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Sunday, 01 January 2012

Where to Eat in Venice

            

The first time I went to Venice, I had on a backpack, paced its streets, and nearly slept on the steps of a small, isolated footbridge until a Canadian backpacker rescued me.  He brought me back to a hotel room where three other students were crashing, and we all spent the next four days getting lost.

There was no money then for eating in restaurants and no kitchen to cook in.  We made due with yogurt, rolls, and slices of pizza.  I remember aromas of baking bread trapped in narrow alleys.

I have had the good fortune to return to Venice more than two dozen times for long stays since that first visit.  No city fills me up quite as much.  Mainly it is the architecture, everywhere I look it is beautiful, and true, too, is the wonder of being in a place that has its own sense of time.  On the train or bus ride out, on the long isthmus, I feel as if I am returning to reality rather than simply ending a stay.  As Proust wrote: “I discovered in Venice that my dream had become… quite simply, my address.”

Nowadays, I go nearly each year to an apartment in Dorsoduro owned by good friends who live in Udine.  Harley, who grew up in the house, and Claudia, who is from Udine, exchanged their place in Venice with us years ago to come to Boston.  Subsequently, their daughters Camilla and then Susanna lived with us for summers, and soon we all grew closer.

Untitled 2What I love about the house in Dorsoduro is its simplicity, the old fashioned 1950’s feel to the interior, and the quiet canal it abuts.  On the top floor is a kitchen next to a tiled patio, and on warm nights it is lovely to drink wine and eat fresh fish or pasta overlooking the school and garden below.

This year, however, the kitchen was undergoing a renovation that would take up most of the time during our eight day stay in November.  We could eat in the house, but there was no stove.  The news scared me: Where could we eat in Venice?  Like most destinations where tourism accounts for the biggest share of revenue, the city, in my experience, has a host of crazy expensive, high-end joints where you drop big bucks and leave feeling poorly. 



Untitled 1Rather than frequent these unaffordable restaurants, I would go to Rialto market each morning.  Next to the Rialto bridge, the market, where deals were cut for trades and expeditions back when Venice was an empire, is now home to fruit and vegetable stands, cheese and meat shops, and fishmongers.  The products here are often superlative, and it is by far one of my favorite places in the world to buy food.

Still, without a stove, it was necessary to explore bars, cafes, and restaurants.  I would break my longstanding habit and return to another time in Venice when I had no stove, as a teenager; only this time I could afford more than a slice of pizza.

The best bakery I found in the city?  Colussi.   Each morning I bought freshly baked pretzels and whole grain breads.  And when the stove was available?  Potato gnocchi that, after I tossed them with butter and parmigiano, were ethereal.

Speaking of parmigiano, one of the world’s great cheese (and meat) shops is Casa del Parmigiano.   Located next to the bustle of the Rialto Market, this small family run outfit has stunning gorgonzola, pecorino, burrata, parmigiano, hams, and other cured meats.  And when the stove was available?  Small, exquisite raviolis stuffed with smoked mozzarella or porcini mushrooms.

It took courage, but we made it to a small collection of first-rate restaurants where locals dominated.  These were often hard to find, out of the way, and priced to satisfy fussy Venetians.  The three best pizzerias in the city are: Il Refolo, La Perla, and Vecio Canton.  We’re talking thin crusted pies baked swiftly to perfection washed down with draft beer or local wines. 


Wine, on its own, has its merits in Venice.  There is no shortage of wine bars in the city, many are wonderful, and for two or three Euro, you can enjoy a great glass.  Next to Casa del Parmigiano is literally a hole in the wall.  You order, you stand, you drink, and later you pay.  The white from San Erasmo is a chipper number.  My favorite wine bar, near the house we stay, just outside of Campo San Barnaba, is Osteria al Pugni.  It is situated at the base of a small footbridge where, ages ago, fights were staged to entertain the crowds.  Two sets of golden footprints mark the stances still.

Cross that bridge and you wind up in Campo Santa Margherita.  This is one of my favorite campos in the city.  Filled with students from the local university, as well as faculty, the campo has an impressive array of wine bars and little restaurants.

Your best bet here, and elsewhere in the wine bars, is to indulge in pre-meal snacks of cicchetti.  Displayed in glass, on long shelves, these tidbits are typically fried vegetables, small pieces of sausage, or fish like baccala.  Simply delicious.

KP142894Two upscale restaurants I came to enjoy in Venice are Pane e Vino, which offers remarkably good Friulian cuisine in a tavern like setting, and alle testiere.  The former has truly the best San Daniele proscuitto I have ever eaten.  The latter is now among my five favorite restaurants on earth: A menu that changes often, making use of superb local fish and shellfish, and consistency of presentation.  Just stunning.

Although I was hesitant to leave Venice, our friends invited us to stay with them for a night in Udine.  Claudia’s kitchen turned out deeply flavorful risotto, pasta with fall vegetables, and grilled polenta with melted gorgonzola.  I salivate thinking of it. 

We also went to the Foundation de Claricini Dornpacher nearby to savor superb local wines: Friulano, Prosecco, Refsco, and a Rosso named Guido Tavagnacco.

The bad news?  Claudia does not have a restaurant where you can enjoy her food.

The good news? Beginning this February, her daughter Camilla is going to run the house in Venice as a B&B.  You can enter the fairy tale world of Venice, and now that you know where to eat and drink, you won’t need a kitchen. 

Testiere1



Details:
Each of the restaurants, bars, and shops noted are readily found with patience and a map.  You must reserve alle testiere at least two weeks prior.  To reach Camilla: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..


© Scott Haas

      
    

Published in in good taste


New Orleans is Tourist Trap Heaven, what with expensive bars and clubs dotting Bourbon Street, a cartoonish image, and a reputation like Vegas: What happens in New Orleans stays in New Orleans. Avoid the traps, however, and you’ll discover a rich, complex cuisine steeped in regionalism and respect for ingredients.

I did my research before setting foot, as always, and the result was stunning. New Orleans has the best food I’ve had in the U.S. outside of New York City and Napa Valley. The menus are not varied, which accounts for the depth of flavors as restaurants compete implicitly to cook the best versions of classic dishes rather than reinvent what tastes good already. Unlike other cities like Boston where the chefs compete on who can be most creative, restaurant kitchens in New Orleans are focused, ingredient driven, and seasonal. What the food lacks in finesse, it makes up for concentrated tastes that are at once delicious and then memorable.

NO2

Herbsaint pasta

I had five nights and six days to find the best in food and drink. My mission met with success.

First stop was Napoleon House (500 Chartres Street, 504-524-9752). A centuries old corner bar with a small dining room adjacent to it, this spectacularly cinematic looking establishment is home to locals and visitors. The draw is the long bar in the front where bartenders mix classics in a dark, shadowy room. The drinks are relatively low in price, and treated by the bartenders as almost medicinal. They handle the alcohol with reverence and caution.  You can see the fear in their eyes as they mix the elixers or was that just me before quaffing?

It’s a short walk from Napoleon House to Bayona (430 Dauphine Street, 504-525-4455).  Helmed by Susan Spicer, Bayona has a lovely garden space, one of the most beautiful in the city, and a dining room that looks as if it as a set from “Sunset Boulevard.” The wait staff is chill, but anticipatory. The food? Dense and delicious garlic soup, sweetbreads, oysters, and wonderful fish from the gulf. 

The next day, we headed to Cochon (30 Tchoupitoulas Street, (504) 588-2123) for lunch. Cochon is a collaboration between Donald Link and Stephen Stryjewski, both James Beard award winning chefs. Located in the warehouse district, the place is killer. Amazing versions of roasted, milk fed pork, an oyster and bacon sandwich, and, if you’re feeling Cajun, fried boudin, fried alligator, and gumbo. The staff is tatoo covered and the crowd is rollicking. This is a party.

Late that night, feeling hunger return, we walked over to Lüke (333 St. Charles Avenue, 504-378-2840). This restaurant, a low-key establishment run by John Besh, another top New Orleans chef with a national reputation, offers brasserie style food served in huge portions accompanied by draft beers, good wines, and simple cocktails. Feasting here consists of dishes like mussels and fries, gulf fish amandine, shrimp with grits, and veal sausages. 

NO3Easily the best restaurant in the city, Herbsaint (701 St. Charles Avenue, 504-522-1679), is run by Donald Link. Refined, serious, and extremely focused cuisine, our lunch here of raw oysters, house-made pasta with a fried egg and guanciale, and a perfect fresh tuna club was heavenly. This is the kind of restaurant that sets the bar. It’s food that makes you happy, makes you think, has you consider the local traditions, and earns your respect for the chef’s vision and skill at leading a team of cooks in his kitchen.



The food in New Orleans is so satisfying that the time between eating isn’t spent thinking about your next meal, but is allotted instead to absorbing the fascinating variety of architectural styles of the city, the resilience of the locals, and the remarkably outgoing and friendly styles.

Then of course it’s time to eat again.

MiLa (817 Common Street, 504-595-6774) is a collaboration between the husband and wife team of Mississippi born Slade Rushing and Louisiana born Allison Vines-Rushing.  A bit austere, as it’s inside the Renaissance Pere Marquette Hotel, MiLa delivers a unique but southern experience. “Deconstructed” oysters Rockefeller, Sweetbreads with black truffle grits, pan roasted grouper, and pappardelle with shiitake are stand outs.  Our waiter looked a whole lot like Roy Orbison, which added something magical to the evening as we expected him at any minute to burst out with, “Pretty Woman,” rather than, “Your orders will be right out.”

No trip to New Orleans is complete without a daytime visit to the Treme, the largely black section of the city, which suffered devastation from Hurricane Katrina, and where even now, nearly six years later, emptiness and tragic loss remain profoundly evident.  You can support local businesses here. 

A great place to start is Willie Mae’s Scotch House (2401 St Ann Street, 504-822-9503). I suppose you can find fried chicken as good as Willie Mae’s, but for sure you won’t find any better. Two rooms of happy customers digging into food, enjoying iced tea, and taking it easy make for pure joy. This is also one of those places where it’s not just about the food.  We’re talking the urban experience: Soul at its finest. The “How You Doing?’s” you exchange as you walk through the Treme to get here reach a crescendo inside.

You might think that by now, we’d have been sated, but no culinary mission to New Orleans is complete without a trip to Emeril’s (800 Tchoupitoulas Street (504) 528-9393). Before Emeril Lagasse was a household name, before his signature shout, “Bam!” was parodied, there was his original restaurant where the guy showed up, ran a crew, and cooked as if his life depended on it. I am here to tell you that Emeril’s still rocks.

Regulars hugging waiters, a happy group of customers, and food with powerful yet reined in flavors. Emeril now has 11 restaurants, from Vegas to Miami, but this place is the heart of the empire.

It’s good because its original and flavorful and, ultimately, straightforward. Salmon “cheesecake,” glazed salmon, fried gulf shrimp, and, my favorite, Andouille Crusted Drum: A type of redfish from the Gulf that has been rolled in bits of sausage and then roasted.  Fine, it doesn’t sound good, but the play of pork and fish work wonders.



Only one dinner remained and we saved one of the best for last: Upperline (413 Upperline Street, 504-891-9822), where JoAnn Clevenger holds court. You dine, in a storybook neighborhood house deep in the Garden District, on fried green tomatoes with shrimp remoulade, turtle soup, cane river shrimp, and, yes, more sweetbreads. JoAnn is a genius at entertaining guests and is as much at home talking about the world outside the restaurant as she is at describing what goes on in the kitchen.

On our last morning, hesitant about leaving the city, fantasizing about moving to New Orleans, I headed over to Mother’s (401 Poydras Street, 504-523-9656) to buy an airplane picnic. We’re talking some of the city’s best Po’ Boys. Try the Ferdi Special (baked ham, roast beef, debris, and gravy) or the fried oyster sandwich. (Debris are the burnt ends of the roast beef. Just writing that sentence has me salivating.) The counter staff at Mother’s will be happy to discuss local rapper Lil Wayne’s phenomenal success as you wait for your order. When Obama appeared on the TV, one of the woman said gleefully, “That be my husband!”

When the plane reached cruising altitude and I took my first bite of the po’ boy from Mother’s, I tasted the soul of the city, longing for more, history in my hands.


©Scott Haas

 



Published in in good taste
Monday, 25 April 2011

Magic Mountains, Japanese Style


I wouldn’t call the Japanese stoic, nor is their culture especially passive, but the country’s reputation for acceptance of things as they are, rather than as they might be, has led to many cultural misunderstandings between Japan and the west. Much of this has to do with long suffering implicit in a Shinto-infused outlook on life. Simply put, this is a striving for perfection knowing that it cannot be reached, always falling short, and in this creative process establishing a richly symbolic duality. The Japanese aesthetic has a vision of how things ought to look and their best art is as much about what is missing as what’s seen.

