Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Enjoying a Haven in Oak Park

It’s been way too long since I’ve had a quiet getaway, the type where you shut off the IPhone, don’t turn on the computer and actually engage in conversation with someone you don't get to talk to often enough. It was time for me and despite the schedule of two workaholics, I made it happen this week.

Harvey House Bed & Breakfast is easy to miss when you drive along the quiet Oak Park street it’s located on, but it’s in the middle of a different world that's just 15-20 minutes outside of Chicago. It’s a town Ernest Hemmingway once lived in and I could certainly see the inspiration.

It was also rather nostalgic for me when I spotted the bunny in front of the door. Harvey isn’t just the last name of owner Beth Harvey, it’s the name of a play (and then a movie) starring the iconic actor, Jimmy Stewart. The story has Stewart’s character with an imaginary rabbit. I had the pleasure of seeing the play – with Stewart – in London when I was a teenager on a family vacation. It was an incredible experience I will never forget. That memory immediately made me comfortable at Harvey House, not that you need help feeling relaxed here.

Our room was the Garden Suite (there are a total of five rooms)  was soft and comfortable, with an oversized Jacuzzi and a three sided fireplace. We would enjoy that quite later (with a bottle of Perrier Jouet Champagne), but first we checked out downtown Oak Park, which is a combination of quaint and modern, offering a nice selection of restaurants.

A recommendation from Beth Harvey led us to Maya del Sol. This contemporary Latin restaurant has a nice patio, but the evening was a little chilly and we decided to stay indoors. We enjoyed the salsa, not too spicy, but with a bit of zing. The main courses we chose were Chicken Enchiladas and an Acorn squash stuffed with Rice, Wild mushrooms, Yuca and asparagus, and covered with a sweet corn-butter sauce. I was a bit disappointed that there weren’t more options that were safely cooked for my seafood allergy, but the squash turned out to be delicious, though not quite as spectacular as breakfast.

Beth Harvey really takes the breakfast in B&B serious. You won’t find any egg casseroles here. Instead, she makes individual breakfasts for each guest, using farm fresh vegetables, fruits and cheeses. We enjoyed ours on the patio and it was quite a feast --- oven baked pancakes (light and fluffy like popovers) with fresh fruit and a banana caramel sauce; scrambled eggs with shredded parmesan; and freshly cooked bacon.

It’s the little touches to detail, as well as the feeling of being in a home away from home, that makes Harvey House a popular place for everything from romantic getaways to business trips. Beth explained how business travelers love having a well-appointed room with the comforts of home, fresh coffee and wine always available in an inviting living room; a kitchen open to them for self-serve at all hours, while breakfast is prepared to their individual taste each day; and the necessary amenities of Wi-Fi, flat screen televisions that can be hooked to your computer, are there when work needs to be done. There are also two train lines that run right into this Oak Park neighborhood to get you in the middle of Chicago within minutes.

Find Great Deals at! I have to admit that I was tempted to leave my cell phone and computer off and hibernate at Harvey House for a few more days, but it had to wait as I had an appointment in downtown before I headed home. It was time to trade the suburban quiet for the hustle and bustle of Chicago, as I had to get back to "work" to check out a new burger and wine bar, 25 Degrees.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Trading the US Open for Sweet Corn and Barbecue

It’s the third week in August and there’s only one place I’ve been during that time for most of my adult life, the U.S. Open Championships in Flushing Meadow Park, New York. Even after I stopped covering tennis full time in 2008, I still covered the Open for the entire three weeks. Through the Qualifying, the Main Draw and the Junior Championships, my daily column gets up to two million hits during the event. I’ve also added additional outlets to my coverage over the years.

I was especially excited about the U.S. Open this year because, in addition to the food, wine and spirits stories I’ve been doing the past few years, I was also doing some celebrity articles. Unfortunately, none of it would pan out this year. My back problems got to the point where I knew I couldn’t drive to New York and handle walking around the huge tennis center. I considered borrowing a scooter or even a wheelchair, but my doctor convinced me that I needed to stay home, rest my back and get treatment.  
The U.S. Open is much more than a tennis event, it’s a foodie’s (or food writer’s) dream. Last year, I even got to sample some of the U.S. Open food and drinks before the event. There are always some new and exciting offerings each year, but my priorities never seem to change: the Sweet & Savory Crepe booth where Crepe Express provides my favorite thin pancake filled with mushrooms, spinach and Swiss cheese; and the seasoned waffle fries, available at many of the booths, which everyone seems to love. Those items are my first day and last day musts, and in between I try to sample something different from the wide-range of offerings at the restaurants and food court each day. (Thank heaven for all the walking, I’ve actually never gained weight at the Open.)

