Articles in Travel

Café Savoy's eponymous torte is as tasteful and elegant as the restaurant itself. Credit: Copyright 2016 Michael Krondl

Not long ago, a visit to Prague’s lovely cafes meant acrid coffee and stale dessert served with a side of surliness. The long half-life of Communist rule long obscured the appeal of Europe’s most gorgeous grand cafes.

It took a generation, but the cafes have experienced a rebirth — their own Prague spring — that make them as worthy a destination as the city’s long-hallowed beer halls. The coffee is good and the desserts are often excellent. You may even get a “thank you” from the server.

Obecní Dům

Touristy but stunning, the Obecní Dům café may be Europe's most beautiful. Credit: Copyright 2016 Michael Krondl

Touristy but stunning, the Obecní Dům Café may be Europe’s most beautiful. Credit: Copyright 2016 Michael Krondl

If you visit only one café, it should be the one in Obecní Dům, (“Municipal House”). Before this art nouveau masterpiece opened in 1912, Prague was not in Vienna‘s league when it came to cafe culture. But the locals made up quickly for lost time. The building has not one but three dining spaces, with soaring ceilings flooded with light that reflects and refracts through dozens of mirrors and glittering geometric chandeliers. Key meetings between the government and the opposition took place here in 1989, just before the collapse of the communist regime. Needless to say, the coffee and service have greatly improved since then.

Café de Paris, Hotel Paris

For an almost club-like art nouveau experience visit the Café de Paris at nearby Hotel Paris. Both the cafe and restaurant have been restored to their jewel-like fin-de-siècle splendor. There is a full menu as well as an eclectic mix of central European and French desserts.

Café Imperial

Walk east of the Old Town along Na Poříčí 15, past the ritzy new mall, retailers and fast food joints, until you reach the Hotel Imperial, built just before World War I. The spacious cafe feels like a Hollywood homage to orientalism:
The walls, columns and ceiling are covered with elaborate cast ceramic tiles. After World War II, the hotel was turned into a dormitory for communist union members, and the cafe degenerated into a shabby workers’ cafeteria. Today, the service is as efficient and professional as in any European capital and the cakes are delicious and fresh.

Café Myšák

When the Myšák pastry shop was revived, the architects looked to the sweet emporium's golden prewar past for inspiration. Credit: Copyright 2016 Michael Krondl

When the Myšák pastry shop was revived, the architects looked to the sweet emporium’s golden prewar past for inspiration. Credit: Copyright 2016 Michael Krondl

Sweet-obsessed residents generally head for Café Myšák in Prague’s centuries old “New Town.” When the cafe-pastry shop reopened in 2008 after a hiatus of almost 60 years, the local press was all aflutter: Would the new incarnation could stand up to its prewar reputation? Only fragments of the original decor remained and those have been augmented by a somewhat heavy-handed pastiche of 1930s decor. But luckily the old recipes stood the test of time, whether in the form of the artfully simple cream-filled pastry cylinders or the happy overkill of the signature Torte Myšák, in which layers of caramel and vanilla cream separate layers of a Sacher cake. And, oh yes, a cone of the homemade ice cream is worth grabbing even if you decide not to linger in the leather armchairs upstairs.

At Myšák, you will have to ponder long and hard whether to go with the ice cream or cake. Make life easy and order both. Credit: Copyright 2016 Michael Krondl

At Myšák, you will have to ponder long and hard whether to go with the ice cream or cake. Make life easy and order both. Credit: Copyright 2016 Michael Krondl

Café Savoy

As in Vienna, the coffee at Café Savoy is strong and delicious. And always comes with a glass of mineral water. Credit: Copyright 2016 Michael Krondl

As in Vienna, the coffee at Café Savoy is strong and delicious. And always comes with a glass of mineral water. Credit: Copyright 2016 Michael Krondl

If you are still able to walk after exploring the cafes on the right side of the Vltava river, there are several more on the left side worth the detour, particularly Café Savoy. It is one of the city’s oldest, established in 1893 though the current incarnation dates back to 2001. Here, beneath a tall neo-renaissance ceiling, you can peruse international newspapers while sipping on a Viennese coffee topped with a thick dollop of whipped cream. The apple strudel is almost as good as my grandmother made, and the Sachertorte would pass muster with a Vienna native.

Barocco Veneziano Café

Fifteen minutes away through the cobblestone maze beneath the castle walls, in a 16th century palazzo that now houses the exclusive boutique hotel Alchymist, is an adorable little cafe that feels like the sort of boudoir Marie Antoinette would have used to entertain her boy toy. The space is all sinuous baroque curves and suggestive paintings. The espresso is good here, but the sweet treats underwhelm.

Erhartova Cukrárna

Prague is home to many early modernist buildings, but none so sweet as Erhartova Cukrárna. Credit: Copyright 2016 Michael Krondl

Prague is home to many early modernist buildings, but none so sweet as Erhartova Cukrárna. Credit: Copyright 2016 Michael Krondl

Not so at Erhartova Cukrárna, on the same side of the Vltava River but far from the usual tourist haunts. Here, you are more likely to see local women of a certain age carefully deconstructing their slice of torte than chattering American expats. This is decidedly a pastry shop first and cafe second, though the space itself is a beautifully preserved example of the severe 1930s modernist movement called functionalism. The vast array of pastries and tortes behind the vitrine seem to have one function: tempt you to order another slice, perhaps with a scoop of the house made ice cream on the side. I’d start with the house specialty, the Erhart torte, a multilayered chocolate extravaganza enfolded in a robe of delightfully garish green marzipan.

