Cunard Queen Elizabeth
May 31st - June 10th, 2019
We'll be doing full posts about our trip in the coming weeks but we wanted to give you all a preview to the photos. Below are the shots from our fun in Ketchikan.
We'll be doing full posts about our trip in the coming weeks but we wanted to give you all a preview to the photos. Below are the shots from our fun in Ketchikan.
November 16, 2018
Oceania Cruise line is well-known for its culinary prowess in the dining room. What you might not know is that they started the at-sea culinary class revolution, which is now in full swing on the high seas with most cruises in the luxury category offering several options for learning about local cuisine geared toward your itinerary.
Our cruise from Barcelona to Miami offered several culinary classes held in their state-of-the-art culinary demonstration-teaching center. Given our embarkation location and the cruise being a transatlantic crossing, you’d not be surprised to see courses on Spanish cuisine and the bounties of the seas.
We booked ahead – well before our departure – the Viva España and If It Swims courses; highly recommended as these courses are becoming very, very popular.
At the Viva España course we prepared –
Patatas Bravas with Smoky Paprika Aioli (recipe below)
Pan Con Tomate
We were served Sangria Blanca as well.
At the If It Swims course we prepared –
Pesce All’Acqua Pazza (fish in crazy water)
Salmon Wraps A la Canyon Ranch
Fish Tacos with Asian Slaw and Sriracha Crema
Chef Kellie prepared Aquavit-cured Gravlax for us and served a good white wine.
These classes were offered in the shop's Culinary Center. This is a onboard cooking classroom offers two classes each day while at sea with a variety of topics throughout the cruise. At some ports, they offer shore side shopping trips to local market.
The classes are well run and fun. On Riviera, they're headed up by Chef Kellie Evans, formerly an associate food editor at Saveur Magazine. She commands a staff of 3 or 4 assistants. As a team they make the sessions fun, informative, and easy. Most of the tedious tasks of preparing your mise en place (all the cutting, chopping, and measuring) is taken care of by the staff. If there's a special technique that called for there will be a demonstration before you get to try it for yourself. You get to do all the cooking, assembling, and plating - and eating! - yourself. And the best part: they also do all the cleanup afterwards!
After the orientation to our workstations and introduction to what we'll be cooking, everyone comes to the front demonstration station where Chef explains a little about the dish, the ingredients, and the techniques involved as she shows how it's done. The we all go back to our own stations and try to replicate what she just did. The staff comes around to make sure we're on track and answer questions.
When one step or dish is done, we move back up to the front to learn about the next step. We're back and forth as we progress through all of the dishes in the course. Eating as we go.
Each session last for 2 hours, but the time goes by far too quickly.
Read more about The Culinary Center here: https://www.oceaniacruises.com/ships/riviera/life-on-board/culinary-center/
This recipe below is from the Viva España class. We made this Patatas Brava dish as well as the obligatory tapas Pan Con Tomate, and Paella. All while enjoying Sangria Blanca. Look for some more of these recipes in coming weeks.
It's been 8 days since we left our last port of call in Spain, at Málaga. We were to have had two more stops in The Canaries. But, due to weather, and trying to out-run an enormous storm in the North Atlantic, we were not able to visit. We may have been able to get to the islands before the storm but would have been in the worst of it as we left. Rather than risking threatening seas, we headed further south before making our turn to the west. There was much disappointment among guest and staff. Many of the guests, like ourselves, were eager to visit Santa Cruz de Tenerife and Santa Cruz de la Palma. The crew relishes port days when everyone has gone ashore. What was planned to be one day at sea followed by two at port before the five-day crossing, now would be eight days at sea to do little but eat, drinking, and sunbathe - more about that in other posts.
On the 24th, we found ourselves within sight of Puerto Rico just as the sun rose through the clouds. This treated us to nice sunrise view of San Juan as we pulled into the harbor. We were looking forward to this port for a number of reasons. One being that we had booked a walking food tour of Old San Juan. The packages available through the ship were beyond our comfort zone in terms of price. But we did have internet so found something on our own. There were several to choose from, others already booked. The one we chose, and glad we did, was Spoon Food Tours.
The Fort - Castillo San Felipe del Morro
As soon as we were allowed off the ship, which took some time as this was our first arrival back to the US. The ship had to be cleared by customs before anyone could disembark. Those who had tours were allowed to disembark first. Then everyone else, all passengers and crew, had to get off the ship and go through immigration. We headed off as soon as we could and got an Uber to take us to the meeting place for our tour. It was a quick ride away up the hill, we probably could have walked but we weren't sure how long it would take - and it was uphill! We arrived in plenty of time to wander up to the fort for a few minutes and enjoy the morning sun. It was getting hot very quickly. A few tourists had already shown up at the fort but were thus far largely outnumbered by the young people using the perimeter of the fort grounds to get in their morning run.
The fort itself is a US National Park. We didn't have time to go in, but I'm sure it would have been interesting. Check out the website for more information: https://www.nps.gov/saju/index.htm.
But now it was time to meet our guide at the nearby Plaza del Quinto Centenario, a plaza built in 1992 to commemorate the 500 years since Christopher Columbus arrived in Puerto Rico.
Soon our guide, Gabriela, arrived as well as one other couple. We waited a while for one other person but attempts to reach her were unsuccessful so we headed on our way. These tours are limited to 12 participants, we were fortunate to only be the four of us.
Our first stop was just adjacent to Plaza del Quinto Centenario in the Cuartel de Ballajá. This building was the former barracks for the fort. It's now home to the Museum of the Americas, and various other arts and culture organizations. On the ground floor you'll find Don Ruiz Coffee where you can enjoy some of Puerto Rico's finest home-grown coffee. Puerto Rico's coffee plantations are located on the south west side of the island and were 60-80% devastated by Hurricane Maria in 2017. Production has been slow, as you can imagine, to recover. Due to this, Don Ruiz is only serving their coffee in the coffee shop as of our visit. None is available for retail sale. They're just trying to survive at this point. Gabriela further mentioned that most coffee you find in stores around the world that say "Puerto Rican" needs further inspections. In many cases it's a blend of Puerto Rican and others. Look for 100% Puerto Rican Coffee. This is much the same as you find with "Kona Coffee."
At Don Ruiz we enjoyed a cup of cappuccino accompanied by a ham and cheese sandwich on Puerto Rican mallorca bread, sprinkled with powdered sugar. It would be easy to get addicted to starting your days with this sandwich on the soft, sweet bread. If you're familiar with King's Hawaiian bread, it's close, but this was so much more fresh.
After our coffee and sandwich, we took a look at the coffee museum they have in the back of the cafe. Here you'll find miniatures models of coffee roasters and other equipment. Also on display are patron-decorated coffee cups. Read the chalk board walls to learn about the coffee roasting process including the chemical structure of caffeine for the chemists in the crowd.
Before leaving Ballajá we had a chance to walk about briefly. A couple local bands were having practice while a few tourists milled about.
Second Stop - Farmers' Market
After our coffee we headed toward our next stop, passing by the fort grounds and the cemetery below. This next stop was at a simple farmer's market. There wasn't a lot here but it was nice to see a few things we don't typically have in mainland US. Some of the vendors took time to explain to us what a few things were with the help of our guide. Aside from these and the usual fresh herbs and fruits was a couple making vegetarian empenadas. Further down, a man was using a machete to cut open coconuts for refreshing drinks. We ended up getting a couple of virgin mojitos made in front of us. Refreshing in the increasing heat of the day
Third Stop - Taberna Lúpulo
The beer joints of beer joints in San Juan. Taberna Lúpulo is quite the hot spot in the center of Old San Juan's nightlife. Live music and an astounding selection of (mostly) local brews. Also a popular spot for weekend brunch. Fortunate for us, even though this was a Saturday we had no problem getting in for our "brunch." On offer for our tour was what we’re calling a beer mimosa, and a french toast with papayas.
Walk About to Next Stop
One reason we chose this tour was because it was a walking tour. There were others to chose from that were by van. The van would certainly have been more comfortable in the heat. But we were certain that walking through the town would allow us much more flexibility to stop here and there at our leisure (to some extent) to take picture.
Please enjoy these few snaps of our journey through the town.
Mofungo at Hecho en Casa
Next up was Hecho en Casa for our first go at Mofungo. If you're not familiar, it is the "national dish" of Puerto Rico. Simply put, it's a mix of primarily plantains and meat. Everyone's mother or grandmother will have their own variation. But in all cases the plantains are fried then mashed in a mortar and pestle, or pilón. It's then mixed with meats and a sauce of broth, olive oil, garlic, and pork cracklings. What could be wrong with that?
Our guide couldn't have been more ecstatic about this stop! Mofungo is the ultimate comfort food here in Puerto Rico. As I said, everyone's mother, grandmother, or aunt had their own special recipe. But what always went into it was a passion and love for the family. This is not an easy dish to make. It's hard, physical, work to smash the plantains in the pilón, and can only be turned out in one or two servings at a time. A true labor of love to make this dish for the whole family.
I'm not a big fan of plantains, but this was delicious!
Last Stop - Princesa Gastrobar
I wish we could have stayed for dinner - the menu looks amazing!
We were lucky enough to get a mojito (a real one!) and a cup of chickpea soup. The broth was very flavorful with just-picked herbs. Not a lot else to say about it other than if you're in Old San Juan stop by here, it's on the harbor side of Old San Juan. Ask for this soup or enjoy one of the other interesting options from the menu. If you do, please let us know what you tried.
Saturday, November 10, 2018
La Boqueria (Mercat de la Boqueria)
This is one of the big things we were looking to do in Barcelona - aside from the Sagrada Família and the Modernist architecture, of course - was La Boqueria. Located off famous La Rambla, this massive food market had something for everyone. We had been to a similar market in 2014 in Lyon, France, the famed Les Halles de Lyon. In fact, the air and feel of these two places are very much the same: tightly packed stalls and stalls of everything imaginable in the food world - soup to nuts, as they say.
If you weren't looking for the place, it would be easy to pass right by. As you walk down La Rambla toward the water there are two entrances about 1/2 way down, off to the right. These entrances are set back from the street as if down alleyways or service roads. It may be calm out on the street, but once inside during the middle of the day, the market is buzzing. The most prominent purveyors are, of course, the charcuterie stands with all manner of cured meats, especially the jamón ibérico. Though there are produce stands throughout, this is no place for vegetarians and vegans!
Aside from the cured meats, you'll see butchers, fish mongers, veggie stands, confectioners, dairy, florists, cheese shops, poultry, pastries and breads, pepper and spice shops, and just about anything you can imagine from the sea. Emu eggs, anyone? I'm sure I've missed something. If you aren't here to shop for your week's groceries, there are plenty of places to eat serving up the bounty of the market - but be prepared to wait for a seat when it's busy!
We actually made two visits here. The first time, we didn't realize we were so close and had already stopped for lunch at a nearby restaurant for paella. It was a nice lunch but was by no means adventurous. By the time we got here, things were already winding down for the day being late on a Saturday afternoon. We wandered about and took a few pictures, oohing and aahing at all the goodies. We have Pike Place Market here in Seattle, which really is quite amazing in its own way, but pales in comparison in terms of the variety on offer at La Boqueria. We vowed to come back for lunch one day before leaving Barcelona.
---Continued reading below these photos---
Lunch at La Boqueria
Monday, November 12, 2018
The last day in Barcelona and our last chance to come back to La Boqueria for lunch. We finished at Casa Vicens just after noon and headed back across town to La Rambla. It only took a short while to get there on the Metro subway. Once there, we wandered about to see where we may want to eat. We ended up at Kiosk Universal which we had seen two days before and had caught our eye.
This place is situated in the front corner of the market, nearest La Rambla. It's set up with counters and display all the way around with all the cooking going on the in center. Each server works a few feet of the counter providing a combination of serving and preparing. A few of the staff were handling more specialized tasks such as manning the grill or prepping dishes. There were also a few surrounding table being served by staff. We put our name in and waited about 15 minutes for spots at the counter where we could see all the action.
With a couple glasses of Cava in our hands, we started to order the food. Of course we started with Pulpo - grilled octopus. Then on to the steamed razor clams with langostine. Next up the seafood pasta with calamari, clams, mussels and shrimp. The winner was the sea scallops. Check out the video at the end of the this post to sea how our server "cooked" them in-shell with just a chef's torch - does a scallop really need to be cooked any more than that.
We couldn't eat everything on the menu, but we sure were tempted.
Find out more about La Boqueria at the official home page: http://www.boqueria.barcelona
For this recipe, check with your local wild mushroom seller to find out what varieties would go best with the tarragon. We’ve made this a number of times using whatever varieties were availabe at the time: lobster, cauliflower, white and red chantrelles which, in the Pacific Northwest, are available in late summer into fall. We also added criminis from the grocery store to fill out the volume (criminis are available all year in at most grocery stores). For true decadence add some morels! Farmers’ markets are a great source. We did try dried mushrooms to see how they would do. The flavor was ok, not great, but the texture was tough and rubbery. We strongly recommend sticking with fresh if you can get them. Also, from a strictly aesthetic point of view, you may want to steer clear of black mushrooms. As you can see in our picture, lighter mushrooms would look better. Before we soaked our mushroom mix, there were more white and orange ones than black. Once they soaked together, the light colored mushrooms absorbed all the black.
As for the puff pastry: don't even attempt to make this yourself! That is, unless you're really looking for a challenge. It's a nuisance to make whereas it's easy to find in most grocery stores. Pepperidge Farm is the most commonly found here but the last time we made this we used Dafour that we found at Whole Foods, which we quite liked. Check out the comparison at Serious Eats.
If you don’t have sweet vermouth, dry sherry would work just as well (not “cooking” or crème sherry, both having salt and other additives).
Our favorite pan to use for baking this is 6 x 13 x 1 removable-bottom tarte pan. Any other low-sided pan should work just fine; just adjust your volumes and quantities accordingly for your size pan. As long as you don’t go with a deeper pan, the cooking time should stay the same. You can even do individual serving sized, these will require less cooking time so keep an eye on them.
We haven't tried to add any grated cheese to the custard mix but fresh grated Parmesan made be a really good addition. If you try it, let us know in the comments.
I don't often get to travel for my day job. But when I do, my company sends me to some far-reaching places. The past March was one such opportunity. In December 2017, I found out I would be going to Africa, Tanzania, specifically. I assumed that someday I'd get the chance to go to Africa but had never really thought too much about it. Now was my chance.
Still, with finding out in December I had very little time to plan. I didn't know the exact dates until less than 30 days out. Fortunately I had some vacation time in the bank that wasn't already spoken for. This made for the possibility of adding on a few extra days after the official business to take an adventure. I'm so glad I did!
