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Big Trip/Big Apple/BIG Birthday

birthday 16

I’m guessing that you’ve figured out the what and the where.  As for what constitutes as a BIG birthday, 65 is definitely one.  If you follow this blog, you know we went to Greece (click for previous posts) for the hubby’s recent milestone birthday.  As for mine, the destination was a no-brainer especially since I love cold weather, great restaurants and shopping, with some theater thrown in because it’s part of what one does in NYC.

We flew American to NY and were really impressed with their new 321T plane which is used for transcontinental routes.  Wow — great plane, modern features, tons of leg room in the exit row, outlets and individual screens at each seat.  We got upgraded for our return (15K miles and $70 each); it was fabulous!

Bottom left is exit row en route to NY; other pix are the new business class seats.

It was a “no holds barred” kind of trip (within reason, of course) because a 65th birthday happens just once.  And when one is fortunate enough to have so much, it’s time to both partake and reflect.  The latter comes in a bit.

Loews Regency Hotel on Park and 61st got the where-to-stay nod after much debate (with myself and the internet).  To me this is a very central location for our plans; we had a terrific previous stay; and, the rate didn’t necessitate a second mortgage.  I chose three shows, all purchased in advance:  The Band’s Visit, My Fair Lady and Network (Bryan Cranston!).  Might I add that none of the NY tickets (all Orchestra seats) cost as much as what we paid for Dear Evan Hansen in Los Angeles.  Go figure that one out.

Hotel greetings; Network curtain call; The Band’s Visit; Still lit up in NYC

There’s a few places and restaurants where I’ve always wanted to go but never have on innumerable trips to NYC.  One is Peter Luger Steakhouse.  So many people have so many opinions about the “best steak” place to go, but one doesn’t stay in business for 130+ years with lousy food.  This was on my to-do list so that we high-tailed it to Brooklyn straight away after a fabulous performance of My Fair Lady.  Norbert Leo Butz as Alfred P. Doolittle is worth the price of admission, if only to see him perform “Get Me to the Church on Time.”

Steak, fries, lamb chops and a mountain of whipped cream

It’s also no surprise that where to dine for the actual birthday dinner was given a lot of thought.  Several months ago, I put a reminder in my calendar of the date when January reservations open up for Eleven Madison Park — notoriously difficult to book.  Three Michelin stars and consistently on the World’s Best list.  Parenthetically, if you click on that link, #15 is White Rabbit in Moscow.  Yikes.  We did not think it was so wonderful on our visit there in May.  So lists can certainly be in the eye of the beholder.

Nonetheless, EMP had availability for Jan 8 so with the hubby’s blessing, the booking was made (and pre-paid in full).  The experience was so extraordinary that I’m dedicating a separate post to it (to follow).  The night before was a return trip to Daniel — an absolute favorite and site of my perfect 60th.  The restaurant is consistently grand and Daniel Boulud was in the house.

Below is the custom menu delivered at the end of the night.  I’m always grateful for this so I don’t have to either take notes or try to remember what scrumptious dishes were served!  Inside the box is a small pastry to take with, just in case we needed another bite …

In the kitchen with Chef Boulud and with the wine director lower right.
Five years ago on my 60th.

We got to visit with family as well for Sunday brunch at Les Leopard des Artistes, close to Lincoln Center.  And we had a late night drink with a dear Houston friend who happened to be in NY.  Remarkably this is the second birthday in a row we’ve seen him (see post)!

Regular readers might remember Aunt Judy (blue coat) who traveled to India with us. Her husband, son, daughter & son-in-law made up a lovely group!
We met up with Houstonian Fred Zeidman (left) and his NY friend Gary to close the bar in the wee hours.
First visit to Russ & Daughters Cafe, Lower East Side, for transparent salmon, amazing latkes, egg cream, rugulah and clever wallpaper
Bergdorf’s shoe department, where the hubby’s “dogs” are in repose as I scoured the sales racks (sadly, nothing for me)

As for the reflection part,  I am indeed blessed.  A loving and devoted husband, adult children launched and flourishing in their respective careers, a successful business with loyal clients, seeing the world, two close sisters and great friends.  It’s a lot.  I am so grateful that I trusted my instincts to make the choices in life that resulted in all of this.  No doubt, some luck was involved as well.  But I wake up every day happy in wonderful surroundings.  So life at 65 is pretty, pretty good.

