A few hot spots in Paris, London, and Amsterdam

Monday, 16 March 2015
I always need blog topics so thank you to my friend Melissa for having a fabulous upcoming trip. She is taking her daughter who is graduating from high school to Paris, London, and Amsterdam! Her trip has led me to think about my experiences in those fantastic European cities and consider my favorite spots.

Paris: anyone who goes to the City of Lights must visit the Eiffel Tower. It is fantastic from far away, but to stand under it in the courtyard or to gaze at it from the surrounding gardens is a special experience. I did not buy a ticket to go up into the tower especially because I didn't want to wait in the long lines (and it's pricey). Remember that summer in the United States = tourist season in Europe so try to book ahead if you want to see certain attractions. The Eiffel Tower experience (in my opinion of course) is just as amazing without spending your hard-earned cash to go to the top.

Also in Paris, definitely get a crepe from a small vendor on one of the side streets in the main part of the city. This is one of my favorite memories of Paris: standing in the street eating Nutella with bananas encased in a steaming hot, fresh crepe. There is no one in the world that can do crepes like the French. If I have the opportunity to go back, I will try both a sweet and a savory crepe and compare different creperies. Speaking of food, at some point, certainly try some "real" Champagne. Is there anything better than sipping tiny, semi-sweet bubbles while you are actually in the country that grows the grapes? (Okay one more food recommendation - mussels and frites. OMG.)

I went to Paris with a student group from graduate school in London and another free activity that I enjoyed included walking along the Seine River. Melissa and her daughter are going in June and the weather should be amazing. It is fun to grab a fresh baguette and French cheese and have a picnic along the Seine. Boats travel by occasionally and the people watching is excellent. Advice: find a spot along the river in the sun, breathe in, close your eyes, and remind yourself that you're in Paris!

A must, of course, while in Paris is a visit to the Louvre Museum. Choose a few highlights to see and enjoy. It is too humongous to see everything in one day. Guide books for Paris do a great job of making suggestions on what to see if you only have a few hours here.

In my opinion, it is also highly worth it to go to Palace of Versailles for a day. (It is about an hour outside of Paris and you can book with a tour company to take a bus.) You will probably have to stand in line unless you're with a tour that pre-buys tickets. It might rain, so take an umbrella or wear a rain jacket. If you don't have a guide, spring for the headphones and be prepared to be stunned and amazed by details about the French royals. I'm lucky enough to have visited many palaces and nothing compares to Versailles. It was pouring rain when I went and didn't get to see the gardens but I'd recommend a quick tour of them as well.

If there's time left, take a tour of Notre Dame. It is free to get in and I remember being awe-struck by the history. This is another great place to utilize your guide book. Take it in and read about the cathedral while you walk through. 

A warning - scams on U.S. tourists are numerous here. Do not talk to strangers and if someone approaches you with a ring or watch... or something... that they found on the ground... keep walking. The deal is to give it to you so you can pawn it but they want a bit of cash up front. The item is always a fake and worth nothing. If something seems too good to be true, it is. Keep your belongings close to your body.

London: Many of the highlights of London are free to the general public so while the city is extremely expensive to stay in, travel around, and dine in, attractions will not necessarily drain your bank account. I would certainly visit Buckingham Palace and just observe the massive building from outside the gates. If you get there during changing of the guard - bonus (in fact, try to plan your day around this)! Walking the gardens surrounding the palace is a peaceful and enjoyable experience and you can plan your next adventure while you walk.

Go to Trafalgar Square and take a photo with the impressive, long-standing lions. Stop into the National Gallery while you're there and see two or three paintings of the artists that you love. (There's a special Monet exhibit that I would view.) On that note, most of the museums are free in London so if you are into museums, visit any and all of them as often as you want. From Trafalgar Square, Covent Garden is a short walk. The market here is fun and there are usually bizarre street performers.

Walk along the Thames and take pictures of Big Ben and Parliament. Westminster Abbey is also near here but the ticket to get in is 20 quid. Yikes!

If you are in London on a Saturday or Sunday, go to Camden Town. This is such a fun place for shopping, people watching, and trying street vendor food. The food here - SO MANY choices! It is so fun and while it seems a bit seedy, Camden has amazing character and again, it is free to walk around and people watch.

In London, you'll need to have cash on hand. U.S. debit and credit cards do not have a "chip" and a lot of merchants don't know how to deal with it. If you HAVE to use a card, let the person know that they "have to swipe it."

