A Travellerspoint blog

New York, New York: It's a Helluva Town

This month marks twenty-one years that I have lived in New York City -- nearly half my life. It's quite an accomplishment, really, when you consider that New York is excessively noisy, grossly overcrowded, ridiculously inconvenient, and monstrously expensive.

It also happens to be the greatest city in the world.

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Arriving home

I showed up in a rented U-Haul on a blustery day in March of 1994 to the sound of blaring horns, hollering cabbies, and a cacophony of foreign tongues, all of which I am sure were cursing me out for double-parking on a busy downtown street. I was overwhelmed and exhilarated and completely unprepared for the unrelenting pace. Just ordering a sandwich in a deli -- the crowding, the yelling, the line moving at the speed of light and the deli guys all barking "NEXT!" at the exact same time -- was enough to send me fleeing without my food. Well, almost.

I didn't know a soul. I had never taken a subway before. I didn't know which neighborhoods were safe, or where to get a decent bagel, or how to negotiate the city's mangled sidewalks in heels. "Evens go east, odds go west," I'd mumble to myself as I attempted to navigate the bustling canyons. I didn't dare look up or stop to consult a map, lest all of my NYC nightmares come true at once: I'd tumble into an open manhole, get hit in the head by a falling air conditioner, be mowed down by the passing crowd, and have my purse stolen . . . but not before the thug beat me with it for good measure.

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My first New York apartment, on 26th Street

I was young and brave and stupid all at the same time. I'd never been jostled by so many people, bombarded by so much noise, or exposed to so many casual and creative uses of the F-word in my entire life. (Once, in SoHo, I saw a young father carrying his toddler on his shoulders. When I passed by, I heard him mutter, "Goo-goo, ga-ga . . . what the f*ck does that mean?") Worst of all, I was not at all sure that I'd made the right decision in uprooting my comfortable life in Pennsylvania for one that seemed to promise nothing but hassles.

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P.J. Clarke's, on 55th Street

In fact, the only thing I was sure of . . . is that I was in love.

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Rockefeller Center

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Times Square

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Empire State Building

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SoHo

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East Village

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Central Park

And much like love itself, the energy here is a drug (and the only legal one you're likely to encounter): It draws you in, gets you hooked, and keeps you coming back for more. Living in this city has changed me in more ways than I can count: I talk faster, walk faster, am faster to offer, er, opinions, and have been exposed to more wealth, poverty, diversity, art, culture, architecture, and amazing food than I ever dreamed.

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Capital Grille in the Chrysler Building

Waaayyyy more amazing food.

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Coca-cola carnitas at El Camion

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Paella at Soccarat

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Cheesesteak at Bobby Van's

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Skillet sticky-toffee pudding with medjool dates at The Smith

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Coconut sponge cake with passion fruit pudding at Buddakan

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Fish gyro with lobster ragout at Anassa Taverna

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Sparkling blood orange mojitos at Cafeteria

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Steamed eggs with chèvre and sundried cherry tomatoes at Buvette

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Wild mushroom dumplings with truffle foam at Breeze

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French onion soup burger at Little Prince

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Cocoa-pumpkin ravioli at Becco

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Chicken pot pies at Parnell's

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Tilapia with cherry tomatoes and shrimp at La Gioconda

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Ground chuck and brisket burger at Hillstone

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Veal parmigiana at Giorgio's of Gramercy

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The Generous Pour event at Capital Grille

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Birthday dinner at Maloney & Porcelli

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Birthday milk and cookies at Jane

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Birthday dinner at Le Bernadin

Of course, into the life of every food-lover, the occasional crapcake must fall.

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My entire identity as an adult has been shaped by the grit and grind of this city, imbuing me with a sense of determination, confidence, sophistication, and good old-fashioned gumption that I might never have acquired if I'd stayed in Pennsylvania, or moved somewhere like Cleveland or Charlotte.

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View from our bedroom

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View from our living room

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The city's skyline is always changing, and our view now includes the tallest residential tower in the western hemisphere: 104 stories.

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Our favorite local park, Greenacre Park

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Lining up for the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade

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The famous tree arriving at Rock Center

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It's almost ready...

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Crowds gathered for the tree lighting, as seen from Angel's office

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Cocktails at the Rock Center Rink Bar

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Central Park in springtime

Macy's Fourth of July fireworks over the Brooklyn Bridge

In fact, New York has turned me into a walking contradiction: I swear like a sailor and argue like a lawyer, but I also know my Prabal Gurung from my Proenza Schouler, and could pick David Chang or Andrew Carmellini out of a lineup. I speak fluent "restaurant-menu" Italian and have a small vocabulary in both Spanish and Yiddish. (It's mostly curse words, but whatever.) I can talk with some authority about the latest exhibit at the Met, or we can debate whether the dirty-water dogs are better at Yankee Stadium or CitiField. And I completely agree that New York pizza is the best you will ever have (Lombardi's) . . . and the worst you will ever have (all variations of the "Original" Ray's).

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Lombardi's coal-oven pizza

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SoHo

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Restaurants along Second Avenue

Geographically speaking, New York City is an embarrassment of riches. Within a two-hour drive in any direction, we can be leaf-peeping in the Adirondacks, lounging on the beach in the Hamptons, sipping wine at a vineyard on the North Fork, relaxing in rocking chair at one of Cape May's Victorian-era "painted ladies," or biking the oceanfront bluffs on Block Island. Or, you know, watching people pee in the sand in the Rockaways.

And if we ever tire of road trips, there's everything from Broadway musicals and world-class museums to dive bars in the East Village and designer boutiques in SoHo.

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SoHo

Oh, and roughly 24,000 restaurants, which means I could eat at a different one every night for the next 65 years, and still never hit them all. Not for lacking of trying, of course.

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Our summer lunch spot, Dos Caminos

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Our Friday-night date spot, China Grill

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The Saigon-tini at Le Colonial

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Dinner at Tao

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Our Sunday morning brunch spot, Le Bateau Ivre

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Our favorite snowy-evening spot, Café Joul

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View down our block

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TriBeCa

There are so many "only in New York" things to love about this city that it's hard to even name them all, and everyone's list would be different anyway. Mine would include everything from bodega cats and the Comedy Cellar to chocolate-chip-cookie delivery until 3am and nail salons open 24 hours a day. It would include the fact that there are nearly 200 bars in the East Village alone, and the fact that you can eat anything here from roasted crickets to ant caviar to goat-eyeball tacos (not that you would. It was hard enough just typing that). It would include a local moving company called Schleppers and a Chinese takeout place called Wok to Walk.

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Views from my office (with a cameo by my desk lamp)
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Outside my office building

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On my way to work
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Views from Angel's office
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My list would also include the Manhattan Mini Storage ads for space-challenged New Yorkers. At least we can laugh at our shared misery.

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Also making the list would be the inside-baseball references on Seinfeld and Law and Order, the Radio City Christmas Spectacular, living within walking distance of Bloomingdale's/Bergdorf's/Bendel, spring in Central Park, sending our laundry out for fluff-and-fold, the bacon burgers at Corner Bistro, and dressing extra-fashionably when I know they're filming on my block. It would include the free(!) ferry ride to a Staten Island Yankees game on a balmy June evening, as the boat glides by the Statue of Liberty, and even the most jaded among us whip out our camera phones and snap away.

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Lower Manhattan

It would include being surrounded by art, culture, fashion, law, publishing, real estate, finance, and all the other industries that make this city pulse with bright, interesting, creative people. And people like me and Angel.

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Sunset from our apartment

Indeed, the only downside to living in New York City is that I'm turning into one of those entrenched New Yorkers who won't ever be able to live anywhere else.

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Park Avenue, midtown

Not that I'd ever want to.

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It's always hard to tear ourselves away from the Big Apple, but this is still a travel blog. Up next, time with friends in Charleston, time alone in Paris, and time with tequila in Mexico. Click here to subscribe and you'll be the first to know how it's possible for a savvy New Yorker to become trapped in a public restroom on the swankiest street in Paris.

Want more NYC? Click here!

Posted by TraceyG 10:36 Comments (10)

Xmas in Key West: Come on Vacation, Leave on Probation, Pt 1

Of course, we didn't really leave on probation. But if eating too much, drinking too many, laughing too loudly, and lazing around too often were crimes, I'm pretty sure we'd be sentenced to life without parole after this trip.

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As it was, we compiled a pretty impressive rap sheet during our ten-day spree.

Count 1: False Advertising

On this visit we were joined by our friends Ellen and Brian, who had just started new jobs in California when we began making our travel plans. And so, by the time the four of us coordinated our schedules and decided on the dates for our visit, most of the rental houses we were interested in were already taken. And it didn't help that we wanted a nightly rental, not a weekly, Saturday to Saturday one, and that the house we originally settled on went to someone else due to a mix-up on the rental agency's part. And so we picked the best of the bunch from what was left, the Bahama House on Amelia Street.

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The outdoor space was fantastic.

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The pool was plenty big enough for four and heated to just-short-of-hot-tub, and was surrounded by comfy loungers, a covered porch with seating for four, and a small gated garden that was perfect for storing our bikes.

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The inside, however, was apparently decorated by vampires. Neither bedroom had a mirror. Neither bedroom had a dresser. All of the hurricane shutters were nailed shut, blocking out all the natural light. And there wasn't a single hook for a bathing suit, wet towel, or black cape in the entire house.

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There was nowhere to unpack anything, so we lived out of our suitcases. We hung our panties from the doorknobs and dangled our bras from the light fixtures. Within days, there was so much lingerie hanging around that folks thought a new bar had opened in Key West.

When we ran out of doorknobs, I fashioned this lovely underwear shelf out of a plastic platter.

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We had a washer and dryer, but no laundry detergent, and even if we had, the dryer didn't work for the entire duration of our stay.

If the planet runs out of fossil fuels in your lifetime, you can just blame the four of us. No dryer, plus no hooks for drying (and all shade outside), meant that we went through approximately 400 towels in 10 days, each used exactly once before it was left for the maid so we could get a dry one.

Heck, we didn't even have plates.

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Okay, I'm kidding about that last one. But we did have only two wine glasses, even though the house sleeps six. Which, if we're counting down crimes, is probably the worst one on this list.

Count 2: Petit Larceny

Tequila and law-breaking go together like Tracey and tacos, which is why we made not one but two trips to Agave 308 on this visit.

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Key West is home to dozens of bars, but you could probably count on just a few fingers those that serve drinks that aren't syrupy-sweet or made from bargain-basement booze. Agave 308, underneath the Rootop Cafe, is one of those few. Sure, the décor consists of sugar skulls and a multicolored marijuana-leaf lamp, but when the food and drinks are this good, you can decorate the place with poison ivy for all I care.

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My favorite drink at Agave is the Paloma de la Fresa, which combines house-made strawberry-infused tequila and muddled strawberries with fresh lime and tart grapefruit to temper the sweetness.

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One Paloma is good, and two Palomas are better. Three Palomas is just asking to be hauled away in handcuffs.

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Angel's favorite, the Mexican Mule, is made with Milagro silver tequila, ginger syrup, fresh lime, ginger beer, and candied ginger, for a hot-sweet treat, served in a traditional Moscow Mule copper mug to keep it perfectly chilled.

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Best of all, Agave serves the best pork tacos north of the border, made with house-roasted shredded pork, spicy slaw, and pico de gallo.

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Okay, so they might be a little greasy.

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But they're also so delicious that at two for just eight bucks, it almost feels like we're stealing them.

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Almost.

Count 3: Aiding and Abetting

To get to Key West, our friends Ellen and Brian drove an hour from San Jose to San Francisco, boarded a red-eye for a 6-hour flight to Miami, changed planes there for yet another flight, then finally landed in Key West nearly 12 hours after they'd left the house the day before. (That's what you get for moving to a place where going on a hike, not nursing a hangover, is the preferred Saturday-morning sport.) They arrived at the house dazed and exhausted, plopping down in a travel-weary pile on the sofa for what surely would have been a nice, long nap.

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If we hadn't dragged them off to brunch, that is.

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I knew Ellen was still upset about missing the all-you-can-eat-and-drink Christmas Day brunch at the Casa Marina on our last trip, and I wasn't going to let her miss it a second time. And so we splashed them with some tonic water, waved some margarita salts under their noses, and dragged them off to the Casa. For their own good, of course.

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The Christmas Day brunch at Casa Marina features carving stations, a mile-long dessert table, and unlimited mimosas that start arriving the minute you sit down.

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The day was glorious, with vibrant blue skies and reggae-tinged versions of our favorite Christmas songs floating on the warm breeze.

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Of course, even on Christmas Day your teenagers will ignore you in favor of their iPhones, but at least they'll look festive while they're doing it.

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Count 4: Identity Theft

Key West might be a tropical paradise, but you certainly wouldn't know it at Christmas. Over the holidays, the island disguises itself as a Christmas-y wonderland, complete with Christmas trees, snowmen, Santas, and Abominables.

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Of course, the island can't shed its beachy identity completely for the holidays. Then again, maybe those are Jesus fish?

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Count 5: Reckless Endangerment

After a week spent shoveling down everything from tacos and meatballs to pot pies and cheesesteaks, even I needed a break. And so we headed off to Banana Café for a much-needed green salad.

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But this is Key West, where healthy hearts and functioning livers go to die. And so the salad I so dutifully ordered came topped with . . . mayonnaise.

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No, I don't mean a mayo-based dressing. I mean actual mayonnaise.

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A few days later I tried again to eat something that wasn't fried in lard, covered in lard, or actually was lard. I remembered that Caroline's Café had a good selection of salads, so off we went again in search of greens.

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I forgot, however, that the best salad at Caroline's comes topped with bacon. And fried chicken. And Ranch dressing.

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My taste buds gave me a round of applause. My arteries gave me the finger.

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Eventually I just gave up on the salads and had some corn. Fresh, healthy corn.

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Slathered in mayonnaise and cheese.

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Count 6: Arson

Is it a crime to set someone's mouth on fire with a toothpick? If so, then Peppers of Key West would be guilty as charged.

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An emporium of all things hot, spicy, saucy, and sweet, Peppers is the perfect place to mosey up to the bar and get your face melted off.

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We started with the milder sauces -- like the fantastic coconut mango, a figgy steak sauce, and a sweet-but-spicy teriyaki -- and then Angel moved on to the ones so hot that they are stored in little coffins and carry warnings about death, diarrhea, and death by diarrhea.

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You are instructed not to let the toothpick touch your lips, or they will shrivel up and fall off, and to wash your hands before using the restroom, or certain other parts may shrivel up and fall off.

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So far Angel is still intact, but I'm keeping an eye on the situation.

Count 7: Harassment

On every visit to Key West, we stop by Eaton Bikes to harass our friend Chris, who with a patient smile attaches accoutrements -- flowers, streamers, and a bell that reads, "Get the %$#@& Out of My Way" -- to my bike, even though he knows that I am a menace on two wheels and that I will spend the next ten days ringing that bell nonstop like a deranged Quasimodo.

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But how else am I supposed to get around? Sure, I've crashed my bike into a mailbox (2010), a truck (2011), a curb (2014), and Angel (1999-present), but if that makes me clumsy on two wheels, you should see me on two feet.

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Count 8: Bootlegging

In the early 1900s, 105 Simonton Street in Key West housed a Coca-Cola bottling facility. Today, it is home to Key West's first legal rum distillery. Next time your grandpa goes on about how great everything was back in his day, you can refer him to this shining example of progress.

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We decided to do the short guided tour of Key West Legal Rum, during which our guide, Mike Ehrmantraut, explained the distilling process and showed us all these cool machines and Angel impatiently tapped his toe waiting for the tasting portion of the program to begin.

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Paul Menta, the chef at Amigos Tortilla Bar, is the brains behind this operation, cranking out homemade hootch infused with natural flavors like vanilla brûlée, key lime, and mojito mint.

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Best of all, next time you crash your bike into a mailbox or feel like eating a bowl of mayonnaise for lunch, you've got a ready-made excuse.

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Count 9: Fraud

About a month before we were scheduled to meet up in Key West, I received a two-word text from Ellen: "Meatball Cruise?" That, of course, is how we refer to the Sunset Sail on the Fury catamaran, which offers crappy margaritas and a decent live band and a great crew and who the hell cares because MEATBALLS! I naturally said yes and then quickly put together one of those "Christmas Countdown" chains, but instead of counting down to Christmas, I was counting down to MEATBALLS!

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They didn't have the meatballs.

I don't know. Maybe people complained last time that the meatballs kept rolling off their plates and some skinny blonde girl kept swooping in and scooping them up? I'm sorry, but the five-second rule applies in international waters, too.

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The sunset that evening was spectacular, a fiery orange that faded to a wisp of pink as we made our way back to Key West.

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Although we were forced to sail along in meatball-less melancholy, they did have fried chicken, which, even when it comes frozen and is reheated in a Soviet-era microwave rusted out from salt spray, still beats not having fried chicken.

It does not, however, beat meatballs.

Count 10: Criminal Impersonation

I am often guilty of judging a restaurant by its nondescript cover, and Deuce's Off-the-Hook is one of them.

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Plus, I like booze as much as the next guy, but happy hour at 8 a.m. is a bit much even for me.

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Still, when friends Mark and Steven told me that Deuce's was one of their favorite new dining spots, I took a peek at the menu. And then I jumped on my bike and pedaled over there faster than you can scoop a rogue meatball off a boat deck.

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That's because Deuce's has lobster pot pie sandwiches. Let's just let that sink in for a moment: Lobster. Pot pie. Sandwiches.

We started off with the smoked fish dip and an order of spanakopita for the table, followed by the fish sammie for Angel, the gyro with sweet potato tots for Steven, and an entire deep-fried sea creature on a bun for Mark.

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And the Lobster. Pot pie. Sandwich. for me.

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Okay, so it's not even remotely a sandwich. But when your lunch entrée arrives and it looks like this, are you really going to split hairs?

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----------------------------------------------------
Next up, PART 2! Hide your kids, hide your wife, hide your food.

Posted by TraceyG 15:13 Archived in USA Tagged key_west Comments (6)

Xmas in Key West: Come on Vacation, Leave on Probation, Pt 2

Our Key West crime spree continues with loitering, breaking and entering, and one cleverly staged home invasion.

Count 11: Loitering

Key West is the world capital of loitering, and one of the best places to do that is at the Southernmost Beach Café.

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Of course, there's a fine line between "loitering" and "I've had so many frozen drinks I can't get out of my chair." You know who you are.

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The weather during our visit was hot and mostly sunny, so we also spent a fair amount of time loitering around the pool.

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When it wasn't already occupied, that is.

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Count 12: Breaking and Entering

On Christmas morning, my friend Mark posted the following message on Facebook: "Look what Santa left this morning: Homemade coconut cream pie. Come over and help me eat it." Didn't he realize that the house we'd rented was less than a block from his own? I threw on a dress and was barreling through his front door less than 3 minutes later, brandishing my weapons: A fork in one hand and an insulated to-go bag in the other.

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As Mark and I wolfed down the best coconut cream pie I've ever had, Mark's partner Steve decided it would be the perfect time to whip up some homemade macaroni and cheese. Look, guys: If you want me to move in with you, all you have to do is ask.

On top of all this, the pair had just returned from Brussels, and surprised us with a box of decadent Belgian pralines for Christmas.

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They bring me good chocolate; I bring them battering rams.

