Travel Eats

Travel Eats: Birthday dinner at Le Cirque, Las Vegas

Travel Eats documents my food adventures while traveling.

Signature chocolate ball with birthday candle

Signature chocolate ball with birthday candle


In the midst of a week of celebratory Las Vegas dining, I knew that I wanted dinner on my actual birthday to feel extra special. I’d always heard about Le Cirque’s legacy in New York over the decades, and it just felt right to go classic French for this milestone birthday.

I’m happy to report that from the moment we walked into the restaurant, our party was treated in a way that befit such a special occasion. The whimsical and strikingly colorful “circus tent” ceiling set an appropriately celebratory tone, and the window beside our table afforded a view of the famous Bellagio fountains, making the whole thing just a bit more magical.

Circus tent ceiling

Circus tent ceiling

Egg amuse-bouche with lemon mousse and carrot mousse

Egg amuse-bouche with lemon mousse and carrot mousse

The whimsy continued with the amuse-bouche: a hollowed-out egg was refilled with lemon mousse and a dollop of carrot mousse, both tinted and shaped to resemble the egg’s original contents. It was a delightful way to start the meal.

I ordered the escargots as my appetizer, and was pleased to see that Le Cirque’s version went far beyond the typical garlic butter bath. The bowl was filled with so many textures: tomato confit, crispy croutons, tender greens; and, of course, lots of snails and butter for a hearty and aromatic dish.

Escargots with burgundy snails in black garlic herb butter, croutons, tomato confit, and licorice ‘salad’

Escargots with burgundy snails in black garlic herb butter, croutons, tomato confit, and licorice ‘salad’

Foie gras poêlé with St. Germain flambeed foie gras, tapioca, and elderflower gastrique

Foie gras poêlé with St. Germain flambeed foie gras, tapioca, and elderflower gastrique

Thankfully, a dining companion ordered the foie gras starter instead, so I was more than happy to sample a few bites of one of my favorite foods. The crunchy texture of puffed rice and grains on top, together with the sweet floral sauce pooled underneath, made this version really stand out.

For my entrée, I stayed classic with roast chicken, mushrooms, potatoes, and asparagus. Everything was expertly executed – especially the near-silky chicken – and the foie gras sauce gave it another touch of luxury.

Le poulet rôti with roasted organic chicken, asparagus, hedgehog mushrooms, roasted baby potatoes, and foie gras sauce

Le poulet rôti with roasted organic chicken, asparagus, hedgehog mushrooms, roasted baby potatoes, and foie gras sauce

Chocolate ball with praline mousse, white chocolate ice cream, hazelnut caramel crunch, chocolate sauce

Chocolate ball with praline mousse, white chocolate ice cream, hazelnut caramel crunch, chocolate sauce

When it came time for dessert, I was given an option: either the chocolate ball that the rest of the table had ordered, or an off-menu soufflé. I couldn’t pass up the quintessential demonstration of culinary technique that is the soufflé, so I chose that. However, due to a mix-up in the kitchen, I ended up with both desserts! For the chocolate ball, melted chocolate was heated to a precise temperature and poured over the ice cream-filled ball, causing it to gradually crack in a way was completely mesmerizing. The hot-and-cold contrast with a bit of praline crunch was absolute chocolate paradise.

Then, the sky-high chocolate soufflé arrived, and again I was transfixed by the skill of the pastry chefs. There are so many things that can go wrong with a soufflé, and even the best ones can still fall quickly, so tasting its airy, chocolate-y magic bite after bite left a lasting impression.

Chocolate soufflé

Chocolate soufflé

We were each sent on our way with a red leather box that had a housemade truffle tucked inside each of its two drawers. Weeks later, one glance at the box and my mind is right back to re-living this extraordinary meal.

Take-home truffles

Take-home truffles

The details: Le Cirque at Bellagio, 3600 S. Las Vegas Blvd., Las Vegas.

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Travel Eats

Travel Eats: Eating & drinking on the Las Vegas Strip

Travel Eats documents my food adventures while traveling.

Interior flowers, Buffet at Wynn

Interior flowers, The Buffet at Wynn

To celebrate my 30th birthday, I gathered some of my closest girlfriends and made my first-ever trip to Las Vegas. I took advantage of my full week there by sampling cuisine from several of the world-class resorts and elsewhere on the Strip, plus a few stops downtown.

I knew I couldn’t go to Vegas without experiencing a buffet, and chose the Wynn for both food quality and overall aesthetics. As you can see above, it was a jaw-dropping floral wonderland. Amidst the overwhelming selection (mini-baskets of fish and chips! Tuna poké and dumplings! Mini-skillets of shrimp and grits! So many hand-carved meats!), my favorite station was the made-to-order latkes, which were served either reuben-style (corned beef and sauerkraut) or with smoked salmon, capers, lemon, and chive sour cream (my selection; it was exceptional). And on top of all that, there’s a full room dedicated to dessert, complete with a spinning gelato wheel. It was a true midday feast.

Made-to-order smoked salmon latke station, The Buffet at Wynn

Made-to-order smoked salmon latke station, The Buffet at Wynn

ork belly bun with hoisin, scallion, and cucumber, Momofuku

Pork belly bun with hoisin, scallion, and cucumber, Momofuku

Momofuku was high on my to-do list, since I’ve still never been to the original New York location. It made the most sense to visit during Social Hour, a resort-wide happy hour at the Cosmopolitan. I had to try the pork bun, the now-iconic dish that laid the foundation for Chef David Chang’s culinary empire. From soft bun to rich pork to simple sauce and garnish, it definitely lived up to its reputation. I was also wowed by the chilled noodles that were coated in a spicy sauce and piled with a satisfying combination of basil, sausage, and candied cashew.

Chilled spicy noodles with Sichuan sausage, Thai basil, and candied cashew, Momofuku

Chilled spicy noodles with Sichuan sausage, Thai basil, and candied cashew, Momofuku

Quesadilla chicharron with housemade chicharron, queso menonita, and salsa cinco chiles, China Poblano

Quesadilla chicharron with housemade chicharron, queso menonita, and salsa cinco chiles, China Poblano

Another Social Hour standout was China Poblano, Chef José Andrés’ colorful fusion of Mexican and Chinese flavors. I went with one dish from each cuisine, and while I enjoyed the messy, red-sauced pork bun, tucking a crunchy chicharron into a melty quesadilla was the truly genius move.

Rou Jia Mo street sandwich with red-braised pork belly, cilantro, and scallion, China Poblano

Rou Jia Mo street sandwich with red-braised pork belly, cilantro, and scallion, China Poblano

Roasted bone marrow with rioja-braised shallot marmalade, Beauty & Essex

Roasted bone marrow with rioja-braised shallot marmalade, Beauty & Essex

And because I apparently couldn’t get enough of the Cosmopolitan’s restaurant selection, I also dined at Beauty & Essex, whose dining room is hidden behind a pawn shop facade with jewelry and fancy guitars. The bone marrow was flawless, with wine-braised shallot marmalade to smear onto strips of toast along with the marrow itself. The tuna poké wonton tacos were bright and refreshing (not to mention adorably served).

