Thursday, June 30, 2011

Tequila to Tequila in Riviera Maya

I came to Riviera Maya for a food, wine and tequila tour, but we hadn’t gotten to the tequila. That all changed on the third day as we finished our Tulum tour with a tequila tasting at Hacienda Tres Rios Resort.

The Food and Beverage Manager of Hacienda Tres Rios, Oscar Orbe Quiroz, led our tasting seminar. It wasn’t just something he did for us, but a course the resort’s guests get to take each week. I have to say it was one of the best I’ve had for any spirit. He explained the basics about tequila being made from the blue agave plant grown in Jailisco, and the difference between the kinds of tequila – white, silver, resposado, anejo and aged.

We started with Don Julio White, a sweet and mild spirit. Next, it was 1800 Silver, with a hint of color and a touch of green apple in the taste.  The Sausa Reposado showed caramel and vanilla from the toasted barrels and the Sausa Tequila Anejo had the taste of both wood and aging, making it almost like Scotch Whisky. As someone who tends to favor the white spirits the first was my favorite, but I certainly appreciated the complexity of the reposado tequila.

The tasting finished with a lesson on making (and tasting) Sagrita, a Mexican mixer that is made of orange, lime and tomato juices; salt, pepper, soy sauce, worschestire sauce and Tabasco. It is not mixed with the tequila, but drank after it. Before we left we got to sample an expensive, aged tequila, Herradura Seleccion Suprema, full of sweetness and oak, and smooth as can be.

After we toured the Tres Rios Resort, which is on a 326-acre nature park, we headed back to Grand Velas Riviera Maya for some work time before dinner. It was a quiet dinner for myself and three of the other writers, David Hammond, Kristine Hanson and Anna Cavaliere, at Piaf, a wonderful French restaurant at Gran Velas Riviera Maya.  Chef Michel Mustiere’s presentation was beautiful throughout, but the Crème Tricolore was magnificent. It was a trio of soups – Pumpkin, Pea and Tomato – in one bowl, divided in thirds. The chef suggested I try each individually, then tasting a mixing by swirling from the middle, where there was Mushroom Duxelle Crocant Scented with Thyme Blossoms! I don’t use the word magnificent often to refer to food, but this certainly was.

After I got a  good night’s sleep, I walked to the main resort to check out the buffet breakfast for the first time. I enjoyed the display of every kind of fruit imaginable, with some yogurt and a croissant.  I spent the morning writing and organizing my photos while most of the group was at Xcaret. I also had an hour at the infinity pool, looking out at the beach and enjoying the quiet before the Riviera Maya Tourism van picked myself and the rest of the group up to go to The Tides, a  nearby resort that’s about to have a huge expansion.

I should clarify that statement as “huge” is not an appropriate description of this boutique property that will only have 41 villas when renovations are complete. I met up with the group for a tequila and ceviche tasting. It was a bit more informal than the one the previous day, with a focus more on eating (for those of us not allergic to seafood). I heard the ceviche was excellent and I enjoyed the Caprese Salad with Pesto and the Macacita (rolled tortilla filled with cheese) with Caramel Sauce. Marcos, The Tides’ restaurant supervisor who teaches these classes to hotel guests, also introduced us to a Green Sangrita, which I highly recommend. This drink is made from green tomato and pineapple juices; chili sauce and salt.  It was a perfect combination of sweet and salty to highlight the tequila.

Fortunately, we had a few hours before we were to eat again because there was a big meal planned for the whole group. It was our farewell dinner at Grand Velas' Frida, before most of the writers would head home and I would be off to Secrets Maroma.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Pyramids and Restaurants in Tulum

It was another day in Riviera Maya with lots more food (and drinks) to try. We were heading to Tulum for the food tour, but first we were going to see the only archaeological site on the Caribbean Sea.

