Sunday, October 19, 2014

Kentucky Horse Country

We took a little break from the Bourbon Trail to experience the other thing that Kentucky is know for, horses.

First up, a day spent at Keeneland Horse Track. I've been to a few horse races in the past but nothing like Keeneland! It's an absolutely beautiful venue, dating back to the late 1930's. Jen's dad armed us with programs and pens, and they all gave Elisabeth and I some quick lessons in betting.

We immediately got in line to meet and have autographs signed by the jockeys. Some of them were super friendly and talkative, others just doing their thing, but it was a great introduction to the men (and women!) who would be racing and others who were icons in the sport.

We watched some of the races from our seats in the grandstand and others from down along the rail. A total of nine races were run and there were two run on the inner grass track which I had never seen before.
And of course we visited the paddock before a few races for an up close, front and center view of the amazing Thoroughbreds. After their handlers walked them around they were led to the jockeys who rode them into the track grounds. I was standing in front of the path when they walked them past, awesome!

The start gate was moved on the last race, directly in front of the stands which was very cool too. The entire day was fun, fun, fun! And it didn't hurt that I came out quite a bit ahead for the day. Beginner's luck and all that!

The next day we headed out to Windstar Farm to see how these Thoroughbreds live, and hear all about how they breed. TMI!

We drove past acres and acres of rolling bluegrass pastures divided by white or black horse fencing. It was absolutely gorgeous, especially with the leaves just starting to turn and some of the roads bordered by pretty stone fences.
Winstar has a well-known collection of winning stallions and they command quite a bit of cash for breeding. Their stallion, Distorted Humor, has already sired 124 stakes winners, and his stud fees are $100k per - um- pop. And that is just one of their stallions. Horse breeding is big bu$ine$$!!

Additionally the farm owns Tiznow who, along with many championships, is the only 2-time winner of the Breeder's Cup. He was out in his field, watching us but not interested in visiting, but still a sight to see.
But others like retired Paynter, were more than happy to say hello.

The tours at Windstar are free but you must book in advance. It's quite interesting and absolutely beautiful. Generally the stallions will be in their barn but I actually liked seeing them outside.
We headed to the near by Wallace Station deli for lunch after, enjoyed outside on the porch while plotting our return to the Bourbon Trail. 

 Kentucky photos

Thursday, October 16, 2014

The Kentucky Bourbon Trail, Part One

Kentucky is all about two things, bourbon and horses. Over the last few days I got to experience both and it was nothing short of awesome. Let's start with the bourbon!

Day 1:

Originally Jen, Elisabeth, and I had plans to fly into Lexington where Jen's parents live. But as we landed at DFW we learned our flight had been cancelled due to weather. I'm zero for three on smooth American Airlines flights thru Dallas this year. Immediately I got on the phone with a rep and learned that there were no more flights to Kentucky that evening and that the first flight out in the morning was to Louisville. Rescheduled, we set about about getting AA to book us into the Westin on their wholesale rate for the night. Upon checking in I worked us up three free cocktails in the bar. Free drinks, a Heavenly bed, and hanging with some of your best girlfriends- all ok.

An upside to the change in plans was that Jen's parents, Terry & Donna, were now
picking us up in Louisville, which is close to Bardstown, which has a whole slew of distilleries that originally we weren't going to get to visit. Upon touchdown, we loaded into their car and immediately sped off to visit Jim Beam.

Now if you are like me, a bit of a food and booze snob, you may be turning up your nose at visiting Jim Beam. You'd be mistaken to do this. Driving up to the property is fantastic. The historic buildings are so picturesque and the rickhouses are all black 7-story wood buildings, a very unusual site (to me at least).

Our guide Hunter was also excellent. We went through the fermentation room and even got to dip our fingers in the mash for a taste, viewed the massive column still with it's chimney sticking high above the roof of the distillery house, and learned the basics of bourbon making.

After this we entered the single-barrel bottling room where I helped to dump bourbon from a barrel of Knob Creek, Jen then rinsed the bottle with the same single- barrel whiskey that it would be filled with, she then Lavern & Shirley'd it onto the line where it was filled, capped, and labeled. Finally she gave it to the man who hand dipped the cap. She had placed a green sticker on it so we always knew which one was hers. Terry bought us the bottle which we consumed over the next two days. Single-barrel Knob Creek, A-OK.

The tour moved on to a room filled with various memorabilia and antique decanters. It concluded with a really interesting tour inside one of the all wood rickhouses and then into the tasting room. The pours were handled by computerized machines which we fed a pre-loaded card into, allowing each of us two tastes. Since there were five of us we worked together and came up with a nice selection of their high end products to taste through.

We walked around the grounds a bit on our own and had our lunch at their onsite BBQ joint. Again, I can't stress how pretty the facilities were here. We all agreed it's well worth the time, even if Beam isn't on your go- to list.

Next up we headed to Heaven Hill. Having just come off a formal tour we opted for the "bourbon connoisseur tour". The is was a short and sweet history lesson on HH/Evan Williams; one of only two family owned distilleries currently in operation, with many Beam family members employed as master distillers over the years.

The main part of the tour was the tasting. Although not held in their cool barrel tasting room, ours consisted of four products sold exclusively at the distillery. A wheated bourbon aged in cognac barrels, a William Heavenhill bonded bourbon and a 15-year old cask strength, and a 23 year Evan Williams.

We all found something special to buy here!

We couldn't resist a quick trip up to Willett, even though they had finished their tours for the day, the whiskey shop was still open. As it turned out the owner held the door open for all of us while the distiller explained their offerings. There's a law that only allows them to give you samples after you've toured so we weren't able to taste here. I did pick up a Willett 2-year rye which has just been released, as well as made some notes on their bourbons to try later.

Day one done, not a bad showing. We drove home to Lexington where Terry & Donna live, had some delicious country ham and pimento cheese with an apero before heading out to dinner at The Merrick Inn, an institution of traditional southern food. My fried chicken rocked!

Nice to meet you Kentucky!

All photos here.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Expect the Unexpected While Traveling

I'm on my way to France to team up with my bestie for two weeks of eating, drinking, and general merriment. We decided to meet in Lyon for a few days before heading to Burgundy and then on up to Paris. We are well prepared with reservations and the like.

Last night as I went to bed I got a text from Air France. "Your flight from Paris to Lyon has been cancelled. We are sorry for the inconvenience."

Not what you want to hear at 11pm on the eve of your vacation. Sigh. Turns out Air France has striking pilots (surprise!). I sent Forrest a text letting her know I would have to grab a train ticket and not to pick me up at Lyon's airport. Luckily she hadn't gone south yet and so we switched our plan to have her pick me up in Paris. Road trip!

When I got to the SeaTac this morning and glanced at my watch I noticed the battery had died. I also seem to have packed the headphone jack to my noise-canceling headset in my checked bag. If that's my "things happen in three" I'll happily take that and chalk it all up to first-world problems.

2 hours later...

I just found out that Delta has discontinued it's in air duty free shopping. WTF?? That is one of my highlights of international travel! NOW I'm feeling a bit rattled!

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Thursday, August 14, 2014

When in Rome?

A friend recently asked me for recommendations for Rome but I didn't have much to offer. The last time I was in Rome it was just for a short weekend, really not enough time, before sailing the Mediterranean.

I would recommend the Hotel Modigliani, which had been recommended to us by friends. It's a great location, very central, and although our room was tiny (by American standards) we had a balcony looking out to the hotel's back patio, where jasmine and citrus grew, scenting the air. The hotel has a good breakfast room and the staff were incredibly nice.

I would also recommend taking a walk to the Trevi Fountain, tossing in a coin (to insure your return to Rome) before making your way up the Spanish Steps. If you happen to do this at dusk when the light on the city is magical, all the better. Sure these are on every 'top things to see in Rome' list, and for good reason! Order an Aperol spritz or an espresso and do a little people watching.
I would also recommend the touristy Hop On, Hop Off bus if you have limited time as we did. Especially if you do it on your first day you can get a sense for where things are at in the city. And of course, you can get off and see some of the sights, explore an unknown neighborhood, jump back on, listen to the guide, etc. If you are traveling with friends you might want to make sure that you all know where you are going to "hop off" or else you might accidentally get separated, which I don't recommend!
I would absolutely recommend wandering the ruins of the Roman Forum and seeing the Colosseum. In fact, you should make reservations for a tour of the formerly not accessible lower and upper levels. This tour is amazing! You're taken to the lower level, which use to be under the Colosseum floor. Slaves, gladiators, animals, etc. were kept here and brought up using dumb waiter style apparatus'. It's awe-inspiring standing there, looking up and out of the stadium's walls.

