Monday, April 30, 2012

Stories Beat Stuff 2 US - Another Contest for a Trip to New Zealand

A few months ago I wrote about the Stories Beat Stuff contest to win trips to New Zealand. The first phase of the competition is complete and now it’s time for Tourism New Zealand to get on to the second – and give away more trips. Things have gotten even more exciting as the prize value has increased from $20,000 to $30,000 and there are two more experiences for you to compete for.

The key to the competition is how far you are willing to go for a trip of a lifetime. In this case, you need to make a video or take a picture explaining exactly what you would trade for that trip. Then, you need to get as many votes as possible. Ask your friends to help out too because you can bring three friends along on this trip at no cost to them!

I’m really excited about this contest because I’m still planning a trip of my own to New Zealand. While I don’t have to trade anything for it, I’d love to hear more about what adventures I should add to my trip. Here are the two new ones added to the contest:

Winter Highlife
Visit the North and South Islands during New Zealand’s winter and you will get to check out the spectacular ski scene and go to the Queenstown Winter Festival with VIP tickets. This adventure includes roundtrip flights (international and domestic) for four, accommodations, rental cars and adventures such as skiing and bungee jumping. (See the video to learn more about this adventure.)

Natural Goodness
Enjoy the best of New Zealand’s landscapes as you adventure on the South Island. This adventure includes getting up close with the country’s wildlife while kayaking with dolphins, boating around whales and watching the seals along the coastline. You will have roundtrip flights (international and domestic) for four, your own campervan, an overnight cruise, hiking, paragliding, cave and glacier climbing. (See the video to learn more about this adventure.)

For ideas on what works best in this competition, visit the sites Facebook page and also check out two of the winners from Phase 1:

If you aren’t feeling especially creative, make sure you at least cast your vote. Voters are eligible to win two tickets for flights to New Zealand.

Sponsored Post
Viral video by ebuzzing

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Welcome to Phoenix and the Arizona Biltmore

I had spent virtually no time in the Phoenix area of Arizona and I was excited about this trip for a number of reasons.

Susan Campbell and I met by email two years ago when we were both trying to get money from a publisher who hadn’t paid us. We struck up a cyber-friendship and always talked about going on a trip together. Our available dates never seemed to coincide. Finally, she received an invitation to The Boulders and I to the Arizona Biltmore and Sanctuary at Camelback. With the help of the Phoenix area tourism board, we were able to put together this trip.

My travel was uneventful, despite reports of a rare impending snow and sand storm coming to Phoenix!. Susan’s flight from Montreal was delayed just enough to have us come in around the same time and we met for the very first time in front of the Thrifty Car Rental desk in Phoenix. Since we both have photos with our stories throughout the internet it was easy to spot each other and we were ready for our adventure to begin.

Susan had Frank’s Fizz (Appleton VX Rum, Canton Ginger, Cointreau, fresh lime juice and Angostora Bitters). It was a bit dry for my taste, but she loved it.

The first stay on the itinerary was at the Arizona Biltmore. While the weather (record cold) was not exactly what we desired, the resort made up for it.  The grounds were beautiful and we checked in quickly and headed down to our rooms in the new Ocatilla wing. This section provides more personalized service and extra amenities even above what you’d expect at this Waldorf Astoria property.

My room was great and had a well-equipped bathroom with a Jacuzzi tub. There was a pool with cabanas just in front of the building. I was just getting over a bad cold so I rested a bit before meeting Susan for drinks. The executive lounge at the Arizona Biltmore (available to all guests staying at Ocatilla) was one of the best I’ve ever seen. There was a big selection of non-alcoholic drinks, as well as beer and wine.  

We had a few light hors d'oeuvre before taking a golf cart over (it was cold and rainy) to Wright’s for dinner.  We sat down and looked at the cocktail menu and had quite a hard time choosing from the many options. I settled on a Wrights View with Stoli Vodka, St. Germain, fresh Raspberry, lime and sparkling wine. It was a perfect fit for me – slightly sweet with lots of fruit.

