Posts Tagged ‘travel’

Why is it that we rarely visit historic sites that are in our home town?

Though I grew up in New York, and I visit often, it’s been over 40 years since I made the trip to the Statue of Liberty. But now that I’ve got a 10-year-old daughter, I thought it was an important trip for us to make together. That, combined with a trip to Ellis Island, where my father and his siblings arrived in this country, is a must-visit for anyone who may have forgotten in these politically heated days that we were once a nation that welcomed all those in need of sanctuary, including, perhaps, our own parents and grandparents.

If you’re going to go to the Statue of Liberty–and you should–here are some tips to make that trip as easy as possible…

Despite all the websites you see, there is only one sanctioned service that takes you to the Statue of Liberty, and it requires that you buy your tickets several months ahead of time. The website is: http://www.statueoflibertytickets.com.

You’ve got several choices for tickets: a reserved ferry ticket, a reserved ferry ticket with pedestal access, and a reserved ferry ticket with crown access (seasonal.) I signed my daughter and myself up for the crown access tickets. (Climbing up to the torch has been closed off for many years now.) The climb to the crown requires that you take the elevator to the pedestal where you go up one flight of stairs. From there, you show them your special wristband, and they allow you access to a winding staircase that leads you up to the crown. The steps are very narrow–about 19″ wide–with about 6’2″ of headroom. Though it’s a sturdy staircase, you’re bound to get a little dizzy if you look over the edge as you slowly ascend to the crown. There are a couple of points on the way up where you can step out to take a breather, but once you’re going up, there is no way to change your mind and go back down. It’s one way!

Going up!

 

When you reach the crown, you’re greeted by two park rangers who will give you a lot of information or just simply take your picture. Linger for a bit, soak in the view, but don’t stay too long, because there’s a line of people behind you waiting their turn. The stairs seem to be even narrower on the way down, posing as much, if not more of, a challenge.

 

Temperatures in the crown can be 20 degrees hotter than outdoor temps, and we visited on a 90-degree day, so we certainly worked up a sweat.

 

 

Back packs and other cumbersome items are not allowed on the steps up to the crown (but a bottle of water is allowed), so lockers are offered for a few bucks for you to store your belongings for the ascent.

 

A view of Manhattan from the crown.

 

Some tips if you plan on visiting the Statue of Liberty

 

Ferries leave from Battery Park in Manhattan, though you can also leave from New Jersey. See the website for details.

You will be screened twice, airport TSA-style. The first screening takes place before you step onto the ferry from Battery Park. Just like at the airport, you’ll need to remove belts, and place all metallic objects in a plastic container that rolls through an x-ray machine. The second time, you get screened before you’re allowed into the pedestal area of the statue.

Tickets are non-refundable. Crown tickets require that you show up at the ticket booth with ID, so give yourself extra time for that. Otherwise, you can just print your tickets online.

Get the earliest ferry you can. The crowds get bigger and crazier as the day goes on, and you’ll be standing in long lines if you get to Liberty Island in the afternoon. It’s especially important to get there early if you’re planning on climbing to the crown. Standing on that winding staircase jammed with hundreds of people above/in front of you is not where you want to be!

Don’t be late but don’t be too early for your ferry, either. We had a 10AM ferry, but got there at 8:40. They wouldn’t let us in line until 9:20.

Although access to Liberty Island is year-round, crown access tickets are seasonal. They shut down during some winter months. So plan ahead.

Snack bars and gift shops are located on the ferries, Liberty Island, and Ellis Island.

Ferries run from Battery Park, to Liberty Island, then to Ellis Island, then back to Battery Park about every 20–30 minutes.

 

 

 

 

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I was cleaning out the pantry recently, and there, in a corner where I haven’t looked for years, was a green 5-liter jug with a plastic cap on it. It brought a smile to my face because although I haven’t seen it in many years, it reminded me of a wonderful trip my wife and I took to Italy when we were still dating.
Our first European trip together was to explore Rome, the Isle of Capri, and the Amalfi coast. We stayed at many wonderful hotels, including an old castle, and we made an effort to sample the local cuisine when possible.
At one of our stops, we walked through a small, quaint village and found a local eatery named Da Roketa (The Rocket.) As I recall, the food was homemade and fantastic, the bread to die for, and the homemade olive oil from the family’s own olive trees something you wanted to drown in.
Much to the surprise of the owners of the restaurant, we asked if we could buy their olive oil to take home to the states with us, and we somehow wound up with this massive 5-liter jug, which we carried with us throughout the rest of our trip.
Although this was after 9/11, the limitations about carrying on liquids had not yet been established, so I ducked taped the plastic cap securely, making sure there’d be no leaks, and I placed the jug in a small duffel bag, cushioned by clothing. I carried that bag right onto the plane!
But first I had to get through security…
Placing my duffel bag on the conveyor belt in Rome as we walked through the x-ray machines, one look at the security agent’s face and it was clear I was going to get pulled side.
The female agent asked me what was in the bag and I matter-of-factly told her: olive oil. She didn’t believe me, so I opened the bag for her and there was my beautiful 5-liter bottle, nestled in some “fragrant” dirty laundry. She looked at it, and her stern look morphed into a smile: “It looked like a bomb on the x-ray screen!”
I explained about the amazing food at Da Roketa, and how we were obsessed with the olive oil. She chuckled, shook her head, and let me zip it up and walk away with it.
The rest of our journey, even when we landed at customs in the United States, was uneventful.
I doubt that even now, even if I checked my luggage, I’d be allowed to bring in an un-hermetically sealed container of olive oil into the states the way I did that day.
We used that olive oil every opportunity we had, and yes, we did eventually finish it.

