July Travels: Cork, Concrete, Corn & Cow Country

I knew that I'd be traveling every week in July and that this space would be neglected, but I didn't realize that the apocalypse would simultaneously start at my house.  I'll spare the many, many painful details here, but I do want to fill you in on the fun part of my trips.

I've been to Napa several times, but none of my visits led me "up-valley" to Calistoga, which is the northern most town in the Napa Valley.  As the story goes, Sam Brannan, who once owned most of the area, wanted to create the "Saratoga of California," referring to the New York city with the commonality of natural hot springs.  He reportedly drunkenly announced "The Calistoga of Sarafornia," and the name stuck.  People were quick to capitalize on the land which is why you may have heard of the place in Napa with all of the mud baths and spas....

The quaint downtown has an old west vibe, and a good friend of mine has an olive oil shop on the main strip.  Jamie is seriously making some of the best oil on the planet and we had a full-blown food geek weekend together exploring the groves he harvests his olives from, and even went to an olive oil tasting at Round Pound Estate, a stunning winery with 2,200 olive trees on property.  Located in Rutherford, they have their own mills (both an Italian stone and Spanish stainless steel), and are pretty much the only ones in Napa Valley who have such an extensive olive oil program.  The two of us and the hilarious woman who directs everything were absolutely the only ones not hungover for the 10am tasting. 

We also had our foodiest meal at Solbar, which is the a Michelin-starred restaurant at Solage, the most luxurious spa in town.  We ate inside at the bar, although the patio is the true hot spot. The scene there just oozes "wine country" and the menu candidly reflects the atmosphere.  It's definitely a destination worth seeking if you believe in heaven on earth.

I got back to L.A. for a day, worked, and then was off for 36 hours in Chicago before a family reunion in Wisconsin. Chicago is so great.  It's clean, people have that midwestern friendliness, rent is very reasonable....it's my kind of town.

Can you guess where the country's largest indoor aquarium is located?  In the middle of America, of course.  Like all aquariums, there will be tons of noisy kids, but if you are Shedd Aquarium, there will always be more rooms for you to escape to.  It's very, very cool.  All of us ended up spending a good 2.5 hours glued to the abundance of unbelievable sea life we never knew existed before stopping in Evanston for lunch (my cousin went to Northwestern) and hopping on the highway to the country.

Our cousins out in Wisconsin live on a lake, which is a lifestyle I've always loved and wished I grew up around.  Boat people are always so cool and laid back, and we all agree that water-skiing is the only type of exercise that is truly fun.  Before this trip, I hadn't gone out since I was a teenager (when I was a water sports natural).  Like a champ, I didn't get up and can confidently say that after 10 minutes of attempts, I was the sorest I've ever been in my life for the next 5 days.

I've always thought that Fourth of July in small towns are so much more fun than in big cities.  Small towns feel more American.  So much closer to the roots of our country and the ties that bind us to our land.  We brought chairs and drinks out to the street and had a pretty epic view of some pretty epic fireworks.  

An SUV full of us also hit up the local Amish community.  We wanted authentic goods but the first place we tried–a grocery store–was more or less product they bought in bulk and repackaged.  Then we went to a wood furniture shop (since the Amish are known for their woodwork), but you could tell that it also wasn't the real deal.  After a few left turns, spotted: painted signs for a bakery.

As soon as we walked into the dark store front (remember, no electricity), there was a euphoric rush of burning wood and yeast smell, and I knew we were indeed going to have our authentic Amish experience.  There were open shelves of beautiful pies, breads, doughnuts and pastries. The kitchen was partially visible from the front and everyone working there seemed to be very young, no older than early twenties.  The one boy of the group was probably all of eleven.

I actually asked if I could have a tour of the kitchen because I find the whole lifestyle and operation so fascinating,  You could tell that they were a little perplexed by the request, but very kindly let me in.  I asked if I could snap a few pictures and she said yes, but not of any people.  I've heard before that the Amish are not a fan of pictures and get angry if you snap away, understandably.  All pies and pastries are baked in a woodburning cast iron oven and the doughnuts are fried in pans fueled by propane.  It was hot back there (not unlike any professional kitchen) and the body odor situation was strong (not unlike most professional kitchens).  Can't say I saw a hand sink, but also can't say that most professional cooks are the most sanitary.

A few days in L.A .and then I was off to NYC.  I often book red-eyes thinking they're a great idea, I'll have more time, etc., and then land to cursing myself for the terrible idea.  This one was rough, but nothing that a little fine dining and block walks couldn't cure.  My inaugural meal was at Eleven Madison Park's bar, and it so happened to be the debut day of the summer menu. Though late summer-early fall is my favorite produce period, late spring-early summer is a close second.  This meant strawberries and corn!

This trip was also packed with a few firsts: Visiting the Mast Brother Factory in Williamsburg. Taking the East River Ferry.  Brunch at The NoMad.  Terroir on The High Line.  Some art gallery by The High Line stairs with an unidentifiable British rocker couple.  Seeing my good friend's new bridge club in person.

Gramercy Tavern also had a 20th anniversary alumni party.  It was such fun seeing so many old colleagues.  Restaurant people know how to party and how to throw a party, and Kevin, Mike, Scott, Juliette, Paul and the whole team did such a phenomenal job.  With a room full of so much talent....it was bound to get a little sloppy ;-P.

