Kyoto and Kitcho, Pt. 2

This is my Friday story telling series. You can read part one of this story here.

The day after we made the Kitcho reservation, Ryan called me over to Stage Right. He was sitting on a couch surrounded by his Japanese props crew who were all looking at his laptop and talking quietly amongst themselves. Ryan told me that he’d investigated the restaurant website and found their wine list. He paused to adjust his glasses and said, “They have a great cellar. The prices range from $100 to… you know…$27,000. Per bottle.”

First thought: Oh yeah… alcohol. That probably isn’t included in the $500 apiece we’re spending.

Second thought: holy shit. What does a $27,000 bottle of wine taste like?

Third thought: Probably no different than a $20 bottle because I wouldn’t know the difference. Not that we can get a $20 bottles of wine for this dinner…

Fourth thought: We’re going to be spending a lot of money on this dinner. We’re on tour so we’re champion drinkers and one bottle of wine for 5 people is nothing, even at $100.

Carpe Kitcho?

Ryan’s Japanese crew spent a large portion of their night on the Kitcho website. Discussion of the mythical $27,000 bottle of wine consumed most of the rest of our evening and all of us geared up to spend a sizeable chunk of money on dinner. I think we each said “you only live once” about 20 times that night.

But the larger and more pressing matter was transportation. All of us were slavering to ride the bullet train, which they call Shinkansen (another amazing word). In fact, Martin had only joined us because he wanted to spend his day off going somewhere on the bullet train and it just so happened we were taking it to Kyoto.

The Shinkansen is sleek and fast (186mph) and runs like alien clockwork. In the multiple decades of its existence, it’s only been as much as 37 seconds late arriving to any station and probably the responsible conductor committed seppuku over that infraction. 37 seconds! That’s incomprehensible to any person who’s trudged down into the fiery pits of the NYC subway on a summer afternoon only to discover that the train is down or the station is closed or something has been rerouted somewhere for some kind of work making you late as you run 8 blocks to the next station.

And as an aside, 37 seconds and yet they still can’t manage to update the washing machines? Really???

Anyway, the Shinkansen has reserved and nonserved seats. Reserved is first class and nonreserved is catch as catch can. The news of our dinner had spread like wildfire and all of our Japanese crew wanted to weigh in on this excursion. They insisted we go first class; and since it was Splurge-a-thon 2010, we couldn’t refuse. Plus, Ryan said he “didn’t ride in steerage with peasants and poultry.” Having ridden with both peasants and poultry in the past, I looked forward to the idea of first class anything.

But now that we’d sorted what we wanted, the ticket buying fun began. I can’t adequately describe what it’s like to try to buy a train ticket – or really any transportation ticket – in a foreign country where you don’t speak the language AND you can’t read the language. Even that wouldn’t be so bad if it were as simple as “here’s the station and here’s your destination, here’s a ticket.” But it’s never that simple.

The word labyrinthine was invented to describe the Tokyo, subway/train system. There’s the subway, the Japan Railway and the Shinkansen and they all share stations that take up city blocks and have railways on 3-4 levels. The railway map looks like brightly colored spaghetti scattered with kanji like parmesan. It’s insane. It all runs beautifully and on time but the process of figuring out which station to leave from, which train to take, which station is which, what connections to make, how to get from one to another and all within our time frame took years from my life and hours out of my day.

We finally narrowed down our exiting station and Gene, Cate and I went to get tickets because we couldn’t do it online even though we were in Japan… the capital of electronics and all things technical. In hindsight we should have asked an interpreter to come with us but we’d asked around and none of the interpreters had ever taken the Shinkansen. Figuring out where to go and how to get there could potentially have taken them just as long as it did us but they would have been able to read the ticket machine screens…

Those ticket machines are crazytown. Even getting started is confusing as all the train lines have names that you may or may not know, the English translations of which are literal and there’s a fair amount of knowledge you have to have going in or you’ll never be able to wade through it all.

An hour later we finally figured it out via mangled English/Japanese, written notes and pointy talk with the ticket station operator and accidentally stumbling on the right series of screens on the ticket machine. But then the machines wouldn’t take our American credit cards! 2 people, 4 cards, the machine spit everything out for no reason.

We scrounged through our pockets and dug through our per diem envelopes and somehow came up with enough wads of yen to pay for the tickets, everyone owing everyone else some strange amount and a half hour later we had tickets, a plan and dinner to look forward to.

