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

Written by in: Wandering Traveler | Tags:
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

Written by in: Wandering Traveler | Tags:
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

Written by in: Wandering Traveler | Tags:
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

Written by in: Wandering Traveler | Tags:
Feb
15
2014

Wandering Traveler

The beauty of Zurich

Zurich during a day of boat races on the river

24 Hours in ZURICH

Photos and article by Virginia Miller

Zurich Old Town architecture

Zurich Old Town architecture

Zurich is an underrated city. Though not as romantic as many European cities, the Old Town section is rife with gorgeous historic buildings, winding cobblestone streets lined with chic boutiques, flanking both sides of the Limmat River on the northwest tip of Lake Zurich. It’s a scenic, walkable setting. Having been to most of Switzerland’s cities from Geneva to Lucerne, Zurich is easily its most cosmopolitan.

Striking Zurich

Striking Zurich

Though I only had 24 hours in Zurich coming down from the Alps on my way home to San Fran, I found myself longing for more time here. I similarly spent a day here during my first visit to Europe back in 1999. It’s clearly got a strong dining scene, an emerging artisanal cocktail movement, plenty of history and unique sights, proven by the riches stumbled upon in merely 24 hours.

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Clock tower of St. Peter’s Church

Cheeky & environmental soup instructions

Cheeky, environmental soap instructions

SLEEP: My favorite hotel stay during 2013 fall travels in Europe through four different countries was Zurich’s 25hours Hotel Zurich West (they have a few other hotels in German cities). Granted, I questioned my destination when we pulled up to what looked like a corporate office building surrounded by office highrises, freeways, wide roads – very American and sparse. But upon entering, it’s a hip haven for cosmopolitan travelers. Additionally, the convenient Zurich metro/train picks up just outside the hotel, an easy, 10-15 minute ride to Old Town.

One section of 25hours' lobby

One section of 25hours’ lobby

The hotel clientele skews young, attracted by its mid-century-meets-modern style designed by Alfredo Haeberli. There’s ping pong in the lobby, Mini Cooper toy cars in rooms (they have a Mini-Cooper partnership, offering rides around the city in red Minis), and sparse, colorful rooms with cheeky phrases on pillows and soaps. They do a lovely breakfast (included) and the young staff, as cool as the hotel is, are helpful and attentive.

Pillow instructions on my 25hours bed

Pillow thoughts on my 25hours bed

Clean, playful lines in 25hours rooms overlooking center atrium

Clean, playful lines in 25hours’ rooms overlooking center atrium

Striking views over Zurich from our table

Striking views over Zurich from our table

DINING: Zurich West, home to my hotel and Hotel Rivington & Sons (below), is also where one Michelin-starred restaurant Clouds sits on the top 36th floor of Switzerland’s tallest building, Prime Tower. In a building packed with businesses, Clouds’ glass walls gaze out over the city, with the Alps viewable during the day.

Clouds' artistically delicious dishes

Clouds’ artistically delicious dishes

Clouds is pricey – easily a couple hundred Euro per person with wine, but the dishes are inventive and delectable, worthy of that Michelin star. Lush Iberico ham from Spain comes out as a starter, while the sommelier recommends stunning Swiss and Austrian wines we might not see in the States. With Zurich sparkling below, Clouds is a memorable Zurich meal.

Multi-room Peclard cafe

Multi-room Peclard cafe

Bordello-esque red room

Bordello-esque red room

BAKERY: Peclard is a dream of a bakery/cafe. Yes, the front patio is, oh-so European. The multi-floored cafe with wildly different rooms is enchanting. The low-ceilinged, wood rafter and red velvet-lined room with mismatched chairs and settees is nothing short of seductive.

What “seals the deal” is fantastic Paris-by-way-of-Switzerland pastries and menu items, including idyllic quiches and crepes. In the midst of perfect croissants and macarons, they bake a mean apfelstrudel (apple strudel) in keeping with the location.

Parisian delights in Zurich at Peclard

Parisian delights at Peclard

Upstairs in Rivington & Sons

Upstairs in Rivington & Sons

COCKTAILS: Alongside sacred cocktail den Kronenhalle and jazz/whisk(e)y haven (a must on my next visit), Wiider Bar, Zurich has a burgeoning, if small, artisanal cocktail scene.

Hotel Rivington & Sons (in a hip, Zurich West highrise that houses Clouds) exemplifies the rising Zurich scene with small spirits brands alongside big names, extensive classic cocktails and a hidden upstairs bar that feels like 1930′s-meets-hunting-lodge (animal heads lining the hallway), given a coating of modern, dimly lit chic. Bartenders are friendly and laid back, while New York is the stated bar inspiration, proven by classic American tunes playing in the background.

Over the bar at Hotel Rivington & Sons

Over the bar at Hotel Rivington & Sons

Scot & Scotch alley

Scot & Scotch – down the alley

SPIRITS: If you can ignore the stern, schoolteacher-like shopkeeper I stumbled across (who clearly can’t discern the real spirits aficionados in her shop) in Fine & More, next door to Peclard, you’ll find a wonder of a shop lined with carafes with taps. Purchase refillable bottles of edelbrande (brandy and fruit brandies), grappa, liquors, Calvados, whiskies.

