Sunday, November 11, 2012

Touristy Key West - Hemingway would be appalled

Occasional glimpses of the old Key West
If you really, really, really! concentrate and get to your inner self and use your imagination you might feel a bit of the funky, laid back, American writers in Paris in the 20’s feel if you skirt the masses, stick to the back streets, avoid weekends and high season, and tour Ernest Hemingway’s house.   And it is quite pleasant to eat in one of the many open-air Caribbean style bar-like restaurants.  And I suppose the hordes and busloads of tourists carousing and shopping and eating their way ala Las Vegas and New Orleans is just an evolutionary jump but one that I wish hadn’t been made.   I will try to find movies filmed in Key West during a more “traditional” time period and just pretend.   (The Rose Tattoo, Beneath the 12 Mile Reef, License to Kill, PT 109, perhaps will take me back.)

However, if you go:  Like New Orleans and Austin, Texas, I have a feeling there are some real gems to be found if one concentrates on music and investigates and checks out the various bars and restaurants with live bands and performers.  And as I’ve mentioned, Hemingway’s house is fascinating and the tour is a must do.  There are 40 cats in residence and many are descendants of the original six-toed (or polydactyl) cat named Snowball, which was given to Hemingway by a ship captain.   Apparently six toed cats were considered good luck on ships. These cats roam the property and seem to own the place.

The Conch Republic Seafood Company overlooking the docks right in the middle of town is a great stop for lunch. Good food and atmosphere.

Fun Facts: 
  • The highway that ends in Key West at Mile Market “0”, US Highway One, is 2,209 miles long and runs from Fort Kent in Maine.
  • The nearest Wal-Mart is 126 miles away.
  • Key West is the southernmost city in the United States. The city is closer to Cuba than it is to Miami.

Friday, November 9, 2012


I highly recommend the tours at Monticello.  On our recent visit the guide was fabulous – engaging and poignant and obviously a scholar and admirer of Thomas Jefferson.  We were almost crying at the end of the tour.   The tour guides do an excellent job of presenting the environment in which Jefferson and other southern landowners lived and the contradictions and nuances of the institution of slavery in the south. 

The countryside around Monticello is lovely especially in this fall season and there are so many interesting stops in close proximity.  After visiting Monticello, we continued on down the road a few miles on Route 53 to Jefferson Vineyards for a short picnic, then on a few miles more to Ash Lawn, President James Monroe’s home (he used to visit Jefferson by horseback), and then just a few miles further to Trump Winery to see what the new Trump owners have done to the beautiful former John Kluge Estate.  The wine is not very good (our opinion only…) but the setting and the tasting area is lovely.  We did not get a chance to visit Dave Matthews' (yes the singer) vineyard - Bleinheim Vineyard -  right around the corner.   Next time.

For dinner - Hamiltons' on the Mall in downtown Charlottesville is excellent. The menu changes often to take advantage of fresh and seasonal ingredients.  My blue-plate vegetarian plate was perfect.  (I feel that any restaurant that can do a tasty and elegant vegetarian entrée definitely has a leg up on competitors.)  The crab cakes with pickled okra and crispy bell pepper polenta was memorable.  And Charlottesville’s downtown pedestrian mall is quaint, charming, lively and fun with cute boutiques and shops.

Sunday, September 30, 2012

Coming Home to an Empty Refrigerator - Ugh

You know the feeling: you are coming home from the airport after a long trip and flight, there is not much in the refrigerator and you are not looking forward to a grocery run. But you at least need milk for tomorrow morning's coffee. And if you are like me, you just can't get too excited about a bowl of cereal for dinner. Even though really, tomorrow will be another day and a better meal. Just one evening without something tasty should be ok?  No No.  Not to be.  Can't do it.

This time, coming home by myself to an empty house, I do walk to the store to get milk and while there, pick up some romaine hearts.  I know I have cans of tuna, pasta and capers always in the pantry and fresh lemons always in the refrigerator or freezer, so I plan on a quick pasta with tuna for dinner.

A quick Ceasar salad on the side and everything is right again and I feel at home.  I can wait til tomorrow for that major grocery trip.

Pasta with Tuna and Capers
(Serves one)

1/4 pd. spaghetti or penne 
1/4 cup good olive oil
3 garlic cloves - thinly sliced
1-2 teaspoons rinsed capers
3/4 can albacore tuna packed in water
Freshly ground black pepper
1/4 cup chopped parsley (if you have it)
Lemon wedge (if you have it)
Shredded Parmesan (if you like)

While cooking the pasta, heat the olive oil in a small skillet, add the garlic and let simmer in the oil for a minute or two.  Don't brown.  Add the capers, tuna and heat through.  Fold in pasta and top with pepper to taste, parsley and a squeeze of lemon.  

Quick Ceasar Salad
(Serves one)

Wash the romaine hearts, dry, then keep in refrigerator to chill until you are ready to eat.

