Restaurants

International TravelThings I LoveThings You Should KnowWining/Dining

EUROPEAN VACATION PART 4 – SERBIA

This is the fourth in a series of posts.  Previous post is HERE

Are you surprised this country is included in our itinerary?  Based on the fact that our restaurant server told us we were the second Americans he waited on in a couple of years, I’m guessing your answer is yes.  Meaning not many come to this part of the world.

Let me backtrack to share how we got here. Driving. Croatia was the only country en route that would allow a rental car from the EU to Serbia.  Thus, we drove from Ljubljana to the Zagreb airport solely for the purpose of a rental car exchange.  Drop off at Europcar and pick up at Dollar. Unlike the prior rental car (a wonderful Cupra Leon by Volkswagon), I couldn’t get rid of this one (a Renault something) fast enough.  In fact, Dollar picked up the car from the Belgrade hotel.  But, Dollar staff emailed me several times regarding our timing at Zagreb and were very responsive.  So they get credit for that!

The drive is not particularly interesting, bordering on boring. And long. Interestingly, the roads are better in Serbia than in Croatia (very bumpy).  And then came the boarder crossing. Wow. They actually stamped our passports upon entry into Serbia. About 45 minutes in line, but we’re told that was because it’s holiday time approaching the Orthodox Easter.

Below, a very good likeness of Serbia’s most famous actor:  Karl Malden

The fact that someone likened Belgrade to Paris is a stretch.  Yes, there are tons of outdoor cafes, but not much else to remind one of Paris. Still, Belgrade has it’s own charm and character.  It is brimming with tourists and locals out walking and shopping everywhere we went.  Belgrade prides itself on offering a vast array of culture, from festivals for film, theater, music and even beer.  A bit of everything is available! 

I try to incorporate a visit to either a Synagogue or Jewish community center wherever we go.  In Belgrade, it is Synagogue Sukat Shalom.  Our guide showed us the way.  Upon arriving, we could see a group of men chatting by the synagogue, but we were quite a distance from them, outside massive gates.  No one was answering the phone or responding to our knock.  This was the last day of Passover so that explained the lack of phone contact.

Below, outside the massive gates.  The top of Bruce’s cap is barely visible at the bottom.

We were frantically waving to the men shown below inside the yellow circle! 

Eventually someone saw us waiving and then an enormous security guard emerged from the gate.  We asked to go inside and he responded with a hard no.  Our excellent guide pleaded with him in Serbian and I could tell we were getting nowhere. It is the holiday and no can be admitted which made no sense at all.  I told him we just want to see the synagogue building inside the gates.  No.  I said politely that it is the custom of Jews everywhere to welcome other Jews in whenever they are encountered. Still no. Undaunted, I kept pressing. He then looked at us carefully and said “are you Jewish?”  Yes, of course.  And then the proverbial $64,000 question — the test of tests to see if we are telling the truth.

The guard:  “What do you eat on Yom Kippur?”  Me: “Nothing!!” And with that, we were permitted to enter, having passed the “test.”  I’m certain I detected a slight grin from him.

He told our guide that with all the recent turmoil, a lot of extra precaution is necessary.  People claim to be Jewish to gain access and then behave disrespectfully.  Thus, he is extremely careful as to providing entrance to strangers.

Below, inside the beautiful Synagogue

The head rabbi, Dr. Isak Asiel, chatted with us for a few minutes about the history of the synagogue and the community at large of roughly 3,000.  It is primarily sephardic in practice now.  He shared that a large delegation of Los Angeles Jews had visited a few weeks earlier.  Our brief time together was special and memorable.

Below, Republic Square – National Museum of Serbia behind the stage; National Theater on the right

We saw a good deal of the older part of Belgrade on foot with our terrific guide Bojana.  Our close friend in LA — originally from Montenegro — knows the Balkan countries well and provided contacts and what we must see.  Connections matter, especially in travel!

Above, Bojana takes us to her favorite restaurant The Two Deer for lunch.  The restaurant dates back to 1832! Below, fresh-caught trout was delicious as was the chicken soup and classic Serbian bread with paprika.

