Tuesday, February 7, 2017

A Very Baltic New Year

We had driven from Vilnius, Lithuania (more on that later) on the 30th of December to Riga, Latvia and found our Airbnb for the next five days to be in an absolutely perfect location. We were across the street from the President's palace, right in Old Town. Most importantly as this was our New Year's Eve trip (the 12th!), we were 2 blocks from where the festivities would be.

The morning of the 31st Caitlin, Sharon, Forest, and I left Thibault to sleep in a bit and walked to Riga's Central Market. Along the way we passed through the over-the-top charming Town Hall Square which has the beautiful Blackheads House (originally an association for unmarried men). The Christmas Tree was reportedly "invented" at one of the Blackheads gatherings (men got drunk, cut down a tree, put a bunch of stuff on it, then tossed it out the window aflame; really no different that today) Riga really knows how to decorate their city. Every square had gorgeous trees and festive light displays.
We continued through Old Town, crossing into a much more industrial feeling part of town. Here was the main bus terminal as well as the very limited train station (we were told by locals that even now overnight bus between the main cities in the Baltics is how people get around), and the huge Central Market which is housed inside old zeppelin hangars.

Each hangar was dedicated to a different type of product; vegetables, meats, pickles, fish, household goods. The fish market in particular was incredible with hundreds of types of smoked, dried, and fresh fish along with so many different caviars!
And the pickle market was an array of amazing colors with all sorts of produce pickling in huge jars and crocks!

As many people are Orthodox in the Baltic countries, Christmas would be celebrated on Jan 7th. Many people were buying their Christmas trees on New Year's Eve from market vendors. If you love Christmas, Latvia is the place to be as it lasts for many more weeks than we get!
After our market shopping, we headed to Apsara Tea House located in the picturesque Vermanes Garden which a friend had recommended. The entire upstairs was meant for lounging on the pillow covered floor while gazing out onto the park, Japanese style. The building was round so there were views of the outside in every direction. We grabbed a table downstairs since upstairs was full and enjoyed a variety plate of cookies with our tea and wine.
It was time to meet Thibault and time for lunch. We had reservations at Domini Canes which was a very cute little spot right next to St. Peter's Cathedral. As we would just be having light apps later we had a proper lunch of what Riga calls (and loves) modern takes on Latvian food.

From here Forest and Thibault led us on a walking tour of the Old Town. This is one of the nicest Old Towns I have been in and the Christmas decorations just added to that. We started at St. Peters and did a complete circle using one of our guide books, stopping for a bit of shopping along the way.

 About half way through we happened upon a Christmas market, this one mainly arts/crafts oriented in a picturesque square.
We continued our tour until we hit the next Christmas market, this one having the additions of food and drinks. After tasting some locally made brandy & liquors we got wines mulled over this open flame served by two good looking men. Have I mentioned that I really liked Riga?
Back at our Airbnb we had a little party with champagne and apps made from things we had purchased throughout the trip; pate & cheese brought from France, sausage & sugared nuts from Lithuania, sardines, olives, and strange flavored potato chips from Latvia.
The New Year's Eve festivities were starting in Riga so we headed out all of two blocks to join the crowds for the live concert that was set up next to the river at 11 November Place. Latvian pop/rock bands played and the crowd danced and sang. Super fun!
We grabbed a bit more mulled wine from the market and then found a good spot on the quay where the fireworks would go off. Right before midnight the live bands gave way to some pre-recorded music set to the pyrotechnics, we popped the bottles of bubbles we were toting in our backpack, and had great views of the really well done fireworks show!
I absolutely loved it! It was one of the best choreographed to music shows I have seen. The crowd was small and well behaved which reminded me of Vienna and our house was so close we just walked 3 blocks after it was done.

As you can guess, there were some nightcap martinis at home after.

Happy New Year 2017!!! I've got my sights set on this being a good year. I hope you all have the same!

Laimīgu Jauno Gadu!!!