I get a lot of travel and food magazines, and for whatever reason, when they talk about where to stay in Providence, The Dean Hotel seems to be everybody’s new favorite. When they talk about where to get a great cocktail, The Dean is listed again. (I did notice that the cocktails article info was submitted by someone who has a financial part in the operation of the hotel…a bit suspicious.)

But, nonetheless, I decided it was time for me to check it out for myself.

Those of us that have been in Rhode Island for some time might remember what was previously at The Dean’s address back in the day: the legendary Sportsman’s Inn, a roach-infested whorehouse, to put it plainly. As as one reviewer put it: “Don’t go there without antibiotics!”

So The Dean is a serious improvement! I was told that to keep its historical value, The Dean had to leave the tiny hotel rooms exactly the same size as they were before. The result is a very cozy room that is clean and modern…just really small…as is the bathroom. But it’s got everything you would need to spend the night here, no complaints.

My small but very clean room at The Dean.

 

The Dean has many of the amenities you’re looking for in a nice city hotel: valet parking, a coffee shop (Bolt Coffee) for your morning wake-up, a very good cocktail lounge (The Magdalenae Room), a restaurant (Faust) and Boombox, a karaoke bar. Okay…in all honesty, I was glad to hear that the German food of Faust is being replaced this fall with the truly creative food of one of Providence’s best: north. (www.foodbynorth.com) And as long as I don’t have to hear the karaoke bar when I’m trying to sleep, I can deal with that.

I had dinner elsewhere in town the night I stayed at The Dean. (Faust was already closed.) But I did stop by to have a cocktail–or three–at The Magdalenae Room. The choice of spirits is limited, but the essentials are there. A nice chat with the bartender who knew his drinks and knew his way around Providence. Even someone like me that has lived here for almost 30 years learned a few things! (Was it the best crafted cocktail in Providence? That honor still remains with The Eddy.)

All in all, my experience at The Dean was a good one. I don’t know if it deserves all the attention it’s been getting in those magazine articles I’ve read, however. But it’s clean, it’s not expensive, and when north opens up, it can very much be an ideal one-stop in Providence.

Despite working in a pretty decent food town (Providence, Rhode Island), and despite being just an hour away from another decent food town (Boston, Massachusetts), when we want to go to a place where we park our car once and can easily walk to dozens of great eateries and bars, where each place is more creative than the next, and where genuine friendliness and enthusiasm for what they’re doing shows in every dish, the answer is Portland, Maine.

My wife and I visit Portland at least once a year and it’s amazing to see how many new restaurants have opened since our last visit. Every time we think we’ve crossed a few off our list, a half-dozen new ones show up! Last year, we hit 10 restaurants in 48 hours. This last visit, it was a mere 6 restaurants in 48 hours. I guess we’re getting older…!

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Our weekend started on a Friday afternoon with a quick bite at Solo Italiano, near the water on Commercial Street. We really enjoyed a light-as-air Carpaccio di Tonno: thinly sliced yellow fin tuna with stracciatella cream, herb oil, and crispy onions. And after we were told that the chef at Solo won the World Pesto Championship, we had to have the Mandilli di Seta al Vero Pesto Genovese: house made silk handkerchief pasta in a traditional Genovese basil pesto…amazing! Solo has some great house cocktails to choose from, too. Definitely worth a return visit.

The bar at Solo.

The bar at Solo.

Our Friday evening dinner was at Hugo’s. Originally owned by chef Rob Evans, a three-time Food Network “Chopped” champion, Rob sold it a few years ago and now runs Duckfat, a small sandwich shop famous for its Belgian-style fries that are fried in duck fat. (Though it gets write-ups all the time, my experience at Duckfat was disappointing.)

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The folks that own the nationally acclaimed Eventide Oyster Bar now own Hugo’s (it’s next door) as well as The Honey Paw (next door on the other side.) For us, every visit to Portland must include this amazing restaurant trifecta on Middle Street, that, in fact, have connecting kitchens.

The connecting kitchens at Hugo's, Eventide, and the Honey Paw.

The connecting kitchens at Hugo’s, Eventide, and The Honey Paw.

