Enjoying Warmth and Color at SER

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We’d had five straight days of unrelenting drenching rain.  I’d just spent a late, sad Thursday night at the Capital One Arena witnessing the Washington Capitals hockey team lose Game 4 of the Eastern Conference Finals (but which they went on to win in Game 7 to play for the Stanley Cup!).  It was Friday evening and I was looking for happy.  Could that be found at a restaurant in a non-descript suburban office building in Arlington, Virginia?  Why, yes it can.  SER was that place.  And mostly because of the owner’s graciousness and attention and our server’s congeniality, a comfort I appreciated even more on that sorry wind-whipped soggy night.

A Spanish restaurant (not a tapas bar as SER’s amiable owner Javier Candon impressed upon us), SER transformed a ground floor of open concrete space into Spain’s warmth with splashes of blues and yellows – in the covered bar stools and banquettes and centerpieces of small cans of olive oil – and lively tables of local diners, like ours, enjoying the catch of the day, a rich ventresca del atun (tuna belly) that dissolves in your mouth.  Not as if we needed more than the ventresca, but we couldn’t pass up velvety Revuelto (mushrooms, egg, and shaved duck foie), and the appropriately garlicky shrimp that is Gambas al ajillo (with soft, crusty bread to ensure the cayenne tinged olive oil didn’t go to waste).

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A glass of D’Iatra Priorat at SER

Then there was the Priorat (more about that under Get this wine.)  SER felt like a neighborhood restaurant with an owner dedicated to creating as much as possible in Arlington a true taste and feel of Spain.  “Ser” translates as “be” in Spanish, and “to be” in Catalan and Portuguese.  “Being” in the moment, enjoying a meal with J and a friend and surrounded by people doing the same, no matter the long week or the off-putting weather – that’s what I happily got at SER.

Get this wine…2011 Cal Batlett D’Iatra Gratallops Priorat

You’ll thank the monks who first tilled the soil in Catalonia, creating Priorat (only one of two wine regions classified as a Denominaciao d’Origen Qualificada (DOQ) in Spain for consistent quality).  I’ll raise a toast to Javier Candon of SER in Arlington, Virginia, for introducing me to the 2011 Cal Batlett D’Iatra Gratallops Priorat.  Three Christmases ago J and I had capped a full day of family visits with a quiet dinner at the bar at SER. Even if I can’t remember the name of the wine, I remember how much I enjoyed that glass of Priorat with J on that Christmas night in the colorful surroundings of SER.  Just as Javier described it, the D’Iatra Priorat on a subsequent rainy night was bold in flavor but nicely rounded at the finish at seven years old.  Go get this wine and enjoy it this year.

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A glass of D’Iatra Priorat at SER

 

Feeling Relaxed at Kinship

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Enjoying the restaurant scene in DC can sometimes be challenging.  It’s the combination of very small, no reservation restaurants with restaurants that take reservations, but two weeks or a month in advance, at a precise hour, requiring you to stand, with fingers raised, at your keyboard or phone at the appointed time to claim a spot. Sometimes I’m not ready to make a reservation one month in advance, and certainly not every time I want a good meal out.  And if you want to treat guests in town to interesting food at a smaller neighborhood spot, it’s hard to consider it a “treat” if you must start standing in line at 4:00 pm.  And even then not be guaranteed a seat at the table that night.

One Saturday night, it was only me and J, and we thought that showing up at The Dabney at 6:00 pm without a reservation would still give us a shot at a seat at the long bar.  We were wrong.  We could have put our names on the wait-list for seats about an hour and 45 minutes later, but decided to venture out into the neighborhood instead.  After a glass of wine at Maxwell Park, we walked a few blocks down and over to the other side of the DC Convention Center, with fingers crossed, that we’d land a seat at the bar at Kinship.  The restaurant’s facade is painted black with “Kinship” softly etched in a window to the left of the door.  The name wasn’t visible at the time (it was dark) making the recessed entrance seem purposefully secret.

Kinship is the “less fancy” restaurant above Metier, the “more fancy” restaurant of Chef Eric Ziebold and Celia Laurent.  (J and I ate at Metier for J’s birthday last year and it remains one of the best dining experiences I’ve had.  But back to Kinship.)

The bar area is a long open space separated by a wall from the dining room. A few tables and small booths line one side  The smooth white bar opposite had four vacant seats when J and I showed up.  We took two and the couple walking in right behind us, the other two.  We happily sat down and exhaled.  At Kinship we didn’t feel rushed, we weren’t jostled by the comings and goings of people behind us, and we didn’t have to raise our voices to be heard.  We indulged that night in meaty corned beef short ribs with delicate cabbage confit agnolotti – a stand-out “corned beef and cabbage” in a light broth.  Along with velvety cauliflower soup and some reds by the glass, a cold evening in DC with no reservations turned into a warmly relaxed dinner at Kinship’s welcoming bar.

