Jun
01
2014

Imbiber

Exploring the Willamette Valley from our home base, Abbey Road Farms

Exploring the Willamette Valley from our home base, Abbey Road Farms

SAKÉ in the WILLAMETTE VALLEY

Photos and article by Virginia Miller

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SakéOne’s rice milling machine

In the heart of the Willamette Valley, Oregon’s most lauded wine region, I found myself surrounded by vineyards, rolling hills, farmland… reminding me not a little of home in Northern California. I also found myself immersed in… saké? Yes, my Springtime jaunt not only caught rare, blissful, sunny days breaking out amid a sea of rain, but an education on the quality of sake now being made in the US, thanks to SakéOne.

Studying

Studying saké

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The only cedar Koji room in the US

Founded in 1992 (bottling began in 1998) as an offshoot of Japan’s Momokawa Brewing, SakéOne sought to fill a gap in the US where few sakés were made and most of low quality. Head brewer Greg Lorenz (who has been at SakéOne since 2002) and president Steve Vuylsteke graciously gave us proper schooling on saké, covering styles from gingo to daigingo, and walked us through the brewery for a step-by-step of the brewing process.

As with many spirits and beverages, water source is crucial, and theirs is nearby Hagg Lake, a reservoir filled with fresh coastal rain and mountain water.

SakéOne stores tons of rice, a Japanese strain grown outside Sacramento, California, which is first polished in the rice milling machine (pictured above, left), imported from Japan.

What rice looks like as it ferments

What rice looks like as it ferments

SakéOne is the only saké brewery in the US who mills their own rice. The milling/polishing process strips fats, removes bitter and “undesirable” flavors, getting down to the starch core. As with beer and spirits, there are yeasts involved, but with saké, there is also mold (aka koji), which helps convert starch into sugar over a 2-day period in their cedar-walled Koji room – the only one in the US (pictured right). The room is like a dry sauna, hot with aromas of cedarwood and rice.

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Milled rice

While there are numerous styles of saké, SakéOne focuses only on junmai gingo sakés in their production, which refers to the level the rice is milled or polished down to (60% or more, which gets to the essence of the grain, daigingo is at least 50%, gingo is at least 40%) and in Japan, it also refers the fact that no brewer’s alcohol (aka honjozo) is added (in the US, adding brewer’s alcohol is outlawed entirely). They also import a number of sakés from Japan, allowing the pleasure of comparing the subtle differences between US produced and Japanese sakés.

Studying rice in various stages of sake production

Studying rice in various stages of sake production

They cover the range, starting with entry-level sakés, like fruit-infused Moonstone sakés, or the soft, elegant import SakéMoto, produced in Japan in partnership with Hakutsuru brewery. I am particularly taken with their unpasteurized Nama saké, which is sadly only available in Oregon since it is quite fresh and perishable so quality degrades when shipping. It’s subtly effervescent and crisp, gorgeous with food.

I can’t get enough of Momokawa Organic Nigori, the unfiltered, creamy style of saké that leaves rice solids in for texture. It sings with coconut and pear notes and goes well with all manner of takeout and every day eating. One of their imports I am drawn to is the Kasumi Tsuru Kimoto Extra Dry, which is, yes, dry, but also crisp and earthy, produced by traditional methods from a brewery that goes back to 1725.

Hanging with llamas, sheep and goats at Abbey Road

Hanging with llamas, sheep and goats at Abbey Road

Try not to fall in love - my new friend, a precious, one day old baby sheep

Try not to fall in love – my new found friend, a precious, one day old lamb

Abbey Road Farms silos

Abbey Road Farms silos

Sleeping in Silos on a Farm

Enjoying a lovely charcuterie and cheese platter over dinner in the wine room/event space at Abbey Road

Enjoying a lovely charcuterie and cheese platter over dinner in the wine room/event space at Abbey Road

After one night in Portland, I made the jaunt about an hour outside the city to stay at Abbey Road Farms, an idyllic farm where I was surrounded by sheep (including just-born lambs who won my heart), goats, llamas, all manner of animals, and slept in converted, upscale silos.

The stay was made memorable by husband-wife owners, John and Judi, and their sweet dog, Fuzz, whose soulful calm invades the place, ensuring a visit is rejuvenating and restoring… even a press trip, which is normally about a morning-till-night, nonstop schedule. Over farm-cooked breakfasts and singing around a fire pit at nights under the stars, I left renewed and inspired.

Wandering the farm

Wandering the farm

Dining in a Restored Victorian

The Painted Lady

The Painted Lady

The Painted Lady in the town of Newburg, OR, is a special dining experience in a restored Victorian house (yes, the house is a historic Painted Lady, restored as part of the movement begun in San Francisco), which also doubles as a guest house. Charming and elegant, we ate in the intimate upstairs dining room with excellent service over fine dining, each course thoughtfully paired with saké.

Hazelnut-crusted venison loin, horseradish potatoes, foie gras & chestnut sauce with G Sake Fifty

Hazelnut-crusted venison loin over horseradish potatoes in a foie gras & chestnut sauce infused with G Sake Fifty

There were a number of standouts from Chef/Owner Allen Routt, including sweet onion custard accented by smoked, raw diver scallops and porcini consommé (paired with Momokawa Diamond saké) and pure-as-silk, slow-roasted (blessedly rare inside) steelhead salmon alongside spinach and butternut squash ravioli, paired with Momokawa Silver saké.

Tasting Regional Beverages

Big Bottom Whiskey

Big Bottom Whiskey

SakéOne threw an Oregon Craft Beverages tasting while we were visiting, showcasing regional wines, beers, spirits, cider and liqueurs that gave us a chance to meet producers and sample what is happening in drink in the region.

While Reverend Nat’s Hard Cider was a fresh, strong cider in the scheme of artisanal, small production ciders, they were oddly withholding at their table (considering this was a press event) in allowing tasting of the most interesting-sounding bottles at their table saying they were for display (?) and weren’t coming out till the fall, though the full bottles probably shouldn’t have been brought if they weren’t meant to sample. We’ll have to guess what their Sacrilege Sour Cherry (modeled after kreik lambic beer) tastes like.

Reverend Nat's Hard Ciders

Reverend Nat’s Hard Ciders

While I was wary of Vertigo Brewery‘s Razz Wheat beer made with fresh raspberries, fearing it might be too fruity, even after tasting their enjoyable Friar Mike’s English IPA, I actually preferred the Razz Wheat, which was dry, tart and subtle.

Based in Hillsboro, OR, Big Bottom Whiskey was refreshingly forthright about sourcing their “juice” (whiskey) from the South, as countless distillers do, to blend their Big Bottom Straight Bourbon Whiskey. It’s a pleasing whiskey, blending 36% rye whiskey with the corn/bourbon for stronger spice and complexity. They also were also pouring Calhoun Bros. Aged Rum, aged in their bourbon barrels, subtle with sweet, bracing spice.

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Jun
01
2014

Wandering Traveler

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Pepe Le Moko Grasshopper

Pepe Le Moko Amaretto Sour

Pepe Le Moko Amaretto Sour

One Night in Portland

Photos and article by Virginia Miller

In visits past, I’ve had a full week to dig into over 50 restaurants, food spots and bars around Portland. But this Spring it was a visit to the Willamette Valley with the wonderful SakeOne that brought me up north. I only had one night in Portland, though, in typical fashion, I packed in 3 restaurants, a coffee shop and 2 cocktail bars.

Basement charmer: Pepe Le Moko, the new bar from Jeffrey Morgenthaler

Basement charmer: Pepe Le Moko, the new bar from Jeffrey Morgenthaler

Cocktails

Luc Lac cocktails

Luc Lac cocktails

Let’s just get the bad news out of the way: some of the worst customer service I have ever encountered behind a bar anywhere in the world (out of a few hundred visits per year) – and from the bar manager, no less – happened at Luc Lac Kitchen. Though I must warn against making this a stop, it’s not worth getting into the details of disinterested, distant and cold service from the moment guests walk up to the bar (ask, and I’ll fill you in, however). The biggest disappointment  – besides having to pay for such treatment – was wasting a visit on this spot when I had singled out Luc Lac for its unique cocktail menu featuring Asian ingredients from kaffir lime to Thai tea to mung beans. The cocktails were good but the service makes it a big “no” (try Danny Louie’s fantastic Asian-influenced cocktails at Chino in SF… with gracious service).

Bakersfield Picon Punch Royale ($10): Torani Amer Picon, lemon, Oregon brandy, grenadine, sparkling wine

On a happier note, modern day bar legend Jeffrey Morgenthaler‘s Pepe Le Moko, around the corner from his famed Clyde Common bar, was merely a month old when I visited this Spring. Besides a warm welcome at the door, we received engaged service downstairs in the intimate bar that feels akin to spots like the new Nitecap in NYC… but Pepe Le Moko is friendlier. Bar snacks ($3) include cumin roasted pistachio nuts, and there’s also bocadillos ($5) loaded with the likes of sardines and pickled fennel or nutella and Jacobsen sea salt.

