Le Continental – Quebec, Canada – 7/23 and 7/25/2015

Quebec is one of the oldest cities in North America and as such has had the time to develop a tradition of great food (being settled by the French probably didn’t hurt). Quebec is also a divided city. Sitting on the banks of the St. Lawrence River means it has a low elevation riverfront called the Basse-Ville and an upper elevation called (what else?) the Haute-Ville. Then there is the nagging division between the Anglophones and the Francophones – neither speaks with the stirring cadences and resonance of their respective mother tongues. The differences that really count though are between the tourists who arrive by ship and those who arrive overland. No city can successfully accommodate the oversize cruise ships which swell the population of a small port by several thousand in a matter of minutes. Cheesy souvenir shops and cheap eateries proliferate with the express intention of separating the boat people from their money as rapidly as possible – and the results are predictable. Somehow, Quebec has managed so far to avoid this fate. Yes, there are a bazillion souvenir shops crowded among even more bistros, biergartens and burger joints which share the sidewalks with more indifferent art galleries than in all of Paris, but there are some great restaurants too.

Le Continental sits just down the block from the Chateau Frontenac, near the Citadel on the Plains of Abraham. The Plains of Abraham is (are?) the site of the battle between the French and the English for control of Quebec and the highest point in the city. It is a steep climb from the riverfront despite the availability of a funicular, and a real challenge to ascend entirely on foot. There are about 12 flights of public staircases which are much more direct than taking Siri’s suggested route, but no less steep. Arriving at the top, one is rewarded by a wonderful view of the river, and a great meal.

The wine glasses at Le Continental include a crest with the words “Depuis 1956” though I’m not sure that is a long time in a city founded in 1608. The restaurant is beautiful, with wood paneling that would do any private club proud, patterned carpets that just miss looking Oriental, and brass lighting fixtures that look authentic. The maitre d’ greets and assesses guests (reservations are de riguer on weekends) and then escorts one to a table either in the front room or the back. Because the human male agreed to wear a respectable looking blazer, we were seated (on both visits) in the rear. The tables are well separated, the linens crisp and blindingly white, and one can distinguish between the sommelier (black jacket), one’s waiter (white jacket) and the busboy (burgundy jacket). Perhaps because one can tell who is responsible, or more likely because the staff is concerned and well-trained, the service is extraordinary.

The house specialities are fabulous, theatrical (and delicious) flambés, but first there are the appetizers. On Thursday evening MiLady ordered the shrimp with cognac sauce. Huge pink, perfectly chilled shrimp arrived with a cocktail sauce that carried the unmistakable aroma of cognac. Not overpowering, but a reminder that cocktails contain their fair share of alcohol, and that cocktail sauce should be assertively flavored, not kid’s ketchup. The other appetizer that evening was a giant sea scallop, seared and wrapped in bacon. It was scrumptious – the salt from the bacon heightening the scallop’s natural sweetness and tickling the palate with the contrast. On Saturday evening MiLady refused to tamper with success – she again began with the shrimp. Succumbing to a long held fantasy, Saturday’s appetizer of choice was a set of six perfectly prepared snails in the shell. Contrary to recent experiences, these snails were neither over-cooked (rendering them rubbery) nor over-garlicked (forcing the human male to sleep in another room as his pores exuded the perfume of the stinking rose during his repose).

I frequently rail against the pricing structure of the winelists at many otherwise excellent establishments. Le Continental has a list that is balanced both in styles and prices. Our first dinner was accompanied by a fine 2010 Joseph Drouhin Côte de Beaune. It’s familiar, several bottles of the 2008 vintage reside in the cellar, and the style is distinctly French. It has good tannins and a less fruity nose, but with a lingering finish that closes with an earthiness that works well with strong flavors. Saturday night’s choice was a 2005 Medoc cru bourgeoise from Chateau Bel-Vue. No Frenchman made bad wine from the 2005 grapes, and this bottle was a fine example of the vintner’s art. Nicely rounded with a deep flavor of dark stone fruits but at 13% ABV without the additional alcohol that has become so popular in recent years. It wasn’t light but it was well-balanced and nimble. Neither bottle was over-priced and in each case the sommelier took the time and trouble to decant it to facilitate its opening, a courtesy American sommeliers, with a few notable exceptions, no longer routinely perform. The list ranges from CDN $40 to CDN $800 with the vast plurality of wines less than CDN $125. If one excludes the classic Bordeaux first growths, most of the balance of the list is under CDN $100 (roughly US$75) and includes many very drinkable bottles at half that price.

MiLady chose Langoustine Newburgh on Thursday – she loves langoustines and she correctly reasoned that a Newburgh sauce would elevated the crustaceans to something beyond blissful. Her choice gave the waiter his chance to show off. The dish is prepared tableside, with great showmanship and then flambéed immediately before being served. Usually the presentation is better than the dish, but at Le Continental the waiters actually know how to cook and present the specialities. The result was a dish so good that she ordered it again on Saturday. The delicate flavor of the langoustine was perfectly enhanced by the cream, housemade lobster bisque and sherry sauce, given the flaming presentation, an unforgettable meal. Thursday evening’s rack of lamb was almost great – it arrived slightly over-cooked (I like it reddish-pink inside) and begging for a sharper knife than the one supplied. It was flavorful but clearly not the kitchen’s best effort. On Saturday my choice was the house special filet mignon – prepared tableside and served with a cognac and pepper reduction. The waiter seared both sides perfectly, leaving the interior juicy and red; the reduction brought out the rich flavor of the beef and made for a thoroughly satisfying experience. I would award at least two [slurp]s here, but my publisher tells me we are trying to go upscale in our readership, so I am to exercise only my best table manners.

