Saturday, October 10, 2009

Hot Springs, Arkansas is one of those resort towns I haven't been to in ages, at least up until about a week ago. Not surprisingly it has changed a bit since I was last there about 20 years ago. It looks in some ways like any typical tourist friendly town with the variety of chain restaurants and box hotels, with downtown playing host to an active restaurant and kitschy gift shops. Typical but overall not too bad. I've seen far worse and thus haven't been back to certain areas of Tennessee or Missouri for fear of a redneck kitsch overload.

It was a fun weekend getaway with my husband and parents, but the trip was plagued with bad weather and dismal food. The only time I saw blue skies was in the car about an hour from home. The food? It was a mixed bag of good, bad and just plain awful.

At least we started off with the good food. On the way, we made a stop for lunch at The Diner in Cabot, Arkansas. My husband and I had stopped there once prior and we were not disappointed this time either. The fried catfish, one of the daily lunch specials, was some of the best I have had in a long time. Everything we ate was quite good. The atmosphere doesn't hurt either; the staff makes even the passerby feel welcome, and the day we went Michael Shaw was playing his guitar and singing. (Many kudos to him too, he is quite the talented guy and can cover a range from John Denver to the Beatles to Johnny Cash and do a mighty fine job at them all.)

Our final destination wasn't actually in Hot Springs, but rather Mountain Harbor Resort & Spa, which sits tucked away on Lake Ouachita in the Ouachita National Forest between Hot Springs and Mt. Ida, Arkansas. It's secluded but a relatively short distance from the more metro areas, and it's really not quite what I typically envision when I think "resort & spa." We reserved a cabin near the lodge & restaurant with a wooded view. I have to admit I was a bit disappointed that it seemed a bit older and smaller than I'd expected. The floor plan was odd too; for a two bedroom, two bath cabin, I wouldn't have expected the bathrooms to both be at the end of the hall, not at all attached to either bedroom and small enough to induce some serious claustrophobia. For two couples, it was workable but not the ideal scenario. While it was small and definitely dated, the cabin was neat, clean and very convenient to the lodge restaurant.

We did discover one problem that might not be so easy to overlook though. It seemed chilly in our cabin, and despite turning on the heat, it wasn't getting much warmer. We strolled over to the restaurant for dinner and mentioned the problem to the front desk. Just after we'd ordered our dinner, one of the resort managers came to our table. "I have good news and bad news. You were correct about your heat not working, and the bad news is that it isn't going to start working anytime soon either," she told us. She gave us an apologetic look and continued, "however the good news is we want to move you to another cabin, and we'll be giving you a free upgrade!" She told us about the new cabin's location, which was not located right at the lodge, but nearby and it had a view of the lake. We agreed, she provided our new cabin keys and we continued with our dinner.

Speaking of dinner, the lodge restaurant is relatively small and doesn't have a huge menu, but the food was quite good. It's home-cooking with a few culinary touches that take it up a notch from basic southern lodge food. Good examples were two dishes I sampled, the Key West Chicken Sandwich and the Southwestern Style Baked Potato. Neither had that heat-n-eat pre-made taste, which I initially had expected to find based on the location and appearance of the resort overall.

After dinner we moved to our new cabin and the difference was dramatic. This was what I had expected to find and then some! A real gem, tucked away in the woods, yet with a large back deck providing views of the lake and woods around it. High ceilings, a small but serviceable kitchen, bedrooms each with their own private bath and french doors leading out to the deck. It was newer, with a better floor plan, and most of all, more spacious. For a weekend escape it was a perfect location.

The following day, we had a late lunch at Burl's Country Smokehouse in Royal. Royal, like several other communities in the area, are the epitome of what southerners describe as a "wide spot in the road." There are plenty of them, with an equal number of little diners and dairy shacks so that at least you know if you're lost, you won't have to go without food for too long anyway. Back to Burl's, it's not so much a restaurant as a deli and country store with some seating available. Based on the delicious scent wafting through the cool fall air, it was obvious Burl's had an active smokehouse on-site. Both the turkey and ham were as smoky good as the smell outside had led me to expect, and it was well worth the stop for lunch.

This was where the good food on this trip ended. I could skip the rest, but sometimes my travels serve not just as a recommendation but as a warning of pitfalls to avoid. Porterhouse in Hot Springs is one such place. It looked good from the street, but that was where it ended. In short, it was a place that at one time might have been good, but since then all the employees with any culinary talent have moved on, leaving it to the has-been and wanna-be upscale steakhouse staff. The food was not horrible (wait for it, that's next) but it lacked inspiration or anything interesting.

The next day on our trip home we stopped in at La Hacienda. Over the years, I have seen it promoted as the place for Mexican food. Whoever "they" are that determined this was the place, they lied. It didn't start out as a bad experience, the chips and salsa were both good. After that, the wheels fell off the tasty train. The tamales were some of the worst I have ever tasted anywhere. Truly awful. Its a shame too, as they looked homemade and visually were appealing. The taste failed to live up to anywhere close to what I expected. Not to be totally disparaging of the place, the service was very good. The remaining dishes I sampled, including tacos and carnitas were both just average, not a grand disaster like those tamales thankfully!

So overall, we had a good weekend relaxing at our cabin but the eats were a mixed bag of hits and big misses. Either way it's an adventure, and those are never a bad thing. They're the stuff that makes for good memories!

Friday, October 02, 2009

Destination : BBQ and Pie

Going to a new restaurant based on a review is always a risk. Do I know the person who gave the review? Is this a trusted friend, someone who I know has similar tastes and tolerances to my own, or is this an unknown reviewer out there in the vast blogosphere? This past week I took a chance, based on a review of two pie shops and a bbq restaurant in DeVall's Bluff, a small town just southwest of Brinkley and I-40 in Arkansas.

So the husband and I loaded up with our neighbors and headed off for a short road trip for a BBQ lunch and some pie for desert. After a drive through the flat farmlands of the Delta, where the farmers always seem to have too much (or not enough) rain, we arrived at what was not a lot more than a wide spot in the road. The sign greeting us read "DeVall's Bluff, population 780." This definitely would be an interesting experience at least.

First stop in town was for lunch at Craig's BBQ. It's the typical older bbq shack building from the exterior, and even more simple and dated inside. Layers of linoleum peek out around the floor, showing that the sign outside proclaiming "est. 1947" probably isn't an exaggeration. Our enthusiastic and friendly waitress arrives and we order up the pork bbq and lemonade to drink, which she coyly assures us is good, "'cause I made it." One sip and I agreed, it was good lemonade, less tart and more sweet than most. The bbq wasn't quite what we expected, as it was sliced rather than pulled pork. I'd also read a review on that warned of the heat levels to their sauce. The sandwiches arrived already sauced, and I wisely chose mild. I sampled the medium sauce version my husband ordered and as I consumed more cooling lemonade I pondered just how flammable was their hot sauce. I was saving my bravery for later or I'd probably had to ask for a taste of the hot sauce, just out of curiosity. I don't know I quite agree with RoadFood's overall review of "Worth driving from anyplace," but it would make a good stop along my way if I were traveling through the area.

Next stop: Pie Shop. Not just any generic grocery store bakery, but a step back in time to Family Pie Shop (also known as Mary's Place.) Just across the street, set back from the highway about 100 feet is this white cinder block building with "pie shop" hand painted on the side. We passed the driveway a couple of times, debating in the car if that actually was the real entrance or just a driveway to a house next door. My friend and I stepped in through the screen door and instantly I was transported back to my grandmother's kitchen both from the sight and the smell. Ms. Mary came out to greet us and told us what kind of pies she had today. "Chocolate, coconut and one or two apricot fried pies." She carefully gathered up our selections from her kitchen, slipping the chocolate mini-pies (about 5-inch individual pies) into Styrofoam containers and graciously thanked us for stopping by. She genuinely seemed to take modest pride in her work and that alone made me glad we sought out her pie shop.