Saturday, August 27th was to be something even better than gourmet food at the U.S. Open. It was Arthur Ashe Kid’s Day, a celebrity-filled event that’s always a lot of fun. I was especially looking forward to this year’s as one of my favorite actors, Bradley Cooper, was appearing. Armed with lots of assignments, I had hoped to have a few minutes to actually speak to him and it was one of the disappointments in my not going, but I wasn’t the only one this day didn’t work out for. Millions of people around the Northeastern United States have a lot more to be dismayed about than I do as Hurricane Irene flooded neighborhoods, damaged property and even took some lives.

I didn’t get to go to the U.S. Open or meet Bradley Cooper, but I did get to be home yesterday, where it was dry and sunny. I also got to do something that I’ve missed all these years I’ve been in New York at the U.S. Open. I went to the Sweet Corn Festival in Urbana. There was no fine wine or  overpriced seasoned fries, but I had some delicious (Central Illinois) Sweet Corn, Barbecued Pork (from Holy Smoke Barbecue), Macaroni & Cheese (from Louie’s BBQ) and finished Frozen Custard. Then, I went home and iced my back and was thankful that I wasn’t awaiting a monster storm like my friends, family and tennis-writing colleagues back east.

The silver lining to the cloud (pardon the pun) is that the storm didn’t appear to damage the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center after all and it looks like play for the main draw will start on Monday as planned. I am flying to New York in a few weeks and hope to be walking well enough to still make it in to the U.S. Open for the finals -- and the crepes, of course.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Enjoying San Diego

I recently had an assignment that put me in San Diego for 10 days.  I was excited about visiting a place that has always been one of my favorites and I only got to see briefly before heading on my cruise is May. The assignment ended up taking much more time than I expected and I didn’t quite get to do, eat, drink and see as much as I would have liked to, but I still wanted to give a shoutout to some things I discovered and others that are on the top of my list for the next trip….

Accommodations. San Diego has hotels in every area (beach, city, and even a place called “Hotel Circle”), in every price range. I spent my time at the Hilton Mission Valley and would highly recommend it. It’s within ten miles of just about anywhere you’d like to go; the rooms are a decent size and recently renovated;  there’s Wi-Fi throughout the rooms and common areas; and the pool and Jacuzzi are as welcoming at the end of the day as the fitness center is at the beginning. 
While I was at the Hilton, I had quite a few opportunities to have eat there, with a morning breakfast buffet that included lots of healthy options, and dinner menus (available at the bar and by room service) that went from steaks to “build your own burger,” with the option to do veggie burgers. They also happened to stock some Chilean Sauvignon Blanc by the glass, available for the late night happy hour at the bar, which includes cocktails, beer, wine and appetizers (try the homemade potato chips with blue cheese, yum).

Foodie Haven. Speaking of food, San Diego is becoming a foodie city with restaurants come in all shapes, sizes and varieties, on the water and in the city. The Gaslamp District has become a popular place to eat and I hope to get there on the next trip.   I did make it down to Little Italy, where I had a perfect meal at Bencotto Italian Kitchen. There were five of us for appetizers, dinner and dessert and there wasn’t a dish on the table we didn’t love. We mostly ordered specials, but if you can’t find something you want, you can put together your own dish with the sauce and pasta you want.
Waterfront Music. It was a special birthday for Mom and we celebrated with a concert by one of her favorite composers, Burt Bacharach. The Embarcadero Marina has an amazing selection of musical performances in a great venue. I loved the idea that  -- even though we were on the grass – we had our own little table and chairs. There’s also plenty of food and drinks available if you’d like something while enjoying the concert.
Old Town Trolley Tour of San DiegoThe Weather. Can it get any better? After spending the better part of four months in record-breaking, 100 degree temperatures everywhere, it was nice to spend some time not sweating. The weather it San Diego was 70-75 degrees every single day I was there. There was never a passing thought that it would rain. In fact, I was told by a native that it hasn’t rained there in August since 1982!