More tales of Latvia to come

Monday, December 19, 2016

Fall in New York

Day three was another gorgeous New York fall day. Forest and I slept in a bit before meeting at Gotham West Market, not far from my hotel. Although this upscale food hall is filled with delicious places to eat, we had our sights set on Ivan Ramen Slurp Shop. The ramen was absolutely delicious, the best bowl I have had since the last time I was in Japan. I may try the regular restaurant next time!

We walked past the Intrepid on the way to catch the subway but didn't go for a tour. We were heading out of Hell's Kitchen to the Upper West Side. We were going to Town Shop, a well-known lingerie store with a reputation for having salespeople who excel at bra fittings. In fact, most can just look at you as you walk in and tell if you are wearing the wrong size. I know that men don't give a rat's ass about this but it was a great girly experience and their selection of lingerie is immense! Major shopping took place.

We walked past a cute little Italian cafe on a random corner and decided to take seats outside in the sun for a glass of wine and some bites of cheese. It was a very relaxing afternoon.

That evening we had a cocktail crawl planned. I mean it really isn't a Wendy & Forest trip without at least one! First up was the newly opened Slowly Shirley, which is the lower level speakeasy at Happiest Hour. HH is a big loud party while SS is quiet and elegant. We took two seats at the tiny bar and met Kyle, our bartender for the evening who was absolutely awesome.

A few classic cocktails, some great jazz from the speakers, and a delicious fried chicken sandwich made for a very enjoyable time here.

Next up was Mace which was getting a lot of press (and still does, especially as it was just listed at 28 at the World's 50 Best Bar awards). The menu here is one of the most creative and beautiful that I've seen. And the drinks were extraordinary. I'd say this is a must stop while in the East Village.

We took advantage of the gorgeous evening and decided to head to the uber-touristy Times Square as neither of us had been in years. The last time I had been in fact was when I was in college and it didn't have the best reputation back then. Now, of course it is all cleaned up, there are park-like tables and benches and people bring their kids to see the Disney characters. The ginormous signs flash ads for clothing, theater shows, movies, etc. The light is so bright! The people watching is unreal. It was super fun and funny and I loved it!
We stopped in a restaurant bar for a nightcap but they were closing. A waiter told us about this place called Lille's so that is where we went. This Victorian style bar was really a surprise! The drinks were bad, the wine was overpriced, but the atmosphere was great!
Forest and I had lunch reservations the next day at MaPeche, another in the Momofuko restaurant family. This is such a fun concept as you get a small menu of dishes to choose from but throughout the meal a trolly or tray is brought around with a selection of special small plates as well, dim-sum style. The seafood platter with oysters, chilled prawns, and stone crab claws was amazing. And the pork belly buns lived up to their hype. Our waiter sweetly sent us a free order of birthday cake truffles when I couldn't decide between those and the cereal milk soft serve cone.
We took a nice stroll around 5th Avenue and then headed to the Ink48 for a glass of rose on the rooftop terrace. There are absolutely amazing views from here which were made even more dramatic when a crazy thunder and lightning storm rolled through!
Forest had a flight to catch back to Paris so I walked with her back to her hotel, said goodbye, and caught the subway to the Lower East Side. As a party of one, it was much easier to get a seat at Attaboy, housed in the old Milk & Honey location that I had loved so many years ago. The bar is an absolute gem, I couldn't love this little spot any more. I had a few rounds made by Dan and just relaxed in the REALLY dimly lit space. Attaboy came in at #6 during this year's 50 Best Bar awards and it is pretty obvious why. No website, no reservations, no sign, just ring the doorbell and hope for the best.
From here I had a short walk to Prune where I was meeting my friend Meg. Our dinner was outstanding! Head-on spot prawns, sweetbreads, and braised shortribs were all standouts but the best part was that Chef Hamilton was in the (tiny) kitchen!
We headed next door to my friend Castro's bar Boilermaker for some retro cocktails and I was super happy to see Kyle from Slowly Shirley behind the bar. Super fun evening catching up with Meg and eating and drinking like queens!
The next morning I slept in before strolling around Hell's Kitchen for a bit. Then I grabbed an Uberpool to Penn Station, caught the NJ Transit to Newark airport. It took about an hour 15 but it only cost $13!

Fantastic trip to the city! And on my flight home we flew right over the Finger Lakes and Niagria Falls!