Crush 1 garlic clove and mix with 1 teaspoon dijon mustard, a scant 1/4 cup fresh lemon juice (I keep quarters of frozen lemons in the freezer in case I am out of fresh lemons) and 1/2 teaspoon anchovy paste (I always keep a tube in the refrigerator).  Whisk in 1/3 cup olive oil.  Serve on romaine leaves with freshly ground pepper and shredded Parmesan.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

An Appetizer For An impromptu Dinner Party - or for Hungry Teenage Boys

A charcuterie platter like the one at Spruce that I highlighted in my last blog entry is an inviting casual dinner party appetizer but an even simpler one that I often put together is a prosciutto platter.  Simply cover an attractive platter with thin slices of prosciutto and accompany with a bowl of cornichons, a slab of butter, a trio of varied salts, and a basket of fresh bread slices.  (Either an Italian or, surprisingly, a good rye bread are both great with the prosciutto).

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Charcuterie and Brioche and Caviar - what more could you want?

A lovely birthday dinner in San Francisco

Spruce is known for their charcuterie and so we of course start with an assortment to share as an appetizer.  (I will start recreating this platter for dinners at home all the time.  It’s easy to assemble at the last minute and the presentation is lovely.)  Spruce includes about 5 varieties of sliced hams and beef (including bresaola, prosciutto, and beef tongue), a small pot of pâté, sliced cornichons, a small lettuce salad garnish, and a delicious fruit preserve. 

We splurge on an order of the California Osetra Caviar.  I didn’t know there was caviar from California.   We are certainly not every day aficionados but we are impressed with the taste and try to restrain ourselves so as to make sure we all get about the same amount.  The brioche toast accompaniment (along with the traditional blinis) is devine and I now want to have brioche toast every morning, with the crust cut off.

The service - a bit too attentive.  There seem to be two wine sommeliers and while our waiter is lovely, we keep getting interrupted while we are eating or talking to make sure “everything is ok?”.  But not a biggie – we feel very cared for.  And at least our waiter doesn’t tell us his name and so fortunately we don’t have to slash his tip.  I love my white corn soup with huitlacoche and coriander cereal.  The main courses are quite good – especially the brioche crusted halibut.   (Again that amazing brioche.)  This is a very pricey evening out.  On first reflection I think I would like to save my fine dining dollars for the top of the line establishments.  On second reflection, the total cost is not bad given that we splurge on caviar and enjoy some lovely wine.

(Huitlacoche - sounds so lovely.  It was delicious in the corn soup but now I know what it is and I am not sure I can eat it again.  Knowledge is often not a good thing.   Don't check out these links if you would rather just enjoy the taste next time you have an opportunity.....Spoiler Alert!!)

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Day Trip to Charleston, S.C.

I must say the best part of our trip was getting there.  On the recent 2-hour drive from Hilton Head our family took turns suggesting songs we wanted to hear.  My son played each of our choices from Spotify (through his IPhone) and we had hilarious and poignant moments critiquing, complaining about or enjoying each other’s song choices.  Most memorable song – Empire State of Mind by Jay-Z.  I personally love this song but can't understand all the words.  So our son googled the lyrics and gave us an engaging reading of this very intriguing rap song.

Kudu Coffeeshop
One of many cute boutiques
Fleet Landing
Everyone is so darned nice and welcoming in Charleston.  We loved driving by the beautiful mansions in the Battery, visiting Charleston’s historic City Hall and its beautiful art and hearing from the very knowledgeable docent the story surrounding John Trumbull’s portrait of George Washington (I can’t ruin the story in case you go…), lunch on the waterfront at Fleet Landing (great food – don’t let the industrial looking location put you off), coffee at Kudu's,  and shopping the cute boutiques on King Street.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

The New Napa?

Albemarle County, Virginia has become quite the grape growing area - which would so please Mr. Jefferson as he is considered by many to be “the greatest patron of wine and wine growing that this country has yet had”.  You won’t find the breadth of good wines we do in California but there are notable standouts and the area’s wineries have been winning more and more awards in national competitions.   Think a history and wine trip to the area - sounds pretty perfect.

Over half of Virginia's vineyard acres are within the MVA - Monticello Viticultural Area - and most of the wineries in the MVA are within an easy drive from Charlottesville and only a two hour drive from Washington D.C.  The Monticello Wine Trail website has great information on visiting wineries in the area and beautiful pictures to pique one's interest.

Thomas Jefferson did many things so very well.  He was a true renaissance man.  His beloved home, Monticello, and his university, the University of Virginia, are both listed on Unesco's World Heritage List.  I am confident one day Virginia will make him even more proud and become a prime destination for wine lovers throughout the world.

Zinc Open Kitchen
But one must eat when touring and drinking wine.  There are some great restaurants in Charlottesville as one would expect from this horse country, university town, wine mecca, and world famous history center....  On this most recent visit we try Zinc.  We love it.  The setting is a former gas station with the former service bays providing funky decor and windows.  The wines and cocktails and glassware are enticing.  I love the charcuterie plate, the seasonal cold soup, the mussels, the duck.  Local ingredients and fresh local produce are in abundance.   It is quite obvious that the chef and staff are professionals and care deeply about their restaurant and I can tell this will be a repeat restaurant for us when we are in town.

