April 21, 2010

So Cal, So Cool

Santa Barbara, CA - for me, going to California is like walking into the supermarket w/o a list; once inside, all bets are off.

No less an authority than the Economist made a rather compelling case last summer (which I won't get in to, but rest assured it was characteristically dry and witty) in favor of the Lone Star State vis-a-vis its downtrodden westerly neighbor, yet as the puddle jumper shuttled us from LAX to Santa Barbara, snaking alongside the coastline and following the PCH, I found myself thinking... I could live here.

And so it was, for the next three days as family and friends descended upon this town b/t the mountains and the ocean,
discovering just a couple of the many great spots it has to offer.

Unlike so many beachfont parcels of land that abut a main entertainment thoroughfare (State St. in this case), Santa Barbara has allowed its unique and independent hotels to operate in lieu of what you might expect to find... Hyatt, W, Marriott, Westin, Four Seasons, Ritz, repeat... We stayed at the Casa Del Mar Inn, located on Bath St.
half a block off W Cabrillo (ocean drive) and State. Quaint spot, maybe 20 rooms, with bougainvilleas in full bloom. And great access to the running trail alongside the beach, which on one day played host to the Santa Barbara Chardonnay 10-miler and 5k.

In search of cocktails, we (wife, brother, sister-in-law) found ourselves at the Canary Hotel; with summer drink season approaching, I jumped the gun a little and ordered a half-and-half martini (Hendrick's and Ketel One), up w/ a twist. Then another one. It gets a little fuzzy after that, but I think the music was great.

Someone help me come up w/ a better
name for this than the "Half-and-Half"

Brunch the next morning, which I skipped, was at Sambo's, which again in spite of its location practically on the pier has maintained considerable originality. Or so I'm told. The line when I walked by later in the morning was long but content, probably because they'd all been there before.

That afternoon we celebrated my mother's wedding on the idyllic grounds of the Old Mission Santa Barbara. Hills in the background, a Santa Barbara Rose Society garden situated beautifully on-site, and Jack Johnson being played on the guitar. Just cool.

Post-wedding dinner was at the Cafe Buenos Aires (great ambiance), after which we stumbled upon The Marquee, appropriately located beneath the marquee of the recently restored Granada Theater. The low lighting and size made it very intimate, though not uncomfortably so. Perfect for four people hoping to recap the weekend's happenings and wind down the final evening of a great trip. As a side note: blaming intoxication on both the conversation as well as the Guinness, I managed to leave the bar and get back to the hotel before realizing that I'd left my wallet, phone, and tie sitting on the table behind us. A frantic ten minutes later a taxi re-delivered us and, to my great relief, our server Amy had taken it and stashed it in the office. Crisis averted.

We also noticed an inordinate number of people milling about the Granada in costume, and upon inquiry learned that there was a Carnival-themed wedding going on. A shot of the bride and groom here captures the essence of the night...

Lastly, no trip to Santa Barbara, as my wife was quick to point out, is complete
w/o paying homage to the grand dame, the Biltmore, where on our final morning my aunt and uncle were kind enough to treat us for brunch before we headed back to Texas. As expected at a Four Seasons, the setting was pristine, with the front of the property overlooking the Pacific and the back facing the foothills of Los Padres National Forest.

The spread consisted of everything and more that one could want, including fresh oysters on the half shell, caviar, salmon roe, a mimosa that never seemed to get less than half full, and the Sunday Times.

So, until the West Coast beckons again...

April 14, 2010

The Travelling Gourmand

Upper West Side, New York - to be filed under the "work doesn't always have to suck" category, a few months back a couple of us went to New York on an officially sanctioned boondoggle to gourmet shop hop. Spending my days around food coupled with my not-so-well-kept desire to operate an epicurean-mart of my own, the jaunt up and down Broadway to a few of New York's artisanal shops was just the tonic I needed to kickstart 2010.

First stop was Zabars, a 70-year old staple at 80th that stimulates nearly every sense at step one through the doors, starting w/ the open olive buckets and then with the fresh cheese shop. It was morning, and the beauty of catching a place like this before 10a is that you're able to enjoy the undisturbed portrait of all that a neighborhood market can offer.

Outside of Westside Market I caught this asymmetrical reminder that citrus season was in full stride. Next was Citarella, ever-humbly billing itself The Ultimate Gourmet Market, and with a charcuterie like the one displayed in the window I had a hard time arguing the point. Lastly we strolled through Fairway Market, which by 11a was overflowing with patrons. Their assortment was outstanding and the prices, truly by any standards, were incredibly reasonable. Our trusty chaperone said that shopping here enabled her to justify getting a bigger apartment. That should be their marketing campaign: Shop Fairway and you can finally get that elusive second bathroom!

What amazed me about every place, maybe w/ the exception of Citarella which at least seemed to have a little more real estate (or maybe fewer things cluttering the aisles), was the incredible use of space. Call it a war of necessity, but it's hard to imagine more being done with less.

Having worked up a sufficient appetite and at the insistence of our personal guide, we cabbed down to the East Village for lunch at the six-seat Porchetta, which dishes up its namesake on ciabatta and a couple of sides if one is so inclined. Porchetta is well seasoned - typically with herbs, sage, rosemary, fennel - pork rolled and roasted for hours, and the result is a complexly flavored meat interlaced with crackling, the crispy, fatty skin in which the meat has been encased (also known as a pork rind w/ the skin left on). Once your sodium hits the level at which the nearest doctor starts to write out a prescription for Lipitor, head down the street to McSorley's, where you pay in cash and one beer - light or dark - equals two.

More foodie adventures await.

April 11, 2010

Viva la Revolución


Photos via: Hotel Havana.

One of Austin's best and brightest, hotelier Liz Lambert, purveyor of coolness and a lifestyle of 'indifference-to-the-world-outside-the-walls', has taken on the challenge of breathing a little life into one of the jewels of the San Antonio Riverwalk, the Hotel Havana.

I was having a drink and a smoke late last year in the hotel's cavernous Cohiba C
lub, just before it was set to close for the four month renovation, when I made a rather vociferous plea that whomever takes over would they please, please leave in tact the inherent charm in the 119 y.o. building.

Of course, looking back now it was a baseless worry, given Ms. Lambert's success w/ Austin's
Hotel San José and Hotel Saint Cecilia.
They've kept the lighting low in the renovated bar, and the furniture remains a smorgasbord of eclectic yet inviting pieces that look as though they were culled from estate sales of people with good taste.

Our superbly made mojito and house margarita (no mixers... ever) by Shana (new bartender) were welcome libations and an indication that the new property should
best the old in nearly every way. One big difference... no smoking in the new joint, a point of contention raised by almost every patron that walked through the door. But the blow was cushioned by the gratis cigars Shana was handing out to all who asked, and those who wished were able to seek refuge on the front porch. Fortunately, within a year the hotel should take over the adjacent outdoor back area from the current occupant, riverfront included, and in the process more than triple their space. Which is a good thing, because as word gets out and locals and tourists alike flock to the Havana Hotel, they're going to need all the space they can get.

1015 Navarro Street
San Antonio, Texas 78205
(210) 222-2008