 

Hugo’s is fine dining at its creative best. Though we hadn’t been there in over a year, Brian, a manager and our wine guru, immediately remembered us and greeted us with a hug, showing us to our seats and treating us to a glass of bubbly. He guided us through the wine list and offered us a bottles that were simply out of this world. Though we’ve done the tasting menu in the past, we decided to go a la carte when a beautiful fried whole black bass, with roasted mushrooms, cabbage and hoisin vinaigrette, was calling our name. After a few wonderful appetizers that included peekytoe crab, reblochon (a local cheese), and lamb tartare, we were ready for the black bass. Even our server, Patrick, was impressed with how well we devoured that fish right down to the bone.

Fried black bass at Hugo's.

Fried black bass at Hugo’s.

 

Polishing off that amazing black bass!

Polishing off that amazing black bass!

 

Paul, the bartender at Hugo's.

Paul, the bartender at Hugo’s.

 

Dinner at Hugo’s wouldn’t be complete without a discussion about bourbons with bartender, Paul, and he let me sample a couple of special bottles he had behind the bar. A great way to end a wonderful dining experience on our first night in Portland.

Bourbon tastings.

Bourbon tastings.

 

The next day, Saturday, our food adventures began with lunch. Don’t get me wrong: there are some great breakfast choices in Portland, like the Porthole (featured on Food Network’s “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives”) and Becky’s Diner. But when you’re in town to feast, you bypass the bacon and eggs.

Lunch was at Eventide, which shows up on every “best oyster bar” list, and the reason is simple: a nice selection of fresh oysters, a great bar, and creative side dishes that change all the time.

Oysters at Eventide.

 

The Eventide brown butter lobster roll is elevated to new heights when it’s placed on an Asian-style steamed bun. Blackboard specials change every week, and always include what’s right off the boat: from fried squid to pickled lox. If you’re less adventurous, you can’t go wrong with the buttermilk fried chicken bun, the house pastrami bun or their impressive fish sandwich.

Pickled lox (left) and the lobster bun (right.)

 

If you go to Eventide during peak hours, you can expect a wait. The place isn’t huge and it’s wildly popular. Give them your name, tuck yourself into a corner with a drink, and wait, knowing that it will all be worth it!

Real women in Maine shuck oysters!

 

We skip the usual cocktail sauce when at Eventide. Our favorite accoutrements are the pickled red onion ice (great for an oyster shooter!) and the chilera ice.

Before…and after.

 

After our leisurely lunch, it was time to walk off a few calories. Heading down Fore Street, we tucked into several art galleries and shops, slowly making our way across the center of town to the newly redesigned Portland Art Museum. By the time we stepped out of the museum, it was time for more food. Just a few blocks, and we arrived at Boda.

 

Labeling themselves as a “Very Thai” kitchen and bar, Boda delivers. Though we only had a few apps, like the apple and shrimp salad and a plate of authentic pad thai, it earned two thumbs up. A plate of fried quail…not so much.

The bar at Boda offers the standards (like my Chopin martini) and some interesting Asian herb-infused cocktails. Definitely worth a return visit, especially when Boda is open until 12:45AM, serving tasty skewers for the bar crowd.

A short stop at our hotel, and it was time for our Saturday dinner. We headed to what many claim is the best sushi restaurant in Portland: Miyake. We soon discovered that the label “best sushi restaurant in Portland” didn’t necessarily set the standard very high.

 

Though we found a beautiful bottle of sake on the menu that we’ve had before, the food was a disappointment. Having had a few great sushi experiences in my life, I wanted this place to be among them. But after trying 2 different 4-course menus that featured tastings of salmon, tuna, uni, duck, and even Miyake’s own farm-raised mangalitsa pork–a rare heritage breed–which, though fatty, was very dry…it’s safe to say that we won’t be returning to Portland, Maine for its sushi.

The sake, at least, was amazing.

In a town with many creative restaurants, this one didn’t cut it. Some locals told us that Miyake used to be better when they were in a smaller space. The move to a larger space meant a beautiful room, but the food suffered.

Our weekend ended with Sunday brunch. If we wanted a more typical Sunday brunch, we would’ve gone to Five Fifty-Five, where we’ve enjoyed dishes like lobster eggs Benedict in the past. But when we heard that The Honey Paw was now serving brunch, there was no question where we needed to go!

 

My kind of Sunday brunch: Asian fried ribs, pork and fried oyster pot stickers, a bowl of beef shank pho, and a breakfast sandwich with house made scrapple and egg on a kimchi croissant.

Beef shank pho.

 

The Honey Paw breakfast sandwich.

 

My wife took advantage of a full bar with creative cocktails. Unfortunately, I had a 3-hour drive home behind the wheel, so I had to refrain from the alcohol.

The bar at The Honey Paw.

While we dined at The Honey Paw, I ran next door to Eventide and ordered 2 of their buttermilk fried chicken sandwiches to go. Our 10-year-old daughter was not happy that we went to Portland without her this time, and we knew that bringing her favorite sandwiches home would help ease the blow.

