Australia 2017

The flight from Hong Kong to Sydney is overnight, and takes about nine hours. Dani had a rough night in coach, with three infants nearby, but Linda and I were able to get some sleep in business (thank you frequent flyer miles) and arrived fairly refreshed.

We checked our bags at the Quay West Suites and walked around downtown Sydney, getting Dani some wake-up coffee, and eventually ending up back at our old favorite place in the Westfield Mall, Chat Thai, for some delicious no-frills Asian food. We also picked up some glassware so we could have a proper cocktail hour in our room with Pamela, and picked up a bottle of her favorite scotch and some Champagne at a vintage wine shop.

Back at the hotel we checked in and discovered this room, number 3601, was even bigger than the one in Hong Kong, with two full bedrooms and an office! The view also rivals that in Hong Kong. I highly recommend Quay West Suites for all Sydney visitors, because of its location and rooms.

You can see the Opera House during the day, and fireworks on some nights. From Dani’s room you can also see the Sydney Harbour Bridge.

Those are fireworks to the right of the Opera House.

For dinner, Linda found an Italian restaurant called Intermezzo that was quite good.

The next day Pamela arrived, and we had a nice time catching up with her. We had a simple lunch as Creperie Suzette and then walked around Circular Quay, bought Opal cards for the ferries and busses, and got Pamela checked into the Four Seasons across the street.

For dinner we walked to Quay, at the end of the quay, overlooking the Sydney Harbour Bridge. Dani and I went here six years ago and weren’t very impressed by this supposedly three-star Michelin restaurant. My opinion is unchanged, but it has a great view!

Those are seagulls swirling around the bridge tower catching bugs. It’s the first time I ever saw a seagull work for food.

Of course, the first thing we needed to do in Australia was pet a kangaroo, so the next day we Ubered to Featherdale Wildlife Park (our third visit since 2001). It seems like since our last visit you are a bit more separated from the animals, which as I recall were often climbing into your jacket, but there is still lots to see and do.

We had a forgettable lunch on the way back to Syndey at George’s Gourmet Pizza. For dinner we tried a new place, The Gantry, which is around the end of the point, still in walking distance. They don’t really have much of a view, but the five-course tasting menu was terrific, and about a third the price of Quay!

The next day Pamela checked out to get ready for a lunch she was hosting for us at her country club, and we headed for the Australia Museum. We wanted to take a photo in the same spot as on our previous two visits, to show how Dani has grown, but unfortunately about half the museum is closed for rehab, and we had to settle for a picture in front of the giant sloth.

The major impression one takes away from the museum is still that there are a lot of things in Australia that can kill you.

On Sunday we took the ferry up the Paramatta River to Breakfast Point. It was an absolutely gorgeous day on the river.

We had a delightful lunch with Pamela and her family at the country club, and then stopped briefly at her condo so Linda could see it.

Andrew, Brett, Wendy, Steve, Linda, Dani, Sandra and Pamela at her apartment. (Pamela’s cousin Janice was also at lunch).

We stopped briefly at her condo, and then took a car back to the city for a pleasant dinner nearby at Sake.

The next day I was ready for a rest and to get caught up on the computer, but Linda and Dani went on a wine excursion to the Hunter Valley. I’ll let Linda describe that in my next post.

Posted in Australia, Dani, Dining, Linda | Comments Off on Australia 2017

Hong Kong’s Peak

Guest post by Dani.

Hong Kong 2017 – Day 6

We had to check out of the hotel at 1pm, but our flight to Sydney wasn’t until almost 9pm, so we had a whole day to spend in the city. The only problem was we didn’t want to get super sweaty before a 9-hour flight to Australia.

Dad decided to stay in the hotel lounge and catch up on his computer work. Mom and I contemplated going to some antique shops we’d passed earlier in the trip, but ultimately decided to check off one more touristy item from our list and take the funicular tram up to The Peak for a last view of the beautiful city.

The tram has been running since the late 1800s but has gone through a few refurbishments over the years. The last round returned it to a retro look.

Fortunately, we didn’t have to wait too long in the queue even though the weather was clear. The journey up is so steep the floors are slanted to help people keep their feet. We sat, but it was still pretty extreme! I used the level function in my phone to estimate the incline and the steepest part was about a 30-degree angle. 

The top was a touristy mall that we basically ignored. Instead, we crossed the street to have lunch at a lovely restaurant called The Peak Lookout. It’s been serving refreshments since 1947 and has an eclectic menu to please any palate.

We ate nachos and tandoori chicken and drank Australian chardonnay in an English tea garden on top of a mountain in Hong Kong. It doesn’t get any more international than that! Lunch was delicious and very pleasant (except for a butterfly that got trapped in the solarium with us and terrified Mom).

After lunch we went for a lovely amble along a flat and shady path on the side of the mountain. We couldn’t see how far down the trail went after it started to descend, but we suspect it might have gone all the way to the bottom.

We went up onto the 360-degree viewing platform on top of the mall that was included in our ticket (it was hot and not very inspiring).

We descended via the funicular and again struggled to get a cab back to the hotel to meet up with Dad. Eventually we made it and collected our bags.

A nice driver loaded us and our luggage into a van and took us to the airport. The Hong Kong airport is enormous. There are literally hundreds of gates spread out over miles of hallways.

The super duper lounge my parents were entitled to was on the other side of the airport, so we all made do with the regular lounge our American Express cards get us access to. They served food and I had a decent bowl of noodles (just in case the flight didn’t include dinner).

Though sad to leave Hong Kong, I felt like we’d seen a lot of stuff during our stay. I’d been keeping a little black notebook of interesting sights gleaned from my review of the guidebook on the flight over. We crossed many of them off!

Posted in Dani, Hong Kong, Linda | Comments Off on Hong Kong’s Peak

Ngong Ping Cable Car

Guest post by Dani.

Hong Kong 2017 – Day 5

Today we were tourists doing touristy things on Lantau Island. Many companies offer guided tours but we decided to roll our own adventure based on the sights/activities I read about in the Lonely Planet guidebook.

Po Lin monastery and the Buddha statue are located at the top of a mountain on Lantau Island. It turns out getting there is more than half the fun.

The most scenic way to go is to take a 20-minute cable car journey from Tung Chung (a city near the airport) up to Ngong Ping (a touristy village with souvenir shops).

The views were stunning.

We sprang for the “Crystal Cabin” which had a glass floor.   It was neat to be able to see through the floor but it actually didn’t inspire much vertigo, perhaps because we were seated on regular benches.

We also downloaded their guided narration to accompany the journey up. A dry English narrator imparted a few interesting facts about the construction of the cable car towers.

It was quite a feat of engineering. Donkeys were needed to cart supplies up the mountains, since many places are not accessible by vehicle. The number of towers was also reduced to lower the environmental impact. That’s also why there’s a funny turn on airport island instead of a tower built in the water.

The cars weren’t air-conditioned, but they had air vents built into the sides and top which funneled a lovely breeze through the cabin and kept things nice and cool. Below our feet, we could see a long trail winding up and down, populated by a few brave hikers trekking up to Ngong Ping on foot. The most impressive sight was the Big Buddha in the distance as we approached the top.

Close to the terminal, Mom looked through the floor and said she could see a “ball,” or maybe a “bowl,” but I didn’t figure out what she actually saw/said until a bit later (see below).

Ngong Ping was (as expected) a tourist trap. But it was a nice tourist trap. We had an incredibly oily lunch before heading to the monastery and the Buddha statue.

On our way out of Ngong Ping we saw a cow in a planter! All that time Mom had been saying she’d seen a “bull.” And then we saw a whole herd of cows resting by the side of the path. They must belong to the monastery and appear in thousands of selfies a day.

Mom and I decided to hoof it up the 260 steps to see the Big Buddha up close. We tackled the 16 flights a few at a time, pausing frequently to let Mom (definitely Mom, not me) rest.

We made it to the top (eventually). We discovered stunning views of the South China Sea and a cool ocean breeze that felt heavenly. There were many tourists taking selfies, but there were also a large number of people praying.

The Big Buddha was quite impressive and an engineering marvel. It took almost 10 years to complete, and ended up made of thin bronze sheets cast to fit over a framework. Artisans overcame numerous obstacles to cast the Buddha’s face as one sheet so no seams marred his serene visage. He did look very peaceful.

We headed back down and rejoined Dad to explore Po Lin monastery.

 

Mom observed it was fascinating to study the architecture because it’s in a style we’re used to seeing only shiny and new at a theme park or old and behind glass in a museum. This was a real, working monastery (evidenced by the chanting we heard drifting from a private building towards the back).

After wandering around for a bit, we headed back to the village and discovered one of the cows wanted to go shopping (aka stand in the shade). A local lured him out with an apple.

We got cold beverages with the most appetizing names.

The Pocari Sweat was basically just Gatorade. The Jelly Grass Drink wasn’t terrible. It was a bit earthy and there really were cubes of gelatin in the bottom (which made for an interesting consistency). It reminded me of an aloe drink I had once.

Mom and I indulged in some retail therapy and purchased a few souvenirs and gifts. Before we left, we ordered egg waffles (made to order) to try out street food Dad was interested in. Mine was chocolate and I was a big fan.

We were all a bit touristed out so we decided to skip Tai O fishing village. Instead, we took the cable car back down the mountain.

We made great time on the MTR back to Hong Kong island, but then waited fifteen minutes for a bus that runs every seven minutes, only to have it skip our stop. Then we had incredible difficulty finding a cab. We stood at a cab stand for more than 30 minutes watching cabs with “out of service” signs whiz by.  We were cutting our 7pm dinner reservation at Pierre pretty close since we all needed to shower.

Fortunately, they didn’t mind pushing it back for us.

Unfortunately, the meal was terrible.

Here’s Dad’s Yelp review of the experience (I’ll let him eviscerate it in his own words):

Pierre offers a lovely room with a great ambiance and view. It’s the kind you’d expect to find in a top rated restaurant. Unfortunately, the view is about the only thing that is top rated about it.

At a price equal to or above the nearby Amber and l’Atelier, it’s hard to imagine anyone returning to Pierre for a second visit. The six-course tasting meal we had was, frankly, poor. There wasn’t a single stand-out course, and no one in our party had more than a taste of the grouse entree, which had a very unpleasant bitter taste. Mine even still had a piece of lead birdshot in it.

They’ve tried to make up in quantity what they lack in quality, with a half dozen small plates bearing amuse bouche at the start, and another half dozen plates of dessert at the end. But not one of them was truly good. It’s as if they’re firing scattershot, to see if they can hit anything.

Service was also hit or miss, with the wine list not even offered until the food began showing up, and empty water glasses sitting for long stretches of time.

At about $10,000HKD for our party of three’s food alone, this must be one of the worst buys in the city. And the wine prices are just as unreasonable.

Posted in Dani, Dining, Hong Kong, Linda | Comments Off on Ngong Ping Cable Car

Hong Kong’s Cat Cafe and Amber

Guest post by Dani.

Hong Kong 2017 – Day 4

We started our day with a leisurely breakfast upstairs and debated what we should do for the day. Yvonne warned us Sunday would be very crowded. Despite that, we briefly considered going up to The Peak, however it started to pour while we were still at breakfast so we thought better of that plan.

Instead, we decided to relax and hang out in the room for a bit before venturing out for lunch.

Originally, I was interested in visiting a rabbit cafe, which is exactly what it sounds like: a cafe where you can hang out with rabbits. But a quick Google search revealed they were currently engaged in a legal battle over their lack of having a food license. So we scrapped that plan too.

Finally, we settled on The Cat Store, a cat cafe located near a part of town called Times Square. The rain stopped around lunchtime, so we grabbed a cab and headed out. The cab driver said that since it was Sunday some of the streets around our destination were closed to vehicular traffic, but that he could drop us of nearby and point us in the right direction.

The drive took us east into Wan Chai, which didn’t seem dramatically different from Central. The Times Square area was quite busy with tourists and locals alike, but the cab got us within spitting distance.

The Times Square neighborhood was fascinating. It was different than any city we’ve been to because, block by block, it fluctuated between high-end designer stores in sleek modern buildings and much more modest (even decrepit) buildings with a mix of commercial and residential.

The address of the cat cafe led us to a six-story building in the middle of a short block. Having learned our lesson at Yum Cha, we realized the address was on the 3rd floor, though it was strange that the building seemed to be mostly apartments.

The entryway to the building, the hallway, and elevator did not inspire much confidence. They were somewhat less than glamorous. Seedy is the word that came to mind.

But we persevered and found the door to the cat cafe, which turned out to be a charming little shop. It was cozy, tidy, and packed with people. All the tables were taken but the hostess said we could come back in about an hour and a half and she’d reserve us a table.

To kill time, we wandered around the shops nearby for a while, ultimately ending up in a mall across the street. We could actually see the cat cafe’s window from over there, so when it looked like there were empty tables we repeated the journey through the world’s strangest elevators and returned to get our dose of fur therapy.

We only saw one cat curled up asleep when we arrived. Understandably, the cafe has signage requesting that patrons refrain from bothering sleeping or eating kitties. Patience was required.

We ordered some food; again the criterion was cute things shaped like cats. I chose garlic toasts, toast with chocolate sauce and sweetened condensed milk, and cat-shaped butter cookies. I mean this as a compliment, but Mom grills leftover hot dog buns in butter and the garlic toasts bore a remarkable resemblance to that. The butter cookies were excellent.

Dad had homemade caramel ice cream with apple and graham cracker dust. Mom had a smoked salmon pizza (with corn?!).

While we waited for the cat to wake up, we enjoyed going through the literature on the table. All but one of the cats were rescues, and in case you’d never seen a cat before, there was a handy-dandy guide about how to pet them.

Most of the other patrons were families there with their daughters, so we fit right in. Of course, the other girls were all about 6 years old, but so what?

At long last, a cat emerged from slumber and joined the party. His name was JJ and he liked to talk. He had a raspy little mew and though he complained a lot was very patient with the little girls (including me).

His activity spurred lunchtime and the opening cans woke two other cats. The cats are permitted in the kitchen, which horrified one table of guests, but I figure there’s been at least one cat in the kitchen at home my whole life and it hasn’t killed me yet. Plus I got to pet kitties.

We headed back to the hotel for the rest of the afternoon. Though it wasn’t raining anymore, the clouds continued to whiz by. I took the opportunity to film some time lapse of Victoria Harbour.

After a couple hours we dressed for dinner and headed to Amber, which was recently ranked the 24th best restaurant in the world. It lived up to the hype!

Our table was lovely, nestled in the back corner of the restaurant with plenty of elbow room.

The food was exquisite and the wine pairing was incredibly educational. It included six wines, all from Burgundy.

The only problem is I never finish a wine pairing, and apparently in this culture leaving wine on the table is even worse than leaving food on your plate. But since all six glasses totaled up to more than a bottle of wine, I would have been on the floor if I tried to drink it all. Other than the worried looks that caused the staff, it was a lovely meal and managed to top L’Atelier (which I wasn’t sure was possible).

Posted in Dani, Dining, Hong Kong, Linda, Wine | Comments Off on Hong Kong’s Cat Cafe and Amber

Visiting Hong Kong – Tips for Travelers

Hong Kong is perhaps the easiest city in Asia for English visitors. Its more than 150-year history has left a legacy of English signage everywhere. Most people speak some English, and many speak it fluently (the exception seems to be cab drivers!)

Hong Kong is both a province and an Island. The island itself is where most of the tourist hotels and sites are, and the Central area is only about a mile square, so it is compact, to say the least. Most of Central is very walkable. A lot of it is built on land filled into the bay in the past 100 years (much of it recently) so that part is flat. The more historic area rises steeply up the hillside, but there are steps and even a very, very long escalator.

One tricky thing is that some of the main roads are impossible to cross at ground level, so you may have to look for an overhead walkway to get where you’re going.

In addition to Hong Kong island, the other major areas of interest are Kowloon, a business district right across the bay, and Lantau island, the next island over, where the Hong Kong International Airport and Disneyland are located.

All of the islands are connected by bridges, tunnels, and ferries.

Getting Around

Transportation in Hong Kong is very easy and very inexpensive. The cabs, which are red, are readily available anywhere there isn’t a double yellow line along the curb, and particularly at the many taxi stands.

Taxi fares are incredibly cheap. The base fare is $24HKD, which is $3USD.  You can get most places within Central for just this base fare. Even going to Kowloon is less than $10USD. A taxi ride all the way to Disneyland or the airport on Lantau is only about $50USD.

Even more economical is the MTR, Hong Kong’s version of London’s tube. The trains are ultra-long, new, sleek, clean, and run on time. Train fare is incredibly cheap. Hong Kong to Lantau is under $3USD.

MTR station at Tung Chung on Lantau – that “bug” is the MTR logo

There are several main lines, red, orange, green and blue being the most useful to tourists. Navigating the system using Google Maps or the very clear signage is easy, and signs in the train show you where you are graphically, and how you can connect.

You use the MTR Octopus card to ride the MTR. Just load it with funds from your credit card. It’s best not to get the tourist day pass, as that is overpriced and doesn’t work everywhere the real Octopus does.

MTR Octopus Card

You tap your Octopus card on the way in to the MTR, and again on the way out.

The card also works on the buses (which are all clearly numbered) and the double-decker electric trams that run on the major streets in Hong Kong island. It even works on the Star Ferry from Hong Kong to Kowloon. The Ferry fare is about 30 cents!

Hotels

The best place for tourists to stay is near Central Hong Kong. For example, the Landmark Mall is in the midst of things, and has an attached Mandarin Oriental. There is also the original Mandarin Oriental just two blocks away. Don’t mix them up! There are also many other nearby hotels, including the Marriott and Shangri-La. We loved our room at the Grand Hyatt, but it is attached to the Convention Center, about a mile away, and is a short but arduous multi-level walk from the MTR station and bus lines.

Dining

Many of the best restaurants are also in the area. One of the top restaurants in the word is Amber at the Landmark Mandarin Oriental. l’Atelier’s Hong Kong location is also at Landmark. (We hated Pierre, at the other Mandarin Oriental.)

Of course there are lots of places to sample the local Cantonese food, which you will find fairly similar to Chinese restaurant food in the US. The dim sum is probably the best bet.

Here are some good prospects:

Things To Do

A walk through Central, especially climbing the steps up to the mid levels, will reveal lots of local fruit, vegetable, and meat markets. Check out the Soho district, south of Hollywood Boulevard, and all the antique shops along Hollywood.

Take the ferry or MTR across the harbor to Tsim Sha Tsui for views looking back at Hong Kong Island.

Take the MTR to Tung Chung on Lantau Island to ride the cable car up to the Big Buddha at Ngong Ping. The view on the way up is spectacular.

Another good view, right on Hong Kong Island, is achieved by taking the Peak Tram funicular to the top of Victoria Peak.

Weather

If you think Orlando is hot and muggy, you haven’t been to Hong Kong! It’s that and more. We saw lots of locals walking around holding a personal fan under their chins! You don’t want to be in the sun, so bring an umbrella for both rain and shade. Better yet, visit in January or February when the temperature (but not the humidity) is much more pleasant.

It’s a great city. Enjoy your Hong Kong visit!

Posted in Hong Kong | Comments Off on Visiting Hong Kong – Tips for Travelers

Hong Kong History Museum and Yum Cha

Guest post by Dani.

Hong Kong 2017 – Day 3

This morning we had a leisurely breakfast upstairs. Dad had avocado toast with a poached egg, Mom had smoked salmon (as always), but I went rogue and tried all the unusual dishes, including chicken bao (with mustard) and congee (a rice porridge with various ingredients and toppings).

Yvonne told us many people work a half day on Saturday so it actually isn’t a bad day to  do touristy things. Sunday, however, should be avoided at all costs. Given that, we decided to venture out to the Hong Kong History Museum in Kowloon.

Our taxi driver had to take a very roundabout route to get there (imagine trying to get from 4 o’clock to 2 o’clock but going the long way round). We also ended up on the opposite side of the building from the entrance, but once we did manage to get inside it was blessedly cool.

It’s a wonderful museum. Their exhibits are arranged in chronological order, starting with the beginning of time with the formation of the islands from shallow seas to volcanos to all the various types of rock formed along the way. The ground floor also covers pre-historic Hong Kong, the earliest people to live in the area, and the ebb and flow of various peoples throughout the early dynasties of China.

The aesthetic design was lovely. They created numerous environments to give you a flavor and general impression of what the time period in that particular exhibit was like.

We saw lush jungle forests, sandy beaches, grocery stores, sailing ships, rice paddies, and towers of buns.

The exhibits were very interesting, and didn’t suffer from Too Many Words syndrome (again, perhaps because everything has to be presented side-by-side in two languages).

The museum flow allowed you to wander at your leisure but provided directional signage suggesting a chronological path. It was fairly easy to focus on the things that piqued your interest and gloss over those you found boring.

The ground floor was enormous. The exhibits just kept going and going and going… And then we discovered there was another entire floor dedicated to Hong Kong’s history since the British took over.

There was a really interesting graphic about land reclamation in Hong Kong

Toward the end of the timeline, my parents began to encounter items they recognized from their childhoods’ (many toys in particular, like slot cars).

By the time we finished going through the museum it was past lunch time and I was quite hungry. We had dinner reservations that evening but definitely needed a light bite. I pulled up Google Maps and discovered that Yum Cha, a dim sum place famous for their cute buns, was quite close. Though not big dim sum fans, my parents indulged me and we set off.

The walk was relatively short, but we had some difficulty finding the place. The map told us we were right on top of it, but it was nowhere in sight. Eventually, we deduced it was on the third floor and found an elevator.

Despite not having a reservation, they seated us right away and gave us the dim sum menu (which works very much like ordering sushi in the states).

My major criterion was that it had to be cute.

We succeeded admirably.

I liked everything.

Dad did not.

After our mid-afternoon snack, we took the train across the harbor, but couldn’t quite figure out how to walk to our hotel through all the various levels and construction sites, so we cheated and got a taxi.

We relaxed in the room for a few hours and then headed to Joël Robuchon’s Hong Kong outpost of L’Atelier.

As always, the meal was phenomenal, each dish a delightful combination of flavors and textures. Dad also ordered excellent wines!

 

Posted in Dani, Dining, Hong Kong, Linda | Comments Off on Hong Kong History Museum and Yum Cha

Hong Kong Central Tour

A guest post by Dani.

Hong Kong 2017 – Day 2

A rather impressive thunderstorm woke me up early. The rain drops clattered against the window and there were several long rumbles of thunder. I’ve always thought thunder sounded different in Orlando and Chicago. In Orlando, it’s deep and rumbles and rolls for a long time. In Chicago, it’s more of a crack and it dies down quicker. I’ve always thought it had to do with the tall buildings and large body of water reflecting the sound in Chicago. But here, thunder sounds more like it does in Orlando. So perhaps it’s the air temperature that has more of an effect. It was a muggy 85 already at 6:30am.

Fortunately, the forecast predicted the weather would clear up by 9ish, which is when our walking tour with Little Adventures in Hong Kong started. This company offers small private tours (capped at 3 adults) that can be tailored to your interests.

We asked for a mashup of their “Essential Hong Kong” history tour and the street food frenzy, “Won-ton-a-thon.” In my initial communications with them, I tried to emphasize a focus on food over history. The end result turned out to be reversed, but that was just as well (which I’ll explain in a bit).

We took a cab from our hotel to the lobby of The Pottinger hotel where we met our lovely guide, Yvonne. Her life story is incredible. I’m not sure where she was born, but she went to boarding school in London, college in the US, lived in Wisconsin and Philadelphia, lived in East Africa working at a museum, traveled extensively, and settled in Hong Kong about 10 years ago. She studied anthropology, worked at several museums, but also worked as a film editor and a journalist. It was hard to keep track!

She was incredibly knowledgeable about the history and layout of the city. We explored a few areas of the Central district, including Soho (south of Hollywood street) and the Mid-levels.

Since we hadn’t had anything to eat yet we headed off for food.

Along the way, we stopped to admire the menu of a Cantonese restaurant, that wasn’t open yet. We stopped for a couple of reasons. First, history. The sign said they had been proudly serving since 1860. However, Yvonne explained they hadn’t been serving that long in Hong Kong. They were refugees from China.

The history of Hong Kong is punctuated with waves of refugees from China, fleeing from communism in the 50s, and then from Mao and the Cultural Revolution in the late 60s and early 70s.

The second reason we stopped was to hear a funny story about how this restaurant’s signature sauce became known as “Swiss sauce.” An Englishman came into the restaurant and ordered chicken wings in sauce, which he really loved. He asked the waiter what the sauce was called. In an east meets west misunderstanding, he heard “Swiss” though the waiter was trying to communicate that it was a “sweet sauce.” It would have ended there, except the Englishman settled nearby and continued to return to the restaurant ordering the chicken wings in “Swiss sauce.” Eventually, it stuck.

Our first bite on the tour turned out to be more of a gulp. We went to Tsim Chai Kee, a noodle shop. The owner insisted we take a nice booth in the back of the restaurant because it was cooler. She was very friendly and chatted away with Yvonne in rapid-fire Cantonese.

Yvonne ordered us three types: beef brisket, fish balls, and shrimp (or prawn in this part of the world) wontons. The bowls were enormous!

The large portions were the result of a rivalry. This restaurant opened its doors across the street from a famous noodle shop, Mak Noodles (which only opens later in the day). Mak serves traditionally sized (i.e. snack sized) wontons. Tsim Chai Kee attracted customers by serving very large portions.

The bowls were packed with noodles and protein. Each broth was different and incredibly flavorful. The noodles were perfectly al dente.

The wontons were the most familiar. The mark of a good wonton is the thinness of the wrapper. A delicate wrapper is more difficult to cook, so it means you really know what you’re doing. Thick wrappers and the mark of an amateur. That bowl had the lightest broth.

The beef brisket’s broth was more savory and had a bit more umami flavor from the beef fat. The way the meat was cut is a bit different than what you get in the states if you order brisket. This was thinly shaved pieces of beef that didn’t fall apart.

The fish balls were the most foreign to us. The best way to describe the balls themselves is like a cross between a fish sausage and a fish meatball. Dace is ground up and mixed with herbs. They’re shaped into amorphous blobs and cooked (I presume in the broth), which was salty and herbaceous.

Yvonne also ordered us a side of steamed bok choi with oyster sauce. It was very delicately cooked and quite refreshing.

I enjoyed sampling each dish. In the US, we would have tried a few bites of each but left most behind to save room for other food down the road. But it turns out the downfall of a food tour in China or Hong Kong is that it would be very rude to leave food uneaten. It would be an insult to the chef’s cooking.

So I ate the fish balls, Dad ate the brisket and half of Mom’s noodles, and Mom ate the wontons. And we were stuffed. So it’s a good thing the tour was mostly about culture and history!

There’s no tipping in Hong Kong, so we simply told the owner how delicious the meal was (but since she didn’t speak much English, that mostly meant smiling and nodding a lot).

We rolled ourselves out of the restaurant and ambled uphill.

We passed a Chinese herb shop and saw someone wrapping custom blends of medicinal brews in brown paper packaging.

We turned off the main drag and passed a couple of dai pai dong (street food stalls). These used to be incredibly common in Hong Kong but are now endangered. The government didn’t think they looked modern enough and it was difficult to enforce health codes, so they passed a law that said you could only transfer the license to a blood relative. That meant if your son or daughter didn’t want to continue the family tradition, the stall died out. There are fewer than 20 food stalls left in Hong Kong. They used to be exclusively patronized by old people, but now that they’re in danger of disappearing completely, there’s renewed interest from the younger generation.

One stall we passed serves breakfast sandwiches made of shredded cabbage, peanut butter, and condensed milk. Dad and I would totally have tried it if we weren’t so stuffed and there were any tables available.

Yvonne had some interesting insights about the health and safety of the street food stalls. She said if you see locals eating at them you know they’re safe (and probably delicious) because these people are feeding their friends and neighbors. If they poisoned anybody they’d be out of business! Also, everything is bought fresh daily and cooked to order, so nothing sits around spoiling.

To emphasize her point, we turned the corner and were suddenly in the middle of Graham Street Market, one of the few remaining wet markets in Hong Kong (named that because their streets are often very wet). These markets are a mishmash of vendors selling fresh fruits, tofu, eggs, and other ingredients. Some things we recognized, others we didn’t at all.

The market was a colorful jumble or organized chaos. The patrons were mostly locals. Yvonne told us this market was more tourist/camera-friendly than some others because they’re currently fighting to remain open. That said, we were obviously tourists, and the atmosphere wasn’t exactly welcoming, more neutral. I suspect the locals felt about me the same way I feel about tourists when I’m trying to carry groceries on Michigan Avenue (“You may make the economy go round, but for the love of God don’t stop in the middle of the sidewalk to gawk!”).

Mom had a brief run-in with a cantankerous old lady when she tried to tie her shoe on the edge of her stall. In fairness, it was pretty decrepit and didn’t look like it was occupied.

Bamboo-scaffolding sprouted around construction sights all along the street market. That’s one of the reasons they’re fighting to stay open. Much of that area is being torn down and replaced with high rises, threatening to push them out. So far, they’ve dug in their heels and the local community seems to be supporting them.

At the top of the market, we turned to the right and walked along the meat and fish stalls. Each stall specialized in butchering only one kind of meat. The fish was also incredibly fresh (still flopping around in one case!).

The fish was also incredibly fresh (still flopping around in one case!).

After the markets, we passed a small Taoist shrine tucked in a steep alleyway amidst a jumble of residences and shops.

The incense coils burn slowly with prayers attached.

You can also light incense sticks and place them in bowls of sand. These should be done in groups of three, as prayers are sent up to heaven, earth, and humanity.

Yvonne led us through many side streets we never would have found on our own. We passed the historic YMCA. It’s a western-style red brick building, but to make it more inviting to the Chinese the roof tiles were made of green ceramic shaped like bamboo.

Many of the building had Door Guardian shrines, where offerings are placed. If the occupants move, the Door Guardian remains with the building.

We also passed run down or condemned tenement houses, another endangered Hong Kong sight. There’s a very large bias against old things in this city. The tenement style houses are very unpopular with the locals because of their age and lack of elevators. So many have been torn down and replaced with high-rises that there is only one row of livable houses left in all of Hong Kong! A small indie film made a few years ago (actually set in 1940s Kowloon) had to film on this particular street.

One reason these tenements still survive is that until fairly recently this district was a very undesirable location. Hong Kongers are a superstitious lot, and this sector was associated with death because of the plague outbreaks in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Locals feared ghosts and bad luck permeated the region. As a result, only things associated with death ( like coffin shops and antique shops – because antiques are dead people’s former possessions) populated the area. And the only people who lived there were poor. That history is slowly being forgotten and the neighborhood is in the process of being gentrified (hence all the construction). It will be interesting to see what the city is like in five or ten years.

Along the way, we did sample some more food (in smaller sizes). We had chilled sugar cane juice (refreshing but very sweet) and chilled five flowers tea (incredibly delicious and very floral).

We visited a British Candy Shop.

TAI Cheong Bakery is famous for their egg tarts. Chris Patten, the last governor of Hong Kong before it was turned over to China in 1997, loved these tarts so much he acquired the rather unflattering nickname of “Fatty Patten.” The tart was delicious, served warm in a buttery flaky crust with smooth eggy/lemony custard in the center. Ten out of ten would eat again.

Lunch hour is officially 1-2pm in Hong Kong, but restaurant lines become ridiculously long starting about 12:40pm. Since we still hadn’t quite digested all the noodles, we opted to finish out our tour in an air-conditioned English pub (which is actually very Hong Kong, given the colonial influence).

I had a Hong Kong summer beer, Yvonne had a traditional British witbier, Dad had an alcoholic ginger beer, and Mom had a virgin Bloody Mary (most importantly, with ice).

Yvonne gave us some recommendations for the rest of our stay. I decided to stick around and explore the area a bit more while Mom and Dad headed back to the hotel via tram.

Yvonne left me with directions to the Hong Kong Museum of Medical Science and deposited me onto the outdoor escalators that carry you up from Central to The Mid-levels. The escalators are about one story up, so you have an interesting perspective on the shops and restaurants you’re passing.

I was able to follow her directions right to the museum. The building was very similar to the YMCA in layout and design. Originally it was the Bacteriological Institute, Hong Kong’s first public health laboratory, founded in 1906 because of the plague outbreaks. The governor of Hong Kong pleaded with Britain to send an infectious disease specialist. Eventually they did, and the Institute was founded in 1906.

It was well done and didn’t suffer from Too Many Words (a problem many exhibits have). Possibly this is because every sign had to be in Cantonese and English.

The ground floor had exhibits on the human body, reproduction, and an interesting oral history of the SARS outbreak in 2003. Upstairs had historical displays and a well done video presentation about the plague outbreaks, which lasted almost 30 years (1894-1923). Senior medical students were tasked with dissecting rats to monitor the spread.

After the plague crisis, the Institute continued to test water, dairy products, and other sources to help prevent food poisoning. After the discovery of vaccines, they produced vaccines for several diseases (including smallpox).

Making smallpox vaccines was not very glamorous work. It involved strapping down a calf, shaving its belly, infected it with cowpox, and then taking samples.

After the museum, I went to Man Mo Temple, dedicated to literature and war. The temple is famous (basically, if you see a movie and there’s a Taoist temple, it’s probably this one). It’s being heavily renovated right now, which made for an interesting experience. The outside is completely covered in bamboo scaffolding but it’s still open to the public. The inside is also being renovated (though not quite as heavily). This means construction workers, tourists, and people praying are all jostling elbows.

After the temple, I headed back to a street we had walked along with Yvonne. I stopped at a local Hong Kong Chain, G.O.D (Gods of Desire), that sells locally made products: clothing, kitchen goods, and souvenirs. Then I started wandering back towards the hotel.

Google maps told me it was only about 1 mile, but I sorely missed Yvonne’s guidance about which streets slope up versus down, where pedestrian over- or under-passes are located, and how to navigate crazy intersections. This city was definitely not designed with pedestrians in mind and it would be a terrible place to be in a wheelchair.

It was a fascinating walk, though. The transition from old Hong Kong, with shabby local establishments, street stalls, and crumbling architecture, is replaced suddenly and sharply with gleaming towers of shiny glass and steel. You’d never guess the other part of the city existed in one place or the other.

There are also lush parks that mask the city. 

I wandered through one past the Former French Mission Building and St. John’s Cathedral. At the edge of that park, a right turn would have taken me towards Hong Kong Park and the Peak Tram, but a left turn took me towards the hotel (sort of).

It took about an hour, but eventually I wound my way through a maze of streets, overhead walkways, and buildings (blessedly air-conditioned) and found the hotel.

I found both my parents conked out napping. They had taken the tram home, but also had a long and complicated walk to get from the tram stop to the hotel.

For dinner, we stayed in the hotel, but sampled the Cantonese restaurant. It’s beautifully decorated and had mirrors everywhere (including the ceiling).

We didn’t have a reservation, so we ended up at a giant table with a large Lazy Susan. That actually made it very easy to share dishes.

The menu offered half portions, perfectly sized for us to sample several dishes. I don’t think I’ve ever been someplace where the portions were larger than America before!

We had a bbq meat sampler (with honey bbq pork and crispy chicken skin), prawns with chili roe sauce, tilefish and pea sprouts, crispy chicken, asparagus, and wagyu foie gras fried rice. Everything was very tasty (even Dad liked most things). We also had a fantastic bottle of wine, a 2010 Clos de Vougeot de la Vougeraie that Dad was extremely pleased with.

After such a full (and hot) day, I crashed as soon as we got back to the room.

Posted in Dani, Hong Kong, Linda | Comments Off on Hong Kong Central Tour

Hong Kong Disneyland and Kowloon

Dani is our guest blogger.

Hong Kong 2017 – Day 1

Our first stop in Hong Kong was (drumroll please): Disney.

Our taxi ride out to Hong Kong Disney essentially reversed our ride from the airport the night before. In daylight, it was much easier to appreciate how the islands connect to one another. There are some pretty spectacular city views along the way.

The ominous clouds from the morning did let loose a short deluge, though it was still sunny. That, combined with the heat and humidity, made it feel just like Florida. We weren’t sure how long it would take to find a taxi, so we played it safe and arrived very early for the backstage tour Dad arranged through some unique attractions.

Our guide Todd was a connection made via the former head of the French AMI outpost, Henry. Even better, we were able to add Glenn Birket to the tour (he arrived on time, being very familiar with the local transit options). Glenn is an old friend of Mom and Dad’s from Epcot days. He’s also my Godfather, though this was really the first time we’ve ever had a chance to get to know one another.

The park seems a bit small compared to other locations, but it is incredibly lush and tropical. Todd was a gracious host and spent several hours with us, walking us through the park and sharing some insider trivia.

Fun fact #1: The park was vastly over-planted, so every time a typhoon comes through and knocks down some trees, they just drag them out and turn them into firewood. They haven’t replanted a single tree since the park opened (and it’s still densely forested).

The park wasn’t crowded, in fact, it seemed rather empty. We thought perhaps it had to do with the threatening clouds and brief downpour, but it turns out…

Fun fact #2: Hellaciously hot September and October are slow months for HK Disney. But although Halloween is not a particularly big event in Hong Kong, it is a huge attendance draw (especially in the evenings and on weekends).

We saw that the park was already decked out with pumpkins, fall leaves, and trick-or-treat stations for the kids. It was also hot. Really, really hot.

Todd kindly lent us umbrellas since it was still drizzling when we arrived. However, by the time we entered the park the sun was out and steaming things up. I finally understand why people use umbrellas for portable shade. They help a surprising amount.

Our first stop was Mystic Manor (an attraction with some similarities to Haunted Mansion). The story follows Lord Henry Mystic and his pet monkey, Albert. Their story ties into the Society of Explorers and Adventurers from Tokyo DisneySea. Todd pointed out the real life designers, engineers, and composer who were featured in the pre-show “sketches” chronicling Lord Mystic and Albert’s adventures.

The ride starts when Albert opens their latest treasure: a music box. Legend says the box can bring inanimate objects to life, which of course it does, to disastrous results.

The ride vehicles are trackless, meaning they can go all over a room, including in circles, over and over again. This leads to a very interesting ride experience where your attention is sharply focused on particular elements at particular times. The show was cute and made excellent use of the ride vehicle’s capabilities.

We ate lunch at the attached restaurant, which served Korean, Indonesian, Japanese, and Cantonese dishes. Dad and I opted for the Indonesian vegetable curry. It was decent (by theme park food standards), but the roti were a bit indestructible. I did enjoy my watermelon juice (which would be called a watermelon fresca in the states).

After lunch, we continued our tour of the park, including a brief stop at an optical illusion that managed to make Mom look taller than me. That’s quite a feat of forced perspective!

Our final stop was the Iron Man simulator ride. The pre-show would be good for hard core Marvel fans because there are some cool movie props on display. Stan Lee also makes a cameo appearance in the safety video (which ran twice, once in Cantonese, once in English). Unfortunately, Stan Lee’s cameo distracted from important information both times!

The story is a bit thin for the 3D simulator. Like with all simulators, you’re there to watch a demonstration, something goes wrong (bad guys want to steal Tony Stark’s new arc reactor) and you have to help stop them and save the world (Hong Kong at least).

Mom and Dad got more of a kick out of the equipment room we visited after riding.

We elected not to stay in the park. Instead, we headed out with Glenn, who is very familiar with Hong Kong, so he could show us the ropes.

He showed us how to take the MTR, a train system that feels like a CTA-tube hybrid. It’s very convenient and reasonably easy to navigate (once you know the ropes).

We stopped briefly at Glenn’s office so he could introduce Dad to a few folks.

Then, we went on a mission to obtain a specific selfie-stick and micro-SD card for Dad. This involved a visit to Sham Shui Po, a district with a vast collection of merchants selling any electronic gadget, piece, or gizmo you could ever want. There’s an outdoor market, but we opted for the four-story indoor (and more importantly air-conditioned) option.

Dad found both items fairly quickly, though the sheer amount of stuff (and people) packed into the teeny tiny hallways was incredible. The experience reminded us a bit of Akihabara, the electronics district in Tokyo.

Mission completed, we hopped back on the train and headed to Kowloon (the island to the north of Hong Kong island). We walked down Nathan Ave (a shopping street) and past the famous Peninsula Hotel (sadly, we did not stop for tea).

As we went, Glenn shared some very interesting Hong Kong history and facts. A few memorable items included:

  • All toilets in Hong Kong are flushed with salt water – though it requires separate plumbing, this drastically reduced their water shortage problem, even as the city continues to grow
  • The construction scaffolding is often made of bamboo. There are special classes and certifications to make sure people know exactly how to use it, but when done properly, it can rise many stories and is very strong.
  • The district Glenn’s office is in used to be factories (from a time when everything was made in Hong Kong). After everything switched to being made in China, the buildings were repurposed into office buildings. Now, a global toy distribution company occupies many of the buildings where the toys used to be made.

We made it all the way to the tip of Kowloon and walked along the Tsim Sha Tsui Promenade, which is directly across the water from our hotel.

The view of Hong Kong island was stunning.

We took the famous Star Ferry across the water to the convention center attached to our hotel. The sun was setting as we sailed across, and it made a striking back drop for the skyline.

We relaxed at the hotel for a bit before going to the Japanese restaurant in the hotel for dinner. We had a nice dinner, which included a delicious lotus root and sesame oil amuse bouche, crab and seaweed salad, some kind of broth with a dumpling, 5 pieces of sashimi, wagyu, tempura, and a mini matcha bunt cake for dessert.

Posted in Dani, Hong Kong, Linda, Theme Parks | Comments Off on Hong Kong Disneyland and Kowloon

Flying to Hong Kong

Dani is our guest blogger.

Hong Kong 2017 – Day 0

Mom and Dad had access to a deluxe lounge in the airport before our flight to Hong Kong because of their business class tickets. They indulged in such wonders as buffet snacks, a full-service kitchen, and free-flowing champagne.

Flying coach, I ate a salad out of a plastic container at the gate.

Once aboard, though my accommodations for the next 16 hours were not as swanky, I was pleased to discover the middle seat next to me was unoccupied. This meant extra leg room (albeit on a diagonal) and a place to put stuff other than my lap.

Though it looked a bit like a prison tray, the lunch of teriyaki noodles with vegetables and a side of couscous was actually pretty palatable. I stockpiled the bread and butter for a mid-flight snack. I took an afternoon (Chicago time) nap for a couple of hours. After I woke up, I finished going through the Lonely Planet Guide Book for Hong Kong and watched a movie.

At this point it was time for another afternoon nap (this time on Hong Kong time). Mom offered to lend me a nifty contraption that converts between a square pillow and a neck pillow. It was actually pretty comfy and I managed to get a few hours of sleep. When I awoke the second time, I was pretty able to convince myself it was late afternoon… until they served breakfast. Oh well.

I had a window seat so I got to observe the mountainous islands that dotted our approach. One bridge was so long I couldn’t see the end!

After landing, our trip through immigration and customs was painless. Plus, the “priority” stickers a nice young man put on our checked bags in Chicago (thanks business class!) did their job and our bags were the first off the plane.

A limo driver from the hotel met us and stowed our bags away. In all that guidebook reading it never occurred to me they would drive on the left side of the road here! But it makes sense, given the British colonization.

The drive from the airport (at the end of Lantau) to The Grand Hyatt in Central (on Hong Kong Island) was a bit mysterious due to the gathering darkness. By the time we approached Kowloon and Hong Kong we could see the elaborate lights on many of the high-rises.

The lobby of the hotel was palatial, which is particularly impressive given that real-estate is so scarce in Hong Kong. Dad booked a beautiful suite with a killer view of Kowloon’s skyline. There was an entryway, sitting area, dining table, bedroom, and large bathroom (with an opening into the bedroom… I guess so you can admire the view while you shower?!?). Mom also discovered a small bathroom and closet off the entryway that just looked like part of the wall at first. There were an incredible number of doors in the room (six, not including the shower door).

The package also included free minibar snacks, drinks, some extra goodies delivered in very nice cookie jars, and a bottle of 2015 M. Chapoutier Belleruche Cotes-du-Rhone (too bad it wasn’t the 1982 Petrus Mom and I saw displayed downstairs).

We ate dinner (or possibly second dinner) in the hotel’s cafe and then crashed.

Posted in Dani, Hong Kong, Linda | Comments Off on Flying to Hong Kong

Total Eclipse

Everyone has seen photos of partial solar and lunar eclipses, and they look surprisingly similar. In person, the experience is somewhat different, because one happens during the day, and the other at night, but it’s not that much unlike the photos.

However, there is one experience that is completely different, and isn’t at all like the photos. A total solar eclipse is the event of a lifetime, really impossible to capture in photos or video, and just as impossible to describe, although I’ll try.

On August 21, 2017, for the first time in a hundred years, a total solar eclipse traveled across the United States. For a few days it was the talk of the media, but many months before we’d made a plan to put us in position. Since we’d been staying in Chicago it made sense to stop in Nashville on our way home to Orlando. Nashville was one of the largest and certainly the most interesting city in the path, so there were 90,000 other people with the same idea, but we flew in a day early to avoid any travel issues, and encountered no traffic.

On the day of the eclipse many people went to the stadium, which baffled me, because you want to be somewhere out in nature, and where you can see the horizon. You also want to be mobile in case of clouds.

So we had arranged to rent a car, and at 10 am Linda, Dani and I began our drive about 90 minutes east, to place us near the centerline. This would increase the time of totality from just under two minutes to two minutes 39 seconds.

We had no preset plan, and looked for good viewing places along the way, and also monitored the weather, as clouds were likely to boil up in the afternoon. In the end we ended up in Carthage, Tennessee, which was almost on the centerline.

As we had lunch in a small Mexican restaurant, I searched online for someplace to buy a lighting cable, since Dani’s phone was out of charge. It turned out there was a nearby Walmart where we could get one. As we sat in the parking lot charging the phone we realized it was nearly a perfect spot to wait for the eclipse, assuming the circling clouds stayed at bay.

The eclipse had begun while we ate lunch, but we knew it would be almost 90 minutes before it got really interesting. As we waited, we could see through the special glasses that the sun was turning into a crescent, but surprisingly it wasn’t particularly apparent that it was getting darker. This continued to be the case almost until totality.

A comment on the radio about light pollution made me realize that the Walmart parking lot lights might turn on during totality, so we moved to a nearby field.

As the minutes counted down we got out of the air conditioned car and began to observe. In the last couple of minutes it started to get quite dark, and the temperature began to drop a bit from a muggy 95 degrees.

Then, as the last sliver of crescent sun disappeared, everything suddenly changed.

This is the part that is hard to explain. Suddenly, you can’t see anything through the glasses. You take them off, and above you is a pitch black rocky ball surrounded by irregular rays of cold, white light.

The temperature plunges ten degrees in a moment.

All around you it is sunset on every horizon — a 360 degree late evening.

Venus is suddenly there, brighter than you remember, and also a few other stars.

Crickets begin to chirp. A night bird sings. Otherwise it is very, very quiet.

Most of all, you are intensely aware that you are in space. You are standing on a giant rock, and above you another giant rock hangs, and behind that a great fiery ball is obscured, but its gasses stream out in all directions. There is

There is no up or down. You are in space.

A picture cannot convey the experience.

And then, suddenly, a red dot erupts from the trailing edge and you slap on your glasses. As fast as it came, it is over.

The light has a cold bluish cast, and quickly swells back to daylight, taking only a couple of minutes to seem almost back to normal.

It will be 90 more minutes before the eclipse ends, but you will remember that two and a half minutes the rest of your life.

 

Posted in Dani, Family, Linda, Technology, Travel | Comments Off on Total Eclipse

Not Corn

We’ve had the pleasure of dining at Oriole several times this year, and each time they knock it out of the park. Last night was no exception, with several new things including a wonderful kimchi and pork belly bite. But the star of the show was this dessert, pictured above.

That is not corn.

Pastry Chef Genie Kwon had a mold of a baby ear of corn made. They fill it with sweet corn mousse and using liquid nitrogen remove the resulting model and brush on miso for texture. The “husk” is a thin wafer of pretzel, and the green part is jalapeno skin. Best of all, it is delicious!

Of course, the thing that makes Oriole special isn’t just the food, it’s the welcoming attitude of everyone who works there, including owners Chef Noah Sandoval and Cara Sandoval, Sommelier Aaron McManus, and all the chefs and servers. Dining at Oriole is like being welcomed into someone’s family.

Aaron’s wine pairings are the best I’ve encountered, focusing on Old World quality wines that perfectly match each course. But one of the highlights is a fascinating cocktail made from Madeira and Vermouth. It’s a refreshing balance of sweet and bitter, and complex yet refreshing. And since it contains Madeira, it goes with almost anything.

Aaron kindly provided the recipe, and I’m going to make it for our Christmas party:

The original recipe replaces the last two vermouths with Noilly Prat Ambre, which Aaron can no longer get, but I found some in London and ordered it, so my recipe will be:

Oriole Madeira and Vermouth Cocktail

  • 2 parts Rare Wine Company Charleston Sercial Madeira
  • 3 parts Cocchi Americano Bianco
  • 3 parts Noilly Prat Ambre
  • Splash of Club Soda
  • Serve over ice
Posted in Cooking, Dining, Wine | Comments Off on Not Corn

Kittens

Sophie and Sylvester, 38 days old

Sophie and Sylvester were born June 25, 2017. We went and visited them at five weeks, and will have them full-time when we return from Australia in October. They are Maine Coons, like Pretty Boy, our all-time favorite cat.

Sophie at two weeks

Sylvester at two weeks

Sylvester with Linda, 5 weeks

 

 

Posted in Animals | Comments Off on Kittens

Paul McCartney

For the first time, Linda and I both were able to spend a month in Chicago together this summer. It was fun to kick back and chill in River North. A bum left calf and foot kept me from walking all around town like I love to do, but we were able to use Lyft to explore many new restaurants. Our favorite discoveries were the Cherry Circle Room, BLVD and Mexique. Biggest flops were mfk, Tavern on Rush and Proxi.

The highlight of the trip, and the event I planned the schedule around, was Paul McCartney playing at Tinley Park. It’s a bit of a hassle to get to Tinley park, which is in the suburbs about an hour away, but we rented a car and it was definitely worth the trip.

It was hard to believe Sir Paul is 75 years old! He played an energetic set without a break for two and a half hours, then came back and did a thirty-minute encore. The sound and staging was great, and often spectacular:

McCartney played nearly forty of his best songs, ending with my all-time favorite Beatles suite from Abbey Road:

Full setlist for Paul McCartney at Tinely Park Hollywood Casino Amphitheatre, July 25, 2017:

A Hard Day’s Night
Save Us
Can’t Buy Me Love
Letting Go
Temporary Secretary
Let Me Roll It
I’ve Got a Feeling / Hendrix Jam
My Valentine
Nineteen Hundred and Eighty-Five
Maybe I’m Amazed
We Can Work It Out
In Spite of All the Danger
You Won’t See Me
Love Me Do
And I Love Her
Blackbird
Here Today
Queenie Eye
New
The Fool on the Hill
Lady Madonna
FourFiveSeconds
Eleanor Rigby
I Wanna Be Your Man
Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite!
Something
Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da
Band on the Run
Back in the U.S.S.R.
Let It Be
Live and Let Die
Hey Jude

Encore:

Yesterday
Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band
Hi, Hi, Hi
Birthday
Golden Slumbers
Carry That Weight
The End

Posted in Chicago, Music | Comments Off on Paul McCartney

Comprehensive Bordeaux Tasting: 1989/1990

Comprehensive tasting of 1989 and 1990 Bordeaux

Comprehensive tasting of 1989 and 1990 Bordeaux

Every year, in preparation for their annual Bordeaux auction, Hart Davis Hart hosts a comprehensive Bordeaux tasting that offers an opportunity to taste two different vintages of nearly all the first and second growth Bordeaux, side by side.

This year’s vintages were particularly interesting, being of the same era but from very different years. 1989 produced tannic somewhat off balance wines for many wineries, while it was easy to make good wine in 1990. But in a couple of cases the 1989 turned out better than the 1990.

As in past years, among the first growths Cheval Blanc was at the top of my ratings, and Margaux at the bottom. Pamer, right next to Margaux, was significantly better than Margaux, especially in 1989, even though it is a second growth.

Here are my ratings of the forty wines:

89 Montrose 94 (remarkable balance for an 89)
90 Montrose 95

89 Cos d’Estournel 85 (bitter chocolate)
90 Cos d’Estournel 86

89 Lafite Rothschild 94
90 Lafite Rothschild 96

89 Mouton Rothschild 97
90 Mouton Rothschild 99

89 Latour 89
90 Latour 91

89 Lynch Bages 84 (pruny, overripe)
90 Lynch Bages 92

89 Grand-Puy-Lacoste 88
90 Grand-Puy-Lacoste 89

89 Pichon-Longueville, Baron 93
90 Pichon-Longueville, Baron 93-

89 Pichon-Longueville, Lalande 90
90 Pichon-Longueville, Lalande 91

89 Ducru-Beaucaillou 89
90 Ducru-Beaucaillou 90

89 Gruaud Larose 87
90 Gruaud Larose 83 (burnt rubber, truly awful)

89 Leoville Poyferre 85
90 Leoville Poyferre 86

89 Leoville Las Cases 88
90 Leoville Las Cases 89

89 Margaux 87
90 Margaux 89

89 Palmer 93+
90 Palmer 90

89 Haut-Brion 93
90 Haut-Brion 95

89 La Mission Haut-Brion 90
90 La Mission Haut-Brion 91

89 Angelus 91
90 Angelus 91 (these two were nearly identical)

89 Cheval Blanc 97
90 Cheval Blanc 99+

89 Troplong-Mondot 89
90 Troplong-Mondot 90

Only about half the wines are available at retail:

img_0270

Posted in Chicago, Dani, Wine | Comments Off on Comprehensive Bordeaux Tasting: 1989/1990

Oriole With Our Wine Group

img_0255
We saved the best for last! After several days packed with wine events, great dinners, museums and sightseeing, we had our farewell dinner at Oriole. And what a dinner it was!

Chef Noah Sandoval and Pastry Chef Genie Kwon knocked it out of the park.

Speaking of knocking it out of the park, not the Chicago Cubs won the world series this week, after a 108 year drought, so it was a really fun week to be in Chicago. But that wasn’t even the most exciting thing happening at Oriole. On Monday they learned they received four nominations for Jean Banchet Awards for Culinary Excellence. Sommelier Aaron McManus was nominated for Best Sommelier and Genie Kwon was nominated for Best Pastry Chef. And the entire team was nominated for Best New Restaurant and Best Service!

But that wasn’t even the biggest news. On Wednesday the discovered that they had been awarded two Michelin stars, which is unheard of for a restaurant that has been open only seven month!

Never was an award so well deserved. This event even managed to surpass our previous dinner, which I would have thought impossible,

Sommelier Aaron McManus served the wines we brought and acted as a wonderful host.

This was the first time Oriole had guests bring in wines like these, so it was quite a treat for everyone.

img_0257

14918784_10211225103128137_7731136591997258855_o

img_0214 img_0215 img_0216 img_0218 img_0220 img_0221 img_0225 img_0229 img_0230 img_0231 img_0233 img_0234 img_0235 img_0236 img_0238 img_0241 img_0243 img_0256

Posted in Chicago, Dining, Linda | Comments Off on Oriole With Our Wine Group

Dominus Dominates at V&A

IMG_2348

The line up.

IMG_2351

Chef Scott Hunnel drops by for a visit.

IMG_2349

Chef Aimee was generous with the caviar on two courses.

IMG_2350

Pretty presentation.

IMG_2352

The “eyebrow” chocolate always creeps me out.

IMG_2356

The course we never eat. James used to work at Eddie V’s.

 

It had been quite a while since we’d been to the Chef’s Table at Victoria and Albert’s, because Disney changed the reservation process to favor hotel guests, so it was fun join Ron and Bev there for dinner and wines last night. The room has been remodeled since our last visit, with nicer cabinetry and lighting. Most of the food was the same as our last visit to the Victoria Room, but there was a new veal dish served under a smoke-filled glass that was our favorite.

Chef Aimee is now running the kitchen, and several other chefs have also been promoted, and stopped by the table to introduce their dishes. Scott Hunnel dropped in to say hello. He’s now in charge of all 14 of the resort’s food outlets. Israel Perez provided the wine service.

The wines were poured in flights of two. The biggest surprise was how shut down the 1986 first growth Bordeaux were. This was the most expensive flight on the table, and the least interesting. I don’t know if they are just going through a “dumb” stage, or if this vinatge is over. There was still plenty of tannin, that’s for sure. But neither wine offered even a hint of fruit or other depth.

Perhaps less surprising was that the 1991 Dominus was the Wine of the Night. My last two bottles were corked, so it was a relief to revisit an old friend.

Menu

  • Cauliflower Panna Cotta with American Caviar
  • Roulade of Smoked Salmon and Alaskan King Crab
  • Alaskan Sablefish with Baby Bok Choy
  • New Zealand Langoustine with Nage Crema
  • Smoked Rohan Duck with Peaches and Celery Root
  • Marcho Farms Veal “En Croute”
  • Australian Kobe-Style Beef* with Roasted Garlic Potatoes
  • Selection of Cheese from the Market
  • Vanilla Bean Panna Cotta with Wild Strawberries
  • Peruvian Chocolate Crunch
  • Friandises

The Wines

2005 Compte (off the V&A wine list)
Green, creamy
92 pts

2000 Château Haut-Brion Blanc (Steve)
Wax, butter, evergreen, peppermint candy, honey
94 pts

2013  Pierre Yves Colin Morey Meursault Charmes (Ron)
Granite, lime, shell
92 pts

1959 Hospices de Beaune Beaune 1er Cru Cuvée Dames Hospitalieres Maison Leroy (Steve)
Exotic Asian spice nose, light bodied, long finish
94 pts

1969 Leroy Grand Echezeaux (Ron)
Somewhat soapy nose
92 pts

1986 Château Mouton Rothschild (Steve)
Closed, tight
92 pts

1986 Chateau Lafite (Ron)
Lead pencil, mint
94 pts

1966 La Mission Haut Brion (Ron)
Really elegant, wood, soy, tobacco, dusty, menthol
96 pts

1991 Dominus Estate Napanook Vineyard (Steve)
Licorice, coffee, great structure, coffee finish, open for business but with years to go
98 pts

1997 Chateau d’Yquem (Ron)
apricot, honey, not quite enough acid or secondary aromas
92 pts

Posted in Uncategorized | Comments Off on Dominus Dominates at V&A

War Paint at the Goodman Theatre

WarPaint

Last night Dani and I saw War Paint at the Goodman Theatre. It’s an excellent show starring Patti LuPone and Christine Ebersole about the rivalry between Helena Rubenstein and Elizabeth Arden. It opened in Chicago a couple of months ago, and we were lucky that it extended its run by two weeks allowing me to grab two front row seats of what was a sold out house.

The show is presumably in tryouts for a Broadway run, because the sets and lighting were quite extraordinary, and couldn’t possibly have been paid for with the revenues from a limited run at the Goodman.

The central cast of four characters were all Tony nominees, and the stars had four Tonys between them, so the talent was top notch.

I really liked the score, which has many songs, all very accessible, some quite complex, and which was rendered by the largest pit orchestra I’ve heard in some time.

As with most shows in tryouts, changes are being made. I understand 20 minutes has been cut already, which was a good thing because the show was the right length.

The problem the show faces is that the two main characters, Helena Rubenstein and Elizabeth Arden⏤who are on separate sides of the stage almost continuously for the whole show⏤never actually met in real life. The show invents a scene at the end where they do meet, and it works surprisingly well. However the number at the end of the first act sets up the idea that they think maybe they should meet, and another almost 30 years elapses before that last scene. That’s a long time to wait for the payoff. I would probably cut that number from the end of Act 1, and find something to cut from Act 2 to speed it along, perhaps the number with the two costars, which didn’t really advance the story.

I would probably cut that number from the end of Act 1, and also find something to cut from Act 2 to speed it along, perhaps the number with the two costars, which didn’t really advance the story. I’m sure it’s difficult to decide what to cut when you have so much good material, and such great talent performing it.

Although makeup isn’t a topic that interests me, The show is really about starting with nothing and creating a successful business. The show’s challenge will be to find a way to connect with a mass audience, as younger people have never heard of the two women who were literally the first female titans of industry.

Posted in Dani, Theatre | Comments Off on War Paint at the Goodman Theatre

Summer Champagne Crush

IMG_2253

This trip to Chicago was organized around two events, the first of which was the Hart David Hart Annual Summer Champagne Tasting. It was held at The Ivy, a popular wedding venue in River North.

I guess the original intent was to have the tasting in the courtyard, which would have been quite pleasant. Unfortunately, Chicago weather didn’t cooperate, and the temperature was in the mid-nineties. As a result, the ill-advised decision was made to hold the event inside, in a rabbit warren of small spaces. The air conditioning–what little there was–simply couldn’t handle the task, and the rooms were soon over a hundred degrees. Even on ice, the Champagne couldn’t be kept cold. And the spaces were so small that it became impossible to even squeeze from one room to the next. A thoroughly unpleasant event.

Dani and I resolved to quickly try only the most noteworthy offerings and beat a swift retreat. My notes are limited to only numerical ratings, because any comments about blends or production were lost to the din of too many people in too small a space. We were in and out in about 30 minutes.

The event did reinforce my preference for yeasty vintage Champagnes with moderate acid levels and some pinot noir in the blend. Surprisingly, the Taittinger wines ended up being our favorite group.

The wines we tasted:

(this first batch was particularly warm)
NV Krug, Rosé ($240) 96 pts
2008 Moet & Chandon, Grand Vintage Rose ($85) 90 pts
2004 Dom Pérignon Rose ($320) 92 pts
1998 Dom Pérignon Brut, P2 ($275) 98 pts

2004 Dom Ruinart, Brut Blanc de Blancs ($155) 87 pts
2006 Veuve Clicquot, La Grande Dame Brut ($160) 91 pts

NV Billecart-Salmon, Brut Reserve (magnum $100) 89 pts
NV Billecart-Salmon, Brut Sous Bois ($70) 91 pts
NV Billecart-Salmon, Brut Rosé (magnum $160) 90 pts
NV Billecart-Salmon, Blanc de Blancs Brut ($165) 94 pts
NV Billecart-Salmon, Extra Brut ($70) 88 pts

NV Taittinger, La Francaise Brut ($55) 92 pts
NV Taittinger, Brut Cuvee Prestige Rose ($75) 97 pts
NV Taittinger, Prélude Grands Crus ($80) 95 pts
NV Taittinger, Les Folies de la Marquetterie (pinot noir) ($80) 96 pts
2006 Taittinger, Comtes de Champagne Blanc de Blancs (4165) 99 pts

Wines we couldn’t get to:

1995 Charles Heidsieck, Blanc des Millénaires
2000 Charles Heidsieck, Brut
2000 Maurice Vessell, Brut Grand Cru, Millésime
2002 Piper-Heidsieck, Brut Cuvée Rare
2004 Delamotte Blanc de Blancs
2005 Philipponnat, Clos des Goisses
2006 Piper-Heidsieck, Brut
2009 Thierry Fluteau, Cuvée Prestige, Côte des Bar
NV André Clouet, Grand Réserve Brut Grand Cru
NV Armand de Brignac, Brut Gold
NV Bollinger, Rosé
NV Canard-Duchêne Charles VIII, Blanc de Noirs
NV Charles Heidsieck, Brut Réserve
NV Michel Arnould Brut Réserve, Grand Cru
NV Paul Bara, Brut Réserve Grand Cru
NV Paul Déthune, Bru Rosé Grand Cru
NV Pierre Gimonet & Fils, Blanc de Blancs Brut, 1er Cru
NV Piper-Heidsieck, Brut
NV R. Pouillon & Fils, Blanc de Blancs Brut
NV Ruinart, Brut Blanc de Blancs
NV Thiénot, Rosé

Posted in Dani, Wine | Comments Off on Summer Champagne Crush

Delicious Disney at Golden Oak

IMG_2212

IMG_2213

IMG_2214

IMG_2215

IMG_2216

IMG_2217

For the first time in a long time we attended a Disney dining event, and it far surpassed our expectations. Usually these events tend to be rather corporate, and it’s been a long time since we felt like they were worth the money. But at $199pp all inclusive this one couldn’t possibly have been profitable. There were nearly as many staff as guests, and the ingredients and wines were top notch.

We attended the event chiefly because it was at the private club at Golden Oak, in Markham’s restaurant, and that was the only way to check it out. The chefs and staff from Markham’s and a huge part of the culinary and serving staff at California Grill put on a spectacular dinner.

The accompanying wines represented the single best wine pairings I’ve ever encountered. For example, the orange and vanilla flavors of the poached lobster salad and its dressing were absolutely mirrored by orange and vanilla flavors in the Merry Edwards Sauvignon Blanc. (I’ve jotted the retail prices of the wines next to them on the menu.)

Not shown on the menu were the passed hors d’oeuvres , sushi buffet, and a starter chardonnay from Stag’s Leap.

As a parting gift we received chopsticks in wooden boxes personalized by the chefs.

We were seated with a lovely couple from Winter Haven. It was pretty clear that the seating wasn’t random. Each party was escorted in individually, and since everyone there was an invited regular at V&A or California Grill or other Disney events, we had been matched to table mates of similar ages and interests. Well done.

Truly a lovely evening.

Posted in Dining, Linda, Theme Parks, Wine | Comments Off on Delicious Disney at Golden Oak

Another Kabooki Sushi Stunner

IMG_2198“I can’t believe we’re in Orlando.” That’s what Ron, Bev, Linda and I kept repeating throughout the ten-course omakase prepared last night by Chef Henry Moso.

Yelp informed me it was my 30th visit. Out of perhaps 200 courses spread over those visits I’ll wager that 150 were unique. And last night’s courses were the best of all. Definitely one of the top ten meals I’ve ever had.

I’ll let the menu and photos speak for themselves. My wine notes follow.

IMG_2179

IMG_2180

IMG_2182

IMG_2184

IMG_2186

IMG_2187

IMG_2192

IMG_2193

IMG_2194

IMG_2199

IMG_2200

 

The Wines

IMG_2183

1998 Dom Perignon P2
Lilac, ash, lavender, creamy, slightly sweet finish, 95 pts

The 1998 Dom Perignon P2 is a second release, made from disgorging the original bottling and rebottling it. It is incredibly over-packaged, in an aluminum sliding drawer box. Fortunately its quality lived up to the packaging!

IMG_2181

Jacques Selosse Brut Rose
Burnt orange, angostura bitters, yeast, really crisp, oxidative nose, slightly bitter finish, 97 pts

The wine of the night (of course) was a Jacques Selosse. I hadn’t had the rose before, and it was really aromatic and perfect with the food.

IMG_2196

1992 Blanc de Lynch Bages
Seemingly fresh but lacking fruit, waxy, caramel, over the hill, 86 pts

2011 Maison L’Oree Meursault 1er Cru
Petrol, lemon lime, crushed rock, good balance, toast, ash, matchstick, 94 pts

2008 le Clerc Gevrey Chambertin Les Cazetiers
Wood, petrol, savage, good fruit, balanced, 94 pts

1978 Santenay
Light bodied, citrus, strawberry, 90 pts

2001 Usseglio CDP Reserve des deux freres
Very earthy, Bret, barnyard, rustic, chewy, 95 pts

1989 Colombo Cornas Les Ruchets
Tight, restrained citrus, 90 pts

Posted in Dining, Linda, Wine | Comments Off on Another Kabooki Sushi Stunner

Alcorn Tours Guide to Chicago

Refer to this map:

https://drive.google.com/open?id=1OuwGVQUX3rFKMRJi_Vx3DWp_OKE&usp=sharing

Geography

Chicago is on the west shore of Lake Michigan. Much of the area along the lake is various parks, from Lincoln Park on the North to Millennium and Grant Parks on the south.

The downtown area is mostly high-rise businesses and is comprised of the one square mile of the Loop (so named because it is encircled by the Elevated train tracks). The Loop is bounded on the North and West by the Chicago River. North of the river is the one square mile River North, which is where a lot of the clubs, restaurants and residences are.

The East boundary of the Loop and River North is Michigan Avenue, and the part from the River northward is called the Magnificent Mile, because it’s where all the fancy stores are.  This is Tourist Central.

Transportation

The easiest and cheapest way to get from Orlando to Chicago is Southwest non-stop to Midway. Midway is a bit easier to navigate than O’Hare because it is smaller.

Uber works really well in Chicago, and is really cheap. But if you’re feeling adventurous it’s even cheaper to take the El, which is always $2.50. The El is the train system around Chicago. The different lines have colors. The blue line goes to O’Hare, the Orange line goes to Midway. The red line goes North/South and the Green line goes to the west. (The Red line is actually underground in downtown, like the tube in London.) Nearly everything converges on The Loop.

You buy a card that operates the turnstiles. You can get one and put money on it at major stations. The same card works for the buses. Google or Apple maps work well with the El

From the either airport to downtown is under an hour on the El, sometimes less on Uber (but not always).

Separate from the El is the Metra, the train that runs north to Wisconsin, but is not useful for local transportation.

There are also horse drawn carriages in the tourist area along the Magnificent Mile.

Things to Do

City Pass Chicago

If you plan to do several things, the City Pass combination ticket is the best deal. It includes:

Shedd Aquarium – VIP ENTRY

*Skydeck Chicago – FAST PASS

*The Field Museum – VIP ENTRY

*Museum of Science and Industry – VIP ENTRY   OR   360 CHICAGO – EXPRESS ENTRY

*Art Institute of Chicago – FAST PASS   OR   Adler Planetarium – VIP ENTRY

I put an asterisk on the best choices.

http://www.citypass.com/chicago

Museum of Science and Industry

This is a great museum in a huge building that is the only survivor from the Chicago 1893 World’s Fair where the original Ferris Wheel debuted. That world’s fair was one square mile, and had 700,000 visitors on its closing day alone!

Must see things at the museum are the Coal Mine ride and the German U-Boat On-Board tour. These have specific admission times you select when you get your tickets. Allow at least 4 hours minimum.

http://www.msichicago.org/

The Art Institute of Chicago

Huge, HUGE art museum with an amazing impressionist collection by Renoir, Monet, Van Goghs, plus A Sunday on La Grande Jatte and Nighthawks. Even if you think you don’t know what those are, you do.

You can not even walk this whole museum in 8 hours, so be selective!

http://www.artic.edu/

Field Museum

Dinosaurs, and all that natural history stuff. And did I mention DINOSAURS?

https://www.fieldmuseum.org/

Chicago Architecture Foundation River Cruise

There are a number of Chicago River boat tours and even a number that focus on the city’s architecture, but this is the best one, because it has a docent from the Architecture Foundation doing the commentary. Even if you’re not that interested in architecture, it’s a great way to see the city and the river, all the way from Lake Michigan past the Sears Tower.

https://www.architecture.org/experience-caf/tours/detail/chicago-architecture-foundation-river-cruise-aboard-chicagos-first-lady-cruises/

Chicago Loop Bridges

A retired engineer and bridge enthusiast conducts these very personal walking tours of all the different types of drawbridges along the Chicago River, and you get to go into one of the control towers that is now a museum. This is often a private tour.

http://chicagoloopbridges.com/

If you don’t want to take the tour, you can just visit the museum:

http://www.bridgehousemuseum.org/

Sears Tower (no one calls it Willis Tower)

Our condo is pretty tall, but this building is more than twice as tall. The tour, displays and glass floor of the skyjack are very popular attractions.

http://theskydeck.com/

Lincoln Park Zoo

This is quite a pleasant zoo, and it also has a great restaurant in the park nearby, North Pond, which has a Michelin star (reservations essential).

http://www.lpzoo.org/

http://www.northpondrestaurant.com/

Navy Pier

There’s a new Ferris Wheel on the pier that gives quite a view of the skyline and lakeshore. This is also where lake cruises depart from. The dinner cruise is nice although the food is nothing special. During the summer there are Disney-quality fireworks every Wednesday and Saturday.

John Hancock Tower

There a great view here because the building is on the Magnificent mile at the lake shore. However you don’t need to pay for 360 Chicago. You can see the same view by having a drink at the Signature Lounge.

http://www.360chicago.com/

https://www.signatureroom.com/

Richard H. Driehaus Museum

This mansion from the guided age is right in River North, and is the best preserved historic home I have ever been in. Elaborate marble, woodwork and tiffany glass look like they were installed yesterday. They host changing exhibits, too. When we went there was a collection of original cartoon artwork from 100 year old issues of Puck magazine.

http://www.driehausmuseum.org/

Chicago Theatre

The opulent Chicago Theatre used to be a movie palace, but now hosts major musical and comedy performers. During the day they offer great tours of the building, with lots of fascinating history.

http://www.thechicagotheatre.com/tour

Randolph Street is Chicago’s theatre district, where many shows open before going to Broadway, and where the touring productions come. The major theaters are the Oriental, the Cadillac, and the Goodman. To the north is Steppenwolf, and on Navy pier is the Shakespeare Theatre. There are also dozens of smaller theatres.

http://www.theatreinchicago.com/nowplayingrs.php

Museum of Broadcast Communications

This conveniently located museum will bring back memories of old TV programs, and has a comprehensive collection of radio history. It’s best for adults; there’s not much of interest for little kids.

http://www.museum.tv/index.htm

Frank Lloyd Wright Home and Studio

About 30 minutes to the west of Chicago is Oak Park, where Frank Lloyd write built his own home and studio. It’s very extensive, and the tour shows how his work evolved over time. Be sure to book your tour in advance. There’s also a walking tour of the homes he designed in the surrounding neighborhood, but since you can’t go in those I would skip it. You can Uber for about $30 each way, or take the Green line and be there in 20 minutes or less.

http://www.flwright.org/

Mars Cheese Castle

If you’re headed to Wisconsin, there’s no place quite like this.

http://www.marscheese.com/

Indiana Wineries

If you have a car, it’s an hour drive to Indiana Wineries. Butler makes good wine from local grapes, and Shady Creek makes good wine from California grapes. Do not go to Anderson’s Orchards and Winery.

http://www.butlerwinery.com/

http://www.shadycreekwinery.com/

Tastebud Food Tours

A local entrepreneur runs some very good food oriented walking tours. I took one where the guide stayed in character as a socialite from the days of the 1893 World’s Fair. We visited a half dozen historic stops and had foods that were invented there. They also do brewery and distillery tours.

http://tastebudtours.com/tours/chicago-tours/

Live Music & Bars

Many, many places up and down Hubbard have live music.

Andy’s Jazz Club

Good food and drinks, $14 or $20 cover for live jazz. Shows at 5pm, 7pm, and 9:30-1am.

http://www.andysjazzclub.com/

City Winery

This restaurant and live music venue is also really into wine, and serves everything in Riedel stemware. The food is good, and they have different acts every night. During the summer there is also a casual outdoor version right on the Riverwalk.

http://www.citywinery.com/chicago/

https://www.citywinery.com/chicago/riverwalk/

Untitled Supper Club

500 Scotches, great cocktails, and good food and live music are all on offer in different rooms of this speakeasy-themed restaurant and bar.

http://untitledsupperclub.com/

Three Dots and a Dash

This is the best Tiki Bar you will ever go to. It’s not really on Clark. Enter the alley on Hubbard and follow the neon light to the door. Reservations essential.

http://threedotschicago.com/

Restaurants

Chicago has a dozen Michelin starred restaurants, but mostly I have ignored those, because they take months of planning to get into. These are some favorites by category.

Things to NOT eat in Chicago:

Deep dish pizza. You can get the same stuff at Giordano’s. When the Chicago magazine ratings come out, none of the top pizzas are deep dish.

Chicago style hot dogs. It’s nothing special, just on a poppy seed bun with a pickle, tomato and pepper. There are gourmet dogs in town that are better.

Mexican food. Some people like Rick Bayless’ Michelin-starred Topolobampo, or his adjacent Frontera Grill or Xoco, but I’m not impressed. Chicago really doesn’t have a great Mexican restaurant.

Best Restaurant in Town – Oriole

The secret is getting out, but the best place in town is Oriole. Reservations well in advance essential. Don’t be alarmed that it looks like a warehouse and you are entering off an alley.

http://www.oriolechicago.com/

French – Bistronomic / Bistro Voltaire

Traditional French Bistro food, perfectly done, but not a true bistro atmosphere.

http://www.bistronomic.net/

Bistro Voltaire has the real bistro ambiance. Good on a cold night.

http://www.bistrovoltaire.com/

New American – Cafe des Architects

In the Sofitel. The trick here is to put yourself in Chef’s hands and get the tasting menu. Amazing presentations, great price for the quality.  Best to go here on a week night when the chef is bored. 

http://www.cafedesarchitectes.com/

Eclectic – Girl and the Goat

Stephanie Izzard’s flagship is always packed, but they hold some tables for people who didn’t get reservations two months in advance. Go at 4pm and have a drink in the bar.

http://girlandthegoat.com/

Chinese – Imperial Lamian

Amazing Dim Sum. Also, you must have the Mixed Mushroom Lamian and the Jasmine Tea Smoked Ribs.

http://www.imperial-lamian.com/#home

Hamburger – Good Stuff Eatery

The most famous hamburger in America is at Au Cheval, but trust me, you can’t get in. This is my favorite, by another Top Chef winner, and it’s near Millennium Park attractions. But you can get Au Cheval’s hamburger at a salad place(!) See below.

http://www.goodstuffeatery.com/locations/chicago

Salad – 3 Greens Market

This place has an enormous and fresh collection of salad bars, but they also serve Dillman’s famous pastrami sandwiches from another restaurant’s recipe, and the burger made famous at Au Cheval and voted best in the country. So something for everyone!

http://3greensmarket.com/

Sushi – Momotaro

This stylish restaurant had sushi, robot grill and ramen in a lively, trendy atmosphere.

http://www.momotarochicago.com/

Pizza – Coalfire

The best pizza in Chicago is not Chicago Pizza, it’s Coalfire’s Pepperoni & Whipped Ricotta.

http://coalfirechicago.com/

If you just was a slice, closer by, you can get one for $4 at Dough Bros.Try the spicy Roland.

http://www.doughbrospizzasubs.com/

Barbecue – Chicago q

Chicago q is not a joint, it’s actually a nice restaurant  I’m not a fan of Midwestern barbecue sauces, I like a Southern style, which is more like wha they offer here. Try the barbecue sampler appetizer to see what you like; it comes with four sauces. They also have about 100 whiskeys and bourbons, and tasting flights of same.

http://www.chicagoqrestaurant.com/

Indian – Vermillion

This place is marching to their own drummer. It’s gourmet Indian unlike any you’ve had.  The service is amiable but very whacked – just hang in there for the food.

http://www.thevermilionrestaurant.com/index.cfm

Steak – Kinzie Chophouse / Maple & Ash

There is almost a steakhouse in every block of River North. I can’t say I’ve found a favorite that isn’t a chain. I did love the wine list at Kinzie Chophouse, and their prices are better than most places. Check out the page of Napa Auction bottles where they bought the whole cask.  Their steak is mediocre. 

http://www.kinziechophouse.com/

I’ve not yet been to Maple & Ash, but I have heard from several people that it is the best.

http://mapleandash.com/

Fish – GT Fish and Oyster

GT has the reputation of the best fish in River North.

http://gtoyster.com/

Italian – Pelago Ristorante

Ron really likes this place. I’m not a big Italian restaurant fan, and haven’t been to it. Avoid the Michelin-starred Spiaggia.

http://www.pelagorestaurant.com/

Popcorn – Garrett’s

Famous for its Chicago Mix, which is half caramel popcorn, half cheddar cheese popcorn. It’s better than it sounds. There’s always a line, but it moves fairly fast.The one on Randolph in the Loop doesn’t usually have a lone.

http://www.garrettpopcorn.com/find-a-shop/chicago/625-n-michigan-ave

Donuts – Stan’s

Chicago has some great donut places – Glazed & Infused, Do-Rite Donuts, and Firecakes. But my favorite is Stan’s (six locations), an import from Westwood Village in Los Angeles. You want an old fashioned buttermilk. (At Glazed and Infused you want a maple bacon; you enter through the Davanti Enoteca restaurant.)

http://www.stansdonutschicago.com/

http://www.goglazed.com/

Hotels

Best Hotels in Chicago

Peninsula

http://chicago.peninsula.com/en/default

Four Seasons

http://www.fourseasons.com/chicago/

Ritz Carlton

http://www.ritzcarlton.com/en/hotels/chicago

Trump

https://www.trumphotelcollection.com/chicago/

Langham

http://www.langhamhotels.com/en/the-langham/chicago/

Convenient Moderate Hotels

The Intercontinental

http://www.icchicagohotel.com/

The Gwen

http://www.thegwenchicago.com/

The Chicago Marriott Downtown Magnificent Mile

http://www.marriott.com/hotels/travel/chidt-chicago-marriott-downtown-magnificent-mile

Omni

https://www.omnihotels.com/hotels/chicago

Conrad

http://www.conradchicagohotel.com/

James

http://www.jameshotels.com/chicago

Palomar

http://www.hotelpalomar-chicago.com/

Sofitel

http://www.accorhotels.com/gb/hotel-2993-sofitel-chicago-water-tower/index.shtml

Convenient Cheap Hotels

Hilton Garden Inn

http://hiltongardeninn3.hilton.com/en/hotels/illinois/hilton-garden-inn-chicago-downtown-magnificent-mile-CHIDNGI/index.html

Courtyard

http://www.marriott.com/hotels/travel/chiwb-courtyard-chicago-downtown-river-north

Homewood Suites

http://homewoodsuites3.hilton.com/en/hotels/illinois/homewood-suites-by-hilton-chicago-downtown-CHIHWHW/index.html

Hampton Inn

http://hamptoninn3.hilton.com/en/hotels/illinois/hampton-inn-and-suites-chicago-downtown-CHIHSHX/index.html

Posted in Chicago, Dining, Wine | Comments Off on Alcorn Tours Guide to Chicago

Burgs at Berns

IMG_1903

Thanks to Ron for setting up a nice weekend including dinner at Berns and lunch at Restaurant BT. Ron worked with sommelier Brad Dixon to come up with some great wines at great prices. They were mostly selected from vintages without huge reputations, but producers that make great wines consistently. The wines included the only magnum of DRC that I (and I think Ron) had ever had.

We pre-gamed in Ron and Bev’s suite with the 2000 Comtes de Champagne Blanc de Blanc by Taittinger, which features a lovely toasty nose and lemon curd finish.

IMG_1907

At Berns Brad started us with a 2005 Meursault JF Coche-Dury. A lot of the 2005s have premox problems, but not this one which offered abundant fruit, with a nice thread of minerality and butter to balance it. The predominant nose was lavender with a bit of wax.

Our first red Burgundy was a 1978 La Romanee Bouchard Pere & Fils. This was all about bacon and smoke, later developing some coffee. The wine has great structure and is drinking very young. It was Ron and my Wine of the Night.young coffee

We tried a 1953 Volnay-Santenay from Pierre Ponnelle, which was a great year and great producer, but not estate grown. As Brad had warned, it was a bit over the hill, although Linda liked its oxidized character. Initially closed, it opened up eventually, but was tired. The finish was surprisingly sweet. but very sweet on the palate

The big boy of the night was 1983 Grands-Echezeaux Domaine de la Romanee Conti from Magnum. Immediately upon pouring it was very bright, almost to the point of being spritzy. Lots of young baking spices, a hint of something green, maybe pickled asparagus. Later on rhubarb. On the palate it was very fruity, and eventually began to finish with smoke and bacon. It was an excellent wine, and a magnum at $1300 was a solid buy, but the retail is several times that, and would not be worth it.

Where can you go after that? A different valley, for sure. 1975 Côte-Rotie La Mouline was a stunning Rhone that offered excellent structure and very fresh fruit.

IMG_1908

For dessert, Brad produced a really interesting 1927 Bastardo Leacock’s Madeira. Bastardo is one of the mixing grapes that used to be used in Madeira, but it is now almost extinct, and it was only twice ever bottled by itself. One of those times was this wine, which had a great spearmint nose, and was slightly drier than a Bual. The wine had great acid and a long, clean finish with a touch of caramel and orange peel, hazelnut. It was very bright.

IMG_1911

We also drained two other Madeiras that very nice, and it gave us the opportunity to compare the sweetness levels of Verdelho and Sercial.

1937 d’Oliveiras Sercial Madeira was quite dry, and not quite as complex as 1912 D’Oliveras Verdelho Madeira. This is my favorite sweetness level of Madeira, as it goes with almost any food. It was almost as complex as the Bastardo.

IMG_8579

Brad set Bev up with a flight of Armagnac. The first was everyone’s favorite, a 1960 Vieil Armagnac, a producer none of us had heard of. The other two were both from Francis Darroze, a 1962 and 1963, but both seemed a bit harsh.

We finished with deconstructed Macadamia nut sundaes.

IMG_1909

Thanks to Ron for setting up a great evening, and to Brad for his generosity with the wines!

Posted in Dining, Linda, Wine | Comments Off on Burgs at Berns

Alcorn McBride Paint Night

IMG_1841

Last year’s favorite company activity was paint night at Painting With A Twist, so we decided to repeat it. This time, instead of a lighthouse, we painted a gecko, and it was fun to see how the subject matter encouraged everyone to let their imaginations run wild.

IMG_1884
IMG_1892 IMG_1891 IMG_1876 IMG_1873 IMG_1867 IMG_1864 IMG_1863 IMG_1862 IMG_1860 IMG_1859 IMG_1893

Posted in Alcorn McBride, Art & Sculpture | Comments Off on Alcorn McBride Paint Night

Riedel Stemware Seminar

IMG_1696

A few years ago Linda and I attended a Riedel stemware seminar while on a Celebrity cruise. The premise of the seminar was that different shaped glasses make wines taste different.

We went in very skeptical but came out completely believers. So much so, in fact, that I ordered four sets of the glasses and have conducted the same seminar for my co-workers and members of my wine group. Everyone who has ever gone through it has been amazed at the effect that even small changes in the shape of the glass can make.

So when I heard that Riedel was conducting a seminar just a block from our Chicago condo I had to sign up for it again. Why? Becuase for $90 you get four excellent wines, and can keep the glasses they’re served in!

IMG_1698

Dani and I attended last night, and even though the venue was less than ideal for wine tasting (outdoors, noisy band nearby) it was still impressive. We also discovered a few new things I hadn’t heard in the previous seminar:

  1. The wine smells different depending upon where in the glass you place your nose. This was particularly apparent with the sauvignon blanc, which smelled like grapefruit on either side and like yeast down in the center.
  2. The glasses are dishwasher safe, but don’t use soap, as a hot glass absorbs the soap and becomes cloudy when it cools. Because of their height, you need to put them on the bottom rack.
  3. The Riedel decanter that looks like a coiled cobra has an interesting property: if you turn it around at an angle once before you pour, it dispenses exactly one glass of wine.

Although The City Winery Riverwalk was packed last night, the seminar was undersubscribed, and they backfilled with random bystanders (who didn’t get to keep their glasses). This was a tactical error, because these folks weren’t really interested in the seminar, and yacked through what was already a difficult listening environment. However we did meet an interesting guy and his son who sat next to us, and talked with them at length afterward.

The wines selected for last night’s event were all superb, especially the chardonnay and pinot noir. They were chosen for their intense varietal character and winemaking style, and I would be happy to have any of them again:

  • Matua Sauvignon Blanc, New Zealand
  • Beringer Luminus Chardonnay
  • Etude Pinot Noir
  • 2013 Stags Leap Cabernet Sauvignon
Posted in Chicago, Dani, Wine | Comments Off on Riedel Stemware Seminar

Tesla

At the urging of co-workers, I bought one of the first Tesla Model S cars when they first came out, and three years later traded it in for one of the first Model X cars. They are both phenomenal vehicles, especially the controls, almost all on a single touchscreen, and the acceleration. The Model X is great for my needs, as I can comfortably take six large adults to lunch.

IMG_3361Model S P-85

IMG_1477Model X P90D

IMG_1478


Posted in Alcorn McBride, Technology | Comments Off on Tesla

Chicago Museums

We picked the right weekends to visit Chicago. The weather was perfect. We originally scheduled this trip for our Next season tickets. The Alps-themed meal turned out to be lackluster, but we had a lot of fun anyway.

IMG_1526

We visited the  Art Institute of Chicago, which is HUGE. We even bought a season pass so Dani can go back with friends.

IMG_1624The next weekend we took the “L” to the west to Oak Park to see the Frank Lloyd Wright Home and Studios and take a very interesting walking tour of the other houses he designed.

IMG_1533We also got to see a bridge stuck up during the annual Chicago boat migration.

IMG_7775
Speaking of museums, last year Dani and I also visited the nearby Museum of Broadcast Communications.

IMG_7770


Back in 2014 Linda and I visited the Field museum.

chicagohistorymuseum2014
And Dani and I visited the Chicago History Museum (which was quite good) and the International Museum of Surgical Science (which was… memorable).

chicago2007msi
And way back in 2007 we made Dani’s first visit to the Chicago Museum of Science and Industry while on her college tour.

 

Posted in Art & Sculpture, Chicago, Dani, Linda, Technology | Comments Off on Chicago Museums

New York Dining

Waitress Preview Day 2

We’ve had a fabulous long weekend in New York, and although the purpose of the trip was to see the new musical, Waitress, we also had a chance to visit some favorite restaurants, and try a few new ones. Here’s a recap:

IMG_1384

We began with a dinner for two at Momofuku Ko, which I’d read about in a favorite book The Rosie Project. Dani was still flying in from Chicago when Linda and I had a delightful meal, made special by a wonderfully welcoming staff. Not every course was a home run, but it hardly mattered because everything else was perfect.

For lunch Friday Dani was still at her friend’s apartment, and Linda and I stepped back into 1962 for lunch at La Grenouille, a classic French restaurant, and the last of its kind. This is a place they talked about going in the series Mad Men, and it’s unchanged.

IMG_1438

Dani caught up with us for our anniversary dinner at Eleven Madison Park. We’ve had two of the greatest meals of my life here, and one awful one. Fortunately they’ve returned to form, and although this one wasn’t quite as memorable, it was exceptional, particularly the service.

IMG_1408

Despite our feelings about The Donald, we stayed at the Trump International Hotel, because we got a deal on hotels.com, and someone has to pay the unfortunates who work there. One plus is that one of our favorite New York restaurants is just downstairs. We had a lovely lunch at Jean-Georges, which—even thought the prices have doubled in the time we’ve been going—is still the best lunch deal in town, with the same food as dinner at a fraction of the cost.

A great thing about New York is that you can actually dine really late. So after the wonderful Waitress production we had an 11pm reservation at db Bistro Modern, a reliable late night choice operated by Daniel Boulud, whose high end restaurants we view with less favor.

Caviar Russe 2

The stunning highlight of the trip, and one of the best meals of our lives was Easter lunch at Caviar Russe, where we had the caviar tasting menu, an eight course extravaganza where every course incorporates caviar in a meaningful way. The wine list is extremely attractively priced, which just makes things better. Linda and I had one of the best meals of our lives here in 2014, and this one was even better. So of the greatest meals I’ve ever had, Caviar Russe occupies two of the top five spots. (For those keeping score, the others are two different meals at Eleven Madison Park [neither of them recent] and New Year’s Eve at Victoria and Alberts.)

Caviar Russe 1

We had a reservation at The NoMAD, operated by the Eleven Madison Park folks, but after such a spectacular lunch it would have been a waste. So instead we went to a local Turkish place, ABA Turkish Restaurant, which was very popular, and fine, but actually not as good as our Turkish and Middle Eastern restaurants in Orlando. But after that lunch, it hardly mattered!

We finished off our culinary extravaganza  with a Monday lunch at Vaucluse, a new French brasserie by Michael White, owner of, among other things Marea (which we aren’t wild about). Vaucluse is a beautiful room, and the brasserie food was elevated, yet traditional. The best Salade Lyonnaise of my life is my parting memory of New York.

Quite the culinary whirlwind, and something we can only do every couple of years, but there were some truly memorable experiences that we’ll hopefully be remembering long after the Amex bill comes.

IMG_1465

If you can just do one thing in New York, I have to say—well, see Waitress! But other than that, Caviar Russe is the place to be.

Posted in Dani, Dining, Linda, New York | Comments Off on New York Dining

Waitress

IMG_1440

Waitress Preview Day 2

IMG_1443

IMG_1447

IMG_1450

This anniversary trip to New York City features a lot of fine dining, but it started because of Waitress, a new musical based on the movie, and with a score by Sara Bareilles. Dani asked for tickets for Christmas, and I was able to get them prior to opening night.

Sara tells the story of how she became involved with the show in her biography, Sounds Like Me. At the time she didn’t know the director, Diane Paulus, was quite famous, and she hadn’t seen the movie. But when offered the job she went home and watched it, and immediately wrote the first song for it.

That song and most of the others are on an album, What’s Inside: Songs from Waitress, that she released last year, and which Dani and I have been listening to in heavy rotation. It’s a great album, but it’s very, um, Sara-ish. So it was with some trepidation that we went to see the show, since not many people can sing—or even play—a song the way Sarah Bareilles does.

I’m pleased to report that: 1) this cast—and especially the lead, Jessie Mueller—can sing them that way; 2) the onstage band is on top of it; 3) this is an amazing Broadway show, not just some pop songs set to a movie. In fact, the songs fit so perfectly that, having not seen the movie, I can’t really imagine it without the songs.

What’s remarkable is how polished the show and cast are given that we saw it on the second night of previews. There might have been one song in act 2 that I would have cut, but other than that I wouldn’t change a thing. The audience agreed, and was wildly enthusiastic from the moment the lights dimmed. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever encountered a more enthusiastic audience.

I was struck by how much of Sara’s album made it into the show, although one great song, Door Number Three, didn’t make it in recognizable form. But for the most part her album will give you a great idea of what this show sounds like, even if you can’t exactly figure out who will be singing what number.

Needless to say, we loved the show, and if I could see it again tonight, I would!

Posted in Dani, Linda, New York, Theatre | Comments Off on Waitress

Momofuku Ko

IMG_1381

I’ve wanted to visit Momofuku Ko ever since I read about it in the excellent book, The Rosie Project, which you should definitely read. It’s very hard to get a reservation, but thanks to split-second timing last week I was surprised to be able to get in on a Thursday evening.

IMG_1387

The layout is a bit like l’Atelier, where you sit at a counter facing the chefs and watch the food being prepared. The ambiance of the restaurant is great, with excellent music at just the right level, so it’s easy to hear your companion, but no other guests, thanks to a large gap between each pair of seats.

IMG_1383

We absolutely loved all the personnel at Momofuku Ko. They were all warm and gracious, and genuinely glad we were there. The sommelier, Chase Sinzer, in particular, spent a lot of time with us, and helped us select a couple of superb Burgundies.

IMG_1389

The meal consisted of 16 courses, mostly tiny bites, and some were spectacular. I had been expecting a very sashimi oriented meal, but actually very few courses resembled anything I’d had before. Highlights included a miniature pomme soufflé; chopped black bass sprayed with shiso mist; a nice serving of Osetra caviar (that didn’t particularly go with the accompanying sweet potato puree); the visually stunning razor clam with basil seeds (a signature dish); a roasted potato served in a delicious bouillabaisse broth; and foie gras that was frozen and finely shaved over lychee.

IMG_1397

I must admit that not all the courses were home runs. Spanish mackerel with a runny baked egg was not particularly flavorful. Most of the hot dishes were misses, especially a tough sirloin (although the accompanying potato churro was wonderful) and the chicken pie.

Two dessert courses were pleasant and not too sweet, and at the end Chase comped us some Green Chartreuse, which we had never had before, and really enjoyed.

It was a delightful evening, and I would definitely return to Momofuku Ko.

IMG_1384

Posted in Dining, New York | Comments Off on Momofuku Ko

Florida International Wine Competition 2016

IMG_1226

IMG_1224

IMG_1240

IMG_1241

This was my 25th year judging wines at the Florida State Fair International Wine Competition. It was a strange event this year. Now held before the fair begins, it’s always a bit creepy going to the abandoned fairground.

Various factors, mostly organizational, have caused the number of entries to dwindle from a high of 1800 to less than 400 this year. And last minute conflicts and miscommunication reduced the judges panel this year to only 8, down from a high of 21.

Still it’s aways a fun event, and although California wines were almost absent from the slate this year, New York wines made an excellent showing, with a single New York Winery taking two of the top five prizes.

Jeanne Burgess from San Sebastian and Lakeridge swept the Florida categories. Go Jeanne!

Posted in Wine | Comments Off on Florida International Wine Competition 2016