Monday, November 30, 2009

Golden State Trilogy: Part I

First Montreal snowfall today. I lay in bed looking outside at my white backyard, and thought, goodbye leather jacket and boots, hello hardcore winter coat & gore tex astronaut shoes. I got that first chill in my bones when my body realized it has to adjust to the reality of what's coming. Oh ya, and notice it got dark at 4pm today? Pitch black by 4:40.

These are the days (followed by another 140, give or take a few for beautiful snowstorms), when I dream of living in California. Ocean, mountains, green space, amazing produce (think eating organic AND local, and it being no big deal), and sun. Oh the glorious sun, and how it rules my moods. Every morning, the sun shines down from a deep blue sky, onto your face. Just like that. No praying, no Ed Cowell 3 degree weather guarantee. Just blue skies baby.

I used to spend a lot of time in California. And a lot of that time cooking & eating. A while back Eric and I did the drive from Napa, down through Big Sur into Santa Barbara and then lastly to LA. We revisited some of my favorite spots in LA, and they were all still how I remembered them. In-n-out burger bun still as soft as ever, Koi kobe beef was still melt in your mouth unbelievable.

This week, I'm tapping the memory (and photo) bank for Part I of the Golden State trilogy - bringing a little sunshine to our first week of snow and chill.

If you're ever in San Francisco, you've got to experience the Ferry Building Farmer's market. Great, fresh food stands of all kinds - Olive oils, breads, artisan cheese, and an incredible variety of fruit. I have never seen so many different types of peaches. We first sampled the Pluot there, and finally (2 years later), a version of this unbelievable part-plum part-apricot hybrid finally made its way to the Atwater Market. Lots of other delicious items can be found here. Grab your morning coffee, then hit the fruit & flapjacks.

Napa & Santa Rosa: Not going to get too much into wines. It's not my specialty, I just know what I love, and it's only based on being a happy return customer with wines from these vineyards, no particular education or year or real reasoning (Cali wines: Pride Mountain Merlot, Tvine, Cakebread, Whitehall). I'm gonzo after two glasses anyway. Just to touch on it lightly, my favorite winery was hands-down Cakebread Cellars. The grounds are spectacular, the tour was just long enough, my buzz was right on, and our tourguide Michael was from Montreal and actually went to LCC! Mondavi was a total lame waste of time. They took us into a closed classroom and fed us the most boring, commercial, lifeless, history of wines- we bailed halfway through. We were way too giggly and buzzed to deal with that kind of experience. A great, unique tour was at Storybook Vinyards, where our tour was given by the master winetaster and owners daughter!

We hit Dean & Deluca for takeout to do a picnic lunch (I highly recommend that plan), and ended up sending home a box of bottles from there. They were very efficient with shipping and it allowed us to send many of our favorite bottles from various local wineries.

Michael, our guide at Cakebread (from Montreal!)

Eating at Auberge du Soleil was one of the most beautiful, romantic settings I've ever eaten in. for each table outside - the terrace jutted out into a what felt like your own private terrace hanging over the most incredible view of Napa. We went early to catch the sunset and have some wine (duh). The food was amazing, the service impeccable. Fried Zucchini blossoms is pretty much my favorite food, and they were stuffed with goat cheese and fried to perfection, and served over a "vegetable ratatouille" , the dish was sensational. My meat was the crown jewel of the evening. Prime NY Beef cooked absolutely flawlessly, served over light potato puree and caramelized shallot sauce. Dessert was easy to like- what could be wrong with delicate puff pastry with melted valrhona chocolate oozing out after the first bite. A really memorable and actual romantic dinner spot. A real splurge, but we both agreed it was well worth it.

Next up, Taylors Refresher. An outdoor milkshake/burger joint on the main drag in St Helena - seriously the best milkshake ever, they've got the chunky smooth balance just right. (I like vanilla with a light amount of chocolate dropped in). Clean tasting burger, crispy fries (sweet potato too), solid grilled cheese, they even have some pretty tasty salads if you want to go the no-fun healthy route. Even given how many restaurant recommendations we had, we ended up eating there twice! Turns out this place is a local institution. We met a couple from Napa who said that Taylor's was where they took their entire wedding party for lunch on the day of their wedding, just before the ceremony.

A little shout-out to Mustards Grill, also a great spot, and also right along the main road.

View from our table

Private balconies

That's it for San Francisco & Napa, Stay tuned for Part II...

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Arnie & me.

This month 50 years ago, Arnold Palmer won the Palm Beach Invitational. Very fitting, as that's where I finally learned the official name of my longtime favorite drink... a half iced-tea half lemonade nectar of the gods that I've known and loved it since I was 13. It was introduced to my impressionable young taste buds as a "half and half" at Calories on Ste-Catherine West, where it was dispensed by a slushee machine of the Couche-Tard variety. It was love at first slurp.

Fast forward a few years. I'm in Florida, ordering my usual half & halfs everywhere we go (wondering why every waiter requires an explanation - um... half lemonade and half iced tea - duh). Then one afternoon in Palm Beach, a very kind waitress by the pool informs me that what I'm actually looking for is referred to as anArnold Palmer (named after the famous golfer whom I imagine famously ordered many iced tea and lemonade combos, eventually popularizing them to the point where the drink was named after him. In fact, according to Wikipedia, after overhearing the golf legend's order at a bar in Palm Springs, the woman seated beside him said "I'll have one of those... Palmer drinks." ).

And there you have it.

"A-a-a-rrrrrnold Palmer" I repeat. OK. That came out like my tongue was asleep. I try again. "Arrrrnold Pal-pal-palmer", "Awnol Polrmer". The waitress walks away after a curious look at me, as I repeatedly try and fail to pronounce the name to myself. Imagine the horror - not being able to pronounce the newly discovered name of my favorite drink!

That was a few years ago, but even today, as soon as we enter a gas sation or a Price Chopper on a US road trip, Eric begins referring to me as Arnie, imitating my speech impediment as I struggle to pronounce Arn-nollld Poll-mer. I am still speech challenged by this. Am I alone? (I'm working on adding a comments feature to this blog so you can join in on important conversations like this one.)

I think Half & Halfs a.k.a. APs are best when home made, or ordered at a restaurant that has iced tea AND lemonade (better than the premixed stuff). But Arizona and Arnold Palmer teamed up a few years ago to create the Arnold Palmer Half & Half, and it's very good. They sell it in oversized cans, golf themed plastic bottles, 2 litre jugs, powder stix, and in pomegranate and green tea flavors. It also comes in a Lite version, about 50 calories in a 240ml serving. Unfortunately, it's not available in Canada. Personally I find it a touch sweet so at home I squeeze in half a lemon, throw in lots of ice and it's perfect. However you drink it, just make sure it's freezing cold. Eric says it makes a good vodka mixer too.

My sis-in-law is now hooked on it too - a couple days ago discovered a jug in the fridge at her house with a post-it note on it (see below). Another addict!

Arnold Palmer: Best golfer ever? Maybe. Best drink ever? Absolutely.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

A lunch date with New York City

I visited my brother last weekend in New York, didn’t show up with my regular long list of restaurants I wanted to hit, decided to go with the flow, not an easy thing for me to do. I did however, manage to coax my brother into a cab (while he was on the phone and not sure what I was motioning to him, just shrugging and agreeing) and to my favorite lunch place. Lunch in NYC always means one of two things to me: A long leisurely way to forget the pressure and panic of "We are in New York!!!!! We have to do it all!!", to share a bottle of wine, take it slow, people watch, and enjoy good food & friends . The other, is to save my greenback for an addition to my wardrobe, or a cool pair of boots -and find something quick, easy but equally as delicious. I think it is important to take a time-out for lunch, but sometimes you just want to keep the momentum, not be served a menu, by a waiter, with water & ice, and have to power down midday... you catch my drift.

There are so many great places to eat while in New York that it's hard to not make this blog 180 pages... but there are two lunch spots I always crave around 11am while roaming the streets of the big apple.