As we stopped at a local gas station further down the road headed home, we dove into the pies. It was simple, good homemade pie. It wasn't one of those overpriced concoctions that boasts vast mountains of meringue above a mediocre filling, it was all clearly homemade and good. Not a "turn the car around, I need more NOW" type of good, but tasty nonetheless. I don't recommend that neat freaks or those indoctrinated to the southern small-town restaurant kitchen go inside; it's not a shiny commercial production kitchen but a hodge-podge of ovens, plastic bowls and utensils from 10 years ago or more, low lighting, no seating for customers, and its one nod to the modern world, a substantially-sized commercial grade stainless refrigerator.

Overall it was a good trip for the company, the adventure and trying something new. I can't say I was as overwhelmingly impressed with the food as the reviews led me to believe, but both are worth trying as a stop along the road. And the service? It's typical of a small town in the Mississippi delta, it's consistently more friendly and inviting than many other places I've been.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

The Panini Press Goes Wild

As a cook, I learn new tricks regularly and I'm always on the lookout for more. I like combining new ingredients and using kitchen devises in ways that they weren't exactly intended for, in a non-Darwin award winning sort of manner anyway. I think maybe observing Alton Brown's "only one uni-tasker in the kitchen is allowed, and that's the fire extinguisher" philosophy has encouraged my adventurous nature and has made me more willing to approach things with a little more creativity.

However, I somehow doubt that the makers of my panini press had the idea of how I'd be making use of that devise, and I again have Alton Brown to thank (or blame.) While I was in Nashville at the Food & Wine Festival, he told our little group about an interesting use for a panini press. "Take some day old Krispy Kremes," he said, "and put them on the press. It's a great way to use up those old donuts you'd toss and it is really good!"

Hmmm. Leftover doughnuts? What is this he was speaking of? Oh, this is for those people who don't eat all the doughnuts the instant they get them! What a novel concept...

So one weekend shortly after the festival, it was time to give this a try. Since I live in a town not graced with the presence of a Krispy Kreme but we do get them delivered in by truck to local grocery stores, my friends arrived at our house with a box of semi-fresh donuts in hand. Into the kitchen we went, firing up the press. A little warm-up time later, we dropped a few doughnuts on the press and closed the lid, waiting to see what happened.

What emerged from the grill about 45 seconds later was an entirely new taste and texture experience and I can't begin to compare it to any other food I've had so far. It was this caramelized sugary pastry goodness that was really the anti-doughnut. It no longer had that melt-in-your-mouth lightness, it now had some resistance to bite. They were still sweet, but that sweetness transformed from a sugary coating to an almost caramel or toffee flavor. It sounds bizarre and tasted really great. To make sure we were getting the most bang for our panini press buck, we tried two other versions besides the classic glazed doughnut; cinnamon bun donuts and chocolate covered donuts (both varieties are here). The cinnamon bun type did well while the chocolate ones just melted the chocolate frosting right off the top.

To really put the icing on the cake, we gave them a finishing touch of just a bit of vanilla icing dolloped onto the still hot doughnut. As if the now flattened, caramelized treats weren't sinfully good enough on their own, the icing simply pushed them off into their own category of deliciousness.

In fact, the only downside I can find to making these is the cleanup. My panini press thankfully has one amazing non-stick coating and while there's plenty of sugar bits left to clean up after, it's not some arduous task. Since this first trial was such a success, we've gone back for more which has been met with equally good results and just as many smiles.

Now to go ponder more uses for the panini press, since I can no longer relegate it to being just a sandwich taskmaster anymore.

Monday, September 07, 2009

Basil Gelato and an Improved Hotel Experience

Nothing like being sick on a weekend, especially a long holiday weekend to keep me sitting around bored. The only upside is I can get in a lot of reading. Sometimes even updating my blog!

I have this habit of finding a really fun event, then if I find I like it, making it a yearly occurrence. There are a number of places I've visited that while they were good, they weren't quite the "lets come back next year" type of destination. Alton Brown's seminar at the Gaylord Opryland Hotel in Nashville is one of those events worth going back each year and this year was no exception.

Last year I gave the hotel some poor marks as it seemed a bit less kept at tip-top shape than it had in the past. Thankfully I can report that this year they've gone back to the quality I'd come to expect. The rooms have all been renovated, and with a 4th floor Delta room, we had a fantastic view. For the first time I can recall, we got the exact type of room we requested, down to every detail; located in the Delta section, near the exhibit halls, a king-size bed, located nearby our friends traveling with us and most importantly, a balcony. Big kudos to the staff that made that happen! For those who've not been to the resort, it's comparable in size to the behemoths in Las Vegas. A room nearby the places you want to go can save you from coming home needing a vacation to recover from your vacation.

The first night we attended a private cocktail reception and dinner for us and 40 of our "closest friends" with Alton Brown. Surprisingly, it was so well done that it didn't seem quite like there were 40 of us. Just getting to stand around and chat a bit with Alton was great, not at all like the typical hurried rush of a book-signing. While we had our dinner at the Old Hickory restaurant, he mingled about the tables talking about just whatever topic came up. Speaking of the dinner, it was one of the more interesting meals I've had in a while. Without covering every course in detail, although I probably should given the rather sizable cost of the meal, it was definitely not a menu of items I'd have ordered, but I was glad to have the opportunity to try them all. The steak was an unusual cut of beef, and to me tasted great. Then there was desert, which included a pretty scoop of gelato, which my husband dove into enthusiastically. That is, until he tasted the first bite and realized it was basil gelato. After turning about eight shades of basil green, he swallowed and decided he was done with the desert after all. (In photo at left, the scoop on the right side. See? Looks harmless enough.) Suffice it to say that after spending that much for a meal that ended with basil gelato, I am confident I will get occasional reminders of it for a long time. (Which I did, just yesterday.)

Alton's seminar the next day was informative and fun as always. Every year I learn something either about cooking or food in general and come away with at least one new recipe. This year his lesson stemmed from his recent weight loss. Fourty pounds lighter than he started the year, Alton shared with the crowd one big change he made... "less going into the pie hole." In his usual analytic approach, he explained how he looked not just quantities but the types of food he was eating and saw what lead up to the weight he had gained over the years. One big change he made was in the types of fats he was consuming, thus leading into his presentation centered around healthful fish, specifically trout. He prepared trout three ways on stage, all of which looked delicious. Attendees of the event get a copy of all three recipes, and I am looking forward to trying at least a couple of them soon.

What he didn't discuss on stage about his weight loss was the part that isn't of interest to most foodies, the exercise. That he discussed with a couple of us exercise junkies at the previous night's cocktail reception. I always find it reassuring hearing others reiterate what I know to be true for me, which is that eating habit changes will help take off the weight, but exercise is key to keeping it off and being all-around healthier. Alton and I discussed his new-found interest in running and other cross-training; I could relate to his picking up running well past high school. I certainly would have never described myself as athletic, and up until recent years happily did my best to avoid all things athlete. However, "exercise is essential" isn't what those struggling with weight challenges want to hear, but the bottom line is it takes both nutritional balance and exercise for long-term, long-lasting benefits. And now I will step down off my virtual soapbox.

This year the hotel took Alton's seminar and expanded it drastically. It became a weekend-long event called the Southern Food & Wine Festival and included two other speakers, the Dean brothers and the Neelys. Also included was an exhibit hall full of mostly southern vendors offering everything from truffles to trailer-sized gas grills. It was a foodie's fun house with samples in overabundance. We didn't have quite enough time to really stroll through the place like I'd have preferred, but I did give everything at least a cursory glance. Compared to the industry-only food shows I've attended in the past, it was smaller but almost as much fun.

This year we got a bit lazy and decided not to find dinner off property but rather find something at the resort. We wandered into Findley's Irish Pub and found it good for a couple of things, bar food and people watching. Another convention was ending one event and its participants were being gingerly ushered down a red carpet from their exhibit hall area into a night club next to the pub. I'm not sure we ever figured out what the convention was about, but they were dressed in mostly formal attire, with the occasional strange "accent" pieces. It made for good entertainment anyway as we dined. In regards to the food at the pub, the burger served on an english muffin was good as was the cheese sampler plate. Overall though, the parade of conventioneers passing by was probably the highlight of that meal.

As always we made a point to stop by the Godiva store, and after drinking one Chocolixir, I am thankful that the store is miles from my home. That is one addictive concoction that I would drink at every opportunity, and my running legs are grateful that the opportunities are not plentiful or they would pay the price frequently.

One last little tidbit that made our trip exceptional this year was the decision to rent a Segway from Segway of Nashville. The owner was fantastic to work with, and it made easy work of getting from one end of the hotel to the other. Gauging from the responses of the public visiting at the resort, the notion that Segways are viewed as "dorky" seems to be a misconception. People were fascinated by the device, some merely stole second glances, others stopped us to chat and ask questions. I wouldn't have expected to find it easy to maneuver in a tightly crowded exhibit hall, but inching along in a crowd wasn't a challenge. It's simply best described as fun and easy transportation, no question about it.

If they'll stay on this track, I'll be back next year.

Thanks to Warren Lyng for putting together such a fantastic event, as always. Thanks to Kye for the pic of the desert. Man that was seriously good eats!

Monday, August 17, 2009

Sensory Overload, Part 2

The food at Road America was horrible, really. Don't go to the track and eat. The people you see eating? They're desperate individuals clamoring for any semi-edible substance.

Well, ok... not really. In actuality, it's good. Really, really good. I just don't want the word to get out because the lines will get long.

The numerous food stands are run by local civic organizations, so it's in their interest to make the food worth eating and they succeed. In that whole sensory overload department, it fills in the gaps where the track ends. The smell of burgers, chicken and brats cooking over massive grills fills the air near every stand. The smoke curling up into the air provides a guide to the source of that delicious scent. Step around to the counter and the menus range from fresh cheese curds, which I ordered with apparently enough southern accent to entertain the locals manning one stand, to burgers to something called a "Walking Taco." Anything with that strange of a name I had to try. One Doritos bag filled with crushed chips, some sort of meat concoction, cheese, and salsa later I will admit, it was money well spent. Fresh roasted corn dipped in melted butter, homemade ice cream cookie sandwiches, grilled brats; it was all the makings of county fair food, with a bit less of that "we'll deep fry anything" approach that dominates in the south.

Outside of the track, we went to Elkhart Lake (remember, population just over 1000) for some amazingly good meals. The Paddock Club was probably one of my favorites with their fresh made pasta, fantastic beef fillet and Panna Cotta so good I ate every last bite and might have licked the plate were I not with a group of friends, and in public. Another evening, we had dinner at the Back Porch, literally on the restaurant's back porch overlooking Elkhart Lake. The sunset view was beautiful and while we tried cheese plates most everywhere this one was probably my favorite. I'm guessing that the wait staff heard "what kind of cheese is this one again?" few too many times so they got creative on the plating with a handy paper diagram (see photo.)
I'm also admittedly no connoisseur in the adult beverage department, but the Grape Martini at Seibkins as well as the Key Lime Martini at Back Porch were excellent ways to finish the fun day.

After about four days of cheese at virtually every meal, my body made it very clear that I was going to have to either slow down chowing down on the cheese or toss someone else the keys to the golf cart and walk around the track if I had any hopes of curtailing the artery clogging that was occurring at an alarming rate. Our group opted for a view of Lake Michigan at Seabird in Sheboygan after the races ended Sunday evening. I have to admit, it was the one place I was a bit concerned might not be good given the lack of patrons at the time, but it wasn't bad at all. The Phyllo Triangles were good as well as the roast half chicken. I think after four days of exceptional cuisine, I might have even been a bit burned out and in need of a no-frills meal or just some my own cooking.

During our last day there, we found a little local place called Restoration Gardens near Kohler. As much as I enjoyed the previous restaurants, this definitely was for the locals, which is my kind of place. There I had one of the best cinnamon rolls and a fantastic grilled apple & cheese sandwich. Yes, more cheese, but I had taken the previous day off from my cheese quest. I also sampled Hank's Root Beer which I will look for on restaurant menus; it was some of the best root beer I've ever tasted. It pairs surprisingly well with cinnamon rolls too. Who'd have thought it? (Those who know me well know I really don't drink sodas, and for the rare occasion I do, it's usually root beer. Thus my approval of Hank's is extra high praise.)

We also made a stop in at Craviere, a Kohler area chocolatier that displays chocolates in cases reminiscent of a fine jewelry shop. Prices tend to match the display, but one taste and the price really becomes "who cares?" The dark mountain toffees were a fine example of their chocolate without breaking the bank and the rare facets were just as delicious as they were elegant to see. It was just another stop that brought on more sensory overload, but still in a good way.

We also found something strange about Sheboygan. On Monday, the town shuts down. When we noticed the lack of traffic and the grand total of about four restaurants open, it made us wonder what was happening. Our waitress at local upscale pizzeria Il Ritrovo that evening confirmed that the streets are rolled up on Mondays. Speaking of Il Ritrovo, they serve wood-fired oven pizzas topped with some peculiar combinations. Seeing firsthand my ham & egg pizza topped with a fried egg struck me as a bit odd at first, but being my adventurous self, I couldn't resist. It was worth it too. Just don't ask for Pepperoni, they do not serve something that utterly common.

I can't complain about a single meal for the whole trip which rarely happens. I guess the breakfast at the hotel was a bit lacking in choices, but it was the standard complimentary continental breakfast fare. There were a couple of nights that it took a bit past our reservation time to get seated. One restaurant sent its full-bellied patrons up a long, steep staircase just to get out of the place. So if I really wanted to find fault, I am sure I could dig in and think of some fine details that were overlooked somewhere. Sometimes though, I think why bother to tarnish the memory of such good eats? I think these will stay as just that, good food in a good little town that welcomes its guests with full plates of food.

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

Sensory Overload, Part 1

Sitting in my hotel room in Wisconsin and having never been to any sort of automotive racing other than a few times as a teen watching the Demolition Derby at the local county fair, I really can't say I knew what to expect.

The whole thing was an experience like no other. Just taking in the four miles of road course tucked into the Wisconsin countryside with wooded areas scattered about, the setting was peaceful. Out of nowhere, the roar of a 1970's era racer would arrive followed promptly by a view of the car and it's pavement-focused driver. For the car buff, the photographer or even just the outdoorsy type, it's a bit of nirvana. If you happen to be a bit of all three like me, it's a bit of sensory overload. What to see, do and absorb first?

I started off by doing the track touring. It's an opportunity for those like me who wish they had a third of the mental connection the seasoned track drivers do with their automobiles. Despite having an experienced friend who in another life must be a driving instructor in my passenger seat, the first couple of laps were a little unnerving. The next thing I know, it's time to exit the track as the allotted 50 minutes or so had already zipped past, almost as fast as the blur of Ferrari's that had roared by me two laps ago. For some reason, I didn't mind so much being passed.

The rest of the first day my husband and I spent exploring the track and trying to stay warm and dry. Who knew that Mother Nature would bring weather so cool that it was challenging 104-year record low temperatures? Thankfully, the group we were with had rented several golf carts to get around the paddocks and various vantage points. I can't begin to imagine how they went to this event for years and didn't have any small transportation like the golf carts. Somehow they can't seem to remember how they did it either, other than to say they were smacking themselves for not renting the carts all those years prior.

Over the next two days, the weather improved and we would spend time roaming the track, watching the Morgans, the Ford GTs and GT40s, the Ferraris, Porsches and so many other fascinating cars make lap after lap around the track. There simply wasn't a bad vantage point. Race photographers didn't gather in one media area, they moved about various places around the track as did I with my once "big" lens that seemed to shrink in the presence of the pros and their monstrous lenses.

That was the "Road" of Road America, and I could go on for days about the collection of cars. Things I'd only read about and seen in photos were there for me to admire, photograph and admire some more. Car lovers beware, this place will take you in and not let go.

