Wednesday, June 19, 2013

A Spanish Exploration.

The hubbs and I are excited to embark on quite an adventure this upcoming week, to one of our favorite countries-- Spain.  We've both been blessed enough to have visited in previous years on vacation, spending time in Barcelona, Madrid and Seville, all which are fantastic in their own way.  (You can even follow hubbs on his 2011 adventures throughout the Kingdom of Navarra, Spain, as he sips, savors and catalogs the regions gorgeous wines- the lucky fella!)  This time around, our trip will be quite different... we will be experiencing Spain through the eyes of our gracious hosts, The Instituto de Fomento de la Región de Murcia.  Along with a handful of fellow authors, we will be eating, drinking and blogging our way through the Region of Murcia, an area in southeast of the Iberian Peninsula, known for it's vineyards, wineries, beautiful beaches and unique architecture.

We arrive Sunday, first in Madrid, then continuing on to Alicante, and finally reaching our destination in the city of Murcia just in time for lunch.  I am absolutely thrilled to be an active participant in this opportunity, especially knowing so little about the area and it's surrounding bounty.  This week, I've spent a ton of energy researching the various wineries we'll be visiting (approx. ten in 5 days), reading up on the landscape (dry, arid and hot) and trying to familiarize myself with the local culture.

As for our accomodations, we will be calling the NH Rincón de Pepe home for length of our stay...

"The NH Rincon de Pepe hotel in Murcia, Spain is a four-star establishment located in the city center, within short walking distance of tourist attractions, great shopping, and numerous restaurants and bars. Just a few blocks from the Segura River, the NH Rincon de Pepe hotel is 50 meters from the Castilian Gothic-style Murcia cathedral, and close to the bull-ring, stadium, university, and Calle de la Traperia pedestrian area."

Our days will be filled with activity, which we will both be diligently keeping track of-- I can imagine that there will be an overwhelming amount of photographs and information to come, but I can't wait to share our stories with you all.  On top of visiting the city of Murcia, we will also be participating in day trips, discovering wineries (and fine foods) in the appellations of Jumilla, Yecla and Bullas.  The agriculture of this particular region is supposedly spectacular, so I very much look forward to witnessing "Europe's orchard" in person.

As for right now, I've got to concentrate on my packing.  I've committed to carry-on only, so my skills are being stretched as far as I can manage for a week long journey.  My next two days are loaded with errands and loose ends to tie up before we head out, but the anticipation of the trip itself keeps a smile on my face and spring in my step.    

Stay tuned friends, Spain here we come!!

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

The Big Apple... Second Bite.

Day two in New York began slowly and with ease, enjoying a hot warm shower and a cup of coffee from the lounge downstairs at The Carlton Hotel.  As I sat and sipped, I was remembering the details of the previous evening, when the hubbs finally arrived in town, somewhere close to midnight.

After I left the festive surroundings of the Flatiron District, I meandered back to the hotel for catnap, and then settled down with a refresher inside the Salon at the hotel.  A few laughs and chats later, I decided to walk the short distance a few blocks away to visit a place I've been meaning to for quite some time, Brasserie Les Halles, homebase of Chef-at-large, Anthony Bourdain.  Being a huge fan of his, I couldn't be in New York and not stop by Les Halles- at least for a cocktail or glass of bubbly.  I arrived close to closing time, but managed to slip in and enjoy a glass of sparkling rosé and a conversation with the bartender.  Had I arrived earlier, I may have been able to sneak a late night bite in, but I was happy as a clam just stopping in to say hi.

"Bustling and lively, Brasserie Les Halles is a typical Parisian brasserie serving fresh and simple dishes of France’s everyday cuisine.  For centuries, the old market district of Paris, Les Halles, fed people from all walks of life with food stalls, restaurants, brasseries, bistros and cafes, open at all times day and night.  This is the rare spot renowned for skillfully knowing how to leave French classics untouched, unmodernized, and absolutely delicious."

Perhaps on my next trip I will stay a spell and order dinner...  This visit was enjoyable, anyhow.


To fuel my Thursday adventures, I indulged in a light breakfast at the Madison Bistro.  A tiny, well-appointed cafe located just a few blocks north of my hotel, I found it to be a charming, quiet and excellent place to plan my day.

"For fine French cuisine in a romantic and elegant setting, be sure to visit Madison Bistro in Murray Hill, and enjoy Master Chef Claude Godard’s updated traditional bistro fare."