 

U.S. TravelWining/Dining

WINTER BASEBALL MEETINGS … IN LAS VEGAS(!)

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Kevin Millar and Chris Rose live

Las Vegas is the destination for this fun annual event was a quick getaway for me (with the Hubby and son Sam) — little more than 48 hours there.  For lots of folks (myself included), that is the right amount of time in this crazy town. Cool temps were definitely a plus as the last time I was there, it was at least 110 degrees .. but, you know, “dry heat.”  Ugh.

This is an opportunity to mix it up with fellow baseball lovers, folks who work in the industry and likely some players.  We didn’t go into this “cold,” but rather at the urging of friends who are regular attendees and would help us navigate the landscape.  The home base is Mandalay Bay, but I opted for accommodations at the nearby Aria Resort.  I must say, the rooms are very  reasonable — Deluxe King for $160/night including taxes.  Yes, there’s probably better deals, but I was happy with the rate and the hotel is close to where we needed to be.

My kind of slot machine
View from the room

I even signed up for “MLife” which is the loyalty program/booking site for anything related to MGM Grand properties. There are 14 alone in Vegas (not to mention elsewhere in the US and Internationally).  Will I ever use it again?  Who knows.  But it certainly made it easier to have a site where I could look at all the restaurants and activities.  Of the former (places to eat), one could go brain dead making that decision.  Good lord, the choices are overwhelming.  Not wanting to spend a ton (saving that for next month’s big trip to the Big Apple for the BIG BIRTHDAY), I opted for Rivea at the nearby Delano.  “After Saint-Tropez and London, Rivea finally comes to the Las Vegas restaurant market, offering a renewed take on a French and Italian influenced cuisine from internationally celebrated Chef Alain Ducasse.” 

Paccheri pasta with short rib ragu (amazing)
Loin of Venison

The restaurant is on the top floor of the hotel with gorgeous views of the city.  The menu is a bit small, but the food is delicious and the wine list is excellent.  We were quite happy with the meal, after which we headed to see the action at Mandalay Bay.  The good news with consuming lots of food in Vegas is getting anywhere requires a tremendous amount of walking, so there’s little guilt involved.  Just walking the ground floor of most properties is a trek, not to mention getting to the parking garage for a cab or ride share vehicle.   There wasn’t too much happening but Sam did see Hall of Fame pitcher Pedro Martinez and Dodger president Stan Kasten was dining nearby.  Hmmm, what trades were being discussed?  The rumor mill was on full throttle.

Swarovski Christmas tree on display at the Crystal Shoppes — 55 feet tall

We strolled the event during the day but couldn’t talk our way into the massive exhibition hall.  After learning the only other way was shelling out $150 per person to get credentials, we passed.  Without a doubt, the high point of the trip was a wonderful dinner at Carbone, chosen by Sam.  This classic Italian eatery out of Greenwich Village still does a table-side Caesar salad, which few places bother to do. 

Just stop right there ..
Veal parm divided four ways
Carpaccio with mushrooms and capers
Spicy rigatoni a la vodka and gemelli with spicy sausauge
Fork poised over the Nutella tiramisu

Our friend found out a large group would be taking one of the private rooms, and we happened to be seated right in their path.  Wearing one of my Dodger t-shirts under a blazer turned out to be a good idea as my bona fides were established when I stopped first Joe Torre followed by Orel Hershiser for brief chats and photo ops.  In fact, Orel commented: “I can’t believe this woman just flashed me!” He was talking about the t-shirt, of course.  Getting his attention by calling him Bulldog — his well-known nickname — certainly helped.  Both gentleman were very accommodating before moving on.  

