Our local Burger King always has a long cue of cars lined up at the drive through. So, one day, middle of the week, I decided to get ahead of the inevitable crowds and struck out early to snag the next contestant in our Fast Food Chicken Sandwich comparisons. This photo is of a recently unsheathed Spicy Crispy Chicken Sandwich from BK. It arrives in an insulated bag, perfect for taking home without the loss of too much heat. Immediately you can see this is not an ordinary take-out chicken sanny, it’s a beast. The fillet is white (why don’t they use the thigh?), wonderfully seasoned, and juicy, thick breast meat. The addition of the cooling properties of thick sliced tomato and whole leaves of lettuce plays well with the spicy crust and sauce all tucked between a lovely, perfectly soft but strong bun. It really doesn’t get better than this for fast food eating. Next up: KFC. It’s going to be hard to top the BK Spicy Crispy Chicken!
Delicious lunch in simple surroundings in Dayton before starting out on tastings. Carnitas Quesadilla (half eaten in this shot) with perfectly crispy and flavorful carnitas and cheesy. Taco bowl with Chili Verde layered with grains also great. Give this place a try.
Gravlax is actually pretty easy to make. The basic recipe includes applying a dry brine with herbal elements to some fish protein. In this case, salmon, but it could just as well be another firm, meaty fish such as haddock or halibut. Most brines are made of some combination of salt and sugar rubbed on the flesh, put in a sealable bag or wrapped tightly in cling wrap and refrigerated for at least 24 hours. The recipe below is a spin off Oceania's Culinary Center 'If it Swims' on-board course.
Turn on the exhaust fan!
Add the oil, swirl around to cover the surface of the pan. As soon as little whisks of smoke appear, slap down that roast in the pan. Use tongs to push down the roast so all parts are in contact with the pan. Give it a minute or two, depending on your heat source. Flip and do same on all sides.
Just before removing, put in the garlic cloves and fresh veg & herbs (rosemary, carrot, celery, and bay in this case) giving them a little heat. Remove everything from pan, set aside.
You can stop here, get a glass of wine, and get ready to bag this bad boy.
Slowly submerge the bagged roast into the heated sous vide bath. You want to get as much air out as possible from the outer and inner bags. I use the blunt end of a long wooden chopstick to push the roast down, sealing the inner bag first, then the outer. It might still bob up a little. If that’s the case, try placing a heavy spoon in the bottom of the out bag and resubmerge.
Hook the bags to the side if you like, or let them free-float as I’ve done here.
Since this is a long cook (24 hours!), you’ll need to watch the water level. It’s best to cover the opening of your pot with plastic wrap. We have these nifty white plastic pearls that float on the top to help reduce water loss.
At this point, dump the contents of the bag into a Windsor pan, or suitable sauce pan along with the tomato paste.
Put the roast back into the bags...yes, back into the same bags, and reimmerse into the heated water. Don’t worry, it can’t over cook, but WILL keep your roast perfectly warm until eating time.
1. Reduce further for a thicker sauce.
2. Enhance sauce with store bought Demi glacé- we use veal Demi.
3. Further gild the Lilly with more fat! Just before serving, pull off heat and add in a couple of tablespooons of choice butter. Think Kerry Gold! Whisk until combined.
Get as crazy and creative as you like.
Add a couple of your favorite veggies to the platter, and pour on a little of that sauce you made over the meat.
Garnish with some fresh chopped parsley if you like..or not. Your choice, go wild.
Bring to table and watch their faces beam.
Plate & Serve
Our Superbowl Snacks
February 3, 2019
Our God Daughter, Megan, came over during the Superbowl so we needed a few snacks to have on-hand. Still being inspired by our trip to Spain, we decided to stick with the tapas style goodies. However, not ones to be confined to convention, we've adapted and combined several versions to come up with a more "keto friendly" recipe. Not that we're totally about keto (Hello, wine!) but we are trying to avoid most carbs including bread, which is generally found in meatballs.
Here's what we came up with.
November 9 - 13th, 2018
Hotel Casa Fuster recommended to us by Aurelio Giordano, of Ace World Travel, turned out to be the exact right fit for Steven and I. You can Google the Hotel Casa Fuster for a load of details, but what impressed us from the start was location and history. Aurelio asked us what was important to us when we traveled and built us a few options, Hotel Casa Fuster being top on his list for accommodations in Barcelona.
He understood that we loved modernist architecture, even though we didn’t really appreciate the differences between ‘modern’ and Catalan Modernist art and design. Hotel Casa Fuster is perhaps one of the rare accommodations that started as a private residence and morphed into the amazing hotel that it is today
The hotel is in the toney Eixmapler neighborhood. There is no end to modernist architecture in the area. Hotel Casa Fuster, designed by Lluís Domènech i Montanern was built in 1908 and completely renovated in 2004 – it is as many websites proclaim, ‘the symbol of the greatest period of splendor and prosperity Barcelona has experienced during the past hundred years.’
Our experience of Hotel Casa Fuster was nothing but amazing – except perhaps the first suite we were assigned that sat just above the bar, which turns into a jazz bar on the night we arrived. After a few hours of listening to marvelous jazz reverberating into our room, we went down to as ask for another room. The good team at Hotel Casa Fuster immediately reassigned us to the 3rd floor, same side. A slightly differently configured suite, but nonetheless, beautiful.
Please accept that the hotel itself is luxurious and well-maintained. It is the staff that sets it above many we’ve been to. In particular the door staff, especially David (pronounced Daveed), who always seemed to be exactly where and when we needed him. David, and the other staff, were always there to assist as we needed. They helped us with cabs and directions and suggestions for late night snacks. The main desk staff were equally as helpful when requesting dinner reservations at the last minute, or as in our case, cancelling a reservation at the last minute.
Just look at the interior photos blow show, the spaces have been artfully returned to the glory of the original design. Several nights, we sheltered on the duvets and plush couches with substantial pillows with ample cocktails in hand, well into the night.
To sum up, book the Hotel Casa Fuster if you want to be immersed into Catalan Modernist architecture in the heart of vibrant Barcelona.
Just saw a Heineken commercial with race car drive Nico Rosberg. This video, beginning at 0:19 is shot at Hotel Casa Fuster.
Places We’ve Stayed at in Ireland
21-24 Upper Merrion Street
16 Skipper Street
Rossnowlagh Beach, Co. Donegal
Lislaughrea, Co. Mayo
Castlemartyr, Co. Cork
The Lodge at Ashford Castle, Cong
The first thing you notice when approaching The Lodge are the vast parklands surrounding the property, which includes the lux Ashford Castle. Both are members of the Red Carnation and Leading hotel and resort groups. We came from the north skimming Lough Mask on our way south, which gave us great views on what was another sunny, pleasant day in Ireland.
Our GPS took us to Ashford Castle Drive and what looked like an original entrance to the property, but the signs kept point us around its edges until we finally came to a small gate and signage pointing us up a slight hill from Lough Corrib to The Lodge. We learned later, that there is normally a gatekeeper at the grand entrance who would let us pass through. I suggest you hang out until someone comes to let you through, the drive to the Lodge or Castle from that route is worth it and most likely how the landscaper intended you first see the fairytale castle once owned by the Guinness family.
As you can see from this Google Maps image, The Lodge is close to Ashford Castle but requires a short walk downhill through a small wood to reach it. At first, we were a bit nervous to take that route as property Range Rovers and guests’ cars regularly careened along the narrow roadway up and back from the Castle and town of Cong. We took our chances, figuring no one would run us down, though we looked over our shoulders often.
Before we get to talking about The Lodge, note a few other landmarks on the map. Of course there is Ashford Castle. The golf course, a summer restaurant – Cullen’s at the Cottage, and publicly accessible gardens surround it. You can reach any point by foot, or by car. Note that if you are not staying on property there is a fee to enter the park. Far left is the School of Falconry and just above this are more woods that hold an equestrian centre (center if you prefer US spelling), archery field and clay pigeon shooting range. In another post, we’ll talk about our archery and shooting lessons. You could walk to any of these, or grab one of the bikes for let. We chose to have the driver take us and pick us up – the weather had turned by then.
The Lodge is a courtyard design with a wide-open terrace facing the lough where cocktails and snacks are served. The centre courtyard has seating and pleasant fountain, which happened to be drained for repair most of our visit. Apparently, children drop the loose pebbles from the landscaping into the fountain clogging it up regularly. Hum. The building itself is noteworthy because of its former resident, one William Wilde, father of, you guessed it Oscar Wilde. Incidentally, the Wilde restaurant is named after Oscar and his family, holding some memorabilia of the family’s time there.
Check-in went smoothly. We were oriented to the Lodge and property amenities and rules, including mention that we couldn’t just walk over the turreted bridge to the Castle without showing our room key or being escorted. Off the main entrance hall, a modest space with a broad central staircase, to the right is the Quay Bar and Brasserie. This became our resting place and got to know some of the wait staff during our stay. Through the main hall, we entered a transom hall with grand piano and plenty of overstuffed chairs and couches, suitable for lounging, cocktailing, taking a tea and biscuit…you get the picture. Passing through to the courtyard, our room was located about in the middle of the north wing.
The Room We took a Duplex Suite for our stay. As you can guess, the first floor is for lounging and the second is where the king-sized bed and master bathroom are. We were on the ground floor and had double-doors leading to a small private patio with two lounge chairs waiting. We had free internet access, an LCD TV, pillow topped mattress, down duvet, a rainforest shower, wonderful robes, and breakfast included. The bathroom was certainly nicely appointed, but very long and very narrow with the large shower at the far end. The room, once again, was decorated in a mild art déco scheme. I’m not sure what the trend with all the art deco is about, but it was very common in the places we stayed. All in all, a very nice place to spend a few days relaxing and to which to return after a day of exploring.
The Food The Quay Bar and Brasserie had just undergone a face lift and menu renovation is where we spent our first evening sipping cocktails and having some snacks. The Quay’s new menu showed an experimental side of what you might otherwise expect of typical Irish pub food. The tone is definitely brasserie out on the terrace outside the bar. All the dishes were crafted to highlight some local or noted Irish product. The charcuterie for instance, came with selected cured Irish meats, one type hanging off a wire surrounded by small pots of pickeled onions with carrots another with stone ground mustard. We stifled a giggle at this presentation style, but thoroughly enjoyed ourselves. We’d return many times over our stay to sample the new menu. It was all delicious.
Breakfasts were served in The Wilde’s at the Lodge restaurant. Breakfasts are hearty and include made-to-order hot items if you wished. The spread on the buffet held many common items, including bangers, fresh breads, sweets, carved meats, prepared fish that changed daily, porridge, juices, and of course tea and coffee. We typically ordered a hot meal from the menu, enough food to set you up properly for the day’s outings.
We decided to take one dinner at The Castle’s George V Dining Room, which will be written about separately, and one evening at The Wilde’s. At Wilde’s we were seated at a corner table, the one pictured on the restaurants website. Like many chef’s in Ireland today, Chef Jonathan Keane takes his lead from local livestock, game, fish, and produce – creating dishes with few ingredients, expertly presented, and with full flavors. As you would expect, the menus are seasonal and depend upon what can be sourced for that evenings meal. I chose the Menu of Discovery that highlighted the best of what the day had had to offer; scallop, foie gras, duck, lamb, turnip and peas. Oh, and not to forget the evening potato served in its own copper pot.
The whole meal, including a very accommodating dining room manager who packed up our remaining meal and promptly delivered it to our room when Steven’s cold got the best of him that evening, was quite memorable. They even brought a surprise desert later. I don’t recall which wines we sampled, but the food was clearly the highlight. You don’t have to be staying at The Lodge to enjoy this food. If you’re near, I highly recommend making a reservation. And at 60 Euros for the tasting menu, not bad pricing either.
Here are some of the dishes starting with freshed baked breads. We didn't keep a copy of the menu, so not sure exactly what each is. Sorry, we didn't get shots of everything.
Castlemartyr Resort, Castlemartyr
Once again, Steven located a great place to stay for a few days near the end of our trip. As I mentioned above, Steven wasn’t feeling all that well, so rather than push it to make it to the Dingle for our dinner reservations there, we cancelled and were luckily able to add a night onto our original booking. Once we got there, we realized just how lucky we were to get that extra night – the hotel was nearly fully booked with a wedding party. In fact, we walked into the main entrance hall to be engulfed in the formal champagne reception prior to the ceremony and feast. The happy couple, clearly what we refer to as the A-Gay crowd, had their own website, with friends posting pictures as the evening progressed. No, we don’t stalk our own. They were just hard to miss with the URL being posted on signs around the hall.
The hotel itself is an 17th century manor house reborn into a sprawling complex of rooms, golf course, equestrian centre, a beautifully modern spa and pool area with upstairs gym, formal gardens, and an 13th century Knights Templar castle ruin. The décor of the hotel is warm and comforting throughout, even into the more recently added sections where we were lodged. Exploring the ground floor after the wedding party cleared out, we found a bar, The Knights Bar, where we had a pretty good cocktail overlooking the formal gardens. The poor staff were clearly trying to recover from the wedding reception, so even though they were a bit slow, we’ll give them a pass. Further down the center hall we passed The Bell Tower, where we’d have breakfasts, and into the original house that held meeting rooms and some of the posher accommodations on the second floor. Heading in the opposite direction toward our room, we passed what looked like a very nice traditional living room, or lounge. Settings of couches and stuffed chairs provided plenty of space to have a more secluded meal with the kids or just to have tea.
The grounds are splendid. As you drive onto the property from its newly relocated entrance (the original manor house gate is now for pedestrian use only), you come upon out buildings, ruins, a glade with a slowly moving creek, fowl, and paths. After we settle into the room, we explored more of the property, taking walks and many pictures of the horses galloping in a wide-open pasture across from the main house. We almost managed to get ourselves lost on a longer walk circumnavigating the entire property. Luckily, we met an Irish couple on holiday who gave us directions out of the seemingly endless woodland paths, past a ruined abbey and nunnery I swear was still inhabited, if you get my meaning. We emerged, marked by cuts from mistakenly climbing a over fence and onto a fairway with golfers playing through, not on our own exactly, but by following the nice couple at a discrete distance.
I can see why this is a destination for the Irish and foreigners alike. If you don’t ride or play golf, there is plenty to do, or not, as you please.
The Room We booked a double deluxe room, Castlemartyr’s most basic room category. The long haul to the room might have first disappointed us, but entering the room we breathed a sigh of thankfulness and relief. Remember, Steven still wasn’t well, the simple but beautifully appointed room was a welcome sight for the both of us. Because of our last minute add-on of an early arrival, we had to take a double room for the first night. The next night we moved to a king room. The "king bed" was simply configured from two twins pushed together, and made up without there being a crevasse between the joined beds!
Our room overlooked the golf course and small clubhouse restaurant, The Pod. It had everything you’d need for a long stay. It was large, even by US traveler standards, held a desk, a lounging chair with ottoman, a spacious bathroom, and plenty of closet space to store your things. The room came with no tea/coffee maker, something I really would appreciate as the first one up every morning, but that wasn’t too much to suffer given the splendid room and resort.
The Food Since we stayed at Castlemartyr several days, we ate at all the dining options. As I mentioned, The Knight’s Bar is for a drink and perhaps a quick meal. Be aware that the menu cuts off at 6:30pm, but cocktails flow well into the night. The second night we ate at the Italian restaurant, Franchini’s. We were lead to believe you couldn’t get a reservation, but we had no problem. The service was very good. We found out that our server was actually the son of the owner, who had brought the family over from Italy a generation ago. The son certainly knew his menu. We felt confident we’d not go wrong with anything we’d order. And we were right. In any case, we ordered a…guess what, charcuterie plate and some soup. We both had a pasta course, Kevin had the Pork and Beef Meatballs with Spaghetti, Steven having the Porcini Ravioli, for our main that evening, not something we typically do. The pasta for the ravioli was certainly fresh but fairly certain the spaghetti were dried. Both were quite good, well-seasoned, not overly sauced, and a reasonable portion…by which I mean just over a good handful.