I might have been taken in by the sights, sounds and even smells, I didn't forget the tastes too. Those are up next...

Sunday, August 02, 2009

Cheese and Vintage Cars

My husband has always been a car nut, and unlike many other car guys, his enthusiasm hasn't been hampered by an anti-car wife. It's quite the opposite. Being married to him only encouraged my own interest in cars.

Being the car guy he is, my husband has been a faithful subscriber to Road & Track magazine for around 20 years or so. This means every time we've moved the collection of magazines has been migrated to its next home. Considering that every month the number expands, I don't relish the next move. Though I do think it might be a strong motivator for hiring a moving company.

For years we've read about the vintage races in Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin at Road America. The Road & Track Concourse d'Elegance showing off all the classic Jaguar E-types, the old Astons, the Morgans... it sounds like a little slice of heaven on earth for the gas powered engine obsessed. After reading about this event for so long, this spring we finally connected with friends who've been going to the races for a number of years and they invited us along. How could we say no?

Thankfully we didn't say no and just a few weeks ago made the trip northward to Wisconsin. After a short overnight stay in Illinois on the way at a typical interstate-side "bland box" hotel we met up with our friends and headed toward the land of cheese and cars. On the way I couldn't decide which appealed more, the cars or the copious amounts of cheese I intended to consume. Whenever it came up conversation that we were traveling to Wisconsin for vacation, I was met with these puzzled looks almost always followed by "What's in Wisconsin?" After about the seventh time I had an answer ready to go. "Vintage car races, along with lots of cheese and cooler weather." That seemed to satisfy even the beach-bound crowd.

After seeing the size of Elkhart Lake, I found out why our group had chosen a hotel in nearby Sheboygan. Elkhart Lake, population 1021, has a limited number of hotels that are very much catered to the weekend race crowd that comes in a few times a year. They're limited in quantity and for the most part priced from slightly above average to prices that would cover the cost of an economy car for a family of four.

Our hotel was a Sleep Inn, and it's the first time I have stayed in one of that chain. The rooms were typical of a basic room, with furniture that could use a bit of updating. Overall though, they were pretty spacious and had a vast expanse of desk space so it was easy to drop off the stuff we'd collect over the trip and leave it for organizing and attempting to cram into the car at the last minute.

My first morning in the hotel, I fumbled into the bathroom, half-awake. I crinkled my nose and coughed at overpowering smell of cigarette smoke. I know my husband pretty well and I felt pretty safe assuming that he hadn't slipped into the bathroom for a quick few puffs (he definitely does not smoke.) The front desk attendant explained to me that the hotel has an air system that circulates the air throughout the entire hotel on a set cycle. It was the "entire hotel" part that posed the problem; ten rooms on the top floor were smoking rooms, and despite our room being on the bottom floor, it still permeated the bathroom as though an employee took their smoke break in there. Supposedly I should have been thankful that our room wasn't above the pool, the chlorine smell was considerably potent in the 2nd floor rooms. Either way, I think its pretty inexcusable with a modern hotel and should be on the hotel owner's priority list of problem areas to fix post haste. Beyond this faux paux, the hotel had an adequate continental breakfast and an extraordinarily friendly staff that rivaled southern hotels in hospitality with their sincere willingness to help.

Next stop we're off to the races and I'll elaborate on my attempts to "OC" or over-cheese at dinner every night.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

More BBQ

Vegetarians be aware that this post is all about the meat. Proceed forward at your own risk of giving in to the power of the 'que.

I don't think I ever tire of trying yet another round of BBQ. I should, especially according to all the critics of the meat-eaters among us, but I always go back for more.
This evening I sampled the pulled pork and smoked sausage at Bandana's Bar-B-Q in Collinsville, Illinois. The pork had what I call the "right" flavor for bbq, that smoky goodness that enhances the flavor of the meat without overpowering it. In my rule book for achieving smoked meat nirvana, when the meat is cooked correctly the sauce is merely an additional flavor, rather than what acutally gives the meat flavor.

As for the smoked sausage, it too had the right flavor. However I think that the chef failed to recognize that fat renders differently in different cuts of meat. I found the smoked sausage a little too fatty for my taste, but the pork clearly had just enough fat to protect it from drying out when cooked. Then again, I am a bit of a tough customer.

Side items of fried corn on the cob, fries, green beans and some of the best garlic bread I've had in a while rounded out the meal. The garlic bread was buttery enough that I know I'll be breaking out the running shoes the day I get home, yet not so heavy on the garlic that the next morning's cereal will taste like a bowl full of garlic. It's not an easy balance to achieve, but pull it off nicely.

The atmosphere is pretty simple and laid back. Meals are served on melamine dishes with metal pans direct from the restaurant supply style underneath serving as a fancy charger with a simplistic twist. Even the salads arrive in a metal mixing bowl. Quirky, but practical too.

The most notable thing however was a kind gesture made by the waitress. My husband ordered the smoked sausage and after dinner it looked like he'd moved it around on his plate. (He too wasn't all that impressed with the sausage part.) The waitress asked if he didn't like it, and when he explained it wasn't really all that great, she offered to replace it with something else. He declined. A few minutes later she brought the check to the table and had not charged us for his meal. He offered to pay for it, but she insisted that it was the right thing to do. I have to admire any small business that gives its employees the leeway to make such a gesture, even if it wasn't truly necessary. The fact she did that left an impression on me, enough to make it worthy of mentioning here. So if you're in the Collinsville, Illinois area and looking for some BBQ, stop in at Bandana's, although I'd probably skip the smoked sausage.

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

The Planning & The Packing

For every trip there's at least some level of planning and preparing involved. Even for those last minute "let's go there, we leave tomorrow" type of trips, it's vital that we leave home with at least a base level of our own stuff. It's the determining of what stuff simply must be toted along for the ride and what isn't really necessary.

That last part is a challenge for certain friends of mine that for my safety shall remain nameless. (You know who you are, Mr. Ten-Bags-for-a-Weekend-Getaway.) Defining what is "necessary" can be relationship-testing to say the least. Does your significant other need to take six pairs of shoes for a three day outing? Is that entire bag of electronics really necessary? In most instances making it a road trip solves that problem, there's room to take the shoes and the electronics. However when that road trip is made in a 2-seater convertible, space comes more at a premium. Make it a week on a motorcycle with two saddle bags and two people and it's a harsh lesson in what really are the true necessities. I've made enough of the motorcycle and convertible road trips to have gone from being the traveling fashionista taking along her extensive wardrobe to making sure that I've at least got my toothbrush and enough clean underwear. It's a challenging and somewhat humbling experience to fit a week's worth of essentials into a space scarely larger than a bowling ball.

Before even the first packing begins, which I always wait until the day of the trip to do, there's the planning. I've noticed how some people feel compelled to plan their trips out in painstaking detail. Ask where they'll be at 12:25 pm on Wednesday and they can tell you. They might even tell you what they'll be eating, and how much should be left on their plate at that precise point in time. Of course there's flip side, the anti-planner. That's the one who thinks "drive east" is too specific. They get up one day, call in well to work ("Well, I'm not coming in today") and leave town. If they happen to remember their toothbrush, it's only by sheer luck or that it was conveniently located in their mouth at the time of the decision to leave.

I enjoy a balance somewhere in-between the madness of it all, with a reasonable level of packing essentials and what I deem as not over-planning. Thankfully I married a man who is the same way.

After a few years of being quizzed by acquaintances, I've developed a little of my own form of torment for those planners with the packing question. We have a little conversation that goes something like this:
Them: "Are you all packed and ready to go?"
Me: "Nope. I'll pack the day we leave."
Them: Horrified Silence.

