Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Doubletree Anaheim Resort - Hotel Review

I recently stayed at the Doubletree Suites by Hilton Hotel Anaheim Resort - Convention Center (long name, right?) - this was my first time ever at a Doubletree Suites. I must admit I was pretty impressed.  This property is just a mile away from Disney and the Anaheim Convention Center is just a block or so away too.  We were not going to either of these locations. We were in Anaheim for a quick meeting (meeting was in Diamond Bar).

We reserved our rooms 12 days prior to arrival and got a great rate of $140 all in.  Our flights were outrageously late -- we arrived at the hotel at 02h00.  Check-in was easy -- of course there were no other people checking in.  We were given a welcome cookie, which was quite nice, since I was starving.  We were also given a check-in amenity that included two bottles of water, a bag of potato chips as well a chocolate bar.  Nice touch.

We went to our rooms and I was surprised by size. This room had a living room, and a bedroom with two queen beds.  I don't know for sure, but I believe the couch in the living area pulled out to a bed.  The bathroom was acceptable -- nothing really to write home about.

The remote to the TV in the living room didn't work and the remote to the TV in the bedroom wouldn't work on it either.  I went to bed around 03h00 and was up at 07h00 for meetings. During that four hour window, I slept pretty well without waking up once (which I rarely do, no matter where I am sleeping).

We ate breakfast (complimentary because of Gold Status) at the buffet, which was standard hotel buffet food.  It was nice that the server did continually refill our orange juice - I hate when you are at a place like this and you don't get juice refills.

I didn't spend much time at the hotel and while there I only had interactions with the overnight front desk clerk and the breakfast buffet server and they were both very personable and helpful.  The room was quite quiet -- although January isn't really peak season for Disney -- who knows if it is like this at other times throughout the year.

I'm not a Disney guy -- but if I were, or if I were traveling with kids, I'd definitely stay here.  If I had a reason to go to the Anaheim Convention Center, I would stay here too.  I will definitely keep Doubletree properties on my list of possible hotels.

One thing that I really loved about this hotel, I mentioned earlier on my Hotel Pet Peeves post -- there were ample plugs and two connected to the lamp. How great. I wish every hotel had as many outlets as this room had. Kudos.

Have you ever stayed at a Doubletree? How about in Anaheim?  Have you recently spent 11 hours on a plane to then spend 4 hours sleeping and then attending a 4 hour meeting?  Do you find you get much better service if you are an elite member in a hotel's loyalty program?

Monday, January 30, 2012

Recipe Review -- Hearty Meatball Stew

This is the second recipe I made from Giada at Home's Everyday Ingredients episode. The first was this wonderful Artichoke and Mint Soup, reviewed earlier this week.  This Hearty Meatball Stew was served as the main course last Saturday night.  While it isn't a traditional stew, in my mind, a stew is a hearty soup with a heavy tomato base. This was more of a soup served with a broth versus my mental picture of a stew.

As before, I won't restate the recipe, because you can find it here, but I will tell you how I made it and what I suggest for the next time I make it.

Instead of using two mild/sweet Italian Sausages, I used one spicy sausage and one mild sausage partnered with the ground beef.  It added a nice depth of flavor but wasn't overly spicy.  I also forgot to add in the red pepper to the pot.  Just completely forgot about it - I didn't even realize I missed it until I was cleaning up the kitchen after dinner.  It might have been nice to include, but it wasn't a deal breaker, I don't think. Next time I will add this to the pot though.

I really like the lengthwise cut potatoes - they were perfectly tender and was a nice change to the chunked potatoes you usually see in a stew.  I think I would add twice as many canned tomatoes next time -- I absolutely love tomatoes and just can't live without them.  Since this more of a broth based stew, I think you need to include a nice piece of bread to help sop up the left over broth.

I served this in a bowl, each person getting two meatballs, some potatoes, green beans and tomatoes.  We opted to add some bad canned Parmesan cheese -- for some reason I didn't have any shredded Parmigiano-Reggiano in the fridge (perish the thought, I know).

So, would I make this again? Yes. It was pretty easy and pretty flavorful.  I would make it again, even without my additions/deletions noted above.  One way to make this a little heartier (and will probably make any Italian food aficionados out there just roll their eyes (and perhaps cry or yell), don't include the potatoes in the pot, but make a batch of mashed potatoes and serve this stew/soup over the potatoes.  It will make it much heartier and would be nice on a cold winters day.  I haven't tried this of course, but it sounds pretty good to me.

Do you make meatballs from scratch often?  What is your definition of a stew? Do you often find that you've prepped an ingredient and just completely omitted it from the recipe -- finding it only when you are  cleaning house?

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Electronic Component Redesign

Before - Media Components
I hate the cluttered view of electronics that most people in America have. Why do we need to see all of your components and countless meters of wires in our living areas, do we? Luckily, my home is laid out such that I can hide my cable box, DVD player, cable modem, VOIP box and wireless router in my bedroom closet.  For the past 2.5 years I've had my electronics split between two portions of my closet, taking up two full shelves -- causing a lot of wasted space.

