Saturday, July 23, 2022

Christmas Markets & Birthday Celebrations in Strasbourg

Trip date: December 2021

After years of international travel, I felt like I had it down pretty well. I know what to pack, how to get a good deal on flights, how much time to allow for transfers, etc. Leave it to a pandemic to throw all of my knowledge out the window and make me feel like I am flying to Europe for the very first time. 

With the world opening up to travel for the vaccinated, I booked a flight to Paris where I'd meet the BFF and then the two of us would head off from there. Since my last European flight was way back in January 2020, I splurged and booked a business class seat on British Air which had a quick stop over in London. 

As soon as my ticket was booked I started to get a flood of emails and texts from the airlines informing me of all the documentation I had to provide in order to fly, to transfer in London, to land in France, to leave France, to arrive back in the US. It was exhausting and confusing. Pages and pages were printed, as the French love their documents, showing my vax status, atesting to negative Covid tests, etc. When I arrived at the airport in Seattle I thrust all the papers at the counter agent and she laughed. But she also had to go through them all and stamp them with approvals. Geesh!

After a quick champagne and sandwich in the BA lounge I was the first to board and was very excited that my seat 7A was not only a layflat but it was practically its own pod. There was no one in the seat next to me and I was the last row so only a wall in front of me. I was excited for my trip but I was also feeling stressed about Covid so this was a great relief to be far from others! 

In Heathrow I was shocked at how empty the airport was! I walked, instead of riding the train, to my next gate area and I was the only person there!

The BA lounge was quite nice and very large. I had lunch, with champagne of course, and then had a quick flight to Paris. I had the entire row to myself and they also had tea service which I enjoyed while flying over the shore of Normandy. Well done BA!

Upon arriving at Charles de Gaulle, I had to find the pharmacy in order to get my "pass sanitaire". This pass, certifying vax, is only available at certain pharmacies and if you don't have it you can't ride the trains, enter places, etc. By the time it would have taken me to get into the city the pharmacy by my friend's place would be closed, and it wouldn't open the next day before our train was to leave, so my only shot was to find and get to this one at the airport before it closed. STRESS!

But I made it, and I got it. I only had one quick night in Paris but it was spent at a corner bistro with Forest and Nicky, eating steak tartare and frites, and drinking too much. Pretty much perfect :)

The next morning Forest and I were on the train to Strasbourg! When she first suggested it as a birthday location I thought it was in Germany. Strasbourg has a very long history (going back to the Celts) of being taken back and forth between France and Germany. But French it is, it's the capital of the Grand Est region, aka Alsace, and is also the self-proclaimed Capital of Christmas!

We walked from the train station onto the Island of Petit France, the cobblestones and half timbered buildings instantly charming us. We were staying at the very central Regent Petite Hotel and were able to check in and leave our bags as our room wasn't quite ready but our lunch reservations were. Strasbourg was very strict with their mask mandate so even walking outside we were reminded by locals to have our masks on.

We celebrated my birthday with lunch at 1 Michelin star Au Crocodile, which was easy walking distance from the hotel. In fact everything is pretty easy walking in Strasbourg as the old area is very small. 

Au Crocodile is a lovely white tablecloth spot, with beautiful silver and china. It's a fairly small dining room but the painting that takes up one whole wall is not!

We had a great time and both thought lunch overall was delicious. One thing that was quite unique was that there were three menu options at lunch and we were able to choose different ones. Usually set menus have to be taken for the whole table. 

We kind of went all out with Forest getting a ridiculous amount of truffles on one dish, and me having both a foie cooked en croute and carved tableside as well as a lobster dish in which they made a lobster broth and served it to both of us hot in little shot glasses. 
And the cheese trolly was impressive with cheeses unique to the area. After our dessert we had a lovely pour of poire (pear brandy) served in stemless glasses. Very elegant. 

There were a few hiccups with service though, like the fact that when Forest was asking about a couple of different Alsatian Pinot Noirs to go with our meal the somm tried to upsell her on a 200€ bottle! Ah well, we probably seemed posh! haha!

After a quick change back at the hotel we set out for our night at the Christmas Markets. The Christkindelsmärik in Strasbourg is the oldest in the country, dating back to 1570. When France took it from Germany they realized that the market was quite a big draw even back then, so they continued the tradition. It's also the largest in France with 300 stalls set up in different parts of the town. 

