Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Takeout or Large Orders for Holiday Parties

Need takeout or large orders for holiday parties? Here are my recommendations: Maria’s (http://www.marias-to-go.com, 2130 Lawndale Drive, Greensboro 27408,(336) 379-8646); Reto’s (http://www.homecuisine.net, 600 South Elam Avenue, Greensboro 27403, (336) 274-0499); and Company’s Coming (http://companyscoming.net, 2515 North Main Street, High Point 27262, (336) 883-0612). If you need catering, I suggest Painted Plate (http://www.paintedplate.com, 2001 North Church Street, Greensboro 27405, (336) 230-2433).

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Photos by John Batchelor of New England in the Fall. Article follows photos.

New England in the Fall



My wife and I are wanderers. Although we sometimes enjoy trips that have pre-arranged itineraries, a drive up the New England coast in the fall seemed the ideal way to just follow our whims. We booked hotels, studied maps, and researched restaurants in advance, but we left most days open.

We flew into Providence, Rhode Island. Based on past experience, I have found fares lower and driving more convenient there, compared to larger cities. (Hartford, Connecticut is another good entry airport for the region.) We drove to Newport (less than an hour) for the first two nights. We found the Newport Marriott (www.marriott.com/hotels/travel/pvdlw-newport-marriott) ideally situated on the waterfront, where we viewed myriad yachts, ranging from modest to unbelievable. Newport, home of the America’s Cup, is regarded as the sailing capital of the world. The hotel’s location provides easy access on foot to all the restaurants we wanted to visit, as well as shops and other venues related to this nation’s maritime history.

The highlight of this part of the trip centered on tours of the Newport mansions (www.newportmansions.org), constructed during the Gilded Age (around the turn of the last century) by families who had made fabulous fortunes, primarily in infrastructure- steamships and railroads, for example- the Vanderbilts. Their “cottage,” The Breakers, is a 70 room Italian Renaissance palace, designed, as were many of these mansions, by famed architect Richard Morris Hunt.

These homes, overlooking the ocean, had one mission- hosting parties for the richest and most famous, in order to engage in ostentatious displays of wealth. All are grand. A huge central ballroom forms their core. Some are beautiful, exhibiting levels of craftsmanship rarely seen in the US. Marble House, another Vanderbilt property, is enthralling for its grace and symmetry. Sometimes, designs strayed into excess. Walking the otherwise beautiful landscaping of The Elms, for example, we noted a statue/fountain of a female figure with water pouring from her breasts. (photo 06) Even with my limited level of taste, I know that’s tacky!

Dinner at The Black Pearl (www.blackpearlnewport.com) was particularly enjoyable. Chef Daniel Knerr has cooked at Le Bec-Fin in Philadelphia, La Côte Basque in New York, Taillevant in Paris, and The French Laundry in Napa Valley. His classical background is evident in exquisite butter-based sauces.

We spent the better part of one day driving around Cape Cod- no particular location in mind. That did not do the Cape justice, and although the coast and the small towns were interesting, we would have to go back and spend some time here in order to appreciate the area fully.

Two more nights involved a stay in New Castle, New Hampshire, adjacent to Portsmouth, at Wentworth by the Sea, a historic property rehabilitated and now operated by Marriott. New Hampshire’s coastline is less than 20 miles long, but it is scenic in a unique, rocky, craggy way. Highway 1A snakes along the edge of the water. It’s a slow drive that allows great views of coastal homes as well as the shore.

We had made reservations for dinner at two Portsmouth restaurants, but we wandered into SALT, the Wentworth/Marriott restaurant, for an appetizer, and found ourselves enjoying the food so much we stayed for dinner. Then we went back again the next night- unusual, and a high compliment for a hotel restaurant.

Conversations with other guests caused us to change our destination for the next night, relocating to Rockland, Maine. The spur of the moment decision did not allow time to research the many inns in this area. We would select one of them on a return visit. (A Hampton Inn provided the reliable accommodations and good value I have come to expect from this chain.)

The reason for the change was a restaurant, Primo (www.primorestaurant.com), whose chef, Melissa Kelly, is this year’s James Beard Award winner for the Northeast. Situated in a historic home, the restaurant provides a formal menu downstairs, with seating by reservation, as well as tapas (small plate) selections upstairs, all in Italian style, prepared from ingredients sourced from the restaurant’s own farm.

The day time attraction in Rockland was the Farnsworth Museum (www.farnsworthmuseum.org), which houses a wonderful collection of Andrew Wyeth paintings, as well as Maine-themed works from other artists.

We spent the better part of the next day driving up the Maine coast, mainly enjoying the rugged land, the small towns, and the numerous harbors. A lobster lunch at a roadside stand set the tone for the state.

For the last two nights, we stayed in Bar Harbor, where we enjoyed the location, accommodations, and hospitality of the Manor House Inn (www.barharbormanorhouse.com). It’s easy to see why Bar Harbor has become such a popular destination. The streets are lined with tourist friendly shops, often catering to cruise ships, which anchor in the deep harbor. Whale watching trips and nature tours are the leading excursion attractions.

Leaves in Rhode Island and New Hampshire looked pretty much the same as North Carolina. But by the time we entered Maine, fall colors had begun to appear, and Bar Harbor and the surrounding mountains were awash in hues of orange, yellow, and red.

Dinner recommendations from a friend who comes here often yielded excellent meals. Havana (www.havanamaine.com) terms its cuisine “Nuevo Latino,” and that sounds just fine to me. Mâché Bistro (machebistro.com) is tiny. The French bistro style food is rustic and robust.

We were thwarted by the government shutdown- Acadia National Park, where we intended to spend a day, was closed. More random wandering compensated somewhat, but we regretted missing one of the few parts of the trip that we had actually planned.

We flew back from Bangor, Maine. A late afternoon flight allowed a leisurely lunch downtown, at Paddy Murphy’s pub (www.paddymurphyspub.com). Rollicking songs from a local troubadour entertained the crowd. “Where are you from?” he called out between numbers. When we responded, “North Carolina,” a cheer went up from a nearby table. Shortly thereafter, we met a party from Gibsonville, who come up every year for the Bangor Folk Festival (www.americanfolkfestival.com). “You ought to get him to write about his place,” came the admonition from one of the party (I wish I had been able to hear their names), gesturing toward me. “People eat where he tells them to!” We hope to return for a longer visit, maybe for the Festival, in the future.

Want to go somewhere? John Batchelor hosts travel groups in cooperation with Weezie Glascock, a licensed agent. Send a note to john.e.batchelor@gmail.com.

Friday, March 29, 2013

Want to go somewhere?

John Batchelor hosts tour groups and cruises, with a focus on food and wine. Itineraries can be customized. Contact john.e.batchelor@gmail.com.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

"A Winter Cruise" article follows these photos by John Batchelor

Click on "A Winter Cruise" in Blog Archive column at right to read the story. A shorter version was published in the Greensboro News and Record on March 24, 2013.

Sunset, from a table at Havana Blue restaurant, St. Thomas, U.S.V.I.

View of St. Thomas, U.S.V.I.

Magens Bay, U.S.V.I.

Caribbean Lobster on the Grill

Shop in St. Barts

St. Kitts

Terre de Haute, Guadaloupe

St. Johns, Antigua

Seabourn Legend

Sunset from the Ship

A Winter Cruise

“I want to go someplace where it’s warm.”

This plaintive request from my wife started a search for a cruise in the Caribbean. As a result, on the days when snow and sleet were falling in Greensboro, we were lying in the sun, temps around 80 every day, with a balmy breeze. We initially booked with a mid-price line, but after we started adding up all the extras we would have to pay for (such as wines with meals, other drinks, “premium” coffee) we started investigating “all inclusive” fares. We wound up changing our plans, selecting the “7-Day Caribbean Hideaways” itinerary on the Seabourn Legend.

The fare really does include everything onboard ship, although you can select some high end wines at extra cost. We like good wine, but we never found it necessary to stray from the “complimentary” offerings. On the contrary, if what they are serving doesn’t appeal to you, the sommelier will provide alternatives at no extra charge. One example: the “house” Champagne is Nicolas Feuillatte- seriously good, retailing for about $30/bottle locally. Tipping is “neither required not expected,” according to Seabourn.

This cruise embarked from St. Thomas, in the U.S. Virgin Islands. We were pleased to find that airfares to that location were not significantly higher than fares to Miami, the point of departure for many other cruises. Change planes on U.S. Airways in Charlotte, and you’re in the Virgin Islands in a little over 3 hours- very convenient, easily in time for dinner. (There is a time zone change, however.) U.S. Virgin Islands vehicles drive on the left side of the road, using standard U.S. left side drive cars. On our first trip to U.S.V.I., we rented a car. After driving to the hotel and hearing my wife scream every time I entered one of the frequent roundabouts, I drove back to the airport and returned the rental. My advice: take a taxi in the islands. Prices are reasonable (about $25 from airport to most hotels for two people with luggage), and all the drivers we met were personable.

In order to secure a taxi license, drivers have to be qualified to provide a tour of the whole island ($25 per person, two hours). We’ve done that twice, and I would definitely recommend it. The views from Mountaintop go all the way to several surrounding islands, in addition to Magens Bay Beach. An introduction to paradise.

The Caribbean is famous for shopping. Some jewelers (for example, Ajanta- a small shop a little off the main street, our favorite) will pay for a cab to pick you up at your hotel. Jewelry, liquor (especially rum, but not wine), and other luxury goods are duty and tax free in the Caribbean, and in most locations, prices are quite a bit lower (30-40 percent, maybe more) than in the States. But know local prices before you go. Some goods are much more expensive, and prices vary somewhat from one island to another.

We embarked on a Saturday afternoon. Boarding ship was easy and convenient. Porters transported luggage to our cabin. We booked one of the lowest-priced accommodations on the ship. For another $1000 per person, we would have had a few more inches of windowsill and a window that opened. We found the non-opening window just fine, and very quiet. There are no “inside” cabins on Seabourn; all have large windows. This is a small (barely over 200 passengers), all-suite ship. We had a queen bed, a sitting room with sofa and two chairs, plus a dining table, a walk in closet, and a home-sized bathroom.

The ship travels at night. You explore a different island every day. Motion on the first night and one other was noticeable, but not uncomfortable. More like being rocked to sleep. A sunset view on the horizon the first night set the tone for the week.

Ship staffers leave a brief guide to each island in your mailbox each evening. It offers prearranged tours, watersports, and other activities (shore excursions are not included in the cruise fare), unique to each location. An announcement regarding the dress code for dinner, along with the evening’s menu, is also included. Jackets (but not ties) and resort casual wear are required several nights in the main dining room; other nights are casual; one is formal. On the formal night, tux was not required, although you could wear one if you wanted to dress up. If you don’t want to “go out,” a room service menu offers everything from casual- burgers, sandwiches, small plates- to the entire restaurant menu. (No delivery charge.)

We had breakfast in our room each morning. Room service is prompt, a full menu available. Servers always offered to set up a white tablecloth, but we opted for casual.

On day one, we docked in Marigot, St. Martin/St. Maarten. A beautiful rainbow greeted us as we entered the harbor- another kind message from Mother Nature. Judging from the size of the yachts in the harbor, somebody else had already found the pot of gold, though.

One side of this island is French, the other Dutch. Marigot is on the French side. This was a Sunday, so all the shops were closed. In a way, that worked to our benefit. Seabourn provided a bus (no charge) to the Dutch side, where everything functioned on a regular schedule, so we got a free tour of the island as we drove across. The ship also provided a shopping guide who travelled with us. She was quite knowledgeable about gems, although stones and other kinds of shopping weren’t part of our plan. As we wandered around, we observed frequent Sunday services in small churches that welcomed visitors. Several streets were lined with duty free shops. Although the churches and a few other structures looked picturesque, most of the buildings were pretty drab, often shabby. A lot of trash littered streets and sidewalks.

That morning’s experience introduced a recurring theme: on most Caribbean islands, scenery and ambience is mostly a function of lush green land and pristine sea, not the structures that humans built. Cab drivers offered to take us to Orient Beach, famous for its “clothing-optional” policies. At my age, that’s nowhere near as inviting as it might have seemed years ago. I had this mental picture of a bunch of Dirty Old Men hoping to see naked women, but just seeing each other. Not too inviting! We went back to the ship for lunch, and we wound up following that schedule for the rest of the trip.

We really came to enjoy the ship and its services. At lunch, one buffet featured chilled seafoods, all excellent and fresh-tasting. Another offered several hot dishes, including a meat, several seafoods, and a couple of pastas. We vowed not to look at the desserts. Daily specials were prepared to order. Champagne and lightly chilled wines are poured freely. We enjoyed seating on the rear deck, which provided great views of the harbors and the islands.

The ship has several venues for dinner. We ate most nights in the main dining room, which is large enough to seat just about everyone on the ship. Even when full, noise level is fairly low. We never had a problem hearing conversation. There are no assigned seats, and any arrangement is available, from a deuce table to a large group, reserved for your party or mixed to facilitate socializing. Servers are very attentive, the menus varied, and quality wines match anything you order.

Day two took us to St. Johns, Antigua- smaller and more colorful than the white and grey that had characterized the previous day. “Da Vibez,” a steel band, provided lively music all day, from the dock. Restoration of a beautiful, historic church is underway; it is visible from the bay.

Daytime ship activities include yoga, stretch classes, shopping consultations, bridge or other card games, plus afternoon tea. A few samples from the dinner menu: First courses- Seared Spice Crusted Tuna with coriander puree and saffron, Spring Chicken Cassoulet, Herb Seared Shrimp with Meyer lemon cream. Entrees: several steaks, Cuban Spiced Veal Loin with okra and black bean puree, Braised Veal Osso Buco, Pan Sauteed King Salmon filet, Rosemary Roasted chicken Breast. Myriad desserts. Healthy preparations are always available.

Terre de Haut, Guadaloupe, on day three, turned out to be a favorite. Bright and colorful houses and shops, aromas from fresh spices and fresh baking breads, and waterfront strolls along narrow streets reveal the French influence. A walk up the mountainside reveals panoramas looking down on the bay, eventually leading to an old fort on the mountaintop. More yachts, but mostly sailboats here.

In addition to the main dining room at dinner, a separate, smaller “Restaurant 2” offers a different menu each evening. Seating is by reservation only (no extra cost). One night followed an Indian Spice Market theme: Chicken Kebab Masala, Potato and ChickpeaTikki, Coconut Shrimp Curry, Lamb Chettinad, naan breads. Another night followed a steak house concept: Roasted Tomato and Goat Cheese Tian, Dungeness Crab Cakes, Roasted Garlic Soup, several steaks, Salmon Filet. Seeking the full ship experience, we dined in Restaurant 2 one night. A little more intimate, but service was so good in the main dining room, I would be hard pressed to rank one over the other. It’s just the variety that is appealing. Day four, on St. Kitts, turned out a little disappointing. We took one of the prearranged tours (we had an onboard spending credit provided at no extra charge by our travel agent), so we took the Sugar Cane Train tour. It’s kitschy- clean cars with enclosed seating below, open up top, a couple of singing groups moving from car to car, and a lively narration through what used to be sugar cane fields- lush and green, but now overgrown. The finest diesel engine Romania had to offer a few decades ago chugs along up front. Views from bridges and hillsides look down to nearly transparent seas rushing into bays. Again, nature provides the ambience. Several historic buildings, mostly in ruins now, can be viewed from the train.

We found the level of visible poverty and the dreary sameness of government housing unsettling. In much of the Caribbean, you’re in a Third World country, and here, it confronts you more than in other locations. On the other hand, a new shopping center has been constructed recently alongside the docks, and we found the cleanest shops and best prices of the trip here (even though we didn’t buy anything).

St. Barts (day five) is in an entirely different league, in comparison to other islands. The only poverty here would be us, relative to everybody else. This is one of the world’s most prosperous playgrounds. Plenty of yachts decorate the harbor and bays, as they do elsewhere in the Caribbean, but in St. Barts, private ships are common. I looked up a brokerage and found prices of $10-$20 million almost commonplace, with charters going for around $75,000 or more (often a lot more) per week. A small group tour in a van revealed beautiful homes, boutique hotels, and hillside restaurants.

Back in the town, Gustavia, my wife and I peeked into a very different genre of shops. They may be duty free, but these are major league luxury boutiques, comparable to what you might see in the high end neighborhoods of Paris, but with even higher prices. We inspected several cafes, lured by aromas and visual presentations we could usually see from the sidewalk. We calculated that a lunch comparable to what we were getting onboard (at no extra charge) would have cost $200-$300. (That estimate is not strictly based on what a meal in St. Barts would cost- we could have dined for less- it’s a comparison to the strong quality and value of Seabourn’s inclusive fares.) So, back to the ship again!

We wanted to experience all the ship had to offer, so we had room service deliver dinner toward the end of the cruise. Could we have our meal delivered in several courses? No problem! A different wine with each course? Certainly, that’s what we usually do! This time, we let the waiter set up the table with the full treatment, converting our small suite into a white tablecloth dining room. A little cognac to conclude the evening. A view of the sea sliding by. I like this. I want to do it again.

Due to the small size of Seabourn Legend, evening entertainment opportunities are smaller scale than the Broadway shows and other extravaganzas that characterize big ship night life. My wife and I enjoyed the cabaret style performances- four really talented singers with impressive resumes, backed by a five piece jazz-rock combo. A theater offers a full film experience onboard. TVs in rooms offer several movies as well as regular programming.

I asked for a tour of the kitchen one day at lunch. The Executive Chef met me and guided me through, delighting in describing how they do things. Fresh, local seafoods and vegetables are loaded every day in port. All breads (including 1,800 fabulous breadsticks per day) are prepared from scratch. Two huge cauldrons reside in gimbals, to allow for motion at sea, constantly reducing stocks and constructing soups. When I inquired about some dishes we especially liked, he volunteered the recipes, delivered to our suite later in the day. The entire kitchen is stainless steel. I have visited a lot of restaurant kitchens. I have never seen one this immaculate.

On the last full day, we anchored off Prickly Pear Island, in the British Virgin Islands. The ship’s staff prepared a picnic lunch on the beach, complete with grilled Caribbean lobster, chicken, hamburgers and hot dogs, of course, and lots of chilled salads and vegetables.

When we reflected on the experience, my wife and I both rated the food 5 Stars and service 5 Stars. (For readers who are not familiar with my restaurant columns, I have awarded 5 Star ratings 8 times in 30 years.) I would rate the ship’s ambience and the overall experience 5 Stars, too, although we decided that we want to try a larger ship with more entertainment sometime in the future. Value? This is about the most expensive thing we’ve ever done, but we thought the money was well spent, and I will be looking for another “all inclusive” fare again. I would rather know the total cost in advance, even if I pay a bit more up front, instead of having a big surprise on my credit card at the end of the week. Adding in the perks we received by working with a Virtuoso travel agent, I actually think we saved a little money by booking the inclusive cruise, and I am confident it was a better value.

Three complaints. Ship’s staff could have provided a better schedule for disembarkation. We began to hear announcements at least an hour before we expected them, and “Report to Immigration and Customs Immediately”! came while my wife was still in the shower. Suffice to say, we did not report "immediately." The cruise brochure promised a laundry, and we found it, but it wasn’t working, and I saw no effort to make repairs all week. Internet never worked at all in my room, and it worked poorly in the Business Center (Slow. Really slow. And there is a fee for use.) But these are fairly small matters, especially in light of the overall enjoyment of the cruise.

Would I recommend Seabourn? Absolutely.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Two Excellent Dinners in Asheville

Two recent meals in Asheville worth special note, from opposite ends of the conceptual spectrum. The Red Stag Grill at the Grand Bohemian in Biltmore Village is an exceptional hotel, with elegant common areas. Chef Adam Hayes leads the restaurant team. A veal osso buco (braised shank) was fork tender and deeply flavored- a perfect hearty entree for the season. Chef Camp Boswell holds forth at The Junction, a funky place adjacent to the rail yard. His casual food is creative and unique. His Sweet Tea Brined Fried Chicken ranks as one of the two best fried chicken renditions in my experience. Both highly recommended!