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Help Me Plan: A Week in Belgium

We decided to take a few days and explore Belgium this spring.  We’ve been to Brussels for a layover on our way to Spain a few years ago.  We had about 8 hours on the ground and we got out of the airport and explored the City for a few hours – eating waffles, drinking beer, wandering the streets, checking out the pissing statues…you know, a normal day in Brussels.

This time, we are getting out of Brussels straight away, but we aren’t totally sold on where we are going.  We figure Bruges is high on the list – it’s one of the dozens of cities called the Venice of the North.  I’m also contemplating Ypres, which has some amazing WWI memorials.

Can you help me answer the following questions:

  • What cities would you visit?
  • Where should we dine / which restaurants?
  • Which hotels should make our list?
  • Do you have any recommendations on bike tours?
  • What areas should we skip entirely?

Looking forward to hearing about your trips and recommendations!

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United Polaris Lounge (ORD)

On my way to Vienna I stopped off at United’s Premium Lounge, Polaris. Chicago O’hare currently has the only Polaris Lounge in the world. This is my second visit. I was a bit disappointed during my first visit (en route to Rio) and was so excited to see it after the expansion. One of my biggest complaints the first visit was the overcrowding and how loud the space was.

I arrived 3.5 hours before my Austrian flight to Vienna. I arrived so early because Austrian flies out if the International Terminal (Terminal 5) and Polaris is in Terminal 1. I would have to leave the secured area and go back through security in a different terminal, so I needed lots of time to enjoy this space and make my flight.

Polaris Lounge – The only one worldwide.

I arrived and check in was smooth and painless. Everyone I encountered reminded me about the terminal change and the need to deal with security again – which I appreciated. It is not a quick and easy transfer from this lounge to T5.

I walked into the lounge and I was shocked at how crowded it was. I managed to find a single seat at a small dining table. I dropped anchor, grabbed a glass of champagne (they serve Veuve Cliquot Yellow Label, which is a perfectly acceptable wine that we drink and serve at home).

Veuve Clicquot is always a lovely way to kick off a trip, don’t you agree?

My first plan was to take a look at the expanded space (they took space from the old United Club in C Concourse to expand Polaris). This new area is the designated a la carte dining area. Before the seats near the bar (where I was sitting) were the designated dining area. Every table was full in the recently expanded area. People were either actively eating or they had dirty plates on their tables next to their laptops. I had no place to eat, nor could I order anything. I asked a United employee if I could be put on a reservation list and he looked confused and said it was just first come seating only. OK.

Every 10 minutes or so I would walk back to see if space had opened up. Nothing. After waiting for about 45 minutes, I see a table of four leave the dining area, so I grab my glass of bubbles and walk back to get a seat. The recently vacated table now had a “Reserved” sign and when I asked the server, he said that it was reserved for another guest – this was the same server who told me that I couldn’t reserve a space. He did confirm that it was just a single guest and I asked if I could share the four-top table – I just wanted to try out the menu. I was shot down. The server was pretty snippy too – I was obviously distracting him from his duties.

I slink back to my cafe table near the bar – and request a refill on my Veuve before heading over to the buffet. Both times I’ve been in Polaris there has been a louder, highly energetic woman staffing the buffet area. She loves the food and she loves her job. She greets the guests, offers (unsolicited) recommendations on the food items and will even come find you if something new comes out onto the buffet that she wants you to try. She’s not that polished, but she’s a hoot.

Back at my bar table, I sampled a couple of buffet items and was flipping through a magazine when a man came up to bus the table next to me. Talk about unpolished. This guy kept mumbling something to the man at the table next to me, who had no idea what he was saying. Eventually the United employee just started taking the plates and glasses away from the table – evidently he was asking if the table should be cleared. To properly clear this table, he set the tray of dirty dishes on my table – and about 10 seconds after I snapped this picture (and he told me not to take pictures in the lounge), the plates and glasses fell off his tray, spilling other people’s half eaten food on my table. Not to worry, this guy did a great job of cleaning up the mess – by using the soiled napkins he’d just collected from my neighbor’s table. It was gross. The people at both tables next to me (the one being bused and the one watching) were frustrated and angry. I was disappointed.

You won’t get many award by stacking dirty dishes on a customer’s table.

At this point, I just decided to leave. It wasn’t going to get any better. I still had more than two hours until my flight to Vienna left, but I just couldn’t sit here any longer. I say you can build a beautiful airline lounge, but if you train and supervise the employees poorly, what’s the point?

That being said, I did need assistance with another flight issue (I had some travel plans change and I needed help rebooking) and the customer service reps (who were doing actual airline business, not wait staff) were phenomenal. The woman I was working with pulled up at least half a dozen alternates for my travel issues and she was just so lovely to work with.

Will I go back to Polaris? Yes. I guess I’m a glutton for punishment. The space is very nice and with the remodel, it is much less loud than it was before. The alcohol selection is quite nice and some of the staff are competent, some are even great, alas, most in my encounters were not. It sure isn’t a world class airline lounge. I find the American Express Centurion Lounges to be far superior – and extremely consistent – relative to Polaris. I guess us United flyers just can’t have nice things. I do hear American’s Flagship Lounges are pretty nice.

What do you think about Polaris? Am I just finding bad times to visit? Do I just have too high of standards? How do you get to enjoy the a la carte dining if the tables are full and your can’t reserve a seat?

A Weekend in Vienna

Having no real travel in the first quarter of 2018 really started to wear on me.  I decided to take a long weekend (Thursday through Sunday) and visit Vienna.  I had been to Vienna once before, also for a long weekend and will undoubtedly have more opportunities to visit in the coming years – so I don’t feel obligated to hit it hard and see everything on one trip.  The purpose of this trip was to escape from the daily winter work life in Chicago, cash-in some miles and points and get away.

The Wiener Staatsoper / Vienna State Opera House.

If you follow me on Instagram, Twitter or Vero you’ve seen some of my time in Vienna (and if you don’t, you should).  This trip was like almost all of my trips, centered around good food, exploring a city, experiencing it’s art, culture and history — and finding a nice glass of wine along the way.

Over the next few days/weeks, I’ll be posting about key parts of my trip, including:

I’d love to hear your thoughts on my trip and get suggestions from you all for my future trips to Vienna.  What am I missing?  What shocks you that I haven’t seen?  Do you have a favorite dessert place you always go?

Next: French: Cuisine Classique

Next, in Chicago, is one of my favorite fine dining restaurants in the world, is part of the Alinea Group.  Foodies the world over know Chef Grant Achatz of Alinea, but I dig the work of chef Jenner Tomaska – trying the new menus at Next is one of my culinary highlights each year.  Historically, we have been pretty lucky when it comes to tickets for dinner at Next.  For the most recent menus, we’ve just gone online and found a Friday or Saturday night reservation (at a reasonable time – 20h00-21h15 usually…we never do the 17h15 reservations) for later that same week.  I’m not confident that our luck will continue to hold out, but so far so good.

We snagged tickets for 20h15 on Friday night.  I ended up working until about 19h30 and then just walked over to the restaurant, which for me took about 30 minutes.  After a couple minutes of chatting with the team at the front door, checking our coats and briefcases, we were escorted to our table, a booth towards the back of the restaurant – actually the same booth we sat in during our first meal experience at Next.  I prefer this seat to any others we’ve had before – you don’t feel crowded and the benches are much more comfortable than the banquette and chairs at the other tables.

Our table was already set with a water glass, napkin and caviar spoon for each of us plus a large sculpted ice sculpture of two fish surrounding a corked cantaloupe.  Our first course was waiting for us – as has been the practice for the past couple of menus we’ve enjoyed.

As we get settled (washing hands, blowing noses – it is winter in Chicago after all), a server provided both still and sparkling water and immediately another server welcomes us – he ended up taking care of us most of the night.  He started off by talking a bit about the menu (which remained a secret throughout the night, until the course was delivered to our table).  This menu focuses on classic French cuisine and techniques – from the 16th-18th Centuries.  The second menu of 2018 will focus on more modern French cooking, can’t wait!

Centerpiece
Melon, Vin Jaune, Pine Nut

The ice sculptures were keeping the first proper course well chilled.  The cantaloupe was a wonderfully refreshing aperitif – with cantaloupe and a French wine.  We’ll be stealing this drink idea once the weather warms up.  We loved it.

The next seven courses were perfectly timed.  We’ve had a couple experiences at Next (and other fine dining restaurants) where you can feel rushed or worse, you are sitting around just wondering if the next course is on its way…or if you are done for the evening).  As with my previous posts about Next (and others), I’ll spare you the course by course critique and just share with you the photos and then provide further details after.

Creme de Caviar Moulees
Melon, Vin Jaune, Pine Nut

Brut Sous Bois
Mareuil-sur-Ay, France, NV

Puree de Marron a la Briarde
Chestnut, Pear Butter

Puree de Marron a la Briarde
Chestnut, Pear Butter

Homard Bellevue a la Parisienne
Artichoke, Smoked Salmon, Gougere

Homard Bellevue a la Parisienne
Artichoke, Smoked Salmon, Gougere

Homard Bellevue a la Parisienne
Artichoke, Smoked Salmon, Gougere

Sole Grilee Venitienne aux Pommes Soufflees
Dover Sole, Leeks, Sauce Venitienne

Chef Jenner preparing the sole table side.

Sole Grilee Venitienne aux Pommes Soufflees
Dover Sole, Leeks, Sauce Venitienne

Sole Grilee Venitienne aux Pommes Soufflees
Dover Sole, Leeks, Sauce Venitienne

Les Pommes Soufflees

Turbot Normandy
Brioche, Mushroom, Mussels

Supreme de Poussin Albuffera
Tongue, Truffle, Timbale

Timbale

Roti de Chevreuil au Foie Gras
Escarole, Winter Spices, Lentils

Roti de Chevreuil au Foie Gras
Escarole, Winter Spices, Lentils

Tableau de Desserts
Ile Flottante

Tableau de Desserts
Chocolate

Tableau de Desserts
Canele

As I said, we sat down to eat at 20h15 and we were walking about the door at 22h30, while it wasn’t a quick in and out, it was far from the longest meal we’ve eaten at Next.  Most of the courses came with a few descriptive sentences not only about the meal, but a bit about the time period and why this dish was specifically selected to be part of this Classique menu.

There wasn’t a single course that I didn’t care for, but that being said, I would say my least favorite was the first dessert, the Ile Flottante.  The flavor was just fine and the spun sugar reminded me of razor wire atop a fence.

My favorite course was the Turbot, which surprised me.  The crispness on top and the buttery tenderness of the fish paired perfectly with the octopus, mussels and veg that surrounded the delightful fish.  I was so surprised by the Timbale too.  This was a mushroom filled shell of cooked bucatini pasta.  The bucatini was wound tightly making a nearly impermeable shell, which was a little gummy, but since it wasn’t served as a proper pasta, it worked.  The lobster course was the most beautifully plated, with a lovely mirrored platter.  The trout roe with the asparagus was a bite that I needed more of too.

There were two optional courses you could add on to the basic menu, each cost an additional $150.  We chose the sole and absolutely loved it (wasn’t as good as the Turbot though).  Another option was squab en croute. The pan that cooked the bird was topped with a very salty dough designed to seal in all the moisture as it cooks.  Every service we saw during our meal opted for one or both of the add-ons.  The table next to us indicated the sole was the better of the two options.

None of the wines we had really knocked our socks off.  We usually take just the standard wine pairings and while we do truly enjoy wine, we aren’t too keen on adding an additional expense to the dinner.

Have you experienced French: Cuisine Classique at Next?  Do you plan on enjoying the Moderne menu starting this spring?  What has been your favorite menu at Next?  What is your favorite fine dining restaurant in the world?

Thai Airways Royal First Class (BKK-MUC)

After a bit of a delay boarding and a rather lovely yet awkward push through 250 other passengers waiting to board, we were finally at the Door 1L for our 9,249 km (5,474 mile) and 11.5 hour journey from Bangkok to Munich.  The Royal First cabin on Thai Airway’s Boeing 747 is configured in a staggered 1-2-1 layout. I say, staggered because the first row only has two seats due to the curvature of the plane.  There are three window seats on each side and two rows of two center seats – allowing for 10 passengers in the front of the plane.  There are 14 Royal Silk (Business Class) seats directly behind the Royal First cabin, plus another 26 seats on the upper deck. I would have much preferred to be seated in the small upper deck, but first is on the main deck.