With MLB exec and former Dodger manager Joe Torre
With Hall of Famer (now announcer) Orel Hershiser – aka “Bulldog”

Alas, Vegas is just not for me.  Too big, too flashy, too everything … and certainly the last location in the U.S. that allows smoking indoors!  I do see the attraction for many travelers who seek more of everything, especially a good bang for their buck — not unlike going on a cruise ship with 3000+ people.  To each his own, but I’ll stick with a bit of “less is more.” 

 

The colors of Italy — and really delicious cake

 

 

International TravelThings You Should KnowWining/Dining

GREECE FOR A MILESTONE BIRTHDAY – Part 2 Mykonos

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It takes a grand total of 20 minutes in the air to fly from Athens (visit in previous post) to Mykonos.  Other modes of arrival are by cruise ship or ferry from a neighboring island (most likely Santorini, our next stop) or via one’s yacht (sigh).  But flying was the least amount of total time required and the ticket is very reasonable via Agean Air.

Bill & Coo Resort in Mykonos

Anyone else wonder why every building on the island is white?  Aesthetics?  A means of keeping buildings cool in hot weather (yes, that’s a main factor).  How about because it’s the law?  Yes, every building is required to be painted white.  Best part about that is touch-up’s are a cinch because your neighbors all have the same paint!

From the resort toward Mykonos town.

Sunset view from our balcony

The island population is a mere 10,000, but approximately one million visitors experience Mykonos annually during “the season” — April through early November.  Obviously the bulk visit during the true summer months which is precisely why a late September visit was ideal (for us, anyway).  Mykonos town is a series of very narrow, pedestrian-only streets — more like pathways.  It’s hard to imagine navigating during the height of the season when it’s really hot and really crowded.

Classic Greek style

I checked the weather from home and saw mid-70’s.  When we arrived, however, the winds were really strong — gusts up to 35mph and the temp more like the high 60’s.  Planes and ferries were canceled for two days due to the rough waters and winds.  Sitting by the pool was out so that allowed for more time for pure relaxation which is the point of being on vacation.  Fabulous massage, reading, walking to the nearby town for shopping, great food, people watching, etc.  Then there was following the news at home — baseball and hearings.  We didn’t leave the planet after all.

Choppy waters all around

Justin Turner (separated-at-birth) lookalike, complete with Dodger cap

Deep contemplation at sunset

Fortunately, our scheduled ferry to our next and last destination, Santorini, was available, more or less as planned.  The ferry itself was very nice with spacious seats on the top level.  When we departed Mykonos it was quite rainy.  But all that gave way to glorious sunshine upon arriving in Santorini.  Hooray.

Our Mykonos departure with some soggy travelers.

On the ferry

 

Hip, hip hooray! On approach to Fira in Santorini.

Alas, the sunshine was about the only good part of the arrival.  Our luggage was stored in the ship’s lowest level, right next to where the cars park.  Everyone was crowded together, gathering their bags, and tightly packed in waiting to exit.  Curiously, they were boarding passengers at the same time we were exiting.  Total chaos even before we all were on land searching for our respective transportation — either large groups finding buses, or individuals like us looking for our drivers.  An absolute mass of travelers all trying to get out.  Total travel time door-to-door:  Seven hours!  Most of that was spent on the Santorini end.

The traffic snafus as a result of the over-crowded ferries were remarkable.  The line of vehicles to get their passengers was backed up probably a good two hours.  There’s only one very steep road (think California’s Highway 1) to the ferry dock area with continuous hairpin curves, usually with two enormous buses passing simultaneously — one down and one up.  We saw quite a few people obviously so concerned about missing their departing ferry that they gave up and WALKED down the road with their luggage.  They deserve a lot of credit for that!

But we made it to a beautiful resort.  My report on our Santorini stay in the next post.

At Kalita Restaurant in Mykonos, absolutely empty at 8pm except for us (the Americans!)

Fabulous fresh sea bass with zucchini ribbons in foamy sauce. Yum!

Below — what I’ve read so far.  Two wonderful books.  Two wonderful love stories.  Lots of tissue required.

