Friday, November 30, 2007

A Little Learning Never Hurt

I recently attended my second class at the Viking Cooking School and I have to say that the school and instructors have impressed me both times. The classes in their hands-on kitchen are both fun and informative. Clearly the design of the facility was well thought out, not just cobbled together by a crew of construction guys whose idea of a kitchen is a beer tap and a microwave. In the center of a large humidity-controlled "kitchen" is an island work surface, wide enough I can't reach the center and big enough to easily accommodate twelve students with good sized cutting boards. The two instructors I've met so far both had an easygoing demeanor but lead the class through the recipes and kept things moving at just the right pace so the time preparing the food seemed to vanish quickly. After talking with one of the instructors, I know I still have a lot to learn; yet seeing some of the other students unfamiliar with the simplest concepts around the kitchen is a reassurance I'm not reverting to my "culinary dark ages" either.

The class I just attended was one about holiday baking, all sweets and treats such as gingerbread scones and toffee almonds. I previously went to a class that was more of a meal, full of Italian dishes from a Roasted Red Peppers antipasti to the Chocolate gelato finish. The holiday baking class was little more fun as it let me participate in making every recipe, versus focusing on one dish and just stealing quick glances at others being prepared around the kitchen classroom. Besides, what's more fun than dipping sticky homemade marshmallows into delicious dark chocolate goodness? After attending the second class with friends, that's most definitely the way to go. Have a fun time cooking and enjoying the great food with great company makes the time zip by even quicker.

With the holidays coming up, if there's an aspiring chef or cook on the gift list and a Viking school nearby, a gift certificate for a class would make a great gift. Fun, educational, and an environment in which you're encouraged to play with all the fabulous Viking appliances? Here, twist my arm. Ok! I'll go for a class again... and again. Next up: The Steakhouse menu!

Monday, November 19, 2007

What a Diner Should Be.

I've found the ultimate in diners. Too bad for me it's in Phoenix, Arizona. Fast Eddie's Diner isn't all that much to look at from the outside, but step inside and there's plenty to see. Friendly staff, a menu with enough variety to feed just about anyone, and a quirky diner feel. The food is pretty good too, with properly sized portions on about everything I ordered.
One real unique thing about this restaurant that made me wish I could become a regular patron was the cleanliness. Not just a surface clean, like in so many places. This was clean down to the corners. Those little crevasses where crumbs and sticky drinks of days gone by go to hide when the bleach comes out to play; those were even squeaky clean. It was enough to impress me, and when it comes to cleanliness it takes a lot to make me take notice in a positive way.

Turning in to grab a bite a Fast Eddies was just on a whim, but it's those little "let's try here" places that sometimes turn out to be worthwhile.

Monday, November 12, 2007

In search of a road

This fall, while visiting the Crowley's Ridge Nature Center, I was admiring a large relief map showing portions of Crowley's Ridge. One area caught my eye toward the south eastern portion of the map, a national forest near the Marianna area. It had a couple of lakes and a road that resembled a 2 year-old child attempting to draw a piece of spaghetti. That's something nearing perfection in the eyes of a car or motorcycle enthusiast. It meets all the requirements for fun; Plentiful curves? Check. Scenery? Check. Relatively convenient? Check. Let's hit the road!

So we did. The map at the Nature Center and the state highway map gave a more rosy picture than was realistic. After ending up at a dirt road to a Confederate Cemetery (for history buffs a great find) and ultimately the Helena Police Station trying just to find the highway that would lead to the road, I should have see the big red flag waving wildly in front of me. If nothing else, I am persistent and would find this road one way or another. After a while longer of wandering somewhat lost, there it was... the road. It was one of the better roads, lined with trees and despite having virtually no shoulder it was still reasonably maintained and most of all beautiful. A good amount of twists & turns later and the road opened up to a lake area. That's when the gravel appeared. Thus ended the search for a good road that after less than 10 miles turned to gravel. My car isn't the kind you'd take down a rough gravel road, so after all that it was time to call it a day.

The entire day wasn't without something of note, a bit of good food at Ray's Dairy Maid in West Helena. Actually it's considered to be in Barton, but it's just on the outskirts of West Helena. Between the friendly staff and the good, home cooked food it was hard to go wrong with anything on the menu. The fried pies were excellent, and the variety of pies alone was a reason for the drive.

Between an interesting historical stop, some great pie and at least 10 minutes of good road made the day's trip worthwhile.

Friday, November 02, 2007

Memphis just got better

Living in small town America sometimes necessitates going to a larger city for things I can't get locally. One of the nearby larger cites for me is Memphis, Tennessee. There's several good things there, like a variety of great local restaurants and a Penzey's store, where I could camp out for days. Sometimes the trip requires an overnight stay, as was the case recently. Since I've stayed there a number of times in the past, I'm always on the lookout for a good hotel.

A couple of years ago, my husband and I stayed at The Peabody in downtown Memphis. Overall, we just weren't that impressed. It was nice enough I suppose, but between the extremely busy atmosphere, the lacking service and noise levels, it just wasn't worth returning. We tried The Peabody in Little Rock, and while it was more modern and the service somewhat improved, it too was noisy. I have a low tolerance for noise in a hotel. If I'm out of town, most often it's for leisure and one of my favorite leisure things to do when traveling is sleep in a bit without disruptions. Hotels that fail to provide a quiet environment to do so are promptly marked off my list.

For this trip, we stayed at The Madison Hotel. I have found my new home away from home in Memphis. It's quiet, with a modern feel yet the building is definitely not new. It doesn't have the wild flurry of activity feeling of The Peabody. One thing that's a must-see is the gym. Located in the basement, a portion of it is in an old bank vault. Grill 83, just a few steps away, is a good and convenient choice for dinner. I could have made a meal off the cheese fritters appetizer alone. The room service breakfast we ordered was one of the best ones I've found thus far and well worth the price. The hotel staff was friendly and I didn't get the impression I was merely an obstacle between them and their paycheck. They honestly cared about doing their jobs well or were great at giving that appearance anyway. That combined with the low noise levels will keep me coming back to this hotel for most any overnight trip to Memphis in the future.

I'm finding in my travels that for a more luxury or upscale hotel, what are deemed "small boutique" hotels are my preference. They tend to be quieter with a more relaxed atmosphere and are at least adequately staffed to accommodate my needs. I've spent better nights in even a simple Holiday Inn Express than in some ultra-swanky resorts and paid far less for it. I've quickly come to the conclusion that the price isn't always a great gauge of the quality of the hotel or resort, but the size and attention to detail tend to speak more to how much I'll enjoy my visit and the likelihood of a return trip.