Archive for the ‘travel’ Category

I’ve got a pizza bucket list. I’ve been to Lombardi’s. Al Forno in Providence claims the rights to the first (and some argue the best) grilled pizza. Dying to go to DiFara’s in Brooklyn…Pizzeria Bianco in Phoenix. And I’ve tried going to Frank Pepe’s original location in New Haven, CT for years. Right off Rt 95, it’s easy to get to, in New Haven’s Little Italy neighborhood on Wooster St. The problem was, every time I stopped by, the line was down the street and parking was impossible. Take-out was not an option. My first visit had to be inside, at a table.

I never gave up!

My chance finally arrived recently, when my daughter and I were returning home to Rhode Island from a weekend in New York City. It was a cloudy Sunday afternoon. I found a parking space…we were third in line at the door…could we really be going inside Frank Pepe’s? Yes!!

 

Our booth was literally one step in and a step to the right. Boom. We sat. We looked around. We breathed it all in. It was loud. People were happy. They were eating pizza!

Soon it was our turn to order. I had no choice but to order a white clam pizza, the stuff of legend at Frank Pepe. That had to be my first bite there. My daughter ordered a large margherita pizza…and we were off!

 

 

We started by sharing a Caesar salad. Good…but not why we came here!

 

 

Soon, the pies arrived…the margherita came first, served on a large rectangular sheet pan, not the standard round pizza pan. And it was HUGE. We didn’t have a problem with that! It looked and smelled amazing. Moments later, our server brought out a metal frame that allowed for a second level of pizza…and my white clam pie arrived!

 

 

The white clam pizza is so simple: a thin crust, fresh clams, olive oil, some cheese, oregano. But the oven…that magical oven…is as much of an important ingredient as anything on the pizza itself. A coal-fired oven that burns hot and dry, not wet like a wood fire…an oven that dates back to 1936, when Frank Pepe moved from his original bakery location to a spot right next door, where it still stands today, at 157 Wooster St. That means my pizza “touched” every other pizza made at Frank Pepe’s…perhaps even a molecule of Frank’s first pie touched mine. Whatever…my first bite was pure magic. My daughter’s reaction to the margherita was the same.

 

 

 

The pies were huge, so we boxed up whatever we couldn’t finish and brought it home. When I asked my daughter what she wanted for dinner that night, she simply smiled and said: “More of that pizza!” I couldn’t agree more!

Frank Pepe’s now has 10 locations in Connecticut, New York, Massachusetts, and their newest location: in my little state of Rhode Island. But for me, the only place to go is New Haven: the oven, the atmosphere…you can’t replicate that anywhere else.

 

That hook hanging from the ceiling holds the handle of the long pizza peel in the air so they don’t smack into it. (See the peels on the left.) The pizza oven is so deep, they can go about 4 pizzas deep at one time. It takes a real pro to keep them all cooking perfectly.

 

 

 

A side note: Frank Pepe originally opened a bakery in 1925 at 163 Wooster St., now doing business as Frank Pepe’s the Spot. When he got tired of baking and delivering bread, he decided he would start making pizza, so that his customers would come to him instead.

He sold that bakery to move in next door at 157 Wooster St., in 1936, and that’s been the location of Frank Pepe Pizza Napoletana ever since.

Frank’s daughters bought back the bakery years later, and so now you can visit either location for a taste of history.

And Frank’s nephew, Salvatore, opened his own pizzeria: Sally’s Apizza, a must-stop for me the next time I’m passing through New Haven.

 

One of the most incredible dishes I’ve had on the beautiful island of Santorini, Greece, is lobster with pasta. It’s one of those dishes that takes time to prepare, because the pasta lobster sauce they make is a labor of love…time consuming, but so spectacular.

Cooked lobster LTL

I often have friends over for dinner, but when I prepared this dish for them recently, it was the first time they all licked their plates clean!

To try to copy that lobster sauce we had in Santorini, I started with a kick-ass lobster stock. It’s simple but flavorful:

 

clean, empty claws, tails and bodies from two 1-1/2 lb. lobsters (use the legs, too)
12 cups water
1/2 onion
3 celery stalks
1 carrot

Place all the ingredients in a large pot and set it on high heat. Crush the lobster shells (I use a potato masher!) Cook until the stock is reduced by half.

Strain the stock, discarding the lobster shells and veggies. Bring the stock back to the heat and reduce it until all you have left is 1 cup of intense stock.

 

 

Pasta with lobster sauce

Now that you have the stock, you can make the sauce!

 

1/2 onion, finely chopped
1 garlic clove, finely chopped
pinch of Italian red pepper flakes
1 teaspoon parsley
extra virgin olive oil
1/2 cup lobster stock
1/4 cup San Marzano tomato sauce (see below)
splash of white wine (I use Alice white Chardonnay)
salt and pepper
1/2 lb. cooked pasta

Add some olive oil to a pan and saute the onions until translucent. Season with salt and pepper. Add the garlic and cook for 10 seconds. Add the red pepper flakes and parsley.

Add 1/4 cup of the lobster stock and let it cook, reducing by half. Add the other 1/4 cup of lobster stock and then the tomato sauce. Let it cook for a couple of minutes and add the white wine. Cook for a few minutes more.