What’s fun about the cocktails here is the menu dominates with guilty pleasure favorites like an Amaretto Sour, Grasshopper or a Long Island Iced Tea – yes, elevated but not necessarily always using “artisanal” spirits. In fact, it’s funny seeing mainstream, sweet brands mixed in with smaller brands. Given the cocktail expertise behind the bar, balance is the name of the game and the four I tasted were lovely (and should be, at up to $14 per cocktail).

Pickled mackerel at Biwa

Pickled mackerel at Biwa

Morgenthaler’s Amaretto Sour ($14) recipe is a good as I’d heard: nutty, tart, sweet and boozy with amaretto, overproof bourbon, lemon and egg white.

But I couldn’t help it: my favorite is the Grasshopper ($11). While I’ve had (and make at home) gorgeous versions of what was my first favorite cocktail as a girl (ahem!) when Tempus Fugit first came out with their incomparable creme de menthe and creme de cacao in 2011, the Pepe version is more like a boozy-but-light milkshake – made with Bols Crème de menthe, Decaypur crème de cacao, Fernet BrancaMenta, vanilla ice cream and sea salt for balance. An ideal dessert.

Charming Zilla Sake

Charming Zilla Sake

Izakaya Crawl

Natto fried in shiso leaves at Yuzu

Natto fried in shiso leaves at Yuzu

On an izakaya crawl with SakeOne, I hit three memorable, wide-ranging spots within the category in one night.

The first, YUZU, is technically in Beaverton, a suburb of Portland, and worth the trek out for Japanese food aficionados. A humble hole-in-the-wall in a strip mall known for their sake and their ramen, we fared best on authentic Japanese small plates/pub (izakaya) fare. They shine in affordable dishes like tender, thinly shaved beef tongue, grilled sardines and natto (funky, fermented soybeans) deep fried in shiso leaves.

Snacking at Zilla

Snacking at Zilla

ZILLA SAKE HOUSE is more hipster and funky, but in a more residential area of Portland, it’s mellow and welcoming in rustic woods, churning out solid sushi and sashimi, with pleasing izakaya plates and specials, and a 40+ sake menu.

BIWA is a bustling izakaya with a basement dining room that serves food till midnight every night, fusing Korean and other cuisines and flavors into Japanese pub fare. There’s a number of enjoyable small plates but it’s all about the room temperature, pickled mackerel. Bright, pickled, briny and delicious, it accompanies the array of sakes beautifully.

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May
15
2014

Wandering Traveler

It could only be Rome: sunset from the Hotel Eden atop (just behind) the Spanish Steps... evenings in Rome are magic

It could only be Rome: sunset from the Hotel Eden atop (just behind) the Spanish Steps with the Vatican in the distance… evenings in Rome are magic

12 Food & Drink Destinations in ROME

Article & Photos by Virginia Miller

Inside Glass Hosteria

Inside Glass Hosteria

My beloved Roma, my favorite city in the world. The most romantic. Ancient. Chic. Otherworldly. I cherished being back for the third time to Rome (fourth time to Italy) in October for my 10th anniversary. The Renaissance Man and I wandered Roma’s ancient, cobblestone streets from our apartment near the Spanish Steps, near where we stayed on our honeymoon for a month-long exploration through a number of Italy’s fabled regions.

Returning to Rome meant, naturally, we ate well. Ridiculously well. So I must share with you my favorites this trip.

The otherworldly Pantheon at night

The otherworldly Pantheon at night

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A Glass Hostaria stunner: foie gras ball oozing passion fruit puree inside like an egg yolk, dusted in white chocolate crumble with brioche

Restaurants

GLASS HOSTARIA

Dark beer and dark chocolate-filled little button ravioli little button dusted with cacao y pepe (chocolate and pepper) in a sauce of special reserve Pecorino Romano

Dark beer and dark chocolate-filled little button ravioli dusted with cacao y pepe (chocolate and pepper) in a sauce of special reserve Pecorino Romano cheese

From brilliant and gracious Chef Cristina Bowerman, Michelin-starred Glass Hostaria is one of the more forward thinking and truly unique meals I’ve had anywhere in Italy – or Europe, for that matter. As an Italian native, she spent well over a decade living in the US (including Austin). Besides speaking English perfectly, she clearly possesses a global sense of scope – and fun – in her imaginative dishes (tasting menus run 70 Euros for 4 courses, 90 Euros for 8 smaller courses).

In the heart of the ever-enchanting Trastevere neighborhood, the two-floored, openspace is modern and innovative (pictured above) – the second floor view is best.

One course after another is striking and delicious. Just look at some of the ingredient combinations pictured (dark chocolate and beer filled ravioli dusted in pepper and cacao in a decadent Pecorino sauce, or spaghetti with lime curd, cilantro and Oestra caviar!) These combinations even world travelers who frequent Michelin-starred restaurants have not seen before. It’s hard to only share a few of Bowerman’s wonders, but they are described with photos here.

Bluefin tuna sashimi wrapped in veal tongue pastrami, peach kimchi sauce, algae, lotus salad

Bluefin tuna sashimi is wrapped in veal tongue pastrami (Bowerman studied pastrami in NYC), dotted with peach kimchi sauce, alga and, lotus salad

Wow: a Rome fountain

Wow: a 17th century Roman fountain, Fontana dell’Acqua Paola, said to be the inspiration for the Trevi fountain

Purple potato (Italy-grown) cooked in clay, sea urchin egg sauce, sea beans (Buddha’s fingers)

At Glass Hostaria: a local purple potato cooked in clay, decadent in sea urchin egg sauce with Buddha’s fingers (sea beans)

Perfection: urchin from the spiny shell and oysters at Il San Lorenzo

Perfection: urchin from the spiny shell and oysters at Il San Lorenzo

IL SAN LORENZO

Plump & sweet: local red shrimp

Plump & sweet: local red shrimp

Seafood: I’ve been a fanatic about it my whole life and have eaten some of the best in the world from the Pacific to the Mediterranean. But at sleek, intimate Il San Lorenzo, I had one of my favorite seafood dinners ever. A huge reason for this was the incredible service, humor and wine recommends from the sommelier who attended to us. Sipping wines from Alto Adige (a gorgeous 2010 Borgo del Tiglio Malvasia) or an elegant, tropical 2012 Poppoff Sauvignon Blanc from German producers in Northern Italy, to the complex 2009 Lagrein Reserve, was a pleasure.

Sea urchin spaghetti

Sea urchin spaghetti

But so was eating sea urchin straight from its spiny shell. Raw red shrimp carpaccio splayed artfully across the plate and drizzled in olive oil and orange zest. From Chef Enrico Pierri, who focuses on locally caught seafood, we dined on cod, tuna and amberjack tartare. There were rare Belon oysters, thank you very much. And tortelli filled with spider crab. And sea urchin spaghetti. I could go on. But I’d rather just return again to this slice of Roman seafood heaven.

That only-in-Rome evening glow

That only-in-Rome evening glow

COSO

View from upstairs table at Coso over cobblestone streets

View from upstairs table at Coso over cobblestone streets

Coso is bustling and filled with boisterous locals filling up on hearty plates of spaghetti alla carbonara, saltimbocca alla Romana (veal topped with ham and sage, grilled in Marsala wine) and bucatini all’amatriciana. Start with cornmeal fried layers of aubergine (eggplant), Parmesan and basil and savor the affordable wines. Upstairs is particularly fun as you dine on grey and cream-checkered tablecloths. Besides its convenient location between the Spanish Steps and Piazza Colonna, most dishes run under 12 Euro and are big enough to share. This was a great locals’ recommendation.

ANTICO ARCO

Sidewalk seating view at Antico Arco

Sidewalk seating view at Antico Arco

Antico Arco is not so much about mind-blowing food as it is an idyllic hilltop setting, on Gianicolo hill, near Trastevere.

It makes a lovely lunch spot at one of three small outside tables on a warm day with Vespas speeding by over the hill. I filled up on buffalo mozzarella ($13.50) in a crispy pastry wrapping, accented by salted tuna roe and tomato confit, and raw amberjack tartare ($17) brightened by ginger, lime and fresh artichokes. The house chitarra pasta ($14), laden with Pecorino cheese, black pepper and zucchini blossoms, sounded amazing but was salty and surprisingly bland – I sadly grew weary of the dish a few bites in.

