Diversion – Of Whiskey, Wood and Warm Welcomes

Rick HouseDriving down the Kentucky Bourbon Trail, you’ll discover many things beyond tasting good whiskey. First, that it’s not really a trail, but a smattering of distilleries located in and around Louisville and Lexington, and second, that every distillery making “bourbon” follows the same basic recipe required by U.S. law. Woodford ReserveUnexpectantly, you’ll find a wide variety of flavors both in the drinks and the distilleries themselves.

Maker's Mark TastingWoodford TastingWhen it comes to the whiskey, I’ll let you be the judge of what you like and don’t like. Try as many of the distilleries as you can, follow your guides’ tasting advice, and don’t be afraid to try new things. Judy was our Designated Driver – she generally doesn’t like Bourbon – but she was a trooper and tried some of them, even finding one or two she liked. I reveled in the new and different flavors, all derived from the grains used in the mash and the wood of the charred oak barrels. I became a bourbon drinker several years ago, when a former boss – a retired Air Force two-star general – pretty much insisted I join him at the bar when we were on business travel and introduced me to Maker’s Mark and a few others. Greg sips Bourbon.jpgI became hooked. Judy and I now keep a small collection of fine bourbons, scotches, and Irish whiskeys in our library’s globe bar. There’s something uniquely relaxing about reading a good book with a dram of amber, 90-proof liquid rolling around your tongue and palate.

Angel's EnvyMaker's Mark CopperI also reveled in the wide variety of architectural styles. From the classic “down in the holler” buildings of Maker’s Mark, Woodford Reserve and Buffalo Trace (not on the tour but worth a stop) built in the 1800s with their worn and aging cypress fermenters, to the modern and spotless glass and stainless-steel Town Branch facility, to the gleaming polished copper, brick and wood Angel’s Envy distillery built inside a former manufacturing plant in downtown Louisville…architectural personalities young and old were featured. Even the retail “experiences” of Evan Williams and Jim Beam featured architectural styles that put their products and personalities in best light.

Nicholas at Town Branch.jpgEach of our guides also brought their own unique personalities to the tours and tastings. Nicholas at Town Branch was, by far, the funniest and most entertaining, but the booming voice of classically trained actor Jimmy James Hamblin at Angel’s Envy earned him a nomination for Louisville’s Recognition of Service Excellence (ROSE) Awards this year…and our utmost respect and admiration. done-that-got-the-tshirt.jpgBut unvarying among all our guides and the people we met along the way were the warm Kentucky welcomes we received and felt, making our Kentucky Bourbon Trail experience one of our favorite diversions so far.

There’s a whole world out there waiting to be explored. Go see it!

 

Of Diners, Drive-Ins, and….Road Food*

I’m a car guy … have been since my youth. In my early 20s, I was obsessed with autocrossing … racing my car around a parking lot on a course defined by orange cones, racing against the clock. I rebuilt the engine of my ’73 Opel Manta from the ground up. There was grease underneath my fingernails nearly all the time; no weekend was complete without at least one skinned knuckle accompanied by a few choice swear words because of a slipped wrench.

Today, I let the mechanics do the dirty work and I’m quite a bit more laid back about my driving, but it should come as no surprise that road trips have a certain appeal to me as a “car guy.” If Route 66 is the Mother Road, then driving Route 66 today is the mother of all road trips.

To me, a big draw of road trips is food. Sure, Judy and I talked about staying close to our diets, eating lots of veggies and other healthy stuff, but let me ask you, did Ron Howard and Harrison Ford’s characters in “American Graffiti” go to Whole Foods in their souped-up Hot Rods? No, they went to Mel’s Drive-In for Burgers and Fries. In “Pulp Fiction,” when Uma Thurman and John Travolta went out to eat, the diner in which they danced was completely car-themed. Name one movie featuring Steve McQueen and a car that also had him eating sushi and hummus and I’ll become a Vegan … for a day.

But I digress … road trips are about eating road food, and Route 66 has plenty to offer. Our daily journals featured lots of paragraphs about food we ate along the way:

IMG_7409The Donut Man in Glendora, CA, had donuts made with FRESH strawberries. Yes, you read that right … fresh strawberries.

The Outpost Cafe at the north end of Cajon Pass had a pretty decent burger and a salad drenched in too much dressing, but it was a classic diner in every way.IMG_7443

 

Dinner was at Jenny’s Place in Barstow, reputed to have “something for everyone” by the owner of the Route 66 Motel. It turned out “something for everyone as long as it’s Mexican” but I had some delicious carnitas tacos and too many chips, rice and beans, completely sating my SoCal appetite for spicy south-of-the-border fare.

This was all on Day 1.

The rest of the trip would be remembered for similar culinary adventures.

In Kingman, Arizona, Floyd’s BBQ came highly recommended, but since it was Monday, it was closed. We went to the Diana’s Cellar Door, a combo brewery and wine bar next door instead and enjoyed a couple of glasses of red while chatting amiably with the patrons. But hunger prevailed and we dropped in to another recommended place, The Kingman Chophouse, where we shared a great Delmonico in a classic western setting.IMG_7583

IMG_7584

In Seligman, Arizona, we stopped at Delgadillo’s Sno-Cap Drive-in for lunch. The staff, reputed to be pranksters, didn’t disappoint. Rita was behind the counter and when I asked what a Choink Burger was, she gave me that look that only stupid tourists get (it’s a Bacon Cheese Burger, by the way. Duh.). I ordered the Choink and a Malt.

20170404_165452After “standing on a corner” in Winslow, Arizona (such a fine sight to see), we followed some local’s advice and made a reservation (reservation?!) at the Turquoise Room at the La Posada Hotel. Built in 1930 as a Harvey House, the hotel has been restored to much of its early glory and its restaurant draws raves worldwide.

Our window seat gave us magnificent views of the passing trains while the wide portico outside shaded us from the setting sun. We enjoyed Bison Taquitos, Elk in a Black Currant Sauce, Crispy Quail with Oaxaca Sauce, and a Braised Bison Tamale. Not exactly road food to be sure, but well worth the stop.

The Southwestern flavors of the road were a big highlight for me. At La Fonda on The Plaza in Santa Fe, we dove into local specialties offered with your choice of red sauce, green sauce or “Christmas.” Just thinking back on all that beef, cilantro, sauce, beans … makes me hungry.

In Shamrock, Texas, we ate at Big Vern’s Steakhouse – apparently, the only place in town worth eating at. Our waitress, Gail, was straight out of the Texas panhandle; pretty in a sun-beaten/leather-skinned sort of way, and most pleasant. She treated locals and tourists alike, but I am sure that if we had wanted steak sauce for our delicious ribeye, she would have chased us out the door with a hot branding iron.IMG_8051

And it continued…

In Arcadia, Oklahoma, Pop’s with it’s 50-foot Soda Pop neon sculpture out front, beckoned us in for burgers and fries, and a six-pack of sodas with the grossest names imaginable, culled from their 144 varieties; in Baxter Springs, Kansas, we were the only customers at The Smokehouse, which served some of the best barbecue we’ve ever had…the sauce was so good we bought a quart to bring home.

The next morning, we stopped at the Riverton Market for some of the best deli sandwiches you’ll ever eat before crossing the border into Missouri. In Springfield, Missouri, we ate those sandwiches in the parking lot of the original Steak and Shake, where we bought chocolate shakes, just because. IMG_8125We bought fudge packed in Uranus, Mo., where we couldn’t stop laughing over all the innuendos. Shelly’s Diner in Cuba, Missouri, is one of those places where everyone knows your name, but also treats tourists like regulars. We ordered a BLT and their special for the day – a Chicken Melt – and talked about the trip so far. It was blissful. Nearing Chicago, we longed for deep dish pizza; after check-in, the hotel clerk pointed us toward Gino’s East where we dined and laughed our butts off with the waitress (another Rita…I’m sensing a pattern here)…an evening worthy of a blog entry on its own.

The Road is like that…stopping along the way, trying new things, and meeting new people. That’s why we travel, and we hope you will too. There’s a whole world out there just waiting to be explored…go out and see it. And order me a malt while you’re there!

*Don’t want that “guy” to sue me!

Diversion – Getting to Know You, Part 2

A reader responded to my recent post about talking up servers and bartenders with a simple question, “Why?”  I’m not really sure where she was going with this question … “Why travel?”  “Why enjoy yourself?”  “Why talk to people?”  But if ever there was any doubt about the last question, it was answered this past weekend…again.

