Midwest to Middle East: best meals of 2010

An unusual setting helps deepen the dining experience. These six memorable meals are from my travels during 2010.

Traders Point Creamery – Evidence of rural life appears abruptly, just northwest of Indianapolis. It’s a quick switch from suburbia and interstates to cornfields and a one-lane bridge.

This is where children, and others, learn that milk doesn’t come from the grocery store. Visitors watch farm life through glass observation windows, where six cows get attention at once and a parlor etiquette sign says, “The girls are milking. Quiet voices please.”

The fluid turns into organic ice cream, yogurt, cheese spreads and hand-turned cheeses. It’s also possible to walk the acreage and watch how the herd of 150 Brown Swiss lives, or to savor pork confit steak, grassfed beef burgers and mac-and-cheese at the Loft Restaurant. What the owners thought would be just an ice cream and yogurt bar has grown beyond their dreams.

About 30 vendors do business here on summer farmers’ market Fridays, and on these evenings up to 150 people make reservations to feast on an outdoor buffet that features market products.

For more about Traders Point Creamery, 9101 Moore Rd., Zionsville, Ind.: www.tpforganics.com, 317-733-1700.

Angry Trout Café – The owners of a converted commercial fishing shanty in the harbor of Grand Marais, Minn., are blunt and fervent about their priorities. Consider their statement of intent:

“Although the function of the Angry Trout is to serve our customers, our purpose, which is a broader concern, is to make money in a way that makes a better world for our selves, other people, other life on earth and for future generations.”

So beer comes from kegs, “to avoid the waste of all those bottles.” Shrimp are spot prawns, caught through trapping – not trawling – in Alaskan waters. Most vegetables and meats are organic; farms are listed by name and location.

Trout chowder and tomato fennel soup were specials when I visited, and the fresh fish choices were Lake Superior herring, lake trout and whitefish, caught and processed by the adjacent Dockside Fish Market.

The vibe is casual, the service attentive, the prices affordable but not cheap. I can read about who hand-harvests the wild rice and who hand-carved the entry door. I also learn which area residents made the salt and pepper shakers, the credit card trays, the organic cotton napkins, light fixtures, bathroom mosaics and stained glass. Outdoor chairs used to be tractor seats. Indoor furnishings are made from 15 types of local trees. Scrappy cardboard menu covers are pieces of boxes that held food or beverages.

Unless I protest – and why would I? – 74 percent of my tip goes to the server, and the rest is divided among kitchen staff.

For more about the Angry Trout Café, 408 W. Hwy. 61, Grand Marais, Minn.: www.angrytroutcafe.com, 218-387-1265.

Schlafly Bottleworks – Sample the handcrafted beer that competes well with the big dog in St. Louis, Anheuser-Busch. Also on the Schlafly premises is a well-tended garden, whose bounty (about 3,600 pounds of veggies per growing season) is used in the brewpub’s daily specials.

Add an order of warm pretzel bread from the city’s artisan Companion Bakery, with a beer-cheese sauce for dipping, or make a meal out of the Farmers’ Platter, a mix of local sausages and spent grain beer bread. That’s just a part of the menu here.

On Wednesday afternoons during the growing season, a farmers’ market moves onto the premises. Local, family-owned purveyors get star treatment on the brewpub menu. Special dinners seat up to 80 and put the spotlight on local ingredients, one farm at a time.

For more about the Schlafly Bottleworks, 7260 Southwest Ave., St. Louis: www.schlafly.com, 314-241-BEER.

Algonquin Hotel – Don’t assume that a meal at one of America’s most historically rich restaurants is beyond your budget. That’s what I discovered while exploring New York City on a Sunday night.

While looking for dinner before a Broadway show, I came upon the Algonquin, the city’s oldest operating hotel. It is best known as the daily lunch spot (from 1919-29) for literary heavyweights: critic Dorothy Parker, sportswriter Heywood Broun, author/playwright Edna Ferber (a native of Appleton) and others.

Their legendary round table no longer exists, but a mural at the Algonquin Round Table Restaurant honors the characters who made their history here. The three-course, pre-theater menu (for me, a salad, salmon and caramel chocolate cake) had a set price of $39. What a steal, considering the city and the setting.

The bargain might make you feel less guilty about that $20 glass of wine. But it’s all a matter of perspective, isn’t it? The Algonquin also is home to the $10,000 martini, which arrives with just one chunk of ice – a diamond.

For more about the Algonquin Hotel, 59 W. 44th St., New York: www.algonquinhotel.com, 212-840-6800.

Cabbages and Condoms Restaurant – The business of sowing seeds takes on dual meaning in Bangkok, where a restaurant lush with foliage, sass and humor raises awareness and money on behalf of AIDs and population control.

The business name acknowledges that it’s a lot easier to talk about vegetables than sex, particularly among the poor farm families of Thailand. Restaurant décor suggests life doesn’t need to be this way. Look for mannequins with colorful wigs of unraveled condoms, plus condom flower bouquets, sculptures, posters, a year-round Santa dressed in condoms – get the idea?

Among the mottos: “Our food is guaranteed not to cause pregnancy.” Profits fund programs that explain and educate the public about condom use.

The atmosphere? Truly appetizing. Not tawdry. Indulge in traditional Asian fare, then explore the gift shops that specialize in Thai handicrafts, restaurant souvenirs and products that promote safe sex (sometimes in graphic detail).

Instead of after-dinner mints, the restaurant distributes free condoms. Customers who linger for cocktails migrate to the Cops and Rubbers Lounge.

For more about Cabbages and Condoms Restaurant, Sukhumvit Soi 12, Bangkok (near the Times Square office building): www.pda.or.th/restaurant, 02-229-4610.

Burj Al Arab – Again and again, developers in Dubai dare to defy logic. So you’ll see snow skiing inside of a desert shopping center (albeit a bunny hill, by U.S. standards) and ongoing work to make the world their own – literally – through manmade development of an archipelago of islands that (from a bird’s eye view) resemble a map of the world.

Inside Burj Al Arab, the world’s first seven-star hotel, are nine places to dine or imbibe. Short on time but not the pocketbook? Spend $300 to $400 for a progressive meal that involves four or five of the locations in one evening – one course at a time, with matching wines.

Most incredible: Al Mahara – the “oyster shell.” A simulated submarine ride transports diners underwater, and a big part of the restaurant show is the walls of water. Tanks of wide-eyed fish and other sea creatures watch as people eat – and the menu specialty is, uh, seafood.

For more about the Burj Al Arab, Dubai, also notable because it looks like a giant sail: www.jumeirah.com, 971-4-301-7777.

“Roads Traveled” is the result of anonymous travel, independent travel, press trips and travel journalism conferences. What we choose to cover is not contingent on subsidized or complimentary travel.