Sunday, December 8, 2013

Waltzing & Fireworks in Vienna

We leave in just under 2 weeks for our annual New Year's Eve trip, this time to Finland, so it must be time to write about last year's celebration!

Last year in Vienna was one of my favorite experiences for NYE, the city put on an amazing show and it seemed like every citizen turned out for it.

Bakery windows were outfitted with cute sugary pigs, the symbol of good luck for the coming year, pop-up champagne bars appeared on random curbs, and the streets were hung with gorgeous light displays.
There were maps posted all over, of the streets that would be closed to traffic and transformed into open air parties. And all roads led to the best vantage points for the midnight fireworks.

We started our evening at home with champagne, cheeses, meats, olives, etc that we picked up from the market. After aperos we bundled up and took the subway to one of the main areas on the city party map, emerging from below ground we came up to this amazing sight.

There were stands offering all types of food and drink as well as stages with live bands performing various types of music every few blocks or so. Buildings were used for light-shows and live video, and everyone sang, danced, and toasted each other.

We made our way along the party path, and at one of the bandstands stopped to watch the revelers waltz along to the live ensemble. Young and old, all smiles and down puffy jackets, waltzing along in the streets of Vienna.

We continued on farther to the grounds of the Hofburg palace, where thousands were gathered for the official countdown. Everyone had champagne or mulled wine, everyone was gathered with their friends and family.

There were crowds but they were calm and fun. There were fireworks but they weren't aimed at us.
And after the fireworks everyone cheerily made their way back to the outdoor dancing, or off to home. A great night unspoiled by violence, or over-indulgence.

So now when people ask me where my favorite New Year's Eve celebration was I can at least give my top 3 (including the first). And if you ever get the opportunity to spend the holiday in this most gorgeous city, be sure to dance the waltz.

 Vienna photos here.

Friday, November 29, 2013

Schnitzel & Such in Vienna

Within an hour of arriving in Vienna last December, we had all piled into the Cafe Gloria, just a few doors down from our apartment, and were enjoying the first of many schnitzel meals. Perfectly fried, bigger then the plate, and served with just a simple squeeze of lemon. This wouldn't be our only meal here as it was good, comfortable and filled with locals.

Schnitzel isn't the only typical fare however. Another very traditional meal in Austria, is a huge dinner of boiled meats called Tafelspitz. This might not sound very interesting but you would be wrong. We went to a well-known local chain called Plachutta.

The restaurant is built for serving groups, as you need a lot of people preferably to eat all the food that they will bring to the table. We didn't quite understand how large the portions were going to be so we completely over-ordered. This is just one of 3 pots we had!

Hot pots of boiled meats and marrow arrived, tender and falling apart, swimming in a rich fragrant broth. We were starving, so immediately started to dish up, only to have the waiter return to our table, ready to prepare our plates. Seeing what we had done, he shook his head in disappointment as he scraped off the mistakes we had made and went about serving the dinner in the proper way.

Having already shamed ourselves by not knowing the correct procedure for eating boiled meats, I felt it couldn't hurt my cred anymore by asking for the copious amounts of leftovers to be packed up for us to take home. I thought he might pass out upon this request, but after I assured him that I realized the broth could not be transported in their little boxes, he dutifully boxed up everything for take-away.

On New Years Day I turned that into two huge skillets of hash with eggs nestled amongst all the leftover goodness. Mimosas and coffee were the perfect compliments.

Vienna is also well known for their pastries and sweets, but perhaps the most famous is the Sacher Torte, made popular by the Café Sacher.

There is the main café which is popular and elegant and also has a line for days to get in! We chose to eat next door at the simpler gift/coffee shop. We still had to queue up but it moved quickly, even for 6 of us. Having a slice of Sacher Torte with fresh whipped cream added on the side right before coming to your table, may be the thing to do in Vienna, but we all agreed the dessert was dry and not as good as we had hoped. The more you know...

Around town, and at the Christmas Market, there were lots of stands offering street food and hot mulled wine. Vienna sausages on rolls, langos (fried bread with or without cheese), spiral kartoffel (curly french fries), pretzels, etc. Things to fill you up and keep you cozy in the chill.

But of everything I ate, the stand out meal in Vienna was had on our last afternoon, before we headed to catch a train for Prague. Steirereck im Staadpark is a Michelin starred restaurant and #16 on the World's 50 Best, set in the middle of a beautiful city park. Unlike some starred restaurants, this one had an unstated elegance combined with artsy quirkiness that made the whole experience both fun and special.

Instead of the traditional chefs menu that the entire table must take, Steirereck offers you the option of creating your own multi-coursed meals. So while I took 3 courses, Dayne opted for 5 (big surprise right?).

From the beginning of the bread service served with butter plates made of butter, and the funny amuse that arrived looking similar to a trapeze act, we knew we were in for a great (LONG) lunch.

Everything had a bit of a twist, like this dish of trout which was "cooked" in beeswax at our table.

And each dish arrived with it's own calling card.

