Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Kayaks in Sonoma and Tasting Time in Marin

I usually make a few trips a year to Northern California to visit family and wine country. This year has been more hectic than usual and I haven’t made it at all, so as soon as I had the chance, I was ready to visit some two of my favorite Marin eateries before heading off to Napa and Sonoma.

The weekend actually started with a wine country preview, but not my usual kind. I had my first taste of kayaking on the Russian River in Healdsburg thanks to my friend Tracy. I had lots of fun and wish I could have stayed out there as long as my niece and nephew, both of whom are quite the adventurous athletes.

I realized just how beautiful this area of Sonoma was and I had just driven by it all for years on my way to wineries. I vowed to do some more exploration in the future of more than just the grapes along the Russian River.

While I did discover something new in Sonoma, I was perfectly happy returning to the old while spending the weekend in Marin.

I first visited the Panama Hotel in San Rafael back in 2010, when Christine Bohlke of the MarinCounty Convention and Visitors Bureau took me there for dinner. I loved the quaint restaurant with the piano player crooning on the weekends.

While this “hotel” only has a handful of rooms, the restaurant offers an array of surprises. This is especially true when it comes to brunch. I’ve never been disappointed and this time was no different.

We started passing around the Trio of Housemade Scones, accompanied with mascarpone, strawberry jam and orange jam. I started with a little piece dipped in mascarpone and didn’t want to stop. They were much lighter than most scones and flavorful even without the jam.

Most of the family went for the seafood dishes they were always happy with. The Panama Restaurant offers three eggs benedict varieties that are very popular, the standard with Canadian bacon, Eggs Florentine with smoked salmon and spinach and Eggs San Francisco, with the poached eggs on top of Dungeness crab cakes.

I enjoyed the Mediterranean Scramble, three eggs with garlic, sun dried tomatoes, feta cheese and basil, served with tasty Panama Potatoes.

To make sure everything goes down, I recommend ordering “Make Your Own Mimosas” for the table. You’ll get a bottle of sparkling wine with a half-liter of fresh squeezed orange juice ($40).

The other spot I don’t want to miss on a trip to Marin is Iron Springs Pub &Brewery in Fairfax. Owner Mike Altman went to school with my brother back in New York and he and his wife built a place that’s popular for its food, brew and involvement in the community. Since 2008, the pub has had a “Give Back Tuesday Program,” donating 10% of the day’s sales every Tuesday to a local nonprofit.

Those sales have continued to increase over the years thanks to interesting beers on tap (have you ever tried Oyster or Oatmeal Stout?), which can be delivered by the Ambrewlance.  You can also pick up bottles at local stores and Whole Foods throughout Northern California.

Of course, the Iron Springs beers are available at the pub and we had a couple of samplers on the table, including the Golden Blonde Ale, winner of a bronze medal at the 2011 Great American Beer Festival. It went well with a table favorite, the Fish Tacos.

I went for the Dark Ale Braised Pulled Pork Sandwich this time, a tough choice over another pork favorite here, Miguel’s Famous Poc Chuc (grilled marinated boneless pork loin with red onions, tomato salsa, Mexican rice, guacamole and black beans, served with corn tortillas).

I wished I had a few more days to explore Marin, but I was off to Napa and Sonoma with my first stay at Vintner’s Inn.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

History, Wineries and More in Niagara Falls

The morning started at The Giacomo in Niagara Falls, with their delicious European style breakfast. My friend Lynn and I each had a full plate of eggs, potatoes and a danish in preparation of a full day of walking – and wine tasting.

Michelle Blackley of Niagara USA picked us up for our private tour of Old Fort Niagara, which is just across from Toronto, Canada.  It has become an important part of history for the United States, France and Great Britain as all fought for control of the Great Lakes region.

Today Old Fort Niagara stands above Lake Ontario much as it had three hundred years ago. It is a NY State Historic Site, as well as a National Historic Landmark, and well worth touring for the glimpse into past history it offers.

After touring the fort we were off to the Niagara Wine Trail. While it’s not an area ready to rival New York’s Finger Lakes, I was impressed with the variety offered in this area because of the longer growing season this region offers as Lake Ontario never freezes.

Our first stop was Freedom Run Winery. They manage to cover both ends of the spectrum. They have a fantastic 2011 Vin Gris Estate, a dry rose from pinot noir, merlot and cabernet with a strawberry nose and the taste of ripe berries.  On the other end, they make a gew├╝rztraminer that’s floral, tropical and refreshing and delicious fruit “nektars” that aren’t too sweet (the raspberry was my favorite).

