said...

I enjoyed reading about where to go in San Francisco, and not to go, especially for fish. And thanks for the travel tips, they’re very helpful

Chef Ben said...

Thanks everyone! I'm glad you all liked this. Hopefully I'll have other people as cooperative as John who made it a lot of fun doing!

wella said...

Hey, Ben, I really enjoyed reading this. The accompanying photos were top-notch as well. Keep up the good work!

Maxey said...

Yummy.... its delicious.

Donnie Fortney said...

Thanks for sharing this conversation with John! I learned a lot about food and travel.