The Themed Entertainment Association (TEA) – the global, nonprofit membership association for the creators of compelling places and experiences – has announced the slate of TEA Masters honorees for 2020. The TEA Masters program celebrates masters of their craft in the global visitor attractions industry.
The TEA Masters program, initiated several years ago by the TEA Past Presidents Committee, helps boost awareness of the many creative specialties and disciplines that collaborate to produce excellence and breakthrough guest experiences in themed entertainment. Engaging more fully with leading practitioners in these areas benefits our TEA membership community and the industry as a whole, fostering greater appreciation and understanding of the disciplines themselves and their role and impact within a project team.
Each TEA Master has made significant contributions to the industry and helped pave the way for others.
Top three achievements
• Was the first woman engineer at WED (WDI) hired in January, 1979.
• Was part of the opening day show control design and installation teams for EPCOT, Disney-MGM Studio, Animal Kingdom and Euro Disneyland.
• Built and mentored the show control team at WDI Florida.
Linda McBride Alcorn Show Control Engineering
As early as age 10, Linda McBride had constructed a clay model of Disneyland on her bedroom floor complete with copper wires going through the Matterhorn for the Skyway cables. So it’s not surprising that when she obtained her Bachelor’s of Science in Engineering from UCLA, the place she sought employment was WED Enterprises.
She is the “McBride” of Alcorn McBride Inc., the well-known show and media control systems company, but while she lent her name, she was never a partner in the business founded by her husband, Steve Alcorn. Although, in the course of a career with Disney from graduation to retirement, she has had occasion to specify Alcorn McBride products and to give them feedback (“I was their toughest customer.”)
Twenty-two years old and fresh out of college, in 1979 Alcorn was the first woman engineer hired at WED (now Walt Disney Imagineering). She was assigned to the Show Control section of the Electronic Engineering department and began work on the EPCOT project. This young engineer, working on a seminal project that would become a defining model for much of the global themed entertainment industry, took on responsibility for numerous pavilions including World of Motion, France, Canada, China, UK, Germany, Japan, Italy, and parts of CommuniCore.
Her degree in Electronic Engineering gave her a basis in industrial control to apply to the one-off challenges of creating EPCOT. “I knew calculus when I walked in the door at WED, no training in the ‘real world’ whatsoever, had never had a job or an internship, didn’t know how to lock my desk or read a blueprint. I was just trying to get my degree as quickly as I could… I just went straight through school.” She also had pluck. “I really, really wanted to work at Disney, so when they told me they’d lost my resume, I hopped in my car, drove across town and dropped off another copy, and got my interview. She relates that she was later told, ‘the reason we hired you is because you wanted it so bad.’”
After EPCOT, she continued on for nearly four decades at Disney, including a five-month stint at Walt Disney Studios, (led by Don Iwerks) where she gained additional experience working on show control for custom projection systems. Four of the systems were bound for pavilions at Vancouver Expo 86, including three exhibits produced by Bob Rogers. One of those was the pioneering and influential Spirit Lodge show for the General Motors Pavilion; another was for the Rainbow Wars film that was nominated for an Academy Award.
She rejoined the staff at what was now Walt Disney Imagineering. Because she was on the engineering side and not the creative side, she worked largely in the background, bringing one attraction after another to life. Smart and tough, Alcorn was often the only woman in the room at hundreds of meetings. In the late 1980s she relocated to Orlando. For the next almost 30 years she had a hand in many of Disney’s Florida show control projects, new and rehab. In the early 1990s, she relocated to Paris with her infant daughter to supervise show control systems for all of Fantasyland in the new Euro Disneyland park.
Alcorn shared her unique definition of a good show control system: “Unlike most other theme park engineering disciplines (e.g. lighting, audio, projection), a show control system should never make itself apparent to the guests – it should just work flawlessly as if by magic. If I did my job right, no one was ever aware that I had been in the attraction.”
Linda McBride Alcorn retired from Disney in October 2016, having made an historical contribution to the industry, as technology and creative go hand in hand in themed entertainment storytelling. Not only has Linda blazed a pioneering trail in her field, she’s been a generous and encouraging mentor. She considers as one of her greatest accomplishments what she did in her last 8-10 years at Disney, building an Engineering Services team in Florida. “We built up quite a wonderful department to carry on the show control work and maintain the systems,” she says.”I feel like I made a difference in their lives just by showing them a little bit of confidence.”