Below, the Sava River which flows into the nearby Danube.  A view of modern Belgrade on the left.

 

 

Back to flying for the next stop — to Chisinau, Moldava.  To be continued ..

 

 

International TravelThings I LoveThings You Should KnowWining/Dining

EUROPEAN VACATION PART 3 – SLOVAKIA, SLOVENIA, “+”

**This is the third in a series of posts.  Previous post is here.

What does “+” mean?  Shorthand for adding a plus 1 or additional stop, not on the original itinerary.  I like to call it “an audible,” and love having the ability to change course!  First, Bratislava.

The capital city of Slovakia is just an hour from Vienna, at the western boundary of the country. After leaving Vienna, one goes east or right for Bratislava or the other direction for Budapest.  Things are that close. It is a very pretty city located on the Danube seen below. Fortunately, the rain stopped in time for a walk to dinner in the older part of town (we are in a modern hotel on the waterfront).

Because one never knows who one might meet at dinner, we had a fun encounter with a young man who in a roundabout manner shared that he works in sports.  “Doing what?”  This ex-military person (and Black Belt) is an integral part of the security team traveling worldwide with an international sports icon.  My lips are further sealed, but my inquiring nature found out that he is indeed armed in certain countries and has needed to be so at times.

Above, the lovely area by the restaurant.  Below, tuna tartare (delish)

Originally our plan was for two nights.  Two factors interceded:  One night is sufficient; but, more importantly, a magnificent retreat in the Julian Alps was highly recommended to us, at least for a meal.  So why not spend a night instead.  And that’s how the “audible” came about.

The name is Chalet Sofija. It is just over the border into Slovenia and in it’s second year of existence, but more like years in the making.  Essentially an incredibly hospitable couple — Pope & Aleksandra — invite you into their home.  But what a home.   Miraculously built on top of a mountain, there are 5 beautiful suites, a spa and an outdoor pool.  Then there is the most inviting living room to enjoy after a sumptious dinner cooked (by Pope) in the open kitchen.  Every single detail, from the walk-in showers to the outdoor balconies, to the high-tech lighting, artwork, finishes is meticulously designed.  And the panoramic views are everywhere.

Getting to Chalet Sofiji is not for the faint of heart.  This is the road.

This view — from the terrace with the pool & spa

Our accommodations seen in next two photos.  Complete blackout shades operate from a tablet. 

Pope is a well-known restauranteur in Ljubjlana, who couldn’t envision retiring. Thus Chalet Sofija (named for his mother) came about.  The consummate hosts, along with their pup Tracy, cannot do enough for their guests.  Our 5-hour drive from Bratislava was worth every minute.  How fortunate to be able to deviate from the original itinerary with this incredible stay.

Above, master chef Pope has four simple but crucial steps to producing the most delicious steak ever.  (Room temperature meat; sizzling pan; short cooking time; transfer to hot cast iron plate to slice).  

The dinner below counterclockwise:  Classic Slovenian salad; crispy artichoke with a breaded/perfectly cooked egg on top;  the perfect red for dinner; risotto with hen & squash; that ribeye garnished with pear, walnut & balsamic.  Amazing.  

Below, Chef/Host Pope with his beloved Tracy in front of his wine collection.  He is a longtime sommelier.

Aleksandra waking up the strawberry beds in antipation of warmer weather.  Pope will plant a large vegetable & herb garden soon

In the underground garage — no worries about the car here!  

After departing the Chalet, it was on to the rest of our planned time in Slovenia.  Certainly seeing Lake Bled, a jewel in Slovenia, was a high priority.  Just 90 minutes from the Ljubljana where we next stayed (view from our hotel below), it is totally understandable why it is a must-see spot with a good bit of history. 

Dinner in Ljubljana was at Pope’s restaurant now operated by his son.  Golstina AS dishes below on the lighter side with salad, sea bass, the other bottle of Pinot from our hotel GM in Vienna and Panna Cotta with plum sauce.  

