The Jetsetter

Getaways (get outta dodge)
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Our home in Mariposa. All photos: © tablehopper.com.

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Our former deli and pizzeria (now a Mexican restaurant).

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The exterior of the Château du Sureau.

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The sitting room/library in the Château du Sureau.

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The stairs down to the pool at Château du Sureau.

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The Elderberry Room.

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An afternoon snack, brought to our room on arrival.

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One of the chambermaids.

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One of the dining rooms (at the end of the evening) at Erna’s Elderberry House Restaurant.

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Amuse of arctic char, pickled mustard seed, cucumber gelée, and trout roe.

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The creative and delicious beet salad.

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A look into grand Yosemite Valley.

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When was the last time you were in a meadow?

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The incomparable dining room at The Ahwahnee.

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A prime rib feast at The Ahwahnee.

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The library at the Villa Sureau.

I may have been living in San Francisco for the past 20 years, but there is a country mouse side to this city mouse. Back when I was in the middle of third grade, my family packed up our life in San Mateo to move to Gold Country. We landed in Mariposa, not far from Yosemite National Park, where my parents bought 69 acres; they planned to build our dream home on the land, with our family friend as the architect. My father manifested his dream of getting out of the burbs and opening a pizzeria and delicatessen. My mother worked as an R.N. at a nearby hospital, and still managed to cook all our meals, make our clothes (it was that or order clothes from the Sears catalog for delivery into the depot in town—they wouldn’t even deliver to your house), and she also learned how to kill rattlesnakes (thanks Mom, good save that one afternoon).

We were there for three years, and while it didn’t pan out—it ends up Mariposa wasn’t quite ready for spicy coppa and imported Italian wine—and we had to move back to the Peninsula, our time there made for a really sweet period in our lives, especially for me and my sis. We had dirt bikes, a huge yard, dogs and cats and a horse, and we got to run around and unleash our inner tomboys. I’m ever grateful for those years living in Gold Country, they were such a vivid part of my childhood.

Some years later, I remember my parents going back up to Yosemite for a big wedding anniversary dinner, and they dined at a very special place, ~ERNA’S ELDERBERRY HOUSE RESTAURANT~. (It’s the kind of name that stays with you.) Flash forward to one evening at Gary Danko a few years ago, when a charming young lady from the staff and I put together that we both had connections to Gold Country—and look at that, her mother was the Erna of Erna’s Elderberry House Restaurant in Oakhurst.

And then let’s flash back to not too long ago, when I received a very kind invitation from the lovely Erna Kubin-Clanin to come experience a meal at Erna’s Elderberry House, and to stay at the ~CHÂTEAU DU SUREAU~. I couldn’t believe it—of course I called my parents immediately since they have such a treasured memory of the restaurant (the château was not built yet when they dined there).

Now, for anyone who has ever been to Yosemite, you may remember passing through Oakhurst, which is full of antique stores, big chain drugstores, and plenty of fast food. So to say that there is one of the most exquisite properties I have ever visited in the United States, a château that felt like it was transported from Europe lock, stock, and barrel (including the staff) and dropped off in Oakhurst of all places, well, that’s kind of what happened.

Ms. Erna is the most divine hostess, born in Vienna, and as soon as you get a look at her, you’ll be enchanted. She is so stylish and chic, with her fabulous French glasses, svelte figure, and tasteful high heels. She has a soothing and charming voice, full of kind words and comments. Ms. Erna is the kind of host who can handle diplomats and country folk with equal ease.

As soon as you pass through the gates to the château, it seems incredible that you are actually in dusty Gold Country. The place is an oasis of beauty, full of flowers and gorgeous landscaping. While many guests travel from far and wide to dine at Erna’s Elderberry House, the 10-room Château du Sureau (opened in 1991) also has an impeccable reputation. Not only is it a Relais & Châteaux property (since 1993), but it has won many other awards as well, from being a five-star Forbes Travel Guide property for more than 18 years to its five diamonds from AAA since 1992. And here’s why: Erna has a deep love for beauty, hospitality, and the finer things in life, and it shows in every corner and square inch of the property.

The two nights my friend and I spent there were like a shot in the arm of European class and elegance. The château is filled with antiques Erna found abroad, with tapestries, artwork, and unique pieces everywhere, along with fresh flowers and orchids too. Fresh lemonade sits out for guests. Oh, and how can you not love the chambermaids flitting about the property with their white aprons? I felt like I was going back in time. The staff is incredibly gracious.

All the 10 rooms are different; our room (The Elderberry Room) had exposed beams and a canopy bed (complete with a feather duvet and silky ironed linens, oh you know it). The room was mercifully devoid of a TV, a fireplace taking its place. It was actually pretty challenging (in a charming way) to find a place to plug in my iPhone and iPad by the bed (it would be better to write a letter to a friend on the château’s stationery). The spacious bathroom came with French tiles, and a soaking tub that I wish I had made time to enjoy.

On arrival, we were greeted with an afternoon snack in our room (tea sandwiches of housemade ricotta, cucumber, and beet on housemade bread, plus a tasty little almond cake) and two glasses of sparkling wine. (That’ll do fine, why thank you.) When we made our way down to the pool for an afternoon dip, we were offered more pink bubbles to enjoy poolside. (Careful, Marcia, don’t get to used to this…)

When it was time for dinner, it was an easy stroll through the gardens to Erna’s Elderberry House Restaurant, which opened in 1984. It has a French country look, with a trio of rooms (the Escoffier, Point, and Paul Bocuse rooms) full of fabric and old-world charm, plus a garden terrace (if you sit near the windows, your view is framed with flowers).

Before Erna was overseeing all aspects of the property, she was the chef and managing owner (her husband René owns it with her)—she now has chef de cuisine Jonathon Perkins overseeing the kitchen. Her first restaurant was Scorpio’s in Westwood (Los Angeles), and she then became known in the Sierras in 1977, when she cooked at The Redwood Inn next to the Wawona Hotel for six years, offering a five-course meal of nouvelle and European cuisine. She was a trailblazer in the area for sure.

My guest and I enjoyed an elegant five-course meal ($108, $78 wine pairings), full of seasonal and well-prepared ingredients, along with a few modern techniques too (dessert featured some coconut “snow”). Our amuse was stunning: arctic char, pickled mustard seed, cucumber gelée, and trout roe, and a fragrant cauliflower soup had fascinating ribbons of flavor, with apricot chutney, curry oil, cilantro, and toasted almonds.

I also loved the old-world touch of serving the salad after the meat course, and the presentation was so inventive: the heirloom beet salad came with field greens with a thyme and lavender vinaigrette, and there was a scoop of a chèvre mousse with beet whipped in (it was the most gorgeous color), as well as Bull’s Blood beet purée and mulberries on the plate.

A few dishes had components that were a bit strong, like the Tahitian vanilla jus that dominated the milk-poached veal loin, but otherwise I could not believe I was having this elevated dining experience in Oakhurst of all places, and not some beautiful château in France. Pastry chef Kyle Waller’s dessert of milk chocolate panna cotta would fit right into most of San Francisco’s fine dining rooms. (They are many more photos here.)

You can see how much training the staff has had (it’s not like there’s a big pool of employees trained in fine dining service in the area), and we also had some excellent wine service and pairings (from Sinskey’s Abraxas to the Azelia “Bricco Fiasco” Barolo). It was one of those “somebody please pinch me” moments when we were able to walk back down the garden path after dinner and fall into our feather bed for a night of deep sleep. While the “full board” experience is part of the charm of staying in this fairy-tale place, you can also just come to Erna’s Elderberry House Restaurant for dinner—you don’t need to be a guest of the château.

They also host a three-day cooking school twice a year, and many themed meals, including the annual Evening in Vienna dinner, with music. I’d subscribe to the newsletter to keep up on the happenings (and special offers) in case you are mulling over taking a trip to Yosemite. (How long has it been? When was the last time you walked through a meadow? It was far too long for me.)

While it’s very hard to leave the kingdom for the day (trust), we got up early to make our way to the other kingdom: Yosemite. It’s a short drive to the South Gate from the château, and the staff kindly packed us a picnic lunch to enjoy in the park. We also had a fabulous breakfast on the terrace before we headed out for the day that we were going to need to hike off: freshly made croissants and brioche with housemade jam, marmalade, and thick pats of butter, plus a European-style platter of meats and cheeses, a ramekin of egg frittata topped with ratatouille, and excellent coffee.

Our day in Yosemite was pure magic—we were there in mid-May, so we had beautiful springlike weather and the falls were running. We spent the day walking the trails around the majestic valley floor, and since it was a Friday, we didn’t have to deal with a crush of humanity. We had our picnic lunch next to the Merced River, such a dreamy spot.

We ended our epic day with bubbles on the back terrace at the Ahwahnee Hotel and were invited to stay for dinner. Is there a more jaw-dropping dining room, with its 34-foot-high beamed ceiling and hulking granite pillars? Of course you end up thinking about The Shining half the time (Kubrick’s set designer mimicked many elements of the Ahwahnee for the Overlook Hotel).

We got a kick out of our jacketed server, who handled the huge pepper grinder with aplomb, and I’d say sticking with simpler classics is the move here, like roasted Brussels sprouts ($15). It’s all about the prime rib ($42-$48) with Yorkshire pudding; some of the other dishes were too much of a reach, like my friend’s lobster and coconut bisque. I can imagine the setting for Sunday brunch is fabulous.

I wouldn’t recommend the long drive back to the Château du Sureau after a late dinner like ours to many people—fortunately I love driving mountain roads and so does my Fiat. But it was definitely a haul in the darkness after such a big day. Again, that feather duvet was waiting for me at the end, a strong motivator to get back safely.

The next morning we enjoyed a more leisurely start, with breakfast on the terrace once again (hello, croissant, I was missing you), a last dip in the pool, and a walk around the grounds. A newer addition to the property is the Spa Sureau and the Villa Sureau, which we were lucky to get a peek at since they were in between guests.

Because Ms. Erna just doesn’t stop, she created this secluded and private manor house in 1999, full of turn-of-the-century antiques (her husband René helped restore many of the treasures), a marble tub, a baby grand piano, and two bedrooms in its spacious 2,000-square-foot footprint. It’s grand, daaahling, and for those who can afford a stay there (it’s $2,950 a night), it’s a very singular spot where you can effectively play out a manor-born fantasy. Just gorgeous.

A visit to the Château du Sureau and Erna’s Elderberry House Restaurant is a unique one, because its particular kind of luxury is so personal. Fortunately the elegant and visionary Ms. Erna wanted to create and share her world of cosmopolitan flair and grace—it so obviously (and thankfully) couldn’t be contained.

You can view my entire photo album of our weekend getaway here. Trust me, you want to look!

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The one and only Café du Monde. All photos: © tablehopper.com.

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Fried bread with sea salt at Pêche.

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What a dish: beef tartare and fried oysters at Coquette.

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Shrimp and grits at La Petite Grocery.

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The muffuletta of my dreams at Cochon Butcher.

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The jaunty exterior of Commander’s Palace.

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Grasshoppers at Tujague’s.

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Our daily breakfast: crawfish bread!

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Too cute: red beans and rice (partying together, of course).

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Galactic at the storied Tipitina’s.

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Liuzza’s by the Track (otherwise known as Bloody Mary HQ).

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Just after the rain.

Ahhh, Jazz Fest. It was something that was on my sister’s bucket list for a while, and since my sister and I are cut from the same cloth, it was on my list for too long as well. She has a posse of friends who like to go to the fest, so it was a blast to have quality peeps to do it up with. Fortunately they were all experienced Burners as well, because Jazz Fest is not for the faint of heart. Well, at least how we did it. Only the strong survive.

I’ll share some Jazz Fest newbie tips we learned (some the hard way), but first, here are a few places where we had some memorable meals in between all the shows (I really needed to update my last New Orleans jetsetter, which dates back to 2008).

Pêche: before my sister’s late-night flight came in, I enjoyed a solo meal at the counter of Donald Link’s latest place in the Warehouse District—it was just 10 days old when I ate there. It’s dedicated to seafood, and if you speak French, you’ll already know this from the name (no, it’s not peche, like a peach). Sitting at a bar in New Orleans, well, you are never lonely. I had some excellent dining and drinking companions, including an inspiring older gentleman, Charlie from New York, who has been coming to Jazz Fest for 40 years, much respect.

Loved the long list of appetizers and bar snacks: I had some oysters, and the fried bread with sea salt. Oh, and the shrimp toast! It was so good that Charlie next to me ordered a second round, smart man. Some unique dishes were the canapé-like disks of golden beets topped with a tartare of gray tilefish with curry vinaigrette and Vietnamese shiso, and catfish with pickled greens and chile broth (so good). Next time I’ll go back with friends so we could order the whole fish coming out of the custom grill. Really appealing menu here.

Coquette: what a charmer in the Garden District, such a beautiful freestanding building, full of rich New Orleans atmosphere, with brick walls, old wood plank floors, and chandeliers. We sat upstairs at a round table, enjoying a shared feast of shaved foie gras and root vegetables, beef tartare and fried gulf oysters, chicken-fried sweetbreads, and soft-shell crab (a main dish, $28). Loved all the seasonal and local vegetables in the innovative dishes, and I’d love to come back to try chef Michael Stoltzfus’s tasting menu.

A highlight was their menu of after-dinner drinks, four in all, which were built for a night of after-partying, like The Best Part of Waking Up, made with cold-brew coffee, reposado tequila, walnut liqueur, and vanilla syrup. Wish more places made after-dinner drinks like this. Desserts also rocked—their version of milk chocolate mousse with peanut butter sorbet and salted caramel, oh yeah. Some quality cocktails and wines too.

La Pétite Grocery: we got rained out of the festival one day (it was pouring, just buckets) and opted to have lunch at this historic space, which dates back to the 1800s (it was converted into a restaurant in 2004). Chef Justin Devillier is known for his Gulf shrimp and grits with smoked bacon, and there’s no way you can pass up the blue crab beignets. Sis loved their Reuben special that day, with Two Run Farm pastrami, quality. Classic bistro atmosphere, with bent cane chairs, white tablecloths, and banquettes the color of deep cherry.

Cochon Butcher: this was the move for this muffuletta-loving girl. About 45 minutes before I needed to grab a cab to the airport, I called ahead and order a muffuletta to go—had my cab wait outside while I ran in to pick it up and pay for it, and then enjoyed one of the best muffulettas of my life on the plane at some point close to Texas. House-cured meats, killer olive salad, this sandwich is such a star (although I did have a local muffuletta connoisseur tell me their favorite is from FredRick’s in the CBD, noted!).

Commander’s Palace: so, we finally did the weekend jazz brunch here. And while the entire experience is pretty marvelous from an atmospheric standpoint, with the dining rooms full of happy guests enjoying their turtle soup and a jazz trio moving table to table, the meal itself knocked us out for the rest of the day. (My friend also knew someone in the kitchen, so they lovingly killed us with dessert.) You get three hefty courses for about $40 that mean buttery business, so don’t plan to move a lot afterward. But a grateful shout-out to the bourbon milk punch for getting me back into the game that morning.

When it’s late, and you need some quality tequila and a burger (isn’t that all the time?), Yo Mama’s in the Quarter will take care of you. They’re known for their peanut butter burger (weird, but it works, especially with bacon), late kitchen hours, and bonus points for the extremely saucy bathroom art, and yo mama jokes on your receipt.

