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In a state of hibernation. My backlog has long become unsustainable. Will probably tweet more and write less full-length stuff.

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Friday
Jan212011

Il Latini

After some quick sightseeing in Pisa, we were back to Florence and ready for a meal at Il Latini. We had walked by it earlier in our trip, and I took that opportunity to snap this picture of the unassuming daytime facade. Il Latini is a well-known destination that is prominent in all the guide books. Generally speaking, it's kind of a touristy place, and as you can see below, the people definitely come out at night. Apparently, there is always a line the door trying to eat here. Does this qualify as a line? I'll go with "mob" instead - if I learned anything on my trip, it's that people in Europe don't like to line up single file.

Luckily, they do take reservations, so we didn't have to wait in the giant crowd. We met up for this meal with newlyweds Charmaine and Saul, who were also in Florence on their honeymoon, and are certified ultra-foodies. Il Latini is famous for its bistecca alla Fiorentina and its lively, family-style atmosphere, so we figured it would be a good place for our bigger group. My dad reported a very good rendition of bistecca here in 2007, and Kathy and her brother also had a delicious one just last year.

I think the vibe at Il Latini is most easily summed up by the first thing that arrives on every table - this crazy 2 liter jug of house wine. The place itself is a bit of a zoo, with tons of people (an equal split of tourists and locals) packed into crowded, paper-topped tables, with hams hanging from the ceiling like a rustic countryside basement. It's a fun, casual atmosphere designed for family dining, and the very drinkable house Toscana Rosso certainly helps. Friendly waiters swing by to discuss the menu (no printed versions in sight), and you pretty much just build out a meal together with them. We opted to get some antipasti, skip pasta, and go straight into the bistecca. Prices are murky, but ultimately very reasonable - we ended up paying 48 euros per head, tax/wine/everything inclusive.

 

HOUSE PROSCIUTTO AND SALAMEImmediately, we were served a very generous portion of house prosciutto, presumably the result of the hams hanging around us. Nice flavor, but leaner than the best Parma prosciuttos. Still, it was a perfect match for the environment.

 

CHICKEN LIVER CROSTININext came these pieces of chicken liver crostini. The spread was hearty and quite livery, which I loved.

 

FINNOCHIONAMy favorite of the cold meats was this finnochiona, a typical Tuscan salame with fennel seeds. It came in large slices with seemingly no casing, and had a great fattiness to it with a subtle fennel flavor.

 

SUN-DRIED TOMATOESWe also got some sun-dried tomatoes - not my favorite. I found them a little overpowering when eaten whole and alone.

 

BISTECCA ALLA FIORENTINAFinally, after some dramatic pause, we got to the main event. We technically got 2 steaks for 5 people, but my photo fails to capture how large these bad boys were. Take my word for it when I say they were awe-inspiring when they came out. Bistecca alla Fiorentina is the most famous dish in Florence, and the headliner of Tuscan cuisine. It's essentially a T-bone or porterhouse cut from a Chianina cow, a pure white Italian breed of cattle known to be the largest cows in the world.

Il Latini's preparation was absolutely stellar - perfectly cooked with an earthy flavor and an unmatched savoriness. It was a definite step above the version we had at Il Guscio 2 nights before. Fat lines the outside of the cut, but there isn't much marbling going on, so it has a very different mouthfeel from Japanese beef. I'd say it's closer to American dry-aged beef, but it's leaner still. The meat is very rare at the center but has a nice char on the outside, and despite being somewhat lean, is still soft and tender. It really is a steak of its own, and simply must be eaten on any visit to Florence.

 

FRIED ZUCCHINI BLOSSOMSWe got a token vegetable in the form of fried zucchini blossoms. These were cheeseless, pretty heavily battered, with a steaming hot inside. A good accompaniment to the steak.

 

ASSORTED DESSERTSWe finished with a plate of assorted desserts - a panna cotta with chocolate sauce, a chocolate custard tart, an almond tart, a tiramisu, and some cream puffs. All were actually pretty tasty, and it was nice to have a variety. I remember the tarts being surprisingly good, with a well-done, flaky crust.

We were completely stuffed at this point, and we had skipped a potential pasta course. In retrospect, we probably went a little too heavy on the meat-based apps, given that we had the steak coming up. Looking around the room, I saw a few dishes that looked quite interesting - something with octopus, along with what I would later discover was a famous rendition of ribollita. I will definitely make a return trip to try those and perhaps some pasta.

