Monday, August 31, 2009

Getting to Know The GEM Hotels' Neighborhoods


This was an interesting story my editor at HotelChatter came across. The GEM Hotels in New York City--Choice Hotels' three-property boutique chain--is offering a few little amenities to help guests get to know their city better, including a chalkboard with local events listings, and free iPod walking tours of each of the property's neighborhoods: Chelsea, Soho and Midtown.

The other interesting thing was that, though the press release said rates are as low as $159, the lowest I could find was $209, and I spent half an hour inputting different dates at all three properties just to see. Ah well, at least with these amenities you'll have a better idea of why you're paying so much to stay at the hotel.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Barnstorming at the Farmhouse Inn


One of the next wine country stops on my grand Life To Do List is Sonoma County's Russian River Valley. I've only been to the southern part of the county near Carneros, Sonoma the town, and Glen Ellen, so it's about time I venture farther up into the wilds of northern California to try some of the fantastic wines that are coming out of there.

That is why I took such interest in this piece I was assigned on HotelChatter last week about a new addition to the famous Farmhouse Inn in Forestville. The restaurant there has a Michelin star, which is reason enough to visit (after a couple months of saving up, of course), but aside from that, the hotel has also just opened a new building called The Barn. Rates are a bit steep, starting at $525 per night, but you can get a flight rebate that should make up for the cost of your travel there, and the facilities sound (and look) gorgeous.

For more on the new place, take a look at my article here: http://www.hotelchatter.com/story/2009/8/26/145059/487/hotels/_Barn_Storming_Rebate_at_Sonoma_s_Farmhouse_Inn

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Swine Flu Deals at Esencia Estate


Mexico's tourism industry has been feeling a bit frail after the swine flu panic earlier this summer. Many of its hotels are still reeling both from dropping reservation rates, as well as some hurricane warnings on the west coast and Baja.

On the other side of the country, on the Riviera Maya south of Cancun, the Esencia Estate resort released a press release scoffing at "unsubstantiated" fears about swine flu that it says were perpetuated by the media...but the exclusive hotel is also offering a spectacular deal to counteract the symptoms of swine flu fear. Basically, it is offering guests a resort credit equal to the rate they pay for their hotel rooms to use each day (no rollover pesos!). That means guests get huge discounts on meals, spa treatments, horseback riding, and other activities. Maybe that will make up for the pain of paying such high prices for their rooms!

For more on the deal, check out my story on HotelChatter: http://www.hotelchatter.com/story/2009/8/25/131256/373/hotels/The_Upside_of_Swine_Flu_Splurge_Deals_at_Riviera_Maya_s_Esencia_Estate

Review: Reservoir


A few months ago, Chef Gloria Felix opened a new restaurant in Silverlake called Reservoir thanks to its location near that Los Angeles landmark. Since she has worked in many of the most famous kitchens around town like at AOC, Lucques, Grace and Jar, as well as on Hell's Kitchen as Gordon Ramsey's sous chef, expectations were high. Unfortunately, many of the early reviews were not favorable, but Felix picked herself up, dusted herself off, and rethought her concept and her menu.

My meal there this week was pretty delicious, with all kinds of interesting taste combinations for you to read about in my review. The only thing that was lacking was the tiny wine list, and some of the desserts were hit-or-miss. However, overall, I thought it was a very good meal, and I loved the idea that you pick a protein like steak or fish, and then get to choose whichever of the veggie sides you'd like. It's all about options.

For the specifics, take a look at the review on LA.com here: http://www.la.com/ci_13194868

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Tomato Madness at c/o The Maidstone


I write about seasonal cuisine all the time thanks to the farmers markets mania that has overtaken California, especially at high-end restaurants around Los Angeles. In fact, I am currently working on an article for Frontiers about the upcoming changes to menus around town now that autumn is just around the corner.

In the meantime, I was assigned this little piece on East Hampton's c/o The Maidstone Hotel restaurant's (The Living Room) "Slow Food Series." Each month, Chef James Carpenter will design a special menu around a particular ingredient he finds at local farms. This month's is the tomato, and wait till you see the Iron Chef-like devotion he shows to his main ingredient.

Stir Fry 8-26-09


As usual, here is the weekly round up of dining deals and restaurant news culled from my sources around Los Angeles. Some pretty good ones like the Malibu Wine Classic on Saturday.


Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Review: Nirvana Beverly Hills


While I was in Europe, my editor at LA.com emailed me to say he had booked us for a review dinner at an Indian restaurant in Beverly Hills called Nirvana. Going into my third week of eating only Austrian and Germany food which is, let's just say not-too-spicy, I happily agreed, and marked the date down in my calendar.

We met at the restaurant one evening last week, and were treated to a profusion of gourmet Indian dishes from the new chef there, who hails from a famous restaurant in New Delhi called Bukhara.

Though the restaurant is not new, it used to be much more of a lounge than a dining room. Now that the economy is tanking, though, the owners decided to revamp the image and try to make it into the Indian food destination in Los Angeles. For more on the restaurant, the food, and the experience, check out my review below.

Review: http://www.la.com/ci_13193945?source=rss

Monday, August 24, 2009

Tequila Tastings at Las Ventanas al Paraiso


Tequila seems to be the new artisanal liquor this year, with all kinds of organic, small-batch producers popping up with their fancy distillations. Though I am not a huge fan of tequila, even I have been interested enough to go to a few special tastings and learn more about this notorious alcohol.

Another thing I'm not too crazy about is Cabo. Don't get me wrong, it's a beautiful place, and many of the resorts are just gorgeous, but I can only handle so many days of beach vacation before I get a little stir crazy, and there's not too much else to see in Cabo besides spring break-style party bars and sunburned Americans in every direction.

Ah well, before I get too down on either tequila or Cabo, let me just say that this combination of the two in special tequila tastings at the beautiful Las Ventanas al Paraiso piqued even my interest. Now if I could just figure out an excuse to get down there...

Saturday, August 22, 2009

The Loisium Wine Resort and Spa in Austria


One of the hotels I was most looking forward to staying at during my trip to Austria was the Loisium, a wine resort and spa in the heart of the Kamptal Valley. That is about 45 minutes northwest of Vienna, and just about 15 minutes from the sights of the Wachau like Durnstein and Mautern.

The area produces a lot of wine (by Austrian standards)--mostly Gruner Veltliner and Riesling--that is quite distinct from the other regions of the country.

The Loisium is a design hotel that sticks out a little incongrously from its countryside surroundings outside the village of Langenlois, but it was a nice change of place from some of the more...rustic...inns I had been staying in for the previous few days. In addition to the hotel, there is an Aveda Spa, a gourmet restaurant serving local, seasonal foods, and a "World of Wine" museum and cellar where you can learn about winemaking and then taste the local vintages.

All in all, I had a great experience there, so take a look at my story (and video walk-through of the my room!) to see for yourself.


Friday, August 21, 2009

Redux: RH at Andaz West Hollywood

Though I reviewed RH at the Andaz West Hollywood Hotel when it first opened this winter, I was recently invited back for a meal to try out Chef Sebastien Archambault's new summer menu.

Initially, I was ambivalent about going, figuring it couldn't be all that different from the uninteresting "Californian" fare I was fed the first time around, but this time the meal was really very good. The Chef threw out what he thought a Californian diner would want to see on the menu, and focused more on bringing a fresh touch to the cuisine of his native Perigord, in France (that's where the famous foie gras comes from, in case you were wondering!). The result was a more eclectic, interesting menu that also felt a lot more authentic than the first jette, so bravo!
To take a look at the article and some of the dishes I tried, find the review here: http://www.la.com/dining/ci_13161787

Breakfast Spread at Hotel Wine and Design Vienna


I got the chance to stay at the lovely boutique Hotel Rathaus Wine and Design Vienna during my recent trip. All the rooms are named after famous wineries, and the minbars feature wines from the room's namesake. For instance, I was in the Kloster Am Spitz (near the town of Spitz where I went hiking in the Wachau!) room, and also made sure to take a picture of the F.X. Pichler room, since I'd visited that winery in Oberloiben earlier in the week.

The room was large and airy, with a sort of newfangled canopy bed, where the canopy was a soft light fixture. The walk-in shower was also huge and magnificent. I appreciated the free WiFi and having a desk to work at, though I tried not to spend too much time in the room admiring the views over Lange Gasse.

I think that by far the most attention-grabbing amenity of the hotel was the 15-euro breakfast spread. Lots of hotels charge exorbitant prices like this for a paltry buffet of stale bread and old cold cuts, but at Wine and Design, the breakfast was totally worth it, as you'll see from the profusion of foods in my article.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Stir Fry: 8-20-09


Take a gander at the deals and meals I gathered together this week, with the Stir Fry on LA.com. As you may have guessed from the photo, one of them involves bourbon. Three kinds!

