About Jessica Festa

Jessica Festa

Jessica Festa is the editor of the travel sites Jessie on a Journey (http://jessieonajourney.com) and Epicure & Culture (http://epicureandculture.com). Along with blogging at We Blog The World, her byline has appeared in publications like Huffington Post, Gadling, Fodor's, Travel + Escape, Matador, Viator, The Culture-Ist and many others. After getting her BA/MA in Communication from the State University of New York at Albany, she realized she wasn't really to stop backpacking and made travel her full time job. Some of her most memorable experiences include studying abroad in Sydney, teaching English in Thailand, doing orphanage work in Ghana, hiking her way through South America and traveling solo through Europe. She has a passion for backpacking, adventure, hiking, wine and getting off the beaten path.


Latest Posts by Jessica Festa

Sustainable Stay: Buckland Studio 5 in Victoria Australia Touts Alpine Luxury

October 19, 2014 by  

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Modscape is known for its innovative architectural projects that defy widely-known concepts of building and green design with sustainable modular architecture. Located in Bright, Victoria in Australia you’ll find one of their newest projects: Buckland’s Studio 5.

A one-bedroom bed & breakfast retreat, Buckland is designed to allow guests a comfortable indoor retreat with spacious rooms, a fireplace, and an open plan kitchen, living room and dining area that flows into an enormous outdoor deck. From each room, expansive views of the surrounding alpine countryside can be enjoyed, allowing guests to feel like they’re a part of the landscape.

In true Modscape fashion, it’s also eco-friendly, showcasing a mix of old and new with elements of local natural stone, bamboo flooring, plantation timber, recycled steel, a solar-heated water system and Australian corrugated iron — all with a 6-star energy rating.

Explains Modscape managing director Jan Gyrn, “The design forms part of a larger development which involved three additional luxury cabins designed and built on the property as part of the operating accommodation business. The structure is deliberately kept as one simple element so that the focus is on the surrounding landscape including the views of Mount Buffalo.”

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*All photos courtesy of Modscape

Favorite Coffee Picks in the Big Apple

October 19, 2014 by  

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new york coffee shops

It won’t be surprising to hear that New York City is one of the most complex and diverse metropolises in the world. Food, fashion, architecture, history, culture…NYC is a hub for all of them. So too for coffee, especially in the last few years, as a host of gourmand caffeine purveyors has cropped up in the city, from Manhattan to Brooklyn and back again.

Here are five New York coffee shops to add to your itinerary:

1. Black Brick

new york coffee shops

Photo courtesy of Black Brick

New York City’s geographical heart may be Manhattan, but Brooklyn is becoming more and more of a New York cultural hub every day. Just off Williamsburg’s shopping thoroughfare Bedford Avenue, Black Brick is one of the best coffee spots in the borough. A den-like ambiance, communal tables and exquisite lattes make Black Brick the perfect stop for a caffeine hit and a Brooklyn moment. 300 Bedford Avenue, Brooklyn

2. Oro

new york coffee shops

Photo courtesy of Oro

Easily miss-able on the calm end of Broome Street, Oro is a quiet highlight on the New York coffee scene. The coffee is strong and creamy, the juices are fresh and flavorful, the granola is house-made fruit-and-nut heaven. Do yourself a favor and hit Oro up for breakfast one chilly New York morn. 375 Broome Street, Manhattan.

3. Café Gitane

new york coffee shops

Photo courtesy of Café Gitane

With its curved silver bar, mirrored walls and little circular tables, Café Gitane’s name (meaning “Gypsy”) is far from the only French thing about it. Nestled in the midst of super cool Nolita, Café Gitane is like a little French oasis in the middle of NYC. Make like a Parisian and people watch over a simple espresso and mini tablette of bittersweet dark chocolate. 242 Mott Street, Manhattan

4. Konditori

new york coffee shops

Photo courtesy of Konditori

I like French coffee, I really like American coffee and I love Australian coffee, but there’s just nothing like Swedish coffee. So hot, so strong, so dark, so not made for sugar or milk. I’ll never forget the insomnia I experienced after my Swedish friend brewed me a mug of black coffee so strong my heart was jumping about for hours. Much milder than that fateful mug, but still in the Swedish style, Scandinavian café Konditori is one of my favorites in NYC. There’s a little one near the Bedford Ave subway stop in Williamsburg, but I love the Manhattan Avenue one in Green Point. 687 Manhattan Avenue, Brooklyn

5. Ruby’s

new york coffee shops

Photo courtesy of Ruby’s

The pretty, buzzing Nolita streets around Prince, Mott, Elizabeth and Mulberry, with their many boutiques and eateries, are coming to be known to some as Little Australia. Indeed, my fellow expat Aussies have truly made their mark on this tiny corner of Manhattan, not least in the Aussie coffee institution, Ruby’s. A true favorite for locals and expats alike, Ruby’s is like a slice of Melbourne in New York. 219 Mulberry Street, Manhattan

What’s your favorite coffee haunt in NYC? Please share in the comments below.

- By Gemma King

Top Photo courtesy of George Dogikh via Shutterstock

A Whole Lotta Mexican Magic at Horchata in Greenwich Village

October 19, 2014 by  

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Horchata. A milky rice-based drink sweet spiced with cinnamon and chilled over ice. Horchata is also the name of one of New York City’s newest Mexican Restaurants, opened in Greenwich Village in May 2014 and serving a number of innovative horchata-based cocktails, among other interesting drinks and bites.

