Chocolate crawls, EATaly, and the end of Fashion Week

March 4, 2010 · Posted in Travel · 1 Comment 

On February 26th, it was the end of Fashion Week, I had been out almost every night until 4:00 a.m., and this was to be no exception.  My friend Andrea Pattarini was in town (you’ve met him before…) and so of course we had to hang out.  And that’s how you find yourself dancing at 3:30 a.m. with people you’ve just met, ruing the fact that you have to wake up at 8:00 to make a bus to Turin.

But, wake up four hours later I did.  Three quick shots of espresso and one brioche later, eyes burning from a week’s worth of a lack of sleep, I was ready to eat some Italian chocolate.

Except, in typical Italian fashion, they canceled an international chocolate festival the WEEK BEFORE for some weird combination of stupid reasons.  It may or may not be rescheduled depending on….well depending on whether or not they feel like it essentially.  Nevermind all the lost revenue and pissed off people who’ve booked hotels, flights, etc.

Our first stop in Turin (Torino in English, home of Fiat, 2006 Winter Olympics) was EATaly, a concept developed somewhat in conjunction with SlowFood.  It’s essentially a giant supermarket specializing in small-batch producers and super premium foods at affordable prices.  I will save the rant on how organics don’t actually cost more over time and how we mis-price all sorts of things when making food decisions until I return to Chicago…for now let’s just talk about how this is one of a select few Utopian food stores I’ve visited in my life.  When you walk in, there’s a giant diagram of what food is in season during what months.  You know, so you don’t eat asparagus in the dead of winter.  Because IT’S NOT SUPPOSED TO GROW THEN!  Sorry…I digress.

A section of the wine cellar – you could bring your own bottles and fill up right from the cask!

Fresh bread…

Stuffed pasta waiting to happen…just add ricotta, spinach, some herbs, bottle of red…

Eat your heart out, Dr. Atkins, you quack.  I could kill you with a thought!  Or a tray…  A hamburger wrapped in bacon isn’t a meal.  A hamburger wrapped in bacon served over a bed of pasta is.  Or something like that…

Here’s a little sample of my meal that day – braised veal served alongside buttery mashed potatoes.

They also had a great kitchen gadget section where I found this amazing contraption:

Basically it’s a grill with four hot zones, and each one of those football shaped grills rotates away from the heat for more precise cooking.  They also raise up and down to control heat exposure.  Perfect for cooking competitions.  Bring it on, Kyle and Alex….

After EATaly we toured Turin – looking for a selection of chocolate shops and antique cafes.  This was more of the “cultural” aspect of study abroad as we’re doing it over here.  Following a couple of Italians around, eating chocolate, drinking cafe, and finally drinking a half coffee half chocolate creation called a Bicerin, created in Torino.  If Starbucks made good coffee drinks, this is what they would make.

And of course, in true Italian fashion, our group split up, was late for the bus, made the bus move to come pick us up (we were over an hour away from the pickup point at pickup time) and we finished with a mad dash through the outdoor farmer’s market before boarding the bus and sitting in traffic for a couple of hours.

Oh and because it was Saturday…I ended up going out again until about 2:00 (an early night) and then sleeping through almost the entire day on Sunday.  Made myself an American breakfast and showered about 4:00 in the afternoon.  Proper.


The Austro-Hungarian Empire

February 28, 2010 · Posted in Travel · Comments Off on The Austro-Hungarian Empire 

A few weekends back I traveled to three new countries in the continuing quest to see 100 countries and all 7 continents.  My stops were Bratislava in Slovakia, Budapest in Hungary, and Vienna in Austria.  People see the itinerary and ask “Why would you go to Bratislava?”  Because it’s cheap to fly into, that’s why.

But let’s start there.  Bratislava.  Say it a few times.  Let it pounce off your tongue like it’s going to attack someone.  If I heard someone say “I am Ivan, am from country Slovakia, from city called Bratislava” in an obviously heavy and fake accent, I’d turn and run the other way.  It’s a scary place, this former Soviet bloc country.  Very dark and foreboding…everything is leftover from the Soviet occupation.  I mean, when I left the airport I even drove past….

…an IKEA.

And a Nike store, and McDonalds, Marks & Spencer, and a host of other Western stores anyone would immediately recognize.  My hostel didn’t have room numbers.  It had cute pictures of animals.  Mine was a ladybug.  (Not an animal as we’d recognize it but still an insect and most people find them cute.)  I’ve felt more scared walking to the Dunkin Donuts near my house at Clark and Division to buy coffee on a Sunday morning.

Now it should be noted that the movie “Hostel” does actually take place in Bratislava.  Seeing as how I was staying there on my own, my exchange friends were worried I was going to get raped, murdered, or worse.  I think it’s a pretty universal truth that there’s no raping or murdering going on when there are ladybugs adoring the walls.  So I was safe.

The town itself was very pretty, if a bit cold.  It was winter, after all.  I wandered around through streets I didn’t know, saw buildings I didn’t recognize, past churches I didn’t go into, up to a castle I know nothing about.  This is what happens when you are slightly unprepared for your trip.  My pre-dinner walk ended in a cafe with some locals singing opera at the top of their lungs.

Dinner was good…kebab of meats and veggies…most of which were wrapped in bacon, which is the proper way to do anything.  Washed it all down with some local beer, and headed to an early bed.   A few pictures below…

Next up was Budapest.  Budapest is in Hungary, famous for paprika, having the highest concentration of geniuses per capita, an inordinate number of Nobel Prize winners, and consistently losing wars to the Romans, Ottomans, Habsburgs….etc.  It’s actually two separate towns that merged a while back.  Buda, which means “where the castle is” and Pest, which means “where the rest of the city is.”  I also think there’s some stuff about killing vampires in its history somewhere…but I’m currently too lazy to back that up.  Overall it’s a very interesting mix of Austrian/German/Turkish/Soviet influence, blending both east and west cultures in a very different way than Istanbul.

One thing is exactly the same.  That scam that happened to me in Istanbul?  Apparently it’s very very common in Budapest.  Didn’t let myself get suckered into paying 200 Euro for one drink this time, however.

The first day was spent wandering around the Pest side, starting with the street Vaci Utca and the market at the end of said street.

After the market I visited St. Stephen’s basilica, the Hungarian Parliament building, and wandered around the city center some more.  I was starting to get a bit cold so I popped in to a little cafe to have some mulled wine, a specialty you can find just about everywhere in Budapest.  Definitely one of my favorite parts.  The best meal of my trip was this night, at a restaurant serving pretty traditional Hungarian foods called the Bagolyvár.  It was the sister restaurant (and less expensive at that) to Gundel, which everyone was recommending.  The meal started off with a plate of traditional cheese lightly grilled, served over a walnut and fruit ragout.  I moved on to a traditional Hungarian soup, which, while pretty standard from a beef soup point of view in terms of ingredients, had an amazing paprika and cinnamon flavor to the broth that made it really stand out.  My main course was a beautifully reddish veal stew, again flavored with a heavy dose of paprika.  I rounded it off with a chocolate cake, and slowly rolled myself home through downtown Budapest.

Cheeses with walnut and fruit ragout

Veal stew


The following day, my last day in Budapest, it sleeted basically the entire day.  I was able to see the castle, the history museum, and a few other things, but mostly I was concerned with catching an earlier train to Vienna.

I wasn’t sure what to expect with Vienna, but this was my favorite of the trip.  First of all, you have the Habsburgs building all sorts of empire-like things (palaces, etc) here so that’s pretty cool.  Add to that some delicious encased meats, great beers, and you’ve got the makings of a world class city.

When I arrived, I walked into what I thought was my hostel, but was actually a different branch of the Wombat hostel I was staying in.  It looked very cool, there was music playing, I could hear the sounds of a bar somewhere in the vicinity, and it was all brightly colored.  As I walked out to find the actual place I was staying, there was a giant sign on one of the doors that just said “SEX” in giant letters.  Below that word it said “Please use other door.”  Yeah…I’m gonna like Vienna.

I trudge through the snow a few more blocks and end up at my hostel.  It’s almost 9:00 pm at this point and I’m pretty tired by this point.  I head to my room where….everyone is already asleep.  This was a common occurrence throughout this trip – people asleep at 9:00 at night and waking up at ungodly hours of the morning.  I’m not talking 10:00 a.m. – I’m talking 5:00 a.m.  Who does that?  I guarantee you, no tourist sites are open at 5:00 a.m.  This is Europe, after all.

Not being able to do anything in my room, I leave my bag in my locker and head down to the bar.  At check-in, Wombat gives you a free beer.  Not a bad deal.  So I grab a meal and a couple of beers, ready to call it an early night.  Two American girls sit down next to me, and we start talking.  Turns out, they’re Univ of Michigan students, studying in Prague for the next few months.  Of course they are.  Wolverines are everywhere, because we’re awesome.  (Or maybe because we have a large school and a huge alumni base, but I think it’s because we are awesome.)  They’re rooming with some Scotts on vacation after graduating from law school, and before long the bartender starts handing out free shots.  When I ask him what it is, he responds “It’s an Austrian herbal thing, don’t worry.”  Right – that’s how you wake up in a prison in Bucharest, not wearing any shoes and smelling like you’ve been on a farm all day long.

Thankfully, we woke up in our hostel in Vienna, not in Romania on accident.  The five of us headed out to see Vienna a bit, despite blistering cold.  First up was the Schonbrunn Palace, the summer retreat of the Habsburg dynasty.  Very cool, but photography is not allowed inside so…that’s why we have Google images.

Next up was the Naschmarkt, a local farmer’s market that has grown up to include restaurants, kebab stands, spice vendors, and a large number of now permanent buildings selling all sorts of edible wares.

On the urging of my dad, I stopped for a Turkish kebab – 3 Euro for a sandwich that will rival anything you find at Katz’s deli or Manny’s in Chicago.  Huge, piping hot, stuffed with all sort of delicious condiment and vegetable…you have to sample if you’re here.

After a few more sites, a few stops for beers, wine, coffee, etc, I spotted something I’d been looking forward to finding in Vienna.

In Chicago, there is a cafe called Julius Meinl and it is the first of its kind in the US.  JM is a Viennese coffee company selling some of the finest coffees you can obtain in commercial form.  Obviously picking and roasting the beans yourself would be better, but if you’re doing that you probably have no time to read my blog, so please don’t start picking your own beans.  The furniture inside is imported from Vienna and the cafe itself exudes a legitimate European atmosphere.

When I saw the giant letters spelling out Julius Meinl at the end of a square, I had to stop in.  I figured I would end up paying roughly $18 for a cappuccino but I didn’t care.  I needed to go to the source.

As the picture shows above, with your cappuccino you receive a trio of sugars, a small glass of water, and a small bit of silky dark chocolate.  And it didn’t cost an arm and a leg.  Much more than a cafe, however, the store itself is a complete gourmet food store.  Much like Peck in Milan or EATaly in Torino, it had a high-end restaurant on the top floor, a large wine section, and more chocolate than even the most committed chocoholic can stand.

Satiated from kebabs, chocolates, coffee, spiced wine, we wandered back to our hostel in time for happy hour at the bar.  Which, you know where this is going by now, lasted at least 4 or 5 hours.

The next day was mine to see Vienna for a few hours before heading back to Milan…and the beginning of Fashion Week.  It’s a rough life over here…


Ca Phe Sua Da

December 18, 2009 · Posted in Travel · 1 Comment 

Sorry this first update took me a few days to get out – I’ve been out in Saigon, too scared to cross the street to get back to Alex & Brandy’s apartment.

Rush hour in Saigon

After sleeping most of the first day, it was time to get out of bed and actually, you know, do something.  Breakfast was at Pho 24 after which my first stop was the tailor, to get two custom suits fitted.  I have my priorities.  Next up was the Ben Thanh Market – a permanent bazaar of every type of good, foodstuff, and knickknack imaginable.  Picked up a few presents for the siblings then moved on…

Quan An Ngnon, which basically means “stall restaurant” is a collection of street food vendors all under one roof.  We snacked before heading onto our next tourist attraction, the War Remnants Museum.  I chose a sticky rice and shredded pork dish, topped with deep fried shallots, called Xoi Man.  A&B tell me the ingredient under the green onion is another type of pork, but I’m not convinced.  Either way it  was delicious, and the dish itself provided a nice combination of textures and different flavors.  A perfect mid-day snack.

Sticky rice and shredded pork

No one was prepared for the War Remnants Museum.  As you enter you see the old planes, tanks, and guns and begin to think it’s going to be like any war museum you might see in the US.  Mostly heroic and not designed to shock you at all.  About halfway through the exhibit on Tiger Cages all three of us had to sit down and collect ourselves.  It was an extremely graphic depiction of actions taken by the South Vietnamese and United States soldiers during the war.  Granted this was a museum built by the North Vietnamese government so it had its intended purpose.  But while propaganda can and does lie, pictures don’t.

At night, in full “starving student/tourist” mode, we snuck into the opening of the new Hard Rock Cafe and proceeded to drink and eat for free for about an hour and a half.  I am not usually a dessert person, but they were handing out these little chocolate coconut cakes that were the closest thing to heaven in a paper cup I’ve ever seen.  I must have eaten about 15 of those before we left for our actual dinner.  We did, of course, make sure to stop by the new Paris Hilton boutique on our way out…

According to Facebook, today was supposed to be the day we left for Cambodia.  However, the travel agent who was supposed to renew A&B’s visas decided to leave this particular job until the last possible minute, and then inform Alex he cannot process the request.  So we’re leaving tomorrow (Saturday) instead, and they have to actually get their visas in Cambodia.  So we may or may not actually make it back…

Breakfast today was at a place called Pho Ta, where Brandy and I both ordered a dish called Crispy Pho.  Crispy Pho is essentially pho noodles deep fried (noticing a trend, anyone?) topped with all the ingredients of regular pho.  It is, quite simply, a dish that if done right, is worthy of a marriage proposal right then and there.

Since yesterday was such a long, exhausting day, we decided to get foot massages to heal our feet.  Before you get any crazy ideas, we ONLY got foot massages.  They sit us down all in the same room on these lay-z-boy-esque chairs and in walks a girl who can’t be more than 80 pounds.  No way is she going be able to apply the kind of pressure my feet need.  Well…either the laws of physics don’t apply here, or the engineers at Ford and GM ought to be embarrassed by the measly power to weight ratios they generate on their trucks.  This little Vietnamese lady had such a death grip on the tendons in my heel, I wasn’t sure I was going to walk again.  Thankfully I am fine – but I’m still in shock how much fight that 80 pounder had in her.

Continuing with the foodie part of this trip, we stopped at Thai Bin market.  Thai Bin makes Ben Thanh look like a US shopping mall.  The stalls were closer together, the fish were all still flopping around, the excess water from the stalls was running through the street, and the unmistakable stench of life in the city wafted from every square inch of the place.  Sides of pork, sitting out in the 90 degree heat.  Whole octopus.  15 different sizes of shrimp and prawn.  Clams.  Mussels.  Fish still swimming around in makeshift ponds.  Vegetables so freshly picked, the vendors are cleaning them off as we walk by, making sure to splash you with at least some of the muddy water.  BBQ pork, whole chickens, spring and summer rolls, Bahn Mi, fresh flan, Chinese sausages, and some pickled things in jars that honestly belonged in my sister’s anatomy lab.  Now this was a real market.  Green City, I love you and all, but only when you disregard any and all thought of hygiene will you compare with the Thai Bin market in Saigon.

Fish @ the Thai Bin Market

We leave for Cambodia at 6:30 a.m. tomorrow and I probably won’t write until we return on the 23rd.

I have been in Vietnam for a few days now and it’s interesting to be in a place where I have absolutely no clue what the language means.  I do, however, know how to say one thing very well.

Ca Phe Sua Da.

Iced coffee with milk…