Friday, April 24, 2020

Tasty travel tips: how to find a good restaurant in a new town

A favorite breakfast of one perfectly over-easy egg on European grain bread, fruit, cheese, coffee -- yogurt and walnuts on their way -- served to perfection at the five-star Hotel Claris Grand Luxe in Barcelona. Crusty homemade bread's the best.


Cookie's favorite lamb chops, served with asparagus
spears, after an escargot appetizer. Creme brulee desert.
Aboard the Celebrity Century, late seating.  


ANTICIPATING THAT we'll all travel well and widely again -- once we get past the Covid19 crisis -- we're offering some dining out tips gleaned from decades of happy travel and merry quests for the best food in town.
Since many of our happiest, most memorable travel times have to do with dining, it's important to us to eat well, but not necessarily expensively.
Expansively, yes, but not always expensively.
Sharing a meal with old friends in a foreign port, or enjoying a leisurely feast with new friends are tops in the joys of travel. But if you've just landed in Paris, Honolulu or Rome -- or a village in the Alps, Asia or South America -- how do you find a good meal?
Bruce Keller and Christene Meyers, aka Keller and Cookie, dine a few
weeks before Covid, at Poppie's Fish and Chips in London.
 WE'VE HAD wonderful luck in booking culinary walking tours early on in a visit to a new city. Eating Europe is terrific, and its lively guides offer a wonderful grounding in best eating spots.
These tours are catching on worldwide, and it's a great way to orient yourself early on in the trip.
It's also a fun way to taste a variety of offerings -- the city's best mix -- get a lay of the land and then decide which venues you'd like to revisit. Our London tour took us to a terrific Asian restaurant, a delightful cheese and wine venue, a lively fish and chips joint popular with locals and a tea shop with delicious chocolate pies and berry scones.
Keller celebrates his birthday at a favorite rijsttafel bistro
in Amsterdam. Dessert was shared with Cookie and friends. 
After a tour like this, you'll know what kind of regional foods you’ll want to have again. Be a schmoozer, chat up the guide,  ask for favorite eateries and specialties. We asked Hilton's DoubleTree Hotel Alana's savvy marketing director, Cheryl Nasser, what her what to order at her lovely property's Trees Restaurant. A beautiful appetizer poke plate with tasty fresh tuna made a fine supper for jet-lagged travelers.
An artful poke plate at the
DoubleTree in Honolulu
was a tasty travelers' treat.
Use your  noggin for excellent advice.
ADD SOME fun research to your trip planning by reading up before you go. A treasure trove of posts from local food bloggers and reporters is a quick Google search away. The writers’ bread and butter is finding hot spots and sharing hidden gems.
Getting recommendations from the hotel concierge is also a good plan, and some of the best restaurant tips we get are from people we meet along the way. Cab drivers are a wealth of knowledge for late-night eats, and employees at tourist spots have the scoop on what’s good nearby for lunch (with no long lines or high price).
Asking people you meet is also a good icebreaker for other tips and suggestions. Before you go, post on Facebook and Twitter to see if anyone in your circle has must-visit spots to share.
A street cafe in Mykonos serves fabulous appetizers, as this
plate features: cucumbers, feta and Greek yogurt, 
olives, dolmades and plenty of pita on the side.
WE MAKE it a priority to find restaurants specializing in local cuisine. Why eat food you can get at home?  Stick to the basics and go with something that uses the area's produce. Maybe pizza in Asia isn’t the best plan. Sushi or raman, yes. Even if a place looks crowded, check if it’s full of travellers or locals before you go in.
Cookie's favorite dessert: ginger cookies,
a single scoop of vanilla bean ice cream
and berries of the season, here raspberries,
at Trafalgar St. James London by Hilton.
Eateries have an easier time prospering when they're near tourist attractions; there. We find that neighborhood places a better bet than the main tourist drags. We also look for places with menus in the local language.  If a restaurant has an English menu, it's likely to cater to tourists.
WHEN YOU make your reservation, ask the restaurant or your concierge what the tipping protocol is.  Sometimes it's obvious -- the bill might say, "15 per cent gratuity included."  But particularly in southern Europe, a tip is discretionary; it is good form to leave a small bill or a few Euros on the table.
It's also our custom to learn a few sentences in the local language. We have 25-plus Berlitz pocket size language guides. One is always tucked into the backpack. To say
Shrimp, ahi,  sushi, ginger, wasabi, wine.
This is an easy meal to serve at home.
"hello" or "good evening," "thank you," "please," "the check please," "where's the bathroom, please" and "may I have" or "I'd like to have," opens doors and makes instant smiles.
We find this custom also gives us some idea of what we'll be getting. Once you master a few words, your waiter will be happy to help you -- in English, if you prefer. For even in small, village venues, more and more Europeans speak our language. Bon appetit!

A real tree is used to dance around the May pole in this Danish celebration. 
UP NEXT: We celebrate May Day as it was -- and still is -- celebrated in many parts of northern Europe.  It's a day to celebrate spring, dance around the May pole and give little baskets of flowers, candies and special goodies to friends and loved ones. We need this now more than ever, so how about a May basket revival? Meanwhile, explore, learn and live and catch us each Friday for a fresh spin on travel, family, nature, the arts and more:

Friday, April 17, 2020

Food glorious food -- sure cure for anxiety in Covid's troubled times

This produce stand in Bangkok also offered beautiful flowers for our hotel room -- and fruit for a midnight snack.
 This array of Dutch cheese tempted in an Amsterdam market.


"....there's nothing to stop us from getting a thrill
when we all close our eyes and imagine
Food, glorious food! Hot sausage and mustard!
While we're in the mood -- cold jelly and custard!  
Peas pudding & saveloys; what next is the question?  
Rich gentlemen have it, boys -- 
--from "Food, Glorious Food," the musical "Oliver"


Here's a seafood feast, on a terrace in our Barcelona hotel. 
To combat Covid angst, we're replicating it, including the roses.
WITH OUR TRAVEL completely stopped, and its future in limbo, it's time to draw from memory our favorite trips, sights and tastes. Some of our happiest, most memorable travel impressions have to do with food. Sharing a meal with old friends at a reunion in a foreign port. Enjoying a leisurely feast in a new venue with new friends. Striking out on our own, finding a splendid meal featuring local specialties in a neighborhood taverna, probably family owned.
This little shop on the Gulf of Naples offers dried fruit,
nuts, candies and several varieties of limoncello.
These discoveries on the road leave lasting impressions. One can conjure up the very smells of that extraordinary puttanesca sauce or lamb fresh off the grill, dripping with olive oil pressed just up the street and garnished with a hint of lemon and mint leaves.
So we call on those beloved memories now, as isolation makes us yearn for those easy-going, fun and food-filled trips of yore.
Those days will come again.
MEANWHILE, remember how much fun it is to shop for a picnic, beverage or snack in a foreign market. How lovely to enjoy the displays, the fragrances -- perhaps lemons, clumps of oregano or thyme, a bouquet of roses -- and to watch the locals shopping -- gentle squeezing the avocados or tomatoes for the perfect one, tapping the melon, touching, eyeing, weighing the produce, picking out flowers to grace the dinner table,  asking advice on cheese, olives or wine.
If you're lucky enough to be invited to dinner while in a foreign port, how exciting to help prepare a meal with friends, sharing a glass of wine or two and mutual love of travel and culinary adventure. Chopping, dicing, sauteing, searing, putting a lovely feast together on a pretty table. What could be more pleasurable?
Bruce Keller takes
a home delivery
so we can make
a Mediterranean
crab feast. Fresh
flowers included.

Finally, sharing it, enjoying the presentation then the tastes, textures and compliments.
While we can't sit down to a meal in a Paris bistro right now, picnic in a park above Barcelona or admire the bounty of a rijsttafel table in Amsterdam, we can recall some of our favorite meals on the road. Go ahead, try to replicate a favorite far-away meal at home. Delightful antidote to Covid anxiety.
Friends Shula and Yosh Wickman enjoy an al fresco feast
at a favorite Israeli fish restaurant. Dining with locals at  
places they love is a time-honored traveler's treat.
Our hosts toured us from the Dead Sea to the Sea of Galilee.

ONE OF OUR favorite meal memories is of an al fresco lunch with friends Yosh and Shula, during a day of touring their beautiful Israel.
Today, our "food for thought" photos give a look at our feasting on the road.  Next week, we'll share tips for finding wonderful food and restaurants while traveling -- whenever you find your hungry self the new kid on the block in an unfamiliar venue.  
Here's a feast we shared, created from memories of southern European
tapas and small plate dining.  Wine,cheeses, berries, nuts, olives, pate,
  anchovies on the side, salad and warm nut-grain wheat rolls. A simple
flan with more berries made a beautiful, light dessert, all with white wine.
And here are a few of our favorite "roadie" snacks, suitable for picnics, train or plane travel, or for quick hunger fixes on the road in a rental car. If you're on a tour bus, you may have to wait until you're at a viewing promontory or off the bus for a quick cuppa or potty break.  (Some tour companies don't allow food on the bus.) We bring those little bags of unpopped corn and heat them in hotel microwaves.  Also carry a stash of protein bars and a six-pack of string cheese, which can stay a couple days out of the frig.
Grab a couple hard boiled eggs at the breakfast buffet for a quick energy hit on tour. (Make sure you peel them before you leave your hotel room, and consume within a couple hours.)
Carrots, grapes, hummus, celery and the local olives anywhere in southern Europe are great picnic fare.  Pick up a bottle of wine, a chunk of cheese, a baguette and local chocolate or fudge, and you've got a poor man's feast.

Whether you're looking for a good old hamburger after three weeks of
rich French cooking, or a lively tapas bar in Barcelona, we have tips.
UP NEXT:  Inquiring minds ask: how do we find consistently good restaurants on the road. Years and years of looking, asking the locals, taking notes, and eating! The best way to find a great restaurant is to ask someone who has lived there for awhile. We'll give some insights into finding the right place for you -- whether a kid-friendly family style eatery or a posh romantic bistro with live music. Meanwhile, remember to explore, learn and live and catch us Fridays for a fresh spin on nature, travel, the arts, being human and staying sane in Covid Times:

Friday, April 10, 2020

Biking, exercise, cooking, video chats -- silver lining in the Covid crisis

Bruce Keller and Christene Meyers bike an hour a day around their neighborhood. Nearly everyone they meet wears
masks (notice the couple behind Cookie's head). Here they pause by the sculpture, Renaissance Woman" by Manuel Neri.
                                                                    --photo by Amarylla Ganner
Penelope and James Ganner, great-niece and nephew of
the writer and photographer, use Video Messenger
to call their auntie and uncle from their Bay Area
home.  Normally, they'd be in San Diego now, so
the phone connection with video is next best.

Editor's Note:
A couple dozen readers asked what we do during a typical day while we wait out Covid. Never one to disappoint an audience, here goes:


Look for the silver lining
Whenever a cloud appears in the blue
Remember somewhere the sun is shining
so the right thing to do is make it shine for you
--Jerome Kern lyric, made famous by Judy Garland
LIKE MOST of us, I've had just about enough of the quarantine: the masks, the distancing, cancelled trips, parties, concerts.  The inability to do things, see people, resume our routines. The closed parks and theaters, depressed people, worries about the stock market, employment and health.
For me, "routine" means theater and concerts -- three to five live performances a week.
It means daily Jazzercise, which doubles as essential social time with friends.
Keller, Cookie and Nicky work out to Michelle, during a
life session with Carmel Valley Jazzercise. 

It means writing this column, working on my music, answering emails and letters, walking our Yorkie Nick, hiking the nearby beach and favorite park, shopping, planning dinner, exchanging emails and phone calls with my partner to trade stories on our day and plan our evening.
IT MEANS checking on upcoming trips, arranging hotel deposits and cruise bookings, confirming magazine interviews and photo shoots, conferring with Keller when I need him to supply a particular photo for a certain theme.
It means planning my writing workshops, weekly date nights, sometimes before or after a play, perhaps a world premier.  Dinners with friends in venues we love to frequent. Cocktail parties. Concerts.
When we do go out -- to get Keller's
regular post-transplant bloodwork --
we do wear masks. (All except our
daily bike ride, still mask-less.) 
It means playing the piano at private parties or sometimes nightclubs, using my tip money for gambling. It means regular jaunts to a casino for my gambling fix. Etcetera, etcetera, etcetera, as the monarch of Siam said in "The King and I."
I know I'm whining.  Perhaps you, dear reader, are, too, for so much of our routine life has been curtailed. And while there is comfort in knowing we've got plenty of company, it's still disorienting.
But it's not all bad. (Yes, I'm giving myself a pep talk.) 
WE'RE SPENDING long, leisurely days together. We laugh a lot, sing Broadway songs. We give thanks for one another, our health, plenty of food in the pantry and beautiful homes from which to enjoy the natural world. Fabulous Classical KUSC and Jazz88 radio.
Today's visitor is a beautiful and hungry hummingbird.
Our morning begins with Jazzercise on Demand. Adrienne, a spirited instructor with a charming Texas accent and raucous sense of humor, gets us moving our "bumpers." That's her word for our behinds. (Keller refers to this activity as "Sleepysize" because we're still waking up.)
Sometimes we do a Jazzercise double-header, with Sharon's Carmel Valley Jazzercise workouts ably lead by three of my favorite instructors.
Then it's outside to fill the bird feeders, fix a quick bite of breakfast, check the weather, put together our on-line shopping list. I write while Keller tries for a slot to place our grocery order. Then we walk the dog and bike an hour if it isn't pouring.
We spend the rest of the day binging on "Grace and Frankie," "The Amazing Mrs. Meisel" and "The Crown."  We play Scrabble, bike the neighborhood, prepare fabulous suppers (moussaka's in the oven now), talk to family and friends -- sometimes a welcome video chat. We watch "Jeopardy" (this week, the college championships.)
Yorkshire puddings and lamb curry
prepared together by Keller and Cookie.
Keller and I try to put a positive spin on the situation.  It's given us prime time together -- so we pretend we're on vacation, which works until we realize we don't have room service and we're not going anywhere, probably for a long time.  Then temporary depression sets in and I struggle to counteract that. (Keller's glass is always brimming; mine has an annoying crack.)
THE BEST ways, we've found, to kick the ass of "the black dog," (Winston Churchill's term for depression), are: get outside, even if it means wearing a rain coat and bringing an umbrella; take a bike ride; exercise; watch the birds or tune in Discovery or a travel or cooking show on the telly; cook something (don't eat it all yourself). Call an old friend or cousin to catch up.
Keep on the sunny side. We will travel again.  We will see one another again. We will get through this.  
Feasting can help turn the tide of depression. If one eats healthy and
with a sense of art, one can keep on the sunny side. Here, a favorite
Mediterranean seafood meal is recreated in our kitchen. 

UP NEXT: With no way to travel in the literal sense, we're exploring the world via FOOD! Next week, we bring you a colorful culinary column, with suggestions on connecting yourselves to the world through favorite meals.  We'll update you on our progress in battling Covid depression and take you grocery shopping in foreign ports, then showcase favorite meals and maybe include a simple recipe, with ideas for making the best of this rotten isolated situation -- through food. We all eat, so let's kick cooking up a notch. Meanwhile, remember to explore, learn and live and catch us Fridays for a novel spin on life.

Friday, April 3, 2020

Creativity with Covid: opening minds, reflecting, adjusting, changing

A well played Scrabble board includes a pair of "xs" and four blanks instead of the traditional two. Scrabble aficionados
know tiny "x" words, including "xi," the fourteenth letter of the Greek alphabet. Fun diversion. ("Yar," you bet, bottom line.)
 In the absence of her Jazzercise classes, and with partner Bruce Keller
unable to continue his building projects, the two work out on the
internet to Jazzercise on Demand. Facebook features live Jazzercise.  



MY GRANDMOTHER always looked for the proverbial silver lining -- and found it.
In times of distress or crisis, she'd say, "Let's put a positive spin on this, shall we Cookie?"
Cookie's neighborhood walks find beauty. It's there.
So wee Cookie learned at a young age to make lemons from lemonade.
I had no idea there'd be so much citrus in my life.
This latest crisis -- the Covid19 pandemic -- affects all of us, so it's a global problem, not just one with which I alone am dealing.
The absence of individual routines
brings a couple together in fun ways,
here lifting weights to live Jazzercise.

THE SILVER lining for many of us these past few weeks is learning to appreciate the small things we completely took for granted -- time with  cherished theater pals or book-reading friends, Coping with a changing world
Cookie's missing their usual 3 or 4
plays and concerts a week, so she
makes her own music for the couple.
visits with a neighbor, trips to enlarge our world view. Without the opportunity to see an exciting play and share the experience with like minded theater lovers, we've found it comforting to continue our theater fix at home. We watch vintage movies and favorite TV shows ("Matlock," "Lucy," "The Honeymooners," "Columbo"), binge on "The Crown," play piano, sing Broadway musical scores.
With stores closed comes an opportunity
to improvise, create new habits, rituals.

 WE MISS casual chats with fellow shoppers, those one-or-two line conversations with strangers in line at the check stand. Now we stand six feet apart on taped markings, most of us in masks. No hugs, little conversation.
We miss "being human," sharing a laugh or a gasp at a first-run movie, stopping to chat with a friend at the post office, rising in a standing ovation at the end of a fabulous play. On and on.
We usually have Friday date night at a favorite restaurant. For the first couple of lock down weeks, we could still obtain take-out.  Now, even that has been curtailed.
Redecorating the living room included hanging a painting
of Nick and Nora, the couple's beloved Yorkies, in a frame 
Keller crafted while on lockdown. Nick survives Nora.
WE'VE FRAMED paintings and photos we'd set aside.  We printed favorite travel photos from past trips to remind us we'll travel again. Keller is sorting through boxes of tools in his workshop, using screw guns, sandpaper, oils and long forgotten wood to fashion picture frames and create beautiful shelves.
Dressing for dinner cheers us up,
and brings memories of happy dinners
on cruises and in favorite bistros.
We dressed up for dinner last night as if we were on a cruise.  We're inventing new ways to amuse ourselves.
Cookie and Keller and thousands of fellow travelers found
travel plans on hold, with cruising and air trips out of the
 question now. So they printed trip photos and hung them. 
Here they are on a sunny day in Lisbon, Portugal.
WITH MY beloved Jazzercise studios closed, no book club, no piano gigs and Keller home while his engineering and contracting projects are on hold, we're  grateful for Jazzercise on Demand and Carmel Valley Jazzercise's live feeds on Facebook. We're dancing to Cole Porter, biking  and exercising. I'm playing the piano, writing my own songs with no concerts to catch.
Cookie rejoices in a wine delivery, along with specialty
items, veggies, fruit, fish and chicken in the cooler bags.
Each afternoon for the past week, we soak up the late sun with a garage Scrabble game. We wave at our diverse neighbors and enjoy snatches of their conversations.  In one afternoon we heard Greek, Italian, Russian, Spanish, Vietnamese, Mandarin, Japanese, Farsi and Arabic.

Our neighbors keep social distance, but smile and wave as they, too, adjust, try to keep fit.
Before the complete "stay home" edict, Keller  helped several neighbors with house repair projects they couldn't accomplish themselves.
WE ORDER in wine and produce, thanks to Keller's infinite patience.  Getting a slot to open for delivery has been his greatest challenge, but his persistence pays off. We've used Amazon Fresh and Whole Foods to stock the frig and cupboards, including nice wines and beautiful meats and produce.  We have braved  outings a couple times simply to get in the car and go somewhere. And we're cooking up a storm. (More about that next week.)
Be safe, use caution, keep fit, stay optimistic. And we'll try to do the same.

  A bounty of beautiful produce is ready for tonight's dinner as this Italian
shopper chooses from the offerings at this shop in Naples. We'll take you 

there, and share a typical day in our self-distancing lives the next few weeks.
UP NEXTWith no way to travel and no plays, concerts or dinners with friends, readers have asked what we do in a typical day. So we'll share our world through things that provide pleasure and activity -- even in the isolation of Covid19. We'll bike the hood, play Scrabble, cook, catch up with old friends and beloved family.  Then we'll bring you a pair of exciting food columns, with suggestions on connecting yourselves to the world through favorite meals.  We'll take you grocery shopping in foreign ports, then showcase favorite meals and include a simple recipe, with ideas for making the best of this rotten isolated situation -- through food.  Remember to explore, learn and live and catch us  Fridays for a fresh spin on travel, dining, nature and the arts: