Friday, September 21, 2007

Great Jazz in Greenwich village, NYC

KJ Denhert is phenomenal. Her style and music epitomize laid back New York at its best. Her music is easy listening jazz, happy and emotional. She is one of those fantastic live acts, who give you goosebumps and make you fantasize that anything is possible, with their energy and ability. I personally believe that her recorded material does not do her live performances justice, so go listen to her live in New York if you can.

In addition to her great music, I remember being struck by how funny she was, and how she was able to control her audience with her humor and sassyness.

Go see her if you can. She can be found playing at 'The 55 bar' in New York's West village pretty regularly. It is a cosy venue and it is not expensive. We paid $5 to get in, but they do expect you to enjoy a drink or two with the music. They do not serve food. Get in early for the best seats.

Check out KJ's myspace page for more information and show dates.

KJ Denhert

Yosemite and tranquility

I want to talk about a tiny part of the stunning Yosemite National Park in California which caught my eye and remains etched in my memory.

Mirror Lake is recommended (by the park guides) as one of the easier hikes within the national park. As far as I can remember it, it takes about 2 hours from the designated trail stop. We decided to embark on this trail at 7 am in the morning, before breakfast. Which turned to be a great decision in many respects. The summer morning was soft and cool. It does get pretty cool in the valley during summer nights and mornings, so be sure to take a jacket with you.

It was brisk and fresh. The deeper into the woodlands we traveled, the more romantic it became.

The lake was one of the most breathtaking I had ever seen. It was still as a picture. The reflections of the surroundings were just as still. I could now see where the name came from. One could forget about anything here. And dream and reflect. We stayed here for 30 minutes. It was the calmest 30 minutes of my life that I have probably ever spent.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

If views could kill...San Diego

The Hotel Hyatt Regency Mission Bay (aka Hyatt Regency Islandia) is very close (ca a 10 min drive)from the airport and downtown, and minutes to Sea World (so if you have kids..). The views from the 'Ocean View' rooms are extraordinary. We took this from ours (an upgrade from a standard room) last year when we visited for our first wedding anniversary.

I would recommend you go during a special occasion, because you might be able to negotiate upgrades on those grounds. Unless of course you're naturally smooth and can charm the pants off of anyone. We also managed to get free parking, which was great, considering it's about $16 daily.

We did not try the main meals at the in-house restaurant (Blue Bay California Bistro), but they served up some seriously tasty light night munchies! A nice hotel where the decor is not extraordinary, but its settings, views, and locations are.

Door County, Wisconsin

North of Illinois lie the state of Wisconsin. Greener and prettier, it's only a few hours drive north of Chicago and a treat for the senses if you wanted to escape the big city or the samey suburban vibe.

I want to recommend a place called Ephraim, about 5 hours north of Chicago. It's located on the 'prong' of land northeast of Green Bay, Wisconsin, and is part of the famously scenic Door County. A tiny village on the bay, it is picturesque and serene. There is a state park nearby and trails to explore. Ephraim is famous for 'all things cherry'. I mean the fruit. We were there in November of last year, and I remember cherry cakes, granola and cookies. And all of them delicious!

There are a number of fine bed and breakfast places in Ephraim, but I wholeheartedly recommend the 'Eagle Harbor Inn'. Go for the suites rather than the rooms in the Inn, because they are majestic!

Suites feature a sitting room with a selection of interesting books and a breakfast table, among other things. There is an adequate kitchenette with a microwave, mini-fridge, a sink and essential utensils. The bedroom features a plush bed with homely Victorian furnishings, and a stunning modern whirlpool. There is of course, the additional shower room and toilet.
Most striking is the two-way fireplace, seen from both the sitting room and the bedroom. There was also a decent-sized deck. Imagine relaxing in the whirlpool, then tucking into a breakfast basket delivered to your door, and enjoying it on the deck as the dawn breaks....

Eagle Harbor has a moderately-sized pool and a sauna, which we loved using. But the best thing about it was their ample gourmet breakfast. It is an extra $11 per person, but boy, is it worth the money. Cherry Granola followed by Eggs Benedict and fluffy pancakes one morning. French Toast dusted with confectioners' sugar and Cherry Pie the next. The proprietors are extremely friendly and have a wealth of local knowledge. Ephraim and Eagle Harbor is perfect for recharging your body and soul. Check the link below for rates and availability.

p.s. On your way to Ephraim coming in from Northern Illinois, you will encounter another charming village called Fish Creek. Good for quaint shopping and dining.

Eagle Harbor Inn

Friday, September 14, 2007

Why Pitlochry?

The smell of malt in the air was tantalizing. We were of all nationalities, tasting the nectar in this otherwise homogeneous little haven. Our guide put two drops of water into our glasses to ‘open the spirit up’. Just 70 miles north of Edinburgh and home to two of Scotland’s most distinctive whiskey distilleries is Pitlochry. Inverness and St. Andrews are only a short drive away. Driving north to Braemer, the heather and stark hills will take you back you centuries. A picture-perfect town, you will never forget the astounding views. Or walking alongside peacocks at the historic Blair Castle.

