San Francisco – hopping over hills and bridges

Leisurely wake up and breakfast, but then it’s time for a spot of work: we have to prepare our presentations for the meetings we have set up on Monday – we go through a few revisions and a final honing which take us to early afternoon and then we’re ready to grab the car and go sightseeing. We want a panoramic tour, so first we head towards Lombard Street at Hyde, reputedly the steepest in San Francisco and featuring a series of hairpin bends. Yes, another tourist’s delight and the cars line up on top of the hill to negotiate the bends, but hey, it’s fun! We try to bounce up and down the SF hills as in a film car chase, but tone this down after we discover our Magnum has a low wheel base and risk tearing the exhaust off…

Boss, Beer and BurritoHaight-Ashbury is next: a district of Victorian houses and pretty gardens much beloved by 1960s flower children. The area still holds a certain feel of that age: shops selling clothing in psychedelic colours, smoke stores, bookshops, many bars and street cafés. We stop by a Mexican taqueria – El Balazo – and enjoy a bong beer and a burrito with chicken, salsa, rice, beans and guacamole which must be about the best I’ve had this side of Tijuana!

We then drive up yet more hills up to the highest of them all: Twin Peaks. From here the view on this glorious autumn afternoon is sweeping: the neat rows of houses on the SF hills; the straight line of Market Street pointing to the gleaming downtown skyscrapers; the fog starting to roll in from the Pacific Ocean towards the Golden Gate; the blue waters of the Bay stretching round to Oakland and beyond. Cameras click and videos whirr, and I happily join the lenspointers to take a couple of panoramas.

Twin Peaks Panorama - click to enlarge

The afternoon draws on and we want to see the ocean! We drive down from Twin Peaks through the appropriately named Sunset District to the Great Pacific Highway. Alas, there is no sunset to admire as a grey mist begins to envelop us, but still it’s an experience to walk onto the broad sandy beach, dip a finger into the cold waters of the Pacific and think: next stop – Japan! There are only a few surfers around us, paddling out towards the crashing waves, ignoring the warnings of strong currents and severe undertow!

Golden Gate Bridge in the fog

Time to head for the Golden Gate Bridge! This icon of 1930s engineering is probably the most photographed bridge in the world. I have made my little contribution to this record! Not much chance to admire the scenery on the drive over to the North side, as traffic is heavy: apparently over 100.000 cars a day cross the bridge, despite the $ 5 toll! More photo-ops on the North Plaza of the view across the Bay to San Francisco in the fading light.

We drive along the shore to Sausalito, and are pleasantly surprised by this beautiful little town reminiscent of a Mediterranean resort. The main street is lined with cafés, restaurants and upmarket stores and nearby a large marina attracts my colleague’s eye. He is a keen sailor and as we hop from one pier to another, he explains the finer points of each boat. Not that I understand much – they all look large and expensive to my untrained eye!

Well, at this point the sun has long set and we are getting tired, so it’s over the Golden Gate Bridge and back to the Omni hotel.

San Francisco – Cable cars, Chinatown and Crabs

SF SkyscrapersSan Francisco – arrived here very late on Friday night – 11 pm SF time, working out to 1 am Chicago time. Fortunately the bags arrive quickly and Hertz get me a Dodge Magnum with a huge Hemi engine to drive the way to the city centre.

A sidenote: I have taken the Tomtom satnav with me on this trip, and I noticed that it gets rather confused by the sudden location changes as I travel across the continent. I turn it on as I leave the airport but it takes ages to get a satellite fix, so that I am halfway to downtown before it springs to life and guides me to the hotel. Maybe it’s suffering from jetlag too!

The Omni San Francisco is just the right kind of place I want to stay the weekend: an upscale four star with excellent service, a great room with a very comfortable bed and good location in the financial district just next to Chinatown. Not to mention that it also offers very good prices over weekends when the usual business customers are at home!

Cable carSaturday morning I wake up at a leisurely hour. Yes, I want to go out to explore, but I also need some rest and recuperation after my to-and-fro travels last week. After an excellent breakfast (blueberry pancakes with lots of maple syrup – yum!), I set off up the hill of California Street towards Chinatown. Right outside the hotel I see my first San Francisco cable car of the day! These trams moved by underground cables were apparently common in many cities even in Europe, but only in SF have they survived replacement by buses, and have now become the icon of the city just as London’s double-deckers. It’s a glorious sunny day, starting off fresh, but soon I have to take off my leather jacket. Chinatown is a three by five block rectangle of streets crammed with restaurants, dim sum parlours and little shops selling not only cheap chinese artefacts, Chinatown paradebut also expensive furniture and jade and ivory carvings. Suddenly to the sound of beating drums a long red paper dragon comes round the corner, followed by other costumed dancers in a long parade. It’s some kind of celebration, presumably with political overtones as then several men with rather serious faces appear, waving Taiwanese (?) flags, escorted by San Francisco’s Finest appropriately riding Harleys.

I continue walking into the North Beach area on the way to the harbour. Here China gives way to Italy, instead of dim sum we now have pizza and gnocchi, and street cafés offering espresso coffee. Quaint touches of an old Italian community abound, there’s even an Alfa Romeo garage with 1970s Spiders being serviced!

From North Beach I walk down to the waterfront: Fisherman’s Wharf is an obligatory stop for SF visitors. Yes, it’s one giant tourist trap, with dozens of souvenir stalls, and “I escaped from Alcatraz”-T-shirt shops, but the view makes it all worthwhile: the blue waters of the Bay with bobbing sailing boats, Alcatraz Island with its white prison in front of the hills of Marin County, the orange span of The Golden Gate bridge to the left. Here too, plenty of restaurants: San Francisco offers the most diverse cuisine in the whole of the US! I stop at one of many crab stalls and enjoy a wonderful crabmeat roll with a Bud to drink.Crab sandwich

I walk along to Pier 39, which features the highest concentration of tourist tack, but also a unique attraction: a sealion colony that established itself right here sometime in the 1990s occupying three wooden piers and then refused to go away. Apperently they find the spot congenial for rest and recuperation after dodging the sharks in the Bay! The crowds are getting thicker still, but this is no ordinary Saturday afternoon: it’s the “Navy Week”, and the pilots of the “Blue Angels” squadron are about to start a show over San Francisco! A free airshow is not a thing to miss, so I watch the F/A 18s roar in and perform their evolutions over the water and the city.

Time to go back to the Omni to get the car and pick up my boss at the airport. He’s come in direct from Milan via Frankfurt – claims to be awake and well after the 11 hour flight, but that’s a tad optimistic. We head for a restaurant nearby the hotel and by the time he’s finished his steak, he’s already nodding off!

Chicago

I have to wake up before dawn to catch my 7am flight to Chicago. I get to the airport on time, check in (not an easy process, US airlines these days expect you to it all by yourself, at a machine just like an ATM!) and then face a line of hundreds at security. I eventually arrive at the head of the queue. hand my papers, the TSA guy scans them and says: “OK, you’re a four-S, come with me!” Now I have no idea what a four-S is, but I can only guess Squarci Selected for Special Scrutiny, as I am then led into a area cordoned-off for screening Enemy Combatants from innocent businessmen. I get a hand search, my bags are searched with swabs put though an explosives detection machine, but as I’m not in the habit of carrying Semtex, I pass muster and am waved through.

Arrival in Chicago. The I-90/I-94 from O’Hare to the Loop is perennially congested despite the 10 lanes, so it takes over an hour and a half to get to the McCormick Convention Centre where I am visiting an exhibition. I meet all my contacts and customers then get back to the Loop to check into my hotel. This is the Allerton, right on the Magnificent Mile, one of the world’s grandest shopping streets. Nearby the hotel are Neiman-Marcus, Williams-Sonoma, and Macy’s and… an Apple Store right in front! A paradise for shopaholics!

Magnificent Mile

I rest awhile and dinnertime arrives. Where to go? Chicago has innumerable choices, I can certainly recommend the Chicago Chop House for excellent steaks, but I had steak yesterday so something different is called for. Why not combine dinner with another Chicago institution, the Blues? So I head for Buddy Guy’s Legends, just a short El ride away from the hotel on South Wabash.

Legends is Buddy Guy’s Blues Club and museum of assorted bluesy memorabilia that aficionados will appreciate. But it’s also a great place to enjoy southern Cajun soul food: I tried as a starter the fried okra with honey-mustard sauce and as a main course the Legendary Etouffé: crawfish tails and vegetables in a red roux, served with rice and cornbread. Excellent stuff, washed down with plentiful Goose Island Honkers Ale, a malty bitter Chicago beer. A Key Lime pie rounded off the meal.

Eddie Shaw

At 9:30 the music began! The performing act tonight was Eddie Shaw & the Wolf Gang. As my more experienced friends will know, Eddie Shaw, Howlin’ Wolf’s sideman, is a fine vocalist and sax player, and is accompanied by Lafayette “Shorty” Gilbert on bass and Vaan Shaw playing a triple-neck guitar. I’m no expert, so can only say “wow!” – a great gig that had all the audience rocking on their seats, especially when Buddy himself came on for a cameo appearance. A wonderful evening and great value at $ 10 cover charge.

Minneapolis

Minneapolis – yes, a city of hard-working Lutheran Scandinavian immigrants. That is the cliché, and maybe it’s true. Certainly in the crowds at the airport there is a high proportion of fair-skinned blond people and there are ads for the “Lutheran Investment Funds”…

The Minnesotans I meet are a friendly and easy-going lot, open-minded and conversational. Maybe the long hard winters (fishing through a hole in the ice is a popular sport) have made these mid-Westerners particularly social people.

So it is with pleasure that I accept their invitation for dinner – my first proper meal since arriving in North America! We go to Redstone in Eden Prairie, a suburb to the south west of Minneapolis.

Redstone This is a hip, trendy place, set beside a lake and full to the gills – on a Wednesday night! The cuisine here is American grill, so I know just what to order: New York Strip Steaka large New York strip steak, cooked rare, accompanied by asparagus and potatoes. I am not disappointed,this char-grilled steak is succulent and tender.

To follow, a yummy pumpkin cheesecake – a very seasonal dessert and one that would be very hard to find outside the US!Pumpkin Cheesecake

Toronto 2

I wake up this morning in Toronto. At 4 am. Groan… jet lag on the first night is the worst. I toss and turn until at 6 am I decide to catch up with e-mail. It’s grey and pouring with rain outside, so after breakfast I have to get a cab to my meeting. My hotel is in the Bloor Street/Yorktown district of Toronto, a rather upscale area, and indeed the road is lined with Italian fashion boutiques: Prada, Gucci et al, and the flagship Canadian department store – the famous Hudson’s Bay Company. After the meeting I have time to kill as my flight out is only in the evening. The rain has cleared up, so I walk down Yonge St. to downtown. This is another of Toronto’s main roads, but considerably more plebeian with various ethnic restaurants and small shops with permanent sales. Looks rather dreary to me. Maybe this is because the real downtown, as in Montréal, is in vast underground shopping malls, purpose-built so that shoppers in the winter don’t have to negotiate the snow and freezing temperatures!

The weather brightens up considerably and the sun glitters off the skyscrapers – I am once again near the CN Tower and the huge sci-fi rocket spire today looks much more impressive against the blue sky.

Toronto Tram and Tower No time to go up and see the view, so I do a spot of shopping: I am a hat-lover, and Toronto is the home of the famous Tilley …and I eventually emerge with my very own Mesh Hat, to add to my collection of two Borsalinos, an Aussie Bushhat and a Russky kolbakh!

This being a multiethnic city, I have multi-ethnic meals: a beef sukiyaki at a Japanese fast-food for lunch and a bagel with cream cheese and lox at the airport bar for dinner! Alas, I see more airports than restaurants these days!

Pearson International again to catch my flight to Minneapolis. I check in and then am directed to my surprise to US Immigration just behind the check in desks. It seems that the Americans have delocalised their place of entry to Canada! I stand in a long queue to face interrogation by a grim border security official and be subjected to the odious “US-Visit” procedure: mugshot and two fingerprints. How very different from the civilised Canadian immigration! Next comes the baggage search by the TSA. New travellers to the US should know that you *can* now take liquids, creams and gels on board: but the must be in bottles of less than 200 ml and be contained in a clear plastic bag max. 1 lt in size. Presumably this is for the benefit of women who wish to take their make-up on board. A bottle of Coke is definitely a no-no!

Toronto

Arrived in Toronto this afternoon. How civilised it is to fly to Canada rather than the US – no pesky questions at boarding, no tiresome security searches and at arrival, Canada immigration is quick and efficient and does not subject you to fingerprinting and mugshots! My suitcase is delivered and I’m out of the airport within half an hour!

I travel on the airport bus into downtown: a compact centre of skyscapers by Lake Ontario, dominated by the CN Tower (still the tallest free-standing tower in the world?). On closer view, the CN Tower does not look quite picture-postcard handsome, in fact, the 1970s concrete looks rather stained! In the midst of the skyscrapers, several parks and Victorian government buildings and brown-brick mansions.

I check in the hotel and am too tired after the flight to wander around much, but a couple of things strike me:

  • the sheer number of Chinese faces – I know that many Chinese have emigrated to Canada, but I thought they were all in Vancouver and B.C.!
  • the face of Queen Elizabeth on the back of the loonie (Canadian Dollar) – one does forget this is the Loyalist bit of North America!

Madrid – Casa Lucio

A short two-day trip to Madrid this week. Flying from Venice with Iberia. Ostensibly a flagship airline as opposed to low-cost, but I discovered that it cuts service to the bone, i.e. zero: even the coffee on board (on a two and a half hour flight) you have to pay for. At least it offered on-line check-in from home one day before, so I could have a seat of my choosing.

Arrival at Madrid Barajas airport to find that a spanking new Iberia terminal had opened: in the style of modern airports, this is a very long building, certainly over a km long, concrete and glass with a wavy wood-clad roof. Soft reflected lighting. Very nice, pity the bags took a long while at arrival. Transfer to Madrid city centre couldn’t be easier: the metro arrives right to the airport. Modern trains with wide spaces, LCD tellies with newsreels and, please note, UK transport chiefs, a flat fare of just one Euro to travel all over the city!

I am here to visit a small trade show, but by happy coincidence, I discover my Man in Seville is here too, accompanied by our numero uno Spanish customer. What an excellent excuse to have a good meal together! The more so since Manuel, my distributor, is a fellow Gastronaut and is sure to know the right restaurant. Our taxi takes us to the casco viejo, the old city centre, where in a maze of narrow streets we find Casa Lucio, in an old medieval building. This is an old-established Castilian restaurant, much frequented by pols, actors and other important people such as ourselves. We are lucky to get a table: we were threatened with an 11pm reservation, but after some bargaining a table is “discovered”. Manuel orders for us all – as a starter a good plate of jamon serrano, the local prosciutto that comes in several varieties, some very expensive. This is always a good choice in Spanish restaurants, I find it excellent, but Manuel is picky, saying the jamon in Seville is far superior, but for him anything outside of Andalusia is suspect! Next on the menu is a hearty plate of callos a la madrilena, a tripe stew with tomatoes and chorizo sausages – a very traditional and classic Madrid dish, we happily dunk our bread in the sauce to finish it up! I find it a pity that tripe and other innards have fallen out of favour – there are many wonderful recipes out there that are no longer cooked for want of raw material. After the tripe, a surprise: a dish arrives with what seems to be a horrendous British culinary invention: fried potatoes mixed with scrambled eggs!. I gingerly taste a spoonful, despite the appearance the taste is excellent, and Manuel explains to me that such egg concoctions are a speciality at Casa Lucio. Our meat is a wonderfully tender solomillo a la parilla, a fillet served sizzling on a hot skillet, with large grains of sea salt sprinkled on top. Spain is blessed with good meat – maybe a by-product of the bull rearing?

Our wines are truly excellent: two bottles of Ribera del Duero, a potent full-bodied barrique red with an alcohol content of 14-15%. The first bottle, a 2003 Emilio Moro is wonderfully fruity with an intense bouquet of wild cherries and blackberries, the second, a 2003 Matarromera is also rich, but more rounded and very smooth. Pity that Casa Lucio sees fit to serve wine in glasses that could have come out of my grandmother’s pantry!

To round off this excellent meal, a snifter full of Gran Reserva Luis Felipe, a brandy from Huelva matured in old sherry casks, similar to my personal favourite Cardenal Mendoza. Great to cradle in one’s hands and catch the rising aromas, whilst discussing the intricacies of Spanish politics (Manuel is a committed Franquista). I’ll definitely have to add a bottle of Luis Felipe to my shopping list!

Casa Lucio, Cava Baja 35, Madrid. Tel: 91 3658217

Paris – Astier

Not a good day today. Plan: fly to Paris via Zurich, arrive around lunchtime, and visit an exhibition in the afternoon. Reality: I arrive in Venice airport to find it wreathed in a thick spring fog, incoming plane is delayed, I miss the connecting flight in Zurich, and have to wait two hours for the next one. Result: a day wasted hanging around in airports and I only arrive in Paris at 6 pm!

But Paris has a special je ne sais quoi that revives the jaded business traveller. Maybe the warm evening sunlight shining on the boulevards? Or the colourful array of all kinds of little shops, offering clothing for grosses tailles, upscale bathroom fixtures or boulangeries that might have been there a few generations? My spirits lift and soon it’s time for dinner!

I decide to explore the surroundings of my hotel in the Place de la République. Not far away is Astier, a small bistro with closely spaced tables, wood panelling and napkins the same size as the tablecloths!

The menu is a selection of bistro standards, with some nice alternatives in the fish department. But I’m in the mood for meat, so as a starter I order an excellent foie gras de canard with a glass of sweet Jurançon wine. This is quickly followed by the main course of lapin à  la sauce moutarde, tender rabbit legs with a delicate mustard sauce.

Next comes a highlight in Astier: a truly huge plateau de fromages with over two dozen cheeses, brought to the table on a wire trestle, similar to the seafood plate in other restaurants. A real temptation, and for a cheese lover as me, it’s not easy to resist trying a little bit of this, then a litle bit of that… weight watchers be warned! After this feast, no room for dessert! Oh, alright, I confess to having a refreshing sorbet de mangue to clear my palate!

From the impressive wine list, I chose a very decent Loire Valley red, Saumur Champigny Chateau de Hureau 2002.

Excellent value, with the menu fixe at Euro 27 + wine.

Astier, 44 rue J. Pierre Timbaud, Paris 11e.

Newmarket – The Old Plough

Three days in the UK this week, on tour to see some customers and to visit a trade show. Gives me ample time to explore the culinary delights of Newmarket! Not that I have any business here, but it’s the home town of my Woman in UK, and reasonably convenient for reaching the motorways towards the Midlands.

The true vocation of Newmarket is evident a few miles before entering the town centre: a large bronze statue of a prancing horse and his stableboy dominates a large roundabout – for Newmarket is the home of British horseracing. Horsey features are abundant – vast fields with “gallops” surround the town, motorists stop and give way to horseriders, on busy gallops crossing a public road, riders can even pull a special handle at “racehorse crossings” to turn traffic lights red. An accident with a horse would surely be very expensive, as these are no ordinary horses, but thoroughbred beasts that are traded by tycoons, royalty and sheiks at the local horse sales.

The NEC exhibition halls in Birmingham have little to offer beyond overpriced sandwiches and bar food, so it is with pleasure that we return to Newmarket for our evening meals. On the three nights we have a fair cross-section of British cuisine: the chinky, the tandoori and the pub dinner. The Chinese and Indian restaurants in the town centre were very good, but special mention must go to The Old Plough pub in Ashley, a village just outside Newmarket. It is here where my Woman in UK and her husband take me on Tuesday night.

From the outside The Old Plough is unassuming, but the warm, cosy interior with the roaring open fireplace is welcoming. All kinds of bric-a-brac adorn the stone walls. Just the sort of place to spend a couple of hours with a few pints of Caffrey’s to enliven the conversation. But this is much more than a pub, it is a fine restaurant well known in the area with a fine wine list to boot! Fish is a strong point here, and after a starter of excellent grey shrimps on toast (nowhere to be had in Italy), I know exactly what to order: a grilled Dover Sole! Good Dover Soles are getting ever rarer, especially in the size served here – huge! We are not disappointed – the sole is juicy and meaty and served with a choice of a dozen different vegetables. Well cooked veg is a rarity in Britain, where cooking of peas and carrots varies wildly from the almost raw to the mushy, but here at The Old Plough they get it just right. The wine of choice tonight is a Lugana from the South of Lake Garda. I have written about this wine before, and I am surprised to see it on offer so far from its home region. Just the right degree of dryness to go with the sole. We barely have room for dessert and here too I am not disappointed – a crème brulée with a layer of raspberries. Scrumptious! Special Gastronaut Best of British Pubs award! The prices are correct for the UK: £ 150 for three, including two bottles of wine and pre-dinner drinks.