Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Austin: a great little city

I have been to Austin many times and always enjoy spending time there so when my friend Bina asked me to go to Austin for a weekend, I didn’t hesitate. On a Thursday evening in April, we are on a plane from San Francisco to Austin, for a couple of days in the capitol of Texas.

My past trips had always been for business so I am looking forward to a couple of days of leisure time in this great little city. With our hotel just a couple of blocks from the Capitol, after a coffee at Starbucks, we start Friday morning with a little bit of culture with an official tour of the Capitol. The Capitol is a beautiful old building and the tour, although short, gives a good feel for both the history of the city as well as the way Congress still works today.

Thru the gardens we walk back to Congress Avenue and to the lake. It is a beautiful day, blue skies, temperature in the eighties and a slight breeze. We decide to drop into the Four Seasons to check if we need reservations for the patio bar that night to watch the bats at sunset. The concierge at the Four Seasons is not just extremely friendly; he also knows the answer to all our questions. The first one is of course an easy one: no reservations needed for the bar, but make sure you come early, around 6 – 6.30. When asking him where to go for authentic Texas BBQ, he point us to a place just a couple of blocks from the hotel called Iron Works. For shopping he tells us to try the boutiques on 2nd. As it is lunch time, we decide to check out Iron Works before going for some retail therapy. Iron Works is in an old mill next to the Austin Convention Center.

We order our food, pork for me, ribs for Bina and sit down to eat. My pork is good, the potato salad one of the best I have ever had, but Bina’s ribs are definitely the winner. Juicy, tender, we are literally licking our fingers. Satisfied and with full stomachs, we decide its time to hit the shops. That morning I mentioned to Bina that I wished I had some nice little summer dresses and I guess you should be careful what you ask for……on 2nd st. we find several little boutiques with great clothes and shoes. What makes it even better: they all seem to have the same sale going: buy 2 and get the third item for free. A couple of hours later, loaded with shopping bags (I wanted a summer dress….I got 6 of them…summer can come now, I am ready), we hurry back to our hotel to change for the night: cocktails and appetizers at Trio in the Four Seasons and a late night dinner at Uchi.

Its almost 6.30 when we get to Trio, but we are lucky, we find a table and comfortable couch on the patio and order drinks and appetizers, while reading about the history of the 1.5M bats living under the bridge on Congress Av. We order a selection of appetizers: tuna tartare, crab cake and Carpaccio. The food is delicious, the crab cake served on a bed of English peas. I don’t like peas, I don’t eat peas, but these peas are so fresh and sweet that I have to make an exception. But the best is the Carpaccio: served with truffled arugula, a soft farm egg on top and manchego cheese, it melts in your mouth.

The sun is about to go down and we hurry down to the dock where we arrive just in time to see the first bats fly out from under the bridge. It is an amazing sight: hundreds of thousands of bats leaving their home under the bridge, flying out in what seem to be organized patterns, turning the sky black for the next 15 minutes.

Our next stop is Uchi for a late dinner. I have been to Uchi several times and it is one of my favorite places in Austin.

Our reservation is for 10.30 and we are early. The place is packed but we manage to find 2 seats at the bar. I order a glass of Alsace white while Bina orders sake. They bring us a small plate with Asian pears with a delicious spice on it. It’s a bit peppery and we can’t place it so we ask the bar tender and he tells us it is Yukari, a Japanese style seasoning. We move to our table and lose ourselves in the menu. There is so much to choose from that it is hard to decide, but in the end we order the shag rolls, the negitoro, hama chili, the fried tofu and tempura fried brie. Of course it’s way too much food and by the time the brie arrives we are too full to enjoy it although it is probably the best dish we ordered

After Friday night’s decadence we wake up early on Saturday morning for a run along the lake. We do a relaxing 3 miles and back at the hotel we agree that we deserve brunch. We check a couple of places but end up at Trio again. It’s a beautiful morning and we lounge outside over coffee, frozen lemonade and eggs; fried for Bina, Benedict for me. After brunch we go back to our favorite concierge as we are looking for a place where we can get our nails done. He points us to a place on the other side of the bridge and tells us while we are there to check out the shops on SOCO (South of Congress). It is a fun area and it reminds us a bit of Haight-Ashbury: funky second hand clothes and jewelry shops, outdoor food stalls. We have done a lot of walking and are happy to sit down at the salon for a manicure and pedicure. An hour later, with happy hands and feet, we go back to the hotel to relax for a bit before dinner.