I did this only because I couldn't plug in all of my needed electronics in just one part of the closet - I didn't have enough space to run the enough power strips and I hate the idea of daisy chaining power strips. Let's just say the Risk Manager in me doesn't like the idea of burning my house down.

Before -
Internet/Phone Connectivity
A few weeks ago, I stumbled across a power strip that was wide enough to plug in all of my cords (even the ones with the big plug housings).  I found this power strip at Best Buy - it was on sale for $59.99, which I bought (I should have bought through the Chase Ultimate Rewards Mall, to earn easily transferable points).  I went to Target later and found it regularly priced at $59.99 -- great sale, Best Buy.

This power strip works great and it allowed me to regain an entire shelf in my closet.  While I can't speak to the long term reliability of this piece of equipment it works well so far.  This power strip is designed to reduce electronic noise -- but I didn't have that problem, so I can't speak to that part working properly or not. Initially all the plugs didn't work properly -- but I flipped off the "Green Power" switch and everything worked properly.  The Green Power option is designed to restrict power when items aren't on or aren't drawing much power -- I had to turn that off to get this to work.  I'm not really using this power strip to the full extent the manufacturer recommended, but it serves my needs perfectly.
Close Up - Before
Internet/Phone Connectivity

Really, my goal here was to free up closet space and not reduce electricity consumption.  My problem has been solved.

Do you have "noise" issues with your electrical devices? How about valuable closet space being used up by ugly electronic component systems?
After - Full Component

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Recipe Review - Artichoke Soup with Fresh Mint (Giada De Laurentiis)

I watched Giada at Home Saturday morning - the episode was "Everyday Ingredients".  Two recipes on that show looked really exciting, so I made both of them for Saturday nights dinner.  First I'll review and offer all my comments on the Artichoke Soup with Fresh Mint and next time I'll write about the Hearty Meatball Stew later this week.

I won't publish the recipe on my blog -- you can find it here on the Food Network website -- but I will tell you how I adjusted this recipe.  First of all, my store doesn't carry frozen artichoke hearts, so I just swapped out canned artichoke hearts (non-marinated). I used 1.5 14.5 ounce cans of artichokes.  I was excited about the mint flavor, so I added 2.5-3x the mint suggested int he recipe.

My version turned out very nicely.  The addition of the lemon at the end was a perfect way to bring all the flavors together.  Other than using more mint and swapping out frozen artichokes with canned artichokes, I don't think anything else needed to be tweaked.

One suggestion that Giada didn't mention (that I noticed at least) was that this soup would be a great spring/summer cold soup.  I love cold artichoke hearts (in salads or as a side dish) and the mint coupled with the citrus bite from the lemon would be a wonderful soup for an al fresco meal in the summer.  When I make this soup the next time, I think I'll make a much larger batch and freeze part of it.  If you know me, you know how much I hate left overs -- but freezing this soup and serving it could I think would be absolutely lovely. Plus it would allow me to NOT crank up the stove when it is miserably hot in Chicago in the summer.

Sorry I didn't take a picture of the final product, I was just so excited to eat (and entertain my guests) I completely forgot to take a photo. Next time.

Have any of you made this recipe?  When you are visiting me, would you like to try it?  Do you love Giada's recipes? Who is your favorite Food Network chef (mine are Giada and Ina, even though Ida was rude to me at a book signing and I still haven't forgiven her yet)? Don't you think lemon and mint are a great combination for a warm weather meal?

Monday, January 23, 2012

What I'm cooking...Classic Chocolate Chip Cookies

Chocolate Chip Cookies are the quintessential American dessert, in my mind.  This was the one dessert my mother would make semi-regularly and I think it was one of the first recipes I ever made.  The recipe we used wasn't  an old family recipe -- it was pulled from the back of the Toll House Morsels bag.  This was a fine recipe, but after a while this recipe didn't work. For some reason the cookies were absolutely flat and hard like a disc.

I struggled with that recipe for years - I tried several other recipes and just didn't like any of them.  I then tried a recipe with Raw Sugar -- I had never tried Raw Sugar before. It turned out pretty good, but it wasn't perfect.  I adjusted this recipe a bit and absolutely love it. I make chocolate chip cookies once or twice a quarter now and have had no complaints at all.

1/2 Cup of Unsalted Butter, melted
1 Egg (room temperature)
3/4 Cup Raw Sugar
1 1/4 Cup All Purpose Flour
1/2 Teaspoon Baking Soda
1/2 Teaspoon Table Salt
1/2 Cup Semisweet Chocolate Chips

Preheat the oven to 375F.  Mix the first four ingredients, then add the remaining and mix.  Use a small cookie scoop (1-1.5") to dish out cookies onto a parchment paper covered cookie sheet.  Bake for 11 minutes, or until the bottom is brown and lightly golden brown on top.

The real key to this recipe is the Raw Sugar. Such a great component.  A friend of mine showed me, a few years ago, how to keep cookies nice and fresh.  You put the cookies in an airtight plastic container and put a piece of bread in with the cookies. The bread gets hard and the cookies stay soft and fresh for a long time -- which won't really matter, because these cookies won't last long -- you'll eat them all up very quickly.

The cookie dough is also quite amazing.  The chunky sugar makes for a great treat. I eat about 25% of the dough instead of making cookies out of it. Obviously eating raw eggs can cause issues, so I wouldn't recommend it (as I don't want you to file suit against me if you get sick!)

Do you have a childhood recipe that you love but needs improvement?  How often do you make chocolate chip cookies -- and how much of the raw dough do you eat?  How long after the cookies are made do the cookies last?

Friday, January 20, 2012

Southeast Asia Trip -- Finally Booked

Yesterday morning we finally booked the final hotel for our upcoming trip to Southeast Asia.  I won't get into travel specifics -- while I am pretty open online, I don't want people to have my itinerary while traveling. Let's keep it a bit private, shall we?

I will tell you that we have hotels booked in Hanoi, Saigon, Bangkok and Phuket.  We are staying in places that range from local hotels to large international chains.  Each room we have reserved gives us a private room with a bathroom.  I don't do the whole "toilet down the hall" thing.  From the TripAdvisor reviews, each of these hotels look great.

We did decide to splurge and book a room at the Peninsula Bangkok. A colleague stayed here about 6 weeks ago and he really loved the property.  While we won't have much time here and we'll be spending most time exploring the City, I'm pretty excited to stay at this hotel. I've read that is is arguably the second best Peninsula in the world.  We shall see.

This trip is coming up in less than 6 weeks. I cannot wait to get into the heat of Southeast Asia.  But before I make my first trip to Asia, I have a few domestic trips to take.  Early next week I am going to Los Angeles for the night and then later next week I am going to Palm Springs with the bois for a longer weekend.  By the end of January I will have earned 18,450 Elite Qualifying Miles on United -- well on my way to keeping Premium Executive (or whatever the new United is calling it this year).

When is your next trip? Are you heading someplace warm or cold?  Do you try to find luxury hotels while on the road or do you prefer to spend your money on experiences while visiting new locations?

Thursday, January 19, 2012

House Redesign -- Second Floor Landing (Photos)

As I said before, I tasked my mother with decorating the upper floor of our home. After two and a half years, she did nothing.

I decided to finally setup up and add some decoration to the public space upstairs.  I added six white photo frames with white mattes a couple weeks ago.  I struggled for a week or two to figure out what pictures I wanted in the frames.  I printed a few dozen photos from Snapfish (while using a 50% off coupon, no less).  I decided to focus on travel photos.  I wanted to find balance but wanted high quality photos, so I could really only use travel photos from the past several years (2006 and later) as my digital camera prior to 2006 was of pretty poor quality.

I focused on five recent trips: Chichen Itza (September 2009), Portugal x2 (September 2010), Paris x3 (September 2011).  As I said before, I was surprisingly awe struck by the Eiffel Tower -- so I've used two photos.

I'll quickly walk you through the photos and why I chose them, starting with the upper left photo. This is from Paris and was just a 3 minute walk from our hotel -- it's the Place des Vosges. It's a wonderfully quiet square where I had my first pain au chocolate in Paris. I was alone exploring the area and just loved it.

The next picture is looking across the Douro River in Porto, Portugal.  I'm not a big boat or water guy, but this was just a great day and I found my love or Port Wine this day.  My favorite Port House is just a few meters from where I took this photo -- technically the exact opposite view of this photo. This day in Porto was a bit frustrating when we were living it, but it ended up being one of my favorite days on the trip.  I had never enjoy Port Wine before this trip -- before this day. Now I always look at the Port options on restaurant menus and consistently review the Port shelves at wine shops.

The third picture on the top and the first picture on the bottom are both of the Eiffel Tower. Both are taken from under the Tower. The first is a close up on the supports and details while the second is almost a full view up.  I've said it before and I'll say it again -- the Tower really shocked me, I do dig it.

The next picture is also from Portugal.  It's of the Pena Castle in Sintra Portugal.  We had a great day of hiking and exploring this little City just outside of Portugal (of course we got lost a couple times en route). I just love the colors of this place. It was situated on a hill with great views of the surrounding area. The grounds were quite lovely and allowed us to have a nice walk up to the castle itself.

The final picture is of the largest pyramid at Chichen Itza a few hours outside of Cancun Mexico. This trip, unlike the other trips memorialized here, I was with EAD and JFB. We decided to take a private tour of the Mayan Ruins - in lieu of a public tour.  Best option ever.  It was BLAZING hot that day -- and JFB and I sweat like pregnant nuns under normal circumstances -- if you make us walk around in 43C weather, we are drenched.  We also had one of my favorite meals I've ever eaten this day.  Another fabulous day. This trip really kicked up my interest in Mexican cooking -- ask anyone who had a meal at my house the 15 months following that trip -- you were eating something with a bit (or a lot) of Mexican influence.

I didn't realize the theme from this photo collage until I started writing it up for this post.  These photos aren't just a cool picture that I like. These scenes have played a big roll in my life recently. My biggest concern with these photos now...I don't get to see them all that often. I only go upstairs once or twice a week to clean Lilly's box.  Oh well, I still enjoy it.