Cook the pasta and drain it even before it reaches the al dente stage. Place the pasta in the pan with the sauce, heating and coating it thoroughly. Serve immediately, with or without the lobster meat.

 

For the San Marzano tomato sauce: I pour a can of San Marzano tomatoes  into a food processor or Vita-Mix and blend until I get sauce. Pour into a pan and reduce over medium heat by half, until sauce has thickened.

 

 

Washington DC is an incredible city, and if you’re willing to walk–a lot–there’s a lot to see. In our 7 days, we visited 17 museums and 14 monuments. You could say we were on a mission: my wife, the artist, needing to visit every art museum in town, and my 11-year-old daughter, learning about history in school, needing to feed the brain with endless historical information.

 

The National Air and Space Museum

 

All of the museums associated with the Smithsonian are open every day of the year except Christmas, and admission to all of them is free. Once you realize how amazing that is, you don’t complain about the $15 fried chicken plate at the cafeteria. They have to make their money somehow!

 

The National Portrait Gallery holds the official portraits of all the Presidents of the United States, as well as some portraits of First Ladies. Most notably, they recently installed the official portraits of Barack and Michelle Obama. Incredible to see them in person!

 

Loved this piece…

 

The toughest ticket to get, by far, is getting into the National Museum of African American History and Culture. The reason is that, unlike all the other Smithsonian museums, there really is an actual ticket you must have to get in. They limit the number of people who can visit every day, and you have to work a bit to be one of the lucky ones. It’s worth the effort. An architectural marvel with three stories underground and three above, the museum starts with the first days of slavery and brings you to current times. Along the way, it’s an incredible emotional ride.

Lucky tickets!

So if you want to get into the National Museum of African American History and Culture, here’s how to do it: First, they offer tickets online months ahead of time. Go to their website:(https://nmaahc.si.edu/visit/passes) to find out more. Or…the day you want to go, get on your computer at 6:30AM! Tickets are distributed in half-hour time slots for the day. And they sell out FAST. Or…your third chance to get a ticket is to walk up to the museum entrance on Madison Drive and get on a special line every weekday at 1PM, where they hand out a limited amount of tickets for that day and time. (They don’t offer these tickets on weekends.) We missed out on the first two possibilities, so we walked up and stood on line at 12:15PM and were handed tickets almost immediately for that day. We got lucky.

 

The Capitol, at one end of the National Mall.

 

As for monuments, there are plenty of them to see as you walk the National Mall, and my daughter wanted to see them all! The weather wasn’t cooperating much on our spring trip, raining sideways at times, but we powered through and saw just about all of them!

One of the Presidential helicopters flying past the Washington Monument.

 

The Lincoln Memorial.

 

The Vietnam Veterans Memorial.

 

The Korean War Memorial…one for my Dad.

 

The Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial. Awe-inspiring.

 

The words of FDR at his memorial.

 

If you’re interested in touring the White House, you can only get in with passes through your local Congressman’s office requesting passes way ahead of time. We were happy to simply see it from the outside. We just headed for Pennsylvania Avenue.

 

The National Zoo, a part of the Smithsonian, has free admission as well. Being a New York boy who grew up on the Bronx Zoo, I wasn’t hugely impressed by the National Zoo. But, I did see the pandas, and that made the trip worthwhile!

Tian Tian, the male, enjoying his bamboo snack.

 

 

Finally, when visiting Washington DC, skip the rental car and be sure to use the Metro.  It’s a great, cheap way to get around town. It sops close to most of the museums, though you’ll need to walk a bit for the monuments and memorials.

The Metro: super easy to use, super cheap.

 

For me, no dining experience is complete without a great cocktail. If all they’ve got to offer is a martini straight-up with olives, I’ll drink it alright–but I’ll be disappointed there’s nothing more.

Coppa is a wonderful small enoteca in Boston’s South End, featuring small plates by award-winning chefs Ken Oringer and Jamie Bissonette. (They’re also the 2 creative forces behind Toro in Boston and NYC.)

The food was incredible, and this drink, called “Hey, Neon,” was inspired. The glass was rimmed with dehydrated and finely chopped kalamata olives. I tried to recreate that at home, and couldn’t get the texture or the size right. And I could never get it to stick to the glass, either! Ultimately, I simply skewered a few kalamatas and placed them on the glass!

The original “Hey Neon” at Coppa.

 

 

“HEY NEON”

1 1/2 oz. Aalborg aquavit
3/4 oz. Punt e Mes
1/2 oz. Cynar
1/2 oz. Green Chartreuse

Add ice to a cocktail shaker and then add the ingredients. Stir well, until very cold. Strain into a martini glass. Add the skewer of kalamata olives.

 

Aalborg is a brand of aquavit (or akvavit), a clear alcohol similar to vodka but usually infused with other flavors, mainly caraway or dill, popular in Scandinavia.

Punt e Mes is a sweet vermouth, the so-called “little brother” of the granddaddy of all sweet vermouths: Carpano Antica Formula.

Cynar is an Italian bitter and digestif made from herbs, plants and artichokes. Strong in flavor, but delicious!

Chartruese is a French liqueur made by Carthusian monks since 1737, using a recipe that dates back to 1605. It contains 130 herbs and plants. It’s also one of the few liqueurs that ages in the bottle, changing over time. Green Chartreuse is 110 proof, and naturally colored from the maceration of its ingredients. Yellow Chartreuse, at 80 proof, is a milder and sweeter version.

