31 March 2015

Oh me, oh my–tracking my vacation steps

While my wife and I were on vacation in California (see the next post in my blog), we walked A LOT. I know that because I wore my activity tracker throughout the day. We logged 11 miles of walking on two consecutive days in San Francisco. I think even my wife was surprised by that.

One day, we took a city bus to Golden Gate Park. We walked around in the park, and then we walked to Haight-Asbury and then all the way back to our hotel in the Financial District. According to the tracker, that was 11.32 miles, 24433 steps. The next day, we walked from our hotel around the Embarcadero to Fisherman’s Wharf, and then continued up Van Ness to Union Street. There we shopped around, had lunch, and then walked back via the Wharf and North Beach. That was 11.41 miles, 24861 steps. Whew!

I bought the activity tracker in February. My wife questioned why I needed one, and I probably don’t. I don’t use it to motivate myself to exercise more. I have a pretty regular exercise schedule and I’m disciplined about sticking to it.

But there were a couple of things that I specifically wanted. First, I used to have a heart monitor, and I found that useful for pacing my workouts at the JCC. That was an old system that required a monitor that straps around my chest and connects wirelessly to a wristband/watch. The thing that appealed to me about the new activity tracker was that it’s all integrated into a wristband. It’s kind of amazing how it works. But I’ve been able to determine that it’s pretty accurate.

The other thing I wanted the activity tracker for is to help me understand how much exercise I get from working around the house and yard and walking with my wife. (The walks are part of my exercise regimen.)

While I was trying to decide which device to buy, I looked at several comparisons online. I quickly narrowed it down to either the Fitbit Charge HR or the Mio Fuse. (Both are Editor’s Choices in PC Magazine.) At the time I was shopping, they were both the same price. I liked the style of the Fitbit, and it had a couple of nifty features. For one, when it’s connect via Bluetooth to your iPhone, if you get a call on the phone the Fitbit displays the caller ID so you don’t have to fumble for the phone to decide whether to answer. It also tracks stair steps. That would be very helpful to an office worker who wants to take the stairs to get exercise.

But in the end, I opted for the Mio. (Is it pronounced My-oh or Me-oh? I still don’t know.) I don’t really need either of the nifty Fitbit features. I’m retired, and I don’t climb office stairs anymore, and I don’t answer my phone while I’m exercising. The Mio is more waterproof than the Fitbit (not that I’d wear either while swimming). But more to the point, it was available immediately while the Fitbit was on back order.

Frankly, the hardest part about using the activity tracker is remembering to wear it. The Mio is a little bulky so it doesn’t fit comfortably under long sleeve shirts, so lots of times when I’m just working around the house, I don’t remember to put it on. That kind of defeats the purpose.

As best as I can tell, it’s pretty accurate in measuring heart rate and distances. The default setting for tracking steps taken is 10,000 steps daily. So who decided that 10,000 steps is an appropriate goal for daily exercise? When I take a 4-mile walk with my wife (which is her daily routine), that totals about 9000 steps, so I hit the goal easily on those days. But when I do a workout on the elliptical machine, I know I burn a lot of calories and get a good cardio workout, but it doesn’t tally the equivalent number of steps. I’m eager to see how it works when the weather warms up enough for riding my bike.

Lastly, it now links to the Health app on the iPhone. So I’ve started to accumulate data there. First of all, it’s interesting to note. We’ll see how useful the info is over time.

30 March 2015

2nd Best California Vacation Ever!

In March, my wife and I spent 8 days in California. It was kind of an ambitious trip. We covered a lot of ground, starting in Los Angeles, then to the Paso Robles wine country, ending in San Francisco. It was a busy trip. But probably because we’ve traveled to California many times in our married life, we had things pretty well planned out. At least part of it was the weather. California’s climactic misfortune – an extended drought – meant that we had generally gorgeous weather the whole time.

I’ll post more details about some of the restaurants we visited. But here’s an overview of the trip.