Earlier post about this trip here.
All New York photos here.

Thursday, December 8, 2016

New York State of Mind

After spending five days in Chicago, Forest and I flew off to continue our girls' trip for another five days in New York. I was very happy to get a complimentary 1st class upgrade on Delta even though it was just a short jaunt to the Big Apple. We were on separate flights, coming into different airports (I always gotta earn those miles!), so I grabbed the subway E line from JFK and headed into the city.

I was staying at the Kimpton Ink48 in Hell's Kitchen. It was an easy 10 minute walk from the 50th St subway stop to the cute boutique hotel that was once a printer. My only complaint was that the hotel was covered in scaffolding making my nice view of the city a bit awkward. After I got unpacked I walked to the CitizenM Hotel in Times Square, where Forest was staying. This is an over-the-top hipster hotel with big fun art and a great rooftop bar where we had a drink.

From here we headed to the Highline at dusk for their weekly stargazing event, hosted by the Astronomy Club. I already love the Highline, but this free viewing event was awesome! We saw the rings of Saturn and a double star and spoke to some nice geeky people. If you are in NYC on a Tuesday night between April and October, I'd give this a go for sure (clear skies needed obviously!)

Next up, Uber to cocktails at Dead Rabbit. You've probably heard of this place, being voted the #1 bar in the world and all. This was a repeat stop for me (one which I would do over and over) and IMHO these folks are completely deserving of all the accolades they receive. We had planned on a one-and-done but they took such good care of us we ended up tucking in for a bit. We had prime seats at the bar upstairs (I've never actually sat downstairs so can't compare) and enjoyed our complimentary tea cups of punch while reading through the impressive cocktail menu and stories of New York embedded in them. We ended up ordering a few snacks (Scotch egg!) as neither of us had eaten since our flights. Finally when we tabbed out we were presented with gratis Irish Coffees. Class act Dead Rabbit! 
We grabbed another Uber and headed to Madison Square Garden to have dinner outside at Shake Shack. We ran through the park, getting to the burger shrine just before they closed. Burgers and red wine procured, we sat outside under the twinkly lights on a perfect New York fall evening. *That* was a great night and a fantastic start to our visit! 
The next morning we took the subway to Russ & Daughters Cafe for brunch. OMG. This place is so incredibly delicious and cute! A do not miss I'd say!
The beautiful, sunny day called for some serious walking and window shopping. Sometimes wandering is exactly what you get to do on vacation, that you don't always get to do at home. We walked across lower Manhatten over to Pier 25 on the Hudson River where Grand Banks is docked. Fabulously sunny day, sitting on an old schooner, slurping oysters and drinking white wine. Heaven!
We stayed until the sun started to dip and then Uber'ed off to meet our friend Karen for drinks at Nitecap. This is a perfect review of this little cocktail den. 

It was a quick walk from here to Mission Cantina for dinner, our friend Larin joining us. Absolutely delicious, unfussy, fun food here.

We tried for after dinner drinks at Attaboy but the wait for four was too long so Forest and I headed back to our part of town, stopping at Nomad Hotel's Elephant Bar. Another repeat stop for me, I love this place even though it gets super busy. The drinks and the ambiance are always spot on.
More NYC tales here.
All photos here

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Day-Twah Weekend

Resurget cineribus was the motto Detroit adopted in 1805, "It will rise from the ashes". It might be time to update that to "It will rise from the crumbles". The city had a population of 1,850,000 in 1950 and now sits at just 677,116 leaving many businesses and buildings deserted. In fact, there are over 70,000 abandoned homes and buildings.

Tidbits like that, and being named one of the most dangerous cities in American, are why I've been curious about Detroit for years. A true American tale; from rags to riches, rags again, future riches? It's hard to say what lies ahead but Detroit is one hell of an interesting place to visit.

My ever-traveling brother was also curious about The Motor City so earlier this summer we met there for a weekend to check it out. I booked a direct flight from Seattle on Alaska Air and was excited when I got a complimentary 1st class upgrade. My brother's flight landed a bit before mine, so he was conveniently waiting for me at the airport when I landed. We grabbed a cab and headed into the city.