The namesake torte at Erhartova Cukrárna is a delightfully gaudy confection of chocolate pistachios and marzipan. Credit: Copyright 2016 Michael Krondl

The namesake torte at Erhartova Cukrárna is a delightfully gaudy confection of chocolate pistachios and marzipan. Credit: Copyright 2016 Michael Krondl

You may be relieved to know, that from here, most streets lead downhill.

Main photo: Café Savoy’s eponymous torte is as tasteful and elegant as the restaurant itself. Credit: Copyright 2016 Michael Krondl

Read More
Pickler & Co in Midtown East celebrates the deli bacon, egg and cheese with cage-free eggs, Applegate bacon and cheddar all pressed on a buttered pretzel roll. Credit: Copyright 2016 Nicole Litvack

I had my first of many New York City breakfast sandwiches nine months ago. I had just left my job in Los Angeles and was subletting an apartment in Chelsea. Still unemployed, I got up around 11 a.m. and faced the city’s oppressive summer heat to search for sustenance. The breakfast cart at the end of the block with images of blue-cup coffee and an illuminated croissant, lo and behold, served a bacon, egg and cheese sandwich.

It’s a New York thing

Chef Tom DeSimone of Rabbits Cafe packs extra bacon, egg and cheese into his toasted brioche bun for satisfying version that’s available all day long. Credit: Copyright 2016 Nicole Litvack

Chef Tom DeSimone of Rabbits Cafe packs extra bacon, egg and cheese into his toasted brioche bun for a satisfying version that’s available all day long. Credit: Copyright 2016 Nicole Litvack

After paying $3.50, I unwrapped and took my first bite as I kept walking. It was perfect: warm egg, soft bread, gooey melted cheese. And, of course, bacon. From that moment on, I knew I would have a stake in something all New Yorkers share but rarely talk about: the bacon, egg and cheese sandwich.

A classic bacon, egg and cheese is made on the skillets of the city’s bodegas and coffee carts. Precooked bacon is reheated, eggs are stirred vigorously in a bowl with salt and pepper, and then dumped onto the skillet. They are shaped into a perfect rectangle and folded into a square with the bacon and the cheese inside, then popped on the roll and handed to you with a deadpan look.

Going upscale

High-quality Fontina envelops the classic egg sandwich at Murray’s Cheese in the West Village. Credit: Copyright 2016 Nicole Litvack

High-quality fontina envelops the classic egg sandwich at Murray’s Cheese in the West Village. Credit: Copyright 2016 Nicole Litvack

While the deli-style bacon, egg and cheese is a favorite among New Yorkers, you can also find highbrow versions of the sandwich with special cheese, avocado or artisanal bread. At BEC in Chelsea, an entire restaurant devoted to elevating the classic breakfast sandwich, the options are endless. Their Farmhouse sandwich boasts two eggs, pancetta, ricotta cheese, fig jam and honey topped with fresh spinach on a Pugliese roll. Or try the Bistec with eggs, Angus steak, bacon, blue cheese, onion, baby spinach and sun-dried tomato vinaigrette on a ciabatta roll.

Down in the West Village at Murray’s Cheese, they put the cheese in bacon, egg and cheese. A skillet-fried egg is topped, generously, with fontina and thick-cut bacon, and then sandwiched between a buttery skillet-toasted English muffin. The silky, melted fontina saturates the entire thing, creating a sandwich that spills out from its borders without falling apart.

If you can get to Eataly before 10 a.m. you can sample their colazione all’ Americana, or American breakfast menu, which consists of six thoughtful renditions of New York’s favorite breakfast sandwich. Try the Trento with Recla Speck Alto-Adige (fancy Italian smoked ham) and grated Trentingrana cheese (also fancy and from Italy). Wild arugula, housemade aioli, pancetta and locally produced breakfast sausage are just a few more options from the Italian-American-inspired menu.

A few blocks away at Pickler & Co in Midtown East, the bacon, egg and cheese is made on a pretzel roll with cage-free eggs and hormone-free meat and cheese. If you sleep in and miss the breakfast menu, head down to Rabbits Cafe in Soho, where breakfast is served all day and the brioche BEC is stuffed with perfectly scrambled eggs and crispy bacon. Add avocado? No problem.

The perfect quick breakfast

An industrial skillet in New York City shows the sandwich in formation. Credit: Copyright 2016 Nicole Litvack

An industrial skillet in New York City shows the sandwich in formation. Credit: Copyright 2016 Nicole Litvack

A breakfast sandwich in any other city would not be the same. Whether you opt for the basic deli version or pursue an upmarket take on the classic, there is something about having a bacon, egg and cheese in Manhattan that you truly can’t find beyond the perimeter of the city.

The heat, speed and convenience of this handheld breakfast item all speak to something that is uniquely New York. People want their breakfast. They want it to taste good. And they want to get on with their day. The bacon, egg and cheese provides just that — something you can grab on the go that will nourish and satisfy until lunchtime.