As often happens, Judy and I needed to spend a night in Fredericksburg, Va., about an hour south of our Alexandria home.  In a few previous instances, we’ve enjoyed the food and vibe of Fahrenheit 132, located in the heart of historic downtown Fredericksburg. Fahrenheit 132 In all our previous visits, we’ve sat at the bar, enjoying fine cocktails (their French Martini is always a hit), excellent appetizers, and even one of the best Filet Mignons we’ve ever tasted.  But this time, I wanted to make it a bit special, so I booked a table (through Open Table…one of my favorite apps) for 8:30.  We arrived scandalously early to the crowded restaurant, so we checked in an ordered a drink at the bar.  We were only halfway into our first cocktail when we were shown to our table.

Two things stuck out about this visit.  First, we had never seen the wine list before.  It was extensive…the selection of Italian reds, alone, took up the better part of a page!  We chose a 2006 Villa Gemma Montepulciano D’Abruzzo (one of our favorite varietals) and to say we were pleased is an understatement. Villa Gemma The legs were longer than Cyd Charisse’s and the color was an incredibly deep, inky maroon.  If you held the glass to the light, you couldn’t see through it.  The nose took you away to some other place, and the first taste on the tongue was captivating.  THIS is why you spend good money on good wine.

Second, our server, Jessica, was everything you could hope for.  Like Araceli in our previous post, Jess was sweet, beautiful, and like our wine, captivating.  In our two hours together, we learned much about this lovely young lady and her zest for life in between bites of the best pork chops you will ever taste.  As a server, she was there before we needed her, suggested brilliant accompaniments to our entree, and instantly recognized and appreciated our desire to take our time enjoying our meal. As a new friend, we learned that she has tackled hardship and heartache in a way that is truly inspiring.  She truly made our evening joyful and we cannot wait to see her…and Fahrenheit 132…again.

There’s a whole world out there just waiting to be explored. Go see it…and take the time to get to know those around you along the way.

Here’s to you!

Greg & Judy

Food: Cooking it up in The Big Easy

IMG_5415I recently spent a week on my own in New Orleans. Greg was attending a conference there and I tagged along so I could see the city and we could enjoy evenings together. That left me with full days to explore whatever I wanted to see. Of course, there was a stroll through the Garden District and the obligatory sightseeing in the French Quarter. I wandered along the Mississippi River as it approached flood stage after massive rains upriver. And I decided to take a cooking class.

beignetsNew Orleans is known for certain foods. There’s the beignet, a little ball of deep-fried dough drowning in a generous pile of powdered sugar made famous by Café du Monde. Someone said I had to try a muffuletta, an Italian sandwich with meats, cheeses and a pickled olive and vegetable spread. I was told the best ones were at Central Grocery on Decatur Street near the French Market. muffalettaAnd of course, there is Cajun and creole cuisine. I had checked out my options on line before heading south to the Big Easy, but didn’t book anything. Then on Tuesday as I was strolling through the French Quarter I popped into Crescent City Cooks!. It’s a cooking school with a store front selling cute cooking accessories and New Orleans souvenirs.

I asked about the classes and availability for the next day. The lovely lady behind the counter informed me there was a class in the morning for $30. WOW! That was a lot less than the $150 I’d seen online. I was skeptical and asked what it involved.  As she described the class I realized it was a demonstration class instead of hands-on. I asked about the hands on class. Yes, there were openings and it cost $120.

Hmmm, still less than the on line price. I reserved a spot for the Wednesday afternoon class and set my sights on learning how to make gumbo, etouffee and bananas foster.  bananas foster

When class time rolled around, I learned the other five people worked together and were using the class as a team-building exercise. They would be split into a group of two and a group of three. I would be cooking on my own.

We got right to it, chopping and dicing onions, green peppers, red peppers, scallions, and garlic. The instructor walked us through making a roux – the essential building block of both the gumbo and the etouffee. I was having a blast as he walked over to check on all three pots. Mine seemed to be perfect, which I attributed almost entirely to beginner’s luck.

We made the gumbo first so it could simmer while we whipped up the etouffee.  Once that was done, we set our burners on low to allow the etouffee to simmer while we made the bananas foster – including setting it alight in the classic style. What fun!

Finally, we sat down to eat our dishes. I even had enough to take some back to the hotel to Greg. In fact, there was so much gumbo, I was able to give a container to our concierge who kindly told me the next morning that it was some of the best gumbo he’d ever had, adding he was from New Orleans and had been eating gumbo his whole life. I realize he was probably being nice, but it was the perfect thing to say and a crowning jewel in my New Orleans cooking experience.