Friday, August 10, 2012

My Mom’s Homemade Chocolate Ice Cream – it’s the best ever

I do think life moves slower in the south.  And I think weather has much to do with it.  Languid, hot, humid, cloudy much of the times, thunderstorms, lighting.  We love it!  At least for a few weeks at a time life is simple and delicious.  We have been looking forward to my Dad’s homegrown tomatoes and we eat 100’s of them.  The silver queen corn is the best ever and we gorge ourselves.  My Mom’s homemade chocolate ice cream recipe – it’s the best ever. 
Homemade Chocolate Ice Cream
    • 2 cups sugar
    • 1 can evaporated milk
    • 1 can Hershey’s chocolate sauce
    • ¼ cup maple syrup
    • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
    • 1 gallon whole milk
    • 6 junket tablets (I have to order them in Ca. – can’t seem to find them at the stores…)
(Plus ice and ice cream salt for the ice cream freezer)

Bring to a slight boil the sugar, chocolate sauce and evaporated milk in saucepan. Stir til sugar dissolves.  Stir in maple syrup and vanilla extract.  If you have time and can wait, chill this mixture in refrigerator.  This will save processing time in the ice cream maker.

Soak 6 junket tables in about ¼ cup warm water until dissolved.  Add to chocolate mixture.   Pour into ice cream freezer, add the milk, and process according to the ice cream maker’s instructions.  
My Mom thought the ice cream was best right after it was made.  I like it best the next day, after it has hardened a bit more in the freezer. 

Monday, August 6, 2012

Renaissance Man

 Soon after leaving Dulles airport, the consistent green gives way to varying shades of greens and blues.  The light blue of the much taller Appalachian Mountains further west highlights the dark blue of the Blue Ridge Mountains in the near distance.  Only about 25 minutes after leaving Dulles, we spot the beautiful, compact Charlottesville airport that has been designed in the Jeffersonian style.   
Rotunda undergoing renovations
Jefferson's Ingenious Serpentine Walls
Charlottesville is Thomas Jefferson’s town; excuse me, that’s “Mr. Jefferson”.  Natives still use the respectful salutation.  I grew up with the great man’s accomplishments all around me.  The home he took such pains to build, Monticello,  where you can see examples of his many inventions and innovations, is 2 miles to the south overlooking the University that he founded and designed.  The Rotunda and the “Lawn” at the University of Virginia are working examples of Mr. Jefferson’s vision in creating a functional but beautiful educational environment.  

Mr. Jefferson’s tombstone at Monticello has this epitaph he wrote for himself and in which he purposefully neglected to mention being the governor of Virginia, or Vice President and President of the United States, but including those things he thought were most important:
  “Here was buried Thomas Jefferson, Author of the Declaration of American Independence, of the Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom, and Father of the University of Virginia.” 

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Brooklyn Gastronomica

Ok, so now I read in the New York Times that the Manhattan restaurant I have raved about -  Eleven Madison Park (see my previous entry) is working to up their game even more.  I'm impressed that they are not resting on their laurels and continuing to innovate.  I suppose that is necessary in this high tech, ever changing world we live in.

I know Brooklyn also has some great restaurants but this trip we were cooking in and so went with our native in the know family members and head to Faicco’s for pork sausage (for a pasta sauce), and the homemade mozzarella and the cheese and fennel pork ring  (for appetizers).  What a beautiful meat counter and I love watching the pork artists at work in their storefront kitchen.  And for dessert – of course the traditional Italian cookies from Mona Lisa’s. 

On the way back from shopping we drive by “Police Commissioner Reagan’s” house from our most favorite TV show - Blue Bloods.  They don’t film actually in this house but a fun drive by to see the house front they use in the show. 

The five boroughs of New York City.  Fun facts to know.

One of the True Heartlands of America

I am at Breezy Point in the Rockaways, New York City.  I just read Tick Tock - a James Patterson (and Michael Ledwidge) thriller that is set here.  It’s a great summer beach read!  

Breezy Point is on a narrow island near the entrance to New York Harbor.   Even though not in the middle of the country, this close knit Irish/Catholic beach bungalow enclave is one of the true heartlands of America.  At every turn there are memorials to the police and fireman from Breezy who died on 9/11, American flags line the boardwalk and streets, and the fireworks on the 4th of July are incredible.  

I’ve been coming here for decades with my husband’s family and have become more and more appreciative of this special slice of life.  I’ve even come to love those darned federally protected plover birds who often dive bomb you as you make your way through a virtual gauntlet on the way to the beach. 

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Alabama Jacks, Key Largo, Florida

Not a destination place but if you are in the area...

Forty miles south of Miami, on Card Sound Road, which connects mainland Florida with upper Key Largo, you’ll come to an open air shack-like structure in the middle of miles of mangroves, swamps and canals.  The food is not all that great, there are birds waiting for a bite, and good luck if it is crowded and you need the restroom.  But otherwise, this is a must stop.   Sort of a cross between a biker bar (but not many bikes – just lots of boats pulling up to stop for lunch or a drink) and a country western bar (there is usually a band playing and unique and quite! interesting characters dancing).  Lots of tourists and locals.   Try the conch fritters.

Friday, July 6, 2012

Eleven Madison Park

Is it worth it?  Yes!!!

Last summer we treated our family to Per Se.  And we all thought it was fabulous.   This summer our treat was Eleven Madison Park,  another 3 Michelin Star NYC restaurant and one of the top 10 restaurants in the world  (# 3 in the U.S.)  It was fabulous times two.  Of course Eleven Madison Park has a bit of an advantage, as we are still under the influence of the tastes and nuances of this more recent dining experience.  We of course just had to do the eight course tasting menu – no decisions to be made.  I am sometimes a bit apprehensive giving myself up totally to the dictates of the Chef.   And I typically don’t expect to appreciate and enjoy every course.   But I loved every one of the 15 or so (I stopped counting after a bit) treats we were served.  Every course was a small quantity of a very big taste.  I am now a devotee of Chef Daniel Humm.