We were leaving Grand Velas Riviera Maya fairly early to go to Tulum, so I ordered breakfast from room service. The Banana Nut Pancakes were one of the items on the 24 hour room service menu (included in the all-inclusive plan) and they arrived quickly. The ride was about an hour and I was rather surprised when we arrived at the mix of old and new with trams leading to pyramids, and Mayan dancers next to a shopping mall. When we got nearer to the sea, though, it was clear that what we were looking at was closer to the ancient than the modern.

This site is one of the last of the cities built and inhabited by the Mayans.  It’s hard to imagine that this one time fortress was consider a modern city hundreds of years ago and even more amazing how well it still stood up. We toured the pyramids for awhile before we were given some time to explore on our own. Since my back was still an issue that was keeping me from doing much climbing, I went straight to the beach instead of climbing the pyramid to get the view from the top. Either way, it was still beautiful, with ancient ruins in front of the blue water.

There was nothing ancient about the meal we had when we left the site. Piedra Escondido is the exact place you want to be in Mexico – eating delicious food, drinking wine, and looking at the stunning beach right in front of you.

The guacamole was wonderful, the Bean Dip highlighting pumpkin seeds and the Portobello Avocado Taco just spicy enough. It went well with a glass of 2009 Casclecca Seleccionada, a mix of Chardonnay and Viognier. The chef, Sergio, brought out some lobster tacos and mussels, and then went around to make sure those of us who were allergic also had our own treat. For me, it was Breaded Goat Cheese in a Honey Sauce, which was delicious – especially with the light and fruity Vinos Domeca Grenache Rose.

The next stop was quite different. El Tabano is all about the environment and even has its own compost and recycling. Suzanna greeted us and told us about the mix of Spanish and Mexican, as the couple who owns this restaurant represent both. We also had the opportunity to bring in yet another culture as we were told that the owner of La Mande was coming over to start us with some Italian Food, which would go well with the 2009 Monte Xanic Chenin Columbard, a bit like a pinot Grigio with hints of green apple and lemon.

We enjoyed the selection of pizzas that came around, with a wonderful crust and lots of cheese. It was great with the salad of carrot, spinach, apple cheese and carrots. I thought the Eggplant Parmesan could have used more cheese (must be the Italian in me). We didn’t even have a chance to finish any of it, though, before the Red Chicken with Rice came out. That had a nice kick to it  and filled us up. We were glad to hear that we were done with actual food for awhile, but it was time for dessert!

It was good to get into the car and have some digestion time before we arrived at Le Bistro. I think we all walked in thinking that we couldn’t possibly eat anymore. Then, we sat outside and dishes of Chocolate River and Cream Puffs with Gelato came out! Everything was covered with fudge and we just had to sample away! The cappuccinos came out to aid with digestion and we all walked away swearing that we could possibly eat again. Of course, that was not the truth because it was our jobs and we still had more work to do. Fortunately, there would be a break for us before we would head to Hacienda Tres Rios for a tequila tasting and back to Grand Velas Resort in Riviera Maya for a late dinner.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Eating Our Way Through Playa del Carmen, Part 2

It was a day worthy of two columns as I continue with the second part of our eating tour of Playa del Carmen.

In the first half of the day, we had some great food (and drinks), but it just continued to get better as Riviera Maya Tourism selected a great range of Mexican and Mayan eateries for us to try. It was also nice to get the chance to walk around Playa del Carmen, a suburb of Riviera Maya which offers beautiful beaches, hotels, shopping and (obviously) tons of places to eat.

Luna Maya Restaurant is upstairs and appears to overlook the entire city.  The selection here is gourmet, with a cross between Mayan and Mexican. They got our attention immediately by cooling us off with anise soaked cold towels and a fruit juice drink. This restaurant, which just opened in December, was a bit more formal than the others and the service was first class. It appeared that we had a 1-1 ratio between servers and patrons.  A Mango Tequila (mango, tequila and Green Curacao) quickly appeared before us and then the food soon joined it.

