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

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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

O is for Orseolo

IMG_5967The best part of having your own plan to see the world is being able to make it fit your personal wishes. That was especially true of the “O” trip. Greg and I wanted to go somewhere romantic, European and hopefully Italian. Neither of us had ever been to Venice (well, to be fair, I spent a few hours there on a day trip once about 25 years ago), so we were looking to head to the “City of Bridges.”

IMG_5952It turns out one of the doges credited with founding the city was Pietro I Orseolo. In fact, there is a small section of the city named for him. So … “O is for Orseolo.”
To make it even more legit, we stayed at Locanda Orseolo, a fabulous boutique inn just a block and a half off St. Mark’s Square.

I knew that a trip to Venice at the end of February was a weather risk, but what the heck, you can’t make the weather, but you can adjust to it. So we packed rain stuff and enough to keep warm if it got a little cold and headed east.

We arrived in the rain … but found our hotel easily thanks to the picture perfect directions provided by the staff. What a gem of a hotel! It totally pays to do your research, read reviews and decide what you really want. We wanted small, close to the center of the city and very Venetian. We got exactly what we wanted!

Tired from travel and feeling a little jet lagged, we asked about a place close by to grab a quick, simple dinner and wandered a few tiny alleys, crossing over a couple of bridges to a small ristorante. WOW! Trust your hotel staff for their recommendations. We had incredible fresh seafood, perfect Italian wine and delightful ambiance.

IMG_6036Exhausted and full, we climbed the three flights of stairs to the Gianduja room and slept under a soft, fluffy comforter awaking to the forecast for another gray, rainy Venetian day. It was, indeed, gray, but the rain was holding off so we jumped onto a vaporetto (Venetian buses are boats!) and headed for the island of Murano to see how the famous glass is made and wander through the shops in search of a real Murano glass souvenir.

IMG_5722The glass museum posted notices that pictures are not permitted, but it’s worth a visit before you hit the shops. You learn about the island’s history and techniques used to produce the myriad of pieces you’ll see – everything from lamps and chandeliers to earrings and cufflinks. One shop sported an incredible selection of insects made of glass; another was brightly lit with ornate chandeliers. Snapping a few shots of the scenes and shopping left us craving lunch, so we stopped into a little restaurant and grabbed something to warm up after spending the morning walking around in the cool dampness of the day.

It was a quiet afternoon of wandering and sightseeing before a classically touristy dinner in a restaurant right on the main tourist street. Be aware – we ate at a place on the tourist street because we wanted to know just how “authentic” it was. After the previous night’s dinner, it was clear the “real Italian food” the man out front suggested we would get was much closer to Olive Garden or Chef Boyardee. We got exactly what we were looking for – campy, mediocre tourist food. The lesson here is: go off the beaten track. Find a place with a bit of a crowd speaking the local language. That’s where the good food is!

IMG_5779We’d scheduled a food tour for Monday mid-day and met Francesca at one of the dozens of churches in the center of Venice along with the other three people who would be taking the tour with us. We met a pair of sisters from England and a single mom from Berkeley, California and headed out to learn about Venice, Italian wines and something called ciccheti (the Italian word for tapas).  What fun! The sun flirted with us and the rain held off as we weaved our way through passageways to four different bars to try the flavors of Venice. IMG_5766We wandered past the fruit and vegetable market and marveled at the huge purple artichokes and pink cabbage. The tour was over too soon. We decided to continue on our own, discovering more hidden treasures in a city known for its challenging layout.

Tuesday we took a side trip to Florence, which left Wednesday for us to see and do everything we had missed earlier. We declared a photo day and headed out to see what incredible views we could find as the sun blazed brightly for the first time during our visit.

We snapped pics of little churches on hidden piazzas, gondolas gliding along the canals, architectural oddities and sights familiar to anyone who’s ever seen images of the famous Venetian landmarks. We grabbed a pizza in a little pizzeria tucked into an alley in the “artists” section of the city. IMG_5832We snapped a shot of a father and his daughter walking near a church. We found the scene depicted in a painting we have in our home and tried to recreate it in a photograph.

Thursday came all-to-soon and we packed our belongings and made our way back to the airport (once again in the rain) for the flight home.IMG_5970

Venice lives up to its reputation as a charming, romantic city with great food and a fascinating culture unique to a city with no roads, just waterways. If you get a chance, this is one of those places you should try to see. Despite its fame, you can still soak up the culture without being assaulted by “tourist traps,” although there are places that define the phrase.IMG_5808

So what are you waiting for? Book a flight, pack your bags and go! Even if it’s not Venice, there’s a whole world out there just waiting to be explored.

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.