Tuna poke wonton tacos with chiffonade cilantro, radish, and wasabi kewpie, Beauty & Essex

Tuna poke wonton tacos with chiffonade cilantro, radish, and wasabi kewpie, Beauty & Essex

My first meal of the trip was at Mesa Grill, Chef Bobby Flay’s high-end Mexican restaurant at Caesar’s Palace. The pork tenderloin was some of the best pork I’ve ever had, a perfect medium with sweet and spicy sauces, and the pecan-buttered tamale on the side was an excellent take on sweet potato. I couldn’t help but think that the blue and yellow corn muffin in the bread basket looked familiar – and then realized it was from when I dined at the original New York location way back in 2008.

New Mexican spice-rubbed pork tenderloin with bourbon-ancho chile sauce and sweet potato tamale with crushed pecan butter, Mesa Grill

New Mexican spice-rubbed pork tenderloin with bourbon-ancho chile sauce and sweet potato tamale with crushed pecan butter, Mesa Grill

The Royale with Cheese burger, with robiola cheese, caramelized onions, grilled treviso, and parmesan-mascarpone cream, B&B Burger & Beer

The Royale with Cheese burger, with robiola cheese, caramelized onions, grilled treviso, and parmesan-mascarpone cream, B&B Burger & Beer

At the Venetian, we loved the canal-side view from the patio at B&B Burger & Beer (the B’s are for Mario Batali and Joe Bastanich). The burger itself was rich and extra cheesy, with nice bitter contrast from grilled treviso (a variety of radicchio).

Todd English’s Olives at the Bellagio was well-suited for a late dinner after our daytrip to the Grand Canyon’s west rim (unimaginably vast and beautiful, by the way). Both the fig-prosciutto and smoked salmon flatbreads had a ton of flavor, and also kept well as leftovers the next day.

Smoked salmon and fig & prosciutto flatbreads, Todd English’s Olives

Smoked salmon and fig & prosciutto flatbreads, Todd English’s Olives

Pub chopped salad with grilled chicken, salami, shrimp, chickpeas, cherry tomatoes, white cheddar, pretzel crisp, and apple cider vinaigrette, Gordon Ramsay Pub & Grill

Pub chopped salad with grilled chicken, salami, shrimp, chickpeas, cherry tomatoes, white cheddar, pretzel crisp, and apple cider vinaigrette, Gordon Ramsay Pub & Grill

Gordon Ramsay is another celebrity chef with a solid presence in Vegas, so decided to fit his pub into the agenda. The pub chopped salad was a pleasant surprise, especially considering its long list of potentially disparate ingredients (shrimp, pretzel crisp, chickpeas, salami, white cheddar, and more).

For the opposite of a salad, we made an obligatory trip to In-N-Out, the West Coast burger chain with a cult following. The not-so-secret animal-style fries with cheese, grilled onions, and burger spread did indeed hit the spot.

Animal-style fries, In-N-Out

Animal-style fries, In-N-Out

Crack Pie soft serve with sprinkles, Milk Bar

Crack Pie soft serve with sprinkles, Milk Bar

On the sweeter side, I made sure to stop at Milk Bar, which is affiliated with and right next to Momofuku. Their signature Crack Pie (gooey butter cake with oat crust) was available in soft-serve form, and it did manage to capture the same level of decadence.

I also sampled the gelato at Jean Philippe Patisserie, a Bellagio shop that’s best known for boasting what they claim to be the world’s largest chocolate fountain. A few of the floor-to-ceiling glass shelves and flowing chocolate are shown in the background below.

Cappuccino gelato, Jean Philippe Patisserie

Cappuccino gelato, Jean Philippe Patisserie

Whip It cocktail with Dole whip, Island Time Floats Tiki Bar

Whip It cocktail with Dole whip, Island Time Floats Tiki Bar

And of course, you can’t spend a week in 100-plus degree desert temperatures without a few frozen drinks. I knew that Island Time was a rare purveyor of famed Dole Whip (pineapple soft serve), so I stopped by one sweltering evening for their citrusy Whip It cocktail. Though I’ve never seen anything melt so fast, it was just right for the heat.

With its multiple locations along the Strip, Fat Tuesday is the main supplier of the comically large frozen drinks that many people tote from place to place. I ordered a blend of the bellini and pina colada flavors of frozen daiquiri – both tasty and not as saccharine as you’d expect – and split it among personalized cups made as souvenirs for my friends.

Frozen bellini and pina colada daiquiri, Fat Tuesday

Frozen bellini and pina colada daiquiri, Fat Tuesday

Veal parmigiana, Battista’s Hole in the Wall

Veal parmigiana, Battista’s Hole in the Wall

One night, we went old-school Italian at Battista’s Hole in the Wall, a place that’s been around since 1970. It kept coming up in my dining research, possibly because meals are such a bargain. The generously portioned entrees all include soup or salad, garlic bread, cappuccino (which was closer to hot chocolate), and unlimited carafes of house wine. My veal parmesan was the red-sauce classic I was hoping for, and fit right into the endearingly kitschy atmosphere.

I also made sure to visit the downtown area to experience a bit of Old Vegas, and was delighted to find a hidden craft brewery gem among the glitter and grit of Fremont Street. The coffee kolsch was especially good, and reminded me a lot of a Portland brew that I’ve wanted to re-discover ever since.

Morning Joe coffee kolsch, Banger Brewing

Morning Joe coffee kolsch, Banger Brewing

Al pastor taco and carne flautas, Pinches Tacos

Al pastor taco and carne flautas, Pinches Tacos

While downtown, I explored the Downtown Container Park, continuing the trend of converting old shipping containers into shops and eateries. I’d heard that Pinches Tacos was the place to go, and both the tacos and flautas delivered. I also really enjoyed my coconut cold brew at The Black Cup Coffee Co. stand – it gave me the boost I needed to continue my delicious adventures.

Coconut cold brew, The Black Cup Coffee Co.

Coconut cold brew, The Black Cup Coffee Co.

The details: The Buffet at Wynn, 3131 S. Las Vegas Blvd.; Todd English’s Olives and Jean Philippe Patisserie at Bellagio, 3600 S. Las Vegas Blvd.; Mesa Grill and Gordon Ramsay Pub & Grill at Caesars Palace, 3570 S. Las Vegas Blvd.; Beauty & Essex, China Poblano, Milk Bar, and Momofuku at Cosmopolitan, 3708 S. Las Vegas Blvd.; B&B Burger & Beer at Venetian, 3355 S. Las Vegas Blvd.; Fat Tuesday at Grand Canal Shoppes, 3377 S. Las Vegas Blvd.; Island Time Floats Tiki Bar at Grand Bazaar Shops, 3631 S. Las Vegas Blvd.; In-N-Out Burger at Linq, 3535 S. Las Vegas Blvd.; The Black Cup Coffee Co. and Pinches Tacos at Downtown Container Park, 707 Fremont St.; Banger Brewing, 450 Fremont St.; Battista’s Hole in the Wall, 4041 Linq Ln.; all Las Vegas, Nevada.

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Travel Eats

Travel Eats: Tapas, vermouth & more in Barcelona, Spain

Travel Eats documents my food adventures while traveling.

Liquid olives and house vermouth, Bodega 1900

Liquid olives and house vermouth, Bodega 1900

Barcelona has been on my food destination wishlist for quite some time now, so it seemed worthy of a three-day visit – can’t argue with an emphasis on seafood, snacking, and sangria, after all. Spain has also been at the forefront of molecular gastronomy, and while legendary chef Ferran Adrià no longer operates the famed El Bulli, his brother Albert still operates multiple restaurants. His more casual venture is Bodega 1900, where we scored a reservation our first day in Barcelona.

