Monday, July 11, 2016

Where to Travel: Miami



Usually when I vacation in Miami, I strictly stay on South Beach. With pristine waters, incredible lounges and nightclubs, and more than enough bars/restaurants to pick from, what more could a vacationer ever ask for?

Well, a recent birthday trip to Miami fortunately got me off of the island and exploring more parts of the city. And, I’ve seen the light; Miami truly has a ton of rich, cultural and eclectic offerings to excite the curious traveler. From gigantic art murals in Wynwood to upscale lounges in Brickell and the historic Little Havana, Magic City is a must for anyone who’s a foodie/party animal/club-goer/beach bum, all rolled into one person.

Below is the #WilsonsGuide Top 10 List of MiamiCheck out the list and leave your favorite sights to see in the city, in the comments section below!


10) Where to Eat: An Intimate Dinner @ Bagatelle Miami 



While there are nine Bagatelle locations throughout the world — including one in L.A. — it took me flying almost 3,000 miles across the country to finally check out Bagatelle. Coined as bistro-meets-chic, this South Beach restaurant serves up French-inspired cuisine within an intimate and classy ambiance. And if you love truffle, Bagatelle is just the place for you. They’re generous with the truffle in so many of the options — including pizza, chicken, fries, mashed photos and gnocchi. The truffle is so good and rich and decadent. Also, speaking of the gnocchi, you'll definitely want to order it. Bagatalle makes its very own French-style gnocchi. In this version, the traditionally used potato is substituted for wheat, water and flour. The results are a divinely light pasta that literally melts in your mouth. Also not to be missed are the desserts. A great choice for a low-key or romantic date! 



9) Where to Drink: Afternoon happy hours @ Ocean Dr. on South Beach



Yes, it’s touristy and yes, it’s probably overpriced, but a trip to Miami surely wouldn’t be complete without a stop at one of the restaurants/bars lining Ocean Dr. in South Beach. This street, which is bustling between 5th and 15th Avenues, is a major part of the Miami Art Deco District. You’ll find scores of hotels and buildings still sporting the signature art deco look — bright colors, arcs and other geometric shapes. While the strip can be packed at any given time, with tourists walking around and hosts/hostesses haggling you to stop at their restaurants, during the precious two to three hours during the afternoon happy hour time frame, prices are slashed considerably. It’s not uncommon to find 2 for 1 drink specials, discounted food prices and even free shots. One place we got a steal at was Down N Dirty Tacos and Tequila Bar. They had $1 tacos, free tequila shots and $24 40-oz margaritas (which are big enough to share).

Website


8) Where to Be Merry: Clubbing @ Wall



With seven years in the game, Wall is actually South Beach’s longest running lounge. Nestled within the W South Beach, it’s very exclusive and very upscale. It's also a ton of fun. You’ll rub elbows with celebs like Nick Jonas, gawk at an unusually attractive crowd, hear incredible sets from resident and visiting DJs, and pretty much dance nonstop until the wee hours of the morning. Music varies from techno to the latest R&B and hip-hop, depending on which night you come. When we went, Raekwon just so happened to be there and spontaneously performed a few songs. The crowd went wild. Also, if you're willing to spend the cash and/or have a very large group, definitely consider bottle service. It'll be easier to get in and guarantees seating at one of the many reserved booths lining the walls and dance floor.

Website


7) Where to Eat: Lokal @ Coconut Grove


Coconut Grove is a quaint, upscale area that’s also Miami’s oldest neighborhood. With shaded, tree-lined streets and stunning views of the Biscayne Bay to the east, it has a noticeably more laid-back and easygoing vibe than South Beach. While visiting there, friend of a friend took us to a great eatery, Lokal. With a keen focus on local sourcing, sustainability and eco-friendly practices, Lokal serves up burgers, beers and other hearty items. And while I’m not normally a fan of eating alligator, their “Fresh Alligator Strips” are fantastic. Fried to a beautiful golden brown, they have a light, airy crispiness and the batter that’s coated on them has great flavor. Lokal also sells locally bottled beer to-go and offers free treats for doggies.