This is one reason why it is so spellbinding to travel to Japan and why it has inspired Western writers and artists--such as Roland Barthes, Angela Carter, Henry Moore--who appreciate the tangle of signs and silences, the way nature in Japan is felt intuitively rather than seen as something to be dominated by human beings.

J3The pinnacle of the Japanese experience of quiet and natural aestheticism is found in their ryokans. One way to describe a ryokan is to call it a Japanese inn, typically in the countryside, where guests shed clothing and spend days and nights bathing in hot springs, dozing on tatami mats, and eating seasonal vegetable-driven cuisine served in small portions in multiple courses in a style called kaiseki that is centuries old.  

Another way to tell you about ryokans is to say that they are the Japanese version of a refuge sort of like the one Thomas Mann described in, “The Magic Mountain.” The effect of being at a ryokan is magnified by surrendering to nothingness. You become a child again, only this time there are no activities, there is nothing “to do,” and you feel an extremely powerful sense of physical and emotional relief.  

J2Ryokans in Japan vary in size and quality. The most famous are in stunning natural settings where guests return annually for decades to feel young again.  

Upon arrival you remove your shoes. You are led by an old woman to a room with sliding doors.  You put on a yukata, or Japanese robe, and for the duration of your stay, you shuffle from your bedroom, where meals are served at a table positioned on the floor, to the baths, which are typically open 24 hours. Usually segregated by sex, the baths have indoor and outdoor areas, with the heat having a strong, calming effect. There are no clocks in the best ryokans, and you blend with nature, merge with your surroundings, and your mind is emptied of concerns.



My favorite ryokan in Japan is called The Kayotei. Located in Yamanaka, an ancient hot springs village, this property has 10 rooms only, one of the best kitchens in the country, and thoughtful, dignified owners and management willing to share the legacy of Japan, which these days is threatened by forces nearly as great as what brought the nation to war and ended that war over half a century ago.

The Kayotei’s owner, Manasori Kamiguchi, describes himself as a “romantic idealist,” and indeed, in appearance and manner, he comes across as a person who appreciates the pleasure to be had in ideas and in connecting to others through small acts of specific kindness. An older man now, he still carries with him a youthfulness evident in his knowing smile and passion for describing his values.

I interviewed him to learn more about his outlook on life.

Q: How is your ryokan different from a hotel?

MK: The ryokan introduces guests to tangible and intangible cultural properties. At the JapanKayotei, for example, our guests enjoy clear and crystal water, clean and unpolluted air, balmy breeze, greenery of the mountains and birds’ chirping. I think it important that the Kayotei is located right in the middle of unspoiled nature.

Q: What is the historical role of ryokans? How did they originate and why?

MK: During the Muromachi period (14c – 16c) Japanese people started making a trip to Ise Shrine to make a prayer for their ancestors or/and Shikoku Island to make a pilgrimage. At that time they needed places to rest and stay on the way and way back.  I consider that it was the origin of Japanese ryokans, where those travelers stayed in groups in a large room together.  Later hot spring resorts became the places for merchants and samurai warriors to take a hot spring cure; Arima for Omi (present Shiga prefecture) merchants and Toyotomi Hideyoshi as well as Atami for Tokugawa Ieyasu. Those powerful shogun soaked away their wound and fatigue from their battles and enjoyed total relaxation. Later the way of entertaining the guests has been sophisticated as time passes.

Q: What is your philosophy for running your ryokan?

MK: The purpose of my ryokan business is not pursuit of profits. I put my philosophy into some J4short phrases; “The guests’ satisfaction is our joy and mental pabulum.” “Small is beautiful.” which means that the smaller a ryokan is, the closer conversation can be performed between the guests and the innkeeper. Wonderful baths that warm you to the bone and soothe away your aches and pains – both mental and physical. Because anyone that goes to an onsen mineral hot spring resort is assumed to be there for total rest and relaxation, the onsen inns provide the best service in the world. You’re kings and queens in your own mini-kingdom. The staff will serve you, put out your clothes, help you change, pour your tea or sake, separate fish and bones, explain the food, bring anything you order at any time.

