Tuesday, December 30, 2014

It’s probably no surprise that the majority of our travels and even our normal day-to-day lives revolve around food.

That’s what happens when you’re married to a pastry chef and love food, at least that’s what I tell my husband.

This year, we did quite a bit of traveling in Europe and ate well along the way. From the backstreets of Istanbul to cozy brasseries and from eating at Michelin-starred restaurants to dining at home with friends, we’ve had a lot of good meals. I’d rather spend the money on a wonderful meal than on something with less value to me like jewelry or new clothes.

The following destinations are where we had some of our Best Meals in 2014! Where did you have your favorite meal this year? I’d love to know!

Bon appétit!

In March, we spent a long, leisurely weekend in Lake Como and ended with a home-cooked, four-course dinner at Osteria Sali e Tabacchi, a cozy, Slow Food restaurant located in Mandello del Lario. Eating here was like being invited into an Italian’s mother’s home where local ingredients are key. A few of the dishes I remember: local fish in two dishes, cured Italian meats for an antipasti, braised beef with polenta, pumpkin-filled ravioli and homemade pistachio gelato. Be sure to make reservations in advance!
I never thought I’d have a good steak dinner in Istanbul, but in March our Turkish friend, Huseyin, proved me wrong. Our meal at Nusr-Et Steakhouse consisted of lokum (Turkish delight), spaghetti (thinly sliced beef), sliced-to-order lamb ribs, unlimited crispy fries and a salad. The meat used comes from the Marmara Sea region and was quite tender and juicy.
And for dessert, don’t skimp on the pistachio baklava that is flown in fresh every day from Gaziantep and served tableside with a generous scoop of Maras dondurma. My mouth is watering just thinking about this heavenly baklava!
In May, we spent my birthday in Paris. I had My Delicious Day in Paris and then later we went to Au Pied de Cochon for French oysters and dinner. This wasn’t our best meal ever in Paris, but it’s more that this brasserie holds a special place in our hearts. We first ate here in 2009 right after my now husband had proposed.
In July, I followed hubby on his business trip to London. We arrived two days early so we could enjoy ourselves and have a good meal at St. John Bread & Wine, which we first had visited in 2010. The standouts here were the foie gras on toast (I love foie!), roasted duck leg with peas and bacon and an appetizer of salt beef hash with a fried duck egg on top. All delicious! The only miss was the too-tart gooseberry pavlova for dessert.
In August, we sadly bid farewell to our fun Aussie friends with a fancy dinner at the new Senses Restaurant. This was our most expensive meal of the year at 380pln ($125) per person, but this doesn’t include the bottle of champagne and post dinner drinks we shared. You can tell that the French-Italian chef, Andrea Camastra, likes to play with molecular gastronomy here with the foams, jellies and smoke used throughout our multi-course dinner.

Our first courses included tuna with lard and corn, beetroot with goat cheese and foie gras and smoked eel with a scallop, celeriac and potato puree, which was my least favorite dish.
Next courses were a monkfish goulash with beans, kobe beef ribs with cherries and spring onions and a yogurt dessert with fresh “forest fruits.” I loved all of these dishes and wish I had more of the beef dish!
Overall, Senses definitely was an interesting experience, but I could have done without the chocolate-beet drink and some of the hocus-pocus smoke. The best part of this meal was spending another fun night with our good friends before we said goodbye!
In November, we enjoyed our best meal in Tallinn (as part of our Baltic road trip) at a cozy restaurant called Salt Restoran, tucked in the residential neighborhood of Kadriorg. It's headed by local chef Silver Saa who focuses on using seasonal ingredients, which seems to be the trend everywhere.  We ordered the seared scallops with wakame, pumpkin cream and ginger beurre blanc, a not-so classic beef tartar, veal cheeks with red wine sauce and grilled endive and crispy duck breast with roasted beetroots, plum jam and sherry sauce. I had a difficult time sharing my veal cheeks because they were irresistibly tender and delicious!
For dessert, we shared a chocolate cake with salted caramel and the pumpkin cream (panna cotta?) with cocoa.
The total meal cost was 108 euros ($132), which included a 26eu ($32) bottle of red wine and 2 glasses of Spanish cava at 6eu ($7.30) each, making it our most expensive meal on this trip. However, I feel like Salt was definitely a restaurant worth seeking out!

