Friday, August 29, 2008

Baltimore Hilton's Diamond Tavern

Yesterday was so dreary and gross, and all day long I dreamed about going home and curling up with a good book or my seemingly infinite pile of magazines. Since the new Hilton on Pratt Street opened just a block from our house, I've been ogling the spacious lobby and overstuffed chairs that seem perfect for pouncing on with a pile of good reads.

We headed over to the Hilton for our first walk-through last night, and I liked what I saw. It's only been open for less than two weeks, so it was endearing to hear the staff reciting lines that had clearly been drilled into their heads. (They'll find their own interpretations of this script in a few weeks). Although a Ravens pre-season game was going on just a block away, the hotel seemed barely occupied.

The indoor color scheme is blues and oranges, and I expected to see water flowing floor to ceiling. No water, but still very soothing. The carpet near the ballrooms though was a little Vegas for me - very busy patterns that force the eyes up. I could do without the carpet, but the rest of the decor, and certainly the floor to ceiling windows everywhere, were gorgeous. And all the twinkling lights! A great gift to west Baltimore.

We will definitely be back to frequent the lobby bar, which is very approachable yet upscale. We meandered our way over to the hotel restaurant, the Diamond Tavern, in the building opposite the main lobby across the overpass. Diamond Tavern faces Geppi's Entertainment Museum on the ground floor.

Gotta say, we weren't very impressed with the location. I was hoping for something higher up with a view of Camden Yards or the skyline. Instead, the restaurant bleeds out onto the brick sidewalks outside of the Light Rail stop. I asked if they plan to add outdoor seating, and our server told me that was supposed to have happened a week ago! The holdup is they have to build some sort of barrier for the outdoor tables so that people don't skip the checks and hop on the Light Rail as a getaway. Seems pretty high drama to me, but I guess that's what hotel managers are there to anticipate.

As for the Diamond Tavern menu, prices were fairly reasonable, the wine list had decent depth and included the staples, and the food was decent. Not great. We split the caprese salad as an app, I got the Pesto Orecchiette, and Joe got the Mushroom and Shallot Ravioli. The Cellar 8 Merlot was rich and smooth for me. Joe got his regular gin and tonic.

Obviously as a new restaurant, they're still working out some kinks. The staff was super friendly yet over eager and borderline intrusive with their repeated check-ups. Once, Joe and I were talking about a serious medical topic and had these intent looks on our faces, and our server stopped by to make sure we were ok! "Actually, no we're not Kelly. We're breaking up right now." What? Of course we didn't say that, and we weren't talking about anything related to relationships, but what if we'd been talking about something sensitive, and here's our server, bless her heart, checking in to make sure we're happy as clams? Rookie mistake.

The restaurant has the potential to be elegant, but the large flat screen TVs blasting college and Ravens football games made it feel more like a bar. At one point I got so excited to hear them playing Ray Charles' "Genius Loves Company" album, but the sound was quickly drowned out by TV sportscasters.

We both agreed though, give it a month and these small hiccups will be worked out. As Joe put it, "My dear, these are what you call the 'kinks'." But as west Baltimore dwellers with limited nearby dining options, we're more than happy to be patient with our new Hilton friends.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Post-workout dinner

We joined the MAC gym in Harbor East, and let me tell you - it's ridiculous. I'd been warned by a colleague that it was going to feel like a spa and I was never going to want to leave. Kath, you nailed it. I spent 2.5 hours there my first day. However, between paying for parking and its really tempting location next to the Whole Foods, this gym could quickly begin to accrue costs greater than just the monthly dues.

Now after a workout, I'm typically not very hungry. However, since Joe and I worked out together last night, he needed something more substantial to eat. I only wanted a light dinner after working my tail off on the Mt. Everest machine (my name for this glute-working masterpiece where I feel like I'm going to climb through the roof). 

Like the giant suckers that we are, we popped into Whole Foods AND Bin 604 (I swear the wine was screaming our names!), and Joe treated me to a perfect post-workout meal at home:
  • 3 ounces of grilled sockeye salmon seasoned with basil, served over three crisp lettuce leaves and lightly drizzled with homemade blueberry/lemon rind reduction (God bless my boyfriend)
  • Thick slices of fresh heirloom tomatoes
  • Steamed asparagus lightly drizzled with fake butter
  • Heart-healthy Cono Sur Carmenere - a note on this wine. According to its website, Cono Sur is the first vineyard in the world to achieve global CarbonNeutral delivery status on all its global exports of Cono Sur and Isla Negra wines. This means CO2 emissions have been measure and balanced to net zero through Greenhouse Gas Emissions Reduction projects. Good for them! Cheers to drinking green!
Tell me this meal doesn't beat a protein shake.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Spending time at Gia's

Last night two friends and I went to Cafe Gia's, a place in Little Italy that we'd been reading good things about. Joe was stuck in a pancreas operation (shocker), so the three of us went ahead hoping he'd be able to join us later. Twas not the case, but anyway...