 

We’ll be back to Portland this summer. Already counting the days. For other great places to dine in this town, use my search engine under “Portland.” And feel free to drop me a line with any questions about where to stay, eat, visit, etc…

Cheers!

 

You may know my friends as Ativan and Ambien.

The fact is, despite all the places I’ve been to in the world, it’s a struggle for me to travel. I’m not a control freak, but I am a bad passenger. I always choose to be the one behind the wheel on family trips. I sit in the front of the bus so I can monitor the driver. I instinctively choose the bar car when I take the Acela into New York City. And I’m a lousy flyer. Sure, I know that statistics say flying is the safest form of travel. I’ve purchased a variety of CD’s and DVD’s to help me get over it. But there’s something about the fear of being in the air–and not in control–that I can’t shake.

But…I don’t want to stay home.

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Enter my friend: lorazepam. Whenever I have a big trip planned, part of the pre-flight preparation is serious medication. But lorazepam itself doesn’t do the trick, of course. I’m a big guy, and if anyone thinks that a silly little pill is going to knock me down, they’re in for a surprise.

My standard medication routine goes like this: half a lorazepam the day of the flight to ease anxiety. I take a full pill once I’ve found my seat on the plane and I know it’s going to take off. This doesn’t knock me out. It simply eliminates “white knuckle” syndrome. And then I start drinking. By the time I’ve had a few, I’m feeling no pain as dinner rolls around. I have my meal, wash it down with another drink, and then, when I check with my wife to make sure that she and my daughter will be OK without me, I take a zolpidem. I’ve been told that this self-medication would knock a horse flat on its ass. It usually keeps me down for about 5 hours, just in time to have breakfast before landing the next morning on my trans-Atlantic flight.

Ironically, I prefer longer flights because with shorter flights, I just have to tough it out without the meds. (OK,  maybe I’ll sneak I half a pill in there.)

My wife and I have a deal: she takes care of our daughter on the plane, and then it’s my job to do so on land. And that system has worked well for us. It’s also allowed me to have incredible experiences I would not have had any other way:  riding an elephant in Thailand, exploring the souk in Marrakesh, landing with a helicopter on a mountaintop glacier in New Zealand (that took a record of three lorazepam’s, and I was still able to video the whole thing!), seeing beautiful sunsets in Santorini,  flying in a hot air balloon over the vineyards north of Barcelona, swimming with dolphins in Moorea…and more.

If course, I don’t recommend this combination of drugs to anyone. You need to talk to your own doctor. But I’m all set…because my doctor hates flying, too.

It’s the peak of the summer season along the coast of the great state of Maine. My friend, Lee, recently bought a second home in Kennebunk, and it was all the excuse I needed to head up there and check out the town I visited with my parents during my childhood. My trip was less about the Lithuanian Franciscan monastery my parents would make a point to visit, and more about hitting every bar and restaurant we could in a 24-hour period.

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I arrived at lunch time and we went straight to David’s KPT, one of several restaurants owned by chef David Turin, who owns others in nearby Portland. I ate at the original David’s in Portland a few years ago and was not impressed, so it took a little coaxing to get me to come here. David’s KPT menu is simple, basic seafood, and for a restaurant on the water with great views, that’s about all you need. Nothing particularly creative here, just the basics, like fresh oysters but a rather bland lobster salad. Its key location also makes it a tourist trap and they jack the prices up, so some oysters go for $3.50 each! I don’t even pay that in New York City.

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After lunch, we took a ride along the beautiful rugged Maine coast, passing the Bush family compound and the line of cars parked on the road with people taking snaps of the house for their scrapbooks. We stopped In Cape Porpoise, still a part of Kennebunkport, at a funky joint called The Ramp.

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On the water, The Ramp is crowded and noisy, with old posters and souvenirs on the walls and ceiling, ranging from a NYC World Trade Center subway station sign to a “Vote for Marcos” campaign poster from the Philippines. We had to put our names on a list just to sit at the bar. But that was OK…we had a cocktail while waiting. By the time we finished our drinks and were ready to leave, our turn came up at the bar, so we handed our space off to the next person in line and moved on.

Our lovely server at The Ramp. Notice photos of former Presidents behind her.

Our lovely server at The Ramp. Notice photos of former Presidents behind her.

Back on the road, we drove into town, found a rare parking space on the street, and walked over to Tia’s Topside,with their signature giant lobster claws in the front yard.

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The menu was no great shakes, and it was clear the dude working the bar already had his fill of tourists for the season. No eye contact, just a “What do you guys want to drink?” That was a thumbs down in our book.

Walking back to the car, we popped into Ports of Italy for a pop. Looking at the plates of the people next to me at the bar, it seemed like we stumbled into a local version of the Olive Garden. The website makes everything we saw look much better. But we passed on the food. Generic drinks.

