Road Trip: Pacific Northwest

This was a delightful 12-day trip around Washington State and part of Oregon. Dani and I initially planned it, but I was able to talk Linda into going, too. It was so much fun to have the whole family traveling together!

I’ve embedded the best travel photos, but for photos of the meals and wineries, click on the links to my Yelp reviews.

Monday, August 2, 2021 — Seattle

Linda and I flew in to Seattle from Orlando, and Dani flew in from Chicago. First class makes the 6-hour non-stop trip on Delta much more pleasant. Covid meant the fares were cheaper, but it also meant that first class service consisted of a box of junk food!

We picked up our SUV from Alamo at SEATAC. Since we wanted to bring back wine, we had a couple of wine case pieces of luggage, so we needed a pretty good sized vehicle. When they offered us an upgrade I took it, but we were a bit startled at the massive size when we saw it. One thing’s for sure, we never had any trouble fitting in our luggage!

Since it was just past noon we had some time to kill before check-in, so we drove north of downtown to Sisi Kay Thai Eatery & Bar, where we had a delightful lunch, dining all by ourselves. A few blocks away was our first tourist stop, the bizarreness that is Archie McPhee!

Because our itinerary happened to take us to the major cities of this trip (Seattle and Portland) on Mondays and Tuesdays when lots of places are closed, it was a little tricky getting into some of the restaurants I was most interested in. The pandemic has also created some irregular operating times and staffing challenges for them.

But we were lucky and the new Loupe Lounge at Seattle’s Space Needle was open, and I’d managed to book a table. This was a fantastic experience involving lots of liquid nitrogen cocktail making, a whiskey flight, and endless pours of Taittanger Comte Rose Champagne, along with plentiful bites of gourmet foods to accompany everything. For me, this was one of the highlights of the trip.

Next stop was our condo on the waterfront just north of downtown Seattle. This was our first of four Airbnb stays on this trip, and all were lovely in their own ways. This one was a two bedroom condo on the 16th floor with a view of the bay and Puget Sound.

Tuesday, August 3, 2021

We walked back to the area around the Space Needle (which is on the World’s Fair grounds from 1962), stopping at the Artisan Cafe for excellent Bahn Mi sandwiches, which we ate on park benches. Then we visited the Museum of Pop Culture. This used to be The Experience Music Project and Science Fiction Museum and Hall of Fame started by Microsoft’s Paul Allen, but its theme has been broadened. I was a bit disappointed that there was more pop culture in the gift shop than in the somewhat limited exhibit spaces, although there was a good LGBT history exhibit, and a few interesting bios in the Science Fiction Hall of Fame.

We took the monorail back to downtown (a two minute ride!) and sampled some just okay tacos off the Solamente Pastor taco truck. Later, for dinner, we walked to Wann Japanese Izakaya, probably Linda’s favorite meal of the trip.

Wednesday, August 4, 2021

Dani and I got biscuits for breakfast overlooking the waterfront at Honest Biscuits. My shoes were falling apart, so we walked to Nordstom’s Rack and I got some new loafers. Then we rode motorized scooters back! Great fun, but we should have ridden them UP the hills to Nordstrom’s, too!

For lunch we walked downtown for sandwiches at Cherry Street Coffee House, then went next door and down Beneath the Streets for a tour and history of Seattle’s past. I highly recommend this, as you can see how the city was built up and elevated a full story after being destroyed by fire.

I really wanted to see the spectacular new tiki bar Inside Passage, and this was our only time slot when it was open. You enter through a hidden door from the adjacent bar, Rumba (I think this space was previously a speakeasy theme). This was the only place on our trip where we were asked to show proof of vaccination. Bravo!

Inside Passage did not disappoint! I wish we’d had more time to spend there. Had I known how much food they offered I would not have made a dinner reservation elsewhere. The space is absolutely spectacular, with wonderful nautical decor, a beautiful bar, and cozy booths. But the most spectacular aspect is the giant octopus that looms overhead!

Dinner was a tasting menu at Art of the Table. It was very good, but we were still talking about Inside Passage.

Thursday, August 5, 2021

We checked out and headed for wine country. Dani wisely suggested we take a detour over the mountains, which was a great plan, since much of the road to Walla Walla is pretty desolate. A scenic drive took us to Snoqualamie Falls and then Leavenworth, Washington, a Bavarian themed tourist town that reminded us of Salvang, California.

We had German food at Colchuck’s and then continued south to Gard Vintners Wine Tasting Room in Ellensburg. I was familiar with Gard from wines I’d purchased on Casemates, so I wanted to try their other offerings. This was the first of many wine clubs I joined along our route!

We arrived in Walla Walla after 8pm, so dining options were limited. We had okay Mexican food at the incredibly brightly lit El Sombrero. Then we checked into our Airbnb, a cute two bedroom home built in the 1920s, and right across the street from Pioneer Park, with its lovely lawns and big trees.

Friday, August 6, 2021 — Walla Walla

Our Walla Wala Airbnb had chickens in the back yard, so Dani and I had fresh eggs every morning!

Friday was our big day for Walla Walla wine tasting. We followed recommendations from the wine club director we met the previous day at Gard Vintners. Our first stop was at L’Ecole No. 41, housed in a gorgeous historic schoolhouse. The wines were good, but not something we wanted more of, so we actually bought a bottle of something we hadn’t tasted.

At some wineries there is a tasting fee, so if we don’t like the wine we don’t feel obligated to buy. Other times the fee is waived for a certain purchase, or if you join their club. But if there is no fee, we always buy a bottle of something as a thank you.

Our next stop was Woodward Canyon, a nice facility, where we had a relaxing outdoor tasting. The wines were good if not spectacular.

Our best discovery was Reininger, where we tasted their wines under a big shade tree on their lawn. We loved the way they served the wines all at once, in essentially shot glasses, along with big wine glasses, making it easy to share and to compare. We joined their club, which gives us the flexibility of picking our wines each quarter.

Back in downtown Walla Walla, Kontos had a spacious tasting room but few customers, and the wines were not inspiring. We had a wonderful French lunch at Brasserie Four. It was so good we considered going back for dinner!

Our final tasting stop for the day was at The House of Smith, a barn-like facility in downtown Walla Walla where you can try all of crazy man Charles Smith’s wines, including our favorite offerings from K Vintners. Again, the wines were served in flights. We joined this club, too.

Dinner was at The Kitchen at Abeja. This restaurant, located in the tasting facility of Abeja Winery, had only been open three weeks, but they served an ambitious tasting menu under the direction of a young chef who interned at two Michelin-starred restaurants in France. Her food definitely shows promise, and it will be interesting to see how this restaurant evolves.

Saturday, August 7, 2021

Saturday we went for a walk in the park across the street. They have a very large aviary with many birds, especially various types of pheasant. It’s a great town-supported feature.

Our final Walla Walla wine tasting stop was at Alton Wines. It’s a gorgeous new facility with a stunningly modern tasting room. I’d guess it is a rich entrepreneurs passion project. It was a bit odd, because they were out of most of their wines, and their club is on a waiting list because they have only limited wines. The only wine we really liked was a Sangiovese which—you guessed it—they were out of. They were only planning on being open one more weekend this season, and I can see why!

We went to lunch at the historic Ice-Burg Drive-In, which was very slow, and more historic than good.

Dinner was far more successful. We ate upstairs in the loft a TMACS in downtown Walla Walla. Our waiter, Caleb, was one of the best we have ever had, and this was one of the best meals of the trip. The restaurant was dimly lit (upstairs, anyway) and quiet enough for good conversation—an oasis from the lively bar directly below.

We were surprised, in retrospect, by Walla Walla wines. My expectation was that the Syrahs would be the best, since I’m most familiar with Charles Smith’s fruit bombs such as BOOM BOOM Syrah, and Troublemaker. But he has sold those brands off, and his focus (and that of all the other wineries we visited) is on a much wider range of varietals. Overall, I think it was the Bordeaux blends that most impressed us.

Walla Walla is actually split by the Washington/Oregon border, and there are different micro climes in different areas. It’s also worth noting that many of the best wines we had from Walla Walla wineries were actually made with grapes from the Columbia Valley.

Sunday, August 8, 2021

The drive along the Columbia River is not particularly scenic until you get close to Portland. Multnomah Falls is really the first photo op. I reminded us of Bridal Veil Falls in Yosemite, but that might be because of the drought the whole Pacific Northwest has been experiencing. We were lucky that none of the resulting fires affected our trip much, although we often smelled smoke.

We picnicked along the river, watching the hundreds of kiteboarders taking advantage of the constant, strong winds that blow up the valley.

The one thing Portland is known for that was a must for Dani: a stop at Voodoo Doughnuts! They were as good as they look, although I must say that Chicago has become quite a donut town, and I think you could find their equal there, with a little work.

Since we were early, we drove on past our accommodations and visited Carlton Winemaker’s Studio. This is a neat concept that offers tastings of the wines of fifteen different wineries. We had a lovely afternoon sitting on the patio tasting wines and munching on charcuterie from their charcuterie vending machine(!)