While he was going on his 15th hour at work, we were loving life. You can read the Baltimore Sun's review to get a feel for the place. We found it to be super cheerful, and we got so excited to see that they had kept a couple sets of French doors open to the street. We got a table in front of those doors,  and literally, we could have stopped there. Dining al fresco is perfection. I got the Misto salad (lettuce, grilled mushrooms, kalabata olives, tomatoes, balsamic vinaigrette) and homemade bruschetta for dinner. We shared a cannoli for dessert. Best cannoli I've ever had. They used lemon rind to sweeten it. Delish.

After reading a description of Gia's "chic, petite mom" in the Baltimore Sun review, I asked the lady who'd seated us if she was, in fact, the Gia's mom I'd read about. Bingo! She was charming, to say the least. She had very dry humor and was extremely self-deprecating, but in an endearing way. She joined us at our table towards the end of the meal and entertained us for a bit. 

At one point, she learned that my two friends are getting married in 3 weeks. She jumped out of her chair, clapped her hands together and exclaimed, "I have something for you! They just came in. I'll be right back!" And off she ran to the kitchen.

Uh, ok... She returns and hands my friends two rubber duckies, one dressed as a bride and one as a groom. Too precious. She went on to tell us that someone put two rubber duckies on the back of her toilet one day, and they just kept spinning around the top of the tank lid with every flush, and she thought, what the heck are these ducks doing here??? For some reason she felt compelled to buy more rubber duckies, and she began using them as bargaining chips for kids who came to eat with their parents. If you behaved, she'd give you a duckie. 

So yesterday she'd received her latest shipment of hundreds of duckies. Sports duckies, Hollywood duckies, bath duckies, you name it. And she said, "I got 5 or 6 pairs of these wedding duckies, and I thought, what I am I ever going to do with these. But then here you are today!" 

She was so thrilled to give them to my engaged friends. I, being the tasteful, chic girl that I am, suggested the couple use the duckies as their cake topper. Ha! You should have seen the look the bride gave me. I think they're going to pass on the rubber duckie cake topper :)

Frederick Wine Trail. Or part of it.

Ok, so it's been a while since I posted. Guilty as charged! Joe was in Australia for a good week, and to be honest, my nights were pretty predictable. Then I spent a few days in Virginia Beach doing ABSOLUTELY NOTHING with my family, which was bliss.

Joe and I had our first full day together in two weeks on Saturday. We had picked up some pamphlets on local wineries at Great Grapes in July, so I suggested we follow the Frederick Wine Trail. Frederick County has done a great job of trying to market their wineries, and we fell for it hook, line and sinker. Any semi-knowledgeable wine drinker will tell you that Maryland wines leave MUCH to be desired, but we are always on the hunt for nice scenery, so we hit the road.

First stop, Elk Run Vineyard in Mt. Airy. Tastings were $4 for 5 wines, so we indulged. Our favorite was the 2006 Liberty Tavern Reserve Chardonnay. Very warm and buttery, aged in oak barrels. We learned that the Elk Run Pinot Noir is produced from the only Pinot Noir grapes that are actually grown in Maryland! Pinot Noir is a very delicate grape to grow and is usually best suited to the Pacific northwest. It was a good wine, but not great. 

Joe grabbed a glass of the champagne, I took the Chardonnay, and we went outside to sit on a picnic table overlooking 10 acres of vines. The grapes were still swelling on the vines, which we'd somehow never seen anywhere else. Gorgeous variations of green, blue, and purple grapes just fattening up for a September harvest. The backdrop was the Elk Run homestead, built in 1756. I talked to the teenage boy living there now and asked if it was haunted. He told me stories about how a man died dozens of years ago in his parents' room and they sometimes hear the floorboards creaking at night when everyone's in bed! Another night, his brother, who sleeps next to the 2nd floor porch, woke up to see a man standing on the porch outside his window! Ah! I love it!