Most of my time in Tanzania was spent in Dar es Salaam. What to say about Dar? Well, not much really. From what little I saw of it, there's not much reason to go there. It's a large, sprawling, urban traffic jam. There may have been some sites to see in the main downtown area but I didn't have the time or means to explore that area much as the office where I was working was out in the 'burbs' well over an hour out of downtown.
If you do plan a trip to Tanzania, especially arriving at the Dar es Salaam airport, here's my main pointer for you: BUY YOUR VISA IN ADVANCE! You can get a tourist visa upon arrival, but it's a messy process at least at this time (perhaps will be better when the new terminal is completed - was to be completed in October 2018, a year behind schedule. I don't think it's done as of this writing.). I was lucky. My seat on the plane was very near the front - still economy, mind you. So just 1st class and a few from business class were already in the visa queue when I got there. You wait in line to have your immigration form checked. Then you wait in line for a clerk, have your picture taken, fingerprints scanned, hand over your passport with $100 cash (for Americans, that is - less for almost everyone else). Then you wait. As I say, I was lucky! I only had to wait about 30 minutes (nowhere to sit in this crowed, cramped, and hot space) before another officer brought out a stack of passports and started calling names. I was the last called in this batch of about 20 passports. A lady that was on my flight - a Tanzanian national living abroad - she goes through this every time she visits and says it can take 4 - 5 HOURS! So - get your visa in advance and save yourself this trouble.
Now, back to the pleasantries.
I picked a hotel at the north end of the city, near the office where I'll be working. There are a number of beach resorts out this way. Many looked fine from the pictures but really so hard to know what you're really going to step into. I played it safe and chose the Ramada Beach Resort. Good location, nice beach, decent price. It actually turned out to be a good choice. I may do a separate post about this later.
What to do with my bonus days? I could either go up north to go on safari or head out to Zanzibar. I can sit on a beach in many places in the world but it would be fun to see the spice markets and go scuba diving. The chance to go on an Africa safari was much more alluring.
A little research made it clear that a safari could get really expensive, really fast. To make matters more difficult, I'm not going as part of an organized week-long or more tour. The logistics of doing this on my own, having never been to Africa, was going to be tricky. All of the airlines that actually fly into the Serengeti are ridiculously expensive for these destinations. Then you add on the hundreds of dollars for the park entrance fee. The nearest major airports are in Arusha and Kilimanjaro - too far of a drive to get to the Serengeti with the time I have available. At this late date, many of the lodges were fully booked. I did speak with a well-known photo safari guide, Andy Biggs, who was good enough to offer some advise and warnings - specifically, that I should expect to pay about $1,000 per day for a quality experience - ouch! (Would have liked to have joined the safari he was leading a week later - maybe another day.) He also warned me of some guide companies to avoid. I finally zeroed in on a hotel that looked nice at a reasonable price and had offerings for various day-trips. Now booked, the hotel arranged for airport pickup/dropoff. I also had them arrange a tour in the nearby Arusha National Park. Great - all is sorted. I may actually be able to pull this off!
The day of departure arrived sooner than I was mentally ready. I hadn't packed a thing. Fortunately, I didn't need to be at the airport until 2:00 or even a little later. That gave me plenty of time to get packed with a last minute scurry to off-load a few pounds to make the weight limit.
Kevin got me to the airport in plenty of time. We said our goodbyes as I headed for check in.
As I got to the counter, I overheard one of the other ticket agents mention a special: deeply discounted upgrade to Business Class. I asked my agent and she confirmed that they were indeed oversold in Economy and offering the reduced upgrade price. I was tempted, oh, so tempted. But this being the beginning of my trip and wanting to conserve funds (just in case) I foolishly passed up the offer. I was not so foolish on the return! - more about that later. The bag passed the weight check, just barely. Alaska Mileage Plan number applied to my itinerary (which took some considerable amount of keystrokes, several agents, and a supervisor) and I was off to the Centurion Lounge to await boarding.
The rest of the journey was basic, mundane, air travel on a 14 1/2 hour flight. Watched a few movies, tried to sleep, chatted with the couple next to me a bit (they were hay farmers from Central Washington on their way to Dubai to sell horse hay to the Emirates where it's no longer permissible to grow hay - who knew?), eat three times, etc. I know I watched a couple movies, but can't tell you now what they were. Fortunately, I had an exit row seat at the wall - no window, just wall - so was able to come and go at my leisure. Before I knew it, we were in Dubai. Left Seattle at 5:00pm and arrive in Dubai at 7:30pm, great only 2 1/2 hours have passed! So what if it's the next day. Overnight here in a hotel near the airport and back in the morning for the next leg.
The next flight from Dubai to Dar es Salaam was equally uneventful. Exit row seat again, but on the aisle. This flight was only 5 1/2 hours with breakfast and lunch and more movies. Before I knew it we were south of the equator and coming in to land.
I'll spare you the details about the horrors of trying to get a sim card for my phone and data card for the laptop. But that finally done with the help of the driver that had been arranged, we were off for the hour + drive to the hotel. Traffic was hell!
Let's fast forward through the time in Dar es Salaam to getting setup for the safari.
The trip from Dar to Arusha was fairly uneventful. Other than the fact that I got to the airport quite early for the flight as originally scheduled. I didn't get notice until at the airport that the flight time had been pushed back an hour. Trust me, this is not an airport you want to find yourself having to sit for an extended period!
Upon arrival in Arusha, I was greeted outside the small airport by the driver from the hotel I'll be staying at. Of course, I arrived during rush hour so it took a fair while to get to the hotel. Nice tour of the city and my first glimpse at Kilimanjaro. The hotel, Arusha Serena Hotel, was some ways from downtown Arusha situated on a former coffee plantation. The grounds were lovely and the staff friendly. I was greeted by the hotel manager, Jane, on arrival who saw me to reception and then to my room, insisting she drag my huge suitcase herself.
This hotel is setup with a large main building, the former plantation house. All of the guests rooms were in semi-circle sets of bungalows fashioned in the style of Massi villages.
Since we were out of the central core of the city, there really wasn't much available to walk about to explore. In fact, the hotel staff warned not to leave the hotel grounds without escort. But while on the grounds, I felt quite safe.
The rooms aren't air conditioned. But that hardly seemed to matter. Arusha sits at a pretty high altitude at about 4,600ft (1,400 meters) above sea level so is much cooler than Dar es Salaam. It was warm and humid my first night here for which the ceiling fan was handy. There was a hole in one of the window screens, a bandage easily fixed that so mosquitoes didn't in. The bed was surrounded by mosquito netting which the staff carefully deployed at evening turn-down. Night time average low temperatures can get downwards of the mid 50sF to upper 60sF (13-12C). I didn't notice if the room had heating, surely it must have.
One of my colleagues is from Arusha. I told him about the arrangements I had already made. He wasn't impressed, saying that, sure, I'll see some wildlife but that there are much better places to go. Though the Serengeti would be impractical, he offered to arrange a trip to Tarangire National Park through a friend of his, Charles, who runs a wilderness safari company. It's a little further from Arusha than what I had booked but was offering for the same $300 I was planning on paying anyway. This was all-in: car and driver, park entrance fees, and lunch. And the best part, it turns out, was that I would be the only one going. This proved to be of great advantage as I wouldn't be competing for vantage points while in the park. No one to get in my way of shooting. (I kept getting looks of jealousy from other vehicles in the park that were packed with upwards of 12 people each, all vying for the best spots to get their photos).
The drive out to Tarangire took somewhere in the vicinity of 1 1/2 hours, maybe more. The scenery was stunning! The Great Rift Valley off in the distance and the mountains of the Ngorongoro Crater not far away. We passed many of the traditional Maasai villages with the round thatched mud huts in a circles surrounded by stick fencing (my driver offered to take me to own of these, but it just didn't feel right, so no.)
I don't recall exactly, but it think it took a few hours to get from my hotel in Arusha to Tarangire. Upon arrival Charles took care of park entry requirements. I wandered around the visitor center which had a few information displays about some of the plant and wildlife of the park, a treehouse-style lookout tower built into a baobab tree and, most interestingly, several elephant skulls. I wouldn't have thought a skull would be very fascinated, but then again, I never imagined what an elephant's look like. I had to get a few shots to show you. Plus, I have a friend who collects various small skulls and animal skeletons so I knew he'd be interested in seeing one.
We were barely into the park before we begin to spot the wildlife. First up were the impalas and warthogs. Then the giraffes and more impalas, various birds. More impalas. And on and on. One sighting after another. It wasn't long before we came across a pack of elephants. Amazing animals! And who can get too much of watching baby elephants play?
There's not much more to say other than to just let you (hopefully) enjoy the photos.
These next ones are not from Taragire Park. The left is Mt Meru which hangs above the city of Arusha, within Arusha National Park. On the right is Kilimanjaro. Both photos taken on the drive into Kilimanjaro airport (3°23'20.8"S 37°03'51.5"E).
Celebrated two birthdays with friends. It was snowing so our friends were delayed, we were seated without them. That’s a big deal when the website clearly says all in the party need to be there to be seated and your table might be released after 15 minutes. Who knows if we just benefited from the bad weather or not, but we were glad.
We brought our own wine, so we didn’t pick from what was on offer. The food was everything we’d heard about it. In many ways the best Italian we’ve had, including in Italy. The approach was fresh, innovative, calm and uncomplicated, and represented the best of this winter season. Kudos to all.
Here’s what we had. Everything was exceptional. We ordered the sampler antipasto that gave tastings of all four on the menu: prosciutto de Parma, Insalada cicoria, Bietole e Formaggio Di Capra (roasted beets), porchetta tonnata). Because we needed to gild the lily, we also ordered the Uovo con Fonduta (crazy cheese fondu with a poached egg). There was plenty to share. We noticed other diners with just one antipasti, and the portions were substantial.
For the Primi or pasta course we ordered two at the suggestion of our gracious and helpful wait staff; the Tagarin con Butrro e Salvia (thin pasta with butter and sage) and Agnolotti Di Coniglio (braised rabbit stuffed angnolotti with double brodo). Secundi was off the hook: Capunet (Swiss chard wrapped braised beef) and Anatra (pan seared duck breast). Finally, we had all four of the desserts on offer that night; Torta al Cioccolato, Zuppa englese, Tiramisu, and Panna Cotta. I should note that reservations are pretty much required, but there was space at the bar throughout the evening. Perhaps it was all the snow keeping folks home, but you might get a bar seat without planning ahead.
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Here are a few more photos of the Oceania Riviera from our trip from Barcelona, Spain to Miami, Florida. November 13-28, 2018.
The Riviera has an amazing number of dining venues for a ship of its size. There's The Grand Dining Room, Terrace Café (the buffet), and the poolside Waves Gill. All are open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. No reservations needed. Additionally there are four specialty restaurants: Jacques (Pepin) Bistro, Red Ginger, Polo Grill, and Toscana - all open for dinner only by reservation but still without cover charge. On top of all that you will find Privée which seats 10 for private dining; $120 for the entire room, and La Reserve in collaboration with Wine Spectator. La Reserve offers wine pairing dinners for a nominal fee, by reservation as well as hosts wine tastings and other wine-centric events during the day.
If that is not enough, you'll find Baristas overlooking the pool deck for an espresso or other barista style beverages. At 4:00 you'll be able to attend Afternoon Tea in Horizons, the large lounge toward the bow. If you're booked in a Concierge Stateroom you will have access to the Concierge Lounge with coffee, tea, soft drinks and snacks. Guests in the various levels of Suites will be able to visit the Executive Lounge with similar amenities.
And of course you can dine in your room.
All these venues offer great food in beautiful surroundings. The staff usually attentive with senior staff being particularly helpful (Thank you Nino Lieassi and Maximilian!) even if their more junior staff at times could use a little more training.
All-in-all, we really enjoyed the food. Very few misses but many dishes hit out of the park! It's not revolutionary, for the most part, but excellently executed. The most adventurous we found was in La Reserve. We did not take advantage of Privée as we didn't have a large enough group, early enough in the cruise, to make it worthwhile.
We'll post more about the food in future posts - stay tuned.
As mentioned above, Horizons sits at the bow on Deck 15 (highest deck without being outside). During the day, this is a open and bright lounge to just sit to read, chat with new friends, or enjoy and afternoon cocktail/mocktail. It features a champagne-starring Afternoon Tea at 4:00. Later in the evening you'll find dancing to live music, whisky tastings, and friendly bar staff. In all a great gathering place!
Martinis sits at mid-ship on Deck 6 with comfortable sofas and piano music in the evenings. This place was always full whenever we passed through after dinner. Next door was the Casino Bar (with it's original Picasso etchings!). Opposite this was the Grand Bar which was a favorite spot before dinning in the Grand Dining Room. During the day you'll get your G&T, Bloody Mary, or a beer at Waves Bar next to the pool.
This ship is a floating museum! We didn't take many pictures of the art, but rest assured, this ship is well decorated. Most of it is modern art is from the 19th and 20th centuries, including the already mentioned Picasso etchings was well as pieces from Miró. In the spa you'll even find a couple of 12th to 13th century statues from Angkor Wat. The collection was curated and collected by the cruise line's founders and their wives. Read more about that HERE. One fun activity onboard was the art scavenger hunt. We were given a booklet with about 60 images. Each image was of a painting, photograph, sculpture, or sign, or just a minute snip-it thereof. It took several days of working at it off and on to find and identify (piece name, artist, and deck number). It was fun meeting other people about the ship wandering around with their sheets. Most people were happy to help others out with hints and pointers. The best part about it was just getting so many of us to actually look at the art. We noticed it, of course, but probably wouldn't have otherwise really lookedat it.
A book about Oceania's art throughout the line is available on Amazon:
One thing you can't miss is the main atrium. You can't help but notice stunning the Lalique starcase!
A House that Gaudí Built - Actually, his first
Gaudí’s First House: Casa Vicens,
Carrer de les Carolines, 20-26
Barcelona, Spain…er Catalonia.
Metro stop: L3 Fontana (Green line)
After taking the Modernist Walking Tour with Rainbow Tours, I got to looking up more about the works of Gaudí in our neighborhood, the Eixample. Our guide, Manu, mentioned we were in the most Gaudí-packed area of the city. It turns out he was right. There is a UNESCO World Heritage site just up a few blocks and a couple of streets over. So, on our last full day in Barcelona, we set out for a morning adventure to visit the newly opened Casa Vicens.
Oh, as for all the Gaudí buildings and most other attractions, go online and secure your tickets ahead of time. No need for a printed ticket, they are able to just check your e-ticket on your mobile.
From our hotel, Casa Fuster, Casa Vicens is one stop up the Green (L3) Line, the Fontana stop. It was a glorious day - blue skies with a few puffy clouds and the temperature was just right for us Seattleites, about 60 F. Emerging from the subway, we headed basically north. I say ‘basically’ because I could never find the North-South symbols on our maps, which were all oriented to place the main streets as running true north and south. I guess it doesn’t really matter in such a well-planned city as Barcelona.