Our first course was a Duck Salad with baby lettuce and orange vinaigrette. It was flavorful, but the duck was served carpaccio style and I am not a fan of raw meat. It was fine with me to skip something on a day full of gluttony and I wouldn’t have to wait long for more to appear – along with a fruity 2009 Casa Madero (cabernet sauvignon, merlot and tempranillo). From the Pork in a Bag to Lamb Wrap to the Beef in a Jar, we had an unbelievable meal. Everything was full of rich flavors, without too much overwhelming spice.  We all ate more than we shoulds, and had a hard time having more than a few bites of desserts – warm, fresh Churros with Chocolate Sauce!

It wasn’t long enough to get hungry again until we arrived at La Cueva Del Chango. Fortunately, they gave us a few minutes to relax with some yummy Mango Margaritas before bringing out the food. Then we feasted on Habernero Cream Soup, a perfect Guacamole and the best Fried Cheese I had yet in Mexico. I was happy to digest while those not allergic tasted some Grouper and Tuna (giving it the thumbs up).  I was also a fan of the décor here, very casual and a great place to hang with friends  -- with lots of those Mango Margaritas!

Our next stop was actually at Hotel La Palapas, an adorable boutique property with only 76 rooms. I had a Mexican-style Chicken Cordon Bleu, made the same as the French, but with a green sauce that gave it more of a local flavor. I really enjoyed the creativity in the dish. My fellow writers also raved about the Shrimp, also served with just an accent of Mexican rather than a typical Mexican dish.

I think we all felt bad at Yaxche, our final stop.  We were all so looking forward to this Mayan restaurant and the wine pairing dinner, but we just couldn’t find room to eat much more! We tried to work up an appetite with a glass of Sala Vive, a Mexican sparkling wine. The Tortilla with Chaya (a vegetable similar to spinach) was cheesy and worth a bite. We were then offered a glass of V. from Casa Madero, a cabernet sauvignon rose that could have been fruitier, but I really liked the 2009 Santo Thomas Valley Viognier, especially with the Grilled Pork.

We apologized to our hosts that we couldn’t possibly eat any more before heading to our final stop of the night, Rufino Mezcalaria in Playa del Carmen.  Just like Champagne is only champagne if it comes from that region, it’s only tequila if it was produced in Jalisco, but the blue agave plant can produce a similar spirit if it’s grown someplace else. Mezcal is best known as the one with the worm in it. That’s only one type, though. We got to sample a selection of mezcal at Rufino.

It was all from the Imperial brand and I have to say I was not thrilled with their straight stuff, but if you are looking for something sweet and tropical while on the beach in Riviera Maya, definitely pick up some of the Imperial Coconut. You don’t even need to add anything to it, just throw it over ice. It definitely sealed my food and drink consumption for the day and the only thing that was left was shower and sleep because another full day was coming in Tulum.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Eating Our Way Through Playa del Carmen, Part 1

My blogs almost always follow me for a day, but I don’t usually have a day where I’m going to eight restaurants. That was the planned schedule for our first full day in Riviera Maya's – eight restaurants in Playa del Carmen.

We actually started the day with some free time. I met up with the PR rep to learn more about Grand Velas Riviera Maya, an AAA Five Diamond resort. We were staying in the Adults Only Grand Class section, but it turns out that the main resort has quite a family following and even more restaurants. I was fine with the delicious breakfast we had at the Bistro, with my Egg White Omelet with Spinach and Tomatoes, Hash Browns, Beans and Pineapple. All served by two attentive waiters as we overlooked the Caribbean Sea!

I had a short chance to look a bit more at the water as I took an hour to lie by the infinity pool before getting ready for the Playa del Carmen food tour. The first restaurant, La Casa del Agua, was up a long flight of stairs and I’m still not climbing because of my back. I heard from my colleagues that the food and drinks were delicious. I spent the time with Amber, our host from Riviera Maya's PR agency, and bought a great hat to help block out some of the strong Mexico sun. We then waited for the rest of the group at our next stop, Mi Pueblo.

