Friday, May 30, 2014

Food Festival, Boulud and Secrets Farewell

It was another beautiful day in Cancun as I woke up refreshed at Secrets The Vine.

I wasn’t rushing anywhere this morning so I went down for breakfast in the Market CafĂ©.  The selection was as big as it had been for lunch the previous day.

I had a little of everything, including one of my Mexican favorites, Chilaquiles. These are tortilla chips soaked in a green chile sauce (it can also be made with red sauce) and topped with cheese.

After breakfast, I changed into my bathing suit and met up with my fellow journalists at the Preferred pool.

It had a unique infinity setting that made you feel like you were floating in the middle of nowhere. We enjoyed some cocktails and chatted about how unique this setting was.

In the afternoon, we all headed to the Gourmet Tasting Village at the Moon Palace Resort. It was very different from ones I had been to at previous wine and food Festivals. It was smaller and had a bigger concentration on food than personalities or food products.

I sampled a selection of wine, mostly from Mexico and other Latin countries.  One that I really enjoyed was the Vallformosa Mistinguett Cava Brut from Catalonia, Spain.

All of the major resorts and restaurants in the area also had booths with samples of food from their restaurants. 

Since we were on one of their properties, Palace Resorts had quite a selection.  I enjoyed sampled Dona Pura sauces and preserves, and lots of chocolates

Also participating in the festival were students from Gastronomia, who made some delicious treats.  In fact, I have to say I was most impressed with their offerings.

We had a few hours before the banquet for Daniel Boulud and I took advantage of them to enjoy the main pool and beach some more. It was, after all, my last day.

The formal Tribute Dinner was held just downstairs at Secrets The Vine. It began with a cocktail hour by Taittinger Champagne.

The wine pairing dinner was coordinated by top chefs and sommeliers who participated in the festival, including Oliver Augeard and Elyse Lambert.

The chefs prepared items that were inspired by Boulud, such as a Saint Jacques Carpaccio and Beef Indochine braised in a sweet soy sauce.  All the chefs were recognized on stage before Festival Director David Amar presented Daniel Boulud with his award.

I had my final night of sleep in my junior suite at Secrets The Vine.. I took one more look at the breathtaking view of the Caribbean Sea from my balcony before grabbing my bags to leave in the morning.  I was definitely regretting not adding another day to the trip, but I knew I would be back. 

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Secrets at the Cancun Wine and Food Festival

It was another beautiful day in Cancun and I took advantage at the start with a room service delivered breakfast on my balcony at Secrets The Vine.

I didn’t have a lot of time to get ready for the first event of the Cancun-Riviera Maya Wine and Food Festival, the press conference with Garry Manuel Tattinger, Dave Amar and the star of the festival, Daniel Boulud.

I’ve been to wine and food festivals in Atlantic City, New York, Aspen and South Beach, but this was my first time attending the Cancun-Riviera Maya one.

It is hard to be a food-lover and not be in amour with Boulud, chef and restaurateur extraordinaire. That feeling was even stronger after listing to him talk about his journey around the world learning about and celebrating food before he landed in New York and produced his most famous restaurants.

There was a lot of talk about protecting the environment, GMOs and using locally sourced ingredients, all things that are becoming very popular in Mexico.

After the press conference, we attended a number of seminars taking place at Secrets The Vine. The first was “The Future of Cuisine” with Chef Normand Laprise of Canada. He spoke about “cooking from scraps” and not wasting product, whether it is meat, fruit, vegetables or fish.

Guillermo Gonzalez Beristain then talked about his (successful) quest to bring gastronomy to Monterrey, Mexico and how he worked with the fact that there wasn’t a lot of meat in the area.

“There wasn’t a lot to eat,” he said. “We had to learn to use everything.” This included the figs and lemons that grew freely in the area.

Last, but certainly not least, Daniel Boulud spoke about his history that started as a young teenager in Lyon, France, and went through London, and on to New York.

Boulud also talked about re-inventing dishes, “A chef wants to be known for a dish, but you don’t want it to stick to you too long. You need to re-invent yourself.”

By the time we got out of the seminars, we were all very hungry. I headed to the Market Cafe with Donna Heiderstadt, a longtime friend whom I had gone to college with. Despite the fact that the buffet was about to close we were impressed with the selection of fresh food.

I took a selection, from eggplant to tostadas and gazpacho.

We had a little free time in the afternoon and I was more than ready to hit the pool with a cocktail. It was warm and sunny out and my fellow journalists all had the same idea.

I had forgotten how beautiful the beach was in Cancun and Secrets had the perfect setting for it. After enjoying it for a bit I met up with the group for a tour of the hotel.

I was happily surprised to find a large sports bar at the resort, Half Time. There was also a wine bar (with a huge selection), and coffee bar I hadn’t visited yet with a selection of coffee drinks, pastries, and soft pretzels.

