31 December 2017

They Do Love Their Water Sports in San Sebastian Spain

During our stay in San Sebastian last October, we were amazed by the prevalence of water sports that we saw. We knew that the city's beaches are part of its appeal. So we expected to see swimming and surfing, which we did. But we didn't know that we'd see so many people participating in so many different water sports in all kinds of weather.

Sailboats racing about on a rainy day
The weather was beautiful on the afternoon we arrived in San Sebastian. We had expected cool weather, so we did not bring swimsuits on this trip. However, we did roll up our pant legs and wade in the refreshing sea water. As we walked along the beach, we watched several people in kayaks rowing back and forth across the bay. My wife and I both do some kayaking at Island Lake in Minnesota. For us, it's just a leisurely way to get out on the water and enjoy the scenery. The kayakers we saw in San Sebastian were serious rowers. We were impressed by how fast they went.

The next day, the weather turned grey and threatened rain. We carried umbrellas as we walked along the Urumea River that runs through the middle of the city. Despite the unpleasant weather, we saw several rowers sculling up and down the river.

The following day the weather was even worse. We imprudently neglected to carry umbrellas and got rained on during our hike up Monte Urgull (one of 3 high hills that provide vista views of San Sebastian, its bay and the ocean beyond). The rain didn't dissuade us; we were already committed to the hike. But we were surprised to see small sailboats racing back and forth in the bay.

But the activity that amazed me the most was river surfing on the Urumea. Our last day in San Sebastian provided a return to beautiful weather. On our morning walk (intending to hike up Monte Ulia, the second of the 3 hills), I was fascinated to observe how the high tide allowed ocean waves to roll into the mouth of the river. It's a phenomenon I've never seen before. But as interesting as that was, it was even more amazing to see people surfing up river on the waves! They were on stand-up paddleboards which they rowed into the waves as they broke. It was a truly singular sight. (Sorry, no photo. But you can read more about it by clicking this link.)

Sculling on the Urumea River

28 December 2017

Travelogue Paris 2017: Getting comfortable in familiar settings

My wife and I have been to Paris often enough now that we sort of feel at home there. Well, if not actually 'homey,' at least familiar enough so that we can wander through neighborhoods with a sense of familiarity. So when we planned our autumn trip to Europe (and Morocco), it was an easy decision to begin in Paris. There's a direct flight on Delta from Minneapolis to Paris. We flew overnight and arrived mid-morning. After clearing customs, we arrived at our hotel late morning. The friendly staff let us check in early. So we had a chance to unpack and relax before setting out. But even if they hadn't, we could have just checked our luggage and gone out to find a cafe for lunch.

The last time we were in Paris, the weather was ugly - cold, windy, rainy, we even had sleet one day. So this trip was sort of a do-over, and the weather was much more pleasant. In mid-October, we expected it to be cool. Normally it would be. But for the 4 days on this trip, we enjoyed unseasonably warm weather.

Our hotel for this trip was Les Dames du Pantheon. We loved it. I gave it 5 stars on my tripadvisor review. Some of the rooms have a view of the Pantheon, and it is very impressive. In the evening, young people gather in the square in front of the Pantheon, and I suppose it could be a little noisy. Our room, facing a side street, was nice and quiet. But for us, the main appeal was the neighborhood. It's close to Notre Dame, The Luxembourg Gardens, the Latin Quarter and many excellent restaurants. But it's far enough out of the hubbub of the Left Bank to also be quiet and relaxing. We also really appreciated the staff. They were friendly and accommodating.

Restaurants: 
Having fun at Aux Trois Mailletz

Aux Trois Mailletz: We have come here multiple times on previous trips to Paris. Usually we just come for the music and generally entertaining experience. On this trip, we decided to also have dinner. The food was good. Nothing to rave about, but flavorful and satisfying. We ordered a bottle of wine, which we sipped with dinner and throughout the evening listening to the piano bar performers. We asked our server to take a photo. As we posed for the shot, other patrons started calling out 'bise, bise!' It took us a while to figure out they wanted us to kiss. (I definitely have to improve my French.)

La Maison de Verlaine: This is a friendly, comfortable neighborhood restaurant that we 'discovered' on our previous trip to Paris. We enjoyed it so much that we paid a return visit in 2017. Still very satisfying and enjoyable.

L'Orangerie: My wife and I saw this restaurant while strolling through L'ile Saint-Louis. It looked appealing, so we made a reservation for dinner. It fully lived up to our expectations. We both ordered off the 3-course menu (a good value for 35 Euros). Our food was delicious and attractively presented. The service was attentive without being obtrusive. We did note that on the night we dined there, most of the other guests were speaking English. A casual conversation with the diner at the next table confirmed that the restaurant is popular with business travelers.

Le Coupe-ChouThe staff at our hotel recommended Le Coupe-Chou for our last night in Paris. It was 3 blocks away and highly recommended. It was just what we wanted. The restaurant was quiet and warm. Service was efficient and accommodating. We both decided to order off the daily menu - 3 courses for 33 Euros. However, I wanted a different dessert. No problem. The server pointed out that I could have the entree and main course for 27 Euros and then order my preferred dessert ala carte. For the record, my dessert was figs poached in red wine and honey. Delicious. Just one observation, however. It seemed like most of the patrons were speaking English. That's not bad, and it certainly isn't a negative as far as a dining experience. But my guess is that locals tend to steer English-speaking guests to a restaurant like this because it does accommodate us. So if you're looking to immerse yourself in Parisian ambiance, you probably won't find that here. 

Figs poached in red wine and honey, at Le Coupe-Chou



Nightlife: 

Besides Aux Trois Mailletz, mentioned above, which was both dinner and entertainment, we also made our way over to Sunset Sunside for a late set after dinner one night. There was a local jazz trio performing some pretty hard-driving music. Despite being jam-packed, the people in the audience listened attentively and appreciatively to the musicians. They were great. We only heard one set and then everyone left. Early, we thought, for Paris. 