Website





The trendy, youthful Brickell neighborhood has no shortage of luxury apartment high-rises and Millennials — and certainly no shortage of posh restaurants, swanky lounges and down-to-earth bars. Sugar, an outdoor bar and garden, is one of the neighborhood’s newest lounges. It’s located 40 stories above ground, on the rooftop of EAST, Miami, a high-end hotel. At Sugar, a maze of earthy green trees decorated in strings of soft lights creates countless cozy nooks, perfect to slip into and engage in long conversations while sipping cocktails. End the night at Blackbird Ordinary, a no frills, action-packed spot that’s open until 5 a.m. Energetic crowds dance indoors, while people outside claim the patio for standing around and talking. DJs vary by night and play a wide range of genres, ranging from old school hip-hop to R&B, reggae and salsa.

Sugar Website, Blackbird Ordinary Website





For a really cool street art experience, head to the Wynwood Arts District. Take in the massive murals that adorn warehouses in this former industrial district. There’s literally streets upon streets of painted and graffiti-laden buildings, depicting so many diverse snapshots of life, in so many different graffiti styles. One area worth stopping by is The Wynwood Walls. Here, you’ll find more than 80,000 square feet of murals, with the artwork rotated frequently. Since its launch in 2009, more than 50 artists from 16 countries have had their work displayed at The Walls. Wynwood is also now home to more than 70 art galleries, hipster shops, breweries and eateries. A few places recommended to me: J Wakefield Brewing, Kush Wynwood and Coyo Taco. I can’t wait to go back to try them!

Website


4) Where to Eat: Al Fresco brunching @ SEASPICE




Situated on a tiny stretch of the Miami River, SEASPICE features al fresco dining on a gorgeous, shaded patio. You can’t beat the picturesque views of the backdrop of the downtown Miami skyline, watching yachts cruise by and occasionally dock at the restaurant so that their passengers can grab a table (next lifetime, I’m trying to live that kind of life). With a heavy emphasis on seafood, the menu features a wide range of goodies, including ceviche, grilled octopus, freshly caught local fish,  larger-than-life lobster and more. There’s also even an entire roasted pig that can be shared between four people. Add into the mix attentive customer service and pretty-but-still-potent cocktails, and you’ve got yourself the perfect recipe for a great place to kill several hours for brunch.

Website





Forget a hotel; stay at one of the luxury apartments at the Icon @ Brickell! You’ll get all of the amenities of a hotel, but with more room and at a considerably cheaper price point. Built in 2008, the entire space feels new, modern and luxurious. The Icon shares communal space with the W Miami, which includes access to a restaurant, a nightclub, a gorgeous two-story spa that boasts several Jacuzzis and an outdoor deck area that has cabanas, guest DJ appearances and an incredible 4,000 square-feet infinity pool. A standard apartment will have a balcony, bedroom, bathroom, kitchen and dining area. Check sites like Airbnb for availability and to make reservations.

Website


2) Where to Eat: The Little Havana Food Tour @ Miami Culinary Tours



I’m going to have to say that my favorite activity from this recent birthday trip was taking Miami Culinary Tours’ Little Havana Food Tour. It combined all that I love to do — eating, drinking and being merry — into 2 ½ nonstop hours. Headed by a seasoned guide, the tour stops at six different places, including traditional Cuban restaurants, bars, bakeries and fruit stands. It also stops by the historic Domino Park and a family-owned Cuban cigar shop. What’s great about the tour is that it provides not only delicious food and beverages, but also lots of valuable insight into the history, culture and traditions of the residents of both Miami and Little Havana. From coffee tastings to empanadas, mojitos, dessert pastries and ice cream, they provide ample food on the tour. You’ll leave feeling full — both your stomach and your mind!

Website


1) Where to Be Merry: The beach @ South Beach 



Hands down, there’s nothing like spending some QT on the actual beach at South Beach! Whether it’s squeezing in a few hours during the morning or turning it into an all day excursion, a trip to the warm waters never fails to disappoint. And better yet, it’s a completely FREE activity. Throw a Frisbee, layout, or splash around. Take your own towels, food and libations, or, there are plenty of umbrellas and chairs to rent, and of course, scores of nearby eateries. While I’m a California girl through and out, Florida’s beaches trump California’s beaches anytime!