Explains Manuel Trevino, executive chef at Horchata NYC, “We really loved the idea of naming the restaurant after a drink that has been around for ages that has a lot of meaning to those who grew up drinking horchata. Recipes for horchata are usually passed down generation to generation and are often regarded as a family treasure. The idea behind the traditional horchata beverage was always super intriguing to us due to the its long and cross-continental history.”

While the exact origins of this drink are unclear, one thing is for certain: it’s a hit with almost everyone who tries it. Say the name “horchata” to any of your friends who have tried it and you’ll almost definitely receive an enthusiastic reaction.

Horchata - New York, NY

Horchata offers the chance to enjoy Mexican dining with festive food in an equally festive atmosphere. You’ll find authentic Mexican cuisine at the heart of the menu — with Tex-Mex and New York influences throughout — served in a shareable fashion to encourage conversation.

Make your way through the dimly-lit restaurant, with exposed brick adorned with book shelves and colorful woven artwork, Mexican baubles and Day of the Dead statues littering the space. Reminiscent of a Mexican hacienda, the restaurant makes the atmosphere even more authentic by sourcing almost all of their decor from Mexico and having tables custom designed to replicate the traditional Mexican Otomi pattern, which you can also see on an enormous round tapestry on the back wall.

HORCHATA - New York, NY

Speaking of art, several walls feature one-of-a-kind murals by New York-based artist RJ Raizke, known for his pattern work in downtown hot spots. A custom entryway created by CONFETTISYSTEM is the first U.S. restaurant installation for the celebrated artist-design firm, who have also worked with Beyoncé, Opening Ceremony and MoMA PS1.

At Horchata you’ll also find a bit of New York downtown flare, with bare bulbs dangling from the ceiling, exposed brick walls and a reclaimed wood bar lined with cacti, fresh squeeze juices and skull bottles. You can choose to sit at this bar or one of the candle-lit tables where you’ll be greeted with a shooter of mezcal mixed with one of their homemadeagua frescas, fruits, seeds and spices blended with sugar and water.

While it’s traditional to pair your food with a drink, this is one place where you may want to consider your beverage first. We recommend going straight for the horchata. Each cocktail begins with a base of classic horchata, a mixture of almonds, rice & cinnamon. From there, additions like cactus flower, espresso and rum create atypical but delicious options. Their most interesting offering is a “Funky Monkey Signature Horchata,” made with horchata, Malibu Rum, Stoli Vanilla and Kahlua, served in a monkey cup.

Horchata - New York, NY

Says Trevino, “We look at the profile of the horchata itself and complement it by sending the flavor in different directions. For example, horchata with espresso is reminiscent of a Mexican coffee with the cinnamon and coffee flavors, add rum and you’re taken to a Mexican beach . The “Funky Monkey” is our version of a tropical “White Russian,” by adding the horchata instead of milk and adding Malibu Rum we give a more tropical feel.”

It’s a Mexican restaurant, so of course you’ll also find tequila-based cocktails and quality mezcals. Margaritas come in flavors like Blood Orange, Hibiscus and Jalapeno-Cucumber — spicy and refreshing — and are made sans-sour mix, an unfortunate rarity in New York City.

Once you’ve navigated the extensive drink menu it’s time for some grub. While at first glance it seems like you’re typical Mexican fare: tacos, quesadillas, guacamoles, toastadas, enchiladas. Look closer, however, and you’ll see Chef Treviño — who was born in the border town of Laredo Texas and grew up with Mexican food and culture — puts his own unique spin on the classics. Start with a guacamole trio so you can sample the classic version, a garden-style guac with apples, cucumbers and tomatillo, and a spicy kind with chipotle and habanero chile, before moving on to tuna “quesadillas.” These quesadillas are unlike any you’ve ever seen, tortilla-crusted tuna rolled up in a wrap sushi-style sitting in spicy Sriracha aioli that pays homeage to easy-to-hold street foods. Braised pork belly with pineapple and chipotle aioli works well as a taco, as does the braised short rib with red pickled onion and tomato jalapeno salsa. Mezcal-cured or tamarind-glazed salmon, house-made chorizo, grapefruit salad with chocolate vinaigrette and citrus-roasted chicken with cilantro chimichurri are just a few of the many other tastes to be had at Horchata.

Horchata - New York, NY

The whole Horchata concept is a pretty sweet idea.

Speaking of sweet, at Horchata dessert is a must, especially the “Pastel de Chocolate,” a moist slice of chocolate cake infused with ancho chile and topped with spiced whipped crema. There’s also a dreamy “Capas de Crepes Tres Leches” featuring multiple layers of crepe sliced between Mexican vanilla cream with tres leches poured on top.

*Photos courtesy of Noah Feck.

How You Can Help The Environment When You Travel

October 18, 2014 by  

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The idea of going on vacation is probably one of the most appealing concepts we have as human beings. It can mean anything from jet setting off to a sunny beach and sipping tropical drinks to trekking through remote and exotic jungles. While there’s a type of travel to entice virtually every personality, there are also many travel practices that aren’t as attractive to the planet as a whole. Tourists across the globe have earned reputations for being wasteful and even harming the locations they set out to experience and enjoy.

