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Archive for August, 2012

Greetings from…St. Petersburg, Russia!

While visiting St. Petersburg, I happened to be (attempting to read) reading for the first time Dostoevsky’s imposing novel on human honesty and character, Crime and Punishment. Amidst the glittering canals and thousands of camera toting tourist groups during the end of the city’s famed annual White Nights Festival, I kept imagining St. Petersburg in Dostoevsky’s gritty world. At every street corner Raskolnikov would seem to stroll by and give me his stare of anxiety. For those who have read the novel, that means it’s time to sprint away as fast as possible.

Fortunately, the literary world is the literary world. St. Petersburg is indeed one grand city. When I announced my intention to visit the Federation earlier this year, my friends and colleagues who had been to Russia recently or even back in the old USSR days said there is no reason to visit. Except for St. Petersburg. St. Petersburg is the western most, culturally speaking, city in Russia. If there is a city that seems more progressive in Russia, it has yet to be found, most likely in distant Siberia. When you visit St. Petersburg after spending time in Moscow, you understand what everyone is talking about. It’s a more extreme case of visiting the calm splendor of Florence after the chaos of a Rome or Naples.

The Hermitage, along the Neva River

St. Petersburg is many cities put together. With its dozens of canals weaving all around the city, St. Petersburg is one part Venice. It is one part Amsterdam too with those canals, a heavy bike culture, and a ring-like street design. Paris certainly comes to mind with the striking architecture, the “Champs Elysée of Russia” (The Nevsky Prospect), and its dramatic riverside setting, where couples stroll along the Neva, much like Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron did along the Seine. Then there are those old Soviet scars here and there, more so away from the Neva River area. Those remind you more of Moscow, as does the hyper-efficient metro system with the stations so deep you could swear you reached the center of the earth (Stalin’s intention was for metro stations to be nuclear bunkers). Despite no longer being the capital of Russia, St. Petersburg would fit right in as a prominent Western European capital city.

Church of Spilt Blood

Culturally speaking, St. Petersburg is every bit on par with the premier destinations in Europe. You of course have the Hermitage, home of da Vinci’s Madonna Litta, and roughly 150,000 other works on display, including some 24 Rembrandts. Just like the Louvre, The Hermitage is housed in a former palace, here the stunning sky blue painted Winter Palace. The Hermitage can only be discussed in the same sentences as the Louvre and Prado for European equivalents. Stunning bridges abound across the canals and Neva abound. The same with cathedrals, especially the Church of Spilt Blood and Saint Isaac’s. The world’s second most important ballet theatre, the Mariinsky, is in town, where yours truly witnessed a spectacular Stravinsky double bill. Arguably the world’s most impressive summer arts festival, The White Nights Festival, takes place each late June to July here. Along the Gulf of Finland resides the Versailles of Russia, Peterhof, reached by a forty minute hydrofoil boat trip from the Hermitage.

When Peter the Great founded St. Petersburg in 1703, he set out to make Europe’s grandest city. It might not be there quite yet over three centuries later. Still, a stroll along the Neva or through the Summer Garden proves you are in one of the world’s premier cities.

You guessed it. Teplo’s (dry) Carrot Cake

But is St. Petersburg one of the world’s premier cities for dining, like it is for the arts?

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Plat du Jour: Wednesday August 29, 2012: Noteworthy End of August Dishes From Texas BBQ to Flour + Water

It has been ages since we last presented a dishes of the week segment. Amidst the travels around the U.S. and Europe, here are some recent highlights from San Francisco. This being the week before Labor Day, how about some good ol’ Texas barbeque too from the capital of bbq in the Lone Star State, Lockhart, Texas.

Farallon: Pan Roasted Halibut with Lobster Brodo, Blue Lake Beans, and Heirloom Tomato Raviolis

Pan Roasted Alaskan Halibut with Heirloom Tomato Ravioli, Blue Lake Beans, and Lobster Brodo

Amidst the aquatic splendor of Pat Kuleto’s oceanic kingdom of a restaurant design, Mark Franz crafts some of San Francisco’s most memorable seafood combinations. Too often halibut is overcooked and lobster broths barely taste of lobster. Here the, halibut is spot on moist, the lobster broth transports you to a picnic area on the Maine coast, and summer abounds in the heirloom tomato filling for ravioli, accented by halved cherry tomatoes. This should be a signature dish for Farallon.

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Monday’s Neighborhood: Westheimer, Houston, Texas

Clockwise from Top Right: Feast’s Scallops, Exmoor Toasts, and Chicken Galatine with Peach Chutney

For those of us who meticulously hand select specifically where we dine and drink when visiting a new city, we often don’t even take into account where a restaurant or bar actually is located. I happened to select Hugo’s, Feast, Anvil, and the Hay Merchant as destinations to visit.

I had no idea that they not only were in the same neighborhood, a bit to the west of Downtown Houston, but they all were on the same street!

Westheimer Road is a narrow, winding, pot hole ridden four lane road, that is far more important a thoroughfare than its appearance would make it seem. The roughly mile long stretch runs through the Montrose neighborhood of Houston. It’s residential everywhere with Downtown to the east, the Galleria and River Oaks to the west, and Rice University, Museum District, and the Medical Center District all to the south. The being sprawling Houston, nothing is walking distance. Especially in humid 98 degree heat.

Hugo’s

Fortunately, the residents only need this one street. Westheimer boasts one of the country’s most impressive, intensely concentrated stretches of important bars and restaurants. These are national headliners, not just Houston headliners. (more…)


Greetings from…Bergen, Norway!