Hilltop over Rome

Hilltop over Rome

Drink

THE JERRY THOMAS PROJECT, Rome

We're in Europe, folks: cocktails & cigarettes

We’re in Europe, folks: cocktails & cigarettes

Those of us that have been following this renaissance the past decade plus long ago wearied of passwords and attitude-laden bars. In cities like my own, a well made cocktail with classic ethos is the norm, not the exception, so you expect it without pretension, though I am a big proponent of having elegant places to drink, even ones with reservations.

Inside Jerry Thomas Project

Inside Jerry Thomas Project

Thankfully, I wasn’t pressed to give a password at the unmarked door near Chiesa Nuova at The Jerry Thomas Project, Rome’s first modern-day speakeasy. Nor was there attitude. Bustling but intimate inside, I cozied up on couches set to jazz, the feel very New York or SF gathering for beat poets and writers circa 1950′s (despite the 1920′s speakeasy theme). After visiting Rome multiple times, it’s refreshing to see the cocktail renaissance finally hit my beloved city.

Sipping a whiskey cocktail next to shelf artifacts

Sipping a whiskey cocktail next to shelf artifacts

I even drank mezcal in Rome! (You know it’s universal when…) I enjoyed the Mex Man (15 Euro), a blend of Illegal Mezcal Anejo, Carpano Antica sweet vermouth, agave syrup, house coffee-cacao bitters and a smoked cherry. They also have an absinthe fountain and do a nice twist on a classic Daiquiri, the Kaffir Daiquiri (10 Euro), mixing Havana Club 3 year rum, lime and kaffir lime-infused simple syrup.

There’s a few more cocktail bars that have popped up even since my fall visit, per The Spirits Business. I will check some of these out next time.

OPEN BALADIN ROMA

Open Baladin is craft beer/beer geek heaven. Engaged and passionate service made us feel welcome to linger, sample beers, get locals tips for food and hear about an incredible beer festival happening that very weekend we were there: EurHop! Beer Festival.

The back wall of Open Baladin

The back wall of Open Baladin

Baladin was started by a food/drink writer, so I already have a soft spot. And I’ve been drinking beers from Baladin’s breweries from San Francisco’s Healthy Spirits for a few years now.

Here at their Rome bar, they have over 40 Italian beers on draft and another 100 by the bottle. Since the Renaissance Man and I love Italian beers and the mark-up can often be so high at home, it was a delight to order them cheaply here and to sample even more. On draft, we loved bright, floral Borgo Duchessa, made with farro grain; the dry, bitter, tropical notes of Extraomnes ZEST; and I especially was drawn to the nutty, sweet, layered tones of Birrifico Ducato L’Ultima Luna, cask-aged with amarone wine.

Fantastic Roman pizza

Fantastic Roman pizza from Roscioli with a bottle of crisp, dry, Sicilian lemon soda, Lurisia La Nostra Gazzosa

Bakeries/Pizza

ROSCIOLI

Tazza d'Oro espresso granita

Tazza d’Oro espresso granita

Roscioli is classic Rome and a place I could return to again and again just for a slice of their daily Roman-style pizza… ah, that rosemary, onion and cheese white pizza with perfect crust. Perfection.

It’s also a fantastic take-out source (there are a few standup tables inside and one outside if you eat in) for baked goods, breads, cheeses, meats and wines.

BOCCIONE – Il Forno del Ghetto, Via del Portico d’Ottavia 1, phone: +39 066878637

There’s no sign and it’s closet-sized but as soon as you enter the heart of Rome’s Jewish Ghetto and see the gesticulating Jewish Roman women pushing their way around each other for baked goods, you’ll know you’ve found Boccione  also known as the ‘The Kosher bakery.” Be prepared to push and demand your way in. There’s no descriptions or signs for food so unless you speak Italian, be prepared to pick something and point.

Lines outside of B

Lines outside of Boccione

The ricotta and sour cherry pie (torta di ricotta e visciole) makes me sigh with happiness: fluffy ricotta in blackened, nearly caramelized crust (you’ll know it by the charred outer layer). I’ve also had it with ricotta and chocolate chips.

Cinnamon and almond biscotti and the fruitcake-like pizza ebraica draw crowds, but I go for the torta di ricotta, grab an espresso elsewhere and reflect on the intense cultural experience I’ve had. P.S. it’s cash only.

Expensive, nearly 20 Euro Americanos come with all kinds of snack and the spectacular sunset above in a quiet setting at Hotel Eden atop the Spanish Steps

Expensive, nearly 20 Euro Americanos come with all kinds of snack and the spectacular sunset above in a quiet setting at Hotel Eden bar behind the Spanish Steps

Gelato

Patio at Gelateria del Teatro

Patio at Gelateria del Teatro

GELATERIA del TEATRO

One cannot be in Italy without partaking of the incomparable joys of gelato. For me, morning, noon and night sounds about right and I partake as much as I can stand it. Il Gelato di San Crispino has grown into a mini-chain since I first fell in love with it over a decade ago, but I still enjoyed revisiting this gelato haven.

Every visit there’s a standout – or a few. This visit it was Gelateria del Teatro, near the Piazza Navona, that left the biggest impression. The side courtyard is certainly part of the charm (pictured right). But it’s all about the fantastic, unusual flavors and a storefront window where one can watch the ice cream being made daily in the laboratorio, the window lined with ingredients like Sicilian pistachios or lemons from Amalfi.

Standouts include their popular raspberry sage, pear caramel, Sicilian wine cream, and my favorite: cheese and cherry (like cream cheese with sour-sweet cherries).

Coffee

SANT’EUSTACHIO

Shakeratos at Sant'Eastachio

Shakeratos at Sant’Eastachio

Since 1938, Sant’Eustachio is quintessential Roma coffee and an ideal remembrance to bring back a bag or two of house-roasted beans… and they are just around the corner from the Pantheon.

Standing at the counter drinking an espresso, or better yet, a shakerato, espresso and simple syrup shaken on ice with their little red machine, is, for me, a necessary Rome experience.

TAZZA d’ORO

In the shadow of the Pantheon: Tazza

In the shadow of the Pantheon: Tazza

Thanks to my friend Steven Liles for turning me on to this gem, which, just like Sant’Eustachio, is mere steps from the Pantheon. In fact, Tazza d’Oro is within view of it.

Since 1946, owner Mario Fiocchetto has brought South American beans direct from growers to this charmingly dated, bustling shop.

Besides making beautiful espresso, cappuccino and all the necessary Italian iterations, they are famous for their espresso granita. Though there’s too much whipped cream piled on there for me (pictured above), the granita itself is perfection: robust, icy, sparkling, beautiful.

Scenes from Campo dei Fiori

Campo dei Fiori

Campo dei Fiori may be the most touristy market due to its location in Rome’s historic center, but it’s still an inspiring collection of the bounty that is Italy

Fresh chestnuts

Fresh chestnuts

Quintessential Rome: fresh artichokes

Quintessential Rome: fresh artichokes

Gorgeous: chilis on a bike

Gorgeous: chilies on a bike

This guy carves characters from carrots

This guy carves characters, animals and elaborate creations from carrots and cucumbers

Squash blossoms

Beautiful squash with blossoms

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May
01
2014

Wandering Traveler

Waldorf salad prepared tableside via cart with vintage apple peeler/dicer

Waldorf salad prepared tableside on a cart with vintage apple slicer (see details below under the Waldorf cookbook photo)

ELEVEN MADISON PARK: One of the World’s Great Restaurants

Photos and article by Virginia Miller

Enter Eleven Madison Park

Enter Eleven Madison Park, facing idyllic Madison Square Park

Three Michelin stars, # 4 on Pellegrino’s World’s 50 Best Restaurants list (the highest in the US), a 28 rating for food, service and decor in Zagat, the accolades for Eleven Madison Park go on and on. Then there’s the impressive tome, I Love NY, a book released last year by Chef Daniel Humm and EMP’s General Manager Will Guidara.

When in NY, I must have Finger Lakes Riesling

When in NY, I must have Finger Lakes Riesling

While I’m was not near as enthralled with Humm’s nearby restaurant The NoMad, EMP, on the other hand, is among the great meals of my life. Osteria Francescana in Modena, Italy, Chez Wong in Lima, Peru, Baume in Palo Alto, and other unforgettable meals made perfect with all the right elements and people… EMP is among that group. A short list given the 600+ plus restaurants and eateries I visit every year.

EMP is first and foremost about service. We chatted, engaged, connected with our servers, the sommelier, the floor manager. The harmony and flow of the staff (nearly 70 staff to 80 diners) is a finely tuned clock, just like the clock that looks like a giant Swiss watch in the kitchen, where we were invited for a liquid nitrogen cocktail while we watched the symphony that is EMP’s orderly kitchen.

