Category Archives: Food

We Dig Those Chicks in Amsterdam

I am Amsterdam

I am Amsterdam

Time to leave “home” again.  Next up is Amsterdam.  Liz was here 2 years ago for her company’s global summit.  The tales of conducting business under the influence of Amsterdam’s finest are legendary.  I have to say that I wasn’t as excited about this leg of the trip as I was Ireland.  And I couldn’t have been more wrong.  As somber as Dublin is, Amsterdam is equally ebullient.  This city is old, beautiful, sophisticated, egalitarian, well managed, fun and on and on.

Garden Suite

View of the koi pond from the Garden Suite

The first stop was to check in at the truly magnificent apartment we’d rented for the trip.  The place is owned and run by local architect Charles Boonzaayer, and the picture doesn’t do it justice.  The highlight, as you can see, is the picture window in the living room that opens onto a lush garden complete with a koi pond.  When we were at the apartment, even when were weren’t outside it felt like we were.  And the location is pretty amazing as well: 2 blocks from the Museumplein.

Next we hit a cafe for some local goodies, and then to dinner on a canal.  The rest of the night is a bit of blur, but we hit a variety of cafes, bars and clubs until well after midnight.  And because of the latitude, the sun was still up.  I’m not sure if they have hot springs here, but I caught myself humming “Immigrant Song” a few times.

Jeffery

…stroke the furry wall.

The next day we started early to hit the museums a few blocks from home.  The Museumplein is a park/square bounded by the Rijksmuseum, Stedelijk Museum and the Van Gogh Museum.  We started up at the first, then after lunch we hit a cafe and prepared for the afternoon to come.  Next came the Stedelijk.  The architecture was amazing, and while we visited they happened to have an interactive, light-based exhibit.  Hmm…it’s like they knew we were coming.  When things really started humming we hit the Van Gogh.  We could’ve spent a week there, and it was clear the docents had seen this level of fascination before.  More than once I was advised that if we spent so much time on this painting, we were going to miss the good stuff.  But thanks to them, we didn’t.

I can’t think of a better way to spend a day.

 

There’s a pub…

When the plan for Liz to fly over came together, one date stood out: June 16. That’s Liz’s birthday, and the date of the events described in James Joyce’s “Ulysses.” It’s hard to ignore when the Universe shouts out you, so we added 2 days in Dublin to the itinerary.

Mig and the Prick

Miguel and Joyce

The James Joyce Centre in Dublin hosts a variety of Bloomsday events, the highlight of which are a series of walking tours to trace the routes Leopold Bloom took in the book.  This was absolutely fascinating, as the city hasn’t changed much in the 100+ years that have passed since the book was written.  And odd thing that didn’t emerge until the completion of the tour at the Joyce statue (seen at left) is that Dubliners don’t really care for him.  He didn’t live in Dublin for most of his life, and the bulk of his literature is his ode to his homeland.  In “Ulysses” in particular, he paints Dubliners is a less-then-flattering light.  And while locals are aware of the book (even if they haven’t read it), their relationship with him is complicated.  As a result, the colloquial name for the statue is “The Prick with the Stick.”

Jameson Distillery

Reflection of Liz y Mig at the Jameson Distillery

Aside from this highlight, there was plenty of drink.  I know it comes as no surprise to anyone reading this, but the Irish LOVE to drink.  We hit the Jameson distillery, the Guinness brewery and all manner of pubs.  Of course we hit Trinity College and the Book of Kells, and a few U2 locales, but in all honesty we saw everything we wanted to in a few hours.  When asking locals what else we should see and do, the universal response was, “There’s a pub…”  Followed by some mix of the following: around the corner, down the road, you have to see, that’s really cool, etc.  The message was received: Welcome to Dublin, let’s get drunk!  So while looking for the (non-existent) typical meal of Dublin coddle or traditional music, we proceeded to drink.  And drink.  And drink.

 

 

London Calling

With the work portion of my trip almost wrapped up, we had a rare opportunity of one of us being abroad already and the other having the time to join them.  Since I’d already been in London for 2 weeks, and Liz had been here a few years ago, we didn’t have to rush through the normal speed-touring agenda that one typically endures during a short visit to a place you’ve never been.

I’d done all of the civic and religious buildings, perused the museums I wanted to see and even insinuated myself into the London arts community by securing invitations to a few gallery openings.  Liz on the other hand just wanted to eat and drink like a Briton.  So that’s basically what we did once she arrived.

My hosts at the BBC provided a thorough list of places that would serve in this capacity.  All of these places were in Central London, near our flat in Notting Hill or close to the office in White City.  However, the best experiences we had came on our second day together.  We hit Borough Market for some food and drink (see picture below), and then walked along the Thames towards Covent Garden for more drink at the Punch & Judy.

Mig in Borough

Mig showing his colors in London and sparking conversation.

The point of hitting the Punch & Judy was to see the street performers in the square below, and, in British tradition, mocking them from the safety of the balcony.  There was plenty of that, but the highlight of this spot for us was the random bloke we spoke with about his love of Bon Jovi.  He had to be 25, but had seen them play 12 times.  And he was jealous that I’d seen them open for Ratt in 1985.  It was one of those great moments you only experience when traveling – when you let your guard down and just embrace the moment because you know you’ll likely never be in that place or see that person again.

An’ after all this, won’t you give me a smile?

Back in the USSR

The last line of our National Anthem asks the question: O say, does that star spangled banner yet wave o’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?  Does it?

The time away has me wondering what freedom means to me, as if I were a 5th grader writing an essay on the matter.  Now that I’ve had a little time to reflect on the economic and cultural differences, I’m conflicted about which system is better.  I kinda like the Bill of Rights and not paying 70% of my take-home in taxes.  But at the same time it was really nice to drive on roads that didn’t knock parts off of my car, <gasp> smoke a cigarette in a cafe or move on to the next shop because the owner of the one I went to had gone on vacation.  This is the key difference, I think.

We happened to be in Europe during the most popular month for the yearly vacation.  While it was a little frustrating to have to go another block to find a bodega for a bottle of wine, how profound is it that small business people can let their entire staffs leave town for 2-4 weeks?  That’s economic freedom!  It’s been a recurring theme in what I wrote over the course of this trip, but they (Europeans) just seem to have figured out something that we don’t get here in the US.

Ahh, Mssr. Franks!

When I told my Mom where we would be traveling she remarked that it sounded like fun, but that we should be careful in Marseilles. Little did I know how prophetic her warning would be. It turns out that someone in Marseilles has had a grand old time on my dime. They went out to what appear to be a few bars on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, racking up around $700 bills each night. Then they apparently decided to bring the party home, so they stopped off at Carrefour (the European Walmart) and dropped another $2800 (I’m guessing a new plasma). It’s still not fully resolved, but my accounts have been closed and BofA has wiped the fraudulent transactions from my statement.

This whole situation has cast a little pall on our last few days in France, but today was really magnificent regardless. While we’d planned to rise early and see some smaller Chateaux before our 2:00 p.m. tour at Ch. Mouton Rothschild, 3 hours of late night phone calls with Bank of America and Visa killed that idea. We got started around 12:00 and found a delightful cafe in in the village of Bages. We ate a small, traditional lunch of Charcuterie (various sausages and cured meats) and a cheese plate (2 chevres and 2 cow’s milk). This set the tone for the short ride out to Mouton.

Once there we assembled in the visitor’s salon, went into a small theatre to view a welcome message by the Baroness and then started the tour proper. The facilities are amazing, and we learned a great deal about how one of the finest wines in the world is assembled. Like any prestige product, Mouton jumps through many self-imposed hoops out of adherence to tradition knowing that they can make up the expense at the back-end. We’ve seen the entire gamut of wine-making facilities in Napa and Sonoma, and none of them can hold a candle to what goes on here. After we’d toured the winery, they took us into the phase of the tour that neither of us appreciated very much: the Baron’s ram-art collection. It was a huge room full of jeweled and gilded objects d’art featuring male sheep. The old-French word for “ram” is Mouton. In modern French, it means “small hill.” Next, we were off to the tasting. Last year’s estate bottling is going for roughly $400/bottle, and they didn’t bring this out for us. While I would’ve appreciated a vertical tasting of ’61, ’82 and 2000, that wasn’t in the cards. What we did get was a preview (barrel tasting) of the ’09. It wasn’t ready to drink by any means, but it was a wonderful insight into what the wine will become in 10, 20 and 30 years. This is typically our favorite feature of tastings in Napa, so it was a unique treat to do this at Mouton.

Next up was Pichon Longueville. This property is awe-inspiring. They’re classified as 2nd growth from the 1855 Classification, and in my opinion it’s the top of the 2nd growth pile (the market tends to agree with me). This Chateau doesn’t have the glitz or name recognition of the first growths, so they must rely on their wine to speak for itself. To this end, everything in the winery is geared towards efficiency and consistency. We thoroughly enjoy this wine at home, and it was a wonderful treat to see where it’s born.

Next we took a short drive around Pauillac, if only to see Lafite, Latour and a few other places whose wares we covet and/or enjoy. The drive helped us decompress from the winery experiences, and soon enough it was time for dinner. Our hotel is rather like a country inn, albeit in an 18th centruy Chateau. The restaurant is run by Thierry Marx, and they’ve had 3 Michelin stars for a few years. If we hadn’t eaten at El Bulli a week earlier this meal would likely have been the high point of our trip.

A brief overview of our main plates:

  • Liz had the Canadian lobster, and it was cracked in the kitchen.  It was taken out of the steam basket just before it should have been, and then was placed in a bowl and sealed in a bag.  The steam expanded the air in the bag so that the bag formed a bubble and the lobster finished cooking as if in a pressure cooker, only from it’s own heat.  At this point, the bubble is brought to the table and “popped” in front of the diner. The meat was served with a cup of the water from the pan in which it was steamed.  It was suggested that a sip be taken and then a bite.  Remarkable preparation, presentation and taste; an amazing concept.
  • Mig had a fillet à la Bordelaise.  This was pan seared in the kitchen and then plated.  Next, a cup of smoldering vine cuttings was placed next to the meat and the whole package was wrapped up in a sheet of cellophane, tied off and then delivered to the table.  For an idea of what this looked like, imagine a gift basket with just a small fillet at the bottom of the basket.  Once at the table, the bag was opened and the smell of vine smoke wafted above our table.  The meat was absolutely fantastic, and again this was an amazing concept.

The rest of the meal was equally remarkable.  Unfortunately for them, the El Bulli experienced seriously compromised our enjoyment of this meal.  I would likely place it as my 3rd or 4th best meal ever, and I’m sure Liz would place it somewhere in the same neighborhood.

Tortas in Spain

Leave it to Liz to find the only place in Barcelona that serves tortas.

The concierge at the hotel didn’t understand why we would want to come here, but like Cheech Marin in Europe we were having taco withdrawls.  The restaurant is in one of the neighborhoods that was having it’s festival during our visit.  This brought up Barcelon’s already hi-voltage atmosphere to a level somewhere between Mardi Gras in NoLa and Woodstock (’89…everyone was well-dressed).

The Oldest Restaurant In The World

We came to Europe because we won, in some cosmic lottery, a reservation at the best restaurant in the world. But since we were going to be here we also wanted to see what else they had to offer. Although we didn’t know about it before we came, our guidebook tipped us off to the presence of the oldest restaurant in the world here in Madrid. That’s nice and all, but what sold me were the facts the Hemingway hung out here and that their specialty is suckling pig. The place is called El Sobrino del Botin, it was founded in 1725 and it’s featured in “The Sun Also Rises.”

The history in the restaurant is palpable, and the menu is simple. The pretty much do one thing and they do it really well. We started with some Jerez (Tio Pepe) and gazpacho. I think this was the first time either of us had tried either and we’re now big fans of both. Next came the pig, and it was absolutely awesome. I haven’t had this dish since I was ~7 years old, and to be honest I can’t remember anything about that meal other than the cool wine bottles. This time, however, I get to record it for posterity! While they didn’t deposit a whole pig on the table, there was at least a pound of pork split into three large pieces from various parts of the beast. The meat itself was tender, juicy and had more pork flavor than I would’ve expected. The meat was accentuated by a simple au jus-like broth and the skin (crackling). Regarding crackling: think wafer thin chicharones that are as crispy as fresh tortilla chips. The whole package is delectable. I’m really going to seek this out in the US.

While everything was wonderful, I couldn’t help thinking that we just ate at the Madrileño House of Prime Rib. They do one thing, they do it well, and they’ve been doing it for a long time. I kind of have to think that if we lived here we would only bring in guests from out of town. But as a traveler, it was exactly the sort of place I seek out. And as a bonus I got to walk in some more of Ernest’s footsteps!

El Bulli Overview

*** UPDATE: The full El Bulli review can be accessed by clicking on the El Bulli buttons in the top navigation bar. We look forward to seeing your comments and responding to any questions you may have. ***
This is just a placeholder post for the El Bulli review. I’m planning to do a full write-up, course by course, after we return to SF. At the very highest level I can say without equivocation that the hype is justified. This is the best restaurant in the world, and quite honestly I can’t see how anything could’ve been improved upon.

Briefly, we met Ferran Adrià as soon as we entered the restaurant. We took a brief tour of the kitchen and he shared a few seconds with us. It felt like we were in the presence of Pablo Picasso, John Lennon or Coco Channel. We were completely awed before we ate and the admiration we hold for him following the meal is indescribable.