Sunday, April 23, 2017

Beef and Basque

Trip date: November 2015

Northern Spain Trip Day 6

We arrived in Bilbao after dark and checked into the Hotel Ercilla. Although the hotel had a great location, it felt like an anonymous business hotel, lacking the charm or ambiance some of our other hotels on this trip had. It did have a bar, and while I waited for the others to get ready for dinner I enjoyed a nicely poured gintonic.

A few of our tour mates decided to pass on dinner, so a smaller group headed to La Gabarra, a casual steak house near by. Their massive ribeyes, or chuletone as the cut is called in Spain, were perfectly cooked and delicious. The sides were no slouches either; simple white asparagus with mayo, some of the best croquetas, and a lovely tortilla Espanola. Dinner was followed by custard and honey and Pacharan, a delicious liqueur made from sloe berries. 
Day 7:

The next morning we walked to the Guggenheim Museum and wandered the galleries. Unfortunately, the 3rd floor was closed which is where the gorgeous Rothkos are that I love. It had been 11 years since I was last in this part of Spain but I still remember standing in front of those and being incredibly drawn to the saturated colors. 

We did, however, get to see the famous Jeff Koons Puppy, which happily sits in front of the museum, being planted which only happens a few times a year one of the "groomers" told me. 
It was time for lunch! We were all super excited to make the 40-minute drive to the 2-starred Michelin and #6 of the World's 50 Best Restaurants, Asador Etxebarri in the beautiful little town of Axpe.
This goes up there on my list of most memorable and favorite lunches of all time. It's a good list including standouts such as Paris' l'Astrance and Passage 53 , Vienna's Steirereck im Staadparkand of course most recently Copenhagen's Noma

We were seated in a semi-private room and welcomed with a cup of house-brewed beer. Our tasting menu consisted of 15 small to medium sized courses, various wines mainly from the region, and an order of the biggest percebes I have ever seen!

Everything was delicious and the service was over-the-top spot on! Standouts for me included buffalo milk cheese with honey, house salted anchovy on toast, prawns roasted in their shell, artichokes with wild mushrooms, and the steak. Oh lord the steak!



It sounds silly to say that Etxebarri is both known for their masterful grilling and for using the best, fresh ingredients, but it's true. You can taste the depth of flavor in Chef Arguinzoniz's dishes; superb to say the least. If you are in this region it would be a terrible shame to miss a meal here. 
photo credit DocSconz LLC
Our 4-hour lunch came to a close and we boarded our van, trusty and patient Antonio driving us on to San Sebastian during sunset.
We were staying at the Pension Casa Nicolasa right in the middle of San Sebastian. Our room had a cute little balcony and decor with just the right amount of hipster modern. I really liked this place!

I was so excited to be back in San Sebastian! I remember it being incredibly beautiful, small and easy to navigate, and having the most delicious pintxos (the Basque word for tapas). We started our first evening by trying a selection of Spanish vermouths at Gorriti Taberna, located in the square across from our hotel.

From here we walked through town and down to the stunning Concha Beach; one of my favorite sites.
After well-made gintonics at the Museo de Whiskey of all places, we started our pintxo crawl. San Sebastian in particular is well-known for their food. Although almost everything is always good everywhere, each bar has an item they specialize in and locals know that you get that and maybe one other thing and then move on to the next bar. And that's just what we were doing!

First up was La Cepa, an institution and one I remember from my last visit. Txakoli wine was poured and a few plates were had, including some lovely padron peppers.

We continued down the street to Cuchara Telmo whose dishes, while still small, are quite substantial. Telmo is best known for their seared foie gras with apples dish and it did not disappoint!
Last on our stop was Ganbara where our hosts John and Gerry knew the owners. We had delicious gildas, wild mushrooms with raw egg yolk, and the star of the show- artichoke hearts with seared foie gras. Swoon!
I really loved this last spot!
It was 11:30pm on a very delicious food-and-wine-packed Wednesday and so we headed back to the hotel to sleep. More Basque fun was coming up tomorrow!
All Basque photos here.

