Travel

Nick's Laguna Beach: food and drinks and sun

Nicks Laguna Beach

If Nick's Laguna Beach was in my town, I'd be living in Laguna Beach, and that would be pretty awesome. I'd also be going there as much as possible.

In fact we did go to Nick's twice in one week when we were visiting the sunny (and grid-locked) town of Laguna Beach. Would have went a third time, but my dopey friend insisted that we eat at some place on the water. What a waste of a meal that was. But let's not think about that.

Let's think about this a place with big skylights, a good-sized rectangular bar, fun, well-executed food, and cocktails to match.

The cocktails are made with fresh citrus juices, as they should be, by very competent bartenders. The short and concise cocktail is represents my friends whiskey and tequila quite well.

Nicks Laguna Beach-2 Nicks Laguna Beach-3

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Eating in Croatia: Oysters at Kapetanova kuca in Mali Ston

Kapetanova kuca mali ston oysters-9

When you're driving from Split to Dubronvik--and you should be driving from Split to Dubrovnik, and not sitting on a bus, or, not visiting Dubrovnik--you'll pass by a little town on a peninsula called Mali Ston. 

Mali Ston and Ston are well worth a stop. There's an incredible wall built some 500-600 year ago, which connects Mali Ston and Ston. And there are also oyster and salt beds. And where there are oyster beds, there are oysters. And where there are oysters, there's me with a glass of white wine.

Kapetanova kuca mali ston oysters-12Where the oysters are born

Mali Ston is a tiny little town situated right on the water. Incredibly clean and pure water. That's where the oysters grow. There are two restaurants right next to each other: Bota Sare, and Kapetanova kuca. We chose the latter, as Bota Sare has restaurants in both Split and Dubrovnik, two towns we'd be spending time in. And, the owner of the lovely Dominus Little Palace in Dubrovnik advised that Kapetanova has a "the best" black rice dish.

Once we got to town, there's a tiny little road took us around what appeared to be the remnants of a castle (and I wasn't sure if I was even supposed to be driving there) and dropped us off right in front of the restaurant. This was my first day on the road and I wasn't sure where to park. But cars seemed to be just sort of parked next to the water. So that's what I did. When we arrived at about 2 pm, the place was jumpin'. There's a very spacious outdoor patio that seats about 60 people. We grabbed a table and got right into it.

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Eating in Croatia: Restaurant Dubrovnik in Dubronvik

Dubrovnik wall-2

Fine dining is something we often steer clear of when traveling. We made an exception when we booked Restaurant Dubrovnik, and I'm very glad we did.

Restaurant Dubrovnik has a stunning setting on a rooftop in the old city. Fully retractable walls and roof shelter you in the event of poor weather, poor weather being a thing that you likely won't see in Dubrovnik between April and, perhaps, April.

Restaurant dubrovnik croatia-5

Restaurant dubrovnik croatia-3
Restaurant dubrovnik croatia-3

We ordered a bottle of local red wine, with the help of the very informative server. I've said it before, and it bears repeating. The servers in Croatia on a whole were very knowledgeable of their local wine. Which helped me immensely, since Croatian wines rarely get beyond the Croatian border, and I've never had one.

An amuse-bouche was sent out. I'd be lying if I told you anything about this dish. I simply don't remember, but I'm sure it was a perfect way to start the meal. 

Restaurant dubrovnik croatia-4

My memory gets much more clear from the appetizer on. We started with the tuna and octopus tartare. I assume the octopus was cooked (not really tartare). This was a great dish with pleasant bursts of salt and ocean, and a variety of textures. Good stuff right here.

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Eating in Croatia: Uje Oil Bar in Split

Uje oil bar split croatia-7

That first meal while traveling can go any number of ways, many of them bad. We're typically tired, bleary-eyed, confused, stinky, lost, and woefully unprepared with a plan for lunch when we arrive the first day.

The first day of this trip to Croatia in Split was no different.

Diocletian palace basement khaleesi
Diocletian palace basement khaleesi

After checking out where Khaleesi kept her dragons (the basement of Diocletian's Palace), we took in a few hours of sun and local beer on the riva. I loved the juxtaposition of the gorgeous, bright, wide-open riva, and the inside of the Palace walls, where narrow and seemingly endless alleys snake through the old city.

Speaking of Game of Thrones, I have to admit, a lot of the appeal of visiting Croatia came from seeing the various towns featured in Game of Thrones. Dubrovnik in particular was as awe-inspiring as it looks on the show, even with the show's CGI and post-production making it look even cooler. 

Back to food.

Some quick research led us to Uje Oil Bar. After checking out the posted menu, and seeing the lovely outdoor seating, we knew we were in the right place. It's nestled just far enough from the main squares that you're not being trampled by hoards of tourists with selfie-sticks. My God, people walk around all day with their cell phone 2 feet from their faces, taking pictures of themselves. When did this become "normal?" People of earth: you are ugly, your photos are awful, and no one wants to see them.

 

Uje oil bar split croatia-4

This was our first time ordering a Croatian wine. I asked the waiter if he could assist in some descriptions. He hesitated, and I figured he'd just make up some stuff that sounded good. Well, he asked what type of wine we typically like, and then suggested four, with lengthy descriptions of the flavor profiles, the grape, where they are grown, who made them, and more info than I needed quite frankly. We found most servers were well-versed in the local wines.

Indeed we found most servers were just fantastic all around. English is very widely spoken. In fact I was a little dismayed that there weren't more challenges with communication. That's one of the fun aspects of traveling to other countries: trying to figure it all out. In Croatia, everyone's English is quite good...aside from the cops at the police station, with whom I spoke for an hour. But that's another story.

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Eating in Croatia: Alviz in Hvar

Hvar croatia-2

It didn't occur to me that I might be enjoying both pizza and cevapi in a single meal, but that's exactly what happened in Hvar, the gorgeous town on the island of the same name in Croatia.

The owner of the lovely Villa Nora suggested Alviz for dinner. "It has the best cevapi in Hvar...Bosnian grilled meat," she advised. Who am I to argue. Off we went.

Alviz is situated by the bus depot next to a parking lot. Not a sexy location by any means, and most people would probably prefer eating at one of the many restaurants around the harbor. Those people don't know what they're missing. What Alviz lacks in views, it makes up for in every other way.

Alviz hvar croatia

There's a large partially open-air garden terrace in the back of the restaurant, from which you'll get a view of the wood-burning grill. Start with a liter of stupidly inexpensive local red wine from the island.

We weren't expecting much from pizza in Croatia in general, but each time we had it, it was quite impressive. This version had spicy salami and hot vinegar peppers. I don't know what type of oven they are using to cook the pies, but the crust was crisp and alive. Not dry and lifeless, which is often the case. While Croatia isn't necessarily a pizza-making culture, the pizzas are excellent no doubt due to the quality of the ingredients. The breads in Croatia overall were very good.

Alviz hvar croatia-3
Alviz hvar croatia-3

The cevapi was the best we had during our entire trip. It's a simple dish of grilled beef and perhaps lamb. Served with the roasted red pepper sauce called ajvar--a sweet, smoky, fruity condiment--and raw onions. This dish is going into rotation around my house as soon as I figure out how to make it.

The french fries, also, excellent.

Hvar croatia

Hvar is a sleepy town well worth consideration. Well, it's sleepy a bit off season. I'd definitely avoid it in the hot summer months, especially when a thing called Yacht Week occurs, and the town is no doubt filled with loud, obnoxious, drunk people dancing and doing shots on rented boats. I prefer it when I'm the only loud, obnoxious drunk person around.

Alviz : Dolac 2, 21450, Hvar, Croatia  


Best Dishes: of 2016

Another year, another list. Who doesn't love a list?

I was very fortunate to have eaten some amazing food this year. Some dishes were indeed in NJ. Some were pretty close to NJ. Some were not very close to NJ. The one thing they all have in common is that made my eyes light up with joy for one reason or another.

Dishes can get my attention and fill me with glee for many reasons. They can be simple but executed flawlessly. They can be intricate affairs that leave me wondering what the hell is going on. And they can be something that I've simply never experienced. If there's one thing I love, it's eating something completely new to me.

Here are some of the bet dishes that I ate in 2016. And please, no arguing, these are the correct answers. They were all exceptional dishes.

 

Squid Ink Pasta with Guanciale and Squid
Jockey Hollow : Morristown, NJ

Jockey hollow pasta

I really can't get enough of this squid ink pasta, guanciale, and calamari dish at Jockey Hollow in Morristown, NJ. It is, without a doubt, one of the best pastas dishes, and best dishes, I've ever had.  A symphony of flavors and textures and perfectly executed. The whole dang restaurant is great.

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Eating in Philly: a.kitchen and a.bar

A bar interior-2

Another trip to Philly and several more visits to the outstanding a.kitchen and a.bar.

a.bar, which has a very limited food menu (but includes oysters and pickles) and extensive booze menu, is located on Rittenhouse Square, two doors down from a.kitchen, which is a full-service restaurant. Both are extremely well-run, with excellent staff both in the kitchen and the dining room.

The cocktails at each restaurant are as good as you'll need. The food at both restaurants is always excellent. Indeed this visit, the oysters at a.bar were so good that all other oysters consumed over the next few days paled in comparison. The burger at a.kitchen, well, it was perhaps in the top 5 burgers that I've ever eaten.

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Eating in Florence, Italy: L'Osteria di Giovanni and that lobster pasta

-Osteria Di Giovanni-L'Osteria Di Giovanni-3

While the truffle pasta dish at 4 Leoni lacked a bit of sauce, a similar dish at L'Osteria di Giovanni did not, and in addition, was served with white truffles, and not those run-of-the-mill black ones that you always see. And it was glorious.

L'Osteria di Giovanni is a pleasant little restaurant in Florence, focusing mostly on typical Tuscan cooking, in a mostly typically Tuscan environment. The place was jumping by the time we arrived at the very early time of 7.30pm. The three rooms filled up quickly afterward. A few large groups, families, tourists, all sorts of people were represented.

-Osteria Di Giovanni-L'Osteria Di Giovanni-6
-Osteria Di Giovanni-L'Osteria Di Giovanni-6

Service was polite and pleasant, as you'd expect from a restaurant in Italy. Bread was served with some of the most delicious olive oil we've ever had, and salt and pepper, making it palatable. An inexpensive bottle of Chianti Toscano red wine came in a straw basket that you'd see 50 years ago.

-Osteria Di Giovanni-L'Osteria Di Giovanni-2

To kick things off we ordered a special of porcini and truffle salad. With shaved Parmigiano-Reggiano. A simple, ingredients-driven dish.

-Osteria Di Giovanni-L'Osteria Di Giovanni-4

We also enjoyed a Caprese salad, which included artichokes, olives, burrata, and some excellent tomatoes that were, not surprisingly, infinitely better than those "Jersey tomatoes" I read so much about.

-Osteria Di Giovanni-L'Osteria Di Giovanni-5

The star of the meal was a special. Pasta and lobster. I really didn't know what to expect, and figured the dish would be pasta with some sort of light broth and a few pieces of lobster. And I was wrong.

The sauce was intensely flavored with lobster. It was the essence of lobster. And not just the essence of the claws and tail of the lobster. It was the essence of everything in and around that lobster. With just a touch of tomato. An incredible dish and certainly one of the highlights of the trip.

I'd return to di Giovanni for this dish alone.

L'Osteria di Giovanni : Via del Moro, 22, 50123 Firenze, Italy

 

 

 

 


Eating in Florence, Italy: Trattoria 4 Leoni

4 Leoni florence italyMeat in the kitchen at 4 Leoni

The first day is always the hardest.

We arrived in Florence at about 10am, long after leaving JFK at 4:20pm, with a brief stop in Paris.  This connection was not ideal. First off, we landed in Paris at about 11:30 our time, so there was simply no sleeping on that leg before having to get on the shorter flight to Florence. Additionally, I really dislike CDG airport. It's a mess, and we decided we're never going to Paris again because of it. au revoir.

Now that I have that off my chest.

Needless to say, we went down for a nap immediately after checking in to our hotel, which was right in the middle of everything, right across the street from Piazza dell Repubblica (and down the street from The Hard Rock Cafe). A few hours later, bleary-eyed and really hungry, we went off to find some food.

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I had done quite a bit of research on restaurants and, as I do, set up a "my google map" with the names/notes/etc. This is a really handy way of organizing your travel options, by the way.  Since we brought my mom along on this trip, we made sure we did some of the more touristy things, like walking over Ponte Vecchio (which I had forgot is just a bunch of jewelry shops) and shopping for leather gloves. Around the corner was Trattoria 4 Leoni.

Truth be told I wanted to go to Osteria Tripperia il Magazzino for, you guessed it, tripe, but the ladies weren't all that thrilled with jumping right into the organ meat. So 4 Leoni it was.

4 Leoni is set right on a nice little piazza, with spacious outdoor seating. Very pleasant service, which is something we've seen in Italy time and time again.

We jumped into the food immediately, immediately after ordering that bottle of Chianti of course.

The bread in northern Italy is atrocious, as you might know. It's just awful. It's not made with salt. It's dry. It's bland. And they make you pay for it whether you like it or not. Unless you're putting olive oil and salt on it (which I highly recommend) or a slice of lardo (which I even more highly recommend), don't fill up on it.

But we tried some bread for laughs, and then it was pasta all around.

4 Leoni florence italy-2

Fresh pasta with truffles. We thought the dish was a bit "dry" and could have used a bit more in the way of "sauce," but other than that it was spot on. No shortage of truffles here.

4 Leoni florence italy-5

My mother is not an adventurous eater and went with a pasta pomodoro. Fresh pasta with tomatoes and cheese. Completely fine, but not something that excites me.

What does excite me is organ meat. Organ meat friggin' excites me. So I went full Florentine and got the Trippa alla Fiorentina, which translates I believe to "a bowl of tripe you muthafuckas!"

4 Leoni florence italy-6
This is a great dish, and done quite well at 4 Leoni. The tripe pretends it's pasta, but pasta that tastes like meat. It's like having a pasta with meat sauce but without having pasta or meat. It's pretty incredible stuff. I forget if I did, but I sure hope I ordered this dish again. It would have been a sin to not.

Boboli Garden is right around the corner, and I foolishly decided we should take a walk to the top and explore. That's a lot of steps, and we were still in pretty bad shape from the long flight. But from the top, you can get a decent view of the city on one side, and rural Tuscany on the other.

Boboli garden florence italy-6
Boboli garden florence italy-6
Boboli garden florence italy-6

Trattoria 4 Leoni : Via de' Vellutini, 1r, 50125 Firenze, Italy

 

 

 


Staying in Ronda, Spain: Enfrente Arte Hotel

Balcon del Cono

Balcón del Coño, Ronda, Spain

Hotels aren't normally my thing, and I tend to stay in hotels that are functional, clean, well-situated in the town, and somewhat reasonably priced.  That is to say, I don't put much thought into them, and I don't usually remember much about them.  And I certainly don't stay at B&Bs, mostly because I have no interest in eating breakfast with strangers (and they don't want to eat breakfast with me...don't catch me before 11 am because I'm more of a bear than usual).

Enfrente Arte Hotel may have changed that forever.

Enfrente Arte Hotel Ronda-10
Enfrente Arte Hotel Ronda-10

Checking into this small, funky, 14 room hotel, you'll find yourself standing at the front of a car hood. The car, you see, is in the lobby. Or at least the front of the car is in the lobby. If your room isn't ready, take a step into the bar, where you can help yourself to an espresso, beer on tap, or a glass (or bottle) of wine. It's all included in the very reasonable price, and it's all there 24-7 for your entertainment.

Entrente Arte Hotel pool
Entrente Arte Hotel pool

Explore the hotel grounds a bit a more, and you'll come across plenty of interesting artifacts, many of which are related to music, some of which conjure memories of A Clockwork Orange. There's also one of those pools of water with the fish that "massage" your feet. The fish eat the stuff off of your bare feet. It's stimulating, creepy, and relaxing all at the same time.

Enfrente arte viewView from the balcony

Make your way outside to the courtyards and you'll find two seating areas with grand views of the mountains. A perfect place for a nightcap. Or morning cap.

Enfrente Arte Hotel Ronda-15
Enfrente Arte Hotel Ronda-15View of the hotel and outskirts of town from the tower room's balcony

The rooms are all different, tastefully and unconventionally decorated. We stayed in two rooms during our stay, one of which was the "tower" room, which is a three story room in a tower that was built in the 1500s. A very interesting room for sure (although these old bones had a hard time getting down the two flights of stairs in the middle of the night to get to the head).

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