Yes it's a little bit of torture for the uber-planner who has their entire trip itinerary in a spreadsheet, printed and laminated for easy distribution. To those folks, I pose this question: what happens when I find some interesting place in a brochure at a hotel, or hear something from another passing traveler? Some of the most fascinating stops along my travels have been because we saw some random sign about a Natural Bridge in the middle of nowhere Alabama. Or a water tower painted and shaped to look just like a peach in South Carolina, but if you see it at the right angle, it looks like more of an orange full moon, if you get my meaning. It's those random sort of things aren't always "itinerary quality" stops but they definitely make for a more memorable trip. Without that willingness to just let life and the road take the lead sometimes, I'd have a long list of fun memories I'd have missed.

Bottom line, there are times where planning isn't just a good idea but necessity; other times it's great to hop in the car and just go.

Friday, June 26, 2009

A Restaurant Down Memory Lane

To paraphrase a comment from James May, car enthusiast and presenter on Top Gear (BBC), "Never drive the car of your childhood dreams."

This applies to food as well, as my husband and I found out this evening. Periodically throughout our marriage, I've heard my husband wax poetic about Almond Chicken from a local restaurant. Over the years I've attempted to make the dish a few times, but none so far have been the dish he recalled, or even come close. So after tossing the idea around a few times, we finally decided tonight we'd try that restaurant for dinner and see if I could get a better idea of what this dish really entailed.

Bad idea. I think I can borrow Mr. May's comment and take it one step further. My revised version is as follows: Never return to the restaurant you idolized during your childhood. It will NOT live up to the memory.

Our first hint to turn and run should have been that the sign now included "buffet." When the parking lot on a Friday night seemed to be sparsely populated, that should have been the second giant red flag waving us and our car into a different direction. Then the food... cold, salty and so loaded with MSG, it wasn't what I'd call pleasant. I've had worse experiences, but this was up pretty high on the list of bad food.

It wasn't as bad as that infamous burger in Maui. That truly was horrific, I don't think there are words to describe it. I can't recall the name of the place, but after a long ride motorcycle ride around the quite literally breathtaking Honoapiilani and Kahekili Highways from Kapalua, my husband and I were tired and ready for a place to relax and chow down. As is our usual traveling style, we were trying to go with a local restaurant, so we found one and stopped in for a sandwich. What we got were two of the most awful, grease drenched burgers I've ever had anywhere. We actually both took one gut-wrenching bite, paid for the "food" and left the restaurant. To this day I can recall how truly bad that inedible item on the plate was, described mysteriously as a burger. There are meals I like to remember and even reminisce, and then there's that experience that I won't ever be able to forget.

Take my word for it about the childhood thing though. Keep the memory untarnished. Let it remain happy there in your mind and history. In my case, I'm just thankful that Mexican restaurant I used to adore back in high school is long since gone, but not forgotten.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

The Food Rules

After a couple of surprisingly good recent meals I'm feeling forced to reconsider my food rules. I know I'm not the only one who has them. They're the basis from which I determine what to order where and when. They do require a little basic food knowledge, like that strawberries ordered in November will not be fresh or at least not flavorful. Here's a few of my own food rules:

1. Seafood should not be consumed more than an easy day's drive inland.
2. Don't order dishes featuring out-of-season fruit.
3. BBQ is only done right from about as far north as Kentucky.
4. Do not order fried catfish in a northern state. Ever.
5. Only in the south do they know how to make sweet tea correctly.

Let's take these in order. With modern shipping services providing delivery so fast that the shrimp could just say "beam me up Scotty" and arrive from the boat to the restaurant kitchen instantaneously, I'm willing to let this rule slide a bit. However I do limit this to places I know can actually get their seafood fresh. The big tip-off? The prices usually reflect the added cost of that sci-fi speed delivery.

I'm really not sure I want to change my out-of-season fruit rule. Strawberries out of season or those big beauties they try to pawn off at the local grocery store as "fresh berries" look pretty. That's where the goodness ends. They have a complete lack of any discernible flavor. Visual is important with food, don't get me wrong, but flavor is pretty essential too.

With my recent experiences, I think I'm strongly reconsidering my BBQ rule. I've had some mediocre BBQ in the south and some good things coming from our northern friends. I have to conceed, this rule has finally become obsolete, thankfully so!

The catfish rule.... that's a tough one. I have stuck to this one thanks to a wonderful great uncle of mine who used to come visit at least once a year from Michigan and would always want to eat fried catfish at least once. He assured us that the folks from his current home state did not know how to cook catfish, and that breading with cornmeal was a lost concept there. I can't say I've traveled in Michigan or even in northern states enough as of late to really test this out, so I'm for now I'll trust what he said.

A friend recently returned from an Alaskan cruise and she remarked how one thing she really missed was sweet tea. I can undoubtedly relate. After travels across the states, my rule of "Sweet Tea only in the South" still holds true. What is labeled as sweet tea in the south is really a concoction resembling simple syrup with a twist of tea. It's not just sweetened, it's truly sweet. It's probably not the healthiest beverage but it is often the beverage of choice in the south and getting outside of that area of the US is done at the tea drinker's risk.

One final rule I didn't list earlier that I simply cannot and will not ever let slide is the restroom rule. If the restaurant cannot be bothered to keep the restrooms at least clean at some basic level, that's simply inexcusable. I'm not asking for marble counters and floors that are spotlessly shined hourly; I humbly ask that the toilets, floor and sinks are clean. I prefer adequate amounts of toilet paper, soap and some mechanism for drying my hands (paper towels are preferred but dryers are acceptable. Bash away at me for killing precious trees, but I don't like having the cootie-filled air of a public restroom forcefully blown onto my now cootie-free hands.) These basic things don't take much to maintain and as I recall reading once, if the restaurant can't be bothered to keep the basics done in their restrooms, what level of cleanliness can you expect from the kitchen, or any area of the restaurant for that matter?

I have a few more guidelines when dining out, but these touch on the areas dealing with the seasonality and location of the food, which I have been reconsidering as of late. The global economy introduces tastes of one region into another and restaurants are embracing this trend. My own tastes over the years have gone from frustratingly finicky to somewhere approaching a willingness to try anything that can't bite back. That attitude change has led me to eating rattlesnake a few years back and just last week topping a french fry with a dollop of pimento cheese (it's actually good.) Most important, I've come to even break the rules, as sometimes those lines do have to be tested. Otherwise I never know what culinary goodness I might be missing!

Thursday, June 11, 2009

BBQ Lunches

For some reason, it seems I've been chowing on the BBQ lately. I know I take food cravings in cycles, as I recently went to Blue Coast Burrito three days in a row. The tacos are really good, but three consecutive days? Maybe we are creatures of habit.

I while I do like BBQ, admittedly I am not a connoisseur of all things BBQ. Just the term "BBQ" has a vague definition, making reaching a pinnacle of experience appear unattainable. What is BBQ exactly? It depends on who I ask. It could be any number of smoked portions of a critter, or some food item(s) cooked on a grill, or simply a meat drowning in a BBQ sauce. There's that elusive term again, BBQ. Presuming we could even narrow down that BBQ is a cooking methodology that employs a slow, low heat source and smoke from a type of wood, there's then a whole debate on what makes a good sauce. Sweet? Spicy? Slippery thin? Molasses Thick?

Fortunately, none of this matters to me. Put the cooked critter on a plate and give me a fork already. Sweet, savory, vinegar-based, molasses based, I'll take it all. About the only BBQ that I will skip uses a mustard based sauce. I've actually seen my husband get an indescribable expression on his face and excuse himself from the table to rid himself of bbq with mustard-based sauce. I don't quite have that strong an aversion to it, but why waste the calories and fat on something that's not to my liking? If it requires running an extra mile that day, I'm going to make it something truly tasty.

Anyway, I've had the good fortune of finding good BBQ in my path as of late. Searching for something local open on a Sunday, which in itself is a challenge, my husband and I found Woody's BBQ at the end of a strip mall in Elizabethton, Tennessee. I wouldn't expect a BBQ chain centered around Florida to have BBQ that Tennesseans find acceptable. When it comes down to it, people are pretty picky about their BBQ, we southerners most especially. So a BBQ joint that has a fairly full parking lot is as good an indicator as I could find that day. It was a good call too, as their sampler of pork, chicken and turkey were very good. The turkey was served as a section instead of pulled and in conjunction with some great chili cheese fries, made for a good lunch stop.

Another good BBQ experience I've enjoyed twice now at Famous Daves in Little Rock, AR. They are a chain out of Minnesota, and to this southerner's surprise, there IS good BBQ to come from north of Kentucky! (I have a short list of food rules and this breaks one of them, more on that later.) Their BBQ chicken is truly exceptional! Also seeing that they're based out of the North explains their sweet cornbread muffins, as any southern cook will tell you that cornbread isn't supposed to be sweet. I take issue with that, and I like it both ways; I say that doesn't make me un-southern but that I have a more flexible palette! I have it on good word (my mom) that their bread pudding is also fantastic, but both times I've been I filled up on too much BBQ chicken to give it a try. There's always next time, and with chicken that good, there will definitely be a next time.

So regardless of what it's called, the deliciously cooked meats and their accompaniments I consumed at two "BBQ" restaurants recently were worth the calories. I do like my BBQ, in most any form. I think that qualifies me as southern enough.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Sub anyone?

How weird is it that at the beginning of very rainy day of traveling, I stopped in at at sub shop for lunch? I think a sub of the larger kind might have been useful at times today in place of the car while navigating through the torrents of rain that poured down almost endlessly.

Back to the sub shop, Sub Depot is a small place at the end of a strip mall my husband and I stumbled upon while leaving Nashville. The start of any good sandwich begins with good quality bread and these guys have that down. Sampling both the white and cracked wheat, which was more a heavily seeded wheat, both were exceptional. What was on them wasn't half bad either. They also know how to properly cook bacon for a club sandwich; not raw and not solid enough to drive nails, but nicely balanced at that just right spot in-between.

The sheer variety of sandwiches, salads and more available was impressive, and especially amazing was the fairly speedy fashion in which we got our order. Tasty, fresh and made to order from a huge menu, all in maybe 5 minutes? Noteworthy to say the least. Other interesting touches were the free wifi (always nice) and the notepads & pens at every table. That to me was a stroke of brilliance. How many times have I been at lunch discussing something with my husband or a friend and wanted to make a note for myself for later? This is the point at which my husband would remind me that a simple PDA or an iPhone would eliminate the need, but I digress. They provide the means to make those important notes and get some free marketing later as you reference the note on their note paper, pre-printed with their name of course. Not much surprises me in the way of restaurants these days, so I appreciate the creative attention to an overlooked detail.

After a tasty lunch we took off headed East. That's when a more water-based craft version of a sub would have been handy. After a few trips over the years headed east, I don't know it's possible for me to make a trek across I-40 without experiencing some sort of inclement weather. Last time it was snow through the mountains around Asheville, NC. More than once we've met with heavy rain through Nashville. This time it was steady rain from Nashville all the way east to Johnson City, TN. For one brief interval, the sun came out and the rainbow appeared, in all its colorful glory. It wasn't meant to last, and driving that long in the rain gets old in a hurry. At least we had the two of us to swap driving and keep each other motivated. Sing-alongs in the rain at full volume help too.

For some reason, I persist in traveling the highway and enduring what nature dishes out. I guess I'm a glutton for the punishment, that or it's just my sunny outlook because "it's just a part of the adventure."

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

A Friendly Recommendation

"We're going to insert city name here, got any recommendations?"
Being a frequent traveler, I hear that question fairly often and do my best to provide ideas of worthwhile stops. Most often it goes right, but there are instances where something goes awry.

For example, after I posed this same question to a friend in Little Rock, Arkansas, my husband and I went to a cool place called Imagine a Restaurant. They had good sandwiches and very good fresh made chips. Within a few months time, I had friends going to Little Rock that would be in that area of the city, so I suggested the place for lunch. They arrived to find it had closed. Just a few doors down was Crew, a restaurant I'd also tried and found it to be pretty mediocre at best. I wish I knew what caused the good restaurant to fail and mediocrity to live on; I can only assume it was either under-funded or poorly managed, either of which will take places with the best food down in a hurry.

Then there's that time you make a suggestion and it falls flat. I've recommended both hotels and restaurants that were in my book worth return trips that for various reasons didn't pan out. The Crowne Plaza in Little Rock, Arkansas is a prime example; I encouraged my parents to stay there and their experience was far from good. The room was noisy and didn't have proper working curtains so bright spotlights beamed in like pointed lasers all night. I've stayed there on several occasions and have yet to have a room anything like their description, but during my last visit I discovered the difference. Rooms facing into the atrium area would hear all the music and sounds of the bar drifting up, plus the high-placed spotlights would be blinding to the eyes at 3am without the curtains pulled tight. So I stand behind my recommendation for the hotel, but know that guests must ask for the right room placement.

Another issue is level of tolerance. How much of a "dive" looking place will someone take? I've had some amazing bbq at a place in Memphis, Tennessee, but I can assure you I'd never go there after dark. I don't think the bars on the windows are just ornamental. For the sake of some good eats, I'm willing to accept the rough edges that may come with the package. There is one I won't tolerate though, and that's smoking. Nothing will make me do an about face and promptly leave as quickly as a cloud of smoke hanging over the tables, waiting to irritate my desensitized nostrils.

As of late, I've gone three for three. Brave New Restaurant, Cupcakes on Kavanaugh (both in Little Rock) and The Green Tomato Cafe (in Pocahontas, AR) all are places I've mentioned on here. Recently I've had friends give a thumbs-up review to all three, so not only are they still in business, they're approved by other trusted foodies.

Now I just need to get out and find more places to recommend. Despite those occasional bumps in the road, I'll keep on making my suggestions and take the chance. It's a worthwhile risk.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Nearly Famous

In recent years, my range of tastes has changed and expanded, which to me is for the better. There's things I wouldn't touch as a teen or young adult that now I'm quite happy to find on my dinner plate. Common foods like lettuce or baked potatoes weren't a part of my diet then but now I eat them regularly. One of those such foods that in the past year I've decided that I do like after all is vinaigrette dressing. While I'm still not a huge fan nor have I sampled enough to deem myself a connoisseur of the vinaigrette, I tasted one recently that really got my attention. After hearing about Nearly Famous Deli & Pasta House in Springfield, Missouri, from a couple of very trusted foodie friends for at least a year, I finally got to visit the restaurant myself. They're ravings didn't go unwarranted. From the quiche to that amazing dressing, I was quite impressed with the quality of food served as well as the right sized portions. Nearly Famous isn't the "24 ounce cheap cut steak for $8.95" type place, but a bustling busy deli, noisy and active with reasonable portions and quality ingredients even an amateur foodie will appreciate. Between the delicious lunch and a good hotel, I was so pleased that I'm still trying to think of an excuse to go back to Springfield.

Speaking of the hotel, it was the first time in years I've had a chance to stay at a Residence Inn. Just pulling into the hotel lot in Springfield I was impressed with the exterior of the place; rarely do chain hotels have texture and style beyond stucco in one of about nine shades of bland. If they're feeling funky, the architect might leave a provision for a second shade of blah to add a little contrast. The hotel room was spacious with a comfortable living area and kitchen space, a usable size desk (sans one of those annoying glass tops) and a completely separate bedroom and bath space. The open space of the room was refreshing, and with a rainy night it made for a relaxing stay. The included free breakfast had plenty of options, better than I have come to expect from most hotels "free continental breakfast." The icing on the cake was the price, as I know I've often spent more for a whole lot less in both square footage or overall quality. (I did not take the photo at right; the hotel gave an accurate portrayal for once on their website, so I thought it worth posting here.)

We made one other noteworthy meal stop, that was dinner at Flame. The contemporary decor definitely sets the mood for a relaxing and intimate conversation over a good meal. The food was good but I found the steak to be overly salty. The quality of ingredients used was very good and the signature desert featuring a concoction of various fruits and pastry was immense but too delicious to not attempt to consume it all. It's not a regrettable choice for dinner, but I'm looking forward to trying other restaurants in the area too.