Let me add before going on, that if you’re in Barcelona you CANNOT miss the Casa Vicens. It’s a must. It’s the only Gaudí home that has had such extensive restoration. After years of research, forensic analysis of the home’s interiors and exterior spaces, and painstaking recreation of missing elements, the result is pretty amazing
The Property & House
The casa is located in what remains a lovely quite neighbor in Gràcia since it being completed in 1885 as a summer residence. For context, that was a mere 20 years after the US Civil War ended.
You enter the property through a side courtyard where you’ll go through a quick security check. You have to put all bags in the lockers provided, but take a Euro coin, you’ll that it to use them. You get the coin back when you leave. From the bag area, you enter the garden area, which has been substantially reduced in size since Gaudí built the home for stockbroker, Manuel Vicens.
Gaudí was only 31 years old when he was commissioned by Vicens. It must have been quite the coup in the architectural community at the time, not to mention the house’s visionary design. As the guides (and excellent free guidebook) mention, the house set the bar for the new architectural movement we know today as Catalan Modernism. It combined Catalan, Japan, Islamic, and English styles, giving visitors – as well as the owner – a reference point for its many, juxtaposed elements.
The original garden must have been spectacular. It contained a round fountain and large gazebo all incorporating the palate of textures, colors, and shapes Gaudí preferred. You’ll find a small coffee shop on the opposite side from where you exit the bag room. Nothing special about it, but it’s pleasant to get your café or espresso or cappuccino and take a seat to enjoy the view of the house before or after your tour of the house.
As you wonder through what’s left of the garden area, still quite lovely, you get a look of the exterior of the home. While standing in the garden, itself containing a wide variety of plants and trees, note the fan palm cast-iron grilled fence. Like all of the home, it’s a piece of art to take in over time. Apparently, the original design was intended only for the front gate, but over time the fencing was extended to surround the entire property.
Moving on, you climb a few stairs and enter the main floor of the house proper. But don’t go too fast. At the top of the landing to the front door look around at all the detailing Gaudí has installed here. It’s almost too much to take in.
The Entrance Hall & Covered Porch
Look up in the covered porch. The porch and entrance hall have been restored to their original state. You’ll see spectacular trompe-l’oeil ceilings replicating sky and leaves of the palm, an echo from the cast-iron gates. There are too many details to mention here, but take advantage of the docent’s knowledge. They pointed out many smaller details which we simply would have missed like the restored tiles and flooring. The hall connects you to the other first floor rooms.
The Dining & Smoking Rooms
Be prepared for an abundance of decorative and ornamental elements in these two rooms. According the guide, these are the most decorated off all the restored rooms. I believe it. The dining room has a hearth and a highly decorated beamed ceiling along with original furniture and paintings. But, in my opinion it is the smoking room that rises to another level.
This room has undergone what seemed the most renovation, including remaking many of the papier-mache pieces covering the walls. To be honest, we wouldn’t have notice this unless it was pointed out to us. Amazing colors, light, and proportion. Oh, and look up. The ceiling is crazy.
First Floor -
Heading up the stairs takes you to the bathrooms, bedrooms, halls, and a domed room, which is just above the smoking room and has another trompe-l’oeil masterpiece mirroring the turret that is just above, connecting the outside gardens to the interiors.
From the far corner of the blue room at the center of the first floor (2nd floor to US folks), take a look into three interconnecting spaces. Gaudi made sure to keep each room distinct but tie them all together with specific decorative pieces, like leaf motifs, the passion flower and palm.
Leaving the blue room there is a temporary exhibition space. We were lucky enough to see the inaugural exhibit of model highlighting 14 homes designed by several architects working at the time as Gaudí. The models spanned European and American architects such as Americans Sullivan, Richardson, and Wright, along with Europeans Guimard, Makintosh, and Horta. Being an architecture enthusiast, I felt quite fortunate to see all these models in one place. These exhibits will change, so check ahead to see what is there when you visit.
When you ascend the staircase to the 2nd floor, you’ll undoubtedly notice that the style is more starkly modern. This is because Casa Vicens was occupied by successive families that altered some parts and expanded others. It was a well-loved home transforming from a summer residence to full-time occupancy.
Leaving the 1st floor, you enter the ‘modern’ Casa Vicens and exhibition space with access to the roof.
Prior to restoration, the 2nd floor attic was a jumble of walls and false ceilings – probably where servants were housed. The current space is used for a permanent exhibition of the history of Gaudí’s first house as well as examples of its constructive and decorative elements saved during the restoration.
It was fortunate we visited on such a wonderful day. Climbing outside onto the roof terraces gave us a close-up look at Gaudí’s hallmark chimneys. Each one a statement unto itself that combined craftsmanship and utility – even though highly decorated, they were working chimneys after all. Here are a few shots taken by Steven and me.
Do not miss Casa Vicens!
The train to Monserrat takes about an hour or so. But before you go, you need to decide which way you're going to get to the top of the mountain. There's a gondola-style cable car (Aeri) and a train option (Cremallera) called a funicular. The cable car, or Aeri, is the quickest way to get from the train stop at Aeri Montserrat to the top - not for those timid of heights! If you take the Cremallera funicular option, go one stop further than the Aeri stop, to Monistrol Montserrat. The Cremallera will add another 23 minutes to your trip. We chose the Cremallera. Both options begin at Plaça d'España on the R5 railway line heading toward Manresa. We found Espanya station to be a bit confusing frankly. There are multiple levels and many entrances. The signs leading you to the Manresa-Montserrat L5 line are there, but you have to look up to see them and some are blocked by lights and arches. Finding the ticketing machines was another test of skillful observation and patience. Be aware that not all ticketing machines took credit cards. Be prepared to spend some time looking for the right train and the right ticketing machines. These are combined round-trip tickets, so follow the instructions carefully.
Montserrat is actually a monastery serving Catholic pilgrims wanting to see the Black Madonna, as well as a place for avid hikers and rock climbers. As you can see from the photo, the weather was wonderful, not something you can count on during the late fall and early winter months. We had intended to hear the boys choir, but there were massive crowds in the church that day and decided against it. As it turned out we were there on an auspicious day; the mass was being preformed by not just one, but two, Cardinals, not an every-day-occurrence. We did squeeze our way into the church though and managed to catch a glimpse of the Black Madonna high above the main alter. There is another funicular (Funicular San Joan) at the end of the main plaza that takes you up to near the top of the mountain. Actually, there are several funiculars taking hikers to various peaks surrounding the monastery. It climbs up a very narrow crack between two sections of the mountain. Again, not for the faint of heart. We decided to take a stroll up to the Cross of St. Miquel. Breathtaking views, but a steep climb. Take your time, take is slow, stop off at one of the several overlooks, and you'll be rewarded with views of the entire region from Barcelona and the sea to the snow capped Pyrenees.
Or more fully - The Basílica i Temple Expiatori de la Sagrada Família
What a perfect way to end our first walking tour. We managed to dodge the roaming showers around that day, coming out of the blue line subway stop to be stopped at the first sight of this magnificent, if on-going construction site. A bit of triva; Gaudi wasn't la Sagrada's first chief architect, nor its last; Gaudi was so involved in all the day-to-day details of the construction that he set up an apartment on the upper floor of a nearby residence he designed (i.e. the Dragon House) so he could oversee the project; most of Gaudi's drawings and models were destroyed during the Spanish Civil War by Catalan anarchists; 10 spires are planned, with the largest one rising from the core of the basilica, the Christ tower, just being started. The whole thing is hoped to be completed by 2026, the 100th anniversary of Gaudi's death. The interior spaces are almost overwhelming in their complexity and visual impact. As we were getting ready to go, the clouds parted bathing the interior in incredible light streaming in from everywhere though its stained glass windows. This should be on your bucket list. There's nothing like it anywhere.
|Ahead of our trip we booked two walking tours through Rainbow Barcelona Tours (http://rainbowbarcelona.com/), a LGBT owned and operated company in Barcelona. Our personal guide, Manu, met us at our hotel, The Hotel Casa Fuster, located on Passeig de Gràcia, at the outer edge of the Eixample district. Manu gave a great orientation to the Catalan modernistic architecture movement, pointing out its three distinguishing characteristics; historically derived elements, reflection of nature, and preference for curving rather than straight lines. Our first stop was a well-known Gaudí-designed apartment building, Casa Milà or La Pedrera, followed by a short walk down Pg. de Gràcia to view a block of other Catalan modernist buildings, all originally designed as private homes on the first floor (to USA folks that would be our 2nd floor) with other apartments above. We finished the tour at the famous Basilica de la Sagrada Familia.
For more information about Catalan Modernisme Art and Architecture check out this website: https://www.barcelona-life.com/barcelona/modernisme
My trip to Ireland, as mentioned in my posts about Virgin Atlantic, started out in London visiting friends Darren and Ian. The next leg was getting to Dublin to meet up with Kevin. I booked British Airways CityFlyer from London City airport to Dublin. Even though it was a short flight (less than 1 1/2 hours), I decided to book in Business Class as it wasn't a huge difference in price.
With this being such a short flight, I normally wouldn't worry about writing a full post about it. But the service on-board surprised me! I hope somehow this makes it's way to the inflight catering group at Alaska Airlines. This service on BA just blows the socks off of anything I've ever seen on Alaska and gives a run for the money on other US carriers.
Getting to London City Airport was too challenging. Darren and Ian saw me off from Clapham Junction. At their suggestion, I grabbed the Overground to Shadwell where I could catch the Docklands Light Rail. The journey took about an hour, which really isn't bad for getting all the way across London nearing rush hour on a Friday. The trains got increasingly more crowded as we neared the airport. Luckily, the train terminates right at the terminal. A quick walk from the train puts you right in the terminal.
The security lines keep moving and everyone is expected to know the routine. There is no time here for novice travelers; this place is streamlined and efficient. It was mostly business people making what looked liked their normal commutes. No families fumbling with strollers and trying to keep kids in line. Of course I got secondary screening for something, I don't recall what, but was soon on my way.
The terminal was a mad house. The passenger volume has long-since outgrown the capacity. I did manage to find a seat in the packed bar area and settled in with a tonic & gin while awaiting my flight.
It wasn't long before my gate was posted, which turned out to be only feet from where I was. After chatting with the gate agent and finding my passport, which I didn't think would be needed at this point, she almost forgot to scan in my boarding pass - this could have been trouble had I not caught that! The actual gate area was down a flight of stairs. A dark, worn out room where we all waited a few minutes before boarding. My carry on bag was too big for the overhead bins so had to leave it at the door to be loaded in the cargo bin. These are small planes, but they are jets, Embraer E-170.
Once in the air, the efficiency of the inflight service became apparent. As soon as we hit 10,000ft, the young flight attendant was on his feet. First drink orders taken; then served with 10 minutes. Last time I was on Alaska Air (in First Class), it took over an hour for the first drinks to be served - and that was with two attendants working the cabin! Dinner orders were soon taken - yes, Alaska, here that? - there was a choice of two entrees! The whole cabin - all 12 of us - we enjoying a nice dinner within 20-30 minutes from wheels-up. Plenty of time for a second round of drinks before relaxing through the second half of the flight.
We made good time and actually landed at little early. Quickly off the plane and through immigration. Kevin was waiting in the baggage claim area for me having arrived from Prague on an earlier Aer Lingus flight.
The return to London at the end of our Ireland tour was also no BA in Business Class (Club Europe). The service on the flight out seems to have not been an anomaly. The service was just as quick and efficient this second time as well.
To Alaska Airlines if you're listening - get yourselves over to the UK and learn a thing or two about on-board service and step up your game!
Christmas Day, 2017
You all may remember our couple of posts from last year here and the one where we sous-vide our prime rib which I thought turned out great, Kevin was a little less pleased than I. So this year we got back to basics by slow roasting.
Both, the sous vide and the roasting started out the same, with seasoning and pre-searing. But that's about where the similarities end. After a little research online I found a method of slow roasting. It took some doing to find one I liked before I came across a recipe (can't remember where) that had the key pieces of information I was looking for; temperature and time. Their recommendation was 200F (93C) for 45 minutes per pound, so for 7.7lbs (3.5kg) this would take 5 3/4 hours. With getting the roast in the oven but 1:30PM, we thought we would have dinner on the table by 7:30 or a little earlier. Perfect!
However....it got to 127F over an hour early! Nothing else was even close to ready and our guest, David (who provided this lovely roast) wasn't even here yet. Yikes! With some hustling and playing with oven temperature (including just turning off the oven) we were able to stabilize it ultimately getting it no higher than 137F. By the time we had some drinks and conversation and first course (lobster bisque - Yum!) the roast had dropped back down. A little too low, if you ask me. Even though it really was quite perfectly done, it was cooler than I would have liked when plated. The au jus helped, but still, a little warmer would have been nice.
With all the hassle of maintaining the temperature and worrying about overcooking I'm reminded about the definite benefits of the sous vide method where of this worry is taken away. That being said, the texture of the meat came out somewhat superior with this slow roast than what we've managed in the sous vide. Granted, in the end this time, we cooked it to a slightly higher temp than we have targeted with the sous vide. Both methods have their benefits and drawbacks.
Perhaps next time we'll try the sous vide at a higher temp and see if that gets us to the same texture.
July 26, 2017
In my prior post about the Virgin Atlantic Upper Class Experience, I talked about the trip to London from Seattle. I also want to give a little more details about our return, from London Heathrow to Seattle.
We booked into Upper Class for our return home at the end of a whirlwind trip around Ireland - which we'll write about in coming posts. But I thought now would be a good time to write this followup. There's only a few things to add so this should be brief.
We were looking forward to is the Drive-in Check-in and the famed Club House. You can find all about it on their website.
Here are some finer points to help you along if you have a chance to experience Upper Class travel through Heathrow.
If you pay for Upper Class rather than using miles, Virgin will provide town car transfers for you upon departure from or arrive to London and select destinations around the world. If you're on miles you can arrange your own transport and still use the drive-in check-in. You will need to make a reservation however and provide the registration (license plate) of the vehicle in which you will be arriving. Call at least an hour before your anticipated arrival. You can book your time slot in advance but then call back as soon as you know the registration. If you get a representative that will not allow this, as happened to us, just hang up and call back. Because we were originally misinformed, we found ourselves arguing with Virgin while on the way and telling our driver to slow down.
Virgin promotes the security screening as "private." It's more, "exclusive" than "private." You just happen to go through one of two dedicated queues off to the side of the general security screening area. There was certainly no waiting. When we came through there was just one other small family present. The general security lines looked to be a mad house.
