When in Santa Cruz, California

Santa Cruz CliffsSanta Cruz BeachSanta Cruz Pier

An hour and a half away from San Francisco resides the friendly seaside town of Santa Cruz. Flanking part of its public beach is its well-known boardwalk resplendent with theme park food and overcrowded beach turf. I’m starting with the boardwalk to get it out of the way as Santa Cruz is so much more than boardwalk. (Although if you are planning a visit to the Boardwalk, I would highly encourage a visit to the Picnic Basket for lunch, a large Verve iced coffee or a scoop of Penny Ice cream.) The historic district of Santa Cruz showcases darling gingerbread and craftsman houses. Pacific Avenue downtown is phenomenal for window-shopping and lingering. There are several ways to get to Santa Cruz, and if you have the time for it, take Highway One for a scenic drive and several of the following planned detours.

Pescadero ClockDuartes Pescadero RestaurantDuartes Pescadero Restaurant Ollallieberry Pie

Duarte’s

Located in the small town of Pescadero is the best olallieberry pie in the state. Strong words perhaps, but Beck had talked about this pie during our early days of dating. He even missed a surprise party thrown in his honor for a slice of that pie with a friend. We arrived to pick up a slice for the road. At the cash register, a waitress took our order, letting us know that the pie was fresh out of the oven. Ensconced inside a to-go box, the purple berries blistered against the flaky golden crust. We made it all the way to the car before cracking open the box, fork in hand and attacked the pie with fervor. Wow. I’m not sure if the aroma or the flavor won me over more. We abstained from finishing it off then and there in favor of a reminder of our Santa Cruz weekend. Before leaving Duarte’s, we also bought a bottle of their handmade olallieberry syrup, a treat to enjoy later at home. On the way back from Santa Cruz we drove by for a bowl of their artichoke soup or the green chile, but a throng of people milled outside. Duarte’s is a popular place!

Chocolate Santa Cruz RestaurantRosettes at Chocolate Santa Cruz RestaurantFuego Hot Chocolate at Chocolate Santa Cruz Restaurant

Chocolate

If you’re looking for a downtown meeting spot, a place to enjoy dessert or a casual organic meal, you’ve put your finger on Chocolate. Much more than it’s name lets on, Chocolate’s savory menu has impressed me time and again. Their rosettes in Artichoke Pesto Cream Sauce inspired these. Their menu is extensive with a number of delicious salads like the Almond Tofu Salad made with organic baby spinach, marinated tofu, onions, toasted almonds and sesame vinaigrette. On this particular visit, we started with the Spicy Chocolate Barbequed Pork Roast appetizer, served on pie crust. I found the sauce well spiced with a distinctive chocolate flavor. I ended up ordering the Chicken Molè, served over pulled free-range chicken with a side organic baby greens and a slice of their polenta pie.  Their portions are pretty substantial, so half of this enteree sufficed. If you’re hankering for something sweet and there’s a chill in the air, try the Fuego Hot Chocolate, a spicy dark cocoa with organic cinnamon and chipotle chili. Yum.

Bookshop Santa Cruz

Bookshop Santa Cruz

Right next to Chocolate and well situated downtown is Bookshop Santa Cruz. For bibliophiles, Bookshop Santa Cruz is a gem of a find. Smattered throughout this rambling book store are displays with staff selections, a discount book area for used books and a prodigious magazine display. I can spend an obscene amount of time in a bookstore and Bookshop Santa Cruz doesn’t disappoint.

Cafe Brasil RestaurantCafe Brasil Acai SmoothieCafe Brasil Santa Cruz Restaurant Orfeu

Café Brasil

When I polled friends recently about the one restaurant not to miss in Santa Cruz, the repeated response: Café Brasil. This bright green, yellow and blue house along Mission Street is a very popular breakfast and lunch spot, so go early. Also, their parking lot is tiny, so opt for street parking. Inside, we settled into the room that quickly filled with people and ordered an Acai smoothie made of acai berries blended with apple juice, strawberries banana and guarana to start off our meal. If I lived nearby, I know the Acai bowl of acai puree with sliced banana, strawberries and granola, would be a favorite light breakfast option, but their menu had too many other items that caught my eye. There’s a very good chance I clapped aloud when I saw Gallo Pinto on the menu. In addition to this Costa Rican classic, the condiment of Salsa Lizano made me smile. I ended up ordering the Veggie Cocota with soft poached eggs atop baguette slices, spinach and mushrooms underneath a cocota sauce of toasted white flour with Tabasco sauce, Worcestershire sauce and salt. It came with a side of fresh fruit. Beck ordered the tasty Orfeu Negro, a hearty dish of black beans over baguette slices, topped with soft poached eggs, mozzarella cheese, Brazilian salsa and served with potatoes. You can opt for the Pingado if you’re not very hungry which will serve up a pot of coffee, a pot of hot milk, a fresh baguette and fresh fruit. If you have a more robust appetite, try the Beef a Cavalo, featuring two eggs over easy served on top of steak laid over slices of baguette finished with tomato sauce and melted mozzarella cheese.

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Stripe

I have a bit of a design crush on Stripe. Ever since a friend turned me onto this store and design group several visits ago, it’s my one stop shop for inspiration or a dress. Imagine an independent store with the sensibility of Anthropologie and you’re getting warmer to imagining Stripe. Upon entering,  several tiered chandeliers hang over a table dotted with glass domes hinting at invisible menageries. On one wall, handheld mirrors of different shapes and colors make for interesting wall decoration. Perched above the cash register is my favorite eye candy in the store- hundreds of keys hanging in a pattern that outlines the store name, Stripe. Clothing for men and women in the store has a handmade sensibility and I think the rocks glasses with painted curly black mustaches are all kinds of fun.

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99 Bottles

True to its name, 99 Bottles has an incredible beer list.  Along the far wall are plaques with brass tags with names of people who have tried all 99 types of beer. They call it the wall of honor. We shared a bottle of Camp Jack apple cider from Washington state and then Beck moved on later to Stone IPA. I was intrigued by Young’s Double Chocolate Stout and had a sip. The bartenders were friendly and knowledgeable in making suggestions from their vast menu. This pub also has a pretty thorough food menu though we didn’t peruse it or consider going for the food.

 Penny Ice Creamery MenuPenny Ice Creamery Santa Cruz Penny Ice Creamery Santa Cruz Penny Ice Creamery Santa Cruz

Penny Ice Creamery

Ah Penny Ice. I would be remiss if I didn’t tell you they make the best ice cream around and this is no small thing. The closest comparison would be Humphry Slocumbe in San Francisco but Penny Ice is my current choice for best ice cream in or near the Bay Area. It’s a good thing they are in Santa Cruz, not just down the street. A placard on the wall tells the Penny Ice story and states that they are the sole ice creamery in Santa Cruz to make the ice cream in-house. With Chef Lori Baker’s chops from South Bay restaurant Manresa, the team at Penny Ice encourage patrons to suggest ice cream flavors. After several visits over my jaunts down to Santa Cruz, I have found their weird sounding flavors might very well be the most delicious. On this visit, I sampled a small spoon full of their Candied Grapefruit Pistachio and longingly considered a blend of Earl Grey with their Chocolate Sorbet, but instead settled on the Celery Raisin with incredibly subtle celery notes letting much of the sweetness come from the raisins. On a prior visit, the Basil proved to be heavenly. And yet another time, their Chili Smoked Chocolate caught my attention. I’ve never gone for the homemade doughnuts with ice cream or the ice cream bon bons listed on the menu but this clearly is worth an excursion to Santa Cruz alone.

515 Kitchen and Cocktails

We happened upon 515 Kitchen and Cocktails after doing some research looking for an appropriate celebratory restaurant. We considered well-recommended restaurants Oswald and Soif, but the twinkling lights of 515 and their relaxed cool demeanor inside won us over. The jazz music playing in the main front room downstairs matched the décor. Their cocktail menu had a number of clever drinks listed like Basil of Baker Street, a delightful nod to a childhood animated riff on Sherlock Holmes. I ended up trying Ron’s Favorite Soda, my curiosity piqued by the addition of black pepper simple syrup to the final concoction that resembled a mock mojito with a kick. Beck ordered the Porcini Mushroom Ravioli served in a gorgonzola sauce, rich and satisfying. My pan-roasted salmon came with red bell pepper and carrot matchsticks, green beans and grilled fingerling potatoes in a white wine pan sauce. Simple, satisfying, the salmon was cooked perfectly to my liking. We didn’t stick around for dessert but if you find yourself at 515, ask for Erin and she will take good care of you.

Abbey Coffee House Santa Cruz Abbey Coffee House Santa Cruz Abbey Coffee House Santa Cruz

Abbey Coffee House

I’d heard about the Abbey from several friends as a great local coffeehouse with the right coffeehouse ambience. Tucked away off of Chestnut Extension, in the old fellowship hall of Vintage Faith Church, this full-service coffeehouse is a fun place to visit for local nighttime entertainment as they boast live music regularly. Who knows, you might even see us on the roster in the future performing at the Abbey. We stopped by one evening to hear a guitarist croon to a packed house. We loved the intimate feel and eclectic decor that made it comfortable and the kind of place where you’d want to linger. If I had my druthers, I could see myself becoming acquainted with long afternoons, papers spread out to tackle poetry revisions in this place. The next day we popped back in for a quick coffee for the road before heading back to the city. I appreciate that they use local Verve coffee and became giddy upon learning that their Matcha lattes used real Matcha sans sweetened concentrate from Art of Tea. Several other intriguing menu items included the Habit, a combination of white chocolate and milk chocolate mocha as well as the Bowl of Soul, an Earl Grey latte. Their garden out back is cultivated and a charming addition to their friendly environs.

Swanton Berry Farm Truck WelcomeSwanton Berry Farm StrawberriesSwanton Berry Farm Basket of Strawberries

Swanton Berry Farm

On our way to Santa Cruz, we passed a number of cheerful hand-painted signs inviting drivers like us to pull off and visit pumpkin patches. Last year around this time, I had been hankering for a visit to a bona fide pumpkin patch and throughout this weekend, I would chime in with “you pick!” which was a nagging reminder that a visit to the Swanton Berry Farm was in order for our return to San Francisco. Winding back up and right off Highway 1, we made a quick trip to Swanton Berry Farm where we selected a gorgeous and stalwart orange pumpkin from the field and hand-picked organic strawberries IN OCTOBER. Finding all red strawberries ripe for the plucking became a bit of a game. On the way into the store to pay for our pickings, we passed sunflowers, each stalk also for sale. Once inside, homemade pies with berries from their fields, jams and shortcakes sat on the shelves ready for purchase. Let’s be honest Swanton Berry Farm rocks.

Swanton Berry Farm Pumpkin You PickSwanton Berry Farm Pumpkin PatchSwanton Berry Farm Pumpkin Patch

When in Denver… head to Grand Lake Village

weathervane

Sometimes nature calls.

No really. I don’t know about you but there is something very centering and relaxing about being in the mountains. Perhaps it’s the grandeur that makes even the most dire circumstances pale in comparison. It recharges my batteries especially when coupled with spending time with one of my favorite people. Olga and I spent the day and an evening in Denver before loading up the car to head for the mountains. Dotting the scenery to our left and right, evergreen and blue skies above as we made our way toward Grand Lake Village.

Most of my travel posts usually pertain to food. This veers slightly from the course set previously. Instead, here are some suggestions of things to do and see if you find yourself in the picturesque mountain town of Grand Lake.

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LoneSome Stone Natural Fiber Mill

On the way to Grand Lake, you will have to pass through Granby. Make time to head over to the Alpaca Farm! Not only can you pick up some handmade yarns, but there are several fields of friendly grazing alpaca.

several alpaca

They bring a huge smile to my face and I can spend a long time watching them with their goofy faces, kind eyes and crooked teeth nosh on grass in the fields. The alpaca farm is not far from the main road and is well worth the excursion.

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Farm Stand

Have you ever tasted a palisade peach? Roasted hatch chiles? We were in luck on our adventure into the mountains that we passed this farm stand on the side of the road. The farmer proclaimed these were his last peaches of the year. We took note and bought several pounds, making proper work of them for snacks.

palisade peach cut in half

Olga loaded up on squash to make a saute for her dad that he’s fond of. I yanked open the large cooler finding it filled with ziploc bags of roasted hatch chiles and wondering how they might travel in a carry-on before thinking the better of it.

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Grand Lake

When driving to Grand Lake Village, the point really is to behold the lake. My first experience falling in love with Grand Lake happened on a celebratory weekend several years ago. Over the Fourth of July weekend, we joined throngs of people perched on benches watching the evening sky above the lake light up with fireworks. Bundled in several layers of fleece and blankets, we took in the bright lights bursting out of the sky and into the reflection on the lake’s surface.  I could easily spend the greater part of the day reading or writing with the lake in full view and be a happy camper. Next time, I think it would be great fun to go kayaking in the lake or rent a boat.