Two different views of gorgeous Lake Bled

After Lake Bled, we dipped a toe into Italy with a brief stop in Trieste.  It took us longer to find that miniscule parking place than it did to eat lunch.  But still a fun stop.

I did love this rental car — a Cupra Leon from Volkswagon.  It had barely any kilometers on it.  Fabulous navigation system, although I could live without the reminders.  “Drive in the center of the lane.”  “Take your foot off the pedal.” A bit nosy if you ask me, but a great and fun car to drive.

Next up — on to Belgrade, Serbia.

 

International TravelThings I LoveWining/Dining

EUROPEAN VACATION, PART 2 – VIENNA

This is the second in a series of posts.  See previous here.

Stop #2 after Prague is Vienna, which destination has long been at the top of the list for a return trip.  I sometimes dream of going at Christmas thanks to a Hallmark fave “Christmas in Vienna.” But that’s for another visit!  For this one, spring is likewise a special time to see this magical city.  Even when it’s still in the 40’s after a brief hot spell (we missed that).

Our concerns regarding getting to Vienna on time per the last post were for naught.  The hotel access was unimpeded by the marathon closures about which we had been warned! Plenty of time to check in, change, have a bite at the rooftop brasserie, and walk to the opera.

What did we see? A performance of Georges Bizet’s Carmen at the magnificent Vienna State Opera (“Wiener Staatsoper”).  The hubby is generally a good sport attending, while obviously he would rather be seeing a rock concert.  I’m not quite sure why this production was signifcantly raunchier than I remember.  Regardless, the music is magnificent.  I loved that the subtitles are available via seatback tablets which are a very cool idea.

For the proverbial “when in Rome” (substitute Vienna) activity, one must indulge in desserts.  At the top of the list is the infamous Sachertorte. The origin of this dessert may be subject to interpretation, but a virtual cottage industry has been built around it. I personally opted for a phenomenal strudel post opera at nearby Cafe Sacher.

A return visit to the grounds of Schonbrunn Palace was a no-brainer.  The scope of this Unesco World Heritage site is breathtaking! It is very near to Vienna itself, easy to access via cab or public transportation.

Above, looking toward and away from the palace across vast grounds. 

Below, photo fun in the kid’s area mirrored kaleidoscope.

A priority without question for this visit is dinner at Steirereck

You know how you have memories of a place and they loom larger as times goes by?  And then after a return visit, the result is “it’s not as good as I remember it” or “as it used to be.”  Well, this was the exact opposite.  It was indeed as good if not better than 2012, our last visit. It might be even more beautiful. And we’re both certain we sat at the same table (a fluke).

The “world of Steirereck” continues to expand with the farm and lodging some 90 minutes from Vienna.  “Farm to table” is a bit ubiquitous these days, but they actually practice it faithfully.  Scraps do not go to waste, but rather are collected for feeding their farm animals. The food is serious but fun. And delicious. And watching the staff flawlessly move about? A beautifully choreographed pleasure. Enjoy below.

Really, what more does one need?  Great Austrian wines and superb bread.  “Brot Andy” has been there since 2005.  We remembered him well.  He knows every variety in great detail.  His favorite? None; he no longer eats bread as he began consuming too much! 

Below, our a la carte choices (there is a pre-fixe menu as well):  Grilled broccolini; white asparagus (now in season); chicken with paprika and lamb.  

A detailed menu card is provided with EVERY dish.  Saved me from having to take notes! 

The desserts — bottom right is rhubarb with peach inside that gorgeous meringue dome.  Others were a variety of small bites provided.  Top is dried and sweetened citrus peel (6 varieties!)

Finally, the entrance way; wine selection; selection of cordials; enormous cheese cart; and the kitchen.  Owner/proprietor Heinz Reitbauer is “center stage” while his wife Birgit is everywhere else. 

The Albertina Museum complex is simply a world-class venue with distinct parts.  We visited The Modern wing, showcasing Roy Lichtenstein 100 years since his birth.  A substantial number of his works were on display along with the exhibition Monet to Picasso.  Below, for our dear friend/financial guru Brad who would NEVER let us sink! Separately, if you know Lichtenstein’s use of dots, one can discern the era of his works based on how large or small the dots are.  The dots became larger as time went on through the use of tools.

