Saturday, January 4, 2014

Me and Mr. Pants in Italy!


Door, Barbaresco


These iPhone photos cannot do Italy justice. The hills are closer, the sky more vibrant, you can't smell the river and the rain coming in Verona, or the dark grapes on Piedmont vines, or watch your feet, in their modern shoes, walk on old stones that millions have walked on for centuries. 

Sometimes only an accidental sliver of the history is apparent, a Roman tower here, a medieval carving there. But vast stretches of historic strata lay under the streets traversed by sleek, gleaming trams and buzzing Vespas. 

Walk into a church to find it was built over medieval cloisters, which, in turn, were built over a Roman forum or circus, which was built over a shrine to Minerva, which was built over sacred Celtic hot springs.. and so on.


Alba houses 



Turin's Market


We liked Turin. The land of Visigoths, Vermouth and Nutella, was full of narrow streets, grand old squares and cafes under porticos. 

It's also home to the largest open air market in Europe. Want something? They've got it.  We bought far too many balls of mozzarella as well as fresh porcini's, bread, tomatoes, basil, and (wild boar) sausages to take to the red-shuttered farmhouse we'd rented in the vines near Asti.  



Turin from top of the Mole Antonelliana



Morning at the casa in the Piedmont

View from Casa 


The Piedmont is farm country, with it's vineyards, goats and hazelnut groves. Day-trips to Barbaresco, Acqui Terme and Alba brought strange experiences like the bizarre but interesting wine museum, (Barolo) and lots of hot, fruitless walking around looking for roman ruins and hot springs (Acqui Terme), but also some damn fine food, like this antipasti from Alfredo's, below.  


Melon, ham, figs 

And where Mr. Pants got greedy with dessert. 


The hirsute Mr. Pants and his two desserts

Verona's masses of people in the streets, after the peace of the Piedmont was jarring, but vibrant.  The masses of people outside the pink-stoned colosseum waiting to enter through the same gates that people had been entering for many years.

Verona's amphitheatre

Skip the faux Shakespearean characters' houses, milked for all their worth by fair Verona.  Eat some real tiramisu instead. 

REAL Tiramisu in Verona at the Caffe Dante...oh my god oh my god


Milan was civilized and gritty, by turns sleekly modern, then flowery and Belle Epoque. Delicate art nouveau swirling iron-work lies right next to clunkily fascistic buildings sitting in the middle of a block like stubbornly clenched fists. 

We just happened to be there during "Fashion Week", so Milan was full of people with ridiculously fabulous hair, and freakishly tall, thin, delicately stomping black-clad models trailing tiny black rolling suitcases. 

We also had some of the most generous aperitifs in Milan. This early evening ritual, sort of like a far more bountiful happy hour with no time restrictions, is one tradition that makes America seem stingy by comparison. For the price of one lovely drink, you can basically get a whole meal, absolutely free. Olives, chips, tiny sandwiches, vegetables, fruit, these were just some of the offerings that were brought out to us free of charge, because it is just so darn civilized. 


Aperitivo buffet

Aperitivo snacks at Peck in Milan

I suspect Italians live better lives. Traveling to Italy helps me recognize the good things:  Negronis, family, dessert, history, great red wine from old vines, art, and Mr. Pants. 

Highlights:  Fresh porcini mushrooms, Italian aperitifs, architecture, archeology, and just so many beautiful things.

Disappointments:  All trips must end.

Mr. Pants: Grateful that I drag him away from the computer sometimes to see the world for reals. 


Saturday, August 24, 2013

San Francisco: Tonga Room!

The Tonga Room and Hurricane Bar is a San Francisco institution. Kitschy and retro, this subterranean  bar in the Fairmont Hotel, is one of the few to offer you a thunderstorm with your Mai Tai, (as if that Mai Tai doesn't have enough of a kick). It was transformed into a tiki bar in 1945 by Metro Goldwyn Mayer's set director.  Some tables are under thatched roofs and set around a large, aqua "lagoon" that catches the periodic rain from the ceiling, punctuated by lightning and thunder.