Our breakfasts were taken in The Bell Tower on the main floor. They also offered hot items ordered from a daily changing menu as well as a completely serviceable buffet with all the expected items. We tended to order from the menu AND get some selections (mostly charcuterie) from the buffet. Personally, I love fish, so I indulged in any offering of kippered, poached, or raw goodness from the sea. The setting is lovely, especially if you snag a table at the windows, which we did on our final morning. A good way to start the day in every way. One thing that should be mentioned. At check out, we discovered that our room rate did not include breakfast. Gulp. Check your room type. The breakfasts aren’t cheap.
Finally, after surviving (just kidding) our walk around the property we were quite hungry and decided on stopping at The Pod, just at the 18th hole. Steven had a very well-prepared burger and I the daily fish. Except for the pesky bees buzzing around, the food was more than serviceable and the beers cold. Plus, what’s not to like about a lazy afternoon people watching?
The Maldron Hotel, Dublin Airport
We were bound to hit a dud at some point on this trip, and this was it. Frankly, I doubt much could have matched the experiences we’d had thus far, so I’ll be kind. Maldron is a chain of modestly priced hotels, in this case catering to the business traveler rather than families as some of their other hotels do. The hotel website boasts having ‘an airport perfect location’, but it didn’t exactly. You’d definitely need a car or cab to get there. The hotel is basic, clean, and is a fine place to rest your head for a night. Given it’s not near anything of interest, it wouldn’t be a good choice for longer stays. The staff were pleasant enough too, offering us a shuttle which worked out just fine for us. We had already dropped off the rental car the night before and the rental agency shuttle dropped us off near the hotel.
The Room We chose a basic room with single full-sized bed. We had to be careful where we put our luggage so as not to trip over it during the night on the way to the bathroom. The room was fine, spartan, with a thin mattress and blanket. The bathroom, again serviceable. Not much to say about it. In all, worth one night, but not more if you care for your back health.
The Food There are several options for food; The Apron Restaurant, the Red Bean Roastery, and The Sky Bar. We looked at the Apron, decided against it as the menu looked too substantial and we just wanted something small. We settled on The Sky Bar, just behind the coffee/pastry bar in the main lobby. We were pretty tired from a long day traveling from Co. Cork to the Wicklow mountains, and around Dublin, so we ordered small plates. These were just enough, and hit the spot. The food wasn’t memorable, but we weren’t expecting it to be. Not insignificantly, it was the warm smile of our server that I remember most. In the morning we were off to our flight to London, so I ran down to the Bean and grabbed us some muffins, juice, and coffee. Sustenance only and perfectly fine. We’d eat more later.
No pictures of the Moldron because, quite frankly, it wasn't worth the effort.
Places We’ve Stayed at in Ireland
21-24 Upper Merrion Street
16 Skipper Street
Rossnowlagh Beach, Co. Donegal
Lislaughrea, Co. Mayo
Castlemartyr, Co. Cork
The Merrion, Dublin
Our first night in Ireland. After searching the web for countless hours, Kevin finally asked his friend, Mary, who lives in Ireland what she thought about The Merrion. She had nothing but good things to say. We booked it before the summer rates really kicked in; lucky for us because it’s not the least expensive place you could stay in Dublin.
Dublin in general, is NOT a bargain city, so don’t go there expecting huge deals, either in lodging, restaurants, or shopping. Of course every large metropolitan area has its ‘deals’. We wanted to stay central and within walking distance (that’s an American walking-distance mind you) of good places to eat and tour. The Merrion was just right for us.
The Merrion is billed as a 5-star luxury hotel located centrally in Dublin’s Georgian neighborhood, and we think it certainly deserves all its many accolades. The hotel was created from four Georgian townhouses and boasts 2 bars, 2 restaurants, a gym, a spa, a pool, a large art collection (they even have a guidebook and website of the art), and well, a lot of comfy furniture and quiet places to read, have a cocktail, or simply stare out at the gardens.
The Room Our room was spacious and well-appointed. The king bed was dreamy; the bathroom gracious in every way. We were located in the garden wing, one of the townhomes adjacent to an outdoor dining area, which doubled as a venue for special events and served High Tea daily. The view was not spectacular, but that’s what you get when you book a basic room, even at a 5 star! Please don’t think we’re complaining, it was a perfect room for us to rest after a long day of travel and seeing the sights in Dublin.
The Food We had our breakfasts adjacent to The Cellar Room. As the name implies, if you’re not dining in your room, you need to take a couple of different paths – including elevators - and down some stairs to get there. Breakfast was generous. A large assortment of goodies of every kind. We were eating less carbs, so we passed on most of the bread and sweet pastries, with the exception of the brown soda bread and Irish butter. Don’t skip these, you’re regret it. We could order an entree if we liked, or just cruise the buffet. The servers were very attentive, and by the 2nd day, they knew what beverages we wanted and seating preference.
We didn’t indulge in the other dining choices at the hotel, as we wanted to hit the Dublin food scene and find our own way exploring. If you’re interested, The Merrion has Dublin’s only Two Micheline Star restaurants, the Restaurant Patrick Guilbaud. One note of caution even if you’re not hitting up this 2 star wonder; book your restaurant and High Tea well in advance. This is a popular place to stay and for locals to enjoy.
The Perks Did I mention there was a spa and pool? Do not miss the pool. You can go even if you don’t purchase a spa treatment. What can I say? It’s worth the price of admission as they say. All you do is present your room key and you gain access to the amazing pool, steam room, and gym. You might notice that we try to stay at hotels with pools. We both deeply enjoy unwinding in the water and taking a steam or cold plunge. Pure relaxation.
We’ll definitely return.
The Merchant Hotel, Belfast
We searched long and hard to find something we thought we’d enjoy for our one night in Belfast. The Merchant is another centrally located hotel, earning a 5 Red Star designation – but without a pool, though it does have a really nice rooftop hot tub and sauna with a view.
It is, like many hotels in Europe, a collection of buildings that originally served other purposes. In the case of The Merchant, the stunning façade of one side of the hotel is a Grade A historic building that once was a fabulous bank. Looking at the carved ceilings of its main hall gives you some sense of its grandeur. This is where we had breakfast. Not bad, huh?
But, this grandeur is not the main entrance. You actually enter around the corner in an unfortunate ‘Art Deco inspired’ addition.
The Room Entering check-in on a side street was just fine. Though we did have to go around the block twice to find it. We were greeted and quickly on our way to our room, guided by a handsome Doorman/Concierge, Michael, with our luggage. The room was well, weird. Neither of us are huge fans of Art Deco to begin with, but this was just plain odd – a black and white palate with an overt emphasis on movie stars and women’s (bare-breasted) figures from the 1930’s I suppose. Still, the room and bath were big, and we had a very comfy bed with soft linens and plenty of blankets. It was cool in Belfast, so these came in handy. I learned later that they also have Victorian inspired rooms. You might want to check those out.
The Food Perhaps the most memorable moments of this stay were had, not in a hotel restaurant, but in the grand bar on the second level, next to the even grander hall where they served dinner and breakfasts, The Great Room Restaurant. Simply called The Cocktail Bar, the well-tailored, precise bartender served us a few yummy cocktails chilled by his very own ice cube creation – a hand carved, crystal clear block of ice. We chatted him up a bit and discovered he is known in the city for this talent. I wish I could remember his name to mention here, he deserves the shout out for this flawless cube. Plus, he is definitely a master craftsmen of cocktails. There are also an Art Deco jazz bar and Champagne Lounge, which we didn’t venture into.
Breakfast was in The Great Room. The full breakfast is called the Merchant Breakfast and is also available to non-residents. Of course, we had to enjoy this treat. A small basket of fresh rolls came quickly as did our choice of beverage. I had tea and Steven had coffee. The breakfast was good, filling, and nicely presented – in all honest, the presentation was more memorable than the actual meal. From our trip to Scotland in 2015, I learned to appreciate the local variations of haggis and blood pudding. At the Merchant, the eggs nestled against two slices of these uniquely UK morsels. Unfortunately, these came a bit dry if you can believe that. Isn’t the hallmark of a good haggis its fat content? Oh well, at least the service and setting were worth it.
Finally we come to The Cloth Ear. We booked this particular hotel because it claimed to server a traditional Sunday roast in its pub. Something told me to have the front desk check on our dinner reservation and our Sunday roast. It turned out that there was no indication of our reservation, but less any notation of wanting the Sunday roast with trimmings. We were disappointed to here that they may have run out of the roast, but could substitute another kind of roast if we’d liked. The waiter had a talk with the chef and eventually confirmed that there was definitely an order left. No one around us was eating anything remotely like dinner, only sandwiches and, well, lots of beers. We were noticed in our conspicuous attention to securing a damn Sunday roast. It was almost as if they didn’t want to serve it to us. We persisted, and ate. I can’t say it was particularly good, but we were starved and woofed it all down. We left quickly - we had enough of the old 1800's advertisement on the walls for women's undergarment.
The Sandhouse Hotel, Donegal
Steven took great pains to find us a place on the water to spend one night as we headed south to a several day stay at our next stop in Cong. We passed through Donegal city proper on our way, stopping to walk around the town square and find something to eat. It was after all, a very long day of travel, having left Belfast early and taking our time at the Giant’s Causeway and meandering down the coast.
The Sandhouse is out of town, about 10 miles south of Donegal. The website claims it is a 4-star, family-run hotel and marine spa. Not sure what the latter means exactly, but the hotel part is right. Not sure what 4-star rating system they use. If you’ve seen the British comedy, Fawlty Towers, you kind of get the picture of what we encountered. She looked to have been quite something in her day, with a large veranda and rocking chairs on which to while away the endless, quite hours on the bay. The hotel fronts a huge section of nearly flat, pure sand beaches shaped in a gentle arch bending nearly as far as the eye could see in either direction. The view was really sublime.
If you got the Fawlty Tower reference, then you can fill in the blanks and skip this part. For those of you not so into British telly, let me paint the picture. You enter the hotel through two sets of glass doors having seen better days, each up slightly from the next, and into a sloping rise toward the check-in desk, stuck under the main staircase. Walls and wallpaper everywhere in need of cleaning or replacement. We dared not look too closely. On our way to the elevator (a nicely generous one I might add) we passed a narrow bar just off the entrance hall, peopled by a few ladies and gentlemen nursing their beers. I imagine they were in those same seats with those same beers for hours. In all honestly, we were very tired, and probably a little too hungry to be fair at this point. We both made the effort to buck up and get to the room.
I have to mention all this detail, because it should have been noticed by us as a foreshadowing of what was to come. We might have been better prepared.
The Room Ah, now to our room. Off the elevator at the very top of the hotel, down a long, slopped, creaky hall with worn floral carpets, we found our room. No electronic keypad, just a key (on a ridiculously oversized key chain) away from getting us out of the pent-up, radiant heat trapped in that hall. No luck. The room was hotter as it faced the setting sun. Normally, a very good thing, but in this case, it was the heat that distracted from the spectacular view. We pried open the one small windows in the once-cheery yellow room to get some fresh in and discovered we had to prop open the door with a piece of luggage to get some circulation (which, as it turned out, also helped with the wifi connection). It didn’t matter. It was miserable. We were at seaside, so it shouldn’t have been surprising to also find sand in the room and those little, terrible flies coming in the open window. We left our clothes in our zippered luggage.
Hot and sweating, we decided to head to the beach just before sunset. It was worth it all. Just spectacular.
The Food On the way back from the beach we tried to get to a deck we noticed while on the shore. We scrambled up a little path only to find a service entrance to the kitchen and loading dock of some kind. Not to be deterred, we soldered on and pushed aside a wooden gate barely holding on by a couple of rusted screws and found the deck! A few folks were sitting at equally worn wooden picnic benches, looking up just briefly to notice the newcomers and return to their half-empty pints and overflowing cigarette ash trays. I couldn’t imagine staying here, so we ventured off to catch the sunset on another, small deck, this one at a half floor off the main staircase – sort of like finding platform 9 ¾ at Kings Cross. We found it and settled into the small, cozy space with a few others enjoying a couple of cocktails and light snacks for dinner. Nothing too bad to report; we made the best of it.
Breakfast was in the dining room, The Glasshouse Restaurant. Since we skimped on dinner the night before, we were ravenous and thoroughly delighted with our meal. I had the fresh kippers along with more traditional breakfast fare. Steven had the full Irish breakfast. We really did enjoy ourselves at our seaside table reading over the days itinerary and planning our route down to Cong and The Lodge at Ashford Castle. In retrospect, we should have explored the hotel more. It turns out there was a seaside bar, which we tried to find but couldn’t, the Seashell Restaurant, and a spa.
A final note about The Glasshouse Restaurant. One reason we decided on skipping dinner here, aside from the price, was that it was quite the formal affair. Gentlemen were in ties and ladies in their finest dresses. The menu looked interesting but quite expensive. Apparently, this restaurant has won a number of accolades including awards from Lucinda O'Sullivan. These are quite prestigious honors within Ireland. By all appearances, The Glasshouse Restaurant is a destination in itself even if the hotel is a bit of a shambles.
December 16, 2016
Steven and I met one day around lunch time to take in the SAM main museum’s exhibit on fashion designer Yves St. Lauren. Steven had to return to work but I wanted something to eat. Since I don't get a chance to come downtown very often, I wanted to find a place for lunch I'd never been to. After wandering around the SAM neighborhood a little, considering this and that restaurant, I remembered that some friends of ours always rave about the burger at the Four Seasons Goldfinch Tavern. Steven also mentioned he had heard the same. That tipped the scale for me. Goldfinch it would be.
One thing about the Four Seasons, it’s classy. On entering the lobby, you immediately feel comfortable without being at all ‘fancy’ in that Georgian, pillared look of some classic hotels. No gilded trim, just simple treatment of wood and stone.
The Tavern is situated to take advantage of a nearly unobstructed view of Elliott Bay. The ‘nearly’ unobstructed part comes due to the presence of our Viaduct. Once it’s torn down, maybe in 2018, the expanse of waterfront and all the water traffic will be cleared for viewing. Like the lobby, the Tavern is simply designed and comfortable. The hostess was going to seat me in the main seating area, but I really didn’t want to take up a table by myself, so I took the only seat left at the bar.
Water was set down almost immediately by some swift and nearly invisible back waiter. Swoosh the water appears…swoosh the bar menu is set down in front of me in a ballet movement of the bar tender. Ah, I thought to myself…I’m off to a lovely lunch. And I was. Here’s the link to the full lunch menu: Goldfinch Tavern Lunch.
I looked over the wine and cocktail list, deciding on a red, a Pinot. They listed a red wine from Stoller Family Estates, one of our wine club memberships. Unfortunately the list just said Stoller Pinot Noir not very helpful. I asked the bar tender to say a bit more about the bottle, but he didn’t seem to know that much other than it was a Pinot. In fairness, he wasn’t probably ready for too deep of a conversation about Stoller, so I’ll give him a pass. It turned out we have that one in the cellar already. I went for something new: Gloria Ferrer, Carneros Pinot Noir and the Goldfinch Burger.
The Carneros is a beautiful wine from a winemaker I hadn’t paid much attention to in the past. I will now. Like most Pinots, they are light on the tongue but leave different impressions. This one was balanced, a bit toward the fruity side. VERY easy to drink. I should mention that the bar tender was not shy about the pour. He filled my glass over half way. I’m guessing it was 8-10 oz.
The Goldfinch Burger was not as much of a success as the wine. Swift service didn’t outweigh the fact that my medium rare burger arrived medium. The saving grace were the fries with dill aioli and the fact that the burger was made from Waygu beef. Unlike Aqua’s burger, this one tried too hard to be a success with having too many toppings: Beecher’s cheese, fennel aioli, house made pickle (yum) and smoke onion marmalade. It was not a failure by any means, just not as good as Aqua's and it cost $4 more. Next time, I’m trying the Lobster Roll.
Christmas Day dinner with friends began the day before with the arrival of a hefty 3-rib prime rib roast. We knew that to sous vide a roast this size would take many, many hours, so it was necessary to have it handy Christmas morning to start the sous vide process.
