Saturday morning tea, reflections on Sonoma – Part 1

Sonoma and Crater Lake, both beautiful, both potentially intoxicating, one in a not-so-good way the other most desirably good. We try to take one trip a year, yet we have not been there for three years so we enthusiastically anticipated this trip. First off – Sonoma and food.

We visit Sonoma for great food and exploring wineries, seldom are we disappointed, this trip was one of theimg_2463 best. We discovered that some things are changing in the Napa-Sonoma world. In the past we gravitated toward the less presumptuous Sonoma, and less expensive. Well, Sonoma has become more like Napa, and Napa has become a bit less stuffy

Thursday night we started the gastronomical part of our trip at John Ash & Company, part of the
Vintners Inn at Windsor. A new place and definitely on our list of places to revisit.

Friday lunch we headed for Brix, near Yountville. Plein aire dining with a view of the gardens has always been a must on our trips of the past; not sure about the future though. The food was good, but not as stellar as in the past. My flatbread was soggy. The roasted, thin red peppers were so good, they could have been my meal. The service that makes you feel tended to but comfortable was right on. A good meal.

So why the uncertainty about the future? We noticed it in the food, good but not as great as in the past. We learned that there was a new manager. Making conversation with one of the servers I asked how long she had worked there. She said she came over with the new manager, from a restaurant we were not familiar with (she seemed slightly put off that we did not recognize it, apparently it has prestige). She explained that the new manager brought some of his old staff in so they could raise the standard of the restaurant up. When I said I liked Brix better than Thomas Kellar’s  famous French Laundry or Bouchon it was clear she did not agree. So I am concerned that Brix is changing, sad for us, but we pretty much agreed that on our next trip we might just skip it.

img_2462We had reservations for dinner Saturday at Dry Creek Kitchen in Healdsburg, CA, another fixture for us on our trips to Sonoma. Nothing but good things to say. I had the Spicy Crusted Liberty Duck, duck is right up there with flatbreads in my food addiction collection. It came with roasted peach, duck confit ravioli, and Swiss chard. I find my limitations as a food writer surface when I have an extraordinary meal, I focus more on the experience and it all becomes a kaleidoscope of flavors, all good but my vocabulary is just too limited, and metaphors elude me. “Deliciousness” is the pop term, but it sounds goofy to me, Tony Bourdain and others use the term “food porn” but that offends me. So just think of wonderful tastes, a bit of spice, but not chili or Thai, crispy crust, and perfectly pink meat. I smile just trying to write about it.

Sunday we tried a new place, Brava Tapas, in Healdsburg. We love anything with small-plates, and of course the Spanish invented the premier small-plate, tapas. In Barcelona, one of our favorites was tomato bread, it is so simple that it has evaded reproduction in our own kitchen, just toasted bread rubbed and topped with tomato; of course we started with that. We paired the bread with roasted potatoes and sautéed mushrooms. While we ate we watched a chef prepare Paella over an open fire, in a paella that was about six feet in diameter, great entertainment.

I finished off with Spanish Sardines, another Barcelona memory. Do not even think of the canned sardines available in the stores, check the photo.

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Completing the food part of the Sonoma leg of our trip were a few picnics, procured at the Oakville Market, the oldest continuing operating grocery store in California, opened 1881. It is an iconic place in Healdsburg. We ate well, and shock of shocks, did not gain any weight.

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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.

Traveling on a Saturday morning, with tea

It has been less than two weeks since we got back from Japan, we have two more trips on the calendar, and are already talking about our next trip to Europe. Anticipation is as much a part of the journey as the trip itself.

timthumb.phpThe next trip is a quick jaunt to Eastern Washington for a dinner at VanArnam Winery. They are a small winery in the Rattlesnake Hills AVA, part of the Yakima Valley wine region. Unfortunately this area does not get the recognition of the Washington Wineries further East. The landscape is much more like the Oregon or Sonoma regions, more green and hills. The vineyards are interspersed with the fruit orchards, VanArnam actually started as apple growers and still do.

A week later we fly to Sonoma, a few days in wine country – sipping, eating, and hiking. Then we drive to Crater Lake National Park, more hiking and some painting. Then we drive home through Eastern Washington, just might need to make a stop along the way to pick up a wine club or two.

Next year though, Europe is on the radar. I have only spent 2 days in Italy, Tricia has not been there, so it is about time. Tricia has a friend who lives north of Inverness, I have a friend near Edinburgh, so Scotland is in the mix. There is a used bookstore in York, and San Sebastian in Spain is enticing. You can see there is lots of talk, web searches, and planning to come. Nothing like a glass of wine, some cheese, and maps to make for a perfect evening.