My version of the “Hey Neon.”

 

 

Every major city in the United states has a Capital Grille, and it’s a great place to grab a solid dinner if you’re traveling. Although the Capital Grille in my town of Providence, RI has recently moved from its original location, we can still boast that we had the very first one in the USA.

They don’t do crazy-fancy drinks at the Capital Grille. They keep a very well-stocked bar with high-end booze and make solid cocktails. But there is one signature drink you can find there, and that’s the Stoli Doli. A Stoli Doli is simply Stoli vodka that has been infused with fresh pineapple. If you sit at the bar at the Capital Grille, you won’t be able to miss the very large jar of freshly-cut pineapple pieces swimming in vodka. They literally pour it “from the tap,” and serve it straight up, like a martini, or on the rocks. It’s delicious, and I’ve certainly had my share of them over time.

I decided to make my own at home one day, to serve to my friends at an upcoming party. But to my disappointment, I didn’t have any Stoli vodka in the house. I found a bottle of Stoli Vanil, the vanilla-flavored vodka, and it was a real game-changer! I used that instead of regular Stoli and I came up with a sweeter, smoother drink that is legendary among my friends to this day. I called it…

VELVET ELVIS

2 pineapples, peeled, cored, and sliced
1.75ml Stoli Vanil

Find a gallon-sized glass jar with a lid. Peel, core and slice the pineapples and drop the pieces in the jar. Pour the vodka in, mix well, and seal the jar. Keep it at room temperature for a week, giving it a gentle shake every day.

After one week, strain it, squeezing the pineapple pieces to get every bit of liquid out. Keep the Velvet Elvis refrigerated. Serve over ice.

On the surface, the idea of frequent flyer miles is a great one: rack up a bunch of miles for every flight you take or associated credit card you swipe, and before you know it, you have enough miles to fly somewhere on this planet for free! It’s a system that has allowed my family to travel far more often than we could otherwise. We flew on points to Spain…New Zealand…Paris…Lithuania…Greece and more.

But the battle to get there can be a tricky one, and you need to know how to play the game…a game where the rules can change without warning.

image

 

Rule 1: One airline, one card. If I’d collect points from a handful of airlines, I’d have just as many points, but they’d be spread out–not enough to get anywhere on any one airline. And airline cards can be expensive. When Delta raised the yearly fee of their card to $185, I told them to go pound sand. Now I only use an American Airlines Aadvantage Mastercard and literally put every single possible purchase I make on that card because American Airlines is convenient for me. All the airlines have some kind of card, so do a little research and decide which one works best for you.

By the way, I do cheat on the “one card only rule:” I also have a Starwood Preferred Guest American Express card. I’ve found that I get the most bang for my buck with the Starwood group of hotels. They include Westins, W’s, Sheratons, St. Regis, and more. And now, Starwood has joined forces with Marriott, increasing the number of hotels I can use.

Rule 2: No expense is too small to put on the card. A burger at a drive-thru, a couple of things at the supermarket. Every point counts, and once you get that ingrained in your brain, you’ll make serious headway. I pay all my bills with my credit card, when possible: utilities, cell phones, the post office, doctors visits. Even most appliance or house repairs can now be paid by credit card, so why write a check?

Rule 3: Pay your credit card off on time. The reason why it’s worth collecting points with your credit card is because you’re making purchases you would’ve done with cash anyway. The moment you get to the point where you’re paying interest on your credit card, you’re paying more per point, and then you may as well give up the fight and just buy your plane ticket.

Rule 4: Don’t let your miles expire. You worked hard to collect them. Always check to make sure your miles aren’t going to expire before you can use them. Sometimes all it takes is a simple credit card transaction to buy yourself and extra year’s life on your miles.

Rule 5: Do the math. If you’re flying somewhere and have enough miles for a free trip, check out the deals on your flight before you use your miles. If you can get a really cheap flight, you’re better off paying for it, and saving your miles for a future trip that might cost a lot more.

Rule 6: Look into upgrades. Sometimes you don’t have enough miles to buy a whole ticket but you might have enough to upgrade yourself from coach to Business Class. A nice perk if you’re going on a long flight!

Rule 7: When possible, book it yourself. Sometimes you can do all of your trip planning online. If you’ve got a simple round-trip flight, you can save yourself some money by booking it yourself. If you use a representative on the airline’s 800-number, there could be a fee of $40 or more for them to book it for you. But if you’ve got a more complicated route, with several stops and different cities, you may decide that a live person on the phone is the way to go.

Rule 8: Go First Class, even if you’re not flying First Class. When looking for flights online, I’ve found that I get better flight choices if I say I want to go First Class, even though I know I don’t have the points to do it. If I tell the airline upfront that I want to fly coach, they automatically treat me like a second-class citizen and show me trips that require several stops to get to my destination. If I tell them I want to go First Class, lo and behold, I get non-stop flights! Once I get to those flights, it’s often easy to downgrade to coach, but now I have a non-stop flight instead of a 2 or 3-stop flight.