Other posts on this trip:
Northern Spain Food & Wine Tour
Shellfish & Grapes in Galicia
On the Move in Galicia
Shooting Sidra in Asturias

Thursday, April 20, 2017

San Francisco Work & Play

Trip date: September 2016

Have laptop will travel- my friend Lorraine had some business to do in San Francisco and nicely invited me along. We booked a room at the Kimpton Sir Francis Drake using my Friends & Family booking code and her corporate card. A good collaboration!

Lorraine wouldn't arrive until that evening so I took an Uber pool from SFO to the hotel for just $20. Upon check-in, the hotel upgraded us to a larger 2- queen bedroom which was great since the rooms in San Fran tend to be small!

Although I would be working each morning and afternoon, I planned to spend my evenings checking out a ton of places that have opened since I was last in the city- 6 years ago! And first up was lunch at Kin Khao!

I had an absolutely delicious cocktail here as well as a huge plate of amazing Thai food. The 'Pinto Market Lunch' was a combo platter of sorts with green curry and rabbit meatballs, salad, pickels, riblets, chicken broth, and rice. Even though my dish allowed me to taste quite a few things, I'd love to go again with some friends and order the entire menu!

That evening, after I had finished some work at the hotel, I headed to ABV for absolutely awesome cocktails. This cool neighborhood bar is owned by Ryan Fitzgerald who I hadn't seen in years, luckily he was there and I got to catch up with him a bit. My bartender Donnie could not have been better, making me a great off-menu drink called The Late Check Out with gin, sherry, lemon, passion fruit, Campari. He also shared some suggestions for me in the city.


Lorraine was finally in town and we met for dinner at Foreign Cinema. This place is so cute, we were seated "outside" in an interior courtyard of the building which was meant to resemble an old fashioned drive in. Unfortunately, our food was really unimpressive and with so many great places in town, I wouldn't recommend this one.

After dinner cocktails were had at Trick Dog. We could not have had a better time here. They are known for their creative menus and as this was just before the US elections, the menu looked like campaign buttons and the drinks had humorous names. Trick Dog isn't all show though, our cocktails were absolutely delicious and the presentations are impressive. Bonus as some guys bought us our first round!

The Sir Francis Drake doesn't provide coffee makers in their rooms but there is a Starbucks next door for morning latté needs. For lunch, I found a cute little wine bar called Aquitaine while walking around Union Square. Duck Reuben sandwich. You need one of those!

I worked the lunch off with a bit of walking and shopping before meeting Lorraine back at the hotel for the Kimpton's evening wine hour.

Cocktails started that night in North Beach at 15 Romolo, which looks like an old western saloon but has great upscale drinks.

From here we walked to Comstock Saloon, on the edge of Chinatown, which doesn't look anything like a saloon but more like a pretty little speakeasy. It was busy and we were lucky enough to snag a window table. The menu here focuses on classic cocktails which I am always a fan of!

We continued our walk into Chinatown and found our dinner destination Mister Jui's on Waverly Place. The fairly new restaurant is doing a modern take on Chinese banquet style dishes. The space is absolutely gorgeous and the food was amazing!

We chose the four-course menu and were super thrilled with the flavor and presentation of each of our dishes. You pick an item from each section; our pig's head, sizzled ling cod, Maine lobster custard, and shrimp fried rice were all fantastic. HIGHLY recommend!

We decided to have after dinner drinks at the Tonga Room inside the Fairmont as I had never been. Watching the band play on a stage in the middle of a fake lake, while business conference attendees awkwardly danced with each other, drinking sticky tiki drinks, was hysterical. Unfortunately the drinks here aren't very good so we were one-and-done.

