Wednesday, February 29, 2012

The Latest Food and Spirits Tasting in Chicago

It was time for me to check out some more of Chicago and I planned a great two day jaunt through some restaurants, a distillery, a grand opening, and one of my favorite hotels.

Lisa and I made the two hour drive to downtown Chicago and our first stop, BLT American Brasserie. I  was instantly impressed with the combination of modern elegance in a very welcoming atmosphere. We got comfortable with some Infamous Goose Sauvignon Blanc and tried to narrow down the menu choices.

The restaurant is the first Chicago brainchild of Executive Chef Laurent Tourondel. The menu is creative, offering interesting touches without going to the wild side. It seemed as if we sampled it all, starting with the flavorful Spinach & Mushroom Dip. As good as it was, it couldn’t possibly top what came next.

Chef de cuisine Aksel Thielkuhl worked a week to perfect the Apple Soup and it was well worth it. It came with a “snow” shred of foie gras and shavings of roasted chestnut. We also tasted one of their wonderful Pizzetas, worth a trip on their own.

Lisa was my seafood taster and she said the Ceviche was the best she ever had, with large chunks of seafood and a nice cilantro sauce. She also raved about the Lump Crabmeat, fresh and served with both Dijionaise and cocktail sauce. She had a tender and tasty cod fish as her entrée.

For a main course I had the Veal & Pork Ricotta Meatballs. They were cheesy and not to heavy, served with a perfectly prepared polenta. We had a side of the Braised Brussels Sprouts, with a bit of pancetta for extra taste.

Of course, we found room for dessert, but first it was coffee, which is always served with dark chocolate and caramel popcorn (yum!). Then we managed to take a few bites of the Passion Fruit Crepes and Banana Pudding before getting our stuffed selves to the car.

I have been to quite a few hotels in Chicago (and still have many more to go), but one of my absolute favorites remains the Palmer House Hilton. There doesn’t seem to be anything that comes close to the history of this magnificent hotel and they always welcome me, this time with a corner suite that was just a bit bigger than my apartment! It also came with excess to their very large and well-appointed executive lounge.

After a good night’s sleep, I met for breakfast with the always gracious and entertaining Ken Price, who I can listen to for hours. He is now giving historical tours at the Palmer House that are both whimsical and educational (often including a stop for some wine). I strongly recommend you do one next time you are in Chicago.

Our first stop of the day was at Cantina Laredo, a cozy Mexican restaurant with a contemporary flare. I loved their cocktail menu with tequila flights, but since we still had a distillery to visit so I decided to take it easy with a delicious Pomegranate Margarita. With it we had incredible homemade guacamole, before an equally delicious Tamale de Barbacoa, a homemade tamale filled with slow-roasted brisket, artichokes, spinach, red pepper and cheese.

Lisa also liked the Enchilada Veracruz, which was surprisingly light. We shared two desserts – a Mango Cake and a Brownie in Brandy Sauce, with Butterscotch which was heavenly. Then it was off to Koval Distillery, located right in the city of Chicago.

I had tasted some of the Koval liqueurs previously, but they have certainly increased their product line. There is now 10 different whiskeys with different mash profiles (they use rye, wheat, oat, millet and spelt). Meghan took us through the five single grain whiskeys, as well as their aged counterparts under the Lion’s Pride Label. I was surprised to find that it was the spelt I liked best. It has the characteristics of corn in whiskey, with a bit of sweetness, though I was told the Dark Rye and Dark Oat are the best sellers.

Do not miss the liqueurs here. They are all great plain or mixed in cocktails. The Ginger and Jasmine were my favorites, while Lisa favored the Orange Blossom. The brand new Walnut was quite good too, though I tasted more anise that nut.

Koval Distillery is family owned by a husband and wife, Robert and Sonat Birnecker. In addition to making the products, Robert works with other distillers to teach them about the craft. Tours, tastings and sales are all available at the distillery.

In the evening, we went to one of the grandest openings I have ever seen (and probably ever will). I was at the Radisson Blu Aqua when it first opened. It was quite a beautiful hotel with all the amenities and a great location. For the grand opening party, they went all out with fantastic entertainment, cocktails and unbelievable food offerings. 

The place had the feel of Cirque de Soleil, with performers on platforms and a band in the background. Our first stop was at the Hangar Vodka station. We were handed gloves and then sipped the spirit out of ice cups! I then switched to the tasty blueberry mojitos and watched down some of the lamb, duck and pork from the carving stations, while Lisa was in heaven with the magnificent seafood and sushi set-ups.

The desserts, which included French macaroons and berries in Grand Marnier cream, were equally wonderful. It all reminded me how great the food had been when I visited the Radisson Blu Aqua and ate at their Filini restaurant.

We ended the night back at the Palmer House Hilton, with a toast to another great trip to Chicago.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Finishing St. Martin On Air and On the Beach

My last day in St. Martin was filled to the brim, with beach time, great food, and a chance to go on the air.

Fellow American  Jeffrey “Soc” Sochrin heard I was in town and asked if I would come down to his radio station and talk a bit about my trip.  I’ve done a little radio and always enjoyed it so I agreed to do it the morning on the day before I was to leave St. Martin. I also decided that as long as I was heading down to Simpson Bay I would check out some other spots in that area on the Dutch side of the island.

Jeffrey, who has lived in St. Martin for four years, welcomed me to Island 92. We had such a good time talking about my travels and my days covering music that I ended up on the air for nearly an hour. His shows are always entertaining and you can listen (and watch the webcam) on his site even if you aren’t in the Caribbean.  

Before I left we sampled a little Patron XO Café and he told me about his project, Team Golden Dog, which supports animal welfare. It’s a worthy cause worth checking out.

I walked down the block from the radio station to Zee Best, the closest thing you will find to a French café on this side of Paris. Dominic owns three of these bakeries, one of which includes a production plant that makes luscious pastries fresh all day.  The almond cheese croissant was heavenly  and the Montreal native insisted that I take the La Vegetarienne Crepe (spinach, tomatoes, mushrooms and cheese) to go.

From Zee Best, I walked to Toppers Restaurant to meet with the owner himself, Topper Dabeul. Topper had come to St. Martin from Massachusetts, where he had already been in the restaurant business. I needed a bit of time to digest my croissant, so I started off tasting some of his rum.

The Toppers Rhum is flavorful without being overly sweet and comes in some interesting flavors – Banana, Mocha Mamma, Julio Mojito, Apple Pie, Coconut and my favorite, White Chocolate Raspberry. Before I could finish sipping, there was an assortment of good old fashioned comfort food in front of me from the restaurant menu. I hadn’t quite been ready to eat a lot, but I tasted the macaroni & cheese, beef brisket (with homemade mashed potatoes) and Italian meatballs as good as my Aunt Mary used to make.

I took a bus back to the Sonesta and figured I would take advantage of a few free hours on this beautiful island. I walked along the beach for a while, dipping my feet (the water was a bit too rough for swimming) in the clear aqua sea.  As I got closer to the Sunset Grill, the crowd got bigger. It was quite interesting watching people from all over the world speaking different languages, but all waiting for the planes to fly over them.

I headed back to the hotel and spent a bit of time at the swim-up bar where I had a delicious drink that I have to pass along. It’s called a “BBC” and it’s made from Bailey’s Irish Cream, banana liqueur, pina colada mix and amaretto. It’s then blended and poured into a cup laced with chocolate syrup and topped with cinnamon.

Can you think of a better way to top off a week on the beautiful Caribbean island of St. Martin? 

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Relaxing in Maho Beach, St. Martin

It is very rare that I am traveling and have a totally free day. Quite honestly, I woke up totally baffled about what to do. Then I remembered that I was on the Caribbean island of St. Martin and the fact that the internet wasn’t working very well and I had nothing scheduled might not be bad at all.

The weather seemed to be about the same each day of my trip – partly sunny in the 70s with a little bit of rain at some point.  I went to the buffet at the Sonesta St.Maarten Ocean Terrace Restaurant for an egg white omelet filled with veggies, saving my calories for the scrumptious croissants. I then headed out to explore the large property before heading downtown.

The hotel is directly in the center of Maho, a small town filled with stores, restaurants, clubs, a market and even a Häagen-Dazs ice cream shop. I walked around a bit exploring, though nothing really caught my eye worth a stop.  I went back to the Sonesta for lunch at the Palms Grill Restaurant. It’s set outside overlooking the beach. I enjoyed the peaceful setting (and a turkey club sandwich) before hitting a lounge chair for some reading.

I am not very good at sitting still for too long (unless I'm at a computer), so I walked along the beach a bit and enjoyed the sunshine and turquoise water. I spent a little time at the pool and had a drink at the swim-up bar, however, the water was just too cold to swim. (Note to all Caribbean hotels: adding cold water to the pool is great when it's 90, but not so great when it's 75.)  There was only one thing left to do – take advantage of the invitation I received to go to the spa.

The Serenity Spa at the Sonesta Maho is just a few months old so everything is brand new. They carry a number of impressive beauty lines, including Sothy’s Paris nourishing body elixirs and moisturizers. I loved the selection, especially vanilla cinnamon, orange & cedar, cherry blossom. They also have a number of Aromatloria products for scrubs and body polishes that relieve muscle aches and stress.

My stress was non-existent as Spa Manager Jardin told me about the products and treatments here, all to get guests in the vacation mood and keep them in that frame of mind. I was already in the relaxation mood, but it went one step further after a perfect massage from Leo.

I couldn’t believe how late it was when I left the spa. (Where does the day go when you are basically doing nothing?)  I quickly changed for dinner and walked down to The Point, Sonesta Maho's fine dining restaurant.

I was told there was a bit of a wait for the restaurant, so I sat at the bar and enjoyed a glass of wine and the live music that they have at the hotel each evening.  Before I even finished my glass I was shown to my table. I was a bit worried that the menu was too filled with fish for me to find something to eat, but they were very accommodating and started me with an antipasto plate, made without anchovies just for me.

 For a main course, I enjoyed the Gnocchi with a tomato eggplant sauce that was creamy without being too rich.  I had a tasty Banana Flambe (actually mousse-like) for dessert with a latte and decided to head downtown to see what was going on at the clubs. 

It was still a bit early for the clubs to get going so I started at the Casino across the street. I managed to keep $10 going on a slot machine for an hour before heading next door to Cheri’s Café. It was a karaoke night and the crowd was growing, but I was getting a bit bleary eyed and decided it was time to turn in. I had a really big day coming up as I was asked to come down to Island 92 Radio and speak on the air. It was something I was excited about and I was equally anxious to check out the area down at St. Martin’s Simpson Bay.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Leaving the Group for More St. Martin

It was my final day at the Westin St. Maarten and my final day with my fellow journalists, but I still had time left on this beautiful island. I was just leaving Dawn Beach for Maho Beach.

I got up early to pack and I took one final walk along the beach at the Westin before joining my new friends for breakfast. The hotel’s executive chef, Robert Reed, came by to meet us all and we told him how much we had enjoyed our dinner at Aura Restaurant before dispersing to pick up our belongings and get ready to leave.

We all piled into the van for the last time and took the scenic road down the mountain to Maho Beach. It was there we met Marla of the St. Maarten Tourism Board (the Dutch side) at the Sunset Bar & Grill.  This place is party central for St. Martin for a number of reasons. First, it is literally right on a beautiful white sand beach, with aqua water. Second, it is also at the beginning of an airport runway, which means the planes fly directly over your head just before they land!

They have a big menu, but we all decided on pizza. Our selection of pizzas were delicious and we washed them down with some Caribbean style drinks. I started with a Bahama Mama (Bacardi Light Rum, Bacardi Coco Rum, fruit punch and pineapple) and finished with a Pink Paradise (Bacardi Coco, Amaretto, cranberry juice and pineapple juice).  We laughed and enjoyed each other’s company one final time, before they took off for the airport and I headed to the Sonesta Maho Beach Resort.

I was supposed to have a friend with me for the next few days, but it didn’t work out. I was on my own and I settled in my Sunset Suite, which included two balconies, a full kitchen, living room, separate bedroom and large bathroom with a Jacuzzi. It could have used a bit of remodeling, but it was more than spacious for me to enjoy for the rest of my St. Martin stay.

The Sonesta Maho Beach was also going through some management changes and I listened to the General Manager Armando Pizzuti tell me about plans to expand the all-inclusive service to include more activities, room service and restaurant options. The one thing they definitely didn’t need to approve was location. The hotel had this great beach on one side and the nightlife and shopping of Maho on the other.

I explored the grounds a bit, but it had been a long day after an extremely long week. I decided to have dinner at the Ocean Terrace Restaurant, where there was an Italian buffet. I only had a half a glass of wine and a small plate of dinner before finally succumbing to fatigue. I had a full day ahead of me to enjoy Maho Beach and there was no reason to rush to it. 

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Yachts, Fine Dining and a Luxury Farm in St. Martin

I have been discovering that St. Martin has a lot of different faces. I got to see it all, from the budget to the luxurious, as we spent most of the day in Phillipsburg.

The first thing on the agenda was the 12 Meter Challenge. This yacht race had sounded really exciting, but my stomach was still a bit queasy and I was told that once I got on it would be four hours before I could get off. I bid the group goodbye and wished them luck, and decided to spend my free time exploring downtown Phillipsburg.

We had come into Phillipsburg the previous two days, but from the other side where all the stores and buildings were. This time I entered through the boardwalk, which had not yet been built on my last visit to St. Martin. In was an amazing array of market booths, shops and restaurants – all bordering on miles of beautiful beach. 

I picked up a few bargain sundresses and bought a pair of silver earrings for my daughter, Sam.  I also stopped for a while and admired the sea, with some of the bluest water I had ever seen. I was afraid to eat too much, but I found a cute bakery and enjoyed some tea and a croissant. I didn’t realize just how far I had walked until I saw the pier about 10 blocks away. It was a beautiful day and I enjoyed the walk back there where I was to meet the group for lunch at the Greenhouse Restaurant.