Rule 9: Computers won’t give you answers to questions you don’t ask. I was trying to book 3 Business class seats. Every time I looked on-line, I was told no. Then it dawned on me: see if there are 2 Business class seats on the flight I want. Bingo! The computer only told me what I asked for: 3 seats not available. It didn’t volunteer info for any alternatives. So I booked the 2 good seats for my wife and daughter, and I grabbed a 3rd seat in coach for myself. A little sacrifice, but worth it since we had the flight we wanted and we were all on the same plane.

Rule 10: Hang up!! This rule has helped me the most with hotel reservations and especially with airlines. If you call the 800 number, and the representative that answers the phone seems clueless or refuses to help you to your satisfaction, HANG UP AND DIAL AGAIN. There are hundreds of people answering those phones. Some will be good and some will be totally clueless. I’ve found that younger people are hard-working but are afraid to bend the rules even a little because they want to impress their boss and keep their jobs. The veterans are more interested in impressing you and are experts in finding ways around the rules that the young people haven’t figured out yet. Don’t ever settle. This is your big trip! A great rep on the phone can make all the difference.

 

I’ve been to Grand Cayman before. It was 16 years ago…I was single and found myself “stuck” on the island for an extra 4 days at the end of my vacation because of 9-11. (I was due to fly home on September 12, 2001.) The airport security systems we don’t even think twice about today didn’t exist back then, and I remember getting to the airport at 6AM to stand in a security line for a 1PM flight. Every piece of luggage was hand-searched…twice. It seemed like forever.

Coming in for a landing!

What I remember from that trip was how empty and primitive the island was…and how ancient the airport was, even for the Caribbean. Sixteen years later, the island has changed drastically: massive construction everywhere you look…huge investment properties are built, then stand empty, waiting for buyers. One “for sale” sign after another along the roads that line the island’s waterfront properties. A giant, soulless shopping center called Camana Bay is a stone’s throw from a very crowded 7-Mile Beach. And the airport? It now gets my award for one of the worst airports in the Caribbean: low-tech, crowded, disorganized, dirty.

What made–and still makes–the Caymans shine are the beaches and the people. Despite the oversized resorts lined up on 7-Mile Beach, the sand and water are pristine. It’s still a scuba diver’s and snorkelers’ paradise. And the people, if you go out of the crowded tourist areas to find them, are as friendly and helpful as ever. They just seem a bit lost in their own home.

The waters of 7-Mile Beach are still beautiful.

 

The Caymans were hit by a hurricane in 2004, and a billionaire investor by the name of Dart decided this was his opportunity to make the investment of a lifetime. The people of the Cayman Islands no doubt looked at him as somewhat of a savior–at least in the beginning. Here was a guy that was willing to invest a lot of money in rebuilding their beautiful island. And though he did invest a lot of money in real estate–it’s estimated that he now owns 25% of all the real estate on Grand Cayman–sadly that money went into condos, shopping malls, and hotels. Little by little, the real heartbeat of the Cayman Islands was being replaced by large, sweeping generic slabs of concrete and glass reaching for the sky, and huge roadways connecting them to each other.

Georgetown, the capital and where the airport is located, is crowded, dirty and hosts several cruise ships every day, dumping thousands of passengers for a few hours to buy the typical souvenirs and duty-free goods every cruise ship port holds.

 

 

OUR TRIP

We chose to stay off the beaten path for our first couple of nights, finding a cute waterfront condo on AirBnB in Boddentown, the original capital of the Caymans, and much quieter than 7-Mile Beach or Georgetown to the west. The condo was clean, but the beach in front of it was full of weeds. Winds and currents were strong. We realized that it was a good home base to settle in at the end of the day, but that’s about it. We would spend our first couple of days exploring the rest of the island, from Boddentown to the East End to the North Side to Rum Point.

A simple map of Grand Cayman.

There’s nothing better than finding a great little food place just steps from your condo, and the Czech Inn Grill hit the spot. They don’t sell alcohol, so it’s another few steps to a liquor store to pick up a few bottles before we finally sat down at the bar.

Celebrating its first year the very weekend we arrived, we met the owner, George, and sampled several dishes from his extensive menu which did feature a half-dozen hearty Czech dishes. We passed on those and enjoyed more local fare: a delicious freshly caught wahoo ceviche, smoked ribs, and a huge cheeseburger for my daughter. It was a very welcome meal, along with my Mount Gay Rum that I purchased a few doors down, after a long day of flying and settling in.

 

 

That evening, we headed for Tukka, a restaurant on the East End that got good reviews. It was already dark, so we saw no scenery, but we knew we’d be back this way the next day anyway. Among other things, Tukka boasted they had the largest rum selection on the island.

 

The rum bar at Tukka.

 

What we found when we got there were a couple of truths that guided us throughout the rest of our trip. First, though Tukka’s rum selection was excellent, many places layed claim to the biggest rum bar on the island. And second: the majority of menus at the so-called better restaurants on Grand Cayman are very similar. Only a handful of dishes really separated them. Part of the reason for that is that everything comes from off-island, and everyone uses the same companies to deliver their ingredients.

As for Tukka, we all thought the dinner was good, not great. The only exception was my lion fish tacos, which were a highlight. Lion fish is a nasty little invasive bugger, and requires hand protection when touching them, making them difficult to harvest and clean. But their meat is absolutely delicious, and I was very glad I tried it.