Dinner is at Trulucks, downtown, another restaurant I really like and we are not disappointed. We start with calamari and shrimp and lobster Rangoon . For main course I have the stuffed Florida lobster, while Bina decides on the miso glazed Seabass. Both dishes look gorgeous when served and taste as good. It’s another night of indulgence. Both our dishes are served with Parmesan mashed potatoes that are lethally delicious.

We have seen the dessert tray and the desserts look massive. One dessert can easily serve a table of four, so when our waiter asks us if we have room left, we regretfully tell him that there is no way we could manage one of them, although Bina admits that she would love to try the chocolate cake. The waiter surprises us by serving a muffin size of the cake. This is just the right end of a perfect dinner.

It’s Saturday night and 6th street is in full swing when we walk back to our hotel. We have an early flight the next morning, so we decide to skip nightlife tonight and leave that for a future trip.  

Saturday, March 12, 2011

A Delicious Day in Yountville

We used my friend Goody’s birthday as an excuse to finally make it back to Napa Valley last Saturday, or more specific, to Yountville. Our target destination: Bottega. We had lunch there a year and a half ago and had talked since then about going back. The day had finally arrived

We decided to make a day out of it and left the south bay at 10 and made it to Yountville just before 11.30. As we had scheduled a late lunch, we decided to start our day at Bouchon for coffee and pastries. When we got out of the car, we could already smell the deliciousness that they were baking inside. With our trays loaded with croissants, eclairs and pain au chocolat and boxes to take home, we found a table outside in the sun.

Our initial plan had been to go for a hike or visit a winery in between “breakfast” and lunch, but by 1.15 we were still sitting at that same table, chatting and munching. So our hike ended up being a walk across the street thru the market place next to Bottega and into the restaurant. We were happily surprised that they had reserved the wine cellar for us, at the end of the main dining room. A beautiful room, with 3 walls of wine bottles and 1 glass wall separating us from the main dining room, our table set for 6 was ready for us. They must have had the telepathic inside that by putting us in this room they were doing all the other diners a favor, as our lunch ended up being pretty loud and rowdy, but we were in our own private room, no damage done.

To start we ordered a bottle of bubbly to toast the birthday girl, while reviewing the menu. We ordered a selection of appetizers: the shaved Brussels sprout salad, the beets, the shaved artichoke salad, the Creamy mozzarella burrata with caramelized mushroom & shallots and the “green egg and ham”. I am not a fan of Brussels sprout and I don’t eat beets, but that didn’t matter as I was in food heaven with the mozzarella with the mushrooms and even more with the "green egg and ham": green asparagus with some sort of vinaigrette over it, topped with a poached egg and bacon bits. Oh my god, what a delicious combination. When I close my eyes, I can still taste that last bite……

Our main courses were all delicious as well. For the birthday girl, they made a special vegetable risotto and some of the other dishes were the ravioli, gnocci, Dungeness crab, and for me the spaghetti Carbonara with a soft duck egg on top. We washed our lunch away with 2 bottles of delicious Petit Syrah.

Of course some of us couldn’t resist dessert. Some ordered the Italian doughnuts and others the tiramisu profiteroles. Our waiter had called the gnocci little pieces of heaven, I’d say these tiramisu profiteroles better deserve that name and they should put them on the menu under that name. Not having paid much attention to what was happening around us during our lunch, we noticed when we were paying the bill that the restaurant was virtually empty, but for some people sitting at the bar. When we looked at our watches we realized why: it was after 5pm and the restaurant was getting ready for dinner.

We have to thank David, our waiter. It was his first day and I can imagine how he felt after his first day serving this group: one of us has a gluten allergy, one is vegetarian and our birthday girl, well let’s just say that she is not only vegetarian, in addition she is extremely picky…….but David had the patient of an angel and joked with us through our 3 plus hour lunch. The only 2 little disappointments were: having asked for a little birthday surprise with a candle for the birthday girl, this is what showed up on the table:

Embarrassing for a restaurant like Bottega and no comparison to the one they brought last time. The second, that unlike last time, Chef Michael Chiarello wasn’t there so we couldn’t ask him to join our table for a picture.

But despite that I cannot think of a more wonderful way to spend a Saturday afternoon. We need to find a word for a lunch that runs into dinner, like they did for the breakfast turned to lunch……linner…..or dunch……hmmmm I am not sure it really works but I guess, until somebody comes up with a better word, I will be more then happy to dunch my way thru a couple more afternoons like this.

Friday, March 4, 2011

A couple of perfect winter days in New York City

It is the end of February and although it is probably not the most obvious time for a visit to New York City, I am boarding the plane from SFO to Newark for a short vacation in the big Apple. I am staying with a friend on the Upper East Side. After a quick shuttle from Newark to Grand Central and a cab ride to her place, I arrive just after 7PM. Just in time for dinner.