27 December 2017

I almost decided to get rid of my Jaguar

It was Christmas Eve Day. My wife and I had plans to meet friends for a movie and dinner. I opened the garage door and hopped in the car. I pressed the start button. All I got was a sickening "thunk, thunk." The electronics started flashing error messages on the dashboard. It was obvious that the Jaguar would not be our sleigh ride on this Christmas Eve.

Flashback: When I retired, I bought a new 2014 Jaguar XK. I have coveted Jaguars ever since I became acquainted with them in the mid-1960s, in fact since before I even had a drivers license. But over the years, I always had other, more practical priorities, like paying for college, getting married, buying a house, having kids, saving for their colleges, saving for their weddings, saving for the grandkids colleges ...
Me and my XK

My wife gets the actual credit for the Jaguar that's parked in our garage. She's the one who encouraged me finally to start a dedicated account to save up for a Jaguar. And by the time I retired, it was enough. I debated whether to buy a restored vintage XKE like I fell in love with 50 years ago. But I'm sort of mechanically challenged, and I knew I wouldn't be able to keep an old Jaguar running on my own. The XK model design was reminiscent enough of the XKE. So I decided to get a new one, anticipating that it would be more reliable mechanically.

Don't get me wrong. It's been pretty good. The only thing that's ever caused any serious trouble has been the electrical system.

Eyes Wide Open: I've always heard that the electrical system is fussy in a Jaguar. About once a year, I discover that the battery has drained unexpectedly and without any apparent cause. It happened earlier this fall. When I took the car in to have the show tires put on (yes, I do drive it all winter in Minnesota), I asked the mechanics to check it out.

The verdict was that the battery was starting to get weak. "It's rated at 800 cold cranking amps, and the meter shows it putting out 600," the mechanic told me. He said that should be ok. But since the car was still at the dealer, he could put in a new battery, if I wanted, for $500. I gulped at that. Yeah, maintaining a Jaguar isn't cheap. But $500 for a car battery? That seemed unreasonable. So, I declined.

Now, when the car wouldn't start earlier this fall, my son-in-law lent me his jump starter. And that worked! The car fired up. I drove it around to recharge the battery, and I hoped that everything was ok. As insurance, I went out and bought a jump starter myself.

Not good enough, apparently. When we got home from a very nice dinner with our friends, I plugged in the jump starter that I bought so that it would be fully charged by morning. On Christmas morning, I went into the garage, hooked up the jump starter, got into the car and pushed the start button. All I heard was the same sickening "thunk thunk" and the electronics went berserk again. Frustrating, but it was Christmas Day. I didn't really need to be driving the Jaguar anywhere. And I knew it would be next to impossible to get someone to come out and help me get it started.

I thought, maybe my son-in-law's jump starter was more powerful. So later in the evening, I went over to his house and borrowed his Stanley JumpIt again. I charged it up overnight. On Tuesday morning, I hooked it up to the car. Much to my chagrin, still no action.

My Jaguar dealer provides emergency roadside assistance, including jump starts. I did have to call them one other time when the battery drained. I knew that it would be a long wait, so I decided to try one more thing. My local hardware store opened at 8 a.m. I ran over there and bought jumper cables. Came home and hooked up my wife's Honda . The Jaguar did turn over. But not with enough oomph to get it started.

Time to call in a pro. I dialed the roadside assistance number. Of course, I waited on hold for 20 minutes, but finally someone came on the phone, took my information, and put in a service call with a local provider. Ah, but now, I started to run into my own schedule conflicts. I had a couple of appointments to take care of, and the time that the auto service guy could come out wouldn't work. So I told them to just wait a day and come on Wednesday.

It was while I was running my errands (in my wife's car) that I had my moment of doubt. "What's the point of having a beautiful, high-powered car just sitting in my garage?" I said to myself. It's 4 years old, just over 30,000 miles. I wondered what I could get if I tried to sell it. But what would I replace it with? I liked the Volvo I was driving when I got the Jaguar. Maybe I'd get a new Volvo. Or maybe I'd shop for an electric vehicle.

Wednesday morning, a tow truck that was arranged by the roadside assistance service pulled into my driveway. It took 3 tries. But finally after 4 frustrating days, the Jaguar fired up with a throaty roar. I guess she'd just been sleeping.

As I drove up the street, on my way to get a new battery, the car surged ahead, as if to complain: "What am I doing on this suburban street? I should be flying down the highway."

I felt that familiar thrill. I'm driving a Jaguar! And all thoughts of getting rid of it evaporated.

29 November 2017

A visit to 2 small museums in Paris

There are many reasons why my wife and I keep coming back to Paris. One of them is the immense variety of things to see and do there. Every time we return, we have a list of favorite places to see and things to do. But we also have a companion list of new things to visit and do.

Ossip Zadkine, a sculptor's self-portrait. 
The itinerary for our October trip included a pair of small museums that we'd read about - Musee Zadkine and the Musee d'Art et d'Historie du Judaisme. (Both, by the way, are recommended by a French blogger who I follow. Her name is Clotilde Dusoulier. She calls her blog Chocolate & Zucchini.)

Our plan was to go to Zadkine first. It's located close to the Luxembourg Gardens and only a few blocks from the hotel where we stayed. This fit our plan of old and new nicely, since the Gardens are on our must-visit list. So on a bright Monday morning, after getting checked into our hotel, we strolled across the Gardens to find the museum. 

It turned out to be not that easy. We had the correct address. We even had it on Google Maps, but somehow walked by it without noticing. When we finally got reoriented and found the door, we were chagrined to realize that the museum is closed on Monday. Well, no matter. We had plenty of things to see on our list. 

We almost decided not to come back. That would have been a bad decision. On Wednesday, after a breakfast of espresso and a croissant, we made our way across the Gardens again and were pleased to find the doors open and welcoming. We did have one more glitch. Musee Zadkine is usually listed as a free museum. But on our visit, we had to pay an entrance fee of a few Euros. It turns out that there was a special exhibition commemorating the 50th anniversary of the artist's death. 

