Saturday, 30 August 2014

The Great Southwest Canyon Road Trip - The Valley of Fire

[Sandstone formations at the Valley of Fire]
I'll warn you now, there's a not a lot of food in these upcoming posts. But there are giant holes in the ground, vast empty spaces, vertiginous drives and some quite incredible scenery. So I do hope you'll forgive me. I also hope my experiences might be useful to other road trip planners like myself!

First off, a tiny bit of geology. Many gazillions of years ago, much of America was under water, with Utah and Arizona once being the coast of a huge inland sea (look here if you can't picture this).

Over time those sandy shores and sea beds compressed down into a mile thick layer of sandstone - plate tectonics (words I never thought I'd see in my blog) pushed this sandstone some ten thousand feet into the air, turning the sea bed into a high plateau. In turn, water, wind and ice eroded the sandstone into the most amazing canyons, cliffs and valleys (if this has piqued your interest, read more about the Grand Staircase).

I am no geology geek - but these landscapes, after they'd taken your breath away, would always leaving you asking why? how? What possessed nature to create these landscapes?

[Mouse's Tank, Valley of Fire, Nevada]
Anyway, although it came about more by luck than judgement, I was rather proud of our route. The scenery built up slowly - from the human scale of the carved red stones in the Valley of Fire to brain melting enormity of the Grand Canyon.

Done in reverse (as had originally been the plan, which I reversed to ensure we caught the Route 66 Festival in Kingman!), the Grand Canyon would simply have overwhelmed everything else.

So, on day one, a thunderstorm chased us out of Las Vegas along the I15 and then onto the evocatively named Valley of Fire Highway and into the park. Within the park itself, there's a dead-end road that leads up the valley from the visitor's center.

The road winds past a number of viewpoints and trail heads - we chose to walk the short and relatively easy Mouse's Tank trail, while the temperatures were still relatively cool after the storm, and played a fun game of 'spot the petroglyph'.

By the time we'd reached the end of the road, the temperatures were soaring - so tempted as I was to see the set of The Professionals (1966), still preserved among the White Domes Hills, common sense prevailed. Plenty of time yet to do what only mad dogs and Englishmen do  ...

[It's not joking, it was seriously hot]
Given it's just an hour from Las Vegas, I'd expected the Valley to be busier - perhaps, if you're going to do just one natural wonder during your stay, you're off to the Skywalk at the Grand Canyon? For us, it was the perfect introduction to what was to come.

The red sandstone shapes were other-worldly, especially if you're used to the flat, tamed and manicured landscapes of Cambridgeshire, and the petroglyphs remind you there's a mysterious history to America that's older than Columbus or the Pilgrim Fathers.

Oh, and I have to sneak some food in at the end. Don't make the mistake we made and expect to be able to eat at the visitor's centre - this one is purely educational displays and a small gift shop. Hungry, we rejoined the I15 and stopped off at the little town of Mesquite - which has the usual range of ubiquitous eateries.We ended up at a Jack-in-the-Box, although I've since been recommend the Peggy Sue's 50s diner next door. Ah well.

After that, we're back on the road to Springdale, Utah - but this post is already too long and writing about diners has made me hungry. So I'm off to eat brunch and I'll tell all about Zion soon.

Sunday, 24 August 2014

Eating Las Vegas

[Gordon Ramsey's BURGR, Las Vegas]
Yet again, I find myself starting a posting with an apology for my recent online silence. For the past week or so I've been on my family holiday, exploring the mountains and canyons of the American Southwest - and then catching up with work at home.

The problem with family holidays is that it can be harder to find the time to write - and in this case, also knowing what to write about.

Is this blog going to be a food blog or a travel blog? Will I alienate my little handful of readers if I try to be both? These are the things that keep me awake at night. But I will try to keep this an American blog - whether that's American food experiences here in the UK, or writing about my travels when I'm in the US. I hope no one feels this is too schizophrenic!

So where have we been? Well, it all started in Las Vegas, with a meal at Gordon Ramsey's BURGR at Planet Hollywood. Now, I was very excited about this before we arrived, being only the second time I've eaten at a Ramsey establishment (the first being the Claridges, ten years ago). However it's telling that, only a fortnight after, I'm struggling to know what to say.