After that bit of culture, we culminated our Vienna stay with dinner at Plachutta Wollzeile for classic Viennese cuisine (perfect schnitzel; caramel sundae; a wonderful Pinot Noir gifted to us – that story to follow).  Our dinner companions Werner & Niki are dear friends of our dear LA friends.  It was perfect.

Below, with Roland Hamberger — our new friend/Managing Director

extraordinaire of Rosewood Vienna

This relatively new hotel is in the heart of the city but just enough off the busiest area to feel quiet and calm.  It is the perfect combination.  Roland took superb care of us (the wine was a bonus!); his entire staff was excellent.  What a pleasure!

Vienna may just be my favorite city.  Given the culture, cuisine, shopping, big open streets, walkable but with excellent public transportation, wonderful people  — a return visit will be much sooner!

International TravelThings You Should KnowWining/Dining

THANKSGIVING IN VANCOUVER PART 2

van18

So what did we do for the remaining days in Vancouver during our family vacation over Thanksgiving? Plenty. Please read the many fun and delicious adventures in Part 1.

A chance encounter and discussion with locals resulted in a change of plans.  With rental car in hand, we headed north to see Whistler.  The original plan of the ferry to Vancouver Island, Butchart Gardens, etc., ultimately made little sense with not enough time available to do that “right.” Upon learning the beautiful Whistler area is just 90 minutes from Vancouver, there wasn’t much to deliberate.

En route to Whistler is the Sea to Sky Gondola.  The “Sea” is Howe Sound.  Following the 10 minute ride to the summit (in the spacious, comfortable and safe gondolas), the view is absolutely stunning.  There is a suspension bridge and trails in multiple directions.  We just took in the breathtaking vista, chatted with other visitors, and obviously tested our best photography skills.

Above, with Howe Sound in the background; below, two daredevils cross the suspension bridge

The Whistler Blackcomb ski area is “ranked #1 in North America” according to the Wall Street Journal.  The ranking accounts for the abundance of snow (averaging 33 feet annually), trails, apres-ski “scene” and more.  The trail options are massive as the map below shows. We saw just a snapshot of the area for lunch and a walkabout of the village.  It is very impressive and made me long for my skiing days!

The absolutely breathtaking sunset seen (below) en route back to Vancouver had us pulling over to capture the scene over Howe Sound.

Vancouver’s downtown area not only is eminently walkable, but is home to some truly outstanding restaurants. Most evenings, we walked to dinner (rain permitting).  In addition to the ones covered in Part 1, we were fortunate to enjoy two other greats:  Blue Water Cafe and Boulevard Kitchen.

Blue Water Cafe was a late addition as a result of a (full disclosure) social media post. After seeing  Vancouver’s own (heartthrob and native son) Michael Buble rave about the place, I decided it was well worth a visit.  Thank you Mr. B. not only for your great singing but for the head’s up.  We were fortunate to get a primetime reservation at this very busy place. After initially being put off by our waiter — who not once, not twice, but three times briefly said hello and added the same pat comment about how great the food is leading me to think he’s “dialing it in” — we had fabulous service and equally fabulous food.  Yes, one can get great sushi at a restaurant that isn’t a sushi bar per se.  And then there’s the wine. Oh, my.

After befriending the waiter and disclosing son Sam’s industry affiliation, we were given the grand tour of the place. In addition to the main room with sushi bar, there are several other rooms available for private dinners where wine is on display. Lots of wine, not to mention cellars we viewed.  Hat’s off to everyone we encountered who contributed to a memorable evening.

Below, sushi creations; tuna tartare; Char; desserts

Above; endless wine conversation.  Below, private dining anyone?? (Photo cred: Blue Water Cafe)

Special in a somewhat different way was our dinner at Boulevard Kitchen at the Sutton Place Hotel, situated in Vancouver’s highest end area.  Surrounding the hotel is all the top shops, many of which are on Alberni Street.  The original Fairmont Hotel (there are three others in the area) is nearby.

This dinner was all about the wine.  Again, make friends with your sommelier.  Better yet, with the GM/Wine Director.  We did a “red wine tasting” with a great deal of wine details.  Just don’t count on me repeating them.  But see for yourself the sheer number of glasses on the table! Which is likely the reason for the lack of food photos — just some outstanding fish and a lot of desserts.

That’s a lot of stemware above.  All used!  Below, my favorite:  St. Innocent 2017 Pinot Noir

Before returning the rental car, we headed south to two destinations:  The VanDusen Botanical Gardens and White Rock, the latter located just five minutes north of the US border.

The gardens were definitely in a so-called “shoulder season” — meaning the foliage was mostly gone but no snow yet.  But walking through still proved to be a lovely excursion.

White Rock, on the other hand, is a stunning spot. It is home to Canada’s longest pier. Any time one can see the sea with snow-covered mountains in the background, that is a homerun for me. The namesake “White Rock” is shown in the second photo below.

And then it was time to come home, but not before a memorable sushi lunch at Hello Nori. Counter seating and sushi rolls. That’s it, which means few decisions necessary. And the rolls were delicious! A perfect way to end this glorious week spent with family, for which we feel blessed.

International TravelThings You Should KnowWining/Dining

THANKSGIVING IN VANCOUVER PART 2

van18

So what did we do for the remaining days in Vancouver during our family vacation over Thanksgiving? Plenty. Please read the many fun and delicious adventures in Part 1.

A chance encounter and discussion with locals resulted in a change of plans.  With rental car in hand, we headed north to see Whistler.  The original plan of the ferry to Vancouver Island, Butchart Gardens, etc., ultimately made little sense with not enough time available to do that “right.” Upon learning the beautiful Whistler area is just 90 minutes from Vancouver, there wasn’t much to deliberate.

En route to Whistler is the Sea to Sky Gondola.  The “Sea” is Howe Sound.  Following the 10 minute ride to the summit (in the spacious, comfortable and safe gondolas), the view is absolutely stunning.  There is a suspension bridge and trails in multiple directions.  We just took in the breathtaking vista, chatted with other visitors, and obviously tested our best photography skills.

Above, with Howe Sound in the background; below, two daredevils cross the suspension bridge

The Whistler Blackcomb ski area is “ranked #1 in North America” according to the Wall Street Journal.  The ranking accounts for the abundance of snow (averaging 33 feet annually), trails, apres-ski “scene” and more.  The trail options are massive as the map below shows. We saw just a snapshot of the area for lunch and a walkabout of the village.  It is very impressive and made me long for my skiing days!

The absolutely breathtaking sunset seen (below) en route back to Vancouver had us pulling over to capture the scene over Howe Sound.

Vancouver’s downtown area not only is eminently walkable, but is home to some truly outstanding restaurants. Most evenings, we walked to dinner (rain permitting).  In addition to the ones covered in Part 1, we were fortunate to enjoy two other greats:  Blue Water Cafe and Boulevard Kitchen.

Blue Water Cafe was a late addition as a result of a (full disclosure) social media post. After seeing  Vancouver’s own (heartthrob and native son) Michael Buble rave about the place, I decided it was well worth a visit.  Thank you Mr. B. not only for your great singing but for the head’s up.  We were fortunate to get a primetime reservation at this very busy place. After initially being put off by our waiter — who not once, not twice, but three times briefly said hello and added the same pat comment about how great the food is leading me to think he’s “dialing it in” — we had fabulous service and equally fabulous food.  Yes, one can get great sushi at a restaurant that isn’t a sushi bar per se.  And then there’s the wine. Oh, my.

After befriending the waiter and disclosing son Sam’s industry affiliation, we were given the grand tour of the place. In addition to the main room with sushi bar, there are several other rooms available for private dinners where wine is on display. Lots of wine, not to mention cellars we viewed.  Hat’s off to everyone we encountered who contributed to a memorable evening.

