Fall is for feasting – Part 1, September: CA, NY & SC

Throughout the last 16 months since I started this blog, I have shared many travel experiences and many of those have been with my daughter. The one constant theme we revisit over and over again, no matter where our actual travels take us, is our love of food. We are self-professed foodies to the point that many of my posts were becoming as much about food as it was about the destination.

I probably have enough memories from our eating experiences to start a whole new blog on food. But for starters, or appetizers as the case may be, I have decided to dedicate one post a month on places we have eaten in the last month. Whether that be on our travels, or just great local fare where we live – NYC, Kansas City and the Phoenix Valley.

By doing this, it will also allow me to expound more on the travel destination highlights and my personal reviews in experiencing my travels, and leave the food portion of the trip for these monthly posts.

So grab a cold one, throw a sheet of chicken wings in the oven, and while they are crisping up, enjoy a journey through the eyes and stomachs of two food lovers:

NEW YORK CITY:

Nowhere to sit, but plenty to eat by Allison Malecha

Almost anywhere you go in New York, the food will be more than passable. The portion may be smaller than you wanted. The price higher. And sometimes that C Grade on the door might give you pause. But I can’t think of a time that I’ve pushed my plate away in this city out of distaste.

Usually, for me, atmosphere counts for a lot. If I know I’m going to have a pretty good meal, I like to enjoy where I’m eating it. But in the last week, I’ve tried out two places with chow so enticing, and prices so reasonable, that I didn’t bother to care about much else: Silver Rice ($$), in Brooklyn’s Crown Heights neighborhood, and Brooklyn Taco ($$), on Manhattan’s Lower East Side.

At Silver Rice, Kombu Kelp and Beet Pate are wrapped up into innovative sushi bites that are scarcely more expensive than a California roll in Manhattan, but the real draw are the eponymously named “Silver Rice Cups.” I had the spicy tuna one–a mouth-watering stack of flaxseed-threaded white rice, diced raw tuna, fresh scallion, and punchy mayo served inside a plain white paper cup for $6.50. Alternate with sips of the $1.95 organic miso soup, and you won’t give a damn that the only place to sit is at a slip of light-wood high-top next to the door.

Silver Rice Cup from Silver Rice Cup in Brooklyn

Founded by a Brooklyn native with South American roots and a Danny Meyer alum, Brooklyn Taco can take a while just to locate within the maze-like Essex Street Market. Last Saturday, I sat perched on another tiny bar stool in full view of a fish stand with a coconut shrimp taco that took two hands to hold and about two seconds to eat. The friend I was with told me her chipotle chicken one was the best tacos she’d ever eaten–she didn’t spare a bite to see if I agreed. And while their regular prices aren’t a total steal, the lunch deal is: $10 for two tacos and an agua fresca to wash them down.

Fish Taco at Brooklyn Taco, Lower Manhattan

More NYC… by Lisa Malecha

One of our favorite mother-daughter outings is to check one of the many boutique NYC neighborhood hot spots, and Jeffrey’s Grocery ($$$) fits the bill. Set in the West Village, the seating might be tight, but their seafood is big on flavor. Like the Blackened Flounder served on a Jalapeño-Cheddar Polenta Cake and smothered in an Andouille Gravy.

Blackened Flounder served up at Jeffrey's Grocery in the West Village of NYC

Blackened Flounder served up at Jeffrey’s Grocery in the West Village of NYC

Jump on the subway and head to 78th St. and Woodside Avenue and head to Ayada Thai ($$) restaurant in Queens for some really tasty food. The ambiance is pretty plain Jane, but the food infuses so many great flavors together it’s hard to stop eating when you know you don’t have any more room for another bite. A great starter is the Papaya Salad served with Salty Crab. Follow that with a Crispy Duck in a Red Curry Coconut Sauce and a wide noodle Pad Thai – all washed down with a Lychee Sangria.

Papaya Salad with crispy Salted Crab – yes you eat the whole crab, shells and all – at Ayada Thai Restaurant, Queens

If you’re in upper Manhattan, in the Upper East Side, taking in all the amazing museums and galleries, stop in at Cafe’ Sabarsky in the Neue Galerie and enjoy some authentic Austrian cuisine like the very flavorful Pikantes Ei mit Gurkerl und Paprika – a/k/a Spicy Eggs with Cornichons and Paprika. After a filling lunch be sure to take in the two levels of German and Austrian exhibits in this architecturally classically ornate museum.

Spicy Eggs on Cornichons with Paprika served at Cafe' Sabarsky in the Neue Galerie in the Upper East Side of NYC

Spicy Eggs on Cornichons with Paprika served at Cafe’ Sabarsky in the Neue Galerie in the Upper East Side of NYC

CHARLESTON:

Early September found my daughter and I sweating our way through Charleston. Thank goodness Charlestonians like to eat and drink as much as we do. We had no problem staying properly nourished to have the energy to walk the historic streets of this beautiful town, meander through their immense plantations and stroll along the water fronts.