I am still relishing the taste of the savory Parmesan and black truffle “black and white” cookies in a beautiful box with which we were presented on seating.   Then an amazing tomato tea with striking lemon thyme garnish, several so tasty seafood amuse bouches, an innovative clambake course complete with seaweed and rocks, an amazing foie gras course with a raspberry paté and a mint paté, a lobster course which highlighted the simply elegant taste of the lobster while still providing innovative garnishes, a duck course, an exquisite egg cream made tableside, and on and on. 

I can’t wait to go back!

Thursday, May 10, 2012

At Home

I have always felt a bit out of sorts when I return home to a sparse refrigerator after traveling.  I fill it up a bit but it never has a homey look until I get too much stuff in there and then it just looks junky.  I was at a friend's house yesterday and her refrigerator looked so appealing - it was packed with food but she also had a pretty mug filled with herbs on the shelf.  It was very appealing.   I immediately came home and put herbs on several shelves.  Seems like such a small thing but as much as I open the refrigerator during the day this is a huge boost for my endorphins.

Friday, May 4, 2012

ABC Kitchen - NYC

New York remains what it has always been: a city of ebb and flow, a city of constant shifts of population and economics, a city of virtually no rest. It is harsh, dirty, and dangerous, it is whimsical and fanciful, it is beautiful and soaring – it is not one or another of these things but all of them, all at once, and to fail to accept this paradox is to deny the reality of city existence. -Paul Goldberger  (Former architecture critic for The New Yorker, now a Contributing Editor at Vanity Fair)

I start out in the early evening while the city is still bustling and am looking forward to the long walk from the East 50’s to the Flat Iron district where I will meet up with my daughter at a restaurant she has wanted to try.   I have always enjoyed walking in Manhattan. Finding one’s way is easy – it is a grid, and you always feel safe with so many people about.  As usual, I start out feeling great about the city and vibrant and exhilarated.  But starting around 5 or 6 blocks out I become increasingly cranky.  I soon tire of what used to be almost a game for me - strategizing my path through the multitudes of humanity without having to break my stride or give up too much my “way”.   The constant din soon turns from what I used to relish as the “sounds of the city” to a guttural cacophony of blaring sirens and honks and car noises.  The storefronts start to lose their weathered charm.  By the time I arrive at ABC Kitchen I am wondering why I continue to come back to New York and am thinking I should convince my daughter that she should have had enough of the Big City at this point.    I change my shoes on the little bench (interesting bench - simply lovely) outside the restaurant’s fairly non descript window front and go in.

This I suppose is what I love about New York and keeps me coming back.  In a split second all is forgiven as we enter this haven.  Yes this is a city of highs and lows, the best and the brightest and the downtrodden and degenerate, magnificent art and music and filth and piled up trash, "if you can make it here you can make it anywhere".  Ok enough, I’ll stop.

ABC Kitchen is not one of New York’s top “fine dining” spots but it is so very unique and just another sample of what striving for the newest and best can bring into this city. 

The restaurant is a large loft like structure with what I am pretty sure are non structural wooden beams spanning across different sections of the open room, accompanied by a plethora of varied lighting either hanging from ropes or rods from the beams, or chandeliers highlighting various corners of the room.   The effect creates an absolutely hip, romantic, atmospheric eating palette. 

The vision for the restaurant is to offer the freshest organic and local ingredients possible, to use salvaged, reclaimed, or recycled building materials for the décor, homemade porcelain dinnerware by local artisan Jan Burtz for the table, bread baskets handcrafted by the indigenous mapuche people of Patagonia, etc. etc.   The effect is stunning.

We start with rhubarb and lime mimosas (all drinks of course feature seasonal ingredients and this is rhubarb season…) I am a bit skeptical as I detest rhubarb but the mimosas are delicious. 

Then we try a lovely pea soup made even more delicious served in Jan Burtz’ porcelain bowls,  crab toasts (just so-so),  a roasted beet salad with housemade yogurt, a delicious homemade ricotta ravioli in the freshest and tastiest tomato sauce I’ve had for some time, and roasted lobster with a spicy vinaigrette.

The food flavors are obviously achieved with fresh seasonal produce and fresh herbs as opposed to an overdose of butter, oil and salt.

Conclusion:  Pricey (but using the best and freshest ingredients is pricey); not over the top gourmet but good fresh flavors;  a special and well done décor.  Oh! -  and the ABC store that is attached is a must see - furniture, lighting, kitchen and tabletop items in a 5 story building.

Until my next visit....

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

L'Arte di Mangiare Bene, NYC

L'ARTUSI Restaurant

We would never have ventured into the West Village Area when we lived here 25 years ago.  Now it is the! place.  I will come back here tomorrow and roam 10th St. and shop in the cute, cute, cute boutiques.