Bodega 1900 is a modern nod to the old-school vermuteria, so naturally the first thing we ordered was house vermouth. I don’t know that I’d ever had vermouth on its own before that day, but after two glasses I was completely enamored with how drinkable it was, and how well it paired with all the tapas dishes. We opted for the chef’s tasting, and the first dish that arrived was an Adrià classic: liquid olives, which capture the essence of olives using a technique called reverse spherification (here’s a video). Deceptive and delicious.

Russian salad with tuna belly, Bodega 1900

Russian salad with tuna belly, Bodega 1900

The Russian salad was essentially tuna belly thrown into potato salad (with just the right amount of mayonnaise), and was probably the most comforting dish of the meal. Next, slices of (very) smoked mackerel were lined up like sashimi, simply dressed with salt and olive oil. It was just the kind of no-frills seafood snack I had envisioned.

Smoked mackerel, Bodega 1900

Smoked mackerel, Bodega 1900

Skate wing in adobo, Bodega 1900

Skate wing in adobo, Bodega 1900

I always love seeing skate wing on a menu, and these were coated in an adobo-seasoned batter, then lightly fried. They were almost like skate fritters, the outer crust playing well with the dense fish inside. Perhaps the most indulgent dish of the meal was cured, paper-thin beef tenderloin that melted in your mouth to a peppery finish. It was one of the purest forms of beef I’ve ever had.

La Rubia Gallega beef tenderloin cured in salt and spices, Bodega 1900

“La rubia gallega” beef tenderloin cured in salt and spices, Bodega 1900

Even the vegetable dishes held more than met the eye. The tomato salad was especially surprising: what looked like under-ripe heirloom tomatoes tossed in salt and olive oil turned out to be balanced and texturally fantastic. The green peas and mushrooms were served in a savory, piping hot broth that I easily could have slurped down as soup. They both made a nice transition into the rest of the tapas dishes.

Fresh

Fresh “Raff” tomato salad, Bodega 1900

Green peas with mushrooms, Bodega 1900

Green peas with mushrooms, Bodega 1900

Wandering around large food markets is a highlight for me in any major city (see also Florence and London), so I knew a visit to the gigantic La Boqueria would help fight first-day jetlag. While it’s debatable whether complete sensory overload is better or worse while jetlagged, we managed to sample several items. My favorites were the cone of smoky, marbled jamon iberico and a pineapple-coconut juice blend from one of the (shockingly ubiquitous) juice stands.

Pineapple-coconut juice and cone of jamon iberico, La Boqueria market

Pineapple-coconut juice and cone of jamon iberico, La Boqueria market

Beetroot pancakes with smoked salmon, spinach, pickled onion, and creme fraiche, UGOT Bruncherie

Beetroot pancakes with smoked salmon, spinach, pickled onion, and creme fraiche, UGOT Bruncherie

Brunch isn’t necessarily a traditional Spanish concept, but it does fit well with the relaxed lifestyle. I went with the day’s entree special at Ugot Bruncherie, and it combined several of my favorite flavors: smoked salmon, spinach, creme fraiche, and pancakes, which were pink-dyed and faintly savory from beetroot. Between that and the frothy, cocoa-dusted cappuccino, I was quite content. We decided to take dessert to go, so we could enjoy it a little later in a nearby park, and that may have been one of the best decisions all trip. The buttery alfajor cookie held a layer of dulce de leche and a swirly crown of gooey, super-sweet, coconut-dusted meringue. It was messy, but so worth it.

Cappuccino, UGOT Bruncherie

Cappuccino, Ugot Bruncherie

Dulce de leche alfajor with coconut meringue

Dulce de leche alfajor with coconut meringue, UGOT Bruncherie

And of course, you can’t visit Barcelona without snacking on churros. I didn’t end up trying the traditional chocolate-dipped variety, but the Nutella-filled version across the street from the (staggeringly beautiful) Sagrada Familia was weighty and decadent enough for me. And while I didn’t previously associate Spain with pastries, I was impressed by the variety available. My favorite was a flaky croissant filled with white chocolate from a bakery near Barceloneta Beach.

Nutella churro, Xurreria Sagrada Família

Nutella churro, Xurreria Sagrada Família

Mixed berry tartlet and white chocolate croissant, Baluard Barceloneta

Mixed berry tartlet and white chocolate croissant, Baluard Barceloneta

For our last night in Barcelona, we booked a tapas tour through Airbnb. Our guide, Marwa, led us to four different places and weaved lots of history into her explanation of the food and drink we were sampling. We tasted classic tomato toast at one cozy tavern, then made our own at our last stop, a 16th-century bodega where we also tried five different cheeses and five different meats (including a rare, high-quality jamon iberico). It was an excellent overview to wrap up the trip.

Tomato toast, Tasca El Corral

Tomato toast, Tasca El Corral

Variety of Spanish cheeses, fig jam, and quince, Bodega La Tinaja

Variety of Spanish cheeses, fig jam, and quince, Bodega La Tinaja

The details: Bodega 1900, Calle Tamarit 91; El Mercat de la Boqueria, Rambla, Mercat de la Boqueria 91; UGOT Bruncherie,
Viladomat 138; Xurreria Sagrada Família, Plaça Sagrada Família 26; Baluard Barceloneta, Carrer del Baluard 38; Tasca El Corral, Carrer de la Mercè 17; Bodega La Tinaja, Esparteria 9; all Barcelona, Spain.

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Travel Eats

Travel Eats: Macarons, crêpes & more in Paris, France

Travel Eats documents my food adventures while traveling.

Macarons, Pierre Hermé

Arabesque (apricot and pistachio), passion fruit, and coffee macarons, Pierre Hermé

I vacationed in Europe for 10 days at the beginning of the month, and three of those days were spent in Paris at peak springtime bloom. Brilliantly colored flowers seemed to show up everywhere we looked, and I have to believe that made the food taste even better.

One of my Parisian goals was to sample some authentic French macarons, and Pierre Hermé was consistently recommended as the best. From the first bite, I knew these were unlike any I’d eaten previously. The delicate domed exterior gave way to a chewy interior, where rich fillings took on the purest form of passion fruit, coffee, and other flavors. These macarons were so good that we went back to Pierre Hermé twice more – once to a different location in Paris, and once to the London outpost (so that we could tote macaron boxes on our return flight that were only a day old).

Ham and cheese crêpe, Chalet du Grand Palais

Ham and cheese crêpe, Chalet du Grand Palais

Another Parisian mainstay is the crêpe, served street-side in a cone shape for maximum portability. This one was from a kiosk that we came across as we began our stroll down the Champs Elysées. The classic combination of ham and (lots of) cheese was definitely the right way to go – simple savory snack perfection.

For dinner, we took our Airbnb host’s recommendation for a typical French bistro and landed at Bonvivant. Their take on steak frites involved rare ribeye and compound herb butter flanked by salad and thick-cut fries. It was hearty, but still elegant enough to pair with a glass of dry rosé.

Steak frites, Bonvivant

Beef ribeye steak with meat jus, house-made fries, and herb butter (and a glass of rosé), Bonvivant

For breakfast, the croissants from aforementioned Pierre Hermé also somehow managed to outshine the rest of their pastry competition. Isaphan is the patisserie’s best-known flavor combination: rose, raspberry, and lychee, and the croissant version infused those flavors into the filling, glaze, and candied petals on top. It was so uniquely delicious that I was genuinely forlorn about taking the last bite.

Isaphan and chocolate-pistachio croissants, Pierre Hermé

Isaphan (rose, raspberry, and lychee) and chocolate-pistachio croissants, Pierre Hermé

Quiche lorraine, Maison Eric Kayser

Quiche lorraine, Maison Eric Kayser

Another morning, I tried a typical quiche lorraine from another bakery chain, Eric Kayser, and the texture was even creamier than I expected. There was also no shortage of bacon, which made it especially filling.

Coffee is a must in Paris as well, and we’d read about Le Peloton, an especially charming bike-themed café in the Marais neighborhood. The generously sized cortado was worthy of a break from exploration.

Cortado, Le Peloton Café

Cortado, Le Peloton Café

Because the spring weather was so pleasant, we picnicked at the Jardins du Luxembourg one afternoon with sandwiches from nearby bakery Gérard Mulot. My sandwich was simply dressed: lettuce, juicy tomato, sliced chicken, and tarragon mayonnaise, which all sunk into the pillowy seeded bread. The sandwich was perfectly balanced on its own, but rounding out my lunch with a pear and a small bottle of rosé certainly didn’t hurt. The macarons at Gérard Mulot had also been highly recommended, so we selected a colorful variety for dessert. My favorite of the bunch was the aromatic pineapple-ginger, whose vivid yellow color blended right into the flowers.

Chicken sandwich, Gérard Mulot

Chicken sandwich (with rosé and a pear), Gérard Mulot

Chocolate, grapefruit-rose, pineapple-ginger, and Amaryllis (raspberry buttercream and jam) macarons, Gérard Mulot

Amaryllis (raspberry buttercream and jam), pineapple-ginger, chocolate, and rose macarons, Gérard Mulot

On our last night in Paris, we timed our evening so that we could see the sparkling Eiffel Tower lights at nighttime. A lacey, piping hot crêpe stuffed with Nutella and bananas made the view that much more magical.

Nutella-banana crêpe, Le Kiosque des Fontaines

Nutella-banana crêpe, Le Kiosque des Fontaines

The details: Pierre Hermé at Publicis Drugstore, 133 Avenue des Champs Elysées, and at 72 Rue Bonaparte; Chalet du Grand Palais, 9 Avenue des Champs Elysées; Bonvivant, 7 Rue des Écoles; Maison Eric Kayser, 13 Boulevard Diderot; Le Peloton Café, 17 Rue du Pont Louis Philippe; Gérard Mulot, 76 Rue de Seine; Le Kiosque des Fontaines, Place de Varsovie; all Paris, France.

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Travel Eats

Travel Eats: Island flavors from a week in San Pedro, Belize

Travel Eats documents my food adventures while traveling.

Belize mural and frozen coconut mojito, The Truck Stop

Frozen coconut mojito in front of Belize mural at The Truck Stop

When your dad moves to an island permanently, you go visit.

That was what brought me to the town of San Pedro on Ambergris Caye, Belize’s largest island. Because it was my first trip there, I tried to sample as much local cuisine and tropical beverages as I could in one week.

Sangria and snacks, Marbucks Coffee

Sangria and snacks at Thursday night Wine Down, Marbucks Coffee House

Thursdays are a particularly good evening for dining in San Pedro: Marbucks Coffee House hosts its Wine Down event, with live music, snacks, and wine or sangria (we opted for the latter), and Casa Picasso offers its chef’s tasting menu. I loved the atmosphere at both venues, and especially loved Casa Picasso’s citrusy tuna main course with avocado and sauteed local greens. We also added the Korean barbecue tostones with steak and housemade kimchi as an extra appetizer, and they were a hit.

Korean barbecue tostones, Casa Picasso

Korean barbecue tostones with skirt steak and kimchi, Casa Picasso

Greek gyro spring rolls, Casa Picasso

Greek gyro spring rolls with Mediterranean-marinated pork tenderloin and yogurt tzatziki sauce, Casa Picasso tasting menu

Chilled tomato and honeydew melon gazpacho with poached shrimp, Casa Picasso tasting menu

Chilled tomato and honeydew melon gazpacho with poached shrimp, Casa Picasso tasting menu

Citrus tuna, Casa Picasso

Citrus-marinated local tuna with sauteed callaloo, avocado, and citrus-parsley drizzle, Casa Picasso tasting menu

Ice cream sandwich, Casa Picasso

Ice cream sandwich of devil’s food cake cookie, vanilla ice cream, and whipped cream, Casa Picasso tasting menu

My main focus at most restaurants was the seafood – San Pedro was originally founded as a fishing village, after all – and I came away impressed by the variety and freshness. At Tiki Maya, from the second story of a palapa over the ocean, I enjoyed lime-laced shrimp ceviche and a quesadilla packed with lobster and peppers.

Shrimp ceviche with chips, Tiki Maya

Shrimp ceviche with chips, Tiki Maya

Lobster quesadilla, Tiki Maya

Lobster quesadilla, Tiki Maya

After I arrived on the island via water taxi, my first meal was at Melt, known for their namesake sandwiches. My madras curry chicken version was hearty and melted to the perfect consistency. Another evening, we came upon Robin’s Kitchen, a small, one-person establishment like many of San Pedro’s eateries. Robin is known for jerk chicken, but my snapper was also expertly seasoned and grilled.

Madras curry chicken melt sandwich, Melt Cafe and Beach Bar

Madras curry chicken melt sandwich, Melt Cafe and Beach Bar

Snapper with rice and beans, Robin's Kitchen

Grilled red snapper with rice and beans, Robin’s Kitchen

At Waraguna, the specialty was Salvadorean pupusas, a griddled corn cake with fillings. I went for the mixed seafood version, which was stuffed with fish, shrimp, and lobster along with the melted cheese. I thought that was a generous portion of seafood until a lobster burrito hit our table. The tortilla was packed with lobster, with more lobster chunks around the outside and a full tail on top. Both were delicious.

Seafood pupusa, Waruguma

Seafood pupusa with shrimp, fish, and lobster, Waruguma

Lobster burrito, Waruguma

Lobster burrito, Waruguma

Belikin stout beer

Belikin stout, the beer of Belize, at Waruguma

Waruguma was also where I tried my first Belizean beer. Belikin is ubiquitous in all of Belize, and the stout variety isn’t so much a stout, but just a lager with higher alcohol. I can’t say I’d seek it out elsewhere, but it put me in the island spirit.

Other island staple was Elvi’s Kitchen, in operation for 40-plus years. I had to order more lobster, this time in a savory black bean sauce with bits of plantain and coconut rice, and also sampled conch in the form of hefty fritters dipped in spicy tartar sauce. My cocktail at Elvi’s, the Crazy Monkey, combined coconut and peanut in an unexpected but highly successful way.

Conch fritters and Crazy Monkey cocktail, Elvi's Kitchen

Conch fritters with habanero tartar sauce and Crazy Monkey cocktail with peanut, coconut cream, and rum, Elvi’s Kitchen

Lobster in black bean sauce, Elvi's Kitchen

Lobster in black bean sauce, coconut rice, and plantains, Elvi’s Kitchen

Blue Water Grill is another well-known restaurant in San Pedro. Two nights are sushi nights, and we took full advantage. All three rolls we tried were fresh and delicious, but the smoked mayo atop the tempura lobster roll really set that one apart. The calamari with togarashi spices and citrus-avocado coulis made a nice starter as well.

Spiced calamari, Blue Water Grill

Togarashi-spiced calamari with citrus-avocado coulis, pickled ginger, and cilantro, Blue Water Grill

Sushi rolls, Blue Water Grill

Jackpot roll (tempura lobster, avocado, cucumber, green onion, house-smoked mayo, eel sauce, sesame seeds), Yen Yen roll (spicy tuna, mango, cilantro, yellowtail, avocado, and jalapeno), and Spider roll (soft-shell crab, cream cheese, cucumber, avocado, sweet soy, and sesame), Blue Water Grill

Frozen dark & stormy cocktail, Blue Water Grill

Frozen dark & stormy cocktail, Blue Water Grill

Blue Water Grill also made an excellent frozen dark and stormy, one of my very favorite cocktails. Of course, tropical drinks were plentiful nearly everywhere we went. A mango mojito from the Aurora’s Grill truck served as a reward for finding Secret Beach after a long and bumpy golf cart ride. Rum punch was on every menu, but it had particular pizazz at Carlo & Ernie’s Runway Bar, where you can watch the Tropic Air planes come in as you sip your drink at the bar.

Mango mojito, Aurora's Grill at Secret Beach

Mango mojito, Aurora’s Grill at Secret Beach

Rum punch, Carlo & Ernie's Runway Bar

Rum punch, Carlo & Ernie’s Runway Bar

Banana-kiwi-lime smoothie, Izzy's Smoothies, Snacks & Juice Bar

Banana-kiwi-lime smoothie, Izzy’s Smoothies, Snacks & Juice Bar

We passed the Izzy’s Smoothies stand many times while in town, and of the smoothies I tried, this banana-kiwi-lime combination was the most flavorful and refreshing in the island heat.

I also appreciated tasting a few traditional Belizean breakfasts. They were usually anchored by scrambled eggs, either with tomatoes and peppers or more exotic mix-ins (I loved the shrimp and chorizo version at Estel’s), plus refried black beans. The local twist was the fry jacks, pockets of barely sweet fried dough served with butter and jam.

Shrimp and chorizo special eggs, Estel's Dine By the Sea

Shrimp and chorizo special eggs with fry jacks and beans, Estel’s Dine By the Sea

Belizean breakfast, Portofino Restaurant

Belizean breakfast with scrambled eggs, sausage, refried beans, and fry jacks, Portofino Restaurant

Sesame bagel and iced coconut latte, Brooklyn Brothers Bagel Company

Sesame bagel, half with sun-dried tomato-basil-olive cream cheese and half with guava-nutmeg cream cheese, and iced coconut latte, Brooklyn Brothers Bagel Company

On the other end of the breakfast spectrum, I visited Brooklyn Brothers, the only bagel shop in the country of Belize. While the bagels are fairly traditional New York-style, the cream cheeses have an island twist. I fell in love with the guava-nutmeg spread on my sesame bagel. The shop was conveniently located next to the island’s main coffee roaster, Caye Coffee.

Seafood risotto, O Restaurant

Seafood risotto, O Restaurant

Chocolate sea urchin, O Restaurant

Chocolate sea urchin dessert of Bailey’s-infused chocolate truffle wrapped with
shredded phyllo dough, O Restaurant

Another night, we dined at the restaurant closest to home at Las Terrazas Resort, O Restaurant. While I really enjoyed the seafood risotto, with saffron and lots of parmesan, I was even more wowed by the elaborate chocolate dessert that resembled a spiny sea urchin. Other impressive desserts included the lime cake at Wild Mango’s, a chilled icebox-style cake with layers of cookies, lime filling, guava sauce, and a little tequila.

Mexican Margarita Caye Lime cold cake, Wild Mango's

Mexican Margarita Caye Lime cold cake with lime filling, Maria biscuit layers, tequila, and guava sauce, Wild Mango’s

My favorite food and drink destination on the island, though, was The Truck Stop, an enclave of eclectic food stands made from shipping containers, plus a bar and lots of space for activities. Its During our Sunday visit, we participated in a corn hole tournament; on Wednesday, we watched a movie projected onto a screen over the water and enjoyed piña colada ice cream from the Cool Cone stand. The frozen coconut mojito, pictured at the top of the post in front of The Truck Stop’s beautiful mural, was another standout.

Pina colada and Oreo ice cream, The Truck Stop

Pina colada and Oreo ice creams, Cool Cone at The Truck Stop

Other noteworthy treats came from The Baker, where I savored a coconut tart, and the Belize Chocolate Company, where we tried four caramels: sea salt, ginger, chile, and, my favorite, banana. There will be plenty more to try on my next visit!

Coconut tart, The Baker

Coconut tart, The Baker

Sea salt, ginger, banana, and chile caramels, Belize Chocolate Company

Sea salt, ginger, banana, and chile caramels, Belize Chocolate Company

The details: The Truck Stop bar and Cool Cone, 1 mile North of the Bridge; Marbucks Coffee, Tropicana Drive; Casa Picasso, past Belikin distributor; Blue Water Grill, Barrier Reef Drive; Wild Mango’s, Barrier Reef Drive; O Restaurant at Las Terrazas, 3.5 miles North of the Bridge; Elvi’s Kitchen, Pescador Drive; Waruguma, Angel Coral Street; Robin’s Kitchen, Sea Grape Drive; Tiki Maya (old Palapa bar), 1.5 miles North of the Bridge; Melt Cafe and Beach Bar, Boca Del Rio Drive; Aurora’s Grill, Secret Beach; Carlo & Ernie’s Runway Bar, Coconut Drive; Portofino Restaurant, 6 miles North of the Bridge; Estel’s Dine By the Sea, Buccaneer Street; Izzy’s Smoothies, Snacks, & Juice Bar, corner of Pescador Drive and Caribeña Street; The Baker, Sea Grape Drive; Brooklyn Brothers Bagel Shop, next to Caye Coffee; Belize Chocolate Company, Barrier Reef Drive; all San Pedro, Ambergris Caye, Belize.

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Dublin Dining, Travel Eats

Travel Eats: Euro-whirlwind in Dublin, Edinburgh & London

Travel Eats documents my food adventures while traveling.

This year, I celebrated my birthday by heading back across the pond for six days. I started by reuniting with Dublin – both the people and the city – and also fit in quick stops in Edinburgh (for the first time) and London.

While in Dublin, I revisited some favorite spots from my time there: Avoca, the subject of a previous post about an equally colorful dish; Sister Sadie, where I was wowed by dinner, and Hatch & Sons, a cozy café that taught me about the blaa.

Halloumi salad, Avoca

Grilled Toonsbridge halloumi salad, butternut squash, cavolo nero, baba ghanoush & dukkah, Avoca

Cortado and scone, Hatch and Sons

Cortado and scone with butter and raspberry jam, Hatch & Sons

Beans and toast, Sister Sadie

Home-baked beans in tomato sauce with a soft fried egg, whipped feta, olive & lemon yogurt, fresh herbs, and toasted bread

I also tried a few new places: Catch 22 for smoked salmon, Whitefriar Grill for their renowned brunch, and the Tram Cafe for a mocha served out of a restored turn-of-the-century train car.