The first is Taim. Over the years I have sent many friends there - every single one of them now hooked forever. Falafel, israeli salad, fried eggplant and tahini - all the most delicious of it’s kind in the world, I am sure of it.

There are three types of falafel balls - Harissa (my fave), Green (basil and spinach), and roasted red pepper. They are tiny, moist, crispy and delicious. The place is also tiny... just a little bar for about 5 people to sit facing the street, and benches outside in the summer. The neighborhood is beautiful, Waverly Place is one of my favorite streets to take a stroll, and sitting out on a bench with a platter of israeli deliciousness is a great way to spend lunchtime in NYC (even if it means a little tahini on my outfit for the day - par for the course - I don’t think even a proper table and chairs could save me from myself).

After grabbing a bite there earlier this summer, we walked off lunch in the rain & had a run in with Gisele Bundchen. Obviously I was a frizzy haired, falafel breathing monster, for my 2 minute chat with the most beautiful woman on the planet. I desperately wanted to tell her that I usually smell like peach gum, and take pride in my hair. Anyways... Taim must haves: platter of falafel balls with Israeli Salad,Hummus, & pita; fried eggplant & tahini app; and of course either the homemade lemonade or iced tea - both are amazing. It’s a can’t go wrong menu. Taim is at 222 Waverly Place between 11th and Perry.

Second great tiny lunchtime-hole-in-the-wall: Olive's in Soho (on Prince, between Wooster & Greene).

Another incredible spot - this one with no seats inside and a bench outside crammed full of all types of Soho locals inhaling Sandwiches, iced lattes & delicious cookies. There are days when I sit down and spread out my whole lunch on that red bench and others, when I can barely find a place to squeeze my tush in for a spot to refuel for shopping (another messy endeavor). Scrumptious, quality lunch - quick and cheap - so you can save time and money, and then spend both hitting Intermix just down the street. My favorites at Olive’s are the Smoked Turkey Sandwich, the soups (whatever it is that day)- and a hot or iced latte depending on the weather.

Take 1

Tonight marks the beginning of something big for me. After days and days of trying to figure out how to kick start this blog, I’m here, on the couch, with a full belly, listening to the clanging and clinking of Eric dealing with a kitchen mess that is the equivalent in kitchen messes to the Katrina aftermath. If you know me, you know what I’m saying.

On the menu tonight was Won Ton soup, Peanut butter dumplings made with organic chicken & ginger, Steak with a citrus soy glaze (my secret recipe) topped with Enoki mushrooms, Shitake mushrooms, steamed rice and braised chinese cabbage "steaks". Best part was the carmalized banana and chocolate egg roll surprise for dessert. You should have seen Eric’s confused face as it turned to complete bliss. Our dinner guest asked me to “leave him alone with his spring roll for a few minutes...”. I have a banana allergy (a banallergy?), so I didn’t take part, but the guys seemed to REALLY enjoy them.

Now, down to biz. The purpose of this blog. Really, it’s to talk almost exclusively about food, and to share eating experiences in restaurants here in Montreal and abroad (when I’m fortunate enough to be traveling). I’ll go to ridiculous extremes researching and plotting my every bite through every city I visit. I’ve found that in most hotels, asking the concierge for a restaurant recommendation is out of the question - most locals are far more reliable. On a recent trip to Rome, the concierge had never heard of the restaurant we were headed to, and it was one of the coolest spots and best meals of the trip.

I'll try to give you the highlights and lowlights of our eating experiences from anywhere interesting. And I promise that any place discussed here is either foolproof delicious, or downright disgraceful.

I use the internet as my travel resource for everything: reviews of hotels, cars, boats, specific airplane seats, itinerary mapping, and of course, restaurants. To add my comments to a foodie forum (like chowhound), makes me feel like a tiny fish in a big big sea of complainers and promoters. So I’ll use this space to rant and rave, where its a bit more focused. I know I’ll earn your trust, and help you make good decisions about food: where to shop for it, look at it, taste it, savour it or avoid it.