I ordered their Two Eggs w/Bacon, Sausage, Sauteed Potato & Baby Greens, which ended up being one of the prettiest breakfasts I've ever been served.  My eggs were cooked perfectly, the sausage is house made, the bacon was cooked exactly to the crisp I like and the salad was tangy and refreshing. The food is all incredibly fresh and plated immaculately- even better?  It tasted amazing.  Bravo Madison Bistro.

At the bistro, I determined that I would like to spend my afternoon wandering Grand Central Station-- in my humble opinion, one of the most exquisite and intriguing buildings in all of New York.  The history of this terminal is absolutely mind-boggling, so me going into detail is just silly.  Built in 1831, the grand dame of Beaux-Arts architecture sees millions of people pass through her doors on a regular basis, catching trains, enjoying a meal or just ogling her beauty (like me).

One of my favorite ways to pass the time is to sit on the terrace and people watch.  On this particular day, the sun was shining, people were headed to and from just about every-which-way and I found myself completely content, staring into the heavens of the station.  It's twinkling, cerulean blue ceiling dusted in stars and astrological formations makes the mind wander.  The hustle and bustle of the crowds, the ticking of the world's largest Tiffany clock and the energy of the building is beguiling to me.  I think I sat for two hours on the great marble steps without moving, taking in the place.  A big perk of the station is, you got it, the air conditioning.  Many folks use Grand Central as a short respite from the sweltering New York heat on their lunch hours or mid-walk to wherever.  I certainly took advantage.  Not only is it one of the most photographed buildings in the world, it is a treasure to me and I find great comfort and solace within it's walls.  Friends greeting, tearful departures, anxious new travelers and tourists with mouths agape as they stare in awe at this spectacle.  There is something magical about Grand Central, and visiting never gets old.

All that people watching made me hungry as a bear, so of course I had to fetch me some oysters!  The one and only Grand Central Oyster Bar was the perfect place for me to satisfy my need to slurp some east coast bivalves.

"The Oyster Bar first opened its doors in 1913 on the lower level of Grand Central Terminal. Woodrow Wilson was President, the United States was on the threshold of World War I, and Prohibition was just six years away. New York City was slowly emerging as a literary and artistic center, and little “salons” that attracted writers and artists and dilettantes were starting to spring up in Greenwich Village and in other parts of the city. The resplendent new Grand Central Terminal opened its doors that year too, on the site of what formerly had been the old and rundown train depot. People flocked to see the new terminal that was then as now considered an engineering marvel."

These guys know the meaning of fresh seafood.  In this vaulted ceiling, checkered tablecloth-clad cafeteria style eatery, folks can enjoy over 30 different varieties of oysters at any one time, chosen from a list of what I counted was almost 150.  Wowza- now that's my idea of an oyster bar!  On top of their overwhelming oyster selection, guests can choose dishes like Penne with Florida Royal Red Shrimp, Maine Lobster Meat and Broccoli Rabe with Garlic & Oil Broth or a Maine Lobster Roll on a Toasted Potato Bun with Cole Slaw & Sweet Potato Chips.  For you non-seafood lovers, plates such as the Grilled Sirloin Steak with French Fries and Vegetables should suffice.

I, of course, chose a simple half dozen of the shelled guys, careful to pick only oysters that are found on eastern shores.  I went with the Belon from Maine, a couple Malpeque from Prince Edward Island and to round it all out, a few Tatamagouche from Nova Scotia.  The oysters were all impeccably fresh, served on ice with cocktail sauce and mignonette in adorable little paper cups.  Nothing terribly fancy, but I appreciated the emphasis on the food itself.

If you're looking for entertainment here, pull up a stool and sit at the seafood bar, where all oysters are shucked in front of you and the soup is made-to-order in bubbling little single-serve cauldrons.  I caught a glimpse of their popular seafood stew being made and thought twice about trying to stuff myself silly.  Instead I opted for a slice their "famous" Donut Nectarine and Brown Sugar Caramelized Apple Pie (a la mode), with many thanks to my new friend sitting beside me.  A gentleman I shall refer to as one of the original Mad Men, on a day trip to visit the only dentist he trusted these days.  Hilarity ensued, and before we all new it, several more slices of pie were served and paid for by this mystery man with a sweet tooth.  Not a bad end to my Grand Central Station visit, not bad at all.


By this time it was about 3 o'clock and I was parched from all that briny goodness.  Upon recommendation from a friend, I headed my way back towards Madison Square Park to The NoMad Hotel, which rests at Broadway and 28th Street.  Touted as one of the most stylish and sublimely chic  hotels in Mid-town, The NoMad defines urban luxury- From it's discreet, richly furnished lobby to it's ornate, sexy parlour and mysteriously dark bar, you will immediately fall in love with this classy establishment and it's staff.  I only visited for drinks, but felt a twinge of envy when I realized how awesome this hotel was.

