Tag Archives: travel

A Great Get-Away: Portland

Much as I like to think I’m an organized person, inevitably there are trips when I realize too late something that I failed to pack. Usually remedying the problem just takes a trip to the drug store for some toothpaste, or relying on the room’s alarm clock rather than my favorite travel version. But last weekend when I unpacked at the hip and wonderful Hotel Modera in Portland, as I was hanging up the cute tops I’d brought for dinnertime outings, I realized a more significant omission: the pants I’d planned to wear them with. And no, the casual blue cords I wore on the train just wouldn’t cut it.

Off to Nordstrom we went, where I scored a great skirt that filled the bill, plus a couple sets of fun tights to go with it.

So despite the fact that I don’t seem to have born with that love-to-shop gene that many women have, I ended up doing some prime tax-free shopping while in town. The extent of shopping I do while in Portland is usually inspired by  the great spirits available. Previous trips it’s included Aviation gin or one of the amazing eaux de vie from Clear Creek Distillery. This trip was no different, I also picked up a bottle of Ransom Old Tom gin at a downtown liquor store.

Instead of the shopping, what’s been drawing me to Portland most in the past few years has been work-related events. Preparing for and attending the annual conference of the International Association of Culinary Professionals. Teaching a class at In Good Taste. Doing a bit of promo for a cookbook, like my recent Gourmet Game Night event at Cafe Nell.

But last week’s trip was intentionally different. No work, all play. Finally a tourist in this city I so adore. At oh-dark-thirty the morning after Thanksgiving, my husband and I boarded the Amtrak Cascades train down to the Rose City. And we packed those couple days with great meals, meeting with friends, exploring the city in a relaxed fashion.

Little surprise that meals served as the foundation of our itinerary. Friday, after dropping our bags at the hotel, we walked across downtown to have lunch at Kenny & Zuke’s. I had once popped in here a couple of years ago, to pick up a bagel for the train trip home, but never sat down to try their famous housemade pastrami. Lunch was well worth the 30 minute wait, I tried the reuben made with that pastrami (instead of the traditional corned beef). It was outstanding, as was the simple potato salad alongside, light and flavorful, not drowning in mayo. Bob loved his PLT (pastrami-lettuce-tomato) sandwich, which showed off the pastrami even better.

Our post-lunch stroll took us through the Pearl District, where we found the Museum of Contemporary Craft, one of the new things I got to do on this visit. The small museum currently has a very cool exhibit featuring creative interpretations of “the book,” not to mention a really great gift shop with wonderful arty items. Our museum entry was gratis, thanks to the coupon in the Portland Perks booklet we were given when we checked into the hotel. There’s a special promotion going on now through December 20 at a couple dozen hotels in the area, with a 2-night stay you’re given the coupon book–to spur some of that tax-free shopping!–along with (believe it or not) a $50 bill to get you started. Details on the offer are here.

Dinner was a treat, a long-overdue trip back to Nostrana where Cathy Whims and David West have created a warm and welcoming room for enjoying comforting food that showcases Northwest ingredients with Italian sensibilities. Given that bounty of chanterelles the Northwest is experiencing this year, we tried the chanterelle trio: with farro and borlotti beans, in a leek sformato and baked with Scarmoza cheese in the wood-fired oven. All delicious. I recall in the pre-Nostrana days the degree of research and experimenting Cathy was doing to perfect her pizza prowess, so we couldn’t let pass a taste of her margherita pizza. I’d like to do that “Bewitched” wrinkle-wiggle of my nose to make one appear on my desk right now….. Outstanding grilled leg of lamb with tapenade and celery root gratin, scallops with rapini, a very delicate and rich lasagne verde, the entrees all shined. With little room left for dessert, we sated ourselves with the butterscotch budino (pudding) and a small scoop of vanilla gelato with Faith Willinger’s Tuscan chocolate sauce. Perfetto.

Saturday’s meals took us to Pok Pok for lunch and Paley’s Place for dinner. What’s not to love about Pok Pok? Aside from perhaps the chilly wait outside this time of year. But it made warming up at our table in near the bar that much more delightful. We skipped the beloved chicken wings, instead opting for some items new to me: muu sateh, Carlton Farms pork marinated in turmeric and coconut milk then grilled; the Northern Thai herbal salad; wide rice noodles with Chinese broccoli, pork and egg. So flavorful, bright, delicious. I’ve loved every meal I’ve had at Pok Pok.