It was an easy walk down the hill to our hotel and Harry's Starlight Room was calling for us to continue our "tacky bar" tour. We headed to the top of the Sir Francis Drake, had another single drink while watching the fog roll in and the white-people dancing continue. We made a final stop downstairs at the Beefeater Bar before calling it a night. Phew!

The Kimpton has a restaurant connected to their hotel called Scala which I had lunch at the next day. The food was ok but the service was just bad- I was sitting at the bar. I'd skip this as there's better and much less expense places to eat in the area.

When I was finished work for the day I decided on cocktails at Bar Agricole in the SOMISSPO area. The bar had a really interesting small selection of booze and a nice "Aperitif Hour'. There's also a really lovely looking outdoor patio.

I was meeting Lorraine at State Bird Provisions for dinner. We didn't have reservations as we were trying for the Chef's Counter, so we got there a bit early, put our name in and had a drink next door at The Progress.  I'd love to go for dinner here next time, it was super sweet inside and the service was great.

State Bird is fun and utterly delicious. There is a menu to choose from but then trays and carts will come throughout your meal offering small dishes like mini corn muffins with duck liver mousse and house-made chips with a salmon dip.

I loved this dinner and would absolutely recommend!

I was very excited to try Martin Cate's new-to-me gin bar Whitechapel after dinner that night. The space is beautiful and very large. So is their inventory of gins from around the world and some even made just for them. We sat at the bar and unfortunately had an extremely rude bartender who really could not be bothered when we asked questions about the different choices. She also only handed us the short list bar menu even when I asked if there was a larger tome as I had heard about.
Luckily some people next to us gave us the big menu and a new bartender stepped in who was happy to answer questions and provide tastes. It's such a shame when a server can almost ruin a nice experience though.
Lorraine and I both worked from the room the next day, taking advantage of free room service breakfast that had been offered to us when we found our room hadn't been cleaned the day before. We finished our work over mimosas, packed up, and checked out- leaving our bags with the front desk.

One last lunch before we caught our flight home; I really wanted to try the Chinese fried wings at San Tung's. It's not close to downtown but they were delicious and worth the Uber fare.
It was Friday night and I was headed home to play for the weekend! And maybe have a salad!

All San Francisco photos here. 

Sunday, April 9, 2017

36 Hour Parisian Birthday Party

Trip date: December 2016

The morning before my birthday I woke up early and headed for the airport. The twelfth annual New Year's Eve trip was about to start but first I would be spending five days in France. It was on the way after all.

I had a 45-minute flight from Seattle to Vancouver, on which I was given a new boarding pass as I boarded for seat 1D. I'm always happy with a free upgrade no matter how short the flight! In Vancouver I found the Business Class lounge and helped myself to some champagne and dim sum; I've never seen dumplings in an airport lounge before!

I was flying 1st class on Air France to Paris and the flight cost A LOT less flying from Vancouver, something I will be keeping in mind for future trips. The Air France lay-flat seats were some of the nicest I have been in so far. There was a little cupboard built in to keep my things in, complete with a mirror on the door. There were also slippers! A cute Tumi toiletries bag was passed out, filled with products, as were glasses of Billecarte champagne. Happy birthday to me!

I enjoyed my 4-course dinner with wine pairings, watched a movie, and got a great night sleep. Upon arriving at CdG, I was able to use a special lane for passport control and was out to the cab queue in no time.

Normally I take the train from the airport but since I was bringing Christmas presents with me I had 3 bags instead of 2. There is a 55Euro flat rate into the city and as it was about 9:30am the traffic was really light. And it was really fun to drive under the Eiffel Tower on the morning of my birthday!

While I was in the taxi I had a text from my friend who I was staying with asking me if I wanted a warm croissant. Is there any other answer besides yes??? As I pulled up to my friends' apartment there was Thibault crossing the street carrying a bag of fresh croissants. Now that is a birthday breakfast I'll say!

Forest came home from work around lunchtime and the two of us went to a nice little Peruvian restaurant in her neighborhood for lunch. Ceviche, a few glasses of wine, and a birthday dessert compliments of the restaurant, with my best friend in my favorite city.

That evening Forest and I had cocktails at Le Syndicat, a really cool bar using all French ingredients in their drinks. Great music, great space, and excellent drinks. And the bartender sent us some nice vermouths to try as we tabbed out.

The birthday dinner plan was to go to Bourgogne Sud with a small group of friends for a casual and classic French meal. One of the girls had graciously invited everyone over to her lovely apartment for pre-dinner bubbles. It was so fun to see everyone, including getting a chance to meet Nicky's mom who had just arrived that day from Ireland. And before we all continued on to the restaurant, Nicky's daughter Naoise played the piano and sang me "Happy Birthday". So sweet!

The restaurant served really good Lyonnaise food, the ten of us drank many bottles of wine, and we did lots of catching up! Such a fun night and exactly what I wanted for my birthday.

Forest, Thibault, and I grabbed an Uber home, passing the pretty Christmas lights of the city, and Forest and I finished the night with martini nightcaps. As we do.

The next morning Thibault went out and returned with fresh warm croissants again. I was feeling spoiled for sure, but for him it was just a typical morning!

Forest and I had a little walk around her arrondissement's Christmas Market, picking up a few stocking stuffers and enjoying the decorations.

We had planned on doing a big platter of oysters for lunch at the 2-storied restaurant Cafe du Commerce but when we got there we were told they didn't have any oysters that day. I'm still not sure why but we had already ordered a cocktail so we enjoyed those and then moved on to Huitrerie.

At Huiterie we proceeded to order 2-dozen oysters on the half shell; the big flat shellfish so different than what I get in Seattle. Here they remove the top shell entirely (unlike what we had in London) but they don't free the oyster from the shell so you have to dig it out a bit.

The oysters were delicious, the bottles of wine were cold, and the restaurant was gracious to include a couple of raw cockles and clams for us to try too. I'd absolutely recommend this place in the 15th but it seems that they recently closed.

We went back to the apartment, met Thibault and hopped in an Uber to the Gare Lyon. We were taking the train to Beaujolais to spend Christmas with Thibault's family.

I absolutely love train travel and this was a great ride spent enjoying the scenery as we passed through tiny towns and vineyards, while sipping on some white wine Forest and I had brought along.

All in all a pretty wonderful birthday spent with people I don't get to see often enough!

All Paris photos here.


Sunday, April 2, 2017

Shooting Sidra in Asturias

Trip date: November 2015

Northern Spain Trip Day 5

Asturias Spain is home to cider or sidra as it is known, and we were in for a first-hand experience like no other. We checked into the Hotel de la Reconquista in Oviedo which was absolutely fabulous! At check-in they gave us a voucher for a glass of sidra in their bar. Judy and I enjoyed ours in the pretty common area while waiting for the others.
Once everyone was ready we were met by the local restauranteur Marino Gonzalez and were led on a great walk around the city, the buildings all lit up beautifully.

We then went to the uber popular casual cafe, Tierra Astur on Gascona which is basically "cider boulevard". They take their cider VERY seriously here and we were treated to glasses which were poured with great ceremony; the bottle held as high as the waiter could while holding the glass as low as they could. In Asturias, when you are handed a glass of cider you drink it all down in one go, no sipping politely!

We continued on to Gonzalez's popular grill restaurant for dinner. It's a cool space with hanging cider bottles and wood planked walls. Apples would know they were headed for the barrel or the bottle in here!

Another specialty of Asturias are beans and the dishes they use them in. I had my first taste of fabada (lush white beans slow cooked with chorizo, blood sausage, and pork belly) during dinner here. We all thought was good but this restaurant's dish would be outshined the next day. The fabada was preceded by some really great local cheeses and followed with huge grilled steaks (another specialty of the region). And wine. And lots and lots of cider, which of course you shoot down! The restaurant's floorboards have gaps between so that when the cider being poured spills there is less clean up. I mean that shows you how serious they are about their drinking!

Good food, good drink, and great fun!

Day 6

We checked out of our hotel the next morning and Gonzalez met us at his cheese distribution center where some of our cheeses from the night before we either made or distributed from. He is very active in supporting the Asturias culture, traditions, and products. This was one of the rare activities that we were all pretty bored with although the owner couldn't have been nicer and they sent us all off with some delicious cabrales.

Gonzalez took us next to visit Caseria San Juan del Obispo, an amazing cider and brandy producer on a beautiful farm.
We were shown around by owner José María Díaz who took us into the orchards,  explained the harvesting, the procedures, and showed us the tanks and the brandy stills. We tasted juice straight from the tanks and then he brought us inside where we tasted some of the areas delicious cheeses with his ciders and brandies.
Díaz was so passionate and hospitable, his enthusiasm was infectious. We all had such a great time here and to top it off, he let us all choose a bottle of either cider or brandy to take home!

Next stop was to another farm, this one owned by an artisan cheesemaker Isaura Souza Ordiales, Quesu Ovin.
Ordiales is making a variety of cheeses and walked us through the steps from the initial receiving of the milk, to the process of making the cheese, including choosing the right mold for each variety and aging them until the desired ripeness. Man I love me some good cheese!
We did all of this before lunch! It was time to sit down to a proper meal so our trusty van driver Antonio drove us to Canga de Onis where we sat down at Los Arcos. Now here is where I officially fell in love with fabada.
There were other things on the menu that day, in fact there was an amazing sparkling rosé that I wish I could find here at home. But the fabada was the star of the show!

We strolled around the town after lunch and found a touristy shop selling all sorts of food items from Asturias. I bought a "fabada kit" with the meat cryovac'ed for storage, as well as some of the areas famed beans.

We continued our walk across the river for this ridiculous good-bye view of Asturias. It had been a good day!

All photos of Asturias here.
Other posts on this trip:
Northern Spain Food & Wine Tour
Shellfish & Grapes in Galicia
On the Move in Galicia
Beef and Basque

Saturday, April 1, 2017

Best Restaurant in the World?

Trip date: July 2016

A long time ago, my now-ex told me he would plan a surprise trip for me to dine at Noma in Copenhagen. That never happened, so when I heard the restaurant was closing this year I suggested to some girlfriends that we try to get reservations. On the first try my 3 girlfriends all logged in at the appropriate time (they are all in Europe, it would have been 1am on a Monday morning for me) and quickly were discouraged by their place in the reservation queue being around number 3,000.

The next month, when the reservation online opened, they all duly jumped in again without much hope. But luck was with us, or rather with Kate as she was the one who scored, and we were locked in for a lunch reservation in July!

Noma served its last meal in February 2017, sitting at number five on the World's 50 Best Restaurant list. A 2-star Michelin, it was ranked #1 in the world in 2010, 2011, 2012, and 2014. That's a serious pedigree! They plan to reopen in a new space, with a new concept, and I'm sure I'll want to go and check it out. But I was and am thrilled to have dined in the original!

Forest, Kate, and I arrived a bit early and were shown into their bar and set up with some rosé. Caitlin and Sarah joined shortly after that. It was nice having a chance to relax and watch the other diners come in. A friend had told me that as each party initially arrives every staff member who is in the vicinity of the door gathers and welcomes them. This is the only time it happens! I thought this gesture was super sweet.
We had a lovely round table right in the middle of the dining room, great for people watching from all sides. There were diners who obviously had been before, many armed with serious cameras, some on fancy dates, others seeming like they were just out for a typical lunch. At roughly $500 per person all in with extras, that isn't going to be my typical lunch any time soon!

