Saturday, March 31, 2012

New Zealand Wine, Girls Go Wild & Michael Symon BBQ in South Beach

Day three of the Food Network South Beach Wine & FoodFestival was filled to the brim with some wonderful New Zealand wine, some foodie girls going wild, and a thrilling barbecue by a man who knows the chew.

I was back down at the Perry Hotel bright and early in the morning for the Wine Spectator Seminar: Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc & Pinot Noir Style Diversity.  The leader of the seminar was New Zealand wine expert and winemaker Patrick Materman, who filled in the blanks on the region and led a tasting of wines from Brancott Estate and Stoneleigh Marlborough.

Since I am currently planning a trip to New Zealand, I was especially interested – and impressed with the offerings. I’m always a fan of NZ sauvignon blanc and was happy to discover the ones from these brands, which were full of tropical and grassy notes. I also tasted New Zealand Pinot Noir for the first time and found the 2010 Brancott Estate Letter Series “T” to be more fruit forward and richer than many of the California ones.

From the seminar I headed over to the Hotel Victor where I was excited to have been invited to the Girls Gone Wild event.  This event was probably the most fun two hours of the entire festival and I give kudos to Bullfrog and Baum for putting this group together.

The moderator for Girls Gone Wild was Travel Channel star (Bizarre Foods) Andrew Zimmern and he had his work cut out for him while an amazing group of women “went wild.” Actress Debi Mazur, who co-hosts the Cooking Channel’s Extra Virgin with her husband Gabrielle and also blogs at Under The Tuscan Gun, was the most outspoken, but Bitchin Kitchen’s Nadia G. was not far behind in  “R” rated honesty.

Rounding out the Girls Gone Wild Panel was Food Network star Alex Guarnaschelli and Prune Restaurant owner/chef Gabrielle Hamilton, who is also the author of bestseller Blood, Bones & Butter.  The conversation ranged from favorite dishes to dishing on their male counterparts and it was always entertaining.
I had just enough time to shower and change before meeting with winemaker Patrick Materman and Pernod Ricard PR Director Krista Drew for a glass of Perrier Jouet Champagne and some more New Zealand conversation.

Then it was off to the Eden Roc Renaissance Miami Beach for Thrillist's BBQ & The Blues hosted by Michael Symon. Celebrity chef Symon is best known to many these days as one of the hosts of ABC’s The Chew, but foodie insiders also call him one of the nicest guys in the business.

Next year, I probably won’t pick three days in a row of barbecue at SOBEWFF (The Q, Burger Bash and Thrillist), but I’m glad I did get to experience this event. The music by Diablo Times & The Bloodhounds was great, the drinks were flowing (including cocktails made with Michael Collins Whiskey and Entice Wine), and the barbecue was a bit different than I had previously.

The food offerings came from around the area and from Symon himself and included a delicious Korean beef brisket from Sugarcane Raw Bar Grill and a Smoked Tongue Pastrami (with bone marrow brioche) from Gastropod Miami. I also really loved the short ribs from Jacksonville’s Cabana Beach Club, served on a cheese polenta.

When I couldn’t possibly sample any more, I headed back to The National Hotel to get some rest for my final day of the South Beach Wine & Food Festival. It was going to be a big one as I was going to try to tackle all of the Whole Foods Grand Market. 

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Burgers, Cocktails, Wine and Banderas in South Beach

I have been known to schedule some pretty busy days, but I think I outdid myself for the first full day of the Food Network South Beach Wine and Food Festival (and I got the blisters to prove it).

I started bright and early at The National Hotel, where I ordered a fruit and yogurt plate from room service to get me going for the day. It gave me a sense that the day would have at least something low cal and healthy in it!

First on my schedule for the day was an interview with David Burke. I had loved everything about my visit to David Burke Primehouse at The James in Chicago and have been looking forward to trying his new restaurant in Chicago. We had a fun talk about his Dining In the Dark event (look for my story at Cocktails & Joints for more) before I took off to the beach for the Food Festival’s Trade Tasting.