Hiking to Eat…Trattoria dai Bercau, Verduno

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Trattoria dai Bercau

I hiked to the home of the pelaverga grape, Verduno, in the Piedmont region of Italy, to have lunch at a trattoria with a sense of fun (just catch their wall mural of two dancing dudes – a server and chef – with oversized heads).  And try the wine from this uncommon grape.  J and I had left our mid-morning stop, Cantina Stroppianaand had wound our way to Verduno through vineyards heavy with grapes ready for harvest.  Off a quiet side road, we walked into the small gravel courtyard of Trattoria dai Bercau, and were waved over to seats, on a covered patio, with wooden tables and white tablecloths.

J and I joined a few others making the most of the sun and series of courses on the set menu.  Four were enjoying what looked like the last of their lucky work day lunch in button down shirts and pants, blazers hanging off the backs of chairs.  A longer table behind us was crowded with the plates and glasses and wine bottles of a visiting family (and their small dog) leisurely enjoying their meal.

Once the pelaverga wine was ordered, plates started arriving at our table with carne cruda (ground raw beef with (as I remember it) lemon, olive oil, and garlic) then vitello tonnato (thin slices of veal with tuna sauce).  Having veal wasn’t surprising, but the tuna sauce was an unexpected Piedmontese specialty, to me, in these hills below the Alps.  By the time thin, flat ribbons of tajarin pasta showed up – black truffles shaved tableside – we had comfortably settled in to the warm sun and the ease of the afternoon.  A reward and necessity before finishing the hilly loop that was the hike back to our home base in La Morra.

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Tajarin pasta with shaved black truffles, Pelaverga in the glass.

Get This Wine…Verduno Pelaverga

Complementing Trattoria dai Bercau’s meal was the pelavarga.  The grape produced a bright red wine that’s slightly fruity but surprisingly, definitely peppery at the finish.  Plagued, yet again, by the reality that we-only-packed-carry-ons-so-can’t-take-wine-back, we sought it out online once back in the US.  I’m coveting a few bottles from Comm.G.B. Burlotto– Verduno Pelaverga 2015, and the 2016 Fratelli Alessandria– Verduno Pelaverga.  I found them here and here.

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On the road to Verduno, there was Stroppiana

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Verduno, Italy

Hiking the hills of the Piedmont began with a stop at the tourist office in La Morra.  Opening hours were reliably sporadic.  It was, after all, early September – in Italy – just after a sleepy summer break and just before white truffle hunting season.  A few impromptu reconnaissance trips got J and I to the office as it opened one morning, and we were rewarded with a well laid out hiking map and helpful guidance from the woman behind the counter.  Tiny historic La Morra is the highest point in this commune in the Piedmont region of Italy, and hikes from here spread throughout the vineyard clad hills to other villages and towns in the Province of Cuneo.  The map encouragingly displayed the names and phone numbers of hundreds of wineries dotted along the hiking trails that run through vineyards and down narrow roads.  Map in hand, J and I started down a route that would lead us into the town of Verduno, just to the north of La Morra.

Along the way we took advantage of that helpful list of wineries and phone numbers and called Cantina Stroppiana, a small winery in the hamlet of Rivalta, to ask if they had time for us to tour and taste.  The family in this family-owned business was busy pressing grapes.  Extreme cold and severe heat over the last year meant that grapes were being harvested early, in September, not October.  But despite the amount of work going on, Stefania graciously welcomed us in our hiking gear and Leonardo, her son, showed us around an open area of stainless steel tanks where his father Dario was in the process of turning the harvested dolcetto grape into its wine (sort of the red table wine of this region).

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We sat down in the simple tasting room for a Piedmont wine education from Stefania and leisurely tasted about 10 of Stroppiana’s wines from rich red barolos, to light, white and new (to us) nascetta.  There was a barolo and barbera named Leonardo and Altea, respectively, after her son and daughter, and one called San Giacomo, for the saint of the namesake 18thcentury church where the winery now stands.  Dario joined us at the table and we lamented the high cost of shipping to the US.  Which, in the end, didn’t dissuade us from ordering a case.  Several hours later, their time and hospitality left us energized for the next leg of our hike and a late lunch further up the road in Verduno.

 

Feeling Grounded at Galena Lodge

 

That March morning when those of us in the US “sprung forward” to daylight savings time was a grey one in Ketchum, Idaho.  Clouds covered the mountain ridge line.  And after two blue sky days of downhill skiing, J and I took the colorless day as a sign to expand beyond the ski runs on Bald Mountain and experience the snowshoeing trails further along the Wood River Valley.

I had read about Galena Lodge and its snowshoeing and cross-country skiing trails – an easy 25-minute drive north of Ketchum – and was intrigued that one half of the couple (Don, of Don and Erin) running the lodge (who met at school in Virginia just a few hours from where I live outside of Washington, DC) is not only an outdoorsman, but went to culinary school.  And then there was the photo of two of Galena’s dogs, peering through a window opening above a sign proclaiming, “Loaner Dogs.”  Loaner dogs?  Yes, just ask, and one of Galena’s resident dogs will happily join you for a snowshoe outing, poop pick-up duty included.

J and I snowshoed a trail with Bandit, our friendly and eager loaner mutt, who led (pulled?) us up and over quiet hills dense with trees along the well-marked Rip and Tear Trail, and past a few yurts for overnight stays.  Splitting up our snowshoeing runs with lunch back at the community-owned day lodge, I gravitated toward the “grown up grilled cheese,” which was surprisingly (and nicely so) not overly cheesy with a little crunch from apple and salty bacon.  J opted for one of the three soups – chicken with healthy chunks of cauliflower and other vegetables.  Galena also serves up a range of coffee and espresso drinks and wines and beers.  And there were tall slices of red velvet cake on the counter that day.  A fireplace set-off a small lounge area near the espresso machine, while the rest of the space was solid wood tables and chairs for lunchtime eating with a view to the kitchen through the pick-up window.  One of Bandit’s buddies was peeking out of the Loaner Dogs window just up above.

Unhurried, Galena was pleasantly busy with individuals and families deciding on the next trail to ski or snowshoe on a wide-open Sunday.  Our next round of snowshoeing (without Bandit this time) was along the Valley View Trail leading up to, appropriately, a view to the valley, where we felt glimpses of the sun’s rays trying to burn through the clouds.  Next, we hooked up with the Cowboy Cabin Trail, which deposited us into a meadow before we crossed the street back over to the lodge, our outpost.

J and I leisurely returned our snowshoes and left Galena with a local treat – “Don Bars” – accompanied by a friendly warning.  Just half of one of these dense peanut butter and chocolate chip studded bars will keep you hunger free from noon through the rest of the day.  I held myself to a sliver of the layered bar after shoveling some snow off the front walkway back home, but I’m saving the bulk for a worthier work out.  Created by Don the chef, Don Bars, we heard, is funding his retirement.  It should be a good one.

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Finding My Latte Out West

…While Spring Skiing in Sun Valley; Ketchum, Idaho

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Everything was about 5 minutes away by foot in Ketchum, Idaho.  Which made exploring it approachable (that, and how friendly people were from the hotel desk clerk to the ski lift operators).  Before heading out to the base of Bald Mountain at River Run in Sun Valley, there was breakfast at our funky-sheep-accented boutique hotel, the Hotel Ketchum, and a couple of quick morning walks to check out two of the coffee shops in town.

Just past the Ketchum Town Square is Maude’s Coffee and Clothes, a cottage at the corner of Walnut Avenue and 4th Street.  It’s March and still seasonably cool in the mountains of Idaho, but I recollect a bench out front for sipping coffee in the summer.  Maude is the name of the dog (there was a Polaroid of Maude propped up on the counter).  The “Clothes” part is in fact a vintage clothing store within Maude’s.  Bold belt buckles, bowling shirts, and fair isle sweaters were displayed on racks and counters to the left and behind the “Coffee” part.  Coffee and clothes – literally for purchase at the same time.  Opening the door, I felt like I was walking into someone’s light-filled quiet kitchen.  Maude’s was relaxed and welcoming, and let me gradually wake up to the day.  The coffee counter was heaped with pastries and there was an eclectic mix of a few low tables and chairs at which to sit and appreciate the serenity.  I took my smooth latte to go in a paper cup unassumingly stamped with Maude’s logo.

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On Sunday morning, across from The Board Bin snowboard shop and rental, the low-slung house that is Ketchum’s Java on 4th – part of an all-Idaho group of five coffee shops from Twin Falls to Boise – was bustling with weekend skiers in insulated pants and zippered turtlenecks waking up with coffees and breakfast burritos before the short drive down the road to Sun Valley’s slopes.  People were in and out and back and forth, breakfasting at the bar and at the few scattered tables, their movements like that of a large family able to seamlessly go about their morning breakfast routine.  Service at the ordering counter was quick.  And my latte was presented in a cup calling me to, “Wake Up and Live.”  Perfect words for making my way with J to the next adventure of snowshoeing on the well-marked and beautiful trails at Galena Lodge.

…While Dodging 2017’s Rains in San Diego, California

The motel was located on a main road, a blah strip with other motels and low-slung shops on either side.  It happened to be the rainiest weekend that January 2017 – in 10 years  – in San Diego.  So maybe the strip would have looked more laid-back California than sadly grey, if the sun had been shining and the streets had been dry?  Finding a walkable latte-making coffee shop seemed like it was going to be a difficult task here.  But it wasn’t.  Like a beacon through the driving rain Better Buzz Coffee’s turquoise sign, bright lights, and carefully weathered exterior guided me inside to meet a California that wasn’t itself on the outside.

Better Buzz was only a few blocks from our motel, and J and I gratefully hopped on stools at the distressed wood table and dug into some avocado toast, me with latte in hand, cup cheerfully printed with “Life’s Better Buzzed.”  A collective obsession with avocado toast may have come and gone, but I’m still a fan, and the 3 Seed Avocado Toast at Better Buzz is the best I’ve had.  On thick slices of multigrain bread and piled high with mashed avocado, a little lemon and red pepper flakes, topped with microgreens, and made pleasantly nutty with a combination of chia, sesame, and hemp seeds – I still remember it a year later.   Better Buzz and, yes, that toast, powered J and I to joyously plot our mostly rainy few days in San Diego.