Friday, July 24, 2015

Tasting Through Milwaukee

I had never been to Milwaukee before. I didn’t make it there during my traveling years and I hadn’t been there in the seven years I’ve been living in the Midwest. When I received an invitation to cover one of the biggest music festivals in the world that happened to be in Milwaukee, it didn’t take me long to say, “Yes!”

My friend Lisa, who was living in Green Bay at the time, met me in Milwaukee for a girls’ weekend.

Margaret Casey of Visit Milwaukee picked us up at the Hilton for our first day of tasting and touring.

Our first stop was at Indulgence Chocolatiers. I wish we had a place like this in Champaign.

Julie, the owner of Indulgence, fell in love with the chocolate shops in Europe and decided to open one in Milwaukee. She creates a selection of chocolate truffles, barks, and bars. Then, she pairs them with your choice of white wine, red wine, beer, whiskey, or cheese.

Everything sounded scrumptious and we finally settled on sharing chocolate & cheese and a chocolate and red wine pairings.

It was a great choice and I loved the pairings Julie had come up with. Our favorites were: Petit Nuage cheese with a Citrus Basil Honey Truffle; Riverbend Goat’s Milk cheese with Vanilla Malt Truffle; The Chook Sparkling Shiraz from McLaren Vale, Australia with Raspberry Chipotle Pecan Bar; and a 2012 High Valley Vineyards Cabernet from Lake County with Smoked Cherry and Pine Nut Bark.

We had more than satisfied our sweet tooth when we left Indulgence, but Margaret felt we should at least make a quick stop at PurpleDoor Ice Cream next door, where we fell for their Blackberry Quark and Ginger.

After the ice cream, Margaret drove us around Milwaukee a bit, pointing out some of the hot spots, including the LGBT clubs, historic buildings and Miller, the only major brewery left in a town once known for being a large beer producing area.

We next stopped at Great Lakes Distillery. I had sampled a few of their products before, but I had never been to their distillery to sample everything and I was excited to have the opportunity.

They have a full bar set up with their spirits for both tasting and mixing into cocktails. The spirits did not disappoint. I especially liked the Rehorst Citrus & Honey Vodka, the Rehorst Premium Milwaukee Gin, and Roaring Dan’s Rum.

All of the liqueurs here are made from Wisconsin products in small batches. The Pear Brandy was quite good.

Before we left Great Lakes we met with Founder Guy Rehorst, who gave us a quick tour of the distillery.

Lisa and I went back to the Hilton, where we found a gift basket of all things Milwaukee waiting for us from the tourist board.  

We changed for the evening and Margaret picked us up a little while later.

We headed up to Wolf Peach for dinner. It was on top of a hill with a great view of Milwaukee.

Wolf Peach is all about fresh and locally sourced ingredients and proudly display their vendors on their menu. Because of this, the menu will change with what’s in season and available. While some of the menu items we had may not always be available, we did try to taste some things that appear to be standards on their menu.  

Everything sounded delicious so we each picked a dish or two and decided to share it all.

The Roasted Mushroom Bruschetta was one of my favorites. The mushrooms were meaty and flavorful.              

By the time the pizza – which in itself was a meal – came out we knew we had ordered too much, but it was worth it to at least taste, with goat cheese and fresh peas and mushrooms.

We really didn’t plan on getting dessert, but when the chocolate parfait and lavender ice cream came out we couldn’t help but sample.
We also enjoyed the Crispy Cauliflower, with chickpeas in a paprika seasoning.

After dinner, Lisa and I headed to Summerfest for the first time. We got to hear the Doobie Brothers while sipping drinks on the Harley-Davidson VIP Deck. There were fireworks in the background and it was a pretty great setting to complete the first day in Milwaukee.

Friday, July 17, 2015

Soul Asylum at the House of Blues

Long before I wrote about travel, food, wine, spirits, or even tennis, I was an entertainment writer. I was young and it was a lot of fun going into New York City and seeing plays, movie previews, and concerts. I knew it wasn’t the kind of life that I could keep up with once I was an “adult,” but it was a great time for a while.

I’ve recently received a lot of opportunities to cover music. While I’m not going to make a full time job out of it and trips into the “city” – now Chicago – are not something I can handle nightly, I do like to go to a concert and meet a band whenever possible.