I started with a roasted beet salad with hazelnuts, olive oil and feta cheese that was very flavorful.  For a main course, Susan had the beef wellington and said it was the best she ever had.  I can’t say I was thrilled with the Coq au vin. It was an unusual preparation with a mole sauce and though the sauce itself was fantastic, there wasn’t enough of it in the dish and the chicken was a little dry.

The chocolate soufflé was marvelous for dessert (you have to order it at the beginning of your meal. Then we finished the meal with the restaurant’s signature ending – cotton candy. The flavor of the day was blueberry and though pure sugar doesn’t sound like a good way to end the day, when you add some cold medicine, it makes for sweet dreams...

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Taking in NYC Food, Cocktails, Theater and Zoo

I spent most of my life in New York, but the truth is I spent very little of that in Manhattan. As a teen, I would go in on my school breaks for shopping or theater, and as an adult it was mostly a trip into the city to see a play, have dinner, or meet friends for drinks. I had never spent four days staying there before and I was determined to finish it with as much as possible.

My daughter Sam met me in the morning at my friend Liza’s and we headed over to drop my things at The Library Hotel. I had stayed at two of this brand’s sister hotels previously (Hotel Elysee and Casablanca) and absolutely loved them. This one proved to be just as unique. With an evening social hour (great wine and cheese spread) and a big European breakfast, you can’t possibly get more for your dollar in New York. Plus, there’s also the indiivudality of the hotel. This one – “Library” – has each floor dedicated to a subject and each room to a subdivision.  My room was 20th Century History and was filled with books from that time period

From The Library Hotel we walked down to Central Park where we were having lunch at the Sarabeth’s Kitchen location there. The place was absolutely packed and I was glad we had reservations. The smell of fresh baked goods was everywhere and I gazed over quite an impressive cocktail list for brunch as my stomach growled in anticipation.

It was a tough decision when we finally were seated as everything around us looked amazing. Sam and I decided to share so we could try as much as possible, but first started with one of their many mimosa options. The Four Flowers Mimosa (their signature Four Flowers Juice with champagne) was a perfect brunch companion with Almond Crusted French Toast with strawberry sauce, the Vegetable Frittata and a warm banana muffin.

The brunch was unbelievable and we were stuffed so we decided to walk off some calories in Central Park. It had been years since I had been there and Sam admitted that she never had. We made our way past the horse drawn carriages and the competition in the ice skating rink to the Central Park Zoo.  We spent an hour or so there and I loved forgetting that my little girl is all grown up!

Sam and I walked back to The Library Hotel and enjoyed a latte in the lounge (coffees and cookies are complimentary and available all day here) before she had to go catch her train. I wasn’t alone for alone, though, as my friend Gail was on her way to continue the adventure.

I decided that I needed to do some more walking if I was going to work up an appetite for brunch at DoHYo. Yes, I was going to have another brunch, but this one was different that any I have ever experienced in my life.

Here’s the story… you go to this funky, ultra modern restaurant in the Yotel just outside of the Times Square between noon and five pm. You then have two hours to eat as many small plates and drink as many cocktails as you want while you listen to the DJ spin. And, to make it even better, it is great food by Chef Richard Sandoval for only $35 per person.

I was a bit limited by a lot of the seafood on the menu, but still managed to try quite a bit while Gail also got to taste the Crab Wontons and Crunchy Shrimp. Some of the other dishes that were great were Yukon Gold Tostones, Chicken Salad (Asian style), Wild Mushroom Omelet, Wok-Seared Cauliflower and House Ground Meatballs.

We had to try some cocktails, of course, and they were both unusual and tasty.  I loved the Sake Sangria, Mango Mimosa and Lychee Bellini, and enjoyed quick tastes of the equally satisfying  Bacon Bloody Mary, Passion Plantation Punch and Peach & Bourbon Tea.

We actually didn’t linger the full two hours because we had somewhere important to go. The Broadway Collection had gotten me tickets to Godspell at Circle in the Square. It was one of the best plays I’ve ever seen and the cast is just spectacular. It’s been updated a bit with references to modern day Facebook, Donald Trump and others and the performances are just magnificent. I was lucky enough to catch Weeds star Hunter Parish in the lead before his limited run ended and was blown away by his voice. He was just replaced by Corbin Bleu of High School Musical.

After the show it was time to bid my friend and New York City goodbye. It was my first real in-depth adventure of the Big Apple and I’m sure it won’t be my last.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

A Wine Expo and a New Manhattan Club

It was a perfect warm spring day as I attended the New York City Wine Expo and got to spend some time catching up with a friend at a new Manhattan club.

I had never been to the New York Wine Expo before and was very surprised by the variety of wine regions represented at the Jacob Javits Center.  The nearby Finger Lakes was well represented and proved to many how different Rieslings can be. I stopped by and tasted some unusual Greek wines before spending awhile checking out La Strada del Vino, a region of Tuscany. I sampled some excellent Chianti’s and talked about planning a trip there this coming fall.

Another region I am expecting to get to soon is New Zealand and they had some of their famous sauvignon blanc out. There were also plenty of tastings at the Côtes de Rhône table,  as well as a representation from South Africa that included an unusual sweet Shiraz (Jam Jar).

I found some unusual wines, such as Renee-Hugues Gay Wines, Happy Bitch Wine and Middle Sisters, all of which had some good offerings. Food vendors with everything from olive oil to Finger Lakes Wine Cake were sprinkled throughout the venue. The Dutch cheese was a big hit, as was the Belgian chocolate, but it was the wine everyone left talking about.

After I had made my way around the room, I left the expo and headed downtown to stay at my friend Liza’s. We enjoyed a girls’ night in catching up because we need to rest up for our next night out. We were checking out a great new bar and I was really excited.

The Vault at Pfaff’s is located at the corner of Bleecker and Broadway, although I should say it’s actually below it. It is underneath its sister restaurant, the Corner Shop Café. This former cocktail den was called Pfaff’s Beer Cellar when Charles Pfaff first opened it in 1855. Walt Whitman was among the frequent patrons then and he was often joined by actors and artists.

The space at Pfaff’s has been restored, using some of the original stone and brick. It has a real classic look, a comfortable speakeasy that almost looks like Al Capone may walk in the door any minute! Liza and I had no fear as we tasted some of the many cocktails and small plates on the newspaper –like menu.

I loved the Big Bird (house-infused Two Berry Plymouth Gin, Marie Brizzard Apricot Brandy and fresh sour mix) while Liza sipped on the Leaves of Grass (Zubrowska Bison Grass Vodka, Taylor Fladgate 10 year old Port, house-made honey syrup and fresh lemon juice). Later we tried a great Champagne Charles (Ayala Burt Majeur Champagne, June Liqueur and house-made cranberry bitters) and a creamy, but not too rich Melkor’s Ghost (Delord Armagnac Blanch, crème de cocoa, crème de banana and crème).

You will also find an interesting list of international draught and bottled beer  at The Vault at Pfaff’s, as well as quite a few offerings of wine by the glass and bottle. There’s a similar selection of spirits that include artisanal distillers like Brooklyn Gin.

The Maitake Mushroom Melt was actually a large plate of finger sandwiches that were delicious and the Artisanal Cheese and Charuterie place was a nice grouping of fruits, meats and cheeses. We also sampled the tender Filet Mignon Medallions with blue cheese dressing.

We lounged at The Vault at Pfaff’s for quite a bit and then met some friends upstairs at the Corner Café to share some scrumptious cheesecake for dessert. We also managed to catch some music before heading for a good night’s sleep and another big day in New York City. 

Friday, April 13, 2012

Viewing NYC from the Palace to the Bulldog

I did a major change in scenery when I headed from Florida to New York City.  I had a lot to get in and decided to stay in Manhattan for a few days for the first time ever. There was no quick in and out this trip. I was going to explore, taste and visit my way around the Big Apple.

There’s almost nothing better than a greeting of fruit, snacks and refreshments after a long day of traveling, but I found the something better next to my bed at the New York Palace. I have traveled to many hotels around the world, from comfortable to luxury.

This one stumped me with something I have never seen before. It was so simple, just a little remote control on my night table that controlled the room lights and temperature.  Without getting out of bed during the night I could turn up the air conditioning, the heat, or turn either off. One of these days I will make a list of my favorite hotel room amenities and this will be toward the top!

