Thursday, August 9, 2018

Summer in Southwest France

Trip date: August 2017

Tuesday 6am, leave for airport. American Premium seat from Seattle to Philly. No seat back entertainment, no electricity, no complimentary drink or snack, 5 1/2 hour flight. American Premium, Philly to CDG Paris, aisle seat in a middle four configuration with the two center free, 7 hours. 

Arrived in Paris at 8am Wednesday. 10am, train from CDG to Montpellier, 4 hours. Transfer Montpellier to Narbonne, 1 hour train. Transfer Narbonne to Avignonet, 1 hour train. Desperately fought to stay awake.

12 1/2 hours of flights & 6+ hours of train rides later I arrived in a tiny town about 45 mins south of Toulouse, France. I exited the train in a field of sunflowers and pulled my suitcase along a dirt path to the main road where friends Luke and Spencer drove up and loaded me in the car. I was done!

Nic and Luke had kindly invited me to be their guest for the next week so I was hanging out with an incredibly fun and great group of friends in a big farmhouse called Domaine Marandou in the Southwest of France. Labastide-d'Anjou is a hamlet in the Languedoc-Roussillon region about 80 miles north of the border of Spain. 

10 adults, 5 kids ranging in age from 5 to 16, and a few drop in guests over 7 days. So. Much. Fun. Most days were spent playing in the pool, lounging by the pool, and relaxing with pool drinks.
Most evenings Luke would grill something for dinner, we'd all pitch in making drinks and sides. Plates of cheese would come out after. Then we'd keep opening more and more bottles of wine while playing games until late. So. Much. Fun.

One day Nic, Jennifer, Forest, Mel and I set out on a girl's adventure day. Our first stop was l'Oulibo, an olive oil and olive product cooperative in Bize. Olive growers can bring their fruit here for pressing and can also sell their finished products. We left with a lot of oil and tapenade!

From here we drove a short way to Homps and had a wonderful lunch at En Bonne Compagnie. The restaurant sits right on the Canal du Midi, which runs from Toulouse to the Mediterranean. I had a lovely whole roasted fish with vegetables and a spicy aioli. And lots of rosé!

After lunch we made a brief stop at the Dolmen des Fados. This 5000 year old tomb is also the largest in the South of France. And unlike the dolmen that Forest and I so persistently searched for in the Loire, this one was hard to miss!
Our final stop of the afternoon was at Domaine de Gourgazaud in La Liviniere for some wine tasting. The manager was busy with some product issues so she just set out all her wines and left us in the cellar to taste our way through! As with most of France, the wine in this region is ridiculously inexpensive!
When we arrived back home Alain and Anna and two teenagers had arrived from Paris. We had a big table for dinner that night at the restaurant Relais de Riquet, also on the Canal du Midi, but the part of it that goes through our town. 

Each time I've come with these friends to one of their August holidays, Luke always does a huge market shop at least once a week. This time I got up early and joined him, Mel, and Charlotte for the market day in near-by Revel. The Saturday market here takes over the entire town square!

Of course there are all sorts of fresh fruits, vegetables and cheese. But this market also had some vendors selling prepared food like paella, steamed mussels, and aligote!
Luke filled the minivan full of flats of produce while Mel, Charlotte, and I bought bags of pain au chocolate and wedges of cheese. Being a market lover, it was well worth getting up early for!

This part of France is known for cassoulet; a hearty dish of beans, sausage, and duck confit normally eaten in the fall and winter. However as we were in the same town as one of the most highly regarded cassoulets in the country, the six of us girls headed to Hostellerie Etienne so that this American could eat cassoulet in the middle of summer.
We weren't the only ones, the outdoor terrace was full of French folks eating this amazing dish. Sounds so simple, right? It's anything but. Forest was nice enough to share this with me. It's also the first time I'd seen an actual "cassole" the clay v-shaped dish with a special notch in the side for a spoon.  And in case you happen to be in this region, the restaurant sells bake-at-home versions! I grew up with take-and-bake pizza. Not-the-same.

After many bottles of wine, one of the guys came and picked us up (honestly don't remember which one!) and we went back to the house and had cheese for dinner. As you do.

I was so taken with those cassoles that I just had to buy one! Jennifer led Forest and I to Pottery Naurouze in neighboring Montferrand. I bought a small one that serves 4-6 for 7 Euros!!!
mine at use at home!
I love that on these vacations everyone pitches in. One night the boys grilled up a bunch of sausages and ribs and Mel and Naoise made a cake for dessert!

One morning, before we all hit the pool for the day, Forest made bloody mary's with meat straws I had brought from Seattle, while Anna made a huge brunch of truffled soft scrambled eggs, bacon and potatoes.

Thibault made delicious gyoza for lunch one afternoon, while Forest made Pad Thai for 13!
I took my turn and made tacos, beans, and slaw one night, using tortillas, black beans, and canned chilis I had brought from home (they don't sell that stuff in France!).

Of course there were always pool drinks that everyone took turns doing!

And one day Spencer removed an absolutely gigantic spider from the ceiling of my bedroom. Jesus!

On one of our last nights us girls had a big, fun, drunk dance/singing party out by the hot tub, under the amazing Milky Way. I think we broke some furniture. It's fuzzy. But I know it was fun! And there were so many stars!
The last night we had worn ourselves out and we were all in bed pretty early. It was such a wonderful week, spent laughing, singing, eating, and drinking with people I feel lucky to know and don't see often enough.
The next day Thibault, Forest, Jennifer, and I drove to Toulouse and caught the train to Paris. It was a high-speed train and travelled 300+km/hour through fields of sunflowers, corn, lavender, and the wine country of Bordeaux. A lovely end to an absolutely wonderful vacation. Merci mon amis.

All photos from Southwest France here.

Wednesday, July 25, 2018

Long Weekend, NYC

Trip date: September 2017

Sometimes one of my friends says "let's meet in NYC and check out that exhibit at The Whitney", and away I go...

I flew from Seattle, non stop on Alaska Air and arrived at midnight in Newark on a Wednesday. It was a quick 30 minute Uber into the city at that time of night with hardly any traffic.

I had booked a deal I'd seen on Travelzoo at the Iberostar 70 Park Avenue Hotel right near Grand Central. My stay didn't get off on the best of terms as I had booked a King room but was given 2 Queens. #firstworldproblems I know. It took a bit of "discussion" with the night manager but I was rewarded with $30 in mini bar credits, a full bottle of red wine, and a move the next day into a King mini suite.

The hotel is a bit older and the bathroom could have used an update, but it was a good location for my stay, nice sized room, and my Travelzoo deal made it very affordable. Something one can rarely say about a hotel room in NYC.

My friend Aaron arrived early the next morning and we hit the ground running for our long weekend in the Big Apple. First up, lunch! The two of us had started with an insane list of bars and restaurants to check out, and since we both love eating and drinking everything and everywhere it was hard to whittle it down. I'm so glad that The Grill made the cut!

The space is super old-school opulent. White table clothes, hushed voices, oversized booths. I loved it as soon as I walked in (and found Aaron at the bar! ha!). We had champagne, a lovely Burgundy, steak tartare, and I had this bougie Club Sandwich.

Afterward, we headed over to the MOMA for an exhibit of Frank Lloyd Wright. It was a fascinating collection of about 450 drawings and models primarily for ideas that had been rejected. I mean, you know you are something special when a museum exhibits your "no, thanks." work!

We ran around a few other rooms at the museum, showing each other some of our favorite works (Mondrian's Broadway Boogie-Woogie, Henri Rousseau's "The Dream", Miró's The Hunter, Chagall's I and the Village...) One of my absolute favorite museums, such an amazing collection!

It was time for a drink! We stopped into The Modern at the museum for a quick one and then across the street to the over-the-top Baccarat Bar for another. Next stop Brooklyn via subway to meet my friend Meg for one more round at Leyenda. Fabulous and gorgeous drinks here!
Aaron and I were making a night of it in Brooklyn. We met his friend Alana for dinner at Olmsted and had a really great meal, including the much talked about watermelon sushi!

It's a great restaurant and a lot of the produce is grown in the backyard, which you can stroll around and check out. If you are headed to Brooklyn, I'd say this is a don't miss spot!

We weren't quite done with the borough yet, we went on a bit of a tiki crawl. First stop Diamond Reef followed by Super Power. Both were solid but of the three that night, Leyenda was my favorite by far.

The next morning I met Aaron at the Whitney for the Calder Hypermobility exhibit (and the reason for our trip). This was so cool! Basically, a collection of Calder mobiles that were being "activated" by a member of the museum on a published schedule. It was super fun to see these objects moving as they were designed to.
I'd never been to the Whitney before so we also went through the permanent exhibit. So many American artists that I know nothing about!
And the café offers some stunning views of NYC and surroundings so don't miss heading out on the patio if the weather is nice!
Lunch time! We had reservations at the newly opened Le Coucou and we were both very excited! We were greeted by a gorgeous entry way and led down the corridor into the restaurant. When the maitre de turned a corner I thought we were getting seated in the back of the house and was momentarily disappointed. And then he sat us at a table directly in front of the kitchen and the pass. Front row seats!
We had an amazingly decadent lunch with champagne, foie gras, tartare, Burgundy, quenelles in lobster cognac sauce, a cheese plate, dessert... everything was very good! Our service was a bit shaky (bringing our first course before wine was opened, etc.) but they were still pretty new also. I'd absolutely go back again. This space is sexy!

A quick Uber delivered us to Dante in Greenwich Village. This is a great place to do a little day drinking as they have an affinity for negronis and spritzs. Originally opened as a cafe 1915, the fun neighborhood spot recently was taken over by new owners and has earned a spot on the World's 50 Best Bars list.
There was a string band playing on that Friday afternoon, and we enjoyed the music while chatting with the super nice bartender. A wonderful way to finish out the afternoon.

I was VERY excited for our evening plans! Aaron, some of his friends, and I were taking the train 30 miles north of the city to Blue Hill at Stone Barns Farm. 1 Michelin star, number 11 on the World's 50 Best Restaurant list, winner of a James Beard Best New Restaurant Award, showcased on the show Chef's Table... renowned chef Dan Barber had stacked up the accolades! The restaurant had been on my list for years and now we were going!

When we arrived at the train station in Terrytown we grabbed one of the taxis waiting in the lot. He quoted us $20 but when we got to the farm he argued that he never agreed to that. It was a bit of a to-do and not the way any of us wanted to start our night. I'd suggest calling an Uber or going about getting confirmation of the cost in another way.

Of our table of 6, I was the only one who hadn't been before. We made our reservations online but one of my friends knows the somm so he kindly dropped her a note that we were coming in that night (you know who you are, thank you!).

Instead of a menu we received a little booklet that listed all the things they were harvesting that month. And then the dishes started hitting the table. So many delicious and beautiful little bites. Soooo many! We also had wine pairings.

After our twelfth dish or so, we were informed that we were going to be moved into the kitchen. We all expected that we were getting a tour as a lot high-end restaurants do. But when we arrived, they had one of the prep tables set up for the 6 of us to stand around. Wine was served and they explained that our next course would take place here. WOW!!!!

The kitchen was busy! There were stations of the most intricate plating happening and our waiter spent some time pointing out different areas to us (Chef Dan Barber was in the kitchen!). Then our course of sunflower stalk "marrow" was served. They had roasted it just as you would bone marrow, sooo interesting and good.
We returned back to our table for another few hours of food and wine. We never saw another table led into the kitchen and when I asked, they answered that it was just for us. Ok! It's good having friends who know people!

The space is absolutely beautiful in a high-end rustic way, the service is impeccable, the food is creative and delicious and right off-the-farm fresh. And it's also crazy expensive! We sat down at 8pm and left at 1am, so don't come if you are in a rush either!

We shared a Lyft back into the city which took about an hour.

The next day I slept in and then had the afternoon to myself. It was a warm, sunny September day, perfect for a walk to Madison Square Garden, my favorite Shake Shack location. Followed by some shopping at Marimekko and ABC Home (which has so much cool stuff and is absolutely dangerous!). I caught the last bit of the market happening at Union Square and then made my way to the subway and headed to Battery Park.
I had made reservations at the newly opened Black Tail for cocktails and was meeting Aaron, a couple of his friends, and my friend Meg for a few rounds of cocktails. The setting on Pier A is stunning, but you'll only get those views from outside so take a walk around before you head upstairs.

Inside Black Tail you are transported to Hemingway's Havana, Cuba. Sean Muldoon and his team (the same one's behind The Dead Rabbit) spent 8 months having the building and it's former bar and restaurant transformed into a museum of Cuban paraphernalia. But most importantly are the drinks, and they are damn fine!

We were presented with mini frozen daiquiris while we perused the menu, which is actually a book of stories and recipes. And then we all drank a few rounds of fantastic drinks; there is a great selection of both classics and originals. I'd suggest making reservations as the doorman was turning folks down when we visited.

We split up, with Meg and I heading to the Lower East Side for dinner at Wildair. They don't take ressies here so we had a bit of a wait which we did at 10 Bells Wine Bar.

Our dinner was so delicious! And the dishes are really unique, we had a really hard time deciding on which small plates to get. The standouts for me were the pasta with squash blossoms and crispy chicken skin, and the potato pancake with uni!
So much fun and so damn delicious! I was absolutely exhausted though so we ditched our plans for an after dinner drink and I went home and crashed!

The next morning I met Aaron and his friends at Hearth for brunch. Maybe it was because it was brunch, maybe it was because we had seriously had some amazing meals, but this place was just ok for me. Not bad in anyway, but I think there are better brunch options (does Coucou do brunch yet? haha!).

And then I was off to Newark in an Uber, which took entirely too long even though it was a seemingly quiet Sunday afternoon. Note to self, it is easier to take the train!

3 days
2 museums
6 restaurants
7 cocktail bars

Well done, us!

All NYC photos here.

Monday, July 16, 2018

Stockholm Captures

Trip date: June 2017

There's a lot to see in Stockholm, luckily it's very easy to get around on foot or on the subway. I did as much as possible on foot as the city to so incredibly beautiful!

One morning, after my delicious smorgasbord breakfast, I walked to Gamla Stan where the Royal Palace is and spent a couple of hours exploring. As Kungliga Palace has been lived in by the royal family since 1754, it was really interesting to see the different styles that various rooms are decorated in. It was also funny to see carpets rolled up, just out of way of the tourists, but ready to be unrolled for ceremonies and events, as this is a working palace!
When I exited the palace, there was a large crowd gathered. They were waiting for the changing of the guard someone told me. But it was after 12:15, the published time, and it just didn't seem to me that the Swedish Armed Forces would be tardy. A little Googling revealed they were on holiday schedule for the weekend and wouldn't be back until the next week. Saved me from hanging out for nothing.

Tickets for the Palace are good for 7 days, so it's worth it to go early in your trip and then come back to visit anything you didn't have time for.

I walked over one of the bridges into the neighborhood of Södermalm, normally a very hip and happening area I'm told, but very quiet on this Midsummer weekend Saturday.  Most things were closed so I just had a little walk around before finding an open coffee shop and grabbing a sandwich.

After lunch I met a friend of a friend who lives in town and he took me out on a tiny ferry to the island of Nacka. The sun had come out and it was a gorgeous afternoon, perfect for a boat ride! It was just a short 15 minute trip, with excellent views around the harbor.

We spent the afternoon relaxing in Adirondack chairs at Restaurant J, drinking rosé, watching the boat traffic, and chatting about life in Sweden. When the sun started to dip we waved a ferry down to take us back into town!

Technically Nacka is suburb of Stockholm and is super easy to get to, but it feels a world away! If you don't have time to go out to the Archipelago, or even if you do, I'd suggest a little trip out here on a nice afternoon.

Another day I skipped my hotel breakfast and walked to the Norrmalm area for one of the city's famous cardamon buns at Vete-Katten, a 90-year old traditional coffee house and bakery. It did not disappoint, and along the way I got to see more of this gorgeous city and also ran into a big market!
 It was another gorgeously sunny day so I continued my walk towards Gamla Stan, past elegant government buildings, museums, over a little bridge, onto a tiny island that houses Parliament, and finally back into the Old Town.

Since I now knew the schedule for the Changing of the Guard, I arrived and had an excellent viewpoint for the action. The band was great, as was all the pomp and circumstance. The best part though was running into the Royal Swedish Army Band, loading into their bus, as I was exploring some little lanes after the show!

I wandered, continuing around the tiny cobblestoned streets of Gamla Stan. Past little cafés, shops, squares... It's truly charming.

I made my way down to the waterfront, where old docked boats are now floating hotels, returning to the cathedral, which dates back to 1306.

It was lunch time and I was hungry, so I jumped on the subway and headed out to the Teatern Food Hall. My destination was Korvkiosk, chef Magnus Nilsson's, of the famed Faviken restaurant, hot dog stand. Only a Michelin starred chef would decide to also open a hot dog stand in a food court, right?
My dog was a traditional thin and snappy Scandinavian style hot dog. Not so traditional was the flatbread it came in, filled with pickled vegetables, salad, and a green goddess type sauce. It was totally unique, and quite good. The food hall itself is also quite unique as it is built in the round with riser seating, so that you are looking down like in a theater. And the food offerings from the other stands are super upscale and interesting too (although Korv has closed since last year).

I jumped back on the subway and got off at Djurgärden, where the Vasa Museum is located.

The entire museum is dedicated to the ship, which sunk in Stockholm's harbor and sat for 300+ years. The story isn't about the sinking of the ship (however they do explain all that) but about the preservation that occurred naturally in the cold waters, and the amazing effort made to find the ship and raise it whole!

I started with the 20 minute film that was a fantastic introduction to the Vasa and it's history. Then I joined a free 1-hour guided tour. We circled the huge ship, which the museum has been built around, as well as viewed it from different levels. We could also see the team of specialists who have been working since 2003 to research and catalog everything that was found onboard. The entire thing is truly fascinating!

Making my way back to the waterfront,  I stopped for a much needed Aperol Spritz at one of the dock bars, before heading to the grocery to stock up on licorice and sardines. The licorice in Sweden (as in Denmark) is ridiculously delicious!

The night before I had had a very traditional dinner of meatballs at Sture Hof, which once I was seated I realized I had eaten here on my first very brief trip to Stockholm! But that time when I ordered the meatballs they replied that they were OUT! So this time I was quite happy to dine on Swedish meatballs with cream sauce, lingonberry preserve, and silky mashed potatoes. This came with bread and butter which had caviar in it! And I had a lovely Swedish gin martin.
So on my last night in town I decided on more contemporary fare. I started with cocktails at the lovely bar Linje Tio located in the Hornstull area. They had a great selection of liquors, and a really good cocktail menu. I'd absolutely recommend this spot!

I then had an excellent dinner at The Flying Elk, a hip gastropub serving beautiful dishes, like this herring, egg, and onion dish served with new potatoes in dill and a beurre noisette. Stellar!!!

When I headed back to my hotel, it was another beautiful evening with light skies all night!

The next morning after breakfast, I went to the liquor store and bought a few of the fantastic Swedish gins I had tasted over the last days, before packing everything up. The liquor stores in Sweden are government run and only open on certain days so it's best to check the schedule in advance if you want to do any shopping.

I grabbed an Uber to the train station where the Arlanda Express has it's own entrance and super easy access to the tracks.

In 20 minutes I was at the airport and checking in for my flight to Iceland.  And shortly after that I had a lovely last lunch of skagen (shrimp salad) and a glass of wine at Pontus in the Air.
Stockholm was absolutely amazing! The shear beauty of the city, the islands, the amazing museums, restaurants, bars. Truly a city that has it all! I can't wait to go back and also explore more of the country. I got some good tips for next time from the locals!

All Stockholm photos here.

Other posts from this trip:
The Longest Day
My Midsummer Dream
30,000 Islands & Counting
Iceland Stopover