Clearly, the amount of drinks we had, and were still going to have, was going to be an issue, and Lee being the driver, was behaving to avoid any trouble with the law. Police are everywhere in Kennebunk, and they are notorious for pulling you over for even the slightest infraction. So we headed back to the condo to park the car and wait for the taxi we hired for the night to take us to dinner and beyond.

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The culinary focus of the trip (I made reservations two months earlier) was Earth at Hidden Pond, a Ken Oringer restaurant in the center of a luxury resort just a short drive out of the center of town, hidden in the woods, surrounded by ridiculously expensive cabins.

Outdoor seating, great atmosphere at night when they light the torches and the fires.

Outdoor seating, great atmosphere at night when they light the torches and the fires.

Oringer is a crazy-talented chef, a Food Network “Iron Chef America” winner with a half-dozen respected restaurants to his name: Toro in Boston (personal favorite) and NYC, Clio in Boston, Coppa (excellent!) in Boston, and Uni in Boston. I was very glad to see that Earth lived up to my expectations.

The well-stocked bar at Earth.

The well-stocked bar at Earth.

Our evening got off to a slow start. It was a Saturday night, yet the main bartenders were nowhere to be found. (We heard that one was out due to a leg injury.) The woman that served us was great to talk to, but she clearly did not have a grasp on the crafting of the more complicated cocktails that Earth was known for. Our first drinks were good, but she literally had to read the recipes off a card to make them. And when I asked for Antica Formula in my Manhattan, she didn’t know what that was.

Enter Josh, a young, energetic bar assistant, who saw this as an opportunity to show off his mixology skills. He jumped right in and offered us a cocktails he created, and we welcomed his refreshing enthusiasm. I can’t even remember the ingredients list he had for each cocktail, but we thoroughly enjoyed them, and he custom-crafted them if we didn’t like a particular ingredient.

Small plates: meatballs, chicken wings with sesame and squid ink, shishito peppers.

Snacks: meatballs, chicken wings with sesame and squid ink, shishito peppers.

We started with a few apps, or snacks as they called them. The meatballs were good, average meatballs. The shishito peppers, roasted and salted, are a Ken Oringer signature dish, also served at his Toro restaurants. Usually 1 out of 10 are hot, but we had more than a few spicy bites on our plate. The chicken wings with squid ink were incredible: sweet, salty, briny. Probably the best wings I’ve ever had, and I’m dying to figure out how I can make them at home. I had a chance to talk to executive chef Justin Walker, and after he explained the process in detail, it was obvious it wouldn’t be easy!

A luxurious plate of seared foie gras followed. Couldn’t have been more perfect.

But after the foie, we had a dilemma: We made plans to have the taxi pick us up from the restaurant at 8:30, giving us 2 1/2 hours to eat dinner. It was after 8 already, and we had to focus on leaving, despite the fact that we didn’t have an entree yet. Our bartender suggested perhaps a dessert, and we decided to order a second plate of chicken wings to end our meal!

I was bummed that we didn’t give ourselves enough time to have a complete dinner. I suppose that meant we were having a good time and not just shoving food down our pie holes. It’s also my excuse to come back to Earth to “do things right” the next time!

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Our last stop was back in town at Old Vines, a wine bar that also serves great food. Though we were seated quickly at the bar and got our first drinks, it seemed like forever before we could get the attention of our female bartender who was far more interested in the other females at the bar than us two old guys. Hey, I understand that, but we wanted to order some food. It was only when the owner showed up that we were asked what we’d like to eat and by then we were told the kitchen may be closed. Fortunately, we ordered two cold dishes, so they were easy to prepare: beef carpaccio and a burata salad. Both were excellent.

A cab ride home, and it was time to pass out.

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The next morning, breakfast was back in Cape Porpoise at The Wayfarer, a local favorite for years. Always crowded, we managed to find a couple of seats at the bar. Crowded because the menu offers breakfast favorites with their own twist: a scramble of the day, housemade sausage, and interesting takes on standards, like lobster and pork belly eggs Benedict.

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The creativity of this dish was excellent, the execution not so much. Hey, I love pork fat, but the pork belly wasn’t cooked enough so it was rubbery and the lobster meat was cold–should’ve been warmed through before putting it on top of the eggs.

That’s OK…lots of good coffee and smiling faces were a welcome sight the morning after a big night of drinking!

The ride back to Rhode Island was a bit rough with a hangover. Next time, it’ll be 48 hours in Kennebunkport and I’ll make sure I get some rest!

 

Greek food is some of the most delicious I’ve ever eaten. It rivals Italian and French cuisine, yet has nowhere near the fan base. It’s the same with Greek spirits. The island of Santorini offers many wonderful choices, and it would be a sin not to taste them all!

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Santorini is magical. It’s why we keep coming back. But just as wonderful as the white buildings stacked on the cliffsides of this island are the people, and the native food and drink they offer. One such place is the Hatzidakis winery in the town of Pirgos.

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They don’t have a fancy tasting room. They don’t do tours. They don’t have an amazing view of the water or the island. They don’t even hold regular visiting hours. They simply have the best wine on the island.