Later that week, Mark made the mistake of telling me that he'd spent three hours making homemade enchiladas for a dinner he'd planned to host for Steve's father and his partner.

I think you know what happened next.

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Count 13: Coercion

A few days into our visit, we noticed a pattern developing: Ellen and Brian would walk down to Southernmost Beach Café, grab lunch, and then spend the day on a couple of loungers at the beach. But when Ellen developed a blister from all the walking and Brian could recite the lunch menu at Southernmost by heart, we knew it was time for a change. And so we convinced them to rent bikes and meet us down at Salute on the Beach for lunch.

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It was something of a disaster.

First, it rained. Have you ever ridden a bike in the rain? The back tire kicks up muddy rain water. Raindrops pelt you in the face. The seat gets uncomfortably slippery. And you arrive at your destination looking like a drowned rat. Or, in my case, Bon Jovi circa 1986.

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Second, the restaurant was packed. And so we waited, and waited, and waited some more, occupying the time by making mitts out of toilet paper to dry ourselves off.

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Finally, parched and starving and covered in stray bits of wet TP, we were seated.

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I decided to try the antipasti sandwich, which looked normal to me but, according to Angel, was freakishly huge. And coming from someone who's lived with me for nearly 20 years, that is not a statement to be taken lightly. So let's just go ahead and assume that my sandwich looked like one of those ones in the Guinness Book that's 200 feet long and feeds an entire town.

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Even though my hair, and my belly, had both puffed up to twice their normal size, I agreed to pose with the empty plate. Angel, and Bon Jovi, would be proud.

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Count 14: Home Invasion

The last time we visited our friends Stephanie and Ari in Key West, I fell in love with their sweet little dog, Babka, and may or may not have attempted to kidnap her by folding her up and stuffing her into my handbag.

That is, until I saw the newest addition to their family. Meet Latke, the most adorably ridiculous-looking animal I have ever seen.

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(No, she's not growling; that's just her face. And yes, that's a mohawk.)

As usual, I managed to finagle a dinner invitation by raving about some dish and having someone who actually knows how to cook take pity on me. When Steph and Ari came to NYC last fall, one of the restaurants they chose is an old favorite mine and Angel's, Osteria Morini. As soon as I found out they would be there for lunch, I implored Steph and Ari to order my favorite dish, the sformato, which is a savory custard made from Parmigiano-Reggiano, butter, and whipping cream, and delivered to Earth on silver platters borne by baby angels.

Osteria Morini didn't have the sformato.

And if I'd known that ahead of time, it would have been one of the most ingenious plans I'd ever hatched, at least since that time I convinced Angel I had Prader-Willi syndrome and had to eat every 30 minutes due to my, er, condition.

Because as it turned out, my obsession with the sformato prompted Stephanie to generously offer to make me one on our last night in Key West. Which explains all those salads on this trip: I was saving up.

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Of course, because Stephanie is a Jewish mother (of two canines named for cakes), serving us a ramekin stuffed with 10,000 calories would not do for dinner. So she also made salad . . .

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. . . and the sformato, topped with wild mushrooms sautéed in butter . . .

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. . . and snapper with pesto, accompanied by grilled vegetables topped with goat cheese . . .

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. . . and chocolate soufflés with fresh strawberries . . .

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. . .and homemade coffee ice cream.

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It was quite a meal, and Stephanie succeeded in making sure that by the end of it, I was way too full to chase her dogs around and stuff them into my purse. I guess I'm not the only one with ingenious plans.

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Count 15: Conspiracy

In criminal law, a conspiracy is an agreement between two or more persons to commit a crime at some time in the future. If plotting to consume your own body weight in sangria is a crime, then our group dinners fit the bill.

Our first outing was to A&B for Christmas dinner, since there is no better way to celebrate the birth of baby Jesus than with cocktails and chocolate cake.

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A few days later, we met up with Mark, Steve, Steph, and Ari for dinner at Santiago's. In advance of our reservation, the six of us spent weeks haggling over what we were going to order and arguing about who was going to go hungry if they had to sit next to me.

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After dinner we stopped by the Orchid Bar. I may have a tapeworm, but our Key West friends have hollow legs. And arms.

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Speaking of crimes . . . this many pairs of dimples in one place really should be illegal.

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We returned to Santiago's the very next night with Ellen and Brian for another go-round.

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We probably shouldn't have had the flaming cheese two nights in a row, but you know what they say: A cheese a day keeps the doctor . . . on speed-dial.

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Count 16: Disorderly Conduct

I attended college at a party school in the late 80s, before the age of AIDS and campus assaults and frowning upon binge drinking. It was an idyllic time, filled with hookups, hangovers, frat parties, and the occasional bench warrant.

And not a day goes by that I don't thank God that there was no such thing as the Internet back then.

Which is why we never, ever bring a camera to the Green Parrot, and especially not when we're pre-gaming with my infamous rum punch. I'm pretty sure Ellen walked into the pool fully clothed and Brian started licking the walls last time I made a batch, but like I said: That's why we don't allow cameras.

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Over the years, I have acted quite the fool at the Green Parrot, egged on by my friend Mount Gay and begged to stop by my friend Angel "My Wife is a Train Wreck" Gonzalez. I've dirty-danced with men old enough to be my great-grandpa. I've invited myself to sample strangers' drinks with a two-foot-long super-straw. I've twirled handlebar moustaches unbidden, and impersonated Mrs. Doubtfire, and belted out my own lyrics to various blues songs at the top of my lungs, none of which rhyme and all of which utilize words that cannot be printed on this blog.

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By comparison, I was well-behaved on this visit, sucking (my own) beer out of a flamingo straw and decorating my bottle with ornaments "borrowed" from Green Parrot's Christmas tree, which is why I agreed, just this once, to go ahead and snap a few photos.

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As soon as I tried to climb inside the popcorn machine, however, all bets were off.

Count 17: Public Intoxication

Friends who live in Key West often lament that there are only two things to do here: Get drunk, or fry yourself in the sun. (They're missing the obvious third option: Get drunk and fry yourself in the sun.)

Not being ones to defy local custom, we spent most afternoons at Louie's, soaking up the sunset and sucking down the pina coladas.

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Evenings were whiled away at Kelly's, keeping company with their fantastic key lime margaritas.

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In between it was mojitos at lunch, wine at dinner, and the aforementioned rum punch for breakfast. There's OJ in there, ya know.
-------------------------------------------
Part 3 is now posted! Click here to see if we rang in the New Year by commandeering a big red shoe.

Posted by TraceyG 08:36 Archived in USA Tagged key_west Comments (6)

Xmas in Key West: Come on Vacation, Leave on Probation, Pt 3

And finally, public lewdness, assault, and some open container violations . . . or, you know, just another Saturday night in Key West.

Count 18: Public Lewdness

You don't really need to go anywhere special in Key West to encounter public lewdness, but it can't hurt. And so we set off for Better Than Sex, a dessert-only restaurant where you can have a satisfying one-night stand without worrying about how to get rid of the guy in the morning.

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The space is bordello-chic, with lipstick-red walls, dimly-lit crystal chandeliers, and secluded banquettes made for cozying up to your loved one, distracting him with your feminine wiles, and stealing his heart dessert.

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After perusing the extensive menu, I knew I had to try the Fork-You Fondue, which was described as "liquid vanilla cheesecake fondue." If those aren't the four sexiest words you've ever heard, then you need to get some new porn.

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The others had the "Between My Red Velvet Sheets" cheesecake (which sounds hot but not sexy), the Twist and Stout (which I guess can be sexy if you're into those kind of guys), and the Jungle Fever (which I can assure you is plenty sexy. Ahem.)

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Count 19: Assault with a Deadly Weapon

Angel and I last visited Latitudes on Sunset Key in 1999, where we rang in the new Millennium with Champagne, fireworks over Key West, and a midnight kiss. Well, two out of three, anyway.

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You see, I grew up in Pittsburgh, a city with obsessed with everything from the Stillers and chipped ham to classic rock and mullets. Lesser-known, however, is the city's obsession with fireworks. Although most people like fireworks, a 'Burgher will drop everything -- and I mean everything -- for some fireworks. When I was growing up, it was taken for granted that no matter what you were right in the middle of -- driving a car, giving birth, performing brain surgery -- the minute you heard fireworks, the aforementioned task was immediately abandoned because OOH! LOOK!! FIREWORKS!!! Thus, a typical telephone conversation might go something like, "So I told that jagoff to kiss my OOH! LOOK!! FIREWORKS!!!" CLICK.

And so, as couples everywhere counted down the last seconds of 1999 and prepared to greet the new Millennium, I heard the sound of fireworks down at the beach . . . and promptly jumped out of my seat and ran like a bat out of hell, leaving poor Angel in the dust. I think he might have kissed a waitress in my absence.

Which explains why we haven't returned to Latitudes in 15 years. But at Ellen and Brian's urging we relented, and hopped aboard Lil Princess for the short boat ride over to Sunset Key.

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In the years since our last visit, we'd almost forgotten how lovely the place is.

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Soon we were settled in at a table in the sand, drinking in the idyllic surroundings . . . and some mango martinis.

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I kicked things off with the rich, creamy lobster bisque, followed by the tuna tartare with sweet chili, soy pearls, seaweed salad, and miso-yuzu aioli.

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Ellen, Brian, and Angel all ordered the same entrée, the cumin and coriander crusted snapper. This, I noticed, happened at almost every meal -- the three of them ordered the exact same thing, presumably as part of some pact to spread the pain around a bit: I'd beg a few bites from each of them, instead of just commandeering Angel's entire plate.

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But on this night, I was happy to be the odd man out. That's because we'd just dug into our meals when Angel pulled an inch-long fish bone out of his mouth. A few minutes later, Ellen did the same. (Brian claimed not to have found any, but I did hear a strange crunching noise coming from his end of the table.) Within 15 minutes, each of them had enough tiny fish bones lined up on their plate to make a decent-looking fossil.

Though we hate to complain, especially on vacation, nobody wanted to get stabbed in the gums with a fish bone, so we mentioned it to our waiter, who summoned the manager, who removed all three entrees from our bill. It was a generous and gracious thing to do, and as a result we will definitely return.

Though Angel is still banned from kissing any more waitresses.

Count 20: Stalking

Our friend Randi is an adorable little blonde lady with a fantastic sense of adventure, a wicked sense of humor, and just enough sense to disable the GPS on her phone when she knows I'm in town.

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I guess she wasn't expecting that I'd just stalk her on Facebook.

So when I saw that Randi was at La Te Da one fine afternoon enjoying a strawberry-lemon mimosa with fresh basil, I knew what I had to do. I jumped on my bike, mowed down a few mailboxes, and skidded into La Te Da just in time for happy hour.

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One mimosa turned into two, which turned into key lime pie martinis with a sidecar.

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Which inevitably turned into pizza.

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But as soon as Angel started trying to teach Randi how to change the privacy settings on her phone, I knew it was time to go.

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Plus, I'd only had two cocktails and half a pizza, and I didn't want to risk being late for dinner.

Count 21: Solicitation

The vampire cave/house we rented for this trip was conveniently located next door to the Rum Bar, whose cat typically hangs out at the bar there.

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But because I enjoy having a pet around when I'm on vacay, I naturally decided that the cat should live with me while I was in town. It didn't take long to lure her over.

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And it took even less time for her to make herself right at home.

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Soon she was even making herself useful, chasing chickens off the property for us.

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Of course, she wasn't too happy when I wouldn't let her eat the entire bag of treats as a reward.

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By the way, are you wondering how I'm so sure it's a girl? Because after I spent a week feeding her treats, this happened.

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Story of my life.

Count 22: Escape in the Third Degree

Every once in a while, you find a restaurant that's comfortable, comforting, and feels like "your" place. In Key West, we are lucky enough to have a few such escapes, one of which is Café Sole.

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Then again, it's not hard to feel at home when they are serving bowls of crack masquerading as mushroom soup.

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Plus an addictive chickpea spread that I guess is supposed to be spread onto bread, but is more easily spooned directly into your mouth.

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On this evening, as on most others, we ordered our "usual" dishes: the hogfish for Angel, and the shrimp risotto for me.

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For dessert, Angel had the key lime pie. That sounded good to me . . . but not as good as a bowl of gazpacho.

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Our other "go-to" restaurant is Seven Fish, a cozy spot with just 40 seats tucked away (at least for now) in a residential neighborhood on Olivia Street.

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People often complain that Seven Fish is noisy and the tables are too close together, but we're New Yorkers: Half the fun of going out to dinner is eavesdropping on the couple next to us.

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On this particular night, we started with the wild mushroom quesadilla for Angel, and the Caesar salad with tangy goat cheese and a hunk of Seven Fish's deliciously salty, squishy rosemary focaccia for me.

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That was followed by two orders of the coconut-curry snapper over rice.

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And just a tiny bit more of that fabulous focaccia.

Count 23: Open Container Violations

You might remember that two years ago, we spent New Year's Eve in Key West as hostages, forced to eat cheesecake and watch strippers and cheer for a lime wedge. This year, we were determined to make things more interesting.

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Way more interesting.

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We'd purchased VIP tickets for the shoe drop at Bourbon Street Pub on Duval, which entitled us to an open bar, a buffet of everything from crab cakes and cocktail weenies to key lime tarts decorated with chocolate palm trees . . . and, of course, a bird's-eye view of the craziness on Duval from Bourbon Street's balcony.

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The crowd was filled with folks in wigs, tutus, and all sorts of other get-ups, but nobody looked better than the guy with the disco-ball drink holder.

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Sushi made her grand entrance about an hour before midnight, signing autographs and posing for photos before climbing into her shoemobile.

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Soon it was time for the countdown to midnight.

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We stuck around for a while after midnight, watching a seven-foot-tall drag queen get down with a bunch of male strippers. Which is a sentence I write all the time.

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There was no way I was leaving without getting in that shoe, even if Bourbon Street hadn't given us permission. I figured I'd be long gone before the cops could make it through the mob.

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But 15 long years later, did Angel finally get his midnight kiss?

I'll never tell.

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Posted by TraceyG 06:57 Archived in USA Tagged key_west Comments (7)

Leaf-Peeping and Cocktail-Sipping in the Hudson Valley

Flannel sheets, cashmere socks, crackling fires.

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Turtlenecks, tights, chunky scarves.

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Toasted marshmallows, hot cider, caramel apples.

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Pumpkin patches, piles of leaves.

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Cozy. Crisp. Colorful.

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I love fall.

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And it's hard to think of a better way to spend a fall weekend than being holed up together in a cozy little cottage deep in the woods.

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Well, unless that weekend includes lots of food and wine. Which, you know, my weekends sometimes do.

We decided to return to New York's Hudson Valley, which has been named one of National Geographic Traveler's Top 20 Must-See Places on its "Best of the World" list for its scenic beauty, artsy vibe, and trendy, transplanted-from-NYC restaurant scene. Yes, you might still see folks in flannel and overalls here, but don't panic: They're just hipsters from Brooklyn who've moved to Hudson to make artisanal goat cheese and small-batch pickles.

Our autumnal adventure began, as it did the last time around, at the Culinary Institute of America, which is home to one of this country's best cooking schools, along with several student-run restaurants.

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The most elegant of these is Bocuse, a $3 million classroom where students recreate the quality and ambiance of a Michelin-starred French restaurant, at half the price with twice the nice.

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The restaurant is named after the French gastronomic giant Paul Bocuse, who has held trois étoiles, the highest accolade from the Michelin Guide, continuously since 1965, and in 2011 was honored as “the chef of the century.”

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I was barely inside the front door, and already I knew I was going to like this place.

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We were seated at a comfortable banquette with a view of the spacious, bustling kitchen, which is always fun for us, since our own kitchen in the city has exactly enough room for one stove, one refrigerator, and one fork that we are forced to share.

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While we waited for our drinks -- a glass of Pinot Noir for Angel, and a classic Hemingway daiquiri with bitter orange for me -- we played around with the electronic wine list and cheeky cards left on the table for our amusement.

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Or our embarrassment, as the case may be.

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I started with a classic 1975 recipe from Paul Bocuse himself, a decadent black truffle soup topped with a mound of puff pastry so buttery that it literally melted into the soup when I poked it with my spoon.

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It is of course impossible to top a soup made from the world's most expensive mushrooms and pot-pie crust, but the Arctic char with garlic scapes and shishito-pepper vinaigrette was a good runner-up.

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Angel decided to try the butter-poached lobster with sweet corn puree and chorizo broth, followed by the olive-oil poached halibut with zucchini blossoms.

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Yes, that's two dishes poached in fat. Next time, he'll save the kitchen the trouble and just have a bowl of whale blubber.

While our entrees at Bocuse were classic French preparations, the desserts were anything but. Angel went all molecular with the rum cake with chestnut vermicelli and tangerine ice milk. Oh, and liquid nitrogen, bien sûr.

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I chose the "modernist lemon bar" with lemon curd, coconut ice cream, and tamarind sauce, which was downright boring by comparison. Maybe next time they can light it on fire?

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Finally, out came an assortment of macarons and other miniature delicacies, perfect for tucking away in your pocket for later.

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After lunch we took a look around campus before rolling ourselves out to the car.

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We then headed north to the tiny hamlet of Elizaville, where the house we'd rented for the weekend was hidden in the woods and accessed by a private, unpaved road. That probably sounds great to most people, but to New Yorkers like ourselves, it sounded like a cross between "Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter" and "The Hills Have Eyes."

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But any reservations we had quickly faded away when we stepped inside the front door. The house was bright, airy, chic, and comfortable.

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And, we happily noted, it was rustic without being too rustic. Glass doorknobs and claw-foot tubs, we can do. Mounted moose heads, and we have to check out early.

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Best of all, huge, wrap-around windows allowed us to enjoy the view without having to actually go outside, which greatly reduces one's risk of being mauled by bears or punctured by deer antlers or whatever else happens when you leave the city for a weekend.

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We had a few hours to kill before dinner, so we spent the time acquainting ourselves with the house and unpacking. Angel claimed the second master suite for his own, hoarding all the coat hangers for himself and hanging a sign on the door which read, "NO GIRLS ALLOWED."

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Before dinner we took a short detour to Rhinebeck, a charming little village dating back to 1686. Originally called Kipsbergen by its Dutch settlers, Henry and Jacob Kip, today Rhinebeck boasts interesting shops, upscale restaurants, and an underground -- literally -- wine bar called the Shelter.

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Tucked away below street level underneath the town's former hardware store, the Shelter is a speakeasy-style bar offering "spirits, tapas, and refuge."

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All three sounded good to us, so we cozied up on one of the oversized leather couches near the fireplace and ordered up my new favorite cocktail, the "5-finger" milk punch with applejack, allspice dram, Chinese 5-spice, mole bitters and, of course, milk.

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The drink was perfect for an October evening, with fall spices, bitter chocolate, and apple brandy mingling in the glass and warming our bellies.

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After finishing our milk punch, we headed north to the tiny town of Saugerties for dinner at Miss Lucy's Kitchen.

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Although it was 8:30 on a Saturday night, the town was practically deserted, and as we exited the car I suspiciously eyed a small pack of teenagers coming down the sidewalk.

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As they drew closer, I whispered to Angel, "Do you think it's safe here?" But before he could answer, the group had come upon us, with one of the little urchins calling out to me, "Oh! I love your shoes!" Fine. I guess our hubcaps will be safe for another night.

