September 16, 2007 - Going Home

I'm always sad leaving vacation - it seems such a letdown to get back to my normal routine and the full day of taxis, planes, and automobiles to get home exhausted doesn't help. But as with every trip I take, looking back at the pictures a full week later warms my heart and reminds me how much fun our group had. Here's to my friends!

Our first drink together at what turned out to be our favorite classic Parisian corner bar on the Ile Saint Louis.
The men all smiles celebrating Tim's birthday at Mon Veil Ami on the Ile Saint Louis:
The women all dressed up for Benoit on our last night in Paris:

September 15, 2007 - Last Day in Amsterdam

On our last day of the trip, the others headed out early to visit the museums, so my husband and I went to breakfast near the hotel, then set off to climb the Westerkerk tower - unfortunately, it wasn't opened, so we walked through some neighborhoods and along the canals and met up with the others to head to the Albert Cuyp market. The market, in the bohemian Pijp district of Amsterdam, is typical of most weekly European markets and was huge, selling everything from clothes, makeup and shoes to produce, fish and chickens.

After the market we walked back along a scenic canal past Rembrandt's house, buying some street art along the way from a local artist, before boarding an open small boat for a semi-private canal tour. Our guide spoke excellent English, having spent 30 summers at his grandmother's place in Marbella, and was great fun on the 2 hour ride. Because it was Saturday, the canals were busy, and I'm sure at least some of the people pedaling the small personal watercraft had been visiting Amsterdam's famous coffee shops! He loved taking us under a bridge near our hotel to show us this billboard which blends in with the actual scenery and trees over the canal:

We shared a cocktail and shopped for tulips, watching the gorgeous late day sun setting on the buildings across the canal, then met up for dinner.

Our final meal was at de Luwte, which means "on the lee" like a lull in wind when sailing. The food was excellent and the service relaxing (for me - others in the group were less than thrilled with two-hour meals). I began my meal with a smoked sirloin salad with figs marinated in balsamic vinegar then continued with red sea bass that was beautifully seared to crispy skin served over asparagus with herbed rice and a small braised artichoke heart. I had selected an Alsatian Reisling that paired beautifully with the meal.

After dinner we wandered, not wanting our vacation to end, before calling it a night to pack and get ready to fly home the next morning. I'd be remiss if I didn't share some of these pictures of Amsterdam with you before signing off.

These signs are all over the Red Light District and while they may look funny, they are totally serious - while prostitution is legal, pimping is strictly forbidden for the safety of the workers. It's surreal to walk through the district and see the women, in nothing more than a small bra top and a thong, working the crowd.
We came across this sign above a bar that was directly outside a coffee shop (which in Amsterdam is what they call the shops where you can purchase and smoke - legally - marijuana and hash). Presumably they figured the paranoia would be good business for them. While marijuana is legal, Amsterdam is very strict about hard drugs and gun control. This is what the canal view from our hotel window looked like at night. And finally, since this blog is primarily about all things culinary, this is a shot from my favorite bathroom of the entire trip. Inside the ladies' room there is not only art work and the typical personal products, but the recipe for the omelet served for breakfast!

September 14, 2007 - Amsterdam

We had breakfast at the hotel (that plain tart European yogurt mixed with strawberry jam to sweeten it for me) before taking off on a 3-1/2 hour privately guided bike tour through Amsterdam, courtesy of Yellow Bike. Along the way we passed gorgeous canal houses, the original jail under the bridge in Amsterdam, and Anne Frank's house before stopping on the widest canal bridge for lunch.
The weather was turning cloudy and cool and everyone was tired, so we quickly ate our lunch (my husband and I shared tomato soup and a club sandwich) and retired to a corner bar near our hotel to wait out the rain. We laughed and shared stories before heading back to get ready for dinner.

We dined at a new Bistro run by what seemed like a single mom, Bistro Bi Jou, because they advertised traditional Dutch food on the menu. Everything was served a bit family style - beef stew, steak, potatoes, fries, salad, pickled red cabbage - and we enjoyed the owner's 15-year-old daughter as our waitress on her very first day on the job.

After dinner we hung out at a night club called Werke and we were the oldest people there by 15 or more years!

September 13, 2007 - Bruges to Amsterdam

We lingered around Bruges in the morning to allow a little more touring - unbelievably during the day before we had walked through the town, taken a canal ride through the town, visited the market, visited the Choco-Story Museum, shopped for gifts, dined and drank, but one of our group wanted to see the nursing musuem. (The day before the bells had rung in the town for about an hour to celebrate liberation day during WWII when the US and others had liberated Belgium from the Nazis.)

We left Bruges behind and headed to Amsterdam around mid-day - we wandered through Dam Square and the always shocking Red Light District before heading to the Canal House hotel in the Jordaan area to get ready for dinner. My room was on the top floor of the hotel and the original pulley system to load merchandise into the house was still intact in the ceiling.

For dinner we went to The Blue Pepper for what seemed like a 40-course rijstafel dinner. The Indonesian food was spectacular and the service at this tiny restaurant couldn't have been better. I'll reserve the rest of this post for pictures of the food - honestly I can't remember which was which but all the dishes were outstanding!

September 12, 2007 - Bruges

We only had one full day in Bruges and we made the most of it! Our day began with breakfast on the square and was nothing short of spectacular - if you've never had a true Belgian waffle you don't know what you've been missing. The waiter explained to me that they put baking powder in the batter and allow it to rise for 6 hours before making the waffles which results in a waffle that's lighter than air. I prefer mine with just butter and powdered sugar, but most of the group opted for this decadent strawberry and whipped cream delight.
The weather was perfect - a gorgeous blue sky dotted with occasional clouds and a moderate temperature - and we started our journey by walking through the impressively large local market that was set up in the square. As in most European markets, everything was offered here - flowers and plants, pastries and baked goods, meats and charcuterie, fish, all sorts of vegetables, candy, and more. The stands were laid out beautifully and the market was bustling.

After the market we proceeded on a short self-guided walking tour of Bruges that wound around this Medieval town, stopping on the way for a canal ride. Bruges contains an intricate network of canals on a small romantic scale, and at the end of the town is the Lake of Love, inviting you to stroll through the serene landscape.
We stopped along the way for lunch in a small canal-side cafe and dined al fresco - which may have been a mistake given the line of horse drawn carriages that lined up here for water and feeding. I ordered moules frites (mussels and fries), a classic dish of this region, and I was disappointed.

After our touring we hung around the Markt (town square) enjoying cocktails and snacks while sharing some of our personal "stranger than fiction" true life stories with each other. We then dined at an Italian place that served a huge salad filled with mixed vegetables that we were convinced had been purchased that morning at the market. I followed the salad with a filet of dorado cooked en papillote with vegetables and served with more of the salad fixings on the side, accompanied by a side dish of spaghetti carbonara - not as good as Rome, but tasty nonetheless!

September 11, 2007 - Heading to Bruges

I enjoyed one last cafe noisette before heading to get the rental car near the Louvre on Rue di Rivoli, which turned out to be a goat rodeo. It took 25 minutes to walk there which is just a little longer than I thought, but took nearly 45 minutes to figure out where Hertz was, which is down some obscure stairs below the Louvre. We managed to pack ourselves in like sardines, and headed out, having lunch on the highway.

We arrived at the Hotel Heritage which is just off the main square in Bruges - the rooms are large and nicely decorated, and the location couldn't be more perfect. We headed directly to the square to do what they do in Belgium - drink beer!

The group was less than enthusiastic about the Michelin 3-star restaurant that I had planned for dinner (a bummer for me!) so we cancelled that reservation and instead when to Le Petit Grand for dinner where they specialize in grilled food. We shared beef carpaccio and a fairly gross shrimp croquette as appetizers. Most of the group had beef, but I had a filet of bar fish which was wrapped in prosciutto and pan seared, then served over slices of fresh tomatoes and mozzarella, which was really delicious.

September 10, 2007 - Last Day in Paris

The other couples in our group were up early to visit the Louvre, but I slept in until 10 am and woke up feeling great. I walked along the Rue Ile St Louis to see the shops before joining my husband at our favorite spot at the end of the island for a cafe noisette.

We then walked to meet the group and joined them for lunch at a bistro in the Saint Germain des pres area. I enjoyed the classic roast chicken with frites (fries) and mixed salad. After lunch two went home to rest and the other four of us headed to the Eiffel Tower, passing the Hotel Invalides (above) on the way. After walking back we stopped for the obligatory (at least to us anyway!) drink at our favorite spot on our island and I enjoyed my champagne almost as much as I enjoyed the waiter singing to me ("Michele, my belle") and cracking open hazelnuts from the tree next to us with the pliers he had found behind the bar.

After a quick snack on a butter and sugar crepe and cleaning up we set out for dinner on the right bank at Benoit, one of the few remaining classic Parisian bistros owned by the Alain Ducasse group. After wandering forever we found it tucked away on Rue St. Martin, and slipped inside for dinner. The bistro certainly was classic, which meant loud, hot, crowded, and with spotty service. The group was less than enthused and the evening was a disappointment to me since I had looked forward to this dinner for months. But despite the service, the food was great:

Foie Gras
The French serve the foie gras uncooked and in this case with a delightful individual brioche muffin cooked and served in it's own tin.

While most of the group was intimidated by the menu (things like pig's feet), I figured "when in Paris..." and ordered the cassoulet. It was perfectly cooked and seasoned and contained a myriad of meats (chicken, pork, sausage) along with tender white beans in a slightly thickened sauce. It was perfect with a 2002 St. Julien wine.

September 9, 2007 - Paris

I set the time on my travel alarm clock an hour ahead so unfortunately woke up an hour earlier than I needed to meet the group. Desperately in need of caffeine (which I only drink while traveling), my husband and I headed straight to our breakfast spot at the end of the street with views of the gorgeous apartments along the island with Notre Dame.

We ordered a Grand Cafe Noisette which is basically a double espresso to which I added cream and sugar (how decadent!) and a ham and cheese omelet to share. The omelet was perfectly cooked and so large that together we couldn't even finish it. I love how the Parisians serve you chocolate truffles at breakfast, although I could rarely fit one in.

After breakfast we met up with our tour guide, Chris, from Paris Walks for a two hour private tour of the Ile de la Cite and the Ile Saint Louis. He shared incredible details about the design of Notre Dame, the history of the island, and the roots of Paris. After ending the tour in the Marais district we stopped for lunch along the Rue de Rivoli where I had my second Salad au Chevre Chaud - the salad featured a full 8 ounces of goat cheese which I couldn't come close to eating.
From here we jumped on the metro to head to Montmartre for the fabulous Sunday afternoon showings of art in the small square at the top. We all bought some street art, then took the funicular ride down and made our way again on the metro to the Arc de Triomphe. We strolled down the Champs Elysees and stopped for a cocktail and some snacks before catching the metro back to the hotel. I usually prefer walking in Paris, but by using the metro we covered huge ground in just one day.

We had just enough time to clean up before our dinner reservations at Mon Veil Ami, where chef Alan Westerman has brought some excitement to traditional Alsatian dishes. Most everyone in the group was afraid of the menu, but I couldn't have been more thrilled to be there. The meal started with an amuse bouche drink of either a light white wine or a V8 type of drink. I began with a country style pate en croute served with celery root in a creamy sauce and pickled red onions. It tasted fabulous, but was large enough for the table so I stopped after a few bites. I continued with a sea bream filet that was pan seared and served in a pot with caramelized fingerling potatoes, chorizo, red peppers and onions - outstanding! The rest of the group had a warm vegetable salad with olive tapenade on a crouton as a first course and a variety of entrees including chicken with roasted tomatoes in a consomme and veal with carrots and pasta. The sommelier helped me pick out some perfect wines for this meal: a Burgundy Pinot Noir and an Alsatian Reisling.

September 8, 2007 - Paris

Fourteen flights arrived all within about 20 minutes in Paris which caused a 2 hour delay in getting luggage and getting to our hotel in Paris, but we were still the first to arrive at the Hotel Saint Louis on the Ile Saint Louis. We selected this location because of the unbelievable sense of peace and quiet despite being in the very center of Paris. It sits just 1 block from the end of the island so within walking distance to some great cafes for breakfast and cocktails.

My husband and I popped in to one for a Cafe Noisette (espresso with just a drop of cream in it) and a chocolate croissant before meeting up with our group. We headed out to explore the Latin Quarter and stopped for lunch at a typical bistro where I dug right in with my favorite Parisian treat, Salade au Chevre Chaud - mixed greens with a huge amounts of goat cheese melted onto large croutons - washed down with some champagne. After lunch we continued our touring with a Seine River cruise which is a great thing to do for first timers to Paris.
By dinner time everyone was wiped out from the travel so we headed to an Italian restaurant right on the island, Sens'o. We were giddy and hungry and shared appetizers of Buffalo Mozzarella with Tomatoes & Basil and Beef Carpaccio before ordering three pizzas - four cheese, vegetarian, and a ham and cheese. For wine we shared a light red wine from the Brouilly region.