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 CafĂ© 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!