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As soon as we entered the restaurant, we understood why Saugerties was deserted: The entire town was apparently gathered at Miss Lucy's for dinner. Or at least that's how it felt when 50 pairs of eyes simultaneously turned to look when we walked in. "City slickers," I could tell they were thinking. "You can always tell by their fancy shoes."

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Miss Lucy's might look like a simple country restaurant, but what came out of the kitchen was anything but simple: Everything from a martini made with house-infused persimmon vodka, to pan-seared scallops with butternut squash risotto, to a perfectly roasted pork chop with Sriracha-honey glaze, to a bracingly spicy ginger margarita, was sophisticated, well-thought-out, and, most importantly, absolutely delicious.

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After swooning over every bite of our first two courses, we knew we couldn't pass on dessert. So we decided to share the harvest crisp, which was bubbling over with apples, pears, and quince and topped with a decadent brown-sugar ice cream.

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The next day we planned to bike a section of the Harlem Valley Rail Trail to make up for the crimes against moderation we'd committed at Miss Lucy's. A paved trail reserved for pedestrians and bicyclists, the Rail Trail was built over the New York and Harlem Railroad, which ran from New York City to Chatham, NY in the mid-1800s. Eventually all 46 miles of the railroad track will be paved, but for now it's just 16 miles, accessed at the various abandoned railroad stations that once served the railroad commuters. We'd biked one of the shorter sections on our last visit to the Hudson Valley, and were excited to take on a longer stretch this time around.

But first we had to fuel up . . . and at least one of still had to wake up.

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Although it took us a bit out of our way to the blink-and-you'll-miss-it town of Milan, I insisted that we fuel up for the ride at Another Fork in the Road. Owned by chef Jamie Parry, who cooked at NYC's Tribeca Grill and Montrachet before heading north, Another Fork is a "finer diner" known for sourcing virtually all of the ingredients for its carefully prepared dishes from the local farms surrounding the restaurant.

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The sun-drenched room is quaint and cozy, with a chalkboard menu, mismatched chairs and pillows, and simple votive candles serving as decor.

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We started with an order of the patatas bravas, which were slathered with a spicy, mayo-based Sriracha sauce. Now Angel's awake!

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Next it was on to the biscuits with mushroom gravy (and a couple of eggs thrown on top for good measure) for me, while Angel kept things spicy with the curry scramble with caramelized onions and cilantro yogurt.

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After breakfast we headed over to Taconic State Park, where we picked up our bikes and took in the glorious day.

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The only thing scarier than a field of sunflowers is a field of dead sunflowers.

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Soon we were ready to tackle the trail, so we wrangled the bikes into the back of our SUV and drove 10 minutes south to the tiny town of Millerton, which serves as one of the trailheads for the Rail Trail.

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Our plan was to start at Millerton Station and bike 10.7 miles south to Wassaic Station, then ride back to Millerton, for a total of just over 21 miles roundtrip.

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The ride started off innocently enough, as we pedaled easily past woods and hills and ponds, the sun warming our faces as we rode.

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It turns out, though, that biking is a lot like exercise, to which I am allergic. And so my narrative of the 21-mile ride went something like this:

Mile 5: This is really fun!
Mile 10: I have to pee.
Mile 15: I can't believe we've biked 25 miles!
Mile 17: I really have to pee.
Mile 18: I can't feel my legs.
Mile 19: I'm going to need a donut cushion for the rest of my life.
Mile 20: I'm just going to lie down in this pile of leaves now.
Mile 21: I can't believe we biked 29 miles!

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That evening we showered, slathered ourselves in Ben-Gay, then headed off to dinner at Mercato, a comfy, candlelit spot in Red Hook.

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After biking 33 miles roundtrip, I'd clearly earned a bowl of gnocchi . . . and a bowl of penne.

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Or, more precisely, goat cheese gnudi with local Lacinata kale pesto and penne with smoked pancetta, spicy tomatoes, and fresh cream from Ronnybrook Farm in nearby Ancramdale. And maybe a few bites of Angel's homemade fettucine Bolognese.

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Mercato is warm and welcoming, which is probably no surprise given that the chef is Francesco Buitoni, a seventh-generation member of the Buitoni pasta-making and Perugina chocolate-making families.

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After three bowls of pasta, it was time for dessert. Someone had to make sure the chocolate was good, too.

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We also ordered the cheese plate. I'm telling you, that 39-mile bike ride really took it out of us.

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As we enjoyed our desserts, the chef came by to say hello and share some amaro on the house.

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As you can imagine, we slept like logs that night. That's what happens when you go on a 44-mile bike ride.

The next day was on the cloudy side and a bit chillier than the warm temps we'd enjoyed the day before, so it was time for snuggly sweaters.

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I am sure Angel intended this photo as an homage to all those times I've belted out, "Wagon wheel, watermelon" in a bar somewhere. It works surprisingly well when you don't know the words.

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With the skies holding the possibility of rain, we scrapped our plans for a walk along the Hudson and instead decided to return to Rhinebeck, since we'd been too busy downing milk punches on Saturday night to do any shopping.

On our way to Rhinebeck we stopped at Migliorelli's picturesque farm stand to buy some pumpkins.

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Along with mini-pears, apples, cider, and a couple of jars of Migliorelli's homemade tomato sauce.

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(Later, after I'd harvested all the seeds for roasting, Angel surprised me by carving up the largest pumpkin of the bunch in honor of Chloe, my beloved kitty who passed away last year. And yes, that's a power drill.)

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After the pumpkin patch it was on to lunch at Terrapin, which is housed in the gorgeous old First Baptist Church, built in 1825.

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Terrapin's bartender is a master mixologist, shaking and stirring ingredients like house-made cherry liqueur, ginger-infused moonshine, and fig-infused cognac into perfect-for-fall creations, like this sour-cherry bourbon Manhattan for Angel and the spiced caramel apple martini for me.

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I started with the beer and cheese soup, made with India pale ale and aged cheddar, while Angel decided on the macadamia nut tempura calamari, which was served with a spicy-sweet pineapple dipping sauce.

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For the main course, I decided on the mizuna salad with teriyaki sockeye salmon, crispy leeks, and a fantastic sweet onion-soy vinaigrette, the recipe for which is probably more closely guarded (and contains just as many addictive substances) as the one for Coca-Cola.

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Angel went with the shredded flank steak quesadillas with huitlacoche, which are delicious little fungi that grow on ears of corn. Think of them as corn truffles.

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After lunch we explored the town a bit.

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By which I mean, "scoped out restaurants to try on our next visit."

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Rhinebeck is home to the Beekman Arms, which is America's oldest continuously operated hotel. The Beekman was built in 1766 and hosted troops during the American Revolution (the 4th Regiment of the Continental Army conducted drills on its front lawn).

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Aside from renovating the rooms in the 1980s, little has changed here since the 1700s. Well, except that guests are no longer required to list the number of horses they brought when they check in.

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Next, we made a scary stop at Oliver Kita Chocolates.

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The hand-made confections here are gorgeous, and come in inventive flavors like lavender and lime, banana and bee pollen, and honeycrisp apple.

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Even the chocolate-covered Oreos were decked out for the season.

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Soon it was Happy Hour, or close enough. Several local spots looked enticing, but the drinks we'd enjoyed over lunch at Terrapin had been so good that we decided to return to the adjacent bar, called Red Bistro.

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This time, though, we each tried something different, which turned out to be the gooseberry mojito for Angel, and the tart-but-sweet pomegranate passion martini for me.

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We'd planned to stay in that evening with a bottle of wine, a couple of pizzas, and a nice, long soak in the hot tub. I wasn't willing to pick up at just any pizza joint, though. Tucked away in a courtyard behind Rhinebeck's main street is Pizzeria Posto, which is known for its Neapolitan-style pizzas baked in a wood-fired oven imported from Modena, Italy.

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We ordered up two pies and got to chatting with the owner. For future reference, it is maybe not the best idea to distract someone whose head is inside a 600-degree oven.

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When we told the owner we had a 25-minute ride back to the house with the pizzas, he wisely recommended that we order a spare to eat on the way home. I'm just going to assume that's because the pies smell so enticing, and not because my reputation precedes me.

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The pizzas were perfect, with a puffy, blistered crust, garden-fresh herbs, and local fennel sausage, then finished with a generous drizzle of olive oil while still hot from the oven.

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We'd brought along one of our favorite bottles from our trip to Napa, the Freemark Abbey Bootleg, a delicious blending "mistake" only available at the winery, and redolent of fall with its black cherry, black currant, and blackberry aromas.

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We devoured the pizzas, then hopped into the tub for a moonlight soak, helped along by an assortment of candles we'd found scattered about the house.

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As we sipped and soaked and chatted, we agreed that it had been a pretty perfect weekend: Good weather, great food, fun cocktails, and fuzzy sweaters.

And no one got mauled by a bear.
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Posted by TraceyG 09:08 Archived in USA Tagged hudson_valley cia mercato rhinebeck red_hook miss_lucy's_kitchen culinary_institute_of_america elizaville harlem_valley_rail_trail Comments (3)

Back to Key West: I'm Sorry I Ate Your Birthday Present

Of course, I didn't mean to eat someone else's birthday present. Especially since it was intended for a man of the cloth.

More precisely, it was intended for the Reverend Gweko W. Phlocker, a delightfully raunchy Key West DJ, who then proceeded to tell the entire island about my transgression on the radio.

But let's start at the beginning.

For this trip we stayed in a charming Conch cottage in the Meadows, which satisfied my four main requirements for a vacation rental: Lots of outlets, lots of towels, lots of privacy, and lots of goodies left behind in the fridge.

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We unpacked our things, plugged in the 17 iPads/Pods/Phones we'd brought along, and inventoried the aforementioned fridge, before jumping on our bikes and making a beeline for the Southernmost Beach Café.

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There, we had a couple of key lime coladas for lunch.

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Oh, and sandwiches.

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We spent the rest of the day in a haze of sun, salt water, and wine, which in Key West is called "Tuesday."

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As is so often in the case in Key West, we were joined by a random cat. We didn't know her name, so we decided to call her Joan Jett. Obviously.

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Soon it was time to get ready for our visit to Big Coppitt. Yes, I know that name sounds vaguely dirty, and it sounds even dirtier when you consider that it's a derivation of an old English word meaning "thicket." But our friends Donna and Greg live on Big Coppitt, and you might remember that last time we saw them, they'd been living in a trailer dubbed the Redneck Ranch while they waited for their new home to be built. The new house was completed last year, but we'd had yet to see it, so Greg kindly drove into Old Town to pick us up, then ferried us back to Big Coppitt to check out the new place and enjoy some wine on the deck for sunset.

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The new house is gorgeous, with spacious rooms, richly stained wood floors, and a fantastic wine cellar.

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But even that wine cellar had a hard time competing with the view.

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After a few bottles of wine, a lovely assortment of cheeses and crackers, and no small amount of drooling over the size of Donna and Greg's closets, we headed back into Key West for dinner at Square One . . . where they tried to kick us out.

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But let's start at the beginning.

After the short walk over to twinkly Duval Square, we arrived at Square One and were led to a private corner table, which I have noticed is always the case when I am out with one of my girlfriends. Between the foul language, the reckless imbibing, and the oinks of laughter, we just aren't fit for public consumption.

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We started with a lovely un-oaked Chardonnay, then moved on to goat cheese ravioli, seafood ceviche, a creamy pasta with seafood, and scallops in a rich balsamic drizzle. I'm not sure what Angel, Donna, and Greg ate.

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We were just enjoying our desserts when the lights went out. Or, rather, Square One not-so-subtly hinted that it was time for us to go home by cutting the lights. Later they claimed that someone had turned them off by accident, but I guess they also "accidentally" forgot to turn them back on again.

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Not fit for public consumption indeed.

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The next morning we had plans for brunch with our friends Mark and Steven at Hot Tin Roof. But what was supposed to be a sedate brunch for four ended up turning into the Prosecco version of the Ice Bucket Challenge for eight.

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But let's start at the beginning.

The Sunday brunch at Hot Tin Roof is one of the best deals on the island, particularly if you like to start drinking before noon and plan to continue straight through to Happy Hour. Service begins at 11:00 a.m., and then it's all the food you can eat, all the Prosecco you can drink, and all the hangover you can handle until 3pm, a cutoff which has to be strictly enforced since they can't just turn the lights out on you at that hour.

I was the first to arrive while Angel secured our bikes, and as the host led me to our table, someone called out, "Oh! You come into town and you don't even call me?" I wasn't sure if it was my parole officer, that guy whose handlebar mustache I twirled the wrong way at Funk Night at the Green Parrot, or one of the poor souls I doused in Champagne at the Let Them Eat Cake party, but thankfully it was only Stephanie, a woman whose dog I tried to stuff in my purse last time I visited her house. Whew.

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And so, joined by Stephanie's friends Darren and Denis, we pushed the tables together and started calling out orders like a bunch of tipsy auctioneers: "Baaaaaacon-cinnamon-rolls-lobster-mac-and-cheese-key-lime-stuffed-French-toast, do I hear short-rib-hash-and-another-mimosa from the young lady in the blue dress?"

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This contraption is a dual salt-and-pepper shaker. I'm sorry, but asking me to operate anything more complicated than a fork at an unlimited-booze brunch is asking way too much . . . and even the fork is really pushing it.

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We continued to order food like drunken sailors on leave, the Prosecco continued to flow like water . . . and then the tongues came out.

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Although no Prosecco ended up being poured over anyone's head, I kind of wished it had. Because have I mentioned how face-meltingly hot it was during our visit? Meteorologically speaking, 95 degrees + 100% humidity x 0 breeze = hot enough to have fried that key lime French toast on my forehead.

After brunch Mark invited us over to see his orchids, so we made a pit stop back at our house to grab our bathing suits. Not because we expected to go swimming, mind you, but because at this point we realized that if you're going to sweat through your clothes anyway, you might as well be prepared.

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And so we showed up at Mark's just in time for . . . more Prosecco.

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Of course, we didn't intend to drink his entire supply. But when it's 122 degrees outside, it's not like you have much choice.

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The orchids were spectacular. Then again, New Yorkers are easily impressed with anything that doesn't grow through cracks in the sidewalk.

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The next day, Mark berated me for being a bad influence. "But we only had three or four bottles of Prosecco at brunch!" I protested. "Right . . . plus the three or four at my house," he reminded me. Oh, right. I can't imagine how I forgot about those.

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That evening we were feeling a little too, um, forgetful to do much, so we ordered a pizza, floated in the pool for a bit, and then called it a night.

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The next day we awoke early to get in a bike ride before the day got too hot.

And by "bike ride" I mean, "raiding the gift shop at the Casa Marina, followed by pina coladas at Louie's Afterdeck."

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Later we swung by Old Town Bakery to pick up some sammiches for lunch.

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We both decided on the Italian, which came with ham, soppressata, basil pesto, fontina, spinach, tomato, and a prescription for Lipitor.

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Angel once read somewhere that drinking a hot beverage on a hot day can help the body stay cool, so he suggested we stop by Cuban Coffee Queen on the way home. I'm pretty sure that I read somewhere that drinking a hot beverage on a hot day can help the body throw up, so I went for cupcakes instead.

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That evening we met up with Mark and his partner, Steven, for dinner at Abbondanza. Mark hates this place, Steven loves it, and I don't care what either of them thinks because meatballs.

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My family is of Irish, German, and eastern European descent, but we have always wished that we were Italian, for the food. And so when I was a kid my father fibbed his way into a membership at the local Italian Social Club, where we'd go for Sunday Gravy most weekends. The little old Italian grandma who cooked at the Club knew her stuff, including gigantic, tender meatballs just like Abondanza's.

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Are these polpette in the same league as, say, Locanda or The Little Owl? Of course not. But they are the closest thing I've ever found to that Italian granny's meatballs, and that's good enough for me.

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The next day we biked over to Santiago's Bodega for lunch.

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Obviously, they understood how hot it was and that one might need to, er, freshen up a bit before entering the restaurant.

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Santiago's is one of our regular haunts in Key West, so this time around we decided to try a few new items, including the burrata with walnut pesto and the beef short ribs with cherry-hoisin glaze and orange-miso slaw.

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Then it was on to some old favorites, like the patatas bravas with aged Gouda, and the croquettes, which are pan-fried potatoes stuffed with ground prosciutto and provolone cheese and served with scallion-studded sour cream.

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Later that afternoon we stopped by Louie's again, this time to meet up with some folks from our condo community.

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The condo contingent had warned us that they might not be able to make it, and after Angel had downed a few of Louie's dark rum mojitos in quick succession while we waited, I was secretly glad they didn't.

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The next day we again set off for an early-morning bike ride to beat the heat.

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Soon we found ourselves sitting outside the 8,000 degree kitchen at Sandy's while Angel nursed a 185 degree coffee. Forget air conditioners and swimming pools for keeping cool, Key West. What you really need are more coffee shops.

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Later we stopped by Bad Boy Burrito for some takeout.

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I went back and forth between waiting in the shop, where it was approximately 115 degrees, and out on the sidewalk, where it was approximately the inside of a clothes dryer. No matter where I stood, though, I couldn't help feeling that I was being watched.

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We devoured our burritos in sweaty silence, then spent the rest of the afternoon alternating between floating in the pool, sunning ourselves on the deck, and arguing over a cat.

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One of my and Angel's long-running disagreements is what to do about cats that we meet on vacation. I, of course, am happy to give them free rein of the place.

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But Angel steadfastly insists that they remain outside, which often results in a sneaky game of cat and Tracey, in which I repeatedly sneak the cat inside and Angel repeatedly deposits it back outside. On this trip, however, because the pool area led directly to our bedroom, Angel put his foot down. Although he claimed to be worried that Joan Jett might get so comfortable that we wouldn't be able to get her to leave when we checked out, I knew that he was really worried about finding a single cat hair on one of his shirts. And so Angel refused to allow her inside at all.

Which is how we ended up with one very disgruntled cat outside our door for the next three days.

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And one very disgruntled wife.

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On our last day, we headed over to Lush Bar so Mark could show us his new toy: Wine on tap.

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Despite my pleas, however, he wouldn't let me stick my head under the tap and pour the wine directly into my mouth. I guess after the Prosecco Incident, he was afraid I'd drain the tap.

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In addition to wine-on-demand, Lush Bar offers carefully selected wine and chocolate pairings, beer tastings, coffee and tea, plus dozens of organic and fair-trade chocolate bars. Get 'em liquored up, then set 'em loose in a room full of sugar. If this place doesn't need rubber walls, no place does.

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Mark closed up shop a few minutes early and we popped across the street to the Speakeasy Rum Bar.

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It wasn't long before I dumped both Mark and Angel and cozied up with this cool cat who'd just walked in and sauntered up to the bar. Not being the jealous type, however, Angel shrugged his shoulders and said, "Canoodle all you want, but you can't take him home."

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The Speakeasy boasts a menu full of yummy rum-based concoctions, including our beloved Painkillers.

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As we sipped and gabbed, Mark suddenly spotted a friend of his. "Oh! You have to meet this guy!" he exclaimed, dragging me by the arm to make the introduction. "Tracey, this is Mozzarella Mike," Mark said. "Um, actually, it's Mark," his friend replied. "Whatever," Mark replied to his namesake. "Listen, Tracey has a tapeworm and a blog. You two should know each other."

After some polite chit-chat, I got right to the point: Do you make mozzarella? If so, where is it? And more importantly, can I have some?

