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.

img_2461

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.

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.

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.

IMG_0068

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.

JPEG image-57A38CAE5E3D-1

IMG_0077
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

 

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.

 

A lesson in customer service, I hope they learn it

IMG_1332Now it is important to know that I was charming and pleasant, I guarantee that. And I must emphasize that the staff at the Farmer’s Market by Laguna Culinary Arts  (link to Yelp) were fine, and as helpful as they could be.

I was on the 5.30pm flight from John Wayne Airport headed back to Seattle, the plethora of Micky-mouse-eared kids made it clear that I was near Disneyland and that it was Spring break. After stopping at Vino Volo for a glass of Oregon Chardonnay I was hungry. Defying logic I thought I would head to Ruby Tuesdays, my first mistake because Vino Volo has good food, what was I thinking. Then I spotted the Farmer’s Market, it was run by a culinary arts school, looked promising. The display was stacked with sandwiches and panini much like you would find in Paris, even Croque-monsieur sandwiches loaded with cheese. They had splits of wine and wine glasses, I was sold.

IMG_1331Careful analysis, including price to value ratios, led me to order the ham and cheese, which he assured me could be heated like a panini. As I moved to the check-out to order a wine to go with it I noticed that he was placing my sandwich in an oven not a panini press, hmmm. It was my first alert that things were not working as they should. When I asked the nice lady if it could be heated in a panini press she said it was not working. I hesitated, and almost said I did not want the sandwich as I was anticipating hot squished bread, but decided to let it go.

I asked about the chardonnay, only to find that they sell small bottles of the wine, but they have no glasses for the wine. Not that they were out of glasses, they don’t ever have glasses. I asked how people drink it, she said “out of the bottle.” Yes, I did express my surprise, but like I said, I remained charming and pleasant as I made some comment about a brown paper bag, but with a smile on my face, she even smiled. I passed on the wine.

The sandwich came in a clear plastic take-away container, the ambience of enjoying a good sandwich with a glass of wine vaporized. I walked out to the main area of the terminal, found a chair and sat down to eat the lukewarm meal, the cheese was not even melted.

VIN_OrangeC_SNA_1Finishing that I went back to Vino Volo and admitted that I should have stayed there and had their basil chicken sandwich. I ended up talking with a guy from England, and to a lady who did quality control for a  cryogenic freight company, both delightful.

As I write this I am seated in an exit row on an Alaska Airlines flight, the flight attendants are wonderful as they usually are, the flight is on time, what a contrast to Farmer’s Market. Lots of airlines fly planes, and offer food beverage, yet Alaska still tries to do some of the little things. Their food is a notch above what the others offer, (their hot sandwiches are actually hot) and us MVP Gold’s get special treatment. They attempt to offer as much as possible within the constraints of a competitive airline market.

The best employee, inhibited by poor products or service offerings, struggles to maintain customer satisfaction. Farmers Market needs to learn this, after all it appears that they are training the next round of chefs; ambience and attention to detail are as important as making the perfect sauce, I hope they learn that along the way. As for me, next time  I am in John Wayne airport I will stick with Vino Volo.

Tablas Woodstone Taverna

Image

The best part of Tablas Woodstone Taverna in Mill Creek, WA is the live Flamenco guitar. It is not a bad place, but as a frequent visitor to the sister restaurant, Dimetri’s in Edmonds, WA, I was expecting a lot more. We had a good experience, but based on our history with Dimetri’s and recommendations from Mill Creek locals it was not what I hoped for.

The Tablas decor seems a bit worn, sitting in the lounge you get the wonderful view of a messy bar, if you are going to have seating that allows patrons to see behind the bar then it is important to keep it meticulously clean, this was cluttered. The view toward the kitchen/server station was just as unappetizing  The food was good but then again not up to Dimetri’s quality, though I did enjoy the grilled sardines.

Most disappointing was the wine list, I know this is a Spanish theme, but please, we live in Washington, have at least something local on the list.

I loved the music, Flamenco is a weakness of mine, so that made it better, as did the bartender who was a pleasure.