The Coolest European Cities You Don’t Know, Part II

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Above: Tallinn Old Town

 

We’ve been plenty busy in 201830, museum-hopping in Paris, flirting in Rome and clubbing in the Berlin Kreuzberg underground. But cultivated Europhiles that we are, we’re always feeling the call of some of our less-trodden, yet still favorite cities on the Continent.

Nothing beckons us to Europa quite like the turning of winter, with its exhilaratingly crisp evenings, stylishly scarfed locals, and those transcendently evocative fragrances that fill the air of each city (the latter a particular treat for those forced to breath the noxious fumes of New York and LA every day).

Part I took us to Antwerp and Maastricht. Next we head further east, to the Estonian capital of Tallinn, and to Austria’s second city Graz.

 

Tallinn

 

Clockwise from top left: Hotel St. Petersbourg; Tallinn streets; Kaerajaan restaurant; Kumu Museum

 

There was a moment around say 2005 – 2007, when Tallinn, bolstered by the success of companies like Skype, became sort of the new Prague: a former Soviet satellite which was now drawing young dreamers from the US and Britain. Only this time they were tech geeks rather than boho literary aspirants.

Now, we would probably love the Estonian capital if only for the fact that it’s home to the Depeche Mode Baar (quick, guess the theme). But its Old Town is as strikingly beautiful and symmetrical as any in Europe – and just strolling the streets is reward enough in itself. There’s also a bright, gleaming modern city (the City Centre) right outside the medieval walls.

On the culture tip, the Kumu Museum is one of the largest in Northern Europe, showcasing two centuries of Estonian art (with an impressive collection of Socialist Realism), as well as special exhibitions of top international contemporary artists. Cold War enthusiasts should check out the KGB Museum, actually located inside the Hotel Viru.

Tallinn is also a considerable epicurean city, with chefs drawing on the considerable bounty of the Estonian countryside (their local black bread is to die for). Art Priori is the avant-garde choice, focusing on creatively realized (mostly) vegetarian dishes in a stunning, art adorned space; MEKK specializes in inventive seafood plates, and its sophisticated bar is a bit of a scene; for something a bit more…Middle Ages, Olde Hansa cooks up wild boar, elk and venison, in an interior that could only be described as 13th-Century chic.

Stay in Tallinn: Both the Telegraaf Hotel and the Hotel St. Petersbourg combine classical elegance with cool postmodern design, and each has a notable restaurant (Tchaikovsky and Heritage, respectively.) The chic Three Sisters hotel has strikingly theatrical rooms – one even has its own grand piano.

 

Graz

 

Clockwise from top left: Island in the Mur; Graz City Hall; Hotel Wiesler; Kunsthaus Graz

 

After losing its Empire in the wake of WWI, Austria pretty much keeps to itself now, content to have traded influence on the world political stage for more, shall we say, sybaritic concerns. Yet the fact that right wing demagogues have been angling for power there does genuinely matter within the scope of the wider EU situation.

The country’s “second city,” Graz, is actually one of its bastions of left-wing ideology, home to more than 30,000 university students, out of a total population of 270,000. A UNESCO City of Design, its rather imperial looking city center, with its elegant baroque edifices, is complemented by some of Europe’s most radical works of contemporary architecture.

Indeed, the Island in the Mur is literally a steel island in the middle of the river of the same name that splits the city, with a designy cafe and amphitheater; the Chapel of Rest is a stunning minimalist cathedral by Hofrichter-Ritter Architects; and the Dom im Berg is a spectacular performance space carved literally into rock. The Kunsthaus Graz contemporary art museum (by British architects Colin Fournier and Peter Cook) is the city’s showpiece, and looks like a giant blue heart and valves.

Not much of a foodie destination, Graz is more of a cafe town – and you’ll find dozens of boho spots as you stroll the streets, many packed with students. Mitte is one of the artier ones, while Aiola Upstairs has a chic crowd and awe-inspiring views. Design junkies should hit the Kunsthaus museum’s namesake cafe. For nightlife, there’s great bar-hopping around the area nicknamed the Bermuda Triangle.

Stay in Graz: The Augarten Hotel (a member of Design Hotels) has stylish, loft-style rooms, and a pool that doubles as an art gallery. The Hotel Wiesler‘s Philippe Starck designed restaurant hosts a “soul brunch” every Sunday, while the rooms have a cool-minimalism and river views. And Hotel Daniel has affordable rooms, a lobby espresso bar and Vespas available for guests.

 

 

Thai Puppets, Vanishing Spies & One Very Glamorous Party: BlackBook Returns to Bangkok, Part II

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(Continuing on from Part I…)

 

During our visit to Thailand’s urban jewel, we must admit that we spent a great deal of time taking advantage of everything the glamorous new Waldorf Astoria had on offer. Even breakfast each morning at the upper lobby’s Brasserie presented us with a double-sided buffet: one with eggs, bagels and cheeses that were of course familiar, the other with Thai dim sum, rice, and spices that were less so…and where a dark, jellied, century egg was our chicken embryo option.