Dinner was a little step back in time, I hadn’t been to Paley’s Place in ages, over ten years. I love the setting, the cozy house-turned restaurant on a quiet corner in the Northwest of Portland. Vitaly and Kim Paley have been taking great care of Portland diners for over 15 years, unstuffy and personable, focused on regional products cooked with a light hand, letting the ingredients shine. Carrot soup, local oysters, a sampler of charcuterie started off our meal with friends. I set with a classic for my main course, Paley’s rabbit ravioli served with chanterelles, bacon and butternut squash. Both husbands had the seared tuna, the fourth opted for beef tartare.

Oh, and carless in Portland? No troubles at all. We took a free MAX ride from the train station to the hotel, no more than 2 blocks to walk at either end. Dinner at Nostrana and lunch at Pok Pok made me think the Tri-Met system plans routes around the city’s top restaurants: no transfers needed from downtown and we landed no more than a block from either. (Major plug here for the Google Maps app I’ve got on my Blackberry, not only a great map tool but the “directions” option includes public transit, with reliable bus numbers and departure times…. LOVE IT!) The Portland Streetcar took us directly to the corner where Paley’s Place is found.

The only problem with this great weekend in Portland was that it was simply too short. But we’ll return before long to hit places we missed on this trip, like dinner at Country Cat, a stroll through the Oregon Museum of Science & Industry, cocktails at Beaker & Flask. And maybe some more of that shopping!!

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Europe Adventure 2010: France and Italy

Home again, home again jiggity jog…… What a trip that was, three weeks so full and enriching and reviving that it felt like we were gone for two months. So I suppose we got our money’s worth. And our time’s worth. But it’s great to be home. Another sign of a good trip!! Great restaurants and stunning countryside, inspiring history and phenomenal markets — but in the end it’s hard to beat the comfort of being back in your own bed.

The view from our friends' home in the village of Pergo in southern Tuscany

Planes, trains and automobiles. Five different flights got us from Seattle to Rome, then from Paris back home again. Trains of varying speeds and spiffyness took us from Rome to the Tuscan countryside, from Florence to Nice (via Milan), then from the byways of Alsace into Paris. And in five days of car rental I motored over 800 kilometers from Nice to Arles, around the Camargue, through Burgundy and eventually dropped our Renault off at the Strasbourg airport where Alsatian friends picked us up.

Classic Alsatian flowers and architecture and charm in the town of Riquewihr

We went. We saw. We conquered museums, markets, meals, and miles and miles of countryside drives and city walks.

With nearly 1000 photos to organize and nearly as many experiences and impressions to try to capture, it may be a while before a cogent recap of this trip gets posted. If ever that really happens. But some off-the-cuff highlights and random thoughts.

a)  The color of the season in Paris is PURPLE in all its delicious shades: eggplant, cassis, violet, grape. Coats, sweaters, shoes, purses. And anyone who knows me knows that the last thing I pay attention to is fashion, so this had to be a pretty obvious one……

b) Pop-up music/performances abound in Europe. In Arezzo it was a small stage set in a town square with ballerinas practicing for an event of some kind, as we sat nearby on a restaurant patio having lunch. Sitting at a cafe in Paris near the Palais Royal, we were serenaded by a string octet performing beautiful classical pieces. On the Pont des Arts near the Louvre, it was an American high school band doing their thing. An all-time favorite Paris memory is being on the metro and a guy jumps on and starts singing Blue Skies, one of my very favorite songs. I will never tire of unexpected art of this fashion.

An impropmptu (and wonderful) concert, serenading our cafe lunch near Palais Royal

 

c) As might be predicted, our vistas when driving around the Tuscany countryside for a couple of days rarely lacked for an olive tree or two (or two hundred). The region surely lives up to its reputation for locally-made olive oil. But this was a surprise: I asked our friends about those lush fields of hip-high, vivid green plants with broad leaves. Would you believe that Tuscany is also a big producer of tobacco? Could have fooled me! And we saw lots of fields of it in our time there.