 

 

Leaving Boddentown the next day, we headed east again, and started exploring the coast. The south coast was too rough for swimming, but we enjoyed stopping at local fish shacks like Captain Herman’s for a quick snack of fried snapper with freshly made juices of cucumber, and carrot. I say “quick,” but I mean island-time quick. We were the only customers there, with 3 women serving, and it took an hour. Still, it was a beautiful day and they were fun to talk to.

Our next stop: the Blowholes. Fun to watch these ocean-carved tubes pressurize and blast water high in the air.

We searched for more local eats, wanting to stop at the “famous” Vivine’s, but my daughter craved a ham and cheese from Subway instead, and there was one located on the property of the Windham Reef Resort on the East End. (There are Subways and Burger Kings all over the island.) There was also an out-of-service ATM across the street, surrounded by a strip mall of closed stores. (It was Sunday.) Lesson learned: if you need cash and you see an ATM that works in the town you’re in, don’t think you’ll find one later…you won’t! Grab the cash while you can!

We stopped when we saw a local fellow selling coconuts and enjoyed his highly skilled demonstration of how to crack one open with a machete.

 

A stop at Old Man Bay, another possible snorkeling spot listed in various books and websites, was disappointing: strong winds and currents and trash on the beach. We saw that elsewhere, too. One brochure even said that the trash “comes from cruise ships and that if you can get past it, you’ll find great snorkeling!” Uh…no, thanks.

We made a stop for lunch at Kaibo Restaurant Beach Bar and Marina, just a turn away from Rum Point. We enjoyed an excellent lunch–the jerk chicken was a standout–and contemplated returning there for dinner at their finer dining restaurant on the second floor. It, too, boasted one of the largest rum selections on the island. We never made it back to find out.

 

After lunch, we headed to Rum Point, where we finally had our first attempt at snorkeling. A small reef off the shore offered us a chance to see some tiny, colorful fish, and Rum Point itself offered beach chairs, sand, food, and bathrooms…everything we needed to spend the rest of day in the sun.

 

One of the signs at Rum Point.

At the end of our day, we headed back toward Kaibo, because that’s where we found Starfish Point, a pretty patch of sand that attracts a large number of starfish. It was fascinating to see them. It’s OK to touch them, but never lift them out of the water. They need to stay underwater to stay alive.

Rather than going to Kaibo for dinner, we chose to head back to Georgetown and dine at Guy Harvey’s Bar & Grill. The food was mediocre at best, as was the service. We should’ve known, because its location was right where the cruise ships drop off their passengers. As we would find out the more we ate on this island, it was pretty much the same food as everywhere else: Ceviche of the day? Wahoo. Special of the day? Snapper. Etc., etc.  And with the Cayman dollar worth $1.25 US, even bad dining became an expensive part of the vacation, about $250 and up USA per dinner for 2 adults and 1 child.

Our third day, we stopped in Georgetown for lunch, making a stop at The Rock Hard Cafe. (Just a stone’s throw from Guy Harvey’s.) I have only myself to blame for being in this tourist trap: I got my daughter hooked on visiting Hard Rocks when I took her to the one at Universal Studios in Florida last year. After that, she wanted to visit every city with a Hard Rock! I promised her I’d take here to the one on Grand Cayman for lunch. We enjoyed good burgers and salads.

 

We continued north after lunch and eventually arrived at the Westin Grand Cayman 7-Mile Beach Resort and Spa, where we would spend the next 5 nights. 7-Mile Beach is crowded, with one resort lined up after another. But they’re not stupid: they know their money comes from tourism, and despite the crowds, 7-Mile Beach remains pristine.

 

 

Dinner that night gave us our first glimpse at the massive investment and construction that was moving at full speed in Grand Cayman. We dined at Mizu Asian Bistro + Bar, a sushi restaurant located at the sprawling (and sterile) Camana Bay shopping center. We (again) read good reviews about this restaurant and we (again) were disappointed. The sushi wasn’t bad, just not great. My daughter’s cooked dishes were better. And the price of half-decent sake was outrageous! I joked about how we should’ve brought sake from the States. Price gouging was apparently common at restaurants in the Camana Bay shopping center. I’m guessing they have huge rents to pay.

 

 

Clever little gadget. A button attached to each beach umbrella. Press it, and you get food and drink service without searching high and low for help!

 

Once we settled into the Westin, we enjoyed several days of simply swimming, snorkeling and being lazy on the beach. The Westin is one of the headquarters for Red Sail Sports, a company that rents any water sport equipment you can imagine. They also have a fleet of boats for snorkeling and diving trips. Everyone (and we) agree they’re the best on the island. My daughter rented a bicycle, literally a bike on a pontoon boat that you pedaled in the water! And she and my wife enjoyed a wild parasail ride as well.

 

Balcony views at the Westin.

Good cheap eats across the street from the Westin at Eats Cafe.

 

 

 

Scattered throughout our stay at the Westin, we took on a few trips. Probably the smartest way to see the stingrays at Stingray City, a must if you’re going to Grand Cayman, is to go first thing in the morning. Red Sail Sports offers a “Breakfast with the Stingrays” trip that gets you out there before the real crowds arrive…and it can get really crowded with cruise ship passengers showing up by the boatload. The staff on our beautiful 65′ catamaran was friendly and helpful, and they literally bring the rays to you, grabbing the attention of the stingrays they’ve handled many times before. The rays themselves are extremely gentle, and even though it wasn’t my first time swimming with them, it’s never anything less than amazing to bond with them. The females are the large ones, and we were fortunate enough to hang out with everyone’s favorite, Sandy, for some time.