I also hadn’t realized that my Preferred Club suite allowed me access to a pool for just those in that section. It had its own restaurant and bar.

We toured a number of suites, including the Master Suite and Honeymoon Suite, which had a bathtub in the room, unlike the others. Given the high rise stature of this particular Secrets, the majority of the rooms did not have tubs.

Before heading back to the room to change, I was able to see an incredible night view of the strip of Cancun with both bodies of water.

I can’t even begin to describe how much I enjoyed the meal at the Dragon. It took a village (from AMResorts, RBBpr and the kitchen staff of the restaurant) to put together a safe and incredibly delicious meal for me.

It had been years since I had eaten in an Asian restaurant. It had involved too many hospital trips.

It’s very difficult for a cuisine that relies on seafood and fish sauce to make something safe for someone with a severe allergy to eat.

Dragon not only accomplished this, but they did it with THREE dishes I love: Wonton Soup, Chicken Pad Thai and Vegetable Tempura. Everything was cooked for me in a separate part of the kitchen from the fish and it was done to perfection.

Some of the group went to Secrets’ Red Piano Bar for music and dancing after dinner. I didn’t stay long because I knew I had another long day ahead of me. It would be filled with exploring the Cancun-Riviera Maya Wine and Food Festival, as well as Secrets The Vine.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Secrets Return to Cancun

I was excited to get an invitation by AMResorts and the Cancun-Riviera Maya Food Festival to check out the event and the luxury all-inclusive Secrets The Vine. The opportunity to return to Cancun, Mexico, after a number of years was interesting in itself, but the chance to cover the festival and stay at one of my favorite resort brands was too good to pass up.

It was still cool when I left the Midwest, though the travel went smoothly and included an American Airlines upgrade. They served a breakfast soufflé in first class that I can honestly say was delicious and I am always a fan of their accompanying biscuits.

I got through customs in Cancun Airport rather quickly and my driver was waiting to take me on the 15 minute trip to Secrets The Vine. The only thing that wasn’t going right was the weather, but the rain wasn’t going to damper my mood on this day.

My suite was in the Preferred Club, which comes with a private check-in and extra room amenities. I was given a glass of champagne and escorted to the floor for a private check-in.

I admired the view behind the desk and was delighted to hear that it was the same as the one from my balcony.

The suite was big and beautiful and I couldn’t have asked for a better view (and there were two loveseats on the balcony to enjoy it from). My only objection was that there was no bathtub. I was spoiled at Secrets Maroma with a large tub in the room and a Jacuzzi on the balcony. Secrets The Vine had only a shower, albeit a large one with multiple jets.

As for the rest of the room, it was spacious and had a large king bed, comfy robes, a sitting area, mini bar filled with alcohol, beer and snacks, and a large bathroom. The room also had complimentary WiFi and telephone calls.

I was on my own for the afternoon. I ordered a sandwich and ice tea from room service (always included at Secrets), unpacked and then changed into a comfy robe. The rest of my day was to be spent at the spa. As you can imagine, I had no objection to that.

It was a dream afternoon.  I am lucky enough to go to spas often, but I usually don’t have free time before and after treatments. On this day I was able to fully enjoy Secrets' large and well-appointed spa, using the sauna, steam room and hydrotherapy. I then even had time to take a nap in the relaxation room with my eyes covered in cucumbers and a cool towel.

My Vinotherapy treatment came next for another hour and a half of heaven.  I had an oil massage, scrub, lotion massage and then facial, all with wine-based products. I left the spa feeling rested and smooth!

I did not partake in the “Fish Spa.” I had seen this at GranVelas in Riviera Maya. Despite the fact that a few people I know have tried it and said that with a “tickle” the fish really do remove dead skin for soft skin on your feet, I’m not anxious to try it.

I changed into my evening clothes and made it down to the lobby before the rest of the group and relaxed even further with an Absolut Raspberri and soda (even premium brands are included at Secrets).

The journalists on this trip were all wonderful ladies, some I knew, and some I got to know. Among them, I finally got to catch up with Sue Campbell, whom I went on a fantastic spa trip to Arizona with a few years ago, and Donna Heiderstadt.

Donna and I had actually gone to college together many years ago. It is pretty ironic that we both ended up becoming travel writers, but Donna’s experience in this particular niche definitely trumps mine. We have kept in touch for the decades since college. This was our first trip together, though.

We had a special cocktail party and welcome dinner planned at the Blue Water Grill on the Secrets The Vine property. We walked to the restaurant past the pools and I got to see a bit of the property.

We got caught up and acquainted over one of my favorite summer drinks, a simple pineapple juice with coconut rum. We also had some hors d'oeuvres with a big dinner to come.

The wine-paired dinner was mostly fish and seafood so I missed a lot of it. Everyone raved about it and I knew there would be plenty of spectacular meals to come.

