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.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Daytona 500

At the Nationwide Series today and the Daytona 500 tomorrow with 250,000 of our closest friends.   We are almost Nascar groupies and are beginning to understand why this is the largest spectator sport in the US.  More later.  

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Charming Munich

Delightful, charming downtown Munich seems to be a bit of a counterpoint to everything precisely and efficiently German. My husband reminds me that southern Germany and especially the Bavaria region is more relaxed and casual than efficient and staid northern Germany.  What lovely Bavarian architecture, cute, cute, cute winding streets and passages leading towards one after another lovely square.  It is snowing and continues to snow for the time we are here.  Beautiful.

Everywhere one turns there are displays of Wurst (sausage), most made from pork and other ingredients:  Rotwurst, Weisswurst, Bratwurstchen, Kockwurst, Rohwurst, etc. etc.  We have no choice but to delay our recent budding vegetarianism. 

Our hotel – the Vier Jahreszeiten Kempinski is located in the city center right on Maximilianstrasse.  This is a lovely hotel with quite an international clientele.  The lovely Marienplatz square and the famous Glockenspiel is just a few streets over - just between Karlsplatz and Marienplatz over near Sparkassenstrasse and Landschaftstrasse.  Every German word seems to go on and on.   I finally have started to just say the first syllable and then mutter for a few minutes.  This seems to work ok.

Dinner on our second night in Munich is quite memorable.  Albarone (on Stollbergstrasse), an Italian restaurant, has been recommended by local acquaintances and we can tell pretty quickly that this is not a touristy place.   There is a fixed menu every night and the chef chooses a white and a red wine, which he feels will best accompany the food.  We love not having to decide on our menu – it is like being invited for dinner at someone’s home.   This is a fairly casual restaurant and so we are surprised to find out we will have about 9 courses throughout the evening.  We start at 7:00 pm and don’t leave until close to midnight - so very civilized and old world.   I’m not sure if they have more people in the kitchen but we see only one waitress and the chef (who helps serve) all evening.  I’m not sure how they do it with 12 tables but the service is excellent.

We start with a tuna carpaccio with cooked chicory, then a beet, mozzarella and arugula salad, followed by a sautéed quail served with a delicious potato salad with a balsamic reduction with a peanut garnish, then a pumpkin soup, then a homemade ravioli with cod, then a risotto with tomato and sausage sauce, then some type of fish with an onion marmalade, then a beef course (I have stopped remembering dishes at this point…) then a lovely dessert.   Gracious!  Everything is extremely tasty and beautifully and elegantly presented.  Our white Italian wine is a Sanct Valentin (very appropriate as it is Valentine’s day) made with pinot bianco grapes.  White Italian wines are always a bit iffy for me– this one was excellent.

We are off to Vienna in the morning but I would love to return to Munich.   Next time I intend to make sure to read up on King Ludwig II of Bavaria and then take myself on a tour of notable sites involving this interesting character. 

Saturday, February 18, 2012

24 Hours in Milan

More than enough time in my opinion….

“Not as pretty as Venice, Florence and Rome but unique in its own way.”  The front desk receptionist echoed what we have heard from many others.  Fortunately, since we only have 24 hours, our hotel, the Rosa Grand StarHotel, is perfectly located in the city center, right next to the Duomo (cathedral) and the main square of central Milan.   Our junior suite and the hotel lobby cry out design, design, design!  I love this décor.  Modern and functional yet lovely - just what you would expect from one of the fashion design capitals of the world.

I’m sure if you stayed here longer you would find ways to appreciate this city but I didn’t leave anything here so won’t need to come back.  There are a few notable sites if you happen to be passing through on route to somewhere else or if you have business here.  La Scala – the famous opera house is of course one.  La Scala seems a bit underwhelming on first glance from the outside and unfortunately we were not able to check out the inside as the performance the night we are here is canceled due to a strike - apparently not an uncommon occurrence.

Another notable site is painting of The Last Supper at the Convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie.  We think we will be able to just stop by and see this famous painting by Leonardo da Vinci.  We should have known better and done a bit of research.  You must have a ticket to see the painting and they are of course sold out.  Plan ahead on this one.

We had made reservations and are looking forward to dinner tonight at Hostaria Borromei, a spot my husband had tried and liked on a previous trip.  But after finally honing in on the restaurant through the twisty turny streets of old Milan, we were shocked to see that it was closed.  We must have made the reservations for the wrong night!   But things turned out quite well as the hotel’s concierge gave us a great recommendation: Ristorante Il Coriandolo.  We had an excellent meal.  Fine de Claire oysters from France to start (#2 size – not too big, just right…), then a saffron risotto with pistachio nuts, sprinkled attractively with parsley, followed by a sautéed sea bream with a champagne and pumpkin seed sauce served with white bean in olive oil and parsley.  My husband appreciates Italian Pinot Grigios but I find them a bit too fruity and prefer a chardonnay style wine so the waiter was quite resourceful and suggested an excellent Le Rime by Banfi 2010 – 70% Chardonnay and 30% Pinot Grigio.  He obviously was able to pick up quickly on the nature of our marital relationship.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Dio Deka, Los Gatos, Ca.

