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Europe Trip Part 5: Paris

Notre Dame: Both Our Welcome & Our Farewell to Paris

As soon as our taxi (which had the best free WiFi of the whole trip!!!) entered the city of Paris, I (Chris) got my first glimpse of the oh-so-famous Notre Dame Cathedral. And I reacted with astonished excitement, much to Lisa’s delight. This was her 3rd time in Paris, and she couldn’t wait to see her favorite European city through my eyes. I really could not help but grin and utter goofy exclamations. It is simply the most visually compelling building I’ve ever seen. And even more beautiful in person than in pictures or movies. Fortunately, our hotel was just across the left bank of the Seine (right between St. Germain and the Latin Quarter) from Île de la Cité where the cathedral stands, so we saw it a lot. I don’t think I realized until we were there that Notre Dame was on an island in the middle of the Seine! It’s the heart of the oldest area of Paris, and the cathedral itself was completed in 1345! Most know of it as the home of Quasimodo from the Hunchback of Notre Dame or perhaps for its flying buttresses (very cool architectural feature). You can read all about it, but here I’ll just share pictures from all around it and from one of the two towers. We braved the loooong climb up (we learned NOTHING from our time in Florence…) and were able to get some stunning views of Paris under brilliant blue skies. Oh, and the bells rang right when we reached the top! Uh, I think Quasimodo had to have been completely deaf. Those were some loud bells. And a really nice surprise was the beautiful flower garden behind the cathedral. Wow.

We also ended our trip inside the cathedral at a fabulous choral concert featuring the choir of Notre Dame. We were able to meet a few of the members and its choral director after the concert and learned about how the choir is essentially a training venue for young talented singers, many of whom are students. One older singer we met actually makes a full time living as a choral singer in this choir and a few others, acting as a professional mentor to the younger singers. The music that night was primarily Renaissance, but the women by themselves sang several modern pieces which were really exciting. We had seats right up front, and it was a special way to end our time in Paris and in Europe. The singing was exquisite.

So, here is our Notre Dame photo gallery. I think once Lisa has published her Doors of Europe photo book, she will move on to Gargoyles of Europe! Seeing them up close was worth the long climb to the top. Click for a larger image.

Some Scenes from Paris

We purchased the Paris Pass, which allows for entry into most of the famous attractions and museums, plus a 10-stop “hop-on-hop-off” bus tour that stops at the most iconic locations in the city. We actually rode the 10-stop loop at least 2 or more times in one day, getting off when we felt like it for photos or a snack, but mostly just enjoying the Paris sunshine and cheesy recorded narration. We may not have totally gotten our money’s worth out of the pass (no, we missed the Louvre–Lisa had been and neither of us felt like braving the crowds or the inevitable art-overload), but it was worth it to be chauffeured around the city with such great views. Seeing the sights in the fresh air was more fun anyway. So here are some views of Paris, mostly from the bus, or on stops along the way. First, we should mention our hotel, Hotel Claude Bernard, which is in a perfect location to see the city and soak up the Left Bank vibe. Here’s Chris posing for our hotel ad:

We enjoyed walking around this area, and had our best food experience of Paris at a place nearby (stay tuned). This is the area of artists, students (at The Sorbonne), and “Bohemians” as sung about in La Bohème. There are many famous cafes and shops here, plus plenty of places to simply sit by the river or browse the street vendor stalls. It’s also home of the world-famous Shakespeare and Company bookstore, which attracts visitors, deep-thinkers, and authors from around the globe. The inside steps and requisite bookshop cat were highlights inside, along with its crowded but cozy array of books. Bookstores like this just don’t exist anymore.

Other iconic sights near us included the Panthéon just up the hill from our hotel (originally a church, now a mausoleum). You can see its dome at the end of the street. (Did I mention that except for a brief downpour in Barcelona and a drizzly (but also lovely) day in Venice, the weather for our two-week trip was all blue skies and gentle sunshine? Look at that sky!)

There was also this lovely garden near Shakespeare and Company, and picture-perfect sidewalk cafe, and plenty of street vendors along the Seine. These pictures just say Paris to us.

We also saw many beautiful sights along the river Seine, including beautiful bridges with elaborate sculptures and ornate statues, many gilded with gold. The first picture below is of Notre Dame from the opposite side of the river, and depicts how many spend their days in Paris, languishing by the water. We could totally get used to that.

We did see some of the most famous sights on our bus tour (and Lisa got some pretty dang good pics in spite of being on top of a moving object!). Below you will see the courtyard of the Louvre, the Champs Élysées, the Arc de Triomphe, the front of the famous Moulin Rouge, and a gallery of some really nice shots of the Eiffel Tower (we framed the last black and white one, and it looks so iconic, you’d think it was the stock photo that came with the frame!). No, we didn’t go up, but we had agreed to not do all the requisite touristy things and just enjoy being in the city.Click on an Eiffel Tower picture for a full view.

Don’t Forget the Food!

You must be scratching your head and wondering “So the two food nerds are in Paris. What’s with all the pictures of things that aren’t food?” To be honest, we kept things pretty simple in Paris. We got street food pizza, some Lebanese food, picnic lunches at an open-air market and also a small supermarket, ate large bags of uniquely-flavored potato chips in bed in our hotel, and salivated at pastry shop windows. Like this one. Moan.

We did visit one market, and in spite of being shooed away with loud cries of “Madame! Madame!” by one of the vendors when she started taking pictures, Lisa managed to get this epic shot of some tomatoes on the vine. Nice, huh?

So food was never really far from our minds or our mouths, and we did have two really special food experiences that we’ll share here.

We went to one of the top patisseries in Paris, Blé Sucré, which some say has the best croissants in the city. We didn’t get a croissant, but the next best (or better!) thing: a pain au chocolat, which is a croissant filled with chocolate! It was just too good. And true (but sad) story: we went to a local farmer’s market when we got home, and got some items from a special bakery, including a beautiful croissant. Much to our disappointment, Paris ruined us. The croissant was simply inedible! Instead of a rich handful of flavorful butter held together by endless and ethereal flakes of dough, it was leaden, greasy and tasteless. So, if you want to hate baked goods in the U.S. (at least at most places) forever, go to Paris. Consider yourself warned. We also got a baba au rhum (a filled cake REALLY saturated with rum) and a Paris-Brest, filled with hazelnut cream. Feast your eyes:

Yeah, as good as they look. We could have sat on that park bench and returned all afternoon to sample everything in the store.

Dining at the Center of the World

Our truly magical meal in Paris turned out to be TWO meals, because we went to the same restaurant in the Latin Quarter by our hotel two nights in a row. It’s called Le Centre du Monde and it was utterly charming. Both nights the air was perfectly balmy and the tables are right up to the cobblestone narrow pedestrian street. It provided us the quintessential Paris bistro food experience, plus, on the first night, we chatted with two Americans with connections to our home state of Alabama! The young man seated next to us turned out to have been raised only 30 miles from where we live, and was a grad student in English presenting a paper at a conference at the Sorbonne! And he and Lisa had a mutual friend! Talk about your small world (or, center of the world) moments. We enjoyed talking about connections back home and hearing about his studies. Then, a woman approached us, apologized for eavesdropping, and shared that she knew a French artist who owned a gallery in a city near us, who had a son living in Florida! She turned out to be a lovely and fascinating individual, and Lisa really connected with her. She was actually ending an “Eat, Pray, Love”-esque journey. She had been in Nepal learning spiritual practices (her stories of having to sing in Sanskrit and play an instrument she knew nothing about were hilarious!), and ended up in Paris, where she was having an…undefined romance with the French artist! We sat and talked to her until the restaurant closed. It was nice to have the place to ourselves with absolutely no pressure from the staff to leave.

Anyway, about the food. The first night we started with a classic: French onion soup. It was everything it was supposed to be–rich, complex, both savory and sweet from the long cooking of the onions.

We each got another classic–boeuf bourguignon–the first night. It was sooooo good, rich, sweet, and beefy that Lisa got it again the second night. I ventured out for variety and had another France-on-a-plate moment: roasted chicken, ratatouille, and frites (French fries!). Humble, simple but perfectly prepared and delicious. You can see we were literally on top of the cobblestone street and you can see the curb and chairs for the restaurant across from us. It was like dining on a movie set. The air was the perfect temperature, and the night was quiet and peaceful. Really exactly what we wanted from our Paris dining experience.

We topped off the meal (first night? second night? both? memory is fuzzy here) with crème caramel for Lisa and chocolate lava cake for Chris. Sadly, the cake was fake-tasting and forgettable (hence it is lurking behind the true dessert star), but the crème caramel was straight from culinary central casting. Crisp, shattering and slightly bitter caramel top, and dreamy-creamy, perfectly smooth custard underneath.

Well. That’s post 5 of 5 for our European tour of sights and culinary delights. Hope you have enjoyed this post and maybe some of the others as well. Perhaps your appetite (and appetite for travel) have been whetted by what we’ve shared.  Truly nothing compares to getting away and seeing how different, yet also the same, people and situations can be in a place far from home. It’s been said that happiness is better found in experiences than things. We tend to agree. Unless those things happen to be edible and artfully prepared by someone who doesn’t even speak your language, yet knows how to satisfy you through the gift of something delicious!

So, whether it’s across town or across the world, get outside your door, talk to people different from you, and eat.

From Spain, Italy, and France, we bid you Adiós! Arrivederci! Au revoir! Continue reading “Europe Trip Part 5: Paris”

Europe Trip Part 4: Venice

Venice: A Living & Fragile Postcard
Gondolas-in-waiting

Venice is hard to describe, and even pictures don’t really convey the charm and almost other-worldly quality of the city. It’s a fascinating place, with a rich history. It’s also a beleaguered place–by both an over-run of tourists (sincere apologies, Venice!) and by rising sea levels. It is quite tragic to imagine this magical place disappearing into the Adriatic sea! And in case you are wondering, Venice looks just like it does in TV shows and movies (trust us, we watched several things when we got back out of nostalgia!). We were fortunate to miss the heaviest tourist season as well as the time when Piazza San Marco becomes a wading pool (the time is called “acqua alta“). But it was obvious that the main island (Venice actually consists of 118 small islands!) that holds the attractions of Venice was too crowded in the center (and eerily but beautifully empty just a few streets away, as we happily discovered).

One attraction we cannot fail to at least mention is the Venice cathedral on the Piazza San Marco, St. Mark’s Basilica. Fascinating history and architecture, plus an interior that is unrivaled in the world. They don’t allow photos (although many seemed intent on ignoring that rule…), and our time there was rushed since we were simply herded through at our appointed time. But it was the most exquisite ancient church we have ever seen. Fortunately, there are some pictures online and it has been featured in a few films, but unfortunately, these truly don’t capture the awe-inspiring beauty inside. We paused at a small altar to pray while we were there–the place inspired devotion.

Rather than recount several vignettes from Venice (what? no food reviews?), we decided to simply create this picture postcard from this most enchanting city. This was the one part of the trip where we had some real travel stresses (a hectic close call making the train from Florence and a near-miss of our Gondola ride), plus some chilly, rainy weather, and a shorter stay (only 2 nights instead of 3). So it seemed fitting to just display some of the beautiful scenery and let that speak for itself (with some helpful captions!). Click the photos for a larger image.

Enjoy. And do go if you have an opportunity. It is like no other place on earth. Click for a larger image.

Europe Trip Part 3: Florence

This captures the essence of Florence in the spring

Ah…just thinking about Florence brings up some really unique and indescribable feelings. This was truly the heart of the trip for us in many ways. We were able to slow down and drink in the city, and it was a refreshing time after the hectic pace of Barcelona and Rome. We only had to use public transportation to and from the train station, so the whole time in Florence we strolled everywhere. Our hotel was right on the river and a short walk to some of the most famous sights in town. Florence (“Firenze” to Italians) is located in northern Italy in the region of Tuscany, which is one of the most beautiful parts of the country. Both before, during and after the trip, we had people telling us our next trip to Italy should be to the Tuscan hill towns. We were already talking about our next trip only hours after arriving in Florence! I think one of us said “Florence suits us!” Indeed it did. Celebrated by most as the birthplace of the Renaissance, there is beautiful and world-famous history and art at every turn. The town has modern elements, but the age of this medieval town is evident everywhere. I think Lisa took more pictures here than in any other city–there was something beautiful to look at everywhere we went. And a lot of the beauty was edible, as you’ll see!

Firenze: Love at First Sight (& Bite!)

As we whisked north from the busyness of Rome, we were soon greeted with a quintessential view of the Tuscan countryside to get us in the mood:

Yeah, we’ll be back.

Once we arrived in Florence, we discovered that our hotel was happily a few steps away from a gelato shop! Our first taste of Italian gelato in Rome was hard to beat, but Vivaldi Gelateria did not disappoint (and we returned, um, a few times). I think the peach flavor was our favorite. Looks like mah belly was already full of gelato and ready for more…

I think the best way to convey the many beautiful and edible impressions that Florence made on us is to provide a photo collage of some of the highlights for us. So in no particular order, here’s what we see and taste when we close our eyes and remember Florence. Click for a larger image.

We saw amazing medieval and renaissance art at the Uffizi Gallery (including an exhibit featuring an unfinished Da Vinci painting with a fascinating history) and at the cathedral museum, but being the foodies that we are, we couldn’t help but be smitten by the edible art at the famous Mercato Centrale, with stands for every kind of fresh and prepared food downstairs, and the most amazing food emporium upstairs (“food court” makes it sound way less elevated than it really was. It even had a place to take cooking classes) . Once we gathered some treats, we sat there and could have stayed all afternoon, sampling everything. The fast wi-fi didn’t hurt, so Lisa could upload her pictures that were rapidly filling up her phone’s memory!

The food we saw at every turn was truly inspiring, and made us wish for more days in Florence and more mouths and stomachs to fill! The real food highlight was at a humble sandwich shop, which I’ll describe below. Other highlights included the portrait session (pictures above) for Lisa with this amazing artist who spoke no English. We watched him draw two other people, and we could tell he had an eye for capturing the essence of a person and drawing out their natural beauty. Not caricature, but an almost impressionistic portrait. Lisa eagerly sat for him and said “Make me “bellissima!” We were so impressed with the result. We call it her “principessa” (princess) portrait!