Next was St. Louis.  My mom and I stopped for dinner at a restaurant recommended to me by a client, Annie Gunn's.  It's about 20 minutes outside of downtown, and is the local "it" place. The chef is very farm and ingredient driven, something still ironically rare in crop country.   I try heirloom tomato salads almost anywhere a midsummer menu inks it–and they had a great one.  It definitely has an older bring-your-parents vibe, but I'm glad we went.  Next time, I'd go to the originating smokehouse adjacent though.

After we checked in by the Gateway Arch, I dragged my poor mom to Ted Drewe's, the place that influenced Shake Shack's frozen custard and concretes. The dark drive over through a very rough neighborhood was _______.

The park surrounding the arch is nice, but pretty desolate and scary after sunset.  Someone tell the mayor to develop that area by the river because it could be so much nicer and attract more tourism.  Down the street from there is Cardinal Stadium, but other than that, downtown doesn't have much.  I'm sure better pockets exist, but I just wasn't impressed with the immediate area.

THOUGH, I will say that the absolute highlight of St. Louis was our tour of the Anheuser-Busch factory.  I highly recommend this to anyone who drinks beer.  Tours are complimentary (or you can pay for the more in-depth ones).  The facilities are gorgeous....campus-like and pristine, and they even take you to see the famous Budweiser Clydesdale horses and restored historic landmark stables.  I didn't realize how many different brands Anheuser-Busch owns (Stella, Shock Top, Kirin, Michelob, Rolling Rock, Leffe, just to name a small fraction).  AB is responsible for 50% of all sales in the US market and while it's easy for some to be smug about Budweiser, it's hard not to respect the place that put American beer on the map.  I got the feeling that it's a great company to work for, and was in total awe through the whole experience.

From there we went another 5 hours southeast to Nashville.  Since I started this leg of the trip in Kansas City, this would have made the total drive time 10+ hours, so I was ambivalent.  I'm glad we did because Nashville rocks. 

We were urged to explore the Honky Tonk District, a street a few blocks long, lined with one country music bar after another.  Singing and neon lights drench you from every direction....it's so much fun.  This is also where my BBQ tour began. Although Nashville is known for a cayenne-paste smothered chicken, "Hot Chicken," we are spicy food wusses, so we opted to share the sampler platter at Jack's Bar-B-Que.  The ribs won first place–super smokey and tender without being greasy and chewy.  

All followed by really good music at Tootsie's.  I knew like 2 songs, haha.

I was advised by one and many that a visit to Nashville requires a meal at Loveless Cafe, preferably for breakfast.  It's a gorgeous 25 minute drive from downtown, and even though it was in opposite direction of our next destination, team Levine decided it shouldn't be missed.  Famous for their biscuits and Southern hospitality, the praise proved to be merited.  7,000 biscuits a day are baked in those ovens and I blissfully had 5 for breakfast.

We left Loveless, stuffed, and embarked back west to Kansas City, where more BBQ awaited.  On the drive I discovered that Walt Disney, Ernest Hemingway, Walter Cronkite, Burt Bacharach, Melissa Etheridge, Kate Spade all hail from KC, and that Hallmark, Harley Davidson and Russell Stover are all headquartered out there. 

As for BBQ places, I was told by many trusted sources that Oklahoma Joe's (actually in Kansas City, Kansas) and Jack Stack are must-haves.  Whereas Jack Stack is a nicer, sit-down place, Oklahoma Joe's is in a gas station. OK Joe's, was voted by a good industry friend of mine as being his absolute favorite, and as number 13 in Anthony Bourdain's 13 Places To Eat Before You Die, so it became my priority visit.  We waited an hour and a half in the humid sun....and......ok....it was worth it.  Now that I've "had the experience," I would order by phone and pick up.  But that pulled pork sandwich makes time stop. 

Arthur Bryant's and Gates are also favorites to many, (Obama was in town at the same time and went to Arthur Bryant's–it's in a rough neighborhood, so we would have gone too if we had the Secret Service).  

Among other Kansas City food finds, a very random moment belonged to the discovery of a seriously gorgeous Lidia Bastianich restaurant in KC's Freight District.  Why she has a place there is beyond me, but I'm glad to know it exists for my future visits.  California's own Cafe Gratitude has an outpost as well.

It also turns out that KC's local star chef is a pastry guy, which is rare.  Christopher Elbow runs a wholesale chocolate confectionary and owns a retail ice cream store in The Plaza neighborhood called Glace.  It is without a doubt some of the BEST I've ever had.  Even better than Florence or anywhere. (I know).  He also collaborates with other companies, including Boulevard Brewing Company–which is The beer of Western Missouri–to make a limited edition chocolate ale

Kansas City is an interesting place.  Aside from being a barbecue capital (tomato and molasses based), it seems to be following in suit of places like Austin, Portland and Nashville.  There's a booming young-creative food and art scene, a world-class performing arts center and new development is on the rise throughout downtown and surrounding areas.  Since my sister now lives there, I'm going to let her figure that town out for me, but rest assured I already have a meal plan for my next trip out.

As for life, I can't say there's still any semblance of normalcy, so at the moment I'm unsure of when I will have my next report.  But I promise to return!