If you can’t get to the city, but still have a hankering for this special breakfast item, try making one at home. Whether you like your eggs scrambled or fried, let the cheese melt on top, be sure to use plenty of butter and don’t skimp on the bacon. Most importantly, create it on a well-seasoned skillet.

Main photo: Pickler & Co in Midtown East celebrates the deli bacon, egg and cheese with cage-free eggs, Applegate bacon and cheddar all pressed on a buttered pretzel roll. Credit: Copyright 2016 Nicole Litvack

Read More
Lamb skewers are cooked at the table at Songhwa Yanggochi near Konkuk University in Seoul. Credit: Copyright 2016 Jo Turner

As the Korean palate becomes more adventurous, a whole new meat has become South Korea’s next big culinary craze — lamb.

For years, lamb and mutton were considered unpalatable by Koreans — too strong, too smelly, not to mention too cute while prancing through the fields. Meat consumption was limited to beef, chicken, pork, sometimes duck, and very occasionally dog. But a booming Korean-Chinese population has got the country into the swing of lamb.

“When it started we aimed for Chinese people, but then they brought their Korean friends to the restaurant,” says Lee Hang-yung, a Korean-Chinese worker from Heilongjiang Province who lives in Seoul. “And people’s tastes slowly changed, and that’s what’s happened here.”

Chinese food booms

A Chinese restaurant in South Korea serves lamb skewers. Credit: Copyright 2016 Jo Turner

A Chinese restaurant in South Korea serves lamb skewers. Credit: Copyright 2016 Jo Turner

Lee helps operate Gyeongsong Yanggochi, the first Chinese lamb restaurant in what is now a small Chinatown outside Konkuk University. The street is end-to-end with Chinese lamb restaurants, some that Lee derides as “imitators.”

Lee speaks Korean with a Chinese accent, and though he is ethnically Korean, he is, like most of the workers and owners on this street, a Chinese national, born and raised in the People’s Republic.

He is part of a growing minority in South Korea called — sometimes derogatorily — Joseonjok, a name that references a former Korean kingdom. Like ethnic Koreans from the former Soviet Union, Korean-Chinese are not granted automatic right of return in South Korea the way Korean-Americans, Korean-Japanese and many other ethnic Koreans are.

Still, since the re-establishment of ties between South Korea and China in the early 1990s, Korean-Chinese have come in large numbers, usually to work the dirty, dangerous and difficult jobs local Koreans won’t do. Like immigrants the world over, some open restaurants, and Chinese lamb has proved to be the safest investment.

Serving up lamb

Yanggochi has spread well beyond its initial market of Chinese living in South; 80 to 90% of customers are now Korean. Credit: Copyright 2016 Jo Turner

Yanggochi has spread well beyond its initial market of Chinese living in South Korea; 80 to 90% of customers are now Korean. Credit: Copyright 2016 Jo Turner

The flavors are a bit different, but the dish is basically the same as in China.

Yanggochi, meaning lamb skewers, are cubes of skewered lamb barbecued at the table over hot coals. Holding the skewers together while turning them is quite a skill, and as a result, most restaurants now have a machine that automatically rotates the skewers.

“In China, the yanggochi is prepared with the fat and the meat together,” Lee says. “But here it’s more like galbe,” referring to common Korean barbecue, with the fat trimmed from the meat. The meat and the seasoning is much less strong than in China, to cater to Korean tastes.

Once the skewers are cooked, they’re placed on a rack above the heat to cool, then dipped in a seasoning of red pepper, cumin, parilla, mustard seed and other spices. There is a bevy of side dishes that can go with it, including steamed dumplings, mapo tofu in hot and sour sauce, peanuts, cubes of radish kimchi, and thick sliced tofu with chili sauce. The lamb can be wrapped in ggotbbang — literally, “flower bread,” or mandarin rolls — a rolled, steamed bun, along with zha cai, pickled mustard plant stem.

For drinks, Chinese Tsingtao beer is a must for most patrons — a series of ad campaigns and clever product placements have made yanggochi and Tsingtao inseparable. Goryangju, a very potent clear Chinese liquor, is also popular, as is Korean soju.

Trying new flavors

A worker stokes the coals at Gyeongsong Yanggochi, the oldest lamb restaurant on the block. Credit: Copyright 2016 Jo Turner

A worker stokes the coals at Gyeongsong Yanggochi, the oldest lamb restaurant on the block. Credit: Copyright 2016 Jo Turner

Korean lamb restaurants can be found all over this restaurant-dense city. The trade magazine “Meat & Livestock Australia” noted in a report this February that Australian mutton and sheep exports to Korea have risen sharply year-on-year over the last six years.

The report says that despite a continued “general negative perception” toward lamb, “the market’s younger generation is more willing to try new flavors, and there has been an emergence of Chinese-influenced lamb barbecue and skewer restaurants in Seoul, commonly frequented by male consumers in their 30s to 40s.” Australia is the source of 94% of South Korea’s sheep meat.

Yanggochi recently also got a boost when celebrity TV chef Baek Jong-won recommended it on his TV show a few months ago.

“In the past, our customers were all Chinese, but now it’s 80 to 90% Koreans,” says one young woman who works at Kondae Yanggochi, and declined to provide her name. “I think they’ve been trying yanggochi, have gotten used to it, and now they really like it.”

Main photo: Lamb skewers are cooked at the table at Songhwa Yanggochi near Konkuk University in Seoul. Credit: Copyright 2016 Jo Turner

Read More
Main photo: If you are looking for a quick snack, try ji doug liang fen, or chickpea

Yunnan may not be on most Western foodies’ radars, but for those in the know, it’s one of the most exciting food spots in the world.

The province, which sits in a mountainous area that borders Tibet, Burma, Laos, Vietnam and the Chinese provinces of Guangxi, Guizhou and Sichuan, is the most biodiverse region in all of Asia. It’s also the most culturally diverse part of China.

For a quick tour of the region’s specialties, all you have to do is get to Kunming. The city is a lovely stop on any trip to China — it’s famous for its mild weather, its flowering trees and its laid-back way of life. A few meals in the city will give you a taste of all the best that Yunnan has to offer.

Here are seven particularly fascinating (and delicious) dishes to try when you get there:

Shaguo mixian

Look for rice noodles at small hole-in-the-wall stands. Credit: Copyright 2016 Georgia Freedman

Look for rice noodles at small hole-in-the-wall stands. Credit: Copyright 2016 Josh Wand

Rice noodles are one of Kunming’s most popular foods — but you won’t find them in fancy restaurants. They are served at little hole-in-the-walls and streetside stands. The most popular are shaguo mixian, or “sandpot rice noodles.” These noodles are put into individually sized glazed clay bowls with stumpy handles, topped with broth, ground pork, pickled mustard greens and dried ground chile, and cooked on a high stove. The dish is often eaten right from the pot. Try them at the unnamed noodle spot on Jieshao Alley, just off Qingnian Road.

Mushroom hotpot

Yunnan is well-known for its mushrooms. Try them at one of the city's mushroom hotpot restaurants. Credit: Copyright 2016 Georgia Freedman

Yunnan is well-known for its mushrooms. Try them at one of the city’s mushroom hotpot restaurants. Credit: Copyright 2016 Josh Wand

Yunnan produces 400 tons of mushrooms every year, and foragers crisscross the mountains looking for matsutakes, porcinis and summer truffles to sell to exporters. The most prized specimens end up in restaurants and stores in Japan, Korea and the United States, but much of the bounty is eaten right in Yunnan. Every restaurant in Kunming offers a few mushroom dishes, but the best way to try the local fungi is to head to one of the city’s mushroom hotpot restaurants. On Guanxing Lu, near Baohai Park, there are three to choose from in just two blocks: Laozihao Wild Mushroom Restaurant, Junshuyuan Wild Mushroom Restaurant, and Wild Mushroom Emperor.

Grilled rubing

Grilled rubing, a type of firm cheese, is grilled with thin slices of local ham, or served with bowls of salt and sugar to dip it into. Credit: Copyright 2016 Georgia Freedman

Grilled rubing is a type of firm cheese grilled with thin slices of local ham or served with bowls of salt and sugar to dip it into. Credit: Copyright 2016 Josh Wand

China is not known as a good place to eat cheese. But cheese has a long history in Yunnan. Different minority groups around the province have long eaten grilled, stir-fried, and toasted cheeses. The most delicious version is grilled rubing, a type of firm cow’s milk cheese. You can find it at Lao Fangzi, where it is grilled with thin slices of local ham, and at 1910 La Gare du Sud, where it is served with bowls of salt and sugar to dip it into.

Chrysanthemum greens

A tasty salad is made with feathery chrysanthemum greens dressed simply with a bit of soy sauce and sesame oil and some thinly sliced chiles. Credit: Copyright 2016 Georgia Freedman

A tasty salad is made with chrysanthemum greens, a bit of soy sauce and sesame oil and thinly sliced chiles. Credit: Copyright 2016 Josh Wand

Han Chinese also shunned raw foods, but many raw dishes can be found in Yunnan. One of the most surprising and delicious dishes in Kunming is a simple salad of feathery chrysanthemum greens dressed simply with bit of soy sauce and sesame oil and some thinly sliced chiles. It can be found at any restaurant specializing in Yunnan specialties (including Lao Fangzi and 1910 La Gare du Sud).

Ghost chicken

Ghost chicken is a combination of black-foot chicken, chiles, cilantro, sawtooth herb and lime. Credit: Copyright 2016 Georgia Freedman

Ghost chicken is a combination of black-foot chicken, chiles, cilantro, sawtooth herb and lime. Credit: Copyright 2016 Josh Wand

Yunnan’s most famous minority cuisine comes from the Dai people who live along the province’s borders with Laos and Burma. The Dai are part of the same ethnic group that populated Laos and Thailand, and their food is reminiscent of those cuisines, with lots of fresh chiles, herbs and chile-based spice pastes. Perhaps the most representative Dai dish  is “ghost chicken,” a bright combination of silky black-foot chicken, fresh chiles, cilantro, sawtooth herb and lime. To try it — and other Dai specialties like pineapple sticky rice and vegetables grilled in banana leaves — head to Yinjiang Dai Restaurant, which has three branches in central Kunming.

Liang fen

Liang fen is made with slick, cool jello that is cut into cubes or sliced into thick "noodles." Credit: Copyright 2016 Georgia Freedman

Liang fen is a slick, cool jello-like food that is cut into cubes or sliced into thick “noodles.” Credit: Copyright 2016 Josh Wand

If you’re looking for quick snack — or just an entirely new and delightful eating experience — try ji doug liang fen, or chickpea “cold noodles.” These “noodles” are actually a jello-like dish that is made like tofu but uses ground chickpeas instead of soybeans. The slick, cool jello is cut into cubes or sliced into thick “noodles,” and dressed with vinegar, soy sauce, ground dried chiles and fresh herbs. Sometimes it’s even topped with chopped nuts and a slice of freshly made tofu. The dish can be found all over the city, including at food stalls in Cui Hu Park.

Yiliang roast duck

Try the delicious roast duck in Yiliang, based on Beijing's famous method for roasting ducks. Credit: Copyright 2016 Georgia Freedman

Try the delicious roast duck in Yiliang, based on Beijing’s famous method for roasting ducks. Credit: Copyright 2016 Josh Wand

Since the Qing Dynasty, the small town of Yiliang, just 90 minutes outside of Kunming, has been producing remarkably delicious roast duck. The recipe is based on Beijing’s famous method for roasting ducks until their skin is crisp and their meat is moist. But this version uses a local breed of ducks and roasts them over longs twists of pine needles, which gives the meat an exceptional flavor. If you’re heading out to the Stone Forest, a famous tourist spot, make sure to take the time to stop at Xue Cheng Restaurant.

Main photo: If you are looking for a quick snack, try ji doug liang fen, or chickpea “cold noodles.” Credit: Copyright 2016 Josh Wand

Read More
Lilac has been open since 2012 on historic Montana Avenue in downtown Billings, Montana. Credit: Copyright 2016 Louis Habeck

Montana is called “the last best place,” a long-cherished refrain that applies now more than ever to its increasingly innovative restaurants. Here, diners can taste not just local Montana ingredients, but the spirit of the state itself.

One restaurant that embodies that spirit is Lilac in downtown Billings, the largest city in Montana. The restaurant has earned local adoration and national accolades. The year after it opened, Lilac was the only restaurant in the state to be included in OpenTable’s Diners’ Choice Awards for the Top 100 American Fare Restaurants in the United States.

Crafting good food, good staff

Jeremy Engebretson, proprietor and chef of Lilac in Billings, Montana. Credit: Copyright 2016 Louis Habeck

Jeremy Engebretson, proprietor and chef of Lilac in Billings, Montana. Credit: Copyright 2016 Louis Habeck

At Lilac, glossy black and pearly white subway tiles frame a short row of bar seating that anchors the restaurant space and provides an unobstructed view directly into the kitchen. There is no haughty mystery, overwrought culinary performance or exclusivity here.

Rather, proprietor and chef Jeremy Engebretson describes Lilac’s food with prose so succinct and assertive it would cause Ernest Hemingway to sit up and take notice: “Local from scratch, responsible cooking. Modern American food with a fistful of approachability.”

Even given the area’s short growing season and challenging kinks in local distribution chains, Montana has ranked among the top 10 states nationally for commitment to locally produced food by Strolling of the Heifers Locavore Index. For Lilac, Engebretson, who grew up in Montana and neighboring Wyoming, describes local as “a regional idea here,” one that is more “Montana-centric than Montana-only.”

It’s a food worldview that brings ingredients like Montana-grown grains, produce, beef, cheese and honey together with, for example, wild boar from Denver or Texas and seafood from around the world.

Cooking as ‘a soulful experience’

A pear gazpacho with pickled pear, Meyer lemon and parsley gremolata. Credit: Copyright 2016 Louis Habeck

A pear gazpacho with pickled pear, Meyer lemon and parsley gremolata. Credit: Copyright 2016 Louis Habeck

Expanding upon these ingredients and flavors, Lilac’s menu builds from the ground up. “The sense of accomplishment you get from seeing a project from beginning to end is a soulful experience,” Engebretson says. “I believe that to be true in those who do things like make pasta, as well as those who make things such as tables.”

And Lilac’s staff makes pasta. Lots of it. Every day. They also butcher whole animals, grind beef, concoct salad dressings, craft ice creams and bake bread — all this (and more) in a kitchen so tiny no casual observer could imagine such an enthusiastically artisan stream of activity pouring from it.

These close quarters are part of what crafts a deeply committed team, comfortable in the back of the house and the front. Ask any server or chef at Lilac where an ingredient comes from, how a dish is prepared or what they’d recommend, and they can tell you, because they know. They’ve done it. Chefs and cooks share their intimate knowledge as they serve from a seasonal menu.

Dishes range from duck fat fingerling potatoes to octopus fritti, wild boar chop with cornbread dressing, roasted parsnip and a maple mustard glaze to a vegetarian option: grilled zucchini naan with gruyere, ancho aioli and micro salad. At the same time, servers make gnocchi, manage the pantry and prep desserts, like the sticky toffee pudding, which has been on the menu since Lilac opened with every component made in-house.

Innovative but approachable

A smoked brisket with cheddar dumpling, roasted carrot and horseradish. Credit: Copyright 2016 Louis Habeck

A smoked brisket with cheddar dumpling, roasted carrot and horseradish. Credit: Copyright 2016 Louis Habeck

Describing the restaurant’s style as modern American cooking, Engebretson asserts, “Modern and approachability go hand in hand.” The cheeseburger with bacon jam and house-made fries is a constant on the menu, and Engebretson insists it always will be. Concurrently, he says that modern American cooking means embracing all “the ingredients, technologies and ideas that speak to us today.”

It can mean hydrocolloids, sous vide cooking and variations on flavor profiles, as well as interpretations of classic dishes, traditional techniques and a heritage focus.

Serving up dishes with a uniquely Montana sensibility, Lilac aspires to a dualistic set of goals that unite innovation, frankness and a strong sense of purpose. In one vein, the restaurant endeavors to “blend a myriad of philosophies” at a democratic price point. “At the same time,” Engebretson pragmatically states, “one can say we’re just trying to serve people dinner. The variance of those two elements encapsulates the challenge of the restaurant, on every level. I’m OK with that.”

Main Photo: Lilac has been open since 2012 on historic Montana Avenue in downtown Billings, Montana. Credit: Copyright 2016 Louis Habeck

Read More
At Alta Colina, a tasting on the vineyard tour is under an old oak tree. Credit: Copyright 2016 Mira Honeycutt

Vineyard tours were once reserved for people in the industry along with members of the media and wine clubs. Now, though, a handful of wineries in Paso Robles on California’s Central Coast are redefining the wine-tasting experience and making such tours available to visitors by appointment. Among them, Adelaida Cellars, Halter Ranch, Alta Colina and Steinbeck Vineyards will immerse visitors in the region’s terroir and wines.

Visiting the vineyards in spring catches bud break on vines, signaling the end of winter dormancy. The fields are a riot of color, with mustard flower, lupine and cover crops such as clover and barley planted between vine rows, creating a picture-perfect vineyardscape.

An opportunity to showcase the vineyards

Cindy Steinbeck with her 3-year-old pooch Cri-Cri atop Steinbeck Vineyards in Paso Robles, California’s, Geneseo District. Credit: Copyright 2016 Mira Honeycutt

Cindy Steinbeck with her 3-year-old pooch Cri-Cri atop Steinbeck Vineyards in Paso Robles, California’s, Geneseo District. Credit: Copyright 2016 Mira Honeycutt

At Steinbeck Vineyards, tours were initiated by fifth-generation farmer Cindy Steinbeck in 2003 to showcase the family’s ranch.

Since the 1880s and for seven generations, the Steinbeck family has been the steward of a 600-acre property, 520 acres of which are planted with 13 grape varieties sourced by such noted wineries as Eberle, Justin and J. Lohr. The Steinbecks started bottling their wine in 2006 with a small production focusing on Zinfandel, Cabernet Sauvignon, Petite Sirah and Viognier.

The one-hour “Crash Course” tour (named after the B26 aircraft that crashed on the property in 1956) with Steinbeck and her 3-year-old Yorkie, Cri-Cri, is a roller-coaster journey through the vineyards. Tours change with the seasons.

“In fall we encourage visitors to walk around the vineyards, give them clippers to taste the fruit,” Steinbeck said.

The winery from top to bottom, inside and out

The caves at Halter Ranch Vineyard. Credit: Copyright 2016 Mira Honeycutt

The caves at Halter Ranch Vineyard. Credit: Copyright 2016 Mira Honeycutt

Bob Tillman’s two-hour Top-to-Bottom tour of Alta Colina starts in the hillside vineyards and works its way down to the tasting room, where the groups savor the Rhône blends. “This is not a produced tour, no tours are the same,” he said of the exploration of the 130-acre ranch, which has 31 acres planted with Rhône grape varieties.

Heading up to 500 feet elevation, tour groups see the exposed calcareous-rich hillside and learn about different types of trellising in the vineyards while trekking knee-deep in wildflowers dotting the organic Grenache vineyard.

“This gives you a vague idea of behind the scene of what goes in the bottle,” Tillman said.

Under an old oak tree, Tillman poured the 2012 Baja Colina, a white Rhône blend of Marsanne, Roussanne and Grenache Blanc. “We are actually tasting wines in an environment where they are grown,” he said. The wine tastes delicious, laced with aromatics filling the air — and some debris from the nearby oak tree.

It’s a heady experience tasting Adelaida Cellars’s silky Pinot Noir standing amid the legendary HMR Pinot Noir vineyard. Or the minerality of Zinfandel at the foot of Michael’s Zinfandel Vineyard planted at 1,800 feet elevation, rich with rocky limestone soil.

Tailgating too

Tailgating at the historic HMR Vineyard with the 2013 Pinot Noir. Credit: Copyright 2016 Mira Honeycutt

Tailgating at the historic HMR Vineyard with the 2013 Pinot Noir. Credit: Copyright 2016 Mira Honeycutt

Adelaida Cellars’ Tour, Taste & Tailgate (TT&T) takes visitors through such iconic vineyards as Viking, Anna’s and HMR. (Planted in 1964 by Beverly Hills cardiologist Stanley Hoffman, HMR is regarded as the oldest Pinot Noir-producing vineyard on the Central Coast).

Glenn Mitton, the winery’s ambassador, begins the tour at the newly remodeled winery and hospitality center, where visitors taste a white and red Rhône blend from Anna’s vineyard and the inky Syrah Reserve, among others.

Rising to 2,300 feet, the vast 1,900-acre estate is planted with 700-plus acres of organic walnut orchards and 157 acres of vineyards.