Now my friends are talking about yet another restaurant and giving it rave reviews. Oh well, I guess I just found another excuse to go back to Springfield. As if I need an excuse to travel and eat well...

Saturday, March 07, 2009

And the trip goes on...

After a long day on the road, we finally arrived at the Crowne Plaza in Greenville, South Carolina. Our experience with the Crowne Plaza and reasonable reviews on Trip Advisor led us to stay there. Chatting with some of the hotel staff we found that the hotel was very recently renovated and used to be some other variant in the Holiday Inn family. It had two things going for it that I highly prize in a hotel: a comfortable bed and nearly non-existent noise level. They took the philosophy adopted by the Crowne Plaza chain with a sense of humor; at the lobby of the top floor, a simple sign greeted guests explaining that this floor was a Quiet Zone and no families with rambunctious kids, marching bands or otherwise noisy crowds would be permitted to stay there. The coordinating Do Not Disturb door tags even asked that guests keep the show tunes in the shower to a hum instead of stage-ready levels. Overall, the fact it was quiet and comfortable made for a winner. I don't think the hotel is quite as spacious and plush as other locations, but the price reflected that.

Then there was the other reason to stay there, and I would have tolerated a lot just for this one thing. Attached to the hotel was Ruth's Chris Steak House, and they just opened a week before we arrived. A quiet, comfy bed merely steps away from the best steak I've found yet, that might be a pinnacle of travel goodness. Suffice it to say that the Ruth's Chris in Greenville is well worth a stop and the new crew there are doing a great job keeping up the well-earned reputation of the best steak, period.

I think I'd describe Greenville as a comfortable city. It's one of those places that as soon as I got there, I felt at ease and could see why it's residents like it. The downtown area is what my hometown aspires to be someday, yet it still hasn't quite reached its full potential yet. Catchy shops and cafes fill most of the spaces along the tree-lined main street. It was notably clean, and the folks strolling along seemed to truly care about keeping it that way. Downtown there's a park with an usual suspension pedestrian bridge that overlooks a small waterfall. The park overall provides a place to relax for both tourists and area residents alike; locals were out playing frisbee and walking their dogs. With the downtown area just steps away, it's a balanced blend for small city life.

Downtown includes a variety of restaurants, leaving us plenty of good choices to just randomly pick from, including where we stopped in for lunch at Trio. We hadn't planned on a casual dining Italian restaurant, but we were glad we did. Ordinarily I'd have ordered a cup of soup and a small pizza to share, but my husband and I opted for the Pepperoni & Mozzarella Calzone. Again, we couldn't have chosen better. It was probably the best calzone I have ever tasted, with a perfect ratio of crust to fillings, all of which were delicious. I also tasted the roasted chicken, which in an Italian cafe whose emphasis is more on pizza & pasta, was surprisingly very good. With some warmer weather, I'd love to return to the downtown area, take a nice slow stroll through the shops and despite the variety of restaurants to tempt my taste buds, it would be difficult to turn down a return trip to Trio.

When I head out for a good road trip, I try to do a little research online for what is good local, and when it comes to BBQ, Henry's comes well recommended on sites like Chow. (No recommendations for chain restaurants on this site, unless they're really something extraordinary.) This was one of the few times I think our group disagreed with the recommendation. The only way to describe it is that it was some of the wettest BBQ I've seen anywhere. It wasn't bad, but only half our group thought it was good, the rest were unimpressed.

After a couple of days exploring Greenville, it was time to head home. With me, the adventure doesn't end until I'm back in my own living room, so as we approached Knoxville at lunchtime, I got out the laptop for some quick on-the-go research. Creamery Park Grille kept coming up as a local favorite, just a couple of miles away from the interstate. One exit and a short drive later and we were walking in the door. It's a very small but quaint restaurant. Patrons write their names and number in their party on a chalkboard near the entrance, and are then seated as available. Everything we ordered was definitely fresh-made and top quality. I had a ham & cheddar melt, but it arrived with a sugar glaze dip that made it go from good to Wow in one bite. The triple grilled cheese ranked highly, up in the range of my own home cooked favorite. Served with lunch were small scones, which didn't last long with my mother & I devouring them. During the summer I usually make at least one pass through Knoxville, and I'm putting this on my list of places well worth seeking out again.

(Be aware the grille is located in a two-story building, with no accessibility to the top floor beyond a pretty long staircase. Those with bad knees or trouble climbing stairs will want to request street level seating.)

Monday, February 23, 2009

Head East, Eventually.

A couple of weeks ago I attended the International Motorcycle Show in Greenville, South Carolina with my husband and my parents. Each winter, Cycle World puts on a series of events in about a dozen major cities across the US and every year we pick a location to attend. We've been to places like the Georgia World Congress Center, and after hiking what seemed to be literally miles of mazes to just find the show, we promptly vowed to never return. There there are others like the Carolina First Center which was probably one of the best show locations I've seen yet.

Being February and still cold by southern standards anyway, we decided to all load up in one car and drive. We have a limited stable of larger cars in our family and rather than buy a tank to drive year-round, we rent one for the once-a-year time we need it. If the trip had any downfall, this was it. We reserved a car (or rather a "class" as they say in the rental car industry) for the trip and called that week to verify the reservation. "You'll have your pick of the lot" I was reassured by the friendly agent on the phone. He failed to complete the thought with the rest of his sentence, "... as long as your pick is the smallest Kia SUV we could find." So my reserved tank-class vehicle was presented as a minimal at best increase in space to my own small four-door car. Suffice it to say, we were highly frustrated. Frustration led however to a moment of creative thinking and we loaded up in the car we had, heading east. Since our planned route took us through Memphis and right by the airport... ah ha! Of course National at the airport had exactly what we were looking for, a clean big SUV ready for 10 hours of rolling down the highway. One swipe of the credit card and a bit of bag shuffling and we were finally on the way, properly outfitted for the trip.

I'd like to report we found some amazing stop on the way to Greenville, but with the delays leaving and stopping to rent an SUV, we just barreled through Tennessee, covering the length of the state at a steady pace. We did spot an interestingly named restaurant when we stopped for dinner, Petro's Chili and Chips, but at nearly 10pm and 3 more hours of travel to go, we decided it might not be a wise stop. Next time I'm in Knoxville, Tennessee though, I may just have to look up Petro's for a stop. I can't pass up a chance to try chicken tortilla soup, especially one described as "homemade."

Next stop, Greenville, South Carolina at a good hotel with a comfy bed. More on that later...

Monday, February 09, 2009

Gut Instinct

When the lady at the front desk said "We don't have any king beds, all our rooms are single or double queen rooms" I should have listened to my gut, thanked her for her help and gone to the next hotel. Instead I allowed myself to be caught up in the newness of the hotel. Not the best move on my part.

Let me back up to the beginning. We were visiting family in Mountain Home, Arkansas and decided to stay the night. I knew there was a fairly new Holiday Inn Express and had expected to grab a room there. However, when my husband and I drove by, we spotted a brand new Hampton Inn next door. "Even newer?" I thought. "Sure, why not!" So along the way we stopped and I ducked in to reserve a room for the night. Everything was shiny-new and looked like a typical new Hampton Inn. The rate seemed reasonable, and rooms were available. Then the clerk gave me the news about bed choices. Succumbing to the gloss, sparkly gleam and a mostly empty parking lot, I decided to proceed with the room.

That night we returned to our room for the night. The room itself was standard fare, but typical of a small town was a bit more spacious, especially for the price. The bed was reasonably comfortable, as was the rest of the room. We nodded off for the night. Then came 6am. Around that time, it began to sound like someone was taking a shower about 3 feet from our bed. Anytime someone walked by in the hallway, it was as if they were talking to us. So while it was nice on the surface, the sound issue falls into that area that is inexcusable.

So I have to remind myself to listen to that little voice when booking a hotel. Anytime I've questioned my judgement and not heeded the warning, I've regretted the decision. Next time it's the Holiday Inn Express with the king-size bed.

Saturday, February 07, 2009

Powerful Lessons

As the new year began, I had convinced myself I'd blog more. Then I blinked. Then I was changing my calendar to February and I was falling way behind on that goal. It's not like one of those vague "In insert year here I will eat better and get in shape" type resolutions. It's simple. Plant myself in front of the computer, and put some words on the screen. For someone who works at the aforementioned computer all day long, you'd think it would be easy. It's proven to be a bit more challenging than I thought.

My only legitimate reason was a power outage and that lasted a mere three days. It did however lead to some interesting food experiences, so that alone is worth noting. Mother Nature delivered to our area a blanket of freezing rain, which of course created an icy landscape complete with large treetops dipping down for a close-up view of the earth. That same thick layer of ice that made things look beautiful found its way onto to power lines, cable lines, power poles and most anything and everything exposed to the outdoor air and wind. So about ten minutes into watching a tv show everything went dark and stayed that way until about three days later. I forget just how much relies on power, it's those basic little things like the refrigerator, freezer, microwave, tv, computers. If you're married to a techno-nut like me, all phones require power too.

So where did that leave me? Sitting at home with no power and below freezing temperatures. In the Southern US, we are most definitely not prepared to deal with this sort of thing. The mere mention of possible snow flurries sends hordes of panic-stricken shoppers to the grocery store buying up enough milk and bread to last them through the impending blizzard. However we southern folks are hardy enough to improvise and make the best of a situation. We'll just skip over those infamous "Hey y'all watch this!" moments that make their way to YouTube showcasing southern ingenuity at its not-so finest.
So I didn't have power, but I did have two things going for me: a gas fireplace and a gas water heater. Most would take that as I had a way to stay warm and hot water. That's just the beginning of what was to come. With the fireplace, I had a way to cook scrambled eggs for breakfast. (I have to admit I was only being a copycat on that one, my neighbor did that first. He's full of good ideas.) The grill outside at the same ingenious neighbor's house allowed us to heat up some chili and soup for lunch. My own grill became my freezer. Since it was already below cold enough outside, and my somewhat temporarily underpowered freezer was starting to show signs it would no longer keep its contents at a chilly four degrees, I bagged everything up that would fit and put it on the grill. The cold temperatures outside kept everything frozen and the lid to the grill would keep out any nosy hungry critters. Coolers with the remaining ice from the freezer kept the refrigerated contents chilled. As power gradually came back to restaurants around town, it provided those of us without such luxury a chance to escape the candlelit house for a hour or two to return to civilization. It also meant meeting up with family and friends, all of us taking our time and just enjoying the meal and socializing. It reminded me how it's easy to forget in all our daily hustle that sometimes it's nice to just relax and linger over a meal with good company. There wasn't any pressure to get back home, as none of us wanted to leave and go back to staring at the walls, waiting and hoping we were next in line for power to return.

There were some lessons to be learned, such as having a spare no-power-needed phone can be handy. It's useful know where to find a flashlight with working batteries. Using dry ice to keep the contents of the fridge or freezer cold is fine, just don't use the dry ice in the actual refrigerator. It will likely require repairs when the power returns. Also carbonated sodas will explode when stored with dry ice, causing your refrigerator to look like it's been shot. Thankfully, that lesson didn't occur in my kitchen, but lesson heeded either way.

That explains three days in January, and of course a few more after the storm passed as I then had three days of work to catch up, so we're up to six days. What about the other twenty-five? I did manage to make one trip to Mountain Home, Arkansas. That's a whole other story and another post.

I can only imagine the problems for those still waiting on power to return. It's been almost two weeks since the storm hit and there's quite a few out there with no power. I hope that it is restored soon and wish the best to those out there working long hours to make it happen.

Thursday, January 01, 2009

Odds & Ends

Last year I visited a number of places that while they were interesting and definitely blog-worthy I didn't always take time out to make note of them. As it's the start of a new year, it's probably time I mention them in the order they pop into my mind.

After driving by one of those little roadside trailers a few times while heading to Little Rock, we finally remembered on one of those trips to not eat lunch before leaving town and make a stop there. I don't even know the actual name of it, other than it's the only place to eat in Amagon, Arkansas short of visiting family or killing whatever lives in the swampland nearby. So despite chiding from friends that we were eating what was "cooked using swamp water" we stopped in for lunch one day. The burger and tater tots were cooked just right and flavorful. Topping the meal off with a homemade apple fried pie reassured me that the risk of swamp water infection was worthwhile.

I've also had my eye on another place, this one leaning quite the opposite direction in atmosphere and style. I bookmarked Bailey's Chocolate Bar in St. Louis a number of months ago and had planned to put that on my next trip that direction. On my most recent trip there, I was able to fit it in the schedule. It was a little hard to spot at first, just a small nondescript entrance mixed in a few buildings near downtown. Once my husband & I convinced ourselves we should go see what was waiting inside, it was an experience. Seated in one of the larger spaces, we relaxed at a tall table to one side of the room and could take in the whole place. The restaurant was divided up into smaller areas, all with dark walls, velvet & candles draped around each space. As far as the food, the white hot chocolate was very good, and the Chocolate Inebriation cake was good, but the cinnamon ice cream on top was something to write home about. The Lover's Plate featuring a variety of delights had some interesting sauces and truffles, but the nuts included were so odd we had to bring some home. The exact flavor is indescribable, other than I didn't like it but I could not stop eating them either. I'm not sure what exactly they put on them that can create that sort of desire to eat something that just isn't that good, but I'd like to buy a few ounces and introduce it to some broccoli.

Since I've had a sudden shift of thoughts to breakfast, I'll jump back to Arkansas and the Green Tomato Cafe. Located on the square in Pocahontas, it's easy to find and will be wonderful to visit when warmer weather arrives. I've sampled both breakfast and lunch and would go back anytime I get the opportunity. The menu has a range of staples such as eggs, hash browns and classic southern fare meats. They also have very good pancakes, with a slight touch of citrus in them. It's not overpowering, but definitely adds a little something worth noting to the taste. At lunch the vegetable beef soup got rave reviews from our table, and if the two guys with me whose tastes are somewhat opposite ends of the spicy-heat index to agree it's good, that really makes a statement!

While on yet a different trip to Little Rock last year, we happened to get a late lunch at Cantina Laredo, a place that labels itself as gourmet Mexican food. I don't know I'd quite call it gourmet, but it was a nice change from the same menu we get at all the local "Authentic Mexican" restaurants that dot every busy street corner in my hometown. I'm not a fan of guacamole, but they make it tableside, and the menu had enough variety that I didn't go away hungry. It's in a handy location near The Container Store, a place where I could spend too much money in a very short time. The location alone puts it in my book as a worthwhile stop.

This past year I got the opportunity to try a tapas restaurant, and I can't wait to go to another. After my enthusiastic reviews to friends of the place, I think I may need a bigger car for my next trip down bite-sized goodness lane. I love the whole "small plates" concept. At a new restaurant, I always want to try a little of several things on the menu, especially if it's in a place where I'm not sure I'll be back soon. So I either feel like a glutton ordering too much food and wasting it because I can't begin to eat it all, or just roll the dice and hope I choose something great. Enough about the joys of going tapas... the specific Tapas restaurant I went to was BARcelona in St. Louis. I sampled a variety of dishes, all of which were good. Just like Il Vicino, which I mentioned in a previous post, the cozy, small space atmosphere seemed fitting. This place however was buzzing with chatter from full tables of happy patrons downing pitchers of Sangria and nibbling at all the tasty small plates. It's probably best that I don't have a handy tapas restaurant just around the corner or they would certainly know me on a first name basis.

This isn't an exhaustive list of good eats I found along my travels last year, but it does cover just a few that were blog-worthy and that somehow failed to make it into a previous post. When there's good food and good fun to be found, I can't keep all it to myself!