Saturday, February 27, 2010

Tasting like a Sommelier and Eating like a Chef at South Beach

It may seem like one big eating and drinking orgy at the Food Network's South Beach Wine and Food Festival, but we "experts" have to do it right.  For me that meant a day in the classroom and at the booths, learning, but it wasn't difficult work -- especially not the night of eating and drinking way too much.

First, I don't recommend attempting to make it through 12 hours at this festival on three hours sleep.  I managed to get through some sampling yesterday, but was a party-pooper rather early last night. Still, I made it to the highlights of the Perrier-Jouet BubbleQ presented by the Allen Brothers and hosted by Emeril Lagasse and Friends (fortunately, I didn't have to repeat that title at any point during the night).  It was the event to be at Friday night, as hundreds of people spent $350 (and up) a piece for the right to wait on lines for hours.  And it was all worth it. 

When Emeril puts on a barbecue, he knows how to do it right. This was the most elaborate barbecue I have ever been to.  The Perrier-Jouet Champagne was flowing and two dozen Food Network chefs were handing out their versions of everything from pulled pork to lobster rolls.  Unfortunately, details were not so clear, but there was a meat mix in a corn pancake I will always remember. For those who didn't like their drinks so bubbly, there was also Graffignia Wines from Argentina (enjoyed the Pinot Grigio), tequila milkshakes, champagne sorbet and an array of treats from Sweet Street Desserts.  For the real chocolate lovers (like yours truly), there was dessert for your dessert -- Godiva's Chocolate sin.  It was quite a party and only lack of sleep pulled me away before the finish.

Saturday was a new day with a well-rested start.  After breakfast next door at the Front Porch Cafe on Ocean Avenue (some of best homefries I've had, but the California omelet with half an avocado in the corner was a bit strange), I ventured down to the Gansevoort Hotel for my Taste Wine Like a Sommelier seminar.  Seminar was not the right word for anything that was this much fun, as some top wine experts, including Doug Frost (no relation), Richard Betts (of Betts & Scholl Winery) and Laura DePasquale led us through a blind tasting of eight wines.  It was a wonderful afternoon treat and quite a few lessons enjoyed by even a frequent taster like me.  It was also a lesson to many on the wine regions as we explored everything from a $16 bottle of Pacific Rim Riesling to a $105 bottle of Pouilly-Fume Ladouiette from Louire Valley.

After the seminar, I needed to find a contact at the Whole Foods Market Grand Tasting Village.  Even though tomorrow is my official day there, I was not allowed to leave (much to my delight) without doing some sampling.  I discovered a few treats that I would like to pass along....

Voli Light Vodkas-I just had the Vanilla Espresso and it was delicious on the rocks.  These low calorie, electrolyte-enhanced spirits are to be tried and I may have to try some more tomorrow.

Nuvo Sparkling Liquer-Vodka and French wine, infused with fruit. Not as sweet as one would expect.  I really enjoyed this.

Zacapa Rum-This spirit is made in Guatemala, from sugar cane that is grown in volcanic soil.  Very interesting flavor.

I'm sure there will be many more discoveries tomorrow at the South Beach Wine and Food Festival, where I am starting my day at the Wines from Spain seminar.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Getting acquainted at South Beach

It was a long trip (is it me, or are there too many planes with mechanical problems out there?!), but I finally made it to my hotel in South Beach, Florida, in the wee hours of the morning.  My last minute hotel seems to be a little hidden gem.  The Cavalier is no thrills, but the room is cute, the location is perfect, the cost was reasonable and the Ocean is (literally) a stone's throw away.  I'd be lying if I said I was fine with the three hours sleep I got before the morning activity began outside my room.  I guess no one wants to sleep in South Beach.

This is my first visit to what I've been told is one of the ultimate eating, drinking and just plain partying events.  The South Beach Food and Wine Festival has been in existence for nine years and its popularity has been increasing with the celebrity status that the Food Network now brings to anything associated with it.  This five day event is filled with parties, tastings and demonstrations for anyone who likes food and/or drink.  In other words, it's for everyone.

