Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Brunch and Spa Time in Indianapolis

I was up in time to catch the view from my balcony at the Omni Severin before Morgan from Indianapolis Tourism met us in the lobby. We walked the few blocks (I love that everything in Indy is so walkable, it's going to be a great place for Super Bowl 2012) to Cafe Patachou for breakfast.

Morgan had been talking about this place and its owner, who had turned the successful restaurants into her own little chain in the city. It was bright and modern, with an interesting menu. Morgan had their famous Cinnamon Toast, which I agreed was delicious. Lisa went for the "Broken Yolk" Sandwich, a massive and gooey plate that she couldn't finish, and I decided to keep it simple with French Toast covered with fresh blueberries.

It's all about using local produce and food as much as possible here, and I'm told that extends to Indianapolis Airport, where the restaurants use products from the area. One thing that can't be grown in Indiana is the coffee. Cafe Patachou has an interesting selection of self-service brews. The coffees selection is worldwide and all seemed a bit strong for me, but both Morgan and Lisa raved about them.

We left the cafe and headed to the Conrad Hotel, where we had appointments at the brand new Evan Todd Spa. It is a beautiful place with all the facilities you could want, including an indoor pool, where we lounged with herb tea before our appointments started.

The facials -- which included some light massage, aromatherapy and acupressure -- were wonderful. I was I pressed with the time the estheticians took with each of us, using completely different treatments on each of us after asking questions and examining our skin to determine that we had different skin types, rather than making you pick your type of facial before you arrive.

We were feeling relaxed and refreshed when we headed over for our pedicures on the other side of the spa. It's one of those things I never find the time for at home and it's great to be at a spa that does it all.

When the treatments were over, we headed back to the Omni Hotel to pick up the car and get on the road. It was a four hour drive to the Hocking Hills area of Ohio. I had never seen this part of the state and it looked beautiful. We climbed a bit from the flatter land of the Midwest, remarking at the signs of fall already noticeable in the leaves on the trees.

The drive was a long one (which, thankfully, Lisa drove most of), but it was all worth it when we arrived at the Inn at Cedar Falls to our secluded cabin. "Redbud" is a log cabin with two bedrooms, a living room, dining room, kitchen and two baths. It was missing a few things, though -- phone service, internet and television, but I had brought along a bottle of DeBortoli's new Emeri Sparkling Sauvignon Blanc to try and we figured we could make it without technology for two nights.

It was going to be an interesting adventure.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Midwest Adventure Begins in Indianapolis

It seems like I am always up in the air, but this week I decided to do something a bit different. I hit the road with my friend Lisa for a Midwest adventure from Indianapolis to Cedar Falls to Chicago, where we ended it all at quite a party.

Day one began with a  two hours drive to Indy, where we found pouring rain. The plan was to take a Segway tour through White River State Park – weather permitting. We were disappointed, but Morgan Greenlee from the Indianapolis Visitors Bureau quickly adapted the afternoon plans.

After we checked into our rooms on the penthouse floor of the Omni Severin, we were off to lunch at a new restaurant in town. Mesh on Mass Avenue. I enjoyed the Short Rib Slow Cooker (without the bun) with a glass of Noel Bossier Vouvray, a semi-sweet French white that was very fruity, and Lisa had a Salmon Caesar salad.

Both the restaurant and the menu had a modern feel, which is exactly where all of Indianapolis is heading these days. The city is preparing to host the 2012 Super Bowl in a big way. They do not want visitors feel like there's nothing to do before and after football. They are instead spending billions getting ready to have them stick around with new eateries, hotels, shopping, pedestrian streets for musical events,  and even updated roads and bike paths.

We went straight from lunch to the Indianapolis Art Museum. I had never been there before and was excited to see it, especially since they had opened up the museum just for us on its day off! We were escorted around for a few hours of art gazing from Van Gogh to Picasso, Norman Rockwell to  Georgia O’Keefe. We also got to see the “Material World” exhibition, which demonstrates some beautiful (and some strange) clothing from well-known and unknown designers. The museum does not have an entry charge (a few of the exhibits do have charges) and I would definitely recommend checking it out.

After the museum, we went for a little snack at The Best Chocolate in Town, where the truffles are as unusual as they are delicious. We took a few unusual samples --  including Rosemary, Dark Chocolate Cheesecake and Cinnamon Basil – to go before heading across town to the new Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library. Vonnegut was one of my favorite authors back in college and the visit brought back a lot of memories. The library showcases many of his famous works (such as Slaughterhouse Five), and tells the story of this complex man.

We had a short while to go back to the Omni Severin Hotel and get ready for dinner. Morgan came with us down to one of the oldest and most famous restaurants in Indianapolis, St. Elmo’s. There we met Chris Ratay, who took us to the restaurant’s newly built upstairs lounge. It’s quite a place, with a beautiful bar, relaxing couches and even a communal table for singles or large groups.

The lounge has an exciting cocktail menu and some food items. We decided to each order a different drink so we could experience four of their most popular – French 75,  Elmo Cola, Ginger Beer and the Spicy Agave Margarita. We liked them all, but I was happy with my choice, French 75, which was made with  Wisconsin Death’s Door Gin, St. Germain and hand-squeezed lemon juice, before it’s topped with a splash of champagne. Morgan had the signature drink, Maker’s Mark Bourbon which has been infused with Italian Maraschino Cherries and Madagascar Cherries, then mixed with Coke (diet or regular). Chris drank the Ginger Beer in a copper cup and Lisa prepared for her appetizer with a jalapeño filled margarita.

The appetizer in question is billed as the “World Famous Sinus-Clearing Shrimp Cocktail.” Since I have a seafood allergy I had to rely on my friends for this one and I’m told the description is an accurate one. Be prepared to have your water glass handy when you eat the Spicy Shrimp Cocktail at St. Elmo’s, but you will not be disappointed. Of course, this is a steak house so you will also have no problem finding steak in any size or shape you want it, as well as seafood and chops. We finished up with a delicious Peach Blueberry Pie (a la mode, of course).

After St. Elmo’s Steakhouse, it was just Lisa and I as we headed to Tastings. This Indianapolis wine bar is an experience worth checking out as you can choose from over 100 wines to sample. You purchase a card when you walk in and then bring it over to the wine tasting stations, where you can read about each offering and pour yourself a two, four or six ounce sample of what you’d like. The wines vary greatly in price (from about $3-$10 for the two ounce) and variety.

We decided to share samples. I recommended a few to Lisa that I had previously liked, such as Stags Leap Merlot and The Chocolate Box Red, while we discovered Elk Cove Pinot Gris and Andeluna Torrontes together. We both wished it hadn’t been such a long day and vowed to make it back there before heading back to the hotel. There was an even longer day coming as we checked out  bit more of Indianapolis before heading to the Cedar Falls area of Ohio.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

My First Taste of Colorado

I was lucky enough to time my New York visit with the Colorado Tourism Harvest event and it was quite a preview into my trip to come.

The event was held at The Little Owl venue down in the Village. It’s an interesting space that’s being used for pop-up dinners, with an open kitchen and plenty of room to mingle. I took my daughter, Sam, along and we spent some time mingling. I was excited to see Anna Watson, who was the lead on my trip to Champagne & Burgundy (she’s now working in the food industry and has a great blog, The Yellow Table).

I have to say that I was extremely impressed with the food and drinks at A Taste of Colorado Harvest event. There was no fish at all, so I was able to try everything. The food was prepared by Chef Justin Cucci (left), who oversees the food at the Denver restaurants Linger and Root Down. The menu was clever and fresh and consisted of passed oversized Hors d'oeuvre that highlighted what’s fresh in the state right now:
Fried Green Zebra Tomatoes with Charred Goat Mozzarella, Organic Golden Beet & Sunflower Pesto, Pea Shoots and Hibiscus Gastrique
Asian Pear Chutney, Cilantro
Justin’s Peanut Butter, Miso Butterscotch, Cabernet Jelly Whipped Cream
Slivered Ginger, Avocado, and Green Zebra Tomato Water, Watermelon Radish, Cinnamon Caps, Sesame Seeds
Chia Seeds, Amaranth, Cornmeal, Ginger, Molasses, Cinnamon, Clove, Fava Beans, Cherry Tomatoes, Habanero Vin and Goat Cheese
Palisade Peaches with Charred Pistachio-Fava Hummus, Feta, Micro Basil, Pueblo Piñon and Smoked Paprika
Homemade Sourdough Bread, Pickled Lemon Cucumber, Daikon, Carrots, Mint Watercress, Cilantro, Fresno, Sambal Cream Cheese, Aioli, Five Spice Bean Curd
Olathe Corn and Roasted Pueblo Chile Avocado Lime Salsa
Refried Black Quinoa, Radish & Slaw

There really wasn’t anything I didn’t like, even the Denver Tofu and Black Bean Miso, though I don’t normally go for tofu or Miso. I’d have to say my favorites were the BBQ Bison Tacos, Peach Bruschetta and Olathe Corn Cakes. The Peanut Butter & Jelly Cups, inside a delicious dark chocolate shell, were the perfect dessert.

A bar featured Colorado cocktails, wine and spirits. While Sam did try (and like) Mama’s Little Yella Pils, I couldn’t get past the incredible featured cocktail, The White Peach Sgroppino, a unbelievable concoction created by mixologists Toby Cecchini (who was there to serve it).  It’s created with fresh, homemade peach sorbet, prosecco and peach vodka, topped with fresh peaches. Considering I am a big fan of the Bellini and this is even better.

After my preview of Colorado food and spirits, I am especially excited about my trip there at the end of the month. In the meantime, I’m off for a Midwest girls' getaway through Indianapolis, Cedar Falls Ohio and Chicago. Stay tuned for some great stories from the road…

Photos by Samantha Frost

Thursday, September 15, 2011

“Living Loaded”: The Wine and Spirits Travel Adventures of Dan Dunn

I write about wine and spirits travels around the world, but none of my adventures can quite compare with those of Dan Dunn. After all, how do you compare anything to the life of a wine and spirits writer who works for Playboy?

Living Loadedis the true story (with a few exaggerations thrown in there) of Dan Dunn, a liquor and wine writer whose main outlet is Playboy Magazine. Dan spends more than half his life traveling around the world. His dysfunctional upbringing in Philadelphia and inability to commit to a long term relationship fuels his need for heavy duty sex, drugs and booze. And these vices fit nicely in his profession. It is a battle he often discusses with himself, though not in the same way his mentally disabled mother does.

My life lends itself to more time for writing books than reading them, but this one had me engaged from beginning to end. There was times when I shook my head in disbelief and others when I smiled because I totally got it, but most of all, I spent a descent amount of time laughing out loud.

Beyond the fact that Dan is in the same professional as I am (well, sort of, my adventures are much more PG rated), there’s another reason I was anxious to read this book.  I was actually on a spirited adventure with Dan Dunn when he was starting writing Living Loaded. No, it wasn’t the kind of adventure depicted in this book, it was a Cognac trip with DISCUS (left). It was my first trip in this field, and I was thrown into the fire with some heavyweight booze writers. Dan was one of the writers that made me feel like I somewhat knew what I was doing (he also gladly finished any cognac samples I didn’t want).

Anyone reading Dan’s exploits in Living Loaded might think of him as a jerk (sorry, Dan, but keep reading…), but the ironic thing is je anything but that. He is actually a rare gentleman that will hold the door open for you (and not open the only door between your bedrooms). So, before you sit down with Living Loaded – and you should – keep that in mind. 

It all comes down to a conversation with his editor, one all of us in the business have had with a friend, family member or someone we were working for…

Editor: “Traveling the world, drinking and eating, having to type all those big words with your tender little fingers;. I’m sure it’s simply devastating.”
Dan Dunn: “It’s a grind, is all I’m saying. Being on the road all the time, the booze, the jetlag. Deadline pressure. And the pay isn’t want it used to be. It takes its toll.”