Down a quiet alley on the posh West side of the Limmat River is Scot & Scotch, a charming whisky shop ideal for the Scotch and Japanese whisky lover.

LOCAL POPCORN: I got hooked on local gourmet popcorn, Snackolos, this visit, particularly a tart sour cream and a sweet, Chinese 5 spice-esque star anise.

Fine & More spirits shop

Fine & More spirits shop

Written by in: Wandering Traveler | Tags:
Feb
01
2014

Wandering Traveler

The actual color (and inspiring magic) of a New Orleans sky on a sunny, pristine day

The actual color (and inspiring magic) of a New Orleans sky on a sunny, pristine day

NEW ORLEANS: The Inventive & the Classic

Article & Photos by Virginia Miller

The back of the always-haunting Saint Louis Cathedral (circa 1794)

The back of the always-haunting Saint Louis Cathedral (circa 1794)

In one of the greatest (though far from the largest or diverse) food cities on earth, New Orleans is great first and foremost because of its truly one-of-a-kind spirit and verve. It’s sensual magic envelops me every visit, haunting me when I’m away. This translates to its cuisine – truly unique, historically formed from an array of cultures that give Nola its character, coalescing into unmatched cuisines of Creole and Cajun. In keeping with the rest of the country, there’s a renaissance of mid-range, urban-chic, smart restaurants alongside the eternal classics in a city that reveres the past while celebrating like no other.

This visit, I was disappointed in the more casual French Quarter offering, Restaurant Stanley, from Stella! Chef Scott Boswell, though scenically situated on Jackson Square. Even Korean barbeque beef Poor (Po) Boy ($15.50) was oddly bland, tasting as if little actual Asian influence (or heart) went into it, but rather as if a generic chain restaurant attempted it.

Common sight & sound: top notch street musicians

Common sight & sound: top notch street musicians

Another letdown, particularly after the long cab ride out to the Black Pearl neighborhood, was Dante’s Kitchen. Though in a charming cottage on a sleepy, residential block across the street from long-beloved Brigsten’s, dishes were hit and miss, while ambitious-sounding cocktails ($9.50), like The Nose Knows (Steinhager gin, Genepi, Velvet Falernum, lemon, Chamomile tea) or Monocle (roasted peanut bourbon, Carpano Antica, Apfel liqueur, ginger liqueur, cane vinegar, flamed lemon peel), sadly ended up tasting as muddled and confused as they sounded (or in the case of the Monocle, lacked any peanut taste whatsoever). Similarly, a classic Italian panzanella salad ($9) was rather lifeless compared to countless versions I’ve had at home, around the US and Italy, while shrimp and grits ($10) or a boudin rouge sausage ($12) with peach mustard likewise paled in comparison to versions I’ve had throughout the South.

This visit, highlights were plenty, however. Here they are (and here are the standouts in drink):

ROOT, CBD (Central Business District)

ROOT

ROOT vegetable salad

Root is one of New Orleans’ great restaurants, though only open since the end of 2011. Executive Chef/Proprietor Phillip L. Lopez best marries  the fresh invention I’m used to at home and the vegetable-forward, Scandinavian wave of recent years with the regional cuisine of Louisiana. His dishes are imaginative and of fine dining quality, comparable with some of the great restaurants in major cities.

Bright interior

Bright interior

Traditional, seaweed-based Welsh laverbread can be topped with juniper cured duck prosciutto ($9), mojama (filleted salt-cured tuna), and other unusual selections from their house charcuterie ($10 each) program. Partnered with pickled yellow tomatoes, pickled kumquat mostarda, corn, pepper chow chow and pumpkin mustard in a little squeeze tube, it’s an interactive delight. Another playful turn on the ever-ubiquitous deviled eggs is Louisiana pickled shrimp ($16) served in an egg-holder platter with pockets of whipped truffled salt cod-egg yolk mousse, remoulade, lemon pickles, charred artichokes and shrimp-stuffed deviled eggs in each egg holder.

Carrot cake

Carrot cake reinterpreted

ROOT vegetable salad ($12) is a prime example of Chef Lopez’ savvy cooking sensibilities. Heirloom carrots and charred fennel sit over vegetable ash and smoked rutabaga purees for earthiness, brightened by pickled celery root and lemon verbena thyme vinaigrette. I felt right back in SF with this one. “Fish & Chips” ($13) iss a Nola-meets-UK mash-up of brown cornflake-battered black cod accompanied by traditional malt vinegar and Cornish salt given proper London flair from baby pepper and corn piccalilli (an Indian pickle relish), sauce gribiche (mayo, egg, mustard, oil-based) and black garlic sauce.