If you want to do a fun little tablehop in the afternoon (what else where we gonna do on a rainy day), we started with Pimm’s Cups at Napoleon House (of course), walked over to Tujague’s (say “Two Jacks”) for grasshoppers (yes, where they were reportedly invented), and then we had to tuck into some beignets and chicory coffee at Café du Monde (note: the original French Market location is open 24 hours a day, mmmhmmm).

Bellocq: I ended up meandering over here for a drink (cobblers galore) after dinner at Pêche (it’s in the Hotel Modern). Damn nice bar staff; from the folks behind The Cure (the bar, not the band). Over-the-top swank décor, dense wall o’ quality spirits, and you gotta love that off-sale action (was able to bring home a bottle of bubbles for our hotel room).

Arnaud’s French 75 Bar: when it’s time for a civilized cocktail and not a lot of French Quarter ruckus, this is where you can sit back, enjoy a quality cocktail, admire the old-world atmosphere and antiques, and catch your breath. Ahhhh.

Bar Tonique: we had a good nightcap here—they serve straightforward craft cocktails minus a big show and mustaches. The scene was a bit rowdy and mixed and fun, although truth be told, I also felt a wee bit too old for the crowd.

Molly’s: frozen Irish coffees, what? This will sound good to you at some point, trust.

For the extra late-night (or wait, is that early morning?) dranks, we hit Chuck’s and Igor’s (which came with their own sideshow).

I always leave New Orleans with a list of places I failed to make it to, I guess it’s one of its many charms. Here are five spots that are (still) at the top of my current to-do list:

Char-grilled oysters at Drago’s.
The legendary fried chicken at Willie Mae’s Scotch House.
Étouffée at Annunciation.
Lunch at the Bon Ton Café.
Cocktails by the fabulous Abigail Gullo at SoBou.

Notes on Jazz Fest:
We managed to have some rainy weather the year we went, and let me tell you, you can’t go out to the Fairgrounds without some mud boots. We got lucky and found a shop that was selling boots (we literally got the last two pairs in our size), but now we know: don’t fly to Jazz Fest without mud boots. It was like Glastonbury, with mud almost to our knees in some spots. Actually the entire week we were there got kind of chilly. So much for sultry NOLA nights!

Crawfish bread is the best breakfast in the world. Well, it was more like brunch since it was what we’d eat immediately upon arrival at the Fairgrounds, which was usually around 11:30pm or noon. Quickly followed by Crawfish Monica, boudin balls in rémoulade, jambalaya, cochon de lait po’boys, and about 100 other things to make you love New Orleans, hard.

After a day of shows, before you head back to your hotel you have to saunter over to Liuzza’s by the Track for their Bloody Marys and a fun crowd hanging out in the streets, with impromptu music performances everywhere, yay. You could also start your day here too, because as we discovered this trip, more is more.

We took cabs to the Fairgrounds (they operate at a super-cheap flat rate) and took a public bus back to the Quarter and just walked to our hotel in the Warehouse District (buses are definitely the fastest way back—cabs were in short supply).

A lot of restaurants close earlier than you’d expect. We learned the pro move was to grab a bite at the end of the day after the Fairgrounds, and then plunk down for a disco nap before heading back out to midnight shows at Tipitina’s, The Blue Nile, Republic, and every other joint we hit up.

Thanks for the epic long week, New Orleans—you always send me home tired, hungover, and with a head (and heart) full of indelible impressions. No one has a community like yours—the city overflows with characters and hospitality and style. I sometimes can’t believe you’re part of America, with your refreshingly lawless ways and deeply soulful resonance. Keep up the good work. See you soon.

For more pictures, be sure to click here for my Flickr album.

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One advantage to dining solo: all the pão de queijo is all yours. All photos: © tablehopper.com.

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Saturday night feijoada at Garden.

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Picanha and grilled heart of palm at Via Sete.

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The colorful exterior of Via Sete.

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Grilled hearts of palm with pesto at Aprazível.

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The tropical treehouse vibe at Aprazível.

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The beautiful pool deck at Hotel Santa Teresa.

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My calming, beautiful room at Hotel Santa Teresa.

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Fruit extravaganza at the breakfast spread at Hotel Santa Teresa.

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One of the Bahian barracas at the Hippie Fair.

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My favorite dish of the trip: acarajé.

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The gorgeous grounds at Instituto Moreira Salles.

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The modern Museu de Arte Moderna.

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The Museu do Arte Contemporânea in Niterói.

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Parque Lage (and that’s Cristo Redentor perched on top of Corcovado in the back).

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The old world atmosphere at Confeitaria Colombo.

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One of the many interesting buildings in the historic Centro.

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Ascending Pão de Açúcar.

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You’ll see some of the best graffiti and street art all over Rio.

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Boa noite from the Hotel Santa Teresa.

Okay, so we covered the churrasco experience in my last Rio installment, but we still have quite a bit more Rio dining to cover. To be honest, Rio made me really lonely when it was time for dinner; in all my years of traveling solo, I have never felt so solitary at night. The city’s restaurants are not set up for solo diners—good luck finding anything resembling our city’s many counters, bars, and communal tables. One restaurant I went to had a bar, and no one was sitting at it—well, except me. Walking into a restaurant, every time, I’d have to explain “just one”—which at many places would elicit a raised eyebrow for a split second. Cariocas tend to dine out in big groups, or you’ll see lots of couples. Party of one, not so much.

Portions were another frustrating thing: so much of the food is portioned for people to share. I had to walk out of three restaurants (ugh!) when they wouldn’t be able to serve me less than a whole chicken, or an entire pot of moqueca. It would be too wasteful for me to order a huge feast just for myself. And not much fun.

But I was not going to miss indulging in the famed feijoada, which is traditionally served on Saturday afternoon (well, it depends on where you are—I heard other Brazilian cities have different nights). I found a classic place (58 years old and counting) called Garden in between Ipanema and Leblon, with an older and classier crowd. I love how late people eat in Rio. A table of eight, with a median age of 74, were just sitting down to eat at 10pm. I made a little promise to myself that I’m going to return to Rio to live when I’m older—I can start getting tan again and go to the beach every day, wear bright lipstick, and hang out with my friends and eat late. Sign me up.

My solicitous server poured me a huge glass of wine, so big I chuckled to myself (“Mama’s gettin’ heated tonight!”), although I can’t believe how many Cariocas drink Coke Zero with everything, no exaggeration. I was served slowly cooked and garlicky black beans, beef tongue, pig’s ear and tail (my server was very happy to see me eat this), thin slices and little chubs of linguiça, and thin air-dried meat, plus the classic accompaniments of shredded kale, aipim frito (fried yuca), farofa (toasted manioc flour, made from yuca), white rice, and orange supremes. My table was completely covered in bowls and plates. I was an army of one with that dinner. I gave it my best shot, but I needed at least two other people dining with me to make a proper dent.

So yeah, dinner in Rio was not very fun after the fourth night of going out. Although I will admit posting images to Instagram at least made me feel like I was dining with friends in a strange, techy, modern way. Twenty-nine likes for my feijoada pic. Yeah, was it good for you too?

One afternoon while I was doing a little shopping after my beach time, I checked out the cute Gilson Martins shop, where I found some of my favorite souvenirs to bring home (little coin purses with the wave pattern of the pavers of Ipanema, um, yes, I’ll take five). I befriended the way-too-adorable manager of the shop, who used to bartend in Miami, and after a little sassy banter we were fast friends.

Marcelo was a sweetheart and met me a couple of days later to take me to lunch to one of his favorite places in Ipanema, Via Sete. I was so excited to finally have someone to dine with, I know I was beaming. I can see why he’s a regular there: there’s a lovely outdoor terrace, a cute stylish crowd, and probably the best steak I had on the trip, their grilled picanha, Marcelo’s top dish. It was bonkers good. And guess who was thrilled to have grilled hearts of palm again on her last meal in Rio? This girl. Pro tip: go for their combination meal, it’s a good deal (you get two sides—they had really fresh salads). After your lunch, be sure to walk a few blocks over to Gilson Martins and say “Bom dia!” to Marcelo.

I’m also here to report that my party of one status didn’t stop me from having quite a romantic dinner by myself at one of the restaurants most renowned for its beautiful atmosphere in Rio: Aprazível. It’s like a tree house in the open air, perched up in the historic neighborhood in the hills of Santa Teresa; you’ll hear birds chirping over the soft backing track of bossa nova, adding to the sultry tropical vibe. The really, truly breathtaking view of the twinkling city made for some excellent company while I was surrounded by canoodling couples. Truth be told, I also had one of the nicest servers of the entire trip, Marcos, who got a big kick out of my curiosity about each dish, and provided plenty of friendly company.

You’ll notice the dishes are much more northeastern in style, hailing from Minas Gerais and Bahia. I loved their little half-moon pasteles of acarajé (filled with beef), the cheesy gratin of sweet potato puree with air-dried beef, and I was so thrilled to try the freshly grilled hearts of palm, still in the stalk! It was a first for me. It was simply drizzled with some pesto, which I actually scraped off—the taste of the fresh palmito was plenty to savor. The thick and bubbling pot of moquequinha made with dogfish was homey and rustic, and the cheese plate with cheeses from Minas Gerais—with preserved orange rind and fig and dulce de leche—was over the top, and made for quite a finale.

One of my favorite things about Aprazível is their love and dedication to Brazilian wine! Sommelier Paul Medder, a Kiwi, shared some insider stories of the small-production wines he poured, like Vilmar Bettú, a garagiste who is making wine from the peverella grape that was brought over by the Italians when they came to Brazil in 1875 and later, one of the few wineries to still grow it. I tried the 2011 malvasia, which had a bit of wildness to it, but balanced acidity, and became even more fragrant as it opened up. If you want to learn about Brazilian wine, Medder is a great champion. The restaurant even has their own wine (Era dos Ventos), cachaças (aged on premise), and pale ale they make in Niterói; they also have their own CDs—I totally had to buy one so I could re-create the bossa vibe back home. Although where is Marcos with my passion fruit caipirinha?

If you have a chance to spend a day wandering around Santa Teresa, do it. It has a bohemian and less-touristed vibe, with a bunch of cool galleries and cafés, although I was not going to walk around at night by myself (see, Mom, I told you I was careful!). You can easily take a cab to the neighborhood (it’s about a 15-minute drive from Ipanema) or a bus, and you’ll drive past some favelas along the way (you can tour some of Rio’s favelas—it’s a sensitive issue, but ultimately I think it’s important for people to see and understand, just make sure you choose a good tour operator).

You better be wearing some sturdy shoes in Santa Teresa; the cobblestones are tough to walk on. I was there a couple of weeks too early for the annual festival called Arte de Portas Abertas, when artists let people into their studios, and there are a bunch of parties (be sure to check Time Out Rio; it can happen from June-August). There are many unique places to eat and hang out, like Bar do Mineiro, Jasmim Manga Café, “Bar do Gomez”/Armazém São Thiago, Rústico, and Espírito Santa.

Who has two thumbs and is one lucky lady? This girl. I was so damn fortunate to get to stay a night in Santa Teresa at the stunning boutique hotel, the Hotel Santa Teresa, which was originally a coffee plantation that was converted into the oasis of your dreams. You won’t want to leave, which is kind of dangerous because you really should explore the neighborhood. The hotel has beautiful views everywhere: from its rooms, its restaurant, even at the sexy pool (pay a visit to the hotel Bar Dos Descasados, complete with lounging beds where you enjoy your view with your bubbly).

My luxe-rustic room was so peaceful, with a natural-modern look, and a peek out the windows was full of green tree leaves and fronds. It really feels more like you’re hanging out at your fabulously rich Carioca friend’s place in the hills. As if! A girl can dream. The abundant breakfast spread reminded me of some of the more special Turkish breakfasts I experienced, although this one was laden with a Rio rainbow of tropical fruits. Carmen Miranda would have approved. Wonderful hospitality, what a special place. I was sorry to leave the peaceful kingdom when it was time to check out, but my 24 hours there left me feeling so calm and happy.

So, I just realized I am saving the best for last here, the one dish that stood out over everything I ate in Brazil: acarajé! My sister thankfully told me to hunt this street food bite down—it’s actually an Afro-Brazilian dish from Bahia (by way of Nigeria), so you have to search for it a bit in Rio. But every Sunday in Ipanema is the Hippie Fair at the Praça General Osório, which is a street fair selling crafts and tchotchkes (where I did manage to find a beautiful leather bag tucked away in one of the stands). And that’s where you’ll find the Bahian barracas! You can’t miss them—the ladies running these pop-up stands have colorful skirts and their hair up in white scarves and eyelet turbans to match their tops. (I realized I saw another Bahian barraca in town later on—look for the ladies in traditional head scarves.)

Get in line, and order the acarajé, which is a black-eyed pea fritter fried in dendê (palm oil)—it gets slathered with vatapá, a thick, rich, and spicy sauce made from shrimp, coconut milk, bread, cashews (or peanuts), garlic, onion, and more dendê, and then it gets topped with baby fried shrimp. Be sure to request a few shakes of the hot sauce. No, it’s not light, but the deep, layered flavor and textures of this dish will haunt me until I return to Brazil again. It made me want to go to Bahia, stat. Do not miss this experience. You can huddle at the counter or share a rickety table with your fellow diners, it’s a fun scene. Other folks are there for the sweets and the tapioca crêpes made with coconut and condensed milk.

Here are a few sights to see as well. I was there during the winter so I had some rainy days inside, which means yay, museum days!

One of the coolest museums is the Instituto Moreira Salles in Gávea, with an awesome photography collection—I got to see three fantastically curated shows. It was a private residence, and is such a cool tropical-modern building, with gardens designed by Burle Marx. I was ready to move in.

On the day I walked around the Centro area, I spent a rainy afternoon in the Museu de Arte Moderna, which not only was showing some provocative art by Brazilian artists, but it also has beautiful landscaping by Burle Marx in the back.

There was no way I was going to miss seeing the Museu do Arte Contemporânea in Niterói, which looks like a UFO (it was designed by by Oscar Niemeyer). There were a few cool pieces inside, but it’s really the building that steals the show. You take a ferry over, it’s a fun daytime adventure.

The Jardim Botânico is lovely to visit during the week, talk about a lush and serene place (it’s also orchid central). And you have to visit the Parque Lage, with a former mansion (now a visual arts school) that has a dramatic view of Corcovado looming overhead (there’s a café where you can grab a coffee or brunch). There’s also the nearby La Bicyclette (a local fave) or Jojo if you want more to eat, and there’s Yumê for Japanese.

You really should take a stroll through the colonial Centro area, with plazas dating back to the early 1800s (they fill up with people at lunch and after work, like the bright yellow Amarelinho on the Praça Floriano), and you absolutely have to visit the breathtaking Confeitaria Colombo which dates back to 1894. This coffeehouse is the picture of grand, full of rosy marble, stained glass, ornate hand-carved wood, beautiful tiles, and a rather tasty pastel de nata. Just come here, relax, order a coffee or a cocktail (and candies to bring home), and soak the old world ambiance in—I have never seen anything like it. On a much smaller scale is the Casa Cavé, which I took shelter in during a rainstorm (it’s also historically charming, with tile floors). And if you want a bite, head to Casa Paladino (open since 1906!) for a classic, old-school lunch or snack.

