in search of the perfect restaurant meal
Part Two: Varenna and Venice, i.e., Italy, where pasta and gnocchi reign supreme! From Barcelona we headed to northern Italy, landing in Milan and taking a train directly to Varenna, a lovely town situated on Lake Como. (Well, to rephrase...the Milan airport is NOT close to the city but after a couple of trial and error attempts with a finicky train ticket machine, we managed to take a train to the city center of Milan and THEN navigate our way through the confusion of finding the correct train to Varenna.) Needless to say, no time for lunch!
Happily, our hotel in a tiny little haven in the hills was a five-minute taxi ride from the train station. We were deposited at the Hotel du Lac, just 8 minutes after arriving, checked in within 5 and out on the cobblestone path to find sustenance within 20 minutes of landing in Varenna. The weather was a little drizzly so searched no further than il Nilus, where we sat on the covered patio directly at water's edge to have our first meal in Italy. Starvation had no bearing on the deliciousness of our roasted sopressata-potato-gorgonzola pizza, which we immediately scarfed down with a glass of wine. Oh my. Superb.
Did I mention that within the 20 minutes from train stop to seated for lunch, we managed to ask our hotel receptionist/concierge/girl Friday to find a reservation for dinner? She found us a table at La Vista, a terraced restaurant atop the Albergo Milano Hotel. It's a tiny town but we experienced some trouble finding which little alleyway to climb. But so worth the search, steep hill, and confusion. Sitting outside, wrapped in a fleece blanket provided with each and every table, we watched as the lights twinkled on in Menaggio, the town directly across Lake Como from Varenna. After the hustle and bustle of the big city Barcelona, we were drawn into the calm, quiet beauty of the water and the Alps that towered above.
And our dinner! What a fabulous meal we had that evening. The menu offered a la carte and either a 3 course or 4 course fixed price option which included the entire menu. If you tell me I can have a starter, first course, second course and dessert for 45 euro...it's a no brainer! After all, this is RESEARCH! I definitely researched my way to satiation in the most delicious fashion.
- Starter- RB: charcuterie platter, JB: velvety potato soup
- Primi- RB: ravioli with seafood, JB: risotto with scallops
- Secondi- RB: baked lake fish with creamed potatoes, JB: lamb shank osso bucco
- Dessert- RB: cheese plate, JB: chocolate cake with raspberry sauce
Oof. It was too much food. But so enjoyable.
On the dawn of our 5th day in Europe, we had a light breakfast in the hotel cafe and went out to explore Varenna. At 10am, we were picked up by van to take us to Ristorante il Caminetto (in the hills of Perledo), for a day-long cooking class. Our driver was also the chef, owner and instructor, Moreno Maglia. It was a delightful six hours...Moreno is charming, humorous and well-versed in American culture. The class was made up of two other couples from the US, a couple from Manchester, England, two young girls from Poland and a lady from the Netherlands. We watched our host prep a veal roast, form pasta dough entirely with his hands, and we learned to shape gnocchi. Then he rolled and cut the pasta, adding a dollop of ricotta filling to each square and allowed us to shape the packets into tortelloni. He demonstrated one porcini mushroom sauce for the gnocchi and then a fresh tomato topping for the tortelloni. And finally, we lunched on all of these amazing dishes, helping ourselves to refills of wine and laughing at his references to American rock and roll and movie stars. If you are ever in the Lake Como area for a few days, I highly recommend this cooking class--such an insight into meal prep at a small local restaurant. I loved it.
Following the class and being dropped back in our little town square, we had just enough time to walk to the train station and meet our son, who arrived from Rome after a semester at John Cabot University. What a happy sight to see him step off that train! He looked taller, wiser, and tired; it was so wonderful to put our arms around him after 4 months apart.
That evening, we had a very late supper at Osteria Quatro Pass, another tiny restaurant. Sometimes it is a challenge to order food coherently when trying to soak up each moment with a child you haven't seen in some time. But we managed to have a delightful meal which we shared family style: salumi board, cheese plate, seafood spaghettoni, fish fillets in an almond sauce, and a cheese ravioli before consuming a sweet apple tart to finish. Note: you can never order too much food when you have a 21-year-old at the table.
The next morning, the three of us hiked to Castello de Vezio, a wonderful castle ruin with beautiful views overlooking the lake and town below. It was a gorgeous morning and the hike was a perfect bit of exercise after the previous day spent wining and dining.
