Sunday, June 30, 2024

Art & Architecture in Washington DC

Trip date: September 2023

There is so much to do in DC that it took me a bit to narrow down what I wanted to see, having just 2-full days. On my last visit, 17 years ago, I had spent a lot of time on the Mall and the various monuments, gone to the Holocaust Museum, and visited the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum. 

When one of my friends, who works with the Smithsonian, offered to arrange a private 1-hour tour of the National Portrait Gallery for me I was ecstatic! On my first morning in town I met my docent Mary Ellen inside the main entrance and we immediately set off for what she felt were some of the highlights of the museum.

She started by telling me a little history of the building itself; dating from 1836 and built in the style of Greek Revival architecture, it started as the U.S. Patent Office. Clara Barton, founder of the Red Cross, worked in the building as a clerk around 1855, during the Civil War the building was used as a hospital where poet Walt Whitman read to injured soldiers, in 1865 Lincoln held his inaugural ball here. It was almost demolished and turned into a parking lot in 1958 save for President Eisenhower giving it to the Smithsonian. 

Mary Ellen then led us up to the 3rd floor, to the 20th Century Americans hall. Our first portrait, in the 1900-1930 room, was in of Juliette Gordon Low, founder of the Girl Scouts, painted by Edward Hughes. 

Some of the other pieces in this room were a self portrait by EE Cummings, a sculpture of Gertrude Stein, and a portrait of Alice Dunbar-Nelson who was one of the first generation of African Americans born free in the South. She was a poet, and a lifelong activist against racism and sexism. I was really liking Mary Ellen's taste!

Making our way to the 2000-Present rooms we viewed the incredible portrait of Michelle Obama, painted by Amy Sherald. Obama is such a strong and positive role model while being stylish and smart, it felt powerful just to see this piece in person and it was emotionally moving for me. 

On the 2nd floor we viewed "The Four Justices" featuring Supreme Court Justices Sandra Day O’Connor, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Elena Kagan, and Sonia Sotomayor before entering the large galleries of America's Presidents. 

Only the National Portrait Gallery has a complete exhibit of all 45 Presidents (besides the White House). Mary Ellen pointed out the ones she thought were unique and interesting, along with coins and sculptures, throughout the rooms. I really liked the full length portrait of George Washington done in 1796 for the Marquis of Lansdowne, and also the “cracked-plate” photograph of Abraham Lincoln from 1865 and taken just weeks before his assassination.

Downstairs on the First floor we viewed the massive curved painting "Grant and His Generals". The artist painted each general in life while they were in the field during the Civil War in 1865. It includes George A. Custer and is thought to be the only life portrait painted of him.

And of course we saw the portrait of James Smithson, the British scientist who left his estate to the United States, to be called the Smithsonian Institution for the "increase and diffusion of knowledge."

We covered so much of the NPG that day! What was planned to be an hour tour ended up being over 2 hours! It was absolutely fantastic and I was so grateful to Mary Ellen and all her knowledge (and to my friend for arranging it!). 

The other museum that was a do-not-miss for me was the National Museum of African American History & Culture. There is no charge but you do need to reserve your free timed entrance ticket in advance. Tickets are available 30 days out, and any same-day availability is released at 8:15 am EST on the website.

The building sits alone on a grassy lawn, the Washington Monument visible to the side. I found the building to be incredibly striking; the shape and texture seemed very unique, not pretty in the conventional way that many museums are. The entire facade is wrapped in ironwork. Bound in iron? I don't think that is coincidental. 

Inside, I inquired about where they recommended starting my visit and was surprised to hear that the exhibits start on the bottom level, which is actually in the basement, and continue up, in chronological order.

It's dim and a bit cramped when you enter Court 3 which is titled Slavery and Freedom 1400 - 1877. Here you learn about the beginning and the regulation of the slave trade through a series of exhibits featuring objects, artifacts, and first-person accounts. The resemblance of the hall to the hull of a ship was not lost on me. And even though you know the history, it's shocking and incredibly emotional.

Making my way along, I walked through galleries on the Revolutionary War, the cotton trade, domestic slavery, the Civil War, and emancipation. All containing personal stories and artifacts. So many atrocities, so much pain, so little hope, and yet people continued on. At the exhibit titled The Paradox of Liberty I stood for a long time, looking at the statue of Thomas Jefferson. Here is one of the Founding Fathers, who led the creation of the Declaration of Independence, yet also a slave owner.

And not just a few slaves by the way, Jefferson is known to have had 609 slaves, including his 6 children born by his slave Sally Heming; those children also became his property when they were born. The wall of bricks behind the statue of him contain the names of the 609 people he owned. The contradiction is so blatant it's hard to take in. In fact 12 of the first 18 Presidents owned slaves. It's a shameful history. 

Court 2 is called Defending Freedom, Defining Freedom: The Era of Segregation 1876 - 1968 and the first thing that caught my eye was the re-creation of a diner lunch counter. 

When you sit at the interactive counter, "placemats" appear with "menus" of movements and actions that you can choose to join. As you are walked through the repercussions Black people faced for standing up for their rights, you had to answer if you would go through those experiences with them or if you would turn your back. It's a time for serious internal conversations with yourself.

They also had the original draft of Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech behind glass. It's even more powerful when you are surrounded by the history of slavery and oppression.

Court 1 is titled A Changing America: 1968 and Beyond and is filled with events and movements around the US in recent times. When I finally reached the exhibit on Barack Obama I just had to cry. It felt like our country had come so far but it just wasn't far enough as we know from current events. 

I had been at the museum for over 2 hours and it was now closing time, I hadn't even had a chance to explore the upper floors or the special exhibits. Luckily I did have a little time to go into the Contemplative Court. This gorgeous room is filled by a waterfall that is continuously falling from a skylight in the center of the ceiling. The water is loud enough to drown out noise around you while at the same time filling your ears with a rushing sound that is comforting and calming. It's truly an oasis for the soul. 

It had been right around 100 degrees F the for all 3 days I was in DC so spending time in multiple museums was perfect for beating the heat. But on my last day I decided to take one of the trolley tours around the city. I went with Old Town Trolley Tour as it was convenient for the time I wanted to go and they hit all the highlights in town (would have been even better if they were air conditioned!). 

It's a hop on/ hop off style of tour, but I just rode it around the full 15 spots, so perfect if you don't have a car! And the driver had lots of interesting things to share about the buildings and the history of DC. I thought they did a super job. 

And before I left for the airport that evening, I walked the 4 blocks from my hotel The Willard Intercontinental to the White House. Knock! Knock!

All WA DC photos here.

Previous post from this trip:

Eat, Drink, Sleep in Washington DC

Trip date: September 2023

I'd only been to WA DC once before and it was in 2006! To say I was overdue for a visit is a gross exaggeration. So when I decided to take the entire month of September off last year,  I decided that DC was the first stop on my extended vacation.

I had a $25 coupon on Alaska Air and stacked that with a sale they were having for a one-way Premium Class flight for just $300. At SEA I had a great breakfast in the Alaska Lounge and then it was a 5-hour flight across the United States to Dulles/IAD, landing just in time for dinner.

I still remember the last time in DC having drinks at the bar at The Willard Intercontinental Hotel. The hotel lobby was so grand and stunning! So this time I used some IHG points and stayed at the hotel for free! The Willard is truly a historical place. Every President since Franklin Pierce has slept or attended an event at the hotel. Not to mention all the other famous people who have stayed and historical events that have occured here!

My room was a large King, with a big bathroom and marble shower. I didn't have a view of anything but that was ok as all I had to do was step out the front of the hotel and the White House was to the right while the Capitol was to the left. 

I had dinner that night at Bar Spero, a Basque-inspired seafood restaurant owned by Chef Johnny Spero. It's a beautiful space with soaring ceilings, modern light fixtures, and cozy wooden booths. Everything I had was excellent; hiramasa (amberjack) crudo/black currant yuzu/fig leaf oil/gooseberries, grilled bread/herbs de provence/La Tur butter/chicken liver mousse, fried octopus/squid stock emulsion. 

They are known for their whole or ½ turbot which I would have loved to try but as I was on my own that would have been a bit much! I would recommend but I'd say try to go with a few others so you can enjoy more things!

I was excited to check out Silver Lyan, the first bar in the US by Ryan Chetiyawardana, as I've been a big fan of his bars around London. Silver Lyan originally opened in Feb 2020, which is when I started planning my return to DC! But we all know what happened in 2020, Silver Lyan had to close along with the rest of the country but luckily they reopened in July 2021. 

The bar is in the basement of the Riggs Hotel, a beautiful building built in 1891 as the HQ for Riggs National Bank. I wasn't aware of it being subterranean, which threw me for a minute. But I grabbed a seat at the bar and started reading through the incredibly creative cocktails that Lyan is known for. 

My "Air Bee n Bee" combined tequila, almond blossom, hay-smoked bee larvae, mango vinegar and Mosel riesling. The menu told the story of bees being brought to CA to pollinate the almond trees and the effect that has on the environment. 

My 2nd round was more traditional, a martini with a flight of garnishes included olives, onions, a twist, and an oyster. Both were very good, as was the Lyan gin I was given a sample of. I liked Silver Lyan, I didn't love it but that had to do more with the atmosphere than with the drinks or the staff, both of which were excellent.

I walked back to The Willard and had a lovely nightcap in the Round Robin Bar before heading to my room (which had had turndown service, which I love!)

The next afternoon I had lunch at Central, which was fine. I wouldn't necessarily recommend it but if you are close by and in need of a quick bite and a cool drink, it will do. 

I started my evening at Allegory for cocktails. I was super excited to check out this cool cocktail bar but somehow had missed that it was inside the Eaton Hotel so it took me a minute to locate the entrance! Psst... it's back in the hotel's library. 

Owner Deke Dunne has created such an amazing space! I was seated at the bar, which gave me a great view of the bartenders in action but also of the incredible murals that entirely take up both walls.

This depiction of Alice in Wonderland was painted by DC artist Erik Thor Sandberg and has civil rights activist Ruby Bridges as Alice. You might recall Bridges from your history classes as the first African American to attend the formerly whites-only William Frantz Elementary School in Louisiana at the age of 6. It's a powerful and beautiful image.

It's no surprise then that the menu is titled "Down the Rabbit Hole" and is an allegory (with cocktails) of how Ruby may have felt going to that school with illustrations also by Sandberg. I chose Eden as my first drink: gin, supercharged oranges, benzoin, philoncia, orange blossom, clarified whey, served carbonated & bottled. It was light and refreshing and since it was pre bottled it came quick!

It wasn't that I was in a rush, it's just that I hadn't realized that Allegory was also hosting a pop-up with London bartender Andrei Marcu. He was representing Coupette and making some of their drinks and I wanted to make sure I had time to try one before dinner! I chose the Midnight Gimlet with pisco, blackcurrant squash, Dubonnet, cassis, Zirbenz, and acid solution. It was fantastic and so was chatting with Marcu.

Allegory is absolutely not to be missed while in DC.

My dinner choice that evening was Kinship, a lovely small restaurant that had been recommended to me by friends. As soon as I entered I just loved the space. Whitewashed walls, upholstered banquets, a simple set table, and the cute sketch of the exterior of the restaurant on the cover of the menu.

But the servers seemed really surprised that I was dining solo. I mean it's DC, they have solo people in town on business all the time right? They were kind of killing the vibe for me.

The menu at Kinship is arranged by Craft (dishes that celebrate a cooking technique), History (classics), and Ingredients (highlighting a product). I chose the Crab en Feuilles de Brick from Craft and the BBQ Kanagy Farm Pork Jowl from the Ingredients. Both dishes were quite good and had interesting flavors and textures, with my only "complaint" being the portion size on the pork seemed very big. 

After my main the server asked if I was interested in dessert, I said I wasn't sure but wanted to use the restroom and then would decide. When I returned to my table the bill had been delivered. I guess I looked really confused as the server came over and asked if everything was ok to which I said I thought it was odd that the bill was on the table as I hadn't been offered coffee, I hadn't decided on dessert, and I hadn't asked for the bill. Apologies were offered, they said they misunderstood, but it seemed uncomfortable so I left. Not sure if I'd go back or not, it would have been super simple to bring me a small dessert or something as I was signing my bill to show regrets. 

No bother, I was off to the newly opened Death & Co which I was also very excited about! My Uber drove down an alley and asked if I was sure this is where I was going. I got out and found the barely marked door and then made my way upstairs.

I hadn't made a reservation, because they don't seem to take them for one (which is annoying, what does DC have against solo customers?) but when I checked in with the hostess she kindly told me they would have a seat at the bar in just 5 minutes. When she sat me, between a couple obviously on a date and 2 guys on my other side, she checked with me first, asking if that was going to be ok. Very cool move. 

The space is gorgeous, lots of blond wood and marble, and the service was A+. I had a Hanging Gardens with 2 different rums, agua de jamaica, almond & lime peel. It was tart and refreshing and very easy to drink! Before I left the bartender also poured me a taste of a shohu with pineapple, verbena, and chamomile- it was super interesting!

Death & Co also has an outdoor patio with it's own bar. I was so glad that I was able to get in, it's really just a fantastic spot! I'd also highly recommend it.

The next day I decided to walk to nearby Oyamel for lunch, one of José Andrés' restaurants. This one is Mexican and I'm always in the mood for Mexican! 

I completely over ordered as everything sounded so good! Guacamole, esquites, a Baja style fish taco, and a cochinita pibil taco. And a couple of fantastic margaritas. It was all so good! I'd absolutely come here again!

I had a very late flight that evening so I arranged a 4pm checkout (available at no charge with my IHG Platinum status) and then headed to the Hotel Washington for a spritz and some excellent views of the Treasury Building and the White House from their aptly named rooftop bar, VUE.

They were closing for a private event so I moved over to the other section of VUE which faces the Washington Memorial. You're here for the views, order something like bubbles and you'll be fine, leave the cocktails for a better place (like Allegory or Death & Co!)

I headed back to the Willard and The Round Robin Bar for a last cold drink and an order of hot fries before collecting my bags and calling an Uber to the airport.

It had been a great return trip to DC! Now I was off to my next destination on the month long vacation- France- to spend some time in the countryside with the bestie!

All WA DC photos here

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Sunday, June 9, 2024

Weekend in Boise

Trip date: July 2023

My friend Aaron has been to almost every state in the US, he's only missing a few and Idaho was one. So last July, after reading about Kris Komori, the chef of KIN Restaurant in Boise, taking home the James Beard award for Best Chef in the Mountain region, we decided to meet up and have dinner there. Even though I grew up very close to the northern Idaho state line, I'd never been to the capitol city. I called the restaurant, because all of their online booking was completely full after their big news, and co-owner Remy found us a ressie after I explained we wanted to come to Boise just for dinner!

At SEA I checked out the Alaska C Gate lounge beforehand and even though it is small it is really nice with great cocktails and nice food options. Then it was just a 45 minute flight to BOI. Aaron's flight arrived just 10 minutes before mine so we were able to meet in the airport and share a ride to the hotel. 

We figured it was going to be pretty hot in Boise since we were going at the end of July, so we chose the Hyatt Place mainly as it had a pool and it wasn't ridiculously priced. This ended up being a great hotel! The rooms were really big, it was super centrally located, my room had a view of the capitol, and of course there was the pool.

After dropping our bags we headed out to one of Boise's growing number of wineries. Split Rail has a really cute tasting room but neither of us loved the wines. YMMV as wine is very subjective! 

We took a walk down the Riverwalk along the Boise River and watched people cooling off by surfing and paddle boarding. Boise is really easy to walk around in as it's very flat and at least most of the things we were checking out were quite centrally located. 

That evening before dinner we headed to The Modern Bar which is in the hotel by the same name. I absolutely loved my Celery & Smoke cocktail; tequila, mezcal, celery, lime, and agave! It was so refreshing and just perfectly balanced. Really great! The atmosphere of the bar was pretty meh for me though. Maybe it was because it was early evening? Maybe it would be better at night? Not sure but I would still stop in for a tasty drink!

Dinner at KIN was lovely. We got there a bit early and had a drink in a little waiting-like area. Then everyone found their seats at one of two communal tables. I really liked the set up, it gave you a chance to talk to others, but you had a designated seat. 

The set menu was 5-courses and we also chose the wine pairings. All the dishes were very good but I think my favorite was this rabbit with apricot, plum, umeboshi and Parisian gnocchi. 

After dinner we headed to one of Boise's many speakeasies (seriously, there are like 8 of them!). We found the ally and then the unmarked door, were let into a small library crowded with books, and then a bookcase opened and we were shown inside.  

We had made reservations at Gatsby but it didn't seem that busy on this Thursday evening and the space is quite large. The drinks are mostly takes on classics but with kitschy additions. My Josephine Baker (tequila, mezcal, chocolate bitters, agave, smoked) arrived in a chest which when opened was filled with smoke. 

It was a nice space and the drinks were well made and presented but they leaned a bit sweet for both of us. When you exit, you leave through a seperate door and find yourself also in an ally. 

The next morning we decided to walk to the Hyde Park neighborhood to check out Certified Kitchen which one of Aaron's friends had said have the "best english muffins in the world". We'd be the judge of that!

100% TRUTH! Damn! The english muffin was in fact the best I've had (better even than Model Bakery) and the bakery is super cute, has great coffee and a whole slew of other tasty treats. I'd say this is a must-stop-at while in Boise. And the neighborhood is lovely as well; great for strolling.

It was another hot day so we decided to cool off like the locals do- on a raft in the the Boise River! I had spent most of my summers, from high school until my late 20's, on a tube in rivers around eastern and western Washington, so I was very excited!  

Aaron had ordered a couple of beach towels from Amazon that had been delivered to the hotel, we bought some cold canned beverages from the lobby store and filled a plastic laundry bag with ice, then had an Uber take us to Barber Park where we rented our gear

We each had our own tube and paddle and spent the next 2 hours floating 6-miles down the very chilly river. It was soooo fun!! The river actually has 3 class-2 rapids, all in the first half of the float, so those paddles came in handy! 

Aaron had left our towels in the sealed plastic bag they had come in so that when we reached the take-out we would have them to dry off with. Unfortunately as he was getting out of his tube in the river the plastic ripped and both towels soaked up as much water as possible! It was sooo funny as we were pretty wet at the end and were planning on toweling off and calling an Uber to take us back to the hotel. We ended up walking back since it would have been really rude to be dripping wet in someone's car!

Back at the hotel we decided to cool back off with a quick swim before getting cleaned up for our night on the town! 

Our big bar crawl night started at, you guessed it, another speakeasy! Thick as Thieves had pineapple daiquiris on their $10 happy hour menu and that is exactly what I wanted in the sweltering early evening heat! We found the door in a parking lot, marked only by two birds, used the old-timey telephone inside to gain entrance to the cozy den, planning on just having one and then moving on. 

As soon as we sat down at the bar though we were both instantly charmed by the bartenders, the menu, and then the drinks. We started with the happy hour menu, then started reading thru the regular menu, and then were handed flashlights which decoded secret offerings!

We had a ball! And truly, to find a bar of this caliber in Boise was just amazing! Thick as Thieves would be right at home in Seattle, LA, or New York. Highly recommend!

We exited through a back door into another ally and made our way to Bar Guernica in the Basque Block for an early dinner. We knew that Boise has the 3rd largest population of Basque people (they came to the area about 200 years ago to herd sheep), what we didn't know was that the San Inazio Festival was going on!

Because of the large crowds the menu was more casual, but we still had some delicious croquettas and fried peppers and Aaron got the lamb grinder while I got the chorizo sausage roll. And we washed it all down with a bottle of txakoli wine, just like you'd do in the mother country!

Afterwards we joined the festivities which are in honor of St. Ignatius of Loyola, the patron saint of the Basques. There were musicians, and dancers, and stands selling pretty much the same things we had just eaten. It was fun!

But we had a cocktail crawl to get back to so we said agur and walked to Press & Pony. Surprisingly, not a speakeasy, but still an old-timey western vibe going on. Aaron and I grabbed a couple of stools at the bar and ordered a drink. The bar was about half full and all of a sudden some guy who was in a group of about 6 announced that he was buying everyone a shot! Now I have been in a lot of bars over the years, and I've had many free drinks, but I've never been in a bar when an average customer bought a round for everyone! 

The bartenders made some juicy shots, each with a gummy bear in it. That's the way they roll at Press & Pony! haha!

Aaron loves a tiki bar, which is what Devil's Den promoted themselves as, so that is where we headed next. They were doing Christmas in July with full on decorations and waitresses in costumes, which could be fun, but the drinks were so bad nothing could save it. I see that they are now closed permanently so I don't have to bother telling you just how bad it was.

Finally we met my friend Jeritt, who lives in Boise, at the bar at the newly re-opened Avery Hotel. Tiner’s Alley was still working out their menu when we were there but our drinks were good and the space was very fun. I'd be more than happy to go back and check it out again if I return to Boise. 

On our last day our flights did not leave until almost 7pm so we got one more full day to explore. We started by walking to Janjou Patisserie for some delicious morning treats. The cases were full of temping things but I finally decided on a gorgeous strawberry and pistachio tart. It was very good!

We made a stop at the farmer's market, which seemed to have a lot of tasty lunch options but we had lunch plans back in town so we just walked around for a bit. 

We had our Uber driver drop us off at The Wylder for pizza lunch. It's a really great space, very big so would be excellent for groups, and the pizza was soooo good. Mine was cacio e pepe! We could not finish the pies so we took the rest home and I can say mine made a great late dinner.

We walked back towards our hotel, passing thru the San Inazio Festival again, this time there were displays of the wagons the sheep herders lived in. Then to the last cocktail bar on our list, Water Bear -woman owned and operated.

What a fantastic bar this is! The interior is filled full with house plants & books, and is a very welcoming space. And the drinks were delicious! They have an Old Fashioned of the day (brilliant idea!) as well as a full menu of classics and classy riffs on classics. We ended up staying for 2 rounds and if I get back to Boise it will be my 2nd stop (right after Thick as Thieves!)

We had been chatting with the bartender about how cool Boise seemed, even though it was such a conservative state, and she told us how it is still legal to carry a concealed, loaded handgun in public without a permit as long as you are over 18!! Holy hell!! Then at the airport we saw this on the doors:

So yes, Boise was very fun and delicious, but laws like this are real head scratchers to me in this day and age.

I was upgraded to first class on the way home which is always nice. It was a very small plane and a super quick flight and I had an amazing view of Rainier, St. Helens, and Adams coming into Seattle. 

All Boise photos here

Art & Architecture in Washington DC

Trip date: September 2023 There is so much to do in DC that it took me a bit to narrow down what I wanted to see, having just 2-full days. O...

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