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Shit to Do Before I Die: Eat at French Laundry

January 13, 2010

“One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well,” stated Virginia Woolf, which is why I believe everyone should eat at a the French Landry once in your life.  Now, I know that this is a bold statement and one you might have a problem with it if you are one of those people who eat to live (not live to eat), but I will hopefully convince those people shortly.

Why is eating at this restaurant really something you should do before you die?  If being the best restaurant in the United States isn’t reason enough for you to make the trip.  You can always use it as bragging rights or because, the reason I prefer, that it is the best ingredients prepared with meticulous care by someone with amazing talent.  All of which results in amazing experience and mind blowing food.

The French Laundry

Those of you who live to eat, this blog should be nothing new.  Those who have not discovered how food can be elevated from substance to an art form, I hope this will inspire you to try something new.  That is what we aim to do here at Travelverse with our ‘Shit to do before you die’ blogs, inspire you. By the way, I wouldn’t mind if you ate at Le Bernardin or Joel Robuchon, but if you going to splurge and only once, why not go American?  And why not the French Laundry when it is arguably the best restaurant in the United States?  If you don’t agree then you can agree that Thomas Keller is the best American Chef in the United States and if you don’t agree with that then you’re a lost cause.

First off I am not putting down any kind of food, I love simple food, but eating at a restaurant like The French Laundry is an experience.  How is it an experience? Well, a way to look at dinning at this restaurants is that it is an event.  Dinner can take up to 2 hours and longer!   Some of you might say “there is no way that I can sit there that long” or  “two hours is way too long!”  Well it is pretty easy in fact and the time will fly by.

Most of the dinner will involve conversation.  Conversation about the food, wine, what is going on around you, random chit-chat or a maybe even a heart to heart if your doing a wine pairing (the dinner is 9+ courses). If you can’t talk to the person you are with for that long then you should probably rethink your relationship, because you are given plenty to talk about.  You should try to talk about the food and the wine, what you like, what you don’t like- it is half the fun!  Try things that sound interesting or that you haven’t had before too, you might be surprised at what you like! I will say that you should put yourself in the hands of the chef for the best experience.

The menu consists of a 9 course tasting menu of small dishes. You have a few choices and a vegetarian option but for the most part the menu is set. I am sure they will make exceptions but remember what I said about leaving it up to the chef? Plus, making decisions is over rated. To describe the purpose of the menu I am going to quote the restaurant’s website, because I would not be able to say it better. “What we want you to experience is that sense of surprise when you taste something so new, so exciting, so comforting, so delicious, you think, “Wow”- and then it’s gone. We want the peak of sensation on the palate to be all you feel. SO we serve a series of small courses meant to  excite your mind, satisfy your appetite and pique your curiosity.”  Now some of you with big appetites might not believe that these small plates will fill you up. It will, my dad and I have large appetites and we were full after dinner.

In the Kitchen

Preparing Lobster & Bacon

I tend to go to these restaurants with my family and they tend to be the most memorable experiences that I have with them lately.  Once you get older it is hard to find the time to spend quality time with your family. What better way to spend time with family than over great food and a great atmosphere?  Dinner with my family was one of the most memorable experiences I have had with them in the last 3 years (the other was our family road trip through Italy).  We still talk about our dinner at the French Laundry from almost a year ago.  I believe it turned my sister into a gourmand.

I know of a few tips for getting a reservation at the French Laundry. Be flexible in your date, you have to make a reservation two months in advance and there are a lot of people that want reservations at this restaurant.  The later reservations seem to go first, so go for an early one. I prefer the early reservations due to the length of the dining experience. I haven’t tried it but I believe you can make a reservation at 12:01AM on opentable.com on the day that is two months prior.  I called and while I was on hold, I went to opentable.com and made my reservation for the time I wanted.  There is not sure fire way, so again be flexible in your date.