 

International TravelTo-Do ListWining/Dining

GREECE FOR A MILESTONE BIRTHDAY – Part 1 Athens

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All it took for a first-ever visit to Greece was the hubby’s impending milestone birthday.  You have no idea how difficult it is to travel anywhere near the actual date of October 7th.  Between the Jewish holiday calendar, tax deadlines (Sept 15 and Oct 15) and, of course, the MLB postseason, scheduling is such a nightmare that I needn’t even try.  If I do inquire as to what he wants to do, the answer is always the same:  “Go to a baseball game.”

Welcome to Greece. Ever heard of Global Entry?

Then the calendar gods cooperated and there was a window … so I grabbed it and off we went.  Athens is the jumping-off city for most everyone as it was for us.  It is something seeing the Acropolis for the first time, perched high above the city and visible from many spots.  We heeded advice from friends and were in line for the 8 am opening and made a beeline for the top to get unobstructed photos, meaning the least number of people around.

Early morning view of the Acropolis from the hotel.

One wonders what it is like at the height of summer, both in terms of crowds but also heat!  We were appreciative of the late September temps in the 80’s and manageable crowds.   We were likewise grateful that the driver who met us at the airport was such an engaging personality (and very knowledgeable) that we hired him to be our guide for the two days of sightseeing — first the city sights and then outside of Athens on the second day. “Luck of the draw” all the way.

Dwarfed by the Parthenon up close.

Part of the Acropolis complex is this theater still in use.

Encountering Americans abroad in a city like Athens is pretty commonplace.  “Where are you from?” when you perhaps overhear something familiar or acknowledging someone when their cap or t-shirt provides a clue to shared sports affiliations is typically how conversations begin.  Meeting some folks on the first night at a randomly-picked restaurant was the epitome of a chance encounter.

I noticed two couples sit down to dinner.  Then I saw that the gentlemen were watching live baseball on a smartphone.   Naturally curious as to which game was being viewed, I took the opportunity as we passed by to ask.  That simple question led to a big surprise.

“Braves vs. Phillies” he said.  “Oh, we were at your new Atlanta stadium and it’s fabulous!”  Around this time the hubby joins me, naturally wearing his Dodger cap.  “Hey, I grew up in LA — in Inglewood” he tells me.  I say “Ladera Heights!”  Turns out we went to the same elementary school, although more than a decade apart.  And we had been on the same flight the day before from Philadelphia.  And on and on.

We’re all so busy at home that encounters like these seem much less frequent.  Maybe it’s not being pressed for time — you know, that “vacation mode” — is the key to chatting with others.  Regardless of the reason, the outcome is meeting interesting people from all over the world.

Poseidon’s Temple

Cape Souion, southernmost tip of Attic Peninsula

When in Greece …

The original Olympic stadium

Above and below: At the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Center — a magnificent compound of theater, library, opera house and more — founded by the other great shipping magnate of Greece (besides Aristotle Onassis).  Amazing place.  Inside the library below.

Insanely delicious gelato here!

Next stop – Mykonos.

To-Do ListU.S. TravelWining/Dining

ROAD TRIP: FOUR NIGHTS/TEN STATES/4K MILES

So Utah

If you’re stuck in your comfort “cocoon” — pretty much those of us who reside either in major cities, coastal states or other parts of this enormous melting pot, I highly suggest you get out on some of the finest highways our country has to offer.   The recent road trip to attend a Celebration of Life in Columbia, MO (the story why we drove was covered in the last post), accomplished just that.

Our route is below:  LA-St. George UT (lunch) -Limon CO (overnight) – St. Louis (overnight) – Columbia MO (service) – Kansas City MO (Gates BBQ) – Mulvane KS (overnight) – OKC (OKC Memorial) – Amarillo (The Big Texan) – Flagstaff (overnight) – Barstow (best Mexican food at Lola’s Kitchen) -LA.

When I wasn’t driving, I was posting Instagram stories (to keep from getting bored).