We were served a Mexican feast of Chips & Salsa, Quesadillas, Tostadas and Cochala. Everything at this restaurant (which has only been open for six months) was delicious and we wanted to stay and finish it, but we had to get to Tropical, where there was a Fondue Cheese waiting for us in a large bowl. It was a bit sweet and a bit spicy, very good overall. We also ate an excellent Chicken & Mushrooms dish, which had been wrapped in a pineapple leaf to bring out more flavor from the chicken. It was hard to leave on any food on the plate, but we had more places to go and food to eat.

The sun was getting stronger and we had a bit of a distance to our next stop, so we hopped in our air conditioned Riviera Maya Tourism van and headed to the newer section of Playa del Carmen. It was hear that we would take a “food” break and focus on dessert. Ah Cacao Chocolate Café was founded in 2004 and is definitely my kind of place. I have never met something in chocolate I didn’t like and since my job for the day (fortunately not every day) was to taste, I had no problem with being here.

We learned about how chocolate is such an important part of this culture as it goes back to the ancient Mayans. The Mayans are still a big part of the Yucatan Peninsula, especially in this area. We also listened to how the chocolate comes from the cacao bean and how the Mayans (and Mexicans) often add chili to their chocolate. And then, we started our tasting from the bitter to the sweet. First it was unsweetened chocolate with almonds before we moved to a perfectly dark chocolate and Tejati, a drink that is a spicy hot chocolate. After I had the most delicious chocolate milk I’ve ever had, someone brought out a small serving of a perfect Mocha Frappe!

It was fortunate that we had some time to walk around Playa del Carmen a bit before our next food stop (which would not be or last). Although this is not the end of the day, I am going to stop here. I don’t think I can possibly do these places justice in one column, so forgive me if I make you wait a bit to continue the end of my day. Use this time to grab some Mexican food (with a chocolate dessert, of course)!

Monday, June 20, 2011

Hola, Riviera Maya!

June was destined to be Mexico month. I had already decided that I needed a break and was only doing one, one week trip. My inbox was flooded with invitations, but there was a definite pattern – more than half were for Mexico! There are a still quite a few places in that country that I’d like to get to so it was a difficult choice, until I found out that one had a focus on food, wine and tequila. The decision was made quickly after that and I welcomed the chance to visit Riviera Maya.

The day didn’t quite start the way I expected. I had an early morning flight and left the house at 4:00 am, only to be caught in a horrendous thunderstorm with lightening everywhere. I finally arrived at Bloomington Airport in time for my flight to Chicago, but the storm was heading there and the American Airlines rep told me there wouldn’t be any flights going out until the afternoon. Air Tran quickly accommodated me, albeit with a four hour layover in Atlanta. I did get to check out their business class and had mixed feelings. The lack of meals and entertainment (no movies, TV shows, etc.) wasn’t great, but I loved the option that they provided of Vitamin Water Zero (my favorite, Acai Berry) and Fuze (Mango, with or without vodka) and the multitude of snacks, many of which were healthy.

When I arrived in Cancun, I met up with my group and we got in the van for our trip to Riviera Maya. We were going to be staying together at the Grand Velas for four days, and then I was going off on my own for the next four to stay at Secrets Maroma. Grand Velas Riviera Maya is definitely grand, especially in the Grand Class section I was staying in. My suite was very big. The bathroom itself was the size of most hotel rooms, complete with Jacuzzi. The patio had some comfortable furniture, a small plunge pool and a view of the Caribbean Sea!

Since my flight was changed, I didn’t get to spend the day relaxing, but I did order tomato with goat cheese for a light, late lunch (24 hour rooms service is included here at no charge) and head into the Jacuzzi with a glass of wine. I also found my mini bar stocked with my very favorite candy bar, Peanut Butter Twix, a treat I never get at home. By the time I came out, I was rested and ready to join my fellow writers and our hosts from Riviera Maya Tourism.

We met in the Sky Bar for pre-dinner drinks. I enjoyed two of the hotel’s specialties: Habana Nights, Habana Rum, Midori, Guava and Coconut Cream; and Espresso Martini, Bailey’s, Frangelico, Kahlua and a splash of coffee. Both were very good, just sweet enough. Dinner was at one of the gourmet a la carte restaurants that the Five Diamond Gran Velas has, Cocina de Autor. The chef had received notes on all our allergies and preferences (and we had quite a few in this group) and had prepared individual menus for us.

Chef Xavier Pérez Stone surprised us with some delicious Picas, cheese balls and wraps with bacon and apricot. My next course was a tasty Quail with sunflower seeds, followed by a wonderful Wild Mushroom Soup, just the way I like it, flavorful but not salty. It was swerved with a Mexican sparkling wine I would definitely order again, Asi Pinelli, sweet and full of fruit. The main course was
Veal Cooked for 36 Hours at 150 degrees. I can’t say I’ve ever had a dish described like that, but it was good, as was the Tapioca Soup, an interesting mix of pineapple, bread and coconut milk. The Chocolate Out of Place looked like a plate of dirt, but it did not taste that way, and was accompanied by an incredible Ginger Ice Cream. I finished with some coffee with Sambuca Negro (my first try and definitely not my last) before heading to my room. It was a long day and the next promised to be even longer in Riviera Maya, as we explored the town and restaurants of Playa del Carmen.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Welcome to Riviera Maya!

No, I haven't been abducted by aliens or run off with a Mexican cabana boy! I've just been incredibly busy eating, tasting and checking out the sites in the Riviera Maya with the tourism board and some other really great writers.  Hold on just a little bit longer because there is lots to come.  I hope to have the first stories and photos up soon. I promise it will be worth the wait. From Playa Carman to Tulum, Grand Velas to Secrets Maroma, Mexican wine to chocolate, tequila to mezcal --  it's a most spirited trip!

My suite (with plunge pool) at Grand Velas Rivera Maya

Monday, June 13, 2011

Take Me Out to the Ballgame – at Citi Field

I may no longer live in New York, but the Mets are still my favorite baseball team. I went to games regularly with my dad as a kid and then as an adult. Thanks to frequent trips to Shea Stadium with Grandpa, my daughter Sam is now even more dedicated to the team than I ever was. 

I was the first to admit that Shea Stadium had seen better days and was in need of renovation, but when it was completely torn down, there was a bit of sadness in our house (Sam  actually named her cat Shea to honor the ballpark’s memory).  She was out there at the first game of the new Citi Field. It took me a bit longer to approach this massive building that looked nothing like my beloved ballpark, but once I did I found a whole new world of going to the baseball game – one that fits nicely in the life of a spirits traveler.

Citi Field is a different planet from Shea Stadium inside and out. It holds nearly 42,000 fans (less people with more comfort); offers various levels of seating and service; and has more food and drink options than you can sample in an entire season. It’s the kind of place for family day or date night, even if every member of the group isn’t a big baseball fan.

I sat within the Delta Club area, with its own restaurant, bars and snack bars (or you can enjoy waiter service at your seat if you prefer). This is one ballpark where you don’t have to be a friend of a large conglomerate to get into a club.  You can treat yourself to a season or a day in the premier seats, which also include the Metropolitan Box, Champions Club and Caesars Club.

