Saturday, August 26, 2006

Destination Change Leads to an Interesting Question

Sometimes where you plan to put your pillow at night may not be where you end up. My plan to go to Mount Magazine this weekend changed course this week and landed me at Arkansas Children's Hospital. It's a fantastic facility and has all the latest and greatest technology. They have amazing capabilities and a staff that's outstanding. The linens department however clearly is a bit under funded; they're clean but I've never seen a blanket with more holes.

So while I was consuming a bit of hospital cafeteria cuisine (now there's an oxymoron for you) I wondered how this hospital fares against others in the food department. The food they've brought into the hospital room for patients wasn't awful, some of it was even good. Most hospital food has a reputation just slightly below that of airline food... or maybe the two are slugging it out for the dining choice of last resort.

I'm not sure that reputation is a completely fair one. I had a pretty great grilled cheese sandwich tonight that came straight off the hot grill. I also had some rather spicy BBQ chips that could have some unpleasant consequences later. When I was a young teenager, I worked as a Candy Striper for a local hospital, and the food from their grill was definitely better than just "acceptable." I don't think I was the only one who was partial to specific menu items. It was working there that lead me to discover I like grape and cranberry juices. In one small town in Arkansas, it's not unusual to see Sunday lunchtime bring in a number of families still in church attire dining at the hospital cafeteria. The odd part is that they're not just visiting with a patient and the hospital was convenient; the food was the reason for the stop. Does that mean this particular hospital's food is that good or are the other selections in town that foul?

Are we judging hospital food on an unfair scale, based on what we get in restaurants? Or maybe I've been pleasantly surprised because my own expectations are just so low as I've always heard how the food is horrible.

Is there call for a good chef to run the food operations at a hospital? Maybe so. A sharp person running the kitchen operations can make a vast difference in the quality of product that comes out of that kitchen. Looking at restaurants that have closed in recent years; I know a number of them locally could have made it with better management, especially in the kitchen. A good chef can turn mediocre into magnificent with just a little extra knowledge. I've always gotten the impression most hospital cafeterias take their lead from nutritionists. Not that a nutrition specialist is a bad person to have on the team, but what's good for you can be made tastier with a little extra effort.

I guess when I really think about it, that little town has one very smart chef in charge of the kitchen of their local hospital.

Saturday, August 19, 2006

What makes a hotel great?

If you travel, what is it that makes you say "Wow, I really liked that hotel. I'd gladly stay there next time?" Is it a comfortable bed? Furnishings? The hotel staff's attitude? Maybe it's more the little things, like a good shower, or nice linens. Is there a chain you like or do you try different places such as boutique hotels?

Things I look for in any hotel, regardless of rates:
> Good parking - I don't want to walk a million miles or trust a valet that seems questionable. I expect covered or restricted access at a higher price hotel.
> Internet Access - It should work. I shouldn't have to say that, but it's sometimes an issue. It should also be included for free. The days of charging $10 per day for it are nearing an end.
> Quiet - Every door nearby that closes or child that charges down the hall to their room should not disturb my sleeping in. Speaking of noise, if the bar or restaurant area plays music at high volumes past 7pm and your room will be situated nearby you should be told of this on check-in and have an opportunity to choose a different room.
> Non-smoking - As a non-smoker, I have refused rooms in the past or had to change rooms when I walk in and am met with a knockout smell of stale cigarette smoke. (So please if you're a smoker, don't smoke in the non-smoking rooms! Thanks!)
> Cleanliness - This should go without saying.
> Shower & Bathroom - Adequate water pressure is essential. There's been a few hotels that I want the owner to take a shower with the air running and see how the curtain blows in and sticks to your body. Not cool.
> Bedding - Please opt for the fitted sheets on bottom. It's handy to be able to use the same for both top and bottom, but try sleeping on one at home sometime and you'll know it's annoying. While we're talking bedding, it's great to see how some hotels will leave a spare blanket and extra pillows in a drawer or closet.
> Refrigerator - Any hotel, regardless of how upscale should put a small fridge in rooms. If the fridge is a mini-bar, leave me at least a little space for my own items.
> Water - If the tap water isn't fit to drink, provide a couple of bottles of water. It's cheap in bulk, make the investment.
> Plug-ins - There's never enough of them nearby the desk areas. I need to plug in my gadgets so at least 3 is a good starting point.