And like a mootza-rell magician, Mozzarella Mark pulled a plastic-wrapped log of fresh mozzarella out of his backpack . . . along with a cutting board and an 8-inch butcher knife.

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Eyeing this spread, my brain was immediately flooded with questions, to which I received the following responses: No, he's (miraculously) never been mugged for his backpack full of mozzarella. No, that knife has never (accidentally) poked through the backpack and stabbed him in the butt. Yes, I could (thankfully) have some mozzarella. No, we (happily) don't have to share it with anyone else.

And yes, he's (definitely) from Jersey.

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And so we drank and chatted and scarfed down pinwheel after delicious pinwheel of fresh, creamy hand-made mozzarella rolled up with salty prosciutto and peppery arugula, while I thanked my lucky stars, and both Marks, for my good fortune.

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When we finally gave up after eating almost three-quarters of the log, Mark distributed the last few bites to the other patrons at the Speakeasy, then started packing up his significantly lighter, but still magical, backpack. "So, yeah . . ." he began, "I guess I'm gonna have to explain this somehow . . ."

Wait, explain what?

Oh, just that the log of mozzarella I'd just devoured was actually intended for the aforementioned Reverend Gweko W. Phlocker's birthday, to which Mark had been en route when he (naturally) had to stop for a drink.

Reverend Phlocker, I'm sorry about that ugly paperweight you probably ended up with for your birthday. I'd like to think that if I'd known that mozzarella was supposed to be your birthday gift, I would have restrained myself.

But who are we kidding???
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Want more Key West? Two more trip reports are on their way, including an 11-day visit over the holidays. Click here to subscribe and you'll be the first to know if I manage to eat anyone's Christmas present.

Posted by TraceyG 15:52 Archived in USA Tagged beach key_west abbondanza louie's_backyard bad_boy_burrito santiago's hot_tin_roof Comments (7)

A Fall Food Festival in NYC: Let's Get Grubby

It is not often that I have to be talked into attending a food festival. (Indeed, some longtime readers of this blog have hinted that my entire life is a food festival.) But last month, when Angel suggested that we check out New York City's Grub Street Food Festival, I balked. A food festival in Key West or Charleston, sure. But a food festival in NYC -- home to 8 million people, 7.99 million of whom are obsessed with food -- sounded only slightly more fun than the subway ride we'd have to take to get there.

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But the Grub Street festival is run by the website of the same name that obsessively tracks restaurant openings, closings, chefs-on-the-move, and other restaurant news in New York, and word was that many of the best eateries in the city would be making an appearance. And so we took the plunge, hoping that the out-of-the-way location at the Hester Street Market would keep the hordes at bay, despite the day's beautiful weather.

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Angel mapped out our travel route, which involved taking the 6 train to Bleecker Street, then the F train to East Broadway. "Oh, East Broadway?" I laughed. "What's our stop, the Bermuda Triangle?" You see, many areas of New York City are unique in that they do not have an opposite-direction corollary. So there's a there's a Lower East Side, but there's no Lower West Side. There's a Central Park West, but no Central Park East. And there's Broadway and West Broadway, but there is no such thing as East Broadway.

Is there???

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We exited the subway at Platform 9¾ and were confronted with a criss-cross of street names that sounded like the roster at a fancy preschool -- Henry Street, Jackson Street, Montgomery Street. In 20 years of living in New York, I had never heard of a single one of them. "Where the hell are we -- Brooklyn?" I asked, my eyes darting around nervously. Then I saw a sign for Rutgers Street. "Oh, god," I wailed. "We're in Jersey?!?" The Bermuda Triangle was starting to look inviting.

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In fact, we were in a sliver of neighborhood along the East River, south of the Lower East Side and east of Chinatown, between the Manhattan and Williamsburg bridges. The Even-Lower East Side, maybe? East Chinatown? I didn't know, and apparently neither do the city's map-makers. What I did know was that we had stumbled into a not-quite-gritty, not-quite-gentrified neighborhood with a pretty park, friendly people, dozens of authentic Chinese restaurants, and a food festival with my name on it.

And after surveying the scene of 75 vendors to try in just 7 hours, I started to understand why they held this thing on a running track.

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I mean, they couldn't even all fit in my photo.

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Our first stop was right inside the entrance at Roberta's, a Brooklyn pizza-and-more joint that the stingy-with-the-compliments New York Times has described as "one of the more extraordinary restaurants in the United States," as well as "magic," "kitchen poetry," and "as pure an expression of new American cuisine as you are likely to find anywhere." But we weren't there for the new American food; we were there for the pizza, on which Roberta's built its considerable reputation. I mean, why else haul your own oven and a cord of wood to a food festival?

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The crust was nicely blistered, the mozzarella beyond fresh. Plus the cashier was wearing this fabulously flamboyant fur, so all in all I am willing to concede that Roberta's was pretty good, though not Lombardi's good.

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With Roberta's out of the way, we took a stroll around the festival to begin compiling a mental list of which stands we'd return to. Banana pudding marshmallows and short rib sliders, yes. Sardine butter sandwiches, no.

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One of the spots we were most excited to check out was the Doughnut Plant, which is known for its delectable doughnuts in flavors like peanut butter & banana cream and vanilla bean & blackberry jam. Today's flavor, made specially for the festival, was coffee cake, which had a delicious crumb topping like a traditional coffee cake, but also contained freshly brewed coffee in both the dough and the filling.

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We continued on our way, looking for sponge-worthy contenders.

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Our next stop was at Empanina's, where Angel got shipwrecked and I threw a kale mary pass.

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After pizza, doughnuts, and empanadas, it was obviously time for some bread. With meat and cheese, that is.

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Because I myself have a number of food obsessions, one of the things I like best about the New York restaurant scene are those spots that specialize in a single dish or ingredient. And so there are restaurants that serve, to the exclusion of nearly everything else, a dozen varieties of macaroni and cheese, or 19 flavors of rice pudding, or nearly two dozen kinds of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, or 23 different preparations of mussels, or -- god help my already overtaxed arteries -- a spot that serves Southern-style biscuits with 22 different butter and spread options . . . 24 hours a day.

Little Muenster, however, has taken single-dish specialization to its ultimate conclusion, focusing exclusively on grilled cheese sandwiches . . . almost all of which feature the unsung hero of the dairy world, Muenster cheese.

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The one we settled on was called "What's the Beef?" and featured braised beef cheek with cracked pepper mascarpone, pickled fennel, Old Bay, onion paste, and of course Muenster cheese, all griddled up on local peasant bread.

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Eventually Angel decided it was time for a beer break, so we headed to the beer garden next door for some refreshments. Unfortunately, none of the brews appealed to him, so we popped across the street to a bar that could only be found on the Even-Lower East Side: Old Man Hustle.

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Featuring cheap beer, free shots, an old-school cash register, and a XXX-Rated Chalkboard Pictionary night ("You'll never look at chalk the same way again"), Old Man Hustle was made for sketchy day-drinking.

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And so we had a couple of cheap beers and I whooped Angel at three consecutive rounds of Connect Four.

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Energized by my rousing victories, I dragged Angel back to the festival to see what else we could eat. That turned out to be crispy patatas bravas, spicy Thai noodles, sticky Korean fried chicken, pot-pie inspired chicken fingers, and a kimchi-pancake-battered corn dog, since everyone knows that it is against the law to leave a festival without having a corn dog.

Of course, I didn't actually eat all of that. At least not by myself.

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After a few more laps around the track to aid with digestion, it was time to make a spreadsheet so we could decide on a dessert.

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We eventually settled on the maple-bacon cupcakes. The contrast of sweet, moist cake and crispy, salty bacon was almost too much for my heart to bear. Literally.

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Oh, and maple French toast and Mudslide cannolis. Sometimes that spare cow stomach of mine really comes in handy.

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Inexplicably, the hands-down most popular stand at the entire festival was Oconomi, which serves, among other things, okonomiyaki. That unpronounceable delight means "what you like, grilled," and is a Japanese vegetable pancake that looks, deliciously, like fried cole slaw.

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The okonomiyaki were inexpensive, but sadly, love is not.

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Cafe Grumpy is featured prominently on the HBO hit, "Girls," a show I do not watch since I already did the whole, "I make $30,000 a year and my annual rent is $27,000" thing when I first moved to New York.

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Cafe Grumpy's logo reminds me of a diner chain in Pennsylvania called Kings Family Restaurant. Kings' main rival is famous for its cheery Smiley Face cookies. Not to be outdone, however, Kings came up with its own "mean dessert."

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That is a Frownie, a dozen of which is known as an Angry Mob. I think these cranky confections would be a big hit here. The Frownie is already the official facial expression of New York, so why not the official dessert?

On our way toward the exit we came upon La Newyorkina, which was selling mini cones of refreshing lime sorbet.

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We nibbled our cones on the way out, enjoying the interesting cast of characters who'd flooded the festival as the day went on.

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After exiting the festival, we stopped in the lovely park next door to take in the fall color.

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We then made the short walk over to Malt & Mold, taking in the sights along the way.

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Malt & Mold bills itself as "a neighborhood shop for beer and cheese," but in reality sells everything from local craft beers and hard-to-find cheeses to artisinal beef jerky, salsa, charcuterie, homemade ketchup, and small-batch bitters.

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But let's not be coy. We were there for the free beer tasting.

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As if to serve as a living reminder that the neighborhood is still up and coming, a rough-looking man stumbled into the shop during the beer tasting. "Beer? You got beer? Free beer?" he asked excitedly, clearly having had plenty of beer already. The attendant gave him a cup and he darted for the door. "Sir!" she called after him, "you have to drink that in here!" The man dramatically planted a single foot over the threshold, chugged his beer, tossed the cup in the trash, and ducked back out again, all in the blink of an eye.

Still, the place had its charms. Affordable legal help, for one thing.

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We headed back uptown and, spurred on by a day of much food but little booze, dropped off our haul (which included a jar of salted-caramel peanut butter, a growler of Malt & Mold's Oktoberfest brew, and a sour-cherry-crumble pie) at home and set off in search of libations.

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A few blocks from our apartment we found ourselves at La Cava, a cozy Spanish wine bar that's perpetually packed at night but happily uncrowded on a Sunday afternoon.

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One glass of Albarino, one glass of Rioja, and two open seats at the bar, and in a single fleeting moment, a minor miracle occurred: Two New Yorkers couldn't find a single thing to complain about.

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Want more NYC food adventures? Click here for more meatballs than you can shake a stick at (and some other stuff, too!).

Next up, we're off to Key West, where the temperatures were sweltering, the Prosecco was free-flowing, and a stranger's birthday present inexplicably ended up in my belly. Check back soon!

Posted by TraceyG 05:36 Archived in USA Tagged food nyc festival new_york_city grub_street hester_street_market la_cava Comments (5)

A Week in Napa Valley: It's Wine O'Clock Somewhere (Part 1)

California's Napa Valley is famous the world over for its rolling green hills, sun-dappled vineyards, and high-end wines. The Napa lifestyle is a coveted one, featuring exquisite table settings, farm-to-table cuisine, and wine-soaked afternoons.

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But as we found on our visit back in May, this carefully cultivated image is not quite accurate. That's because the mornings are wine-soaked, too.

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Which might explain why it's taken me almost five months to write this blog post: I'm still recovering.

After a whirlwind weekend with friends in San Jose, we arrived in Napa on a sunny Monday afternoon just in time for lunch, which was exactly how I'd planned it. That's because while some people never forget a face, I never forget a cheeseburger, and there was no way I was going to miss Gott's Roadside a second time.

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See, about eight years ago, Angel and I spent a long weekend in San Francisco, and after a fantastic lunch at the famed Slanted Door, we spent the afternoon milling around the Ferry Building, one of this country's biggest and best food markets. Already full to the point of bursting from lunch, I was exercising the kind of willpower usually seen only in monasteries when I spied the holy grail of the Ferry Building: Taylor's Automatic Refresher, an old-school burger joint that is part classic diner and part all-American roadside stand (that has since been appropriately renamed Gott's Roadside). I knew that even if I resorted to what my sister calls my spare "cow stomach," I wouldn't be able to force down a cheeseburger after the multicourse lunch we'd just had. And so I stared longingly through the window as flames licked at the juicy burgers and tears rolled down my face and I vowed to return and stuff myself silly someday.

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"Someday" had finally arrived. I mean, just look at it.

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The burgers at Gott's are served on buttered egg buns, and both patty and bun are grilled to order, then assembled and stuffed into a small paper sack to keep all its juicy goodness intact. (Personally, I could do without the paper sack, since I got so excited when I saw this burger that I almost ate it, too.)

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Gott's serves other stuff, too, of course -- thick, old-fashioned milkshakes and their famous ahi-tuna tacos, among other things -- but all of those will have to wait until I get tired of their cheeseburgers, which is likely to occur right around the time that I get tired of living.

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After lunch we headed next door to the Oxbow Public Market, because if you think a cheeseburger and some fries is going to cut it for lunch, then five months really is too long to go between blog posts.

A 40,000-square-foot ode to all things edible, Oxbow features local food vendors, artisan cafes, an organic produce market, and of course wine. Who needs coffee and donuts when this place is serving up pizza and red wine at 7:30 in the morning?

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I made a beeline for the Olive Press, where I loaded up my arms with olive-and-fig scented soap, artichoke-and-lemon tapenade, and as many of those little specialty vinegars (coconut! fig! black cherry!) as I could hold without stuffing them down my bra.

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Oxbow houses everything from a small-batch distillery to an oyster bar to a VPN Certified Pizzeria Napoletana, and sells everything from steaks to spices to rock candy.

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Don't get too excited, though. This is still California, after all.

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In a textbook case of "the grass is always greener," the Wine of the Month in the Napa Wine Club is a white wine . . . from the North Fork of Long Island. Angel and I thoroughly enjoy Long Island wines, but let's not get crazy here. Offering a Napan? Napa-ite? Napette? a Long Island wine is like offering an Italian some canned Spaghetti-O's.

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Soon it was time for a drink, and the handcrafted Lidia cocktail at Ca' Momi, featuring their own Ca' Secco Frizzante, or sparkling wine, caught my eye.

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And it matched my necklace -- a win-win.

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Afterwards, we took one more pass around the market to ensure that we'd sniffed, scarfed, and swilled everything on offer.

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Satisfied that we had, we then headed north to the town of St. Helena to check in at our hotel, the Wine Country Inn.

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A cross between an upscale inn and a homey B&B, I chose the Wine Country Inn because many of its rooms feature private patios for enjoying a sunset (or, as we were to find out, sunrise) glass of wine.

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However, the real draw at the WCI turned out to be - surprise! - the food.

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Accustomed to B&Bs where the owner doubles as the resident egg-flipper in the mornings, we were thrilled to find that the WCI employs an actual chef for both its fantastic breakfasts and for its over-the-top afternoon "social hour," featuring generous tastings from neighboring wineries and finger foods ranging from crostini with bacon-Pt. Reyes blue cheese spread, sliced pears, and house-made candied pecans to garlicky clam dip to cilantro-pepita pesto.

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That evening at WCI we enjoyed a Champagne tasting from nearby Charles Krug and a platter full of snacks, which I find is the best way to prepare for dinner.

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Later we made the short drive north to Calistoga for dinner at Solbar, at the elegant Solage Resort.

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The chef at Solbar, Brandon Sharp, has a decent resume -- he was Sous Chef at the five-star Gary Danko in San Francisco, Chef de Cuisine at the acclaimed restaurant August in New Orleans, and Chef de Partie alongside Thomas Keller at what is arguably the best restaurant in the country, the French Laundry -- so we figured we'd be in good hands.

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Angel started with the chilled ginger carrot soup with avocado, radish, and spearmint, while I went whole hog (heh-heh) with the Sonoma pork belly, which was served with sticky rice, pickled shiitakes, chili-lemongrass sauce, and a broccoli-stem salad.

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That's right, broccoli stems. Also known as the banana peels of the vegetable world. A great chef really can get you to eat anything.

For our entrees, I went with the decidedly tropical-sounding lemongrass-poached petrale sole with jasmine rice, hearts of palm, coconut milk, charred green onions, pea shoots, and lime, while Angel took the waiter's advice and ordered the one thing that you should never order in a gourmet restaurant: A boneless chicken breast. As anyone who's ever been to a banquet, a wedding, or a dinner at my house knows, coaxing flavor out of an essentially flavorless chicken breast is a damn near impossible feat. But Chef Sharp not only served up a tender, juicy, succulent piece of chicken, he wisely paired it with chicken boudin, a rich, decadent pâté-like sausage made from chicken meat, skins, and livers. If this guy can make broccoli stems enticing, you can just imagine what he can do with the fattiest parts of a chicken.

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The next morning we wandered upstairs around 9:30 to check out Wine Country Inn's breakfast. The place was empty, despite the chef whipping up daybreak delights like this crustless artichoke quiche made from 10 eggs and six cups of cheese, which is a ratio roughly akin to serving an Egg McMuffin with 42 slices of cheese on top.

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That's when we realized that, although we had somewhat sheepishly scheduled a few of our winery visits to start at 11:00 a.m., we had nothing on the lushes staying at the Wine Country Inn, who were already three sheets to the wind well before 10:00. I was starting to understand why breakfast at WCI starts at the ungodly hour of 7:30 a.m.: Your stomach's going to need a base coat if you plan to start drinking before most people have even hit the snooze button.

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One of the things we liked best about the Wine Country Inn was its location, tucked away on a side road and nestled in the vineyards between two of our favorite wineries, Duckhorn and Freemark Abbey. Freemark Abbey happens to be our go-to Cabernet at one of our favorite steakhouses in New York, so it was a no-brainer that we'd start at one of our neighbors and work our way further afield.

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Freemark is one of the oldest wineries in the Napa Valley, tracing its roots to 1886, when Josephine Tychson, one of the first female winegrowers on record, established the original winery on the land where Freemark Abbey still stands today. The building's exterior boasts the original stone, while the interior is warm with sepia-toned wood.

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We had booked the Cabernet Comparison tasting, which is an in-depth tasting of Freemark's single-vineyard cabernet releases from the historic Bosche and Sycamore Vineyards on the Rutherford Bench.

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We were guided through the tasting by the lovely Diane, whose electric-blue nails and winning personality added some levity to the very serious business of getting drunk on red wine well before noon.

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Finally it actually was noon, and that meant lunch. After our visit to the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York two years ago, we were beyond excited for our reservations at the CIA at Greystone in Napa Valley.

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We started with a warm kale Caesar salad that came wrapped in its own little crouton, and the mussels with fennel sausage and caramelized onion broth.

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For our entrees, Angel chose the 5 Dot Ranch skirt steak flatbread with smoked cheese curd and chimichurri, while I carbed out with the mushroom and Sky Hill goat cheese raviolo with sautéed spinach.

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Oh, and an iced tea with a thoughtful little beaker of simple syrup on the side.

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After lunch, we made our first attempt at getting off the beaten path, with a visit to Gargiulo Vineyards.

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I don't know about you, but driving in an unfamiliar area has become my and Angel's very own version of "The Real Housewives": We yell at each other, we dramatically roll our eyes at each other, and, if Angel had hair, I'd probably pull his weave out. It all started about a dozen years ago, when GPS devices first became popular. Angel jumped on the bandwagon and bought a TomTom device for our car. We'd almost never argued over directions before that, but Angel's blind faith in that GPS -- even when it directed us to go the wrong way down a one-way street, or to make a U-turn in the middle of a 6-lane highway -- drove me insane.

Indeed, words cannot begin to convey how much I hated that TomTom, but this photo of what Angel gave me a few years ago for Valentine's Day probably can.

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Although that TomTom met the violent end it so richly deserved, it was unfortunately replaced by yet another circle of hell: Google Maps on the iPhone. About ten years ago we spent two weeks in Italy, roaming the Tuscan countryside in a rented car. I cannot remember getting lost a single time, even though we had nothing more to go on than some hand-written directions I’d gleaned from travel forums and a bunch of road signs written in a language that neither of us understands.

On this trip, we spent five days in Napa, roaming the countryside in a rented car with Google Maps. I won’t bore you with the details of how many times we got lost thanks to one of us being convinced of Google Maps' omnipotence, but suffice it to say that things aren’t going well when the other one of us starts referring to the disembodied Google Maps voice as “that dumb-ass girlfriend of yours.”

And so, after lunch, we climbed back into the car, plugged in the directions, muted She-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named, and made the short drive over to Gargiulo, an exclusive family winery tucked away on Oakville Cross Road (read: you can barely find this place without Google Maps, let alone with it.)

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Have you seen those Dos Equis commercials featuring The Most Interesting Man in the World? He's played by an actor, of course, but that's because the real Most Interesting Man in the World is busy making wine. That would be Jeff Gargiulo, who started his career as a tomato-picker in Naples, Florida; parlayed that gig into owning one of the largest tomato growing companies in the world; sold the company and became the CEO of Sunkist for a number of years; started a music producing company with some partners in Nashville; and finally, at the point when most of us would have dropped dead from exhaustion, bought a vineyard in Napa and started making world-class wines.

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Which is kind of funny when you consider that his real talent is in interior design.

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The vineyards at Gargiulo, Money Road Ranch and 575 ovx, are spread across a two-mile-wide swath that extends to 600 feet in elevation up the Vaca Mountains to the east and the Mayacamas Mountains to the west. Screaming Eagle, whose wines regularly sell for close to $2,000 a bottle, is their next-door neighbor, and the two share the same soil.

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After a cellar and vineyard tour with Garrett, we settled in with some snacks and, of course, a tasting of Gargiulo's incredible wines.

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That evening we took in St. Helena's charming downtown area, shopping and eating and plotting our next day's adventure.

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As much as we enjoyed our visit to Gargiulo, I was even more excited about the following day. That's because we were headed to Chappellet Winery, which sent us a map, some written directions, and the following message: "Please bring these directions with you, as GPS devices cannot locate us." Finally! Written proof that GPS devices are useless! And so we set off with some good old-fashioned printed directions, which seamlessly directed us up twisty Sage Canyon Road to the tippy-top of Pritchard Hill.

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The winery building at Chappellet is stunning -- a pyramid of gleaming wood and glass woven seamlessly into the surrounding woods.

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We were greeted by Dominic Chappellet, one of six siblings involved in running the winery with their parents, Donn and Molly Chappellet, who founded the winery in 1967.

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After a tour of the storage facilities and tasting rooms, Dominic led us out back to Chappellet's bottling facility, where we had the good fortune to be there on bottling day.

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As the yet-to-be corked, not-yet-labeled bottles chugged by on the conveyor belt, Dominic swiped one from the belt and asked if we'd like to try it.

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That's like asking Angel if he'd like to throw out the first pitch at a Yankees game. During the World Series.

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Soon it was lunchtime, and we had reservations at Farmstead at Long Meadow Ranch.

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However, we'd had such an enjoyable morning that we were already running a bit late when we left Chappellet, and we knew we'd have to eat light if we were going to make our afternoon plans.

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So we had a couple of clearly intriguing cocktails, then split a cheeseburger with home fries, an order of wood-roasted asparagus topped with lemon ricotta, and a skillet full of cheddar biscuits with honey butter.

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The aforementioned afternoon plans involved shooting over to Sonoma to have a glass of wine with someone I knew only by his online screen name, Manpot, which refers to a Caribbean concoction also known as the "Altoid of Aphrodisiacs."

You know me: If I'm not hitching a ride on a golf cart with a couple of suspected sex traffickers, I'm getting drunk with an amorous stranger I met on the Internet.

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Click here for Part 2 to find out if your mother was right about meeting strangers online!

Posted by TraceyG 06:31 Archived in USA Tagged wine napa cia oxbow napa_valley solbar greystone farmstead gotts gotts_roadside wine_country_inn freemark_abbey gargiulo st_helena chappelet Comments (6)

A Week in Napa Valley: It's Wine O'Clock Somewhere (Part 2)

Back in Sonoma, I'd just run off with a man I met on the Internet. Which isn't nearly as salacious as it sounds, unfortunately, since our spouses were there, too.

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Malcolm, known around the British Virgin Islands as "Manpot," is a veteran entertainment reporter who's interviewed everyone from Cher to Clint Eastwood and now spends his time lounging on the beach in Tortola, sipping wine in Sonoma, and offering to show random travel bloggers a truly local experience when they happen to be in town. Did I mention that he's also the guy who coined the catchphrase, "Champagne wishes and caviar dreams," Robin Leach's classic sign-off on the 1980s television staple "Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous"? I would expect nothing less.

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Manpot and his lovely wife Candace were already waiting for us on the porch of the Swiss Hotel in Sonoma's historic town square when we arrived.

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And because I was not already jealous enough of his island-hopping, wine-swilling lifestyle, Manpot just had to arrive in this.

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Manpot wanted to show us where the locals hang in Sonoma, so after a round of drinks at the Swiss Hotel, we set off. Our curiosity was piqued as we drove through town and then a residential neighborhood of charming bungalows. Were we headed to a winery? A local bar? A favorite restaurant? Manpot's house? We had no idea, so you can imagine my surprise when we pulled up in front of this.

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That's right: A deli.

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But not just any deli.

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Sonoma's Best is a deli, cheese shop, coffee shop, gift shop, and wine bar, all of which is run by Tom Jenkins, a man of quick wit, bone-dry humor, and great taste in wine. Which he proceeded to pour down our throats at a rate of approximately 1 glass every 15 minutes, or so it seemed when I finally made the mistake of trying to stand up.

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Tucked away behind Sonoma's Best is a sweet garden, along with a handful of adorable cottages for rent. I'd love to stay in one of these someday, but with Tom behind the bar, you might as well just book a room over at the Betty Ford instead.

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Back at the bar, the wine and conversation continued to flow freely, until Manpot and his wife had the good sense to call it an afternoon. Well, either that or they just slid off their barstools and I was too loopy to notice.

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Which explains how Angel and I ended up at a pizza joint for dinner . . . which would normally be the equivalent of eating dinner at a McDonald's in Paris.

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But this is Napa Valley, where even the pizza is artisinal. And so Oenotri, in downtown Napa, turns out authentic pizza Napoletana from a wood-fueled Acino oven imported from Naples, the pie's crust perfectly blistered and topped with local, seasonal ingredients.

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The next morning, we were at it again. By 9 a.m., it was time to shake off the previous night's excess with some hair of the dog.

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And so we headed over to the Cult Wine Tasting Room at the Napa Wine Co., which showcases a number of small, lesser-known "cult" producers, such as Crocker & Starr, Ghost Block, and Eponymous.

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We loaded up the car with our latest finds, and then, because we hadn't had an argument in almost 24 hours, we used Google Maps to make our way to our next stop.

By then it had began to cloud up, conveniently just in time for our lunch at Auberge du Soleil. So much for the "soleil" part.

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But with a view this spectacular, do you really need to rub it in with sunshine?

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After much deliberation over the Auberge's mouthwatering menu, I started with the asparagus soup with dungeness crab, lemon, and creme fraiche, while Angel tried the gnocchi with pea shoots and parmesan.

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Then it was on to the English pea risotto with gulf shrimp, bacon, mint, and yuzu emulsion for me, and the mushroom mille feuille with slow-cooked egg, snap peas, and watercress puree for Angel. All of which was enough to turn even a committed meat-eater like me vegetarian for an afternoon . . . with a non-negotiable exception for the bacon, of course.

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After lunch we retired to the garden, which is Napa-speak for "I'm gonna need some more wine to help digest all this food."

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That afternoon we were scheduled for a private barrel tasting at nearby Cosentino Winery. We'd driven by the gorgeous, ivy-covered building earlier in the week, only to be greeted by this on the day I planned to photograph it.

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But, as we all know, it's what's inside that counts. Especially when what's inside is wine.

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After checking in at reception, we were led into the cavernous barrel room, which had been lit with dozens of shimmering votive candles just for us, giving the room an ethereal, romantic glow.

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As is customary in Napa, we started with a white wine to "warm up" our palates, followed by a succession of Cosentino's best reds, all taken directly from the barrel -- including one that our tasting guide, Erin, confided had never been un-bunged, making us the very first people to ever taste that particular wine.

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Erin expertly guided us through the tasting, which began with some perfectly-paired nibbles and ended with us adding yet a few more bottles to the refrigerator-sized box we were planning to ship home.

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Along with a bunch of stuff from the extensive gift shop.

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For our last evening in Napa, we decided on dinner at Bottega in Yountville, which is owned by chef Michael Chiarello.

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If you've ever seen this paragon of pomposity on Top Chef, Iron Chef, or some other torture device where you get to watch people cook but don't actually get to eat, then you know that his attitude is enough to put you off spending even one hard-earned dollar at one of his establishments. But it was hard to ignore the overwhelmingly positive reviews of Bottega, and luckily we have no integrity whatsoever. And so we booked a table, hoping to be pleasantly surprised.

We were more than pleasantly surprised. We were, frankly, blown away. That jerk.

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The sprawling space is still somehow cozy and warm, with a fireplace and string lights outside, and warm amber tiles and dimmed chandeliers inside.

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We lucked out with a table near the bustling open kitchen.

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We started with two glasses of the Joseph Phelps pinot noir, which cemented our view that Napa should stick to what it knows, which is making excellent cabs and being envious of Sonoma's superior pinot noirs.

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First came the bread, soft and chewy and served with an addictive dipping sauce made with olive oil, parmesan, and Asiago cheese.

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When it came time to order, I went with the "polenta under glass," the recipe for which contains no fewer than 25 ingredients, all of which are expertly combined and then served an adorable little Mason jar topped with caramelized mushrooms, parmesan cheese, and a rich balsamic game sauce.

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Angel decided on the shaved Brussels sprouts salad with Meyer lemon dressing, Marcona almonds, sieved egg (which slivers it up just so), and Pecorino. You know a salad is not just good, but great, when it can distract you from licking the bottom of a Mason jar.

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Next up, it was the tagliarini with veal, pork, rosemary, and porcini mushroom sugo for me, and the waiter-recommended Pollo alla Diavola for Angel, which was roasted under a brick with Shishito peppers, cipollini onions, and cherry tomatoes.

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That chicken has the distinction of being one of the best dishes either of us has ever had, anywhere. Damn that Michael Chiarello and his well-earned arrogance!

Indeed, everything was so fantastic that we had no choice but to order dessert, a delightfully tart grapefruit sorbet.

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On our last day in Napa, our friends Ellen and Brian decided to drive up from San Jose to spend the day with us before the four of returned to San Jose to finish out the weekend. We planned to meet at Round Pond Estate, which produces its own wines, olive oils, vinegars, and citrus syrups from its expansive vineyards, olive groves, and fruit orchards.

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Unfortunately, however, the universe had other plans.

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Ellen and Brian showed up late due to a work meeting that ran long, and Angel and I showed up even later, due to the fact that every. single. road. between the Wine Country Inn and Round Pond was closed.

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Having been re-routed at least half a dozen times by that disembodied bimbo at Google Maps, we finally skidded into Round Pond, grabbed a glass of rosé at the bar (priorities!), and made haste to catch up with the tour, which began in Round Pond's garden.

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There, we sampled everything from wild thyme and fennel to marjoram and kale. But our favorite were the delicate little alpine strawberries, which you likely have never tried unless you grow them yourself. That's because, our guide explained, they cannot be shipped since they tend to go bad within an hour or so of being picked.

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Of course, it wouldn't be a vacation without some chickens.

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Next, it was on to the wine cellars, which house Round Pond's extensive selection of cabernets.

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Then it was up to the terrace for our "Il Pranzo" tastings and lunch.

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We began with a tasting of Round Pound's two red wine vinegars, the first a traditional cabernet-merlot blend, and the second a more unique blend of sangiovese, nebbiolo, and petite verdot. Vinegars should never be tasted on their own, we learned, since the brain tends to reject bitter tastes by default (probably because many toxic plants taste bitter). Instead, soaking a sugar cube in vinegar, and then sucking on it masks the bitterness while simultaneously promoting the vinegar's other flavors.

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Then we moved on to the estate's olive oils, which were rich and fruity.

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All that sipping and sniffing had been fun, but thankfully it was soon time to stop messing around and get to the food. The lunch was a locavore's dream, with exquisite fruits, vegetables, and greens freshly harvested from Round Pond's gardens, along with local cheeses, meats, and of course Round Pond's wines.

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All topped off with an olive oil cake -- using Round Pond's own olive oil, of course -- with fresh cream and berries.

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As much as we hated to eat and run, I'd booked us for one last wine tasting, this one at Silverado Vineyards in Napa's Stags Leap district.

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The wines were just okay, but we certainly couldn't fault the setting or the view.

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Which just goes to show you: When the road ends in wine, and good friends to share it with, the journey is worth it -- no thanks to that #$%@* Goggle Maps, of course.

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What's up next? A filching in Key West, a food festival in lower Manhattan, a freebie in East Hampton, fall foliage in the Hudson Valley, and faux pas galore in Paris. Check back soon!

Posted by TraceyG 05:22 Archived in USA Tagged silverado napa_valley cosentino bottega round_pond auberge_du_soleil yountville Comments (6)

Northern California: Let's Go on a Friender Bender

When our good friends Ellen and Brian moved to northern California last August, we knew that some changes were in store. Texts and emails and Facebook posts filtered in, painting a picture of their sunny new life spent lounging by the pool and taking long oceanfront drives and eating avocados.

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By January, things had grown so dire that we feared they might start wearing Birkenstocks and meditating.

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As it turns out, it was way worse than that.

They started hiking.

That's right: Two people who were known to jump in a cab rather than walk 10 blocks -- in other words, typical New Yorkers -- suddenly took up that most Californian of pursuits: Hiking. And they were determined to drag us down along with them.

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They'd set for us a jam-packed itinerary of eating, drinking, sightseeing, and hiking (thankfully in that order), encompassing everything from the sea lions in Monterey to the surfer dudes in Santa Cruz to the redwood forest in Big Basin to the tech geeks in Silicon Valley.

Our adventure began on a sunny afternoon in San Jose with lunch at Village Bistro in Santana Row, an outdoor shopping area that would be just like one of the Hamptons, if everyone in the Hamptons wore hoodies and had invented some app that allows you to take sexy pictures of your cat, or whatever.

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I got a little nervous when our waiter confirmed all my preconceived notions about Silicon Valley by showing up with this nerdy science beaker, but thankfully, it was full of rum punch. Whew.

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Nothing says brunch like rum and fried squid, so we noshed on a huge plate of fried calamari to start, followed by an assortment of salads, seafood, eggs, and, later, a round of mojitos.

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If you've already downed a few rum punches and mojitos for brunch, you'll need something to soak it all up . . . like a pina colada cake.

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After lunch we milled about in the sunshine and peeked into the various shops.

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You know about these Teslas, right? Only in Silicon Valley would someone show up to a meeting in a $100,000 car and a pair of rubber flip-flops.

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As Ellen, Brian, and Angel perused the various shops, I mentally prepared a list of all the places I wanted to eat next time we were here.

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Back at Ellen and Brian's new apartment, we took in the resort-like setting and marveled at their size of their closets. (Cat is for scale.)

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Ellen and Brian's cats, Peaches and Daisy, are snuggly and sweet, but unfortunately one of them is addicted to kitty porn.

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That evening Ellen had made reservations at Palacio in Los Gatos, which is housed in a gorgeous Queen Anne Victorian constructed in 1891.

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We settled in under the heat lamps on the outdoor patio and ordered a round of margaritas -- the hibiscus for Ellen and Brian, the watermelon for me, and the "caliente," with fresh muddled jalapeno and cucumber, for Angel.

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Of course, a similarly-priced margarita in NYC comes in a glass whose size can best be compared to the plastic dosage cup attached to a bottle of cough syrup, so the look on Angel's face is understandable.

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The service was a bit slow that evening, so each of us had downed two Big Gulp margaritas by the time the food arrived. As a result, I'm pretty sure my meal consisted of chips, salsa, enchilada sauce, all of the peas in Angel's paella, and a gallon of tequila.

The next morning was The Hike. Naturally, I prepared by donning white pants, a pair of ballet flats, and a cell phone at the ready to call for a taxi in case my pants got dirty.

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Ellen wisely planned more of a nature walk than an actual hike, and she picked what is surely one of the most gorgeous parks in California: Big Basin Redwoods State Park, which is home to the largest continuous stand of ancient redwoods south of San Francisco.

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A sign in the park helpfully provides some perspective on the height of the trees, noting that coast redwoods are roughly 379 feet tall, while the Statue of Liberty comes in at 289 feet and a Tyrannasaurus rex is 15 feet tall. So next time you see a T-Rex, you'll have some idea of just how tall these trees really are.

In addition to really tall trees, Big Basin also has over 80 miles of trails. And you might think that between two lawyers, one finance guy, and one publishing guy, that we would have enough combined brain power to distinguish left from right.

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But you would be wrong. And so we were roughly halfway through the 12-mile hike to the beach before we realized that we hadn't seen another human being since we arrived and were probably going the wrong way. We were a little tired, and a lot hungry, and you know that you are getting loopy when instead of noticing all of the ancient redwoods surrounding us, someone notices a big yellow slug instead.

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And so we retraced our steps, took another look at the directions, and headed for what we thought was the parking lot. Thankfully we were right, and we stumbled out of the woods exhausted but triumphant, like those people who get stranded in the wilderness and survive on tree sap and bird droppings for a month.

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We probably should have collected some bird poop just in case, because by the time we dragged ourselves back to the car, it was well past lunchtime and we were famished. And so we raced back down the mountain toward Santa Cruz for lunch. Ellen and Brian spent the ride deciding where we should eat and where we should park, while Angel and I spent it deciding which one of them to eat first if the drive took longer than expected.

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We soon found ourselves at the Crow's Nest, which thankfully had a salad bar. Angel and Brian stayed at the table to watch our bags, while Ellen and I attacked that salad bar like Gwyneth Paltrow after a juice cleanse.

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This fabulous creation is called a Lava Flow, which is a pina colada swirled with strawberry "lava" puree. I'm not convinced there's actually any booze in it, but whipped cream can make up for a multitude of sins.

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I ordered the local petrale sole in a cream sauce with asparagus and little trumpet mushrooms that were so cute I could barely stand to eat them. Then I remembered that I almost starved to death just an hour ago, so I gobbled up even the teensiest ones with nary a twinge of regret.

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For his part, Angel went with the Hawaiian poke special, which was blackened and topped with lump crab meat.

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After lunch we checked out the beach, where those crazy Californians were working out and playing sports instead of lounging in the sun.

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Then again, it helps to be in good shape around here, just in case.

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At least there was a bar. I was starting to worry there for a minute.

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By now it was late afternoon, so we hopped back in the car and took a drive up the Pacific Coast Highway.

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The views from the PCH are gorgeous, of course, but the most amazing thing about it is what you don't see: McMansions. The prime real estate along this stretch of coastline -- from Santa Cruz north toward Half Moon Bay and Montara -- is utterly, gloriously pristine, dotted with strawberry fields and pumpkin farms and absolutely nothing else. And so we stopped here and there to breathe in the salty air and marvel at the untouched beauty of it all.

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Our first stop along the PCH was at the Ritz-Carlton at Half Moon Bay, situated on a bluff so breathtaking that it doesn't look real.

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Sure, they charged us $10 just to park the car, and cocktails were $18 each, but cozy blankies and fire pits are priceless.

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Despite having seen the redwood forest, the dramatic cliffs at Half Moon Bay, and, later in our trip, the justly famous beach at Monterey, it perhaps comes as no surprise that Ellen knew a restaurant would turn out to be one of the highlights of our trip. That would be La Costanera, a contemporary Peruvian spot whose name translates to "the waterfront," overlooking the dramatic cliffs and crashing surf at Montara Beach.

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Inside, the eclectic décor holds its own against the natural beauty just outside.

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Besides the main dining room, La Costanera boasts cozy, fireplace-warmed nooks, a hip downstairs lounge, and an airy dining loft.

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The food here leans toward the light and fresh -- a variety of ceviches, plus shrimp, scallops, calamari, and other seafood -- which was perfect, since we were all still stuffed from lunch.

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But first we had to get Pisco'd.

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A white brandy made from Muscat grapes, pisco originated in Lima, Peru, and therefore features prominently in many of La Costanera's cocktails. With its hints of apple, grape, and stone fruit, it also plays well with lime, mango, and other tropical juices.

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We kicked things off with the addictive, salty plantain and yucca chips, followed by four bowls of the Kabocha squash soup with shrimp, queso fresco, a hint of pisco, and choclo, which are gigantic Peruvian corn kernels that look disturbingly like really big teeth.

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Then it was on to an assortment of small plates. I decided on the snapper ceviche with leche de tigre, or tiger's milk, which is the Peruvian term for the citrus-based marinade that cures the seafood.

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Angel settled on the calamari stuffed with chorizo and rocoto pepper aioli, while Brian had the tuna ceviche and Ellen went with the tamarind barbecued shrimp.

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And we all had another round of cocktails, of course.

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Which was perfect timing for the spectacular sunset that evening.

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After dinner, we retired to the outdoor patio. The air was cool and crisp, the fire pits provided just the right amount of heat, the crashing waves supplied the background music, and the conversation was of the boozy vacation variety ("What the hell am I doing with my life? Living on the beach in a tent would be GREAT!")

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On Monday morning Angel and I set off for Napa Valley, ostensibly so we wouldn't be underfoot during Ellen and Brian's work week, but in reality so we could geek out at the wineries and gorge ourselves at the restaurants without judgment. At the end of the week we drove back down to San Jose and met up with Ellen and Brian for dinner, this time at El Jardin, an open-air hotspot in Santana Row.

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There, we enjoyed live music, potent margaritas, and the biggest pile of chicken nachos you are likely to see outside of a Chili's.

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On our last full day we headed south, to Monterey Bay. As described in John Steinbeck's book of the same name, the Cannery Row area of Monterey is "the gathered and scattered, tin and iron and rust and splintered wood, chipped pavement and weedy lots and junk heaps, sardine canneries of corrugated iron, honky tonks, restaurants and whore houses, and little crowded groceries, and laboratories and flophouses."

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The honky tonks and flophouses have been replaced by jewelry shops and Starbucks, but the restaurants remain, and one of the best is the Fish Hopper.

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They had me at goldfish-bowl-sized cocktails.

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Ellen must have pulled some serious strings to get us what was hands-down the best table in the house -- a roomy corner table surrounded by floor-to-ceiling windows on three sides.

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After much hemming and hawing over the dozens of cocktails on the Fish Hopper's list, I finally decided on the Monterey Passion, a tropical swirl of coconut rum, passion fruit rum, pineapple vodka, plus banana and melon liqueurs.

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As usual, however, Ellen won the Best Drink Derby by a mile, literally flaming the competition.

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Lunch began with the Fish Hopper's famous clam chowder, which has been voted Best Clam Chowder in Monterey County nine years in a row.

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The only thing that could have made that chowder any better is serving it with a side of $100 bills.

That was followed by three orders of the macadamia-nut-crusted halibut with caramelized sweet potatoes for Ellen, Brian, and Angel, and the crab-and-shrimp stuff petrale sole with fava beans, mushrooms, artichokes, spinach, and a light saffron broth for me.

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The clam chowder was small, and the fish was light, which is all I can think of to justify what happened next.

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The irony is not lost on me that, after stuffing ourselves silly at lunch, we headed over to the pier to see the sea lions, an animal whose favorite pastime is flopping about on its giant belly.

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The day was extraordinarily windy, which is always a problem for me because of my eyes, which Angel refers to as The Vortex. My eyes are big, and my eyelashes are freakishly long -- so long that I actually trimmed them once in junior high because they kept hitting the insides of my sunglasses. (You can just leave your hate mail in the comments.) Combined, they attract all manner of dirt, dust, and other assorted items (I have actually bitten into a potato chip and had the shrapnel end up in my eye). And so, "Wait, there's something in my eye" is the only phrase that I utter with more frequency than "Are you gonna eat that?"

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Which explains why I tried to pry the helmet off this sculpture and attach it to my own head.

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In the end it was a good thing I couldn't get it off, or I might have missed the spectacular scenery all around us.

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In addition to the area's natural beauty, Monterey is full of quaint shops, small cafes, and manicured oceanfront parks.

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Sometimes the best laid plans are no plans at all, and on our way to the pier we were thrilled to stumble upon the annual Monterey Rock & Rod Festival, featuring hundreds of classic cars and an old-fashioned sock hop.

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The four of us nearly gave ourselves whiplash trying take in all the fins and fuzzy dice, while the band played "Trac(e)y" by The Cufflinks.

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And just when I thought things couldn't get any better, one of the car's owners approached me and asked if I'd like to sit in the car and have my photo taken. While wearing a FABULOUS FAUX FUR. Is that even a question? Not even bothering to open the door, I hopped through the open window Dukes of Hazzard-style, flung my new fur over my shoulders, urged Ellen to jump into the passenger seat, and savored every minute of our "Thelma and Louise" re-enactment.

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We couldn't believe our luck when a second car owner invited us to sit inside, this time in a bubblegum pink confection called the Pink Lady.

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As Angel posed in the driver's seat, the owner asked me, "Is that your husband?" When I answered yes, she good-naturedly elbowed me in the ribs and said saucily, "Luckyyy! Look at that smile!" Yes, he's very cute. When he isn't making fun of The Vortex or refusing to give me half his dinner.

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We made our final rounds, delighting in the shiny fenders, gleaming fins, and funky hood ornaments.

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Although the car show had been great, our reason for visiting Monterey had been to see the sea lions, and so we headed back over towards the water. . .very carefully.

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As we walked along Ellen looked in all their usual haunts, and right when I started to worry that they'd all gone home for the day, we heard the unmistakable honk of the sea lion, which can best be described as a cross between an irate duck, my sinuses on a bad day, and a kazoo.

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Besides the sound, we were also completely unprepared for how playful they are. Like slippery, overgrown puppies, the sea lions chased each other around, performed back flips and side floats, and flopped onto their backs -- and over each other -- to bask in the sunshine.

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I could have watched the sea lions frolicking all day, but more sights beckoned, and so we took a quick trip down the pier to check out the shops, as well as the restaurants' free samples of clam chowder. Sure, I was already stuffed from lunch, but somebody had to make sure the Fish Hopper's chowder really deserved all those awards.

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As we strolled along, we spotted this animal trying to swallow a Chihuahua whole. Is it a giant wolf-dog? A small, mangy horse? Let's just compromise and call it a Dorse.

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Soon it was time to head back to San Jose. We had dinner reservations for that evening at a restaurant in nearby Saratoga, but the day had been so filled with fun and sun and wind that none of us were feeling up to changing for dinner by the time we made it back home.

So we decided to get kinky in the hot tub instead.

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Get your mind out of the gutter, would you? I'm just talking about booze . . . again.

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In fact, we were so exhausted that I had just enough time to eat half of a large pepperoni pizza and cozy up on the couch for the first half-hour of "Jurassic Park" before I completely passed out. (As Brian lamented the next day, "You didn't even get to see anyone get eaten!")

Our flight was scheduled to leave the next afternoon, so we had time for one more meal before heading home. And because she is a good and true friend, Ellen agreed to forego a normal brunch and take me here instead:

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You didn't really expect me to leave Cali without trying one, or four, did you?

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One burger tasted like a second one, so Angel went back up to the counter to order us another round.

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Sure, two burgers and a mound of fries aren't the healthiest of breakfasts, but now I get it: That's what hiking is for.
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Next up, a wine-soaked trip to the Napa Valley, a rum-soaked trip to Key West, and another sweat-soaked summer in the Hamptons!

Posted by TraceyG 06:04 Archived in USA Tagged california monterey san_jose palacio redwoods half_moon_bay silicon_valley la_costanera los_gatos Comments (7)

Tiptoe Through the Hedgerow: The Hamptons From A to Z

It's spring! That time of year when we move our clocks forward, clean our houses for the first time since Halloween, and drag an unsuspecting groundhog out of his hidey-hole to tell us whether we should bury our winter coats in the back of the closet, or just bury ourselves under the covers. And for me, it's also that time of year when I start getting giddy at the thought of spending weekends at our cottage in the Hamptons.

Sure, the Hamptons are overpriced, overcrowded, and often filled with what I'd hoped to leave behind in New York City . . . but those are only some of the reasons why I love it. Here are 26 others.

A is for Almond.

A classic French bistro with a great wine list and fantastic food, Almond is the kind of place where you can snuggle in with some steak frites and a glass of Bordeaux in the winter, or enjoy the breeze from the flung-open French doors and a fig martini at the bar in the summer.

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A is also for Alan Alda, who also dines at Almond, and to whom I once sent a fan letter. (I watched a lot of M*A*S*H after school. It came in great with the rabbit ears on our TV.) After surreptitiously snapping this photo of him at Almond a few summers ago, I was thisclose to interrupting his dinner to ask, "Hey, do you remember that fan letter you got from that 8-year-old girl that time?"

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You know he does. Nobody could forget something that weird.

B is for Beacon.

Located atop a fancy yacht club in Sag Harbor, Beacon boasts excellent food, friendly service, and a postcard view, which is why you will find us here almost every weekend.

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Of course, we had to tell our accountant that we're broke due to huge gambling losses, but it still sounds better than, "I'm paying the mortgage over at Beacon."

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C is for Cowfish.

The Hamptons are all about the water views, and one of the best can happily be found within a 10-minute drive of our cottage.

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Cowfish, however, ups the ante with its location on a small peninsula, affording water views on three sides, thus avoiding the temper tantrums that can occur when a Hamptonite suspects that he didn't get the best table in the house.

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And with an outdoor bar/living room, house-made rum punch served in chilled Mason jars, and the freshest seafood around, it's easy to understand why we're on first-name basis with the waitstaff and the owner named his first kid Trangel.

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D is for Dockers.

Fourteen years ago, Dockers was a casual little spot on the bay that served as the post-party after our wedding. It's where we danced on the tables and the DJ played the chicken dance and one of my girlfriends threw up in the bushes.

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Today, Dockers is done up in crisp navy-and-white fabric and oversized hurricane lamps, and the drinks are way too expensive to get all that drunk, but the friendly service and stunning sunsets haven't changed one bit.

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E is for East Hampton.

In 1725, Dick Syme was elected Common Whipper for East Hampton and was paid 3 shillings for each person whipped. Of course, there is no Common Whipper in East Hampton today; instead, the town extracts its pound of flesh by charging $700 a night for a hotel room and $40 for a bowl of pasta.

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You didn't think National Geographic's "Most Beautiful Village in America" was going to come cheap, did you?

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F is for fall.

Though it's hard to top a sultry August afternoon in the Hamptons, fall is even more sublime. The crowds have migrated back to the city, the ocean is still warm, it's harvest time at the vineyards, and restaurant menus are bursting with locally-grown apples, pumpkins, chestnuts, and Brussels sprouts.

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Best of all, there's trick-or-treating in the villages, and Angel and I are easily mistaken for oversized hobos, which results in a pretty nice haul.

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G is for the Greenport Brewing Company.

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Rosé is all the rage in the Hamptons, but at least once a season Angel shrugs off his pastel polo, ditches the Brooks Brothers khakis, tucks in his pinky finger, and guzzles some beer.

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I go along for the great shopping in Greenport, since the best way to pry your husband's fingers off his credit card is to wrap them around a pint glass.

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H is for house drinks.

It seems that every bar and restaurant in the Hamptons has a "specialty" cocktail, and picking a favorite is like picking your favorite kid: It can be done, but not without some hurt feelings. That's why I have several favorites.

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Besides being a boozy summer picnic in a glass, the watermelon margarita at B. Smith's in Sag Harbor tastes a bit different every year depending on the quality of that summer's watermelon crop. And so we find ourselves obsessively consulting our Farmer's Almanac and saying things like, "Ah, yes, the summer of '96. Now that was a great year."

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The Prickly Pear at Rumba in Hampton Bays is both sweet and tart, and the color is even more delicious. But do not be fooled: Two of these babies and you will be pronouncing them "Plucky Purrs."

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The blueberry mojito at Docker's may come in a small glass, but it's chock-full of memories, from wild weekends with my sister to romantic sunsets with Angel to leisurely Sunday brunches in early spring when the sun finally begins to warm our backs. Over the years the price has increased dramatically, but can you really put a price on happiness?

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Apparently you can, and that price is roughly $8 an ounce.

And then there's the Sweet Life, an off-the-menu special at Rumba, which I think is my favorite favorite. Maybe it's because it tastes exactly like the homemade limeade my mom used to make to take along on summer picnics . . . which I now realize must have been spiked with gin. Mama was no dummy.

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I is for Italian food.

Long Island's climate is similar to that of Naples, Italy (they share the same latitude), and therefore many of the best things about Italian food -- tomatoes, basil, asparagus, spinach, squash, and melons -- grow like gangbusters on Long Island, to say nothing of the fresh seafood and abundance of dairy farms. And no place puts those ingredients to better use than Tutto Il Giorno, an intimate spot off the beaten path on Nugent Street in Southampton.

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Yes, the portions will be on the small side, and the bill will rival the GDP of a small island, but if the Lear is in the shop and you can't make it to Italy for the weekend, Tutto is a pretty good substitute.

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J is for John Scott's Surf Shack.

An open-air surf shack tucked among the million-dollar homes along Dune Road in Westhampton Beach, John Scott's is the perfect place to kick back Hamptons-style, with a cold beer, a bucket of popcorn shrimp, and the knowledge that Anderson Cooper lives just down the street.

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K is for killer views.

At least there's something to do while you're sitting in traffic.

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L is for lobster.

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It wouldn't be summer in the Hamptons without lobster, and one of the best ways to enjoy it is stuffed into one of the insanely huge lobster rolls at Canal Cafe in Hampton Bays.

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Served not on a measly hot-dog bun like a traditional lobster roll, but on a hearty, nearly foot-long baguette, Canal Cafe's lobster roll is positively bursting with fresh lobster meat and not much else. I hold these lobster rolls personally responsible for the state of Angel's waistline from April through October.

If lobster rolls aren't your thing, head on over to the Lobster Inn, a classic seafood shack where the namesake dish can be grilled, steamed, stuffed, or served as a "splat," which comes with steamers, hard clams, mussels, shrimp, and crab.

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M is for money to burn.

Everywhere else in the world, that's a metaphor.

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N is for neighbors.

Our neighbors Norma and Daniel are two of the kindest, most generous people we've ever had the pleasure of knowing. Norma brings us things like homemade garlic-herb bread made with fresh rosemary from her garden and homemade caponata with her garden basil, while Daniel brings us goodies like homemade cherry-basil vodka and invites us over to "the Bungalow," as he charmingly calls it, for BBQ chicken and coconut cupcakes.

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All of which is to say, these two could be complete jerks and we'd still keep 'em around.

O is for our wedding.

On August 5, 2000, Angel and I exchanged our wedding vows at the Westhampton Bath & Tennis Club on Dune Road.

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There were some bumps along the way -- the cake was inexplicably the wrong color, and the lobsters weren't de-shelled even though we'd paid extra to make sure they would be -- but we were surrounded by the people we love the most . . . in the place we love the most.

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And that made it perfect.

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P is for Plaza Cafe.

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I have three words for you: Lobster. Shepherd's. Pie. What's better than three words, or even 1,000? You know.

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That feat of seafoody splendor is served up by Bari, one of the sweetest and most knowledgeable waitresses around, and cooked up by chef Doug Gulija, one of those maddening people who is insanely talented but also extremely nice. This guy could be cooking up frozen fish sticks and I guarantee they'd be the best you'd ever had. Luckily, though, there's stuff like pumpkin-lobster bisque; shrimp with porcini risotto; soy and acacia honey marinated black cod with yuzu beurre blanc; and red snapper stuffed with lobster instead.

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Q is for Quogue.

Our friends Jennifer and James joined us for a weekend in the Hamptons last summer, and we took them to lunch at Dockers in East Quogue, a gorgeous little oceanfront village boasting dozens of homes built in the 1700s. Over lunch, Jennifer recounted a story about an episode of the "Real Housewives" (don't ask) in which one of those snots moaned about having to drive from her house in Southampton "all the way" to Quogue for a party.

After lunch, we did that exact drive in reverse, which took maybe 25 minutes. And as we were walking down the street in Southampton, we overheard a woman at an outdoor cafe complain to her friend, "So, I have to go to this party tonight . . . but it's all the way out in Quogue!" Poor Quogue. So close, and yet so far away. I guess that explains why I don't have any photos of it.

R is for Rumba.

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We all dream of a place like "Cheers," where we can walk in and everybody knows our name (and, more importantly, what we'd like to drink). Rumba is our Cheers. So close that we can bike there (not that we ever do - that would be a little too much like exercise), Rumba's got it all: A slew of Adirondack chairs at the water's edge, plentiful seating outside on the deck, friendly servers, fantastic food, and the best drinks in the Hamptons, most of which are served "Bigga" style in oversized Mason jars.

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In season, Rumba operates a tiki-themed RumBarge that runs back and forth between Rumba and its sister restaurant, Cowfish, and is operated by a guy who I swear is not wearing a pirate costume.

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Best of all, there's free shots of homemade banana-vanilla rum for the regulars. And even the irregulars.

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S is for Shelter Island.

Remember Howard Hughes, the fabulously wealthy yet famously reclusive business magnate and aviator who, in order to avoid conflicts with the owners of the penthouse hotel suite he'd been occupying for years, simply bought the hotel so he'd never have to leave?

Shelter Island is a lot like that.

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How else to describe a 9-square mile island just minutes from the chi-chi Hamptons that doesn't have a movie theatre, bookstore, a single traffic light . . . or a bridge to the mainland?

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All of which sounds delightful, but for now we're staying put. Experience has taught us that relying on a boat to get to lunch or dinner can result in unacceptably long delays while you untangle your anchor line from around the propeller, or whatever.

T is for tomatoes.

As you probably know, I am obsessed with tomatoes. And so we spend a good part of the summer chasing down the Tomato Lady in Sag Harbor and buying up the multicolored heirlooms at Hayground Market for the one thing I can "cook" that always comes out perfectly: mozzarella and tomato salad with a drizzle of aged balsamic.

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And last summer, I gleefully welcomed the debut of the biggest, baddest tomato event of them all: A tasting of 55 of the whopping 350 varieties of heirloom tomatoes grown from seed by tomato goddess Steph Gaylor at Invincible Summer Farms in Southold, including oddballs like the Amazon Chocolate tomato and the Chartruese Mutant.

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Perhaps not surprisingly, I was the only one who brought my own salt shaker, prompting a photographer from Newsday to follow me around all afternoon.

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Now I know how poor Angel feels.

U is for Umbrella Beach.

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Every Fourth of July, I manage to convince Angel to make the drive out to Montauk for a sunset dinner, followed by the "Stars Over Montauk" fireworks display at Umbrella Beach.

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We usually end up at Gosman's Dock, a quaint shopping and dining district where you can watch the boats come in with the day's catch . . . or watch the fog roll in and destroy all of the carefully-coiffed hair in its path.

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Angel has teased me for years about my obsession with fireworks, and the display at Umbrella Beach does not disappoint. Put on by the famous Grucci family, which handles the over-the-top pyrotechnics for presidential inaugurations and the Olympics, the Stars Over Montauk display runs for nearly an hour, eliciting a series of oohs and aahs from the lucky spectators.

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Or maybe that's just me.

V is for vineyards.

With its glacial soil and maritime climate, the east end of Long Island is home to more than 40 wineries, many of which are turning out good-to-very-good Chardonnay and Merlot, along with Sauvignon Blanc, Malbec, Cabernet Franc, and others.

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In Napa or Sonoma such small, rustic tasting rooms and family-run operations would be delightful "off-the-beaten-path" finds, but on the North Fork they're business as usual, which suits us just fine.

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And down on the South Fork, there's our beloved Channing Daughters in Bridgehampton, also known as the "hippie winery" for its dedication to lesser-known European varietals like Ribolla Gialla, Dornfelder, Blaufrankisch, and Legrein. I know the end of the previous sentence looks like my fingers landed on the wrong keys, but I assure you they are real words.

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W is for Wolffer.

I'd still love the Hamptons even if it didn't have wineries, but obviously not as much. One of our favorites is the stylish Wolffer Estate in Sagaponack.

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The main winery building is open, airy, and has a small shop where you can buy one of those useless wine-vacuum gadgets. I mean, who ever has wine left over?

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Tastings are offered outside on the spacious patio, just a stone's throw from the vines.

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While we love the main winery location for its gorgeous architecture, we actually prefer the winery's smaller offshoot, known as the Wine Stand, which is just a short drive away. The Wine Stand has a small, uncrowded patio, endless views, and live music on Friday and Saturday evenings for the sunset.

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We typically choose the patio for the shade (and proximity to the bar), but the "vineyard" tables are just as lovely.

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Best of all, you can arrive by scooter, or by Rolls Royce. Your choice, obviously.

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X is for x-citing cars.

Okay, that's a stretch, but there are not alot of xylophones or x-rays in the Hamptons, and really, where else can you see so many ridiculously cute, sherbet-colored cars in one place?

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Y is for yachts.

While most middle-aged men try to show off their virility with a shiny new sports car, that trick doesn't work in the Hamptons, since even the plumbers are driving Maseratis. So the next-best, um, yardstick is the mega-yacht.

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Preferably equipped with a crew in matching polos, a Jeep, and a whole other normal-sized boat.

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Z is for catching up on our Zzzs.

When you live and work in the city that never sleeps, being well-rested during the week is like being sober on the weekends: It's an admirable goal, but does anyone ever really achieve it? And so, by the time the weekend rolls around, Angel and I are ready to loll around.

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The Hamptons. They may be glitzy, glamorous, and sometimes even grating, but there's no better place to get your sloth on.

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Posted by TraceyG 07:35 Archived in USA Tagged beach winery beacon montauk westhampton hamptons sag_harbor east_hampton hampton_bays channing_daughters wolffer almond cowfish dockers greenport rumba shelter_island Comments (4)

The BVIs, Part 1: BBQ, Boulders, and Blacklists

When your last tropical vacation involved unimaginable horrors like low water pressure and plastic wine glasses and a boat nicknamed "The Divorcinator," the last thing you want on your next vacation is to rough it. On your next vacation, you want to be pampered. You want all of the high-end luxuries you missed on your last trip, like electricity and real silverware and hot water. And you most definitely want someone else to drive the boat.

We found all that and more on our recent trip to the British Virgin Islands.

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Now, I know that most folks who frequent the BVIs are hardy souls who live aboard their sailboats and take quick Navy showers and don't own hair dryers. And to them I say, you have my utmost respect. I, too, have lived as one with nature -- on our last vacation, for example, there was a large spider in our house that made it impossible to get to the ironing board -- and I know that it takes a special kind of person to spend a week or two peeing in what amounts to a bouncing broom closet.

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Our ten days of soaking up the modern conveniences sunshine began after a short direct flight from New York, when we arrived in St. Thomas, hopped the ferry over to Tortola, picked up our 4-wheel-drive, buckled ourselves in, and wedged our overstuffed luggage in place to serve as makeshift airbags.

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That's because driving on Tortola is not for the faint of heart, or the fearful of heights, or the lover of life. Imagine that you're in the front car on a roller coaster. You approach the first steep incline and the coaster begins its ascent, inching its way up, up, up, until it's almost at the top, and then that dreaded clicking sound slows to a excruciating pace. Click . . . click . . . . . click . . . . . . And then comes that final lone click, and for one terrifying heartbeat there's complete silence.

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The front car of the coaster peeks hesitantly over the edge of that first drop, and then, with an audible whoosh, the car suddenly plummets over the edge at breakneck speed, only to barrel full-tilt up the next incline, repeating the cycle until your eyes are watering, your stomach is flip-flopping, and your white knuckles have to be pried from the safety bar.

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Now, throw in a dirt track studded with potholes and rocks; switchbacks set at absurdly steep angles; obstacles like goats, chickens, sinkholes, and hitchhikers; and a distracting postcard view around every turn, and you have a good idea of what it's like to drive on Tortola.

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I realize this might sound daunting, but it's actually not all bad. For example, unlike on most other Caribbean islands, on Tortola you don't need to worry about remembering to drive on the left. That's because everyone drives straight down the middle of the road, swerving into their proper lane only at the last possible second, involving you in an unwitting game of chicken every time you leave the house.

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And so it was with some trepidation that we double-checked our seat belts and followed the property manager up a one-lane burro path of rocks and rut and dizzying precipices to the house we'd rented for our stay, the charming Peach Cottage, which rewarded us with breathtaking views of St. John and the islands beyond.

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The house also came with a sweet little cat named Bella. We quickly developed a mutually beneficial relationship, like those tiny birds that eat the bugs off hippos: I rubbed her belly and scratched her ears, and she kept the scarier tropical creatures that would have otherwise invaded our house at bay.

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After getting acquainted with the house, we ran the route from the main road to the house one more time in the waning daylight to make sure we'd be able to find our way back at night -- left at the superette with the stray dogs outside; right at the crumbling yellow retaining wall; left at the house with the cow tied up in the front yard -- and then settled in to watch the sunset.

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Soon we were hungry, and it was time to head out for some dinner. We'd driven on Tortola before, but our skills were rusty, so what better way to sharpen them up than with a first-night drive up and over the mountain . . . in the rain? Sure, that sounds stupid, but when Myett's BBQ ribs are at stake, you'd duct-tape yourself to a blind, three-legged mule to get there.

Angel has been teasing me for years about our last visit to Myett's, where I'd ordered the chicken because I liked the sound of their spiced-rum-and-tamarind BBQ sauce. Now, I am not a big fan of chicken. Not because it's dry (which it is), or because it's boring (which it is), but because it is often full of unpleasant surprises. Nobody ever finds a random vein or tendon in a bowl of spaghetti, but in a chicken breast? It's like a gristle-y pinata.

But that BBQ sauce at Myett's sounded so good that I ordered the chicken. A half-chicken, replete with bones and tendons and veins and those rubbery joint-socket things and god knows what else.

But oh, that sauce was good. It was so good that, like a crazed piranha, I proceeded to pick that poor little half-carcass completely clean, as Angel looked on in stunned silence. I'd never done anything remotely like that before, and I've certainly never picked a chicken clean since, all of which is a very long-winded way of explaining that Myett's serves some damn fine BBQ sauce.

And so we piled into the car and headed off to Cane Garden Bay. All was going fine until the we reached the last switchback, a hairpin turn set on an angle so steep that it's impossible to see the oncoming traffic, even at night. The only way to take the curve is by going wide, into the oncoming lane.

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Me, I'd have closed my eyes and crossed my fingers and taken the turn wide. But Angel is a rule-follower. He always does the right thing, even when the right thing means almost certain death. And so he stayed in his own lane. But the angle of the switchback was just too steep; the turning radius too narrow. The car began to lose its grip on the road, and we began to slide back down the mountain . . . on our backs . . . in the rain . . . without a guard rail.

Even roller coasters don't usually do that.

Eventually we made it to Myett's, where we devoured tamarind ribs and coconut polenta and nerve-calming cocktails, and Angel inquired about a long-term rental so he wouldn't have to drive back up and over the mountain.

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Of course we did make it back, and were greeted at the house by creatures great and small.

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Very small.

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Obviously I'm getting the short end of the stick in this deal with the cat.

The next day we awoke to a glorious view.

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And if we hadn't already planned a day trip to Virgin Gorda, we'd probably still be lazing around in that bed. But one of the things we like best about the BVIs is its generally efficient ferry system (even if most of the schedules do require you to get out of bed before noon). Some of the ferries are less, um, sea-worthy-looking than others, but for the most part they are fast, on-time, and inexpensive. Best of all, the ferry boats are typically operated by people who know how to drive them and dock them and avoid grounding them, which was a nice change for us. Ahem.

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Upon arrival in Virgin Gorda we picked up the car we'd rented for the day, which came with an air freshener that probably doesn't sell too well north of the Mason-Dixon line.

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It also came with a set of keys, which Angel proceeded to confuse with our other set of keys . . . for our rental vehicle back on Tortola. Now, I understand that normal people do stuff like this all the time. But in the nearly 20 years that I have known Angel, he has never so much as forgotten his keys, or temporarily misplaced them, or lost a pair of gloves, or left an umbrella behind at a restaurant. Do you know what it's like to live with someone who has never experienced a Senior Moment, ever???

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It is maddening.

Thus it is with no small amount of glee that I tell you that Angel spent a good 15 minutes trying the (wrong) keys over and over and wondering how he'd locked himself out of a car that had been working fine when we picked it up just five minutes earlier. Eventually he gave up and used the phone at the Top of the Baths to call the rental company and inform them about the "faulty" keys; later, of course, he had to call them again once he figured out his mistake.

I am not ashamed to admit that watching him make that phone call was the highlight of this vacation, if not this year.

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Once my 15 minutes of glory were up, our first stop was to re-visit the Baths. We hadn't been there in about six years, and back then Angel had to convince me that checking out a bunch of boulders was a worthwhile way to spend a day. I had been decidedly unimpressed by the time we reached the end of the path, not realizing that we hadn't even started yet, and that the "cave" is where the Baths really begin.

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And so we slipped on our water shoes (the Baths are no place for any footwear that is not water-friendly and preferably equipped with suction cups on the soles) and took that same route this time around, following the narrow path down to the beach and the entrance to the cave.

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The last time we were here, we didn't know much about the Baths, so we'd asked our elderly taxi driver, and his equally ancient buddy who'd come along for the ride, exactly how the boulders at the Baths had ended up there, expecting to hear something about volcanoes or landslides or shifting tectonic plates. Instead, both men had looked at each other, then replied with the exact same answer, at the exact same moment: "Creation." And the truth is, whether you believe in a higher power or not, it's easy to believe that the island's volcanic origins only partly explain how these massive granite boulders came to be strewn on the beach and balanced precariously on top of one another, as if tossed by the hand of a giant.

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We spent the next two hours picking our way among the boulders, squeezing and shimmying and sliding our way along, all the while marveling at their immense size and ethereal beauty.

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Occasionally it wasn't clear which way we should go, but there were a few hints.

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Before our visit, I'd seen a review online which said that the Baths were no place for anyone over 40, which cracked me up. Then I climbed these 85 flights of stairs and cursed my own hubris.

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The path ends at the beach, which on this overcast day lent an eerie grey tinge to the mossy, water-worn boulders.

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After a short rest and a quick swim, it was time to head back.

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Afterwards, we rewarded ourselves for not tearing our ACLs in the face of nearly insurmountable odds with a couple of frozen drinks at Top of the Baths.

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Indeed, we were enjoying ourselves so much that it wasn't until 11:37 that I suddenly remembered that I'd made reservations for lunch at Little Dix Bay . . . at 11:30. This couldn't be happening! It was like one of those dreams where you show up for your final exam 3 hours late. You see, I am a planner with a capital P. I am organized and on time. I never miss an appointment (and never, ever miss a meal), and if I'm going to be late, I call. Things don't just slip my mind. And yet, the reservation at Little Dix had done just that, leaving me embarrassed and wondering if forgetting a lunch reservation is the first step toward forgetting that your pants should stop at your waist, not your ribcage, and that sandals should be worn sans socks.

And so I urged Angel to leadfoot it over to Little Dix, while he reminded me that we were on island time, and reassured me that they probably wouldn't notice if we were an entire hour late, let alone 10 minutes. He's probably right, I told myself. Heck, they probably never even put me in the reservation book . . . if they even have one, that is. We made a quick pit stop for directions to avoid the possibility of misreading our map, and were instructed to turn "at the gap," which (we eventually determined) refers not to the place where you buy khakis but to the place where you can next make a right or left turn.

Luckily the resort wasn't far, and in short order we found ourselves at the Little Dix security gate. We explained that we were here for lunch. And then the security guard uttered the most humiliating words I have ever heard.

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"Oh," she said, eyeing a Log of Latecomers apparently inscribed with my name, social security number, and date of birth. "You're the 11:30 people."

"You're the 11:30 people"?!? I was mortified. I slunk down in my seat so she couldn't get a good look at me and mumbled something about island time and the Gap. She radioed ahead to the restaurant and repeated the damning words -- "The 11:30 people are here!" -- motioning us through the gate and making some kind of notation in the Log that I am sure will follow me around for the rest of my life, like a blacklist for lollygaggers.

We parked the car, raced down the winding path, and arrived sweaty and panting . . .

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. . . to a completely empty restaurant.

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That's right: They were expecting the 11:30 people . . . because we were the only people.

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By this time I was so stressed out that despite the Beach Grill's lovely menu of grilled fish and salads and other island fare, I went straight for the pepperoni pizza. Nothing says "It's okay to be 12 minutes late" like extra cheese.

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Once you make the decision to eat an entire pepperoni pizza for lunch, you might as well have a bowl of homemade potato chips and a Bailey's banana colada, too.

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We also had a Planter's punch, a bowl of gazpacho, the grilled fish, and some of the best tuna tartare I have ever had. Which didn't work out too well for Angel, since he's the one who ordered it.

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At least I think he was. You know what they say: Once you hit 40, no more climbing ladders for you, or remembering who ate what for lunch.

If you can even remember to show up, that is.
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The next day was Christmas, and it was the worst one since that year I received a pink bottle labeled "toilet water" and realized that Santa really was keeping a list. Click here for Part 2, or click here to subscribe and you'll be the first to know when a new post goes up!

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Posted by TraceyG 06:27 Archived in British Virgin Islands Tagged tortola Comments (15)

The BVIs, Part 2: We're Just a Couple of Swingers

Back on Virgin Gorda, during a day trip in which we locked ourselves out of our car, defied the AARP by climbing a bunch of ladders at the Baths, ended up on a blacklist for latecomers at Little Dix Bay, and then proceeded to eat their restaurant out of all its pepperoni, potato chips, and rum, we were now in something of a food coma. And so our waitress suggested that we take a look around the property and told us to feel free to relax on the beach loungers or take a swim.

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That was our first inkling that Little Dix is truly someplace special. Not only is the service impeccable, but the staff there truly cares, and the pride that showed on the faces of everyone we encountered -- from the gardeners to the waitstaff to the shuttle drivers -- was lovely to see, particularly in a part of the world that often gets a bad rap for service. "Have you seen the main dining room?" they asked, beaming. "What about the pool?" "Oh, but you must visit our spa before you leave!" they urged us, their eyes lighting up. It wasn't a sales pitch. It wasn't formal, forced politeness. It was a warm, welcoming embrace, and we quickly realized that Little Dix treated a couple of day-tripping interlopers better than some of the high-end resorts we've actually stayed at.

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And so we checked out the beach and the grounds . . .

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and the main dining room . . .

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and the pool . . .

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. . . and, to AmEx's great delight, the well-stocked gift shop.

Later, we hopped in one of the complimentary golf cart shuttles that roam the resort -- the main stop for which is at "deh big tree" -- and climbed the hill up to Sense, the spa at Little Dix that we'd heard so much about. There, we were greeted with our choice of lemon or orange water and given free reign to explore at our leisure.

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If you actually climb the dozens of near-vertical steps up to this platform, yoga itself would seem to be overkill.

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Besides, you will be too busy taking in the incredible view to worry about perfecting your downward dog.

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Once we descended from the yoga platform, we made our way past the infinity pool to a steep stone path that leads to a secluded, secret beach.

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Obviously we had no choice but to act out the surf scene in "From Here to Eternity" here.

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It was no small task to pry ourselves away from the beauty of Little Dix, particularly since we were adapting quite nicely to being treated like visiting royalty, but eventually we made our way over to Coco Maya, a chic new spot on the beach known for its sleek decor and sexy cocktails.

Coco Maya was like a big, beachy showroom for all my favorite things: Edison bulbs, fire pits, cushy couches, ivy walls, beds-for-two on the beach, and booze.

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And just when I thought that I couldn't be any more in love with this place, I saw this at the end of the bar.

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Oh, how I loved that swing. I loved it the way I love the corner booth in a cozy bistro, or the window seat on an airplane, or any seat on the subway.

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That day's special was a mango daiquiri, which was made simply and from scratch, with freshly cubed mangoes, rum, and a pinch of sugar, as opposed to the cloying, sugary syrup that so many other daiquiris are made from. For his part, Angel went with the Passion Martini, which was made with puréed passion fruit, raspberry vodka, guava, and a bit of chili, this last ingredient both adding some kick and ensuring that Angel got a drink all to himself for once.

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Don't have too many cocktails, though, or you might get confused about which bathroom to use.

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Out back, Coco Maya has a cool "game room," with more couches and a couple of dart boards nestled among the boulders.

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There was a small playground, too, because we all know how well children mix with alcohol and flying darts.

The day's forecast had called for an 80% chance of rain, and sure enough, by late afternoon, the clouds began to roll in in earnest. As we swung and sipped, the sky darkened to a charcoal grey, and soon it was raining heavily.