The Bar.

The Parlor.

The Library.
The Bar, which "evokes a balanced mix of spirited club and elegant lounge. A selection of classic and proprietary cocktails will be crafted by award winning-mixologist, Leo Robitschek",  is situated at the rear, behind the Parlour, an elaborately decorated dining area where guest can sit by the open hearth and "observe the preparation of fresh breads and seasonal specialties."  Alongside, sits the Library, "a fully curated, two-level library which is connected by an original spiral staircase imported from the South of France. Guests can lounge throughout the day on custom-made furnishings and enjoy light fare and finger foods which are served alongside coffee, tea, wine, and cocktails. An eclectic literary collection is available, featuring extensive volumes on such wide-ranging topics as The History of New York, Music, and Cocktails and Spirits."

I sidled up to Bar and was greeted with a warm smile by a fellow with a sporting moustache, sophisticated vest and white sleeves rolled up to the elbow.  How very Victorian throwback cool.  He was incredibly friendly and gave my plenty of time to read over their extensive cocktail list.  My first drink choice was the Rolling Stones influenced Start Me UpBourbon, Rum, Strega, Honey, Ginger, Lemon & Orange Bitters.  I enjoyed the sweet bite of this drink, served over a massive ice cube with just enough zing to keep the burn of the bourbon to a minimum.  Next, I ordered their Hair Trigger: Venezuelan Rum, Fernet Branca, Ginger, Lime & Cucumber.  How could I not?  I'm from the San Francisco Bay Area and we consume 25% of the Fernet supply in SF alone-- the barkeep found humor in that little tidbit.  I actually really liked the combo of the fresh cucumber, fernet and rum because it neutralized the concoction and was nicely balanced.  I was only at The Nomad for short time, but I will definitely return.  In fact, I can't wait for my next trip to NYC, because I would love to experience the dining as well.  The entire experience is on my to-do list.  NoMad, I shall see you again.


My lessons in Mixology were over and it was time to return to the Carlton Hotel to meet up with the hubbs and the rest of the gang from Creative Feed for a group dinner.  We were headed to Wine:30, an "intimate, neighborhood and wine bar in Murray Hill"- an attractive Mediterranean influenced restaurant with an emphasis on wine and wine pairings.  I was excited to check this place out, seeing as I had passed by it several time on my walking adventures throughout our stay.  Upon arrival, we were greeted by our host and lead to their exclusive wine cave, downstairs and completely separated from the rest of the diners at the restaurant.  The cave, which was dug out by hand with buckets by the owner, was an intimate and interesting way to experience our dinner.

A lovely prix fixe menu was arranged for our group, complete with a fantastic staff of servers to help us along the way.  Wines were chosen, excessive laughter erupted, cronut knowledge was shared and the food began to arrive...

Dipping Sauces
Cucumber-Dill Yogurt (favorite, an unusual yet palette pleasing choice)
Spicy Tomato & Pepper

Spicy Beef Sausage, Peppers & Onions
Roasted Corn, Black Beans, Chihuahua. Cilantro-Lime (favorite, loved the crunch of the sweet corn)

Choice of Entree
* Free-Range Roasted Chicken Breast with Chimichurri sauce, served with Wild Rice and Sauteed Broccoli Rabe.
* Seared Hangar Steak with Potatoes au gratin, Roasted Asparagus & Bernaise sauce. (I chose this entree and was impressed with the potatoes au gratin.  The steak was seasoned nicely as well.)
* Lemon-Basil Linguini with Asparagus, Tomato, Basil, Garlic, Parmesan and Olive Oil.

Mini Red Velvet Cupcakes (who doesn't love red velvet?)

Overall, Wine:30 was a pleasant experience.  The restaurant itself is quaint, but has a great atmosphere, full of smiling faces and friendly people.  Outside, during nice weather, there is a lovely patio garden seating area that is perfect for warm summer dinner parties.  While the restaurant small is small and often packed to the gills, the staff at Wine:30 do a great job of accommodating just about everyone inside and out.  Their wine list is impressive, especially for such a compact space, and if you aren't in the mood for wine, they've got a great selection of imported beers to choose from.  If you are ever in the Murray Hill area of Manhattan, swing by and check this little gem out.