Ball & Chain was one of the stops on Miami Culinary Tours’ Little Havana Food Tour, and I just loved it so much I went back and fell even more in love with it. To begin, it has such a rich history. Originally opened in the 1930s, it was once the place where many African-American musicians and singers — including the famed Count Basie and talented Billie Holiday — held jam sessions, after performing in the segregated South Beach clubs. Although it closed for decades, Ball & Chain reopened last year in 2015, keeping its original roof. Now, live bands continue to perform here, playing everything from rock and salsa to jazz and more. A bar serves up mean mojitos, and food specials run on any given day. And not to be missed, there’s a massive bright yellow pineapple on the back patio, where many of the live music shows take place.

Website

Leave your favorite Miami destinations in the comments section below, and I'll see you in Miami soon!

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Friday, July 1, 2016

Where to Eat: 14 New Dishes @ The District by Hannah An


The Eats: Vietnamese cuisine, featuring traditional dishes like Pho, noodles and bánh mì

The Location: Beverly Hills adjacent

The Vibes: Swanky, intimate, upscale, worldly

Good for: Alone, dates, small and large groups

When-To-Go: Weekdays, 11:30am until close; weekends, for brunch and dinner

The $$ Factor: Appetizers: Around $18, Entrees: $12 - $44, Cocktails: Around $14

The Names behind the scenes: Chef/Owner Hannah An

The 4-1-1: There’s an upstairs section that often features live musical performances; there’s also a secret entrance

Parking Situation: Valet and limited street parking

I’ll Be Back…: For Hannah’s Famous Homemade Noodles!


As many of you who have been following my blog know, I'm a huge fan of Crustacean Beverly Hills. I mean, what’s not to love about the heavenly Famous Roasted Crab and the signature garlic noodles?

That’s why when I discovered The District, I had a feeling I’d take a liking to it, too. That's because this swanky restaurant on Third Street near the Beverly Center was launched by Hannah An, who hails from the same matriarchal family of restauranteurs who opened Crustacean and who currently run a multi-million dollar restaurant business (not to mention, the Ans also got inducted into the Smithsonian Institute for their Vietnamese culinary contributions).

Now, Hannah has followed in the footsteps of three generations of entrepreneurs, creating a dining experience that highlights the varied intricacies of Vietnamese cuisine while simultaneously adding a California flair. Open since February 2015, The District dishes up traditional items, like pho — a broth-heavy soup that’s piled high with noodles, thin slices of meat and veggies — and bánh mì — a sandwich on a baguette that's stuffed with meats and both pickled and fresh veggies. Then, there’s also new inventions, like the “Hot Asian” cocktail, a lively blend of lemongrass-infused vodka, chili agave and chili tincture (an herbal liquid extract), topped off with lime zest. And, not to be left out — there’s also a secret menu(!).

Not too long ago, I was invited to dinner, to taste some of the most popular dishes, including a few items that were recently added to the menu. Launched last month on Mother’s Day, the current menu features 14 new items, expanding the already extensive selection of choices available.

From grilled octopus to lobster flatbread, there’s a heavy — and completely appreciated — emphasis on seafood. Here’s a look at some of both new and returning items I sampled:

The Colossal Candied Walnut Tiger Prawns – A new menu addition, these larger-than-life prawns have quite a unique coating: candied walnuts. They’re also doused in Hannah’s special house aioli. I loved how enormous they were while still retaining their moistness and tenderness, bursting with lots of sweet, crunchy flavors. A great appetizer to share and start off with.



Here’s another new menu addition — the Fresh Grilled Atlantic Octopus. Thick, hefty steak cuts are topped with a light miso sauce, tomatoes and red fresno peppers. It’s extremely easy to overcook octopus, but here, this delicacy is tender and well flavored.




Speaking of octopus, the Octopus Dumplings are incredible, too. Wrapped in a very thin layer of steamed dough, they’re filled with finely ground meat and have a mildly spicy kick. They’re accompanied by a tangy balsamic reduction. While the chicken, beef and veggie dumplings are available on the regular menu, only the octopus dumplings can be found on Hannah’s secret menu.



Also on the secret menu are the King Crab Legs. Several legs arrive steaming hot and already halved, so you don’t have to do the dirty work of digging out the crab meat. They’re extremely palatable, with strong hints of garlic and warm melted butter. And, these things are massive!