Attractions with show control systems designed, redesigned, and/or supervised by Linda Alcorn, 1979-2017
Journey into Imagination with Figment
ImageWorks: The What-If Labs
Living with the Land
Soarin’ Around the World
The Seas with Nemo & Friends
Turtle Talk with Crush
The Living Seas
World of Motion
Universe of Energy
Wonders of Life
Journey into YOUR Imagination
Honey, I Shrunk the Audience!
Ellen’s Energy Adventure
Circle of Life: An Environmental Fable
Mexico Gran Fiesta Tour Starring The Three Caballeros
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.
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!
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.
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.
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:
Hunter Valley Wine Tasting Private Tour
It was a memorable day but not in a good way.
We had arranged for a 12 hour private wine tour. Our guide turned out to be a well educated, well traveled wine marketing consultant who also could be described as an Alpha Male, opinionated curmudgeon with decidedly misogynistic tendencies. He was well versed in the nuances of the wine industry and had a very good grasp of future emerging markets, new planting strategies with respect to global warming, and a somewhat solid understanding of future consumption projections.
But he was terrifyingly inept at true wine appreciation coupled with an unwavering belief that he knew it all. For those of you who love wine, the following narrative requires no further explanation:
WINE TASTING TECHNIQUES
Don’t smell it first! Just take a small sip and spritz it around in your mouth for 10 seconds sort of like mouthwash to shock you palate. At this point don’t try to think about what it tastes like (I’m not making this up) but just try to make associations (brunch appropriate, light, elegant, etc.).
Then jump to the next wine and do the same thing.
Then you do what any sane person does in the first place. Swirl the wine in the glass and inhale. But do that 3 times. We might have been instructed to do this intermittently with the second wine but I have blocked this out.
I was however chastised for sniffing before I tasted – apparently this interferes with your initial assessment.
The current market buying trends define the market. If you do not agree you are wrong.
Chardonnays and Cabs were popular 20 years ago. If you still like these and particularly if you like these the way they were produced 20 years ago you are really wrong – you are an affront to the new marketing strategies. American oak barrels and malolactic fermentation are so declasse.
Wines are being made better and better every year due to emerging science. So why would you want to drink older wines? If you hang on to them you lose the varietal characteristics and after several years you just end up with “old red wine” (I kid you not). I specifically asked if he would drink the $45 2015 Cab I was guilt buying tonight or if he would he age it for 5 or 10 years – the answer was tonight.
WINE AS AN INVESTMENT
In spite of our friend’s substantial success in out performing the stock market for many years our guide assured us the only way to make money was to buy $10M of a specific wine and to control the market.
On the other hand this guy is 70+ and driving a tour bus and RS is traveling on Emirates first class…
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!
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 cabswith “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.
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).
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 todo 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!
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.
Our first morning in Hong Kong dawned sunnily but with some ominous dark clouds on the horizon. After a fairly restful night’s sleep I felt pretty much on schedule.
I decided to shake off the lethargy of sitting in one place for 16 hours and went to the fitness center to run on an elliptical. It felt good to move all those muscles! I also discovered the wi-fi was good enough to stream DS9 on Netflix while I sweated.
I had the best shower of my life (OK, only shower in two days) and still had time to grab some delicious wok-fried turnip cakes from the complimentary breakfast upstairs.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
“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.
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!
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Thanks to Ron for setting up a great evening, and to Brad for his generosity with the wines!
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!
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:
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.
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.
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:
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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!
I flew up to Chicago on Friday to spend some time with Steve and Dani. The weather is very strange this time of year – we had lunch outside yesterday and it went from very sunny to threatening to rain with the temp varying by 20 degrees all in the course of one meal!
Our view of the Wrigley Building.
Yesterday we went on a tour of the Chicago Theater which is about to celebrate its 95th birthday. It was originally built as a movie palace – outside of stunning architecture its claim to fame was air conditioning when it opened. Since films were silent then it has a massive pipe organ – the largest pipe was built of wood and was just over 33 feet long! The organ console has “special effects” buttons built in for car horns, sirens, etc. to accompany the silent films. The theater sat over 3500 folks and was actually a medium sized theater for the chain that it was a part of. When it opened there were well over 100 ushers employed all of whom had “to be well brought up young men of good character with a minimum of a high school education”. They also had to be 5’7″ tall and 135 lbs. to fit into the standard uniforms. Similar to our Disney operator signaling systems today, there were elaborate button and light panels all through this massive building so the ushers could communicate where empty seats were. Very impressive for its day!
I finished a cross stitch that I have been working on for 4 years this afternoon so we are going to take it to a framer tomorrow morning before we leave Chicago.
Our first road trip stop is in St. Louis. We are staying in a Four Seasons with a lovely view of the arch which unfortunately is closed due to urban renewal around its base. Also unfortunate is that the view of everything around the arch is a collection of decaying riverfront factories with black walls and smokestacks – no wonder they built the arch so high – perhaps the goal was to be able to see into another state!
Strangely adjacent to this nice hotel is a new casino which is quite lovely but filled with the dregs of humanity – dedicated gambler that I am even I was scared off and retreated back to the room.
Memphis was much nicer than St. Louis. We stayed at the original Peabody – what a wonderful blast from the past! And best of all the ducks are still there. It was so fun – the Duck Master comes out (sort of like a Ring Master) all dressed up in a fancy red coat and after a spiel to the crowd (of several hundred) he ceremoniously lowers red carpeted duck sized stairs and escorts the ducks to the elevator for the ride to their duck palace on the roof. In Orlando, once released from their fountain the ducks broke the land speed record to escape the lobby full of children; the Memphis ducks seem to have much more decorum and walked down the aisle with a majesty that would have befitted the Queen of England.
We ate at a restaurant called Flights. They had wine flights of course but also had food flights as well – so for example they had a salad flight consisting of (3) salads – thank goodness we just ordered one – portions were huge – I forget this is the South and all. Along those lines it is kind of telling how many billboards there are for cardiac care!
In the morning we took a quick drive down Beale Street just to check that off the list (they were still cleaning up from last night’s partying). It’s not quite as romantic at 8:30 AM!
I took my turn at driving today as we continued down I-55 through Mississippi – what a great drive! I have spent so much time driving in Florida with idiots that I had forgotten what it was like to share the road with folks who know what they are doing. And best of all there are virtually no towns en route, so there aren’t any cops either. Everyone has agreed to go 80 MPH and it’s an overall dandy arrangement. I was driving Steve’s stretch Lexus which is SO comfortable – the only bad thing is there is absolutely no feedback as to how fast you are going – I caught myself doing 90 at one point!
New Orlean’s French Quarter defies description – you have seen the pictures of course but the ambiance is kind of like the seedier part of Las Vegas mixed with the funkiness of San Fransisco’s water front with a dollop of New York street life thrown in for good measure. Walking the streets is kind of like driving in Florida – you have to assume you are going to be cut off at every pass – folks start to drink around 11 AM and it is legal to carry drinks with you on the street – so it’s a happy but directionally and balance wise challenged crowd. Bourbon Street is sort of like an exercise in natural selection – the street itself is closed to traffic but the cross streets are not – you get the picture.
Just one block over from Bourbon is Royal Street – a very different vibe. There are still many tourist shops here but there are some fine antique stores as well. We spent an hour in one that was more like a museum with price tags. It was not uncommon to find prices around $75K and there was a painting that had been sourced from the Vatican that was close to $1M. And heaven knows what they had hidden in the back! The place was huge and among other treasure they had a collection of precision world clocks from the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s.
Commander’s Palace turned out to be a dud – incredibly high wine prices, a fairly limited menu and fractured service – oh well.
Last night however we went to and absolutely fabulous new restaurant (R’evolution). Great wine list and the food was outstanding. Steve and Dani had a 1907 Madiera to finish off the meal – perfect in every way!
Halloween in New Orleans is… well let’s just say it ain’t Disney style.
