Monday, November 13, 2017

Where to Travel: Monterey, CA

There’s surely no shortage of quaint coastal cities and towns spanning the California coastline, and I had the opportunity to visit one of these places during a recent Fall weekend adventure: Monterey!

A five-hour drive from Los Angeles, at first glance, Monterey looks like a sleepy little town. It’s hard to imagine that in the 18th and 19th centuries, it was the capital of Alta California, part of Spanish colonial territory, and that at one point, it was also home to the state’s first-ever newspaper and public building.

But lo and behold, Monterey has a very rich history and better yet, a lot of present-day attractions that are close enough to one another that you can see several within a day.

Plus, being so close to Monterey Canyon (the largest and deepest Pacific coast submarine canyon) and to the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary (a federally protected area thriving with an abundance of marine life), many points of interest in Monterey are related to the sea. Whether it’s venturing off on a wild whale watching excursion, passing by former sardine canneries on Cannery Row or opting for seaside dining, you’re never far from the majestic, deep blue Pacific Ocean.

I literally can’t wait to get back and should you ever find yourself wondering if you, too, should visit, the answer’s yes, and here’s the #WilsonsGuide Top List of Monterey to know what to do when you’re there! And if you've already been, leave your suggestions for what to see here, in the comments section below!

Not more than a mere several blocks long at most, this main drag of New Monterey is packed with touristy attractions — restaurants, hotels, gift stores — many which are housed in former industrial and canning buildings that have been renovated and painted in bright, crisp colors. Walking down the street, you get a sense of what it must have been like at the height of Monterey’s fishing industry boom, right at the turn of the century. Make sure to also go behind the buildings on the east side (pictured below); not only will you get incredible views of the water, but you can see remnants of the old docks and buildings that haven’t been torn down yet.

For more info

I got a lot of raving recommendations to visit the Monterey Bay Aquarium and prior to going there, I really didn’t understand all the hype. I mean, it’s just a bunch of animals behind glass walls, right? Wrong! This place is teeming with diverse marine life — more than 550 types of species to be exact, ranging from penguins to crabs, sea otters, jellyfish and sharks. You’ll be able to get up close and personal to the tiniest of invertebrate sea creatures to massive turtles. Better yet, you can definitely sense the care and substantial amount of knowledge that the staff has about the animals. When checking out the afternoon feeding for the sea otters, the staff gave so many interesting tidbits about the lifestyle and diet of these little creatures. Tip: Set aside at least 3 to 4 hours for your visit here. I went for two hours and it still didn't feel like I got to see everything!

For more info

5) Where to be Merry: Fisherman's Wharf

Fisherman's Wharf is tiny compared to wharfs in other cities, say like San Francisco, but it still has old-fashioned charm and a special magic all unto its own. There’s something serene about wandering up and down it, in the early morning, before all the stores and restaurants open, inhaling the strong smell of raw seafood and feeling the crisp, chilly air gently glide across your face. By midday and the afternoon, it’s wide-awake and action-packed, humming with tourists and restaurant workers hollering at people to try free samples of clam chowder and confectionery stores tempting kids of all ages with sweets like candy apples, cotton candy and salt water taffy. As the hub to access many marine activities — such as whale watching, sailing and fishing — you may certainly find yourself coming here, so make sure to spend time looking around and even having a meal at one of the eateries (yes, it’s touristy, but totally worth it). There are lots of picturesque views, including of the nearby marina.

For more info

Domenico’s right on Fisherman's Wharf is delicious, reasonably affordable and offers a hard-to-beat view of the nearby marina (check out the view from our table, pictured above!). The clam chowder was by far the best on the wharf — and we tried a lot of free samples from other places. Domenico’s free calamari appetizer (pictured below) and its cheap happy hour with surprisingly decent wine and tasty margaritas make stopping by here feel like a good value. Recommended entrée: the lobster ravioli. With so many restaurants on the wharf, it can be hard to figure out the best one to try, but my bet would be on Domenico’s!

For more info

Located right on the edge of Cannery Row, Schooners features spectacular seafood and stunning views of the Monterey Bay. While its bright and colorful bar is beyond inviting, it’s really on the outdoor patio where you want to be. It’s here that you’ll have sweeping views that stretches for miles and miles. It’s so peaceful and calming, you just may find yourself kicking back and relaxing for a few hours, like I did. Aside from a priceless vista, Schooners offers a wide selection of seafood, from appetizers like the Steamers, pictured below — Chardonnay-steamed clams swimming in a garlic, lemon, butter broth — and entrees such as the Seafood Salad, a staple that’s never left the menu since the restaurant first opened, and includes Dungeness crab, shrimp and seared tuna, all tossed in a creamy mango sauce. Also, throw in an order of the Baja Style Tacos, topped with guac. You won’t regret it!

For more info 

2) Where to Drink: Starlight Rooftop Lounge @ Vesuvio Bistro Italiano

I had asked a Monterey local for a good place to grab a cocktail, and he suggested I head over to Vesuvio. Technically not in Monterey but in Carmel instead (which is like a 15-min. drive away), Vesuvio is this charming Italian restaurant right in the heart of Carmel’s tiny town square. But here's the catch: once you enter the restaurant, the key is to act like you know where you’re going, head directly past the hostess stand and take the stairwell that leads up to Starlight Rooftop Lounge — a dazzling space decked out in hanging lights, roaring fire pits and a small bar. Apparently, this is the place where locals go to drink and it’s the only rooftop lounge in Monterey County. While there were certainly people dapperly dressed, it has a very low-key vibe and is a tranquil place to grab a nightcap. While I didn’t try any of the food, it is available from the restaurant below.

1) Where to Be Merry: Discovery Whale Watch

There are a handful of different whale watching companies to select from, but Discovery Whale Watch most certainly sets itself apart from the crowd for a few good reasons: 1) the maximum number of passengers they take out is 30, while a lot of other places can take out way more 2) there are always two marine biologists / naturalists onboard each excursion and 3) hands down, this is one of the liveliest, rowdiest, most fun crews around! Discovery Whale Watch offers morning and afternoon tours that last about three hours long. We had the incredible opportunity to see a pack of humpback whales chasing off a team of orcas, who were busy “playing” with a bird they severely injured and simply wouldn’t kill off (these orcas had noooo chill). Aside from whales, there’s literally so much wildlife to see, from the seals sunbathing on rocks in the marina to the thousands — and I do mean thousands — of jellyfish floating in the ocean. The crew made sure to point out that each trip is different, and sometimes there may be no activity at all and other times there will be a lot, but they always try their hardest to get up-close-and-personal to the action. A trip to Monterey simply isn’t complete without a whale watching excursion. And as a tip, check out the Monterey Bay Aquarium before going whale watching; it’s a great way to quickly get familiar with all of the different sea life that resides within the bay and that you may see while you’re out!

For more info

Quietly tucked away from all of the action in downtown Monterey, the Hyatt Regency Monterey Hotel and Spa is a sprawling hotel right on the edge of the Del Monte Golf Course. A wide variety of amenities are available here, including the Marilyn Monroe Spa, tennis courts, two pool areas, several restaurants and a lounge, which features live jazz bands on weekend nights. Surrounded by looming California pines and buildings painted in a rich forest green, the grounds really offer a calm ambiance — a great getaway for couples and for families. Stay in one of the View King rooms directly overlooking the golf course; it's cozy and affords beautiful views of the golf course.

The hotel also has worthwhile points of interest, if you're staying there or not: 
  • TusCA Ristorante - Led by Chef Logan Sandoval, this casually upscale restaurant has a big focus on sustainability, working with local vendors like the Carmel Honey Company, the Twisted Roots winery and the famous Niman Ranch. With a focus on fall, TusCA dishes out simplistic, but still homely dishes. For more info 

  • Knuckles Sports Bar - While much of the rest of the hotel might be snazzy, Knuckles is quite casual, with a plethora of TV screens streaming all sorts of sporting events and popcorn kernels freely strewn all over the tile floor. Expect much more than standard bar food, though; gourmet burgers and other American faves are as hearty as they are flavorful. Definitely opt for the wings. They're crispy and come in zesty flavors, like Thai chili and Honey-Sriracha. For more info
  • The Lobby Lounge - A hotel lounge may not be the first place in mind as a weekend evening destination, but this isn't any ordinary lounge. It transforms into a swanky hangout where jazz bands that take special requests rotate in and out. Bartenders also whip out cocktails that are creative with a gorgeous aesthetic. For more info

Disclaimer: Courtesy cmplimentary services were provided by Discovery Whale Watch and the Hyatt Regency Monterey; all opinions are still my own. 

Monday, October 30, 2017

Wilson's Words of Wisdom: October Round Up (Indoor-Outdoor Coffee Shops)

There’s most certainly no shortage of amazing cafés and coffee shops in Los Angeles. Whether it's the ambience, the coffee itself, the pastries or some other factor, there are literally hundreds upon hundreds of places, that on any given day, can give you that perfect coffee experience.

For this monthly round up, though, I wanted to narrow down the large list and specifically focus on places with incredible spaces — both inside and out.

From the gorgeous to the out-of-the-ordinary, I'm talking about places that have patios that look like gardens or have motorcycles proudly displayed throughout. Whether ultra-modern, classic or homely, however they may differ in style, they don’t differ in offering outstanding coffee in a highly detailed ambiance.

So whenever you’re ready to engross yourself in a good book, connect with friends for a few hours or find a location for a first date, below are the coffee spots to have on your radar!

Bar Nine

If you didn’t know to look for it, you’d probably never find it. Bar Nine sits right on the corner of National Blvd. and Helms Ave., within a slightly residential, slightly industrial part of Culver City. It has a minimalist, open and airy space, with stark white walls accentuated by hints of greys and natural browns. The vibes are super casual, with a couple of metal bleachers lining some of the walls, a few barstools paired with long, thin tables and a record player accompanied by vintage speakers and records that look like they’ve been around for decades. Outside, patrons can lounge on old crates. The staff is super serious about coffee, even boasting an onsite roastery in the back (see pic below). Aside from coffee, there’s a limited menu of pastries, brunch items and other beverages like teas, which come served in mason jars.
For more info

Deus Ex Machina

It’s an art gallery! It’s a men’s specialty store! It’s a café! Wait — no — it’s all of those — and more! Holding it down as the only location in the States, Venice’s Deus Ex Machina has one of the most unique — and coolest — coffee shop spaces I’ve ever seen. Unassuming from the outside, once inside, it’s like the millennial “man cave,” with an array of hip apparel and accessories for men in the store and motorcycles, literally everywhere — from the giant mural on the outside wall to actual bikes, poised front and center all around. Deus Ex Machina baristas take the purity of coffee extremely serious; don’t expect any additives, like sugar here (and yes, I’m speaking from personal experience; I asked a barista for a side of sweetener one time, and he looked at me as I had asked for bleach. He was literally like, “I don't understand what you mean.”). From the large communal tables to the superior coffee and tasty snacks — like toast with almond butter — Deus Ex Machina is definitely worth visiting!
For more info

G&B Coffee @ Grand Central Market

Grand Central Market has been a #WilsonsGuide fave for years, but it’s only recently that I discovered G&B Coffee, a coffee stand located inside of the market, right next to the South Hill St. entrance. High circular barstools surround an island where baristas churn out cups — and shots — of coffee. Speaking of shots, G&B Coffee has this “Magical World of One & Ones” menu, where shots of coffee are paired with goodies like ginger beer, ice cream and cappuccinos. G&B Coffee has a quick, no frills, fast-paced ambiance and it's the perfect location to take a quick breather while checking out all of the action happening in Grand Central Market or outside, on the bustling DTLA streets. Best selling point: Its real estate, right in the heart of a historic L.A. landmark.
For more info

Rose Café

Separated into several different sections — a restaurant with two patios, a deli / coffee stand and a bar section — Rose Café boasts a vibrant space that’s absolutely enchanting. A chic, California vibe with lots of rustic accents and shrubs and greenery permeates throughout, and I just love the hanging plants over the communal tables in the bar section (pictured above). Coffee’s bold and delicious, always served with a nice presentation. Stop by for a quick bite to eat, grabbing one of the premade sandwiches or salads / sides that change daily, or stay for a longer meal, such as the weekend brunch. And if you do decide to dine at the restaurant, go ahead and order that side of curry fries. Other fun facts: it’s popular amongst celebs, and literally every single time I’ve gone with friends, we’ve spotted some actor casually dining with friends or associates.
For more info

Society Kitchen 

With everything from daily happy hour, weekend brunches and frequent paint nights, Santa Monica’s Society Kitchen is the quintessential neighborhood hangout spot (and very, very kid-friendly, should inquiring minds want to know). The café makes a respectable cup of coffee, but honestly, I find myself also dropping by for everything else — the sangria, the open-faced smoked salmon toast (pictured below) and the decadent desserts, like the carrot cake. Painted in blacks, whites and shades of grey, the interior has a clean, classic look and a patio that shines underneath the strings of circular nights at night.
For more info

Urth Caffé

With six locations from Santa Monica to Laguna Beach and everywhere in between, Urth Caffé has been a SoCal staple for decades. And, it’s one of those landmarks where if you’re in L.A., you have to visit at least once, because it is such a household name. It’s known for its tantalizing meals, exquisite pastries (like the fruit tart, pictured below) and assortment of coffees and teas. One of my favorites is the Spanish Latte Granita (also pictured below), a frothy, ice-blended coffee drink loaded with flavors like cinnamon and lots of caffeine. I’ve been to the DTLA and Beverly Hills locations, the latter, which I adore. It’s reminiscent of a cozy cottage, complete with a white picket fence and a fireplace inside, also with prime seating on its patio. Tip: there’s no wifi in the Beverly Hills location, so if you need the internet, bring your own hotspot.
For more info

Verve Coffee Roasters

Verve Coffee Roasters’ patio in WeHo may be small, but it has tons of charm and character. Engulfed by overgrown shrubs and decked out with strings of hanging lights and wooden fixtures, it’s like being in an urban garden setting. There’s also a smaller patio that has just stools facing out towards Melrose Blvd. Aside from featuring coffees roasted on vintage roasters, the menu features very health-conscious options, like Chia Pudding and a Farro Beet Salad. Although personally, I’m going straight for the pastries, pictured below! Verve also has locations in Tokyo, Santa Cruz and San Fran, and two additional cafés in L.A.
For more info

Zinc Café & Market

Situated in a somewhat obscure, but “up-and-coming” (read: gentrified) part of the Arts District near DTLA, Zinc Café is part-coffee shop, part-specialty store, part-restaurant and all kinds of cuteness. There are two patios — one that’s for the coffee shop, which isn't anything special — and one that’s affiliated with the restaurant. That patio is charming and quaint, and the place to sit, so definitely ask to sit out there, when you go. Nestled between two buildings, it has a bright feel, with leafy trees and white umbrellas providing ample shade. After a cup of joe and a pastry out there, make a quick stop at the indoor market (pictured below) before you leave, to pick up all kinds of high-end knick knacks and snacks, from cookbooks and aprons to wines and food to-go.
For more info

Monday, October 23, 2017

Where to Eat: Judging Desserts @ The Gelato Festival America

Yours truly was invited to be a judge at the Gelato Festival America in sunny Santa Barbara this past Friday, so I headed up north for an afternoon of gelato, sorbetto and other tasty treats!

The Gelato Festival America is a brand new event that's hitting four cities in the States. Its sister festival in Europe has already been a huge success since 2010, with more than 60 renditions under its belt and drawing more than 50,000 attendees. With event organizers saying they hit it out the park with the Gelato Festival America kickoff at Boulder a couple of weeks ago, Santa Barbara was the second stop before closing out in Tucson and Scottsdale.

In Santa Barbara, ten competing gelato makers and a handful of other vendors dished out free samples to guests throughout the weekend. Technically, since all of the featured gelato were made with water and not milk, they weren’t really gelato; instead, they were sorbet, or sorbetto in Italian. Also, all options were completely vegan, fat- and dairy-free. Aside from the tastings, guests could learn all they ever wanted to know about gelato and sorbet by attending free mini-courses hosted by the Gelato University in the main tent.

While we as judges were recommended *not* to taste anything prior to the judging at 5 p.m., I couldn't help but to sample a few in advance. So I mixed, mingled and made my way around the stands where contestants showed off and shared their gelato with attendees.

What surprised me most was just how diverse the group of contestants were. Literally no one was from Santa Barbara — they came from nearby places like San Clemente and from as far away as New Jersey, Brazil, Spain and Italy. There were some, like Robert Sigona, who had been in the Gelato family-making business for years, and others, like Noël Knecht, who had aspirations to launch her own gelateria. Some contents used recipes they had perfected for years and others were literally offering recipes they hadn't tasted until right then at the festival. Others, like Bruno Couto de Matos, made a flavor specifically inspired by the Cali lifestyle; his “Fresh Love” (pictured below) featured beets, carrots, oranges and ginger.

Towards the end of the night, a panel of ten judges gathered in the main tent to do the very difficult task of sampling and rating all the different gelato. My fellow judges were other writers, journalists and bloggers, affiliated with travel, food and beverage outlets.

The process went like this: each competing chef had one minute (or two, if he didn't speak English and needed a translator) to "present" his gelato to judges, explaining the ingredients, the inspiration behind it and anything else he deemed important for us to know. Judges would then get to ask any questions as we sampled the flavor. We were asked to provide ratings based on three main qualities:

  1. Presentation (max. 10 points) – how well the gelato maker described his sorbetto in 60 seconds
  2. Flavor (max. 20 points) – Subjective, but how much we as judges enjoyed each sorbetto 
  3. Structure (max. 10 points – The most technical aspect, such as how much the vying sorbetto truly had the right characteristics, i.e., being creamy, soft, fresh and flavorful, and having the right consistency
Voting was confidential, except for the presentation component, where we'd all write our individual scores on our own handheld whiteboards and then flip the boards towards the contestant at the same time.

