Thursday, April 30, 2009

May's Faces: Susumu Tsuchihashi

I came across Susumu Tsuchihashi, the subject for this month's FACES interview for LA.com's Fooditude newsletter when I sampled the imagawayaki at his Beverly Hills bakery, Fulfilled.

We originally planned to meet at the Palihouse Holloway Hotel, but when I arrived on Monday morning, I found a full-blown movie filming in progress, complete with Forrest Whitaker running lines in the corner, so we skipped down the road to Hugo's for a quick bite and an in-depth grilling.

Among other topics, we talked about Susumu's business, the history of imagawa-yaki, and his plans for the future of Fulfilled. Take a look.

FACES: Susumu Tsuchihashi: http://www.la.com/ci_12246312

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Mama Shelter: The Epic Review


This week, I earned my keep for HotelChatter.com by posting a couple of reviews about my stay last week at Mama Shelter in Paris.

The hotel, built by the Club Med Trigano family and designed by Philippe Starck, was a welcome change from the spate of rural hotels and inns I'd been staying in. It was just lovely to get back to a place with more of an urban feeling, even if the staff played it a little too cool and the clientele tended towards the hipster-ish.

There was still plenty to enjoy, though, as you'll see from the following four reviews and their embedded videos.

Here is the little teaser with a fast video tour of my (tiny!) room: http://www.hotelchatter.com/story/2009/4/24/03218/9451/hotels/Mama_Shelter_is_a_Tease


Now for the restaurant/bar and a video of the gigantic foosball table: http://www.hotelchatter.com/story/2009/4/28/03741/6941/hotels/Like_Mama_s_Milk_Eating_at_Mama_Shelter

And finally, the iMac photo booth rigged up in the bar: http://www.hotelchatter.com/special/Mama_Shelter

Queribus: Last Castle Standing

Along with Montsegur, Queribus (pronounced cay-ree-busse) is probably the best known of the Cathar castles in Languedoc, and a definite must-see stop on the Cathar Trail. It actually makes a pretty good starting point on the trail since it is the easternmost of Carcassonne's five "sons."

The castle is pretty easily accessible off the main artery of Cathar Country, the D117. You simply exit the D117 in the town of Maury and head in the direction of Cucugnan, a bucolic little village dotted with windmills that sits nestled in the valley between Queribus and Peyrepertuse. Then you start the vertiginous and serpentine drive up to the bleak peak where Queribus seems to rise straight out of the mountaintop rock. From the parking lot, it is a steep but short hike up to the castle itself. Just beware the main gate, which acts like a wind tunnel. Seriously, gust after gust blows through it, and can catch unprepared visitors unaware, leaving them scrambling to grab hold of the guard rail for safety.

The castle has a fascinating history that only emphasizes the dramatic architecture and setting. It was originally built in teh 900's by the kings of Barcelona before falling into the hands of the Languedocian aristocracy in the following centuries.

After Montsegur fell to the French in 1244, and all its defenders were burned alive, many remaining Cathars fled to this mountain redoubt for safety. And safe they were...for about a decade, before King Louis IX (also known as St. Louis) decided to set his sights on the south and wipe out the Cathars once and for all.

When the Cathars' protector, a local lord named Chabert de Barbaira, was captured by the French in 1255, he was forced to cede his possessions, including Queribus, to the crown. Luckily, the Cathars had plenty of warning this time, and were able to make a hasty escape. Alas, no one knows what became of them, but with the loss of their last fort, the Cathars went into hiding and eventually died out.

All that's left now are the empty, ruined castles that they somehow built on some of the most desolate peaks in France. Queribus seems tiny, especially as a garrison for a hundred people, but much of it is below the rock, dug in for protection and safety from both man and nature. The one outstanding architectural feature, other than the donjon tower with its spectacular views, is the famous Salle du Palmier, meaning the Palm Tree Room. It is called that because the single pillar that supports the vaulted arch resembles a palm tree trunk supporting the leaf structure. Its elegance and simplicity is a stark contrast to the defensive architecture of the surrounding castle, and it makes a nice place to pause and consider what life must have been like for the Cathar community here.