The Upper Class website gives the impression that you would directly arrive into the Clubhouse Lounge straight from security. This is not the case, far from it. You're dumped right into the duty free shops with little guidance on where the lounge actually is located. Once past the bulk of duty free, we began seeing signs pointing the way - it wasn't much further.
The Clubhouse really is something to see! It's massive by comparison to other lounges we've seen. There are seating areas to suit anyone's tastes from quiet reading rooms to a giant "man cave" with overstuffed recliners and a wall full of large screen TVs. Stairs lead up to the billiards and rooftop viewing terrace. There were a number of different food areas, both buffet style as well as table service. After having our second breakfasts and a couple Bloody Mary's I got a haircut (yes! I still have enough to need them cut - thank-you-very-much) while Kevin enjoyed a face and scalp massage.
The rest of Terminal 3 is a dump! Once you leave the lounge and shopping areas the terminal is just a worn-out and dark excuse for a world-class airport. When we left the lounge, our gate hadn't even been announced on the departure monitors but the concierge in the lounge had informed us the gate. Somehow most of the rest of the passengers found out as well as there was already quite the line to get into the gate sitting area. No special line here though we did get priority boarding once boarding began.
Wouldn't ya' know...it's the same exact plane as I came over in. I'll be going back in exactly the same seat. What are the odds? (I suppose 1:14 since they only had 14 of these 787's at the time).
The flight back was just as nice as the flight out with friendly service and a comfortable seat. This time, however, the pajamas were not offered right up, but readily provided upon request. With this being a daytime flight, more people congregated at the bar and was quite lively. Some fellow passengers spent nearly the entirety of the flight there. Kevin & I, on the other hand, chose to get some sleep and catch a movie after a short visit to the bar after meal service.
Dinner started with a little antipasto.
I tried the pot roast to see if they did any better with it than British Airways managed (see our prior post about BA First Class). I was sorely disappointed again. Perhaps it's a British thing about the ideals of how beef should be cook (someone please correct me if I'm wrong) but it really was inedible to anyone who likes beef. I politely asked if there was any of the mushroom risotto left, to which our attendant obliged. This was much better.
Dessert was delicious!
Afternoon snack was apparently a burger. I don't remember this really, neither does Kevin, but there it was in our photos.
Overall, we could hardly have been more pleased with the experience. Virgin's Upper Class, as I stated in the first post, is meant as a business class level product. As such it compares very favorably to BA's Club World, but certainly more fun. It's not the level of service as BA's First Class, which really is a step up for those who can afford it or has the frequent flyer miles to burn.
We will absolutely look toward Virgin for future trips to Europe and beyond.
July 11, 2017
Another new airplane adventure! Virgin Atlantic, just this year, took over Delta's route between Seattle and London. After years of flying exclusively British Airways on this route, I thought now was a great time to try something new for a change. Besides, I could snag an Upper Class (they're version of Business Class and First Class rolled up into one) round-trip using American Express points. I also got Kevin's return flight with me. He went over on BA using points - I'll let Kevin do his own write-up on that if he's so inspired.
I've long-since wanted to try out Virgin Atlantic, looking all hip and cool as it does, but have never had the opportunity as they're an entirely newcomer to Seattle. I mostly knew what to expect in terms of services onboard and had seen plenty of video reviews online. I had nearly nine months of anticipation from booking to travel. Yes, we do book early!
The day of travel finally came. The day started off as any other, except for a huge sleep deficit from being up late finalizing the packing and getting the house setup for being gone and a clean return. Off to the office with camera bag and carry-on suitcase in tow so I could head straight to the airport from work. Departure at 5:50PM.
First stop at the airport was the Delta Sky Lounge. Delta is a 49% owner of Virgin Atlantic so they share a number of services. One of which is the Business/First class lounges. Virgin doesn't have their own here is Seattle, but Upper Class passengers, and I imagine higher status Virgin members as well, are offered use of the Delta Sky Lounge on day of departure. It's been years since I was in one of Delta's lounges so was looking forward to seeing this one. The lounge is located in the South Terminal. Take the elevator to the roof-top level between gates S9 and S10. [I later found out that there's a new Sky Club lounge in Course A of the Main Terminal that Kevin confirmed on another flight later in the summer, is really nice.]
The lounge is quite spacious but not overly populated. Perhaps it was a slow time of day. Most of Delta's oversees flights had left for the day expect for a later Amsterdam flight. There was a small contingent of people who left when the Hong Kong flight started boarding. This left very few of us in the lounge, many of whom I would later see on my flight.
There was a small offering of snacks: meats, cheese, veggies, fruits, soup, and a number of carb options. Nothing spectacular. I grabbed a few bites and a cup of soup. They also have a full bar. Beer, wine, and simple cocktails are free. There's a list specialty cocktails for a charge. I tried to get a Negroni, but no dice. The bartender didn't know how to make anything except what was on the menu. So Gin & Tonic it is, oh well - life can be so cruel some times 🙂
A couple G&T later and a quick wonder about to see the whole place, it was time to head to the gate. It was SOOO FAR AWAY: down the elevator and next door, to gate S10.
As you would suspect, Upper Class has priority boarding, after family with children, etc. I was fairly early in the queue.
Upon boarding, the cabin crew was busy getting things set up for the flight. Pajamas were being handed out as soon as each passenger was settled. When I arrived at my seat, I found a menu, headphones, and amenity kit on the foot rest. Large pillows were stuffed behind each seat back.
More about the seating later. Once my bags were stowed, a flight attendant came by offering Champagne or juice - "Champagne, please!" This was actual Champagne, specifically, Gardet Brut Premier Cru Champagne, not California sparkling wine or prosecco (not that there's anything wrong with those, per se). Why can't US carriers manage actual Champagne?
Once loaded we pushed back right on time, just to sit in the typically long line a planes waiting to take off. Soon after the 10,000 feet bell rang, the crew got back to work; refilling wine and champagne glasses or taking drink and dinner orders. I chose the Beaujolais to go with my Roasted Red Pepper and Tomato Soup and Asian Braised Shortribs.
The flight attendant came back through shortly and popped out the rather large tray table from the side of compartment and set it with table cloth, silverware, bread plate, and Virgin's signature salt and pepper shakers. Soon the soup arrived with a choice of dinner rolls. It was really quite a large bowl of soup that could have made a meal in its own right. A little under seasoned for my taste, nothing a little salt didn't fix. Tasty!
Next came the shortribs. To my delight, this we actually quite good. The meat was tender and moist with a nice housin demi glace. Hoisin is usually too sweet for me, but this was fine. I don't know what the mashed potatoes have to do with the "Asian" theme of the dish but that didn't stop me from enjoying them. The Beaujolais paired nicely. I think I chose well for this main, but it was a difficult choice; the Chicken and Porcini looked really good as did the Mixed Mushroom Teriyaki (vegetarian option). Kevin may have opted for the Salmon Nicoise Salad (despite it having Kalmata olives) had he been with me.
Dessert offered another challenging decision, a warm Lemon Pudding or Flourless Chocolate Cake. Of course I had the chocolate!
By the time I was ready for the Cheese and Port, most of the cabin had already lied down for the night or were deeply engrossed in their movies. The flight attendants who handled dinner service disappeared to the crew rest quarters and the smaller staff left behind were now mostly "hiding away" in the galley. I'm not one to use the call button unless absolutely necessary so it took a little while to get someone's attention. He was quite surprised I asked for it. I don't think many others had. I don't usually eat much blue cheese, but the Buttermilk Blue served here was quite mild and easy to eat and the port wasn't too sweet. A nice finish to the meal.
By now, I was done with both the meal and the movie (I don't recall what I watch but I know I couldn't bring myself to watch and airplane-appropriate edited version of Rocky Horror!). So, off to the highly-exalted Upper Class bar. I like the idea of having a bar area onboard. But I don't think it's exceptionally well executed here, at least on this red-eye flight. For one thing, it has only three of four closely set bar stools along the one side so really only two can sit comfortable while any others have to stand either at the end or on the service side. Secondly, there's minimal separation from the bar and fellow passengers trying to sleep nearby. Quite frankly, I think VA practically discourages passengers from using the bar during the night. When I got there, a few others had already arrived with drinks or empty glasses in hand that were brought from their seats. No barware or drinks were out except a few open wine bottles. Clearly the bar was configured to be fully stocked with glasses and an abundance of drinks for self-service; no flight attendants to be seen anywhere. One attendant did breeze through and when asked for service, he just said he'd find someone to take care of us and left. No one returned for some time, so we took it upon ourselves to find glasses for the wine. Some time later a flight attendant brought more wine and set out liquor and showed use where to find the mixers. I was having fun chatting with a couple heading for holiday in Ireland. He was from Australia or New Zealand, she from Ireland. They were taking the kids for the first time. Despite the nice conversation, it was time to turn in for the night.
I changed into my pajamas in the over-sized Upper Class restroom. The restroom was about double the size of a normal airplane restroom with a separate bench to sit while changing - very handy! I had no idea how to get the bed into "sleeping mode" as it had no full recline button so off to the galley to find help which I did. I was surprised to find that the seat-back folds down forward so that you actually sleep on a completely flat surface. This is unlike other airlines where you just recline the seat back until fully "flat" but you're clearly laying on an unfolded chair, lumps and all. This was fully flat, no bumps, but padded with an additional mattress pad added under you and a warm duvet for a cover. The pillow was an actual full-size pillow like one would have at home. In the bag that had the headphones, there was a small vile of lavender aromatherapy pillow spray which was a nice touch. The water bottle holder was conveniently located. I have to say, Virgin has figured out the bed and bedding!
Not a great picture but here's what it looked like all made up.
I managed to get in a couple hours of sleep but woke up from time to time to peek out the window. Which reminds me to mention about the windows on the Boeing 787. You may have heard, or have been on one already to know, the windows on the 787 don't have a physical shade, the window electronically dims with the push of a button. In my own naïveté, I assumed that they went all the way to opaque. Not really! They do dim quite a bit and create a blue cast when light comes through, but by no means opaque. It's like have a really dark pair of blue sunglasses. I tried to get a picture of this but it really did strange things in the camera as you can see below, especially since the sun was straight out my window just above the horizon the whole "night." I dared not un-dim the my window for fear of lighting up the whole cabin full of sleeping passengers.
A note about seat selection on this aircraft. I was in seat 3A which seemed like a good place to be by the Seatguru.com advice. It's further from the noise of the bar and not near a bassinet. Virgin's Upper Class seats are set in a herringbone pattern. Everyone's feet are toward the aisle. Your are either by the window or in the middle of the aircraft, with two aisles. On the right side of the cabin, the middle and window seats each from the same aisle. On the left side, the widow seats don't have anything across the aisle but the back call of the middle seats. Everyone in this cabin has direct access to an aisle. For these reasons I chose an 'A' seat on the left. The three seats further back were occupied when I booked, and rows 7 has no window. Any further back puts one too near the bar from what I had read on various reviews. That left me with row 3. If I were to do this again, I would try to take a seat further back, even if on the other side. The reason: galley noise. For most of the night there was an endless stream of noise as the crew cleaned up from meal service and prepared for breakfast: clanking of plates and silverware, the beeping of timers, etc. This went on most of the night making it difficult to sleep despite the comfortable bed.
A few hours before landing, the cabin was buzzing the activity. People setting their beds back for seating, changing back out of pajamas, and breakfast was being served. After a few glimpses of both coast of Ireland and the west of England, we were soon on the ground at Heathrow.
Once down, we had a delay in getting a gate, then a delay as no one was there to move the Jetway into place. But soon enough we were off the plane, just to find locked doors getting into the terminal. Clearly they weren't expecting us! Expedited customs process (as in just a shorter line) was offered for Upper Class passengers. With no need to claim baggage, I was straight off to the Virgin Arrivals Lounge for a shower and second breakfast (actually, it would be elevenses by this point). The Arrivals Lounge was beyond baggage claim and up to the mezzanine just before exiting to the car park. It was a fairly small, brightly lit room. Furnished with cafe type furniture in the thematic white and red. Nice enough for a quite bit to eat, but clearly not intended as a place to linger.
First the shower.
With that, I say goodbye to Virgin Atlantic for now. I'll add notes later about our experience on the return flight. In all, they did a nice job of making a long journey as pleasant as can be. To expect much more, would be nit-picky. Was it as nice as British Airways First experience? I would say, not quite. But then again it's intended as a different product. It compares more closely to BA's Club World (their business class). Besides, one would pay MUCH more for BA First. Virgin provides a more casual experience but no less refined than BA and Virgin's seat/bed definitely have the advantage. On BA, you only get pajamas in First - and they don't have a bar, even in First. Overall, British Airways is meant to be more formal where Virgin Atlantic wants to be more entertaining and engaging.
September 19, 2017
It's chicken dinner night!
Last weekend we caught an episode of The Barefoot Contessa on Food Network. I know it's a stretch of the imagination, but she featured yet another take on roast chicken. This time featuring Chef Dan Silverman's Million Dollar Chicken from The Standard Gill in New York City. After a rained-out attempt at a grilled chicken, we thought we would give this a try. Here's the full recipe: http://www.foodnetwork.com/recipes/the-standard-grill-million-dollar-chicken-2145489 .
We deviated slightly right off the bat. Chef Silverman stuffs the cavity of his chicken with lemon, thyme, garlic, salt, and pepper. Kevin already had the bird halved down the middle, so stuffing it wasn't happening. Instead, we just seasoned the outside with salt, pepper and garlic powder and a good coating of olive oil. Then into a pan on top of a couple of slices of challah Kevin made yesterday (you all have fresh made challah in the kitchen, right??)
We got the oven heated up to the prescribed 450F then into the oven with the bird.
Meanwhile, we grabbed the crème fraîche from the fridge (we were surprised to find we actually had this!) and added the lemon zest, lemon juice, Allepo peppers, and grated shallot. It sat patiently until the chicken was almost done in the oven. The recipe mentions basting every 12 to 15 minutes. However, we didn't have enough drippings in the pan to do so until about the half-way point. At the last basting (about 1 hour in) we through in few stacks of broccolini to roast so at to have a little green with our dinner.
At one hour into roasting we removed it from the oven and coated it with the crème fraîche mixture and put it back in the oven for 10 more minutes as instructed.
While the chicken was in the oven, Kevin made some stock from from left-over chicken parts we found in the freezer. After a little simmer we had fresh stock to make gravy to pour of the finished bird.
The chicken turned out with tons of flavor. As of this writing, we haven't tried the breast meat; we both had a leg/thigh quarter tonight. we look forward to trying the breast mets.
About the bread: in Ina's video with Chef Silverman, the bread comes out toasted on both sides. We're not sure how that could happen. The chicken releases a lot of juice as does the crème fraîche. This resulted in bread that was soggy on the top and toasted on the bottom. We think they don't show in the video is either: the bread is turned over sometime during cooking or is toasted on the other side before serving. In any case, we enjoyed it as is. It may be a little too greasy for some, but it tasted like stuffing that could have actually roasted inside the chicken (kinda like a turkey stuffing). Yum!