The artist, Ossip Zadkine, was born in Russia in 1890. He studied in London and moved to Paris in 1910. His home and studio now is the site of the museum that features his sculptures. The special exhibit was particularly fascinating, since it included works by many other artists who influenced Zadkine. These included Pablo Picasso and Auguste Rodin. 

Many of Zadkine's pieces are displayed in a quiet garden surrounding his studio.
While the Musee Zadkine exceeded our expectations, the Musee d'Art et d'Historie du Judaisme was ... not disappointing, but also not quite as engaging as we had expected. In fact, if you look at the museum's site online, I think it's more interesting than the actual museum. 

I hope that doesn't come across as too harsh. We did enjoy the museum. It does exactly what the name describes - it provides a broad historical perspective on Jewish history beginning in the Biblical era. It appropriately has a focus on the history of Jews in France, but not exclusively. 

It's located in the Hotel de Saint-Aignan. (The museum's web site provides an interesting history of the building.) Our visit provided us with a nice cultural break after spending the morning sightseeing and shopping in the Marais. (The museum's web site explains that the Jewish presence in the Marais dates back 700 years, but with notable gaps during periods of anti-Semitic persecution and expulsion.) 

The courtyard leading to the entrance of the Jewish museum.





27 November 2017

A fascinating, but morbid visit to a Paris cemetery

We all make compromises with loved ones, right? I don't know if visiting a cemetery would have been high on my list of things to do in Paris. But my wife really wanted to. So on an overcast and blustery day in mid-October, we trekked across town to the gates of the Pere Lachaise Cemetery. 

My first suggestion - learn from our mistake. Don't walk. Take a taxi or public transportation. It was a long walk, 2.5 miles, from our hotel near the Pantheon. It wasn't a bad walk, but the neighborhoods were not particularly scenic. It was nice to see some of the neighborhoods outside of the tourist center of Paris. And, for that matter, it didn't take too much longer than public transportation. It took us around 45 minutes to walk it. The shortest public transit route took 31 minutes (according to Google Maps) and required a transfer. But if you do decide to walk, remember - when you get there, all you're going to be doing is walking around some more. 

My wife had a list of graves she wanted to find. We had a map that we'd accessed on the internet, and there are detailed maps in the cemetery. But still, it's not easy to find specific graves. As we began exploring the winding paths through the cemetery, one of the first things we came across was the Jewish section. I suppose I shouldn't be surprised, but even in death the Jews of old Paris were segregated in a Ghetto. There is a Rothschild family vault, but we couldn't find it. (Later on during our visit, we did find newer Jewish graves in other parts of the cemetery.)
Chopin's grave in Paris - pilgrimage for a piano player

We did find the graves of Jim Morrison and Frederick Chopin. We looked for others, including Gertrude Stein and Edith Piaf. But we just couldn't find them. We came across the tomb of Honore de Balzac, though we weren't really looking for it.

Jim Morrison's grave - pilgrimage for Doors fans

For me, the thing that made our visit memorable was a series of very moving monuments to the victims of World War II and the Nazis. Besides several monuments to French Jews who were murdered in various concentration camps, there also were memorials to French soldiers and resistance fighters who died in the war.


Monuments to those sent to Sachsenhausen (left) and Buchenwald (right)

04 July 2017

Enjoying a belated Fathers Day lunch at Coalition in Edina

For Fathers Day, in June, my daughter's present to me was to have lunch together. (Sweet.) I got to pick the location. I wanted to be careful not to pick too expensive, in case she insisted on picking up the check. I didn't purposely pick a theme, but my choices all were along 50th Street in South Minneapolis. Two of the choices were reliable favorites:  St. Genevieve at 50th & Bryant and Terzo at 50th & Penn. The third choice was a new restaurant at 50th & France - Coalition. Tovah picked Coalition. It exceeded expectations.

The South Minneapolis/Edina location is the second Coalition location. The original is located in Excelsior. We seldom go out that direction. I don't think I've ever eaten there. And now I don't have any reason to, since the new location is so good.

The decor at Coalition is sleek and modern with chrome, brick, and high ceilings. My daughter arrived early and got us a high-top table next to the window facing onto 50th Street. That was very nice for our July 3 lunch date. Farther back in the restaurant are tables and booths. They looked very comfortable, but perhaps a little bit dark, maybe a better mood for dinner. Overall the restaurant wasn't particularly crowded. We received a friendly greeting at the door, and our table was close to the entry. I did see one group of 3 come in, also seated at a high-top. But when their fourth person arrived, they moved to one of the tables in the restaurant.

Tovah had scanned the menu online. At lunch, it features several small plates, vegetables, and salads. The entree section of the menu is mostly burgers and sandwiches. There were several items on the small plates and vegetables that looked good, so we decided to order 3 of them to get a variety to sample. We also decided to split a sandwich.

Here's what we had:

  • Burrata (listed as a starter, or small plate) - two generous globes of soft, milky burrata cheese served with a generous scoop of fig jam, some greens, thin slices of American prosciutto, and four pieces of lightly toasted ciabatta bread. 
The burrata platter was my favorite
  • Brussels sprouts - lightly sauteed and served with grilled grapes and hazelnuts. We both thought they had a sweetness that couldn't be explained simply by the grilled grapes. Turns out they are drizzled lightly with some honey.
  • Cauliflower - Our server commented that this is one of their most popular items on the menu. The florets are lightly fried (I think in sesame oil) with a sweet pepper barbecue dressing and green onions. 
  • We also split a chicken sandwich on focaccia with brie cheese and arugula. 
The vegetables were excellent. I can see why the cauliflower is so popular. My personal favorite from this lunch was the burrata platter. The cheese was excellent. It was beautifully presented. The fig jam was good. The ciabatta was good. I'm not a big prosciutto fan, but Tovah liked it. 
Lunch at Coalition, ample servings at a reasonable price

It turns out that those 3 items would have been ample for our lunch. We didn't need the sandwich. The sandwich was good, but not memorable. It was nice that they split the sandwich and plated it separately for us. And I just realized as I'm writing this post - we were given a choice of salad on the side with the sandwich. I asked for slaw. But the salad we were served was more of a tossed salad with a light vinaigrette and tomatoes. It was fine. But my daughter doesn't like tomatoes, and I noticed she left hers on the plate. 

