Cheesesteaks & Dinosaurs

One of the things I love most about living on the East Coast is the proximity to big cities. From our cozy home in the suburbs of northern Maryland we are 30 minutes from Baltimore and 90 minutes from Washington, DC to the south, and 60 minutes to Philadelphia and another 2.5 hours to New York in the north. This is ideal, decadent, and positively laden with food and cultural options.

That said, last Saturday we hopped in the car in the late afternoon and headed north to cash in on a Christmas present: Tickets to the Jurassic World exhibit at the Franklin Institute in Philly. One of my favorite museum perks is discounted tickets for a certain time of day. In this case, adult evening admission for the exhibit was $19.95 for entry after 5 p.m. and through 9 p.m. That said, you can’t access the rest of the FI’s permanent exhibits if you enter after hours. You may also run into hordes of Scouts lined up to camp-out, and families lining up for the IMAX theatre which closes at 7 p.m. So, choose your own adventure. Dinosaurs are on through April 23, so don’t miss it!

 

Say what you want about Philadelphia sports fans but be advised that some of the best food on this coast is in the city. One of our favorite all-time pitstops when in Philly is the Reading Terminal Market. It has grown over the years, and we’ve grown smarter in scheduling our shopping there, too. Never show up without a re-usable bag, and avoid Saturday like the plague.

Although we were mired in the Saturday crowd this time, we were ready to rock with a cooler, and bags. What the hell are we buying, you ask? Oh, everything. RTM has chocolate, coffee, seafood, burgers, produce, baked goods .. you get the point. Here are some of our personal favorites in the market:

  • Miller’s Twist – Hand-rolled pretzels. A must have sweet or savory snack while shopping.
  • Mueller Chocolates – Purchase your chocolates by the pound, and look for oddballs like the chocolate covered onion that was featured on Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmern.
  • Martin’s – Our favorite sausage stop, although the butcher has many other options. From turkey chorizo to chicken feta spinach sausage, always look to see what’s on the board for the 3 lbs for $9 special. Go all out, and freeze it at home to enjoy later.
  • OK Produce – Absurdly cheap vegetables. Think 3 avocados (ready to use asap) for $1, three medium red peppers for $1, bundles of potatoes for the same. Your bags will be heavy if you stop here, make it your last stop.
  • Beiler’s – With two locations in the market: Beiler’s Bakery, Beiler’s Donuts & Salads. We aim for the Salads (surprising, I know) for the giant vats of pickles (less surprising now, right?)
  • Hatville Deli – New for us on this trip, and yielded thick cut pepper encrusted bacon that barely lasted a day at home.
  • The Head Nut – Tucked in the back corner of the market (by the restrooms) you will find a little haven of bulk nuts, seeds, flours, spices, and every other thing. Prices are right and the staff does a nice job of navigating the very tiny shop to serve their customers.

After intense shopping and running from dinosaurs we made our way to Sonny’s Cheesesteaks in Old City. This is the fourth stop on our recent Tour de Cheesesteaks, and the results were mixed. Sonny’s ranked highly in several food critic romps through the city, so our hopes were high. Sadly the steak was lukewarm (literally and figuratively) and the whiz was without. Sonny’s lands the third spot on our list while Pat’s remains strong at #1 with Geno’s at #2, and Campo’s dead last at #4.

All that, and home before midnight. Thank you, Philadelphia! #seeyousoon

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Dining in the Dark

* Spoiler Alert: If you’ve considered dining in the dark but don’t want the details – stop reading! *

Last fall we had the opportunity to eat at the restaurant ONoir while in Toronto. The premise is that diners will enjoy an entire meal in absolute darkness, served by a wait staff that is legally blind. I admit that is a foodie my primary motivation was to see if I could truly taste better, or differently, if I wasn’t able to see my food. I am a big believer in presentation so this is particularly intriguing for me. The experience ended up being much more than simply turning off one of my senses to embolden another. I won’t give away too many details in case you decide to see (?) for yourself, but here are my general impressions.

The setup is such that you begin your dining experience in an anteroom of the restaurant with a hostess that is not blind. You review the menu, and make your choices. You are able to choose a surprise for any of your dishes or you can choose something that you recognize. We decided to choose a surprise appetizer, and both decided on filet for the entree. I think we figured that the experience alone would be a surprise, and since we are constantly experimenting with food, we also wanted something familiar so we could see if it’s really taste a difference when we couldn’t see it.

Once the order was complete, we were taken down the hall where the hostess knocked on a heavy door. One of the blind wait staff came out and introduced himself. What followed was series of instructions to get us into the room and seated at our table. When they say that you will eat a meal in complete darkness, they’re not kidding.

With my hand on the shoulder of the waiter in front of us, we walked into a completely dark room. I could hear other diners around us, nervous chatter filling the air at the 6:30 p.m. seating, one of two for the evening. The hostess told us that the restaurant could seat up to 120 people in four separate rooms. While walking into the dark room to find our seats, this is one of the first things I tried to reconcile. Where is everyone? How close is the next table to me? John and I spend some time waving our arms about trying to figure out the makeup of our immediate area. I was particularly glad there was a wall to our left, I continually used it when placing my wine glass back on the table after taking a sip: down, left to touch the wall, place it on the table.

Throughout the meal we received cues from our waiter on how to receive the food that was brought to us. A raised hand here, a reach to a bread basket there, or both hands out to receive an entree dish. Our waiter did not stay with us the whole time, but filtered around the room serving other guests.

I noticed that when I was concentrating particularly hard on doing something like buttering my bread, I would shut my eyes. Odd reflex in a pitch black room, to be sure. When the surprise appetizer came, the first thing I did was put my face close to the dish to smell what was on the plate. Not something you would normally do in a restaurant, put your face directly in your food. The next thing we both did was reach for the plate with their hands to feel what was there. It mad me feel a bit like a kid, when’s the last time that you played with your food?

What our nose and our hands told us was that we had a salad in front of us with a spicy piece of breaded chicken. It was delicious. We alternated between using our fork which was particularly hysterical when trying to spear arugula and get it to your mouth successfully. Let’s be honest, that’s difficult when you’re in broad daylight. When the steak arrived, one of the first things we asked ourselves is whether or not it has already been cut for us. It had, thankfully. I tried to navigate my plate and eat in the way I normally do, a bite of this, a bite of that. I kept taking bites of steak and wanted something else. John described his own plate like a clock, “my steak is at 3 o’clock. My potatoes are at 6 o’clock. Have you found yours yet?” I did eventually locate all of my food and shamelessly used my hand to confirm that I had eaten every last bite from the plate.

When it was time to go, our waiter had told us that all we had to do was say his name. This is another part of the experience that we found interesting. Normally when you’re looking for the check you put your hand up, or you catch your waiters attention. I had been listening to his footsteps around the room, and thought I knew where he was in relation to our table. I said his name at regular volume and he heard me right away coming over to our table to help us back out of the room.

So is this experience really about dining in the dark? It certainly included two hours of thinking about what it would be like to live a life without sight. In the room, everyone was in the dark. So if you spilled your wine or got sauce on your shirt or used your hands to find your food, no one could judge you because they couldn’t see you. Something to think about.


ONoir – 620 Church Street, Toronto, Ontario, Canada
http://www.onoirtoronto.com/

Weekend in DC: News & Pigs

Don’t panic, I’m alive and have been having a wonderful few months since Williamsburg in November! So wonderful that I can’t seem to find time to post. The better news is that now I have a ton of restaurants and experiences to share … so here we go.

I’ve been in DC on two separate occasions in the past few months, thanks to work. I really enjoy being “close” to DC although geographically close does not mean drive-ably close, as I’ve learned. If I take the train I usually drive out to the BWI airport and park the car for the 25 minute train ride into Union Station. If I drive, there’s a fair amount of lane-switching, construction, GPS and cursing 🙂

Where we ate:
The Pig – 1320 14th St. NW – Can you guess by the name what kind of cuisine we enjoyed? The menu was extensive and inventive in all things pork. Bacon wrapped apples were a favorite, but many other things appeared in plates to share: brussel sprouts, outstanding grits, and even a pig’s foot or a “crispy trotter.” John ordered one and shortly afterward the chef came to our table to visit and brought a very thinly sliced piece of pig cheek (I think). It was basically charred fat .. and it was ridiculously good.

Lincoln’s Waffle Shop  – 504 10th St NW – A greasy spoon with an odd shape and even more curious characters was our choice for Saturday breakfast. Next to historic Ford’s Theatre and rife with references to Honest Abe, the menus are tall and plastic and customers brush elbows in community-style seating. The service is fast and the food is stunning, Northeast, diner-good.

Shake Shack  – 800 F St NW – All the rage in Baltimore right now on the Inner Harbor it appeared on our radar and was hard to resist. The call of serious burgers and milkshakes was too strong! I think the chain meets the hype and and my other half is still talking about the milkshakes (just right).

Kramerbooks – 1517 Connecticut Ave NW – Highly recommended across several review sites this place plays host to two of my favorite things: books and food. After a short wait I received a text letting me know my table was ready. Winding back into the cozy dining area I chose comfort food in a Reuben sandwich and a glass of Malbec. The dessert case is viewable from the bookstore so I also had to take a slice of perfectly tart key lime pie to go.

Playing tourist:
Newseum – 555 Pennsylvania Ave. N.W. – Originally when we were looking at museums we were largely focused on the free experiences around D.C. A friend recommended the Newseum and we read a fair amount online before making our decision. This was well worth the admission price for anyone – media hound or otherwise. One exhibit I enjoyed immensely is “The Boomer List” on display now through July 2015: Awesome self portraits and short stories of 19 individuals born in each year of the Baby Boom generation.

Where we stayed:
Hotel Helix1430 Rhode Island Avenue N.W. – A hotel in the Kimpton brand, which never disappoints. Quirky and stylish and in a great location in the N.W. The free happy hour is a great way to wind down (or up). They do have a small garage where you can park your car for a fee, or free, if you get a wink from the travel gods like we did.

Windsor Inn – 1842 16th Street, NW – Working to / from Dupont Circle made this old building a good find in a residential area. Because of its age there is some general wear and tear but if you’re only going to rest your head for a few hours a night, it’s a great spot. Plenty of character in the room furnishings, and a house cat named Mona.

While working in nearby Alexandria, VA I also had the opportunity to eat Ethiopian at a delicious place called Bati. The wait took forever with our huge group (12+ people) but the end result was so worth it when we got to dig right in with our hands and eat. (3815B S. George Mason Drive, Falls Church, VA)

Walking Around Williamsburg

Sometimes conferences keep you cooped up indoors and you don’t get to run around and see everything you want to see in a new city. That said, I usually try to take a day or two to myself before or after a long academic conference. Back in 2010 when I was in Istanbul for a conference, one of my professors said to me, “Kelly, you don’t have to go to everything.” I was shocked by this revelation. I don’t? Several years down the path, I’ve found a great balance between work and play in the conference zone.

Williamsburg, Viriginia is truly lovely. This was my first visit and the weather rolled out a fine red carpet of stunning fall foliage and sunshine on the drive down from Baltimore.

The conference was located at the Williamsburg Lodge, which was incredible. I like to work out while I’m on the road, and the fitness center easily ranked as one of the most immaculate and well-appointed gyms ever. Grounds, rooms, dining and common areas were also warm and inviting. Location can’t be beat as you can walk right out into the colonial area of town and be transported back in time with a few steps. I’d stay here again in a minute.

You know I ate well. Here are some favorites:
Aroma’s Coffehouse & Cafe – 431 Prince George Street – A divine southern breakfast and a location suited for a casual business meeting. Grits with a poached egg and a “Honey Do” latte .. and yes, I stuck a scone in my bag for later.

DoG Street Pub – 401 W Duke of Gloucester, Merchants Square – Excellent atmosphere in this pub where our early bird group gathered before the conference kicked off. I grabbed dinner to go (burgr for me, salad for Katie) and had a delicious cocktail while waiting. Long community tables and high ceilings inside, patio (with heat lamps) outside and a spot right on the busy thoroughfare.

The Cheese Shop – 410 W Duke of Gloucester, Merchants Square – My cousin James pointed me to this place before I arrived, although after seeing the layout of the town it would be hard to miss! I stopped one day for lunch with colleagues and another night for a glamorous cheese plate all to myself. You can buy wine by the glass, pick a number of cheeses, olives or meats and grab a hunk of bread to eat in or dine out. You pay by weight and my plate included three cheeses, olives, a glass of Merlot and a hunk of French bread for $19. Heaven. The sandwich process is efficient, but crowded. Be prepared to wait.

Blue Talon Bistro – 420 Prince George Street – This place boasts “serious comfort food,” and they are not joking. I waited 20-30 minutes for a table for one during Saturday lunch, detouring to Mermaid Books and the Spice & Tea Exchange across the street to count down the minutes. Once I made it to my table, I wanted everything on the menu. The winter vegetable soup came in a perfectly cute tureen and warmed me up immediately. The pressed French dip sandwich was decadent, which sounds crazy for a sandwich but trust me. I finished up with a berry cobbler and a very satisfied smile. Lunch prices were manageable, dinner looked a bit higher.