The dessert menu looked intriguing – a lovely hazelnut cake, a St. Honore cake, the usual assortment of delicious sounding items including a chocolate crème I normally would have scarfed down in an instant. But, Thursday was the evening before MiLady’s birthday and so required something very special as a fitting end to the meal. Slightly separated from the listing of the usual desserts were three dessert flambés: Crepes Suzette, Cherries Jubilee and Pears in Pernod. We chose to share the Cherries Jubliee and were not disappointed. Gorgeous ripe pitted cherries were lightly cooked in sugar and butter, then soaked in kirsch and sweet cherry brandy and flamed. The sauce thickened to the consistency of of thick honey and was then poured over a scoop of fine vanilla ice cream and the cherries arranged around the rim of the plate as if to form a necklace of garnets. Such a dish is clearly to good for ordinary mortals – but I let them eat it anyway. Saturday night finished with the pears; delicious, impressively lit up, but without ice cream only a close second finish.

Flaming dishes are probably cliches now – given the restaurant’s 1956 origins though they were undoubtedly the most nouvelle of cuisines. They and Le Continental are really classics worthy of attention – being iconic runs the risk of being cliché, but only if the passion is lost, and it certainly hasn’t been here.

Le Chic Shack, Quebec, Canada – 7/24/2015

Before flying up here to celebrate MiLady’s birthday with a long weekend of restaurant exploration and gallery-hopping, I assumed Canada’s national dish was either goose or moose. It is neither. According to local sources it is a dish called “poutine” and as an intrepid eatventurer, I knew I’d have to try it – but only if I could find out what is in it first. It is an acquired-taste mixture created by cooks who are less concerned with maximizing esthetics than maximizing calories. Take some really nice potatoes, cut them in bite-sized chunks, fry the chunks in oil, cover them with slightly peppery brown gravy and sprinkle liberally with cheese curds and you have poutine. Poutine is the offered as the local alternative to french fries with a burger or lots of other casual food, so I asked around for a venue with a reputation for good poutine. The number one recommendation was Le Chic Shack with the additional advice that lunch was the best meal to acquaint oneself with this potential source of world-class heartburn.

I prepared with a good, healthy breakfast of yogurt, fresh fruit and granola washed down with several cups of coffee. Next, I spent the entire morning walking up to the Citadel and around the Plains of Abraham to limber up. Then I walked over to the Place des Armes, carefully perused the menu at Le Chic Shack (it highlighted “Lobster is in Season”), memorized my order and presented myself at the “Please Wait to be Seated” barrier. MiLady, the human male, and I were escorted to a table in a window overlooking a street jammed with tourists fresh off the boat who had huffed and puffed their way up from the Basse-Ville. Our escort explained the custom was for one of us to sit while the other walked down to the cashier and ordered the food which would be brought to our table (Number 17). Being the most intimidating member of our party, I volunteered to go to the cashier while the rest of the party settled in.

Ordering proved easy – one bison burger (Le Robuste), one lobster burger (Le Homard), one small poutine, one small order of housemade chips and a half liter of red wine. The monetary damages came to CDN$67.25. Not bad considering the wine and the lobster burger accounted for about two-thirds of the total. The wine was completely ordinary – and drinkable. The lobster burger was spectacular. It was actually a generous portion of fresh lobster salad served on a hamburger bun, with recognizable chunks of claw meat and tail. The dressing was a light mayonnaise with the tiniest hint of herbs, and the bun was light and slightly warm. The bison burger was perfect. Juicy and medium rare as requested, it sported a very nice house sauce, slices of fresh tomato and onion, and was garnished with a sweet pickle. The chips were worth a special trip! Thin but not anemic slices of potato perfectly crisped in fresh oil (canola I suspect), drained and lightly dusted with seasalt. Chic Shake also offers a version with maple sugar – we didn’t try them, but everyone around us was ooohing and aaahing, so I presume they were on a par with the rest of the offerings. We noted the absence of commercially prepared soft drinks, no Coke or Pepsi or any of members of their respective families. Chic Shack makes its own sodas, using housemade syrups and carbonated water, and no one seemed to miss the run-of-the-mill beverages.

Luckily we’d ordered only a small portion of chips, otherwise we might have ignored the poutine, which was, after all the object of our eatventure. I told you it was an acquired taste; one which has eluded us. As we gathered up our tourist gear we commented on the similarities between Chic Shack and Shake Shack. The names spoken quickly sound similar. Both establishments eschew waitstaff, both offer a variety of burgers as the primary food items, both offer milk shakes, both offer fries, but only Chic Shack is in Quebec and offers poutine.

La Petite Cour – Paris – May 31, 2015

Today was an interesting sort of day. We rose exceptionally early to pursue a visit with Fred of Le Foodist, to a central Parisian market followed by a cooking class (I promise to discuss the market visit and class in an entirely separate posting). So what to do for dinner after 8 hours over a hot stove on Fete des Meres (Mothers’ Day) in Paris. After a great midday meal in a city notorious for restaurants which are (humanely) closed on Sunday and Monday, any sane eater would slink into his/her local boulangerie, grab a loaf of bread, drop by the local Monoprix or equivalent and procure a hunk of Comte, uncork a bottle of wine and hide out in one’s hotel room until the madness passes; but not so my intrepid human companions. Our concierge, Pauline, came through in the clutch. (Maybe it was a self-preservation instinct. Removing winestains and the smell of cheese from a hotel room could be a challenge, so, better to send the silly Americans off somewhere and preserve the room.) Reservations at La Petit Cour were procured.