Los Angeles: Like our trip last year, we started in Los Angeles where I had a board meeting for Mazon, the anti-hunger advocacy organization that I serve on. We stayed again at the Hotel Palomar near the UCLA campus. I’ve said it before, I’m a big fan of Kimpton Hotels. But after this second stay, I’m tempted to say that the Palomar is my favorite of all. It certainly is an ideal location. It’s a one-mile walk to Mazon’s office where the board meeting was held. And it’s close to the restaurants, entertainment venues, and sights that we wanted to visit. IMG_0338

  • Sculpture garden on the UCLA campus.
  • Botanical garden, also on the UCLA campus. Besides being a peaceful oasis in the busy city and bustling campus, we were fascinated by the turtles we saw swimming in the little creek and sunning on its banks.
  • Holmby Park – This was our walking destination on the Sunday after we arrived. It’s an easy walk from the Palomar, and a nice little park. On a Sunday morning, with record high temperatures, the park was busy with people walking their dogs and families with their children. But we continued past the park into the Holmby Hills residential neighborhood where we oogled the fabulous mansions located there.
  • Will Rogers Beach – After our walk, we drove to the end of Sunset Boulevard to have lunch at Gladstone’s. We’ve been there before; here’s the link to the review I wrote in 2007. I won’t write any more about it. It’s outrageously expensive (like $25 for a plate of fish and chips). But the view is fantastic, especially on a hot sunny day. And the food is quite good. After our lunch, we walked the beach and even waded into the surf to get our feet wet.
  • Besides Gladstone’s we had a return meal at AOC. Like our past meals there, it was fantastic. But still no celebrity sightings.
  • The other restaurants were ink and Pace. Our meal at ink was the most unusual of our vacation – small plates, wonderful flavors, unusual but appealing combinations. At Pace we enjoyed fantastic Italian fare in a comfortable setting with a jazz combo enhancing the ambiance. I plan to post more detailed reviews about both, so no more about them now.

Paso Robles: After LA, our plan was to drive up the coast to San Francisco. To break up the drive, we decided to check out the Paso Robles wine region. It was a fairly easy drive after we got out of the LA traffic. We picked up picnic fare along the way and ate at one of the wineries that we visited. We enjoyed the wineries very much, better than the Santa Barbara wineries that we visited last year.

  • Wineries – Turley, Opolo, Brecon, and Halter Ranch. We especially liked the wine at Brecon, Halter Creek, and Turley.
  • Paso Robles Inn – We wanted to stay near the town square in order to get a feel for the town and be close to restaurant choices. (The alternative would have been to stay at a winery B&B, which sounded like fun, too.) The Inn is very comfortable and moderately priced. It’s located right across from the town square. The Inn consists of several different buildings surrounding some very nice grounds and gardens.
  • La Cosecha – This was the restaurant we chose for dinner in Paso Robles. After tasting wine all afternoon, we enjoyed having a cocktail before dinner. The restaurant has a great drinks menu. The food is primarily Spanish. I especially enjoyed the ceviche of shrimp and scallops that we had for a starter.

San Francisco: This was our final destination. We stopped to have lunch with relatives in Los Gatos. Then finished the drive into The City. Before turning in our rental car, we drove out to Lands End and Seal Rock. They’ve built a very nice visitor center there since the last time we were in SF. Our hotel was the Galleria Park, a Joie de Vivre located in the Financial District. We’ve stayed at other JDV hotels in the past and found them to be very pleasant. Our room was quite small. Fortunately, we’re not large people. But I could imagine a bigger person feeling very cramped in the tiny bathroom. The hotel was ideally located for our planned activities and restaurants.