Across the lobby was the stately, light-filled, lounge/tea room Peacock Alley, where we did indeed have afternoon tea. Rising a couple of floors brought us to the magnificent 16th floor outdoor pool and spa where we spent a few hours before sunset watching a dramatic, monsoon season storm blow by, before indulging in a traditional Thai massage, which felt like doing yoga while lying down, and assisted. Naked.

 

 

Silk, and textiles in general, have played a large part in Thailand’s evolution; and inarguably no one had a greater impact on the Thai silk industry than the American businessman Jim Thompson did in the 1950s and 60s. His eye for design, and idea to employ thousands of stay at home Thai women as weavers, brought his company huge success. Adding an air of mystery to his legend, Thompson, at various times also a spy, architect, and military officer, disappeared into the Malaysian highlands in 1967 while on simply an everyday walk. His body was never found.

Before that, however, he completed his pièce de résistance in the form of a massive residence created from the bones of six old up-country Thai houses, which he used to display the impressive collection of antiques and valuables he’d collected over the decades. Our tour of his house/museum, and the surrounding Baan Krua neighborhood, where we saw small home silk factories in action, was fascinating and eye opening; and a stop at the onsite gift shop where Thompson silks were on display in abundance was a big win for us…and for the gift shop.

 

 

Back at the Waldorf, that night’s dinner was at the 56th floor restaurant Bull & Bear, a traditional, dark paneled and Deco themed bistro that specializes in the surf and turf staples of Wall Street watering holes – hence the name and eponymous recreation of the famous statue. While dining we were entertained by a floorshow performance of Hun Krabok, or Thai puppets. (Note: it’s quite possible that this was part of the opening week celebrations, so please don’t blame us if a 4-foot long wooden marionette doesn’t try to make out with your girlfriend when you’re dining there.)

One of the more unexpected, and welcome, experiences we had in Bangkok was a tour of the thoroughly modern and western influenced Creative District. We started with a delicious lunch at the Brooklyn-hip Thai Fusion restaurant The Never Ending Summer, in the Jam Factory arts complex – the neon Beatles lyric over the kitchen was the idea of Richard Branson, who happened by one day and ‘suggested’ the modification to the décor (And really, who was owner/architect Duangrit Bunnang to say “no” to Mr. Virgin?).

A short boat ride across the river had brought us to said district, and with local Foundations Director David Robinson leading us, we explored the Bang Rak, including the soon to be renovated customs house, OP Garden, the street art area, and galleries along Charoen Krung 36 Alley; we were especially digging the photography exhibit at Serindia Gallery. At creative incubator Warehouse 30 we had a glass of wine with artist P. Tendercool in his studio, where he creates custom tables and doors, and even ping-pong tables, apparently, from 100-year-old reclaimed wooden panels.

 

Jam Factory

 

 

Finally the big day, or night, had come. With invites out to all local celebs and fashionable types, and even rumor of a possible royal attendee, the opening party of the Waldorf Astoria Bangkok promised to be one of the most talked about events in recent memory. And it didn’t disappoint. Models in dresses of flowers – not just floral patterns – more black ties than the Oscars, and every bar and restaurant in the hotel lavishing delights on those worthy enough to have been on the guest list – we felt a tinge of importance – the event certainly made its point in declaring the ‘hotel’ (more like a #lifestylegoal) the most enviable new destination on Thai soil. A modern Grand Palace, if you will.

Following hours of excess that would make the forthcoming wake up call a difficult situation, we retired to our sumptuous suite for the last time.

Our early flight the next day required a reality reset; did we really have to leave? We were already missing the jovial banter we had with the head bartender at the glamorously decadent Loft bar the night before…and even the concierge seemed genuinely sad to see us go. The drive to the airport in the black Mercedes was a subdued affair, but we weren’t totally out of Waldorf hands yet: a suited handler with a WA pin met us curbside and escorted us to security where we finally bid adieu to the exhilarating Thai capital.

 

 

 

Weekend in Yountville: Could Wine Culture be Getting Fun and Flamboyant?

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Del Dotto Estate

 

A friend and trained sommelier scoffed when we told her we were heading up to a wine and food extravaganza in Yountville, Napa,

“But you don’t know shit about wine,” she said.

That’s, um, not entirely true – though we’re far from a connoisseurs. As luck would have it, we didn’t need to know much of anything about wine in order to fall madly in love with Napa and its storied viticultural charms. Not to mention, the once “insidery” attitude of the higher reaches of the wine world is rapidly becoming…passé.

Part of that seems due to the overwhelming variety of vineyards and vintners, increasingly aware of their own brands; standing out seems imperative to survival. But what was also visibly evident from the moment we arrived in the Bay Area: times – as in the climate – are-a-definitely-changing.

The fires were still blazing not far from where we were, though the harvest was blessedly spared this year. A place this beautiful, that relies almost entirely on agriculture for its livelihood, has to reckon with the cruel realities of nature. Now is surely the time to get creative, and part of that is welcoming a new set of revelers.

 

JCB by Jean-Charles Boisset

 

Yountville wants to be “more accessible” – and so does wine culture in general, according to the people working in Napa’s illustrious wine industry. There’s the breathtaking landscape, a history of farming and agriculture, new restaurants and famed older ones (like French Laundry) – and also several stylish hotels to accommodate the perpetual influx of newbie weekenders. To wit, the new Hotel Villagio, of the larger Estate Yountville (they also own Vintage House) decidedly injects a fresh hipness into the area’s hospitality scene.

