Eataly and the NY Food Hall Craze

I admit it. I have restaurant fatigue. All that work scouring Yelp, Zagat’s and Chowhound and then trying to score an impossible reservation has worn me down, especially when the fruits of my labor seem, more often than not, way too mediocre given the price and effort. For a while I just want really good food that doesn’t cost me a fortune or make me wait forever to be served by some smarmy 20 something who’s been convinced by management that the customer is just damn lucky to be there. In New York this past weekend that fatigue boiled down to “bring on the food halls”.

Ok, I hear you, these are just tourist traps. But I don’t live in the City so that makes me, in fact, a tourist. I may know a lot more about New York than many of my friends but I don’t come close to having the local knowledge that true New Yorkers have. So let’s be real about what I’m bringing to the table.

Anyway, it’s 7:30 PM Friday night, no reservation, I’m tired and hungry and I just want something good to eat. I start the deadly search and then realize my hotel is four blocks from Eataly. That’s right, Eataly, the godfather of the food halls in NY (at least until Anthony Bourdain’s new place opens and maybe provides some real competition).

This is not my first time to Eataly and, as usual, Eataly definitely makes me want to eat, but even more it makes me want to cook. I’m always disappointed that I just can’t grab some of that fresh pasta, meat or fish and go home to my kitchen and have at it. But for tonight we’ll be eating here, starting with some burrata – seemingly the current most popular menu item in the world – a little salami, and a glass of wine at a stand up table. It’s good. Really good. And so easy. You go figure out if there’s a tiny place hidden in Brooklyn with the BEST burrata in the world. I’m happy. Quick service, fast check, now for a walk with my glass of wine.

I love that I can walk around Eataly with my wine and figure out what I want next, or just check out the spring pea ravioli, fresh branzino, and beautiful osso bucco. Tonight the second course is a soft shelled crab, a salad, and a cold beer at the seafood bar. If I’m still hungry I can get up and try something else, or I can just walk out. Ahhh freedom.

Eataly was so good and so liberating that we decided to check out two other food halls over the course of the weekend. Next stop was The Gaansvoort Market in the Meatpacking District. We stopped there early on a Saturday evening when the party was just starting to ramp up. Limos were arriving from the suburbs packed with people ready for a big night. Full disclosure, we didn’t eat anything here. Just went for a look. It’s a lot smaller than Eataly and where Eataly is a complete package tied with a big ribbon, Gaansvoort is more a mix of shops trying not to look too much like a food court at the mall. Anyway, we opted for a sit down meal at the nearby Bakehouse Bistro and Bar. It scratched the itch for someplace easy to get into but with great reviews and did not disappoint. Check my separate review.

Last food hall stop was part of a Sunday morning walk downtown, ending at the granddaddy of food halls, Hudson Eats at Brookfield Place. Adjacent to the World Trade Center Memorial site, Hudson Eats is big, clean and pretty much lacking in character. If Gaansvoort Market is trying not to look like the food court in the mall, Hudson Eats is the food court. The views of the river are great but the space is just sort of a flavorless, office building/mall. Not much appeal. I wanted convenience but I have my limits. At least for now don’t waste your time unless you are right in the area and want a quick look. Hey, burrata is on the menu! But keep an open mind as they begin to roll out Le District, the French answer to Eataly. Currently only small portions are open so we’ll wait to see the finished product.

So as I sing the praises of Eataly, I feel your pity New York. But as I walked back to my hotel to head home I made one last dash inside for a plate of prosciutto and cheese, some truly delicious razor clams, with chilies and garlic, and a half dozen fresh oysters. No waiting and no fuss. My kind of fast food.

The Restaurant at Patowmack Farm

Lovettsville, VA

The Restaurant at Patowmack Farm has garnered a lot of praise for its approach to local, organic and seasonal ingredients in its cooking, and Chef Tarver King has been recognized by no less than the James Beard Foundation as the vision behind the menu. Although difficult to get a table and somewhat out of the way, we had a chance to try the restaurant recently and came away with decidedly mixed feelings.

Many reviewers note the beauty of the setting and the view. We agree that this is a lovely rural setting and the principal view of the bridge at Point of Rocks is peaceful and serene in the early evening. The restaurant’s website has a nice picture of what you can expect. We were a little less thrilled with rest of the view which included the parking lot and the outside eating area which was not open and looked pretty disheveled and abandoned. In fact, the outside area in general wasn’t too appealing at this time of year. Not the same thing you probably see later in the season when the plantings are in but we’re reviewing the restaurant we saw – not the one that appears later in the growing season. This lack of attention to detail, ambiance and design is one of the restaurant’s principal failings.

The dining area has been generally described as a greenhouse. Accurate yes, but from the inside a little more of the feeling of a temporary structure – like a special event tent – surrounding a partial greenhouse. The glass generally gives a nice open feeling but, honestly, the first impression of the dining area is that it’s bare, diner-like and somewhat unappealing. At the far end of the dining area is a sort of hodge-podge of Haitian art, hung with no discernable pattern and no apparent rhyme or reason as to how it ended up in a Virginia farm inn. The floors are brick pavers and the tables are a simple wood design without table cloths. Surrounding the room is an odd collection of mismatched portable heating and cooling devices like free standing air conditioners and electric fireplaces. Decidedly odd.

Other reviewers have commented on this problem, including the Washington Post who said simply “the greenhouse could use some design help.” A vast understatement. We get that the owners treasure their art collection and the contribution their purchases made to the relief effort in Haiti. That’s fine, but you either need to incorporate the artwork into some sort of overall design concept or hang them in your own home. In the current restaurant they look disorganized and out of place.

Restaurant at Potowmack Farm

We’ve looked at YouTube videos and online photos of the dining area and what we saw on our recent visit was not the restaurant Patowmack Farm seems to promote. We could not find an online picture or video which did not have white table cloths on the tables, including the restaurant’s own promotional videos. I’m not saying table cloths are essential, but given the rest of the décor the lack of table cloths does make for a somewhat cold feel. The management has already responded to this criticism by saying it prefers the natural look of the English oak tables. Fair enough, but then why do all the promotional photos and videos include table cloths? Table cloths or no the dining space needs a major makeover. There is a reason that even James Beard gives awards for restaurant design. Design of the space is an important part of the dining experience and Patowmack Farm needs to step up to the plate on this one.

The second weak link is, I’m sorry to say, the service. Other reviewers have commented on the restaurant’s service problems but management does not seem to be taking these comments to heart. We arrived 15 minutes early for our reservation, were seated immediately and ordered a glass of wine. We could see other guests outside enjoying the view, and had seen them leaving their table to do that. But when we told our server that we were going to enjoy our wine outside he set us straight. We were told the restaurant was very busy that evening and that it was imperative that we order. As in now. Really. I think we can agree that no server should ever have made that comment to a guest and when I got home and watched the restaurant’s promotional video in which the owner recounts the story of a group that arrived late and amid profuse apologies were assured by management that, “when you have a table here, it’s your table for the evening”, I had to smile. This message needs to get to the staff.

The servers are young and clearly inexperienced. This is not a sin in itself but based on other reviews they seem to lack the guidance required to improve. They appear unfamiliar with the menu except for the course they are in the process of serving, and even on that score they often struggle to describe it. Keep in mind there are only three possible menus. Even so, our server got confused about which menu we had each ordered and continued to serve us the wrong dish throughout the meal. So while we were there for the food, the service is an important part of the experience and the restaurant needs to begin to take comments about service to heart and work with their servers to provide a more enjoyable dining experience.

On to the food. At first glance the choices appear fairly straightforward. There are three tasting menus: Found, Grown and Raised. Each has four or five dishes. But the simplicity is deceiving. This is cooking as an art form. The dishes are complex and many of the ingredients and dishes will be unfamiliar to the average diner: hickory bark syrup, smoked grapes, cashew cheese and chicken skin quiche to name a few. This meal is not about an interesting twist on a familiar dish, it’s about the Chef immersing you in his world and dazzling you with his creations. Sometimes this works, sometimes not. I can give you an idea of what we had but since the menu is constantly changing you’re not likely to have any of the same dishes.

The Razor Clam preparation suffered because the clam itself was flavorless or could not be tasted through the sauce. I’m not sure how Razor Clam makes it onto the Found menu in rural Virginia but given all the choices of going off the Farm for ingredients when necessary, this was not a winner in my book. The Gnocchi Nero was delicious, especially the garlic mousse. The Pork Shoulder was great with a deep, rich pork flavor that you won’t get buying pork at your local supermarket. Here the chef’s attention to sourcing shines through. But although extremely flavorful, the dish was visually bland. Taste is key and the taste did not disappoint but where you are elevating cooking to this level visual appeal is important and was lacking. I will say that the pork shoulder looked and tasted exactly like pork belly. This is probably my inexperience with pork shoulder but it sure looked like pork belly. The Cedar Needle Bubble Tea was sort of off the wall and very, very sweet. But again a chance for something new and different. The Sassafras Cream with Crunchy Choux was one of the best things on the menu.

My wife had the Grown menu and here we ran into a problem. As I said, these are complicated dishes and ingredients, so we appreciated the chance to review the menus in advance online. What we did not realize in our rush to order was that a key ingredient in the Grown menu had changed from the previous day’s online posting which described the dish as “grilled” Mackerel. For our meal this had changed to Mackerel Bao, or essentially mackerel in a steamed bun. These two preparations could not be more different and our mistake led us to a main course that we never would have ordered. Don’t get me wrong, the menu clearly said Mackerel Bao. If our server had pointed out the menu change it would have been helpful. If he hadn’t been insistent on prompt ordering we might have caught the change. In any case, if you are reviewing the online menu, which is new every week, ask about changes from the online version when ordering.

That said, the White Gazpacho was surprising with ingredients like smoked grapes and uni battarga, another good example of the chef’s skills with the unexpected and unusual. Very flavorful and very good. The Carrots Baked in Honey suffered a similar fate to the Razor Clam, an ingredient that was over-shadowed by the sauce to the degree that it was lost. Simply too sweet for us. The Mackerel Bao was a mistake in ordering so in fairness we won’t review that.

A quick word about the wine list. It’s nice to see a restaurant that can find good wine at reasonable prices. Patowmack Farm manages a wine list with prices that end where other restaurants of this caliber begin, with many bottles in the $40 to $60 dollar range and I don’t think a single bottle over $100.

Dinner at The Restaurant at Patowmack Farm is like a performance piece with the Chef at center stage. You are meant to understand his skills and his devotion to use of local and fresh ingredients. How else to explain Cedar Needle Bubble Tea as an entire course on the tasting menu? As I’ve said, the preparations are complex and will be unfamiliar to most. In our opinion some succeed, others do not. But like any performance, the supporting characters also play an important role in a truly great experience, and it’s here that Patowmack Farm falls flat. We’re not the first to say it but service and ambiance need improvement.

While the foodie in us often appreciated the Chef’s efforts, I’m not sure we wanted to work quite so hard to figure out where this story was going. Maybe it was just the luck of the draw on the menu. Perhaps it was simply too early in the season for the farm to have produced the ingredients for which its dishes receive such praise. In any event, not the experience we had hoped for.

See the City – Get On a Bike

Melbourne, Australia

Melbourne, Australia

Exploring a new city is one of the great joys of traveling. All the new places to see, the sites to visit, the great restaurants to try, and hopefully some discoveries you hadn’t even counted on. You’ve got limited time so the question is how to make the best of the time you’ve got.

This is my pitch to you to consider biking as the best way to get to know a city and it’s many neighborhoods quickly if you want, more slowly if that’s your style. Concerned that the big city isn’t the place for a bike? We’ve biked in New York, Paris, London, Amsterdam, Madrid, Barcelona, Sydney, Melbourne, Buenos Aires, Tokyo and Shanghai to mention a few.

Let’s be clear that I’m NOT talking about:

  • Organized bike vacations. I’m talking about renting a bike and exploring a city for a day or two, not an entire vacation of biking. You don’t need to cover yourself in spandex or pack the Power bars. Casual clothes and frequent pub stops are the order of the day..
  • A ride in the park. Every city has a big park and most of them have bike rentals. So yes you can (1) rent bike (2) ride around park (3) return bike. Fun, yes. And by all means make your city’s signature park one of your stops. But please, live a little. Move beyond the park loop. Get your bike, a good map on your smartphone, maybe an app with popular bike tours, and then get out and explore the entire city. Broaden your horizons.
  • Pedi-cab. If you aren’t the one pedaling it doesn’t count. And that goes double for Segways. They might make a good photo op but we want you to explore.
  • Organized bike tours. Tours can be great and you might meet some fun people but the tour will take you where they want you to go, will probably stick to the major sites, and can be expensive. If you need to break the ice, try a tour to start out. But to get the real joy of exploring by bike, strike out on your own.

If you’ve come this far and you’re considering the idea, let me tell you why biking the city is such a great alternative.

  • Increase your range and maximize your time. To really get to know a city takes time and a lot of exploring on foot. If your time is limited the distance you can cover on foot will also be limited, and that limitation will dictate what you can see and do. So while I admit walking is great for exploring, it’s simply not a practical way to cover a lot of territory in a limited time. Additionally, when you’re walking but want to travel longer distances between neighborhoods or places you want to see, at some point you’ll need to resort to public transport. That takes time. Buses and trains run on fixed schedules and over fixed routes, all of which you’ll need to figure out to use them efficiently. Unless your start and stop point are adjacent to stations and stops, you’ll need to walk just to get to them to start your journey or to reach your final destination. Hailing a cab is easier but all of this costs money and cabs are particularly expensive in big cities.The answer to a lot of these problems is a bike. With a bike you can easily cover ten times more territory than you can on foot. With a bike you set the schedule, you pick the route and your transportation is always ready to go on a moments notice. Maybe best of all, moving from place to place becomes part of the fun instead of something to put up with. It’s plain and simple: you can go farther and see more for less on a bike than if you are walking.
  • Get in the thick of it. Biking, like walking, puts you square in the middle of the sights, sounds and smells of the city. You’re close to the action, mixing in with the people who actually live there, not passing them by on a bus or in a cab. There will always be the tourist’s view of the city vs. what the natives experience. If you’re looking for the latter, you need to get down to the same level as the natives. Your bike is going to help you do that.

    Barcelona, Spain

    Barcelona, Spain

  • Freedom, freedom, freedom. With a bike you can really give in to your desire to go wherever you want and be close enough to the action not to miss unexpected discoveries. Stop whenever you see something interesting. Satisfy your whims. What are you going to do, ask the cabby to pull over and wait while you explore that surprise market you just found? Demand the tour bus pull over for a bit while you grab a beer in that pub? The beauty of the bike is that it let’s you do all those things in almost the same amount of time with no restrictions. Yes you can do this on foot, but with a bike you can so much more you won’t believe it.
Stopping for a Bite in Miami Beach

Stopping for a Bite 

  • All area access. In our post-911 world it seems there are more restrictions everyday on how close motor vehicles can get to tourist sites or other sensitive areas. This means you’ll only be able to get so close to some things before you have to start walking. Increased security is a fact of life but I’m continually surprised at how many of these pedestrian only areas are also bike friendly. You won’t be able to go everywhere but I think you’ll be surprised what you can do.
  • You want me to ride in THAT TRAFFIC? A lot of cities are way more bike friendly than you might imagine. That means bike lanes and trails are more and more common. You don’t need to and you won’t be riding on the busiest streets. There will simply be too many other, more attractive options. Again, check a map before you set out and plot some routes you’re interested in. You’ll quickly see how easy it is. Most cities have bike clubs that can give you a wealth of information on the routes that are available if you do have to go through more congested areas. Avoiding the traffic is part of the fun and reward of traveling by bike.
  • Off the beaten path. There’s an added bonus to avoiding the more heavily traveled routes. Once you get off the beaten track your going to make your most memorable finds, and when you do you’ll be able to linger to enjoy them. Some places will be better than others, some you’ll just want to keep moving through, but this is the only way to find the surprises that make travel such fun. On the bike you’ll be able to scout lots of places, move as quickly as you want between them, and do some real exploring. You can wander around on foot but you won’t have nearly the range of options the bike will give you. Using your bike to explore off the beaten path is one of it’s main advantages.
  • Hey, did I just do 3 hours of exercise? We all go on vacation with good intentions and getting at least a little exercise is usually someplace on the list. But the temptations once we arrive are great. I promise you that if you add some biking to your city sight seeing you’ll get in some good exercise without even thinking about it. You don’t have to make a big effort. It will just happen. The miles will slip away and the three hour dinners will take less of a toll.
Tandem Bike, Singapore

Tandem Bike, Singapore 

Well now that I’ve got you all pumped up and ready to go you’ll need a bike. I think you’ve got two choices.

Miami Commuter Bikes

Miami Beach, Florida

Commuter bike share programs. These are great and are available now in many, many large cities all over the world. They do have some drawbacks. First, the commuter bike programs are designed for – go figure – commuting. This can mean that using the bike for more then say half an hour to an hour can get very expensive unless you stop regularly to switch to a different bike (start the clock running again), or at least log your bike back in and out. Not bad if you are going from site to site, parking your bike and then exploring on foot. But I’m suggesting you do all your exploring from the bike. So having to stop is just an inconvenience at best and a bigger problem if you can’t find a nearby bike station where you can do that. The farther you get afield, the fewer stations you’ll find. The second problem with commuter bikes can be the bikes themselves. The commuter bikes are meant for and are fine for short distances but the lack of perks like multiple speeds and lighter weight can become a drag if you plan a full day out. The commuter programs can be a great way to break into city biking and certainly if they are your only option, go for it, but you really should consider an all day rental.

Hangzhou, China

Hangzhou, China

Bike Rental. Finding a place to rent a bike for the day is pretty easy in almost every big city. Whether it’s a bike shop or a rental location near a train station or in a tourist area, renting bikes is very popular and usually fairly reasonable. Do some research or ask your hotel concierge if you have one. Bikes normally come with helmets (a must!!), locks and maybe a pack or basket. Bike staff are usually very friendly and will help you find a bike that fits you and will be comfortable for the day. As I say, you MUST wear a helmet. Don’t be foolish and don’t ruin your vacation, or worse, because you don’t want the helmet. In fact, I’ll say clearly that if you can’t find or don’t want to wear a helmet then you should not rent a bike.

So now you’re ready to go! Enjoy and let me hear how it went.

Volt, Frederick, MD

Volt, Front ViewScrolling through the Washington, DC Zagat Guide last Saturday morning I was stunned to find that 2 of the top 10 and 4 of the top 50 restaurants in the DC area are in Frederick, Maryland. Making the pilgrimage to The Inn at Little Washington is one thing, but really, Frederick, MD, best known as the home of the nation’s bio-warfare labs at Fort Detrick. That was a shocker. With DC in the full throes of the foodie revolution, we wondered how Frederick could make such a strong showing.

We had to see this for ourselves, so off to Frederick for lunch at what Zagat says is DC’s No.6 restaurant – Volt. It was a beautiful sunny day, perfect for a drive in the country. Frederick is exactly 51 miles from the Washington Monument and with different routes to choose from we took the more scenic drive up River Road, along the Potomac, instead of the 270 freeway.

Approaching Frederick from the river takes you through miles of nothing but farmland dotted with a few really small towns. Well, not really towns. More like a few buildings at a cross road. The outskirts of the city has the same retail and fast food sprawl you see everywhere, but the city center itself seems to have been transformed by the money that has poured into the Washington, DC metro area over the past 15 years. Market Street Frederick gave up trying to meet the shopping and service needs of the city long ago, abandoning that to the outlying retail stores. Now the city center is a virtual restaurant row with the expected trendy shops. Volt’s own website describes the Frederick historic district as “hundreds of specialty stores, antique shops, bed and breakfasts and restaurants”. I don’t know about hundreds but that description is pretty close to the mark. Whether you like these cutesie-type downtown areas or have had enough of this trend with it’s $6.00 cups of coffee and $5.00 cupcakes, on a sunny afternoon in July it all makes for a nice presentation.

In just a short walk from our parking garage we passed three of Frederick’s top rated restaurants: The Tasting Room, Isabella’s, and of course, Volt.

Having done almost no research except reading a few diner’s reviews the first thing you realize is that this isn’t just any small restaurant in out of the way Frederick. Volt is the creation of superstar chef Bryan Voltaggio, who just happens to live in – you guessed it – Frederick. So pretty good luck there. The restaurant itself is in an old brick brownstone with a stylin’ decor and several options for seating. Although we couldn’t touch a table for Saturday night, brunch, including our choice of seating, was no problem at two on a Saturday afternoon.

We’re greeted by a kid (all in black of course) who looks to be about fifteen, with perfect Justin Beiber knock-off hair, but he’s very nice and has no problem letting us look around before deciding where we’d like to sit. We choose the outdoor courtyard because even though it’s hot, there’s plenty of shade and a nice summer breeze. A great spot for al fresco dining which we always prefer. Maybe it is mid-July but we’re still warming up from the horrible DC winter of 2014.

If outside’s not your thing or the weather isn’t cooperating, Volt has a very nice dining room, separate Chef’s Kitchen seating with a view of the cooking in progress, and for dinner the so-called Table 21 which seats eight and not only lets you watch the cooking but throws in a 21 course tasting menu. There’s also a good size bar and I thought it was a nice touch that the TV was showing a live feed of the chef’s at work in the kitchen. No question who the star is here and it’s not the Saturday Game of the Week.

Volt, at least for our visit, is all about one of dining’s popular trends, the Tasting Menu. For brunch you have two choices, five courses selected by the chef, or a smaller three course menu which gives you a little of the a la carte feel by letting you design your own tasting menu.

While we’re on the subject, let me digress a moment. One of the few negative reviews we read before we headed to Volt (I confess I’m always drawn to the few people who trash even the best restaurants) had small portion size as it’s principal complaint. OK can I just say that whether you like the concept or not this is a TASTING MENU, defined by Wikipedia as a menu that offers “small portions of several dishes as a single meal”. Emphasis on the small. So be warned, if you’re looking for that 22 oz. steak or a huge bowl of pasta, you might want to give that some serious thought before selecting Volt. Or go for dinner when I think there are more a la carte options and the 21 course tasting menu. But again, lets face it, how big can a portion size be if there are 21 of them?

So we’re seated in the garden enjoying a glass of prosecco and a really fresh Bloody Mary. Very nice and a very relaxed setting. In fact, pretty ideal. I chose the five course tasting menu with paired wines and my wife got three courses so she could make some of her own picks.

Black Bass with Crispy CauliflowerHighlights were the amuse-bouche, a sort of round, crispy duck flavored cookie with a liquid center of foie gras, the pasta bolognese with a deep, rich sauce made from pepperoni stewed with roasted tomatoes, and the braised lamb with greek yogurt, which while not the most visually appealing dish, was tender and fantastic. Both fish courses were delicious with crispy skin and the inside perfectly done. I’m always impressed by perfectly done fish. Not that it shouldn’t always be. Just that too often it isn’t. In fact, the only disappointment was the green tomatoes which my wife compared to a corn dog; too much and too heavy a coating which didn’t allow any tomato flavor to come through.

Fluke Sashimi Style

Our servers at Volt were all young and trying really hard to live up to the restaurant’s name and the image of their celebrity boss. They are unfailingly friendly; none of that superior attitude you sometimes get. They were very attentive and although they seem at times to be struggling to memorize the food descriptions, it’s really nice to see what looks to be a group of local kids who are serious about what they’re doing and making every effort to see to it that you have a good dining experience. The high marks Volt gets for service reflect this attitude and are well deserved.

Finally, let’s talk price. Volt is not cheap. Let’s say about $100 per person for brunch depending on what you drink, and, as always, much more if you like expensive wine. The five course tasting menu is currently $55, plus $35 for the paired wine. Three courses are $35 which I think is a pretty good deal. Dinner is considerably more expensive, so lunch is a good way to give Volt a try. Too much? Only you can decide. All the prices are shown on the online menu so it’s easy to do some figuring in advance without getting sticker shock once you’re actually at the table.

Cheese Plate with Carrots

One last item. Even if you don’t usually indulge, definitely try the bread. It is fantastic.

All in all a fun day out and a wonderful dining experience. OK Frederick, we were impressed and we’ll be going back. Sorry we doubted you.

 

Lobster Joint – Heaven on the Lower East Side of Manhattan

Bood Look:

  • Delicious lobster dishes of all kinds
  • Great value
  • Casual
  • Off the beaten track
The cpunter at the Lobster Joint

The Lobster Joint

Lobster, lobster and more lobster. If you can imagine it, these guys can make it and load it up with everybody’s favorite shell fish while they’re at it. The Lobster Joint, 201 E. Houston St. (bet. Ludlow & Orchard) may just be the best lobster value in New York. It’s not fancy and it’s not expensive. Check the menu for yourself. But the food, well the food is terrific.

 

Lobster Joint Bloody Mary

Lobster Joint Bloody Mary

Start off with a Bloody Mary, but not just any Bloody. Spicy and delicious, you can forget the single, puny celery stalk. This Bloody loads you up with half a dill pickle, an olive, lemon and lime slices, and the meat from an entire lobster claw. Now that’s a Bloody Mary.

 

 

Or maybe try a glass of Cava, and what goes better with some bubbles than a dozen mixed oysters. Extremely fresh and delicious.

Lobster Club Roll at the Lobster Joint

Lobster Club Roll

For lunch we tried the Lobster Club Roll. Loaded with lobster salad and huge chunks of added lobster meat, all on top of thick cut bacon, fresh avocado and a toasted bun. Don’t forget the fries because they are as good as everything else.

Lobster Mac and Cheese at the Lobster Joint

Lobster Mac and Cheese

 

 

But it was really cold outside and we needed something warm before venturing out into nature again. I know, how about the Lobster Mac and Cheese? Insanely good and a huge portion, served fresh from the oven on it’s own baking sheet. We laughed when it came to the table but left the pan empty.

 

Great food, tremendous value, and for most tourists off the beaten path. Come on, get out and explore a little!

So yes, it’s the winter that never ends but eating at the Lobster Joint on a cold, snowy day in February you can almost feel the summer sun and smell the ocean. Nobody has to know that what’s really warming you inside is that Lobster Mac and Cheese and the ocean smell is coming from those great oysters. Now how can we get them to extend their delivery area to DC?

 

The Stonehouse Restaurant at San Ysidro Ranch

Bood Look:

  • Spectacular ambiance
  • Extremely expensive
  • Food is the weak link
  • Special occasion destination
  • For the experience try lunch

The San Ysidro Ranch

Main Building at San Ysidro Ranch

San Ysidro Ranch

If you love all things Santa Barbara – great food, world class wine, wonderful climate, and spectacular views – then at some point you’ll be drawn to the San Ysidro Ranch in Montecito. It would be hard to find a more beautiful spot. Precisely manicured gardens, some providing fresh produce for the hotel’s restaurants, lush fruit trees (the SYR used

San Ysidro Ranch Fresh Produce Gardens

Fresh Produce Gardens

to be a citrus ranch) and picture perfect cottages. Rich in history, you can stay in the same cottage where JFK and Jackie honeymooned. Vivien Leigh and Sir Laurence Olivier were married here. The SYR was named Travel + Leisure’s 2011 No. 1 hotel in California and No. 4 hotel in the world. You get the picture.

San Ysidro Ranch Grounds

San Ysidro Ranch Grounds

 

The Stonehouse Restaurant

Exterior of The Stonehouse Restaurant

The Stonehouse Restaurant

We guessed that a hotel this great would have a restaurant of equal stature. Indeed, The Stonehouse at SYR had some pretty impressive reviews of its own. So after checking the dinner and dessert menus online and with admittedly high expectations we booked a table on a recent Saturday night. Even arriving on a relatively cool, dark winter evening does not disappoint. The place looks fantastic. I mean it’s really beautiful. The flowers, the grounds, the twinkling lights, a crackling fire in the dining room; it’s all a perfect mood setter.

Dining Exerience

INterior of The Stonehouse Restauarant

Inside The Stonehouse

Although we arrived right on time, our table was not quite ready so we were asked to wait a few minutes and enjoy a drink in the lounge. Ok, no problem, except as soon as we sat and got comfortable we were told our table was now ready. Forget the offer to have a drink, it’s up and to the table. I thought excellent service would mean we should at least have been given the choice, no?

Turns out this wasn’t the only service glitch. The highly rated service was good but seemed done as a matter of form. The waiter goes through the motions but his delivery is fast and to the point. You know he’s done this a thousand times before and it’s hard to keep it interesting. But that’s his job, right? There’s no give and take, no attempt to tell you what they have that’s really special and why. All your choices are “excellent”. You get the sense he needs to move on. By comparison, the Sommelier is a master. Friendly, engaging, he puts us at ease and helps us get exactly what we want from the extensive and expensive wine list. The waiter seeing our selection declares it “excellent”. Really.

The food starts out on a high with the appetizers. The Smoked Muscovy Duck and Avocado Spring Roll is amazingly good, as is the special Artichoke Soup. The entrees are another matter. Although the pork chop is deemed “great”, the SYR House-Made Fettuccini Carbonara with Pata Negra, one of the reasons we came to The Stonehouse, is a big disappointment. The poached egg on top of the pasta is pretty unappealing in person, and the star of the dish, the Pata Negra, is almost a no-show. This is not about portion size. It’s about the quality of the dish and at $42 you expect more than a plate of pasta with a few tiny specks of ham. The Steak Diane is a little better but nothing special.

For dessert the SYR Meyer Lemon Tart is so loose it simply oozes all over the plate when cut into the crust and needs to be eaten with a spoon. The waiter, I think because he is rushing although I’m not sure why, gets the coffee and drink orders wrong. When it comes time to leave we’re ushered out to the lounge and left alone with nobody to get our coats. We have to go find the waiter. Fortunately we have “excellent” coats.

Review

You begin to realize that the SYR is more about the ambiance, the history and the hotel than the food at The Stonehouse. No matter how beautiful the setting we couldn’t help coming away disappointed. It’s easy to see that this is a “special occasion” destination: engagements, birthday parties, anniversaries. Lots of flambéing tableside – when was the last time you saw Crepes Suzette, Cherries Jubilee and Bananas Foster all on one dessert menu? But The Stonehouse is a restaurant, not an event space, and a very expensive one at that.

You shouldn’t get the impression that the food was bad. A few things were fantastic, some were just OK, some were really disappointing. You should know that the overall quality of the food did not in my opinion begin to match the ambiance or justify the price charged, conservatively $150 per person, and much, much higher depending on your wine selection. No matter how beautiful the space, an expensive restaurant has to deliver food worthy of what’s being charged. which at these prices means something truly special. In my opinion the SYR doesn’t do that. It’s really a question of value. There are a lot of great places to eat in SB and if you’re willing to pay this price you can have your pick. So why settle?

Plow and Angel Restaurant

Plow and Angel Restaurant

If you’re looking for a place to propose, the SYR may be perfect. If you’re popping the question you’ve got a lot more on your mind than the food, which you aren’t likely to remember anyway. But if you’re just looking for the finest gourmet dining, I’d pass. If your heart is really set on the SYR I suggest lunch at the Plow and Angel, the hotel’s slightly more casual restaurant. Lobster Tacos will still set you back $57 but you’ll be able to enjoy the grounds more during the day and for the SYR, that’s what it’s all about.

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Beat the boarding lines on Amtrak

I like Amtrak trains, I really do. On a short trip I almost always prefer the train to flying. No TSA screening, no baggage fees, no expensive cab ride to get downtown, more comfortable seats, better food than flying, and sometimes even faster. But one of the worst things about using Amtrak is its archaic, frustrating and stressful boarding process, particularly along Amtrak’s northeast corridor (Washington – New York – Boston), one of its busiest and most profitable routes. On a recent trip between Washington DC Union Station and New York Penn Station this is how I learned to beat the boarding lines on Amtrak and to make getting a good seat fast, simple and stress free.

Departing from Washington D.C.

Amtrak DC Boarding Area

Amtrak DC Boarding Area

I arrived at Union Station ticket in hand after my internet purchase. My train was scheduled to depart in about 40 minutes. There were already well over 100 people on the boarding line. These trains are all “reserved”, meaning you are guaranteed the right to board the train but don’t have a designated seat. In fact, it doesn’t mean you will actually get a seat if the train is really crowded and certainly doesn’t mean you will be able to sit with your traveling companions or sit where you’d like. You may long for the peace of the Quiet Car but you’re just as likely to end up sitting next to the guy who talks to his stock broker the entire 3 hour trip. The seats are in almost all cases first come, first served.

If you think arriving early to get a good spot on line is the answer, think again. The waiting area can’t possibly accommodate the line that’s forming in any reasonable, orderly way. The line winds back and forth, in and around seats, away from the track entrance, then back again. Soon it’s impossible to even find where the line ends. The “line” becomes one in name only. When the gate finally opens the situation instantly dissolves into complete chaos as the entire waiting area rushes the door from all directions. You may have been waiting in line patiently for an hour, 20 people from the door, only to find that someone who arrived 5 minutes before the gate opened beats you to the train as he edges in from the side while the crowd pushes you further and further back from where you started. When you finally do get through the entrance door it’s a long race up the platform to board the train, find a seat and a place for your luggage before you’re shut out. Sounds like fun doesn’t it? It’s a mess but one Amtrak does not seem inclined to fix.

Departing from New York Penn Station

NY Penn Station Waiting Room

NY Penn Station Waiting Room

At least in DC you knew your gate number long before the scheduled departure so you had some chance of positioning yourself for the coming rush. At NY’s Penn Station the process is even worse. Everyone, and I mean every single person in that giant waiting room who is waiting for an outbound train, regardless of destination, is lumped together in a huge crowd, eyes straining upward to the enormous departures board. Surrounding the crowd on the perimeter of this mass of humanity, are the track entrances. Like thoroughbreds at the starting gate each person in the room is waiting for one thing to appear on that board: his track number. Track numbers are usually not announced until about 10 minutes before the trains actually depart. This means there is NO line until the track number goes up and when it does look out! Everyone who is waiting for that train rushes the track entrance gate which may be right next to you if you’re lucky, or 100 feet away on the other side of the waiting room. Total chaos. Is this any way to run a railroad!

Red Cap to the rescue

Amtrak Red Cap

Amtrak Red Cap

Short of getting Amtrak to see the insanity of this process and fix it (not bloody likely) what can you do? Actually it’s pretty simple. In the age of wheelie bags you just need to remember two words: Red Cap. If you’re not familiar with the term, Red Caps, as they have been known since the early 20th century, are baggage porters. You will find them in all major train stations, immediately recognizable by their red caps (go figure). The Red Cap my friends is the solution to all your problems.Simply find a Red Cap in the station. This won’t be hard. Just look around. Tell him what train you’re on and show him your ticket. You’re in for some good news right away. Miracle of miracles, the Red Cap knows something nobody else in the waiting room knows: he knows the track number for your train. Even better, he’s going to open the gate and take you to the track NOW! Let everyone else wait for the track announcement, you’ll already be on the train. What’s more, he’s going to carry your bags.

That’s exactly what our Red Cap did for us in NY. Leaving the hundreds of people in the waiting room still staring expectantly at the board, we were down on the track before our train even arrived at the station. No worries about where we wanted to sit much less whether we were going to get a seat at all, once the incoming train emptied our Red Cap just took us directly to the car that we asked for, waited for us to select the seats we wanted – pretty easy since the train was empty – and stowed our luggage nearby. It was all done a good 5 to 10 minutes before the mad rush of people arrived from upstairs. Not sure where the best seat is for you? Ask the Red Cap. He knows exactly how the train is laid out.

Cost ? Free. That’s right, it’s free. There is no cost except whatever tip you decide on. Try getting priority boarding on an airline for free! Even though it’s free, be generous with your tip. Do you realize what this guy just did for you?

So if you’re sick of the insane Amtrak boarding process, just use a Red Cap. You’ll feel like you’re back in an earlier, more glamorous day of train travel and you’ll help a hard working guy make a living to boot.

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Fastest way through the U.S. Immigration line

U.S. airport border control line

Why you should read this

You travel internationally. Avoiding an hour or two standing in long, frustrating immigration and customs lines is well worth the $20 per year fee for this government pre-screening program. You need to know the fastest way through the U.S. immigration line and this is it.

Why this is part of TheBoodLife

It’s all about your convenience, reduced stress and frustration. Cost and time are minimal but the return is great. You’re entitled to the red carpet treatment so enjoy.

The GOES Program

It’s been a great vacation. You’re rested and relaxed. But as you get off the plane stress creeps in. Since you’ve been traveling internationally you still have one big hurdle to overcome. You have to clear immigration and customs. Well maybe you’ll get lucky. Down the escalator with fingers crossed and into the arrivals hall. Ugh, there must be 400 people waiting in line. Your luck just ran out. You can expect at least 1 hour on the immigration line, and maybe another 30-45 minutes to clear customs. There must be a better way.

I have good news; there is. This ordeal is totally unnecessary. You can get through this entire process every time in less than 5 minutes. How? Join the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CPB) GOES program. GOES stands for Global Online Enrollment System and with it you may never wait on a US immigration or customs line again. The enrollment process is simple:

GOES Enrollment Process

  1. Go to the GOES website here, get a user name and password, fill out and submit the online application and pay the $100 enrollment fee. Maybe a 20 minute process.
  2. Wait to receive a Conditional Approval notice from DHS. You’ll need to periodically log in to the GOES website to check for this. This is when DHS conducts your background check.
  3. Once you receive your Conditional Approval you will be advised to schedule an appointment at a CPB office for a brief, in-person interview. The interview must be scheduled within 30 days of your conditional approval. CPB offices are located at most major airports and in some downtown areas. The GOES website has an easy to use tool that allows you to select your location and schedule a time online.
  4. Go to the in-person interview. The interview itself is really short. One of the main purposes for the interview is to fingerprint you. They need your fingerprints because the kiosks you will be using to enter the US will scan and confirm your identity using your fingerprints.

Your final approval is good for 5 years.

At the airport

Back to our example. Now when you see that line of 400 people you simply ignore it and look instead for a GOES sign which will direct you to a bank of kiosks. In five years of using this system I have never had to wait more than a minute or two for a kiosk. Typically there is no wait at all. At the kiosk you will:

  1. Scan your passport so the system recognizes you and confirm your identity.
  2. Place the fingertips of one hand on the scanner where it will read your fingerprints and verify your identity.
  3. Use the touch screen to make a customs declaration – you can ignore the written form you got on the plane, it’s all done electronically at the kiosk.
  4. Receive a transaction receipt generated by the kiosk which you will take to baggage claim and the exit.

For a better look at how the system works take a minute to watch the CBP video.

GOES and Customs

Once you retrieve your luggage you can also ignore the customs line. Again, you look for the designated GOES line. If there isn’t one just walk to the front of the normal customs line (that’s right, you’re allowed to go to the front of the line), hold up the transaction receipt you got at the kiosk so the CBP officer can see it, and walk through.

Yes, it’s really that easy. Since the GOES program is designed for frequent international travelers it doesn’t seem to be that widely used and in fact most other travelers don’t seem aware of it. But the fact is that CBP doesn’t care if you travel once a year or 100 times, you can still take advantage of the program. And I can tell you that once you do you’ll wonder how you ever did without it.

Important things to be aware of

The GOES program charges a $100 fee per applicant. That means every member of your family traveling with you has to have his own GOES approval, make his own application, pay the fee, and be interviewed. And yes this includes children. While a $200 fee for a couple may be a no-brainer, $400 for a family of four and the logistics of the personal interview may seem prohibitive even if it is good for 5 years. Only you can decide but in this age where you pay for everything from checked bags to a snack on the plane, $20 per person per year – even if you only use it once a year – seems to me a very small price to pay for your time and the frustration you’ll avoid.

You also need to check to make sure that the airport where you will first enter the U.S. has GOES kiosks. This shouldn’t be a problem at major airports but if your airport doesn’t have kiosks you’ll have to wait on that long line so check in advance and remember, you need to be sure to check the airport where you will first enter the U.S. That is where you will clear immigration and customs although it might not be your home airport or final destination.

For more details about the GOES program visit the GOES FAQs page here.

Now if they could just do something to speed things up at baggage claim!

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