For a little more insight into Queribus, and a quick overview of the location and the hike up, take a look at the video I made while trying to avoid the gales and rain showers the day I visited.

video

Friday, April 24, 2009

Puilaurens

Though it is one of the "Five Sons of Carcassonne," Puilaurens Castle is not one of the better known Cathar fortresses--like Queribus or Montsegur. That is probably because nothing too historic ever happened here, and the mountaintop on which it perches is a mere 700 meters high, so not quite as dramatic as some of the others.

Puilaurens is definitely worth a visit, though, since it is among the best preserved of the bleak Cathar castles in Languedoc, the hike is relatively easy, and it is easily accessible from the main D117 route that runs through Cathar country.

The site was originally fortified by the Visigoths right around the time of the fall of the Roman Empire. It's next date with history came in teh early 13th century during the Albigensian Crusade against the Cathars when Chabert de Barbaira turned it over to teh French forces in return for his freedom. From then, the fort played an important part in France's border defences until it, like the rest of the keeps in the area, became obsolete with the southern adjustment of the border created in 1659 with the signing of the Treaty of the Pyrenees, after which it fell into disuse and eventual ruin.

Today, the castle has a few interesting feature like the chicanes (low walls that are staggered so that you have to zig and zag in order enter the castle) leading up to the barbican, Dame Blanche's Tower, and my personal favorite, some pretty intact latrines. The view from the walls, which you are allowed to climb at certain points, also displays some pretty spectacular vistas of the surrounding mountains and forests.

As you'll see from the video below, the day I visited was an Easter Sunday of wind, rain, and fog, but it just made the experience a little more...atmospheric.


video

Maille La Moutarde

Maille, purveyor of savory fine foodstuffs, is one of France's most storied gourmet brands. That's right, Grey-Poupon, I said it!

While in Paris, I stopped by Maille's flagship store on the Place de la Madeleine (right next door to Ralph Lauren, if you're wondering), and made a video tour of the dizzying assortment of flavored mustards, vinegars, pickles and tapenades...all while trying to duck the enormous line of tourists loading up their baskets.

The current releases are only part of the story at Maille, though. The brand's history goes back to 1720, when Antoine Maille founded the Maison de Maille in Marseilles, and distilled a special antiseptic vinegar with which the inhabitants of the city sprayed themselves in order to avoid contracting a deadly plague that was ravaging the south of France at the time. I can't imagine what that city must have smelled like, but the plan worked and Marseilles was spared!

In 1747, Maille created the mustard side of his business, and opened a shop in Paris. During the 1760's Maille's renown grew, and he became the Vinegar Maker and Distiller to the emperors of Austria and to the King of France. Yes, apparently that official position existed.

In 1846, the Maille family opened their first store in the capital of the world of mustard, Dijon, where they continued to sell their famous specialty for almost one hundred years before their last descendent died at the ripe old age of 102 in 1930, and the company was bought out by Philippe de Rothschild.

In 1952, Maille did in fact merge with its great competitor, Grey-Poupon (founded merely in 1777. Sniff!), but maintained its original family recipes and coat of arms.

Now, the store on the Place de la Madeleine sells the famousbrand's newest offerings, with a few old-fashioned mustard pots and spigots on hand to provide some ambiance.

So take a close look next time you squirt some dijon on that hotdog, because you might just be eating the mustard of kings!

video

Lavinia Paris

While I was in Paris, I made a quick trip over to Lavinia, a new wine store on the boulevard de la Madeleine.

The store is all sleek displays, stainless steel, varnished wood, and efficient service. It's an interesting contrast to the personalized, historical, homey feel of Legrand et Fils. I was told about it by Dominique Garretta at Taittinger (video interview to come), and she suggested I go there for a quick, informal wine-tasting.

By that, she meant that you purchase a sort of credit card at Lavinia with whatever euro-amount you'd like, and then you can use it to buy "tastes" of the rotating selection of wines that they have stored and preserved in their state-of-the-art stainless steel and nitrogen cases. You can get tastes for as little as .90 euros, or as much as 25 euros (that was for a Lafite Rothschild).

I think this is going to be the new trend at fancy wine stores and wine bars alike. Drinkers are getting more savvy, and wanting to try more wines from diverse regions in the same sitting, so this is going to be a practical supply solution. For instance, the newest wine bar in Los Angeles is a place called Pourtal in Santa Monica that operates on the same premise.