Have you put some new photos on the wall recently? Did you use a stackable coupon at Michael's to give an under designed area in your home a new look?  Do you frame your own vacation photos?  Do you love Paris as much as I do?

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

2011 Travel Year in Review

As 2012 begins, I decided to compile my flight stats for the year.  While these numbers aren't impressive for some, it's definitely the largest numbers I've put up before. I've flown more miles in a given year, but not  as many long hauls or foreign trips.

Total Miles Flown: 53,906
Miles Flown on United: 42,292
Miles Flown on Others: 11,614
Total Miles Earned: 104,405
Total Miles Redeemed: 265,000 (including intra-Africa, gift for JDE and Business Class to Asia)
Number of Legs: 28
Number of Airlines: 2 (United and South African Airlines)
Number of Countries Visited: 6 (Canada, UK, France, South Africa, Zimbabwe, Zambia)
Number of Continents Visited: 3 (North America, Europe, Africa)

2012 will have me adding to some of these numbers too.  So far, I have 3 countries on the list (Canada, Vietnam and Thailand -- I won't count Japan because we are just visiting the airport).  I'll be trying at least three new airlines (ANA, Thai, Vietnam Airlines).

Do you track your annual travel stats?  Have you increased your travel this year? What about next, are you queued up to set a personal goal?

** Update ** I completely forgot about the non-flying, non-United miles I earned.  I participated in the US Airways Grand Slam this year and while I didn't earn as many as I thought I would...I need to plan better. I earned 49,832 points - which I intend to use on a future Star Alliance Premium Award booking.

I also earned 11,427 American Airlines miles just by signing up for email sale notifications and eating out, using their Advantage Dining Program (register credit cards and use them at restaurants...BOOM, free miles). 3,500 miles on Virgin Atlantic -- signed up for email notifications and another promotional sign up.  I earned 4,600 miles on Delta through various sign up/email promotions too.  Finally, I earned a whopping 25 miles on Virgin America from Top Guest.

Monday, January 16, 2012

What I'm Cooking...Chicken Cordon Bleu

I love America's Test Kitchen and Cook's Country on PBS.  They test a recipe dozens of times to make sure the version they demonstrate on television is really the best.  I've made a dozen or so recipes from ATK and have been pretty impressed.  I can't imagine working in their kitchen -- I have a passion for cooking and for food, but I am not as methodical as these folks are and I know I don't have the patience that they do. I couldn't do it.

Tonight I made, what the ATK folks called Foolproof Chicken Cordon Bleu.  I have never made this from scratch.  My mother use to get the prepared (but uncooked) Chicken Cordon Bleu from the meat case -- which I really loathed.  It tasted fine and my parents really like it, but it just seemed like an easy way out -- and for someone who loves to cook it just didn't do it for me.

So, tonight I followed the recipe exactly and I must say, it was easy and extremely delicious.  I ate way to much food tonight and still feel quite full.

I paired the Chicken with mustard roasted red potatoes.  The mustard in the chicken breading and the potatoes were different enough, but melded quite nicely.  Finished the meal off with a spinach, tomato and yellow pepper salad topped with EVOO and a purple basil vinegar.

I think I might over salt things in my every day life -- so I would suggest putting a dash of salt on the fully breaded breasts right before you put them in the oven.  Too much?

Do you like ATK?  Where do you find your favorite recipes?  Do you dig Chicken Cordon Bleu too?  What did you make this weekend and what are you planning to make this next week?

Sunday, January 15, 2012

What I'm Cooking...Chocolate-Cayenne Cocktail Cookies

Last quarter I was quite busy and didn't have much time to read my regular magazines.  By regular magazines I mean the ones I subscribe to, including Food and Wine.  I don't like to keep clutter in my home, so when I'm done reading a magazine I toss it.  If I find a couple great recipes in Food and Wine, I'll pull that page out of the magazine, put it in a folder until I want to use the recipe.  If the food turns out good, I will transfer the recipe to a 3x5 card and put it in my recipe box (I will rewrite the whole recipe). If the recipe sucks, I toss the page in the trash.  If it is okay, I'll keep it in my folder and try it again.

I pulled 7 recipes from the November 11 issue of Food and Wine and decided to make one immediately.  The idea of the Chocolate-Cayenne Cocktail Cookie really sung to me.  My favorite thing now is super dark chocolate with a bit of spice and some sea salt.  These three ingredients work so well together -- they just make me smile.  I also chose to make this because I'm trying to bake a little more -- I really hate to bake, but I want to push myself to try new things.

The recipe was really easy to make and unlike most baking options, I had all the ingredients in my pantry.  I pulled out my Kitchen-Aid, which I've had since 2007, but haven't used it all that much -- maybe 2 dozen times in 5 years.

The cayenne pepper added quite a bit of spice to this treat.  I love spice paired with chocolate, but I think this recipe had just a bit too much pepper.  Pulling out about half the amount I think would reduce the heat to the right level.

I also think the salt didn't add enough...well, saltiness. It's possible I didn't use the right size of sea salt flakes, or something like that.  I think I would add a bit more salt to the top of this, before baking next time.

This definitely wasn't a dessert cookie -- it wasn't billed as one either.  I will definitely make this again -- I actually have the second half of the dough in my freezer right now and will use it again in a few weeks when I have people over for dinner.  I am glad I didn't bake the whole recipe -- I can tweak it a bit with more salt before baking.

I, of course, had to partner this with a glass of Kopke Port.  It worked well and did put a bit of a smile on my face.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Leap Year

2012 is a busy year.  The US, Mexico, Venezuela, France, Egypt and countless others have national elections, which could theoretically change the landscape of the politics on planet Earth.  Speaking of planet Earth -- 2012 will also be the end of everything...according to those kooky Mayans.

2012 is also Leap Year.  I never really put any thought into Leap Year, until I saw a rerun of this episode of Frasier in late 2008 (just missing Leap Day).

I like the idea of doing something out of the ordinary on this day that will happen less than two dozen times in our lifetime.  I want to find something unique to do on this day. I don't want to do something silly like they did on Frasier -- I'm not getting a hair cut, go to Montana to visit an old cop buddy of mine, or sing Buttons and Bows on PBS.  Although the last of those three would be something COMPLETELY out of my comfort zone.

There is also a Leap Year Project, which encourages you to take a risk that will change your life, your community or the world for the better.  This is in line with Frasier (the first part, at least).  I want to do something and I need your help. I would like to do something that would help people -- not just myself.  Although, my immediate goal is to do something new on Leap Day.

Have you heard of the Leap Year Project?  Do you traditionally do something new on Leap Day?  What are your plans for this Leap Day? Do you help others, or turn your focus internally on self improvement? What would you suggest I do?  Do you want to hear me sing Buttons and Bows? I love reruns of Frasier, don't you?

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Food Journeys - Vietnam

As I mentioned in an earlier post, one of my favorite Christmas gifts this year was a National Geographic book called "Food Journeys of a Lifetime: 500 Extraordinary Places to Eat Around the Globe".  Of these 500 places, 3 are in Vietnam.  Score.

The first on the list was to take a cooking class in the home of a Vietnamese family.  The class starts out in the markets early in the morning.  After you pick up the items you'll need for lunch, you return to your hosts house to cook the meal.  The class includes an English language guide to aid in translation and to help explain the cultural nuances we are experiencing during the day.  The book also includes a couple of websites for companies they recommend using.  Unfortunately, the three website they recommended weren't helpful at all. Two of them aren't valid any more and one is just for a hotel.

The next options was Vietnamese Street Food.  Basically, this article says we should just go out on the street and find a great place to eat.  We were planning on doing that anyway.  It also suggests we find a street vendor with squat stools and belly up with the locals and eat Pho. Sounds good enough to me.  There were no real suggestions on specific locations, but they did recommend a couple of websites that might offer guidance.

The third Vietnamese Journey is in the Best Places to Enjoy Cafe Society.  Hanoi is number four on the list of top 10.  According to the book, Hanoi's social life revolves around cafes.  A throwback to the colonial days when the French established Vietnam's first coffee plantations.  I can easily see us sitting at a small cafe in the old quarter of Hanoi and drinking some coffee (I'm not a coffee/caffeine guy, but will do it on vacation for the experience).

Vietnam is listed in one more section of this book -- as one of the best (number 3 out of ten) best New Year's Feasts.  We are not going to be in Vietnam for Tet -- which is probably a good thing as most things appear to be closed for 2-3 weeks around Tet.

I was a little disappointed the websites weren't very helpful, but I do think that probably more of a function of Vietnam and not this book. I've checked out a few other websites for destinations that were not in Vietnam and they worked just fine.  I think the way to use this book is to use it as a guide and not a bible.

When you travel do you want plan your meals far in advance or do you just wing it?  Do you like to take cooking classes while on the road or at home?  Do you find the idea of grocery shopping and cooking in someones home while you are on vacation to be vile?

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Southeast Asia - Planning Phase - Halong Bay

Halong Bay is in northeast Vietnam about 3 hours outside of Hanoi.  When thinking about pictures of Vietnam, I'm sure one of those pictures will be of Halong Bay.  A few friends who have been to Vietnam have all gone on a cruise along the bay.  They've also said the cruises have excellent service (and we all know what a stickler for great service I am) and an amazing price (and we all know how...cheap/frugal I am)...so it sounded like a great option.

The cruises range from simple day trips out and back all the way up to seven days and six nights.  Since we don't have a lot of time, we opted for a two day, one night cruise.  We opted for a cruise that will allow us to go kayaking along the limestone caves, visit a floating fishing village and take a bit of a hike to get great views of the bay. While on board we'll have three meals, countless cocktails, do some late night squid fishing, hang out and play cards/games with other guests after dinner and a sunrise Tai Chi instructional class.

I'm not at all a guy who like a cruise.  My mom and I went on a cruise the year after my dad died and I was really tortured. She enjoyed it, but it just wasn't my thing.  Luckily this isn't going to be a traditional cruise -- this isn't a Carnival Cruise ship.

The cruise wasn't as cheap as I was expecting -- but it's definitely not expensive.  We are paying $185/person - everything is included. Except for booze.  Why is that always the case?  How much booze can we really drink anyway?

Monday, January 09, 2012

Southeast Asia - Planning Phase - Bike Ride

I never was much of a biker (bicycle not motorcycle). Until a couple of year ago I hadn't ridden a bike since I was in elementary school. While in Ho Chi Minh City we wanted to visit the Cu Chi Tunnels. I wanted to go on a bike ride while there, but we were both quite concerned about riding bikes in Ho Chi Minh City -- one of the tour books mentioned that an average of 30 people die each day in traffic accidents in Ho Chi Minh City. How insane is that?

Being the risk adverse person I am, I don't want to get killed in a traffic accident while on vacation. I stumbled across an opportunity that will allow us to go on a bike ride and see the Cu Chi tunnels. The trip even has our hosts pick us up in a vehicle and drive us about 30 km out of the City, then we start the ride. How fantastic does that sound?

Since the tour of the Cu Chi Tunnels take only about half a day (including travel by car), adding on a bike tour sounds like a great way to really explore the country side. We are planning on working with Exotissimo Travel.

Have you used Exotissimo Travel before? Do you like to bike when you travel? When you want to see a very touristy historic location to you head out on your own or do you book a full blown tour with a travel company -- or do you do a mix of both?

Sunday, January 08, 2012

Where I'm Eating...Maude's Liquor Bar (Chicago)

The week between Christmas and New Years is traditionally a quiet time for me -- not so much this year.  I had dinners/lunches planned almost each night.  On Thursday, I went with some former co-workers, turned vendors, turned former vendors to dinner at Maude's Liquor Bar on West Randolph in Chicago.

We had reservations at 18h15 -- which is a pretty ungodly hour for dinner, but a good time to sit and start a long slow French meal.  Started off with a St. Germain Fizz (vodka, aperol and st. germain), which was quite a tasty treat.  Definitely something that should make my summer drink repertoire.

We were seated around 18h30 and spent about 15 minutes reviewing the menu before we started off with the Cheese of the Day and the Escargot.  The cheese was a double cream brie - the portion was very generous and coupled with the warm fresh bread, I loved it.  There were three of us a dinner, one of which had never had much experience to French food (I hadn't had much before this past summer).  She was a trooper and tried (and loved) everything.  The escargot was a traditional preparation and while it wasn't anything mind blowing, it was a nicely flavored portion of escargot.  Dipping the bread in the remaining butter and garlic was a great little treat as well.

I decided to switch from my cocktail to a bit of bubbles.

For our entree selection we decided to split the Traditional Cassoulet and the Sausage of the Day, which was a 50/50 beef/pork sausage.  The Cassoulet was nice but extremely rich.  Eating it as an entree would be just too much -- I would hate it after eating about 1/3 of it.

The sausage was mild and lovely and served on the most flavorful cabbage ever and whole grain mustard.  I do wish the sausage had a bit more bite too it, but I would definitely try it again -- and if the other daily sausage is as good as this, you can't go wrong.  I do wish the plate would have had more of the cabbage -- yes, it was that good.

We also decided to split the Blackened Brussels Sprouts (does it just seem strange that these are call Brussels Sprouts versus Brussel Sprouts?), which was cooked with butter and Parmesan. I must say, these sprouts were just fine -- they had more of a bitter taste than I was expecting.  The sprouts were the only thing that was left on the plate after we were done.

Toulouse Lautrec
This place had a Montmartre Paris feel about it. There was so much energy, the only thing it was missing was some can-can dancers and perhaps a drunken Toulouse Lautrec causing a stir.  I was really reminded of some of the bar/restaurants we visited while in Paris -- it even came with the indifferent server.

I cannot wait to return and spend a few hours lounging, drinking and eating rich, yet well prepared food.  Sorry I don't have any pictures that go along with this meal -- I was prepared only for a business dinner not a blog entry. I will attempt to be more prepared in the future.

Wednesday, January 04, 2012

Radisson Blu Chicago -- Hotel Review

Radisson opened their first Blu property in the United States this fall. It is in my new favorite building in Chicago - Aqua. I absolutely love this building.  I won't get into all the details as to why it is amazing here -- just do some research on your own and then you tell me why you love it.

I have heard so many great things about the Blu product I was excited to try it out in my home town.  I searched, found and booked a really inexpensive room with check-in on December 26th. I opted to stay for one night.  I took the bus down there and walked over from Michigan Ave -- a great view as I approached the building (sorry, didn't take a picture of it).  I checked in around 20h00 - the check-in process was quick and relatively efficient.  The front desk associate noted my rewards number was already associated with my reservation.  They didn't tell me really anything about the hotel, the amenities or ask if I needed a map or any information about the area.  I assume they skipped this because my Chicago address on my reservation.

I was assigned room 1123, which the front desk associate told me was a beautiful corner room with a balcony -- a nice touch.  Granted, it is December in Chicago, but I did spend a bit of time on the balcony, as the weather is really great so far this winter (knock on wood).

I make my way to the room -- finding the room without issue (I must admit, the past couple of hotels I've stayed at have had a unique numbering system with limited signs).  Once I open the door I'm greeted by hardwood floors and a long hallway.  I was almost immediately hit by the smell of "new" space.  It had a mild chemical smell to it -- which I'm sure would be gone in a few months.

At the end of the hall you hang a right and see another shorter hallway leading past the bathroom to the main bedroom area.  The floors were laminate and had a bit of a funky zebra striping -- which I really dig.  It gave the space a more modern feel.  I am not sure I like the idea of solid surface floors in a hotel room though. Carpeting in hotel rooms is always filthy, but even with the filthy it provides a bit of warmth that is comforting.  If you are going to have a hard surfaced floor in the room, I believe the hotel should provide slippers (even cheap ones) for added comfort.

The room had two walls of windows with an absolutely amazing City view.  A real winner for guests -- both locals and non-locals alike.  The sleek modern room design was a nice switch for the classically styled Marriotts I usually visit.  The design was a bit cold though.

The balcony had no balcony furniture -- which makes sense in winter. I don't know if furniture is available upon request during the warmer months.  I trust furniture would be available -- otherwise, why both with a balcony?  I could easily see myself sitting out on this balcony during the summer, enjoying the view with a cocktail or a nosh.

I drop my bag in the closet and start to take pictures.  What is the first thing I notice near the desk -- a trash can full of trash.  That's not right.  I immediately check the other trash cans.  The one in the bathroom has used tissues.  Double gross.  I go to the bed and call housekeeping. I didn't want them to clean my room, I just wanted to inform them that my room hadn't been properly serviced.  I waited on hold for about 30 seconds for someone to answer the phone.

While I was waiting for housekeeping to pick up, I was noticing the art above the bed. It reminded me of a bunch of post-it notes on a board, covered in art glass. The texture of the post-it notes were pretty cool.  I think I might try to steal that idea for a project in my own home.  The glass looked thicker on one side and and smaller on the side on which I was standing. being inquisitive, I touched the seemingly smaller side of the glass.  Ouch. It wasn't actually narrower - it was just broken. I cut my finger.

Guest services finally answered the phone. They were extremely apologetic and asked multiple times if I wanted my room serviced. I declined multiple times.  The trash didn't stink  and I wasn't going to worry about it.

After the photos were done, I headed down to the bar (a review will be coming later) for a drink and a little snack.  I returned to the room around 21h45 and settled into watch some TV and just relax - the whole purpose of the stay.  I then sit at the desk to see how it would feel to work at the space.  The Ethernet cable included was pretty short and the plug was behind the TV -- you had to set up shop with your face less than a foot away from the TV. Not ideal.  I opened the drawer in the desk to see what was inside -- I was quite shocked to find what I thought was a drawer wasn't. I just pulled the face of the cabinet off.

I then head to the washroom to get ready for bed - and I realize the toilet had been used after the maid had serviced my room.  I won't get into details, but the toilet was definitely used after it had been cleaned...and only one of the rolls of toilet paper had been "folded", which confirms someone used it. Not nice.  If I had known the bathroom needed work, I would have asked for service.

Around 22h30, I hear a subtle noise - I thought it was someone down the hall knocking on a door.  After about 3 minutes, I realized it could be someone knocking on my door.  It was. The maid was there to service my room.  Ugh.  I asked her to go away, she was nice about it, but good god, I asked several times for the issues in the room to be left alone - I can deal with it.  The worst part was, I was nearly asleep when the maid visited.

The bed was acceptably comfortable.  The alarm clock had a very bright face, which I couldn't figure out how to turn it down, so I covered it with a towel.  I woke up around 07h00 and was pretty well rested.  I got ready for work and head down to the front desk around 08h00.  I don't usually check out of a hotel, I just walk out.

Since this is a brand new hotel, I wanted to let the front desk folks know my concerns - especially since I intended on writing a review here and on TripAdvisor.  I explained my concerns to the young woman working at reception. She pulled up my record and apologized.  She turned to her manager (I believe), whose name was Jessica and asked me to explain my concerns again. I did.  Both listened quite intently and were quite disappointed my experience wasn't exceptional.

Jessica offered to credit back my entire room charge, which was an outrageous offer. I obviously turned her down. She pushed and I continued to decline the offer.  Honestly, I didn't want to get a credit back because 1) I used the room and don't want them to lose money on my stay 2) Radisson was offering a 50,000 point bonus for stays in December.  I wanted these points to use in Europe later one.

I was then offered breakfast at the hotel, which I turned down as well. I reminded them I didn't want anything, I just wanted them to know my thoughts.  They thanked me profusely and wished me a lovely day.

I tweeted my comments and received a prompt reply (don't you hate when a hotel has a social media presence but isn't active??) -- I then explained what happened and the hotel manager sent me an email sending his apologies.  He then offered me an upgrade on a future stay.  I thanked him again and said it wasn't necessary.

