Showing posts with label restaurant. Show all posts
Showing posts with label restaurant. Show all posts

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Kyoko and the Sushi Master Tokyo, Japan

When you have to make your way anywhere in downtown Tokyo, by yourself, and do not speak or read Japanese, it feels in that moment that nothing greater will ever test your independent travel mettle the same way. That was exactly my overwhelming feeling trying to find the restaurant Funibashiya, prefecture Shinjuku, downtown Tokyo.

On my way to the well-known Tsunahachi restaurant, housed in a building pre-WWII, I had my subway map, the name of the restaurant and address in Western and Japanese characters, and had to only travel two subway stops. How hard could it be? Very hard from the get go I discovered as I tried to buy my subway ticket at the machine for the Manarouchi line. Even in English, I could not find Manarouchi. As I struggled to explain this to the subway station attendant, I heard the utmost angelic voice say in flawless English, “May I help you?” I turned around to see eye for eye the absolute largest brown eyes I have ever seen in my lifetime literally inches away from me, staring straight at me. “Hmm, yes...” was all I could muster. I stumbled for a moment, looking at this creature with the saucer sized eyes framed by pigtails and realized this beautiful young Japanese girl would help me get my ticket for the Manarouchi line. Her two years of living in Toronto as a teenager was paying off for me now. 
Kyoko & me in the Tokyo subway station 

As I showed this Japanese beauty named Kyoko where I was going, she asked the station attendant to purchase my ticket for me, and since she was going the same way on the same subway line, she would make sure I got off at the right stop. I told her I was venturing out on my own for dinner, away from my crew, and going to Tsunahachi restaurant since I had read it served fantastic tempura. She offered her favorite place for tempura, a place she and her mother went to often, and had eaten at just a few days before that was near Tsunahachi. Kyoko believed Funibashiya was a better, more local, restaurant and felt sure I would enjoy it. She gave me directions, and as easy as it sounded at the time, the nano-second I exited the subway stop, I knew finding Funibashiya was going to be nothing short of a challenge. It took me asking the police, many strangers, a re-tracing of my steps, and a heavy dose of feeling overwhelmed and helpless among the shoulder-to-shoulder rush-hour crowds and neon lights flashing everywhere to find this restaurant. At one point, I just stood on the street corner, feeling utterly at a loss, thinking at least I know how to get back to the subway.

When I finally found Funibashiya, the hostess motioned for me to sit in the back room. I took one look and motioned to her I didn’t want to be relegated to the back room of tourists and the like. I wanted to sit up front, near the Sushi Master, and be a part of the Japanese crowd eating dinner. With a pause she relented, and I sat to the left of an older couple who I intently followed through dinner, doing everything they did. The Sushi Master scowled at me and made sure I knew he didn’t like having me seated anywhere near him. 
The older man watched me struggle to figure out the correct protocol for chopsticks, table seasonings, sides for my tempura, pots of broth, and hand towels. Even though this was far from my first time eating in a Japanese sushi restaurant (okay, first time in Tokyo) and I am near deft at eating with chopsticks, I have never sat at the elbow of the Sushi Master. My older gentleman friend explained to me in passable English my accompanying side dishes and sauces, saying “...and you mix here, with this (pointing to one of the sauces he had poured into my dish). I pointed to his plate and said, “But you didn’t mix yours!” which made him and his wife roar with laughter. Even the Sushi Master cracked a smile. 
When my eight piece tempura dinner of shrimp, pumpkin, onion, Chinese eggplant, mixed vegetable/shrimp, and fish, was finished, the Sushi Master motioned to me; the elderly couple next to me said, “Sushi Master say your tempura over.” I finished my Kirin beer, and as I stood up to leave, I thanked the older gentleman and his wife for their graciousness, and I thanked the Sushi Master with a slight bow and arigatou gozaimasu. This time he smiled.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Stealing Beauty from Bellagio - Varrena, Italy