[Paris, Las Vegas]
Yes, it was a very nice burger. I had the 'American', and I couldn't fault it - and my family enjoyed theirs too. The portion of fries was ridiculously (and inexplicably) large, and could have served all three of us. But ... somehow, Vegas changes things. 

The fact you're barely partitioned off from the casino, dare I say it, makes it feel like you're eating in a mall. The huge TV screens were distracting, and the ridiculously short skirts on the waitresses were just unnecessary. Nothing seemed to have class. There was no connection to the balletic quality of service I experienced in Claridges. Perhaps that just sums up Vegas.

Next we went to that temple of artifice, Paris, to eat at Mon Ami Gabi. Here it was a little easier to suspend disbelief - with our back to the casino, no views of the outside, it's possible to imagine oneself in a dark, wood panelled brasserie. Although when the food arrives, you're instantly reminded you're in the US - the vast portion sizes confirm that. However, the bone in ribeye steak was superb.

[Bellagio Buffet - Puddings!]
Finally, we ended up at Bellagio, to do what Vegas does best - the buffet! Is there something about getting one over on Vegas that makes them so popular? Even if you can't win on the gambling tables, does trying to eat all their crab and prawn salad make up for it?

Allegedly, Bellagio does the best buffet, and I can certainly vouch for the breadth and quality - seafood, sushi, roast beef, ravioli, chinese and charcuterie, it's all covered. Sometimes you even see it all on the same plate (this year, the strangest combo I saw being carried was noodles and croissants). I was restrained, backing out after just eight courses - lightweight.

This is when I warm to Las Vegas - when it's doing what it does best, being brash, piling it high and selling it cheap, putting on a show, dazzling you with choice. It may host some of the world's best chefs (and their smiling faces - well, except for Gordon's scowl - are everywhere) and many of top restaurant brands - but me, I'm happiest when I'm planning my third plate of patisserie ...

Wednesday, 6 August 2014

New Orleans - First isn't always best!

[Fire and Water is Classy]
I must start by telling you we've had some fantastic meals here in New Orleans - and I'll tell you all about those soon. We've also had some, well, interesting experiences here too.

Like all good foodies, I'm both a sucker for local specialities and a bit of food history. If somewhere that tells me it's the 'home of the original ...', then it's going on my 'must visit' list.

We started ourselves off gently, with Pat 'home of the original hurricane' O'Brien's. Now, we like our cocktails, but the hurricane was new to us. We should have guessed we weren't on for a subtle experience when we arrived in the courtyard to be presented with a flaming fountain. Yup, both water and fire - and both awesome and tacky.

The drink itself? Simply fruit juice and a lot of rum (apparently, it was invented to use up cheap rum imports from the Caribbean) - and remarkably popular. Much too sweet for my tastes, and potentially deadly. It comes in a special glass you're allowed to take home. Hmm.

Staying on the theme of cocktails, we also went to Napoleon House - a bar that epitomises New Orlean's shabby, gloomy chic. Here we're after their Pimms and lemonade - a popular drink in the UK, but unusual in the US outside of New Orleans. And - darn it - we weren't impressed. Their Pimms Cup is made with fresh lemonade - which might sound like a good idea, but the bitterness completely drowns out the subtle taste of the Pimms. I guess if you're after alcoholic fresh lemonade, it kind of works, but it didn't work for us. (Best Pimms Cup? We reckon Tableau on Jackson Square).

From there we went to the Hermes Bar, part of Antoine's, home of the Oyster Rockefeller. Now, not only is this the home, but it's the only place in the world you can get this delicacy. The recipe is apparently a closely guarded secret. All they'll tell is that it doesn't contain spinach (err, okay). Apparently, imitators have used laboratories to analyse the ingredients - and over three million of them have been sold.

[Oysters Rockefeller. Hmm]
Well, I hate to say this, but I don't think they'll be selling any more to us. On top of our oysters there was a large pile of piped green gloop. I'm struggling to find a pleasant metaphor to use here. Instead I'll just tell you it was bitter, salty and actually rather unpleasant. We're obviously completely missing something here. It also produced probably the most dreadful photo of the trip so far!

(The best oysters? For us, it was Acme Oyster House on Iberville Street).