No matter where you sit at Citi Field you are assured a multitude of food and drink options.  In addition to the full service club restaurants (there are four), here are just a couple of places you can eat at: Blue Smoke barbecue; Box Frites French fries (the most amazing fries you've ever had); El Verano Taqueria; Catch of the Day; Daruma of Tokyo; Tai Pan Bakery; Kozy Shack Gluten Free; and Mama’s of Corona Italian. Don’t miss Keith’s Grill, where one of my favorite former Mets, Keith Hernandez, created the Brooklyn Burger. As for quenching your thirst, it’s no longer a choice of just regular or lite draft. You can now enjoy 26 selections at Big Apple Brews; Zachy’s Wine Bar; and a Rum Bar, in addition to an assortment of cocktails around the place.

New York Mets: The Complete Illustrated HistoryFor the 2011 season, Citi Field has brought in some really interesting menu changes, with a focus on the fresh. Some of the items the Delta Sky360 Restaurant added are a Farmer’s Market Timbale with Grilled Vegetables; Poached Shrimp Cocktail; Organic Roasted Chicken with Farmer’s Market New Potatoes; and a Nicoise Salad. At the Acela Club, you can now get Spiced Ahi Tuna, Moroccan Skirt Steak and Lemon Braised Artichokes with Veal Stuffing.

If you are looking for some easy eating ballpark fare with flare, check out Café Roma in Caesars Club, where Fried Pickles are served with a Remoulade Sauce; a Grilled Cheese Sandwich includes Beer Braised Short Rib; and Deep Fried Oreos (with vanilla ice cream) will satisfy all your comfort food needs.

One of my favorite things at the new park (in addition to the extra bathrooms) is the open-air food court area. Here, we were able to enjoy some cocktails and watch the game in a more casual area, where you can talk to your friends and feel like you are having an evening out if you aren’t an avid baseball fan.

I had to admit that I like the new definition of a ballpark built in the 21st century, especially since I’m not a hot dogs and beer gal.  Frozen Rum Drinks, Pulled Pork Sandwiches and Shake Shack, I can do that – especially on a day when the Mets win!

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Leaving the Celebrity Millennium to Discover Vancouver

It is amazing how fast 10 days on the Celebrity Millennium went. When I look back, I see that I certainly did a lot and visited a lot of places, but the saying is true, “time flies when you are having fun!”  It was time for the fun (at least the ship fun) to end as we docked at our final stop – Vancouver.

I wasn’t about to let the opportunity to check out this popular city get by, so I arranged with the British Columbia and Vancouver tourism boards for Lynn and I to spend the day and night exploring. We were also invited to stay at the Wedgewood Hotel &  Spa, a beautiful Relais & Chateau property, so we didn’t have to worry about getting to the airport until morning. I could see how people love this city, with its modern décor, great food and wide-ranged culture. For me, it was the combination of the water and snow-capped mountains that would draw me in the most.

Josie Heisig of British Columbia Tourism, the woman who had orchestrated my visit to the Okanagan Valley, Victoria and Vancouver, picked us up at the hotel. We went straight to Granville Island where we met our guide at the Pacific Institute of Culinary Arts for the Plugged in Walking Tour.  Granville Island is another face of Vancouver, where you can find food from every ethnicity, as well as fresh vegetables, fruits, coffees and cheeses at its huge market.

The Granville Market also has a great outdoor patio where you can watch the boats and enjoy some of the food you pick up at the market.  The rest of the island is filled with quaint shops, museums and boating activities for the casual vacationer or serious fisherman. Though I can’t eat any fish or seafood, this is certainly the place to find it, as the fisherman bring it right in by boat. There’s also an artsy hangout, the Net Loft, where you can find stores with everything from paintings to arts and crafts supplies.

I wish I had more time at Granville Island, but we had so much to see in such a short time. We toasted our goodbye with a light and fruity 2009 Little Straw Sauvignon Blanc and took a cab back to the city. Lunch was at West Restaurant. We were joined by Jorden Hutchison of Tourism Vancouver and Alex Shaw, the restaurant’s PR rep.  I started with another great British Columbia wine, the 2009 Poplar Grove Pinot Gris while they told me about this restaurant, where Chef David Gunion focuses on fresh, sustainable Canadian cuisine.

