Off The Beaten Winter Path In Colorado: Backcountry Dining At The Tennessee Pass Cookhouse

“We’re going to ski in to this place where you get lunch served in a yurt.”

My Colorado friends know what it takes to get me excited about life; combine an outdoor pursuit with eating and I am almost always game. I didn’t even need to know the details of where we were going. The fact that I was going to a restaurant in a backcountry setting was good enough.

Near Leadville, Colorado, which at an elevation of 10,152 feet is the highest incorporated city in the United States, the Tennessee Pass Nordic Center is the kind of place for outdoor enthusiasts looking to get off the beaten path and away from more common places like Aspen and Vail. From here you can snowshoe and Nordic ski on over 25 kilometers of set track trails (hike them in the summer of course) and if you want an experience with a little more speed, spend the day on the downhill slopes of Ski Cooper.

We arrived at the Nordic Center mid-morning, kicking things off with a thermos of coffee as we rented skis and boots.

“The trail is a little bare in spots, but you’ll be fine,” instructed one of the owners.

Apparently she assumed our nordic skiing skills were a little more fine tuned than we knew they were; nordic skiing on flat, green routes is one thing, slogging uphill on icy trails is quite another, even for those used to skiing downhill. But the sun was out, the sky was blue, and we had nowhere to be except for at a yurt at 1:30 for our lunch reservations.

In the winter, the Tennessee Pass Cookhouse, which really is a full-scale restaurant in a yurt, is open for lunch and dinner, reservations required. As they put it, it’s “fine dining… backcountry style.” Is there anything better for the outdoor enthusiast?

The cookhouse is well equipped with a long list of wines and a few local beers. In the evenings, they serve up a four-course dinner for $80, and if you want to extend your backcountry experience, you can stay in one of the nearby sleeping yurts. Lunch is a little more low key, with entrees ranging from $10-17.

We skied the mile-long trail to the yurt, cresting over a hill and ending up with an overlook of the valley and the mountains behind. There are certainly worse places to eat lunch in the world.

“Who wants a beer?”

That seemed to be the appropriate choice, and with the help of a few extra layers that we had packed in, we took a seat on the yurt porch, outfitted with hefty picnic tables and torches made out of upcycled wine bottles. There are worse places to eat lunch.

A Cutthroat Porter (brewed by local Fort Collins Odell Brewing Company) was the perfect pairing for a cold day. And what goes best with a porter? A buffalo burger stuffed with feta cheese of course. I pulled out a dark chocolate bar for dessert (for outdoor adventures, it’s important to always have one on hand). After an hour of sitting outside, we warmed up by the stove inside the yurt, mentally prepping ourselves for what we knew would be an icy downhill for our return.

After looking at the map, we opted for Willa’s Way, which would take us on a loop trail, as opposed to skiing back on the trail we came in on. The main access trail to the cookhouse is frequented by staff driving back and forth on snowmobiles, meaning harder packed snow, and in the recent cold spell, very icy. We made a concerted effort to avoid Griz, marked in black as the most difficult course. Even those of us that like a challenge have our limits.

Willa’s Way meant a winding path downhill – challenging even for my expert downhill skier friends who are used to wider, more stable skis. But there is entertainment in challenge, and a few spills were merely cause for laughter. It’s hard not to feel good when you’re in the woods on a clear day. But that Willa … she’s a wily one.

Back at the Nordic Center, more coffee and one of Roxanne’s Cookies – a local favorite of the Tennessee Pass crew – for good measure. Lesson of the day: say yes to backcountry eating experiences, bring an extra layer, avoid Griz and always get the porter.

Daily Secret offers insider intel for Istanbul, Athens, Shanghai and more

insider intelLast month, I went to a designer-clothing pop-up sale in the back of a restaurant, scored an invite to an exclusive party with Champagne and gourmet truffles, and got the manager’s private phone number of a hot new nightlife spot. I’m not famous or especially well-connected, I’m just a subscriber to DailySecret.com. Daily Secret is website and email newsletter that delivers insider intel for twelve cities from Buenos Aires to San Francisco, plus English-language editions for Athens, Istanbul, and Shanghai. Founded in Athens in 2010, Daily Secret spread to Istanbul last March, with over 200 secrets and counting.

The Istanbul secrets are compiled and curated by a team of 15 “scouts,” ranging from a fashion blogger, to a food critic, to a non-profit specialist in new companies who often hears about new ventures before they open. You can register with the site to receive the daily secrets, or search online by category, neighborhood, or date posted. Not all secrets are fancy or expensive, but they tend to be sophisticated and high-end. Daily Secret likes to be the first to write about a new service or business, or provide an added value for readers: an exclusive discount or giveaway, the unlisted phone number, or a spot on the guest list of an event.insider intelI met with Laura Wells, co-founder and editor of Istanbul Daily Secret, to get her best tips and favorites for the Turkish cultural capital. With a background in news journalism, Laura is an American expat with a discerning eye and impeccable tastes, who vets each secret and hopes that if you like the secret’s description, you’ll like the place too.

A year after the Capital of Culture is over, why travel to Istanbul in 2012?
Istanbul is not about trends or time-sensitive titles, though it is ‘hot’ these days. Istanbul has been around for thousands of years, and there’s nowhere else like it. It’s exotic, and yet also very accessible to foreigners, in terms of culture and things to do.

Essence of Daily Secret in one sentence?
We discover the best insider ‘secrets’ of each city for our members (in our case, Istanbul), that most locals don’t even know about!

Favorite museum/culture spot with no tourist buses in sight?
Turkey is now becoming known internationally for its modern art market. The most impressive art museum in Turkey, I think, is actually a private, family-owned museum. Its collection pairs renowned artists from around the world with local Turkish talents, and entrance is free! The Elgiz Museum/Proje 4L often has receptions & exhibits of emerging Turkish artists as well as many panel discussions in English. It’s one of Istanbul’s best-kept secrets, truly!

Where to go for an only-in-Istanbul souvenir, that’s actually made in Turkey?
I love artistic souvenirs that can become heirlooms, and we recently discovered a brand-new company started by the wife of Turkey’s Minister of EU Affairs, Egemen Bagis. His wife Beyhan has worked with local artisans to develop Anatoli, which offers three lines of exquisite pieces for the home ranging from straight traditional to modern based on an old motif. Beyhan Bagis conducted research with a professor of Turkic Studies to resurrect these designs and unusual pieces; for instance, Anatoli carries an incredibly elaborate silver-plated, hand-wrought sculpture that’s actually an Ottoman-style rose water holder to make the room more fragrant. It’s the closest thing to owning an antique (there are many fakes here!). The prices start at 65 TL, so nearly anyone can purchase something, and they’ll all fit in your carry-on. Read more here.

Best new hotel in a hip neighborhood?
For a reasonably-priced (and now very hip) hotel, Georges is a standout! The co-owner & manager Alex Varlik, a Parisian transplant, is very hospitable, and I love that they preserved this historic building’s original details. You’re steps from the Galata Tower, but the entrance’s in on such a quiet, little cobblestone street. Even Istanbul’s glamorous set is now flocking to this “old town” establishment, the intimate restaurant/bar Le Fumoir. Just opened this month across the Golden Horn, HHK Hotel is a charming new property with sauna, pool, and hammam, and we’re giving away a 2-night stay in February. The winner can be from anywhere in the world, you just have to be a Daily Secret member.

Comfy and cool bar you wish was in your neighborhood?
To hang out with the young art crowd & intelligentsia, head to the less-visited Asian side, for your pick of funky hangouts on Kadikoy’s Kadife Street (aka Bar Street). Karga at #16 is an art and performance space in an old building designed by the same architect as the train station. It recently celebrated 15 years and has its own magazine. Hidden above street level, Dunia at #19 is a new 2-story restaurant/bar that prints its schedules so you can hear a performance, watch a movie, and see an exhibit. Arkaoda at #18 is a lounge for music lovers, and the kind of place the owner doesn’t necessarily want you to find – unless you know someone, that is.

Where to splurge on a last-night-in-town dinner?
For a proper Ottoman meal and to try dishes you can almost never find anywhere else, as they did with the former Empire, try Pasha Bebek. Unlike many of the restaurants serving the traditional cuisine here, this is elegant, and in a ‘hot’ neighborhood. The hostess, Anita, is like an encyclopedia about all the dishes and she loves sharing the history behind them. She’s there every night and speaks wonderful English.

Recommended tour guides for more insider intel?
One of Daily Secret’s employees, Resat Erel, is also a long-standing private tour guide, also fluent in English & French. He’s a member of TURSAB, the tourist guide association, and he mainly gives tours to visiting dignitaries. He knows all the ‘secrets’ of Istanbul and is a great asset to us! In return, we have to give him up on certain days. If you want to have a private tour based on your preferences, he’ll work with you to shape your itinerary. His email address is: resaterel@gmail.com, phone +90.532.670.1369. For a culinary tour to try lots of different dishes, in very little time, and get to walk around the city or cross the Bosphorus by boat – Delicious Istanbul is a new company providing cooking classes and tasting tours for 2-6 people.

What’s happening in 2012 for Daily Secret?
Vancouver just launched, and we’re also launching Android & iPhone applications for each city this month (we’ll be announcing them on our sites, and they’ll be available through our sites and in the iTunes store), and people will be able to see the secrets in each neighborhood as they pass through, like a personal tour guide. We’re also working on English versions of all foreign cities.

Sign up and browse the secrets at www.dailysecret.com and find them on Facebook.

The perils of solo travel, or, how to sexually harass someone without even trying

solo travelHere at Gadling we’ve talked a lot about the perils of solo travel, from how it can break up relationships to creating feelings of loneliness. On a recent trip to Antwerp I discovered a danger to solo travel I never thought of–people look upon you with suspicion.

I was dining alone in a popular Antwerp restaurant. The waiter had seated me so that I faced another table less than ten feet away. A middle-aged woman and her college-aged daughter sat there. The daughter was directly in front of me facing to my left, so if I looked straight ahead I was looking at her profile.

I didn’t give it any thought as I ordered. Sometime during my appetizer I noticed the daughter kept turning to look at me. At first it was just every few minutes, but by the time I got my main course she was giving me annoyed glances every thirty seconds or so.

Obviously she thought I was staring at her. I tried to look elsewhere. She kept looking over so often, though, that anytime I happened to look straight ahead, she’d “catch” me. I began to feel a bit guilty, like when I’m walking home at night and there’s a woman walking in the street ahead of me. I hate when that happens because I know I’m making the woman uncomfortable. What do you do? Speed up and pass her? Slow down? Both look suspicious and are only going to make her more nervous.

But we weren’t alone in a darkened street; we were in a busy restaurant and she was sitting right in front of me. What could I do, squash my face into my plate of venison?

She started whispering to her mother in French. They’d been talking normally before, but now their conversation changed into a angry, conspiratorial whisper.

At this point my guilt changed into annoyance. I mean, where else was I supposed to look? In fact, for the past half hour I’d been deliberately trying to avoid looking forward. That probably made me look even creepier because now both mother and daughter kept swiveling their heads to check on me.

The bill came and I paid. More whispering. Just as I stood up, both turned on me with snarly little faces, mother and daughter the same snarly little faces.

“Peeg,” snarled mother.

“Peeg,” snarled daughter.

I ignored them and walked off. I would have explained it was all a misunderstanding if they had looked open to that approach. My second reaction was to say, “Sorry to rain on your parade, kid, but my wife is twice your age and STILL better looking than you.” That wouldn’t have gone over too well either. Instead I said nothing, got my coat, and headed out into the night.

So guys, if you’re traveling alone be sure to bring a book to dinner, otherwise you may be mistaken for a male chauvinist “peeg”.

Photo courtesy Alex Castro and the London Anti-Street harassment Campaign.

Tucson’s beloved Grill restaurant closes

Tucson Grill
Today marks my second Thanksgiving outside of the US (in Turkey, ironically) and as nostalgic as I am for Pepperidge Farm stuffing and canned cranberry sauce, this week I am missing another important piece of my past: the Grill restaurant in Tucson, Arizona. A landmark of downtown Tucson for decades, Grill (true regulars know to leave off the “the”) shut its doors this week, leaving many current and former Tucsonans distraught and de-caffeinated. Open 24 hours, serving breakfast “until tomorrow,” Grill’s menu offered the helpful tip: “when dining out, insist on food.” If you were to walk by it, you may be forgiven in thinking it was just a diner, but it was much more than that.

Grill was first opened in its current iteration in 1994 by James Graham, a classically-trained chef who made it an amalgamation of a traditional New York diner fare and more haute cuisine. In addition to burgers and fries, an impossible-to-finish short stack of pancakes, and steak and eggs, you’d find surprises on the menu. Toasted and fried “Spanish ravioli” (mysteriously called “depth bombs”). A salad with hearts of palm and fresh mozzarella. Even a big bowl of Cap’n Crunch. Some of those old favorites were left off the menu when James sold it in 1999 and moved to L.A., but his original rules remained in effect: tater tots only available late night and never with cheese. No ranch dressing. Always tip your waiter (that’s just polite).

Beyond the food and coffee, Grill was a haven for many people, with a constant rotation of Johnny Cash and Patsy Cline. Many of Tucson’s eccentrics, artists, and just plain weirdos called it home; it was a hipster hangout before hipsters existed. I spent much of my adolescence in one of the red booths, drinking coffee, smoking illicit cigarettes, doing crossword puzzles, crying over boyfriends, and occasionally studying. Even my father, a downtown-based criminal defense attorney, was a regular for lunch and we’d occasionally cross paths, each slightly embarrassed to see the other in such a sacred space. Bringing a new boyfriend to Grill was in important test: if you didn’t respect and appreciate Grill, it was a personal affront. When I moved to New York in 1998, I had a special named after me: the Meg Lamb Memorial “You’re Gonna Make it After All” Knish Dish.

Grill changed a bit over the nearly 15 years since I left Arizona. The adjoining Red Room was a lounge space in my day, with a much-used photo booth, an assortment of motley board games, and some antique couches where my high school poetry club used to meet monthly. For the past several years, Red Room was a bar and music space separate from Grill. In my last visit in 2007, it didn’t feel quite the same, but the spirit remained the same: an oasis in Tucson’s occasionally desolate downtown, “open later than you think.”

If you go to Tucson now, you can still find a few spots for late-coffee and eats. The perennial goth favorite, Cafe Quebec, is now the worker-owned cooperative Shot in the Dark Cafe. The bikers hanging out at Safehouse are friendlier than they appear. The Hotel Congress is home to the Cup Cafe, in addition to one of Tucson’s best nightlife scenes. Later this year, James Graham will open a new restaurant in Los Angeles: Ba Restaurant in Highland Park, serving French provincial classics, a major departure from diner fare. A growing Facebook group is trying to inspire a new Grill to rise from the ashes. One question remains: how does the next door Wig-O-Rama stay recession-proof?!

Thanks for the memories Grill!

Photo courtesy James Graham, circa 1994.

Starry, starry night: Notes on an edible epiphany in Burgundy

It all began with the carpaccio. I don’t hate carpaccio, but when given another choice on a menu – fermented yak tail, say – I’m likely to choose the alternative. So I wasn’t really expecting much when the tuxedo’d waiter ceremoniously placed the plate with a generous disc of raw beef, sliced mushrooms and a confetti of foie gras before me.

And then I put a forkful in my mouth. And the world moved.

The combination of textures and tastes was astonishing – smooth and rough, salty and sweet, lean-beefy and fat-foie-grasy and smoky-musky-mushroomy. An edible epiphany.

For a moment I simply savored the symphony in my mouth. Then I said to the Splendid Sixsome, “I love it when a dish teaches me something about food.”

And that’s how my recent feast at a three-star Michelin restaurant began.

* * *

The restaurant was Jean-Michel Lorain’s establishment at the soul-soothing Relais et Châteaux property La Côte Saint-Jacques, in Joigny, northwestern Burgundy, France. I was there with four fellow travel writers and two press trip hosts, one from the French national tourism office and one from the Burgundy regional tourism bureau.

We had arrived at Charles de Gaulle airport that morning from the U.S., taken a van to the Gare de Lyon in Paris, then hopped a slow train to Joigny, where another van took us through the tiny-in-population and huge-in-charm town to the hotel.

After a break to freshen up, we’d toured the property, then repaired to a terrace overlooking the placid Yonne River, with the green fields of Burgundy and the century-old stone buildings of Joigny shimmering in the late afternoon sun.

Our celebration began with an aperitif of Rose Champagne that shimmered in its flute like a liquid sunset with bubbles.

Accompanying the Champagne was a little rectangular plate with a quartet of variations on egg: a wonton-like pillow stuffed with quail egg and leek, an anchovy and pepper-tomato-omelette combo, fluffed egg whites with red wine served in an egg shell, and a fruit-dotted flan-like dollop in a shot glass.

We sat on the timeless terrace and sipped and supped and sighed. The air was as soft as the light, the light as rosy as the aperitif, the aperitif as bubbly as the bonhomie. The world oozed tranquility.

* * *

And then we repaired to the elegant and airy dining room.

That room was a beguiling combination of warmth and exquisite taste, but what really took my breath away were the ceramic plate settings and matching bread plates, which reminded me of treasures I’d found in Japan. These asymmetrical pieces were designed with wavy, grainy white frames around a pastel blue-green-purple central square. Each piece, we were told, was individually crafted and fired by François Guéneau, a well-known craftsman from nearby Noyers sur Serein. They were such beautiful works of art that I wanted to take them home. Already I loved the restaurant!

* * *

Our formal feast began with an amuse-bouche: two thumb-sized slices of lobster arranged at the tail end of a purple and yellow wave of pureed potato. The pliant, sweet lobster meat was perfectly complemented by the smooth, settling puree. My bouche was extremely amused.

Then came the “Carpaccio de Bœuf et Foie Gras de Canard aux Cèpes” – and nothing was ever the same again.

A dish that artful, so knowingly concocted as a symphony of sensations and savors, makes you realize that a great chef is as much an artist as a composer or a choreographer. From a menu of almost infinite options, he first chooses the ingredients, then plans and executes the preparation of each ingredient, then sculpts their presentation into a visually and gustatorily harmonious whole. The proof was on the platter: It looked enticing, it smelled seductive, it felt wonderfully yin-and-yangy in the mouth, and it tasted orgasmic. That was the beginning of my education in what makes a three-star chef.

“I love it when a dish teaches me something about food,” I said, and the Splendid Sixsome murmured in assent, each lost in their own version of haute cuisine heaven.

* * *

The wonders continued with the fish course: slow-cooked skate wing served in a broth spiced with coconut milk and kafir lime, tomato confit and sauteed seasonal vegetables. We exclaimed over the presentation: a foamy pool swimming with bits of skate and vegetables, with an actual part of the skate bone rising like a fin out of the pool. And the taste! A touch of the tropics, a swash of the northern sea – transporting.

As the best meals do, the evening took on its own rhythm, the conversation ebbing and flowing, bursts of passionate chatter giving way to languorous stretches of silence as we savored new tastes.

Up to this course, the theatricality of the evening had resided mostly in the plates themselves. But the next course amped up the culinary drama: Two gentlemen in tuxedoes rolled out a sleek black tray on which was perched a casserole wearing what appeared to be a huge overflowing pastry hat. This was the “Poularde de Bresse à la Vapeur de Champagne” – Bresse Chicken Steamed in Champagne. The first thing we learned with this course is that appellations don’t apply only to wines; all manner of foodstuffs can have appellations, including chickens. And this particular bantam hen was from one of the most prized appellations – Bresse. It’s all about the terroir.

Our fabulous fowl had been slow-steamed in Champagne in a casserole that had been hermetically sealed with a dough covering – the aforementioned floppy hat. The waiter in the black bow tie held the tray while the waiter in the red bow tie raised a gleaming knife and fork and ceremonially pierced the dough that had prevented any molecule of Champagne escaping. When the top of the dough hat had been removed, the pot was ceremoniously presented to the table, brought from diner to diner so that we could peer in at the pale, plump, Champage-sotted fowl and ooh and aah.

Then the bird was returned to the tray, and the gent in the red bow tie lifted it out of its redolent pot and placed it on a wooden cutting board, where he proceeded to vigorously saw it into serving-sized pieces. In Act Three of this drama the fowl was whisked away and in Act Four it miraculously reappeared moments later artfully arranged on round platters in a creamy sauce with little pellets of corn, carrot and squash. The fowl was tender and flavorful but what really astonished me was the sauce. It reminded me of the great French Old School sauces in its rich layerings of taste — but without the artery-clogging consistency. This was simply the best sauce I could ever recall eating. Had I not been in such elegant surroundings, I would have picked up my platter and licked it. I almost did. Instead, I used my roll to sop up every last savory soupcon.

By now, the Splendid Sixsome was purring contentedly. And sharing what we’d learned about three-star splendour: that it’s the sum of all its parts and more — the location and setting of the restaurant, the design of the dining room and the plates and the silverware, the choreography of the evening, the attentiveness, precision and warmth of the servers, the harmonious procession and presentation of the courses, and of course the look and feel and taste of the culinary creations themselves. A three-star dining experience is a composite of all these things, we agreed.

* * *

At this point we probably should have gone for a brisk row on the Yonne, but instead the gentlemen in the bow ties reappeared, wheeling in an elaborate sideboard that showcased more than 20 cheeses, most from the region. I sampled a half dozen — soft and hard, goat and cow. All were delicious, but the one I taste most vividly still is the Epoisses, a proud cheese made in the Burgundian village of the same name (a cheese which, Wikipedia has since informed me, Napoleon was particularly fond of, and which the famous epicure Brillat-Savarin classed as the “king of all cheeses”). The Epoisses had a creamy tang that tasted like a sunny summer pasture in the mouth – and that seemed the perfect end to the spectrum of flavors we’d enjoyed.

But no, the true climax was still to come: a delicate dessert of rose-infused ice cream served in a pastry tulip basket with crystallized rose petals. Our colleague Krista characterized eating this dish as “an out-of-body experience.” To me it was like eating pure rose petals that had somehow been transmuted into a sweet cool creamy confection. A midsummer night’s dream.
By the end of dessert the Splendid Sixsome had slipped into a kind of post-coital collective culinary stupor. Had this been a French film, we would all have been smoking cigarettes.
But it wasn’t. So instead we waddled onto the terrace, where the air was still caressingly warm and soft, and where the universe had spread out its own visual feast. We sighed one grand collective sigh. And the stars shone bright in Burgundy.

* * *

Edittor’s note: This trip was hosted by Atout France, the French Tourism Development Agency; Air France; Rail Europe; the Burgundy Tourism Office; and the Champagne-Ardenne Tourism Office. All the ecstasies expressed herein are entirely the author’s.

Fore more information on La Côte Saint-Jacques, including room rates, menus and prices: http://cotesaintjacques.com/en/

[raspberry flickr image via JSmith Photo]