 

 

Another great trip was with George’s Watersports (www.stingraycitygrandcaymans.com). George is a young guy that runs his own company. He’s literally a one-man show, from the van driver that picks you up at your hotel, to the captain of the boat. But he’s energetic, upbeat, and a young businessman I was glad to support. Among the many trips George does every day, he offered a nighttime snorkel in the bioluminescent bay. A fast boat ride from the marina got us to the “Bio Bay,” as they called it. Nighttime settled in, the stars came out, and we jumped in the water with our snorkeling gear to swim among the billions of bioluminescent plankton that live in the bay. It was a wild experience to see your whole body sparkle as you swam through the water! My daughter was particularly thrilled, waving her hands through the water, her fingertips sparkling like some character from a Harry Potter movie. Sadly, photos just don’t pick up the bioluminescence. You need to put on a snorkel mask and dive in. It’s worth it!

 

 

We took a road trip up the 7-Mile Beach coast and made the mandatory stop in the little town of Hell. Of course, we did all the silly tourist things you do when you go to a town named Hell…

 

 

On our way back, we made a stop at Cemetery Beach. Park your car along the street, then walk the marked path on the side of the cemetery to the beach. The water is beautiful, and the snorkeling was the best we had on our entire trip.

It’s pretty common to find beaches located behind the cemeteries, even fast food restaurants. For example, there’s one beach, appropriately called “Cheeseburger Beach,” because it’s located behind a Burger King.

 

The cemetery at Cemetery Beach.

 

…And the beach at Cemetery Beach.

Heading back south toward Georgetown, and then further east toward Boddentown, other snorkeling adventures included stops at two public beaches: Smith Barcadere (or Smith’s Beach) and Spotts Beach, a favorite of locals and a hangout for sea turtles. The waters were a bit rough…we didn’t see much of anything. But it was a fun adventure nonetheless. Both beaches are clearly marked, with parking nearby.

 

 

OUR TOP 3 DINING EXPERIENCES ON GRAND CAYMAN

Great food is an important part of any trip we take. It doesn’t have to be fine dining…a shack on the water is totally fine, as long as the food is fantastic. Most of Grand Cayman lacks that old island charm, with the exception of the few places I mentioned earlier on the East End.

7-Mile Beach is where the luxury resorts are located, and that means fine dining, or at least the Cayman version of it. As I mentioned, because everything is imported to the island, the menus at most of these restaurants is pretty much the same. What varies is the dining room and the view. So despite the fact that the Cayman Islands tourism board brags about being “The Culinary Capital of the Caribbean,” there are really very few excellent restaurants. They are, for the most part, nice hotel restaurants. (And that’s not a complement.) It probably should come as no surprise, then, that the 2 best restaurants we found are at the fanciest hotel: the Ritz Carlton.

Blue by Eric Ripert. A newcomer to the island, Blue has made a big splash, totally reinventing the idea of fine dining. Eric Ripert is the Michelin star award-winning chef of NYC’s Le Bernardin, widely considered one of the top restaurants in the world. For him to put his name on another restaurant had to mean drastic changes in the way they do business in the Cayman Islands.

For one thing, the same importer that brings all the same mediocre products to the other restaurants, was not going to cut it. Ripert uses exotic, expensive, hard-to-get ingredients in his recipes that certainly required a new source, someone who could consistently bring him the highest quality tuna, foie gras, and other luxury ingredients.

The staff at Blue is well-trained: the service is beyond reproach, yet they don’t hover over you while you try to eat. And the kitchen staff was hand-picked by Ripert himself, who visits regularly.

What it all amounts to is the finest dining experience on the island: impeccably fresh seafood with the lightest touch of the finest ingredients to make the dishes really shine. One example was the tuna with foie gras, a combination that couldn’t possibly work on paper, but turned out to be a mindblower.

Tuna with foie gras. Tuna pounded thin, with a foe gras “wafer” underneath.

Of course, you pay a hefty price for all this luxury, and as expensive as dining is on this island, Blue kicks the price tag up a notch. All I can say is, go cheap somewhere else and treat yourself to Blue.

 

Taikun at the Ritz  Carlton. The fact that Taikun is the best sushi restaurant on the island is no doubt in part possible by the influence of the new and exotic ingredients imported for Blue by Eric Ripert. Hey, if one restaurant at the Ritz is getting them, why not two? They even had their own version of tuna with foie gras on their menu. Beautiful sushi, and an excellent, though expensive sake list.

The dining room at Taikun.

 

 

Ristorante Pappagallo: Our third favorite restaurant caught us by surprise. We thought for sure that it would be touristy, yet they served some of the most delicious and authentic Italian food we’ve had in a long time: handmade gnocchi, fabulous beef carpaccio, eye-rollingly good risotto…and an excellent wine list. Also, one of the best bars and bartenders on the island…real mixology.

 

The bar at Ristorante Pappagallo.

Plus, a wonderful old parrot that’s been there for 35 years!