We started with a yummy Pork Pate with Pistachios before we got the perfect Lamb Risotto, filled with cheese and wild mushrooms, while we nibbled on crispy Truffle Fries. For a main course I ordered the Housemade Merguez Sausage with Chickpeas, Mint and Yogurt, and it was very good. Lynn enjoyed the Stinging Nettle and Ricotta Agnolotti with Fava, Roasted Lemon and parmesan. Although I usually tend to gravitate to the chocolate for dessert, I was intrigued by the Apple Crepes filled with Brie and topped with Ice Cream.  It was definitely a good choice and I knew I was ready for some sightseeing to burn off the calories. 

It was hard to decide what to do, but we finally chose to go down to Stanley Park. This huge park is worth walking around all day, but since our time was limited we decided to take the Horse Drawn Tour. It was a lot of fun and we learned a lot about this park, which is 157 acres larger than Central Park in New York. We rode along the harbor and passed the Royal Vancouver Yacht Club, Discover Island and the Gate Bridge that Guinness built. We also saw more of the beautiful mountains in the backdrop, still covered with plenty of snow.
After the tour, we had some wonderful cocktails at Bacchus Restaurant  Lounge  in the lobby of the Wedgewood with Joanna Tsaparas-Piche, the hotel’s Director of Sales & Marketing. This is a very popular place and it’s easy to see why. The chairs and tables are cozy and inviting and the drinks are interesting, but not too over the top with crazy (still recovering from last year’s bacon mania) ingredients. I sampled the Insomniac (Van Gogh Espresso Vodka, Gifford Caramel, Bailey’s Irish Cream and a shot of espresso) and the Red Satin Skipper (Vodka, Raspberry Liquor and Cranberry Juice). The drinks here are poured at the table through a shaker, one of the touches that helped it earn the label of Best Bar & Lounge in the City by Vancouver Magazine.

Dinner was at L’Abbattoir in the Gastown district of Vancouver. This place has received many accolades recently and it was packed to the brim.  Though it currently boasts a very modern décor, L’Abbatoir was actually the first jail in Vancouver.  We started at the bar, were the cocktail menu includes their own barrel-aged whisky.  I prefer something a bit lighter and the sommelier suggested a 2009 Pentage Gamay Rose from the Okanagan Valley, ideally light and fruity and it worked wonderful with the Bacon Brioche Sesame Flat Breach and Homemade Gnocchi with Poached Eggs and Cheese.

I thought my Pork Verde in Milk with Salsa Verde was tender and flavorful (though I felt it could have been served with some carbs to round it out). Lynn had the Steak Diane, which she thought was good. We were both pretty stuffed from a long day (or should I say two weeks!) of eating, but I’m glad we tasted the Warm Chocolate Torte with Vanilla Custard as it was excellent.

I knew I had only touched the surface of all Vancouver had to offer, but I had an early flight back home. As I went to sleep, the Celebrity Cruise remained docked at Vancouver Metro Port. It was setting sail to Alaska the next day.  This ship led me to quite an adventure and I look forward to meeting her (or one of her sisters) again! I will also be counting the days until I return to the Pacific Northwest.

Note: There were so many people and places that helped make this trip possible, but I would like to especially thank Celebrity Cruise Line and British Columbia.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Sailing into Victoria on the Millennium

When I first found out I would be taking the Pacific Coastal Wine Cruise with Celebrity, I told a lot of friends and relatives about it. Everyone said the entire itinerary looked great, but the majority came back and said, “You must see Victoria, it’s one of my favorite places.” With that kind of buildup I was afraid the real thing would let me down.  I couldn’t have been more wrong.

