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Luang Prabang, Laos: City of Smoke and Mirrors

Buddhist monks out and about in Luang Prabang

He’s about four feet tall and looks like any one of a hundred classic poses of the Lord Buddha. He rests behind bars in an exterior open gallery with a twenty-something female guard sitting at a desk (no guns).  Photos are forbidden. Because Laos’ a Communist nation? No… the statue’s a cultural icon, it’s worth a zillion dollars and the Luang Prabang National Museum would like visitors to buy a postcard. The statue is THE Golden Buddha – the Phra Bang of Luang Prabang, and it’s 90% solid gold. For centuries it sat in an inconspicuous corner of Wat Ho Prabang on the Palace grounds in this city of over 40 Buddhist temples and monasteries until someone noticed it after the 1975 revolution.

the confluence of the Mekong and Nam Kahn Rivers
Royal Palace (Luang Prabang National Museum)

For nearly a thousand years Luang Prabang, in the northern highlands at the confluence of two great rivers, the Nam Kahn and the Mekong, served as capital for the kingdoms of Lang Xang, Luang Prabang and, finally, Laos. The French, under their “protectorate,” built the 1904 Royal Palace (now the National Museum) for the revered national hero Sisavang Vong, King of Luang Phrabāng and Laos for 55 years (1904- 1959). Ironically, in 1975, it was at the same palace that Prince Souphanouvong (the “Red Prince”) arrested his half brother, King Sisavang Vatthana sending him, the Queen and Crown Prince to die in a “reeducation camp.” Prince Souphanouvong became the first President of the Lao People’s Democratic Republic. It’s a much more peaceful city today.

In 1995 Luang Prabang was rightfully declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site and today is the most popular tourist attraction in Laos. The city is gorgeous, at least the old historic core and the stunning surrounding countryside. Luang Prabang is a classic Southeast Asian provincial city and one of the few remaining – villas next to woven bamboo houses, residents cooking in the alleyways on charcoal and wood, aging French colonial buildings and 600 year old Buddhist stupas with monks everywhere, backpackers from Australia and Europe, people in business suits in Toyotas and motor bikes and fisherman throwing nets in the river. For me the preservation of this wonderful collage is what I hope the UNESCO designation will maintain, although there are an increasing number of upscale hotels and amenities geared to the well-heeled Western and Asian tour bus crowd which could alter this reality.

Luang Prabang: people at work
novitiates at work on temple grounds

What to see? Wander into any number of the Buddhist temples and monasteries. At first sight “they all look the same,” but fix your eyes on each one’s decorations – gold leaf stencil on teak wood carvings and walls, enamel and mirrored murals depicting holy texts and everyday life, young novitiate students in saffron robes talking on cell phones while taking a break from temple chores, the beautiful sounds of temple drums and the monk’s devotional chanting several times a day.

(top left) Wat Xieng Thing, 1590, (bottom left) Wat Mai, 1788 (bottom right) Wat Ho Prabang

 Discover the hundreds of Spirit houses with individualistic statements – the elephant manifestation of the god Ghanish next to Japan’s “Miss Kitty,” sticky rice, glasses of water, incense and candles in trees, on walls – all of nature is sacred. Unfortunately, the much vaunted morning ritual of offering food to the monks at dawn has devolved into a mere tourist attraction/photo op. Local people now simply bring food or make cash donations directly at the Temples. (In other areas of Southeast Asia, especially in the rural countryside, this tradition is still strong.)

Temple details (note Miss Kitty in bottom right picture)
view from Mt. Phousi: fires to clean/clear forest combines with humidity

Climb the 350+ steps up Mount Phousie in the center of the Old City passing dozens of Buddha images – the seven daily Buddhas, a magnificent Sleeping Buddha – and a rusting anti-aircraft gun emplacement left over from the Vietnam War era – to the small 1804  That Choms – one of the city’s most revered sites. If lucky, the temple fortune teller will be present. It’s the highest point in Luang Prabang with a  panoramic view of the city and countryside, even if there is a humid haze in the air caused by late winter burning in the surrounding mountains (both controlled burning of underbrush in the teak forests and clearing land for Spring planting). You can purchase, for a pittance, flowers in cone shaped banana leaves, sticky rice and incense as devotional items to leave after your prayers. Women sell pairs of small live birds in bamboo baskets that you carry to the top of the hill and, after saying your prayer,  release from their cage. They will take your prayer to heaven.

That Chomsi (1804) at Mt. Phousi, (bottom left) temple fortune teller
ethnic set menu at TATC Museum

At the base of the Mount Phousie is the small but exquisite museum Traditional Arts and Technology Center. The artful displays detail the ethnic groups and spiritual influences that comprise Laos. The gift shop sells excellent and authentic handmade crafts and will advise as to the best shops in town. The café offers a stunning seven course set menu consisting of classic dishes from all of Lao’s ethnic groups. There were dishes I had not seen on any menu. The cost was $12.50 for 2 people – the menu doesn’t say “for 2,” the Lao’s assume no one person would stuff themselves (don’t even try to eat everything yourself).

Traditional Arts and Technology Center (TATC)

There are numerous eco-tourism companies that offer excursions into the beautiful surrounding hill countryside. The best is Tiger Trails – it seems every company slaps on the moniker “eco-tour” these days so make use of the internet and do some research. There are a host of “made for tourist” attractions in the area that are really not worth your time unless you’re in town for a few weeks – the “Whiskey Village,” the “Silk Village,” the Pac Ou Caves – and simply want a diversion. Whereas the Elephant Village – a non-profit that rescues abused elephants from the lumber industry – is a must see excursion.

scenes of the countryside surrounding Luang Prabang

Luang Prabang is a Mecca for well made high end silks, art, jewelry and furniture representing both traditional northern Lao and contemporary designs (prices are still a fraction of what they’d be in Europe or North America). The best shops are in the compact Old City, which is easy to navigate on foot. Do not purchase antiques since many “antique” stores sell fakes knowing full well it’s next to impossible to remove genuine antiques, and even contemporary fine art, without a difficult to obtain export license for each item.

Morning Market, Luang Prabang

There is the Morning Market (4:00am – Noon) that’s a serious food emporium. Discover hundreds of foods Westerners never would think could be used in the kitchen – I will detail this market in a future blog.  The lively Night Market (5:00 PM – Midnight), unfortunately like so many in Thailand and Cambodia, has devolved into a tourist attraction offering the same old cheaply made clothes, crafts and souvenirs you’ll find in any tourist shop – obviously factory made and, despite labels, probably not even in the country you’re visiting. Yet for prepared street food, the Luang Prabang Night Market is fantastic! One can feast on freshly grilled meats and fish, create a salad using dozens of greens, fresh herbs and produce or add them to savory soups and stews. Along with a refreshing Beer Lao you’ll have a banquet that will cost anywhere from a couple of dollars to maybe $5.00.