Coalition is open for breakfast as well as dinner. We looked at the menus for both. I seldom go out for breakfast, so I don't anticipate sampling that menu. On the dinner menu, the starters, vegetables, and salads look pretty much the same as the lunch menu. The main difference seems to be that the sandwiches are replaced with full entrees. 

I did bring the leftover Brussels sprouts and cauliflower home. My wife and I had them with a meal at home. She really liked them and said she'd like to try the restaurant. So I'm sure that we'll make a return visit, probably for dinner (maybe after a movie at the Edina Theater). 

Also, I did pick up the check for lunch. My daughter objected. But really, the joy was in having time alone with her, and not having her pay for our lunch. 

31 May 2017

Travelogue NYC: Enjoying it in spite of myself

I don't really like New York very much. I serve on the board of Mazon, an anti-hunger advocacy organization. Mazon has a yearly board meeting in New York. That's really the only reason why I go there. If it weren't for Mazon, I probably never would go to New York.

And yet ...

It seems like my wife and I always have a good time when we go to the yearly meeting in New York. We walk around a lot. We see a lot of interesting things. We enjoy some good food and hear exciting jazz. Sometimes we visit acquaintances who live there. My wife usually does some shopping.

Our most recent trip in May turned out that way. Here's what we did.

My board meeting was scheduled for Monday. We flew in on Friday. Our flight was supposed to arrive early afternoon. But, first we had a delay taking off from Minneapolis. That put us an hour behind schedule. Then when we landed, at 2 p.m., we encountered horrendous traffic delays getting to our hotel. That took an hour and a half. (Our driver lamented that normally, it should have taken no more than 30 minutes.) By the time we got checked in, it was 4 p.m., and we hadn't had any lunch yet. Luckily, happy hour at the hotel's rooftop lounge started at 4 p.m. So that's where we went for a bite to eat and liquid attitude readjustment.

Our dinner reservation (9 p.m.) was at a jazz club. It was a 2 mile walk down Broadway; took us right through Times Square. Then after dinner, at midnight, we walked back. Times Square was still hopping.

The next day, was a major walking expedition. We walked over to the High Line trail. In case you don't know, it's a walking path that follows the route of an old elevated railroad line. The north entrance is on 34th St. W. and 11th Ave. and it stretches to the Meatpacking District, ending at the Whitney Museum.

The TriBeCa Band performing at a street fair

On a previous trip, we went into the Whitney after walking the High Line. But this time, we had a different destination in mind. After coming down from the High Line, we picked up Greenwich Street and followed that all the way to the 9/11 Memorial and the new World Trade Center building. It was really an impressive and sobering experience. Before beginning our hike back to the hotel, we went into the Oculus, which is the centerpiece of the World Trade Center transportation hub.
At the 9/11 Memorial

Along the walk back to our hotel, we took a break for shopping in the West Village on Bleeker Street. Linda scored a piece of jewelry. The route to our hotel took us through Times Square for the third time. On a Saturday afternoon, it was unbelievably jam packed. I swore that I would not go through it again (at least on this trip).

By the time we got back to the hotel, we barely had enough time to rest up before we had to leave. We had an 8 p.m. table reserved for the first set at a jazz club back in Greenwich Village. After all the walking, this time we took a cab. Once again, the traffic was horrendous. We should have gone by subway. Our 10 p.m. dinner reservation was back up near Central Park. So when the first set ended, we hopped in another cab and headed back uptown. Thankfully, by this time, the traffic had thinned and it didn't take too long to get there.

Total walking distance for Saturday in New York: 10.8 miles.
Brilliant day for the AIDS Walk

Sunday we spent much of the day wandering through Central Park. By coincidence, Sunday was the New York AIDS walk. We went over to the main stage and listened to the speakers for a while, then continued our stroll. We took a break for brunch and to browse through the Greenflea Market. It was fun checking it all out, but we didn't buy anything. Then we went back into the park. It was a beautiful day for walking aimlessly with no destination in mind.

Our dinner on Sunday night was near our hotel. Afterwards, we took a short walk to settle our stomachs. We enjoyed seeing Lincoln Center and Columbus Circle at night. With my board meeting the next day, we didn't go out for music after dinner. Total walking distance on Sunday: 10.7 miles. (It didn't seem that much, but that's what the app on my iPhone said.)

On Monday, while I was at my meeting, Linda went shopping. Rain had moved in overnight. But fortunately the shops she planned to visit were close by. When the rain let up around midday, she even went back to Times Square one more time, this time to stop in at the Hershey Store. In the evening, we were heading to TriBeCa for dinner. The weather was still threatening, but after sitting in a meeting all day, we decided to walk it, figuring we could duck into the subway if the rain got too heavy.
Looking across the Hudson River at New Jersey

After dinner, we fully intended to take the subway back to the hotel. But we'd been tipped off to a walking path along the Hudson River that we'd never walked before. We ended up walking all the way back. Total walking distance on Monday: 7.5 miles.

I'll post some additional information about our hotel, the jazz clubs we visited, and the restaurants we ate at. But I'd have to say that despite my general disregard for New York, we did have a nice time.

06 April 2017

Recipe: Tagine de Legumes du Cafe Aion

When my wife and I spent a few days in Boulder in March, my favorite restaurant was Cafe Aion. We had great French food at Brasserie Ten Ten and great Italian at Via Perla. But the lunch we had at Aion was so delicious and memorable that I'd have to say it was my favorite.

As I wrote in my original blog post about Aion (click here for the full post), I liked the vegetable tagine so much that I sent an email to the restaurant requesting instructions on how to replicate it. I got this quick reply:

"Roast vegetables with a little olive oil and salt - high heat in the oven. (we use carrots, butternut squash & cauliflower)
"Make the mix: sauté equal parts of chopped ginger & garlic in olive oil. when they are starting to turn golden add in ground cumin, coriander, cinnamon, chili, bay leaf & saffron, stir briefly to release aromatics Then add in canned tomatoes and let simmer until it has thickened a bit. Then add in cooked chickpeas, the roast veggies and let the whole mess simmer for a bit (might need to add a little bit of veg stock)  to really come together! 
"We like to top ours with fresh chopped herbs (parsley, cilantro & mint) as well as preserved lemons & fresh chilies."

That was good enough for me to give it a try. I made it for our family Friday night dinner recently when my sister-in-law and her husband joined us; he's a vegetarian. I basically liked how it turned out, and I'm using my experience to suggest a recipe. I did consult some other posted recipes for tagines and particularly for vegetable tagines. The New York Times Cooking web site has a very useful and instructive post on how to make tagine. I'd recommend it. 

When I made this tagine, I think I used too much saffron. I used two healthy pinches of saffron threads, and the resulting dish had a very pronounced saffron flavor. Usually, I think saffron should be more balanced with the other spices, as it was in the tagine I had at Aion. So in the recipe, I've called for less saffron. I did saute some chopped onions before I added the canned tomatoes. I envisioned the garlic and ginger and spices to be the basis for a tomato sauce, and I just thought some onion would be good. 

I used home canned tomatoes from my mother's garden. They tend to have quite a lot more liquid than commercial canned tomatoes. The instructions I got from Aion suggested adding vegetable stock if the tagine seems too thick. With the home-canned tomatoes, I didn't have to add any more liquid. But I think that might be necessary if using commercial canned tomatoes. 

My version of this dish has more chickpeas than what I was served at Aion. I liked having more chickpeas in the dish, and they helped make it more substantial for the vegetarian. I served the tagine with brown rice. Aion serves it with pita bread. 
My version is on the left. I was trying to replicate Aion's on the right

Since I'm making the recipe up, I took the liberty to name it. But I also believe in giving credit when it's due. So I'm calling this: 

Vegetable Tagine from Cafe Aion

Roasted vegetables
1 small to medium head of cauliflower, cut into florets
1/2 large butternut squash, peeled and cut into 1/2-inch cubes (2-3 cups of cubed squash)
3-4 carrots, cut into 1/2-inch pieces (about the same quantity as the squash)
Olive oil
Salt

Sauce
4 cloves of garlic, minced
2-inch piece of fresh ginger, peeled and minced (about equal to the amount of garlic)
Olive oil
3/4 tsp. cumin
3/4 tsp. coriander
3/4 tsp. cinnamon 
3/4 tsp. chili powder
4 bay leaves
1 large pinch saffron threads
1/2 large onion, chopped
28 oz. canned tomatoes (or 1 qt. of home canned tomatoes)
Salt & pepper (as needed)
2 c. cooked garbanzo beans (chickpeas)
Water or vegetable stock as needed 

Garnish
2 tbsp. minced fresh parsley
2 tbsp. minced fresh mint
1 preserved lemon (discard pulp and mince the rind)

Combine vegetables in a bowl. Coat veggies with olive oil and season lightly with salt. Spread vegetables on a large baking sheet. Roast in 400 degree oven until tender and beginning to brown (30-45 minutes). 

Saute onion in a 3-quart Dutch oven until soft and translucent. Add garlic and ginger and continue to cook for 2-3 minutes. Stir in spices; cook for an additional minute. Add tomatoes, bay leaf, and saffron. Reduce heat, cover, and simmer until the tomatoes start to thicken (15-20 minutes). Taste the tomato sauce and season as needed with salt and pepper. Add garbanzos and roasted vegetables. Cover and continue to simmer to blend the flavors, another 10-15 minutes. Add water or vegetable stock if the tagine is getting too thick. The finished consistency should be like a thick stew.

Pour the tagine into a large serving bowl or platter. Remove the bay leaves. Garnish with chopped fresh herbs and minced rind from a preserved lemon. (You can see in the photo that Aion uses the bay leaves as an additional garnish.) Serve with garlic toasted pita bread or rice or couscous. 

04 April 2017

Fish sandwich praise proves to be restaurant bait

Our local restaurant reviewer has a blog that he calls Burger Friday. Each week, he writes a post about a different burger served in Twin Cities restaurants. I do keep his comments in mind when considering different restaurants around town. But truthfully, I seldom order a burger.

This past Friday, however, his post was about fish sandwiches. (Click here to read it.) I do have a favorite fish sandwich, which I've noted in a previous Kriks Picks post. (Click here to read it.) But when I was downtown at lunch time today, I thought about his blog post and decided to try the fish sandwich at Sea Change. I've written several posts about Sea Change. It's one of my favorite special occasion restaurants. (Click here for my most recent.)
Fish sandwich at Sea Change

When I reread my previous post about Sea Change, I realized that this wasn't the first time I've had the fish sandwich. I did like it both times. The fish is thick and moist and flaky. It's served with a slice of yellow cheese melted over the top. That component to the sandwich is totally unnecessary. The fries served on the plate are very good. They're also optional. My server told me I could substitute a salad if I preferred. (I didn't.)

I asked for a wine recommendation. He suggested a Gruner Veltliner from Austria. I'm not very familiar with that variety, and I almost opted for a Pinot Grigio from Italy. But I decided to go with his recommendation, and I'm glad I did. The wine is very crisp and powerful. It balanced the sandwich very well.

The ambiance at Sea Change is relaxing, at least for a later lunch. I arrived at about 1:15 and there were only 3 or 4 other diners in the restaurant. Service was prompt, attentive, friendly, and knowledgeable. 

03 April 2017

Lunch in Winter Park before Disney immersion

In early February, my wife and I took our daughter and her family to Florida. We attended a family wedding in Boca Raton and then drove to the Orlando area to take them to Disney World (grandchildren are 7 and 5 years old).

It was a long and somewhat grueling ride. There were six of us with luggage jammed into a Chevy Tahoe. I'm not used to driving a vehicle that large. Of course, we never could have fit into any smaller vehicle. But it still was crowded and a long drive from Boca.