L'Artusi  - trendy, nouvelle? Italian.  Seems like an in place.   The noise level is high.  The waiters are great.   Food is very good, very fresh.  We had a raw hamachi appetizer, roasted mushrooms with a fried egg on top, a lovely beet salad, several nicely done pastas and a new age cod dish, a delicious Budino dessert (chocolate pudding with a créme fraîche like topping - excellent), and well done cappaccinos. Everything was delicious but I am still searching for that perfect pasta. 

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Schnitzel in New York

My son emailed me today from NYC:   

"So last night I was watching a food network show on the best food trucks around the country. I saw a truck in New York, Schnitzel and Things, and was extremely intrigued. They serve various schnitzels, along with sides, and it's apparently very good;  they have even opened up a small restaurant around 45th St. in addition to the truck. I checked out the truck's schedule and found that it was going to be at 27th and Park today so I had to try it.  I got the Chicken Schnitzel platter with beet and feta salad and fries, with a spicy sriracha mayo sauce. Very good, albeit unhealthy. Might be a good thing to try next time you are in New York!"

It used to be that "a dirty water dog" from the local food cart was a fast and cheap lunch.  Today gourmet food trucks seem to be destinations in their own right - especially in New York City.  What's next?   Caviar and blini on the corner?  Paté de campagne and cornichons on Columbus?

I checked out the menu for Schnitzel and Things and it looks amazing and real competition for the original.   Check out my blog entry on the schnitzel in the birthplace of schnitzel - Austria.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Easter Weekend in New York City - continued

Simply stylish and modern – as you would expect from this Michelin One Star fine dining restaurant at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.   Glass, white, and shades of grey are punctuated with purple floral arrangements.  This very “modern” dining room overlooks the outdoor Abby Rockefeller Sculpture Garden back dropped by a 4 -5 story New York skyline.   This is a true visual oasis in the heart of the city.

Oysters "En Pannequet"
There is a prix fixe menu with numerous choices for each of the four courses.  Everything is artfully presented and visually appealing. Service is plentiful but unobtrusive.  Of course there are plenty of amuse bouches and at the end of the dinner a lovely chocolate cart with a plethora of homemade chocolates.  The wine list is excellent – we try a 2009 Talley Olive Chardonnay and a 2008 Merry Edwards Pinot Noir from Russian River, Ca.   As for the food:  some of the dishes are excellent and amongst the five of us we try almost everything on the menu. And again, the presentation is artful.   But many of the dishes are just ok from a taste standpoint.  For example, I keep thinking I would much prefer a simple grilled lobster tail with a lemon butter dipping sauce as I try to savor my Slow-Roasted Maine Lobster Tail with Caramelized Turnips and Ginger-Tamarind Jus.  And I am dreaming of simple raw oysters in the shell with a touch of shallot mignonette sauce as I labor through my Kumamoto Oysters “En Pannequet” - oysters wrapped in some sort of green leaf and smothered in some sort of red sauce. Ok, all is not lost – the Jerusalem Artichoke Soup with Black Winter Truffle and Rye Bread Crouton is excellent.

Can't I Get to a Real Show??

I have been trying to get to a Broadway play during the past year but have yet to make time.   Hours, Death of a Salesman, and The Book of Mormon are still on my list.   But we are subjected to much street theatre as we roam the city.   Not exactly the same for sure.   And I think I do not need to worry about copyright protection on these…

World Trade Center Memorial
Must see, must see.  Poignant and fascinating.   The site is still undergoing renovation and the new visitor’s center is still under construction but that’s ok.  Go now and again later when all is complete.  Free entrance but you must reserve tickets ahead of time.   Layers of symbolism and poignant reminders of that fateful day, the people who died and the collapse of the awe inspiring Twin Towers.  

The controversies surrounding the site and the memorial seem to have calmed down a bit.  I find the young Israeli architect Michael Arad’s design entitled “Reflecting Absence” solicits much discussion and interpretation. The two pools that comprise the memorial sit on the footprints of the twin towers, both with waterfalls cascading into a black void.  We visit the memorial on Easter Sunday, an appropriate time and place for reflection on this special morning.  I am told you must also visit at night for an entirely different and perhaps even more inspiring experience because of the lights.  Whenever you go, make sure to talk to and listen to the park rangers as they answer questions.  They are a wealth of knowledge.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Easter Weekend in New York City - Day One

The Setai Hotel – (managed by the Capella Group)
Great hotel!  I highly recommend the Setai even though the location is a bit of a good news/bad news story.  The good news:  the location is in the heart of mid-town and within walking distance on the south side to what some say is the the new center of gravity for the city - Union Square, Madison Square, the Meatpacking District, Soho, Greenwich village, and the West Village - and on the north side within walking distance to the Fifth Avenue shopping district and the theatre district.  The bad news is that the hotel is located a block away from the Empire State building and all the buses and tourists and hawkers that are of course in abundance at this famous site.  But it is a holiday weekend…

The rooms are furnished in shades of wood, white and grey.  I am not sure why it all fits together as it seems effortless.  But suffice it to say that our room is very soothing – I feel so comfortable and comforted staying here.   We have a junior king suite which is one large room with a sitting area with very large and lovely bathroom and closets.   Our view is not ideal by any means but we do have a very appealing “4th night free” rate so I can’t complain.

Service is impeccable.  And the doormen will be happy to radio the driver of the Maserati to take you anywhere in the city.  Yes, this is quite a marketing technique.  The hotel owns a Maserati (comes with a driver) that can be used by any guest  (first come first served, free of charge). We were able to use it twice.  To be honest this perk is a bit lost on me – the car seems like a normal small sedan.  But for people who know their cars at all this would be a nice perk for staying here.

The Morgan
Our first morning we walk just around the corner to the Morgan Library and Museum.  I have never developed a great appreciation for museums; however, I do enjoy art collections located in former mansions or homes.

J. P. Morgan, a leading banker in the 1800’s, was also a serious collector of books and art.  He wanted to rival the holdings of renowned European libraries.  Over the last century, the Morgan has expanded to incorporate three historical buildings with three new modern glass pavilions to house the growing collection.  A highlight is J. P. Morgan’s original library that he had designed to house his collection of rare books and manuscripts.  

The Museum of the City of New York
I think we’ll get our museum activity out of the way today so we can move on tomorrow to more exciting things… So after a lovely lunch with friends on the Upper East Side we walk from there to a museum I actually really want to check out.  The Museum of the City of New York at 103rd Street and Fifth Avenue has an exhibit entitled: “The Greatest Grid:  The Master Plan of Manhattan, 1811-2011”.   I love looking at the history of a city through pictures and maps.  However, I am a bit disappointed in this exhibit -  I was hoping it would have more in the way of photography or pictures showing the different time periods of the city.  I enjoyed much more another exhibit we happened onto: “Cecil Beaton: The New York Years”.  Amazing photographs by this British photographer and socialite of celebrities in the early 1920’s – check some out here.

This evening we traverse New York again and meet up with good friends for dinner in their neighborhood on the Upper West Side.  Spiga is a charming, intimate, warm,  neighborhood gem which makes it also perfect as a destination restaurant.   The warm artichoke and pistachio salad is a must have.  My homemade pasta with sausage and an artichoke pesto sauce is excellent.  This is a small restaurant so reservations are essential.

Monday, April 9, 2012

24 Hours in DC - continued

This morning helicopters are continuing to fly everywhere – quite a busy city today.  It is gorgeous out and the cherry blossoms are not quite ready but the earlier budding magnolias provide a nice backdrop.   I walk down the Mall to the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial – it is perfectly positioned on the Tidal Pool across from the Jefferson Memorial (my personal favorite).  This is my first time at the new MLK memorial, completed in the fall of 2011.    I love how each of the different DC memorials exhibit a different tone and theme and style.  The reviews of the new MLK memorial suggest that the large King statue carved into stone is almost Stalin looking.  I have to agree.
King’s famous “I have a dream” speech was delivered right across the road at the Lincoln Memorial in 1963.   I get goose bumps whenever I hear this speech and especially when I watch the video.  It is one of the most moving and poignant pieces of oratory I have ever heard.  I was going to include a link to the video here.   I remember the speech being commonly available in the public domain in the past but apparently no more.  The King estate sued CBS in 1996 claiming copyright protection and the case was settled for an undisclosed sum of money.  Now the video of the speech is only legally available through the estate’s website for a fee and it will remain under copyright protection until 2038 - 70 years after King’s death.  Quite a controversy…

This is a beautiful city in the spring and these few days are bringing back memories of some of my most favorite things to do when we lived in this area years ago:  
  • biking - the best bike paths ever.  You can travel off road all the way from Mount Vernon, Va. (President George Washington’s home), through Old Town Alexandria, past Reagan airport (stopping to sit for a bit and watch the planes land right over your head at the end of the runway) on through Georgetown  (stopping for a margarita at Washington Harbor) and on as far as you want all the way to Harper’s Ferry and beyond, along the C&O Towpath.  
  • renting a paddle boat on the Tidal Basin
  • visiting the monuments at night.   

Saturday, March 24, 2012

24 Hours in DC

I am tagging along on a business trip with my husband before we go off on a mini vacation and only have 24 hours. I do love DC. When I visit New York I feel I should be working to make a billion dollars, or to be the head of a huge conglomerate, or perhaps to be a famous opera singer at the Met. When I’m in DC I would be very happy to get a cup of coffee for someone who works at the White House or the West Wing.

We are at the Hay Adams Hotel.  What a perfect location just on the other side of Lafayette Square from the White House.  So I of course wander through Lafayette Square a bit and absorb some of the power vibes emanating from the White House.   I also love the feeling of knowing there are secret service agents about (probably the older bearded Noah-looking character with ragged shorts and an open old shirt sitting on the park bench staring at me is a perfectly disguised agent or is just another deranged homeless person, but I prefer the undercover agent theory).   There are lots of coming and goings at the White House this afternoon and sure enough, soon they close Lafayette Square and we all must leave.   I find out later that tonight is the state dinner for Great Britain's Prime Minister David Cameron and his wife Samantha.  There will be 300 + guests in attendance including the British actors Huge Bonneville and Elizabeth McGovern of that fabulous British import "Downton Abbey",  billionaire Warren Buffet, and the handsome George Clooney, who gets to sit by Michelle Obama.  Alas, I have not been invited.  I am feeling a bit left out.

