A Day in Le Havre

havre-bistrot-copy

I have my issues with port calls when cruising.

For starters, there’s the sheer size of today’s vessels. Often there are two or more visiting on any given day, each of them disgorging the population of a small town into often-small towns.

Then there are those pricey shore excursions, which in my opinion seldom give value for the dollar. Several hours on a bus, followed by an often hurried tour of some famous sites, followed all too often by a leisurely pause for shopping, followed by another few hours on the return to the ship is not my idea of a well-spent day. [Read more...]

Shaw Festival 2014

peach_celebrationThe picture-postcard-perfect town of Niagara-on-the-Lake was abuzz with shoppers and theatergoers when we arrived on a resplendent summer day. You could be very happy just strolling the streets of this upscale village, admiring homes straight out of a glossy magazine, or shopping in the chic boutiques, or dining in the many fine restaurants, or visiting the shore of Lake Ontario. But most people had come for the theater, as had we.

The Shaw Festival was founded in 1962 with the mission of paying homage to the prolific British playwright George Bernard Shaw. Perhaps one motivation was to provide a counterbalance to the older Stratford Shakespeare Festival’s concentration on “The Bard of Avon,” but that’s mere conjecture on my part. The Festival’s purview was later refined to encompass plays written during Shaw’s long lifetime (1856 to 1950), although lately the bounds have been stretched a bit with the inclusion of popular musicals of more recent vintage as well as some contemporary plays.

The Festival comprises four theaters, from the grand, 856-seat Festival Theatre to the compact, 200-seat Studio Theatre. All are within a short stroll of one another and the plays on offer rotate daily with frequent matinees so that during a short stay a visitor can see a good many plays.

For theater of this caliber, ticket prices are surprisingly moderate and, since prices are in Canadian dollars, American visitors in 2014 will enjoy a discount of about eight percent thanks to a favorable exchange rate.

For the 2014 season, the Festival is mounting ten productions, including two by Shaw, The Philanderer and Arms and The Man. We managed three in two days during a brief layover en route to Stratford.

Cabaret, the Kander and Ebb smash, is getting a solid revival under the direction of Festival veteran Peter Hinton. Deborah Hay is terrific as Sally Bowles and Juan Chioran’s Emcee is very much his own, borrowing nothing from his storied predecessors in the role. Not every element of the production works as well, however, and – let’s face it – the subject matter is downright depressing. So if it’s a lighthearted musical you’re looking for, look elsewhere.

Shaw_Cabaret_WebGallery2

Another offering on the heavy side is Sean O’Casey’s Juno and the Paycock, about the trials and tribulations of a family during Ireland’s Civil War – not the one fought against the British but the one the Irish fought against each other after winning a peace that partitioned Ireland. Not everyone thought that was a good idea then; some still don’t think so.

Shaw_Juno_WebGallery3

If you thought the “dysfunctional family” was a recent invention wait until you get a load of the Boyles. Dad (the “paycock” or peacock) is a drunken braggart, son Johnny’s a shattered IRA veteran with PTSD, daughter Mary is looking for love in all the wrong places. Mother, the Juno of the title, is a tower of strength.

It helps to have a grounding in the history of the period and the program notes are a must-read for those who don’t. For those who think the Irish are a hard-drinking but jolly race, this play will be an eye-opener. It’s a glimpse into the darker side of the national character, one that continues to divide families to this day. A laugh riot it ain’t and because of its length it can be heavy going for some; a good number of folks packed it in at the intermission. Those who stick it out, however, will be rewarded with some truly solid acting.

Fortunately, we ended on a happier note with a blissful production of Arms and the Man, one of Shaw’s most popular plays, and deservedly so. This romantic farce requires a sense of high style to work just so and the cast, under the sure hand of Morris Panych, deliver nicely.

Man (and woman) does not live by great art alone, of course, so we were glad to get an usher’s recommendation for Il Gelato di Carlotta, a few doors down from the Royal George Theatre on Queen Street. This is the best gelato I’ve had this side of Rome. It’s on the pricey side, but once you tuck in, I doubt you’ll be complaining.

For dinner, we were lucky to chance upon Grill on King, which has a sidewalk seating area perfect for people watching and spotting the occasional Festival star at a nearby table. They adhere to the locavore aesthetic that seems to be de rigeur at most of Ontario’s better restaurants these days and their Village Salad, a sort of Greek salad minus the lettuce, was impeccably fresh.

I succumb too often to Tagliatelle Carbonara on menus and am usually disappointed. This was the best I’ve had since a memorable meal in Chamonix in the French Alps. My wife’s mahi-mahi was also tasty, with the lightly grilled vegetables giving the fish some strong competition. The lamb shank, meltingly tender, was roundly praised by a fellow diner.

Niagara-on-the-Lake is one of those ever so slightly out of the way destinations that keeps luring us off the Queen Elizabeth Way, the main route from Buffalo to Toronto. I have every expectation that it will do so again.

The Shaw Festival
Tickets from $35 to $113
(800) 511-7429
www.shawfest.com

Il Gelato di Carlotta
59 Queen Street
(905) 468-8999
www.gelatodicarlotta.com

Grill on King
233 King Street, just off Queen.
(905) 468-7222
www.grillonking.ca

A Restaurant Review: AquaKnox at the Venetian in Las Vegas

Aquaknox Tower Dining Room

Aquaknox Dining Room

What would a Vegas casino be without an opportunity to win a small fortune and immediately spend it on a single meal?

While the Venetian Resort Casino on Las Vegas’ fabled Strip has a number of marquee names in its stable of restaurants (Batali, Bastianich, Lagasse), you would be hard pressed to beat the cuisine at AquaKnox, just a few steps from the casino floor along the Venetian’s Restaurant Row. The chef, Steve Aguglia, is not a star, at least not yet, but he is turning out some astonishingly good meals.

AquaKnox, as the name suggests, is known for its seafood. Starting a meal off with the AquaKnox Plateau

Aquaknox Sauteed John Dory

AquaKnox Sauteed John Dory

($79 for two) is an excellent introduction to their quality standards. It’s hard to believe that in the middle of the searing Nevada desert you could find fresh oysters, mussels, shrimp ceviche, lobster, and king crab like this. A highlight of this indulgence are the Ponzu oyster shooters, sheer heaven.

Aquaknox scallops

AquaKnox scallops

Other seafood we sampled included New Bedford Scallops ($42) on a bed of creamed corn and polenta garnished with crispy chicharron and Wild Alaskan Halibut, ethereally light over a shrimp, corn, and edamame succotash.

Seafood graces the appetizer selection as well with the Ahi Tuna Tartare ($18), flecked with Asian pear and spiced with Korean hot bean paste, a standout. But don’t overlook the Desert Bloom Squash Blossoms ($18), sourced from a local organic farm that apparently creates miracles in the desert sands.

Don’t care for seafood? Fear not. AquaKnox has some of the best beef I have ever tasted. I sampled them all — New York Strip ($49), Ribeye ($59), and the superb, buttery Filet Mignon ($54). Other non-fish dishes, which alas we didn’t have the opportunity to sample, include Tandoori Spiced Free Range Chicken ($30) and a vegetable Ratatouille with a black rice risotto ($26)

You will be pleased to know that portions are not overwhelming, which leaves you no excuse to skip dessert

Aquaknox dessert!

AquaKnox dessert!

($12 to $13). There’s a very nice take on Banana Cream Pie but the star of the show, for my money, is the Butterscotch Bread Pudding, a seemingly humble dessert raised here to sublime heights.

If you really want to pull out all the stops, call ahead to arrange a “Tour of the Menu,” a four- or five-course tasting menu with optional wine pairings. The staff will discuss your dietary dos and don’ts and will put on a smashing show. Expect to pay up to $200 per person with pairings for this very special experience.

Aquaknox Wine Tower

AquaKnox Wine Tower

Wines by the glass range from $10 to $23, and the selection is excellent. Their Tavistock Pinot Noir, available nowhere else, is a personal favorite and pairs beautifully with the steaks. Choose a bottle and the prices quickly become stratospheric.

The wide-open entrance and the hip bar at the front only hint at the quiet elegance to be found in the restaurant’s interior. The seating is plush, the tables widely spaced, and the noise level blissfully muted. For extra calm request one of their discreet semi-circular booths.

The servers are extremely knowledgeable about the menu and you can trust their suggestions for wine pairings with your entrée. The service is friendly and familiar without being overbearing or intrusive.

AquaKnox will be a special occasion sort of place for most of us, but if you are a high roller you could do a lot worse than make it your dining headquarters during your Vegas stay.

AquaKnox, Global Water Cuisine
At the Venetian Resort Casino
(702) 414-3772

http://www.aquaknox.net

Photos courtesy of Tavistock Group.

Dining One’s Way Through Madrid

One of numerous food displays inside the San Miguel Market near the Plaza Mayor in central Madrid.

One of numerous food displays inside the San Miguel Market near the Plaza Mayor in central Madrid.

MADRID — In Spain, the land of tapas, it’s awfully easy to make food a theme for a holiday.

The Royal Palace in the historic center of Madrid, a must-see regardless of special interests.

The Royal Palace in the historic center of Madrid, a must-see regardless of special interests.

During my recent visit to Madrid with a small press group, the sightseeing included traditional elements, like the Prado, the Royal Palace, the Plaza Mayor and other monumental and historic attractions.

However, our itinerary was laced with lesser-known choices that may hold special appeal for foodies, including the following:

• Casa Mira, Carrera de San Jeronimo 30, is a top spot for turrones, a Christmas sweet made with almonds, honey and egg white. It resembles marzipan.

A plaque on the sidewalk in front of Casa Mira tells passersby it has been in business more than 100 years in the same place, using an unchanged decor, making and selling the same products.

 

 

Madrid presents these plaques to all local businesses that satisfy these criteria. Casa Mira originated on its current site in 1855.

Wares offered for sale at La Violeta, a tiny Madrid shop where violets, the flowers, and violet, the color, provide the overriding theme for candies and other merchandise.

Wares offered for sale at La Violeta, a tiny Madrid shop where violets, the flowers, and violet, the color, provide the overriding theme for candies and other merchandise.

• La Violeta, a candy shop on Canalejas Square since 1915, won’t wait long to get its plaque. This tiny shop, where many things are the color of violets, has made candies, including one using violet petals, since its founding.

We admired and photographed the goods, then bought a sample.

• A visit to Lhardy Restaurant, Carrera de San Jeronimo 8, is a trip to

The Lhardy Restaurant, which still shows off the froufrou-y look of its 1839 origins.

The Lhardy Restaurant, which still shows off the froufrou-y look of its 1839 origins.

1839 — or a movie set — a little overdone by modern standards, with wood-paneled walls, red velvet upholstery, gaslights (now wired) and silver sets on sideboards.

That describes the upstairs dining room, said to have hosted a 19th century queen and her lovers.

The ground floor was a tiny space where customers helped themselves to sweets from circular display boxes, as well as coffee, then paid on the way out.

• Our group gleefully sampled churros dipped in thick chocolate, which the Chocolateria San Gines, on a sliver of a street next to the Church of San Gines, has served here since 1894. As it should, the decor provided a sense of its Gilded Age origins.

Madrid’s City Hall, and formerly the headquarters for Spain’s postal service, at Plaza de la Cibeles.

Madrid’s City Hall, and formerly the headquarters for Spain’s postal service, at Plaza de la Cibeles.

There were others in the 100-plus club, including a cape maker (where we were told then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton shopped for herself after daughter Chelsea had spotted the business on a tour), a shoemaker and a tavern.

We lingered at Boton near the Plaza Mayor because Guinness crowned it the world’s oldest restaurant. It has had the same decor, same kitchen, same menu since its founding here in 1725, and its specialty is suckling pig.

However, by Old World standards, Boton isn’t terribly old, and the Guinness listing has many challengers.

Also just outside the Plaza Mayor, we visited San Miguel Market, a beautifully refurbished old covered market site. It is a glass-sided Beaux-Art ironworks structure dating from 1916. The food displays were gorgeous and, it seemed, endless. Visitors and locals take meals here, too.

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Lake Placid: Farm to Table

Salad of yellow beets, spinach, heirloom tomatoes, lemon cucumber, goat cheese, with a dressing featuring maple syrup. The dish was served as part of a customized Farm Tour Tasting Menu at the Generations restaurant, at the Golden Arrow Lakeside Resort in Lake Placid, N.Y.

Salad of yellow beets, spinach, heirloom tomatoes, lemon cucumber, goat cheese, with a dressing featuring maple syrup. The dish was served as part of a customized Farm Tour Tasting Menu at the Generations restaurant, at the Golden Arrow Lakeside Resort in Lake Placid, N.Y.

Lake Placid, N.Y. – Asgaard Farm & Dairy in New York’s Adirondack Mountains is pretty picky about the products it will sell.

Caitlin Aherne (who makes caramels — and soap — from goat’s milk at the farm in Au Sable Forks, N.Y.) said the proprietors recently fed an entire batch of below-standard goat cheese to the pigs, which must have been pretty nice by piggy standards! [Read more...]

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Restaurante Calle Real – Granada, Spain

This is the fifth in a series of articles by Intrepid Traveler publisher Kelly Monaghan as he travels through Spain after a transatlantic cruise aboard the Disney Magic.

Entrance to Calle Real.

The most convenient hotel to Granada’s Alhambra is the Parador de Granada. That’s because it’s actually in the Alhambra, housed in the restored 15th century Convent de San Francisco.

There’s a price to be paid for such convenience, of course. Room rates start at 336 euros for a standard room and rise to over 600 euros for a suite. But if you cannot afford to stay like the 1 percent, you may well be able to afford to eat with them.

The Calle Real restaurant in the Parador is open to the general public and serves delicious food at surprisingly affordable prices given the quality. We chose the 40 euro, five-course “tasting menu.” Considering that it’s possible to spend close to 40 euros on just a starter and an entrée here, that’s a real bargain. [Read more...]

Galveston, Pre-Cruise

The Disney Magic will leave from Galveston and head to Barcelona. (Photos by Kelly Monaghan)

Editor’s note: This is the first of a series of articles from Intrepid Traveler publisher Kelly Monaghan as he makes his way from Galveston to Barcelona on the Disney Magic (and beyond).

As a travel agent, I always advise cruise clients to fly in to their port of departure a day early, because if you miss the sailing you’re pretty much screwed. (Unless, of course, you buy the somewhat inflated airfare option from the cruise line, in which case they have to look after you if the airline screws up.) The one-day-early rule is especially important in the winter when bad weather can really throw a monkey wrench into air travel plans for us northerners. But it was spring. What could go wrong? [Read more...]

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Stalking Cheap Eats in Stratford, Ontario

Madelyn's is a real find in the search for cheap eats in Stratford, Ontario.

Stratford, Ontario, is known for two things, world-class theatre in the form of the Stratford Shakespeare Festival and world-class cuisine in the form of a slew of high-end restaurants. If you want to eat high off the hog (and by the way the area around Stratford has some of the best suppliers of pork products in North America) while feeding your soul on Shakespeare’s poetry, you won’t be disappointed.

Be warned, though. A steady diet of fine dining can easily cost as much as your theatre tickets and bed and breakfast accommodations – combined. [Read more...]

‘Mary Stuart’ at Seattle’s A.C.T. – A Review

Friedrich Schiller’s 1800 drama, “Mary Stuart,” is receiving a smashing production at Seattle’s A.C.T., A Contemporary Theatre, and reminding New Yorkers like myself to never get snooty about how much better theater is in the Big Apple than anywhere else.

In fact, after spending an evening with this splendid company, Gothamites might find themselves wondering why they have to make do with empty calorie musicals instead of the raw meat of Schiller’s disquisition on power politics, religious hatred, and humankind’s seeming inability to ever do the right thing. [Read more...]

Vij’s Indian Restaurant in Vancouver: A Review

Vij's is a mecca for those who love innovative Indian cuisine.

Vij’s Indian restaurant is not on any of Vancouver’s well-worn tourist trails, but it should be. And for those who love innovative Indian cuisine, it probably is already. [Read more...]