Monday, October 22, 2012

Murray Stenson Needs Our Help

I'm obviously not a cocktail blogger but since this little journal has a large majority of "cocktail" tags you can tell I like a libation. And so does Dayne. And so do most of our travel buddies. Because of this we rely on many recommendations from like minded connoisseurs and better yet, those in the biz, to aid us when we are on a world wide hunt for exceptional drinks.

No one has led us to more places, introduced us to more people and inspired more cross country and international liquor purchases than Murray Stenson.

Before this blog was around, Murray had pointed us to bartenders and bars in New York, Chicago, Boston, and elsewhere. 

Five years ago Murray pointed us to one of the only craft cocktail bars in London at the time, where we had our first 15£ drinks in a town of pints and gin and tonics. That bar remains a favorite and a recommendation to others heading across the pond.

Earlier that same year we traveled to New Orleans, where all things cocktail live, and rooted and cheered for Murray and Zig Zag as they won awards that put Seattle on the cocktail map. 
Murray & Amy @ Swizzle Stick
Three years ago while in Paris checking out a newish cocktail bar, I noticed they had a Last Word on the menu. When I struck up a conversation about the drink with the bartender she started to tell me about this great man named Murray from Seattle. I explained that I knew him and was going to be sure to tell him about the far reach of his resurrecting old cocktails. She was thrilled and he seemed amused by the retelling.

Later that same year we were in Japan and Murray asked if we could take friends of his, who were living in Tokyo, a bottle from him. We did and they also sent some bottles back for us and for him. We just served some of the Japanese brandy as an after dinner drink to friends last week.

These are just a few of the many, many, many connections and experiences we have had, being lucky enough to know Murray. Everyone has their story of his generosity, his kindness, his memory, his laugh. We are just two of thousands.

But the story now is this, Murray, like many others in the bar and restaurant industry, doesn't have medical insurance. When you have a cold, cut yourself or break a bone, that sucks. When you need heart surgery the suck factor increases tenfold. Murray needs heart surgery. And it goes without saying that he isn't able to work right now.

There's a MurrayAid Facebook page where you can find out about local events in which you will get to consume lovely cocktails at the finest bars and they will donate the proceeds. Please "like" the page and come join us at these events. There's also a Murrayaid.org site where you can donate directly. If you are lucky enough to know Murray or have heard a story about him I hope you will donate. And if you don't know Murray but are lucky enough to have ever met someone like this, I hope you will donate. As Dayne and I have found time and time again, it is a very small world, one that is made better by wonderful people.


Friday, October 19, 2012

Paris' Hidden Passages


One morning of walking was not going to take care of all the bread, wine, and cocktails, so on my last day in town Forest had planned a full day of exploring. A friend had sent her an article on the hidden passages of Paris so we set out to find these forgotten gems.
Paris
At the end of the 18th century, town planners build over 100 passages, covered shopping arcades in the spaces between larger buildings. These passages were a respite from the rain, mud and open sewage that the city was inundated with. They were beautifully adorned and many were connected, making them logical and pleasant routes for Parisians on their way to and from home. Time took its toll and many were forgotten, abandoned and left to crumble. Now only 20 survive, Forest and I set off to hit as many as we could.

We hadn't walked more than two blocks when we spied the Repetto shop, long known as the place for ballet shoes for professionals and also modern flats and heels for professional shoe shoppers. In we went and out we came, both with beautiful new patent leather heels. Ok, we are easily sidetracked.
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On the way to our first passage in the 10th we stopped at the smallest house in Paris. What had once been a passage of its own was turned into a ground floor shop with a room upstairs due to a family quarrel over possession. Blink and you could easily miss it!
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Passage Brady was our first on our list, it's comprised of Indian restaurants and shops selling fabric, spices, produce, etc. The first section of the passage wasn't covered and felt more like we had stumbled upon some cafe tables set up in an ally. The second section was more typical of the passages we would see throughout the day.
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We passed by but didn't go into the very Art Deco looking Passage du Prado, it's in the area of town where hundreds of hair extension salons are, you'll see the hair blowing down the streets. Weird. It is also just outside the arc at the Porte Saint-Denis.

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Over in the 2nd we arrived at Galerie Vivienne with it's stunning mosaic tiled floors and ornate architecture. The boutiques here, though closed for August, were very high end. We stopped in to Les Caves Legrand for a nice glass of wine and a peek around their cellar.

Across from Vivienne we stumbled upon two passages not on our list. Passage des 2 Pavillions, which was made up of only an adorable courtyard and two handmade shoe shops, and Passage Bourg l'Abbe which had many businesses but all of them closed.

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 We walked over to the 1st arrondissement and entered the recently restored Passages du Grand-Cerf, not far from Rue Montorgueil. A high end florist, a few antique shops and a cute little wine bar cheekily named Le Pas Sage (the naughty boy) all had residence.
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The Passage du Cair is not only a working garment district but it is the oldest of all the passages, opened in 1799. We passed store fronts of mannequins, bolts of fabrics and men pushing racks of clothing from one end to the other. There were many side passageways and a 2nd level with apartments above the shops.
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Passage des Panoramas is the second oldest, since 1800, and the first to have gas lamps. It has more than it's fair share of wine bars, including the much lauded Les Racines. It's bustling with locals and tourists alike and has a few separate branches that lead off in various directions.
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Exciting on Boulevard Montmartre, we crossed into the 9th and directly into Passages Jouffroy. Surrounded by touristy restaurants and shops this was the most busy of them all. Amongst other stores there is a funny wax museum, a store entirely for walking sticks, a book seller and two hotels, including a Best Western.
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And again here, when we exited we were directly across from our last passage, Passage Verdeau. It's easy to see how these connected the city. They are truly fantastic little spaces.
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I couldn't help notice more than once, that these passages were right near other things I'd been to time and again. Passage du Caire for instance, is just down the street from Frenchie Wine Bar. All these passages are hidden in plain sight, you just have to look for their entrances, and it was surprising that we found a few on our own once we started noticing. We found 10 and I'm planning on finding the other 10 in subsequent trips.

We ended our very full day of walking in another hidden spot, the back terrace of the Hotel Amour, were we each had a glass of something cool while surrounded by lush greenery.  

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All the passages photos are in here
- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Promenade Your Partner


Between all that lounging around in the South of France and all the good eating and drinking in Paris, I needed to burn off a few wedges of cheese! During my trip in 2009, on the way to meet friends at Le Baron Rouge in the 12th, I spotted a funny old raised train platform with various flowers and greenery. Forest told me it was the Promenade Plantee and I told her I wanted to check it out one year. Viola!
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The walk is just under 3 miles and almost spans the entire 12th. There is so much to look at! Like this building with the (many) reproductions of Michelangelo's "The Slave".
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Most of it is on this viaduct but at other parts you drop down to the ground and walk a bit past businesses and shops. The assortment of plants are super pretty and there's even a big bamboo grove.
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It takes you past, over and through interesting buildings, neighborhoods, tunnels and a larger park. It's a great stroll, especially if you have a couple of nice meals you are working off!
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Paris pics

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Monday, October 8, 2012

Hot Days in the South of France

Is there anything more romantic sounding than heading for a holiday in the south of France? Images of lavender and sunflower fields, tiny stone villages hugging hillsides looking down on great vineyards.

That is exactly what it is like and if you get the chance you should absolutely grab a few friends, rent a house or a chateau, and enjoy this amazing region. I was very lucky to go for the third time this summer and since I've visited a few of the regions' picturesque towns in the past, I was looking forward to just soaking up the sun and catching up with friends.

I flew into Paris CDG, upgrading to Delta's Economy Comfort section which was good for the money but not great, and caught the TGV train right from the airport to Avignon. It couldn't have been easier. Friends Nicola and Luke had generously invited me to come and join the fun at the house they had rented for the month of August when they heard I'd be visiting Forest in Paris.

Forest and Thibault picked me up from the station and we drove the short distance to Villeneuve les Avignon. I hadn't even really asked where the house was and it was funny to see that it was just outside the small town that we had lunch in the last time we were down there. Also staying at the house were Clidhna and Declan who I had heard about for years but somehow always seemed to miss them while in Paris.

It was hot as blazes and as soon as I was given a tour of the crazy house we'd all be sharing, lunch was served with chilled rose on the back patio. This was the first of a week of meals outside and it was fabulous.

I had planned to eat lunch and then take a nap to make up for the lack of sleep on the plane but one glass of rose turned into two and the cool pool was a stronger lure than the bed. That night we grilled hamburgers for dinner. In the south of France. Funny!

The rest of the week was spent very much like that first afternoon. I'd sleep in and get up to 90+F degree weather and immediately put on a swimsuit. Make some tea, have a croissant from the bakery down the street and then dive in the cool clean pool. We'd all lounge around while the cicadas made quite a din. There were races in the pool, diving contests and many trashy magazine swaps. We'd make a little salad for lunch, break out the rosie wine and return to the pool.

In the evenings Forest would make cocktails and we'd have them with an assortment of delicious cheeses and saucisson sec, the boys would fire up the grill or Nic would roast a chicken, Clidhna would put together a fabulous tomato salad and then we'd all stay up much too late chatting, drinking and sometimes singing with Dec acting as DJ (turns out the Irish love a good duet!).

I think in the week at the house I left it 4 times. Once, I walked to the grocery store for more wine. It was across the street. Another time Luke dropped Forest, Thibault and I off in the town center of Villeneuve les Avignons to enjoy a bottle of wine at a really good little olive oil producer, while he took the kids to a playground.

On my second day in town Nic had planned a girl's wine lunch in Chateaneuf du Pape at Chateau des Fines Roche. Declan was a gem and drove us giggly girls, which was about a 30 minute ride thru crazy, twisty, turny, tiny roads in Luke's car which drives on the wrong side! The chateau had an incredible terrace with stunning views of the surrounding vineyards and far off in the distance, Avignon.

We spent the next four hours tasting thru a few bottles of the regions best. The lunch was good but the wine was fantastic. We started with a pretty blanc and then moved onto the reds, the manager actually asked me who was driving as I ordered the 5th bottle. When I explained that we had a "driver" coming he was all too happy to grab another bottle from the cellar, the lunch service long over.

Dec arrived with Naoise and after a dish of icecream for the tot we made our way back to the house, now even more giggly with wine! If ever there was a perfect afternoon...

And the last time I left the house was the end of our time in the south. Forest, Thibault, Nic and I went for a lovely lunch on the banks of the Rhone River before 3 of us headed back to Paris. Thibault picked a great restaurant with a fantastic terrace and wonderful views of the partial bridge and the river. Le Bercait has a very traditional menu with all the southern flavors such as tapanade, ratatouille, artichokes, etc. It was the perfect ending to an incredibly relaxing and fun week.

Thanks to my friends for their generosity!! Until the next time!

Photos
- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Saturday, September 29, 2012

Bon Appetite (& Santé) Paris, Part Deux

Last year I enjoyed Paris in August so much that I decided to return again this year for a 3 day stay, after my short holiday in the south of France. Forest & I again played "who is open?" and came up with another fantastic lineup of restaurants and bars.

Drinking...

If you are looking for a view in Paris, and you'd prefer to have a glass of something nice to sip on while you're enjoying it, you can't do better than the two gems Forest found us.

The first is Ciel du Paris, on the top of the Tour Montparnasse. Dayne, Forest and I had gone years ago and after Forest heard they'd done a little remodel we decided to check it out again. The view is still spectacular, the drinks are still meh. So grab a glass of champagne and take in the sight of the Eiffel Tower which sparkles on the hour.
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The second view point is... drum roll please... the roof of the Holiday Inn in the St. Germain area. The bar, Le Quarante Trois, requires that you have a reservation for drinks. The drinks again are meh, but the almost 360 degree views are spectacular, I suggest them paired with a glass of rosé champagne.
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There are great drinks though, as Paris has grown so much with regard to craft cocktail bars. In year's past it's been more of a struggle to find a well made drink, now it's more of a struggle to get to all the great bars. Curio Parlor is by no means new, but I hadn't had a chance to check it out in the past so we dropped in for a quick nightcap one evening. From the same team behind the Experimental Cocktail Club, the bar has many similarities to their other endeavors. The thing that makes Curio unique is they are Europe's main Nikka Whisky bar, offering rare tastes from the brand's full portfolio.
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Swanky cocktails were also had at the posh Baudelair Bar inside the 5-star Burgundy Hotel, which sits in the center of the Places Madeleine, Vendome and Concorde. Sometimes it's nice to relax in the cool comfort of an air-conditioned hotel bar, decked out with supple couches and chairs, pretty artwork and fancy snacks. This was certainly one of those times.
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Eating...

Is there is anything better than a long, leisurely, ladies' lunch? I think not. Forest and I spent our first day back in Paris on the lovely terrace of Mini Palais at the Grand Palais. Right next to the Seine, just off Pont Alexandre III. This is a great stop if you are sightseeing in the area. We had fantastic service, drinks, wine and lunch, including these house cured sardinettes with a seaweed butter.
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There is seating on the terrace and also an interesting room inside for dinner. It's not expensive, considering the neighborhood and you can walk off lunch by doing a bit of shopping on the Champs-Élysées after.

In August, Le Comptoir, which is normally impossible to get a reservation at, doesn't take reservations. We showed up early and were told to stand in line under a red umbrella next to the street. Within 10 minutes we were seated outside on a sidewalk table and had a truly spectacular meal. This is going up with my experience at Agape Substance (which is just down the street) as one of my favorite recent dining experiences in Paris. The food is very French traditional but with a twist, for example my roasted marrow bone with caviar, petit peas, favas, puree and foam. Oh. My. God.
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Also Le Comptoir has the largest portion cheese plate I've ever seen in France. What was meant to serve just one could have been enough for four easily. Believe the hype about this place.

Lunch at Saturne was another great restaurant experience and another case where the hype matched the menu. We had the 3 course 37€ menu (they also offer a 5 and 7 course option) and started with some lovely jamon noir and bread. I was excited to try the veal tartare and it was delicious if a tiny bit bland. My fish with cockles, mussels, zucchini and these tiny halves of baby corn was both beautiful to look at and delicious to eat! Interesting desserts with odd flavored ice cream and strawberries finished off the meal.
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A last evening dinner at, still new kid on the block, Les Jalles had us batting a thousand. The elegant dining room was modern and traditional at the same time. Service was not perfect but they were trying to be. And the food was artistic as well as delicious. My lovely last meal included foie gras, boeuf au poivre, and these gorgeous potatoes fried in goose fat.
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Both...

Tacos in Paris? I know, I know but since I wanted to check out Candelaria (we'd gone twice last year but wasn't able to get in) and we'd had a leisurely lunch that ended late in the afternoon, it was the perfect stop for a light dinner.

This tiny hole-in-the-wall in the 3rd looks like it belongs in Southern California. White walls, a 5 seat communal table, a handful of counter seats and a large grill make up the entire space. Upon entering you need to walk to the very back wall to find an unmarked door which will lead you to the cocktail bar. Inside you'll find an equally tiny bar. The menu has a great selection of house specialties and if you ask for the Reserve Menu you'll be given a small phone book of creations from many of the world's best bartenders.
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You can get an order of guac and chips in the bar but if you want tacos you'll have to give up your seat and head back out front. You can, however, order a cocktail in the bar and they will bring it out to you in the restaurant.

Prices are cheap and the food is actually very good. My only gripe was that the tortillas could have been griddled a bit longer. Our favorites were the hongos tacos (mushroom and cheese) and the nopal
tostada. 
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All Paris photos, including more food porn, are here

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad
Location:Paris, France

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Snorkling with Sharks!

We decided to do only one excursion while in Punta Cana, although there were many day trips to choose from, as we really just wanted to enjoy the beach and pools at the resort. We also chose an afternoon excursion because the last thing I want to do on vacation is get up early!
We met with the representative from Olympus Tours to book our snorkeling tour. We were picked up in the lobby of our resort and after two more pick ups we drove about 30 minutes to the Marinarium Resort. We headed out to the reef, which was a short but entertaining catamaran trip, and the crew divided beginning snorkelers from advanced. This was great as we ended up getting more time in the water and also got to venture off farther.
The reefs had a fair amount of brightly colored tropical fish darting around, mainly on the smaller size with a few parrot fish chomping loudly on the coral. There were lots of brain coral, which I don't always see, and tons of spiny urchins. As we swam about there were also lots of tiny jellyfish! I hate jellyfish and was a bit worried about getting stung but luckily no one did.

After about 30 minutes of exploring, our guide ushered us into the large ocean pens which house a half dozen or so nurse sharks. Nurse sharks are generally docile and they'd rather hide under coral reefs than chase after people. But even knowing this, and having dove with black tip reef sharks in the past, the sight of the sharks was a bit nerve wracking. Also nerve wracking was Dayne who immediately went chasing after them!

We swam through four different pens, each with nurse sharks, sting rays or a combination of the two. In the last one we got to hold a stingray. I'd done this way back in the day during a trip to Grand Cayman but it was still awesome. They are much heavier than they look and their skin is strange. And slippery. If you rest your forearms just under the water some will actually swim right up and take a swim break!

Back on board our catamaran, the staff passed out rum & cokes and beers while we sailed down the coast of Bavaro and Cabeza de Toro. When we reached what they call "Paradise", a warm and shallow area of the ocean, there were at least three other boats anchored, all their passengers in the water having a big "pool" party. It was awesome!
We all joined in, the staff of our boat strapped floaty rings to their drink trays and the floating bar was open. I really can't tell you how incredibly warm, clear, clean and awesome the water was. And there even was a crazy drunk, basically nude woman on one of the other boats, all too happy to be the entertainment for the afternoon!

On the way back we spotted tons of red starfish in just this one little area off the coast. The staff gave a lesson in making Coco Loco's and also dancing the Merenge. It was a very relaxing and fun way to spend the afternoon! And then it was back to the Majestic Elegance Resort...

Punta Cana photos here

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Paradise... Punta Cana

Generally our trips are a bit adventurous, cultural, active, or even illegal but every once in a while it's nice to just go someplace beautiful and chill out, and for me that is always on a beach. Since our Cape Cod beach vacation got rained out, I booked us an all-inclusive get-a-way to Punta Cana in the Dominican Republic for our 9th wedding anniversary.

Just like our Iceland long weekend, this was a total steal that I found through Travelzoo.com. The package consisted of round trip air from Miami, airport transfers and 5 nights in a junior suite in the all-inclusive (all food, all drinks) Majestic Elegance. Additionally we chose to upgrade to the "Elegance Club" in which we had exclusive pools, bars and a beach without children, our own butler, a couple of concierge lounges with computers, snacks and drinks, private check-in/check-out, etc. etc. All of this was $2100 total for the two of us (that included trip and hurricane insurance).

The resort was lovely with huge open atriums, perfectly kept gardens, exceptionally clean and warm pools and beaches. We went in knowing that the food was going to be mediocre (which is was) and that the booze selection would be scant (which it was) but the other amenities more than made up for those things and we had a fantastic time.

We loved the Bali beds, both on the beach and by the pools, the swim up bar, the sand that was like sugar, all the nice newlyweds and the funny little casino where Dayne more than doubled his money. I had a very good massage in the spa one afternoon. And of course the Brugal rum flowed like water.

The resort hosted a White Nights BBQ on the beach one night, where we had our first taste of the local shot called mamajuana, a sweet blend of rum, honey, herbs and bark. Another day a few of the staff came around to everyone in our private pool area with a bucket of the brew on ice and shot glasses to hand out. Ah the stress of vacation.

And for those who wanted, there were nightly "shows" ranging from karaoke to live jazz. We chose to end each evening with a nice martini in the big open lobby bar.
We didn't see any of the country really, and I know that there are certainly some interesting areas. But for us it was a wonderful, relaxing vacation and I'd absolutely go back to enjoy those beaches again, the best I've ever been on!
All photos from our Dominican Republic trip are here.