My expectations from upscale hotels or resorts are higher, as they should be.
> Afternoon snacks - Thank you to those hotels that have a cookie, coffee and/or cocoa available in the evenings at check-in. It's nice to relax with a little something sweet after traveling that day. I've seen this more often at mid-priced hotels than high end ones. They could learn from this idea.
> Room Service - If I'm staying in a hotel with room service, offer it 24/7. The whole point to me is to get a fruit & cheese tray at midnight when I've got the munchies!

The biggest thing I want from any hotel, anywhere is to get what I've reserved. If I reserve a non-smoking king room, I should get a non-smoking king room, period. I've had better luck overall getting what I reserved with smaller hotels than with large resorts.

It's a lot of questions, but I'd like your opinion. Maybe there's something I should be looking for when I travel that I haven't even thought of that's important to you.

Friday, August 18, 2006

Ice Cream and V-8

I have two more reasons to stop at the grocery store on your way home today. Haagen-Dazs has a line of "Light" ice creams, and the Vanilla Bean puts many of the regular full-fat ice creams on the grocer's freezer to shame. It's that good. They have quite a few of their regular flavors available in "Light" versions, but no Mayan Chocolate as of yet. (My hips are safe from massive weight gain for now...)

Also thanks to my neighbors that introduced me to the pints of take home Haagen-Dazs, I've found a new drink that's a little less likely to leave me shopping for bigger pants. I've always wished I could stomach V8 Vegetable Juice, but it just has such an overpowering gross flavor I would cringe at just a sip. Thanks to V8's new VFusion, I can get my veggies without having to suffer through consuming lots of those little trees, known to most people as broccoli. It comes in three flavors, and so far I've tried the Peach Mango. I can't find any of that powerful vegetable taste in it so far, which to me is a good thing. According to the package, one 8oz glass is the "equivalent" of 1/2 cup of fruit and 1/2 cup of vegetables. While nothing beats eating a carrot in it's natural raw form for maximum nutritional value, this does easily top my current rate of vegetable consumption. It is considered "not a low-calorie food" but I think it's better use of calories than the excuse for calories found in many sodas.

Just a couple of things to pick up on your trip by the grocery store this weekend. Sometimes it doesn't take traveling any farther than your own kitchen for a bit of culinary goodness.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

The Big Nashville Post, Part 2

So the food was good and the hotel overall was quite nice. The rooms were a little lacking but I wasn't there to see the hotel room. I wasn't really there just for the food. The whole reason for this outting was to see a man whom I hold at least partially responsible for my gaining any confidence to experiment with my cooking and the results be edible, Alton Brown. I was willing to spring for the VIP tickets, which gave me great seats to his afternoon cooking demonstration, a signed copy of his newest cookbook, plus a VIP "Meet & Greet" reception later that day. Was it worth it? You bet.

The contraption pictured in my previous post was a part of his demonstration on how to properly deep fry a turkey with a bit of a comical yet effective approach to safety. A series of pullies and rope allowed him to lower the turkey (raw, on stage) into a hot pot of peanut oil. While he talked, the turkey cooked to perfection in just over 30 minutes. Out of about 650 people there, a friend at the table with me was picked out of the crowd to sample the turkey. Being a generous guy and all, my friend gave the rest of us a small taste too. (Yes, it really was good.) Alton took questions from the audience at the end and answered everything with his usual enthusiasm.

The hotel had left a note to those with VIP tickets that since the promised cookbook was not ready for this weekend, Alton would be signing stickers to place inside the book, which would be mailed to our homes. Since they knew this would be a disappointment, they would provide a professional photographer to take pictures with Alton for free. Nice! At the reception, they had a variety of hors devours, both sweet & savory; recipes for some were distributed at the afternoon demonstration. After moving through a relatively quick line, I got the opportunity to meet Alton. This wasn't my first time to meet him at this type of event, and I can say he seems like a genuinely nice guy every time. The fact he shares my enjoyment of both cooking and motorcycles doesn't hurt either. If you like traveling and finding those not-chain restaurants, you should check out Alton's special airing on Food Network now, it's called "Feasting on Asphalt." He & his crew find some great family diners in the south, and he takes a deep breath before biting into a brain sandwich. (A little disturbing if you ask me, he's clearly more brave than I am.)

The cooking demonstration left me in tears I was laughing so hard, and that wasn't an isolated instance. My face hurt from smiling so much, it was that entertaining. The reception was well thought out, well put together and I have a great photo of my husband and I with one of the few famous folks I've ever met. Add to all that good food in the company of friends and it makes for one very nice weekend out of town.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

The Big Nashville Post, Part 1

Some trips are all about getting to the final destination and for some trips the journey is the destination. The stopover at night is merely a place to close your eyes and recall the day while looking forward to the next one.
This trip was all about the stopping point, Gaylord Opryland Hotel in Nashville, Tennessee. This wasn't my first visit to the hotel; last December I stayed there to check out the Christmas decorations. It's well worth the drive to see such a display of color and the over-the-top extent to which they carry the whole theme. During the summer, the indoor gardens are full of lush plants everywhere you turn. The hotel has an open-air feel, leaving you feeling like you're walking outdoors. The temperature is comfortable, you even feel a nice light breeze once in a while. Pretty amazing stuff when you think of all that's going on here to create this artificial outdoors. Rooms are fortunately in the process of being renovated. I discovered on this visit that my room last time must have been one of those that was recently updated, as the room this time was in dire need of work. If you're staying there, be sure to ask that you get one of the renovated rooms or you'll be disappointed for the price. The few extra dollars to get an atrium view are worth it, although I'd likely decline if it's on the first floor. (You may want to open the picture, I purposely left it a larger size so you can get an idea of how open and airy the place really is.)

The food. Woah.
We started off with a new restaurant that was well worth finding, Park Cafe. Some of the dishes that got rave reviews: Sauteed Shrimp appetizer, Duck Breast laquered with Pomegranate and Honey, Baked Pasta Rounds, Double Cup Pork Chop and the Green Chile Macaroni-n-cheese. Save room for the deserts, as the Creme Brulee and Molten Chocolate Cake are worth the calories. The restaurant is dark yet classy, with small rooms that keep the sound level low and environment more intimate. I wish I'd brought a camera to dinner, as the presentation was as great as the food itself.

That wasn't the only meal of the trip, but the Park Cafe stood out as the most spectacular. Lunch on Saturday came from the food court at Opry Mills Mall, located adjacent to the hotel. "The Best Chicken..." place had good popcorn chicken. Saturday evening I capped off a fantastic day with dinner at Ruth's Chris. I've gone on record here several times about how great Ruth's Chris is, and while it was still very good, it wasn't quite up to the exceptional standards I have set for them. I attribute it to being a very busy Saturday night, as waiters were bustling around at warp speed. It served as a good reminder that the best time to visit a restaurant of this type is most often a weeknight.

To be continued... including an explanation of the guy and his ladder.

Monday, August 14, 2006

More Details Soon

So when am I going to post about my trip to see Alton Brown in Nashville, Tennessee this past weekend? Never! Just kidding.
I'll have more pictures tomorrow so the details are coming soon. Until then, you'll just have to wonder about this slightly crazy (yet likely to win a Nobel Prize) contraption.
It includes:
a ladder
lots of rope
a $2.50 pulley (not to be confused with the $1.50 model)
flashing red emergency light
two fire extinguishers
a large sandbox
a pot
Peanut oil
and a few other items.

Sufficiently confused?