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Angel likes to tell the story about how one Labor Day in Cape May, I was so determined to soak up the last few hours of summer sun that I stubbornly refused to leave the beach, despite the day's gale-force winds. He tried to stick it out with me but finally, his mouth full of sand and his eyes full of grit, he had no choice but to leave me there. When he returned a few hours later, only the edge of my blanket, the corner of my magazine, and a few strands of blonde hair were visible beneath a wind-swept, Tracey-shaped mound of sand.

That was me with that swing as soon as it started to rain. I knew that if I didn't move, I was going to get soaked. I knew I would be cold and damp later, particularly on the air-conditioned ferry (and that somehow it would be Angel's fault). And I knew from experience that running around in wet flip-flops is the safety equivalent of running around with both legs stuffed into one pant leg. But I also knew that I had the best damn bar seat in the universe, and no tropical depression was going to get me to move.

Eventually, though, the rain became so heavy that I knew we'd better make a run for the car before it floated away.

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Although I felt bad for this driver, I was immensely relieved that that tree didn't land on our car. After the false-alarm calls to the rental company about the keys earlier that day, a call informing them that we could not return the car because there was a tree on top of it surely would have landed me on yet another blacklist.

That night marked the first of three reservations I'd made back on Tortola at The Dove, a tiny jewel-box of a restaurant housed inside an historic West Indian cottage near the waterfront in Road Town.

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I guess the fact that I started emailing them back in September and made three reservations over the course of a nine-night visit made an impression, because when I gave the hostess my last name she exclaimed, "Oh, you're Tracey! We've been expecting you!" Which translates to, "We doubled our usual food order this week, just to be safe."

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The Dove had been one of the highlights of our trip six years ago, and we were delighted to find that virtually nothing had changed since our last visit: The restaurant was still cozy and candlelit, with warm red walls, comfy banquettes strewn with satin pillows, and a glimmering chandelier.

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Since our last visit, however, they've added a funky outdoor patio, the centerpiece of which is a mango tree aglow in flickering candles, along with a comfortable lounge area for nibbling appetizers and sipping Champagne. That's right, Champagne. From France. I told you this trip was going to be luxurious, n'est-ce pas?

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For dinner that evening, we each started with a bowl of spicy coconut lobster bisque with cumin-roasted almonds, cilantro, and lime creme fraiche, followed by the seafood melange for Angel, which was overflowing with cod, clams, shrimp, scallops, squid, and chorizo, and swimming in a rich, Chardonnay-and-tomato broth perfumed with saffron.

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I decided on the mushroom and leek risotto, which had a lovely bit of "crunch" to it thanks to a celery-walnut ragout . . . and a fried egg yolk on top. Those delicious little cholesterol bombs ought to come with a warning: Don't try this at home . . . unless your life insurance is up-to-date.

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Throw in an icy bottle of Sancerre with just enough left after dinner for a nightcap outside on the patio, and The Dove easily held on to its place at the top of our must-do dining list in Tortola.

But really, they had me at fried egg yolks.

The next day was Christmas. Although we had agreed not to bring any gifts with us to save room for more important stuff in our luggage, like hair dryers and ironing boards, Angel not only broke our agreement, but got me one of the best Christmas presents of all time. You see, my sister Trina has exquisite taste, particularly with respect to home décor and apparel. Over the years I have been so enamored of various items in her possession – everything from candleholders and beach cover-ups to dishtowels, sweaters, and even a reclaimed radiator cover that she cleverly refurbished – that she frequently jokes that she hides all of her best stuff when I come around, for fear that I will “stamp” it with my name and take it home with me. And so, “Quick, hide that before Tracey gets her stamper!” is as common a phrase when I am around as, “Wait, you ate all of it?”

Which is why Angel got me this for Christmas.

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Forget that old saw about a good spouse being one who knows everything about you and likes you anyway. What you really want is a spouse who not only tolerates your worst habits, but actually facilitates them.

After a quick swim and a short visit with the sleepy Bella, it was time to begin the day.

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Little did we know that it would end in a hail of obscenities and (squirt) gun fire.
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Posted by TraceyG 06:22 Archived in British Virgin Islands Tagged virgin_gorda Comments (9)

The BVIs, Part 3: Merry Christmas, Ya Filthy Animal

It was now Christmas Day, and I'd naturally made our lunch plans well in advance. I decided on the Lambert Beach Resort, an out-of-the-way property at the far eastern end of Tortola, and through a series of emails I was assured that they were most definitely open for lunch on Christmas and that no reservation was necessary and that they looked forward to seeing us. And so on Christmas morning we set off for the other end of the island, taking the longer but more scenic Ridge Road, which runs along the island's mountainous spine.

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For the first hour or so, we ascended higher and higher up the mountain, stopping frequently for photos. Although the day was hazy, the views became more and more spectacular.

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Along the way we encountered donkeys, cows, and other animals, almost none of whom were happy to be having their photo taken . . . and were not shy about saying so.

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Well, except this guy. Then again, if he knew how many of his brethren I've gobbled up over the years, he probably would've told me to get lost, too.

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The route soon became slow and arduous, repeatedly requiring us to scale the mountain via a series of angled switchbacks; slowly and carefully descend back down; then climb right back up again in order to go . . . straight ahead.

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By the second hour, we both had to pee and were getting hungry.

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As we neared the three-hour mark, I was kicking myself for not packing a jar of emergency peanut butter.

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Finally, a Christmas miracle -- a sign directing us to Lambert Beach Resort! We attempted to gun the engine up the final series of steep hills -- the Tortolan equivalent of a marathoner crawling across the finish line and then promptly throwing up -- and, at long last, we pulled into the parking lot at Lambert Beach Resort, nearly three hours after we'd left the house. We were tired, hungry, and in urgent need of both a bathroom and a cocktail.

But both of those could wait because . . . kittens!!!

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Eventually I tore myself away and we made our way over to the restaurant.

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The restaurant was completely empty. I don't just mean that the 11:30 people never showed. I mean empty: No table settings. No menus. No bottles or glassware behind the bar.

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And no people, save for a lone woman sitting at one of the tables using her computer. She gamely explained that the waitstaff had all gone home and the chef was at the beach, and therefore there hadn't been any food or drink at the resort for the past several days.

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She also genially offered to make us sandwiches in her room, which we politely declined (though not without some regret on my part). Later, while we explained to the disinterested woman from the front desk that this whole fiasco was completely unacceptable, Sandwich Lady helpfully piped up, "Oh, you should have been here last year. It was even worse!"

(Wait a minute. You spent last year's vacation at a resort with no food or drinks, and then you came BACK the following year?!?! I have some swampland in Florida that we should talk about.)

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Now, if you have been reading this blog for any length of time, you know that I like to eat. And I eat way more, and way more often, than the average person. And so, when it finally became clear that we had driven almost three hours LITERALLY UPHILL BOTH WAYS to get to Lambert Beach Resort for lunch, and that there was not actually going to be any lunch, well . . . I lost it. And it is particularly fitting that I lost it on Christmas Day, because the only way to explain what happened next is to use an example from one of the most famous Christmas movies of all time, "A Christmas Story." You know the scene: Young Ralphie, having been tormented for weeks by the neighborhood bully Scut Farkus, finally snaps and beats the living crap out of him, all while uttering a string of unmentionable curse words. In a voice-over, adult Ralphie explains: "I have since heard of people under extreme duress speaking in strange tongues. I became conscious that a steady torrent of obscenities and swearing of all kinds was pouring out of me as I screamed."

There were no beatings that day at the Lambert Beach Resort -- it was Christmas, after all -- but there was most certainly a steady torrent of obscenities and swearing of all kinds when I found out that I wasn't going to get my lunch.

(I wish I could say that we jumped in the car, revved the engine, and left skid marks on our way out of there, but the 90-degree hill we had to chug up to leave the parking lot didn't really allow for a dramatic exit. It was like trying to stomp out of a tent.)

After about another hour of driving, we made a fortuitous wrong turn in Road Town and ended up at the Village Cay Marina, a spot that we both vaguely remembered from six years ago as the site where we crashed a wedding after one too many bottles of wine at The Dove.

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Thank you, Village Cay, for operating a restaurant with actual food. Your chicken fingers were juicy and tender, your shrimp wrap was overstuffed and tasty, and I am grateful that your bar was open so I did not have to go all "Roadhouse" on you.

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Right nearby is the quaint and colorful Crafts Alive outdoor market, where I put that new stamper of mine to good use.

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Back at Peach Cottage, we took a quick nap, then got ready for our dinner reservation at the Sugar Mill Hotel, whose lovely restaurant is housed in a romantic 17th century sugar mill with the original stone walls and beamed ceilings.

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The Sugar Mill was one of several restaurants we visited on this trip that indulged us in the charming British tradition of the "Christmas Cracker," a brightly colored tube that's twisted at both ends. The cracker makes a popping sound when pulled apart, and inside you'll typically find a small token gift, a joke, and (best of all!) a shiny paper crown. We'd received utilitarian gifts like a tape measure and a shoe horn in the crackers at other restaurants, but the Sugar Mill must have known I was coming, because Angel received a mood fish and I received . . . a miniature pink squirt gun!!! You probably don't need a mood fish to guess Angel's mood from that moment on.

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Dinner was fantastic, with pumpkin-and-black-bean soup for Angel, tuna tartare for me, and an un-ordered salad course for both of us. Extra food: Merry Christmas to me!

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Angel barely even looked at the menu before deciding on the traditional turkey dinner, while I settled on the lobster medallions with risotto.

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We each ordered the apple pie for dessert, which was the only disappointing note of the meal because it was served cold. So we took it to go, warmed it up back at the house, and ate it in bed.

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That's one way to salvage Lunchless Christmas.
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Next up, a day trip to Jost Van Dyke, where the beaches will be beautiful, the Painkillers will be plentiful, and the restaurant will be open . . . or "Boxing Day" will take on a whole new meaning.

Posted by TraceyG 06:36 Archived in British Virgin Islands Comments (5)

The BVIs, Part 4: A Soggy, Stress-Free Day

The day after the worst Christmas since 1978, when I accidentally glued my eye shut with the sticky remnants of a chocolate-covered cherry, we hopped a ferry to Jost Van Dyke, where I planned to spend the entire day eating cheeseburgers to make up for missing lunch the day before.

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I even matched my outfit to the ferry for good measure.

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We enjoyed the short ride over to Jost, taking in the sights along the way.

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Soon we arrived at the ferry dock at Great Harbor.

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That's where we met up with taxi driver Gerald Chinnery, who kindly stopped the car so I could take a few photos on our way over to White Bay. "You think I'm stopping for you," he quipped as we admired the stunning view, "but really, I'm stopping for me!"

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Soon we found ourselves at White Bay, where we had arrived at the Soggy Dollar bar early enough to claim the best chairs (a pair of slouchy Adirondacks) on the best part of the beach (as far away from everyone else as possible, without being accused of stealing said chairs).

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Up at the bar, Mic whipped up a batch of Painkillers, grated fresh nutmeg over them, and mugged for the camera.

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On our last visit to Soggy Dollar, we'd eaten lunch on the boat and came ashore just long enough to have a round or two of Painkillers and then swim back to the boat. That was also enough time for me to sniff out the charcoal-grilled cheeseburgers they were serving out back, which I have naturally been thinking about ever since. And so when it came time for lunch this time around, Soggy Dollar had the unenviable task of making up for Lunchless Christmas and living up to the cheeseburger that I'd been dreaming about for the past six years.

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I am happy to report that it rose admirably to the occasion, serving up a great burger, more fries than we could eat, and the best pasta salad you're likely to find anywhere, coated as it is in a creamy, garlicky Parmesan cheese dressing.

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After lunch, it was back to our chairs for more Painkillers (or, in my case, Banana Bombers) and some more soak time.

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Later that afternoon we decided to take a walk over to Ivan's Stress-Free bar, which entailed a short walk down the beach, then up and over a small rocky outcropping, with helpful signs to guide the way.

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Ivan's is at the quiet end of White Bay, away from the crowds at Soggy Dollar.

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We took a swim, chatted with Ivan, and ordered up a round of rum punches, but His Highness the Rum Connoisseur snubbed it after noticing that it was made with Captain Morgan's instead of a locally-made rum. (I harbor no such pretensions when it comes to booze and happily drank them both.)

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I like to think that instead of those stupid team-building exercises where one person falls backwards and the team catches him, Brenda Davis and the good folks at Starkist get bombed on Painkillers, then play strip poker and naked Twister before leaving their name badges at the scene of the crime.

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Too soon, it was time for Gerald to pick us up and return us to the ferry dock. We'd learned that morning that he was currently enjoying a long visit with his baby granddaughter, Arianna, and I'd half-jokingly suggested that he bring her along when he came back to pick us up, so we could meet her.

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I guess I should have clarified that he should bring her in a car seat.

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On the ferry ride back to Tortola, I had the good fortune to be seated next to Mic from Soggy Dollar. "Let me get this straight," I teased. "The most famous bartender on Jost Van Dyke actually lives on Tortola???" Mic responded with some delicate euphemisms about cocks and henhouses to explain that he's slept with everyone on Jost, and therefore had no choice but to move to Tortola.

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Which I suppose is the Caribbean equivalent of Harry having to move back to New Jersey, because he's slept with everyone in New York.

As we approached Tortola, we noted the huge black cloud affixed to its highest point, and patted ourselves on the back for having had the good sense to spend the day on sunny Jost.

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But by the time we arrived back at the house, happily the cloud had moved on, and we were able to share some wine on the patio as the sun sunk below the horizon.

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We toasted to our enjoyable day -- "Here's to lunch! With food!" -- then headed back over to The Dove for dinner.

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By now we were on our second reservation in three days, so we were treated to the best table in the house: a cozy banquette in the tiny, private "porch" room adjacent to the main dining room.

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Over the past two days I'd eaten just three measly meals, and scurvy or rickets or whatever was starting to set in. I listened eagerly as our waitress described the specials.

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And then I ordered the meatloaf. Or, more specifically, the sage meatloaf en croute with walnut Merlot gravy.

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Which was served in a puff pastry crust.

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And stuffed with foie gras.

And pork belly.

And is also known as "how to out-heart-attack a fried egg yolk."

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Now, you might have noticed that this meatloaf was preceded by a large cheeseburger earlier that day at lunch. And there is a very good reason for that. It begins with that other time that I almost starved to death, during the East Coast blackout of 2003. I had just graduated from law school, and my graduation present from Angel was six weeks at a rented beach house in the Hamptons, at which I would get to be gloriously alone Monday through Friday while he was at work back in the city. One Thursday afternoon I picked up 2 lbs. of ground beef at the grocery, planning to grill a burger or two for myself that evening and have the rest on Friday night when Angel arrived. As soon as I got home, however, I realized that the power was out, along with my cell phone service, and when neither had returned after a few hours, I started to panic. Was I going to have to spend the night here in the pitch dark, alone? I wouldn’t have a stove, or a refrigerator, and all that meat was going to go bad! Most importantly, how long would it be before I’d get to eat again?!? In my ensuing panic, I formed all 2 lbs. of that ground beef into burgers and grilled them up on the gas grill outside. . . and then proceeded to eat every. single. one. of them. Later, through tears of laughter, Angel asked me, “But why didn’t you just grill them and put them in the fridge? They would have stayed cool overnight, and then you’d have had some cooked burgers to reheat on the grill the next day.”

I'll tell you why. Because, in the heat of the moment, it just never occurred to me to ration them out. All I knew was that the power was out and it wasn't coming back on and god only knew when I might get to eat again. And so I ate two pounds of ground beef in one sitting . . . just in case.

Which also explains why I ordered that meatloaf/insurance policy at The Dove.

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For his part, Angel started with the tuna ceviche, followed by the ribeye in a black peppercorn brandy sauce that came with a ridiculously good spinach, oyster, prosciutto, and potato mash. Prosciutto: That's how you get people to eat their vegetables.

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One of the things we noticed about the food at The Dove was that each entree was like its own little tasting menu. So instead of serving, say, a slow-roasted chicken breast with sweet potatoes, The Dove serves a slow-roasted chicken breast with "cinnamon ginger rub / cherry orange glaze / carrot / fennel / apple braised cabbage / sweet potato bacon apple hash / green bean parmesan salad / mustard vinaigrette." Which was just fine with us, though we did worry that this place was going to go bankrupt buying ingredients if it served one more New Zealand rack of lamb with "cocoa chile rub / mint raisin chutney / fennel asparagus ragout / pear pistachio pumpernickel pudding / preserved lemon / red pepper arugula salad / sesame vinaigrette."

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The next day, we ventured up and over the mountain again, this time lured by the promise of a bottle of Sebastian's rum.

You might be wondering why I didn't just take over the driving at that point. I tried to, but Angel's insistence that I stay in my own lane and yield to oncoming drivers and stuff like that took all the fun out of it. I mean, why apply the brakes when you're barrelling down a hill, when you need the momentum to get back up the next one anyway?

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Anyway, Sebastian's may not be the the best rum, or the strongest, or the most famous, but in a world where virtually anything you desire can be ordered online and delivered directly to your door, usually overnight, a rum that can only be purchased in person, and only at Sebastian's, is way too much catnip for spoiled New Yorkers like us to ignore. Plus, we really like it.

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And we love Sebastian's rotis, which are soft and puffy on the outside and filled with tender, white-meat curried chicken, diced potatoes, and carrots on the inside.

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After lunch we took a ride over to Long Bay and Smuggler's Cove, checked out the beach bars, and then headed back to the pool to laze the afternoon away.

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Soon it was time to eat again, so that evening we headed over to Bananakeet.

To watch the sunset.

To take in the panoramic view.

For free shots.

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Take a tip here, Key West. Clapping for the sunset is for amateurs.

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We decided to stick with the fresh seafood at Bananakeet, which included an Asian-accented scallop dish for Angel and the coconut-rum shrimp for me. Both were delicious.

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The next morning, we started the day with a little shopping at Soper's Hole before lunch.

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Soper's Hole, also known as the West End, is home to a full-service marina, customs house, provisioning market, and nearly a dozen charming shops, including Latitude 18, Arawak Surf, and the Pusser's Company Store.

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Of course, my favorite is the one that sells food: Sunny Caribee, a spice shop selling everything from hot sauces and marinades to curries and West Indian hangover cures.

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After snatching up everything in sight, including t-shirts, beach cover-ups, spices, and rum, we headed over to Cruzin's for lunch. I had heard great things about the food here, and we were excited to give this place a try, but I cannot deny that I was secretly somewhat relieved to find that it was closed when we arrived for lunch, seeing as how the surrounding area reminded me of an old episode of "Sanford & Son." In addition, it had begun to rain, so we jumped in the car and headed back over the mountain in hopes of seeing the sun. Lacking a backup plan, we took the easy way out and ended up back at Soper's Hole and Pusser's.

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There, we started with a round of Painkillers served in tin cups to keep them nicely chilled.

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Those were followed by an order of the bang-bang shrimp, and then fish and lobster sandwiches that were as good as you might expect a place that primarily sells rum.

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In short order the sun returned, so we headed back to Peach Cottage, where we lounged in the sun, immersed ourselves in our books, and took refreshing dips in the pool while sipping on frozen pina coladas with lots of fresh nutmeg.

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Angel and I struck a deal: As long as he continued to bring me drinks, I resolved to put my new squirt gun away for the afternoon.

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Marriage, it's all about compromise.
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Posted by TraceyG 16:57 Archived in British Virgin Islands Comments (6)

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