December 24, 2011

Christmas in the Nation's Capital

In the spirit of the holidays I want this post to be about Christmas trees. When I was growing up, we always cut down our Christmas tree and decorated it on Christmas Eve Day. Now, here are some photographs and a short video from National Christmas Tree Lighting Ceremony last year. Happy holidays and safe travels!

Washington, District of Columbia

December 18, 2011

Pizza East of the Bay Bridge

I consider pizza the perfect food - it is simple, contains only a few ingredients, and can be eaten with your hands. So, what makes a perfect pizza? There is probably no right or wrong answer to this question; however, in my opinion thin crust, quality ingredients, and simplicity contribute to making a pizza superb. On my recent trip to the San Francisco bay area I visited my favorite pizza place in the east bay and discovered a new one.

On my first day on the east side of the bay bridge I met up with my friend at Oliveto Cafe in the Rockridge neighborhood of Oakland. Located in the Rockridge Market Hall (a collection of gourmet shops) this Italian cafe is downstairs to a more formal Oliveto Restaurant. The atmosphere of the cafe is neighborly and warm. We joined the other diners at a small table and ordered pizza with salt cod, tomato, and parmesan cheese. To accompany that we also got a green salad, and a roasted beet salad. The fresh greens were served with a simple vinaigrette and the beets were earthy and delicious. Then we moved onto the most important course of the meal - the pizza. The crust was made with whole wheat flour, giving it a rich nutty flavor. It was thin and chewy with crisp edges and I loved it. The salt cod, tomato, and parmesan were strong flavors but not overwhelming and perfectly balanced by the whole wheat crust. It was a perfect, delicious lunch! Eating at Oliveto had the feeling of a comfortable but fashionable cafe.

My favorite place to eat pizza in Berkeley, CA is less elegant, but equally delicious. It is Cheese Board Pizza Collective on Shattuck Street in the so called Gourmet Ghetto area of the city. This neighborhood is home to several wonderful restaurants, including Alice Water’s famed Chez Panisse. Across and about a block down the street from that acclaimed restaurant is Cheese Board Collective and it’s sister pizza shop. These shops began in 1967 as a small cheese shop and today they sell over 400 different varieties of cheese. The business is a worker owned cooperative and they make one kind of fabulous pizza everyday for lunch.

Yes, that is correct one kind of pizza per day. And each day brings a new round creation. Customers can purchase whole pies, half pies, or slices until they sell out. The toppings change daily, feature seasonal ingredients, include fantastic cheese from the shop next door, and are always vegetarian. Every time I had Cheese Board Pizza the toppings were fresh, creative, and delicious. On the day I visited Cheese Board the pizza of the day was zucchini, red onion, feta, mozzarella, and basil pesto with pine nuts. By the time my friend and I arrived the line for get today’s pies already stretched out of the restaurant and down the block. We joined the other hungry diners in line and awaited our turn to order.

When our opportunity arrived we ordered half a pizza and a salad to share. Pizza at Cheese Board is served on woven basket plates with brown paper on top and biodegradable spudware (utensils made from potatoes). The salads at Cheese Board are just as creative and delicious as the pizzas - our salad contained mixed greens, apples, and green olives with lemon vinaigrette. The pizza was fantastic! The crust was thin and chewy and the toppings had fresh and vibrant flavors. The salad was also very good - but lunch here is really all about the pizza and the fun atmosphere! While we were there the cafe was packed and there was a jazz band playing in the corner. It was a perfect Berkeley lunch - delicious pizza, good music, and a vibrant neighborhood atmosphere!

December 14, 2011

Across the Cafe Table - Traveling for the Holidays

So, it’s time for another Across the Café Table, The Travel Belles monthly discussion. This month we are all talking about:


For me travel and holidays go together. Growing up my family sometimes traveled for vacations over the holiday season. Then when I worked as a pilot I normally was scheduled to fly on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. It became interesting for me to see how different countries around the world decorate for and observe the holiday season.

Now my husband and I still often travel over the holidays. We both enjoy going to new places and discovering the local food, culture, history, and shopping. That experience is a wonderful gift to share together.

Last year traveled to London and Paris over the holiday season. We arrived in London on Christmas Eve and roamed the nearly vacant streets visiting the different historical sites while most Londoners were home enjoying Christmas dinner. The next day we joined the locals and headed to High Street for the Boxing Day sales. Later in the week went took the Eurostar train under the English Channel to Paris for a few days before returning to London to fly back to Washington, DC.