If you're looking for a fun place to eat in Florence, give Il Latini a shot. It's a little touristy, yes, but the atmosphere is jolly, and the steak is worth it. Just be sure to make a reservation.

Wednesday
Jan192011

Ristorante La Barcarola

During our stay in Florence, we took a day trip to Livorno, a port town on the western coast of Tuscany. My dad has an old friend that lives there, and it's also right next to Pisa, giving us a convenient opportunity to visit the famous leaning tower. Many cruise ship passengers dock at the port to go to Florence, but Livorno itself frankly isn't much of a tourist destination. My dad's friend, Fabio, is a Livornese local, and it so happens that one of Fabio's childhood friends runs La Barcarola, a small restaurant on the main strip of town.

After the mega-dinner we had a Pinchiorri the night before, a simple neighborhood spot was just what we needed. La Barcarola is the classic, local, family-owned restaurant. It has humble food and a simple atmosphere, and absolutely zero presence on Google other than their own basic Italian website. It's exactly the type of no-frills place where you know there must be some good authentic eats.

While Tuscan cuisine generally puts a strong emphasis on meat, Livorno's coastal location and historic fishing tradition make the local cuisine much more seafood-heavy than the rest of the region. The word barcarola refers to a type of fisherman's boat. One of the local specialties is cacciucco, a seafood stew similar to the more famous French bouillabaisse. As we were still recovering from our last meal, we opted to get some apps and share some pastas instead. Prices and descriptions are a little murky - we just made a few requests and the food started coming out. Of course, as friends of the house, we ended up eating a ton anyway...

 

ANTIPASTI - mussel arancini, tonnato crostini, polenta, prawns, and fried sardinesWe started with this plate of apps, all quite tasty. The mussel arancini (basically a fried rice ball of risotto and cheese) was new to me - I've never had it with seafood inside before, and it definitely worked well. I'm surprised it's not done more often.

 

STEAMED MUSSELSNext came a heaping plate of plump mussels steamed with white wine, garlic, and parsley. Simple, fresh, and delicious.

 

CRUDO - tuna, oyster, shrimp, scampi, marinated sardineAt this point we knew there was a lot of pasta still to come, and we were probably eating more than we should be after dinner at Pinchiorri. Oh well. The stars of this crudo plate were the tremendously sweet red shrimp, and the beautiful raw scampi. I like to think them as amaebi Italian-style.

 

PENNE WITH SCAMPI, TOMATOES, AND GARLICThe first pasta to come out was probably my favorite - scampi penne with a simple tomato sauce. It looks basic enough, but the perfectly al dente pasta picked up all the tasty scampi flavor.

 

SHRIMP GNOCCHINext was this hearty gnocchi with a creamy shrimp sauce. The gnocchi itself was made by a friend of the owner - the local gnocchi specialist, we were told. They were smooth, fluffy, and more potatoey than most gnocchis I've had. The tremendously flavorful sauce was the star here though.

 

SPAGHETTI WITH MUSSELS, TOMATOES, AND CHILIThis pasta was the least memorable. The sauce was again a simple tomato sauce, but kicked up with some chili. The mussels tasted good, but didn't bring as much as the scampi in the earlier penne dish. I guess we also felt a little bit of mussel overload already.

 

SEAFOOD RISOTTOOf course we had to try at least one risotto, and this did not disappoint. The rice seemed a little shorter grain than usual, but it was perfectly cooked. Baby octopus and mussels were the main proteins - the baby octopus in particular were delicious.

We were absolutely stuffed at this point; the meal certainly did not lack in carbs. My dad claims that compared to some of the feasts he's had at La Barcarola over the years (he's been going occasionally for 20 years with Fabio), this meal was fairly mediocre. I thought it was the perfect not-fancy counterpoint to a Michelin meal, and the straight up pastas really hit the spot. I look forward to returning one day and trying the cacciucco.

Thursday
Jan132011

Enoteca Pinchiorri

Enoteca Pinchiorri is, without a doubt, one of the highest-profile restaurants from my trip. It's the only Michelin 3-star in Florence. It's perennially listed in various guides as one of the best places for fine dining in all of Italy. Owner Giorgio Pinchiorri is well known for having quite possibly the largest and most expensive wine collection in the entire world. It is, by all accounts, a restaurant that the Medicis could go to for a family dinner. 

The restaurant itself certainly looks the part - it's a grand villa decorated with countless pieces of Expensive Old Art. It looks more like a home inside, with a few tables scattered through a variety of loosely connected dining rooms. An army of suited up waiters attends to a surprisingly small number of guests.

To be honest, despite Enoteca Pinchiorri's grand reputation, I wasn't quite as excited about this meal as one might think. It has fairly lukewarm reviews online despite its 3 stars, with many calling it a tourist trap that just rides on past glory. My dad went back in 2007, and said he had a good but not particularly memorable meal. Given that Pinchiorri is one of the most expensive restaurants in Italy, I braced myself to be a little underwhelmed.

Of course, I couldn't help but get excited after sitting down and looking at the menus. There are several dining options available. They have a full a la carte menu, divided into appetizers, pasta, and fish/meat main courses, with items generally ranging from €90-€110 each. They also offer a 6-course degustation menu plucked from a la carte dishes at €225, with the option to make it 8 courses for €275. Finally, they have a 6-course market menu for €250. We opted for the 8-course, as it had a very good selection of the a la carte dishes we were interested in. And it's hard to see the value of a la carte when you're easily going into €200 territory with just an appetizer and a main.

Many of you know I'm not much of a wine expert, but the wine program at Pinchiorri is definitely worth mentioning. Their wine list is, quite simply, epic. Like nothing I've ever seen before. Page after page of 4, 5, and even some 6-digit € wines. Click here to see the Lafite page (just a random sample). Now imagine a similar page for every French Premier Cru, every Italian Super Tuscan, and just about every big dog wine you can imagine. DRC, Yquem, Sassicaia, Screaming Eagle, Penfolds Grange - you name it from all over the world. We ended up getting a great bottle of 2000 Solaia at a discounted price, thanks to my dad's smooth negotiating tactics.

They also have a pretty unique by the glass program, where they offer some truly premier wines that would never be sold by the glass elsewhere. For example, one tasting was priced at €600 for 3 glasses, €800 for 4 glasses, or €1000 for 5 glasses, and offered a tasting of 2000 vintages of the world's best wines - ie. Petrus, Margaux, and other 4-5 digit bottles of wine. The price is outrageous, but at the same time these are wines that would normally only be sold by the bottle (and still at outrageous prices). Somehow, Pinchiorri is willing and able to open some of these and just sell a glass. I don't think there's another place in the world where one could sample varieties of elite wines like that. There were other theme options too, like a 1990 Super Tuscan tasting by the glass. That said, the by the glass stuff is still in "price is no object" territory. But it's an option.

Anyway - onto the food.

 

FRIED MOZZARELLA BITESThe first amuse was this little set of mozzarella lollipops. Very delicately fried, and a nice salty snack to start.

 

POLENTA CUBES AND MEATBALLSNext came bite-sized fried polenta cubes with mini veal meatballs. These were lighter than they look here, and the polenta had a nice smooth texture. A safe and solid combination.

 

LOBSTER SALADStill on amuses here - this was a nice, light lobster salad with what appeared to be baby escarole and a creamy dressing. The lobster was cooked through, but had a very gentle texture and no rubberiness.

 

ROLLS - HAM AND ONION, SUN-DRIED TOMATO, SPINACHI find that Italian bread generally pales in comparison to France, with most casual restaurants in Italy resorting to dry, lifeless loaves and packaged breadsticks. It's worth noting that Pinchiorri had a great selection of savory-flavored breads and rolls - no doubt a requirement for any kind of Michelin respect.

 

RAW AMBERJACK WITH CITRUS, AVOCADO PUREE, AND TOMATO COMPOTEThe first listed course of the menu was this raw amberjack... or, kanpachi tartare, as you'd call it in California. The combination was fairly standard, but ingredients and execution were of high quality.

 

BURRATA WITH STONE-PRESSED BREADThen came this off-menu freebie - a wedge of Italian burrata, some potent olive oil, and what they described as a special "stone-pressed" bread. The burrata was one of the best examples I've ever had, and the bread tasted excellent. It was a little crisp on the edges and chewy in the middle. Kind of like a flour version of an arepa, if that makes any sense.

 

GRILLED SOLE WITH STEWED RED ONIONS, ZUCCHINI, AND BOTTARGAThis long fillet of sole was simply grilled, and kicked up with a sprinkling of bottarga, a cured fish roe. Very nice, clean flavor. The side of veggies, hidden in this photo, was actually delicious and beautifully cut.

 

LOBSTER WITH PISTACHIO GRATIN, CECINA, AND YOGURTThings got more interesting with this pistachio-crusted lobster tail. Like the salad earlier, the lobster meat was delicate, almost like langoustine. The pistachio gave it a nice contrasting crunch. The cecina was explained as a traditional tart made with chickpea flour and rosemary, and had a smooth texture similar to "chickpea fries" preparations you can find sometimes here (think Frances). The yogurt and pistachio sauce moistened everything up. Delicious.

 

FUSILLI WITH PORCINI MUSHROOMS, NEPITELLA, AND PARMIGIANO REGGIANOOne thing I was pretty stoked about with Michelin restaurants in Italy was the inclusion of pasta in a grand tasting menu. As a pasta lover, this example hit the spot - toothsome, handmade fusilli with a rich porcini sauce. The sprinkling of nepitella, a minty herb, and a touch of strong parmigiano helped to smooth everything out. I love this fresh, rolled-up version of fusilli (as opposed to the regular dried kind with the deep ridgy rings), and I wish more restaurants here would make it.

 

TAGLIATELLE STUFFED WITH POTATO PUREE TOSSED WITH DUCK STEW, OREGANO, AND WHITE TRUFFLESA ragu on steroids. The long, narrow sheets of tagliatelle were stuffed with potato like a stretched out ravioli. It was an interesting texture mix and way of eating - you had to cut them into pieces like asparagus. The savory duck stew flavored the pasta and potato combo well. The white truffles were noticeable, but the sauce overpowered them a bit.

 

RACK OF LAMB STUFFED WITH BLACK OLIVES AND LARDO, MINTED BELL PEPPERS, SALAD WITH SESAMEJuicy, rich, and decadent. I think the picture speaks for itself on this dish - the lamb was beautifully tender, not too gamey, and perfectly blended with the black olive and lardo. The marinated pepper helped to cut the richness a bit. A wonderful meat course overall.

 

ROASTED SQUAB WITH HONEY AND SPICES, FRIED EGGPLANT STUFFED WITH MOZZARELLA AND THYMEOur last savory course was this roasted pigeon. Excellent caramelized skin and rare, tender meat, with a pleasant sweetness from the honey. Also, the fancy eggplant parm was delicious - delicately fried, with just a tiny layer of cheese, and no heavy greasiness at all.

 

MANGO SORBET, CHOCOLATEThe first sweet was this mango sorbet with little strips of chocolate, served in an ice cold EP goblet. Sort of a palate cleanser, I guess. I liked the mango-chocolate combo - the chocolate wasn't too sweet but also balanced the tartness of the sorbet.

 

KAKI CREAM WITH PISTACHIO TART AND PEAR SPIRIT ZABAGLIONEThis was the only listed dessert course on the menu. Kaki is a Japanese persimmon, a fruit I'm generally not too fond of. The cream was kind of like a thick soupy nectar with a very subtle persimmon flavor. The cakey chunks of pear tart and the creamy zabaglione went great together, although I think it would have been better with a non-persimmon fruit. I'll admit that's personal bias though...

 

HOT CHOCOLATEOf course, random little desserts kept coming out too. This was a hot chocolate served in a tall black ceramic martini glass. Very milky and relatively light, but a bit too sweet.

 

SWEET ARTICHOKE CREAM, MERINGUENext came this curious double shot glass with what was explained as an artichoke cream with a meringue cookie. Hard to describe the flavor - it was definitely artichokey, but also a little sweet. The meringue gave it a bit of crunch.

 

CHOCOLATESFinally, we each got a plate of fancy chocolates. I neglected to write down each flavor, but I remember a pecan one and a hazelnut one. The white one had a green tea filling and was pretty interesting.