In the evening we checked into our beautiful Airbnb in Dundee, about 20 miles west of Portland, and in the middle of Willamette Valley wine country. This home was gorgeous, two stories, with three bedrooms and a professional decor. Dinner was just down the hill at Tina’s, a charming restaurant where Linda ordered the winning dishes.

Monday, August 9, 2021 — Willamette Valley

Our winery day in the Willamette Valley was somewhat limited by it being a Monday, and we had to plan ahead because nearly all the wineries here require 24 hour advance reservations. But we made good choices. We started at Archery Summit, with a tasting on the patio overlooking the vineyards. While a few different wines are produced in this area, pretty much everything that impressed us was Pinot Noir. That ws the case here, and we joined their club, which allows you to custom select your wines.

Our next stop was Domaine Serene, easily the most beautiful winery I’ve ever visited. Looking more like a Four Seasons Hotel, it’s perched high above the Willamette Valley, with expansive views in all directions. In addition to Oregon wines, they also own two properties in Burgundy, so they offer both an Oregon and a Burgundy club. We ended up joining both! They also serve food, so we enjoyed a leisurely afternoon of wine, charcuterie, cheese, and bread. I’d never heard of this winery, but it was clearly the highlight of our wine tour.

Linda had hit the wall, so we dropped her off at our Airbnb and then Dani and I continued on to Ken Wright Cellars in Carlton. They produce a myriad of pinot noirs, but they seemed clumsy after the wines at Domaine Serene, and they weren’t particularly cheap. Linda made the right call.

On the way back to the Airbnb, Dani and I detoured to Honey Pie to pick up pizzas. They were good, and also provided useful leftovers for later picnics.

I’ve never thought Oregon pinot noirs lived up to the hype from the 80s and 90s. As a Burgundy fan, they have always struck me as lacking the New World fruit of California pinot, yet rarely developing the earthy complexity of true Burgundy. But perhaps the problem has been that I’ve been unwilling to pay enough for them. At Domaine Serene, where we tasted $90 Oregon pinots against $90 Burgundies, they were quite comparable. Of course, these are wines made under the same management. Still, it will be interesting to see what Oregon pinots show up this year from the clubs we joined. Perhaps a reassessment is in order.

Tuesday, August 10, 2021 — Oregon Coast

You can’t go to Oregon without experiencing the dramatic Oregon coast, so we headed out on a big circle, taking us from the vineyards through the forests to the rocky coast, and then back again.

The aptly named Haystack Rock was our first scenic stop, and Dani got a chance to dip her foot into this side of the Pacific Ocean (she’d already done the other side in Australia). The we stopped at Cannon Beach Hardware and Public House (also known as the Screw and Brew) for fish and chips. Yes, it really is a hardware store.

We’d intended to stop at the Tillamook Creamery, but the acres of parking lot were packed and there was a Disney-like line to get in.

Dinner was an elaborate, 20 course affair at Joel Palmer House in Dayton, Oregon. They have the world’s largest cellar of Oregon Pinot Noir, with 800 selections. The food emphasizes mushrooms in most courses, so it perfectly matched a well-aged 2004 pinot from Beaux Freres.

Wednesday, August 11, 2021 — Enchanted Forest

Justin told me I’d like Enchanted Forest, and he was right! It’s a mom and pop theme park located about 50 miles south of Portland. I loved the charming walk-throughs, and the way it engages childrens’ imaginations. This is my favorite kind of theme park. We went early, saw most everything, and were on the road north by lunch time.

Lunch was a quick stop at Republica in Portland. This is an interesting take on Mexican food, with a menu that changes daily. It’s probably more interesting at night, when they have a tasting menu. But with counter service and only two tables inside, it’s a bit hard to imagine how that works.

The drive to Mount Rainier National Park was quite scenic, and we arrived at our Airbnb lodging right on time. It’s called Knot-a-Care-Cabin, and it’s as cute as the name implies, with every little detail decorated in bears and other rustic motif.

A deer welcomed our arrival. The bedroom is a loft, high in the peak of the roof, accessed by a ladder—but Linda and I managed it without incident!

Dinner was the oddest, and in many ways one of the best, of the trip. We ate at one of the only places around, Wildberry Restaurant in Ashford. It is owned by a Himalayan sherpa who holds the record for fastest ascent of Mount Everest, and who has scaled that mountain ten times. The servers are also Himalayan, and our waiter was quite frenetic. He spoke in a high-pitched, almost hysterical voice. But the service was very efficient, even though their tent-covered patio was completely full. It turns out Himalayan food is very similar to Indian food, and it was very tasty.

Thursday, August 12, 2021 — Mount Rainier

Our day of sightseeing in Mount Rainier National Park made us realize how lucky we had been during the rest of our trip, as the smoke from the California, Oregon, and Washington wildfires really settled in. We were glad we had our masks. Still, we hiked a couple of scenic trails, saw some dramatic waterfalls, and circled all the way around Mount Rainier on our way back to Seattle.

We spent the night at the gorgeous Cedarbrook Lodge right next to SEATAC airport. It’s hard to believe you are near the airport in this bucolic setting. Before dinner we had a drink at the bar and the unique bartender introduced us to Amaro Amorino Riserva, made by a local distiller, which we liked very much. Dinner was at their Copperleaf Restaurant. The food and server were very good. And our server owns a timeshare in Orlando, which sort of brought the trip full circle! Then it was time for our early morning wakeup and our Friday the 13th trip back home.

It was a great family trip, and I’m so glad all three of us could do it together. Perhaps next time Trish will be able to join us, too!

Australia 2017

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

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

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

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

Those are fireworks to the right of the Opera House.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The next day I was ready for a rest and to get caught up on the computer, but Linda and Dani went on a wine excursion to the Hunter Valley.

I’ll let Linda describe that:

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.

Repeat.

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.

TASTING PREFERENCES

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.

OLDER WINES

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…

Ngong Ping Cable Car

Guest post by Dani.

Hong Kong 2017 – Day 5

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

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

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

The views were stunning.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

We got cold beverages with the most appetizing names.

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

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

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

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

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

Unfortunately, the meal was terrible.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hong Kong’s Cat Cafe and Amber

Guest post by Dani.

Hong Kong 2017 – Day 4

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hong Kong History Museum and Yum Cha

Guest post by Dani.

Hong Kong 2017 – Day 3

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My major criterion was that it had to be cute.

We succeeded admirably.

I liked everything.

Dad did not.

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

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

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

 

Not Corn

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

That is not corn.

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

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

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

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

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

Oriole Madeira and Vermouth Cocktail

  • 2 parts Rare Wine Company Charleston Sercial Madeira
  • 3 parts Cocchi Americano Bianco
  • 3 parts Noilly Prat Ambre
  • Splash of Club Soda
  • Serve over ice

Oriole With Our Wine Group

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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.

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Delicious Disney at Golden Oak

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

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

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

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

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

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

Truly a lovely evening.

Another Kabooki Sushi Stunner

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

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

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

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The Wines

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

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

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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.

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

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

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

1978 Santenay
Light bodied, citrus, strawberry, 90 pts

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

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

Alcorn Tours Guide to Chicago

Refer to this map:

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

Geography

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

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

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

Transportation

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

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

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

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

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

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

Things to Do

City Pass Chicago

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

Shedd Aquarium – VIP ENTRY

*Skydeck Chicago – FAST PASS

*The Field Museum – VIP ENTRY

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

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

I put an asterisk on the best choices.

http://www.citypass.com/chicago

Museum of Science and Industry

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

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

http://www.msichicago.org/

The Art Institute of Chicago

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

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

http://www.artic.edu/

Field Museum

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

https://www.fieldmuseum.org/

Chicago Architecture Foundation River Cruise

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

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

Chicago Loop Bridges

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

http://chicagoloopbridges.com/

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

http://www.bridgehousemuseum.org/

Sears Tower (no one calls it Willis Tower)

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

http://theskydeck.com/

Lincoln Park Zoo

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

http://www.lpzoo.org/

http://www.northpondrestaurant.com/

Navy Pier

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

John Hancock Tower

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

http://www.360chicago.com/

https://www.signatureroom.com/

Richard H. Driehaus Museum

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

http://www.driehausmuseum.org/

Chicago Theatre

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

http://www.thechicagotheatre.com/tour

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

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

Museum of Broadcast Communications

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

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

Frank Lloyd Wright Home and Studio

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

http://www.flwright.org/

Mars Cheese Castle

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

http://www.marscheese.com/

Indiana Wineries

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

http://www.butlerwinery.com/

http://www.shadycreekwinery.com/

Tastebud Food Tours

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

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

Live Music & Bars

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

Andy’s Jazz Club

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

http://www.andysjazzclub.com/

City Winery

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

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

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

Untitled Supper Club

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

http://untitledsupperclub.com/

Three Dots and a Dash

This is the best Tiki Bar you will ever go to. It’s not really on Clark. Enter the alley on Hubbard and follow the neon light to the door. Reservations essential. Even neater is the tiny Bamboo Room within Three Dots and a Dash. A separate, prepaid reservation is needed here. For fiifty dollars you get several custom made tiki drinks, or can have a rum tasting. Ask to sit at the bar so you can talk with the bartender as he makes your drinks.