We opted to sit in Seats 3E and 3F – the last two seats in first, in the middle section.  The seats Thai uses in First on both their A380 and B747 service are the same, all forward facing lie-flat seats.  The seats aren’t angled away from each other, so if you are traveling with someone, you can still talk to them relatively easily.

A view from 3F – Love the pointy end of the cabin.

The reverse view from 3F – big drop off from the First Class to Business Class, eh?

As I reach my seat, 3F, the Stew approached, welcoming me aboard and asking what I wanted to drink. He was very rushed and very agitated. My gut is that the delay was frustrating him, he knew he had to get a multi-course meal out and get people to bed quickly.  He was trying to be efficient.  I ordered champagne.

As we arrived at our seat, we were greeted with a signature Thai Orchid, some chocolates and a rather rushed Stew.

I continue to get situated – taking out my noise-cancelling headphones, my tablet, a USB Cable to ensure that my phone was fully charged for the photos I knew I’d be taking.  The champagne was delivered and the Stew comes back asking what I wanted for my meal.  Mind you, I hadn’t sat down at that point – I was still unpacking, rearranging, etc.  I let him know I hadn’t looked yet and needed a few minutes.  He slammed his hand down on the seat in front of me and stormed off.  So strange.

My refreshments while we board – Champagne, still water with my Rimowa Amenity Kit.

The champagne being served was a 2006 Dom Perignon – it flowed throughout the flight.

I get settled, enjoy my chocolates and some champagne and the Stew comes back to ask about my dinner selection (it had been about 45 seconds since his last visit). I told him I hadn’t decided and that I didn’t even have a menu yet. He proceeds to pull one out of the area where the magazines and safety cards are stored…then he stands there while I look at it.  He asks again about my selection.  Good god man, give me a second.  He walks off in a huff again.

Plenty of legroom and a huge IFE Screen.

I figure if I don’t have an answer for him on his next visit I’ll probably be escorted off the flight — yes, all this is happening while passengers in business and economy are still boarding.  I tell him I’ll take the Thai Curry with Beef Satay.  “It is too spicy for you, you’ll hate it. I suggest you choose something else.”  Ok, so just a few hours ago I was at Nahm sweating my ass off because of an extremely spicy Prawn Curry, but I was very confident that this dish wouldn’t be anywhere near that spiciness. I again, requested this dish.  His response was priceless: “Fine, but if you don’t like it, you can’t change your selection.”  Now if that isn’t First Class service, I don’t know what is.

The door closes about 25 minutes after we boarded, so the Thai Airways folks did a great job in getting all the passengers on board and settled.  We had a short taxi to the runway, but a very long and bumpy take off roll.  The plane sounded like it was rattling from every screw, bolt, door and cabinet.  It was so loud (and unsettling is not the right word, but something just felt off), so much the passengers I could see all gave each other a concerned look and tightened up their seat belts.

We were in the air and once we crossed 3,000 meters (10,000 feet) the cabin crew jumped into service. Starting with the beverage service and accompanying nuts.  Everything seemed quite rushed – but at this point it was already past 01h30, so people wanted to get some sleep and I’m sure the stews are getting yelled at if they don’t get service done quickly.  We weren’t in any hurry ourselves, I was fine staying up all night and experiencing the wonder that was Thai Royal First class.

Champagne and nuts to kick off the meal – this should be the service everyday, everywhere, don’t you think?

After the drink orders were taken, I grabbed my Thai Royal First pajamas and went to the lavatory.  The lav on the the B747 was quite tight, nothing at all like the large and luxurious Thai A380.  You almost had to be a contortionist to change in that tiny bathroom – but luckily a couple glasses of Dom made me a little more flexible and I managed to change without any of my clothes touching the bathroom surfaces.

No refills on the nuts were offered – we were obviously on a quick an efficient service tonight.  The caviar service came next and I absolutely loved the caviar service last time I flew Thai.  This time, the caviar cart was not wheeled around, but we were asked what accouterments we wanted and the fully plated version came out.  We were also given our own individual jar of caviar this time, while previously we  given individual scoops of caviar – so you could adjust your portion accordingly.  Keep it coming!  The crew didn’t include the vodka pairing with the caviar tonight though – quite disappointing.

Caviar – prepped and ready.

Mike and I taking a break from the movie we were watching to pose for photos during caviar service.

I’m changed and ready for my dinner. First stop, caviar!

Caviar was served in individual jars this time.

After we finished our caviar – immediately after I mean, with almost no delay or hesitation, we were given a salad course. I think.

Salad?

Then another salad course.  The second with Brussels sprouts, carrots and nuts and greens.  A perfectly respectable second salad of the flight.

Salad?

A mild lime flavored sorbet to cleanse our palettes before moving on to the entree.  We were still moving along at quite a clip here too, not a moment was wasted between final bite of one course and the delivering of the next.

The intermezzo sorbet did a good job as a palette cleanser. The lime flavor wasn’t overpowering, but just right.

Next up was the Thai curry that was going to be way too hot for me – and when that happened, I’d be stuck without a meal for the flight…or so the Stew told me.  He did a great job of setting the table, especially considering there were so many condiments that came with my curry and satay.  I will say the curry was very good, it had the mildest of kicks too it too, but this of course had nothing on Nahm. I ate every single bite of this curry – I did have to shoo the Stew away a couple times as he tried to clear my tray table while I was taking a break from the hurried pace of our meal.  I’d totally order this next time I fly Thai.

The traditional Thai curry was very good and served with all the condiments one would need!

After dinner was cleared, I looked for the Stew working my aisle. I needed his help making my bed, but he was no where to be found.  I found his counterpart working the other aisle (she was back in business class chatting with some colleagues and passengers).  She quickly came up and made my bed without hesitation.  She was so much nicer and more professional.  I wish I had sat in her aisle.

It doesn’t look all the comfortable, but it’s a great bed as you fly to Germany.

I crawled into bed and prepared for sleep.  I was pretty full, so sleep didn’t come all that quickly to me and the First Class Cabin on Thai (and many other airlines too) is like a sweat lodge – the heat is just cranked up. Farther back in the plane it is much cooler, but it was so hot up front that you didn’t need all the blankets they provided.

I ended up sleeping off and on for about 5 hours of this flight.  I was too full and too warm to get a great night’s sleep.  I got up about 60 minutes before we landed (I asked the Stews not to wake me for breakfast – I’m not really a breakfast guy and I was pretty full still when I woke up) and popped into the lav to change and brush my teeth before everyone else started getting cleaned up before landing.

As we came in for a landing the old B747 shook and shimmied, just like it did on take off.  Closet and lav doors popped open and overhead bins dropped down.  We landed smoothly and taxied to our gate.  As we deplaned we were given the customary Thai orchid and like the A380 flight, the Stews held back the Business Class (and Economy) passengers until all the First Class Passengers had deplaned.  That is such an elitist move by the airlines, but I absolutely love it.

Flying Thai Royal First was one of the most anticipated parts of this trip.  I utterly adored my experience on the A380 and since I love the B747 itself, I thought I’d be equally wowed.  I did enjoy the flight, the food, the hard product (except for the doors and bins that kept popping open), but the service was dismal at best.  I know people fly for different reasons and it can be quite annoying when you want to sleep and the cabin crew are banging around serving a meal late into the night, but we felt rushed and couldn’t fully enjoy the experience.  Yes, I’m sure I could have been more proactive and told the Stew to slow down and attempted to enjoy the process more, but I didn’t.

I would definitely fly Thai Royal First again – and I’d love to experience their A380 service again -even if it costs more United miles than the first time I flew it.  The daytime flight out of FRA to BKK I think is the way to go – long enough flight to really experience the journey and early enough in the day you aren’t rushed by people trying to get some sleep.

Have you flown Thai Airways Royal First?  Which experience (A380 or B747) was more inline with yours?