A wonderful dining experience in all aspects.  After dropping off your car with a delightful parking valet, you walk through the charming lobby of the Hotel Los Gatos, across a lovely courtyard and then into Dio Deka.

The ambiance is casual and relaxed.  I do remember however, from an earlier visit on a weekend, that things were quite busy and bustling and the noise level was a bit bothersome.  But this is a weeknight and all is good.  There is an open kitchen which always adds to the warmth of the dining experience.  Our server was charming and quite knowledgeable - she was Greek and so we were able to hear how some of the dishes we thought we knew how to say are supposed to be pronounced.   

The food was delicious.  Even our marinated olives starter was tastier than the norm.  The mussel appetizer, Mithia - mussels steamed in ouzo and served with crispy fried olives and croutons - was served with the mussels already out of the shell.  Excellent, excellent dish.  The celery root soup – Hortosoupa – was so tasty we asked the server if she would ask the chef for the ingredients.  The chef actually came out and filled us in on how he makes it. (See below)  The Sonoma duck breast, Papia, was also memorable - slowly cooked Sonoma duck breast and confit of duck leg, tiny radishes, goat myzithra (a type of cheese) and crispy polenta.  There is an extensive wine list and we wanted to try a Greek wine so chose the Assyrtiko Argyros 2010.  It was an excellent dry white accompaniment to our meal and we thought a very nice wine at this price point. ($54 in the restaurant, about $25 retail). 

Dessert, usually not my favorite part of the meal, was also memorable.  We had the Baklava, which was not too sweet and was served surprisingly with grilled bananas and banana ice cream.  I don’t even like banana ice cream but I loved it at Dio Deka with their baklava.  Our second dessert (what were we thinking!) was the Bougatsa, a crispy phyllo filled with semolina custard and served alongside spiced wine sorbet and a bitter orange garnish - one of the best desserts I’ve ever had. 

Dio Deka is a one star Michelin restaurant.   Actually it’s the only Greek restaurant in the US to have a star and in our experience, well deserved.


Hortosoupa is the Greek name for vegetable soup.  Dio Dekka spruces theirs up by using celery root instead of potatoes and by the addition of apple, smoked paprika and lemon juice, On checking out different versions of this soup, I found some listed under weight loss programs so I will be making versions of this more often.   Dio Dekka also uses the lovely method of presenting the soup bowl with just the garnish and then pouring the celery soup around the garnish from at tableside.  Their garnish made the soup:  some lovage (from the micro lettuce family - sometimes known as mountain celery), thinly sliced celery, thinly sliced apple, toasted pistachio nuts, lime zest and two oysters leaning against the garnish.

Here is a version of the soup I tried at home and everyone seemed to enjoy.  This is such a versatile soup – any vegetable can work with a myriad of different garnishes to make it simple or elegant.

(Puréed Celery Root Soup)
Serves 6
  • 2 Tbsp butter
  • 1 medium onion, chopped
  • 1 lb fresh celery root, peeled and chopped
  • 1 medium potato, peeled and chopped
  • 1 clove garlic, peeled and chopped
  • ½ cup dry white wine
  • 1 qt vegetable broth
  • Kosher salt
  • Ground white pepper (if you have it) or black if not
  • Apple – small thin slices, about 1 inch by 1 inch
  • Celery – small thin slices, same size as the apple
  • Lime zest
  • Toasted pistachio nuts
  • Paprika
In a soup pot, melt the butter over medium heat and then add the onion and cook until slightly translucent, about 2-3 minutes.  Add the celery root, potato and garlic and cook another few minutes, stirring often. 

Add the wine and cook a few more minutes until the wine seems to be reduced by about half.

Add the broth and bring to a boil, then simmer slowly for 15 minutes or so until the celery and potatoes can be pierced with a knife.  Don’t let the vegetables get mushy.

Purée in blender or processor until smooth.  Return to pan and season with salt and pepper to taste.

When ready to serve, arrange the garnish in a stack in the middle of the soup bowl (apple slices, then celery slices, sprinkled with the lime zest and pistachio nuts and a bit of paprika.)  Pour soup around garnish. 

(Alternatively, for a simpler and heartier soup, you could use a large crouton (Italian or French bread slice brushed with olive oil and baked til just slightly brown) as the garnish.)