But moving on. We knew we wanted to sit outside at our next vineyard, so we drove about 15 miles to Sugarloaf Mountain Vineyard in Dickerson, outside of Bethesda and Rockville. The tasting room is attached to a beautifully restored red barn, and the fermentation tanks are completely visible inside a modern glass building with floor to ceiling windows. We did a tasting here as well, and then I got sangria and a fruit and cheese plate for us to share on the brick terrace. 

We recently talked to Sugarloaf staff at Great Grapes, and they'd mentioned their plans to open this outdoor terrace for tastings and entertainment. It was great! They had about 15 wrought iron tables with umbrellas set up for you to enjoy their wine and listen to live music. People brought their dogs (including an ENORMOUS Great Dane and a Weimaraner), and we listed to an acoustic set with a guitar and upright bass. Had ourselves a little sing-along.

It was the perfect way to spend a Saturday afternoon. Until Joe, bless his heart, started falling asleep in his chair. Wine tasting when you're post-call maybe isn't the best idea :) He was exhausted.

So back to Baltimore we went and finished off the day with live blues at Bertha's in Fell's Point.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Tea time in Harbor East

As my brother and I were walking around Harbor East this weekend, we saw Teavolve, the new tea lounge on the bottom floor of the Eden apartment building. Timothy fell in love with eastern tea during his tours in Afghanistan and Iraq, so we went inside to check it out.

Very cool space. Modern, minimalist design. Floor to ceiling windows with tables for groups or lounge seating for hanging out. Teavolve is a full restaurant and tea lounge, but we weren't hungry.

I was intrigued by the many teas I'd never heard of, including oolong tea. We called one of T's buddies who used to have tea shipped from China to Iraq when they were overseas. We figured he could help us decipher the menu.

According to this guy Will, oolong tea is a green tea that evolved as a light-weight alternative to Chinese green tea during long transportation routes. The oolong tea is fermented green tea that weighed less than transporting the entire green tea plant. 

While Will's explanation was interesting and I'm sure contains merit, it seems that the origin of oolong tea is still to be determined, according to Wikipedia. Oolong is a tea that falls between green and black tea on the intensity scale.  

Timothy got a black tea since they didn't have any Iranian tea, and we lounged for a while to Putumayo music. According to a brochure on the table, Teavolve will soon be opening a cocktail bar with fruit-infused teas. Nice. 

I definitely plan to go back and curl up with a book come fall. Or maybe I'll be back this Friday for the all-natural happy hour where "acoustic soul meets herbal tea" from 5-9pm.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Country boy comes to town

My brother, Timothy, was in town Saturday and Sunday to hit a local concert and do some biking. I love when he comes to visit because he's always up for trying new things and isn't content with just hanging out. 

Joe left for Australia on Saturday for work, so T and I hit the Toby Keith concert at Nissan Pavilion. Not much to say about it. Just a bunch of drunk 15-year olds blaring country music in the parking lot and passing out on the lawn during the concert. Impressive.

But Sunday, after a morning of burning off crazy calories on our bikes, we hit the last 15 minutes of the farmer's market and stocked up on menu items for the week. T was totally in awe of the variety and volume of fresh produce. Rockingham County Virginia, while the proud poultry capitol of the world, isn't exactly overflowing with concentrated markets of resources. Instead, they're called Kroger and super Wal-Mart :)

We spent Sunday afternoon cooking and watching the Olympics. For me, this is right up there with cooking all day and watching Wimbledon. Even after hitting the farmer's market, T still wanted to visit Whole Foods and gawk. (He fell in love with a giant Whole Foods in Portland, OR, and I'm sad to say our Baltimore store was a little small compared to that one). 

We spent three hours on our bikes in anticipation of the following feast:
  • Sotoccenere with truffles and Rancol cheeses to start, paired with slices of fresh starfruit
  • Grilled eggplant risotto
  • Carmelized broccoli with garlic
  • Turkish tomato salad with fresh herbs
That morning, we'd picked up the latest issues of Bon Appetit and Food & Wine for inspiration, although we improvised on our recipes of choice.

We ate early and he indulged me in a walk across town to Fell's Point. Being the good Irish boy he is, he bribed me into a Guiness at Slainte, followed by a Smithwicks at James Joyce. He assured me, after my thick Guiness, that I'd prefer the lighter Smithwicks. Ahem. Even still, I can't take credit for downing the Smithwicks. By 9:30 my eyes were drooping, and I passed it off to him to finish. I'm a beer pansy. Not going to lie. It makes me feel too full and sluggish. How did I survive college?