Our votes were only part of a larger process to find a gelato winner; our top scores were combined with the top scores from Saturday's kids jury. 50% of votes will come from these two juries and 50% will come from festival attendees' votes.

While one contestant in particular did come out victorious — Maurizio Melani’s“Sicily Orange Sunshine” took home the prize — here are a few of the noteworthy competing sorbetto that most certainly caught my attention and why: 

Best presentation: “Shade of Roses”
There’s no doubt of the passion that Salvatore Bonomo exuded when he talked about his “Shade of Roses” sorbetto, aptly named after his grandmother Rose. He was moved to tears as talked about how she was born in Pittsburgh in the 1940s and then moved to Italy, where she met his grandfather (and now, Salvatore runs a gelato shop with his grandfather!). Salvatore explained how he infused water with a blend of different roses and ginger and added orange and lemon, before mixing it all together with “wild, big ugly” peaches to make this super sweet sorbetto.

Best flavor: “Sicily Orange Sunshine”
Maurizio Melani’s sorbetto only comprised three main ingredients: blood oranges, the Indian spice cardamom and fresh peppermint. He shared that the sorbetto was meant to take us on a journey, starting with the sweet taste of the oranges and finishing with a lingering scent of mint. I immediately tasted the fragrant peppermint, which added a surprisingly delightful kick to the creamy sweetness of the sorbetto. 

Best scent: “Tropical Blast”
Smell might not be the first thing that comes to mind when thinking about sorbetto, but the crisp, clean, fragrant scent of cucumber can’t be denied in Spin Mlynarik’s “Tropical Blast,” which also includes pineapple, apple and ginger. This flavor was refreshing and light, and was reminiscent of a palate cleanser. Spin shared how getting the right flavor is all about timing — the ripeness of the pineapples and the softness of the cucumbers. 

Best backstory: “Ode to Autumn”
Noël Knecht’s sorbetto certainly had one of the most detailed backstories and it was evident that a lot of thought had been put in everything from the names to the source of ingredients. It’s named after John Keats’ poem, “To Autumn,” and has a medley of fall-friendly foods like pears, cinnamon and cranberries. Speaking of cranberries, she sourced them from a Wisconsin farm for their flavor and even included homemade candied ginger. She likened making gelato to being “like a choreographed dance, bringing everything together.” The result was a very texturized sorbetto with a fragrant smell of autumn spices. 

Best overall sorbetto: “Roasted Green Tea with Crunchy Mango”
Hands down, my favorite sorbetto of the evening was Michele Brown’s “Roasted Green Tea with Crunchy Mango.” It excelled at everything — from presentation, to texture, creativity and taste. Michele made not one but two sorbettos — mango and green tea — that she blended together to create a colorful, creamy swirl of yellows and greens. She topped it off with a puffed rice garnish, sprinkled with chili lime salt. Ingredients like green tea and chili can be extremely strong on their own, but she managed to find the perfect balance between sweet and spicy. She shared that she typically makes more traditional flavors at the exclusive country club in Dallas where she works, but I love how different and fun this flavor is. There’s literally nothing like it!

Below is the entire list of competitors, their locations and entries:
  1. Maurizio Melani [Véneta Gelato Italiano, Spain] “Sicily Orange Sunshine” - WINNER
  2. Mattia Ortelli [Gelato-go, Miami Beach] “Spicy Green Paradise”
  3. Spin Mlynarik [Black Market Gelato, North Hollywood] “Tropical Blast”
  4. Noël Knecht [Colibri Gelato, San Clemente] “Ode to Autumn”
  5. Macello Mennone [Gelati Gioia, Tampa Bay] “Maiz Dulce Borracho”
  6. Bruno Cuto de Matos [Frio Gostoso, Brazil] “Fresh Love”
  7. Salvatore Bonomo [Nonna Rosa, Italy] “Shade of Rose”
  8. Robert Sigona [Gelotti Inc, New Jersey] “Blood Orange”
  9. Michele Brown [Brook Hollow Golf Club, Dallas] “Roasted Green Tea with Crunchy Mango”
  10. Antonio Carrozza [Latteria Italiana, Miami] “Vegan Pink Pear & Ginger”
So the next time you find the Gelato Festival in your city, make sure to stop by and try some of the flavors. See you at the next one!

For more information:

“Vegan Pink Pear & Ginger”

“Spicy Green Paradise”