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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!

New Orleans – Places to Shop

I don’t really travel to shop. I travel to eat, drink, see and experience.  I do enjoy a lovely walk around a market, Les Puces or a iconic shopping street (Banhoffstraβe in Zürich, Avenue Montaigne in Paris or even Rush Street in Chicago).  That being said, I do love the antique shops in New Orleans situated just a block off of rowdy Bourbon Street.

There are two things on my shopping list that I am not sure I will ever find, but I will continue to look – and if I do find them, I will likely be saddened as I think I enjoy the hunt as much if not more than the actual items.  I am looking for a beautiful antique set of silver – you know, the fancy stuff your great-grandma had and when your mother asked if you wanted it, you said “No, that’s OK”, and she got rid of it.  To my credit, I was 19 – my mother should have known better than to ask me at that point.  The other item on my wish list is something that will get much less use than the fancy silver (when I say fancy, I emphasize the first syllable: FAN-see…with a bit of a nasally tone too – purely in jest, but it’s now common pronunciation among me and my friends) – I want an antique duck press.  This press will ideally be from the 19th Century, have been well used, so the ornate design will be slightly worn away, but will still be 100% functional.

I figured if there was any City in the US where I could find a beautiful silver set (or maybe even a duck press) it would be New Orleans.

I found myself with about 2 hours one day between afternoon meetings and evening events and I decided to hit a couple antique shops in the French Quarter.  I started at Canal and Royal – just one block southeast of Bourbon and walked northeast staying on Royal.  Shop after shop I came across the most gracious and inviting shopkeepers.  They (genuinely) asked where I was from, why I was in town, where I had eaten/drank and if there was something I was looking for specifically — yes, in that order.  So inviting, so civilized and so different from the debauchery on a Wednesday afternoon just a block away on Bourbon (especially when the insurance conference happens to coincide with Fleet Week).

At each shop I asked about a full silver service (full setting for at least 12 people) and a duck press.  At most shops, I found the silver service – mostly they were too ornate for my liking, missing a couple salad folks or just too expensive.  When I asked about the duck press their eyes opened wide and then sadly said they didn’t have one, but if someone in New Orleans did it would be the fine folks at Lucullus a couple blocks away on Chartres.

Luculus Antiques on Chartres in New Orleans.

I made my way over to this quaint little shop. I was blazing hot. Wearing a full suit / tie when it is 30C (~86F) with the thick sticky air of New Orleans and without a breeze, I was quite warm and a bit uncomfortable.  I entered Lucullus and was promptly greeted by Mr. Kerry Moody.  We exchanged the same pleasantries as I did at the other shops.  I was offered a glass of ice water (served in a beautiful crystal glass) – like I said, I was hot and I’m sure I looked like an uncomfortable mess.  I hadn’t made it more than 15 feet into the store at this point.  I saw a ton of silver – again, I was looking for an outrageous bargain. Unfortunately, the items at Lucullus were of such great quality, I wasn’t going to get a beautiful set for next to nothing.  I then asked about the duck press.  It was then that Mr. Moody said he needed to call the proprietor Mr. Patrick Dunne.  Mr. Dunne appeared – immediately offered to have my water glass refilled upon seeing me (I’m not sure if this was because I looked like an utter mess or Mr. Dunne is the epitome of a gracious host — or a little bit of both).

I asked about the press and Mr. Dunne scoffed a bit – not in a condescending way at all, but more in a “boy, do I have a story for you” way.  He asked what I would pay for a duck press in perfect condition.  As I danced around the subject – thinking we were in initial negotiations – he cut me off and said “I don’t have one.  I don’t carry them. I don’t even look at them on buying trips in France. They are such unique and lower demand pieces, they cost me too much to buy, refurbish then hold. The casual buyers don’t exist here.”

He asked me to sit and we found some beautiful chairs arranged as a quaint little seating area in his shop and chatted about our prior trips to France.  I told the tale of finding a single duck press at Le Marché aux Puces de Saint-Ouen, and the dreadful condition it was in.  He told tales of finding beautiful presses in the Loire and in Burgundy in the 1990s – for a steal – but there was no market for them.  The open marketplace has bought up all these presses and sold them to restaurants who do elaborate Canard à la Presse services which fetch $150 per.

Mr. Dunne then pointed to a beautiful armoire filled with exquisite china and glassware.  He said, I could sell you that entire setup there – china, glassware and the armoire for what it would cost me to make a tiny profit on buying and refinishing a duck press.  He continue by saying my best bet was to find a restaurant that has one and wait for it to go out of business and make them a reasonable offer before their creditors come knocking on the door – cash is king.

While I was disappointed a duck press wasn’t in my immediate future – I was thrilled to have been welcomed into Lucullus with open arms and been allowed to listen to travel tales and to share tales of my own.  I so wanted to invite these two gentlemen out for a drink and dinner to hear more of their experiences, but unfortunately I was double booked for dinner that night and I’m sure they had better things to do than to tell tales to a fanboy.

Mr. Dunne was a gracious host and the epitome of a gentlemen.  Upon my entering his shop, I felt like a member of the family and felt I could stay there listening to stories long into the night.  I will promise that on my next trip to the Crescent City, I will pay a visit to Lucullus and hopefully next time pickup some flatware or some decanters.  This place was a slice of heaven.

When you travel do you shop?  Is that a main reason for your travels?  Where do you shop – modern stores or antique shops?  Have you ever had the urge to just drop anchor and while away the time chatting with a shopkeep?

If you are in New Orleans and have even a passing interest in culinary antiques, Lucullus is the number one destination for you.  If you go, send my regard to Mr. Dunne and the rest of his team.

New Orleans – Making the Most of a Work Trip

Each year I attend a conference for work.  Usually, this event is hosted in pretty great Cities, like Boston, San Diego, Philadelphia and Vancouver.  Sometimes it’s not: Orlando or Honolulu, for example.  This year, we were in New Orleans.  I love New Orleans.  This 4 day conference always starts late on Sunday night, so I make sure to get in early and enjoy the host City (unless of course, it is in Orlando).

This year, MS came with me and we arrived late on Friday night.  It was also JazzFest weekend.  Couple a 12,000 person conference with JazzFest and let’s just say, hotels aren’t cheap and restaurants are quickly booked.

This will be a mini-trip report, where over the coming days/weeks, I’ll talk about:

I really dig New Orleans and I have this irrational, romanticized view of living in the (French) Quarter, wearing a khaki or white suit, holding court in either a fabulous restaurant/bar/antique shop that I own – telling tales and drinking cocktails with anyone who will listen.  I think I could channel my inner Southern Gentleman and live in the fictionalized version of New Orleans, don’t you?

Do you love New Orleans, or are you like so many of my fellow conference attendees who just loathe the City?

Air France – An Infatuation

I have never flown Air France, but I am obsessed with them lately. I stumbled across their most recent safety video – take a moment and watch:

Some of my favorite parts of this video: The safety belt will elegantly highlight your waistline; A non-smoking flight is simply chic; If you lose your mobile, don’t manipulate the seat, call a crew member (which is a great piece of advice, as in BusinessFirst on United I lost my Bose headphones and nearly lost my arm trying to retrieve them – I was too embarrassed to ask for help). Also, why are there only French women as flight crew in this video? I’m sure Air France has some hot young French male stews, right?

I love France. I’ve been to Paris (twice – read about it here and here); Nice (and Monte Carlo, but before I blogged) and Southwestern France. I have never flown on Air France – and I’ll admit I’m a bit nervous to do so. Not because of any flight safety issues, but because of the pitch (distance between the back of your seat – as far back as you can scootch your body) to the back of the seat in front of you – basically your usable space in the seat for your body and legs. Air France flies an A330-200 (A332) between Chicago (ORD) and Paris (CDG). In economy this plane has 32” of pitch, which is the same as some of the United Regional Jets (the ones I often take to Nashville). I can (barely) handle the 62 minute flight to Nashville in these tiny little seats. I can’t image flying 8 hours to Paris in a seat like this. Air France does offer a Premium Economy seat – it looks to cost about 40% more than regular economy (I just did a sample search over 4 different dates and it was pretty consistent). That’s a big premium – but Premium Economy has 6” more pitch (than regular economy).

Air France serves much better food in coach than United does (or so I’ve heard) – which isn’t very hard to do.

I’d love to fly their Business or La Première class as well. The A380 service from LAX to CDG would be a great way to cash-in (blow) miles. Take a look at this review from Lucky, here.

Since I’m not going to be paying for Business or La Première seats, I’ll have to either wait for a mistake airfare and hope they honor it, or cash in miles. Air France is a transfer partner with Starwood Preferred Guest and American Express Membership Rewards. You’ll have to do the math yourself to see if transferring points into their program makes sense.

Flying Blue (the Frequent Flyer Program for both Air France and KLM) offer regular discounts on mileage redemptions. They send an email that outlines the current month’s promotions. I haven’t seen anything for La Première before, but I have seen options from Chicago to Europe in Economy, Premium Economy and Business. Keep your eyes peeled.

Should I be infatuated with Air France? Does the promise of marginally better economy food and a fun safety video warrant my time? What are the chances that I get half way through my trip with Air France and find that I just hate the tiny/tight little seat? Should I let it go or should I give it a go?

L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon (Dinner)

We booked reservations at L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon several weeks before our actual trip to Hong Kong.  This three Michelin star restaurant was pretty high on my list of places to try – but I couldn’t find a single person who had actually been to the restaurant. I read a ton of reviews and was excited about visiting.  The restaurant is right at the Central Station – just a quick walk from where our Shuttle dropped us off.

This isn’t like any other restaurant I’ve been to – the main seating area was a high top bar around the centralized kitchen where you watch the chef and the souses prep and plate the meals.  There is an outer ring of high boy tables that offer additional seating – none of which was needed the Friday night we visited.  The one main thing I constantly saw/read about L’Atelier was about their wine list.  It was hugely extensive – with hundreds (thousands?) of bottles from all over the world, but a huge selection of French wines.  The best part – the markup wasn’t the standard 3-5 times retail upcharge – much of the wine was increased between 25% – 100% (estimate).  Definitely one of the best wine lists I’ve seen – and I hear one of the best in Hong Kong.

I was really digging the interiors – sleek, modern, dark, yet welcoming.  I was not at all sold on the whole bar only seating area.  I don’t like eating dinner at the bar – it isn’t conducive to a good conversation among friends and is nearly impossible if there is more than 2 people together (lucky for us, it was just two of us).  I don’t mind watching the inner workings of a world class kitchen — in small doses. The idea of watching for the entire meal wasn’t too exciting for me either.

We sat at our bar area and EAD decided to order a couple glasses of Dom Perignon.  The by the glass vintage was 2004, which in my mind is head an shoulders above the 2003 (which is served on Thai Airways A380 Flagship Service).  This was EAD’s first time trying Dom.  It was definitely good, but I think you are paying quite a bit for the name versus the quality of the product.  I actually prefer Krug over Dom, but I’m not all that discriminating when it comes to bubbles.

While we finished our champagne, we reviewed the outrageously extensive wine list – dozens upon dozens of pages of wines.  Since we were in a Three Michelin Star French Restaurant, I figured we should have a French wine and since I had just returned from Burgundy a few weeks prior, I figured we should stay within that region.  We asked the sommelier to join us and offer some guidance.  This is where the meal started to go off the rails.

We started by telling him which menu we had chosen for the evening and that we were looking for a Burgundian red.  We further explained that we love Pinot Noir for the lightness, but want something bolder to fit well with the beef entree.  We then quietly pointed out our price point — even though the restaurant doesn’t mark their wines up 5 times, there was a selection of bottles priced over $100,000HKD and we didn’t want to pick up one of those.  The somm spent about 3 minutes going through pointing out several bottles (but not telling us anything other than “this one is good…so is this one.”) He pointed out items that were priced half what we suggested up to 4 times the price.  He added absolutely no value to the experience.  The interaction with the somm was something I was looking forward to.  I don’t expect someone to know everything about all the wines on a 135 pages wine list, but I expected much more than we got.  We ended up just picking a Burgundian wine in the price range we were reviewing with no further guidance.  Disappointment number one (the service, not the wine).

For dinner we opted for the 6-course menu.  Which started off with smoked salmon and pureed watercress.  I am probably the only person I know who doesn’t like smoked salmon. That being said, whenever I am out and it is an option on a tasting menu, I will often try it. I’m waiting for the time that it just wows me.  Growing up I didn’t like fish in general, but now we eat fish a few times a week and if I could eat just one type of food for the rest of my life, it would be sushi. The roe served with the salmon was salty/briny and had a great pop of flavor.  I did not really dig the salmon.  I also forgot to take a picture of the amuse bouche and since I can remember nothing of it, I guess my bouche was far from amused.

LE SAUMON FUMÉ - Smoke salmon and potato crisps with Méréville watercress.

LE SAUMON FUMÉ – Smoke salmon and potato crisps with Méréville watercress.

The next course was crawfish, which I found to be better than the salmon.  It had a nice coralline emulsion with it and I will admit, I felt a bit like Babe, Pig in the City.  I didn’t know what coralline was, so I Googled it. Seaweed.  Got it.  I thought this dish had started to put us back on track – following a rough start with the somm and the salmon.

LES ECREVISSES - Roasted crayfish with fregula pasta and coralline emulsion

LES ECREVISSES – Roasted crayfish with fregula pasta and coralline emulsion

Next up was the entree in which we had a selection of either lamb or Kagoshima beef.  The beef had an up-charge to it and if we wanted to have the highest grade beef possible we could do so for a secondary up-charge.  We both opted or the beef but without the secondary up-charge.  I struggle with beef at restaurants. I blame my father – beef or steaks in general were always thought to be the best of anything one could eat.  In my day job, we are often taken out for a meal and steaks are the go to option – it shows how important we are as clients if they pay for big filthy steaks — or so it seems.  I don’t often eat beef at home or order it at a restaurant unless it’s a work function.  When I do, I am often left thinking about how I’m missing out on the other item.  I am never happy, I guess.

Unlike the previous dish, I knew about Kagoshima beef and while I’ve had it a couple times before, I figured tonight would be another good night to try it again.  The black cows of Kagoshima are world famous.  This dish also came with a portion of foie gras.  Be prepared to roll your eyes — I’m not a big fan of foie gras either.  I can handle it in a small portion as long as it is accompanied by something else — my perfect portions are 1/3 foie and 2/3 something else.

The beef was perfectly prepared and had very nice flavor as did the foie gras. There was a ton of foie on my plate – nearly 2/3 of the amount of beef.  One thing I love about beef outside of the US is that you get a real portion – not an enormous 24 ounce cut of meat.  No human should consume that much of anything in sitting.

LE BŒUF DE KAGOSHIMA - Pan seared Kagoshima beef tenderloin and foie gras, salsify with black truffle and parmesan cheese

Pan seared Kagoshima beef tenderloin and foie gras, salsify with black truffle and parmesan cheese

After the beef and foie gras, our waiter mentioned that we could add a cheese course if we wanted.  C’mon!  Anyone who has eaten with me knows if a cheese course is offered, I will take them up on it.  Plus, this Three Starred French restaurant should have a fab selection.  The layout of the restaurant was not conducive to have the cheese trolley actually move from table to table. Instead it was set back in the corner and we were paraded in front of it.  There were approximately a dozen cheese selections – goat, sheep and cow.  Firm, semi-firm to soft.  As we were guided through the various options, I saw on calling out to me.  It was inside a small round wooden cheese box.  I eagerly awaited while our host made his way to this cheese…but he never did.  I saw the little box labeled Époisses and my heart skipped a beat (probably equally because after eating it twice daily over Thanksgiving in France my arteries were clogged and because I had missed this beauty so much).  How could the cheese guide skip it?  I asked him if there really was Époisses inside and he confirmed, but said that Americans really don’t like that cheese and they often see it go to waste, so he usually doesn’t mention it to us.

Ok – I get it.  An unpasteurized, soft, aromatic cheese is a far cry from the Kraft Singles most people here eat, but c’mon!

I responded to him by saying: “Escusez-moi…mais j’aime l’Époisses. Il est le meilleur fromage bourguignon. Mon ami n’a jamais essayé.  Nous allons asseyer” – or “Excuse me, but I love Époisses. It is the best Burgundian cheese. My friend has never tried it.  We will have it”.  Oh my – it was wonderful.  It was stinky, it was runny, it was fabulous.

We split a cheese plate as we weren’t especially hungry at this point.  Our lovely cheese guide took the liberty of sprinkling some herbs over the various cheeses to help expand the flavor profile.  So good.  Did I mention how great l’Époisses was?  In the picture below it is in the 15h00 position — see it starting to melt at room temperature? Heaven.

Cheese Course - including Époisses de Bourgogne, my favorite French stinky cheese).

Cheese Course – including Époisses de Bourgogne, my favorite French stinky cheese).

Next up was the dessert. It was unmemorable.  So unmemorable in fact, I have no idea what it is. I checked the current menu, which shows the dessert as Japanese Strawberries — this sure isn’t that.  I ate most of this dessert, I know that.  I have no clue what it is and I know when eating it I wasn’t really into it.  It looks pretty though, right?

P1050559 (Small)

As we finished our dessert (whatever it was) and sipped the last bit of our wine, our check was delivered along with some petit fours / macarons.  At this point in the meal, I was pretty full, but it sure didn’t stop me from eating a macaron or a Madeleine, both of which were very good.  I wish every restaurant would leave you some of these little treats as they drop off your check.

Petite Fours et Macarons

Petite Fours et Macarons

Those who know me or read this blog from time to time know that I love fine dining, although I am equally at home at a Three Star Michelin restaurant as I am at a squat stool on a side street eating off of a semi-clean spoon (that was lunch the day after this meal here).  I was very much looking forward to eating at one of Hong Kong’s only Three Michelin star restaurants (there are 3 others).   L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon has three stars, but honestly, I have no idea why.  The service was pretty good. The sommelier was very disappointing, the courses were almost completely forgettable. The cheese course divine.  This meal was by far the most expensive per person meal I’ve had in my life.  It ran us more than 500USD/person all included.  Alinea, in Chicago – what use to be the world’s best restaurant – was cheaper.  Let’s be clear – I am very happy I visited and I don’t regret the decision for a moment, but I just don’t see how this is a Three-Star restaurant.

I am very happy I took photos of (almost) every course and that the menu remains online, because almost everything we had that night at L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon was forgettable (other than the unimpressive somm and the Époisses).  When I return to Hong Kong – and I guarantee I will – I will not return to l’Atelier.