Caribbean Paradise in Curacao

I started this journey scouring the scuba forums, getting advice from friends, and looking all over the internet (including trip advisor). Normally, we stay at Marriott properties or resort-style places, but we decided to go with something different since this was a mostly dive vacation. We did the right thing!

The staff at Scuba Lodge is incredibly friendly. Dalise (probably not spelled correctly) was a lifeline. She was courteous, happy and could make anything happen, including a rental car on the fly. We dove with the Scuba Lodge dive shop and they provided us with superb local spots, great choices for non-touristy lunch options and tons of local lore. We stopped at the Heart of Curacao and learned the legend which was not a dive stop. Daan took us to a fishing pier where we dove with huge sea turtles and moray eels. They were helpful with our 15 year old daughter who had never shore dove before. It was a fantastic experience!

The Scuba Lodge staff embodies the great thing about the island- people are happy, relaxed and work together. Dive shops gathered on Thursday for a “happy hour” at the Scuba Lodge. We were never approached by vagrants or people trying to sell things and we walked around safely at night as we explored the restaurant scene. Let me qualify that with Scuba Lodge is located in the city, not in the resort- touristy area. Crumbling buildings, construction and graffiti art was ever-present.

One of the great things about Scuba Lodge IS the location, especially if you are a foodie. All of the best restaurants on the island were walking distance. Though, Scuba Lodge’s restaurant would not be one of those. We tried breakfast, lunch and the bbq and all were disappointing food-wise. The service was good, but food was over priced and not tasty. Stay here but do not eat here. Go to Kome, Chapter or any of the other amazing places right there.

One of the other surprises as a guest was there was not a beach persay. You are right on the ocean, but there is no traditional beach. The pics on the site are a little deceiving in that way. They have a sandy dining area overlooking the ocean, which is beautiful, but not a walk-in beach. The infinite pool is awesome and does hang right over the ocean, but it is rocky and heavy seas.

We stayed in the 2 bedroom apartment, city view. i kind of wished we had the ocean view, but we were not in our room enough to make a huge difference. The apartment was huge!!! Upstairs and downstairs with two enormous bedrooms. A great kitchen with updated appliances. A bathroom off of the living room with a washing machine and a roomy balcony to hand scuba gear and enjoy a cup of coffee. The bedrooms are ice cold air conditioned, but the living area and kitchen are not air conditioned. Again, that was not a big deal since we were not there much. The apartment had beautiful flooring, large windows and comfy beds.

When we next come to Curacao, we will stay at Scuba Lodge. It was a fantastic experience. Next time we will have Dalise get us a car for the last couple days, have her do a little grocery shopping for us (nothing close with good groceries other than produce at the floating market) and schedule two days to dive the Superior Producer!

Fishalicious:

I was so excited about this place, but it did not live up to my expectations. I love, love seafood and it is not easy to find a menu with a range of seafood in Willemstad.

Unfortunately, the fish was not cooked properly. We ordered the tuna medium rare and the snapper special as two of our entrees. The fish was cooked well all the way through and the snapper, though it looked well-seared, had very flimsy rather than crisp skin. The shellfish dish on the other hand was perfect. The scallops were soft and buttery and the shrimp was tender. The amouse bouche of swordfish was also quite tasty.

As far as service, we had reservations but were sat at an uncomfortable bar table. Our server was friendly and fairly attentive though the food took a very long time, even by Curacao standards. All in all, this was one of our more expensive meals, but not worth the cost. Too bad since it is one of the only fish-dedicated restaurants on the island.

Kome:

Our first night in Curacao and we planned to just find a place for dinner. We stayed at the Scuba Lodge and were heading towards Brasserie based on a rec. but wanted more seafood selections. Enter Kome. We walked by it and I recognized the name from trip advisor.

The interior is just gorgeous. Dark panel floors, eclectic art, vaulted ceilings and an open kitchen. We did not have reservations, but the manager took pity on us and gave us a table near the kitchen.

Like most restaurants in Curaçao, the service is fairly leisurely. Which is OK because it’s an island. Our server was phenomenal! She was friendly, knowledgeable and gauged when we wanted refills or when we needed something and was attentive to that.

