Saturday, July 23, 2011

Denver, Colorado

Colorado State Capitol Building
Ursa and I find it sometimes difficult to plan our trips to Denver because we are always trying to balance our time between all the friends and family we have there and our time spent just enjoying what this wonderful city has to offer. We spend so much time in fact, juggling our time with friends and time in the city that we never get much of a chance to take advantage of the outstanding outdoors activities, such as skiing, hiking, or biking; that surrounds the city. It's ironic that our biggest problem with the Mile High City is that there's too much going on and too many wonderful people there.


I love art museums. I hesitate mentioning them in this blog though because usually it is more noteworthy if I find the rare museum that I DON'T like. That being said, the Denver Art Museum is above and beyond what you find in most cities. The outside alone is a must-see!
The new expansion building, called the Fredric C Hamilton Building has become one of the city's great landmarks. It was designed by Daniel Libeskind, and opened to the public in 2006, and is designed to be emblematic of the Rocky Mountains themselves. It now houses most of the DAM's modern art and special collections, while the old building contains it's classic works and native culture exhibits.

Hanging out at The Tattered Cover

Spending a day in Denver's historic Lower Downtown (LoDo) District is a day well spent. Go shopping at the phenomenal book store The Tattered Cover, then head over to Wynkoop Brewing Company for a couple of pints of microbrews for which Colorado is so famous.
Afterword you can take a tour of historic Union Station. Currently the area around the station is undergoing a redevelopment project to become an interchange of several modes of public transit, intended to return Union Station to being a bustling hub of the city's center.
You can also find Coors Field in the LoDo District, home of Major League Baseball's Colorado Rockies. I got lucky enough to score 4 tickets to game 4 of the 2007 World Series at Coors Field between the Colorado Rockies and the Boston Red Sox. Jonathan Papelbon closed out the game for a 6-5 Red Sox win and a sweep of the Rockies in their first trip to the World Series.

Denver has a wonderful art district on Santa Fe Drive. It is an exciting and vibrant area filled with a variety of galleries, a museum and a theatre as well as a variety of restaurants. The art studios banded together in the early '90's as they all started to find Denver's booming downtown area to be too cost prohibitive for such small buisnesses.  But here in their new neighborhood, these little shops make for a wonderful day of art gazing, especially on the first Friday of every month when the Art District on Santa Fe has it's Art Walk.


Tuscan rubbed New York strip and a Sapphire Negroni at Elway's

On a recent trip to Denver Ursa and I had the pleasure of enjoying a 5 course dinner and cocktail pairing at Elway's. The food was fabulous, but the interesting part was that each dish was paired with a cocktail made with Bombay Sapphire Gin. My favorite was the Hoisin pork belly and spicy ramen noodle paired with a Monkey Gland Cocktail (Bombay Sapphire, orange juice, grenadine, and Absinthe). The funny thing about that dish was that by this time in the dinner the three rather petite women sitting next to us were swiftly approaching their limit for the booze so they all passed their Monkey Gland Cocktails over to me! So by the end of that course I was approaching MY limit as well.
Other wonderful places to eat in the Denver area include: Lucile's Creole Cafe for breakfast. The beignets are heavenly.  For lunch you've got to rock some Famous Pizza for some absolutely awesome Pizza. For dinner we've enjoyed La Fondue. Though honestly, the whole fondue restaurant thing, while it is delicious, is not the kind of dining experience that I want on any kind of regular basis. The food was fabulous and the desert was absolutely decadent, but strangely will I be going back? It could be quite a while. But if you've never eaten at a fondue restaurant before, you really should try it, just to have experienced it for yourself.

Home Cooking

Every time we travel to Denver, we always set aside an evening to eat dinner at Jerusalem Restaurant which really does have some stellar Middle Eastern food. We go there with SUCH regularity, that I now make an almost pavlovian connection between Denver and Middle Eastern cuisine. Now, whenever I post a recipe on this blog, I always make sure to dust it off in the kitchen right before I post it, and cook it up for Ursa and I (some of these I haven't made in a while) but in this case I've never really done much Middle Eastern cooking, so I decided to start with Baba Ghanouj, a easy but delicious dish, which is essentially a dip made from whipped eggplants.