We are meeting up with another friend, who has just moved to NYC and we are ready for a nice girl’s night out. We decide to try to get reservations at David Burke’s Townhouse on 61st and are pleased we are able to make last minute reservations on OpenTable. We are a little early so we have a seat at the bar, order drinks and some appetizers from the bar menu: Lobster rolls and tuna tartare presented in little lollipop like glasses. Just after our appetizers arrive our table is ready. We move into the main dining room and browse the menu. It all looks great and between the 3 of us, we order the Crab cake, Lobster risotto, Burrata mozzarella and as sides the tater tots and Brussels sprouts. When our food arrives we admire the original and creative presentation of our dishes, specially the crab cake, but the grand finale of the night is the dessert: the house famous cheesecake lollipop tree. Although too sweet for my taste, the presentation is stunning; David Burke is definitely living up to his reputation.

                                Crab cake

Cheesecake Lollipop tree

The next morning I wake up to one of those perfect winter days: crisp, cold and clear blue skies. It’s a perfect day to walk around and do some shopping. I take off from 92 second towards Central Park. The Park in its winter coat is magnificent. Looking out over the Jacky O reservoir, frozen and covered in snow I realize how much I love this city, whether it is in spring time with the beautiful spring blossoms, during Christmas with all its festive decorations, or on a cold February morning like today. I walk in the snow covered lanes towards the great lawn and back out past the Met. My eyes are shining, my head is singing “I love this town” as I walk along Madison Avenue in search of a Starbucks. Warmed up and recharged by a latte and a pastry, I hop onto the 6 train, destination NolIta for some retail therapy. I get out on Spring St, and spend a couple of hours happily browsing the little shops on Mulberry, Mott and Elizabeth st. I find an amazing paper store called Kate’s Paperie and a funky store called Pylones, with all kind of fun household design items (a dish brush that is a man, his hair the brush, a cheese grater that is a little ballerina). From Spring Street I walk to Washington Square Park where I sit on a bench for a while listening to a musician play the guitar enjoying the winter sun. I walk back thru the Village where I catch a train back up town.

That night we have dinner reservations at Le Paris on Lexington, between 92th and 93rd. What a wonderful little neighborhood bistro: small, quaint and with that warm bistro atmosphere and amazing french food. There is a small dining room down stairs and a loft with several tables upstairs. I am glad we have a table upstairs, overlooking the dining room and bar downstairs.

Our table upstairs

I have the Steak tartare with frites, my friend the moules frites. Our food is excellent and we share the profiteroles for dessert. It is so good that we are tempted to lick the plate.

Rain is lashing against the windows on Friday morning. But it doesn’t impact my mood. I bundle up in my big black coat, scarf and hat and brave the weather to go as planned to the Metropolitan. I stop for breakfast at Le Pain Quotidien on Madison av.

The Met is overwhelming and busy and I only have 2 hours this morning, barely enough to have a glimpse of all the great art so I will have to come back. I dash out again to meet my friend Andrea at her new apartment and to get our nails done. This is NY: manicure in a local nail place $ 9.00. Walking back on Lexington av., I find the perfect purse that I had been looking for for months to replace my beat up red one. There are those days, when you feel things are meant to be and everything just seems to be perfect, this is one of those days and it only gets better.

Tonight I have tickets for Bon Jovi in Madison Square Garden. When I booked this trip, I realized they were playing and managed to get last minute tickets. To see them here, in NYC in MSG, was on my bucket list, but I didn’t think it would happen. Tonight it is….happening, oh it is happening; the perfect concert. No opening act, they start playing just after 8. The concert in Chicago last summer was great, but tonight, tonight is something else. I love the set list, every song. The sound and the crowd is so much better than in San Jose last year; the audience absolutely loves every minute, singing, cheering, clapping, asking for more and now I understand why they love playing here. Madison Square Garden is exploding; this is a party that nobody wants to end, including the band. It ends with Keep the Faith, but they come back for the encore: “Dry County”, “Wanted”, “I love this town” and of course “Prayer”. I am happy, 4 encores, that is rare but still a bit disappointed: no “Always”, no “In these arms”. After “Prayer”, the crowd just keeps cheering and clapping, but normally this is the end. They have played for 2 ½ hours by now. Jon looks back at the band, nods his head and looks at the audience and asks “do you guys want to go home?” the response is deafening…. The answer: “neither do I.” and here we go…..4 more encores: “Always”, “These Days”, “In these Arms” and “Just Older”. I walk back towards Times Square thinking to myself “It can’t get much better than this” as I know I have just experienced a very special performance.