Per a Request

A friend asked that I post about the Hotel Contessa in San Antonio, Texas and my experience there. The hotel was my first real experience with a boutique hotel and it was good enough to make me want to seek out other similar hotels in future travels. The rooms were styled in a contemporary meets southwest style, and the same theme carried throughout the hotel down to the smallest details. Across the overlook in the lobby there were candles lit every night, setting an elegant yet trendy tone for the evening. In each room, one wall is all brick. It makes you feel like you're staying in one of those hip city lofts that appear in the latest architecture magazines.
The hotel staff was friendly and the concierge provided good tips for restaurants and entertainment in the area. Room service is available but not late night. Wireless internet access is also available but it's best to have a backup plan if you'll be working from the road. Pricing is around $200 per night, but varies of course based on time of year and type of room.

While you're in San Antonio, start with the Riverwalk. It's easily accessible via the Contessa Hotel, some rooms overlook the area. Lots of restaurants line the walkways, and between are stretches of landscaped areas to stroll through. The best time to visit is during the week, the crowds pour in on weekends. Also taking a drive out to the various Missions are well worth the trip. There's nothing like seeing the History Channel episodes in 3D.
The best way to see several nearby areas is a tour from SegCity. They offer various tours on a Segway. It's easy to cover a good area including the Alamo and the King William District. You can see more than you would in a walking tour, yet the tour is a small group so it's much more personal. Then there's the whole part of getting to try out a Segway, which in itself is a real treat. It's surprisingly easy to operate and once you get the hang of it, a whole lot of fun!

In March, San Antonio is a great city to visit. It was a break from the doldrums of winter when I really needed it and I would certainly return again. Just not in July.

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Dessert Discovery

Run, don't walk, to your nearest grocery store! Maybe you don't have to drop everything now, but you'll want to put this on your next grocery list to try.

This treat didn't require much traveling to find, just over to our neighbor's house for dessert. It was so good though I had to mention it here. I'm not an ice cream connoisseur but like any self-proclaimed "foodie" I can appreciate a good one; Haagen-Dazs has more than one winner with those I sampled this evening. The dulce de leche is fabulous on homemade brownies, which was my desert tonight. I think next time I'll be buying one of their new flavors, Mayan Chocolate. What makes this flavor so spectacular is that I really don't care for chocolate ice cream. This is a chocolate ice cream I could eat until the cows knock on the window and ask for a bowl too.

Usually for consumption at home I buy Blue Bell, a wonderful indulgence known mainly to those of us lucky enough to live in their delivery range. My dessert discovery tonight just might make me look a little further down the dairy case for a nice alternative next time.

Sunday, August 06, 2006

Good Southern Food and Roads

After my previous rant on the joys of chicken trucks, I should say that the trip really was quite nice. The chicken truck turned off after what seemed like hours but in reality was less than 20 miles. Long enough to make an impression on me, but not so long as to affect the overall trip.

The real destination of the trip, if there was such a thing, was Cafe Klaser. Located overlooking the Little Red River, the views are nice from any of the large windows that run along the back of the building. You can watch the fly fishermen wading out into the river with kids on their shoulders, anxiously waiting for the big moment. The food was very good, I had blackened Walleye and my husband had their daily special, fried catfish. Their fresh baked yeast bread is somewhat heavy but still very good, and the homemade peanut butter pie was a great way to end the meal.

What is it that makes us southerners take a perfectly healthy food and decide it would be really great battered and fried? For an appetizer, we sampled the fried green beans. Also in keeping with the southern style, they are served with ranch dressing for dipping. I guess I am southern at heart, I happy ate my fair share, and they were pretty good!

I must also revise my statement in a previous post about Highway 9 being so awful. The stretch that runs north from Mountain View to Melbourne is pretty bad, but the portion from Shirley heading into Mountain View is in good shape, by AHTD standards anyway. The scenery on Highway 5 from Mountain View north into Calico Rock as it passes through the Ozark National Forrest is nice, but the road is not especially entertaining.