The climb up the bell tower of the Florence cathedral , officially the Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore or Il Duomo di Firenze or just “Il Duomo”, was an event for sure. Over 400 stone steps in a NARROW winding staircase (not for the faint of heart, mind, or knees), 3 separate stages to get out and look over the city before finally reaching the top. We weren’t alone in mistaking (and desperately hoping) that we were already all the way up on the second or third level–we had to break it to a group of British tourists that no, there were many steps left before the top. They laughed and “carried on” like good English citizens! But the views were worth the climb, as the pictures above show. Lisa especially enjoyed the little hidden views through the narrow stone window holes in the staircase on the way up. But now, a review of our favorite food in Florence (and it turns out thousands of people agree!).

All’Antico Vinaio: The Best 5 Euros You Can Spend in Florence

If you click on the above link for this tiny sandwich shop (which has cleverly opened an identical shop right across the narrow street!) you will see the Trip Advisor page, which currently shows that All’Antico Vinaio has 19,289 reviews and counting! Last I checked, that makes it the 3rd most reviewed restaurant on Trip Advisor in the world!! And this is for a place that serves only made-to-order sandwiches on fresh focaccia bread for 5 Euros each. The order and prep counter is smaller than an American Subway restaurant. There are 3-4 friendly and talkative behind the counters quickly filling and ringing up orders for sandwich after sandwich. The hordes of tourists (and I’m sure locals as well) haven’t jaded them at all–they even posed for pictures with an eager young American guy behind the counter. We got sandwiches there twice, once to go, and once to eat in. Both times the service was amazingly fast considering the line that was out the door (of course, any line would be out the door–the place is tiny). But we again were thankful to be there in mid-May and not mid-July when the heat and crowds were at their peak.

They have a selection of named sandwiches to choose from, and we tried 4 of them. All were delicious. Here’s a sign with their 5 most popular. I tried La Favolosa (their award winner) and it was amazing. Lisa had a veggie one (La Jean George I think) , and we also tied one with “lardo” (yes, thin sliced pork fat), and one with arugula and gorgonzola dolce (a sweet and mild blue cheese).
Here’s the fresh-baked bread, which arrived frequently from the kitchen in the back, and had an aroma and taste like nothing we’ve ever had. Rich, crusty but soft enough for a sandwich, with an almost pastry-like sweetness that went so well with the savory toppings.

Speaking of toppings, here they are in the display case, ready to for the speedy sandwich makers to adorn that amazing bread:

They had several spreads made of veggies, including tomatoes, olives, artichokes, and mushrooms. A really unique departure from boring mustard and mayo. The cheesy spreads (pecorino, goat cheese, and gorgonzola) were also delicious. And lest we forget that this place was decidedly un-vegan, behold the meats:

Several kinds of ham (prosciutto of course), salami, porchetta, and yes, the lardo (creamy white stuff in the bottom right of the photo). Everything in moderation, folks! To lower your LDL from looking at that, here’s Lisa’s veggie creation, which had zucchini, mushrooms, mozzarella, basil, mint, an eggplant spread and a balsamic glaze:

And here’s Chris’ La Favolosa, which lived up to its name. I’ve never had a sandwich like it. The meat was called sbriciolona, which is an ancient style of salami unique to Tuscany. It was topped with a creamy pecorino spread, along with and spreads made of eggplant and artichokes. It tied for winner of the “I-don’t-want-it-to-be-over” award along with the lasagne in Barcelona!

These guys truly know how to make a sandwich. And with the exchange rate at the time and no sales tax, the price was the same as a $5 footlong from Subway, but much more substantial, and about as like a Subway sandwich as as the green stuff in a can is like the hunk of Parmigiano Reggiano cheese we got from the market! Gotta move on to Lisa’s door pictures before I start gnawing on my laptop…

Doors of Europe: Part 3

Next, we were off to Venice, or as it’s often called “La Serenissima”. Its watery and timeless beauty truly had a calming effect, in spite of its over-crowded tourist vibe. It was definitely ready for its close-up, and everywhere we looked screamed “take a picture of me!” as you will see.

For now, as with the previous posts, here are more of Lisa’s door pictures to close out this snapshot of Florence. She had a treasure trove of doors, and interesting knobs and door knockers, to photograph in Florence, including the amazing front door of Il Duomo (last in the gallery). Enjoy!

 

Europe Trip Part 2: Rome

We certainly loved our unique (and delicious) time in Barcelona, and will never forget the cathedral, the lasagne(!), or those “brave potatoes”, but we were most certainly excited to be headed to the first of our three stops in Italy: Rome! Can you tell? Off we go! 

Funny note: We tried our best to use what little language skill we had in each country, if only to say a lot of “thank-you’s”. So, we had to quickly switch on this leg of the trip from “gracias” to “grazie”. I must confess, I (Chris) said more than one “gracias” in Italy, and may have even said “grazie” instead of “merci” in Paris. Blame it on the jet lag, I say.

Our Intro to Rome: Gelato. Pizza. And a 2,079-year-old Bridge

After an uneventful hop across the Mediterranean, and a short train trip to Termini Station in Rome (equivalent to NYC’s Grand Central Terminal), we made the short walk to our hotel and immediately got directions to the best gelato in the city! We waste no time. Our hotel clerk made a smart recommendation and we got an introduction to the city while walking to our sweet treat. On the way we discovered some beautiful first sights, including this bright red Vespa motorbike leaning against a giant stone urn. It’s arguably Lisa’s best photo of the whole trip. See what I mean?

This pic just screams Rome, and is a perfect blend of the ancient and modern that crashes all around you as you explore the city. We also got to see the (in)famous building that some call the “Wedding Cake“. I think it was seen by many as too “modern” and ostentatious, competing with the majestic ruins of the Colosseum and Forum. It’s a monument that was completed in 1925. It does look a little cake-y, dont’cha think?

We also stumbled into a beautiful old church (whose name is lost to us, unfortunately) and got our first taste of some glorious architecture. Click for a larger image.

We even saw some cool lions hanging out by this fountain. (We also managed to miss both the Trevi Fountain and the Spanish Steps while in Rome! But I think our Rome trip was pretty special, as you’ll see).And we finally made it to Gelateria Romana, a Roman gelato tradition since 1947. It was very encouraging to see a line out the door, late on a weekday afternoon, full of locals. We may have been the only non-Romans there. Let’s just say our hotel clerk did not steer us wrong. We each got a selection of 3 flavors, all of which were strong, clean and exactly what they were advertised to taste like. In spite of the crowd, the staff were all friendly. One even eagerly gave me an extra taste of one flavor when I asked about the ingredients (Lisa, the flavor whisperer, had correctly identified a subtle hint of lemon). We also got an amazing raspberry, almond and pine nut tart to go, which was filled with pastry cream. It was delicious, in spite of suffering a bit in the late spring heat of Rome by the time we got to the hotel.

We also tasted our first of several experiences with Roman pizza that day. Pizza shops abound, and all we tried had friendly staff and abundant rectangles of pizza with many different toppings that they would cut to order and heat up. The crust (for most of them we tried) was probably the most remarkable: light, crusty, blackened, and full of flavor. There can be no good pizza without good crust, and the Romans know what they’re doing here. Tempting, no?

Our introduction to Rome ended with a really magical evening. We strolled past the Wedding Cake and the Cololsseum, down to the Tiber River. I had seen pictures of this area and had earmarked a couple of traditional Roman restaurants that were located on Tiber Island in the middle of the river (“Isola Tiberina” in Italian). Across the river we knew lay the Trastevere (more on that later), but for this evening, we wanted to dine surrounded by the water. We chose the perfect time to come. We crossed over to the island on Ponte Fabricio (“Pons Fabricus” in Latin), which we soon discovered was the oldest active bridge in Rome, built in 62 B.C.!! It was a pedestrian bridge, and there were artists and musicians lining its borders, enticing the tourists like us. We met a lovely young artist (originally from Moldova), who had left the world of fashion design behind to focus on watercolor painting. She informed us of the bridge’s history and sold us two beautiful paintings, one of which was of the bridge itself. Lisa captured some stunning photos of the bridge before sunset, and we got a nice picture of the artist as well. The two-faced sculpture next to her is of the Roman god Janus.

Just across this amazing old bridge we found Sora Lella, which has been there since 1940, and is described as a trattoria serving typical Roman cuisine. It’s a family-run place, and the matriarch (the namesake of the restaurant) was a quintessential Italian grandmother who died recently at the age of 100! Her pictures are all over the restaurant walls of this cozy little place. It was fun & rather mind-boggling to wander in here to an Italian “tradition’ that was in its infancy compared to the bridge we had just walked across! Our waiter was fun (and teased me for my poor understanding of his accented English!) and we shared a delicious mozzarella salad to start. Then we each got a house specialty pasta–our favorite was a pasta with spring vegetables (artichokes, asparagus, and peas). A really delicious taste of old Rome.

After our meal, we got another terrific view of the bridge after dark. A really magical end to our first meeting with Rome.

A Taste of Roman History (or: We Should Have Paid More Attention in History Class!)

Full disclosure (in case it wasn’t obvious): this trip was all about the food! And maybe some art. But we did embrace as much of the history and architecture as our hungry selves could stand. It became embarrassingly obvious how little we really knew about Roman history when we wandered up Capitoline Hill (one of the Seven Hills of Rome, which we knew nothing about!) and got a breathtaking view of the Roman Forum (which we had heard of, but couldn’t have identified if you had given us free gelato and pizza!). As luck would have it, a tour guide and his eager group stood right next to us and narrated the view, which included Palatine Hill and the main structures (ancient political, pagan, and Christian all in the same place). Here’s the view we saw, along with an obligatory selfie:

You can read all about what’s there in the Forum, but the detail the tour guide shared that probably stood out the most to us was the fact that Marc Antony gave his famous speech over Caesar’s freshly dead (!) body on some steps that we could just barely see in the lower right of this picture. We got a better view on our tour of the Forum later. Here they are (at the base of the reddish building, behind the big columns):

We did explore the Forum and Palatine Hill the next day, and had a really nice time, in spite of the crowds and heat (glad we were there in May and not July!). Here are some selected photos of our wanderings there. Click for a larger image.

We also toured the famous (understatement!) Roman Colosseum which is right next to the Forum. Fortunately, we did know a bit about the most iconic of Roman landmarks. Seeing it was rather awe-inspiring (and a bit disturbing, when you ponder its original purpose!). Next to the Colosseum is the huge Arch of Constantine, which was dedicated in 315 A.D. to commemorate a Roman military victory, and is the largest triumphal arch in Rome. Here are some selected photos of our Colosseum and Palatine Hill experience (including some iconic pines of Rome and an orange tree!). Click for a larger image.

Who Needs Roman Ruins When There’s Food Like This!

Our most memorable Roman food adventure happened truly by accident. We ended up at a place that was on our list to try, but at the time, we were actually looking for a famous open-air market called Campo di Fiore, that turned out to be closed when we got there (thanks Google!). Along the way, we saw some beautiful narrow pedestrian streets and quaint squares lined with cafes and shops:

I really think the best part of being in Europe is wandering the oldest parts of any town, where the streets are car-less and you never know what you’ll see next. That’s what we were doing when I saw someone pass by, eating something delicious wrapped in paper–and I recognized the logo on the wrapper as being from a place I knew we wanted to try, called Roscioli (which has both a restaurant and a take-out counter and bakery). So we doubled back and found it by pure luck (again, thanks Google, because your map said we weren’t even on the same street!). How could you not want to go inside and eat here?

We ended up having quite a little feast of porchetta, roasted potatoes, faro salad, and an amazing ricotta and chocolate chip cheesecake which we devoured over the next several hours and the next morning! We could have stayed there for days, and come back for more. The baked goods were abundant and beautiful, and their pizza was also a sight to behold. Here are some shots of what we ate (and what we wanted to eat!). Click for a larger image.

(Um, sorry, we two greedy gobble gannets dug into the cheesecake before we thought to take its picture!). It’s one of the things we ate on the trip that I think we can still taste in our minds, and could eat for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

A Hilly Walk and a Surprise Stop at the Vatican

We had read and seen a lot about the neighborhood called Trastevere across the Tiber River from the most famous sights in Rome. It’s an old, quiet area, and many residents never set foot across the river to the busy heart of the ancient city. We decided to head there for an afternoon and see what we could discover. While we ended up having a completely different experience than what we expected, it turned out to be a fascinating and fun adventure. And we walked. A lot. Luckily, there was pasta at the end!

I’ll go ahead and share our dirty secret about dinner first. We ate at Eataly, which is Mario Batali’s huge Italian food emporium (the original is in New York, and we’ve been there. It’s pretty swell. And apparently it’s got several U.S. locations in addition to stores in Italy and across the world now). But the fact that Eataly was in ITALY kind of gave us one of those “Huh?” moments and seems just, well, wrong. But, we had a nice pasta and pizza (cacio e pepe pasta, and and arugula and prosciutto pizza–both quite delicious). And Romans were eating there, so I guess they decided it can’t be too terrible. So, here’s the evidence. Click for a larger image.

OK, now that that confession is out of the way, here are some highlights of our Trastevere adventure, which ended up in St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican! We wandered the streets for awhile, catching some charming sights, and ended up climbing a steep hill with view of all of Rome, and coming upon a small church. There was a wedding party taking pictures next to a really neat vintage car that Lisa decided needed its own photo shoot. There was a beautiful field next to the church with a great view of Roman pines. Here’s some highlights of that walk:

We realized that we were on the same side of the river as Vatican city, and asked a local how to walk there. With some vague but enthusiastic directions, and the help (sorta) of Google maps (it tried to send us into a parking garage), we found ourselves walking right into St. Peter’s square right when the sun was going down and the tourists were clearing out. It made for a really special and peaceful experience. The buildings around the square were magnificent, and adorned with regal statues of all the previous pontiffs.

The Vatican guards in their almost court-jester colorful costumes were fun to watch, and we got to see a changing of two guards for the late shift. The last picture is of Chris bravely drinking from an ancient public fountain. We discovered that in Rome (and other places in Italy), these public fountains provided really clean, cold, delicious water. It would have been neat to know the full history of this fountain, which was right at the edge of the square.

Rome turned out to be a great intro to Italy (if a somewhat hectic and dizzying one–I didn’t even talk about how crossing the street in the city center was a bit like playing Frogger–crosswalks and lights were usually nonexistent!). We braved both buses and the subway, and it was pretty easy to get around overall. Again, we are glad we missed the height of summer tourist season! We were definitely ready to head to Florence and a calmer pace. It did not disappoint, as you will see.

But to say goodbye to Rome, here is the next installment for Lisa’s collection of “The Doors of Europe”!

 

 

 

Europe Trip Part 1: Barcelona

COur Europe trip in May was a truly epic experience. We visited five cities in three countries over two weeks, and took 4 plane rides, 2 train trips, plus many taxis, city buses, subways, and water buses. Not to mention the walking! Here’s a pic of Lisa’s step-tracker on a typical day.Yeah, we walked. A lot. We told ourselves about 2 or 3 days into the trip (when we felt we had been there for days and days and done so much already) that we had better pace ourselves! We thought we had the jet lag beat on day 2, but we were mistaken; neither of us ever really settled into the new time for some reason. Despite some sleepless evenings and sleepy mornings, we persevered and wrung as much out of the trip as we could. Fortunately, we both stayed healthy and suffered nothing more than tired feet and a blister or two.

We started in Barcelona, the place we knew the least about and were most intrigued by (especially from what we’d heard about the food). It turned out to be a fascinating, although somewhat exhausting place, and we did have some unforgettable food experiences. And visiting the famous La Sagrada Familia cathedral was an experience we’ll never forget.

Here’s a taste of what made Barcelona a special start to the trip…

Barcelona: Friendly People, Amazing Italian(!) Food, Unbelievable Architecture

After checking in to our hotel, we took our jet lagged selves right away to the food destination we had anticipated the most, the famous market in the Gothic Quarter of Barcelona, El Mercat de la Boqueria, or just La Boqueria. After a bit of a snag getting on the subway (the station near our hotel was under renovation), we arrived at the beginning of La Rambla, a bustling pedestrian street that would take us to the market. It was a beautiful day, and while touristy, the sights and sounds made for a pleasant start to our adventure.

La Boqueria: World-Class Food Market

We soon arrived at La Boqueria, which is under a large open-air pavilion, and were soon gaping slack-jawed and starving at the dazzling display of meats, seafood, produce, and prepared foods. Everywhere we turned there was something beautiful to look at. We had to eat most of it with our eyes, but for us, it was better than going to any museum. We also soon were introduced to the genuinely friendly people of Barcelona. The merchants all greeted us with a smile and a sincere “Hola!” at every turn. Here are some of the sights that greeted us (the picture of us features Lisa and what we called her “food face”!). Click for a larger image.

The juices were inexpensive (1 or 2 Euros at most) and were a great pick-me-up. We were so impressed with the quality and variety of food on offer here. Especially notable was the abundant and varied selection of every kind of fish and seafood–all on open display over ice without any hint of fishy smell. You truly could only smell the ocean. Makes you wonder how fish counters in modern US grocery stores manage to have such stinky fish!

There were market stands along with full-service restaurant counters with some of the most beautiful food on display. This is the “one that got away”. Bar Central was a place we had seen reviewed online and on TV, but the wait for a coveted seat at the counter proved more than we wanted to endure.

Instead, we nibbled our way around the market, eyes bulging and wishing we could eat it all. Many varieties of the famous Spanish ham, or jamon, was everywhere–in portable serving cups along with cheese or other goodies, hanging on display or being carved up to order. The most prized, the Iberico ham, comes from black-footed pigs fed a diet of only acorns! Crazy right?? You can see the black foot on one of the hams in the gallery above. This stuff is rich, fatty, and similar to prosciutto, but with a flavor like nothing else. It really is nutty (the pigs are what they eat!) and just melts in your mouth.

The story we probably will always remember from this market experience was about our first bite of food from the market. It was of this amazing sausage (similar to chorizo) that was pan-seared to order and served with crunchy dried onions on top. Here it is:

We agreed that it had a flavor like nothing we’d ever tried–tangy, sweet, and complex. It was one of those weak-in-the knees food moments. So of course, when we returned to the market the next day to experience it all over again, we agreed we needed more of this goodness–and we weren’t going to share a cup this time! We only discussed it later, but we both had the same reaction the second time around–it wasn’t the same! We may never figure out why (the jet lag made it taste better? a different but similar kind of sausage? a bad batch?), but we both wished we had let the first taste be the only taste. For two food-obsessed travelers, it was a rather sad moment. Fortunately, Barcelona (and the rest of the trip) had many more food moments in store for us!

Beautiful Streets and Architecture

Lisa is fascinated with architecture, and also loves doors. The Gothic Quarter near the market, where we spent most of our time wandering when we weren’t eating, provided some great shots of narrow medieval streets and some striking doors and store fronts. She took pictures of doors throughout the trip, and I think we could publish a coffee-table book called “The Doors of Europe”! Here’s just a sampling. Click for a larger image.

Elegant Pastries and A Cozy Vegan Place

Close to La Boqueria, we stumbled upon an old pastry shop right when we both needed the reliable boost from sugar and caffeine! It’s called Patisseria Escriba and is considered the most famous pastry shop in Barcelona, opening back at the turn of the 20th century. The building itself was photo-worthy, and the display of pastries was stunning. We had delicious espresso, and tried a fried, sugar-coated, cream-filled croissant(!) and a sacher torte. The torte had a small pipette of apricot jam to inject into the dessert. Quite fancy. Click for a larger image.

Lisa wanted to try a vegan/vegetarian restaurant she had read about. It turned out to be a tiny but welcoming and cozy place and offered a quiet respite from the busy streets of Barcelona. It’s called Quinoa Bar Vegetaria. We had fresh squeezed juices to start, and then ordered a veggie burger and the quiche of the day. The juices were delicious (carrot/apple/ginger and avocado/lime/apple), and the food was tasty, but not amazing, unfortunately. However, the dessert, a vegan carrot cake, turned out to be the best carrot cake either of us had ever eaten! Not kidding.

I think I can still taste it just by looking at the picture. Hard to describe, but it was everything a carrot cake should be, without the too-sweet and heavy cream cheese icing onslaught. And to top it off, our friendly waitress (who endured my embarrassing attempt at asking for the check in Catalan–thanks, Google translate!!) gave us an equally amazing piece of banana bread to take with us as a parting gift! We really enjoyed our time there–it provided a needed oasis from the bustling streets and market.

A Spanish Cathedral and an Italian Meal

The visual highlight of Barcelona was most certainly our evening tour of La Sagrada Familia, the architectural gem of the city, designed by Antoni Gaudi and under nearly continuous construction (still not finished!) since the 1880’s. Gaudi’s architectural designs are truly unique, and the best way I can describe his style is organic. My impression after seeing both the outside and inside of the mammoth structure was that this would be the result if the elves of Middle Earth decided to build a cathedral!

In exterior pictures, the older and newer areas of construction are clearly defined, with the older parts showing signs of age and accumulated city grime. The garden and pond across the street provided some lovely views as the sun set. The exterior is a dizzying collection of spires, turrets, carved figures and plant-like details. And inside…the most breathtaking stained glass we had ever seen. We came at a perfect time with late afternoon sun streaming inside. The way the glass and sto

ne interact made it look as if the air inside was on fire. It was truly magical. Here are just a few images that capture the cathedral’s essence.

Click the pictures below for a larger image.

We wandered out dazed and headed back to a restaurant we had discovered before the tour, called Tuscania Food and Wine. Yes, it was an Italian (and Spanish) restaurant! We had actually had some authentic Spanish tapas before the tour (small shrimp, beef rolls, potato cake, and amazing bread and olive oil), but decided to return for a full meal afterwards. Here’s what we ate. Click for a larger image.

Our waiter was Italian, and recommended that we have the lasagne, which the chef had just made for the evening. Let’s just say that we will never forget this meal. It was truly the best lasagne (and some of the best food. period.) we had ever eaten. It was a dish that caused both great joy with every bite, but immense sorrow because you knew you were one bite closer to it being gone…it was THAT good. The noodles, sauce, beef and cheese were all the perfect versions of themselves and melded together just as they should. OK, it was just lasagne, but no, it really wasn’t.  A picture only hints of its awesomeness, but it’s all we have  left!!! Life is so unfair!!! (We did learn our lesson from the sausage experience, and refrained from going again the next night, out of fear that it had all been a dream…)

Finally, Lisa was really taken with this sparkling water, and we bought bottles to take back to the hotel during the rest of our time in Barcelona. We haven’t found a way to buy it here in the U.S., but it was really delicious and smooth.

Mind-Boggling Tapas to End our Spanish Experience

We had our last meal at a place very close to our hotel that had gotten great reviews online and from the hotel staff. We probably ate more that night than at any meal on the trip, but it was worth every bite. We started with a pear and arugula salad, with a parmesan crispy disk of goodness on top. It was really delicious and fresh.

Then we got calamari (sadly, I think we were too in awe to photograph it) that can best be described as squid beignets! They were the biggest, most tender rings of calamari we’d ever eaten, and coated in a thick, donut-like batter. They were heavenly. I (Chris) got these little fried whole fish (sardines or something similar) that you ate, melting little bones and all. Squirted with lemon, they were like fish popcorn. 

The most memorable tapas offering was the patates braves (I called them brave potatoes, but I’m sure that’s not the translation). How do we even describe these? It was a stack of sliced potatoes, similar to a gratin, but infused with the oil and piggy essence of the best Spanish jamon. The flavor was right through to the last molecule of potato–salty, meaty and sweet. And covering it all was the creamiest cloud of whipped butter & bits of jamon. Yeah. So wrong. I think this was the most unbelievable thing we ate on the trip. I think I made my best “I-can’t-believe-that-actually-exists” face for the waiter at the end of the meal. It looks like a dessert,  but trust us, this is one of the most delectable savory dishes on the planet.

And once we were stuffed and our heads were trying to figure out what just happened with those potatoes, we ate the special of the night–a whole steamed fish stuffed with aromatic vegetables. I won’t lie–it was hard to push through and eat it all. But we somehow made it.

Wow. Quite a send-off from Barcelona. And to think we really didn’t even go to some of the places that we had dreamed of going and heard so much about before the trip. It was a great start to our European blow-out trip. The heart of the trip was next–a flight to Rome with train trips to Florence and Venice. Italy turned out to be amazing as well, but as much as it might hurt to hear, dear Italia, Spain gave us the pasta dish we’ll always remember.

Great Thai Food at Hoover Food Mart

We had heard about this place for almost a year, and we finally were at the right place at the right time last night (not to mention being REALLY hungry–talking to other food-loving friends about food when you’re hungry just tends to increase the need, you know??). Anyway, we visited Blue Pacific at the Hoover Food Mart in Birmingham, AL and it lived up to all the hype.  This is one of those places that you have to know about through word of mouth, or you would sadly ignore its delicious existence forever. No outside signage indicates this place is anything more than a forgettable convenience store. It’s off the main drag with only a few drink and snack cases surrounding a collection of simple tables. The kitchen behind the front counter is almost unnoticeable. When I first was told about this great little secret Thai place, the Hoover Food Mart was also a gas station. The pumps are no longer there, probably because the food fuel is now selling so well, who needs to sell fossil fuel?

When we arrived the owners’ daughter (a local college student) happily took our order, assuring us that everything her parents served was authentic and NOT modified for Western tastes. And she immediately claimed that her mom’s Pad Thai was simply the best, no exceptions. Even though that would usually be the last thing we’d order at most Thai restaurants, given that it’s one of the only dishes Americans know enough about to order and it tends to be a sticky sweet mess, we were swayed by her confident endorsement and quickly asked for 2 orders of the shrimp Pad Thai. We also ordered coconut soup with chicken (also something we’ve seen and eaten a lot in Thai restaurants) and an order of fried pork wontons, which just sounded yummy.

We grabbed drinks from the refrigerated case and took our seats (no alcohol allowed for dining in, but they did have a selection of beer and wine in the cases for purchase).  Fine by us, Coke Zero and Perrier did the trick for this meal. The food did take a few minutes, both because they were quite busy with orders for take out, and it was clear all was made to order.

The soup and wonton appetizers came first, and they did not disappoint. Rather than a cup-sized serving you’d usually see in most places, this was a generous bowl of steaming soup with drizzles of thick coconut cream on the surface and sticky rice on the side:The flavor was rich, tangy and savory. The coconut flavor was true and balanced perfectly with lime and fish sauce. Fish sauce can often overpower a dish like this, but here it only enhanced the other flavors and made for an addictive first bite. The chicken was in fairly large strips, and we were anticipating it to be a dry distraction, but it instead it was tender and flavorful. We shared the soup (reluctantly) and were both craving it again today. Sadly, we found out right before an impromptu dash to get some more, that they are closed on Sundays!

