Saturday, December 31, 2011

What I'm Cooking...Gruyere Gougeres

Today I tried my new Essentials of French Cooking by William Sonoma cook book.  I started by leafing through page by page and managed to make it to page 56 before I decided I needed to get cooking.  Surprisingly, I had everything needed for this recipe in my kitchen.  How great and how unexpected for me.

I decided to try a Gruyere Gougeres.  This hors d'ouvre is from the Burgundy Region (yes...this info came from my cookbook, how cool, eh?).  This is a very simple recipe that consists of butter, salt pepper, flour, egg and Gruyere.  Sound familiar?  Yes, it's kind of a like a BLT Popover. It's a whole hell of a lot easier to make than a BLT Popover, but I must say not nearly as tasty.

How could this recipe have been better?  It needs more cheese and a little more cheese.  Would I make this recipe again?  Probably not, but I would definitely make the BLT Popover again.  I must admit the first Gorgeres was lackluster, but the second one, after it cooled a bit was more tasty.  Again, it's unlikely I will be making this recipe again.

Have you ever made this recipe before?  Have you used a William Sonomoa cookbook before?  Are the recipes better than this first one I've made?

Favorite Christmas Gifts

We all get to a point in our lives where we are hard to buy gifts for. If I want/need something, I'll go buy it. Finding a gift for me can be difficult.

I received several gifts this year, but two, my favorite two, were gifts that made me immediately stop the momentum of gift opening -- I wasn't concerned what was in the next box, I wanted to dig deeper into this gift.  These were both books -- the first was from my mother.  The book was Food Journeys of a Lifetime: 500 Extraordinary Places to Eat Around the Globe, by National Geographic. I slowly leafed through the 320 pages looking at the beautiful pictures and planning my next 200 vacations.  I first looked for locations/adventures/meals I've already checked off my list -- most of the ones I had checked off were from the past 2 years (thanks MS).  I then looked at options in Vietnam to help beef up our upcoming trip.  Very exciting.  This is a large coffee table book, that, well, if I had a coffee table, would probably live for years to come.  If you want some Nat Geo Food Journey advice for an upcoming trip, let me know and I'll do some research for you.  I love to help people plan for their vacations.  Highly recommend this book -- go buy it (following the above link will not give me a commission from Amazon, or anything like that).

The second book was from MS.  Much like the first book, this book caused the record to scratch and the gift exchanging process come to a complete halt.  This book was The Essentials of French Cooking, by William Sonoma.  I was never a big fan of French food -- then we decided to go to Paris this past fall.  From that point on -- all bets were off.  Everything from escargot to lamb chops to cheese for dessert I love it.  The books William Sonoma have such great photos and just really make you want to jump in and cook away.

The book starts with a map of France and information on each of their Regions and what they are known for.  This book also outlines ideally what style of wine you'd serve with various dishes -- while I'm not a purist or traditionalists in this regard, I do find it interesting.  The book is very thorough and starts with hors d'oeuvres continues through desserts.  The end of the book has Basic French recipes like Stocks and Croissant dough.  How great.  I've already made one recipe (this morning) and am working on a second now.  See full reviews in the coming days.

What was your favorite gift for Christmas?  Do you find it hard to shop for people, as they "have everything".  Do you find that people can't shop for you and you get stuck with things like a DVD full of actors that you hate?

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Turkey Leftovers -- Turkey Enchiladas Verde

I'm still working my way through the Christmas Turkey leftovers -- and last night I fixed Turkey Enchiladas Verde.  This was a very simple yet, extremely tasty recipe.  My first stop was the grocery store to pick up corn tortillas (don't use flour -- they just aren't as flavorful as corn -- why waste flavor), poblano peppers canned salsa verde, white onions and manchego cheese. I know this isn't a wild and crazy recipe and it's a pretty vanilla American half recipe (I'm not making the sauce or the tortillas, but I am combining these simple components into a nice tasty meal).

Unfortunately, poblanos were no where to be found.  Strike that. Next step, soak a towel in water, wring so it is only damp and put the tortillas inside the towel.  Put the towel/tortillas in the microwave for 2 minutes, so they are fully warm and softened.  I would traditionally roll the shredded turkey (or chicken if I didn't have left overs) with the poblano peppers in the tortillas and put them in an over safe pan with a small amount of sauce covering the bottom of the pan.  Continue to roll the turkey inside the tortillas until the pan is full.  Make sure the tortillas are all rolled the same way (don't have the "flap" on the bottom of one, the top of another, to the right on the first and the left on the second -- it will make removing the enchiladas from the pan a total mess, trust me).