Smoked salmon with mushy peas, Catch 22

Castletownbere smoked salmon with Guinness bread and mushy peas, Catch 22

Exterior, Tram Cafe

Exterior, The Tram Café

Mocha, Tram Cafe

Mocha, The Tram Café

Interior, Tram Cafe

Interior, The Tram Café

Norwegian eggs, Whitefriar Grill

Norwegian eggs with potato rosti, smoked salmon, baby spinach, and hollandaise, Whitefriar Grill

Next, it was off to Edinburgh for the main dining event: a seven-course tasting at The Gardener’s Cottage that was seasonal, creative, and completely charming. I also tried haggis (not as crazy as people make it sound) and enjoyed a traditional Scottish breakfast.

The Gardener's Cottage, tiny and tucked away

Walking up to The Gardener’s Cottage, tiny and tucked away

Amuse bouche, The Gardener's Cottage

Mussels with herb crumb and broad bean with mint, The Gardener’s Cottage

Trout, The Gardener's Cottage

Trout with cauliflower and sheep sorrel, The Gardener’s Cottage

Tortelloni, The Gardener's Cottage

Beef shin tortellini with butternut squash puree and chantarelles, The Gardener’s Cottage

Grouse, The Gardener's Cottage

Grouse with spelt, charred onions, parsley, capers, and walnuts, The Gardener’s Cottage

Sorbet and rosé, The Gardener's Cottage

Roman berry sorbet with mascarpone granola and meringue, with a glass of rosé, The Gardener’s Cottage

Chocolate dessert, The Gardener's Cottage

Dessert of blueberry, chocolate ice cream, soft biscuit, and popcorn, The Gardener’s Cottage

Veggie breakfast, Loudon's Cafe and Bakery

Loudons veggie breakfast with veggie sausages, sautéed spinach, egg, tattie scone, baked beans, mushroom, cherry tomatoes, and toasted homemade bread, Loudons Cafe & Bakery

Haggis tower, No. 1 High Street

Haggis, neeps and tatties tower (haggis with carrot and turnip), No. 1 High Street

Then, with tea and salted caramel fudge to tide me over for the journey, I took the train from Edinburgh to London to meet friends. We came upon a BBQ spot in Camden that night for dinner, and the next day spent multiple hours in the culinary mecca that is the Borough Market (recommended to me by many).

Braised ox cheek sandwich, Q Grill

Braised ox cheek on a brioche bun with chilli slaw, mustard mayo, and seasoned fries, Q Grill

Key lime pie jar, Q Grill

Key lime pie jar, Q Grill

Grilled cheese (with 4+ different cheeses), Borough Market

Grilled cheese (with 4+ different cheeses), Borough Market

Exotic meats, Borough Market

Exotic bites trio of crocodile, ostrich, and zebra, Borough Market

Fresh figs, Borough Market

Fresh (and massive) figs, Borough Market

Meringues, Borough Market

Giant meringue topped with macarons, Borough Market

The details: Avoca, 11–13 Suffolk St., Dublin 2, Ireland; Sister Sadie, 46 Harrington St., Dublin 8, Ireland; Hatch & Sons, Little Museum of Dublin, 15 St. Stephen’s Green, Dublin 2, Ireland; Catch 22, 28 South Anne Street, Dublin 2, Ireland; The Tram Cafe, Wolfe Tone Quay, Milltown Park, Dublin 1, Ireland; Whitefriar Grill, 16 Aungier Street, Dublin 2, Ireland; The Gardener’s Cottage, 294 Colinton Rd, Edinburgh, Scotland; Loudons Cafe & Bakery, 94b Fountainbridge, Edinburgh, Scotland; No. 1 High Street, 1 High St., Edinburgh, Scotland; Q Grill, 29-33 Chalk Farm Rd., London, England; Borough Market, 8 Southwark St., London, England.

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Travel Eats

Travel Eats: Brisket, Tex-Mex & more in Austin & San Antonio

Travel Eats documents my food adventures while traveling.

Brisket plate, Brown's Bar-B-Que

Brisket plate with mac & cheese and corn-on-the-cob, Brown’s Bar-B-Que truck

I recently spent the weekend in Texas with five girlfriends, splitting the trip between San Antonio and Austin. Because our time was so limited, we had to prioritize, and barbecue was at the top of the list. We landed on Brown’s Bar-B-Que, one of Austin’s many food trucks; without hesitation, I ordered sliced brisket. After the first bite or two, I was practically moaning over how good this brisket was – crackly crust on the outside, unfathomably tender on the inside, and just the right ratio of smoke to meat to fat. It didn’t need the sauce, but I drizzled a bit onto the open-faced sandwich I made with the white bread, and was happy I did. The mac-n-cheese and corn on the cob were no joke, either. Eating that caliber of meal in what was really just a bar parking lot felt quintessentially Austin.

Chalupa Cabra, Beto's

Chalupa Cabra, curry-stewed cabrito served over guava & cream cheese empanada roll, topped with cilantro lime cole slaw, cotija, and toasted coconut, at Beto’s

Tacos was also a dining priority, and that was where we focused our efforts upon arrival in San Antonio. Beto’s Alt-Mex came highly recommended by our Airbnb host, and this towering Chalupa Cabra was listed on the menu as “Guy’s Favorite” (Fieri, of course). It was an eclectic mini-feast of curried meat, toasted coconut, and lime cole slaw, all on top of a sweet guava-cream cheese pastry. On the other side of the spectrum, the best classic tacos we ate all trip were actually at the airport location of Rosario’s (one of several in San Antonio). They were lightly grilled with generous amounts of beans, chicken, and sliced avocado, plus a smoky salsa on the side that tied it all together.

Tacos nortenos, Rosario's

Tacos Norteños with flour tortillas, refried beans, Monterey Jack cheese, sliced avocado, and chicken, served with frijoles a la charra, Rosario’s

It isn’t vacation without brunch, and ours came in Texas-sized proportions in both cities. In San Antonio, it wasn’t enough for Cappy’s to top thick-cut, cornflake-crusted French toast with deliciously juicy Hill Country peaches, whipped cream, and powdered sugar. No, there were also scrambled eggs and bacon on the side for good measure. It was probably the best French toast I’ve had in recent memory.

Hill Country peach French toast, Cappy's

Hill Country peach French toast with scrambled eggs and bacon, Cappy’s

At Perla’s in Austin, seafood was the star in my breakfast bouillabaisse. The unabashedly spicy broth was stuffed with a staggering amount of clams, mussels, shrimp, scallops, and whitefish. A crispy poached egg made it “breakfast,” and I’m now convinced all bouillabaisse should come that way.

Breakfast bouillabaisse, Perla's

Breakfast bouillabaisse with crispy poached egg, saffron rouille, and grilled french bread, Perla’s

Centro-Americano, Houndstooth

Centro-Americano with espresso, rice milk, cinnamon & honey, red plum preserves, and a burnt lemon garnish, Houndstooth Coffee

Austin seems to take coffee as seriously as Portland or Seattle, and I drank a couple of especially creative versions. At Houndstooth, an Austin mini-chain, the twist on an iced Americano involved red plum preserves, cinnamon, honey, rice milk, and burnt lemon – a fascinatingly successful combination. My order at Cenote in East Austin was a little more traditional (iced chai with espresso) but the chai itself was creamier and more heavily spiced than most. I was also a little obsessed with the glittery marble table amidst the other mismatched furniture inside the shop.

Iced house-made chai with espresso, Cenote

Iced house-made chai with espresso, Cenote

The details: Brown’s Bar-B-Que, 1901 S. Lamar Blvd., Austin; Beto’s, 8142 Broadway, San Antonio; Perla’s, 1400 S. Congress Ave., Austin; Cappy’s, 5011 Broadway, San Antonio; Houndstooth Coffee, 401 Congress Ave., Austin; Cenote, 1010 E. Cesar Chavez, Austin; Rosario’s, San Antonio Airport (and other locations), San Antonio (all Texas).

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Travel Eats

Travel Eats: Three days in Berlin

Travel Eats documents my food adventures while traveling.

Goat cheese pizza, LuLa am Markt

Goat cheese pizza with red grapes and balsamic-honey sauce and ginger lemonade at LuLa am Markt

You might be expecting my post about Berlin to be all schnitzel and bratwurst, but it was actually a rather culinarily diverse trip. Things started off strong with a wood-fired pizza at LuLa in Friedenau (no relation to the beloved Lula Café in Chicago, but the vibe was in fact quite similar). The somewhat eclectic combination of goat cheese, red grapes, balsamic vinegar, and honey turned out to be a total hit, especially paired with mint-garnished ginger lemonade.

On the other side of the global spectrum, we dined at an Egyptian restaurant one evening, settling into plush floor-level couches and diving into colorful shared plates. My favorite dish was this tagine, a clay pot brimming with warm-spiced tomato sauce, potatoes, meatballs, and a soft-boiled egg.

Tagine "Marrakech", Baraka

Tagine “Marrakech” with meatballs, egg, and tomato sauce at Baraka

Macarons, Du Bonheur

Caramel, pistachio, and plum macarons at Du Bonheur

Berlin also had a few sweet surprises in store, most notably the best macarons I’ve had in years. The beautiful plum, pistachio, and caramel varieties all packed enormous flavor and really left me thinking I was in France instead of Germany. I also found Berlin’s coffee to be excellent across the board, all the way down to this cappuccino at a darling café right next to one of the S-Bahn stops.

Cappuccino at S-Café, next door to the S-Bahn train station

Cappuccino at S-Café, next door to the S-Bahn train station

Currywurst, Arkonaplatz

Currywurst from a stall at the Arkonaplatz flea market

Of course, I had to try a little bit of traditional fare, and currywurst seemed like the right place to start (the memory of one at Dublin’s Oktoberfest was still fresh in my mind). This sliced sausage doused with smoky ketchup and curry powder served as a nice hearty snack while I strolled around the Arkonaplatz flea market.

And there was beer, too; don’t worry. I was excited to go local at what seemed to be Berlin’s premier craft brewery, Eschenbräu. I sampled both the Dunkler Bock and the Pils (dark and light, respectively), and found them to be more complex and nuanced than I expected. I hope the craft beer scene continues to grow in that city!

Dunkler Bock, Eschenbräu

Dunkler Bock and Pils beers, both brewed at Eschenbräu

It was fun to try a traditional brunch buffet as well. Schwarze Pumpe’s version included a smattering of meats, cheeses, eggs, breads, and spreads, plus the ever-present yogurt, fruit, and muesli cereal. Small tastes of many things is exactly how I like to eat anyway, so it worked out well.

Brunch buffet, Schwarze Pumpe

Brunch buffet with bread, cheeses, eggs, muesli, yogurt & more at Schwarze Pumpe

The details: LuLa am Markt, Lauterstr. 14; Schwartze Pumpe, Choriner Str. 76; Trödelmarkt Arkonaplatz, Arkonaplatz; Du Bonheur, Brunnenstraße 39 ; Baraka, Lausitzer Platz 6; Hausbrauerei Eschenbräu, Triftstraße 67; S-Café, Bahnhofstraße 4c; all Berlin, Germany.

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Travel Eats

Travel Eats: A weekend in Galway

Travel Eats documents my food adventures while traveling.

Smoked salmon salad with baked beans at Ard Bia

Burren smoked salmon salad with organic quinoa, soft boiled market egg, and pistachio and sumac dressing, plus side of Turkish baked beans, at Ard Bia

I recently took the train to Galway for the weekend, excited to see what Ireland’s western coast was like. The standout meal for me was a late brunch at Ard Bia, housed in a cozy stone building just past the Spanish Arch. The salad combined loads of local smoked salmon, hearty quinoa, a soft-boiled egg (which kept it in the brunch zone), seeds, greens, and a nutty dressing into what was by far the best salad I’ve eaten this year. The locally sourced ingredients, eclectic flavor combinations, and laidback-yet-stylish vibe reminded me a lot of Lula Café in Chicago, which made me feel even more at home.

I kept with the same theme during dinner at Kirwan’s, a tucked-away seafood bar that had come highly recommended. The cold seafood platter packed major variety: smoked mackerel, head-on prawns, shrimp in Marie Rose sauce, and a salty oyster, all atop a thick blanket of smoked salmon. It was straightforward enough that I could truly appreciate the freshness and character of each component.

Cold seafood platter, Kirwan's

Seafood platter with smoked salmon, fresh prawn, smoked mackerel, rock oyster, and brandy-scented Marie Rose sauce at Kirwan’s

Cheese plate, Sheridans Cheesemongers

Plate of five cheeses, olives, crackers, and quince at Sheridans Cheesemongers

I was able to enjoy a sampler plate of five fine cheeses at Sheridans Cheesemongers, whose products I’d seen throughout Ireland. I also got into the holiday spirit at two locations of the Galway Christmas Market, one near the Spanish Arch and the other on Eyre Square. At one decked-out tent, I sipped my first mulled wine of the season; at the other, I went for a warm blend of Jägermeister, mulling spices, honey, and lemon. And of course, I tucked into a pint of Guinness, the only appropriate beverage for listening to some Irish trad music at Latin Quarter pub Tig Coili.

Mulled wine in a festive tent at the Galway Christmas Market

Mulled wine in a festive tent at the Galway Christmas Market

Guinness at Tig Coili

Pint of Guinness while listening to live trad music at Tig Coili

Because I was staying in Salthill, a coastal area just outside Galway City, I kept to that area for breakfast. One morning, that meant walking down the Salthill Promenade for the Fisherman’s mini version of an Irish fry-up breakfast, which included especially good black pudding and sunny views of Galway Bay. Another morning, I grabbed takeaway pastries from Gourmet Tart Co, who especially excelled at chocolate croissants and fruit-almond tarts.

Mini fry breakfast, The Fisherman

Mini fry (full Irish breakfast) in the sunshine at Fisherman along the Salthill Promenade

Pastries at Gourmet Tart Co.

Chocolate croissants and other assorted pastries at Gourmet Tart Co. in Salthill

The details: Gourmet Tart Co., Salthill Upper; Galway Christmas Market, Spanish Arch; Ard Bia at Nimmos, Spanish Arch, Long Walk; Tig Cóilí, Mainguard Street; Sheridans Cheesemongers, Church Yard Street; The Seafood Bar @ Kirwan’s, Kirwan’s Lane; Fisherman, Salthill; all Galway, Ireland.

