Quick trip to Rattlesnake Hills – the best plans are not planned

A winery dinner seemed like a good excuse to get away for the weekend, reservations made, a few things packed, and we were off.

Cowiche Canyon Kitchen + Ice House in Yakima was our first stop. There is a sign as you enter Yakima on I-82 that calls Yakima “the Palm Springs of Washington”, well most of us that know the city find that humorous – really? Yet Yakima has made a concerted effort over the last 10 years or so to improve its image and overcome its reputation as a major drug port of entry. The transformation is working, it really is a different city today, Cowiche Canyon is proof.cck-cowiche-canyon-kitchen=exterior-yakima-best-restaurant

The decor is contemporary, rustic, industrial. The staff are welcoming, friendly and professional –  it is clear that customer service is a priority. The menu fits the rustic decor, local as much as possible, grilled entrees, and creative offerings – perfect.

We started with a grilled artichoke, easily the best artichoke I have ever had. It was sliced in half, the “hairy parts” scooped out, then grilled with flaked sea salt. It was so good that I tried to do it the same way at home Sunday, came out pretty close, will keep working on it.

I had the steak frites with black peppercorn sauce, Tricia had an amazing omelet. The wine list is just right, not overwhelming, but with enough variety to satisfy, some local wines along with some from further afield. This was the perfect start for our weekend.

Our dinner was not until 6.00pm, so we had time to hit a winery or two. I had tried to visit Dineen Family Winery a year or so ago but it was not open, this time it was. Good wine, we bought 4 bottles, and I must get back to do a sketch or two in the future. Jenny, the tasting room manager invited me to do some artwork for their tasting room next spring, so I know I will be back.

The reason for the trip was a winery dinner at VanArnam Vineyards. I have been a fan of their reds and their Viognier for some time, so we were looking forward to a good meal in a nice setting. I make it a point to not embellish my disappointments at restaurants and events, so I will only say that I was hoping for something more than just an average paella, served with a salad of greens with a vinaigrette dressing. I know the weather forecast caused them to change the venue, sadly that produced poor acoustics which rendered the music superfluous. Allison VanArnam really does work to make everyone feel welcome, I am sure she had some disappointments as well. The highlight of the evening was the sunset, words won’t work, check the photo.IMG_2451

Sunday morning we stopped at Roslyn, remember the show Twin Peaks, we drank tea while wandering through the farmers market – another place on our growing list of must return places.

Again I am reminded that the best parts of most of our trips are the unexpected and unplanned. Plan enough to get you where you are going, then throw the script away and just see what is around the next corner, it just might be great.

Reflections on Kyoto

 We are on the Shinkansen train back to Tokyo, a day early. Motivated a bit by the slightly, only slightly, cooler temperatures in Tokyo. Yet for me, as much as Kyoto was a wondrous place, I like Tokyo.
We arrived in Kyoto on Monday, hot and humid. Desiring a true Kyoto experience we went to the Man in the Moon British pub. They did have Kilkenny Ale, but the Cesar salad was more like a Cobb salad with blue cheese dressing. My fish and chips was far too fishy, not the sort of Cod flavor expected, but it was a good reminder that culture is geographic, so one must not be judgmental. The bartender and waitress were so kind, when we left they walked us to the door and said good by.

Tuesday was raining, serious rain. Like true Seattleites we were undaunted, yet we did take umbrellas, it was wet. We walked along the Philosopher’s Path, a pleasant walkway along a canal, our only companions the fish we watch din shallow water. Amazing how rain thins out the crowds.

The desire to find someplace dry, and the need for tea, coincided with us finding a tiny cafe. I had my morning matcha, a habit I am sure will continue, and we shared a breakfast set of hard cooked egg, toast, salad, and a sauce that was heavy in butter but not sure what else. The place was decorated almost British with classical music, and the most delightful couple attending to us.

We walked on through the rain, we ended up at the Silver Temple, Ginkakau-ji, words just don’t work. We got drenched, but loved every minute. I am reminded at the effort that people have used over the centuries to build beautiful monuments to the things they worship. It also makes me sad that in the current mindset so many Christians worship in converted warehouses, does not the God of creation deserve better?

Wednesday we ate at Le Flure, yes a French place again. We have eaten a ton of Japanese food, so don’t accuse us of seeking complacency, yet we do love French. This was one of the best meals ever, really. The service was impeccable, the view on the 15th floor, and the food, hard to beat. Highlights, cold artichoke soup, an egg crème appetizer, caramel ice-cream. 

I had steak, now for all of you American Cowboy folks, this was not like anything you have tried. First of all the size,  check the photo, it was two servings, each of 1 ounce, no 16 ounce monstrosity here. Each piece was probably more fatty than the America pallet likes, but each tiny bite was heaven, the foie-gras was a perfect seasoning, I can only think of one steak ever that came close. (Read my blog on Brimmer & Heeltap)

The Golden temple was nice, the rest of the food was good, but Tuesday was the highlight for me in Kyoto. Now it is back to Tokyo. Oh, and on Wednesday, we went back to the Irish pub for an ale and wine, both the bartender and waitress remembered us, walked us to the door, and waved good-by. Have I already said how much I love it here?

Tokyo, off to a grand start 

Thursday morning, Tokyo. We arrived Monday and our friend Saori welcomed us at the airport. We picked up our Japan Rail pass, smooth as it could be, found our Pocket WiFi, then headed for the Narita Express.
Narita Airport is almost 90 minutes from Tokyo, it was worth the ride, we saw our first rice paddies and a lot of the countryside. The weather matched the forecast, hot and humid, but really it did not bother us much at all. It took us only 20 hours from the time Uber picked us up at home until we arrived at the Hotel Niwa. We rode in a car, a bus, light rail, airplane, train, and subway. A quick change of clothes, brushed our teeth, then off to meet Saori’s parents for dinner.

We have looked forward to meeting them for some time, Saori has become such a part of our life since she lived with us seven years ago. They took us to a Japanese BBQ in the Tokyo Dome City Hotel, for you Mariners fans, Ichiro played there. We had the meal I had a been waiting for, thin sliced meats, vegetables, all self-cooked on your individual BBQ at the table. 

Tuesday, in typical brilliance, we picked the hottest, most humid day of the week to walk 20,000 Fitbit steps. The plan was to visit the Imperial Garden and Palace, but it was closed, so we walked to Ginza. Ginza is like Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills, lots of nice things, but even with the Yen as favorable as it is for us now, really expensive.

The Kaguruzaka neighborhood hosts the French embassy, we found a restaurant owned by a Frenchman, with French food. The menu was in Japanese and French, so we had little trouble, the service was great. I know, we are in Japan, but French food was just too enticing.

Wednesday was wonderful, spent the morning at Koishikawa Korakuen Gardens. They were built in 1629, and are one of only two Edo period Gardens in Tokyo. Edo was the original name for Tokyo, it was during this period in the 1600’s when Tokyo grew to become one of the largest cities in the world. 

There is a huge pond, with a series of canals. The 2nd Lord built a rice paddy so his royal born wife could learn of the struggles and hardship that the farmers endured.

For lunch we went back to the Tokyo Dome City Hotel, it is very upscale, with nice restaurants. This time we opted for the Tempura. We were attended to by 4 people, a server, and three tempura chefs. They brought six or seven courses, it was peaceful and quiet, and cool, the heat and humidity were in good form.

That night we met up with Rebeca, our niece. She has been here for almost a year attending Waseda University. We had a fabulous time touring her school, drinking peach iced tea at a student cafe, wandering through the gardens. She took us to a shrine and a temple on our way to Korean BBQ. (Kansas and Texas think they are the centers of BBQ, nope these folks beat them to it by centuries) I have been to Korean BBQ, but this one was so different, it was really casual, kind of an industrial retro decor, we sat on stools, while the staff cooked. You take the grilled meat, add a few condiments and it’s all wrapped in lettuce leaves, a Korean taco.

So far a wonderful time, we are learning to like this country, the people have been so accommodating, the crowds that we were warned about have never materialized, even in the heart of the city. It is a big city, but Barcelona on the Ramblas is more intense, Hong Kong is more crowded, we are looking forward today to more new experiences, Saori joins us again in a couple of hours and we are off.

A Japanese gem in Torrence

Sometimes sheer luck brings us a gem in the midst of a otherwise less than non-descript travel day, a reminder that it is always worth it to travel and explore.
Today was my first time on JetBlue, my fourth flight in four days. You don’t expect a lot on discount airlines, and JetBlue lived up to that nicely. The Airbus was old, I have not been on a plane that old in some time, the attendant was so pleasant, he spoke Spanish to the elderly lady sitting next to me. But JetBlue is air travel at its most basic. Southwest may be discount air, but they do have a lot more class. 
I needed a treat, not something I thought I would find in Torrence, CA. This is an industrial area, headquarters for Toyota and some other big companies. My best hope was a sports bar with a game on and something deep fried. 

Thanks to Yelp I found Bistro Beaux, sounds French, it’s Japanese. Really small, industrial-modern decor, textured concrete walls, cyclone fence used as accents. When I went in, I was the only Caucasion in the room, a good sign. 

The bartender was a real pro, when he was not mixing or serving he was carving a spherical ice cube, chipping away with a Japanese knife, creating a perfect 4” ball. The food was not the stereotypical Japanese fare.

I started with Sauted Cod with a lemon butter and caper sauce. Cooked to perfection, the fish flaked without being mushy, the sign of an expert in the kitchen. The lemon and capers enhanced the fish, not overpowering. 

Having a weakness for Uni (sea urchin), the Eryngii Mushrooms Sauted with sea urchin was obviously next. I have never had sautéed Uni. When I have sushi, I usually have Uni with a raw quail egg for desert, so sautéed was intriguing. The Uni actually had just a hint of crisp, the Eryngii sautéed yet firm, with some delightful sauce and the Uni strips, wonderful.

This was the gem I needed to remind me why it’s worth it to travel, these surprises crop up when your least expect it, and deposite experiences and memories for the future.

Las Vegas, I won!

Thank you Las Vegas, I think I figured it out. What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas – perfect, as there is nothing here I would want to take with me. Sitting in the noisy Southwest Airline concourse, eating a mediocre overpriced meal, something started to make sense – what makes me a bit different as a traveler and travel blogger.canstockphoto4511009-650x487

First of all, I don’t like Las Vegas, nothing about it has any attraction. The casinos are noisy, this place is decadent, being polite about it. Superficial would describe most everything, and so many people are here looking for some kind of fun, but it does not seem to work. If you ever get here, go down to the registration desk of the hotel in the morning, watch the people checking out, they are exhausted, and if you eavesdrop you will find many are hungover, not to mention that when they talk to each other it is about how much money they lost, or how drunk they got.

I am sure I am leaving myself open to all those who go there, “just for the shows and the food.” Yet when there are so many places to eat wonderful food, without having to traverse the profane, why would I want to. I would much rather drive through Sonoma to end up at the French Laundry, than face the crowd on the Strip to get to Keller’s Bouchon in Vegas. And most of the promotions for the shows appear to be produced by the same folks that gave Las Vegas the moniker of “Sin City,” do I really need to see all that?

When I meet people on my international travels they talk about wanting to come to the USA, and go to Vegas, I beg them to see the rest of the country, Vegas is not what we are, or at least I hope not.

When I travel I want to get away from the crowds, the Eiffel Tower was a disappointment to me because of the crowds. I love Paris, London, and Barcelona, but I go out of my way to find the quiet places and I shy away from the touristy. The best times are when we hire (rent) a car and then head for some remote village. Restaurants in a foreign language, with no English translation are the best. I want to blend in.

I want to go where the local people go. Yes, I do enjoy a high end restaurant, but because I like it not because it is THE place to go. Yet, there is something about a dive bar that never loses its attraction. There is this little place in Salem, Oregon called The Extra Point, a dive bar for sure. But always friendly bartenders, and they have Wimpy Burger night, and Taco Tuesday, old pool tables and darts.

Traveling with a checklist of places to see really does not move me. I honestly think I could go to Rome and never see the Coliseum and be just fine with that. A question I ponder is, “How long do you have to stand in front of some iconic location to say you have seen it?” The real question for me is how do you experience it? Many folks walk through Notre Dame in Paris, they saw it, me, I sat in a pew and prayed.

This is most likely why tours are not a big attraction. We have gone on only one in our life, in Bruges, it was a rainy day, we were bored. Thankfully it was a small tour, with an emphasis on history; enjoyable for sure. Yet when planning other trips we rarely consider tours, discovery and exploration are better.

Having identified all of this I need to be clear that I pass no judgement on those who like tours, tourist sights, and Vegas, it is just that they are not me.

I prefer a glass of wine and my sketch pad at a winery over a wine tasting. I prefer a good meal with Tricia at a small café (Marianna’s in Gourds, France) over a chain, or an all you can eat buffet. We spend as much time planning where to eat as we do what to see. Picnics with local confections are a priority. Local food is a doorway to the heart of a location, I want that.

A ramble through a Scottish countryside, or along a canal ending with dinner at a British pub is perfect. Quality over quantity, quaint over extravagant, quiet over a crowd, discovery over a fixed-itinerary – places that are sketch-worthy, voila, that’s it.

So I get it, I want to travel and write about places that move me to get out my sketch pad. I want to eat food at places that give me a glimpse into the spirit of a place. TheWinesketcher, off on another adventure, it can never be too soon. Thank you Vegas, I did win.

 

Smelt fries at Salt & Iron in Edmonds, WA

One late night, some forty years ago, after working the swing shift at the Brazier sawmill in Molalla, Oregon, a few of us guys drove to Troutdale to dip-net for smelt. For a few brief days the rivers near the Columbia are alive with these small, silver fish, the river sparkled as if filled with silver sequins; the best smelting is done at night. If memory serves me correctly the thrill of the chase, male testosterone, and probably a brew or two, resulted in quantities caught that would not have pleased the game warden, had they checked, thankfully they did not.


Salt & Iron, in Edmonds, Washington, is a favorite restaurant thanks to an ever changing menu reflecting the local and the creative. Saturday they had smelt fries on the menu, from Oregon – I am sure from Troutdale (it’s my story and I am sticking to it). There was no choice, I was having Smelt Fries & Chips, the British rendering of fries did not escape me at all. It was perfect.

Smelt taste like fish, they are “fishy”, delicate breading will not hold up, Salt & Iron did it right, prefect balance of fish and bread. The chips, well I defy you to find any that are better.

Chips, Fries, are a personal thing, please do not come to my table and gleefully offer me “steak fries”, they are little more that soggy wedges of potato, without copious amounts of some sauce they are completely inedible – they render any meal less enjoyable. Good fries must be crisp, placid potatoes should be mashed not served, the centers should be moist and soft – the world standard is Belgium. In general the thinner the cut the better as it allowes for quick cooking resulting in the required crispiness.

Salt & Iron has perfect fries, a glass of Pilsner and a plate of their fries would make for a delightful afternoon. Matched with the smelt fries it was comfort food at its best.

A restaurant that makes you look forward to the next visit has done it all as it should be, we will be back, and most likely not soon enough.

Brimmer & Heeltap, a new favorite

My short list of favorite restaurants is a moving target. Sunday we found a new contender, Brimmer & Heeltap, in Seattle. Yes that is the real name, not sure the history but do plan to find out as there is another visit already on the radar.
Small, intimate, rustic, and fresco dining, everything it takes for a perfect environment. Jen, the owner and founder got it right. Her bio says she knows the industry, but her real talent is that she is the perfect hostess, we felt like family, no more than that, we knew we were welcome and valued.
One of the tests of a stellar resturantuar is the ability to extend your passion through your staff, our server Lauren, matched Jen’s sense of hospitality. She is an artist, and took time to show us some of her work, which I find amazing, as well as she took an interest in my sketches. 

In the end of course it is about the food, and we were impressed.

Of course started with bubbles, and to go with them we had Tapioca Puff Chips, with chili-lime sauce. They could sell these by the bag and I would give up potato chips for a long time. Light, a bit picante, with the promised lime – my kind of snack.

Tricia ordered the scallops, not a big surprise. They came with a Poblano Aioli, but not just a glob of mayonnaise – the aioli was applied with air injected, making it light and airy, amazing.

My steak, well I don’t remember one that I have enjoyed more, it appeared to be a fillet mignon, cooked perfect, with sautéed oyster mushrooms and micro greens on the side. Thank you Lauren and Jen, we will be back, soon, Saturday I think.

Getting through the chaos-food, wine, friends, and Tricia

Taking a break this morning to reflect on the things that get me through the challenges. I have been on over 20 flights in the last 11 weeks, thankfully none this last week. On the week-ends we pretend to be contractors, doing the repair work left us by our anniversary week-end flood in December – Wainscoting, painting, repairing sheetrock, installing a cabinet, ceramic tile, etc.

IMG_1947Two weeks ago I was in the Holiday Inn next to Disney, in Anaheim. It is a short walk to Downtown Disney, and Catal Restaurant. Upstairs at Catal is a quiet oasis in the chaos. A glass of wine, bacon wrapped dates, calamari, and of course pen, ink, and paint, made for a nice break from the travel.
IMG_1948The next week I had Asian Meatballs and broccoli, in Sirachi sauce at Niki and Joe’s in Newberg. We finished the evening with a we dram of Laphroaig, and my first game of Catan. I slept well on the hide-a-bed, visited by Nuli, their way too cute kitten.

Last weekend Tim came up, a good excuse to put the construction on hold, and instead too much food, some good discussions, and a bit of guitars and singing.

Thursday night of this week Tricia and I went to Daniels for Happy Hour. Just what we needed before this weekend of the final push in the basement.

These breaks make it possible to go on, food and friends have always been part of what we humans need for rejuvenation in the midst of challenges. I am so grateful.

Five Days on the Road, Day 2

Woke up in the Rodeway Inn just a bit after 5.00am, pretty normal. It is Super Tuesday in the 2016 presidential primary circus, so I spent a lot of time reading the news while sipping Earl Grey tea out of a cup I carry with me so as to avoid paper cups in hotel rooms; a bit of normalcy makes for easier travel.

Stopped off at Starbucks, a place I have a love-hate relationship with. The coffee is not what I really like, but there is the convenience factor that wins out on the road. Read a bit more news, watched the morning parade of coffee drinkers in West Sacramento.

West Sacramento is not much like its namesake to the East. Frankly it is a bit dodgy, not really a bad place but like my yard after a windstorm, lots of branches and leaves that need to be picked up, deck and driveway in need of sweeping – the yard looks unkempt until we rake and sweep. In West Sacramento no one seems to clean and polish, so it looks unkempt.

I am off to teach Project Management to an association of school boards. Same organization as last week, different group of people. I am still trying to get my mind around how they plan to implement it all, but I don’t get to be involved in that process. Good news is that they have lunch brought in, I love free food. I was told this morning that they were uncomfortable having me talk about management principle while non-managers were in room; the employees might criticize the manager for not doing it right. First time I have heard that one. Walked 6,143 steps wandering around while doing the seminar.

Changed into my jeans, and changed a flight for next week, then I walked .8 miles to O’Mally’s Irish Pub in the heart of Old Sacramento. The colcannon is calling my name, cabbage and mashed, how good is that.

I am so predictable, I ordered the banger dog – a British Banger, locally made with sauerkraut. Needing greens, I got the coleslaw instead of the fries, health food for sure.

Best part of the meal, the coleslaw, no really, it was great. I am pretty prejudice in thinking I make the best coleslaw but this was so good. The sausage was OK but nothing special and the Sierra Nevada, way over priced, last night $4, tonight $6.50. Not impressed.

Walked back to my hotel over the Tower Bridge, a pathetic attempt to build a bridge similar to its namesake in London, but that is about as far as the similarity goes. This one is painted a gaudy metallic gold, and in need of a new paint job at that. I always thought that the Steel Bridge in Portland was not a very pretty bridge, well it is wonderful compared to this. (London on the left, Sacramento on the right)

Back in the room, comfortable, and ready to wind the day down watching a bit of Netflix while keeping an eye on the primary elections.