We stayed at the Wentworth Mansion, an old estate home turned hotel, and also home to Circa 1886 restaurant, housed in the old carriage house. Our room included a complimentary breakfast – and “…honey this weren’t no slim pickings,..”-  a plate of fruit and a basket of pastries for starters, and then a menu to compete with any restaurant in the area. I chose a heaping helping of Shrimp n’ Grits so flavorful I could have had that for every meal and been content. My daughter chose Crab Cake Eggs Hollandaise. We also enjoyed a fine dining experience with dishes of Beef Tenderloin with a Chantilly Mustard Demi-Glace or Atlantic Lobster Tail with Vanilla Mascarpone Grits.

Wentworth Mansion in Charleston has a complimentary breakfast serving local favorites such as Shrimp & Grits

Wentworth Mansion in Charleston has a complimentary breakfast serving local favorites such as Shrimp & Grits

For lunch we checked out two local favorites. Charleston native, Stephen Colbert, recommends Hominy Grill. The line was long when we arrived, but an exterior bar window was serving chilled spiked beverages to keep us cool while we waited in the sweltering heat. Inside this old Colonial style home, we were given a starter of boiled peanuts in the shell and then ordered Cornmeal Crusted Flounder served with Mac & Cheese, Collard Greens and Tomato Jam. Husk, another local favorite restaurant, also housed in a renovated old mansion, had a line-up of hungry patrons. The menu here was a little more avant garde’ when it comes to southern cooking. We had starters of Shishito Peppers and Crispy Pigs Ear Lettuce Wraps. For lunch we split a Fried Chicken Po’boy sandwich and washed this all down with a couple of southern sweet teas.

Cornmeal Crusted Flounder served with Mac & Cheese, Collard Greens and Tomato Jam, at Hominy Grits in Charleston

Cornmeal Crusted Flounder served with Mac & Cheese, Collard Greens and Tomato Jam, at Hominy Grits in Charleston

At Husk we enjoyed a Fried Chicken Po'Boy sandwich topped with peanuts, red peppers and slaw.

At Husk we enjoyed a Fried Chicken Po’Boy sandwich topped with peanuts, red peppers and slaw.

Our favorite dining experience in Charleston was a placed called Edmund’s Oast. An upper end Brew Pub, we were seated at a bar that fronted the open kitchen where we watched mouth-watering after mouth-watering dish by us. Good thing we had 49 cold brews to choose from to calm our taste buds. We selected a tender Grilled New York Strip that was teamed with Smoked Potatoes and Okra, with a side of Collard Greens.

Some of the delectable dishes being served up at Edmund's Oast in Charleston

Some of the delectable dishes being served up at Edmund’s Oast in Charleston

Enjoying a fun dining experience at Edmund's Oast - brew pub with a front seat to the kitchen.

Enjoying a fun dining experience at Edmund’s Oast – brew pub with a front seat to the kitchen.

The next weekend found my husband and I spending time on the west coast in both Napa and San Francisco. In Napa, we had some great meals at the Lakehouse Restaurant, at Calistoga Ranch where we were staying. But one night we took a ride down the road to its big sister Auberge resort, Auberge du Soleil which showcases a Michelin Star restaurant, appropriately called, “The Restaurant“. When you eat at a place like this, you should make great effort to try something you wouldn’t find on many other menus – like Squab (a young pigeon) served with Figs, Foie Gras, Caramalized Onions in a Port Wine sauce. For lunch in Napa check out Solbar Restaurant at Solage Resort for a menu full of unique delectable dishes like Sweet Scarlet Peaches with Prosciutto or Lucky Pig Roasted Pork.

Squab served up Michelin style with Figs, Foie Gras, Carmelized Onions and Port.

Squab served up Michelin style with Figs, Foie Gras, Carmelized Onions and Port.

Lucky Pig, roasted pork, served with lettuce or black sesame seed crepes, at Solbar at Solage Resort

Lucky Pig, roasted pork, served with lettuce or black sesame seed crepes, at Solbar at Solage Resort

In San Francisco we took checked out Eno Wine Bar right around the corner from the The Westin St. Francis Union Square where were staying. A flight of wine is their specialty teamed with a plate of cheeses, sausages and chocolates. Need I say more!

Check out the numerous wine flights to pick from and pair with a plate of cheeses, sausages and chocolates at Eno Wine Bar in Union Square, San Francisco

Check out the numerous wine flights to pick from and pair with a plate of cheeses, sausages and chocolates at Eno Wine Bar in Union Square, San Francisco

Check out more food pics in the Food Gallery under the Global Gallery!

Napa Valley: wining and dining to the extremes!

Arriving in the Napa Valley in the dead of night my sense of smell was heightened. The season was harvest time – and the aroma of the fermenting grapes was intense. In the morning the vibrant fall colors of grape vines lining the valleys and hills was brighter than any sunrise.

Grapes going through fermentation, Quintessa Winery, Napa Valley

Grapes going through fermentation, Quintessa Winery, Napa Valley

Valley vines of Chimney Rock, Napa Valley

Grape wines of Chimney Rock line the valley of Napa

Tribute vines at Hess Winery, Napa Valley - this plot is planted for the sole purpose as a tribute to the Monks who once owned a winery in this area.

Tribute vines at Hess Winery, Napa Valley – this plot is planted for the sole purpose as a tribute to the Monks who originally planted these vines

I wasn’t ready for the rural look and feel of the Napa wine country. My husband and I had visited here 27 years ago when there were a few dozen working wineries. After years of hearing about the ongoing explosion of wineries, I was expecting a much more commercialized, chaotic setting. But what I found was a couple of winding two-lane roads, with wineries lined up like dominoes, albeit very beautiful dominoes – all with their own unique look.

Hess, Quintessa, Jarvis, Chimney Rock, Grgich, Stag’s Leap, Joseph Phelps – a line-up of wineries to rival any list. In a valley of some 350 working wineries, the tours were as unique as the wines they served. How many ways can you make cabernet sauvignon or chardonnay, merlot or malbec? After wine tastings at each of these wineries, the answer is – A LOT!

Jarvis Winery, Napa Valley

Jarvis Winery, Napa Valley

Chimney Rock Winery, Napa Valley

Chimney Rock Winery, Napa Valley

Hess Winery, Napa Valley

Hess Winery, Napa Valley

Stag's Leap Wine Cellars, Napa Valley

Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars, Napa Valley

Several decades ago local laws were set up to keep the Napa Valley focused on the wine industry with ecology first procedures. No winery is allowed to have a restaurant; no franchises allowed to be built; and even though over 80% are corporately owned now, most are organic in nature using local resources to grow some of the best wine grapes in the world.

The restaurants that have set up house in the Napa Valley stay within that same mindset of being organically unique. Most have their own on site gardens and obtain many of their ingredients from the local region. My husband and I decided to indulge in not only one, but two prix fixe dinners with wine pairings – as if we hadn’t already had enough of the latter!

Three words: The French Laundry. The name came from the business that used to be housed in the building this restaurant is in – which was a ‘french laundry.’ The room we ate in used to be the steaming room. But nowadays the only connection to that business is the ‘French’ part. The dinner is arguably the best French cuisine I have ever encountered – and I have tasted my share. Anthony Bordain – dubbed it ‘The greatest restaurant in the world, period.”

Although most dining venues in the valley are casual, attire at The French Laundry leans heavy on the sophisticated side. Servers are dressed in perfectly laundered navy blue suits. Although very knowledgeable about the dishes they are serving, servers serve with a restrained precision and a zipped lip. The chef’s tasting menu of eight plus courses reads like who’s who of the most tantalizing, decadent sensory overloaded recipes one could ever hope to encounter. The French Laundry is the epitome of a fine dining experience.

Poached Lobster at French Laundry, Napa Valley

Sweet butter-poached Maine lobster: Wildflower honey-poached Cranberries, garden celery and Musquee de Provence Pumpkin Porridge. The French Laundry, Napa Valley

Steak at French Laundry, Napa Valley

Charcoal-grilled Snake River Farms “Calotte de Boef”: slow roasted ruby beets, caramelized garden broccoli, glazed salsify and aged balsamic vinegar. The French Laundry, Napa Valley

We stayed at Meadowood, in St. Helena, which happened to be the location of our second prix fixe dining experience, at The Restaurant. Similar in terms of attire, dinner jackets required, the atmosphere was a more relaxed and interactive social setting. The courses were plentiful, 13 in number and equally pleasing to the palette, but that is where the similarities end in comparing The Restaurant to The French Laundry. The creativity of the chef was not only evident in the quality of his dishes, but in the whimsical choices of serving ‘platters.’

Pumpkin mole curds served on a bed of salt, The Restaurant

Pumpkin mole curds served on a bed of salt. The Restaurant

fresh herbs and beet macaroon served on the open pages of a botanical garden book
Fresh herbs and beet macaroon served on the open pages of a botanical garden book. The Restaurant

Locally grown miniature veggies served on natural cut wood platter, The Restaurant

Locally grown miniature veggies served on natural cut wood platter. The Restaurant

The only thing the Napa Valley left me wanting for, was more time to spend in the Napa Valley. I only touched the outer reaches of what this amazing location has to offer. Alas, my stomach and liver need a breather. And my wine cellar is amply full. But – I will be back! Sooner than later!

Check out more pictures in the Global Gallery tab!

What wineries to visit: Get a good map of the valley, and randomly pick a handful – you can’t go wrong in my opinion. Open to the public or by appointment only; $15 or $60 for a tasting; large or small winery; valley or hillside winery. As was proved in the movie Bottle Shock (which every winery will recommend you see), you can’t go wrong with any wine from the Napa Valley.

Where to stay: If you are willing to splurge, you can’t beat the remote quietness of the Meadowood, with miles of hiking paths, a great couple of restaurants, attentive service and oversized rooms in dozens of cottages spread out over their heavily wooded 250-acre estate.

Where to eat: I think I covered that. But if you are looking for something a little more relaxed and less expensive, try Cindy’s Backstreet Kitchen or her other restaurants, Mustard’s Grill or Pawlcyn’s.