Say Cheese, Please!

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Artisinal“You’re home early,” He said pressing the mute button on the remote.  “Did you have fun?”  Hmmm. Yes. Out for dinner with a wonderful friend, we did have fun, but that had less to do with the restaurant and more to do with the company.

Artisinal Bistro and Fromagerie in midtown Manhattan holds pride of place in the small dining desert surrounding Madison and 32nd.  Usually full, bordering on cramped, privy to perhaps everyone’s conversation but your own, it can get loud.  Pace is definitely on the menu, Are you ready to order, can I take that away for you, will there be anything else. Not my choice for a relaxing or romantic meal.  But a weeknight after work near the office? Not a bad choice.

Having ordered a St. Emilion Grand Cru and being presented a lesser vintage some $65 cheaper, the waiter appeared more confused than concerned.  The gougere were room temperature. Entrees arrived before the gougere could be eaten.  My duck was tasty but overly salted and overly sauced. My guest didn’t comment on her meal. I was afraid to ask. The wine, however late to the table, was great.

But for cheese lovers, mes amis, this is the place to be.  Order pretty much anything from their cheese menu you will have a wonderful time with the added bonus of being able to purchase any of their cheeses on the menu (and more) from the fromagerie before you leave.  Cheese is deservedly Artisinal’s hallmark and strength.  Given the smiles and happy faces with fondue forks in hand,  this is the raison d’etre for Artisinal. Given the range of selection and extensive wine selections on offer, it won’t be difficult to have great experience (and a little something to take home from the counter). Worth noting, catering and on-line delivery and shipping are also available, so their website is definitely worth checking out.

15 East (New York City – Japanese)

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Fine dining, excellent service and superb experience. While not inexpensive, the exquisite tasting menu gracefully supported by an admirable wine list makes for a memorable and entertaining evening.  While the atmosphere is one of sophisticated calm, there is an energy of enthusiasm in the air. Diners with smiles, engaged, knowledgeable servers and not a disappointment to be found on the menu or plate. Me and He loved everything, again, at 15 East He said, “Japanese is never at the top of my list.  But 15 East certainly is.”  Me said, “I agree.”

15 EAST SUSHI

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The Balmoral – Queen of Scots

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The Balmoral

“I want to go back to Edinburgh. “ He said. “Do you mean Edinburgh or The Balmoral?” Me said.  “Really sort of the same thing isn’t it?” He said. Well, yes, but not exactly – because the delights, sights and charm of Edinburgh are not limited to its leading lady of hotels. But the finest qualities of Edinburgh are certainly up front and center at The Balmoral.

Queen B’s enviable location at the divide between Edinburgh’s “Old and New Towns, overlooks Princes Street Garden and embraces the best of the old and new in hotel terms.  Old World tradition and standards are respectfully upheld but expressed with the energy, efficiency and expediency the modern traveler values so highly. There is nothing stuffy or fussy about the manner or pace of the service and comfort provided.

Repeat stays evoke the illusion of being a distant, but welcome relative to royalty. Queen B embraces her guests with an endearing wink and a discrete whisper that it would be quite alright to be on more familiar terms and perhaps call her “Edie B” in this grand but relaxed setting.

We love this hotel with its wonderful food, attentive well trained staff, splendid location and excellent spa services. There is an air of simplicity, good humor, and blend of practicality and grace that make Edinburgh and The Balmoral irresistible.  If you haven’t been, please go!  And if you do, please give Queen B our best.

Signs of Love

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Winter ParisI’m hungry,” He said.  “Me too,” Me replied. Happy to be back in Paris, we dropped our bags off at the apartment we had rented in the Marais and made straight to a local bistro for lunch.  Grateful to find a table for two, we unwrapped our layers of wool and prepared to order.  En Francaise.  Badly, sil vous plait.

Wine poured, Me started to do what Me does most, if not best – talk.  There was so much to talk about.  The flight, the queue at the airport, what I forgot to pack, what I wished I had packed, how much we love Paris, how much we hate the snow at home but love the snow in Paris, how good the bread was, what we would order next time, how much Me loves He and how we really belong in Paris and should spend as much time here as we possibly can.

“Do you think you could maybe try to talk a little bit less with your hands?” He asked trying to remove some droplets of the sauce brunoise that had leapt across the table from my fork to his sweater.  “I don’t mean to,” Me said.  “It just happens.”  He smiled or sighed. Actually it was something in between. “I don’t talk with my hands,” Me explained.  “I gesture. It’s a kind of punctuation.  A form of expression, sort of.”  He ordered a second desert.

The two handsome Frenchmen who had been seated next to us rose to leave, continuing their animated conversation as they bundled up and exited out into the cinematic snowflakes continuing to fall outside.

“There!  There, did you see?” Me persisted.  “Did you notice the couple next to us?  Both of them! They never stopped using their hands the entire time they were talking!”

“I did see that,” He said. “But they, my love, were both deaf and using sign language.”  “Oh,” Me said. The only thing I had noticed were two people very much in love.

Ardanaiseig Hotel

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Me said, “Scotland.” He said, “What about it?”  Me said, “Well, we really should go.” He said, “When?  Me said, “I’m thinking soon.”  He said, “Okay. Let me know and I’ll book the air.”  Everything should be that easy.

We had a long holiday weekend coming up, so squeaking in a four night stay despite the prospect of  overseas connecting flights and few hours drive north and back from Edinburgh to Loch Awe didn’t seem out of the question.

It was time worth taking and money well spent. Despite jet lag and driving on the other side of the road, pulling into the gravel drive inspired happy smiles and relaxed sighs. “All things considered, you drove really well,” Me said. “I did, didn’t I?” He said. Hmmm. Peace restored, we went inside.

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With grace, charm and the casual appeal of a family country estate, the broad high windows of the drawing room and deep comfy sofas were a welcome sight. Over the coming days, this would be our “nest” for drinks before delicious dinners, an afternoon tea, a tray lunch and lazy loch viewing.

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Through higgly piggly corridors typical of a house this size and age,  we were shown to our very comfortable room with a view of Loch Awe and ample bathroom. The rooms vary in size and view www,ardanaiseig.com and we were very happy with ours.  Our meals were lovely, the staff unfailing attentive and helpful and the grounds were superb: rhodedendrons, daffodils, blue bells. We did a good bit of  walking (not by Scottish standards), particularly in what we named The Moss Forest.

Ardanaiseig

As we would later find out on return trips, Loch Awe was a wonderful introduction to the grand lochs of Scotland. We walked where we could around the perimeter, enjoying an agreeable degree of mud and discovering patches of daredevil daffodils that had wandered down to the loch’s edge. It was a peaceful, satisfying visit worth repeating. Me said, “I knew we’d love it here.”  He said, “Me too.”  But it was time to go home.

LAKE

Riad El Fenn

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Entrance to Suite

Riads, even this very fine riad, are not hotels nor are they meant to be.  They are special guest accommodations ranging from the small and simple to the more elaborate, like Riad el Fenn, with several courtyards, three pools, air conditioning,  wide range of rooms and suites. The medina (Old City) is densely peppered with riads of every size and range of amenities to satisfy every preference. For the first time visitor, choosing your riad is very much part of the adventure.

REF (www.el-fenn.com) is unusually large, having originally been several separate residences that were lovingly restored and discretely modernized.  On our first trip to Marrakech, Me thought it would a “safe” choice in a place we’d never been and no idea what to expect. He predictably thought he’d be happy anywhere Me picked. It proved to be a great choice for many reasons. The location could not be more central, the property truly charming and comfortable, and the staff totally engaging and committed to making their guests happy. We liked it so much we’ve been there twice and can recommend splashing out for the terraced pool suites.

Riad El Fenn Roof Terrace

  • THINGS WE LOVED:  The atmosphere and décor; morning coffee on the terrace; evening dip in the pool: the gardens, birds and tortoises; evening lanterns; proximity to everything; excellent massages; caring staff, prayers emanating from Koutoubia Mosque.
  • THINGS WE WISHED WERE BETTER: Larger choice of dinner/lunch offerings

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Marrakech

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Riad el Fenn Night

The truth is that nothing prepares you for Marrakech. The driver from our hotel picked us up at the small, rather casual airport. Making our way toward the city, the absence of traffic lights, stop signs, directionals or hand signals became obvious. Like hundreds of bats on crack, we were funneled helter skelter through the city gates and into the medina. It occurred to Me that nothing outside the car looked, seemed or behaved in any way familiar.

