A Delectable Feast in Santiago (aka the ‘Exploring Chile’s Viticulture & Spirits’ Post)

What is Chilean cuisine? After spending a week in this South American country, I can answer in confidence: Seafood. Lamb. A riot of color, flavor and freshness. Seriously excellent wine, and Pisco, of course. 

Across the board, everything that we sipped and savored during our week in Chile trumps the Chilean wine that’s being imported (mass market) to the States. It’s readily obvious that Chilean winemakers are onto something great. While it’s difficult to cull from so many moments of excellence, here are a few highlights from my recent time in Santiago:

FIRST: “Alt Chile” luncheon & wine tasting at Ambrosia Restaurant in Vitacura.

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Cheese course and lamb sweetbreads at Ambrosia

Derek Mossman, founder of Garage Wine Co. and MOVI, the Chilean Movement of Independent Vintners, led our intrepid expedition into the depths of Chile’s New Wine Movement, six head-to-head match ups including a pair of Pais from Sauzal, in Chile’s famous Maule Valley wine region, a pair of Garnacha from Caliboro, a pair of Cab Francs from the Maule Secano and a pair of Malbecs, “con” (with) and “sin” (without) music.

Yes, that’s right: The Tartufo Malbec and El Perseguidor Malbec — two 2013 Malbec Centenarios from San Rosendo Bio Bio Valley — were identical in every way except for the fact that one of the wines had music playing into its barrel during maturation and the other did not. The verdict: The “vino con musica” is comparatively more complex for its relatively young age, and the “vino sin musica” decidedly needs more time to age, but will likely ultimately develop the same complexity. All of this, in theory, due to the gentle vibrations of sound waves, which kept the juice inside the barrel moving? A fascinating proposition.

It goes without saying that the food pairings from Ambrosia, named one of Latin America’s 50 Best Restaurants 2015, were exceptional. Pictured above: The cheese course and also lamb sweetbreads lightly crusted with cornmeal for that textural crunch, as well as a vegetal, spring puree and manjar, Chile’s version of dulce de leche, with a similar caramel-y complexity just less sweet.

Also, pictured below, Ambrosia’s mousse de foie, one of the restaurant’s signature dishes and one of the more heady tastes I’ve had in recent memory. In texture, richness and presentation, it reminded me of nothing so much as a foie riff on crème brûlée, replete with that brittle, quick-fired top layer that cracks at the insistence of a spoon, allowing entree to luscious decadence underneath.

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Ambrosia’s foie gras mousse — a favorite of Mick Jagger’s

NEXT: Wine and Pisco in the so very charming Barrio Lastarria.

Santiago’s historic Barrio Lastarria is a jewel-box sized neighborhood that makes up for its diminutive stature by winning at just about everything else. Wedged between Santa Lucía Hill — lovely grounds that mark the precise location where the city of Santiago was first founded in 1541 — and Parque Forestal — an expansive park that’s also home to two of the city’s marquee museums — Barrio Lastarria is the proverbial heart of the city’s historic core.

Fittingly, Bocanáriz & Vinobar and Chipe Libre, Républica Independiente del Pisco, two of the neighborhood’s most beloved establishments (that also happen to be neighbors), could be described as projects of the heart: love letters to Chilean wine, spirits and cuisine.

If the luxury of time is not on your side, it’s relatively doable to visit both establishments during a single visit to Barrio Lastarria, starting with wine flights and tapas at Bocanáriz before moving on to Pisco flights and cocktails and more shareable deliciousness at Chipe Libre. A word to the wise: Come hungry — and thirsty.

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The “Ocean to Mountain” Chilean wine flight at Bocanariz & Vinobar

For anyone with even an inkling of passion for or curiosity about wine, a visit to Bocanáriz presents an excellent opportunity to learn about Chilean viticulture as well as sample any number of varietals; in addition to an extensive list of exclusively Chilean wine flights, every wine available by the glass can also be ordered as a 2 oz. “taste.” From the food we we tried, the mixed seafood ceviche with avocado and passion fruit stands out in memory. Overall, everything was delicious.

Next door (literally), a darker, moodier interior creates an entirely different ambiance, one that lends itself to sipping high-proof flights of Chile’s national spirit, Pisco, day or night.

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Passion fruit Pisco Sour with fresh crab salad over hearts of palm panna cotta at Chipe Libre

I opted for a fruit-flavored Pisco Sour — dangerously delicious — as well as an order of centolla magallánica y panna cotta de palmitos con leche de tigre, mounds of fresh crab salad over hearts of palm panna cotta, and Chipe Libre’s take on “tiger’s milk,” the citrus-forward ceviche marinade that’s purported have hangover-curing properties. Hangover or lack thereof, yet another knock-out dish — yet again, Santiago continued to impress.