Shrimp & Deviled Eggs

Shrimp & Deviled Eggs

The creative fun continues with a bergamot-coriander “scented” lobster dog ($15) in a honey brioche bun, perky with celery root slaw, charred cucumber relish and smoked peach mustard. Desserts are likewise brilliant and internationally-influenced. African amarula carrot cake ($10) turns carrot cake on its head with African spices, sitting next to carrot coriander ice cream, accented by black sesame praline, charred carrot marshmallow, celeriac crema and carrot “crunchies”. It may be my favorite carrot cake reinterpretation of all time and a blessedly savory dessert.

Unique charcuterie platter

Unique charcuterie platter

Likewise, Indian Falooda ($10) makes traditional vermicelli noodles out of blueberry, layered with lemon thyme sorbet and sweet basil seeds, all doused in geranium milk.

Innovation wouldn’t matter if it didn’t taste wonderful. At Root it does, making it the kind of restaurant that is both cosmopolitan and authentically local. I can hardly wait to visit their tasting menu only, 16-seat Square Root, opening this year.

KILLER PO BOYS in back bar at Erin Rose, French Quarter

Killer Po Boys

Killer Po Boys

In the back of beloved dive bar, Erin Rose, cash only, all-day Killer Po Boys popped up over a year ago. It’s definitely hipster po boys but among the countless, legendary, traditional po boy joints around New Orleans, I love seeing something this playful and funky in the mix. Not to mention boozy. Among a number of daily offerings, it might be coriander lime Gulf shrimp po boys, taking a tip from bahn mi and loaded with marinated radish, carrot, cucumber and cilantro. Another it might a “Dark & Stormy” pork belly po boy ($9.17), glazed in rum ginger, zippy with lime slaw and garlic aioli. Don’t forget Jameson grilled cheese ($6.42)  on Wildflower whole grain bread.

GALATOIRE’S, French Quarter

Cafe Brulot tableside

Cafe Brulot tableside

Since my first visit to New Orleans, I spend each visit plugging away at various greats in regional categories: I always check off another couple legendary po boy joints around the city, and I always enjoy one classic, jazz brunch, complete with Cafe Brulot: bracing, black coffee, brandy and orange liqueur usually marked by cinnamon sticks and an orange spiked with cloves. A bowl of the drink is typically flamed tableside, sometimes directly on the table, other times on a cart.

Charmingly retaining the jacket-required stance since its opening days in 1905, Galatoire’s is about as good as it gets in terms of classic New Orleans brunch. Though they don’t offer the roving jazz trios I love at Arnaud’s and Commander’s Palace, our wonderful waiter, Scott (tradition is, you ask for the same waiter on every return visit), flamed a bowl of Cafe Brulot tableside and attended to us with warm care.

Traditional shrimp remoulade

Shrimp remoulade

Whether traditional crabmeat sardou ($26) or sweet potato cheesecake ($8), it’s pricey and old school, and the food won’t exactly wow… but it’s Old World elegance done right and rarely found in the US anymore and thus worth an occasional splurge.

COQUETTE, Irish Channel

Cocktails at Coquette

Cocktails at Coquette

One of my all-time favorite restaurants in Nola, Coquette is “the whole package”: heartwarming service, in a historic building, serving fine cocktails and contemporary New Orleans cuisine interpreted by Chef/Owner Michael Stoltzfus and Pastry Chef Zak Miller, sourcing mostly from farms and fisherman in Louisiana and Mississippi.

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Tuna, cantaloupe, country ham, popcorn

The food is freshly inventive, of a quality that would make a statement in larger food cities, meaning it is forward thinking while very much expressing its region. For example, cubes of raw yellowfin tuna, cantaloupe and country ham ($13) get texture and playfulness from a smattering of popcorn.

Coquette crab-Virginia Miller

Softshell crab ($28) sweet corn, bacon, greens, cherry tomatoes

Similarly tongue-in-cheek, piles of Louisiana crabmeat ($13) over a stone slab are drizzled in remoulade sauce, accented by sweet corn and boiled eggs with potato chips draped over the spread. An entree might be a flaky Hog snapper ($30) surrounded by chanterelles, roasted okra, sweet corn and a creamy dose of buttermilk sauce.

Chocolate pudding

Chocolate pudding w/ andouille caramel

Miller’s desserts are a happy mix of savory-sweet or refreshing, keeping pace with the savory menu, as in the case of compressed watermelon sprinkled with basil and icy lime granite, dramatic with pop rocks, or a silky rectangle of chocolate pudding partnered with sea salt ice cream in andouille (yes, sausage) caramel sauce ($10).

On the cocktail front ($8-11), I sampled four, all well made and gratifying without being complicated or fussy. They do lovely things with mezcal, while their St. James Sour is a beauty of Legendre Herbsaint, lemon, egg white and bitters perfected by root beer extract – a sort of root beer absinthe sour. Fantastic.

ATCHAFALAYA, Irish Channel

Crab

Fried green tomatoes topped with crab & remoulade sauce ($14)

Tucked off a residential street in the Irish Channel, Atchafalaya is an unexpected delight. Executive Chef Christopher Lynch sources from local farms, ranches and fisheries, crafting New Orleans cuisine with a fresh eye.