Quaint and romantic, Vernna sits on a point on perennially beautiful Lake Como, across from the lovely, larger town of Bellagio, with ferries running daily in the high season to and from. Easy to enjoy, this is the perfect day trip from Milan. Varenna is a romantic, old city, which steps up the hillside it fronts, starting at the water’s edge. Less crowded, touristy, and expansive as the better known Bellagio, it’s breathtaking even more so for this reason. 
My crew members Martha, Gail and I took an afternoon train from Milan’s Centrale station for the 53 minute train ride, passing small coastal towns of Lake Como, having a picnic of Italian wine, cheeses, prosciutto, olives, with a fresh baguette. We got more than one wary glance over from the family sitting across from us. We walked along La Passerella (The Lover’s Walk), a promenade along the water bordered by cypress trees, privacy stone walls of villas overgrown with flowers and ivy, and the lushest hydrangea bushes I have ever seen, outshining those on Cape Cod, Massachusetts and the 6 foot tall bushes that grow wild all over Brittany, France. I really regretted not having my swimsuit as I watched locals swim in the water at the small rocky beach along the promenade. At least my feet went in, and if I had not had to make my way back to Milan in the same clothes, I would have dived in.

My dinner entrée at Il Molo of “creamy cheese pasta with ruccula” wasn’t exactly notable, but our waitress made up for that deficit. There were baby blue fleece blankets rolled up and off to the side available to ward off any slight evening chill. With a terrace on the water, at sunset with a slight breeze, life in that moment just didn’t get any more perfect. The day before I was home in U.S.; now I was having dinner at a small restaurant in the Lakes region, on Lake Como, near the southern base of the Swiss Alps.  

After dinner was the requisite stop in any Italian town at the gelateria for gelato, where I had menthe and limone for 1 euro. The early evening sky put on a show for us across the lake with alternating streaks and flashes of lightening, and rolling thunder. We watched and ate our gelato, with the night falling, as the lights of the town glowed golden in the reflection of the water.   

We saw only a small fraction of what is the heart of old Varenna, leaving the Villa Monastero, Piazza San Giorgio, Castello di Vezio, and the many hidden gems along the narrow steps and alleyways for another day. Having started late in the afternoon, our day was pinched; Varenna is easy to fully experience in a day with an earlier start.

Waiting at the train station (on marble benches no less) for our 9:37 pm train back to Milano, it was after 10:00 pm when a train in the opposite direction stopped in Varenna.  I asked the train conductor about the train we were waiting for, and with a shrug of her shoulders and hands up in the air, she just smiled, titled her head, and said, “Sorry, retardo” (late). She shrugged her shoulder again with another head tilt, got on her train as it pulled out of the station, and left me on the side smiling, as I was thinking, well, this is Italy after all.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Cal Pep Restaurant - Barcelona, Spain

Dubious is an understatement when it comes to how I feel about going to a restaurant that is “outed” - Michelin stars, guidebooks and New York Times write-ups - since the quality decreases, prices increase and it is overrun with tourists. That was my thought bubble exactly the night three crew members (Diane, Debbie and Dee) and I went to Cal Pep for dinner in Barcelona.

The week prior, Debbie had gone to Cal Pep, and loved it so much, she insisted we go this trip. I was going to hold her feet to the fire over this one, especially since we had to queue up at least one hour ahead of the restaurant opening to be sure we were in on the first round of seating at the tiny counter where all the major action happens. Those in first were able to sit at the bar and be entertained by the perpetual motion and activity of Mr. Pep himself. The best way to describe chef Pep is to see his caricature on the restaurant’s website in the likeness of the Greek god Poseidon, chef Pep wearing his trademark eye glasses and a crown, wildly riding crustaceans for his chariot through the waves, a trident speared with an olive, of course.  Even the restaurant’s business card is Cal Pep in his trademark eye glasses and chef’s jacket hoisting platters of fish above a scene of The Last Supper with Jesus and his twelve faithful disciples. The caricature drawings line the wall where patrons wait for open seats at the counter, the glass door on the side of the tiny restaurant, and even the brown paper bags that rest over the top of the wine bottles seated at the tables in the back room.

We were too far back in the line to get a table at the counter and were offered seating in the back room. This room was the intimate and romantic dining room with walls of wine racks up to the ceiling stuffed full of red wines, exposed brick walls, and a ship’s galley door separating the rooms. We were all alone, eating too early for the Spaniards who avoid the counter.

We were told by our waiter who spoke minimal English we would each pay 25.  Then came the tapas: a total of eight in all. Certain choices on the menu change daily depending on the daily catch. First up for us though was a round of cold, locally brewed Estrella Damm beers.  Our waiter started us with some of the restaurant standards: pa de coca (the equivalent of Italian bruschetta) and truita trempera (Spanish omelette), which was so fresh the eggs didn’t dominate the taste the way it is often is the case in sub-par tapas restaurants. The xpirons amb cigrons (baby squids with chickpeas) came in a black cast iron pan that enhanced the smoky, deep flavor (just like the regional foods of my hometown in south Louisiana such as gumbo and cornbread).  

Photo courtesy of Diane Levinson
Next came calamar fregit (fried calamari), which were fried with a very light touch, and cloises amb perni (clams with ham). The carxofes (artichokes) were simply delectable, not the least bit salty or mushy. With this amount of seafood there is always the danger being over salted to a point of ruination which is quite the contrary at Cal Pep. The one food that we fought over the most for the last bite was the pebrots del padró (Padron peppers), lightly sautéed in olive oil with a smidgeon of salt. Retaining their bright green color, these small, green peppers burst with flavor, not heat, and are worth returning for!   

I am going back to Cal Pep, and I plan to be out there waiting with the tourists to get a seat at the counter to watch Cal Pep himself in action. And this time, I want to order dessert with a cup of café con leche, as surely the desserts are as savory as the tapas. A perfect ending to dishes that surprisingly stand up to the glowing write-ups.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Trattoria der Pallaro – Rome, Italy

Most everything seems to be about a stone’s throw away in central Rome – restaurants, outdoor markets, Roman antiquities. Located near one of Rome’s most famous markets, Campo di Fiori, is a simple, rustic restaurant, Trattoria der Pallaro.
A pilot recommended this restaurant to a flight attendant on our crew, swearing up and down anyone she took there would love it. He emphasized being hungry on arrival, since plate after plate of food is brought to the table. Patrons eat what is brought to the table, which seems to be the restaurant’s traditional fare. The three of us from my crew were the second patrons to sit down, and the last to leave that seating general seating of patrons, pacing ourselves through the multiple plates of food that continued to arrive.

Within moments of sitting down on the enclosed terrace, we were asked, “Vino rosso or blanco?” Vino rosso!  And immediately arrived a pitcher of red wine, with sparkling water.  Then the food started: the ubiquitous basket of fresh baked bread, sliced fennel in vinegar and salt, green olives, sliced prosciutto and salami, a bowl of lentils, arancini rounds and Italian falafel, fresh mozzarella balls, pasta with pancetta, sliced veal au jus, and after all this – handmade potato chips.
To cap it all off, next was a slice of baked lemon cake straight from the black, cast-iron pan, an ideal dessert for a Roman dinner in the summer, accompanied by a shot of Fragioli, a wild strawberry liqueur.
Serving everyone was “Momma”, the essence of Italian grandmother (might have been great-grandmother in this case), who looked the throw back to WWII Italy – a little rough and poor, but with a gregarious and infectious smile of happiness and joy of life that dispelled any other notion.  With a kerchief on her head and apron around her waist, smiling broadly, she was giving friendly hugs and pats to the mostly local crowd of diners.
I thought I was going to roll right out of the restaurant at the thought of so much food. But the servings were not of copious amounts, and shared amongst the three of us, and pacing ourselves, I was able to have a little bit of everything, and feel satiated. Was this the best restaurant I have been to in Rome? No. But it is good? Absolutely. And you can’t beat the local Roman ambience, including the framed picture of the Pope over the bathroom door.
When the bill came, we each paid 25€. Trattoria der Pallaro is tucked away, but is worth finding when you want to feel like part of the neighborhood.

(Originally published on June 22, 2012)

Friday, July 6, 2012

Coffee, Chocolate & Churros – Barcelona, Spain

Getting a good cup of Spanish coffee at Buenas Migas the afternoons of layovers is a standard for most of my fellow crew members; the coffee shop is out the back door of our crew hotel. But, like Americans who can’t live a day without their skinny, grande lattes at Starbucks, the price of this expensive layover coffee starts to add up. My alternative has become the coffee at the local Caprabo grocery stores’ bakery for just 1€. It doesn’t come in a fancy labeled cup, but it is good, and that is what I want. The bakery has a tempting selection of pastries in the cases and fresh baguettes in the baskets behind the counter. I pair my cup of coffee with a pain au chocolat, and I am set for the afternoon. With three other flight attendants on my last trip to Barcelona, after we had coffee and pastries at Caprabo, we headed for the Barri Gothic, the original city of Barcelona.

I was quickly detoured by the inviting, old world entrance of a chocolate shop in the old quarter of Barcelona. Walking through the doors ofFargas, the smell was of truffles, and cocoa powder. One of the other flight attendants Diane, and I, each picked out some truffles – it was a quaint selection, but it filled the tiny glass cabinet. The proprietor wrapped our individual pieces in small bags, smiling broadly, not understanding one word of our English. I couldn’t wait to try mine, and as soon as I stepped outside, I plucked one of the truffles out of my tiny bag and stood there amongst the crowds thinking how much I love the Spanish for their love of chocolate.

It didn’t take us long to be detoured once more by a small gem deep in the Barri Gothic: an box of aXurreria on Carrier dels Banys Nous tempting passer-by with smells of hot bread and melted chocolate. Seeing the churros piled up in a tiny window was temptation enough, but locals popping in and out with a fixed determination of destination was conviction enough for us, this was where we should eat churros. Behind the small counter, the owner was scooping up the fried dough out of the deep fyers and plopping them in paper cones. With a quick twist of his hand, he threw sugar over the hot churros before handing them over. Piping hot, perfectly formed, and sprinkles of sugar – we dived in, and just as quickly they were gone. It didn’t take but two seconds for one of us to get out another5€ to get a second order.  Standing out front of the Xurreria, we knew we didn’t want to ruin our appetite for our dinner, but as far as we were concerned, it would have been well worth it!  These churros were deliciously fresh, and plump in size; the best I have eaten in Barcelona.
An afternoon in Spain sipping and savoring coffee, chocolates and churros. !Buen apetito! 

Wednesday, June 13, 2012


When you get only one day in a city as sublimely beautiful as Budapest, especially as a crew member, this becomes a “see you at pick up” layover. My very senior crew (40+ years of flying...) wanted to do only two things: stroll through the village leading up to Fisherman’s Bastion, and eat dinner at Café Kör. I, on the other hand, wanted to do everything. I wasn’t sure I would be back to Budapest any time soon, so I opted out of the crew plans for the layover and hit the ground running. Driving along the Danube river on the crew bus the morning of arrival, looking at the beauty of Buda through rain streaked windows, I knew this was a layover that was going to be short on sleep.  

Budapest is a deceivingly vast city, and undeniably breathtaking. The former Royal Palace of the Hapsburg kings (Buda Castle built in 1265) looms in grandiose style at the peak of Castle Hill, high above the Danube; Pest is gifted with the striking Gothic Revival style of the Hungarian Parliament building, hugging the Danube in dominant fashion.  

The Danube is wide and flowing, with its flat bottom boats and barges moving like chess pieces up and down the river. The afternoon proved sunny and warm; I walked as much was possible in my limited one day layover. I started my afternoon making the trek across the landmark Széchenyi Chain Bridge to catch the Castle Hill funicular up to the Royal Palace. The amount of pedestrians, bike riders, tourists, cars, and photographers on the Chain Bridge was constant movement. Crossing the bridge and seeing Budapest’s sweeping beauty was exhilarating, intoxicating - the beauty of is, at every turn, astounding.

My dinner at Művész Café ("artist café") 

was as old world Hungarian as I could hope for. This traditional coffeehouse, wrapped in dark wood, baroque, chandeliers, and red velvet was a reflection to 1898, the year it opened. It was easy to envision dark suits and bustle dressed patrons sitting all around me, conferencing over coffee their vision of the future that I am a part of in the 21st century. My dinner entree of fettuccine alfredo was colored with a few red-ripe tomatoes and slices of shaved parmesan cheese. I picked a light, crisp rosé wine to savor with my fresh pasta - a dinner and drink the anthesis of traditional Hungarian sustenance.  I am convinced the pasta was hand rolled and prepared the minute I ordered as it was as near perfect and fresh as I could wish for in Rome. I ordered an Irish coffee afterwards, and with the first deep pull wished I ordered three more as it was also - perfect.  I asked the bartender about walking back to my hotel alone along Andrássy út (avenue), late on a Sunday night. He assured me I would be fine and confidently waved me on, with a broad smile, and he was right.  

The cafés along the river boardwalk were full of life and patrons, even at midnight, having their last bites of dinner or sips of coffee. I walked in solitude; the cool, evening weather and ambiance transported me to a Budapest that had in earnest shed the shackles of Communism.  I listened to laughter and conversations, and walked beside couples holding hands.  

As much as I tried to pack into my one day, I didn’t even make it to the many of the major sites: the Gellért thermal baths, the Gellért Hill cave church, the Freedom statue, Fisherman’s Bastion, the Parliament, a glass topped/flat bottom boat ride, the Great Market Hall food market, a Tokaji Aszú wine tour, or Margaret Island. Not even a bike ride along the Danube. But, I did see the Art Nouveau artistic and architectural renderings of the Gresham Palace (now a Four Seasons Hotel), the majesty of St. Stephens Basilica, listened to a violinist playing in front of the Royal Palace-Hapsburg gate, a Pest man showing his British girlfriend the view of his city from the Castle Hill funicular, and in a serendipitous moment, a young couple kiss with a view of Parliament behind them. 

The pictures are really the story as Budapest is a city rife with iconic images, a photographer’s dream. 

Friday, June 1, 2012

Cappuccino at Rome’s Pantheon

At the end of a long trip, and commute, I think back to how my morning started. On my recent Rome trip, the morning before my crew pick up at 10:30 am, I was drinking a cappuccino, leisurely gazing at the Roman Pantheon standing out in almost sheer solitude against a pale grey, early morning light. 

Being a Sunday morning in Roman Catholic ground zero, the “day of rest” (well, the morning at least) is exactly that. The hordes of tourists, the tour guides and groups, and the constant stream of college students, free of the bondages of yearly study and now on European vacation, were all still slumbering. I heard them outside my hotel window until well after 1:00 am. Our crew hotel is close to Pope John Paul II’s favorite gelateria, Giolitti, a marked spot on the tourist trail of Rome, especially in the wee early hours of the morning. Now, at 8:15 in the morning, I was sipping my cappuccino at a table adjacent to the majestic and iconic Roman architectural wonder, the Pantheon, in almost utter peace and quiet, in late May, a bona-fide slice of tourist time in the travel tourist season.  
I decided to sit at Di Rienzo, a café in the Piazza della Rotonda since 1952.  The customary black and white outfitted waiters were smiling this early Sunday morning, allowing for the extra flairs and nuances that make Rome the romantic city it is, before the decent of the masses, which within record time can drain anyone of their civility.  My waiter was charming and talkative, his blue eyes twinkling as he scattered rose petals over my table, petals floating down over my cappuccino, and homemade chocolate croissant (which turned out to be filled with Nutella).
A couple of times I saw heads peering out of lace curtains in the high windows above the piazza, windows being cracked open for some fresh, morning air. Two older Roman women walked in for their morning cappuccinos, leaving their equally older dog with crusted, tired eyes devotedly waiting for them at the entrance. A couple of bistro tables over from me were two priests drinking their cappuccinos deep in consultation, as well as an elderly British couple, fluent in Italian, the man drawing the scene in front of him seeing his subject in full view, his box of pastels splayed out on the table, with multi-colored dust on his fingers.
The day before, I crossed the piazza in front of the Pantheon in the afternoon.  I weaved my way through the shady African immigrants selling fake Prada and Gucci bags, the packs of students, and the hordes of camera toting tourists competing for the best angle to take their proof of visit photo in front of the gorgeous rotunda building. I am sure there were some honeymooner couples thrown in the mix somewhere.  But, this morning, it was when I was able to see the piazza, and the Pantheon, look Roman - majestic, an ancient architectural wonder, dominating. 
By 9:00 am, Rome the tourist city was awake and on the move; a large tour group following their leader with her ubiquitous flag on a pole, tourists with cameras, the pushy Gladiators grabbing the attention of tourists for highway robbery priced photos with them.  As the second wave now crested into the piazza, the priests, the artist and his wife, the dog walkers, the joggers, the men peeping out of their windows above the cafés and restaurants below quietly slipped away for the day.  

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Les Tontons Flingueurs Bistro Crêperie - Montréal, Québec, Canada

The newest “in” place for the French crowd in Montreal to gather, restaurant Les Tontons Flingueurs on chemin de la Côte-des-Neiges, near Université de Montréal, attracts a sharp mix of French students, ex-pats and locals. When the French presidential primaries were held two weeks ago, the owners showed continuous coverage on the HD flat-screen television. Les Tontons Flingueurs became the place where Montreal’s French community rallied, and crowded in, to follow the election primary news. 
When co-owners Francois Harmant and Matheo Alary chose the name for their restaurant, it was borrowed from a 1963 black-and-white French film (loosely translated as “The Hired Guns’ Uncles”) that is a cult, film noir classic for the true French citizen, along the lines of Serge Gainsbourg - a little rebellious.  Opening a restaurant, it was a tip of the hat to one of the most famous scenes in the film, gangsters from opposing sides, in the kitchen of a restaurant, trying to nonchalantly drink together while keeping a wary eye on each other.  
Just as any speakeasy in the ’30’s was gangster fueled, decorated with red banquettes and mirrors, Les Tonton Flingueurs gives proper due to the image, with a Parisian bistro twist. No attention to detail has been overlooked: the small Eiffel Tower, an antique wall map of the heart of Paris, a Paris Metro map, and even a silver model airplane as a wink to the co-owner’s Air Canada flight attendant girlfriend.  In the men’s bathroom are various quotes from the movie, including the line “Touche pas au Grisbi, salope!”, which comes from the film’s kitchen conversation.
My French husband Thierry and I arrived for lunch late in the afternoon, post lunch crowd, and were able to do what the French do best: eat in a leisurely fashion.  The entree crêpes are made with buckwheat flour, giving each the authentic flavor and consistency of Breton crêpes, harking back to the crêpes found in restaurants such as Crêperie Ty Breiz in Paris, made to be drunk with the strong cider from Brittany. Despite the recommendation we try the crêpes, we passed on this visit, enticed by other intriguing offerings on the diverse menu. I ordered Le Gros Deguelulasse, a juicy, thick hamburger stuffed in the bun with ground beef, grilled onions, sautéed mushrooms, bacon, creamed cheese and fresh tomatoes.  With my Stella Artois beer, simply put, it was outstanding.  Thierry ordered Le Cul de Poule, a sandwich of white chicken, brie, honey, apples, lettuce, tomatoes, drizzled with a cider vinaigrette.  Fresh, and a perfect meld of flavors.  As the French would say, superb! 

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Manchester, England: A Brilliant Diamond in the Rough

Premier shopping - check! World famous football clubs - check!  5-star hotels - check!  Michelin star restaurants - check again!  A major university, historical sites, a Saxon cathedral, cool bars, a hip and vibrant music scene - check!  The Crown Jewels - ah, no.  But Manchester, England has everything else.  This is a city that is London, on a smaller scale.  Manchester is the city that has it all.  
The Castlefield area lies over the old Roman ruins of what became the city of Manchester.  Manchester Cathedral, built in Saxon 700 AD before Norman William the Conqueror swept through England, anchors the city, flying the English flag high.  Even though it suffered heavy damage during the air raid blitzes of WWII, Manchester Cathedral has prevailed. The IRA unwittingly helped Manchester when it bombed the city center, carving out a chunk.  Manchester seized the moment for the better and became the phoenix lifting above its former industrial self, rising to become the vibrant and cosmopolitan city it is, with over 20 art galleries and various museums, high-end shopping with the likes of Harvey Nichols (which had at one of the make-up counters one of the most stunningly beautiful girls I have ever seen), Hermès, Links of London, and Vivienne Westwood, luxury hotels to cater to these shoppers (The Lowry, Malmaison), restaurants of every persuasion, and hot bars and cool clubs, often frequented by the footballers of Manchester City and Manchester United.  Even the National Football Museum is relocating to Manchester, to be housed in the Urbis Center.  And, an unparalleled music scene with two symphony orchestras, world-renowned artists playing concerts at the Cathedral, and hometown bands the Charlatans and Oasis.  Any night of the week, pick your pleasure from the cultural scene.  
Manchester is decidedly diverse in population with a Chinatown that has its own gate to its “city” and restaurants housed in old cotton warehouses that can equal most any in Hong Kong; the Manchester Jewish Museum as the gatekeeper of the still present Jewish community’s history since the Industrial Revolution; a vast gay populace that congregates in the now revitalized Canal area, the perfect place to be on sunny summer afternoons with its many outdoor cafés; and Curry Mile, a mile long area of south Manchester made up of Pakistani, Indian, Middle Eastern and Arab restaurants.  When I asked the hotel concierge which one he would recommend out of the mile long amount of choices, he looked at me as if I had 10 heads.  “Any!  Walk along and pick one with your nose,” was his answer.    
My flight attendant crew member Kris and I went to the outdoor pub at Sinclair’s Oyster House in Shambles Square in the city center, near the dominant ferris wheel.  With a couple of pints in hand, we sat outside at the tables.  An edgy young local with some missing teeth came up to us, holding his full beer, and with his even rougher looking buddy said, “dlibuiaosdu goiaudof elkgjos?”  Kris and I looked at each other, and looked back at him.  The buddy started laughing.  I said, “You have to speak a lot more slowly for us to understand your... accent.”  “Do-you-have-spare-change-I-could-have-for-my-next-pint?” I thought about that a second, looked at his full beer, and said, “If I give you my change, how am I going to pay for my next pint?”  This time they both laughed, and then talked to us for a solid 10 minutes.  Slowly. 
Urbis Center, future location of National Football Museum
Manchester is a city that has star quality, smoothing out is rough, industrial city feathers.  That is what makes it such a fantastic city.  Being in Manchester heralds back to a time when a place on the global map wasn’t tainted or altered by commercialism and tourism.  Manchester is a relatively small city in size, but powerful - it’s all there.  It’s dynamic, and you see it and feel it. These are people who have a fierce pride being a Mancunian, and rightfully so.
Now, I just have to figure out how to get tickets to one of those perpetually sold out City or Man U games...  