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And that’s exactly why we go. Haridimos “George” Hatzidakis is all about his grapes. Ask anyone on Santorini what the best wine is, and you will get “Hatzidakis” as the answer every time.

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Sure, there are huge wineries with tasting rooms that overlook the water. That’s where the tour buses take the cattle that arrive in Fira on cruise ships. And that’s the last place we want to be.

Hatzidakis wine is about the soil, the grapes, the climate. It’s also about the passion of the handful of people who work hard to make it.

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It’s hard to find Hatzidakis in the United states (unless you look in my wine cellar, because we bring home as much as we can!!) Much of it is scooped up and exported to France…and much to our happy surprise, we’ve had a bottle of the Hatzidakis Assyrtyko in Paris at Le Baratin.

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For the most part, you’ll have to go to Santorini to experience the magic of this incredible wine. And that’s not a bad thing. Because the wine is much like the people of Santorini: beautiful and worth every bit of time it takes to get there.

Aside from wine in Santorini, our most recent visit a few years ago introduced us to a local drink called Raki. Kind of like grappa on steroids, it’s the national drink of Turkey, popular here as well, and often served as a digestif before dinner. It’s a drink that can definitely get you in trouble.

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Also new (to us) in Santorini was Red Donkey, a locally brewed beer. It was a welcome treat on those very hot and dry summer days. Unfiltered and delicious.

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As for local foods, nothing is better than a salad featuring the sharp tang of Santorini tomatoes. Much like the grapes of this island, the tomatoes grow in volcanic soil. Rain is scarce, and so the tomatoes, like the grapes, stay small but intense, bursting with flavor.

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Capers and caper berries, stuffed into empty plastic water bottles, are sold on the side of the road by local farmers.

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Perhaps the most unlikely food item we bring home from Santorini is what they call “fava,” but it’s not the bean we usually associate with that name. Originally, broad beans were used in this dish, but quickly it changed to a type of yellow shelled lentil that is much smaller and flavorful than its American counterpart. The lentil is smaller and the art of turning this simple gem into a sublime porridge is worth learning.

As common in Santorini as pasta is in Italy, grains of fava have been found in archaeological sites in the ancient city of Akrotiri (on the southern side of Santorini) dating as far back as 3500 years ago. Every taverna on the island offers their own version of fava, and though the differences are subtle, they can be significant.

Proud of his fava.

Proud of his fava.

 

Most recipes start with the dried lentils, which are washed thoroughly. They are added to a pot of fresh water and then boiled until the water reduces and the lentils slowly absorb the liquid and soften into a porridge. Often chopped onion is added to the pot of water in the very beginning, so that it completely dissolves and flavors the fava. Some recipes call for a subtle mixture of local dried herbs, similar to oregano and thyme, to be wrapped in cheesecloth and added to the pot to infuse flavor.

Like making a great Italian tomato sauce, cooking fava is a labor love. It requires low heat and constant stirring to make it perfectly smooth. Often it is pureed in a blender at the end.

When the fava is ready to serve, the toppings can vary. Thin slices of red onion and a liberal drizzle of Greek olive oil are common. Sometimes it is topped with locally harvested and brined caper berries or caper berry leaves, or a few kalamata olives.

On our last trip to Santorini, our most memorable fava dishes were a simple and rustic, with onion, capers, olive oil and a side of lemon. One of our favorite restaurants, Dimitris in Amoudi, serves it this way.

The fava at Dimitri's, on the water in Ammoudi.

The fava at Dimitri’s, on the water in Ammoudi.

We bought our fava from several people, including this beautiful ageless woman, who remembered us from our previous visit. image

We’re hoping still be here on this magical island when we visit in a couple of weeks!

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Mugaritz, San Sebastian, Spain

Mugaritz, San Sebastian, Spain

In the yearly listing: The World’s Top 50 Restaurants, Mugaritz consistently gets into the top 10…this year it’s at #6. A few years ago, on a trip to San Sebastian, Spain, my family and I had a chance to dine there.

The main kitchen from outside.

The main kitchen from outside.

The dishes that acclaimed chef Andoni Luis Aduriz created were some of the most original we’ve ever enjoyed. There was a flow to our experience…a reason why one dish followed another. It was like a concert, with Aduriz at the helm as director and composer.

Mugaritz has about twenty tables. And one seating. You are there for the night. Well over twenty courses, small bites to be sure, but all intense and rich with flavors and textures that complimented each other.

The kitchen at Mugaritz.

The main kitchen at Mugaritz.

Every table got a private tour of the kitchen. And though we didn’t meet chef Aduriz, we did get to talk with his second in command: chef Ramon Perise.

Mugaritz, as Perise explained it, has three kitchens: a lower level for preparation…a middle kitchen on the main floor for cooking all the food, plating it and making it look beautiful…and then an upstairs kitchen, the laboratory, where they come up with their newest creations.

Hangin' with Ramon Perise.