Atchafalaya

Atchafalaya

In the summer, the trendy combo of compressed watermelon and burrata cheese in their watermelon “Caprese” Salad ($14) is given added “oomph” with slices of Prosciutto di Parma, smoked almonds and a drizzle of sweet saba.

Free form crab ravioli ($17) is a pleasure of a pasta sheet wrapped around crab, shiitake mushrooms and spinach, heavily doused in mascarpone citrus buerre blanc (a butter-rich sauce).

Their shrimp & grits ($26) with giant, head-on Gulf shrimp, andouille sausage and smoked tomatoes, is the kind of soulful shrimp & grits dish that makes it hard to love most versions outside of the South. With a Middle Eastern touch, Two Run Farms lamb meatballs ($31) get a dose of Southern soul over fluffy Israeli couscous drizzled in cucumber raita and a seasonally-changing chutney.

PECHE, CBD (Central Business District)

Seafood spread

Seafood spread

Beloved New Orleans Chef Donald Link (of Herbsaint and Cochon, to name a few) opened Peche in 2013, a priority during my 2013 visit.

The spacious seafood “temple” (a casual, comfortable sprawl) did not disappoint. Daily changing whole fish, oysters, and raw bar offerings, like a crudo-like cut of tuna in tomato water, fennel, corn, parsley, chili flakes ($9), can be light and delicate (meaning, you may need to order a few small plates to fill up), but flavors are bright, fresh and in the Southern tradition, comforting. A seafood salad ($8) of raw mahi mahi and shrimp is perked up with mint and avocado, while Gulf crab claws ($12) benefit from whispers of Thai food with a chili and mint, plus pickled cioppolini onions. Finish with a tart Key lime pie ($8) in buttermilk whipped cream.

DOMENICA, CBD (Central Business District)

Kale salad

Kale salad

Spacious and elegant, a longtime favorite Nola chef, John Besh’s Domenica is not exactly revolutionary in its modern Italian cuisine with a touch of Southern flair. But it always churns out a gratifying lunch or dinner, doing the genre proud.

Wood-fired Bolzano Pizze ($13) is a hearty-yet-elegant white pizza laden with tender, roasted pork shoulder, fennel, bacon and sweet onions. Squid ink tagliolini topped with blue crab ($18/large $26) is silky with a touch of umami flavor, while fried Tuscan kale in lemon and Parmigiano reggiano ($7) may be ubiquitous, but makes the healthy delicious.

MARIZA, Bywater

Spacious Mariza

Spacious Mariza

In a spacious brick building in a sleepy corner of the Bywater district, Mariza (from the owners of beloved Iris in the Quarter) is not exactly on par with the countless great modern Italian, Neapolitan pizza-influenced spots around the country that have been trending continuously for over a decade. In fact, as a crudo fanatic, I found red snapper crudo ($12) graced with heirloom cucumber and mint rather lackluster. Similarly, green tagliatelle pasta dotted with guanciale, red onion, olives, pickled peppers ($8/14) somehow lacked verve.

Mariza pizza

Mariza pizza

Cocktails in general also disappointed (like an imprecise mix of gin, Lillet Blanc, Meyer lemon, orange bitters and Grand Marnier in Right Side of the Tracks) except in the case of the simplest, an Italian Kiss ($9). A simple blend of sweet and dry vermouth (in this case, Contratto Vermouth Bianco & Rosso) on the rocks, refreshing and clean, was lovely.

On the food side, a straightforward, gratifying pizza of sweet-savory red sauce and fresh mozzarella ($10) marked by fennel and arugula likewise was the strong point, best paired with the Italian Kiss.

Written by in: Wandering Traveler | Tags:
Feb
01
2014

Imbiber

Perfection: Chris McMillian's Absinthe Suiessesse

Perfection: Chris McMillian’s Absinthe Suissesse

Best Cocktails in NEW ORLEANS 2013

Article & Photos by Virginia Miller

Ramos Gin Fizz

Ramos Gin Fizz

Back for Tales of the Cocktail in my beloved city of New Orleans, my last visit yielded these standout drinks at some new and some not-so-new spots (the latest on food and dining in Nola here).

KINGFISH, French Quarter

Wherever bartender Chris McMillian tends, I would go. As the consummate, lifelong bartender who showed me back in a 2008 visit to Nola what a true bartender is, I couldn’t miss drinks at his new home of Kingfish, conveniently located in the French Quarter.

Just try McMillian’s perfect Ramos Gin Fizz on a sultry Nola day. As he foams up egg white over the back of a spoon in a tall glass, served cool with absinthe, creme de menthe, orgeat, cream, you know you’re being served by one of the greats… and that the classics often pale made by the hands of others. Case in point: his Absinthe Suissesse is equally mesmerizing and thirst-quenching.