Also on those same grounds – all walkable – guests can stumble into Michael Chiarello‘s Bottega, Platform 8, or Ottimo restaurants. Just up the road, drink and dine under lavish chandeliers and a fire-pit-studded patio at Restoration Hardware’s new restaurant concept, unfussily titled RH. (Restoration Hardware also furnished all of Estate Yountville’s hotel properties.)

But back to the reason we all came…the wine. If you come to Napa you can’t escape it, nor should you try. Here we highlight four winery tasting rooms that are genuinely doing it differently.

(Bonus: Estate Yountville and its umbrella properties all organize epicurean tasting tours, and can put together a day of wine drinking for you and yours, with exclusive rates for guests.)

 

Hill Family Estate

Fifth generation California farmers, the Hill Family maintains over 600 acres of vineyards across Napa Valley. They supply grapes for big name winemakers like Stags Leap, Mondavi and Cakebread – but it was their own label that captivated us most. After one of our tasting guides successfully sabered a bottle of sparkling rosé amidst a burnt-orange sunset in the Hotel Villagio’s vineyard (all true), we stepped into the cozy lobby for a sampling. The Sauvignon Blanc, crispy with hints of oak, and the “Like a Hawk” Cab-Syrah blend were table favorites. Hill Family Estate does all their dealings direct to consumer, so you won’t find them in a local wine shop; but their wine club makes it much easier. Membership includes three bottles of their choosing four times per year, and the option to add in more of your own picks.

 

 

 

JCB by Jean-Charles Boisset

Just a little further up the road from Hotel Villagio, Boisset’s shop and private tasting room takes wine flare to new heights. It’s like Game of Thrones meets Vegas. One half of a wine empire (he’s married to Gina Gallo of E. & J. Gallo Winery, California’s largest exporter of wines), Boisset is undoubtedly the emperor. His uniform of pink socks, drapey scarves, and velvet smoking jackets match the ornate tasting room – decked in gold-framed mirrors and glimmering cases of rosé bottles. He also owns Atelier Foods next door, a fine foods grocer that offers a wide selection gourmet picnic fare.
All of Boisset’s wines are categorized by number, which represent something autobiographical. The No. 1 and No. 10, both Cabernets, are indicative of being Number One and a Perfect 10. As a Frenchman from Bordeaux in Napa making a 100% Cab in Cab country, Boisset wouldn’t settle for anything less.

 

 

 

Silver Trident

The cozy living-room-feel of Silver Trident’s tasting room owes its aesthetic charms to Ralph Lauren, who furnished the entire space. If you’re in need of a silver serving tray or crystal scotch decanter, both have a price tag on them. You’ll also need to purchase your wine here (or give them a call)- like Hill Family, Silver Trident prides itself on its smaller-run, direct to consumer approach. The winery was co-founded by Bob Binder, founder of Oceania Cruises, and Walter Jost, hence the name Silver Trident. We were particularly fond of the Apollo’s Folly Rosé and Pinot Noir, playfully titled the “Benevolent Dictator.” The Pinot, we discovered, is made the old-fashioned way: winemaker Kari Auringer stomps the grapes herself before sending them to fermentation.

 

 

Del Dotto Estate Winery & Caves

By far the most ostentatious and aristocratic feeling of the four, Del Dotto’s tasting room is located on the vineyard, a sprawling and gorgeous retreat just off St. Helena Highway. They do things like using French oak barrels just once before discarding – or selling. “French oak is where our palates are at,” our guide told us. They even have a Carrara marble barrel that cost upwards of $10,000 to make…for what reason, nobody’s really sure. The wine, the views, the pairing menu all feel similarly decadent, in the best possible way, of course.

 

Dali, Hogfish and a Century-Old Grand Hotel: Three Days on FLA’s Glorious Gulf Coast

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The Dali Museum

 

Winter weather makes everything harder, especially in New York where, even at the best of times, the simple act of getting around town just isn’t that simple. Add freezing temps, slippery subway stairs, and some of the grumpiest people in existence, and the world becomes a Sisyphean nightmare. So the chance for an escape to Florida’s sunny Gulf Coast was not just welcome, but imperative.

Simplicity in all forms abounded throughout our quick three-day getaway, except, ironically, when it came to pronouncing the name of the town in which we were staying. First settled by Scottish explorers in the 1850s, Dunedin is a dialectical interpretation of their beloved Edinburgh. So, just for the record, it’s…Doo-Need-in.

 

The Fenway Hotel

 

Our home base was the Fenway Hotel. Originally built in the 1920s, its storied history includes time as a radio station and a school; but for the last decade or so it sat dormant, a grand dame in quiet disrepair. A few years ago, it was snapped up by the Taoist Tai Chi Society of the USA, who hoped to turn it into their headquarters. But that idea proved too ambitious; so a partnership with a major developer resulted in the subsequent relaunch of the hotel…and it’s quite the attention grabber. Surrounded by palm trees and lush greenery and overlooking the Gulf, the Fenway is a decidedly grandiose presence.

Our arrival coincided with one of most important times of the day in Western Florida: sunset! And the Fenway boasts the perfect viewing platform in its Hi-Fi Rooftop Bar, where we sampled signature Mai-Tai’s and did indeed mark the fiery star’s descent into the waves, before heading downstairs for dinner at the hotel’s HEW Parlor & Chophouse. The light and airy space features an open kitchen with a 22 seat ‘chef’s bar’ in front, where we indulged in locally inspired signature dishes including crab soup, and seared scallops with barbecued pork belly and parsnip & apple salad.

 

Hew Parlor & Chophouse

 

The following day we headed out to explore Dunedin, and the neighboring Honeymoon and Caladesi Islands. One of the more practical and scenic attractions of the area is the 40-mile long Pinellas Trail, a fastidious walking and biking path which we took up-and-down the coast on surprisingly fun electric bikes, courtesy of Pedego. We can’t overestimate the sheer joy we experienced when hitting the throttle, which would rev the bikes up to 20 mph. (OK, not quite the same as our vintage Triumph).

After parking the bikes we took a short ferry ride, during which we were followed by an inquisitive dolphin, to Caladesi Island State Park – we were lucky enough to have it almost entirely to ourselves. Its miles of pristine sand and shallow sandbars meant we could walk hundreds of yards out to sea without messing up our hair for out next Instagram post. Taking a break from the beach, we rented a kayak for a mesmerizing paddle through the neighboring mangroves. Across the sound was Honeymoon Island, whose lush vegetation we biked through, all the while on the lookout for some of the numerous species of birds of prey that call the place home. Seeing a swooping kestrel with lunch in its talons was a fascinatingly gruesome highlight.

 

Caladesi Island

 

Later that day we found ourselves bar-and-restaurant hopping in the vicinity of Dunedin’s Main Street. After lunch at Hog Island Fish Camp, where we did in fact sample fried hogfish (land bound hog was also on the menu), we strolled the picturesque streets of Dunedin, stopping to quaff a few handcrafted specialties at Dunedin Brewery, as well as the quaint, dog friendly 7venth Sun Brewing, and Woodwright Brewing, which is also part wood shop, minus the hipstery pretensions.

That evening’s dinner was at the enormous and wildly entertaininCasa Tina, whose authentic take on traditional Mexican cuisine was in danger of being overshadowed by its Aztec décor, and its floor shows of hula hoop twirling acrobats…but not quite. The dearth of great Mexican in NYC means that we know the real deal (sublime chiles en nogada, and arroz cabezon) when we taste it.

After a long day of exploring, the Fenway’s smart and cozy rooms were a delight to come back to.

 

Casa Tina

 

A trip to neighboring St. Pete was on the agenda for day three. An easy 45-minute drive south of Dunedin, it’s the area’s cosmopolitan city – although at a third of the size of San Francisco, still very much like a town.

After breakfast at the waterfront farmers market we explored the hallucinatory Dali Museum, which houses the largest collection of the surrealist master’s work outside of his native Spain, and left us with a much deeper appreciation of his genius; indeed, it’s not all about the melting clocks. Lunch was at FarmTable Cucina, inside the fabulous gourmet food hall Locale Market, which bills itself as a curated grocery market experience. FarmTable’s family-style Italian menu also included a delectable signature burger of 30-day dry aged beef, and a Florida grouper BLT.

In the merciless Florida sun, we clung to the shady side of the street while on a tour of local street art, which, in part due to a beautification initiative to transform the once gritty streets, is plentiful in St Pete. Local artist Derek Donnelly led us down alleyways while pointing out some of the city’s more influential murals, including a few of his own.

 

The Dali Museum

 

Continuing our downtown explorations, we strolled St. Pete’s Central Avenue of hipness, stopping to browse through the vinyl racks at 30 year old music mecca Daddy Kool, and the paperback racks at Florida’s largest bookstore, Haslams, before motoring west for a pint at the amazing bar-cum-canine-park Dog Bar, which is indeed a mashup of both. Gives a whole new meaning to “hair of the dog.”

Back at the Fenway we dressed for dinner and set off across the peninsula to quaint the Safety Harbor, on the Tampa Bay side, for our final repast. At Pizzeria Gregario we met with owner Greg Seymour, who fascinated us with an explanation of the process he uses to create the amazing biodynamic sourdough, wood-fired pizzas they specialize in – with the bottom line being you don’t feel like a stuffed hog after eating one. They are sublime.

We were up early the next day for a walk along the beach and simple breakfast at the Fenway, before heading back on the easiest of Delta flights to LGA, where we immediately missed the laid back attitude we’d just spent three days cultivating.

 

Dunedin Marina

 

 

BlackBook Exclusive: Autumn Cocktail Recipes from the Newly Revamped DIEGO at the PUBLIC Hotel

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As the leaves change, the drink menus change… that’s what they say right? Ok, no one says that; but it’s out with the old and in with the new for DIEGO, PUBLIC Hotel New York’s sophisticated and newly revamped cocktail bar.

Those in the know definitely know that the PUBLIC is one of the most swanky and buzz-worthy hotspots below 14th Street. What they might not know? The LES hotel just got a little more exciting: its top floor lounge, with its live jazz and worldly cocktails, has a new, reimagined cocktail selection created by Ivy Mix.

 

 

Crowned American Bartender of the Year at the 2015 Tales of The Cocktail, Mix drew inspiration from namesake Mexican artist Diego Rivera (husband of Frida Kahlo). As Rivera and Kahlo spent the peak of their careers trotting the globe, traveling to cities with some of the most sought after spirits, the new and very international drinks menu at DIEGO takes you on something of an epicurean world tour, via the flavors of Mexico City, Rome, Paris, Madrid and beyond.

We especially loved the mezcal-spiked Desert Wind, for example. With its delectable flavors of añejo tequila and honey, you might just imagine that your post-night-out stroll through Tompkins Square seems more like a saunter through Mexico City’s Chapultepec Park.

We asked Ms. Mix to share with us the secrets behind a couple of her most popular new cocktail creations.

 

Desert Wind (pictured above)

0.5 oz Mezcal
1.5 oz Añejo Tequila
0.25 oz Honey Syrup
0.25 oz Palo Santo Syrup
Dash of Angostura Bitters
Glassware: Old Fashioned
Garnish: Orange Twist
Method:Add all ingredients into ice-filled mixing glass. Stir until well chilled. Strain over ice into Old Fashioned glass. Garnish with orange twist.

 

Red Vespa

1 oz Contratto
0.5 oz Sweet Vermouth
0.5 oz Dry Vermouth
Can of Tecate
Glassware: Highball
Garnish: Orange Wheel
Method:Add Contratto, sweet vermouth and dry vermouth to an ice-filled highball glass. Top with Tecate. Garnish with orange wheel.

 

 

The Luxury & The Majesty: Le Château Frontenac Turns 125

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In this, the Instagram age, to what more relevance could a hotel possibly lay claim than the distinction of being “the most photographed in the world”? But let’s be honest, calling the Fairmont Le Château Frontenac a hotel is sort of like saying a vintage Rolls Royce Silver Shadow is just a car. And lording with irreducible majesty over the oldest burg in North America – Quebec City, that is – it has been celebrating its 125th birthday this year…though, really, she doesn’t look a day over 25.

We popped up for a visit to join the les festivités, and were straight away taken with the sheer magnificence of le Frontenac – which prior to us has hosted the likes of Leonardo DiCaprio, Paul McCartney…even Prince William and Kate. And as we pulled up to the entrance, it did sort of feel as if we were popping round for a visit with our favorite royal chums (though it should be noted, egalitarian Canada doesn’t actually have a king or queen).

 

 

Dramatically entering the lobby, we noted straight away that its glittering halls were lined with glittery, upmarket shops, and galleries intriguingly selling genuine Picasso and Dali prints (though as far as we know, neither of them actually ever set foot in Quebec). And there was very modern health club on site that belied the Frontenac’s weighty historicism, with an indoor pool, spa and Technogym workout machines.

In fact, if you chose to do so, you could pretty much never leave the premises (though we experienced a hallowed moment strolling the lakeside promenade at dusk) and yet be endlessly, thoroughly amused. For our part, we fell head over heels for the rooms, with their elegant understatement, plush furnishings and views that might just mesmerize you into missing your sunset dinner reservations. (Insider tip: the river view accommodations are pricier, but we would vigorously recommend requesting one overlooking the Chateau and the upper town – as you might just get the feeling you’re an 18th Century Burgundian nobleman.)

 

 

Admittedly, though, we were actually on something of a epicurean quest in Quebec Province‘s comeliest city. And while the Frontenac has been the central foodist destination here for decades, it has also risen of late to the occasion of the city’s new culinary renaissance, shaking off the traditional for a genuinely exciting wave of innovation.

First, it should be noted that, for those not in need of such a grandiloquent dining experience, the hotel’s buzzy Bistro Le Sam is there to satisfy more quotidian cravings – lobster salad, duck leg confit – complemented by an impressive seasonal batch cocktail menu. And we loved pairing les fromages du Québec with a local sparkling cider at the sceney 1608 Wine Bar – whose cool circular design made for excellent people watching and meeting. (If you’ll pardon the generalization, we do love making new Canadian friends.)

But eagerly seeking incisive insights on the region’s contemporary culinary essence, we made a point of sitting down with Stéphane Modat, the exalted (and impressively tattooed) chef at Frontenac’s glorious Champlain restaurant. Considered as he is one of the leading lights of the Quebec food revolution (though he is originally from Perpignan, France), he fittingly oversees the exquisite proceedings with a confident self-possession.

 

 

“The city is a lot more vibrant,” he enthused. “There is a desire to put Quebec on the culinary map. People here are more open-minded…and visitors are usually open to trying new things.”

Regional regulations, however, had posed some challenges – like being restricted to farm raised animals, even though, as he insists, “the meat is better if it reflects where they actually live.” Still, the local bounty speaks for itself: “Charlevoix is know for their lamb, which is better even than it is in Morocco.”

Later, after being greeted at the door with a kir made with local cassis (such attention to detail…), we were whisked through an elegantly rustic-contemporary dining room – warm woods, chicly mismatched furnishings, a handsome grand fireplace, and spidery, gossamer chandeliers – to a window table overlooking the majesty of the St. Lawrence River. It was surely one of the best tables in all of Canada.

With monsieur Modat working his magic behind the scenes, we proceeded to wend our way through the ethereal Experience Modat tasting menu, which on this particular night included arctic char with goat cheese cream, yuzu and ginger (paired up with a dry white from the Loire); followed by red deer tartare w/ salmon and trout eggs, red deer jerky, and a delectable Inuit mayonnaise made from pine needles (all paired with a spirited Languedoc rosé); then a singularly earthy, stunningly flavorful hare ravioli; and a highlight amongst highlights, foie gras with local berries and sea buckthorn (surprisingly coupled with a robust Greek dessert wine).

 

 

“There are surprises on the tasting menu,” Modat enlightened. “We want people to have an experience. It’s rustic by the names of the dishes, but I try to do things differently – like the tartare without the mayonnaise base.”

Without exaggeration, it was one of the most sensational culinary sojourns we’d ever experienced, our taste buds superlatively startled as every moment. Yet not one course hinted at intentional theatricality, or over-concepting for its own sake. And did we mention the river views?

Food, of course is more than ever these days a destination-driver, tempting us to new locales with the promise of life-altering sybaritic undertakings. And while Quebec City was always very much a place that all efforts should be made to visit before shuffling off this mortal coil, and Chateau Frontenac is unquestionably a once-in-a-lifetime hotel…Modat’s culinary creations made it all a decidedly zeitgesity, boast-worthy experience.

“We’re finding our own way of doing things,” he emphasized. “It’s important to go back to the basics to then go forward.”

And perfecting the basics, while being surrounded by such refinement and majesty, is exactly what made the overall Chateau Frontenac experience everything we had hoped it might be – and, if you’ll excuse the cliche, even more.

Happy 125th…and many more.

 

Above images: Champlain; 1608 Wine Bar

 

 

BlackBook Exclusive: Savvy Holiday Entertaining Tips From Omar Hernandez of ‘Omar at Vaucluse’

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Image by Liam McMullan

 

In a city of celebrity restaurateurs and jet-setting bartenders, Omar Hernandez perhaps could be granted the informal title of “Most Happening Host” – having spent the last five years decisively charming the downtown beau monde and creative classes at his eponymous private club Omar’s.

The West Village hotspot – known for drawing star power the likes of Bella Hadid, Marc Jacobs and Madonna – closed this past spring. But Omar himself quickly moved uptown, to partner up with celebrity chef Michael White. Their newest venture, Omar at Vaucluse, is an Upper East Side restaurant-within-a-restaurant (N.B. – The a-listers have enthusiastically followed him north), with its own stylish space and very international menu – flaunting exquisitely turned out caviar, oysters, cacio e pepe and chicken tagine, to compliment the obviously electric atmosphere.

We caught up for a chat with Omar about his new life above 14th Street; and, with the holidays immediately upon us, asked him to enlighten us as to his most essential tips for successful seasonal entertaining.

 

Omar at Vaucluse Image by Liz Clayman

 

You are a noted host in possibly the most demanding city in the world. What is your secret to making guests feel welcome?

I always try to meet my guests, and I am able to create that encounter, which is inter-subjective, where we meet for real. We live in a society where everyone has become some form of commodity, leaving room for meeting people for the fun of it. That works in New York City, and everywhere in the world. I love what I do!

What drew you to work with Michael White and Vaucluse?

It was totally synergy with Michael’s partner and Altamarea Group founder Ahmass Fakhany. We collectively developed the story line of this idea of ​​creating an experience within a restaurant space, almost rebellious and somehow obvious. This whole idea of ​​food, leisure and entertainment keeps moving so fast we can barely catch up in our business. But having a Michelin Star chef at the helm of the kitchen is a reason for pride and a dream come true.

 

Omar at Vaucluse Image by Liz Clayman

 

You made your name in downtown New York. What is different about forwarding your brand of hospitality uptown?

Downtown – below 14th Street – has been the epicenter of nightlife and all things fun for the last 35 years; its creative, unorthodox ways of socializing [contributed] a lot to what made my space unique. But I’ve been thinking about coming uptown for a couple of years; it felt like the Upper East Side was one of the last neighborhoods that has kept its social DNA almost intact…slightly underserved, and with an understanding of lifestyle that made it very appealing. It does not hurt to be at the elegant corner of Park Ave & 63rd Street.

What has been most interesting about the Vaucluse experience?

That I cannot do it all by myself, and that I’ve needed partners who are willing to go the extra mile to achieve “funcellence” – instead of succumbing to the existential dread of the ordinary.

 

Omar at Vaucluse Image by Liz Clayman

 

Omar’s Tips for Holiday Entertaining

Try to offer a Ketotonic driven dinner during the holidays. The recovery is much easier, leaving more room for imbibing.

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Download the whole album A Very Kacey Christmas from country singer Kacey Musgraves…and get chicky with it.