On Bourbon Street one passes cigar puffing men in red tutu’s and matching bustier’s with a lot of muscles and an overall bad attitude. The young ladies in similar attire go down the street without comment. The young ladies (?) hooking for the strip clubs hang out with mostly bare tops covered perhaps by black paint at the most. They are about 15′ away from young boys tap dancing on the street in violation of every child labor law I have ever heard of. We saw a very dapper pair of elderly men (clearly well monied) with impeccable suit jackets, killer shoes and no pants save for very colorful boxer shorts. Then there was the black robed young woman with a large live snake draped around her neck. And the crazy guy naked but for black Speedo who was bragging about being both drunk and high on cocaine… And everyone else is just pretty much 3 sheets to the wind. Several schmucks had fallen by the road and were sleeping it off on the sidewalk. And this was about 5 PM last night. So what I could not get my head around was about this same time a NOLA police car was driving down the road – could not fathom what infraction they were going to go for first? These folks have taken live and let live to a whole new level!
So what I neglected to mention is the music. Music oozes from every pore of the French Quarter – they seem to be be born knowing how to play an instrument. There is nothing repetitive about it – every performance is improvised – as opposed to soul music this is music from the soul – amazing! There was a street band led by an older black lady clarinet player – the best I have ever heard! Her name is Doreen Ketchens; here is one link on YouTube but you can find others as well:
There was also a band that played in a lounge in our hotel. The room was about the same size as lounges on cruise ships and I always felt a slight rocking sensation (but it might have been the champagne…).
Yesterday we had had enough of the city and drove about an hour out of town to a riverfront plantation, Oak Alley. It was a rainy day so it was very uncrowded and it was a little easier to get a sense of what it must have really been like. It is named Oak Alley because an unknown Frenchman planted an avenue of oak trees 80 feet apart in the early 1700’s. He never lived to see them in their full majesty but now they have grown together and form a magnificent arch leading to the river. They funnel any breeze and in the early 1800’s a wealthy French officer built a magnificent home at the end of the Alley for his bride (who sounds like she was actually a pill but whatever.)
The plantation grew sugar cane and employed about 100 slaves. There was an inventory of them from the mid 1800’s and their values ranged from $25 for a very sickly older person to $1500 for a skilled self taught botanist. Morality aside, just from an economic standpoint most of them were not given sufficient food/clothing to survive adequately – they had to supplement their incomes/food by raising crops and animals in their “spare” time; seems a pennywise approach to treating your work force.
So then it was off to Biloxi and the Beau Rivage. It is kind of sad – sort of a southern Las Vegas built on the cheap for senior citizens who have never gotten the chance to travel anywhere else. The only fun fact is for inexplicable reasons it is mandated that the casinos themselves have to be built on barges. So the hotels are built on the water’s edge and the barges are seamlessly attached to them – you can’t detect the seam from the inside. And no, I cannot figure out how they deal with the tides and it’s bugging me…
Last night we had a lovely dinner in a steak house on the top of another hotel – they had a very nice wine list and also were having a 50% off special on the wine – no limits! Had some really good Burgundy at below retail – yeah! And I even won $15 at the casino last night.
Eating habits in the South – no wonder insurance rates are so high! It is just kind of sad. We went to a sushi restaurant in Biloxi and out of 40 rolls only 3 or 4 of them did not feature tempura battered something or overall deep fried or both. Yuk! Amazingly their sashimi preparations were spot on.
En route to the Panhandle I was amazed by the sophistication of Mobile, Alabama – beautiful waterfront convention center and great local restaurants.
Our final stop before Orlando was in Destin, Florida, at a kind of funky pseudo bed and breakfast with a killer Gulf view.
I am going to sleep with the doors open and the waves lapping outside.
Alinea is widely regarded as the top restaurant in the United States, but when we visited five years ago we weren’t impressed. The service seemed stiff, and there were too many directions involved in how to eat each course.
But it had been a few years, and since then we’ve enjoyed many meals at their related restaurant, Next, which changes its entire concept three times a year.
Both restaurants use an advance ticketing system, and it takes quite a bit of planning to book a table. In addition, Alinea won’t accept a booking for odd numbered parties, so we waited until Dani was out of town.