LOA, CBD (Central Business District)

Loa's enchanting Absinthe Suissesse

Loa’s Absinthe Suissesse

As I wrote about in 2012, Loa remains the truly inventive cocktail menu of New Orleans thanks to Bar Manager Alan Walter. Another two returns this years was no exception. The swank, mellow bar of the International House is the kind of place where New Orleans’ classics like an Absinthe Suissesse ($11) are given a unique turn using coconut milk instead of cream, mixed with Dolin Dry Vermouth and Kubler absinthe, topped with an anise pod.

Additional kudos for fascinating creations like Pearly Gates ($12), decadently mixing 20 year old Grappa Stravecchio, Rothman & Winter Orchard pear liqueur, a lush-bracing golden raisin-Pinot Grigio vinegar and sparkling lemon radler (traditional German lemon soda-beer concoction); or a bright watermelon reduction intermingling with my beloved Redbreast Irish whiskey, gorgeous Crispin Rose Liqueur and herbaceous Elisir M.P. Roux in a Drawing Room cocktail ($13).

BELLOCQ, CBD (Central Business District)

Bellocq

Bellocq’s genepy/creme de cacao/gin cocktail

Of all the newer-wave of cocktail bars in staunchly-classic-cocktail-driven New Orleans, Bellocq is possibly my favorite. In my estimation standing far above its sister bars, Cure and Cane & Table (see below).

As a cobbler-based bar, it doesn’t copy bars done better elsewhere in the country, sharing a distant kinship with the cobblers and juleps at London steakhouse Hawksmoor. Bellocq’s luxurious velvet couches and corners still call to me on a hot Nola night. The bartenders know their stuff, while the unique focus on icy cobblers, sometimes served in frosty silver mugs akin to a Julep cup, might be nutty with Maidera or herbaceous-sweet with yellow Chartreuse.

They also serve a range of cocktails outside the cobbler. This summer, I was smitten with a preview of a new drink soon to launch on their menu, a subtly complex blend of Genepy, Marie Brizard Creme de Cacao and Hayman’s Old Tom Gin.

COQUETTE, Irish Channel

Cocktails at Coquette

Cocktails at Coquette

One of my all-time favorite restaurants in Nola, Coquette is the “whole package”: heartwarming service, in a historic building, serving fine cocktails and fantastic, contemporary New Orleans cuisine (read more about the food here). Cocktails ($8-11) keep pace. I sampled four, all well made and gratifying without being complicated or fussy. They do lovely things with mezcal, while their St. James Sour is a beauty of Legendre Herbsaint, lemon, egg white and bitters perfected by root beer extract – a sort of root beer absinthe sour.

CANE & TABLE, French Quarter

Cane & Table

Cane & Table

Cane & Table just opened this summer within days of my trip to Nola. From the team behind Cure and Bellocq, it’s a restaurant and rum-heavy bar some have dubbed Tiki in theme. There’s nothing Tiki about C&T other than that they serve tropical drinks. The feel is more Colonial-era rum trading with a Caribbean-influenced food menu, which launched after I visited.

As with Cure, which, after multiple visits over the years, I’ve found overrated in the scheme of great US cocktail bars (though original for Nola when it debuted), Cane & Table’s drinks did not overwhelm. But given the right ingredients, it’s the Nola bar for an elevated rum focus. Improved Bombo ($10) is an example of the right mix: the subtle funk of Smith & Cross Navy Strength Rum, smooth Plantation 5 year rum, Pierre Ferrand Dry Curacao, Bittermans Tiki Bitters and fresh nutmeg coalesce into a pleasing whole. The only-in-New-Orleans back patio seals the deal, even if I can’t help but recall rum bar greats like Smuggler’s Cove or La Descarga‘s back room when sipping a C&T cocktail.

21st AMENDMENT, French Quarter

21st Amendment

21st Amendment shows classic films over the bar

Though feeling more like a mediocre bar riding (late) on the speakeasy, Prohibition-era bar trend than actually truly knowing (much less perfecting) the genre, the one promising moment at newer 21st Amendment in the touristy depths of the Quarter was a drink called Anybody Wanna Peanut? Though sounding “iffy” as a mix of peanut-infused Maker’s Mark bourbon, honey syrup and Xcolate Mole Bitters, what made it fascinating was the peanut-y texture of the bourbon. Even though the drink wasn’t entirely balanced, it wins strong points for truly tasting of peanuts as other peanut-infused drinks often lack the flavor at all. They turned a tricky consistency into a rich, nutty sip worth perfecting – and creating more drinks from.

Jan
08
2014

Imbiber

The Dead Rabbit - cocktails in tea cups

The Dead Rabbit -  punch in teacups

COCKTAIL-ing in Manhattan

Photos and article by Virginia Miller

Naren Young's cocktails at Saxon + Parole

Naren Young’s cocktails at Saxon

Back in my beloved New York, home of my teenage years. Until just a few years ago, it was the place I’d come home to for the holidays when my parents still lived in New Jersey.

Despite only a couple lovely days out of a ten-day visit in late May through early June (the rest were either pouring rain or sweltering hot and suffocating), my last research trip visiting friends and family, involved dozens of restaurants and cocktail bars, plays and treks through Eataly for espresso and rooftop beers.