My daughter went to college in Florida. She had made plans to meet a college friend for lunch. So before driving to our Disney resort, we side-tracked to Winter Park. They met at a casual cafe on Park Avenue, right across the street from Central Park. We didn't want to intrude on their reunion. And besides, we wanted to walk around a little to stretch out the kinks after our long ride. Oh, and we wanted a nice quiet place to relax and have a glass of wine before going to Disney World.
My half of the crab cake sandwich

I suppose that Park Avenue is Winter Park's downtown. Anyway, it's quiet and quaint. As we moseyed through an alley, we spotted The Bistro on Park AvenueThe ambiance of the Bistro was appealing and the menu looked tempting. So we got a table.

I had a glass of pinot grigio. My wife had prosecco. We split the daily special, which was a crab cake sandwich. It came with a small side salad with blue cheese dressing.They did charge a plate fee to split it. But they also split the lunch in the kitchen for us. (Often, we find that restaurants will provide you with an extra plate for sharing, but don't often actually split the meal for you.) 

It wasn't a big lunch. But we enjoyed it. 

17 March 2017

Travelogue: A short hiking vacation in Colorado

I never really liked Colorado very much. That is, until we went there in early March of this year. Throughout my career, I only went there a few times for business meetings (in Denver and Colorado Springs). On those trips, I didn't see anything appealing enough for me to return. My wife and I went to Denver in 2015 for a family wedding. It was a fun wedding, but still no desire to vacation there. But when the invitation came for another family wedding in Denver, my wife and I decided to take a couple of extra days and go to Boulder with her brother and his wife.

That trip completely changed my attitude. Not only could I see making a return trip (to Boulder, that is), I'm eagerly thinking about when that might be.
Day 1 hiking in Chautauqua

In early March, there's still plenty of skiing in Colorado, at least at the hire elevations. We're not skiers. We were looking for some scenic hiking. We found plenty of it in Boulder.We rented a cabin at the Colorado Chautauqua Association. We specifically picked it because it's located right on the hiking trails for Chautauqua Park, and it's only a little more than a mile to downtown Boulder and the University of Colorado campus. (More on our lodging below.)

Shortly after arriving and having lunch, we went to the ranger station at the Chautauqua Park trail head. The ranger helpfully assessed our ability . He recommended an easy introductory hike to help us get acclimated. The route took us across a meadow, relatively flat, and then into the trees and slightly higher elevation at the foot of the Flatiron rock formations that are a distinctive feature around Boulder.

The next day, we drove a short distance to South Boulder Creek and parked at the West trail head. No ranger here to advise us. But there was a good map available and the trail is pretty well marked. This time I remembered to start the Strava app on my iPhone. (Strava maps your route and tracks statistics such as elevation gain, total distance, and heart rate if you're wearing an activity monitor.) The route we took started by following the creek through a large meadow. It was pretty flat, but the trail was quite rocky. After about 2 miles, we connected to the Mesa trail that circled a large hill. We did take one wrong turn that took us about a quarter of a mile out of the way. But we doubled back and completed the circuit of the hill. Along the way, we saw a herd of mule deer grazing on the hill above us. According to Strava, our total distance was 5.6 miles with an elevation gain of 640 feet. We reached a maximum elevation of 6115 feet.

On our last morning in Boulder, my brother-in-law and I decided to take a more challenging hike. One of the popular features of Chautauqua Park is Royal Arch. On our first hike, we saw the trail sign directing hikers to the arch. We greeted another hiker who was on his way down. He advised us that the trail was very icy and slippery. "It's a challenging hike anyway, and the icy conditions make it even more difficult," he said. But we decided to try it.

He was right. As the trail gained elevation, we encountered increasing amounts of snow and ice. Some of it had been packed by other hikers. (Some of it had been polished by hikers who felt the only safe way down was to slide on their butts.) We did see some hikers with ice crampons on their boots. In the end, we didn't make it all the way to the arch. We rested at a point in the trail with great views and decided we'd had enough. Besides, we anticipated (correctly) that the descent would be treacherous as well. Our total distance on this hike was 2.9 miles with an elevation gain of 1019 feet. Our maximum elevation was 6793 feet. Good enough.
View from 6800 feet

The final hike of our trip was on Saturday morning before the wedding. We found the Bluffs Regional Park Trail a short drive from our hotel in Englewood. It was good exercise - a 3.5 mile loop (including side trails to scenic overlooks) and a total 200 feet of elevation gain. The views of the Eastern Slope of the Rocky Mountains were nice. But it really was an urban hiking experience and nothing to compare to our hikes in Boulder.

Lodging:
In Boulder, we rented a cabin from the Colorado Chautauqua Association. As I noted above, the main appeal was proximity to the hiking trails. We had a two bedroom cabin, two bathrooms, a porch, a living room, and a kitchen. We shared it with my wife's brother, his wife, and their adult son. It was not at all luxurious, but it was quaint and comfortable and convenient. I would definitely stay there again on a future trip to Boulder.

In Denver, we stayed at the Inverness Hotel in Englewood. Compared to Chautauqua, it was big and modern and luxurious. But it isn't really the style of hotel that I generally choose for myself. It was the designated hotel for the wedding guests, and one of the pre-wedding dinners was held there. I guess the two big deals about the Inverness are the golf course (I don't golf) and the spa (we went hiking and didn't use the spa). There was one feature, however, that I did really like. Downstairs from the lobby is a pub called the Spotted Dog. It was really fun. They have good craft beer and pub food. One evening we joined several of the other wedding guests in the pub where there were pool tables, table shuffleboards, darts, and other games. It was really fun.

Dining:
I've written three posts about restaurants we ate at in Boulder - Via Perla, Brasserie Ten Ten, and Cafe Aion. All three were very good.

Chautauqua has a dining hall, and we ate there 3 times - one lunch, one breakfast, and one happy hour. The food is really quite good. They don't have an extensive menu. But you can easily find something to suit almost any preference. The meals in the dining hall are a reasonable value. They're not cheap, but also not expensive.Breakfast for two people was $26. The Happy Hour - 4 beers plus a couple of appetizer plates was $22. And, if you don't want to spend that kind of money, you can always use the kitchen in your cabin.

Happy house: Elk sausage (left), Brussels sprouts, and beer

16 March 2017

Cafe Aion lures me back to Boulder

I don't know if or when I'll ever come back to Boulder. But if I do, I'm for sure going to come back to Cafe Aion. I had my favorite meal there during our fairly brief visit to Boulder in early March.

We spent two nights in a cabin at Colorado Chautauqua. On our final morning, I took an early hike with my brother-in-law. Then my wife and I packed our car, checked out, and before returning to Denver, we decided to explore University Hill (or just The Hill) at the edge of the University of Colorado campus. We anticipated that it would be a funky commercial area like Dinkytown at the University of Minnesota campus.

We made a beeline to Starbucks because we hadn't had coffee yet. While we were relaxing and checking emails, we struck up a conversation with a friendly local. He had lived previously in Minnesota and after comparing notes about Minnesota, we chatted about things to see and do in Boulder. He asked us where we planned to have lunch. Up until then, we had planned to try a burger joint on The Hill. He made a face and offered an alternative - Cafe Aion. The way he described it, we thought it sounded good. So after we finished our coffee, we strolled by to check it out. From the outside, it looked fairly nondescript. But being adventurous, we decided to give it a try.

After exploring the campus for an hour or so, we made our way back and got a table for lunch. All I can say is, "Wow." What a great lunch it was.
Lunch at Cafe Aion

The ambiance is very casual, as you probably would expect near campus. The cafe was fairly busy for early afternoon on a Friday. But we got a table quite quickly. The style of food is Spanish tapas and Moroccan small plates.

Probably influenced by our initial intent of finding a burger joint, my wife ordered the burger. It was Colorado beef with brie and pickled onions on a delicious brioche bun. It came with sweet potato fries. It was fantastic.

I had a hard time deciding on what to order off the tempting list of menu items. I finally chose a vegetable tagine. It was roasted squash, carrots, and cauliflower with garbanzo beans in a sauce flavored with ginger and saffron. It came with two lovely pieces of flat bread. I liked it so much that later in the day, I sent an email asking for guidance on how to replicate the dish in my own kitchen. I got a prompt and helpful reply. Watch this space for a future post on my effort to cook the tagine.

We both had a glass of wine with lunch. Linda had a Spanish Sauvignon blanc from Naia. She liked it so much that I'm going to try to find it retail to buy for home. I had a garnache which was very good as well (though I probably won't try to buy any for drinking at home).

So this was a truly excellent and satisfying way to end our stay in Boulder. I noted, regretfully, that Aion has live music on Thursday nights plus a 'burger and beer' special - the burger that Linda ordered plus a beer for $15. What a deal!

There was only one problem with our experience there. Service was slow and inattentive. For us as vacationers, that wasn't a big issue. But I could see that some of the other diners had schedules to keep and were frustrated by slow service. Of course, I don't know if the problem exists at dinner. But for me, it's not a deal-breaker. I would definitely come back for either a lunch or dinner.

13 March 2017

At Brasserie Ten Ten in Boulder, the food is 'tres bon'

When we planned our early March trip to Colorado, I anticipated several meals featuring either beef or lamb. Turns out, I only had lamb once in any of the restaurants where we ate. But wow! It was great.

The restaurant was Brasserie Ten Ten in Boulder. We picked it based on good reviews on Trip Adviser and when we looked at the menu online, it looked very appealing. When we arrived for our 7 p.m. reservation (on a Thursday night), the place was jam packed. But our table was open and waiting for us.

When we took our seats, we worried a little about how noisy it was. We asked about another table, and in short order, a manager appeared and escorted us to another table. Now honestly, it still was quite loud. But to me it showed how committed the restaurant is to keeping its customers happy.

We ordered a round of drinks while chatting and deciding on what to eat. The top item on the cocktail menu looked good to me. It was called the Metropolis - vodka, cynar, Cointreau, and bitters. I'd never had a drink made with cynar previously. I knew that one ingredient was artichokes. That's true. But it really doesn't taste anything like artichokes. To me, the cocktail tasted like a variation on a Negroni with the cynar being the bitter alternative to Campari. Since I like Negronis very much, I enjoyed this cocktail as well.

So like I said, the menu is great. Before dinner, as we strolled along Pearl Street, when shop keepers would ask us where we planned to eat, when we said Brasserie Ten Ten, we got lots of encouraging approval for our choice and lots of advice on what to order.

My wife and I started out by splitting a 'hache' salad. Hache, I found out, is the French word for chopped, but this wasn't really like any other chopped salad I've eaten previously. This salad had shredded Brussels sprouts and chopped frizee greens topped with black currants, toasted walnuts, shaved Parmesan and dressed with a lemon vinaigrette. It was very good.
Braised lamb shank was a highlight

For my entree, I couldn't resist ordering the braised lamb shank. The meat was braised to perfection, very moist and tender, releasing effortlessly from the bone (which was decorated with a sprig of rosemary). The shank was served on vegetables, I assume from the braising liquid. On the rim of the bowl were three dollops of mustard. Wow! The mustard was very pungent and provided an excellent complement to the lamb.

My wife ordered steak frites. The steak was lean and nicely cooked. The potatoes were thin and crisp. Delicious.

Very appropriately, Brasserie Ten Ten has a good wine list populated with lots of French wines and supplemented with some very good California and Oregon wines. I ordered a Bordeaux red to go with my lamb. It was very enjoyable.

I was very pleased by our meal here and would readily recommend it to other visitors to Boulder.

11 March 2017

Via Perla offers delicious Italian fare in downtown Boulder

When I saw cacio e pepe on the menu at Via Perla, it was almost a foregone conclusion that I would order it. It immediately called to mind the meal I had on our last night in Rome on our Italian vacation in May 2016. Still, it was not an easy decision. There are a lot of tempting items on the menu of the restaurant.