It was hard to pick what we were going to eat. The menu has a very wide selection and everything sounded delicious. We ended up choosing the burrata plate and green curry soup with fish dumplings to start. Our mains were the duck with cherry gastrique, green curry shellfish over rice noodles and the snapper special. Everything was deftly seasoned. The portions were good, not huge and the pickled vegetable made the perfect accompaniment.

We finished with a tawny port and glass of gewurtzemeiner. Perfect end to a fabulous meal.

Ginger:

Usually, I wait until I am home to do this, but I just could not wait. The ambiance and menu at Ginger are fantastic! Loved the outdoor seating area and the handhewn box seating. The music matched the vibe. The menu had lots of yummies to choose from. We started with thai fish cakes and ordered whole red snapper (tandoori style) and the shrimp in lemon-tequila marinade. Both were delicious and well-prepared.

Unfortunately, this story does not end well. The service was the worst in any country I have ever had (which I surmise to be the reason it is not a higher rated). Our sever, who we could never get her name out of, for the most part ignored us. The service in general here is slower than the US which is to be expected. Every time we needed something we had to flag down the other server because ours was hanging out at the bar or doing side work. She was not friendly. As we were waiting for someone to come take our dessert order, one of her other tables had to go to the kitchen to finally get their check. The lady was in a wheelchair and had to make her way around a non-handicap accessible area just to find the server to pay.

The only time our server was attentive was when the other server brought us our check. She proceeded to clear everything from our table, including our still being finished dessert. It was one if the rudest moments of the evening. In total, we were there over three hours. Forget about drink refills, ordering another glass of wine or anything beyond what you order the first round.

When we first got there, we planned to come more than once during our trip because of the atmosphere and menu. Now we will go nowhere near the place. If anyone does decide to go and an Indian waitress shows up at your table, ask for the other server.

Saint Tropez:

Went here for breakfast three times because of the proximity to the hotel. Food was delicious- they have fluffy pancakes and our server was awesome! Had a quick lunch in between dives and it was equally tasty!

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San Diego and Sunsets

Wonderland and OB:
We happened onto this place after a day exploring Ocean Beach. It was close to sunset and Wonderland had prime seating to catch it. We were not disappointed! It was a Monday and they had a special mussels. We ordered the andouille and smoked tomato mussels. They were tasty and the beer selection was really wide. My only complaint is the prices are a little steep and seating can be difficult, but the view is worth it! They also have some special every night; you just have to check and the live music on Mondays is fantastic!

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Blue Water Seafood:

This spot was suggested by a friend for superior fish. We went on a Wednesday at 8:30 and even a half hour before close, the line was out the door!

As we were standing in line, I got to see the amazing sashimi plates coming out. Huge portions of incredibly fresh fish, my mouth watered. Unfortunately, we did not order sashimi. We ordered the house cioppino and the bronzed snapper. The seafood on both dishes was ample and expertly prepared. Where they both fell down was seasoning. The bronze was very light and bland and the cioppino needed salt. The fish was all very well butchered and cooked, just lacking in seasoning.

I still consider this a very good meal because of the quality of fish, attention to butchering and friendly staff. They have a nice local craft beer selection as well. In the future, I will get the sashimi and I am sure it will be excellent!

Queenstown Public House:

Found this little gem while I was checking out the Little Italy Market and what a find! Just the atmosphere alone would draw me in with all the eclectic decor and unique seating, but the food was delish as well. We had the lamb hash and challah french toast. The lamb hash was earthy, robust and served under two perfectly poached eggs. The challah french toast came with a homemade honey butter and fresh strawberries. The portions were ample. They offered am interesting mimosa and champagne cocktail menu, but we stuck with coffee which was tasty. The vibe is very relaxed and that is reflected in the speed of service. Don’t go when you are in a hurry, but it is worth the wait!

Mitch’s:

Mitch’s is the one place my husband always talks about when he comes to SD so it was our first lunch stop. Parking is a little hectic at lunch and we did wait in line to get in, but it was worth it. The selection is phenomenal and the staff is very friendly. We ordered octopus tacos, sea bass tacos, snapper tacos and poke. We managed to get seats at the back bar overlooking the marina- you want those seats! The view was relaxing and the food came quick. The poke was perfect little cubes of tuna aptly seasoned. The tacos were good, not the best in SD imho, but they were good. Great lunch spot- lots of character, great selection, fantastic poke!

Oscar’s PB:

I have now sampled a number of fish taco stands and can say with certainty, Oscar’s is my fave. It is very limited seating and no a.c., but you don’t need it in San Diego. I had the taco especial, the octopus taco and shared ceviche with my husband. It was all fantastic! The smoked fish on the especial was some of the tastiest ever and the octopus was duly charred and not tough. The ceviche had perfect acid and heat. They also had homemade sodas and a wide selection of jarritos. It was worth the couple minutes we waited for one of the picnic stands outside. This place was the only restaurant we repeated in SD- it was that good!

Keepin it Green in the Green Mountain State- Hen of the Wood

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Hen of the Wood. Great name, even greater cuisine! I have not so thoroughly enjoyed dinner out in a long time! The service, the atmosphere, and the food, oh my the food! We went on a Monday night and there was a wait so be sure to make reservations or do what we did and sit at the kitchen counter (which ended up being the best seat in the house).

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Menu of the day

Definitely order the grilled octopus, zucchini fritters, and tomato-mozzarella salad. All were delicious starters made better by watching Becca painstakinIMG_0517gly prepare each plate.The octopus was incredibly tender, no small feat for any who have tried octopus before. It came nestled atop a sunchoke puree accompanied by radishes and cilantro.

The zucchini fritters harkened me back to my Nanny’s farm where she would make fresh corn fritters for breakfast. They were light and fluffy, served with creme fraiche and local honey. The outsides were crispy and the insides soft enough to melt in the mouth. IMG_0516The tomato salad provided a much needed freshener with the housemade mozzarella and vinegar. This course definitely perked our palates for dinner!

Next we went to the rabbit with rhubarb jus and chicken with roasted chanterelles. Both were tender, beautiful, and deftly seasoned. IMG_0523

The chicken was my favorite. It was stuffed with a chicken sausage and topped with a pan jus. The currants scattered on the plate were that sweet tart note that emboldens flavors of savory entrees and the celery root puree was silken. The chanterelles were earthy and tender. it was some of the best prepared chicken I have ever had the pleasure of eating.

My only disappointment of the evening was dessert. We had a selection of bite-sized desserts, the milk cake with raspberry sorbet, a complimentary variety of sorbets, and a cheese tasting.

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The only one I truly enjoyed was the cheese. The cheeses were Vermont-sourced and served with a tart currant jam that finished our fabulous dinner perfectly. We will definitely be back on our next visit to Vermont!

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Keepin’ it Green in the Green Mountain State- Pho Hong

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Back in our little town of Roanoke, the best pho restaurant recently limited their hours, much to our lamenting tummies. We found Pho Saigon just by chance and it became a weekly, post-softball tradition for us. There is nothing like a hearty bowl of noodles to comfort tired muscles. Unfortunately, they are now only open for lunch except on weekends. So, when planning dining out in Burlington, we looked for a good pho place. Enter Pho Hong. And…its famed squid pho!

We went based on the amazing reviews for this place. Unfortunately, the website says nothing about no beer/wine license so we had to run to the Cumberland Farms around the corner- not a very good selection. The place is very popular, especially for takeout. We waited about 40 minutes for an outside table. Inside there was no air conditioning and patrons were visibly sweating. Outside the mosquitoes were oppressive! Our waitress kindly brought out cans of off, but that did not even touch the hungry insects. We eventually moved inside because being hot was better than being eaten alive.

I will say our server was very friendly and the food was okay. The portions were generous and the vegetables bountiful. Unfortunately, I have had some fantastic pho in other states and the depth of the broth just was not there. The small amount of protein in the overall bowl was also disappointing. All in all, I would not go back for dine in. Take out might be alright, but I think I would try another place first.

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Keepin’ it Green in the Green Mountain State- American Flatbread

Quilt hanging in American Flatbread. It is an homage to their local draft beer selection!

Quilt hanging in American Flatbread. It is an homage to their local draft beer selection!

Even eight years after my first visit, American Flatbread is still one of the best restaurants in Burlington! Great beer selection, amazing local ingredients, and fantastic service! Fortunately for us, AF has expanded since we last visited. They acquired the patio area between buildings. We did not have to wait even though it was a Friday night, and I think that is because of all this extra space. We can always count on AF to serve something local and yummy!