Sights on my list for next time:

The Sítio Roberto Burle Marx, a huge estate of the amazing landscape architect.

Cristo Redentor: On a rare cloudless day, I opted to visit the stunning Pão de Açúcar instead of making the trek to Cristo, but I will definitely make my way to the top of Corcovado next time!

A few observations and tips:

Cariocas are some of the most friendly and warm people, and chivalry is alive and well. As a solo female traveler, I always felt so well taken care of.

Riding the buses is quite the adventure. I used Google maps for up-to-the-minute bus timetables on how to get somewhere, because there are so many buses you’ll never figure it out. If you want a bus to stop for you, you have to stick your arm out and wave like a crazy person to hail it, or it’ll never stop, even if you’re at a bus stop. It’s like the buses are in a mad race to somewhere, I don’t know. As soon as you get on, grab hold of something, because you’re about to experience torque like you have never felt it. The drivers will totally floor it, even if you’re an old lady with your groceries and you haven’t sat down yet, and totally lurch you around as they take a corner, and then slam on the brakes. It’s, uh, an adventure! There’s a cashier on board, so don’t worry about having exact fare.

ATMs can be a nightmare. You’ll see a lot of bank lobbies with ATMs, but sometimes they’ll be out of money, and most wouldn’t work with international banks. I learned the hard way that most of them don’t work after 10pm and on Sundays. (Gimme my money!) I had some success with Banco do Brasil, but plan on being frustrated most of the time—you start looking everywhere for those little Cirrus symbols.

Other frustrating things (i.e., you aren’t in California anymore): the amount of plastic used everywhere (like regular silverware wrapped in plastic and your napkin wrapped in plastic too), no comment on the flimsy napkins and toilet paper, and finding 3G on your phone is the picture of sporadic. Fortunately almost every business has Wi-Fi, and they’re usually generous with handing out the password.

Coffee was mostly depressing. They’ll dump chocolate syrup in your cappuccino if you don’t keep an eye out. There are some beautiful espresso machines run by people who don’t know what they’re doing, and the coffee itself was pretty grim. I found one cafe where the “barista” would let me gesture to her how I wanted her to make my espresso (my pantomime of a hard tamp was pretty hilarious—we both shared a good laugh). At least all the coffees come with a little treat on the side, which is a cute tradition. At the end of the trip, a Carioca told me Grão Espresso is pretty decent, and here’s a piece on cafés to try. Oh, and Guerin, a French boulangerie, is supposedly good for coffee.

Other restaurants that were recommended to me or on my list:

Chico & Alaide: an awesome boteco known for their bolinho de bacalhau (salted cod croquette).

Talho Capixaba: a bakery in Leblon that has good empadinhas, sandwiches, and more (supposedly a good spot for breakfast or before the beach).

Amir for Lebanese food.

Cocktails and seafood at the fancy Fasano.

Catch the sunset and have drinks with everyone on the little wall at Bar Urca.

A fantastic resource for places to eat is Culinary Backstreets (they also offer tours!).

To find out weekly clubs and DJ nights, and arty stuff, check out The Rio Times and Time Out Rio.

For pictures from the entire trip, you can check out my images of Rio here.

Boa viagem!

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A view of Ipanema (in the distance) from Pão de Açúcar. All photos: © tablehopper.com.

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Brazilian pizza at Alessandro E Federico.

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The glorious beach at Ipanema.

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Açaí and acerola at Polis Sucos.

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My fabulous caipirinha at Barraca do Joel.

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Ipanema sunset.

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The Copacabana promenade.

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Awesome Rio street art.

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Street tiles.

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The late-night crowd celebrating at Jobi.

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Coxinha de frango at Bar Bracarense.

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The counter at Restaurante O Caranguejo.

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The scene at Bip Bip (with the crotchety owner, Alfredo, to the right).

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The Copacabana Palace.

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The Sunday buffet at the Copacabana Palace.

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The over-the-top buffet at Porcão Rio.

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The view of Pão de Açúcar at Porcão Rio.

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One of the many charming meat pushers at Porcão Rio.

When I was invited to Brazil to learn about Brazilian wine in the Serra Gaúcha region, you can bet one of the first things that went through my head was: trip extension! With some complicated ticket maneuvering and finagling, I was able to get myself to Rio de Janeiro for a week, a dream destination of mine (heck, of many!).

I tracked down an affordable apartment in Ipanema on Airbnb, just a 10-minute walk from the beach (yeah, off-season!). This was going to be one of my bigger solo trip adventures, and I’d be lying if I didn’t admit I was a bit apprehensive to be arriving in Rio late on a Saturday night. After me and my sister’s crazy experience getting a cab in the Mumbai airport at 3am, I guess I was ready for anything. I took it as a good omen that my cabbie was the most charming, kind man, who wasn’t out to fleece me—he just wanted to make sure I could see Cristo Redentor, lit up in the night sky and peeking through the clouds.

In fact, I didn’t have a single problem with any of the cabdrivers I had for the entire week in Rio. A couple were flummoxed by my odd attempt at Portuguese that leaned heavily on a combination of Italian and Spanish words, but most wanted to find out where I was from, practice their English, and get me to where I was going (and of course were stoked with my San Franciscan tipping practices).

A big win for solo (female) travelers doing Airbnb in Rio is that most residential buildings have doormen who will buzz you in and keep a close eye on things. I always felt safe where I was staying. After checking in with my Airbnb host, I ditched my bag and went out for my first Brazilian pizza at Alessandro E Federico in Leblon. Considering how many Brazilian pizzas I have ordered from Mozzarella di Bufala here in SF over the years, it was time to have one in its native country, and my hard-boiled egg, black olive, onion, and ham-topped pizza portuguesa (R$40) did not disappoint (even better with a few shakes of piri piri sauce). I sat outside at a table on the terrace, drinking some pink bubs, watching the pretty crowd—my week in Rio was officially on.

I was visiting in July, which is their winter, and the temps were the picture of pleasant: in the high 70s/low 80s during the day, and only slightly humid. Although, bummer, most of the days were cloudy, and I caught some rain too. My sister gave me some great advice, since she stayed in Rio once during the same period. She said if it was a clear day, to cancel your plans and head to the beach, because there’s no guarantee about having sunny beach days in the winter. She’s a fellow beach and sun hound, so it was good advice. Or save your sunny days to visit Cristo Redentor or Pão de Açúcar (Sugarloaf Mountain)—you’ll want a clear view for those.

Before heading to the praia (beach), I recommend stopping at one of the many sucos bars for fresh juices and açaí bowls (order it “na tigela” to get it in a bowl—I loved mine with granola, guaraná, and banana). One place that was excellent was Polis Sucos—I was all over the acerola, a sour fruit with a nutty amount of vitamin C (I was fighting a cold on my last few days, and I’m convinced that thing saved me). If you’re in Leblon, other places that are recommended are Bibi Sucos and BB Lanches (a word that always cracked me up—it means “snacks”). It’s fun to hang out at the open counter (I looooved the alfresco life in Rio), sipping your juice and taking in the scene. Italians have caffès, Cariocas have sucos bars.

A friend recommended suco de abacaxi com hortela (pineapple juice with mint)—what an elixir. I also liked being able to say “maracuja” (passion fruit) whenever possible (it’s also delicious in a caipirinha). I never made it to this place in Flamengo, which serves fresh açaí, but I sure wanted to. You can also get fresh coconut juice at the many stands for just a few reais on the promenade by the beach.

The beach culture is amazing—lined up along the beach are barracas, beach stands that people are very loyal to. They will rent you a chair, an umbrella, and basically bring you cocktails and cold beers all day—some even serve good food too. I enjoyed my steak sandwich from Barraca do Uruguay (#80), but it was Barraca do Joel (#79) that rocked my world on another afternoon—I noticed a guy was shaking up drinks like a pro, and I’ll be damned, I had some of the best caipirinhas of the trip while I lazed there in my beach chair. (Yes, plural.)

A few Rio-savvy friends and readers gave me some great tips about which part of the beach to go to. There are a series of postos that run along the beach, 12 in all (you’ll find bathrooms and changing rooms at each posto). I was told I’d want to park myself between postos 8 and 9, which would be gay/mixed, with “cool kids and weed smokers.” All good by me. There are also some rainbow flags along that stretch, but I saw fabulous gays mixed in all along the beach, not just in a designated area (although the beach was definitely gay-dense at the end of my street, Rua Farme de Amoedo). Ipanema is full of gays, so I felt like I was back in SF with all my boys—except everyone was tan and wearing tight shorts. As you go toward postos 10 and 11 in Leblon, you’ll find more rich, famous, and fashiony folks on the beach.

Sure, it’s intimidating to show up on a Rio beach all pasty and overweight, but you know what? These people don’t know you. You will probably never, ever see them again. And they really don’t care. So enjoy yourself. That was my attitude at least. Sure, there are hardbodies and painfully gorgeous women, but not everyone is beach Adonis/Aphrodite material—I saw allll types. Although yes, I did see some really amazing specimens of humanity. The Cariocas are some mighty fine people. Anyway, don’t stress out about it and have fun.

There is so much action—beaches in Mexico have nothing on Ipanema. There is a constant swirl of men selling food and drinks and snacks and bathing suits and hats. You just have to barely wave and they’ll come right over. My heart broke for some of them trudging through the sand, schlepping the heavier stuff.

The beach is a total circus. I can only imagine what it’s like in peak season. There’s the incessant yelling of “BISCOITO GLOBO!” (they are sweet or salty doughnut-shaped biscuits, a classic beach treat), and I was always happy to espy the guys dressed in white hawking “pão árabe pão árabe pão árabe!” (an awesome stuffed pita-like bread)—I also enjoyed the savory empadas, and the Matte Leão (iced tea) guys will refresh you. All without ever leaving your chair. Magic!

On my first visit, I didn’t bring anything of real value to the beach (besides my phone). Left my precious camera and all my credit cards in the apartment, and when I wanted to walk on the beach or go in the water, I sussed out some folks nearby and asked if they would watch my bag (and brought it over to them). People are so nice, so don’t worry, you’re not a bother. There is theft that can happen on the beach, but just pay attention to what’s going on around you.

The sand is so fine, and fluffy, and white. (You’ll track it everywhere.) The water is a little rowdy, so don’t just hop in—see where other folks are swimming. And you don’t want to miss a sunset on the beach (go to Arpoador for some of the best). The peachy-pink colors and the water and the dramatic backdrop of the mountains combine to make it such a breathtaking sight; one evening everyone around me made it so much more amazing: they applauded. I get goose bumps even writing about it, it was such a sweet, appreciative moment.

Hard-core beach lovers will want to consider trekking out of town to Prainha, which is supposedly beyond gorgeous (and not tooooo far, it’s about an hour south)—if you do go there, you have to eat at Restaurante Bira, famous for its moqueca (the owner is a fisherman), shrimp pasteis, and view (a friend warned that they don’t usually stay open past early afternoon, so try to arrive early).

I did a ton of walking in Rio. You’ll want to walk around a bunch—it was all so lush and tropical, trees dripping with vines, and there’s a fading modern glamour to a lot of the buildings. I went bonkers for the patterned, tiled pavement (calçada portuguesa) everywhere—seeing the iconic geometric wave pattern on the Copacabana promenade (designed by Roberto Burle Marx) for the first time brought a huge smile to my face. But those little tiles are murder when it’s raining, and are really easy to catch and trip on (and especially tough if you’re in heels), so tread carefully.

You’ll also see some of the best street art and graffiti, it’s everywhere. There were a few times I felt a little sketched out, but I mostly felt pretty safe. I always kept my camera and phone stashed away, and took a look around before taking them out of my shoulder bag (I swear by my Basil Racuk Monterey bag). Sometimes, I missed a shot I wanted, but that’s okay.

I was told that the food in Rio wasn’t going to blow my mind, and I didn’t have the budget to hit up a bunch of awesome (but spendy) places like Roberta Sudbrack or CT Boucherie (from chef Claude Troisgros). But I found so many spots that I really enjoyed, namely all the botecos/botequims that reminded me of Spanish tapas bars, with people hanging out, drinking chopps (which are draft beers—someone thankfully explained to me “chopp” comes from German: “Schopp”), and snacking on petiscos (I was digging all the little bolinhos (croquettes) and savory pasteis (little tarts).

Some favorite botecos were definitely the old-school Jobi (which is where I went after Brazil won the Confederations Cup in 2013 and the city exploded—can you believe I was in Rio for that?), and Bar Bracarense had some of the best bites (loved their coxinha de frango with catupiry cheese and their bolinhos de aipim).

One of my favorite nights was in Copacabana—in between catching a few pickup/live music sessions at the utterly charming Bip Bip (open since 1968!), I walked over to the stand-up counter at Restaurante O Caranguejo (it was like Rio’s version of Swan Oyster Depot). All seafood. Salty servers. Folks around me were tipsy, happy to chat you up while you drink your chopp and eat warm shrimp empadas and octopus salad. Loved this place.

Then it was back to Bip Bip—the well-seasoned owner, Alfredo, who has seen it all is parked out front at his table, with his ledger and change and beer—people walk in to the back of the shoebox space that’s shingled in memorabilia, grab a cold beer from the fridge, and then gesture to Alfredo and he writes it down on his pad of paper. You can stand around with other folks, listen to the sambaistas play as they sit around the table inside (or whatever that night’s genre of music is), and pay up at the end of the night. Pro tip: people don’t clap after a song, they snap their fingers. It was all so groovy.

You really, truly don’t want to miss a visit to the Copacabana Palace. (I know, go ahead and sing it.) This white palace is stately and elegant without being ostentatious—it’s truly so grand. For Sunday brunch, Pérgula Restaurant puts on quite the spread (for R$170, about $75), and if the weather is right, you can sit outside overlooking the chic pool area while servers dressed all in white swarm around tables, clearing plates and continually filling your glass. It’s a perfect place for you to get tipsy on bubbles, flaunt your sunglasses, and do some excellent people watching. It’s faaaaabulous.

I started with a plate of caviar and blini (and was very happy to see their house sparkling wine was Cave Geisse—finally, a Brazilian restaurant honoring their domestic product!) and almost needed to pinch myself. It was one of those moments. (“I’m in Rio de Janeiro. I am having brunch at the Copacabana Palace. It’s balmy and all so beautiful. This is crazy. I can’t believe my life.”).

There was so much seafood, including these unusual mussels with a huge red spot on them served in a vieira sauce, and towers of shrimp, and so many hot dishes too. Extravaganza. Good luck making it to the platters of desserts. They also put on a feijoada Saturday lunch, but it might put you in a serious coma, so be careful.

Another thing you have to do: experience the Brazilian churrascaria. For a culture known for being so healthy and gorgeous, they sure seem to chow down. Like, whoa. I have had many Italian family and holiday meals to prepare me for massive consumption in one sitting, but I still don’t think I have a handle on how to best manage the churrascaria experience. Just show up hungry, that’s for sure.

One morning I went to the top of Sugarloaf, and then had lunch at Porcão Rio, which has a stunning view of Sugarloaf and the bay. The lunchtime extravaganza was R$112 (about $50). There’s a caipirinha station, and then the most insane salad bar spread you’ll ever see in your life. Everything is carefully plated and presented (there’s a hell of a lot of garnish, and I have never seen chives used with such abandon). It’s a bit campy and over the top, but everything is really fresh.

