Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Love in the Mountains

Every October, Miss Chef and I carve out a few days to get away for a romantic anniversary trip. The mountains are part of what brought us to North Carolina, and I am happy we take advantage of their proximity on a regular basis. It doesn’t hurt that our anniversary falls around leaf-peeping season.

We usually stay in the area around Asheville, and this year we opted for the small college town of Brevard. We’d stayed here once before, outside of town, but Miss Chef knows the area better than I, having spent a summer here for a high school program at the college.

That time we had rented a cabin in the woods, and brought along Rosie. This time we opted to stay in town, finding our best deal at the Inn at Brevard. Though it sounded promising, and I thought I recalled driving by the grand façade several years earlier, when I later looked it up on Google’s street view I was disappointed to see what looked like an unattractive strip motel.


Ah well, I thought, we can’t always fall lucky. I knew we’d still enjoy our time away, regardless of the accommodations.

Well, I was wrong. We did fall lucky this time. Turns out the main building does have some rooms in it, six to be precise. And somehow, though we’d only booked a couple of weeks in advance, we’d ended up in one of them.

It also turns out that this house is indeed historic, built in 1885 for a wealthy widow from Virginia. It has been maintained in that effusive Victorian style marked by delicate, expensive clutter everywhere you look. Normally this style seems irritatingly fussy to me, but I was instantly smitten by its unapologetic charm. I quickly fell in love with this silly place.

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This is the main entrance—clusters of chairs interspersed with lace-covered tables mobbed by family portraits and extravagantly shaded lamps, with walls obscured by paintings of various eras and levels of artistry. As we mounted the stairs, I told Miss Chef it reminded me of Harry Potter, and I kept half an eye open for unexpected movement within the frames.

Our room was decorated in an equally exuberant, albeit more rustic style.

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There were three mirrors in the room, not counting the one in the bathroom. I sadly didn’t get a photo of the freestanding tub, but I did get one of the wallhanging over the bed that entranced both of us.

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Yes, as far as I could tell, that’s real, thought Miss Chef seemed obsessed with the possible authenticity of the teeth. I suppose this recalls a Victorian gentleman’s hunting lodge décor, though several of the amateur paintings leaned more in the direction of Wild West cabin.

The next morning, I had to snap a few more pictures downstairs before we left for the day.

The main dining room. There’s a small bar through the white door you see on the far side of the dark wood sideboard. This isn’t just an inn, it’s a bed and breakfast with dinner service open to the public.

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I couldn’t resist the gravitational pull of that highly ornamented sideboard. There was just so much to look at!

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Here’s a shot from the far end of the dining room across the main entrance and into the breakfast dining area. Mirrors, mirrors everywhere.

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And another angle into the breakfast room.

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Though we did spend a lovely morning wandering through downtown Brevard, it wasn’t until we headed off in the afternoon toward Asheville that I felt compelled to pull the camera out. We took the long way around, through Pisgah National Forest and along the Blue Ridge Parkway. Miss Chef drove the whole way, for which I was enormously grateful. She seemed to enjoy my ooh-ing and ahh-ing over the ever-changing views as much as the views themselves.

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I retouched this photo to lighten it up, as the day was pretty overcast and the camera failed to capture the scene as well as the eye. I’d guess we finally hit the area during the peak of the fall color. It really looked like the mountains were overlaid with a fluffy quilt picked out in colors of gold, orange, red and burgundy. A color scheme I’d never choose, but which Mother Nature uses to incredible effect.

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We dined at Nightbell, the second restaurant of Katie Button, who owns Cúrate where we’ve had to eat during every trip to Asheville the past five years or so. It was ok, but several of the dishes seemed better in theory than they turned out in reality—flavors overcome with sauces, traditional dishes that were good, but not particularly interesting.

We returned to Asheville the next morning, for brunch at Rhubarb, which was much more our style. Lots of locally-sourced ingredients, and Miss Chef was happy to find a brunch that included lunch items as more than an afterthought.

Of course I had to explore the offerings of French Broad Chocolate Lounge, which recently moved into much larger, more centrally located digs.

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Miss Chef spoiled me by stocking up on any bar of 60% cacao she could find. She does know what I like.

And I know what she likes. So I was perfectly ok with taking another detour on the way home, to visit Fonta Flora brewery in Morganton. Nothing like a midafternoon drink to ease your way back into reality.

Fonta Flora 10

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Food, Fights, and Blood

When I go so long between blog posts, I usually depend on the trail of photographs captured on my phone to remember what I’ve been up to. And each time I delve down into those archives, I am grateful for what I find.

As summer turns to fall, I find I’ve been welcomed to many feasts.


At the end of August, there was the first-ever Charlotte Food Fight, organized between the Piedmont Culinary Guild and the local chapter of the American Culinary Federation. The former is a new nonprofit started by Charlotte-area chefs, farmers and food artisans to create a network in support of the local food chain. The latter is part of a national organization best known for its certification program for professional chefs.

The event was held in the kitchens of the culinary program of the local community college. Each side presented an amuse bouche, appetizer, main course and dessert. They were plated at different stations, with guests circulating at will, and able to enjoy a North Carolina wine paired with each dish.

Naturally, I volunteered my way in, and so did Miss Chef. She is a member of both organizations, while I proudly wear my 4 PCG t-shirts any chance I get.

PCG Food Fight 08

Photo credit Heidi Billotto


Once our volunteer duties were done, we were free to get in on the fun. Here are just a few highlights of “my” team. (Hey, I don’t give a toss about sports, so why not back these guys/gals?)

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That’s just one station above, with four chefs working elbow-to-elbow. No attitudes here.

This next photo is of the PCG’s appetizer, but I failed to get a description. I remember that’s crab meat on top of a panna cotta, and popcorn shoots as a garnish, but that’s all I remember. This is from one of the chefs I admire most, Paul Verica of Heritage Food & Drink. His plating is beautiful.

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This was the main course…simplified, it’s pork with squash purée and chimichurri. Of course, there’s a lot more in there, like pork belly. But whatever…yum.

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The dessert was presented by an all-lady team from 300 East. That’s a squash cremeux that’s being bruléed. I declare this the best way to eat squash, hands down. PCG Food Fight 08 (17)

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I’ll save you all the buildup and say the PCG blew the competition out of the water. The chefs, though pretty damn tired, were exuberant about their victory.

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The event was themed like a prizefight, thus the gaudy championship belt. In the ensuing months, it has made the rounds to all the establishments of the competing chefs. Ironically, as I happened to be in the last establishment this afternoon for lunch, I was asked to fetch it. So right now it’s in my living room.

PCG Food Fight 10

I feel like a winner!


In September I was also invited to the first in what is hoped to be a series of food + art events, created by CLTure, an online entity I’ve done some writing for. It featured another of my favorite chefs, Luca Annunziata of Passion8 (who incidentally, invited Miss Chef to the initial meeting of what turned into the PCG). He was paired with a local artist, Alexandra Loesser, and asked to create dishes based on five paintings commissioned for the event.

Turns out, they share a fascination with blood.

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The artist’s current focus is on showing the contrast of beauty and brutality in nature. We tend to prettify it, thinking that “natural” means peaceful and harmonious. Nope, not always!

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We got a little break with dessert, thankfully. Just a simple sweet potato panna cotta. Blood free.

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Somewhere in between those two events, I attended a PCG get-together at a local rum distillery.

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Muddy River 09


And just this past weekend, Miss Chef and several of our friends took part in the South End Chili Cookoff.

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It was a very Fido-friendly event. I think it’s organized in conjunction with a local firehouse. For a city with mostly cat sports mascots, Charlotte really loves its dogs.

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I had to head off to work shortly after this started, but Miss Chef’s team didn’t win anyway so I guess I didn’t miss much.

And that pretty much takes me up to today which, though being a Tuesday, is kind of my Friday. So I’m about to kick back and enjoy a little R&R.

Right after I figure out what’s for dinner.

For those keeping up with my writing career, I just had another cover story published, about the place of local food at the big regional farmers market in Charlotte. You can read it here.

Sunday, September 27, 2015

We’re not in San Fran anymore

Honestly. I can’t decide if I’m busily occupied or overwhelmed with busy-ness. But blogging hasn’t even registered on my “To Do” list for, like, months. I’ve had a hard enough time fitting paid writing into my schedule, I wasn’t even remotely interested in writing “for fun.”

Except that I’ve now blown two of my rare writing days doing very little, and finally realized I don’t know what to write. I think this is what they call writer’s block. I’ve never had it so bad.

So, to somehow make up for it, or maybe just to get some words down, I’ll unroll the ol’ blog page and see what falls out of my brain.

It seem only appropriate, though it’s three months later, to share the highlights from the remainder of our trip West. These will appear in non-chronological order, and will depend entirely on what sparks my memory and what photos I like enough to share.

There was a half-day on Alcatraz, which was more interesting than I’d expected, if only for the ferry ride across the beautiful bay.



Selfie time!


I had no idea there were gardens there, which have been maintained and restored. Made for pretty pictures.



Also, nobody tells you most of the place smells like bird guano in the summer heat. Birds, birds, everywhere.




Requisite shot inside the cell block.

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There was our day trip down the coast to Monterey, to visit the aquarium, a bucket-lister for me!


Miss Chef has a thing for sea otters, so that was one of the first exhibits we stopped at.



Having visited many an aquarium, including the amazing 6-million gallon tank at the newer Georgia Aquarium, I was a little underwhelmed at how typical the exhibits were. And then I stopped at the kelp forest exhibit. I think my jaw may have dropped, and I know I got a little teary-eyed from utter delight.


This is a fraction the size of that Georgia tank, but the huge strands of kelp swaying in the artificial waves and the natural schooling patterns of the fish make you feel like you are standing on the floor of the bay. I was surprised to remember I was perfectly dry and not in a submersible or something. Amazing. I came back again at the end of our visit, just to soak in a few more minutes of sheer bliss.

We may or may not have spent a lot of money in the gift shop there. Miss Chef does have an astounding number of sea otter themed shirts now, though.

For our foodie friends back home, one of the biggest highlights was our day in Napa Valley and our evening at the French Laundry.


Entrance and cellars to Schramsberg, one of the oldest wineries in the valley. Those bottles are stacked about 14 rows deep, if I remember correctly.


Our tasting room was very dramatic. And delicious.




We only visited 4 wineries, but managed to end up with 14 bottles plus two memberships in wine clubs.


Sending those bottles home in climate-controlled shipping was so prohibitively expensive we ended up buying the packaging and checking them as additional luggage. Every bottle made it safely home.

That afternoon we took a short nap in order to stay awake through our dinner at the French Laundry that night. Our reservations were at 9:15! When we arrived, we had to wait about 10 minutes in the courtyard, which was no hardship.


It’s hard to describe the experience of dining in America’s most famous restaurant. I was surprised the menu wasn’t more innovative, but Thomas Keller is interested in doing pure, quality food grown nearby, rather than pushing the envelope. The service was impeccable, and not in any way intimidating. The servers were warm, though professional, and took care of every detail with poise. One detail: when you leave the table for the bathroom, they don’t just fold your napkin, they bring you an entirely new one. Laundry, indeed.

Something about the place keeps you from pulling your phone out to photograph every dish, though you know your Facebook friends are dying to hear how dinner went. Too bad for them. I took only two pictures inside.


This is what I posted for my Facebook friends. You get to keep the laundry pin that comes with your napkin, and it becomes kind of a talisman for Those Who Have Been.



I stared at one of these across the room for an hour or two before figuring out these weren’t stylized initials or Russian characters. They are laundry instruction symbols! Get it? (Machine wash, no bleach, iron)

We didn’t leave until after 1 am. Along with copies of the menu, we also got some goodies to take home.


So long Napa, you were very good to us.

At some point, we also had dinner at Chez Panisse, where Alice Waters kick-started the whole local-food movement, way back in the 70s. Well, that’s Berkeley for you, I guess.


That was one of our better meals—totally classic French-inspired. Old school, but still fresh and interesting. I also broke the world’s record for painful bladder stretching on the way back via Bart. Half a bottle of wine plus lots of water will do that to you.


With all the amazing food we ate and places we visited, many people asked upon my return what my favorite part was. The answer has to be, just about everything. California is so different from everywhere else I’ve been, I loved getting a feel for a completely novel landscape and climate.




Golden Gate Bridge shrouded in midday fog, from Alcatraz ferry


Huge fields of strawberries and artichokes on the way to Monterey.


Sonoma Valley, which looked more like wine country than Napa Valley.

I was also delighted to forge a stronger connection with my family out there, getting to know my aunt and uncle as an adult, meeting one cousin for the first time, and hearing some old family stories from a different point of view.

As for the most memorable thing I ate? I think that would have to go to the pain au chocolat from Tartine Bakery.



As usual, the end of the trip arrived before we were ready for it. I took a few last shots from the plane as we headed away from the sun, back to the eastern side of the continent.


Some mountain or something, probably east of San Francisco. Notice how dry the land is.

And that, my friends, is that. Now it’s fall in North Carolina, and we’re already planning our annual mountain getaway next month. In between, lots of work, volunteering, special events and full schedules. One of these days I may catch up with myself. In the meantime, hope y’all enjoyed this vicarious vacation. I know I did, just now.