One of a few black & white shots I took inspired by a photo exhibit we'd just been to in Paris

d) In Florence we did go to the primo museums that every tourist really should visit: the Uffizi (with many special pieces of art, the highlight for us Botticelli’s “Birth of Venus”) and l’Accademia (David). In Paris we skipped the Louvre and the Grand Palais, opting instead for the Henri Cartier-Bresson Foundation‘s exhibit of black and white photos by Harry Callahan (which inspired a handful of b&w shots following the visit) and the Musée National Eugene Delacroix in the home-studio the artist lived in literally around the corner from the hotel where I always stay in Paris (never having known the museum was even there).

e) I’d bet that a gelato a day can do as much for our well-being as any apple could. I didn’t quite get a daily dose but did indulge when I could. One friend directed me to the lemon gelato at Gelateria Carabe in Florence, another to the rich

Amazing artisinal gelato in Florence

 treats of Vestri also in Florence (I tried pistachio and vanilla there).  To be honest, though? Best gelato I had on the trip was at Amorino in Paris. Twice.

f) When in Rome, do as the Romans. And when in the Black Forest, eat a piece of Black Forest Cake!! A fun surprise addition to our itinerary was one day driving to, and through parts of, the Black Forest in Germany. I knew of course that Alsace is on the German border, but didn’t realize my friends’ home was so close as just 25 km or so from Germany. One day we headed that way and got a tiny taste of lovely German countryside, surprisingly distinct from the Alsatian countryside so nearby. I couldn’t NOT try the traditional chocolate-cherry-whipped cream cake while there. Very simple and quite delightful. Look really forward to going back and exploring the region more.

 

The real deal: Black Forest Cake, in the Black Forest!

Heavens. So many more pictures!! And so many more stories they evoke. But they’ll have to wait for another time. Hope you enjoyed this little sampling.

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Just Wild About Harry’s

I have got to make a point of getting to Vessel sometime in the next week or so. Just got an email reminder that they’re celebrating one of the most venerable drinking establishment in the world–Harry’s Bar–with signature items from their menu (beef carpaccio was created there, so the legend goes) and the quintessential Harry’s libation: the Bellini.

A trip my husband and I took to Italy in 2007 included two major pilgrimages for me. One to the Via Tribunali in Naples (the street after which this Via Tribunali was named) and the other to Harry’s Bar in Venice. The trip came PB (pre-blog) but I briefly recapped the excitement of cocktails and pizza on my then e-newsletter.

My very first trip to Venice had been back in 1985. It was an amazing, inspiring, eye-opening couple of months traveling eastward as far as Istanbul after a semester of study-abroad in Dijon, France. My girlfriend and I had a budget in the roughly $10-a-day range, stayed in cheap-o pensiones and spending as little as possible on food and other indulgences. “Quanto costa una camera per sta sera?” I’d ask into the payphone at each subsequent train station, checking affordability of a room from a listing found in the Let’s Go Europe book. We got berated by a waiter in some restaurant in Venice, having ordered a pizza that we wanted to share; he made it clear pizza’s were NOT to share, instead we had to each order our own.

But budget or no, it didn’t keep our Venice visit from being magical. Rich is every single traveler who gets to cross the myriad bridges arched over the canals. Getting lost in the small twisty lanes that dead-end to yet another canal. Squinting your eyes in Piazza San Marco and pretending it’s 100 years ago. We watched the sleek, romantic gondolas slip past with a sigh.

That few days did, however, leave me with one lingering desire. One that my husband had heard me repeat a few times over the years when the subject of travel to Venice came up in conversation. My wish was to return some day to the glorious city with two things: a man and a credit card. About 22 years after that first visit, I got my wish. Funny thing is, after all that, we never did invest in the iconic gondola ride. Better ways–it ends up–to spend one’s money in Venice!

On that first trip, Harry’s Bar wasn’t even on my radar. Didn’t register as something to dream longingly about for a future visit. But over the years, I did hear and read about the place, its history, the colorful and iconic characters that passed through that glass-paneled doorway. Though I swear that wasn’t the ONLY reason we chose to book a cruise that began and ended in Venice, it sure was a lovely side benefit of the decision. And it meant I got to Harry’s twice, once on each end of the trip.

Hear about a place like Harry’s Bar for long enough and the image becomes grand, your imagination painting an ever more vivid picture. Lavish decor, sweeping spaces, elegant entryway, shiny and perfect. Alas, winding through Venice, finally coming to the Calle Vallaresso and walking toward its end at the Grand Canal, a small simple door with “Harry’s” etched in the glass panel is all that greets you. But it’s enough. Trust me, it’s enough! (I had very much the same impression when I first visited the original Paris location of Le Cordon Bleu cooking school back in 1984. It sounded like such a majestic, important place, I imagined the school to be in a sort of palace with a sweeping drive, grand columns, high doorway into a marbled, polished interior. Instead I was met with a simple blue awning over a nondescript doorway on a somewhat anonymous street. But still my joy at being there, attending an afternoon cooking demonstration and breathing the same air that Julia Child did some decades before: it was priceless.)