It's hard to imagine that there's a day three still to come, one that explores the nightlife of Brooklyn.  From video arcade bars, 4am sandwiches from the corner store, watching graffiti artists from a rooftop patio and squeezing our way through tiny doors and into the past for vintage cocktails to sampling Crawtators and getting lost on the NYC subway.  So much more to come... Stay tuned.


*Photos 4,7,8 author's own
*Remainder of photos courtesy of establishment media galleries.


Tuesday, June 4, 2013

The Big Apple... First Bite.

Our trip to New York City this year was a whirlwind of fun, food, friends and wine.  As usual, the city was remarkable and Manhattan never ceases to thrill and amaze me- with so much to do in so little time, I was beside myself with choices.  How would I spend my long days, where would I eat, what new place could I explore?  Let's find out.

My plane touched down Wednesday afternoon, amidst the heat and haze of Newark Liberty International Airport, a choice I had made last minute when flight prices dropped.  On my past trips, I usually get to-and-fro using JFK, but the temptation of saving a few bucks was far too much for me to resist, thus the New Jersey decision.  Unfortunately and in all honesty, I can't recommend this to travelers as an introduction to the New York area, most certainly not for first time visitors flying in from distant locations.

This is what security feels like at Newark.
Although it's proximity to the city is convenient, I found the airport difficult to navigate, an absolute security nightmare, slightly funky, severely lacking order and total rip-off when it came to ground transportation.  $100 for a 16 mile cab ride is a bit steep for me, although I do admit I could have taken a train transfer for much cheaper.  It's hard to motivate yourself to sit on a train for an hour and half after a 6 hour plane flight though, especially in 90 degree weather at 90 percent humidity.

Yay JFK!
I highly suggest sticking to JFK, for the convenience of it's connection to the NYC subway and the ease, cleanliness and sensibility of the airport itself.  Why is this helpful information?  When I travel, especially on shorter trips, I like the airport to be a swift transition between air and land, without having to waste my time on the nonsense of a poorly run facility.  Call me crazy, but flying is stressful enough as it is for some of us, therefore I'm a big fan of well-organized hubs that get me in, through, and out efficiently and anxiety-free.

I digress...  On to the good stuff!!

The building itself is beautiful.
The lobby with it's faux fireplace, an illusion made using water and flickering lights.
Our homebase for this 4 day trip was smack-dab in the middle of Manhattan, mid-town to be exact, at the elegantly appointed Carlton Hotel.  Surrounded by towering skyscrapers and bustling, cab-filled streets, The Carlton Hotel stands like a striped beacon of cool, stacked-stone, decorated with intricate French-inspired black filigree details.  The interior of the hotel feels modern with an Art Deco twist, similar to most classic New York hotels.  The environment is warm and welcoming, while remaining refined in it's presentation.  I found the staff to be incredibly kind and helpful when needed, otherwise quietly waiting in the wings, giving the hotel a very serene feel.  

The Salon.
The hotel's restaurant, Millesime, (pronounced mee-lay-ZEEM), is a fantastically decorated brasserie that draws in guests with it's richly colored, parlor-style lounge and bar.  Once inside, you are sure to be lured upstairs by the luxurious wood-paneled, chandelier filled dining room where you can sample some of the city's finest...

"The Carlton Hotel's signature, full service Murray Hill restaurant, Millesime, is a seafood brasserie, presenting guests with a straightforward menu highlighted by both bold and delicate French cuisine. 2 Michelin Star Executive Chef Laurent Manrique draws inspiration from the classic seafood dishes found throughout France, utilizing only the freshest, seasonal ingredients sourced from local waters and nearby farms. For guests craving a small bite, Executive Chef Manrique has crafted a menu of small plates ideal for sharing. For those looking for something a bit more substantial, this Murray Hill restaurant also offers a Burger Millesime, Croque Monsieur and the Salon Club. The elegant upstairs dining room features a 100-year-old mosaic floor; a Tiffany Dome skylight, red banquettes, a marble raw bar and an open kitchen allow you to peek in on the culinary team at work."

Bar Millie.
The hubbs spent most of his time within the walls of Millesime, sampling over 220 wines as a Juror (judge) for the Bordeaux Wine Council's (CIVB) Today's Bordeaux wine competition, to choose the top 100 affordable Bordeaux wines for 2013, thus being our main reason for visiting NYC.  Along with his peers, they sipped, savored and discussed wines for two days straight, while enjoying meals provided by Millesime.