This year we will be staying home and enjoying a quiet holiday. I am looking forward to cooking, eating, drinking some mulled wine, and enjoying time with my husband and aunt. And what about next year? Europe? North America? Asia? South America? Who know – it depends on what destination is at the top of our travel wish list at the time!

Happy holidays and safe travels to all!

December 11, 2011

The Claremont and Breakfast in Berkeley

The Claremont Resort and Spa is propped up on the hillside above Berkeley, CA as if placed there to be a safe distance from the hubbub of life in a university town. Opened in 1915, this hotel is a designated California Historic Landmark and continues to welcome guests. On my recent trip to the San Francisco bay a friend and I spent a few nights at this historic hotel.

Leaving San Francisco we drove across the bay bridge in the dark. Continuing through Berkeley, we soon arrived at the Claremont. Situated halfway up the hillside east of Berkeley, this grand old hotel is a reminiscent of a bygone era. Inside the hotel there is a grand lobby, spacious rooms, and lush carpets. It is the kind of place where I appreciated the luxury, but at the same time felt out of place. I normally prefer homey accommodations, so this was a bit over the top for me to feel at home.

The next morning I woke up early and walked down the hill to College Avenue. This street runs perpendicular to the hills through two trendy neighborhoods, Elmwood in Berkeley and Rockridge in Oakland. The street is lined with local shops and cafes for over a mile. It is an eclectic mix of clothing, books, food, antiques, and culture. But, before venturing too far, I needed some breakfast. I stopped in the Elmwood Cafe at the intersection of Russell Street and College Avenue. This relaxed neighborhood restaurant has a 90 year history. I ordered hot chocolate and a pastry and found a table by the window.

Soon I was eating a warm, flaky croissant, drinking a French bistro bowl of rich hot chocolate, and enjoying the neighborhood scene. People were walking to work, students were chatting over coffee before class, and locals were greeting each other as they began their day. I sat there with my breakfast and book and for a just little while became part of the neighborhood. This place felt comfortable and homey to me.

December 7, 2011

December 4, 2011

Creative Ice Cream in San Francisco

Chocolate, vanilla, and strawberry are the classic ice cream flavors. In San Francisco bay area those are often the last flavors you see on menus of local ice cream shops. When I still lived in San Francisco I wrote about Bi-Rite Creamery and Humphrey Slocombes - two innovative ice cream shops scooping up flavors like honey lavender, salted caramel, secret breakfast (corn flakes and bourbon), and Jesus juice (wine and cola). On my recent visit to the bay area I got to try two new ice cream shops that are continuing this creative trend.

Mr. and Mrs. Miscellaneous is located on Third Street in the Dogpatch neighborhood of San Francisco. This area of the city is in the middle of a slow revival (or gentrification). I remember when I lived in Potrero Hill (the neighborhood next door) new businesses were just beginning to open in Dogpatch. There was a cute organic wine bar, a small Italian cafe, a nail salon, and a coffee shop. Since then, more restaurants and cafes and shops have opened. And now there is a local wine shop, a butcher, and this unique new ice cream shop.

I went to Mr. and Mrs. Miscellaneous on the way to dinner with a friend. (When in doubt eat dessert first, right?) The shop has a modern industrial design, but somehow maintains a local, cozy feel. The day we visited there were several interesting sounding flavors including sweet potato, orange chipotle, and the one I tried - candied violet. The ice cream was creamy and not overly sweet with a delicate violet flavor (and was not overly floral). It was delicious and the perfect prequel to dinner!

Across the bay in the Gourmet Ghetto area of Berkeley is another creative shop selling frozen treats. Lush Gelato is located on Shattuck Avenue and sells gelato made from local ingredients. Located at the end of a small alley of food shops, this place offers a wide range of flavors. There was milk chocolate, dark chocolate, and Tahitian vanilla on the more traditional side - and marscopone balsamic with chocolate covered graham crackers or pumpkin with chocolate chunks for more adventurous customers. I elected to try dark chocolate and the marscopone balsamic gelato. Both were wonderful - very creamy gelato with delightful flavors!

While I do enjoy traditional ice cream and gelato flavors it is fun to go to a shop that pushes the envelope a bit like these creative ice cream shops in the San Francisco bay area. You might be surprised by what flavors are listed on the board - and how delicious they are!

November 27, 2011

Playing Tourist in San Francisco

Two years ago I moved from San Francisco to Washington, DC. Recently I returned to the city by the bay to visit a friend and some of my favorite places in the bay area.

Since I no longer live in San Francisco my visit gave my friend and I a license play tourist for a few days. At my friend's suggestion we participated in a Victorian homes walking tour led by local guide Jay Gifford. We met Jay Saturday morning at his prescribed meeting spot and headed off to explore history and Victorian architectural design in the Pacific Heights and Cow Hollow neighborhoods.

The tour was interesting and we saw some fabulous architecture. In addition, the weather was beautiful - a perfect day to be out enjoying the city!

After walking around for an hour and a half, our tour ended at the intersection of Union and Steiner Streets in Cow Hollow. We crossed the street to Rose's Cafe for lunch. This cafe is located in a yellow house at the corner and has tables wrapping around the sidewalk. Due to the fantastic weather there was a long wait for these outside tables, so we opted to sit inside. Soon we were sharing a salad and a pizza with cherry tomatoes, artichokes, and feta. The salad was good - fresh greens and a very light gorgonzola dressing. The pizza had a thin, crispy crust and was also very good.

Soon, we were back outside walking along Union Street. Before leaving the neighborhood we stopped in two of my favorite shops here - an accessories and home store called ATYS and clothing shop called Uko. Both have great designs and are uniquely San Francisco.

Walking around enjoying the city of San Francisco and the sunshine was the perfect start to my trip.

November 20, 2011

Traveling via Chocolate

I think between the writings here on my blog and the articles I have written for The Travel Belles, my obsession for chocolate and travel has been well documented. And yes, while I do enjoy traveling to find chocolate, it is not my only motivation to explore. For me traveling is about seeing something new and having experiences that are unique to the destination. If that involves chocolate, it’s even better!

When I am unable to travel to get fabulous chocolate, I sometimes stop by Cocova (formally Biagio Fine Chocolates) here in Washington, DC. This shop sells a variety of artisan chocolate bars from all over the world. This is good, but it is not the same as discovering something new at a shop in some foreign city. For that, I have to wait until my next vacation - or relay on family and friends.

Recently, my friend (and author of the Good Global Citizen blog) Beth, has been traveling extensively for work - flying Germany, China, Kazakhstan, Australia, and more. I have followed her journeys and discoveries via her blog - and I have also been the lucky recipient of some interesting and delicious chocolate she found along the way.

The first time she sent me a package I opened it up to discover three items - a small bar of milk chocolate from Kazakhstan, some milk chocolate flavored with green tea, and a chocolate bar from Lauenstein Confiserie in Germany.

So what does chocolate from Kazakhstan taste like? It is just average chocolate. However I still think the fact that I got to try it - on the opposite side of the planet - is cool. The tea flavored chocolate was unique. The texture was a bit gritty, but the green tea flavor was delicate and grassy (in a good way). It was different than any chocolate I had tried previously and I enjoyed it very much. The last bar I tried was the German chocolate... This bar was fantastic - 67% cacao with pink peppercorns.

A little while after I finished enjoying the contents of the first package, a second arrived. This time it had a Kimberley Chocolates bar from Australia and cookies dipped in chocolate from Hawaii in it! The cookies were the perfect Hawaii treat and brought back memories of sandy beaches and warm breezes. The chocolate bar was dark chocolate with chili and was good. It was a tiny bit on the sweet side, however the spice balanced that out perfectly.

Of course, I hope to be able to travel to Almaty, Kazhakstan, Beijing, China, Koln, Germany, and back to Hawaii sometime, but experiencing them via chocolate is fun too! Thanks Beth!

November 13, 2011

The City by the Bay

Looking back at the city from Potrero Hill.
San Francisco, California

November 11, 2011

A Place to Reflect

In October, I visited Arlington National Cemetery for the first time. It was not that I had been avoiding it, I had just never gone.

The day we went was beautiful - bright blue skies with puffy white clouds floating by. Even with a lot of people visiting, the cemetery was a very peaceful place.

November 10, 2011

Across the Cafe Table - A Coat from Hong Kong

It is time again for The Travel Belles monthly discussion, Across the Café Table. This month we are all blogging about this question:


As always, I can think of several different ways to answer this query. However, this month one item sticks out – a coat I purchased in Hong Kong three years ago.

In November and December 2008 my husband and I traveled to Hong Kong and the Philippines. It was my first trip to Asia. We spent a weekend in Hong Kong, a week in Manila, a week at the beach in Boracay, and finally another weekend in Hong Kong before flying home. I was overwhelmed, excited, and intrigued by the experience. The crowds in the cities and on the streets were nothing like I had experienced in the western world. The traffic was nuts. The food was both intimidating and delicious. And the shopping was amazing!

In Asia, customer service and appearance are extremely important. And in Hong Kong shopping seems to be a national pastime. The city is filled with high end international boutiques and sparkling local shops. There were so many clothes shops and styles that were not available in the United States and at the time the exchange rate was in my favor. On our last day in Hong Kong, we went shopping. I purchased gifts to bring home and clothing for work. Near the end of the day we were wandering around the shops in the Admiralty Building. I walked into one shop and found the perfect wool coat. It was black with three-quarter length bell sleeves and an A-line cut. It was adorable. I already had several bags – and probably already had depleted my allotted shopping budget – but I wanted it. I tried it on several times. I walked back and forth in front of the mirror. Finally as the dinner hour approached my husband insisted I buy the coat. I wore it out of the store and it has been my favorite coat ever since…

November 6, 2011

Of Biscuits, History, and Gardens

Earlier this fall my husband and I took a weekend road trip to Charlottesville, VA to get out of the city and explore Virginia wine country. I wrote about most of our adventures in my article on The Travel Belles, Sipping Wine and Soaking in Scenery around Charlottesville, Virginia. But, there are two parts of our adventure that I I want to share with you here - my favorite meal in Charlottesville and visiting Monticello. Normally my favorite meals involve cheese, wine, and chocolate, however on this trip my most memorable meal was brunch at the Bluegrass Grill and Bakery.

I read about this cafe on Yelp and immediately wanted to eat there. When we arrived there was already a line of hungry customers waiting to be seated. We put our name on the list and sat down to read the menu and wait our turn. About thirty minutes later we were sitting at a table in the corner of the restaurant placing our order. My husband Jonathan got corned beef hash and something he read about in Yelp reviews called pig candy. I ordered an omelet called Joan Marie’s Special with a biscuit.

Our waiter brought out the pig candy and beverages first. Pig candy appeared to be chewy bacon that was cooked with sugar and spices. (Jonathan said it was quite delicious, albeit a bit rich.) The rest of our food arrived soon. My omelet was filled with herbed cream cheese, Swiss cheese, spinach, and tomatoes and was very tasty. However, the biscuits were the star of the meal. These flaky buttermilk biscuits were made with whole wheat flour and were absolutely wonderful!

After our biscuits we headed left downtown Charlottesville and headed towards historic Monticello, the home of Thomas Jefferson (a principle author of the Declaration of Independence and the third president of the United States of America). Monticello is perched on the top of a hill. Visitors are required to park by a visitor’s center at the bottom of the hill and then walk or take a shuttle bus to the estate. The walk looked quite nice, however it was raining off and on so we opted for the bus ride.

Soon we were walking through the house learning how Thomas Jefferson and his family lived. Life at Monticello was obviously comfortable for the primary residents - however this was made possible by the labors of slaves. The house was designed by Thomas Jefferson is impressive at first sight and is
surrounded by beautiful gardens and orchards.

Vegetable garden, vineyards, and pavilion at Monticello.
Inside the house the first floor rooms have high ceilings and are elaborately decorated. There are unique conveniences, like a dumbwaiter to bring wine from a cellar below to the dining room. After touring the first floor we went to the level below where there is a wine cellar, a beer cellar, an ice house, the kitchen, and several storage rooms - everything Thomas Jefferson and his family might need to entertain in the house upstairs.

Before we left we spent some time exploring the gardens and area around the house. The gardens at Monticello are amazing. Around the house there are flowers, trees, and ornamental bushes. Further away, down a hill is the vegetable garden - rows and rows of organized beds with different varieties of local vegetables thriving on this idyllic hilltop. Beyond that there are orchards and vineyards before the wild forest takes over. During Mr. Jefferson's time, additional crops produced by his plantation would have covered the countryside that is now dominated by trees.

Having grown up in New England, I find it difficult to fathom a lifestyle that required the labor of slaves to maintain. And the fact that a house - like Monticello - was specifically designed with a place for this work to go on below the main living quarters. This is a part of history that I see, but do not understand.

October 30, 2011

A President Used to Live Here...

We often take for granted that history was written by the acts of ordinary (and in some cases extraordinary) people who changed the world. In fact we idolize the winners of history and often forget their human side. We create immortal statues and memorize the stories of their heroic acts. But, we forget the part that they were people with families and worries, just like everyone. And this is the part of their lives that fascinates me.

From grade school I remember reading various stories about George Washington, the first president to lead our young nation. There was George Washington and the cherry tree. There was George Washington crossing the Delaware River. There was George Washington being sworn in as the first president of the United States of America. Then there are the many statues of this man immortalized in stone or bronze. But, who was George Washington as a person? One of the places you might get a glimpse of this is at his home. And lucky for us,
this has been immortalized too.

One cloudy Sunday we decided to visit the home of President George Washington and his wife Martha. Just over half an hour drive south from where the nation’s capital is today, Mount Vernon is situated on a large estate along the Potomac River.

After parking our car we walked through the visitors center and left the world of tarmac and modern life behind. Soon we were walking through the estate on dirt paths, along side gardens and pastures, towards the home of our nation’s first president. The approach to the house is impressive even by today’s standards. There is a large grassy lawn tall trees on each side. The house is white with red roof tiles and a small cupola topped with a dove of peace weathervane.

As we watched up the left front drive towards the house the wind started to pick up and black clouds were soon overhead. It started to rain just as we got to the house. Once outside of the rain, a guide led us through the house starting in the servant's hall. Next we moved to the main house through the dining room, parlor, and downstairs bedrooms. The house is large by eighteenth century standards, and was quite elaborately decorated as well. However, it was interesting to remember that the house had very few amenities and no running water. (My husband Jonathan was a bit shocked to see that for personal hygiene the former president and his wife only had a small porcelain wash basin in their bedrooms.)

We left the house through the kitchen and went to my favorite part of Mount Vernon - porch and yard facing the Potomac River. It is a beautiful and dramatic view. I can imagine the President and Mrs. Washington sitting on that porch relaxing and enjoying the view with their family.
Looking out at the Potomac River from the porch.

I normally prefer travel adventures both near and far that center around exploring every day life today - more specifically cafes, food, wine, and chocolate. However, every once and a while it is good to step back in time and visit a place that reminds us how the world used to be.

October 23, 2011

Anniversary Celebration and Two Iron Chefs

My husband Jonathan and I are both fans of Iron Chef America. When we realized we would be in Philadelphia for a dragon boat race on our anniversary weekend we decided to try two restaurants run by Iron Chefs. So, we made reservations at Chef Masaharu Morimoto’s restaurant Morimoto for dinner and Chef Jose Garces’ restaurant Amada for brunch the following morning.

Morimoto Restaurant
Walking into Morimoto felt like entering the future. The restaurant design is like a bamboo pod with warm light ceiling and walls and blue light under the tables. The room was filled the beat of electronic music and the sound of people talking.

Sashimi Sampler
After selecting our wine, we began the first course, a sashimi sampler. As many of my readers know, I recently changed my diet from vegetarian to pescatarian. I had eaten - and enjoyed - sushi prior to going to Morimoto, but this was my first sashimi dining experience. As soon as I took my first bite it was instantly apparent the quality of the fish was far superior to any of the fish I had eaten previously - either cooked or as sushi. Each piece of sashimi was wonderful. The different types of fish - salmon, tuna, and toro (fatty tuna) - was paired with different element to enhance its flavor.

Seafood "Toban Yaki"
Duck Duck Duck
The next part of dinner was the entree course. (And, yes, the service, ambiance, and experience of eating at this restaurant requires that I refer to the different elements of our meal as proper courses.) I had selected the seafood toban yaki and Jonathan had a dish that was aptly named duck duck duck. Jonathan's plate had a lovely presentation of roasted duck and duck confit fried rice with a duck egg on top. My dish came in a large, shallow bowl with shrimp, clams, crab, scallops, mushrooms, and bok choy all swimming in a fragrant broth. The seafood was all wonderful but my favorite part of the dish was the broth - it was delicious! And it was served with a side of sticky rice that was the best sticky rice I have ever eaten. (Seriously. And I normally prefer the nuttier flavor of brown or red rice.)

Black Sesame Moussecake
Finally dessert! We shared a black sesame moussecake. It was a delicate, elegant pastry with a wonderful earthy quality from the black sesame and dark chocolate flavors. (I loved it; however, I wish instead of being a French style pastry made using black sesame it had been a more authentic Asian dessert.) After dessert, we enjoyed what remained of our wine while taking in the intense modern vibe of restaurant!

Sitting at our table at Morimoto
The next morning we arrived at our brunch destination just as they were opening. If walking into Moritmoto feels like entering the future, Amada is the comfort of tradition. And this is appropriate as the word amada - according to Google Translate - means beloved. The restaurant design is rustic with dark wood and an open kitchen. And it has subtle and relaxed atmosphere - a perfect place to have a meal and talk with friends. It is a cozy restaurant in the best sense of the word.

Inside Amada
The menu at Amada - for brunch as well as lunch and dinner - is tapas. We ordered several dishes to share. The first dish to arrive at our table was a cheese - aged manchego with truffled lavender honey. The honey smelled intensely of truffle and flowers and tasted great with the cheese. Next we were served lemon ricotta pancakes. These were quite sweet, but amazing - possibly the lightest and fluffiest pancakes ever. (While I enjoyed everything I tried at this restaurant, I think these pancakes were my favorite dish. They were so good I forgot to take a photograph of them until only one bite remained.)

Aged Manchego with Honey 
Ricotta Lemon Pancakes
(the last bite...)
But, that was not the end of our meal! Next we got chorizo and soft scrambled eggs with wild mushrooms and shrimp. While I did not eat the chorizo, Jonathan was delighted with it. The eggs were different than anything I have ever eaten before. They were very strongly seasoned (with the shrimp, green onions, herbs, and salt) and had the consistency of a porridge. I also thought it was also a fun dish to eat! It was served with toasts and I liked eating the eggs and toast together because the flavor combination was wonderful.

Soft Scrambled Eggs with
Wild Mushrooms & Shrimp
While very different than a traditional brunch meal, the tapas at Amada were delicious! Now, I would like to return to the theme of Iron Chef America. The question posed at the end of every battle on the show is “Who’s cuisine reigns supreme?” In other words, which meal did I enjoy more? That is a difficult question... I can say that both meals were truly exquisite. However, the cuisine and environment in which it was served were about as different as I could imagine. Each meal was creative, tasted wonderful, and was presented in a unique setting that completely complimented the food. So, in the end I have to say that I appreciated the meals at Morimoto and Amada equally.

October 16, 2011

Wine in the Lower East Side

Following our slightly disappointing dinner at Prune, my husband Jonathan and I decided to check out one or two wine bars in the Lower East Side neighborhood. After consulting Yelp we headed to The Ten Bells. Located on Broome Street, this wine bar has a romantic atmosphere. The wine and food menus are all listed on a large chalkboard along the wall.

We sat down at a table near the back of the bar and ordered a couple glasses of wine. We also got some cheese, a radish and fennel salad, and an order of chorizo (for Jonathan). As we waited for our food and wine we looked around the bar. The crowded appeared to be mostly local and everyone was gathered in groups enjoying the evening. It was relaxing and comfortable.

Soon our food and wine arrived. My first wine was a Burgundy and it was lovely - medium bodied and perfect for sipping. The cheeses were nutty and paired were perfect with my wine. The radish and fennel salad was served with an anchovy dressing and was also good. And Jonathan said the chorizo was not only excellent, it was better than anything he ate at Prune.

The Ten Bells is a perfect place to sit, have a glass of wine, and enjoy a relaxing evening with (or without) friends. There is a sort of romantic, moody atmosphere that is well suited for philosophical conversation or quiet contemplation.

After enjoying a couple glasses of wine at The Ten Bells we decided to check out more of the neighborhood.

A few blocks away is Jadis, wine bar with a different vibe. Here the music was more upbeat and the sound of people talking and laughing set the tone for the atmosphere. We sat at the bar in the front room and ordered two glasses of wine and some snacks. Jonathan ordered charcuterie and I got some roquefort & mascarpone cheese puffs and chocolat fondant for dessert. The cheese puffs were served warm and the strong flavor of the roquefort cheese paired well with my wine. Jonathan enjoyed his pâté, sausage, and wine - again rating it above his meal at Prune. And then my dessert arrived. The warm chocolate cake had a gooey center and was delicious! And what a perfect way to end the evening - with chocolate and wine...

October 12, 2011

Across the Cafe Table - The British Museum

This month The Travel Belles Across the Cafe Table question asks:


While I enjoy visiting museums while traveling, I prefer to be out on the street experiencing the destination. As a result, I have not been to all the must see museums in the cities I have visited. For me, the street is often my museum. Every moment is a snapshot in time - a woman with a bright umbrella, an old man reading in the park, a child playing with a dog. These are the images I take home with me, either in my heart or stored on a camera memory card.

However, when I do venture into curated halls I enjoy seeing exhibits of the past. One of my favorite museums to visit is the British Museum in London. Not only are there artifacts from across the globe and throughout history, the building itself is magnificent. I love the beautiful inside courtyard and reading room - I think the design of the space is a piece of art unto itself.

Of course, the British Museum also houses many treasures from all corners of the former British Empire. The most well known artifact is most likely the Rosetta Stone. This piece of stone is a decree from Ptolemaic Period in Egypt and in modern times helped historians decipher ancient hieroglyphs. It has been on display at this museum for over 200 years.

There are many other objects from the ancient world, as things from a more modern world. Walking through the galleries is liking turning the pages in a book of history of the British Empire.

Read what other Travel Belles are writing about this month's topic here: The Travel Belles Across the Cafe Table


If you visit the British Museum, you will be happy to learn that (like many museums in London) admission is free. Donations to the museum are accepted, but not required.

October 9, 2011

An Imperfect Prune

Sometimes I have an expectation and reality falls short. That happens. However, in the world of award-winning New York restaurants I am rarely disappointed. But, even there sometimes reality does fall just a little bit short. That was the case when I visited Prune Restaurant in the East Village.

Prune is a tiny bistro on East 1st Street owned by chef and author Gabrielle Hamilton, the recipient of the 2011 James Beard award for best chef in New York City. My husband Jonathan and I had wanted to try this restaurant out for a while. So, one weekend we decided to take an impromptu trip to New York and called and got a reservation. The reviews of Prune I had read in magazines were all glowing, however Jonathan noticed on the bus ride to New York that many of the Yelp reviews were mixed. (Most of these reviews complained about poor service, rude host staff, tables cramped too close together, and greasy food.) So, by the time we were settling into our hotel I was a little concerned about our restaurant choice for the night.

When we arrived at Prune I instantly wanted to love it. It is an adorable bistro with decor that is reminiscent of old world restaurants. And the menus were the matched the exact color of my shoes - purple. It looked charming! We had to wait a few minutes but the hostess was very pleasant and soon we were seated at our table. Yes, this place is small and that tables are close to each other but it is not uncomfortable. And our server was cheerful and kind. I did notice that some of the servers tended to smile less than others, but our experience was positive.

But, nice service people alone do not make a restaurant exceptional - there has to be outstanding food as well. And, here is where my experience at Prune hits a snag. While we were perusing the menu our server brought over a small ramekin of fried chickpeas. They were very tasty - a nice start to the meal. We shared a half bottle of wine from Chinon and it was very good. At this point my concerns about Prune were fading.

Then our food arrived. I ordered the grilled Branzino and my husband Jonathan ordered the roasted suckling pig. The fish was grilled with lemons and fennel and served whole. And that was it - just a whole fish on a plate. Nothing else. For the price I expected a bit more. Maybe some bread or potatoes? No, just a fish. That said, the fish was well prepared. I would even say it was good - but it was not wow and when dining at a restaurant owned by the recipient of a James Beard award I would anticipate something exceptional. Jonathan also felt his food was good, but not exceptional. His more balanced then mine - his suckling pig was served with black-eyed peas and some delicious pickled tomatoes. (The pickled tomatoes were actually the highlight of the meal.) At the end of our meal our server presented our bill on a plate with two fresh cherries.

This was one of those meals where my expectations far exceeded what reality was able to deliver. Was our meal at Prune good? Yes, but it not memorable or interesting. Would I return? Probably not, I have enjoyed dinner at other New York restaurants far more and I think the menu prices are too high for the quality of the food. Next time in the East Village or Lower East Side I will go back to Momofuku Ssäm Bar, Pata Negra, or Ten Bells - or try a restaurant, cafe, or wine bar I have not been to yet...