Tag Archives: Orient Express

In a Charleston State of Mind

27 Apr

Charleston, South Carolina: home of historic plantations, antebellum architecture, blooming, fragrant gardens, Rhett Butler….and some of the nation’s best culinary experiences.  One of the most delicious meals I’ve had in a long time was recently served to me by Charleston’s most celebrated chef–Michelle Weaver, of the famed Charleston Grill.  The food: Nothing short of exquisite.  The location: West 52nd St., in Manhattan.

Before I go on, I will address the fact that at times I can sound like a broken record.  I obsessively gush over Orient-Express, their hotels, and their service.  No–I don’t work for them, nor do they pay me to blather on about my love for them–they’re just really, really (really!) good.  And the 21 Club, Orient-Express’s only restaurant, and NY’s truly authentic speakeasy/fine-dining establishment, is a perfect example of this.  It’s as NY as they come; in fact, if the Statue of Liberty suddenly came to life and asked for a good restaurant recommendation, I’d send her there.

21 Club

While I’ve tried and loved many of their classic menu items, I’ve also enjoyed a handful of excellent meals prepared by visiting chefs at 21 Club.  Not only have I traveled back in time with each visit to the restaurant, but I’ve traveled to Spain, South America, Italy, and now, Charleston.

Chef Weaver, a charming, lovely woman with a passion for good, pure, soul-satisfying cooking, served us a feast that was, what I imagine to be, the epitome of  Charleston, her restaurant, and the Orient-Express.  It was visually beautiful, flawlessly prepared, decadent yet not over-the-top, exemplary of its region, and avoided cliches and trends, focusing on ingredients and flavors.  These, I believe, are the qualities of a special hotel or restaurant.

She started with a platter for the table of the season’s freshest vegetables: radishes, cucumbers, and tomatoes, lightly dressed, to enhance rather than mask their loveliness.  She then served a deviled egg–the best I’d ever had–followed by white bean soup with country ham and mustard greens.  It was satisfying in every way, and I decided I could eat this every day of my life.  She then served her famous (for good reason!) Charleston Grill crab cake, topped with creek shrimp and a light lime tomato dill vinaigrette.  Loaded with crab, surprisingly light, and simply perfect, this, too, was the best I’d ever had.  Sides of phenomenal beer braised collard greens and sinfully good baked pimento cheese grits were shared by the table, and the dishes were practically licked clean.  Finally, we devoured strawberry shortcake with chantilly cream, orange ginger syrup, and fresh mint.  Chef Weaver brought the strawberries, lovingly cradled in her arms on the plane ride, from Charleston to NY, and they were topped with a biscuit that I could write a love letter to.   Obviously, I went a little crazy over this meal.

If you’re about to run to 21 Club to experience this meal, unfortunately, Chef Weaver has returned to Charleston–her loyal following of southern foodies couldn’t let her leave them for too long.  However, if knowing that Charleston is acknowledged by travelers as one of the world’s best cities isn’t enough reason to get down there–Michelle Weaver, the Charleston Grill, and its home, Charleston Place, are.

Charleston Place, an Orient-Express hotel, oozes Southern charm and hospitality, coupled with modern luxury and award-winning service.  Here you’ll find an Italian marble lobby with a grand Georgian staircase leading to lush rooms and suites.  You can swim in their horizon-edge pool, indulge in their spa, or maybe just sip a mint julep and feel like a southern belle (or beau).  Explore historic Charleston which is steps away from Charleston Place’s front door, and then dine at Charleston Grill, where you can not only enjoy the meal that I was luckily enough to experience, but Chef Weaver’s other dishes, which range from traditional southern through contemporary, internationally-inspired, and modern.  If you see Oprah, Richard Gere, Jerry Seinfeld, Natalie Portman, or Prince Charles there, don’t be surprised–they, too, have fallen for Charleston Place’s charms.

For more information on Charleston Place, visit www.charlestonplace.com

Charleston Place Entrance, photo by Joe Vaughn

Charleston Place Lobby, photo by Joe Vaughn

Charleston Grill, photo by Joe Vaughn

Girl Meets Sicilian Food: A Love Story

1 Nov

In a recent post (See “In My Mind, I’m Already There”), I created a short wish list of hotels and destinations–places I wanted to visit in the near future. On that list were Grand Hotel Timeo and Villa Sant’Andrea in Taormina, Sicily, two Orient-Express properties whose websites alone made me weak in the knees.

Well, I did it. I managed to get myself to Sicily and stay at these two hotels, and all I can say is “wow.” Beautiful, gorgeous, and stunning are understatements. The settings were picture-perfect: drop-dead ocean views, rose-filled gardens, dramatically crashing waves, and the trail of smoke escaping from the peak of an active volcano.

Then there were the rooms: classically elegant, spacious, impeccably designed masterpieces, with private balconies on which I sat, drank cappuccino, and admired the view.

But, if I were forced to describe and relive only one thing, I think it would have to be the food. Indeed, the food of Sicily was enough to make me stay there forever, forgetting all about life in…wait, where do I live? Oh right, NY. New York makes good food. Sicily LIVES good food. Some meals were so good, I leaned back, sighed, touched my cheek, and thought “is this a tear of joy?”.

At Villa Sant’Andrea and Grand Hotel Timeo, the food was as beautiful as the setting, as delicious as the waiters serving it (sorry, but I do love Italian men), and perhaps the best hotel food I’ve ever experienced. It began and ended at the hotels. I’d feast for breakfast, make my way out into the city to feast some more, and then come back to home sweet home, where pasta alla “Norma”, insanely good cannoli’s, and bucket-loads of fresh mozzarella were waiting for me.

It was also a bit of a joke during the trip that I was a cannoli addict–I said if I went missing, my friends would no doubt find me on the bathroom floor, rings of powdered sugar around my mouth and nose, shaking and begging for one more hit of that sweet, sweet ricotta. I taste-tested several cannoli’s–one in the small town of Savoca, where a scene of “The Godfather” was filmed; one at a restaurant in Taormina; one at a bakery in Taormina; and four (yes, four) at Grand Hotel Timeo. The winner was no doubt Grand Hotel Timeo, but I’d be happy to do it all over again and see if the results change.

So, there you have it: I had a love affair with Sicilian food. Loaves and loaves of thick, crusty bread; pounds of fine, earthy olive oil; pasta like it was going out of style; cheese like it was my last chance to ever eat cheese; enough seafood to make marine biologists slightly worried; and enough pastries to put me into diabetic shock. It was a beautiful affair, one I am still feeling each and every day, long since leaving….particularly because I can’t close my jeans.

In My Mind, I’m Already There…

5 Oct

Today, for me, is devoted to wishful thinking. Soon enough, children the world over will begin writing their Christmas lists (and Chanukah lists, too), and I will be way ahead of schedule, continuing work on my Travel Wish List. Sure, I’d like to hit another dozen or so countries in the next year, but more realistically, or more specifically, I have several places that top the list for the end of 2011/beginning of 2012 time period. They are (in no particular order):

HACIENDA SANTA INES, COSTA RICA
A sprawling private estate in the mountains of Costa Rica, this extravagant (and monstrous) property features private chefs, daily massages, equestrian facilities, greenhouses, pools, game rooms, transportation via helicopter, a petting zoo, and a partridge and a pear tree. Oh, and the rates start at $12,000/night.

Hacienda Santa Ines

CASTELLO DI VICARELLO, TUSCANY
This 12th century castle in the Maremma region of Tuscany has only seven guest rooms, and oozes Tuscan charm. All meals are cooked in the kitchen by Aurora, the owner’s wife, and feature home-grown ingredients, farm-fresh dairy, and the property’s homemade olive oil. They have a vineyard from which they produce their own wines, two swimming pools, a spa, and views of the rolling hills for miles and miles. The one problem is, I’d never leave.

Castello di Vicarello

GRAND HOTEL TIMEO and THE VILLA SANT’ANDREA, SICILY
Both of these gorgeous luxury hotels in Taormina, Sicily are Orient Express properties–my favorite hotel group–and both are divine. The Grand Hotel Timeo was built in 1873 and features spectacular views of Mount Etna, while Villa Sant’Andrea sits on a private beach on the Bay of Mazzaro, allowing guests to sip local Nero d’Avola wine and eat fresh seafood while feeling sorry for everyone back home. Something tells me I will be making this trip happen very soon…

Grand Hotel Timeo

ELLERMAN HOUSE, CAPE TOWN, SOUTH AFRICA
Okay, this is kind of cheating, because I’ve already been there, but it was only one night, and I really really really want to go back. Located in Bantry Bay with the most spectacular views of the Atlantic, this former private estate is as elegant a place as I’ve ever seen. The rooms are each unique, large, and jaw-dropping, most with ocean views, and the staff makes you feel as if it’s your own private home. If only it were.

MACHU PICCHU SANCTUARY LODGE, PERU
So, I’m dying to see Machu Picchu. I’d stay at any old place there if I had to, but since this is a wish list, I’m picking this hotel–which isn’t any old place. Another Orient Express property, it’s a mountaintop retreat with orchid gardens located right next to an ancient citadel. I mean, c’mon…who couldn’t feel spiritual here?

Machu Picchu Sanctuary Lodge

To be continued….