For my first round at the salad bar, I tried a medley of items like a salmon and omelet roulade, and any chance I could get in Brazil, I was serving myself the fresh hearts of palm (obsessed!). I also tried their cold mussel salad, and carpaccio, and noticed a bunch of creamy + fish combos (Brazilians seem to dig those). No, the sushi bar was not going to be getting any action from me—I had to save up room for the meats. Was happy to find a 375ml of Casa Valduga sparkling on the wine list, come to mama.

The staff was incredibly nice and of course being a solo female diner means you get lots of extra attention. It was time for the meats: the roving meat carvers come to your table, proffering all kinds of cuts, from salty sirloin to rib-eye to saucy pork ribs to chicken hearts to linguiça. Beef and cheese, why not? The beef can be really seasoned and a bit chewy, but then suddenly you get a cut of the novilho (veal) and you’re like, ahhhh, damn, that’s really good. It’s a total adventure in food pushing, and you’re never exactly sure which cut they’re putting on your plate. Your table is also loaded with fried aipim (cassava), farofa, fries, and don’t forget the vinegary Brazilian salsa on the table, so good with the meats. I walked out of there feeling as sturdy and stout as Pão de Açúcar.

Part Two will be posted soon! For pictures from the entire trip, you can check out my images of Rio here.

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Bengali sweet potato pakoras with yogurt-truffle dip at Torc. All photos: © tablehopper.com.

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Wild boar bolognese with housemade bucatini at Torc.

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The interior of Torc (at the end of the evening).

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Arancini and Ca’ Momi Rosa Frizzante.

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Flatbread with lardo di Colonnata at Ca’ Momi.

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Rigatoni con coda alla vaccinara (oxtail) at Ca’ Momi.

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The BLAT at The Thomas at Fagiani’s.

A version of this piece previously ran in my Tablehopping column in the San Francisco Bay Guardian.

Sometimes you just need to get out of town, and look at that, we have Wine Country right in our backyard. Winter and early spring are an ideal time to visit: there are fewer crowds and better room rates, and it’s easier to make reservations. So let’s hit the road.

When exactly was the last time you stayed in downtown Napa? Exactly. Things are a-changin’. Check in to the ~ANDAZ NAPA~, which has an ideal central location, and while it’s a bit on the larger side, the hotel is aiming for boutique style. Go for one of the loft or terrace rooms if the price is right, and ask for a room that faces the back, not First Street (it’ll be quieter). Plan on getting some sleep, because the beds are a pillowy dream. When warm summer temperatures are back, the terrace (complete with fire pits!) will be open for drinks and hanging out.

Book a reservation for dinner at the recently opened ~TORC~ in the former Ubuntu. The handsome, spacious dining room contains 90 seats, with 17 at the bar. I recommend you start with a glass of the Charles de Cazanove Champagne ($16); the Euro-centric wine list is gonna make you thirsty.

Chef-owner Sean O’Toole (Quince, Cotogna, Bardessono) is one hell of a cook: his menu spans both the inventive and the traditional, ranging from Bengali sweet potato pakoras ($5) with yogurt-truffle dip to an elegant violet artichoke soup ($10). He is definitely rocking an international pantry. The Asian-inspired free-range chicken for two ($41) is a standout (it’s made with a vibrant farce of brioche, cardamom, cumin, clove, Tellicherry, star anise, cubeb pepper, allspice, pork fat, and butter), and it comes with creamy coconut rice. There are also some housemade pastas ($14-$19) you should strongly consider (remember, he has that Quince pedigree). One night we had the wild boar bolognese with bucatini—it was like an Italian molé, with cocoa and orange, and a hit of lime.

Dessert is truly a must. The pastry chef, Elizabeth Gentry, is so very talented; try the citrus-praline tart with lemon curd, caramelized hazelnut sablé, and smoked praline ganache (plus kumquat salt!), while chocolate lovers should get the Manjari chocolate bombe, rich with jasmine (both $9).

If you desire a nightcap, you can head to ~MORIMOTO~ for what is usually a lively scene in the lounge and bar, or enjoy a digestivo or grappa (my pick!) at the small bar inside ~OENOTRI~, conveniently within stumbling distance of the Andaz.

The next day, if you’re a biscuit lover, you’ll want to hit up the popular ~NAPA VALLEY BISCUITS~, a Southern diner serving biscuit-y breakfasts that will hold you until dinner (and help soak up any extended wine tastings later in the day). There’s also fried chicken and waffles, or you can go for the Yardbird: fried chicken, bacon, and gravy sandwiched inside a biscuit. Uh-huh.

Another option is to visit the ~OXBOW PUBLIC MARKET~. Start the day at the Ritual Coffee stand, and then take a seat at ~CA’ MOMI~, an enoteca featuring dishes from all over Italy (owners Dario De Conti, Valentina Guolo-Migotto, and Stefano Migotto take the authenticity of their dishes very seriously).

Order the Ca’ Momi Ca’ Rosa Frizzante to go with the flatbread with lardo di Colonnata, a rare treat. In fact, they’ll do all kinds of great wine pairings here, or you can go for a Venetian spritz or an Italian beer (like Baladin!). Piadine (Rimini-style flatbread sandwiches) also rule, especially the Giorgio ($12) with radicchio, prosciutto cotto, and creamy stracchino cheese filling.

Ca’ Momi’s blazing pizza oven cranks out about 20 kinds of pizza, from a classic (and VPN-certified) margherita ($16) to the Momi, with porchetta, taleggio, and caramelized onion ($17). If the carbonara with egg and pancetta isn’t a perfect brunch pizza, I don’t know what is. Plus there are nine kinds of vegetarian pies for those on a healthier tip. All ingredients are organic, and some even come from Ca’ Momi’s own garden for the restaurant.

If you’re in a lunchy mood, the pastas rock, like a northern Italian dish of spatzle allo speck with cream ($16), or the Roman rigatoni ($22) con coda alla vaccinara (with oxtail, pine nuts, and soffritto). Who can say no to gnudi ($16)? I usually can’t. For dessert, get the bigné—cream puffs with a variety of fillings.

~THE THOMAS AT FAGIANI’S~ has a tasty, casual brunch—think corn pancakes, good egg dishes, and a quality Bloody Mary—and if the weather is nice, the rooftop terrace is where you want to be. When tomato season is back, the BLAT (bacon, lettuce, avocado, tomato sandwich) is tops.

From there? Check out wine tasting rooms like Vintner’s Collective, 1313 Main, and Carpe Diem. The Culinary Institute of America is offering new Napa wine education classes at the CIA Wine Studies Annex in the former Copia, listed here. Oh yeah, and there are always the Napa Premium Outlets if you’re in a shopping frame of mind. (Dangerous after wine tasting, btw.)

For more Napa tips, check out my previous piece here.

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The main house and courtyard at Il Paluffo. All photos: © tablehopper.com.

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The bio pool at Il Paluffo.

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Beekeeping on the property.

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A welcoming spread of prosciutto, guanciale, olives.

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My dream bedroom in the main house.

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View from my bedroom.

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Aging pecorino at Corzano + Paterno.

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Thought bubble: “Can I have some milk, please?” (At Poggio Antico.)

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Prosciutto at Macelleria Parti.

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The irrepressible Stefano at Osteria dell’Ignorante.

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Coccoli (fried dough) con prosciutto crudo and stracchino at Osteria dell’Ignorante.

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Porcini crespelle at L’Osteria di Casa Chianti.

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The grounds at Paneretta.

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Frescoes at Paneretta.

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A vineyard view at Castello Monsanto (with Tico, of course).

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The grounds at Castello Monsanto (and Tico!).

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Wilma the wonder woman leading a pasta class for Toscana Taste and Beauty.

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Certaldo Vecchio.

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The serene view from the bio pool at Il Paluffo.

You can view my entire photo album here.

Last October, after I finished a week with my father in Rome and visiting family in Calabria (pics here), we drove north together in our trusty Meriva. We were heading to our ultimately separate destinations: he was off toward Padova to visit his friend, Lucio Gomiero of Vignalta, while I was going to be staying for a few nights in Chianti. Earlier in the year, I was invited by the owners of Il Paluffo to come experience their stunning 15th-century property, and an abridged version of their specialized weeklong program for guests, Toscana Taste and Beauty.

In all my travels around Italy for the past 25 years, I had never visited Chianti, so the invitation was especially compelling for this sangiovese and finocchiona lover. The Paluffo property is located in a downright dreamy area—full of vineyards and olive groves—in Chianti Colli Fiorentini, in between the tiny villages of Fiano and Lucardo. The property is truly breathtaking: it includes a medieval tower house, a manor house with gorgeous frescoes from the 17th and 18th centuries (which is where you’ll find four bedrooms that you can stay in), an ancient olive mill, and I loved the creaking doors, terra-cotta floors, vintage key locks, and stone walls—the place has such presence. There are also four apartments you can stay in, good for four to six guests.

The owners, Liana Stiavelli (whose ancestors owned the property in the 18th century) and her husband, Luca Del Bo, finished painstakingly restoring the Paluffo property in 2010, and I respect the eco-conscious approach they took. They use renewable energy, like solar panels, and rainwater is collected for irrigation.

The bio pool is so unique—it’s a swimming pool filled with natural water instead of chlorinated water, and the surrounding plants filter the water. It’s like an extremely clean pond, and it killed me that I couldn’t hop in—it was the beginning of fall and the stormy weather was just too chilly. They also have their own beehives on the property, and one rainy afternoon, I was escorted to the hives to visit the bees (and pilfer a bit of honeycomb that we enjoyed later that evening for dessert).

You’ll meet their charming black cat, Ombra (“shadow”), who fittingly slinks around the property, and if you don’t pay attention, you may accidentally discover him like I did when I leaned back into the pillows one evening on the communal couch—he was asleep in between the pillows. We both jumped. And then he hopped into my lap. Meow.

After the long drive north from Calabria (and of course getting lost, Google maps is not infallible), my father and I were tired and hungry (and someone was a little cranky too). Liana and Luca had a gorgeous spread waiting for us with different kinds of local prosciutto and guanciale, finocchiona (I was blown away with the one they served), green and black olives, a caper spread, pizza from a local pizzamaker, young and aged pecorino, two kinds of marmalade, honey from the property’s beehives, and some wonderful wines (Liana is studying for a sommelier exam, so she can also make some good recommendations on wineries to visit in the area). Now that’s what I call a taste of Toscana.

It was quite the once-in-a-lifetime experience to sleep in my beautiful room, full of antique furnishings, captivating frescoes on every surface (I seriously felt like a contessa in the 1700s), and then to get woken up in the middle of the night with a dramatic lightning show and the loudest thunder just overhead. Crack BOOM! Nothing like a good lightning show in Italy, I swear.

I so enjoyed my view overlooking the courtyard, watching it change with the weather each day, with the fresh air coming through my windows. My bathroom was a few doors down the hall, but I didn’t mind—the massive marble sink basin and shower made me make a mental note for my future dream bathroom (I loved the balance of the modern and the ancient in the décor).

The next morning, after a breakfast of farm-fresh eggs with a chunk of bread (which I drizzled with the spicy Paluffo olive oil, of course), we got my dad off to the train to Padova (ciao Papa!), and then Liana brought me to Corzano + Paterno, a farm and agriturismo known for their Sardinian sheep’s milk cheeses, olive oil, and wine. You don’t find a lot of sheep in the area, so their offering is very unique.

Any guest of the Toscana Taste and Beauty program benefits from a customized experience; when Liana and Luca learned how much I adore cheese and salumi, they made arrangements to take me to truly artisanal places in the area. We had an appointment with the talented cheesemaker, Antonia Ballarin (known as Toni), who walked us through her cheesemaking process. She does a lot of experimentation, like grappa washes on the cheese, and she told me they use lardo to fill the holes on their Tegola cheese (cool), and one of their well-known pecorino cheeses, Buccia di Rospo (“frog skin”) came about because of a mistake (we love those).

They have quite a range of cheeses, from the creamy Marzolino to a truffled pecorino to the ashy Rocco, made like a goat’s cheese. Their aged (stagionato) pecorino was truly special (and gets spoken for and snapped up by the best restaurants and residents). It ends up their ricotta is pretty famous in the area, with people coming by around 2:30pm to have it warm and fresh (again, there’s some competition for it). There’s a tasting room where you can enjoy their wine and stellar cheeses, but meeting the vivacious Toni is what made the visit so memorable.

Next stop: the very under-the-radar Poggio Antico. This biodynamic farm raises cows and goats—the owners came from the Veneto about 30 years ago and wanted a change of life. They learned how to make cheese, and now only make raw milk cheeses with a vegetable rennet (based on its name being “Cynara cardunculus,” it’s in the thistle family: a cardoon).

The list of cheeses they produce is extensive, like a goat taleggio, their cow’s milk poggese (which is shaped like Asiago), their caprino fresco, which they learned to make from a Siena native. And then you have this unusual find: mozzarella in Tuscany! Unpasteurized mozzarella, I gotta tell you, it’s the stuff—it was so creamy that it looked like ice cream on my lunch plate later. Even their yogurt was transcendent. There are also a variety of pastas they make from ancient grains—you can pick up some locally made pici to bring home.

A highlight for me was our visit to Macelleria Parti in San Donato in Poggio, a medieval (and walled) city. The second generation is now in charge of this meat shop (founded in 1970). The son, Emiliano, took over in 1989, and he has been making salumi all his life. Literally: there are pictures of him as a young boy in a white coat cutting lardo, I kid you not.

We had a quick appointment for a behind-the-scenes tour of the back room and their production. It was a great opportunity for me to learn more about one of my very favorite salumi, finocchiona, and he let me taste the very tiny but pungent wild fennel seeds they use, crucial. I also learned a funny thing about the name: he said back in the day you would give someone fennel before drinking wine to help hide any wine defects—the term eventually was used to mean “to fool someone” (“infinocchiare”). Gotta love a good etymology lesson while you’re tasting salumi.

The heady smell of their curing room was just beyond, meaty and funky, and I got to taste their famous salame toscano, and an ancient one called bastardo/”mezzone” (it has a little bit of beef mixed in, about 8 percent!), and learned more about their epic lonzino, which is salted, washed, and covered with garlic, black pepper, peperoncino, and nutmeg—you can bet I brought home a big chunk of that one in my bag (had to keep the finocchiona company, you know). The salumi they make here have so much flavor—everything was really juicy and masterfully seasoned. I would drive miles just to be able to go back there again and buy up the entire case—you think I’m kidding?

We had a couple of dinners out that were on different sides of the spectrum, but both were very cozy and comfortable osterie. One rainy night we dined at Osteria dell’Ignorante in Lucardo, and I knew I was going to love the cheeky owner (Stefano Giuliacci) based on the sign on the front door telling people they only serve Tuscan food, so don’t ask for lasagna Bolognese or pasta with pesto. Amen! Priceless. (Be sure to get one of their business cards as well, you won’t be disappointed.)

It was a hearty and rustic meal, one that felt home-cooked and very personal. Totally a Tuscan meal, it tasted of place. Dishes would come out when they were ready, and the vibe was relaxed. Stefano is quite the host. He stuffed us with frittelle di baccalà (salt cod fritters), coccoli (fried dough) con prosciutto crudo and stracchino (one of my favorite fresh cheeses of all time), and we had an unusual pasta of strigoli with a sweeter sauce of figs with prosciutto. And then there’s the kicker: we had donkey with polenta. It was unexpectedly so very good—the tender meat reminded me of brisket, but sweeter. It’s the kind of place where you laugh, drink too much wine, and go home happy with a full belly. Of donkey.

The owner of L’Osteria di Casa Chianti in Fiano offered a different kind of hospitality—less jovial but so very thoughtful and detailed. Our meal had a touch more refinement, with dishes like quail eggs with shavings of the first white truffles, and a carpaccio of lonzino (I love the spice of this salume), with thin slices of porcini, arugula, lettuce, grana, and olive oil. Not a looker, but what a magic combination of flavors. The gnocchi with blue pecorino cheese and fresh figs were ethereal (again, fresh figs in pasta, huh!); the porcini crespelle were a bubbly and cheesy splurge; and of course I had to try their pici in a ragu made with Cinta Senese pork (it’s an ancient breed of Tuscan pig, famous for its white belt).

The owner had the kitchen prepare a tasting menu for us, something I highly recommend so you can taste more dishes. All night, the wine pairings were spot-on, all the way to a beautiful finish of vin santo gelato with crumbled cantuccini mixed in. I was smitten with everything about this place, well, except the high-watt lightbulbs that seared the back of my retina (Italy, what is UP with your bright lights?). And if you’re looking for bistecca alla fiorentina, based on all the steaks I saw on tables, this is a good place to do it—there is quite the grill in the kitchen.

Both osterie were proud to feature pasta made by Wilma of Pasta Fresca (in Tavarnelle Val di Pesa). It ends up she is a very famous local pasta maker who supplies a lot of restaurants around town, and was the very one who was going to teach us how to make pasta one night at Paluffo. It was an inspiring class: we learned so many different types we could actually make (she made it look so easy), and she made sure we all took turns kneading the dough, rolling it, and running it through the pasta machine.

I was so taken with her adorable combination of Italian and English all night—she reminded me of my Aunt Terry, who never quite spoke one or the other after living in the U.S. after 30 years. Wilma is a one-woman army, and showed us how to make garganelli, ravioli, farfalle, tortellini, little stuffed “pochettes,” and pasta alla chitarra, among other shapes. Of course at the end our class of seven got to enjoy the fruits of our labor, along with some local wines. Cin cin! (There are other cooking classes available through Toscana Taste and Beauty as well.)

Speaking of wines, it wouldn’t be a trip to Chianti without visiting a couple of wineries, hello. One winery we visited was Paneretta, which has a 400-year-old castle that will definitely take your breath away. The frescoes by Bernardino Poccetti—dating back to the late 1500s—are something to behold. It’s a traditional winery, all estate grown, that only uses local and handpicked grapes (sangiovese and they are very proud of their use of canaiolo), with winemaking records going back to 1596. We tasted four of their wines (the 2009 Chianti Classico Riserva was a favorite, full of cherry, aged for two years in their ancient casks and in barrique, and then blended).

Another winery we visited was Castello Monsanto (don’t let the name deter you, no relation), where we got to tour the vineyards with the vibrant Laura Bianchi and her two adorable dogs, Tico, a little white fluff who never stopped bouncing around her, and Nina the German shepherd.

Her father’s first vintage at Castello Monsanto was 1962, from the Il Poggio vineyard, and it was the first single vineyard bottled in Chianti Classico. Now Laura is overseeing the winery, working closely with winemaker Andrea Giovanni (previously at Ornellaia). The aging cellar is huge—we’re talking almost 1,000 feet long—and handmade with galestro stones. Laura said when it rains, the smell of the galestro stone matches the taste of graphite in the wine. It’s a huge estate, with olive groves, gardens, and an agriturismo as well.

We tasted some of their wines, starting with the 2011 Castello Monsanto chardonnay (30 percent fermented in oak; I loved the salinity in this wine), and I’m glad we got to try the 2009 Il Poggio (it’s only produced in the best vintages; 90 percent sangiovese, 10 percent canaiolo and colorino)—Laura said it will be drinking beautifully in 10 years. I need to see if I can rent out a little space in their cellar for my own stash. I also was coveting their collection of wines from my birth year of 1971, which I was told was one of the best vintages of the century, natch.

Of course there are a bunch of charming neighboring towns to visit, from Siena (just 40 minutes away) to the walled village of Certaldo (where Boccaccio was born) to the picturesque San Gimignano (don’t miss a visit to the Duomo, with frescoes from the 14th century—I especially liked the Old Testament stories).

When you visit a rural area to get away from the city and get your country mojo on, sure, it’s nice, but it can also be really challenging since you don’t know the area (I’m talking about you, winding roads with no signs) or where to go. Fortunately, Liana and Luca (and Federica, their hospitality manager) have you covered, and they all speak very good English. And like most Italians, they are properly obsessed about the artisanal products available in the area, but they can also tell you where to eat in Florence, where to get the best panforte in San Gimignano, where to have lunch with a stunning view in Certaldo, or where the Prada outlet is.

But the greatest pleasure of all was hanging out at Il Paluffo. I can only imagine how delicious it would be to go for a walk around the property on a warm day, and then take a dip in their pool, sit in a chaise, take a nap, read a book, snack on some finocchiona, occasionally pausing to look out at that beautiful view. Truly paradiso.

You can view my entire photo album here.

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Wild blackberries everywhere on Lummi Island. All photos: © tablehopper.com.

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Artsy shack.

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Kylen McCarthy and Eva Soroken of Pioneer Square Pantry.

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Sulmtalers on Nettles Farm.

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Poulet de Bresse on Nettles Farm.

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Riley and one of his poussins.

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The gorgeous landscaping at Full Bloom Farm.

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The view of Mount Baker from Full Bloom Farm.

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Quince at Full Bloom Farm.

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Eggs from Full Bloom Farm.

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Kylen’s salad with egg, artichokes, and salmon on a Bizen platter.

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Some of the pieces in PSQP’s exclusive line by Akiko Graham.

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Kylen slicing his naturally fermented sourdough (in the Marshalls’ beautiful kitchen).

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Cherry tomatoes, Dungeness crab, Urfa biber.

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Full Bloom fingerling potatoes with bottarga.

April 2013, I was having the month of my life. I ended up coming up with my own personal theme for the year, “tiger by the tail,” because my life was on such a breakneck but wildly fun pace, full of travel. Sometimes you need to let yourself go, not answer all your emails, be a little less available, put an away message on your phone, stay out late, get outta Dodge. I had just returned from 10 over-the-top-with-beauty days in New Zealand, and then after a week of catch-up on work and laundry, I rocketed to Coachella for a long weekend of shenanigans with my sister. And just as we were repacking our bags (again) for a weeklong trip to Jazz Fest in New Orleans (sorry, liver, so sorry!), I was invited to a Saturday night dinner at the storybook-pretty Scribe Winery. I had no time that weekend to spare. Of course I was going to hop in the car.

It was like taking a long, deep, slow, yoga-like exhale, eating passed bites prepared by Thomas McNaughton in the pink Sonoma sunset and brisk (and smoky) night air. As we sat down for a dinner that was the essence of California, the prescient Andrew Mariani (one of the dashing Scribe brothers) made sure to sit me next to Kylen McCarthy, and my date across the long communal table was seated next to the delightful Eva Soroken; they were a couple visiting from Seattle. It was a fortuitous meeting (and place to meet). A night of deep conversation about food and music and travel, while bountiful family-style plates filled the table, beautiful wines poured heartily in our glasses. We connected.

A few months later, literally the day after I decided I wasn’t going to Burning Man that year (a decision I was laboring over, I love the desert so damn much), I found an email in my inbox from Eva, asking if I’d like to come up to Seattle and go to Lummi Island with her and Kylen, and learn more about what they do and meet the people in their world. They recommended late August. Kismet. I had just made the mental space for it, and look how this special invite sailed in. Universe, you are funny that way.

The talented duo founded Pioneer Square Pantry, an artisanally minded partnership based in Seattle and Tokyo that is like a virtual shop, crafty collective, and traveling culinary road show. They have many connections to Japan (Eva has strong ties to the eyewear/optical world, specifically Cutler and Gross, and to Steven Alan Tokyo), and they host many specially curated dinners and events for clients in Japan.

Kylen and Eva put so much care into their events, schlepping cases of Scribe Wine (to Japan!), Pioneer Square Pantry’s (PSQP’s) homemade pickles and mustard, their exclusive pottery, and even the granola they make has so many elements of the West Coast life in it, from the Mariani almonds to the San Juan salt (well, with a little bit of Massachusetts maple syrup too). It ends up becoming a fun cultural exchange as well—granola isn’t part of the Japanese diet, but PSQP created a special release for their coffee partners in Tokyo, the esteemed Bear Pond Espresso, who sell it at their shop. Kylen and Eva don’t see themselves as a food company, or a catering company—but they like to use food as a vehicle to talk about their vision, and their global collective of like-minded food-making cohorts.

They also get to experience time and again how easily food breaks down barriers—Kylen’s confit potatoes with shaved mullet roe and celery leaves was a particular hit with the Japanese guests at one event. He also likes to feature beef at their events in Japan—it seems butchers don’t quite have the cult status they do here. Anywhere they go, they like to share meals and exchange food.

I enjoyed the introduction to their community in Seattle, which included their pals at Rain Shadow Meats, their friend Ayako of Ayako & Family’s amazing jams (such pure fruit!), and the Sitka & Spruce family (Kylen worked at Sitka, The Corson Building and its commissary, and opened Bar Sajor). Fortunately Kylen and Eva love coffee as much as I do—we also stopped a few times at a couple of Stumptown Coffee locations while we were in Seattle, and their trusty Chemex gear was always close at hand.

When I told people I was going to Lummi Island, of course everyone asked, “Are you going to The Willows Inn?” The answer was no, and I should get a T-shirt saying as much: “I Went to Lummi Island and Didn’t Go to The Willows Inn”, but I did get to meet the original owner of Willows, Riley Starks, and harvest chickens with him. Yeah, that’s one way to meet someone.

Starks is the owner of Nettles Farm, which is what eventually inspired and led to the opening of the Willows—the farm supplied ingredients for the restaurant. Starks sold Willows in 2012, and is fully focused on raising chickens at Nettles Farm (his obsession). It’s like a Northwest agriturismo—while I didn’t stay there, there are a couple options for accommodations on the farm, and while you’re there, you can have Riley teach you how to butcher a chicken. Or not! (But you should.)

Riley is on a quest to breed the best-tasting chicken, and believes we are desperately overdue for a conversation about the kinds of chicken we eat, which in the U.S. is primarily the Cornish cross. We talk about Berkshire pigs and Wagyu beef, and we know the origins of our coffee and wine, but we don’t really talk about chickens. With something like 8 billion chickens consumed each year in the U.S., and around 40 billion pounds, it’s surprising how little we talk about chicken.

Riley’s love of flavorful chicken was cemented in France, where he was raised. On his farm, you’ll find the famous poulet de Bresse/blue-foot chicken, and the rare Sulmtalers, which were developed by the Hapsburgs and take up to 10 months to raise to maturity, which is pretty cost-prohibitive (the blue foots take 17 weeks). Of the blue foots, Riley comedically noted, “They carry themselves like a French bird, you can just tell where they’re from.” Le bwok.

So, the reason we were at Nettles was to get some chicken, and I don’t mean just pick them up. Kylen and Eva had arranged for us to actually get them fresh, as in harvesting them. Well, Kylen learned how to kill a chicken (Eva and I just watched). If you are squeamish or a vegan, just skip the next couple of paragraphs and move along to the one that begins “After the chicken harvesting.”

I have never witnessed the death of an animal, although I have grown up with plenty of baby goats in our family oven and pig intestines in the sink, and figured I was way overdue in learning about the process. Riley showed Kylen how to hold the bird, and keep it calm and relaxed, and plunge the little knife in the bird’s little neck in a precise little spot, and quickly bring the chicken over to the metal cones where it would hang upside down to bleed, and have its feet bound tightly—quickly now—before going through the death rattle, which I will say was pretty intense. Flapping and feathers and some clanging. I am not a particularly squeamish person, but there were a few moments that made me wince a bit. The death rattle was one of them.

Riley had an outdoor setup that was rather ideal—our chicken sensei showed us how long to boil the poussins (young chickens), and how to pluck them, and then how to hang them on a metal contraption so they could be easily eviscerated. He showed us how to peel the outer layer off their reptilian feet—it was like pulling a papery layer off a snake. Eva and I were put in charge of cleaning the gizzards—they were really firm and still warm in our hands, and it was amazing to look at the contents within: tiny pebbles, leaves of grass, everything so natural. The bright yellow lining inside was shocking in its brightness.

After the chicken harvesting, Riley showed us around Nettles Farm, which is in such an idyllic space, complete with some mighty cute goats and an expansive garden, all surrounded by trees. We were then off to Full Bloom Farm, where I ditched my bag and got to meet our hosts, Lis and Mark Marshall. Their main house was the picture of beauty, very Japanese-Craftsman. I couldn’t believe the landscaping, so artful. Adjoining the house is a cottage you can rent (which is very well appointed and the way to go). I stayed in the second-floor apartment, which was rather bare bones, but it’s not like I was doing more than just sleeping there. The magic was outside.

Full Bloom is known for growing peonies (without pesticides), but they also grow many vegetables, herbs, and more in their bountiful gardens—you’ll see people stop by to peruse what’s available in their farm stand’s refrigerator. And here’s the big bonus: they raise chickens, so you can enjoy some of the best eggs of your life. The Marshalls have such green thumbs; the place is incredibly lush, and everywhere you saunter there are flowers and fruit trees and a trained wisteria flanking the house that was a work of horticultural high art. In the distance, Mount Baker provides one hell of a backdrop. You won’t want to leave.

That evening, Kylen prepared a late-summer dinner, which was as gorgeous to look at as it was to eat. Actually, eating it was tops, who am I kidding? It was a family-style feast with some of the Marshalls’ friends, and we all oohed and aahed over Kylen’s food presented on the stunning pottery, like the blue pieces by Akiko Graham that are exclusive to PSQP (the blue glaze on red clay is theirs, and they collaboratively developed a line of platters, bowls, cazuelas, chargers, and plates, about 15 pieces in all).

Then there are the Bizen platters that PSQP sources from the third generation of the Harada family in the Okayama prefecture in Japan. The Haradas only fire two times a year, for about two weeks at a time—the clay comes from that area, and it’s one of the most respected kinds of pottery in Japan. It’s rustic, with a rough texture, and incredible colors and sheen. Does beautiful pottery make food taste better. Yes, yes it does.

Kylen’s food was some of the most exciting I had all year—he’s so adept at layering flavors and combining ingredients and textures in a unique way, like his salad with shaved summer squash and zucchini, confited artichoke hearts, quadrants of soft-boiled eggs with deep yellow yolks (farm fresh, of course), cured and smoked salmon that was packed in olive oil and hot Thai chile, smoked olive oil, aioli, and Aleppo. It was so balanced in all its elements: tangy and spicy and creamy and acidic.

Then there was the salad of sliced cherry tomatoes from a farmer friend tossed with juicy pieces of Dungeness crab, pumpkin seed and basil pesto, salted lemon, and topped with Urfa chile (Kylen calls it “the chocolate of chile peppers”). What a flavor bomb. This salad was bonkers. Even writing about it now makes my mouth water.

Nestled into a cazuela was a stewed lamb neck navarin with peperonata, roasted eggplant, and preserved lemon purée, finished with caramelized harissa butter, and a mint and preserved orange salad (the mint had this wonderful mentholated strength that sliced through the deep and rich flavors). I was so happy we got to have the roasted fingerling potatoes (“little missles for flavor” from Full Bloom) topped with shaved bottarga from Tokyo, and we enjoyed escarole and radicchio from Full Bloom too. Bottles of Scribe sylvaner and pinot noir joined us and kept good company. (For a peek at the full meal, check out my pictures here.) Everything was so colorful, balanced, and a tour de force of flavor and freshness, with whispers of an exotic spice cabinet. Beautiful food, but not precious. Earthy. Thought out and assembled carefully, but no tweezers. Real.

Kylen and Eva travel with quite the larder. They pickle a number of things, from tiny ash morels they foraged to banana peppers to giardiniera. The naturally fermented rustic sourdough bread was made by hand (a 16-hour process). All the sauces and aiolis and mustards, by hand. The pig’s head rillettes, by hand. The beautiful pottery, by hand. You look at the hours of manpower that went into each dish (and plate, and platter), and it just makes me so… grateful. It inspires you to want to do better, to make more things. God bless the makers.

To be continued…

For the full set of images on Flickr, click here.

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A Brazilian lunch with Miolo. All photos: © tablehopper.com.

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The entrance to Lidio Carraro.

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Lidio Carraro’s Quorum.

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The aftermath of our Lidio Carraro tasting.

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The Salton Gerações Antonio Domenico Salton sparkling wine.

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The massive tanks at Salton.

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A beautiful lunch at Salton (yay, cheesy risotto, a perfect match for sparkling wine).

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The contemporary tasting room at Aurora.

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2009 Perini Quatro.

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The superlative cappelletti at Perini.

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Two generations of the Perini family (and many more on the wall). Photo: © tablehopper.com.

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Miolo winery. Photo: © tablehopper.com.

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The tanks at Miolo.

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Miolo’s 2009 Millesime.

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Tender cannelloni made with crêpes at Sapore + Piacere.

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Pinto Bandeira (at Cave Geisse).

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Daniel Geisse and his faithful dog, Campeiro.

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A sampling of sparklers by Cave Geisse.

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Some of the sparkling wines we tasted at Casa Valduga.

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Casa Valduga’s Restaurante Maria Valduga.

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Rodizio is never far in Brazil.

When I was invited to visit Brazil to learn about their wines, like many people, I thought, “Isn’t it too damn hot to make good wine there?” Spoken like a true gringa. As we all know, Brazil is huge (it’s just about the size of the continental United States), and it makes a lot of wine: Brazil is the fifth largest producer of wine in the Southern Hemisphere! So no, Brazil is not all beach and jungle—it actually has quite a bit of geographic diversity. When I left San Francisco, it was a foggy June morning—but as soon as I got off the plane in Porto Alegre and made my transfer to the town of Bento Gonçalves, I was grabbing for my heavy sweater. It was damp, and chilly, and hilly—not what you typically think of when picturing Brazil in your mind.

Some of my wino friends (who have a little bit of knowledge of Brazilian wine) would ask, “Wait, don’t they do two harvests there?” Well, there is a region closer to the equator, Vale do São Francisco, where it’s so warm they actually can crank out two harvests a year, but that area only supplies about 14 percent of Brazil’s total grape production, so don’t let that taint your perception of Brazilian wine.

The area that’s particularly of interest is in the far south, which has four wine-growing regions: Santa Catarina, Serra Gaúcha (and Vale dos Vinhedos/”Valley of the Vineyards”), Serra do Sudeste, and Campanha (which is the farthest south, flanking Uruguay). I was invited to explore and learn more about the wineries of Serra Gaúcha (which is in the southernmost state of Rio Grande do Sul), and I was so fascinated with the history of this unique region. Because check this out: the area is full of Italians!

Thousands of Italians came over in 1875 and later (once the slave trade was outlawed and the landowners claimed they would need laborers, the Brazilian government encouraged immigration from Italy). The Brazilian government set up four settlements to receive Italian immigrants; most Italians came from the northern regions of Italy, like the Veneto and Trento. And like the good agriculture-loving people they are, they started developing wine production in the area, which looked and felt a lot like home (although for a while there, they were stuck with native grapes—which were American hybrids). Fast-forward, and some of the more progressive winemakers made the switch to Vitis vinifera, and changed up their vine systems from the omnipresent pergola to more modern formats.

The climate in Serra Gaúcha (and Vale dos Vinhedos) is a lot like Italian wine country, but more humid. One thing I appreciated about the wines is that since the area is on the cooler side, you’ll find most wines stay low in alcohol, with reds clocking in around 13 percent. But for anyone who knows me, you know I love my bubbles, and the area is known for its sparkling wines! I made sure to drink a lot of them.

One thing to note: since Vale dos Vinhedos is a D.O. (the only one in Brazil), wines that are labeled Vale dos Vinhedos have specific rules to follow (you can read more about them here.

We posted up in Bento Gonçalves, the principal town in wine country. It’s not a particularly scenic city, although the outlying areas are quite pretty. The first winery we visited was Lidio Carraro, which was a great benchmark to set for the rest of the trip, let me tell you. While the family has been making wine for five generations (with roots in the Veneto), their boutique winery didn’t start until 1998 (they were farming grapes before), and their first vintage was in 2002. There are many unique things about this winery, the big one being they don’t use wood on any of their wines! Just steel tanks. Their wines are unfiltered as well. You really get the opportunity to taste the purest expression of the grape—their wines have a wonderful freshness. (I enjoyed tasting their 2011 tempranillo because you really experience a true representation of the grape.) They were also the first in Brazil to use a gravity-flow system.

A big recent honor was that Lidio Carraro was tapped by FIFA to create the official wine for World Cup 2014—they are releasing 600,000 bottles of their “Faces” wines (a white and a red—the red cleverly has 11 grapes for the 11 players) for the event.

While they have vineyards in the Vale dos Vinhedos, many of their premium wines come from the drier Encruzilhada do Sul (which has more granite in the soil, while Vale dos Vinhedos is more basaltic). Their portfolio includes an excellent chardonnay (we tried the Dádivas 2012), with nice minerality and melon (and a shocking richness for no oak), but red wine lovers will really want to check out their premium blends, like the Elos 2009, an intense blend of touriga nacional and tannat that had feminine/perfumey notes yet carried dark fruit and pepper from the tannat (the Elos wines are only released during outstanding vintages); while the Grande Vindima Quorum gives you the chance to taste wine from Vale dos Vinhedos, a blend of merlot, cabernet sauvignon, tannat, and cabernet franc (the 2006 was packing some tannins and fruit).

This winery was so impressive—their practices are really on the cutting edge, and they do a lot to elevate the reputation of wines from the area. If you visit Serra Gaúcha, you don’t want to miss it (and they’re one to look for on lists and shelves here!).

The next winery we visited was Salton, which kind of blew my mind with its level of production. It was the first winery in Brazil (1910), in addition to being one of the biggest sparkling wine producers and are in the top three of still wine producers, making 18-19 million bottles per year. But they are also family-owned, with the third generation currently running the show (they have around 50 labels). They work with grapes from all over the region, including Pinto Bandeira (more on this later) and farther south in Campanha (which is drier and has clay and granite soil).

The bottling line is something to see: they bottle 7,000 bottles of sparkling an hour, which comes out to 80,000-100,000 bottles a day, and 8 million bottles of sparkling a year. I have never seen anything on this scale—the Charmat tanks were ginormous.

Our tasting (of 17 wines!) only featured a few sparklings, however. I enjoyed the Intenso brut traditional method (70 chard/30 pinot noir, one year in bottle), and there is an Intenso brut made with 30 percent riesling (a special project). I was happy they cracked open the limited production (12,000 bottles) Salton Gerações Antonio Domenico Salton sparkling—the blend spanned three years (2008-2010) and was 50 pinot noir/50 chard, on the lees for three years—it was so yeasty, with beautiful structure. They are also working on an albariño sparkling, plus trebbiano as well, cool stuff.

As for still wines, the 2012 Intenso sauvignon blanc/viognier was minerally, salty, and not tropical (it actually made me hungry), while the 2012 Intenso teroldego was leathery and vegetal (the Intenso line is a new one, which just launched in 2012). Bordeaux lovers will want to check out the 2009 Salton Gerações Paulo Salton, a balanced blend of cabernet sauvignon, merlot, and cab franc that will age well.

Over lunch (which was marvelous by the way—their on-premise cook made us a beautiful meal, which included a rockin’ risotto), our hosts talked about how Brazil is this other world of wine, spanning the old and the new. To elaborate: you have the Italian heritage and winemaking tradition, with a tendency for lower-alcohol and high-acidity wines, but then you have the South American climate—that isn’t Chile or Argentina—yielding wines that are easy drinking, fresh, and fruity. It’s a total Old World-New World combo deal.

We visited Aurora, a cooperative that gets more than 150,000 visitors a year. The story of the cooperative is an interesting one—it started with 16 families, and now has 1,100 families taking part, making it the largest winery in Brazil (side note: grape juice is actually a huge part of their production). It’s a pretty major operation: you have four winemakers (one started at the age of 18!) for 70 labels—the mind reels when thinking of all the tanks to keep track of for blending, storage, and fermentation.

While in their modern and contemporary tasting room, I tasted a chardonnay that suddenly rattled my palate. I was like, wait, hold on, tell me about this wine! It was a 2011 Aurora chardonnay from Pinto Bandeira, the second region to receive an Indicação de Procedência (I.P.)/Geographical Indication (G.I.) in Brazil. It’s an optimal area to grow white grapes—it has rocky soil, and wind, and it’s cool, so you get great acidity and minerality. This taste definitely pricked my ears up in anticipation of our impending visit to the region. Our host explained the wine we were tasting was only a second harvest, so the roots would go even deeper in time, yielding even more minerality. They also said there will be some traditional method sparkling wine coming soon from this area. Bring it on.

It was late and chilly when we showed up to Perini, which like many other winegrowers in the area, has their roots in the 1870s when they came over from Trento (not the Veneto). Perini was founded in 1970, and has the brands Perini, Casa Perini, Jota Pe, and Pretinha under its company umbrella, with 90 labels in all. It’s one of the five biggest wineries in Brazil, with 11 million bottles annually, and exporting 400,000 to the United States. Perini uses a Y-shaped espalier system, which helps with humidity (always an issue) and offers good exposure to sunlight.

While we were there, they had us taste through their Macaw wines, which are entry-level wines that they export. One fun revelation is their moscato, which we often expect to be sickly sweet, but this had an unexpected dryness and acidity. Kind of fun. You’ll see a lot of moscato in Brazil, give it a whirl.

On the opposite end of the price spectrum is their limited release Perini Quatro—we tried the earthy and complex 2009, made with four grapes from their estate (ancellotta, cabernet sauvignon, merlot, and tannat). But it was at a Brazilian wine tasting here at home that I got to try the 2010 marselan, which had gorgeous fruit and structure, with violet and cherry, so good. Oh, and I totally brought home a bottle of their Pretinha liqueur, which was like a cross between a grappa and a smooth amaro, made with lots of herbs and fruits, a perfect digestif. In fact, I am drinking it as I write this thing at 11:30pm. That’s how I roll.

The dinner we had at Perini was so homey—I kept feeling like I was in Italy with all the handmade cappelletti in brodo we kept encountering at every turn (a dream on those chilly nights, I never got tired of it!). I also love all the family-run businesses in the area, no matter how big they are—it’s such an honor to meet the multiple generations and hear their story, and how they’re keeping up with the times (Perini has their own treatment plant for all the water they use, which is pretty awesome).

Another day, more wine! We started the day at Miolo, a name recognized worldwide—and the largest private wine company in Brazil (and the largest exporter). The Miolo family came to Vale dos Vinhedos from Italy in 1897 and planted grapes, but their winery wasn’t founded until 1989 (check out Lote 43, their Bordeaux-style wine, which they only release in special years and honors founder Giuseppe Miolo’s original plot of land).

Miolo is the largest producer of traditional method sparkling wine in Brazil, and their offering runs the gamut, from their Cuvee Tradition brut rosé (interestingly with some merlot in addition to chard and pinot noir) to the creamy 2009 Millesime we tasted over lunch (it’s their premium release made with chardonnay and pinot noir, hand-riddled). The Miolo Wine Group has vineyards all over Brazil, and while we were there, we learned about their progress in Campanha (a site on the border of Uruguay that started emerging in the 1970s thanks to a U.C. Davis researcher being fired up on the area).

Touring their modern facility was impressive—we saw their special carts that wheel right over the tanks so there’s no pumping into the tanks, and the belts they use for hand-sorting special releases. Michel Rolland consulted for Miolo for 10 years but they are no longer working with him—I’m curious to see the direction their red wines take now.

Miolo brought us to lunch at one of the best restaurants of the trip: Sapore + Piacere. The place was artsy and eclectic, with a tasty salad buffet at lunch (Brazilians love their salad bars), good soups, and our main courses tasted so freshly made, with a light touch. Great spot. Over lunch we also got to try the 2012 alvarinho, from Campanha, the only one in Brazil (this was the second harvest). Someone failed to make notes about how it tasted, oops. I blame all the wine!

My absolute highlight of the entire trip was our visit to Cave Geisse, up in the hills of Pinto Bandeira. The winery was founded in 1979 by Chilean enologist Mario Geisse, who was originally hired by Moët & Chandon do Brasil in 1976 to help develop sparkling wine in Serra Gaúcha. He eventually scouted his own plot of land in Pinto Bandeira, 89 acres, to plant his first seedlings of chardonnay and pinot noir. This plot has good drainage (there is just so much rain here) and exposure to the sun—there’s a one-meter layer of stone above the basaltic soil.

The winery’s production is just 200,000 bottles a year, and unlike all the other wineries we toured, Geisse was the first to say they don’t use pesticides (the humidity is a big factor in Brazilian winemaking). They use TPC (thermo pest control), a device developed in Chile that blasts the vines with a hot, dry wind that registers 130 degrees Celsius, at 140 km/hour. They were the first to use TPC in Brazil, and have been using it with success for seven years.

The wines we tasted were my favorite sparklings of the trip—their focus here is clearly on quality, not quantity. The grapes are on a trellised system (which yields less, but better quality), and they were the first to put chardonnay on a trellised system in the area. Geisse only uses the traditional method, and everything is hand-riddled.

We tasted through many of their wines, which included the notable 2009 Cave Geisse Blanc de Blancs, with three years on the lees; the 2011 Cave Geisse Rosé (very winey and rich, with some figgy notes); and the bottle I still wish I had bought to bring home, the award-winning 2008 Terroir Rosé, which was 50 percent chardonnay and 50 pinot noir, four years on the lees, with a gorgeous effervescence, structure, and elegance. This wine still haunts me, but everything we tasted was mightily impressive. I was ready to move into their guesthouse up on the hill, what a special place. I’d be so happy to see Cave Geisse on more lists so I could taste these wines again!

Next stop: Casa Valduga, which is known for having the largest cellar in South America, with a capacity for six million bottles. Whoa. Sadly we got there too late in the evening to see it, but the tasting more than made up for it. Casa Valduga makes both sparkling and still wines (50 labels), they only source 10 percent of their grapes (all the rest are theirs), and they proudly state you won’t find their wines in any supermarkets. The family came from Trento in 1875 (see, this is a familiar story), and the company was founded in 1973—they charmingly kept some of the original pergolas to make grape juice, but now use vertical trellises for their wines. The fourth generation is running the business, and Casa Valduga was one of the early wineries to implement the traditional method for sparkling wine in Brazil.

Of the sparklings we tasted, the citrusy Reserva Brut is an excellent bargain considering it has 25 months of maturation behind it (and is riddled in pupitres!), but the Brut 130 really packs a gorgeous, richer style—it costs a bit more, but has 36 months on the lees behind it, giving it a lovely toast and intensity (it also sees some oak). The blend is 70 percent chard (comprised of three vintages) and 30 percent pinot noir. Of the stills we tried, the 2010 Raízes cabernet franc stood out with its unexpected red cherry, and a taste of green pepper (another great deal), and the 2012 Leopoldina chardonnay, with good mouthfeel and green apple, and no oak. We also tasted a couple of wines from their Encruzilhada do Sul vineyards, like the intense 2010 Identidade arinarnoa (a cross between cabernet sauvignon and tannat), which paired extremely well with our meat course at dinner.

This is a fab winery to visit: the grounds are quite lovely, and their cozy restaurant is open for lunch and dinner—we enjoyed local dishes like the cappelletti (of course) and risotto with mushrooms and shrimp (risotto is another favorite dish of the region).

Want to see more pictures? Here’s my photo album of the trip on Flickr!

Where to stay:
If you are planning to visit Bento Gonçalves, I wouldn’t recommend the place we were put up in, it was pretty grim. But I’ve heard Hotel & Spa do Vinho Caudalie across the road from Miolo is the way to go.

A couple of other spots: the suites and guesthouses at the Pousada Villa Valduga looked quite nice—we took a peek during our visit. Another good option (I was told) is the Farina Park Hotel.

Where to eat:
The places we dined at were a bit up and down. Some of the best food was really at the wineries (like Casa Valduga’s Restaurante Maria Valduga, and Tavern Perini). As I mentioned, Sapore + Piacere is fantastic. You can also get a rustic meal at Canta Maria, like the cappelletti in brodo (“sopa de capeletti”), roast chicken, and more meats.

Other places recommended (but I didn’t try): reportedly Restaurante Casa di Paolo has the best chicken and Italian in town, and Valle Rustico Restaurante is also supposed to be tasty.

Other things to do:
You can visit the nearby towns of Canela (which has a beautiful cathedral and the nearby Caracol park and waterfalls) and Gramado (which has a bit of Alpine flair to it)—both can get snowy in the winter. We didn’t get a chance to explore the Caminhos de Pedra/”stone pathways” but you can visit the original Italian immigrant homes and other stone buildings.

If you are trying to time your trip, harvest happens in Vale dos Vinhedos in February and March, FYI.

Final thoughts:
One thing that drove me a little crazy outside of Bento Gonçalves was how few Brazilian wines I found on wine lists elsewhere in Brazil. I’d find Prosecco and Champagne, but no Brazilian sparkling, why? It ends up astronomically high taxes are to blame—you can actually find their wines cheaper outside of Brazil. I know, crazy. (This Reuters article from last year helps explain the situation.)

And it seems Brazilians love the allure of imports, and are less inclined to consume domestic products, so that’s another issue. During my week in Rio, I found myself talking up Brazilian wine to a lot of restaurants I visited, telling them names of some of the wonderful wineries I had just visited. Many had no idea how good some of their domestic wines actually are. But then you have a place like the Copacabana Palace, and their house sparkling is proudly the brut from Cave Geisse.

There is a lot of room for wine education in Brazil—they really don’t drink much wine! The per capita consumption only clocks in at less than half a gallon per person per year (Americans drink three gallons). I also couldn’t believe how many places served their sparkling wines glacially cold—even the winemakers! Brazilians like their drinks cold, but when it comes to tasting wine, expect having to wait around a bit before you can even taste it.

If you’re curious about tasting some of these wines (and learning more), the Wines of Brasil site is a good resource, and you can hop over to the Brazilian section on Snooth or check out Wine-Searcher. Unfortunately it would be too time consuming for me to figure out all the places where any of these wines are poured or sold, and how much they cost, but I will update this piece as more information becomes available. Saúde!

Want to see more pictures? Here’s my photo album of the trip on Flickr!

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The breathtaking view of Onetangi from the terrace at The Hay Paddock’s Clifftops B&B. Photo: © tablehopper.com.

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Instant thirst! The Hay Paddock’s fantastic Silk Rosé. Photo: © tablehopper.com.

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Insert yourself here. The sunny deck (with vintage French chairs) at The Oyster Inn. Photo: © tablehopper.com.

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An array of New Zealand oysters and clams at The Oyster Inn. Photo: © tablehopper.com.

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The expansive view at Cable Bay (and also the chopper landing pad). Photo: © tablehopper.com.

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At Cable Bay: cured Ora King salmon with watermelon, cucumber, avocado, and wasabi. Photo: © tablehopper.com.

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The lovely landscaping (and sky!) at Mudbrick. Photo: © tablehopper.com.

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Getting ready for sunset at Mudbrick. Photo: © tablehopper.com.

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The dining room at Casita Miro. Photo: © tablehopper.com.

I was on Waiheke Island for less than an hour, and I realized I had made a great mistake: I should have stayed on this stunning island for at least one night during my Auckland stay. It’s quite remarkable: after a 40-minute ferry ride east of Auckland, you end up at this dreamy island that’s full of wineries (some are a bit more Sonoma in style, some are a bit more Napa, take your pick). But here’s what’s crazy: there are all these gorgeous beaches. And olive groves. And farms. And a bright blue sky, and calm waters, and sailboats. Gentle sea breezes. Winding roads. Pinch, pinch. This exists? Yes.

The realization of my mistake happened as I was looking at the jaw-dropping view from the terrace at Chris Canning’s Clifftops B&B overlooking the Onetangi Bay. The light off the water was shimmering. My blood pressure immediately fell to a slow, peaceful pulse. And then Canning handed me a glass of 2012 Jules Silk rosé (named in honor of his lady)—it was bone dry, made from syrah, cold fermented for three weeks. I was ready to grab the bottle and run to the beach.

Canning is the CEO and winemaker for The Hay Paddock (his business partner is Bryan Mogridge), and their award-winning winery is known for its cool-climate syrahs—they targeted a spot in the Onetangi Valley for their single-vineyard estate, which has 15,000 vines. It ends up Waiheke is good for Bordeaux blends, chardonnay, and now syrah is on the rise, thanks to the clay-rich soil and dry, moderate, maritime climate. Labels for their syrah include the Harvest Reserve, The Hay Paddock (you can cellar it up to 10 years), the Harvest Man (an earlier drinking style), and Row 104, which is their top-tier anniversary wine and available on-site only (no restaurants carry it). We tasted the 2008 Hay Paddock, a complex blend (with petit verdot), sporting good tannins, fruit, and minerality; after barrel aging, the wine is cellared in bottle for two years.

And now, a little Waiheke history for you. The first vines were planted on Waiheke in the late ’70s, and the ferries started coming in the mid-’80s, bringing with them a rise of vacationers and tourists to this idyllic island. It’s a pretty dramatic population shift, with the island count of 8,000 dwellers swelling to 40,000 in the high season (obviously come midweek if you can). There are about 30 wineries now (mostly boutique), and many of them are designed to cater to the tourist trade (Canning described one of the bigger ones as a “daytime nightclub”), with spacious restaurants and buzzing tasting rooms. Some, obviously, offer a better experience than others.

The Hay Paddock operates a B&B (Clifftops) with casual-luxe suites, and oh, that view. They also offer wine education on the terrace for $25 (book in advance), pouring three to four wines (yes, you want to do this), as well as offering winemaker tutorials. Canning is a humble, smart, and very fascinating person to talk about wine with—don’t miss the opportunity for his insight. (For some much better pictures, check out my wingman Nathan Branch’s account of the day, and photo album here—his lush images make me look like I’m shooting with a Kodak Extralite 400.)

Another place we visited was the relatively new Oyster Inn in Oneroa village, which has three cute, cabin-y rooms available. The place has a fun, beachy vibe, with an 80-seat restaurant that’s conveniently open all day and evening (they also have DJs and music for summer weekend shenanignas). The space was renovated by a delightfully welcoming couple (Kiwi Jonathan Rutherfurd-Best and Hong Kong-born Andrew Glenn) who met in London, but fortunately decided to leave their swish London life and targeted Waiheke as a place to open their stylish outpost.

The menu (from chef Cristian Hossack) is full of fantastic New Zealand seafood, like Stewart Island oysters, which were flat and Belon-like; Orongo Bay oysters (Pacifics); and if you’re there in May, you can get lucky with some wild Bluff oysters (a Kiwi obsession—the season starts around March 1st). There were also Tuatua clams from Cloudy Bay. Fortunately the gents know what’s up, because there’s quite a list of bubbles to go with it all. I went bonkers for their green salad (it has 13 ingredients in it), and you can also get fish and chips, and check their specials. The restaurant has tables in the prettiest ’50s turquoise, with vintage metal chairs and cutlery from Paris, and a sunny view of the water. I was ready to move in—everything about this place made me feel happy.

One of the most well-known spots to visit on Waiheke is Cable Bay, perched on a hilltop site overlooking Hauraki Gulf where some folks helicopter right in on the chopper pad (and whip grass onto people dining nearby). Or you can enjoy a less dramatic entrance with a 12-minute walk from the ferry, which will help you make some room for the feast you’ll find here. The restaurant has an outdoor terrace, and there’s a contemporary dining room, good for breezy days and for dinner (I would totally come here for dinner if I were staying on the island). Our hosts for lunch were owner Loukas Petrou and winemaker Neill Culley—you couldn’t ask for better company.

Cable Bay has five vineyards on the island, and they have quite the portfolio, with chardonnay, viognier, pinot gris, malbec, cabernet franc, merlot, syrah, plus they make some wines from other non-Waiheke vineyards (Central Otago and Marlborough). Culley explained how the northern slopes on the island are hotter, so you’ll find more syrah, while the southern slopes are cooler, with more chardonnay appearing. Culley is on his 30th vintage as a winemaker (he even spent a harvest in California at Simi), and his wines for Cable Bay are all about small-lot production, low yields, hand-harvesting, and sustainability. The place is state of the art—the site opened in 2007 (although the vineyards were planted in 2004).

We tasted through quite a few wines over lunch; some favorites included the feminine and French-inspired 2012 viognier, the aromatic 2012 rosé (made from merlot and malbec), the 2010 reserve syrah, and for dessert, the 2011 late-harvest viognier, Sweet Gloria, a beautiful topaz that wasn’t too sweet or showy (and named after the Van Morrison song). Culley’s wines show a lot of restraint and elegance.

While the restaurant highlights Cable Bay’s wines, I liked that they also feature other wines on their list—everything was very well paired. The chef is Sam Clark, who spent some time at Clooney in Auckland, Becasse in Sydney, and Attica in Melbourne.

Our lunch was impressive—not only were dishes beautifully presented (the colors!), but Clark really let seasonal ingredients shine, with just enough fuss paid to them (the kitchen builds the flavors with all the accompaniments). We started our lunch with a silky duck liver pâté, and housemade ciabatta that we dunked into Cable Bay’s peppery olive oil made with leccino and koroneiki. The restaurant is a total showcase for New Zealand ingredients, like our appetizers of cured Ora King salmon and smoked wild venision with pickled vegetables. So utterly delicious. Of course I had some lamb, and the presentation with carrots, dates, wheat, and sheep’s yogurt was one of the best of my trip. Dessert also rocked, with peaches and custard (with jasmine rice sherbet!), and one with poached apricots with olive oil cake (one of many advantages to traveling to New Zealand in May—you catch the tail end of their summer!).

Our final destination for the day was supposed to be at the distant Man O’War, but due to a transportation snafu, my wingman and I paid an impromptu visit to Mudbrick since we had a little time until our ferry. It was like we knew it was going to be the perfect spot for a sunset (we didn’t), and it was like we already knew the gentleman pouring the wines for us in the tasting room (Bob Scott) was related to SF’s own Anna Weinberg (of Marlowe, Park Tavern, and The Cavalier)—fate is funny that way. You couldn’t ask for a better person to pour wines for you—Bob spouted off some fantastic bons mots (“spankingly drinkable!”) and I appreciated all the food pairing ideas he suggested (he made me wish I could manifest a bite of tagine while he described the minerally 2012 reserve viognier).

Owners Robyn and Nicholas Jones did their first plantings in 1992, and currently grow chardonnay, viognier, merlot, malbec, syrah, cabernet sauvignon, and cabernet franc. Their new winemaker is Patrick Newton, who came on in 2011, so it will be interesting to see where he takes the wines—he is very focused on purity of flavor.

We can see why Anna had her wedding at Mudbrick—the grounds are mega dreamy, full of herbs and vegetable gardens (“potagers”). There is an airy 160-seat restaurant (the cold-smoked duck breast is recommended), although we posted up in the alfresco bistro, enjoying the tranquility of the gardens while drinking a glass of 2012 reserve chardonnay at our outdoor table. It would be easy to while away the early evening over a bottle, but we had a ferry to catch! Next time, I won’t make that mistake—I will have a room with a view booked, that’s for damn sure.

Note: I have a bunch of photos on Flickr for you to check out. And don’t miss Nathan Branch’s fabulous images!

Some tips from locals:

Be sure to rent a car or a moped, and check out the Saturday Ostend market and Sunday farmers’ market.

Other wineries to visit:

The view at Te Whau can’t be beat, visit Obsidian for syrah, and Bordeaux lovers should seek the Larose at Stonyridge (although it can be quite a scene there).

More places to eat:

Poderi Crisci
Am told it’s a bit expensive, but great for views and a long Sunday lunch (Kiwis are fans of the “long lunch”) with ingredients from their garden.

Fenice
Inventive Italian in Oneroa (from the Mudbrick folks), with beet and chorizo risotto, and was told not to miss the rabbit pappardelle. Open late.

Casita Miro
Loved the greenhouse/pavilion-style look for this airy dining room. A Spanish menu (both tapas and raciones). The Miro vineyards are 20 years old, with syrah, Bordeaux blends, and viognier. Was told to check out their French-style rosé, pinot gris, albariño is coming, and don’t miss the Madame Rouge fortified wine.

Charlie Farley’s
A Kiwi pub, super-casual, right on the beach at Onetangi.

Wai Kitchen
Cool spot for breakfast/brunch in Oneroa.

Spice Cafe
A local hang for good coffee.

More recos for accommodations:

The Boatshed
Luxury accommodations, but still casual and charming.

The Moorings
Studio apartments with a view, and conveniently close to the ferry.

The Courtyard
An affordable apartment (no seaview, but was told it’s quaint).

