Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Welcome to St Maarten, or is it Saint Martin?

It has been many years since I stepped foot on the island of St. Martin (the common spelling I will be using to keep things simple). I spent the day here while on a cruise around the Caribbean. I vividly remember it being my favorite island on the trip.

From the colorful cobblestone streets on the Dutch side (St. Maarten) to the unique European-style buildings on the French half (Saint Martin), I had been impressed with the beauty of the towns and the beaches.  I remember strolling the streets and doing some jewelry shopping, as well as relaxing on the soft sand with a cool drink.

A lot can change in twenty plus years and I was prepared for that when I decided to take this trip with the tourism board on the Dutch side.  I actually hadn’t done any Caribbean trips since Punta Cana in 2010 and it seemed like the perfect island with lots of restaurants and home grown spirits.

It had been a long day of three flights and I was ready to get to the hotel, where Trish, our escort from KTC Public Relations, and my fellow journalists had already started dinner.  As my driver took me in the van up the winding road to the Westin Dawn Beach St. Maarten, I noticed the change in the island since my last visit. Despite the downfall in the economy, it had submerged full of cars

It seemed as if everyone on the island and visiting the island now had a vehicle and the roads almost looked city like. On the other hand, there were positive signs from this transformation. New restaurants, shopping areas and hotels were everywhere, giving the island more variety for its visitors. While there was a small part of me that wanted to see the old St. Martin, I knew this one would be a lot more interesting.  

The only hotel I was interested in at the end of this long day was the one I was staying in.  The the Westin is basically on top of a hill, yet it boasts a spectacular beach.  When we arrived I was anxious to go straight to the Ocean restaurant.

Everyone had already finished eating by the time I arrived. It was quite late and I understood that they were anxious to retire. Tricia stayed with me while I ordered a light meal of a goat cheese and tomato salad. I also had my first taste of guavaberry in a Guavaberry Colada.  It was the spirit of the island and I was sure I would be tasting a lot more of it.

I was able to see that the Westin hotel (complete with a casino in the lobby) was very large and I was more than satisfied with my room -- and the view.  It was the bed, however, I was really anxious to hit. I was ready to recover from the day of travel and get ready for my first chance to explore St. Martin in nearly three decades. 

Friday, January 27, 2012

A Day Filled with Columbus Food and Spirits

After my morning tasting and exploring the North Market, I met Amy Weirick, who works with Experience Columbus. She put together a full day and it started at The Candle Lab in the city’s Short North section. We had time to mix our favorite fragrances into a candle (I choose hot chocolate and marshmallow), and do a little downtown shopping before heading off to lunch.

We ate in the German Village, one of the many diverse neighborhoods in this Ohio city. Among the Cobblestone streets and brick houses was Lindey’s, a popular restaurant that was filled to the brim on this weekday. Amy ordered the Tuna Tartar, a favorite of hers, and I enjoyed a Spinach Quiche, that was very good with a hint of bacon.

We stayed in the area a bit longer to head over to Pistacia Vera, which means true pistachio in Latin. You will find some pistachio items here, but the focus is all French. Like my favorite stops in Paris, there are macaroons that melt in your mouth, airy croissants and a selection of tasty treats. (In a tribute to the neighborhood, they even have a German Chocolate Cake.)

Anne Fletcher, who owns the dessert boutique with baker husband Spencer, took us through the kitchen, where the smells of sweets permeated the air and we saw the fine ingredients from around the world.

I will definitely have to make a trip back there someday to also sample their brunch treats, such as Baked Eggs with cream and Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese in a tomato fondue.

We left the Columbus food scene for a while to tour some of the top spirits made in city, beginning with Watershed Distillery. Greg Lehman, who started the distillery with partner   Dave Rigo in 2010, took me through what goes into their vodka and gin.

As a gin drinker, I’m very familiar with the benefit of herbs in spirits, but the attention to that detail is one of the things that makes the Watershed Gin so good. It includes juniper, cinnamon, allspice, citrus peels, lemon, lime, orange and coriander, and all of those herbs are front and center for you to see before you taste.

The Watershed Vodka is made from only corn and distilled four times to 80 proof. I found it to be smooth and sweet, and I loved the unusual profile. I also love how they have utilized this space to delicately produce these spirits in small batches, keeping tight control on the quality.

The next stop was Middle West Spirits, where Ryan Lang was ready to tell us all about his spirits and how they built this fairly large facility “for production and to educate people.” Tours are encouraged as much as the tastings because the process is an important part of the Middle West products made by Ryan and partner Brady Konya.
A lot of detail goes into the making of the Oyo spirits with top-notch equipment, local ingredients, and lots of direction by this micro distillery’s owners. The Oyo Vodka is unfiltered and goes through 34 distillations.

The Honey Vanilla Bean is very light, with an opening mouthful of wildflower and a vanilla finish. While you don’t really taste the honey, Ryan says that’s what brings out the floral notes.

The can’t miss spirit here is the Oyo Stone Fruit Vodka, a start of cherries and apricot which bursts into just about every fruit you’ve ever tasted, and ends with a bit of a nutty flavor. The Whiskey is made from red winter wheat and is full of caramel and vanilla, without tasting as potent as its 80 proof.

Our final spirits stop was very different than the previous two. Brother’s Drake Meadery is more of a bar than a distillery with a tasting room, but it actually serves all those purposes. Mead is made from honey and is referred to as more wine than spirit.  Since 2007, the brothers Drake have used hundreds of different honeys and local ingredients to put together a collection of meads that is rather impressive.

While I’m not usually a big fan of mead, I did find a few that I really enjoyed. The Bergamot Blue is blueberry and takes advantage of the fruit’s slightly tart flavor to keep the sweetness down. The Apple Pie is very cider-like and quite good. The Pillow Talk uses lavender for an interesting flavor that is rather smooth and not very sweet.

From the meadery we went to the eatery, and one of the most well-known in Columbus, Ohio. I had heard nothing but praise for Basi Italia and I couldn’t wait to taste the creations of Chef John Dornback. We got to hear all about the ingredients (and love) found in these walls by the chef’s wife and co-partner, Trish, who joined us for dinner.

Trish and John had met in Cleveland and were married in 2002. A year later they began Basi Italia and the raves just kept coming. I was impressed from the start with the Gorgonzola/Parmesan Biscotti. We then nibbled on a scrumptious Duck Flatbread with caramelized fig-onion jam, fresh spinach and fontina cheese, as well as a yummy Zucchini Pronto, with toasted almonds and pecorino cheese.

A La Massa Sangiovese was perfect to get me in the Italiano mood, and the Fennel & Root Vegetable Cream Soup was excellent. Everyone's food looked delicious, but I had no problem with what I ordered.

My main course of Sweet Potato Gnocchi with roasted mushrooms and arugula in pesto was a great mix of flavors and I barely had room for the chocolate filled dessert (but I was really glad I squeezed in a taste).

The dinner was my final experience in Columbus – at least for this trip. I was happily surprised to find out about all the interesting food and drinks this city has added in the years since I had been there. I’m sure it won’t be another four years until I go back.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Fergie Partners with Voli

Voli has been an advertiser of Wine And Spirits Travel ever since I met CEO  Adam Kamenstein and  discovered his delicious vodkas at the Food Network's South Beach Wine & Food Festival in 2010. The Vanilla Espresso is my absolute favorite, but I'm always ready to sip on any of these low calorie, electrolyte-induced vodkas, which include Raspberry Cocoa, Orange Vanilla and Lemon.

I am far from alone in touting the taste of Voli as the brand has become rather popular and has picked up some rather high profile fans. First, Pitbull became a partner in Voli and now  six-time Grammy winner Fergie is the latest part owner of the brand. 

"I'm excited about my new partnership with Voli Light Vodka, a company that understands the modern girl on the go,” said Fergie. “A fit and active lifestyle can now happily co-exist with a sexy night on the town with your girlfriends or your man."

The wheat-based low calorie vodkas of Voli made in Cognac, France, are now available throughout the U.S., Asia and Latin America, with expansion expected in 2012. For more information, visit their website.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

First Tastes of Columbus

It had been a few years since I spent any time in Columbus, Ohio. I had come each November to cover a tennis tournament every year, but never got to spend much time downtown. Since then, I had heard the city had welcomed a new food and drink scene and I was anxious to check it out.

After I left Rockmill Brewery, I went straight to the Hampton Inn and Suites Downtown to check in. I was met there by Scott Peacock, Public Relations Manager for Experience Columbus.  Scott took me to M at Miranova, one of Cameron Mitchell’s restaurants, which is known for its drinks as much as its food.

We started the evening at the bar trying out some of those famous cocktails made by Cris Dehlavi, a mixologist extraordinaire who has brought her award winning skills to this restaurant for nearly a decade. Scott and I were joined by another local celebrity, Angela An. The local morning news anchor has an interest in food and drinks that brought her and her husband to develop Food Hop, a series of culinary and beverage tours.

Cris did not let us down when it came to mixing it up behind the bar. Her creations were both tasty and beautiful and included Black Orchid, with Belvedere Black Raspberry, St. Germain Elderflower, white cranberry and lemon juice, served over a frozen black orchid.

There was also Marquee, with Belvedere Cytrus, Cointreau Noir, agave nectar, blood orange puree and lemon juice, and a citrus-free creation made just for me with hibisucus syrup, Plymouth Gin, ginger liqueur and Veuve Clicquot Champagne (so many of my favorite liquids!).

We talked about the big foodie movement in Columbus and how the distilleries have joined in as we sampled a few of the appetizers at M. Scott and Angela raved about the Butter Poached King Crab while I relished the Kobe Beef Mini Burgers with Monterey jack cheese, caramelized onions and sea salt fries. It was the first meat I had in weeks and I was starting to appreciate it even more know that I was eating mostly vegetarian.

Angela had to get home (morning anchors have early morning wake-ups) and Scott and I continued to talk about all there was to do, see and eat in Columbus, where Cameron Mitchell is just one of the restaurateurs bringing in interesting eateries. For dinner we shared the Beer Short Ribs with glazed carrots and celery root puree, and the Veal Mignon, a braised veal cheek with an asiago crepe and shitake mushroom sauce. Both were great, but the Macaroni & Cheese with Tillamook cheddar and black truffles was phenomenal.

The dessert menu looked as good as the main one and it took a while before we narrowed it down to the Root Beer Float with warm chocolate chip cookies, root beer granite and chocolate syrup, and the Apple Pie, with warm apples, almond crumble, Apple Jack ice cream and cider caramel. They were perfect choices and we were both stuffed when we left.

Scott dropped me off at the hotel and I got a good night’s sleep. After the wonderful meal the night before I was in no rush for breakfast and took my time walking over to the North Market, located just behind to Hampton Inn in the Short North area. I was quite impressed with the selection of cheese, meats, fish, poultry, chocolates, breads, kitchen items and more. I learned a bit about the evolution of markets throughout Columbus in the early 20th century, leading to this one now.

I wandered for a while, trying to decide what to try. The scent of waffles at Taste of Belgium beckoned me and I watched them turn one of the balls of dough into a delectable treat. Then there was Jeni’s Splendid Ice Cream, where treats like Goat Cheese with Cognac Figs have garnered them a reputation even out of the Midwest.   Before I left I also tasted one of the Bavarian pretzels at Brezel, and picked up a loaf of Sourdough bread (my daughter’s favorite) to .bring to New York with me from Omega Artisan Baking

In addition to everything you find in the 35 stalls, there is a Farmer’s Market here outside in the spring and cooking classes upstairs. The Columbus Dispatch also films a weekly segment from here.

I had to leave North Market because I had a full day ahead of me with lots of eating and drinking. I was excited to be visiting some of Columbus’ distilleries, but first I was heading over to meet my organizer for this trip, Amy Weirick, to make some candles. 

Friday, January 13, 2012

Enjoying My First Beer at Rockmill Brewery

In the fall, I had a great trip to the Inn at Cedar Falls in Hocking Hills, Ohio.  During that trip I met Matthew Barbee of Rockmill Brewery. He came to the inn’s restaurant to have dinner with my friend Lisa and me, and to introduce us to his beer. Lisa loved it, but I didn’t drink any. The fact is, I hadn’t had any beer in about 30 years. I had wiped the beverage from my vocabulary after a bad experience.

While Matt understood about the fact that I wouldn’t drink beer, I began to question my position. Honestly, I had never thought much about it before. After all, it’s not like there aren’t thousands of types of wines and spirits  for me to drink. But as I listened to him describe his beer, everything that goes into the small batches and how he pairs it with food and cheese, I thought that maybe I should reconsider.

This may seem like a trivial revelation to most, but it wasn’t to me. I had been the only breathing sole at the Great American Beer Festival who had not taken a sip of brew. I had frequented my friend Michael Altman’s Iron Springs Pub without ever indulging. I’m always up to going to Destihl for the Batter Dipped Asparagus or Stuffed Poblano, but have not once sampled their beer This was different, though. These were beers in wine bottles, with champagne corks, poured into wine glasses and served with food, cheese and chocolate that complimented their taste.

My mind was made up. I was going to drink beer. My first beer would have to be an experience to remember. I consider hypnosis for a while, but then decided I would just let the brewmaster do what he does best, put together a tasting for me that would remind me of the wine I love, not the beer I hadn’t yet.

It had taken three months since I was first introduced to Rockmill beer for me to sit down to my tasting. Working out a schedule had not been easy. I had to admit I was really nervous about the beer tasting, but Matt Barbee was ready to prove that I could not only drink, but I could enjoy beer -- at least his.

I went to Rockmill Farm, which is also owned by Matt’s mother Judy and stepfather Dennis. The table was beautifully set with the wine glasses, a cheese platter, fresh bread and olive oil and chocolate. There was music in the background and the modernized country-quaint house on the Rockmill Farm alone was enough to relax me.

The cheese was from Katzinger’s Deli in Columbus and had been selected with the same attention detail that the hops from Germany are chosen for the Rockmill beer.  We started with the Whitbier and a sheep’s milk cheese. Matt said it was the lightest. I twirled the glass as I did wine, sniffing it and sipping it slowly.  I could taste the coriander and orange peel as he described it.

We stopped drinking for a bit and talked about the Dubbel and Tripel, and how the Trappist Monks in France used to make the beers and then take the spent grains and feed them to the cows, who would produce the best cheese.  We sipped and nibbled and had a bit of the bread with the olive oil before we got to the Saison.

Saison is a more rustic beer, the typical farmhouse ale, a distinction that Rockmill is built on. We had it with a bit of the most incredible cheese in the world, an Italian cow’s milk creation that is sprinkled with truffles and called Sottocenere.  The beer just blended in my mouth with each scrumptious bite, a perfect pairing as it brought out the pumpkin spices of the beer.

Matt, who has always been a foodie and worked in Chicago restaurants honing sommelier skills, told me about the next pairing he had chosen, Adrahan, to go with the Dubbel. It is a cow’s milk cheese and a bit salty, naturally occurring from the location it is made from, near the salt and air of the ocean.  It went down well with the Dubbel, a bit more bitter than the other I had tasted. We then had a bit of the chocolate, which had a little salt and just a touch of bacon.

Our final beer was the Tripel, a dark beer with a significant hop profile that is bolder with toasted malt, citrus and a bit of apricot.  We had a bit of Australian blue cheese before I got to sample some of the Cask Aged Tripel, which had sold out in a few days the last time it was bottled.  It was a bit whisky like and picked up some of the butter of the oak it sat in for about two months.

We got up from the table and I proposed a short hike through the property, which I had become enthralled with after seeing this video.  Before we walked over the footbridge and watched the end of the Hocking River (which produces the beer as it has a similar profile to the water in Wallonia, Belgium), went past the lake and the scenic rolling hills, and went through the horse stable that is now the brewery itself, Matt turned to me and asked if I’d like to take a glass of beer with me.  I said, “Thank you, I’d really love to have a glass of the Saison.” It was my first beer and certainly not my last. 

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Michelin Star Dining and Radisson Blu Exploring

My stay at the brand new Radisson Blu Aqua in Chicago continued with a full tour of the property and a chance to experience two Michelin Star restaurants in one day.

The day started with a healthy fruit-filled breakfast in the Radisson Blu business center. The behind the scenes tour took us everywhere through this building, designed by Jim Hamilton down to the long, single piece fireplace and carpet that represents and aerial view of Chicago and sits in the lobby.

While the whole place is modern, warm and attractive, I was most impressed with the fitness facility. I have never seen anything like it at a hotel – 8,000 square feet of the latest exercise equipment; indoor and outdoor swimming pools; a spa area; an outdoor running track; and a basketball court. It fits in perfectly with the Magellan Complex neighborhood (also referred to as Lakeshore East), where a six acre park provides plenty of open space for walking.

Meghan Risch of the Chicago Convention & Tourism Bureau came by again to give us another presentation on Chicago. Even though I’ve been living in Illinois for three years now, I don’t get into Chicago often (or stay long enough) so I really appreciate the information.  I didn’t know, for example, that you can explore the cities attractions either free or cheaply by bus, trolley or water taxi. Or, that there are more James Beard winners at restaurants in Chicago than any other city in the country.

It was a short while later that we were at the restaurant of one of those, Naha. Carrie Nahabedian is the award-winning chef at this restaurant and she has been a pioneer in the female chef movement in Chicago. Together with her cousin Michael Nahabedian she runs this Mediterranean influenced eatery, which holds a Michelin Star and focuses on the contemporary. The duo also prides themselves on working with many local farmers to bring sustainable ingredients in season.

The wine selection at Naha is also unusual and I loved the Moschofilers, a Greek grape that is full of citrus, especially grapefruit. I started with a wonderful soup of Long Island Cheesecake Squash with crisp parsnip, mascarpone cheese and crushed pistachios. It was a good combination of slightly sweet and a bit salty.

Many in our group ordered the signature Naha BLT with homemade thick bacon. I chose the Braised Pork Shank after being fascinated by its description – off the bone with 3 Sisters Garden white corn polenta and Roasted Brussel sprouts with golden chanterelles. It was as flavorful as it sounds and I was quite satisfied with my choice.

