Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Baltic Bash Kick Off

Trip date: December 2016

By the time we flew from Paris CdG, with a quick plane change in Latvia, it was midnight when we landed in Vilnius the capital of Lithuania; my 40th country.

Luckily our Airbnb owner had offered to pick us up at the airport so we didn't have to deal with finding the apartment in the middle of the night. Also luckily he carried my suitcase up the five flights of stairs; we had all forgotten this place didn't have a lift. Being at the top of the hill, it did have great views of the newer part of the city however!

In the morning, Forest, Thibault and I set off to explore. We found a cute restaurant called The Town and had a great first lunch on our way to Cathedral Square.

Parts of the city felt very Soviet-like, while others seemed almost Baroque. Vilnius' old town is quite small and extremely easy to walk around and it was very festively decorated for the holidays.
There was a Christmas Market set up in Cathedral Square which had some cute kiosks selling local crafts and treats, all surrounding a large Christmas tree. I bought some really delicious sugared hazelnuts and almonds as well as some great venison sausage to serve with aperos at the apartment. The weather was a bit cold and drizzly so I also grabbed a mulled wine and stole a few hot donut holes from Thibault.
Afer taking a quick look inside the cathedral, Forest went back to the apartment while Thibault and I went to the Palace of the Grand Dukes. This is a really fantastic museum that starts you off below the current building, amidst ruins of the original site from the 15th century. There are displays of the earliest pieces of architecture, clothing, silver work, tile, pottery, glass, etc from Lithuania.

There's a rather large map of the region at the time when Lithuania was the ruling seat spanning modern-day Lithuania, Belarus, Ukraine, Transnistria, and portions of modern-day Poland and Russia. There's also an impressive number of pins showing all the palaces and castles that were available to the rulers. This way they could travel all over without having to set up a camp. Interestingly enough Lithuania only had one King, after being ruled by a succession of Grand Dukes.

Making our way upstairs we encountered a VR "tour" of the building of the palace and of Vilnius. This was my first time using one of these headsets and it was beyond cool. I now understand the hype!

Additional floors showed the way the palace had been furnished and also featured a weapons display room which was very scary looking. I really liked this museum and the history of Lithuania. Highly recommended if you find yourself in Vilnius!

When we left it was dark and actively snowing; so pretty! We arrived back at the apartment in time to greet Caitlin who had arrived from London. Aperos were had as we all caught up, my favorite part of these annual holiday trips.

Forest was feeling a bit under the weather so we left her to rest and the three of us headed out for dinner. I had a place that had been recommended and I'd mapped it out but for the life of us, we could not locate it. We walked around and around and asked multiple people but no one knew of it.

It was getting late and most of the places we popped into had kitchens that were already closed for the night. We finally found an open spot on the main road and grabbed a booth, it ended up being an extremely cheap and late night diner ala Denny's style called Čili Pica.

The food wasn't bad and the people watching was amazing as we were the only locals in there and most of the others seemed like they'd been out partying. And since it had been reported that George Michael had been found dead the day before, the tv was on VH1 which was playing a non-stop tribute. We had to laugh at how strange the entire dinner was.

We'd be spending two more days in Vilnius before doing a road trip to Riga, our New Year's Eve destination. Having been to Estonia for my birthday four years ago, we were excited to complete our tour of the Baltic countries!

All Lithuania photos are here.
You can also find photos of our trip on Instagram using the hashtag #BalticBash2016

Other posts from this trip:
36 Hour Parisian Birthday Party
Christmas in Beaujolais
Out and About in Lithuania
A Very Baltic New Year
Latvian Eats & Drinks

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Christmas in Beaujolais

Trip date: December 2016

We arrived at the train station in the town of Macon from Paris, Thibault's brother Olivier was waiting to drive us to their parent's home in Liergues. Their parents have a lovely home right on the edge of the small town; vineyards are their next door neighbors, and rolling hills could be seen from my bedroom window. The front room held a small Christmas tree, a fire was lit in the stove insert, and there were festive decorations. I was super happy to be spending Christmas in this small town in Beaujolais!

After getting settled into each of our rooms, it was time to sit down for dinner. The selection of appetizers, followed by quenelles in a rich mushroom sauce, lovely wines, perfectly dressed salad, and an impressive selection of cheeses, let me know that I was in for a delicious 4 days of French eating.

