Farmstead at Longmeadow Ranch: Reliably wonderful Napa Valley farm to table

You know you’ve found a favorite restaurant when you can eat there twice within a week, and the second meal is even better than the first. That’s how I feel about Farmstead at Longmeadow Ranch, a Napa Valley restaurant that is a must for anyone traveling through the area, no matter how short your stay.

Longmeadow Ranch, like so many other winery-centric businesses in the Napa Valley, many businesses in one: tasting room, general store showcasing local products, casual eatery, fine restaurant, and private event venue. While all are well done here, it’s the restaurant, Farmstead, that takes center stage.

Having first tried Farmstead at the behest of a foodie friend last summer, it was an instant hit with me. Its shareable burrata appetizer and an addictive butterscotch pudding – so good our party of four ordered one and decimated it so quickly we ordered two more! – won me over. Alas, I was too slow to blog about it then. But two more recent visits later, and here I am, telling you that YOU. MUST. EAT. HERE. Fresh, local, and creative. Longmeadow Ranch takes your favorite food trends and innovates them – enough that they are recognizable but unique and great enough to be memorable.

Let’s talk about that Burrata, for example. Cool, creamy, oozy burrata is so good on its own, why mess with that? Longmeadow Ranch hears it. The result is basically mozzarella fondue, and it works beautifully. Try it alone, with its crackling olive-oil crostini, with a clove of accompanying roast garlic squeezed on top, with a dose of pickled onions or gherkins on top, or the marinated, pickled beets – or a little of all of the above. While part of me would like a sweet element to offset the saltiness and richness of the cheese, the different bites of various savory flavors still manage to to bring out different aspects of the burrata itself. Who knew burrata could have such versatility?

Love cheddar biscuits? Farmstead serves theirs slightly caramelized in a cast iron skillet with honey butter. They are nowhere near your heavy Cracker Barrel biscuit, but if you’re a Yelp user, you’ll be delighted to find out that they can be yours, complimentary, should you choose to check in on Yelp.

Ok, let’s talk about this menu.
First, the drinks. Farmstead makes some great cocktails; if you don’t like wine, they have many great ones. Beers aren’t a strong suit, so pick the cocktails, mocktails, or wine. Tip: Try a tasting next door, purchase a bottle and drink it at the table for $5 corkage – you’ll save a bunch over ordering off the restaurant menu. I love their Sauvignon Blanc. It is crisp, clean and versatile. Perfect for a warm afternoon on the patio, surrounded by greenery. The rosé is also fantastic – light, dry, fruity and tangy with watermelon and strawberry notes.

The food: Their current summer menu has many great options for starters, entree salads, and main courses. On my recent visits I opted for their summery salad with mixed greens, strawberries, feta, and almonds with pulled chicken first; on the second visit, I chose two small plates: beets and meatballs.

Let me just tell you that the beets and meatballs were extraordinary. I’ve talked in this blog at length about a few of my favorite food trends of the decade, including beets, Brussels sprouts, and kale. As cliche as they all can be, the last 15 years have made vegetable side dishes so delicious that people like me order them as an integral part of the meal and not a simple afterthought. In that perspective, I can’t roll my eyes when I see yet another version of them on a menu. Because they’re still nutritious (well minus all the additives to help them along) and delicious.

I am a fan of a sweeter, cold, pickled beet, but Farmstead again takes the route less traveled by making them savory and caramelizing them. Beets’ dense and juicy texture doesn’t lend themselves naturally to caramelizing, but Farmstead has made me rethink that assumption. The caramelization created an umami smokiness that paired well with the smooth, mascarpone-like goat cheese presented with it.

The all-beef meatballs also came as a harmonic and hearty small plate. Served with a tomato jam – really, reduced sweet tomato sauce and collard greens that had been broiled with high heat for an almost kale chip-like consistency, I could have eaten this dish or the beets alone as a filling main course. Our server had recommended them together, and I am grateful for the recommendation, as the two dishes did contrast nicely with one another.

My friends on these visits ordered beef tartare, macaroni and cheese (both pictured above), the pulled pork panini (not pictured), a vegetarian arborio rice dish not called risotto (but essentially was risotto), and the capellini primavera. 

Each one was fantastic in its own right. The ricotta capellini primavera, had an interesting tang to it, hinting of yogurt. The mac and cheese is one of those dishes worth the calories.

My one caveat for Farmstead is its lack of restraint with salt. I happen to love salt, but if you have sensitivity to salt, simply ask them to go easy on the salt, as their flavors tend to concentrate anyway and don’t necessitate salt.

For dessert, their new pastry chef frequently rotates dishes. Homemade ice creams and sorbet are delicate and vary daily; flavors on our visits included peanut butter and jelly (yum!), cucumber, and lemon-raspberry. Sadly, the memorable butterscotch pudding (photo near the top of this post)was a creation of the previous pastry chef, but we hope it will be resurrected later this summer (!). Other tempting dishes include fruit pies and cobblers.

I can’t recommend Farmstead at Longmeadow Ranch enthusiastically enough. You’ll leave with a new or renewed appreciation of Northern California’s local bounty and culinary talent.

Pasta Fresca Barkia: The best of Italian cuisine and Greek hospitality in Mykonos

Greek cuisine is fantastic. Whether you prefer surf or turf, meat or vegetarian food, Greek cuisine has something for everyone. Yet in the Mediterranean food wars (I made that up), Italian food wins the global battle. I would argue that no other cuisine has such is represented by more restaurants or appears on more menus around the globe, or remade in home kitchens around the world. Its universal appeal makes it that sort of reliable go-to for travelers, too. Its pretty hard to screw up pizza and pasta – though I assure you, I’ve seen that happen. Mediocre Italian is everywhere also, so when you find something special, you remember it. And Europe tends to hold onto the best traditions, so it shouldn’t be a surprise, given the millennia-old, complicated brotherly dynamic between Greek city-states and Rome that some modern-day Roman conquerors found their place in the wealthy desert isle of Mykonos.

In a small town packed with an enormous amount of shops and restaurants per capita, Greek food and international fusion (often on the same menu) comprise the majority of restaurants, with a small army of slick fast casual shops selling anything from gyros to crepes and gelato joining the clamor for tourists’ seats and Euros. When you smell fresh pasta sauces, it commands attention.

So while spending another long stretch in Greece, after 8 days of Greek cuisine, the smell of pasta drew in a small group of colleagues and myself into the quaint, if not crowded, Pasta Fresca Barkia to try something a little different.
Pasta Fresca Barkia passed our test: good pasta, large menu variety, and even tzatziki to keep alive our daily streak of eating the delicious cucumber-yogurt-garlic concoction.

Walk inside and you may well find yourself in very close quarters as they cram in as many seats as possible (what fire code?). But what it lacks in allowing personal space or freedom of movement, it gains back in charm, Greek hospitality, and a great meal chosen from a veritable pasta catalog.

Our group started with a few appetizers, most of which had a decidedly Greek flair. A large, crusty loaf of bread formed the base for a Greek bruschetta that layered traditional crushed tomatoes atop the spicy, funky local Myconian cheese. 

Caprese and Greek salads continued the Greco-Roman fusion, and, finally, our tzatziki. 

Theirs had a stronger tang from citrus or vinegar than other versions but was nicely balanced with garlic and a hint of dill.

Now, decision time. When I say the menu choices were endless, I’m not exaggerating. It was more difficult than a Thai menu. The restaurant itself makes a wide variety of pastas, from spaghetti and tagliatelle to fusilli, penne, rigatoni, to filled tortellini and ravioli to al forno (baked) canelloni and lasagna. You can watch a daily pasta-making demonstration – if you can fit it into your shopping schedule and not lose your way in Mykonos town’s maze of alleys, that is. With all variety of shapes and styles, an equally ridiculous offering of sauces and accompanying meats vie for your appetite.

I chose the rigatoni pesto rosso (red pesto) after significant deliberation. I prefer ridged rigatoni to its sister penne, as I find sauce clings to its ridges much better, and I don’t find sun-dried tomato pesto often on the menu. It was fresh and delicious. Though it wasn’t quite as garlicky as I would like, it was delicious, and the pasta was perfectly al dente.
Two of my colleagues chose the spicy penne d’arrabiata – which turned out much spicier than expected. The culprit was their homemade blend of dried red pepper flakes. I sprinkled a very scant pinch of the flakes (brought upon another’s request) on my rigatoni, and wow. The tiny amount added an inexplicable amount of heat.

The other two chose a yin and yang – one a hearty and cheesy baked ravioli, the other langoustines (baby lobster-ish) with squid ink linguine. The latter was a more cosmopolitan take on a dish that is very typical of the Greek isles.

Everyone’s meal left us with no room for dessert, but in typical Greek form, we were served a lovely (complimentary) presentation of watermelon wedges over ice, served with a digestive, and tiny milk and while chocolate bonbons. To our pleasant surprise, the digestive was a homemade watermelon-infused moscato instead of the typical mastika. Mastika is a true digestive made from the sap of the mastic tree, which grows only on the eastern island of Hilos. Explaining the sap part goes a long way in giving an idea of its taste. To me, mastika tastes like sugar-laced wheat grass and weed killer. Occasionally, it can be infused with pleasant aromatics or fruit that help mask the musty mastika taste. I share this sidebar because mastika is presented at almost every restaurant after every meal, so to be given a digestive that actually tastes good – win!

Should you find yourself in Mykonos and in search of an alternative to the hoardes of Greek restaurants and tavernas, look no further upon Pasta Fresca Barkia. It was a happy accident when we stumbled upon it, and you’ll be grateful also.

Mykonos: Know Before You Go

Mykonos. The Greek isle has quite the reputation as a luxury party destination. Does it live up to the hype? The island can offer a wide range of experiences, depending on your preferences. 

Looking to party like European royalty? Mykonos has you covered. Relaxation or a romantic retreat? Check. An action-packed LGBT-friendly getaway? Check. Looking for land, sea or cultural experiences? Mykonos has plenty. Ancient history? Sure. Family-friendly resorts? It’s not Mykonos’ strong suit, but it’s doable on the island. 

The island offers a variety of experiences to meet everyone’s needs, but travelers should be aware of the island’s nuances to make the most of your next vacation. After having spent a fair amount of time at work and leisure on Mykonos in the past year, I have accumulated a few high points that every traveler should know before the trip.

1.  Mykonos operates seasonally.

Thinking of hitting Mykonos in the off-season?  Like many islands, Mykonos essentially operates May through (early) October. Its year-round population is only about 10,000; yet with the addition of seasonal workers coming from mainland Greece and tourists, its “population” can exceed 100,000 in the summer. Why is this important? Hotels and businesses close down over the winter; repairs and renovations often take place over the winter and seasonal workers return to the mainland. That means that opening weeks for the season can be a little rough. While you might find hot deals on hotels, don’t be prepared to experience Mykonos fully if you travel in late April or early May as hotels, restaurants, and shops slowly begin to open their doors. You might be disappointed when your hotel room isn’t what was promised in the booking.  Also, rain is more likely in the spring. 

Bottom line:  If you want the ‘full’ Mykonos experience – particularly the party atmosphere, go during the summer high season. You’ll just pay more. If you’d like more peace and quiet – and are looking to save money, wait until mid to late September. The weather may be a bit cooler, but the hotels will operate much more effectively by the end of the season.

2. Mykonos is (essentially) a desert island

If you envision lush green Mediterranean hills that you’ve seen in a few magazine spreads depicting Greece, know that it isn’t representative of Mykonos. Mykonos is an arid, rocky, and windswept island. On the windward northwest side of the island near the Faros (lighthouse), it’s easy to imagine Homer’s Odyssey and his ship being derailed by the sirens in a rocky pass. Plan on wind being your constant companion, especially in the spring and fall (there’s a reason why high season is high summer). Rain comes mostly in the early spring, and thunderstorms are rare but possible.

Looking to enjoy the great outdoors?  Stick to the beach or sea, or explore the island by car or open-air Jeep.  Hiking and more traditional outdoor activities are less prevalent than water sports or relaxing by the pool or beaches. While Mykonos is relatively rocky and dry, it has numerous beaches. Water can be quite chilly, so you may wish to lie in the sun. The island’s tour groups operate a number of sailboats and motor craft, as well as ferries to other islands. High-speed RIB boats are an exciting way to explore nearby islands, including the ancient ruins of Delos, the self-proclaimed world’s first duty-free port; ferries also take larger groups of the public there. It’s a fantastic sight for anyone looking for a cultural experience.

Bottom line:  Prepare for wind; dress in layers; outdoor lovers should stick to the sea and beach. 

3. Mykonos town is the epicenter of the island
If you choose lodging near the town of Mykonos, you’ll find easy access to great restaurants, water excursions, and shopping. You’ll also be surrounded by tourists an day visitors from the numerous cruise ships and ferries that transit Mykonos’ port.  Ornos and Platy Gialos are nice alternative locales to town, each with family-friendly beaches and plenty of restaurant options – but both are close enough to town to get around. If you’re looking for a getaway, resorts outside of town are a good bet. Elia Beach, for example, is oh-so-close to town by water, but by land, it is a 20-30 minute drive on winding road. Elia and other similar beaches are best suited for those looking to avoid the Mykonos party scene. If  you choose to stay outside of Mykonos town, you may wish to rent a car, as taxis are not plentiful, and car services like Uber are nonexistent. Some visitors choose to rent scooters and ATVs, but I highly discourage it, as locals note the prevalence of accidents. If you find yourself in a trauma ward of a local medical center, that’s a bad sign. Especially when that means you’ll need transport to Athens for adequate critical care.

Bottom line:  To stay near all of the action, choose lodging within walking distance to Mykonos town. If you prefer to get away from it all, look outside of town! Don’t rely on taxis or scooters.

4. Mykonos has amazing food

The Greeks know hospitality. Their food, wine, and ambiance are unparalleled. The flavors of Greek cuisine, from surf to turf, are a highlight of any visit to Greece. Mykonos is no exception. While it IS a desert island and thus most ingredients aren’t produced or caught locally – with notable exceptions of cheese and seafood, Mykonos’ numerous restaurants compete for your love and money with near-perfect expressions of Greek and international cuisine. Stick to Greek food, or Greek-influenced fusion, and you won’t be disappointed. Stay away from the restaurants that try to lure you in from the street; the truly great ones need no advertisements. 

A few recommendations:
Remezzo – Restrained when you want your waiters to be slightly snooty and sport man buns. In en elevated position by the water near the old port north of Mykonos town (within walking distance), it offers international fusion in an elegant setting.