One enters the restaurant by crossing a small footbridge and descending well-worn marble steps to an outdoor dining area. One traverses the small patio and enters a lovely dining room replete with comfortable seating, artistically designed glass tables and a completely professional staff. Between indoor and outdoor dining areas the capacity appears to be about one hundred diners, so while not tiny, it certainly isn’t a food factory. The menu is focused, offering a limited selection of combinations at reasonable prices, a Sunday dinner including both a glass of wine and a half bottle of water (with or without bubbles), a starter, a main and dessert at a very fair price. However, we chose to order a la carte and choose our own wine. I selected a Joseph Drouhin 2011 Cote de Beaune from the thoughtful, but very limited, winelist. It proved to be a sound, if unspectacular choice. Cote de Beaune burgundies seem to be tightly wound and need relatively long periods to open. Given my druthers, I’d decant such a wine about 40 minutes before pouring the first glass, but restaurant etiquette doesn’t always allow for such amenities, so the initial sips were funkier, almost corkie, than ideal, but as the wine breathed it blossomed into a silky, slightly tannic roundness. (Personal note: I prefer the more accessible, easier to drink 2008 and 2009 vintages in my cave, but one must deal with what is available when one is thirsty.)

Starters were exquisite – MiLady opted for a millefeuille of aubergine and crab. As suggested by the menu entry, three paper-thin slices of eggplant anchored a perfect crabmeat cocktail. The sweetness of the crab playing against the vinaigrette dressing and echoing against the sweet eggplant was delightful. Sweet, sharp, sweet is clearly a recipe for success. I chose the carpaccio of black angus beef. Paper-thin slices of beef with a cress, olive oil and caper dressing and tiny cubes of sweet butter was unlike anything I’d ever enjoyed before, but clearly a dish I’d be delighted to order again. Neither starter was heavy or overpowering, so our palates were

ready for the main course.

This is France. Despite the chilly weather, it’s Spring. Lamb is fresh and available in abundance all over Paris – so naturally that’s what we both ordered. The rack of lamb was generously portioned, flavorful and cooked exactly as ordered. Three ribs bedded on grilled green asparagus and artichoke hearts were heavenly. No potatoes, no attempts to distract from the lovely, juicy pink meat and crisped enveloping fat – and no apologies for the intensely carnivorous experience. French lamb is different, and vive la difference!

Desserts are always tricky. MiLady favors variety and a degree of lightness – give me chocolate; the denser, the sweeter, the better. Tonight we shared the “Dome a Chocolate” and were both satisfied. A hard dark chocolate shell covering a sweeter, but not quite milk chocolate, interior mousse, it was almost the perfect ending to the meal. Perfection was achieved with snifters of hors d’age calvados which smoothed away the chocolate sweetness and settled the mind. We scarcely noticed that while we were dining, it had begun to gently rain…

La Fontaine de Mars – Paris – May 30, 2015

Our hotel concierge originally booked us at a place we didn’t enjoy enough when we ate there about four years ago to want to eat there again, so we asked her to re-book, elsewhere. Saturday night anywhere really good, anywhere in the known universe, is a tough table but One may legitimately ask, “Why not give a place a second chance after four years?” The answer was supplied by Malcolm Forbes when he was asked why his oenological choices were so expensive, “Life’s too short to drink bad wine.” Life is to short to willingly repeat an unpleasant experience. I refuse to write about bad meals because that only causes them to repeat, sometimes in my gut and sometimes in my limited cranial spaces – I simply go on (bravely) to the next repast. Pauline came through with flying colors.

Tonight we dined at Fontaine de Mars, a red and white checkered table cloth establishment in the 7th Arrondissement, not far from the Ecole Militaire, the Eiffel Tower and the Champs des Mars from which the Fontaine must draw its name. A moment for history – Champs des Mars translates into English as the Fields of Mars (the Roman god of War). It was originally the field on which tournaments were held by the King so that French knights could demonstate their prowess in the arts of war. Unlike today’s sporting contests, the losers frequently went home in a box – making participation a definite hazard to one’s health. Now the only dangers at the Champs des Mars are extravagant prices and food poisoning. Rest assured gentle reader, neither is a threat at Fontaine de Mars.

We were ushered to a lovely corner table on the second floor of a typical looking bistro/cafe and into a different world. The winelist is split between “Les Vins de Bordeaux” and on a separate list, Others. The list of Bordeaux is concise and nicely arranged by appellation, cru and vintage. It is priced fairly but gives no quarter to bargain seekers. I lusted after a 2005 Pomerol from a good home, until the moment I realized the dollar price was into four digits to the left of the decimal. Instead the 2012 Telegramme, a Chateauneuf du Pape, from the list allowed us to both enjoy its robust (14.5% alcohol) flavors, dark fruits and a I think a touch of clove and earth, and its modest price. It was chosen to pair with the plat du jour, of which more momentarily.

MiLady began, as is her custom at this season in France, with the white asparagus. The portion was five huge stalks, steamed and presented with a mousseline which was very lightly tinted by red bell pepper and even more delicately flavored. I had the escargot – six plump little morsels very gently flavored with herbs and butter, but no garlic, served Swiss-style in a ceramic dish with a little spot for each snail and its liquor. I first saw snails served this way in Lucerne at Mövenpick almost half a century ago – it saves on kitchen prep time (someone has to stuff the little devils into the shells) and saves the eater embarrassment when s/he loses control of the clamp. (Remember the very funny scene in “Pretty Woman” when Julia Roberts inadvertently launches a snail missile at the stuffy waiter?)