But I can pretend I am there as I listen to President Obama’s toast, peruse the agenda and the menu,  and see photos at least of what the ladies are wearing.  I especially love the dress worn by Mrs. Obama’s dress designer - Georgina Chapman.
View from the Hay Adams
The Hays Adams is a small intimate European style hotel.  (Think small lobby, small rooms and small bathrooms.)  Take care to at least book more than a superior room if you stay here.  The price of the rooms is directly correlated to the view - across Lafayette Square to the White House, across 16th Street overlooking St. Joseph’s church, or an interior view looking into an adjoining office building (our view…).  But the rooms are well appointed, service is excellent, and one feels just a bit more connected to the power center of the world.  The top floor of the hotel has a large space for private events but also has an amazing view of the city and especially of the White House – you can clearly see the sniper agents patrolling the roof.  If you stay here make sure to take in this view.

For dinner I haven’t done any research so I take the concierge up on his suggestion for the Taberna Del Alabardero.   The main reason I don’t like to eat by myself is that I can’t sample too much of the cuisine.  (When I am with my husband, dinner is mine and my husband’s is too…).   So I must suffice with a lovely sea bream with creamy mushrooms and a very nice side salad.  It is excellent.  For wine, I start with a glass of Cava – the name for Spanish sparkling wines, and then I have a glass of Becquer 2009 from Rioja - a very nice crisp delicate white from Spain – perfect with the fish.    To have more variety I could have opted for the tapas menu but have avoided any kind of tapas since a major case of food poisoning in Barcelona last year.

Tomorrow – the Martin Luther King Memorial and a few museum stops.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Vienna and the OperaBall 2012

I am a bit apprehensive as this, the 2012 Vienna Opera Ball,  is probably the most formal occasion to which I will ever go.  But after accumulating the required ball gown, jewelry, and formal wrap (thank you good friends!) there is nothing left to think about but enjoying Vienna and the build-up to the event.

Our hotel is the elegant Grand Hotel Vienna on the Ringstrasse in the inner city.   The Ringstrasse is a grand boulevard built in 1857 by Emperor Franz Josef on the site of the ancient wall around Vienna. Today the Ringstrasse encircles the heart of old Vienna.

We are only a block or so from the Wiener Staatsoper – Vienna State Opera House – and so we notice the day before the event the comings and goings as the Opera House is transformed for this annual Austrian society happening which takes place every year on the Thursday preceding Ash Wednesday.  Overnight the Opera House is turned into a large ballroom and a new floor, level with the stage, is built.  The many anterooms are turned into casinos, discos, and oyster, coffee and champagne bars. 

We fortunately have a few free hours to explore a bit of central Vienna.  The Grand Hotel is a perfect location, especially in this cold weather, from which to explore the city center.  We wander through the famous Pedestrian shopping area, the Karntnerstrasse, passing by the Café Sacher where the famous sachertorte has its roots.  Then we duck into Stephansdom  (St. Stephens’s cathedral),  then head over to the Imperial Palace, the location of the private apartments of the Hapsburg royalty and also now the site of the famous Spanish riding school and the beautiful Lipizzaner stallions.  But this is just a tiny taste of this lovely city.

Vienna was the capital of the Holy Roman Empire and the capital of the former Austrian Empire.  The University of Vienna was founded here in 1365. This is the city of Mozart, Beethoven, Haydn, Schubert, Strauss, Brahms, Mahler, and Schoenberg.   This is the home to the Vienna Boy’s Choir.     This city is a cultural Mecca and I am already thinking we don’t have enough time and we must come back with more time to explore! 

Speaking of taste – it has been a few hours since we last had a meal.  We are having lunch with friends of my husband’s who have flown in from Warsaw. (Yes I suppose Warsaw is just right up the road a bit.)   Figlmüller is a restaurant famous for its pork (as opposed to the more famous veal) schnitzel.  I am amazed that they can pound and flatten one pork loin so that it is the size of a one-foot diameter gigantic pancake, overhanging by several inches the large plate.  Traditionally served with a great potato salad and lemon wedges, this is a delicious dish, but we should have shared one portion.

But back to our mission: It is now the day of the ball and we try to sleep late, as this will be a very long evening.   The ladies start getting ready in the afternoon with hair and makeup appointments. Then on to dinner at the very elegant Le Ciel on the top floor of our hotel, then at 8:30 pm the one block walk to the Opera House.

My husband looks extremely elegant and handsome in the required Tail Coat (white vest and white bow tie, black coat with tails.   At the Opera entrance and inside there are TV cameras and photographers waiting to catch a glimpse of celebrities or perhaps also of the loveliest gowns.   The evening officially starts at 10:00 pm with the Austrian National Anthem and the Anthem of Europe (Ode to Joy by Beethoven).  There is the presentation of the debutantes (“the Young Ladies Dance Committee”), then performances by the Vienna State Ballet Company and the Vienna Opera orchestra.  Another treat is the performance by the opera singer Angela Gheorghiu who sings Carmen and I Could Have Danced All Night – very apropos. Finally the opening waltz is announced and everyone is invited to waltz to the strains of Johann Strauss’ On the Beautiful Blue Danube, OP 314

I hear 3500 people are in attendance tonight (and I don’t think this includes the servers and wait staff and security).  My husband and I do a requisite dance and then avoid the main floor but continue to watch the proceedings with our party from our box.  After a bit we do explore the many different entertainments and activities available throughout this very large opera house.  This is one big party where people obviously go to see and be seen.  