Food is such an important part of any culture. When you’re traveling, taste the flavors of where you are. Try the local dishes. It’s not just about SEEING a new place; it’s about experiencing it, too. Remember, there’s a whole world out there just waiting to be explored … and sometimes that involves your taste buds.

Food – Brabo by Richard Wiedmaier

What a difference! A couple of months ago we went to the Brabo Tasting Room in Old Town Alexandria, Virginia. It was amazing. In fact, the experience was so good that when friends suggested we meet for drinks and dinner, we tapped Brabo by Richard Wiedmaier for the rendezvous. We were excited to try the full restaurant version of the tasting room.  

We arrived without reservations about 7:15 Friday night, hopeful we would be able to get in. No problem! Surprisingly, the restaurant was only about half full. Despite all the open tables, the maitre’d still took a long look at the computer screen before deciding he could seat us. I should mention we were there for a little over an hour and the restaurant was never full.

That was the first indication the service was a little surly. Our waiter, who never introduced himself, practically scoffed out loud when we ordered starters without ordering entrees. Initially, we weren’t sure if we were staying for drinks and a light repast, or if we would eventually order dinner.

The starters came with a perfectly respectable pause and we were served without comment. The menus had not been collected (presumably to give us time to decide on entrees), and after a couple of bites, our supercilious waiter came back and mentioned there was a special – pan seared scallops. By then we had decided we’d had enough of the terse service. Several times while we waited for the appetizers, we tried to flag down the aforementioned waiter only to be soundly ignored.

He collected the menus, never once asking if everything was OK. We eventually managed to get his attention for another round of drinks, but he took the order from one member of our party (there were three of us) and never even looked in the direction of the others to see if anyone else wanted another drink.

Before I go any further I should point out that the five of us had ordered three different starters (three of us got the same thing) and we were all THRILLED with the food. It was perfectly prepared, perfectly timed and amazingly presented. The busboy who served the food (not the waiter) was so smooth in his delivery I almost didn’t even see him. Another busboy who kept everyone’s glasses of water topped off never missed a beat and was polite and efficient in the best possible way.

Unfortunately for Brabo, the bad outweighed the good and we all decided to take our business elsewhere. When we finally managed to flag down the waiter and ask for the bill it was delivered quickly. The name on the bill was “Mike C” … was that his name or was that who was logged into the computer that spit out the bills?

In any case, “Mike C” got a slightly less than 10% tip for his surly, in fact rude, attitude. Certainly a $230 bill for drinks and starters deserves better service than that.

If you want great food and friendly, delightful service … stick with the Tasting Room or go elsewhere.

Food – The Wally

We stopped by our favorite haunt in Old Town Alexandria yesterday to have a quick drink and say hello to our favorite bartenders. It’s been awhile since we’ve been to Union Street Public House; we’ve been so busy lately we just haven’t made it to the waterfront.USPH

We bellied up to the bar and ordered drinks from Johnny. The other regular bartender, Bruce, was bartending a wedding and off for the night. After the first couple of sips, we figured we had better order an appetizer, too. For the most part, the bar food menu is never the same. This time, scallops with bacon and broiled watermelon looked tantalizing. Then a classic Union Street staple caught our eye – The Wally – an item that is a perennial favorite at Union Street. We ordered both.

When the Wallys were delivered and we took our first bite, I knew the Wally is worth its very own blog.IMG_4721

You’re wondering, “What on Earth is a Wally? Well, it’s a fresh oyster, topped with a little butter and bites of bacon that is run under the broiler to give it a quick crispy finish.

I had never had an oyster the first time we went to Union Street. I tried one … they’re OK. I agree with all the things you hear: they are a little slimy, a little salty, interesting. I can’t say I’m a big fan, but they’re fine for an occasional treat. Then, Bruce suggested the Wally. In fact, that first time, Bruce comped us an order of Wallys. That proved to be a brilliant move on his part. We haven’t been in Union Street since without ordering Wallys. When we had our wedding celebration there earlier this year, we had Wallys. We have even ordered Wallys for complete strangers! (That’s part of the fun about going to a place where “everybody knows your name.”)

The broiling technique gives the oyster a slightly crunchy finish, almost entirely eliminates the sliminess and adds a punch of bacon to that saltiness. They are, to use a classic summer phrase, “Slap Yo Mama Good!”IMG_4722

The scallops, bacon and watermelon were also delicious, but, OH, the Wallys! I know a blog about a specific menu item is a little unusual. I don’t know if Wallys are made anywhere else. I just took a bite of the first Wally and knew I needed to share.