http://threedotschicago.com/

Restaurants

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

Things to NOT eat in Chicago:

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

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

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

Best Restaurant in Town (and the country) – Oriole

The secret is out (two Michelin stars in the first 7 months) but the best place in town is Oriole. Reservations well in advance essential. Don’t be alarmed that it looks like a warehouse and you are entering off an alley.

http://www.oriolechicago.com/

French – La Sardine

Traditional French Bistro food, perfectly done.

http://www.lasardine.com/

New American – Cafe des Architects

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

http://www.cafedesarchitectes.com/

Eclectic – Girl and the Goat

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

http://girlandthegoat.com/

Chinese – Imperial Lamian

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

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

Hamburger – Au Cheval

The most famous hamburger in America is at Au Cheval, but good luck getting in. There are a few spinoffs called Small Cheval that are more accessible. But you can also get Au Cheval’s hamburger at a salad place(!) See below.

http://auchevaldiner.com/

Salad – 3 Greens Market

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

http://3greensmarket.com/

Sushi and Cocktails – Kumiko

Created by the folks behind the amazin Oriole, Kumiko was selected by Time magazine as one of the best 200 PLACES in the world–not just restaurants. Craft cocktails and creative Asian food. Best to try to reserve a seat at the bar. Even more exclusive is the downstairs Kikko with an omakase served at a small bar.

https://barkumiko.com/

Pizza – Coalfire

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

http://coalfirechicago.com/

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

http://www.doughbrospizzasubs.com/

Barbecue – Chicago q

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

http://www.chicagoqrestaurant.com/

Indian – Vermillion

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

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

Steak – Gibson’s Italia

There is almost a steakhouse in every block of River North. One of the most famous is Gibson’s, but this is a new location with a dramatic view of the river. Despite the name, it’s really about steaks, not Italian food. 

https://gibsonsitalia.com

Fish – GT Fish and Oyster

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

http://gtoyster.com/

Italian – RPM Italian

Run by Lettuce Entertainment, a very successful restaurant operator in Chicago, with dozens of great restaurants. Avoid the Michelin-starred Spiaggia.

http://rpmrestaurants.com/rpmitalian/chicago/

Popcorn – Garrett’s

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

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

Donuts – Stan’s

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

http://www.stansdonutschicago.com/

http://www.goglazed.com/

Hotels

Best Hotels in Chicago

Peninsula

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

Four Seasons

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

Ritz Carlton

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

Trump

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

Langham

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

Convenient Moderate Hotels

The Intercontinental

http://www.icchicagohotel.com/

The Gwen

http://www.thegwenchicago.com/

The Chicago Marriott Downtown Magnificent Mile

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

Omni

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

Conrad

http://www.conradchicagohotel.com/

James

http://www.jameshotels.com/chicago

Palomar

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

Sofitel

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

Convenient Cheap Hotels

Hilton Garden Inn

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

Courtyard

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

Homewood Suites

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

Hampton Inn

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

Burgs at Berns

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

New York Dining

Waitress Preview Day 2

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.)

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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.

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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.

Momofuku Ko

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Steve’s Birthday Food and Wine Festival

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For my 60th birthday, everyone at Alcorn McBride got together and secretly planned a spectacular progressive lunch. Each person decorated their office to match one of my interests, and prepared one of my favorite foods. And Martin matched them all with wines. Needless to say, after 17 offices, we were all having a pretty great time, and the celebrating went on into the evening. Thanks everyone, for a very memorable birthday!

IMG_1134Best to take cover when Mike is opening the Champagne.

IMG_1138We started with a Champagne reception in the Sales area.

IMG_0211They gave me a Champagne sword. I decided it would be smarter not to test it.

IMG_2293Who would have imagined that Jim would do bacon? This was actually the most amazing wine pairing of the day, an Alsatian white.

IMG_1086 Dmitri did Hawaiian shorts and tira misu.

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Adam did Asian food.

IMG_1123Hunter did “Things Steve Hates,” including Chick-Fil-A and wine coolers!

IMG_1090Martin’s theme was Burgundy, and of course he had the best wine.

IMG_1091Joy’s Star Trek theme featured exotic Klingon food and wine.

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Devin did Kitty Kat Nap Salad from Yellow Dog Eats

IMG_1097Loren’s theme was writing, and her food was PB&J (and her wine was sweet and tasty).

IMG_1099Alex made lamb burgers from Australia.

IMG_1110Alan’s theme was Tesla, complete with his own home-made Jacob’s ladder and home-made chili from a wild boar that he single handedly wrestled to the ground.

IMG_1179Kara was one of the main organizers, and was constantly on the move, which may or may not explain why she is blurry here.

IMG_1102Justin’s theme was Epcot, of course.

IMG_1116Scott’s theme was Wicked. Only one witch died to make this green cocktail.

IMG_1119Joseph is our beer expert, and he picked a delicious stour and porter, and made beer floats!

IMG_1106JR did Smoke House garlic bread using my recipe, and it turned out better than I’ve ever done. I’m jealous.

IMG_1171Alex provided hats and took advantage of this one to give himself a Steve-inspired pony tail.

IMG_1165Will tries on one of the hats provided by the warehouse. It may be a bit small on him.

IMG_1182Chris models another of the hats from the warehouse crew.

IMG_1121Mike’s office was ballroom dance themed, with pate and Champagne.

Thanks for a fabulous birthday, everyone! It was unforgettable!

Chicago, New Orleans, Orlando – Linda’s Road Trip Blog

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!

IMG_7764Our view of the Wrigley Building.

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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!

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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.


 

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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.


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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.

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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!


IMG_0370New 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.

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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.

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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!

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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!

IMG_0471So 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…).


IMG_0529Yesterday 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.)

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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…

IMG_0550Last 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.


 

 

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Our final stop before Orlando was in Destin, Florida, at a kind of funky pseudo bed and breakfast with a killer Gulf view.

IMG_0573 I am going to sleep with the doors open and the waves lapping outside.

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Alinea – a Return Visit

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.
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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.

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Pretty but not remarkable.

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This is an actual slab of concrete, but the concrete-like pieces on top are food.

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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.

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Another beautiful presentation, all edible.

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There were some interesting flavors here, but again it’s mostly about appearance.

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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!

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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).

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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.

Linda’s Birthday at V&A

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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.

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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.

IMG_0114We 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.
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The Alaskan salmon rolled around crab and topped with caviar was also a wonderful new dish that went perfectly with our Aubert chardonnay.
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The sable fish with soy  and mushroom really went well with the Burgundies we were starting on.
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And this new langoustine dish had us going back to the Aubert to match its butteriness. Wow, four great dishes.
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The chicken and pork dishes that followed were good matches to the rest of our Burgundies, if not quite at the same stellar level.
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And the Australia Wagu worked well with the Bordeaux.
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We had our favorite server, Anita, who we’ve missed on our last few visits.

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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.

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Wine Notes

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.

2010 Aubert Chardonnay Ritchie Vineyard (Steve) 94 pts

Honey, spice, butter, toast

1961 Pierre Ponnelle Echezeaux (Ron) 96 pts

Cherry, young, Asian spice

1959 Leroy Grand Echezeaux (Steve) 98 pts

Green leaves, brioche, red fruit, mushroom, iron, curry, spearmint, really evolved over 3 hours

1978 DRC Romanee St. Vivant (Ron) 94 pts

Dates, cherry, bread

1997 Leroy Romanee St. Vivant (Steve) 94 pts

Wood, sour cherry, floral, violet, spice

1982 Ch La Mission Haut Brion (Ron) 95 pts

Dust, wax, plums, black fruits, smoke

1982 Ch Haut Brion (Steve) 94 pts

Roses, wax, herbs, wet gravel, red fruits

Burgundy and Bordeaux at Capa

Capa

Our friends Ron and Bev are the only couple we know where no matter what old wine I pull from my cellar, they can match it. So when they invited us to try Capa at the new Four Seasons Hotel at Disney World, we jumped at the chance, and pulled some fantastic old wines to take along. Having met Capa’s sommelier, Jill Davis, a few weeks ago at a private party on Hilstone’s dock, we knew we were in for a treat, and we weren’t disappointed.

Oddly, this is the most austere Four Seasons I’ve been to, all hard surfaces and glaring lights. It’s the sort of place where the artwork is mostly square canvasses of one solid color.

Unfortunately, this austerity continues into the restaurants, including the flagship Capa on the 17th floor. What could be a real gem of a restaurant is defeated by an environment that sacrifices warmth for trendiness.

Certainly Capa has a lot to offer in the way of food. During a marathon evening of wine tasting we tried more than half the menu, and liked most of what we had.

The Hamachi Crudo, served with Clementines and a crunchy Horseradish topping was everyone’s favorite, and we had two orders and wanted more.

The Charcuterie Board was the best I’ve had. It includes Jamon Serrano, Cantimpalo, Lomo and we added some Iberico. The Lomo was particularly good.

The olive asortment included Arbequina, Gordal and Empeltre on the night we were there. Some were pitted, some not, and being served slightly warmed really increased their flavor profile.
The Shrimp coated with Chili were very pungent, a bit overwhelming with ours wines.