It did seem like most people I spoke with were interested in making this hotel the best it can be.  Would I stay here again? Since this place is in Chicago, where I live, probably not.  If Radisson offers the same bonus point deal and Blu offered a good price - like they did for this stay, I probably would return.  I will not call and ask for an upgrade though. It is a very generous offer, but not at all necessary.

I like the design, but I'm concerned that a a bright white room will show the dirt very quickly -- you could start to see some of the issues already.  Some of the service was top notch, while other aspects were sub par.

Have you stayed at the Radisson Blu - Chicago? What did you think of it?  Where did you stay in order to get your 50,000 Radisson points?  Did you head off to a local hotel for a quiet night away during the holidays?  Have you recently found a big pile of trash in your recently cleaned hotel room?

** UPDATE ** I've been thinking about my review.  Perhaps I was a bit harsh.  I was walking into the Radisson Blu Chicago thinking it was a 5 Star Property.  It isn't -- and it isn't billed as a 5 Star Property either.  Other than the bartender (more on that later), the maid who woke me up at 22h30 and the person who used my room after it was previously serviced - the people I dealt with provided great service. I paid a paltry $140 (including taxes and fees) for this room. Hell, we spent more money on the Holiday Inn Express in Urbana, IL -- and that experience was so much worse.  If the room had been fully cleaned, I would have given this hotel a much higher rating.

This update was brought on just by my further thoughts about this stay and review.  I have had no further contact with the hotel -- so don't feel that they in any way have influenced this review or this update whatsoever.

Monday, January 02, 2012

What I'm Cooking...Spicy Pork Tenderloin

This blog cooking series really makes it sound like I eat pork for every meal -- I don't, trust me.  I do love a nice pork tenderloin - they are quick to cook, quite versatile and healthy (lean protein).  Today I cooked half a pork tenderloin (frozen leftover from a tenderloin I made a few months ago).  I fixed this pork for a late lunch, so I wanted something light and well, easy to fix.

This recipe is just a simple spicy rub (details below) and a pork tenderloin.  Start by preheating the oven to 350 degrees, then just coat the rub all over the tenderloin, coat an oven safe pan with olive oil and heat on the stove top over medium high heat. Place the pork in the pan once the oil is shimmering and brown on all sides (about 3 minutes each side).  Once browned, put a combination of 1/4 cup brown sugar, 1/2 tablespoon garlic and 1/2 tablespoon Tabasco sauce on the top of the loin, then put the whole pan in the oven. Bake for about 20 minutes (until the internal temperature is 145 degrees).  Let sit for 5-10 minutes then devour.

A great way to use this is as a topper on a salad, or on a sandwich.  Give it a try.

Now for the rub, combine the following:
1/2 Teaspoon Salt
1/2 Teaspoon Ground Cumin
1/2 Teaspoon Cinnamon
1/2 Teaspoon Black Pepper
3/4 Teaspoon Chili Powder

Give this a try -- it will take you less than 30 minutes to put together and you'll be quite pleased.  Give it a try.

** Note -- Follow me on twitter @txn60613 (let me know you read my blog and I'll be sure to follow you back) or add this blog (landtt.blogspot.com) to your RSS Reader to get all my updates.  **

Sunday, January 01, 2012

What I'm Cooking...Pain au Chocolat

You've read recently that one of my favorite Christmas gifts this year was the Essentials of French Cooking by William Sonoma and that the first recipe I tried was just fine.  Nothing spectacular.  While I was waiting for the Grueyere Gougeres to bake, I continued to flip the pages and found a great photo of Pain au Chocolat (or, in English, a Chocolate Croissant).

As you know, I don't like to bake. I love to cook, but baking is a different thing all together.  Baking is chemistry and cooking is art -- and I'm no scientist.  I figured I'd try something new and give it a shot.  The recipe said roll out the croissant dough to a certain size -- well, that's not the start I was expecting.  Luckily the end of the book had the recipe for croissant dough.  The recipe for the Pain au Chocolat was very simple and straight forward, but the croissant dough, not so much.  William Sonoma doesn't put their recipes online (or if they do, I cannot find them) I did find this one if you'd like to try it yourself.

This recipe typifies why I don't like to bake.  Basically you make the dough, add the butter, fold, roll, fold roll then refrigerate for 45 minutes...then you repeat...then you repeat.  I ended up spending almost all afternoon working on the dough for the croissants.  Once the dough was prepared, I filled it with chocolate then waited longer for the croissants to rise -- then finally put these in the oven.  Good god this was a long process.

Both pans of croissants turned our very tasty. The first pan wasn't quite as pretty as the second because I forgot to put the final egg wash on.  I spent all damn day working on this then I forget the penultimate step. Again, this is why I hate baking.

The croissants were really good.  I think next time I would add more chocolate -- and I think I would make a double batch of the croissant dough and I'd put the extra dough in the freezer.  It is such a process I don't envision making these things all that often, but if I do, I'm going to double up the batches.

What have you recently made?  Do you prefer to bake or to cook? What recipes would you recommend I use if I want to start baking a bit more?  Do you love a Pain au Chocolate as much as I do?