We paid the equivalent of an US domestic plane ticket for a round trip Shinkansen tickets. Is that reasonable? I don’t know. I was in the throes of Splurge-a-thon 2010 and had left reason far behind.

Sunday finally rolled around, we all arrived at work packed and ready to run. Last show/fast show! The show came down and we raced out of the theatre, ran 6 blocks to the subway and arrived… 20 minutes before our Shinkansen. Which is certainly better than late but annoying since we could have just made an earlier train. That might have helped later on…

But we were on time and ecstatic so we bought beverages and took pictures and futzed around and finally the Shinkansen arrived like a train from the future. Pure white, round enlongated nose, quiet and sleek with a conductor dressed in a blue uniform with gold trim and white gloves poking his impeccably groomed head out of the window in front. It wasn’t even a train from the future. It was a train from a 1940’s movie version of the future. We quietly boarded our first class cabin with all the other quiet Japanese passengers and I fell in love.

Rows of giant comfy seats in sets of two with reclining backs, power outlets, a table in front of me like an airplane, plus a table that swung out of my armrest, tons of leg room, a carpeted padded foot rest that I could adjust, massive curved sparkling clean windows with huge deep window sills and wide aisles. A tiny Japanese woman came around immediately with hot wet washcloths and another woman with a food and beverage cart followed her. The car was a quarter full, at best, and then the train started up.

Even running, the train was completely quiet inside and the ride was so smooth. The stops were so gradual I hardly felt them and I couldn’t tell I was moving until I got up or looked out the window. I had an empty seat next to me for the entire trip and the few people in our car remained completely and utterly quiet since no one in Japan uses their phone for anything except texting on any form of public transportation. No kids cried, no one talked and after a week of shows, it was the most amazing blessed glorious 2.5 hours of silence I’ve ever experienced. I would go anywhere on the Shinkansen. I’d rather ride the Shinkansen than fly. I love the Shinkansen.

Two and half hours went by in a flash and then we smoothly docked in the Kyoto station and it was 6:10pm.

The conclusion

New Restaurants in Tucson

Tucson street art

Tucson has a somewhat conflicted food culture. The overall vibe of the city is casual and some of its best food can be found in open air taco stands. However, there’s a growing group of Tucsonians who want to dress up and go out for dinner and cocktails. Every time I come back to town I find new upscale, urban restaurants with long wait times and unusual food choices.

Here are the four new restaurants I tried this visit:

Nook Downtown

Far and away my favorite of the four, Nook is a downtown Tucson’s newest breakfast/lunch place. With wooden tables and flooring, brick walls, padded chairs and a light open airy feel, Nook follows the latest restaurant design trend of stylish comfort. Like you’re at home but it’s way better looking.

Godfather benedict

I had the Godfather Benedict, one of Nook’s signature dishes, with arugula, prosciutto and poached eggs topped with hollandaise sauce and a balsamic reduction. Everything about this dish was perfectly on point. The proscuitto was thinly shaved and slightly fatty, the arugula had a nice peppery bite and this hollandaise might have been the best I’ve ever had. I fear thick clunky hollandaise sauces and so I rarely order benedict but this sauce was thin and creamy with a lemony kick to it. I wanted to lick the plate. Nook is Matt and Nikki Thompson’s first restaurant and I think they’ve knocked it out of the park. I hope Nook gets lots of love and attention so it’s going strong the next time I’m in town.

Oink Cafe

The unfortunately named Oink Cafe is another new breakfast place in town. That picture above pretty much says it all: bacon. Lots and lots of bacon. Pig is the trendy animal of choice in the 2000s and while it’s hard to argue with crispy fatty luscious bacon strips, I don’t know that Oink is doing anything new with the pig. The flight of bacon, above, had 8 different preparations, largely indistinguishable from each other.  I think your average breakfast diner would rate them as “good, slightly spicy, good, maybe sweet?, good, good, smoky?, good.” The rest of the food we had was also good but nothing I’d return to eat. I’d rate this place as solidly average with lots of bacon.

Jackson Tavern

Given that I just spent a week in Maine, i was amused to hear that one of Tucson’s newest restaurants serves New England style seafood. Jackson Tavern is Brian Metzger’s newest restaurant (also Poppy Kitchen and Gio Taco). The polished wood tables and open design of the restaurant bring a casual neighborhood feel to the dining room and the U-shaped bar in the next room definitely looks like the northeast. Of course there are pictures of lighthouses, since I can’t get away from them even in the desert. Design aside, I think the seafood concept is such an unusual choice for the southwest. Who comes to the desert looking for clam strips? But I think this restaurant is a perfect example of the growing food culture in Tucson and underlines the desire to move beyond all the usual food options in town.

IMG_1747

I had the clam strips, which were surprisingly tender albeit with quite a lot of breading. We also had deviled eggs that were ok and my friend Chris had the mac and cheese, which he said was really delicious. I think Jackson Tavern is a unique offering for Tucson. It might be a hard sell in a place so far from water but for people who want good seafood in the desert, they won’t be disappointed here.

Reforma Cocina y Cantina

Reforma Cocina y Cantina is going to do really well in Tucson because the St Phillips Plaza area is known for good dining, these owners also run the very popular Union Public House next door and the restaurant itself is lovely. Designed like a Spanish style adobe hacienda with white lights outside and a dazzling full wall display of agave spirits inside, this is exactly the kind of location the Tucson dinner crowd wants.

I wish the food were better. The best things we had were side dishes: the arroz oaxaqueno with poblano chilies and queso fresco was flavorful, spicy and delicious and the esquites, charred corn with chipotle lime crema, tasted exactly like the grilled street corn slathered with crema and cotija sold in Mexico. However, my shrimp tacos had overcooked shrimp and a lack of flavor – though the hand made tortillas were good – and the chili en nogada with poblano chili and vegetarian chorizo had way too much dried fruit and the strangest mealy consistency. Even the tortilla chips in the picture above were slightly tough and the salsa lacked salt and heat. Given Tucson’s well deserved reputation for excellent authentic Mexican food, Reforma’s food was disappointing.

However, like I said, the food isn’t the point here. We had a hard time getting a reservation on a Saturday night so it’s certainly popular and the restaurant has a nice vibe and it’s beautiful.

I’m happy to see another excellent breakfast restaurant in Tucson just as I’m happy to see Tucson’s food culture grow.  I hope that the burgeoning interest in dining out will actually develop Tucson’s food scene into a place where the beautiful restaurant spaces have food equal to the surroundings.

Kyoto and Kitcho, Pt. 1

I’m going to do something a little different on Friday and post stories and long form essays. This is one of my favorite stories and it comes in three parts. Enjoy!

I spent three weeks working in Japan, a country that makes no sense to me but I love it. I love it because their toilets play music, blow air and have jets of water shooting in all directions and yet coexist with washing machines that are tiny and borderline medieval. You manually fill the washing machines! Using a hose! Then you watch your 2 T-shirts (full capacity load) swish around for 3 minutes before you drag the soapy dripping mess into an extractor to spin all the water out. While it spins you drain the washer and refill it to rinse and then drag your 2 t-shirts back into the rinse water. Then there’s more watching and rinsing, and then more dragging and dripping to extract, after which it takes about 4 years to dry in the doll sized dryers! Laundry must require clearing their schedules in the early AM and eating something fortifying half way through because they’re going to be at it until the sun goes down. How do they get anything else done?

The dichotomies continued in the city. We stayed in Tokyo’s Ropponngi area, which is equivalent to New York’s 5th Ave, all high-end shopping and business people busily going about their business. I assume someone sent out a work uniform memo because the men wear black or navy suits (mavericks wear grey and are probably chastised behind closed doors) with light blue ties and white shirts. Women get navy blue jackets and skirts with nude hose and navy shoes with about a 1.5” heel. ALL OF THEM. I’ve never seen any group of people so homogeneous outside of an actual uniform.

By contrast to the busy bees, we worked in the Shibuya area famous for Harajuku girls and fashion that’s off the chain. 2 seconds in Shibuya and I walked past girls with blue hair wearing traditional kimonos, girls dressed in catholic school garb with Doc martens and contacts that turned their eyes purple with vertical pupils, boys with dyed red hair sculpted a foot off their heads in anime influenced hair styles wearing slim black Rat Pack suits and boots with stacked 5” heels that look like architecture or sculpture and possibly someone dressed like Little BoPeep complete with gold ringlets and a white beribboned staff. Too much is never enough in Shibuya.

With only three weeks in this fascinating country, I really wanted to visit Kyoto. If Tokyo is massive urban center overflowing with food, fashion and insanity, I had romantic notions that Kyoto was a quaint medieval city where geisha still walk amongst the common man in Gion’s perpetual twilight over cobblestone streets lit by lanterns… it’s pretty clear that Memoirs of a Geisha did a real number on me.

Incidentally, I do love the word Kyoto. And the word Gion. Lovely aromatic words.

Anyway, I bought a guidebook and made plans to spend one of my precious 3 Mondays off in Kyoto. Four of my friends – Martin, Ryan, Cate and Gene – had similar notions about Kyoto (without the twilight and lanterns, I think); so we all decided to go together.

We picked a Monday and Gene found our hotel, a delightful Japanese invention called the capsule. The online pictures looked like a space age hostel, 10 meters square with a futon, where everything is white, clean and tightly organized into utmost efficiency. There were LED lights in the shower! What’s not to love? We could get rooms en suite or tatami “rooms,” like larger cleaner versions of sleeper bus bunks for extra cheap. Cate said she loved sleeping on the bus so she’d probably also love a tatami room and the rest of us booked en suite rooms and started looking at entertainment.

I’d read in my guidebook about a world-class restaurant called Kitcho with 3 Michelin stars serving food kaiseki, a kind of Japanese tasting menu. I thought “lanterns, geisha, twilight and amazing food? I’m in, in, in and so in!” It took a minute and a half to talk the rest of the group into it so we found the website and got the details:

Kitcho diners are served in private rooms facing classical Japanese gardens.

Meals are at least 3 hours and 10 courses, all of it fresh and seasonal, most of it caught or picked on the grounds of the restaurant.

Only 10 groups of people are served per night on staggered schedules.

You set your own price for the meal and are served food of a quality that matches the price.

The bidding starts at 42,000 yen per person (roughly $450)

Well, alright then.

None of us are big spenders but we were working and getting per diem so it kind of felt like free money. And we were in Japan for about 12 seconds working like crazy for most of it; plus we all loved food and it was a once in a lifetime experience. We can so we should. Right?

Carpe Kitcho!

I asked one of our interpreters to call Kitcho for us and make a reservation for Monday night. She listened quietly on the phone, nodding, and then said “arigato” about 4 times before telling me they were booked Monday. On a whim I said “Please ask about Sunday.” It was a stretch but we only had a matinée and maybe we could make it down there in time for dinner. She nodded at me, yes, they had space on Sunday. Their latest seating was 7PM. I said “Book it.” We could take the bullet train and we’d get there in time. No problem.

Kitcho wanted to know our price range and we decided on $500 apiece. Then they asked about our hotel arrangements. Why do they need this info? I don’t even know but we’d already gone through this while booking the capsule hotel because they wanted to know what airline we were coming in on and where we stayed before we got to them.

At any rate, this part of the Kitcho/interpreter negotiations was a long conversation. Roughly translated it went like this on the interpreter’s side:

The capsule hotel.

Yes, capsule.

Yes, where the businessmen stay.

Well, they’re foreigners who are here on business.

Yes, the capsule hotel.

Yes, $500 apiece for dinner.

*Pause pause pause…*

They’re Americans.

Ok, they’ll be there at 7. Arigato!!

I’m going to go out on a limb and speculate that people who make reservations at their restaurant don’t usually stay at hostels. Those silly Americans and their taste for novelty!

Once we had the reservations, we read the fine print that we owed the restaurant the money whether we ate the meal or not. There were no cancellations without penalties. Then I did the math on getting to Kyoto in time for dinner and it went a little like this:

Matinee show comes down at 3Pm. We get out the door in 10 minutes, run the 6 blocks to the subway, catch a subway to the bullet train station and find our way around the bullet train station in 5 minutes. We take a 3:45 train to Kyoto that gets us in at 6PM, run the 7 blocks to the capsule hotel, check 5 people in separately in under 10 minutes and spend 10 minutes changing clothes and looking longingly at the shower after all that running. Reconvened, we catch a cab to Kitcho in the outermost portions of the city and arrive panting on their doorstop by the stroke of 7.

What could possibly go wrong?

Doing this math was slightly disturbing and I needed another opinion so I wandered over to Stage Right and found Ryan. After I explained the math to Ryan, he looked at me quietly for a moment and then shrugged and said “We might have thought through this a little more carefully. But since we didn’t, we should probably go first class on the bullet train! And maybe I should buy a new shirt…”

And so commenced Splurge-a-thon 2010.

You can read Part 2 here and then the conclusion

See Iowa in the Fall

In Iowa the nights are cooling down, the corn is almost ready for harvest and pumpkins have shown up at the farmer’s market. I love this change of seasons. Des Moines Farmer's MarketDes Moines has an incredible farmer’s market that runs 7am to noon every Saturday and occupies 6 square blocks in the middle of downtown. Go for the live music, the seasonal pumpkins and dahlias, a breakfast bowl from Farm Boys Hearty Food Co. followed by mini apple cider donuts and local coffee.  All of Des Moines turns out on Saturday morning and the market operates rain or shine.

If the weather is clear, take your coffee and donuts and walk around the Pappajohn Sculpture Park

Pappajohn sculpture park

This 4.4 acre park in the middle of  Des Moines has 24 sculptures contributed by John and Mary Pappajohn, 2 of Iowa’s leading contemporary art collectors. The park is open until midnight and the curving walkways allow you to take your time exploring. You can download a cell phone tour or you can pick up one of the brochures at the park entrance and give yourself a brief contemporary art eduction as you walk. Make sure to walk around all sides of this Keith Haring sculpture, see the famous Nomade from the inside and wonder what it looked like on the banks of the French Riviera, eat your donuts while sitting on this sculpture and see the Des Moines skyline through the legs of the spider.

Birdland Park is another fantastic outdoor space in Des Moines

Birdland Park

Running trails, a boat marina, tennis courts, picnic tables, a small lake and the Des Moines River all come together in this park. Bring your bike and your tennis racket or just walk alongside the river and enjoy the weather.

For lunch you should eat at one of Des Moines most infamous restaurants, Zombie Burger or Fong’s Pizza.

Zombie Burger

Zombie Burger + Drink Lab has been serving gourmet burgers (not brains…) to downtown Des Moines since 2011. There’s a Zombie burger for every adventurous eater; particularly the Undead Elvis that comes with peanut butter, fried bananas and bacon, Juan of the Dead with a green chili cheese croquette and chipotle mayo and La Horde (above) with bacon, goat cheese and caramelized onions. The burgers are bashed flat on the grill so they’re crispy and cooked through, the mac and cheese shouldn’t be missed (and comes on the burger if you order The Walking Ched) and all their milkshakes are delicious though my favorite is the Zombie Bride Wedding Cake made with yellow cake mix and vanilla ice cream.

Fong's Pizza

Fong’s Pizza is a pizza parlor married to a tiki bar serving mozzarella egg rolls (above) they call Chinese Cheesesticks and mu shoo pork and kung pao chicken pizzas. It’s a little hipster paradise in downtown Des Moines and the thin crust pizzas are as crispy as a cracker. If you’ve ever wondered how Hawaiian pizza might taste if you went one more step and added kung pao sauce, bacon and green pepper, then Fong’s is the place you’ve been dreaming about. Make sure to try the crab rangoon pizza, chosen by Food Network Magazine as the best pizza in Iowa.

After lunch, take a mini road trip for the afternoon so you can see the Iowa countryside. There are a number of interesting destinations that are an hour or so driving distance from Des Moines, one is the little Dutch settlement of Pella.

IMG_4724

I took a tour of the Vermeer windmill above and was pleasantly surprised and fascinated by the inner gears and wheels, which are all wooden and completely wind driven. This is the tallest working Dutch style windmill in the US and on gusty days they grind grain into flour using only wind power. They sell the fresh flour in the gift shop in 2lb bags and also supply the local Jaarsma bakery. The entrance fee for the windmill ($10) includes a self guided tour of the surrounding historical settlement with shops for blacksmithing, cobblers, dry goods, a library etc. I visited on a very slow, quiet Tuesday so I got to poke around all by myself; but I know that during the Tulip Festival in May, for instance, the place is packed and you’ll need a reservation.

Pella’s Franklin Square is full of little shops selling quilts, antiques, coffee and Dutch pastries. Stop by Jaarsma Bakery 

Dutch letter

Get a flaky buttery pasty filled with almond paste called a Dutch Letter and then go by Brew Coffee House for a pour over coffee before getting out of town.

My other favorite Iowa day trip is Winterset, an hour or so southwest of Des Moines to visit the famous covered bridges of Madison County

Covered Bridges of Madison CountyThese beauties surround the town of Winterset and were made famous by this book, followed by this movie and then this musical and if you visit in the next couple of weeks, you’ll be right in time for the Covered Bridges Festival in October. The bridges are lovely, especially seen against the fall foliage, but they aren’t always well marked or easy to find. I’d recommend stopping by the Madison County tourist center in downtown Winterset where they’ll give you a map and some route recommendations and you can buy a bottle of Madison County wine. Most of the bridges are only accessed down dirt and gravel roads so plan to take your time. If you get lost, just roll with it.

Winterset is also home to John Wayne’s birthplace

John Wayne's House

This house museum is extremely small, decorated with reproduction furniture and stuffed with pictures and memorabilia from his 169 films. If you aren’t a serious John Wayne fan I’d skip this stop because it’s only accessed via a guided tour. However, there are plans to open a much larger John Wayne museum in Winterset in May 2015. Being able to wander around a larger museum without a tour guide would increase it’s appeal for me. The current house museum costs $7 admission for a guided tour but the gift shop can be visited for free.

Visit Northside Cafe before you leave town

Northside Cafe

and try their homemade cobbler. I had the strawberry rhubarb and of course I added ice cream. Of course. It’s the perfect late afternoon treat.

If you find yourself  back in Des Moines for dinner, try Trostel’s Dish

Trostel's Dish

That’s a deep fried avocado with cilantro aioli and it was pretty darn good. Trostel’s Dish promises small plates from around the world, both exotic and familiar, and they do a good job with both. We ordered half the sharing menu and my favorites were this avocado, the havarti shrimp and the beef tenderloin with Maytag bleu cheese. I was not impressed with the tuna poke tacos so I’d avoid them but if you like poutine, you’ll enjoy their duck confit poutine. They’ll also bring you a dessert sampler with a little bit of everything on it.

If you roll out of Trostel’s Dish and you need a nightcap, head to El Bait Shop for one last drink on their giant patio.

I hope you enjoyed your day in Iowa under that big open Midwest sky! It sure is lovely.

Iowa road

Greenville and the Biltmore Estate

I had such a great time in Greenville. It’s a charming city with good food and a scenic river. And while there’s plenty to do inside the city, if you’re only in town for a few days, you must take the hour and a half drive to Asheville and see the Biltmore Estate.

Start with breakfast at the Tupelo Honey Cafe

Tupelo Honey

Tupelo is an institution in the Carolinas with cafes in Greenville, Asheville, Charlotte and Raleigh. They’ve even branched into Tennessee. Their food is fresh and delicious, their biscuits are made from scratch so they do the South proud and if you love it, you can buy a cookbook to take home with you. This local restaurant chain started in Asheville and their produce still comes from Sunshot Farms nearby but the location in downtown Greenville is delightful as well.

Alternatively, try Homegrown in Asheville

Homegrown

That’s a breakfast pot pie with scrambled eggs, sausage and country gravy topped with a biscuit. Awesome and amazing. There’s no getting away from biscuits in the South so just embrace it! As their name suggests, Homegrown makes locally sourced slow food and does it “right quick.” They support local farmers while also making fresh food affordable and delicious. Their quirky little restaurant is a treasure so pay them a visit.

If you’re driving up from Greenville to see the Biltmore Estate, be prepared to make a day of it.

Biltmore Estate

Built by George Vanderbilt in the late 1800’s, the estate has 250 rooms on 3 floors, 65 fireplaces, an indoor bowling alley and pool. The surrounding 8,000 acres of land back up into the Pisgah National Forest and include a village, a winery and an inn, so there’s plenty to see. You can choose from several guided tours as well as audio tours that last around 90 minutes. The $60 tickets are not cheap but include a tour of the winery and unlimited tastings at the bar

Vanderbilt wine

What with the priceless Singer Sargent paintings, the gorgeous landscaped gardens and the general Gilded Age excess, I found the Biltmore to be intensely glamorous. It feels like a house built by happy people who loved living there and a house with a happy history has a very different feel from some of the tragic mansions I’ve visited in the past. I would put this estate in my top 10 tourist experiences for the year.

We stopped at Cedric’s Tavern in the estate’s Antler Hill Village and I recommend you do the same

Cedric's Tavern

The tavern is named for a beloved family dog and serves rich Southern food (try the pub cheese). There’s likely to be live music while you’re there so get one of the Bilmore beers brewed specifically for this pub and hang out for awhile.

There are many scenic driving routes around Asheville that will take you through parts of the Blue Ridge Mountains so you want to take a leisurely route either coming or going, check out this website for recommendations.

Back in Greenville, take a walk by Reedy River to stretch your legs.

Greenville river

The Swamp Rabbit Trail runs for 18.7 miles long this river and is a multi-use greenway good for bikes, runners and strollers. This waterfall is right in the middle of town and can be easily seen from several vantage points. It’s lovely place to spend the early evening and parts of the trail are well lit even after sunset.

Greenville has a number of great restaurants for dinner. For great burgers in a casual setting, go to Grill Marks

Grill Marks

That’s pimento cheese all over that burger, in case you were curious. Mark and Larkin Hammond own several restaurants in the Greenville area and this upscale burger joint is really tasty. The burgers are perfectly cooked and come piled high with luscious high end cheeses, bacon, mushrooms, barbq sauce or whatever suits you. They also offer adult milkshakes with booze in them and a kind of indoor/outdoor seating with a large covered patio.

For something less casual, go to the The Lazy Goat

Their location on the edge of the Reedy River makes for perfect dinner time views and their food is Mediterranean and inspired. Make a reservations and definitely try the roasted mussels and chorizo.

If you have more time, stick around Greenville and have brunch at the Green Room (try the  Crab Benedict) and definitely go eat Thai food at Lemongrass Thai. I spent two weeks in Greenville and could happily have stayed for two more. I hope you enjoyed your day in the Carolinas!

A Day in Oklahoma City

Is Oklahoma a Southern state or a Western state? It might take you all day to decide and when you do, let me know. But while you’re thinking about that, how about breakfast at the best restaurant in downtown OKC?

Kitchen 324

That’s green eggs and ham with prosciutto and arugula over an english muffin topped with poached eggs and pesto and it was just the right combination of fresh and salty with no greasiness. The chefs at Kitchen No. 324 make everything from scratch using fresh local produce and as far as I can tell, this is the only farm to table restaurant in downtown OKC. They also have killer pastries, cold pressed juices and great coffee and they’re open for dinner 5 days out of the week. I ate here three different times and everything I had was stellar.

After breakfast, gear yourself up for a sobering experience and visit the Memorial Museum of the OKC bombing in 1995.

OKC Memorial

I know this sounds like a grim adventure, but the museum is a gorgeous memorial space to those who died in the blast and the bravery of all the responders who worked for weeks to uncover bodies and sort out what happened. They deserve to be remembered and it’s heart wrenching to walk through the Gallery of Honor where photos of the people who died are accompanied by little mementos their families created to represent them. I appreciate that the museum designers focused more on the memorial aspect of the museum and less on the whys and wherefores of the bombing since it’s difficult to absorb the senselessness of  this kind of anti-government protest.

Memorial Fence

This bombing helped shape Oklahoma City and anyone who visits here will see the city differently after visiting this memorial. The Memorial museum is open every day and adult tickets are $12.

If you want something less emotionally rigorous, the OKC Museum of Art has an incredible Chilhuly glass exhibit

Chilhuly

They’re also featuring a “Gods and Heroes” exhibit of Renaissance pantings from the Parisian Ecole de Beaux Arts. This museum is open Tues-Sun with a $12 admission fee but it only costs $5 on Thursdays after 5pm.

The Memorial Museum and the Museum of Art can each be seen in an hour and they’re easy walking distance from each other.

After your morning museum, take a walk over to Bricktown, the entertainment district of OKC.

Bricktown OKC

There’s quite a bit to do in this neighborhood including the ballpark where you can watch the RedHawks play and the banjo museum. There’s also a one mile long canal with water taxis and several restaurant options for lunch. I’d recommend Tapwerks with an extravagant beer list including over 200 beers on tap.

Tapwerks

Get a taste of some of Oklahoma’s finest beers in the sampler above (I was partial to the Dead Armadillo) and order a burger made with pure Oklahoma beef. This is a pleasant pub in which to spend an afternoon drinking way too much beer but I’d recommend getting out before that happens and walking down to the Bricktown river landing along the canal where you can see some incredible full sized sculpture commemorating the pioneers crossing the plains.

Bricktown exchange

And catch a river boat up the Oklahoma River.

Riverboat Cruise

This cruise is about 3 hours long in it’s entirety and traverses several miles of the Oklahoma river through a couple of locks where you can watch the mechanisms control the river depth. The boat cabin is air-conditioned and beautifully appointed with little tables and a bar and it’s very soothing just to watch the water drift past. You could take the cruise in a big loop or get off at any of the 4 landings and pick the boat up again on the way back. Each landing costs $6 for adults and $3 for kids.

We stopped at the Exchange landing and went to see Stockyards City, the Western district inside OKC. In nice weather, walk the 2 mile trail along the river from the landing into the city.

Stockyards City

Stockyards City is on the National Register of Historic Places and is the place to buy western wear, saddles, dreamcatchers and turquoise jewelry. It’s also home to the world’s largest cattle market with livestock auctions every Monday and Tuesday morning at 8am. If you want to hang out here and eat dinner, go to Cattleman’s Steakhouse and try a true Oklahoma Steak.

But I’d recommend getting back on the boat and getting off at the Bricktown landing and walking up to Ludivine at Hudson and 7th (or seriously, catch a cab because it’s already been a long day!)

Ludivine menu

It’s a close call as to whether Kitchen 324 or Ludivine is my favorite OKC restaurant. Both are farm to table restaurants that support local farmers and ranchers and serve seasonal food prepared in unpretentious atmospheres.

Ludivine

That’s the roasted striped bass dinner for 2 with seasonal veggies, roasted jalapeños and homemade tortillas.

I think I might come down in favor of Ludivine where the chefs change their menu up daily depending on the market and their bar serves a blue plate special every Monday night for $10 and donates some of the cash to charity. I really enjoyed my meals at this place and I would recommend ordering the bone marrow and then asking the bartender to give you a “bone marrow shot.” Don’t worry about it, just try it! And make sure someone gets video…

If you still feeling like getting out on the town after dinner, go a few streets north to 16th where the Plaza District is revitalizing an old neighborhood.

Plaza District

During the day the vintage stores and one-of-a-kind boutiques in this neighborhood are worth a look and at night Pie Junkie is open until 9pm on Fridays and the recently renovated Lyric Theatre has a year round season including works by new playwrights. If you feel like a nightcap, The Mule is open late and has a great cocktail list.

Fall is the perfect time to visit Oklahoma City. Try some great local food and get a taste of this Southern/Western city!

Lunch in Ft. Lauderdale

Burger?

Rok Brgr

How about brie, sautéed mushrooms and onions, thick cut bacon and no bun with lots of dipping sauces on the side? That was mine. You should design your own burger at Rok Brgr. Turkey burger? Done. 12 kinds of cheese? Alright. Loaded tots with bacon and sour cream served in a cast iron skillet? You know you want to.  Or maybe a side salad to take the edge off your cholesterol guilt? Rok Brgr has all this and outdoor seating. Boom.

Or maybe BBQ is more your style?

Tom Jenkins BBQ

Then go over to Tom Jenkins and get in line. The place is minute, there’s always a wait and you might need a back up plan for where you actually eat because chances are good that the 4 tables inside will all be full by the time you get your food. But the smoker is ancient, the meat is incredible and don’t forget the peach cobbler. Good BBQ In Florida? Who knew?

For those of you who need linen napkins with your lunch,

Tap 42

Try Tap 42. Craft beer, hand crafted cocktails and hand crafted craft beer cocktails. So many options! The bar is indoor/outdoor, the patio is breezy and shady and the food is delicious. Try the mussels and the quinoa salad.

And just for grins, how about a late night option?

Rocco's Tacos

Get the guacamole at Rocco’s Tacos and watch them prepare it table side. Follow it up with tacos and pitchers of margaritas.The margaritas have a punch to them so beware… In addition to the great food, I love the Mexican art work inside and all the beautiful light fixtures. On the weekends the place is jam packed, the music is loud and the place is hopping but during the week you can sit on the patio without any wait.

Nice job, Ft. Lauderdale! You’ve got a lot more going on than just the beach.

Ft. Lauderdale