If you are looking to experience a dinner like this and have no way of making it to Yountville, Ca (where the French Laundry is located), don’t worry.  There a ways to find restaurants that can offer you similar experiences near you.  One is the Michelin guide which is a pretty solid restaurant guide.  They use a star rating system.  Their rating system is as follows:

* A very good restaurant in its category (e.g. Commis in Oakland, CA or Gramercy Tavern in NYC)

** Excellent and worth a detour (e.g. Manresa in Los Gatos, CA)

*** Exceptional cuisine and worth the journey (e.g. French Laundry, Le Bernardin in NYC or Joel Robuchon in Las Vegas)

The downside is that Michelin does not go to every city, so if you are looking for something closer to home I suggest using chowhound.com or opentable.com – I prefer chowhound.com because you can search the boards for recommendations or make a post asking for recommendations on what you seek.  I suggest searching the boards first before making a post.

Everybody has their own tastes, whether is about food, art or architecture, which makes it difficult to recommend things like restaurants.  I recommend that you do some research before you choose a restaurant to find one that fits your tastes but the French Laundry comes highly recommend! Whatever restaurant you choose, I am sure you will have a memorable experience.

***French Laundry is located at 6640 Washington St., Yountville, CA in the Napa Valley.  More information is available by visiting their website at www.frenchlaundry.com.

Travel Log: Vietnam, Part IV – “Eat, Drink and Yoo” (16 & 17 October 2009)

January 12, 2010

Those that know me, know that I love adventurous food and that I just plain love to eat -I guess you can say that I live to eat.  A huge part of traveling for me is eating new food and food associated with the area that I am traveling.

My first night in HCMC, Loc and I met up with some of his friends at a restaurant where I had what I would call my first Anthony Bourdain moment of the trip.  The restaurant was a long taxi ride outside the city into the suburbs of HCMC.  I remember crossing a bridge after driving 15 minutes and asked Loc “Where are you taking me?” The neighborhood we entered had a vastly different feel than the city.  It was only what I could describe as more gritty, but it felt lived in- I actually liked it better than HCMC.  The restaurant was owned by a friend of one of Loc’s friends.  We were joined by, people he worked with, his friends, and their girlfriends.

It was a typical Vietnamese building, narrow and 4 to 5 stories high. Nothing set this building apart from its neighbors except when you walked in you were surround by fish tanks full of living creatures. All of the actual dinning took place on the floors above it and the kitchen occupied its own floor. The bottom floor was used to show off what the restaurant had to offer.  We took a elevator to a small private room on the third floor.

Throughout the night we were brought out courses picked out by his friends, which included some interesting dishes.  One of the most interesting dishes was veal tongue.  Those of you who have ever eaten any kind of tongue know it is interesting looking. It was served like a beef carpaccio.  It was a little tough and stringy and didn’t have the flavor of beef tongues that I have had before.

Veal tongue anyone?

Another dish was a mud crab hot pot, however the restaurant did not receive any fresh mud crabs that morning, so they were replaced with another kind of crab. The name escapes me, but you can see it in the picture. We actually got this dish for free because they didn’t have fresh mud crabs.  The crabs were boiled in a broth and when they were done they were replaced with noodles and vegetables. Eating the crabs was extremely messy because you had to use your hands, it was either that or use chop sticks.  The noodles and crabs were a very good dish and probably my favorite of the evening.

Crab Hot Pot

Throughout the night we had fermented prawn sauce available for dipping, it is like fish sauce but it has more pungent taste.  Apparently it is supposed to better, who knows.

Drinking is a huge part of the Vietnamese culture, so of course this night we did our fair share. Someone would raise their glass, say “Yooo..” (I don’t know if I am spelling it right or what it means besides “drink”) and everyone rises up their glass, says “Yoo..” and we all drink as if we are one of Pavlov’s dogs.  His friends really tried to make me feel comfortable and involve me in the conversation, some spoke a little English and Loc did translate- but the way they made me feel welcome, was though drinking.

Side note: From my understanding this “Yoo..” cheer is used in Southern Vietnam, in the North it is “Cheers” (Lame- I know) and “100%”.  When someone says 100% it means chug all of your drink, which sounds like something you would do in college.  There are other drinking cheers, some sounded like songs, but I didn’t participate in those or understand them.

VIP Karaoke?