But trust us, there's lots of delicious food here in New Orleans - just remember that first isn't always best, and unique isn't always good!

Tuesday, 5 August 2014

It's a hard life food blogging here in New Orleans!

[Brown food at the Gumbo Shop]
You might have noticed that I'm finding it much harder to blog here in New Orleans. So maybe now is a good time to trot out some lame excuses - and perhaps my other fellow bloggers can relate to this.

My first problem is that New Orleans restaurants are atmospheric - or dare I say gloomy? Twice now I've found myself reading menus by the light of my mobile, and that's not really conducive to quality food photography. Trust me, flash never helps, unless you're prepared to set up a whole lighting rig in the restaurant. Strangely, that can cause problems with the management.

[Cocktails are hard to photograph]
Secondly, I'm no longer dining alone. It can be hard to interrupt the flow of conversation to start rummaging in for the SLR, asking your companion to 'just hold this lens', move their dinner to the right to improve the composition, decide that their dinner would actually make a better picture than yours, so you swap the plates round - and so on.

There's also a risk when you're with someone else that you just start eating when the food arrives - and realise halfway through you're supposed to take a picture. Occasionally, I've resorted to rearranging the plate to hide the bite marks, but normally, it's too late.

Also, the food here often shares a problem with the dishes I discovered on my Tex Mex road trip - it's mostly brown. Sorry, but red beans and rice, gumbo and jambalaya don't really photograph that well. It's all a bit, well, monochromatic. And sloppy.

We've also been exploring the world of the cocktail here - and again, glasses of similarly coloured liquids rarely photograph well.

[Fried chicken is also brown, if very tasty]
Now, that's not to say I haven't taken a few good pictures here in New Orleans - I have steamboats, Mardi Gras floats, balconies, bands and graveyards. If you'd like to pop over to my Flickr account, you can see those there. But food? not so good!

However, I have one awful picture that I won't share with you here - that's going to need a post all to itself. I'm not sure even perfect lighting could have saved that one. I'll explain all very soon ...

Friday, 1 August 2014

Greetings from New Orleans! Anyone for alligator in a bun?

[The French Market]
Okay, I admit it, I've been slow to write about New Orleans.

The problem is that there's too many distractions - last night I was distracted by a remarkably strong, bright red cocktail with a cherry in it, a fountain that burst into flames and a bagpiper playing Jesus Christ Superstar. So hopefully you'll forgive me.

So, anyone for alligator in a bun?

I came to New Orleans knowing surprisingly little about the cuisine - but what I did know is that the French influence meant they took their food very seriously here.

My big book of clich├ęs suggests I call the city a 'melting pot', and it's very tempting to do so. There are influences of French, Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, Native American and African cuisines. The two main cuisines are Creole and Cajun, and I'm only just learning the difference.

You could say it's as simple as a tomato. Creole food has them, Cajun doesn't. Equally, you could say that Creole food is 'city' food and Cajun food is 'country'.

[A Gumbo]
It's also worth noting that although Cajun food is Louisianian in origin, I've read that it only arrived on the New Orleans restaurant scene in the 1980s.

What ever the truth is, dishes from both cuisines seem readily available in the city - a slight bias to Creole in the upmarket restaurants and to Cajun in the market stalls.

So, time to build the checklist - from Creole, there's Gumbo, the classic dark fish stew. There's Jambalaya, the Creole cousin of paella. There's red beans and rice.

In the Cajun camp, we have blackened catfish, the spicy boudin and andouille sausages and, of course, the alligator.

Finally, we have dishes that seem to be to be more of New Orleans itself - for example, the po'boy, a variation on the sub / baguette with a light, crispy roll.

[Beignets at Cafe Du Monde]
Or there's the muffaletta, an Italian influenced cheese, ham and olive sandwich designed to feed a family of four.

Oh and we mustn't forget the beignet - the light doughnut served with mountains of icing sugar, classically served at the Cafe Du Monde (which, conveniently, is just moments from our apartment).

So, New Orleans, you're going to do nothing for my diet, post-Texas, but we're definitely going to have fun. And I haven't even got round to talking about the cocktails yet!

More reading:
Cajun vs Creole food.
Cajun vs Creole - what's the difference?