Amsterdam: Spend lots of time walking and taking photos. The canals are romantic and the architecture of the tall, narrow houses (Canal rings houses) is impressive. I love this city for its vibe and its unique look as compared to other European cities. My only complaint is that it can seem dirty as compared to London and Paris. Keep your belongings close to your body and don't carry all of your cash at once.

Anne Frank house is an absolute must. Go early so you don't have to wait in long lines to get in. Or - even better - book your ticket using a credit card ahead of time. This is certainly an attraction that is worth the ticket price. You may also want to bring some tissues. For me, the tour was emotional.

The Red Light district is a possibility if you want to experience the "real" Amsterdam but I would recommend going during the day. You will see women standing in their underwear in full length windows. They are on display because they are essentially selling themselves. This is certainly a tourist attraction so don't be afraid to go there - just remember you are NOT allowed to take pictures. You won't see another Red Light district in the world (at least not one that is as "safe" as this one) like this so if you or the people you are with aren't easily offended, it is worth a look.

Check out Delftware pottery in Amsterdam. You might even consider buying a tiny piece as a souvenir. I bought two Delftware pottery clogs. I gave one to my mother and kept one for myself. Such a sweet memento of my time in this AWESOME city.

Please do a lot of eating in Amsterdam and get a "proper" pint poured for yourself - if you like beer. It is so interesting to see how the bartenders serve beer here. With that pint, order the Bitterballen. Oh my goodness. Bitterballen is little fried balls of anything you can imagine: chicken, pork, beef, veggies... Very delicious and served with mustard.

Photo from Awesomeamsterdam.com 

DO NOT attempt to rent a bike and ride it in Amsterdam. It is dangerous just walking in this town with cars, trolleys, bikes, buses, and scooters coming from literally all directions. Be highly cautious when crossing the street. Seriously.

My final thought is to record what you do when you travel. Write down the restaurants you go to, the sites that you enjoyed, the flowers you see in the local stalls. That way, if you ever return, you can look up your favorite restaurant and go back. I always carry a tiny notebook and pen or pencil in my pocket or purse for easy access.

On the Shelf: Memoir of the Sunday Brunch

Friday, 13 March 2015
If you've been a reader of my blog for any length of time you know that I love reading and reviewing memoirs... especially if they have anything to do with food.

My latest favorite (I just finished it today) is Julia Pandl's Memoir of the Sunday Brunch. She sucks readers in with fantastically humorous accounts of her father's behaviors as a manager of a restaurant. He rules over employees with cold smiles while shouting and "twitches," cooks fantastic meals (but not for his family), knows all of the techniques of a professionally trained chef, and regularly uses all nine of his children as staff to oversee his restaurant's Sunday brunches.

The first part of the memoir is funny, heavy, and worthy of a second study due to the fantastically detailed experiences of Julia. She is the youngest of a Matriarchal, Catholic family and hates de-boning fish. One of the chapters is dedicated almost entirely to her first hangover - on a Sunday morning. It doesn't matter that she can barely lift her head off of the pillow. She is in charge of helping her father (as well as her siblings) with Sunday brunch. He realizes that she is suffering and once in the restaurant's kitchen, bites the "cheek" out of a fish and chews it in front of Julia with a smile, pointing out that her job that morning is to de-bone all of the fish - and quickly. It is Sunday brunch and she explains the excruciating way that she holds it together before finally vomiting. 

The second part of the memoir also pulls the reader in - but in a different way. The concept of suffering is examined in-depth by Julia as she watches her mother decline from diabetes with not only the amputation of her foot but numerous surgeries. Mrs. Pandl keeps a brave face (as she always has) and holds fast to her Catholic faith and particular saints. 

After her death, the generous but fastidious Mr. Pandl seems to be on a downward slope to depression. The children reconnect with him and remember their mother's dying wish - "Take care of dad."

Julia takes ultimate care of him when he is diagnosed with prostate cancer at the age of 80. She moves in with him and chronicles his downfall. While depressing, there is moment of light and clarity when "George" (as the kids all call him) continues to decline but says that he has lived a "wonderful life" and is happy. In one of the last scenes of her father's dramatic life, Julia talks about the night that the priest comes to read last rites. He shows up and almost all of the Pandl children are sitting around George's bed sipping Stella with him. The priest accepts a beer and they laugh, share stories, and pray. 

There are many take-aways from this memoir. That's why I don't want to write about what was particularly meaningful to me. This memoir will take to readers in different ways. It is certainly worth a read and you can finish it in a weekend. Enjoy and let me know what you think. 


James and I have the HAPPIEST news ever. He proposed this week with the most gorgeous ring I've ever seen. We are so excited about our adventures this year and are thankful for the support and encouragement of our friends and family.

I turned in a copy of my polished dissertation to my committee chair on Monday around 4:30 p.m. After that, I poured myself a celebratory glass of wine and cooked a dinner of polenta, seasoned rice, black beans and homemade guacamole (Meatless Monday, right?). After everything was ready I turned off the gas stove, and James opened a lovely bottle of Piper Heidsieck Champagne Brut Rose. That was my only inkling that something was amiss. James usually has nice champagne on hand but for a Monday night, this was slightly indulgent. There was a reason...

After I put a dish in the dishwasher, said, "Ready to eat!" and turned around, James pulled a small box out of his right back pocket. I wasn't sure what it was but I was hoping that it was an engagement ring. We've been together for almost three years... I grabbed the box out of his hand, opened it, and started running around the house SCREAMING. (The cats ran away to hide.) Then, I burst into tears, we embraced, and repeated our love for each other over and over (okay maybe that was me because the ring is absolutely fantastic). It was a bit cheesy but absolutely perfect. We sipped the Piper Brut Rose and later surprised my parents as well as James' that evening with the news in person.

Because I am still technically a "graduate student" and a university instructor, my Spring Break is next week. We are taking the opportunity to go to Dubai and celebrate. I will be sure to blog about what we see and learn as well as, of course, what we eat.

The ring is a pear shaped (fancy cut) diamond in a diamond halo setting. I couldn't be more thrilled.  Every time I look at it, I think about how wonderful James is. 

Backstory: James and I went ring shopping weeks ago and I found a ring that I absolutely adored. We talked about the purchase for hours. He actually spent lots of time researching diamonds, their cut, color, clarity, as well as polish and symmetry. When we decided that we found a ring that we both loved, I took my mom to see it on a Saturday afternoon. The ring was GONE. I played a poker face but was so insanely disappointed. The jeweler, whom my mother has worked with for more than a decade sold The Ring to someone else! Bryan said, "Denae. I'm so sorry. Don't kill me but my friend bought it. I told you that he was looking at it. Try not to worry, though, we can order one like it." Bryan has a boutique jewelry store and doesn't have mass produced products... In fact, James had purchased my dream ring and was in cahoots with Bryan to throw us off the scent. I was so surprised!  

Basi Italia: Columbus, Ohio

Thursday, 5 March 2015
James and I decided to go downtown to dinner last week to try Basi Italia. It is near the Short North, in the Victoria Village, and definitely worth a try. It was snowing like crazy when we arrived (of course, we're in Ohio) and were pleasantly surprised to find a valet option just outside the front door for $5. We don't always valet but in this part of town, where there's really no parking, the service is fantastic. Plus... it was snowing!

When we walked through the door, I was immediately struck by the intimacy of the restaurant. We entered on the side of the building where there is a gorgeous outside space and bar. The hostess was happy to walk us through the kitchen area into the main dining space and it was fun to get a look at what the chefs were up to.

The lighting was perfect for romantic ambiance but I wasn't really able to take pictures that are blog-worthy. The interior is cozy and decidedly European. Diners certainly feel like they are sitting in a warm village in Italy or somewhere in the Mediterranean rather than in cold, cold Columbus.

We both began the evening with a glass of champagne. James ordered the toasted pistachio flatbread with Rosemary, fontina, and truffle honey. (Truffle honey!!) It was fantastic as an appetizer (it could also be a main course). I ordered the roasted beet salad with mixed greens, goat cheese, and almonds. Portions are large and we agreed that we could have shared a starter.

For the main course, our server, David, recommended the prosciutto wrapped scallops served with roasted brussels sprouts and a maple syrup jus. It was to die for! The scallops were cooked perfectly - tender and juicy and the flavor presentation of the brussels sprouts was inventive. James ordered a Basi Italia signature dish: rigatoni salumeria. He loved it and savored every bite. The pasta was served with an amazing sauce of sweet sausage, tomato, raisins, fennel, and pine nuts.

Here's a look at the pasta dish. The photo was found in Basi Italia's archives:

We were also thoroughly impressed with the service. Everyone was friendly, helpful, and attentive. I felt special and hope to go back soon to try another item on the enticing menu (it regularly changes).

Basi Italia occasionally has a three course prix fixe dinner for $25. They have a Facebook page with details on specials. Also, the wine menu is impressive! Go early and spend time enjoying the experience.