I tried to get a seat at two places where I was sadly unsuccessful, Old Chickahominy and Food for Thought. Those mishaps did lead me to both the mediocre (Red Hot and Blue BBQ) and the fabulous (Duck Donuts). Duck Donuts was a great find for a breakfast on the road. They apparently have locations all over the beaches of Virginia and are making their way to North Carolina and up into New Jersey. They remind me of Fractured Prune donuts but I also scored handmade hot chocolate and a delicious breakfast sandwich on a bagel.

I also enjoyed a tour and tasting at the Williamsburg Winery. After winning a bottle of Two Shilling Red during the conference (see, they are fun) I wasn’t sure I needed to head to the property. I’m so glad I did. I drove up after 4 p.m. on a Saturday that had proved both warm and sunny, and the lot was full. I thought tours would be over per the website (ending at 4:30 p.m.) but the workers were still selling tickets. The $10 ticket included a short video, a walk through the many rooms and processes, and a tasting of six or so wines. Our guide was a hoot and I was pleasantly surprised by the wines. The Williamsburg Winery is the largest in Virginia, and I also learned that Virginia wines are making their way up to their competitors in the Finger Lakes (NY), and Pacific Northwest (OR, WA). It was dark when I left so I didn’t get to wander through the vineyard but the long and winding drive was beautiful on the way in.

You can see my Hotel Confidential video reviews of the Williamsburg Lodge and the Historic Powhatan Resort.

Red wine & burgers in Napa

When I hear the word “Napa” I think of rolling countryside and bright sunshine and a big glass of red wine. Turns out all of these things are true in a valley with almost three million visitors a year.*

During my visit to San Francisco over Memorial Day weekend, we had a chance to hop in the car and head for the hills. About 50 miles from San Francisco lies this California icon, one that I knew very little about in the first place. Turns out Napa Valley is a collection of towns and wineries and a few long and winding roads. Thankfully there are a lot of designated driver options in place for the tourists, although I’m sure they have their share of roadside disasters.

Our plan was to start at the Visitor’s Center and pick up a map of the Napa Valley Wine Trail. We certainly gave the guy behind the counter a good laugh. I guess asking about crowds and traffic on Memorial Day weekend is just foolish?

With no concrete plan in mind and only one Napa veteran in the car, we decided to pull over at whatever looked interesting. The winner was the stunning Chimney Rock winery, with a distinctively Spanish appeal. We were blessed with a knowledgeable, funny, and kind wine connoisseur named Matt who spoiled us with an outdoor table on the patio and 100% Cabernet. Later we would make the connection between our experience and the movie Bottle Shock which focuses on a true story in Stags Leap. As if it needed further endorsement, I was happy to bring home a perfect 2010 Cabernet Franc from Chimney Rock.

What’s for lunch? Burgers. Yes, really. On a bright blue summer day with a head full of wine, I had the best burger of my life at Gott’s Roadside in Oxbow Public Market. With American flags waving in the breeze we checked the map to find our next destination. It was slightly inconvenient to come back off the trail and into town but Matt gave us such a strong recommendation that we quickly queued up for red meat and fries.

With full bellies we aimed for sparkling wine at the infamous Mumm winery. Where we had previously managed to be three of few patrons at Chimney Rock, we arrived at Mumm to find limos in the parking lot and tables full of bridal parties deep into their pink drinks. Luckily travel karma caught up with us and presented a table along the railing and an unobstructed view of the hills. I was on a rosé discovery kick this summer and was deeply pleased with the Brut Reserve Rosé. Most surprising was the sparkling pinot noir, which I had no idea existed.

What’s for dinner? Taco truck. In keeping with our healthy day we wound our way back to Oakland and indulged in Tacos Mi Rancho. None of us got very far on the monster burritos from this First Avenue fixture. Between the sunshine and the wine, everyone’s eyes were bigger than their stomachs. I’m only sorry I couldn’t do it justice.

With so many places to go in Napa, clearly I have to go back. I’m sure I won’t have a hard time convincing anyone to join me!

 

* Per 2012 stats from http://www.visitnapavalley.com/research_statistics.htm

Chimney Rock Winery: 5350 Silverado Trail, Napa, CA 94558
Gott’s Roadside: Oxbow Public Market, 644 First Street Napa, CA 94559
Mumm Napa: 8445 Silverado Trail, Napa, CA 94558
Tacos Mi Rancho: 1st Ave &, 14th St, Oakland, CA 94606