The temperature control helped me get a good night’s sleep and I was in for another surprise when I opened my drapes. There right in front of me was St. Patrick’s Cathedral! Regardless of your religion (or if you have one at all), the sight of this beautiful, historical building is something worth seeing. I took some time to luxuriate in my large bathtub before heading downstairs to meet my pal David Kenas.

David and I have known each other for many years as we both covered a lot of the same players at the U.S. Open. He’s known as a tennis photographer, but what many don’t know is that he’s also a part owner in Bulldog Gin. We’d been talking for a while about getting together for a tasting and we were finally able to arrange it.

It was a cool day in Manhattan as we walked around trying to pick a place for lunch. Ironically, we ran into a Bulldog Gin truck along the way before settling into the lounge at Pop Burger. I ordered a gin and tonic then (which happens to be my favorite cocktail), but have since tasted Bulldog straight. While I usually go for the gins heavy in herb, I loved the smoothness of this one and I’m not alone. Wine Enthusiast Magazine gave this gin its highest ranking for the spirit.

Don’t expect the usual juniper jumping out at you when you’re sipping Bulldog. Instead, this London gin shifts the focus to dragon eye, a fruit related to lychee, and poppy. It comes through with a hint of spice rather than herb, and is easy sipping even on its own.

I had some free time to take a long walk back to the New York Palace before my daughter, Sam, met me. We decided to head down to Times Square to one of our favorite places. While many come to New York City in search of that five star restaurant, I was in search of comfort food and for me that’s a bowl of chicken noodle soup, some potato pancakes and a piece of chocolate marble cheesecake at Juniors. I have yet to find a place that does any of those better in my opinion.

We decided to head out for a drink and had some time to make it a relaxing one. We had never been to The View at the Marriott Marquis and I’m glad we decided to do it. We headed for a window seat at the top and enjoyed the view as the lounge rotated with our drinks. It was a Pear Ginger Cocktail for me and a Malibu Breeze for Sam before we called it a night and I got ready for a full day to come in Manhattan.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

South Florida Dining and Art

When the Food Network’s South Beach Wine & Food Festival ended, my eating and drinking did not. The only thing that changed was the company and I’m always happy when that my companions are family.

I was picked up at The National Hotel after the end of the festival by my mom and cousin Gayle. We were off to check out one of the most talked about restaurants to hit South Beach in a long time. Juvia had it all – location, décor, food and drinks.

The location may have looked a bit strange from the outside (a private elevator taking you to the roof of the garage), but once upstairs there was no doubt this place was special. I have never seen such beautiful views of Miami and I loved the combination of elegance and comfort.

Juvia is a great place for cocktails and I was smitten with the Pear Sangria, while Gayle enjoyed a Purple Rain we started with. I have to admit I was a bit concerned with the menu when I first saw it as it was mostly filled with seafood, but I found plenty to safely eat. In the meantime, mom and cousin feasted on the Ceviche, Rock Shrimp (in a spicy curry sauce), Lobster Salad and Sea Bass, which Gayle called “outrageous.”

I had an excellent Foie Gras that was rather sweet, followed by the Iceberg, Pancetta, Fig & Gorgonzola Salad, a nice mixture of flavors. The Pork Confit made a wonderful main course, with a complex mix of flavors. Side dishes, such as Vegetable Casolet and Couscous are great, but leave some room for dessert. The Chocolate Croissolant and the Candy Bar were worth the calories!

Mom and I continued the fun as we headed a bit north the next day for an afternoon at the Boca Raton Museum of Art. I make trips to this area a few times a year and I can’t believe I had never been there before. I was really impressed and we really enjoyed walking through the Contemporary Art Varied Collection, the American Modernist Masters and the Camera Work Photography Exhibit.

My favorite stop at the art museum was Martin Schoeller: Close Up, a collection of portraits of famous politicians and entertainers that were brutally honest. I also loved the placement (Sarah Palin next to Bill Clinton?).  Though that exhibition is no longer showing at the Boca Raton Museum of Art, there is something similar through May – Portraits from the Permanent Collection – which includes famous portraits by Georgia O’Keefe.