Once the pan is full of the rolled tortillas, cover them with the rest of the canned salsa.  The tortillas should be fully covered but not so much that they will be super saturated and soggy.  Top with slices of half an onion.  Now, shred the manchego cheese and sprinkler all over the tortilla and sauce in the pan.  I decided to throw on some sharp cheddar to add some color and a bit more of a distinct flavor.

The pan goes into a pre-heated over at 400 degrees and bake until the cheese is melted and golden brown (about 15-20 minutes).  Serve hot.

Again, this isn't going to be an award winning recipe -- but it is quite tasty and really easy to make.  Next time I'll provide some a better recipe...but trust me, this is quite nice.

What are you making with Christmas leftover this year? Do you use canned enchilada salsa?  Do you pretend that a recipe like this is really a home cooked meal, when it isn't? :)

Monday, December 26, 2011

Turkey Leftovers -- Grilled Turkey and Brie Sandwich

I scanned a few website trying to find the best recipes for left over turkey and honestly, I didn't really find anything that jumped out at me.  So I decided to mimic a a sandwich that I've seen on dozens of menus and have tried a handful of times: Turkey and Brie.  I decided to couple it with apple butter and arugula and toast it.

First stop: the grocery store.  Found the brie, the arugula and a nice rye bread without issue.  Finding the apple butter was not as easy.  I looked near the jams/jellies and peanut butter, near the applesauce and near the ethnic foods. Nothing. I asked the lady at the Jewel and she had never heard of apple butter.  No point in looking.  Next step: Google alternatives.  I found a couple websites that said you could you just microwave some all natural applesauce with some extra cinnamon for 5 minutes and it will  reduce to an equivalent consistency.  Ok, I'll give that a go.

I return home, put three individual servings of applesauce in a microwave safe dish with some cinnamon and zap it for 5 minutes.  While we're making "apple butter", I slather some real butter on one side of the sandwich slices (the outside-that will brown against the pan).  I cut some slices of last nights turkey and slice up a wedge of brie.

I want the turkey to cover every square centimeter of the bread and the brie to do the same with the turkey.  Once the "apple butter" is done, I taste it -- and it's pretty good.  Not real apple butter, but reduced and flavorful.  I spread the apple butter on the inside of the bread and layer turkey, brie and arugula and top it with the final piece of apple buttered bread.

I put the sandwich in a heated and buttered cast iron skillet.  I browned it on one side (medium heat) for 3 minutes then flipped it. I started with the brie side up.  Then cooked the other side for about 4 minutes until the brie was melted.

I followed this same plan for the second sandwich.  I dished a bit of the "apple butter" onto the serving plates so we could have some more apple goodness at lunch.

Quite a lovely and quick sandwich.  It wasn't all that healthy -- with the butter and cheese, but it was tasty and it allowed me to use the turkey in a slightly different way.

I would definitely use this recipe again.

Did you have left overs from Christmas dinner that you are using now?  Turkey? Ham? Beef?  How are you using it? How long will you be eating leftovers?  Any recommendations for me and my turkey?

Sunday, December 25, 2011

House Redesign - Second Floor Landing

I moved into my home in April, 2009.  You can read about that in my various blog entries that you can find on your own.  I told my mother that since I was giving her the upstairs and she could decorate as she saw fit (within reason). I just said I needed to have access to the guestroom -- which needed to have a queen size bed and a dresser for guests -- that's it.  I also needed to have access to a closet where Lilly's box could be hidden away.

Fast forward two and a half years later -- nothing has been put up on the walls.  I shouldn't be surprised, as my parents really never put anything on the walls in any of the houses they lived in.  Today I decided to rectify this.  I've been slowly collecting frames when I see them on sale at Michael's or another such store.  I don't necessarily know what will eventually fill these frames, but I know someday this frame will be a perfect home for something.

I was inspired by an episode of Color Splash (HCLRS-907H), the one where he blended mid-century modernism with a Bollywood twist.  There was a wall that was adorned with six very large white frames with large mattes and small (ish) photos.  I cannot find a photo or a screen capture from the episode (and it wasn't really a focal point of the show, more of a passing shot).  I wanted to get 6 very large frame, that would take up most of the space on this wall -- but MS talked me out of it. He said it might be too much white long the narrow wall. I listened.

Instead I opted to purchase six smaller white frames with white mattes and arrange them in them horizontally 3 x 2 layout.  I'm not 100% sold on the layout and I may switch it up to frames that take up the majority of this space, but haven't made up my mind yet. The large frames would also hold larger pictures -- perhaps as big as 8x10 photos -- not just 5x7 prints.

As you can see, these frames are not filled with pictures yet (I know, I know).  I am searching through my travel photos to find the perfect items to adorn my upper hallway.  I am not going with the blank and white theme that I've used in the guest room, I'm going to push ahead with full color photos.