We walked along the Ill River where 600 illuminated stars are hung in the trees. When we got to the Corbeau Bridge we walked across and entered the Porte des Lumières, the official entrance to the Capital of Christmas. We also had to show our pass sanitaire to cross the bridge, and of course masks were required.

There may be 300 stalls but they are all pretty much selling the same things! Some cute stuff, some tacky, lots of sweet cakes and cookies, everything was all lit up and very festive. And all in the shadow of the very beautiful cathedral. Because of Covid we couldn't stroll while drinking our hot mulled wine; they had designated areas for eating and drinking. 
Different streets have their own Christmas decoration themes and some businesses also put up huge scenes over their doorways. It's all quite a production!

Right near the cathedral I noticed an antique shop that had some really interesting items in the window. We rang, were let in and greeted by the owners grandson. He was awesome and took us around playing "what do you think this is?", possibly both of our favorite game! If you are in Strasbourg do yourself a favor and stop in at Antiquités Bastian.

Enough shopping, time for cocktails! We found Code Bar down a little side street and immediately loved the vibe! The bartenders were wearing ugly Christmas sweaters, they were pouring flaming Blue Blazers, the drinks were delicious, and they included us in a shot round. Highly recommend.

We also stopped in at Le Douanier for a drink which I did not like. It was too clubby for my taste and the drink wasn't very good. 

Back at the hotel we opened up the small bottle of champagne they had put in our room, ordered up some room service omelets, and toasted the last hours of my birthday. It had been a really fantastic day!

The next morning we took one of the boat cruises along the river. Everyone who had been to Strasbourg said this was a must but I'm going to tell you that we really didn't enjoy it. Our boat was completely enclosed with glass which made it really hard to get any nice photos. It was also really hot on the boat as they had the heaters on with no fresh air at all, combine this with Covid and it was uncomfortable for a whole host of reasons. The audio guide was down right annoying, talking all about Santa and hardly anything at all about the buildings. We did see some things we wouldn't have seen otherwise, in different parts of the city, and also went through the locks and by the covered bridges, but all in all, I'd skip it!

We had a great lunch afterwards at SuperTonic which serves up fun takes on traditional sausages and had a great gin & tonic menu. It's also in a cute part of town that we hadn't been in before. 

After lunch we walked back to the Isle of Petit France and went through the Cathedral. This is widely regarded as one of the best examples of Gothic architecture and there has been a church on the site since 1015! 

Inside it's very dim, the winter light not quite penetrating the stained glass windows which sit high in the stone walls. As we walked around we came to the very unique astronomical clock. I didn't know anything about it but my research says this, " this mechanical astronomical clock is an invention put together by various artists, mathematicians and technicians. Swiss watchmakers, sculptors, painters and creators of automatons all worked together to build this amazing automate. The present mechanism dates from 1842 and is especially attractive for the work of its automatons, which, every day at 12.30 pm, all start their show." Very cool!

We spent the rest of the afternoon shopping through the Christmas markets that we hadn't made it to the day before and visiting a few local spots for wine and cheese to take to Forest's in laws for Christmas.

Our train back to Paris wasn't until 8pm so after our shopping we dropped off our bags at the hotel and set off in search of some Alsatian wine. The light in this city at dusk is absolutely gorgeous so we also spent a bit of time on one of the bridges taking it in.

And right before heading to the train station we stopped into Secret Place at restaurant Aedaen. We walked through the pizzeria to the back wall and saw a pretty obvious secret entrance, but for the life of us we could not figure out the opening mechanism. 
A couple of guys showed up and also set about trying to find the way in; we let them put their fingers all over the surfaces while watching! haha!

Inside is a beautiful speakeasy with lovely drinks. It was the perfect final stop on this super fun birthday getaway! 

We walked over to the beautiful train station, the old building encased in modern glass, and had a little dinner onboard of Alsatian wine and ham/butter/baguette sandwiches. The Francophile in me was more than a little pleased!

 All photos of Strasbourg here

Saturday, June 25, 2022

Winter Warmer in San Diego

Trip date: December 2021

My friend Aaron always has a great list of restaurants to check out going for various cities. I mean I do too but I feel his is next level. So when he suggested we do a weekend of eating, drinking, and hiking in San Diego I agreed immediately!

I decided to fly into LA and drive down with Aaron. It was an easy flight on Alaska and as the Covid pandemic was still an unwelcome guest, masks were still required. It was about a 2 hour drive on a lovely sunny Friday afternoon from Orange County airport to San Diego.

