Beyond London: Fancying the Charms (and Stones) of England’s West Country & Bath

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Ah, London; in stepping off the tube at South Kensington, our immediate reaction was to breathe a sigh of relief at the fact that everything is just so much cleaner, slower, and less stress-inducing than it is on the NYC streets we’d left a mere 10 hours prior. Far from judging their work ethic, the sight of fashionable office workers lounging outside a pub at noon makes us wonder why we don’t follow suit. To be sure, there are a lot of things we question in America these days.

The English capital has oft been our final destination when crossing the pond, and certainly there’s no shortage of amusements to be found there. But this time a country road trip was in store; and no sooner had we landed, had a quick look around the V&A, caught Jools Holland at Hampton Court’s summer music series, and discovered the seductive Leighton House Museum, than we were zipping south in a 5-speed rental, and on the ‘other’ side of the road no less. A few days later we would be in Bath, England’s gorgeous Roman-meets-Georgian spa town, where we did indeed take the waters…and then set out to explore several Neolithic ruins, yes Stone’enge included (cue Spinal Tap references).

Here’s what we did.

 

This Charming Town

It’s nice having relatives with 16th century country homes; and ours, whose spectacular abode was down a wooded lane close to the charming hamlet of Liss, lavished us with a delightful garden dinner followed by lashings of homemade limoncello around their enormous ancient fireplace.
The next day we headed south to the sea for bracing walk along the water in West Wittering, stopping first to fortify at the charming Lamb Inn, where local ingredients combine in dishes including summer risotto and south coast fish stew.

 

 

A Stop at the Stonehenge Gift Shop

In preparation for our trip we became fascinated with the history of the ancient stone circles that dot the landscape throughout the Isles, and our southern sojourn put us in the path of many of the imposing structures. The granddaddy of them all is of course Stonehenge, which is truly spectacular, although as one of the more renowned monuments in the world isn’t exactly bereft of tourists…or a gift shop (ok we bought a mug).
Being fascinated by all manner of birds of prey we were thrilled to come across the wonderful Hawk Conservancy Trust in Hampshire, which showcases, houses and rehabs all types of fowl; we had to tear ourselves away from the baby owls, and were soon back on the road to Bath, where we holed up at the charming Abbey Hotel in the center of town.

 

 

Taking the Waters…

Known for its eclectic art collection, which includes a significant cross section of local artists, students from the Bath University and even hotel guests, the Abbey combines modern amenities with typically British charm. Our cozy room had an amazing view of one of the town’s main squares and the imposing Bath Abbey cathedral. There’s also a cool, bohemian cocktail bar on site (fittingly named Artbar), and the well-reviewed Allium restaurant.
The next day we were in full tourist mode and started with a two-hour visit at the spectacular Thermae Bath Spa. While Bath is of course known for its, erm…Roman built baths, modern predilections for health being what they are, actual bathing there is highly regulated; apparently, we lost our tolerance for water-born diseases a few centuries ago. But Thermae is as modern as it gets, while still allowing immersion in the blessed waters; we tried all manner of steam rooms, pools, and relaxation rooms, finishing up with an aromatherapy massage, and then a cider in the Springs Café; delightful, and invigorating.

 

 

And Yet More Stone Circles

That evening we took the advice of a local and headed off the beaten path to The Bell Inn, a cooperatively owned bar and music venue that was gloriously tourist free, we quaffed ciders and marveled at the irony that the bluegrass duo that were playing were from Lawrence, Kansas. On the way back to the Abbey we grabbed an excellent Thai curry at the authentic Salathai; most restaurants were closed by 10 and we’d yet to discover Bath’s late night underground.
Our exploration of stone circles continued the following day with a walk in the fields at Stanton Drew, one of the lesser known sites, and just 15 miles from Bath. We wandered alone among the great boulders, imagining life as a druid centuries ago, then abandoned all pretense of communing with the past and settled in for a couple of pints at the appropriately named The Druid’s Arms. British pubs have come a long way since our dads were downing pints and crisps at the local back in the day. At the nearby Bear & Swan we lunched on a modern take on the Ploughman’s, which included homemade breads, Piccalilli (pickles), and chutneys, as well as a Greek Salad with fried salt and pepper squid; as the area is known for its ciders, we sampled accordingly.