Thanks to T, I've got great leftovers to enjoy all by my lonesome this week. Thanks for keeping me company, Timothy! I loved showing you around town. 

Dinner recipes to come later.

Saturday, August 9, 2008

Thursday night's alright for hopping

For anyone who's looking for new, artistic places to grab a drink, check out the Windup Space in the Station North Arts District, just north of the Charles Theatre.

Last Thursday we were grabbing cocktails at the super hip Zodiac (although soon to be no more, sadly), and when we asked for other cool, burgeoning bars in the area, some locals directed us to the Windup Space. 

It was only about 7:30 on a Thursday night, so we had the bar and owner, Russell, completely to ourselves. Poor soul. But Russell had just the vision we were searching for. Polished, exclusive nightlife is fun every now and then, but what we often find ourselves searching for more regularly are edgy locals with passions that go beyond shopping and working out. Boring.

Russell designed the Windup Space to be an outlet where art and nightlife can merge in an approachable atmosphere. He took over an old department store building, refinished the cement floors, painted the walls a deep grey, and has turned the walls into an art gallery. The best feature, however, is the giant film screen at the front of the space. When we walked in, Russell was playing video games on it, but for our sake he switched it to an early 1900s silent film. He regularly features films for free, usually public domain films, which were made before 1960. Local bands are invited to play on a regular basis, too. (Don't think we didn't pitch the Aeroport Rocking Chairs. And Joe's art. Shameless, we are).

Russell designed a space that almost tricks bar-hoppers into thinking they're at an average watering hole where the focus is on booze; in fact, he's used the concept of a bar to people in the door, and then they're surprised to find a hidden art collection or vintage film or music scene that sucks them in and makes them feel very rocker-chic. Ok, I'm speaking for myself on that, but I'll bet you I'm not alone.

The Windup Space just opened May 17th, and it's right next to Tapas Teatro, Hexagon, Joe Squared, Club Charles, and Sophie's.   

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Homemade zucchini bread

At one point this summer, I'd accumulated several large zucchini that I had no idea how to put to good use. I had a flashback to 6th grade when my friends were rotating through home economics, and they all got on the bus one day with warm, sweet smelling loaves of zucchini bread. I was so jealous I never got to make that bread.

So I called mom, and here's the zucchini bread recipe she shared with me. The following ingredients are enough for 3 loaves of bread. Divide accordingly for fewer loaves.
  • 3 cups flour
  • 3 cups sugar
  • 1.5 tsp baking powder
  • 1.5 tsp baking soda
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1/4 tsp cinammon
  • 4 eggs
  • 1.5 cups vegetable oil
  • 2 Tbsp butter, melted
  • 1.5 tsp vanilla extract
  • 1.5 tsp almond extract
  • 3 cups grated zucchini
  • 1 cup chopped pecans
  • 1/2 cup raisins

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Combine all dry ingredients in a large bowl (no raisins or zucchini). Combine wet ingredients in separate bowl and add to dry mix until moistened. Fold in zucchini, pecans and raisins.

Pour into pre-greased and floured pan. Bake for 55-60 minutes or until toothpick comes out clean.

Cool for 10 minutes, remove and enjoy! Serve warm with vanilla ice cream for a subtley sweet treat.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

My house runneth over...with tomatoes!

Joe went to the farmer's market by himself on Sunday and stocked up on tomatoes, knowing how much I squeal over locally grown, juicy red tomatoes. But when I say stocked up, I mean potentially gallons worth of fresh salsa or marinara sauce coming our way! I think we must have about 15 tomatoes for the two of us to consume this week before they go bad. AH! Where are my canning skills when I need them? Yeah, right...(although I'm considering signing up for a canning course with SlowFood Baltimore at the end of the month. Am I going to have to invest my life savings in canning equipment, though if I want to do this on my own?).

So last night I made a fresh tomato and olive "sauce" for spaghetti. I say "sauce" because this wasn't your typical fluid sauce with a smooth consistency. This was a chunky, hearty sauce that showed off all the ingredients. I used a little too much olive oil to warm up the skillet, but the recipe was otherwise simple and tasty for a quick dinner.

  • Dice 2 medium ripe tomatoes
  • Slice 1 can of medium pitted black or assorted olives
  • Mince a handful of fresh basil leaves
  • Heat olive oil in skillet over medium-high heat
  • Add sliced olives and heaping spoonfuls of garlic (to taste) to skillet and let simmer for about 5 minutes
  • Add diced tomatoes and minced basil
  • Stir and continuing simmering for about 10 minutes, or until your house smells like garlic and olive oil :)
  • Serve over 1/2 pound of boiled spaghetti noodles
  • Sprinkle Parmesan cheese to your liking
We topped this off with glasses of the Cat Amongst the Pigeons 1007 Shiraz I picked up the other day. Simple and savory.

