Saturday, September 25, 2010

A Difference of $10

Ten Dollars.

That was the cost difference between two hotel rooms and yet the gap between the quality of the rooms was vast.

Did I say vast? I'm sorry, that's a complete understatement of the difference. The only similarities the two shared was the they both had bed-like objects, toilets and sinks.

While in Wisconsin, we stayed in the Grandstay Suites, as I previously mentioned. It was comfortable, reasonably priced, very clean, conveniently located and I wouldn't hesitate to recommend it to a friend.

On our way south toward home, we decided to stay at your typical highway box hotel, a Comfort Suites in Springfield, Illinois. We were looking for convenient and moderate pricing since it was merely a place to crash for the night. While I admit I can be a bit on the picky side when it comes to hotels, I can barely begin to compare the two, they were that different.

Both were intended to be suites, but the one in Sheboygan was more of an extended stay hotel with the modern day rendition of a kitchenette. It also had several basic elements going for it, beginning with cleanliness. The first room in Springfield we walked into had a very strong, odd odor to it, probably generated by the ozone machine still sitting in the middle of the living area. An ozone machine says one thing: we had been given a non-smoking room that had very recently been the abode for someone who decided the hotel's smoking ban didn't apply to them. I might have tolerated that but when I spotted hair on the bedsheets and it wasn't either mine or my husband's, that changed things. We were moved to a different room, and for the first time in years, I flat refused to use the shower due to critters I could not identify having already taken up residence in the tub. Going back to the front desk to complain again didn't appeal to me in the least, as while the desk clerk was nice enough, it was obvious the hotel was woefully understaffed and booked to near capacity. So we toughed out the night and were more than glad to get back on the road to home the next morning.

Remember, this room was a mere $10 a night less than where I'd previously spent a week. And that week had been in a vacation destination area within an easy walk of Lake Michigan. This next hotel was a generic beige building alongside an interstate within eyesight of 10 other competing beige boxes.

Since that trip I stayed in a new (open less than 6 months) Comfort Suites in Little Rock. It was nothing like the one in Springfield, and I paid the least for this one of the three rooms. It was clean, well cared for and had employees who sincerely seemed to care and enjoy their work. So while I know the ubiquitous "they" say loyalty to a brand will reap you rewards, some of the big brands need to work on consistency of quality. My theory when traveling is to look up the specific hotel on a site or two that has proven to be reasonably accurate over time. My experience has led me to, as rarely do I find the reviews on hotels to be way out of line. There may be the occasional whiny comment, but mostly they've not led me down the wrong path.

It's amazing what $10 will buy. It can equal the difference in a comfortably appointed, clean hotel suite and a place so bad I'd never, ever go back.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Wisconsin, Part 2

Sometimes when you find something good, you stick with it. While I am always up for trying a new place, I was glad to return this year to the Paddock Club and find the food there just as spectacular as before. Being a busy time, it can be pretty loud in the restaurant but the food makes up for it. Fresh pasta, amazing seafood and steaks, all prepared flawlessly; it was a stark contrast to the previous night's dinner at the Supper Club. The bustle around us at the Paddock Club made chatting a bit more challenging, but the food was so outstanding that I would be willing to turn up the chatter volume just to delve into another bite of that pasta.

Another treat of going to the races at Elkhart Lake is walking around downtown and seeing the gathering of cars on display. With something for every taste, they range from wildly exotic to antique. We spotted a very new Ferrari 458 Italia, a model which has since been recalled by Ferrari due to a tendency to burst into flames. On the other end of the spectrum was a classic 1960's Citroen, bearing a note describing it's power source as "Rubber Bands." Watching this same little top-heavy gray car go loping around the track the following day, I could see where the owner developed that rubber bands notion. Even at what appeared to be a snail's pace, the little Citroen that could decided it should go exploring and wandered off the track more than once. Just seeing the collection of cars and knowing they were all driven into town and a large portion driven at speed on the track is a memorable experience, especially for a car buff. My own little sliver of heaven was turning a street corner and finding a Lotus Elise parked behind a Morgan Plus 4. Best of all, those weren't the only autos from Morgan and Lotus in an endless sea of offbeat, classic or just memorable wheels.

As we discovered last year, the track food is pretty good. Not to say it's going to win "Gourmet of the Year" awards, but for an event / concession stand food, it's well above average. Last year I noticed how everything was run by local charity groups who seemed to care about selling something truly good, not just typical open the bag & drop in the fryer type items. New this year were the funnel fries. It's basically funnel cake in a basic french-fry shape dusted with powdered sugar. It is as good and artery clogging as it sounds. (Of course I had to try it, funnel cake is a weakness of mine. Fried pat a choux with powdered sugar, what could be wrong with that?)

The next night we went to Siebkens, which is another restaurant located in the heart of Elkhart Lake. It's strong suit is the atmosphere, it's quiet, elegant and a bit of a welcome respite after two days of noise at the track. I think it's one of those places that tries a little too hard and thus misses the mark by a little, but overall my impression was good. I had pan-fried fish and wouldn't hesitate to suggest it to friends, especially for a good quiet dinner in the middle of all the festivities going on around.

After the crowds dwindled and the race fans took off with their toys and tools heading back home, we went back to Elkhart lake for lunch. The difference one day makes is amazing. Parking becomes easy, streets are quiet, it's a typical small town when the out-of-town visitors vanish. Lake Street Cafe was relatively quiet and served up good burgers and excellent fresh made potato chips (another of my guilty pleasures, and on vacation I tend to give into them all.)

This year we also stayed in a different hotel, the Grandstay Suites in Sheboygan. A friend who didn't get to make the trip chose the place and I must say he chose well! It's convenient to Road America, but in walking distance of several restaurants as well as Lake Michigan and a sizable park. The area is very pedestrian and bicyclist friendly, and lots of people were out taking advantage of the pleasantly warm summer weather. According to the local news, the native Wisconsin folks weren't finding the weather so pleasing, but rather "oppressively hot and humid." All I can think there is they need an invitation to certain southern towns during the same seasons. I'm sure as southerner I'd struggle to survive a single Wisconsin winter, so I won't berate them too much over their dislike of the 80 degree temps.

One night we went to Fountain Park Family Restaurant, just a short walk from our hotel. Usually places named "family restaurant" are not on my must-eat-there list, but I went along with our group and it was a good thing too. Everyone that ordered the broasted chicken loved it, and I had one of the best turkey melts I've had anywhere. It wasn't the typical formed turkey parts sliced extra-thin but rather real turkey. Topping of the meal with a piece of tasty red velvet cake truly was the icing on the cake.

While in the area, we made a day of touring around Kohler. We stopped in for lunch at The Horse & Plow, a pub located at the American Club. The history of the area and its presentation is fascinating, its worth walking through the area just for that. Then there's the food at Horse & Plow. It's a bit on the pricey side but to say it is worth it is a phenomenal understatement. All I had was soup and a sandwich, but what a cup of soup and sandwich it was! We started with two kinds of soup, and both were so good I couldn't pick a favorite. The sandwich arrived toasty warm on crisp Parmesan bread with just the right proportions of meat and cheese. No doubt about it, Horse & Plow will be on my "must do" list for the trip next year. For a little desert we also stopped in at Cravere. It's the only place I know of that displays their chocolates like fine jewelry and they're almost too pretty to eat. It didn't stop us from diving into a dose of chocolate bliss with a slice of chocolate layer cake. Just like the rest of Kohler, its not cheap but it's worth the price.

One last stop before heading home included Henning's Cheese Shop. We were a little short on time so we didn't get to take the factory tour, but the selection of cheeses there was nothing short of fantastic. The row of samples was an effective sales tool, I can't say I'd have otherwise bought a block of Mediteranian Sunset Cheese. (Every last bite of it was delicious.) After stopping there, we were really glad we brought the bigger cooler, because we loaded it full of cheeses galore!

This year we found new places and returned to some previous favorites. Either way, going to Elkhart Lake for the races is an experience I wouldn't trade for anything. It still gets some quizzical looks from friends when I tell them I'm going to Wisconsin to vintage car races, but until you experience the area, the food, the people, and of course the spectacular collection of cars, they just can't grasp the appeal. Get ready Wisconsin, I'll be back in 2011 for more of all the goodness the area offers.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Wisconsin Bound!

I have just returned from my second trip to Road America for the Kohler International Challenge and it was worth the 1700 mile trip including that still endlessly dull drive back and forth through some of the flattest areas of Illinois.

This year we would need to haul not only our luggage for the week, which isn't all that much, but also folding chairs and my parents luggage, and really needed comfortable on-the-road seating for four. So we started the trip with another short journey not far from home. Having found that the selection for renting land yachts is sorely lacking in our area, my husband and I made the choice to pick up a SUV in Memphis to take on our trip. In an effort to support local business and break up the monotony of another trip to Memphis, we opted to fly a local commuter flight one-way and drive the SUV back home. It turns out that was a great decision, as the flight on SeaPort Air's nine seat Pilatus PC-12 was comfortable and quick. The staff and crew were not just friendly, but truly helpful and made the experience something I wouldn't hesitate to repeat. If only all airlines could be run with such a relaxed demeanor I'd be willing to burn through my stockpile of frequent flyer miles a whole lot faster.

A couple of days later, we stopped at Collinsville, Illinois to meet up with friends and caravan northward. That evening we went to dinner at Sage just across the Mississippi River in St. Louis. Clearly a trendy hot-spot in the area, the food is a melting pot of contemporary American cuisine. The stuffed chicken breast was excellent, although the fifteen spice ribs could have used a bit more spice, maybe that missing sixteenth one would have been the magic touch. Being a hot-spot, the noise level was a bit much and left us all straining to hear each other. A little sound control could go a long way in improving the overall experience here; however I got the impression there was a bit of something to being seen here, not just dining and enjoying the meal and present company.

We spent the night at a ho-hum Doubletree Hotel in Collinsville. I had decided to try it since our usual Hampton Inn in the area was sold out and it was the other top ranked hotel in the area according to Trip Advisor. It definitely is a business travelers and convention / meeting place hotel. For a quick overnight stay it was ok but nothing exceptional.

The following day we set out for Wisconsin and stopped for lunch at Hearthrock Cafe. It was one of those odd internet finds that I kept coming back to, thinking it looked just too interesting to pass up. Inside an older downtown three-story building that now houses a proprietor of home furnishings, kitchens, flooring, landscaping and other such items. The menu was perfect for a light lunch and the store provided us with a good excuse to get out and stretch a bit.

Later that day we arrived at our destination, check into our hotel and headed to dinner at the Millhome Supper Club in Kiel, or rather somewhere in the middle of nowhere near Kiel. Sadly the food was disappointing. Our friends had a good recommendation for the place but it turned out to be mostly food-service entrees of the heat and eat variety. Adding to that was its preparation by a chef who clearly had been fired somewhere else for under-cooking food, thus everything was overcooked by 15 to 25 degrees as was evidenced by the rubbery shrimp and scallops and medium steaks that were brown all the way through. However the place was nearly empty so it wasn't crowded or noisy which made for a nice contrast to the previous night's deafening volume level.

This was a fun trip and more than my fingers can handle in one round. More coming soon...

Goodbye 309

For the fifth year in a row, my husband and I made our way east to Blowing Rock, North Carolina for a car event. The beautiful area and opportunity to visit with friends makes the drive across the entire state of Tennessee worth the journey every year, despite the usually somewhat ho-hum journey getting there.

During this trip, I learned some very valuable lessons. First, I learned that I do not like Indian food. While I admit I've been wanting to try Indian cuisine sometime, one of the first nights of my trip was not the "sometime" I intended. This leads to lesson number two; when traveling with a group, be careful who chooses dinner. Otherwise it can lead to unplanned adventures in cuisine that may or may not be to your liking. On the upside, I no longer wonder if I like Indian food; I know that I really don't. One less experiment needed later anyway!

Blowing Rock is nestled along the Blue Ridge Parkway and twisty mountain roads of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Elevations in the area vary from about 3000 feet to the summit of Grandfather Mountain towering at just shy of 6000 feet. The past winter has not been kind to the parkway and surrounding mountains; there were still signs of debris along the roadway, although the worst had been cleared away by the time we arrived in early June.

This year we visited three destinations new to us, all in the Banner Elk, NC area. The first day we arrived, we met up with more from our event at Jackalope's View Restaurant. The salmon was very good, as were the rest of the entrees, but what really made this place special was the view. Photos can't begin to capture the panoramic mountain scene visible from every angle of the deck and windows across the whole back of the restaurant. It's slightly quirky interior began with the real vault door every patron walks through going into the restaurant. Wine corks adorned the walls in somewhat organized patterns, with space to expand the collection over time. It was relaxing and a wonderful way to begin our time in the Blue Ridge Mountains. (It was also a very welcome return to good food after the previous night's "culinary adventure" aka Indian food.)

The following evening, our group had reserved the great camp at The Lodges Eagle's Nest, and I use the term "camp" very loosely. Sitting on a mountainside a few miles from Banner Elk, the Eagle's Nest is actually a gated golf club community minus the typical high-society stuffiness. Oh and minus the golf too. And the indoor fancy clubhouse. In its place is a large open pavilion on a hillside, complete with hand-carved over-sized picnic tables, an enormous eight foot wide fireplace, full size catering kitchen, and even a nearby band shell, plus even more amenities than I can recall. The owners and staff were gracious and attended well to our group. Sledgehammer Charlie's provided the catered bar-b-que dinner and the meal was excellent, as was the setting overall. With the blended upscale yet very rustic setting, the idea of a group rain dance effort to stop the steady drizzle that settled in during the course of the evening might have proved worthwhile, but instead we just wound our way back down the mountainside into Blowing Rock and caught a little extra rest.

Our other new destination was a different car owners group gathering in the tiny town of Banner Elk. Sitting at just over 5000 feet and maintaining its own private grass airstrip, the area caters well to the wealthy but at the same time provides hotels and resorts at more moderate prices too. It also boasts the east's highest sled run. This of course is lesson number three of the trip; some of the more interesting oddities to be found are those things we stumble on purely by accident when traveling. I have to admit this wasn't a revelation to me on this trip, but is something I noted long ago. It just served as a good reminder that going with the flow can lead to good things (and not always to Indian food. It really was that bad.)

I've since found out that our event will be changing locations next year. The hotel at Blowing Rock has become too small to fit our growing group of car nuts and after 10 years in the same spot, the organizers have decided it is time to change things up a bit. Next year, we will convene at Little Switzerland, about an hour south of Blowing Rock, so we can begin a whole new set of adventures and find more roads to explore. So after five years in room 309 at the Meadowbrook Inn, late Sunday morning I closed the door and said goodbye to a room that had become like a second home in the mountains and looked forward to the new experiences to come in 2011. I'm sure I'll learn more lessons then too.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

A View of St. Louis

If the only thing I can say was less than excellent was the temperature, that's pretty exceptional. That was mostly in the hands of Mother Nature although in hindsight I'd have either dressed better for the elements or sat indoors. Either way, Vin de Set is a fabulous bistro in St. Louis and I recommend it highly. The cheese course was delicious and generous enough to share. Our table required a second helping of the fresh baked bread. I ordered a tilefish entree, that evening's special and it arrived perfectly cooked served on top of some tender-crisp veggies, which isn't really my favored preparation method. I also tasted the flatiron steak and frites; the steak's juicy and meaty flavor reminded me that when cooked properly, flatiron steak is a cut well worth the calories. For desert, we sampled the beignets with various sauces, the raspberry being the most outstanding to me. I also ordered the lime and blueberry crepes which I thought to be even better, with the lime's tart flavor paring well with the warm blueberry.

With all that was going on in the area that particular weekend, our hotel choices were limited. We ended up at a Hampton Inn in Glen Carbon, Illinois. When we arrived, I heard the dreaded phrase "soccer team." Certain phrases overheard at checkout can strike fear or horror in the heart of a traveler, and any sort of sports team or group that arrives via school bus ranks highly on the list. Usually hordes of kids lead to noisy hallways later in the evening and very early in the morning and a breakfast area that has been picked clean of any remaining food by 7am. So it was quite the pleasant surprise when the only way we knew there was any sort
of sports team was sharing our hotel was seeing a few of the teen boys lounging in the front sitting area playing PS3 on the big screen tv.

Other than being a bit out of the way with virtually nothing located really close by, it was very quiet and had a thoughtfully designed floorplan to our room. Just what I want in a hotel. The hair dryer did quit functioning while we were there. Twice. Both times they replaced it promptly and were friendly as well.

During the drive home, we took a slightly different route south than the utterly dull I-55. We followed the Great River Road southward to just north of Cape Girardeau, Missouri. One of the more interesting things we found along the way was the giant Brook's catsup bottle as we were heading through Collinsville, IL. It's a 170 foot tall water tower built in 1949 for a local bottler of Brook's catsup. Just like the giant peach water tower in Gaffney, SC, it's a sight you can't miss and at the same time is difficult to capture in words. It's something practical turned into roadside art that captures a bit of the fun in engineering something otherwise ordinary and mundane. I'm glad there are designers who do that and make life for the rest of us a little more entertaining.

We crossed the Mississippi River at Chester, home to the creator of Popeye and his cast of characters. Statues of these famous names dot the town with the most famous namesake greeting visitors as they cross the river. It's just another one of those roadside oddities that make sharing the backroads with farm implements worthwhile.

Tuesday, April 06, 2010

Picnic in the Park

Last weekend Mother Nature finally allowed us to experience a bit of that wonderful spring weather I've been anxiously awaiting after what has seemed like an unending winter. So with temperatures predicted in the low 70's and sunshine on order, the husband and I decided to make a drive to Village Creek State Park near Wynne, Arkansas.

The state park falls along Crowley's Ridge, an unusual geologic formation that runs southward from the northeastern corner of Arkansas. In essence, it means for those with sports cars or motorcycles and a desire to find twisty roads it's a pathway to fun. The parkway that follows the ridge is favored among auto enthusiasts, motorcyclists and bicyclists that reside nearby. Driving to the park can be quick and bland by taking the main highways, or much more entertaining with decent quality roads (a little rough in some spots) that snake along the edge of the ridge. I did see one offshoot from the road we traveled with one of those magical "Crooked and Steep Next # Miles" signs and made note of the highway number. Oh yes, I will be back there to see if the sign is accurate and the road worthy of repeated travel.

The park itself is comprised of 7000 acres sitting atop Crowley's Ridge. It boasts two lakes and miles upon miles of trails for walking, hiking, cycling, or traveling on an ATV or horseback. We had our choice of many picnic tables overlooking Lake Austell and after a quick lunch went to the visitors center for more info about the trails. The one we walked, the Arboretum Trail, was a bit muddy in spots after the previous night's heavy rain, but that rain left every little creek running all along the trail. It's well marked, requires very minimal climbing and has signs pointing out some of the interesting trees along the path.

I was both pleased and impressed with the quality of the park. Arkansas does a great job with it's state parks; they're usually well maintained, clean and friendly to both the pedestrians and those on wheels. I hope to see more of the state's parks throughout the rest of the year. Right now I'm just happy to see spring!

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Atlanta Eats & Entertainment

My traveling days have started again with a long weekend trip to Atlanta. Our primary reason for the trip was to visit the High Museum and see The Allure of the Automobile exhibit. Granted it's been a while since I've been anywhere so any excuse would be good, but the opportunity to see such a fascinating collection of automobiles was irresistible.

The High Museum houses as a collection of exhibits, some permanent, others made Atlanta a temporary home in their travels. My husband and I spent most of our time at automotive exhibit. The sheer size of some of the vehicles was immense, dwarfing even today's Expeditions and Escalades that tower over modern full-size cars on the road. The focus was on rare and unique cars of the 1930's to 1960's. Many shown were valued in the millions, and all truly priceless in that there were so few made initially, much less surviving today. Seeing some of these cars is a once-in-a-lifetime experience and on June 20th they return to their respective owners. (I kept coming back to admire and photograph this Bugatti. To borrow a phrase from the Jeremy Clarkson book of car descriptivism, it was absolutely stunning.)

We made the requisite pass through other exhibits including 14th to 19th century european art, architecture and photography exhibits, and wandered through the contemporary art. The contemporary areas reminded us that we share the same view of it; it's the one where we both stand there with a slightly baffled look, scratching our heads and wondering what exactly influenced the artist to adhere a malformed metal sack to the bottom of an equally bizarre metal sculpture. Was it acid? Maybe too much vodka? For now I'll remain content to stare and wonder "Huh?"

Friday night while roaming around Atlantic Station in search of dinner, we came across Copeland's Cheesecake Bistro. It had a jazzy, upbeat decor and every table was filled, even at 10pm. I ordered the Almond Crusted Trout Meuniere; the trout was a bit bland and would have been improved with a dash of lemon. What made the dish noteworthy was the onion straws, as they added a needed zing to the flavor overall. Between the garlic mashed potatoes and the creamy marinara linguine served with my husband's Parmesan Crusted Chicken dish, it was clear the kitchen wasn't stingy with the garlic. It was potent enough I should be vampire-safe for a while, but it was not overpowering in either dish. The Parmesan Crusted Chicken was surprisingly moist and not overly salty, which can easily happen with a chicken tenderloin dish.

The next night we decided to go for something a little different. Flip Burger Boutique is where the cool kids go for a burger. With a bustling, music throbbing atmosphere and very quirky decor, its not the destination for a quiet dinner. From the menu, they have great onion rings, some of the best I've tasted. They lost something as they cooled off but in contrast the french fries did not. The flip burger was not really noteworthy and was a bit on the bland side. The A5, a Kobe burger with foie gras, truffle oil and a red wine syrup was a real standout. Then again it should be something special. As we reviewed the menu, I wondered aloud what a $39 burger tastes like. I can now say I have had a Kobe burger and a $39 burger at that. It was juicy and had a distinctive blend of flavors from the oil, syrup and foie gras that pared well with the excellent flavor of the beef. For desert we shared a Krispy Kreme shake. What exactly makes a Krispy Kreme shake? Tiny bits of Krispy Kreme donut blended into a vanilla milkshake. Pretty tasty, like the rest of the meal, but not quite the earth-moving experience one would hope for, especially from a $39 burger. (So what does at $39 burger look like? See the pic above.)

Sunday afternoon we made a pass through Ikea. When I mention in conversation that the cinnamon rolls there are exceptionally good, sized large enough to share and priced at merely one dollar each, I get some puzzled looks. How could this Ikea place produce a shared lunch of one generously sized slice of cheese pizza, one large cinnamon roll and two bottles of water for under $5? All it takes is a visit to one of their stores and it becomes obvious that the good quality of food at such meager prices fits their business persona perfectly. Thankfully the closest one to me is an eight hour drive, explaining in part the odd responses I get to their food. Due to the distance it's more a destination and I don't feel guilty when I walk in the store, inhale the aroma of those fresh baked cinnamon rolls and know instantly I will not be able to resist the temptation. One of those tasty treats will be consumed before I leave the premises. Oh by the way, they sell some interesting stuff to furnish your home and office too. (The restaurant is merely an aside to the main purpose of the store, shopping.) Pricing is very moderate and the style is mostly contemporary; if I were furnishing a dorm room, small apartment or condo, I'd be making the drive to an Ikea. Making the absolute most use of a very small living space is something they have down to a science. Who else can put together a functional living room, kitchen and bedroom into a 350 square foot space? I don't know I could anymore, it's been just long enough from my dorm dwelling days so that now I've accumulated enough stuff to make condensing down challenging. Ask my husband, I don't do condensing unless properly motivated.

A surprise in the food department was the breakfast at our hotel, the Residence Inn. It was actually better than adequate! Check out any hotel that serves a continental or "hot" breakfast that is included with all rooms. The spread will contain bread, some sort of small pastry (muffin, croissant, or danish, all interchangeable), under-ripe fruit such as bananas or apples, yogurt, fruit juice and milk. The fancy ones might spring for granola or some canned "fresh" fruit, or even English muffins. If they serve a "hot breakfast" prepare for pre-cooked sausage patties, bacon or powdered eggs. Some like to add a belgian waffle station so they can lay claim to the "hot" breakfast title too, however 95% of the time the ones going for the waffles are the little kids and teenage boys. So when I found the obligatory green bananas and cake-like muffins plus a few more items at breakfast, I was glad to see the added choices. The surprise came when I tasted the food and it wasn't totally blah, it was actually good.

Speaking of the hotel, the location couldn't have been more convenient if I'd planned it. All within a less than 5 minute drive were most of our destinations, most closer than that. Our top floor room was well sized and the layout spacious. With the top floor rooms, the ceilings are very high with exposed beams, contributing to the open feel of the room. I have two across-the-board complaints about virtually every hotel I visit; noise from the hallway and a lack of well placed plugins. While this hotel did have the typical hallway noise, I was impressed with the thought put into the plugins. There weren't just a few of them, they were plentiful and spread out with good placement throughout the suite. Kudos to you, Residence Inn Atlanta Midtown for making life easy for today's teched-up traveler!

As I promised here a couple of years ago, we returned to the Marietta Diner on Sunday night. The cheesesticks appetizer was a great start to a good meal as well as the spanakoptia. As normal for there, the portions were gargantuan, with the fried chicken being a WHOLE chicken, and the Perogies in my dish were the size of my fist. The perogies (photo at left) were in a dish with sautéed mushrooms, spinach, red peppers and chicken, which was then topped with a garlic (more garlic) alfredo sauce. The fried chicken was a bit on the sweet side, a bit more than I like. For dessert, and who can go to this place without ordering desert, we had a pastry labeled simply "Koh" (photo on right) which our waitress really didn't know much about other than she'd been told it was good. Whoever told her that was right, as whatever the creme filling in the middle was, I could have eaten it alone with a spoon. Overall the Marietta Diner didn't disappoint and I'd still encourage anyone passing through the area to make the stop. Just be prepared to take some time to take in the vast menu, it's really that huge.

On this trip, we also made a stop at the World of Coca-Cola museum. It's interesting how the company makes this piece of a gargantuan marketing machine something actually worth paying to see. I won't share a lot of details and spoil the fun for those who may visit, but the tasting room is an experience not to be missed, and be sure to try the Beverly!

Sunday, March 21, 2010

A Sweet Day

Any day that starts with a scrumptious cupcake as a prelude to lunch can't be all bad. Sure enough, the rest of the day lived up to my high expectations.

The day I speak of was last Saturday. I went on a day trip to Memphis with my husband and friends. Our goal for the day was to eat our way through the city with some shopping interspersed to reduce the likely onset of guilt and gluttony.

First stop was the cupcake shop, Gigi's. (Photo above is the display case. I'm fighting the urge to lick my screen right now.) I'm definitely an ardent fan of the treats from Cupcakes on Kavanaugh in Little Rock, and it will always be a little extra special to me because it was where I first tasted a truly "gourmet" cupcake. It was a eye-opening moment to take in the mountain of rich icing atop a moist gem of cake goodness. I would list Gigi's as a solid runner-up in the gourmet cupcake category if I were making such lists. Just like Cupcakes on Kavanaugh, the cake part itself lacks a little in the homemade flavor and texture, but the icing makes up for it in both quantity and quality. It's superb. Thanks to friends with a willingness to share (and cupcakes giant enough to make sharing possible) I was able to sample Chocolate Malt, Milk Chocolate, Wedding Cake and Scarlett's Velvet. While they were all good and the Malt would please any malt fan, Scarlett's Velvet was my favorite. It was the most moist and the icing atop wasn't quite as starkly sweet. That said, there wasn't a bad bite in the bunch as you can see from the photo of the aftermath. (Photo at right.)

We made a few shopping stops (I highly recommend Fleet Feet on Poplar to the runners/walkers out there) and headed out to The Avenue at Carriage Crossing in Collierville. Memphis is a city that has very defined areas where it's safe to be after dark. Just driving across the city, we saw a number of runners out soaking up the sunny spring day. Some probably could run with no more distraction than a neighbor's puppy wanting to play; others made me wonder how comfortable it would be running while packing heat. Either way, I could appreciate the beautiful weather and I'm even more appreciative of living in a reasonably safe enough town to step out my door and go for a run without having to dress like Laura Croft.

Anyway, The Avenue is an open-air shopping district that is made for beautiful spring days like this one. We stopped for lunch at Crescent City, a cajun cafe. Overall, the service was a mix of disinterested waitresses and one waiter hustling back & forth from the kitchen. The decor and atmosphere was relaxed and the location easily accessible. Of the items we ordered, the one standout was the Crawfish Dip, with excellent fresh tortilla chips. All the dishes had a spicy hot kick that was good but not overpowering. We also had an obligation to sample the Beignets as part of our eating across the city mission and were satisfied with them enough to push through more shopping afterward.

Our last food stop of the day was at Firebirds Rocky Mountain Grill. I've visited the restaurant before but my friends had not and were eager to try something new. While the food isn't what I'd call absolutely superb, it's a good bit better than the average casual dining fare. Since I've been on a bit of a seafood kick lately, I really enjoyed the grilled grouper I ordered. And the absolute last dish on the menu I'd have ordered, the Buffalo Meatloaf, turned out to be edible! It was good enough that I recall thinking "if meatloaf tasted like this, I'd actually eat it, and maybe even go so far as to make it myself." So yes, it was some pretty spectacular meatloaf to make me reconsider my dislike of it from childhood. Throwing the warm, rustic atmosphere into the mix, dinner at Firebirds made for a excellent way to relax at the end of a hard day of eating, shopping and strolling around on a gorgeous spring afternoon.

Friday, March 05, 2010

Upcoming Travels

Over the last couple of months my travels have been a bit less frequent, but not to worry, I have plenty planned for 2010. Coming up soon is a trip to the High Museum in Atlanta, as well as a return stop for more of that spectacular cake at the Marietta Diner. Also we'll be venturing to St. Louis to visit friends and go to what I've been assured is the best restaurant in St. Louis. This comes from a friend who has taste I trust in restaurants, so we'll see if it lives up to the hype.

Also in 2010 I'm planning to go back up to Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin and in the fall to Maui. So in this blog post I'm soliciting advise from my vast range of readers or at least those who haven't either given up on my travels or fallen asleep at the keyboard. Any recommendation for meals or interesting things to see or do in my planned destinations? I'm open to ideas!

Sunday, January 17, 2010

A Genuine, Well-Dressed, Friendly Greeting

Just an observation here. Why is it that restaurant hostesses have an attitude? Out of all the restaurants I've been to over the years (lots) it seems the most likely person in any of them to be unpleasant is the hostess.

Tonight for example, I went to Cracker Barrel for dinner with my husband. After waiting around a while, the hostess eventually returned to her stand and asked us "how many?" without so much as cracking a smile.

"Two please."

"Follow me." Still no smile.

She proceeds to jet across the restaurant in some sort of turbo-mode. As she speeds up her walk, I try to catch her attention and end up literally running to catch her.

"Sorry to ask, but would it be possible to get a table a little closer to the door?"

If looks could kill, I'd be dead ten times over. She glared at me as she pushed past my husband and I and went into another turbo-bolt back across the restaurant.

"Will this work?" followed with another death-defying glare.

Maybe I should have made my request a little sooner, but at the same time she gave me little to no opportunity to do so. The interesting part is that clearly she learned her abrasive attitude from the best; ordinarily there's quite the grumpy woman who fills that position most days. She must have had the night off and her understudy was doing her very best to fill in some mighty big shoes.

Being grumpy isn't what I usually see in restaurant hostesses. More frequently, it's that whole "I have the keys to the kingdom, bow before me, meager restaurant patron" persona. I have to wonder what the proprietor would think to see their patrons being looked down upon so strongly as they entered the restaurant.

Then there's that artificially sweet greeting some offer. It's so over the top faked that you feel you need a shower after their drippy-sweet "Welcome to Charlie's Beer Barn."

I won't go into another long diatribe, but suffice it to say that in many a restaurant, someone needs to tell the hostesses that I'd prefer not to see that much of their body, please cover it up. I don't care if you are 19 and think everyone wants to see your legs, buns or overly propped-up cleavage. I don't.

I know not all hostesses are this way, there are those who are genuinely pleasant and do their job well. They're the exception, not the rule, a sad reality. To those, I mean no offense.

So genuinely friendly, appropriately dressed hostesses (and hosts, not to leave the guys out here), I am seeking your restaurants! I sincerely want to be a patron at your restaurant and let the owners and managers of those with the unpleasant hostesses see me vote with my feet and my wallet for the better service.

Thursday, January 07, 2010

And it's a Wrap

I just looked back at my blog now that the holiday rush is over and I cringed. No posts since October? Has my life been that uneventful since October there's nothing of noteworthy interest?

Mostly, yes. But not entirely.

In early December my husband and I went with a couple of friends to see the Christmas decorations at Opryland Hotel and take a weekend off during the holidays. As it has been in past years, they spare no expense at decorating on a grand scale with giant Christmas trees several stories tall, immense wreaths and ribbons. Throughout the garden areas numerous variations of poinsettias added perfect color to the lush green.

However, I think it may be our last trip to spend the night there. At one point, I was standing in fifth floor hotel hallway with my ear to a house phone, luggage piled around me a full five hours after my arrival at the hotel, feeling a bizarre blend of shock, humor and exhaustion. The front desk clerk was offering me a small hotel room with the only bed being a pull-out sofa bed, a stark contrast to the premium balcony suite with a king size bed I'd reserved. That was the last straw. Despite making reservations months in advance, the hotel completely bungled things up. The room we ended up with wasn't at all what we reserved, and out of the many trips we've made there, I think a trip we made there last summer is the first and only one I can recall where the rooms were actually correct right from the start. How a resort can do so much otherwise right but fail so miserably on the reservations is unbelievable and really inexcusable.

We did discover that there's a few restaurants on the property well worth a return visit. Actually there are three, but one isn't so much a restaurant as a dose of chocolate delight. The Godiva shop sells a concoction called a Chocolixir. One sip and its additive properties take over the taste buds. We discovered these sweet-tooth taunting drinks last summer and made it a point to go back for seconds (well, thirds as we went for two rounds last summer!)

Moving on to the true restaurants. (Chocolate is good but for some reason my body does require real substance once in a while.) The famed Old Hickory Steakhouse isn't bad, but it is definitely over-hyped. We went there for dinner one night and the best course by far was the cheese course. The steaks and side dishes were mediocre at best, and the quality for the cost wasn't what I would expect. The Italian restaurant Volare was quite the contrary, it was excellent! It may have been in part due to our exhaustion, after all, we'd been struggling that first night to get simply checked into correct rooms and were all frustrated and hungry, but the starting with the salads the food was quite tasty and that has to be some of the best fried mozzarella I've ever tasted. Everything at dinner that night was exceptionally good, from the pasta and seafood entrees to the spectacular sampler desert. Our favorite of the deserts was the Ravioli al Marscapone; I'd go back just to have this tasty and unusual delight. In an effort to make up for the lousy experience we had getting our room, one of the managers also provided us with vouchers for breakfast for four at Water's Edge Marketplace Buffet. Ordinarily I'm not a fan of buffets and certainly wouldn't wait forty-five minutes to get a seat but given our lack of choices at the time, we waited. As Alton Brown says "your patience will be rewarded" and in this case, it was. The eggnog bread pudding was definitely something to write home about and for a buffet, the food quality was noteworthy.

I wouldn't however spend the night on a sofa bed to get any of the restaurants mentioned here. I am just now getting over the shock, horror and bodily aches of hauling around luggage for five hours. Maybe the manager should have thrown in a long massage, that might have eased my misery at the time a bit more.

We made one other restaurant stop but it wasn't on the Gaylord Opryland property. On our way out of town, we went to The Cheesecake Factory for Sunday brunch. Thankfully, this one is about as close as they get to my home or I'd be there way more often than I should. I know it's a chain, and while I usually express a bit of chain snobbery, I see why they have enormous profitability per store, in fact is the largest of the chain restaurants in the US. They manage an impressively huge menu and the day we went it was all fresh and fantastic.

It was a worthwhile trip and the decorations are something of a spectacle, especially to those who've never been to the hotel. To really take in the hotel, I recommend going during a different time of year; to get a little taste of the holidays (including getting indoctrinated to the crowds) it's not a bad visit. Just be really, really sure of your reservations and presume they'll be treated as merely a suggestion of what you'd like in a room when you get there.