Baba Ghanouj
2 small eggplants (larger eggplants have more seeds and are therefor more bitter)
1/4 cup tahini
3 cloves garlic
1/4 cup fresh lemon juice
1 pinch ground cumin
salt to taste
1 Tbs chopped parsley
1 Tbs extra virgin olive oil

Preheat oven to 375 degrees
Prick the eggplants in several places with a fork. (If you don't prick them they could explode) Roast eggplants in oven for 30 minutes or until very soft.
Remove from oven and allow to cool slightly. Peel skin from eggplants (the simplest way is to wrap them in plastic wrap, then cut off the top of the eggplant and squeeze the insides out like a tube of toothpaste) Place eggplant flesh into a strainer over a bowl. Allow to drain for 30 minutes. If you don't drain them they will be bitter.
Transfer eggplant to food processor, and add tahini, garlic, lemon juice, and cumin. Pulse until smooth. Add salt, tahini, and/or lemon juice to taste. If your Baba Ghanouj is bitter, add a little honey.
Transfer to serving dish and drizzle with olive oil, then sprinkle with parsley. Serve at room temperature with pita bread.


Black Joe Lewis & The Honeybears at The Bluebird Theater
On our last trip to Denver we were able to catch one of my favorite live bands, Black Joe Lewis & The Honeybears playing at the Bluebird Theater. Black Joe plays a rollicking brand of old school, James Brown-style funk. But don't think of them as a throwback band. Their sound is fresh and fun. I liked the way the Bluebird was set up with a tiered floor rather than the open dance floor you so often find, allowing everyone throughout the building to have a good view of the stage. 
If you ever find yourself planning a trip to the Denver area during the summer, make sure you check to see who's playing at Red Rocks Amphitheater first. Red Rocks is arguably the most beautiful place to see a concert in the world. The natural amphitheater sits between two great 300 foot sandstone slabs which have been pushed out of the ground, and offer unbelievable acoustics. Couple that with a panoramic view of the city and you have a concert experience not to be forgotten.
We also recently had the privilege of seeing the insightful, funny, clever, and generally terrifying Henry Rollins doing a speaking engagement at The Soiled Dove. It was there that Mr. Rollins said something that very much gave birth to this very blog. He talked of his own travels and how he understood what a very special opportunity he had been given to travel the world and see things that most people never get to see and do. To experience other cultures with his own eyes. And he said that he came to the realization that it was part of his job to report back to everyone else on what he discovered. I couldn't have agreed more. Thank you Henry, you are as always a source of inspiration.

Until next time, thanks for reading everybody.

Me and John at the 2007 World Series

Saturday, July 16, 2011

San Diego, California

Statue of Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo overlooking San Diego

When I got back to work this week, I had just about completed this reminiscing about San Diego, only to find out that two of my coworkers had ironically JUST returned from visiting there. Sorry that I couldn't have this out sooner for you guys.
There is a whole lot more to San Diego than just great weather and fantastic beaches; this is also a fascinating cultural center as well. Weather it's at the more than a dozen museums in the famed Balboa Park, or the lively music scene, there is a seemingly endless list of activities to take in. Paradoxically, San Diego gives a relaxed, quirky and easy going vibe wherever you go. It's a wonderful place to spend a vacation of any length.


Mission Beach
Mission Beach has everything you could want from a public beach; tons of space (to accommodate the crowds), stellar surfing, beautiful sand, cool beach bars, outdoor concert venue, and even a beachfront amusement park with an awesome wooden roller coaster! Also, Mission Boulevard is a very cool shopping district with tons of quaint little shops and eateries.
Cabrillo Tide Pools
Another beautiful ocean side place to explore is the Cabrillo Tide Pools. We got ourselves a picnic lunch from Point Loma Seafoods and trekked down to the tide pools. Unfortunately, on the day we were able to go, the tide wasn't going to be out until too late for us to see them (I would recommend checking a tide chart before you go), but it really didn't matter much as that the park was lovely all the same. After lunch we walked up to the Old Point Loma Lighthouse, and the Cabrillo Monument (dedicated to the Spanish explorer, Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo who first discovered this area in 1542).