At 3:00 am our host rounds us all up and we are off, still in our opera ball finery, to a local café to have the requisite after opera digestif - a Gulaschsoppa and a beer.   Goulash soup is a beef and potato soup which is quite tasty (it is our “go to” snack or lunch choice in Germany and Austria) although at 4:00 am in the morning it seems as if we should be having tea and toast or alka seltzer.

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Daytona 500 - Postponed!

It keeps raining but then clears for a bit and the jet engine track driers come out to do their thing.  (Quite a sight to watch on its own - these trucks have actual jet engines that very effectively blow the water off the track.)  But it rains again and we think about leaving because it looks ominous.  There is such a small chance this rain will stop for long enough to get the race started - but we just can’t bring ourselves to leave.  We are caught up in the excitement of this, the granddaddy of US car races.   There is another break in the rain and they again bring out the amazing jet engine fleet. They finally do call the race around 4:00 pm and so we reluctantly call it a day.

This is the first time in its 54-year history that the Daytona 500 has ever been postponed.

NASCAR (National Association of Stock Car Auto Racing) is truly a main stream American sport.  Stock car racing has its roots in prohibition times when bootleggers needed to outrun and evade the police as they distributed their product, much of which was made in the Appalachian area of the Carolinas and Georgia.  After the repeal of Prohibition the cars were still used to evade tax collectors.  Eventually, the actual beach at Daytona became the preferred locale for car owners to show and race these cars whose performance was constantly being improved.

It has been fascinating watching the Nationwide race on Saturday and then on Sunday being part of the build up to the Daytona 500.  Lenny Kravitz is the pre-game entertainment, the band Train’s front man Pat Monahan sings a beautiful rendition of The National Anthem, the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds do their very cool fly-over of the stadium, Jane Lynch from Glee is here as the Grand Marshall (“Lady and Gentlemen, start your engines…”).  It is hard not to get totally caught up in the excitement.

You won't find President Obama at these NASCAR races but Rick Santorum sponsors a car for this race -  it isn't actually in the race but it has his name prominently displayed and the car itself is perfectly positioned in one of the open garages for all to see.   And not to be overshadowed, Mitt Romney is on site for the race and shaking hands with all the fans.  But he ruins the moment when he says he isn't as ardent a supporter as some of the fans here but he has some great friends who are NASCAR team owners... Mitt, Mitt, Mitt, won't you ever learn!

What strikes me most about NASCAR is that these race drivers and their crews are incredibly responsive and beholden to their fans and spectators.  And what a marketer’s dream!  The main sponsor of each car is featured prominently on the car, the driver and crew’s clothing, on the team’s giant 18 (or some big number) wheelers that haul the cars and equipment from track to track, and on those cute little collectible matchbook cars.  Go-Daddy, M&M’s, Oreos’, Budweiser (of course), 3-M, Target, US Army, and on and on.   I think the M&M artwork on the car and it’s corresponding 18? wheeler is the absolute cutest!

The Nationwide series represents the middle rung of the NASCAR races for up and coming competitors who aspire to be Sprint Cup drivers.   Many "Sprint" Cup Series (the top rung of the series - like the Daytona 500) drivers will race in the Nationwide race (which is typically the day before the Sprint Cup race) to get a sense of the track and hone their skills.  At the start of the Nationwide race on Saturday crashes begin in the first lap.  It seems a bit like bumper cars at the amusement park.  The first crash or two I am quite horrified but then am quickly educated by those in the know on the up-to-date modifications on the cars to protect the drivers.  Drivers in their interior “cages” very seldom get hurt but the cars are often too damaged in the crashes to be able to continue the race.   This sport is a bit like bike racing – driver’s need to work together to help win this race and others in one’s “team” will push a car to increase its speed.  The team concept is a bit confusing since each car can have many sponsors and some sponsors have more than one car.

Danica and fans
I have gotten the impression that Danica Patrick, the driver of the Go-Daddy car and the only woman to start in this year’s Daytona 500 – is looked on as someone who can bring in a new generation and a whole new set of fans to NASCAR.  You may have seen Danica in the Go-Daddy Super Bowl commercial having her body painted.  Expanding the fan base has become an important goal as sponsorships and the fan base has fallen off a bit in recent years.  But I get the feeling that loyal fans are not too comfortable with these changes that the powers to be at NASCAR feel are necessary.  "Will diversity spell the end of NASCAR"? is a common lament.  And some seem upset that Danica - a relative novice to the sport - is getting so much attention.

NASCAR has certainly come a long way from car buffs racing their newest revved up car on the beach in Daytona to this highly commercial marketers dream of a sport. 

We hear the race is scheduled to go on tomorrow night as long as the rain holds off.  Alas we must leave Daytona but will most certainly be watching the race on TV and are looking forward to it.  Who would have thought?

Addendum:  The race did go on and delivered in the excitement category.  Crashes started as early as Lap 2 and this first one caught Danica Patrick, unfortunately ruining her Daytona 500 debut.  Another car late in the race crashed into one of those amazing jet engine blower trucks carrying 200 gallons of kerosene.  This crash caused a two-hour delay while the track was cleaned of the jet fuel.  The winner's purse is around $1.4 million.  Even the second place winner comes up with more than $1 million.