So there we were, slipping into one of the dozen or so tables in the bar, actually at Harry’s. Just as Ernest Hemingway, Truman Capote, Orson Welles, Peggy Guggenheim and many others had been. I didn’t care how simple the decor, underwhelming the physical nature of the place. It was a moment to enjoy, feeling generations of characters sitting alongside me.

But I wasn’t about to order a Bellini. For one thing, I never much enjoy a fruity drink. And for another, I hate ordering what everyone else is ordering. I tried to squint while sitting in Harry’s and imagine I was there 60 years earlier with locals and arty expats and nary a tourist in site. But it didn’t quite work. Took so much squinting that my eyes were effectively closed. Truth is, by my count a good 75% or more folks come in, order one very expensive Bellini and head off for one of those even more expensive gondola rides. I opted instead for a Negroni. Gin, Campari, sweet vermouth. Italian, though not from Venice. Far more my speed. Had a couple for good measure. And to justify more people-watching and daydreaming and just reveling in being in such a historic watering-hole.

One item marked “done” off the great life list of culinary to-does. Two when you count that pizza in Naples!

Here’s to a lifelong pursuit of a delicious lift list fulfillment.

Cheers.

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Vancouver Island Trip: Part Two

Ok, so where was I? Ah yes, lounging in my Victoria hotel room on a lazy Saturday. This was the view at one point inVIharbor the morning, typically Victoria: incoming float plane and a Black Ball ferry heading in from Port Angeles. Outgoing whale-watching trip (that bright orange boat center)  and a tugboat on some mission or another. It was late morning by the time I was done with that previous post and I was powerful hungry. We quickly headed off for lunch. (Breakfast consisted of hotel room coffee and the few lingering ginger snaps in the car-snack-supplies bag.)

A quick stroll to circumnavigate the harbor, and we were down on a pier joining others at a very popular lunch spot, Red Fish Blue Fish. This place is all about sustainability, down to the converted shipping container in which the tiny, efficient, friendly restaurant is housed. Sunny, a bit of a breeze, it was a good day to visit the no-frills spot with its outdoor-only seating. You can grab a stool at the bar-type seating toward the back of the pier, but we opted for the squat backless chairs along the pier’s edge, one doubling nicely as a table for two. It was a severe temptation to over-order, but we honed selections down to include the Pacific Rim Chowder (fish, coconut milk, redfishcorn, garlic, hints of chipotle), a 1-piece salmon and chips (huge portion! their hand-cut, twice-fried chips are outstanding, as is the homemade tartar sauce) and spicy Pacific fish sloppy joe (small pieces of fish in a light sauce, with aïoli and lemon pickled onions). Notice the wood utensils offered, definitely no effort spared to keep the environmental footprint to a minimum. Can’t wait to return to try the tacones, barbecued oysters and other selections.

A nice stroll back to the hotel to retrieve the car and we were off for the day’s explorations. Never too early to consider gin, one of my favorite subjects (I’m a big believer in the idea that it’s 5:00 somewhere!). So our first stop was Victoria Spirits, makers of Victoria Gin. They’re located out on the Saanich Peninsula to the north of town (where you also find Butchart Gardens and Sydney, with its busy ferry docks from US and mainland Canada). The drive, once we got off Highway 17, was really lovely, winding through the trees, lots of lovely old homes along the way, sometimes opening up to a field where horses graze. At the end of many of the driveways, we saw tables laden with garden fruit, fresh-cut flowers, garlic,VIgin eggs — with honor-system prices noted. So charming!

Victoria Spirits‘ tasting room is housed on the Winchester Cellars property, a very pretty setting surrounded by trees and garden. Ken Winchester added the gin to the business’ portfolio last year, but he has moved on to new things. The new owners, Brian and Valerie Murray (with a fun-loving bunch of colleagues), carry on the gin tradition, also making a pinot noir eau de vie (loved it! smooth and flavorful). They’ll start work on whiskey later this year, though product won’t be debuted for at least a few years, since it will take an element of aging. And bitters are on the agenda as well! Will look forward to checking in with them again as the months go by.

After a couple judicious sips at Victoria Spirits (while my non-drinking hubby took in the garden surroundings), the next stop was Sea Cider. Just a bit further up the peninsula, almost an apple’s throw from the water, this is one lovely setting for whiling away a good hour of a lovely Saturday afternoon. It’s a new-construction building that looks to have been here for years, though the youthfulness of the apple orchard that spills down toward the water is a give-away that the property’s been in place for just a few years. VIsea2Those trees are able to produce, now, about 30% of the cider-making needs, the rest coming from other sources in British Columbia. Over the years, as the trees mature, the goal will be that Sea Cider will become an “estate” cidery, with all their apple needs coming from this property.