My brother gave me Giada de Laurentiis' Everyday Italian cookbook for my birthday, and I'm excited to start mastering Italian sauces. Don't hold your breath, though. According to the Italians I know, it takes years to master the perfect sauce. Check back in with me when I hit 50.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

A weekend of eating well...and getting older

Yesterday was my XXth birthday...ahem. My best girlfriends, Diana and Ashley, and I had planned a baby shower for our long-time friend, Erin, at the Millmont Grille in Charlottesville. We had a great turnout for the shower, and the three of us loved seeing Erin so happy.

Diana, who is completely perplexed at the content on this blog (her memories of my cooking include me burning canned ravioli and eating cookies covered in garlic) bought me a very thoughtful gift. As a fellow blogger, she knows the importance of capturing your thoughts while you're in the moment, so she treated me to a vintage Italian journal to record my culinary fancies when I'm out and about. And cocktail napkins for any drop-in visitors :)

We came back to my parents' house in Massanutten for a block party with all Elk Lane neighbors. I had NO idea who anyone was, but I will give major kudos for the hearty potluck buffet. Southern potlucks are to die for. I try to eat healthy all the time, but when the southern casseroles and creamy salads line up, I'm a complete sucker. Bowtie macaroni salad, broccoli-grape salad, homestyle green beans with ham, baked beans with green peppers, Amish potato salad, smoked pork and homemade BBQ chicken wings...and $300 dollar cake, courtesy of my mom.

My dad and mom had come prepared with birthday candles and matches, so they sang Happy Birthday to me in our neighbor's garage over mom's orange cake with butter cream icing and pecans. Random setting, but perfect outcome :)

But by 9:00pm, I was small-talked out. Baby showers and block parties had me spent. Today we're celebrating my sister's birthday, and we're currently preparing a feast of grilled shrimp with mango chutney over coconut rice with root beer floats for dessert. Can someone please roll me back to Baltimore?

Friday, August 1, 2008

Great sangria find

My girlfriend, Lindsay, was unable to join us at GoG Wednesday night, so she and I made separate plans to grab a drink at Paolo's in Towson last night to catch up.

It's been a while since I've been to Paolo's, but they had just the after work cocktail I needed - a gorgeous light pink glass of white sangria. I'm usually a red sangria girl, but our charming server said a famed chef from DC swears the white is the best sangria he's had in a long time.

Ok, twist my arm. Ladies and gentlemen, it was delicious! Light and fruity, full of pineapple with a splash of grapefruit. Don't mind if I have another!

Just for kicks, Lindsay and I split the crispy eggplant served on top of marinara with a "puff of goat cheese", according to the menu, and the portabello mushroom bruschetta with roasted peppers, pesto and balsamic syrup.

But little did I know I had a pre-birthday dinner being prepared at home for me! More on that later...

Girls on Grapes goes pink

My girlfriends and I are members of Girls on Grapes (GoG), the wine education club for girls only at Bin 604. About once a month, our little group joins about 18 other women for one hour of wine education on a featured grape or region of the month, such as Shiraz, Bordeaux, Champagne, etc.

Bin hosts GoG about twice a week every week after work, and we've come to cherish this one hour (that we usually drag into 2 by closing the shop down). I would HIGHLY recommend this club to any girlfriends looking for an excuse to drink wine in a great shop and play catch up. Ryan is typically our sommelier for the tastings, and she's incredibly knowledgeable and gracious as we get louder with each new tasting :)

Wednesday was our GoG for July, and we sampled six Roses. To be honest, I didn't fall for any of them, but I appreciated the variety of blends and regions. Four of the wines were from France, one from Spain and one from Austria. One takeaway lesson: only drink new Roses. If they're a 2005 or younger, don't buy them. They need to be enjoyed while they're young.

Since my friends and I kept chatting away after the class officially ended, Ryan treated us to tastes of the new 2007 Cat Amongst the Piegons Shiraz - one of my favorites!

I left the store with a bottle of champagne, Cat Amongst the Pigeons 2007 Shiraz, and a Cabernet Sauvignon from The Show - a smoky, brooding wine that I fell in love with at a previous GoG.