Give a try - we really enjoyed it. Let us know how it turns out for you.
Thanks Ina Garten and Chef Silverman!
24 May 2017
People occasionally ask us why we have both a gas (propane) grill and a charcoal/wood grill. The simple answer is that we can - we have enough room on our deck for both. The more complicated answer is that we simply enjoy the flexibility and options.
Which to use and when? It depends. The considerations being what we're cooking, what we want from the final flavor (smoked or not-smoked), the weather, and how much time we have for cooking. These aren't all the possible considerations, but they are the main ones we look at.
Rather than reinvent the wheel here (or would it be re-discover fire?) I'll refer you to this article from The New York Times - Charcoal or Gas? Depends on What You’re Grilling.
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April 25, 2017
Another sous vide adventure this evening.
I got home just before Kevin, which is unusual as we typically leave work at about the same time, but his work is 1/2 the distance from home than mine. I took the opportunity to lay down in bed for a quick bit. Before I had the chance to nod off, Kevin got home and before I knew it, my phone had a message that the Joule had reached its set temperature. At that, my curiosity was piqued about what was on for dinner.
Upon getting dressed, gathering some laundry to throw in, I made my way downstairs to find some surprises in the sous vide - two kinds of tuna, Yellow Tail and Ahi. The Yellow Tail came from our friend, Ike, an avid deep-sea fisherman, whom we visited in Arizona in February. The Ahi came from East Anchor Seafood, just up the street.
Kevin had them in the sous vide just at about 62F to get them thawed and then raised the temperature to 122F for final cooking. Unfortunately, between catching up on the day and getting the laundry started, we lost track of the time that the fish was under the supervision of the Joule. In the meanwhile, and after some discussion about what to have for sides, Kevin got our potatoes browned (previously Joule cooled) in the skillet and broccolini ready to steam. I, on the other hand, prepared myself a Martini.
Once we deemed the fish to be done, which was pretty much arbitrary at this point, we got a pan going for searing. Both pieces of fish went in while the broccolini seamed nicely with a little chicken stock and garlic on another burner.
With a pat to dry each piece, it didn't take long to get a light sear on each, but it was quickly clear that we had the sous vide at too high of a temperature. The Yellow Tail was clearly cooked through to the point that it no longer wanted to stay together as one piece. However, it wasn't until I cut into the Ahi that the same error was evident. The meat was still red as you can see above, but it certainly wasn't the fish-equivalent of rare-to-medium-rare that I would have liked.
It was all still tasty, but not all that it could have been.
The lesson learned - lower temp on the sous vide. Or simply don't sous vide these cuts of fish. We'll try this again sometime but, I think, we'll target about 110F if we use the sous vide for this next time. Do any of you out there have any suggestions on how to make this better? Let us know in the comments if you do.
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A couple weeks ago we were up at the local Asian grocery store, Uwajimaya, and found a nice slab of pork belly (the actually called it pork side). Our first thought was "Sous Vide!" We got about a two pound piece to bring home. This weekend, we finally got around to throwing it in the sous vide and letting the Joule take over.
We cut it into two even-ish pieces to try two different rubs: one with just salt and sugar and one that added Chinese Five Spice powder. We read on Sous Vide Life about the need to put skewers cross-wise through the meat to keep it from curling up during cooking. We did this with the Five Spice portion, not with the other. As it turned out, even with these small pieces, it made a difference. The one with the skewers was much easier to slice in even pieces. If you do a larger piece, I would certainly recommend the skewers.
The rub: equal parts of sugar and salt and about 1 Tsp Five Spice to 1 Lbs of pork.
With both rubbed-up, Saturday they went into the sous vide for 24 hours at 154F. Our plan was to have them for dinner on Sunday. But as plans often change, we ended up going out for a lovely birthday celebration. So the pork had to wait another night, which worked out perfectly.
We took the pork out of the sous vide Sunday and put in the fridge for the night.
The next evening we pulled one out. To get it back up to temp, we put it back in the sous vide at 135F for an hour. This got it loosened back up and to a good "eating" temperature. It was already fully cooked and food-safe, so just needed to be warmed up. While it was finishing up, we got the broiler going to finish it. After the hour in the sous vide, it went under the broiler for about 10 minutes to crisp. Here's the result.
Meanwhile, Kevin created a sauce by pulling nearly everything 'Asian' out of the fridge: soy sauce, fish sauce, hoisin, Taiwanese peppers, ginger, garlic, and mirin. I can't give proportions here as we didn't keep track. If you decide to do this yourself, adjust as you wish. The rice was already in the works. All that was left was to steam some broccolini.
In the end, we ended up with a fantastic tasting dish. The pork wasn't quite as tender as we had hoped, but the flavor was certainly there! If we do this again, we'll probably drop the temp a bit and/or deccrease the time.
Here's how the final dish presented. Kevin had a little more sauce, mine the lesser.
I know most of you don't have a sous vide machine - yet! But if you try this, please let us know how it turns out. If you have a different way of cooking pork belly let us know that too.
Who doesn't love bacon? (Sorry vegetarians and the pork-adverse!)
Well, we love bacon. But we don't love cooking bacon. Granted there are worse smells you can have in you home than bacon, but it's does tend to linger and permeate the house. We've found a better way: sous vide, thanks to chefsteps.com and Joule.
This technique may not be for all bacon lovers. It doesn't make crisp, snappy bacon. If you like softer bacon with a little more chew, more tender and some fat left in it, this may be for you.
The ingredients are simple, just 1 Lbs of bacon. It can even be from you freezer. Here in Seattle, we're able to get Hempler's Uncured Thick-cut Bacon. It's still smoked but no added nitrates*. We think it tastes a little more "natural" and not quite as "salty." You're call on the cured vs uncured. Just saying, that's what we used.
The one intangible ingredient you need is time. With the Joule set at 147F/64C, this takes as "little" as 9 all the way to 48 hours depending on how tender you want it in the end (and how long you want to wait). So some advanced planning is required here. Once the bath is up to the set temperature, just through in the whole vacuum sealed package the bacon come from the store in. And wait....or just go to bed and try to sleep in the next morning even knowing that bacon is waiting for you.
What it looks like just out of the bath:
In the morning, it couldn't be easier. Just get out your trusty cast iron skillet or carbon steel pan or any pan, really, that can get smokin' hot. Don't use a Teflon pan, it won't like this much heat. When the pan is good and hot, throw on a few strips and let them sizzle for only 30 seconds. Chef Steps suggests just doing one side. We like it better with both sides seared. Just remember it only needs 30 seconds on each side since it is technically fully cooked already. You're just crisping it up a bit. Serve immediately!
This first photo is with both sides fried. The next shows the strips fried on only one side, the fried side showing on the left and un-fried side showing on the right.
The bonus feature is that you can have bacon all week long, if you don't eat it all on the first go. It can stay in the fridge so that you can quickly fry up a slice or two in the mornings throughout the week. Bacon in just a minute. In the words of dear Ina Garten, how good is that?
* We'll leave it to you to do your own research on the nitrate situation. Apparently nitrates occur naturally in many of the vegetables that dietitians and nutritionist suggest we eat. We choose "no nitrate added" bacon just because we like the taste better. To us, it's a more "natural" flavor and not as "salty." As with all things meat, moderation is key.
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Check back often for new items. Drop us an email if you think there is something else we should add to our recommendations.
But we think we've found one.
It may not be the prettiest thing in the kitchen, but they sure work well! After years of use, our non-stick pans are no-longer-non-stick. I don't doubt that the same has happened to you. Over time, non-stick coating gets scratched, abraised, and just generally wears out, no matter how careful you are with them. An endless source of frustration and expense.
Thanks to Cook's Illustrated magazine, we found a solution: carbon steel pans. You could say these are the little brother of cast iron pans. Now before you go "Oohh, who wants to maintain those?" let me just tell you, the maintenance on these couldn't be simpler, not to mention that these pans are much lighter to carry.
I little bit about the construction. These pans are made by rolling out hot carbon steel, quickly cooling and finally dye-cut and pressed into shape. The metal has a lower carbon content than traditional cast iron. This composition along with the rolling and cooling process makes them much stronger, less brittle, but still much lighter than cast iron. What we've also found is that they heat much more quickly as well, thanks to the thinner metal.
Incidentally, this is the same metal as is used in some of the better kitchen knives on the market.
A word about that maintenance issue
Most pans these days are either aluminum (I hope you're not using these), stainless steel, copper, or stainless steel-clad aluminum - more about these other options in future posts, perhaps. All of these really do take minimal care. The carbon steel and cast iron pan on the other hand, will rust if not properly cared for. It's not that hard to do, however. You wipe them out, maybe even rinse (no soap or steel wool, but scrubbing with a nylon brush is allowed), then dry. No more care than you need to give a good wok made of the same material - you do have one, right? Season it thoroughly before first use *, don't scrub when you clean it, and a few seconds on stove top burner to dry. Occasionally, you'll want to season it with a little oil after drying while still hot. The best part: once seasoned, it's non-stick! It may wear off in time but guess what - you can always re-season and it's non-stick again. How's that for a money saver?
Which to buy and where?
The brand we have are the Black Steel Frying Pans from Matfer Bourgeat. The 8 5/8" version is a work-horse in our kitchen these days, followed closely by the 10 1/2" size. There are other brands available and in a range of prices. If you're in the Pacific Northwest and want buy local or simply prefer Made-in-America, you can check out Blu Skillet Ironware.
Here are some carbon steel pans in action at Brass Tacks in Seattle's Georgetown neighborhood.
I also need to mention that though prices due vary by brand and where you buy, these pans can be quite reasonably priced. Especially for something that can last a life time.
* A note about seasoning your pan. First and foremost, follow the manufacture's instructions. Beyond that, there are many videos on YouTube showing a variety of ways it can be done. The easiest way we've found it to simply coat the pan with oil and heat on high heat until the oil is smoking. Wipe out the pan with paper towel (use tongs!). Repeat this process several times without letting the pan cool. Make sure to remove the pan from the heat while adding more oil. Use an oil with a high flash point such as peanut oil or rendered lard or tallow. DO NOT USE OLIVE, CANOLA, OR VEGETABLE OIL!! Lest you want the local fire department stopping by or just simply wish to start all over with your eye brows and eye lashes. The process and also be done in a very hot oven.
Here's one of our pans in action making Corky's Casserole
Here’s a little post from our home food adventures.
In late September Kevin and I and our friend, Robert, headed north for a nice little weekend getaway. We stayed at a friend’s house east of Bellingham, on the way towards Mt Baker. We arrived the day after the house/groundskeepers finished harvesting the wine grapes from the vine growing on the porch arbor. They had more grapes than they knew what to do with so offered for us to take some home. Not to miss an opportunity, though not knowing what we would do with them, we took about 5 pounds of grapes back home with us.
What to do with 5 pounds of grapes? Not enough to make wine – darn! – But enough to make grape jelly. A quick look on the internet and we’re in business.
There are certainly a number of grape jelly recipes on the internet. Most recipes have one thing in common: pectin. I knew that Jello makes a pectin. So I thought who could have the more technically correct recipes than the people who make the pectin – If they can’t get it right, who can?
I found their recipe at kraftrecipers.com/recipes/surejell-concord-grape-jam-60879.aspx
I'll reprint the entire process here if that page goes off-line (don’t worry; I have the text saved, just in case). I just want to mention a few things I did differently.
I don’t have all the “proper” canning equipment but easily found ways to make do. One part of canning, if you’re not familiar, is that you have to sanitize your jars by boiling them. I don’t have a large enough pot to do this so I resorted to our electric roasting oven. This took longer than on the stove top, much longer, but eventually got up to just barely a boil, but hot enough (checked with thermometer) to get the job done.
[What I didn’t think of doing, which probably would have been more efficient, is use the Sanitize cycle on the dishwasher. I’ll try to remember that for next time.]
With the jars well on their way, I began on the jelly. I started off by getting the grapes off the stems and rinsing. Now it was time to weigh how much I had to work with and started in on the math of converting the recipe to the right amount of ingredients. The recipe called for 5 lbs of grapes. I had 8 ½ pounds. So not a simple, just-do-it-in-your-head math, unfortunately. But I have the technology!
Beyond adjusting for the proportions, I also added the juice of one very large lemon near the end of the boiling process. In the end you won’t really taste it, but I think it kind of “brightens up” the flavor. I do the same for my raspberry sorbet and it really makes a difference by helping to break some of the sugary sweetness.
Another thing to note is that the recipe says it takes one hour to complete. Don’t be fooled by this, it will take longer. Between sterilizing your jars and crushing the grapes you’re well over an hour into this, especially if your grapes are small. However, once you have the grapes wrapped in cheesecloth to drain, this mash can go into the refrigerator overnight. The rest of the process to getting the jelly into the jars does happen fairly quickly.
If you want to store your jelly on the shelf, you will need to continue the process through boiling the filled jars which will take some time plus the cooling time. But if you have the space in the fridge that you don’t mind giving up as you work through years’ worth of jelly, you can skip boiling the filled jars. We’ll probably give some away; I don’t like giving gifts that need refrigeration, especially if it needs to be shipped.
I know there aren’t many who will take the time these days to can their own anything. But this wasn’t that hard though it did bit of a time commitment. Worth it for having a good supply of jelly in the pantry and to give as gifts.
Aqua – 12/15 before SAM Sculpture Garden walk-about
We had tickets to what we thought was going to be a special event at the SAM (Seattle Art Museum) Sculpture Garden down on the waterfront. We drove around a little, finding no parking which isn’t that unusual in that area, and decided to stop in to Aqua by El Gaucho for a drink and maybe a snack.
Aqua never disappoints. The space, on a pier at the north end of Seattle’s waterfront, is literally on the water as its name implies. The dining room menu has a wide range, but focuses on things from the sea. Again, a nice match of location and dining experience. But, we didn’t really want to spend the money such fine dining demands so sat at the bar instead.
Being in the holiday mood, we ordered Manhattan’s made with Bulleit Rye – my favorite whiskey ($13.50 each). Sipping a finely crafted cocktail…especially an old-school one like the Manhattan…in a lovely space as this is a treat.
We needed some nourishment, so we looked at the bar menu. They don’t have a happy hour menu per se, but have a regular bar menu instead. The upside is that you get great value at any time of the day. I had the Pier 70 Burger – my litmus test for just about any new place I go ($14). Steven had the Steak frites ($18).