N is for Nürnberg

Christmas in Germany is magical, at least for me. The Germans are the best at Christmas markets and somehow walking around a market square sipping gluhwein and shopping for seasonal specialties feels very Christmas-y.with gluhwein

That’s why we decided to head to Nürnberg for the “N” trip. The Christmas market there is known around the world and the idea of spending a piece of the season in Bavaria evokes thoughts of snow and gingerbread and sounds of “O Tannenbaum” ringing in my head.red ornaments

Sure enough, the sights and sounds of the season did not disappoint us. Our boutique hotel just two blocks from the world-famous Kristkindl Markt was an easy train ride from Munich and a 10 minute taxi ride from the Bahnhof in Nürnberg.

cathedral

 

We arrived just in time to get checked in, change and refresh and head out to the market where the medieval atmosphere and architecture added to the festive spirit in the air.aisle markersThe main Christmas market is row upon row of classic German gifts and treats.

wooden ornamentsThere are ornately carved wooden ornaments.

gingerbread heartNürnberger gingerbread hearts hang from stalls and offer greetings.

Some of the stalls showed off unique items …like the Nürnberg angels …nurnberg angels

angela twist on the classic German angel Christmas tree topper.

window box

 

Window boxes, filled with brightly colored flowers much of the year, are filled with greenery and ornaments.

 

 

 

night market

Daytime in the market is festive enough, but when the sun sets, the lights go on and the entire market square is illuminated for the holidays.

 

 

reflected bridge

 

But Nürnberg is more than just the Christmas market. The city really is ancient.

 

 

medieval reflection

 

The river that runs through the town is crisscrossed by charming walking bridges reflected on the still,
gently flowing water and dotted with charming views that transport you back to ancient times.

grilling bratsWhen it’s time for a break … there’s nothing better than a German bratwurst … hot off the grill. brat and pretzel sandwichThat is unless you opt for another German delight … the pretzel sandwich (in my case stuffed with ham, cheese and German pickles.)

I rave a little about Germany. Living there as a teenager has always given me a bit of comfort about traveling throughout the country. I feel a bit at home there.  That’s a lot of what draws me there during the holidays, but it’s a beautiful country year round. If you get a chance, go and visit. Drink a beer. Eat a bratwurst. Sample the culture. Remember, there’s a whole world out there. Go see it.

Food – The Pines of Florence in Alexandria

Greg and I realized recently that we don’t talk much about our town. Alexandria, Virginia, is an amazing place to live. There’s always something going on; it’s a short metro ride from Washington, DC; it’s incredibly walkable; it’s loaded with history; there’s fun, eclectic shopping; and best of all, there are restaurants EVERYWHERE.  So we’re making an effort to get to more of the restaurants that we usually just walk right past. We live here, we should put a little more effort into eating here … and at more than just one or two favorites.

We actually started a couple of weeks ago. Friday was new restaurant #2. (No, I’m not going to keep count – ha). After a relatively short day at work, we hopped off the metro at King Street and wandered down to The Pines of Florence. This restaurant has been around a long time, judging by the well-maintained, but obviously been-there-forever sign out front and the equally well-maintained-but-old decor inside. There’s nothing shiny or flashy about this place. You get good, clean, comfy, cozy atmosphere as you are surrounded by a staff that is not only friendly, but makes you feel like you’re among family the entire time. They are not related – we overheard a waitress tell the couple seated behind us, “no, he’s not my father” when asked if the gentleman who was obviously in charge was her dad – but you’d never know it.

Menus arrived with a delightful, not pushy, but charmingly suggestive recommendation that we take a peek at the specials on the back page. We asked if there was any one of the half dozen or more that he recommended. He suggested the chicken and mozzarella. We quickly sized up the wine list and ordered a bottle of Montepulciano D’Abruzzo (our fave), and he nodded approvingly and headed to the bar to get the bottle and give us time with the menu.

By the time he came back (oh so perfect timing), we had chosen an appetizer of mixed fried seafood. He poured the wine and popped off to the kitchen to put in our appy order. Leaving us alone with the wine and menus while he and the others tended to several other diners, we chatted about our day and relaxed. By the time the appy arrived we had decided to split the chicken and mozzarella special he had suggested. (Side note: we almost always split a single entree because we are fortunate to have the same food tastes and they are always too big to be called a “single serving”)

The “frito misto” (mixed fried seafood) was piping hot, perfectly cooked and downright scrumptious. The batter used to coat the mussels, calamari, shrimp and zucchini was light and airy with just the right amount of crunch. A dish of tomato sauce for dipping added a fun splash of flavor. It was a huge pile of seafood and we both agreed it was perfect for sharing.

Our water glasses stayed full as we nibbled and chatted, never feeling rushed or watched. A large group had come in while we were eating and was seated near the back of the restaurant, but we never heard them. The couple behind us were clearly regulars judging from the comments to the staff. Another duo nearby were work colleagues chatting about business but not loudly. We caught an occasional snippet of their conversation.

After a well-timed pause between courses, the chicken and mozzarella arrived. Our waitress put the bowl between us and offered a large spoon to let us divvy up the portions onto the two plates provided. We opted to share the bowl as the table for two was the perfect size to allow it. The ziti in the dish was perfect. There’s nothing worse than overcooked pasta in my mind and this had just the right amount of bite. The two-bite chunks of chicken were tender and juicy, the asparagus was blissfully slightly crunchy, the light coating of sun-dried tomatoes and olive oil added a beautifully sweet tang to the bites and the diced mozzarella (which we immediately stirred into the hot dish to get it melting and gooey) was just right.

If you’re looking for a great, family feeling, home style Italian meal, The Pines of Florence NAILS IT!