The fried wontons were better than they had business being, given their humble appearance and how cliched a fried wonton can be, especially sitting next to the familiar sweet chili sauce for dipping. Man, what a surprise!! Not sure what sorcery went in to the magic little ball of pork sitting inside each crunchy morsel, but these were more addictive than the soup. Garlicky and rich, each one exploded with flavor. The owners’ daughter claimed she could eat 35 in one sitting. I think given the opportunity, we’d be right there with her. Maybe going for an even 3 dozen. We miss you already, little guys:We then dug into our dishes of shrimp Pad Thai (yay! no sharing required!) and from first glance we knew the daughter was correct–this was a beautiful plate of food, steaming-hot with a lacy egg topping. The traditional crushed peanuts and a lime wedge were on the side for topping, but the dish was nothing like the overdone, sweet versions we’d had other places. The flavor was much more complex and the noodles had that browned richness from pan-sauteeing.  The shrimp were also of a generous size, perfectly seasoned and not overcooked, which is always a risk with shrimp dishes like this.  This Pad Thai was satisfying and not cloying.  I could have used a bit more lime on the side to brighten the flavors, but otherwise it was perfect. Pretty, isn’t it?We wish we could have tried several more dishes. If they had been open today (sigh), we would have gotten more soup and wontons, and probably tried the laap (seasoned pork served in lettuce leaves) and perhaps a green or red curry. We know we will be back sooner than later. This is definitely one of those places you see on Diners, Drive-ins and Dives–it’s a local, authentic, totally surprising place that those in the know cherish and share with others who value food done this way.  Call ahead for take-out, or go and experience the “ambiance” (as one diner teasingly joked to his date), but do go. Here are shots of the menu:

Our Visit to Real & Rosemary

We ventured out to a new (to us) restaurant this weekend. It’s called Real & Rosemary and it opened about a year ago in the Homewood area of Birmingham, AL. Their tagline is “Real Food, Good Company.” The owners had a real purpose in the restaurant’s creation and design. You can read all about it on their website, and look over the menu. Once we read the history and saw the menu, we knew we had to try it, especially since there seemed to be a really nice selection of creative vegetable sides. We were definitely not disappointed! Here’s what we had:

We couldn’t resist a couple of starters to share, and we went for two southern classics–sweet potato wedges and fried green tomatoes. What we soon discovered is that all the recipes have either an herbal or other flavor component that turns them from ordinary to surprisingly delicious.

The sweet potato wedges came in a generous portion, and were roasted to a deep mahogany, but weren’t overcooked or soggy. The best part was they were roasted in rosemary-infused oil and served with a lemongrass dipping sauce. The combination of the sweetness of the sweet potato, the subtle earthiness of the rosemary, and the tangy, floral lemongrass sauce made for a stunning combination.

The fried green tomatoes were also perfectly cooked–browned and crisp–with a drizzle of chipotle mayo. They were some of the best we’ve had as far as flavor and texture. Fried green tomatoes can often be too thick, under-crisped, and suffer from a coating that slithers off when you cut into them. Not these. Crunchy, tart and delicious.

Chris went dark and veered from our recent vegetarian ways, and ordered the BLT with yellow pepper slaw. The sandwich also came with fried green tomatoes on top. The bread was toasted and slightly sweet, and there was a good balance of bacon, tomato and mayo. The slaw was vinegar-based and had the right balance of tart and sweet. A good accompaniment to the richness of the sandwich.

Lisa ordered a vegetable plate with four of the sides, so we could try almost everything. She got the brussels sprouts with butternut squash (shaved brussels in a cold, slaw-like salad), the charred carrots with thyme, the zucchini with avocado pesto (spiralized squash served like a cold pasta salad), and the corn polenta cake. The highlights for us were definitely the carrots (again, root vegetables done right) and the corn polenta cake. The polenta cake was thick, crisp on the outside, and unapologetically full of sharp cheddar. Lisa wanted to order another one for dessert!

Instead, we opted for the signature dessert on the menu, the ice cream sandwich. Their desserts come from a place across the street called Pastry Art Bake Shop. If this ice cream sandwich is any indication of their offerings, we will have to make a trip to their shop next. We got the ice cream sandwich to share, so our server cut it in half to serve to us on individual plates. The presentation alone sold us, but once we took a bite–wow! The cookie was a lemon rosemary sugar cookie, which we think may have been made with brown butter given the flavor and color. The flavors were subtle but distinctive, and the sandwich was filled with a fabulous Mexican vanilla ice cream. This dessert was one of those that you just can’t forget–the flavor, texture and overall effect was so balanced and perfect. We agreed we could have easily polished off a whole one (or more!) each, but the amount we had was perfectly satisfying and capped off a memorable meal.

This place makes you believe that going out to eat CAN be as good as you hoped it would be. To be honest, we tend to enjoy eating at home more often, since restaurants seem to always promise more than they deliver. Bravo, Real & Rosemary!

Europe, Here We Come!

We are gearing up for our first really big trip of our marriage, and also our inaugural trip as 2 Hungry Travelers. We are SO ready to get underway! Here’s just a teaser for what awaits us. We’re going to some of the greatest food cities on the planet! Time to break out our eatin’ pants. We are going to:

Barcelona, Spain

This might be the place we are most excited about, because we know so little about the city, except that the food is supposed to be mind blowing! I think there’s some mystery and energy about the city that intrigues us, and we’ve watched a few shows that feature different locations and the food that is available. The PBS show “I’ll Have What Phil’s Having” is really fun (more episodes planned for Netflix!) and the episode in Barcelona really got us longing to go dive in face first. Phil’s quote from the episode says it all: “It’s as if you were in an art directed movie of the greatest foods on Earth.” Works for us!

Rome, Italy

Did someone say gelato? I think that’s the first thing that comes to mind when Rome is mentioned. (But Lisa says Paris actually has some that’s better! We will have to research this extensively…) We’ve also watched a lot of travel shows and YouTube videos about visiting and eating in Rome, and we are definitely ready for the whole experience. I think the idea of the traditional, hearty Roman fare is especially appealing. I think the pasta dish we want most to try is the famous cacio e pepe. Even though it seems simple to make, it’s one of those things that just has to be perfect, so I think we’ll leave it to the experts. Forks at the ready for twirling!

Venice, Italy

Venice is perhaps the place we are looking forward to the most from a sight-seeing perspective. As crowded and tourist-driven as the city has become, I don’t think anything can dampen the magical allure of the place itself. It’s a place that even people who really no nothing of Italy can conjure up in their mind’s eye, and to actually be there will certainly be thrilling. Lisa is most looking forward to singing one of her beloved Italian art songs she learned when she studied voice, while floating down the canals in a gondola. We figure if we supply the music instead of the gondolier, surely we get a discount??

Florence, Italy

We just watched the most recent Dan Brown thriller movie adaptation, Inferno, which is set mostly in Florence. So we are certainly primed for the visual explosion of famous art and architecture that we’ll soon see. The movie didn’t feature anything about food (just creepy clues from Dante’s Inferno and a mad dash to save the world from a new plague…not exactly building up our appetite for the city), but we have a few things in mind we are looking to try. We are eating vegetarian these days for the most part, but Chris (at least) is looking forward to getting his mouth around a giant bistecca fiorentina, which is an obscenely huge, thick and crusty hunk of beef. Yeah, gotta try it at least once. And I think the Tuscan cuisine in general might end up being our favorite, based on what we’ve heard about and eaten before.

Paris, France

This is the only place on the list that at least one of us has visited before. Lisa has been more than once and fell in love with the vibe of the different arrondissements (city districts), the open-air markets, and the amazing thing that is rotisserie chicken and potatoes in Paris. It looks like this:

See how the potatoes are ever-so-conveniently located below the golden and dripping birds? Yeah, that’s on purpose. The lovely chicken fat coats the potatoes and makes for some delightful eating. We are sure to seek this out at least once. In between courses of pastries, cheese and wine. As a palate cleanser, of course.

We are particularly excited about this Paris Pass. Quite a deal and will allow us to see so many sights in the short time we will be there.

So stay tuned as we head overseas and begin to share about our experiences and all the great food we discover. If the blog remains quiet, it’s probably because we exceeded the weight limit for our plane’s takeoff on the way home. It’s a real possibility.