Everyone in the group was excited when they met me at the restaurant as they had won the yacht race. I made a mental note that it was definitely something I should do next time I was back here. I was feeling a bit better and enjoyed a grilled chicken sandwich while Marla from the St. Maarten Tourism Board told us about Johnny Cakes, the only food she felt was truly native to the country. We had a hard time figuring out just what it was so the Greenhouse kitchen made some for us. I felt it was a combination of a biscuit and a zeppole (without the sugar) and we all really enjoyed them.

After lunch we took a long ride up to Loterie Farm on the French side. I had no idea what to expect here as I knew they had a bar, restaurant, pool, hiking, ziplining, a bar and a restaurant, yet it was referred to as a “farm.” It turned out the term came from the fact that it used to be a sugar plantation and the current state was much more about luxury.

We wondered through the beautifully landscaped grounds and up into the treehouses that served as lounges and eateries. It was just magnificent and I think we all wished this had been a day long outing. The pool had a lovely stone floor and was surrounded by comfortable lounges and cabanas. It was tough to leave, but we only had enough time to get back to the Westin Dawn Beach St. Maarten and change for our very special final dinner.

The restaurant we went to is Rare and its Chef Dino Jagtiani also has the restaurant Temptation next door. Both have received accolades throughout the Caribbean. Personally, I preferred the menu from Temptation since I can’t eat fish and like to keep my meat consumption down, but we were lucky enough to be able to sample from both menus. 

We started with some appetizers and while they were all good, the standouts were definitely the Warm Goat Cheese Bonbons with red wine, poached pears and pecans, and the Seared Foie Gras with Sauterne, poached with apricots. The Bruschetta sampler is also a treat, with combinations like chickpea-sweet potato and eggplant-Portobello.

I had the Homemade Spinach-Ricotta Ravioli. The ravioli were superb, but the cream sauce was a little heavy. Nothing, though, looked quite as heavy as Tricia’s Shrimp. They arrived hanging rather than on a plate, shocking us all!

Chef Dino visited with us for a while and told us how challenging it is to get fresh produce and herbs on the island compared to fish. He does his best to get good ingredients as locally as possible and it was certainly evident in the side dishes we devoured, from Spinach Au Gratin to Truffle Mashed Potatoes to a Macaroni & Cheese that someone referred to as the best they have ever had.

No one could decide which dessert to get so we got a punch and shared. The Crème Brulee with different toppings was smooth and just sweet enough and the Vanilla Panna Cotta with Churros was great. I wasn’t quite sure about the Lava Cake with Pop Rocks, but it seemed to be a hit.

We got back to the Westin around 1:00 am and I was asleep quickly. There was one more day left with the group and I wanted to be ready for it.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

St. Martin Paradise Despite a Bit of Turbulence

When I go on a press trip with other journalists, the details are usually planned out between the tourist board and public relations agency so the trip is smooth sailing. Sometimes things don’t go exactly as planned. Even in paradise, the seas can be rough – soliterally and figuratively.

We met for an early breakfast at the Ocean Restaurant of the Westin St. Maarten hotel. It was looking a little cloudy out, but we didn’t expect any real rain for our snorkeling trip so we headed out in the van to the pier a few miles away.

The trip sounded like it would be an exciting one, four hours with stops at various small beaches. Unfortunately, we didn’t make it that far. The sea was extremely rough and as soon as we hit a swell that was about six feet coming over the boat, we were ready to head back.

Every cloud has a silver lining and the positive side to missing the boat ride was that we had a few hours with nothing scheduled. That meant a rarity in the press trip world – lying around by the pool and enjoying the free time. It was really nice to relax in the hot sun and I even got to do something I don’t do enough of, read a book (A Million Little Pieces). 

Before heading up to change I took a little stroll by the beach. Dawn Beach, where the Westin is located, is quite beautiful. While it was quite nice to see the waves crashing on the shore as I walked by, I was glad I wasn’t back out on the boat experiencing them.

Lunch was nearby at Mr. Busby’s Beach Bar. The restaurant was literally on the beach, with a thatched roof and almost a Hawaiian feel. We were told that the place transforms at night into Daniel’s, an Italian restaurant complete with red and white tablecloths and low lighting.

There was something very relaxing about having the sand and turquoise water right next to you that made the day even more leisurely.  I have spent most of my life allergic to seafood and used to it, but found myself a bit jealous here when I was the only one not eating the grilled shrimp.

After lunch, most of the group went back to the hotel, but Julia and I decided to head down to Phillipsburg to do a little shopping.  It was a quick trip as I came down with a stomach bug and headed back to the hotel within the hour.

I was stilling feeling a bit queasy at dinner time and decided to skip the evening outing. I heard that dinner – and especially the drag show – at L’Escargot was great. I knew that I still had four more days to enjoy St. Martin and felt confident that the road would get a bit less bumpy than it had been on this day.