I left dinner with a slight buzz and extremely exhausted, it has been a very long couple of days for me on only a few hours of sleep.  Loc’s friends decided that we should all go to karaoke bar and no, I did not partake in the singing -I don’t know if there was enough bourbon in that place to get me to sing. Anyways, I was traumatized when I was 12 years old and vowed to never sing again. Cue ripply flash back.  When I was 12 years old after a baseball game we went out for pizza like most kids and on this night the pizza place had Karaoke. My friends and I sang “Welcome to the Jungle” and when we finished a guy told me that we butchered his favorite song and ruined it forever for him.  Needless to say my Karaoke days died young.  So I just listened to them sing Vietnamese songs. I did however, lead them in the occasional “Yooo…!”.

If you willing to drink and try any kind of food, I believe you can get along just fine in any culture and with anyone.  Overall, it was a great experience and one I will never forget.

Travel Log: Vietnam, Part III – “HCMC: Dong Khoi Street” (15 & 16 October 2009)

December 2, 2009

Loc still had to work after he picked me up from the airport so he dropped me off on a side street, Pasteur, near downtown. I was there sans map or any hint of direction. I looked for people that seemed to be tourists (you know the type, camera around their neck with a fanny pack on their hips) and followed their lead. Sounds a bit strange maybe but this logic worked and their foot prints lead me right where I wanted to be – Dong Khoi Street (or Rue Catinat, which was what is was called during the French occupation).

General Post Office

Dong Khoi Street consists of the Municipal Theater, Rex Hotel, City Hall, Notre Dame Cathedral, Continental Hotel and the General Post Office. If you have read Graham Greene’s book, “The Quiet America,” you may be familiar with these architectural destinations. The buildings emote the romance of French-colonial Saigon that are prevalent in his book. You can imagine reporters meeting officers at the Continental Hotel for drinks to catch up on gossip about the war or US officers giving their “Five O’clock Follies” at the Rex Hotel. If you have not read the book, it’s a good quick read and will get you ready for your upcoming trip to Vietnam, should you be planning one. You can always pick one up when you’re in Hanoi as there will be plenty of people trying to sell it to you around Hoan Kiem Lake.

Notre Dame Cathedral

Municipal Theater

Continental Hotel

Continental Hotel

Dong Khoi Street looks out of place in modern HCMC, but it does give you a brief glimpse of HCMC’s history that feels like it is being overwritten by it’s new growth. However like a stubborn weed these few blocks hold on strong and remain almost unchanged. Dong Khoi is a breath of fresh air from the chaos of HCMC, thus I was naturally drawn there when I wanted to relax and enjoy a Vietnamese coffee.

Enjoying a Vietnamese coffee while I plan my day.

I spent a lot of time walking around HCMC the two days I was there. Unfortunately, I was unable to take any kind of day excursion outside the city to the Cu Chi tunnels. Reservations were hard to obtain on short notice (I find this to be one of the downsides to traveling without any plan other than to get lost.  Maybe Darren’s take on Venice really does only apply to that city?). The Cu Chi tunnels were used by the Viet Cong as an underground base and a method for launching attacks against the Americans.  The tunnels served as living quarters, weapons cache, hospitals and supply routes for  the guerrilla fighters.  Life in the tunnels wasn’t easy as they are extremely small; food, water and air were scarce, and the tunnels were home to numerous poisonous insects.  As a visitor today, you don’t have to worry about the insects but the tunnels can be challenging for larger people and while talking with fellow travelers I heard mixed reviews regarding their take and experience viewing and exploring the tunnels. From what I could gather, it would be something you don’t want to miss if you are really interested in the history of the Vietnam War. It also seems to be an escape from the noise of the city, or a place that you might like if you want to shoot some assault rifles!

Check back for Part IV coming soon…

A Tortured Man

November 30, 2009

Let’s face it, the universe moves by fast and leaves us in the dust…  just look at the facts:

– The average American lifespan is currently a mere 78 years while Earth is just getting over the hill as it draws near its 4.6 BILLIONTH birthday.

– The fastest man made object – NASA’s robotic spacecraft called “New Horizons”  – travels at a maximum speed of 10.1 miles per second.  Meanwhile, light remains in a commanding (or dare I say constant) lead traveling at 186,000 miles PER SECOND.  You suck, New Horizons.