Street performers at Balboa Park

Young or old, Balboa Park has something for everybody. The city smartly put all of it's museums and it's world famous San Diego Zoo, all in one convenient area. You could probably spend the better part of a vacation just trying to make it through it all. The zoo is a full day all by itself. Their facilities are state of the art, and the exhibits are well laid out and well kept, it has certainly earned it's reputation as one of the finest zoos in the world.
San Diego Zoo
And while the San Diego Zoo may be it's most well known feature, it is definitely not the end of the attractions at Balboa Park. There are 14 museums, a performing arts center, a Japanese garden, as well as the San Diego Botanical Gardens there to be enjoyed (Personally I loved the Timkin Museum of Art, and the Museum of Man). For the best value to see it all, I recommend purchasing the Passport to Balboa Park which is well worth the money.


You can't make a trip to San Diego without seeing Shamu at Sea World! As fun as the exhibits and shows were, it was just as intriguing to learn about all of the research that Sea World is involved with. I for one am not afraid to admit that I totally nerd out at zoo's and aquariums, and Sea World is the absolute best one that I've been to. I wasn't so keen on the shows, unfortunately; they were of course more family oriented and not really geared toward my interests.
One fun bit that happened to us was trying to get photos of the dolphins jumping out of the water using my old camera. It had a terribly slow shutter delay and I had to try and time the dolphin's jumps (which was damn near impossible). Consequently, all my pictures were of the splash of the dolphin going back into the water after their jump. Without exaggeration I must have taken two dozen pictures of nothing but dolphin tail and splashing water. Ursa of course had her nice SLR camera which took gorgeous photos, and she makes sure to rub it in to this day. Grrrrrr. . .
Chambered Nautilus at Sea World 
One funny story about Ursa and I's visit to Sea World is that I kinda talked her into going on Journey to Atlantis (the roller coaster at the park) by downplaying just how bad it really was and despite knowing how terribly she really HATES roller coasters. I even tricked her into getting into the front seat for that extra bit of awesomeness! To make a long story short, have you ever noticed how in every pair of people who go on roller coasters, one is excited and one is terrified? Well that was pretty much how it was with us as well. . . I'm still in the doghouse over that one.


Dinner at Old Venice Restaurant

My favorite neighborhood  for eateries in San Diego is in the Point Loma/Shelter Island area. There is a wonderful array of restaurants in this part of town, my personal favs are Old Venice Restaurant, as well as The Brigantine (try the cocktails at The Brigantine, they are fantastic). There is also a lot of wonderful dining to be found in the historic Gaslamp Quarter, try Croce's for lunch (it's also a very cool jazz bar).
Point Loma Seafoods
As I mentioned before, Point Loma Seafoods is a great place to pick out some fresh fish to take home and cook, or to fetch some goodies for lunch. You can either eat it there, at their tables that overlook a marina, or you can do what Ursa and I did which is take it to go for a nice picnic on the beach. Either way it's a lunchtastic place to hit.

Home Cooking
I've had delicious fish tacos in many different places, but like many things in life, your first impression with something is often the most lasting and the first time I ever ate a fish taco was at Taco Surf, a little Mexican take-out place near Pacific Beach. This recipe calls for red snapper, but to tell you the truth, I love red snapper on it's own so much that I usually don't have the heart to cook it in a recipe like this, so I'll typically substitute mahi mahi or some type of white fish.

Fish Tacos

1 1/2 cups shredded green cabbage
2 limes (1 cut into wedges)
1 1/2 Tbs salt (more to taste)
2 cups flour
1/2 cup cornstarch
1 12 oz bottle dark beer
1 egg
Canola oil (for frying)
1 lb boneless, skinless, red snapper (cut into strips)
2 tsp chili powder
16 corn tortillas
1/4 red onion (thinly sliced or diced)
4 sprigs cilantro (chopped)
sour cream
Mexican hot sauce

In a bowl, combine cabbage and juice from 1 lime, season with salt (to taste); chill

In a separate bowl, whisk together 1 1/2 Tbs salt, 1 1/2 cups flour, cornstarch, beer, and egg to make batter.

Pour oil into 5 quart dutch oven, to a depth of 2 inches. Heat oil until thermometer reads 375 degrees. Sprinkle fish with chili powder and salt. Put remaining flour on a plate and dredge fish in flour; shake off excess. Working in batches, dip fish in batter and fry until crisp (about 3 minutes). Transfer fish to sheet pan (keep warm in 200 degree oven until ready to serve)

To serve: layer 2 tortillas together and fill with fish and cabbage and squeeze with lime wedge. Garnish with onion, cilantro, sour cream, and hot sauce.


Chris Duarte at Humphrey's Backstage

While in San Diego we had the good fortune to see the incredible Chris Duarte uncork a blistering set of guitar pyrotechnics at  Humphrey's Backstage in Point Loma. Chris was touring with Bluestone, rather than Chris Duarte Group, but still played most of his standards such as "My Way Down". To see such a phenomenal guitarist in such a small (but lovely) venue was a rare privilege.
Belly Up
Another good place to see live music is at the Belly Up in Solana Beach, which Rolling Stone Magazine listed as "one of the hottest clubs on the west coast." We got a chance to see Dinosaur Jr play at the Belly Up and it was great. The venue was well set up with two bars (making drinks easy to come by) and a VIP balcony off to the side of the stage. The show was cool as well, Dinosaur Jr was interviewed on stage by the legendary Henry Rollins before they took the stage.
Also the Gaslamp Quarter is renowned for live music and it's nightlife. And speaking of nightlife, in college I vaguely recall a particularly epic night at Moondoggies while on a road trip to an ultimate frisbee tournament. Great place to tie one on! Just sayin'.

"Stay classy San Diego"
        -Ron Burgundy

Monday, July 4, 2011

Boise, Idaho

Oh, how I do miss the city of trees, a place where I called home for the better part of the last decade. It isn't necessarily a destination city, per se but Boise has a lot more to offer than you may think. Boise's a smallish city that is really coming into it's own culturally. As the state capitol, it has the size enough and enough economic diversity to support a growing art scene (my favorite of which is Ward Hooper) and musicians such as Curtis Stigers and Built to Spill have given a lot of credibility to an emerging music scene (check out Finn Riggins or Fauxbois as a couple of my favorites). Also the family of the late J.R. Simplot are constructing what's being called the J.U.M.P. project, which is essentially a 4 city block, $70 million dollar community center on steroids, which will be sure to jump start the city's cultural growth. All in all, it's a fun, artsy city and an exciting time to live or visit there.


Boise has one of the largest Basque populations of any city outside the Basque home region in northern Spain/southern France. They immigrated to this area as shepherds, tending their flocks in the foothills to the north, then returning down to the Treasure Valley during the winter months. Consequently there are many buildings around Boise which once served as Basque boarding houses, in particular in the neighborhood of Basque Block, which is a cultural district celebrating Boise's connection with the Basque people.

If it's adventure you seek, Idaho has some of the best rivers for whitewater rafting anywhere in the United States. A short drive up to Cascade to float the Payette River or take the longer drive to Stanley to float the Salmon River. For fans of paddle sports the middle fork of the Salmon River is not to be missed! Also, the city of Boise just opened a kayak park on the Boise River, along it's greenbelt, near the soon to be developed Esther Symplot Park. A great place to get practiced up before any big river trips.
And for those looking for a more leisurely day in the water try floating the Boise River. From Ann Morrison Park you can rent a raft, or inner tube, and the bus will take you to Barber Park where you will float back down to Ann Morrison. The total trip takes about 3 hours and is a fantastic way to cool down on a hot, Southern Idaho day. (Be careful about renting the inner tubes though. No matter how hot it is outside, the water in the Boise River is flowing from a hydroelectric dam and consequently can be rather cold as that the dam pulls water from the bottom of the reservoir)

During the winter, the outdoor fun continues. The city of Boise has co-opted the nearby ski mountain of Bogus Basin offering skiers a more affordable way of hitting the slopes. Bogus will be upgrading it's chairlift this year, to improve it's services. But if you want to visit some of most beautiful ski resorts in the world, it's a short drive east to Sun Valley for some of the best skiing in the country, or drive just north to Brundage Mountain in McCall.

If you should find yourself in Boise during the fall, you'll have to take the opportunity to go see a football game on Boise State University's infamous blue turf (affectionately known as the "Smuf Turf"). The tailgate party alone is worth heading down for even if you can't make it into the game (tickets can be hard to come by for big games. Fortunately the stadium is scheduled to be expanded after the 2012 season). The manner in which the city has embraced their football team, has turned the tailgates into a cultural event unto itself. The locals are welcoming and the chorizos are to die for!


I have a long list of my favorite places to eat in Boise, but I'll have to narrow it down to just a few for the sake of time. For breakfast, there's no place like Goldy's, it's got a great atmosphere, great location (right in the middle of downtown) and is one of the best breakfasts you'll find anywhere. I don't know that Chef Roland's on Boise Avenue is the best barbecue that I've ever had (it is very good though) but Chef Roland himself IS the most entertaining chef that I've ever come across, whether he's singing, dancing, or talking to himself, or just cooking you some mean gumbo. For a good lunch, head downtown to 8th Street, you'll find a wonderful row of restaurants with any kind of food you might desire. While you're there, try Superb Sushi: best sushi in town; bank on it. For dinner I like Angell's or The Reef, but if you would like to try some ethnic food that you won't find many places, head over to Leku Ona on the Basque Block for some unforgettable Basque cooking!

Home Cooking
This is a Basque dish which I adapted for a local fish. 
Guernica Style Steelhead
3 lbs Steelhead fillet
1/4 Cup plus 2 Tablespoons of Olive Oil
2 cloves of garlic (minced)
1 teaspoon hot pepper flakes
1 Tablespoon sherry vinegar
2 Tablespoons flat leaf parsley (chopped)

Preheat oven to 500 degrees
Lay fillets, skin side down, on a lightly oiled baking pan. Sprinkle them lightly with salt, then bake them for about 10 minutes or until the fish is opaque, then transfer to a platter.
In a small skillet or saucepan, heat oil over medium heat. Add garlic and cook 3-4 minutes until the garlic is golden brown, raise temperature to medium/high and add pepper flakes and vinegar (take care, the vinegar may cause the contents of the pan to flash). Cook, stirring, about 10 seconds, until sauce is blended. Spoon over fish, and garnish with parsley.


Alice in Chains at The Knitting Factory

As far as good music venues go, you'll find most of the better acts playing at The Knitting Factory which has been selected by Billboard Magazine as one of the 25 hottest clubs in North America, but The Neurolux will get some decent acts as well in a smaller, bar type atmosphere. For local bands though, my favorite venue is The Visual Arts Collective which is an art gallery, featuring local artists, that also has a stage for a variety of performances, especially members of the Boise music scene (they get a lot good mid-week shows because of bands traveling from Salt Lake to Portland or Seattle). During the summer months the Downtown Boise Association presents Alive After Five, a free concert series held downtown at The Grove Plaza, every Wednesday. (for those of my friends still living in Boise, might I recommend Hey Marseilles who will be playing Alive After Five on July 27th. I've seen them twice, and they are a good listen)

The Mother Hips at Alive After 5


Sadly, I've just learned that Chef Roland had recently passed away, and his restaurant has now closed. I thought that I would use this moment to tell one of my favorite Chef Roland stories. I walked down for a lunch at Chef Roland's one day, it was late, the lunch rush had come and gone, and Chef Roland had given his staff a break, leaving him to run the restaurant alone. Myself and one other couple arrived at the same time. Chef Roland helped their table first, taking their order, then walking to the kitchen window, putting the order up and yelled to nobody "Order here!" He then picked up some dishes left on a different table and set them in the kitchen window and again yelled "Dishes here!" and walked over to take my order. After jotting down what I wanted he yelled, again to nobody, "Order here!" then he walked back into the kitchen to cook the orders. While back there the other couple and myself began laughing as he sang an a capella version of "Who Let the Dogs Out?" while he cooked. Soon three plates were tossed down at the kitchen window, and Chef Roland yelled out into the dining area, "Order Up!" then walked out of the kitchen, picked up the plate and said, "I got it. . . I got it. . . " then walked over to my table and uncerimoniously dropped the plate in front of me and said, "if you want dessert, all I gots is Key Lime pie, but that's all you need, because it's pie made by Chef Roland." Then he turned abruptly, looked at the other table and said, "yeah, yeah, I got yours too, just hold on". What a wonderful character, what a joy of a person, and what a fabulous cook. Adieu Chef Roland, you will be missed.