We sit down to a letter opener and a card with our choice of four flavor profiles:

We sit down to a letter opener and a card with our choice of four flavor profiles: fennel, apple, maple, cranberry (we chose the former two)

Our own private tableside liquid nitrogen Penicillin cocktail in the kitchen of EMP (see photos below)

Our own private tableside liquid nitrogen Penicillin cocktail in the kitchen (see photos below)

Pickles & Rye sounded just my speed (rye whiskey, aged aquavit, white vermouth, amontillado sherry, honey, lemon, velvet falernum, orange bitters), but was a bit too sweet & muted in flavors despite the long list of ingredients; but I loved

Pickles & Rye sounded just my speed (rye whiskey, aged aquavit, white vermouth, amontillado sherry, honey, lemon, velvet falernum, orange bitters), but was a bit too sweet & muted in flavors with too long a list of ingredients; I was much happier with the focused, savory, layered notes of Celery Situation: Nicaraguan rum, aquavit, celery, grapefruit, lime

There are too many highlights. Dining here is four hour theater full of edible thrills, yet never feels flashy. The current incarnation of the tasting menu has just been around since Humm and Guidara changed the concept last year. I recalled the week in 2012 where Chicago’s Alinea (another 3 Michelin star restaurant) and EMP traded staff and kitchens for one week. I truly respect Chef Grant Achatz and see how his culinary innovation would experience synergy with Humm and EMP. While the food is impressive at both restaurants, I prefer EMP for warmer service and setting.

Here are some of the unforgettable dishes and moments from my April meal via photos:

Dessert is a Baked Alaska flambeed with rum tableside, then sliced up & brought out; it's a molasses rum raisin caramel cake filled with vanilla ice cream then served in fennel or apple sauces we chose at the beginning of the meal as flavor profiles via punch card

Dessert is a Baked Alaska flambeed with rum tableside, then sliced up & brought out; it’s a molasses rum raisin caramel cake filled with vanilla ice cream served in fennel or apple sauces we chose at the beginning of the meal as flavor profiles on the punch card

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One of my favorite courses: the NY pastrami sandwich reinterpreted & paired with soda (see photo just below to the left): here, rye bread is dotted with garlic, mustard and dill sauces, accompanied by pickled cucumber and endive sauerkraut

Pastrami arrives steaming, tender & fatty w/ sodas infused with flavor we chose via the cards we received at the beginning of the meal, modeled after classic Dr. Brown Cel Ray (celery) soda created in Brooklyn in 1869

Pastrami arrives steaming, tender & fatty paired with sodas infused with flavor we chose via punch cards received at the beginning of the meal; sodas are modeled after classic Dr. Brown Cel Ray (celery) soda created in Brooklyn in 1869

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Fascinating 2005 Chateau Musar from Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley, a white blend of Obaideh & Merwah varietals, indigenous to the mountains, akin to Chasselas, Chardonnay & Semillon; Obaidah grapes grown in stony, chalky soils; Merwah vines grown in gravel on the seaward side

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The cheese course arrives as a picnic in Central Park, with blue & white checked tablecloth spread across the table & picnic basket complete with ceramic plates slightly crumpled & looking like paper plates

The cheese course arrives as a Picnic in Central Park on a blue & white checked tablecloth spread across the table & picnic basket complete with crumpled ceramic plates, made to look like paper plates

The picnic basket box holds creamy Greensward cheese from Vermont, pretzel rolls, onion marmalade & a bottle of brown ale/beer brewed just for EMP

The picnic basket box holds creamy Greensward cheese from Vermont, pretzel rolls, onion marmalade & a bottle of brown ale/beer brewed locally just for EMP

The first bite: soft, savory black & white cheese-apple cookies arrive in a box tied by striped string; the meal ends with a similar box & identical cookies but sweet with cinnamon

The first bite: soft, savory black & white cheese-apple cookies arrive in a box tied by striped string; the meal ends with a similar box & identical cookies, sweet with cinnamon

Creek oysters from Eliot, Maine, in vichyssoise & caviar

Creek oysters from Eliot, Maine, in vichyssoise & caviar

Eleven Madison Park's iconic, lofty dining room

Eleven Madison Park’s iconic, lofty dining room

Bone marrow is filled with cream, beef tartare &  Petrossian's sturgeon caviar

Bone marrow is filled with cream, beef tartare & Petrossian’s sturgeon caviar

Bread course is another showstopper:

Bread course maintains excellence: rolls are made from Cayuga Pure Organic Flour with butter from Trickling Spring’s Creamery in PA, duck butter dotted with duck cracklings, and sea salt from the Hamptons

One of two dreamy Hudson Valley foie gras courses: this one seared with sunchokes, hazelnut crumble, solera vinegar; the second cured with sunchokes & fermented mustard seeds/greens

One of two dreamy Hudson Valley foie gras courses: this one seared with sunchokes, hazelnut crumble, solera vinegar; the second cured with sunchokes & fermented mustard seeds/greens

An 1896 Waldorf cookbook is a brought out & the Waldorf Salad recipe turned to before being prepared tableside before you from a Waldorf salad cart mixing Granny Smith apples, celery, pickled cranberries, walnuts, lemon mayo, Middlebury Blue cheese from Vermont... then a second course is served of apple over celery yogurt & house granola

An 1896 Waldorf cookbook is a brought out, the Waldorf Salad recipe turned to before being prepared tableside from a cart, combining Granny Smith apples, celery, pickled cranberries, walnuts, lemon mayo, Middlebury Blue cheese from Vermont… a second course is then served of apple over celery yogurt & house granola

Razor clam with kale puree, lobster, sea urchin tongue in pear gelee

Lobster, part one: with razor clam & kale puree, sea urchin tongue in pear gelee

Lobster, part two: butter-poached with razor clams & kale leaves, foamy sea urchin beurre manié ("kneaded butter" or a thicker flour butter)

Lobster, part two: butter-poached with razor clams & kale leaves, foamy sea urchin beurre manié (“kneaded butter” or a thicker flour butter)

Chef Humm's legendary dish: Normandy duck coated in whipped honey, crusted in lavender, cumin, coriander, and Sichuan peppercorns for a beautifully crusted skin, stuffed with a bouquet of lavender

Chef Humm’s legendary dish: Normandy duck coated in whipped honey, crusted in lavender, cumin, coriander, and Sichuan peppercorns resulting in a beautifully crusted skin, stuffed with a bouquet of lavender

Accompanying the sliced duck, a side of rich duck consomme to sip, accented with a rye crisp/cracker topped with duck sausage under melted Gruyere cheese

Accompanying the sliced duck, a cup of rich duck consomme to sip, accented with a rye crisp/cracker topped with duck sausage under melted Gruyere cheese

Our own private table set up in the EMP kitchen

View from our two person table set up in the EMP kitchen

Misting liquid nitrogen Penicillin cocktails with peaty Laphroaig 10 year Scotch (the modern classic cocktail created by Sam Ross in the original Milk & Honey days is a combination of peaty Scotch - here in sorbet form, ginger - here in syrup form, lemon - here as a frozen dome)

Misting liquid nitrogen Penicillin cocktails with peaty Laphroaig 10 year Scotch (the modern classic cocktail created by Sam Ross in the original Milk & Honey days) is a combination of peaty Scotch – in sorbet form, ginger – in syrup form, lemon – as a frozen dome

Eleven Madison Park's own bottling/house cask of Laird's Applejack (American apple brandy distilled in New Jersey) to finish

To finish: Eleven Madison Park’s own bottling/house cask of Laird’s Applejack, American apple brandy distilled in New Jersey

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Apr
01
2014

Wandering Traveler

The stunning cathedral in Santiago de Com

The stunning Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela – a prime example of Spanish architecture dating back to 1211

The Spain You’ve Never Met: Exploring GALICIA

Photos and article by Virginia Miller

Ancient Celtic statue on the ocean in A Coruna

Ancient Celtic statue on the ocean in A Coruna

Windswept, green hills rolling to the ocean. Grey skies. Celtic statues and artwork. Vibrant seafood. Sounds more like Ireland than Spain, right? The northernmost Western reaches of Spain – with Ireland just across the sea – reminded me more of the Emerald Isle than it did of previous travels in Barcelona and down the coast to the south of Spain.

How to properly pour a cider, at Maeloc

How to properly pour a cider at Maeloc

The region of Galicia is comprised of A Coruña, Lugo, Ourense and Pontevedra provinces, with Portugal just to the south, influencing the Galician language native. Celtic roots and Roman influences: it’s a fascinating section of Spain unlike any other. It was chilly and blustery in November in A Coruña with biting winds and intermittent rain. But the sun shone brightly in the stunning wine region of Ribeira Sacra and the city of Santiago de Compostela, its Old Town a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

I had the privilege of taking a November trip with Estrella Galicia, the region’s leading beer and one of the most popular in the country, found almost everywhere in Galicia and in restaurants and bars around the world, including Bask at home in San Francisco. I joined a group of distributors and importers exploring Estrella beer, wine, cider and spirits – and, of course – the food of Galicia.