The Parallelogram Bed


While casting about for story ideas for HotelChatter based on my recent Austro-German excursion, I thought that a little piece on the oddly shaped bed at the Marchenhotel might make for a fun posting.

The fairy-tale themed hotel has rooms named after classic characters like Cinderella and Rapunzel...along with decorative dolls meant ot portray these heroines. The Marchenhotel is located in picturesque Bernkastel-Kues, right in the heart of the Mosel, one of the most famous wine-producing areas in the world, which is known for its distinctive Rieslings.

As you'll see from the article, the beds weren't the only idiosyncratic feature of the place...

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

My Love-Hate Relationship with Roomers Hotel Frankfurt


Rather than write an old-fashioned review of my hotel in Frankfurt--the newly opened Roomers from the same people who brought The Pure, The Bristol and the Gerbermuhle in Offenbach--I thought I'd mix things up a bit by making a pro-con list of sorts. I came up with the five things I loved about the hotel, and then to balance out the piece, I talked (hopefully not too harshly) about a few things I did not like. I think this provides a nice, comprehensive look at a stay there, while not resorting to your average review syntax. I hope you agree.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Shower Power at Le Meridien Vienna


This was the first hotel I stayed in during my recent trip to Austria and Germany. Thanks to accumulated Starpoints from Starwood, I got my room for 4000 points and $60, so I was pretty thrilled...especially when they upgraded me to a spacious executive room.

The best thing about the room, apart from the powerful air conditioning that kept me cool on a 95-degree day, was the rocket-powered water pressure in the shower. I am a big sucker for fancy showers. The more nozzles, gadgets and hoses (and especially if there's a rain or steam function), the better. This one had a few shower heads and some powerful settings that were perfect for blasting away the dirt and fatigue of travel.

Check out the video I made of the room, along with the aforementioned shower here on HotelChatter: http://www.hotelchatter.com/story/2009/8/14/135744/820/hotels/Shower_Power_at_Le_Meridien_Vienna

Durnstein Castle in Austria's Wachau

In addition to my interests in food, wine and travel, I am also a HUGE history dork. That is why, during my recent trip to Austria, I made sure I would have time to hike up to the desolate ruins of Durnstein Castle in the Wachau region of the Danube Valley. It is the setting of one of my favorite stories of all time. Legend has it that that is where Richard the Lionheart was rescued by his faithful troubadour, Blondel de Nesle.

Situated just about 45 minutes east of Vienna by car, the little town of Durnstein is a postcard-perfect village nestled into the steep, lush hillsides carved by the Danube. Conveniently for me, Durnstein also lies in the heart of what is perhaps Austria's most famous wine-producing region (though also one of its smallest), the Wachau. This is that recognizable region of vertiginously terraced vineyards that trace the course of that mighty, muddy river that bears no resemblance to Strauss's "Blue Danube." Chances are if you've had a Gruner Veltliner lately in the U.S., it has come from the Wachau...or from nearby in the Kremstal and Kamptal Valleys.

I digress, however. It was important to me to see the ruins of Durnstein because it occupies a distinct place in history--and a distinct place in my own historical interests. Part of being a history dork who is interested in the finer things in life has led me to study medieval troubadour culture. Now, I'm no expert, but I have done some reading on the subject, and it was this same romantic interest that led me to southwest France to hike part of the Cathar Trail earlier this year.

Back to Duernstein. The little town that now occupies the tiny bank of the river was not what drew me there. Don't get me wrong, the town is absolutely gorgeous...and clogged with tourists and cyclists in the summer months. There are lovely hotels, fantastic restaurants, and stunning views of the valley to be enjoyed from there. However, it is the lonely castle keep that seems to sprout from the rocks that occupied my interest.

You see, it was there over Christmas and New Year's of 1192-1193 that Richard the Lionheart was kept prisoner by Duke Leopold V of Austria. Richard had been captured outside the bustling new city of Vienna by Leopold's forces while he was trying to return to England after his failed Crusade. The whole episode was provoked in Acre when Richard had thrown Leopold's standard down from the battlements of that beseiged city. As Richard tried to secretly make his way home over land--he feared being captured by pirates or agents of his other great enemy, the French king Philippe Auguste, on a sea voyage--he was found out and captured. Not knowing what to do with his regal prisoner immediately, Leopold had him held at Durnstein, away from prying eyes, until the Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV could figure out what to do with Richard. The two wanted to extract a heavy ransom for him.

