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...

October 2, 2011

Global Sandwiches in Washington DC

Continuing my sandwich theme from my recent post about the new Paul Bakery in DC. Sandwiches are simple, often considered humble, fare. Easy to eat with your hands, they are ubiquitous on-go-food.

Recently a new, creative sandwich shop - SUNdeVICH. Located in a converted garage space down an alley near the Washington Convention Center it not easy to find. When the weather is nice there is a chalk board outside the door announcing they are open, otherwise there is no sign. But, once you find it I think you will be pleasantly surprised...

The idea behind SUNdeVICH is that each sandwich is named after and inspired by food from a different city around the globe. Each sandwich is served on a large baguette and is definitely a substantial meal. My husband and I have eaten at SUNdeVICH a few times since it opened, giving me the opportunity to taste a couple of their creations.

The first sandwich I tried - the Cairo - has become my favorite. It is a wonderful combination of brined vegetables, hummus, walnuts, and fresh herbs. I also tried the Isfahan which contains feta and a souffle of spinach, mushroom, walnut, barberry. Each sandwiches had very different flavors and both were delicious! My husband Jonathan has enjoyed trying the Beirut and Buenos Aires sandwiches. We look forward to continuing our global sandwich travels at SUNdeVICH...