Mitton pointed to owl boxes and raptor perches used for pest control and rows of neatly tucked netting under the vines. “We pull up the net over the vines like panty hose,” Mitton said of the bird-control practice used in the summer.

Dating back to the 1880s, the 2,000-acre Halter Ranch Vineyard is nature’s haven, with a mere 280 acres planted to Bordeaux and Rhône varieties. The rest of the ranch is dotted with redwood and oak trees and home to some 52 species of birds. The ranch is lush with gardens, a 5-acre holding pond and the seasonal Las Tablas Creek, which also functions as a wildlife corridor.

At Lion’s Point, the tour includes a taste of the refreshing 2015 Rosé of red Rhône varieties and, further up the hill, the 2013 Ancestor, a rich blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec and Petit Verdot.  A gentle breeze blew in some debris from a massive, ancestral oak estimated to be 500 years old and known as the largest coast live oak in California.

Upon returning to the winery and its 20,000-square-foot caves, visitors finish with a tasting of Rhône and Bordeaux blends that reflect the history and terroir of the ranch.

Trekking through Paso Robles’ scenic hillside vineyards offers a wine experience well beyond the swirl-sniff-sip scene of the tasting room.

Main photo: At Alta Colina, a tasting on the vineyard tour is under an old oak tree. Credit: Copyright 2016 Mira Honeycutt

Read More
Main caption: Gino Sorbillo, Italy's famed pizzaiuolo, holds a finished pizza fritta. Credit: Copyright 2016 Francine Seganv

Fried street foods are popular in every region of Italy, where you’ll often hear: “Fried, even chair legs are delicious.” Neapolitans in particular have a cult-like devotion to fried fare, especially pizza fritta.

After World War II, the city found itself in crisis, and the materials needed for pizza — the mozzarella and even wood for the ovens — became a luxury. Fried pizza, a less-expensive alternative nicknamed “pizza of the people,” was filled with “poor” ingredients — pork crackling, pepper and ricotta. Housewives sold it on the streets to supplement the family’s income. Times were so hard, customers could even buy pizza fritta on credit: Called pizza-at-eight, pizza a otto, it was eaten on the spot but paid for eight days later.

Simple, homemade food

Gino Sorbillo fries pizza fritta at his Naples restaurant. Credit: Copyright 2016 Francine Segan

Gino Sorbillo fries pizza fritta at his Naples restaurant. Credit: Copyright 2016 Francine Segan

Naples-born Gino Sorbillo, Italy’s famed pizzaiuolo, made one for me recently explaining, “Pizza fritta comes in different shapes. Round, called montanare, or half moon calzone.” For the dough, which is the same as for classic oven pizza, Sorbillo uses only a minuscule pinch of leavening to create chewy, never spongy, dough. He stretches a round, fills it and pulls the ends into a whimsical mimicry of the clown Pulcinella’s hat. Sorbillo flash-fries at just the right temperature for a crisp, non-greasy outside and warm, gooey center.

“Pizza fritta is a simple food, easy to make at home because unlike classic pizza you don’t need a wood-burning stove, just a frying pan,” Sorbillo says.  It’s very versatile and can be filled with virtually anything: a traditional ricotta, provolone and Neapolitan salami combo; mozzarella and ham; or sautéed broccoli rabe or other greens. And it is great plain or served with a side dipping of tomato sauce.

When you’re in Naples, be sure to have a classic wood oven-baked pizza at Gino’s famed restaurant on Via dei Tribunali. But if the lines are too long to get in, which they always are, enjoy a piping hot pizza fritta at his small fried pizza spot just a few doors down.  If you can’t get to Naples, make Sorbillo’s fried pizza at home with the recipe below. Use his excellent dough recipe or use store-bought pizza dough.

Gino Sorbillo’s Pizza Fritta

If you can't make it to Naples, you can make your own fried pizza at home. Note the tips folded in like a hat. Credit: Copyright 2016 Francine Segan

If you can’t make it to Naples, you can make your own fried pizza at home. Note the tips folded in like a hat. Credit: Copyright 2016 Francine Segan

Prep time: 20 minutes, plus 8 hours passive

Cooking time: 5 minutes

Total time: 25 minutes

Yield: 4 servings

Ingredients

A tiny pinch, 0.07 ounces, brewers yeast

2 cups, about 1 pound, organic “0” or pizza flour

3 teaspoons salt

Sunflower or other vegetable oil for frying

Sorbillo’s suggested fillings: sheep’s milk ricotta, thinly sliced ciccioli  (Neapolitan pork salami), diced smoked provolone cheese, diced fresh peeled tomatoes, black pepper

Directions

1. Dissolve the yeast in 1 1/3 cups of warm water in a bowl, and then sift in the flour and salt. Knead on a floured work surface until smooth, 10 to 12 minutes.  Divide the dough into 4 balls and let rise at room temperature, covered in a clean cloth, for about 8 hours.

2. Heat enough oil in a deep-sided skillet to cover one pizza at a time. Heat to 400 F.

3. Stretch each section into a flat circle, pressing down with your palm to flatten it. Put the ricotta, salami, provolone and a tablespoon of diced tomatoes in the center. Season with black pepper, fold over and pinch the edges closed, taking care to leave an air pocket in the center.   Pull on the two ends a bit and slowly lower into the hot oil. Fry in the hot oil, about 1/2 minute per side, until golden. Drain on absorbent paper and repeat with the other three pizzas. Eat while warm.

Main photo: Gino Sorbillo, Italy’s famed pizzaiuolo, holds a finished pizza fritta. Credit: Copyright 2016 Francine Segan

Read More
A selection of dessert offerings from Bettys. Credit: Copyright 2016 Sue Style

To understand about Bettys, the legendary, Swiss-born, Yorkshire-based café-tea rooms, celebrated for their exquisite chocolates and classy cakes, you need to go back to at least 1907. This was the year when an impecunious young baker named Fritz Bützer set off from his native Switzerland across France in search of work in prosperous Edwardian England.

From Calais, France, he made the rough crossing over the Channel to Dover, England. On arrival, exhausted, seasick and with a sketchy command of English, he discovered he had lost the precious piece of paper on which he had scribbled the name of the town where a job had been promised. All he could remember was the name sounded something like bratwurst. He tried this out forlornly on a few passers-by, before an elderly gentleman came to the rescue. “Oh, you mean Bradford!” cried his savior, and the man promptly took Bützer to King’s Cross station, where he put him on a train up to Yorkshire. In Bradford, the young baker tracked down a chocolate shop owned by a fellow Swiss, where he found work.

Bettys born in England of Swiss roots and inspiration

The Bettys in Harrogate, England. Credit: Copyright 2016 Sue Style

The Bettys in Harrogate, England. Credit: Copyright 2016 Sue Style

Within a few years, the ambitious baker — by now also an accomplished chocolatier — had set his sights on opening a high-class tea room of his own. For this he realized that the refined spa town of Harrogate, which lay some 20 miles to the north, was going to be a better bet than coal-stained, industrial Bradford. Bradford was where the money was made; Harrogate was where the spending power resided. He also understood the disadvantages, in this post-World War I period, of having a German-sounding name, so he changed it to the more French-sounding Frederick Belmont. In 1919 he opened his first café in Harrogate. Bettys was born.

Today, Bettys is a household name — though the question of “Who was Betty?” remains unanswered. The Harrogate café has been joined by others in York, Ilkley, Northallerton and at the stately home Harlow Carr. They’re magnets for discerning customers from all around north Yorkshire and far beyond, lured by the promise of exquisite chocolates and magnificent iced or seasonal cakes, or in search of coffee, brunch or lunch and a break from a strenuous day of retail therapy. There’s also a thriving mail-order business.

A signature brand

A Bettys delivery van. Credit: Copyright 2016 Sue Style

A Bettys delivery van. Credit: Copyright 2016 Sue Style

Harrogate remains the center of Bettys operations. At the Craft Bakery on an industrial estate just outside the town center, every single bread, bap, cake, pikelet, scone, muffin or iced fancy destined for the various café-tea rooms is freshly made and baked daily. These are then dispatched to Bettys branches around the county by a fleet of cream-colored vans, each one proudly bearing the Bettys name inscribed in curly script on the sides.

In the bakery, white-coated employees, looking more like lab technicians than bakers, bend low over trays of supersized, raisin-speckled scones known (and trademarked) at Bettys as Yorkshire Fat Rascals, carefully placing on top of each one a pair of glacé cherries and a couple of blanched almonds. At the other side of the bakery, a batch of freshly baked loaves — between 20 and 30 different kinds are baked each day — are plucked, crackling and chuntering, from the jaws of a massive wood-fired oven.

Sweet treats

A dark chocolate Easter egg from Bettys. Credit: Copyright 2016 Sue Style

A dark chocolate Easter egg from Bettys. Credit: Copyright 2016 Sue Style

Chocolate is huge at Bettys, and the link with Switzerland has endured: All the couverture, the raw material for the vast selection of Bettys chocolates, comes from Felchlin, the famous, family-owned chocolate specialist in canton Schwyz in the heart of Switzerland. Easter is similarly huge in the Bettys calendar, rivaling Christmas as their busiest time of the year. (A 1932 poster from the company’s archives solemnly reminds customers that “there is NO present quite as appropriate at Easter Time as a Bettys Easter Egg.”)

Eggs, pralines and assorted truffles aside, Bettys is famous for its chocolate novelties: There’s a new one born every year. The large Bettys family of badgers, hares, Gloucester Old Spot pigs, hens, rabbits, piglets and lambs was recently joined by a romp of milk chocolate otters, reflecting the theme (appropriately, given the waterlogged state of much of Britain this winter) of river banks.

Almost 100 years on, Bettys cafés seem to go from strength to strength. Elegant and understated, warmly lit and buzzing with life, they are the kind of places where you almost expect Lady Mary from “Downton Abbey” to sweep in with her shopping and settle down to smoked salmon sandwiches and pink Champagne.

Beaming waitresses in crisp white aprons recite the day’s specials, notebooks poised in midair. A recent menu featured local sausages from a butcher in the Vale of York served with Rösti, followed by a seriously decadent dark chocolate and raspberry torte filled with fresh raspberries and a silken chocolate buttercream: Yorkshire bratwurst with Switzerland’s signature potato dish and a magnificent Swiss chocolate creation. Fritz (alias Frederick) would have been proud.

Read More