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Bob Scott’s Authentic Indian Jewelry

Around Grand Lake, Bob is a bit of a legend. This small village has quite a tight knit community and Bob could easily be the mayor of this community. I first met Bob and noted he ordered sashimi at any meal in San Francisco where that was an option. Flamboyant and oh-so hospitable, his store features the finest selection of coral and turquoise jewelry, carefully curated by Bob himself. His keen eye and avid passion for Indian jewelry makes this store a must. And I might have left decked out in a new turquoise necklace with hand-cut beads…

miyauchischocolate_dipGrand Lake CreameryMoose_Tracks

Miyauchi’s & Grand Lake Creamery

In town, on Grand Street, there are several options for ice cream. Olga prefers the chocolate dip of Miyauchi’s which I can vouch is particularly tasty on warm mountain days. This time though, the signboard and ridiculously long selection of flavors of the Grand Lake Creamery invited me in. Having officially joined moose fever, I thought to try the Moose Tracks. There are worse ways to spend an afternoon than walking the length of the small downtown street lined with shops licking an ice cream cone. Along Grand Lake and across the street from Miyauchi’s, you’ll find benches for resting to look out on the tranquil waters.

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Grand Lake Lodge

The Grand Lake Lodge is under new ownership and kind of transports me into a little movie called “Dirty Dancing.” For some reason, I always expect to see Johnny and Baby… Anyways, a trip up Grand Lake Lodge is worth it to see the views down, overlooking Grand Lake Village, the lake itself and the mountains. There is a sign over one door haling their entry way, flanked with swinging chairs as “America’s favorite front porch.” Grand Lake Lodge is just inside the Rocky Mountain National Park and also boasts a restaurant inside, but I cannot speak to what the food is like. Our visits here revolve around a swinging chair and life stilling.

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Rocky Mountain National Park

No trip to Grand Lake would be complete without a visit to the Rocky Mountain National Park. It costs money ($8) to drive in with such lush vistas. Oh my goodness, if you’re like me, you will keep your camera on and get a bit snap-happy. We happened to be in the mountains at the time of year when the elk bugle. Male elk will make this high pitched noise that for some reason reminded me of a guinea pig squealing. I became the car scout, looking for variations in the brush or dark colored shapes in the distant meadows. Let’s just say all those years practicing and perfecting my “Where’s Waldo” strategy paid off in some sweet encounters with animals this weekend. Want to play? Check out the middle and right photos above and find the elk… We listened to and saw a total of probably eight elk during our passage into the park, some were harder to find and some like this “elk couple” below were peacefully noshing right next to a campsite. Go at twilight, as the elk come down from the mountain to the meadows to graze or wooing.

elk_coupleelk_coupleelk bull growing his horns

With such a coup of seeing a lot of elk, we called it a successful day and decided to wake up very early to go scouting one last time before the end of the trip. We coordinated our wake-up call with sunrise and padded out to the car yawning with steaming mugs of coffee and heavy jackets on. The thermometer gauge read the mid-30s which was no joke. When looking for wild animals, take note of the drivers around you, particularly if they act erratic and pull off quickly or if you see a gaggle of people huddled on the side of the road. Chances are good that you’ll see an animal. Where’s Waldo game two: find the moose in the left side and middle photos below. And go! -That guy on the right is an elk. Nice try though.

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If you visit, please remember to respect the wildlife and by respect that means keeping distance and keeping your voice down. We happened upon two people who ended up down on a ledge near a river where a moose cow and her calf were grazing. A woman standing next to us loudly protested as a way of warning the tourist. We met another woman who helped rear a wayward injured elk for a number of years. The people were sometimes as interesting as the sightings. And when the moose and her calf strode across the road several hundred feet from our car, it capped off the weekend perfectly.

moose and calf about to cross the road

So if you find yourself in Denver, hankering for a bit of rustic fun and mountain adventures, Grand Lake is waiting.

rocky mtn beautiful

When in New Orleans

PreservationHallPatOBriensNola_PiratesAlleyCafeDuMonde

For the true foodie, New Orleans is not to be missed. Sure, you can take a day trip and go visit nearby plantations or a swamp tour to catch sight of alligators. People who like antiquing will find themselves blissfully surrounded by gems and relics. Heck, I even found an incredible garnet pendant that spoke old world with new world prices during my last foray though it was not meant to be. Walking the French Quarter, taking a street car through the Garden District, even visiting the historical cemeteries and walking tours are all great ways to pass the time. Sneak in a music show at Preservation Hall while you’re at it and sip a Hurricane or Mint Julep at Pat O’Brien’s for more traditional ways to enjoy this classic grand dame of a city. Or stroll down Pirate’s Alley and order up some early morning beignets and cafe au lait at Cafe du Monde– the fried dough drenched in confectioner’s sugar, the coffee bitter and strong. While I was in town, it seemed like all roads led to Cochon, but knowing that I was pretty much trying to avoid the le cochon (the pig), I decided against it and went with a few standards and a few new to me restaurants. As this is not a restaurant review per se, think of this as spending a weekend with me in New Orleans, doing what I believe this city applauds… eating your way through it.