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Deep in the Heart of São Paulo, Brazil

Flying in on approach into São Paulo, Brazil’s Guarulhos International Airport is like looking at a graphics chart on Bloomberg News.  Flat land for miles, and for miles tall, skinny skyscrapers punching upwards in staggering heights.  And, at the bottom, squeezed somewhere in between every possible inch, groupings of tiny red-tiled roofed houses, juxtaposed at all angles - all this before the dense concentration of skyscrapers.  In this vast sea of human dwellings, it becomes evident this is what it looks like to house 19 million citizens in South America’s largest metropolitan city, a city painfully devoid of greenery flying in on approach.
Our monolith crew bus - we could have fit three wide-body crews on this bus - pulled up to our hotel after an hour’s drive from the airport to the city’s center.  Almost every scene out of the bus window was a sterile view of cars zipping along ribbons and cross ribbons of highways.  Downtown São Paulo, and more skyscrapers.  Not as many, not as tall, but the distinct look of business.  Our crew hotel was located in the middle of the business district, with one small, but busy, outdoor café across the street, a couple of blocks off the busy Avenida Paulista, and Trianon Park.  The view from my high-rise hotel window was confirmation of why São Paulo is the engine of South America’s economy.  Sexy Rio de Janeiro and staid São Paulo.  Where’s the Brazilian passion in a city of steel and concrete? 
Our crew made reservations for dinner at one of São Paulo’s most famous restaurants, A Figueira Rubaiyat (“fig tree”, and an 11th century Persian poet, respectively).  Looking out the taxi window as we made our way down Rua Haddock Lobo in the Jardim Paulista area, life was finally revealing itself on a warm summer, Saturday night: locals walking their dogs, cafés and small restaurants spilling over with paulistanos (São Paulo’s citizens) out front, luxury stores like Louis Vuitton and Christian Dior indicating it was their customers who lived behind the beautiful, walled structures lining the residential area.
Stepping out of the taxi, looks can be deceiving as what seemed like a decent sized tree greeting us at the entrance of the restaurant was really a fruit tree of magnanimous proportions.  Swathed in a welcoming, warm, gold light, it is easy to breeze right into the open entrance and head straight for the bar area (where one of the restaurant’s rocket-fuel caipirinha’s is enough to knock you out flat) or the hostess desk, but that would be an injustice to such magnificence.  The fig tree quietly dominates from above all the patrons of the evening, feasting on butter soft steaks that are from the cattle raised on the owner’s private farm, with its sweeping extension of branches and leaves.  It was someone’s birthday this night, and the celebration under the fig tree was with balloons, song and a cake with sparklers for candles. The fig tree in its own way is a national treasure, and maybe a back door view to what the natural landscape of São Paulo was before millions of people took it over.
From the airplane, to the crew bus, to a city taxi driving deep into the heart of São Paulo, peeling back layers of South America’s largest city one segment at a time, in the midst of modern day structures of steel and concrete, survives a beautiful fig tree.