Patatas Bravas Potatoes looked like tater tots, but were amazingly fluffy, with a delicious Paprika and Black Garlic coating—some of the best potatoes I’ve ever had, and small enough to not feel guilty.

I’m not a big Pork Belly fan, but this version had been seared extra crispy, and I ate all of the generous portion.

The Octopus was chewy and lacked the crisp char needed to make it interesting.

Veal Cheeks had a gamey aroma that was quite unappealing.

The roasted Cauliflower was delicious, and served with a sunny side up egg for dipping.

For entrees we tried the 8 ounce Filet and the 12 ounce New York Strip. Both were prime. The filet, having been marinated, had an exotic succulence. The strip boasted a great smokey flavor from the grill and dry aging. Both were pretty pricey, but worth it.

The Bernaise Sauce was unusually thin (and a scanty portion) but proved to be a delicious dipping sauce for the strip, and its thinness actually made it a better accompaniment. It had lots of traditional Bernaise flavor.

The best side dish was the diced Carrot and Celery Root served with Pesto. The Swiss Chard and the Wild Mushrooms were both unremarkable. Yukon Gold mashed potatoes with Brown Butter were good, but not as good as they sound.

We also had an assorted dessert platter with ice creams, cakes, and some really good churros.

Service was up to the Four Seasons standard, with everyone extremely helpful and friendly.

It’s worth the hunt for an unlocked door so you can view the Disney fireworks from the terrace outside, which is a welcome escape from the boxy dining room and open kitchen.

I wouldn’t hesitate to return to Capa for the great food and wine service, but it’s not a place I’d pick for a cozy or romantic evening. With different seating, surfaces and lighting I’d be there every week.

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Notes on the Wines

Capa is lucky to have Jill Davis as Sommelier. She is perhaps Central Florida’s most knowledgable sommelier. The wine list is superb, and excellently priced. On this evening we brought our own wines, and Jill provided superb wine service and insightful comments on all of them.

Jacques Selosse Initial (Ron)
Very crisp, only slight oxidation, lemon pith, brioche, green , 96

2002 Meursault Les Meix Chavaux Domaine Roulot
Closed nose, ashes, caramel, chalk, lanolin, dull, jelly bellies, 88 pts

1961 Chambertin Pierre Damoy (Ron)
Good fruit although thin, light color, slightly cloudy, cork fell in, coffee, 89 pts

1961 J. Thorin Chambertin-Clos de Bèze Grand Cru (Steve)
Fuel oil, acidic, iron, 86 pts

1961 Château Ausone (Ron)
Pleasant perfume, spice box, 91 pts

1961 Château Angélus (Steve)
Mineral nose, nice body, good fruit, 90 pts

1959 Echezeaux Pierre Ponnelle (Ron)
Deep color, great fruit, drinking 20 years younger, caramel, rosewood, caramel, raisins, cherry, baking spices, 97 pts

1959 Hospices de Beaune Beaune 1er Cru Cuvée Dames Hospitalieres Maison Leroy (Steve)
Elegant, traditional, dried rose nose, soy, espresso creme brûlée, great acid, earth, iron, youthful, 97 pts

1966 Château Latour Grand Vin (Ron)
Classic Bordeaux, not a lot of fruit left, 93 pts

1971 Château Latour Grand Vin (Steve)
Deep dark color, peppers, tannic fruit, dust, amazing complexity, very fruity, 94 pts

1966 Ch La Mission Haut Brion (Ron)
Bordeaux character, smoke, straw, ripe fruit, tobacco, a good bottle of this, although I’ve had even better, 94 pts

 

Dock Party at Hillstone’s

DockParty

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.

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In attendance were Ron, Bev, Keith, Parlo, Linda, Andres, Paula, Carsten and Jill, the sommelier from the new Four Seasons resort.

Sea plane landing for lunch at Hilstone's
Sea plane landing for lunch at Hilstone’s

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.

31 Wine line up
31 Wine line up

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.

 

Champagne sabre-ing aftermath
Champagne sabre-ing aftermath

Most of the wines were served blind, and Ron identified my 1993 CDP right down to the producer. Impressive!

My notes:

Wines1

Jacques Selosse la cote Faron – Ron
Toast honey citrus light oxidation 94

Billecarte Salmon Sous Bois – Andres
Citrus 90

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

Wines2

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

1964 Clos Vougeot Gros Freres & Souer- Steve
Spicy, barbecue pork, 94

Wines3

1985 Phelps insignia – Ron
Pepper, Burgundian, 94

1985 Caymus special selection – Ron
Caramel, pine needles 92

1985 Heitz Martha’s – Ron
Good fruit, mint, Girl Scout cookies 93

2007 Pagliaro – Keith
Big tannins, 90

81 Heitz Martha’s – Keith
Odd, green 90

2007 Pipparello – Keith
Young vanilla 93

08 Pontet Canert – Andres
Green, raspberries, 91

08 Ducru Beaucaillou – Andres
Vanilla, 92

Wines4

08 Philip Togni Cabernet Sauvignon – Andres
Tight tannic, dehydrated strawberries, 90

96 Montrose – Gary
Tight, green, very young, 93

96 Cos d’Estornel – Gary
Slightly corked, green vegetal, tight, 91

93 CDP Henri Bonneau – Steve
Recommended by Ron, complex, layered, mint, meat, 97

2003 Soldera – Keith
Cherry, vanilla, stewed tomato 92

2004 Madonna Piana – Keith
Fruit, vanilla 90

2004 Poggio al Vento – Keith
Vanilla, 90

Wines5

1998 Valandraud – Ron
Smoke, Cabernet 96

1998 Pavie – Ron
Tight, Bordeaux-like, Cherry, vanilla, I guessed 2003 Pavie, 92

1998 Ch. L’Evangile – Ron
Classic Bordeaux 94

Champagne Larnandier-Bernier -Andres
Toast, balanced, butter, yeast 93

1992 DRC Romanee Saint Vivant – Ron
Floral, feminine, strawberry 96

 

Ron’s Birthday Extravaganza

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Ron puts together a fantastic collection of wines to celebrate his birthday, and this year was no exception.

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We met in the private room at Eddie V’s. In attendance were:

  • Ron and Bev
  • Linda and Steve
  • Keith and Parlo
  • Andres and Paula
  • Dlynn Proctor, Grange
  • Andy McNamara, Master Somm

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We began with two stellar Champagnes that could not have been more different, with the crisp acidity and oxidative notes of the Selosse contrasting the ripe peach skin and burnt orange sherbet of the Bollinger. This Bollinger VV Francaises is very rare. It comes from one of the last remaining parcels of pre-phylloxera wines, which is apparently also endangered.

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The contrast between the three whites was just as apparent. Some attendees weren’t wild about the Haut Brion blanc, which seemed to lack varietal (or fruit) character, but six hours in the glass produced a continually evolving array of other complex notes.

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Unfortunately, the 1959 Richebourg was a flawed bottle.

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The Bordeaux flight was fun. My three wines were served blind, and 1959 Gruaud Larose was so complex that it was immediately assumed to be the 1961 Haut Brion. The Haut Brion should have been better, but it did improve over several hours. The Latour was surpassingly unyielding, and although it was some taster’s favorite, the Inglenook was slightly cork tainted as a result of the moldy cork falling into the bottle when opened. I did not think the Inglenook was a outclassed as Ron did.

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1986 Mouton was again disappointing, and I’m going to sell the rest of mine, but the 2000 Pavie demonstrated why it is the greatest wine ever made at Pavie, despite the hype of the 2003 and 2005.

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I did not care for either of the CDPs, which both seemed to have obvious production flaws. I can’t imagine that was the case with the 2007 Rayas, which should have been stellar, but I returned to it over several hours and never found anything about it to like.

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I’ve only had Harlan once or twice, but poured blind it was clearly a California cult. I didn’t see the similarity to Pomerol guessed by some of the tasters. A stellar wine, worth the hype.

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The Burgundies provided and elegant intermezzo. I’m unaccustomed to drinking Burgundies this young, and it’s still hard for me to see how they could ever turn into the magical old ones I’ve had, but they were very pleasant (and very expensive).

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Hermitage was easy to identify blind, and if the 1989 is this good I’m looking forward to trying my 1990 some day.

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The final three wines were all block busters, and although palate fatigue was starting to set in, they each had their own appeal. The Grange was surprisingly accessible for a brand new release (but I can’t imagine paying $900 for it).

By the time Linda and I slipped out it was after midnight, and there were still at least five bottles not yet opened. The group has stamina!