The chilled Hamachi, or Pacific yellowtail, literally melts in your mouth — it’s so smooth! It also manages to maintain a good balance between sweet and tangy flavors.




Similar to “An’s Famous Roasted Crab with An’s Garlic Sauce & Secret Spices” found at Crustacean, Hannah has managed to create her very own version at The District. The Dungeness Crab comes out, in all of its glory, oozing with garlic, special spices and tons of crab meat. It’s more than big enough to share with at least one other person.




Hannah’s Famous Homemade Noodles are another specialty that's similar to “AN’s Famous Garlic Noodles” at Crustacean. Both sets of noodles are bursting with hints of garlic, get tossed in a secret sauce and are divinely delicious. However, I’m going to out on a limb here and say that I like Hannah’s noodles more. Yes, there’s something about the way the garlic lime beurre blanc and texture of sweetly encrusted noodles mix together that simply kicks everything up a notch. This dish pairs very well with the Dungeness Crab.


All in all, I can’t wait to get back to The District. The ambiance is sexy and glam, the drinks are delectable and the food is fun, exotic and different. I recommend checking out this restaurant when you're looking for more than an ordinary dining experience. And if you do stop by, be sure to say hi to Hannah, pictured below. You'll find her here, walking around, pretty much every day.

See you there soon!


For more information:




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Friday, June 10, 2016

Where to Be Merry: Pedal Boating @ Echo Park Lake




The Merriment: Pedal boats for pairs and groups of up to four people

The Location: Echo Park

The Vibes: Outdoor, refreshing, relaxing

Good for: Alone, Dates, Kids, Groups

When-To-Go: Daily, 9 a.m. – sunset

The $ Factor: $5 for children; $10 for adults

The 4-1-1: Echo Park has a very long and colorful history. Back in the day (and by back in the day, I mean the 1870s), it was originally built as a reservoir to supply drinking water to the city’s residents. It got turned into a lake, which was then used in a variety of films—like Chinatown—in the early 1900s. Later on, the park started to go into decline, but a $45 million renovation in 2013 has restored its original beauty.

Parking Situation: Plenty of free parking on the streets around the park

I’ll Be Back…: To explore the tiny island in the middle of the lake!


With summer and gorgeous weather just around the corner, who wouldn’t want to be out on a lake, leisurely, enjoying picturesque views, cool breezes and the gentle kiss of the warm sun?

Fortunately, you can experience all of that at Echo Park Lake!

One of L.A.’s oldest parks, Echo Park spans about three miles, and smack in the middle of it is a massive, man-made lake.

Visitors can rent out pedal boats from the Echo Park Pedal Boats Concession. The company advertises on its website that guided gondola and canoe rides are available, although I didn’t see anyone out in these types of boats, when I went. Most people were just in the pedal boats.

Advertisements state that there's a one-hour time limit for rentals. Fortunately, the policy seemed pretty lax when I went, which is nice, because there’s so much to take in while out on the water. There are breathtaking views of downtown to the south, the massive San Gabriel Mountains to the north and quaint Spanish-style houses situated on the nearby hills, overlooking the park. And now thanks to the renovation three years ago, the lake has been transformed into a beautiful wetlands oasis. You can pedal by reeds, restored lotus flowers and other water plants that line the outer banks. It’s also not uncommon to catch glimpses of wildlife, like cranes, geese or ducks, such as the family of ducks I saw, pictured below. 



One tip of advice: be prepared to potentially get sprayed with water, when you're on the pedal boats. Three massive sprouts in the middle of the lake, pictured below, shoot water hundreds of feet in the air, and the wind can sometimes carry showers several feet away.



Before and/or after heading out onto the water, make sure to check out the handful of vendors in the park, selling everything from tasty snacks to jewelry and trinkets. I tried elote – grilled corn drizzled with mayonnaise, lime juice, cojita cheese and chili, pictured below. A café in the boathouse in the park also sells snacks. Or, you may want to bring a blanket (and a picnic basket full of goodies?) to sit on one of the park's grassy knolls and take in the sights of the day. 



The next time you’re looking for a fun, relatively inexpensive outdoor activity, suitable for all ages, that includes being out on the water and still taking in the city's marvelous urban sights, I recommend spending an afternoon at Echo Park Lake.

See you there soon!

For more information: