Ken and I just took a nice trip to Germany, focussed mostly on the northeastern corner on the Baltic Sea. Lovely trip, very mellow, here’s a bunch of photos.
The biggest revelation for us was the Baltic sea resorts, 19th century spas and hotels. We started our trip on Rügen, a relaxing quiet island. The town of Binz has a terrific collection of nice hotels and restaurants. Also nearby is Nationalpark Jasmund with its famous chalk cliffs, the bizarre Prora (a facist beach resort built in the 30s), and the Rasender Roland beach steam train.
But the best Baltic sea experience was a last minute decision to go to the Grand Hotel Heiligendamm and its amazing gourmet restaurant Friedrich Franz. Really lovely overnight, fantastic cooking. Heiligendamm is interesting for being one of the first ever beach resorts, founded in 1793 and popular with various royalty. Up to and including the G8 summit in 2007. Also another steam train, the Molli Bahn. Just a terrific place all around, worth planning a stay if you’re in the area.
Beyond the resorts we visited various Hanseatic towns: Rostock, Wismar, Stralsund, Lübeck. And a trip down to the lake region to Schwerin. Lots of beautiful brick buildings dating from a wealthy past in the 15th-17th centuries. Of the places I liked Lübeck and Schwerin the best, combining charming town centers with some lively modern life.
The trip was bookended by visits to Berlin and Hamburg. Berlin is amazing, particularly right now since its relatively low cost of living has attracted a vital core of artists and entrepreneurs. I think we may try to go back to spend a month living there next year. Hamburg is also quite pleasant for a visit, I think it’s a city that would reward settling in and exploring a bit.
Ken and I went to Hawaiʻi for a week for my birthday. The big island, at a fancy tourist resort, my first time ever. It was lovely but also a bit boring, next time I go I’ll do it differently.
The great thing about Hawaiʻi is that it’s easy to visit and is absolutely beautiful. I totally get why people go there in the winter, to get some warmth and sun and relaxation. We stayed at the Four Seasons Hualālai which was excellent if outrageously expensive. The problem with a resort like that is it’s disconnected from the real place. And as nice as it is to have your big decision of the day be which of the four pools you hang out by, that’s not really my kind of vacation.
So we escaped The Village and drove all over the Big Island. Saw lots of things, honestly many not very exciting. I was particularly frustrated that the archaeological sites didn’t have more to see. My favorite things were the amazing botanical garden near Hilo, the town of Waimea, finding great macadamia nuts, and a helicopter tour whose highlight was flying into the narrow canyons west of the Waipiʻo Valley. The Kīlauea volcano would have been better if we spent more time.
But what I missed was seeing a real place, getting more in to local culture and food and history. I’m kicking myself that I didn’t plan to visit other islands, in particular to go to Oʻahu to see the Big City, go to Pearl Harbor, and to accept my anthropologist friend’s offer to tour the Bishop Museum. Next time. (Incidentally, the TSA security theater is an enormous burden to inter-island travel. 30 minute flight, 90 minute security.)
PS: the Hawaiian language is fascinating: only 8 consonants and one of them a glottal stop, but plenty of diphthong vowels. t and k are the same letter, so taboo becomes kapu. Only really lives on in place names. Hawaiian Pidgin is in active use, although I only heard it once.
My Parisian friend Evelyne just took a big Route 66 trip, a long dream of hers to drive the Mother Road. (Oddly, Route 66 is a much bigger myth for Europeans than Americans.) I love road trips so was glad to be able to join her for a portion of the trip, from Las Vegas to Santa Monica.
The highlight of the day was lunch at the Bagdad Cafe in Newberry Springs. It’s just a little roadside dive of dubious cleanliness, but it’s awesome because it has become internationally famous thanks to the German film. They get 100+ guests a day from France, Japan, Germany, all over the world, in the middle of nowhere in the Mojave. The owners have recognized the good thing and are welcoming and have decorated the place with mementos brought by visitors. Really cool experience and the chili burger was pretty good, too. (We met Ken at the Barstow/Daggett airport, about a 15 minute drive away.)
The lowlight was buying gas at the Hi Sahara Oasis, the worst gas station in America. It’s the only gas for miles and we were getting towards empty, so I don’t begrudge them charging $5/gal. But the staff was incredibly rude and the place just reeks of bad karma. Avoid.
Honestly, the drive was not awesome; the Mojave is long and boring with very little to see along the badly paved old road, not even many remnants of settlements and amenities. It didn’t help we were starting in Vegas, two hours north of the actual route. If I were doing it again I’d skip the empty road in the desert and focus my time more on surface streets in Needles, Barstow, and Los Angeles. Or else take two days; 380 miles is too long for one day. By the time we got to LA we just took I-10 across town to be done with it.
Evelyne said she had a splendid time from Albuquerque to Vegas, lots of beautiful sites along the way. And I have to think the portion from Chicago to Oklahoma is still vital, nice towns and things to see and do. Maybe I’ll do that trip myself some day.
BTW, the best free guide for Route 66 I’ve found is Route 66: An American Treasure published by AAA. It’s got a good high level map and information. There’s a whole industry in much more detailed maps and guides for Route 66 but the AAA maps are a good start.
Ken and I had a nice little vacation last week, up near Grass Valley and Nevada City. It’s up in the Gold Country, in the Sierra Foothills northeast of Sacramento, about three hours drive from San Francisco. In the past we’ve enjoyed going up to Placerville; same idea except the towns are bigger and have more to offer up north.
Not that city life is the primary reason to go to Nevada County. It’s quiet up there, and beautiful; a nice escape from the city. Still, nice to have amenities like grocery stores and restaurants. New Moon is good for fine dining and South Pine Cafe is a great casual breakfast / lunch place.
We had a great stay in this log cabin, a bit south of Grass Valley in Alta Sierra. Really comfortable place and big, could easily host 6+ for a week. Nice creek in the back, chirping frogs, wood stove, hot tub, hammocks, and a well furnished kitchen.
Ken and I spent a week in Grass Valley, up in the Sierra Foothills northeast of Sacramento. We're thinking about buying a house up there. Here's where we went.
The map is a screenshot from Google Latitude, a passive location tracker. It's a roughly accurate view of where we travelled; the purple circle is where we stayed. The spray of red south and west from there aren't correct, I think it's iPhone location errors in a rural setting.
What strikes Ken and I most is how much better and how many more dining options there are in New York than San Francisco. In SF we like to think of ourselves as foodies, but it's pretty provincial compared to NY.
Les Halles (Financial District). Atavistic French brasserie. Very basic menu, great if you want steak frites and not so much otherwise. Reasonable preparation, nice room, surprisingly inexpensive. I wish I had a place like this in San Francisco.
Dos Toros (Village). A taqueria serving SF-style burritos, in New York! Considered the best burrito option among many SF expats. I thought it was good; honestly as good as most of the places in SF. Nice spicy sauce, good carnitas, good cheese. Too salty, and the staff of four rolled sloppy burritos in twice the time a single person in SF can do. But it was good.
reBar (DUMBO). Didn't eat, just drinks, but liked it. Comfortable place to meet after work, nice beer selection, cool art in the building.
Wolfgang's Steakhouse (Tribeca). Ken wanted a New York steakhouse, this was pretty great. Really amazing quality steak, both the filet and the ribeye, although the portions are comically oversized. Better quality of beef than Ruth's Chris, for what it's worth. Good salads, OK service, kind of noisy room.
Bar Boulud (UWS). Part of Daniel Boulud's empire, the Bar is a more casual cafe kind of place. Serious brunch menu, including very well made omelets (a lost skill in most of the US). Also a lovely charcuterie selection, many delicious meats. Great place for a smart lunch.
Chez Josephine (Hell's Kitchen). 11pm dinner after theater, French, with nice live piano music. And a wonderfully welcome very gay staff. The food was, frankly, mixed quality; both our entrees were fairly dull meat+sauce, but the salads were nice. Really enjoyed the room and the service, though, a nice post-theater meal.
Highpoint (Chelsea). We were in the mood for a boozy brunch in Chelsea, Highpoint was perfect. Great breakfast bar, terrific Bloody Marys and an interesting list of other cocktails. The eggs benedict were nice. The food is quite inexpensive, too, good value.
My first few days in NY have had beautiful weather, so I've done a lot of walking through Manhattan's open spaces. Here's some notes and photos.
Roosevelt Island is this wacky bit of Manhattan borough, an island in the East River. There's not much out there, condos and hospitals. The reason to visit is the open space, nice long walks on both sides of the island and great views of the Upper East Side. Also grass, parks, even barbecue grills for anyone's enjoyment. It will be particularly nice to visit in 2013 when the southern park is fully open. It looks like they are preserving the creepy hospital ruins there as part of the park, a nice touch of gothic drama in an otherwise bucolic place. (Roosevelt Island is also a popular video game setting; several GTA4 missions start at that hospital.) The Tramway is strongly recommended; it's a short ride but the view as you go sailing into midtown between the buildings is terrific.
The High Line is New York's most famous new park, a nicely landscaped mile or two of abandoned railroad track. Having a park up above the city streets makes all the difference, a nice quiet remove. They also did a stunning job on the design with many great places to sit and watch other people. There's too damn many people, actually, and the linear park design makes it hard to get any space. So it's more of a people watching place than an open area.
Thanks for all the comments and suggestions in response to my round 1 post. New Yorkers are opinionated about dining! Thanks in particular to Marc for a list of more casual options near my hotel. I'm really enjoying the density and diversity of restaurants in Manhattan. Haven't done much very fancy in the past few days, but we've got a list of ridiculous plans next week: Craft (again), 11 Madison, Del Posto, Daniel, Blue Hill Farm, Bouley, Mas Farmhouse, Le Bernardin. It's too much, honestly, may need to pare that back.
Shake Shack (Flatiron). World famous burgers for a reason. They are very delicious thanks mostly to the large amounts of fat and salt in the burger. Eat them quick; I imagine in 10 minutes they're disgusting. But on a nice day in Madison Park they're awesome.
Sushi Yasuda (Midtown). Very widely recommended. It was good, but nothing particularly exciting or unusual. Much like the nigiri you can get anywhere, just very high quality. I'm told sometimes you get unusual things like toro from 4 different parts of the world. We got some great toro but it was unidentified. Yasuda has moved back to Japan, I wonder if the current staff is simplifying?
Pegu Club (SoHo). A nice bar with serious cocktails. Great drink list, nice room, silly uncomfortable furniture. I'll go again but sit at the bar.
Emporio (Nolita). Italian picked at the last minute because Torrisi was awkward. Nice place, comfortable and quiet at lunch. The pasta was tasty but a bit overcooked.
Bar Pitti (Village). Another casual Italian, but very hectic. We had two courses and a bottle of wine and were out the door in 45 minutes, with crazy brusque service. But the boar pasta was just fantastic and it's a good place, if I lived here it'd be one of my neighborhood joints.
Egg (Williamsburg). Lovely American breakfast / lunch place. Really excellent pork sausage, good duck hash, tasty comfort food prepared well. Sticking with the Williamsburg theme, the hipster service was comically incompetent but charming and friendly.
Spitzer's (Lower East Side). Nice little corner bar with wide open windows on a good weather day. Plenty of beers on tap, also a good grilled cheese sandwich. The fries looked good. NY doesn't have nearly as many pub-type places as we have on the west coast, this one was nice.
Ken and I are in New York for a couple of weeks. We are food tourists. Here's some notes on places we've eaten.
Craft (Flatiron). Our first and, so far, best meal in NY. Perfectly cooked bits of delicious meat. My short ribs were excellent, as was my ballotine of suckling pig, a sort of charcuterie. All very simple, but also very solid. Good service, nice room. I may go back.
Le Gigot (West Village). A solid little French restaurant, of the sort you can find everywhere in Paris and almost nowhere in San Francisco. Nice salad, slightly odd cassoulet. The meats were all cooked perfectly but the broth was a bit weird, too dark and tasting of Kitchen Bouquet. Still, I liked the place.
Thalassa (Tribeca). Somewhat upscale Greek. It was OK, but not great. Very simple and spare cooking, which is appropriate: grilled fish with a bit of olive oil, grilled shrimp with a bit of olive oil. Interesting fish, good quality, but neither were cooked quite right. Execution is everything in this kind of place and it fell just a bit short.
Mercer Kitchen (SoHo). I have a fond spot in my heart for this American classic restaurant, one of the best cocktails I've ever had was a French 75 here some 10 years ago. Sunday brunch was uninteresting. Too crowded, boring menu, indifferent hamburgers (!) and omelettes. Resting on a reputation.
Soho Sushi (SoHo). Delivery sushi at a friend's. Pretty good, really, but with delivery it's hard to be sure what you're really getting. Some of the rolls were ill advised.
Pigalle (Times Square). A solid little French brasserie, of the sort you find everywhere in Paris but almost nowhere in San Francisco. Not quite as solid as Le Gigot. I've been three times now and it's reliable, spacious, and the cooking is adequate. Lunch was uninspired.
John's Pizzeria (West Village). Glad I got the NY pizza out of the way. Entirely adequate, uninteresting, I can get as good a pizza in San Francisco only delivered to my house with my wine and my television. (Or in Zürich, or in Paris, or.. pizza is a commodity.) The best thing about John's is it's near Grom; save room for gelato.
Where I really want to dine are 11 Madison, Le Bernardin, and Per Se. Sadly they are all very hot tables and three weeks was not advanced enough booking.
Ken and I ate well on our trip up to Vancouver, BC and back. Some notes on where we went.
In Vancouver, on the fine dining end we were impressed by West which is still excellent despite the changes over the years. The most inventive cooking we had was at L'Abattoir, really precise and interesting food in a trendy, slightly too noisy room. For more old school we enjoyed dinner at Hy's Encore, classic steakhouse with terrific service and very good food. Also enjoyed a more casual lunch at Joe Fortes, seafood in a businessman's bar and grill setting. The awkward middle ground was Le Crocodile, the service and room were not up to the promise (and expense) of the classic French menu. Not that we suffered, mind you, and the wine list is excellent. Regrettably we didn't get to Vij's despite many strong recommendations.
Portland treated us well on two quick overnights. Jake's Famous Crawfish was great; it can be hit or miss but we had a hit that night with fantastic crab claw dish with mushrooms and artichokes. And an interesting evening at the Gilt Club, a sort of hipster late night restaurant / bar. The menu was a bit odd but the cocktail selection was fantastic. I had the BLT, "House Roma tomato vodka, basil & lemon olive oil and fresh lemon - up with bacon salt." It was amazing.