Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Le Cercueil (“The Coffin”) Bar, Brussels, Belgium

Drinking beer out of skulls and setting your beer down on a glass-topped coffin with a skeleton inside. Fluorescent lights that turn white to purple and sinister bathroom doors. A small, almost obscure doorway opening to a dark, narrow hallway leading you inside - this bar was made for Halloween.  

Le Cercueil (“The Coffin”) in Brussels, Belgium has been parked on a side street off the Grand Place for eons, and it is definitely the tourist trap you read about. But, one beer couldn’t hurt, just for the experience of it all. My flight attendant friend and I ordered up some Belgian Barbãr beers - “The Warrior’s Reward” beer - which were promptly poured into skulls. Tiny place, so we made friends, some Brits out celebrating. 

The bathroom door, with a big headed, minatory skull vacantly staring back at me, made me miss the universal placard of June Cleaver (with devil horns, no less), but I did notice the pink ribbon on the hat and was pretty sure that meant the women’s restroom. I guess I wasn’t the only one confused since a woman came out of the men’s restroom as I exited the women’s, all flustered when she saw me, which just as well could be chalked up to those potent Belgian beers.

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.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

A San Francisco Must-Do: Bike the Golden Gate Bridge - San Francisco, California

Bike riding across San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge is quite a high and one of the coolest things I have done in the US. One of the most iconic landmarks in the United States, it was pretty intense and exhilarating. It’s a wild, fast ride across the 2 mile bridge, and so worth the day it takes to do it.

With various tour operators offering bike riding across the Golden Gate Bridge, it is easy to get outfitted. We (husband, 14 year old step daughter, and me) chose Blazing Saddles, a play on the title of the 1974 Western spoof movie by the same name, because it was the first one we saw when our taxi dropped us off at Fisherman’s Wharf (Bike & Roll is another good company to use). The college-aged employees mostly hailed from Ireland, in the US for school and summer jobs. They talked fast, showed us the map, and got us on our “Deluxe Comfort Mountain/Hybrid” bikes which they suggested as the best bike for the bridge crossing. The tour company offered ten different bikes total, even tandem bikes. 

We felt like San Franciscan’s as we headed out from Fisherman’s Wharf and passed beach-goers, runners, joggers and bikers, locals walking their dogs, lots of BBQ’s and picnics (a two-year old’s birthday party at one of them), and local pickup games of football and soccer at Crissy Field. A velocity of people, all mixed in enjoying the outdoors - that’s California.

The temperature was no higher than 63 degrees that day; even the locals admitted it was unusually cold for being summer. The bike ride was relatively easy up to the bridge, with different points along the way to stop for photo ops. In particular, at the National Park Service’s “Warming Hut”, which was perfect timing, and a needed respite to grab that last cup of joe before heading up the winding hill to the entrance on the west side for the bike crossing. Only in California, the hot dog stand next to the Warming Hut sold “No Antibiotic, No Hormones” hot dogs, touting it’s “free range” status.

Once we started on the bridge, it was an impressive site to see the support pillars reaching upwards into the fog, the stark color contrast of rust and grey. The massive size is daunting, and everyone stops to take pictures at the base of the pillars, steeling themselves against the wind. The Bay below was a swirl of celadon colored energy with white caps, with cliffs of black boulders on each side. Suspended high above San Francisco Bay at 220 feet (67 m), the water looked beautiful, but nonetheless menacing. And I am not even afraid of heights.

I wonder how people climb the cables of the pillars and not be blown away? The constant buffeting of the wind and the roar of eight lanes of constant car, tour bus and truck traffic was deafening. (which is a pretty big challenge for little kids considering the height, total distance, stiff winds, voluminous pedestrian traffic crossing the bridge in both directions). When we stopped to take pictures, the wind would about blow us and our cameras away - it was tough to hear and even tougher to smile with what felt like a million little cold needles pounding our faces. Perpetual mist driven into every pore by the wind. Many tourists had little kids with them biking across the bridge - a quick way to see what a kid is made of.

Repeatedly we heard “it’s sunny on the other side”, and sure enough, it was. Sunny, saucy Sausalito awaited on the other side, the once, long ago, sleepy romantic getaway for San Francisco honeymooners and day trippers from across the Bay. This day, Sausalito was overrun by the bike riding tourists; it was keenly obvious the locals were in hiding. Even the tiny Vina del Mar park, a mini Mediterranean styled park in the center of town, flanked by two cement elephants from the 1915 Panama-Pacific Games held in San Francisco, was surrounded by tourists. Sausalito is a picture perfect, and expensive, little town, staring across the Bay at San Francisco. As Carl Nolte, a staff writer for the San Francisco Chronicle wrote in an article about Vina del Mar in 1996, Sausalito is “ living in a postcard.”