Family-friendly. San Diego is full of things for kids of all ages to do (translation: things I like to do with or without my six year old nephew, Jake). Take the Old Town Trolley and you can see most of them. Everyone needs to make a trip to the San Diego Zoo at least one and – though I didn’t make it there yet –LegoLand is not only Jake’s favorite place in the world, but my mom enjoyed it too. One place I did make it to this trip is Old Town. This public historic park has always been a must for any trip I make to San Diego (it’s also a stop on the trolley). There is no admission charge to wander through the museums, check out the shops and look at the art galleries. And, you will find some of the best Mexican food – and Margaritas – right here. Check out some of their special events. In a few weeks (September 11th), Old Town will be the home of the Tequila Trail, kicking off the Spirits of Mexico Festival. Music, 33 varieties of tequila and 75 degree sunshine, what more could anyone want?
Check Out Great Deals in San Diego on Groupon!

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Final Day at Food Network Wine and Food Festival in Atlantic City

All good things must come to an end and Sunday was the end of another great Atlantic City Food and Wine Festival. This event is one of the Food Network’s newest and it still needs some tweaks, but despite a few minor disappointments, it is at the top of the festival list for value and location. I’m also seeing changes made each year to the activities that have a few problems so I’m confident the 2012 event will be even better.

My first stop for the day was a brand new one, “Sun, Sand & Organic – A Wine Tasting” and I can't say it was one of the best. Now, of course it wasn’t anyone’s fault that it was 95 degrees and the sand was burning, but the turnout was tiny and there really wasn’t much that you couldn’t find at the Robert Mondavi Grand Tasting Market (an absolute must for anyone attending). It was a great experience for me personally because I got to spend some time tasting and checking out some things I hadn’t had before.

I started the afternoon with a Botanical Bliss, made from Thatcher’s Elderflower, Farmer’s Botanical Gin, Hibiscus Pomegranate and tonic water. It was perfect for a hot day, but I was there to taste some wine organic wine from around the world and I got to work, sniffing and sipping away until I narrowed it down. Some of the standouts that I found were: a refreshing 2010 Santa Julia Torrontes Chenin Blanc from Argentina; a fruit-filled 2010 Casa Lapostolle  Carmenere from Chile; and a delicious Porto from Casa de Jordoes in Portugal.

As for the other events taking place on Sunday, I heard nothing but raves for The Gospel Brunch at the House of Blues Concert Hall, led by Pat and Gina Neely. It seemed to be a great replacement for last year's Paul Dean brunch. Everyone who attended couldn’t say enough about the food and music. The beer tasting Super Suds seminar, which I attended last year, was another popular event.

After I left the beach, I headed over to the Grand Tasting Market for some brunch of my own since I hadn’t had much to eat (a rarity at a food festival).  Rastelli, a company that produces just about every type of food and was also putting on cooking shows,  was tasting some interesting pasta in sauce at the Italian Village. I had a taste of Pico Porton, an interesting spirit that advertises itself as a cross between vodka and tequila.

I took a slow walk with lots of stops along the Boardwalk, enjoying a soft pretzel from Philly Pretzel Factory and marveling at how the Steel Pier is just as beautiful a sighting as it was when I was a kid growing up in New York and visiting here with my family. 

I had some time to look at some of the pictures in my House of Blues Suite before I headed to Harrah’s for dinner at Luke Palladino, a new restaurant by the acclaimed chef. I was originally supposed to be there on Wednesday night with some friends, but the best laid plans don’t always work and I was doing this one solo so I my full attention went to the food.

I think I loved Luke Palladino the moment I walked in. It was modern, with white and gray throughout, and an open kitchen so that the aroma of garlic and basil permeated the place. The menu (which changes seasonally) was full of small plates and the wine was all Italian. Fresh is the key here with a co-op of nearly two dozen local vendors supplying meat, fish and produce.

The pasta is made fresh daily at this restaurant and, honestly, everything on the menu sounded delicious. I had a Moscato Chinato and asked for some help from Signe, my very knowledgeable waitress who happens to share the same birthday as me. I started with a few small plates, the first of which was Caciocavallo Scaloppine, a Sicilian cheese made of cow’s milk that is sautéed with toasted garlic and mint, then flambéed with Sambuca. It was absolutely incredible, full of so many flavors that you just wanted to chew every bite slowly and take them in.

Next, Executive Chef Anthony Ricardi brought over Stuffed Roasted Figs with Gorgonzola, wrapped in Smoked Ham came. They were a great combination of sweet and smoky and the walnut vinaigrette was just right on top. I also enjoyed the Eggplant Arrostto, roasted eggplant with a tomato ragu, pine nuts and shredded pecorino.

It was at this point I asked Signe for some time to digest before attempting my main course, but I didn’t have to worry about fitting some of the homemade Ravioli in as they were the lightest I’d ever tasted, in an uncooked sauce of red and yellow tomatoes and topped with slices of parmesan cheese with lots of fresh basil. She suggested I have a glass of Turlo’s Sangiovese/Merlot/Cabernet Sauvignon combo and it was a wonderful match. (All of the waiters here are well-trained in food and wine.)

I did get a break before dessert, which was a good thing because I’m so glad I tasted the Ricotta Zeppole with Moscota Zabaglione. The Valhrona Chocolate Pudding Tart with Shredded Dark Chocolate also looked inviting, but I was stuffed and had to head back to my room at Showboat for a four a.m. wake up call and an early morning flight.

I would certainly recommend to anyone in Atlantic City, to stop at Luke Palladino, where the prices are reasonable and the food superb. Anytime is fine, but if you can make it at the same time as the Food Network Atlantic City Food and Wine Festival, you are in for a double treat… See you there next year!

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Food Network Chefs and Parties in Atlantic City

I spent the morning interviewing some of the Food Network’s best before the activities of their Atlantic City Food & Wine Festival began. It was casual and fun, and I had a chance to get to know Pat and Gina Nelly; Robert Irvine; and Sunny Anderson, as well as catch up with Guy Fieri, who I’ve done stories on for a number of publications in the past year*. (You can see my Los Angeles Confidential piece here.) I have to say there wasn’t an overinflated ego in the room as everyone talked about the importance of getting kids to make healthier food choices.

After the interviews, my daughter Sam and I headed over to the Robert Mondavi Grand Market. This year they added an Italian Village section (not all Italian, but certainly full of tasty booths) to spread it out a bit more. As always, there is more food and drinks than you can possibly enjoy, so I suggest everyone allow for at least two trips there.

This was my first visit during the 2011 festival and I navigated my way over to the New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc from The Beach House, which is a wonderful and inexpensive find. Sam, who loves to cook for her friends, was fascinated with the Roasted Garlic Express, and it produces well. She also discovered some delicious food at the booth for Harry’s Oyster Bar & Seafood, and we enjoyed dipping and trying the Balsamic Vinegars and Olive Oils at City 2 Shore. The Pecan Pie from Potito’s was just the way I like it – buttery and not too sweet -- but the sugar in Pecan Jacks nuts was from Caribbean Rum, Amaretto (my favorite) and Bourbon.

At last year’s Guy Fieri Cheesesteak Challenge, I discovered 2 Chicks with Chocolate. The company has grown, but the quality has remained the same. There was plenty more to satisfy my sweet tooth. Fortunately, I’ve learned to just take tasting bites of: Sand Dollar Crumb Cake, moist and rich; Daisy Cakes, the carrot was incredible; and Brix Chocolate for Wine, good with or without the vino. I finished Saturday’s Grand Market experience with a taste of Thatcher’s Organic Artisan Elderflower Liqueur, flavorful and not full of sugar, and spoke with Rocky Fino, who gave me copies of his books Will Cook For Sex: A Guy's Guide to Cooking and Will Mix for Sex: Twenty-One Classic Cocktails to Set the Mood, both of which I’m anxious to read.

We headed out to the Boardwalk and ran into the Cooking Channel Ice Cream Truck, giving out cool treats in celebration of the channel’s one year anniversary. Then it was on to Fire and Ice in the Courtyard just outside of Caesar’s. It was one of my favorite events, with music playing as we enjoyed tastes of Latin food and plenty of wine and spirits. Everything was great, but I especially loved the Mango Habanero Guacamole from Chef Ivy Stark of Dos Caminos.