So in a blog that’s supposed about travel, why the heck am I going off about astronomy and physics?  Well, for starters if you know me then you know I’m a nerd; however, my main purpose is to drive home the point that time flies, and as much as we wish we could slow things down Prince of Persia-style or even stop time by putting our two index fingers together like Evie from Out of This World (enjoy the embedded video fellow 80’s children), we are confined to a finite length of time on this planet.  But my upcoming Caribbean Cruise has reminded me that we have a slight weapon against that – a parlor trick that could at least make it seem as though the world is moving more slowly… Anticipation.

Oh, how brutally painful it can be to mindfully watch the ticking clock get seemingly slower with each movement of the second hand when you have something in the foreseeable future that you wish would just happen already.  Such is the case with me and my can’t-get-here-soon-enough cruise.  Like most people I struggle with the suspense, but over the years I’ve learned to enjoy it and even harness it to use to my advantage.  I mean, honestly, why would I want to dismiss a moment when time actually slows down for me?  Sure, I may be tortured by the constant taunting of my desired future, but I’ve simultaneously been given a blessing in the disguise of longer days.  So it all boils down to taking a so-called negative thing and making it positive, like a tortured man who learns to find enjoyment in challenging himself to endure more punishment with each day.  That is how anticipation should be approached… and yes, I know how masochistic that sounds.

While today my anticipation for my cruise may feel like I’m being metaphorically water boarded for 10 minutes, come the final few days before departure it will feel like it’s lasting for hours.  So to absorb this steady increase of torture, I set small goals to build my tolerance and appease my anticipation.  This week I intend to go shopping for my cruise – new threads, travel-sized toiletries, etc. – while next week I’ll begin washing and packing all my clothes.  For some these tasks may be the part of traveling they hate the most, but when you’re being tortured by the anticipation, these smalls acts can seem like glimpses of daylight through a small crack in your cell wall – just enough to keep you going for another day.

My only hope is that when the cruise comes I can somehow manage to keep time moving slowly; however, that’s never the case.  When what you want finally arrives, it always seems to come and go so fast that it makes the speed of light look like a Model T.  My only hope is that these long days of torturous anticipation before my cruise builds up my strength so I can keep up with the sprint that’s ahead of me… only to be tortured again when it’s all over by the memories of a time I wish I could’ve frozen.  Damn, that Evie was lucky.

Traveling for Work… Whether You Like It or Not!

November 27, 2009

Anthony Reyes is a San Francisco Bay Area native who now travels the country as a trainer for the Fresno Grizzlies, the Triple A affiliate of the San Francisco Giants.  Unlike most who travel for leisure, his experiences on the road are part of a job that reflects the lifestyle of an up and coming professional ballplayer.

Getting "called up" to the big leagues

The recent Travelverse blog, “I Make Love to Travel,” inspired me to write about my travel experiences as an athletic trainer in the Minor Leagues. We’ve all dreamed about becoming a big league superstar. Making the big bucks, driving the fast cars, flying from city to city, you know, living the dream. However, to get there as a player, one has to experience the grind of minor league baseball in order to appreciate the lavish big league lifestyle. As an athletic trainer in minor league baseball, 50% of my job involves making sure 25 players, coaches, and a radio guy get to the city of destination on time and in one piece. I don’t fly the plane, but coordinating and communicating with bus drivers, airports, hotels, visiting equipment managers, etc is one of many responsibilities. Oh, and I’m responsible for the health and well-being of these athletes too. What I do love about my job though is that I do get to travel to cities that I would have never gone to had it not been for baseball. Harrisburg, PA, Manchester, NH, Albuquerque, NM, Des Moines, IA, just to name a few. Not exactly the bright lights of NYC or the windy city of Chicago, but each city has a unique quality that makes traveling to these destinations fun and exciting.

Hadlock Field, Portland, ME

For example, Portland, ME, home of the Red Sox Double A Portland Sea Dogs, is where you can find a fresh Maine lobster dinner for $20 at J’s Oyster restuarant. Not bad, if you’re on a minor leaguer’s budget. Baseball is played in series so you get to stay in a city for 3-4 days depending on the schedule. Games are usually at night, so you can spend the morning sightseeing trying to hit up at least one local landmark during your stay. Bowie, MD, where the Orioles Double A affiliate is located, is only a 30 minute drive from Washington, DC. In 2007, we had a day off in Bowie so me and a pitcher rented a car and checked out our nation’s capitol. In some cities, the ballpark itself is considered a landmark. In Reading, PA, FirstEnergy Stadium has been around since 1952 and has been the double A home for the Philadelphia Phillies since 1967. It’s also the home of the famous crazy hot dog thrower, something you’ll have to see for yourself!