 

 

The worst part about our trip to the Cayman Islands was the airport. For all that money invested in this island, you’d think they would have a state-of-the-art facility. Quite the opposite. It’s crowded, disorganized, low-tech, and dirty…enough of a negative that it makes you think twice about coming back…which is too bad, because it’s the last memory you have of your vacation.

 

With so many other island choices in the Caribbean, it’s hard to say whether we’ll be back to Grand Cayman any time soon. But we needed the rest and relaxation…and despite a few snags, we got that!

 

 

 

 

 

I’m always on the lookout for a great cocktail, and these days, a great restaurant very often requires a great mixologist at the bar…not someone who can simply whip up a Cosmo, but someone who puts as much creativity in his drinks as the chef does in their dishes.

Over the years, I’ve created a list of cocktail recipes that bartenders have been willing to share with me, scribbled on business cards and bar napkins. Here are some from my travels…

The classic negroni is made with gin, Campari, and sweet vermouth. I love negronis, and this cocktail is inspired by them. It comes from chef Tony Maws’ restaurant Craigie on Main in Cambridge, Massachusetts. (www.craigieonmain.com) It’s been a decade since we dined there but the drink remains a favorite of mine. When our server communicated to the bartender that I was willing to be his guinea pig for creative cocktails, I was served this one–so new at the time, they didn’t have a name for it. I took a sip and exclaimed: “Holy Shit!” and the server laughed and said: “That’s as good a name as any!”

I still call it the…

“HOLY SHIT!” COCKTAIL

1 1/2 oz. Bols Genever
1 oz. Gran Classico
1/2 oz. Punt e Mes

Add some ice to a cocktail shaker, and add the ingredients. Stir well. Strain into a rocks glass with one large ice cube.

Bols Genever is a Dutch spirit, the ancestor of gin, created from lightly distilled Dutch grains and a complex botanical mix. It is made according to the original 1820 Lucas Bols recipe which stood at the basis of the cocktail revolution in 19th century America.

Gran Classico is an alcoholic aperitif/digestif created following a recipe dating from the 1860s. It’s made by soaking a mixture of 25 aromatic herbs and roots in an alcohol/water solution to extract their flavors and aromas. The maceration creates a natural golden-amber color, although many other producers, like Campari and Cynar, dye their product red.

Punt e Mes is a pleasantly bitter, slightly sweet red vermouth, the “baby brother” of Carpano Formula Antica. The formula was developed in 1870 in Antonino Carpano’s bar in Piedmont, and the distinctive 15-herb recipe is still a family secret.

 

I sampled another negroni-inspired cocktail in Cleveland, Ohio, dining at chef Jonathon Sawyer’s The Greenhouse Tavern. (www.thegreenhousetavern.com) Crazy creative food, and this mind-blowing drink that inspired me to buy a small oak barrel and start cask-aging everything I could get my hands on at home. The OYO Stone Fruit Vodka, a key part of this cocktail, is not available here in Rhode Island. And my online source will no longer ship it! (www.thepartysource.com/oyo-stone-fruit-vodka) Store pick-up only.

 

OYO STONE FRUIT “NEGROSKI”

1 oz. OYO Stone Fruit Vodka
1 oz. Campari
1 oz. Cocchi Vermouth di Torino

 

If you’re doing it The Greenhouse Tavern way, combine large quantities of these ingredients in the right proportions and pour them into an oak cask, then let it age! Experience tells you that newer and smaller casks will mellow flavors faster than larger, older ones. But it’s all about experimentation. Having a taste every once in a while is must, because you don’t want to over-age it, either.

If you don’t have an oak cask lying around at home, it’s still delicious without it…

Combine all the ingredients in a rocks glass with ice. Stir gently, adding a splash of soda, and garnish with an orange peel.

 

OYO Stone Fruit Vodka gets its wonderful flavors from stone fruits: cherries, peaches, apricots and almonds. Terrific on its own, but amazing in this recipe.

Campari is a world-famous aperitif and bitters, and a must in any decent home bar.

Cocchi Vermouth di Torino is a sweet vermouth, made in Italy from the Moscato grape.

 

Mystic, Connecticut has been a favorite day trip here in New England for years, with its charm as a historic seaport with an impressive aquarium. But over the past decade or so, food, which has never been a strong suit of this small community, has taken the forefront. There have always been the pizza joints and the fish shacks, and staples like the generic Steak Loft, but in recent years, food lovers have found Mystic to be a destination for dining alone. It’s no surprise, then, that this community, which would be busy for only 2 summer months out of the year, is now teaming with visitors year-round.

One of the best dining destinations in Mystic is The Oyster Club, (www.oysterclubct.com), a farm-and-sea-to-table establishment that features ever-changing menus based one what is truly in season at the moment. Add that to genuine creativity in the kitchen and bar, and you get a really fun and delicious dining and drinking experience often found only in larger cities.

We recently had dinner at The Oyster Club on a Saturday night, and loved it so much, we returned the next day for Sunday brunch. Neither meal disappointed.

Our friends at FireFly Farms, a certified humane farm that raises pigs, cows, chicken and ducks in nearby Stonington, Connecticut have contributed to The Oyster Club menu on occasion, including a pig roast next month. Despite that the duck wasn’t from their farm this time, it was a dish that 3 of us just couldn’t resist. Only I veered from the meat and went for a beautifully pan-sauteed black bass. And my daughter was perfectly happy with house-made tagliatelle with Bolognese. Appetizers included fresh local oysters (of course).