I was especially excited to see Soul Asylum and meet the band backstage at the House of Blues in Chicago.

My friend John accompanied me into downtown and we arrived early enough to do some exploring around Navy Pier and enjoy a cocktail or two.

When we arrived at the House of Blues, there was still plenty of time left before the concert so I asked for a tour. The only House of Blues

I had previously been in was at the Showboat in Atlantic City (it’s now closed) so I had a bit of an idea what the venue looked like. I was especially interested in seeing their Foundation Room as the one in Atlantic City had been one of my favorite clubs.

I found out quickly that, like a lot of other buildings in Chicago, the design here was very unique and fascinating.

While the outside of the building may look simple, the inside of the House of Blues is an architectural delight, especially when it comes to the “opera boxes” and upstairs lounge. It’s definitely worth going to a concert for that alone.

Unfortunately, I couldn't get any decent photos in here, but the oriental design and comfortable couch areas make it a special night spot.

If you are just looking for a bite before the show, the House of Blues also has a restaurant, Crossroads, with a casual menu. They even have live music in there.

As for the music I came to see, Soul Asylum was phenomenal. We sat in one of the opera boxes just above the stage, after we had a chance to go backstage and meet the band. They were very gracious and volunteered to take photos with me (read my interview with Soul Asylum here).

I’m excited to add more music into my coverage this summer, with Summerfest, the Illinois State Fair, and Riot Fest. 

Friday, July 10, 2015

Toasting to the Final Share Istria Adventure - Day Six

I woke up in my suite at Hotel Lone knowing it would be my last morning in Istria. Although my friend Lynn and I would be staying in Croatia a few more days, this was the last day we would be spending with the Share Istria group, a terrific set of guys we had gotten to know well.

It was the first place Lynn and I had our own hotel rooms so we met down at the restaurant for breakfast. 

The Hotel Lone in Rovinj has one of the biggest buffet breakfasts I have ever seen, and it was included with our room.
The rows of fruit, cheese, Danishes, croissants, meats, eggs, yogurt, and covered half of the large dining room.

I took my selection of a yogurt smoothies, chocolate croissant, brie and spinach quiche out to the deck.

It looked to be another comfortably warm day in this area of Croatia

We sipped our cappuccinos for a bit before going to our rooms to get ready for a full day.

Goran Franinovic of the Istria Tourism Board had been our guide throughout the week, and a perfect one at that. His colleague, Marko Markovic, whom we met on the first day, would be taking over from here.

Most of our days had been exploring the seaside villages of Istria, but today we were heading up to the mountains to Grožnjan, often called the “City of Artists.”

It may have not been on the Adriatic Sea, but it had the same warmth I felt all over this region of Istria.

We had lattes in a café that was lined with art as we were briefed on the tour we would take through the cobblestone alleyways and into art galleries of Grožnjan.
Lynn, an artist herself who specializes in silver jewelry design, was especially interested in the art, which varied from ceramic to wood carvings to coral pieces.  

After a few hours we headed to CUJ Winery and Olive Oil. While it’s not a combination those of us in the U.S. are used to, it is very common for Istrian wineries to also produce olive oil.

We walked through the vineyards and toured the production area at CUJ. It was set up for strictly small batches. We tasted both wine and oil and really enjoyed both.

Our next stop was in Umag at Konoba Buscina for lunch. It was a picturesque setting and Marko, our guide, told us to expect a delicious lunch.

We were not disappointed as we feasted on goat cheese, prosciutto, grilled meat, pasta with freshly grated truffles, and more olive oil and wine.

Marko dropped us off at the hotel and we said our goodbyes to him. He and Goran had gone above and beyond in making us feel comfortable and welcomed in Istria.

I was happy to have some free time to explore the grounds of Hotel Lone. I even took a walk down to the beach area and did a few laps in the pool before returning to my room, where the infinity Jacuzzi on my balcony was warm and comforting.

I decided to dress up a bit for the final night as long as we had time. I was actually the first to arrive in the lobby, but Lynn, Rocky, Nicolas, Andras, and Georgy quickly followed. I wondered if the other Share Istria groups had gotten along as well as we had.

On our first visit to Rovinj a few days previous, we had remarked that the Valentino Champagne Bar was an amazing place for cocktails and Goran had arranged for us to go there before dinner.