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My tasting notes follow. Wines provided by Ron except where noted:

Jacques Selosse (Keith)
Very crisp, oxidative, 95 pts

Bollinger 1998
Pre phylloxera
Peach skin, orange pulp, burnt orange dreamcicle, oak ,95 pts

Chevalier Montrachet 2000
Classic vanilla lemon oak
Butter coconut balanced, 96 pts

1990 Haut Brion Blanc
Amber
Smoke, gun oil, no varietal aromas
Really balanced, fading fruit, white taffy candy, shoe polish, peat, clean caramel finish, nutty, 98 pts

1990 Chablis Raveneau Montee de Tonnerre premier Cru
Amber
Flowers, heavy, briny, seashell, salt water taffy, green apple, high acid, 95 pts

1959 Richebourg
Nail polish, oxidized, caramel (flawed bottle)

1959 Gruaud Larose (Steve)
Fresh fruit, curry, almost sweet, herbal, green 97pts

1959 Inglenook cask F-6 (Steve)
Very slightly corked, great color, slightly restrained fruit mint 93 pts

1961 Haut Brion (Steve)
Dusty gravel, very smokey, after a hour unbelievably strong charred wood 95pts

1959 Latour
Walnut, spices, fruit dies in the finish, 94pts

1986 Mouton (Keith)
Tight, short, Bret, 90pts

2000 Pavie (Keith)
Big sweet fruit, shell, peppery, very young, mints, 97pts

2007 Rayas CDP (Andres)
Geranium sorbate (flawed bottle?)

2005 Quartz CDP (Andres)
Sewage (flawed bottle?)

1994 Harlan
Vanilla, baking spices, cinnamon, anise, mint, 100 pts

2003 La Tache
Green, earthy, bright fruit, mint, floral, vanilla, balanced, structured, leather, light bodied, very fresh, elegant, totally ready 97 pts

1999 Rousseau Chambertin
Elegant nose, restrained, intense cherry, slightly tannic, seashells, elegant, 96 pts

1989 Hermitage Chave (Keith)
Meat, cooked vegetables, 95 pts

1989 Ch Gruaud Larose (Andrew)
Slightly corked, quite chewy, young, mint 91 pts

1975 La Mission Haut Brion
Parker 100, Chewy, balanced, very tannic, good structure and length, sawdust, mint, 96 pts

1970 Unico
Very young, high acid, long, dill, vanilla 96 pts

2010 Grange
$950
Huge fruit, immense sawdust, syrup, huge tannins and length 98 pts

 

San Francisco and Central Coast 2014

Prior to spending Thanksgiving in Los Angeles, we met Dani in San Francisco for a few days of sightseeing, and then drove down the coast.

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Our flight in gave us a spectacular view of the coast, the Golden Gate Bridge, the bay and the city.

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Things were running late, so it was a rush to make our dinner reservation at Kei on Nob Hill, which was good but not amazing.

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The next day we walked down from our hotel atop Nob Hill through Chinatown.

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We probably should have tried the sautéed goose intestines, as what we had wasn’t that great.

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A line up of cable cars. We planned to take this line back up to the top of Nob Hill later, but the cable broke, so we had a steep climb and ended up walking eight miles!

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Fisherman’s Wharf, with Alcatraz in the background.

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Trying an In-N-Out burger for the first time. Life not changed.

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The famous Buena Vista Cafe, semi-inventors of the Irish coffee.

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At the top of the hill is the cable car museum, and also the machinery that moves all the cables. We watched them splicing the broken one, a complicated process.

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Stopping at the venerable and tacky Tonga Room at the Fairmont Hotel for a Tiki drink. Dinner was at Jardinere, a cozy restaurant that was our favorite of the trip.

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The next day we headed north across the Golden Gate Bridge to Muir Woods.

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Muir Woods.

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Big Redwood.

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Bear and friend.

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Linda checks her wingspan.

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Dinner at Gary Danko was excellent.

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The next day we headed down the coast and had time for a few Paso Robles winery visits.

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We stayed one night at the beautiful Dolphin Bay Resort in Pismo Beach, where we had the best room ever.

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I definitely want to go back to this place. It’s an easy drive from Santa Ynez wineries.

It was a great trip, much too short for all we wanted to do. The next day we made a brief stop in Solvang and then headed to Los Angeles.

 

Home on the Grange

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We gathered for a most interesting tasting at Eddie V’s. The event was organized by Ron. Because of the cost of the wines and the desire to limit the event to ten tasters, the group was comprised of somewhat different people than usual. Attending were Ron, Bev, Keith, Parlo, Andres, Paula (not tasting due to pregnancy), Linda, me, and several other wine professionals and enthusiasts new to our group.

Our special guest was DLynn Proctor, Wine Ambassador for Penfolds, the makers of Grange. From PR Newswire:

Proctor was named “Best New Sommelier in America” by Wine & Spirits Magazine in 2008.

Proctor is also one of the four featured subjects in the wine documentary ‘SOMM’, covering the three year journey through six countries of filming to becoming a coveted Master Sommelier.

Penfolds is one of the oldest, continuously operating wineries in Australia, founded in 1844, and Max Schubert’s creation of Penfolds Grange Shiraz in 1951 forever changed the face of the Australian wine industry.

DLynn was an encyclopedia of knowledge about ever aspect of Penfolds, Grange, and the wines, knowing off the top of his head weather, alcohol, acid, winemaker and anything else we could think to ask about every vintage.

I’ve had a few vintages of Grange in the past, but it was very interesting to taste 14, spanning 5 decades, side by side.

Prior to the event my perceptions that Grange takes many decades to mature, as I’d only once or twice had one I felt was ready to drink. But the tasting changed my view somewhat. I now feel that Grange, like the wineries in California and France (and I suppose most of the rest of the world) made some stylist changes in the 1980s that have affected how the wines taste and how they age. This is the reason my cellar is comprised mostly of wines from before 1980, and I will now go so far as to extend the same policy to Grange.

For me (and Linda) the Wine Of The Night was the 1968, which exhibited the characteristics we love in the (coincidentally) same vintage of BV Georges de la Tour Private Reserve. The groups Wine Of The Night was the 1976, which was more refined and Bordeaux like, and certainly another good choice.

While all of the wines (except one flawed bottle) were impressive, there was nothing about the more recent vintages that would incline me to pony up the $600+ cost of a bottle.

One other note of interest is that throughout the pre-tasting wines, the formal tasting and the dinner, there was not a single wine I scored below 90 points, which I don’t think has ever happened before.

Thanks very much to Ron for putting this together, as it was one of the most educational events we’ve done!

My Notes:

Grange Tasting at Eddie V’s 11/7/14

99 Pommery magnum (Keith) great toast and balance 96 pts

90 Krug (Ron) green apple, citrus zest 96 pts

GrangeFlight1

Flight 1: 1980, 1982, 1986, 1989

1980 green vegetables, vanilla, mint, balanced, cream, 12.9%, cold vintage 93 pts

1982 mint, stemmy, plum, warm vintage, 6% Cabernet, very balanced and smooth finish, 96 pts

1986 overripe, plummy, American oak dill, old world mouth feel, bay leaf, 97 pts

1989 ripe, plum, high alcohol, Australian Shiraz, 9% Cabernet, savory beef broth, blueberry pie finish, 94 pts

GrangeFlight2

Flight 2: 2001, 2004, 2006

2001 hot vintage, big fruit, big production, 14% alcohol, big black fruit finish, 97 pts

2004 simple, accessible, balanced, 93 pts

2010 Mollydooker Velvet Glove (Steve, served blind as a ringer), vanilla, velvety fruit, long vanilla finish, lots of black fruits, 98 pts

2006 simple, mint, American oak dill, creme brûlée, sweet fruit, 98 pts

GrangeFlight3

Flight 3: 1990, 1994, 1998

1990 iron, blood, 93 pts

1994 dusty, vanilla, cab franc, chocolate dust 95 pts

1998 smokey, mint, big black fruits, 98 pts

GrangeFlight4

Flight 4: 1968, 1971, 1976, 1978

1968 earthy, mushroom, coffee, green herbs, iron, red berries, leather, mint, soy, balsamic, 100 pts

1971 very ripe, fruity, sweet, grandmother’s attic, flawed bottle

1976 tropical, very sweet palate, 95 pts

1978 coffee, figs newtons, chocolate covered caramels, sawdust, 96 pts

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Wines Served with Dinner

2008 Ch. Talbot Calliou Blanc (Steve), vitamin C, spices, wax, 96 pts

1990 Raveneau Chablis Premiere Cru Montee de Tonnerre (Ron) wax, honey, violets, 96 pts

1964 Clos Vougeot Musigni Gros Frere & Fils (Steve) baking spices, pie crust, morels, chocolate covered currants, butter an cinnamon filled pastry dough, 96 pts

1988 DRC Richebourg (Ron) bacon fat, forest floor, mint, 94 pts

2005 Harland Estate Cabernet Sauvignon (Keith) vanilla, Rutherford Cabernet nose, huge, chewy, tannin for the ages, 98 pts

2011 Abbatucci (Andres) refined, dried flowers, butter, spices, 90 pts

2008 La Mission Haut Brion (Andres) very tight, closed, tannic, 90 pts

2000 Ch. La Tour Haut Brion (Alex) classic Bordeaux, pencil lead, 92 pts

2007 Masseto (Keith) big black fruits, tannic, mint, long, very young, 97 pts

1966 La Mission Haut Brion (Ron) really complex, cigar, road tar, black fruit 98 pts

2010 Hermitage La Pierelle Kermit Lynch (Andres) smoked meat, black fruit, really seems like the Grange, 97 pts

KeithWithHarland

 

 

London

After Linda’s push to get “Tree” (AKA “A Bug’s Life”) open at Animal Kingdom, we were able to slip away for a transatlantic cruise. On Friday we picked up a rental car at Disney and on Saturday we packed it and headed for Orlando International airport. (This trick saves us cab fare, and is much less rushed.) We had lunch at our frequent travel stop, McCoy’s and then boarded a Delta jet for Detroit.

