Monthly Archives: July 2015

Portland’s Voodoo Doughnut: Keeping Portland Weird and delicious for tourists

Portland’s Voodoo Doughnut is not your mom and pop establishment. Irreverent and quirky, its doughnut art embodies the “keep Portland weird” motto and the joke that Portland is stuck in the 1990s – on steroids. Yet it also delivers on freshness, creativity, and flavor just as does Portland’s food scene. You just won’t see many locals there: Voodoo is Portland packaged for tourists.

  
 Voodoo Doughnuts has become one of those brands so synonymous with its city that it is a necessary stop during a visit to Portland, Oregon – for outsiders. Everything about Voodoo is pop art, and its medium is the doughnut.

Voodoo’s primary location is perfectly situated in counter-counter culture heaven (the opposite of the opposite is…?) near the southwest Waterfront and the Burnside Bridge, which divides the city from north to south. Across the street from Voodoo is the iconic “Keep Portland Weird” mural.

  
The neighborhood vibe screams Hipsters-Who-Have-Rent-Money but are deathly afraid of selling out and classing up the place. Isn’t it ironic, don’t you think? (I’m using the Alanis definition here).

  
After waiting patiently – or not, as some of my fellow Voodoo patrons did – through a long line outside the shop, walk inside into a kleptomaniac’s dream – if said klepto has a thing for the color pink, that is. I only wish I had more time to read the amusing posters, drawings, bumper stickers that plaster the walls. Some of them almost made me blush. And snicker like I would have in the 90s.

  
As it is, the extensive and sometimes challenging menu with its few descriptions leaves little time to fully take in your surroundings. Patient cashiers will explain each doughnut fully, but those behind you in line may not appreciate your inquisitive indecision. Voodoo has so many varieties of cake, raised, and filled doughnuts, as well as fritters and other pastry incarnations that it is impossible to make a completely informed choice of doughnut on a first visit.

  
I couldn’t resist the Rapper’s Delight – a trio of doughnuts that includes the ODB (Old Dirty Bastard), the Marshall Mathers, and a “cinnamon blunt” as well as a blueberry cake doughnut (surprisingly, no kitschy name). The ODB is a standard raised doughnut with chocolate and peanut butter frosting and crushed Oreos. The Marshall Mathers is a plain cake doughnut dipped in a thick vanilla icing and covered with what else but mini M&Ms candies. The cinnamon blunt is shaped as its name suggests, sprinkled with cinnamon sugar, and the “lit” end is dipped in a caramel icing. The blueberry cake doughnut was incredibly fresh, less dense than typical cake doughnuts, and if had the best blueberry flavor of any I’ve tried. Note that I did not eat all of these doughnuts and instead bought them to share.

  
But the best doughnut of all wasn’t even a doughnut. The Memphis Mafia is a giant cinnamon fritter the size of a human head, baked with banana and topped with chocolate, peanut butter, and chocolate chips. It is the most glorious, gluttonous pastry, definitely Elvis-worthy. It took a group of us three days to eat it (and somehow it wasn’t disgusting by then)!

  
The others in our large group raved equally about their own doughnuts. Each was a work of art, decorated with seemingly endless combinations of icings and toppings ranging from sprinkles to Coco Puffs cereal. Every Thursday and only on Thursdays, Voodoo sells a special doughnut filled with jelly made from a local producer; on this day, the special was blackberry and jalapeño jam.

Despite the crowds of tourists and the hype, Voodoo Doughnuts delivers a very edible pop art experience. It is a fun – if not gluttonous – introduction to the quirky 90s hipster culture of Portlandia. Your body just might not make it to a second visit, so follow it up with one of Portland’s wonderfully healthy and local restaurants or food trucks to balance it out!

Beer diplomacy: A LoCo, Virginia brewery tour

Northern Virginia’s horse and hill country has joined the global craft beer craze, and local breweries are fast becoming alternatives (or threats) to wine tourism in the region. Today, peek inside Loudoun County, Virginia’s intriguing and growing craft brewing industry.

Sharing a meal is a great way to share or experience one’s culture – whether local, regional, or national. Breaking bread and booze together has been a hallmark of diplomacy for decades, centuries, even millenia. Wine may remain the most accepted form of alcoholic cultural currency, but beer’s status has skyrocketed from working-class, low-brow, and mass-produced beverage to a savored experience for those in the know.

The beer industry is much more fragmented – and much more representative of society and local/regional culture than perhaps any other beverage. Sure, national brands have grown in popularity globally, thanks to large conglomerates and their distribution networks, like InBev. Through wide distribution, brands export both national pride and shame – from Guinness (Ireland) to Paulaner (Germany), Stella Artois (Belgium) to Heineken (The Netherlands), Singa (Thailand), Kingfisher (India), Sapporo (Japan), to Coors and Budweiser (USA) and Corona (Mexico).

Yet the relative ease and low cost of home brewing is not unrelated to the surge in the craft and microbrew industries on a lower scale, taking us from globally consolidated modernism to local, boutique-style post-modernism and endless choices. (And they said my graduate-level Media and Pop Culture class was useless! I bring it back,13 years later). Ok, sorry about that! Enough context and industry analysis. You opened this post to experience the beer. And beer you shall get.

When friends visiting Washington, D.C. from South America requested a brewery tour, I was caught off-guard. Full disclaimer: I am not much of a beer drinker. If you’ve perused the blog, you probably figured out (so tough, I know) that I gravitate towards wine. But I was eager to make the request become a great experience for all of us. Armed with the knowledge that Virginia has fully jumped on the brewery bandwagon and thanks to several recommendations, I decided to show my friends the lovely landscape of western Loudoun County, the quaint town of Purcelville, and three of its recommended breweries.

Being our first Virginia brewery tour, none of us were disappointed.

Adroit Theory Brewing Company
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Throughout their tasting room, website, and manifesto, the brewery’s edgy intensity is evident immediately. Electronically displayed menus on screens and gothic touches, like the lettering of its signage and logo, and industrial atmosphere of its warehouse home evoke exclusivity and reverence for beer. Irreverent, creative names are commonplace, including one so explicit (yet amusingly clever and apt), I won’t name it. From a rich porter with rhubarb notes to bitterness of a hop-heavy IPA offset by the tropical sweetness of mango, its complex beers command attention. This brewery is not soon forgotten.

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Corcoran

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I visited the Corcoran family’s winery and new cidery in its tranquil farm setting about a year ago. Having received an enthusiastic endorsement of the brewery, I was a bit underwhelmed by the relatively humble appearance of the brewery’s tasting room, which is tucked away in the rear of the bottom level of an out-of-place office building. What Corcoran lacks in atmosphere, it makes up with its broad selection of beers on tap. Corcoran dabbles in various international styles, including a few variations of my favorite, weisens (wheat beers), with less emphasis on fruit-forward or trendy flavor profiles. My friends’ favorite was LoCo, a bold American IPA named for the #hashtag worthy @handle for its home in Loudoun County. Hops the Bunny, another IPA named for a notorious wild rabbit that called Corcoran its home, also earned strong reviews from my friends.

Old 690 Brewing Company

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The final turn en route to this two-year-old brewery appears to be a gravel road to nowhere, but instead of a dead end and Deliverance, one finds a cheerful, lodge-like house of beer at the end of the journey. The busy hum of families, thirtysomethings, and retirees alike, together with a pork-themed food truck, and the brewery’s rustic-yet-contemporary vibe created a welcoming combination of leisure and energy. Their beer tasting options (11 or 17 roughly 2 oz. samples) lend themselves to sipping, savoring, and sharing. Like the previous breweries, variety is evident. I enjoyed a few refreshing sips of their raspberry and blueberry brews, which were a bit too light for my friends’ tastes but not my own, while they preferred their IPAs, pilsners, and stouts. The brewery’s sleek, embossed metal growlers were too novel for my friends to pass up, despite the over $100 price tag when filled, so we did not leave empty-handed. My friends were quick to calculate how they could finish the 64-oz. vessel before its two-week shelf life – and their own one-week USA tour concluded. It was a non-issue and a great final stop to the tour

Belgium’s Westvleteren 12: Going great lengths for the Holy Grail of beers

Travel by car to the western edge of Belgium, and encounter the Trappist beer aficionados have coveted for decades – one of the few remaining true Trappist monastery owned and operated breweries left unspoiled by marriage to the corporate world: Westvleteren.

I first learned of Westvleteren, or “Westie” as its cult following affectionately refers to it, during my time in Germany. A friend described this beer as the Holy Grail of beers, imbued both with the purity of Trappist brewing techniques and the nuanced complexity of recipes untouched by corporate production. Today, the monks of the Abbey of Saint Sixtus still brew and sell their beer from their abbey and visitor center. Despite demand for the beer, the abbey refuses to expand supply, sales, or profits, selling beer only to pay for abbey operations. With limited supply and no official outside distribution, collectors have been known to pay more than US$120 per bottle on the gray/black market for the limited-quantity Westvleteren 12 brew.

While it took me over a year to find the time (and vehicle) to make the two-hour drive from Brussels to the brewery/abbey’s visitor center in the quiet hills, small villages, and former World War I battlefields near Belgium’s border with France, it was a necessary and rewarding quest.

Its 1980s-style tasting room and restaurant feels like someone created a small-town museum and added the charm and hyperactivity of an Ikea cafeteria on a Saturday afternoon. It teemed with the chaos of families pushed to the brink of sanity by their long drive – and perhaps the long pre-meal wait in line to get their precious rations/holiday gifts of Westie Blonde, Westie 8 and Westie 12 six-packs, groups eagerly awaiting lunch, and servers hurredly but expertly pouring beer from their taps. Though we were slightly hungry, the menu was somewhat unappetizing to my American tastebuds – filled with heavy soups, pork and pate sandwiches. A leek and beer soup and dark bread turned out to be the perfect choice for a chilly, dreary day.

Of course, ordering a Westvleteren 12 with our meal was a non sequitur. So was it the best beer in the world? It’s always hard to judge when (1) something is so eloquently hyped and (2) that something isn’t one of your favorites to begin. So the long answer began with the first sip. It had the deep, earthy chocolate aroma of a stout but without the heaviness of, say, Guinness, and perhaps a bit more hops than is comfortable for me. But my opinion of its flavors increased dramatically when paired with food. My leek soup may not have been the best pairing, but it was a nice contrast. Alongside the hearty soup, the Westvleteren took on the complexity of a fine wine.

Unexpectedly, it was ice cream that for me transformed the Westvleteren into flavors worthy of the hype (or maybe numb my bitter taste receptors). The brewery’s signature beer sundae combines vanilla ice cream, Westvleteren beer, a spongy topping made from beer and with a texture of what would best be described as freeze-dried, astronaut ice cream or the marshmallows of Lucky Charms cereal, and plenty of fresh, whipped cream. The sundae was delicious on its own, but it was fabulous with the beer. Or the beer was fabulous with it.

The quest for beer ultimately led us to a transformational experience in the unholiest of frenzied restaurant settings. Is Westvleteren 12 the world’s best beer? I leave it to you, dear reader and beer aficionado, to decide!

Steinernes Haus: Steak on a hot stone

Steak on a hot “lava” stone is a fun, interactive way to enjoy a meal. My one and only introduction to the genre  left me wishing it was common outside of Germany.

When you think about it, it’s a bit odd that we humans seek out restaurant experiences in which we pay to cook our own food, when we could do that at home. I, for one, am a sucker for concepts like fondue and Chinese hot pot.

Steak on a hot stone follows this concept – raw meat served to you on a searing hot slab, cooked to your liking. Slice into small pieces and cook each bite or two as you go. If you can’t decide between rare and medium well, this style is for you! Cook one piece longer than the last for a different flavor and texture.

I’d never heard of the steak on a hot stone concept until friends in Germany introduced me to Steinernes Haus on Braubachstrasse near the Dom Romer in Frankfurt. This restaurant has the traditional look of a typical Frankfurt structure rebuilt to capture Frankfurt’s pre-war charm.

Its menu includes an array of traditional Hessian dishes, but its can’t-miss specialties are its steaks (pork and shrimp are also available) on a hot lava stone.

I ordered a small filet of beef. The raw meat was delivered to the table raw on a sizzling slab of commercial-grade stone, which reminded me of stepping stones in my grandparents’ yard growing up – the sort of thing usually designated for flooring, not so much as a cooking medium. Salad, three dipping sauces, bread, and a choice of potatoes accompanied the meat. Hint: don’t order the standard French fries, as they seemed like a frozen krinkle cut variety. If memory serves me correctly, potato wedges and another style of baked potatoes with cheese were tastier choices of starch.

Cooking one’s own meat involved little effort and a bit of experimentation. It was definitely one of the best steaks I had in Germany, as I could wonderfully undercook it if it so pleased me. The experience left me wondering why I’ve not seen it imported to the U.S.!

Fontana di Trevi: Italian at its best in Frankfurt

Perfectly balanced beef carpaccio accented with chanterelles; ethereal angel hair pasta with shaved black truffles; gnocchi with tangy gorgonzola sauce. Those dishes were irresistible at Frankfurt’s Fontana di Trevi.

I have to admit that despite my German ancestry, I’m not a huge fan of German food. It’s too much pork and potatoes for my taste – at least in central Germany. Bavaria, with more poultry, is a bit more up my alley. I know others may argue, but in my opinion, throughout Germany, the best food is Italian and Turkish. Every city or town has both imports – and often so many restaurants, you’ll never run out of options.

 

Frankfurt’s contemporary skyline

 
Frankfurt is no exception. It has countless Italian restaurants – many of which are wonderful, but Fontana di Trevi is its best. I learned about it by reading reviews on a major travel website, and a review praising its black truffle pasta in a parmesan basket intrigued me. In my first weekend in Frankfurt, I wandered in for an early Sunday dinner – solo. Dining solo is always a bit intimidating for me, especially because experiencing food is such a social, interactive experience for me and best when shared with others.

Fontana di Trevi sits on a fairly quiet street corner in a residential neighborhood north of downtown Frankfurt. It would be easy to miss without planning and a good GPS, but I stumbled upon it with only a bit of either after a long walk from the Main river. It was perfect timing. As I was seated on the covered outdoor patio, it began to rain steadily. Having done my research into online reviews and arriving with an empty stomach – except for some eis (ice cream) and an apfelwein, I was ready to eat. I love beef carpaccio, so I ordered it as my starter. I was easily upsold into their souped up, Cadillac version if you will (it wasn’t listed on the menu) with assorted chanterelles and perhaps a hint of truffles. It was delicious, and the meaty, earthy chanterelles made it much heartier and filling. With a small carafe of the house red wine, it could have been a full meal.

I did not stop there. I ordered the off-menu, “special” angel hair with a parmesan and black truffle oil sauce. Hint: It is a house specialty, but it is always available. It arrived in a baked parmesan basket, topped with shaved black truffles. It was absolutely exquisite. I hadn’t had a dish like that in a long time, especially because I rarely eat pasta, so it truly wowed me. The parmesan basket itself added a rich, sharp contrast to the heaviness of the truffles and sauce.

I had no room for dessert, and honestly, after several subsequent visits, I have no recollection of eating dessert there, probably because the 1 1/2 mile walk home had a great ice cream shop en route. Without dessert, the experience was wonderful, and I had a nice chat with a Croatian traveler at a nearby table to feel a little less solo.

I never returned alone. Along with my friends and associates, we had the gorgonzola gnocchi and several other pastas and salads there. At times, the service was unremarkable, but it is Europe, and my expectations are low after years of eating in Europe. Several weeks and large entourages later, I can safely say that Fontana di Trevi never lost its crown as Frankfurt’s best Italian restaurant in my book, and it validated my hype.

As I mentioned earlier, Germany – and Frankfurt – have no shortage of good Italian restaurants and pizzerias. For ambience and perhaps a more contemporary, creative spin on Italian, I also recommend Frankfurt’s Ristorante Quattro, located near Konstablerwache, just far enough from the busy Zeil pedestrian shopping area to feel cosy and quiet. It has a lovely, secluded outdoor courtyard that made a large group feel as if we had the place to ourselves.

The Rhine Wine Cruise

The best adventures are those born of the unexpected. That absolutely came to pass when a group of us took a day cruise up the Rhine (Rhein) river in search of an authentic Rheingau winery experience.

After a great experience at the Rheingau Wine Festival in Wiesbaden, my friends decided we would make it a full Rheingau wine-themed weekend on our Sunday by taking a scenic, half-day cruise up the Rhine River and then seek out a small winery.  We envisioned an authentic experience that brought wines from  our festival to life. What happened was not quite what we expected, but in many ways, it was much better.

  
Several tour companies offer leisurely cruises up the Rhine river. The hop-on-hop-off style attracts not only tourists, but locals ferrying across the river and gorge. Though trains and small roads connect the towns on each side of the river, traveling by boat is not terribly inefficient. It’s a great, though no-frills way to experience the scenery and picaresque towns of the Rhine.

 

Rudesheim

  

West bank town, probably Trechtinghausen

   After a train ride west of Frankfurt to the bustling town of Rudesheim, located on the northeast bank of the Rhein, we embarked on a half-day cruise up river. Floating past small villages and castles, vineyard-terraced hillsides and steep, jagged cliffs, we toasted with a bottle of Sekt (sparkling wine). With sunshine and a stiff breeze, it felt like the life. We passed the mythical Lorelei (Loreley)- a rock named for a legendary maiden who jumped or fell to her death and lures male boaters to their deaths (sidebar: Why is it always a woman? Why is this story repeated so often, across cultures and history?) and finally disembarked at a small town. I can’t remember the name, but I believe it is Sankt (St.) Goarshausen. Regardless, a friend who had taken this trip before as a resident of Germany, swore we would find wineries.

Did I mention that this was on a Sunday? If you’ve ever spent time in Europe, you know that very little is open on Sundays. So when the town of St. Goarshausen or whatever it was appeared as, um, dead as Lorelei’s shipwrecked men, and our boat was long departed itself, we had an “Uh-oh” moment. Surely any wineries were closed. We stood and pondered how long we needed to wait for the next train, when another friend saw what appeared to be this adorable inn/restaurant:

 
Not knowing whether it was open, we walked up and were greeted by the cheery French-Alsatian owners. The husband and wife pair informed us that yes, wineries were closed today, but they would be happy to serve us some lovely wines from the region and food. That was an offer we couldn’t refuse.

At least three bottles of wine (our group was 8-9 people, mind you) later, we found ourselves happily satisfied from wine tasting whites and a rose, the freshest local hard and soft cheeses, homemade pates, and a wonderfully soft, rustic seeded dark bread.  

   

  

    
 We chatted extensively with the owners, whose story was charming. They moved to this remote town, this pair of two nationalities, and began winemaking as a hobby. They showed us their wine cave (cellar), which has been used for winemaking for centuries. If only I could remember the details of the history of the stone house and cave.

   
 Thanking our hosts, we made our way to the town’s small train depot and hopped a train back to Rudesheim. With at least an hour to pass before the next train back to Frankfurt, we had a lovely, light supper at one of Rudesheim’s historic – and tourist-heavy – restaurants.  While we missed that next train, extending our wild goose chase of a day, I couldn’t help but feel grateful for unexpected adventures and a sideways acquaintance with Rheingau winemaking.

The Rheingau Wine Festival

Germany loves its festivals. During summer months, you can’t throw a rock without hitting a new festival. And a German wine festival is a sight to behold. Or, rather, an extravaganza for all of the senses to behold. If you’re looking for happy people, interesting if not great music, refined festival cuisine, and every nuance of German wines, it is a destination for you!

A few years ago, I had the unexpected opportunity to go to the Rhinegau Wine Festival in Wiesbaden, Germany. A must-visit destination in its own right, Wiesbaden is a historical and architectural jewel and the formal capital of the central state of Hesse – and not, in fact, the larger, commercial hub of nearby Frankfurt am-Main. Near the confluence of the Rhine and Main rivers, it was an international spa capital in the 19th century and about 75% of the city was spared destruction by Allied bombs in World War II.

For about two weeks each August, Wiesbaden’s central Schlossplatz (transliterated) is transformed by over 100 booths, carts, and stages to house the Rhine River viticulture area’s best wines and foods. If you’ve ever been to a wine festival, you expect something like that, but the Hessians take it to another level.

Booth after booth proudly sells wine by the taste, glass, or bottle (oh yes, you pay for each sample) of each winery’s selections. Never have I ever seen so many nuanced variations of Riesling and Gewürztraminer wines, both still and Sext (sparkling). Once you start trying them, you realize how magnified the difference in dryness, residual sugars, vintages become when wines are sampled side by side.

 

having good German Sekt.

You also quickly realize that you’d better eat the delicious food to pace your sampling.

This excursion included a group of several friends, and one had the brilliant idea that after every wine stop, we must eat something. This just caused us to eat and drink more overall, but it was worth it. Never before and since have I had such excellent festival food.

Instead of hot and corn dogs, funnel cake and fried Oreos that you find at American festivals, German festivals go gourmet. Ok now, lest I categorically give the USA an Ariana Grande-style bad rep, I do recognize that food trucks with lobster rolls, chicken and waffles, gyros, vegetarian fare, and even Asian dumplings are not abnormal at America’s festivals and fairs these days, but they’re not commonplace either. Nevertheless, other than the expected wursts (bratwurst, rindswurst, etc.), the Germans do justice to regional and international fair food.

Flammkuchen is a beautiful thing

Flammkuchen was one of my favorite food discoveries in Germany. A cross between a baked pizza or flatbread and a flaky puff pastry or phyllo, it is topped with a creme fraiche-like substance and assorted other toppings. Prosciutto (or speck – thick, fatty bacon) and caramelized onions are the most traditional toppings, but arugula and shaved Parmesan will satisfy vegetarians. Wiesbaden wasn’t my first experience with Flammkuchen, but it certainly was one of my most memorable, as my friends and I laughed and soaked in the wine and culture.

Cheese and charcuterie boards with pate, sweet and savory crepes, and Germany’s ubiquitous fresh, cheap bread and soft pretzels all helped us balance and enhance the wines. In one afternoon, we developed a much better understanding and appreciation for the quality of Rheingau wines. The backdrop of charming Wiesbaden was an ideal setting for this smorgassbord and social event.

 

The streets of central Wiesbaden

If you ever travel to Germany during the summer months, make it a point to try out a wine festival. I enjoyed this and others better than the overhyped Oktoberfest, to my own surprise. It is an experience that I will never forget and will always cherish.