Below, sushi creations; tuna tartare; Char; desserts

Above; endless wine conversation.  Below, private dining anyone?? (Photo cred: Blue Water Cafe)

Special in a somewhat different way was our dinner at Boulevard Kitchen at the Sutton Place Hotel, situated in Vancouver’s highest end area.  Surrounding the hotel is all the top shops, many of which are on Alberni Street.  The original Fairmont Hotel (there are three others in the area) is nearby.

This dinner was all about the wine.  Again, make friends with your sommelier.  Better yet, with the GM/Wine Director.  We did a “red wine tasting” with a great deal of wine details.  Just don’t count on me repeating them.  But see for yourself the sheer number of glasses on the table! Which is likely the reason for the lack of food photos — just some outstanding fish and a lot of desserts.

That’s a lot of stemware above.  All used!  Below, my favorite:  St. Innocent 2017 Pinot Noir

Before returning the rental car, we headed south to two destinations:  The VanDusen Botanical Gardens and White Rock, the latter located just five minutes north of the US border.

The gardens were definitely in a so-called “shoulder season” — meaning the foliage was mostly gone but no snow yet.  But walking through still proved to be a lovely excursion.

White Rock, on the other hand, is a stunning spot. It is home to Canada’s longest pier. Any time one can see the sea with snow-covered mountains in the background, that is a homerun for me. The namesake “White Rock” is shown in the second photo below.

And then it was time to come home, but not before a memorable sushi lunch at Hello Nori. Counter seating and sushi rolls. That’s it, which means few decisions necessary. And the rolls were delicious! A perfect way to end this glorious week spent with family, for which we feel blessed.

International TravelThings You Should KnowWining/Dining

SPRING TRIP 2023: TOKYO

tokyo 5

Many decisions made for the big trip are based on the farthest point we can achieve for the smallest outlay of dollars or miles. Getting across an ocean is typically involved, in this case the Pacific. For previous trips, that meant typically flying Cathay to Hong Kong, but unfortunately no more.  With American or OneWorld miles, it is now Tokyo via Japan Air.

I read a number of reviews of the plane, service, etc., and looked forward to the 12-hour flight.  I even bumped us up, taking advantage of using relatively few miles required (80k per person) for First Class. It is 60k for business, which is still a great deal!

There are just eight suites in the cabin — two rows with a 1-2-1 seat configuration. My time investment attempting to pick the ideal seat was for naught. I put us side by side and ceded the window seat to my left. That turned out to be occupied by an “influencer.” How did I know her “profession?” Because she spent the entire flight on her phone, mostly photographing herself or having the crew photograph her or taking photos of her food or changing outfits. And she wouldn’t lower her window shades (the only ones open in the cabin) because she needed light to take pictures (while many tried to sleep). Twelve hours’ worth of photos.

The staff are incredibly accommodating and do everything in their power to make a passenger happy. It was very enjoyable. Below, a few photos from the flight.  My favorite was the french press coffee! And then we were in Tokyo (Haneda airport, very close to the city).

What to do on this return trip to Tokyo?  Not much, other than acclimate to an enormous time change and hope to see a glimmer of cherry blossoms. The blossoms were gone because of an early spring debut, but I was reminded that we had a spectacular sighting of them in Stockholm last year (see below; read here).

We walked and shopped up and down the Ginza (12,000 steps worth), enjoying some delicious sushi (below) at one of Tokyo’s enormous department stores.

Our big splurge was a fabulous dinner at La Table de Joel Robuchon. Not only is the food special, but the dining room setting is just beautiful — mostly black and white with lavender everywhere.

Clockwise:  Amuse puffs; eggplant with avocado; a take on paella; waygu beef with amazing vegetables.

 

View from the 34th floor hotel room

It seems like Tokyo and Japan for that matter are on the “favored destination list” of many travelers lately.  There’s good reason for that — it’s safe, clean, beautiful, pleasant, modern and offers a great many things to do and see.  We’d happily return again, and for a longer stay.  For this trip, we head to Singapore for the second stop.