House-made everything bagel, cream cheese, red onion, fried capers, parsley, and smoked conger eel.

For brunch the next morning, my wife and returned to enjoy food and a few cocktails. My wife ordered a delicious frittata, while I just had to order the eyebrow-raising house-made everything bagel with cream cheese, sliced red onion, fried capers, parsley, and smoked conger eel! Yes, eel! It was fantastic! A delicious salad of apple and blue cheese rounded out our brunch.

The bar at The Oyster Club. Wish I lived closer to this place…

For drinks, I sipped on a mushroom infused bourbon cocktail called the Fun Guy…and my wife enjoyed the Downward Dog, featuring cold-brewed coffee.

Fun Guy (left) and Downward Dog (right.)

With an exterior raised deck area they call “The Treehouse” in the back, open in warmer weather, The Oyster Club is a place we will gladly return to!

 

If you’re craving sushi, ironically, the best sushi can be found across the street from the Mystic Aquarium at Johnny’s Peking Tokyo. (www.pekingtokyomystic.com) As its name implies, you’ll find Chinese and Japanese cuisine here, and everything is top-notch. It’s the best sushi between New York City and Boston.

 

And what visit to Mystic would be complete without hob-knobbing with the rich folks? The Spicer Mansion (www.spicermansion.com) is a beautifully refurbished Relais and Chateaux property, where you can dress up and sip cocktails by the fire. Join the special club here and you’ll have access to a “secret” speakeasy located in the basement! Excellent pampering service, as you’d expect.

 

 

 

 

 

It seems silly to travel all the way to Paris for a jar of mustard, but that’s exactly what we used to do. OK…we happened to be in Paris when we made the pilgrimage to the Maille mustard shop, but I couldn’t imagine a trip to the city of light without making the stop.
Back in 1747, Antoine Maille was known by many as the greatest mustard and vinegar maker of all time. He created the now-famous Maille Dijon Originale mustard in Dijon, France, and opened a shop in Paris to sell it. To this day, the company follows his strict guidelines to re-create that magic. The Maille company opened a second store, in Dijon, in 1845.
Saving us thousands of dollars in travel expenses, there are now 2 Maille mustard shops in my home town of New York City.

The supermarket stuff.

When you visit the Maille Paris shop on place de la Madeleine, you’re surrounded by beautiful displays of colorful jars of mustard. But you need to focus on the mustard taps–yes, like beer taps–at the main counter, a long oak bar where fresh mustard (no preservatives, never more than 10 days old) is dispensed into ceramic jars that are filled, corked, and wrapped in tissue paper.
Our mustard of choice is the Maille Chablis mustard, which is unlike anything I’ve ever been able to find here in the States. And though it is potent, it has a magical quality that I can’t even begin to describe.

How do I get one of these taps in my home?

While you’re standing in line for your mustard–and there is always a line–you can sample the three fresh mustards offered with a pretzel or a cracker. Aside from the Chablis mustard, there is also a grape juice and honey mustard, and a white wine mustard.
In the old days it was a sad day indeed when I opened the last jar of Maille mustard, look deep down inside, and saw that there was nothing left…just a dry residue of crusty mustard. I’d have to wait until our next trip to Paris. Now, it’s an excuse to go home to New York City and stock up!

It takes a few weeks for this limoncello recipe to be ready, so plan ahead!

Many years ago, my wife and I visited the Amalfi coast, and we spent several nights on the beautiful island of Capri. On our last night, we dined at the legendary Grand Hotel Quisisana, and our incredible meal ended with a glass of the most delicious limoncello I ever had.

I asked the waiter if it was possible to get the recipe of the limoncello, and he made a big deal about the recipe being a “secret.” Though disappointed, I understood, and I left Capri thinking that I would never taste that limoncello again.

Two weeks later, now back at home, I was reading the latest issue of Conde Nast Traveler, and there in black and white, was the Quisisana limoncello recipe! WTF?

After making many batches of this limoncello, I started experimenting with other citrus, and the most successful by far was with grapefruit. Now I make a batch of each every year. Note: the recipe calls for 100-proof vodka. Most vodka is 80-proof, so you’ll need to go to a liquor store with a better selection to find it.

 

 

Four ingredients, easy to make. The toughest part is waiting for it to mellow a bit.

 

4 lbs. lemons, zest only
2 750-ml bottles 100 proof vodka (I prefer Absolut)
5 1/2 cups sugar
6 cups filtered water

Peel the zest off all the lemons, making sure you don’t get any of the white pith that could make the limoncello bitter. Place all the zest in the bottom of a glass jar with a lid that can hold all the vodka.

Pour the vodka on top of the lemon zest pieces, seal the container, and keep at room temperature for a week, swirling the jar around gently once a day.

On the sixth day, combine the sugar and water in a pot over medium-high heat, and stir until all the sugar completely dissolves. Remove from the heat, cover, and let it thoroughly cool to room temperature (overnight is best.)

On day seven, strain the lemon zest, pouring the infused vodka into a clean glass jar. Discard the lemon zest.

Pour the sugar/water mixture into the vodka and mix well.

At this point, you can pour the finished product into individual bottles, but let it mellow for about a month before drinking.

I keep my limoncello refrigerated.