Presentations were also beautiful but not too stuffy.
But the end-all-be-all was the cheese trolley, holy hell what a site!
And of course there were desserts, a unique digestif trolly, inventive coffee and tea service, and these stunning dried citrus fruits and wafers that also arrived via trolly and we were invited to choose our own collection.
If you are looking for a decadent and wonderful afternoon, I highly recommend Steirereck im Stadtpark, especially if you are lucky enough to share it with a group of good friends!
Delicious and pretty pictures here.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Analyzing Vienna

Last year, an hour train ride from Bratislava delivered us to Vienna, Austria, where we would spend the next 4 December nights and ring in 2013. We took a cab from the train station to our apartment in the Mariahilf neighborhood and shortly after arriving were met by the rest of our travel partners, there would be 6 of us in all. The apartment we had rented was perfect for us and a great location for walking around the city.

The city was completely decked out with Christmas lights, every neighborhood having a differently themed displayed hung over their streets. Some were sweet and simple, others grand! We spent the next few days exploring and were completely enchanted by all the various displays.

The city doesn't just have gorgeous light displays, the entire city is pretty spectacular.

There is a lot to see and do in the capitol. We started our stay with a morning visit to the Leopold Museum, well-know for it's collection of Gustav Klimt. And although we all joked about the "buttoned up-ness" of the Austrians, the joke was on us when we visited their special exhibit "Nude Men". The photo you see in the link was the poster that was hung all over the city to promote it. Just another spectacular sight in Vienna. And yes, I said hung.

It's an easy walk from the museum area, past the Hofburg Palace and into the well-preserved old town, you actually walk thru the old palace stables on your way. The buildings around town are all so grand, with lots of architectural details, that we didn't even mind gawking and revealing ourselves for the peeping tourists that we were.

Another morning we wandered through the Naschmarkt, filled with all sorts of produce, candy, seafood, and condiment stands. The market sits right along the Wein river and is a bustling place to shop, have a beer, have lunch, or just people watch.It's been going since the 16th century and doesn't show any intention of slowing down! Even on this cold December day, people were eating and drinking outside, toasting and dreaming of warmer days to come.

No trip to Vienna is complete without a palace tour so we decided on Schloss Belvedere. The grounds here are unbelievably beautiful. Keep in mind it was basically the dead of winter and it still was stunning, I can't even imagine how amazing it would be in the summer.

There is also a museum inside that you aren't allowed to take any photos in, but trust me when I say the collection is really wonderful. The palace is an absolute do not miss in my book, even considering the house envy we all were afflicted with.

The city was happy to show us a few stunners that we didn't know anything about but were happy to glimpse each reveal.

Of course we couldn't resist walking by the famed Opera House, we didn't go inside but we arrived just as the New Year's Day concert was letting out it's audience, including these ladies showing their fur coats off with pride.
We were lucky that the last days of the Christmas Market were still going on at the site of the amazing Rathaus. The market was full of festival food and craft stalls, and also a big screen were they were broadcasting the symphony. And of course there was the Christmas tree which looked to be reaching for the sky. It was almost as excess of beauty. 

My official diagnosis of Vienna is stunningly beautiful with a slight case of pomp and circumstance. Deeper analysis is needed.

More acute prettiness here.

Saturday, November 2, 2013

24 Hours... Bratislava, Slovakia

We left Budapest for Bratislava by train, we had purchased a first class cabin that we had all to ourselves. It was a nice ride, past pretty hills half hidden by mist and along the Danube River. We had wanted to take a boat but they don't run throughout the winter.

We grabbed a taxi from the train station and headed to our hotel, Marrol's. I think we got taken a bit as our fare was 18E and the town is pretty small. Our hotel however, was absolutely great! They greeted us with a glass of bubbles and then showed us to our cute room which had a very comfy bed, free wifi, complementary mini bar and breakfast. Absolutely would recommend this hotel if you happen to find yourself in Bratislava.
We headed out on foot and made our way to 1.Slovak Pub for a traditional lunch of cheese dumplings with bacon and beer. This was good fuel for our afternoon plans of walking around the town. 

Originally we had thought about spending two nights in Bratislava but I'm glad we cut that to just one. The town, especially the old part, is very pretty but it's easy to do in half a day. 
We started by entering the old walled part and wandered along the cobblestone lined, pedestrian only lanes.  The city has a collection of quirky sculptures that they added to be "less communist" after the Velvet Revolution.

Past the square was an outdoor ice rink and the remains of the Christmas markets. We continued on to the site of the former Rybné Square synagogue and the memorial to the 105,000 Slovakian victims of the holocaust. Strangely, the site is next to the town church and next to the main highway which the city of Bratislava chose to erect crazily close to both. 

After walking around the town and square we headed over the bridge to the UFO Observation deck. This gives fantastic views the Danube, the barren areas around the town, the castle, that infamous highway, and Bratislava itself. 
The winter light was so pretty, but it was also crazy cold. The kind that is refreshing and invigorating though- luckily!

We opted not to stop in at the rotating restaurant for over priced cocktails and made our way back across the bridge to the town for cocktails.

At this point is was still early, maybe 4pm, so although we had a few cocktail bars on our list to check out, the only one that was open was Paparazzi Bar. Not to worry, it is also the best. They have an amazing cocktail menu, and one of those funny sculptures-- an over eager "photo journalist"-- is on their corner. 
We left and found ourselves on very quiet streets, most of the restaurants still closed for the holidays. We checked in on a few places but found them to be too "touristy" so we opted for an early dinner back at our hotel, which was ok, and tucked into bed early. Tomorrow we were heading to Vienna!

I have no idea what we would have done with 48 hours... 

All Bratislava photos here.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Talking About Toronto

I had wanted to go to Toronto for such a long time, I'm not sure exactly why or what I thought the city was all about (a-boot?) but we finally had an excuse when Dayne's cousin got married there in June.

The first thing I found out about Toronto is that the price of hotels basically rivals those in New York! Unfortunately the reviews that go along with the hotel costs describe aging properties without any personality. We chose to stay at the Cambridge Suites which was where the families were staying and was within walking distance to the ceremony location. The hotel was good, right downtown and easy to jump on the subway or just walk around. All the rooms were suites which was also nice, having a separate living room makes it feel much bigger. The hotel was definitely on the older side but we were happy with it for the price.

The first night in town we grabbed a cab and headed to Rock Lobster for lobster rolls, lobster poutine, and oysters.  The food and atmosphere here are good, casual and a bit loud. Very fun spot if you are in the area, I wouldn't go out of your way for it though.

After dinner we headed to The Miller Tavern, not owned by us and not a tavern per say. But this should be a must-not-miss on any cocktail loving person's stop. It's a gorgeous bar and they are doing really unusually flavored cocktails, like my Cobble Hill with bourbon, dry vermouth, Montenegro and cucumber. We also got to try their brown butter popcorn bourbon... YUM!

We didn't have much planned as far as sightseeing goes, in fact we found it a bit strange upon reading up on the city that there are only a handful of real "tourist" things to see/do. We were advised to enjoy the neighborhoods, which would have been great, except that the weather was unseasonably cold, dumping rain at times, making leisurely strolls a no-go.

We did check out the Lawrence Market, I'm always happy to wander market stalls in any city, and had a traditional peameal bacon sandwich from the Carousel Bakery.
 We decided to brave the weather after lunch and took the subway to the stop for Casa Loma, and then walked up the hill to the castle. We weren't particularly interested in touring the old mansion but since the weather wasn't cooperating with us we thought "why not?". But once we were there, and saw that the entrance fee was over $20 each, we decided to ditch the plan and head back downtown.
We found a cute little cafe right by our hotel called the Gaberdine, which is a good stop if you are needing a late lunch or snack.

That night, after meeting a friend who we hadn't seen since she lived in Paris, for a much too short catch-up, we headed to The Harbord Room to meet up with Darcy O'Neil and Lauren Mote, who was doing an evening of Bittered Sling cocktails. Another spot I would highly recommend, the food all looked and smelled delicious and the cocktails were lovely!

That night Dayne's parents arrived and we all met up for a decadent dinner at Cafe Boulud. Toronto seems to be the 2nd stop for many New York chef's. The restaurant is in the Four Seasons and if you are looking for a nice dinner, you can't go wrong booking here.

One day we rented a car and drove to Niagara Falls.  You can't get more touristy than this and we loved it! The falls are truly spectacular, the size of them almost unbelievable. We bought our tickets to the Maid of the Mist, donned our complimentary rain ponchos and set sail. Oh my god!! So much fun! We got drenched even with the poncho. The boat takes you so close, you wonder how they don't get sucked into the powerful pull of the water. If you go to Niagara and don't do this tour you are missing out!

The town itself is nothing but wax museums and chain restaurants, nothing to see there. But just strolling along the falls after the boat ride was so enjoyable!
We didn't have time to stop, but on the drive back we went through Niagara on the Lake which is super picturesque with scores of bike trails and wineries, lots of icewine. Next time...
We got back in town and made a quick stop at BYOB, an absolute must for all things cocktail, like Bittered Sling bitters, antique bar carts, glasses, etc. It's like the Barkeeper of Toronto!
That night we had an amazing dinner at Momofuko Shoto. 10 courses of amazing food, made in front of us by a team of 6 chefs, each serving us their particular dish. The restaurant only serves at 17 each seating, with only 2 seatings per night, all seats are bar style around the open kitchen.
A stunning meal, I'd do it again in a heartbeat! And after dinner we went downstairs to Nikai, their cocktail bar. The Momofuku building is really interesting, a cube with 3 floors, 3 restaurants and the bar.

On our last day the weather brightened up, it was sunny, warm and clear. We went to our friend's house for a relaxing catch-up brunch with her and herAb family in their back yard. After brunch Dayne and I headed to Rogers Center for a Toronto Blue Jays game. A perfect afternoon for baseball and Canadian beer (skip the food here though, ugh!)

We had a great time at the wedding, getting a chance to see many family members that we haven't seen since our wedding. Toronto wasn't as exciting as I thought it would have been but I'd happily go back to do a bit more eating and drinking!

Toronto photos here.

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