Hangin’ with Ramon Perise.

With our kitchen tour, we saw the chefs setting up rows of small iron bowls on wooden stands: individual mortar and pestles for each person in the dining room. It was going to be a dish that was served to everyone at the same time, no matter where they were in the course of their meal. So when we finished our kitchen tour, we sat down, and the mortar and pestles were brought out.

Inside the iron bowl were some wet and dry ingredients: what looked like corn nuggets, a colorful cube of gelatin and other ingredients. We were instructed to grind up what was in our bowls with our personal pestle. The entire restaurant was filled with a ringing sound, like church bells going off somewhere in the distance. For a few precious minutes, every patron shared this special perfectly choreographed event as we ground up the contents of our bowls. They called it the “linking dish.”

Then, one by one, the grinding stopped. The iron bowls continued to ring for a few seconds until the sounds faded away into silence, replaced by the low murmur of conversation. And we all went back to our meals.

The linking dish.

The linking dish.

Our sommelier, Guillermo Cruz, was a bright, knowledgeable and enthusiastic young man that offered us thrill rides in a glass, including a much-needed digestivo half-way through the meal so that we could continue our dining experience!

A grappa-like Fillaboa digestif from Gallicia that was made from the local Albarino grapes. Helpful in making room for more food!

A grappa-like Fillaboa digestif from Gallicia that was made from the local Albarino grapes. Helpful in making room for more food!

As Chef Perise said to us (paraphrasing): “When you leave this place…and weeks afterwards…you’re not going to remember the food. But you’re going to remember the emotions you had and the feelings you had when you were here. And that’s what we’re working for.”

Shaved ice cream with cheese: one of many desserts.

Shaved frozen apple with cheese: one of many desserts.

Could there have been too many dishes? Is there such a thing as too much of a good thing? Is less really more?

These burning questions can only be answered with another visit to Mugaritz. I hope it’s sometime soon!

 

 

 

It’s mind-blowing how many new and exciting restaurants keep popping up in Portland, Maine, and even more interestingly, how they’re all thriving! With a great arts scene, historic New England waterfront, and a young crowd eager to spend their money, Portland is just exploding.

I work in Providence, Rhode Island, a city whose food scene has had a lot of attention in the last few years in a variety of national magazines. But really creative restaurants here are hard to find, perhaps five in the entire city. In Portland, you’ll find five on one block!

Portland is big enough to be a destination, and small enough that you can park your car once and walk everywhere you want to go all day and into the night.

Oysters at Eventide.

Oysters at Eventide.

Three of the best restaurants in town just happen to be owned by the same three guys: Andrew Taylor, Arlin Smith and Mike Wiley. They called their company AMA LLC, though now I think they go by the name Big Tree Hospitality. All three restaurants are located right next door to each other on Middle Street: Hugo’s, Eventide, and The Honey Paw. If you go nowhere else in Portland, hit this one block. If you’re just passing through for lunch, it’s right off 295. Just take the Franklin Street exit.

The block. From left to right: The Honey Paw, Eventide, and Hugo's. And if you stay at the Hampton Inn, like we did, you walk less than a block!

The block. From left to right: The Honey Paw, Eventide, and Hugo’s. And if you stay at the Hampton Inn, like we did, you walk less than a block!

 

The bar at Eventide.

The bar at Eventide.

Our love of Portland started years ago with Eventide, an oyster bar serving the freshest and most creative small seafood plates in the city: a killer brown butter lobster roll, tuna crudo that rivals the best sushi anywhere, blackboard special plates like char tartare, and a dozen oyster choices served with inventive accouterments, our favorite being the pickled red onion ice. Our non-seafood-eating daughter loved the buttermilk fried chicken bun and Eventide burger. And probably the most ignored-but-shouldn’t-be entry on the menu is the fish sandwich: best you ever had or I’ll eat it for you. They use pieces of fresh-caught hake, a fish that’s somewhat unknown unless you’re a local. A full bar and a surprisingly friendly staff, despite the fact they’re jamming all day long.

The amazing fish sandwich at Eventide.

The amazing fish sandwich at Eventide.

Hugo’s made Portland a food destination thanks to its previous chef/owner, Rob Evans, who sold it in 2012 to concentrate on his newer joint: Duckfat. The three guys: Taylor, Smith, and Wiley, worked there before it closed down and they grabbed the opportunity to take over, bringing a cutting-edge American menu served over a series of exciting tasting courses. Whether you’re a carnivore, vegetarian or seafood lover, you’ll find some wonderful choices here. Our night featured raw and cooked beef selections, lamb bolognese, ankimo (monkfish liver) and unusual veggie plates like sunchokes and smoked parsnips.

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Paul, the bartender, is a mixologist of the finest kind. My wife sipped on a Jasmine Fizz before we plunged into the eclectic and inspired wine list chosen by Big Tree Hospitality’s wine director, Brian Flewelling, who happened to be our server that night.