Boarding the team charter

The grind of the Minor Leagues is the 142 game schedule and the modes of transportation when it comes to travel. Whether it is on bus or puddle jumpers from one city to the next, players and coaches dread travel day because in most cases, they have to suit up and play that same night. Imagine playing an 11 inning game in Fresno, CA that goes until 11pm at night and wake up the next morning at 4:30am to catch a 6am commercial flight that stops in Phoenix then goes Colorado Springs. Not to mention that at 6:35pm Mountain Time, there’s a game to be played! As an athletic trainer, it makes for quite a day. Team bus times have to be coordinated from airport to hotel (praying all of the equipment made the trip), hotel to ballpark and back to hotel after the game. You’re working on 3 hours of sleep and trying to stay awake for 9 innings hoping no one gets hurt. And the worst thing is, in 3 days, you’re gonna have to do it all over again.

For the 2010 season, I’ll be traveling all over the country, working with the Fresno Grizzlies in the Pacific Coast League. I plan on being a frequent contributor on Travelverse to share travel experiences from a baseball/athletic training perspective. So stay tuned as Spring Training 2010 is just around the corner…

-Anthony Reyes

Happy Thanksgiving, Mate!

November 26, 2009

Ah, the holiday season… it conjures up similar thoughts every year – family, friends, food and the comforts of home.  For many nationwide, efforts are made to get off work as many days as possible so trips can be planned and flights can be booked to travel back to the hometown that molded you.  It’s like the urge to return to the nest for the holidays is engrained in us – almost instinctive – but what happens when your half way around the world from home when that last Thursday of November arrives?  That’s the situation I faced back in 2005 when I celebrated my Thanksgiving in jolly ol’ London.

At first I dismissed the holiday.  I knew months in advance that I’d be spending my Turkey Day riding the Piccadilly Line to work and running between productions houses in West London’s SoHo District until 5pm without hearing a single “Happy Thanksgiving” from my British counterparts – and I didn’t expect to.  As an American, would you think of wishing a transplanted Brit “Happy Guy Fawkes Day?” … my point exactly.  Back at my flat – a building which housed forty or so college students – there was no chance of an attempt at respectable Thanksgiving dinner coming by way of broke 20-year olds who barely knew how to make Kraft Macaroni & Cheese (however, the Blue Box was not easy to find across the pond so Tesco frozen dinners did the trick instead).  The seemingly end result: a Thanksgiving void of proper food, football games and most notably close family and friends; but, in actuality I ended up experiencing one of the most unique and entertaining Thanksgivings that I can recollect.

The evenings festivities naturally came about.  It began when one of the guys in the flat discovered a local “American style” diner in South Kensington that was owned by the Rolling Stones’ drummer and was serving an “American style” Thanksgiving dinner.  To seal the deal, they were even serving £2 pints of Budweiser.  Such a delicious and timeless American lager could not be refused.  

We bused down High Street Kensington to our destination which could only be described as Hard Rock-lite.  Imagine Applebee’s with a rock ‘n roll twist.  Festively adorned in black and orange decorations with paper mache turkeys and pilgrims, the dozen or so of us sat at a long table in the center of the restaurant along with a family of four in a nearby booth – the only other patrons the entire evening.

Budweisers were immediately served as we glanced over the prix fixe menu that featured the most British version of a Thanksgiving meal I could possibly imagine.  It had everything the average blue-blooded American would normally come to expect – turkey, mashed potatoes, stuffing, cranberries, etc. – but the English kicker… it all came mixed together in a warm stew!  It could have only been more British had they baked it all in a pie.

As much as it may sound like I’m complaining about the meal, it was actually good.  If anything I just found the whole presentation of the meal to be humorous but I was truly touched by the effort the restaurant’s staff put in to it.  Every time the waiters stopped at the table it was always accompanied with a question about this foreign holiday we were celebrating; Why do we honor it?  How do we normally celebrate it?  But the most warming moment was when the cooks came out from the back to see how they faired with their attempt at a Thanksgiving meal – they wanted our professional opinion on the American classic.  Of course, we told them they nailed it.  Hell, they could’ve missed completely and served pork grinds over a bed of spaghetti covered in peanut butter and we still would’ve complimented them simply because we were so grateful and appreciative of the efforts they put forth to make us feel at home – even if just a little bit – for one night.  It was in this moment that I felt like I rediscovered the importance and significance of Thanksgiving, something that can often get lost in the routine nature of how we celebrate holidays.