And that was it for the food. By the end of the meal, we had developed a pretty good rapport with our main waiter and the sommelier. I must say that the service at Enoteca Pinchiorri was over-the-top good - superb and world class in every way. They rode the perfect balance between professionalism and friendliness. It's a subtle thing, but it makes for a truly memorable and pleasant experience.

The sommelier, after having detected an unusual amount of interest/knowledge from my dad regarding Italian wine over the course of the meal, enthusiastically asked us to come look at the wine cellar. Despite knowing how big the collection is, we weren't prepared for what we saw. The wine cellar at Pinchiorri is breathtaking. Not so much for its facilities - it's basically a dark, cavernous basement, with seemingly no end to its tunnels. It had none of the high-tech fancy storage cabinets or anything - just never-ending shelves and cases of wine. But boy were there wines. There were entire sections for every winemaker you could think of, sections for special large format wines, walls of winemaker flights dating back to pre-1900, and much more. Cases of 4-digit wines were piled up seemingly haphazardly on the floor. Click here to see a ton of photos. I can't really describe it other than saying that it's simply unbelievable, and I urge you to look at the pictures if you have any interest in wine whatsoever.

Despite my early doubts, dinner at Pinchiorri turned out to be one of the most remarkable of my trip. I would absolutely recommend it to anyone. The food is not the most groundbreaking compared to its peers, but everything was delicious and well executed. Yes, it's expensive - our final bill was €1,100 for 3, with some really good (though admittedly modest given what else was available) wine. It's cheaper than Paris, but more than Spain (Spain, as I'll describe later on the blog, is absolutely the best value in the world in terms of ultra fine dining). It's always difficult to justify if a meal this expensive is "worth it" - that will always be up to you. But this place is the total package when it comes to a grandiose, fancy dinner - good (if non-threatening) food, superlative service, and just a wonderful experience. I'll remember this meal fondly for years to come.

As we were leaving, they called us a taxi. At Enoteca Pinchiorri, "taxi" really means a hired brand new 5-series BMW that takes you back to your hotel for free. I was semi-joking in the intro, but seriously, they make you feel like Cosimo de'Medici for a night.

Tuesday
Nov302010

Olio & Convivium

Our next lunch was a relatively light one at Olio & Convivium, the extension of the Convivium food store. Located on Via Santo Spirito, a small but very active alley across the river, Olio & Convivium is half shop, half restaurant. Walking in, we were surrounded by all kinds of Italian food products, along with a fancy deli area showing off hams, dried meats, cheeses, and other goods.

Dining tables are placed throughout the back, and you pretty much eat in the middle of the action. Fancy wines line the walls around you while waiters pull appetizers from their salad/antipasti area. It's a simple, casual vibe with a strong focus on the store.

 

BURRATA WITH SMOKED SALMON AND GRILLED VEGETABLES - €20We had a couple of apps to share, starting with this plate of cheese, salmon, and veggies. Excellent samples all around - creamy burrata, rich salmon, and perfect antipasti-style veggies.

 

GRILLED PORCINI MUSHROOMS - €15We then had an order of these beautiful grilled whole porcinis, which were on special. They had an intense porcini flavor with a good bit of char from the grill.

 

TAGLIATELLE WITH PRAWNS, ZUCCHINI, AND TOMATOES - €16I opted for another special on the chalkboard - this tagliatelle with prawns. Great fresh noodles, and a nice balance between the meaty prawns and the sauteed zucchini.

 

TAGLIOLINI WITH WHITE TRUFFLES - €25My dad, on the other hand, was craving his first bit of tartufo of the trip, so went with this truffle special. It turned out to be the best tartufo deal of the trip - perfectly done pasta with a healthy dose of fragrant white truffles, and for only €25. It was definitely the cheapest of our trip.

All in all, Olio & Convivium is a great place for a nice pasta lunch. If Florence is the last stop of your trip, it's also the perfect place to do some food shopping for stuff to bring home.

Wednesday
Nov242010

Il Guscio

Well, my trip got a little too busy for on-the-road blogging, but I'm back home and settled again in San Francisco. I have a ton of photos from my trip and lots to report on. I'll keep going right where I left off, which is our arrival in Florence.

Some quick background - my dad spent a full month in Florence back in 2007 in a supposed attempt to learn Italian and take some cooking lessons. Based on his Italian after he got back, it was clearly more of a eat + relax trip, like most vacations. Still, he was able to sample a ton of different restaurants there, and thus took the lead on choosing our food for this part of the trip.