Muriels_new orleansMuriels_ShrimpRemouladeMuriels_PuppyDrumbscotch

Muriel’s

On Jackson Square Park, right off of Chartres is the charming restaurant that is Muriel’s. Recommended originally by a friend from Baton Rouge as the place they go when in New Orleans, it’s become a main-stay in my restaurant list. This might be due to the quaint decor of old plates on the walls and chandeliers hanging from the ceiling. It might be the notion of several people attending you, but there is a definite sense of being in someone’s home. I ordered the Shrimp Remoulade, a traditional favorite of mine that they served with shredded boiled egg that played well paired with the savory Gulf Coast shrimp, cool crispy greens and spiced remoulade sauce.  Piquant and refreshing. Next came the Pecan Crusted Puppy Drum. The fish rested atop wilted greens smattered with roasted pecans and Louisiana crab meat with the edges of the plate enrobed in a lemony butter sauce. Dessert came next- a black bottom butterscotch pudding with mini praline oreos. Of the entire meal, you might hear me oohing and aahing over the shrimp remoulade. Muriels also has gluten free options too. This meal reminded me of talking with a friend you see infrequently.

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August

Chef John Besh circulated around this eponymous restaurant at the end of my meal. I don’t usually start with the end first, but this point needs to be underscored. Seeing a celebrity chef come out of the kitchen in their chef whites these days is a real treat, as many chefs seem to be leaving the kitchen behind for other opportunities. My experience at August was superb from start to finish. The dining room consists of crystal chandeliers and brick walls with tables outlaid in white tablecloths. This is the kind of restaurant for celebrations or swanky business lunches as happened near my table. The staff is friendly, knowledgeable and attentive without being overbearing. I started off with an amuse bouche of a seafood custard served in an eggshell cup topped with roe for a creamy, delectable two bite precursor. The organic green salad description intrigued me as it boasted a pumpkin seed brittle, Pt. Reyes blue cheese and pumpkin seed oil vinaigrette. The presentation of the salad was striking and it was fun to break the brittle with my fork, just like it’s fun to break the crust of creme brulee. Then onto the day’s special appetizer of Maque Choux. Oh. my. goodness. This might be the best bite put into my mouth in New Orleans on this trip or any previous trip. While this might sound dramatic, the flavors of the maque choux were complex and nuanced, the textures varied. Farro kernels mingled with chopped baby corn and edible flowers. Two jumbo Gulf shrimp lay atop and this “appetizer” portion was perfect for lunch. At this point, I knew dessert was on the menu and feasted on a Celeste Fig and Almond tart paired with bourbon ice cream. The tart came to the table warm and inviting. I relished each bite along with a lively conversation with Matthew in the wait staff and the front-of-house manager. If you’re in Nola and looking for fine dining, August was mighty fine indeed.

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Sylvain

One evening a bunch of us crowded into the front tables of Sylvain. Located on Chartres, this eatery has classic Southern fare with a cosmopolitan twist. Their Ginger Ale featured housemade ginger syrup with pulp and a medium degree of heat at the finish. We ordered the Chili Roasted Almonds, which eventually made their way to our table (and made great airport snack leftovers the next day). We split the shaved brussels sprouts with apples, pecorino and hazelnuts. This salad was cool, crisp with flavors that worked symbiotically. We also tried the Heirloom tomato salad with ricotta salata, maras farms sprouts and basil vinaigrette and for a main dish tried their fish special of flounder with sautéed eggplant and kale. Sylvain made for a fun Saturday night out with friends.

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Johnny’s Po’Boy

When hankering for a po’boy, Johnny’s will do you right. Walking in with a menu board boasting at least 12 variations of a po’boy is a good sign indeed and underscored his saying that “even my failures are edible.” This quick casual eatery gives you a lot of food for the money. I ordered the shrimp po’boy and sidled up to the counter along the side of the room flanked with mirrors. It gave an illusion to a larger space, but this popular joint was packed to the gills and I got cozy with my counter-mates. The po’boy was huge and perfect for sharing. My po’boy was fully dressed in a soft roll almost bouncy to the touch- a nice detail. The shrimp battered in a spiced breadcrumb mixture that tasted just right with Crystal hot sauce dribbled atop. A sign on the wall boasts that their muffaletta is particularly good, fair warning for my next trip.