This isn’t a tasting room, per se, where you belly up to the bar and sip little samples of selected products. Instead, the scenario is table-service. Of course, as a first-time visitor looking to take it all in, I couldn’t not order “the long flight,” a generous pour of all nine ciders currently available. My favorites of the ciders were Kings & Spies (made with Kings and Northern Spies apples, brought a bottle home) and Pippins. For an afternoon nibble, we chose the platter for two, a delicious array of things to snack on, including locally made sausages, cured salmon, eggplant salad, and some Moonstruck cheese from Salt Spring Island. Such a pretty, enjoyable setting.VIfox Little surprise they were shooing customers out a bit early that afternoon to get ready for a wedding, a lovely spot to tie the knot.

Sunday morning, and I wanted to venture beyond the hotel for breakfast. A little sleuthing quickly turned up Blue Fox Cafe as a locals’ favorite at this hour of the day, confirmed by the front desk gal who helped us verify where it was on the map. It wasn’t too hard to find Blue Fox, thanks to the small group of folks clustered on the sidewalk in front. It’s a bustling, cozy, colorful little no-reservations place; and they don’t take names on a list, so you just hang out and wait your turn as a pretty regular stream of folks vacate their tables. Our wait was only about 20 minutes; when we left, after noon, the line was at least twice as long.

Bob opted for the lunch side of the menu, a great club sandwich with a generous and flavorful salad alongside.  Huevos Rancheros always jumps out at me from breakfast menus, I went with that for morning sustenance that day. Great staff, friendly and efficient. And they get major gold stars from me for brining a small pitcher of frothed hot milk when I simply asked for milk for my coffee. I can see why this is a Victoria favorite; we’ll surely return on another trip.

VIfeast1Our time on Vancouver Island was capped off in grand style with a Sunday  afternoon at Feast of Fields. I’d been hearing about this annual local-foods indulgence for a number of years, from my friend Mara Jernigan who helped found the event. The fundraiser–in its 12th year–is put on by FarmFolk/CityFolk each September, held on a different Island farm (this year was the only repeat, the event returned to Providence Farm where it had been held in 2003). Check out the cool wine-glass-friendly “plates” on sale for a mere $5: planks of local cedar. Brilliant. And aromatic!

It was one of those perfect mid-September Northwest days: sunny, blue skies, light breeze, warm. About thirty restaurants from various spots in the area were on tap, not to mention a few dozen or more wineries fromVIfeast2 throughout BC. And Victoria Spirits with their gin, some local breweries and a teamonger. No trouble sating ourself with (sometimes return visits for) late summer gazpacho with vodka-pickled Manila clams (Marina Restaurant); blackberry-walnut baklava (Providence Farm); local Red Fife wheat blinis with Cowichan Bay smoked duck (Fairburn Farm); grain fed beef burgers with ale-braised onions (Spinnaker’s Brewpub); pastry cones with wild mushrooms and smoked goats milk crème fraîche (Sooke Harbour House) and even lovely little mini gluten-free wedding cakes (VinCoco Patisserie). Man alive, it was a lovely afternoon of grazing on the farm. So pleased to finally make it to that celebrated event; I highly recommend trying to plan a mid-September trip to the Island to partake.

After the Feast, we settled in at Fairburn Farm for a last night of the trip. Powerhouse Mara was busy at the event for a couple more hours, we sat out on the big porch with another couple from Seattle, shooting the breeze, talking about life and travels and food. Dinner was simple and delicious, family-style pasta with a perfect bolognese-style sauce. And sleep was blissfully sound. Breakfast the next morning was temporarily interrupted by VIbuff2the chance to watch the farm’s herd of water buffalo parading from the field up to the milking barn. We walked up later to visit with some of the young’uns who are still housed in the barn until old enough to join the others. Before long, we were off, heading back to Nanaimo for the ferry trip back to the “real world” on the mainland.

This trip to Vancouver Island had been a long time in coming, more than a few years had slipped by since our last visit–and countless short-lived efforts to work it into the schedule. It was a full and wonderful time. We packed a lot into those five days, maybe a bit too much. For such a relaxing, unwind-inducing place, we didn’t do a whole lot of relaxing and unwinding. But next time. It won’t be five or six more year. And we’ve already got a list going of things to do that trip that didn’t fit into this itinerary.