My bedroom had two big comfy beds in it, so when everyone turned in Forest and I sat up chatting in our pj's. It felt like a slumber party!

The next morning was Christmas Eve; we started with a casual breakfast of breads and coffee at the kitchen table. Forest had brought a delicious homemade banana bread and we asked their mom Mary Jo if she had ever had or heard of this before. She assured us that the French do not make bread from old bananas! She thought it was funny when we told her that most kids grow up on it in the States. She laughed heartily when I told her zucchini bread is a thing too!

Forest and I piled in the car with Olivier and his dad Guy-Noël for a drive to the market in neighboring Villefranche Sur Soane. There was lots of nice looking winter produce, many regional specialties, and some funny "cocktail avacodos" which looked like pickles that neither of us had seen before. I also got a little lesson in various species of poultry from Guy-Noël at one of the stands.

From here we went to their preferred bakery for warm baguettes, and then to the cheese shop to pick up some seasonal Mont d'Or. Ah, France...

When we got home the parents set about making a very nice lunch, even grilling duck on a handy gas grill they set up INSIDE their kitchen. More delicious wine was poured, more amazing cheese was eaten. I was truly in heaven.

After lunch Forest and I piled into the car with the men of the family and Guy-Noel drove us to the town of Theize where we wandered and took in the beautiful now shuttered chateau.

From here we continued on to Oingt, a small town that puts on a display of 100 crèches (nativity scenes) each year. This was such a fun excursion and a great "locals" experience. Everyone made their way through the town's cobblestoned streets, searching out the crèches, which were displayed in the church, store windows, and gardens, and were made out of pinecones, shells, and other random items.

The largest display was in the church, which had crèches representing all of the countries in the world. It was great, and unlike anything I had seen before. My favorite might have been the nativity scene inside this old car.

As the sun set, we took in the magnificent views of the valley before stopping for mulled wine outside the town hall with other neighbors.

The main celebration in France is Christmas Eve, rather than Christmas morning, so that night's dinner was the big event. And it was nothing short of amazing!

Fresh shucked oysters, smoked salmon, foie gras, an over-the-top seafood gratinee, salad, cheese board, and a Bouche de Noel. A different wine was poured with each course and they were all fantastic.

It was also during this dinner that I noticed that the parents were using their shuttered kitchen window ledge as a side-board of sorts. Dishes and wine were set out on the cool ledge until they were ready to be served. They were constantly getting up from the table only to return with some new platter of deliciousness or another fantastic wine. I dubbed this the magic window, something I desperately wish I had!

At midnight we opened champagne and toasted not just Christmas, but (rightly named) Guy-Noel's birthday! Christmas and birthday presents were passed and it was 2am before we called it a night.

Forest and I had another bedtime chat, recounting the day filled with laughs and cheer, before turning in.

Early Christmas morning Forest and I snuck downstairs and planted stockings for everyone. This isn't a tradition for the French, so we were excited to bring a little America to the house.

Once everyone woke up we pointed out that there seemed to be more under the tree and everyone had a great time opening the little gifts tucked in their stockings.

The day was spent lazily in our pj's, each of us reading, surfing the internet, playing games, etc. Something both cultures have in common on a holiday! Guy Noël & Mary Jo started prepping lunch and after repeatedly offering to help, MJ finally sat down at the dining table with a bag of gorgeous fresh beans and paring knives for Forest and I. She showed us how to cut the ends, using our thumb as a guide and then cut them into three equal lengths.

Now most of you know that I am no stranger to a kitchen, cooking, and knife work. But I'm not in the habit of pressing a knife repeatedly against my thumb! I was so nervous that I was going to cut myself that I was working extremely slow. MJ finally asked Forest in French (she speaks very limited English) if I had ever used a knife before! LOL!!!!!! When Forest explained that we are use to using cutting boards she immediately tried to remedy the situation but we told her no. There's nothing I wanted to do more than to cut those beans in that fashion at that table with those women. That and hopefully not bleed on anything!

The magic window and the parents produced another incredible meal. Christmas lunch featured salmon, foie gras, a Chapon poulet (a special breed of chicken I had learned about at the market), beans, cardoons, cheese, salad, Bouche de Noel, and wine, wine, wine!

After lunch I headed out with the family for a walk around their town at dusk. It was so relaxing, and some much needed movement away from the dinner table! We passed vineyards planted with gamay, beautiful stone houses, the town center, and an old chateau which I think Guy Noël told me is now a culinary school.

When we returned Guy-Noël gave Forest and I a wonderful tour of his wine cellar before we sat down to a "light" dinner of potatoes, sausage, salad, and cheese.

These parents were such a joy to be around, and not just because they fed me and poured me wine non-stop! They are funny, and smart, and spend their time talking and singing and laughing. I couldn't have been more honored to be a part of the celebrations.

Thibault, Forest, and I packed our bags the next morning and sat down for one last lovely lunch with the family before loading up the car. Guy-Noël kindly drove us to Lyon where we caught the train to Charles de Gaul airport.

The official start of our annual New Year's Eve trip was underway and we had a flight to Lithuania to catch!

All France photos here.

Other posts from this trip:
36 Hour Parisian Birthday Party
Baltic Bash Kick Off
Out and About in Lithuania
A Very Baltic New Year
Latvian Eats & Drinks

Saturday, May 13, 2017

Springtime in Paris

Trip date: May 2017

Anytime is a great time to go to Paris, but there's something special about springtime. I'm just home from the city of lights, and even though it was chilly with bouts of rain, clouds, and sunshine, the trees were blooming, the air smelt fresh, and people were friendly almost to the point of smiling!

I had taken advantage of a Cyber Monday sale after Thanksgiving and bought a round-trip coach ticket for $675. That is a crazy good steal from Seattle!

Forest and I had been talking about going down to the Loire Valley for the last couple of years so this was the perfect opportunity. I would come and stay with her and Thibault in their apartment in the 15th for four days, then she and I would drive to the Loire for four days.

I didn't upgrade to Delta's Comfort Plus as I really wanted this deal to stand on its own, but I got lucky and had a 2-seat row to myself both ways! My last four long-haul flights, in almost as many months, have been in First Class so to say I have been getting spoiled is an understatement. And although I missed my lay-flat bed and fancy multi-course meal, the food in coach was honestly impressive. Kale, cashew, cranberry, couscous, and chicken salad along with fruit, cheese, and a chocolate brownie were surprisingly good. Breakfast was Noosa yogurt, a mini bagel with cream cheese, and Tillamook cheese. On the way home I had a nice chicken "cobb" salad and later in the flight a snack box filled with herbed cheese spread, caramel salt popcorn, and a dark chocolate square. Again, all good.

When I landed at CdG there was a crazy 1 1/2+ hour queue to get through passport control. I talked myself into the Priority line and then caught the RER into town. 10E and less than an hour later I was at the apartment.

It was May Day and as I walked vendors sold little sprigs of Lily of the Valley on the street corners. It's customary to buy one for someone you love, so many people were walking around with them.
Forest had the day off for the holiday so we chose a corner cafe in her 'hood for a quick lunch. Escargot and white wine, Hello France! After that it was a much-needed nap for me!

When I mentioned to my brother that I would be in Paris in early May he told me he was going to be in London. In a super cool big brother gesture, he changed his plans and we made a date for drinks and dinner Paris.

Forest, Thibault, and I met Mark at Danico for cocktails. This is an absolutely gorgeous place in the Passage Vivienne. Opened by the guys from Mace in New York, it is just the right amount of swank, with really interesting and fun cocktails. And in a nod to the bar being in the old Jean Paul Gaultier atelier, the bartenders and servers all wear navy striped shirts. I loved this bar for a lot of reasons and highly recommend checking it out.

I had chosen an old-school restaurant for dinner which was just a short walk away. Chez Georges, in the 2nd, opened in 1964 and was reportedly Julia Child's favorite. They offer a menu of classic dishes and serve a few things in the communal style that I adore. The dish of rillettes for our table was refilled and placed on another when we had moved to our mains, and the prunes in Armagnac that I requested with our cheese plate came in a beautiful tureen which we helped ourselves to before it was taken away for the next diners to enjoy. You are never going to get this experience in the States!

Mark and I left T & Forest and headed off to have a few nightcaps at Night Flight. The bar is located in the Hotel Bachaumont and was opened last year by the ECC folks. It's a good bar but there's nothing truly unique about it. I'd go if you are looking for cocktails on a Sunday/Monday/Holiday when most other places are closed.

The next morning I met my brother at the newly reopened Picasso Museum. The last time I was there was in 2000 with my mom! They closed shortly after that for a long renovation while the collection went on the road. It's a good museum but I can't help but think it was better laid out before. There were quite a few things that we didn't see on display that I was interested in, I'm assuming they are still reorganizing as their floor plan brochures had not even arrived yet. But it's still an amazing collection. We didn't book in advance but the set up of velvet rope suggests that in busier times you might want to. 12E for the permanent and special exhibit which right now is a look into his first wife Olga's life.

We ended up at the Cafe des Musees for a really good meal of housemade terrine, steak tartare, and fried white asparagus with hollandaise sauce. Springtime in Paris means asparagus blanc and I was out to have it as often as I could!

We made our way through Place Vosges and on to bar Maria Loco in the 4th. I was meeting Forest for a seminar on Novo Fogo cachaca given by my friend from Seattle, Dragos Axinte, who was launching his spirits in Paris. Small world and good timing. We had a great time tasting a variety of his cachaca expressions, sipping on cocktails, and learning about the distillery in Brazil thanks to a live video feed with his Master Distiller.

Afterward, over another cocktail, I sat with Dragos at the bar, trying some different cachacas neither of us had tasted before and learned more about the different flavor profiles of these spirits.

It was time for some food so Forest and I made our way to L'Avant Comptoir, an offshoot of one of my favorite restaurants Le Comptoir. You enter the charming stand-up wine bar through thick slatted plastic strips, reminiscent of a cold storage room. We chose glasses of wine as well as a few small plates from the menu of photos hanging from the ceiling. Delicious food, especially the waffle with artichoke hearts and prosciutto, lovely well-priced wine, and a slab of butter on the counter the size of a soccer ball!

We ordered another wine, a bottle this time, and another small plate and then decided to hit next door- L'Avant de la mer. The small plates here are seafood focused and we were able to bring our wine over. Another hit for Chef Yves Camdeborde. I'd suggest going to both as they are so sweet and fun!

Before heading home we decided on cocktails at Castor Club, one of the very few decent cocktail bars on the Left Bank. I felt like the bar looks like you're inside a barrel, even when you are outside the front door. We had really great drinks and lovely service. I'd absolutely recommend this hidden gem if you are in the 6th.

I was back at the Le Comptoir du Relais the next day, this time for a proper lunch with my brother. Unfortunately for Mark I had woken up at some god-awful early time, accidentally turned off my alarm, and then re-awoken at 12:30pm. 30 minutes past the time I'd told him to meet me, and him without a data plan for text/calls/or emails. After some frantic moments, Thibault was able to call the restaurant and they found him. He was already one course in and just thought I had changed my mind on meeting for lunch. We are obviously still getting to know each other! LOL!

They were so sweet when I arrived, the kind of sweet that means the city hasn't been overrun with tourists yet, the birds are chirping, and everyone is excited to put on lighter clothes. Paris in the springtime-kind-of-sweet.

When I sat down Mark asked me to taste what he thought might be a cheese on his charcuterie plate that he wasn't familiar with. When I tasted it and told him it was their butter we both laughed! Who cares, eat this stuff with a knife and fork! I had to show him the mounds of it on the counters at the wine bars next door.

His beef cheeks and my roasted suckling pork both had incredible sauces which is just one of the many things I feel this restaurant does so well. And we decided to splurge on calories and got an over-the-top decadent dark and bitter chocolate dessert. This place has my heart for a reason.

I needed to do a bit of shopping so Mark came with me and we headed to the little twisty streets off of Boulevard Saint Germain. Boucherie Polmard for some crazy high-end beef sausage (if you have a kitchen they sell hamburger patties layered with slices of foie gras), then to Henri le Roux for what many regard as the best caramels in the city, and finally to La Dernière Goutte for a bottle of wine, as Forest had invited me to her wine tasting meeting that night.

I said goodbye to my brother, jumped on the metro (luckily with my shopping bags wearing a raincoat since it had started raining), and got back to the apartment to help Forest set up for the wine tasting.

We walked down the street and made stops at the bakery for baguette, fromagerie for cheese, wine shop for... well I think you can figure that out! The most eye-opening stop was at her fishmonger where she ordered 2 dozen fresh oysters and asked if they could shuck them while we ran our other errands. No problem was their reply and when we returned we found this lovely presentation of half-shell oysters, on ice and on a disposable tray, all wrapped in cellophane with a ribbon tied around. For 28 Euro!!!

Wine night was great fun, four of us each bringing a white from the Languedoc and tasting blind, comparing notes and guessing on the cepage. As a majority we decided this region doesn't have our go-to whites but it was great to taste an assortment, learn more, and catch up with the ladies!

The next morning I took the metro to Madeleine and did a little shopping for my absolute favorite tea at Fauchon. It was beautiful outside so I decided to walk to Concorde with its over-the-top pretty Ferris wheel, obelisk, fountains, distant views of the Arc de Triomphe and Eiffel Tower. I visited this area on my very first trip ever to Paris, as well as spent a New Year's Eve here, and I love to get back to it whenever I can.

I continued to take advantage of the weather and strolled from here east, along the Right Bank of the Seine, past the numerous bridges, the houseboats, the Musee d'Orsay, the tourist cruises, the Louvre, until I got to Pont des Arts.

This bridge use to be known for the "love locks" that completely covered it to the point of weighing down the iron and damaging it. I was very happy to see that the bridge has been completely rid of these locks, repaired, and covered with clear plexi so that they can't be reattached.

I crossed over to the Left Bank and continued wandering, passing a whole area of interesting art galleries, and then making my way towards Montparnasse Tower. I was meeting Forest and Nic for lunch but as I was a little early, I stopped at a sidewalk cafe and sat outside with some tea.

We had decided on an old-school lunch on Boulevard Montparnasse, a street still cluttered with these types of grand old institutions. La Coupole is massive inside, I actually can't image how many it seats. As per the name, there is a large dome in the center painted with women in various stages of dancing and drinking.

The room is wood paneled and has bars set up along each wall. It's very Art Deco and I could only imagine the din from so many people back in its heyday, all drinking, eating, and having conversations. La Coupole was the place to be seen by the artists, authors, and socialites. We read that they still host Sunday tea dances in the downstairs ballroom which would be a riot to see!

We were the youngest diners that day and ordered classics like Coquilles St Jacques and pot au feu, seated snuggly between the blue and grey-haired set. There is a menu of updated takes on the classics as well. Many bottles of wine were had over our 4-hour lunch. It was the perfect girly Paris afternoon and we were pretty much the last to leave.

From here we walked down the street to another old gem, La Closerie des Lilas, around since 1847. Surrounded by flowers in bloom, we ordered more wine and sat on the sunny terrace until a rain shower chased us into the bar.

The tables inside are marked with gold nameplates announcing famous regulars from the past; Modigliani, Hemingway, Henry Miller, etc. A piano player started and the bar filled up. We had a great time here for another 3-hours!

Back to Forest's where we could continue our sing-along party and have a sleepover. Girls just want to have fun!

The next morning the three of us made our way to Gare Montparnasse so that Forest and I could pick up our rental car. But before we left for the Loire we found a random cafe and Nic joined us in a champagne breakfast complete with croissants, omelets, and French fries.

Upon arriving back in Paris after our long weekend in the Loire Valley, Forest, Thibault, and our friend Matthieu met for one last dinner at the newly opened Rural by Marc Veyrat. Well known for his Michelin starred restaurant in the countryside near Annecy, this is his first restaurant in Paris. It's a big 200+ seat place meant to look like a mountain retreat. There are log walls, and furniture covered in sheepskin, as well as waiters dressed in plaid.

The menu is small; there is a terrine/salad station you go to to be served, a dessert buffet, and an enormous center display of cheese and charcuterie.

I started with the eggs which came complete with a syringe which I was told to shoot the contents of into each of my eggs, this is a dish he is quite famous for. And three of us had his version of tartiflette which came in a large Staub pot, with the potatoes diced small instead of sliced and no crunchy rind. Neither were standouts for me but the place is fun and we were excited to see the man himself in the house.

Our Uber home took us past the Arc de Triomphe where France's new President-elect had been earlier in the day laying a wreath with the current President, and then past the Eiffel Tower all lit up. So pretty.

Packing back at the apartment, a nightcap or two, and then up early for the RER back out to CDG where I had time to do a little Duty-Free shopping. All in all an absolutely great trip in one of my favorite cities.

Paris photos here.

Other posts from this trip:
Chateaux & Wine, Loire Valley Part 1

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