Articles in Travel
From dining on a romantic island in the Venetian lagoon to feasting on handmade pasta in Bologna, northern Italy’s gastronomic capital, this list guides you to the best places to eat in Italy’s northeast. Award-winning food writer Carla Capalbo has spent more than 20 years eating her way around Italy and has uncovered its best-kept secrets, from new-wave pizza to the elegant restaurant of one of the world’s top female chefs. She’s brought together great food for every budget, from take-away noodles to three-Michelin-star refinement.
With this list as your guide — the first of a series — you’ll have a fabulous eating holiday in Italy — whether you go in person or just dream from your armchair.
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Main photo: At Venissa restaurant in Venice, fresh squid is served on a bed of black risotto. Credit: Copyright 2013 Carla Capalbo
Asia is big, broad and delicious. With a thousand different identities, the food from the world’s fastest rising continent defies categorization. Zester Daily asked its contributors working throughout the world to tell us about their favorite Asian restaurants. They take us from Istanbul to the Far East with stops in Malaysia, Vietnam and South Korea, among others.
The variety of restaurants is thrilling. There is something for every pocketbook. What unites them all is a sense of adventure. These chefs are creating food that is both grounded in tradition and freed from convention.
We invite you to share our excitement about what’s happening today in Asian restaurants. Whether you are planning a trip, or just dreaming, we think you will find something deeply satisfying in this collection.
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Main photo: At the Secret Garden Restaurant, simple yet flavorful southern Vietnamese country-style food is served on handmade plates and bowls, with garnishes and ingredients changing with the seasons. Credit: Copyright 2015 Tu Van Cong
Le Marche is an unspoiled, green and beautiful region in central Italy bordering the Apennines and the Adriatic with which even many Italians are unfamiliar. Although there have been attempts to designate the region as the “new Tuscany” or call the excellent wines SuperMarche (dropped because, hey, who wants to call a top-flight bottle supermarket?), Le Marche speaks for itself. And, what it says is good food and wine, medieval villages, ancient abbeys, silvery olive groves, golden fields of wheat and vineyards as straight as arrows streaking across the rolling hills.
As Federico Bomba, director of the innovative Bioculture app project, says, the landscape reflects man’s attempt to impose order and precision on a naturally unruly terroir. The recently launched app offers an English-language walking guide through the inland region of Le Marche that brings together digital technology, contemporary art and green lifestyle. Where a traveler once depended on Baedeker or Fodor’s, all they need now are a cellphone or tablet and a charger.
Using the app
Wine? Check. Art? Check. Walking shoes? Check. Mobile digital device? Check. Did I mention wine? Using the well-constructed app is easy, even for technophobes. Click on the location you are in either before or during the visit to map your route, read about the main points of cultural interest from medieval frescoes to chocolate box opera houses to esoteric museums, view original art works and videos that connect to the locale, listen to stories and contemporary sound compositions, and head for local organic vineyards, restaurants and agritourism farms.
Go on a cultural pilgrimage
Explore Le Marche, Italy
Sample the local foods
The entire trip takes three weeks, but the visitor can dip in and out of the route as they wish, sampling local food specialties on the way. It is a sophisticated yet accessible concept of “culture” that goes far beyond the mainstream.
One of the most memorable features of the app are the videos made by Carotti and Simona Sala that reference the interaction between locals and visitors in a witty, dramatic and often moving way.
Rachel Rose Reid, the only non-Italian artist among those on the app, is a gifted storyteller who took inspiration from the people and places she encountered. It is a moment of pure Marche magic to listen to her honied tale while sitting on a sunny hillside overlooking the famous Verdicchio vines and contemplating an artisan of The Mountain Beekeepers Cooperative at his work.
Organic food and wine production in Le Marche is amongst the most extensive in Italy. It is an instinctive harmony with the untouched, verdant landscape combined with pride in local traditions and concern for the future. The rugged, mysterious Sibillini mountains are broken with stretches of lush farmland spread out like geometric mosaics; there are breathtaking vistas, villages clinging to the top of precipitous hilltops, forests, farmhouses and pure white roads. Change comes slowly here and local traditions vary widely from village to village: There are more than 200 dialects in Le Marche alone, a reflection of the varied influences on the region for many centuries.
Aurora, the oldest organic winery in Italy, was started by a group of libertarian students in the 1970s who quit their jobs to return to working the land with eco-conscious respect for a sustainable future. Their aim was to create an independent and self-sufficient community in which they could convert social and economic ideals into concrete actions and projects. They were instrumental in founding Terroir Marche two years ago, an association of small organic and biodynamic wine producers committed to producing good, healthy wines at reasonable prices. As they say, “Each member has their own style, but we share certain principles: No one over-crops, for example, or makes thin, poor wines. We can’t reach perfection, but we’re trying. The key is to know your plants.”
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The app feeds the body as well as the soul and directs the traveler to organic agritourism inns, wineries and country restaurants where you can sample the superb white wines of the region as well as the gutsy, forthright reds that are a fine match for the robust food fortified with rosemary, tomato, wild fennel and garlic. At La Pietra Maula, a gem of an agritourism restaurant located in a hamlet of 16 inhabitants, oenologist Alessandra Venanzoni’s welcoming family aspires to run a “zero kilometers” restaurant using home-produced meat, salamis, fruit and vegetables as well as their own Verdicchio wine.
Meals, family style
The wine of Le Marche, as the app demonstrates so well, does not just encourage exploration of the flavors of local varieties but also the taste of local food, which is as immediately likable and unfussy as the people. Meals in Le Marche are always leisurely, convivial affairs.
End of a journey
My journey to the interior via the Bioculture app was a discovery of green Le Marche; blue Le Marche lies eastward, toward the Adriatic Sea. The region is a dichotomy between sea and land that defines the two separate personalities. Both beg to be explored further with wine, food, art and walks.
Main photo: Using the Bioculture app in the ancient hilltop town of Camerino. Credit: Copyright 2015 Clarissa Hyman
When it comes to street food in Southeast Asia, Singapore and Bangkok receive the lion’s share of kudos. Yet it is Penang City — an urbanized island off the northwestern coast of peninsular Malaysia — whose street food scene offers all that those cities do and more, just an hour’s plane ride north of Singapore and 90 minutes south of Bangkok.
Have a hankering for Indian food? Chinese? You’ll find it in Penang
Like Singapore’s street food, Penang’s is wildly varied. Think wonton noodles, roti canai (flaky and crispy flatbreads cooked on a griddle and eaten with dal and curry) and mee goreng, yellow noodles fried with chili paste. All of this is prepared and served within feet of each other, thanks to a population made up primarily of Chinese, Indians and Malays.
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Like Bangkok and Singapore, Penang’s street food is served from the wee hours of the morning until late at night. And it isn’t limited to officially sanctioned hawker centers. In Penang, sellers serve their specialties from stalls parked beneath umbrellas on street corners and sidewalks, in kopitiam (coffee shops), and within and outside of food markets.
Street food that’s all in the family
In Penang, culinary skills built on the back of experience can be tasted in dishes served from one of the island’s many hawker stalls run by older and even second- or third-generation cooks.
Many on the island still use cooking methods and techniques that are being lost in other parts of the region. They commonly use live fire or coals. Many serve their dishes on banana leaves, which release an appetite-rousing scent when they come into contact with hot food. And, at a time when American cooks are just coming around to the versatility and deliciousness of lard, Penang’s Chinese hawkers have been capitalizing on it all along. They add cracklings to stir-fries and broths and drizzle liquid lard over dry noodle dishes.
Savor Penang with your eyes through this slideshow:
Main photo: No culinary excursion to Penang is complete without a few plates of char koay teow, rice noodles stir-fried with bean sprouts, Chinese chives, cockles and prawns. The best versions are fried in lard and cooked over charcoal. Credit: Copyright David Hagerman
If the heel of the Boot, Apulia — Puglia in Italian — has long lagged behind other Italian regions in terms of modernization, parts of it have nonetheless become havens for the likes of royals, film stars and cognoscenti. How could it be otherwise for a peninsula surrounded by 500 miles of coastline and lapped by the pristine waters of two seas? Still, its heart beats to an ancient tempo, heedless of the increasing tourist invasions. This is Greek Italy, and it is steeped in its past. Nowhere is that more striking than at the Pugliese table.
Once upon a wine
On a recent tour of the region’s wineries with an American delegation of importers eager to learn about the ambitious undertakings of a new breed of producers, I found vintners at once devoted to the preservation of their traditions and determined to make unique world-class wines. Whereas previous generations geared their production toward volume of output for foreign markets (mainly France as well as northern Italy) at the expense of quality — a practice that goes back to the Phoenicians — today’s winemakers tend relatively small vineyards and grow native grape varietals barely known outside the immediate area. The consensus among the dozen buyers in our midst was that the wines were good — some very, very good — while selling for less than other wines in their class.
Terroir, terroir, terroir
Climatic conditions vary throughout Puglia. On the northern plateaus, known collectively as the Murge, the winters are temperate and the temperatures cooler than they are in the Salento, the bottom of the heel, which can be convection-hot in summer, though cooled somewhat by the play of sea currents and breezes blowing across the Adriatic from the Balkans. But overall the region is perhaps the hottest in Italy, baked by the favugno, as the dry wind that blows in from Africa is called here.
In step with their forebears, many of the vintners I met said that, by working with the natural conditions and the native grapes that thrive there — such as Primitivo, Negroamaro and Nero di Troia — they avoid the soil-punishing practices of modern growing techniques. “We are linked to the traditions of our area,” said Dr. Marina Saponari, sommelier at Valle dell’Asso in Santeramo in Colle, Bari, a limestone plateau in the Murge. “We don’t irrigate or add water at all, because too much humidity causes fungus; we work with the soil, not against it, (plowing) in a horizontal direction to retain the moisture naturally.” “Besides,” said Giuseppe Bino, an oenologist at Vigneto Amastuola in Martina Franca, “organic methods are so much better for your health. And when the wines are aged naturally, you taste real grapes.”
Filippo Montanaro of Vigneto Amastuola, on the Ionian side of the peninsula, described his family’s dedication to organic practices as a way to at once revitalize abandoned agricultural lands and recover an indigenous archeological site that dates to the Bronze Age. Subsequent civilizations inhabited the same high plateau, a strategic point overlooking the Gulf of Taranto from which, on a clear day, you can see all the way to Greece and Calabria. Amastuola’s vines and fruit orchards today carpet the soil in which the Greeks planted grapes and olive trees 2,000 years ago. On the estate, a 15th-century masseria — an ancient Apulian farmhouse where raw ingredients were processed into everything from wine and oil to dairy products, salumi, bread and preserves — is being restored to function as it once did, said Montanaro, whose father, Giuseppe, acquired the 100-hectare estate (almost 250 acres) in 2003. The family has launched an ambitious restoration, including the revitalization of long-neglected 800-year-old olive trees. “Family tradition is very important,” said Giuseppe Sportelli, commercial director and husband of Ilaria (one of three Montanaro siblings that help manage the property), explaining that the monumental project was not just work but a “passione.” Giuseppe Montanaro himself finds that explanation inadequate. “It goes beyond enthusiasm,” he explained, “It is the desperation that the man of the south feels that makes miracles like this happen.”
Food of the ancients
Like these winemakers, local chefs also honor the past, looking to the ancestral cooking of their grandmothers for inspiration. I learned the Pugliese mantra of “homegrown and homemade” early, from my paternal grandparents — poor emigrants to America from the very landscape I have described. Some things have changed since they abandoned the fields of Toritto, in which they had toiled as sharecroppers, for lack of enough food for themselves. And some things have not. “Our cooking is based on a paisana (peasant) tradition,” said Anna Gennari of Conzorzio Produttori Vini Manduria, a 400-partner cooperative of Primitivo grape growers in Manduria. “The cooking was simple and not much different throughout the provinces because Puglia was poor,” said Saponari, who is not only a sommelier but also a well-known cooking teacher in Bari.
Cutting-edge Michelin-starred restaurants have been making headlines in recent years for pioneering menus sourced from their local terroir, but Pugliese chefs have always done so. They are weaned on the ancestral flavors and seductive bitterness of wild dandelion greens, mustards, hyacinth bulbs (Muscari racemosum or lampascioni) and other native plants. Unlike in other regions where the tourist routes are more deeply worn, the heritage foods of Puglia — what the Italians call piatti tipici — persist, whether in hotels, simple trattorie or private homes. These include durum-wheat pasta, either fresh or dried, characteristically flavored with cime di rapa (“turnip tops”), simple tomato sauce, or chickpeas; fava-bean purée eaten alongside cooked bitter greens; the ring-shaped breadsticks called taralli, sweet or savory; calzone-like panzerotti and a panoply of other breads and pastries, baked or fried; vegetables, vegetables, vegetables (but little meat); milky fresh cheeses; and fiery peppers — all dressed, naturally, with the numinous olive oil.
Chefs riding the trend for recycling “trash” food could learn something from these old ways: take the traditional pane arso of the cucina povera (“the poor kitchen”), a dark bread made by blending the flour of charred hard wheat with semolina. The custom of incorporating the two harks back to the feudal-estate system, when peasants collected the scorched grains that remained after the post-harvest burning of the fields. Rich-tasting, with a seductively bitter edge, the bread packs 4,000 years of the people’s history into one bite.
Pranzo della domenica: Sunday supper
It’s on Sunday — a customary day of feasting — when Puglia’s cooks pull out all the stops. This is when the meat dishes come out, and the pasta is sauced with ragù, meatballs and braciole.
Gathering together in Bari with the wine buyers, I ate just these braciole — which the locals call bombette (“little bombs”) in the delightful TerrAnima, a Slow Food-endorsed restaurant dedicated to the dishes of the region (its name translates as “Earth and Soul”). If they sound heavy, perish the thought! They are delicate little rolls of meat, lined with pancetta inside and out and stuffed with cheese, garlic and parsley before they are bundled, tied and roasted.
Here’s to the spirit of the pranzo della domenica. Bring on the bombette and by all means, pour the Primitivo!
Bombette (Little Bombs): Stuffed Meat Rolls
Prep time: 30 minutes
Cooking time: About 20 minutes
Total time: About 45 minutes
Yield: 4 servings
Note: These appetizers are traditionally made with horsemeat (not for the likes of former equestrians such as myself), but veal or beef are also used. Whichever you choose, ask the butcher to flatten the meat as thin as possible (1/8 inch is ideal) without tearing it — or pound it yourself if you know how.
1 pound cutlets (scaloppine) from top round of veal, cut into 4 thin slices about 4 inches by 8 inches and pounded to no more than 1/8-inch thick, or 2 half-pound pieces boneless beef top round, pounded to 1/8-inch from 1/4-inch thickness
Extra virgin olive oil
1 small garlic clove, peeled and bruised slightly
Fine sea salt
Freshly milled black pepper
16 thin slices of pancetta
2 tablespoons fresh minced parsley leaves
3 ounces fresh, semi-soft caciocavallo cheese, cut into 8 matchsticks
Toothpicks for serving
1. Preheat an oven to 400 F. Select a broiler-proof baking pan large enough to accommodate 8 meat rolls without crowding and grease it lightly with olive oil.
2. Use paper towels to blot the meat dry. Cut each piece horizontally into smaller pieces to yield 8 pieces of meat that are about the same shape and size (about 4 by 4 inches). Rub both sides with the garlic clove (which you can then discard) and sprinkle lightly with salt and pepper.
3. Sandwich 1 piece of meat between two slices of pancetta. Sprinkle one side with some of the parsley and arrange a matchstick of cheese crosswise on the center. Beginning at one end, roll it up, gathering the pancetta along with it as you make the roll and tucking in any meat edges that stick out. Secure the bundle with a toothpick and transfer it to the oiled baking pan. Repeat the procedure with the remaining 7 pieces of meat and place in the pan.
4. Slide the pan onto the middle rack of the oven. Roast for 15 minutes, then remove the pan from the oven and change the setting to broil. Turn the rolls over and place the pan under the broiler to color them lightly, about 2 minutes. Take care to keep the pan juices from flaming. Remove at once, pour any remaining pan juices over the rolls and serve immediately.
Main photo: Santa Maria di Leuca at Puglia’s southernmost point, where the Adriatic and Ionian seas meet. The lighthouse stands atop the Japigo promontory, described by Virgil in “The Aeneid.” Credit: Copyright 2015 Nathan Hoyt/Forktales
In the United States, to “get your kicks” we’ve got Route 66. But in Italy, for an unforgettable travel experience follow the ancient Roman “Route” called Via Emilia. This easy-to-navigate highway starts in the northern section of Emilia-Romagna, connecting some of Italy’s most amazing sights with unique gourmet experiences. Click through this slideshow to discover what you’ll find along the route that connects cities rich in art, culture, history and sports cars with world-renowned food and wine.
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Main photo: Have a taste for incredible pasta? Follow Via Emilia in Italy to discover some of the best culinary delights of Emilia-Romagna. Credit: Copyright Emilia-Romagna Tourism Board
In the past few years, Denver — joined by its deluxe alter ego, Boulder, Colorado — has been at or near the top of so many national rankings, it would probably top the list ranking the lists themselves. It has consistently been named among the best (and fastest-growing) cities for millennials, for singles, for entrepreneurs, for outdoors enthusiasts, for beer lovers, you name it — and now that Denver is in the spotlight, its long-underrated dynamo of a dining scene is finally getting a chance to shine.
Here are just some of the kicks awaiting visitors in search of a Mile High culinary adventure. Or at least a cure for the munchies. Let’s face it: Marijuana legalization might have something to do with Colorado’s soaring profile.
It has stood at the edge of what’s now known as LoDo (Lower Downtown) since the fin de siècle — and Union Station‘s grand reopening in 2014 after a multimillion-dollar renovation marks the apotheosis of the neighborhood’s own comeback from late-20th century Skid Row into prime real estate.
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Some of the city’s most celebrated restaurateurs have set up shop on all sides of the magnificent Great Hall. At the casual end, there’s funky daytime franchise Snooze — where buttered-popcorn pancakes meet Thai-chili Bloodies — and Next Door, an ethicurean pub known for its beet burgers and kale chips. At the splashier end, Stoic & Genuine revels in a seafood repertoire that skews both wildly original — think miso-cured uni over kimchi granita — and classic, from clam rolls to caviar. Anchored by a gleaming deli and exhibition kitchen, Mercantile Dining & Provision turns out an ever-changing array of contemporary creations: highlights include exquisite pastas and anything featuring products from co-owner Alex Seidel’s Fruition Farms. And The Cooper Lounge, overlooking all the action, is as swanky a setting for cocktails as you’ll find in this dressed-down town.
Think of it as Union Station’s flip side: a gritty-chic urban marketplace that opened in 2013 along a still-gentrifying stretch of Brighton Boulevard with a roster of rising culinary stars and cult vendors. Now arguably the hub of the RiNo (River North) district, The Source is a one-stop shop for extraordinary beans (Boxcar Coffee Roasters), breads (Babettes) and beef (Western Daughters Butcher Shoppe), among other goods, that prove the word “artisanal” hasn’t lost all meaning just yet. It’s home to two beloved restaurants — the globally inspired Acorn and Comida, a modern taqueria/cantina — and ultra-cool cocktail bar RiNo Yacht Club. Capping it all off is the taproom of Crooked Stave, founded by a brewer whose experiments with brettanomyces and barrel aging have put it at the forefront of Denver’s world-class beer scene.
Breweries, breweries and more breweries
Speaking of beer: If ever there were proof that statistics don’t tell the whole truth, consider that Colorado, with about 250 craft breweries (or 6 per 100,000 adults), ranks “only” third in the nation. After all, that figure comes from the Brewers Association, which happens to be located not in California (first) or Washington (second), but in Boulder — the outgrowth of an earlier organization started by association president Charlie Papazian, aka the godfather of American home brewing. Papazian also founded the nation’s largest craft-beer showcase and competition, the Great American Beer Festival, held annually in Denver. It’s worth noting, too, that a fellow local microbrewing pioneer, Wynkoop co-founder John Hickenlooper, is now governor.
Of course, the ultimate metric of achievement becomes evident to anyone who spends even a short time here: the presence of a taproom on every other street corner, each with its own niche. For the most up-to-date and comprehensive information on breweries large and small, check out Westword’s Beer Man column and the Fermentedly Challenged blog. But some of my favorites include Diebolt and Prost for traditional (read: Eurocentric) styles, Former Future and Coda for adventurous tastes, and Renegade and Station 26 for sheer high-energy atmosphere.
One of Colorado’s most renowned (and widely distributed) envelope-pushing brands, Avery Brewing Co., recently opened a state-of-the-art, city-block-sized facility complete with sit-down restaurant and gift shop at the northern edge of Boulder. It’s a must for any suds buff — as are much smaller but no less superb breweries such as the chef-run BRU and the locals’ secret, J Wells — but it’s just the tip of the Berkeley of the Rockies’ gastronomic iceberg. To name some solid candidates for the connoisseurs’ to-do list: splendid sandwiches and specialty goods at gourmet shop Cured. Tea at the jaw-dropping Dushanbe Teahouse, an architectural masterpiece built by Tajikstani craftsmen. Genuine farm-to-table feasts at Blackbelly or Black Cat Bistro — both labors of love by chefs who really do run their own farms. Exquisite Japanese bites at the twinkling izakaya called Amu, wood-fired pies at the mod-rustic Basta, displays of Old World oenophilia at PMG. And as for Frasca Food and Wine — suffice it to say that chef Lachlan Mackinnon-Patterson and master sommelier Bobby Stuckey’s mecca of Friulian cuisine continues to earn the accolades it rakes in nationwide (and beyond).
If it’s teeming diversity you crave — admittedly not Boulder’s strongest suit — Aurora, on Denver’s eastern border, is your destiny (along with Federal Boulevard, thronged with Vietnamese and Mexican kitchens). Though it feels like a suburb, it’s actually Colorado’s third-largest city and a center of immigrant life. Here, sharp-eyed explorers will find Korean, Thai, Middle Eastern, Indian, Sudanese and Hawaiian restaurants lined up in strip malls one after the other; they’ll find ramen and barbecue and tacos galore — and they’ll encounter the most random of surprises to boot, like soul fast food (Kirk’s Soul Kitchen) and a biker bar that serves Chinese eats (Piper Inn).
On that note, long before Denver had a culinary leg to stand on, it boasted watering holes whose potent mix of Wild West grit and urban grime earned them a place in, variously, Jack Kerouac novels, Tom Waits songs and one particularly infamous Playboy article. It still does. And although a whirlwind tour isn’t for everyone, here’s the itinerary any counterculturalist at heart should follow. Start at Charlie Brown’s Bar & Grill or My Brother’s Bar to hang out where Kerouac, Neal Cassady and other Beat legends once drank. Catch some live jazz at El Chapultapec, the 80-year-old remnant of an era when the Five Points neighborhood was known as the Harlem of the West. Or simply cruise East Colfax Avenue: Though in the throes of change, it’s still an embarrassment of divey riches. There you’ll find Pete’s Satire Lounge, where an as-yet-undiscovered Bob Dylan used to perform, as did the Smothers Brothers; not far away, PS Lounge illustrates the power of kitsch to bring all walks of life together. Meanwhile, situated at the western end of the 26-mile-long avenue, Casa Bonita may not be a dive, but it’s got cliff divers, among other carnival attractions parodied in a famous “South Park” episode.
Casa Bonita is strictly a sightseers’ stop, but you’ll have no trouble finding terrific Mexican eateries on just about every corner of this city (to pinpoint just a few admittedly downscale gems: El Taco de Mexico, El Original Tacos Jalisco, Tarasco’s, Chili Verde and La Calle Taqueria y Carnitas on West Alameda Avenue). Many of them will offer green chile; the sauce/stew is as traditional here as it is in New Mexico, though the Colorado style is thicker and often includes tomatoes with the chiles, pork, onions, garlic and so on. Cruise down Federal Boulevard in summer and you’ll see the roadside roasting stands hawking Pueblo (as well as Hatch) chiles by the bushel. Of course, Colorado lamb and beef are even more famous, as is Rocky Mountain trout — but locals equally covet Olathe corn, Palisade peaches and Rocky Ford melons in season. For a taste of the bounty, head to farm-centric fixtures such as Beast + Bottle, The Kitchen and Old Major.
Where a local focus and a cosmopolitan outlook come together, you’ll find Denver’s most distinctive dining and drinking spots. Take Beatrice & Woodsley, combining eye-popping decor designed to evoke a mountain cabin with a fascinating menu that simultaneously reflects the agrarian past and a global future. At Lower48 Kitchen, up-and-coming chef-partner Alex Figura takes a similar approach to yield some of the most exciting food around. Visionary restaurateur Justin Cucci is building an empire on extraordinary ambiance as well as consciously sourced contemporary cuisine, with venues housed in a former gas station, mortuary and brothel, respectively; the latter, Ophelia’s Electric Soapbox, emits a dazzlingly risqué vibe. Jim Pittenger of Biker Jim’s Gourmet Dogs has rightly garnered national attention for his reindeer, rattlesnake and other wild sausages, with wacky toppings to match. Same goes for Sean Kenyon, bartender-owner of Williams & Graham, a celebrated rendezvous for cocktail aficionados. And then there’s Work & Class: its exuberant yet intimate atmosphere and Latin-influenced comfort food will linger in your mind long after your visit.
The great outdoors
With its enviable high-desert climate (not to mention the Rocky Mountains in its backyard), Denver is an obvious draw for outdoors enthusiasts — and an ideal site for seasonal festivals and markets of all kinds. Food-truck chasers mustn’t miss Civic Center EATS, where mobile specialists in everything from pierogi to Popsicles gather in the namesake park twice a week from May through October. The Big Wonderful is its even-hipper counterpart, bringing to a vacant lot in RiNo not only trucks but also stalls selling gourmet pantry products and household goods, a live-music lineup and a full bar. The Denver Flea hosts similarly massive bashes with food, booze and arts-and-crafts vendors a couple of times a year. In a Larimer Square courtyard, the pop-up Le Jardin Secret proves as charmingly chichi as it sounds. And — to return once again to Denverites’ favorite subject — themed beer festivals are a near-weekly occurrence. But be warned: They often sell out in no time.
Main photo: Stoic & Genuine at Denver’s Union Station. Credit: Copyright 2015 June Cochran
Cooking over an open flame under star-filled skies can evoke romantic thoughts: The life of the cowboy, though dusty and hard by day, becomes almost blissful under the glow of the moon. When you’re surrounded by nature and all the fresh air you can inhale, food just magically tastes better, or so the home-on-the-range story goes. But fast-forward to the modern-day chuck wagon: You, standing at your outdoor grill, staring at a piece of raw meat and a burning fire. Things can quickly go up in flames.
The simple truth is that barbecue — the kind you want to sink your teeth into — takes talent and skill; luck and courage can only get you so far. Like many home cooks, I consider the grill a backyard basic, but my comfort zone is in the kitchen. So when I was invited to attend BBQ Bootcamp at The Alisal Guest Ranch and Resort, I packed my bag and headed south to Solvang, California, with mustang speed.
Forget workouts at a gym: At this boot camp, the heat of multiple grills are what make you sweat, and instead of lifting weights, you’ll be faced with meatier challenges, like squeezing tongs around pieces of meat that could feed small families and mixing custom spice blends. Neither of which, by the way, is easy.
If you’re a nervous Nellie in the kitchen, the drive to The Alisal should help you relax. The route takes you through the windmill haven of Solvang, also known as Little Denmark. Founded in the early 1900s by Danish-Americans, it’s a good place to get a sugar fix. Solvang Restaurant on Copenhagen Drive has a take-out window, making it way too easy to grab an order of aebleskivers and go. Hard to pronounce but fun to eat, these pancake-doughnut hybrids are traditionally served with raspberry jam and powdered sugar; still, the à la mode option is hard to pass up. Wander a while if you want — you’re only a couple minutes away from the ranch. But you don’t want to be late for dinner.
Vacation on a working ranch
The “I’m on vacation” feeling should sink in when you turn into The Alisal’s long, sycamore-lined driveway. Barnyard animals linger, horses munch happily on what seem to be never-ending stretches of green grass, and the sight of a pay phone outside the lobby makes you laugh — until you check for what is a most likely a nonexistent cell-phone signal. The front desk has change if you need it (along with mugs full of Tootsie Roll Pops).
At 10,000 cattle strong, The Alisal is a working ranch; the 73 cottage-style rooms and suites are just a small portion of this scenic Central Coast property. But it’s one with a dress code. Comfortable play clothes are encouraged by day, but come dinner, bandannas get left in the dust. Men don jackets, while women and children put on party duds.
Old West style
Cowboys might consider their retirement options after spending a night in one of The Alisal’s cottages. Old West linens gussy up beds made of tree branches. Fireplaces burn wood delivered by the morning maid. There’s no need to set out on the range for necessary supplies; all you need is a key to the door (a real metal one, not a plastic card). BBQ Bootcamp students receive a welcome basket loaded with gourmet grilling rubs and libations to help prepare for the meaty workshops ahead.
BBQ Bootcamp is a joint effort between Alisal executive chef Pascal Godé and Frank Ostini, chef-owner of the nearby Hitching Post II, which gained fame after the release of the Academy Award-winning movie “Sideways.” The two chefs focus on the art of Santa Maria-style grilling, a different beast than its well-known Southern cousin.
Mastering open-flame cooking
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» Lure of an open flame: A photo feast of barbecue
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Grilling over a hot fire cooks foods more quickly than do the low and slow methods often used in the South — and here’s where much of the trouble begins for novices. Meat that’s burned on the outside yet raw on the inside is too often what sends the uneducated back into the kitchen.
On the first night of BBQ Bootcamp, professionals man numerous, monster-sized, wood-fired grills, offering tips and techniques as they cook everything from beef tri-tip and New York strips to artichokes and bacon-wrapped scallops. Lecturing is limited and notetaking is not a necessity. All students receive a Bootcamp bible of sorts. Along with expected recipes, the spiral-bound book gives a comprehensive yet understandable overview of the differences between wood, gas and charcoal grilling. In this stretch of the world, adjustable, wood-burning iron grills are the apparatus of choice, and red oak is the preferred fuel for the fire.
Relax, eat and drink. Tomorrow, the work begins.
Rise and shine
When the alarm goes off, bootcampers have to resist the temptation to linger or their ride to breakfast will leave without them. Clothes that can get a little dusty are essential, and you’ll understand why when you arrive at the barn. Once you’re saddled up, the commute to breakfast begins. There are no traffic signals to slow you down, just fast-moving deer and the occasional bovine roadblock to distract you.
The buffet is loaded with all sorts of good grub, ranging from fruit and pastries to hash browns and biscuits and gravy. The griddle is manned by a resident pancake artist who dishes up flapjacks (sometimes bigger than your plate) that make even mom’s seem suddenly ordinary. But be careful not to overindulge: The ride back to the ranch may shake up your breakfast a bit. “There’s a reason they call it horse riding, not horse sitting,” says Dick, an Alisal wrangler with 35 years of experience under his shiny cowboy belt.
You’ll have just enough time after your morning ride to take a power nap or play a game of horseshoes; then the afternoon spice-blending workshop begins. A pinch of this and a pinch of that: The formula doesn’t sound so hard until you’re standing in front of a table with 30-plus seasonings to choose from.
“Steak can take heavy spices,” says Godé, adding, “Go lighter on fish. You want to taste your halibut. You want to taste your salmon.” Purchasing spices from a reliable source to ensure their purity and freshness seems to be the golden rule.
Manning the grill
When Alisal’s pleasant-sounding dinner bell rings loud and clear on day two, bootcampers won’t hear it, because they’ll already be grillside, heatedly plotting their first move. Amid the basting and flipping, their nervousness will be eased by grill masters standing by and an endless flow of locally brewed Firestone Walker beer and wine from Ferguson Crest (a Santa Ynez Valley winery founded by Pat Ferguson and his daughter Fergie — yes, that Fergie).
When it’s all said and done, wannabe cowboys and cowgirls might truthfully do more eating than barbecuing, but there will still be plenty of stories to tell when everyone sits down for the night — home on the range not by a campfire, but poolside with heat lamps.
The next BBQ Bootcamp is set for Oct. 28-30, 2015. Giddy up!
Main photo: Steaks on the grill at The Alisal Guest Ranch and Resort. Credit: Copyright 2015 Dana Rebmann