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Kindness of Keftedes

I was nearly tempted to pick up the phone on Saturday and call in. Rick Steves and his radio-show guest Don George were discussing the kindness of strangers, the subject of a book George had edited. At the mere mention of the theme—influenced, in part, by the travel-show context—I immediately thought of her. A tiny wisp of a woman, in the train car with us at about hour 35 of a rather epic journey that began in Rome and was leading us to Istanbul.

Some day I’m going to write an essay about that train trip. It was summer of the year 1985. Six of us from the  University of Puget Sound had just wrapped up the inaugural year of the school’s study abroad program in Dijon, France. Joanne and I stayed on to travel the summer before heading back for our senior year. She’d spent her senior year of high school in Istanbul and the family’s daughter was to be married that summer. It was an opportunity not to be missed since we were, generally speaking, in the neighborhood. Hindsight? Maybe we should have flown. But that train ride proved to be the most fascinating travel experience of my life, archived in many pages of that summers’ journals. I wouldn’t trade the uncertainties and challenges of the trip for anything. Because there was also music, laughter, adventure. And the kindness of strangers.

It was a long trip, even at first when we thought it was about 40 hours—including the train trip from Rome to Brindisi, an overnight boat trip from there to Patross, train to Athens, another train there to the Greek/Turkish border, yet another train then on into Istanbul. I’ll never forget that moment in the compartment at the end of the car, where the map was. We found the spot on the map showing the Greek town we’d just left. Noted relative distances of how far we’d traveled, how far we had to go. Checked our watches. Did some quick calculations in our heads (a real-life math story problem!). And soon realized we were not going to be arriving when we thought. Ends up there was an extra 24-hour period we failed to notice on the original train scheduled.

Lord a-mighty. We weren’t prepared for a 64 hour trip! Honestly, we were barely prepared for a 40 hour trip. Every last Italian lira was snatched up for an unexpected train supplement, levied onboard. We didn’t get more than a few drachmas in Athens because we weren’t staying in the country, just passing through on the train. Starving, we made a trip to the café car. Our funds afforded us just two very pitiful cheese sandwiches: dry white squares of bread with nothing but nondescript yellow cheese between them.

Tired, frustrated, hungry, we returned to our train compartment—the type with banquette seats, so you’re face to face with fellow travelers. While we gnawed on our sandwiches, the grandmotherly voyager motioned to us. She had a basket packed for her lunch, which included a tin of keftedes, small seasoned balls of ground meat. Handing us each a few, nodding her head insistently, we were wide-eyed with gratitude and surprise at the gesture of her sharing her lunch with us.

I wish we could have done more to thank her than mouth our feeble English words. But her wide smile showed how well she understood.

It’s a kindness I shall always remember. One I wish came to mind more often, though, encouraging me to recognize opportunities in my days when I could pass that kindness along.

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Splurge-Worthy Dining

Sure. The definition of “splurge” has changed for many of us in recent months. But still there are, typically, two flavors of dining out. One: the casual “let’s go grab a bite” occasions or getting together with friends at a favorite spot. And two, those dinners out for which there’s prior planning, scouring web sites for critiques and recommendations, making a primesplurge1 Friday night reservation, considering how comfortable you are with how much dinner’s going to run you.

The splurge meal.

Which is what I thought I was going to read about when flipping through the new Gourmet magazine when I spied an article called “Restaurants Worth the Money.” But quickly scanning the piece I saw lots of hot dogs, some diners, bakery/cafés, places touting bao, burgers, pizza. For the Pacific Northwest, the selections include Tilth, Poppy, Dinette. Three places I really love, but I would have expected to find perhaps Rover’s, Canlis, The Herbfarm instead.

splurge2So I flipped back to the article’s intro and found, indeed, the selections were framed as “great places for spending your hard-earned cash. That means everything from casual Thai joints…to fine restaurants where you’ll have a once-in-a-lifetime meal.” Ultimately, a dining guide that crosses different budget thresholds.

And sure, a few of those latter destinations are featured. The French Laundry in the Napa Valley, Alinea in Chicago, Le Bernardin in New York. Of them, I’ve only been to Le Bernardin, stunningly perfect dining experiences each time.

The piece definitely got me thinking about those meals I’ve enjoyed whensplurge3 the high price was–while still not at the “no object” level–not enough to keep me from walking through the door. (By the way, these photos are from random splurge-worthy meals from recent past: Crush, Le Gourmand, WD-50, Dahlia Lounge, Sun Sui Wah, and Rover’s.)

I’ve already mentioned a couple reliable, splurge-worthy destinations in the Seattle area where we have never been disappointed about the (many) dollars we’ve spent there over the years. Rover’s and The Herbfarm. And while the latter is always a prix-fixe dining experience with a luxurious price tag, Rover’s does offer some less-splurgy options, with à la carte selections and that indulgent Friday lunch.

In Las Vegas, we’ve had more than a few splurge meals, which is only natural in Sin City. Bradley Ogden, Okada and Craftsteak are a few favorites. But I almost had a heart attack last December when approaching the restaurant splurge4chosen for my husband’s birthday dinner (which, annual tradition has it, is always celebrated in Vegas). I’d booked us at L’ Atelier de Joël Robuchon, the 1-star Michelin restaurant I’d also visited in its original Paris location. After checking in at the hostess desk, she gestured to her left, saying “Ma’am, we have you booked next door at Joël Robuchon,” the 3-star glam, sparkly luxe room that would cost us about three times the ticket at L’Atelier. I think she could instantly see my anxiety, and said quickly “…but we’re happy to seat you at L’Atelier.”

It took a glass of Champagne to calm my nerves, but our dinner at L’Ateliersplurge5 was out of this world. Like I said earlier, splurge-worthy dining most always comes with advance planning, mentally shifting into gears for the experience (and expense). I do plan that we’ll dine at Joël Robuchon one of these days, and if there’s any place where it can be spur-of-the-moment, Vegas is it. One more royal flush jackpot and we’ll be there with bells on! (My first such jackpot landed us at Nobu and sipping a bottle of Billecart-Salmon rosé Champagne!) I wasn’t quite prepared for the spontaneous splurge on that snowy night in Vegas last year.

splurge6After all, when budgets and bank balances rule the day, we can’t get so swept up in the anticipation of indulgence as to let spending get out of whack. Which is why I very sadly had to cancel one unique dinner reservation for next month. I didn’t watch much of the Top Chef Masters series, but did catch the last two episodes. Rick Bayless’ winning finale menu was amazing, inspiring. Like many viewers, I just stared at the screen thinking “Man, I want some of that!” So when Rick tweeted that he was going to be making the winning menu available at his Chicago restaurant Tompolobampo for a couple of months, I was lickity-split online and booked a table. Then reality slowly crept in. Plane tickets. Hotel rooms. Other random costs of being on the road even for just a couple of days. It was starting to add up to a $1000 prospect, that delicious dinner. A little to hard to justify right now, dang it.

Not every splurge-worthy meal needs to be a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Nor does it necessarily need to carry a big price tag, as the Gourmet piece well states. Fact is, we rarely hit the high-end steakhouses in town any more, “indulging” instead at the more relaxed, bustling, wallet-friendly JaK’s in our neighborhood.

Food worth the money, at any price. For those of us who live to eat, I guess the yardstick’s always there, measuring the value, whether it’s a $9 reuben sandwich or a $125 tasting menu. What it is for you, that meal you count on being great, no matter what it costs?

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On the Road: Denver Highlights

Still in a bit of a fog following a very full week in Denver last week for the IACP conference. Much as we have opportunities to get out on the town for meals and excursions, cocktails and random breaks — it never really feels like I’m able to do justice to a city when passing through for a conference.

It’s the nature of the exercise, I suppose. The time we spend together at the keynote presentations (with luminaries this year the likes of Dan Barber, Mas Masumoto, Michel Nichan, Kim Jordan…and Lynne Rosetto Kasper and Kim Severson served as amazing moderators), workshops and formal denvchic1events are the core of what give us the opportunity to interact and network, catch up with friends and learn together new skills and information to help us in our careers. I can always return to Denver to visit the Denver Art Museum (our opening reception was there but I didn’t make it around to see much of the artwork) and walk the Cherry Creek path.

denvchic2So here are some highlight of what I was able to see/do/taste while in town.

I took a wonderful day-long excursion to Chico Basin Ranch, an 87,000 acre property that raises grass-fed beef. One of the state’s largest historical ranches (herds of cattle have been grazing here since the late 1800s), they do things the old fashioned way on this property. Not only do they raise their cattle on natural grasses (the animals never see a feedlot nor are ever fed grain), ranch manager Duke Phillips and his crew also travel on horseback to do the day’s work. No jumping in a jeep or SUV to cover the 5 or 6 miles to where the herd is. Guests can join them for a week of working the ranch and living that timeless western lifestyle. “But this isn’t a dude ranch,” Duke was quick to point out. No 3-star meals or afternoon hot-denvchic3stone massages. But the picnic we had of the ranch’s grass-fed beef–in burger form, cooked over cottonwood coals–was amazing.

Denver’s restaurants definitely didn’t disappoint. I was solo the first evening, and walked from my downtown hotel to Fruition restaurant, in a residential  area that apparently touches three neighborhoods: Cherry Creek, Capitol Hill and Cheeseman Park. I loved the simplicity of the interior, the rich colors, the casual style of the place. It’s clearly a locals spot: a couple celebrating the wife’s birthday, friends meeting denvfruitover dinner, maybe even a first date or two. Though not as bustling as Restaurant Zoë tends to be, Fruition reminded me of that neighborhood bistro in Seattle that I so adore. Dinner began with the house salad: watercress, grilled asparagus, red onion, avocado and crispy shallots (what’s not delicious with avocado and crispy shallots?).  For my main, I was enchanted by the brussels sprout-sweetbread accompaniment to the beef culotte steak, but am kind of kicking myself for not ordering the Colorado lamb with boulangere potatoes and blood orange salad. And the rabbit pot pie sounded a bit too rich that evening. Next trip!! I suggested those dishes to colleagues visiting Fruition later in the week and all raved.

My next dinner out was with a big group at Duo restaurant. A quick cab ride into the Highland neighborhood, and we’re walking into this cool open space with rustic brick walls and old windows hanging as arty dividers. We snacked denvduo1on their salmon and smoked trout tartare, fried baby artichokes with lemon aïoli and arugula salad with shaved fennel, fava beans and mint — all delicious. And it could have been dinner. It was late and we were chatting about how easily appetizer-grazing could be dinner that night. But soon as the entrées arrived, we dug in with gusto anyway. Being from Seattle, I didn’t order the night’s special: wild Alaska halibut with herbed aïoli. This dish was the perfect snapshot of spring, served on a bed of braised seasonal vegetables (radish, carrot, baby onions, peas, fingerlings). The herb aïoli was so delicious–like a ramped-up béarnaise–we asked for a couple small side dishes of it to slather on everything we were eating. I opted for the lamb T-bone served with farro and baby artichoke pilaf, outstanding too.

Let’s see. The next evening, four of us went out to Root Down, one of the newer kids on the block, open just four months. But the very hip, very local spot still garnered one of the slots at the conference’s opening reception, denvroot1where their beet flan and the carrot-red curry soup had lots of us talking. It was great to go to the source to try as many other dishes as we could manage. The room was a total buzz, lots of youthful vitality. And while IACP members seem to take over most of the great restaurants when we’re in town for a conference, we didn’t notice any of our colleagues at RD that night, so felt a bit like we were in on a locals’ secret! Sharing all around, we ordered the winter panzanella (carrots, parsnips, arugula, frisee, goat cheese…yum), rice crispy calamari with fried lemons and tomato-chile salsa (so tasty), buffalo sliders with shiitake relish (very good) and a big fat pork chop with cheddar polenta and fennel-tomato sofrito. Every bite was flavorful and so satisfying. Our only disappointment was that they didn’t have the banana crème brûlée pie available that night. (Yet another reason to return to Denver.) We made do with housemade ice cream, peanut butter and banana flavors (the latter a bit bland).

Wow, quite a week of wonderful dining. Rioja was next on the list, my last out in Denver. They also were part of the conference’s opening, where I (and denvrioja1many others) swooned over the arugula ravioli with (I believe) a walnut-cream sauce. Pasta was the highlight of my dinner at Rioja on Friday, the tortelloni filled with artichoke-goat cheese mousse, in an artichoke broth, topped with fried artichoke slivers, queso de mano cheese and truffle oil…? Wow. Other dishes were good, interesting, but didn’t stand out as quite as distinctive as items sampled at other restaurants of the week.

The days were too long to squeeze in too many nightcaps before crashing in bed (with hopes of getting at least 4 or 5 hours of sleep). But one intrepid pal and I capped off Friday with a visit to the nearby historic Oxford Hotel and denvoxhoteltheir cool deco bar, The Cruise Room. That’s “cruise” as in cruise ship, I understand the long slender bar was designed to appear as if it might be aboard the Queen Mary. Mellow, sexy, arty, timeless, it was a great spot to toast the near-end of conference week.

The grand finale of the week was the IACP awards gala on Saturday. I was thrilled to see friends with nominations, including Puff by Martha  Holmberg (more on that later….I’m going to see if I remember how to make puff pastry from cooking school!) and Fat: An Appreciation of a Misunderstood Ingredient, With Recipes by Jennifer McLagan (which won its category, beating out Thomas Keller and Jacques Torres — go Jennifer!!). You can check out both the finalists and the winners here. What a week. But it’s great to be home.

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