Mr Pants chose the Mai Tai; all fruit juice, crushed ice and a gallon of rum, just as deliciously tacky as the decor.  I ordered a sweet, medicinal, and deadly Zombie because nothing says tiki-bar like a Zombie.  (This drink has the honored place of being the first I ever ordered, on my 21st birthday, courtesy of my friends Marla and Alisa, who blindfolded me and took me to Miomar's Serbian Nightclub in Chicago, where the band played Happy Birthday for me, before we went off to our usual punk club hang-out, where I'd been secretly going for a year. Sorry, Mom.)

The honored Zombie

I digress.

You'll digress too if you have a second Mai Tai, or Zombie, and no food— why ruin it with food?  You can always stagger it off on your way to Chinatown dumplings, or the thousand other edible options around that just might be more satisfying than anything glopped out of the Happy Hour buffet bins lined up in front of the lagoon.

If your tastes run toward the more highfalutin craft cocktail, you could always go to the Comstock Saloon, two doors from City Lights bookstore, and chat about literature with stylishly plastered blondes from the Hamptons while drinking a beautiful rye Manhattan out of a pretty etched cocktail glass.  But then you'd be missing out on the Tonga Room's tropical, drunken vibe, which would be absolutely unacceptable. 


Highlights: Lighting! Thunder! Mai Tai's! Zombies! 

Disappointments: Buffet bins, maybe. 

Mr. Pants: Giggling.  

Tonga Room & Hurricane Bar on Urbanspoon





Thursday, July 25, 2013

Chicago: Elevating the cocktail at The Aviary


Took a long weekend to visit Mom and Chicago.  I love that city.  You would too, if you like leafy-green side streets, gorgeous modern and not so modern architecture, 26 miles of public, beachy lakefront and museums and culture galore. Oh and eating and drinking.

I wasn't about to leave town without trying The Aviary, (CTA: Green line to Morgan), for a little cocktail sorcery from Grant Achatz (that elfin genius of molecular gastronomy), and his partner Nikolas Kokonas.

After a short wait, the front door man, with his little secret-service-like earpiece, ushered Mom and me into the first room, with standing room only black tables, where we perched our elbows and looked at the bar, with staff swarming with quiet activity behind a silvery cage. (Are you in the cage, or are they?) No sidling up to the bar and chatting up the bartender here, nothing so uncivilized.

The bar behind our cage, or their cage


The staff are serious and solicitous, asking first if there are any allergies and last, if we needed transport home— a thoughtful touch. Despite the gravity of the staff, the drinks are sexy and playful.  

"The Avenue"

"The Avenue" was a perfect oval of passionfruit sorbet, in a champagne flute, with carbonated grenadine, calvados, and bourbon.  After a few perfect, heady sips, we were pleased to be asked if we'd like to sit down.  You know, like the grown-ups!  We were led to a plush, low-banquette, where we could slouch out of view from the standing only tables.  (Something about this led me to think about the first-class section of an aircraft, with the elites curtained off from the masses.) 

A serious-looking man approached bearing a puffed-up plastic bag about the size of a small pillowcase with a glass containing a dark liquid.  This was the Rob Roy with lavender air, Pedro Ximenez 1985, and scotch.  They scissor open the bag, allowing the lavender air to waft out over us, and I was asked to please remove the cocktail, so I did, thereby swishing around the lavender air and inhaling while I took the first taste.  I managed not to roll my eyes, and the cocktail was good with that scented addition. 


Something brewing


The tiny edible portion of the menu contained potato chips and "Bites", which come in threes, so we chose the sublime duck rillete, the bacon wrapped date, and a particularly tasty one called corn chowder. True to their moniker, they were exactly bite-sized, and of course, comically, we tried to split them because we are cheap that's how we roll. 

The bill prominently stated that 18 percent gratuity was included, thereby relieving their patrons, if they've had one too many, of the mental strain of addition.  Or, to ensure the staff gets their due in case guests balk at the high prices and think tipping excessive? 

Cocktails were balanced yet innovative. The Aviary succeeds in elevating the cocktail experience with a peculiar mix of lighthearted experimentalism and a serious devotion to providing you with a high quality experience.

Sure, the Aviary flirts with pretension, and you may feel for a moment like a privileged and powdered member of the French court, which is momentarily revolting and alarming, and then you get to liking it, and that I think, is somehow part of the point. 