Here’s a list of drink standouts – and the overrated – from this trip (highlights in food and dining here):

The Best

At the now-closed Beagle: series of twists on Old Fashioneds with changing bases from navy strength gin to Calvados with marriage/divorce-themed names like Remember the Alimony

At the now-closed Beagle: series of twists on Old Fashioneds with changing bases from navy strength gin to Calvados with marriage/divorce-themed names like Remember the Alimony

Two of my best bar experiences all year were in New York City at bars with now-changed circumstances: one is The Beagle, which sadly just closed, where Tom Richter churned out of some of the great understated drinks in all of NYC in a relaxed setting tinged with Old World elegance. Richter also happens to be a genius with the often forgettable category of beer cocktails, crafting winners like the Hop Over, mixing a hoppy IPA,  lemon, Bols Genever, orange flower water, and house Velvet Falernum, or Smog Cutter, combining mezcal, Negro Modelo, ginger, tonic and lime, garnished with a cucumber. I miss the Beagle.

Young's gorgeous cocktails at Saxon+Parole

Young’s gorgeous cocktails at Saxon+Parole

The second is Saxon + Parole under Naren Young. Young recently came on board at Empellon, no doubt even better under his watch. When he was in charge of the menu at Saxon (along with The Daily and other bars), each drink, like a Celery Gimlet, sounded straightforward. But Young’s cocktails are among the finest examples of nuance and balance that I have tasted anywhere. They exhibit complexity and robust flavor in plainclothes. As a master of balance, I’d drink at whichever bar Young is crafting cocktails.

AMOR Y AMARGO, East Village

Amor y Amargo

Amor y Amargo

Amor y Amargo is what I’d want out of an amaro bar. A beautifully bitter respite in the former Carteles sandwich shop that was once the entrance to neighboring bar Cienfuegos, the space is tiny, intimate, welcoming. With a broad selection of amari, bitters and bitter liqueurs, there’s a range of cocktail possibilities, and a wealth of”bitter knowledge from former chef, now Beverage Director at Amor, Sother Teague.

THE DAILY, Nolita

The Daily

The Daily

The Daily, managed by Naren Young when I last visited (who now runs the bar at Empellon, see below), is an urban respite with a straightforward, daily changing cocktail menu and welcoming, skilled bartenders. There’s one cocktail to choose in each category like bottled, up, “on the rock” and frothy. Start with the likes of a bag of house chili “cracker jack” and an Orchard Sidecar lush with Poire Williams (pear liqueur), Calvados, fresh apple and lemon.

THE DEAD RABBIT, Financial District

Dead Rabbit's glowing space

Dead Rabbit’s glowing space

The Dead Rabbit is as special as you’ve heard. Though the raves and accolades in this, its first year, have been excessive, there really is no bar like it, with a cocktail geek’s attention to detail and history. Reading through the book that is the cocktail menu is an event in itself – and how I wish for a copy on my bookshelf. Recipes from as far back as the 1600 and 1700′s come with stories, history and artwork, best perused over classic punches served in teacups.

The atmosphere of the intimate, upstairs bar is the second high point besides the menu: low ceilings, candelight and hurricane lamps, an upright piano played soothingly in the background by a local pianist, a bronzed eagle atop the bar and paintings of figures in colonial history lining the walls.

Dead Rabbit cocktails

Dead Rabbit cocktails

Cocktails can be uneven (like the candied medicine taste of a Kilrain mixing Rhum J.M., Rabarbaro Zucca, raspberry cordial, Dead Rabbit Orinoco bitters, rhubarb root tincture and mint, topped with berries), particularly given the extensive drink selection, but there are thoughtful high points like an Evening Daisy of nettle tea-infused Jameson Black Barrel Irish Whiskey, Chase elderflower liqueur, lime, fennel syrup, dashes of Pernod absinthe and cucumber soda. It’s both refreshing and nuanced.

EVELYN, A DRINKERY, East Village

Looking across Evelyn's bar into second room

Looking across Evelyn’s bar into second room

An East Village gem, Evelyn: A Drinkery is all about punches ($7 small – love this option; $11 large), phosphates charged with Co2 (same pricing), and egg creams ($9), both with and without booze. The two-room, candelit space invites lingering while bright, rosy concoctions like Neverland Ranch, a phosphate combining Bombay Sapphire gin, crème de cacao, house beet shrub, orange and lemon, go down all to easy.

Boozy egg creams

Boozy egg creams

In addition, there’s cocktails, “Twisted Classics”, long drinks ($12 each), and stirred and boozy cocktails ($14), making it one of the more playful, fun menus in Manhattan, exemplified in their “Drinking Language” terminology (e.g. “If the bartender doesn’t say ‘hello’, ‘hey’, ‘how’s it going’, or offer some sort of greeting, call him/her out on it.”)