I did have some other courses, including an excellent Asparagus Soup with a cheese breadstick; a wonderful salad; and lamb, which was a bit rare for me. Desert was accompanied with some of the most delectable chocolates I’ve ever had and I had quite a few.

Everyone was pretty tired and retired right after dinner even though there was plenty of activity still going on at the resort. I was back at the room at 11:00, contently exhausted and ready to rest up for a full day at the Cancun-Riviera Maya Food Festival

Monday, May 5, 2014

Chicago Getaway: Kinzie Hotel and Howells & Hood

I was in the habit of heading to Chicago every month or two to check out a hotel and some restaurants, but my workload had me traveling so much out of the country that it had been a while since I’d been to the Windy City. I grabbed the chance when I heard about a new hotel in town.

I headed into Chicago with a friend for the easiest trip there I’d had in a very long time. I almost (note that I said “almost”) felt guilty about just staying at one hotel and going to one restaurant, but we had both been working our tails off the previous few weeks and needed the break.

It was an easy two hour drive to downtown. The Kinzie Hotel is located in the building that once housed the Amalfi, though you might not recognize it now. It’s a thoroughly modernized boutique property with some very interesting amenities.

It’s always been my pet peeve that the more expensive the hotel (especially in big cities), the less you get.

If you stay in a chain’s lowest property, you’ll get a host of amenities at no charge, but if you stay in their highest priced property, you’ll pay $30 a day for internet! It never made much sense to me and I’m glad to hear more properties agree.

The Kinzie is definitely not an especially expensive hotel, but it does have a chic feel in an intimate setting of only 215 rooms.  

Our Deluxe Corner room had a view of Harry Caray’s Italian Steakhouse through large windows. We also had a IHome Docking Station, a Keurig with a gourmet coffee and tea setup, WiFi, a pillow top mattress, and a nice size bathroom with dual shower heads. That was all complimentary and it wasn’t even the best of the free offerings.

The Double Cross Lounge offers a Manager’s Reception every evening from 5:00-8:00 pm and I was quite impressed. The cozy tables for two and the murals made for a nice setting to enjoy your choice of cocktails, beer or wine, along with a tasteful buffet that included charcuterie, cheeses, and veggie kabobs.

We had two drinks each and a bit of the food while we unwound from the week, but we had dinner reservations so we weren’t going to overdo.

It was a short walk from the hotel to Michigan Avenue, where Howells and Hood is located in the ground floor of the Tribune Tower. I had never been here before and was drawn to it the minute I heard they had 114 beers on tap – the largest selection in Chicago.

I think everyone knows by now that I don’t really drink beer, but I always come prepared with a beer taster when needed. I knew he couldn’t possibly taste all the offerings so I asked the waitress to recommend two of the flights.

Howells and Hood has four different flights on their menu. Patrons are also encouraged to create their own with four beers of your choice.

The first flight came with four beers: North Coast Pranqster, good citrus and hops taste; Green Flash Le Freak, less fruity with less hops, but stronger;  Lagunitas New Dogtown, more of a barley taste and sweeter hops; and Stone Arrogant Bastard, a bit more bitter, though this is a very popular beer.

Even though he isn’t a big bourbon fan, he did like the Alltech Kentucky Bourbon Barrel Ale (smooth with an interesting orangey taste) and the Tyranena Rocky’s Revenge (very Guiness-like).

Of course, I’d never let a friend drink alone. I ordered La Flora Collins from the cocktail menu (Bombay Sapphire, St. Germain, lemon, sugar and San Pelligrino).

It was so good that I ordered another before switching to the Eden Valley Sauvignon Blanc on tap, I felt wasn’t quite as flavorful as in the bottle. 
The Signolo Pinot Grigio worked a bit better tapped. 

We also deferred to the waitress when it came to choosing from the extensive menu and opted to go with lots of the small plates instead of entrees. She came up with a wonderful selection.

The house-made charcuterie was just terrific, as was the Mac N’ Cheese, but the Lamb Meatballs were the best. They were made with Cedar Springs Lamb and black garlic, with house-made ricotta.

The waitress described the desserts and there was no way we could resist. She brought out a basket filled with mini Pumpkin doughnuts and a Peanut Butter Snickers Pie. We ate a few of the delicious doughnuts, but finished ever last drop of that pie!

After one of the best night’s sleep in ages, it was time for breakfast. One of the attractions of the Kinzie Hotel is that they put out a continental breakfast on every floor. Whether you bring it into bed or enjoy it on the couch in your room while taking in the view (like we did), you don’t even have to get out of your robe and go far to get it.

I also have to say it was an expanded continental breakfast with fresh fruit, yogurt, cereal, muffins and Danish, as well as juice, milk, coffee and tea.

It was too short a getaway, but the Kinzie and Howells and Hood made it just right. While I don’t know that I’d recommend the combination for a family trip, both places are perfect for a romantic weekend, or some fun with friends.