I was using a gift certificate for the Westin Book Cadillac Hotel and Mark decided to stay there too. I was super happy with my complimentary upgraded room; a very large corner room on the 21st floor with views of the river and the city. The room was the size of a suite only without room dividers.

The Book Cadillac was left abandoned for 25 years before an architect firm bought it recently; the largest abandoned building in downtown. They refurbished it, restoring many of the original features, and in partnership with the Westin chain, turned it into a hotel with condo residences. It is absolutely beautiful but only the outside is still original. Historic Detroit has some fantastic photos and history on many of these buildings, this one has an incredible story which you can read about here. And just down the block sits the 36-story Book Tower, originally owned by the same brothers, it was abandoned in 2009, full history here.

Mark and I immediately set out to explore. We started by catching the People Mover (in Seattle we call this type of train the Monorail) which does a complete loop around town. We had signed up for a guided walking tour of the city the next day but thought we'd just get a little lay of the land. We rode the People Mover to Grand Circus Park and walked over to Comerica Park (the Tigers weren't playing in town that weekend sadly).

From here we chose to follow the elevated tracks around vs. riding it. We stopped to admire the beautiful facade of the Wurlitzer Building (abandoned but apparently sold and being renovated by a boutique hotel) and noticed the murals painted on many of the empty buildings, including one by Wyland which seemed very out of place!

The concierge at the hotel had told me to stop at Downtown Park which was hosting a summer "beach" complete with bar and live music. We were ready for a sit down after walking a couple of hours so headed to the "Tiki Bar" only to find it was serving canned beers and sugary vodka drinks. Wanting to give it some redemption we ordered rum neat, grabbed seats, and put our toes in the sand while enjoying the live reggae band. There were quite a few people at the park but as soon as we left we encountered almost silence in the streets.

From here we slipped into the over-the-top gorgeous 40-story brick Guardian Building; we were the only people in the lobby on Friday at about 4pm. The 1929 building has some impressive architectural notes, more here.  In 2003 the building was made open to the public, it had been only open to employees for over 25 years before that. Now the Bank of America branch inside it is truly the nicest bank branch you'll ever check out (see what I did there?).
We continued towards the waterfront where we could see traffic heading over the bridge to Canada, which confusingly is located south of Detroit. We walked past the Cobo Center with its banner thanking Mr. Hockey, Gordy Howe, who had just passed away the day before. This huge concrete mass is one of the ugliest sports centers I have seen and looks almost Soviet Block era-ish. Luckily for the Red Wing fans, a new arena is underway for Mike Ilitch's team (fun fact, Ilitch who owns Little Cesar's Pizza, also owns a huge chunk of Detroit. Dan Gilbert, of Quicken Loans, owns most of it though.)

We had walked about 8 miles so it was time to head back on the People Mover, take a lie down, and get cleaned up before heading to dinner. All afternoon, except for the people at the Downtown Park, we really hadn't seen many people in town. And there was little to no traffic, we had been jaywalking all over. It was quiet and odd, like being in an episode of The Walking Dead!

That night we had reservations at Roast which happened to be in our hotel. Owned by personality chef Michael Symon it gets quite a bit of press in a city with few serious dining options. We started with cocktails at the bar and could not pass up trying their fried baloney sandwich as a snack (ok, I couldn't pass it up). It's a thing, and it was good! Dinner was also delicious, the restaurant a modern steakhouse as the name implies. We were super happy with our roasted marrow bones and perfectly cooked steak. I'd heard they have amazing wings but we didn't see them on the menu that night.

We grabbed an Uber and headed into Cork Town for after dinner drinks. Cork Town isn't far, and I don't even think it is dangerous as its reputation once was, but the streets were just pitch black and seemingly deserted so a car seemed the better way to go.

Drinks at The Sugar House were great! The bar has a very good rum collection and multiple menus of original, classic, and tiki drinks. We sampled a few before heading back to the Westin.

The next morning we grabbed coffees to-go and walked to Eastern Market for the Saturday market. Along the way we stopped at The Belt, an ally/outdoor gallery of cool local art.

It was a long walk through flat, empty neighborhoods. It was a bit strange but it never seemed dangerous. We were actually just continually surprised by the lack of traffic and people. Once we got to the market area we found the Russell Street Deli I had heard about for breakfast, but decided that the line outside was entirely too long; here's where all the people were! Mark spotted a place called Farmers Restaurant that featured house-made corned beef. Sold! We were seated in the diner in a matter of minutes, had one of the friendliest waitresses ever (who was also over-the-top curious as to why we were in Detroit), and had fantastic corned beef and eggs for breakfast. Go!

The market was ok, honestly nothing out of the ordinary, but the area around the market is really interesting. Boutique shops sprouting up in an otherwise mostly industrial abandoned area. We headed to Detroit City Distillery for a tasting of their gin and ryes and then decided to grab seats at the massive wood bar for a cocktail made with said spirits. As you do around noon on a Saturday.

Refreshed, we called an Uber and headed to our next stop, the Shinola Midtown store. We had already seen the Shinola clocks around town, the company is one of the most visual to try to create more jobs in the city (besides Quicken and Little Cesar's) since opening there in 2011. The shop could have as easily been in Brooklyn as Detroit; bespoke watches and leather goods, a live DJ, and a spirits tasting in front of the luxury bicycle production area.

The city is so spread out that we called another Uber and headed back to the hotel to drop off my purchases. Then we went for the ultimate Detroit snack, a Detroit Coney. There are two famous places to get these at, Lafayette or American, which happen to be side by side and owned by brothers. We chose Lafayette, sat at the counter, and had some locals assist us with our order of coney dogs and fries. When you go, and why wouldn't you, be sure you have cash. No credit cards accepted.

We stopped back at the "beach" in the downtown park for some shade and cold drinks before meeting up with our Urban Adventures walking tour; I was really excited to see and hear more of the amazing architecture of this city!

There were 8 of us with our guide Charles, a retired Detroit-er. He was sweet and full of information, but he was also very long winded. One of the coolest stops that Mark and I hadn't already done ourselves was the GM Renaissance Center. Charles not only took us around the buildings but took us to an awesome spot for views of the waterfront and got us up to the 72nd for amazing views of the river, and the lake.

On our tour we spent time around the stadiums, Greektown, passed the Joe Louis memorial, saw the Ford and Penobscot Buildings, etc. When they were headed to some places we had already visited, Mark and I cut out as the tour was already in overtime. I really like this company for walking tours, Forest and I did one in Mexico City that I was really impressed with also.

That night we met at the Motor Bar in the Westin for cocktails before taking an Uber to Hazel Park, about 30 minutes away, for dinner at Mabel Gray.

Wow! We had the tasting menu with wine pairings and everything was spectacular. The restaurant itself is very casual and looks like a diner. It is also a little loud, but I think that was mainly the table of 6 next to us who were very drunk and seemed like they hadn't been let out of the house for a while. My poor brother got a whole glass of red wine spilled on his khakis as one of them accidently knocked it across the table!
Once they left, we enjoyed the rest of our meal and ended up closing the restaurant down. On our drive back into town it became very apparent how much of the city's buildings were abandoned as whole blocks were just completely dark.

We started our last day at the Roasting Plant for coffee, a peek inside of CompuCom's HQ with its awesome lobby water feature, and one more visit to the Guardian Building, this time getting into the Bank of America area.
We grabbed an Uber and had her take us to the infamous Michigan Central Station. Abandoned in 1988, this hulking building sits crumbling while bicyclists ride on the paths that once were train tracks. There are ongoing battles between those who want it demolished and those who want it saved. Kindof like the city itself I'd say.
We walked over to Slow's BBQ for a good lunch before walking back to the Westin through Corktown. We walked along parts of Michigan Ave that are still brick, past the lot where the old Tiger Stadium was, towards the skyline of downtown Detroit. It was all very quiet.
I'm so glad I went to Detroit, and even more fun was experiencing it with my brother. It's a complicated situation for sure, not just the issue of jobs and attracting younger people, but what to do with these buildings and how to connect the suburbs which are so far away. We'll all just have to wait and see!
All photos from Detroit here.