  • Golden Gate Park – No vacation in SF is complete without a visit to Golden Gate Park. Besides the beautiful trees and plants, the park is home to the De Young Museum and its fantastic sculpture garden. I was disappointed to have just missed an exhibit of work by Keith Haring. But there was one of his sculptures on display near the entrance to the museum. Despite having visited the Park on many occasions in the past, this was our first time walking around Stowe Lake and onto the little island on the lake. We ate a picnic lunch lakeside. The ducks and gulls shared some sourdough bread with us, after we were done eating. The only disappointment from this visit was that the rose garden had just started blooming and wasn’t at full color yet.
  • Farmers market at the Ferry Building on the Embarcadero – The variety of fresh, local food that’s available at the market is astounding. We shared a smoked brisket sandwich from Shorty Goldstein’s Jewish Deli booth at the market. Delicious.
  • Chinatown – Sure it’s a cliché. It’s jam-packed with people and stores and shops overflowing with knick-knacks, souvenirs, and cheap toys. But it’s an integral part of the culture of San Francisco, which makes it worthwhile to visit, even just to walk through and take in the sights and sounds.
  • Jewish Museum – I really like this museum. But it’s a small museum, and its exhibits are thematic. On this particular visit, the exhibits were more cultural than artistic. They were instructive, but not as enjoyable for our preference.
  • Restaurants: On this trip, we revisited two old favorites and two new experiences. IMG_0381
    • Kokkari – This is our favorite restaurant in the city. I’ve reviewed it before, and don’t really have anything new to add. Only to say that we like it so much, it’s probably the only restaurant that’s on our ‘must eat there’ list for future trips to SF. Here’s my review from our first dinner there, in 2008. Here’s my second post about it.
    • La Mar – We’d eaten here for lunch previously. We liked it so much that we decided to try it for dinner this time. It was fantastic, as we expected. The only thing is, my wife is sensitive to cilantro, and a lot of the dishes are seasoned with it. However, the menu is very extensive, and we did not have trouble finding other dishes for her to eat.
    • Piperade – Totally new to us, and wonderful. I’d heard about it and had it on my list of restaurants to try in SF. It features food from the Basque region of Spain. I’ll write more about it on another post. But it fully met our expectations.
    • Waterfront – We’ve eaten here for lunch and dinner. It’s a very good, nothin’ fancy fish and seafood restaurant right on the Embarcadero. It’s not as touristy as Fisherman’s Wharf. We decided to have our last night’s dinner here. The photo above was our dinner at the Waterfront; what a beautiful view of the Bay Bridge! It was a perfect choice.

It’s hard to imagine how this vacation could have been any better. Just for the record, however, our No. 1 Best California Vacation Ever was 40+ years ago … our honeymoon.

13 March 2015

Casa Luca makes DC dining choices complicated

I planned my dinner at Casa Luca in DC for almost a year. I had previously eaten at Fabio Trabocchi’s other two DC restaurants. I had lunch at Fiola in 2012. It was fabulous. (Click here for the review I wrote.) Then a year ago, I had dinner at Fiola Mare, specializing in fish and seafood. Great food and beautiful venue, but I had trouble with the service. (Click here for that review.)

For me, the appeal of trying his third restaurant was partly curiosity. I wanted to see what the chef did differently from his other two places. It also was partly because I so enjoyed the Italian cooking served at his DC restaurants, quite different from what’s served at Italian restaurants in Minnesota.

So I was in DC alone on a Saturday night. My plane arrived early evening, so I made a later dinner reservation. I didn’t have any trouble getting a table. But in retrospect, I think that was because it was a little later than the usual dinner rush.

When I got there, Casa Luca was hopping! It seemed like there were two large parties ahead of me. When I checked in at the reception desk, I was told that a table was just being cleared and it would be a couple of minutes. As an alternative to waiting, I was offered a single seat at the bar. But that wasn’t the dining experience I wanted, so I declined. There was no hint that they were trying to push me to take a seat at the bar. I think it truly was intended to avoid any wait at all.

(This was quite a different reception from the dinner I had at Fiola Mare. In my review, I speculated that perhaps my service was below par because I was a table for one. In any case, that experience was not replicated at Casa Luca. In fact, the manager stopped by my table to personally apologize for the brief wait that I experienced, and she stopped back periodically throughout the evening to make sure everything was going well.)

On its web site, Casa Luca is described as a family-friendly ‘osteria’ – a place to relax and enjoy a casual meal and a glass of wine. Well, maybe … maybe with my adult kids. But I don’t think I’d take smaller children there, and maybe not teenagers either. It’s not that casual. And it’s also pricy. Maybe not quite as expensive as Fiola or Fiola Mare. But I’d consider it more of a special occasion restaurant rather than a place for a family gathering.

One more comment about the ‘casual’ thing. I wore a coat and tie. I didn’t have to. There were a few patrons wearing jeans. But most of the diners were fairly nicely dressed.

So far, so good. Welcoming reception. Relaxing ambiance. Now for the menu.