Lavender Hill
Tuscan villa style, on Waiheke!

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The lush Auckland Domain. Photo: © tablehopper.com.

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Amazing plants in the Wintergarden in the Auckland Domain. Photo: © tablehopper.com.

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Pāua fritter at Matakana farmers market. Photo: © tablehopper.com.

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Glen Osborne showing my some All Blacks force. Photo: © tablehopper.com.

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Amuse at Sidart: watermelon sorbet, almond gazpacho, pomelo, tarragon salt. Photo: © tablehopper.com.

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Sunset at Sidart. Photo: © tablehopper.com.

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Snapper sliders (with preserved lemon mayo) at Depot. Photo: © tablehopper.com.

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The clubby dining room at Clooney (photo courtesy of the restaurant via Facebook).

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A modern caprese salad at Euro. Photo: © tablehopper.com.

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Poached blue cod from Stewart Island in a spicy tomato and shallot sauce, surrounded with Cloudy Bay clams, green-lipped mussels, and New Zealand pipis at Euro. Photo: © tablehopper.com.

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Late-night chow: pork and celery dumplings at New Flavour. Photo: © tablehopper.com.

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My Uitsmijter (Dutch-style fried eggs with ham and cheese on toast) at Zus & Zo. Photo: © tablehopper.com.

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Lamington at Fred’s Cafe. Photo: © tablehopper.com.

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My delicious macchiato at Fred’s Cafe. Photo: © tablehopper.com.

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Auckland has their own SPQR! (On Ponsoby Road.) Photo: © tablehopper.com.

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My comfy room by night at the SKYCITY Grand Hotel. Photo: © tablehopper.com.

New Zealand: it’s a place many San Franciscans hold in high regard, whether they’ve been or not. (I can’t believe how many tips my readers sent my way before my trip, it was pretty staggering. And I was happy to see how many of you have been already!) It’s just too easy to rhapsodize over all that pristine natural beauty, and we’re such a city of high-fivers that all the country’s outdoor sports and activities appeal. Of course there’s that reputation for Kiwi kindness (it’s accurate), handsome men (that’s true too), and with our summer of racing here in the city, we get to witness their rep in action as stellar sailors (indeed).

As for me, well, lucky hopper, I was invited to visit New Zealand to learn about its food, wine, sights, and culture over a very busy and action-packed 10-day trip, which had me zigzagging all over the North and South islands. I covered a lot of ground (and guess who took 1,500 pictures), so here’s the first installment of my trip—there will be a few more. Let’s visit urban Auckland on the North Island first:

~AUCKLAND~

Note: I have a bunch of photos on Flickr for you to check out here.

Auckland has a scale that’s a bit similar to San Francisco, clocking in at more than 1 million people, and it has an active life on the water, with harbors and marinas. It has a stunning, lush park that you shouldn’t miss strolling through (the Auckland Domain), trendy neighborhoods to walk, dine, and shop through (like Ponsonby Road, plus the recently rehabbed Britomart area in downtown), a multicultural population, gorg beaches nearby, a lovely climate (although wear your sunscreen—the damaged ozone layer is no joke), and is just a half hour boat ride from Waiheke Island (more on that dreamy place in another installment!). A few people said I wouldn’t care to spend much time in Auckland, but they were quite wrong.

I went a few days earlier than my scheduled press trip to check out the city, but the only drawback was that it was Easter weekend, which is technically every Aucklanders’ last end-of-summer hurrah and people leave town (remember, it’s the Southern Hemisphere, so the seasons are flipped). While a lot of places were closed, I still managed to find some notable restaurants that were open (yay).

I flew on Air New Zealand, which let me tell you was downright civilized. Let’s hear it for economy plus, and while it’s not business, it certainly had a service and comfort level that put our American airlines to shame. They even poured a damn tasty sparkling wine—after my first sip, I was like, hold on there mister flight attendant, whatcha pouring there? (It was the Deutz sparkling from Marlborough; a project that is like Champagne Louis Roederer’s presence in the Anderson Valley with its Roederer Estate line.) After some bubbles (mister flight attendant was having fun overserving me), one of the better airline dinners I have ever had, and my trusty sleeping pill, I slept like a rock—the flights to NZ leave SF in the evening, so you arrive in the morning (I landed at 5:30am).

After a quick 45-minute catnap in my hotel (the SKYCITY Grand, more on my home base later), I took a shower, slapped my cheeks to snap out of it, and was picked up by the sassy Charmaine Ngarimu of the Auckland tourism office to head to the Saturday farmers’ market in Matakana. I know, nothing like hitting the ground running.

I couldn’t have asked for a better guide—not only does Charmaine adore food as much as yours truly, her Maori roots also meant I got a deeper explanation on some of the local foods and traditions. We love music and bubbly, so we were fast friends. After about an hour’s drive in the rain, we arrived at the outdoor market. My first bite of Kiwi cuisine was a pāua fritter, a dark abalone fritter served open-faced on a piece of bread, with a sweet and sour chile sauce drizzled on top. (Charmaine told me she makes a better one, and I believe it.) You’ll see pāua shell used in a lot of Maori jewelry as well.

The market was definitely an eclectic scene: we grazed on Vietnamese pork steamed buns (bánh bao), Sicilian arancine, a flavorful Ceylonese wrap, locally made buffalo mozzarella, and sparkling grape juice. (It was like being at the SF Street Food Fest.) One big disconnect I did have: there wasn’t really any recycling! For a market that prided itself on its artisan ways, it was pretty sad to see the tragic (unsorted) garbage pileup in multiple cans. I found one section for recycling but it didn’t look like anyone was even remotely heeding the separate bins. Huh.

We also visited Charmaine’s buddy Glen Osborne, a well-known former All Blacks rugby player who now runs the a butchery shop, and I got a dose of total Maori humor and a show of muscles (I admit, I egged him on). Other nearby places reco’ed to me: Plume (we swung by for a coffee, guess who needed it) and Charlie’s Gelato in Warkworth for their coconut ice cream.

Additional markets in Auckland include Otara (20 minutes away), which is more ethnic with a large Maori and Pacific community and street food, or there’s La Cigale, the local French market.

Restaurants:
That evening I headed to dinner with my new (fabulous) dining partner, Nathan Branch, who was introduced to me by a mutual friend. Not only is he a talented photographer, but he’s also a journalist, cook, one fashionable mofo, and skilled world traveler. Yeah, I had delightful company—he was a remarkable host. (I also have him to thank for this very thoughtful write-up about my visit.)

We met at Sidart, quirkily tucked away upstairs in a mini mall in Ponsonby. You slide open a door that reveals a contemporary and comfortable dining room, with a plush tufted banquette along the walls, leather chairs, and many stylish touches. Amon Tobin was playing, couples were canoodling, the fresh evening air was coming through the open windows, all contributing to a blissful vibe (well, until someone would run the espresso machine).

It was one of my favorite meals in New Zealand: chef Sid Sahrawat has an eclectic style—and a bit progressive—featuring very seasonal produce (I was so happy to be there at the end of summer, trust), with hints of exotic spices, and wonderful Kiwi seafood and meats. It very much felt like a personal place, one that was a heart project of the chef and his team. The meal started off very strong (great amuses), with interesting textures, but the main savory courses felt heavy and less inspired—the Roquefort dessert turned things back around. I was really fired up with the insightful wine pairings—it was a great place to learn about New Zealand wines from the knowledgeable Mo (Ismo Koski), even if the pours felt a wee bit skimpy. All in all, there was a lot to dig here: bright creativity, lovely (and very colorful) plating, intriguing flavor pairings, dialed service, and mostly on-point execution. (We did the five-course dinner for $95 NZ, $50 wine pairing; or you can do 10 courses for $140, $90 wine pairing.)

Another highlight was Depot (which Kiwis charmingly call Depp-oh), oh-so-conveniently located across the street from my hotel. I swung by for an afternoon and alfresco bite of Orongo Bay oysters and wickedly good snapper sliders (with preserved lemon mayo). The evening definitely has a lively and “it spot” vibe—it felt a bit like Nopa but in New York (I kept thinking of Schiller’s), with folks crowded in at the bar, and the handsome staff in custom aprons. Celeb chef Al Brown (and chef Kyle Street’s) menu is rustic, casual, flavor-forward, and fun to share—we especially loved the mussels served on the half shell with chorizo and garlic (and the kiss of the grill). Fresh ingredients, with many local farms and purveyors, were called out on the menu. The friendly staff was all pro—sitting at the bar, we got tasted on some swell beers (after a day of wine tasting, all I wanted was some beer). I tasted two winners from Hallertau: a kolsch and pale ale, and when I asked for a beer to go with dessert, they didn’t miss a beat, serving us a “breakfast” beer from Moa.

One evening Nathan and I started our night out at Clooney dining in their lounge (restaurateur Tony Stewart is behind SF’s pop-up, the Waiheke Island Yacht Club). The look is all industrial chic and leather, with plenty of high-heeled ladies making their way into the clubby and sexy dining room. This was definitely the most progressive of the places we visited, with foams and textures galore, and very intensively plated presentations from chef Des Harris. The place is not cheap (apps, which they call entrees, ring in at $26-32 NZ). The signature dish of sugar-cured ostrich (with foie gras mousse and shaved foie gras, heh) on what felt like a five-pound granite plate was transcendent, and the king crab with yellowtail, wasabi and coconut sorbet, compressed watermelon, and ginger gel delivered some great flavor. All the dishes were very involved, but a couple had some components fall flat (like soggy popcorn).

I had a smashing lunch at Simon Gault’s Euro, which is right on the wharf—it’s an inviting daytime spot, with a crisp and modern look (it felt like a mash-up of a seaside vibe and Milano to me). Gault is a well-known chef in New Zealand (and beyond) with his many TV appearances and quality cookbooks (I was happily sent home with a couple), so it was a treat to have him at the restaurant to cook for us.

Joining us for lunch was Helen Dorresteyn of Clevedon Village Farmers Market and Clevedon Valley Buffalo Company, a name I was seeing on a variety of menus around town. (They brought 60 head of pure-bred water buffalo from Darwin in Australia, and the current product line includes buffalo mozzarella, ricotta, gouda, yogurt, and blue cheese.) Simon brought us a Hawke’s Bay fig topped with ricotta and wildflower honey from Blenheim, just gorg. The modern spin on a caprese salad with Clevedon’s mozzarella was a vision of summer. I was also very content with our bottle of Nautilus cuvée from Marlborough, which is late disgorged after three years.

One of my most memorable dishes on the trip was Gault’s poached blue cod from Stewart Island in a spicy tomato and shallot sauce, surrounded with Cloudy Bay clams, green-lipped mussels, and New Zealand pipis (a clam and cockle hybrid). Boom, what a dish (and wonderful showcase for NZ seafood). I asked Simon about which seafood to look for in New Zealand, and he said line-caught snapper from the north, and seasonal items like Nelson scallops, whitebait from the west coast (used in famed whitebait fritters), and bluff oysters (which I was lucky to catch in brief season while I was there).

He also serves some top-notch beef (he’s known for his sourcing), and we had both some buffalo and tender venison with black garlic, squash, and little molecular spheres of Worcestershire (it was a killer match with the 2009 Fromm “La Strada” pinot noir from Marlborough).

After a day on Waiheke Island, Nathan and I fueled up after a lot of wine at Ortolana in Britomart, a rehabbed and up-and-coming area. While I admired the style of the place and the alfresco vibe—and was excited to try the restaurant’s vegetables from their farm—the dishes we had didn’t really pop. (Felt like its simple style would be a better bet for lunch.) The wine list had a bunch of interesting 125ml selections, like the 2011 “Little Rascal” arneis from Coopers Creek in Gisborne, so that was a bonus.

It was unfortunate I wasn’t able to dine at Michael Dearth’s much-awarded The Grove (he used to work at Fleur de Lys in San Francisco) since it was closed for the holiday weekend, but he gave me a tour of the space, and some insider/local food tips too.

There’s an area of Auckland called Dominion Road in Mount Eden (it was a bit of a haul in a cab), which is where I checked out Dearth’s favorite late-night/industry spot, New Flavour (541 Dominion Road)—don’t confuse it with Flavour Town across the street. Total bare-bones and BYOB spot, with brutal fluorescent lighting. The pork and celery dumplings were stellar (I preferred the tender steamed ones over the fried), along with the spicy cucumber salad with a hint of sesame. Would have been fun with a group but I was flying solo—my taxi driver was stoked with all the leftovers I styled him with. Hello, dumplings. (There’s also Spicy House at 557 Dominion if you want to tablehop.) Dearth’s other recos included Canton Cafe in Kingsland for groups, and Sake Bar 601 for sushi and their tuna carpaccio. He also taught me that tipping in New Zealand is about 10 percent, and 15 percent if it’s really superb.

I had an easygoing brunch at Zus & Zo—cool style, and my dish, the Uitsmijter (Dutch-style fried eggs with ham and cheese on toast) was rocking; ditto my new friend’s Kiwi classic dish of mushrooms with blue cheese, a poached egg, and sourdough.

On one of my long walks around town, I ambled for a bit on K-Road (Karangahape) and stopped by Kati Grill for a Frankie (this was a reco I remembered from one of my Indian cabdrivers). It was a fast-casual place with zero soul, but that Frankie (a type of Indian wrap in paratha) was loaded with ginger and garlic and spice—took me right back to Mumbai.

A friend of a friend sent me to Fred’s Cafe, charming spot for an espresso (from Supreme) and she told me to get their lamington (it’s a very New Zealand thing: a sponge cake covered with coconut and cut in half, with whipped cream and raspberry jam in between the halves—yeah, delicious). Loved the patio, my coffee, and the lamington on the cute vintage plate.

Restaurants on my list for next time:
Meredith’s
The Engine Room
TriBeCa
The French Cafe
Cazador
Ebisu
The Blue Breeze Inn (new contemporary Chinese joint from the MooChowChow crew)

The gents at Depot recommended Coco’s Cantina, Cafe Hanoi, Ponsonby Road Bistro, and Best Ugly Bagels (Al Brown’s Montreal bagel place).

Dizengoff on Ponsonby for brunch (flat white and mushrooms on toast I have heard is the ticket).

I never hunted down a meat pie, but was told The Food Room on Ponsonby or The Fridge in Kingsland make good ones.

Cocktails:
Mea Culpa and Golden Dawn (Ponsonby) and Britomart Country Club

Where I stayed:

SKYCITY Grand Hotel
This hotel was ideally located in the CBD—I was able to scoot to a bunch of different areas quite easily (although the immediate surroundings were full of taxis and tourists). My modern room had a nice view (which I enjoyed from my comfortable chaise), the bed was my best friend (there was even a pillow menu), and the hotel handily had some quality restaurants downstairs (Depot was literally just across the street)—they’re also adding two new restaurants at the moment. The hotel had some nice facilities, including a spa and lap pool.

Another reco (although I didn’t stay there) is for the chic boutique Hotel DeBrett (which is dangerously close to one of the best eyeglass/sunglass stores I have ever had the fortune of visiting, Michael Holmes).

Auckland Resources:

Cuisine Magazine

Get the mobile app for the international and very useful Where Chefs Eat

Eat Here Now (Auckland food blog with weekly posts)

Metro Eats

The Denizen

Concrete Playground

Note: I have a bunch of photos on Flickr for you to check out here.