As the saying goes, “you don’t know what you got till it’s gone.”  Perhaps that was the case with my 2005 London Thanksgiving as the notable absence of family and friends made me reinvigorated to celebrate the holiday at home the following year.  Or maybe it was the wide eyed wonderment of the restaurant employees who were intrigued by our foreign customs and the joy I felt in sharing the glanced over details and purpose of a holiday we take pride in as Americans.  Whatever it was, that year I gained a new perspective on Thanksgiving and holidays in general, and that is the exact point of traveling.

Happy Thanksgiving everyone and God bless.

Travel Log: Vietnam, Part II – “The Arrival” (15 October 2009)

November 25, 2009

Click here to read Part I, “Farewell, USA”

15 October 2009

I realize that I didn’t keep you updated on my adventures in Vietnam.  Well I did send some tweets, but it is not like I forgot about you or don’t love you. I just decided not to post anything without pictures.  They do say a picture is worth a thousand words… Anyway let’s start at the beginning.

Somewhere over Southeast Asia

After an eternity, which is roughly 22 hours for those not in the know, I finally arrived in Ho Chi Minh City.  Knowing that Ho Chi Mihn City (HCMC) is Vietnam’s economic center, I was surprised to find that Saigon’s international terminal was empty.  The terminal was essentially a ghost town, except for the few passengers from my flight and three employees that x-ray your baggage upon exiting the terminal.  My only concern was if my fraternity brother, Loc, forgot me.  All of my plans in HCMC relied upon him and the small fact that I visiting him for his birthday.

I walked up and down the large windows in the airport terminal looking for Loc, I finally found him, and with confidence I stepped out of the airport.  That is when it hit me, my first impression of Vietnam and Ho Chi Minh City… it is freakin’ hot! I was instantly covered in a layer of sweat from the heat and the humidity.  It felt like a welcoming hug from a shirtless overweight man who just finished running a marathon.  At first it was uncomfortable, but you quickly get used it. After awhile it becomes a comfort and a reminder of where you are.  From the morning until you go to sleep you are embraced by the fat man who is HCMC.

Ho Chi Minh City

A typical scooter cluttered intersection

The heat was constant and didn’t let up throughout my stay in HCMC.  There were sudden rain storms in HCMC, it seems like the locals can tell when it is about to start.  Watch the street, you will see a sudden decrease in motor scooters.  The rain does nothing to alleviate your suffering. You just go from hot and sticky, to hot, sticky and wet.  You can literally be completely soaked in a minute.  It happened to me once and I was in the middle of nowhere with no place to escape from the rain.  I was already soaked so I said screw it and walked back to Loc’s.  I lost a good pair of Puma’s because I was caught unprepared.  The best advice I can give is to duck into a coffee shop and try some of Vietnam’s famous coffee or a bia hoi for a cold beer until the rain passes.  Just take that time to relax and to plan out the rest of your day until the rain stops.

Quick but heavy tropical rainstorms empty the usually scooter-packed streets

The Vietnamese alternative to a cozy fireplace on a rainy day

Jumbled power lines, an example of Vietnam's rush to catch up with the modern world

HCMC is a developing city; evidence of a quick unplanned growth is everywhere. It is the center of Vietnamese economic activity, and you can feel the energy of the city.  The city is trying to update itself and the noise of construction mixes with the traffic of thousands of honking scooters and millions of people going about their day. New and old are thrown together everywhere in no specific order.  HCMC has a long ways to go to be a modern city, there are freeways with on ramps that lead to a dead end, but it has definitely started its course.  Ho Chi Minh City’s charm is that despite all the chaos, it seems like a controlled chaos and the chaos has a life to it that is infectious.  I am sure things will be unrecognizable the next time I visit. I plan to go back even if it is only a couple of days to visit Loc.

Check back for Part III coming soon…

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