Arrowhead Springs Vineyard was the next stop and here I also found a mixture from dry reds to sweet whites. I even discovered a 2009 Sauvignon Blanc that was almost as grassy and tropical as the New Zealand ones. It’s the ice wines, though, Arrowhead is famous for and I couldn’t argue with that fact after tasting the 2005 Vidal Blanc Ice Wine. It was a luscious combination of green apple, apricot, pineapple and mango that’s a bargain at $40.00.

Eveningside Vineyards was our final winery of the day and I discovered that there were even more grapes growing in this area as I tasted the 2011 Crofton Street Catawba with a hint of apricot in a semi dry rose.  They also impressed me with the 2011 Raven, a riesling and chardonnay combo that tasted like an apple-pear combination on a fresh summer day.

We stopped at Macri’s Italian Grille, a local favorite, for lunch and I enjoyed my eggplant rollatini and Beans & Greens Soup before it was time for me to relax at the Barton Hill Hotel & Spa in Lewiston while Lynn spent some time walking around this quaint town.

I really liked this large inn off the pier, but was even happier to be in their quiet spa for my facial, which included a steam, clarifying cleanser, exfoliator, avocado and peppermint oil cream mask, d├ęcolletage and scalp massage and a correcting moisturizer.

We had been scheduled to stay in Lewiston for lunch at Carmelo’s, but we weren’t yet hungry and opted to head back to the hotel. After a rest we walked down to the Seneca Niagara Casino and filled up on their new buffet, one of the largest I’ve ever seen. The food was fresh and filling.

All too soon the Buffalo/Niagara trip was over, but I’m sure it won’t be another 20 years until I’m back in this area. 

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Niagara Falls – Not Just for Honeymooners

Niagara Falls is certainly a romantic place, but it’s been a long time since it was known as “the” spot just for honeymoons.  Activities and accommodations now exist for everyone and I found it to be an especially good place for a getaway with my friend Lynn.

We arrived early afternoon from Buffalo, only a short half hour away. Our check-in at The Giacomo was quick and we soon learned that this restored U.S. Post Office building had a location was perfectly centered in the middle of everything.

Michelle Blackley of Niagara USA met us in front of the building and we took a short walk the Culinary Institute of Niagara, where we were eating at their Savor restaurant. I had the homemade gnocchi and it was quite good, slow cooked in Bolognese sauce with fresh burrata cheese. For dessert, I enjoyed the Apple Caramel Pie. Lynn decided to go for a dessert sampler of small bites so she didn’t have to make up her mind.

Before we left the Culinary Institute we stopped in their wine shop. It was filled with wines from New York, many from the Finger Lakes and Niagara. We had a few samples and I was really impressed with the McGregor Seyval Blanc, citrusy and refreshing on what turned out to be an especially hot day.

We then drove to Niagara Falls State Park to meet Angela Berti for our private golf cart tour of the oldest state park in the United States. I had no idea how big the park was and didn’t remember (it had been many years since I visited) that there are actually three different falls – American, Bridal Veil and Horseshoe.

If you have never been to Niagara Falls, it’s hard to describe the beauty and uniqueness of each of the falls. The park offers a number of ways for guided tours if you don’t want to explore on your own. There’s the Cave of the Winds Tour, Maid of the Mist boat ride and the Niagara Scenic Trolley. You can also visit the Discovery Center to learn about the park and the falls, or hike Niagara Gorge.

Before we left we were actually able to see a rainbow over the falls by the Canadian bridge (yes, the park is that close to the border) that was quite spectacular.

After the park, I had the ultimate relaxation at Seneca Niagara Casino & Hotel, where I spent an hour enjoying the spa facilities. I was able to indulge in their Mango-Passion Fruit Yogurt wrap, which made my skin soft and bright. Lynn, in the meantime, managed to win a few dollars at the casino.

We were hungry after a long day and headed straight to Wine on Third. The food and drink menus were both quite unique and I was glad it was small plates so we could try a few different things.

I couldn’t possibly say no to a Cheesecake Martini and it really did taste like my favorite cake, though it was made with vanilla vodka, cranberry and pineapple juices. The Havarti Macaroni and Cheese was also quite good, but the hit of the night was the Saganaki.

It was made right at the table where kasseri cheese is melted over hot lava rocks and flamed with cognac!  We ate the Saganaki with rosemary olive oil, basil pesto and tomato pesto sauces and it was excellent.

Michelle dropped us back at The Giacomo hotel. Since it wasn’t too late, we relaxed a bit in the bar and talked about what was still too come -- which included checking out the wines of Niagara -- over a chilled glass of sauvignon blanc.