Come to Alexandria. Take King Street to the waterfront, make a right on Union Street and about a block up on the right, go into Union Street Public House. Do yourself a favor and enjoy the ambiance of the Taproom (kids are welcome at the booths), say hello to Bruce and Johnny, and order some Wallys. Tell ‘em Judy and Greg sent you!

Food! – Hunting Creek

20150813_185833      Just in time for Alexandria Restaurant Week, I’ve a got a Food! review that presents a bit of a mixed bag – great food contrasted by weird – not bad, just weird – service.  Let me explain…

Last week, on the eight month anniversary of our marriage, Greg and I decided to splurge on dinner out. It was one of those “Chamber of Commerce” evenings that are so rare in August – warm temps with low humidity after a more normal stifling week – so we wanted to dine al fresco. Hunting Creek on King Street in Alexandria, Virginia, seemed like the perfect place with its shady, “not on the sidewalk” patio. We had been there once before in February right after they opened, but for obvious reasons, the patio wasn’t open yet!

The food in February had been tasty – certainly good enough to give the restaurant another visit. We strolled down about 6:30 in the evening and lucked out. There was a table open on the patio. In fact, there were two available tables and the friendly hostess gave us our choice. We opted for the table in the middle so we could watch people strolling by on King Street while we ate.

The menu surprised us. It had definitely expanded since our winter visit and now included some tantalizing options. Even the drink menu was intriguing. 20150813_185904We had planned a glass of wine and maybe a little bubbly to celebrate our special day. Instead, we ordered from the specialty cocktail menu – a Rye Manhattan (served in a martini glass) and something called “Aviation.” It turns out the Aviation was a very pretty pale purple concoction of Gin, fresh lemon, Crème de Violette and a Luxardo Maraschino cherry. It was as delicious as it was pretty.

Sipping our cocktails, we perused the menu and ordered the heirloom tomatoes with corn relish to get started. 20150813_190356This fresh, colorful dish popped with flavor. The tomatoes were vine-ripened-sweet, the corn in the relish was delightfully crisp. The flavors were perfectly paired. The food was so good we overlooked the confusion of having what seemed like an endless stream of waiters.

The hostess saw to our seating. The first uniformed server took our drinks, then another came to ask about our food order. A fourth tended to our water glasses and standard staple of bread and butter. Another gentlemen (the manager? the head waiter?) stopped by to ask about the service. It was a little unsettling.

The food waiter took our entrée order: a filet mignon for me, scallops for Greg. I ordered the four ounce filet medium rare, but it arrived overcooked. I can count on one hand the number of times I have sent food back in my life. This was one of them.

20150813_191739While we waited for the steak to come back, we shared Greg’s scallops. We usually split our entrees anyway, so this was perfect. The scallops, sautéed in garlic lemon butter were outstanding! We noticed a very light coating, which gave them a delightful touch of crunch before the soft bite of a perfectly cooked sea scallop. The sauce provided a brilliant accompaniment. We were just finishing them up when the properly cooked steak arrived.

It was delivered by the server we guessed was either the manager or head waiter. He apologized and offered to comp the glasses of wine we had ordered with dinner.20150813_191735 He also delivered the previously-overlooked steak knife. One cut, right down the middle, revealed that brilliant, almost-red color of medium rare. The texture was sublime.  Even if the steak was a bit on the cool side, I think the best way to cook a great cut of meat is that touch of sear over the blissful flavor of beef. The chef nailed it!

It’s hard to say no to dessert when everything else is so terrific, so we didn’t. 20150813_200750In February we had been talked into the panna cotta, so we figured we give it another go. Panna cotta is not easy to get it right. There’s a creaminess about a good panna cotta that must be hard to achieve. I’ve never tried. I have had a LOT of panna cottas that go just beyond creamy to gelatinous. In February the panna cotta was stunningly creamy. This time it was not. There was just a touch of creaminess hidden in a gelatinous, albeit flavorful scoop.

All-in-all, Hunting Creek was well worth the stop for the food, but Old Town Alexandria has enough other options to try for a better dessert. We also recommend Hunting Creek tighten its service delivery. Again, it wasn’t that the service was bad – our needs were well met – it was just hard to figure out who was who.  So much of what makes a meal a culinary adventure is the service that comes with it; Hunting Creek has enough going for it that service shouldn’t prevent it from being stellar.