I spotted a cocktail on the menu that sounded intriguing. It was called Il Palio, made with bourbon, vermouth, and orange bitters served over something called Campari ice. I liked it and jotted down the ingredients to try to replicate it at home. But I wasn’t sure what they meant by Campari ice. So when I got home, I did a search on the internet. I was pleasantly surprised to find the recipe on the Saveur web site, crediting the bartender at Casa Luca for inventing the cocktail. (Click here for that recipe.) I haven’t tried it yet, but I will soon.

My wife always feels bad for me when I tell her I ate alone. I really don’t mind. But the main problem is that you either end up trying several things on the menu and ordering too much food, or you just order what you’re hungry for and only get to sample a couple things. I only got a couple items.

The menu at Casa Luca starts with a listing of ‘piccoletti’ described as small nibbles. I saw a farro salad that looked interesting and ordered that. It was more than a nibble, I can attest to that. In fact, it was a nice portioned starter and could have been split between two people. Along with smoked farro, the salad had artichokes, red peppers, and a generous portion of tender lobster meat. It was excellent.

For my entrée, I went with a daily special, described as a grilled lamb shoulder rack. It’s a cut I don’t think I’ve heard of much less eaten. I’ve had shoulder roast before, and my server said that this dish starts out being roasted and then cut into chops and finished on a grill. It might have been slightly more fatty than rib chops or loin chops. But it was delicious and very tender. There was a portion of roasted cauliflower served on the plate with the lamb, and that also was delicious. I’ve read that cauliflower is the new ‘in’ vegetable.

I had looked at Casa Luca’s wine list online and was eager to try a glass of one of their Italian reds. I opted for a Vajra Langhe Rosso, a blend of nebbiolo and barbera. It was perfect with the lamb. (On our next trip to Italy, I’ve got to visit the Piedmont region where this wine came from.)

So you can tell, I’m raving about this restaurant. I’d love it if just one of Trabocchi’s restaurants were in Minnesota. But alas, I’ll just have to wait for future trips to DC. Of the three, I think that I still like Fiola the best, and I really ought to try it for dinner. Then I’d rank Casa Luca as my second favorite. I’m probably being too harsh about my service complaints from Fiola Mare. The food was good and the setting is beautiful. But I just don’t have any compelling reason to go back.

11 March 2015

KwikPick: Possibly the best restaurant on Capitol Hill = Bistro Bis

Before I retired, I came to think of Bistro Bis as my favorite DC restaurant. It has the ideal intersection of convenience, ambiance, good service, creative menu, consistently reliable meals. I’ve been there for breakfasts, lunches, and dinners. They’re all great. I did post a review on this blog once before. But it was several years ago (2007) and a recent return visit refreshed my enthusiasm for the restaurant.

  • Food: 5 (Ok, a little hyperbole here. My rating scale says a “5” is so good it would make angels weep. I don’t know if I’ve ever actually tasted food that good. But this is really good.)
  • Service: 5
  • Ambiance: 5
  • Value: 5 Not to say that it’s inexpensive; it’s not. But it’s really worth it.

Since I retired, I don’t get to DC nearly as often as I did. Consequently, when I do travel there, I tend to want to try emerging new stars in the DC food scene rather than return to an old favorite. But when I met members of my old team and colleagues for lunch in early March, we went to Bistro Bis.

It thoroughly lived up to my memories of why I liked it so much.

I’ve always had good service at Bistro Bis. That means attentive without hovering, knowledgeable about the menu, good intuition about what a customer wants when asking for advice. The server we had on this most recent visit also had a sense of bravado and enthusiasm about the restaurant. He boldly asserted that Bistro Bis is the best restaurant on Capitol Hill. And I for one would not contradict him.

Recommendation: Definitely go if you’re on an expense account. Definitely go if you’re someone else’s guest. Definitely go to treat yourself, even if you’re on your own tab.

Click here for an explanation of my KwikPick rating scale.


08 March 2015

Warming up to Coup d’Etat, Mpls.

Serious reviewers generally dine at a restaurant multiple times before writing a review. Makes sense. You ought to try several items on the menu (for nothing else but to determine consistency from the kitchen). And a repeat visit gives you a chance to test whether the first time was just a bad night, or alternatively perhaps it was an uncharacteristically good night.