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A page from a Victorian Journal, possibly done by Queen Victoria herself

Personally I am on a quest for a Victorian Journal. I saw two on our last trip to Bath, England. Long before the days of recording life with photos and Facebook, people would have a journal that they would take when they went to visit friends. They would exchange the journals during their time together and each would make an entry in the others. Sometimes a paragraph, or maybe a poem, a sketch or a cartoon. These were treasured, a record of friends and family more personal than selfies on Instagram. The two I saw were at a book fair, for sale, but sadly not in the budget on that trip. So this trip we plan to hit used book stores and watch for book fairs.

We are always traveling, even on a Saturday morning like this, while sipping green tea made in the teapot I brought from Japan. I guess this is what they call wanderlust, a favorite pastime for theWinesketcher.

Our final days in Tokyo, Japan

We arrived back at our Tokyo hotel, the Hotel Niwa, mid-afternoon on Thursday. Settled in then headed out to revisit the Kagurazaka area and find dinner.

Friday morning we got out of town and IMG_2416headed toward Mt Fugi. There are plenty of things to do in Tokyo, but we like getting out of town, and we hoped to see Mt. Fugi. Thanks the the public transportation feature of Google Maps (I know there is a blog about that in the future) we planned our Metro and rail journey without a hitch.

Our destination was Kawaguchiko Station, and Kawaguchiko lake. Google maps lays out the trains and stations, estimates the time, and at the bottom tells you the price. The price is important because if you buy your ticket from a vending machine you need to know what amount the ticket needs to be, it’s all there in Google Maps.

I was hoping for a quiet mountain village, but not to be, Kawaguchiko must be the destination for half of the tour busses in Japan, and it is the staging point for groups hiking on Fuji. And since the lake sits downhill from the train station you can’t see Fugi from the lake. We ate lunch at an Indian resturant, we were the only people there, all the other places were crowded; curry is always a good choice so we ate well.

The train we took down the mountain was such a treat, a fully restored vintage train, with a wooden interior, freindly staff, and hopefully views of the mountain. Fuji, like Mt Denali in Alaska, has a reputation for hiding from visitors behind clouds; a reputation it lived up to when we were there, none of those pristine vistas one sees in guide books. Yet it was a memorable trip, and we did get a glimps of the mountain.IMG_2380

Saturday and Sunday we spent with Saori, doing some shopping, eating and visiting the Tokyo National Museum. I had to find Obi belts to go with the Kimonos that I bought in Kyoto.

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Monday night, Saori and Dijiro drove us to the Tokyo waterfront, a huge mall. We ate then wandered along the park taking in the Rainbow Bridge and the city lights of Tokyo. There are three Statues of Liberty from France in the world: New York City, Paris, and one that was given to Tokyo by the French.

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Our last night in Japan

Tuesday we flew home, it is good to be back, but a piece of my heart stayed with Saori and her beautiful country; I am sure we will return

 

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?

Monday, off to Kyoto

We are off for 5 days in Kyoto, but first some memories of the last few days.

Wednesday morning Saori brought Komonos fou us to try, worn most often for special occasions and festivals. I think we look great. We spent the day shopping, mostly at Shimboco Station, the largest in Tokyo. It is hard to believe how big it is, and the size of the shopping mall, bigger than anything in Seattle – all of the big names in fashion are here. We ate lunch in one of the food courts, common in basements of train stations and malls.

After lunch we went to the 45th floor of the Tokyo Government building, there is an observation level, and a cafe. So views of cloudy Tokyo and iced tea for the heat.


The heat and the along was taking a toll, so we called it a day, tomorrow would be a grand adventure. Saori and Digaro were taking us to some limestone caves.

We drove for a couple of hours out of Tokyo, after Saori welcomed us in our room with a Matcha ceremony. Matcha is ground green tea, that is whipped to a froth and drank out of bowls, a new favorite for me. Pictures say it best for the caves.


It was so good to get out into the mountains, small village – certainly not a place many tourists are able to see.

Saturday we went to Odawara castle, a quick ride on the high speed Shinkansen bullet-train. Lunch of raw fish, well at least for me and Saori, Tricia had tempura.


Good trip, more to come

 

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.

“With a flair for old romantic to the Orient he flew” – Off to Tokyo


After months of waiting, our trip to Japan, postponed from April to July, due to our flooded basement, has begun. Uber to the park and ride, bus to Seattle, Sound Transit Light rail to the airport, TSA Pre-check, and we are in the Delta Crown Club, sipping Moët. Thanks to my life of air travel we fly business class on the 10 hour flight – good food and service await, the seats recline flat so sleep is possible. When we land Saori, our friend and former exchange student will welcome us at Narita airport. Did I mention we are excited?

Japan – a prepared adventure

Delta 167, Sunday July 17, 2016 – Non-stop Seattle to Tokyo’s Narita airport. Hotels in Tokyo and Kyoto are booked, house and cat-sitter all arranged, we are set. That is really all we have planned, no detailed itineraries, not much in the way of “must see.”I will readily acknowledge that our approach to travel is not for everyone, yet I encourage folks to give it a try. Three components: Spontaneous plan, Light packing, Technical Logistics.

We arrive on Monday, mid-afternoon. Saori, our Japanese daughter, is going to welcome us at the airport, assist in picking up Wi-Fi hub at airport, then navigating us on the Narita Express to our hotel. Then we will take her to dinner. That is about the extent of our definite plans. The rest is pretty much make it up as we go. There are only two things I specifically want to do, Odawara Castle, and a train that goes near Mt. Fuji. We will work these out when we are there.

Readers of my blog know that “tourists must see” lists don’t do a lot for me. Beyond that we have learned that all of the research in advance helps, yet when you get to the place you are going it looks different, strict agendas made 10,000 miles away are restrictive. Then there is the physical demands, some days we feel like doing nothing. I remember afternoons in Bruges, sitting by the fire at Rembrandt’s, reading and snacking for hours, one of my best memories of Belgium; you don’t really plan for that kind of day, they happen if you let them.

Luberon is a small village in Provence, France. On our first visit to Provence, Tricia was not feeling well one evening, I went down to the bar in the hotel to let her sleep. As normal I struck up a conversation with a local. She told me that Luberon was not to be missed. The next day we headed for Luberon, I had a Croque Monsieur at an outside café, we bought local pottery from the shop with the blue doors in this painting. The joy of spontaneity.

The second important consideration is light packing. We will go to Japan for 17 days, and we will each have a carry-on size roller, plus a small carry on. This is so important. You are flexible if you need to take trains, navigate stairs. And you are not burdened with stuff. I know it is often repeated but it’s true, the longer you travel the lighter you pack. Set out what you think you need to take then cut it down, then do it again. Light packing means flexibility, and that adds to the spontaneity. I must admit that when I see couples travel with two huge cases I really wonder what they are taking and how much they will use. One exception, when we have gone places where hiking is on the agenda we take a larger case, boots and packs do take up space.

The one place I do spend time planning is the technical details. This includes maps, plugs and chargers, Wi-Fi, and a few miscellaneous goodies.

Maps are a big thing for me, first I love them, but I really like to be able to find my way around. With a WiFi hub Google maps navigating works on iPhone or iPad. I also use Maps-2-go, they are offline, and since the GPS works on my phone even if not connected to phone service, it will find you on their maps. Maps-2-go also has great place to store lists of sights, restaurants, etc.. So with these two in place you are ready. Google also allows you to download maps for offline use, along with stored favorites.

If I need directions to a hotel, or for driving, I do turn-by-turn maps of directions before the trip. These are stored in an offline notebook on Evernote, a bit of redundancy I know but it’s comforting when in a strange town and you need to find your hotel. With Google street view you can take pictures of the area around your hotel to help you spot it when on the ground. This helped us in Barcelona and in Provence.

It is obvious, but worth reminding, that you need adapters and chargers for all your electrical stuff. Thankfully unless you have really old electrical items most are already 110/220V so you don’t need a converter. Take more than one adapter, they are small and you probably will want to charge phone and iPad at same time.

I travel for pleasure with only iPad, it does all I need and is lighter than computer. iPad and iPhone pretty much take care of everything from music to navigation. A Bluetooth speaker brings music into room, Google Translate app (different than the online translate) is brilliant as it will capture the text of a sign or menus and translate, no internet needed.

 Couple of things I carry, a real tea cup, and immersion heater- tea in the morning is important so I make it possible most everyplace. Along with that an acrylic wine glass, wine and beer just don’t work out of the placid stuff at hotels.

Travel should be a prepared adventure, take what you need, resources for what you will need, and the curiosity to let each day unfold as it will. Bonnet voyage.

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.