Originally, this tasting was a chance for the trade and the press to check out the booths before the big crowds arrived on the weekend. Unfortunately, the number of tickets increased and it seemed to be as crowded as the regular tastings got. Still, armed with my welcome glass of Simply Naked Unoaked Chardonnay (light and fruity), I headed into the Barilla tent for some great pasta before grabbing a Skinny Girl White Cranberry Cosmo (a new low cal go to for me).

The Cosmopolitan of Vegas once again created a modern building to give out treats, drinks and even a stay at their hotel, which I really need to get to in the near future.  From there, I made a stop taste taste Diageo’s new Q Dream, a deliciously creamy liqueur that is also low in calories, but I gained them all back at the Fiji Water booth where they were making fresh donuts and giving out water  with fortunes.

I put my aching feet into a cab to the Perry Hotel (formerly the Gansevoort) where the event to sell out the quickest was located --- Matador! An Introduction to Anta Banderas Winery with Antonio Banderas. I have to admit it was probably the thing I was most excited for and an assignment for Los Angeles Confidential Magazine enabled me to stay as one of the few members of the press in the room. Banderas was as charming offscreen as he is on and was quite candid when talking about his career and his wine.

The Anta Banderas Chardonnay is not yet available in the U.S., but I urge you to check it out if you do make it to the winery in Spain. In the meantime, you can purchase the Anta Banderas a10, a fruit-filled blend of temparillo, merlot and cabernet sauvignon as well as some of his other reds.

I didn’t have long to change for the evening and get to the Amstel Light Burger Bash presented by Allen Brothers Steaks and Diet Pepsi hosted by Rachael Ray. It’s hard to describe this event to anyone who hasn’t been there, but it’s a fine line between comfort food heaven and gluttony! I tried to tackle as many as possible by eliminating burgers that were too rare or on bacon overload and going for a few special ones. Even then, I couldn’t take more than a bite of each.

A few of my favorites stops were…

Good Stuff Eatery Blue Cheese Burger with French Fries and Bernaise sauce, served with a Crème de Casis Milk Shake;

The Meatball Shop Chili Flavored Meat Patty smothered in Grafton cheddar cheese sauce and topped with caramelized onions with a sweet and sour taste;

NoMI Kitchen '800' Burger made of  Ground waygu mixed with Nueske bacon and onion,  topped with smoked tomato aioli, comte cheese, watercress, pickled shallots and garlic, and tomato confit on a rosemary ciabatta bun and served with VodkaNInfused Watermellon (my favorite overall);
Rachael Ray’s BBQ Burger with Sweet 'n Spicy Pickles And Smokey barbeque sauce, a simple, but appealing combo;

And the fairly healthy and tasty South Beach Diet Feta Stuffed Sirloin Burger with Smokey SunNDried Tomato Aioli served on pita.

I also loved the Jack Daniels Milkshake served by Guy’s Burger Joint and the Truffle French Fries Abe and Arthurs was giving out.

Michael Symon, whose B Spot served a Pork and bacon burger topped with pulled pork and slaw (I was not really a fan), won the contest for the third year in a row. It should also be noted that all the burgers tasted fantastic when eaten with the Frozen Hot Chocolate Serendipity 3 was pouring!

After the Burger Bash, I went to 1111 Lincoln Avenue for Robert Irvine’s Party Impossible. This rooftop soiree and a ton of food, from seafood to meat to decadent desserts. I was starting to regret the burgers as I couldn’t get more than a few bites of an out of this world Chocolate Peanut Butter Bar from Ready, Set, Cupcake! with a few crumbs of scrumptious cookies.
I walked back to The National Hotel at about 1:00 am, I walked back to hoping to do some digesting before catching some much needed sleep. There was still a lot more of the South Beach Food Network Wine and Food Festival to come. 

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Starting South Beach with The Q

February is one of my favorite months because it is the time of one of my favorite events. There is nothing that quite compares with the Food Network’s South Beach Wine & Food Festival for bringing together chefs and industry insiders.  This was my third year in a row attending and I was especially excited that I would also be covering for Ocean Drive Magazine.