I, on the other hand, sampled a few of my own tidbits at Millesime, like their Misty Point oysters on the half shell, served with mignonette and housemade cocktail sauce.  For lunch on our last day in town, I enjoyed their Millesime Burger, smothered in Monterey jack, avocado, roasted peppers, spicy onion rings & french fries, while the hubbs chose the Chicken Club with saffron aioli, tomato confit & pancetta on multi-grain toast with their delicious pomme frites.  All of the food at Millesime was freshly prepared and presented in an appealing manner.  We very much enjoyed our dining experience and would definitely re-visit when back in the city.


Initially the hubbs and I were going to fly in together, but we became separated by scheduling conflicts, which meant that he would be leaving San Francisco as I was arriving in New York.  Much to his dismay, I was excited by this idea because it meant having the evening to myself to explore the wonders of mid-town without him (love you honey!)  Once I unpacked and settled in, I headed out to my favorite first stop- Eataly!  For those of you who are wondering why I'm obsessed with Eataly, you can read about my earlier adventures on one of most popular postings, My Visit To Eataly from 2012.  It's a personal favorite, and this time I was determined to eat at Manzo, a small, more formal setting that celebrates the deliciousness of American beef.  Strangely enough, I ordered everything but the beef, and I don't regret it.

My appetizer was a gorgeous salad- Roasted Beets with Hazelnuts, Goat Cheese & Black Truffle Vinaigrette.  I had to eat slowly and with purpose in order to completely indulge in this mouth-watering, savory yet delicately sweet salad.  The trick, as told by my waiter, was that the creamy goat cheese is whipped with their finest olive oil to create a pillowy soft blanket underneath the colorful beets.  The crumbled hazelnuts gave each bite an interesting contrast in textures, bringing just enough crunch.  And the truffle vinaigrette... No words.  This dish was divine.

Tasty AND pretty to look at.
At the suggestion of my incredibly well-informed waiter, to pair with my glass of sparkling rosé, I next ordered one of the evening's special plates-- Pan Seared Hamachi with Red Chili Oil Glaze atop Smoked Hamachi, Green Chickpeas & Castelvetrano Olives in a light broth.  The seared hamachi had a crisp outer layer and a sweet, cool center- just how I love my fish cooked.  The red chili oil mixed with the broth, briny olives and creamy chickpeas burst with flavor, all in one bite.  I was particularly fond of this dish because I've tried variations of it at home, using different olives and salmon, perhaps capers as well, because both the hubbs and I love the combo.  For a restaurant specializing in beef, Manzo sure hit the mark with this light yet satisfying seafood treat.

The Shake Shack... This pic perfectly captures the mood of that warm, cheerful evening.
Once I had filled my tummy with yummy, I waddled around Eataly for a bit longer and then decided to explore the outdoors a bit by heading across the street to Madison Square Park.  By far, one of my favorite parks in all of New York, I found it a cozy place to digest, sit back, and admire other people's impressive milk shakes and frozen custards from the wildly popular and tasty Shake Shack.  If I hadn't have gorged myself at dinner, I would've definitely joined in on the fun, but my stomach was far too full for more food.  Their milkshakes, by the way, have such a huge following that people are willing to stand in lines of 100+ just for a taste of their sweet, sweet goodness.  The burgers are awesome too, and along with fact that you can order beer (what???) with your burgers, fries, etc and sit in the park, that makes the Shake Shack one helluva destination point.  The hubbs and I sat and sipped later in our trip one evening- probably one of our nicer moments this visit, just relaxing and chatting and drinking beer out of plastic cups.

Amidst the chatter and ice cream, I happen to be told that I picked quite an exciting night to be in the Flatiron District, especially directly where I was perched at the apex of 23rd Street, Broadway and 5th Avenue.  I was about the witness one of the coolest New York natural oddities that happens only a handful of times a year-- Manhattanhenge! This is when the full sun aligns perfectly with the grid of New York city streets, creating an explosion of color and joy amongst the thousands of folks watching.  I've never seen so many people standing in the middle of intersections holding their hands up in unison, all to snap a photo of this phenomenon.  An overwhelming way to end my first evening in Manhattan, one that brought a sense of wonderment and community to me, a girl from California awash in a sea of people from all over the world.  I'll snip this article here, and leave you with my own photo of Manhattanhenge 2013, enjoy.

Pictures just don't do it justice.
Parts two & three coming up soon, featuring the notorious Brasserie Les Halles , Birreria on the roof, dinner and laughs at Wine:30, mixology at The NoMad Hotel, good eats at Traif in Brooklyn, and about a dozen other late night discoveries.

To be continued...