After the ship docked, we took a cab down to Silk Road, just on the corner of the elaborate entrance to Chinatown. There we met with Cathy Ray of Tourism Victoria and Daniela Cubelic, owner and manager of the tea and aromatherapy shop. I had never seen anything like it, a combination of modern décor with the tradition of tea. Daniela has made a point of studying tea variations and customs from all around the world so she would know how to custom blend them downstairs and serve them at the store’s Tea Tasting bar. It is where she holds workshops and pairing events for customers who want to fully enjoy this beverage.

We tasted Velvet Potion, a black tea that contains chocolate and vanilla; Oolong Tea, a cross between green and black teas that is good for digestion; Silk Road Chai, an Indian style blend that is most different in its spice; and Casablanca, a Moroccan green tea that the natives of that country say should be “as sweet as love and as bitter as death.” I enjoyed them all and Lynn agreed with me that it was nice to start the morning with a little tea instead of the usual wine tasting.

From Velvet Potion we walked for awhile, exploring Victoria, a picturesque city with very European undertones. We passed Bastion Square and Lo Jo, the term used to describe the area on Lower Johnson, which Cathy described as a “hip and funky area.” I found Victoria to look like a cross between London and Melbourne, with the same clearly British influences. We even past some British Style pubs on our way to meet a real Brit, aka, The London Chef.

Dan Hayes is The London Chef and he just opened this cooking school/deli with his wife Micayla, a Victoria native.  The place is set up as one huge horseshoe shaped kitchen with plenty of kitchen gadgets and appliances. Lynn and I had an upfront and personal lesson with Dan and listened to him talk about his cooking with great passion, a passion he intends to share with others through this school.  He poured some wine and talked to us about what we liked to eat, smiling as his mind began writing recipes and his hands began pulling out herbs and oils.

First it was a Crostini with Chargrilled Vegetables. We watched him make a marinate with lots of local herbs (including mint and rosemary), olive oil, sea salt and freshly ground pepper before grilling some asparagus zucchini and Japanese eggplant. The mixture went on top of toasted ciabatta that had been spread with goat cheese and was topped with a sauce of capers, mint, parsley, olive oil  and a bit of Dijon mustard.  While the Crostini was was baking, we talked more about Dan’s belief in fresh, local ingredients and decided that we would stick with the vegetarian theme and make a Risotto for our main course.

I love risotto, but it always seems to take forever to make. Dan showed me how to make a delicious mushroom risotto in just 20 minutes, sharing tips like adding a chunk of Parmesan rind directly into the risotto.  It was a perfect meal and a fun time. We bid Dan and Micayla farewell and took a cab back down to the water. Lynn opted to stay down by the bench for awhile and I spent the next hour and a half exploring the waterfront of Victoria. I enjoyed the mix of old and new buildings, like the Royal BC Museum and the Empress Hotel, known for its High Tea. I also loved watching the artists along the water at work, walking past as many bed & breakfasts as grand hotels.

Before we went back to the ship, we had drinks and snacks at the AURA Restaurant at the Inn at Laurel Point. The restaurant is directly on the water, offering beautiful views for cocktails or dining. We got to meet the restaurants new chef, Takashi Ito, who has worked at restaurants that included the Fairmont Empress down the road so he is very familiar with Victoria has to offer. He is excited to also be working with the sommelier to bring in more local wine and I certainly agreed that British Columbia offerings deserve more attention, as I had learned the week before the cruise. As an example, he brought us some Starling Lane Wild Berry Dessert Wine (made in Vancouver Island), a perfect accompaniment to the cheese and fruit plate.

All too soon it was time to leave Victoria and get ready for my final dinner aboard the Celebrity Cruise. It was hard to believe this was the last of 10 nights (and very busy days). I decided to go all out for the last supper and enjoyed a wonderful fruit display, French Onion Soup, Fettuccine with Veal, and a Chocolate Lava Cake with Vanilla Ice Cream!  I finally lost that $20 I had brought on board to gamble with and, with a smile at the slot machine, headed up for my last night in our Veranda Suite before my first day in Vancouver.