January is California Restaurant Month

california restaurantsAs a native Californian and longtime former Bay Area resident, I have to confess there’s no place like home when it comes to the American food/dining/wine scene (New Yorkers, feel free to sharpen your knives…).

California’s always been progressive when it comes to food and drink, from the early days of the vaqueros and Gold Rush-era San Francisco, right up to today’s never-ending parade of talented food artisans, chefs, farmers, and mixologists. It’s only fitting then, to feature a California Restaurant Month.

In January, the second annual statewide celebration is back and better than ever. Presented by Visit California, nearly 30 destinations across the Golden State are creating special restaurant week or month-long promotions and deals, including celebrity chef, prix fixe, and wine pairing dinners, and a series of “Dine and Drive Itineraries” that map out the culinary and scenic highlights of specific regions. Included are “Wine Country Fresh,” “Food Lover’s Classic Coast Drive: San Francisco to L.A.,” and “A Taste of San Diego.” Participating regions for events include cities and counties throughout the San Francisco Bay Area, Central Coast, and Northern and Southern California.

If you’re worried about the calories, California Restaurant Month also offers travel tips on where the best skiing, surfing, hiking, and other outdoor activities are to be found, regardless of your itinerary. And that’s the thing about California. As my dad always said, “What other state offers so much diversity?” Whether bagging peaks, scuba-diving, camping in the desert, or having a blow-out shopping spree is your thing, California’s got it.

[Photo credit: Flickr user Stuck in Customs]

10 best destinations to take a hot air balloon ride

hot air balloon When traveling, it’s always fun to explore a city from a new perspective. And, what better point of view than from the sky? These ten air balloon destinations will not only immerse you in beautiful scenery, but will also give you access to hidden treasures you may not have seen from the ground.

The Pyrenees, Spain

The Pyrenees is a mountain range that forms a divider between Spain and France. Crossing the Pyrenees in general is an unforgettable experience, and making this journey by hot air balloon will make it that more memorable. Watch as Catalonian buildings begin to resemble a Monopoloy game board. Lush greenery fills your view as you get the chance to see Santa Margarita, an enormous, well-preserved volcano crater, from an aerial point of view. In the winter, the snow capped mountains give the relaxing ride a magical ambiance.

One great tour group to go through for this ride is Vol de Coloms, especially since they serve Cava, a Spanish sparkling-wine, and sweet bread during the flight.Gatineau, Quebec

While the scenery in the region is picturesque, with 51 skyscrapers over 246 feet, serene rivers like the Ottawa River and the Gattineay River, and bountiful flora, the real reason to visit Gatineau is to ride a hot air balloon during the annual Gatineau Hot Air Balloon Festival. Not only are there several dozen hot air balloons marking up the sky, but they come in an array of shapes, sizes, and characters, adding a fun element to the scene. Climb into a space shuttle, a giant birthday cake, or a sad-faced court jester as the thousands of attendees, amusement park rides, craft stalls, and car show automobiles become ants in the landscape. Click here for more information.

turkey hot air balloons Cappadocia, Turkey

If you want to ride a hot air balloon in a place with truly unique landscape, then Cappadocia in Turkey is the perfect spot. As you float high up into the clouds you will be looking down upon sandy desert and pointy limestone rock mountains that almost look like something out of a surreal fairytale. A natural brown landscape textured with steep valleys and red canyons and dotted with green olive groves will make you feel like you’ve left planet Earth (which, I guess, you have). Click here for more information.

Temecula Valley, California

Where better to vacation that wine country? Immersed in ripening grape vines and neatly plotted fields, the feeling is a mixture of rural living and luxury, especially since you know you will be tasting flavorful reds and whites during your trip. Exploring a wine region from the air is just as fun, if not more, as the you get to see the vineyards and fields from a bird’s-eye view. In Temecula Valley, your view of rolling hills will also be complemented by the beautiful Lake Skinner and a backdrop of mountains. Moreover, the annual Balloon and Wine Festival is held in this region, which mixes the joy of wine with the adventure of flying. Click here for more information.

colorado air ballooning Rocky Mountains, Colorado

The Rocky Mountains are a major mountain range that stretches for over 3,000 miles in western North America. With dramatic peaks and valleys that have been sculpted into the mountains, this is a destination favorite for travelers. But while many people explore the Rockies by foot, why not traverse them in a unique way, like hot air ballooning? Watch as Mount Elbert in Colorado, the highest peak in the mountain range, gets smaller and smaller, until it fades into a scene that looks like a real life Bob Ross masterpiece. If you’re in the mood for an event, Colorado Springs hosts their Colorado Balloon Classic every Labor Day weekend. Concession stands, entertainment, contests, and, best of all, dozens of colorful hot air balloons, are all part of the fun. Click here for more informaton.

The Outback, Australia

Your sense of nature will really be ignited with a hot air balloon ride through the Outback of Australia. Flying in the sky you will look down on remote desert featuring only a few bush paths. Famous rock formation landmarks such as Ayers Rock and Mount Olga can be seen from one vantage point along with sparkling springs, waterholes, and rock caves. It is a very organic and undisturbed landscape to take in, and a must-see for hot air balloon enthusiasts. Click here for more information.

angkor wat Angkor War, Cambodia

Located less than a mile west of Angkor Wat, there is the chance to go up in a hot air balloon that will allow you to see the many religious landmarks of Cambodia, such as the famous Angkor Wat, the largest religious building in the world, and the myriad temples surrounding the areas of Siem Reap and the Barays. The basket is in the shape of a donut, giving access to convenient 360 degree views. While floating 656 feet in the air, try to pick out the different temples by name, thinking to yourself how lucky you are to not have to fight off the hourdes of tourists to get a cultural lesson in local religion. No need to be nervous, either, as this is one of the less frightening rides due to the fact that the balloon is always tied down to the ground below, and it only lasts about fifteen minutes.

San Carlos, Costa Rica

Costa Rica has quite a diverse landscape, and taking a hot air balloon ride over the country while floating over rainforests, volcanos, and mountain villages can help you take it all in. Riders will also interact with nature, skimming the monkey-inhabited treetops and dipping down into flowing rivers. When there is a break in the clouds, a clear view of Arenal Volcano, which is still active, can be seen. Click here for more information.

swiss alpsChâteau d’Oex, Switzerland

The Swiss Alps is one of those places that cannot be described with words or even understood through pictures, but must be experienced first hand to really understand its beauty. Float through the air while admiring the picturesque mountains, some bright with green, some sparkling and snow capped, as well as views of Mont-Blanc, the Matterhorn, and Lake Geneva. The best time to visit is the last week in January, when the town holds their annual International Hot Air Balloon Week. Click here for more information.

Maasai Mara, Kenya

Riding a hot air balloon over the Maasai Mara is not only a unique experience because of the landscape, which encompasses woodlands, grasslands, rivers, open plains, rivers, and a dramatic plateau, but also because of the game viewing. The Maasai Mara National Reserve located in southwestern Kenya, is home to one of the greatest events in the world, the Great Migration. From July through October, millions of gazelles, zebras, and wildebeests travel through Maasai Mara, making this a prime time to take a hot air balloon ride in the region. Think of the ride as a hot air balloon safari. Click here for more information.

Fall festivals: five delicious ways to celebrate

fall festivalsThere’s something really depressing about seeing the last of the tomatoes, corn, and stonefruit at the farmers market, the withering vines in my neighbor’s gardens. But fall is also an exciting time for produce geeks, what with all the peppers and squash, pomegranates and persimmons.

If you love yourself some good food and drink, here are five reasons to welcome fall. No matter where you live in the North America, at least one of these is guaranteed to be coming soon to a town near you.

1. Hit a harvest festival
From the hokey (corn mazes, hay rides) to the downright debaucherous (late-night live music and beer gardens, camping in orchards), harvest festivals are a blast, no matter what your age. A great harvest festival will include delicious food; local craft beer, cider, or wine; farm tours and seminars; a children’s area and special activities; live music, and, if you’re lucky, a beautiful, bucolic setting in which to experience it all. Some festivals run the span of a weekend, providing an opportunity to take in more of the educational offerings.

Below are some of my favorite festivals, all of which have an educational component to them. Should you find yourself in Northern California in early October, it’s worth a detour to attend the famous Hoes Down Harvest Festival (Oct.1-2) at Full Belly Farm in the Capay Valley, near Davis. It’s one hell of a party (there’s also a top-notch children’s activity area, so little people will have fun, too); definitely plan on camping in the orchard and bring your swim suit; the farm is located beside Cache Creek.

Other great celebrations of fall: Vashon Harvest Farm Tour (Sept. 25), Vashon Island, WA; CUESA Harvest Festival (Oct. 22), Ferry Building Farmers Market, San Francisco, CA; Annual Harvest Festival, Sustainable Settings (mid-Sept.; date varies, but mark your calendars for next year!) Carbondale, CO.

September 22nd, from 7:30-9pm, the 16th Annual Harvest in the Square is being held in Union Square; online tickets are still available until tomorrow at noon for what is one of New York’s premier food and wine events. Some general admission tickets will be available at the event for a higher price.

[Photo credit: Flickr user zakVTA]fall festivals2. Check out Crush
In North America, the wine grape harvest is held in September or October, depending upon weather patterns. In Napa Valley, “Crush” has just started, and with it, fall colors on the vines; barrel tastings; special winery tours, wine-and-cheese pairings, and up-close-and-personal views of the Crush itself. Even if you’re not an oenophile, it’s by far the most beautiful time to visit Napa and it’s neighboring wine region, Sonoma Country. For Napa wineries and event listings, click here. For California’s Central Coast wine region events, click here.

Check out wine harvest events in Oregon’s Willamette Valley, Washington state’s Yakima and Walla Walla regions, and British Columbia’s Fraser and Okanogan Valleys (go to Wines of the Northwest for events calendar on all of the aforementioned); for New York’s Finger Lakes, Hudson Valley, and other regions go to Uncork New York!

3. Go apple pickingfall festivals
With apple-growing regions scattered all over North America–from Virginia and Pennsylvania to New York, Washington state, British Columbia, and California–there’s no shortage of opportunities to attend festivals or U-picks. This traditional fall pastime is a fun activity for kids and supports the local economy and foodshed. Put up apple butter, -sauce, or freeze a pie for Thanksgiving, but be sure to save enough for winter (all apples and pears are placed in cold storage once the growing season ends, so the fruit you buy later in the season won’t be freshly picked). Store in a cool, dry, dark place. P.S. Don’t forget to buy some cider doughnuts if they’re available.

Please note that due to unusual weather patterns (aka “global warming”) this past year, the harvest is delayed in many parts of the country, including Washington. Check with local farms before heading out.

4. Visit a cidery
If you prefer your apples fermented, there are some excellent craft cideries throughout North America. The tradition of craft cider distilling hails from Western Europe, but domestically, the hot spots are the Pacific Northwest (including British Columbia), parts of the Midwest, and the Northeast.
fall festivals
5. Feast at a farm dinner
For food lovers, few things beat dining outdoors in an orchard or pasture, surrounded by the people and ingredients that made your meal possible. Farm dinners are a growing national trend; they may be hosted independently by the farm (Washington’s Dog Mountain Farm, Colorado’s Zephyros Farm, and California’s Harley Farms Goat Dairy are my picks) or hosted by companies like Portland, Oregon’s Plate & Pitchfork and Boulder’s Meadow Lark Farm Dinners. Many farm dinners are fundraisers to help protect local agricultural easements or wetlands, but your participation also supports the farm and local foodshed.

Farm dinners are also held at wineries, distilleries, craft breweries, mariculture farms, and creameries; a tour should be included. The best part, however, is when the guests include everyone from the local cheesemaker, rancher, fisherman, or winemaker, to the potter who made the plates. It’s both humbling and gratifying to meet the people who work so hard to ensure local communities have a safe, sustainable food supply.

[Photo credits: grapes, Flickr user minnucci]

Wine Tasting Room Etiquette

America’s 25 most expensive restaurants

What recession? Bundle just released a list of the 25 most expensive restaurants in America, and you’d never know the economy was still faltering. Your average diner would definitely require a stimulus package to pay the check.

Topping the list is The French Laundry, located in Yountville, in the Napa Valley. Chef/owner Thomas Keller’s three-star Michelin restaurant is ranked among the world’s best (as is Per Se, his New York outpost). An average check is $957 per visit, while Per Se bats $883. Also in the top five: Michael Mina (San Francisco), at $844; Alinea (Chicago), at $736, and Charlie Trotter’s (Chicago), at $666 (ironic, given Trotter’s reputation as…difficult).

To determine the list, Bundle examined spending data, then looked at average check sizes based upon millions of transactions in restaurants nationwide. Interestingly, the most expensive restaurants fell into two categories: French, and Contemporary American. But Robert’s Steakhouse in the Executive Penthouse Club (New York) and Mario Batali-co-owned Del Posto (Italian) also made the list.

So what does a $957 dollar meal taste like? Well, it damn well better be flawless–service included–but there’s a reason these chef/restaurateurs are at the top of their game. Prix fixe menus are a big reason tabs are so high. At Per Se, you’ll pay up to $295 a pop, while at Le Bernadin (New York, ranked 14th) it’s $330 with a wine pairing.

As a food writer, I admire the hell out of these guys for their talent as both chefs and businessmen. That said, I don’t think any meal on earth is worth nearly a grand, especially when said chefs generally aren’t the ones doing the cooking. It’s their hard-working, usually underpaid staff who do the heavy lifting, which is one of the great inequities of the restaurant business. I take issue when the people doing the cooking, serving, bussing, dishwashing, and cleaning don’t have the luxury of eating at their place of employment.

[Editor’s note: Bundle’s data take only take the average price per check per restaurant in their calculations, meaning some abnormalities may result from particularly large or small restaurants. They also don’t appear to include every possible, most expensive restaurant in the country. Please bear the limits of this data in mind — and try to have a good dinner]

Lonely Planet dishes out summer travel tips and chance at a Napa Valley trip

Summer is fast approaching and sure to fly by even more quickly than it came. To help Americans get the most out of the summer months, Lonely Planet has launched a special micro-site called “Weekends of Summer” that has 15 free guides for all the weekends between Memorial Day and Labor Day.

The guides reads like a summer to-do list, with suggestions like “pop a cork” and “explore the great outdoors” for each weekend, and then details on where to complete the mission with via a mini-guide. Although it would be great to escape to the Gulf Coast one weekend and then go hunt lobsters in Maine the next, the best thing most of us can do is take Lonely Planet’s advice on summertime diversions and try to complete as many as possible.

Of course, perhaps even more exciting than the actual guides is the fact that Lonely Planet and the Napa Valley Destination Council have teamed up to give one lucky reader a trip to wine country valued at over $4,000. Simply surrender your name and email to be entered in the contest and have access to all 15 of the guides for free.

[Image courtesy Lonely Planet]