My flight was running a bit late, but I arrived in time to get changed for The Q. I was staying at The National Hotel for the first time and was happily surprised at the locale – right in the center of all the events. I had a very nice room with a view and best of all it was just a quick walk out the back door to the beach. It happened to be the same beach The Q was set up on, at the Delano.

The Bubble Q had been my favorite event that previous years.  I had been disappointed to hear it would be cancelled, but happy to find out the new event, hosted by Moet Hennessy and called simply “The Q” would be very similar. I found that was certainly the case.

Emeril Lagasse and Guy Fieri hosted The Q, which served as the festival’s kickoff party. It was an eating frenzy, with some of the country’s best chefs serving a special barbecue dish of their choice. In addition, Moet Hennessy’s sponsorship of the event meant plenty of Belvedere Vodka, Moet Champagne and Hennessy Cognac.

As much as I hate to waste food, I did really want to take at least a bite out of as many items as possible. Here’s a sampling of some of the most memorable…

Chris Lilly passed out Big Bob Gibson barbecue, which was delicious, but was very rich so it was easy to leave it behind;

Dean Fearing of Fearings in Dallas had a superb BBQ Beef Taco that was a combination of sweet and savory;

Chef Yoshi Katsumura made Barbecue Wagyu Spareribs with Yuzyu sauce and candied skin, served with a Scallion Pancake and Watermelon Salad. It was terrific;

I really enjoyed my conversation with Nadja G. (check out my story at Cocktails and Joints). She is just so much fun and the pork belly she made was excellent;

The Hill Country Barbecue of New York offered some tender and tasty meat;

Chef Michael White prepared a yummy Grilled Pancetta with glazed figs and roasted pistachios;

Celebrity Cruises brought out a most delicious Spring Roll with white truffle barbecue sauce;

And, co-host Guy Fieri wowed all with food from his Tex Wasabi restaurant -- a Banh Mi Taco, served with barbecue chicken fried rice. 

For dessert, Godiva Chocolate had sweet treats for all, from drinks to mousse, to samples of their Belgium chocolate. Also there all the way from New York was the Big Gay Ice Cream truck, a big hit on a hot night.

Since the party was also the first night of SOBEWFF, many of the festival’s stars stopped by to visit the participating chefs. Andrew Zimmern, Robert Irvine and Rachael Ray were just a few who chowed down with their friends.

I stayed until the end and then headed back to The National Hotel for some rest. Day two at the Food Network South Beach Wine and Food Festival was going to be a big one for me that included lots of interviews, some time with Antonio Banderas, and more food, wine and spirits than you could ever imagine.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Last Day at the Ranch

All good things have to come to an end and I have to say my trip to The Lodge and Spa at Three Forks Ranch was all good. I had brought my friend Lynn along and we took full advantage of the unlimited spa, food, drinks and activities this place offers guests.

After we had an early breakfast, Jenn Brenneman, the lodge manager, met us to take us on a full tour of the lodge. We started with a little history about how David Pratt purchased this land in 1999, combining six ranches because he wanted a big cattle ranch. He also acquired 25 miles of Little Snake River and undertook the largest river restoration in the United States.

The area – partly in Colorado and the rest in Wyoming – offered some of the best trout fishing in the world and he started a fishing lodge here. Soon he needed more room and the lodge we were staying in was built, complete with 15 guest rooms for a total of 35,000 square feet. Every detail had been carefully constructed, from the wood coming from London that was hand carved to the Charlie Russell sculptures.

We took a good look at the breakfast and main dining rooms, which always felt elegant and we received fantastic service in both. There was also a wine room used for wine pairing dinners and small groups that wanted privacy when the lodge was full.  As we walked past the entry way, I remarked how was always filled with one of my favorite flowers, gladiolas, welcoming you into a living room filled with priceless art that still felt inviting and comfortable.