After a good dose of caffeine, the day started for me on the roof of The Betsy Hotel, where I mingled with sponsors, celebrity chefs, organizers and fellow members of the press. The mimosas were flowing along with the yogurt parfaits, fresh fruit and cheese, pastries and salmon & cream cheese sandwiches. While some thought it was a bit cool, I reveled in sunshine and temperatures above freezing for the first time in quite awhile.  And the view from The Betsy rooftop (as you can see above) is memorable. Chef Daniel Boulud, an honoree at the festival was introduced as it was announced that this year's event outsold any before -- 52,000 tickets purchased, almost all events sold out.

In the afternoon, I went to visit Maire Griffin, who happens to work for a "little" company called Diageo to check out their latest and greatest and I was not disappointed.  There's nothing like a private tasting and it's even better when you get to pick.  I checked out some wines, both new and old.  The new was in the form of Jade Mountain Vineyard's White Wine Blend.  This California vineyard blends Pinot Gris, Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc and Viognier and the oak barrel product is a genuine blend of dry and sweet, with just a hint of spice.  I also enjoyed the Provenance (another Napa area vineyard) Sauvignon blanc, perfect on this mild day.

Maire and I talked a bit about the great products from Rosenblum (an urban winery in the Bay area) and Sterling before I switched from wine to spirits.  I was excited to learn that Captain Morgan is doing more than moving from Puerto Rico to St. Croix, they are creating an atmosphere to make their product with no waste going into the environment.  I also got some news on Ciroc Vodka. The P'Diddy touted spirit  is being released in Red Berry and Coconut, a flavor I have yet to taste in vodka.  I didn't leave the Diageo suite without a sampling of my standard, but never dated, Tangueray No. 10 and tonic, but only one, because I have a party to go to tonight with a man named Emeril.  I hear he knows his way around a kitchen.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Spirited Travels Worth Checking Out

There's only so many days in the week (and hours in the day). It's impossible to keep traveling and still get all the work done. That's why I sometimes have to rely on word of mouth when it comes to wine and spirit travels. As I prepare to cover my first South Beach Food and Wine Festival, here's some adventures you might want to check out:

You don't see a lot of skiing trips that involve liquor, but I found one that combines them both (off the slopes, of course). The Above the Clouds travel package started in December, but there's still time to check it out. The trip will take you through the snowy mountains of Vail and Beaver creek with plenty of time for sport, gourmet meals and mixology classes, thanks to a partnership with Zacapa Rum. It's a group package that could fulfill many dreams. Check it out -- and make sure you let me know how it went.

If you are thinking of Vegas(and I'm planning a trip as we speak), St. Patrick's Day may be the time to go and start the celebration early. The St. Patrick's Day Festival will be held on March 13th at the Mandalay Bay Beach. Musical guests include Everlast and the music of Whitney Ford Singles the Blues, La Coka Nostra and House of Pain in the evening. During the day, admission is complimentary for hotel guests and locals, with Irish bands and DJs. There will be plenty of drink specials for the beach party (and I'm guessing some corned beef and cabage, Vegas style).Tickets to the evening concert are available at the Mandalay Bay Box Office -- (702) 632-7580 -- or at Ticketmaster.

Norwegian Cruise Lines logo

Another way to try out some tasty drinks while traveling is to take a cruise. I sat in on a press conference with Norwegian Cruise Line yesterday and they have some exciting things in the works. First, their mega ship Norwegian Epic is right on schedule for its inagural cruise in June. They are also getting ready to launch service out of Tampa and Rome. I'm always excited to hear about new cruises through wine countries and Rome through the Meditaranean -- including a unique stop in Israel -- definitely sounds like a recipe for spirited travel. If you prefer more nature than coliseums, Princess Cruises is debuting new excursions in Alaska for the summer. Whales, Glaciers & Bears on one tour?  It could be fun and I'm sure there'll be a tropical drink at the bar waiting to remind you that you're on a cruise!

Princess Cruise Line

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

IHotel offers Rooms, Food & Spirits in the Center of Illini action

One of the reasons I moved to the Champaign-Urbana area was to be part of a college town.  I grew up and lived most of my adult life in areas without that atmosphere. A taste of it during visits made me hungry for more.  It's like an infectious disease that you don't want to get rid of.  The feeling that you forever want to cheer for your team.  Whether you are a local, an alumni or just a fan, there's a hotel right in the middle of sports land at the University of Illinois, where you can get right in the action for that team, or your home team when they come to town.

The IHotel opened in August, 2008, complete with a Houlihan's for spirited cheer before and after the games (and during for those who can't get tickets).  It is directly across a short road from the Big Ten action of Illini men's basketball at Assembly Hall, down the block from the football team's Memorial Stadium and a nice walk to the Atkins Tennis Center or Huff Hall, where the current No. 1 in the country Men's Gymnastic Team  plays.

I wanted to experience the basketball game from the I Hotel & Conference Center point of view, so I arrived at the hotel about an hour before. I took a brief tour of the hotel, with modern rooms and facilities and what seemed like a flood of Orange and Blue clothing.  There were hundreds of people getting ready for the game, many of them heading from the rooms to Houlihan's

It's quite a scene, with a packed bar and drinks flowing.  Some were eating at the tables, which sometimes fill up with reservations a week before the game.  There was a flood of empty beer bottles and glasses of every kind suddenly hitting the bar a half hour before the game, as the majority of people - many regulars who come in pre-game, the rest travelers who stay at the IHotel and watch for the whole experience -- left for Assembly Hall.

While the crowd took off, I enjoyed the game and the atmosphere.  I had some delicious Grilled Vegetable Pizza and the people next to me raved about the Lettuce Wraps and the Rare Seared Tuna Wontons (there is also a full dinner menu), but it's more about the drinks when I'm checking out a place.  There's no shortage of drinks at Houlihan's.  They go through five cases of Miller Lite on a game night, as well as a keg of Bud Lite and plenty of other brews, but it's not all about the beer here.  The endless variety includes Wine Flights, eight Flavors of Long Island Iced Tea and an incredible selection of Martinis.  There's even a Mini Martini Flight that allows you to sample 3 for $9.99.

The Martinis were calling me and I had a blueberry in my hand before long.  The combination of Stoli Blueberry Vodka, Blue Curaco, pomegrante and cranberry juice, with fresh blueberries floating through was just delicious.  The menu also includes such unusual drinks as the X-Rate Fliritini-Champagne, X-rated Fusion Liqueur, orange juice, mango and Brazilian passion fruit; and Zen Green Tea Martini-Zen Green Tea Liqueur, Skyy Vodka and Ocean Spray White Cranberry Juice. 

I decided to skip the delicious mini desserts this time (White Chocolate Bannana Cream, Pie, Bourbon Pecan Pie or Chocolate Cappaccino Cake) in favor of the Chocolate Smoothie Martini.  As if Absolute Vanilla, White Creme de Cacao, Dark Creme de Cacao and sweet creme weren't indulgent enough, it arrived with a Hostess Ding Dong perched on the side!  The bartenders here pull out all the stops in service, mixing and presentation.

It wasn't long after I finished enjoying my piece of chocolate heaven that the crowd started coming in, filling the place with gameday celebration.  The drinks were once again flowing. Drink specials are available at Houlihans at the IHotel everyday.  On game days you wil find $6.00 appetizers and $3.50 for 20 oz beers.  Wednesday is half price wine day and you can see a live band there on Tuesday nights.

There are catering facilities at the IHotel for weddings, events and classes, as well as dinners for the visiting teams (Indiana's women's basketball team was enjoying dinner when I was there).  In addition to the Houlihan's restaurant, there are 126 rooms, (with two suites), a fitness center, spa room for massages and the ICafe for coffee, snacks and breakfasts.  There are frequent packages and specials, visit the IHotel's website or call 217-819-5000 for details.  It's only two hours from Chicago, St. Louis or Indianapolis, so it's a great stopover location.  And don't forget to save room for the Chocolate Martini!

Friday, February 12, 2010

Lynfred Winery - A Wine Traveler's Dream

I’m always excited when I find a place that easily combines the wine and travel theme, so when I found one that was just a few hours away, I couldn’t wait to check it out.   Lynfred Winery turned out to live up to this spirits traveler’s expectation – both in the wine and the accommodation.

A few years ago, I had the pleasure of spending a week at the Rome Cavalieri Hilton.  It’s hard to describe the opulence of that hotel, with a touch to every detail that made you feel like you were in a Roman palace.  I’ve stayed in some great places since then, but nothing quite like that – until I stepped into the Italian Suite at Lynfred Winery.  The suite is one of four.  Each is unique and named after a wine region of the world.  And each seems to remember every luxury, from heated floors to marble bathrooms (with perfect Jacuzzi tubs).  The fireplace and cozy living room just begs for a bottle of wine – and you don’t have to go far to get it.

Just below the incredible suites is the actually winery and tasting room at Lynfred.  The house was bought in 1977 by Fred and Lynn Koehler (“Lynfred”).  They opened the winery in 1979, added a second building in the 1990s so they could continue to live there, and opened the Bed & Breakfast in 2002.  The wines here (there are over 50) come from grapes in the best wine regions of the world.  They are masterly chosen and blended by Andres Basso.  The native of Chile has previously brought award-winning wines from Napa to Virginia and he loves to experiment with organic wines.

The Pacific Northwest is a frequent location of many Lynfred grapes these days.  Basso keeps in touch with vintners around the world looking for just the right blend and flies wherever necessary to taste, before returning to his lab to create the next award-winner.  Though there are too many to mention, I found their 2008 Sauvignon Blanc, which won Gold at last year’s World Value Wine Challenge, to be a perfect blend of dry and sweet.  Definitely worth a try is the Rose.  It is much drier than most, but light enough to enjoy at a barbecue. The Lynfred Rose has won five medals, including Gold at the Indiana International and Silver at the Tasters Guild International. They also have a 2005 Merlot that was a Double Gold winner at the San Francisco Chronicle event.

Like many Midwest wineries, you will find fruit wine at Lynfred, but it is a bit different here. There are many different fruit wines – made 100% from the fruit on the label.  Some of the flavors are seasonal, like the Cranberry for the holidays (which I had at my dinner table)...  Pomegranate and apricot have become very popular ones.  If you aren’t quite ready for fruit wine, I would suggest the Ice Wine, as good as I’ve had at a much lower price ($35).

At Lynfred Winery it is as much about the experience as it is the wine.  If you stay in the Bed & Breakfast, you will be welcomed with a private tasting in front of the fire (or you may choose to have it another time during your stay).  There’s also an array of choices for breakfast which you can pre-arrange to your exact specifications and can even be served in your room.  During your stay you can take private tours, relax in your suite, or even arrange for a massage.  Lisa is your host to arrange for your needs.

For those not staying overnight, Lynfred is open every day for Chicagoland locals and out-of-town visitors.   There is an assortment of options for tastings with cheese, dessert, hors d'oeuvres, or some of their special homemade bread and pies.  Be sure to check their website frequently for events and special tastings, as well as information on becoming a member so you can be the first to taste new and special selections.   For reservations or additional information, call Lynfred Winery at (888) 298-Wine.

Note: There is a second Lynfred Winery location in Wheeling, Illinois.  I am looking forward to checking that one out when the weather improves.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

21C Museum Hotel is a trip in itself

I had been told before my arrival that 21C Museum Hotel in Louisville, Kentucky, was incredible.  I had heard this before and I had been to hotels that were truly incredible.  I pictured the rooms filled with old artwork, a huge soaking tub and automatic drapes that would close out the light in a minute. I was very wrong about the idea of "incredible" as this hotel gave it a totally new meaning.

While spending three days at 21C, I was constantly fascinated by something I hadn't seen before.  Is it a modern hotel with art, or is it a modern art museum with a hotel?  I'm really not sure, but I liked both. The current exhibit (they change about twice a year) featured 76 pieces of art by 35 living artists. The term "pieces of art" is the only way to describe the collection of sculptures, paintings and, well, "art."  Whether you like them or not -- and there were strong opinions -- they are all intriguing.  I happened to like nearly all, finding the nude photos of former First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis a bit disturbing.

This 90 room hotel has one type of art that you don't know where you will find.  The large plastic penguins are a trademark of 21c.  There are over 200 of them and the guests are free to move them around the hotel -- which they do.  You may find one in the elevator, in front of your room, or in the bathroom stall!  When in your room, the look is still modern and includes IPod, flat screen TVs and gourmet coffee makers. Then there is the silver mint julep cup, which is just the beginning of the Kentucky spirits at this local.

Proof on Main
is the restaurant and bar attached to 21C Museum Hotel.  Like its neighbor, its servings are modern. Begin your day with Bison Pastrami Hash and Lemon Ricotta Pancakes. For lunch, try the Beet Risotto or Potato Gnocchi. Grilled Pork chop (with arugula, mission figs, goat cheese and bacon vinaigrette) and Braised Beef Ribs are a good choice for dinner. Whatever my group chose, we enjoyed.

As interesting (and delicious) as the food is, the drinks are just as important at Proof on Main. You also shouldn't be surprised to find mixology classes or bourbon tastings here. There is always a tremendous list of wines and beers from around the world; whiskeys and bourbons from their backyard; and mixed drinks that would satisfy any taste, like Whiskey Smash, Pimms Flip and Mile High Club. Also give a try to the Woodland Cider if it is in season, Old Forester, clove and local apple cider. Yum.

It seems I am far from the only one who found 21C to be in a class of its own. At the end of 2009, the readers of Conde Nast Traveler named it the best hotel in the United States and the sixth best in the world. The 21C Museum Hotel is located in the heart of Louisville within hours of Nashville and Indianapolis, just about an hour from the Bourbon Distilleries of Kentucky, including Woodford Reserve, Bulleit, Jim Beam Maker’s Mark. Look for another 21C to be opening soon, deep in the heart of the southwest.

21C Museum Hotel Photos (all taken by Marcia Frost) from top: The front desk; President Obama art tribute in the lobby; a penguin stands in the lower gallery;

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Melting Pot for Comfort Food (and Drinks)

I have had my share of five star restaurants from Paris to Portland, but ask me where I want to go for a celebration or I quiet evening with friends and I don’t think twice – Melting Pot. There’s something about bonding over a pot of fondue that makes dinner more of an adventure than the finest steak. 

Some people think of fried chicken and pasta as comfort food, for me it is fondue.  I remember my mom putting together the Swiss cheese or chocolate fondue as a treat when we had company.  Through the years there have been restaurants with fondue that have come and gone out of my life.  It was five years ago that I discovered Melting Pot in Tucson, Arizona.  My   longtime friend Jaimee was visiting me while I stayed at the Hilton El Conquistador on business.  It was a two week trip and, though I enjoyed their restaurants, I was ready for something new when I spotted a brochure for the Tucson Melting Pot.  We were on our way.

Though Melting Pot offers entrees from chicken to shrimp, fondue to me involves cheese or chocolate and being satisfyingly stuffed.  It also involves people gravitating over the same pot in conversation, helped along by a very large wine and martini selection!  When my daughter arrived in Tucson a few days later, we were back to Melting Pot.  It became "our place"  when a location opened in Farmingdale, New York, near our home.  I have since moved away from that area, but it is still a tradition when I come back to visit – Melting Pot’s Happy Hour for the Wisconsin Trio Cheese Fondue (unless there’s a feature cheese that we want to try), that location's special Dark Chocolate, Chambord and Marshmallow Fondue, and two glasses of Beringer Pinot Grigio (all included in the $5 per person, per item special).

While there are no Melting Pot locations near my Champaign, Illinois home, I have managed to squeeze in the experience whenever possible.  When I was on a Girls Getaway at the Lynfred Winery, we continued the theme at the Schaumberg location, where Thursday is Girls Night Out for fondue and martini specials (I would recommend Ying Yang, a delicious vanilla-chocolate combination; the Big Apple; or the Peppermint).  It was my friend Liza’s first experience, and though we had shared an entire two days of “girl” time, we suddenly found new topics as we dipped and ate.  I also can’t think of anything more romantic for a date night than one of their special full meals (like the Alpine Big Night Out), with drinks from their extensively creative menu.  It’s no wonder that the Twitter account of the Melting Pot is “SocialDipper.”

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not about to turn down trying any recommended restaurant, but when I want to celebrate, console or bond, you will probably find me in front of the fondue at Melting Pot.