Fortunately, more people have been taking notice of tourism’s impact on the environment, which the United Nations World Tourism Organization has recently found to be quite significant as the tourism industry is responsible for approximately 5% of global climate change. Much of this change stems from high amounts of carbon and greenhouse emissions such as CO2, methane, nitrous oxide and F-gases. Ironically, many of these emissions are also produced by tourists in an effort to visit sites that are negatively affected by the climate changing impact of emissions. These sites would include  – but are not limited to — ski resorts, rainforests, low-lying islands and arctic and Antarctic glaciers.

Clearly the most effective means of stopping tourism’s effect on climate change would be to stop traveling all together; however, even making a few small changes to your travel practices can have a large impact on the amount of emissions produced during your trip. To get started on ways to improve your responsible travel, you can begin with this list of common travel practices that are detrimental for the environment, but easily changeable.

Photo courtesy of bigbirdz and Flickr

Photo courtesy of bigbirdz and Flickr

1) Taking That Cheap Flight With Three Layovers

It’s easy to understand why one would want to save money and earn more miles on a flight that will detour you through a few extra cities en route to your destination. While it’s easy to see that a longer flight will produce more emissions, the real energy drain actually stems from the extra take off and landing cycles. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, international flights use about twice as much fuel during the landing/takeoff cycle as they during their cruising time. This means that choosing direct flights won’t just save you the hassle being stuck in an airport overnight on a layover, it can help to drastically cut down the total emissions of a trip.

To take things a step further, you can choose to forgo air travel altogether in favor of a different mode of transportation. The Economist found that as a double-decker A380 has as much power as 3,500 family cars, it produces emissions equivalent to that of six cars to transport each of its passengers. Even with this in mind, depending on the distance of the trip and the amount of people traveling, different modes of transportation will be better or worse for the environment. For example, a train journey of 100 miles would be a better option than flying economy for a solo traveler; however, if a family of four was traveling over 1,000 miles, a train journey would actually be worse for the environment than flying economy. For a vacation traveler carbon guide, see the Union of Concerned Scientists’ Getting There Greener guide.

<img class=”size-full wp-image-37031″ alt=”Photo courtesy of Calvin Chu and Flickr” src=”http://epicureandculture.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/06/Calvin-Chu-and-Flickr.jpg” width=”630″ height=”461″ /> Photo courtesy of Calvin Chu and Flickr

2) Plastic Bagging Souvenir Purchases

It can be easy to be tempted to bring back a reminder of your perfect trip, along with souvenirs for your family and friends. But if you’re going to be buying mementos remember to bring a reusable cotton totes to avoid using plastic bags.

To make your shopping even more sustainable, look for locally-made goods. Choosing local purchases supports the local economy, providing income for the residents of the region you’re visiting instead of an international corporation. Purchases like this not only benefit the shopkeeper directly, they create a multiplier effect for the entire community as once local businesses begin earning more money, they in turn spend more money in the community to further develop the business. If money is instead spent at an internationally owned company, leakage is created, as the revenue will be “leaked” from the country and back to the corporation’s headquarters. The United Nations Environment Programme has quoted this is an especially large issue in places like Thailand and the Caribbean, where 70% and 80% of money spent by tourists in these locations respectively ended up leaving the area.

Photo courtesy of Alpha and Flickr

Photo courtesy of Alpha and Flickr

3) Eating Like You Would Back Home

While being in a new destination may leave some travelers craving the comforts of home, eating imported foods from international suppliers leads to the same type of leakage as buying souvenirs from international suppliers. In addition, carbon emissions produced from importing food can add up quickly. In 2005, the Natural Resources Defense Council found that the import of fruits, nuts and vegetables into California alone produced over 70,000 tons of CO2 emissions — the equivalent of 12,000 cars on the road.

Eating local not only benefits the planet, it’s also a great way to experience a destination’s culture. A trip to Singapore wouldn’t be complete without sampling some local chilli crab or durian (a large pungent and delicious fruit), just as a trip to Peru wouldn’t be the same without sipping some coca tea or pisco (a grape brandy).

<img class=”size-full wp-image-37032″ alt=”Photo courtesy of Hotel Der Oeschberghof and Flickr” src=”http://epicureandculture.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/06/Hotel-Der-Oeschberghof-and-Flickr.jpg” width=”630″ height=”420″ /> Photo courtesy of Hotel Der Oeschberghof and Flickr

4) Getting Daily Housekeeping At Your Hotel

After a long day exploring the sights, it can be nice to come back to a clean hotel room to relax. That being said, this doesn’t have to mean you need all of your sheets and towels washed every day. According to the Carbon Fund, 16.8 kilograms (about 37 pounds) of CO2 emissions are produced per person per night in budget to midrange hotels and 33.4kg (about 73 pounds) in upscale hotels.

Fortunately, many hotels are realizing the impact they’re having on the environment and are now offering green programs for guests, with options like allowing guests to forgo daily linen washing. Since introducing these green options, JD Power and Associates completed a guest satisfaction study to find that two-thirds of guests chose to participate in the programs when given the option.

To take things a step further, you could skip the hotel experience altogether and opt for a local homestay or camping. Again, these options are not only better for the environment; they allow you to create a closer connection to your destination. Homestays can be especially beneficial as many locals that offer this option will be more than willing to show you around their town or city and expose you to lesser known sights and attractions.