We “parked” on a very crowded, not particularly nice street filled with cars, trucks, mopeds, taxis, horse carriages, motorbikes, donkey carts and donkeys parked like cars, a goat being led on a rope, people, Moroccans, British, French, Germans, Americans, tourists, locals, businessmen, shopkeepers, babies, children, teenagers, men, women, grannies, Tour Bus People (TBP – who have a special cultural quality of their own), all in various states of dress, costume, and undress, all yammering away in their respective languages and dialects in an area maybe twice the size of our living room. It was intense. We stepped out of the car and were swept into the mix. There was a paralytic moment of sensory overload. Me remember thinking “the hotel is supposed to be wonderful – it will be wonderful – we’ll just never leave the hotel.” Far ahead, He was walking briskly behind our driver, hopefully with our luggage. Me scrambled after them, navigating the cobblestones down the street in the failing light, cursing my poor choice of shoes.

Much is written about the other-worldly experience of stepping out of the maze-like medina into the cool, poetic serenity of a riad. Paradise. Xanadu. Nirvana. Heaven. Words like that. People can use whatever extravagant expressions they choose. The simple truth is: they’re right. You are transported out of chaos and confusion into a sanctuary of palm trees, splashing fountains and pools. There are trees, plants, vines and flowers. There are beautiful tiles and ancient woodwork. There are candlelit lanterns, thousands of pillows, beautiful, unfamiliar patterns and a visual fragrance of blues, pinks, oranges, and greens. Yes, Me know. Me was tired. And overwhelmed. But I do think I smelled color. There is birdsong. The birds are beautiful. When the resident garden tortoise soundlessly emerges from the courtyard greenery, you stop, transfixed, waiting for his left foot to gently touch the ground. It takes a very long time. You’re breathing quietly now. The whisper you feel but can’t quite hear is your heartbeat. You are suddenly a little giddy. Smarter, thinner, more glamorous and desirable than when you walked through the door. The prayers from a nearby mosque embrace the night. You smile. You are going to have a magical time.

Lights

Ah, Venice!

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He never really wanted to go. Venice was on his someday list. But Me was curious and believing whoever has the most passion wins, we flew off for an eight night stay. People said and continue to ask, “eight nights?  What in the world did you do all that time? For many, Venice is a two, three, okay maybe four night stop. But we were really tired, really burned out and needed a vacation, the kind of R&R you go to the beach or sanitarium for.

Nothing prepares you for the boat trip from the airport into the Grand Canal. Forget the movies and what you may have seen in magazines. If you are going to only do one extravagant thing in Venice, hire a private motor launch to speed you into the city.  It’s a vista, experience, and memory that will stay with you for a lifetime. As the city comes into view across the lagoon, you feel transported to another world and life previously not imagined.  It is beautiful, timeless, inexpressibly romantic and something you will never forget. Ah, Venice!

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London Taxi

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Taxi in London in front of a shopping centerMe said, “how far is it”?  He said, “Not that far”. Our first night in London having finished a quick dinner on our way to the theater, it was dark, a little damp and we didn’t have that much time to make the curtain.  “But how much farther is it?” Me asked, a little breathless trying not to break an ankle on the slippery cobblestone streets in 4″ heels.  “Hmm, pretty soon, I think.” was what He said.  It was starting to rain. We’d been walking for 20 minutes and my hair (enough said) was starting to look as bad as my feet hurt. Pretty bad.  Very bad. Bad enough to make me mad. “I want a taxi!” Me wailed.  “But we’re almost there!” said He. “I want a taxi now!” Me cried. So we climbed into a taxi, told the driver the address and he said in a gravely serious voice, “Are you certain, Madam?”  Very well then, he drove rather slowly to the end of the very short street, rolled around the corner, stopped and said, “Here you are then, Madam” and gave He a sympathetic look and wink. Alright for the two of them with their short hair and flat shoes. When putting vanity first, you should take a taxi.