 

 

All Back to London…

Our drive back to London took us past the second most well-known, but largest, henge: the World Heritage Site of Avebury. It’s vastness is humbling, and wandering the breeze-swept lush green lands, one felt the energy of the space as we imagined our ancient relatives might have.
Back in the modern world we managed a rush through the thoroughly magnificent British Museum, and grabbed a final taste of all things British in the form of a scone with jam and clotted cream at the Tea and Tattle across the road. Now, if England can just win the World Cup…

 

 

 

 

Fascinating New Photo Book by Blondie’s Chris Stein Chronicles the Birth of NYC Punk

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It’s not enough to know that Blondie was one of the absolute coolest bands to break out of the nascent NYC punk scene in the late ‘70s, or that Debbie Harry was without a doubt the most gorgeous, stylish, and ballsy front chick of the time (or maybe all time?). Chris Stein, the band’s éminence grise, has to remind us how bland New York is now, by once again dragging out his personal photo collection from that era.

Following his 2014 tome Negative: Me, Blondie, and the Advent of Punk, which displayed his mostly black and white photos in mostly chronological order – and showed Ms. Harry’s flowering from tom-boy punk into new wave style icon, while partying hard with miscreants of the time: Iggy, Lou, The Dolls, various Ramones, etc. – his new book, Point of View: Me, New York City and the Punk Scene (Rizzoli) exchanges the word ‘Blondie’ for ‘New York City’ in the title, adding shots of our favorite drug, fire, and crime ravaged metropolis to the mix.

 

 

For extra enviable vicariousness, witness photos of Stein and Harry and their pals Jean-Michel, Andy, Burroughs, Lydia et all, frolicking among bombed out tenements and graffiti strewn East Village streets. Nostalgia is best viewed in black and white.

The decade leading up to 1980 has been universally acknowledged as one of the most significant artistic and cultural shifts in Gotham’s history, and there are many books that work hard to prove that point. Few, however, include the photographic evidence that Stein has access to; and with his new collection, he solidifies himself as the Weegee of his generation. And of course, we wonder what other shots he has under the bed.

To help celebrate the new book, Stein’s photos from POINT OF VIEW will be on display at House of Van’s Brooklyn summer music and art series at a show on July 20, where Blondie will be playing with Liz Phair, and SASAMI.

Blondie playing a warehouse party in Greenpoint, in 2018? Maybe here’s hope yet? (#okaynotreally)

 

 

 

Stylish Williamsburg Staycation: The Pod Brooklyn

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The adage “wherever you go, there you are” (often ascribed to Confucius) is typically dredged up when wanting to sound reasonably existentially profound; there’s no escaping ourselves, we get it. There is, however, plenty of fun to be had in trying to; and one of the easiest ways to achieve this is a short stay in an unfamiliar bed, in your own city, without having to swipe right on Tinder.

And so we skipped the planes and trains, recently checking in for a BKNY ‘staycation’ just a scant 2 km from our apartment, at the newly opened Pod Brooklyn – which has turned the mini hotel collection into a quintet (three in Manhattan, one in D.C.).

 

 

And while the streets of North Williamsburg were as familiar to us as $5 turmeric lattes, packing a toothbrush and arranging for someone to feed the fish still gave us that endorphin rush of weekending away.

If you’re not familiar with The Pod group of hotels, the name does kinda say it: stylishly contemporary public spaces, buzzy bars and restaurants, and small but expertly laid out mod-minimalist rooms – and at this location, for half the price of you average Manhattan hotel. Once we got accustomed to the in-shower loo, we found ourselves quite smitten with the cool design sensibility.

The charming staff had a bit of a wide eyed still-figuring-things-out look about them; but the Pod was impressively abuzz with foreign tourists, hip kids, and at least one doghoused spouse. the rooftop bar and resto should be a scene all summer – but we were there just shy of its unveiling, alas.

 

 

So instead we settled into the Pod BK’s lobby restaurant Clinton Hall. And perhaps owing to its position down behind hipster lines, it specializes in scientifically engineered craft beer delivery – they have a Flux Capacitor! – and insanely over the top burgers such as the spicy duck chorizo (which we decided would be a great drag moniker).