Meanwhile, the English found out that Richard had been captured, but no one knew where he was being held. This is where the troubadour legend comes in. According to the classic tale, a troubadour of unrivaled talent from the north of France named Blondel de Nesle had accompanied Richard as his faithful servant to the Holy Land. During their fateful return voyage, Richard was captured, but Blondel managed to escape, and relayed the news to the English. No one knew how to find the king, though, until the Holy Roman Emperor was ready to open negotiations. Hoping to get the upper hand with a surprise initiative, the English sent spies all over the Continent to find out where their king was being held. All to no avail. Richard seemed to be lost.

Not giving up hope, Blondel set off on a desparate one-man mission to wander Europe searching for the king. This is an interesting part of the story since troubadours were practically the only members of society in that day and age with the carte blanche to travel the Continent and interact with all echelons of the social order. Blondel spent months wandering around singing in the great castles of Europe. He would stop outside and sing a particular song that only he and Richard, who was a famous amateur musician himself, knew.

Finally, when Blondel reached Durnstein, he hiked up the crag (you can see how far up it is in my video), took up a guarded position in the woods by the north tower, and sang the first verse of his song. After a moment, he heard the second verse being sung back to him. He had found his king! Though legend (and opera) has it that Blondel helped Richard escape that very night, the historical record shows that the English somehow managed to locate Richard and force the Holy Roman Emperor to negotiate for his release.

Though the historical facts contradict it, it is still such a beautiful tale of loyalty, friendship and art, that it has persisted for over 800 years now, and has inspired many others besides myself to make the hike up to the castle and have a look around.

Then when you're done, you can enjoy the fine wines of the regions from wineries like F.X. Pichler, Knoll, Geyerhof and Nikolaihof, or countless others at the tasting terrace overlooking the river at the Kloster Und in Krems. Sample the delicious food like the Waldviertel duck I enjoyed at the restaurants at Richard Lowenherz and Schloss Durnstein, or just wander around the town and find a friendly heurige (tavern) to patronize.

Whatever you choose to do, Durnstein's intriguing romantic past, and its breathtakingly beautiful ambiance in the present make it a phenomenal destination for a trip to Austria.

video

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Vienna: Artner Restaurant Bar Weinkellerei


I recently took a trip to Austria and Germany for three weeks this summer—as you will see from subsequent stories about hotels, restaurants, winemakers, and sights to see. I started my trip with a day in Vienna before heading up to the tiny hamlet of Gmund for a friend’s wedding, and since I would only have about two other days in the city a before my departure the following week, I decided to do as much as possible as soon as possible.

That’s not the best idea after you’ve been traveling for nearly 24 hours, and when I finally arrived, the thermometer was soaring at 36 degrees Celsius. That couldn’t be helped, however, and I was feeling pretty punchy, so I set off on a whirlwind sightseeing tour that included a restaurant called Glacis Beisl for lunch, several of the museums in the massive MuseumsQuartier complex like the Leopold with its amazing collection of Egon Schiele paintings, the MUMOK, and finally the Haus der Musik in the evening.

All I really wanted that balmy evening, however, was to find a good meal. I was starving, though I was not in the mood for your typical, heavy Austrian fare thanks to a traveler’s stomach and the uncomfortable weather.

As luck would have it, I took a rather serpentine route from my hotel to the Haus der Musik that evening, and after passing the Franziskanerplatz in the heart of the Innere Stadt (or central old city), I happened upon a hip-looking restaurant called Artner. I made a mental note, and set off for the Haus der Musik.

After a couple hours learning all about Austria’s most famous composers, my stomach was grumbling in time to the Blue Danube Waltz, and I decided I’d finally earned my nice dinner, so back I went to Artner. The staff was slightly chilly, but I was dressed nicely, so they grudgingly gave me a table for one near the front windows. I took a look around at the white-on-white restaurant with neon purple lighting effects. It all looked rather impersonal in a too-cool way, so I hoped that the emphasis was not all on the décor while the food got short shrift. The bar area looked rather cozy, with a communal table, and a ledge lining the wall where people could congregate and drink, so that was reassuring.

I took a look at the menu and was glad to note that there were choices apart from your typical schnitzel and tafelspitz. I settled on the three-course prix-fixe menu, deciding it would be a good value for 38 euros.

When the waiter came back, I grilled him (so to speak) about the restaurant. Turns out Artner is the second restaurant by that name. The first is a more casual kind of heurigen a little farther out of the city center in the 4th district. The family also owns a winery, and I was able to take a look at their extensive production, as well as their collection of other wines, in the glass-walled cellars that line the stairway down to the subterranean bar and the restrooms. Max Aichinger, who it turns out is rather well known in Austria despite his youth, is the chef.

The menu I chose started with a creamy zucchini soup poured over chopped up squash with olive oil, and a “crispy” tomato chutney. I gobbled the whole thing up, while taking a little more time over the crisp, apricot-y Riesling they brought me to go with it.

For my second course, I had chosen the meaty “duet of lamb” that included lamb chops and a hunk of shoulder meat in a light and tangy red pepper-cream sauce, a spattering of seasonal chanterelles, olive oil fondue, and a block of spongy white polenta. To accompany this main course, I had a glass of Artner’s “Cuvée Barrique,” which is a deep-red blend of cabernet sauvignon and Austria’s distinctive zweigelt grape.

For dessert, I got two icy treats: a gooseberry-cream cake, and a scoop of pistachio-thyme ice cream over fresh berries, all served on a slate slab.

The meal was exactly what I wanted to set the gastronomic tone of my trip: seasonal Austrian ingredients in new, interesting, international combinations.

The menu changes with the seasons according to what is available from the farmers’ markets and their meat suppliers, but hopefully some of the other dishes I spied on the menu this July will still be around for my next visit. A sampling of what caught my eye?

Goose liver and eel pâté with granny smith apple sorbet.
Smoked salmon with white truffle oil.
Gazpacho with ahi tuna and mint.
Egg yolk ravioli with nettles in a sauce of Madeira and summer truffles.Coriander trout steamed with leeks and celery in brown butter.
Charcoal-grilled beef with butter potato foam, sour cream and a pistou.

Not only was the restaurant a lucky find in terms of my own personal tastes, but it is also relatively new, so look for “hot tip” mentions of it in my upcoming articles about my trip. I would also highly recommend it to anyone looking for a great meal at a decent price while in Vienna.

Artner
Franziskanerplatz 5
1010 Wien
AUSTRIA+43 1 503 503 4
Franziskanerplatz@artner.co.at

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

FACES: Michael Engelmann


A few months back, I was invited to a Beaujolais tasting at Jiraffe in Santa Monica by the American Sommelier Association. The tasting was led by their newly named Sommelier of the Year 2009, Michael Engelmann, who is from Alsace, but works at Gary Danko Restaurant in San Francisco.

After the tasting, I got the chance to talk to Michael, and we've stayed in touch. He gave me some incredible advice in choosing which wineries to visit on my recent trip to Austria and Germany, and we've been discussing biodynamic wines lately. I thought he'd be a great interview subject for LA.com's ongoing FACES series, in which I talk to a different food/dining luminary every month.

Surprise surprise, Michael was a great interviewee, and had some interesting answers to the questions I posed. He just turned 27, though, so this is only the start of what is sure to be an amazing career.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Review: Essex Public House

Even amongst the slew of new "gastropubs" taking Los Angeles by storm, the new Essex Public House on Hollywood Blvd. has been generating the most buzz, and has garnered quite a few reviews in the month since it's opening.

I was treated to a dinner there a few weeks ago, and wrote it up for LA.com. My picks? Definitely the Arrogant Bastard onion rings, and the chocolate chip cookie ice cream sandwiches (can you tell what a horrible diet I have!?). For more, take a look at my review.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Review: Mexico Restaurante Y Barra


A couple months ago, I noticed that one of the buildings near the corner of La Cienega and Santa Monica Blvd. that used to house a horrible restaurant was getting a repaint...in bright pink. I didn't have to wait long to find out that this was the new Mexico Restaurante Y Barra, from the same guy who owns Nic's in Beverly Hills.

The restaurant has a huge patio and balcony, as well as an inside dining room where people party it up, fueled by exotic specialty margaritas and fresh gourmet Mexican food. I really enjoyed my meal(s) there, and wrote it up for LA.com. You will also see a little review of it in my upcoming WeHo restaurants roundup for Frontiers.

For now, you can find my LA.com review here: http://www.la.com/dining/ci_12877592

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Stir Fry 8-6-09


Direct from my room at Georg Breuer's Rudesheim Schloss in the heart of Germany's Rheingau...after a full day of tasting wine in the Rheinhessen and touring the Jewish sights of Worms, not to mention two car ferry rides, I managed to write this week's Stir Fry up and get it in just under deadline. That's just what a worker bee I am! Enjoy the deals.