Intriguing cocktails include Daisy Ferrigno (Oxley gin, Green Chartreuse, pineapple, jalapeno syrup, lime, cilantro, served up), Improved Hit By A Car Number 2 (Fidencio Classico Mezcal, Tequila Ocho Plata, Green Chartreuse, Aperol, chipotle agave, lime, grapefruit bitters, served up), and my favorite, the savory, vibrant Mo F*#King Way (El Jimador Blanco Tequila, Benedictine, chipotle agave, Memphis BBQ bitters, passion fruit, lemon, Perrier, cayenne).

PDT, East Village

PDT flips

PDT flips

In a few short years, PDT is legend in the cocktail world, thanks to Jim Meehan. But for those of us who spend every day in restaurants and bars around the world, fighting through people pushing into a phone booth in a hot dog shop, Crif Dogs, trying to get into this famed “speakeasy” is far more work than we have time for to get a drink. However, if you happen to find yourself in the intimate bar, as I did upon my first return visit in years, I’d encourage you to go off-menu and ask for a flip (meaning it includes a whole egg) or a beer cocktail. While menu cocktails didn’t quite enchant, those two categories did.

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PDT cocktail using the yet-to-be-released-in-the-US Nardini Bitter liqueur

Head Bartender Jeff Bell crafted a beauty when I asked for something using house-infused Four Roses bourbon, smoky with Benton’s incomparable Tennessee ham, which I noticed on the menu in an Old Fashioned. Wittily named Nose to Cock-tail, he mixed the bourbon with lemon, orange, demerara syrup, and whole egg to decadent perfection. Ditto with a Black Flip using Brooklyn Brewery chocolate stout as a base with whole egg. Another beer cocktail highlight? Beer Cassis combining Ommegang Witte beer, the bitter-sweet of Byrrh Quinquina, and Caledonia elderberry cordial.

POURING RIBBONS, East Village

Sadly, my photos did not turn out from my visit to Pouring Ribbons but it is one of NYC’s great bar newcomers since fall 2012. Once you deal with yet another speakeasy-doorman scenario, head upstairs to a chill, roomy space where the cocktail menu is famously charted by taste profiles: refreshing to spirituous, comforting to adventurous.

PDT's friendly bar bear

PDT’s friendly bear

Cocktails please with approachable but not-too-simplistic combinations - like Gentleman’s Agreement ($14), mixing Beefeater gin, lime, like Spanish citrus-vanilla Licor 43 and cinnamon bitters with a five-spice salt rim.  The unique feature of the bar, however, is the extensive Chartreuse selection, some of it dating back to the 1940′s. My Chartreuse flight, thoughtfully selected by bartender Otis Steven Florence, included a 15 year old V.E.P. Liqueur Fabrique Par Les Peres Chartreux (green 54%, yellow 42%) and the now-defunct Sussex Green Chartreuse with fascinating notes of ginseng, heavy chamomile and fresh-cut grass.

THE RUM HOUSE, Times Square

In love with the Rum House

In love with the Rum House

The best thing to happen to Times Square in ages? The Rum House. This classic bar was revamped by the crew behind Ward III back in 2011, entirely to its benefit. While maintaining a dim, “lived in”, Old World feel, the spirits – particularly the rum – selection is stellar and the cocktails vastly improved. A heavenly respite from the madness of Times Square and the tourist throngs outside, its a true cocktail haven that feels like stepping onto an old movie set. Here, over a luxurious Negroni Leoni ($16), mixing Santa Teresa 1796 Solera rum, Ilegal Mezcal, sweet vermouth and Campari, I feel as if I’m in the Manhattan of old, comfortable in my vintage dresses, open to intriguing conversations with strangers at the bar, soon to become friends.

The Rest

BIRRERIA at EATALY, Flatiron

Beautiful city views from Eataly's rooftop

Beautiful city views from Eataly’s rooftop

No, this isn’t about cocktails. It’s all about a stunning rooftop bar in view of the Flatiron building and the Manhattan skyline, idyllic on a warm day. Cask-conditioned beers ($10 a pint) and wines (like Bastianich wines on tap, $12-18) are the drinks on offer.

Best of all, beers are brewed rooftop in glistening gold tanks (“made 30 feet from where you sit”), are unfiltered and unpasteurized, naturally carbonated, and served at traditional cellar temps of 50-55 F. I enjoyed Wanda (chestnut mild ale), Giuseppina (Italian-American IPA), and Patrizia (American dry stout brewed with Wellfleet oysters from Matthew Shellfish Co.)

BOOKER & DAX, East Village

The glow of Booker & Dax

The glow of Booker & Dax

Despite the molecular raves (I ever long for the experimental side of cooking and cocktails to be prevalent in the mix next to classic and straightforward) and though I loved Dave Arnold‘s cocktails at national events, I was a bit disappointed in my experience at Booker and Dax. Much like my visit a few years ago to its already legendary parent restaurant Momofuku Ssam next door, things sounded better than tasted.