Q: What do you think the future of ryokans will be?

MK: In the future the more Japanese places have been and will be urbanized, the more people would like to and will have to feel relaxed away from the din and bustle of the big city.


In my experience as a Westerner at The Kayotei my mind was cleared, inspiration provided, and a peaceful regression to a time I thought I’d lost occurred.


©Scott Haas
     
 
The Kayotei, http://www.ryokancollection.com/eng/kayoutei/ryokan_story.htm?ryokan=kayoutei  1.877.999.0680


Published in inhale
Tuesday, 12 October 2010

What Do Monkeys Want?

I had to get away, clear my head.  The year had more than its fair share of stresses, and I was readily distracted to the point where reading, writing and thinking were more difficult than ever before.  My concentration had been diminished.


It was early May.  I had arranged a house trade in the Dorsoduro section of Venice for a couple of weeks, followed by time in Switzerland: Five days in a remote farmhouse in canton Uri and then a week in Vals, in canton Graubünden.  I had been to all these locales and properties before – the summer prior and the one before that, too – and wanted, I thought, to repeat the experiences.

As the summer approached, I realized that neither Venice nor Switzerland would address my need for clarity.


So I sent an email to my friend Anita Gurnani, who runs Format Travel, based in New Delhi.  She had organized a trip I’d taken with my family through Rajasthan four years ago.

XL2J9655“I know just the place,” she said.  “I’ll send you photos, you’ll love it.”

I have to admit that my only trip to India had not been all that pleasant: Hours of daily driving, touring and the opposite of clearing my head.  I had been overwhelmed by the sights, smells, sounds and tastes, but at the same time I felt cut off from the narrative of lives I watched unfold.  I wanted to return to India to clear my head of that earlier visit.


The location?  Mashobra.  I’d never heard of Mashobra.


Situated approximately 250 miles east of Lahore, Pakistan, 250 miles south of Kashmir, and 250 miles southwest of Tibet, the village was one of several hill stations developed by the British Raj during their occupation of India.  The idea had been to move the summer capital to Shimla, about six miles from Mashobra, to escape the heat and monsoons of the cities.  Little cottages had been built, apple orchards cultivated, and churches and cobblestones constructed to create a replica of England within the Himalayas.

XL2J9530Anita sent photos.  The place was called Violet Hill, which I found immediately poetic.  The price, which included a male staff of a cook, guide/gardener and two housekeepers, was nearly the same as what my wife and I had planned to pay in Europe. I was in. I was so in.

 

 

Using Starwood points, I booked a room at the Maurya Sheraton in Delhi for our first three nights: The city looked like a construction site.  Roads were being torn up, buildings were coming down and going up.  It was all to prepare for the Commonwealth Games.  The hotel, located in Diplomatic Enclave, is a stunning refuge from the chaos of Delhi and has one of the world’s great restaurants, Bukhara, where I’d eaten several meals on the earlier trip.  It had an open tandoor oven, beautiful vegetables, rich dal (lentils) and amazing marinated lamb.

In the city, we spent time with Rafiq Wangnoo, a Kashmiri merchant, who sells carpets that belong in museums; did the Old Delhi motorbike rickshaw thing again; and visited an array of religious edifices: Jain, Sikh, Hindu and Muslim.  I do not have the religion gene, but the worshippers did, and from what I saw, the gene is dominant.


Flying north to Chandigarh was, however, an act of secular faith.  Security at Indian airports serves to heighten tension.  We had our passports checked numerous times and were groped periodically.  Once in the air, everything seemed OK.  That sense of things seeming OK (“I’m OK, I’m OK, I’m OK.”) lasted until we landed.

XL2J9407Then we were picked up and driven to Violet Hill.  Now if you Google to get directions from Chandigarh to Mashobra, you will find that it is approximately 72 miles distance and should take two hours and thirty minutes.  Hah!  What Google does not take into account is that the Indian infrastructure is among the world’s worst.


According to the World Economic Forum, India is ranked 89 out of 133 countries: “89th for road quality; 90th for ports, where the turnaround time for ships is 3.85 days, compared with 10 hours in Hong Kong; 65th for air transport; and 106th for quality of electricity supply. No Indian city receives water for 24 hours a day.”

Folks, it’s true.  The drive?  It took over five hours, and these five hours were not just spent in traffic or on dirt roads, but they took place beneath sagging cliffs, minor avalanches, hairpin turns, on the edge of precipices and, as a sort of grand finale lasting 30 minutes, through a thick fog and dense monsoon rain in which visibility was limited to perhaps 15 feet.


Sensibly, my wife covered her eyes until we veered off the paved road to the right and then up a narrow, dirt and stone avenue that led up towards the cottage.

XL2J9810The mood by then was informed by exhaustion and residual fear from the harrowing drive.  Hot tea and a brief tour by the property’s exceptionally pleasant owner improved matters, and by the time night fell and the shattering sound of locusts ceased, we were enjoying peace on the veranda.

 

 

The next morning we woke to what would become familiar sounds throughout our stay.

First, we heard screaming.  This went on for hours.  He was “a monkey man,” hired to scare off the monkeys.  We had arrived in the middle of the apple harvest and the monkeys were in the trees eating and gathering.


Monkeys do not know when to stop.

Then we heard movement in trees and sort of a “woo-woo.”  Next we saw the monkeys.  Dozens of monkeys: At the perimeter of the gardens, in the pine and apple trees, holding fruit, furtively scurrying, pushing faces forward expressively in alarm.


I found the monkeys very attractive and, thematically, they framed the holiday experience for me.  One paw holding an apple, one apple in its teeth, a monkey would look at me with a rare sentience.  They seemed to know that, except for the humans, they were the smartest animals around, which emboldened them.

Their only other predator was the snow leopard.


“Don’t take walks at night in the forest,” Prabhdip Singh, the owner, had said to us. “I had two dogs killed by leopards.”


During the day, we walked throughout the region, on our own or with Sanjul, the guide/gardener, visiting villages, farms and, up above the cottage, one of two retreats in the country for the Indian President.  Small plots of cabbage, corn, mustard and okra were growing.  Women in pink, scarlet and purple saris were working in the fields or on construction crews.  Men drove the Tata trucks carrying stones, laborers, apples and building supplies.


XL2J9524Between walks, we sat and read and wrote for six or seven hours each day.  I had brought a dozen books about India with me: Rushdie, J.G. Farrell, Sen, Chatterjee, and so on, and immersed in the works, I felt able to embrace the consciousness inspired by good writing.


Clouds rolled in, clouds rolled out.  We were high up, about 8,000 feet above sea level, and the weather changed dramatically by the hour, from a torrential monsoon storm to clear views of the snow capped high Himalayas.


In-between the books, writing, walks and the nature shows, we enjoyed the best Indian food I’d ever had.  The cook, Ramesh, took local vegetables and added buttery sauces; prepared classic lamb and chicken dishes; and, found papaya, pomegranates, and those amazing Indian mangos.


As someone who writes about food, I was eager to learn from Ramesh, and patiently he taught me 10 basic dishes.  The trick was to use spices – tumeric, cumin seeds, mustard seeds and so on – sparingly and to allow each dish to express its essence with specificity.  The flavors?  Deep and intense.

XL2J9551The whole experience was sort of like being in a dream college; the college I’d never had: Reading and writing all day, taking long walks, being with one person I love, and enjoying fresh, simple, delicious food.


Isolated, tranquil, digging deeper into emotional and intellectual recesses: The days were like long, hot baths, an Indian version of a Japanese inn (ryokan), where perception was heightened, ironically, through diminishment of stimuli.

 

 

We left the cottage and our walks only three times.  Twice to go to Shimla, the former British capital, where we bought spices in the fascinating Lower Bazaar and dodged monkeys that were like gymnasts on the wires, poles, and banisters.  Another time we left to go to Wildflower Hall.


I had been reading about Wildflower Hall for years: Built on the site of a home belonging to Lord Kitchener, commander in chief of the British army in India from 1902-1909, the property, now owned by The Oberoi Group, seemed in photos to be a fairytale castle out of “Lost Horizon.”


I had not known that the hotel was literally less than half a mile up a steep hill behind our cottage.  We climbed, walking past a tiny school for elementary age children, past two water buffalo ready to be snapped in photos for tourists, and then onto a long drive across the street from several dhaba (roadside cafes) where snacks and teas are sold.