View over the city of Santiago from

View over the city of Santiago from Monte do Gozo on the Way

Northenmost part of Spain on the ocean

Northernmost part of Spain on the Celtic sea

One aspect I appreciated about this trip was the thoughtful education and immersion we received in local culture. Typically, on food and drink press trips, the focus is, as it needs to be, on food and drink. Anything off that path can easily be information overload and a waste of time for writers who need to stay focused on relevant material to write about. The last thing needed in an already over-scheduled trip is unnecessary events. But on this trip, the Estrella team holistically weaved local history and culture into every appointment. Besides history tours, and walking a portion of the famed Way of St. James, we went to an intimate concert at the cool Sala Capitol venue featuring one of Spain’s biggest pop/rock musicians, Vega. As the whole crowd sang along to every word, it was true, engaging immersion in Spanish culture.

Outside Santiago's sprawling food market

Outside Santiago’s sprawling food market

Santiago's rambling market stalls

Santiago’s rambling market stalls

1. Among the best seafood I’ve had in the world

Pristine fish

Pristine fish

Pulpo (octopus), razor clams, barnacles, ox, and, of course, jamón ibérico – just a few regional Galician specialties I couldn’t get enough of. Though I get plenty of excellent octopus at home, I’ve never had razor clams like the ones in Galicia: milky, pure, almost like fresh crab meat in a tube shape, with a bit funk in the middle where their organs are. Unadorned, you eat them as is with no embellishments needed. Likewise, the famed (and expensive, due to the difficulty of climbing out on rocks to scrape them off) barnacles are fascinating local treasures.

Shrimps with roe intact at Santiago market

Shrimps with roe intact at Santiago market

Shiny sardines

Shiny sardines

I’ve wandered impressive meat markets from Italy to Mexico (though am still dying to visit Tokyo’s famed Tsukiji Fish Market) lined with animal heads and organs. But I’ve never been so impressed with a seafood section of a market – in this case, rows and rows of stalls – as I was in Santiago de Compostela’s main market, conveniently just outside my room at Hotel Pazo de Altamira. Think giant eels hanging ceiling to floor. Little old women holding a raw octopus in each hand, trying to decide which one to buy. The cleanest eyes and freshest looking fish. Pristine oysters, clams and barnacles. Live shrimps with roe (eggs) still attached and hanging off their bellies. It’s one eye-popping delight after another. It was a bit tragic not to have a kitchen.

Pig meat in the market

Pig meat in the market

Meats and liqueurs

Meats and liqueurs

2. A stunning wine region of tiered vineyards on a river

Tiered vineyards

Tiered vineyards

Ribeira Sacra (“Sacred Shore”)… this wine region (a Spanish Denominación de Origen – DO) is truly magical. Under blue skies, steep hills covered in terraced vineyards roll down to meandering rivers Miño and Sil. This fall, sun sparkled on the river, glowing and illuminating fall colors on the vines. It’s a place that feels touched by God.

Walking up the tiered vineyard hillside at Ponta da Bega

Walking up the tiered vineyard hillside at Ponta da Boga

The region glows

The region glows

Three types of varietals are typically produced in the up-and-coming region, which is still working to attain the quality of the some of the famed regions nearby (Rioja, for one): red Mencía, white Albariño and white Godello. I particularly enjoyed Godello with seafood during my trip, while in the countryside of Lugo, A Cantina was a memorable restaurant showcasing the farms and wines of the region. Over rounds of manchego cheese, Spanish chorizo, and tortilla Española (a thick egg and potato “omelette” fried in olive oil), we savored local wines.

Ribeira Sacra

Ribeira Sacra

Ponte

Ponte da Boga tasting room

I visited Ponte da Boga, an elegant stone winery producing a lovely Godello, a range of traditional Spanish liqueurs, and special limited edition reds like the complex berry of 2012 Expresion Gotica Cosecha red wine (a blend of mencia, merenazao, souson and brancellao grapes).

Santiago glow before sunset

Santiago glow before sunset

3. Santiago’s striking architecture and spiritual history

The Way

The Way at Monte do Gozo looking out over the city of Santiago

Santiago de Compostela’s shining glory is its gorgeous cathedral, a prime example of Spanish architecture and the supposed site of the remains of Saint James, the impetus for the Way of St. James, a Catholic pilgrimage route originating in the 9th century. The Way of St. James, or The Way (which inspired a recent movie of the same name), is a spiritual pilgrimage through France and Spain, ending in Santiago at the cathedral, the shining finale to a journey that takes weeks or months for many to complete.

The world's oldest lighthouse (1 AD) on the A Coruna coast

Tower of Hercules: world’s oldest lighthouse (since the 2nd century w/ updates over the centuries) on the A Coruna coast

I had the privilege of walking along portions of the Way from Monte Do Gozo, a small mount outside of the city, into the city, culminating with a church service in the massive cathedral dating back to 1211. There are striking churches and monuments all throughout Santiago’s meandering, cobblestoned Old Town streets, but it’s the grand cathedral, from any angle, that takes your breath away.

Estrella's modern brewery

Estrella Galicia’s modern brewery

4. Drink culture

Estrella Galicia pub

Estrella de Galicia Pub

Beer, cider, wine, spirits… I explored it all in Galicia. And each of these brands is imported to the US.

Estrella de Galicia Pub in downtown A Coruna, lined with beer tanks and a locals-heavy crowd, was the ideal place in which to try their entire beer line (I tried six different beers). Hijos de Rivera Brewery, which produces Estrella, is a fascinating tour, including the most impressive bottling line I’ve ever seen. Walking around a glassed-in, elevated walkway to view the bottling machines was like overseeing a miniature city with packed roadways and constant movement.

M

Maeloc Brewery

Maeloc hard cider (sidra) is my favorite packaging/label with its playful, mannish Grandma drawing. I particularly like their dry cider, a fine pairing with seafood due to its crisp acidity. There are plenty of fruit and sweet ciders for those who like it sweeter in flavors like pear or strawberry. I particularly loved an extra dry, funky cider we enjoyed on premises at the brewery.

H

Hijos de Rivera

Getting schooled on Galician aguardiente (which is nothing like Mexican aguardiente, aka firewater, but rather their term for all local spirits), I learned typical Spanish spirits range from coffee liqueurs to bitter/sweet herbias (herbs) liqueurs, often thick, yellow, sweet and bitter/herbaceous.

Aguardiente stills

Aguardiente stills

I particularly appreciate grappa-esque orujo, an unaged (clear) brandy made from the pomace of grapes, stems, skins, etc. Often called aguardiente de oruj (pomace firewater), or sometimes caña, it’s typically distilled in small pot stills, giving it character and depth.

The aguardiente stills I saw for Hijos da Rivera were unique to any I’ve seen in distilleries the world over. As you can see from the photo (right), they look like tall pots with arms between them, lids placed on top.

YES to paella

YES to paella at Restaurante San Jaime

Mussels in a can at Abastos 2.0

Mussels in a can at Abastos 2.0

5. Exploring regional foods

Silky salmon at

Silky salmon at Abastos 2.0

Besides the aforementioned countryside restaurant, A Cantina, in the Ribeira Sacra wine region, the standout restaurant in A Coruña was one Michelin-starred La Alborada. Avant-garde and fresh, the gastronomico menu doesn’t exactly push boundaries but it’s fine dining execution of classics like beef tartare, Iberian pork, ravioli, or grilled octopus laced with paprika and cabbage.

The most perfect razor clams at Abastos 2.0

The most perfect razor clams at Abastos 2.0

In Santiago, Restaurante San Jaime‘s sunny, upstairs room is an idyllic lunch respite for paella, Spanish chorizo, meat and cheese platters, grilled fish dishes. Abastos 2.0 was my favorite Santiago restaurant. Modern, clean lines and a Spanish gin and vermouth menu charmed. Here is where I had those unreal, perfect razor clams. And a damn fantastic burger oozing with cheese and butter. Crudo/sashimi-style dishes wowed with white wines or Spanish cider.