The menu is mainly wood-fired flatbreads of many ilks, local beer, and interesting salads. We ordered the Cheese and Herb, and the Pepperoni and Peppers flatbreads. The cheese and herb had whole milk mozzarella, Italian grand padona, garlic oil base, and fresh herbs. Delish! The pepperoni and peppers offered their homemade organic tomato base (so good), topped with nitrate-free pepperoni, green peppers, red onion, fresh herbs, and a blend of cheeses. We gobbled up both for our first dinner out in the Green Mountain State!

We also ordered their salad of the day- on the sign to the righIMG_0408t. I love kale, but this was even better than I imagined and the perfect accompaniment to AF’s rustic flatbreads. As usual, they served local microbrews. This time around it was Zero Gravity Brewing Company and it also did not disappoint. The Bernie Weiss was thirst-quenching, and a cool homage to Bernie Sanders, longtime Vermont politician and recent presidential candidate. AF has their flatbreads available in many grocery stores now, but if in town, a visit to the home location is a must!

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Keepin it green in the Green Mountain State- The great and wonderful Penny Cluse Cafe

Dining in Vermont is an experience all should have once in their life. The restaurants make every effort to locally source their ingredients, plan seasonal menus that support local farms, and are always reinventing themselves. Though only there for a few days, we found many gems in and around Burlington.
IMG_0427Breakfast. We are always on the lookout for a breakfast spot that inspires our palettes and makes us dream about it long after we have left. Burlington has such a place, Penny Cluse. Loved it so much we went three times in five days! Inventive food with fresh, local ingredients has never been done better.
Cornmeal French Toast with Rhubarb Compote!

Cornmeal French Toast with Rhubarb Compote!

The first trip offered cornmeal french toast with rhubarb compote, and though fresh Vermont maple syrup was served, it was not even necessary. Our son went for the original french toast with bananas on top and I think it may have been the largest plate of french toast I have ever seen. By the way, the food is big at Penny Cluse, so come hungry!

Huevos Ranchero

Huevos Ranchero

We also sampled the Huevos Verdes with a homemade avocado tomatillo salsa served atop poached eggs, spicy black beans and pickled vegetables. And, because my daughter and husband could not come to agreement, we also got the Huevos Rancheros for a sauce taste-off.

Huevos Verde

Huevos Verde

Personally, Iiked the Ranchero sauce better. It had more depth of flavor and the chili was more prominent. Both were good though, and we ended up getting one Huevos the third day with both sauces- the perfect combination! We also repeated the french toast the third day because I just couldn’t miss out on more serving.

The second visit, we went for the gingerbread pancakes, biscuits and gravy, turkey hash, and tofu scram.

Gingerbread PancakesThe thing about Penny Cluse is that they have an amazing menu, but there is a lot of magic going on with the special board.

Biscuits with Herbed Gravy- and yes it was as good as southern sausage gravy!

Biscuits with Herbed Gravy- and yes it was as good as southern sausage gravy!

The turkey hash, like the cornmeal french toast were both products of the special board. Another bit of advice our waitress imparted, order the bucket of spuds. You may think they are just glorified home fries, but you would be wrong, and if you ask, they will make you a half portion!

Not your usual side of fruit!

Not your usual side of fruit!

The fruit side is also unexpected. Raspberries, watermelon, peaches, grapefruit, pineapple, a date, and all of it was firm and fresh! Expect a wait because the Penny Cluse secret is out. We waited 40 minutes each day and that is about average. They have tasty coffee to stave off the hunger! If you are in Vermont, Penny Cluse is a must!

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Keepin’ it green in the Green Mountain State- Part 1

IMG_0537I wonder as an adult what it means to “head home”? Vermont was my childhood home. It is the place that still has Al’s creemee stand with the maple creemees I gobbled up as a child. It is the place with the little one room schoolhouse in Jericho where I completed 2nd grade. It is the place with my first apartment- a yellow Victorian on North Winooski Ave. where I rented the turret. It is the place where I learned to hike, kayak, bake, garden, and be the person I am today. It is where I spent summers on Nanny’s farm, where I had my first child, where I buried my father, and where I learned to appreciate hard work. All those are still a part of my childhood home, but now I have a new home with my own family. So then what is home for an adult- the place that formed you, the place that shapes your current life or a tapestry of memories and experiences that are less tangible, but more present? As we turned onto route 7 in Vermont, all of those concepts merged in me as I pointed out places I had long stowed away to my husband and daughter.

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Even the rest stops in Vermont are beautiful!

Planning out our vacation, I knew there were touchstone places I wanted to visit. We were there to celebrate our son’s birthday and we wanted to do some old school family stuff since we only see him a couple times a year. On the list was kayaking on Lake Champlain, tour of Ben and Jerry’s factory, a vineyard visit, shopping local artisan stores, walking the waterfront, and visiting some of my old haunts…plus eat fabulous, locally prepared foods at some of the best restaurants in the nation. We accomplished all and more! This post details the places and activities; the next will explore the foodie stops.

First on our list was exploring Church Street. It has changed a lot in the last decade, but the value of supporting independent, local businesses still rings strong on the Marketplace. I am an independent bookstore junkie and seek them out in every place I go. Burlington is home to a few and I made my way to one, Crow Bookshop at the top if Church Street.

IMG_0394They have a wide selection of new and used volumes arranged in neat shelves running vertically along the length of the store. A comfy seating area, and lots of natural light make it a great place to spend a couple of hours among the stacks. I happily found Purple Hibiscus, a book I have been hunting for a couple of months to no avail. The young lady working the counter was friendly and knowledgeable, and I got to leave some money in the local economy rather than the online behemoth’s coffers. After Liv and I acquired some new books, we moved down the Marketplace for some local jewelry purchases and a handmade scarf before heading out to kayak Lake Champlain.

Street musicians on the Marketplace

Street musicians on the Marketplace

As a child, we would kayak out of Jeffersonville which offers rushing rivers, as well as larger pools. For our purposes, we wanted something more local and Community Sailing Center offered the solution. The Waterfront in Burlington has exploded with activity over the past decade. The city has poured money into revitalizing abandoned warehouses and buildings and made room for cute cafes, local shops, and housing. they also spent time and money rehabilitating the bike path. When Dylan was a baby, we would bike the Bike Path every day from Oak Ledge to downtown, but it was always in disrepair and not long enough. Now it is this gorgeous swath of green snaking its way all over the state. It is a marvel to travel. Along the bike path is the Community Sailing Center- a warehouse converted to a rental facility for all things watersport related.

IMG_0405They offer paddle boards, canoes, boats, and kayaks for very reasonable rates. The kayaks rent for $15 per hour- single or tandem. Lake Champlain is enormous and offers lots of area to explore for those wishing to enjoy some outdoor adventure. There are also ferries, dinner cruises, and guided tours of the Lake Champlain region available for those interested.

In addition to fantastic outdoor activities, Vermont is also home to the best ice cream around and some beautiful vineyards and we planned on enjoying some of that. On our last trip we visited Snow Farm Winery, which was wonderful, but we wanted to branch out a little on this trip. I did a little research and decide on Shelburne Vineyards. IMG_0429They have some award winning wines and Shelburne is a quaint town with lots to offer. The vineyard is pretty small, but has an incredibly knowledgeable staff.

Our tour guide, Emily, knew everything there was to know about the growing region, the grapes, and the process of making wine.IMG_0430 She was personable and funny- ask for her if you can! We did the vineyard tour and then the complete tasting, which for $7 comes with a souvenir wine glass. They also offer a cheese plate of Vermont cheeses that was quite tasty. We ended up going home with a bottle of their sparkling wine that was a fave among our little group!

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Post wine-tasting called for some ice cream indulgence, so we made our way to the home of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream in Waterbury, VT. As a kid, my family would drop in on the scoop shop on the corner of Cherry Street in Burlington. It was an experience- there was a piano downstairs and usually somebody was playing, there was an old-fashioned ice cream maker where you could mix up your own ice cream (rock salt and all), and some of the creamiest tubs of ice cream upstairs in the scoop shop. It was always a treat to have my parents regale us with stories of the original Ben & Jerry’s of their youth- a converted garage down the street. Hard to believe that small place of my childhood has become the global business it is today!

Ironically, I never toured the factory in all my years living in Vermont. It may have been more of a tourist thing toIMG_0445 do, or I just enjoyed the local scoop shop enough to not make the trek to Waterbury, but I wanted my family to experience some of that ice cream-making magic that happens only at the factory now. The tour is fairly inexpensive, $4 for adults and includes samplings of the featured flavors. They also offer a package deal where you get a t-shirt as well for $20. This is also a good deal considering the shirts are usually $22- $26.IMG_0463 Our tour guide ushered us through the history of Ben & Jerry’s through the philanthropy and mission of the company. Ben & Jerry’s is truly one of those companies that has stayed the path of its original ideals. Though now owned by Unilever, Ben & Jerry’s still maintain creative control over the company’s direction to ensure the company is run in a way that holds true to its roots. The tour ended in the tasting room where we indulged in the featured flavor of the day, Caramel Truffle served up by friendly scoopers. In addition to the factory itself, there are also many activities to enhance your visit. There is a station where you can tye dye your own t-shirts as a souvenir. There was also a posed photo-op area where you can take pictures with cut-out pints. My kids especially enjoyed the spin arIMG_0456t station. They had a glass enclosed table with a spinner underneath and a slit for paint. They got to choose as many colors as they wanted and create their art. The staff hung them on a clothesline to be picked up as we left. Maybe the coolest part of the factory is the Flavor Graveyard.IMG_0472 This where all retired flavors go for their final rest. It sits on top of the hill above the actual factory and is set up just like a traditional graveyard with markers for the flavors, dates of production and short epitaphs about their life. It was fun to try and figure out which flavors might be “resurrected” based on their gravestones. We have a running bet that White Russian, Wavy Gravy, and Vermonty Python will see the inside of a pint sometime in the future.

Much of the rest of our long weekend was spent driving around the backroads of the state marveling at the pristine green of the fields, covered bridges, and newly installed solar panel farms. Vermont still manages to be the cleanest state I have ever set foot in and the most supportive of locally-produced food and beverage. It sort of amazes me a state with little-to-no industry other than tourism and agriculture keeps finding a way to reinvent itself economically, yet stay true to its grassroots nature. Needless to say, we did not want to leave.

Stay tuned for Part 2- Eats and Treats from Vermont’s finest restaurants and stores!

Keeping Knoxville Scruffy

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I have been a long fan of Austin’s mission to keep it weird- a movement meant to preserve local arts and happenings that can only be experienced in Austin, Texas. I was intrigued as I wandered around Knoxville, TN and noticed the abundance of “Keep Knoxville Scruffy” memorabilia. I wanted the story. Turns out the phrase was birthed out of a reaction to a negative comment by a journalist in 1980 on the eve of the World’s Fair held in Knoxville. The journalist dismissed Knoxville as a,”…scruffy little city on the Tennessee River.” Knoxvillians, particularly Preservation Pub owners Scott and Bernadette West, adopted the critical comment to promote their own city’s local artisans and shops, as well as the city’s history. Meandering through Knoxville’s neighborhoods, I found a city that embraces its laid back attitude while still being funky and friendly. It was not dirty as journalists over the years have implied. The vibe is smooth and alluring as music from street musicians filters into the air and the windows of eclectic shops capture attention with their unique displays and shop names. The reclaimed spaces and old Southern architecture invites exploration and that is just what I did.

One of the lesser known but hip attractions is a graffiti wall we happened on by accident. We finished our breakfast on the Market and were checking out the shops when I noticed a woman taking photographs of a family at the top of a narrow alley. After they finished, we made our way over to see what was going on in the alley. The first image I saw was the one at the top of the post. There were a number of different graffiti styles covering the walls and I could not look away. The story these local artists told through paint on old walls drew me in. Just another piece of Knoxville’s scruffiness.

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We stayed at the Marriott Knoxville on East Hill Avenue. It was an older-looking building, but staff was very friendly, rooms were clean and the location could not have been better. We were close to Old City, downtown, as well as the university. Even with all the people staying here for the UT Softball camp, we had no trouble parking right outside the hotel. We will stay here again!

Tupelo Honey– Located right downtown, this small-chain restaurant was exactly what we were looking for. The wait was very short considering its ranking among other local restaurants. The interior was Southern eclectic with old barn doors as wall dividers, old windows used as decor and restored antiques scattered around the dining room. The menu is not extensive, but what was on there made the breakfast decision difficult. We decided we would come for breakfast two days so we could truly test the place out. Especially since the before breakfast accoutrement was homemade buttermilk biscuits with fresh blueberry preserves and tupelo honey….

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The first breakfast included a delicious bowl of layered black-eyed peas, goat cheese grits, cucumber salsa, peppered bacon and fried eggs. The bacon was smokey and the grits were some of the creamiest I have ever tasted. Definite win! We also had the Shoo Mercy omelet, a blend of smoked ham, maple peppered bacon, fried green tomatoes, pickled jalapeno and pimento cheese. I normally do not jump on the pimento cheese boat but I was intrigued. It proved to be a smart choice. The fried green tomato was chunky and blended well with the light pimento cheese and spicy jalapenos. Again, a winner.

Super Southern breakfast bowl

Super Southern breakfast bowl

Day two saw sweet potato pancake with whipped peach butter and caramelized pecans and fried chicken and biscuits. I will say I like our local Wildflour cafe sweet potato and blueberry pancakes better. the pancake had shredded sweet potato in it rather than as a base for the batter. It was still delicious, just not as good as Wildflour’s. The chicken and biscuit sandwich though was another story. The layering of buttermilk fried chicken, country ham, fresh basil over buttermilk biscuit was inspired. The crowning achievement of this morning was the Bloody Mary. The Queen Mary is made with roasted golden yellow tomatoes, Demitri’s Bloody Mary seasoning, fresh lemon juice and moonshine. The garnish was a lemon, lime, pickled okra, pimento-cheese-stuffed olives, grilled shrimp, maple pepper bacon, celery, asparagus, pickled jalapeno and cherry tomato with a lime-salt rim. It is quiet a production. If you want something simpler, their house Bloody Mary garnished with pickled okra is yummy as well.

As an added bonus it was the Festival of Lights weekend and there was an enormous ice skating rink set up right outside the restaurant. We enjoyed some ice skating, some local shopping and some of the best of what Knoxville has to offer. If you are in town, don’t miss Tupelo Honey!

Tomato Head– Love, love the interior of this place. The walls are filled with local art. The floors were gorgeous. The windows and view were exactly what you would be looking for in Knoxville’s hip downtown market area.

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We started with a hummus plate and bread and pesto. Both were gobbled up quickly. We followed that with Lamb Sausage & Sundried Tomato with herbed tomato, black olive and capers pizza, as well as a Roasted Portabello with roma tomatoes on a pesto base. The ingredients were bursting with freshness and the lamb sausage was divine. The lamb sausage pizza had a nice balance of brininess and earthiness. I thought the pesto base would be too much with the portabellos but I was wrong. The freshness of the basil combined with the smooth pine nuts in the pesto were the perfect accompaniment to the meaty portabellos.

We ended with some homemade sweets from the bakery case. My daughter and I split the black forest cupcake. Sometimes with black forest, the cherry can be sickeningly sweet, but it was not this time. the cherries were tart and a nice cut to the rich chocolate cake. It was another delicious Knoxville experience!

Cru Bistro and Wine Bar– Extensive wine list with lots of unusual choices. Enormous cheese board that boasts one of the best cheese selections I have ever had in a restaurant. Cool atmosphere with exposed brick, beautiful floors and Old City architecture. We also had the perfect view of all the bicycles decorated with Christmas lights riding around town after the parade.

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In addition to the great food, Knoxville boasts some fun shopping. Make sure to stop by Earth to Old City for eclectic gifts and decor and my personal favorite store, Bliss Home. I spent two hours just wandering around like a child through their space. Whatever you are looking for, you can find it on the market and be sure to go on a Farmer’s Market day so you can get the full experience of local artisans and food purveyors. Knoxville has a great deal to offer and I will be back to do more sampling!

Lebanese for lunch

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The azure sky and cool breeze demanded a lunch outside today. My friend, Harry, has been after me to try Cedars Lebanese downtown and today presented the perfect opportunity for some top down, wind in our hair, music playing loud traveling to the hip ethnic eatery. The streets were buzzing with Farmer’s Market shoppers but I easily slipped into a parking place just a short walk away from the restaurant. They have very limited outdoor seating and you may have to wait, but it was worth it on such a gorgeous day. It is rather smallish inside so be ready to be cozy if you decide to wait.

As we waited, I looked around the interior. They have some beautiful landscapes on the walls and the door is one of those heavy wooden ones with multiple square panels I love. The kitchen is open to view and boasts efficient work space. As  I was admiring the mix of old architecture and new fixtures, we were called. We ambled to our table and started perusing the expansive menu. Lots of my faves- falafel, hummus, baba ganoush, tabbouleh- made it hard to choose. We decided to start with the Vegetarian Sampler so we could try a little of everything.

IMG_0892The pita wedges were thin and  perfect for dipping into the tahini-scented hummus. The baba ganoush was equally tasty with the earthy eggplant undertones. The star for me though was the falafel. It was crispy outside and a smooth grain inside- delicious with a dash of the tahini sauce provided. I can’t say I was a fan of the tabbouleh. It was just tomato and parsley seasoned with lemon juice. I like mine heartier with some obvious bulghar to soak up some of the wetness.

The appetizer was quite large but I did not want to miss out on some of the entrees so we ordered a couple to split among the table. I love a good shawarma and they had beef and chicken. We went with the beef shawarma platter and the chicken shawarma wrap.

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The beef shawarma was enormous! The beef was shredded in nice size bites and seasoned fragrantly with cumin and coriander. It was tossed with grilled onions and tomatoes. On the side was a heaping mound of rice laced with crunchy noodles and tahini sauce. The wrap was equally tasty with the same fragrant seasoning treatment except chicken. My only complaint about this wrap was it needed either some tahini sauce or a shmear of hummus to bring it all together. They were both tasty lunch fare. Sharing was definitely the right idea. Between the huge appetizer and the large entree portions and our need for some dessert, we did not finish everything.

The dessert menu held many interesting options including one of our favorites, baklava. Each dessert is a bite-sized single serving so again sharing was the way to go. We ordered the baklava and a shortbread, date pastry called Maamoul. The baklava was flaky and dense. The honey and nut mixture melded with the buttery layers it was sandwiched between. The Maamoul was the star. The shortbread had that crumbly, melt-in-your mouth texture and the date filling was smooth and sweet. The dates were perfectly blended and a delicious match to the buttery shortbread.

All in all, lunch was fantastic! I noticed they had some great happy hour specials for another day and a “Mezza” tasting menu option for another time. If you are feeling adventurous or just love the flavors of Lebanon, make the trip to Cedars.

Thai done right!

I have a serious love affair with authentic Thai food. Unfortunately, our little berg of Roanoke does not have much to offer a curry-loving soul. I have tried the two other Thai places in town with just so-so results. This week a friend of mine introduced me to this hidden gem in Vinton. The place has a homey feel and is a family-run business. The owner is full of family lore behind the recipes. Ask her about the dumplings and her brother’s journey to the United States if you try it out! We sampled the Satay and the Thai Dumplings as appetizers. They were delicious. the satay was tender and juicy and the peanut sauce was a smooth consistency. For lunch, my daughter ordered the Shrimp Pad Thai. Everything was very fresh, but the dish lacked a little seasoning. My friend ordered the Shrimp Green Curry. This was REALLY tasty. The baby eggplant was thinly sliced and perfectly cooked. The bean sprouts were firm and added nice texture. The curry itself had nice round heat and did not overpower the jasmine rice’s delicate flavor. I ordered the Thai Silk Noodles with the large noodles. The spice was perfect. The noodles were redolent with thai basil and the seafood was very fresh. Again, the bean sprouts added the perfect textural contrast and the pieces of squid were unusually tender.

We did not hesitate when offered dessert…the Mango Sticky Rice was divine! There was a fragrant coconut sauce drizzled over the sticky rice and the mango was perfectly ripe. It was the perfect cooling end to a spicy Thai lunch. Be warned that it is not necessarily an inexpensive lunch. Each entree was about $10, appetizers were about $6 a piece and dessert was about $6. The freshness of the vegetables, the perfection of the rice texture and the family food lore made the meal worth the price. If you like Thai, you must make the journey to Red Jasmine!