At the end of November, we celebrated Thanksgiving in Düsseldorf, Germany. Before stuffing ourselves with turkey, JT took us to Manima Der Laote, a restaurant owned by his friend that specializes in Laotian food. The chef/owner greeted us and he instantly reminded me of NYC chef David Chang, owner of Momofuku. I knew we were in good hands! The highlights of this meal were the very spicy green papaya salad and minced duck meat served with lettuce leaves and sticky rice.
San Sebastian 
This coastal, Spanish city is all about the pintxos! With so many good restaurants to choose from, you really can’t go wrong here. We had to escape from the drunken crowds of the Santo Tomas Festival on December 21st so we went to the Gros neighborhood across the river. Here, we got our pintxos on at Bergara Bar, a local place recommended by our pension owner. We liked this place because we could actually sit down, it was quiet enough to where we could actually converse and the food was delicious and fresh.

We ordered mushroom risotto with foie gras ( my favorite), Spanish tortilla with roasted red peppers, a croquette, a seafood “tin can” and a few other items. Bergara Bar was a great recommendation!
Southwest France
We ended 2014 with a road trip through Southwest France and enjoyed several outstanding, homecooked meals with our French friend’s families. I’m so grateful for this expat life that allows us to travel, to meet new people and to enjoy new experiences together. The French families went all out with their hospitality and with course after course of decadent food for the Christmas season.
Just some of the courses from our French meals on December 23, 24 and 25th.
Christmas part II on December 26th.
After eating like this for four days in a row, I felt like a fat French saucisson! I'm thankful to our friends, but I still feel fat!

I might have to kick off 2015 with a bit of dieting after all these trips!

Monday, December 29, 2014

Strolling through the decked out streets of Warsaw’s Old Town feels magical during the Christmas season.

The city transforms its historically-restored Old Town into a Christmas wonderland complete with an ice skating rink guarded by a mermaid, a decent Christmas market (finally!) and plenty of stalls selling hot chocolate and mulled wine to keep you warm.
Before we traveled for the recent holidays, I grabbed my camera and visited the Old Town a couple of times in Warsaw. Pretty much, any time, after 3 p.m. is a good time as the sun sets and the twinkling lights start to light up the dark skies. It’s a pretty sight to behold, but I’ll let my photos mainly do the talking.
This year’s Christmas Market, located near the Royal Castle, will be open daily through January 6th, which is celebrated as a national, religious holiday here known as Święto Trzech Króli to honor the Three Wise Men. There’s another market being held at the National Stadium, but I haven’t been there because this location seems like an odd choice and lacks the charm that the Old Town has.
I picked up several handmade Christmas decorations, a wooden cheese plate made by a Lithuanian craftsman and some of the infamous Zakopane cheese at the Old Town’s market.

It’s worth stopping by in you’re visiting Warsaw or if you live here and haven’t made it by yet. The Christmas lights seem to stay up well through January which help brighten the long, dark days of the Polish winter.
If you don’t speak Polish, good luck trying to pronounce Wesołych Świąt (Season’s Greetings or Merry Christmas). I still have a difficult time trying to say this!

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Wishing all my readers a Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays!

This year marks our first year as expats where we haven't traveled back to the U.S. for the holidays. In fact, we haven't been to the U.S. at all in 2014. Life doesn't always go as planned so we ended up with no travel plans until our expat friends stepped in. "Why don't you join us in France for Christmas?" they asked us. 

Well, why not!

So here I am sitting in our hotel room overlooking the market square in Arcachon, located about an hour southwest of Bordeaux, France, and writing this Christmas post. Christmas carols are playing on the loudspeaker outside, and surprisingly, many of the songs are in English. There's no snow in sight and we're just a short stroll from the beach. It's definitely not a traditional Christmas, but I don't mind either. 
Last night, we joined our friends with their French family and celebrated Christmas Eve with an amazing 8-course dinner! We had aperitifs, snacks before the first courses, smoked duck with fig jam, seared scallops, two kinds of homemade foie gras, roasted leg of lamb, French green beans, fromage galore and two Bushe de Noël that made my head swoon. Oh, did I forget to mention the wines, champagne and Calvados too!
Just a typical meal in southwest France!
It was such a wonderful feeling to be included and accepted into another family's home and celebrate their traditions together. The slight language barrier didn't matter, translations were plentiful and we all smiled and laughed together over such a lovingly-prepared meal.
Our fabulous French seafood platter on Christmas Day!
Hubby impressed our French hosts with his ability to eat sooo much seafood!
I think one of the most important lessons I've learned in our nearly 5 years abroad is that friends become your family when you live so far away from your "real" family. It doesn't matter where you live in the world, but as long as you have a few close friends that makes all the difference. Friends are your family. I'm very thankful for the friends we've made since living in Istanbul and Warsaw. Without them (and my wonderful husband), life wouldn't be the same!

So cheers from France! I hope you have Merry Christmas and wishing you all the best adventures in 2015!

(We spent part of our Christmas Eve hiking up to the top of the highest sand dunes in Europe, located in Dune du Pyla, France.)

Thursday, December 18, 2014

On our recent trip to Germany, we quickly discovered that the German Christmas markets are as wonderful as we thought they would be!

We were determined to see as many markets as we could. Well, at least one of us was.

Thanks to Germany's fantastic train ticket options such as Schönes-Wochenende and Quer-durch-Land, we were able to basically hop on and hop off the regional trains as much as we wanted. Daily tickets were only 44 euros for the two of us versus the 160 euro roundtrip it would've been at one point. In the end, I think we hit up 13 different Christmas markets in 5 cities in 5 days. What a whirlwind trip!

Here are some of the highlights from the Christmas markets we visited:

We used Düsseldorf as our base city since we were staying with our good friend here. JT took us around to six out of seven of the city's Christmas Markets. Amid the random construction in the city center, we found dozens of seasonally decorated, wooden huts and they were selling all kinds of typical market fare such as gluhwein, gingerbread, bratwurst and Christmas decorations.
Less than an hour after landing, we were sipping hot gluhwein at this market in the drizzling rain. 
Düsseldorf's Old Town was a magical setting for the Christmas Market on Marktplatz, which stretched across the square at the feet of the statue of mounted Jan Wellem – Düsseldorf’s landmark. The wooden huts were even modelled in the same color and style as on the brick building of the renaissance city hall.

 The Engelchenmarkt (“Little Angel Market”), located on Heinrich-Heine-Platz, and decorated with darling cupids and white lights, was one of my favorite markets in Düsseldorf.
Christmas Market in front of the Town Hall in Old Town. 
We even found Polish pottery for sale at the markets - all at ridiculous prices though!
The small town of Aachen, about 90 minutes west of Düsseldorf, was recommended by both an Austrian and British friend and did not disappoint. We had less than two hours to explore this historic town before we had to catch our next train, so unfortunately, we simply ran out of time to see everything properly.

Aachen's two Christmas Markets are set up around the beautiful 1,200-year-old Aachen Cathedral, which was the very first site to be granted UNESCO World Heritage status in Germany. The church is the oldest cathedral in northern Europe, was known as the "Royal Church of St. Mary at Aachen" during the Middle Ages and also was where German kings and queens were crowned for 600 years.  

Look for the town's infamous printen - a gingerbread cookie that's often dipped in chocolate. Delicious!
Inside the Aachen Cathedral really reminded me of some of Byzantine-era churches we've seen on our travels. Absolutely breathtaking!
We bought one of the cute Christmas trees pictured in the upper right-hand corner.
Next, we hopped on the train and headed to Cologne where we met JT in front of the Cologne Cathedral and popped inside for a visit. Don't miss the stained glass windows here. We visited two of Cologne's Christmas markets which were located near the Cathedral around a huge Christmas tree.
Some of the foodie highlights in Cologne. 
Hubby and our friend, JT, in Cologne.
The Christmas Market at the "Heimat der Heinzel" (Home of the Heinzelmännchen) on Heumarkt was a bit more boisterous and offered a Ferris wheel.
After celebrating a belated Thanksgiving, we hopped on a Sunday train for the picturesque town of Koblenz along the Rhine River. This Christmas market is actually one of the largest in the Rhineland-Palatinate wine growing region. Though the smallest town we visited, Koblenz was super cute and offered all the typical flavors of Christmas including German stolen, gluhwein, bratwurst, etc. There was a second, smaller market with an ice skating rink located at a large shopping mall before you crossed the street into the Old Town.
Please forgive the word play, but Mainz really was a-Mainz-ing! I had no idea what to expect here, but I did not anticipate a fairy-tale like setting. Against the imposing backdrop of the 1,000-year-old Cathedral of St. Martin, local craftsmen sold a variety of Christmas specialties such as Advent garlands, wooden toys, ceramic Christmas villages and ornaments. We arrived here about 5 p.m. on Sunday afternoon and the place was packed! We could hardly move! I'm so glad we decided to spend the night here.
The church is more than 100-meters long inside and includes an old monastery.
The highlights of Mainz include sipping another glass of gluhwein in a cool, wooden barrel, being taunted by a full spit-roasted pig, getting asked if we were American because we wanted mustard with our pretzel, laughing at the expensive Turkish lamps being sold, wandering around the dreamy Candy Land-colored houses and buying a beautiful Christmas village building.

I loved the German Christmas Markets and would return again next year in a New York minute! What are your favorite Christmas markets?

Most of the German Christmas markets seem to open in late November and close on December 23rd this year. Please check the websites below for more details: