Monday, July 6, 2009

Five Things To Do in Paris

1. Walk from Place des Voges to Centre Pompidou for shopping, art galleries et les boulangeries. Stop at Musée Carnavalet for a step into the history of Paris or Musée Picasso, because what's a trip to any European city without a visit to the local Picasso Museum? Catch a panorama of the Parisian skyline from the escalators at Centre Pompidou.

2. Eat at L'As du Falafel, 34 rue des Rosiers, St. Paul metro stop. The cat's out of the bag on this one. These are the best falafels in the western world, and everyone knows it.

3. Pick up some fromage et champagne (don't forget glasses) at the Rue Cler market and picnic on the lawn under the Eiffel Tower at night (très romantique, si vous voulez).

4. Stroll around Ile St. Louis, and then visit the powerful "Memorial des Martyrs de la Deportation" (Memorial to the Martyrs of the Deportation, or the WWII memorial) just over the bridge on the eastern edge of Ile de la Cite.

5. Have a macaroon and hot chocolate at Ladurée (three locations in Paris), or if chocolate is not for you, visit the brand new (or maybe not even open yet) Ladurée Bar on the Champs-Élysées and tell me how it is. I'm dying to know.

BONUS: Skip the lines at the Eiffel Tower and treat yourself to a nice dinner at the top of Montparnasse Tower instead. You'll see a better view of Paris than you would from the Eiffel Tower. Plus, this view includes the iconic tourist trap, which glitters at night.

Hint on getting around: Stop at a newsstand on the street and buy this year's Paris Pratique par Arrondissement. You'll never get lost if you have this book (or at least you'll have what you need to find your way home if you do).

Monday, June 29, 2009

The Difference Between Travel and Vacation

Recently, I've been asked more than once for advice on traveling abroad. What cities, or even countries do I recommend visiting? How should one convert currency? How can you have a great experience for an affordable price?

I secretly love being asked because it gives me an excuse to disembark on a mental vacation. Except that I don't consider real travel a vacation at all. When I think "vacation," I picture idleness, sloth, recovery from the rat race. On a vacation, I want a beach or a fireplace, a comfortable place to sit and nothing to do but read and sleep. There should also be good food and wine (and plenty of water of course. One must stay hydrated). Sure, you may travel from your home to get to the place where you will sit idly for days, but let's not get confused. Vacations are for vegging.

Traveling is different than taking a vacation. Travel is real work. There is no idleness or sloth involved. It can be as uncomfortable as it is exciting and as difficult as it is rewarding. Sometimes, it is boring and tiresome, but that makes those experiences that aren't (and even some that are) all the more remarkable, because you actually work hard for them.

You may wander the streets of a foreign city without knowing where your next meal will come from. Sometimes, you aren't even sure if you can afford your next meal. Sometimes, you find yourself at the end of a 65-mile bike ride in the Czech Republic delirious with hunger and soaking wet from the drizzle, only to go to a local restaurant that offers one dish: a grilled white fish served whole with more bones than flesh and a pea where the eye used to be. Since the menu was in Czech, though, you ordered without having any clue as to what might be delivered.

What I really love most about traveling are the stories that emerge and the characters that you meet along the way. These are the things that you never forget, no matter how marvelous or dreadful it was when it happened. I love a good story. And there is no better way to acquire one than by removing yourself from all that is familiar.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

K.C. Branaghan's for Strength

Things have been quiet here at Dine and Travel, but this is certainly not an abandoned blog! Trust me, I spend plenty of time daydreaming about all of the things I would love to write about if I didn't have quantitative strategies running through my head day and night. I've been hitting the books studying for a pesky standardized test to get into grad school, but soon you'll be hearing from me more often.

Today, however, I just can't pass up the opportunity to tell you about K. C. Branaghan's, my favorite local pub. Since it opened last year, it has become something of a neighborhood staple. Branaghan's features the best fish and chips in town, a perfect Guinness pour, and the vibrant community feel that any decent Irish pub should have. In fact, if the hardwood floors weren't so sparkling clean, and the walls hadn't been freshly painted, and you added a room full of red-faced men in overalls with Irish accents instead of the typical Belmont Shore prepster crowd, it might almost seem authentic.

Okay, relax. I said almost. Maybe if Branaghan's is around in 400 years like this one, you'll let that comment skate by.

What is authentic about K. C. Branaghan's is the community. Public houses have been community gathering places for hundreds of years, but it takes something special to make one a place where people want to go week after week, month after month and year after year. Branaghans' owner, George, clearly has worked hard to make this the case. The first time I visited, he personally greeted my friends and me when we came in looking for vodka tonics (the one thing missing from this pub's drink list: anything hard. I'm still crossing my fingers for that liquor license). We ended up with crème brûlée and Guinness and, while I'm not sure that pairing will go down as the most sophisticated, it made for a memorable night.

Since then, I've been back to Branaghan's on a regular basis, and have seen George every time. I've even joined George's e-mailing list, a move which I intermittently regret and rejoice over depending on how full my inbox is at that moment. But they work. Not only have George's e-mails succeeded in bringing me in more than once, but they also remind me that there is a world beyond my car or my desk (or the stable, but that's a whole other story), and it makes me happy to think that there are carefree people sitting at the bar drinking their Guinnesses for strength at that very moment.

That's exactly how I felt today at 5 p.m. when George's message about the K. C. Branaghan's Stimulus Package appeared. After I got past the overused buzzword of the year, I was pretty impressed with the idea. Here is George, in his own words:

I will put $100 weekly into a drawing pool. Each Tuesday nite, one number will be called. If the winner is present, they will receive the $100 cash. If the winner is absent, the $100 goes back into the pool and the following week is $200. This sequence is repeated weekly until there is a winner, or the pool reaches $1,000.

If there is no winner at $1,000, the pool is reduced to $500 and numbers are called until there is a winner. The remaining $500 is put into the pool for the following week's drawing and the sequence starts all over.

All that to say, I think Branaghan's has what it takes: fantastic food (about the best pub food that I've found anywhere...and that includes Ireland), good drinks and community. This is a place you'll want to go after a long, hard day at work, on a Saturday morning for a hearty brunch or even as a stop along the way during a pub crawl down Second Street.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Treat Yourself to Comfort Mac and Cheese

Having gotten a little behind in my reading, I recently parked myself on our living room couch with a stack of magazines close by. I've been eyeing the stack longingly for months now, and it grows weekly.

I've been known to read summer vacation issues in December and Thanksgiving issues in February, but since we've been having such beautiful, Southern California weather (and a time change), I was in the mood for something a little more relevant for spring--until I came upon this month's issue of Bon Appétit. The Lamb and Eggplant Shepherd's Pie seemed fitting for March, but I have to admit that I was a little thrown by "Comfort Food Now" emblazoned across the top of the cover. I don't exactly think of March as comfort-food month. That's more of an October stronghold, I'd say, but I was willing to go along with it because I needed my Bon Appétit fix.

Boy, am I glad I did. Suddenly, somewhere between the Yukon Gold potatoes and the Rice Pudding, or maybe the Spanish Grilled Cheese Sandwiches and the Caramel-Apple Crisp, I got it. Give the people what they want. With economy crashing and bad news abounding, give us a little harmless comfort food. We don't have to feel as guilty about eating those Yukon Gold Cinnamon Rolls as we do about throwing our 401(k) statements into a drawer, unread (and we especially don't have to feel as guilty as all those AIG executives). Comfort food is a mindless escape--just what America needs these days (never mind that pesky national problem of obesity. Let's take one thing at a time, here).

Every few months, I get a craving for some good, baked macaroni and cheese: simultaneously creamy and crusty, rich and soothing, filling, satisfying--the definition of comfort food. I have a pattern. The craving comes on slowly, sparked by a picture or a brief conversation until it grows over a few weeks while I plot my plan of action. What kind of mac and cheese should I make this time? The question flickers in the deep recesses of my mind until it gives way to others: Should it be basic, with plenty of breadcrumbs? Spicy? Sharp cheese or mild? One cheese? Two cheese? (red cheese, blue cheese?) Four-cheese? Low fat or fully indulgent?

You see, I have to plot strategically because I haven't yet settled on "my" mac and cheese recipe, and I only make it once every few months because I usually swear off all carbs for at least a few weeks afterward. Let's face it. Eating macaroni and cheese on a regular basis is deadly for the waistline. That's why I try to keep this kind of comfort food to a minimum. Sometimes, though, when everything is crashing down around you, macaroni and cheese is one thing that you know you can count on.

Here are two macaroni and cheese recipes that have passed my test. The first one is fully indulgent (you'll see what I mean when you read the ingredients). It is creamy and thick, bursting with cheesy flavor--the ultimate comfort food and definitely a stand-alone dish that can feed a crowd. The second recipe produces a more sophisticated taste. It doesn't beg one to devour in quite the same way as the first, but it is just as delicious.

Forget-All-Your-Sorrows Baked Macaroni and Cheese

1/4 pound unsalted butter (1/2 stick)
3 cups coarse fresh bread crumbs
1/4 pound coarsely grated extra-sharp Cheddar (1 1/2 cups)
1/2 cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano

Macaroni and Sauce
1/2 pound unsalted butter (1 stick)
6 tablespoons all-purpose flour
5 cups milk
1 pound coarsely grated extra-sharp Cheddar (6 cups)
1/2 cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
2 teaspoons salt
1/2 teaspoon pepper
1 pound elbow macaroni

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Butter one large 9'' x 13'' baking dish or two 2-quart shallow baking dishes.

For the topping, melt 1/4 lb. butter in a pan. Add breadcrumbs, 1 1/2 cups Cheddar and 1/2 cup Parmigiano-Reggiano. Stir until well combined. Remove from heat and set aside.

Cook macaroni in a large pot of boiling salted water until al dente. Reserve 1 cup cooking water and drain macaroni in a colander

Meanwhile, melt 1/2 lb. butter in heavy medium saucepan over medium-low heat and stir in flour. Cook roux, stirring constantly, 3 minutes. Whisk in milk. Bring sauce to a boil, whisking constantly, then simmer, stirring occasionally for 3 minutes. Add the rest of both cheeses, salt and pepper and stir until smooth. Remove from heat and cover surface of sauce with wax paper.

Stir together macaroni, reserved cooking water and sauce in a large bowl. Transfer to buttered baking dish or dishes. Sprinkle topping evenly over macaroni and bake until golden and bubbling, 20 to 25 minutes.

Serves 8

For the Grown-Ups Mac and Cheese

1/2 cup dry breadcrumbs
6 tablespoons butter
4 tablespoons all-purpose flour
2 cups milk
1 bay leaf
2 teaspoons fresh lemon juice
1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
2 teaspoons sherry
1/4 teaspoon sweet paprika
1 onion, minced
2 tablespoons finely chopped parsley
2 1/4 cups grated sharp Cheddar (9 ounces)
2 cups (8 ounces) elbow macaroni

Preheat oven to 350 F and butter a deep 1 1/2-quart baking dish.

Season bread crumbs with 1/4 teaspoon of salt. Melt 2 tablespoons of butter in a pan on medium-low heat. Add breadcrumbs and cook, stirring occasionally, until butter is absorbed and crumbs are golden-brown. Remove from heat and set aside

In a medium saucepan, over medium-low heat, melt 4 tablespoons butter. Whisk all-purpose flour into butter until well blended and smooth, about 1 1/2 minutes. Meanwhile, add milk and the bay leaf to a small saucepan. Scald milk until bubbles form around the edges. Remove roux (butter and flour) from heat and slowly whisk in scalded milk and bay leaf until smooth again. Return to heat and bring to a simmer, whisking constantly to prevent lumps. Continue whisking 1 to 2 minutes until sauce is smooth and has thickened. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Remove bay leaf from sauce and add lemon juice, Worcestershire sauce, sherry, paprika, onion and parsley. Stir until well blended. Then, simmer gently for 15 minutes. Remove sauce from heat and stir in two-thirds of the cheese. Reserve the rest.

Meanwhile, cook macaroni in a large pot of boiling salted water until just tender. Drain and remove to a large bowl. Stir in cheese sauce. Pour half of macaroni mixture into the baking dish. Sprinkle with half of the reserved cheese. Pour the rest of the macaroni into the dish and top with remaining cheese and breadcrumbs. Bake until breadcrumbs are lightly browned, about 30 minutes. Let stand for 5 minutes before serving.

Serves 6 to 8

Monday, February 9, 2009

On Being American, Part 2

I wanted to attend the 2009 presidential inauguration, not just because of the historical significance of inaugurating the first African American man to our nation's highest office, but because I felt that this was an incredible opportunity to witness the United States at its very best. I wanted to be a part of it. I wanted to be in Washington, D.C. with two million Americans who were coming together--unified--over something (anything!).

Not that this event was just anything. It was profound, and the seriousness of it was not lost on a soul in the massive crowd. Not the young white family with a six-year-old girl on Dad's shoulders and an infant carried by Mom in a BabyBjorn. Not the elderly black couple who trained in from Philadelphia to witness something they thought they would never see. Not the women wearing shirts with Barack Obama's face on them and hats with his name written in jewels. Not parents in the over-crowded metro station who guided their children through hordes of people so that, someday, when the next generation takes for granted that anyone, black or white, can become president, these grown children will be able to say that they were there the day that promise came true.

The Sunday before the inauguration, I set out to watch the concert at the Lincoln Memorial. I must have underestimated how many others had the same idea, because by the time I got there, I was routed to the Washington Monument. I stood among thousands gathered around only one Jumbotron in the area broadcasting the concert.

I was able to get this picture because the family standing in front of me brought a fold-up camping stool that they planned to sit on. It was more aptly used for the day as a foot stool to get a peek at the surrounding masses. Before I got my turn on the stool, I had no idea how huge the crowd was.

The concert was not easy to watch from where I stood, but hours of standing on our toes to get a glimpse of the screen proved to be a good bonding experience among strangers. We danced and sang along with Stevie Wonder, U2 and Garth Brooks and waited in anticipation for Obama's speech. I captured just the beginning of it on my camera:

Finally, the morning of the inauguration arrived. Our group left our Arlington hotel at 4:30 a.m. to take the metro into the city. It was not as crowded as we expected when we got on, but when the train's doors opened a few stops away at Metro Center, the huge transit hub, there was a wall of people like I have never seen before, all trying to get onto our train. When we got off, the crowd was so large, there was not enough room on the platform and some people were forced to stay on the train for one more stop.

There was a lot of excitement in the crowd. For all the discomfort of being packed so closely to the person next to you, people were incredibly friendly. After all, we were all there for the same reason. As we ascended the escalator, people chanted and cheered until they disappeared into the dark and frigid pre-dawn air above.

And when I say dark, I mean pitch black.

Only the Capitol building was lit at 5:30 a.m. Getting around wasn't easy. My group had to get to the opposite side of the Mall from where we got off the metro. Crossing the Mall was impossible with all the barriers and crowds that were in place. We ended up hiking all the way around the back side of the Capitol building and back down Constitution Avenue.

We had been invited to watch the inauguration from a party at 101 Constitution Avenue, a sleek, modern-looking building adjacent to the Capitol. At one point, I was afraid that we would never find the building, which appeared to be behind security at the infamous Purple Gate. Luckily, because we were at the gate so early (by this time it was about 6:30 a.m.), the massive crowd was only beginning to form. I asked three different police officers how we should get to our building, and each gave different directions, each leading to a different blocked road. Finally, when it looked like we would have to weasel our way through the Purple Gate without purple tickets (which would have been impossible, considering even people who had tickets couldn't get in), a monstrously tall man in a khaki military uniform and enormous park-ranger hat overheard my plea for directions to 101 Constitution Avenue.

"I know where that is," he barked, before he bellowed into his radio "I'm escorting a group of girls through security." Music to my ears. We all grabbed hands and followed him right through The Gate to the other side, and there was 101 Constitution Avenue. It was 7:00 a.m., there was still no sign of the sun and we had three solid hours to kill with nowhere to go before the party started at 10.

You can imagine, then, how relieved we were all those hours later when we found ourselves on the roof, overlooking the Capitol, the Mall and frozen-over reflecting pools that people decided to walk on, slipping and sliding all over.

The highlight of the ceremony for me was Elizabeth Alexander's inaugural poem, "Praise Song for the Day." The piece did not escape criticism, but I believe it captured exactly what I went to the inauguration to find: the intersection between the individual and the collective, and the meeting of ordinary and extraordinary.

In today's sharp sparkle, this winter air,
any thing can be made, any sentence begun.
On the brink, on the brim, on the cusp,
praise song for walking forward in that light.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

On Being American, Part 1

Last Tuesday, millions of Americans came together to bear witness to one of the most profound moments in our nation's history. I was lucky enough to be a part of this crowd, which was made up of people from every state, background, race and even every political stripe. I haven't yet had time to write about the experience, but here are some photos to whet your appetite. There will be more to come.

My mom took this picture on the mall before the inauguration. It was 20 degrees with a windchill that made it feel like 10.

I took this picture as I ascended the escalator in the Federal Center SW metro station. It was 4:45 a.m. and the crowd was wall to wall. People were chanting and cheering, strangers made sure children stayed with their parents and the mood was jubilant. It was an exhilarating experience.

Here is the capital, dressed and decorated the day before the inauguration.

I watched the inauguration from the warmth of 101 Constitution Avenue. Here is the view from inside the building.

Barack Obama graced the cover of every newspaper and magazine in the city. This stack of newspapers sat at the entrance to Metro Center as a crowd gathered to take home a record of the historical day.