Scotland's smallest distillery

Edradour is Scotland's smallest distillery, and I have the picture to prove it! The scotch whiskey distillery is situated in the picturesque village of Pitlochry, about 70 miles north of Edinburgh.

If you are a spirit connoisseur, or are merely curious, Edradour satisfies both predilections. Its taste is very distinctive. The family-owned business also exudes a kind of exclusivity which is only accentuated by its fairly remote location. At the same time, it is small and friendly enough that it does not intimidate. So if you are a whiskey virgin, visit Edradour to experience a slice of Scotch heritage.

It really is a win-win situation. Even if you have no interest in scotch, but perhaps your partner or companions do, go along anyway. The village of Pitlochry is beautiful and interesting enough to hold anyone's attention.

Edradour has daily free tours of the premises and distillery by friendly and experienced guides. At the end of the tour, you can sample the nectar yourself for free!

The salespeople at the gift shop were exceptionally friendly when we visited. When we inquired about where to buy Edradour in the States, they had the answer straightaway. Though more expensive, we were relieved to find that our local 'Binny's' stocked it.


Thursday, September 13, 2007

Carnivale in Chicago's West Loop

Drove down to downtown Chicago last night to try this much talked-about restaurant and bar. The west loop of Chicago is slowly gentrifying and apartments are being built and occupied, but given that it is primarily a business area, it was eerily quiet when we were driving through around 8 pm.

As soon as we approached 'Carnivale' , that sense was quashed immediately. And this was a Wednesday night! A mini-crowd of diners and valets were scurrying around a lot of cars. Valet parking is only $5 by the way. Strains of latin music could be heard while we were outside. Carnivale has live music on Wednesdays, and when you enter, you pass through the bar and the music area before being ushered into the main dining room. We ordered a rasberry mojito and a martini.

The dining room is the highlight of Carnivale. A high ceiling with humongous red and yellow lamp shades and a multicolored tile accent dominate. Walls are painted with similar warm colors, and the place absolutely buzzes. The live music from across the bar was hopping. We even had two carnival-style dancers jiggle their firmly toned bits all over the room at one point.

I strongly recommend you to come here with a group of friends or co-workers who love to have a good time. The food is pretty and tasty. My entree of the exotic barramundi fish which you see above (from Australia) was firm and nicely flavored. I loved my dessert of the goat's cheese ice-cream.

What was slightly disappointing, however, were the drinks. My raspberry mojito seemed overpowered with the fruit. The simple mojito also lacked the personality that one would expect from a well-made mojito. It was too dilute and uninteresting.

All in all, a superb place for celebrations. Its proximity to the highway (I90/94) makes it very accessible from the suburbs. Great for latin dancing and dining, but don't expect to be bowled over by the drinks. Here's Abhijit enjoying his Arctic Char.

Carnivale, Chicago.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Delectable cakes in Chicago

I seriously doubt that there are a lot of people who hate cakes, so I feel it is my civic duty to pass on this yummy recommendation! It's not quite in Chicago, but they deliver! Located in the northern suburb of Highland Park, 'Gourmet Frog Bakery' is quite a find.

They do regular cakes, tarts, and even savory foods, but most importantly, special occasion cakes which are delicious inside and out. Check out the picture of our reception wedding cake. With white chocolate shavings, it was really a visual treat. I particularly recommend the 'Mixed Berry' cake, which serves as an excellent palate cleanser, as well being a wonderfully light and fluffy cake.

Their prices are remarkably affordable, especially for the quality you get. And it gets better. They even throw in a complimentary anniversary cake, which we just collected actually. One of the reasons why I posted this, since tasting that cake brought back so many beautiful memories.

Call them to arrange a tasting. You can get more information from the website below. Now, back to my cake.....

p.s. to digress just a little bit, we tried their lobster bisque, and loved it. Creamy and multi-faceted, just as bisque should be. Just in case you were interested.....

The Gourmet Frog Bakery in Highland Park, IL

The Nutcracker in London

Looks almost like a painting, yet this is a scene from the finale of the Royal Opera's 'Nutcracker' playing in Covent Garden last December (2006). The production was lavish and stunning. I strongly recommend this venue as a part of your visit to London. As I student in London the 1990s, I remember the massive renovation taking place at the ROH, which dates back to the nineteenth century. Last year was my first visit inside, and it was not only fully restored, but also stylishly modernized.

Click on the link below for information on what's on at the Royal Opera House, and to even buy tickets online. It is walking distance from the Leicester Square and Covent Garden tube stations.

The Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London

Friday, September 7, 2007

Shopping at Les Galeris Lafayette, Paris

If you have very limited shopping time on your Paris trip ( which is actually quite common given all there is to see), just shop at Les Galeries Lafayette on Boulevard Hausmann. Architecturally speaking, it is a delight to even those who would avoid shopping at all costs. It is a 10-storey deparmental store and you will be able to buy all those cute little Parisian mementos under one roof. You can see the detailed coving on the balconies behind me in this picture.

Thursday, September 6, 2007

Reims..a tour through Champagne country

Reims is about one and a half hours drive north east of Paris. This is the land of champagne. Abhijit and I hired a car on a whim and drove out here when we were in Paris in 2005. There is a scenic route which takes you through vineyards which is spectacular. We wanted to go to Moet and Chandon in Epernay but it was closed by the time we got there. Look closely at the lable the next time you have French champagne. You will see the names 'Reims' or 'Epernay'. Both town are renowned for champagne production.

We had no idea where to go, but we had a GPS which was a godsend. The 'Mumm' Champagne House was nearest to us, and we were not disappointed. The guided tour was extensive, and even included a tasting of their Cordon Rouge champagne. Above is a picture of me next to the different sized bottles 'Mumm' is sold. Here is a picture of Abhijit with a view of the beautiful Franch countryside behind him.

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Kolkata Cha (tea)

Tea is integral to Indian, more so Indian Bengali culture. A typical breakfast or snack would include hot and sweet milk tea, a 'shingara' or 'samosa' or two, and sweets such as rossogolla (cottage cheese dumplings soaked in sugar syrup) or jilipi (made from flour, sugar and water).

Kolkata (formerly Calcutta) is the major city of Eastern India, and where I spent my formative years. The majority of the people here are Hindu Bengali. Post 1991, Kolkata has seen a lot of development and growth, most noticeably in terms of consumerism. 'Salt Lake' is a large planned residential area north of the city, and it is home to one of the country's main shopping malls called 'City Centre'.

It is in this mall that we discovered an amazing 'cafe' where Bengali snacks and tea are served in the traditional way. Check out the picture where I am having tea from a traditional terracotta vessel, which is common at every street corner in the city. This is how real Indians take their tea. Also note the 'mora' or handwoven seats which are also common in homes in Kolkata. The place was packed with young and old alike. If you ever visit India, try to sample tea and Indian food this way.

Berkeley dining

There are two places I spent a lot of time in during my stay and can recommend:

(1) Plearn Thai: Within walking distance of the university campus, this is a budget eaterie with traditional and clean decor, but with exceptional food. Tasty, and plentiful, it has always satisfied.
2050 University Ave
, Berkeley, CA
(510) 841-2148

(2) Yogurt Park: It is safe to say that everyone at and associated with Berkeley has sampled frozen yogurt at this institution. It is always busy, and their unique creations are mouth-watering. They do great business, being opposite to student housing, and just minutes away from the Bancroft Way entrance of the university. See picture above.
2433 Durant Ave # A, Berkeley, CA (510) 549-0570

Welcome to Berkeley, California.

In 2003 I decided to leave my fairly mundane IT job, to travel to the USA. I had always been fascinated with San Francisco, and although I had traveled fairly extensively to New York and the midwest, the west had always been a mystery to me.

But I did not just want to spend a few days there. In order to make it a more wholesome experience, I enrolled in summer school at the University of California, Berkeley, about 15 miles east of San Fran.

A one and a half-month stint at Berkeley ensured that I got to live in student residences, full board, just seconds off of the famed Telegraph avenue. It also meant that I got to spend some serious time on the west coast, allowing me to get to know its people, sights, and sounds. the experiences that followed are probably fodder for another blog someday. But it was a wonderful life-changing experience. Just what the doctor had ordered.

At the top is a picture of Telegraph avenue, with its myriad of colorful street stalls, on a beautiful summer day.

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Late night Chicago sweets!

We were still living downtown just off Michigan Avenue, Chicago at the time. It was a Saturday night, and we had opted for a quiet night in, tucking into a nice home-cooked meal. By the time it was 10:30, we were both feeling restless. Looking out of our 30th floor apartment, we could not resist the bright lights of State Street.

"Do you have room for dessert?" asked Abhijit, looking expectantly, privately hoping I would say yes. "Always", I replied cheekily. Minutes later, Abhijit remarked that the Peninsula Hotel, a fine five class hotel was just around the corner from us, and they probably did desserts. It was nearly 11, and we decided to check it out.

We walked up to the reception, very quiet and elegant, subtle and sumptuous at the same time. The manager nodded and smiled, assuming we were guests I suppose. We reveled in that illusion as we looked around and figured out that all accommodation and other facilities had to be accessed by the elevator. We took it to the floor marked 'The Lobby'.

Seconds later, we found ourselves in a decadent showroom, with muted chandeliers, and amazing finery. There were quite a few people, couples, groups of businessmen, etcetera, helping themselves to what looked like a buffet of chocolate. To our right, a chanteuse was belting out smooth jazz numbers, while a cellist and pianist kept her company. It was wonderful. A waitress ushered us to a table not far from the musical trio.

While there was a dessert buffet for serious chocaholics, there was also a a la carte menu, and we opted for the latter. Abhijit's choice of dark chocolate and espresso ice cream, and my ginger creme brulee was certainly a feast for the senses. Our Saturday evening had turned out to be quite a sweet treat.

I believe they cost around $12 each, so dining at a five star hotel need not cost an arm and a leg. Check the website out for details and times. This is indeed one of the finest hotels in Chicago.

website: Dining at the Peninsula in Chicago