Since we live in Orlando we’re used to a really nice airport, but this one might even be better than Orlando’s. It’s spacious and airy, easy to get around, and the Westin hotel is even more convenient than the Hyatt in Orlando.

At the moment there is a shortage of nice places to eat in the terminal, but new ones are coming. For now, the solution is to dine at Dema in the lobby of the Westin, which is just on the other side of a private TSA entrance to the hotel’s lobby.

Dema

The Zen-like setting of this lobby restaurant makes it a welcome retreat from the hustle of the airport, and it’s literally feet away from the gates.

Service is friendly and there is an extensive selection of wines by the glass. The pepperoni and bacon pizza and the hummus and tapenade appetizer were both good.

Note that the TSA portal closes in the evening and you have to go back around through the terminal, but it’s still not that far.

Our flight departed at about11pm, the last one out of the airport. I skipped dinner and took advantage of the “pod” in Delta’s business elite class (thank you frequent flyer miles) to get an almost full night’s sleep before our 11 am arrival in London.

On the approach to Heathrow we passed over Windsor Castle, the weekend home of the Queen, and our destination for the following day.

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This time our luggage arrived with us (unlike two years ago, on our trip with Martin, Audrey and Emilio) and we were met by our favorite driver, Eddie Manning. It wasn’t much after noon when we arrived at The Ritz Hotel and were able to settle into our lovely room.

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I found this room on Hotels.com for about half price, and what a deal it was.

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If the the founder of the Ritz could see his hotel a hundred years later I think he would be very pleased. Its maintenance and refurbishment are tip top, and its staff still cleaves to old-time standards of service. While the strict enforcement of the no jeans or sneakers rule may irk some, and the requirement of a jacket and tie in the restaurants may seem old fashioned, they work to enforce the tone attempted here, which some may find a bit snooty. So be it; if that’s not your thing, there are plenty of alternatives. But if you’d like to step back to the glamour of a past age, this is the place to do it.

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After a nap we headed out for a snack, and after wandering around a bit ended up at our old standby, Bentley’s. Dani and I first found this play quite a few years ago, up an alley called Swallow Street (lots of bars there?) off of Piccadilly. The place seems to have been the only thing around that survived the bombing in WWII, and has been operating since 1916.

Bentleys

Bentley’s specializes in fresh seafood and shellfish.  It has a cozy, pub-like interior, but on this day it was great to dine in the covered area out front, basically the middle of the street.

The wine selection is particularly well-suited to fish and especially the shellfish selections. You can’t go wrong with the Albarino, and it went great with my prepared crab appetizer.

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Back to the hotel and a bit of journalling, and then it was time for dinner at the very dressy Ritz Restaurant, right in our hotel.

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Regarded by many as the world’s most beautiful dining room, the Restaurant at the Ritz offers a rarefied experience, at rarefied prices. But actually the tasting menu, which included eight courses for 95 pounds, was a good deal. While the food is not likely to garner Michelin stars, several courses were quite good. The matching wine pairings were generous, but few actually matched the food. Service was, of course, impeccable.

Monday morning the alarm got us out of bed, but we were pretty much on time zone for our trip to Windsor Castle. This involved navigating the tube to Paddington Station and catching two trains. This sounds harder than it turned out to be, and we arrived in about 60 minutes (although it must be said that the tickets we bought failed to work in almost every single turnstile and we had to be let through manually, a difficulty that seemed to be a matter of course).

Windsor has a nice mall attached to the train station (and in retrospect this is where we should have eaten), but the castle itself is surrounded by tacky tourist shops. We had a lunch reservation at what turned out to be a chain Thai restaurant, and we were early, so Linda had time for a bit of shopping.

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The Thai restaurant, Thai Square, was conveniently located adjacent to Windsor Castle. It features attractive decor in its various interconnected dining rooms.

It was mediocre at best. The curry was the best thing we tried. The “Golden Sack” and rib appetizers were unremarkable, as was the duck entree. Service was pleasant but not particularly attentive.

Then it was on to Windsor Castle. Unfortunately no pictures allowed, but here are some.

A drizzly Monday proved to be the perfect time to visit, as crowds were very light. We had repurchased tickets which were mailed to us by Royal Post, and that allowed us to skip the short line that was there, but on a busy day this would be essential.

The castle offers a self-guided audio tour that is excellent. I was surprised at the amount of access afforded, as we toured nearly every public room, including where state visitors are entertained. At 3:15 we rendezvoused with our pre-booked Kitchen tour, and with a group of only a half dozen were taken on a very informative private tour of the kitchen used to cater dinners for more than 170 dignitaries. I highly recommend this, as there were many insights beyond the kitchen itself, and the tour was provided by a member of the Queen’s staff.

One of the more interesting aspect of both tours was to hear about the restoration following a catastrophic fire in 1992. This afforded the opportunity to restore some things just as they were, improve a few others, and to uncover a considerable amount of previously unknown history. All in all, quite an interesting day, and perhaps the top activity I’ve done in London.

For dinner we originally had reservations at a particularly difficult to ge tot restaurant, Trinity, but decided to change, and I was able to book us a late dinner at a nearby Indian restaurant I’d heard a lot about. This proved to be a great move. And it turned out to be right beyond Bentley’s in Swallow Street.

It’s hardly surprising that all of the best Indian meals I’ve had have been in London, even include some Michelin starred meals. But Veeraswamy may well be the best of the best.

I was actually not expecting it to be quite that good, because the opentable listing emphasizes their corporate connections, plus a recommendation by National Geographic(?!)

Veeraswamy

Yet everything we tried was one of the best Indian dishes I’ve tasted, and we tried quite a few items, sampling four appetizers and a vegetarian main that included four separate dishes. Particular highlights were the Raj Kachori, a fancy version of Indian street food consisting of a crisp wheat puri filled with goodies, and Scallop Moilee, which came in a stunning coconut and ginger sauce. My wife is a Chicken Tikka aficionado, and proclaimed this one the best Indian dish she ever tasted.

There is also an excellent wine list, highlighted by some very well-described white and red Burgundies.

This will definitely be the Indian restaurant we return to on our next visit to London.

I was not ready to get up when the alarm went off Tuesday! It’s not that I wasn’t on schedule, just that dinner was very LATE.

A quick taxi ride brought us to The Royal Albert Hall, for our tour. We were again fortunate to have a small group of ten, and an excellent guide. It was so much a behind the scenes tour (since there really isn’t a “backstage” in a round auditorium) as a tour that gave us a look at the installation process for a new show (although we did also get to tour the Queen’s private rooms).

We watched the seating installation, sound check and lighting tests for the night’s Spandau Ballet movie and live performance, and learned many interesting things about the 150 year old facility built to fulfill a vision of Prince Albert, who didn’t live to see it completed.

In 1851 Albert organized the first World’s Fair, housed inside the enormous Crystal Palace in Hyde Park (it was later moved to South London, and burned in 1936). With the profits of the fair he bought a huge parcel of Kensington with the intent of creating a collection of science and art museums, which has indeed come to pass. He began with plans to construct a great performing hall, but died before construction began. A devastated Queen Victoria spent the money instead on the incredibly elaborate Albert Memorial. I suspect Albert would not have been pleased. Anyway, the Royal Albert Hall was eventually constructed through the financing device of selling one third of the seats on a 999 year lease.

After our tour we caught the tube across London to see the installation of red poppies at The Tower of London.

Poppies1

The poppies were installed this summer to commemorate the 100th anniversary of WWI. There is one poppy for each casualty, which really makes the pointlessness of that (and every) conflict quite apparent.

Poppies2

 

After our brief stop at the Tower, we caught a boat back to Westminster. Cruising the Thames is something we hadn’t done before, and it was interesting to see Tower Bridge, St. Paul’s Cathedral, Shakespeare’s Globe, The London Eye, Big Ben and Parliament from that vantage point.

 

Thames

In Westminster we decided to see if we could get into Roux at Parliament Square on the spur of the moment, since it was nearly 2pm and lunch hour was winding down. Luck! We did.

Roux is the sister restaurant to and old favorite, LeGavroche. There is a superb prix fixe lunch menu at a very affordable price (so affordable, we couldn’t resist spending several times as much on a wonderful Corton Charlemagne, the perfect accompaniment).

I selected a cassoulet of squid and smoked mussels as my starter. It was richly flavored without being excessively buttery, although there was certainly plenty of that on the wonderful toast served with it.

SquidMusseles

For my main I had the mackerel. This is a dish for true fish lovers, as it’s of course quite fishy, but was not at all oily, just moist, and with a perfectly crisped skin. The accompanying beets were luscious.

Mackerel

A wonderful cheese trolley capped off a delightful meal. Professional yet friendly service increased our enjoyment, making us feel particularly lucky to have been squeezed in without a booking.

Highly recommended as a dressy, sophisticated retreat from the tourist-choked streets outside!

We walked back to our hotel through St. James’ Park, past Buckingham Palace and through Green Park.

StJames

After an evening of journalling, we took the tube north and then walked to Pied a Terre, which has become one of our favorite London restaurants. The atmosphere is intimate, and perfectly suited to romance or business discussions.

The food–especially the tasting menus–is as good as any from London’s other top rated restaurants. But the real difference at Pied a Terre is the wine service.

Rather than simply selecting and pouring wines with each course, it is the restaurant’s practice to offer a blind tasting, where the wine is poured first so you can taste it alone, then the course is served so you can see how it matches, and then you are asked to comment on the wine and (if you wish) guess what it is.

We find this to be tremendous fun. It forges a camaraderie with the sommelier that sets the experience apart from all other fine dining experiences.

On our last visit we were fooled by most of the wines, but I have to say on this evening our performance was impressive.

Linda had by far the more challenging wine pairing, the “Discovery” series, which included very obscure wines and regions such as Croatia. Yet she managed to blind identify an  Assyrtiko from Santorini(!), a very unusual pinot noir blanc from Burgundy, and a Grenache from Australia—in each case not just the grape but the region. Wow!

I had a much easier time of it with the “Classic” pairing, and identified four out of eight wines by type and region, mostly by nose alone, including a French Sauvignon Blanc (although I thought it was from Sancerre, not Pouilly Fume), a German Riesling (always the easiest varietal), a red Bordeaux (I even identified that it was a 2009 Pomerol), a vintage port (easy). I was reasonably close but not exact on the others (Pinot Gris, an odd white Burgundy, late harvest botrytised Vouvray, and Vinsanto from Santorini [which we have in our cellar!]).

PiedaTerre

A very fun evening.

We got to bed late and slept in. At last, a vacation day!

Then is was off to the West End by to to see a show. Before hand we had lunch at The Salisbury, a very historical pub next to the theatre. It’s almost 300 years old.

Salisbury

It’s a good place for lunch before a matinee show at any of the nearby theatres. The food and beverage selections are what you’d expect, and there is a charming period decor. Service is friendly, and accommodating of foreign visitors, so the you can usually order at your table rather than the bar, as is more traditional.

The show we saw was a new Disney-produced stage version of the Tom Stoppard written Shakespeare In Love. This adaptation closely followed the movie, was well staged, brilliantly acted, and made extensive use of on-stage musical performers who created the score as they performed.

I really enjoyed this production, and it brought home to me how parallel the outer story is to the inner story of Romeo and Juliet (but without all that dying). I don’t know how well it will do in the States, but it has certainly been popular here.

After the show we walked a few short blocks to our other favorite London restaurant, L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon.

We’ve dined here both upstairs and down, and at the sister restaurants in Las Vegas and (now closed) New York. Of all of them, this is our favorite, because of the intimate size of the downstairs area. It offers arguably the best tasting menu in London, with wine pairings that superbly match each course.

lAtelierLondon2014

The artistry of the food arrangement is really unsurpassed, and it’s great fun to watch it being assembled before you, so be sure to ask for a seat at the counter. This makes it easy to chat with the servers and sommelier, making it a friendly, energizing experience. For parties of more than two a few tables are available downstairs, which I recommend over the less intimate upstairs dining room.

lAtelierLondonCaviar

After a wonderful dinner we headed back to the hotel to sleep, pack, and catch meet our driver for tomorrow’s cruise departure.

It was a great four days in London.

Next: Trio

Next is Chef Grant Achatz’ “next” restaurant. Achatz is the creator of Alinea, regarded by many as America’s greatest restaurant, and Chicago’s only 3-star Michelin restaurant.

I approached Next with some trepidation because I’m not a fan of Alinea. I found the atmosphere and service there stiff, and grew tired of the dictatorial way we were instructed to consume each course.

But Next is nothing like that. Service is professional but relaxed, and the servers are happy, informative and passionate about the food they’re serving.

I also like their ticketing system. It was refreshing to have no transaction at the end of the meal. The food, wine pairing and tip are all included, and are fairly priced for the experience you receive.

The unique thing about Next is that the restaurant evolves into something completely new and different every four months. New food, new wine, new decor. Since you’re unlikely to go twice during any given incarnation, you just need to put your trust in the culinary team and expect something special.

That’s certainly what we’ve received on both visits. A month ago Dani and I enjoyed the Modern Chinese menu.

This time Linda accompanied us to enjoy Next: Trio, which was an even more spectacular menu than Modern Chinese. This homage to Chef’s first restaurant ten years ago pulls out some vintage tricks, and reminds us of how cutting edge that restaurant was.

21 courses, many of them home runs. Very lavish ingredients, beginning with a generous serving of Osetra, and two courses using foie gras in completely different ways.

My favorite course was a surprise, the smoked figs was that perfect union of unexpected flavors that turns the whole into much more than the individual parts.

A few of Alinea’s serving tricks were used for some of the courses, but they’re more playful and less pretentious than at Alinea.

As always a convivial staff enthusiastically sharing information and their love of what they’re doing. A great dining experience.

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Off to a nice start with a healthy serving of Osetra caviar and a nice sparkling wine.

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Rock shrimp on a vanilla bean pod

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Mozarella balloon filled with tomato water. This was superb

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Doctoring the sparkling wine for the next course to convert it to a peach Bellini

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Coconut and crab, and lots of things to experiment with

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Savory ice cream sandwiches comprised of olive oil ice cream between parmesan and black pepper crackers. Amazing!

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Truffle explosion. Definitely one bite and keep your lips sealed.

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Oops. Almost forgot to photograph the duck with lavender.

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Tools for picking up the postage stamp…

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…”pizza”

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Lamb, and a gelatinous lamb consume. This course was disappointing.

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Honestly, this tasted like a cheddar Goldfish cracker. Not a highlight.

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Frozen salad! Dani and Linda loved this.

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Raspberry and roses, sucked from the tube. Delicious.

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A bit chewy.

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Pushed Foie Gras, the second time for this ingredient, and completely different.

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Passion fruit and mustard. Very interesting.

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Oops again. This was my favorite, smoked fig. Wow!

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Lobster with rosemary vapor. Nice.

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An Alinea serving trick. Don’t impale yourself. Burnt pineapple and smoked salmon. Excellent.

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Short rib with root beer ingredients. Just so-so.

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Transparency of Manchebo. Didn’t really work.

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Huckleberry soda was the event here, rather than the accompaniments, although the smoked vanilla was fantastic, too.

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The only real failure, impossibly hard and sticky chocolate and odd yeast ice cream. We all skipped this.

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21 courses, and at least 15 home runs!

Three Dots and a Dash

I’ve always loved Tiki bars, since I grew up in Los Angeles, frequenting Trader Vic’s, Don the Beachcomber, the Islander, Beachbum Bert’s and many others. It’s sad that they’re all gone. But the good news is that Three Dots and a Dash tops them all.

From the moment you venture down the stairway full of skulls, Three Dots immerses you in perfectly themed kitsch. The lighting, soundtrack and set decoration are impeccable, and the drinks are potent and tasty.

The drink menu is divided between classic and modern sections. I had the signature drink, Three Dots and a Dash, which was not too sweet, and rendered exotic by the inclusion of allspice. It was invented at Don the Beachcomber in the 1940s. (Incidentally Three Dots and a Dash is Morse code for the letter “V” as in victory.)

Many of the drinks are for sharing, and each has its own unique presentation.

We stopped in before dinner, so we didn’t have a chance to try any of the food, but most of it is traditional Tiki menu fare, and it looked delicious.

With a place this cool, you’re going to have to wait in line unless you go at a weird time. We were able to walk in right after work, but the place quickly became packed; however we never felt rushed.

To find the door, look for the alley off of Hubbard and follow the neon stripe.

Creepy Entrance
Creepy Entrance

 

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Classic Drinks
Classic Drinks

Modern Drinks
Modern Drinks

Very expensive group drinks
Very expensive group drinks

Centerpiece
Centerpiece

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Three Dots and a Dash – the house drink, original created at Don the Beachcomber in the 1940s

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No Bye, No Aloha

Boka

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Of all the Michelin starred restaurants in Chicago, Boka must be one of the greatest bargains. For little more than the cost of a typical restaurant you can have a spectacular meal. And the cozy yet classy, relaxed yet professional atmosphere and friendly service make it a great choice for everyone.

Our party of three was able to try the majority of items on the menu, and everything was terrific. Standouts were the carrot salad and foie gras starter.

The chicken was beautiful, but the saffron flavored brioche sandwiched between the crispy skin and the succulent meat wasn’t to my taste, simply because I’m not a saffron fan.

The duck, on the other hand, was the best I’ve ever had, incredibly tender and moist, and bursting with flavor, even without the accompaniments.

Desserts mostly included home made ice creams as an ingredient, which is always a plus with me.

The wine list is filled with excellent choices. There aren’t a lot of old wines, but there are a wide array of recent vintages from all regions, at reasonable prices.

If you’re looking for a truly fine dining experience without needing to mortgage the house, Boka is a great choice.

Pride Sushi and Thai

 

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What a delightful surprise! This small fusion restaurant is creating some of the most beautiful—and tasty—sushi in Chicago.

The menu is about half Japanese, half Thai, and many of the fusion items are spicy, such as their take on edamame, which had a definite kick to it. The beef salad comes with the traditional spicy rice vinegar sauce that would accompany a waterfall beef salad. These were both good, but the stars of the show were the sushi items.

We began with a plate of sashimi. Although the chef offers a sampler, we selected our own, and the pricing was very reasonable to get exactly what we wanted. All of the items were very fresh and delicious.

Then we tried several rolls. Wow! As you can see from the photos, each was a work of art. I’ve never had sushi served with such a painterly approach! All three rolls were excellent, and really different from one another. My favorite was the “All About Salmon” which combined salmon, smoked salmon and ikura, balancing them with both creamy and citrus ingredients, plus spicy and sweet sauces.

A month ago we tried the high end sushi place across the street, and it was good but extremely expensive. At about a fourth the price, our meal at Pride was actually better, and I’m ready to return any time.

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Grace

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Grace is certainly deserving of its two Michelin stars. Everything about the experience is near perfection, from the extremely professional yet friendly service to the plating of the food, which turns each dish into an individual work of art, combining delicate and varied flavors in surprising and visually appealing ways.

The dining room is sophisticated, understated, and calm, a serenity that extends even into the visible kitchen, yet the contemporary soundtrack keeps the experience upbeat and fun.

My only quibble is with the winelist, which has a strong focus on wines from the Loire region, not my favorite.  This focus extends to the wine pairings served with the meal, some of which didn’t seem a great match, although the friendly and articulate sommelier explained the reasoning behind each match in such a captivating manner I was glad we had selected the pairing, even if next time I will strike out on my own.

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Amuse bouche served atop and in a cork log. This tiny roasted corn ears were perhaps the single best item of the night.

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A couple of treats inside the log. The pickled, caramelized banana was another highlight.

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I had the “Flora” menu, almost entirely vegetables.

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Tomatoes.

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Asparagus.

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Snap peas turned into slice of terrine.

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Black truffles.

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The first of several desserts, each of which included frozen components that I really enjoyed.

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The kitchen was amazingly serene, given how much food was being produced. It is interesting that it’s arranged with the stations in the order the courses are served.

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GraceWines

Chicago Dining – Summer 2014

L2O

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Having dined at nearly all the top places in Chicago, this one stands out. Just on the basis of the exceptional wine list, L2O (which stands for Lakes to Oceans) deserves its Michelin stars. Each offering is so well considered for its ability to match the food or offer something special, and there are a few real gems at reasonable prices.

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The food is, of course, superb, and each dish is a true work of art. But perhaps the thing that most sets L2O apart is the service, which perfectly strikes that balance between professionalism and sincere friendliness. Truly an experience not to be missed.

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Next

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I approached Next with some trepidation because I’m not a fan of Alinea, its sister restaurant. I found the atmosphere and service there stiff, and grew tired of the dictatorial way we were instructed to consume each course.

I’m happy to say that Next is nothing like that. Service is professional but relaxed, and the servers are happy, informative and passionate about the food they’re serving.

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As to the food, there’s little point in mentioning it… or the decor, for that matter. Because the restaurant evolves into something completely new and different every four months, and you’re unlikely to go twice during any given incarnation, you just need to put your trust in the culinary team and expect something special.

That’s certainly what we received the night we visited. There were several home runs and nothing forgettable about the Modern Chinese menu.

I also like the ticketing system. It was refreshing to have no transaction at the end of the meal. The food, wine pairing and tip were all included, and were certainly fairly priced for the experience we received. It left me anxious to return to experience future incarnations of this excellent restaurant.

Next-3

 

Boltwood

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Evanston has a new high end restaurant to be proud of. The chef from Publican, and one of the owners of Brothers K coffeehouse have teamed up to take over this space, formerly a (good) noodle shop and turn it into a very trendy and noteworthy restaurant.

As others have noted, there is one major downside to the place. Because of its austere, hard-surfaced decor, it is VERY LOUD. In fact, if I had been at a regular table entertaining guests I would not be able to give it a five-star review. But since I was alone, and seated at the chef’s bar facing into the kitchen, the sound level was tolerable.

Of course, it’s wonderful that the place is packed all night after being open only weeks. And lots of people like vibrant restaurants. But when the quietest place in the establishment is the kitchen, there may be a wee acoustic problem!

So therein lies my tip for pleasant dining: ask to sit at the chef’s bar. Not only will you not be deafened, you’ll see the fascinating parade of dishes as they leave the kitchen.

Anyway, the food is wonderful. Since the menu changes often, my selections won’t necessarily be available to you, but I loved everything I had: grilled Brun-uusto cheese with sweet and sour cherry sauce, pickled cauliflower, quinoa salad, crispy potatoes (quite possibly the best potatoes I’ve ever had), a whole sardine with fennel and orange, and chicory ice cream.

There is a somewhat eclectic selection of wines, with about a third of them available by the glass, but I opted for the cocktails, because there were several interesting offerings. I prefer drinks with bitter or sour components, and these didn’t disappoint. I tried: El Mescalero del Norte (mescal, grapefruit, Compari), Evanston Sazerac (rye , bitter, absinthe), and The New Georgian (peach, bourbon, mint). They were all excellent, and I’ve listed them in increasing order of sweetness. The mescalero was probably the best, combining earthy and bitter flavors.

Given the quality of the food, I felt pricing was fair. Some of the starters and veggies are under $10, and most mains are about $20. Plan on a starter, main and vegetable, and you’re looking at $40 per person. If everyone at the table does that, and you want to sample everything, you’ll all get reasonable sized tasting portions and won’t leave hungry or broke.

Service was very friendly and professional. I’d read some uneven reviews on this, but I don’t think it’s completely fair to criticize a restaurant that’s not running like a well-oiled machine during its first few days. The service I received was faultless.

As the meal ended and I emerged onto Davis Street, a fire engine was passing with its siren on, and I noted how quiet the city was now that I was outdoors!

Really Old Burgundies

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You know you’re drinking some great Burgundies when the DRC shows up and it’s not even in the top ranks of the night’s wines! That’s what happened last night at the Chef’s Table at the Edgewater. Ron, Bev, Linda and I took over the back room for the evening for an amazing tasting of old Burgundies (and a couple of Bordeaux). The lineup had originally not included any DRC, but we added a couple bottles at the last minute, and decided to skip the originally planned ’71 Bonnes Mares.

When opening an old, nearly labeless Burgundy from the 20s it’s always a crapshoot, but tonight we came up a winner, as the first red wine of the night proved to be the Wine Of The Night, and one of the greatest Burgundies I’ve ever had. In fact, this was a night when the oldest bottles were fresher than some of the younger ones (although nothing was really young, as the most recent red was from 1979).

The wines were accompanied by a sampling of the small plates from The Tasting Room. Amazing service was provided by Taren, who also introduced us to her cocktail making skills and gave us a sample of her housemade bitters.

My notes:

Veuve Clicquot (Chef’s Table)
Very balanced 90 pts

2008 Chateau “Y” (Steve)
Butter, honeycomb wax, hint of botrytis, 93 pts

1923 Henri de Behegre Clos Vougeot (Steve)
Bacon, smoke, sweet, blackened sugar, Creme brûlée, candied crab apple, balsamic dressed mushrooms, dark buttered brown sugar toast, toasted nuts, burnt marshmallow, started to fade after 90 minutes, then a comeback, curry, 100+ pts

1934 Francois Martenot ( Dr. Barolet) Chambole-Musigny (Ron)
Sour cherry, orange rind, bug spray, minerality, high acid, iron, smoke, orange bitters, cedar sawdust, forest floor, held up 2 hrs+, 100 pts

[My previous note on the above wine from last year at Peperoncino:
Very light, orange rind, rust, spiced meat, sweet, coffee, candy, tobacco, cigarette smoke, red licorice ropes, cherry, pine needles, great fruit, mint, refreshing acidity, 100 pts]

1949 Charles Vienot Corton-Bressandes (Steve)
Young fruit, anise, cherry licorice, fennel, earth, pine needles, noodles in soy sauce, devolved into sewage/cheese smells after 30 minutes, 88 pts

1949 de Sylou Grands-Echezeaux (Ron)
Young fruit, chocolate, vanilla, gravel, forest floor, pine needle, high acid, 96 pts

1979 DRC Echezeaux (Steve)
Carmel, bacon fat, seemed a bit simple compared to the previous wines, 94 pts

1972 DRC Grand Echezeaux (Ron)
Mushroom, very closed, this wine didn’t really show up for work, flawed bottle? 86 pts

1978 Haut Brion (Ron)
Gravel, bright fruit, solid tannins, chocolate milk duds, coffee, it’s interesting that this year, originally so tannic, is now drinking great, 93 pts

1979 Château La Mission Haut-Brion (Steve)
Wax, tight tannic, cotton candy, silky, 91 pts