What do you think?  Are the three smaller frames dwarfed by the wall itself or do you think it flows well? Would you prefer to see the large frames in this space?  What else do I need to complete this area (besides actually putting photos in the frames, of course.

**UPDATE:  Well, I've lived with the frames on the landing for a bit and I'm still not 100% sold.  I ordered some photos to plug into those empty frames to see if that helps.  I really think I need much larger frames to get the look I'm going for.  I'll head out and this weekend and see what I can come up with. Do you have any suggestions for larger white frames at a reasonable price?  I'm not looking to do custom frames nor am I looking to spend even $200 on frames for this space**

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Stockings finally hung...

I don't have a mantle.  I don't have any logical place to hang our new crafty stockings.  I've been asking my mother for about 10 days now to go pick up some of those Command Strip Hooks -- she finally got around to doing it I was finally able to hang our stocking with care.

Not sure this is the best place for these stockings, but it will do this time.  What do you think about our attempts at being crafty?  Yes, Lilly finds it necessary to be in almost every house picture I take.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Elite Mileage Bonuses: UA vs AA

So we all know American Airlines has filed for bAAnkruptcy and many of you know that American has added some mileage bonuses lately.  The options you've got right now, on American, are Double Elite Qualifying Miles from ORD/DFW and LAX/SFO -- this promo is only for people with mailing addresses in Illinois, California and Texas.  The other option is Double Elite Qualifying Miles anywhere in the world.  There are no residency restrictions on this promotion.  The best part -- you can stack these rewards or get Triple Elite Qualifying Miles.  This means from ORD-LAX-ORD you'd get 10,470 Elite Miles.  Pretty damn amazing.

United has matched the Double Elite Qualifying Miles between ORD and LAX/SFO for Illinois or California residents, but not for the cheap flights.  United hasn't moved forward to match the second bonus...yet.  I'm not sure United will match the American option either.  American is in bAAnkruptcy and people might feel they should jump ship and join the ranks of the United Patrons.  They may also feel their AAdvantage Miles are worthless, but this is just crap -- how many airlines filed bankruptcy between 2000 and 2011...exactly.  And all their miles were fine.

I'm seriously considering doing some mileage runs in January to LAX and get status on American.  I don't want to leave United (you all know I love them, irrationally), but this could be a good move for me and a great way to earn a high status on an airline with limited travel and limited expense.

What do you think? Do you think United will match the American promotions?  Should I jump ship and join the ranks for the AAdvantage crowd?  Are you becoming an American Flyer since the bAAnkruptcy ?

Monday, December 19, 2011

Where I'm Eating...Hinterland (Milwaukee)

This weekend we stayed in Milwaukee for a mattress run.  After absolutely no help from the hotel staff, we consulted Opentable and found a few options ranging from Mexican food to Sushi to Contemporary American.  We checked a couple menus then basically just randomly chose to visit Hinterland.

We walked from the Aloft to a little dive bar a few blocks away (I don't know the name and it doesn't really matter as it wasn't really worth mentioning).  We then continued our walk to Hinterland.  I was surprised that we were able to walk everywhere we wanted to go in Milwaukee -- obviously we weren't really looking to travel far and wide, but it was nice not to take a car/taxi everywhere.  I don't think you could live in Milwaukee without a car though.

We got to the restaurant and once were seated we were told the Rib Eye special was sold out as was a fish dish.  We weren't able to get reservations until 21h00 -- I'm perfectly ok with a 21h00 reservation -- so much better than an 18h00 reservation.

We opted for a reasonably priced 2009 St. Innocent Cuvee Pinot Noir -- the price is $24.99 and the restaurant price was $59.00...not a great mark up for not too bad for a restaurant wine list, eh?  The wine itself was pretty smooth with a little earth flavor - it was quite light.

MS and I split the Sweet Water Mixed Greens Salad - which had a watermelon radish, toasted almonds, pomegranate seeds, goat cheese with a date-lemon vinaigrette.  The split salad was enormous. If we hadn't split it it would have been really too much -- and a waste.

I decided to have two small plates for dinner, while Mike had Wood-fire Grilled Swordfish.  His dinner was served with sweet potatoes, Brussels sprouts, beluga lentils, cauliflower mushrooms and port syrup. His fish was tasty -- although I'm not 100% sure he'd order it again.

My two small plates were served at the same time and concurrent with MS' dinner as well.  I opted to have to the Hamachi Crudo with espellete pepper, cilantro, beets and radishes.  For a small plate there was a surprising amount of food. While it wasn't full enough for an entire entree, it was more than you'd expect for a small plate.  I bet you could have had a regular salad and a small plate and been very full.  The fish had a red tint from the beets and was very tasty.  It was perfectly prepared, in my opinion. I wish the portion was a bit much though.

I chose the Baked Hand Cranked Cavatelli for my second small plate.  It was pretty mediocre.  It came with strauss veal ragu, olives, chevre and pancetta.  Sounds pretty damn good, doesn't it?  Well, no. It was dry and relatively flavorless.  I think the proportions of each of the component ingredients was off.  Adding a bit of tomato to the sauce would make this fit a little better.

MS decided to have the bread pudding for dessert -- I had nothing.

The service was a bit off too.  We had to ask for butter multiple times before anyone would deliver it.  The water didn't get refilled that frequently and no one topped off our wine.  The wine is less annoying since we did have the bottle at our table, but it is nice when the servers actually do it.  It just shows the service isn't polished or very sharp -- but is it a deal breaker?  No, I don't think so -- the food wasn't all that expensive (about $29 for an big plate entree).  You'd like it to be tighter, but it wouldn't stop me from going back.

If I go back to Milwaukee I probably wouldn't stop by this place again as I'm sure there are many other great places to try, but if I happened to be in Milwaukee and someone else wanted to visit Hinterland, I wouldn't protest. I would have more balanced expectations and would alter my meal plan though.

What is your favorite place in Milwaukee?  When you are in a new town, how do you find your dinner?  Does the restaurant markup on wine really frustrate you?  Do you hate it when you have to ask for butter multiple times? Does that make you feel like a fat ass?

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Hotel Review: Aloft Milwaukee

This weekend we made a quick trip to Milwaukee, MS needed one more Starwood stay to keep his Platinum Status for 2012 -- and since I'll be reaping the benefits while in Asia of the upgrades and comps, I didn't really complain.  Plus, I'm a guy who traditionally does a mileage runs each year to keep my Premier Exec status with United (btw, I don't need any more UAL miles this year, so I'm local until 2012.

We opted to stay at the Aloft in Milwaukee, which is right along the river.  I've never stayed at an Aloft before.  When I stay at a Starwood property, I usually stay at a W or a Westin.  We pulled into what looked like a relatively newly renovated hotel.  We opted not to valet, but just park in the self park next door.

We checked in and the guy working the front desk didn't really seem to know what was going on.  He checked us in, confirmed the the SPG Number was properly coded and gave us a coupon for a free water. We asked if he had any recommendations for dinner or a nice little local bar -- he said no. He really didn't know what was going on in the area, but he thought there might be a magazine or something in our room that could help us out.  He was very young and probably just wasn't informed about customer service -- not a major issue.  We like to explore the City on our own and often find that hotel recommendations are truly tourist traps.

The room itself was a decent size and suited our needs pretty well.  It had a pretty firm and creaky king sized bed.  The bathroom was nice -- it didn't have a tub, which I'm OK with -- who is really taking a bath in the hotel, right?  Both the water temperature and pressure were great.

The biggest issue with this hotel is the noise.  There appears to be so little insulation or noise proofing you can hear the people talking in neighboring rooms and when someone down the hall closes the door to their room your room shakes.  So many people were leaving the hotel at 07h00 -- it was quite a way to wake up on a Sunday morning.

All in all, the hotel was a nice place to stay -- and if I have to be in Milwaukee again, I would probably stay here again. It wasn't high end, but the price was reasonable and if you know the area or have a guide to show you the ropes, this hotel would be a good fit for you.  I am looking forward to trying another Aloft in another City as well.

Do you regularly do mattress runs?  If so, do you stay local or make a little road trip out of it?  What do you think of the Aloft product?  Is it consistent across markets?

Saturday, December 17, 2011

What I'm Cooking...Double Pork Tenderloin with Blue Cheese

While I was in Los Angeles for work earlier this month, we were having a post meeting cocktail at the Standard Hotel, Lobby Bar.  While there, some hotel brass were "interviewing" a new chef.  He was applying for the Sous Chef position on the breakfast shift, but for his interview he was tasked with making two appetizers, one side, two entrees and a dessert that would fit with the overall theme of the Standard.

We sat and watch the food come out, most of which looked really good. We then eavesdropped as the hotel leadership commented on the flavor and presentation.  All in all, it appeared the management team thought the interviewee did a fine job.  It didn't seem like they were blown away by anything, but they weren't disappointed.  The immediate job he's applying for is a breakfast sous chef -- how innovative do you have to be to do this job.

After his interview, he sat down at the restaurant (right behind us) and ordered dinner. We chatted with him a bit -- and found out that he use to be the head chef at Skywalker Ranch.  I don't believe this for a minute, but that's what he told us.  He said one of the most popular dishes he fixed while at the ranch was a Pork Tenderloin that was filleted and lined with a few pieces of prosciutto, then on top of the prosciutto you put a ton of blue cheese crumbles -- then top with more prosciutto.  You then fold the filleted pork over and season with salt and pepper.

I then put some olive oil in a stainless steel oven safe pan and browned the pork for 2 minutes on each side then put it in the oven at 350F until the internal temperature was just 140F.  Let it rest for 5 minutes and devour.

I didn't take a picture of the process because I am easily distracted.  Next time I'll take some photos.

The real question? How was it.  AMAZING. I like blue cheese, but it's not my favorite.  Coupled with the saltiness of the prosciutto the blue cheese really made this dish delish.  I never would have thought of putting these three things together, but really loved it.  Plus it was so easy make.  I will definitely make this again.

Have you sat in on someones interview recently and stolen a few ideas from them?  What have you slathered blue cheese on recently?  Don't you just love cooking a pork tenderloin?

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

What I'm Cooking...

In addition to the new series I started last night of "Where I'm Eating...<CITY>", I figured I'd start another new series called "What I'm Cooking..."  In this series I'll write about new recipes I'm trying and provide a full review of the process and the finished product.  As my regular readers know, I love to cook and try new recipes.

Starting with my next post I'll tell you all about a recipe a sous chef on an interview in Los Angeles told me about...let's just preface it by saying it's pork related and has some additional pork and some cheese. Five simple ingredients gives us a pretty amazing flavor combination.

For this series, I would love for you to send me your favorite recipes for me to try.  I'm always looking for something new to make.  Help me out!

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Where I'm Eating...Los Angeles

On the Editor's Letter page in Food and Wine magazine, Dana Cowin always includes a sidebar called "Where I'm Coming From" which outlines the cities she's recently visited along with restaurants in those cities.  I love this idea and I'm going to steal it.  I just returned from Los Angeles and tried a new hotel, the Omni and a new restaurant -- Pacific Dining Car.

My main work travel companion loves the show Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives.  He demands we visit these little shit holes -- while the food is good, the restaurants are usually just crap.  I thought Pacific Dining Car was like this -- as he doesn't really suggest higher end restaurants...he's very casual.  I checked the website on my phone and the first thing that popped up was that the restaurant was open 24-hours.  Good God, this can't be good.

Let me start by saying Pacific Dining Car is not a Diner, a Drive-In nor is it a Dive.  It's a great white table cloth restaurant that just happens to be open 24 hours.  The menu is that of a traditional steakhouse (at least at dinner).  The waiters are truly professional waiters -- not like so many other places in LA, where the waiters are actors who just can't find acting gigs.  Our waiter spoke English, French, Russian and Spanish fluently and a couple other languages not so fluently.

You'll notice the online menu doesn't have prices.  This place isn't inexpensive, but it is well worth the price.  I had a small Roquefort Steak while one of my colleagues had the Baseball Steak -- we loved it.  We split a couple sides - the Au Gratin Potatoes were wonderful.  Another colleague had the Pecan Pie for dessert and said it was the best he ever had.  I opted for a glass of Kopke Port.

It is likely I really enjoyed this place because my expectations were so low -- the name and seeing that it was open 24/7 really set the bar low for me.  Would I go back next time I'm in Los Angeles -- absolutely.  If you are Downtown LA and want a truly classic Los Angeles steakhouse, this is where you must go.  They've also got a location in Santa Monica.

Can't wait to return!

Sunday, December 11, 2011

We're Crafty...Christmas Edition

I've never been much of a crafty person. I have little patience and even less creativity.  One of my Best Year Yet Goals (how long since I've mentioned those) was to be more creative.  I have this idea that I can find something I like and *BOOM* I can make it and it looks as good as I expect it to. It never happens that way.  I think that's probably why I stick to cooking -- those things really turn out pretty good.  Did they always -- no -- I've just been cooking for years and have gotten better. So how can I expect to be good at crafts without really trying?  Because I'm irrational.

I decided that the family needed some new Christmas Stockings.  The day I made this decision I got an email from Michael's and it provided a "how-to" homemade Christmas Stocking project.  This looks easy enough and I really like the way the finished project looked.  I head down to Michael's and collect the items needed to make 4 stockings (for me, MS, mom and Lilly).

Micheal's often overwhelms me -- there are so many people and the awkward aisles often confuse me.  There also never seems to be any rhyme or reason to how things are organized.  For example, I needed a hot glue gun and went to the aisle marked "Glue" and "Hot Glue" and "Glue Guns".  What did I find?  You guessed it: Glue.  No hot glue and no glue guns.  After I wandered around for a while I found an employee and she was kind enough to show me where the glue guns are -- near the yarn...obviously!  What was I thinking.

With Glue Gun in hand, I spend another 90 minutes looking for the stockings, the felt letters and the decorations.  90 minutes. Ninety Minutes.  Good god, I wanted to scream.  I actually had set my basket down and was planning on walking out because I just couldn't find what I needed and wanted to call it quits.  For some reason, I picked up my basket and finished the torture that is Michael's.

I got what we needed and headed home -- for a nap.  I got enough supplies to create 4 stockings -- with no adornments left over.  So first come first served on the decorations.  This means, Lilly probably isn't going to get the stocking she wants.

I planned on us all creating our stockings together after dinner the following Sunday night.  I get home the next day and found that my mom had already put her stocking together.  So much for doing this as a family, eh?

MS and I worked on our stockings after we watched an episode of the Amazing Race.  We spent about 30 minutes sorting letters laying out our design and yes...reading up on how to use the hot glue gun.  We actually had a pretty fun time creating this little bit of Christmas cheer.  We haven't hung the stockings yet, as I need to get some of those temporary hooks that attach with a gummy sticker thing -- then can be removed without damage. I wonder if these things will really destroy my walls.

What kind of Christmas Crafts are you working on?  What was your first real craft you started with?  Does Michael's frustrate you as much as it does me?  What is the next craft I should try?

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Hotel Pet Peeves

I don't spend a whole hell of a lot of time in hotels.  I usually get about 15-20 days a year in hotel rooms -- about half of that is for business where I usually stay at a Marriott, Starwood or now a Hilton property.  The other nights I'm staying at boutique hotels on vacation when I can't use points for a free room.  I've found that no matter what hotel chain there are the same problems every where.

  • Too few outlets - especially near the bed or the desk.  Hotels know we each travel with at least a half dozen items that need a power outlet, why not keep a power strip at each desk.  I know many people now travel with a power strip, but that gets a bit annoying for me.  Why do so many hotels use up all the outlets near the bed for lamps and alarm clocks? I love to keep my phone near my bed.  The Hilton Toronto didn't have any outlets near the bed, so I had to plug my phone in clear across the suite - what a pain in the neck.
  • Low shower heads - I know not everyone is 6' or taller, but how many people really want a shower head that is just 5.5' from the base of the tub?  I hate when I am trying to wash my hair and I have to crouch down just to rinse.  The water pressure and temperature might be perfect but if it blasts you square in the middle of your chest, how helpful is it?  Move the shower head up when you are remodeling.
  • TV Volume - When traveling I will often turn on the TV just for some additional noise in the room (and if I'm in a quiet area, I'll turn the TV on while I'm trying to sleep -- I'm definitely use to sleeping in a noisy area when at home).  I don't necessarily mind the hotel TVs reset to the hotel info channel -- as long as they have a channel listing near the bed -- but I do hate when the hotel resets the TV volume to a level that is near deafening.  What a great way to wake up in the morning -- with a TV screaming about the hotel's spa.
  • Lack of washcloths - Now I know not everyone uses a washcloth, but I do when I shave.  I really hate to bring a washcloth with me because it's never fully dry before I leave and it's just inconvenient.  How hard is it just to add two washcloths to the set of linens in the room.
  • Extra Blankets - From time to time I need an extra blanket in the room.  I got a bit of the flu while traveling a few weeks ago and I was absolutely frozen.  I cranked the heat up in the room to nearly 30C and was still chilled to the bone.  I searched and couldn't find an extra blanket. I called the front desk asking for an additional blanket  -- which they said was on it's way, but never showed up. I called back twice more and still nothing. Very frustrating.
My list of hotel pet peeves aren't too extreme -- Three of these items (well, four can, if you just put a power strip in the room) can be easily fixed at any time.  What are you list of hotel pet peeves?  Is there something out there that I am missing?  What really gets your goat about a hotel room?

Planning a Corporate Holiday Party

I do not work in Human Resources - I do not want to work in Human Resources.  In early October I was asked by the head of our HR group if I would be willing to help on the Holiday Party Planning Committee.  I said, I'd love to help out.

Fast forward six weeks to early/mid November. An email goes out to our headquarters (approximately 120 people) asking for volunteers to help me plan the Holiday party.  Evidently my role has changed from committee member to committee chair.  Lovely.  When this email went out, I was traveling for work.  No one volunteered.  I begged and pleaded and got two people to step up and offer to help.

Once I got back to the office we began planning.  We knew we wanted booze and food and we had only a couple days to book the date and get the whole thing planned as the Thanksgiving Holiday was upon us.

We didn't have any info on the budget either -- so we made the assumption that we'd have about $80/person all in.  We each decided to call 3-4 restaurants and get availability and sample menus.  We then found our budget was a whopping $55/person -- which when you pull out 20% gratuity and 11% tax we are down to $43/person.  Yikes.

Of the 13 restaurants we called we had two real options and after some minor discussions we decided to move forward with Nacional 27, a Lettuce Entertain You restaurant.  We worked with their catering manager and picked a few things from the menu, but at our price point we couldn't do a full bar and a full menu option -- but they understood that and managed to tweak their options and allowed us to have a limited open bar and several food options all within our very limited budget.

We got started too late to get a Friday lunch, which was a high priority for us, but we could get a Thursday lunch -- which people really hated the idea of.

We got the venue, booze and menu finalized -- now we just had to find something else to do while there.  Last year, while at a Brazilian steak house we had Samba Dancers providing entertainment and lessons.  The year prior to that we had a colleague and her band sing for us.  I was perfectly fine with having no entertainment, but needed something for our people to do in addition to stand around and drink.

We decided to play "Bingo".  We created a bingo board with items like: Has Skydived; Is Multilingual; Has been to Africa; Finished the 2011 Chicago Marathon; etc.  You would then find a colleague who has done the item.  Once you complete the bingo board you turn it in for a raffle ticket.  Surprisingly, of about 100 people about 80 turned in their bingo boards -- people really seemed to get into it.  Of course there were a couple people who were too cool to play the game -- which I am fine with.  As long as you don't stop others from having fun, I don't care if you don't want to play the game.  If you want a copy of our game board, just leave me a comment and I'll get you a copy.

We also decided to do a "holiday spirit sweater" contest.  We didn't want to say "Ugly Sweater" contest because that could be hurtful to people who like these sweaters.  We had about 30 people wear either a holiday shirt or sweater -- this was the first year we did the holiday sweater thing, so I think people were nervous to participate -- fearing they'd be the only one dressed up.  No people know.

The two weeks leading up to the event, so many people were complaining because: The event was on a Thursday, they didn't want "Mexican" food, they wanted a full bar, they thought pizza and beer would be a better option...blah blah blah.  Of course, none of these people could be bothered to help out on the planning committee.

The event was a huge hit.  Not a single person had a complaint -- and since our office is pretty small I would have heard the people complain by now.  People all thought the food was amazing, the limited open bar was a pretty big hit too.  The HR folks did announce that we did an amazing job and HR will no longer be planning the events in the future, but it will be planned by committee.

The folks at Nacional 27/LEYE were so great to work with.  I did a ton of event planning in College then again at my first job in Chicago, but not much since.  I really loved working with these people and cannot wait to go back.  Being the host of the party (like the Bride and Groom at a wedding) I didn't get a chance to eat very much, as I was wandering around making sure "my guests" were well taken care of.  I want to go back to Nacional 27 very soon for a full dinner and to listen to music.

Kudos to everyone at Nacional 27.

Tuesday, December 06, 2011

Omni Los Angeles - Hotel Review

As you know I am a Marriott Man, or a Starwood Guy and recently became a Hilton Fellow -- these hotels were overpriced so I took the recommendation from a colleague and gave the Omni a try.  I had never stayed at an Omni.  The only thing I knew about the Omni was that "the guests of the Oprah Show stay at the all-suite Omni Hotel in the heart of Chicago's Magnificent Mile" -- and well, that's not necessarily a winning recommendation for me.

I booked online and selected some special promotion where you get a free coffee each morning plus a $10 Starbucks gift card.  Since I don't drink coffee this wasn't all that helpful, but the rate was the same as the option without any freebies. I figured I could regift this card -- why the hell not, right?

I didn't even have an Omni Select Guest account.  First things, first, sign up and work towards earning a free night.  Second step, book this room and hope for the best.

My flight from ORD left at 07h00 and got in at 09h00 (about 40 minutes early) and I went right to my meetings in Orange County.  We finally got to the hotel that evening around 19h30.  The Omni had a check in board with my name and key already made up for me. I just had to walk up and take it -- it was great.  I was a bit concerned about the security but obviously this model works for them.

I headed up to my room and was quite surprised by the decor in the hallway, it was sleek and modern -- and clean.  I got to my room and must admit, it well put together.  The room was a good size with a king size bed, a large desk.  The desk chair and the side chair near the bed had a great 1920s glam feel to me. The colors in the room were warm and inviting.  Unfortunately, these photos were taken on my mobile phone and they came out too dark.  I accidentally left my camera at home -- dammit.

The bathroom was quite large with a separate tub and shower. I didn't use the tub, just the enclosed shower -- the water pressure was great as was the water temperature.

This trip did allow me to finalize my list of 5 hotel room pet peeves that I just hate. That list will be coming shortly.

Below you will find the specific photos from this room but I'll throw in my summary here.  I loved this hotel.  While I didn't experience a lounge or have much interaction with the hotel staff (other than the bartender or the outsourced valets) I would definitely stay here again.  The price was right, the location was pretty damn good and the hotel really had a fantastic clean and modern feel.  Perhaps I'll have to add Omni to my list of preferred hotels.

Have you stayed at an Omni before?  Did you love or hate it?  How does the Select Guest Program stack up to the Marriott/Starwood/Hilton programs?  Is this hotel a fluke in the chain or are they all really nice like this?
Bed from the entrance hall

Full room from entrance hall
Hallway Seating Near Elevator
Walk-in shower

Saturday, December 03, 2011

Dinner at L20 -- Chicago (Falling Stars)

MS has the pleasure of sharing his birthday with my mother -- which of course puts me in a lovely position.  He's much more reasonable than others -- so we celebrated his birthday a couple weeks later this year.  We usually do a dinner with his friends at a nicer restaurant of his choice.  This year I changed it up a bit.  I emailed his friends JB and RK and asked them if they'd be interested in going to L20 for dinner.  At the time L20 was the other Three Michelin Star rated restaurant in Chicago.  The other and more well known is Alinea -- to which I have never been.

It is part of the Lettuce Entertain You restaurant group, which has some very good restaurants -- never really figured they'd have a 3 Star though.  Lettuce has some nice holiday promotions too -- one where you buy a $100 gift card and and you get a $25 bonus gift card to be used in Q1 of the following year.  Since I knew we'd be spending some decent cash this evening, I bought several gift cards and plan on using the bonus in the dreary months of winter.  Score.

As chance would have it, EAD was going to be in town this evening too, so I adjusted our reservations and we were locked an loaded.  I kept the final destination a secret until we were actually in the restaurant -- pretty impressive, I must say.

Our reservations were at 20h30 and we arrive about 5 minutes early.  Our table wasn't ready yet, so we sat in the lounge and ordered a cocktail.  We were escorted to our table before our cocktails even arrived. We were introduced to our host, whose name I forget. We were seated at a large round table in the center of the room -- the table itself was a little too large and it made it a bit difficult to comfortably chat -- I felt like I was either deaf or yelling a good potion of the meal.  I could easily hear my immediate neighbors (MS and RK) but had a hard time hearing EAD and JB.

There were three choices for the menu. The Singular: Luxury Ingredient Tasting Menu had six items.  The  Autumn: Seasonal Tasting Menu had seven items.  The Four Course Prix Fixe which was a more traditional "pick from the list" menu.  Four of the five of use chose the Singular menu while MS opted for the Autumn.  MS, EAD and I included the wine pairings while JB purchased a couple individual glasses and RK, who was our designated driver skipped the booze.

The service was really good.  In addition to our host we had three servers who would deliver our courses in perfect unison -- 3 guests being plated at once then the remaining two being served in unison.  When we were finished our plates were removed exactly as they were served -- ballet like precision.

When a member of our group would leave the table (WC) the host would take their napkin, but unlike every other fine dining establishment, they wouldn't return it.  This happened at least three separate times each with the same outcome -- the guest wondering where the hell his napkin went.  Just a little sloppy.

JB, slyly, took pictures of the food, which are below.  I won't get into the details of every course, but I will say a few of the items that I wanted from the Autumn menu I got to try (from MS) and must admit, I was quite happy with my menu choice.

We started off with the Maryland Blue Crab en Gelee * Fennel Cream, Basil

The second course, under the Singular Menu was a Hand Harbested Main Scallop * Cooked in the Shell, leeks, Black Truffle

The third course was Lubina * Caviar, Lake Mont Grapes

On to round four with Main Lobster * Smoked Foie Gras, Matsutake, Vin Jaune

The fifth course was the 28-Day Dry Aged Ribeye * Butternut Squash, Potato Fondant, Capers

We didn't take a picture of the Praline Souffle * Hazelnut Anglaise -- I traded mine to MS for his Grand Marnier Souffle * Orange, which was a great option for us.

The end of the meal we were served a selection of Profiteroles and Chocolates

The meal itself was quite an experience.  It was the first 3-Michelin Rate restaurant I've ever eaten at.  It was also the most expensive meal I've ever paid for (note, I said paid for -- I'm sure the cost per person wasn't the highest I've every had, but I never paid for it).  MS enjoyed the email which was my goal for the evening.

Interestingly enough, just a few days later the Michelin folks released their 2012 Guide and L20 lost not only one but two stars.  As I've said before, I've never been to a 3-Star place before, so I can't gauge this restaurant against others in the same class, but I don't think the experience we had really warranted 3 Michelin stars -- one or two perhaps, but not arguably one of the best restaurants in the world.  The menu was great, the service was pretty good and the total experience with good friends made the whole evening  quite.