Photo courtesy of michael_swan and Flickr

Photo courtesy of michael_swan and Flickr

5) Cranking The Heat/AC

Similar to getting your towels and sheets changed on a daily basis, most people are more likely to crank the heat or AC while on vacation. While there might be a climatic difference between home and your destination — not to mention you’re not responsible for the resulting electric bill — resisting the urge to climate control can help significantly cut down emissions. Do your research before you leave and make sure to pack for the weather to be better adjusted to the new temperatures. If it will be particularly hot, you may even want to pack a small fan or misting bottle.

Another tip to remember is to turn off your heat or AC back home before you leave. If your house is going to be empty while your gone, there’s no reason to create emissions, and spend money climate controlling when it’s not necessary. Unplugging electronics is another great way to save energy.

How do you help to reduce your carbon footprint when traveling?

 Leaf. Photo courtesy of Jeff Kubina.

Here’s a Fun Top Ten Brunch List for New York

October 17, 2014 by  

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What’s the one thing you need after a late night out at one of New York’s underground bars? Aspirin, maybe. But you could also do with a booze-filled brunch for some hair of the dog. From classic American French Toast to traditional Italian wood-fired pizzas, these best brunches in NYC are testament to the city’s melting pot of cultures.

best brunches in nyc

Photo courtesy of Sotto 13

1. Sotto 13 | 140 W 13th Street

Tucked along the West Village, Sotto 13 serves up casual Italian fare in a bright dining area framed with a massive skylight. Bottomless brunch runs at $39 per person with an entrée and unlimited cocktails such as Bloody Marys, mimosas, screwdrivers and raspberry white-peach bellini. Hot favorites include their Spicy Fennel Sausage wood-fired pizza, French Toast and Skirt Steak Hash. For a unique experience, their Do-It-Yourself Processco Bar allows guests to enhance their glasses of bubbly with liqueurs, fruit purees, candied fruits and more.

TIP: Food portions are generous so come with an empty stomach if you must!

best brunches in nyc

Photo courtesy of Calle Ocho

2. Calle Ocho | 45 W 81st St

Calle Ocho’s proximity to Central Park means a stroll is in order after your brunch feast. And you’ll need one when you’re faced with Calle Ocho’s indulgent selection of Latin American cuisines from the Latin Benedict to the Vaca Frita – skirt steak with fried rice, avocado, and fried eggs. From $20, your brunch comes with an unlimited refill of eight Sangria flavours. Gluten free options are available too.

TIP: A reservation is highly recommended.

best brunches in nyc

Photo courtesy of Epstein’s Bar

3. Epstein’s Bar | 82 Stanton St

If you’re in New York on a shoestring budget, Epstein’s Bar is the place to be for your boozy brunch fix. While you won’t be served truffle omelets or Lobster Benedict here, you can get a stack of warm pancakes with unlimited booze selections of Bloody Mary, mimosas, or screwdrivers — all for $13.50. Simple and fuss-free, it’s the attentive service at Epstein’s that has kept many coming back for more.

TIP: Get there early, as space is limited.

best brunches in nyc

Photo courtesy of Poco

4. Poco | 33 Avenue B

It’s hard to miss Poco with their crimson red exterior and hip music. At $28, you get an entree and unlimited 90 minutes of mimosas, Bloody Mary or sangria. Their drinks are strong, which is a great change from watered down brunch cocktails. Regulars to Poco swear by the Lobster Mac-n-Cheese and Poco Benedict – poached egg on a crispy arepa. If you’re recovering from a hangover, opt for The Cure – crispy tortillas with salsa served under a blanket of queso blanco and scrambled eggs.

TIP: Poco’s bustling ambiance and blaring music is perfect for a vibrant get-together, but not so much for an intimate rendezvous.

best brunches in nyc

Photo courtesy of The Queen’s Kickshaw

5. The Queen’s Kickshaw | 40-17 Broadway, Astoria

At this Astoria restaurant, brunch runs from 9am-4: 45pm, perfect for the early birds and late risers. The food served is vegetarian, but you’ll never guess it from the delectable layered Potato Cake to the flavourful Gouda sandwich: a marriage of guava jam and black-bean hummus with a sprinkle of picked jalapenos. Queen’s Kickshaw’s cozy atmosphere and selection of craft beers are a welcoming respite from the chaos of Manhattan.

TIP: The coffee here is equally fantastic, opt for the Pour Over ones.

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best brunches in nyc

A delicious Bacon Bowl from The Half Pint. Photo courtesy of Jessie on a Journey.

6. The Half Pint | 76 W 3rd St

Though they are known for a diverse selection of beers, The Half Pint’s serves up amazing classic American comfort food too. A popular favorite is their fried chicken and waffles – crispy, succulent and the hearty remedy to chase your morning blues away. Splurge an extra $16 for unlimited mimosas, Bloody Marys, and brunch punch. With large windows and lots of natural light, The Half Pint is the perfect place for people watching.

Tip: If you don’t feel like venturing out, The Half Pint provides delivery from noon.

best brunches in nyc

Jessie on a Journey with an ENORMOUS glass of sparkling wine from La Carbonara

7. La Carbonara | 202 W 14th St

This Italian restaurant embodies a distinct homey feeling with dim lights and hardwood floors. But don’t be fooled by its décor; each weekend La Carbonara comes alive with wicked tunes and a drag show! Start with the crispy frittata folded with bacon and leeks, then dive into a homemade pasta, with choices ranging from carbonara to bolognese. For $20, you get an hour and a half of champagne, mimosa, screwdriver and Bloody Marys (pourings are VERY generous).

Tip: A reservation is highly recommended.

best brunches in nyc

Awesome ambiance at the North River Lobster Co. Photo courtesy of Jessie on a Journey.

8. North River Lobster Company | W 41st St

Fresh seafood, live music, and a free cruise around the Hudson River. Sounds too good to be true? Not at this floating lobster shack. Simply show up before their daily sail times and hop onboard for fresh Maine lobsters and staple seafood items such as Shrimp Po’ Boy and Fish Tacos. Pair your North River Lobster Company meal with mason jar cocktails or a bucket of beer. The boat ride lasts for half and hour but you are welcome to stay onboard as long you want.

Tip: Time your arrival for a sunset cruise around the river.

best brunches in nyc

Photo courtesy of Sweet Revenge

9. Sweet Revenge | 62 Carmine St

A tiny place in the heart of West Village, Sweet Revenge pairs each dish with an imported beer or wine for a complementary combination to your meal. For a decadent brunch, try their breakfast burrito bowl, served with generous heaps of avocados, potatoes, eggs and cheese. You can’t leave without partaking in one (or three) of their signature homemade cupcakes. My pick? The Dirty, a Valrhona Cake with Dark Chocolate Truffle paired with a Sweet Smaak Rose Moscato from South Africa.

Tip: Cozy and quaint, Sweet Revenge is the perfect place to impress that special someone.

catfish

Photo courtesy of Catfish

10. Catfish | 1433 Bedford Ave

Serving classic New Orleans dishes, Catfish will steal your brunch-loving heart with their flavorful Catfish Po’ Boy or Shrimp ‘N Grits. If you’re feeling frisky, their NOLA-inspired cocktails are excellent: try Hurricane, a bracing mix of passion fruit, orange, lime, light and dark rum. The atmosphere is fun and there’s a backyard garden patio for when the weather is nice.

Contributed by Suhana Sol.

Where To Go For The Best Coffee in London

October 16, 2014 by  

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cafes in london

London may be famous for its pubs and high teas, but its coffee scene is also experiencing a boom. From London institutions like Monmouth to cutting-edge new spots like Workshop, from epic church environs like The Wren to re-purposed underground toilet settings like The Attendant, your choices for finding the perfect cup of coffee in London are endless.

Here are five of the best cafes in London:

cafes in london

The Wren

In the shadow of Saint Paul’s cathedral, housed in the atmospheric surrounds of the re-purposed Saint Nicholas Cole Abbey, newcomer The Wren boasts some of the most unique surrounds — and best coffee — in London. The space is large and airy, but the ambiance is still somehow quaint and comfy.

Photo courtesy of Workshop

Workshop

Workshop is quickly earning itself a reputation as one of London’s finest purveyors of coffee. The quirky décor and relaxed vibe, not to mention the exquisite coffee, make it the perfect spot to unwind over an espresso.

cafes in london

Fernandez & Wells

Fernandez & Wells has a number of locations in fashionable parts of the city, including near Leicester Square and in the courtyard of Kings College London and the Courtauld Gallery, but my favorite is tucked away down a little Soho street. Espressos and milky coffees alike reign here, and they serve patisseries worthy of France.

cafes in london

Monmouth Coffee

When it comes to coffee, Monmouth is a veritable London institution. The shopfront right near the Borough Market, just south of London Bridge, tends to draw the most visitors; however, I’m a fan of the Monmouth Street, Covent Garden branch, if only for its location in the midst of some of the city’s best shopping streets, Seven Dials.

cafes in london

The Attendant

Subterranean Fitzrovia café The Attendant is set in one of the most bizarre spaces in all of Europe: a re-purposed Victorian men’s bathroom. Porcelain urinal stalls have been transformed into surprisingly fitting personalized benches, reading lamps and old hand dryers alike sit side-by-side on the walls, and the floor alternates between original tiling and bright new astroturf. If it sounds just a little distasteful, believe me, it’s not. With top-notch coffee, sparkling clean spaces, quirky decorations and delicious snacks, The Attendant is all charm and definitely no grime.

Do you have a favorite London cafe? Please share in the comments below.

-By Gemma King

Top coffee image courtesy of FookPhoto.com via Shutterstock.

New York’s Louro Restaurant For Pig Trotter Ice Cream & Tsukemono

October 15, 2014 by  

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Louro Bar. Photo courtesy of Alice Gao

Louro Bar. Photo courtesy of Alice Gao.

Walking into Louro Restaurant feels like coming home. I immediately relax as I enter its laid-back West Village neighborhood, whose quiet parks and bookstores provide an oasis of serenity amongst the hustle and bustle of New York City. Louro’s unassuming entrance opens up to a cheery and classy interior, where candles flicker against white-brick walls and international music creates an entrancing ambiance. Locals catch up over a drink at the bar and newcomers pursue a clipboard, contemplating the wide range of modern cuisine contained on the menu.

My brother and I sit under a painting of a bay leaf, whose Portuguese translation serves as the name for the eating establishment. Before we know it, a basket of warm pillowy rolls arrives beneath our noses.  My brother instantly slathers it in the provided spread, pausing in pleasure as soon as he takes a bite.