So this post is both a confession and testimony to the wisdom of making multiple visits: Most of the reviews I post on Krik’s Picks are based on just a single experience. But after my third time at Coup d’Etat in Minneapolis, I’ve changed my mind about my initial first impression, which was not favorable.IMG_0333

There’s a lot to like about the restaurant, starting with the space and ambiance. It’s a big open room with high ceilings. Tables on the second level have a great view of the bars (there are multiple) and action on the lower level. It does tend to be quite loud, but that just adds to the energy and vibrancy of the restaurant. My wife and I have eaten both upstairs and down. Both were fun experiences, but after last night’s dinner, I’d say we somewhat prefer to eat upstairs.

The second thing that’s notable is the restaurant’s lineage. It’s part of a group called Jester Concepts. The group includes Borough and Parlour in the North Loop. We love both of those restaurants and have especially enjoyed getting a light dinner at Parlour before heading across the street to Bunkers for an evening of rowdy music and dancing. The similarities are especially evident in the beverage department. We loved the creative cocktails at Borough and Parlour, and the libations at Coup d’Etat are equally as appealing.

Last, but certainly not least, is the food. Our past experiences at Borough and Parlour have been impressive for the creative menu, fresh food, expertly prepared, and attractively presented. Coup d’Etat fits that mold very nicely.

Despite all that, our first visit to Coup d’Etat was not favorable; not a disaster, but definitely disappointing. On that first visit, we had a table on the second level, overlooking the hustle and bustle of the bar below and the throng of people coming and going. From my wife's chair, she could watch the bartenders concocting their creative elixirs. She also could see the food move to the counter where it was picked up by the servers. After a while she commented, "I bet that's my pizza that they just put up. Our food must be coming soon." She had ordered one of the nightly special pizzas. I had ordered lamb chops. Well, we waited and waited and waited. Finally my lamb chops came up and our server delivered the food. The pizza was cold ... not lukewarm. Cold. We sent it back. It was too late for them to do another pizza, so we just canceled her food and I shared my entrée with her.

The server and manager were profusely and sincerely apologetic. But once a restaurant goes into damage control mode, it’s difficult to recover a favorable image. When we left that night, we concluded that we’d rather just go to Borough or Parlour rather than return to Coup d’Etat. But, a few months later, we planned to have dinner with a couple of friends and jointly opted for Coup d’Etat. That was a much better experience. No complaints whatsoever.

Then, this past weekend, as the early vestiges of spring began to appear in Minnesota, we decided to give it yet another try. And I must say, this was our best experience so far. Once again we had a table on the second level. We picked out some interesting drinks to start the evening, then turned to the menu. On our previous visits, we’d observed that the serving sizes are ample, especially for light eaters like us. So we picked a starter to share, one entrée and one side dish again to share.

Our starter was agnolotti – a stuffed pasta like ravioli. This version was stuffed with a sweet potato filling, and the plate included macadamia nuts, bacon and kale. It could have been a small entrée for one person, but very satisfying to share for two. The side plate we ordered with our entrée was cauliflower. This was a delicious and ample plate of cauliflower florets seasoned with Moroccan spice and served with pickled sultanas and preserved lemon. I had to look up the sultanas. We thought they were white raisins but the flavors were unusual, which the pickling would explain.

The entrée was a rib eye steak. When it was served, we thought the kitchen had divided it in half because we were sharing it. But when we saw another order served at the next table, we observed that it also was split in two. That reinforced our feeling that the size of the entrées will easily feed two people. The server said the steaks would be served medium rare. We thought they were a little rarer than that, but acceptable to us. On the plate was two potato-stuffed raviolis. The whole dish was beautifully presented and delicious.

Our server was very friendly and helpful with his advice and recommendations. He tempted us with dessert, but we ultimately opted not to.

So on the basis of this third visit, I’m changing my mind, or perhaps more accurately, I’m refining my view about Coup d’Etat. I would definitely return and recommend it. And I’m eagerly awaiting the opening of another sister restaurant scheduled for later this year. It will be an Italian restaurant located in the Hotel Ivy. I’m hoping it will live up to the great Italian restaurants I’ve experienced in Washington, DC, and find missing in Minnesota.