For a quick tutorial on how exactly this all works, take a look at the video I made in the store.
video

Auberge de la Commanderie

Finally, as I am corralling my life back to a semblance of order, this is the final story of mine that posted while I was away in France, and that I actually wrote while I was there. It's just a little review of the Auberge de la Commanderie, where I stayed in the town of St. Emilion, down in Bordeaux.

The hotel was nothing great, though the tiny rooms were very clean and quite mod, if by mod you mean mod for 1980. Still, I had nothing to complain about, especially since the location was perfect, the parking was easy, the WiFi worked seamlessly (it better have since they charge for it!), and the breakfast was generous by Euro standards. I'd recommend it to anyone traveling to Bordeaux wine country on a budget.

The best part, though, was the fact that I got to mention several of the wineries I visited while there, so it made my meetings with the young winemakers of Bordeaux Oxygene all the more worth it.

RockSugar

Just a quick note that my review of RockSugar is up on LA.com now. Had a fun meal there with a bunch of other journos. I wanted to include the photo of part of the interior, though, since the decor is, if over the top, still pretty impressive.

Springtime in Paris at the Hotel Jules

Just another quick Paris hotel story I did before heading to baguette-land myself. It looks like a very cute, err, I mean chic, little hotel near Opera, but at 200 euros per room per night, it was still a little bit outside our wheelhouse, so we contented ourselves with a quick walk-by while we were in town. The Hotel Jules's facade is tiny, and right on busy Rue Lafayette, but if you're in town for just a quick trip, this could be a great, central option for lodging while you're in the City of Lights.



http://www.hotelchatter.com/story/2009/3/30/13028/1413/hotels/Spring_Means_Discounts_at_Paris_s_Hotel_Jules

Enough With The "-cations" Already!

Late last year, just as the economic crisis was really beginning to heat up, all the travel industry (and TV morning shows) could talk about were "staycations." The new travel trend for tight budgets was not to forego a vacation at all, but simply to stay closer to home for trips instead of heading to the farflung reaches of the globe.

Okay. Staycation. I could live with that. But then, as the market worsened, the talking heads came up with "naycations," meaning people were just skipping the trip altogether. That sparked a retaliation from travel types, who coined "yaycations," though if you ask me, there wasn't much to cheer about. And now, finally, we have "kidcations," at the Rancho Bernardo Inn--which, to add insult to injury, is in San Diego where I am originally from, and which I had to report on!

Enough with the -cations, please! Just let people get back to taking the trips they want, to the destinations they want, when they want, and with whom they want!

http://www.hotelchatter.com/story/2009/4/15/133955/638/hotels/Staycations_Naycations_Yaycations_and_Now_Kidcations

Oregon Wine Country: The Allison Inn

I might just have gotten back from France, but I'm already thinking about where to take the next big wine-tasting trip. For professional reasons, of course.

Though Australia, New Zealand and South Africa are all big contenders, I think that something a little closer to home might be more feasible, so it was with great interest that I reported on the upcoming opening of the Allison Inn in Oregon's Willamette Valley wine country. The rooms are still going to be a little too pricey for my budget, but it's good to know about. What's really interesting is that it is apparently the first luxury hotel/resort of its type up there. So far there are only B&B's and other sundry farmhouse-y inns, but maybe that will all change now.
Take a look at the story:


Thursday, April 23, 2009

Versailles in a Golf Cart

On our recent trip to France, my mother and I took a quick day trip out to Versailles since she had never been, and I don't think I'd been back there since my first trip to Paris when I was fifteen years old.

We did not have much time, by my mother had her heart on seeing Marie Antoinette's little village, the Petit Trianon, and as much of the grounds as possible before we slogged through the audioguided tour of the palace itself. Unfortunately, I had no idea how we were going to do that without jetpacks since the multi-mile cobblestoned paths don't exactly lend themselves to speed-walking.

Lucky for us, though, as we wandered through some of the gardens marveling at the display of of the fountains (which were turned on for the first time all year that day!), we came across a little kiosk that rents golf carts for self-tours of the grounds. It's not exactly cheap--30 euros for an hour--but if you're in a hurry and you have a little extra cash, it might just be your best option.