That afternoon we headed to Venice which also provided some physical exertion in the manner of hauling our luggage through tiny little streets, inaccessible to any other form of traffic. We spent a quick 24 hours touring with just one real sit-down meal. A carafe of wine, a little bourbon, some lasagna, gnocchi, and fried calamari was consumed and delighted in while sitting at a small table on a cobblestone street, 15 steps from our hotel. The next morning when we walked through that same street, any evidence of the quaint little eatery with a gregarious host had been shuttered away, only to be discovered again later in the day by other lucky wanderers.
Next week: follow along as we wrap up our trip in the City of Lights. ❤️ Ruth
Three countries. Five cities. Ten days. It was an ambitious trip but we managed to accomplish two end goals: bring our son home from his semester abroad and eat our way across several different regions. We were also able to celebrate 30 years of marriage with every glass of champagne or prosecco, beginning on the flight over! So the journey was a success and I am excited to share so many delicious memories with my readers.
Our flight touched down in Barcelona in the early morning and we hit the ground running. After a quick Cafe Americano at the charming Cotton House hotel, we hopped on a bus to drive by popular sites and get our bearings. Ignoring the chilly weather and any tinges of jet-lag, we capped off our first evening with a walking Tapas Tour. If you know me at all, you know that I L-O-V-E nibble food, so I was more than ready to check out this very Spanish style of noshing.
Our guide led us and two other couples through the Mercat de la Boqueria where we sampled Serrano Jamon and Manchego cheese from little paper cones, nibbled on cocoa covered hazelnuts and gaped at the butcher stands where EVERY part of the animal was available for purchase. We also visited two different style Tapas Bars--the first served popular tapas family style at the table: Patatas Bravas, fresh tomato bread, marinated peppers and veggies, croquetas, and Tortilla Española all came out in little dishes to be shared by the group. The second establishment offered a pinchos buffet. In this style of bar, you help yourself to any number of tapas varieties, all skewered on toothpicks, and the server simply counts the number of empty picks on your plate to calculate your bill. Seafood figured heavily into these offerings.
My takeaways from casual food in Barcelona:
- Amazing slices of bread on which you spread fresh tomatoes that are so tender, they burst open when you rub the fruit on the crispy surface
- Spanish extra-virgin olive oil which I loved drizzling over the above mentioned bread
- Paper thin slices of jamon (spanish ham)
- Salty, delicious manchego, a sheep's milk cheese that makes my heart sing
You could serve me the above items any night of the week and I would call it dinner! So first day/night done, and we were able to see a little of the city, taste some of it's flavors, partake of some wine and we were off to a great start.
The next day dawned cold and rainy in the city so we headed out on an hour train ride to visit Montserrat and the monastery set in the mountain. Our lunch at the Restaurant Montserrat was surprisingly lovely--surprising because most of the patrons are tourists and we've all experienced mediocrity of touristy establishments--lovely due to the inexpensive bottle of wine we shared (thought we were ordering a couple of glasses, got the entire bottle!), the fresh tomato bread, and the seafood we consumed.
That evening marked another culinary milestone for us...we dined at a Three-Star Michelin restaurant: Lasarte was elegant, subdued, and pleasantly meticulous. The service was perfection, casually friendly but at the same time, oh so professional. After we made our course decisions, a parade of amuse bouche found its way to the table. My favorite: a jalapeño ice cream that melted into a foam with a single salty clam. And of course, I loved the array of flavored butters presented in tiny little logs to accompany our bread selections. There were five flavors to choose from and I couldn't eat enough bread to sample them all! Our main courses of Chargrilled Pigeon (him) and Sea Bass (me) were stunning. It was a gastronomically excellent night and a wonderful way to celebrate our anniversary.
Our final day in Barcelona was spent self-touring the cathedral and Ramblas area and a quick stop at the beach. For a mid-morning snack, we stumbled upon a pastry shop, Caelum, where we sipped cappuccino and agonized over which nun-produced pastries we wanted to try. No lie: the shop specializes in "heavenly" sweets baked by nuns from all over the country! For lunch we sat in sunny Plaça Reial and shared yet another board of tomato bread and serrano ham as well as a bottle of wine. (What?! I was on vacation!) Our only disappointing meal: the paella at Vez Pella, (which came highly recommended) which was served with little shrimp instead of the promised ubiquitous prawns.
And we were on to the next city...
*The above title translates to "Part One: Barcelona, city of tapas and paella."
Guest post by Lara Slabisak
Salty. Sour. Sweet. Spicy. The four components of nearly every Thai dish, and the underlying structure behind what allows Thai food to strike that delicate balance between brightness and warmth. Think: yin and yang – seemingly contradictory forces working together to create complex flavor profiles worthy of lending Thai food the epithet “French Fare of the East.” It’s one of those cuisines that has an answer to every occasion and craving.
This January, my family and I were able to spend three incredible (delectable) weeks in Thailand, where my father was born. I had not been back to visit my family there for a few years, but felt instantly at home as I was greeted with plates of coconut sticky rice and mango, mounds of pomelos, and bowls filled with green and yellow curry. I was inspired this trip to taste each food with a discerning tongue and the intention of bringing back some Thai culinary know-how and dishes to add to my arsenal. I tried not to shy from anything, even the street carts boasting unidentifiable seafoods and congealed pigs blood soup…but don’t worry, I left everything I ever wanted to know about pig’s blood there.
What I learned: Cooking Thai food can be deceptively difficult. If you look at a list of ingredients in a recipe, they are seemingly simple and few. The tricky part lies in achieving that delicate balance of flavor I spoke about before. You don’t want to overpower the subtle hints of lemongrass and galangal in Tom Kha with too much salt, or assault your Pad Thai with an overabundance of lime juice. To master this, the structure-loving, rule follower in me wanted to know exactly how much of each component is required to attain that intricate balance so I can reproduce each dish perfectly and consistently every time. However, this trip I learned that to authentically create harmony and complexity in a dish, I had to throw my measuring spoons and desire to strictly follow a recipe to the wind and instead “cook with my tongue”…as my aunt would say.
I can’t help but think that this is great life advice too. It’s okay to deviate from the script in the name of exploration. Maybe you’ll happen upon a new favorite flavor combo! Don’t shy from trying new ingredients or methods. If there’s a better way, find it. Allow space for your palette to grow! Maybe you can only stand one Thai chili pepper per dish before scurrying to grab the closest glass of water (me), but eventually your tastes will mature and change.
Life certainly doesn’t give us the perfect recipe to follow. This can sometimes be scary, but it’s also exhilarating! That means we have the chance to discover, even if through our mistakes, something new and exciting each time we have the audacity to step out and take a risk. So here is my charge…As we approach this week, may we be adventurous, make mistakes, and cook outside the lines!
We all know and love the Dr. Seuss classic with that title. The book usually appears on a prominent table at a bookstore near the end of the school year because it is a popular gift for graduates. Our home has two or three copies floating around that were given on such an occasion.
But maybe the giver should have explained to our son, James, that Dr. Seuss' immortal push
“You're off to Great Places!
Today is your day!
Your mountain is waiting,
So... get on your way!”
was not an immediate call to action! As I write this blog, our youngest child is strolling the beaches of Barcelona and sampling paella. Last weekend, he soaked his tired feet in the natural hot springs of Budapest. And the week prior, he logged 15 miles in one day exploring the streets of Rome. James is taking his semester abroad very seriously...
All kidding aside, we are thrilled that he is having the experiences of a lifetime. Of course, it was not easy for Momma to let him go halfway around the world. It's a scary thing for me (as you can see by my not-so-excited face in the first image.) Thankfully, technology allows us to stay in touch to ease my fears and he has been very communicative. Also, TCU sent 35 students to the Rome program so he is not alone; his week days feel much like his time on campus in Ft. Worth...with the exception that he walks past centuries old monuments and on ancient streets to get to class!
Being his mother's son, he loves to eat good food and guess what? He writes. If you would like to read some of the musings from his trip, check out his blog. His photography skills exceed any in the family and his voice is young but detailed. Our family is really enjoying keeping up with his travels in this way.
His father and I truly feel an immense amount of joy that we can send him on this journey. From our meager beginnings in a little apartment to having a son in Europe for 4 months is a huge leap and we are humbled by God's blessings.
How many oysters can/should you consume in 72 hours? That’s a very good question and one that I tried to answer while in Charleston this past week. But since I really didn’t test myself completely, I can report that I probably consumed just a dozen or so. Because there were so many other good things to eat as well.
My hubby and I have this thing when we dine out. It’s a (sort of) contest to determine who chooses the most delicious entree for each meal. A few years back, he ALWAYS won. Until I caught on to what he was doing…consistently choosing the special of the day. When you opt for the chef’s special, you get the best the restaurant has to offer on that night. Well, I can say that these days (in all modesty) I am beating him at his own game and especially kicking his butt when there are no available specials on the menu. Because I know what I like and what I like is usually pretty darn good!
While we were in Charleston, we ate like kings. Or maybe we ate like an inmate enjoying his last meal? Our first night we went to 167 Raw, where they do not accept reservations and the little restaurant seats maybe 22 people. We arrived early and snagged the last 2 spots at the bar, split a dozen oysters on the half-shell, had the most amazing halibut ceviche (with housemade tortilla chips) and shared a to-die-for lobster roll. OMG. What a way to start the trip! A couple of glasses of wine and all we could manage was to stumble back to our hotel and hit the hay.
The following day arrived rainy, cold and pretty miserable. Hard to sight-see when the weather is gloomy & gray. But we did manage to eat….lunch at Leon’s Oyster Shop where surprisingly, we consumed not one oyster. We shared a basket of jalapeno-hush puppies with honey butter. Wow. And then I enjoyed a kale salad featuring tender strips of butternut squash followed by their Fried Chicken--two pieces of crispy, spicy, herby white meat heaven, which definitely trumped his Fried Chicken Sandwich. We waddled out of Leon’s and walked back to our hotel, mist or no mist. Ruth 1, JB 0.
After some aerobic shopping (gotta work off that lunch!) and a little rest, we headed to dinner at Hall’s Chophouse. This decision was my mistake. Visit a steakhouse outside of Texas? What’s the point when we have so many amazing options here in Dallas. However, after this evening we stand at Ruth 2, JB 0.
The sun finally made an appearance on Friday and we were able to walk down to Battery Park to see all of the gorgeous, historic homes. We worked up an appetite on our five mile loop of the city and so we were excited for our 2pm lunch at Husk, the much acclaimed southern gem on Queen Street. The flights of Hard Cider certainly enhanced our Pimento Cheese Toast but my Low-Country Shrimp & Grits were a disappointment. JB won this round by selecting Fried Chicken that he claimed tastes a lot like my homemade version. For dessert we just had to sample the deconstructed Apple Pie (it's called research, people!) Ruth 2, JB 1
For our final night in the city, we made a very late reservation at The Ordinary. Fortunately for us, we arrived extra early and requested an earlier slot if at all possible and the kind manager found us the perfect seats at their oyster bar. You know how I am about seat location! I think these were the best in the house...quiet comparatively speaking, private, near the kitchen but out of main traffic way. This restaurant spoke "shared plates" to us where you start on the raw side of the menu and work to the cooked. So we split a half-dozen of the plumpest, briniest oysters then moved to a Spicy Triggerfish Dip with housemade Sea Salt Potato Chips. Our most unusual and yet mind-blowing shared plate was the Steak Tartare topped with Fried Oysters and fresh Horseradish. Allow that description to sink in for a minute. It was SO unusual and SO delicious that we scraped that plate clean. For our hot dishes, JB chose the Fried Oyster Sliders and my selection was their Saturday night special - Stuffed Baked Lobster. While my choice was outstanding, the sliders were so unique that I'm afraid he won the round. Oh, and he also chose the most heavenly vegetable--Roasted Evangeline Sweet Potatoes with Sorghum Butter so he earns an extra half point. Ruth 2, JB 2.5 (Final)
We had one more half day to enjoy the flavors that Charleston had to offer so when the Farmers Market at Marion Square turned up nothing we were craving, we walked to Callie's Hot Little Biscuit and stood in line to taste some lovely, tender, melty orbs of flour, buttermilk and butter. Yummmmmmm.
Interesting side note about the City of Charleston: EVERYONE talks food there. Sales clerks in clothing stores ask where you're eating that evening. The Uber drivers make suggestions for you to try and one of them even claimed there are 2000+ non-chain restaurants in the area. Eating Out is considered the activity that entices travelers from New York, Chicago, San Francisco--some of the biggest food-centric areas in the country--to choose Charleston as a destination. And I'm going to have to give it two thumbs up as well, because I cannot wait to go back!
My sister-in-law, Diane, turned 60 this month and she decided that for this momentous occasion she would like her sisters, mother, and sisters-in-law to meet for a girls’ weekend in a city to which she’d never visited. Nashville won the bid so the 7 of us traveled there from New Mexico, Texas, Florida, Wisconsin and Illinois a couple of weekends ago for a fast & furious 48 hours.
The weather was a bit chilly but warm for the upper midwesterners. We stayed at a boutique hotel in downtown Nashville, attended a concert at the Ryman, caught live music at Robert’s Western World, toured Andrew Jackson’s home, The Hermitage, and dined at a restaurant whose chef’s recipe was featured on the March cover of Food & Wine magazine. It was a fun, informative, tasty weekend but my biggest takeaway…
Nashville is THE bachelor/bachelorette party destination for 2017 weddings.
I have never seen so many brides-to-be and gangs of guys on Pedal Bars in a single downtown area. Not that they were especially wild or obnoxious but that the sheer number of party vehicles was astounding. Traffic flow was definitely inhibited by their slow progress so our Uber to dinner was a 25 minute ride when it should have been 10. The positive is that all of the partiers were having fun with no risk of DUI...
But back to food. I think my favorite meal of the weekend was breakfast at a restaurant in the Omni Hotel. We didn’t plan to dine there but when our driver tried to deliver us to Biscuit Love and we saw the line down the block (it was cold, remember!) we quickly checked our smartphones for “breakfast near me” to find an alternative. Kitchen Notes was a hit. I ordered hot chicken and waffles. Yum-yum-yummy. The chicken was tender and spicy and the waffles, buttery but substantial. Good stuff.
I hope to visit Nashville again but next time, I think I might:
a) stay off the beaten path a little
b) take the river cruise to see more of the beautiful natural surroundings
c) spend more time seeking out live music
d) go with my best friend and hubby! <3
Typically when I head to a destination that is known for it’s diverse and delicious food landscape, I have a list in hand of restaurants and cuisines to explore. And I did have plans over spring break to discover a couple of boroughs in NYC that we had not yet visited. Unfortunately, with flight cancellations and delays, misplaced luggage and of course, Stella the blizzard, the trip developed a survival agenda and those plans were put aside.
Rather, the goal became “what CAN we do?” and not “here’s what we will do.” And that was fine. I’m not the girl to wallow over failed plans. So I took my son to Burger & Lobster which we had extolled as an amazing burger palace with lobster thrown in. The Flatiron district restaurant did not disappoint. We sat at the bar and chowed down on cheeseburgers, crispy fries and a sweet, creamy lobster roll. Their once 3 item only menu now offers 3 different lobster roll versions, 3 burger varieties and 3 ways to have your fresh lobster. From there we walked through Eataly, always a fun stroll for food lovers and the Italophile in all of us.
The following day, my son’s mission was to taste an authentic New York bagel. We walked 11 blocks from our hotel to Ess-a-Bagel and found a line to the door. Luckily we discovered a second line — the Express-Bagels-only line and stood behind just 5 other patrons. As luck would have it, it was the best place to be where we could see into the back as the cooks pulled the bagels from the water and placed them on sheet pans which were shuffled to the front, right behind our counter, and placed directly into the oven! When we reached the top of the line, we learned they were out-of-stock of all flavors save two—the plain and the everything! So that’s what we ordered, along with plain cream cheese and some lox. We sat at a table and devoured the warm, chewy, crusty balls of bread as though it was our final meal! Oh. my. goodness. I am forever spoiled for these bagels.
By the way, I walked all over sodden, icy, slushy, snowy, dirty Manhattan in my Ugg rain boots. They kept my feet warm and dry and I happily splashed my way over hundreds of blocks and up/down countless subway stairs. I highly recommend!
After a hearty bagel breakfast, we were ready for some exercise and because he’d not yet seen Central Park (there was a blizzard in the city early in the week…did I already mention that?) we headed there and were lucky to cross 5th Avenue ahead of it’s closure for the St. Paddy’s day parade. Frozen ponds, snow balls, and the Boathouse for hot apple cider and cappuccino.
From there we headed to The Metropolitan Museum of Art and after walking 30 blocks or so, I was hungry again! I’m a little embarrassed to admit that we purchased our admission tickets and headed directly to the cafe! But I’m so glad we did…I had the most amazing, out-of-a-plastic-container salad. I was so obsessed by this combination of grain, green, carrot, cheese and dressing that when we returned to Dallas, I made it on Sunday and ate it 3 days in a row!!! So…it’s on the menu this week. See what happens when you eat in an unlikely place just because you’re starving? Sometimes food-joy is waiting there for you!
There is one more food memory I want to share with you. We decided to see a show very last minute and therefore had no plans for a pre-broadway supper. I knew JT would love some pasta but we struck out repeatedly for reservations at all of the recommended Times Square area spots. We finally found il Corso, within walking distance of our hotel for a 5:45 pm meal. It was tiny, maybe 12 tables and the pasta was made in-house. Service was attentive and charming. Divine Cacio e Pepe. That’s it. That’s all I have to say.
A fun trip, though nothing like originally planned but delicious all the same. Lesson learned: always have an open mind, an optimistic palate and a willing stomach. Oh, and good walking shoes!