The Aviary on Urbanspoon

Friday, May 10, 2013

The Whale Wins

Renee Erickson has done it again with The Whale Wins. It's full of homespun elegance, just this side of precious, with servers in striped aprons, a massive bouquet of pink tulips at the door, and spare but pretty decor.  A wood-fired oven lends warmth to the room, and flavor to your meal. They take no reservations for smaller parties, and are excruciatingly popular, so prepare to wait a hell of a long time at peak hours.  

We certainly did. We were told it was a two hour wait, so we made for the chilly front deck to clutch cocktails and though Mr. Pants was drinking a very well-made twist on an Old Fashioned (the Normandy Old Fashioned) made with fragrant Calvados, he was getting ferociously peckish. 


Chilly cocktails on the chilly front deck

Dutifully feeding Mr. Pants my toothpicked, brandied cherry from my Michters (yay!) manhattan to fend off his hunger pangs, we killed a good hour and a half before we were summoned back to the warm bustle of the restaurant to eat.

A generous slab of Bleu de Basque cheese with honey and golden raisins was perfect with the dregs of my manhattan. Huge slices of crusty, soft bread and butter were welcomed by Mr. Pants, (now wild-eyed with hunger).  Then came firm, slightly sweet roasted carrots with fennel and a sweet, spicy, rich and succulent Dungeness crab with harissa butter that was annoyingly messy, and completely worth getting your hands dirty. Simply prepared trout with lemon and capers went great with our bottle of Hungarian Tokaji (Kiralyudvar, Furmint, & Tokaji Sec, to be exact). 



Half Dungeness crab with harissa butter. 

My new favorite dessert was a remarkable " Eton Mess" made with a creamy-tart mess of meringue, whipped cream and a bright rhubarb compote. The name is derived from (if the cute story I heard is correct) a traditional English dessert of berries, meringue and whipped cream that was crushed inadvertently by a dog on the way to a picnic, and the meringue broke up into pieces, and they ate it anyway. You would too.   


"Eton Mess" dessert.

We spotted our favorite butcher, dining at the bar, who said it was quite the hangout for others in the restaurant biz, and maybe I'm shallow but I kind of like that. 

Erickson is a master with simplicity, innovation, and excellent locally-sourced ingredients. I can't wait for her next venture, said to be a spin-off of The Walrus and Carpenter in Ballard, called Barnacle. We'll be there. But I'll bring snacks for Mr. Pants, for the wait. 

Highlights: Reasonably priced and unusual wine list, harissa crab, trout, Eton Mess dessert. 

Disappointments: Wait time can try your patience. 

Mr. Pants: Very impressed. 

The Whale Wins on Urbanspoon


Saturday, March 30, 2013

Bitterroot BBQ: A Night of Gluttony



We were about to take my half-brother, who eats fish, but no other meat, to Ballard's beloved Walrus and Carpenter for oysters and trout, when the gorgeous, smoky smell wafting out of Bitterroot Barbecue abruptly led to a delicious change of plans. 
One side of the table ordered the aptly named “Cowboy Killer”, a manly, meaty platter of one-half smoked chicken, pulled pork, brisket, ribs, three sides, AND an option of pork belly. So of course we added the pork belly. With each bite we tasted salt, smoke, spice, and sweet, as well as the juiciness of the meat.  Bitterroot gets more points for a variety of sauces on hand to doctor your meat— my favorite, was the chipotle, (the hottest one) though the others enjoyed the mustardy sauce.   
The other side of the table selfishly ordered an ENTIRE slab of baby back ribs. Spoiler alert: it was me.  I was dreaming of a feast of meaty leftovers, and I made those dreams come true the next evening and the next.  Ribs were tender and smokey, and a little extra sauce added punch.

My non-meat-eating brother, tried everything on the table, and deemed it damned tasty.  We felt like a corrupting influence.  Plus, after the "Cowboy Killer" I have no idea how he still fit into his skinny hipster pants. 

Highlights: barbecued meat, creamy cheddar grits, collard greens, excellent bourbon selection, well-made cocktails.  My hair smelled like smoked meat the next morning so I could relive the experience. 

Disappointments: Maybe the fact that we were given a table for two, but there were three of us.  The meat made up for this.  No reservations, so prepare to wait. 

Mr. Pants: NOM NOM NOM NOM!!!! (direct quote)

Bitterroot BBQ on Urbanspoon

Friday, February 1, 2013

Ma'ono Fried Chicken and Whiskey!