Check out the little video below that I made of our experience, and be sure to dress warmly enough for the ride!

video

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

How to Open a Bottle of Champagne

During our daytrip to Reims recently, we got the chance to stop by for a private tour of Veuve Clicquot's facilities, and learned all about the history of champagne, the brand in particular, and that strong-willed woman whose mark on the world of wine is still felt every time a cork is popped.

We also picked up a few more practical tips, including the correct way to open a bottle of champagne without damaging either the contents...or your fellow drinkers. Cheers!

video

Chateau Les Bruyeres

Chateau les Bruyeres is a little relais we stayed at in Normandy our last night there. It is located in the fly-speck town of Cambremer, right in the heart of the Pays D'Auge, where you'll find the holy trinity of cheese towns: Camembert, Livarot and Pont L'Eveque, as well as the Route du Cidre where you can drive from distillery to distillery...or just take a walk through the apple orchards that line the hilly rural routes.

The Chateau itself is special for many reasons. The driveway lined by graceful trees is the first perspective you get on the restored 18th century building that was formerly a stud farm. On the ground floor is a gorgeous dining room where we ate that night, as well as a little bar with all kinds of cider and calvados to pour, and the "Louis XV" salon with its mismatched furnishings and large fireplace.

In back, there are stables with a few horses guests can take out on a ride, and a small pool area to enjoy in the summertime. The Chateau is also close to tons of cider distilleries and dairies, not to mention some very fine restaurants in the Norman countryside.

Speaking of restaurants, the one at the hotel is quite good, and well known around the area, as is the chef, Philippe Harfaux. Like many chefs in Los Angeles, where I live, Harfaux sources much of his menu, like the meats, fish, and cheeses, from local, independent producers, and he actually grows many of the vegetables and herbs he uses in the hotel's own "potager" garden out back.

I made a video of the grounds so you can see how special the place is for yourself.

video

Le Lion D'Or in Arcins



video

While I was in the Medoc region of Bordeaux, I ate out one night at Le Lion D'Or in the tiny town of Arcins. Not only is the restaurant highly recommended by every guide book about the area, but more importantly, it was recommended to me at nearly every winery I visited both in Medoc and in St. Emilion, all the way over on Bordeaux's "Right Bank." So I figured it was worth a try, if only to catch a glimpse of the notoriously mischievous (some might call him cantankerous) chef, Jean-Paul Barbier.

I was wondering why there are so many Lions D'Or in France--I stayed at a hotel of the same name in Bayeux, for instance--and it was explained to me that the name had nothing to do with golden lions or any other such heraldic device. Rather, Lion D'Or is a mash-up of a medieval French hospitality policy. Basically, when inns and taverns, auberges in French, were first springing up all over the country to cater to newly forming middle classes and religious pilgrims trekking from place to place, the owners had a problem. People were coming for quick, cheap meals, but not staying the night, where the real money was to be made by providing accommodations. So they told their would-be guests, "Ou il y a un lit, on dort": where there is a bed, you sleep. That was their roundabout way of saying, if you want to eat here, you have to sleep here too...sort of like creating a captive audience. Brilliant strategy, because it worked, and the phrase "un lit, on dort" became "un lion d'or." Hence the preponderance of thusly named inns and restaurants today.

This Le Lion D'Or, however, is where the chateau owners, winemakers and townspeople all go for a nice meal out, and you can find some of the most famous names in Bordeaux wines among the many private wine collection cabinets they have set aside, and that line the main dining room. For us mere visitors, the restaurant has a no corkage fee policy if you bring your own bottle of wine...it's just got to be a Medoc.

Don't be put off by some of the fancy pretensions, though. The menu also features prix fixes that start at about 14 euros for dinner for four courses, so it is a real bargain as long as you're willing to eat whatever is on order that day. The B.Y.O. policy also has an interesting socializing effect since you can check out what your neighbors have brought to drink, and then make friends with them by offering to exchange a glass of yours for a glass of theirs. For instance, I brought a nice bottle with me, and ended up tasting two others thanks to the other nearby diners who wanted to try mine.