“This is good.  What is it?”

Suddenly, the attentive waiter pipes up, “It’s the chef’s famous pork butter.”  He gestures toward the front wall, “If you really like it, the recipe’s right there. Louro Restaurant‘s Chef David isn’t like other chefs. He loves to share his creations”.

Just then, the young chef approaches from behind, interrupting with a laugh, “I’m an open book.”

Chef David Santos.  Photo courtesy of Jose Moran Moya

Chef David Santos. Photo courtesy of Jose Moran Moya.

Out comes a refreshing watermelon salad, doctored with a kiwi spread and topped with tsukemono (Japanese pickled cabbage) for crunch.

“I’m a huge texture person,” Chef David comments, “and I’m always looking for ways to incorporate my pickling experiments”.  He grins mischievously, revealing his inner mad scientist, and gestures to display a giant wall of colorful labeled jars. “Pickling and preserving has always been at the root of my life, but it really took off here at Louro. This is where I decided to dedicate time and effort to pickling, preserving, culturing and fermenting. It was a way of taking something we already knew and making it different.”

Chef David excitedly pulls out a sunset-colored container of Spanish Monroe blood oranges that he picked up on a trip to Europe and marinated the rinds with saffron. “I don’t know what I’m going to do with some of this stuff but that’s what keeps life interesting.”

Louro Interior.  Photo courtesy of Katie Ett

Louro interior and pickling wall. Photo courtesy of Katie Ett

All of a sudden, another appetizer arrives, this time a cooked squash piled with puffed grains, salty nuts and fresh basil.  When it is joined by a sizzling pan of kimchi fried rice, covered in duck egg, I decide to distract him with another question so I can savor the slow crescendo of spice in this new dish. “How did your culinary career begin?”

Culinary Immersion From Childhood

Born in Philadelphia as the son of Portuguese immigrants, Chef David’s family exposed him to all aspects of food production, from gardening to raising animals to baking bread. His dad made his own wine and his mom kept her own garden, allowing him to learn from a young age about planning meals around seasonal produce.

David recalls, “That’s how my mom grew up and she brought that with her to the States. I remember being in the supermarket with her in the winter as a child and her not understanding why they were selling peaches in December. Things like that helped make me become the cook that I am today. I kind of laugh at the whole ‘farm-to-table, seasonal’ thing because that’s what you’re supposed to do, not something you advertise.”

Exploring The World Of Food

Although food formed the backbone of his upbringing, Chef David Santos did not receive much formal culinary training from his family members — although they did inspire him to pursue a degree in the Culinary Arts from Johnson & Wales University in 2001. After graduation, Chef David traveled through Europe and South America, tasting and learning as much as he could along the way.  He claims this spirit of discovery forms the basis of his culinary philosophy.

He elaborates, “The philosophy is very much like the Portuguese explorers of old. I’m not satisfied with being any one thing. We push ourselves to explore the world of food. To expand our horizons and to learn as much as we can — then pass this exploration onto our guests”.

How Does Louro Help YOU Expand Your Culinary Horizons?

From ever-evolving menus to themed dinners to special events, Chef David does his best to ensure every visit to Louro is a unique experience. In fact, you can eat at Louro over 80 times in a year and never have the same meal: 52 different tastings in the Monday supper club Nossa Mesa alone, not to mention an ever evolving menu and special wine dinners and events along the way.

Louro Gnocchi Parisienne.  Photo courtesy of Michael Tulipan

Louro Gnocchi Parisienne. Photo courtesy of Michael Tulipan

With so much going on at Louro, I ask Chef David to describe these opportunities in more detail; however, before he starts talking, my brother and I order another course so we can taste what we’ve learned about — you know, for educational purposes. I opt for the potato gnocchi, which made its menu debut yesterday. When it arrives, a generous assortment of mushrooms smothers the spongy gnocchi, all of which is enveloped in a tasty cream sauce.

My brother opts for the lobster “roll,” which turns out to be different than your typical summertime sandwich. Unlike the typical lobster roll, the dish does not rely on butter for flavor, but instead offers an assortment of textures to enliven the experience.  A generous scoop of Maine lobster tops an open-faced slice of toasted brioche bread, which in turn is sprinkled with chopped celery and ruby-colored salmon eggs.

As we feast on uber-fresh dishes, I ask Chef David to elaborate on why he changes the menu so often.

“’Why not?’ is the real question,” he replies. “There are seasons within seasons and I just hate seeing the same things over and over again. The menu does not change for the sake of change, but to push ourselves to learn more as well as to keep menu costs appropriate”.

He recognizes some guests want consistency, so he keeps a few dishes constant throughout the year, including the beloved “Octopus Bolognese.” For the dish Chef David chose ingredients that do not waiver in quality throughout the year — octopus, garlic, onions, carrots, good canned tomatoes and wine — and can be enjoyed regardless of the weather. Learning about cooking according to the seasons and tasting food this fresh makes me wonder how any restaurant can keep their menu static; however, when I spy the animated gleam in the eye of the chef in front of me, I quickly realize most chefs do not have the energy to perpetually innovation like Chef David does.

Having Fun With Themed Supper Clubs

Thoughtfully, I ask Chef David about his Nossa Mesa supper clubs, a tradition he started in his personal Roosevelt Island home during a much-needed break from the gourmet restaurant scene. After working in extreme kitchen conditions, Santos wanted to develop his own culinary voice by launching Um Segredo, a series of supper clubs in 2012. These theme-dinners developed almost a cult following, and attendees helped the chef raise the funds to open his own restaurant a year later.

Today, Chef David continues this tradition on Monday nights, featuring a different theme each week, often inspired by pop culture or seasonal ingredients (6-7 courses, from $55, BYOB). He’s hosted Dexter-themed dinners, complete with home-made blue pop-rocks, 1920s themed Gatsby dinners and even a menu that utilizes Ramen in a half-dozen ways.  He even lets his assistant chefs plan the menu once a month, playfully announcing those dinners with the label, “The inmates run the asylum.”

Chef David takes mentoring his assistants seriously and he’s proud of how they have risen to the occasion.  He jokes, “They’re not going to get rich in this business, but I hope to leave them rich in knowledge.”

The passion in his voice reveals that he truly enjoys cooking, sharing this with his guests and co-chefs.

“My philosophy is to love what we do and let our guests feel that love. I think that in itself makes our restaurant special. To take so much care and love into what we are doing is the heart of Louro. We are inspired by the world around us, which means everything and anything.”

Louro bread with Portuguese butter, made from pork lard.  Louro Gnocchi Parisienne.  Photo courtesy of Michael Tulipan

Louro bread with Portuguese butter, made from pork lard. Louro Gnocchi Parisienne. Photo courtesy of Michael Tulipan

Utilizing The Whole Hog With Nose-To-Tail Customized Catering

When I ask Chef Santos about his nose-to-tail private events and parties, I realize he’s serious about using every part of the animal.  For these, he works with guests to come up with a menu, a process that might shock some.  When requesting a 5-course suckling pig dinner, one might expect sausage from the hams, porchetta out of the loin and some pork belly; however, Chef David takes it one — or 10 — step further, maybe smoking the trotters for an aromatic and carnivorous smoked trotter ice cream, possibly served with sticky maple and bourbon-glazed donuts.

Hearing about dessert reminds us we need to finish off our meal so we ask for the menu. Chef David waves away the waiter, explaining he has a weekly dessert competition with his two assistant chefs, and thus we need to try all three in order to appropriately judge. I pat my stomach and look skeptical, but when dessert arrives I know I must find room.

My experience begins with the savory option: a honey frozen yogurt with cucumber and watermelon flowers. From there, I move to a fruity huckleberry compote smothered in home-made caramel and frosty buttermilk snow.  To finish complete my decadent mission, I sample the “Louro Donut,” whose popularity on the previous week’s menu allowed it to carry over to now. For this sweet plate, chocolate ricotta and dark chocolate mousse floats over an airy beignet gowned in toasted hazelnuts.

Chef David looks at me expectantly, waiting for me to cast my vote.  I weasel my way out of picking a favorite, smirking, “At this place it is  hard to go wrong.”

Louro Donuts. Photo courtesy of Michael Tulipan

Louro Donuts (slightly different than the one I tried). Photo courtesy of Michael Tulipan

Chef David perfectly personifies the Ella Fitzgerald quote, “Where there is love and inspiration, I don’t think you can go wrong.”

His creative menus may sneak some strange things on your plate — pig trotters in your ice cream? — but his attention to detail and love of food transfer into animated, unforgettable dishes.  If you want a dining experience where passion and innovative thinking forms the basis of every dish, you can not go wrong with Chef David’s cooking at Louro in New York City.

Have you dined at Louro Restaurant in NYC? Please share your experience in the comments below.

Featured image courtesy of Mandy Madness via Shutterstock

Fijian Cooking School For Out Of The Box Island Cooking

October 14, 2014 by  

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fiji food

Fijian culinary delights from Flavours of Fiji

From curry dishes to vegetable sides, Fijian cuisine can offer lessons in heritage, culture and daily island living. On one of these islands, I discovered a cooking school that gives visitors a hands-on exploration of home-style native cuisine.

Opened in May of 2013, Flavours of Fiji Cooking School holds a daily half-day Fiji food class that teaches students through a fun yet informative method known as “the Fijian way.” Classmates learn how to prepare roughly six or so dishes based from a pre-set menu at assigned cooking stations.

Luckily, I have the opportunity to be a student for a day, which immerses me in a world of dishes that are spicy, sweet and nutritious.

Cooking Area

Fiji Food: What Is It?

So, what is Fijian cooking? As the school’s director, Malisa Raffe, explains, “Fijian cooking has developed into a diverse blend of delicious flavors from Melanesia, Polynesia, India, China, Rotuma and other Pacific Islands. Local food encompasses a wonderful fusion of fresh seafood, exotic fruit and local vegetables creating mouth-watering flavors. Dishes are cooked to taste, ingredients are thrown in liberally, everything is always served in abundance and guests are always welcomed with ‘have you eaten?.’ Our food is our culture.”

A Lesson In Fijian Cooking

Our course starts off with a presentation on the various fruits and root and green vegetables that are staples in the Fijian diet. Raffe leads us to a table featuring a display of ingredients with placards listing their names and brief descriptions: taro (a starchy root vegetable), bhindi (okra), kumquat (a citrus fruit), vudi (banana) and dovu (sugar cane), among other edibles.

fiji food

Pineapple is a popular cooking ingredient in Fijian cuisine. Photo courtesy of Shulevskyy Volodymyr via Shutterstock.

Then the coursework begins. Fittingly being “farm to table,” the cooking school’s class menus are seasonally planned. Fortunately, Fiji’s fertile soil and tropical climate allow for produce to grow easily. Currently available fresh fruits and vegetables are bought from local marketplaces. Along with original meals, dishes for the day demonstrate the multicultural influences such as Indian that have become infused with native cuisine overtime. Menus can be specific such as with themes of “Fiji Day” or in honor of events such as Diwali, the Indian Festival of Lights, or simply showcase traditional foods.

“Our Menus are seasonal and our team starts each day at the local markets sourcing fresh fruits & vegetables and seafood caught that morning, explains Malisa Raffe, Director of Flavours of Fiji Cooking School. “Our most popular Menu is “Kaiviti Magiti” (Local Feast) which consists of a delicious selection of Fijian dishes, Indian dishes and tropical sweets — seven dishes in total! Our recipes always focus on seafood, root crops, local fruits and vegetables, an exotic array of local style curries, homemade chutneys, fresh tropical juice and local sweets.”

Indian Spices

Ingredients in Fijian cuisine can often be used for more than just eating. For example, the leaves from a banana plant can be used as place mats or to wrap chicken, meat or fish in for grilling. Moreover, the oil from a coconut, as commonly now known, is perfect for a person’s beauty needs.

With my group, we have a lesson in “Fijian, Indian & Tropical Sweet,” preparing a fish dish, two curries, two vegetable sides, a flatbread and a banana dessert. Required ingredients are supplied and pulled from shelves below our stations as needed.

Fiji food

Exploring Indian flavors with Flavours of Fiji Cooking School

Fijian Culinary Traditions

Raffe, our instructor, provides step-by-step instructions with each recipe, and with help from her assistants who are also home cooks, we listen to personal stories about how Fijian dining while working on our dish assignments. One such story: While cooking rourou, we hear how elders eat the green leaves of the taro plant (the younger generation might be iffy) so often that they credit it with keeping them from getting sick.

There are also special Fijian cooking traditions, the most popular of which is “lovo,” an underground oven used to cook feasts for many special occasions. The family gathers to peel and chop root crops, wrap whole chickens, pieces of pork and fish in banana leaves and also to prepare “palusami.” This is a delicious mixture of coconut cream, onions, tomatoes, salt, chilli and either fish or corned meat wrapped in taro leaves. This cooking process steams the food until tender and gives it a delicious earthy and smoky flavor.

Another cooking tradition found in the remote interior village is steaming food in a hollowed-out freshly-cut piece of bamboo. This is placed over an open fire to five the food a pleasant wood-fired flavor.

fiji food

Delicious tropical sweets

A Delicious Journey

In mixing and pouring in bowls, sauteing and stirring up pots, I enjoy the sights and scents of my coursework: adding in aromatic spices for my curries, awkward flipping over each side of my flatbread, and squeezing lime juice onto fish for a native ceviche called Kokoda.

Says Raffe, “Kokoda has been a national favorite since the dawn of time. Its’ special because it encompasses a fusion of our most popular local ingredients: walu or wahoo (fish), coconut cream, lemon, chilli, tomato and salt — all thrown in liberally to taste! As these ingredients are always readily available, it is a quick and easy dish to prepare… and delicious!”

And, of course, you get to eat what you made when the class has ended. After we finished up our dishes, we sat down together alongside plates with cut-up taro, pineapple and papaya and a freshly made juice. We also “graduated” that day. The school staff presented our group with diplomas naming each of us as a “Local Master Cook.” While I’m not sure I truly deserved the title of “Master Cook,” I did feel my Fijian cooking confidence growing. In fact, I made a promise to myself to practice the recipes provided after the class, hopefully shifting my title from Local International Cook to International.

fiji food

Says Raffe, “Our ultimate goal is to showcase our delicious homestyle cuisine to visiting tourists and local alike so they can enjoy a fun activity, share our love of local food and learn about culture. We are proud of our heritage and proud of our food and take great delight in showcasing our cuisine to the rest of the world. Cooking traditional dishes in a modern environment allows guests to feel comfortable and enjoy a special and unique culinary experience along the way.”

To help you become a master of Fijian cooking yourself, Flavours of Fiji Cooking School has provided their recipe for Kokoda, a raw fish dish and national favorite among locals and residents.

fiji food

Kokoda

Kokoda

Serves 6

Ingredients:

1/2 kg very fresh walu (Spanish Mackerel), Mahimahi or Snapper fillet, skinned
Juice of 8 lemons
1 medium-size onion finely diced
1 red chilli finely sliced (optional)
1 cup finely chopped tomato
Several spring onions finely sliced
2 cups coconut milk
Salt to taste
Lime wedges to serve

Method:

1. Cut the fish into 1 cm cubes (preferable to discard any darkened cubes)
2. In a bowl, mix the fish and the lemon juice to marinate for two to three hours, or until
the fish is opaque
3. Drain the lemon from the fish and add the onion, chilli, tomato, spring onion, coconut
milk and salt
4. Mix well, chill and serve with lime wedges (do not refrigerate for too long as the coconut
milk will solidify)

Kana Vinaka! (Delicious Food!)

By Michele Herrmann

Have you savored Fijian cooking? What was your experience like? Please share in the comments below.

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