We had a few hours to do some shopping before another special dinner. I had heard nothing but good things about Max’s Harvest in Delray Beach and they turned out to all be true. This “farm to fork” restaurant takes sustainability seriously. Local, organic ingredients are used and the only freezer here is a small one for the ice cream. I was highly impressed with what Executive Chef Chris Miracolo could do on a moment’s notice, all depending on what was available in the market that day.

We started off with a refreshing Heritage Mojito (Bacardi, fresh mint and soda water) and the Smoked Gouda & Pancetta Mac N Cheese with spinach and onion straws. It was excellent and I remarked that the macaroni and cheese movement in restaurants is one I hope continues. We then had a light and tomato salad with watermelon (great idea), arugula and feta cheese, as well as Goat Cheese Croquettes that were melt in your mouth.

I had missed Chef Miracolo’s dish at SOBEWFF, but he made some of the Gnocchi with Hedgehog Mushrooms for me and it was spectacular. I love gnocchi, but I’ve never had any quite this good. That’s pretty much what my mom said about the Salmon with Stir Fry. The ultimate salmon eater, she said this was the best she has ever had anywhere.

For dessert we satisfied all cravings with a Chocolate Flourless Cake, which was dense and dark, filled with the best cocoa, and an Apple Torte with homemade Maple Ice Cream.  The only downside to the “farm to fork” is that menu items change according to the market, but I can’t imagine you could go wrong with anything on the Max’s Harvest menu. As for me, I’ve already put in a request for some of that gnocchi on my birthday in July.

Friday, April 6, 2012

Nothing Like Whole Foods Grand Market at South Beach

For those who have not been to the Whole Foods Grand Market at the Food Network South Beach Wine & Food Festival, it is hard to describe. The “market” consists of three blocks (on the beach) of food, wine and spirits. There are three rows in each block offering more than anyone could ingest in one day. Still, we all try our best.

The food seminars on the Kitchen Aid states continued throughout the day and I got to catch some of the ones by Rocco Dispirito, Bobby Deen (mom Paula was also on the stage Sunday) and Countess Luann de Lesseps. They were all pretty full and the participants seemed to enjoy both the food and the cooking tips.

The Whole Foods booth was actually a group of booths, from which the samples added up to an entire meal on its own. I really enjoyed the Spinach Feta Pinwheel. It went down perfectly with a Pom Pomegrante Bellini. Speaking of the Bellini, The Wilson Creek Peach Bellini sparkling wine was just great.

It was pretty hot outside, but luckily there were also lots of cool drinks. One of the fan favorites (OK, mine too) was the Cruzan Rum Raspberry Mojito Ice Bar. For those who prefer tequila, Jose Cuervo had some cold samples of their new pre-made margarita. There was also sampling of Harmonie Liqueur, the new offering from Hipnotiq which is a cross between floral and fruity.

Just in time for Passover, L’Chaim is a new vodka brand with a Kosher for Passover wine made from beets. I didn’t get to taste it, but heard from a few that it was pretty good. I did try kosher (but not for Passover) vodka and I liked it, though it’s hard to beat Voli’s Vanilla Espresso, a favorite brand of mine which is low calorie, electrolyte-induced and just bought into by Fergie.

Ginger is finding its way into many cocktails this year and the Domaine de Canton French Ginger Liqueur is a great way to keep up that trend.

Bobby Flay was one of the network stars who were signing (and selling) copies of his book . Among others on hand with their books were Robert Irvine, Anthony Bourdain and Anne Burrell. Former Top Chef Michael Isabella was promoting his Washington, DC restaurant Graffiato, which I’ll have the pleasure of visiting in a few weeks.

After I left the market and I checked out of my perfectly located room at The National, I realized it was another great four days at the South Beach Food Network Wine & Food Festival. I’m sure I will be back next year. 

In the meantime, I will see some of my favorite chefs at the Food & Wine Classicin Aspen. Of course, that’s after my time in Delray Beach & Boca Raton… New York City… Arizona… Virginia & Washington… the Hamptons… and England!