One of our favorite pieces in the lodge was the Steinway piano (the only known signed one of this model), which was set up to play itself while an adorable stuffed bear sat on it. We would hear that music every night as we enjoyed cocktails by the bar. That bar room was always a conversation piece in itself, starting with the huge mural behind the bar by Wayne Cooper that depicted what the area may have looked like long ago around the Three Forks River. It was one of many different pieces of art throughout the building that included vases and platters from the Ming Dynasty.

There was a conference room that Jenn told us was used by corporation and groups who booked the whole lodge for a stay. We took a quick stop at the fitness center before we headed down the stairs to look at some of the other room types. The library suite was lovely, with an antique secretary that reminded me of the one my grandfather used to have.

Before we left we took a final look at our beloved spa. It had been the center point of our visit and had brought us so much relaxation during all the treatments that are included for every guests stay. For me, spas have always brought a tranquility that I can’t get anywhere else and there was something about looking out at this huge ranch that just made it that more peaceful (and the massages, wraps and scrubs were fantastic). Although I did not venture out this trip, I could imagine how wonderful the indoor/outdoor pool would be in the summer.

It was time to head out and Jenn took us through the snow caped mountains. As we got closer to Steamboat Springs, my cell phone started buzzing with messages. It had been a unique, feeling to not have service for four days, but I think I had really enjoyed it. I was far from cut off since Three Forks Ranch not only provides guests with wireless internet but also their own IPads.

 It was back to full civilization for Lynn and me, though, but I have a feeling that I will be back on the ranch again someday.  

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Endless Spa and Snowcat Views at Three Forks Ranch

I love my job. I get to travel around the world and see great places and eat (and drink) great things. But, it is still a job and most of the time I have interviews, meetings, early mornings and late nights. Ask anyone who has come with me.

My trip to Three Forks Lodge and Spa on the Colorado/Wyoming border broke all those rules. It was feeling like a vacation (a word I rarely use since traveling for a living). Both myself and my friend Lynn felt like we were being spoiled rotten, but that’s what they are trained to do at Three Forks. And they did it quite well on our final full day on the ranch.

I didn't quite work, or get on the phone (there is no cell phone service in the lodge), but I did check some emails as I had my morning coffee and looked out at the snow drifts. Then I turned on the heated floors in my bathroom and loaded up the Jacuzzi. Can there be a better way to start the day?

I met Lynn in the breakfast dining room a few hours later and couldn’t resist checking out the French toast with some fresh fruit on the side. We relaxed and chatted for a while before I headed down to the spa for my first treatment of the day – the High Altitude Aromatherapy Wrap.

As with all the spa services we had at Three Forks, the wrap was complementary and wonderful. I loved the blend of oils and the foot and head massages were especially relaxing as I lay in my cocoon. When we were done, my skin felt soft and my muscles were relaxed. I kept that momentum going by reading in the lounge while Lynn had her reflexology treatment (which she raved about later).

Lunch was a turkey, brie and avocado sandwich on sourdough. Lynn created her own salad from the multitude of options available. We shared some fruit salad (and couldn’t resist the homemade cookies) and were more than full as we got ready to make the the trip up the mountain.

Three Forks Ranch has its own snow trails. That may not seem like a big deal for a resort, but this is an exclusive property for up to 32 people so skiers are going to get ultimate time on the mountain. Unfortunately, skiing is one of the things my back problems of the last year has kept me from. We still decided we wanted to take the ride to see the trails and the view of the ranch.

We had deliberately waited a few days before going up in the snowcat. Neither of us had any experience with altitude sickness and had felt the headaches and dehydration a bit when we arrived. Though we recovered quickly, everyone felt it best to give our bodies a few days to get used to it before climbing another 2,000 feet.

Levi and Jessica commanded the snowcat. I had never been in one before (even when I did ski fairly regularly as a teen, I wasn't quite good enough to hit the high mountains). I was quite impressed with the comfort. Even though we had brought heavy coats, gloves, scarfs and coffee, it was not very cold and we had a lot of fun checking out the fantastic views of some of the 200,000 acre property.

When we came back down we saw the cabin that is kept for fisherman and skiers to change in. It’s well-equipped, with lockers and refreshments, so you don’t have to worry about carrying everything back and forth from the lodge.

Back at the ranch (always wanted to say that) we got ready for our afternoon spa treatments. We each got a a hot stone massage that finished the afternoon to perfection. I showered and dressed for cocktails. Lynn, Jenn (the Lodge Manager) and Shannon (the best bartender you could ask for) were waiting for me. I had a glass of Sauvignon Blanc and enjoyed the hors d’ouerves – a cheesy artichoke dip and Curry Chicken – then lingered for a bit with our Three Forks friends before we were told dinner was ready.

We started with a Caprese Salad, made a bit differently with chopped tomatoes and cheese rather than sliced ones. I then had some Chicken Scampi in a light lemon/wine sauce, and a yummy Asian Vegetable Stir Fry with jasmine rice. Dessert was a favorite of both of ours that we had enjoyed many times when we were on the Celebrity Cruise, Crème Brulee.

After dinner, Lynn and I went back to the bar and had some Chambord as we chatted with Shannon for the last evening.  Although we still had some time to come here in the morning, we knew it was going to be a long time before I had a full 24 hours like this. The whole concept of an all-inclusive ski lodge and ranch had been foreign to me before I came. Now, it is something that I think everyone needs to take the time to experience. 

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Luxuriating through Snow and Spa at Three Forks Ranch

I knew before I even arrived with my friend Lynn that my stay at Three Forks Ranch Lodge and Spa was going to be much more relaxing than any trip I had taken in a while. That thought was intensified when I woke up to the view of the snow-capped mountains and knew that I didn’t have phone service or anything that had to be done.

It was simply a day for fun and relaxation. The range is located on 200,000 acres straddling Wyoming and Colorado and just couldn't be a better place for mind and body rest. It started early with some yoga at sunset followed by a knock on my door with the early morning coffee and pastries I had requested. I took a leisurely bath in my Jacuzzi and met Lynn two hours later for an egg white omelet full of spinach and tomatoes. 

Jennifer Brenneman, the lodge manager, came to check on us during breakfast and confirm our plans for the day. They were simply a sleigh ride through the property and then another visit to the spa (with lunch in between).

There was not enough snow on the ground for skiing or snowmobiling, but there was more than enough for a sleigh ride. We headed up to the barn. Ciara and Levi were waiting for us, with the horses all ready to go.  It was a beautiful ride through the grounds and we got to see the mountain ranges from a different angle. We saw coyote and fox tracks along the way, but it appeared all the animals were tucked away in the woods for the day.

The ride was just breathtaking and it was the perfect weather for it, about 30 degrees and partly sunny. We talked about exploring more and decided a snowcat ride up to the mountain would be great for the next day and maybe we would even find some time for light hiking (though extra spa treatments sounded even better). Just about everything is included at Three Forks so sometimes it is tough to decide.

Back at the lodge, it was a perfect winter’s day lunch of grilled cheese with avocado and tomato, along with a fruit cup. Lunchtime was also the time the freshly baked chocolate chip cookies and we definitely sampled those.

I grabbed my book (which I was determined to finish this trip) and relaxed in the spa while I waited for my Chocolate Scrub appointment. Kathy did a wonderful job. My skin felt great and my body was so relaxed I decided it was time for a nap before cocktails and dinner.

We had some great conversation with the Three Forks staff during the nightly cocktail hour. They are from all over the U.S. and it was interesting to compare travel stories. We also found they were all very interested in our experience and anything we wanted to do.  I sipped my Cloudy Bay Sauvignon Blanc and we headed into dinner, starting Chicken Tortilla Soup. It was delicious and could have been a meal by itself had I finished it.

At the end of dinner each night at Three Forks, you are given the dinner menu for the following day so you can make your choices. When I had a hard time making up my mind, I was told that I could pick two different things and get a half portion of each.  That’s what I did for the entrée this night, settling on a tender and tasty seared lamb chop with carrots, potatoes and house-made mint jelly, as well as a portion of Eggplant Lasagna, which tasted to me much like one of my favorites, moussaka.

Bananas Foster with vanilla ice cream was for dessert and it was excellent. Lynn and I decided to have a nightcap at the bar with Shannon, the resident mixologist and enjoyed a Bailey’s Irish Cream (me) and Amaretto (Lynn) before retiring for the night. 

Our first full day at Three Forks Ranch was complete and I couldn’t imagine feeling more relaxed.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Three Forks Welcome

I obviously travel a lot to wonderful places, but my trip to Three Forks Ranch was probably one of my most anticipated. I have very few trips that aren’t scheduled for me and the idea that I could do what I want during four days for myself and my friend Lynn was an exciting one. It became even more exciting when we actually saw this incredible place.

Lynn was coming from New York and I from Illinois so we took our first flights together and met at Atlanta airport. It had been awhile since our Celebrity Cruise adventure and we knew that this one would be at least as fun.

The scene was beautiful as we landed at Steamboat Springs, Colorado, airport. There was just a slight chill in the air when we walked off the plane, but it felt exhilarating. Lodge Manager Jennifer Brenneman was waiting for us to drive the hour to the Three Forks Ranch. It was an incredibly scenic ride, filled with hills, mountains and increasing snow. She told us a bit about the property, owned by David Pratt (CEO of Gander Mountain and part owner of the St. Louis Cardinals).

Three Forks is divided between Colorado and Wyoming. The property is 200,000 acres and includes a working cattle ranch. As we climbed, I started to get a bit of a headache and Jenn told us about altitude sickness and how it doesn’t last. I drank lots of water and felt better quickly, but was made aware there was portable oxygen in my room if I needed it at any point.

Before we hit the ranch, we had a beautiful stretch through a winding snow-filled road. I couldn’t believe how breathtaking the property was when we arrived. Levi Kempf, Recreation Director, greeted us at the car and a half a dozen more of the staff said hello and took our luggage. Jenn took us on a brief tour of the lodge (we would have a full tour the final day), which was filled with fine art everywhere.

We each got our own spacious suites, with bay windows, fireplaces; bathrooms that had heated floors and Jacuzzis; and hot tubs on the deck. Before we even arrived at Three Forks Lodge and Spa, we were sent questionnaires by the hotel to make sure they had our rooms prepared just the way we wanted. I had my size seven slippers, small robe, chardonnay and bottled water waiting, along with a basket of chips, cookies, granola bars and other snacks that everyone gets every day. The staff was also made aware that we both had seafood allergies and the menus for our visit were prepared accordingly

Lynn and I were the only guests so we had the entire lodge (which I’d probably refer to more as a mansion) to ourselves. The staff was ready to dote on our every need and there didn’t seem to be a better way to get started than in the spa. It was as relaxing as you can get, with lounges everywhere, hot tubs, and an indoor/outdoor heated pool. While Lynn had her massage, I went into the Jacuzzi for a bit and then sat in the comfort of the lounge with cucumber water and a book.

I had a perfect massage with Kathy and talked about the other treatments I would get during my stay (the spa is unlimited for all Three Forks guests) before returning to my room to dress for cocktails and dinner.

The cocktail hour is a nightly ritual with the staff. We enjoyed getting to know each other and talking about what we would like to do the next day. Wrangler Ciara was there and she said she would set up our sleigh ride (unlimited activities are also included for all guests) for the next day while we nibbled on excellent appetizers.

David, who is in charge of the fishing program, joined us for a delicious dinner. My French Onion Soup was rich and cheesy. The Chicken Penne main course was very good, but nothing could top the Chocolate Soufflé with crème anglaise.

After a long day, we retired to our rooms early and hit the pillow, dreaming about sleigh rides, spa treatments and another day in mountain paradise.