Tuesday, July 31, 2007

New Crowded House album

As a quick follow-up to this post, I received the new Crowded House album a while back, and have finally gotten to listen to it this week. So far, I can say that I definitely like it, but it is one of those albums that doesn't blow you away on the first listen. It's will be a bit too restrained and introverted for some CH fans: It's mostly full of quiet ballads and fairly low-tempo songs, and feels like a Neil Finn solo album more than an old Crowded House one.

So far my favourite track is Silent House, but others will no doubt grow on me :)

For a more in-depth look at the album, see this review which gives the history of the album, and hits the nail on the head in describing how this album relates to the previous solo work by Neil.

Holiday highlights: Brookings, OR

Wispy clouds

After spending a few days in Ashland, we headed off to the Oregon Caves and Redwood National Park (more on those later), and stopped for the night in Brookings, OR. This is a cute little coastal town just north of the California border on highway 101. The weather is so good here that the area has been dubbed the Banana Belt. Brookings even has an eponymous weather effect.

We stayed in a great B&B, the South Coast Inn. We stayed in the Sea View apartment, which was totally private and really comfy - it included a kitchen and small lounge leading onto a great balcony with view of the bay. We didn't use the kitchen this time, but if you want a place with the option of cooking in, I recommend this place. The hosts were really friendly too, which is good!

Beach outside Brookings

A lowlight of our stay was dinner at the local Italian restaurant, Bella Italia. Our hosts at the B&B recommended it, but the food was very disappointing, and the staff seemed to not care much about us. We had heard from our B&B hosts that the owners of Bella Italia had just opened a new steak/seafood restaurant in town, so I thought that perhaps they were stretched too thin, and their old place had slid... Now with some Googling, I see Bella Italia is for sale, so perhaps that explains things :)

After dinner, we headed out to a nearby beach park to watch the sun set. As you can see from the pics, the light and sky were amazing, and we also got to enjoy some weird jumpy shrimp pinging across our feet!

Jumpy shrimp

We definitely need to come back again!

Friday, July 27, 2007

Holiday higlights: Oregon Wines on Broadway

No visit to Portland, Oregon feels complete without a visit to our favourite wine bar: Oregon Wines on Broadway. It's just a block from the hotel we usually stay in (recently renamed to Hotel Monaco), and is cozy and laid-back. The ladies behind the bar preside over an impressive collection of wines available for tasting (upwards of 40 bottles, I think - see their current inventory here). The selection focuses on wines from Oregon, but there are a few Washington wines too.

All the wines behind the bar are availabe to taste (1oz pours) or by the glass, and there are bottles for sale if you find something you like (all at very good prices). If you're overwhelmed by the choice, I recommend going for one of the tasting flights. Light snacks are also available (bread, cheese, cured meats, olives).

I decided to make my own flight, with these three wines:
  1. 2005 St. Innocent Pinot Noir, Shea Vineyard
  2. 2005 St. Innocent Pinot Noir, White Rose Vineyard
  3. 2004 Dominio IV Syrah

The St. Innocent's were interesting - at first they had a noticeable baked-beans aroma, maybe due to brettanomyces. This blew off within a few minutes though. While both of these were not a patch on an older bottle I tried a few years ago, they were decent. the White Rose Vineyard was especially good, but at $45 a bottle, I think I'll stick to the New Zealand Pinot Noirs I've been enjoying over the past year.

The Dominio Syrah was very nice - aromatic, well-rounded, oaky and fruity without bend over-extracted and jammy. At $30 it's a good wine, not an amazing value. (You can get nice Washington Syrahs for around $20)

After tasting these three wines, I needed a few more sips of something to go with the last of our brie and baguette, so I tried the Abacela Vintner's Blend #7. This was a real find: full bodied, rich, port-like wine with a lovel finish and great complexity, and a great deal at $15!

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Holiday highlights: Ashland, Oregon

I just got back from a fantastic trip through Oregon and the California Redwoods. The rough rought was: Eugene (OR) - Oregon Country Fair, Ashland (OR), Redwood National Park (CA), Brookings (OR), Newport (OR), and Portland (OR).

While it's really hard to pick a favourite, my stay in Ashland was probably the winner: we stayed for 4 nights in a great bed & breakfast, got to unwind and relax on Monday (since there we had no plays that day), saw amazine Shakespeare productions later in the week, and had fun doing wine-tasting and eating out.

Obviously the main draw in Ashland is the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. We saw three shows: Tracy's Tiger, The Taming of the Shrew and Romeo and Juliet. The last two were in the open-air Elizabethan Theatre - a really stunning venue! (Watching the plays here reminded me of the open-air Shakespeare productions I saw when I was growing up in Cape Town - see these links if you're interested)

Be aware that it can rain in Ashland - even in summer. We were lucky and were far enough back to be under cover, but you'll want a rain shell, something warm, and maybe even a poncho or somethign for your legs in case of a thundersorm. Wednesday's performance of Romeo and Juliet was almost cancelled due to rain, but luckily was only delayed - we got to see the performers come out in rain-wear (mostly period-appropriate cloaks, except for the youngsters who were wearing modern school uniforms initially, and sported modern parkas).

In terms of accomodation, I can heartily recommend the B&B we stayed in: Ashland's Tudor House. The host, Raliegh, was very friendly and cooks incredible gourmet breakfasts. Our room was spacious and comfortable - the best bed of all the places we stayed! A communal lounge with a PC to use for email was a nice touch. The B&B is also within easy walking distance of central Ashland and the festival, but is set back from the main road, so it's nice and quiet.

Ashland had some nice surprises in terms of food - for such a small town (population of 20,000), there are tons of restaurants, and most are good. (100,000 visitors per year helps!)

Our favourites were Pasta Piatti (delicious salads, pasta and crusty, thin-base pizza) and Pangea (very veg*n-friendly, informal lunch and dinner spot featuring inventive wraps, soups and sandwiches).

The local Thai restaurant, Thai Pepper, was decent in terms of food, but great in terms of setting - it has an outside patio right on the creek, which is beautiful on a warm evening. Greenleaf also has creek-side seating (although we sat inside when we visitged). The food here is more like standard diner fare, but with a healthy twist and several veg*n options.

For "fine dining" we tried Monet, and enjoyed very good French food, although the style of food and restaurant decor felt a little dated - especially the very pink, grandparent-friendly interior. The food was traditional French fare (snails in garlic butter, roast duck, ris de veau, grilled fish) - the ris de veau reminded me a lot of my gran's cooking.

Raliegh's breakfasts at the Ashland's Tudor House B&B warrant their own accolades here: we had delicious eggs Benedict (with smoked salmon) one day with a really good light Hollandaise sauce, freshly-made walnut pancakes with maple syrup another, a baked pudding (calfoutis?) with fresh peaches on top another, and potato latkes with apple sauce and sour cream. As you can see, the food is not the normal toast-and-jam, or eggs-and-bacon type stuff...

In terms of wine, Ashland was also a great place to visit. The area is in Oregon's Rogue Valley wine region, and while it's not as high-profile as the regions to the north, there are several wineries to explore. We stuck to the ones closer to town, visiting Eden Vale and Weisinger's.

Both were really pretty and staffed with friendly, knowledgeable people, but if I had to pick a favourite, it would be Weisinger's: relaxed, unpretentious service, a nice lively vibe in their tasting room, a working beehive behind glass (with honey for sale), and good wines. I really liked the Weisinger's red blends (the Mescolare has some nebbiolo, and the Petite Pompadour is a Bordeaux-style blend with lots of cab franc). I wasn't a huge fan of their single-varietal reds, though... Their whites are not bad either - the Petite Blanc is a nice light white wine for summer picnics.

Eden Vale had a delicious white desert wine (a late harvest Viognier), but most of their reds were overpowered and alcoholic. (Probably great candidates for ageing, but I want some wine I can drink now!) My favourite red was the 2003 Syrah (it's won some awards), so I picked up a bottle to try again in the next year.

And finally, I have to mention the Rogue Creamery - makers of some of the best blue cheese in the world. They're a bot of a drive from Ashland (back up the I-5 towards Medford), and the cheesery is a bit underwhelming (no tours of the "cheese caves" where they age the blue cheeses, due to contamination worries. The creamery was also not making cheese due to technical problems). This is more of a tasting room and shop: We were able to taste several of their blue cheeses (including some I've not had before, like the Crater Lake Blue), and several cheeses from other producers in Oregon and California. They have a nice selection of imported food (lots of stuff from Ritrovo in Seattle!) and it's worth a visit if you like food, but I would have liked a more hands-on, "authentic" creamery visit.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Perfect wine magazine?

I recently was looking for some magazines to take on my impending road-trip/vacation, and spotted the current issue of Wine Spectator. They managed to hit the trifecta, right on the cover!

  1. An in-depth look at Brunello di Montalcino. I fell in love with this wine recently at our local Italian restaurant, Firenze. (I heart Castello Banfi Brunello di Montalcino)
  2. A look at red wines from Washington state. Yay! Go us! (I get to be an American/Washingtonian when it suits me...)
  3. A look at new winemakers/wineries in South Africa, including winemaker Eben Sadie who I've mentioned before (and discovered via Garagiste in Seattle). Ironically, Sadie is based a few miles from the town my mom lives in.

I'll let you know what interesting things I learn from these articles once I get back from vacation :)

Happy summer!

Feeling hot, hot, hot!

Phew! Seattle is just about to head into a 2/3-day heat-wave, with temperatures in the 90's to low 100's. And to make matters worse, I'm heading down to central Oregon on Wednesday evening, to attend the Oregon Country Fair. Temperatures there should be 5-10 degrees higher than in Seattle!

I'm looking forward to the fair, though - loads of yummy food, interesting shows and free-spirited people. Then it's off to Ashland for a few days of plays and exploring (2 Shakespeares, 1 modern play), the Oregon Caves, and Redwood forests in northern California, and back up the Oregon coast via Newport, with a night in Portland to wrap things up. I can't wait!

While in Portland, I hope to check out this new cacao shop, specializing in european-style drinkning chocolate. I've heard good things - too bad the weather is warm, but I think I'll still be brave and try some hot chocolate.