Simple Spanish perfection: tomato sauce on toast with jamon Iberico

Simple Spanish perfection: tomato sauce on toast with jamon Iberico

Ancient A Coruna churches

Ancient A Coruna churches

A Coruna's María Pita Square

A Coruna’s María Pita Square

Clams at the Santiago seafood market

Clams at the Santiago seafood market

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Mar
15
2014

Wandering Traveler

In the village of Mondsee, about 20 minutes outside of Salzburg, famed for the church in which Maria & The Captain got married in the movie, The Sound of Music

In the village of Mondsee, about 20 minutes outside of Salzburg, famed for the church in which Maria & The Captain got married in the movie, The Sound of Music

DREAMY AUSTRIA: Returning to Salzburg

Photos and article by Virginia Miller

Fairy tale city: Salzburg

Fairy tale city: Salzburg

s

University of Salzburg Church (Die Kollegienkirche)

Salzburg impressed me during my first visit in 1999 where the romance of its spires, churches, river, mountains and rolling, green hillsides was an influence since childhood, thanks to that film locals love to dislike, The Sound of Music. As with my visit in ’99, going on a SoM tour was a highlight of my visit (there are many to choose from but Panorama Tours has been the best).

Salzburg’s sheer beauty and walkable charm made it my Austrian city of choice even back then, far above expansive Vienna, which despite it’s fantastic architecture and even more fantastic musical history, live classical music and grand opera house, felt a bit cold to me. My second go-to Austrian city is Innsbruck (read about my explorations here).

In love with Salzburger Nockerl, the city's legendary souffle-like dessert that arrives warm & fluffy, doused in warm berry sauce

In love with Salzburger Nockerl, the city’s legendary souffle-meets-dumpling-like dessert that arrives warm & fluffy, doused in warm berry sauce (here at Gablerbrau but on the menu at most restaurants serving traditional Austrian food in Salzburg)

Dominating the Salzburg skyline: Fortress Hohensalzburg (a castle on a hill)

Dominating the Salzburg skyline: Fortress Hohensalzburg

Returning nearly 14 years later, I am even more in love with Salzburg. This visit, I found more hidden treasures, walked further afield, and down each narrow, car-less street.

I stayed in a local apartment directly across the Staatsbrücke bridge looking at Old Town, down narrow, cobblestone alley, Steingasse street.

Here are a few of my favorite tastes and discoveries:

Distant view of Old Town Salzburg from a riverside walk

View of Old Town Salzburg from a riverside walk

FRIDRICH

Stroll along the river

Stroll along the Salzach river

Just a couple doors down from my wonderful apartment on narrow, cobblestoned Steingasse street, is tiny wine bar, Fridrich. Run by Fridrich himself since 1986, I would easily call this one of my favorite bars in Europe. I’m a spirits and cocktail girl first, so I don’t typically note a wine bar as favorite bar.

Entering Fridrich on

Entering Fridrich on Steingasse

Though the bar, under arched stone ceiling is intimatly sexy, Fridrich almost imparts a subtle punk-rock attitude to the relaxed, glowing environs. It’s partly his expert knowledge of all things Austrian – he tasted me through the crisp, earthy notes of Nigl (pronounced nee-gel) Gelber Muskateller white wine, harvested from tiered, hillside vineyards, and likewise, earthy, complex Golles schnaps. During another visit, he recommended a glass of lovely Stiegelman Grauburgunder Weingut, a white wine I’d also loved at a restaurant in the Tyrolean-chic village of Kitzbuhel.

Intimate perfection at Fridrich

Intimate perfection at Fridrich

The other reason for Fridrich’s uniqueness is his impeccable musical tastes and expansive vinyl and CD collection, which he plays interchangeably like a sophisticated DJ. His top of the line sound system envelops the bar with a tapestry of sound.

There’s a wonderful woman who works with him, demure yet engaging, both of them offering recommendations, pours, humorous asides. Lou Reed died the last night we were in Salzburg. Fridrich told us the news, then put on Reed’s music. We all raised a glass, shedding a tender tear. It’s that kind of a bar.

The Renaissance Man and I were so inspired, we dreamt of opening our own tiny bar like this somewhere in the world: a place where you immediately feel like a local, where what is poured and what is played is of equal importance, where there is nothing to prove, only to relax, savor to feel at home.

Otherworldly St. Peter's cemetery

Otherworldly St. Peter’s cemetery

STIFTSKELLER ST. PETER

The warm woods of one of the Stiftskeller dining rooms

The warm woods of one Stiftskeller dining room

As the world’s oldest known operational restaurant since 803 AD, Stiftskeller St. Peter’s history may insinuate food is an afterthought, but it’s a one-of-a-kind dining experience with unexpectedly strong food.

Built into the stone cliffs of Salzburg’s Old Town, and off the square housing St. Peter’s gorgeous church and mesmerizing graveyard – among the most beautiful in the world – Stiftskeller is an upscale restaurant, also known for their Mozart dinners upstairs in multiple dining rooms, both intimate and grand. As I went to the restroom upstairs by the grand dining room, I got chills hearing the strains of the orchestra playing Mozart here in the town of his birth, while everyone dined at long tables by candlelight.

Stiftskeller beef tartare

Stiftskeller beef tartare

We ate downstairs in a warm, wood-walled dining room with red and white seating, and paintings of monks mingling with modern art.

Entering the restaurant, one passes through a stone archway that, in my November visit, was completely covered in pine boughs. Aromatic and magical, the archway then opens into a stone courtyard which is a standing bar area in the shadow of the steep stone cliffs carved out by monks above. At this time of year, the courtyard was packed with Christmas trees. Benedictine monks were running Stiftskeller as recently as 20 years ago and still live on square that houses the restaurant. The whole operation is mesmerizing.

Christmas tree-lined courtyard

Stiftskeller Christmas tree-lined courtyard

Food and service were better than I expected. In fact, we had a top-notch server who had worked in restaurants around the world, including the US, had studied hospitality and was a consummate, warm professional. Our meal was a series of high points and artful plating, including beef tartare in pine nut butter formed into a square, young venison saddle in Glennfiddich Scotch glace (yes!), and upscale versions of Germanic classics like veal weiner schnitzel, breaded and pan fried, with parsley potatoes and cranberries.

Nut-crusted sausages at Market

Nut-crusted sausages at Grünmarkt

Desserts (we tried three) were also a highlight, including a variation of plum dumplings partnered with stewed plums and plum ice cream. Though the restaurant was expensive, it wasn’t outrageous compared to other meals in Austria and even pricier Switzerland, and it certainly delivered a one-of-a-kind experience.

St. Gilgen, just 15 minutes outside Salzburg - a spectacular view over the town where Mozart's mother was born

Dreamy St. Gilgen, a town 15 minutes outside Salzburg

Another St. Gilgen view

Another stunning St. Gilgen view – the town where Mozart’s mother was born

Baumkuchen (a flaky pastry shaped like the ring of a tree, crusted in cinnamon & sugar) being baked to order at Grünmarkt (a "farmers market" or food market daily in Universitätsplatz square)

Baumkuchen (flaky pastry shaped like a tree ring, crusted in cinnamon & sugar) baked to order at Grünmarkt farmers market daily in Universitätsplatz square

Next issue I will delve into Austrian spirits, exciting and virtually unknown by many spirits fans. I will share more about Austrian schnaps/brandies and fantastic shops like Sporer, on Salzburg’s main, touristy-yet-delightful shopping street, Getreidegasse, since 1903.

Augustiner's beer garden

Augustiner’s beer garden

Augustiner Brau, Salzburg’s famed brewery since 1621, is a festive gathering of locals. Whether you sit in the beer garden or one of the beer halls, it’s a slice of local’s life. Though tourists certainly seek out the brewery, it’s sprawling grounds welcome all ages – there’s even a playground with a beer barrel to climb through for the kids!

Fish on a stick - one of the snack offerings with beer at Augustiner Brewery

Fish on a stick – one of the snack offerings at Augustiner Brewery

I watched grandpas enjoy a beer with their grandkids, couples toast each other over beer and pretzels, even a family playing a game out of fish bones collected from the garbage in the garden (odd, but there must be a story behind that). Though food vendors in and around the brewery are hardly gourmand, it’s inspiring to see the likes of whole fish, head and all, on a stick for snacking with beer.

Just down the street from the brewery, Blumen & Feinkost market, with its retro, pinup girl logo, felt like a slice of home infused with Germanic spirit. Browsing through this organic market, heavy on produce, fine meats and cheeses, breads and the like, made me start envisioning a picnic.

Salzburg spires & steeples

Salzburg spires & steeples

Zotter Schoko-Laden

Zotter Schoko-Laden

Chocolate lovers: head to Zotter Schoko-laden in the Old Town. Organic, fair trade, artisan and uniquely funky in its flavor profiles, the internationally popular, artisan chocolate bar line is a true Austrian success story. While I have sampled Zotter bars for years from shops in San Francisco (like Chocolate Covered in Noe, and The Candy Store in Russian Hill), this is the first I’ve seen the range of Zotter chocolates in one place. They don’t all work for me – some are far too subtle and bland. But when they do work, they represent a fine example of the range of chocolate bar flavors yet to be explored. How about apples, carrots and ginger? Or cheese, walnut, grape? Maybe sacramental wine and frankincense chocolate bars are more your speed? Zotter bars never read “boring.”

Savoring Carpe Diem cones

Savoring Carpe Diem cones

Quickly escalating prices after ordering a few seemingly affordable bites is one downside. So could be the hotel setting on bustling, touristy (yet still charming) shopping street, Getreidegasse (or it’s just conveniently located?) Ultimately, Carpe Diem Finest FingerFood pleases with its mini-gourmet cones filled with burgers and fries or scallops. On a sunny day, the chic patio is an ideal way to enjoy these playful, gourmet cones and Austrian wine or internationally popular (you can find it at Whole Foods), local kombucha brand, Carpe Diem, which the restaurant is named after.

Dinzler (dinzler.de/de) is a welcome Salzburg coffee shop/cafe, although this lovely chili mocha listed with a heat warning contained little to no heat at all despite the chili

Dinzler (dinzler.de) is a welcome Salzburg coffee shop/cafe, although this lovely chili mocha listed with a heat warning contained little to no heat despite the chili

Church cematary in ritzy Austrian ski town, Kitzbuhel, on the way to Salzburg

Church cemetery in ritzy Austrian ski town, Kitzbuhel, on the way to Salzburg

Kitzbuhel's main street

Kitzbuhel’s main street

Pretzels & beer at Gablerbrau (rich on historic atmosphere, but worst service of my trip)

Pretzels & beer at Gablerbrau… rich on historic atmosphere, but awful service

Fabrizi Espresso, run by Italians in Salzburg for Italian coffee

Fabrizi Espresso, run by Italians in Salzburg for Italian coffee

 

Salzburger Brezen at the market with pretzels

Salzburger Brezen Grünmarkt with pretzels in flavors like apple, poppy or chocolate

Elderly woman taking an afternoon stroll in the village of Mondsee, about 20 minutes outside of Salzburg

Elderly woman taking an afternoon stroll in the village of Mondsee, about 20 minutes outside Salzburg

Another coffee haven in Salzburg:

A Salzburg coffee haven: 220 Grad (220grad.com)

Salzburg's Hellbrunn Palace with its idyllic grounds

Salzburg’s Hellbrunn Palace with its idyllic grounds

Driving the countryside outside Salzburg

Driving the countryside outside Salzburg

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Mar
15
2014

Wandering Traveler

From my cottage rental: view over Innsbruck

From my house rental: view over Innsbruck

DREAMY AUSTRIA: Innsbruck

Photos and article by Virginia Miller

Wandering Innsbruck's Old Town

Wandering Innsbruck’s Old Town

Innsbruck is the capital city of the Austrian state of Tyrol (Tirol) in western Austria. The city is famous for its scenic setting along the Sill River, sandwiched between dramatic mountains (2000-3000 meters/7000-9000 feet), and for being the site of the 1964 and 1976 Winter Olympics. It was a city I’d meant to visit during my first visit to Austria in 1999, but only finally made it to this fall.

Though the weather chose to go the stormy, cloudy course most of my stay in Innsbruck (whereas it was sunny and brilliant in Salzburg) – thus often (tragically) obscuring mountain views – Innsbruck is a rich town, one I’d gladly spend more time in.

Situated in our house rental in the foothills of the mountains, just off the convenient Hungerburg funicular with its space age stations, views were breathtaking over the city with the river cutting through it, particularly when the clouds cleared. In 10 minutes, the funicular took us down the mountainside to the heart of the Old Town, where it was easy to walk everywhere.

Divine dessert at Sitzwohl: chocolate strudel in a Le Crueset

Divine dessert at Sitzwohl: chocolate strudel in a Le Creuset

Cozy Elferhaus pub

Cozy Elferhaus pub

Though no other Austrian city embodies the storybook magic of Salzburg, Innsbruck is full of its own architectural, natural and edible treasures, a walkable, scenic city blessed by the surrounding, mothering Alps.

Walking its Old Town, cobblestone streets, I find Tyrolean ham havens like Speckeria. Beer bars abound, though often stocking mostly larger brands, or occasionally local Austrian beers, a couple being featured at comfortably unglamorous Elferhaus. Cafe Sowieso is a divey student pub with a handful of unique Austrian brews on draft. It’s on a gritty few blocks near Old Town but is worth a detour for beer lovers.

At Stiftskeller Innsbruck, the beers are basic but platters of sausages, sauerkraut and a range of hearty dumplings made from the likes of spinach, comfort. Best of all, it is set in multi-room halls and a beer garden that feel plucked from medieval days. It’s an idyllic, Germanic, beer hall meal.

Medieval beer hall & restaurant: Stiftskeller Innsbruck

Medieval beer hall & restaurant: Stiftskeller Innsbruck

Cocktails at The Penz

Cocktails at The Penz

I can’t say the cocktail renaissance even appears to be peeking it’s head out – there’s little going here in that regard, as is also the case in Salzburg. Local spirits, however, are very exciting – see my article next issue on Austrian spirits, schnaps/brandies and fantastic Innsbruck shops like Culinarium, a father and son-run spirits shop that’s been around over 40 years.

Stiftskeller Innsbruck dumplings

Stiftskeller Innsbruck dumplings

There are two hotel bars with striking views: 360°, directly across a ramp from restaurant Lichtblick (below), a circular, completely glass-walled bar where it is best to stick to what’s great: Austrian wine.

Nearby, on the 5th floor of the The Penz hotel, is a lofty, slick hotel bar with plenty of whiskies or beloved German gin, Monkey 47. Although cocktails are decent and there are a few classic cocktails on the menu, the drinks still reflect what cocktails were like in the 80′s and 90′s before studious, historical study of the classics and molecular experimentation became common in many of the world’s great cities. Still, service is sharp, friendly and it’s an upscale bar in which to take in surrounding mountain views.

Innsbruck's main "square": bustling Maria

Innsbruck’s main “square”: bustling Maria-Theresien-Strasse

Ubiquitous Austrian soda pleasure: Almdudler, a traditional elderflower soda found everywhere in the country

Ubiquitous Austrian soda pleasure: Almdudler, a traditional elderflower soda found everywhere in the country (and just a fun word to say)

SITZWOHL

Prosecco &

Prosecco w/ green tea lime sorbet

Easily the best meal of my stay in Innsbruck, Sitzwohl, from chefs Elisabeth Geisler and Irmgard Sitzwohl, is a sleek den of gourmet delights. Soft, neutral color tones and the room’s glow soothe, although strangely, intense wafts of cigarette smoke from the bar below seem to drift up the stairwell into the dining room… the one buzzkill to otherwise relaxed-chic ambiance.

I loved an aperitif of Prosecco with green tea and tart lime sorbet (4.90 Euros). Creamy pumpkin soup was playfully accompanied by soft cottage cheese tramezzini: triangular sandwiches with crusts removed. It felt like a grown-up version of a classic American kid’s lunch.

Pike

Pike perch over beetroot risotto

Though I’m a crawfish (crayfish in Europe) fan, a crayfish and cauliflower salad accented by saffron (17 Euros) nested in iceberg lettuce fell a little flat. Not so with vibrant grilled pike perch (23 Euros) on a vividly purple-red beetroot risotto with freshly shaved horseradish on top.

Surprisingly, dessert was the most memorable. A warm chocolate strudel arrives in a mini-red Le Creuset (12 Euro), the flaky folds of the pastry creating a dramatic image against the red, while a scoop of raspberry chocolate chili ice cream adds cooling flair. In November 2013, three courses of choice was 46 Euros, four was 56, 5 was 66, or order a la carte.

LICHTBLICK

Views from Licthblick's dining room

Views from Licthblick’s dining room

Slip into giant shopping mall, Rathausgalerien, off the city’s main square, Maria-Theresien-Strasse, and head to the top, 7th floor restaurant, Lichtblick, for inspiring 360° views of Innsbruck (360 the name of the circular, glass bar that shares a floor with the restaurant).

I chose lunch to fully appreciate the view. The cooking is Austria-meets-Italy, from the likes of buffalo mozzarella and pastas to crème of celery and apple soup with truffle (4.20 Euros). The food isn’t noteworthy in the scheme of the great restaurants of the world or even Europe, but it’s solid, gourmet restaurant, especially with the view, and service is professionally attentive.

Munding's vintage espresso machine

Munding’s vintage espresso machine

Standout dish on my visit? Three juicy, seared scallops over curry couscous under a subtle coco chili foam (12.90 Euros at lunch).

MUNDING
Established in 1803, historic Munding Cafe is my favorite cafe in Innsbruck. Perfecting Austrian cakes and strudel, they also create beautiful French macrons and serve coffee from a sleek 1950′s espresso machine. I love their charmingly dated (circa 1970′s) decor – wood paneling, velvet red booths – their locals crowd, and cheery servers. It’s especially cozy on a raining morning, with a square of Munding chocolate placed atop your coffee.

Suffered through many different versions of apfelstrudel (apple strudel) around Austrian for comparison: loved this version at Munding, my favorite Innsbruck cafe, although best was in the village of Mondsee outside of Salzburg

I “suffered” through many versions of apfelstrudel (apple strudel) around Austrian for comparison: loved this version at Munding, my favorite Innsbruck cafe, although best strudel was in the village of Mondsee outside of Salzburg

Weiner Schnitzel at Stiftskeller Innsbruck

Weiner Schnitzel at Stiftskeller Innsbruck

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Mar
01
2014

Wandering Traveler

The unforgettable Bernese Oberland region of the Swiss Alps

The unforgettable Bernese Oberland region of the Swiss Alps

The Most Beautiful Place on Earth:
The Bernese Oberland

All photos and article by Virginia Miller

Murren architecture

Murren architecture

Having been to dozens of countries – some many times over – there is one spot in particular that is the most beautiful place I’ve seen in five continents: The Bernese Oberland in Switzerland, marked by the dramatic Jungfrau mountain range. It’s so beautiful, in fact, that despite being an ocean and a city girl who seeks out places for cultural and edible delights, I have returned to this region three times now, though there is little to do but outdoor sports, which I don’t participate in at all.

The region is so breathtaking, I’ve been drawn back and over and over since 1999, when I first stayed in the tiny village of Gimmelwald up in the Swiss Alps, reachable only by cable car as there are no driving roads.

View from my room at Hotel Alpenruh, Murren

One section of the view from my room at Hotel Alpenruh, Murren

At the highest point in Europe - communing with the birds

At the highest point in Europe reachable by train – communing with the birds

Twice I’ve stayed in Gimmelwald, which is a peaceful couple lanes of nothing but Swiss chalets with rooms for rents and one popular hostel – no shops, no restaurants, nothing but cottages, edelweiss growing wild, and cows with the bells around their necks tinkling continuously like a gentle wave.

During my return to the region this November I stayed in Murren, a larger village just above Gimmelwald, perched on the edge of mountain looking down to the steep valley below. The most bustling of the villages this side of the mountain, it is still small and sleepy, with a few hotels and inns, restaurants and one grocery.

Another view from my Hotel Alpenruh deck

Another view from my Hotel Alpenruh deck

From atop the Jungfraujoch

From atop the Jungfraujoch

How to describe the region? One cannot in words. Even pictures, though striking, don’t begin to do the reality justice. Picture Yosemite on steroids with Swiss cottages and chalets and you’re headed in the right direction.

The valley of the Bernese Oberland is entered into from the gateway town of Interlaken, a base from which many extreme sports adventurers begin.

Dreamy views on the Jungfraujoch train ride

Dreamy views on the Jungfraujoch train ride

From the valley floor

From the valley floor

Upon entering this magical valley, steep peaks, Switzerland’s highest, of nearly 14,000 ft. (roughly 4000 meters), rise dramatically on either side of the lush, green valley dotted with cows and farms. Many waterfalls line the valley – again, a hyped-up Yosemite – dramatically crashing down from great heights, depending on the time of year. The three mighty peaks of the Jungfrau, the highest, stand jaggedly and majestically above it all, the crowning glory in a place that is feels touched by God.

The perfection of both Murren and Gimmelwald is that they are perched between 3000-5000 feet on one side of the valley gazing directly across at the Jungfrau range. So direct, in fact, that the peaks feel almost in one’s lap, as if there for your own private benefit. Looking out from one’s room, deck or on any walk through the villages, is brand new every day, as if the heavens opened up and revealed wonders beyond imagining.

Breakfast views from Piz Gloria's revolving restaurant

Breakfast views from Piz Gloria’s revolving restaurant

From my room

In my Alpenruh room

If I sound extreme, it is because the Bernese Oberland is truly that spectacular. It would take the hardest of hearts not to be awed. Here I am centered, connect with my deepest self and come away restored. That is why I take whatever efforts it requires to get here three times. I find even the images restorative upon returning home.

Taking a stroll through Murren

Taking a stroll through Murren

TO DO

Dozens of cliff jumpers into the valley below

Dozens of cliff jumpers into the valley below

Besides the range of sports from hiking, skiing to base jumping, it’s all about taking in the views. On the same side – and one to three cable car stops up the mountain – as Murren and Gimmelwald, Piz Gloria is a peak famous for being featured in the James Bond film, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. Despite depressing, touristy food, the legendary revolving restaurant atop Piz Gloria is an idyllic way to take in 360 degree views of the peaks over a buffet breakfast (one breakfast is included per guest when staying at the Hotel Alpenruh, below).

A worthwhile half day excursion (or longer, if you linger up top) is the railway excursion to the highest point in Europe reachable by public transportation… in this case, by train. At just over 11,000 ft (3454 meters), the Jungfraujoch is a station situated between the mighty Jungfrau peaks: Eiger, Mönch, and Jungfrau. There’s touristy (more bad food) restaurants, ice skating rink, interactive exhibits, and a range of things to do once up there, but the highlight is taking in the icy views. Beware the thin air. It is difficult to breathe from this height and takes awhile to acclimate. The excursion and views sandwiched between the highest peaks of the Swiss Alps is unforgettable.

Views from the Jungfraujoch train

Views from the Jungfraujoch train

TO STAY

Hotel Alpenruh at night

Hotel Alpenruh at night

Hotel Alpenruh is pleasantly humble. Its charming, wood cabin exterior belies simple though comfortable rooms. And they’re not cheap: this is Switzerland, after all, where even salads often cost $20. Rates are lower during off-season times (check directly with the hotel) but you are paying for those views, after all. In fact, if you’re on the Jungfrau/valley view side, consider them million dollar views, possibly with a deck, which is where I want to spend much of my time.

Sipping Chasselas from my deck

Sipping Chasselas from my deck

Added perks of Alpenruh: it’s literally a few feet from the cable car so you can roll off the car with luggage, straight into the hotel. Perched on the edge of the cliff, the deck of the hotel’s restaurant, despite mediocre food, is an idyllic way to take in those killer views with a beer or glass of Fendant/Chasselas, the dominant white wine of Switzerland, rarely exported out of the country.

In Gimmelwald, I was charmed by the service and sunny apartments at Esther’s Guesthouse. Though minimalist, apartments are comfortable, ideal if there’s two or more of you. Best of all, they make their own yogurts (flavored with Germanic favorites like kirsch/cherry liqueur) and cures their own cheeses. The yogurt is ideal for breakfasts and their cheese and charcuterie with a bottle of wine purchased at the COOP grocery in Murren (see below).

Murren window

Murren window

TO EAT

One of many waterfalls along the valley

One of many waterfalls along the valley

Granted, good eating is sparse in a village that has few restaurants to begin with. Historically, Hotel Bellevue has done me right. The outdoor patio is a dreamy lunch spot with the peaks splayed out before you. The Bellevue serves rösti, one of my favorite rustic Swiss dishes. Essentially a glorified hash brown, shredded, roasted potatoes are loaded with other ingredients like ham and Swiss cheese, vegetables, onions and the like. It’s commonly eaten for lunch and dinner, particularly in these Alpine climes, and the Bellevue’s version is far superior to say at Hotel Alpenruh, which is disappointing considering that at times they serve a whole menu of varying rösti combinations.

From the Jungfraujoch

From the Jungfraujoch

In Gimmelwald, Esther’s Guesthouse makes their own yogurts (flavored with Germanic favorites like kirsch/cherry liqueur) and cures their own cheeses. Even if you’re staying in Murren, it’s worth a cable car stop or hike to Gimmelwald to purchase some of Esther’s wonderful goods made from cows roaming the mountainside (call ahead to make sure they have some and are open). The yogurt is ideal for breakfasts and their cheese and charcuterie with a bottle of wine purchased at the COOP grocery in Murren.

Rösti, rösti, rösti

Rösti & sausage

Though just a basic grocery store, part of the COOP chain, the Murren market is the source for foods to cook in your cabin or cottage, or prepared foods, cheeses, Alpine meats, bottles of local wines and the like to take back to your room. Don’t forget to grab individual or larger cartons of Swiss ice cream favorite, Movenpick (I love the passion fruit flavor).

From the valley floor

From the valley floor

Swiss chalets in Murren

Swiss chalets in Murren

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