We wanted to start out with a typical Tuscan meal, and settled on Il Guscio, a small restaurant on the south side of the Arno.  My dad had a couple of good meals there on his last trip. It's a simple neighborhood joint with sparse decor and little fanfare, and it's also a decent ways out of the tourist zone. My dad also remembered remarkable values for Tuscan wines here from his last trip - on this night, we had a delicious Percarlo for what he deemed was a steal.

 

SEAFOOD ANTIPASTI - tuna tartare, salt cod crostini, sformato, prawn - €13We started with this mixed seafood appetizer. Apologies for the focus - didn't get a great pic of this. All of them were pretty solid, but I liked the shrimp/scallop-flavored sformato the most. At €13, the plate was a little expensive compared to the rest of the meal. We only got one portion of this to share between us, because it was pasta that was really on our minds...

 

RISOTTO WITH FRESH PORCINI MUSHROOMS - €10Now that my dad was with us and we had 3 whole people eating together, we began an ambitious habit of ordering ridiculous amounts of food. The truth is, we constantly ran into menus with too many things we wanted to try. Standard practice became appetizers to share, then 4 pastas to split among the 3 of us, then a main dish each.

First up at Il Guscio was this simple risotto with porcinis, executed just about perfectly. I've professed my love for porcinis on this blog many many times, and the chunks in this risotto were more than generous. To me, risotto is all about cooking to the right al dente and correctly balancing the liquid - two things that somehow go wrong more than you'd expect in America. No such problems here.

 

SPAGHETTI TRABACCOLARA - €10Trabaccolara is a seafood sauce of humble origins, using unsold fresh fish left from a fisherman's catch. The name comes from the type of boats they used in northern Tuscany. Again, the spaghetti was perfect al dente, and the sauce had a strong sea flavor from several different kinds of fish which stayed unidentified. Slightly over-salted, but still delicious.

 

MALTAGLIATI WITH PRAWNS, SCAMPI, AND ZUCCHINI FLOWERS - €10My dad claims Il Guscio was the first place he ever tried maltagliati, and this dish was the main reason he wanted to come back. Maltagliati, which is basically the scraps and weird shapes leftover from cutting sheets of pasta, has since grown at least slightly in popularity. I've seen it here and there on menus back home.

This version was truly excellent. The thick, shellfish-y sauce clung beautifully to the haphazard sheets of pasta, and the zucchini flowers were a perfect veggie complement. Absolutely worth returning for.

 

LINGUINE WITH CLAMS AND GINGER - €10We tried to get away initially with just sharing 3 pastas, but when we saw a dish of this modified vongole heading to another table, we simply had to try it. The dish is basically a standard vongole with an Asian twist - you can't really see the ginger, but you could definitely taste it. Our most frequent complaint about vongoles is that they are somehow always too watery, but this one was just right. Great execution and an interesting twist.

 

BISTECCA ALLA FIORENTINA - €45 (for 2)Of course, we were eager to try the famous bistecca alla fiorentina, a staple of the Tuscan menu. Most of Italy isn't really known for beef, but in Florence, beef reigns supreme. The porterhouse-like bistecca is produced from Chianina cows, a pure white Italian breed known for the biggest cows in the world. They're generally meatier and heartier than the famous Japanese cows, and have a strong flavor as opposed to intense marbling. Seeing chunks of uncut bistecca at the butcher is pretty impressive - they're freaking ginormous.

At Il Guscio, Geoff and I shared this relatively modest portion. The steak had a nice fiery crust from the grill, and the meat itself was tender and flavorful. It was a very satisfying piece of meat indeed. Also worth mentioning is that the side of roasted (maybe also fried?) potatoes was absolutely delicious. This would become a trend - it turns out the often bland-looking side of potatoes is usually awesome in Tuscany. Who knew.

I had a pretty unremarkable gelato for dessert which I forgot to photograph. Overall though, we were very happy with this first Florence dinner. I must say again that the pastas were all great, and at €10 an amazing value as well. The service was friendly and efficient. The owner had a very welcoming attitude, and was clearly genuinely happy to practice his English and serve some local food to us obvious tourists. Il Guscio is a very solid choice for a hearty Tuscan meal.