The guide continues to the normal levels where spectators viewed the events. And then they will let you in to locked passages that lead up to the very top of the venue, with dramatic views to both below and the city around you. You must book this in advance, and they only allow a certain number of these tours per day.
You can wander the Forum on your own (there are plenty of self walks out there) or as part of the Colosseum tour. We did it on our own with the help of Lonely Planet, it's such a fascinating area to explore!
Of course I recommend touring the Vatican but again, a little planning goes a long way! With the help of the Rick Steve's guide (we'd never used it before but this tip alone sold me) we had reserved timed tickets in advance. This allowed us to skip the ridiculous queue outside and head directly to the entrance.

The only way to enter the Sistine Chapel is to go through the Vatican museum, but the museum is really interesting so it's hardly a bother. We picked a few rooms to explore along the way and soon we were stepping into the (not)peaceful chapel.

Once we had sufficiently crooked our necks, inspecting all the intricate paintings, the Rick Steve's guide proved itself again by directing us to a "tours only" exit which is a short cut to St Peter's Cathedral. No one stopped us or asked which tour we were a part of, and in minutes we were inside the cathedral, again skipping multiple hour long queues.
Did I mention that we were in the church on May 21, 2011? Hilarity ensued.

I wish I had more recommendations on dining in Rome but I have always found that the big foodie cities of the world require careful planning or they can end up serving you the most banal meals. We had researched, made lists, etc. but the city is huge and without knowing for sure where we'd be at any given time, our lists were a bust.

Drinks were easy to come by anywhere; Aperol spritz, beer, wine, martinis, no problem.

Our best meal was a lunch we had after visiting the Vatican. We hopped in a cab and sped over to La Campana restaurant, which is one of the oldest in Rome. The interior was cold and boring but the food was amazing!

Fried artichokes, fried zucchini flowers, pasta with truffles... we all loved it!

And upon leaving, and deciding to walk to the nearby Piazza Novona, we stumbled upon Antica Norcineria, a fantastic shop filled with amazing deli items. An unexpected opportunity to stock up on items to take home.

And of course we had pizza at Forno in the Campo di Fiorini one afternoon. The bianci was good, the mushroom was better. But I would have happily just grazed the market that was going on instead.

And on our last night we fancied it up and dined at the Michelin starred Mirabelle. The food was good, none of us were blown away, but the view was amazing. We had a table on the balcony, overlooking part of the city for sunset. The air was heavy with jasmine and the whole thing felt very over the top!
All photos from Rome are here.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Dark and Stormy, New Orleans Style

I've been to New Orleans many times, my first was when I was in high school; I still remember trying frog legs and buying a tacky t-shirt that proclaimed "Shit Happens". Indeed it does. Dayne and I spent four years in a row, traveling to NOLA each July for Tales of the Cocktail, until 2010, which happens to be the year Forest joined us.

When Forest had a wedding to attend in Florida earlier this spring we thought it made perfect sense to meet up in The Big Easy for a girl's trip, without all the crowds, schedules, and the heat that TOTC brings (granted that event is a hell of a good time even with all those things!)

We rented a very traditional shotgun style house in the Bywater via Airbnb. Although the decor was a bit on the crazy side (let's just say there were a lot of photos, paintings, drawings, etc of penises, or should that be peni?) the house itself was absolutely perfect. The owner had bought the property next door and had the desecrated building that sat on it raised. He then turned the space into an awesome garden and outdoor patio space, complete with outdoor shower! There was a small studio that he used for his massage practice which is where he was living while we were there.

Staying here, in this traditional style of house with an owner who loved his neighborhood, really gave us a taste of local life.The neighborhood is quirky, artsy, rough, and friendly all at the same time. There are plenty of places to eat and drink in the Bywater and it was about a 20 minute walk to the French Quarter, a good way to work off some of those cocktails while checking out the local architecture.

My arrival evening plans to have ribs at The Joint and then head to Baccanal for some live music were squashed when storms hit from Dallas to the east coast, delaying my flight into town. Forest and Thibault were nice enough to pick up some ribs for me which made for good morning snacking at least!

My first day in town overlapped with Forest's boyfriend's last day in town, so we decided to do a cemetery tour to complete his NOLA sightseeing. I had been to Lafayette #1, so this time we did St Louis #1 which is just outside the French Quarter. Again I chose Save Our Cemeteries as they are doing such a great job of helping to restore and protect these amazing cities of dead. Among the famous in St. Louis #1 are Homer Plessy (1896 Plessy v Ferguson civil rights ruling), both New Orleans' first mayor and its first black mayor, and voodoo priestess Marie Laveau. Actor Nicolas Cage has a weird pyramid tomb there for when he kicks it (cue "dying to get in" joke here).

After our tour we headed to Napoleon's House for muffalettas and Pimm's cups. It's my absolute, must-visit, every time, place in the French Quarter.

That night as we made happy hour martinis back at our house, the skies, which had been a tad ominous all day, opened up and started dumping rain like I have only seen in the mid-west and the south. We had plans to meet friends of Forest's, who happened to be visiting from Paris as well, at the new cocktail bar Belloq, but instead we picked them up in our cab to save them from drowning!

Once at Belloq we sat stunned by the rain but at least we had wonderful libations. The bar is inside The Hotel Modern, which also houses another bar that we almost sat in by mistake (although that menu looked good too). Belloq is owned by the same folks who run Cure, it is a dark and sexy space, turning out very nice craft cocktails.

We had hard-to-get dinner reservations at Peche, they had just received a James Beard award, and had planned to walk the four blocks but this weather was not going to make that possible. As we exited the hotel in order to hail a cab we saw lighting striking in all directions, heard the thunder, and witnessed the streets overflow with water!

photo courtesy of Forest Collins

It took forever to get a cab as we weren't the only ones caught in this flash flood! When we finally managed to get one, we had to take our shoes off and wade in almost shin deep water to get in it! We drove, with water half way up the wheels, or maybe floated was more like it. It was crazy! And a bit scary! And when we finally reached the restaurant, over 40 minutes late and carrying our shoes in our hands, we were literally dripping wet!

After the boys went into the restroom to wring out their shirts, and we ordered a round of cocktails, we forgot about the puddles we were making and set about ordering a ton of delicious food. Peche is casual and fun and the sampler appetizer platter is not to be missed!

The next morning the streets were dry and the city was pretending like nothing had ever happened. Forest and I were on our own and set out for a quick breakfast at Satsuma's Cafe near our house. We then made our way to the French Quarter, walking and exploring the area along the way.

We planned on having a very fun day but what happened was a truly epic adventure as only New Orleans can deliver.

As we made our way from the Bywater and through the Marigny, we came across a group of men gathered around two tables on the sidewalk. Each table was piled high with boiled crawfish, crab, clams, etc. We were invited to join in, and obviously didn't turn the invitation down. After a bit of pinching, sucking, and cracking we were back on our way. We had a lunch to get to after all!
Many of the city's restaurants offer 25 cent martini lunches. Being two girls who love a martini we were intrigued and decided to check out the lunch offered by Antoine's. You order a 3-course lunch of classic dishes such as baked oysters, vichyssoise, and crawfish etoufee. What we didn't know was that the 'martini' at Antoine's changes daily and the day we were there they were lemon drops. We ended up ordering classic martinis anyway, not at 25 cents though! If you are keen to try one of these lunches there are a few places offering them.

Feeling good after our lunch we met up with Mathilde & David at the newly refurbished Carrousel Bar in the Hotel Monteleone. There are certain places you just have to go while in the French Quarter, so after a sazerac and a spin around, we were off, taking them on a little booze cruise. We had a quick stop in the Old Absinthe House where we stole glances of the beautiful stone absinthe louche in the the private back room, and compared a French and a Swiss absinthe. Then passed a jazz wedding processional on our way to the French 75 Bar for cocktails of the same name.
photo courtesy Forest Collins
From here it was on to SoBou, the newest restaurant and bar from the Brennen Family. Craft cocktails just south of Bourbon street and a great ambiance!

We split up at this point, Forest and I heading to Toup's Meatery where we had a huge and delicious board of house-cured meats and accompaniments. Then back to our Bywater home for sing-a-longs, Drunk History,  and nightcaps.

It was one of the best, boozy, delicious days I've ever had. From the moment I got out of bed until I retired that night, nothing but fun, fun, fun!

On our last day we had intended to watch the Mardi Gras Indians parade, in honor of mother's day, but after we had delicious pastrami omelets at Jim's in the Bywater and walked to the Quarter, the skies opened up once again and the parade was called off. We grabbed a cab and headed back to our area of town, making a stop at Fauberg Wines, a funny little retail and wine bar, where we relaxed with a bottle of rosé. The weather cleared so we Grabbed a bottle to-go, went to near-by Gene's PoBoy and ordered hot sausage & cheese sandwiches also to-go.

W kicked off our shoes and set up in our lovely garden, digging into the best sandwich that was ever created and sipping on chilled rosé.

A refreshing outdoor shower, a cold martini for Happy Hour and off we went to regroup with Mathilde and David, this time for cocktails at the beautiful and delicious Cure cocktail bar. Dinner that night was at Sylvain which was lovely as well, and as I started in on my special of crawfish gumbo I realized I had eaten those delicious mudbugs each day of my stay.

Our Bywater Shotgun-style house

Even storms in New Orleans are more fun!

All photos here

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Walla Walla Wine Country, Now With Cocktails!

Each spring the annual Cayuse Release Weekend happens in Walla Walla, an excuse for a brief little getaway, some great wine, and good times with friends. This year it was a girls only trip.

Friday afternoon we stopped for lunch in Ellensburg at the absolutely charming Yellow Church Cafe. We found the cafe in a quick on-line search and were super happy with our meals; grilled cheese with bacon!!

We had made arrangements to stop to taste Goedhart, which doesn't have a tasting room anymore but is being poured at Hedges, in Prosser. The problem was that I had Hogue in my head and went to the wrong winery. By the time we made it to Hedges they were closed. We felt terrible missing our appointment so we stopped in Fidelitas for a taste to help get over it. Nice malbecs here and a great view of the valley.

Arriving in town, we checked into our normal spot, the Holiday Inn, and had them call us a cab. Besides spending the days tasting wine I was employing my girlfriends to help me check out the emerging cocktail scene in downtown Walla Walla.  Freddy G showed up within minutes and was our evening driver for the weekend. He was a great sport as we went out early and came back late, sometimes requesting a bottle stop on the way home!

The first night we had wonderful drinks at Whitehouse Crawford before a good, but not exceptional, dinner at Saffron. Afterwards we had nightcaps at the Public House 124 where owner Matthew Price-Huntington was kind enough to give us tastes of unique spirits and mix us up a few rounds. 

The next day was all about the wine. We tasted mainly in the south and downtown area, repeat favorites included Cayuse, Rotie, and Mark Ryan (and an incredible taco bar they had set up). We also went to Isenhower and had a very nice semi private tour and tasting, and also had an appointment at Doubleback which is delicious juice but very spendy. Our weekend favorite was tasting at Maison Bleue's new room right downtown. This wine is absolutely amazing, if you are a fan of granache you want this on your 'do-not-miss' list.

That evening, after dropping the wine and the car off and calling our buddy Freddy G, we had more delicious cocktails at The Vineyard Lounge before having dinner at Brassiere 4, which is perhaps my favorite Walla Walla restaurant.

Heading home on Sunday, we stopped in Prosser to have lunch at Wine O'Clock. Horrible name, very good lunch. It is actually a winery, though we thought the wines a bit simple. And besides the good food the cafe had vintage Julia Child television shows playing on their tv. Very cool.

You can read the full write up that I did about the cocktail scene on World's Best Bars.