When I spotted Chef Redzepi chatting with the guys at a table in front of me it was like a star sighting and I made Caitlin pose with him behind her! I'm such a chef geek!
I have a handful of friends who had eaten here before, and although the dishes change there were also some staples that I was happy to see. First up was a gorgeous rose made of rhubarb and seaweed.
I like to joke that the "new Nordic cuisine" is basically about eating moss and rocks. We have the lovely Willows Inn close to Seattle where Chef Wetzel, who worked at Noma, has served me some lovely food in this style. But I actually laughed out loud when the "vegetable platter" was set in front of me. Moss and rocks!
Luckily we were told not to eat the rocks, but to enjoy the flatbread (which looks like a twig) with ant paste, a pickled quail's egg, and a black currant berry. Great presentation, and not my first time eating ants either!

Three of us opted for the wine pairings while two did juice. The wines were really interesting, some natural, and the pairings seemed spot on.

A few dishes were just absolute stand-outs, either visually, flavor-wise, or both. The Radish pie was so beautiful to look at, so delicate, with an overwhelming radish spiciness. I loved how you think "oh look at this cute little tart" and then, BAM! Radish!
This "light stew of fruit and vegetables" had both cherries and fava beans, two things I would never think to put together. And if you look you can see that the "stew" has actually been painstakingly arranged. Fantastically delicious and beautiful!

Another dish that the majority of us really found wonderful was the Lobster, lavender, and rose oil. These petals of onion were cooked sous vide (I'm guessing) and then artfully charred. The lobster was barely cooked, there were just tiny lavender buds, and the rose oil was such a slight hint but was a perfect accent.
I felt almost guilty eating the wafer-thin crisp of wild roses and Danish peas, each pea having been individually peeled! Almost...
Another "don't eat the rocks" presentation arrived, and this one was the crowd favorite I believe. Steamed king crab and egg yolk sauce was rich and decadent without being heavy. Man, I want to eat this again!
There was a dish consisting of a variety of charred greens that we were invited to taste individually to experience the differences of bitterness. And a beautiful turbot with shrimp as the last and pretty hearty main dish. I chose to get up and get some fresh air at this point. I was full!

When I came back they started the dessert courses. I'm not one for super sweet things so the "dessert of sheep's milk and ant paste" was a nice transition. Then "grilled rose ice cream and elderflower" ice cream bar was as delicious as it was whimsical with its twig stick.

The next dessert was actual moss, and we were told to eat it! Reindeer moss, which Forest and I had  fed to reindeer in Lapland, was chocolate coated and served with mushrooms that had been dried and covered in chocolate as well.
The final dessert was an egg liquor, which was a little like nog but reminded me of something very similar Forest and I were given in Berlin years ago, served alongside a dish of beautiful wild berries.

Lunch had started at 1pm and we left our table at 4pm. When I talk about dining as entertainment, this is exactly what I'm talking about. 16 courses, at lunch! The restaurant is the stage, the dishes each scene. Bravo!

But Noma wasn't done with us yet! The five of us were then led on a tour of the kitchen, the private dining area, the lab, the outside grill area, and the upstairs kitchen where rhubarb roses were constructed and ants were picked through by interns.
And then we met the man himself! Chef Redzepi was speaking to some other diners and the gentleman giving us our tour said we should probably go since he didn't know how long they would be. I replied that I had flown from Seattle to Copenhagen specifically for this lunch so I was fine to wait!
When I told Chef that I was from Seattle and had just been speaking to Chef Wetzel at Willows, he got super excited and wanted to know all about the dishes he was doing. He was genuinely interested and spent a nice amount of time chatting with all of us.

After our tour we were invited back to the bar to finish up with a round of schnapps. Hygge!

I had such an awesome time at Noma; the food, the service, and the company were all top! It's a memory I'll cherish for a very long time!

All Copenhagen photos here.
Other posts from this trip:
Danish Days
Hygge Time!
An American in Bornholm
Dinner in the Middle of the Baltic Sea
Last Days in Copenhagen