This visit immediately felt different than last time, as the waiters were much more friendly. Linda and I shared a reserve wine pairing, and that was plenty for both of us, because the wines were more eclectic than actually great, although there was an impressive 2005 Chateau Palmer near the end.
I was surprised how many of the courses were the same as five years ago, but there were also many new ones. I don’t think anything was as good as some of the things we’ve gotten at Next, but there were some fun items. These pieces of paper picture different food items, and the small tastes on top of them are designed to taste like the pictured item, even though they appear completely different.
Pretty but not remarkable.
This is an actual slab of concrete, but the concrete-like pieces on top are food.
This was several courses. The best and most interesting thing of the night was a shellfish I was unfamiliar with called Percebes. There were two on the piece of driftwood, and they were consumed by simply biting off the tiny bit that extended from the shell. All the rest of that is just decorative.
Another beautiful presentation, all edible.
There were some interesting flavors here, but again it’s mostly about appearance.
This was a new fun experience: a green apple flavored balloon full of helium, so you could bite it, inhale, and talk like Donald Duck. Just don’t get it in your hair!
This was the final course, which was the same as last time, and didn’t thrill us. They put down a mat and the chef decorates it with dessert. It’s not particularly interesting, just outre.
The menu was presented at the end of the meal. The size of the circle indicates the size of the course, the darkness of the circle indicates the intensity of flavor, and the position of the circle indicates sweetness (the farther to the right, the sweeter).
In summation, I thought Alinea was better than last time, but still not anywhere near the top of my restaurant scale. There are many places in Chicago I’d rather go, including Next, Boka, Grace, Intro and Sepia. Also, having just been to Victoria and Albert’s for Linda’s birthday the week before, it really pointed out how the experiences are not remotely on the same level.
Maybe in another five years we’ll give it another try.
For Linda’s birthday we invited Ron and Bev to join us at Victoria & Albert’s at Disney’s Grand Floridian.
We’ve been going to this restaurant every Christmas Eve for twenty years, and we should really try to get there more often, as everyone treats us like family there. Plus, it’s the closest restaurant to our house, and was recently voted #6 in the country by Trip Advisor.
The restaurant has recently changed from two seatings per night to one, which makes it nice, because you have your table for the night. Given that it’s always sold out, it was nice of Israel, the manager, to find so much space for our wines.
When Linda and I go we usually have the wonderful wine pairing, but this was a special night, so Ron and I coordinated to bring some spectacular old French Wines.
I feel like the restaurant, which was always great, has really upped their game during our last few visits. This meal began with four of the best courses I’ve had anywhere.
We love the Osetra caviar, and Chef Scott Hunnell’s cauliflower panacotta provides an amazing base for it. Israel poured a Champagne from their list that was a great match. The Alaskan salmon rolled around crab and topped with caviar was also a wonderful new dish that went perfectly with our Aubert chardonnay. The sable fish with soy and mushroom really went well with the Burgundies we were starting on. And this new langoustine dish had us going back to the Aubert to match its butteriness. Wow, four great dishes. The chicken and pork dishes that followed were good matches to the rest of our Burgundies, if not quite at the same stellar level. And the Australia Wagu worked well with the Bordeaux. We had our favorite server, Anita, who we’ve missed on our last few visits.
Our first dessert included their sour cream ice cream, which everyone knows is my favorite! There was also a chocolate dessert, but we just asked them to box that and brought it home for Chastity.
By the end of the evening we were the last table, and we had a chance to chat with many of our friends from the staff. A final surprise when we got home: Israel had placed a birthday gift in my wine bag for Linda, a gorgeous Batard-Montrachet Grand Cru! What a wonderful night with old friends.
This was one of the best flights of six red wines I’ve ever had, with every wine showing beautifully. My favorite of the night drifted back and forth several times, but I finally settled on the 1959, which after three hours had an almost infinitely complex nose.
We took advantage of cool weather and beautiful blue skies to drive 60 miles west of Chicago to All Season Apple Orchard in Woodstock, Illinois. From Late August until early November they have a corn maze, apple orchard, and many other attractions.