One of the more imaginative hotel perks we’ve encountered are the hotel’s Pod Walks, complimentary walking tours of local hoods, including DUMBO and Brooklyn Heights, which happen every Thursday. Should you prefer more focused exercise, while there’s no gym onsite, the hotel has partnerships with local sweat lodges CorePower Yoga and Retro Fitness.

 

 

 

Venturing out to explore the area and mingle with the locals, we did a quick stop for a veggie taco and margarita at outdoor hotspot The Woods. We then made our way to the waterfront – the East River that is – and strolled among the community planting beds at North Brooklyn Farms…finally stopping to admire the teenage dexterity on display at the adjacent skate park.

That night we made our way to the other side of WBurg, to one of the more trendy new-ish eateries, Andrew Carmellini’s Leuca, which won our hearts and taste buds with its Southern Italian house-made pastas and wood-fired pizzas. Being veggie-disposed as we were, we indulged in a sampling of apps, including the crispy baby artichokes with Meyer lemon aioli…with plenty of limoncello for a chaser.

And a mellow stroll back to the Pod on a lovely spring evening actually felt romantic – especially since we knew we could look forward to a long, lazy morning in a comfy hotel bed.

It’s certainly fun to be tourists in your own town.

 

BlackBook Interview: Spacehog Frontman and Downtown Eminence Royston Langdon on His New Album & the Myths of NYC

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Photo by Sophie Caby

 

It may not be at the bleeding edge of the international music buzz these days, but New York City has probably only been matched by London for cultural zeitgeist moments. From Miles and Coltrane in the ’50s and ’60s, to Blondie and The Ramones in the ’70s, to Madonna and the Beastie Boys in the ’80s, through to The Strokes and Yeah Yeah Yeahs in the early 2000s, it was perpetually where young talent would indeed be taking Sinatra’s advice and “making it here.”

The mid-’90s had a smaller, though no less thrilling moment, when a collection of dissolutely glamorous rockers tore up the stages at grungy downtown hotspots like Don Hills and Coney Island High. We won’t even get into the lifestyle choices surrounding the scene.

 

Photo by Marc Scrivo

 

One of the more notable acts to break out of it was Spacehog, whose massive hit “In the Meantime” propelled the band to gold status and a decades long career. Let by two British brothers, Antony and Royston Langdon, they were the toasts of the Downtown scene – the latter eventually marrying another regular scene presence, actress Liv Tyler (now his ex-wife), with whom he has a son. Spacehog have never officially disbanded, releasing their most recent album in 2013.

Royston also added music exec to his resume, thanks to an artist relations gig at Spotify. And now, but surely more importantly, has at long last gone “solo,” with the fittingly titled Everything’s Dandy (out May 4), under the moniker LEEDS.

The new album showcases his robust tenor on nine piano-and-acoustic-guitar-based melodramatic modern pop songs, that will fit quite nicely alongside early Bowie and Queen in your late night playlist. Debut ballad “Someone” – with a video directed by ‘Ant’ Langdon – is a plaintive ode to self-awareness; while “What Became of the People” (which BlackBook premieres here), is a delightful and propulsive mid-tempo rocker, co-written by Anthony, that reminds us of Royston’s soaring vocal range.

BlackBook caught up with the – you guessed it – native of Leeds (UK) on the eve of the album’s release for an exhilarating chat…which included the rocker (how English of him) casually quoting Tennyson.

 

 

Everything’s Dandy sounds like it could be considered your New York album; are there other New York albums that are meaningful to you?

It was all recorded, mixed and mastered here and I have lived here now longer than I’ve lived anywhere else on this planet. So in that sense, yes, I suppose it is. New York feels pretty dead these days creatively, barring a few exceptions. Far too expensive here to foster the kind of existence that allows for great art and artists to flourish – and this record has some themes around that. The lost places, lost people. The invention of a ‘dreamland’ which is impossible to see beyond. That interests me. The simulacrum of a New York reality. That seems to be a common theme throughout the record.

Gotham is still a rich subject for inspiration.

There are those meaningful records from yesteryear, the Kind of Blue and Transformer sort of thing. But these days I tend to think more of my own experiences around records that were recorded here. I worked as an assistant engineer in a recording studio of some note when I first came in 1994. The Ramones, Pavement, Dinosaur Jr. all made albums there. From then on that became my experience of “New York Records,” being in and around them. Exciting. I always think of Bowie’s Let’s Dance being recorded at The Power Station (Avatar), which is incidentally where I mastered this record. More likely, Frank Sinatra…he pretty much cornered the market on the back of that sort of “New York, New York” reflection-effect style, co-opting-of-the place thing. Doesn’t do it for me. Find it trite and a bit comical. We’re both evolving, the city and I.