Saturday; my last day already. The rain is gone again and it’s another beautiful sunny winter day. I walk over to my friend Andrea’s apartment on 63rd. The cable car to Brooklyn leaves right outside her apartment and as we both have never done this, we decide it’s a perfect day for it. It’s easy, you just use your metro card and it’s a fun ride; the views of the city are great.

The rest of the day we spent shopping on 5th avenue before returning to Andrea's place to relax for a bit before going for dinner. Dinner is at a restaurant I read about a couple of weeks before and was dying to try: the Fig and the Olive. There are several in Manhattan and we have reservations at the one uptown, on Lexington between 62nd and 63rd. Our table is ready when we walk in and we sit down and order a bottle of white wine while browsing the menu. They bring us freshly backed bread with 3 different types of olive oil, one from Greece, one from Spain and one from Italy; they are all delicious. The restaurant is almost full and there is a nice buzz. For starters we order a selection of the Crostini’s. I like all of them except the one with Bresaolo, goat cheese and black olive, but that is my fault as, although I love olive oil, I don’t like olives. My favorite is the mushroom crostini and I decide I have to try to make this at home for one of my dinner parties. For my main course I decide to order 2 starters instead of a main: the beef Carpaccio and the fig Gorgonzola tartlet. My friends order the shrimp and scallop paella and the lamb skewers. The food is wonderful, none of us is disappointed and I can add another great restaurant to my list.

Some people hate flying, not me.On Saturday morning I received a txt message from United to confirm my upgrade for the next day.  I get to the airport on Sunday morning, looking forward to my flight back to California. And when the captain announces that we have a strong head wind and flying time will be an unusual 6 hours and 20 minutes back to California, I just sit back, sip my mimosa and relax. What can I say, I just love to fly………

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Paris in Spring

I have been to Paris many times and my best memories of Paris are of the times that I visited in the spring. I always felt there was a special feeling of gaiety and happiness in the air. Maybe it is because people are happy that the cold and dark winter has finally come to an end, the promise of sunny days and leisurely strolls along the Seine, a coffee on the sidewalk at a little cafe. Paris is one of those cities that have "street life". You will notice, that with the first rays of sunshine, the outside terraces appear and they immediately fill up with people for lunch and an after work drink, whether it is a Monday, Tuesday or a Friday.

My favorite way of exploring Paris is on foot. I have taken several friends to Paris over the years and nearly killed some of them by making them walk all over the city. The good thing about walking is that you don't have to worry about all the delicious French food you will be eating: according to Mireille Guiliano's "why French women don't get fat" walking is part of that secret.

I will take you on a tour around Paris in the spring, visiting my favorite places, sipping cappuccino on one of the many sidewalk cafes, having a fresh croissant from the patisserie on the corner and eating in some of my favorite restaurants. We start our first day at the left bank as that is where I prefer to stay, my regular hotel being the Meridien Montparnasse, next to Montparnasse station. We start the day at the famous "Le Deux Magots" with either a coffee or a glass of champagne. They also have great omelets and foie gras if you are hungry.

Les Deux Magots is a Parisian landmark; famous people like Jean-Paul Sartre,  Simone de Beauvoir and Picasso used to come here, write, drink their coffees and meet up with friends. From the restaurant we cross Place Saint Germain de Pres and walk thru the narrow cobbled stoned streets towards Boulevard St Michel and the Quartier Latin, the student quarters. We stop to look at some of the windows of the little stores and boutiques. We leave the Quartier and cross Quai St Michel and lean over the wall to watch the bateaux mouches on the Seine.

On the other side of the Seine on the Ile the Cite, the little island in the middle of the river, you can see the Notre Dame. We cross the bridge and walk towards the grand old lady. It's a tradition for me to go in and light candles for my grandma and my dad. After leaving the Notre Dame, we walk towards to tip of the Ile the Cite. Here you will find one of the oldest bridges in Paris, the Pont Neuf, linking Rive gauche and Rive droite, the left bank with the right bank. We walk over the bridge towards the right bank, where our next stop is the Louvre. If you have a lot of time in Paris, definitely worth a visit; today we won't go in, we just walk around the outside before walking to the inside courtyards, admiring the architecture and trying to envision what it would have been like to live in a place like this centuries ago.

Thru the Tuileries garden, first designed by Catherine de Medici in the 16th century, we cross the Place de la Concorde and enter the famous Champs Elysee, the 5th avenue of Paris, or according to the French "the most beautiful street in the world". Time for a coffee at the terrace of the famous "Le Fouquet", or one of the many other restaurants that are lined up along the Champs Elysee, and do some people watching; it's easy to separate the tourists from the elegant and well-dressed Parisian people.  

After having recharged our battery with a cafe creme, we stroll along the Champs Elysee to the Arc de Triumph at the far end, on the Place Charles de Gaulle.

You can walk underneath the Place Charles de Gaulle to the center. The Arc the Triumph is built as a monument for all the soldiers that fought and died for France and it has the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier from WWI. There is an eternal flame burning in memory of all those unknown soldiers. If it is not too crowded it is worth going up to the top to look over Paris from there. We decide that we have walked enough for 1 day and we take the metro back to Boulevard Montparnasse, where we have a glass of my favorite Belgian beer at Cafe Leffe

Time to go back to the hotel and change. Tonight we have reservations at one of my favorite restaurants in Paris, Brasserie Lipp. Brasserie Lipp is an institution. Established in 1870, it's known to be frequented by politicians, writers, journalist and other famous people. Therefor I decide to dress up for tonight as I don't want to feel under-dressed compared to the chic French women, who always seem to have that natural elegance you cannot buy. Our reservation is at 7.30. The maître d' sees us to our table. As in most brasseries, the tables are so close together that he has to move the table so one of us can slide onto the bench before moving the table back. Only a couple of tables are occupied, but it is still early for Paris. The waiter, an impressive grey haired gentleman in black, hands us the menus welcoming us with a “Bonsoir M’sieur, M’dame, voulez vous un aperitif?" Here you won't find the 18 year college student serving you. In this restaurant you will only find yourself helped by older and very experienced waiters, who are proud of their job and hired because they have years of experience and reputation. the maître d' is supposed to be one of the best in Paris.

While sipping our Kir, we scan the menu. As always I am tempted to try something new, but as always I end up ordering the same as I have so many times before: fish soup for my starter and steak tartare for my main course. Before our starters arrive the waiter arrives at our table to prepare my steak tartare, adding spices and a raw egg to the raw ground beef before setting it apart until he will serve it. If you are not used to real French food, you will ask me, like several of my dinner companions before: "they will cook the meat before they serve it, right?". And I will smile and answer "No, I will eat it raw, just like that".

The fish soup is served. Pureed and thick, served on the side with little pieces of bread, a spicy rouille and grated gruyère. I put the rouille on the bread, put it in the soup and sprinkle it with gruyère and take my first spoonful. We enjoy this delicious dish while finishing up our Kir and while the waiter pours us a glass of the Chateauneuf-du-Pape that we had ordered earlier and he had already opened so it could breath. My main course is served with frites and my must-have side of mayonnaise. I sit back in my chair, look around, enjoying the food, the wine and the buzz in the restaurant, that by now is almost full. Conversations are animated, people are enjoying the company, the food, the wine. This is Paris, eating is a feast. Although we are tempted to order the profiteroles for dessert, we are good tonight and only order coffee. There are still 2 more days of eating and drinking ahead of us.

Day 2 of exploring Paris. How else to start the day, then with fresh coffee and a croissant, the way they only make them in France: flaky, buttery and still warm. So we walk to one of the patisseries on Rue de Rennes, close to our hotel. Sipping our coffee and nibbling our croissant, we discuss what we want to do today.

We decide to go first to the famous cemetery Pere Lachaise, where Jim Morrison is buried. So after finishing our breakfast, we walk down into the metro station and buy our tickets. We change trains at one of the major stations, Chatelet-les-Halles, and from there take a direct train to the famous Pere Lachaise. The metro can look intimidating at first but once you have the hang of it and understand the system, its a great way of getting around the city. Just don't go in at night close to closing time, you might get stuck and have to jump the gate in order to get out, I had to do that once, not a fun experience.

The cemetery is big so get a map if you want to know who is buried where (it’s a bit like the Hollywood star map with all the residences of famous people, although here they are dead.) Besides Jim Morrison there are a lot of famous people buried in Pere Lachaise and although I am not a big fan of cemeteries, this one feels special and even a bit romantic. Thru the long lanes surrounded by blossoming trees, we walk past graves of French writers, politicians and poets. We see the graves of Chopin, Maria Callas, Edith Piaf, several members of the Rothschild family and Oscar Wilde. Jim Morrison's grave is small and unimpressive. I always feel sorry for the people buried next to him as fans stump all over their graves to pay respects to their hero.

After having walked among the dead all morning, we feel the need to be among the living and what better place than a visit to the lively Montmartre. The train drops us at the bottom of the stairs that lead us to the Sacre Coeur. We climb what feels like a hundred or more stairs to reach one of my favorite churches.

It is a clear and sunny day and turning our backs to the Basilica, and with Montmartre being the highest point in Paris, we have a view of almost all of Paris. We can see the Eiffel Tower and all the way towards the Montparnasse Tower next to our hotel. We walk around the church and afterwards walk to the Place du Tertre, the main square where a number of famous painters like Salvador Dali, Monet, Picasso and Vincent van Gogh used to live or work. I know its one of the most touristy places in the city, but I can't help myself, there is something about this place and the atmosphere that makes me come back here every time I am in Paris. We walk around the little square, looking at the artists trying to sell their stuff. Some of it is good, some definitely is not. It's lunch time and we are getting hungry. I know a little restaurant on the corner of the square that has the best Croque Monsieur so that's where we are going. 10 minutes after we give the waiter our order, our plates arrive. Croque monsieur might not sound interesting if you read the description on the menu: ham and cheese sandwich, but this is not just a ham and cheese sandwich, this is the best ham and cheese sandwich in the world: baked cheese on the top, black forest ham, gruyère and béchamel sauce inside, this is a piece of art. Over lunch we discuss what we should do that afternoon and we decide to do some shopping at the famous department store Gallerie Lafayette on the Blvd Hausmann, across from the Opera house.

Before we go into Gallerie Lafayette, we take a quick stroll around the Opera. It is a magnificent building and was actually the inspiration for "The Phantom of the Opera". We cross the street to enter les Galleries Lafayette. Not only is it a great department store, it is a beautiful building from an architectural point, with the inside area completely open with a beautifully painted ceiling. After happily browsing the different floors, we leave with a handful of shopping bags. I am content as I have stored up on my favorite french cosmetics from Caudalie. Via Rue de la Paix we walk to the Place Vendome, home of the Ritz and some of the most famous design and jewelery stores in the world. We walk around the place, window shopping at my favorite store, Cartier. We decide its time for a glass of champagne and where better then in the Ritz. They are picky here and security is tight, and depending on what famous guests are staying, they might not even let you get into the door. Today we are lucky, they let us into the front door but immediately a liveried doorman approaches us asking us for our room key. We tell him we are not guests, but we would like to have a drink and he escorts us to the bar, making sure we cannot access any other part of the hotel. I guess the price of the rooms here are not just for the room, but also for the guests privacy. We are seated and order our glass of champagne at 20 euro each. This is the price you pay for being at the hotel where Lady D used to stay. We linger over our champagne, relaxing, people watching and making up stories about them. We decide to leave the Ritz in style and take a taxi back to our hotel.

Dinner tonight is at another one of my favorite restaurants, Chez Andre on Rue Marbeuf. Compared to Lipp, Chez Andre feels warmer, less intimidating. The restaurant has a great name but the atmosphere, even though the service is impeccable, seems less formal and the clientele more low key. It is more like having dinner at your neighborhood restaurant among the locals.

After ordering our aperitif, we browse the menu. I don't have to think very long.  It's day 2 in Paris; I have to have foie gras today. For my main course another classic: moules frites. With that we order a nice bottle of Alsace Riesling. The foie gras melts on my tongue and is served with pieces of warm toast. I am in food heaven. After that my mussels arrive. A big steaming pot is put on the table, full of big black mussels in a sauce of white wine and cream. I dip a piece of bread in the sauce and taste it. It is delicious. With it come real french fries: thin, crisp, with just enough salt and of course my side of mayonnaise. Tonight we decide to sin as it is Saturday night and we are in Paris. I order cheese for dessert and have a glass of red wine with it. I convince you to try the mousse au chocolate. Of course we share. Feeling guilty after all this food, we decide to walk from the restaurant to the Seine, to look at the Eiffel Tower. Its a short walk to the Pont Alexandre. This is another bridge connecting the Rive gauche with the Rive Droite and leads directly to Les Invalides, the resting place of Napoleon. To me this is the most beautiful bridge in Paris with its ornate lamp posts and cherubs.


From the bridge you have a spectacular view of the Eiffel Tower and at night there is a light show every 15 minutes. We watch the show and afterwards stroll along the Seine to have a closer look at the famous monument. It's a beautiful night, the sky is clear and the air is warm. We sit on one of the benches along the Seine and watch the boats float by. We decide to end the night with a  night cap at Le Ciel du Paris on top of the Montparnasse Tower.

Its our last day and we debate whether we should go to Invalides or the Musee D'Orsay this morning. We decide to let Napoleon rest, he has been there so many years, he will still be there next time. Instead we head to the Musee D'Orsay; housed in an old railway station, it is famous for its sculptures and impressionist paintings. The building itself is worth a visit even if you are not into museums but as far as museums go, I prefer it over the Louvre.

We wander around the various floors, admiring the Monets, Renoirs, Cezannes and van Goghs and afterwards visit the museum store. From the museum we walk to Blvd St Germain and window shop in all the designer stores. It's time for a coffee so we stop at a sidewalk cafe and sit outside drinking a cappuccino, watching the hustle and the bustle of the left bank. From St Germain we decide to take the metro to the Marais, one of the quartiers that in the last couple of decades has transformed from a neglected and poor neighborhood into one of the hipper quartiers, with a lot of art galleries, smaller and funkier shops, cafes and night clubs. One of the most famous places in the Marais is the Place des Vosges. It dates back to 1600 and used to be a Royal Palace. Today it houses the Victor Hugo museum, as he used to live there. We walk around the square, underneath the arches. The former palace now houses art galleries, boutiques and restaurants. Our target is Ma Bourgogne, in one of the corners of the square, where we have planned to have lunch. 

We are lucky and find a table outside, under the arches. It is another glorious spring day so it is nice to sit outside, but when you eat at Ma Bourgogne you definitely have to go inside as the interior is worth seeing as it is very old and authentic. I can't resist and order foie gras again. It is after all only when I am in France that I can eat it. They have wonderful salads and steaks as well. We order half a bottle of Chablis with it. Life in France is good, although it's good we don't do this year round. After lunch we walk around the narrow cobble stoned streets of the Marais, browsing thru some of the little stores and art galleries, enjoying another coffee before returning to our hotel.

Tonight we are going to do something different. After all the wonderful but rich French food, tonight we are going to the Blue Elephant. There are Blue Elephant restaurants all over the world and I have been to the ones in London, Brussels and Paris and enjoyed every visit. We take a taxi to the heart of Bastille, where the restaurant is located. When we walk in it feels like we enter a different world. Statues, elaborate flower arrangements, Thai decorations and little waterfalls, make it easy to pretend you are in a Thai garden. And it is all very elegant and sophisticated with an eye for details. The decor and atmosphere is definitely one of the main attractions for me, but I always really enjoy the food as well.

We order several dishes: spring rolls, chicken sateh's, beef penang, fried jumbo shrimp and the jasmine rice, which I love. With that we have a refreshing bottle of Pouilly Fume to add a little bit of a French touch to the dinner, we are after all in Paris.  

And for the second night in a row I cannot resist dessert when I see the fried banana with ice cream on the menu. I almost lick my plate. Although not a very "French" last night to close out our Paris trip, it is definitely another great restaurant and a great meal.

This tour has only given you a glimpse of Paris and you have only had a taste of some of the food. There are so many great restaurants that I have been to in Paris, to name a few: Montparnasse 1900, Alsace, La Marine, La Fermette Marbeuf and new ones arrive all the time.

City of food, city of wine, oh Paris, je t'aime.......


Wednesday, January 12, 2011

A Taste of Las Vegas

When thinking about Las Vegas, most people will say: gambling, drinking and sex. But Sin City has changed over the years and has a lot more to offer now. Of course the casinos and gentlemen's clubs are still there, but beyond those, you'll find great hotels, worldclass shows and amazingly good restaurants. During my first visit to Las Vegas in the nineties, restaurants was the "all-you-can-eat" buffets for $4.99 or $ 6.99 and Marie Callenders for breakfast, but these days, top chefs from all over the world have found their way to Las Vegas.

I am not a gambler, but for the past several years I have truely enjoyed my trips to Las Vegas and I have had some of the best meals and nights out there. During my last trip to Las Vegas I found a real gem. A small French restaurant just of the far end of the strip across the street from the Sahara Hotel, in a little strip mall next door to a tattoo parlor. Walking passed the tattoo parlor wondering if we had the wrong address, we all of a sudden spotted the sign "Pamplemousse". We hesitated before entering the little building with the pink neon sign. "is this a nightclub or a restaurant" we wondered. But once inside we were happily surprised: cozy and initmate are the best words to describe Pamplemousse. The restaurant is small, only about 10-15 tables, low ceilings, mirrors and pictures on the walls and nice crips white table linen.

The Maitre D escorted us to our table and our waiter came over immediately asking us if we had dined with them before. We told him we were first timers. and that walking up to the restaurant, looking at the tattoo parlor next door, we had had our doubts. He smiled and told us that they had been on this same location since the owner had founded it 35 years before and the owner was still there and the same chef he had hired and trained a couple of years after he started.

On the website it had mentioned a fix price 3 course menu of $ 38 with several choices of appetizers, entrees and desserts. Because we were there during a convention, they did not have the fix price menu, only a la carte. We browsed the menu and I realized I only had one problem: I wished I could order everything on the menu as it all sounded wonderful. My problem became even bigger when our waiter came back to inform us about the specials. After a long debate with myself and with some help from the waiter I decided on one of the specials for my appetizer and the duck for the main course. And I was not disappointed.

But first came a basket with vegetables for the table with a vinaigrette dipping sauce and french bread. And when I say french bread I mean real french bread: thin, warm, crisp on the outside and soft and fresh on the inside. Then came the appetizers. Mine was a seafood medley in a lobster sause over a piece of puff pastry. Sinfully rich, but delicious. A good thing that the portion was not too big or I would not have been able to eat the rest of the dinner. My main course of duck came with a duck leg in addition to the thin slices of duck breast. The breast was prepared perfectly pink and served in a raspberry sauce. We had ordered vegetables and "frites" for the table and shared a bottle of shyraz with it.

Some of us couldn't resist dessert and ordered the profiterolles. I like profiterolles and had to at least have a bite. Although I prefer them with cream instead of icecream, they were very nice, the chocolate rich, dark and warm. I love food, specially French food and I have to say that Pamplemousse is a great little find and I am still debating whether I should recommend it and promote it or keep it my own little secret.

Monday, January 3, 2011

2010 - A Good Year

And it was, a good year, no it was a great year. I did so many things I wanted to do and traveled to great places with great friends. I have lived this past year as if every day can be the last. Maybe it started when I found out that the wife of one of my colleagues had a premature baby at the end of January and then was hospitalized in February with stage 4 cancer. She was only 38 years old and although I had only met her once, this moved me beyond belief. Sowmya died in June and that is when I started my bucket list and my blog.  

It was a year of travel: I went to Hawaii in March and had a great time with my friends there. I flew to New York in spring time to meet friends from the Netherlands, spending a great Easter weekend in one of my favorite cities in the world. For 4th of July I spent a relaxing 4 days in Tahoe with my “American family” Mark, Virginia and Sophie


One of the travel highlights of last year was my trip to Italy in August. First Andrea & Tony’s wonderful wedding in Spoleto and after that a couple of days in Rome. Rome had been on my list for a long time and it is one of those cities that I fell in love with instantly. To recover from all my trips I went back to Hawaii in September for a long weekend of sun, sand and relaxation. In October Sally and I flew to Scottsdale Arizona for a girl’s weekend and we had a great time at the Westin Kierland resort. We spent Thanksgiving in Tahoe again with Virginia’s family. It was beautiful, a winter wonderland as the first snow of the season arrived early this year. And finally in December another trip to New York with Genie: Christmas shopping and to getting into the Christmas spirit. New York is great; New York around Christmas time is the greatest city in the world.

It was a year of music. First there was the Elton John and Billy Joel concert in February and a week later Bon Jovi. Virginia and I went to see Daughtry and Sandhya and I went to Lady Gaga for my birthday. The music highlight of the year was definitely the Bon Jovi concert in July in Chicago. Virginia and I flew to Chicago just to see the last US concert. We had seats in the circle, row 3 and it was unforgettable. Since then we have probably created the youngest Bon Jovi fan in the world. Sophie started recognizing my ring tone and started singing “It’s my life”. After she watched the DVD of the concert in Madison Square Garden on my iTouch for the first time this summer, she must have seen it since more times than anybody and she sings along with Living on a Prayer, Raise your hands, Hallelujah and Born to be my baby. She will look at the pictures on my phone and say “I like Jon Jovi auntie Ril”. The next generation Bon Jovi fans have arrived.

It was also a year of health. I had told myself as part of my new year’s resolutions that I would finally be better at working out regularly. In March I started running; yes imagine: me, running. I have never been a runner, I always hated running. And here I am: it’s December 2010 and I am still running. I am running 2-3 times a week. And I love it. I did my first half marathon in October and I proudly own my Tiffany necklace that says “I run to be, NWM 2010”. And because I am running, I am living healthier, eating healthier and I have never felt so energized. This allowed me to indulge every now and then in my other hobby: cooking and eating. I shared many nights with good friends, good food and good wine this year. Goody and I had a couple of very fun cooking classes at the Professional Culinary Institute. (The most important lesson I learned is that I will never make croissants myself again).


Yes 2010 was a great year and now I can’t wait to start a new decade. I have so much to be grateful for, I am healthy, I have a job, I travel to great places. I have my family back home and my American family in California. I have wonderful friends all over the world. Roll on 2011; I am looking forward to new beginnings, spending time with old friends and new ones, visiting new places and old ones. Life is a journey and I am enjoying the trip as much as I can.

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