We were fairly early, and I expected to be almost alone, but there were already hundreds of cars in the parking area, and a long line to buy tickets. I guess everyone else thought is was a great day to pick apples, too. Once inside, it wasn’t particularly crowded, as the place is huge, and it was mostly families with small children playing on the bounce houses and in the corn pit.
We began by watching the pig races, which were pretty funny.
Then we ventured into the maze. Dani complained that I was looking at the map, but I pointed out that she was taking the well-trod paths, which seemed much the same thing. There was a fun “Clue” type mystery to solve by finding clues in the maze and punching your card.
Once we found our way back out of the maze we had a quick bite to eat (while dodging the bees who really liked our cider). Then we took the wagon ride to the orchard to pick apples.
We paid extra to pick Honey Crisp apples, and boy are they sweet and crisp, especially right off the tree!
I had never been in a corn maze or picked fruit before, and both were really fun activities.
After purchasing the new condo in downtown Chicago we wanted to transport some big, heavy stuff like art work and dishes, so Dani and I decided to road trip via Atlanta, Nashville and Louisville. This would have the added advantage of a car in Chicago for the summer, which would ease the move from Evanston.
Only 1268 miles to go.
Atlanta. Dani tries out my new Apple watch.
Opryland hotel. Impressive but probably wouldn’t stay here again. Checking in is like queuing at a theme park. In fact, it is a theme park, and I did work on an AV installation here many years ago.
Louisville slugger. I really like the 21c Museum Hotel next door. We’ve stayed there twice. Not much other reason to come to Louisville, though!
Home! (Well, actually we had to store the stuff in Evanston–or the trunk–for a couple of weeks until after the closing.) Some of the heavy stuff we transported.
Every year Ron hosts a dock party at Hillstone’s. It’s a great venue if the weather cooperates. Last year we froze our tushes off, but this year it was perfect: mid 80s with a constant breeze off the lake.
In attendance were Ron, Bev, Keith, Parlo, Linda, Andres, Paula, Carsten and Jill, the sommelier from the new Four Seasons resort.
Hillstone’s has gone to a bizarre policy of only serving appetizers on the dock, even to private parties, even though they are serving the full menu to people 50 feet away from the dock. Fortunately the manager who came up with this asinine idea was fired yesterday, so maybe next year’s event will be a bit more flexible.
As always, the smoked salmon was a highlight. I’d never had the grilled artichoke before, which was also good. And at the end of the evening we talked them out of some steaks. I loved the Hawaiian Rib Eye. The accompanying Kale salad was the best I’ve had anywhere, with a subtle vinaigrette mixed in, and a few bits of peanut.
Everyone brought some great wines. My wine of the night was Ron’s 1959 Clos Vougeot, as evidenced by the number and breadth of my notes.
Most of the wines were served blind, and Ron identified my 1993 CDP right down to the producer. Impressive!
Jacques Selosse la cote Faron – Ron
Toast honey citrus light oxidation 94
Billecarte Salmon Sous Bois – Andres
2002 Dom Perignon – Keith
Lemon vanilla 90
2005 Roulot Meursault Les Meix Cheval – Ron
Mineral slate butter lemon smoke 97
2003 Clos du Pappilon Baumard – Andres
Minerality outboard motor exhaust 93
1988 Ch Haut Brion 375ml – Steve
Slate, drinking older 93
1988 Ch la Grange – Steve
Herbaceous, chewy, red fruit, youthful, coffee, chocolate 95
2006 Araujo Eisele – Keith
Vanilla, big fruit, baking spices, 99
1959 Clos Vougeot Etroius – Ron
Metal, spice, lichen, brine, dirty martini, cigar, dark cherry, tannins, olive, caramel, bacon 99
1961 Corton Hospices de Beaune – Steve
Brown sugar, leather, bit o honey candy 95
For Christmas I gave Dani a VIP tour of Universal Orlando. She was sick after Christmas, so she flew back to town President’s Day weekend to do it.
These tours are limited to twelve people. A guide takes you around both parks, including through some backstage areas, and lets you skip the line at ten attractions. We actually got in fifteen attractions, and then stayed a bit longer to return to the Harry Potter area so we could ride the Hogwarts Express in both directions.