Edvard Grieg, the famous son of Bergen

Almost directly west of Oslo some eight hours by curvy mountain road or an equally windy journey by train, Bergen is Norway’s second largest city and the gateway to one of the world’s magical natural treasure regions: Norway’s Fjord country. Whether it’s the expansive Sognefjord and its claustrophobic narrow side fjords or the equally impressive, more majestic Hardangerfjord, every where you look everything is stunning and there is water everywhere. The drive around the fjords to and from Bergen is a non stop adventure of tunnels, twists, turns, waterfalls, breathtaking vistas, mountain passes, goats on the wall, and then everything else an amusement park might throw into a ride. Except this is the real deal. Yes, Norway is expensive and the tolls for the roads are everywhere. However, in order to construct and maintain these roads for our benefit, tolls are needed. And they seem to spend that money wisely.

Obviously, the fjords are the highlight here in Western Norway. You’ll eat well, if expensively exploring the fjords. One dinner in Ulvik was a satisfactory buffet spread at a most scenic hotel, with the price tag of a high end dinner in Paris for smoked salmon and edible steam table cuisine. A lunch in the tiny town of Vik (not right next to Ulvik…) presented the opportunity for a needed capuccino and to taste the region’s cheese: Gamalost. A dark orange skimmed cow’s milk cheese aged roughly a month, Gamalost is very stiff and chalky with a not altogether pleasant, sour taste.

But there is some special food and certainly special beer to be found in Bergen. With a metropolitan population at 391,000, much of the dining in this city focuses on, you guessed it, the tourists. The tourists come by the masses every day to see the fjords or on cruise ships the size of Bergen for day trip stop. Bergen has some lovely parks and is the home town of Edvard Grieg.

The Sognefjord

That usually is an asterisk for the tourists who stick to the funicular that takes you up a mountain for a knockout panoramic view of Bergen and the Bergen Fjord, and to the ticky-tack wharf area that makes Pier 39 seem designed for locals. The wharf area, known as Bryggen, is where you can sample fresh seafood not prepared with care in the fish market, then cross the street where McDonald’s and various Irish pubs await your arrival. (more…)


Restaurants: Farallon, San Francisco

What happened?

That’s all our table could say at the conclusion of a recent dinner, shrugging our shoulders and staring into the marine fantasy world that is San Francisco’s ever popular Farallon Restaurant. The powerhouse trio of architect Pat Kuleto, chef Mark Franz, and pastry chef Emily Luchetti opened Farallon in 1997, and despite more recently opening a duo of sleeker restaurants along the Embarcadero (Waterbar and Epic Roasthouse) and undulating waves of critical praise then pans then praise (how fitting for such an oceanic minded restaurant…), Farallon is still performing to a packed house night after night.

And what a house it is. Kuleto’s stunning, whimsical setting steals the show no matter how impressive Franz’s creations can sometimes be. Those plates from Franz can actually be spectacular–the chef could teach the definitive course on caramelized scallop perfection, as soft as the finest silk scarf.

But wow, what happened? I’m talking about that key component to a restaurant that diners and restaurateurs sometimes look the other way at, even if this is the hospitality industry after all.

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Cocktail of the Week: Margarita from Mansion del Rio, San Antonio

A margarita on the San Antonio Riverwalk as the cocktail of the week? There goes any thoughts of Trev’s Bistro’s high standards.

Nope, this is the real deal. Margarita perfection can be found on the banks of that Americana touristy extravaganza known as the Riverwalk. Yes, Riverwalk cocktails tend to be more like what your fraternity parties served back in the day. Well drinks often are considered the high brow drinks.

Step out of the blazing 100 degree Texas sun into this formal yet relaxed oasis inside the Omni Mansion del Rio Hotel, one of the old hospitality lions of San Antonio. The margarita can be found both at the hotel’s bar and in the Las Canarias restaurant with beautiful Riverwalk views, yet a world away from the Riverwalk’s atmosphere. (more…)


Greetings from…Oslo, Norway!

Norway’s Royal Palace

Norway’s capital city, Oslo is the forgotten child of the three primary Scandinavia cities (with Stockholm and Copenhagen). Stockholm and Copenhagen have restaurants that global travelers revolve trips around. They have dynamic cultural and arts scenes. Outside of having the world’s most famous ski jump on the outskirts of town and being the site of where the Nobel Peace Prize is awarded each year (of course Stockholm is where the other Nobels are handed out…), Oslo is best known for being one of the world’s best destinations to empty your wallet in record speed without even trying.

Trust me, this happened to us before we even realized we were in Oslo. A $250 USD taxi ride from the airport to the city center was a perfect introduction to the city’s best known trait. Hence, I have now coined the term, both verb and adjective, of “Osloing,” or to Oslo somebody is to charge an exorbitant fee… just because. Then shrug your shoulders.

A Big Mac in Oslo is around $8 these days. A main course at the city’s best known restaurant, Solsiden, is by all means almost always enjoyable and would go for the low to mid $20s USD in the U.S. Here, they are mid to high $50s USD. It’s the abundant oil money in Norway that everyone claims to make the prices so stratospheric (everywhere in Norway is expensive…Oslo is certainly not alone. It’s just most notable since it’s the major city). Then again, I was just in Houston and that city is no more expensive than a non-oil city, like Minneapolis.

Trattoria Popolare

Oil can be a reason for Oslo’s inflated prices. The real reason for Oslo’s inflated prices, which make the likes of Paris, Copenhagen, and Tokyo seem “cheap” by comparison, is because Oslo is Oslo. C’est la vie. (more…)