The desserts were just as interesting, though I have to say I liked my choice the least (fortunately, we had a group the liked to pass things around for all to taste). It was a Bittersweet Chocolate Pave with a milk chocolate beignet and chocolate cream pinot noir ice cream and shaved French Autumn Perignord Truffles. It was really excellent, except for the truffles, which I happily enjoy in everything – except ice cream.

We had some free time to explore the hotel (which has a must-see art gallery) before we headed off to dinner at Sepia, which like Naha had received a renewal of their Michelin Star for 2011. We started off with cocktails and I was very pleased with the Sepia Mule, ginger infused Moon Mountain Organic Vodka with ginger beer.

Our menu had been chosen for us, starting with a flavorful salad of salt roasted pear, hazelnuts, Tilston Point blue cheese and baby arugula in a white balsamic dressing. There were two choices for dinner. The first was a Pan Roasted Cod with butternut squash caponata and sage-walnut pesto which I was told was quite good. I had the Ale Braised Short Ribs with red cabbage and spaetzle in a mustard crème fraiche. The sauce was a bit rich, but I enjoyed the way the ale in the short ribs balanced the red cabbage and the spaetzle was cooked perfectly.

A 2009 Diez-Caballero Tempranillo from Rioja was a bit buttery like chardonnay, but not suffering from a severe oaking. For dessert, a Malted Milk Chocolate Mousse on Peanut Butter Crunch satisfied everyone’s sweet tooth.

Before our Chicago trip officially ended, we went to Blue Chicago for some wonderful live blues and I realized just how much more Chicago nightlife I needed to check out. Maybe on the next trip…

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Meeting Radisson Blu, Belugas and Boats in Chicago

The first Radisson Blu in North America came to Chicago recently and I was invited to check it out with a group of fellow journalists. While I always enjoy visiting a new hotel, I was just as excited about the opportunity to play tourist in Chicago as I am still discovering the city.

My room was modern and, yes, blue. I had arrived late at night and didn’t really have time for dinner, so I was ready for a big breakfast. The room service spread certainly fit the bill, supplying a fresh selection that was more than I could finish.

I had a bit of time to relax and digest before the official luncheon when we were introduced to the Radisson executive team, as well as Meghan Risch of the Chicago Convention & Tourism Bureau. We learned about the hotel brands of Carlson --  Hotel Missoni, Radisson Blu, Radisson, Park Plaza, Park Inn and Country Inn – while sipping champagne in the very comfortable viewing room of the new hotel.

The afternoon was filled with fun activities and we started at the Shedd Aquarium. We were given the option of working with the belugas or the penguins and I was excited about getting in the water with the whales. After we had our own training session, we got into our waders (basically a thick wetsuit with boots attached) and climbed into the 55 degree water.

There are six beluga whales in residence at the Shedd Aquarium and they all take part in these training sessions, which are available to the general public. My small group worked with Bella and Mauyak, both of which were friendly and very patient with us as we went through the training motions with them. It was an incredible experience that I’d love to repeat someday.

From the aquarium we headed down to the river for the Chicago Architecture Foundation Boat Tour. The unusually warm weather was welcome as the boat took us through the history and beauty of Chicago’s architecture. I had heard a lot about this tour and frankly hadn’t put it at the top of my “must do” list, but once on it my attitude changed. The combination of learning about the city through its buildings and appreciating the architectural wonders that only this city appears to have is something all visitors should experience.

Our day finished back at the Radisson Blu. We first enjoyed some wine at the Filini Bar, which has a nice selection of both wine and cocktails. We then went upstairs for dinner at this modern Italian restaurant, headed by Chef Christian Fantoni, formerly of the Windy City’s Bice).

The meal started with Zuppa Di Pomodoro, a tasty Tomato soup with parmesan cheese and roasted peppers. The appetizer was a combo of two amazing dishes: Aquarello carnaroli, porcini mushroom and parsley Risotto; and Butter Nut Squash Ravioli, with sage, amaretti and parmigiano.

While most of the other guests in our group feasted on a Char-grilled Tuna and Olive Oil Poached Halibut, I got my own fish-free dish of Eggplant Parmesan. It’s one of my favorite dishes and Chef Fantoni’s version lived up to some of the best, managing to remain light without tasting too fried, breaded or heavily loaded with cheese.

For dessert, we were brought an assortment of Italian style sweets: Filini Tiramisu; Cioccolatissimo; and Biscotti. We sampled small bites as we were all pretty full.

The night ended after dinner for us as we got ready for a second day of discovering the Radisson Blu and Chicago.