My burger was probably the best high-end bar burger I’ve had in a long time. The toppings were pretty straight forward - lettuce, tomato, and ‘special sauce’ - and didn’t compete with the beef, which not incidentally done to a perfect medium rare. It seems the new standard bun type is the brioche. I think they are a bit too much bread for my tastes, but given the heft of the burger, I’m not sure there would be many other options. With the ciabatta long out of style and too chewy in the first place, the brioche is a fine compromise. With most burgers from other higher end pubs and restaurants coming closer to the $20 mark, this one at $14 is almost a steal. And I can’t believe I’m saying a $14 burger is a steal. My Midwest upbringing is devastated.
Steven had the Steak Frites. I’ll let him fill you in on his choice.
Steven here - Yes, I had the Steak Frites. A steak at Aqua for only $18?? The starters at the main El Gaucho in Belltown are that much or more. It was a fairly small steak, as you can imagine from a bar menu. The pile of frites, however, were generous. All in, though it actually makes a sufficient sized small meal. The steak was not surprisingly cooked perfectly and the frites fresh. Oh, and the pan reduction, that may well be the best part.
Oh, and don’t waste your special ticket on the SAM Sculpture Garden Christmas walk…or whatever it was if they do it again next year. The whole thing was disorganized and we never did see what made it a special event.
7 December 2016
Yesterday I was reading an article about how to sous vide a rib roast (more about that perhaps in a later post). The article, Classic, Oven-Roasted Standing Rib Roast, talked about the difference between the blade end and the loin end of a rib roast. Who knew there was a difference? Well apparently butchers and trained chefs know this, but I didn't. This got me to looking up more about it. Off to Googleland!
First stop: Serious Eats
One article let to another, and another, and....
I won't repeat all that I found here myself for risk of plagiarizing, so please, check out Serious Eats for yourself - besides, I don't have enough of my own pretty pictures of rib roasts!
If you plan to or even just want to someday cook a rib roast, this article is a great place to start: The Food Lab's Definitive Guide to Prime Rib.
For anyone who likes to cook steaks and roasts, don't miss The Importance of Resting Meat. We've long since known the importance of resting meat after cooking, Chef López-Alt gives a great explanation of the why and for how long. I'm sure, like me, you've been to far too many restaurants that rush a steak to the table right off the grill on a super-hot plate. I hate this! I cut into the meat and all the juice runs onto the plate leaving it drier and less succulent than it could be. The hot plate continuing to cook the meat so that by the time you get half way through, the rest is now overcooked and lifeless. López-Alt will teach you how to make sure this doesn't happen to you at home. Check it out.
The writer, J. Kenji López-Alt, has been popping up more and more on the internet when I do searches for various cooking how-to's and what-for's. You may have also heard him on NPR or seen his book The Food Lab. I'm not a scientist myself by I can get my geek on reading all the sciencey aspects of cooking. Chef López-Alt does a great job at breaking it down without getting too buried in the weeds.
We're off to the Islands! The Big Island of Hawaii to be exact. This is a pilgrimage of sorts that we make every couple years.
First day - off the main drag of Ali'i Drive, on our way from the airport to our timeshare at the Kona Coast Resort II, we stopped by the crafts market just south of the main part of town. This is the Ali'i Gardens Marketplace where we found Greg, owner of Kona Natural Soaps whom we had met on a previous trip. After chatting and catching up on his new products we went away with two original design t-shirts, a baseball cap for me, and a soap made from flower and botanical essences – Greg’s claim to fame is the high quality of the essences and the healing properties of his combinations.
The shopkeeper in the stall next to Greg offered up her favorite places for noodles and Thai food. You might think that given the culinary influences of the many Pacific rim countries who settled the Islands after the Tahitian’s, that there would be a good number of wonderful choices. But alas, Kona has yet to to fully embrace it’s multi-culinary roots and promoting authenticity and local products and produce. There are bright shining lights out there, but just a few. Most other eateries in Kona you could find anywhere in the USA, each with their own sad versions of ‘localized’ items, like frozen-then-fried calamari you’d find at Chili’s but this time slathered in the sticky sweet-spice red chili sauce dowsed over items the kitchen wants to call ‘Asian’.
The top recommendation was TK Noodle House not far away. We looked up the address after checking into the condo and set out. We headed for the Kona Village location, he also has a place in Captain Cook.
As I write this I’m making a breakfast of left over Braised Beef Short Rib Hot Pot. Pardon the occasional slurp.
TK Noodle House
Just up-mountain (Mauka) from Ali'i Drive sits one of the most memorable noodle houses you’ll go to on The Big Island. The chef, TK is somewhat of a new comer to Kona side, opening this shop in a small shopping center in downtown Kona about 2 years ago.
The place was a bit hard to find for us. We followed the crazy directions of Siri and ended up in the parking lot of the small shopping mall where TK is located. The trick was deciding which door was TK and which went someplace else. In Hawaii many shop doors are on the outside of a building, not in some inside corridor. The signage was on a banner covering the former restaurant’s name, very hard to tell if we were in the right spot. I stooped down to look inside a window and after see the plates of steaming food and bowls heaped with noodles and vegetables, we pretty much thought we’d found the place.
TK actually has three doorways and three distinct eating experiences, making it all the more confusing for first-timers like us. We chose door number one, the noodle shop. The second door we found out was for the make-it-yourself dinners in soup pots at the table and the third area was for their desserts. After looking at the cook-it-yourself menu, we decided on staying with the noodle shop. We might just have to come back for the others.
We were pretty hungry and after a look around to see what other diners were eating – trying to get a gauge of portioning – we order an appetizer, Fried Calamari. Nothing too adventurous I admit, but one of us wanted to play it safe at first. Plus, you know how it is when you’re just too hungry and need to eat…choices are not your friend at that point. Pouring over the thickly laminated menu didn’t help. Everything looked worth a try and a few stood out as must haves.
I asked our server for her recommendations. It’s something I do when seeing too many good things, plus, when trying out a new place with a chef I don’t know, it makes sense to ask what’s good. Servers generally know that you are asking for what is best on the menu…admittedly a subjective thing, but I’ve not been disappointed that often by asking.
Depending on what I had a taste for, today it was noodles, she recommended the Charred Beef Noodle. For noodle soups, she thought the Oxtail was a good choice. There was also the Beef Salad to consider. After seeing the portions sizes coming out of the kitchen, we restrained ourselves and skipped the salad…a good thing we did.
Here at TK, they portion to share. Everything is shareable. A few tables started with a salad, which was served on a platter heaped up so it looked like a salad landslide could happen at any moment. Delicious-looking charred beef topped with more fresh greens and colorful local garnishes. Like I said, we restrained ourselves, but ate it up with our eyes.
Before the calamari arrived we settled on the Braised Oxtail Noodle soup and the Braised Beef Short Rib Hot Pot – I skipped her suggestion of Charred Beef Noodle.
The appetizer came pretty quickly, a criss-crossing stack of six, large calamari steaks cut into Lincoln log shapes drizzled with two sauces; one soy reduction (on the sweet side) and one creamy – an aioli by any other name, all settled on a bed of raw shredded peppers, cabbage, onion, cilantro. Most of the sauces had landed on the upper tiers of the stack, so Steven got the bottom stacks. He isn’t a fan of anything mayonnaise – and we could tell the creamy sauce was definitely mayo-inspired.
We both thought that this would be enough for a light supper. Once again, looking discretely to our neighbors table, I saw they had not only plowed through the towering salad but we now energetically working on two huge bowls of soup. I really do mean huge, filled nearly to the top with liquid and then piles of fresh veg teetering, defying gravity. Priced between $14-19, they are a value for sure, but maybe too much a value? We’d find out.
Steven’s soup came piled high with crunchy veg – a mixture of cilantro, bean sprouts, and sliced onions.
My hot pot was in a low-rise bowl steaming hot. I could feel the heat coming off the bowl as our server deftly placed the crock pot in front of me. I dared not touch. The flavor of the broth was more savory than Steven’s Oxtail Soup, not as much anise maybe? Nicely balanced flavors of ginger, garlic, beef and onion…to name only a few tastes. Besides being too hot to eat right away, the braised beef spare ribs could have benefited from cooking a bit longer before being plunged in the soup. The pieces of meat were a bit chewy – still flavorful though. My proof lies in how they became so succulent and tender after reheating them this morning for my breakfast.
Steven’s Oxtail Soup, like I said, had a broth much more like traditional Pho that emphasizes the ‘sweeter’ seasonings like anise, cardamom, and cinnamon. It was a little heavier on the anise than we typically have in Seattle but the rich beefy-ness was able to balance the anise just fine. Under the two good-sized oxtail sections, was a bed of rice noodles. The one down-side of this dish was the oxtails. Flavorful? Yes. Hard to get the meat off without getting soup everywhere? Again, yes.
One last tidbit about our dinner. We saw Matt Dillon sitting across from us with two others. We later heard he’s in town shooting a film and hanging out at the Sheraton in Keahou.
Our Favorite Pho Spot: Pho Hai Yen
We've been long remiss in writing up this place. We've been coming here habitually for the past 6?, 7? or is it 8 years now? Most Saturdays if were in town (sometimes Sunday) you'll find us here for lunch. Getting to know the family that owns and runs Pho Hai Yen has been just as much a joy as the Pho.
Seriously! This is the best pho broth we've found in town. Well balance and rich. Not over the top with the anise and clove or even the palm sugar. Many places we've tried, at least one of these is too much or all too little. Mom takes pride, and time, in making the broth herself. Not even the daughters who work here know the full recipe.
Nearly the whole family contributes in some way. Mom, of course, makes the broth and works mostly back-of-house on the weekends. Dad's also around during the week. We usually see the daughters, Tracy and Diane on the weekends. Grandmother is usually around as well helping out in the kitchen.
I can't say enough about the broth for the Pho. It's hard me for me at times to put in the obligatory peppers, basil, sprouts and lime and not just drink the broth. No secrets about the recipe are ever divulged other than it takes about 6 hours to make. The noodles aren't the dried rice noodles one typically gets at the supermarket. Rather, these are fresh noodles that you can only find in the refrigerated section of your local Asian grocery.
I typically get the basic Pho with steak and meatballs. When you order pho in most places with the rare beef, it is, of course, already in the broth which cooks it immediately. Here, they know to put the raw meat around the lip of the bowl so I can add it in as I eat and it's not instantly cooked through. Perhaps a little too carnivorous for many of you, but that's how I like it!
Kevin will mix it up from week to week. Some times he'll join me with the basics, but more often the #35, Spicy Seafood, no noodles, just extra vegetables. Kevin's not usually shy about spice, but the this, he has to ask to dial it back a bit.
One other item that's not on the menu but is on every table that we must tell you about is the chili pepper paste in oil. OMG, this is so good! Great flavor and really is truly spicy. We've begged them to bottle and sell this for take home. We have been known to take a little container of it home with us. Great condiment for many dishes at home. I even use it in making beef jerky.
Oh! I nearly forgot to mention the Fresh Rolls. These, too, are some of the best we've found. Shrimp, pork, rice noodles, lettuce, as you would expect and a crispy fried tofu pirouette in the middle. Of course, served with peanut sauce - don't forget to mix in some of the chili oil!
The menu does include a wide variety of other Vietnamese dishes as well as others from throughout Asia. There's something for everyone. Particularly popular are the assortment of bubble teas.
Whether dine in of take out, I'm sure you'll find something here to enjoy. Say "Hi" for us when you stop by.
As we mentioned in the intro to this section, we decided to take another cruise on Cunard's Queen Mary 2. We really looked forward to seeing all the changes in-store from her five weeks in dry dock. Cunard got us hooked on checking online to see the latest updates throughout the "Remaster."
We arrived in New York the day before the cruise and met up with our travel companions, Charmaine and Kevin. You may remember them from our transatlantic crossing last year. They've agreed to join us once again having arrived in New York from Texas a couple days earlier. With arriving late afternoon and having early dinner plans there wasn't really much time to sight see so we just grabbed a cocktail at the hotel's roof top bar before heading for dinner at Mario Batali's La Sirena. More about the Viceroy Hotel and La Sirena in later posts.
The next day was embarkation. The doorman at the hotel grabbed us a town car and we were off. We tried to get to the dock a little earlier than last year to avoid the lines. But even just getting to the dock was a challenge. Traffic in Manhattan was HORRIBLE this morning, perhaps every morning. But not only that, our driver didn't really know how to get us to the Brooklyn Cruise Terminal. Sure, he new what Brooklyn was and vaguely where it is, but beyond that he had to rely on us and our phones for directions. In all fairness though, getting to the cruise terminal is nothing less than convoluted. It's in an industrial area just south of the Brooklyn Bridge and requires many twists and turns to find. Come on PNYNJ - you can do better! Some signage would even be helpful.
After much ado with getting on-board (the ship docked late this morning so we had to wait about an hour to board). Oddly, there weren't many staff around to assist, nonetheless we quickly found our cabin, Queens Grill suite 9006, on our own. Knowing the lay of the ship from before helped as we were able to avoid the elevator bank that everyone else was using. Since we had carry-on luggage and bypassed the porters earlier, there was no need to wait for bags to show up so after a few photos of the pristine stateroom we were able to unpack right away and start re-exploring the ship. As you can see, Cunard has done an amazing job creating a beautiful art deco inspired suite. The colors, nautical with a modern edge, the amenities now include your own Illy Espresso maker, and many other perfect touches.
Perhaps due to the ship having just been remastered, the crew might be new to the Grills suites. We saw no one else assisting passengers to their suites much less greeting us. This only odd because Cunard makes a very big deal about the high level of attention you are to receive as having booked an'exclusive' Queen's Grill Suite. Our traveling companions had a different experience: their cabin steward was there to greet them and make them feel at home. Oh well.
Not to sound too critical, but here are a few things that could be improved upon:
As I recall, we pulled out of port right on time, but by now the skies had let loose with a heavy downpour. The castoff party was moved to the Pavilion pool with its retractable roof (now closed!).
We, along with Charmaine and Kevin, hung around long enough to have a glass of champagne but the enclosed space with the band was just too noisy for us so we moved on - to our favorite bar on the ship, The Commodore Club - aahh quiet!
The changes on board the ship were by no means revolutionary, with some exception. Mostly more subtle, being updates to the "soft" furnishings like carpets, window coverings and upholstery in most areas of he ship. They did add a number of single-occupant cabins and 30 new Club Balcony staterooms on the top deck (not done yet, however). The biggest changes were in dining venues. The Kings Court Buffet was completely revamped for a better flow and layout (though still a little confusing). They also added a new American BBQ/Smokehouse which always smelled good but we never got a chance to try it. The other big change on this level was what was formerly the Winter Garden. This was an Edwardian-style lounge with fake lattice and trompe l'oeil garden scenes which felt very dated (think First Class Lounge on the Titanic) was now transformed into a lovely lounge with a nod to the art deco of the original Queen Mary. Now called the Carinthia Lounge, this was also the place to sample vintage Port. They have a bottle from each year since the founding of the Cunard line in 1840, costing upwards of multiple (tens of?) thousands of dollars! We had to pass on that extravagance, sadly.