My wife enjoyed a sip of my Pappy's as well.

My wife enjoyed a sip of my Pappy’s as well.

 

And it didn’t hurt that they had three kinds of Pappy Van Winkle bourbon on their shelves…something I haven’t seen anywhere else. (These are the bottles that go for over $1500 on line.) Needless to say, Paul the bartender and I bonded over a taste of the 20-year-old Pappy.

A bourbon conversation between my newest best friend, Paul and myself.

A bourbon conversation between my newest best friend, Paul, and myself.

The third and newest restaurant in the group is The Honey Paw, featuring an eclectic Asian menu. The intense flavors come from all over Asia, and we wondered how these young chefs could be so knowledgeable. We found out that the company flies its employees to countries like Singapore and Malaysia on a regular basis to give them the experience they need to create and serve this amazing food. I swear, I wanna work for these guys! I haven’t seen any company anywhere treat its employees with such respect, and all of that trickles down to how they treat the food, the community, and their customers.

The Honey Paw's mind-blowing albacore tuna sashimi.

Beautiful plates at The Honey Paw.

Like their other two restaurants, The Honey Paw sources most of its ingredients from local farms. So when we ordered a plate of coppa, it was housemade from rare mulefoot hogs raised in Maine, topped with pickled husk cherries.

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I’m a huge fan of whole-fried fish, but very few restaurants take on that challenge. Even many of my favorite New York Chinese restaurants no longer feature that on the menu. The whole fried black bass I had at The Honey Paw is something I will have every time I return.

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We did leave the block, eventually! Though not big on atmosphere, Sur Lie was another restaurant in the long list of new establishments in the city featuring small plates full of exciting flavors.

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We enjoyed tapas like a plate of “Surryano” ham, the West Virginia version of Spanish Serrano…fried milk-braised cauliflower…Hiramasa (Yellowtail Amberjack) crudo…carrot agnolotti (pasta)…and a nicely cooked hanger steak. Good food, good service, and a nice selection of Greek wine.

We walked a lot in Portland. Loads of small shops, art galleries, and stores with collectibles. We hit a couple of comic book stores with our daughter, who’s in that phase…art galleries that enticed my wife, the artist…and an unusual shop with rare, collectible barware in the storefront and an actual bar in the back to do some serious sipping: a place called Vena’s Fizz House.

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One of the more interesting products they sell at Vena’s was a variety of infusion kits: dried fruits and spices just waiting for vodka or tequila to bring their flavors to life…

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Sometimes we did jump in the car to get to the other side of town. Portland boasts one of the largest–and coolest–Whole Foods stores ever. The selection is fantastic, and they sell wine and local spirits in a special section that comes with its own wine expert to help you make the right choices!

A short hop down the road from Whole Foods is a line of distilleries and breweries on Fox Street just waiting for thirsty customers. We stopped in to Maine Craft Distilling for a tasting of their creations.

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Here’s the thing that tells you you’re in Maine: we arrived at Maine Craft Distilling, and they told us they were sold out of just about every spirit because of the holidays. But they still poured us free tastings of all their booze! That would not happen anywhere else. Their logic was: if you like it, you won’t forget it and you’ll buy it the next time around. Friendly and informative, and their blueberry spirit called Blueshine, is worth a trip back.

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Back along the waterfront, on Commercial Street, we tucked into the Flatbread Company, a wildly popular pizza joint that now has 15 locations in Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and even Hawaii. Great pizza (with gluten-free options), salads, and an awesome view of the water.

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Watching these talented chefs work the oven is better than television. I could watch all night!

Watching these talented chefs work the oven is better than television. I could watch all night!

A must-stop at least once on any Portland trip is the classic Porthole. Featured on “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives,” they open for breakfast and rock all through the night. I dropped in for some breakfast to go on New Year’s morning, watching those at the bar chug down their Bloody Marys: a little hair of the dog after a long partying night.

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Perhaps my biggest disappointment of the trip (and mainly because it has received so much hype from magazines and friends) was The Portland Hunt and Alpine Club. I was told not to go here for the food, so we passed on that. But while my wife and daughter spent some time in the shops nearby, I decided to go in and check the place out for a cocktail.

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The bartender was friendly enough, and when I asked for a Manhattan with his choice of bourbon (he used Baker’s), he made it with flair and it tasted good. But it was also something I could make at home just as easily. I don’t know…maybe I needed to order something else. Maybe I should give the place a try in the light of a summer day and not a cold winter’s night. It just seemed kind of dumpy and not at all what I was expecting: uncomfortable metal benches at the bar, a stuffiness in the air like the vents in the kitchen weren’t working. I need to come back and give these guys another chance.

 

For more on Portland, Maine, check out my blog from July of 2013. A lot has changed in a year and a half, but there’s still some good info there. http://wp.me/p1c1Nl-g3

 

 

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…to New Zealand…to Paris…to Lithuania…and next year, we’re going to Greece and Turkey.

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.

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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.

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.