Sybaritic New Orleans: Three Days of Bananas Foster, Ritual Massages and, Yes, Old School Jazz

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International House Hotel

 

New Orleans emanates the sort of magic, myth and mystery that lures you to explore it with indelible gusto. And while we have covered its inspirational side and its spookier side, our most recent visit saw us indulging in something a bit more sybaritic.

The city has been celebrating its 300th birthday, with parties and events galore; and with dapper party hats donned, we immersed ourselves in not just its culture and history, but also its ability to seduce at every turn. We delightfully sauntered, meandered, drank, dined and indulged – especially at its ghoulishly delightful Voodoo Music + Arts Experience. Though things took a turn towards the more heady as we took in the dazzling 16th and 17th Century works of the The Orléans Collection at NOMA.

Here’s what we did.

 

A Stylish Stay

International House Hotel (IHH) was the very first boutique property in NOLA, fitted into a historic, landmark building dating to 1906 (its previous life was as the world’s first international trade center). Preserving its Beaux-Arts style, the hotel greets you with its soaring ceilings and ornate pilasters; owner Sean Cummings and interior designer LM Pagano collaborated to further imbue the space with such elegant flourishes as pressed tin ceilings, opulent chandeliers, wrought iron tables, and antique velvet furnishings – all of which evoke elemental New Orleans. Each of the 117 rooms, suites and penthouses deftly juxtapose sexy sophistication and soothing serenity. And its situated on the cusp of the French Quarter.

 

 

Maestro of Mixology

The International House’s Loa Bar (the name refers to deities or holy spirits) is a sanctuary of showstopping sips, with lasciviously rouge-y digs that are complete with sensual mood lighting. Alan Walter, the Creative Director and Mixologist – they call him “Spirit Handler” – endeavors to respect, educate and honor divine spirits through his apothecary inspired cocktail program. For special events (such as Fet Gede, aka All Souls Day, or the biggie, St. John’s Eve), he’ll get the blessings, consultation and guidance from local Vodou High Priestess Sallie Ann Glassman to craft special drinks that are tied to the celebratory ceremonies. But the Loa menu is inventive and imaginative all year round. High praise for our favorites: Cicada (Vodka, crème de cacao, crème de menthe, cucumber) and the Arabesque (reposado tequila, plantain, fino sherry, thyme).

Spiritual Serenity

The Voodoo Ritual massage at the Ritz Carlton New Orleans weaves the history and culture of voodoo into its treatments. For this unique therapeutic service, staff used locally made herbal poultices that were rhythmically and methodically kneaded over our entire bodies. It was coupled with a surround sound blend of voodoo chants and beats, as we became one with ourselves and the elements, while inhaling aromas of absinthe, vetiver, cypress and moss. We happily submitted mind, body and soul for this truly profound and culturally immersive treatment.

 

 

Tableside Martini Service

Dickie Brennan’s, one of New Orleans’ revered culinary institutions, left us in a hazy gastronomic stupor. Their steakhouse fare is given a Creole and/or Cajun twist, with feature favorites including BBQ shrimp, bone marrow pie, and prime cowboy ribeye. But even better? Glorious, bygone-era showmanship via their Tableside Martini Service. Our poison of choice? The ultra-luxe Black & Gold Martini, with Hendrick’s Gin, Cajun Caviar stuffed olives and edible 24K gold-leaf. Swank.

Epicurean Euphoria

Not to play favorites, but Restaurant R’evolution is NOLA gourmand grandeur at its absolute finest. In the heart of the French Quarter, the interior pays style homage to the classic dining rooms of the St. Charles Avenue mansions of the 1800s, from the inviting ambiance of the Market Room, to the bar themed like a French Quarter carriageway, illuminated by gas lanterns. The food is a “modern interpretation of Creole and Cajun classics,” under the direction of James Beard Award winning Chefs John Folse and Rick Tramonto. Gracious, thoughtful service accompanied imaginative dishes like crab stuffed frogs legs, boudin stuffed quail enveloped in a heady gumbo, seared sea scallops with foie gras, and wonderfully light sheep ricotta gnocchi with lobster. Dessert was also a decadent treat, especially the Creole Cream Cheese Bread Pudding Crème Brûlée. (N.B. their Coravin system allows one to sample rare vintages by the glass).

 

 

Legs and Eggs

At SoBou, brunch is kicked up about a thousand notches. We loved their soulful renditions of street food classics: cracklings, pork belly baos, shrimp po’boys, and crab beignets; but we also took in their famous Burlesque Brunch show. In an homage to the popular clubs of the 1940s, sultry Bella Blue revived the beloved art form, set to live music. Meanwhile, Chef Juan Carlos Gonzalez seduced us with a three course menu, complete with Brunch Hooch Punch. Our faves included the cochon de lait deviled eggs and blackened geaux fish with asparagus & corn risotto & confit garlic whipped cream. And it went without saying that we would order the cherries jubilee & white chocolate bread pudding for dessert. It’s cooked to order, and while we were patiently waiting through its 25-minute preparation, we took time to fully appreciate the ambiance – echoing its former life as a heritage pharmacy, with old bottles decoratively lining the walls.

Foster the Banana People

Brunch at Brennan’s is an institution, with pillowy, fluffy biscuits, spiced turtle soup, and lip-smacking fried chicken with cornbread waffles. But it was the tableside bananas foster that we were most dazzled by. Flambéed right before our eyes was a gooey, boozed-up brown sugar + butter mix that’s carefully draped with vanilla bean ice cream and warmed banana slices. Better still, this star staple is getting a makeover – as Brennan’s is in the process of producing its own banana liqueur and rum. Not a fan of bananas? We also tried their fanciful rendition of black forest cake – a plump, chocolate shaped cherry stuffed with delicate mousse and placed on chocolate “soil.” It was a cherry-bomb of textures and tastes.

 

 

Brunching + Biking 

Over at the new hotel The Eliza Jane, on-site restaurant Couvant‘s brasserie-styled space offers sophisticated yet approachable regional French cuisine – with a seasonal, locally sourced menu conceived by Chef Brad McDonald. Here, we happily tucked into buxom brioche slathered with homemade ricotta & jam, hearty granola (oats, pecans, roasted peaches), soft & sexy omelettes stuffed with chevril, chives and tarragon, and gloriously golden-brown pain perdu farci, stuffed with bird’s custard. We “rode” it off with one of the city’s Free Wheelin’ Bike Tours, which offers guided cycling through beloved NOLA neighborhoods. We highly recommend the three-hour Garden District Tour (with gregarious guide Teddy), where we got to eye a few celebrity homes (Peyton Manning, Sandra Bullock), 19th century Antebellum mansions, Lafayette Square, and Coliseum Square Park… to name a few highlights.

French Quarter Photography Fix

Since 1973, A Gallery for Fine Photography has been a landmark fixture in the French Quarter. Independently owned and operated by photographer Joshua Mann Pailet, it features two floors of visionary, meticulously curated collections, with a rotating gallery of featured photographers. The more than 3500 photos include works by legends like Henri Cartier-Bresson and Ansel Adams. The perfect antidote to the “fast photos” of social media, we felt as if we were immersing ourselves in the whole history of photography – and left with a profound new appreciation for the art form.

 

 

Authentic NOLA Souvenirs

The city is certainly not lacking for talented artisans/craftspeople. And we visited Hazelnut for New Orleans Toile fabrics and other authentic home goods; Krewe, where NOLA native Stirling Barrett crafts killer shades and colorful handmade eyewear; and Mignon Faget, hand-crafted jewelry whose family roots stretch back to the 18th century.

Spiritual Retreat

Spearheaded by the aforementioned High Priestess Sallie Ann Glassman, the New Orleans Healing Center is a holistic, safe, sustainable space that aims to “educate, heal, fulfill and empower the individual and the community.” Eager to understand more about the Vodou religion, we learned that it relates to “promoting physical, nutritional, emotional, intellectual, environmental and spiritual well-being.” Her Fet Gede Celebration is a procession centered upon feeding and honoring the dead, or as she explained it, “By honoring the deceased, we embrace the meaning of our own lives and open space for generations yet to come.”

All That New Orleans Jazz

We made a point to soak up the live sounds at the historic Preservation Hall, where, since 1961, they’ve endeavored to “protect, preserve and perpetuate traditional New Orleans Jazz.” Every night, NOLA’s finest channel the city’s musical legacy, stretching all the way back to the genesis of jazz itself. Best of all, no phones are allowed; it’s one of the rare instances where the musicians implore you to be present in the moment and just enjoy their vibrant living history. From Dixieland to swing tributes, the spirit of Louis Armstrong lives on gloriously in this place.

 

 

 

 

BlackBook Layover: 42 Hours in Dazzling Doha

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Situated on the Arabian Peninsula, Qatar is a nation that captivates the senses with its endless wonders. Wanderlusters and jetsetters take note: this country is the next emerging hotspot, especially when all eyes are on Doha (the capital city), whose current priority endeavors have been mostly about prepping for the FIFA 2022 World Cup. His Highness Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani has been the driving force behind it all; his visionary efforts and governing responsibilities (taking over for his father as of June 2013) have resulted in the nation’s immense growth and development, with everything that goes along with that.

In fact, Qatar is one of the fastest growing economies in the world. It’s mostly been about oil – but this has recently afforded the young nation (independence was gained in 1971) opportunities for expansion into other industries such as aviation and tourism.

The best way to get a feel for it is to pull an Anthony Bourdain, and plan a layover. Especially since those travelers who opt to stop for 24-72 hours when flying with Qatar Airways, can do it at no extra cost – and enjoy year-round sunshine, a bourgeoning cultural scene and celeb chef restaurants galore.

Here’s what we did.

 

 

Arrive

Land at Hamad International Airport in the evening. Opened in 2014, it is a state-of-the-art, 40,000 square foot facility, whose undulating ripple design was conceived by HOK. The captivating structure is only bolstering Doha’s reputation as a world-class destination…but looks aren’t all: with an emphasis on wellbeing and relaxation, facility features here include a rejuvenation lounge, and wellness area, pool, squash court and spa. You won’t find that at Laguardia.

Sleep

Four Seasons Doha is the epitome of palatial pleasure. If it’s not the attentive and thoughtful service, the private Arabian Gulf Beach access, or the bevy of fine fare to feast upon (which includes 10 bars and restaurants, along with impromptu visits from culinary legends like Chef Nobu Matsuhisa) that get you hooked – those sprawling suite accommodations, cushy king sized beds and airy balconies that overlook the shining waters definitely will.

 

 

Morning

Visit the Museum of Islamic Art (MIA). While approaching, be dazzled by “the eyes of Doha – conceived by visionary architect I.M. Pei – whose “gaze” peers out into the infinite beauty of the city’s Corniche waterfront, situated on the Arabian Gulf. Inside, 14 centuries of fine art and artifacts from across the Islamic world are housed under this one roof. And best of all, admission to permanent galleries (and guided tours) are free; only the specialty shows require an admission fee.
Brunch at Alain Ducasse’s IDAM inside MIA, his very first restaurant in the Middle East. Be welcomed with refined service, artistic plating and a cultural melange of French Mediterranean cuisine, with a heady Arabic twist. Most indicative of this? The wow-worthy flavorgasm of their tender camel dish, infused with foie gras and black truffles, completed with souffléed potatoes.

 

 

Afternoon

The newly minted Qatar National Library which opened in late April of this year is not only an educational hub, but a living artistic entity. The open concept design, conceived by OMA, is futuristically approachable, with touch screens and shelving robots. The library is anchored with its showstopping “excavation site”; made to look like an archaeological dig, it houses their cherished Heritage Collection, which consists of texts and manuscripts that stretch back to Arab-Islamic antiquity. Peruse the shelves and cozy up with a good book and turmeric latte from Safahat, their on-site café.
Situated in the center of Doha, Souq Waqif is a traditional cultural hub founded over a century ago where locals still love to congregate and socialize. The marketplace was renovated in 2006 to preserve its hallmark Qatari architecture. Here, a plethora of wares can be found, everything from live falcons to fanciful frocks; the infinite bustling alleyways and shops could tire out even the most ardent of shopaholics. And be on the lookout for antique goods and lively streetside auctions.
Then sit and soak up the atmosphere at Aspire Park, a stunning oasis that many aquatic animals call home for locals and visitors, it is a resplendent retreat from the bustle of daily life. First opened in 2006 for the Asian Games, today, the social space is perfect for soaking up lush greenery, playing sports, jogging and people watching. Our favorite spot is settling beside the tranquility of the streaming foundations, which allows us to delight in even more of Doha.

Souq Waqif

 

Evening

Local merchant boats called dhow have been afforded a second life. Today, visitors can sail away on these traditional wooden vessels in Corniche Bay, which evokes the country’s seafaring past and provenance as pearl divers. Then take a short stroll through the green pedestrian zone and watch out for a dazzling display of color; gloriously illuminated at night, Doha’s Corniche is a waterfront promenade of 2.7 miles (from its central business direct to West Bay) and offers progressive skyline vistas.
Get glammed up and head over to the W Hotel for a tapas-style dinner at Spice Market. A Jean-Georges restaurant, the menu and concept is helmed by Executive Chef Alvrie Manangka, who offers diners a culinary sojourn into Southeast Asian food. Share everything family style and be transported from one country to another via your tastebuds. Dining delights include shrimp, foie + truffle shumai; wagyu cheeks with yuzu plum glaze and spiced peanut brittle; and roasted black sea bass fillet with Cambodian-style curry sauce.

 

dhow

 

Morning Farewell

Before making your way back to the airport, explore the desert with an exciting sand dune bashing safari, ideally done when the sun is just beginning to peak up over the horizon. We recommend going with Q- Explorer, whose founders (born and bred Qataris Abdullah and Hameed) know the roller-coaster terrain like the back of their hands.
Finish the adventure with a serenity-inducing swim in the Inland Sea (Khor Al Adaid), an opulent natural wonder and UNESCO recognized nature reserve with its own ecosystem.
Qatar’s bucolic beauty, immersive experiences and deep reverence for longstanding tradition and culture makes a short stay a little difficult. But we were promising our return before we even checked out.

 

 

 

BlackBook Rooms w/ a View: Hotel Excelsior Dubrovnik

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Dubrovnik is an absolutely stunning confluence of historic provenance and natural beauty. So who could blame us for readily making return trips here? Especially when we’re entering low-season – when the onslaught of tourists has dissipated, and you can relish the city’s beauty without the usual overcrowding.

Perhaps our fave place to lay our heads there is the 5-star Hotel Excelsior Dubrovnik (part of the Adriatic Luxury Hotels collection), whose glorious cliffside outpost along the Adriatic Sea continues to captivate and seduce.

The hotel was erected in 1913, with prime views of the UNESCO World Heritage protected Old City (a mere 5 minute walking distance away); but this old-soul doesn’t give away its age easily. The once royal property (called Villa Odak) was recently given restorative and renovated love, with a chic refurbishment of its 158 rooms.

 

 

And TLC it justly deserves, as it remains a living, breathing vestige of cultural significance. Today, the two halves of the hotel co-habitat with grace; the original wing greeted famous guests such as Elizabeth Taylor and Queen Elizabeth II…and the new tower section (built in the 1960s), recently hosted the cast and crew of a little show called Game of Thrones.

The attention to detail begins even before you see your room, when you first step into the airy, art-adorned lobby – which affords some of the property’s most awe-inspiring vistas. You’ll readily cultivate a Balkan state-of-mind when the panoramic dynamism of the Dalmatian coast and sunny sapphire skies engulf you at every turn.

All the room and suites have been laced with a fresh contemporary aesthetic – whose vision was spearheaded by local designers Studio Franić Šekoranja. All-at-once minimalist yet elegant and richly appointed, the focus is very much on those covet-worthy views of the Adriatic Sea. Principals Dean Franic and Saša Šekoranja note that they strived to mirror the beauty of the natural environment, appointing the rooms with honey-blond furnishings and ocean blue accents. Velvet seating adds a luxe touch to each chamber.

 

 

Our favorite part? With a signature Hendricks Rose cocktail in hand, it is exercising the art of fjaka and retreating to our private balcony terrace that overlooks the coast and Otok Lokrum island.

And if we’re segueing into the epicurean, we loved their in-house restaurant Sensus, for Chef Petar Obad’s modern interpretation of Mediterranean classics. We’re still relishing that grilled Dalmatian lobster + unctuous foie gras dish. But if you’re feeling bold, we urge you to leave the decision-making with the chef himself, who’ll take you on a multi-coursed, gastronomic journey with local, renowned Croatian wines to match – everything from Dingač to Postup to Plavac Mali will allow you to traverse the beauty of this country via what’s in your glass.

Or if you fancy yourself an elegant patio scenario, grab a table at Prora Beach Restaurant, a darling, stone-covered nook that oozes romance. You will thank yourself for indulging in their seafood paella, which features a fisherman’s bounty of plump grilled shrimp, mussels, scallops on the half shell, and sweet squid on a bed of delicate couscous.

 

 

If you’re hungry for adventure, the concierge desk arranges bespoke trips that connect you with local artisans and community-minded citizens. One of the highlights is a day trip through Pelješac Peninsula, which includes a visit to a Ston oyster farm, and a flight tasting at the legendary Grgich Winery; it all culminates with a feast at Antunovic Family Farm. The luncheon features traditional braised lamb and veal shank, Croatian peka bread, charcuterie, donkey cheese and milk, and walnut liqueur…all lovingly homemade.

If you’ve just closed that IPO, however, we strenuously advise staying at their sister property Villa Agave, which is conveniently situated next door. Like your own private piece of paradise, the sprawling property happened to be a favorite “home away from home” of director Francis Ford Coppola.

It comes with private catered meals, a sprawling hot tub, luxurious swimming pool, secluded cliffside beach, and on-site spa treatments from Hotel Excelsior’s Energy Clinic, out on the terrace, while enjoying views of the sunset.

Like the Pearl of the Adriatic itself, old and new worlds readily converge to produce an inimitable experience at Hotel Excelsior. And it’s especially lovely here in autumn.

 

 

BlackBook Rooms With a View: The Motif Seattle Hotel

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The Emerald City is where art, nature, culture, and quirkiness uniquely collide – which is why we’re always so drawn to it.

Most recently we took up at Motif Seattle: A Destination Hotel there (part of the Destination Hotels collection) – most especially for the views. The four-year old boutique property just underwent a $10 million dollar makeover, and the space exudes a Pacific Northwestern charm that speaks perfectly to its location. Situated on Fifth Avenue between Pike and Union Streets, it’s nestled in the heart of downtown, and is quickly accessible to the landmark attractions: Olympic Mountains, Space Needle, Pike Place Market, and Chihuly Garden.

First constructed in the 1940s, the building housing the Motif was once home to the People’s World Bank Headquarters…hence its rather modest looking grey facade. However, the adage that “it’s what’s inside that counts” certainly holds true here.

 

 

Best feature: many of the 319 stylish guest rooms have sweeping views of the shoreline and mountains. The suites, especially, were made over by Degen & Degen, and Managing Principal for Interiors Anita Degen explains that “for us, it was an opportunity to design from the heart, and be able to throw out the rulebook.” We loved how each floor greets you with a Seattle scene or landmark, taken by a local photographer. And upon entering the rooms, each one is graced with natural woods, citrine wallpaper, ash carpeting – as a nod to the overcast days – and a “rainy day corner,” where guests can hang up their (likely soaking) outdoor gear. They exude a mix of funky urbanism and woodland outdoorsy-ness.

A nice touch? Coffee table books that showcase song lyrics from exalted Seattle musicians, from Jimi Hendrix to Macklemore, and album covers turned art mosaic pieces.

The city’s tekkies are also catered to: the hotel is installing Alexa embedded technology into all of the rooms, where everything from ordering breakfast in bed to private yoga sessions with Live Love Flow on the rooftop is as easy as saying, “Alexa, can you…?” But for those just seeking rest, rooms offer guests a new “Sleep Well in Seattle” in-room amenity, that includes vials of SOM sleep formula and lavender oil to ease your body into a restful slumber.

 

 

But for nightowls, Motif also marries music and drink at the 5th floor Frolik Kitchen + Cocktails, where you can not only seek happy hour on the outdoor patio, but groove to local bands such as The Fame Riot, while sipping on Millionaire cocktails (top shelf mixes such as their Best Martini Ever, that features Nolet’s reserve gin, and Cocchi Americano Bianco – and will set you back at least two Benjamins). Accompanying nibbles include the sublime Frolik Dungeness Crab Tots, which sees their potato taters fried to a golden brown glory, tossed with old bay seasoning, slathered with cheese sauce and topped with a mountain of locally caught Dungeness crab.

For the artistically inclined, there’s also the Motif’s Visiting Artist Program, another way of injecting local talent into the DNA of the hotel. This year it’s Julie Conway, who uses fire and glass to create objects with multifaceted beauty, including jewelry, light fixtures, flatware, restaurant interior decor, museum installations and so on. In fact, her artistry is reflected in the hotel’s logo itself, envelopes, guest amenities, key cards and stationary – which are revamped every two years when a new artist takes residency.

Though it hardly need be said – it seems we have a new favorite hotel in The Emerald City.

 

 

 

From Anchovies in Dubrovnik to Donuts in Zagreb: An Exquisite Culinary Whirl Through Croatia

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Panorama Restaurant & Bar, Dubrovnik

 

Carving out enchantment in Croatia isn’t difficult – but visits to this pearl of the Adriatic Sea should absolutely extend beyond the more obvious cities of Dubrovnik and Zagreb. Indeed, in this ethereal land known for its otherworldly sites – as vividly depicted in Game of Thrones – there’s so much more to see.

We took the Kompas Adriatic Cruise on M/S Stella Maris, the compact luxury ship that allows for unprecedented access to sights and delights of those lesser known gems. Beginning in Dubrovnik and sailing north towards its final port-of-call in Poreč, the ship’s gracious and knowledgeable staff complement unique personal touches like lively info sessions, surprise island detours, and Croatian language lessons.

 

M/S Stella Maris

 

We were admittedly on a gastronomic mission – and thankfully, there’s an ocean’s worth of culinary gems at every stop.

Croatian fare is something of a crossroads of diversity and regional specificity, perhaps most easily divided up by coastal and mainland/continental fare. The former utilizes a lot of fresh seafood (squid, shrimp, lobster, octopus) and plenty of their award-winning Croatian olive oil – which is enhanced by an ample dose of fresh herbs and spices (think oregano, marjoram, cinnamon, rosemary); you’ll also recognize quite a lot of Mediterranean influences and resemblances to Greek and Italian (Venetian) cuisines.

 

Hvar

 

The latter is heavily characterized by Slavic influences, as well as some Austrian, Hungarian, and Turkish (due to proximity and historical rule). You’ll see meat, fresh-water fish and vegetable dishes fortified by headier ingredients such as sweet paprika, roasted garlic and black pepper; and moreover, instead of olive oil, it’s sunflower oil and/or animal fats, such as pork lard for cooking and frying.

Highlights in the overall include cheese made from fresh sheep or goat’s milk from the Island of Pag, spicy sausages (kulen) from Slavonia, Dalmatian prosciutto, truffles from Istria…we could go on.

Here were some of the highlights.

 

Dubrovnik

Take the cable car up Srđ Hill and soak up sweeping panoramic views of the Old City of Dubrovnik, the island of Lokrum, the bay of Lapad, and the Elaphite Islands. Perched atop the hill is Panorama Restaurant and Bar; and considering your location along the Dalmatian coast – here, you must exercise your gustatory duty to eat freshly caught seafood. We recommend the Dalmatian Trilogy, a swimmingly delicious trio of octopus, marinated shrimps, and anchovies – best enjoyed with a glass of summer à la Grgić Pošip (2015).

 

Panorama Restaurant & Bar

 

Mljet

Take a stroll through Mljet National Park – this cherished green island oasis is situated on the Dalmatian south. It is the oldest national park along the Adriatic sea and hosts a wealth of flora and fauna, along with two unique features: the Great Lake and Small Lake. The latter on which you can take a small boat over to the Isle of St. Mary, where the 12th century Benedictine monastery awaits. The building is a bit of an anomaly; due to it being redesigned numerous times, architectural styles collide: Renaissance meets Romanesque meets Baroque. For a break from the history lesson, wander down to Restaurant Melita. With views overlooking the lake, enjoy a romantic meal on the terrace with local cheeses, black risotto and our favorite, grilled mljet lobster.

Korčula

Millenia-old winemaking traditions are revered here. So a visit and chat with Mr. Branimir Cebalo in his Lumbarda vineyard at Grk Cebalo is very much in order. Located about two miles from the Old Town of Korčula, they offer tours of the grounds and wine tasting: we recommend his Grk white wine, which offers reserved intensity and is gorgeously layered. Then make your way back to the shoreline to Lešić Dimitri Palace Restaurant – or more simply, LD Terrace. It recently entered the Michelin Guide and their Dalmatian fare with contemporary flourishes ideally complements the patio-perfect views of the Adriatic Sea. We recommend the gambero rosso & rose galić dish, which features local sweet, raw prawns, and a lush bisque that’s finished with a drizzle of herb-infused oil.

 

Lešić Dimitri Palace Restaurant 

 

Hvar

You probably know it as the island where international celebs and folks with fancy yachts congregate; but beyond the ritzy-glitz, there’s authenticity and charm waiting to be discovered. Wander the streets of this seaside town and make your way over to the Španjola, a Spanish fortress built in the 15th and 16th centuries. As you stand on historic antiquity, take in sunny views of the quaint town, the Adriatic and nearby the Pakleni Islands. Then head to the local Hvar Market for a basket of the freshest, sweetest strawberries you’ve ever tasted in your life. Sometimes life’s simple pleasures are just as sublime.

Split

Part of the Dalmatia region, this bustling city is the second-largest in Croatia and spread over a central peninsula. Head below ground for a brief respite from the crowds, explore the palatial rooms beneath the surface of a Roman Emperor’s namesake Diocletian’s Palace, deemed a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage site. Then, wander over to the chic and lively Bokeria Kitchen and Wine bar for stellar Croatian wines (we recommend a medium-bodied white Stina vugava, from Brač); pair with the smoked and charred octopus, made with sweet stewed chickpeas and tomatoes.

 

Bokeria Kitchen 

 

Primošten

Located in the northeast town of Sibenik, Krka National Park is accessible nature at its finest. It’s a natural karst phenomena and rich in endemic species, but allows for leisurely strolls due to the many wooden paths. There are 360°views of lush forestry, streams, and seven waterfalls to behold –  of which the most famous and stunningly beautiful is Skradinski buk. After a jaunty workout, grab a seat by the sheltered overwater patio at Konoba Toni. The mixed grill is a must and features locally caught orada (sea bass), brancin (sea bream), calamari, clams, and shrimp. Fresh, sweet and tender – all else that’s required is a drizzle of local Croatian olive oil, lemon and salt.

Zadar

Situated along the Dalmatian coast, the past and present greet one another with a cool connectedness. With over 3000 years of history, a wander through the Old City of Zadar and you’ll be face-to-face with Roman forum ruins. Then encounter the present/future with art installations by Nikola Bašić along the coastline, which feature his psychedelic solar-powered Greetings to the Sun and water-symphonic Sea Organ. Then, get an ample fill of people watching on the patio of Pet Bunara as you tuck into Croatian-Mediterranean fare such as stuffed calamari that’s filled to the gills with a mixture of barley, Dalmatian bacon, goat cheese, fish sauce, capers and chives. And remember to take a peek inside the restaurant itself; its digs are built upon the archaeological ruins of the Old City walls – which you can see through their glass floor.

 

Pet Bunara

 

Rovinj

It’s hard to resist the charms of this impossibly romantic town. Situated on the western coast of the Istrian Peninsula, Rovinj’s Old City is a basket weave of narrow winding cobbled streets, stone archways, flower-dotted window sills, and a central harbor lined with little batanas. Wander up to the foot of the Church of St. Euphemia for inspired views, baroque architecture and insights into its famed namesake martyr; then snake down around the back (with swimsuit in tow) to the Plaža Baluota and its swimming nook. Enjoy the crystal waters of the Adriatic Sea and views of neighboring Katarina and Banjol islands. Afterwards, head over to Gelateria Italia for baseball-sized scoops of gelato (two, if you please) – obvious winners are the pistachio and the Crema Siciliana (blood orange).

Zagreb

From that final port of call of Poreč, opt to venture into Zagreb, the capital – the three-hour drive meanders through majestic mountains and evergreen farmlands. Upon arrival, make your way over to St. Mark’s Church, and don’t be surprised to be surrounded by numerous wedding parties and a sea of brides in white waiting their turn outside in the courtyard to tie the knot at this historic 13th century gem. To this day, it is picture-perfect, even though a portion of the building was constructed in 1880; it still features the medieval coats of arms of Croatia, Dalmatia and Slavonia, and the emblem of Zagreb. Ironically, the Museum of Broken Relationships happens to be situated a few feet away from all the “happily-ever-after” related going-ons. If the name isn’t enough of a giveaway, it showcases stories of heartbreak from all over the world. If you consider that the love of food is the most reliable form of affection, seek it out a block over and dine at local favorite Konoba Didov San, for Croatian comfort food. The restaurant inside is a tiny, cozy nook of a spot but in warm weather, seek out patio pleasures with charming views of the neighborhood and the Magdalenić-Drašković-Jelačić Palace. Try the Snails à la Dida – plump puževi sit in a rich gravy that includes roasted garlic and onion, and it’s served with crunchy polenta that’s riddled with crispy lardons. But true love will be found in the form of their fried fluffy donuts, served with their exquisite homemade cheese – the perfectly delicious ending to a delectable tour of culinary Croatia.

 

St. Mark’s Church

 

 

 

D.C. Power Stay: The Storied Willard Intercontinental Gets a Swish Makeover

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What do the Dalai Lama, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Abraham Lincoln all have in common? Aside from the notably obvious fact that they were/are all unparalleled visionaries and history-changing leaders, they have all stayed at the legendary Willard InterContinental in Washington, D.C. – a hotel which has left its own significant mark on history. More recently, it has been the choice of the likes of Tom Cruise and George Clooney.

Now, despite the perpetually contentious political environment we’re embroiled in (with our over-tweeting, 3D-gun-blueprint-endorsing president ever looming over Pennsylvania Avenue) we unequivocally believe that this is as good a time as ever to visit our nation’s capitol. And the Willard offers charm, charisma and the best opportunity for real historic immersion.

Actually located right in the heart of all the political machinations, the luxury hotel with its Beaux-Arts style atmosphere has also affectionately earned the title “Residence of Presidents” – as it has hosted nearly every American POTUS since Franklin Pierce in 1853. But its cultural proximity is also impressive, so near as it is to the Renwick Gallery, Ford’s Theatre, Spy Museum and the National Museum of African American History and Culture.

 

International Spy Museum

 

This year, there’s even more cause for celebration, as The Willard is throwing its own 200th birthday fête throughout 2018. In honor of its storied bicentennial, it was recently given a 6-month, $18 million dollar renovation. 335 guestrooms and suites, along with their respective corridors, have been refreshed by Parker-Torres Design – and we loved how the look is transitional, straddling the line between contemporary and classic…which was intentional. Miriam Torres, Principal at the design and interior architectural firm notes that “our most important objective was to respect the history of this Grand Dame hotel.”

And indeed, upgrades are aplenty, while it is apparent that they preserved the soul and integrity of the spaces. Classic guest rooms exhibit sophistication with peacock blue tones, gold, and ivory; meanwhile, the sprawling suites utilize warm creams, beiges and chocolate browns. Opulence comes by way of luxe drapery, textured wallpaper, crystal chandeliers and marble showers. Rooms are also amongst the largest in the city, with sizes ranging from a comfortable 375 sq.ft. to a palatial 3000 sq.ft.

 

 

Of the pied-à-terre styled guestrooms, our favorites would have to be the Oval and Jenny Lind suites. The former’s curvaceous sitting room is accented with regal red and offers sweeping views of Pennsylvania Avenue; the latter is a frequently requested room for brides-to-be (and was recently featured in the film The Greatest Showman); graced with robin’s egg blue tones, it’s decorated with more feminine flourishes, including a cushy canopy bed that’s situated under a domed cupola, and a serenity-inducing sunken jacuzzi.

If you’re able to tear yourself away from the plush rooms and their views of Lincoln Memorial, Jefferson Memorial, and the US Capitol building, then wander down to the main lobby for teatime in Peacock Alley. Posh but unstuffy and with notably friendly service, it offers bespoke brews from J’enwey Tea Co.’s owner Lisa Marie. And of course, there’s the famous meltingly-tender scones that are best smeared with cloud-like clotted cream and zippy housemade lemon curd.

Or for a culinary détente with our great ally France, there’s the recently renovated Café du Parc. Decor hallmarks include orb lighting, French-brasserie style tables, and navy blue banquettes – while on the menu, crafted by Chef Guy Ododi, stand-out delicacies include gloriously gooey french onion soup, seared scallops, decadent beef bourguignon and lobster + lamb (a refined take on surf and turf, in our humble opinion). Cafe du Parc also features a popular outdoor patio, with ice cream and crepe cart.

 

 

The adjacent Occidental Grill is considered a DC dining institution, and its illustrious history dates back over 110 years – evidenced by walls that are lined with portraits of famous faces. The menu and food philosophy was conceived by chef Jake Addeo, who’s cooked alongside greats such as Fortunato Nicotra and Lidia Bastianich. Obvious staples include their popular Roseda Farm dry-aged NY Strip Steak; but it’s the intermingling of the flavors of Italia and America that defines the experience, with favorites such as the sinfully unctuous burrata and pan-seared ricotta gnocchi with white asparagus cream.

Finally, a stay at the Willard really should include a History Happy Hour visit to the Round Robin Bar. Held every month, it’s a hands-on mixology event lead by beloved barman Jim Hewes. We learned how the Mint Julep was introduced in the mid-1800s by statesman Henry Clay – and today it’s the Willard’s signature drink, successfully quenching the thirst of over 20,000 guests and visitors annually.

You can visit D.C., take in the culture, and forget our current troubles for a bit with a walk through the hotel’s historic on-site gallery and museum. Being face to face with wise and humble leaders who championed camaraderie and cooperation amongst one another for the good of the country actually gave us a bit of hope; and with any luck, the tides will turn and we’ll soon have a chance to return to those days of civility, respect, and honor – those qualities so perfectly embodied by the Willard.

 

 

From Adelaide to McLaren Vale: The Ultimate South Australia Eating & Drinking Guide

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It’s appetites of audacious proportions in South Australia, as we discovered on a recent whirl through its epicurean highlights.

The state has long held a reputation for its wilderness wonders and adventurous inducements; and now this philosophy has trickled into gastronomic glories. In a mere 5-10 years, there’s been a surge of gourmands showcasing their delectable wares to locals and the world over. And why not? It has been long revered as a wine wonderland…so it only makes sense that all things culinary rise to the occasion of such fine sips.

Industry insiders such as Jonathan Milne of Barossa Taste Sensations explain that it has indeed progressed from rudimentary to ravishing. And the diversity of pleasures is endless: from the boutique cosmopolitan blessings of Adelaide city, to the neighboring and acclaimed wine regions of Barossa and Mclaren Vale, to the sandy, sun-soaked beaches of the Fleurieu Peninsula, there’s much to behold and digest.

Our recent gustatory mission played out thusly…

 

Adelaide

Adelaide Central Market

Since 1869, this beloved market has been a haven for chefs and locals seeking premium food and wine products. All locally sourced, there are about 90 artisan / mom & pop run shops under one roof. We urge you to begin your epicurean journey here and sign up for a Markets Highlight tour. Consider it an orientation of sorts – ideally guided by Mark Gleeson, founder of Adelaide Central Market Tours. In addition to tasting fine fare from local purveyors (such as smoked kangaroo and triple-crème cheese), you’ll get the full scope of the bounty that South Australia has to offer – and it’s a prime place to connect with locals, get a glimpse of everyday life, and ask for recommendations. If you’re keen to bring home tasty souvenirs, gift yourself (they ship internationally) one of their Williams and Taylor Hampers that is brimming with goodies (oils, spreads, crackers, chocolates, etc.) from the Adelaide Hills and Fleurieu Peninsula regions.

 

 

Parwana Afghan Restaurant

In Torrensville, a suburb of Adelaide and about 10 minutes west of the downtown core, is the Parwana Afghan Restaurant, a family-run affair that has turned tragedy into triumph. Zelmai and his wife Farida Ayubi fled from Afghanistan in 1987 in the midst of the chaos and suffering of the Cold War, and the latter proceeded to share her culinary prowess in her new home of Adelaide. Since 2009, locals and tourists flock to Parwana for convivial home cooked meals that are permeated with fond memories of her home country. Order the manty, dumpling pleasure pockets that are brimming with shredded carrots and sautéed sweet onions. They’re topped with a beef mince sauce and drizzled with garlic yogurt, and what results is a soft creaminess colliding with a toothsome chew. And then tuck into du pyaza, lamb pieces accented with a spice blend tossed with garlic and split peas. A mountainous pile sits on homemade naan; unctuous and gamey, and the succulent morsels are topped with tangy onions and fresh herbs.

Gondola Gondola

Opened in 2015, the space is named after the little rickshaw boats that float up and down the riverways of Thailand and Vietnam; and the ambiance straddles that of a casual dining space and boisterous hole-in-the-wall. Owner Tuoi Tran offers Southeast Asian fare with a particular focus on Thai and Vietnamese flavors. Start your meal off with a Blue Moon cocktail that utilizes house blueberry gin, coconut syrup, Sangiovese verjuice, and sparkling sake. Then try the house favorite banh xeo: a large egg pancake with crispy edges that is sandwiched with minced pork, prawns, sprouts, mint coriander and pickled veg. Here you willingly play with your food by using the lettuce leaves provided and haphazardly fashion everything into a freeform wrap. Be sure to have napkins in spades – it’s downright messy fun.

 

 

 

Prohibition Liquor Co Pty Ltd.

In 2013, two pals – Adam Carpenter and Wes Heddles – decided to team up and pursue their passion for gin. From avid enthusiasts, they’ve turn their pet project into a lucrative and thriving business. Gin is still in its infancy here and a boutique industry, with about 25 artisan distillers in all of South Australia; but all this young blood has generated much innovation and creativity – most especially at Prohibition Liquor Co Pty Ltd’s new Tasting Room on Gilbert Street. With guidance from gin ambassadors like Danny Stone, order a flight tasting of their finest, which features Prohibition Original, Bathtub Cut, and Shiraz Barrel Aged. Our favorite of the bunch? The Bathtub, which happens to have highest proof in all of the Southern Hemisphere. Bracing alcohol shock-value aside, the nose gets a thicket of vanilla perfume with an herbal undercurrent, the tongue is peppered with star anise, cassia bark, cardamon and a healthy stretch of cinnamon, ginger, and almond roundness.

Orana

This dégustation menu is a cultural anthropology into South Australia’s gastronomic history and heritage. Chef Jock Zonfrillo’s award-winning restaurant on a busy stretch of Rundle Street champions the country’s indigenous communities and respective ingredients. With 16+ years of research, he’s galvanized support and fostered a profound respect for these people, which is given reverence through his innovative dishes. And the 11 courses are a veritable ode to the land and sea. With a decidedly modernist presentation, each showcases a star ingredient that’s bolstered by rigorous techniques and ancestral providence. With a duration of three hours, it’s hard to choose a favorite – but the majestic scarlett prawn roti warrants a standing ovation. Theatrically presented, the prawns are touched briefly with radiant heat from coal fire –  and needing no other embellishment, the freshness of this crustacean and its sourcing from nearby Queensland speaks for itself. The supple and sweet flesh get sandwiched with squishy, crusty roti and dollops of fermented chili. The combinations collide and in your mouth, creating blissful moments of magic.

 

 

 

Barossa

Artisans of Barossa

Considering that the oldest Shiraz and Grenache vineyards in the world are found here, it’s obvious why Barossa is considered the heart of South Australia’s wine country…and one of the 18 primary wine regions in this state. But if you want to hit the ground running and not feel overwhelmed (there are 170 winemakers, and 500 different grape growers, after all), get the perfect primer and a guided tasting at Artisans of Barossa. If you have one hour to spare, we urge you to take the Barossa Enthusiast class; part of the Educational Series from their Wine School, it’s a crash course on the Barossa wine region. Under one roof, they feature a brotherhood of six different wineries that showcase the beauty, complexity, breadth and depth of terroir found in the Barossa Valley. From the experts, you’ll taste Shiraz, Grenache and Riesling from Hobbs of Barossa, John Duval, Massena Barossa Valley, Schwartz Wine Co., Sons of Eden, and Spinifex. What you’ll come to learn is that the minute variances in elevation or soil composition (there are 36 different types alone) drastically affect what you taste in each glass – and it’s just glorious to sample such diversity from one region.

The Farm Eatery and Experience Centre

This family affair started by kitchen personality Maggie Beer has amassed a uniquely delicious empire. First there’s the DIY gin school (the first of its kind in Barossa), the cooking classes, the little pheasant and duck farm (where she makes her famed pâté), the onsite vineyard, and then the invigorating fare at the newly opened namesake restaurant, just shy of 6 months old. Keeping it fresh, light and airy at The Farm Eatery, the concept is as free-flowing as their bohemian state of mind. The menu at the restaurant changes every day; but if you see Mount Crawford mushrooms on the menu, order post-haste. Sautéed in butter and garlic salt, the unabashedly umami-bolstered slices sit on a cushiony bed of rice polenta. The whole shebang is topped with crispy jerusalem artichoke crisps and a rainshower of aged parmesan. It’s a textural wonder, indeed.

 

 

St. Hugo

Founded in 1847 and situated along the meandering waters of Jacob’s Creek, it’s where sapphire skies kiss jade vineyards. Here you’ll find fanciful flights in numerous incarnations. There’s the Prestige Experience, where you’ll be whisked around on a private helicopter flight through wine country; it’s followed by an eight course luncheon with wines to perfectly pair with contemporary Australian fare such as Hugo Chardonnay with rabbit perfumed with hazelnuts, chook, mustard and capers. But if you don’t have all day to spare, opt for a Past, Present and Future tasting. You’ll delve into vintages not yet released (future) and taste your way towards current and past favorites, getting to savor an evolutionary unfolding through three Shiraz and three Cabernet Sauvignon selections. From tannins to acid and sugar levels, you’ll surprise and impress yourself as your palate is able to home in our these tasty touchpoints. Then wander outside and soak up the two hectare old bush vineyard with a glass from their Vetus Purum range – deemed the crème de la crème. Then revel in the Single Vineyard Barossa Valley Shiraz (2010). Hand-picked from 75 year old Rowland Flat vines, the wine is sophisticated and deeply complex with overtones of plum, spice and clove with heady chocolate backnotes. Texture is robust with refined tannins.

fermentAsian

The spice route leads here – Vietnamese Chef and owner Tuoi Do plays with flavor, spice, and everything nice in her modern Southeast Asian restaurant. A mainstay since 2010, it’s a celebration of all things local, but showcases Asiatic fare by way of her ethnic roots and inspiration. Fare is always fluid and contemporary; worlds and tastes converge in her luxuriously buttery Mayura Station wagyu dish that’s draped with coconut scented Massaman curry, layered with a medley of aromatics that include cinnamon, bay leaves, red chili pepper, garlic and ginger. And save room for dessert: black sticky rice is interwoven with sweet coconut, topped with globs of translucent coconut jelly and a quenelle of refreshing sorbet. Also remember to capitalize on their vast wine list (over 1400 selections from Australia and the world are featured), letting their seasoned sommeliers take the driver’s seat and pair each course with a local wine.

 

 

Yalumba

Located in Angeston, one of the four major towns of Barossa, Yalumba looks fantastic for its age at 169 years young. It is indeed the oldest family owned winery in Australia, with its fifth generation currently reigning over the company. Take in the landscaped gardens and clock tower (dating back to 1908) before diving in to their Yalumba Unlocked experience. Of the highlights, one is the visit to the cooperage – it is in fact the only winery to have one in all of the Southern Hemisphere. Here you’ll see deft tradesmen masterfully bend natural elements to their will – transforming wood and metal into barrels for aging wine. The private museum cellar houses prized historical wines from Australia and beyond, with an aim to celebrate provenance and the best of the best. And if you want a taste, they host an annual and highly sought-after Barossa Vintage Festival, where you can enjoy centuries old wines (about 20-30). In the meantime, toast to the the present and quench your thirst with a flight tasting, while learning about the geography of Barossa (main areas comprise Eden Valley and Barossa Valley), soil composition and much more through your tasting journey of six wines expressing the terroir of the area. From Riesling and Viognier to Grenache, our favorite is undoubtedly the Yalumba Steeple Vineyard Shiraz (2014). This award-winning wine sources grapes solely from Steeple Vineyard. It’s a structured red with balanced acid and tannins; red berries and black spices on the nose, vibrant red fruit on the tongue with sage undertones.

Seppeltsfield Wines

It’s not everyday you get to taste something that’s 100 years old; but that’s exactly what this winery offers. With 420 acres of ancient vineyard, it’s classified as a historic village and winery; Seppeltsfield opened in 1851, and their legacy is founded upon fortified wines. In fact, their bragging rights are having the longest unbroken lineage of tawny ports in the world (from 1878 to the present) due to visionary and founder Oscar Benno Pedro Seppelt – all of which are available for purchase. But the time-trippy tour you must opt for is their is Centenary Tour where you can taste their premium fortified wines, culminating with sips of their 100 year old Para Vintage Tawny from 1918, direct from the barrel. Offering a thick, voluptuous consistency that straddles a runny honey and treacle, this port is deep, dark, rich and aromatic – like aged balsamic vinegar. The tongue is tantalized by heady Christmas spices (nutmeg, mace, cloves, cinnamon), sticky chocolate pudding, and a leathery musk.
The sprawling property also houses artisans (knife forgers, artists, jewelers,etc) at their Jam Factory. But make time for Vasse Virgin Barossa, for handmade skin and body care, which extends into a line of artisan foods and live oils, the latter from their personal 250 olive groves in Barossa. Carve out time and take an informative olive oil class, which guides you through a spectrum of tasting characteristics and how to enjoy it like a fine wine.

 

 

Hentley Farm

Hentley Farm is set upon undulating hills on the banks of Greenock Creek in Seppeltsfield. Opened in 2012, the boutique single estate vineyard hosts a prized namesake restaurant, converted from its original state as a horse stable. We tried the lunchtime Du Jour tasting menu, which is envisioned by Chef Lachlan Colwill. With savant like aptitude, he and his culinary brigade transform local, sustainable produce and combine unlikely ingredients and textures you wouldn’t otherwise expect to work together. It’s hard to choose a favorite, but the bluefin tuna captivated our hearts and stomachs. Caught from nearby Port Lincoln, the buttery rose-hued flesh is seared gently and topped with crushed sunflower seeds; it’s nestled beside intoxicatingly heady chicken liver (yes, it works). The proteins are draped with a sheet of iceberg lettuce and topped with curls of shaved salted egg yolk. They gild the lily even further with golden drizzles of perfumed brown butter over the dish. It’s paired with a gorgeous glass of Hentley Farm 2016 Stray Mongrel, which is a blend of Grenache, Shiraz, and Zinfandel from Barossa Valley. A thicket of pear skin and raspberries on the nose, red fruits on the palate dominate with grippy tannins – sans any drying effect. In a word, our tasting notes were written as…“WOW.”

Bar Louise

Barossa is often called the Napa Valley of South Australia – so it’s not surprising that the region is a tapestry of fine dining establishments. But sometimes, you just want to tuck into a massive, juicy-sloppy burger with reckless abandon. Thankfully, Bar Louise and its new Chef Daniel Murphy can satisfy that desire. The casual sister to their award-winning Appellation restaurant, Bar Louise is where you can carve out a spot on the patio, watch the sunset with a local brew and munch on juicy double-decker Coorong angus beef cooked medium-rare; it’s topped with a gooey melty cheese blend, pickles, beetroot spread and horseradish mayo. And who knew the most divine doughnuts in the world would be found in South Australia? But yes, you might hear angels singing as you sink your teeth into vanilla spiced doughnuts slathered with thick jersey cream and house made blackberry jam. The oblong doughnut-discs are the ideal ratio between hefty / weighty and light / airy fluffy clouds. The sandy sugar exterior further adds crunch to the velvety plush interior.

 

 

McLaren Vale

d’Arenberg Cube Restaurant

With 80% of all premium Australian wine coming from South Australia, d’Arenberg Winery in the McLaren Vale region is no exception – founded on the art of excellence and challenging conventions of what a winery can be. It is a living puzzle of tastes and wickedly fun. Family owned and purchased in 1912, its regal history is counterbalanced with quirkiness and whimsy. With over 60 wines to its name and use of 25 different grape varietals from McLaren Vale’s diverse terroir, Chester Osborn – fourth generation family winemaker – has upped the proverbial ante with the recent opening of the experimental restaurant d’Arenberg Cube in Dec 2017.
Inside this towering four-story Rubik’s Cube, your senses are inundated and assaulted with sights and sounds via Osborn’s personal vino-art collection (either crafted by him or commissioned from local talents). As you fumble towards ecstasy and sensory overload, by the time you ascend to the top floor, your sense of taste, smell, sight, touch and sound have been ideally primed and heightened for their tutored tastings. Then descend one flight of stairs for their extravagant-eclectic tasting menu, The Pickwickian Brobdingnagian (note: Jonathan Swift reference) luncheon, which spans 3-4 hours, with 11 courses and acclaimed wines to pair. With Chef Brendan Wessels at the helm, techniques are finessed and refine, the presentation is bold, sophisticated and avant-garde; but above all else, it’s gracious great fun – in fact, it really feels like you’ve tumbled down the rabbit hole, à la Alice in Wonderland, and are experiencing all things wild and wacky.
Favorites include the Barramundi Bush Coal with vegemite aïoli, that’s paired with their effervescent Lucky Lizard (Chardonnay), Adelaide Hills, 2016; and Scallop Silk with sea grapes, sudachi, and kosho, paired with The Money Spider (McLaren Vale, 2017) made with Roussanne grapes. The citrus/creaminess from the scallop plays off well with the wine’s tropical notes of honeydew melon, white flowers, and ginger. It pleases the palate with its lingering fresh finish and vibrant acidity.

 

 

 

 

 

Epicurean Cabo: The Many Culinary Indulgences of the New Grand Velas Los Cabos

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It’s true – “all inclusive” is becoming a thing.

The AAA Five Diamond Grand Velas Los Cabos is the fifth property to be introduced by Eduardo Vela Ruiz, owner, founder and president of Velas Resorts. Opened at the end of 2016, the property and its 304 suites are situated at the southern tip of the dramatic Baja Peninsula where the Sea of Cortez greets the North Pacific ocean, and where guests can soak up sprawling waterfront views and azure-kissed skies. In addition to natural worldly wonders, the cookie-cutter approach of inclusive resorts is eschewed in favor of their commitment to showcasing and collaborating with local artisans, to spotlight the indigenous art, fashion, cuisine and culture/heritage.

 

 

The resort is peppered with homegrown talents: for instance, the curvaceous, crescent moon design, including its dramatic, open-air zebra-striped corridor, was conceptualized and designed by Ricardo Elias, principal of Elias and Elias Architects, based in Guadalajara; there are also featured contemporary pieces from notable sculptors Alejandro Colunga, Sergio Bustamante, and Matthias Pliessnig; Mexican painters Amador Montes, Rosendo Pinacho, Francisco Huazo and their respective works can also be admired in the lobby.

To be sure, threads of culture and heritage are woven throughout the property. Another such example is the award-winning, 35,000 sq. ft. Se Spa, with unique treatments incorporating local ingredients such as blue agave, and zen-inducing Self-Discovery Workshops. Experience education on how Mandalas are an expressive symbol that honors spiritualism and ritual; or the meditative process of using local tropical bougainvillea flowers to create designs in water.

And for a bit of twinkle-time, there is also the Stargazing Experience – the area is considered by NASA as one of the top places to view the vast midnight-colored sky – for which NAI (National Association for Interpretation) representatives and local astronomy experts provide insights and knowledge about the stars, planets and constellations – rounded out by bonfire marshmallow roasts and a bottle of Moët & Chandon champagne.

 

 

But it’s the culinary program which truly astonishes. Executive Chef Vincent Wallez asserts that “gourmet restaurant offerings at Grand Velas Los Cabos can compete with the finest free standing restaurants in world capitals in terms of quality of cuisine, presentation, service and décor.” And indeed, how many all-inclusives actually include a two-star Michelin chef? Here, Sidney Schutte’s avant-garde tasting menu at Cocina de Autor is not, it bears repeating, an expensive add-on – but all part of the experience.

Though Wallez asserts that there is room for extravagance and fun, offering a bit of the wild and wacky to complement the substance: “We offer that ‘wow’ factor – for instance with our $25K taco (the world’s most expensive, pictured above), an insect basket eating challenge, and tutored top-shelf flight tastings over at our Mezcal & Tequila bar, with our head mixologist Nestor Daniel Can Jones”.

At each of the five fine-dining restaurants, the respective chefs actually hail from the country whose cuisine they represent. And creative freedom affords them opportunities to devise and execute menu concepts that speak to their beloved food memories, personality and backgrounds.

 

 

For instance, Frida first lures you in with its lush decor, designed by Ezequiel Farca + Cristina Grappin (based in Mexico City). Exuding the glamour of the late 1940s, it flaunts artistic motifs that pay homage to the legendary artist and her work, as well as granite flooring, emerald tiles and touches of brass. Chef Roberto Rafael Sierra De La Cruz draws inspiration from his Mexican homeland, and presented in a contemporary manner: for instance, sublime black Aztec rabbit ribs over rice puréed with criollo ajo macho garlic, in a mole poblano bowl.

Over at PiafLarissa Garcia of Cassal Diseño Designs envisioned a space inspired by the legendary chanteuse herself. Harkening to mid-century France, the dining room is rich in plush velvets, Damasco marble and green onyx, with lofty ceilings opening up the space. You’ll be forgiven if you forget you’re in Mexico, while you indulge in Loire Valley chef Aurélien Legeay’s “pithiviers” of pigeon with porcini duxelle, heart of foie gras and Périgueux sauce. Mais oui, it’s creamy, decadent, and rich.

 

 

While it’s worth visiting Velas 10 for dry-aged steak and local seafood, Lucca for inspired Italian, Azul for Mexican staples and international fare and Cabrilla for ceviches and tostadas, the unofficial headliner of the bunch is Cocina de Autor. You’re first greeted with warm, autumnal tones (courtesy of Ernesto Vela of Ernesto Vela Arquitectos), with colors contrasting those of the surrounding oceanside, and evoking a sense of drama and performance.

And what a dinner and show it is – from smoked cocktails to white gloved service. The ever-changing tasting menu is influenced by Sidney Schuttle’s Dutch heritage and his travels abroad throughout Asia. The pièce de résistance here is the roasted langoustine – a bowl brimming with froth and monochrome white, with delicate sheets of wonton and cabbage draped over morsels of shellfish that are fortified with yuzu zeal. Seriously.

 

 

But the Grand Velas also affords guests opportunities to connect with artisans and tastemakers in Mexico, through experiences like their Wine Lovers Getaway Package – which puts you on a private jet to the bodega in Ensenada where Velas Resorts buys its Mexican wines.

Wallez elaborates, “Vintner Pedro Poncelis Jr. escorts guests on a Valle de Guadalupe wine adventure, visiting Monte Xanic, Viñas de Garza, and Casa de Piedra for private tastings – before heading to the Poncelis vineyard to make their own wine.” (Bonus perk: You get to take home a case.)

So, yes, this is the new generation of all-inclusive. And when they insist that you never have to actually leave the property, in this case, they can seriously back it up.

 

Peruvian Rising Star Chef Virgilio Martínez Véliz on Sustainable Philosophy + Supporting Local Communities

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Peruvian pleasures are at an all time high. The culinary scene, especially, is dazzling the world – and the person everyone is currently buzzing about is chef Virgilio Martínez Véliz.

For The World’s 50 Best Restaurants – Latin America edition, two Peru based establishments took the top spots for 2017: 1st place being awarded to Maido (inventive Nikkei cuisine by chef Mitsuharu ‘Micha’ Tsumura) and 2nd going to Veliz’s Central Restaurante, which he runs with his wife Pía León. And as determined champions of cultivating indigenous Peruvian ingredients, their newest spot, Mil, opened at the end of February 2018 to much anticipatory foodie excitement. The research lab and restaurant is nestled in the mountainous heart of the Andes and is next to Moray, an Inca archaeological site, northwest of Cusco. At 3,500 meters (11,500 ft) above sea level, he explores and showcases the bounty from high-altitude ecosystems.

 

 

But perhaps the reason we adore him most? Despite mentorship under savants of sumptuousness such as Gastón Acurio (considered one of the godfathers of modern Peruvian gastronomy) and earning his chef training in the exalted Le Cordon Bleu in Ottawa and London, the man is simply so darned humble and likable. Even with the press branding him a “rising star” among the “new wave of Peruvian chefs,” Virgilio remains focused on his craft, honoring Pachamama (Mother Nature) by understanding and respecting the unique microclimates of his country, and working alongside community members to foster camaraderie within the industry.

We caught up with him for a profound discussion on his food philosophy and his community-minded culinary initiatives.

 

Please explain the food philosophy and concept at Mil.

The concept of Mil is about having an experience in high altitude Andean ecosystems, about connecting to the Andes and regions near Moray. We have a huge culture and a different vision of food, so we do eight “moments” which describe different regions in the Andes, always with local production and local ingredients that we sow ourselves.

What about the atmosphere of the restaurant? How does it complement or enhance what you’re offering to diners on the plate?

The space is magic, because we have a beautiful landscape by Moray, which are Inca ruins interpreted as once being a thriving agricultural hub. For us, it is a real and direct connection to a natural source.

How you are helping with sustainability and eco-friendly initiatives?

We work with an organization called SINBA (a no-waste company) which allows us to recycle organic waste for animal feeding and fertilizers. Also, we recycle the oil used in the kitchen and paper sheets we use in printed menus; and lastly, we decided to use linens to dry hands instead of paper towels for guest toilets.

 

 

This extends to the local community?

Although fundamental, the concept of Mil is not only sustainable in terms of food, we try to broaden the understanding in social and cultural contexts as well. Sustainability means that we have a good relationship with our neighbors: the people from Kacllaraccay and Mullak’as-Misminay. These are two rural communities that surround Mil and Moray in the district of Maras, Cusco. From the outset, our bond was forged from mutually beneficial opportunities, not just for ourselves. Any decision we make is in hopes of affecting the surroundings and community in a positive way – it means exercising responsibility for geography, history, and anthropology. As well, the aforementioned communities are given work opportunities with Mil. Veteran field farmers benefit from 50% of the harvest profits. In turn, we have also received donations of 55 varieties of native potatoes, ocas, mashwas, five ecotypes of quinoa, two different fava beans and tarwi (local legume), amaranth, and fruit like sauco, capulí and aguaymanto plants; it is hoped that through our research efforts, we will help these farmers grow better quality and nutrient-dense ingredients. Superior produce means that at the market, they can command better prices. For this component of the project, we have Celfia Obregón, the director of CITE-Papa , as a vital collaborator.

Please name some local suppliers you collaborate with.

We work with Cevercería del Valle (owned and operated by Juan Mayorga), that produces beers with local ingredients; Destilería Andina (owners are Haresh Bohjwani and Joaquín Randall) that produces distillates with ingredients that are being researched by Mater Iniciativa (a biological and cultural research center behind our restaurants); Flavor Lab Cacao (by Ivan Murrugarra) that is specialized in cacao genetic typification and Peruvian native species diversification. These are a few examples of local suppliers we work with who are committed in helping us make Mil an epicenter for culinary experiences.

 

Moray archaeological site

 

How does your food showcase Peruvian fare on an international stage? And related to this: how do you define or explain what Peruvian food is to visitors – especially those that are unfamiliar and are curious?

On an international stage, we have a strong new vision of what is Peru; and in the process, we are trying to relate to food in a profound way, as our ancestors did and experienced before us. We are trying to achieve that level of consciousness. Although we are still young, I feel we’re taking a mature approach. The world is changing – and Peru along with it, so we’re constantly getting inspired and innovating.

Are there any misconceptions or myths about Peruvian cuisine that you want to dispel?

Peruvian food is complex and diverse: it could be Amazonian food, Andean food, seafood, regional to global – we have many culinary touchpoints due to our cultural influences (e.g. Chinese, Japanese, Italian, Arab, etc.). To me, the link that binds everything together is our rich biodiversity and the variety of ingredients we can work with and source from in our own backyard.

Where do you dine on your day(s) off from work?

I love to go to Isolina for Peruvian tavern food; I recommend La Mar restaurant if you want to eat incredibly fresh seafood; I also like Fiesta restaurant for traditional Peruvian cuisine.

 

 

In light of your title, Best Chef in Latin America, do you feel there are any pressures or expectations to live up to? How to you alleviate any anxieties related to this?

I don’t think about being “the best chef”. There is no pressure for me because it is not my focus – but rather it’s about leading, cooking, testing, tasting, exploring and maintaining my curiosity. I spend my time thinking about food, enjoying it, and sharing it with people.

What does the future hold for you? Where do you see your culinary initiatives in five years time?

Central will be relocated to the Barranco neighborhood. Also, my wife, Pia León, is planning on opening her restaurant named Kjolle. And lastly, we will continue to work on developing Mil with the interpretative research centre and restaurant components.