Random thoughts on the trip in no particular order:

  • The legal speed limit throughout much of Utah is 80 mph. That means I could go 90+ without much concern.  Most of Kansas, Arizona, Colorado, etc., is 75.  CA — what’s up??
  • There was a swing of more than 50 degrees in the course of 24 hours — from a low of 40 in the Rockies to 95+ in other parts.
  • There was an incredible display of lightening east of Denver in the pitch-black night, but almost no rain encountered.
  • Billboards prominently featured in Kansas and Missouri would create anarchy in California.  Free speech is alive and well in these states. No doubt there are folks who don’t like what they see, but I didn’t see a single billboard with graffiti or any other display of discord.
  • On the flip side of promoting the sanctity of life and religion, there are billboards advertising “adult superstores.”  Colorado has a very limited number of billboards of any type throughout the state.
  • The scenery in Utah is incredibly beautiful, having nothing to do with foliage — rather rock formations.

  • St. Louis has a fabulous baseball stadium!  Right in the heart of the city that you can walk up to.  And the diaspora of their fan base is enormous so folks come from all the surrounding states to get their baseball fix.  By the way, Missouri has the most contiguous states in the U.S. — eight of them. Blame the hubby if the math is incorrect.

  • One can work in the hotel business and not know the difference between feather and foam pillows, or which one is even offered at the hotel where they might work.  I have “extra feather pillows” as part of my hotel profile.  That’s a biggie to me.
  • Hotel rates are negotiable, especially late at night.  Do your homework, and don’t feel pressured to accept the rack rate.  Call ahead and let the desk clerk know you’re informed on the subject.
  • “The Hill” area of St. Louis has no view.  But it has all the best Italian food offered.  Go to the original Ted Drewes (on Chippewa) for frozen custard.  But be prepared to wait in line, especially after a Cards game or probably any other time.  In December, you can get frozen custard and buy your Christmas tree at Ted Drewes.

Fun stop in Kingdom City, MO

  • The road conditions immediately improve once one leaves California.  I mean like just past the state line.  It is a remarkable thing to experience.
  • Kansas somehow has managed to have a toll road on Interstate 70 — which is a federal highway.  How does that work?  Speaking of Kansas, it is the flattest place I’ve ever seen.  But Missouri has some of the most beautiful trees and agricultural fields.  Amazing.
  • Enormous bugs hit the windshield loudly and leave marks the size of half dollars.
  • There’s a stretch along the I-70 in Utah that goes for about 90 miles with no services — gas, food, etc., except for a couple of rest stops.  Be sure to watch for it and gas up beforehand!  We missed the sign.  But the hubby never let our car get below half a tank, so all was well.
  • As told to us by George Gates (with the hubby below), grandson of the founder of KC’s Gates BBQ, there are 126 different BBQ stops in KC.  All different.  This was my first trip to Gates (others previously visited: Arthur Bryant’s and Jack Stack).  I loved it.  George’s own grandson was with him.  Much of the Gates family is involved in the business (over 300 employees).  If you choose not to work at the family “shop,” that’s fine.  But don’t expect free food when you come to the stores.

 

Go big or go home (below):  At the Big Texan in Amarillo, your meal is free if you finish this 72-oz behemoth within 60 minutes.  You should also get free angioplasty if you eat that steak.

Finally, huge kudos to my hubby for meticulously providing music.  My car has satellite radio but there’s no auxiliary outlet for a music device.  So he brought over 50 CD’s for us to enjoy. Broadway, Bruno Mars, Sinatra and Big Band music plus Maroon 5 thrown in to the mix.  It was a blast — nearly 4,000 miles over 4-1/2 days.  So much fun.

Second visit to the haunting Oklahoma City Memorial. Each chair represents a life lost. Note the smaller chairs ..

The reflecting pool at the OKC Memorial

Sunrise in Flagstaff on our last day.

 

U.S. TravelWining/Dining

THANK YOU VIRGIN AIRLINES FOR THIS TRIP!

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What does that mean?  Virgin Airlines did everything in their power to destroy our return flight last September from Boston & Providence.  After much back and forth, a $500 credit was offered for future travel.  When I attempted to use the credit for a January trip to Houston, I found out that any travel associated with the credit had to go through Seattle — you guessed it.  Off to the PNW before the credit goes bye-bye.

Dinner view, Bellingham waterfront.

 

Not that one needs a good reason to visit the area, but we had a few besides the aforementioned credit.  First up, a long overdue visit with LA friends who relocated to Bellingham a number of years ago.  Then there’s my niece and her family — in particular my 3-year-old great niece.  Did we need to pick a weekend where the Dodgers just happened to be playing the Mariners?  Not really, but why not?  It’s always fun to visit stadiums, and our friends are serious fan(atics)s as well.

Bellingham transplants Marion & Ed, a friend of the hubby for 45 years.

Upon the recommendation of our Bellingham buddies, we reserved two nights at The Willows Inn on nearby Lummi Island, a quaint establishment with just eight accommodations.  From their website:  “Lummi Island is located in the archipelago that includes the San Juan Islands and the Gulf Islands in the Salish Sea, the waters off the coasts of the Pacific Northwest and southwest Canada.”  I didn’t fully appreciate what we were in for, except I knew we were going to splurge on their prix-fixe dinner.

Outdoor grill at The Willows Inn prepping dinner courses

Tempting lobby treats!

Love this outdoor table!

Chef/proprietor Blaine Wetzel is a disciple of Rene Redzepi of the world-renown restaurant Noma in Copenhagen.  The style of cooking and use of ingredients is based on whatever local products are available, heavily skewed to all types of seafood and every vegetable known (and some new ones) including plants, herbs and edible flowers.  Many were grilled outside and finished inside.  Our “snacks” began on the patio with a series of small bites and progressed inside for many more courses.  We finished back on the patio for a series of desserts mainly using local fruits.  It was a world-class meal in every sense.

You had me at bbq’d mussels

“Herb Tostada” — completely edible!

Braised local cabbage with charred edges. Outstanding.

The only bread offering (amazing) — with a buttery crab dip.

After dinner we went into the kitchen along with many other guests where we met the chef himself.  Our friends generously bought me his book so I wanted to get it signed.  Little did I know that head chef  Wetzel actually delivered (incognito) one of our courses!  Talk about everyone being hand’s on.  We loved hearing more background about the restaurant and having an aperitif before retiring to our room upstairs.

The only issue with the Inn’s location is the ferry that runs back and forth to the mainland — which ferry is the only access to the Inn.  The line can be oppressive, especially in the summer months.  After waiting about 30 minutes to get a morning ferry to the mainland, we called an audible, went back to the Inn and gathered our belongings and checked out.  The idea of spending up to 3 hours of this short trip waiting for the ferry just didn’t make sense so I booked modest accommodations for the night on the mainland and off we went for a spectacular day of sightseeing in Bellingham and the surrounding areas.

Ugh. Endless line for the ferry.

As a longtime suffering gardener — meaning my efforts and my yield are seriously out of balance — seeing blackberries growing literally like weeds everywhere is just a killer.  And then we went to pick blueberries.  Does anyone not love blueberries? (Mr. H, don’t answer that).  There are simply not enough adjectives to describe the abundance of berries in the area, both at Boxx Berry Farm and at a private home in Lynwood.  Literally grab a container and proceed.  The best method for picking proved to be imitating how one milks a cow (which I have never done but used my imagination).

Blueberries!

Three of us picked these.

Packed up for transporting home

We loved going to Safeco Field for two Dodger games.  The ratio of Dodger blue gear to either Mariners or other teams is at least 50/50 if not more.  Spending time with friends/fans was terrific fun.  Once more, the distinct differences between stadium food offerings in other parks compared to Dodger Stadium makes one wonder why our organization doesn’t do a better job!

Fun at Safeco Field

Dodger pitcher Rich Hill warming up pre-game.

We had a blast spending time with family and enjoying a splendid meal at Purple Cafe in the heart of downtown.  Delicious food, conversation and time well spent all adds up to a most enjoyable journey up north.

Pasta with local corn and tomatoes

Peach gallette with a side of salted caramels.

The fam: Niece Jenna, hubby Thomas and 3-1/2-yr-old gorgeous Doron