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Travel Eats

Travel Eats: Exploring Florence, Tuscany & Venice

Travel Eats documents my food adventures while traveling.

Crostini with mozzarella, tomato, and olive tapenade, Il Santini

Crostini with mozzarella, tomato, and olive tapenade at Il Santini

After a weekend in Rome, it was off to Florence for a few days. My Airbnb host graciously offered a few restaurant recommendations, and I took her up on most of them. At the top of her list was Il Santo Bevitore, not too far from the Ponte Vecchio in the Oltrano (“Artisan Quarter,” an area that was more local than touristy). I first popped into the cozy wine bar next door, not immediately realizing that it was actually Il Santo’s sister restaurant, Il Santini. I lingered over a glass of wine and a couple of snacks, including a lovely crostini with fresh tomatoes, pulled mozzarella, salty olive tapenade, and chiffonade of basil.

I took a long walk around the area before returning to the same corner for dinner at buzzing Il Santo’s bar. During the meal, I was able to sample all the flavors of autumn in Italy: a rustic pumpkin soup with coffee oil followed by chestnut tagliatelle with oxtail ragu. I enjoyed the creativity of both dishes, but it was the simple dessert of strawberries and mascarpone cream that stuck with me the most.

Chestnut tagliatelle, Il Santo Bevitore

Chestnut tagliatelle with oxtail and traditional dolceforte sauce at Il Santo Bevitore

Strawberries with mascarpone cream for dessert, Il Santo Bevitore

Strawberries with mascarpone cream for dessert at Il Santo Bevitore

My host had also recommended Perseus, calling it “the king of Florentine steak.” While I couldn’t order the famously enormous steak, suitable for 2–4 people, I did try a smaller portion of sliced steak with a sweet balsamic vinegar reduction, and it was still very good. Perseus was also where I sated an avocado craving that had been slowly building during the trip. The avocado and shrimp worked well together as a salad, even though it didn’t feel especially Italian.

Avocado with shrimp, Perseus

Avocado and shrimp appetizer at Perseus

And of course there was gelato. Venchi is a well-known brand in Florence, and its dark chocolate gelato was certainly the most intense, rich variety I had all trip. This time, I was glad I stuck with a classic. However, I leaned a little more adventurous at Carapina, where I rewarded myself for climbing to the top of the Duomo at Santa Maria Del Fiore. The concord grape and strawberry had an unexpected seedy crunch, and the persimmon also had a thicker texture to match its unique flavor. My favorite was the creamy mint, a flavor I wish I’d noticed at more gelaterias.

Dark chocolate and dulce de leche gelato, Venchi

Dark chocolate and dulce de leche gelato at Venchi

Gelato, Carapina

Persimmon, mint, and concord-grape strawberry gelato at Carapina

Another main food and drink destination was the Mercato Centrale, a longstanding two-floor market. On the lower floor were the traditional vendors, slinging everything from pecorino to tripe to crunchy biscotti, the latter sold in an especially fantastic pistachio white chocolate variety. One afternoon, I bought a panino from the market and brought it back to my Airbnb to enjoy in the adorable backyard garden. The panino was named the Caprese VIP, because it contained truffle sauce in addition to the normal caprese ingredients. The pungent sauce really did transform the sandwich (and made me glad to be in Italy during truffle season).

An array of biscotti from Cantucci at Mercato Centrale

An array of biscotti from Cantucci at Mercato Centrale

Caprese VIP panino, Mercato Centrale

Caprese VIP panino with mozzarella, tomato, and truffle sauce from Clara at Mercato Centrale, enjoyed in the garden at my AirBnb

On the upper floor of the Mercato Centrale was a newly renovated gourmet food hall with at least a dozen chef-branded stations – plus an Eataly pop-up shop and a cooking demonstration area. After surveying my options, I decided on the pizzeria, where I could see bubbling pies cooked to order in a stone oven. The pizza Napoli had punchy anchovies and capers in addition to the cheese and sauce, and the dough had just enough salt and char, so I can officially say it was the best pizza I had in Italy. I was intrigued by the contrast between the Mercato Centrale’s two floors, though, and wonder how the vendors downstairs perceive and interact with this new area that’s clearly designed to appeal to foodies from all over the world. Isn’t Italy food-focused by default? The whole setup of the upper floor is beautifully executed, but wouldn’t the original vendors be a more authentic culinary experience? A bit of a digression, but worth thinking about.

Pizza Napoli from Pizzeria Sud on the upper floor of Mercato Centrale

Beer and pizza Napoli with tomato sauce, mozzarella cheese, basil leaves, capers, dried oregano, and Spanish anchovies from Pizzeria Sud on the upper floor of Mercato Centrale

I wanted to see Tuscany, too, so I took a half-day tour to Siena that included tastings at two wineries. The first, Lornano, is known for its chianti classico, and I discovered that I happen to really like chianti classico. It was a privilege to tour the property and learn about the winemaking process in such a famous region. After a couple of touristy hours in the city of Siena, our final stop was Tenuta Torciano, which was both a winery and a wine school. We were educated on the proper way to hold the glass (by the base), smell, and taste as we tried more wines and paired them with a full dinner. Our host and sommelier poured white truffle extra virgin olive oil (again, it was truffle season) onto each slice of lasagna, a move that seemed lavish and excessive at first, but actually turned out to be perfect usage of that oil. At dessert, I learned about the tradition of dipping biscotti into vin sante (sweet wine) – a brilliant and authentically Italian combination.

Chianti classico tasting at Fattoria Lornano

Chianti classico tasting at Fattoria Lornano

Lasagna with truffle-infused extra virgin olive oil at Tenuta Torciano

Lasagna drizzled with truffle-infused extra virgin olive oil during wine tasting dinner at Tenuta Torciano

My last stop was Venice, where I had less than a full day to explore (and I’ll admit that I was mostly gawking at how the streets really were made of water). Caffe Florian claims to be the longest continuously operating coffee shop in the world at 290 years old, so it seemed worth a visit. While I don’t think that distinction merits the exorbitant prices they charged, I still loved sitting along the edge of bustling Piazza San Marco and listening to live classical music. The coffee I chose was a blend of espresso, chocolate, cream, and a few kinds of liqueur that lent pleasant licorice-y notes to the drink. The colorful trio of seafood toasts were a nice savory complement, especially the tuna. Next time, I’ll have to explore Venice a little longer!

Coffee and trio of toasts, Caffe Florian

Trio of Venetian toasts (tuna, salmon, and salt cod) and Caffé Anniversario Florian (to celebrate 290 years), with espresso, Aurum liqueur, Anisette Varnelli, chocolate, and cream

The details: Il Santo Bevitore and Il Santino, Via di Santo Spirito, 64/66 and 60, Florence; Venchi, Via dei Calzaiuoli, 65, Florence; Carapina, Via Lambertesca, 18, Florence; Clara, Cantucci, and Pizzeria Sud, all in Mercato Centrale, Via dell’Ariento, Florence; Fattoria Lornano, Loc. Lornano, 11, Monteriggioni, Siena; Tenuta Torciano, Via Crocetta, 18, Ulignano, Siena; Perseus, Viale Don Minzoni, 10, Florence; Caffe Florian, Piazza San Marco, 57, Venice.

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