Luang Prabang Night Market's prepared foods
View Pavillion Hotel

Accommodations range from $20/night guest houses (many have A/C even at that price) to boutique hotels (fortunately – cross fingers – there are no large chain hotels) surrounded by lush gardens tucked away all over the Old City that range from $55 to $155/night. Many in the $55/65 night range are just as beautiful and comfortable as those at the higher end. It’s not always easy to find these gems on the Net. I did use a good booking site – Agoda – but since hotels subscribe to booking sites it’s hardly a complete list. TripAdvisor is another good source but since it lists only ones reviewed by members, it does not have a complete list as well. My advice for anyone traveling to Southeast Asia is to book a hotel for the start of your stay in each city through a booking site and then check out what’s available. If you are pleased with the booked hotel, inquire if they’ll extend your stay at the same rate – booking sites are always discounted. If not, you can just move down the street. We stayed at The View Pavilion at over $90/night but, although it had a terrific staff, the hotel needed maintenance from its absentee owners. (Following my own advice for a change, in Chiang Mai, Thailand, at The Rimping Village Hotel they willingly extended our stay at Agoda’s discounted rate after they proved to be a mini-paradise – more on that in another blog.) Lao courtesy and concern with customer comfort is so effusive they would be insulted if you did not ask them for help making dinner reservations, advice on excursions and making the arrangements as well as securing a taxi or tuk-tuk and negotiating the fare. Take advantage – it makes them happy.

Tamnak Lao Restaurant: Fish Amok, Purple & White sticky rice, Soup with Vine Leaves, Luang Prabang Salad, Water Buffalo sausage
Restaurant L'Elephant

Laotian cuisine is neither as sweet as Vietnamese nor spicy hot as Thai – although they still love their chilies. This allows the abundant use of basil, cilantro, mint, green onions, garlic, roasted vegetables and dozens of flavorful greens to shine through their masterful dishes complimented by grilled and steamed fish, pork, beef, chicken, frog, prawns and many other forms of protein. Like the rest of Southeast Asia, they use a number of vegetable/herb/meat pastes, freshly made with mortar and pestle, to add additional layers of flavor. Fermented fish sauce, which in my experience the average Westerner finds disgusting, adds subtle flavor to most dishes and was/is a salt substitute. Fish sauce – of which there are many varieties – does smell vile to the Western nose, but when added to food, that smell dissipates and actually results in a slightly sweet under taste. (I will be writing an article on a wonderful all-day cooking class offered by Tamarind restaurant.) Like most Asian dining, a number of dishes should be ordered – depending on the size of the party – with all diners sharing. We found, for our own dining comfort that for two people, three dishes – along with steamed or sticky rice – was enough. One cold salad, one fish/seafood dish and one meat/poultry dish was satisfactory. Soups are usually substantial consisting of noodles, greens and protein and can be part of a main course. It is easy for a vegetarian/vegan to eat well anywhere in Southeast Asia, but don’t expect this to be the norm among locals. Dishes will be served as they are ready not in a Western order (appetizers first followed by the main course, etc.) Two people in even the most expensive restaurants in Luang Prabang would be hard pressed to spend more than $40/couple, and it is easy for most meals to cost less than $10 – $15/couple. (Note: adding a bottle of wine will more than double to triple the cost, so don’t bother unless you can’t live without wine.)

Tamarind Restaurant: Lao appitizers, Pork/ginger/cilantro balls in lemon grass, steamed fish in banana leaf

My top picks for traditional and fusion Lao restaurants in the Old City are Tamarind and Rosella Fusion Café both on the Nam Kahn river front. The Australian/Lao owned Tamarind is probably the best in the city, and it is moderately priced serving imaginative dishes (lunch or dinner for 2 $15 – $30).  Reservations are essential for dinner. The young Lao staff of Rosella Fusion Café serve much better than average traditional Lao dishes at low prices ($10 – $15/couple) while you sit at attractive teak tables surrounded by orchids at the edge of the high banks overlooking the Nam Kahn. Tamnak Lao, on Sisavangvong Road (the main street) in a classic stucco and wood Lao structure offers tasty traditional Lao dishes, also at moderate prices, while Joma coffee shop on the Mekong side river road has great French coffee and imaginative thin-crust pizzas. Ignore most hotel restaurants. Although many are in attractive surroundings, they serve food geared to the tourist palate – mediocre – at high prices (unless you really crave your Angus beef steak).

Rosella Fusion Cafe: minced pork & cilantro, Luang Prabang salad, squid with chilies

There are excellent French restaurants in this Communist nation where road signs are still written in Lao and French, bilingual schools are common and the French government funds many projects. L’ Elephant is in an elegant art-deco building offering classic French and French Indochina cuisine at prices in the very high end. Unfortunately, it’s become popular with tour groups as well. Café Ben Vat Sene (my favorite) has the feel of a French bistro in the “colonial” tropics – which it is – and too small for tour groups. Under the slowly moving ceiling fans, sitting at rustic tables with brightly colored Lao fabric napkins and placemats, eating such classic French country fare as Pommes de Terre Savoyard (au gratin potatoes with smoked ham) and freshly made Tarte au Citron (lemon tart), don’t be surprised if you conjure images of Noel Coward, Somerset Maugham and Jean d’Estray at the next table enjoying an absinthe. Orchids, the tropical evening and fine food do that to you – give in.

Café Ben Vat Sene

The Three Reincarnations of Vientiane

Modern Laos - old and new

The baritone sounds of the giant drums resonate calling monks to prayer. Soft chanting can be heard in the stillness of pre-dawn. In the near pitch blackness dozens of men and women jog, walk and exercise on modern machines one sees in any American gym except these are free and in the park. In front of the Vientiane Times, men are stacking rolls of the daily newspaper on their motor bikes for delivery. French bakeries are opening for business. There is barely a car in sight on the streets at 6:00 AM. The air is still cool and moist before the sun raises the winter temperature to 90 degrees (F) by midday. Welcome to the reincarnated city of Vientiane, capital of the Lao People’s Democratic Republic

 

 

everyday life: fresh charcoal, knife sharpeners, bottle cap checkers, tuk-tuk cab, bocci ball and bamboo construction ladders

 

 

 

 

martyred Prince Anouvong (King Chaiya Sethathirath V: 1767 – 1829) last ruler of the Kingdoms of Vientiane and Lan Xang.

On the South Korean financed and constructed 2.5 mile long Mekong River Promenade/flood control wall (completion by 2013) stands the largest political monument in Laos – a Pathet Lao leader? A vitriolic monument to Western imperialism? No…it’s a memorial to an early 19th century national hero, the martyred Prince Anouvong (King Chaiya Sethathirath V: 1767 – 1829) last ruler of the Kingdoms of Vientiane and Lan Xang.  He led a failed war against their enemy, Siam (the Kingdom of Thailand) who had occupied Vientiane, and he died in captivity.

a small sample of Buddhist Wats in Vientaine (bottom center) prayer at That Dam - the revered centuries old Black Stupa - (bottom right) sticky rice offering on a protective naga (snake)

After 400 years as the on-again/off-again capital of the Kingdom of Lan Xang (Land of a Million Elephants), the city of Vientiane was utterly destroyed in 1827 by Thailand and remained a wasteland until the arrival of the French in the 1890’s. They rebuilt Vientiane as the administrative capital under their colonial “protectorate” and many structures retain early 20th century French colonial designs. Where are the memorials to the 1975 Communist revolution? They exist in only two places – the former Royal Palace (National Museum) and at the former American compound of the USAID/CIA outside of the city that became the home of Kaysone Phomvihane (1920–1992) co- leader of the Pathet Lao along with the “Red Prince” Souphanouvong (brother of the last King of Laos).  Thus is the complex history of this beautiful country with its stunningly friendly people, as well as an indication that modern Lao is still the traditional, conservative Buddhist culture that has been its history for over a thousand years.

Vientiane, like so many Southeast Asian cities, is undergoing an economic and building revival unheard of since the end of Western domination (the Vietnam War) in 1975. It still retains vestiges of a relaxed colonial town that has to deal with tropical weather which rarely gets cooler than 85 (F) on any day – and always humid. I was told that the number of cars has doubled in the last three years and building cranes can be seen in numerous locations. Chinese, Vietnamese, South Korean and European investment money is pouring into this Buddhist nation.

His Majesty Sisavang Vong, King of Luang Phrabāng 1904-46 and King of Laos 1946-1959)

Capitalism in a Communist nation? Let’s get real. Before the creation of the unified Kingdom of Laos, after the French withdrawal, under His Majesty Sisavang Vong, ( King of Luang Phrabāng 1904-46 and King of Laos 1946-1959) – another celebrated national hero –   the nation we know today as Laos – drop the “s” and say “Lao” – was a feudal society of several kingdoms who pledged loose allegiance to the Kings of Lan Xang and, later, to the Kings of Luang Phrabang. The monumental statue on the grounds of Luang Phrabang’s National Museum (former Royal Palace) depicts the King’s right hand in a classic Buddha position for peace and the left hand holding the 1946 constitution.

infrastrusture? Repair?
a few of the many Spirit Houses in front of shops, homes and a pizza restaurant

The current Lao People’s Democratic Republic is not much different, with many of the same families in power, except allegiance is to the Central Committee that resides in Vientiane. Over 90% of all Laotians are self-employed small business entrepreneurs and farmers and always have been. Buddhism and its teachings still remain the greatest cultural and political influence within the nation. There are more Buddhist temples and monasteries than I can count – independent of  government influence –  and travel within Southeast Asia for Laotians is unencumbered. The excessivly bureaucratic government is considered incompetent and government workers have decent middle class jobs – just like the former Royal Courts. There is a visible lack of infrastructure planning in this developing country.

Pets - which are not eaten

All of this makes Laos, Vientiane and the ancient northern capital of Luang Phrabang (a UNESCO World Heritage Site – and another blog) a fascinating country. Laos cuisine is wonderful. Less sweet than Vietnamese and with fewer hot peppers than Thai, the dozens of flavors from herbs, meats and spices shine. This will upset vegans who believe Asians are basically vegetarians and are eating more meat due to the influence of McDonalds, but Laotians have always been large meat/fish eaters. I was told by numerous chefs that currently more vegetable dishes are becoming part of the cuisine because of Western vegetarian trends! Laotians eat EVERYTHING – beef, pork, duck, frogs, rats, some dog, river fish, shell fish, all the innards and the blood – both liquid and congealed. (OK, please don’t stop reading – I won’t add recipes.) But they lavish love on their pet dogs and cats – they don’t eat their pets – unlike other Southeast Asian cultures (although this is rarely a part of the modern urban diet).

(Top) fresh roasted peanuts, smoked ducks, grilled fish in rock salt, frogs (Center) fish for stew, cockles, prawns and a variety of deserts (Bottom) produce, French bread, strips of Water Buffalo and an ivy-like vine leaves used for salads and soups

Life is on the street and in the markets – typical of Southeast Asia. The “morning markets” are primarily food (4:00 AM – to mid day.) “night markets” tend to be crafts, clothing and prepared foods and “weekend markets” are a great mixture. At any market you will find fresh frogs and the latest Apple I-Pod – it’s “one stop shopping” – the American dream…

La Silapa: Cream of Pumpkin Soup, White fish with Laos vegetables, salad with a lime dressing, tamerind sorbet, ginger cakes in creme anglaise

Inexpensive restaurants abound and spill onto the streets. Lunch or dinner for 2 will rarely cost more than US$15 – unless you stuff yourself. A large 3/4 litre bottle of Beer Lao – a pleasant lager – costs $1.25. A few outstanding restaurants exist. The best being La Silapa, owned and operated by a French Canadian with a menu that is an excellent fusion of French and Lao flavors. Lunch for two is less than $30. (Note: wines are expensive anywhere in Southeast Asia. Costs are frequently more than the entire meal.) Nos serves excellent sushi at prices that make a Westerner believe they were in a Sushi nirvana – about $.25/each with salad and miso soup. There are a number of pizza restaurants using wood fired brick ovens and make terrific paper thin crusts. For genuine Lao cuisine eat on the street. Look for the most popular, crowded street restaurants. The rapid turnover means the food is fresh and has not lingered in the heat – what, no ice to keep the food fresh? Get real – I’ve yet to get even the slighest stomach problem.

Nos

Poverty, as judged by Western standards, is the norm for most people – especially in the rural countryside – in all of Southeast Asia, but not starvation. For a visitor from the “First World,” luxury is quite affordable – beautiful hotels for less than US$70/night, restaurant meals for 2 with drinks for less than $25 (and this is the average high end.) A person/couple can travel for less than a third of that amount or waste money on  ultra luxury accommodations that will run in excess of $650/night. Yet if peace and stability remain in this fabled land they just might achieve the Lord Buddha’s dream of the Middle Path – neither lose one’s self in sensual pleasure nor deny one’s self the gifts of living.

Bangkok: What defines a fabled city?

 

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What defines a fabled city? Age? Diversity of cultures? Tolerance of differences? Quality of life? Art and architecture? By using any of these terms I’m not sure if “fabled” is a moniker that can be applied to Bangkok. Fascinating certainly is proper terminology.

Bangkok is young and chaotic. Founded only in 1782 (Philadelphia, USA, is a century older) after the Burmese destroyed the truly fabled capital city of Ayutthaya, the site of Bangkok was chosen for strategic purposes – protection from the Thai’s arch-enemy the Burmese. Like Venice, it was marsh land surrounded by rivers. The king immediately constructed a system of canals creating a virtual moat around the city – and like Venice the elevation of the city is sinking.

It’s a city of contrast; not only rich and poor but architectural styles as well – condo skyscrapers next to river shanties, 19th century shopping districts and modern malls, dubious electrical infrastructure, scorching heat/ humidity (even in “winter”), cooling parks, trees, flowers everywhere and exquisite topiary.

Would you believe Bangkok’s a clean city? Believe it ! Trash on the streets is virtually non-existent despite the constant and lively street life. Legions of street sweepers and building maintenance workers constantly sweep up even leaves and fallen flower petals.

Sky Train and traffic

Traffic is horrendous! I spent one hour in a taxi to travel less than 4 miles – of course the fare was modest and the cabs are mostly new, comfortable air-conditioned Toyotas. Yet for less I could have taken a Tuk-Tuk – a motorcycle pulling an open air covered wagon – or, for even less, rode on the back of an orange shirted motorcycle “taxi.”

Yet, built within the past decade, the ultra modern, ultra clean and comfortable Sky Train elevated and the subway system will whisk one around the central core of the city (about one-third of Bangkok) for less than taking the average city bus in the USA. Despite the chaotic traffic I’ve yet to see a dented car.

(top left) shrine in a shopping mall, (center) Buddha statues for sale, (right) Holy Rosary Catholic Church, (bottom left) Temple of the Sleeping Buddha

There are over 35,000 Buddhist temples (Wat) in Thailand, 300,000 Buddhist monks, shrines everywhere – street corners, in malls, in front of every house, in parks, restaurants and hotels with burning candles, incense, flowers and food offerings. Just about every other world religion is present as well. In the Robinson Department Store just down the street from my hotel is a Muslim prayer room.

Shoes and hats are never worn in Thai houses of worship, or, for that matter, in any Thai home. The dirt of the outside is left outside. Floors are immaculate – not a speck of dust.

street life: (top left) eggs roasting on charcoal, (bottom left) street vendor dentures maker

Everything is available from street vendors, especially food. The Thai’s seem to eat constantly yet I have not seen a single person you could call even slightly overweight. For a Westerner, the cost of food is embarrassingly cheap. In the pictures below, the sushi and superbly grilled trout, plus a rice salad and miso soup in a small nondescript Japanese restaurant in a shopping mall cost  less than a Big Mac in the States.

In the three days I have wandered the city I have experienced nothing less than the utmost courtesy whether in a tourist attraction, on the Sky Train or the street. I have yet to see any public display of anger or bad behavior. The police are friendly and helpful – what a contrast to so many countries.

Children seem to be revered and the photos below sums up my impression of Thai friendliness – figures of laughing children are everywhere, especially in the gardens of the Wats (temples) and street the vendor’s baby in the crib is cooled by a battery-powered fan. Bangkok may be intolerably hot and humid, chaotic and perhaps not “fabled,” but it has a more valuable treasure – it’s friendly.

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43 Days: The Things I’ll Carry

 “The things they carried…P-38 can openers, pocket knives, heat tabs, wristwatches, dog tags, mosquito repellent, chewing gum, candy, cigarettes, salt tablets, packets of Kool-Aid, lighters, matches, sewing kits…they carried diseases…malaria and dysentery…lice and ringworm and leeches…and the land itself…the endless march, village to village, without purpose, nothing won or lost. They carried all the emotional baggage of men who might die. Grief, terror, love, longing – these were intangibles…They carried their own lives.”

from The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien (Haughton Mifflin, 1990)

It’s been a quarter century since peace finally came to the  lands of Southeast Asia. For centuries it was part of the fabled “spice route” between the eastern and western worlds, yet in the 20th century more than twice the tonnage of bombs were dropped on Indochina than in all of World War II. I’ll be leaving Sunday to spend 43 days in Thailand, Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam. I’ll have no worries or fears, unlike the brave but misled soldiers of that ill-fated war.

For me who narrowly escaped experiencing the horror of those past times, it feels odd that I’ll enjoy first class hotels, renowned cuisine, stunning scenery, cities and sites that have survived millennia of wars and legendary hospitality. From all my research of the past six months in preparation for this trip I expect to see, or even feel, little evidence (except in museums) of last century’s strife. As a chef, historian and travel writer I’m preparing myself for a flood of experiences that will test my ability to process this trip with all five senses – especially taste. Foods that few westerners ever have the opportunity to see, no less taste, await me, with fusion cuisine developed over centuries of east-west contact – durian cheesecake anyone?

Oddly, I’ll carry some of the same objects listed by Tim O’Brien – can opener (cork screw in my case), pocket knife, wristwatch, mosquito repellant, bottled water, sewing kit and malaria pills (one-a-day for 51 days). I’ll have to still be mindful of bed bugs – carrying bed bug repellant (fortunately I’m  already aware of what they look, and feel, like.) Lice, leeches, dysentery are all still present – this is the tropics – which means swimming in lakes and rivers is out. I’ll carry my ignorance of customs – no pointing either with fingers or, especially, with one’s foot. I’ll be ignorant of the languages. For the first time in my life as a traveller I’ll be hopelessly unaware of what anyone is saying (with the exception of tourism workers that speak English). Language will become music, much nicer than the karaoke sounds my research says is the favorite throughout all four countries.

The best thing I’ll carry? A sense of wonder.

My first blog, from Bangkok, will post Tuesday, 8 February.

New York, New Year, 3 Restaurants

What am I saying? I had a pleasant, imaginative, moderately priced lunch in a major urban museum’s cafe? An oxymoran….0r lack of oxygen….?

Petrie Court Cafe & Wine Bar

Just off the multi-storey glass atrium of the striking American Wing at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, is the airy, glass walled dining space occupied by the Petrie Court Cafe & Wine Bar. My experience in most museum cafes is to forgo the over priced, microwaved offerings in favor of a coffee, but the menu at Petrie is neither overpriced nor nuked.

Petrie Court Cafe & Wine Bar, the MET, New York City

Perhaps the Pennsylvania Dutch were Italian, because Petrie’s pappardelle noodles (top left) are as rich as anything eaten in a Lancaster farmhouse. Tossed with a light buttery cream sauce, earthy sautéed wild mushrooms and spinach with a garnish of spinach puree, it was an inspired pasta dish ($17.95.) The Cream of Pumpkin soup (bottom left)was velvety and light – not the thick vegetable puree served in so many restaurants. A flavorful stock underpinned the soup, but the aroma of the roasted pumpkin seed oil garnish raised this common dish to a new level of flavor ($8.95). Salads should delight the eye and the taste buds. (bottom right) Spicy arugula and mixed greens tossed in a light citrus vinaigrette with slightly salty manchego cheese, pears, bright fresh pomegranate seeds and deep red pomegranate puree garnish accomplished the task nicely ($9.95). Fresh sourdough rolls accompanied the meal. Most wines were in the $8 – $9.00/glass range. Despite a busy lunch time, service was smooth and professional. Interestingly, there are few restaurants of any type within walking distance of the MET in its wealthy Upper East Side location, making the Petrie Cafe & Wine Bar a welcome, and much-needed, addition to the neighborhood.

Lower East Side, near Orchard Street, (left) Katzs Deli, since 1888

Little Giant cafe, on the corner of Broome and Orchard Streets, certainly would not have existed in 1870’s Lower East Side New York –  or even 1970’s. Not that eating establishments didn’t exist back then. Taverns and street vendors have flourished from the city’s founding nearly 400 years ago. In the picture above, left side, you can see the sign for famous Katzs Deli serving the (then immigrant) Jewish community since 1888. Now an institution, but still terrific, its 21st century clientele is an ever-increasing affluent population of “post-immigrant” residents. Just a block down from the Tenement Museum, Little Giant is a laid back cafe in a renovated, exposed brick store front in an early 20th century Lower East Side building. In earlier days maybe it was a cloth store? It’s small space – seats 20/25 –  is filled even at 3:00 pm on a weekday and keeps the small staff busy. The menu is brief but items are freshly made so be patient. The Angus Beef burger was fresh ground and grilled medium rare as requested ($9.95).  A “little giant” portion of their own Mac and Cheese was excellent. Like Petrie’s Pumpkin Soup, Little Giant’s Baked Macaroni and Cheese eschewed thickeners and relied on a well seasoned, but medium, cheese sauce to bind the macaroni and garnished with a nice crust of browned bread crumbs for texture ($7.00/$14.00). A well seasoned “salad” of sautéed kale with oyster mushrooms was tasty and nutritious for anyone wondering about all that red meat ($9.95). The bar served a nice selection of micro beers on tap and bottle, wines by the glass and a great Bloody Mary with horseradish-infused vodka ($10.00). With its large store front windows, it was pleasant leisurely having lunch while watching the bustle which is always New York.

Sante Fe Restaurant

Finding imaginative Southwest American cuisine in New York is as difficult as in Albuquerque. Face it, real Southwest/Tex-Mex/Mexican-American is comfort food – like pasta with red sauce for Italians. To find chefs that create new dishes using old techniques is always nice and not common in the commercial world of the food industry.

Sante Fe, 73, West 71st Street, in the leafy but happening Upper West Side of New York, serves recognizable southwest dishes yet tweak the recipes giving them new life. Citrus and herb marinated thin-sliced grilled skirt steak is wrapped in a tortilla and served with a micro green salad ($12.95). A fresh lump-meat crab cake topped with a poached egg and covered with a roasted smoky tomato sauce is a flavorful variation on a brunch standard, with a green salad and rice pilaf ($14.95). Excellent house salsa accompanied corn chips and the house Margarita ($8.00 or $11.00) was citrus fresh and tequilla rich – not a mix. The restaurant itself is a relaxing space in light airy southwest peach, art, a fireplace and good acoustics (quiet!)

New York can be expensive, but it doesn’t have to be. It’s easy to find great food in this “world capital” at prices most people tolerate at their local shopping mall’s food court!

Upper West Side, 70's, looking downtown, New York City

Christmas in Penn’s Colony

A Christmas menu 1685

 “A Bill of Fare for Christmas Day, and how to set the Meat in Order.: Oysters. 1. A collar of brawn. 2. Stewed Broth of Mutton marrow bones. 3. A grand Sallet. 4. A pottage of caponets. 5. A breast of veal in stoffado. 6. A boil’d partridge. 7. A chine of beef, or surloin roast. 8. Minced pies. 9. A Jegote of mutton with anchove sauce. 10. A made dish of sweet-bread. 11. A swan roast. 12. A pasty of venison. 13. A kid with a pudding in his belly. 14. A steak pie. 15. A hanch of venison roasted. 16. A turkey roast and stuck with cloves. 17. A made dish of chickens in puff paste. 18. Two bran geese roasted, one larded. 19. Two large capons, one larded. 20. A Custard.

The second course for the same Mess. Oranges and Lemons. 1. A Young lamb or kid. 2. Two couple of rabbits, two larded. 3. A pig souc’t with tongues. 4. Three ducks, one larded. 5. Three pheasants, 1 larded. 6. A Swan Pye. 7. Three brace of partridge, three larded. 8. Made dish in puff paste. 9. Bolonia sausages, and anChoves, mushrooms, and Cavieate, and pickled oysters in a dish. 10. Six teels, three larded. 11. A Gammon of Westphalia Bacon. 12. Ten plovers, five larded. 13. A quince Pye, or warden pye. 14. Six woodcocks, 3 larded. 15. A standing Tart in puff-paste, preserved fruits, Pippins &c. 16. A dish of Larks. 17. Six dried neats tongues. 18. Sturgeon. 19. Powdered Geese. Jellies.”
The Accomplisht Cook, Robert May, facsimile 1685 edition [Prospect Books:Devon] 2000 (pages unnumbered)

In the later 1700’s George Washington would have finished his dinner at Mount Vernon with his own recipe for eggnog:

  1 quart of cream, 1 quart of milk, 12 eggs, some sugar,  2 cups brandy, 1 cup rye whiskey, 1/2 cup rum, 1/2 cup  sherry.

And we thought all our founding fathers were Puritans?  

 

Thomas Massey House (1696 brick section)

Anglican and Catholic Southerners did celebrate Christmas with considerable feasting, unlike the Puritan, Congregationalist, Quaker, and Mennonite Northern colonists but both traditions blended in the keystone colony of Pennsylvania. The prior history of the Delaware Valley and William Penn’s inclusive policies created an ethnic and religious mix not found in the other twelve colonies. Swedes, Germans, French Huguenots, Welsh among others settled and celebrated their traditions next to their simple Quaker neighbors. The prosperity of Pennsylvania led even  Quaker families to decorate their homes with greens and dine on the bounty of the colonies. Thirty and forty course dinners in wealthy Philadelphia homes were not uncommon by the 1770’s. 

Massey House interior - (Top) view of stable & blacksmith shop, 17th century floor boards, chaise lounge, (Bottom) faux painted moulding on stair case, 18th century Swedish wick trimmer

Thomas Massey, a prosperous self-made Quaker farmer with over 300 acres,would have celebrated Christmas in a restrained manner in these early years (17th century) of the colony. At the recent (11 December 2010) Christmas reception at the Thomas Massey House – a Pennsylvania Historic Site –   the variety of holiday traditions in colonial Pennsylvania was celebrated – minus the thirty course dinner. 

 

 

 

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original 1696 sitting room

 Quaker simplicity is evident in the sparsely furnished and decorated sitting room. Dried fruits and gingerbread were both seasonal luxuries and celebratory foods.

Swedish settlement in the Delaware Valley preceded William Penn, and they remained an important part of the colony.  They brought over their pre-Christmas festival of St. Lucia (above left) its saffron bun (Lussekatter) and simple woven decorations (lower right). Although there is no evidence that the Christmas tree was used by Germans in the colonial period, they did decorate with boughs of greens, made pretzels (praying hands – see center picture) and a number of cookies that have become American traditions – Lebkuchen, PfeffernusseAnisplatzchen. 

18th century reflective hearth rotisserie with pork roast
Massey House blacksmith making a 4" iron nail
Wall House, 1682

On an original William Penn land grant, Richard Wall began construction on his house in 1682. Like all surviving houses from this era, additions were numerous. Even though both the Wall and Massey houses remained private residences for over 250 years, major structural renovations seem to have ceased  by the early 19th century. As a house museum, the Cheltenham Historical Society interprets the interior of the Wall House to reflect the changing taste in furnishings and fashion during 250 years as a home and the events that shaped the lives of the residence.

The parlor is Victorian with early crocheted decorations (center). A room devoted to World War II memories displays a field hospital “tree” decorated with blue and white ribbon, paper and painted tongue depressors (left). The entrance tree is aglow with 19th and early 20th century German glass ornaments (right).

(top) water pump, hearth, 2-storey spring house, (bottom) mid-19th century soup tureen, late 19th century bread mixer

The Wall House kitchen contains an extraordinary collection of 18th and 19th century tools and well as a well restored hearth. In honor of the season, the table was set for Christmas dinner in true 18th century fashion – all the dishes on the table at once.

An 18th century Quaker Christmas dinner at Wall House

Having served as a Quaker Meeting House in its very early years,  a stop on the Underground Railroad, and the home center of the Shoemaker-Bosler Mill complex until the 1920’s,  the Wall House reflects the human stories that are history and displays with great care the objects of everyday life.

(left) one of many 19th century "eggbeater" drills, (center/top right) late 18th century tree trunk sewer pipe, (bottom right) early 19th century shovels made by the nearby Rowland Shovel Factory

Today, toys are always Christmas, although not in Colonial times. Among the many everyday treasures at the Wall House is a stunning 5 foot tall, 9 room doll house. Constructed in 1915, furnishings were painstakingly assembled over the next forty years.

the Cynthia Langsdorf Wilkinson doll house

 Nearly everything within the house was hand-made or adapted. Miniature electrified chandeliers glow, a sub-miniature electric train operates and even an attic is appropriately cluttered including a discarded toilet. It’s awesome whimsy – just the spirit Christmas is supposed to generate. The Wall and Massey Houses prove that in Pennsylvania we have been enjoying that spirit for centuries.

 

Philadelphia: Tea and Tripe

Robert Venturi's Silver Tea Service and Paradiso's Tripe

Good food and good tools – a chef’s first love. To wander and discover – a travel writer’s first love. To experience it in your own back yard – nice.

Italy is indisputably a preeminent center for design be it clothing, jewelry or kitchen tools. The Philadelphia Museum of Art’s current exhibition: Alessi: Ethical and Radical, is a virtual catalogue of Alessi kitchen design over the past 75 years.  It’s quite literally the catalogue if you browse both the exhibit and their website. Currently operated by the third generation, the family owned Alessi Design Factory is a major supplier of restaurant small ware, home kitchen tools, home and office decor, but it’s the designs and the company’s philosophy that the exhibit in the Perelman Building is celebrating.

(left) restaurant coffee pots (1956) (right) assorted pots - all available

From the simplest restaurant coffee pot to partnerships with some of the world’s foremost designers, artists and architects, Alessi has consistently striven to explore the boundaries of form while not compromising function or quality. Although the titanium tea and coffee set could be mistaken for a sculpture, it is a functioning service.

Titanium Tea/Coffee Service

Alessi is renowned for seeking out artists world-wide and devoting financial resources, space and time allowing them the freedom to create. Philadelphia architect Robert Venturi’s tea and coffee service for Alessi (see picture at top of post) combines spherical form, classic colonial elements and Philadelphia’s own silver tradition.

The whimsical and the practical are both well within Alessi’s vision. The simple Brazilian designed wire baskets with leather binding and the amusing coffee pot show off this side of the line.

Italian Market

Since the Industrial Revolution in the mid-1800’s, South Philly –  the area bounded by South Street to the north, the Delaware river to the east, the Schuylkill River to the south and Broad Street to the west –  has been Philadelphia’s own Little Italy. It’s a compact, densely populated area of neatly maintained row houses, small shops, churches and Union halls. Cars tend to park where ever it’s legal, which seems to be places I’d never suspect. Although much of the heavy industry that first attracted immigrants to the city has vanished, South Philly is still a center for food markets – the famous Italian Market – fabrics and Italian restaurants.

Paradiso Restaurant & Wine Bar

Paradiso Restaurant & Wine Bar at 1627 East Passyunk Avenue, near Tasker Street, is in the heart of South Philly. I was not familiar with the restaurant, but we wanted to eat in the middle of the neighborhood, and we were not disappointed. Early on a Sunday evening, having a table without a reservation seemed fine, but counting the number of regulars, I’d recommend reservations any other night. At less than ten-years old, Paradiso is not a South Philly institution allowing it the freedom to combine tradition with innovation.  Chef/owner Lynn Marie Rinaldi’s Rice Pudding ($8.50) with dried sour cherries, cinnamon and vanilla beans,  is an award-winning (Philadelphia Magazine 2005) perennial favorite, and if I can believe our server (her brother) the Braised Tripe with Fresh Tomato and Parmigiano Reggiano ($8.50) was their South Philly grandmother’s recipe.

(top) Chestnut pasta with Wild Boar Ragu, (left) Seared Skate and Fregola Sarda with lump crabmeat, (right) braised tripe

 The Seared Skate accompanied by Fregola Sarda with lump crabmeat ($22.00), is not a South Philly regular – or even a Philadelphia regular – menu item. Skate is the tender wing of this ray fish and enjoying its natural butter-softness with Paradiso’s well seasoned searing was a rare delight. Fregola Sarda is Italian couscous  made by a time-consuming process of rubbing tiny grains of semolina together with a bit of water and toasting them, repeating until you end up with tiny toasted pasta balls that are the size of Israeli couscous – not the tiny Moroccan. Paradiso made it an opulent side dish with the addition of crabmeat.  We had not seen Fettuccine with Wild Boar Ragu ($17.00) on a menu since a trip to Siena several years ago. This rich, earthy pasta dish is perfect for winter time, and Paradiso gilded the recipe by adding ground chestnuts to the pasta dough. Paradiso has an extensive wine list,  yet on Sunday patrons may BYOB.

13th St. near Tasker St.

South Philly celebrates Christmas with exuberance. Entire blocks compete for decorating honors and the bakeries overflow with Italian treats. It’s not too early to order your pig, that whole pig, at Cannuli’s in the Italian Market.

a South Philly Christmas

Philadelphia: A Tale of One City/Two Neighborhoods

“…here I dwell, where these sweet zephyrs move,

And little rivulets from the rocks add beauty to my grove.

I drink the wine my hills produce; On wholesome food I dine;

 My little offspring ‘round me Are like clusters on the vine…”

 Thomas Livezey, circa 1750

It’s Friday evening and we’re sitting on the great marble staircase having a drink and listening to jazz at the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s Art After Five. Stepping out into the courtyard, the city at night glitters and hums like an urban engine. The following day, we leisurely stroll down Forbidden Drive in bucolic Valley Green after having lunch in an 1850 Inn. Mounted horses pass at full gallop and geese float down the Wissahickon Creek. We’re still within the city. Like all great urban centers, Philadelphia is a city of neighborhoods. Like all great cities, these neighborhoods evolve, and so it is with William Penn’s original square mile city of Philadelphia as well as leafy Chestnut Hill/Valley Green. The future doesn’t always preserve the past, and sometimes that’s good.

an original 19th century stable and one the few remaining trolley lines
Swan Fountain (Alexander Calder, 1924) at Logan Circle

William Penn’s original square mile city, bounded by the four squares of Rittenhouse, Washington, Franklin and Logan, still retains an orderly grid. The absence of a glass and steel jungle blotting out the sun, and the presence of 300 year old alleyways lined with colonial houses allows Philadelphia to feel like a home for humans, rather than just an economic engine. Visionary city planners as early as the late 1700’s designed the grand boulevard, the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, that stretches from City Hall/Logan Circle to the Art Museum. It’s hard to experience a finer entrance to a city than the tree-lined, flag bedecked, fountain anchored Parkway. Its space, like a giant front lawn, is shared by commuters, strollers, special events, runners, frisby players, three generations of Calder family sculptures and many cultural institutions. Yet one square mile Philadelphia was an urban economic engine in the 18th and 19th centuries with all the accompanying issues of pollution, muddy streets, poor sanitation and summer “fever” epidemics.

Philadelphia Museum of Art

The 1920’s Greek temple that is the Philadelphia Museum of Art stands, appropriately, on a hill at the far end of the Parkway. Its galleries contain priceless collections spanning millennia. Music and social events are not new to museums, but Art After 5 (every Friday from 5:00 to 8:00) has become a fixture in Philadelphia’s “TGIF” venues. There are a limited number of tables that fill quickly but sitting on the  smooth marble of the grand staircase, under the gaze of an enormous backlit “Diana,”  creates an amphitheater feel. The central hall rises up one floor to a broad mezzanine where it’s possible to sit as well. Two full service bars and a professional, personable wait staff serve light fare and drinks. It’s an informal, club atmosphere and people wander through the adjoining galleries while the music filters in as doors open adding to the visual experience.

Art After 5 at the Philadelphia Museum of Art

From the gazebos that sits on a rocky promontory outside the museum there’s a nice view of the Waterworks and Boathouse Row.

(top) Boathouse Row, (bottom) the Waterworks

An engineering marvel when it opened in the early 19th century, the municipal Waterworks pumped fresh Schuylkill River water directly into an ever-expanding city. Today its restored buildings house a pricey restaurant, small museum and provide public space as part of Fairmount Park. Boathouse Row stretches just beyond. This collection of late 19th century stone and wooden houses represent generations of private university associated sculling clubs. Although the sport is often thought of in the same league as polo, dressage and fox-hunting, the skill necessary to compete in sculling is achieved only after arduous physical training. In Philadelphia, it’s a serious sport.

Fairmount Park's Valley Green, (top right) Livezey House, 1740

The 1740 Livezey House has that stately look of so many of the well-preserved antique houses in Valley Green and the neighborhood of Chestnut Hill. From the Art Museum it’s possible to hike or bike the five miles on trails that meander through the thickly forested Park, along the river and creek, directly to Valley Green and Chestnut Hill. Yet except for the pre-1870 houses, little of this countryside was bucolic as late as the 1870’s. The banks of the Schuylkill River and Wissahickon Creek had been denuded of trees for nearly 200 years and over built with a series of small company towns while its polluted waters were harnessed to provide energy for the mills that were part of  Philadelphia’s economic engine. Mr. Thomas Livezey made a nice fortune from his Wissahickon Creek mill but his surroundings were certainly not as attractive as today. 

Rittenhouse Town

It was the threat to Philadelphia’s drinking water that spurred the building of the long-planned 9,000 acre Fairmount city park. Its serpentine shape deliberately included both the Schuylkill River and Wissahickon Creek within its boundaries. Gone were dozens of Colonial and early 19th century mills, houses and entire small company towns. The Park-owned historic Rittenhouse Town is an exception and provides a glimpse of life when it was a company town/suburb to Philadelphia’s one square mile city. Yet since the town’s business was paper making one can be sure few trees existed when it was purchased by the Park Commission in the 1870’s. Restoration of the watershed, over a century later, is still ongoing. These generally affluent neighborhoods today have the look and feel of story book versions of leafy, bucolic Colonial villages, and yet they’re within the bounds of a 21st century city.

interior of Valley Green Inn

The Valley Green Inn on Forbidden Drive (cars were banned in 1920) has been open since 1850 but with a checkered history. In the past few years it seems to have secured its future as a venue for fine interpretations of classic American and Continental fare. It’s setting directly on the Wissahickon Creek with its antique decorated dining rooms make it an ideal venue for any occasion. There’s nothing better than taking a walk along the 7-mile Forbidden Drive after lunch nearly any time of the year, and if you’re riding your horse, you can still hitch it to the posts outside the Inn.

Valley Green Inn, 1850

Published: 2 Articles/2 Journals

I have two articles on Argentine themes that are now published on-line by respected travel journals.

Rio Parana from Casa Quiroga & bamboo maze

Horatio Quiroga’s San Ignacio: Home to Madmen and Missionaries appears in the British journal Hack Writers  http://www.hackwriters.com. It has been publishing for 11 years and is associated with the University of Portsmouth, England.

               (I am posting some photos not printed with the articles)

 

(Top)model of San Ignacio Mini, stone carving detail (Bottom) ruins of church facade, on-going restoration work

 

 

 

 

 

 
 
 
 
 
 

 

 

(Top) native Guarani, ruins of mission housing (Bottom) irrigation canal, school and countryside

 

 

 

 

 

 

(Top) Quiroga's motor bike & first house, (Bottom) interior and exterior of second house)

 and

Global Writes, the 54 year old journal of the International Food, Wine and Travel Writers Association (http://global-writes.com/ ) published Sweet Fire in Ushuaia, my article on the incomparable food enterprise Dulce Fuego in Ushuaia, Argentina run by 20-something-year-old chefs.

staff of Dulce Fuego, grilled Patagonian Trout, and Ushuaia, Argentina (the southernmost city on Earth)

Affordable Manhattan – an oxymoron? (Part 1)

fireworks, Central Park, 6 November 2010

The unexpected fireworks were free, in celebration of the 2010 New York Marathon that would be run the following day. We had just stepped out of Pasha Restaurant on West 71st Street, when the booming commenced. It was an unexpected end to a pleasant Turkish dinner, one of the great cuisines. The interior of Pasha is comfortable with soft lighting and well modulated background music. From 5:00 to 7:00 PM the $23.95, 3-course, prix fixe menu is well thought out attracting repeat customers with five choices from the main menu (not the boredom of so many prix fixe selections.) My wife had the prix fixe with a salad, Piya (Cannellini beans tossed with sweet onions, scallions, parsley, tomatoes, and extra virgin olive oil) with warm flaky rolls to absorb the herbs. Alabalik Tava followed (Boneless brook trout dusted with cornmeal and pan seared). Dessert was a wedge of perfect baklava – (non-syrupy) –  spice, nut and honey infused pyhllo pastry. For $24.95, I had the fish entrée of the day: a whole, wood-grilled Chilean Sea Bass.  Its moist white meat was encased by its crispy, herbed skin. Side dishes were crisp, steamed vegetables and an herb-infused rice pilaf. It was not wise to arrive on a Saturday night without a reservation – even if it was only 5:30 PM. Yet Pasha was gracious and had a table that was not booked until 7:30 PM, but I would recommend reservations since the dinning room was full by 6:30.

At West 78th’s  Drilling Company Theater, we attended a moving and jarring new play, superbly acted and produced by this award-winning 11-year old company. Eric Sanders’ Reservoir is a heart wrenching look at the psychological detritus of war – the “survivors”. At $18/ticket, the Drilling Company proves that top theater is found everywhere in New York before it moves on to $200/ticket on Broadway. Saturday evening’s dinner, theater (and fireworks) cost less than $130/couple.

(Bottom left): beer flights w/schnapps, (center & right): "boots" of beer at Lederhosen

Actually, Lederhosen Bierhaus is not nearly as kitsch as their home web site suggests. On Grove Street, off Christopher Street in the trendy East Village, Lederhosen has the atmosphere of a neighborhood bierhaus. In my two visits, over a six month period, I’ve yet to see any staff wear either lederhosen or  rhinestone decorated milk-maid dresses. Of course, I’ve yet to order the decidedly college-fraternity sized boot of beer. In smaller, more manageable quantities, their superb selections on-tap, and in bottles, set the stage for equally authentic Bavarian bierhaus food. Main courses ranged from the classic Schnitzel to sautéed herring fillets with mushroom sauce (I had that).  Each generous portion comes with a variety of sides, minimum four  – green and red cabbage slaw, potato salads, sautéed potatoes, bean salads, spatzzle. (average entrée $10 – 19)  Soft, aromatic, in-house pretzels are served with german mustards ($3.00)  along with a variety of wurst on crispy rolls with toppings ($5.00), appetizers for pickle and herring lovers ($5.00) and generous soups and sandwiches ($5.00- $10.00) round out a menu to be enjoyed in a convivial atmosphere that’s hard to top – unless you just really don’t like German food, but then…you can always try their flights of beer (8, I believe) with shots of schnapps.

On our first visit to Lederhosen we were with an Austrian friend who was impressed with the quality of this everyday German pub faire. In the picture above the three dishes are from left: Boneless Herring Fillets with a choice of sauces ($10), Currywurst grilled beef sausage ($5.00) and  Wiener Schnitzel ($17) Ah yes, those are lederhosen hanging from the ceiling (top left). The restaurant has three small rooms that fill quickly for lunch and dinner. Reservations are not accepted except for special occasions, but waiting times are typically not long, and you can always have a beer while you stand in the social bar entrance area.

a rare 1930's WPA reverse painted glass mural (protected with a plexiglass cover)

Marie’s Crisis Cafe, 59 Grove Street, is oddly unique in bridging a number of Lower Manhattan social stages. The below street level bar is dark as should be expected when in an 18th century building  – once home to Tom Paine, where he penned his famous revolutionary essays The Crisis Papers.  It went down-hill after that going from bar/brothel to worse until Prohibition (by the 1920’s it was known as Marie’s). After Prohibition’s 1930’s end, Marie’s somehow qualified for a stunning WPA funded reverse painted glass wall mural depicting both the French and American Revolutions, launching a new era.

On Grove Street just off Christopher and 7th Ave, (and only 4 or 5 blocks from the Lederhosen) this area of the Village was always known for being largely gay, hip and culturally cutting edge. For over 35 years the latest reincarnation of Marie’s Crises Cafe has witnessed the neighborhood’s transformation from grunge to designer chic. Yet Marie’s Crises Cafe has remained a relaxing, straight-friendly,  singing piano bar and neighborhood hangout. My wife, friends and I have spent several evenings enjoying the ongoing concert with professional theater pianist playing at the separate piano bar. The pianists of the evening have terrific voices and encyclopedic musical theater repertoire, but its the participation of patrons that take Marie’s to a different level. We’re not talking karaoke here. Regular patrons at Marie’s are often the seasoned professional as well as the young aspiring male or female stage singers.  There is more standing room than sitting room and the bar is basic but inexpensive ($6 – $7/beer and $8 – $10/shots and drinks). Yet there’s no cover for this top-notch entertainment.

Between Lederhosen Bierhaus and Marie’s Crisis piano bar, a Friday evening in Manhattan’s Village for two, with dinner, entertainment and drinks cost us  less than $100.00

Lower Manhattan from the Staten Island Ferry

We were staying with a friend on Staten Island, a pleasant, free, 20 minute ferry ride that passes  Governor’s Island, the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island, but it’s viewing Manhattan at night that’s magical. Staten Island’s an article in itself, but one restaurant stands out, amidst a sea of mediocrity.

(Top) Oysters Rockefeller, Rack of Lamb, Seafood Stew, (Bottom) Seafood bake, antique Italian glass chandelier, and Gumbo

We had Sunday dinner at Bayou Restaurant, 1072 Bay Street, in the middle of a nondescript commercial strip. Yet there’s nothing nondescript about the execution of its Louisiana inspired menu. My wife, a New Orleans native was impressed with the Cajun Seafood stew, our friend’s Seafood bake and my rack of lamb –  all with Cajun spices and Louisiana’s French/Spanish inspired sauces. Dinner per person, with wine and tip, for 3 was $136.00 ($46/per person). Everything else we did that day of the Marathon was free(no, we didn’t run…now if it was a hike…).

True, we spent the weekend at a friend’s apartment, but before the invitation, I had planned to use some rewards points for two-nights at a first class Manhattan hotel that, without points, would have cost $600 for the weekend. Responsible use of travel reward  credit cards can result in significant savings on future trips.

For a bit over $350/couple we had dinner and entertainment for three weekend days, two nights, plus subway fares on the city’s efficient, renovated system. Manhattan on a budget? Actually, no – Manhattan on the smarts. With a little reading/skimming – New York Times  (paper or on-line), New Yorker magazine and blogs – it’s easy to create a list of favorites.

window poster on office building on Madison Ave.

There’s nothing like New York…at least to visit for a weekend.