On the Sausalito side, we had every intention of seeing the “tallest trees in the world”, the California Redwoods, at the Muir Woods National Monument, (9 miles from Sausalito), and then on to the cute town of Tiburon, catching the ferry back long before the last one departed at 8:00 pm. The only way to accomplish such a ambitious 1-day journey would have been to start when the bike rentals opened at 8:00 am. Hit up a grocery store, pack some snacks, water, wine, and lunch and really enjoy the ride as an all day adventure, and pack it all in, all the way to Tiburon. We realized this about 4:00 pm, when we were just getting something to eat in Sausalito at the swank Italian trattoria Poggio, and hadn’t even begun to see anything beyond the town. We headed back on the 7:00 pm ferry.

Such an iconic landmark; now I will be forever looking at the Golden Gate Bridge differently, knowing how biting the wind is in August, how cold the mist that pounded my face, how stable the suspension bridge is in the perpetual wind, and how insanely high it is above the white caps below. 

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Teatro Colón – Buenos Aires, Argentina

The Teatro Colón in Buenos Aires, Argentina, built in 1910, is world renowned, and has showcased the stars of the opera world over the course of it’s history: Placido Domingo, Beverly Sills, Maria Callas – and more.  All have all performed at the legendary Teatro Colón.  Coming off of a 10 year, $100 million (USD) renovation, which saw the Opera house shuttered completely for four years from 2006-2010, the century old Opera House shines its brilliance once again.
After a false start a couple of months ago when I tried to take the tour ($110 pesos/$25 USD), and was told the stage would not be seen on the tour due to a performance taking place that afternoon, I deferred my tour until my next trip to Buenos Aires.  After such extensive renovations, done in three stages, I wanted to get the full tour.  The acoustically perfect performance stage had been overhauled to pitch perfection; I did not want to miss this vital part of the renovations, and heart of the opera house.
Our group’s tour guide, Carla, was informative and engaging.  Standing in the intermission hallway, under busts of Mozart, Bellini, Bizet, Beethoven, she burst into operatic stiletto, smiling wirily at our surprise. (She is a student at the School of Opera, and all tour leaders attend the school).  Carla exhibited a cultural pride that floated on her words of the history and romance that is part of the Teatro Colón opera house.
Underneath the four busts is the sinewy marble statue, “The Secret”.  Two fingers of Venus were broken off somewhere along the way in the transport to Argentina from Italy (where the exquisite statue was carved on commission), and having been shaped from one single piece of marble, consequently the broken fingers were not to be replaced  So fine is the attention to detail, Cupid’s hand shows a soft, indented impression on his mother’s thigh, as he leans up to whisper in her ear.  Cupid is telling his mother a secret: whose heart he is going to shoot his bow of love through during intermission, as elegantly dressed men and women stand nearby, sipping champagne.
Four different marbles, ranging in colors from gold to copper to rust to dark green, resonate throughout the interiors. The Gold Hall, painted in 18K and 24 K gold, also used during intermission, hosts chamber concerts, and was modeled after the interior of Versailles’s Hall of Mirrors, embellished with furnishings from Paris.  Students who are to perform for the first time on stage must first present themselves in concert in The Gold Hall.
Again the pride from our tour guide as she swished back the red velvet curtains to the entrance for the concert hall.  Sultry Argentine beauty, red velvet saturation, turn of the 19th century, Dr. Zhivago, all rolled into one as we walked in to sit in the patrons chairs.  Concert boxes for the President and Mayor of Argentina, and Buenos Aires, respectively, were opposite us.  The VIP box at mezzanine level where we were gathered, and which is sold to ticket holders (the public) for $1500 pesos, is identified with the Coat of Arms of Argentina at the front. Our lucky day as a ballet performance was rehearsing.
The influence of Milan’s La Scala and Paris’s Opera House is evident throughout, yet Teatro Colón shines as its own beauty, especially at night, reveling in its status as one of the top five opera houses in the world.

(Originally published on July 21, 2012)

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.

Friday, August 31, 2012

The Buena Vista's Irish Coffee - San Francisco, California

When I was buying Irish coffee mugs for my flight attendant friend from Ireland who was getting married, I wanted to find an exceptional recipe to include with the gift. (I ended up buying a book instead about speciality coffees). In my searches, I found the location of The Buena Vista in San Francisco, which brought over the Irish coffee via an international travel writer for the San Francisco Chronicle who had been served this coffee at the Shannon, Ireland airport in the early 1950’s.

This is a perfect drink for the often blustery, fog-shrouded City by the Bay. The recipe calls for one full jigger of Irish whiskey, which even though it is poured into the coffee and is drunk though the cream that floats on the top, the first pull will let you know this drink means business. After my first sip, feeling the power of the Irish whiskey over the coffee and cream, I wondered how many patrons have sat on the same barstool I was sitting on and after a few of these potent coffees, ended up on the floor at some point.

The Buena Vista had a fair mix of locals and tourists; most of the locals sat at the booths while most of the non-residents sat at the bar to have their obligatory one Irish coffee in order to tell their friends and family back home this was checked off of their to-do list. I watched the musical chairs of customers rotate filling the seats at the bar, then head across the street to jump on the famed cable car for the ride to Union Square. There is no doubt, if I lived in San Francisco, I could easily become a regular drinking these hot toddies. Mine seemed to disappear way too fast.