We moved on, with both contentment and sadness to the plat du jour. Saturday night Fontaine de Mars features a sublime slice from a perfectly roasted loin of lamb. The slice is about 2 centimeters thick (roughly 3/4 of an inch), the circumference of a good apple, and weighs about 200 grams (between 5 and 6 ounces). It is so perfect that it is accompanied only by a single roasted clove of garlic and potatoes Dauphinoise. Balanced with the Chateauneuf it was an exquisitely simple and incredibly satisfying meal. Mind you, not so satisfying that we were able to resist ordering, and then devastating, a dark (the menu, in one of its extremely few translation mis-steps called it “black”) chocolate mousse. We finished with nicely prepared decaf cappucinos, paid our modest check and departed – happier for the dining experience.

H Kitchen – Paris – May 29, 2015

Last night I probably bored you as I extolled the virtues of small. Tonight I’d like to reaffirm my position that small, in order to receive deserved accolades, must be better than big. Our dinner excursion took us to H Kitchen around the corner from our old favorite Chez Dumonet Restaurant Josephine and roughly a solid three wood and a long 7 iron from our hotel. (For you non-golfers that’s on the order of 550 yards as the crow or golf ball flies.) At 26 seats H is even smaller than last night’s venue, with a menu even more tightly focused and a wine list which exists only to enhance the dining experience.

We were greeted cordially and seated at what is arguably the best table in the house – if I can manage the technology I’ll send along a picture – nestled in a corner created by the service bar in the middle of this jewelbox restaurant. MiLady had a full view of the comings (but no goings) as a crowd of Japanese business men (fully a dozen of them) threatened to overwhelm the serenity of the place. The hostess/waitress (again tonight the staff seems to have been comprised of a single human in the front of the house, the chef, and a jack-of-all-trades apprentice hidden in the back) remained calm, unruffled and more than willing to make our dinner special.

We ordered the most expensive wine (68) on the carte des vins – a 2012 Morey-Saint Denis from the negociant Joseph Frey & Fils because we have a similar wine in the cave at home and had recently read a review which suggested tasting them now, before mortgaging the grandchildren to lay in a sufficient quantity to warm one’s old age. The grandchildren need not worry, as lovely as this pinot noir is, they are infinitely more likely to mature well. It opens a touch thin, in the best Burgundy traditions, with a touch of funk that disappears almost instantly as the wine catches its breath. Not as round or as full-bottomed as the big Oregonian or Tasmanian pinots, the Frey is traditional with a touch of stone and an acidity that tickles the palate rather than swathing it in softness. A great accompaniment to simpler, lighter food preparations, but not a show-stopper like a really huge cabernet or an exuberant shiraz.

MiLady is a soft touch for any offering of white asparagus, whether as a tasting, a starter, an entree, or as and accompaniment to a main dish; she’ll order it. (Go back and read about her encounter with white asparagus at Lassere during our 2014 trip.) Tonight’s preparation was inspired – grilled stalks set on slices of smoked duck breast. No wasted sauce, no unnecessary distractions, only the subtle smokiness of the meat and the indescribably wonderful asparagus.

I enjoyed a one of a kind dish of artichoke stems and hearts poached in a broth of tiny white baby clams, white wine and borage. Exquisite!

The John Dory special was a gorgeous filet laid on a bed of steamed fresh market vegetables. Milady’s tastebuds confirmed the fish was fresh and a treat for her jaded palate, grilled to perfection and then encouraged to be its own best advocate. My “faux filet de boeuf Normande” was grilled to exactly sangiant and seasoned with nothing more exotic than simple salt and pepper. I expected a bavette, but this cut was thinner and longer – while not approaching the size or thinness of an American hanger steak (and far from what I think of as a skirt steak). It was tasty, and gave my jaw muscles a bit of exercise but rewarded me with a deep beefy flavor that makes a filet mignon seem pale by comparison. It was accompanied by tiny roasted potatoes that soaked up the natural juices and made me smile at the perfect simplicity of the dish.

We shared the chocolate dessert – best thought of as a “fire and ice” pairing. Hot chocolate sauce, a frozen chocolate cake log and softened chocolate ice cream. The underlying chocolate ran from an incredibly rich soup of sweetness to a lovely dark chocolate balance in the log, to a creamy, not pudding but not offering any resistance to the spoon, glace. It garners a *sigh* and two [slurps]. Being completely sated, we skipped the proffered coffee and tea, and requested the check. Surprise of surprises, the entire food portion was less than the wine – including, in best French tradition, both the GST and the service. Contented, we dawdled our way home to write up the experience while it was still fresh in our reptilian (not, I assure you, avian) brain. Another place to return to for an exquisite evening. Bravo!

Invictus – Paris – May 28, 2015

InvictusAfter a year of visiting far-flung outposts of civilization we have finally returned to the home of civilized dining – Paris. We ate and drank extraordinarily well in our travels, but coming back to Paris is like returning to nowhere else. Tonight’s dinner was a reminder that great dinners come from great chefs, not from trendy menus or thirty page winelists or bigger-than-life settings – or any other manifestation of largeness.

Invictus is a small (less than 3 dozen seats) on a tiny street lying between Boulevard Raspail and Rue de Notre Dame des Champs. The host/chef/owner and a single waitress (with another young man in the kitchen) comprise the entire staff. We may have well been the only out-of-towners in the room, but our host’s English was more than a match for my French, and the bubbling conversations in French around the room, without the intrusive demands of a single badly mannered American gluten-free vegan was relaxing. (Well-mannered gluten-free vegans are always welcome anywhere, but most tiny restaurants in Paris don’t know what to do to make them happy, and feel that they have somehow failed in their duty as hosts, which makes them cranky. But more observations about the clash of those particular cultures another time.) The winelist is carefully curated and completely affordable. The entrees are limited, as are the main courses, to a manageable number of choices based on the availability of fresh ingredients. Everything arrived at the table fresh from the stove, well-plated but not extravagantly overdone, and thoroughly delicious.

The wine we chose this evening was a 2013 Chateau de Terte. I am of the belief that any Grand Vin de Bordeaux should taste good even before it fully matures, and this Fronsac did. It will probably be better in a few years, but it was delicious and complimented the food without calling undue attention to itself. It was also surprisingly light, only 12.5% alcohol but with a richness usually associated with “bigger” wines boasting 14% or even 14.5%; another example of delivering great enjoyment without displaying overwhelming size.

The entrees were exceptional. Milady chose a tortue of fresh “deboned” crab – a light dressing and thin slices of fresh green squash worked well with delicate flavor of the crab. “Deboned” meant shelled, as opposed to requiring the diner to remove the meat him/herself. The portion was not enough to make a meal in itself, but enough to whet one’s appetite for the main course. I chose the shrimp. Four perfectly roasted morsels finished with coriander and sesame seeds on a mixed vegetable slaw with just the right amount of vinegar to wake up the tastebuds.

One of the day’s specials was a poached haddock filet served over a bed of white asparagus. The fish unwrapped itself in lovely pure white flakes just the right size to melt in one’s mouth. (Of course I don’t eat fin fish, so I’m only relating what I was told, but it looked so good I was tempted to try a forkful.) My filet was a beautifully grilled piece of French beef – moist, with the firm texture that only the French seem to be able to create, and full of flavor. It was accompanied by sauteed onions and perfectly mashed potatoes. It was a modest portion, but delivered enormous enjoyment and left me room for the house-special dessert.

The special dessert is a drunken brioche slathered with a caramel sauce, covered with slices of slightly cooked apple and crowned with just enough homemade caramel ice cream. It was so good I forgot my chocolate craving for the entire time I was devouring it. The sharply robust espresso which followed was the perfect finishing touch to a great meal. But wait – there was one surprise remaining. The bill for our dinner was also an example of modesty. It cost less than our lunch at Georges atop the Centre de Pompidou earlier in the day. Perhaps my mother was right when she said great things come in small packages…

What I Learned on My Australian Adventure

Myndi’s Wisdom: Your trip begins even before you embark. Let’s start with a few simple tips about packing and wardrobe.

∞∞ You may skip this section if you are fortunate enough to have a
TARDES available for your use ∞∞

Because your travels will take you through numerous cities, catching flights, renting cars and checking into 8 different hotels/resorts in five different climates, pack light. Remember, your itinerary runs from Sydney to Uluru to Alice Springs to Adelaide to the Clare Valley to the Barossa Valley to Adelaide to Kangaroo Island to Adelaide to Melbourne to Hobart to the Freycinet Peninsula to Scottsdale to Launceston and finally back to Sydney. Naturally I’ve left out the flight from wherever to Sydney and back, but you will need to plan for them as well.
Even though you can check more than one suitcase, PACK ONLY ONE SUITCASE! (Stow a foldable carry-on for impulse souvenir purchases along the way, if you must.) And, PACK LIGHT. Your traveling companion cannot conveniently be exchanged for a pack mule, so you will probably be lugging your luggage yourself.

Myndi’s Wisdom: You are what you wear.

Your wardrobe choices need to be sensible and cover a variety of situations, both weather and whether. Flexibility is the key. You can always get things laundered (though you may need to arrange a second mortgage in advance of your departure to cover the costs). Do it yourself laundry is a great choice, but only if you will be in one place long enough for your clothes to dry – packing damp clothing isn’t bad, but unpacking it is.

Here’s my recommendation for the female traveler:
4 pair cotton pants – 2 Capri and 2 full length
1 pair dress black pants
4 long sleeved cotton tee shirts
2 linen or cotton gauze dress shirts – these can be worn as overshirts for a different look
1 shawl
1 sweater
1 fleece
1 pair pj’s (none if you fly Qantas Business or First Class, they give them to you to keep)
7 pair washable quick drying Ex Officio undies
Light weight sneakers
Ballet slipper shoes
Quick drying bathing suit
Socks and stockings are optional
LEAVE YOUR MANOLO BLAHNIKS HOME! (First, no one will notice; second, no one will notice; third, they are probably really uncomfortable for extended walks.)

Recommendations for the male traveler:
2 pair washable cotton pants
2 pair Ex Officio convertible cargo parts (the ones that unzip at the knees and become shorts)
4 linen shirts – 2 long sleeve, 2 short sleeve
4 Ex Officio “bush” shirts – quick drying, cargo pockets
2 permanent press Oxford shirts – probably best as 1 long sleeve and 1 short sleeve
2 cotton tee shirts
7 pair washable quick drying Ex Officio undies
1 washable quick drying Ex Officio undershirt (wear it outbound, wash and wear home)
1 sweater (I STRONGLY recommend cashmere because it’s light, warm, and classy)
1 fleece
1 pair pj’s (none if you fly Qantas)

Light weight sneakers
Sturdy Mephisto loafers with rubber soles (these are for slipping off during flights but wearing to dinner because light weight sneakers are sometimes garishly trimmed and make it hard for maitre d’s to take the wearer seriously)
Socks are optional (wear a pair on your outbound flight, wash them, wear them on your flight home – between times they really aren’t necessary, even with the Mephisto loafers)

For travelers of any sex:
Prescription meds
DO BRING AND USE SPF 100 SUNSCREEN (the maximum locally available is SPF 50, the sun is so strong it will completely cook you in a fraction of the time you are accustomed to)
DO NOT BRING COSMETICS (they will melt off you and, no one will notice)
DO NOT BRING SHAMPOO (all the luxury resorts/hotels have amazing toiletries)


Myndi’s Wisdom: You are what you eat – if you’re lucky.

The food and food fetishes are different. Do not worry about gaining weight. Australians eat mostly things that are healthy and you will be so active you will actually burn the calories you consume. Because you are busy, there is no time to snack, and the hidden home hazards have no horrible hold on you. Aussies are big on really tucking in to a serious meal with serious spirits as integral parts of the repast – enjoy along with them. If you are a gluten-free vegan and shun alcohol as promoting unhealthy desires – the gluten-free part is OK, vegan is achievable though scarcely desirable, but temperance is NOT an Australian virtue. If you are a really serious TGV (temperate, gluten-free vegan) STAY HOME. Australia boasts great food and wine (well, it would be a boast if it weren’t true, but it really isn’t because it is).
While no one would seriously advocate abandoning French Bordeaux or Scotch Whiskey, the Australians make delicious wines and Tasmanians in particular, distill world-class spirits. Not drinking the Reislings and GSM’s (Grenache, Sauvignon, Mourvedre) of the Clare Valley, the Shiraz’s of the Barossa Valley and the Pinot Noirs ofTasmania is missing an opportunity to enjoy the very best – most of these creations are consumed locally and, like platypuses and echidnas, are never seen anywhere else. Seafood, lamb and beef are flavorful, plentiful and well prepared. Fresh fruits and vegetables abound, and are incredibly delicious. Great cheeses will surprise and delight your palate, and will seriously threaten your long held prejudice that a cheese platter isn’t dessert.
Note: Moreton Bay Bugs need the attention of a serious marketing department to rebrand their unfortunate name, they are really like eating the best lobster tails you have ever enjoyed – only better.

Myndi’s Wisdom: Go Native – when you travel you leave home and enter another world

Do not tip under any circumstances, unless there is a line for it on the charge slip. Australians take it as an insult, even the hourly workers are paid well. (How does $25/hour minimum wage sound?) Truly extraordinary services (your guide dealing with a mob of crazed “bargain” tourists on the “queue” for an exhibition or table service above the standard established by Czarist nobles waiting tables in Parisian restaurants circa 1922) should be recognized. Ten percent makes everyone your BFF, and guarantees your future “bookings” will be treated as sacred obligations. Do say, “Thank you.” It’s actually heard, and truly appreciated. Do tell your host/server/guide how much you enjoyed whatever. Again, it’s actually heard, and truly appreciated.

This leads to my final set of recommendations.

Mydni’s Wisdom: Walk a kilometer or two in Aussie shoes (preferably UGGs)

To walk a kilometer in Aussie shoes you will need to ask directions (a kilometer is just about 5/8ths of a mile). TALK TO THE LOCALS! They are are justifiably proud of their incredible country, anxious to share it with you and value your opinion. If you show a sincere interest, they willingly share everything – one of our very best experiences was an invitation to a BBQ from one of our guides. He invited us because he was concerned we had been eating too much hotel food. Australia is huge, diverse, sparsely populated and surprisingly sophisticated. Enjoy every moment you spend here; enjoy the beauty of this vast unspoiled friendly country. To do this, DO NOT RUSH! Slow down; even Toto will know instinctively you’re not in Kansas anymore. Smile! Aussies smile more than anywhere else I’ve ever been. Australia is not just a country, it’s a continent and a consciously chosen lifestyle.

Myndi’s Wisdom: Stuff (this is, after all, suitable for children – incidentally, the Australian word is “poo”) happens. Do not let the perfect be the enemy of the good.

It is inevitable that you will feel stressed (you are, after all, half a world away from home); you will make a wrong turn (they drive on the wrong side of the road); you will arrive late (wallabies, wombats and kangaroos have no respect for the rules of the road). DON’T PANIC. Everything will turn out all right because as this is Australia. Locals even have an oft repeated phrase encapsulating the quintessential Aussie truth, “No worries mate.”

Myndi’s Final Bit of Wisdom: PLAN TO RETURN! Of course having a great travel coordinator makes all the difference between struggling to get it all arranged correctly and just needing to pack your bag (REMEMBER – ONE SUITCASE!)

CRITICAL FINAL NOTE: Bring along a stuffed dragon (or, if such a thing exists, equivalent totem) with ATTITUDE to make notes. (I am available for private bookings – I’ve had all my shots and my passport is up to date.)

No. 8 Restaurant and Wine Bar by John Lawson – Melbourne, VIC, Australia 2-20-15

Gong Hay Fat Choy – We are in the season of Chinese New Year, with red lanterns, dragon dancers (my personal favorite of all the terpsechordian arts) and festive meals, so tonight we ate at No. 8 (the luckiest of the Chinese numbers). Our “booking” was honored promptly despite our early arrival and we were seated at a lovely table outside with close proximity to the street festival in full swing along the south bank of the Yarra River. Red paper lanterns stretched along the promenade, buskers performed, caricaturists drew and crowds surged past our table, enjoying the benign weather. The wine list was presented and while the human male sipped at his 12 year old Glenfiddich (there being neither Smuggler’s Cove, nor The Nant, nor The Lark available) I determined the best choice was The Dalrymple, a lovely 2012 Tasmanian Pinot Noir bursting with fresh strawberries, soft but supple tannins, and a gorgeous color – in honor of the plan to leave on the morrow for Tasmania where many good spiritous things are rumored to be abundantly available.
The sommelier appeared pleased with my choice, and MiLady seemed contented. Menus appeared to assist our contemplative state of mind, and wonderful homemade bread with salted encrusted butter arrived. Then the spectre of ruin raised its ugly head. A couple was seated at the next (upwind) table – and she lit up. I was, for many, many years a consumer of Pocohantas’ revenge, quitting only when forced to do so, and then not very graciously, but having regained my senses of smell and taste, I am extraordinarily loath to surrender their sensous joys. Perhaps, I thought as the delicate nuanced flavors of the Pinot were lost in her smoke, she’ll just indulge in a single odoriferous offense, and our meal can resume its trajectory. Sadly I was mistaken. From the butt of the last, she lighted the next. Visions of mayhem and cruel revenge fantasies danced through my brain – using my tail to upend her table and soak her with wine seemed a promising avenue to pursue. Fortunately an alternative strategy presented itself – the maitre d’ was summoned and the following conversation ensued.
Me: It is entirely my fault for not having asked prior to being seated, but does No. 8 have a non-smoking seating area?
Delightfully charming (female) Maitre d’ (sniffing out the problem instantly): Oh dear. That’s unbearable. How will you ever be able to enjoy your dinner? Let me relocate you to a lovely table that just became available at the other (upwind) end of the terrace so that you can properly enjoy your meal.
Perfect solutions are rare but this was handled so diplomatically that only the waiter, the maitre d’, Milady, the human male, and I were even aware anything had transpired. Brilliant.
The six delicately flavored oysters sprinkled with nothing more than lemon juice, were unaffected by the previous miasma, and were delectable. Medium sized, firm, fresh with a hint of brine, they were what oysters were meant to be. The paper thin Waygu beef carpaccio with dots of egg yolk (given the color and texture, probably duck) and translucent daikon radish slices with miniaturized pumpernickel croutons, capers, and red onion melted on the tongue. These slices were the best explanation of why, given the opportunity, one should mortgage one’s offsprings futures to indulge one’s senses in the here and now, without the slightest twinge of guilt.
The local lamb chops were heavenly. Thick cuts of the finest grass-fed lamb, grilled to absolute perfection and supported by a tangy yogurt they were superb. The rack of venison MiLady ordered was simply the best I’ve ever tasted. Crusted with a little herb rub, ruby red and yet noticeably hot, they were exactly what I’ve wanted for dinner for a very long time. Duck fat potatoes and a delightful beetroot with the same yogurt which graced the lamb completed the sumptuous dinner offering. As deeply satisfying as was the chocolate ganache and raspberry sherbet confection we shared to finish the meal, it was almost an anti-climax. The cappucinos were the weakest part of the entire meal – they were not quite hot enough to satisfy me, though they were properly prepared and very tasty.
My conclusion, No. 8, was a very lucky place to dine.

Rubira’s – Melbourne, VIC, Australia 2/19/2015

MiLady loves seafood – so when it came time to choose a dinner spot, she instructed the concierge appropriately. He recommended Rubira’s and booked a table for dinner. A short cab ride Murghk Dragoon, doesn’t the TARDES work yet for even short hops?) brought us to an unprepossessing corner pub in Port Melbourne. Upon entering MiLady expressed her concern that it did not look like the sort of place where one could request the hostess call a cab at the end of the meal, but I assured her that because Australia has a very low blood alcohol limit (0.05) AND pub owners are liable if their customers run afoul of the law, I was quite certain they had a list of taxi company phone numbers tucked under the bar, and she should adopt the local attitude of “No worries mate.”
We were promptly seated and, after noting our respective appearances of age, asked whether we could pass the constructive eye test posed by the chalkboard at the far end of the room, or would prefer printed menus. We chose the latter. The waitress then inquired whether we had dined at Rubira’s before and we allowed as how we had not. She explained the custom was one or two appetizers, perhaps one or two entrees (in the US those are called “starters” or “small plates”) and then a “main” for each dinner- which could be shared. In fact, she noted, if we’d just like a tasting menu to share, all we needed to do was pick out the dishes and she’d instruct the kitchen to prepare the correct size portions. While we were thinking about what we wanted, a wonderful, carefully curated wine list appeared.
The menu contained six (6!) different preparations of oysters – one natural (cold) and another five cooked in various ways: Mornay, Kilpatrick, steamed, beer-battered, poached in Champagne. Now, as MiLady doesn’t eat her mollusks au naturel, we opted for 4 each of the Kilpatrick, Mornay and beer-battered preps. We also indulged in grilled scampi with garlic butter, Moreton Bay Bug tails fried in a cornmeal batter, a Moreton Bay bug grilled then sauced with ginger and scallions and split, King Prawn spring rolls with scallions, a side of chips, and a bottle of 2012 Barossa Valley shiraz.
Our waitress returned with the wine, looked at us, and announced that the vintage of the bottle was not as proffered on the carte du vin, was too chilled having just been brought from the wine room, and “didn’t feel right.” So, she asked if she could bring us a 2013 Maclaren Vale shiraz instead. We agreed, and were delighted with the replacement. Inky purple, fruited with dark berries and powerful (14.5% ABV), it was delicious – standing up to the “garlic and ginger”, “bacon and worcestershire” and Mornay sauces during the course of the meal.
Moreton Bay bugs are like giant lobster tails with almost imperceptible heads, swimmers but no claws. They are sweet and delicious and when properly prepared, can be removed from their shells with a single strong pull from the top towards the tail. Like lobster, they can be sauced in a variety of ways – and we gorged on two of the best – cornmeal battered then deep fried, and in a sauce reminiscent of a Chinese ginger and scallion approach. Heavenly.
The grilled scampi were excellent – but after one has said they were perfect, why gild the lily? The King prawns were expertly grilled, split, lightly brushed with garlic butter and finished with a momentary exposure to the charcoal. Perfection cannot be improved upon.
Sadly, we cannot report on the chips – they never arrived. By the time we and our waitress noticed the kitchen’s omission, it was too late. We were sated.
Fortunately there was just enough room for the homemade chocolate tarte. Moist, creamy, decadently luscious and served with a dollop of rich, vanilla bean ice cream. (And I’ve been doing so well, until now, at maintaining a balanced flying weight.)
A superb meal to top off a wonderful day.
(And yes, Rubira’s called a cab for us and we were safely whisked back to The Langham.)

Saké – Sydney, Australia 2/4/2015

There are no dragons native to Australia, and given the exceptionally long over-water flight required to reach Sydney from any non-Australian port of embarkation, I was surprised to look up Hickson Street last night and see my cousin Aloysius’ portrait staring down at me. Even more surprising was that his smiling snout adorned the side of a hotel clearly named after the grand nemesis of all English-speaking dragons, St. George. I knew humans believe that the antipodean ethos actually inverted things, but I thought we dragons were better than that. For a member of my species to become the smiling ambassador for a human who’s sole achievement was the eradication of dragons from the countryside of a smallish island, was astonishing. Clearly something extraordinary was afoot.

Saké is extraordinary. Hidden behind an unremarkable doorway in the shadow of the Sydney Harbour Bridge, Saké is a world class food experience. The restaurant was full of people enjoying Japanese-inspired dishes whose taste and presentation rank at the tippy-top of my dining list. The room is on the dark and very noisy side. The drum sounds were felt in the solar plexus as much as heard – they had to be to compete with the sounds of drinking (apparently something the Aussies are very good at) and merry-making (another Aussie specialty). Initially I could barely hear the waitress explain the best approach was to choose one or two starters, one or two robata, a small plate or two, and two or three mains. The house prides itself on its varied menu of its namesake libation as well – and the spirits menu is replete with descriptions of alcoholic beverages distilled from rice, sorghum, wheat and barley, and, in an homage to local culture, grapes. Recovering, as we were, from 27 hours of confinement aboard an aircraft, we avoided the temptation to rehydrate with anything more than the local tap water (not as good as NYC water, but much better than most big cities) and two glasses each of Australian shiraz. The shiraz was delicious – round, well-defined with a predominance of juicy black fruits. Sadly I misplaced the slip of paper on which I wrote down the rest of my tasting notes, including the name and vintage – but I won’t regret diligently searching through many wineglasses over the next month to rediscover it.

We followed our waitress’s suggestion, and with her help, we chose starters of spider maki and waygu beef tatakami. As our robata (the Japanese technique for charcoal grilling little skewers of mouth-watering delights) we chose lamb chops. The main courses were waygu beef teriaki and popcorn shrimp. The legitimate question you are asking is why we did not avail ourselves of the fresh and attractively prepared sushi and sashimi decorating other diners’ tables. The philistinean answer is, sadly, that we were starving and because everything is prepared only once it has been ordered, we might well have expired before the items arrived. (The fact our bodies thought it was 6AM after pulling two consecutive all-nighters without benefit of even a single Red Bull may have had something to do our desperation.)

The beef tatakami arrived in due time. The paper thin slices of bright red waygu gently moistened with vinegar, ginger and soy, then artistically positioned around a mound of shredded daikon radish and exotic greens was spectacular. Silky beef, salty with sharp acidic pinpoints of flavor spiked with a bit of heat from the ginger is a serious contender for one’s attention no matter how sleep deprived one might be. The combination wakes up the mouth and everything else follows along. The portion was generous – I recall there being about eight or nine pieces, each about a square inch, of incredible flavor arranged in a flower petal pattern on this tiny little plate.

Next to arrive were the lamb chops on a miniature charcoal grill, accompanied by a perfectly constituted chimichurri. Succulent little morsels on the bone, they practically melted on the tongue. The sauce was balanced, offering just enough pizzaz to serve notice that these little lambies weren’t going to cry all the way home, but they weren’t hiding a wolf underneath either. Australian lamb is particularly tasty, probably because it is all free range and grass fed, with no artificial anything. I would have happily devoured the entire lamb if offered the opportunity. One of the things that I miss about the old days when St. George was engaged in his dragon control project and we were allowed to consume entire sheep washed down with tuns of wine and the occasional errant knight are the lamb chops. These were no pale substitutes, but rather the real deal with all the flavor intact. Delicious. Slurp.

Popcorn shrimp are a treat – one bite shrimp which are coated in a light batter, flash fried so the batter is just crisped, and then covered in a orange ponzu sauce. They aren’t like popcorn – unless you consider the inability to eat only one piece of each is enough of a similarity to warrant the plagiarism. (In which case they probably should be called potato chip shrimp – though come to think of it that would probably bring the lawyers running with papers alleging trademark infringement so maybe popcorn shrimp is a better name after all.) By whatever name, they are amongst my favorite combinations of crustaceans and preparations and these were the very best I’ve ever chomped. Slurp, slurp.

The waygu teriyaki that followed was the best I have ever enjoyed. The chef takes a perfect little filet of beef, marinates it in a magical sauce, and cooks it to perfect 121º (rare to medium rare) and slices it in thicker, bite-sized pieces than the tatakami. The beef was so tender that it really did seem to melt when it touched my tongue, and my only regret is that I had to wait until now to taste it. Yum! At about this point in the meal we noticed the spider maki hadn’t made an appearance yet.

As our bio-clocks began to strike 8 we were nearly ready to abandon our maki vigil and turn into pumpkins, the spider maki arrived. Crispy fried segments of softshell crab wrapped in perfect sushi rice and laced with wasabi and soy. It is the perfect way to dine on softshells (unless you flash saute them and sauce them with ginger and garlic) and also turned out to be the perfect way to end our meal. The chocolate fondant which followed was anti-climactic. Properly tempered, the chocolate was delicious, but somehow not as impressive a display of the kitchen’s talents as the courses which proceeded it. I called for the check, handed it over to the human male and we departed for the Park Hyatt. The evening’s meal was another victory for the forces of fine dining over the evil attempts of mass-produced, calorie-laden and uninventive cooking to divert us from the pursuit of perfection.