And if you're lucky, you just might get to watch the chef prepare his special duck dish out in the dining room, where he manually presses the remaining blood out of the duck "leftovers" and uses it to prepare a flash-sauteed sauce over an open flame for the main course. Slightly gruesome. Totally awesome.

All in all, a real French dining experience.

The chef in his kitchen.

Friday, April 17, 2009

A Quick Comment on Aging Bordeaux Wines

One of the lovely people I met by contacting Bordeaux Oxygene--a group of young winemakers and winery owners in Bordeaux that is aiming to "breathe new life" into the erstwhile closed off and stuffy world of Bordeaux wines--was Severine Bonnie at Malartic-Lagraviere. Her in-laws from Belgium own the chateaux, one of the finest in the Graves (or Pessac-Leognan now) appellation of Bordeaux. In addition to being extremely friendly and articulate, Severine has brought her marketing/communications background and recent oenological studies to bear as she shares the ins and outs of winemaking at Malartic-Lagraviere, as well some interesting facets of the chateau's history.

While I was with her, we got to discussing just why it is that Bordeaux wines require (or should be allowed to have, at least) more time to age than wines from other parts of the world. We came up with lots of reasons, but here's a little video expounding on some of our theories.
video

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

BoHo


Finally! A decent dining option right next door to the Arclight! My apologies to Magnolia and Bowery Bar, but sometimes you just don't want to have to cross Vine.


None of the dishes blew me away, but the beer list is impressive, the food was decent, and the staff was extremely conscientious, but not cloying.


Corkbar

Yet another wine bar downtown, but their list of Californians is pretty impressive, and I do love the trio of tapenades they offer as a snack. The major downside is that you can find only a couple of their glasses of wine for under $10, which in this economy, is a major turnoff. Still, it's a great place for drinks after work or before an event at LA LIVE:

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

The Fountains of Versailles


video

Quite by accident, we chose to go to Versailles on Saturday, and it so happened, that it was the first day of their spring/summer season where they turn on the fountains for five minutes a couple times a day. We managed to get through the line and out into the gardens just as they came on, and so enjoyed all the splendor for a few moments. Then they finished, and it would be another three hours or so until they came on again. Ah well, at least we had our moment, and as you will see from this video, it was just spectacular.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Lucien Legrand Filles et Fils

One of the first stops on my trip to Paris was the charmingly dilapidated Galerie Vivienne, on the rue Vivienne in the second arrondisement.

The reason Vivienne is such a treasure is that it is one of only a handful of 19th-century covered shopping galleries that survived Haussman's grand boulevard spree, and so maintains an aura of neglected splendor even as its few upscale shops chug along at a respectable pace of business

By far the best reason to visit the Vivienne, however, is to peruse the shelves of one of Paris's best known wine shops, Lucien Legrand Filles et Fils. It is located on the rue de la Banque end of the galerie, where the original shop took over the Bauge Epicerie in 1880.

The other interesting historical fact is that Legrand is "Filles et Fils," meaning "daughters and sons" because Lucien did not have sons, so it was left to his daughters to run the business...and run it they did, with spectacular mercantile aplomb and success.

Though the shop has since changed hands, it remains true to offering high quality wines from all over France, and has maintained excellent relationships with some of the best and best known (not that the two are necessarily the same) winemakers in the country, some of whom come in for the regular tastings that the newly expanded store and wine bar now hosts.

I happened to walk into the store on our first day here in Paris, and talked to the communications director, a lovely young woman named Camille Cohen, about Legrand's history, the program of diverse wine-tasting events the firm now hosts, and just what makes it one of the most magical wine stores in the world.

video

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Golden State

A couple weeks ago, my friends and I visited a new restaurant/bar on Fairfax called The Golden State, where the menu celebrates everything Californian, from beer and wine to LA-specific goodies like Let's Be Frank Dogs, and Scoops gelato. We were there a little early in the evening, so we got some personal attention from one of the owners, Jason Bernstein, whom we grilled (so to speak) about the crazy awesome selection of beers he has on tap, and why it's so darn hard to open a restaurant in Los Angeles.

He was so interesting, in fact, that I decided to profile him for April's FACES in the LA.com Fooditude newsletter. I'll link to that when it's up, but in the meantime, enjoy this little video we made at the restaurant while we talked to Jason.



video