Tag: restaurant

A great place to break a fast

A great place to break a fast

A new restaurant recently opened in Napa Valley’s Saint Helena that we hope is around as long as its previous occupant.  The Charter Oak opened a few weeks ago in the space that was occupied for nearly 30 years by Napa Valley restaurant icon Tra Vigne.  In late 2015 Tra Vigne closed up and left behind decades of memories and a beautiful empty building.  Fortunately, a rock star team saw the empty space and realized it was the perfect place to open The Charter Oak.  The owners of this new restaurant are Christopher Kostow, the head chef at The Restaurant at Meadowood, a Michelin three-star-rated restaurant just a few miles away; and Nathaniel Dorn, who is in charge of the front-of-house operations at The Restaurant at Meadowood.  To round out the team, the owners have brought Meadowood’s chef-de-cuisine, Katianna Hong.

With this top team at the helm we knew that we were in store for a special experience but we didn’t know exactly what to expect. We wondered if The Charter Oak was going to deliver a Meadowood-light experience or something different entirely.  When we sat down with our friends Chris and Monica and perused the menu, we realized that the experience would be more casual with most dishes offered family style to encourage sharing.  Over the course of brunch, though, we also realized that there were many similarities with Meadowood as well:  commitment to fresh, seasonal and local ingredients; attentive but not intrusive service; and artfully creative dishes.

When we arrived at The Charter Oak the weather was still pleasantly cool so we opted to sit out on the patio, a wonderful setting with its ample space and cool decor.  We sat under one of the many trees and strategized what to pick from the menu.  Each of us picked a separate item and we added several side dishes as well to make sure we sampled as much of the menu as possible.  Of all the places breakfast or brunch places in Napa Valley, this was by far the best.  Each of the dishes was creatively designed and executed beautifully with just the right texture and unique flavors.

One of our favorite dishes was the Pork Posole which was served with handmade wheat tortillas.

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Pork Posole at The Charter Oak, Saint Helena

All four of us shared the posole as it was a generous portion and all of us enjoyed it immensely and would order it again.

One person in our party ordered the bread pudding French toast, an item we passed over thinking it wouldn’t be our thing.

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Bread Pudding French Toast with Preserved Pears

Boy were we wrong about this dish!  Although we are not fans of bread pudding, the flavor and consistency of this dish were perfect and there was nothing left but an empty dish after it made its way around the table.

Another breakfast item that was ordered was the Danish rye bread served with a soft-boiled egg and topped with avocado and furikake (a Japanese seasoning).  This, too, was incredibly tasty and was so good two were ordered and finished in their entirety.

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Yum

When we first ordered we did not focus on the fact that the dishes were going to be large, family style portions and we loaded up on side dishes as well.  Who could pass up the piloncillo bacon?  Not us, for sure.

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Now that’s what we call bacon

Nor could we pass up the sausages.

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Homemade maple syrup breakfast sausages

To balance out this protein we ordered The Charter Oak’s unique take on hash browns.

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So good we ordered 4 more

If this looks excessive …it was.  Four main items and four sides for four people was too much food.  When we say “too much,” by the way, we do not intend to suggest any of it remained uneaten.  Rest assured that we ate all of it.  But we could easily have ordered two mains and the sides and been satisfied.

We have not been to dinner (yet) at The Charter Oak but a fellow Napa blogger recently penned this post after her dinner there and the food and experience looks equally exquisite.  The Wine Ho – Charter Oak Dinner Review

If you’re looking for a special place to brunch in Napa Valley, The Charter Oak has to be a top choice.  Click here for reservations:  Charter Oak Reservations

John & Irene

July 14, 2017

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Why we love the CIA? For the food!

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Maybe you thought we meant this “CIA”?

For most people, the letters “CIA” conjure up a plethora of images and ideas – clandestine meetings, skullduggery, espionage, exotic locations, and a fair amount of intrigue and danger.  What probably does not come to mind is food, and world-class food at that.  The reason for this is that our nation’s spy agency has co-opted those three letters:  C – I – A; for those of us that live in wine country, they are more appropriately associated with the Culinary institute of America.  And yes, we actually refer to the institute as the “CIA.”  Twice in the past month, we visited the CIA’s St. Helena campus to try out their new Gatehouse Restaurant.  Over the past 2-3 years, we have eaten several times at the CIA’s previous restaurant Greystone; like Greystone, at Gatehouse all of the restaurant “work” – cooking, food and wine service, hosting – is performed by students of the Culinary Institute.

There are a multitude of areas in life that we imagine being served by students or apprentices would not be ideal:  medical care and haircuts come to mind.  We can say with great enthusiasm, however, that fine cuisine made by the students at the CIA is top-notch and the equal of most restaurants in the Napa Valley. Indeed, many of the individuals that made or served our food, poured our wine, and removed our dishes after eating will some day soon be working in the Valley’s elite eateries.  We enjoyed both the food and the ambience so much that we went twice, first with our intrepid Napa Valley food and wine connoisseurs Inna and Igor, and the second time just us for Valentine’s Day.  We enjoyed both visits and were particularly impressed with the many new menu items the second time we visited.

Gatehouse serves a fixed-price menu with an option of three or four courses. For dinner, the cost of three courses is $39.00 and four courses is $49.00, while for lunch the courses are $32.00 and $42.00 for three and four courses, respectively.  While these are not fast food prices, they are very reasonable for the quality and quantity of food provided.  On our first visit, we opted for the three course tasting menu at $32.00 per person, an amount we easily could have exceeded most of the restaurants we tend to visit during a day of wine tasting.  For Valentine’s Day we opted for the more decadent four-course dinner for $49.00, a screaming bargain compared to the tasting menus at many of the restaurants we considered going to, which ranged from $100 to $150 per person.  In our humble opinions, Gatehouse delivers a superior overall culinary experience that will make us come back over and over again.

For our lunch visit, the four of us ordered a wide variety of options off of the menu to make sure that we were collectively able to evaluate the Gatehouse’s variety and range.  Even before our first selection was served, our server brought out a complimentary amuse bouche from the chef.

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A nice way to start

Our first courses included beef consommé, a roasted acorn squash with good cheese and eggplant purée, and cured salmon with shaved fennel and potato crêpe.

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Beef consomme with custard royale and vegetable pearls
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Cured salmon with shaved fennel, green apple, potato crepe, tarragon green sauce
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Roasted acorn squash with goat cheese, eggplant puree, lentil salad, maple-cider dressing

As you can see, the dishes at Gatehouse are presented as beautifully as they would be at any high-end establishment. In terms of taste and texture, we each loved our starters as well as the rest of our meal, which included a delicate and flaky skate…

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… braised short rib …

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Beautifully prepared in five spices

… pork tenderloin …

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Don’t you love that pork can be served “medium” these days?

Our final course was, of course, dessert.  We each ordered something different including a Moscato poached pear, Chai panna cotta, and a chocolate granache.

Our preferred version of the CIA makes a mean dessert as well – not surprising given that there is a pastry track that produces some very good pastry chefs as well.

When we returned for Valentine’s Day, the menu had almost all new items compared to just a couple of weeks before.  We opted for the 4-course dinner and again had some very sophisticated and tasty dishes.  One of our starters was Muscovy Duck Breast prosciutto, a definite first for us …

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Who knew you could make prosciutto from duck breast?

Our other starter was Pacific Rock Crab Risotto …

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Risotto al dente

Additional dishes included Pancetta Wrapped Quail …

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A great mix of flavors

…Rolled Pasta with black truffles …

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Pasta is not always boring

Dessert brought more decadence, including Warm Oatmeal Cake …

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Not your ordinary oatmeal

…and “White Chocolate-Peppermint “Cheesecake”

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Not your ordinary cheesecake

 

Of course this being Napa Valley, the restaurant has a very impressive list of premium wines.  We opted to bring our own bottles of wine and were very pleasantly surprised when no corkage fee was added to our bill!

We will be back to Gatehouse Restaurant again to try the items we missed the first two times.  If you are coming to Napa Valley, we strongly recommend you make the trip to St. Helena and check it out.  You can make reservations here: Gatehouse

The current menus are available here:  Gatehouse Menu

John & Irene Ingersoll

February 28, 2017

 

 

 

 

 

I’ve a feeling we’re not in Croatia anymore

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Dorothy in “The Wizard of Oz”

This is the sixth and final  installment in the chronicle of the European vacation where I decided to plan the entire trip and not tell my wife where we are going.  She has discovered each destination as we cross a border or enter a new city.  In most cases she has been in the dark until almost the last minute. If you missed previous installments you can find them in our archives or here:  

 My Wife Doesn’t Know Where We Are Going.  

Why Is It So Hard To Keep A Secret? 

 Sneaking The Wife Across An International Border.  

“A” to Zagreb.

 Travel Log: 16 Lakes, Countless Waterfalls, and Too Many U-Turns

Croatia’s Terroir

There is a scene in the famous movie “The Wizard of Oz” when Dorothy awakens in a strange and unfamiliar land and says to her dog: “Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore.”  We had a similar experience as we wrapped up our two-week adventure in Europe, which started in Italy, took us into Slovenia, and then into Croatia.  Our final country was so different from any of the others that we visited – definitely different from Croatia (and Kansas!).

When planning the trip, my original hope was that we could make it to six countries during our stay.  However, there was too much to see and we did not have as much time as I would have liked to country hop.  But I did have one more country up my sleeve to round out the trip.

We started our trip in Venice, Italy, and our second-to-last city was Dubrovnik, which the missus enjoyed quite a bit.  According to her, it was her second-favorite place after the incredible Plitvice Lakes National Park.  So where to go from Dubrovnik for the last two days of our trip?  I booked our last couple of nights in Sarajevo, which is the capital of Croatia’s neighbor, Bosnia & Herzegovina. Technically, we had already been in Bosnia during our trip.  Why “technically?”  Well, the only way to get from the center of Croatia to Dubrovnik on the coast is to travel through Bosnia.  That’s right – the north-south freeway requires about a 15-20 minute detour through Bosnia before re-entering Croatia.  So the missus had already been in Bosnia and thought that the brief pass-through would be our only stop there.

As we left Dubrovnik, she halfheartedly tried to get me to say where we were headed.  “That way,” I told her, pointing north.  After about an hour, we crossed the now-familiar Croatia/Bosnia border detour and soon were back in Croatia again to reconnect to the main freeway.  We were not done with Bosnia, though, as about 30 minutes later we came to another Croatia/Bosnia border stop.  “Again?” she asked.  “How many times are we going to cross into and back from Bosnia?”  “It’s the last time,” I assured her.

This time, the crossing was a more formal event.  Unlike the “pass-through” crossing where they don’t even stop the car or require documentation, this time we had to show our passports for stamping.  About 100 yards later we saw the first sign that Bosnia was going to be different than Croatia:  the sign for Bosnia & Herzegovina was written in both the Roman (western) and Cyrillic alphabets.

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Bosnia & Herzegovina sign written in two alphabets

For my wife, this was very comfortable as the Russian language also uses the Cyrillic alphabet.  All navigational and street signs we passed in Bosnia were written in both alphabets.

The second hint came as we passed several mosques on our drive north towards Sarajevo.  From my pre-trip research I was aware that there are three main ethnic groups in Bosnia: Serbs (generally of the Orthodox religion), Croats (generally Catholic) and Bosniaks (Muslim).  As we drove further north, the prevalence of the Islamic faith in Bosnia became more obvious.

As we were leaving Dubrovnik in Croatia to head to Sarajevo I decided we would stop somewhere along the way for lunch.  All of the people we met in Croatia told us that Mostar was a “must stop” destination, so we combined a “must stop” with a lunch stop.  As we entered Mostar, the third and perhaps most compelling sign that we were no longer in Croatia became apparent:  war damage.  Certainly, the 1990’s Balkan war affected Croatia, including several of the places that we visited.  In Bosnia, however, the duration, intensity and brutality of the war was on a scale that shocked and saddened us.

A Twitter “friend” of ours had given us the name of a restaurant in Mostar to stop for lunch.  Attempting to follow the garbled pronunciations of our Garmin GPS, we made our way through Mostar towards “Stari Grad” – Old Town.  From the car window the evidence of war was still visible: buildings with bullet holes in them and destroyed buildings waiting to be rebuilt.  Finally, we found a parking space close to where she-Garmin was telling us the restaurant was located.

We stepped out of the car and in a few steps were in the Old Town part of Mostar.  Within 50 meters we found the restaurant that we were looking for and we happily plopped down and ordered some water and traditional Bosnian food.

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Yummy Bosnian food at TimaIrma in Mostar

In Europe, “old town” really means old:  Mostar has been around since the 15th Century and there are structures in the city that remain from that time.  Easily the most famous structure in Mostar is its bridge; in fact, “most” in Serbian means bridge.  The mostari were the bridge keepers, which gave Mostar its name back in the Ottoman Empire.  After lunch we walked through Stari Grad and crossed the old bridge (Stari Most) and checked out the shops in the narrow streets of the old shopping district.

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The Old Bridge in Mostar, Bosnia & Herzegovina

Built in 1566, the bridge stood for 427 years until it was destroyed in 1993 by Croats during the Croat-Bosniak War, one of the many Balkan conflicts that erupted after Yugoslavia fell apart.  It was not until 2004 that the bridge was re-opened to allow pedestrians to once again cross the Neretva River from one side of town to the other.

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Mostar Old Bridge destroyed during war in 1993

We only stayed in Mostar for a few hours, but the wife was really impressed by the feel of the old town, the bridge, and the connection to the culture of six centuries ago.  It was also our first exposure to the importance of the Islamic faith in Bosnia, as we heard the mid-day “call to prayer” being broadcast over the loudspeaker from a local mosque.

From Mostar, we continued driving north until we arrived in Sarajevo, the last stop on our trip.  We checked into the Hotel Bristol for two nights in the city that hosted the 1984 Winter Olympics. Or, as our guide the following day would say, “only the second communist city to host an Olympic games.”  “And the only one that the United States attended,” I added, since the U.S. boycotted the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow.  We were tired and hungry and appreciated the personal welcome when we got into our room.

The following morning, we woke up and had breakfast in the lobby of the Hotel Bristol.  The previous ten days of our trip, we awoke to beautiful sunshine and blue skies . Our first morning in Sarajevo, there was no sun to be seen, only grey and black clouds.  “Rain,” I brilliantly opined.  Nevertheless, we decided that we were going to tour the town even if we got wet.  After all, when would we get back to Sarajevo again?

My prediction of rain turned out to be wrong, and, unfortunately, optimistic.  As I looked out of our hotel room window just before we ventured out, I realized that it was snowing!  Here’s a cool video of the view from our hotel window.

Since we don’t see snow often, I didn’t want to drive my trusty VW Golf into Stari Grad (yes, every town seems to have an “Old Town”).  Instead, we grabbed a cab and the driver dropped us off at the start of our tour.  We spent two delightful hours with a Sarajevo native who took us all around town.  Here are the things that we saw and learned:

  1.  Sarajevo is a majority-Muslim city, with about 80% of the residents identifying as Islamic; minority populations include the Serbs (about 4%) and Croats (5%).  In the 1991 Census, Muslims made up only half of the population, with Serbs accounting for nearly 30% of the city’s population.  The dramatic shift in the population between the 1991 and the 2013 census surveys is almost entirely accounted for by the drastic reduction in the population of Sarajevo’s Serbs, many of whom left during and after the war.
  2. Even though Sarajevo is majority-Muslim, it defied our expectations of what such a city would look and feel like. Certainly, there were many mosques in town, especially in the Old Town.  As we experienced in Mostar, we heard the “call to prayer” multiple times while we were walking around Sarajevo.  What surprised us, though, is how modern and contemporary Sarajevo felt, even in the Old Town.  Most men and women were dressed in typical European fashions and styles and all of the expected brand stores were represented in the shopping zone.  Unlike other Muslim cities, it is less common for women to wear the hijab in Sarajevo.  As the wife describes it, Sarajevo is an “East-meets-West” city; in fact, there is a spot in the Old Town that has been created to show the intersection of both East and West.
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    Sarajevo “Meeting of Cultures” – Facing West
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    Sarajevo “Meeting of Cultures” – facing East

    The pictures above depict a line in the Old Town of Sarajevo that dissects the town’s two personalities – Eastern and Western.  On the Eastern side, you can see the mosque and the traditional Ottoman-style stores.  On the Western side of the line are the European and American brand stores selling lingerie, sneakers, jeans, dresses and products that would be available in any Western city.  While the East-West divide expresses part of the diversity of Sarajevo, there is also an impressive diversity of religion in the city with active houses of worship for four faiths:  Islam, Judaism, Catholicism and Orthodox.

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    Sarajevo Catholic Church
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    Stain-glass windows on Catholic church
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    Main Mosque in Sarajevo
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    Orthodox Church in Sarajevo
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    Synagogue in Sarajevo

    Within a 500 meter radius in Sarajevo you will find the mosque, synagogue, and churches (Catholic and Orthodox).

     

  3. There is excellent food, wine and coffee in Sarajevo (did anyone doubt we would find it?).  We got our first taste of the excellent Bosnian food when we were in Mostar; in Sarajevo we ate at several fine restaurants and sampled many different types of dishes.  After our Sarajevo city tour on Day 1, we opted for a seafood restaurant just outside of the Old Town.
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    Seabass
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    Bosnian Fish Soup
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    Salads
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    Bosnian Wine – Blatina

    On our last day in Bosnia, we opted for something with traditional Bosnian food and found a place called Dveri that was mostly full of locals.

    Since it was our last day, we decided to select some real Bosnian comfort food.

    This fantastic meal was washed down with a carafe of the house Blatina.

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    Bosnian Table Wine

    At the end of most of our meals, we opted for a traditional Bosnian coffee which is served in a small copper container and poured into a small cup to drink.  “Sort of like Turkish coffee,” the missus said the first time we saw it.  “We like to call it Bosnian coffee,” the waiter replied.  In fairness. though, the coffee is clearly one of the remnants of hundreds of years of Ottoman rule, so calling it “Turkish coffee” is not really incorrect.  Just ill-advised.

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    Bosnian coffee
  4. Bosnia has an honest-to-goodness wine country!  There are vineyards across Bosnia (most in the Herzegovina region) and we drove by thousands of acres of them on our drive up to Sarajevo.
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    Vineyards in the Herzegovina region of Bosnia

    In fact, Mostar is well-known for its production of an indigenous white wine varietal, Zilavka, the most common white wine in Bosnia.  We found extensive wine menus at all the restaurants we visited which included not only Bosnian wines but offerings from Croatia, Slovenia, and Serbia.  On our next trip we will need to include more wineries in our itinerary.  We strongly believe that Balkan wines have the depth, complexity, aromatic strength and flavor to compete with wines anywhere.

  5. War and conflict is very much a part of the legacy of Bosnia in general and Sarajevo in particular.  Our city tour started at the spot where a Serb assassinated Archduke Ferdinand in 1914, the catalyst that led to the First World War.
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    The spot where Archduke Ferdinand was assassinated

    After World War II, the Balkan countries were united together into a single country, Yugoslavia, led by Communist leader Marshall Tito.  When Tito died in 1980, the glue that held together the six separate Yugoslav republics (Croatia, Slovenia, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Montenegro, Serbia and Macedonia) weakened.  The rise of nationalist sentiment eventually led to the breakup of Yugoslavia and a series of wars across the Balkan region.   The 1990’s conflicts are still very visible in Sarajevo, with buildings that still bear the scars of war and others that are waiting to be rebuilt.  For Sarajevo, the destruction came during what is now known as the Siege of Sarajevo, a 1,425 day siege by Serbian forces that created a virtual blockade of the city.  Controlling the hills around Sarajevo, Serb forces repeatedly shelled the city (an average of 300 per day for the nearly four-year siege) and snipers preyed on residents as they attempted to move around the besieged city.  By the end of the siege, 13,000 people were killed and over 90% of buildings were damaged or destroyed.  It was the longest siege of a capital city in the history of modern warfare.   These images are played out across Bosnia.

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    Destroyed and abandoned buildings in the Bosnian countryside
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    More abandoned buildings
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    Building in Mostar with  visible bullet marks
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    A building in Mostar waiting to be rebuilt

    For us, the war stories were all sobering, but none more than the Srebrenica Exhibition in Sarajevo, which tells the tragic and devastating story of the fall of the town and the subsequent massacre of nearly all of the Muslim men and boys in the town.  On July 11, 1995, Bosnian Serb forces conquered Srebrenica after an extended period shelling the town from the surrounding mountains.  As the Serb forces came into the town, many boys and men attempted to flee through the forest, only to be killed by mortar attacks.  Those that did not flee were rounded up and murdered and buried in mass graves.  United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan referred to the Srebrenica event as the worst crime on European soil since World War II, and others have referred to the event as a genocide.  In total, tens of thousands of Muslims were killed as a result of “ethnic cleansing” during the Balkan conflicts.

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    Outside the Srebrenica Memorial Gallery

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    A fitting reminder in the elevator going up to the Srebrenica memorial

Our two days in Sarajevo were fast but productive; we saw many things and immersed ourselves as much as possible in the rhythm of the city and absorbed as much history as we could.  Nevertheless, we need to go back as there is more to see, not just in Sarajevo but also in the rest of Bosnia.  Without question, we need to visit the Bosnian wineries that we drove by on our way from Croatia to Sarajevo.  Next visit, we would also like to make it to Montenegro and Serbia to learn more about those former Yugoslav republics.

John Ingersoll

November 6, 2016

Travel Log: 16 Lakes, Countless Waterfalls, and Too Many U-Turns

This is the fifth  installment in the chronicle of the European vacation where I decided to plan the entire trip and not tell my wife where we are going.  She has discovered each destination as we cross a border or enter a new city.  In most cases she has been in the dark until almost the last minute. If you missed the first installment you can find it here:  My Wife Doesn’t Know Where We Are Going.  The second installment is here:  Why Is It So Hard To Keep A Secret? And the third is here:  Sneaking The Wife Across An International Border.  The fourth is here:  “A” to Zagreb.

The first five days of our trip we did not need a car as we were in Venice (where no cars are permitted) and then in Zagreb where we were able to walk around.  For the rest of our journey, though, we will be traveling by car.  Before leaving Zagreb, we swung by the local office of European car rental agency Sixt to pick up our trusty vehicle for the next 10 days or so:  a Volkswagen Golf.  Thinking ahead, I requested that the car be equipped with navigation; when the car pulled up, it had a Garmin GPS system plugged into the power source.  Because my wife did not know our next destination, I took the Garmin and typed in “Vila Lika,” which the GPS located immediately and told us was just over 2 hours away.  How wrong it would be!  Or, should I say, how wrong “she” would be.  You see, the voice for our Garmin was a female, and she spoke in what initially we thought was a charming British accent.  As the day wore on, we would find “her” to be more and more annoying.

Pulling away from the car rental agency, though, we were full of anticipation and excitement as this would be our first European road trip together.  Our many previous trips have been of the planes and trains variety, but generally did not include long stretches of driving.  For my part, I was looking forward to being behind the wheel of a stick-shift car again – something that has all but disappeared in the United States.  In my younger days, all of my cars were manual transmission and shifting gears was second nature.  It has been a long time, however, since I drove a car with a stick.  My father used to say that driving an automatic car is just “steering,” not driving.  I have to agree with this, so I specifically requested a manual transmission car for the trip.  Since the missus is an old-school kind of woman, she also can handle stick-shift cars so no worries there.

After finally figuring out how to find reverse, I backed out of the space and asked the wife to use the Garmin to navigate.  That’s when the fun started.  Pretty quickly we realized that our lovely British-accented Garmin lady guide did not know how to pronounce any of the Croatian street names. In fairness, the Croatian language seems to have a grudge against vowels.  You will find entire words that are 100% consonants. On top of that, although the alphabet is mostly the Roman alphabet (A to Z) that we use in English, there are enough new letters (and pronunciations) thrown in to really mix things up.  The way I see it there are three “C’s” and a bunch of “D’s” and “S’s”.  Try singing the old “ABC” song to this:

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Clearly, our she-Garmin did not study Croatian in school as she blithely ignored the little “hats” that sat above the C’s, S’s, and Z’s.  One symbol turns a “c” into a “ch”; another into an “sh”.  But like all confident speakers who don’t know any better, the Garmin just crammed all of the letters into a cruel soup of sounds that could not be comprehended to save one’s life.  The first three turns we were supposed to make just getting to the main road in Zagreb we missed because the Garmin pronunciation sounded nothing like the name on the street sign.  After a while, we wondered whether some sadistic programmer at Garmin conspired to record just a single pronunciation for the tens of thousands of Croatian street names.  To us, everything sounded like “yelkamostya oolika.”  Already, the two-hour trip estimate was under stress as it took us 25 minutes to leave town.

Once on the road, my bad-ass self took to shifting gears as often as I could, even when shifting was not entirely necessary.  But hey, when you’ve got the stick in your hand you have to use it, right?  We settled in for what we assumed would now be a smooth ride.  About half an hour in, the Garmin instructed us to proceed on some undecipherable road, which we gathered was straight ahead. Unfortunately, the road was closed for construction and a very major detour was put in place, forcing us to head due east for many miles instead of south as intended.  This part of Croatia is not particularly wide and I was afraid we would end up in Bosnia.  For nearly 50 miles, our Garmin guide, in “her” perfect British accent, instructed us “as soon as possible” to make “a legal U-turn.”  This, presumably, so we could go back to the road that was blocked off.  The missus and I kept thinking that “she” would readjust her bearings and give us a corrected route, but we were mistaken.  She continued to bleat out the same request for us to turn around until, finally, we were able to reconnect to the main road.

When I originally planned this destination, I saw on the map that there were some impressive waterfalls along the way.  Given the detours we had taken, I was no longer positive that we would pass that way.  However, at the last moment, as we were about to drive by, I noticed a sign for the town where the waterfalls were located.  I whipped the car over (downshifting twice, I’ll have you know) and parked by the side of the road.  “Is everything okay,” asked the wife, “why are we stopping?”  “I thought this might be a good place to take a picture,” I told her.  Boy was I right.

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This is where we stopped to see waterfalls

I didn’t bother asking she-Garmin how to pronounce the town – Grad Slunj.  But it was a gorgeous location with some amazing powerful waterfalls created by the confluence of two rivers.  These are the views from just next to the main road.

We have visited Oregon several times and without question that state has some amazing waterfalls, including the impressive Multnomah Falls. Croatia, though, may have the most impressive series of waterfalls we have ever seen.

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Me, she and falling water

The missus would have stayed longer but I dragged her back to the car.  Unbeknownst to her, we would be seeing even more impressive waterfalls the following day.  Eventually, she-Garmin started to get optimistic, telling us that we were 50, 30, 10, and then finally 1 kilometer from our destination.  We pulled into the driveway of a lovely lodging property that backed up to the mountain.

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Vila Lika in Plitvice Lakes, Croatia

We got our key and headed to the room to crash.  We brought food with us because I knew the location was somewhat remote and there would be few local restaurant options.  The room turned out to be very nice – not overly spacious but recently built with some very modern and elegant touches.

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Our room at Vila Lika

The view out of our patio was stunning as our villa building overlooked the entrance to the national park.

 

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View from our room

So where were we, you might ask?  We were about .4 kilometers from the entrance to Plitvice Lakes National Park, the largest national park in Croatia.  It is on the bucket list of most sensible people who are aware of it, and the rightful source of national pride for Croatians.  Think of it as their Grand Canyon, Yosemite or Yellowstone Park. It has been chosen as a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its immense natural beauty.  We were there to check it off of our bucket list.

We went to bed early and got up early as we wanted to see the entire park before heading off to our next destination.  We enjoyed an impressive buffet breakfast at Vila Lika (including one of the best omelets we have had in many a year) and headed off to the park.  In all, it took us about 5 hours to get around the park, which included nearly 20,000 steps and 60 floors of walking, a tram ride, and a boat ride.  Plitvice Lakes is an immense place and we saw every inch of it.  The missus was blown away as generally I would not think to include something in our itinerary that involves a great deal of walking.  For her, and for this place, I made an exception and I have no regrets.  It was one of the most stunning places either of us has ever been.

Plitvice Lakes has sixteen lakes in total, and so many waterfalls that we have not seen a reliable count.  Some of the waterfalls are huge, cascading over 275 feet from top to bottom, while others fall just a few feet.  But there are waterfalls every way you turn and everywhere you go.

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On the boat to the Upper Lakes
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Stunning waterfalls
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Gorgeous backdrop
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One of the beautiful lakes
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What can I say?
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Hiking along the lower lakes
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Lovely fall colors
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Did we mention lakes?

During the first half of the day I told the missus, “I don’t think I could ever get tired of seeing waterfalls.”  As we rounded hour 5 and made the steep climb to get to the top of the walking path for the Upper Lakes, I reconsidered.  “I’m over the waterfalls,” I told her, perhaps in jest.  Perhaps not.

Anyway, we were proud of ourselves for making it through the whole park.  We made it back to the car, did a quick change of shoes, and again I set the destination in the Garmin.  Due to high winds crossing the mountains we were diverted from the main highway onto a series of switch back mountain roads that seemed more dangerous than the original one.  Garmin told us it would be two hours to our next destination. We were starting to think that a variation of the “Los Angeles” phenomenon was in play: when we lived in LA, if someone asked how long it took to get from Point A to Point B, we would say “20 minutes.”  Maybe “two hours” is the answer in Croatia?  In total, the trip took about 3 1/2 hours with a series of missed turns – some of them our fault, and some of them “hers” due to the wretched butchering of street names.  Next post I’ll tell you where we ended up ….

John Ingersoll

October 29, 2016

“A” to Zagreb

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Hotel Jagerhorn in Zagreb, Croatia

This is the fourth installment in the chronicle of the European vacation where I decided to plan the entire trip and not tell my wife where we are going.  She has discovered each destination as we cross a border or enter a new city.  In most cases she has been in the dark until almost the last minute. If you missed the first installment you can find it here:  My Wife Doesn’t Know Where We Are Going.  The second installment is here:  Why Is It So Hard To Keep A Secret? And the third is here:  Sneaking The Wife Across An International Border.  

CHAPTER FOUR …

The wine-infused drive through Slovenia and into Zagreb all but assured that the post-Venice leg of our trip would be a positive one.  What really had me worried was three nights in Zagreb, a city that neither my wife nor I had every visited.  Of the many risks of planning a vacation without any input or knowledge of one’s “other half,” probably the biggest is picking the wrong hotel.  After 11 hours on the road from Venice, our driver dropped us off on a side street in Zagreb, about a block from our hotel. She explained that our hotel was in the “pedestrian zone” and therefore she could not get us any closer to the hotel via car.  Thus, we dragged our large suitcase, two backpacks, and an entire case of wine that we picked up in Venice from our new friends, the Abruzzo winemakers.

As we approached the hotel from the other side of the street, I couldn’t help but think it looked very unimpressive. Rather than having a grand entrance like many hotels, the Jägerhorn had a small archway stuck between two retail stores.  Oh boy, I thought, this doesn’t look anything like the pictures on the website.  Because it is “off-season” in Croatia, many of the places I planned for us during our trip are much lower than summer rates – in some cases a third of the cost.  My first thought about the hotel was, maybe I played it too cute – did I get us too much of a bargain?  Three days in a bargain hotel would be a great way to mess up the entire “surprise” nature of this entire trip.

I shouldn’t have worried.  Once we passed the archway and entered the courtyard, I could see that the hotel was as nice as it looked online.  Because we had not eaten for several hours, we had some coffee and tea and dessert in the hotel cafe before heading up to the room.  “Oh my god!” said my wife as she pushed the door open. As any husband knows, “Oh my god!” can have several positive connotations and many negative ones as well.  When uttered, it is often difficult to tell what the motivation behind the words are in that moment. I held my breath as the missus looked around the room.  “Is this  a suite?” she asked.  “Why yes,  of course it is,” I answered, as if I could have reserved nothing less.

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Front room of Hotel Jagerhorn

She breezed into the bedroom and  I heard another “Oh my god!”  “Yes?” I asked nervously.  “I love it!” she exclaimed.  “What a beautiful room!”  An examination of the bathroom ensued, which also turned out to be more than acceptable and generated a final “oh my God!”

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Large bedroom at Hotel Jagerhorn
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Spacious and modern bathroom at Hotel Jagerhorn

Everything about the hotel turned out to be ideal. The buffet breakfast each morning was cozy and well-stocked.  The cafe/bar was a perfect spot to stop in every night before heading up to our room for the night. And the location could not have been better: we were right in the middle of the coolest part of town, about a quarter of a mile from the main square and no more than 10-15 minutes walking distance from all of the places we wanted to go.  Our hotel was located in the “lower town” of Zagreb, but literally through the center of our hotel courtyard were stairs going to “Upper Town.”

One of the things I read while planning this trip is that Zagreb is a town for people who love coffee.  According to many blogs and travel sites, there is a coffee shop almost every 50 meters in Zagreb.  If this is an exaggeration, it is only a small one.  We did in fact find coffee shops all over town.  Most importantly, these coffee shops were authentic, local places serving really nice brews.  I am happy to report that there is not a single Starbucks in Zagreb; in fact, there are zero Starbucks locations in the entire country of Croatia.  There will also be no Starbucks locations in any of the countries remaining on our trip.  Just real coffee made by genuine roasters of coffee beans and brewers of coffee.  Okay, I will get off of my soap box now.

Needless to say, we consumed a lot of coffee in Zagreb, although it took us a while to learn how to order what we wanted.  I started out ordering “coffee,” but that confused the people at the coffee shop, and they would reply “American?”  Well, no, I don’t want “American” coffee – do I have to get back on my soapbox about Starbucks?  What I realized is that “American” means coffee with milk, although I tend to think as “American” as black coffee.  Eventually I figured it out and we made the most of the both “American” coffee, black coffee, and various Croatian takes on espresso, cappuccino, latte, and other coffee drinks.

What else did we do besides drink coffee?  We walked around Zagreb quite a bit to soak up the ambiance of the city.  Neither of us likes to go to a city and take the mandatory 25 pictures of monuments so that we can say we “saw” the city.  We prefer to follow the rhythms and routine of the locals and go the places they go and do the things that they do. If we see some monuments along the way, that’s a bonus.

The first morning we left the hotel to get to know Zagreb better.  A wonderful part of traveling so late in the year (“off-season” for sure in Croatia) is that there were almost no tourists in town. We were walking among Croatians, among the people who live and work every day in Zagreb.  It was an amazingly lively city, very reminiscent of a place like Milan:  everyone was dressed very stylishly and there were fancy stores and quaint squares on almost every block.  Certainly, it was not what I was expecting, having visited Eastern Europe and Slavic countries in the past.  Zagreb was much more cosmopolitan than I imagined and more reminiscent of a Western European capital.

The missus, who is originally from Russia, was delighted that she could understand quite a bit of the Croatian language being spoken.  Apparently there are many words that are identical or very similar between Croatian and Russian.  She did most of the talking when we were not speaking English.  Right across the street from our hotel she ordered her favorite thing: chestnuts.

 

We then decided to walk to the main Zagreb Farmers Market.  It is important to distinguish between the U.S. version of a farmers market and the Croatian version.  In the United States, the farmers market is usually a weekly event where people pay too much money for small amounts of fruits, nuts, vegetables or other food items.  No one (at least no one in their right mind) would do their weekly shopping at an American farmers market.  In Zagreb, by contrast, the Dolac Farmers Market is the market  – the place where locals of all income levels do their fruit, vegetable, fish, meat, eggs and other food shopping.  The giant market has both an outdoor and an indoor section and covers several acres.

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Dolac Farmers Market in Zagreb
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Irene’s food drug: mushrooms!

It would have been fun to buy some mushrooms, meat, pork or chicken and cook it up but this was not possible as we were staying in a hotel.  We did, though, pick up some very tasty local fruits and hazelnuts for our walk around town.  From the market we made our way to Zagreb’s Upper Town, perched on the hills overlooking the city.  We were in search of another coffee shop, of course – Palainovka, which we had read about in a blog about Croatia.  To get from Lower Town to Upper Town there are two ways: walk, or ride a funicular.  We were feeling energetic so we walked up the stairs next to the funicular, which we were later told is the shortest one in the entire world.

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Stairs to Upper Town
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Cute restaurant at the top of the funicular with views of Zagreb

We did pass some cool monuments along the way to the coffee shop and we dutifully took pictures of them.

But we mostly enjoyed blending into the city as much as two Americans can and living the live of Zagreb citizens.  We went to a restaurant one evening that was recommended by locals – Lari I Penati.  We ate some great Croatian dishes and had our first taste of Croatian wine.

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Soup at Lari I Penati
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Home-made Pate
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Pasta with local mushrooms
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Chicken wings Croatian-style
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Our first Croatian wine

After nearly three years in Napa Valley we have gotten used to the big, bold flavor of Napa Cabernet Sauvignon.  The Croatian red wines have a much different aroma and flavor profile than anything we are used to drinking at home.  The flavors are subtle and the wines are silky and fruity, although not overly so.  We are planning on drinking more local wines during our trip including visiting some actual wineries when we get farther along on our trip.

Because we are not experts on Croatian wines (yet), we thought it would be fun to get a deeper understanding of them.  While planning the surprise trip, I “met” Dario Drmac (through our blogging and Twitter), a real-live Croatian who lives in Zagreb.  Not only does he live in Zagreb, but he runs an online wine export company focused exclusively on Croatian wines, and he owns a bar that serves only Croatian wine.  As it turns out, this bar, Wine Bar Basement, was about 200 meters from our hotel.  Before leaving the United States, I arranged to meet Dario at Basement for some charcuterie, cheese and, of course, Croatian wine.  Dario and his partner spent nearly three hours with us taking us on a tasting tour of Croatian white and red wines, as well as our first ever “black” sparkling wine.  Most sparkling wines are either white or pink; we had a Croatian sparkling wine that was very dark.   Anyone visiting Zagreb must make time in their schedule to visit Wine Bar Basement and check out their assortment of well over 100 Croatian wines.  One thing we liked the most about Basement’s wine selection is that Dario focuses on small-production family wineries that are generally not available in stores or restaurants. He is committed to supporting local Croatian producers.  Ask for Dario and let him know that you are friends of ours.

Wednesday morning came and it was time to leave Zagreb.  Our bags were even heavier than when we arrived a few days earlier as we purchased several bottles of Croatian wines from Basement the night before.  But no worry, we were renting a car from Zagreb and heading ….well, you’ll have to wait until the next installment.

John Ingersoll

October 28, 2016

Sneaking The Wife Across An International Border

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Italy-Slovenia Border

We left Venice at 10:00 a.m. after a short stay in that magical city. Because it is impossible to rent a car in Italy and drop it off in our final country, I found a great service (Ondaytrip.com) to drive us to what i told my wife was “city 2 and City 3.”  As we set out in the car, she  thought we were going somewhere else in Italy.  As we continued on the freeway, the signs pointed the way to the Italian cities of Udine and Trieste.  Along the road there were miles and miles of grape vines, leading her to conclude we were visiting some northern Italian wineries.  Cagey man that I am, I did not correct any of these impressions and merely grunted every time she made a guess.

She wasn’t wrong in terms of the direction we were traveling – north and east of Venice – and the famous wine regions that can be found in that direction.  But before we arrived in Italian wine country, we veered due east and took some small roads through the beautiful countryside at the foot of the Dolomite mountains.  One minute we were in Italy, the next minute we were in Slovenia.  Twenty-five years ago, this crossing would have been much more momentous and could not have happened in such a sneaky manner.  Back then, the trip would have been from Italy to Yugoslavia, which was one of the Soviet-bloc countries and had much stricter border control.  Today, Slovenia is a member of the E.U. and the borders are open, unmanned and require no surrendering of passports or other documentation.

After we crossed the border, we meandered through the Slovenian countryside for a few miles before turning off on a small road and making our way a narrow mountain road.  Halfway to the top we pulled into a parking lot for an establishment called Kabaj Morel.  “What’s this?” asked the missus.  “It’s where we’re having lunch,” I told her.

Two weeks before we left on our trip,  Jean-Michel Morel, the winemaker at Kabaj Morel, was in San Francisco promoting his Slovenian wines to the California market.  A friend met him and got one of his cards for me.  I decided that it would be fun to visit since it was only about two hours from Venice and on the way to our next destination.  “Where are we?” she asked.  “Goriška Brda,” I offered, as if this was helpful information.  “That doesn’t sound Italian,” she replied.  “What a relief, since we are in Slovenia.”

Any possibility that she might be upset or shocked by being whisked to an obscure winery in Slovenia was erased by the views visible from the parking lot as soon as we got out of the car.

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Kabaj estate vineyards directly behind the winery

It was as if Napa Valley and Tuscany got together and produced the perfect offspring.  Rolling hills covered in grape vines with beautiful houses and a church at the top of almost every hill.   We went inside and were  greeted by Jean-Michel Morel’s wife Katja Kabaj, whose family has been tending vines in the local area for many generations. Together, they have been bottling their own wine since 1993.  Katja told us that lunch would ready in about a half hour and that we should take some wine with us to enjoy on the patio outside overlooking the vineyards.  We found the perfect spot with the perfect view and enjoyed a glass of Zeleni Sauvignon, which translates to “Green Sauvignon” but we would call it Sauvignon Blanc in the United States.

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Irene enjoying some Kabaj Zeleni Sauvignon

When we were called in for lunch, Katja told us we could choose between a five-course lunch, with each course pairing a different Slovenian offering from their Kabaj label, or we could order any of the items from the course menu and have it a la carte.  We chose the five-course menu, naturally, which turned out to be the absolute right decision.  Each course was an authentic Slovenian dish made from locally-sourced, seasonal ingredients, but accentuated with a modern touch.

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Leek omelette with thin slices of Slovenian bacon
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Sauerkraut soup
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Barley and bacon in a pumpkin seed oil
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Steak Slovenian style
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Traditional Slovenian dessert

For each course, Katja brought a different wine and explained how it was produced, how long it was aged, in what type of barrel, etc.  We were blown away by the uniqueness and quality of these wines.  In terms of color, aroma and flavor, they were not at all similar to anything we are used to consuming in Napa Valley or other U.S. wine regions.  Many of the white wines were, well, not so white – they had more orange and in some cases brown hues, a result of the process of “maceration” where the juice is left in contact with the skins for extended periods of time.  Almost all of the Kabaj wines have long maceration periods to extract impressive colors and deep flavor.

The wines shown above are what we would traditionally think of as white wine.  We also tasted one of their red wines, a blend, and it had a very nice balance of fruit, earthiness and minerality.

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Kabaj red blend

We stayed at Kabaj for 4 1/2 hours and left well fed and most definitely over the 0.08 alcholol limit, which made us very happy that our driver Barbara was at the wheel.  We felt a little bit bad for her that she could not drink with us, but felt better about the decision as we headed east out of the wine region and across some windy roads to our intermediate destination, Ljublana, the capital of Slovenia.  It was dark when we arrived so we asked Barbara, who lives in the town, to take us somewhere where we could see the city lights and enjoy a bit of the evening ambiance.  We started at the castle, which sits high above Ljublana with near-360-degree views of the capital city.

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View of Ljublana from the castle

We then went into town and walked along the river and down some of the streets where there were many bars and restaurants and people sitting on outside terraces.

We did not have enough time to enjoy Ljublana and will definitely go back on our next trip to this region.  It looked like the kind of town where a two night stay would be very enjoyable.  But we were on a mission – heading east again – and left the capital city after about an hour and a half.  “Where are we going now?” asked the wife.  “You’ll see soon,” I told her.  It would have been nice to sneak her across another border, but this time we were traveling to a country with a traditional border control/passport inspection.  After surrendering our passports for a few minutes, we were in Croatia and on the short drive to Zagreb.  Despite the long day, the wife was still smiling and told me as we drove to the hotel:  “You’re 2 for 2.”  Let’s see how long I can keep that streak going.

John Ingersoll

October 25, 2016

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Sign hanging over the door at Kabaj winery in Slovenia

 

Why Is Your Blog So Damn Positive?

We have been blogging for about five months now; in total, we have twenty-two posts about our experiences living in and traveling around Northern California wine country.  Aside from a post about a Napa Valley Golf course and one about a rare sighting in Napa (a brewery!), all of our posts are focused on wineries and restaurants.  Readers of our reviews will quickly conclude that we enjoyed every winery, restaurant, brewery and other activity written about in this blog.  In fact, we did enjoy them.  All of them.  Yes, 100% of our blogs reflect positive experiences with the establishments that we visited.

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Grumpy Cat

The lack of any negative blog posts has led several readers to post questions in our comment section more or less on the same theme: “How is it possible that you like every place you visit?  Are you working for the companies that you profile?  Do you have some incentive to always be positive?  Wasn’t there something, anything that you didn’t like about the winery or restaurant?”  We love getting comments from readers, including these comments, as we believe feedback is a gift.  These reader questions helped us think more deeply about why we blog and what we are hoping to accomplish.

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5-Star Reviews  …Everywhere?

What is the purpose of a blog like ours?  Is it to be a chronicle of everywhere we have been? Is it to present our opinions, both good and bad, on the wines and food that we taste?  Is it to provide a “fair and balanced” analysis of the places we go and the experiences that we have?

We would be curious to hear from other bloggers on this topic, as there are certainly reasonable opinions and different approaches.  When we started our blog, though, we had a very specific purpose in mind:  having a great time visiting new, out-of-the-way places and sharing them with people who may not have experienced them yet.  Living in Napa Valley, we have plenty of places to choose from, not only in Napa but also Sonoma County and the newer wine regions that are starting to gain notoriety for their wines (Mendocino, Lake County, Lodi, Sacramento-area wineries, Solano County, etc.).  Our goal was not to use our blog as a glorified Tripadvisor or Yelp review (although many people do, and we enjoy many of those blogs).  Do we sometimes leave a winery disappointed, either with the service, the quality of the wine, or the ambience? Yes, just as frequently as everyone else does.  Do we like every restaurant? Of course not!  Like everyone else, we sometimes have to ask for a new fork multiple times and it annoys the hell out of us. Or our server takes forever to take our order; or, our order takes forever to come out of the kitchen.  Every once in a while, the food just isn’t that good – or not good enough to justify the steep prices.  So why wouldn’t we blog about negative experiences and let people who read our blog know that we had a bad time?

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Sometimes we hate our food too

For one thing, negative experiences have such a subjective quality to them; writing about them as fact, as many people do, does not feel right to us.  Was the food bad, or were we in a bad mood?  Was the waiter a jerk, or did we come into the restaurant with some baggage that caused us to obsess about the seconds ticking by as we waited for someone or something to come to the table?  If we have a bad experience, is that useful for someone considering going to that same restaurant or winery?  Does it make it any less likely that you will enjoy your time there?  No!  The best establishments in the world have Yelp reviews that make you wonder how their authors could have been at the same places as the authors that gave 5-stars.

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How does my 1-star review help you?

When we have a negative experience somewhere, the first thing we do is discuss whether or not we want to address our concerns with the establishment when we are there.  Most people do not, and then write scathing reviews when they are in the comfort of their home and in the safety and anonymity of their computer keyboard.  Repeatedly, we have been told that the best way to help an establishment improve on bad food or service is to say something during the visit.  On some occasions, we do say something, but not if the problem seems isolated to our visit, or driven by specific circumstances on that day (packed restaurant that was caught understaffed, for instance).  Once we leave the winery or restaurant, we lose our interest in chronicling, in writing, the terrible time we had.

When we write a blog, it is not to tell you what places to avoid. As we have already established, we like to write about places at which we had a special time.  But we don’t tell you what to order, or what to drink; we just share what we had, our interactions with the business and its staff, try and tell a little about their unique story and their approach to food, or wine, or whatever they are selling. The fact that we liked the short rib is no guarantee that you will.  We may tell you that we liked it, in passing, but our interest is more in describing the food, the wine, the service, the decor, and the atmosphere.  One of the reasons we share so many pictures is that it enables the reader to see for themselves how the spaces are laid out, how the food was presented, etc.  Rather than talk about “like” or “don’t like,” we focus more on the establishment’s approach.  If we are blogging about a restaurant, what is it trying to achieve?  What genre of food is it trying to carve out (pun intended)?  Where do they get their ingredients?

If we are blogging about a winery, we want to emphasize their winemaking style – are they making big “California” or “Napa” wines or following a more European approach?  Is the wine sweet or acidic, or somewhere in between?  Those are the things we think people care about more than our ratings or personal opinions.  If you like a high-alcohol, super-fermented buttery Napa Chardonnay (think Rombauer), then you should know the place we are blogging about makes a crisp Chard with zero residual sugar.  If you like red wines that jump out of the glass and punch you in the face, it will be helpful for you to know that the wines we tasted were only 12-13% alcohol and had a more subtle flavor profile.

We are not sure that our approach is correct, but for us, it just feels right.  If we blog about a place, that means we think it’s worth visiting.  If we go somewhere we hate, it’s not worth blogging about.  We do have opinions, of course, and if you ask us “hey what about XX Winery,” we’ll tell you what we think if we’ve been there. Even if we hated it.

Let us know how you think about blogging and if your approach is different.

John & Irene Ingersoll

October 5, 2016

 

O, Oregon!

We spent nearly a week in Oregon at the end of September, a trip motivated by the need to drop our son off at the U of O. We decided to add a couple of days to the trip and visit some wineries and wine regions we have not been to before.  One of the benefits of writing a wine blog and having an active presence on Twitter (@topochinesvino) is the connection to new friends across the United States and around the world.  Over the past six months or so, we have developed friendships in the Twittersphere with a number of winemakers and winery managers up and down the state of Oregon.  We built our non-campus activities around in-person visits to their wineries to learn more about their wines and what led them to this often challenging way of life.  We think we’ve made some lasting friendships from our visits in addition to tasting some of Oregon’s top-notch wines.

Over the course of our 6 days in Oregon, we had a wide range of adventures and experiences:

  1.  We saw an Oregon football game (our first together) in the very impressive Autzen stadium in Eugene.
  2.  We stayed at two very different but lovely B&B’s, both of which have vineyards and are producing their own wines.
  3.  Despite having visited Oregon multiple times, we discovered a part of the Willamette Valley (the southern region) that was new to us.
  4.  In between winery visits and campus activities, we were able to enjoy some superb restaurants.
  5.  On the drive home, we encountered two wine regions that until recently we did not know existed:  Umpqua Valley and Rogue Valley.

We will be posting about all of these experiences over the next several days, with of course lots of photos to accompany our stories.  For now, we leave you with a few pictures to whet the appetite for what is to come.

John & Irene Ingersoll

October 3, 2016

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Oregon-Colorado Football Game
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Irene Rocking Her Duck Hat In the Vineyard
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Oregon Pinot Noir
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Enviously Eying the Barrels
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Ready for Harvest
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Spanish Platter and Tempranillo
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Enjoying Rose in Rogue Valley

A Restaurant Too Cool For A Name

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Great Food

“Diner.” That’s all it says on the road sign.  “Diner.”  What else do you need to know, right?  Situated along Highway 121 in the Carneros wine region that straddles Napa and Sonoma, the diner’s aromas waft across its parking lot and onto the Highway as cars drive by, either coming into or out of Napa Valley.  It would be easy – and a mistake – to judge this book by its cover.  The modest signage might lead you to conclude that the advertised joint is not worth any additional words, or a proper name.  This “diner,” however, is simply too good to need to waste its time on fancy signs or worrying about getting its name out there.

For the record, the diner does have a name:  the Fremont Diner.  Open since 2009, it has become a virtual cult favorite for local Napa and Sonoma residents as well as visitors from the Bay Area and beyond.  When we stopped by last week, there was a 40-minute wait to be seated.  What’s the attraction?  The Fremont diner meets all of the expectations of a place called “diner” – deep-fried foods on the menu, a dedication to a variety of pork dishes, and traditional Southern staples owner Chad Harris refers to as “Grandma” food. In other words, comfort food made the old-fashioned way, with little concern for low-calorie, low-carb, low-fat or, frankly, any other diet plan you might conjure up.  Unlike many traditional diners, however, the Fremont diner also has a commitment to locally-sourced and seasonal ingredients.  The result is delicious food that will make Southerners reminisce about their favorite hometown diner.

For the past 18 months or so, we have been on a mostly carb-free diet.  For our visit to the Fremont Diner, we agreed to throw that out of the window and have one of our infrequent “cheat” meals.  This menu is simply too tantalizing to attempt to work around carbs.  It might be possible to just eat meat and veggies, but why?  One of the first menu items that caught our eye was the Nashville Style Chicken, a fried chicken platter “so hot it’ll set a cheatin’ man straight.”  We haven’t been able to validate this claim, but it was in fact very spicy and delicious.  We opted to have the chicken served on a waffle for a classic chicken and waffle breakfast plate.

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Nashville Style Chicken at The Fremont Diner in Sonoma, California

In addition, we ordered the chilaquiles plate, which comes with smoked pork, with a side of the house-made Fremont bacon.  We opted to sit outside as it was a sunny day and were able to check out what people at the other picnic tables were ordering.  The variety of food at Fremont Diner is impressive, ranging from traditional breakfast items such as pancakes and French toast to Southern staples like biscuits and gravy and shrimp and grits.  Other menu items include a po-boy-style oyster sandwich, hush puppies, cracklin (fried pig skin) and the Hangtown Fry (scrambled eggs, fried oysters, arugula, potatoes with remoulade, and bacon).  Now that the season has turned to Autumn, we’re looking forward to more brunches and lunches at the Fremont Diner’s outside patio.

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Outside Patio at Fremont Diner

For those that don’t have the time or desire to wait 40 minutes or more for a table, the Fremont Diner has a takeout option. At the far end of the patio, there is an airstream-style trailer where a range of drinks (beer ,wine, coffee, tea, juices, and horchata) can be ordered, along with food items from the regular menu.  This was a popular option the day we visited due to the lengthy wait times.

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Drinks and Food To Go at Fremont Diner

Since our first trip to the Fremont diner, we have frequented it once more for takeout from the trailer, and ordered food to go twice more to feed an army of guests staying at our house.  As a result, we’ve made our way through much of the menu.  The verdict:  a gourmet greasy spoon – and we mean that as a compliment.

John & Irene Ingersoll

October 1, 2016

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Sign inside Fremont Diner
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Owner Chad Davis’ Old Pick-up
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Example of homey decor at Fremont Diner

H2, Oh!

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H2 Hotel in Healdsburg, California (Sonoma County)

If there is a downside to living in wine country, it’s that we generally have no occasion to stay at the many cool hotels in our area – Napa and Sonoma counties.  Sure, we could shell out the money any time and stay wherever we please, but that would feel wasteful. Last week, though, we had a two-day meeting in Healdsburg – about 60 miles from the house, not a practical distance to drive there and back each day.  The location of the meeting was the H2 Hotel in Healdsburg, a town in the northern part of Sonoma County.  While we have been in Healdsburg before, we had never stayed at the H2 (the hotel has a sister property a few blocks away called the Hotel Healdsburg that we passed through that also looks like a candidate for future visits).

When we pulled up to the front of the hotel, we could tell we were in store for something different: this was no typical high-rise hotel, or even a trendy low-rise rectangle.  Architecturally, the H2 is very appealing, with a combination of concrete and wood and fluid design that yields lots of open space and abundant light.  Every single room in the hotel has a balcony or a patio, which is certainly rare for hotels these days.

Entering the lobby, the sense of uniqueness was reinforced by the open and flowing space:  essentially no borders between the front entrance, the restaurant, the bar, the front desk, or the lounge at the back of the lobby.  With its high ceilings and many windows, the lobby felt very inviting and comfortable.

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Lobby, H2 Hotel in Healdsburg, California

Aesthetically, the lobby is beautiful, with interesting works of art on the walls and brightly-colored furniture that many guests took advantage of for lounging with a cup of coffee or glass of wine, depending on the time of day.  Since we were meeting all day, we did not take much advantage of the lobby lounge, but then again, we had a pretty cool meeting room to hang out in.

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Meeting Room, H2 Hotel in Healdsburg, California

As with all of the spaces in the hotel, even the meeting room had significant window space and plenty of light, so much in fact that I worried the views outside would be a distraction to our offsite meeting.  However, the world outside simply provided a needed sense of casualness to our otherwise intense discussions without taking away from our work.

During a break on Day 1 of our meeting we had a chance to check-in to our rooms; I ended up with a room on the second floor.  As soon as the door closed and we stepped into the room, we smiled as we saw the little gift from hotel management. h2-welcome

It is not uncommon for hotels, especially in wine country, to provide a gratis bottle of wine for its guests. We were delighted, though, with the quality, as the MacMurray Russian River Pinot Noir is one of our recent finds and we have several bottles at home.  This one did not make it home as we donated it to our meeting.

Beyond the wine, we liked the rest of the room as well; although it was not overly large, it had a small sitting area, a nice big bed, and plenty of workspace.

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Interior Room, H2 Hotel, Healdsburg, California

In addition, for people like us who must sleep with an open door or window, there was a nice balcony along the back wall.  Again, the space was not that large, but definitely enough for two people to sit comfortably and enjoy the serenity.

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Patio, H2 Hotel, Healdsburg, California

From the patio, the view was into the lush garden behind the hotel.

 

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View from Patio, H2 Hotel, Healdsburg, California
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View off left side of patio, H2 hotel

Just off of the patio was the bathroom, tailor-made for one-half of this blog duo (guess which half?).  Whenever we are looking at homes or hotels to rent, the first filter that must be applied is “does it have a bath tub?”  At the H2, the answer, at least in our room, was a resounding “yes”:  there was a very large and deep jacuzzi tub.

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Jacuzzi tub, H2 Hotel

Next to the tub was a separate shower with no doors, integrated into the overall flow of the bathroom.  The decor was modern, sleek and bright, matching the overall design approach of the hotel. All in all, a very nice room.

Because we were in meetings all day, we did not have a chance to take full advantage of the facilities and activities at the H2.  Behind the lobby there is a nice pool with plenty of seating and chaise lounges for laying out and enjoying the Sonoma summer.  h2-pool

Also, the hotel has a fleet of bicycles right outside the lobby entrance that guests can rent by the day. To maximize this experience, the hotel provides several ride maps of the local area: Healdsburg, local wineries, and a more ambitious 40-mile loop to and from Cloverdale.  For those that prefer a more relaxing set of activities, there are many shops, galleries and winery tasting rooms within walking distance of the H2.  One of these days we’ll manage to stay in Healdsburg when there are no meetings to attend. In fact, our initial thinking was we would pay to stay an extra night after the meetings were over; unfortunately, we had to catch a red-eye flight after Day 2 of the meetings for a frenetic New York City weekend.  Next time ….

John & Irene Ingersoll

September 19, 2016