It does. And the only way to truly understand this is to get a copy of Living Loaded from Amazon and check out Dan Dunn’s Imbiber column.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

The Day Travel – and Life – Changed

It’s hard to believe 10 years have passed since that horrible day. I was living on Long Island at that time in an area deeply touched by the effects of September 11, 2001. Many of my neighbors worked in Manhattan, some in and around the World Trade Center. I spent the day with one close friend whose husband worked in Tower Two. We waited for hours to hear from him and, though he did make it back unharmed, many in his office did not.

In addition to the people I knew who worked at the World Trade Center, there many New York City Firefighters who live on Long Island. I knew some of those who went into the building burning, collapsing building to help survivors, and search for others. There was one husband and wife who both worked at Ground Zero, not able to let their five children know where they were.

At the same time I worried about the adults I knew stuck in New York City, there were school children – one of which was mine – sitting in classrooms down the block. They didn’t know if their parents were alive (some were not) and what was happening to anyone outside of the school walls. Dismissal was early that day and cell phones would be allowed in the school after that, as students missed those final phone calls from their parents.

For many days, Long Island was isolated, as the bridges and tunnels were closed. The newscasts went on and on, showing the planes crash over and over. It got to the point where I was ashamed of being a journalist as there is a fine line between news and exploitation. No one was happier than me when the Mets started playing, the sitcoms were once again broadcast and we all did our best not to spend every moment thinking about what happened.

I saw the changes in the world almost immediately as I began to travel. Airport security took on a new meaning. First, my laptop came out and I could no longer carry water. Then soon the shoes came off and the scanners appeared. Travel – and life – changed completely.

As the days and years went on, I did my best to remember those lost and those who served us, but I hated the thought of this 10 year anniversary celebration.  Life has forever changed for all of us and while I still feel that ratings was the biggest motivation this week when playing 9/11 tributes, I did (tearfully) watch some of the speeches at the memorial and realized how many needed this. 

I don’t know that I will be able to bring myself to go down to the 911 Memorial, but I’m glad it’s there. What I do know, beyond all, that we have all learned how precious life is and how important it is to enjoy each day we can with our loved ones.

Aerial photo of 911 Memorial as of August, 2011 by Joe Woolhead, courtesy of 911Memorial Photos were not released to the press after so the families would be the first to see it.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Tasting the Southwest Wine Region of France

I’ve been lucky enough to make it to the wine regions of France at least once a year. Each year it gets more difficult to choose where I am going. Sometimes, it’s all about timing. That was the case this year when I made the decision not to go to Southwest France. Fortunately, with the help of some of the wineries there and a few of my friends, I was able to taste through the area without leaving my dining room.

This wine region is an area that doesn’t get a lot of notice. The area around Toulouse is in the Midi-Pyrénées region, the center of the southern section of France. It soil benefits from the climate of being directly between both the Mediterranean and Atlantic Oceans. It is also near to the border of Spain.

The wines we tasted were chosen for fall enjoyment and as good choices for Thanksgiving from Domaine Duffour, Domaine du Moulin, Chateau d’Aydie, Chateau Le Roc, Tarani ad Saint-Mont. I will leave the full point system to Wine Spectactor, but I brought in some of my wine-loving friends and asked everyone to give the wine a score up to five. I’ve included the average score from the seven of us (AVG) and my personal score (MF). All of these wines are available in the United States and are priced under $20.

2010 Domaine Duffor Blanc Sec
Michel Duffour has been producing wines since the early 1980s in Lagraulet. This is a dry white made from grapes you don’t see often – 80% Colombard and 20% Ugni Boanc and Gros Manseng. While it is definitely a dry wine, it’s full of tropical flavors and a strong green apple, so it’ very different. AVG: 3.8; MF: 3.5

2007 Domaine du Moulin Blanc Sec
The Domain Moulin vineyards are located on two banks of Tarn, which is around the city of Gailac. This dry white wine is almost all Sauvignon, with 5% Loin de l’oeil. Both grapes come from vines that are more than 30 years old. It is very chardonnay-like, with lots of spice, yet buttery from eight months in new barrels. The creamy texture will stay with you. AVG: 3.7; MF: 4

2008 Chateau d’Aydie Madiran
Chateau d’Aydie grows Tannat on old vines in clay gravel filled soil. This has a fruity nose, but on the palate it’s very flavorful, full of both fruit and spice. Despite 18 months of oaking, this wine is not overly dry and is very drinkable as is, though the vineyard says it can be cellared for up to 10 years. AVG: 4.6; MF: 4.5

2008 Chateau Le Roc Le Classique
The Ribes family has been growing Negrette, Cabernet and Syrah for nearly 30 years just outside of Toulouse. All three grapes are blended (70% Negrette, 20% Syrah and 10% Cabernet Sauvignon) in this wine, which was aged in a tank for 15 months before it was bottled. The nose is cherry, like cabernet, but the flavor is much more complex, fruit forward and a little spicy. Le Classique is a bit drier than the Madiran. AVG: 4.25; MF: 3.8

2009 Tarani Malbec
Tarani has a long history of making wine in this part of France. This particular vintage is 100% Malbec and is made with malolactic fermentation. It’s also matured with wood chips for two months after a flash vacuum expansion instainless. It has a great nose with a taste to match – smooth with hints of raspberry. It’s just the way a Malbec should be, slightly sweet with a light spice on the finish. AG: 3.7; MF: 4.5

2009 Saint-Mont Beret Noir
Saint-Mont vineyards produces their grapes close to the ocean in clay-like soil around the Adour Hill. The term ‘beret noir” is distinct to this region. This blend is 70% Tannat, 15% Pinenc, 15% Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon. This wine is semi-dry with a nose and palate of sweet, red fruit. It’s full-bodied and well-balanced. AVG: 4.5; MF: 4.5

The next time I have a selection of wine from the southwest of France in front of me I hope I will actually be there. In the meantime, I’m getting ready for a fall full of wine and spirits adventures.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

25 Degrees Arrives in Chicago

No, winter hasn't come early. In fact it's nearly 100 degrees in Central Illinois right now. 25 Degrees refers to a brand new burger lounge in downtown Chicago that's filled with mouth-watering food and plenty of wine and spirits.

The Chicago restaurant was opened by  Joe and Mac Boumaroun, brothers who had previously owned the Lebanese restaurant  Aladdin's Eatery in Chicago. They were intrigued by the concept of an upscale burger place and this particular chain had taken off on the west coast. They are putting it all together with acclaimed chef Tim Goodell, who has added a few things to the menu (like the Potato & Three Cheese Fritters) that are unique to this location. The official opening was just last week and it looks like a place the windy city will see around for a long time.

The 25 Degrees is the difference between a medium-rare burger and one that is well-done. The latter is my preference and the Wisconsin sirloin was cooked to perfection, juicy without any red. I topped it with roasted tomato, avocado and a Winelaise, an aged cheddar-blue cheese combo that completed the taste. It was a perfect choice, but the key here is that each person gets to make their own perfect choice with 15 different toppings, 15 unique cheeses and 15 different sauces.

While i waited for my personally designed burger, I had an incredible salad of heirloom tomatoes, goat cheese and watermelon in Parmesan truffle oil. I also tasted some of the French fries, onion rings and sweet potato fries with three of the sauces -- Garlic Parmesan, Tarragon Remoulade and Pesto. They were all tasty, but my favorite combo was the Sweet Potato Fries with the Tarragon.

I couldn't even come close to finishing the monster burger (which is priced only around $10 to start) and brought it home along with the fries for two more lunches.  I also took an (unspiked) Double Chocolate Milkshake for the road, which satisfied my cocoa craving for the week!

If you aren't in the mood for burgers, 25 Degrees also has small plates with items like Spicy Tuna, Bacon Wrapped Figs, Hot Dogs and more.  It's also worth a trip for drinks in their comfy booths. It's quite a selection, with about 20 unusual wines by the glass (or jug), hand crafted cocktails and spiked milk shakes. I had to drive over two hours home or I would have been tempted to try one, like their Guiness Shake with Vanilla Haagen Das and Chocolate Sauce.

You can find 25 Degrees, which also serves brunch in front of their large TVs, at North Clark Street. visit their website or Facebook page for more information.