Photo by Marc Scrivo

 

The city still resonates powerfully with you?

New York’s my home and has been for some time. I live here and therefore my experience of it is unique to me as a New Yorker – though this itself is not unique. Of late, Bowie’s finale Blackstar is probably the most meaningful in terms of New York. He famously recorded at The Magic Shop on Crosby Street, which was where Spacehog made The Chinese Album. I know it well. Whilst I was working with Spotify the label brought the record in to play for us, think it was the October before it came out. Made me sign an NDA and it was referred to by it’s code name Danny. Top secret. As soon as I heard it, I knew he was off. I emailed him immediately but alas, never heard back. Now, every time I hear “Dollar Days” and specifically his line ‘If I’ll never see the English Evergreens I’m running to’ my heart breaks. Makes me cry every single time.

You’re still an Englishman at heart?

I both identify with that feeling of longing for a romanticized England, whilst imagining him in that same room, pouring his heart into the song, quite literally dying. Powerful. I miss him, we all do, I know. I have tons of these feelings in relation to New York albums, though none quite so personally poignant or emotionally charged as that one line. My friend Tom mixed Blackstar over at his room in Electric Lady Land. I got to hear it broken down, track by track, a few months back. I could go on and on. Perhaps I ought to write a book entitled My New York Albums. Point is, my relationship to my New York albums are ever evolving, like their listeners. These albums have a life force of their own, form a history just like you and me. I love that.

Its been 20 years since the heyday of Spacehog, but the band’s legacy is certainly intact. Do fans still actively engage with you?

It is? Oh boy! Sure, I love Spacehog fans. I’m sure some of them would rather hear me sing ‘In The Meantime’ in lieu of what I’m doing today. Truth is, I don’t care too much what they think. I no longer have any of the rights to my own music from that time, there’s a sort of disassociation from it when that happens. We’ve shared some incredible moments with our fans, I am eternally grateful for that. Though I’m more than happy to leave that communion, both collectively with the band and with our fans, firmly within the ancient lore of the East Village and the 1990’s.

 

 

The music biz has changed so much in the last two decades, artists have much more control but also more work to do themselves now – no major label to rely on, no alternative rock bands selling half a million albums, as Spacehog did. And as you’ve seen the business from both sides of the desk, what are your hopes and benchmarks for success in 2018?

Here’s what’s looking great. Never has there been a more fluid and transparent way for a musician to reach their fans or potential fans. Never has the technology been so readily available to record music. Never has there existed a platform – the internet – to bring artists together on so many levels, including creatively. We’re only just scratching the surface. I’m highly excited by all this and keen to carry on where we left off with Spotify. I feel truly blessed to have had the experience I’ve had, firsthand as a successful artist within the old form of the industry, as well as a deep firsthand understanding of how we’ve transcended that, way beyond our wildest dreams. It’s never been a better time to be an artist. I’m pretty sure the industry is beginning to reflect this upswing on many levels. “The old order changeth, yielding place to new, And God fulfills himself in many ways, Lest one good custom should corrupt the world.” Tennyson. “Nothing remains the same.” Langdon.

Pick one place in NYC that you miss from the ‘old days.’

Florent.*

 

*The much revered 24-hour diner/restaurant in the Meatpacking District, that was a gathering spot for every type of late night outsider and adventure seeker in the ’80s and ’90s, and one of the most tranny hooker friendly establishments to ever serve a great steak frites. It closed, sadly yet fittingly, in 2008.

 

Party Like a 1960s Starving Artist! Another Art Students League Weekend Extravaganza Approaches

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The concept of depriving people of an arts education isn’t just endemic of the current repressive socio-political climate; budding Pollocks, Calders, and Rothkos have been fighting for the opportunity to pay to be mercilessly critiqued by educators for years. New York City’s Art Students League was actually at the vanguard of art student rights when it launched in 1875 – after those students learned that their current classes at the National Academy of Design would be cancelled due to insufficient funds.

Next month it celebrates 125 years in its historic landmark building on W. 57th Street. And since no one knows how to cut loose better than a starving artist, of course they’re throwing a party…or two.

 

 

While the League’s storied history revolves around classes and workshops in painting, sculpture, and more contemporary mediums, starting in the 1950s, the agenda also includes the throwing of elaborate and regularly scheduled Felliniesque bacchanalia. With hundreds of flamboyantly costumed revelers in getups to rival the Club Kids of the late ’80s, the parties have given the students the chance to be just as creative, and way more drunk, outside of the classroom.

On the weekend of May 11, the League is opening its doors for two days of events, including an auction, live demonstrations, and of course…the aforementioned bacchanal. Dubbed the ST[art]UP weekend, celebrations will kick off with a reception and auction where guests will be able to bid and buy artwork by League instructors, students, alumni and young artists, as well as explore the permanent collection – which includes works by such marquee names as Isabel Bishop, Alexander Calder, Will Barnet, James Rosenquist, William Merritt Chase, Charles Alston and others of similar note.

For our part, we’re already fashioning our costume for that Saturday night bash – and hope to see you there.

More details can be found here.

 

 

 

Eight Brilliant Reasons to be in New Zealand This Spring (Actually, Autumn)

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A whirlwind of a trip to New Zealand last fall (their spring) left us so enamored of The Land of the Long White Cloud that we were inspired to head back this spring (their fall).

In anticipation, here are some final memories of our previous N-Zed sojourn – which can start you on your way to a perfect spring (fall) or fall (spring) excursion as well.

Got that?

 

Giapo Ice Cream

All the fresh fish and farm to table veggies were amazing, but we’ll never forget the over the top ice cream creations at Auckland’s Giapo; yes that’s a chocolate covered giant squid.

 

 

Marine Life Voyeurism

Our trip was very much urban focused, but there are also lots of great outdoorsy activities in NZ. And our fascinating exploration of nature included taking to the water in a see-through kayak, to discover Goat Island’s undersea marine reserve – and we didn’t even get wet.

 

 

Dining and Bedding Down at the Boatshed

Few hotels have left us more enchanted than Waiheke Island’s magnificent Boatshed, where our sublime three-course dinner was served in the communal living room – and our bedroom looked out over Waiheke’s ethereal, expansive Oneroa Bay.

 

 

An NZ History Lesson

New Zealand’s modern history is amazingly less than 400 years old, so pretty much all of it fits in Wellington’s fascinating Te Papa Tongarewa museum. Our guided tour included an up close look at an amazing exhibit on the WW1 Gallipoli campaign, which featured enormous, haunting human sculptures.

The Birds

When you learn that there are no snakes in NZ, you’ll truly appreciate their strict/draconian customs requirements. That leaves plenty of room for the close to 200 species of birds, most of which can be found at the very cool Zealandia bird sanctuary.

 

Image by Brendon Doran

 

The Birds on Safari

If you prefer taking in your bird species one at a time, we found our afternoon coastal safari to Hawkes Bay’s Gannet colony to be utterly breathtaking. After a 45-minute drive through majestic canyons, you emerge on top of a mountain to a swarm (Gaggle? Flock?) of gannets at your feet. Stupendous!

Charming Napier

Discover the utterly charming Hawkes Bay town of Napier, either on bike, or vintage car, depending on your energy level – including Takaro Trails and Napier’s Art Deco Trust. Insider tip; it’s way easier not spilling a cocktail in the back of a 1930’s Packard than on a bicycle.

 

 

New Zealand Wine, You Must

We must make a last mention of our favorite wine excursion, Man O’ War Vineyards on Waiheke Island. It was only reached by seaplane, and where our 10am visit included sampling their unforgettable Estate Cabernet Franc, Pinot Gris and Tulia Blanc de Blanc.

 

Johnny Swet’s New Grand Republic Cocktail Club Anchors Buzzing West Greenpoint Scene

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It may seem like a long way from the boho-meets-banker scene at The Jimmy, the penthouse bar atop Soho’s James Hotel – where drinks alchemist extraordinaire Johnny Swet had lorded over a notable cocktail renaissance – to the scruffy western end of Greenpoint Avenue across the East River. Yet that’s where Swet has just set up shop for his latest venture, The Grand Republic Cocktail Club, effectively raising the ‘bar’ for the up-and-comer neighborhood.

As one of the latest zip codes squarely in developers’ sights, the once charmingly gritty Greenpoint waterfront, a mile north of Williamsburg’s gleaming high rises, is currently undergoing the requisite building boom. This, in anticipation of it becoming the next “upscaled” New York neighborhood. Indeed, while dusty mom and pop shops still line Metropolitan Avenue, on the hipsterizing Franklin Avenue to the west, “modern and pricey” has already displaced “authentic and local.”

Swet, it would seem, has a knack for catching the zeitgeist. Indeed, a twenty-five year vet of NYC’s nightlife scene, he boasts a pedigree that includes stints at or ownership in the likes of Balthazar, Pastis, Freemans, The Skylark, Rogue & Canon, and the recently opened Oscar Wilde Bar in Gramercy.

 

Image by Adam Pollock

 

The GRCC is fashionably simple, intimate and well done, focusing on expertly made cocktails (they make their own ice, of course), with the ingredients and names of drinks nodding to the nautical history of the area. For now the only food served is the gratis spiced popcorn that accompanies each beverage – which is a refreshing change from all those overamped bar snacks.

On a recent visit Swet divulged the secret to some of his fave new creations, while we gossiped about other buzzy new arrivals to the WGPT (consider that coined) scene.

Most notably, when Bill Murray got behind the bar at the opening of his son’s low key hotspot 21 Greenpoint (right next door to Grand Republic) the place made every media outlet in town. A year later it’s still going strong, serving up steak frites, pots of mussels and a serious brew selection.

North of Greenpoint Avenue is still on the nicely underdeveloped side, with new places just starting to pop up on Franklin. The recently revamped Brooklyn Label does the area’s most creative breakfasts, including pulled pork adobaba and Mexican hot cocoa.

It was once impossible to imagine, but now you can also do yoga in Greenpoint. Usha Veda is the most respected local studio, and they’ve just opened a plush, spacious new location on Manhattan Avenue. Grab a vegan/vegetarian bite pre- or post-yoga, just on the corner at Jungle Café.

Greenpoint will probably soon be overrun with big name hotel brands. Bur for now its two standout boutique sleeps are The Box House and Franklin Guesthouse, both mixing smart design with local, artistic charm.

 

Jungle Cafe

 

 

Exclusive Recipes From Johnny Swet’s Grand Republic Cocktail Club

 

Admiral Schley’s Punch

In a tin, muddled mint, 1 part Old Granddad Bonded Bourbon, 1 part naval strength rum, .25 Allspice dram, .5 lime, .5 lemon, .75 simple syrup. Shake over ice, strain into a tall glass, add crushed ice and garnish with a sprig of mint and a spiked lemon and lime wedge.

Cocktail La Louisiane

In a mixing glass, 2.5 parts Rittenhouse Rye, .75 Carpano Sweet Vermouth, .5 Benedictine, 3 dashes Peychaud’s Bitters, a bar spoon of Absinthe. Stir to temp with ice, strain into a coupe glass, cherry and orange twist as garnish.

Longshoreman Hot Tea

In a coffee mug, 2 part Linie Aquavit, 1 part Combier Orange, .5 honey syrup. Fill mug with hot Earl Grey tea – stir and serve with lemon wedge.

 

 

 

 

The Proper Hotel: Our New Fave San Francisco Sleep

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While there’s little chance of not finding a good hotel in San Francisco, it is not, with its close to 100K rooms, New York City; one has to do a bit of work when choosing the right place to lay one’s head. But a recent stay at the newly opened Proper Hotel – a member of Design Hotels and smack in the middle of the action on Market Street – was an almost flawless experience.

Sporting a sexy lobby and adjacent resto/bar, the rooms were compact but inviting, the view of SF’s main thoroughfare outside the arched windows both urban and urbane. True, walking that area of Market does give one an up-close look at the results of California’s benevolent attitude towards society’s less fortunate; yet once enveloped in the Proper’s hip embrace all that fades away. And from up on the hotel’s opulent rooftop bar, it was hard to really notice what was happening eight stories below (shades of Blade Runner, we know).

 

 

While we made the most of our time before heading back to chilly Manhattan – posing in front of the Grateful Dead house in the Haight, checking out the vintage shopping, grabbing vegan sushi and excellent Mexican food in the Mission, and strolling the Marina, pretending we were tech billionaires – we were genuinely excited to return to the Proper every evening.

While the room options include the typical twin, deluxe, and suite, all sumptuously turned out…they also have bunk beds! Grab a friend, split the cost, and agree that the tipsiest at the end of the night gets the bottom.

In-room amenities are select but distinct, and include individual TVs and USB ports in each bunkbed; Aesop toiletries in the loo; and handsome Vifa Helsinki wireless loudspeakers. We were also duly impressed with the extremely well stocked mini bar.

Also, we’ve been digging Shinola products for a few years now and were psyched to find that the Proper offers top-of-the-line bicycles from the Detroit based company; thankfully San Francisco has plenty of bike lanes, and at least a few streets that don’t rise at 45-degree angles.

 

 

Villon, the hotel’s ground floor restaurant, presents itself as an extension of the lobby, in which patrons spill into for drinks; very West Coast casual. The dining options are anything but, however, with baby back ribs with feuilles de brick and nuoc mam cham, and scallops with hoshigaki, XO Sauce, persimmon, and yellow yuzu kosho the standouts (we had to ask for explanations too). While their Everything Hawaiian Bread, with cultured butter, market reserves, blood orange chicken liver mousse, was new to us, we became instant fans.

New York and LA have long figured out that putting a bar on the top of a hotel, exposed to the elements, creates a FOMO mania akin to staying inside during an eclipse. Something about being high up and outside makes drinks go down so much better (not that we need much help). From the day it opened the Proper’s rooftop, Charmaine’s, has been a total scene, to the point that a line regularly forms outside the street side entrance (hotel guests get to use the much comfier inside entry). Once topside, we luxuriated around fire pits – with really fiery fire we might add – sipping fancy pants libations such as A Scratch in the Sky, which features Pierre Ferrand Ambre Cognac, Mount Gay Black Barrel rum, lemon verbena, mace, lemon, and egg whites (p.s. not that kind of mace).

It’s safe to say we had to drag ourselves back to New Year’s Eve celebrations in Manhattan. But we’re already itching to return to the Proper, especially for the impending opening of their hip new cafe La Bande. We’ll see you there.

 

An Utterly Transcendent Food + Wine Tour of New Zealand’s North Island, Part II

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On our recent epicurean visit to New Zealand, we ate and drank our way across the North Island landscape to rapturous effect. Truly, the level of excellence we encountered could hardly be conveyed.

Part I of the story detailed our time in Auckland and Waiheke Island. The second half of the trip took us to Wellington and Hawkes Bay.

 

Wellington

If, as we exclaimed within our first hours of arriving in Auckland, Seattle is the American city that most comes to mind when taking in the curved harbor and overcast skies of NZ’s largest town, then Wellington, the country’s capital, is its Portland. Also situated on the banks of an expansive body of water – in this case Wellington Harbour – it exudes a more streetwise and bohemian vibe than its cosmopolitan northern sister; and as such, the food and wine offerings took us down a more adventurous road.
Our digs for the night were the hip QT Museum Wellington, and on our first evening there we took shelter from the rain and wind – the town has actually been dubbed the windiest city on Earth – at their opulent Hippopotamus bar and restaurant. Situated on an upper floor with views of the harbor, the dazzling space, with its mirrored bar, gold chandeliers, stuffed peacock, and Louis-the-something style armchairs sort of transported us to the Ancien Regime era; we may or may not have ordered absinthe. While the dinner menu leaned traditionally French, with escargots, lamb rump, braised Wakanui beef cheeks, and gratin dauphinois dominating, we were excited to see they had vegan options, and opted for the simple and delicious salade végétalienne of quinoa, pinenuts, goji berries & baby spinach – along with an impressive bottle of NZ Pinot.

 

QT Museum Wellington
The following morning we set out to explore downtown, and were met with further evidence of the city’s mind-meld with the Pacific Northwest: its obsession with coffee. Our meeting with John, the manager and bean specialist of Mojo Coffee, had us inundated with more information on the various ways one can make, drink, and basically live a caffeinated existence than we would ever have thought existed. That the company has over 30 outlets in a city of 400K (two thirds the size of Portland) was testament to the populations’ serious caffeine jones.
A charming development in downtown Wellington has been the refurbishment of various alleyways into colorful and art infused ‘laneways.’ As traversing these walkways between streets is a great way to navigate the city, having them splashed with color and street art has brought the crowds; bars and restaurants have naturally flourished.

 

 

It was in one such vestibule that we found the perfect lunch spot in Egmont St Eatery, a light-filled modern café packed with well-dressed millennials and hipsters on laptops; as does Brooklyn and Portland, so does Wellington, apparently. The menu was a delight and we tried the fried fish tortilla with avocado mousse, cabbage, and horopito sauce, and braised paua with dirty rice, shiitake, and crispy shallots.
That evening, following an afternoon exploring the downtown shops, and then a drive into the hills to the very cool Zealandia bird sanctuary, we hit another hip laneway for dinner at the excellent Shepherd – which had us wondering if we were ever to have a questionable dining experience in NZ. Our feast of fried rice with kale, ginger, kimchi, sesame, peanuts, and fried egg and sous vide fish with miso glaze, carrot, ginger, turmeric, and saffron aioli left us in genuine epicurean contentment.

 

 

 

Hawkes Bay

For our final stop on our week-long tour, we took a 55-minute flight northeast of Wellington to the serene vineyard-and-animal-sanctuary-studded region of Hawkes Bay. Distinctly Mediterranean in look and feel, and with the best weather we encountered on our trip, HB was where the enormity of NZ’s Tolkien-like terrain was most apparent.
Lunch at Elephant Hill Winery was our first order of business, and after a delightful tour of the place with CEO Andreas Weiss, we settled in to an elegant repast of oysters and grilled game fish, squid, nam jim, bok choy, fried shallots, and pineapple, accompanied by an 2016 Elephant Hill rosé; Hawkes Bay was quick to show us its sophisticated side.

 

 

The history of HB and its largest city Napier is punctuated by a devastating event; in 1931 a cataclysmic earthquake not only leveled much of the town, but raised the land as much as eight feet, adding close to ten thousand acres of newly dry land to the area. Napier was rebuilt in the style of the time, namely art deco; and while many buildings have been subsequently remodeled, the place remains one of the most intact deco towns in the world.
It was along this quaint pastel backdrop that we strolled on our first evening, eventually alighting for dinner at the thoroughly 21st Century restaurant Bistronomy. Chef James Beck guided us through the menu, which verged on the molecular, without being too ionospherey (Parks & Recreation reference). Sections named Protein, Raw, and Minerals sounded more daunting than they were – our grilled flounder with beetroot & horseradish hollandaise was pretty much as advertised, and wonderful, while the chocolate brownie with lavender, sour mousse, and condensed milk sorbet, while equally amazing, did actually verge on the surreal.

 

 

The following day had us up and out of our rooms at the charming art deco (natch) Masonic Hotel, for a tour of the town, which culminated in lunch at Mister D. To say that this writer is a Rolling Stones fan would be to dredge up that annoying trope about the Pope and Catholicism; we were thusly thrilled that the restaurant was named for their song “Dancing With Mister D” – they even throw annual Stones-themed dining events. Having thus decided this was the best restaurant on Earth, we almost forgot about the food. But we were delighted with their novel takes on the basics: rocket salad, roast fish, poached eggs and the like were all treated with reverence and a touch of whimsy – and their signature doughnuts were a huge hit.

 

 

On our last evening on the island we were treated to the most opulent epicurean experience of the trip, in the form of a progressive dinner. For the uninitiated a “progressive” is where you go to a different restaurant for each course, which may sound like a bit of work; but when the places you go are all highly-regarded wineries – and you’re ferried around in an SUV by a bloke named Gareth who keeps filling your champagne glass – you easily rise to the challenge.
We started with bubbly at the top of a mountain range and progressed through antipasto at Vidal, entrees of Te Mata mushroom and Comté pithivier with wild weed salad and Hohepa haloumi, vine roasted beetroot and burnt honey at Craggy Range’s Terroir restaurant, all accompanied by signature selections of vino, before succumbing to dessert at NZ’s oldest winery, Mission Estate. Established in 1851 by French missionaries, the estate is in the grand tradition of mansion wineries, with a plantation style great house with wraparound terrace, where we took our crème brulee and port, for a final look at the cascading mountains in the distance. It was not the first time we’d thought of postponing our flight home.