Originally Aaron and I had decided to stay in the La Jolla area in an Airbnb based on the location of some of the places we were going to check out. Our plans changed a bit but we kept the Airbnb. This was the first time either of us were staying in a place that would be shared with others. Per the listing we were staying in one wing of a 5400 square foot mansion, the owner in the other wing. Our wing had 3 bedrooms, all with en suite bathrooms, and a common kitchen area which we would be sharing with the very nice foreign college students who were living there. A very unique stay! The mansion was huge and had lovely views of the ocean but I'll just describe it as Grey Gardens and leave it at that.

On our first night we took a rideshare into town and started with drinks at J & Tony's Discount Cured Meats & Negroni Warehouse. Truely, that is the name of the place! 

This bar is ridiculously fun! There's a full sized Ronald McDonald statue, and a dinosaur, and a disco ball, and a lot of other quirky stuff. The bartenders are great and the drinks are delicious. As it was the holiday season when we were there we were able to try some special drinks including an Irish Coffee and a shot of nog. I highly recommend this spot!

It was a short walk to Callie, which had just opened earlier in the year. Chef Travis Swikard was previously the Chef for Daniel Boulud's restaurant in NYC so it's also a hot reservation to secure. The menu is Mediterranean inspired and the flavors are absolutely delicious! 

Everything is meant for sharing so that is exactly what we did. We started with the hummus which was so silky! Our beef tartare was served on top of a smear of labneh and came with house-made lavash to scoop it up with. Raw carrots were shaved and tossed with cashew dukkah and our braised mushroom dish had a perfectly poached egg in which to drag the funghi through. But the stand out was the Aleppo Chicken. Spiced, grilled, and served with yogurt, coriander honey, and sumac pickles it was an incredible dish! 

We loved our dinner here and I've already recommended to it many. But it books up way in advance so reserve early!

For our after dinner drinking we had made reservations at the newly opened Young Blood. It's a speakeasy style bar in the same building as Noble Experiment (a favorite of mine) and was opened with the help of NYC's Attaboy creator Sam Ross (another favorite of mine) so chances were high that I was going to have a great time.

The bar is reservation only and there is no menu. You're given a 90 minute table and the staff serves you champagne followed by three "designed for you" cocktails. It's $65 total.

Young Blood is swanky, quirky, delicious, and fun! I can't wait to go back! And if you visit, be sure to check out the very unique patterned carpet!

Day two started with a lovely stroll around Old Town before pulling into a strip mall for lunch at 1 Michelin star Tadokoro Sushi, which the Callie chef had told us about the night before. 
We each had the $31 lunch special which came with 8 pieces of nigiri & ½ roll. We added an order of ankimo and also a gorgeous grilled fish head. This was a very good tip that we had been given! Great spot.

It was about a 20 minute drive to Torrey Pines State Park from Old Town. I'd never been out here before and it was so pretty! We hiked the Broken Hill Trail which is a 3+ mile loop through the eroded cliffs with stunning views of the beach and the ocean.  

The cliffs are so unique! It was really a beautiful hike with a very small elevation gain. The loop took us about 1 ½ hours. We were back at the mansion to enjoy some freezer cocktails in the hot tub and then light Aaron's menorah while we got ready for our big dinner out.

Addison, a 2 star Michelin, is in the Fairmont Del Mar so I had in my head that it would be quite modern and swanky. We arrived early in order to enjoy a pre-dinner martini. The gin selection was very basic which was a disappointment. But we got two seats in front of the lobby fireplace which was great. And they even brought me a stool for my purse which always makes me happy!

We were moved into the dining room and right away the ambiance was not a hit for me. It is very stark, not one single thing on the table or the walls, which felt weird. It felt very old fashioned and everything was varying shades of beige. 

But they rolled the champagne cart over and I immediately forgave them their sense of (lacking) style when I saw they had Krug by the glass as an offering. We started with that and it was lovely. There is only a 9-course tasting menu available which is $298 per person. We were then given the option of three different levels of wine pairings, the most exclusive was a ridiculous price (and we had to ask) so I have blocked it out. We chose the pairing that was the same price as our tasting menu.

Besides the 9-courses we were started with three little bites and a juicy cocktail. Chef William Bradley created a wonderful tasting menu, most of the dishes had an Asian influence which I loved. The dishes were gorgeous to look at, many were playful and made me smile, and the flavors were mostly all fantastic.

I thought most of the wines were good but I thought they should have been a bit better for the price. We were given a glass of Cristal as a bonus "because the bottle is open and we are closed tomorrow night" was the response when I asked why. Whatever, I'll take it!

The dessert course was also not included in the set menu count and was an array of five different bites! I was stuffed and more than a bit tipsy at this point! 

We had a great time but it was a very expensive meal that I personally don't think I would choose to do again. If the room held the same aesthetics as the food then I would have enjoyed it much more. 

Our mansion in La Jolla was very close to Veterans' Memorial Hill on Mt. Soledad, which isn't just a wonderful memorial but it's the only memorial in the US that honors veterans, living or deceased, from the revolutionary war to now, with an image of the veteran. And of course on clear days there are great views of the Pacific Ocean and the coast cities.

We headed back to Old Town for lunch at another spot our Callie chef had told us about- Tuetano Taqueria. Tuetano means bone marrow and that is exactly what you can add to your taco order! It comes on a stick so that you can scrape the marrow out onto your birria taco. It's crazy delicious! We tried the quesadilla, beans, and consume too. All fantastic! This new location has a really nice outside patio to eat on also.

We hiked off our lunch out in Oak Canyon on a 3 ½ mile loop trail that follows a creek bed most of the way through the canyon, complete with said named Live Oak trees. 

That night we met my friend Gail, who happened to be in San Diego visiting her friend Robin, for drinks at Grass Skirt. This is always a fun spot for tropical drinks and on Sunday it was surprisingly busy!

Robin has joined us in Palm Springs a few times so it was great to see her again!

Aaron and I left the girls to their own devices and headed back downtown for a final dinner at Fort Oak. Their concept is simple, most everything is grilled, and the space is super fun as the building was the old Ford dealership in the Mission Hills area. 

Everything was very good but we both also found everything to be really salty! 

We finished with cognac and ice cream :)

Another thing that our mansion was close to was the Salk Institute, designed by Louis Kahn and a great example of brutalist architecture. Technically the Salk was closed to visitors because of Covid, but we did a quick walk around just to take a peek.
And with that, our long weekend was over. Aaron dropped me off at the airport and I had an easy flight home to Seattle. It was a super fun weekend and sooooo nice to get a bit of warm weather, sunshine, and the company of a good friend!

All San Diego photos here

Saturday, June 11, 2022

New Finds in Walla Walla

Trip date: November 2021

Last fall the ladies from the wine group I'm in decided a return to Walla Walla was in order. Covid was still wreaking havoc so it wasn't a normal Walla Walla trip but it was still incredibly fun!

Sarah and I decided to fly over, while Lorraine, Sandra, and Sonja drove. I had actually never flown to Walla Walla before; it's a quick 1 hour flight on a small prop plane, very similar to the flight into Santa Rosa wine country. 

When we landed we found out our friends, who were to be picking us up from the airport, were running a bit late. We tried to find an Uber or Lyft, thinking we would just meet them at our first wine tasting appointment, but Walla Walla still doesn't have car share services. When we found out the only restaurant in the airport didn't serve wine ("we don't want to seem like we are playing favorites" was the reply when I asked why not!) Sarah and I took the advice of the cashier and wheeled our suitcases down the street to Cavu Cellars and had a glass until our friends made it into town. 

Our first tasting of the weekend was at Grosgrain Cellars. It's in a beautiful location and the wines here are very very good. They even have a gorgeous vacation rental if you want to stay! 

We checked into our own Airbnb afterward; a HUGE 5 bedroom, 4+ bathroom house directly across the street from Pioneer Park. This was a great rental for a group with a super well stocked kitchen, lots of comfy seating, and big tv for movie watching. 

After a quick tasting at El Corazon, we had a stellar dinner at Hattaway's.  It was my first time here and I loved it! The food was great, our table in the wine cellar was perfect, and the wine selection was awesome. Highly recommend!

The next morning we called in salad orders from Graze -as we had a full day of tasting appointments and didn't want to have to worry about finding a lunch spot- and hit the road. Except for El Corazon, all the wineries we had lined up for the weekend were new visits for me and I was super excited! 

First up was Devison where we tasted in their working cellar. The reds here are absolutely delicious! I also recently had a chance to try their rosé which is super solid as well. 

We didn't have far to go for our next appointment at Rasa as they share the same building. They have a small tasting room set up with comfy lounge chairs and poured us through quite a big line up. I think the group had mixed opinions on the wine here but I did buy a couple of their QED which is a nice Rhone blend. 

Our third stop was at Dillon which is near the airport. Dillon specializes in Chardonnay and Syrah and although domestic Chardonnay does not tend to be my favorite varietal I absolutely loved Marc Leahy's! This is one talented winemaker! They were also kind enough to let us eat our salads as we tasted. Another stellar stop!
We were all very excited for our final tasting of the day. Alton Cellars has been getting a lot of press since opening their new tasting room in 2020. The building, by Architect Jon Gentry of GO’C, is simply stunning. Sitting in the middle of rolling hills, the steel/glass/wood structure manages to look both completely out of place and somehow natural in it's setting. 

And that's the end of my positive experience at Alton. As we walked inside and were seated we all commented on the VERY strong scent of what we assumed was someone's cologne. So strong was the smell that I could actually taste it in the back of my throat. This is obviously something that you don't want while wine tasting.

One of my friends finally asked/commented about the smell to the woman pouring for us and she responded excitedly that it was actually a scented candle that they had burning. And in fact they consider it their signature scent.

WTF????? What winemaker has scented candles burning in their tasting room?? Especially one called Cowboy's Camp? Did I also mention that their tasting fee was $30? Utter bullshit. Enough said.

We decided to have dinner at home that night and picked up an order of Greek food from Yamas, which had been recommended to us by one of the (better) winemakers, and to-go cocktails from Passatempo. Both were absolutely delicious! 

The next morning, after some mimosas and pastries, we had our first tasting. The winemaker of Tempus Joe Forest was great and took us through a tasting in the cellar room. The wines here are super approachable, very well priced, and the staff were all great. I think everyone bought a few bottles!

Down the road and very near the airport we stopped at the incubator area. These cute little buildings are part of a program to help growing wineries and winemakers get a foothold in the industry. We had an appointment to taste at itä where winemaker Kelsey Albro Itämeri charmed us while pouring some absolutely delicious rosé, semillon, and pinot noir. 

This was such a great stop! Kelsey is from Seattle and does club pick up parties both in Walla Walla and Seattle making joining her wine club an easy choice for all of us. 

So enamored by the incubators we headed next door to Hoquetus (rhymes with lettuce) and tasted through the three wines that winemaker Robert Gomez was making. You may know Robert as he worked at Montana bar and Dino's Tomato Pie in Seattle before moving to Walla Walla in 2017. His wines are crunchy and lovely.
Before leaving the airport region we stopped at Prospice where they were holding tastings outside under a big tent. Sarah and Sonja went to the nearby taco truck and brought over lunch while we tasted some gorgeous syrahs. Jay Krutulis (former cellarmaster at Tranche) and Matt Reilly (former cellarmaster at Gramercy) aren't new to wine making but this is their first venture together and they just started in 2019.

The wines are great, well-priced, and they made it very easy to join their cellar club :) 

We headed back into downtown after this and Sandra, Lorraine, and I did a final tasting at House of Bones which is in the old Rotie space. I was pretty excited about trying the "French-style" chardonnays here but they only served one and the other 3 tastes were Proper Syrahs. All good, but I somehow thought we'd be tasting all Chard.
They did pair the wines with some delicious chocolates though!

We met everyone at Brasserie Four and had a cocktail out on the patio with some oysters & escargot while waiting for our delicious to-go order which we thoroughly enjoyed back at our home.  

The next morning the car-crew headed out fairly early as there were reports of snow in the pass. Sarah and I called every "taxi" driver in town before finally getting hooked up with some random guy and his SUV. 

I headed across the street to Pioneer Park to take a little walk in the sun while Sarah packed up. It's a gorgeous park with huge trees, a pond, and an aviary.

We picked up another order from Graze and headed to the airport. After checking in (1 case of wine free per person flying out of Walla Walla!) we found an area upstairs in the airport where we could have our lunch away from other people. 

It was a great weekend, with some great ladies, and a chance to taste some really lovely wines! 

All Walla Walla photos here

Christmas Markets & Birthday Celebrations in Strasbourg

Trip date: December 2021 After years of international travel, I felt like I had it down pretty well. I know what to pack, how to get a good ...

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