The view coming into Calico Rock, Arkansas is stunning. Businesses and homes hang on the edge of bluffs overlooking the river below. You can tell as you drive through this is a classic example of a small southern town that has outlived the industries that once brought it life. Towns like these make for interesting stops along a drive, but time didn't permit a stop on this trip. Maybe next time...

Something I didn't expect to see just outside of Tuckerman, Arkansas was the Red Bull Mini. Red Bull has a mini that's just slightly modified to include a serious overdose of caffeine sized "can" on the rear. The picture here isn't one I took as is evidenced by the palm trees, but the car looked the same. Good choice of car for the product, small but fun and quite energetic.

It was an enjoyable day in all and just left me looking forward to my next great drive.

Saturday, August 05, 2006

Ahh... the smell of the Road.

Next time you're on the road, get an extra sense of your environment. Roll down your window. You'll sample what motorcyclists and top-down convertible owners experience any time they take to the street. These two can tell you how the scents of honeysuckle in the summer will make you smile and how a recently deceased skunk has an immediate impact on your speed. If they've had the pleasure of roaming around the backroads of the south, they can tell you about some of the other smells too. You'll know you're next to a cow pasture without turning your head. From the "good smell" side, smoke signals from a bbq shack can make your head turn and your wheels follow, almost instinctively. Then there's chicken. Not quite KFC, but rather live chickens in their pre-KFC days. If the winds are not in your favor, you can smell a chicken farm for a couple of miles before you actually see the tell-tale long chicken coop building. While the smell does linger on, this isn't the ultimate in scent horror.

Today I experienced that ultimate. A semi truck hauling live chickens on a twisty road with no passing zones for what seems like endless miles takes the coveted top slot. It is the most horrific road smell I have encountered thus far. Take the foul smell of fowl you get when you pass by a chicken farm and put it directly in front of you for every mile down the road. Amplify it with the knowledge that the white fuzzy things in the air are fresh chicken feathers blowing by you, and those little splats you see in close proximity are what you think they are, chicken poop. I'm not sure there's a strong enough word for it, but disgusting is close. In a way I feel bad for the drivers of these trucks, or maybe their noses build up a sort of immunity to the unpleasant aroma that follows them mile after mile.

Fortunately that was only a small portion of my drive today.
There were the couple of great "Crooked and steep next ... miles" signs.
I found several reasons to crane my head around and look at the landscape below.

I've discovered my trip early this summer to the Blue Ridge Parkway has left me a little less impressed with the views I've encountered since in my home state. They haven't become any less beautiful; the bar has just been set a little higher now to truly capture my attention. I hope visiting Mount Magazine later this month will restore my joy in the Arkansas views.

Thursday, August 03, 2006

Itching Powder

Staying busy this week and not traveling for a few days does two things for me. I can catch up on some needed rest in my own bed. While I'm resting, someone must sneak in and sprinkle a special itching powder labeled "desire to travel " all over my bedding. I wake up after a few days and I have this overwhelming itch to go somewhere new again.

If I'm successful convincing myself to leave the comforts of bed early enough Saturday morning, a trip toward Heber Springs, Arkansas is in my plans. The road there is fun, especially heading south from Mountain View, Arkansas. Highway 5 is the most direct, but Highway 9 seems to have that look on a map like a very active EKG strip. It leads you to loop around Greers Ferry Lake, which isn't a bad detour. What's so interesting in Heber Springs? I've got my eye on a couple of local restaurants that look appetizing, so it's off to lunch!

Next weekend it's off to sunny Nashville, Tennessee with friends to stay indoors thus avoiding the heat, consume good food and enjoy the entertainment. Host of the TV show "Good Eats", Alton Brown, will be the celebrity chef guest speaker and I hope to absorb some culinary knowledge from a guy who really seems to be one of the sharpest knives in the block.

Someone I know is traveling to St. Charles, Missouri this weekend so I have requested they make note of anything exceptional in the dining realm. I'll also be getting a report of the dining pleasures in Dallas from another friend. Hopefully both will have experiences to share that will make me want to put these two destinations onto the list of places to visit again soon.