Our Honeymoon: Asheville, NC

When Chris and I began discussing where we should spend our honeymoon, we both agreed that it needed to be centered on good food. Since we had traveled to Asheville months earlier, we decided that it would be the perfect place to relax and enjoy the city’s celebrated food scene. We didn’t want to shell out a lot of money on an exotic locale but, instead, wanted to spend our limited funds on exploring local eateries.

We rented a cabin in the woods, which allowed us to cook several of our own meals. Granted, it might not sound all that relaxing, but we love to cook! We splurged on a couple of trips to Whole Foods and specialty shops and nestled into our temporary home.  Chris grilled steaks and veggies while I put together a salad of some sort. We spent mornings sipping coffee on our deck whilst planning our day.  Asheville is best enjoyed with a laid back attitude.

Since we had visited the Biltmore House only months before, we instead spent time hiking trails and immersing ourselves in Asheville’s thriving art scene. We were fortunate to stumble upon an outdoor art festival. The highlight of our trip, however, was going on an Asheville food tour, led by Asheville Food Tours. Not only was it affordable but it also offered a variety of places both savory and sweet. We enjoyed homemade blackberry mojitos at Salsas Mexican Carribbean Restaurant, tapas from Bomba (including Iberico ham from Spain–you must try it once in your life) , artisan chocolates from The Chocolate Fetish, and much more!

If you are planning a trip to Asheville and want to spend time eating at local restaurants, then we highly recommend checking out the Asheville Independent Restaurants (AIR) passport book, which gives you BOGO discounts on several local eateries. It was well worth the price.

Okay, so what was our absolute favorite restaurant? It would have to be The Admiral , which was highly recommended by one of our servers at a different restaurant. She said to not be fooled by its ‘dive bar’ status and that it is a favorite among chefs. We sat at the bar and enjoyed watching the chefs work their magic in the kitchen. Click here for Yelp reviews.

We are definitely planning on returning to Asheville as soon as possible. It will always be a very special place for us.

Enjoy the pics!

 

A Taste of Our Travels

We have just started our online plan to take over the world one bite at a time, and have our first big food trip planned for May (see the next post for an amuse-bouche about that). But before that, we poked around in our files for some tidbits from past trips that involved some cool sights and even cooler tastes. Here’s just a sampling of some of our favorite moments when food met travel.

Hilton Head Island, SC

 

WE LOVE THIS PLACE! We have gone almost every year of our marriage and stayed in a condo on the beach. We have only gone one time “in season” and we actually prefer it in the off season. The weather in November and December tends to be mild enough to enjoy the beach (maybe not for swimming–Lisa did this once and got some strange looks, along with a rather refreshing icy dip). And the crowds are non-existent, while most of the good places to eat are still open for business. The grocery shopping is also very pleasant, and we usually cook in as much as we eat out.

One of our very favorite places is Kenny B’s. It’s New Orleans cuisine in a casual atmosphere. Sunday brunch is very popular and rightly so. Here’s one of our favorite things there, a  po’ boy with sweet potato fries. This one had scallops, but the shrimp and oyster versions are delish as well.

Another big favorite of ours in Hilton Head is Crave by Daniel’s. It has a global menu with some really creative and delicious dishes, in a surprisingly posh but cozy setting. You feel like you’ve left the beach/tourist boardwalk vibe and entered a New York hidden gem. The decor is very modern but tasteful. This dish is one of Chris’ favorites. It’s seafood crack, essentially. It’s called Spicy Shrimp and Calamari.

New York, NY

Ah, New York. Cliched perhaps as a food destination (isn’t Queens the new Brooklyn now?), and even described as disappointing in a recent food podcast I listened to (say it ain’t so!), but we do love New York. We have really only scratched the gargantuan and dizzyingly global surface of this food megapolis, and it’s allure remains for us. Maybe we’ve watched one too many food travel shows with frustrated envy, but I think it will be a long time before our food lust for New York is sated. We now have family close by on Long Island, along with friends in Brooklyn, so more hungry journeys north are inevitable.

We’ve each spent time there alone prior to being a food-hunting Wonder Twins duo (Lisa more than Chris), but we did get to spend one glorious week there in May a few years back, and we made some delicious memories. Here are some highlights.

Dominique Ansel is a pastry genius, and while the Cronut craze may have all but withered in the harsh light of the next big thing, finally eating one was oh so worth every anxious minute in line. This one I think had a citrus vibe (maybe mandarin orange?). I won’t go on and on about it, since you can Google it and probably be up for hours reading Cronut stories and commentary. Let me just say it was &$%#^ delicious!

The weather that week was more than perfect, and we had some magical times in Central Park. Here’s a picture of something really beautiful. The tulips and dogwoods were nice too. (Yes, I just did that. Sweet, huh? Oh, Chris is writing this. Lisa’s not THAT vain!)

We also had a blast at Eataly. Maybe it has Disneyfied the historically rich and glorious thing that is Italian cuisine, but for foodies who really love all things Italian, it was a giddy ride. The eateries inside are really well done, and the displays and variety of food invite exploration. We especially enjoyed the handmade pastas, and took some back more than once to our hotel to cook (we had us one of them fancy dancy kitchens in our room!)

Of course we had to do the bagel thing. This was quite the bagel breakfast. Don’t worry, she may be small but she’s mighty when it comes to the eatin’.

I had a day alone in Brooklyn when we stayed with friends(Lisa had left NYC to go to an academic conference), and I had a really unexpectedly magical time in Coney Island. It was a warm, muggy day, and after wandering around for awhile, I took a train south and arrived to find the weather suddenly cool and breezy. It was a weekday prior to the high season, so the boardwalk was more or less deserted. I had a refreshing walk, and the sea air created a huge appetite. Hot dogs then happened. These were just what I needed, and lived up to Nathan’s historic reputation.

The Cronuts were undeniably amazing, but we experienced probably the best doughnuts we’d ever eaten when we visited Smorgasburg, down by the water in the shadow of the Brooklyn Bridge. These doughnuts were from a place called Dough. The ones on the left were passion fruit glazed. May sound weird, but great googlymoogly–those were some unbelievable doughnuts. Texture and flavor were just perfect. I can’t even explain how good they were. If you get some, don’t try to be nice and share them later with friends (Like we did. We, our friends, and the doughnuts all suffered from the delay). They must be consumed when absolutely fresh.

Speaking of the Brooklyn Bridge, we decided we just had to make the trek across it from Manhattan. It was really fun. Until Lisa saw something shiny and walked ahead into the crowd. I literally listened for a splash and began to search the crowd with all the frenetic intensity of Olivia Benson on SVU. Luckily, she was happily wandering through the crowd, wondering why I had lingered at the railing for so long. Here we are all smiles, before the shiny thing came along. She must be part bird. She loves her some shiny things.

This is just an introduction to the food-themed travel we love. Now that we’re going all out and social-media’ing this thing, we will have even more to share in future posts. Our next post will be a teaser for our upcoming Europe trip that we’ve been  eagerly waiting for since we got married. Three countries, five cities, and who knows how many yummy bites—here we come!