Unfortunately, I was unable to get tickets to two great events with Sunny Anderson, Sunset Sliders and Sweet & Stylish, but I used the opportunity to chill for awhile in the House of Blues Studio Suite at Showboat before the Chef’s Party at The Foundation Room. It was rather crowded and the chefs just made brief appearances with body guards. As much as I love The Foundation Room at the House of Blues (don’t go to Atlantic City without stopping by for a drink or dinner), I think this event would have been better in a larger location. By about 1:30 am, 2e headed back to our suite (which was just down the hall) to get some rest before the final day of the Food Network’s Atlantic City Food and Wine Festival.

*I will be doing feature stories on all the chefs for a great new website I am working for, Travel, Food & Drink.

(Sorry for the delay between Atlantic City blog posts, I was on assignment for two weeks and it made blogging difficult. It’s something I know to plan for in advance in the future.)

Photos by Samantha Frost

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Wine, Spirits, Sexy Women and Cheesesteak in Atlantic City

As strange as the title of this post sounds, it’s a rundown of my first full day at the Food Network Atlantic City Food and Wine Festival. And what a fun day it was.

The events weren’t starting until the evening so I used the time to catch up with Michael Green, former Gourmet Magazine editor and current wine and cocktail guru. We had drinks in Trinity Pub at the Shops at Caesars. We were joined by Michael’s partner at Liquid Assets, Andrew Levine, for a fun and informative discussion on the Food Network Festivals (they work closely with Food & Wine Magazine as well as Food Network on all of them).  I was disappointed that I didn’t have any of their seminars on my overbooked schedule, but vowed to catch them at one of the future events.

My daughter Sam joined me at the Pier Shops for lunch before we headed to change hotels. As much as I loved Harrah’s (and there’s a lot to love), the events I would be attending were mostly down at the Boardwalk so we were changing to Showboat. We were also lucky enough to get a House of Blues Studio Suite which definitely makes you feel like a rock star! It’s a spacious room with a circular couch and an amazing entertainment system. I wished I had longer to test out the sound, but it was time for us to make our way down the hall to Foundation Room.

A trip to Atlantic City is not complete without a stop at the Foundation Room in the House of Blues. I was so impressed last year with the décor and comfortable booths (not to mention the view from the patio) that I couldn’t stop talking about it. This time I was here for the Sexy Women Eatevent with Divya Gugnani.

I have to confess that I didn’t do my homework on Divya before I got there and it may have been a good think. Had I walked in knowing that this woman had an MBA from Harvard and was a high powered business woman, I might have expected to be bored. Instead, I met a friendly, personable woman who made everyone feel more like they were coming into her living room than paying to attend her event. We were served tasty cocktails, like Drinkable Dessert (Perrier Jouët Champagne and Chambord) that were all under 150 calories along with Chicken Fingers in Panchenko with Corn Salsa and an Apple Walnut Snack as Divya told us how important it was to treat ourselves right. After she gave every person a copy of her book and spoke to each one as she signed it, I don’t think anyone left the room not feeling “sexy.”

From the 150 calorie bites I went in the exact opposite direction to Guy Fieri’s Cheesesteak Battle. This year it was held outside in a tent between Bally’s and Caesars. It was a nice idea to set up in the tents in comparison to last year when everyone crowded into the ballroom, but it unfortunately turned into the hottest night of the year that became one of the rainiest. Guy’s helicopter was delayed and our shoes were mud soaked, yet I don’t think I saw one unhappy person! 

The tents were filled with eight restaurants putting out their best product and hoping to go home with the gigantic trophy. In addition to the tasty and unusual cheese steaks, were the complete fixings – onion rings, French fries, potato salad, coleslaw and more.  There was also no shortage of wine, spirits and Blue Moon beer to wash it down with. I did my duty as a food writer and tasted every one of the cheese steaks and did not have trouble picking my winner – Continental’s Eggroll Cheesesteak. It was absolutely delicious, with a crisp eggroll coating around tender meat and gooey cheese.  I also have to give a shoutout to Sack-O-Subs Pinky, an Italian style Cheesesteak with mozzarella and tomato sauce. Guy Fieri, on the other hand, went for the Classic with Whiz from Wit or Witout, which I thought was more bread than meat.

When the rain let up, we made our way back to Showboat Hotel, where we stopped to check out Wine Unplugged, The Dead. The band was very good and the wine selection (chosen by Michael Green) diverse and international. I had some great 2009 Hogue Gewurztrminer from Washington, with a good balance of sweet and spice, and before we headed to our suite to catch some shuteye before another day of food, wine and spirits.