It's gotten to be our tradition to have Christmas dinner with our friend David (ever since Steven had foot surgery Christmas Eve a few years back). In exchange for us cooking dinner, David provides the most wonderful prime rib roasts. He gets them at Metropolitan Market in West Seattle. This year's roast is from the blade end so it has a little more marbling - perfect! See our earlier post for tips on buying your rib roasts:
We consulted two websites for information and recipes on all-things sous vide: ChefSteps and Anova Culinary. We bought the Joule sold by ChefSteps, and that gave us access to their Premium area that contains extensive resources and training videos as well as other opportunities the Joule team dreams of. Plus we just like that ChefSteps is local, located in our very own Pike Place Market.
Shop our other recommendations here.
From a web search for sous vide prime rib recipes, we landed back at ChefSteps. Here’s the link to their herb crusted (prime) rib roast recipe, which they say was inspired by their own traditional rib roast recipe. At this writing, we’re having difficulty accessing the link on the iPad, but it works just fine on the iPhone, Samsung Galaxy, and MacBook Air. Hey Joule Team, you might want to look into this.
|ChefSteps||Variation||Temp & Time|
|-1 Prime rib (rib roast), about 3 ribs||Ours was a “chuck” or blade end roast with 3 ribs, but the butcher cut it close to the 4th rib giving us more meaty goodness. Complete with herb crust.||128F, 7 hours. ChefSteps meat guide places this in the Medium Rare category, just as we like it.
Timing was a bit longer than ChefSteps says (their’s puts it between 3 and 5 hours). We were having too much pre-dinner fun and just that puppy sit in the water, knowing it wouldn’t over cook.
Love this about sous vide!
The prep time takes a lot longer that you might think. That’s why we opted for a pre-prepped roast, saving us probably an hour or so. Remember, we’re novices at preparing such a large roast, it might take you a lot less time.
Before going into the sous vide, ChefSteps recommends browning it on all sides. This just takes maybe 3 minutes on each side – about 10-12 minutes total.
Be careful not to burn the roast so use a lower temp than we would in searing fish for instance.
-Rosemary-garlic (3 cloves crushed)
-One sprig, cut in two pieces
-4 cloves crushed
|For herb crust:
-Herbs (fresh such as rosemary and thyme)
-Black pepercorns, whole
-Salt, Maldonado flake
-1 egg white
|-We skipped this entirely as our roast was pre-herbed from the butcher.|
|-To french or not?||Nope, no Frenching for us.|
|-Scoring sides||Nope, didn’t do this either. Sounded too complicated, plus we didn’t French it so we thought to skip this.|
|-Separating Bones||Once again, we didn’t need this step as our butcher already took the rib bones off the roast and tied the roast back together.|
|-Removing membrane||We seriously thought about this step, and…yep, decided to skip it. No particular reason expect we were not feeling too motivated Christmas morning what with all the presents to open and such.|
- Salt & pepper
- cooking oil
|After seasoning roast on all sides, sear in pan over medium heat. We used a cast iron pan, which heats evenly and keep the heat longer than other pans we have.
This smokes up the house, so turn up the exhaust fan to high!
|Bag it and get it going||We don’t have sous vide bags, so we doubled bagged it in oven roasting bags. ChefSteps cautions against using regular zip close freezer bags for longer cooking as the seams my give out.
Otherwise, we followed their guidelines and placed the roast in the inner bag along with the rosemary springs and crushed garlic.
We used the water seal method since we don’t have a sealer (submerge the bag in water to force the air out then fold and clip to seal). This works just fine.
- 4-6 hours
|7 hours was our total time in the sous vide.||Even at this length of time, the roast felt a little too squishy. We feared it would be European rare, which is cool…not something we like.|
- 475F oven for 5-15 minutes
|Oven sear for 10 minutes.||Our roast was PERFECTLY cooked, but we wanted a little extra crisp, so we put the roast in the oven as ChefSteps suggested|
|Sauce||This got a little interesting. We kept the juices from the roasting bag and used it as the base for our sauce.||
I had a little kitchen accident – knocking the sauce pan off the stove. Maybe it was being bowled over by the beauty of the roast, or it could have been due to the glasses of wine consumed during oysters and our first course.
Luckily I had a back-up sauce from another meal and just enhanced it with what was salvaged from the spill.
The roast ready to start in the sous vide bath:
This was probably the most delicious, tender, perfectly cooked rib roast we’ve ever cooked or had at a restaurant. Honestly, it was. We’re not kidding.
We had plenty of left overs from the four of us, and that was with a couple of people going back for seconds. Alas, my sauce didn’t last.
Accompanying our Christmas Day meal was a potato-noodle savory kugel and roasted carrots and green beans seasoned with garlic, salt, pepper and Harissa.
We can’t recommend sous vide cooking enough. Since getting our Joule a month or so ago, we’ve experimented with several meals, most turned out exceptionally well. Go get yourself one of these, it’s not just kitchen toy, it’s really very useful as an all-around tool for the home cook.
1404 Camino Del Mar (Hwy 101)
Del Mar CA 92014
Sept. 3, 2016
Open since 1967, Bully’s is one of those hometown classics before cuisine got all fancy. I grew up with such a place in my hometown called Skips and another not far away called Heston’s back in the day, and now renamed as Heston’s Supper Club. What these all have in common is being a meeting place for locals. A place you’d feel comfortable in no matter who was there. That’s the kind of atmosphere you find at Bully’s in Del Mar, California.
You can’t honestly describe Bully’s as trendy, or even catering to the current rage of naming which farm, butcher, baker, or cheese monger provided the ingredients for your meal. This is not that kind of place…thank goodness. Located on west side of the upscale main drag in Del Mar, at 1404 Camino Del Mar (better known as Highway 101), Bully’s pulls in a decidedly local crowd – a crowd full of ‘characters’, old timers, and family’s out for a good, simple meal.
Bully’s prides itself on serving the ‘finest Prime Rib in San Diego since 1967,’ Montana raised, corn fed Angus beef using no antibiotics or hormones. You can get a lot more than prime rib at Bully’s but this is what they are known for and it’s what we ordered.
Bully’s doesn’t take reservations for party’s under 6, but you are encouraged to call about ½ hour before you want to arrive so they will have a table for you. We wanted to enjoy the Pacific sunset before having dinner, so we called a little before 7pm, enjoyed a cocktail at the condo, then headed down to Del Mar.
Two things you should know about this part of Del Mar. There is the L’ Auberge Del Mar, a 4-Star destination luxury hotel just down the street from Bully’s, along with quite a few upscale eateries, bars, and café’s. Second, it’s in the middle of the block with little on-street parking, but a good amount of parking adjacent to the building which you get to by going down an ally just west of 101.
Bully’s is showing it’s age for sure, but not decrepit, just showing the signs of having been loved…a lot. We came in, were greeted promptly and seated by the hostess at a booth made for many more than two. The main room wasn’t jammed but the bar area was hopping. The interior is a funny mix of red leatherette banquettes, thick timbers framing distinct parts of the room with their own roofs, and heavy wooden, low-backed club chairs. It reminded me of the Con Tiki Lounge in Chicago where each seating area had it’s own thatched roof. Okay, not quite the Kon Tiki, but a western style cowboy esthetic. You get the picture.
A basket of warm breads were on our table before we settled in to our banquette. Kelly, our waitress, came right over to take drink orders. We ordered a pre-dinner cocktail. For me a Manhattan and for Steven a Bombay Safire Martini up with olives, very dry. It turns out Kelly has been working in the restaurant business for many years, and is herself seen by some patrons as a familiar pal…sometime the consequences of which are a bit, shall we say, too familiar? Kelly is a good soul, taking her work seriously and with professional curtesy.
The menu has a good range of offerings, but you’d clearly be in the minority if you didn’t order some cut of beef. We chose The Man O’ War cut, a whopping 40 oz Bully cut of prime rib. If you want to learn about it’s namesake, visit Wikipedia’s link on this legend of a horse. When sharing for two you aren’t penalized like some restaurants who add a split-plate charge. Bully’s embraces sharing…again, this is a restaurant keyed into community, friends, and family – so no surprises there. Included in the price ($76.00) we got an additional soup or salad plus another side dish. We bot chose soups, Steven had the French Onion and I had the Albondigas. For our sides, Steven chose the baked potato (no sour cream for him, just butter and chives) and I had the grilled asparagus.
The French Onion soup was very tasty and loaded with melted cheese, but could have stayed under the broiler a little longer. My Albondigas hit the spot, though I have to say it did remind me vaguely of Campbell’s Vegetable Beef Soup. I doubt very much it was canned – the veg was too crunchy and the cilantro too fresh.
Next came the star attraction, the 40 oz of beef! As you can tell, it was pretty big and perfectly medium rare and served with house-made horseradish cream and a jus. We started our attack by cutting off the cap and sharing it. Then we went for the center, the prize to many, the eye. It practically cut with your fork it was so tender. With little fat in this part of the steak I used some of the horseradish to give it a little kick. We took our time working around the beast, but couldn’t finish. We ended up taking about ¼ home, including the bone. We both think the bone is the best part so we wouldn’t have left it behind in any case.
To accompany all this richness Kelly suggested we shared a bottle of a 2013 Russian River Pinot Noir from Rodney Strong Estate Vineyards. She likes Pinot’s as do we so no arm twisting needed. The wine is not as full as we are used to from Oregon, not like the Stoller Pinot’s we love, but it was pretty good. The finish was weak, but it did hold up well to the richness of the meat and sides. You should know, Bully’s is more about the cocktails than the wine list. Go with an open mind and you’ll be happy.
Dinner for our night in New York before once again boarding the Queen Mary 2 (see our last trip) was at La Sirena, a Mario Batali venture just in its 5th month. It’s a large, open space, so different than the current trend toward ‘micro’ restaurants. Of course, it’s a gamble to produce the high quality dishes typical out of a smaller kitchen, where attention to detail is a trademark.
We had an early seating, mostly due to wanting to have time for cocktails on the Viceroy’s The Roof terrace later and be ready for bed early.
The staff was prompt, generous with their time in explaining the menu. I questioned portion sizes because American pasta portions are just huge, and if you want a multi-course meal it’s just ridiculous to be served an Olive Garden-sized plate of noodles and then have room to enjoy an entrée.
Our waiter said the kitchen would create the meal as we wished. If we wanted to share antipasti and salad courses, but wanted to selfishly have our own Secundi and Primi courses, so be it…which is precisely what we did.
We weren’t in any hurry, so we asked the Sommelier, Michelle, to offer up suggestions for champagne to start us out. She suggested a wonderful Champagne from Bordeaux. It was just what we wanted at a good price too, given how restaurants mark up their liquor. We sipped and talked for quite awhile, the wait staff watching our pace from behind the scenes. Michelle needs a shout out here. She was not only knowledgeable, but kind enough to lead us to just the right red wine with dinner; ‘a Rina 2014 Etna Rosso Girolamo Russo, a Pinot Noir from Mt. Etna. Being from the Pacific Northwest, I wanted to particularly try a Pinot with the minerality forwarding the volcanic notes we’re used to. You could really taste the new earth of Mt. Etna but not in a slap ‘yo Mamma kind of way, but a robust, unashamed vintage.
Given all the various courses and combinations of proteins and sauces, this was no easy feat…but not a challenge for Michelle. She was just great on all accounts.
In short, the meal stood up to our strange ordering pattern and food requirements. This is what our table ordered:
I am crazy for soft-shelled crab and cannot find it easily in Seattle. I guess the local purveyors and restaurateurs just haven’t caught on to the love of soft-shelled crab. Seattle is Dungeness land, so no surprise. Our server explained they were cooked in the traditional way, just dredged in seasoned flour and fried up. Perfection. No messing with it, straight forward and delicious. We had two orders of the crab and I think I ate most of them.
Opened in 2013, the Observer (Kim Velsey, 10-10-2013) described the Viceroy as “Soho with a killer view of Central Park, new construction with a mid-century aesthetic, masonry with a soaring glass facade.” And that pretty much captures it. The chic vibe extends from the moment you approach the doorway where you are greeted with ‘Welcome Home’ (actually sounding genuine BTW), to the compact check-in area (our room wasn’t quite ready, so the GM comp’d us two cocktails at The Roof), to The Roof bar (more later), to our room. I have to say, the entire experience was congruent. I know that’s bit of an odd expression for describing one’s stay at a boutique hotel, but the term, like the experience, fit. See also this other write up on The Observer.
In the same Observer piece, Viceroy CEO Bill Walshe said of the crowd the hotel hoped to attract: The “Viceroy’s guests tend to be on the younger side: successful 25 to 50-year-olds in the entertainment and media worlds whose parents might have stayed at the Carlyle but who want something a little more modern for themselves.” Having stayed at both the Carlyle and the Viceroy, I’d say they hit their target audience on the money, so to speak. After all, the Viceroy isn’t the least expensive place you could stay in the area ($175-800/night), but by no means is it the most expensive either. And yes, the tenants seemed to be just as he predicted.
Located on the 29th floor, getting off the elevators you enter the lounge and bar area proper. Warm tones, leather and wood – elements carried throughout the entire hotel. This is the place you’d want to be on an inclement or blustery winter’s night in the city. Turn right and The Roof terrace opens up to an unbelievable panorama view looking north into Central Park. To the eye, it seems like the luckiest of coincidences that there just ‘happens’ to be a straight, uninterrupted shot looking north through a narrow passage between flanking, hulking skyscrapers to the East and West. The park is there almost to touch.
We had our two complimentary cocktails…oh, who’s kidding…we had a few…and a charcuterie plate before we had to get to the room a prepare to meet friends out for dinner. Keep in mind, we had arrived a bit early, probably 4pm, so the Manhattan crowd of 20-50 somethings had yet to be set free from their offices and crowd the terrace. For a while, we had The Roof almost to ourselves, sans a few squeamish guests afraid to go over to the edge and peer downward. What a great way to kick off our evening in the city before heading out on our voyage aboard the recently ‘remastered’ QM2. We returned to The Roof after dinner for with Kevin & Charmaine for a nightcap after dinner. By this time, though still early by NYC standards, was already getting crowded - many of the prime tables and seating having been reserved.
We had a terrace room on a lower floor, so the view wasn’t nearly as crazy good as at the bar, still, quite a nice surprise in Midtown, in the midst of Millionaire row. The room was updated 60/70’s, stylish, tasteful and comfortably sized. The linens, crisp, white with boarders stitched in gold played off other elements in the room and bath.
Nothing was left uncurated, but it didn’t quite seem as though Disney had come in and designed the place. The bath was unapologetically clad in marble and brass, a combination that is making a long-overdue come-back. Masculine and welcoming. We’re taking back the brass and marble décor scheme and making it our own! The ideas are percolating for our master bath 🙂
The Vicerory, Midtown or Central Park, where ever you want to place it, is definitely worth it. A wrap-around sense of being looked after, thoughtfully anticipating needs, in a smaller scale luxury setting. It’s clear that the owners of the Viceroy want to cater to the new, young wealth so obviously present in this part of town, but don’t be dissuaded if you’re like us, in our 50’s and appreciative of style while also being cost conscious. We booked far enough in advance to get a very good price. Their website notes certain discounts for advanced reservations. Take advantage of that. We will be back ‘home’ for sure some day soon.
I’m a lover of pickled vegetables. All pickling starts with the same process: create a brine, cut vegetables in the shape you want, pack into jars or containers and wait a few hours or a few days. Oddly, I’m not a fan of olives, which are also brined, but that is another story.
The balancing of salt, vinegar (acid), and sweet is as varied as there are home and professional cooks. This basic, easy recipe on pickling cucumbers has been altered to suit my tastes. Below is Teri’s original list of ingredients. After, I’ve added my changes.
Food52 Take Off of Quick Cucumber and Shiso Pickles, by Teri
1/4 cup sugar
1/2 cup apple cider vinegar
3 tablespoons mirin
1 tablespoon salt, preferrably sea or kosher
5 Japanese cucumbers, or 2 English cucumbers
8 shiso leaves (or substitute basil)
Kevin’s Basic Asian-Inspired Pickled Cucumbers
1/4 cup white sugar, though palm sugar could be used, but you have to grate it or buy it that way
3/4 cup apple cider vinegar
1/2 cup mirin (Sweet Japanese Rice Wine)
2 tablespoons salt, I used kosher salt because it resolves easily
1 large Japanese cucumber
1 medium zucchini
4 small carrots
3 stalks of Thai basil
**Option: crush one glove of garlic and break up evenly between containers.
Seal up the containers and refrigerate for at least 4 hours, preferably overnight. Use as condiments for burgers, rice dishes, or grilled meats such as hotdogs! Be creative. These are fast and wonderful. Thanks to Food52 and Teri for the inspiration.
May 21, 2016
Seven family members descended upon this Beverly Hills steak house. We had ourselves, Steven’s parents, his aunt and two of his cousins. Lawry’s The Prime Rib Beverly Hills describes itself as an ‘occasion’ restaurant, and that it is. From the uniformed efficiency that greets you when you drop off your car with the valet, to the slightly cloying interior spaces evocative of a Hollywood movie set, to the enormous shinning stainless steel steak carts dotted about the several large, open rooms of the restaurant itself, you do indeed sense ‘occasion’.
Because Steven and I and his parents arrived a bit earlier than the rest of our group, we sat in the dark wood paneled bar area and nibbled on the free meatballs (yes, meatballs…though there is nothing Italian about the menu) and wonderfully fresh-fried potato chips. After a perfectly executed Manhattan for me and a Bombay Sapphire Martini (up with olives), the rest of our part of seven arrived and we were seated.
We wanted a round table instead of the one we were to be seated, they moved us no problem. There is a general buzz of activity, made more exaggerated by the large open space of the main rooms. This was a place for happy, convivial dinning with little expectation of intimacy, though there were a few two-person tables, these were in the minority.
Service as prompt, courteous, and not too interfering but not too distant either…at least at the start of the meal. The menus are of the large format, plastic sheathed kind, sort of like handling the Book of Kells. The wine list was separate, but there were also house wine selections on the menu itself. We chose a California, Russian River Pinot Noir, Iron Horse Vineyards Estate 2012 which turned out to be a nice choice that went well with the variety of dishes at the table.
The Lawry’s BH is old school in just about every way that implies, reminiscent of some Dean Martin & Frank Sinatra movie set. The waiters and waitresses dressed in cream and brown uniforms, the servers and back waiters in black, and the carvers in their Chef whites. The remnants of a high dinning LA culture, and one you still find in many cities having the iconic steakhouse of old. Of course, the upside to the uniformed regularity, is precisely that it’s easy for the diner to know who to ask for what and I imagine it’s likewise easy for the staff to recognize who’s ‘made it’ and who’s not yet.
The general tone of the menus is old school as well. Nothing surprising, nothing too creative. Bread and butter comes free, a passing reality in many restaurants these days. Plus, the breads were good quality and the butter kept coming. In short, if you’re happy with meat and potatoes with a veg side…and who isn’t occasionally?…then you’ll feel right at home, and more than likely, very satisfied with the experience.
Back to the meal.
Our server came to explain the menu options. There are options for each category of food. For instance, if you want the Prime Rib, then you don’t tell your server how you want it cooked. That you will tell the carver when they arrive table side.
Just about everyone gets a chance at the spinning salad, Lawry’s small floor show presented by the wait staff. If, like me, you happen not to want to indulge in the meat side of Lawry’s, there are seasonal seafood options. I chose the triple lobster tail dinner. I didn’t want the rice pilaf…too 90’s, so I got mashed potatoes with gravy and al dente broccoli and carrots. I know, pretty strange but oddly it worked.
Steven decided to go all in for the meat and chose the 12oz Jim Brady cut Prime Rib with their mashed potatoes, gravy, au jus on the steak and side of creamed corn…medium rare.
Our wine came quickly and poured for those drinking. The Iron Horse was a nice choice, very balanced with some oak on it and not too fruity. Not knowing much about California Pinot’s I had somehow gotten it in my head that it would be too fruit-forward. I was pleasantly wrong on that one…at least for this Russian River example.
The spinning salad came shortly after the wine. They are efficient. Okay, I am the first to enjoy a bit of theater at my meal, so I have to admit to liking this. The salad itself on the other hand, not too inspiring, but what do you expect from a mélange of salad leafs and a little too much of what looked and tasted like French dressing, with a few croutons. I ate it up for sure, it did hit the spot…like I said, don’t expect fine dining by today’s standards and you won’t be disappointed. As you know by now, Steven is not a salad dressing kind of guy, so he passed on that course.
Ah, now to the main event. I’m going to let Steven tell you about his Jim Brady, and I’ll get to the lobster trio. Here’s a picture of the little sea bugs on my plate.
Not bad looking. The presentation of the lobster meat put them up on top of the shells. Knowing seafood gets cold if left too long, I did wait to others got their slabs of meat off the carving trolley, a mistake. The first bites of the lobster were tender, juicy, and just what I’d hoped. The melted, clarified butter…a perfect accent. The veg, well, okay. Not overdone, that’s a good thing, but really didn’t add much except green to the plate. My mashed potatoes were served on a side plate thankfully. I don’t think a plate swimming with gravy would do well sitting with the lobster. Of course there was plenty of conversation, and not to blame the kitchen at all, but by time I shared a few bites with Steven and headed onto the last tail, it was cooled off. I powered through and cleaned my plate. One thing about eating seafood, this protein doesn’t get you as full feeling as beef protein, so I was left with a bit of a wondering eye as I finished and the others were still happily chewing and cutting away.
Here are Steven’s comments about his meal.
Kevin says the cut I had was 12 oz, I think it was more – at least it seemed like more! Also, as he mentioned, it came with creamed corn and mashed potatoes. There was no real sense of artful presentation – just heaps of sides with a big slab of meat. The wow-factor came largely from the size of the portions. This is truly a Midwest take on a steak dinner. I ordered my prime rib medium rare and indeed that’s what I got. It just kills me to hear someone order beef, especially prime rib cooked beyond that. The meal also came with a generous side of Yorkshire Puddings and we also ordered sauteed mushrooms (an odd combinations of white buttons and shitakes - tasty, just a little odd). I think I was about the only one who had any.
As you can imagine, it took me a while to work through it. Those who know me of chide about how I eat one thing and then move on to another (OCD much?). With this much steak to get through, I had to take time to rest and make it around the plate from time to time. By half way through, the plate was kinda a hot mess. The au jus was getting thickened by the mashed potatoes and the creamed corn was starting to run. But I ploughed on determined to eat it all. Of course sharing a few bites with Kevin. Also slowing my progress was the fun time I was having chatting with my cousins Linda and Grady.
By the time I got near the bone, Kevin had enough with me struggling to get the last bits of meat free, he stole it from my plate to cut it for me claiming I was having trouble because I’m left handed – which my Mother chimed in the her version of “ain’t that the truth!” He quickly found out what I had already know: even though the bulk of the steak was perfectly done, near the bone was a little under cooked and sinewy. We both gave up and called it done.
Next up – dessert.
There were the standard fare of selection that you would expect from such a place: Crème Brulee, Cheese Cake, Ice Cream. But what they are most proud of is their Chocolate Fudge Cake – What could be wrong with that??
I dug into the cake while Kevin headed for the Crème Brule. Kevin’s portion was reasonable. Mine, on the other hand, was insane. But it was sooo good!! Perhaps not terribly original. Dark chocolate cake smothered in fudge sauce. There were even still partly un-melted blocks of chocolate fudge still in the sauce. The ice cream tasted like homemade.
I’ll let Kevin tell you about his dessert.
Crème Brule. Not exciting, little vanilla scent or flavoring, and a rather basic custard. Nuff said.
With that, our dinner was over and our credit card company happy to have joined us this evening.
It was now time to part ways with Grady and Linda with hopes of seeing them again soon.
If you find yourself in LA and want to have a dinner with a bit of mid-century nostalgia, I can’t imagine where else to try with the Brown Derby long-since gone. Don’t let me mislead you, it won’t be cheap. But it will also be an experience you won’t soon forget.
Trying out Stoller’s newest, very limited release to club members; their 2015 Beaujolais-style Pinot Noir with Vietnamese beef stir fry. We’ll let you know how it goes, but the wine by itself is very drinkable as it is. I tasted the marinade for the beef, which is full of Szechuan peppercorns, and the wine…and believe it or not, this wine held up just fine. My tongue might be numb, but I can taste the wine.
Your family probably has a version of this egg casserole. I first came across this treat from my almost-cousin Jerry’s Mom, Corky (Jerry’s aunt was married to my Dad’s brother). I and a couple of friends of Jerry’s went over to his house one weekend and Corky made us the cheese, bread, egg and sausage casserole that inspired this one. She served her’s with cheese sauce over thick portions. I’ll take the corner piece with the most crispy edges, please. Thanks Corky.
My version is a Pantry Version, meaning, I just grabbed things on-hand to add to the basic custard and bread base. Today, I pulled out Hot Bulk Italian Sausage, Anaheim Pepper, Red Pepper, a local Jalapeño & Cheddar Cheese from Hunter & Holden’s, and a chunk of sturdy day-old rustic French Baguette – ours is from another local maker, called Grand Central Bakery.
The Basic Elements
Heat oven to 350 F
Whisk together thoroughly.
Pantry and crisper ingredients of your choice
Make sure to pre-cook the veg and meats. In my case I’m using hot Italian Sausage, mushrooms, red pepper, and Anaheim peppers.
Remove from oven when the custard is set and let rest for 5-10 minutes. Don’t over cook, some softness is desired (at least by me).
If you’re serving a crowd, just put it out as is, with what ever other condiments or additions, like muffins, you want.
We just take our preferred slice and have at it.
We, of course, had some when it was fresh out of the oven! But once it cooled, we cut into "snack-sized" squares and individually wrapped each in plastic wrap. This may them easy and accessible for a little breakfast to take to work throughout the week. - What could be wrong with that?
What to do with a quart of Duck Fat without really trying.
For this Saturday dinner we needed something pretty easy – meaning something we’ve already cooked before with success. I was at a conference most of the day and Steven had rowing practice then errands to run. Before he left, Steven had set out a couple of organic chicken breasts from the freezer to thaw for me to brine when I got home. Other than that, anything was fare game.
The backstory to having duck fat on hand isn’t that interesting. It involved going to our favorite seafood shop called Taylor Shellfish in the Melrose Market on Capital Hill, Seattle’s trendy – though quickly gentrifying – post-queer neighborhood where we picked up a dozen fresh oysters, clams and mussels (see our cioppino post coming soon). In the same complex is Rainbow Meats, another great destination for all things meat. Since that night we were making a riff off the traditional Italian fish stew, we needed some spicy sausages. Rainbow has it all. You’ve got to go if just to ogle the fine meats…and staff. Anyway, I saw they had prepared duck confit. An idea sprang into my brain….I wondered if they have duck fat so I can make confit myself? Of course they did and we left with a full quart of that tantalizing fat. Score!
The duck fat sat in the fridge for a few days taunting me every time I opened the door, challenging me to find some uses for it…..I didn’t have duck, so what to do with it until I did?
Here’s what I decided:
Saturday Evening Porchetta-style Baked Chicken Breasts
Duck fat roasted new potatoes
From our organic grocery delivery bag we had LOTS of potatoes to use, naturally a roasted potato would go well with the chicken.
Romesco Sans Almonds
Probably one of the easiest sides you can do with pantry items. Maybe not traditional, but good home cooking isn’t about replication but innovation. If you Google Romesco sauce you’ll see it originated in Spain most likely, and they all have ground nuts and/or bread. We neither like the mouthfeel of ground nuts nor appreciate the thickness bread gives this sauce. So, maybe what I have here really isn’t Romesco at all…but Seattle-style Romesco???? You decide.
Cook away until you get the consistency you want. I prefer a looser sauce, hence no bread or nuts.
While the sauce is combining and reducing and the potatoes are happy in the oven (don’t forget to check on them and give them a turn), pull out the chicken from the fridge and put in a baking dish or sheet pan that you have coated with….you guessed, duck fat. Pop into the 400F oven on a lower rack. Let this go for about 20 minutes only. The sausage spread on top will keep the breasts from drying out, but as you’ll have one final stage of cooking left at the very end, you don’t want some leathery plank of protein on your hands.
Staging for the final cook
Pull out the cooked breasts from the oven. Take a small amount of the improvised Romesco and schemer on the top of each breast if serving more than two people. It turned out that the chicken breasts were plenty large and we split just one, tucking the remaining cooked breast in the fridge for another meal.
Add a little shredded cheese on top and place under broiler for just a few minutes. We used some mozzarella and grated Parmigiano-Reggiano …the undisputed king of cheeses according to Mario Batali.
As you can see, we used the Romesco to one side and potatoes on the other, placing the piping hot-from-the-oven chicken on top the potato. A little fresh basil, and maybe to guild the Lilly, add a drizzle of EVOO and fresh cracked pepper.
NOTE: It took about as long to write this posting as it did to make this dinner!!!
I hope you enjoy.
Caio Bella, Kevin
Chef Brian Clevenger, of Vendemmia, has opened East Anchor Seafood, a new, modernist inspired cross between a bodega and a fish mongers hangout with his girlfriend-partner Kayley. Reported late last year in the Seattle Met as opening before the holiday, it seems that East Anchor needed a few more months to feel ready to go.
Tuesday, March 15, 2016 East Anchor will premier it's full menu of seafood-centric items, but do not neglect the fresh veg in the cold case or small collection of prepared foods. Of course, you can't miss the case of fresh fish as you walk in door, nor the piles of oysters, clams, and mussels ready for you. I could have walked away with the entire block of sushi grade Ahi Tuna (see above), but I resisted. It was quite accidental that we happened upon the soft opening of what is sure to be a new Madrona haunt.
We had half dozen of the Compass Point oysters plus a glass each of Les Trouves Blanc, served with four accompaniments: Classic mignonette, sweet pepper mignonette, grapefruit granita, and wedges of lemon. Chef was there, attending to the food while Kayley ran the front of house. We were able to look into a Chef's Table private dining room, still under construction just behind the food prep area. According the Kayley, this reserved space will mostly take off from the Vendemmia menu, but she assured us that we could have a seafood focused meal there if we wanted. I look forward to Chef Brian and Kayley's new place in my neighborhood and wish it much success. Look out Columbia City, we've got eyes on you as the next hot destination!
You can find East Anchor at 1126 34th ave, Seattle. In "Downtown" Mardona. Open daily from 11 AM to 7 PM. http://eastanchorseafood.com/. Perhaps we'll see you there.
Saturday, Feb. 27, 2016
Noon-2pm – Taste Italia!
As the Italian’s say, a meal isn’t a meal without wine. Nothing could be closer to the truth than this.
This event is was a must for the festival. Today's Taste Italia! lunch, as you can imagine, is a celebration of the wines of Italy We got there about 30 minutes before the start on the advice of Pam. She was right. We were among the very first there, and started the queue that would stretch out of sight and around a corner of Level 3 of the Vancouver Convention Center West by time they open the gates to let in the throng.
The convention center is really a jewel. We topped the escalator and stepped into a panoramic view to the north, appropriately called North Vancouver. Five of us descended on the ballroom and adroitly took a prime bar-style seating area all to ourselves.
The layout put the wine makers, 60 in all, around the outside with the amazing food offerings pretty much in the center – a great arrangement that encouraged us to get some food, enjoy some wine, then get up and move about the hall as we wanted. Food was always just a few meandering curves away.
After all the food and drink, everyone was feeling pretty happy!
One of the most helpful additions to the tasting was a big map of Italy with the wine growing regions clearly displayed. For those of us unfamiliar with Italy’s vast wine growing history, this map is a good place to start. Silly me, but I would have thought Roma was in the Emilia Romagna region...but no, it’s really in Lazio where some fine Sangiovese wines are grown. Look over the map below. I learned a lot.
The food tastings at Taste Italia! were all well-executed, even though you couldn’t really say they were ‘Italian’ per se, but in leaning. Okay, so there was the obligatory assorted focacce and oh-so-yesterday prosciutto e melone that even Midwesterners would recognize (apologies to my birth heritage). A few standouts were the Prosciutto-wrapped tuna, clams, fennel, and olives, the Beef short rib brasato lasagna, alfredo gratinee, and the Wild mushroom risotto. All in all, a big boo-ya to Executive Chef, Blair Rasmussen of the Vancouver Convention Center.
Now to the wine highlights.
We passed up the various Prosecco’s and went straight to the whites. Of particular note was Casetta Winery’s Mumplin, Roero Arneis DOCG 2013, which paired wonderfully with what amounted to our first courses – Wild Prawn in saffron emulsion, Proscuitto e melone, and Mini Zuppa di pesce “Cacciucco” in tomato Vermouth broth.
Thought by many to be the queen (or prince) of Italian white wine grapes, this particular Arneis is an example of intense elegance, a wine that is full-bodied, liquid yellow in color, and can stand up to fish, tomato-based soups, and even melon – not an easy feat I know from experience. It is a value by anyone’s estimation at about $17 a bottle. Unfortunately, by time we got to the convention wine store, this wine was sold out completely.
Spotlight Casetta Winery/Piedmont
US distributor, unknown. From Canada, http://boushelong.com/en/
Price: $23.83 CAD about $17 USD.
Next door to Casetta was another Piedmont wine, ‘Il Fiore’ Langhe Bianco DOC 2013 produced by Briada Di Bologna Giacomo. We had the chance to speak to Principle, Norbert Reinisch, which is always a treat at these events. Mr. Reinisch described their approach to growing the wines we tasted, including a very fruity Barbera d’Asti DOCG 2013. The bianco differed from the Arneis. Wine Searcher refers to this as an example of a Rare White Blend, a wine that includes various whites, but most often centering in on one key characteristic, such as dryness. I found the bianco a little ‘light’ compared to the full Arneis, though it too stood up well to our first course.
Our final Peidmont tasing was the Lecinquevigne Barolo DOCG 2011. We paired the Barolo with the Beef short rib lasagna and fennel sausage, chicken and green lentil misto. This is one of those special wines that you want to search out and drink up...slowly. You won’t want to loose one sip of this luscious, fruity, soft red. Reviewed any where from 88 points to 92 points by the Wine Spectator and Wine Enthusiast respectively, this wine is drinkable now but would lay down well for a few more years. Borolo’s are generally known to be big and fruity with cherry, pepper, and licorice overtones, this one was no exception.
From the Puglia region, we tasted the Tormaresca Trentangeli Rosso Castel del Monte DOC 2013 ($14.60 CAD) and the Torcicoda Primitivo Salento IGT 2013 ($20.43 CAD). According to the pourer, 2013 was a good, no, very good year for the Aglianico, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Syrah, which comprise the Rosso. Not having much to compare this wine to, it was smooth, without any of the harshness you sometimes get with a relatively new red. The Torcicoda had the same smooth character and I imagined it would make a great addition to our cellar.
Much to our disappointment, the festival wine store was already sold out of this Tormaresca. Instead, they had just six bottles of the 2013 Neprica Puglia IGT at $10 USD, we took them all off their hands. One bottle already drunk, we loved it for its unassuming character and playful notes of cherry.
A New Italian Renaissance?
Both of these wines – indeed many of those we tasted - are part of a new era in Italian wine making according to the principles and sellers at the festival. Italy is witnessing a development that seeks to bring back native vines and enter them into relation with notable European stock, such as the Cabernet and Syrah.
A quick search for this wine on the web lead me to this statement:
The production of high quality wines is related to recent steps towards innovation and creativity: substantial changes have been obtained through the use of modern viticulture techniques and the introduction of non native grape varieties (i.e. Chardonnay and Cabernet) that express themselves in this ”terroir” in a completely unique way. Tormaresca is the expression of the above two souls. Character, personality and top quality are the characteristics that Puglia transmits to the native grape varieties. For this reason the Antinori family gave birth to Tormaresca in 1998 when they started investing in Puglia, considering it one of the most promising regions in Italy for the production of high quality wines with a strong territorial identity.
Some winemakers focus on small scale production, choosing to hone their considerable legacy in winemaking to the modern pallet. Others are exploring wild yeast fermentation and using only organic stock. Another thing we notice with great relief, was how reasonably priced the Italian wines are. Yes, you could certainly find higher end wines, but we were on a mission to stock up on only the daily wines, the ones we wouldn’t think twice about opening for an evening meal.
For us, the importance of a wine is less about its pedigree than whether we can open it up and have it match well with what ever we’re eating for diner that night. We reserve our better bottles for special dinners with friends or if we’re experimenting with a new recipe and want to find that perfect pairing. But that’s our point of view on buying wines at this stage in our collecting. Find out what your point of departure is and I’m sure the Italian wines will make you very, very happy.
What ever the Italians are up to, we have to applaud it.
La viva dolce!
Here is a quick list of other wines we tasted, in no particular order and with a few comments:
Medici Ermete / Emilia-Romagna
Concerto Lambrusco Reggiano DOC NV
Poderi Dal Nespoli / Emilia-Romagna
Il Nespoli, Sangiovese Romagna
Superiore Riserva DOC 2012
Tenuta Olim Bauda / Piedmont
La Villa Barbera D’Asti DOCG 2011
Marchesi Antinori / Tuscany-Umbria
Bramio del Cervo, Chardonnay, Umbria IGT 2014
Lionello Marchesi / Tuscany
Coldisole, Brunello di Montacino 2010 DOCG
Coldisole, Brunello di Montacino Riserva DOCG 2008
*These are two exceptions to our goal this weekend (buying lower cost/high value), but we couldn’t resist. They come from one of the most famous and prestigious wine makers, both richly complex, deserving of that special event but easily fine on its own. Seek them out if you need to fill out your cellar with exceptionally crafted wines.
San Polino / Tuscany
Brunello di Montalcino DOCG
*It’s hard for me to find words for this one. But at $132.58 CAD a bottle, what should be said except that it is gorgeous on all accounts. Rich, dark, fruity, subtle. Wow.
Here are some of the other wine options on offer.
It was a busy week for wine lovers in Vancouver, BC and we were quite happy to join in the fun...at least for the final weekend of festivities. We were turned-on to the Vancouver wine festival about a year ago by our columnist and friend, Pam Miller. She’s been attending these, along with a group of friends, for many years. This year’s focus was on the wines of Italy.
The week is packed as you can tell from the schedule at a glance.
Due to time constraints (i.e. vacation time available) we decided to go up on Thursday night and stay until Sunday. We arrived too late on Thursday to take part in any of the fun that evening, which you should know is possibly the best night for the Grand Tasting and access to the Delta Lounge (more later). The crowds arrive in full force Friday and continue to the closing event, the Vintner’s Brunch on Sunday.
We stayed at an event-sponsored hotel, the Pan Pacific Vancouver. It’s adjacent to the conference centre (note the English spelling...when in Rome...) and is a pretty nice place to stay, if a bit pricey ($409 CN per night), but first the wine event, then a review of the hotel.
This was our itinerary.
Thursday, Feb. 25, 2016 – Leaving Seattle, travel to Vancouver, BC.
Friday, Feb. 26, 2016
Saturday, Feb. 27, 2016
Sunday, Feb. 28, 2016
Oh, my goodness. Where to begin?
We'll begin with the Taste Italia! in our next post here.
Sometimes you have an idea for breakfast the night before that just must be made. Getting up my typical 2 hours before Steven does, gave me plenty of time to reconsider eggs Benedict, but thankfully I wasn't dissuaded from my path by my own better judgement. Plus, I just can't see spending the $16+ each it would be to go out for Eggs Benny in Seattle. Crazy.
In spite of a few roadblocks (i.e. Not having any ham in the fridge nor English muffins and only 4 eggs), the eggs came out pretty well for this impromptu morning. Here's how I coped.
I remembered I had a spare 1lb package of deli sliced ham in the freezer...easy, just plunge it in some warm water and wait a while to thaw enough; no muffins? No problem, substitute King's Hawaiian Rolls (also in the freezer) by cutting one in half and lightly toasting it in my new Christmas carbon steel sauté pan by Matfer Bourgeat (http://www.matferbourgeatusa.com/black-steel-round-frying-pan-10); eggs you say? Well I had 4 as I said, so I decided to just cut our breakfast portions down....thereby helping us both keeping to our New Year's resolutions - 1 egg and 1/2 roll for each of us, leaving 2 eggs for the hollandaise.
A time and pot saving note: instead of having separate pans out for melting butter, poaching eggs, browning the toasts, and making the hollandaise, why not combine some tasks using just 2 pans and a 1 cup Pyrex measuring cup? I melted the butter needed for the hollandaise in the glass pitcher in the microwave at 80% power (full power explodes all the water in the butter too easily..such a mess); used the carbon steel pan to toast the roll halves and reheat the slices of ham; a poaching pan (in this case a 8" All-Clad [http://www.all-clad.com] sauce pan) did double duty as a bain marie for making the hollandaise and for poaching the eggs.
The hollandaise was quickly done as my first step, but needed to be reheated slightly over the now cooling water used to poach our eggs. And there you have it, all done in under 15 minutes. A little fresh ground white pepper and some salt flakes and it's time to tuck in.
1. Hollandaise - Make hollandaise using a small, rounded sauce pan for making the sauce placed in the makeshift Bain Marie of slightly simmering water awaiting the eggs for poaching. I saved seasoning and acid addition (lemon) for the very last.
2. Rolls - Split and toast rolls in the same pan intended to reheat your ham. No need to drag out the toaster or toaster oven.
3. Ham - After you've removed the toasted roll halves, slide two slices of deli ham in same pan. It will be fine just using the residual heat from toasting the buns and prevent the ham from drying out.
4. Poach eggs - We like ours very, very running, so this took a mere minute or two tops of gently simmering them in the water turning them over once or twice in the water. I scoop out the eggs with a slotted spoon, and quickly dry them off by rolling them in my paper towel covered hand equally cautiously.
5. Plating - pretty straight forward as I did it here, but get creative! Maybe deconstruct the elements for an avant-garde approach?
Sent from my iPad
I was looking for something new this Thanksgiving to add to the several condiments on the table. Typically, we have the ‘standard’ homemade cranberry sauce. Some years it does more toward chutney with the addition of mild peppers, some years straight up Midwestern with just some orange slices and zest for kick. This year though, after spending some serious time (and spending some serious money) learning about wines, particularly those of the Pacific Northwest, I wanted something to showcase the region and the kinds of herbs we have here year round. So when I came across this recipe from NYT Cooking iPad application I was thrilled. It had all the basic elements I was looking for. Of course I would tweak it, I can’t resist.
Here’s the basic recipe from the New York Times:
Cranberry Sauce With Pinot Noir
by Jeff Gordinier
Time: 20 minutes, plus cooling
Yield: 2 1/2 cups
Here’s how I altered it.
I halved the amount of all the ‘seeds’ (5 whole allspice berries, 5 whole cloves, 5 whole black peppercorns). Instead of grinding them as the recipe says, I knew I wouldn’t like the gritty mouthfeel that might result if I followed the original recipe. I’ve had the experience in other recipes when grinding up berries and seeds gives that rough feel to the final product.
I also decided that the berries, and cinnamon stick, could use some flavor enhancement. Why not dry pan toast them? You have to be very careful when doing this, and don’t get distracted in the process of toasting dry berries, they burn VERY quickly. Into a seasoned iron skillet the allspice, clove, peppercorn, and cinnamon stick goes, medium heat….and watch, watch, watch until you begin to smell those aromas drifting up to your nose. Then take it off heat and let the residual heat of the pan continue to toast them for a bit, moving them around the pan frequently. Take them out of the pan into a small dish or ramekin to cool. I place them in a store bought spice bag made of cheesecloth. I can’t tie a secure knot to save my life, so I buy them already made, but if you’re knot-capable, go for it make your own out of cheesecloth.
I made the remainder of the base recipe pretty much the same, using fresh cranberries, and excepting I didn’t have vanilla bean available so I used pure vanilla extra we make ourselves from Hawaiian Vanilla Beans (http://www.hawaiianvanilla.com) and vodka. We always have a gallon brewing in the lower level of the house. We just happen to have neighbors who, among other things, have bees. We used their own honey here too. I nice personal touch. If you have local beekeepers, try theirs. It’s quite a clean tasting product, very different from store bought.
An important part of the recipe is to use a good Pinot Noir. We have come to love the Pinot’s from Oregon, in particular those from Stoller Family Estates (http://stollerfamilyestate.com). We used a 2012 Pinot Noir and it turned out amazing. Our guests literally exclaimed at how good it was. As a home cook, you pay attention when more than one guest says something like, “This is really amazing, the very best cranberry sauce I’ve EVER had.”
I almost never reproduce a recipe as written by someone else, I always tinker. Go ahead make this cranberry sauce your own. The wonderful notes from a good Pinot, the rosemary, and the honey come together very well. I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.
23 August 2015
We’re nearing the end of our vacation and are a little exhausted, a little ready for the next and last leg, a little fearing getting all our bags down the steep hotel stairs and onto a tram for the airport. Last minute packing always brings its stresses. Though we’ve traveled enough together to know each other’s packing rhythms and eccentricities, on big travel days it always seems like we’ve never packed before. There are the showering and grooming rituals followed by dealing with an incoherent melee of dirty close, some wet from the drenching received last night, and don't forget the Scotch whiskys small and large, and assorted gifts needing to be crammed back into our luggage. I might be exaggerating just a little, but you get the picture. Controlled chaos? Barely.
Breakfast was the same; rushed servers, slightly irked patrons in the sunlit front room. All in all, this now seems comforting and I think I’ll miss this lovely, Scottish-infused confusion. Back at the room, my back is feeling better so I’m managing to wrangle some of our now grossly plumb bags out the room and downstairs. It took us a few trips, but we finally got ourselves sorted and out the door after I checked us out…an easy process. Thank you hotel staff for making our stay enjoyable and blog-worthy.
We walked out the door to see the exact tram we needed for our trip to the airport. We were advised that Sunday travel was light, so no need to call a cab. The tram gets you closer to the terminal anyway, while cabs or other hired cars have to stop a distance further from the entrance. Our ride was nice, even pleasant. The tram was clean, certainly not crowded, allowing us to have all the space we needed with our bags.
Getting from the tram to the airport turned out to be quite quick, giving us plenty of time before the flight. A light lunch near the gate was in order.
As we get ready to board, Steven reminds me of this sign we saw in Scotland on our trip to Oban. Indeed, we hope to come back again soon, we had a great time here.
Our flight was with British Airways to London City Airport. We were surprised to find the airplane seating configured as it was. This was an Embraer 190, for you airplane aficionados. It had coach seating throughout but with seemingly more leg room (though Seatguru.com doesn’t say so) and 2x2 seating, a bit wider than most coach seats as well. We thought it was going to be one of those little pea-shooter jets but this was more 737-sized. And, get this, free beer, wine, and cocktails! This is how economy class should be – at a minimum.
Nothing too much to report about the flight except that we took off in a window of clear skies and relatively calm winds…not at all the weather we’d experienced yesterday. The flight was quick, just over an hour and we landed without a problem at London City airport. Coming into the final approach we had wonderful views of London city and most of its iconic landmarks.
Meeting us at the airport were friends Darren and Ian after our bags were the last two to show up. Just a short walk from the airport to the car and we were on our way, gingerly making our way to their home in Clapham. I could feel the sense of our trip coming to close. Maybe it was being driven around and watching the city go by, or heading to the home of friends, or just having time to slow down and review the entire time away from our home – I don’t really know, but I was in a nostalgic mood by time we arrived.
Darren, Ian, and Neil’s home is a pre-war (WWII) Victorian that they have been remodeling steadily for a few years. The Clapham area has one of the largest parks in London, Clapham Commons, where dogs and humans ran freely about, all 220 acres of it! More of that in a minute. After we met the dog and kitty, and settled in to our room, we ventured back downstairs to enjoy some adult refreshments: some wonderful Champagne Darren had selected, Neil offered up a perfect Bloody Mary. It was so good to not be moving any more, though I swear I could still feel the motion of the airplane. Sitting in their modern kitchen, surrounded by good company is never a bad way to wind down a trip and a day of travel.
After a suitable number of cocktails – just enough to vanish that weird sense of being in motion - it was time to gather up our lagging bodies and head to dinner. Since it was a Sunday, Darren had picked one of their favorite places that served a traditional English Sunday roast. I have to say, just writing about it, makes me wish for that roast again. The boys took us around the neighborhood, seeing occasional pockets of 1950-60’s housing, so different from the Victorian surrounding them. The blitz on London left parts of neighborhoods bombed out and housing needed to be put up quickly to accommodate the dislocated. Hence, a very noticeable trait of the city are these pockets of rather plain housing amidst the curving lanes filled with Victorians.
Crossing back to the park, we angled toward our destination cutting across very large greens bisected by paved and gravel pathways. Still in Clapham Common, we arrived at The Rookery ready to eat. The Rookery. It's fashionable in America to call this type of establishment a gastro pub, but this one had none of those cloying attempts at creating an attitude with food. This was a neighborhood place first and foremost, which served hearty English fare turned up a notch.
We were sat at a round table near the kitchen and out of the main bar/seating area, allowing us to hear each other better. We had several rounds of small plates of deliciousness; a generous charcuterie of meats and other savory, salty, sweet treats…and of course wine. Lots of wine. Sunday Roast’s and pork were ordered, but we were told that the kitchen had run out of Yorkshire puddings. Darren thought that was simply not a thing that should be missing from our meal…plus we both knew that making the pudding isn't all that troubling and since we had no time rush, was completely possible. Darren ended up, politely, suggesting the kitchen could make it for us. To their credit (and Darren’s), the chef saw no problem, and we were all delighted to get our puddings as expected. It pays too, to have regulars with us who knew what was what and who was who. Thanks Darren!
Fully sated and a little tipsy, we made it back through the common in what seemed record time. Why is it that return journeys always seem faster? Something to do with the elasticity of time I suppose. Back home, Steven and I tucked into bed and were fast asleep.
The next morning saw a pretty mixed bag of weather. We talked about strategies for the day given that it would occasionally pour down buckets of rain with strong winds, then dissolve into sun breaks. Darren and Ian did a lot to help us figure out what was open on a Monday and what wasn’t. Buckingham Palace, “Buck House,” was out, so we settled on taking in the Victoria and Albert Museum.
Mickey didn't want to be in any pictures this day - he was just a frightful mess after being up so late the night before. It think he caught a cold in the rain, poor fella. Have you ever heard a mouse sneeze and blow it's nose? I would be funny if it weren't so sad.
21 August 2015
Friday, we woke to partly cloudy and humid day. Roving showers tested our ability to plan our wardrobes for the day. In the end, we went with our Seattle experience and layered up. On our docket this day was visiting two sites and more if we could: The Royal Yacht Britannia and the Palace at Holyroodhouse. Edinburgh Castle would wait until the next day.
Breakfast at The Place was, well, another interesting adventure that started with high expectations. The breakfast is held in two areas, one at the front of the hotel with nice views of the street scene with all the early morning off-to-work crowd and the other at the back that functions also as a passageway to the part of the hotel in which we were housed. We found seats easily and settled in to take in the morning commute outside our window. The occasional ruggedly handsome, kilted businessman passed by but mostly there were saggy jeans on the young and very tightly tailored jeans of various pedigrees with tasteful jackets on those we could assume were heading to some office. Back to the breakfast.
Once again as had been our experience previously on this trip, the staff seemed nearly out of control with all their rushing about and panicked looks. They appeared to be only capable of doing one thing at a time. First the coffee, then, oh, right, forgot the teas. Overhearing a table of retirees on their way shopping that morning, I gathered they took the matter of not having enough tableware into their own hands and pilfered what then needed from where ever they could. I decided to order something hot, two eggs sunny side up and homemade lamb sausages, as I really don’t like ‘trough food’ that has been sitting out and been handled by the guests. Steven does well enough with the orange juice, toasts, hard-boiled eggs, and charcuterie available. Eventually, my order came after a complete change of diners in our room. The food was pretty good though and I devoured it straight away.
Our first task after food was to go down the hill to Princes Street Gardens and purchase our combined tourist bus and attractions tickets at the blue kiosk by all the buses awaiting their customers. It took a bit to locate the very small, almost hidden and closed looking blue kiosk, which had been described to us by the helpful folks in the tourist office as a blue building. We were looking for something well…more like a building. Our mistake. Having our tickets in hand and glancing at our watches to see when the next bus would take us to the Royal Britannia, we thought we had about 15 minutes wait so we just started to look around the area, take a few pictures and wait. I noticed, when we were about half way down the bridge crossing a long-since drained and filled swamp separating Old Edinburgh from the new, in the shadow of The Scott Monument, that our bus had pulled up…a full 10 minutes ahead of time. Catching Steven’s eye, we rush forward through the aimlessly wandering tourists, establishing our ‘we mean business’ formation and skirted by most of crowd, which somehow had managed to quadruple in size in mere moments.
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We were nearly the first on the bus, so we had a good choice of seats. Note to anyone traveling this way to the Britannia, taking the upper deck is worth the effort, if it’s not raining. Being it was threatening rain and very humid, we were quite pleased we’d kneed and elbowed our way on to the top deck….just kidding, no infirm or older adults, children, or pets were harmed during our egress.
The trip out to the mouth of the River Leith where the Britannia is moored at the Ocean Terminal is about 30 minutes by bus and wasn’t all that interesting. I passed the time looking at the guidebook and maps trying to keep up with all the hairpin turns we were making on our way there. I lost track. Steven donned a pair of headphones (provided) to listen to the recorded commentary as we whizzed by the sites; he readily admits that he doesn’t remember of word of it. We arrived slightly refreshed and eager to get on with it.
Cue music: Rule Britannia, Britannia Rule the waves….
The Royal Yacht Britannia has a fascinating history for it’s relatively short time in service to HRH Queen Elizabeth and the Royal family. You can go here to read more if you like: http://www.royalyachtbritannia.co.uk. It is now permanently moored at a modern shopping mall and is a very popular tourist attraction as the crush of buses could attest. Finally on board we passed a very nice short history of the vessel and those who were lucky enough to travel upon her. You know the names: Lizbet and Phil of course, Diana and Charles, the boys, several US Presidents including Clinton #1…perhaps there will be a President Clinton #2????
The assorted pictures here tell something of the experience, but frankly, they can’t convey how stately she appeared even in her waning years. There are the main rooms open to the public, but two additional levels not open to tours and held for overnight guests. The Queen’s and Prince Philip’s bedrooms are across the center hall from each other amidships, the most stable place on any ship. Light colored fabrics in hers, a single bed (no trysts on board I guess), a small working desk. The main dining room ran the width of the vessel and was set as if a party were to soon begin. Just aft from here was a small reception room set up as a champagne bar (yummy) that lead into a large and very comfortable looking living room complete with fireplace. Ah, life aboard must have been sweet.
If you do go, look out for the hidden corgis. Small stuffed versions of the Queen’s favorite dogs are all over the place; some stuck up high on shelves next priceless gifts from on of the former territories or just sitting sprightly on a bed.
There was of course lunch to be had about now, so we climbed up to the Royal Deck Tea Room and were seated quickly. Tea was a must, how could one not? Soups and sandwiches did the trick along with a ginger beer. After a bit of people watching – hoping secretly to see a Titanicesque young child being shown how one folds ones napkins on the lap just so. Alas, we were only treated to see many texting or engaged in some social media postings.
After lunch, we headed to the lower decks. As sumptuous as were the upper quarters, these were just as Spartan and cramped; minimal room for personal belongings and a small cot for each seaman. The various ranks of officers, of course, had more space, if not even their own stateroom. Each level of officers also had their own lounge with bar. These were actually quite nice. After the tour, we disembarked, passing Her Majesty’s beautifully restored tender complete with gold plated lions and shiny brass cleats.
Back down through the mall to find a bus, not a long wait. We decided to next visit The Palace of Holyroodhouse. The twisted journey took us past the Royal Botanic Gardens and back across town near Holyrood Park with its Salisbury Crags and Arthur’s Seat, the ancient volcano, hanging above the city. A hike up that way will have to wait for another visit. We arrived at Holyroodhouse once again rested.
The Palace is a royal residence to this day and known to be one of the final residences of Mary Queen of Scots. Like most well-used castles and great houses, Holyroodhouse Palace was built over successive centuries and it shows. There is little blending of architecture and interior style, with each addition still fairly distinct. You really got the sense of traveling through history while walking the vast, square building finally ending in the oldest part of the palace where Mary was kept.
After walking a bit around the gardens, it was getting late, my back was aching and my feet were humming, so we decided to catch another tour bus that would hopefully end us close to where we were staying. But not until we’ve sat down for a moment for an afternoon tea in the courtyard.
What a surprise to quickly be engulfed in the massive crowds gathered in Edinburgh for The Fringe Festival. The regular bus route was altered to avert the Royal Mile, which was currently used as a giant venue with mini stages set up all along its length. I was particularly grateful to see it all, as colorful and wonderful as it looked, from a slight distance. We ended up crisscrossing several of the cities bridges, each affording us great views. The bus dropped us at the bottom of the old city, and a big hill climb up to the Mile.
Finding our way up the hill to the crowds wasn’t hard…just follow the steady streams of humanity and you’re there. Once back on the Mile we just wandered about; listening to street performers, watching a Japanese troupe entirely clad in white with white faces tease tourists with their trailing white veils, and taking in a local cathedral requisitioned this week for the Fringe.
We popped into St Giles Cathedral for a quick look. We found a flyer for an organ concert on the next night which would have been interesting, but we had other plans.
This kid, couldn't have been more than 12 or 13 years old, was really killin' it up on the Royal Mile.
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I was pooped and my back was getting progressively worse, but I knew Steven could go on and on and on. Gracious as he is, I held out probably too long, not wanting to end the day too fast. By time we headed down the long, steep close back to the other side of the city, to make another climb up to our hotel, I needed some down time. We had dinner at an unremarkable Italian place, Amarone. Inside was a great bustle of noise so we chose the more immediate outside seating as it was quite pleasant out still. After dinner we headed back for the evening through the seemingly on-going party in St Andrew Square. A quick stop in the hotel bar for some ice for our nightcap. I enjoyed the last of our gin & tonic while Steven sampled from our otherwise growing collection of mini-bottles of whisky.
If you are still following us, you’re probably saying, ‘Hey, didn’t I just see these guys at a holiday party?’ And, you’d be right. Yes, we’re taking our time at this, yes we are.
We had a big day ahead of us; lots of miles to cover and a couple of places of interest to visit. We thought it might take us most of the day to get to our destinations, so we set off early…for us. Leaving Elgin after another, though much lighter, breakfast at our Fawlty Towers digs, we, rather I, really wanted to head toward Balmoral. It was a bit of a trick to find a relatively direct route that got us there on our way to our Land Rover Experience and finally into Edinburgh. As you already know, we’ve done little planning on routes or closures, and the like, so after a brief check of the well-creased map of Scotland, we just headed south on the A941, the most direct route we saw.
We’ve mentioned enough about how narrow the roads are and how fast the lorries go no matter how slight the space between oncoming traffic, so I won’t repeat the many small terrors of this trip, only to say I’m glad we made it over the Cairngorm Mountains without any accidents. We actually chose a lesser-traveled route for the more mountainous parts of the trip, so perhaps, that saved us some drama.
Heading out of Elgin at this time of day wasn’t a problem. We dropped down the A941 which took us past Glen Grant, and Macallan distilleries and the Speyside Cooperage, where we changed to the A939. We also passed near the Aberlour Distillery for which we couldn’t get tasting reservation this week but our friends Bruce and Nancy from the QM2 had been two days before – we just missed them. The roadways along this route were at first packed with commuters and lorries of all sizes, apparently getting an early start to work and making their deliveries, but by time we passed Grantown-on-Spey the traffic really thinned out and we collectively took a big sigh of relief. Maybe we could finally put the Mercedes through her paces and open her up on the open Scottish Highland roads?
This route, the A939, took us deep into Cairngorms National Park and through some of the most beautiful lands we’d seen to this point. From the pictures, you’ll see a lack of large trees and plenty of rolling, heather-covered hills carpeted in different hues and saturations of yellow, fading green, and grey-blue. Somehow this more than the other wonderful landscapes of Scotland hit a cord in us…so THIS is what Scotland looks like. Of course, our vision of this Scotland was shaped by American TV…not the least of which for me was American Werewolf in London ‘Stay on the road. Keep clear of the moors.’ Creepy fun to be seeing the highland moors in the ever changing skies of northern Scotland. Just wonderful.
I can’t say we got much of a chance to open up the Mercedes, but we did push it a few times when we could clearly see enough of the roadway ahead to play safely. Admittedly, it was fun to feel the car hug the roads like it did, not flinching at the speed or curves. Several of the vistas pictured here are views from atop a small pass or overlook on the way into the park. These are old mountains; they look and feel enduring.
We stopped briefly to "stretch our legs" in the village of Tomintoul. Among other things, its claim to fame is being the highest village in the Scottish Highlands. It has a checkered past, including reputedly by loathed by Queen Victoria. As she described: "a tumbledown, miserable, dirty-looking place." These days, it's actually a clean and quaint little village and quite the tourist centre along the Whiskey Trail among the Highlands.
Just outside Tomintoul we really climbed up in elevation. The land slipped away more steeply on the sides of the road and the gloominess set in; a perfect setting. The Lecht Ski Centre was at the very top of the pass, and while it didn’t look like it had the amenities or the size of the resorts of the American Rockies or Cascades for that matter, we could certainly see ourselves having a grand time coming down off the quad chair and into the valleys of the ski centre. However, as we learned from our guide later in the day, it’s hardly worth the trek to get up here in the winter when you could just as easily fly about anywhere in Europe for much better.
Down we went now, still on the A939 until we got to Gairnshiel Lodge, where we turned west onto the much smaller, more ‘country’ sized road, the 8976. This was a cut off to Balmoral; we thought, ‘hey, why not explore the country a little more?’ This short stretch took us past the tiny village of Bush Lawsie and into Crathie, where things definitely took on a more royal look and feel.
Reaching Balmoral we found the front gates closed…what, no greeting party? There were no tour buses in the bus park, so we figured Her Majesty or the kiddies were in residence. We were right. Just a coal delivery truck and several nicely uniformed guards were around. I think I saw some well-armed guards in the woods just beyond the iron fencing, but that could just have been my X-Files weakened brain working overtime.
Even though there were clearly marked signs saying NOT to park in front of the gate area, we did anyway, mostly because I didn’t want to walk the distance from the car park to the gatehouse. Lazy I know…but, we’d been in the car sooo long by then, I just couldn’t wait to get out of it! The shopkeeper at a now converted gatehouse didn’t mention that we should move, probably because he was just as eager to see some humans as we were to get out of that car. We had a pleasant enough chat, with me nervously looking out the window to our car, checking on the guards to make sure they weren’t descending on it or taking it away. We ended up buying a few biscuits and a tea towel, the latter of which now hangs proudly off our oven door. Regrettably, I went for the bargain biscuits thinking that they were from Prince Charles’ own farms and recipe. Nope. I got the sale biscuits, the kind you can pick up just about anywhere in-country.
We had to move fast down the A93 if we were going to make our 12:30pm appointment at the Land Rover Experience just outside Butterstone on the A923. We made it in plenty of time, in fact, we were the first to arrive. You might be asking why in the world would you set up a Land Rover Experience in Scotland anyway? We’ll get to that in a minute.
Apparently, everyone but us knew that the staff lunched from Noon to 1:30pm, so we weren’t exactly greeted with fanfare when we arrived. But, after finding the main entrance...not so easy really as it was facing the lake, not the car park. Anyway, we did sign-in and were sat in the spacious eating hall (that’s the only name I can come up for it)…by ourselves. Soup and salad were on the menu, the lunch we had purchased ahead of time when we booked our experience. We were starved, and even Steven ate most of his soup, which I think was carrot/squash. After this repast we still weren’t sure what to do next. So we waited thinking someone would come get us to start our adventure. No one came so we went back to the lobby. We noticed that others had arrived and were being treated to coffee and tea in front of the fireplace. We hadn’t been asked if we even wanted coffee or tea. Okay, nothing to be bitter about, just a situation of not knowing the protocol of how these things worked. And we continued to wait for a guide.
Okay, so we finally were introduced to our guide – Ruaraidh Carmichael – we called him Rudy. Rudy took us to our white Discovery Sport HSE. Incidentally, we only recently had taken delivery of our own. Here’s where the explanation of why we’d booked this experience comes in. We didn’t know, but when you buy a Land Rover you get a free 2-3 hour ‘experience’ driving your model around a course designed to take advantage of the rig’s capabilities. So, Steven being on that sort of thing, found out through considerable back and forth with Land Rover USA and Land Rover UK, that indeed we COULD transfer our free experience to the Scotland centre. Yeah for us. So, there you go, we booked our time at the Scotland centre with lunch just so we’d have another weird story to tell.
The experience itself was a bit underwhelming at first. Country roads and some sloppy unpaved narrow trails, not much else until we got to an open area with some serious looking hills and water covered paths. It turns out there are several tracks that are specifically designed for specific vehicles. Ours, being a littler, lighter and newest Land Rover model, wasn’t designed for the steepest nor the deepest water traps. Bummer. But we did get to go up and down parts of the route that I would never have done on my own. The first time Rudy showed us the capability we had of letting the car take over controlling the rate of ascent and descent with the Hill Decend feature. We had no idea that we could let off the gas pedal and the car would figure out the proper rate given the steepness of the hill. REALLY cool. We can also use this for launching and retrieving our boat – this will come in really handy! Here's a video of Steven putting it in action.
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We each got a chance at this - the uphill and downhill tracks – several times. What fun. Rudy said we needed to move along as others were now coming on the course and wanted to have a go at the climbs. So off we went on the country roads to another part of their course. This time we went higher up into sheep country, having to pass a few gates to get to our track. Steven recalls that Rudy grew up in the area on a sheep farm, and that Rudy said he hated sheep. Apparently, according to Rudy, sheep are the dumbest animals around. No offense to you sheep people, just reporting the facts of Rudy.
We also got great accolades from Rudy on our skill with driving on the “wrong side” of the car. He’s seen people from other left-driving regions that haven’t done as well as us on the course. We chalk it up to a week of practice in a car with much less visibility.
After about 3 hours, or very close to it, we had to get going to Edinburgh to turn in the car by 6pm.
From Butterstone we hightailed it to Dunkeld and caught the main highway, the A9, south toward Perth and on the M90 to the A90, across the Forth Road Bridge and finally into Edinburgh. We did not stop at Deep Sea World in Inverkeithing, which is on the Firth of Forth, to dive with sharks (http://www.deepseaworld.com/shark-dives) – Darn!
Heading into Edinburgh wasn’t a big deal as it turns out. The trusty GPS on the Mercedes got us to our hotel, The Place at York Place. Funny thing, we didn’t see any parking anywhere near the hotel entrance, which was on a main tram and bus line. I was admittedly a little fried from all the driving that day and told Steven to just park the car on the sidewalk, making sure to get enough off the road so we wouldn’t get smashed by buses or cars. Well, we really wanted to make sure not to get the car scratched in the final minutes of rentalship, so he parked solidly on the sidewalk, causing more than a few raised eyebrows from the locals trying to make their way around this black Mercedes blocking their way.
A new bridge is being built across the Firth of Forth, it looks to be quite massive.
Phew. We got checked in fine, Steven went off the return the car (thankfully only ½ block away), leaving me to tend to the bags…which were considerable by then and very heavy. You might not know, but I had been slowly developing a very sore shoulder and back ache since we left Seattle, and by this time I was nearly in tears if I walked too much and lifted just about anything with my right arm. Luckily, the hotel had a strapping young buck of an Italian to assist me getting the bags up four flights of stairs.
Note to self: check on whether your hotel has an elevator if it’s above a couple of stories. The stair climbs were steep and the height of each level was considerably higher than one would think. Just a piece of advice to check out the elevator situation when traveling in the UK, especially if one of your party has been developing twitches and pains.
The room itself was plenty large and comfortable, even by European standards, a fact that the Italian buck commented on when he found out our room number. I didn’t ask further about that little bit of endorsement. I suppose it was a nod to the old and the artsy-new that we found this portrait guarding over our bed.
It was very humid and bordering on being a bit too warm that day, so we threw open the windows a while and just collapsed on the bed, still feeling the hours of motion in our feet. Eventually, we needed food and drink and off we went toward the centre of town. Quite amazingly, this happened to be the night of a city-wide festival. The park, St. Andrew’s Square, was full of food carts, a champagne bar, beer gardens and several music venues. It was really a pleasant surprise to walk into such a party and a great way to start off the final days of our time in Scotland.
We headed further into the center of town looking for a full dinner. We just happened to stumble across Jamie’s Italian by renowned TV chef Jamie Oliver. If you ever find yourself near this place, just keep walking. It’s basically the Cheesecake Factory or Italian food: huge portions, well enough prepared, but not above average, in a large and noisy dining room. Our friends William and Kate in York had been to a smaller Jamie Oliver restaurant elsewhere and said it was quite good, but at the moment we’re not recalling where that one was. The charcuterie platter, however, was quite ample, and could be a meal in itself.
Back to the hotel for the night. Lots of site seeing in the morning.
We were up early to get a start on a very busy day. Tucked in our breakfast, managed to haul all our bags, which had grown precipitously since leaving the QM2, down the steep stairways to the car without incident. Both of us were anxious to get going and leave some time to get to our first destination of the day, the Glencoe Visitor Centre.
Saying goodbye to our hosts, I drove us straightaway up the A815, connecting to the eastbound A83, the same road on which we drove into the Lock Fin and Inveraray area from Glasgow five days earlier. Backtracking just a bit, we turned north at Tarbet and proceeded on the A82. Did we mention how narrow all the roads are? Yes, we did. What a relief it was to once again be on a more generously proportioned roadway today. The sun was peaking through thick clouds and we felt ready for the next adventure.
At Tarbet you get to follow up the west side of Loch Lomond, which is just lovely. The loch comes into view now and again from behind trees and scrub. Every once and a while you get a clear view of the mountains of the Trossachs National Park system. Up we head, speeding along with the traffic, not as nervous about actually going the speed limit now on these wider roads. Still, one never knows exactly when a gargantuan semi tractor-trailer rig will appear from around a sharp corner. We made it unscathed of course, but nerves were on edge I could say that for sure.
After Loch Lomond, heading north, the road buries itself into a series of heavily wooded small river valleys, then bounding up over the occasional small pass, all the while gradually ascending. There isn’t really much to report on for this part of the trip. We just kept going on A82, taking in the Scottish views, thankful of the Mercedes’ road gripping handling.
You have to love the names of some of the towns we passed through: Inverarnan, Inverardran (rival cousin towns perhaps?), Tyndrum, Auch, Bridge of Orchy (a personal favorite – half expecting to see an orc come into view!), and the lovely Loch Tulla. It was just about here, maybe 2 hours into our ride north, that the road bends west and climbs into the mountains leaving behind the lush forests with their thick undergrowth.
This was the first time we’d been into something close to what we know as mountains. Being from Seattle, the Cascades are quite tall for a coastal range and offer many wonderful views. But we don’t have the wide-open high mountain areas that have little or no trees. The bare rock face of the mountains seem to sit on tufts of green, almost as if the green is holding the rocky cliffs aloft so humans can enjoy.
One of the ranges holds Glencoe Mountain, a ski resort of some size. No snow yet, so we just stopped to enjoy the vistas at a road stop and switch drivers. I was over driving on those roads for the time being at least.
You can see Rainbow Mickey really enjoyed the view of Loch Tulla behind us as we began the climb in earnest. It was hard to know which turnout would have the best views, so we just grabbed the one nearest the highest part of the journey. We weren’t alone. Somehow, this place immediately got crowded after we pulled in. Buses and large caravan’s piled with tourists (we know, tourists just like us). But does there have to be so many? We were starving, so we partook of a food truck parked there. I can’t recall what we had. It wasn’t good, but it was hot and washed back with a Coke, palatable, just.
Coming down into a valley we were on the look out for the Glencoe Visitor Centre. No problem finding it. It was well marked and up to the main parking lot we went. We were early, maybe by 30 minutes. The visitor complex looked pretty new. It consisted of a few low, mountain-modernish buildings, connected by raised walkways so not to disturb the natural flow of water in and around the area. A small stream presented itself as we exited the main building while waiting for our tour to begin. We went just a little ways up a trail and came back, mostly because my hip was hurting again, a mysterious pain that crept back now and again demanding I sit down and stretch a little.
We finally got to our tour and ended up being the only ones there. A few other people just didn’t show up, so we had our guide, who we secretly called Groundskeeper Johnny – a play on groundskeeper Willie from the Simpsons, all to ourselves. Score! You’ll hear the similarity in the video.
Let me tell you, the Scotts are a talkative bunch and Johnny was no exception. His Scottish brogue was more than a little enchanting – can I say that? Well, it was. Hearing him retell the local history of Glencoe (emphasis on ‘coe) brought the famous tussle between Steven’s Clan Campbell and Clan McDonald, from whom our Johnny descends. It turns out, that about 30 McDonalds lost their lives trying to escape from the Campbell chief who was empowered by the King of England, James I to collect new taxes. Of course, come into power, much less become a King, and get some cash by taxing the people. Heard this a million times. We dared not mention Steven’s heritage.
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Anyway, it wasn’t a ‘massacre’, at least not in my Hollywood tainted mind. A skirmish? Yes. A fiercely independent people escaping into the mountain valleys to get away from a new ruler, only to be frozen or starved? Yes. Not really a massacre. But, in fairness, it was a deeply symbolic event, one that still fuels a few raised pints at the pub recalling the demise of kin.
Groundskeeper Johnny is a highly educated and trained naturalist. He pointed out all the local heathers – pronounced by him, ‘heether’ - (I really didn’t know there were this many varieties) and the invasive species of plants that took over where ever sheep were allowed to graze. There is a balancing act going on between sheep farmers, perfectly at their rights to let their animals graze on the land, and caretakers of the land like Johnny who want th
e high mountains to be as unperturbed as possible, to retain their beauty, and limit human intrusion. Humans brought the sheep after all. The wild goat, well they can stay. They have squatter’s rights apparently.
Way up in the distance we caught one on camera. Barely could make out the dark, very still shape, until some hikers got a bit too close causing the ram to move out of our sight. Besides the flora and fauna, Johnny let us in on a bit of natural history we would never have guessed unless being told. The area you see in the pictures is actually the remnants of a collapsed caldera. In fact, the whole of what looks like a wandering valley with high mountain cliffs is really the ring of a caldera. Johnny waxed on a bit too much when he compared it to Yellowstone, but he laughed too at himself for saying that. The joke was that Yellowstone is sitting atop a seething mass of magma, where Glencoe is quite extinct, though there are still earthquakes now and then. We thought that was all pretty nifty.
We stopped to take this picture of Johnny and me. Steven doesn’t know what exactly happened, but I’m disincorporating with only my head left, and Johnny isn’t far behind. Maybe the faeries were having fun?
We thought initially that the Glencoe Visitor Centre was part of a national park system. It turns that the centre and surrounding area is owned by the National Trust of Scotland. If you’re familiar with the Nature Conservancy in the US, it’s a very similar concept. It’s an non-profit that buys land and heritage sites for preservation and conservation. Pretty cool. Check out more: http://www.nts.org.uk/
The next big site was of Ben Nevis, Scotland’s highest peak. Steven was driving as we passed Fort William on the very northern end of Loch Linnhe where Ben Nevis comes into view. I tried to take a picture but couldn’t get it and there was no turnout here for us to pull over. Remember, narrow roads and crazy-speeding drivers. It wasn’t safe to just pull over unfortunately.
Speeding now farther north, still on the A82 believe it or not, we whiz by Loch Oich and onto the famous Loch Ness!!!
Fort Augustus is at the bottom, or south end, of Loch Ness and has pretty nice set of attractions all on its own. There are plenty of sightseeing tours available, a few snack shops and a set of locks that are pretty nice. Its called the Caledonian Canal and its five locks cascade down like a river into Loch Ness. Very much worth the short walk from the car park. Oh, and we saw our first Nessie kitsch too…the wire Nessie in the middle of the park. We only wish we’d seen it in full bloom. We walked around the village just a little, we both needed to get out of that car and get some snack of some kind. After much searching and internal debating, we both settled on Café Americano’s from a vending machine. My, my how far we have fallen from the silver trays and white-gloved service on the QM2.
So off we were, up the A82 some more
sliding up the west side of Loch Ness, Steven still driving. Now, you’re going to call me crazy, but just as we made a bend, not too far from where the picture was taken of a castle across the Loch, I swear I saw a black hump in the water and then it was gone when I was able to see the same area again after rounding another bend. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.
Steven just smiled. “Yes, dear, of course you saw Nessie.”
I think he was secretly jealous.
Okay, the Loch is really beautiful. I wish we could have stayed over someplace for the night, but there really aren’t that many places to stay. You have to go to the bigger city past north of the Loch, Inverness.
Speaking of Inverness…avoid it. I know there is some quaint seaside atmosphere down by the water, but it’s nuts with clogged roads and an over abundance of lorry’s. Maybe you’ll have better luck with Inverness than we did, but we shot through town not looking back. Oh, we couldn’t look back otherwise we would have been sideswiped by a truck…err lorry.
The next stop, our accommodations for the evening in Elgin at the Mansion House Hotel. I insisted that we stay at one castle while in Scotland. Turns out, they are very expensive and the nicer ones are either booked up with August weddings or so far out of our price range that we couldn’t justify it.
Getting to the Mansion was a funny adventure on its own. Our typically trusty navigation system on the Benz, led us down what can only be described as a back alley. We think it was the best route as the crow flies, but it took us into lanes that would almost not accommodate our car, much less a car and a dog or cat. Finally, though, over a little footbridge-sized passage over a diminutive creek and we were there.
Ah, the Mansion House, what we will jointly refer to forever, as Scotland’s very own Faulty Towers. More on this later. You’re going to love it.
by Kevin (and some by Steven) -
We ambled down to breakfast at Thistle House. The room is bright and clean with yellow walls, white trim, and white furnishings…and we were the only ones there. It was a little odd being the only ones there for a while, but soon enough another couple came in said hello in some heavy accent and sat down turning to talk to each other. This scenario repeated itself during our stay. It seemed that the couples or friends traveling together kept to themselves. So much for the adage of ‘stay at a B&B and meet new friends!’ Some of it was language no doubt as most of those staying at Thistle were Russian or French and spoke almost no English…at least to us or the staff. Some of this keeping to oneself could have to do with the arrangement of the tables, most of them being set up for two not a communal table where you’re forced to interact. Nonetheless, I do wonder if that time when connections and friendships were made at these small homes converted to B&B use hasn’t just simply passed.
The breakfast spread had a few offerings we would see just about everywhere we went in the next two weeks: Full Scottish, omelets, ala carte oatmeal (porridge), streaky bacon, and various smoked fishes – most commonly salmon and cod and a few times kippers - yum. In addition there were breads, yogurts (plain for me please), granola, and of course teas and coffees – white or black? We ended up varying our breakfasts, but did have the Full Scottish, smoked salmon (I had that since Steven would definitely turn up his nose at it) and fresh fruit with yogurt and granola a few times. Toward the end of our stay I was pretty over the big breakfasts and went with plain old porridge, which suited me just fine.
So while we didn’t meet new friends at Thistle, it became our home for a few days. We ‘moved in’ easily to the main living room, at times setting up some of the space to use for writing this blog. Sometimes no writing was done, instead we shared a glass of a newly acquired whisky or two in the evenings. It was in the living room that more conversations with guests happened. As you can see, it’s really a very pleasant place with generous couches and comfortable seating. Our hosts Jennifer and Alistair provided glassware ro whisky and wine in case guests wanted to bring their own tasty beverages. We met a particularly happy group (two couples from England) who gave us some pointers on what to see and avoid, where to eat and not. They were well into their bottles of wine so possibly this provided the necessary lubrication for conversation. Unfortunately, they did leave a couple of rather humble wines for others to enjoy…I’m being generous by using ‘humble’…think of Bigfoot wines. What they didn't finish they left for others – these bottles remained untouched for the rest of our stay.
One place to eat just about everyone mentioned at Thistle and in our research before the trip was the Loch Fyne Oyster Bar located at the very northern tip of the loch. We had to pass it on our way to Inveraray so it was pretty convenient for us. We made a reservation ahead of time for lunch on Saturday, Aug. 15th and I’m glad we did. But before getting into that food adventure, it’s worth mentioning our visit to the seat of the clan Campbell at Inveraray Castle.
This was Steven’s day to go full kilt, which involves gathering a lot of pieces and putting them on just so. The whole dressing in a kilt process takes about 45 minutes, just fyi, but it is worth it. Soon enough off we were, heading out just before 10am taking the A83 past the Oyster Bar and into Inveraray.
Inveraray Castle, Argyll Scotland
Inveraray and Inveraray Castle were top destinations for us. You might know that Steven and I spent several months researching, looking at websites, and deciding on our itinerary for this trip. The QM2 part and visiting friends were no-brainers, these were non-negotiable given our time frame of three weeks plus a couple of days. One of the driving or organizing principles for our trip was exploring some of Steven’s Scottish heritage. He’s been using Ancestry.com for quite some time and for those of you who know Ancestry, at some point or another you’re going to find a link way back to someone of note. I have to admit teasing Steven mercilessly about his spurious connections, especially when Charlemagne, Jesus, and Cleopatra came up.
It was inevitable then that we’d spend a good amount of time exploring Campbell territory in the area of Scotland known as Argyll. Steven’s grandmother on his father’s side was a Campbell as well as a Great Grandmother of different lineage, also on his father’s side. This connection to Scotland and the seat of the Campbell clan was Steven’s inspiration for having a kilt made – in Campbell tartan.
Coming up the highway (A83) leads you over the Aray Bridge with a picture perfect view of the castle. You drive a little past the bridge and take a right onto the castle approach. We got there pretty close to opening at 10am, but before most of tour buses. With pre-purchased tickets in hand we parked the Mercedes, thinking to make sure to have our umbrellas since the skies weren’t looking too happy at that moment. As a side note, we did make some reservations for meals and sites like this ahead of time as this was the height of tourist season and we didn’t want to just roll the dice and see what we got. Again, I’m glad we did.
Any of you Downton Abbey fans may recognize Inveraray Castle from the 2012 Christmas episode. This is the episode where the Grantham family visits their cousins, the Marquess and Marchioness of Flintshire, at "Duneagle Castle."
Here’s Steven striking a pose on the gravel courtyard in front of Inveraray Castle.
Quite handsome I think, but I’m biased. Heading into the castle we were met by a delightfully chatty docent or guide by the name of Stafford Day. He told us of the origin of the entry way we passed as being constructed for the visit of Queen Victoria, mother-in-law of John Campbell, 9th Duke of Argyll, the holder of Inverary Castle at the time. The original entrance was on the opposite side, actually more suitable to the grand approach in the original layout of the house and grounds. Victoria however, apparently really didn’t countenance getting wet from the Scottish weather, so the Duke had constructed for her visit an iron and glass entry – incidentally designed by the same man who designed the Crystal Palace in London, Sir Joseph Paxton - thus moving the entrance from its original position on the castle. I guess the queen gets what the queen wants. A bus load just arrived so we quickly moved on inside but not before noticing the French couple we met at breakfast.
The inside of the castle is well documented online (http://www.inveraray-castle.com) and in many brochures so we won’t go into the particulars too much. Just to point out a few of the highlights we encountered. The great hall, loaded with swords and sabers, armor on the landings, and a haunted bedroom (pictured below). Personally, I think a sure sign of a haunting is the presence of a creepy doll.Steven and I noticed that much of the color of paint on the walls in the castle was very, very close to those in our own home. I guess that’s because we watch Downton Abbey and were inspired by the period colors that are throughout Inveraray Castle. The combination of soft blue, yellow, and corral is soothing we think – we are lacking the Pompeii-inspired painted panels however. Like most great homes in the UK it is chock full of collected works and personal items from the current owners. See if you can spot Rainbow Mickey.
Of course, we would have been remiss if we didn't visit the kitchen. Thank goodness for modern appliances!!
After dodging the tourists for a couple of hours, it was time for pre-lunch. In the lower level there is a gift shop, a place to buy some food and take your lunch as well as the original kitchen with its massive copper pots and molds. Hale lobster was on the menu, a specialty of the region, but we stuck to simpler fare; soup and teas. After, some shopping was in order in the gift store. We ventured out to the gardens eventually, but not after retrieving our umbrellas from the car…which of course did not make into our packs. Didn’t you check on that? The wait did us good though as I was getting cranky and needed a sit down…a nap would have done me better I’m sure. We headed out to the gardens, Steven snapping some shots as did I. I think the most impressive part of the gardens are the wood. It’s not a grand place in terms of acres, but it was peaceful and relaxing just to walk under the boughs of all the mature trees. I particularly liked the circle of old trees we found. Standing in the middle and looking up was like being in a sacred space, a cathedral of nature.
We had some time to kill before our lunch at the Oyster House, so we ventured down a path adjacent to the car park toward the overlook. A wide roadway of gravel stretched out to what looked like another entrance to the castle, maybe a grander one than that in town. We never found out. Passing over picturesque river we noticed a dog and his human were enjoying the sun break on its banks deeper into the property. Was that the Duke? Probably not. Steven decided to make an adventure of it one day and hike up to the lookout…on his own. I’m not a hiker, not that much anyway. Pictures of Steven's hike come later - as that hike didn't happen for a couple days.
PBS has a series, Great Estates Scotland. Inveraray Castle was featured in one of the installments. You can watch the episode here: http://video.pbs.org/video/2365335643/ Keep an eye out around the 36 minute mark for Stafford, the docent.
But now it was time for lunch.
Loch Fyne Oyster Bar, Cairndow
First, I have to say that this place has probably the best location outside of Inveraray. It’s directly on A82, the main road that you must use to get from just about anywhere in the Lock Fyne area. There is a fresh case and some prepared foods as you walk in. Further down is the host stand. We were met almost immediately and taken to our table. This is where things start to go wrong I’m almost sorry to say. There are three distinct dining areas we could see from the stand and we were taken to the closest one right off the seafood case and where all the families with young children happened to be. We were sat between two such families with periodically wailing small children. Not a good atmosphere in which to enjoy what we hoped would be a great meal. I know that families need to eat too, but our issue was that there were plenty of other seats in the remaining two rooms. The server was trying her hardest not to draw too much attention to the disturbances going off around the room, other guests appeared on edge too. It was just too much and we did ask to be moved. And moved we were to an adjacent room, filled with sun, big windows.
Even before the move, we had decided to take on the seafood tower with Hale lobster. Now, this isn’t what we’d usually do – order the most expensive thing on the menu that is clearly designed for the wow factor…and tourists like us. We took the bait (pun intended). In our defense, we really wanted to sample the hype, namely its claim to having the freshest seafood around. Now seated in a quieter place, we enjoyed a small salad of rocket (arugula) and parm, followed by a thick soup of smoked oyster and ham. Our tower-o-seafood arrived to the oohs and ahs of our neighboring diners. I have to admit, it was almost intimidating. Many layers of beautiful crustaceans and shellfish were waiting us. Our lobster lay unceremoniously splayed out on top; a rather ungracious thing to do to the poor guy. We dove in and entered hand to hand combat with this amassing of protein. After pulling apart heads from tails, scooping bivalves from the shells, and sucking on the ends of the smallest of lobster legs, we
were nearly defeated. I said nearly. We finished quite happy and shared knowing smiles with our new neighbors…Russians of course, who must have been awed by our efforts as we saw their own towers
arrive just as ours was defeated. All in all and in spite of the poor start to the lunch, the food – its
simple presentation and reliance upon the highest quality seafood – made this meal a good start to our culinary journey. And there were more adventures to come.
Check out their website for more info: http://www.lochfyne.com
A quick ride home and on to a 2nd dinner at Out of the Blue Bistro! - see our next post
The countryside of Argyll is spectacular. After lunch we headed back to Thistle House for a rest and perhaps even a nap. We had arrangements to go back to Out of the Blue to meet the owner and talk with Noel, the chef, to get some background about him the bistro for this blog – and, of course, have another wonderful dinner. Our second meal started with us meeting up with the owner, Susan, and the shop-keep, as well as spending some time with Noel and his daughter, Kristie, our server and the all-around assistant, Lorna (sp?).
Chef Noel Dowse apparently has quite the culinary pedigree. Trained in Ireland’s Port Rush Catering College before apprenticing in Jersey at L’Hermitage Hotel (which no longer exists). He then moved “up-town” to the Savoy in London. His latest gig before heading to Scotland was in First Class lounges and corporate catering for British Airways at Heathrow Airport. Being friends with the owner’s husband, he had been asked in the early days of their owning the bistro to come be the chef but it took over a year of convincing him to get back into the kitchen. We were certainly pleased that he made the decision to do so.
His daughter, Kristie - delightful young woman as we've said - has not inherited her father’s skills in the kitchen. By her own admission, she is not a cook – far from it. In fact, she was asked not to return to Home Economics class in school after burning up the classroom kitchen with her failed Gummy Bear muffins. At least she’s able to laugh about it these days and accepts that Dad will always be the cook in the family.
Dinner tonight started out with the day's soup, which neither of us can remember what it was. But judging by the picture, I think it was a pea soup with crème fraîche. I do remember that it was as delicious as it looks. The real treat were the entrees! We both had the same main since it sounded so good, which it was. Drambuie Chicken - as described on the menu:
Oven roasted breast of free range chicken stuffed with haggis, wrapper in bacon, smothered in a creamy peppercorn, heather honey and whiskey liqueur sauce. Served on a bed of grainy mustard mash.
What could go wrong with that!
A couple things that made this particularly nice, besides the freshness of it all, was that it was well seasoned, and the haggis wasn't fried in fat and therefore it did not over-power the dish. We've had haggis a couple other times on the trip, though tasty, it can have pretty strong flavor, be very heavy (due to being fried in fat...which it readily absorbs), but this did not. The chicken was surprisingly moist for being breast meat.
Once again, appetites satisfied, back to the inn for a night cap and sorting through the day’s photos before heading to bed.
It’s easier to disdain than it is to be fair.
After several days at sea, it’s become far harder to step back and put in perspective the many meals, service, and general impressions of our culinary adventures on the QM2. One caveat: we’ve had little interaction with Britannia food options, other than the Kings Court on odd hours when we were starving with only very few options open.
On the main, the Cunard Service in the Princess Grill is quite good, even exceptional in some ways, which we’ll note below. There is an evenness to it all, not too routine but dependable and yet always a bit surprising.
The words that come to me in summing up Cunard service are gracious, accommodating, engaging and thoughtful.
Could you ask for much more? Okay, maybe gold plates? I really don’t think so, that’s not our style anyway. The grey/silver rimmed Wedgewood china will do just fine.
I think I should mention, that Steven and I tend to agree on most of our notes, but not always. He hates salad dressings of any kind for instance, claiming as he does often, of their smell. Me, well, I’m eager to taste the smelliest of cheeses and pickled or brined things offered.
The first few days at sea were a whirlwind of sights and sounds, most all having to do with orienting to the ship, the daily schedules (delivered to our stateroom in the early evenings), the passageways, and destination points…like ‘Where is the Princess Grill again?’ and ‘How do we get to the Commodore Club, was it on Deck 7 or 8 or…, oh, right stairway B or A, Deck 9 forward’. All this was pretty exciting for us if not a bit hectic. Then there was preparing a day ahead for the first formal night of the cruise. I rented a tux, which turned out to be a kind of disaster as they only had sizes bigger than mine and somewhere along that first formal evening I lost my cummerbund.
We’ve reconstructed our meals during the cruise..or at least those highlights and low points we can both recall and decided to organize our thoughts into commentary and photos on Starters, Mains, and Desserts. Breakfasts are in their own category. But first a bit of context.
Our first meal on the Queen was lunch before sailing. After finding the Princess Grill dining room…not quite as easy as you’d think since there are no clear markers for it, only a sign for the Kings Court that is on the same level with entrances across from each other.. I guess you just have to know where it is.
We were greeted by a head waiter, showed him our card left in our stateroom that had our dining room listed (this is Cunard’s subtle way of keeping track of who can enter or not). Since we were traveling with friends Charmaine and Kevin, we wanted to be seated at the same table. None of us had thought ahead to request seating together. After a very short time and with the help of the Maitre’d were we able to be seated together at table 35, located toward the back of the dining area or aft on the ship. This became our home base for the next seven days and where we met our new friends Nancy and Bruce from Charleston, South Carolina. We turned out to be a very well match group and enjoyed the time we had in the Princess Grill and often closing out the night in the Commodore Club.
Each meal you’re presented with a printed menu for the day. You can ask for anything you’d like and the chef will try to prepare it for you. I don’t know, but I doubt you get this kind of service on most cruises these days. In any case, we didn’t know about this option until the final days of the cruise, but frankly, I doubt I would have ordered off the menu like that given the range of choices we had every day. A Sommelier was assigned to our area too who got to know our leanings very quickly.
Okay, finally to the starters. At first, we were giddy with all the tasty-sounding options and so we indulged…my, did we indulge. What’s wrong with having a couple of starters, soups, and salad every meal? Nothing we said to ourselves…unless these are followed by even more tasty looking mains and sweets. Needless to say, we chose differently further into our trip.
One of the great options is the lower calorie Canyon Ranch menu. I tried it several times and was not disappointed. Charmaine loved that they had many vegetarian options at each seating. Seared rare Ahi with micro greens and seafood reduction one day, Shrimp Cocktail of course served with Sauce American (roughly cocktail sauce), Pan Roasted Scallop, baby white asparagus, dressed with a light aioli, a Seafood Terrine – these are just a few we chose over the week. Too many to recount in full here. The soups became our table’s mainstay for starting our meals. Eventually you do get tired of such extravagance as you tummy reminds you you’re not accustomed to living the Edwardian life.
Ah the soups. Lovely pureed vegetable soups (often with no cream thank goodness), some more complicated looking than others. But our real love were the very simple clear broth or consomme served. Necessarily, they were variations on a beefy theme, but each day we loved the pure cleanness of the taste. I’m sure that under seasoning is the way chefs have to prepare foods these days…after all, we’re talking meal planning for a couple of thousand folks daily. We did find we needed to add some salt or finish the pureed soups with a little EVOO (extra-virgin olive oil).
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By this time we sometimes just couldn’t bare thinking of more…but, we did push on to sample Cunard’s offerings. I particularly enjoy a cheese course at the end of meal. The choices were just okay…yes, they had the Stilton Blue but that was the tastiest by far. I wonder if they just catered to a palate that didn’t like stinky and strong cheeses? Can’t blame them, but I only had that option once…besides take a look at the pictures, there was much more to enjoy.
The Pyramid pictured is a raspberry parfait that Steven had….scrumptious. Molten White Chocolate Soufflé. Fredrik came over and opened the top, pouring in vanilla laced crème anglaise. It was a good as this sounds. Then there was the Baked Alaska Cunard style….on the last formal night, the same meal at which we consumed the lobster. That put us over the top and resulted in a general commitment by our table to rejoin our fitness routines that were most conveniently left on land!
As I agree with what Kevin says above (except perhaps about my disdain for thing brined - I do like certain pickled things though I will stand firm on my opinions of salad dressing and mayo), I don't want to add much more to this already length post. But I do have a few things to add.
The service was nearly impeccable with white gloves and all. Platter service from the left and plated dishes served from the right, etc, as it should be 🙂 though a few times dishes were presented to the wrong person. The food itself was, for the most part, exquisitely (or even dramatically) prepared. Classic preparations, so nothing terribly groundbreaking or adventurous but delicious an elegant nonetheless. The only molecular gastronomy happening on this ship was with some of the martini concoctions in the Commodore Club.
As for the kitchens, we had suspected when we booked into the Princess Grill that the food would come from the same kitchen as the large Britannia Room. We were wrong on that account. The Princess and Queens Grills have there own kitchen to server these 70 to 80 or so tables. I imagine that this is why they are able to provide personalized service and more nuanced presentation though with many similar base dishes. Todd English has its own kitchen as well.
We have a couple of the dinner menus which we can provide on request once we get back home.