… Perhaps it was the preemptive leche de tigre, perhaps it was the anticipation of a new day, but I woke up energized and ready to go the next morning.

When the Grand Hyatt New York Throws a Party … (aka the ‘So, So Suite’ Post)

Champagne and canapés, you say, and a tour des suites atop le Grand Hyatt New York? This is what Thursday evenings in New York City were made for. 

The view looking south on Lexington Avenue from the Presidential Suite (where the walk-in closet of the master bedroom was big enough to double as coat check and sounds from a baby grand piano filled the air): 

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My favorite bites of the night: These filet mignon toasts with a touch of horseradish creme:

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Unexpected photography (and additional artwork, not pictured) — but this was my favorite art engagement moment of the night. This floor-to-ceiling canvas is striking, with the juxtaposition between the horse and the white space. The “George Wong Suite” was styled by said architect. I like his style. Side note: I could totally watch the [Super Bowl, Academy Awards, Westminster Dog Show, fill in the blank] from here.

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Best in Show goes to this stunning bathroom design. From this view, which is the point of view of the bed, there’s a deep soak bathtub; followed by a massive rain shower (glass enclosed, access from both sides); that continues on through to a vanity area and sinks beyond. Mind. Blown. 

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Not pictured: a cozy, lounging/living room area and massive dining room feature.

Alright, alright, alright. Fine. We can move in tomorrow.😉

 

Impromptu Sushi Dinner on the UWS (aka the “This is Never a Bad View” Post)

I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again: It’s really hard to find quality, affordable sushi in New York City. Spoiled from living in Los Angeles? Sure. The fish markets of Tokyo are that much closer. In New York, you can find the most impeccable sushi — at an equally impeccable price. You can also find the “meh”/get the job done pre-made sushi in various refrigerated cases at markets everywhere. Compared to its bookends, the middling ground is seriously underrepresented.

So, after attempting to go to a certain pickle-centric restaurant on the Upper West Side and failing yet again (they have this policy of no reservations for parties under 6 — wait time of an hour for seating for 2 — it’s ridiculous) we looked across the way and felt the pull of a certain welcoming red awning: Kitaro Sushi. Busy enough but not packed; we have a movie to catch in 50 minutes; let’s give it a shot!

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This is never a bad view.

[Aside: There is so much about this particular story that reminds me of why I love New York City. Unexpected, impromptu, serendipitous, happenstance … simply, perfect for the moment.]

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Pictured: fuko make roll & sake (salmon) hand rolls

The spouse and I sat at the sushi bar and ordered at will: gyoza; ohitashi (delicious spinach!); baby yellowtail; yellowtail / jalapeño / ponzu; fuko maki roll (crab stick, avocado, delicious pickled vegetables); 2 sake (salmon) hand rolls. And it rocked — in that way that sushi of this class should: Chefs hands flying deftly; order after order delivered with impeccable timing; hot sake and cold beer; graciousness all around. (I so wish I took a photo of Kitaro Sushi’s menu. “Special Rolls” circa 2011.)

The point being: Kitaro Sushi is a true local, neighborhood gem. And a New York City sushi gem at that. Wishing the Kitaro Sushi family/team many years of prosperity and keep on keeping on. You are doing so much that is right. Thank you!

Beast of Bourbon’s Bringing it to Bed-Stuy (aka the “Damn Good Barbecue” Post)

Last night Bed-Stuy barbecue joint slash music venue Beast of Bourbon threw a little shindig in honor of their new pit master, Nestor Laracuente, who carved up hunks of brisket and pork belly for an endlessly regenerating queue of barbecue fans — or, at least, fans of free barbecue. A pair of salads accompanied the meaty tastes: a vinegary cucumber salad and a shredded carrot salad with macerated cherries, which was unexpected and totally delicious.

Hook, line and sinker: Those bites only stoked my appetite, so on my way out I ordered one of the “power trios” to go: 1/2 lb. brisket and two small sides, in this case, brisket beans and meat-studded collard greens, plus cornbread: $21.

The brisket power trio

Such a good move, and frankly, a bargain: Two of us shared (or rather, devoured) the meal, as pictured above, and were totally satisfied. The brisket has a gorgeous, peppery crust and is falling apart tender; the beans and collards were incredibly flavorful with smokey notes imbued from the meaty bits; the cornbread, outstanding.

For a 2014 article on brisket in the New York Times, Laracuente is quoted as saying, “Cooking is science, but barbecue is magic.” If ‘cue is magic, the man most definitely has the magic touch. Smart move by the Beast to bring him to Bed-Stuy — that brisket’s worthy of a G Train trip any day.

Williamsburg, Brooklyn Tour de Caffeine (aka “That Time That I Had 1 Espresso, 1 Turkish Coffee, 1 Piccolo, Plus Devoción in 1 Day” Post)

I drink much more tea than coffee — always and forever. I’d just rather not require coffee to jumpstart my day every morning, needing caffeine to coax my consciousness to return to reality. …Which also means I’m woefully behind the curve in exploring the neighborhood’s beans scene. And so, in the name of “research” for an upcoming article, I hit four hotspots in one afternoon.

Parlor Cafe

First up: Parlor Coffee, located in the back room of Persons of Interest barber shop, is a super tiny space that gets crowded quickly, which basically means one barista, one espresso machine, one cash box and anyone else. The barber shop; the gleaming steel of the Speedster espresso machine; the two guys hanging out in said tiny space talking music and records; Parlor Coffee couldn’t have been staged better. The barista’s methodical process was impeccable; the espresso grounds are weighed out on a digital scale — down to the precise gram. Serious business.

A tiny stamped cup was handed to me. I took a sip. Zoom! 0 to 60 in three seconds. That espresso was so strong, evening thinking about it now, it makes my arm hairs stand on point. I wonder: Is this what it’s like to have a proper straight razor shave?

Scene Two: As of December 2015, Williamsburg now has an outpost for all things Turkish:  Lions Milk, a charming storefront that’s equal parts Mediterranean marketplace (with a great selection of imported food sundries) and cafe, serving a selection of sandwiches, pastries, beverages and a proper Turkish coffee, naturally.

I’m going to preface my mini expose on Turkish coffee with statements that I now know to be true: One does not drink Turkish coffee in a hurry. To have a Turkish coffee is to have an experience — the polar opposite of a quick caffeine fix. To have a Turkish coffee is a calming, earthy, murky, contemplative experience, served in a tiny porcelain cup with matching saucer, accompanied by tiny treats: Turkish Delights, or gelatinous, sugar dusted cubes of which there are both sweet and savory varieties. And when you finally unearth the sediment on the bottom, that is when you take the final bite of your final Turkish Delight and momentarily close your eyes and give thanks.

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Scene three: First thought, “Where is this place?” Looking for the new kid on the block of a street that I claim to know so well, I felt a bit like a tourist in my own backyard. Set back from the street a down a few steps, Sweatshop is the kind of place I suspect one discovers rather than seeks out (and probably prefers it that way). A self-proclaimed “Melbourne style coffee and creative space built inside an active design studio and incubator,” the next destination on my caffeinated crawl is just feels different — if warmly indifferent, in that unstudied cool Brooklyn kind of way.

I thought that I had a rough idea of what I was getting into. Until I had no idea of what I was getting into: that disarming Aussie/minimal/neon signage/succulent plant/Brooklyn vibe, all fitted black t-shirts, casually unkempt facial hair, a menu of “espresso / filter / bevies / brekkie / waffles” (appropriately subtitled for Americans). Ahhhh… I’ll have the piccolo (“short strong latte” the subtitle read). And then the man in the black t-shirt with the not quite beard-ish facial hair proceeded to craft for me probably the best caffeinated beverage that I’ve ever had in my entire life — and I felt super fine.

Last stop, the epicenter of beans, from which so much of Williamsburg’s coffee scene emanates: Devoción (“devotion” en espanol). But don’t take it from me, let’s go to the source: “Our coffee beans are sourced from farms we hand-select deep in Colombia’s most inaccessible zones.” Harvested, air-shipped, roasted on site in Brooklyn, hand-packaged and hand-delivered to many of the neighborhood’s other coffee destinations — “Farm to Cup in 10 days” — that’s Devoción.

It’s an impressive feat, although perhaps the end result lost on this relative coffee novice, who still prefers hers with milk and sugar? And sure, while I can taste the difference in the flavor profiles of different beans, would I be able to tell the difference between beans freshly roasted, less than 15 days old, versus a month or two or 12? That’s next level coffee consumption.

Blue Bottle, Toby’s Estate Coffee, Black Tree, Konditori, Oslo Coffee Roasters, Gimme! Coffee, Vittoria Caffe — the list goes on and on. It would take a week or three to explore all of the caffeinated fixes in the neighborhood. So is this post comprehensive? Not by any means. A solid stamp of approval? Absolutely. Williamsburg’s beans scene definitely has some game.

Hard Rock Hotel, Juniper & Ivy, Bracero Cocina (aka the ‘Check Out San Diego, All Grown Up’) Post

There was a period in my early 20s when I spent a significant amount of time in San Diego, and golden years were those indeed. Bar hopping after dinner out with friends in the Gaslamp Quarter; gloriously long days on beach cruisers winding through San Diego’s beach towns and around Mission Bay itself; the omnipresence of Mexican fare, which in terms of quality and variety, it doesn’t get much better than this.

Ordering Mexican food in San Diego
December 26, 2015: Dude in flip flops and trench coat picking up an order he phoned in. Probably a carne asada burrito.

Back in ’04-’06, shiny new Petco Park was already causing a ripple effect, pushing development and “revitalization” beyond downtown’s historic core. San Diego’s “East Village” neighborhood as it stands today, with its luxury high rises, upscale grocers and fully realized urban lifestyle, was but a figment in some enterprising developer’s imagination. All 12-ish blocks of Little Italy collectively counted less than a handful of Italian anything, with taquerias and dive bars perpetually encroaching.

But I digress: It’s been a minute since I’ve been on the ground in America’s Finest City and so the chance to spend 24 hours downtown — an overnight getaway to celebrate our wedding anniversary — was very much a welcome reunion. We had a triple date lined up for the restaurant du jour, Richard Blais’ Juniper & Ivy, in Little Italy. (Side note: That Little Italy would be the trending, cool neighborhood in San Diego? I did not see that coming.)

We booked a suite at the Hard Rock Hotel, quintessential San Diego new-ish school cool with it’s Nobu outpost and terrace pool and lounge — alas, no daytime pool party in December. When the hotel opened about eight years ago, it was a trailblazer in San Diego’s recent development. I’ve always been a fan of the Hard Rock brand and it did not disappoint. The front desk (aka “Ground Control” — RIP David Bowie) even sent up a complimentary bottle of bubbles for the occasion.

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After a quick stop in the aforementioned “East Village” neighborhood — I’m sorry, after almost 10 years of living in New York, I can’t think of San Diego’s so-called “East Village” without a sense of irony. Like, who plucked that name out of the sky? — we were off to Juniper & Ivy for the best triple date ever: two of my longest, dearest friends, including one who officiated our wedding on the beach three years ago, and their wonderful spouses.

Here, a sampling of what we ordered:

Juniper & IvyEverything was absolutely delicious — if a bit disjointed. There was a Southern-ish element, a Pacific vibe, a trio of pastas, many small plates, a few cheeky nods to American “classics” a la corn dogs, General Tso’s, sweet potatoes and marshmallows and “Lamburger Helper.” I didn’t see a through line to the menu other than that it emerged from the depths of Richard Blais’ wildly creative culinary dreams. (Not that that’s a bad thing.) Impressive, still, that a nationally-known chef like Blais picked San Diego to open his first West Coast outpost over big sibs LA and SF. Strategically, it’s brilliant — he’s the first chef of that stratosphere to stake a claim here, and residents have welcomed him with open arms.

On point water conservation messaging.
On point water conservation messaging via @HardRockSD

The next day: Fully in vacation mode, we’re back in Little Italy (of course we are) for lunch at Bracero Cocina de Raiz. So secretly full of anticipation: This is the kind of restaurant that did not exist in all in San Diego or anywhere in Southern California as I knew it for all of my formative years. Not in San Diego County, Orange County, Los Angeles County; not even when I lived in East LA and Antonio Villaraigosa was our City Council member (prior to his mayoral term ’05-’13).

The difference being chef Javier Placencia — a Tijuana, Mexico, born chef who has traveled the world — is bringing his cuisine to California. Specifically, it’s ‘Baja Mediterranean’ cuisine. Beguiling? Sure. But it’s also fucking brilliant.

Bracero Cocina

We only had lunch, which meant sticking to the House Guacamole (crispy beluga lentils / avocado / chickpeas / blackbean hummus / zaåtar & sea salt chips, pictured above) and the “TJ style” fish ceviche tostada (above right), followed by an order of tacos … and another order of tacos. Sharing was not enough when you’re working with options like these:

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Placencia is a culinary ambassador and an innovator, and Bracero Cocina is a superlative love letter to the rich heritage of Mexican cuisine — and a nod to its future. Bravo to Placencia, Luis Pena and their entire outstanding team. Sitting underneath a giant, suspended farming plow, we watched a woman make tortillas by hand with a wooden tortilla press that is well loved and going strong — you can’t do better than that. The cocina doesn’t work without all of its moving parts.

San Diego: Apparently we’ve both grown up a bit. I’m impressed by the flourishes of sophistication and actual urbane cool. And your laid back, sunny, beach hair and flip flops vibe? Don’t worry, you’ve still got it. It’s in your DNA — and it’s why I’ll keep coming back, always. Thank you for the warm embrace!

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