I'm showing remarkable restraint by not moving to West Seattle, so I can be closer to Ma'ono and it's fried chicken. 

The folks behind Spring Hill have joined the ranks of those restaurants that are focusing more on comfort food— smart during a recession. But it isn't always less expensive, as evidenced by the chicken at Ma'ono. It isn't cheap, and it's worth every cent. 

On our first visit, we dined with another couple who I like to call our "Fried Chicken Friends" mainly because we are close enough that I don't mind them seeing me attack a platter of fried chicken- which can get frightening.  

Ma'ono's version was some of the best I've had.  Ever.  Reserve your chicken when you reserve your table, as they do run out. You can even get a gluten-free version if you choose, just reserve it 24 hours in advance.  

It came to our table perfectly seasoned, the best burnished shade of fried, moist, salty and crunchy.  The bird, from Mt. Vernon, Washington, is served with a bright, pungent kimchi on the side, white rice and two dipping sauces.  Dipping sauces! Mr. Pants can attest to my love of dipping things in sauces.  

Good whisky-based cocktails paired beautifully with our meal. I didn't need our order of  Spam Musubi, though many at our table liked their sodium-packed hamminess. Brussels sprouts with bacon and caramelized apples, were autumnal and terrific, and grits with Beecher's cheese went fast, they were so meltingly cheesy and buttery. 

This place really is about flavor.  You can get a side of spicy-hot kimchi with live-shucked oysters, pork cracklins, or Manapua (Steamed BBQ Pork buns). Chicken not your thing? You can have  Rainbow trout,  a Chinatown steak or a 1/2 pound burger with special sauce and fries. 

A side of carrots were served with goat's milk yogurt, sesame puffed rice, and coriander and coconut chutney. One of these "garnishes" would have been enough, all together it was overkill. 

Garlic green beans were delightful, dressed with Szechuan sauce and toasted sesame; as were slightly crunchy stir-fried greens with green garlic chili and lime.   

Upscale comfort food has its cost. However, portions are generous and we took home a second meal in the form of our leftovers. Ma'ono is comfort food with gilt edges. 

Highlights: FRIED CHICKEN! Cocktails, kimchi, grits. 

Disappointments: Banana Cream pie wasn't thrilling; side of carrots overcomplicated. 

Mr. Pants:  Greasy-fingered, happy Pants


Ma'ono Fried Chicken & Whisky on Urbanspoon


Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Most Beautiful Bar: Essex


Not only is Essex one of the most quietly beautiful bars in Seattle, it's also one of the best bars in Seattle.  This is the way my dream bar would look, had I the resources to create one.  Marble bar and tables, candle-lit, the banquette sleek and horizontally paneled with burnished wood, patterned wallpaper, Essex feels historic, yet hip.  And too dim for photos. 

I loved it even more seeing they had a drink with the name of my favorite Yo La Tengo song: "Autumn Sweater." 

We ventured to Essex on one of those sopping wet, cold, miserable Seattle nights near Christmas, when the streets were empty of people, and we were the only ones to walk in at first.  

Our bartender, Niah, was excellent. You could tell he knew his craft and loved it.  He made Mr. Pants a fine Pisco Sour, and made me a personal concoction, created for an upcoming competition.  Among other beautiful things, it tasted of smoke, caramel, and the orange fragrance from the twist, and best of all it was not sweet.  I love cocktails, but most are too sweet for me. He gave us tastes of various brands of rye whiskey after I said it was one of my favorite spirits.

We have to go back to try the food, as we only had a small plateful of Doritos, scooped hilariously from a cut crystal bowl at the end of the bar. 

The chef was off that particular near-Christmas evening, so they weren't serving food, (other than those Doritos).  We were crushed.  We took a masochistic look at the menu anyway, to find beer-boiled soft pretzels, cured meats, cheeses and more.  Another couple of people came in and we all conversed.  Could have stayed there all night but for the lack of food.  The bartender suggested we call and get Thai food delivered, and we 
were sorely tempted. 

I'm only sorry we don't live closer, to venture to this glowing jewel of a place on other sopping rainy nights.   We would certainly be regulars. 

Highlights: Staff, ambiance, cocktails, must return for the food. 

Disappointments: Chef on vacation. Heard talk that they were scaling back their food offerings. 

Mr Pants: Happy, a tad tipsy. 

Essex on Urbanspoon