Valentino was on a hill and they set it up so you could actually sit along the rocks that climbed down to the Adriatic Sea. Two things made it even more breathtaking – a specialty Moet & Chandon Champagne drinks in specially designed glasses, and the opportunity to watch the sunset under these once in a lifetime circumstances.

We continued to watch the sun fade away over the Adriatic Sea as we walked a few doors down to have dinner at Puntulina.

Our last meal was as memorable as our first, with the freshest Italian and Croatian food flowing, along with the Istrian wine I had come to love.

Platters of prosciutto, cheese, meat, and pasta kept coming. Lynn and I, who are both allergic to seafood, were a bit jealous when we saw the plates for the men, but our food and rich desserts were also pretty amazing.

We walked back through the Rovinj Piazza. The weekend was nearing and more people were coming down. There were even musicians playing in the background.

It was definitely a bittersweet night as we all said goodbye in the Hotel Lone lobby. Although we had talked about going to a club our last night, we were too tired, saying “Zbogom” to our Istrian adventure.

While this marks the end of the Share Istria adventure, look for more stories on that week in my other outlets (search #ShareIstriaUSA1, the designation given to Lynn and I). The rest of the Croatian trip through Rijeka and Split will be coming soon.

Friday, July 3, 2015

Truffles, Mines, and Mistletoe - Day Five in Istria

My friend Lynn and I slept well in our last night at BiVillage in Fazana, Croatia. We were comfortable in our little cottage just a short walk from the Adriatic Sea.

We could have easily just stayed there and enjoyed the beach, but we had plenty more to see in Istria.

After a breakfast of fruit, cheese, yogurt, and croissants, we headed back to the house to get packed up and wait for Goran of the Visit Istria Tourism office to pick us.

It was the fifth day we would be traveling in the familiar van with the other writers and guests, Rocky, Nicolas, Andras, and Gyorgy. It was a great group and we were all having lots of fun together on the Share Istria Adventure.

Our first stop of the day was in Labin. I could never get tired of these small Istrian towns as they each had their own personality.

Labin was once a mining town and we got to actually go through a replica of a mine. I don’t know how those men did it, my back was hurting from being hunched over for just a few minutes.

After exploring the Mining Museum and the tools used for mining, we explored more of the artifacts at Museie Gallerie Dell Istria.

We also got to check out some of the art galleries in the town, which is very popular with artists looking for a scenic place to work.

Lynn, an artist herself, and I loved walking around the downtown and looking at the handmade items, but we didn’t have too long to browse before we got into the car and drove to our lunch at Konoba Vrh.

The meal there was my favorite to date. We had two different soups, Nettles and Minestrone, and three types of pasta, spinach, asparagus, and truffles. It was served with beef.

From the restaurant we didn’t have far to go for an activity I had been looking forward to since first getting my itinerary for the trip – truffle hunting.

When we arrived at Karlić Tartufi in Buzet, they had some of their brandy waiting for us. I loved the cherry brandy, but can’t say I’m a huge fan of the mistletoe. I think I’ll just use mine to hang up at Christmas.

After we finished our drinks we went outside to the vans. The dogs that they used for hunting were as excited as us, jumping right into the back of the van when they were told where we were going.

It was a fun experience I will remember and hope to repeat. We were running through the woods following the dogs. They definitely knew what they were doing and they twice found black truffles.

Before we left we stopped at the Karlić Tartufi store. I bought some truffles to take home with me. They were quite reasonably priced.

We then drove back to Rovinj to check into the Lone Hotel. We had been told this was a five star hotel, but, quite frankly, five star hotels in Europe aren’t always what you expect. This one was.

Hotel Lone is a contemporary designed accommodation with lots of open space. The same held true for my room, which had an infinite plunge pool on the balcony

Goran got to go home for a rare night off (he’s one of the hardest working people I’ve ever met) and we walked to downtown Rovinj for dinner.

The guys raved about the large selection of delicious seafood. Lynn and I, who are allergic to shellfish had some antipasto, including locally cured meats, and a tasty snap pea dish with pomegranate seeds.

We also enjoyed a few glasses of different locally produced Istrian wines, including a malvasia and a dessert wine served with a scrumptious cream cake and some cheeses.

It was a beautiful night for our walk back to Lone Hotel. By the time we returned we were exhausted and ready for a good night’s sleep – and our final full day in Istria.