The QM2 also has the only dog and cat kennels at see. This was displaced by the construction of the Club Balcony staterooms but apparently enlarged and expanded for more 4-legged guests. They still have their own lamppost and fire hydrant.
One other well-needed update was in the spa. Not much changed here other than the hydro-therapy room (aka gigantic whirlpool). The room previously had planters of fake palm trees and bamboo, all removed now making the room feel more fresh and open. The mis-matched ceiling tiles were fortunately replaced. Otherwise just general maintenance in here, maybe new tiling here and there.
Here's our dining table from our voyage last year as compared to after Remastering:
One other interesting looking addition to the ship is a Chef's Table with Sommelier Wine Tasting in the Sir Samuel's restaurant. Reservations for this would be a must as it's held in a small private room seating about 12 persons. Unfortunately, they weren't ready to get this program started on this cruise. They did, however, have some of the potential wines on display in the cases near this dining room, they looked great! We'll have to come back for that one.
Coming soon: Culinary adventures and political intrigue on the high seas.
It's been a while since we've been to Orfeo but we wanted to finally get around to writing up about it. We've enjoyed the food here immensely and the staff has all been more than welcoming.
First, Orfeo is located in Seattle's Belltown neighborhood at 3rd Ave at Blanchard (2107 3rd Ave, to be precise). They're open daily from 4-10PM with Happy Hour from 4-6PM. This is the old Brassa location.
The claim-to-fame here is their wood fired oven and charcoal grill. Much of the menu is centered with a focus on Italian dishes. The wood fired pizza is to die for! More on that later.
Our first foray in Orfeo was with our friends Todd and Mark just after they first opened. I'm sure it's not the case, but it seemed like we had just about everything on the menu - from the Charcoal Grilled Octopus to the Seared Scallops Alla Puttanseca and the Pork Chops with Foie Gras Butter. We really could hardly stop ourselves from ordering more right down to the molten chocolate cake with cherries and the house made sugar donuts.
Our next time in was several months (a year?) later when we got an email about their wood fired oven. Apparently, Chef Davis, has devoted many hours to perfecting, of all things, wood fired pizza. How could we resist?
Kevin emailed me: "Hey Steven, let's go for Happy Hour and get some pizza!" What a treat. Great crust, pepperoni cut just thick enough to become little cups of pepperoni "juice." And a sauce that's not too sweet, not too tart. Of course, we had to have some oysters on the half shell while we waited for the pizza. And great conversation with the bartender.
Our last trip to Orfeo was once again for happy hour. This time we enjoyed some clams from the wood oven then shared the Pittsburgh Style New York Strip with garlic butter mushrooms.
A little bit of background - Orfeo is owned by the husband and wife team, Kevin and Terresa Davis. Check out their other places in downtown Seattle: Steelhead Diner in Pike Place and Blueacre Seafood in Downtown. Both are excellent places for "standard" and "unique" seafood respectively. Steelhead also makes a darn good burger.
Once you make a reservation through their website, you'll begin receiving emails announcing their weekly specials. They offer up some truly amazing original dishes.
Perhaps you'll find us at the bar for happy hour some time soon.
This is a new-ish place down by the Leschi Marina, Meet the Moon. Not sure when it opened, but certainly within this past year. This cafe is the latest addition to the Heavy Restaurant Group - the same people who've brought us such places as Purple and Barrio, among others. We had checked out the menu and thought it looked a little “precious” and perhaps trying too hard to be different. We did end up going one weekend morning. Eating crow now. The food was pretty darn good. The baked goods, while tasty were a bit on the ridiculous side, however, in terms of size. I’m not sure why bakers feel the need to make breakfast breads and sweets in enormous sizes other than for some wow-factor. Of course, the easy answer is that customers demand the huge, ½ loaf sized carmel-covered pecan cinnamon roll or the scone worthy of several meals. Meet the Moon has you covered on the bread and bread related products. We split one of the cinnamon rolls, taking ½ with us as we headed out on road trip that morning to our off-road Land Rover Experience (perhaps more on that in another post).
Steven had the Carne Asada Skillet ($18) – cough. It came with the expected pico de gallo, avocado and eggs, and their breakfast potatoes. Steven is a kind of connoisseur of carne asada, so fair warning, he’s hard to please. This version unfortunately missed the mark. The description did not give any indication that it wasn’t actually a small breakfast steak. Rather than receiving a nice medium rare piece of meat, it turned out to be chopped carne asada, skillet fried until hard and dry. The real test is when ordering medium rare and arrives well-done. Rookie mistake. You pretty much have to simply walk by the flame on the way to the plate to get a true MR even with such a thin slice of meat as flank or (or preferably skirt) that should be carne asada. Chopped up as it was, it stood no chance! The seasoning was very good though, and with the avocado and eggs to mash up in there, it wasn’t a loss.
The show stopper was the potatoes. They were so good we asked one of the waiters to give up the secret on how they got them so crunchy on the outside and fluffy on the inside. The secret, too easily given, is to prepare the potatoes (clean, peel if you want, and cube) then freeze them. Pull out the frozen cubes (or whatever shape you want), toss is seasoning and deep fry. The moisture from the potato stays inside and steam them from the inside when the hit the hot oil. I wondered if they were double cooked, perhaps in duck fat they were so good, but, no, just frozen, seasoned, and deep fried. I had the Avocado Toast with poached egg. It was really just what I wanted.
The deep yellow-orange yolk was perfectly done and oozed over the avocado and toasted baguette when cut. Everything on the plate was balanced, a little acidic edge on the greens cut the fattiness of the both the avocado and egg. Just wonderful. I’ll have it again. In the end, I’m revising my rant, to a sigh. Go if you find yourself along Lake Washington in the Leschi area, though finding a seat might be a challenge. It’s a small place. We got there early so had our pick of seating but it was full by the time we were done.
In all, they do a nice job with flavors and the potatoes cannot be beat. Steven will probably opt for something other than the carne asada next time.
Sometimes good thing happen with Kevin goes to the grocery store on his own. On Sunday he came back with not only King Crab Legs which we steamed and devoured for lunch on Easter Sunday, but he also picked up some nice sea scallops. Tonight we had them for dinner.
Yes, they're a little pricey and most of us only have them at a restaurant. I have to think that part of the reason many people don't cook them at home is that they're a little intimidated by them. They're actually pretty easy to cook, it's just that they're also easy to overcook. But with some high heat, a good pan, and attention, anyone can make a delicious scallop dinner.
Here's how Kevin did this tonight. It only took about 40 minutes. The longest stages were boiling the pasta and reducing the shallot and wine base - more about that in a minute.
He used dry pasta tonight so he got it going first. If it had been fresh pasta (never hurts to have fresh pasta!) this would have been done nearly last minute. While that was going he got all the rest of the ingredients in place. Chopped shallot, chopped garlic (from a jar), stripped thyme leaves from their stems. Meanwhile I grated a couple of hard cheese - parmigiano reggiano and asiago.
To prepare the scallops, the tops and bottom were coated with a bit of cornstarch then lightly salted. These then went into the eight inch skillet on medium high heat (coated with a tablespoon or two of olive oil, enough to coat the bottom of the pan) and a couple of teaspoons of butter ( NO! not margarine). You need a high enough heat to sear and brown the scallops, but not so high they'll burn. Once properly seared, take them out and set aside. They should not be cooked completely through at this point - they'll be finished later, trust me.
Next into the pan are the shallots, garlic,and thyme. Sauté until softened then add about 1/2 cup of white wine. Our choice of wine tonight is a chardonnay: 2012 Enlightenment from Sparkman Cellars. Reduce until about a tablespoon of liquid was left.
Add cream (actually leftover cream thyme from Sunday's scalloped potatoes) and about a teaspoon of grocery store lobster base. Reduce again just until slightly thickened. Then add a cup of the starch water from the boiled pasta, let it come back together - "tighten up" if you will. Check your seasonings, salt and pepper, to taste at this point. Now add the scallops back into the pan to finish cooking - up to this point, remember, they were only seared, but not cooked through.
Now toss in your pasta, directly from the boiling pot to the pan along with the asparagus tips that were cooked with the pasta (did I mention the asparagus tips?). Toss to combine, season as needed with a little fresh ground pepper and most of the grated cheese.
Now to the plate, or should I say pasta bowl.
Garnish with the remaining grated cheeses and a sprinkle of fresh thyme and to be decadent add a drizzle of the EVOO.
Sunday, the last day of the Vancouver Wine Festival. The highlight of the day, for us any way, is the Vintners Brunch. This event consists of 2 1/2 hours to make it through about 16 food courses, each with a wine pairing. The wines were from around the world, with concentration on Italy since it was the country focus this year. All the food was from various Vancouver Restaurants. Each course was just a small tapas-sized bites or canapé and even a few cups of soup so you would think it not a difficult task. But in the end we found ourselves rushing to get the last few items before they were gone and the event over. We managed to make it through, just barely.
We were greeted at the door with a glass of sparkling brut from Okanogan Valley, British Columbia by See Ya Later Ranch. A nice, refreshing way to start as we found our table and caught up with Pam and our other friends, Ken & Victoria, Van & Marcella, Justin & Elena, Matthew & Reema. Once oriented, we were off to our first course. In the interest of brevity, I'll only mention some of the highlights.
The first up was a Warm Fresh Cheese, Carrot, Egg Yolk, Brioche from Latab Food (who has since closed) paired with a Valdo Marca Oro Prosecco do Valdobbiadene DOCG NV. This was a light but yet rich dish with the warm and a sous vide egg yolk, but the prosecco cut through and lightened up each bite. Kevin and I both thought it could use a little more seasoning, but overall, it was a good breakfast started that paired well with this processo.
Next up was a Dungeness Crab Salad with Grapefruit, Vanilla & Hollandaise paired with a Geyser Peak Sauvignon Blanc 2014. This was the big surprise for me! I don't generally care that much for Geyser Peak wines and typically ignore them when wine shopping. But this with the crab and grapefruit worked really well together. We probably wouldn't buy this just for sipping, but if serving these flavors, it may be worth consideration. And it was a really good crag cake from Showcase Restaurant and Bar - may have to check them out next time in Vancouver.
I didn't try the next one, but Kevin did and really liked it, this was Nikkei Ceviche. Ceviche has never been one of my favorites, but I trust Kevin's opinion. It was paired with a Columbia Winery Chardonnay 2013. Kevin called this an "amazing pairing, food off the hook. The buttery chardonnay balances the pungent nori and crisps." The program describes this wine as offering aromas of pear, apple and tropical fruits. Expect this wine to pair nicely with other light seafood such as Dungeness crab or mussels.
Skipping ahead a bit to one of my favorites, the Ebi-Shinjo Shrimp and Fish Ball with Dashi Espuma (miso foam) with Julienned Beets, Radish, Green Onion & Ginger from the sake bar and Japanese bistro, ShuRaku. The sweet-savory shrimp and fish ball along with the spiciness of the vegetables paired nicely with the Thornhaven Estates Gewurztraminer VQA 2014.
Here's what Kevin had in his tasting notes:
"Wine stands up and highlights the dish. Not normally a fan of Gewurztraminer - good pairing that softens the radish. Alone it has a good mouth-feel."
This dish by-the-way took second place with the judges for today's brunch.
And now for something less complicated. This is something that anyone can throw together for your guests before dinner - Fig and Goat Cheese Tart with Carmalized Onion, Dried Fig & Farmhouse Cheese's Goat Cheese. This was offered by Savoury Chef Foods, the wine chosen to go with if was the Sandhill Rosé 2014. The write-up on the program had this to say about it:
...made from Cabernet Franc, Gamay Noir, Sangiovese and Barbera grapes. A special yeast for fruity white wines was used to help capture flavours of juicy strawberries and raspberries...
Next up was one of Kevin's favorite, Spiced & Braised Lamb, Gribiche Sauce, Olive Oil Crouton, Sumac Salt from Blackbird Public House. Served with our first red of the day, Delicato Family Vineyard Black Stallion Los Carneros Pinot Noir 2013. No picture of this unfortunately but our notes say "Amazing dish! A full bite work on every level - peppery greens! Color of the pinot edges towards a bit brown, but taste is solid."
We're not done yet! Railtown Catering has offered up the dish that took first place in the food judging today. The name is a bit long so bare with me - Black Rice Congee with Red Wine-Braised Duck, Soy-marinated Quail's Egg, Black Currant Grastique, Togarashi Crackling.
I don't know what else I can say beyond that to describe it but I do have to say it was, in my opinion, the most interesting dish served today. It was paired nicely with a 2013 Hahn Family Wines Santa Lucia Highlands Pinot Noir. The black currant aromas in the wine helped bring out the black currant in the dish - well played! The crew preparing the food looked like they were having as much fun as we were.
I had decided to wear my Scottish Kilt to today's event. I don't get much opportunity to pull it out of the closet, but this was a special occasion, so why not? It turned out to be a great conversation starter. One nice lady who caught me a couple times insisted that I try the Scotch Egg - or more fully, the Chorizo Scotch Egg with Urban Digs Pork, Smoked Paprika, Hen's Egg and Hay Aioli from ARC at Fairmont Waterfront paired with 2013 Gil Family Estates Tridente Tempranillo - Castilla Y Leon. The tempranillo was a good choice for this as it balances and cuts through the richness of the egg and the deep fried pork. If I could have my eggs this way every morning, I'd be happy - though I think I would need to start taking cholesterol meds.
Several desserts had been on offer. By the time we got there far, they were beginning to run out. We were lucky enough to get the Sable Breton with Salted Carmel, Spiced Okanagan Apples, Tainori Grand Cru Chocolate Cream and Nutty Tuile. from the Vancouver Convention Center's own kitchens. This was paired with Fonseca Guimaraens 10 Year Old Tawny Port. A perfect combination to end a fabulous food and wine experience.
We had arranged for a late check-out from the hotel and our time was running out to get back, finish packing and check-out. So we weren't able to stick around for the music and dancing. The small group had been playing a range of music all through the event. As people finished their tastings, they began to dance. Looks like it could have been fun, but for us, it was time to go.
We had a great time and a big "Thank you!" to Pam and Marcella for getting us involved and helping us get all our ticket. Next year's festival will be focused on Canadian wines. We look forward to being back.
Pam has been involved in the the Washington wine industry for many years, and an enthusiast for many more. She has also served on the Washington State Wine Commission through the Washington Wine Ambassador program. Don't be surprised if you see her some weekends pouring or tasting in Woodinville at Lachini, Sparkman, and many more. We're also proud to say that she helped us select and serve our wines for Kevin and my wedding reception a couple years back - what fun we had tasting wines and food pairings!