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In this age of “experiencing,” remain creative and spontaneous when it comes to entertaining. For example, during your holiday dinner parties, to entertain your guests, hire an Instagram Content Curator to update, and fine tune your social media apps. Enforce some form of dress code, such as watercolor eyeshadows for the ladies, and have some available to apply at the party. If your budget permits, hire a makeup artist to be on site, and create some fun moments with your guests – like, “men are welcome.” Also, a viewing-dinner-party mixed in during Thanksgiving will bring out the holiday spirit: like, in Netflix’s The Christmas Chronicles, “Kurt Russell Will Make You Believe in Santa Claus.”

 

Omar at Vaucluse Image by Liz Clayman

 

Do not under any circumstances allow, encourage or talk politics with / among your guests while entertaining this holiday season.

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If you’d rather not entertain, and need a quick getaway with your significant other, escape to Iceland around the holidays; it’s a short, easy flight from New York (4.5 hours). Upon arrival – since most flights are overnight – head straight to the Blue Lagoon geothermal pool, rich in silica and minerals, to get rid of your jet lag, while waiting for hotel check-in time. Book a room at The ION Adventure Hotel, 45 minutes outside of Reykjavík (and a member of Design Hotels), take a hike to the Blue Ice Sólheimjökull glacier, or do an inside-the-glacier tour – afterwards you may be offered a Suntory Hibiki 21 Years Old on the freshest bluest ice on earth. When it comes to food, stick to the classic fish and chips – Iceland has plenty to offer.

 

 

Omar at Vaucluse Image by Liz Clayman

BlackBook Interview: Peter, Bjorn & John on Melancholy, Climate Change and What They Love Most About Stockholm

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Photo by Johan Bergmark

 

Despite their significant international success and recognition, Peter, Bjorn & John have always been dedicated supporters of the music scene back in Sweden, where they run the artist collective and label INGRID (even David Lynch and Lykke Li have been collaborators). And since their 2016 album Breakin’ Point, they’ve also been signed to that very same label.

The second such release under that arrangement is Darker Days, which is out this month. It’s a bit of a departure for them, especially in terms of the overarching mood. To wit, “Gut Feeling,” feels like somber, mid-’80s Cure; while “Velvet Sky” is chilling, melancholy noir, with lyrics to match (“There’s a sign saying ‘Don’t fear the reaper'”). But while the solemn “Heaven and Hell” sends a decided chill up the already tingling spine, “Wrapped Around the Axle” – with its more upbeat Sergeant Pepper psychedelia – at least attempts something a bit more sanguine, less bleak…to striking effect.

Proving their unending cleverness, they also released a special 3-in-1 video, which sort of pits each member against one another for attention. Spoiler alert: no one really wins. As well, they’ll launch a short, 9-date North American tour on November 19, taking them from Allston, MA to San Francisco on December 9.

We caught up for a quick chat with PB&J, and also asked them to tell us what they love most about their home city of Stockholm.

 

 

 

What was the reasoning behind releasing the 3-in-1 video for all three singles?

John: The total “band-consensus” method we used on our previous album nearly killed us. So, this time we split up the band in three parts. In every part of the process. We wrote, sang and produced our own songs separately. We even choose to wear our own clothes in the press-photos this time. And, the 3-in-1 video was a natural extension of this process.

So it ties in conceptually with the album itself?

John: With PB&J you always get three for the price of one; but this time it’s personal…

What were you influenced by when recording the new album?

John: Swedish winter darkness, American political darkness and private mid-life darkness. I’m selling this album pretty badly, aren’t I?
Peter: There is no shortage of darkness to inspire in the present day. The idea behind the title was indeed mainly the Swedish winters, originally. But Trump, Brexit, old Swedish Nazis forming the third biggest party here at home, and above all climate change and the possibility that we are actually getting near the end of the world thanks to our western capitalist lifestyle isn’t exactly cheerful stuff. And it’s stuff you constantly think about; so it’s hard to keep out of songs.

It does seem the title is telling in regards to the content.

John: Yes, you can expect Swedish melancholy, Stockholm break-up mysteries and some Ingmar Bergman indie rock. There are hints of light in between all the gloom. I think it might be one of our strongest albums so far.
Peter: The lyrical content takes in ten shades of different darkness, from politics to personal. And actually one very positive hopeful song as a counterbalance. Composed, laid back, desperate and anxious indie-pop. It’s all a mess, but a good one.

What inspires you most about Stockholm?

Peter: It’s so varied. You can take a one day holiday to a part of it you haven’t been to in a while and get a completely different vibe just by looking around you. We’ve got water, nature, archipelagos, green lush suburbs and parks. And it’s got everything that a common big city offers, too: great food, exhibitions, theater, arts, lovely architecture and historical places…and lots of concerts to see.

And the music scene?

Peter: It’s wide and varied; and if we’re talking music, I get inspired by seeing musicians in different fields perform live. But also love to just talk to them and discuss and learn and jump between genres and personalities.

 

 

Peter, Bjorn & John’s Stockholm Favorites

Peter

One of the best things and maybe the most unique thing about Stockholm is the nature.That its so green and that water is everywhere. That you don’t have to go far out of the city centre to experience wildlife. To me that’s the biggest sell. As a country boy, I get the best of both worlds.
In the suburb where I live, there’s even a huge nature reservation area, perfect for strolls and running; and I’m fifteen minutes from the centre.
If you have time, take a boat out to an island in the archipelago. Or at least take a walk round one of the half-islands, like the lush Djurgården. Lots to see and do there, too.
One area where I spend lots of time is the phonily called SOFO. (South of Folkungatan, sort of like a business idea from the boutiques in the area I think –  but it is a convenient name to throw around). Some of my favorite bars, restaurants and cafes are here – like the pub Harvest Home and the Waffleplace Älskade traditioner; and there’s also the lovely Nytorget square and Vita Bergen (“the white mountains”), as well as some great record shops in An Ideal for Living and Pet Sounds. So I would definitely spend an hour or two strolling round this area.

 

SoFo

Bjorn

If anyone is into sports, I recommend going to a game with Djurgården’s ice hockey team. Their home crowd is nothing but unbelievable. The best and coolest team of course is Skellefteå AIK…but they’re located in Skellefteå.
If anyone wants to come say hi to us in the band, your best bet is probably a café called Kaffebar – it’s connected to the INGRID Studios where we hang out a lot. It also has artwork from our Gimme Some album hanging on the walls.

 

Kaffebar

 

John

We are proud of our Swedish public libraries. Some are bigger than others, though, and the Stadsbiblioteket at Odenplan in Stockholm is big and worth a visit. Swedish architect Gunnar Asplund drew this simple but fantastic cylinder-formed library in the 1920s. The outside doesn’t look that impressive, but the inside is kind of magic. When you walk in there you feel like this: “So many books, so little time…”
Siv och Åke is a superb vintage store, conveniently located between the INGRID Studios and the INGRID label office near Mariatorget. Over half my wardrobe is filled with items from here. Not sure if that could be considered to be the best selling point….but…..anyway….nice place and a fantastic staff.

 

Stadsbiblioteket

BlackBook Exclusive: Aussie Indie-Poppers SAFIA’s Fave Spots in Canberra

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Obviously, somewhat overshadowed by Melbourne and Sydney, the music scene in Canberra has gotten a fraction of the international attention. But in 2013 the first single by SAFIA, “Listen to Soul, Listen to Blues,” generated significant excitement, before their 2016 debut album Internal would go on to shoot all the way up to #2 on the Aussie charts.

The dynamic indie-pop trio – vocalist Ben Woolner, drummer Michael Bell, guitarist Harry Sayers – exhibit influences as disparate as James Blake and Disclosure. And indeed, their sound ranges from sleek, ’80s referencing synth-pop (“Embracing Me”) to cool disco-funk (“Freakin’ Out”) to smooth, sultry soul (“Starlight”).

A new album is on the way, which they are currently recording; it’s expected to see release in April of 2019.

 

 

The Australian capital they call home is unusual in that it is noted for being so close to so much nature and wildlife – drive 20 minutes, and you’ll be hanging with emus and kangaroos. It also flaunts world class cultural institutions like The National Portrait GalleryCanberra Contemporary Art Space, and the National Gallery of Australia, whose collection of more than 13,000 photographs is one of the most extensive in the world. And at 153 miles from Sydney, Canberra is just a 55 minute flight from the country’s most visited destination.

In between recording sessions, we asked the band to turn us on to their fave places to hang in when they’re home in Canberra.

(Alas, if you want to catch them live, you’ll have to fly half way around the world, as they’ll be doing shows in Australia through the end of January.)

 

 

 

SAFIA’s Fave Places in Canberra

 

Mt. Ainslie Nature & Wildlife Reserve

I was lucky enough to grow up at the base of this beautiful reserve, which hosts a huge array of native flora and fauna. Situated only ten minutes from the centre of town, it offers 360 degree views of Canberra, which truly help you appreciate the city’s unique design, as well as the vast landscape that surrounds it.

 

 

Smith’s Alternative Bookshop

A bit of a Canberra institution, Smith’s Alternative Bookshop plays host to a wide range of local, interstate and international performers. You will always find a friendly community of people who are passionate about the arts here.

 

 

Highroad

This is my local so I may be a little biased here, but Highroad has arguably some of the best coffee in town. The staff are incredibly welcoming and genuinely passionate about both coffee and food. Its bright, open layout makes it a great place to relax during the day.

 

 

Mocan and Green Grout

This is one of Canberra’s great little hidden gems. It’s the perfect coffee spot during the day, but truly shines as a dinner experience. The kitchen is situated in the middle of the dining area and its sharable plates menu is really unique and, most importantly, delicious.

 

 

Grease Monkey

If you’re looking for the best ‘American’ style burger in town, then Grease Monkey is definitely your best bet. Its outdoor area is great, especially in spring and summer, and you’ll always find a great atmosphere here.

 

 

Old Canberra Inn

This place actually outdates Canberra itself, and used to serve as a coach stop in the late 1800s. It has retained its historic roots and offers a great authentic pub experience. Sitting next to the open fire while enjoying a beer is the perfect way to escape a Canberra winter.

 

 

Bar Rochford

The stylish Bar Rochford is a wine bar tucked away in the heart of the city. Its only signage is a capital ‘R’ written on the front door, but upstairs you’ll find a vibrant drinking spot that offers great wine, cocktails, tapas and company.