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Palace Cafe

Wandering up Canal Street on a Sunday, I felt drawn in to check out the Palace Café, knowing it was part of the Brennan group. It holds an old world swagger that’s modernized. Without putting a finger on it, you could tell this restaurant is part of a local chain in the same way you can tell with Kuleto’s restaurants in San Francisco. This morning a roving jazz trio worked their way around the large dining room, serenading patrons. When they got to my table, they began chatting with me about where I was visiting from and soon after they began playing “I left my heart in San Francisco”. At the suggestion of the bartender, I ordered their signature dish, a Crabmeat Cheesecake, baked in a pecan crust with a wild mushroom sauce and Creole meunière. He described it as a quiche, but I would go one step further and say it’s more crab than custard. The pecan crust was delicate with good crumb and the mushroom sauce with its savory umami flavors made the dish. A few bites is all you need… Onto sweeter territory, I ordered a serving of Bananas Foster Beignets, drawn in by the idea of banana beignets. These small doughnut-like pockets came drenched in a classic bananas foster sauce of brown sugar, butter, rum, cinnamon and banana liquor. These small pockets of dough were a real sweet treat, especially since I knew this trip did not include a visit to Brennan’s for their eponymous dessert the Bananas Foster. If you’re looking for charm and a restaurant with an old feel, keep looking. But if you’re looking for good food, head to the Palace for brunch and order a Rum Milk Punch.

When in Philadelphia

Philadelphia liberty bell

The city of brotherly love opened up its arms to this food-lover. As my first visit, I didn’t know what to expect cuisine-wise outside of it being the home of the cheesesteak and associated with cream cheese.

Smokin Bettys- cheesesteak egg rolls

While I didn’t actually visit Pat’s or Geno’s to throw my name into the hat of people with an opinion on the best cheesesteak in Philly, we had variations of this local favorite, such as Cheesesteak Empanadas at Reading Terminal Market and then also later at Smokin’ Betty’s in the form of Cheesesteak Egg Rolls.

Barbuzzo

Walking into this neighborhood brasserie, we settled in at the bar. The menu boasted eye candy of housemade fior di latte cheese on Margherita pizza and too many delights for our small party.

Barbuzzo- margherita

We started with the antipasti vegetable plate with a tantalizing array of beets, marble potatoes, local greens and eggplant zucchini caponata. My favorites included the roasted lemony asparagus with shaved grana padano and roasted carrots in honey with thyme and lemon.

Barbuzzo- antipasti

The heirloom tomato salad with shaved cucumber, toasted pine nuts, mixed basil, roasted peppers, burrata and pangrattato looked refreshing and a fun take on the traditional Caprese.

Barbuzzo- fico pizza

I ordered the Fico pizza with a blistered and pocked wood oven-fired crust. It featured fresh figs, gorgonzola dolce, walnuts, la quercia prosciutto rossa, a pile of arugula on top, and pomegranate molasses for a pie that tasted more sweet than savory.

Barbuzzo- aspargo pizza

My dining counterpart ordered the Aspargo pizza- a fantastic combination of the Barbuzzo secret white sauce, shaved asparagus, house-cured guanciale, fior di latte, truffle and a farm egg on top. This pizza had me licking my fingers! The porchetta sandwich got devoured and featured herb roasted pork shoulder with melted fontina, pickled sweeet peppers and housemade mustard aioli on a brioche bun. I tried their Midtown Lemonade, which included cherry puree.

I could have easily gone back to Barbuzzo for other meals during my stay and worked my way through the menu, wanting to try the Strozzapreti with olive oil, wood-fired hen of the woods mushrooms, wild arugula, preserved lemon-walnut pesto and ricotta or the Caciocavallo stuffed meatballs. In addition to having a great meal, seeing more enticing options than your stomach can hold is a sign of a good restaurant in my book. This restaurant is part of a neighborhood restaurant group called We ❤ 13th Street, headed up by Chef Marcie Turney and Valerie Safran. They have five other restaurants in addition to Barbuzzo such as Bindi, specializing in modern Indian fare. I have earmarked them as places to check out next time as I really appreciate people who give back to their community and according to their cheerful leaflet in the check folder, they have helped transform what was once a desolate neighborhood into one that is now bustling and full of interesting shops and restaurants.


Chifa

I had the honor of meeting Chef Jose Garces several years ago at a food and wine festival. His raw talent and keen mastery of the culinary made me a fan years ago at another one of his restaurants.

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Alas and alack, this cropped pic of Chef Garces is all that remains of my interview with him and Chef Roberto Trevino at the 2008 NYWFF Festival.

Philadelphia is his stomping grounds and this is evidenced by the score of well-regarded restaurants of his around town like trendy El Vez and the investment he is putting back into the community. What interested me about Chef Garces is his background bleeding into the menus he puts together. At Chifa, there is a happy collision of Peruvian and South American with Asian accents. This is not your typical fusion fare though. In Peru, there is a large segment of the population that is Asian, and the premise behind the restaurant is as much to pay homage to the homeland of his family as to dabble in the cultural meeting on the plate. Walking into Chifa, it feels comforting and casual even as it is upscale. Overhead fans rotate air through the room lazily, as curtains separate tables and patrons giving an air of intimacy. My servers were friendly and knowledgeable, helping me work my way through the menu. This is the kind of place you want to linger.

Chifa- solterito

I started out with the Solterito salad, well-fitting since I was dining alone. This “salad” stars edamame and cubed queso fresco with herbs, chopped tomatoes, Bibb lettuce, haricots verts and thinly sliced, fresh out of the fryer plantain chips. Tossed in what tasted like miso vinaigrette, it was refreshing and each bite offered new flavors.

Chifa- lobster bowl

Next came the Lobster bowl, a small rich dish featuring wide noodles with lobster, bacon and green peas with a parmesan disk and served in a rocoto cream sauce. The sauce had good viscosity and rolled around the tongue and the piquant notes of the indigenous South American chili in the rocoto cream sauce that offset the richness of the lobster and slight smokiness of the bacon. The small portion of this dish worked well. I look forward to my next meal at Chifa or another Jose Garces restaurant after this meal.

Reading Terminal

reading terminal produce market

A visit to the Reading Terminal is a must for you foodies. Aisles of tightly packed food vendors hock their wares alongside tea stands or the ridiculously cute cookbook kiosk.

purple pepperspurple okra

Toward the back there is a produce market and in the front is the Fair Food Farm stand. I had a chance to peruse this mini-market and got pulled into interesting local produce like white cranberries, gooseberries, fairytale eggplant, rosa bianco eggplant, purple bell peppers and purple okra.

philadelphia maple sugar

I joked with Paul who helps head up the farmer relations with the Fair Food Farm that my favorite kind of souvenirs are local foods as I paid for a basket of gooseberries, a bag of local maple sugar and a basket of white cranberries.

Philadelphia left me wanting more.

The food culture in this city was both surprising and a lovely discovery. What are some of your favorite restaurants in Philadelphia and foodie excursions?

Recipe Box: Fig & Goat’s Milk Yogurt Parfait

When traveling internationally, your pick of companions is key: do you like the same activities? Are you both regimented in scheduling activities or flexible to let the wind take you where it may? Is your companion someone who prefers historical artifacts and art or shopping? Does your companion have a discriminating palate or not? There’s no right answer to these questions provided the answer for your companion complements your own, as I learned in France many moons ago with a companion who was bored at the Louvre after an hour’s visit. But that’s a story for another time.

santorini sea photo

A few years ago, when I entered a new decade, Olga and I set out on a Mediterranean adventure. Tight on cash but high on ideas, we began investigating ways to visit Greece that would let us stay there for the most days while being budget-friendly. After much scrimping, saving and sorting through airline miles, we flew to Italy and embarked on our Italian cruise of the Greek Isles and Dalmatian Coast.

She and I had traveled overseas before but on this particular trip, she began channeling her mom SallyD, planning out the minutiae and I began channeling my mom, who goes where the wind blows. SallyD in fact had been quite concerned with us going as there were reports of marauders in Cyprus. We cajoled and convinced her that our islands were nowhere nearby, at least not as close as a pebble’s throw, and off we went with the blessings of our parents.

Oia santorini church and sea

Neither of us had ever been on a cruise before and learned several important tips to share if considering cruising:

a.) A cruise is like a tasting menu with each port offering a snack bite of its environs.

b.) Pack accordingly.  And what I’m saying here pertains to books & reading material. You might be at sea several days or only while sleeping, but I’ve designated cruises as great opportunities for longer reads from greats like Tolstoy and Dostoevsky.

When we were out to sea, I would laze about on deck after going for a swim. My deck chair would point toward the guardrail, letting me look out into the dizzyingly beautiful blue waters of the Mediterranean with “Anna Karenina” in hand. I never got sick of staring out into that sea of blue expanse and could understand the inspiration painters and artists experienced. Olga signed up for dance classes and attended social events. What worked so well for the cruise ship model of travel is that both of us had an enjoyable trip… that to a point was quite different from one another’s.

At one port-of-call, we walked the wall of Dubrovnik with newfound friends Catherine and Marian, both of whom had traveled alone on the cruise. Marian possessed this quiet and peaceful spirit about her and became a regular part of our travels on land. I remember thinking meeting Marian made my Greek adventure so much more memorable. On the wall of Dubrovnik, she mentioned this cruise had come as an opportunity to explore the world after some sobering health news from her doctors. Together we conquered the streets of Oia in Santorini, ate a long leisurely lunch in Corfu, and shied away from the precocious giant pelicans in Mykonos along with our visit to the terracotta city of Dubrovnik flanked against a sparkling sea.

One thing Olga and I had been looking forward to included a growing desire to taste rich strained Greek yogurt in Greece dripping with local honey. After a trek from the train station to visit the Parthenon in Athens, we got our long-anticipated bowls of yogurt and paired them with Greek iced coffee- such a welcome chilled respite in the afternoon heat! And then there were the figs…

adriatic figs in dubrovnik

I’m a sucker for figs.

farmer's market dubrovnik

There are few foods that I would claim to be smitten about, but figs, friends,  are the fastest way to my heart. Pair them with chocolate or goat cheese and you’ve got me around your little finger.

dubrovnik farmers market scales measuring system image

Olga and I sought out freshly dried Kalimyrnas in Santorini and noshed on Adriatics in Dubrovnik, where they dried them with bay leaves to a splendid unexpected flavor! The tour guide in the bus winding up the steep mountain hills of Santorini to Oia pointed out wild fig bushes and we watched them whiz by. Suffice it to say, that visit to Greece and Dubrovnik left their indelible marks on both of us during that fall. Then there are the figs…

dried figs strung with bay leaves dubrovnik farmers market

I’m a sucker, indeed.

My affection for figs has garnered me new friends (hello Mark and Gary), a job offer and even a persona poem during a writing exercise in graduate school called “Ode to a Black Mission.”

A little known reason for our October wedding was to catch the tail end of the California Black Mission fig season. Our wedding reception caterer did a great job pairing them with California blue cheese, prosciutto and a port wine reduction sauce. You know how some brides and grooms talk about being so busy that they don’t get to eat the food? Beck and I heartily requested seconds on the figs the day of our nuptials, remembering them to be our favorite bite during the tasting.

Brown Turkey. Calimyrna. Black Mission. Kadota. The list goes on and so does the love affair. If you’ve never eaten a fresh fig, you’re in for a treat- one of nature’s sweet candies that’s chock full of fiber, flavor and texture. If you’re a wine aficionado, watch out, you may have met your wine and cheese match. Let yourself swoon at this dessert to end all dessert- if you love figs, that is.

Fresh figs. Goat’s milk yogurt. Chocolate and honey. Olga and me.

Good friends that just keep on getting better with time.

how to make goat's milk yogurt fig parfait

Fig & Goat’s Milk Yogurt Parfait

To select ripe figs, you want to squeeze them lightly. If the flesh sighs a little under your touch, you’re set. For this recipe, I rinsed the ripened figs, pat them dry and then left them overnight in the refrigerator to great success. This dessert is healthy and breathes balmy Mediterranean sea air into my summer evenings. I like to use small mason jars as they show off the parfait well and help control the portion size. I would also encourage trying this with chipped dark chocolate instead or bittersweet chipped chocolate. May it bring you happiness of the mouth. 

  • 3 fresh figs
  • 1 T mini chocolate chips
  • 1/4 cup plain goat’s milk yogurt
  • 5 walnuts
  • 1 tsp. raw honey

Step 1: Remove the figs from the refrigerator and chop them.

Step 2: At the bottom of your mason jar, add 1 T of chopped figs. Then add a layer of 2 tablespoons  goat’s milk yogurt on top.

goat's milk yogurt fig parfait

Step 3: Add 1 tablespoon mini chocolate chips as the third layer.

how to make a goat's milk yogurt fig parfait

Step 4: Add 2 tablespoons goat’s milk yogurt for the fourth layer of the parfait.

Step 5: Then add 1 tablespoon of chopped figs as the fifth layer.

Step 6: Add another 2 tablespoons goat’s milk yogurt for the sixth layer.

how to make goat's milk yogurt fig parfait

Step 7:  Add walnuts as the final layer and drizzle your raw honey over them.

how to make goat's milk yogurt fig parfait

~Makes 1 (easily shareable) portion. Just ask Beck.

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