We got a reservation at Via Perla on the recommendation of a friend of a friend. It's located at the edge of the Pearl Street Mall (hence the name 'Via Perla') in downtown Boulder. When we were there (7 p.m. on a Wednesday night in early March), the restaurant was busy but not overly crowded.

The ambiance is very comfortable. The warm interior lighting complements the wood, stone, and brick decor. The service is friendly and accommodating. Our server greeted us with a hearty 'buona sera' (though she later confessed that she's Hispanic and not Italian.)
Comfortable ambiance, good Italian food at Via Perla

As I noted at the beginning, the menu has a lot to offer. My wife and I decided to split three items. We started with the finoccio salad. This was thin-sliced fennel with orange and avocado on a bed of arugula and radicchio dressed with a Dijon and basil vinaigrette, shaved pecorino cheese and hazelnuts.

Next, I got the cacio e pepe, which means cheese and pepper. It's a simple dish. (Despite being enamored by the meal I had in Rome, I still haven't tried making it at home.) The version served at Via Perla is served with ricotta whey and olive oil, topped with pecorino cheese and cracked black pepper corns. I would have to say that it was not as rich as the Roman version, nor was it as peppery.

My wife ordered pesce bianco (white fish). It was flounder gently sauteed and topped with capers, sun-dried tomatoes, basil, pine nuts and lemon. The plan was to split our two dishes. But she wasn't particularly thrilled by the cacio e pepe, and while I thought her fish was good, I was happy to let her eat most of it while I enjoyed the pasta.

So overall, we thought the food at Via Perla was very good. But it wasn't a real knockout in terms of being impressive. As I've already noted, there were other items on the menu that I would have liked to try. For example:

  • Under the Antipasti, they have a plate of roasted cauliflower that sounds excellent;
  • They also have a cauliflower soup that sounds very interesting; 
  • Other salads that sound good include zucchini crudo topped with mint and goat cheese and charred lemon vinaigrette and a Caprese salad that also sounded good.
  • As an entree, Via Perla offers chicken marinated in Lambrusco wine. I would have liked to try that dish.
  • The other entree that really appealed to me was brasato made with short ribs of beef. Traditionally, brasato is beef braised in barolo wine. That's what I had during our stay in Piedmont last May. I had two versions of brasato there, one good the other excellent. I would have liked to compare them to the brasato at Via Perla.
The wine list at Via Perla is truly impressive. They have an extensive selection of wine from every region of Italy and a wide range of prices from easily affordable to outrageously expensive. We enjoyed a bottle of Chianti classico that was very reasonable and very good. 

I felt that the prices at Via Perla are reasonable and provide good value for the meal. I'm not sure if I will be returning to Boulder any time soon. But Via Perla would definitely deserve a return visit.


20 February 2017

Lela, Bloomington, MN: The kitchen can't do it alone

There's lots to like about Lela, the classy Italian restaurant at the Sheraton Bloomington Hotel. The food ... is amazing. It's creatively prepared and beautifully presented. The flavors are fabulous. The decor is comfortable and modern. The space is open and bright.

Yet, despite all that's attractive about it, my wife and I were let down after our belated Valentine's dinner. It was not a busy evening. We had a reservation for 7:30, but it would not have been necessary. There were many open tables available. (I hope that's not a telling sign.) Still, somehow, the service was slow and inattentive.
A glass of Prosecco and deviled eggs

At first, I dismissed my wife's impatience. We planned to go out to hear music after dinner. But we weren't really in a hurry. So when it took longer than necessary to get a couple glasses of Prosecco, I just said we should relax and go with the flow. Unfortunately, it wasn't just slowness.

We started with an order of Lobster Deviled Eggs. They were so lovely - creamy white eggs, topped by a basil leaf and lobster with a dollop of tarragon aioli. I suppose we both could have eaten off the serving plate. But we asked for individual plates instead. Our server expediently snatched plates from the empty table next to us. That's ok. But for some reason, he seemed compelled to complain to us about what a poor job the busboy had done by not having set our table properly with individual plates. That seemed unprofessional.

Next we ordered a salad to share. It was the Haricot Vert Salad, and when we placed the order, my wife inquired as to whether it contained any cilantro. The server assured us there was not. But it only took one bite to detect the not-at-all subtle sharp pungent flavor of cilantro. Neither of us like it, and she is very sensitive to it. So we always ask and specify "No cilantro." While cilantro wasn't a primary ingredient of the salad, it was topped with micro-greens that included the offending herb. We sent it away and a replacement came back without any of the micro-greens. Oh, and by now, the plates we had used for the deviled eggs had been taken away, new ones had not been brought with the salad, and we had to ask for some.

Not an auspicious way for the meal to proceed. But the salad was excellent. And the presentation was so attractive and unusual. It was served in a wreath-like ring circling the plate.


Happily, our entrees were served without incident. My dish was called carrot agnolotti. The house-made pasta was tender and excellent. On the plate with the pasta was a mound of brilliant orange pickled carrots. The whole thing was delicious. My wife had lobster truffle gnocchi. The gnocchi were fluffy pillows of ricotta bathed in a rich sauce with bits of lobster and beech mushrooms. She enjoyed it very much. While not a large serving, because it was so rich, she couldn't finish it. So she brought some of it home, and I had the pleasure of having it for lunch the next day.

I do have one more complaint. I know it's not the restaurant's fault. But some of the other diners came into the restaurant looking very shabby and unkempt. This is a nice restaurant, not inexpensive, that's trying to maintain a sophisticated appeal. It's not a hotel coffee shop. It would be nice if people would take the effort to dress up a little bit; at least change out of your sweatpants.

I have been to Lela for lunch a couple of times. I don't recall having slow service either of those times. Maybe it was just an off night. Or maybe this is one of those restaurants that's just better for lunch than it is for dinner. Unfortunately, our city does not seem to be a place where sophisticated Italian dining can thrive. I hope Lela makes it.

Agnolotti with pickled carrots
Haricot Vert Salad