Here are some posts by Pam:
21 February 2016
A few weeks ago, Kevin brought home a dozen oysters from our favorite purveyor, Taylor Shell Fish. It was a dozen of our preferred, Totten Virginica. We decided to break into them before dinner. I had already poured myself a dram of whisky (OK, so it may have been more than a dram!). When I got done shucking the oysters and starting slurping, I still had some whisky left. This was rather unfortunate for me. A sip of whisky after an the oyster was horrible!
Imagine my surprise when I came across this article from Food & Wine about food pairings for whisky that had oysters on the top of the page. Reading on, I found that, in theory, there are whiskys that can work with oysters. Our tendency is to stay away from the smokier options which they recommend. Sounds like we'll need to keep some bolder single malts on-hand for these special oyster occasions.
The Aultmore that Food & Wine recommends looks to be a fairly reasonably priced bottle, though a little more than we typically spend. I may have to splurge a little next time I'm at Bevmo and check it out.
It sounds like we need to do some experimenting with different oysters and different whiskys to find the ones that match just right - a horrible task, I know, but someone's got to do it? We'll keep you posted on what we find.
23 January 2016
One of Seattle's preeminent restaurateurs, Tom Douglas, has a program of classes and seminars that he runs out of a kitchen classroom in Belltown. He calls the program The Hot Stove Society. Today they put on a class in food photography to which Kevin had signed me up.
We met at the Hot Stove Society kitchen at the Andra Hotel. Here we were introduced to our teacher, local food photographer, Sarah Flotard. She presented a short talk about her take on food photography including props, color, styling, and some in-camera techniques. Following this talk, we headed over to the Palace Kitchen, one of Douglas' earlier endeavors. Here we were given the opportunity to set up our own food shots using props and ingredients provided by the restaurant. They provided granola & fruit breakfast items as well as the makings for nachos. With an hour+ for each of us to grab a table to set up either or both scenarios, we had to do our own styling and settings before making as many photos as needed get the best shots we could. Sarah and some of Douglas' marketing and cookbook staff were on hand to consult.
We spread out in the front of the restaurant where we had natural light to work with, such as it is in Seattle on a cloudy, rainy day. Some used the tables, others set up their shots on the floor to make it easier for straight over-head shots. When all was done, Sarah asked each participant to submit to her our own best photo we took during the class. Here are, in mind eye, the best photos I got. With the input of you all I chose one to two to submit. Unfortunately, Hot Stove Society never published any of the participant photos and the blog page for the event is no longer online.
Click on the images to enlarge; click on the stars below each to rate.
In Kevin’s article about making our Thanksgiving Cranberry Compote he mentioned our vanilla extract. This gave me the idea to write a quick note about it as well.
As you may, or perhaps not, know that Kevin and I are fond of travelling to Hawaii when we can. Our favorite is the Big Island. It’s one of the more diverse and for us, the most interesting and relaxing. But having been there so many times, we are always on the lookout for new things to do and try. There’s always some we haven’t done. Our visit a few years back was no exception. What we found was that there is now a vanilla farm on the island. It’s the first, and at the time only, vanilla farm in the US. Simply called Hawaiian Vanilla Company. Check out their website for more info: http://www.hawaiianvanilla.com. It may not sound terribly exciting, but we’ve certainly never seen where vanilla comes from. Luckily, they offer tours with lunch. We booked for a few days after we got settled on the island as it’s on the Hilo (east) side of the island, a couple hours’ drive from where we’re staying.
We arrived in good time and after checking in we were escorted into the humble dining room along with a number of other groups. Lunch was simple and of course featured their own vanilla in a number of dishes. During the meal introductions were done by the proprietor, Jim Reddekopp. The operation is a family affair. He and his wife quit their hectic careers at the resorts on Waikiki to start this farm and brought their kids with them. All of whom have some hand in the operations and activities of the farm.
After lunch we were treated to a tour of the gardens, kitchens, and vanilla greenhouses led by Jim himself. Before this, we had no appreciation for the level of detail, care and patience that goes into growing some much as a single vanilla bean, let alone thousands. I seems to recall they mentioned having to pollinate the flowers by hand. If you've ever grown orchids at home, you'll know how long they it takes to get a new flower stalk. The vanilla plant, being an orchid itself, takes a while as well.
If you ever find yourself on the Big Island, this is worth the trip to the “cold” side for a day off the beach.
So back to the point of this article. One of the things we learned on the tour was how to make vanilla extract and the difference between pure vanilla and imitation or artificial vanilla. I won’t go into this distinction here, but you may want to stay away from anything that says ‘vanillin’ on the ingredients. The making of vanilla extract is really quite easy. It just takes time.
Slit the vanilla beans length-wise, you can leave the halves attached at the stem, or not. Do not scape out the seeds. Place each bean in the liquor of your choosing. We prefer vodka as it doesn’t impart its own flavor to the vanilla.
Now, place it in a cool, dark place just let it sit, for the most part. I lay the bottle on its side so the beans stay submerged completely. On occasion, when you think of it, give the bottle a little rotation to move things around a bit. You don’t need to do much, just enough to redistribute the beans and liquor. In time, a few weeks, perhaps a month, open the bottle and give it a sniff, if it still smells like liquor and alcohol, it’s not done. If it smells mainly like vanilla, by all means start using it.
Since we’re making it in such a large bottle, it’s not convenient to keep this in the spice cupboard. So what we’ve done is to transfer some into a smaller, brown glass bottle (UV protected) to keep in the kitchen. We keep another whole (slit open) bean in this jar as well.
As you use the extract from the large bottle, it can always be replenished. When about 1/3 down, add another bean or two and refill with more liquor. This will yield a never-ending supply of extract.
We even made up small bottles of extract one year to give as Christmas gifts for friends and family. We used the Amber Boston bottles from Specialty Bottle here in Seattle (phone/internet orders only): http://www.specialtybottle.com with the shrink bands to seal them shut. If I were to do it again I would get the ones with a dropper cap.
The Journey Home
25 August 2015
This day has finally come. Sadly, it’s time to head home. We’ve certainly enjoyed our travels, seeing old friends and making new, but vacation can’t go on forever.
As with all other travel days, of this trip, we start early with packing. This morning it should be so hard, you would think, it all needs to go home and we packed for air travel just two days before. Today it seems like there’s much more organizing to do. Eventually everything finds its place, or is left behind.
After another home breakfast at the house, we headed for the airport. We wanted to get to the airport a little early to take advantage of the lounge amenities. We’re flying British Airways First Class today! We cashed in a ton of points to book this flight, so we might as well make the most of it. Having failed to make reservations for our free massages in the BA Spa, our best bet was to get there early and see if we could get on the schedule. – Note to self: book the massage as soon as you book the flight!
Neil and Darren drove us to the airport which not only worked quite well, but was also very nice of them to do. I’m always amazed at getting anywhere by car in London. I don’t know how people manage. I’m usually pretty good with direction and getting around, but London always baffles me. Getting from point A to point B seems, invariably, to take you through points M, R and Z along the way! Nonetheless, we get there in good time.
Arrival at Heathrow’s Terminal 5 is uneventful. The first time I’ve ever actually arrived here by car, having only ever passed through here in transit. We easily found the First Class check in counter – couldn’t hardly miss it actually, off to the right with a tasteful but huge sign announcing it’s splendidness. In the old Terminal 4, this was quite hidden I had noticed in years passed as I would headed to the lengthy coach class check in lines. When we walked up today, we were the only ones there. A quick drop of the bags and we were off to security. The First Class, Business Class and elite status passengers have a dedicated security line, secluded from the others. Two X-ray machines but the line wasn’t moving very fast – hardly at all. Apparently, they had just run through a test bag to check the system and the screeners. This managed to shut down that scanner and now wasn’t coming back on line any too quickly. So much for speedy at this point. We’re still hours out from our flight, so no matter.
As you come out of security, you’re right in front of a very non-descript door, except for a small Concorde Room sign and a matron guarding the way in. A quick check of our boarding passes, a review of our reservation on her terminal, and we were in. The inner sanctum, as it were. Or so we thought. Another attendant inside asked for verification of our rights to admittance. That cleared, we proceed to the luggage check to have them hold our carry-ons. This was just beyond the lounge headed toward the Business Class lounge. So, of course, we had to check in with the nice gentleman on that side on our way back. We stating that we had already check in to the lounge (twice) his only response was “I haven’t seen you before.”
Next to check to see if we can get our free massages. No better luck than when we tried to call. No spots available except maybe in the other remote concourse. Not knowing yet where our flight was to depart, we didn’t want to risk getting to the wrong part of the airport and then having to walk back. If you try to come back from the B of C concourse on the train, you’re forced out of the airport and would have to go through security again. Not a gamble worth taking. We could have perhaps snagged a private cabana. Since we didn’t need a shower but did want to eat, we give these a pass. Judging from some pictures I’ve seen online, this is just as well.
We head over to the restaurant section of the lounge to find all the private booths taken so we just grab a couple seats at the open tables. Same food is served, but I have to say that the people in the private booths certainly seemed to be getting better service. Waiters were constantly bustling about in there while it took a good 10 minutes for anyone to stop by our table. Once we had a waiter, we quickly had bubbly in hand. Cheers! Kevin’s pretty sure it was our waiter’s first time serving, poor thing looked flustered all the time...again with the rushing about and not much seeming to be done in the process.
There was a good selection of fare available. We each started with the soup. As I recall it was good, but the menu is no help in remembering what it was, as it’s just listed as soup of the day. Your guess is as good as mine. Afterwards, I had the Duo of West Country Beef, pressed beef with oxtail ravioli accompanied by Romanesco puree. Kevin had the Summer Salmon Salad. For desert, we both had the Affogato – vanilla ice cream topped with a shot of espresso and a cookie – Yum! And of course more bubbly.
We still have some time before boarding – our gate hasn’t even been announced yet - so we just found a couple spots to relax out on the “terrace,” still inside, but overlooking the main terminal. What’s up with the horse lamps – those are just odd! Eventually our gate is announced – now we only have ½ hour to get to the plane in the next concourse – time to run! While we were told that no announcements of flights would be given in the First Class Lounges, we really would have appreciated some notice that boarding had started. Live and learn.
When we get to the gate, it appears that almost everyone has already boarded, virtually no line. How did everyone get here so quick and already board? There is a small queue for coach boarding but we slip right by. Upon arrival at the door to the airplane, the Purser (head flight attendant) greeted us. As soon as I showed my boarding pass, the flight attendant standing nearby offered to take me to my seat. When the Purser saw Kevin’s boarding pass, he called “service”, and another flight attendant, loaded with a tray of drinks she quickly put down, and came over to escort Kevin to his seat. You certainly don’t get this when you’re turning right as you board. Once settled, more bubbly was on offer. “Of course, I would love some.” Apparently, we were the last two First passengers to arrive – again I ask: how did they get here so fast?
Our seats, as you can imagine, were quite spacious with lots of storage for shoes and jackets. Oddly, however, there was no place for small items like a cell phone, power cords, or sunglasses. There was a place for a laptop but it wasn’t easy to spot. There was certainly enough room to have these things out, but no good place to stow for takeoff and landing.
As we were getting ourselves comfortable, the flight attendant came by to offer pajamas and slippers. She also brought the “For Him” amenity bags with all the goodies, one expects: tooth brush/paste, socks, lotions & balms, razor, and the best eye mask I’ve ever had. The pajamas are a nice light flannel – whether we’re supposed to not, we both kept them, along with the comfy slippers...and eye masks.
Once we got in the air, the flight attendant came around to take drink and food orders, asking us when we would like to eat. Kevin chose ASAP so he could go to sleep. Since I generally don’t sleep well on planes, I opted for a little later, which turns out to not been such a good idea. Before I had worked my way through the entire meal, our attendant went on break, his replacement didn’t seem to catch on very quickly that I was still only half way through the courses. It seemed to take forever for her to clear empty plates and bring the next. Yes, I know, another first-world problem!
After dinner, I found my duvet in the overhead bin and started to make up my bed. The flight attendant came by and offered to take care of it while I ran off to the restroom to get into my jammies. The rest of the flight for me while Kevin slept was a series of movies and time spent typing blog entries. One thing that’s always a highlight for me on the daytime flights between Europe and Seattle is seeing Greenland. It always fascinates. It will certainly be a sad day when it no longer has its snow pack and glaciers. For now though, it’s still beautiful. The rest of the flight was uneventful and of course more food came about an hour before we landed in Seattle.
The little island is Uummannaq Island. You can't really make it out in this photo but there's actually a town down there. Wikipedia can tell you more about it: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Uummannaq_Island
A quick run-down of the food (not all pictured).
For starters I had taken the gamble on the Sesame Seared Tuna. I was hesitant about “fresh” fish coming from an airline kitchen. Happily, it was actually quite good. Not 100% fresh tasting, but not bad.
Kevin started with the Wild Mushroom and Truffle Mousse. While, it doesn’t look much like a mousse as we would know it in America, it did have a nice, creamy mousse texture and quite flavorful.
Next up, main courses. I took another gamble in hopes of BA redeeming themselves after a previous beef experience I had on my last flight (see rant below). Pleasantly, it was served sufficiently warm but not overcooked, a nice medium rare.
On our flight back from Geneva two years ago, we were in BA’s Premium Economy ("World Traveler +") which supposedly featured entrees from the Business Class ("Club World") menu. I ordered the steak rather than chicken (should have known better after the horrid pork puck I had on the outbound). This was the worst piece of beef I have ever had the displeasure of eating. It was fully cooked well-done and beyond. The sauce was even completely dried up and fused to the dish. It’s an absolute disgrace that a cow gave up its life to have become this!
Kevin’s entrée choice was the North Atlantic Baked Cod. He doesn’t remember too much about it other than being thankful it wasn’t overcooked. We American’s do like our fish in a state others might call near raw, but they’d be wrong.
Kevin skipped on dessert while I enjoyed the Raspberry Délice. How could this be wrong – well, it wasn’t! It was a layered dessert with a cookie crust and a raspberry gelee top. This with a generous serving of Glenlivet 18 year-old was a perfect way to finish dinner as The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel finished playing.
Kevin finished his dinner with the Warm Blueberry and Nectarine Crumble.
After some time spent writing blog entries, taking pictures of Greenland and retrieving my sunglasses that had fallen into the bowels of my seat - don't ask!, it was time for a nap.
About an hour before landing in Seattle we were offered Afternoon Tea – very civilized! I had to pass on the sandwich selection as they all had something I don’t care for: either salmon, mayo, cucumbers, or some variation thereof. Kevin enjoyed his on the other hand. I did partake in the patisserie. This included a brownie, a key lime cake and a Battenberg cake. All served with our own personal pot of tea.