Booker & Dax cocktails

Booker & Dax cocktails

In the case of a Lechuga ($14), a mix of gin, lemon, and bibb lettuce freeze-dried then muddled into powder,  the end result is little flavor. I guess I should have expected that with bibb lettuce, but I was hoping for vegetal notes in a fresh, clean cocktail. It tasted like icy water with a backbone of gin. Likewise, a BDX Marg, sounded delightful, combining mezcal, yellow Chartreuse, Cointreau, and lime served over shave ice (a nod to Hawaii and Japan), but tasted more icy than nuanced. The cocktail that worked for me was surprisingly the sweetest and best as dessert, a Banana Justino. Merely two ingredients – Zacapa 23 rum and bananas – are run through a centrifuge, yielding a thick elixir, sweet and bracing.

CASA MEZCAL, LES (Lower East Side)

Casa Mezcal

Casa Mezcal

Charming, funky Oaxacan decor (Day of the Dead paraphernalia, colorful lights and artwork) and friendly service goes a long way in making Casa Mezcal a worthwhile stop, though I haven’t eaten here so can’t vouch for the food. Mezcal cocktails aren’t exactly noteworthy, especially given the average $14 and up price tag. But they are good and the mezcal selection strong (menu grouped by agave plant varietal). Over mid-afternoon cocktails with grasshopper salt, it feels as if I’m right back in Oaxaca.

EMPELLON, East Village

Empellon cocktails

Empellon cocktails

With one of my two best bar experiences of my 20+ bars this visit being Saxon + Parole under Naren Young (see above), I am eager to return to Empellon Cocina, no doubt even better under his watch. That being said, there were already some players on the menu, particularly a rosy, beet and reposado tequila cocktail, tinged with mezcal smoke, alive with ginger, vanilla, lemon.

ELSA, East Village

Elsa's classic book bill holders

Elsa’s check holders

Settling in to my East Village apartment rental directly above Elsa, I was pleased to have a charming, intimate bar downstairs, replete with vintage touches (like old books used as check holders and Victoriana-style menus). I was less thrilled, however, with only big brand liquor behind the bar – given their “craft” style, there was a nary a smaller brand to be found – and solid but not memorable cocktails. Black Book ($12) sounded lovely, mixing bourbon, rhubarb rose water reduction, cucumber, Aperol, and lime rhubarb bitter. But as with all the cocktails I tried here, the more vegetal, herbal I hoped would shine, were barely discernible.

MILK & HONEY, LES (Lower East Side)

Milk & Honey

Milk & Honey

As essentially the speakeasy that launched the speakeasy trend of the past decade plus way back in 2000 (if you’re not counting Angel’s Share, a favorite haunt of mine in the ’90′s with hidden cocktail bar upstairs through an Asian restaurant), I will always have a soft spot for the original Milk and Honey through a dingy door on a sketchy, Lower East Side block. That’s all gone now as LES is plenty gentrified, while the original, dim, dive-y space is now Attaboy, a similar bar from the same owners.

The new Milk & Honey reminds me a bit of Dutch Kills in Queens or The Varnish in LA or any other derivative spot across the country, with elegant, understated, Prohibition-era decor. That is to say, I don’t find it particularly original or memorable – but when in the Flatiron District, the swank location of M&H is a solid stop for well-made cocktails and doo-wop over the sound system, as was the case on my last visit.

PRESERVE 24, LES (Lower East Side)

Preserve 24's downstairs bar

Preserve 24′s downstairs bar

Having just opened when I rented a nearby apartment, Preserve 24 is most notable for its Jules Verne-esque, old world look. Circa 1800′s underwater diving equipment, beer taps made from piano pedals, an eclectic mishmash of woods and antiques in a two-floor, multi-room space are delightful.

I haven’t tried the food, but the cocktails are lovely in concept and solid, if not as balanced/nuanced as I would hope for, like a Compass Rose ($13) mixing pisco, bourbon, Green Chartreuse, house strawberry rhubarb preserves and Peychaud’s bitters, or a smoky-soft El Hecho combining mezcal, velvet falernum, lime and parsley honey.

THE WAYLAND, East Village

The Wayland's

The Wayland’s Garden Variety Margarita

Though it can be a bit too noisy to talk, the glow over over rustic wood floors, vintage ceramics and glassware is all-encompassing at The Wayland. Their famed Garden Variety Margarita ($11) is really is all that, laden with blanco tequila, ginger, lime, agave nectar, smoked sea salt and beautiful use of kale. Not merely trendy, I could happily do more kale cocktails. Another winning mix? Indian Summer ($11), combining Ford’s Gin, lime, curry, cilantro and chili salt. Hail to refreshing, savory cocktails!

WHITEHALL, West Village

Whitehall cocktails

Whitehall cocktails

Impressive as Whitehall’s gin collection is, the understated cocktails don’t quite showcase the beautiful botanical spirit.

They are simple, understated, yes, but also forgettable, even soft and muddled in terms of flavor. Too bad, as the cool, white ceramic walls and relaxed bar staff make it an inviting place to pop in while in the West Village.

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