Nammos Beach Club: Exclusivity galore! Where the wealthy and celebrities hang out. Snagging a beachside chair and umbrella will cost you, but be glad it’s not a cabana – their “Cabañas” are full-fledged four-walled structures made for special occasions, and they will cost upwards of €1,000 for a day rental.

 It is arguably Mykonos’ best and most exclusive white sand beach, so for a true taste of it without extraneous costs, try a lunch at the club restaurant, which is lovely and airy in and of itself, but the food is fantastic. They make a mean risotto, as well as sushi and an incredible raw bar. You’ll feel like a million Euros after a meal and some people watching there.

Avra (photo above): A lovely “secret garden” spot in the heart of Mykonos town. Their immense menu combines Greek and continental dishes in a lovely setting that feels private and not touristy.

Alegro (photo above): Down to earth restaurant in little Venice. Relatively affordable, with great Greek and international dishes. Their complimentary Greek bruscetta and marinated olives will start your meal right! Try the kolokithokefthedes (zucchini balls – devastatingly good comfort food there), tzatziki, the seafood pasta, grilled octopus – anything really. We loved it so much, we are there three times in two trips. They have good, affordable Greek wines as well.
Elia Beach Restaurant – For those staying off the beaten path (or simply wanting to escape the crowds downtown), the casual open-air restaurant has a great selection of both Greek and international comfort food. Salads are good for those enjoying the lighter side. Their tzatziki is killer, and their Greek desserts are about as traditional as they come. Their baklava and sweet cheese pie are worth every calorie.

5. Mykonos is not a budget destination.
Certainly, good planning and a little restraint can make Mykonos less harsh on the wallet, but make no mistake, it is not cheap. If you don’t want to spend a lot, try a shorter stay before hopping somewhere else. Since the true island residents are few, you can’t use the tried-and-true travel strategy of going where the locals go. The inland village of Ano Mera offers more local color and has a few more than decent restaurants (Moussaka lovers unite!), but you’ll want a rental car to visit. Luckily, the Greeks believe in eating two big meals during the day, so if you fuel up at breakfast – which tends to be fabulous and included in most hotels’ room rates, you won’t need another full meal until dinner. In the meantime, Mykonos has plenty of cheap(er) fast food souvlaki, gyro, and crepe shops to tide you over.

Bottom line: Prepare your wallet. Indulge at breakfast.

6. Mykonos is tolerant
Why am I listing that, you ask? Allow me to put it delicately. If you are not comfortable seeing (or explaining to your children) sexuality on display, you might not wish to visit Mykonos. Mykonos developed an international reputation for tolerating what then were considered alternative lifestyles, starting in the 1960s. It was considered a safe haven for gay vacationers, and their fun, festive atmosphere continues to pervade Mykonos. For the most part, it is fairly subtle from an outsider’s perspective, but some of the window displays in Mykonos town shops might catch some tourists off-guard. Mykonos does host a few festivals during the season. Additionally, the island does have a few nude beaches, but most are secluded, and its patrons are respectful of those in the surrounding mainstream beaches.

Bottom line: Everyone just wants to have fun. Nobody is looking to bother anyone else’s fun, but they aren’t going to hide everything for fear of offending anyone.

7. Mykonos is known as a party destination.
Greeks love to party, and that atmosphere is also prevalent. The well-known nightclubs barely get started before 3 am, and sunrise is peak time at some of the largest, such as Cavo Paradiso, located a bit of a hike from Mykonos town near Paradise Cove and Beach. Cavo Paradiso, which often hosts A-list DJs and can hold up to 2,000 partiers, is so loud the bass almost seems to interfere with your heart rhythms. According to my Greek contacts, the party peaks at sunrise, after which its pool becomes a free for all for guests to enjoy a morning dunk before sobering up enough to drive back to town. Cavo Paradiso is one of the few locales on the island with a taxi stand, so it’s easier to hit than other out-of-town destinations. The late club scene translates to slower mornings in Mykonos town, and its shops are open relatively late for Europe (many remain open until 11 pm).

Bottom line: Prepare to shift your schedule a few hours later than you would at home. That’s true regardless of whether you yourself want to participate in the party scene!

Do you have any Mykonos travel tips to share? Please comment below!

The Talisman: A magical expat nook in southwestern Nairobi

The omnipresent developing world traffic of Nairobi, Kenya can’t stop expats from flocking to The Talisman, an eclectic, cozy gastropub for international culinary fusion or cocktails with friends. I joined that set for a night during my trip to Kenya, and the restaurant didn’t disappoint for food and atmosphere.

For those of you who haven’t visited sub-Saharan Africa, I’m guessing the image in your head is taken from The Lion King or, perhaps, nature documentaries: a grassy savannah with a sparse few stubby trees. Yes, Africa does have them, of course, but the city of Nairobi is certainly more green, hilly, and forested than one might expect. Or that just might be me.  

With the exception of downtown Nairobi with its skyscrapers, or its densely populated urban slums with human life beating out the plant kingdom (sometimes barely a victory), the city and its surrounding area is forested, not unlike a somewhat more tropical version of those seen in the US and Europe. The effect is that you can’t really see just how terrible the traffic is ahead of you, and you find places that are almost magical surprises in their existence within the forest.
The Talisman is one such surprise – and it should be, given that it is not the most easily accessible with a location on the opposite side of the city as its primary business and diplomatic districts. On a map, it doesn’t look quite so far. The distance is less than 6 miles (10 km) from the city center, but in Nairobi terms, its more like 60. Traffic in Nairobi is absolutely horrendous, and that means something, coming from someone who commuted in Lima, Peru and has experienced the world-class horror that is trying to drive through crowded Agra, India on a night particularly auspicious for weddings (which stop traffic completely). 
Nairobi’s baffling affinity for roundabouts, strobing road cameras, and U-turns in place of organized traffic control (signals or humans) is perhaps its own worst enemy. Bottom line, you must be very accustomed to the traffic and/or have a very good reason to drive across or around the city for dinner at The Talisman.

The Talisman itself is rather unassuming from its driveway, a rambling, one-story white stucco building that appears to be a converted residence, surrounded by tall trees. Inside, a network of rooms with working fireplaces and walls adorned with local art – impressionist landscapes and portraits – form separate dining areas, and its wooden bar evokes nothing of the gastropub marketed on its slick website. But its coziness grew on me, a respite from the traffic, from the crowded slums and bumpy dirt roads I passed through earlier in the day. I realize that probably sounds a little shallow, but it’s really all about unwinding after a day of overstimulation and too much jostling in a van.

My colleague and I were seated in their covered outdoor patio – the covering fortunate after a wet afternoon during this winter rainy season. A charcoal grill whimsically in the shape of a grinning frog (the mouth full of coals) kept us warm as the evening darkened. It was perhaps a bit too dark without a candle, but that addition made our meal feel a bit more rustic – never mind that anything but African cuisine is part of the menu. 

Having skipped lunch, I was the hungriest I’d been on my trip to Kenya, and my colleague had a bit of a scare owning to playing prawn roulette at dinner the preceding night, so we both chose starters: me a beetroot and goat cheese tartlet and him that African staple, spicy chicken wings (sarcasm). The tart was layered, with caramelized beets and onions lining the shell and crowned with goat cheese.

Excited to see wine flights on the beverage list (which I discovered to be an alien concept to the British, apparently), I decided to be adventurous and try a Sauvignon blanc flight that included variants of the varietal from Chile, South Africa, and Kenya. The Kenyan wine had an intriguing aroma of toasted marshmallows. I should have guessed right there what that meant, but I eagerly took a sip. The wine had a cloying white-grape juice flavor, which was masked by a smokiness best described as tasting like the grapes were grown in a field surrounding by heaps of burning trash (a real and not abnormal odor around Nairobi and the Rift Valley). Oh well! I now know not to drink Kenyan wine anytime soon. Rift Valley Wine: When you miss that toasty, garbage ash aroma.

For my main dish, I chose a Moroccan spiced beef stew, served with a minted couscous that looked like tabbouleh but was certainly couscous; soft pita; yogurt, chutney, and hummus. The hummus tasted subtly and weirdly of bananas – I am going to guess that was all me. Who makes banana hummus? It was a fun palette of sweet, salty, tangy, and earthy flavors at once. It was satisfying and filling to my empty stomach. 

My colleague ordered steak, which came with “matched potatoes”.  No, I don’t believe that was a typographical error on the menu. These were little fried potato cakes that made French fries seem pedestrian. If I return to the Talisman, I definitely would order those potatoes as a side dish.

If our beef-heavy meals weren’t enough, chocolate desserts were our downfall. We split a chocolate fondant (molten cake) and a seasonal special – a Bailey’s brownie, both served with ice cream; both were fantastic, but the brownie was other-worldly with the clear flavor of Irish cream infused throughout. I need no other words to describe the sensation other than YUM.

Stuffed, satisfied, and relaxed after a day of overstimulation, The Talisman was the perfect culinary antidote we needed.

Narobi, Kenya: Where culture, cuisine, and class converge

Fresh off a Kenyan adventure, the CD takes you on a cultural and culinary tour of Nairobi, a city of contrasts. The food scene one finds in Nairobi as a wealthy expatriate is far different than what those less fortunate may eat, showing us all just how fortunate we are as travelers.

Many of us in the developed world (pretty much most of the northern hemisphere) take for granted our range of food options – our ability to travel internationally without ever leaving home; access to clean water and safe produce; the consistent access to electricity to transform those raw materials into something altogether different through heat or refrigeration/freezing. Many of us are fortunate to vary our diet at least a few times a week and count on at least two full meals.

My recent trip to Kenya reminded me of the contrast between the global “haves” and “have-nots” in terms of not only our food culture, but our opportunities as well. I have to confess a little uneasiness at my enjoyment of international dishes at restaurants catering to expats and foreign visitors while serving a nutritionally marginal – yet coveted with the desperation of hunger and unpredictable meals – breakfast to street children and teens in a Nairobi slum. It’s the luxury of trying crocodile or camel for the sheer novelty of doing so vs the monotony of porridge and starch that provide easy calories.

During my trip, I visited everything from international organizations and gleaming, modern business schools to a rural primary school with 1800 students, 50 students per class clamoring for the chance to learn math through donated computer based training, and to slum-based community empowerment organizations, including one where I met some of Kenya’s most promising rappers dreaming of international recording stardom. In Kenya, there is extreme hardship and opportunity around every congested, chaotic roundabout (more of those than corners on the streets of Nairobi!).

And in each community, a contrast between the homeless (porridge), the road to empowerment (street samosas; rice and beans with cooked greens from an organic community garden); the formal dining hall of the university business school; to the luxury of (the risk of!) eating sushi alongside a Mediterranean eggplant spread with a cocktail at a five-star hotel.

Kenya’s cuisine appears fairly simple relative to the spicy dishes loved in other equatorial lands, though it also draws from the heavy influence of centuries of trade with the Indian subcontinent. At its most basic are its simple Millet or maize (corn) porridges that expand to fill a hungry belly, served with Mandazi, a simple, savory, triangle of fried dough (the slum’s samosa, perhaps). A little further up the ladder – and a bit more egalitarian among Kenya’s social classes – is Ugali, a soft pancake or spoon bread-like starch made from a hardened maize + flour porridge. It’s sort of a softer (and, I’m told, more bland) answer to Ethiopia’s Injera. It typically is a vessel for fried beef or goat, or sometimes beans. Beef is Kenya’s cheapest meat, in contrast to many developed economies.

The Indian influence does make it through even the working classes, where street kiosks sell samosas and chai to those on the go; biryani, pilau, chapattis, and roti/naan are prevalent.

And the middle classes and above have the access one might expect to modern supermarkets and coffee houses, to international restaurants.

At this end is where I fell, carrying the white woman’s guilt from handing out greasy Mandazi and porridge in cups that had to be-reused without sterilization from child to child, reminded that I am fortunate – as are any of you reading this bougie blog! because of birth, not birthright, nor deserved by hard work. My own work ethic only serves to elevate me even more from my birth status as one of the global 0.1% (as I used to refer to my fellow business school classmates and myself as we studied business in the developing world). It’s a humbling reminder to be grateful.

The humility also killed my appetite a bit; ok, that and unreliable drinking water. One night, my British colleague and I dined at the uber-touristy Nyama Choma Ranch dinner theatre at the Safari Park Hotel. It, like other touristy meat-themed restaurants (yes, that’s you, Carnivore) offers patrons a smorgasbord of any sort of meat imaginable. From the mundane – roast chicken and dark meat turkey – to the less ordinary – goat, to the exotic – crocodile (tastes like turkey) or camel (tastes like alpaca), diners are encouraged to channel their primal appetites while watching a coed troupe of athletic young dancers serve as a human, tribal diorama.

That’s not to say that tribalism isn’t authentic or alive still in 21st century Kenya (or, perhaps it isn’t a stretch to see tribalism in political rivalries in the US and the Brexit divide in the U.K…?) Those dance numbers just feel a little too contrived for me to enjoy them. And it’s another reminder that the culinary traditions enjoyed by Kenya’s citizens and residents are largely a reflection of a stratified, uneven class structure – and that I fit into that top echelon as an American professional and visitor.

Yes, Kenya is a land of contrasts. I felt it traveling from the five star hotel to the slums, just as I felt it in a different sense during a drive through Nairobi National Park – a safari available within the Nairobi city and county limits. In the park, one can feel so remote, so close to nature – and yet there, the zebras, impalas, buffaloes, and giraffes coexist with the visible urban skyline of Nairobi. It’s every bit a surreal experience as the slum-to-hotel transition. It’s every bit quintessential Kenya, also.

Lest this blog seem super heavy, join me next time for my favorite meal of my trip at expat (and Trip Advisor) darling, The Talisman.

The quintessential high tea experience at London’s Hotel Café Royal

There is perhaps no dining experience more quintessentially British than a proper high tea. And when one has so many fine tea rooms to choose from, how does one do so? Discover how here!

A truly great high tea experience has been on my bucket list since my first trip to London 15 years ago. I finally had the experience about which I’d dreamt: It was worth the wait.

The deceptive sun and trees glistening with icy hailstones

The Telegraph put together a great list of London’s top teas, highlighting the best of particular themes. On this list for best “London-themed teas” was the Oscar Wilde Bar at Hotel Cafe Royal. Scoring a reservation for one with short notice while on a business trip, I walked about five kilometers from my hotel through rain , sun and hailstorms – no, I’m not making that up – to earn that tea and soak up my very short time in the city.
I have to say, I hadn’t really done my research about Hotel Café Royal, located near Picadilly Circus. I went in blind, other than the research as to the high tea itself. The venue’s history is rich with celebrated figures and intrigue. Founded by fugitive French tax evaders in the mid 19th century – oh, those French! – the café was a new stop and architectural novelty on the developing Regent Street. Over the years, it found itself playing frequent host to elite patrons from literature, celebrity, royalty, and even boxing legends. Celebrated authors such as Oscar Wilde (for whom the tea room was recently renamed) and Virginia Woolf, royalty including George V and his disgraced older brother, Edward VII and later, Princess Diana, David Bowie, and Muhammad Ali have numbered among its patrons.

Approaching the hotel from the tourist laden Picadilly Circus, I wasn’t sure what to expect in such proximity to all these tourists. Once I walked inside, my opinion changed dramatically. The hotel’s mix of modern decor among its elegant 19th century architecture creates an exclusive feel. As I stepped into the restored Oscar Wilde Bar, the decor stepped back a century. Rose-colored walls are covered with gilded, ornate wood; its ceilings equally busy but stunning with painted floral scenes. It is exactly as one might expect a Victorian high tea for the wealthy of that era.

While the dining experience centers around tea, Laurent-Perrier champagne is just as much an ubiquitous beverage, as most patrons choose the option of adding a glass of the brut. And why not? There’s always an occasion to celebrate – and on the day of my visit, at least two birthdays were celebrated by the mix of English and foreign clientele. So of course I, too, imbibed.
For my tea, I chose a caffeine-free hibiscus and berry herbal tea. It was my sidekick throughout the experience, along with my own glass of champagne. The attentive staff were kind to offer me newspapers and magazines to read during my solo tea, as I observed they did with another patron dining solo. It was a lovely touch that enhanced my tea (and kept me off of my mobile phone).

Next came the savories, presented elegantly on a tiered silver tray. The amuse bouche was a goat’s cheese and “pickled apple” muffin topped with a rosette of goat cheese and an odd syringe-like dropper full of cucumber juice. It sounds (and looks – as you can see in the photo) odd, but it was perhaps the second best item I ate during the meal.

Crustless tea sandwiches included the traditional (for a reason – simple and delicious!) English cucumber and cream cheese sandwich, smoked salmon, chicken, ham, and prawn. Attentive to allergies, the staff substituted my choice of vegetarian option for the prawn. I opted to try a cheese and chutney combination – a whimsical and indeed, British sweet and savory duo. Should you care for more of a particular variety, they will bring you more. Dangerous!

For the win, sweet tooth! Clotted cream, jam, the hibiscus palate cleanser, and Champagne grace the foreground. In the rear, the four artisanal desserts

I moved on to the sweets. First came a palate cleanser, a subtly sweet, chilled beverage made from the same hibiscus and berry tea that accompanied my food.

It’s not butter! Clotted cream and jam slathered generously atop a plain scone, as the English do it. Amazing.

Scones and tea are inseparable in England. One cannot have a proper tea without scones, though the requisite toppings are a matter of regional taste and tradition. Clotted cream (no, it’s not butter; it’s better!) and strawberry jam are most popular, as I learned when taking a decidedly more humble high tea at a brasserie in the town of Windsor on the previous day with a local friend.

Personally, I’ve never cared much for scones. Now, however, I am a convert. The memory of the scones I had at Hotel Cafe Royal will stay imprinted on me for a long time – the dainty, airy scones serving as a vehicle for a thick smear of clotted cream and a slathering of oozy, sweet jam as my friend had taught me. I was too full to eat 10 of them, but really, I would have liked to eat 10 of them.
In fact, they were so good that me, the dessert-aholic, found the scones more memorable than the delicious and beautifully presented sweets also on the tray. A large Cherry and vanilla macaron was adorned with a cute chocolate top hat that makes Paris’ Ladurée look like amateurs. A buttery, mandarine almondine cake (like a financiér) was another memorable delicacy. The yuzu and blueberry filled choux was a little earthy for my tastes and the outside texture a bit crunchy, but the a pear and goat cheese tart could put any New York cheesecake to shame.

A wonderful feature is the generous ability to box up and take away any uneaten delicacies. I resisted to ask for more for my box, but happily took them back to my hotel with me for delayed gratification.

Though it was a bit of a splurge, the ambience, the service, the tea, and best of all, the food are every bit worth it. My high tea wishes fulfilled, I could happily move on from London to other exploits.

Restaurant de La Tour: The perfect Parisian meal at the perfect moment

Today, the CD takes a much-needed reset at a small neighborhood restaurant in the City of Light (and City of Culinary Treasures).

If you have visited Paris, you likely walked around the infamous Tour Eiffel in the city’s Left Bank and 15th Arrondissement. If you did so, you likely noticed quite the assortment of tourist-oriented cafes and street vendors. Yet it’s easy to forget that people actually live and work near this iconic landmark. So if those denizens dine out, where do they go?

One such location is Bistrot (also Restaurant) de La Tour, an unassuming restaurant that lacks the coveted corner location of larger establishments but has the good fortune of being located adjacent to a butcher shop. And it’s only a block from unobstructed views of the Eiffel Tower.

Inside, the small restaurant is cozy, yet elegantly decorated with modern minimalism. What it lacks in scale it more than overcomes with a delicious and relatively large menu with many options. I had a tough time choosing my selections for a three-course, fixed price menu, though one also can choose two courses, as well as from a separate, daily a la carte menu. Shockingly, the three course menu was only 34 Euros, which is pretty great for the quality and personal service of this establishment.

For appetizers (entrées), I had to select from perhaps eight choices, three of which, happily I found, contained pâté de foie gras. Others included soups, a terrine of eggplant (aubergine), sautéed mushrooms, and more. I opted for a salad with smoked duck and foie gras. Duck overkill, perhaps, but it was an interesting juxtaposition of two very different preparations of duck. The smoked duck burst with meaty flavor and the saltiness of cured meat. Regrettably for duck welfare, I love foie gras. Which also means I’m particular about its quality. Bad foie gras can remind you from what duck parts exactly it’s made, while good foie gras can deceive you into thinking it defies labels and was just born of itself. The foie gras in this particular salad, however, lacked the saltiness of most pates and instead of calling attention to the flavor of the pâté, it worked against it, making it seem a bit bland. It also had some recognizable bits in it, which I carefully excised from the rest and discarded. If this sounds disgusting, please know that this was the one and only disappointment of the meal. Every other aspect exceeded my expectations – which is, to say, that in Paris, one cannot have a bad meal at a local restaurant.

Course two was the embodiment of the richness of good French cuisine. Chicken breast with a powerful but lean Gorgonzola sauce was accompanied by snow peas and haricots verts, as well as the most exquisite potatoes Dauphinois (scalloped potatoes) I think I have ever eaten. Those potatoes should have their photo included in a Wikipedia entry for potatoes. They were just that perfect. Other menu options included veal risotto, sea bass, lamb chops, and more.

Now, for the pièce de resistance: dessert. Dessert was another difficult choice for me, with options like a molleux de chocolat (usually a warm, molten chocolate cake), orange supremes with Gran Marnier and ice cream, crème brûlée, and more. But I was intrigued to see a Brioche pain perdû (French toast), which I had never eaten outside of breakfast or brunch, listed. So I picked that.

Let the record speak: This French toast could not have been any better. It deserves a perfect “10” score. Thick, buttery Brioche without the metallic taste of too much egg wash (as French toast is prone to take on) but instead accentuated and moistened only slightly by egg. The toast plateau perched atop a moat of caramel – not the thick, additive laden caramel made from condensed milk, but the sexy, burnt sugar sweetness of of pure, caramelized sugar and melted butter. A petite scoop of vanilla glacé (ice cream) topped the toast. It was the simplest of desserts but so perfectly executed I am inspired to recreate it.

Dining is an experience. Part of a great dining experience is usually one’s company. In this case, I dined alone, which is the antithesis of our international archetype of Paris – OK, sorry for the really elitist use of Big Girl words, but sometimes the English language offers precise words that convey a meaning and a tone with some nice alliteration that I just couldn’t bear to simplify for our Twitt-ified, 140 character-happy world). Yet by dining alone, my focus was the food and wine itself, the restaurant’s atmosphere of dignity yet lack of self-importance, the relaxed cameraderie of two sixtysomething men and a woman catching lingering over dessert, the way the lone waitress and chef greeted chatted up a regular customer through his meal.

I had the sense that I wasn’t a tourist marveling at the City of Light(s) as the world appreciates it, but instead that I was witness to the way the Parisians themselves appreciate it. It was my window into Parisian life in that moment. Without fanfare or movie-style romance.

As I walked through the streets of Paris in the rain (to walk off my dinner and a very long week of work), I experienced Paris as I hadn’t before – alone and more attuned to the city itself and not the aura we have from movies, literature, and our own experiences. Paris is in many ways one of many similar, “international” cities that belong more to the world than they embody their national spirit. But for those of us lucky enough to visit as outsiders, it is different. It is Paris, where everything is somehow more elegant, where street graffiti is more refined – and where the food is on point.

I reflected on that meal – and on this moment in my life, where exhausted – truthfully, burned out, I found myself thinking about my past, present, and future. How my life is, in many ways, so far from that little girl’s hopes dreams, somehow a cosmic joke, cautionary tale, and adventurous triumph of womanhood all at once. This meal in Paris embodied all of that wistfulness, but most of all, it gave me hope and inspiration.

Quite honestly, I’d lost the drive and inspiration that spurred this blog in the first place. Yet this little meal reminded me why I started this blog: For these moments in time that offer an experience with food, with wine, and with culture that allow us to transcend ourselves. That allow us to see there is an entire world beyond ourselves and our experiences waiting to be discovered, shared, and discovered again.

I hope you’ll join me for further adventures of The Culinary Diplomat. In a world that seems to be in the midst of a rebellion against inclusion, against sharing and celebration of our different cultures and traditions, I think the world needs more global communities, not less. But that’s just my perspective…

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