P1130175Wildflower was intense: Exquisite, honeymoon heaven, with a bar that had a blazing fire and ice-cold gin, a restaurant with savory lamb dishes and great breads, a pool that was therapeutic, and staff who, like so many lucky enough to have jobs in India, appeared to take a personal interest in guests.

In the garden of the hotel, en route to the gazebo, I came across two monkeys on the path.  I clapped my hands to shoo them away.  They stayed put.  To add to it, a much larger monkey appeared, and not quite grinning, bared its teeth and leaned back as if to pounce.


I ran.


Back in the room of the hotel, I should have heeded the sign and broadened its application: “Please keep the windows closed during the day to safeguard your belongings from monkeys.”


Two other confrontations with monkeys took place.


Once walking past a school for the deaf near Wildflower, a huge Himalayan Macaque, darker than the rhesus we’d seen before, chased my wife for a bit before retreating and after having made his territorial point.


Another time we woke to the sound of half a dozen monkeys on the roof of the cottage: Screeching and pounding, they were agitated because they were being pursued by The Monkey Man.


What do monkeys want?  Food, warmth, love, security, companionship, decent but not too aggressive IRA growth, bananas – things we all want, but they also want to be left alone.


Me, too.


©Scott Haas


Violet Hill, the property we rented, is available by contacting:

Anita Gurnani, Format Travel, www.formattravel.com

Or: Mr. Prabdip Singh: 011-91-09815442233.

Wildflower Hall: www.oberoihotels.com

Or: http://www.oberoihotels.com/oberoi_wildflowerhall/index.asp


And don’t think the monkeys want to be your new best friends.  They can be very aggressive!

Published in indulge
Monday, 03 May 2010

In Search of Wasabi

What is that pale green stuff coming out of tubes or situated in tiny mounds next to sashimi?  It’s got as much to do with real wasabi as going to a tanning salon has to do with a day at the beach.  Still, you get the point from dabbing raw fish into it— it accentuates the flavors, provides contrast with texture, and gives hints of bitterness that play with the sweetness of the sashimi. But the wasabi we get here is horseradish dyed green.  Horseradish has plenty of flavor and tastes good, but it’s not wasabi. 

Published in in good taste

Siem Reap: Twelfth century Buddhist and Hindu temples, huge fruit bats flying like black clouds over city parks, and rice fields stretching for miles in all directions.  My wife and I went to see the temples and enjoy the remarkable hospitality--Cambodians we met were very curious about us and frank in telling us their life stories.  We also returned with a love of their food.

Published in in good taste

Until the early 1950’s, the remote valleys, alps, and mountain villages of Switzerland were cut off from the rest of the country.  An influx of unprecedented post-war capital, fed by frightened investors who had witnessed the destruction of neighboring economies, created a huge federal surplus.  Rather than sit on the money, invest it abroad, or initiate private-public entrepreneurial projects, the Swiss federal government, in cooperation with cantons (states) and smaller communities, decided to create a transportation infrastructure which today is a global model of efficiency and environmental good sense.

Published in indulge
Saturday, 05 July 2008

Switzerland: A Second Honeymoon

A couple of decades ago, although it seems as if was more recent, say about 15 years, my girlfriend and I, newly married, honeymooned in Switzerland.  The placidity of the surroundings suited us just fine after the tumult needed to seal our lives together.  This past June we returned to the scene as empty-nesters on our first holiday without the children who were now grown up enough to attend colleges and use my credit card for an impressive variety of goods and services.

Published in in love
Tuesday, 31 July 2007

Airborne: To Fly is Human

Many people are reluctant to fly to Asia for a number of reasons: jet-lag, 12 to 14 hours in the air, dislocation and anxiety from being in a time zone 12 or 13 hours ahead of home. I count myself among the hesitant. I wouldn’t go until four years ago. But I’ve been back three times since that first visit. Once you’re in Japan or China, all the confusion, boredom, and worrying are balanced by experiencing cultures that are frankly exotic, confident, and affirming. It will change your life.

Published in interview
Saturday, 23 June 2007

The Kayotei: A Japanese Ryokan

Before I set foot inside a ryokan, the Japanese version of a country inn, I pictured what we have here in New England: Rustic, low-key, old-fashioned, creaking floorboards, pleasant and garrulous hosts, simple fare of roasted, overcooked meats, and incredibly stodgy, faux upscale service. I should have known better.

Published in innkeeper
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