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BOS —> IA?

Yep. Except this time we’re going to be road warriors.

Bassador in tow, it’s just a short 1300 miles to our Thanksgiving destination. We’ll be taking the “Northern” route (i.e. I-90 to I-80), and the “Southern” route (I-80 all the way baby) back, to minimize repetitiveness as much as possible.

Unlike most of our trips, this is one isn’t dotted with natural wonders, fine dining establishments, or high-flying adventures. We deemed Niagara Falls not worth the short jaunt north of Buffalo it would require (plus I was afraid that Canadian Border Patrol would confiscate the Bassador), and as much as we tried to justify a 24 hour layover in Kentucky for the Bourbon Trail we just couldn’t swing it. Chicago is tempting, but a few years ago I got stuck in traffic just outside of the city limits so bad that I thought I’d perish there, and the memory of it haunts me. So a straight shot it is, with one night rest in Cleveland  on the way there, and one in Pittsburgh on the way back.

I don’t really have much to say about Cleveland. My apologies, but this city isn’t on my bucket list. Or my top 100 list. Maybe not even my top 1,000. But they’ve got a Starwood that takes pups, so Cleveland it is.

There is one small beacon of excitement in the drive. Can you see it?

Need a close-up because the screenshot is soooo small and you can’t see what I’m pointing at anyway?

Know what it is?

Why, it’s none other than the location of the Southern Tier Brewing Company!

Yayyyyyy. These fine beermakers happen to brew several of my favorite beers, and we will most definitely be making a stop on our way to Cleveland. Because what’s a road trip without a stop at a brewery or two?

And if anyone has any suggestions on how to spice up the rest of the 1,299 miles, just let me know. We’ve downloaded thousands of hours of This American Life and Stuff You Should Know, various books on tape, and converted mix tapes galore. The great fiasco of ’04 won’t occur again (in which I was stuck in the car driving to Michigan with only one cd – The Garden State soundtrack. A good cd, sure, but NOT GOOD ENOUGH for 20 hours of straight listening).

And I’ll be tweeting from the road (@lalaconcierge) to occupy myself, and perhaps you, too. Just in case you’ve been dying to know how a 22-hour, 1300 mile road trip actually unfolds. Cause I know you have.

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So, where has the fall gone? Ah, there it is, swirling in the bottom of my glass.

Just kidding – I’ve had an absolutely lovely fall: leaf peeping, pumpkin eating, walking and hiking over the hills and through the woods, watching prep school football, roasting acorn and butternut squashes, mulling cider, eating massive amounts of Halloween candy, and, perhaps most surprisingly, drinking beer.

My last post was on the beer class I took at the Boston Wine School, and the effects of that experience have lingered on and on, as evidenced by my new kitchen decor:

Aren’t they pretty? I think so too.

First, being obsessed with all things pumpkin, I had to discover which pumpkin beer was the best. It was a tough job, but someone had to do it. And the winner is? Without a doubt, Southern Tier’s Pumking, is indeed KING of the pumpkin beers. One whiff of this potion and you’ll raise your white flag and beg for more. Sweet seriousness.

At an apple and cider tasting at Formaggio Kitchen, I stumbled across J.K. Scrumpy’s Hard Cider, and more importantly, Scrumpy’s Solstice Cider. This stuff is the nectar of gods. Infused with cinnamon, vanilla, and a drop of maple syrup, this is basically a holiday party in your mouth. Drink it cold or drink it warm, but just drink it! This is what you should be drinking after Thanksgiving dinner in a week and a half. Trust me. (NOTE: I know, I know, cider is not beer. I totes agree. But with an alcohol content level hovering above 6%, I think this bottle can hang out with the other cool kids. But that’s just my professional opinion.)

I also ventured out into the other interestingly flavored beers that started getting my attention (hazelnut beer? uh huh. creme brulee beer? sure. beer + bourbon? yes please). And then I met my match: Goose Island’s Bourbon County Stout. This, this is just something to love. To see life in a different shade. This is a deep, dark, rich, and downright sexy beer.

Here’s the winning line-up of my fall tasting:

And first place goes to…

Need a close up because my photos are blurry? I know, me too.

Isn’t she looooooooooooooooooooovely?

So that’s what I learned this fall. I learned that I do, in fact, love beer. I also learned that price matters – unlike wine, where I can’t distinguish a $12 bottle from a $4 bottle, with beer I really can tell a difference. In a way, beer is kind of like cashmere. It pays to pay for better quality. Now I haven’t ventured into the Loro Piana realm of beer (and audibly gasped when I hit the right side of the menu at Lord Hobo, where glasses start at $20), so this is a tempered conclusion, but one which I promise to explore in more depth in the future.

I also learned that beer and bourbon is really the key to just about everything. This weekend I added a bottle of Southern Tier’s Porter to my chili, another to some macaroni and cheese, and a short pour of Van Winkle’s into my pumpkin pie filling. Verdict? Deeper, more complex flavors in all three dishes.When in doubt, add some stout. Or bourbon. Or whiskey.

What did you learn this fall?

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It’s October! And my favorite month is already off to a wonderful start. Friday, the 1st of October, may have been a dark and stormy night, but lucky for us, the majority of it we spent cozily ensconced in the Boston Wine School.

After fighting through sheets of rain, howling winds, and Boston traffic, I finally arrived at the Brookline-based hideaway for an excursion through Oktoberfest beers, shepherded by our amazing host and teacher, Jonathon Alsop. Upon entering (and taking a brief moment to collect my wits, dump my soaking wet rain jacket, and fix my face in the bathroom), Jonathon directed me towards a poured glass of Weihenstephaner Festbier on the bar.

I should point out now that I’m not a big beer drinker. I usually prefer wine, mostly for the taste but also because I tend to have a problem with the, um, er, bubbles in beer. Bubbles bubbles bubbles. If I drink beer too quickly (i.e. at a normal pace), I end up feeling like Charlie and his grandfather when they get lost at the Willy Wonka Factory and discover the Fizzy Lifting Drink, which tastes delightful but eventually forces them to burp their way out of certain death. That’s me and most beers 🙂 When I do drink beer, I tend towards dark , rich, heavy beers, like Guiness or my fave, Brooklyn Brewing Company’s Dark Matter. I also love all things fall/harvest/pumpkin-y, and have recently launched an exploration of all pumpkin beers, to find the one that (I think) is best. Cause a girl has to have goals, right?

Okay, back to Friday, back to the Boston Wine School, back to the Weihenstephaner Festbier. This beer was GOOD. Light and refreshing, but with different layers of flavor, this beer reminded me much of wine. It was a fantastic way to get introduced to the Oktoberfest and other beers we would be trying that evening, and also to erase many of the preconceptions I had about beer beforehand. This was a beer to be sipped and spoken of, and we did just that as we nibbled on a delicious selection of hor d’hoeuvres and waited on a few more classmates (yay! I wasn’t the latest one!). We also learned that this is the Official Beer of Oktoberfest, so it was a great way to start.

Once the others had arrived, Jonathon invited us to sit down at the U-shaped dining table. The first floor of the Boston Wine School, in which our class was held, is one large, generously proportioned room facing Commonwealth Ave. With exposed brick walls, a humongous bar and cheese case, chalkboard-decorated walls, and large windows facing the street, it’s both spacious and an intimate space to taste and dine in. The table was simply decorated with a white tablecloth and place settings, large bins of good, mixed variety bread, and decanters of water for rinsing or sipping. And small plates of cheese, plums, soppresatta and prosciutto-wrapped figs at each setting.

Jonathon poured us a glass of Ayinger Oktober Fest-Marzen and asked us to introduce ourselves, share what we knew about beer, and what brought us to the Boston Wine School that night. Since there were only 10 participants, immediately a casual rapport was established, and conversation remained easy throughout the evening. After introducing ourselves, Jonathon then shared a bit about his own (extensive) background, and apologized that the original class leader for the evening, Eric Dietz, was unable to make it. He promised to share all he knew, and to seek to fill any gaps in his own knowledge of beer with a few tomes on the topic beside him. It was actually wonderful to have a wine perspective on the tasting of beers, and to have a leader that was tasting some of the beers for the first time with us, as we were all embarking on the journey together. Jonathon also assured us that tasting wine or beer is really not a matter of “taste” as everyone says it is, but rather instead a truly unique venture in which each person may taste (and therefore like or dislike) different flavors and notes in each beer. He reiterated that the point of the class was not to teach us what beers were better or even best, but for each one of us to discern and explore our own preferences.

The Ayinger Oktober Fest-Marzen was very different from the first Oktoberfest beer, as it had a strong caramel flavor and was very smooth. Just as delightful, it paired amazingly with the goat’s milk gouda from Holland and ridder from Norway on our plates. The third cheese was a kashkaval from Bulgaria that I found intriguing – the only thing I can liken it to is string cheese, which might sound pedestrian but which I quite love, and indeed I loved this cheese as well. In fact this cheese plate was one of the highlights of the meal, and I was struck by how lovely the cheeses paired with the beers. Must try at home!

We tried three other beers while munching on the cheese, fruit, and dried meats: Paulaner Oktoberfest (not my favorite, I found it quite plain), Rogue Hazelnut Brown Nectar (oh be still my heart – with my first sip I loudly declared that “This is a beer to have for breakfast!”), and Southern Tier Iniquity Imperial Black Ale (instructions: swoon, swig, swoon, repeat).  During this time I learned that the higher the alcohol content in a beer, such as we were finding in this selection, the more esters there were. And the more esters, the more fruity, flowery, or spicy flavor compounds there are. Esters are naturally created in fermentation, and the higher the temperatures of fermentation, the more esters. Forgive me if I’m getting any of this wrong, but what I took away is that more esters = more yummy, and most beers at higher alcoholic content levels have more esters. Therefore the higher the alcohol content, the more esters, the more yummy! It’s a beer logic model. However, not all people like esters, but wine lovers tend to be drawn to esters and therefore enjoy beers with higher alcoholic contents. So. Interesting!

Now I was downright excited at my new knowledge of beer/esters/fermentation, and eager to try more. By this time we were ready for our first course of several varieties of potatos simply roasted with whole cumin seeds, olive oil, salt and pepper. This was a surprisingly delicious dish, and made me want to stop and get cumin seeds on the way home from class to put on everything. Next came churrasco, or brazilian barbecued pork sausage, sauteed okra, and marinated cabbage, followed by a simple green salad dressed in vinaigrette. All of these paired extraordinarily well with the Troegs Dead Reckoning Porter that was poured (and poured again) throughout the dinner portion of the meal. A deep, dark, hearty beer, this was really not a drink to wash down the meal with, but rather part of the meal itself, just as rich and supplementary in flavor as another foodstuff.

By this time the rain had abated somewhat outside, and while cars splashed by outside on the rainy streets of Brookline, platters of cheese were presented to us along with pours of Schneider Aventinus Weizen-Bock. These cheeses were not as complex as those we started with, but rather simple palette cleansers. A jakerkase, emmenthal, and beurre bleu graced our plates along with more brown and white bread. This was not my favorite beer, cheese plate, or pairing, but was valuable in that I learned what, exactly, beurre bleu is. It’s basically blue cheese mixed with butter, half of each, to make a creamy, sharp, tangy, and downright decadent spread. It is now also my condiment of choice. Because anything mixed with butter is a condiment, no? And can be used as such? I think so.

Not unexpectedly, dessert did not disappoint. My love for sweets is nearly as strong as my love of cheese, and a pear streusel, fresh from Clear Flour Bakery, paired with a pour of Affligem Tripel, was a showstopper of an ending to a wonderful meal. The Allfigem Triple, from northern Belgium, was another wine-like beer, with sweet whispery aromas complimented by a delicate, flavorful, but not-as-sweet sip. This is a perfect beer to serve on special occasions that fall on wintery evenings, when one finds oneself in good company, after a good meal, and in front of a roaring fireplace. This is a beverage for Christmas Eve, or for those dark nights of February and March when New England winters seem to drag on forever, and one must be reminded of why we all live here – if only to sip this beer, inside a cozy home, on a frosty winter’s night.

And on that note, we all bid our ado to Jonathon and the Boston Wine School. This Oktoberfest class was truly wonderful, and I’m looking forward to taking more classes with Jonathon and the other expert educators at the Boston Wine School. The majority of Boston Wine School classes focus on wine, but there are ventures into other arenas such as beer, sake, and bourbon, as audiences demand. A warm, inviting, and casual atmosphere, this is a wonderful place to come and learn more about oneself and one’s own tastes, and is perfect for both Boston locals and those just visiting our city.

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Yes, there’s more to our trip to the South, but I’m interrupting recaps for a mini-vacation destination. Because it’s mid-September, and it’s needed. Crisp fall days call for road trips, and a trip to Tiverton and Little Compton, Rhode Island is the perfect way to celebrate the changing of seasons. Here’s what you should do if you go:

Eat here:

Boathouse Waterfront Dining – In a fabulous waterfront location, this restaurant not only has some of the best seafood chowder I’ve ever had, but it has two patios – one of which is covered in Adirondack chairs facing the water. A comfy Adirondack chair is one of my favorite things, and a glass of wine here at sunset is another. Bring a sweater for the cool fall evenings, and enjoy some of the last sunsets spent outside.

Stay here:

The Stone House: This is an absolutely stunning renovation of a private merchant’s home that dates from 1854. Elegant but not pretentious, the clean lines of the decor, natural beauty of the surroundings, and crisp sea breeze rolling off the Sound will restore any hardened urban soul.

Play here:

Sekonnet Vineyards: Getting to this vineyard is half the fun, and will take you past charming farmstands and general stores. Spend the afternoon sipping, tasting, noshing, and wandering through the scenery. The Petite White is quite nice, as is the Vidal Blanc. If you need more wine (and who doesn’t), try other stops along the Coastal Wine Trail.

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Okay, so ATL. Atlanta! We started the day by spending the morning at the High, looking at gorgeous vintage cars and brilliant, if not heartbreaking, photographs by Peter Sekaer. The High was a beautiful modern art museum that was easy to navigate, spacious and airy, and really lovely on a hot summer day.

We would have stuck around, but had things to do and animals to meet at the Georgia Aquarium. Like Nemo:

And Mr. Beluga:

Isn’t he cute? He loved to come and say ohai as he swam by.

And George (my name for him), who I think may be the long lost husband of Myrtle?

Oh, how I love aquariums. And the Georgia Aquarium is AWESOME. So big, friendly, and with a ton of information and fantastic animals to see. There’s even a petting zoo, where I pet a starfish and a stingray, then got totally grossed out and couldn’t stop freaking out at the memory. But still very cool 🙂

After that we headed home to get ready for our big night out at…Woodfire Grill! This was my birthday dinner and being totally obsessed with all things Kevin, I was ecstatic. Like tween-girl-first-middle-school-dance ecstatic. So I do what anyone does when they’re nervous and excited – made a fool out of myself.

But first things first: the actual restaurant. The restaurant is located on kind of a funny thoroughfare (think triple XXX video shops and fast food joints all around), but had valet parking which looked kind of out of place, but was welcomed since I couldn’t get into the restaurant fast enough. Our table wasn’t ready yet so they seated us in the cozy lounge at the front, where we tried some of their seasonal cocktails. I had the Rendezvous (high west rye whiskey, fresh grapefruit juice, caradamom syrup and lemon juice) to start, which was delicious, but after that moved on to Hendrick’s gimlets since I wanted to focus on the ingredients in the food, not in my drinks. Plus, Hendrick’s is my favorite and it was my birthday so I could and I did and I  loved it. Again and again.

The wait wasn’t too long at all (just enough to get through most of our drinks) but the front of house staff was super gracious and apologized for the wait when they came to get us. They led us past the bar (where the bartender vaguely resembled Kevin…could it be? No, course not) and into the cozy, high-ceilinged dining room in the back, to a table right by…the open wood fire grill! Ahhh AWESOME thankyouverymuch! I love to see food getting prepared, and this also raised our chances of actually seeing the big man himself. The meal was off to a very good start.

After  ogling the menu for .5 seconds, we all agreed that there was really only one way to go – the tasting menu. Now, I’d like to point out that Woodfire Grill has two tasting menu options, $65 for 5 courses, and $85 for 7 courses. $65 for 5 courses! Maybe I’ve lived in Boston too long, but this seemed like a steal. The 7 courses sounded amazing, but I’ve had my fair share of tastings lately, and find myself stuffed beyond repair (or enjoyment) around course 4, so 5 it was.

So, I don’t have pictures, because I was too busy eating and drinking and dying when Kevin would walk by (which he did! multiple times!). But the food was SUBLIME. Truly amazing. Yummy yummy porkalicious bacony fishy cheesey light fresh localorganic brilliantness. I do remember we DRANK our salads – caprese shooters. YUM. I’m getting hungry writing this! So. good. And it was leisurely, but not too long between courses, just enough that we didn’t feel rushed, and could treat each course with the respect it deserved. From amuse bouche through dessert, the food was excellent.

By the end of the meal I was feeling pretty fantastic, thanks to both the food and the gin, and decided to write Kevin a love note promising that if I ever got divorced he was the first person I’d call (and yes, the hubs was sitting next to me while I wrote this). I then proceeded to give it to the waiter to give to Kevin. For reals. Apparently I’m not the first girl to make an arse out of myself though, because the waiter then told us about a girl who had begged and begged to meet Kevin and then couldn’t say a word when she finally did. AWESOME. At this point my dining companions thought it was best to whisk me out of the restaurant before I got on that train. So we floated out into the sultry Altanta night, with full tummies and visions of porkbellies dancing in our head.

Best. Birthday. Dinner. Ever.

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I promise I’ll get up to speed (i.e. the end of August) soon enough. But the weather outside is frightful, and looking at pictures of vacation two months ago is, well, delightful.

Wednesday broke hot and steamy, like all the other days we were in the South. After bopping around the city center for a bit (had to buy my requisite cheesey tourist souvenirs) we hopped into the car to head to Atlanta. Honestly, this drive wasn’t nearly as scenic as the coastal causeway we’d followed from Charleston to Savannah, but it did have one highlight about halfway between Savannah and Atlanta — Macon!

Macon turned out to be a pleasant surprise, I think because we had such low expectations for it. We started by stopping at the Visitor’s Center, which was actually really nice with great information, friendly helpers, and – most important of all – clean bathrooms 🙂 We asked what were the must-see’s in Macon, and where we should have lunch. They recommended some of the historic homes, and just walking along the main street full of eateries and shops. Soon after we stumbled on La Dolce Vita Cafe and Bar, where we enjoyed a hummus platter and a crab cake roll for a whopping total of $7.50. Tasty, satisfying, and with gracious service (and they served the check in an old book!), this was a great place to stop and take a rest. From there we headed upstairs to Jack and Coat Clothiers, a small independent men’s clothing store that was a surprisingly stylish outpost that inspired images of the Billy Reid store in Charleston. The store had an excellent selection, and one purchase later, we were on our way. We finished up our Macon experience by driving by the Hay House (aka the “Palace of the South”) and the Cannonball House, two historic mansions that represent the quirky charm of Macon, then were on our way to Atlanta.

The rest of the drive was pretty uneventful, besides sitting in awesome rush-hour traffic for awhile just outside the city. But our efforts were highly rewarded by dinner at Sauced, which was sooo yummy. Ohemgeee was this good. Fried okra, bbq pork, and braised short rib were the highlights of this meal. And the drinks were just as good! Loved the laid back, quirky vibe of this place – reminded me of a cross between Franklin Cafe and Delux, if you know what I mean. Except in citrus tones. Obviously.

After that we made friends with our Atlanta host, Elliott*, who had just recieved a new lion cut he couldn’t wait to show off:

Basically he looked like he was wearing Uggs!

Next up, best birthday day in Atlanta eva. Why? Two things: Beluga whales and Kevin Gillespie. Cause you can’t have one without the other.

*Unfortunately Elliott passed on to kitty heaven recently. We were so sad to hear of his passing, but so happy we got to hang out with him for our time in Atlanta. A better host there never was.

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What a dark and dreary day in Boston. Thank goodness I have these sunshiney pictures to remind me of the sweltering heat of Savannah just a few months ago!

After walking around Forsyth Park and many of the other squares in Savannah, we got back into our rental car and headed to Bonaventure Cemetery, one of Savannah’s oldest cemeteries, and reputedly one of the most beautiful in the nation. Yes, going to a cemetery is pretty morose, but this is also the cemetary that shows up in Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, and since I’m a sucker for all things haunted, spooky, or scary, we had to go. We were not disappointed.

First off, little Gracie Watson’s grave. Little Gracie! How creepy! She was the only child of her parents, and died at the age of 6 of pneumonia.

She has her own little gated area. Is the gate to keep things out….or in?

It is easy to see why Bonaventure is known for the scenery. Between the graves, live oaks, and moss, it’s a pretty ethereal setting.

The trees and other growth provide a stunning backdrop for some remarkable graves and tombs.

Gorgeous and creepy all at the same time.

Apparently John Muir visited (and slept!) in the cemetery in 1867 and wrote in A Thousand Mile Walk to the Gulf: “But of all the plants of these curious tree-gardens the most striking and characteristic is the so-called Long Moss (Tillandsia usneoides). It drapes all the branches from top to bottom, hanging in long silvery-gray skeins, reaching a length of not less than eight or ten feet, and when slowly waving in the wind they produce a solemn funereal effect singularly impressive….The dead do not reign there alone.”

After spending an hour walking and winding through the cemetary, we decided to head back to the land of the living and made our way to the Savannah waterfront to lighten up the mood with some beer in plastic cups. The Savannah waterfront is pretty but is kind of the typical tourist scene, and we found much more beautiful and charming areas in the blocks further away from the water.

Lunch at Mrs. Wilke’s kept us full past five o’clock, but eventually we made our way over to Local 11 Ten, a restaurant that specialized in using local and seasonal ingredients. Everything was light and fresh, which was warmly welcomed after our prodigious lunch.

After dinner we walked down to the Mansion on Forsyth Park, a property that I’ve had my eye on for awhile since it made its debut on LuxuryLink several years ago. The hotel did not disappoint, and presents a fabulous mixture of traditional architecture and hip, modern, and sumptuous decor. It’s worth it just to pop in and have a drink in one of the many lounges, but make sure to wander the hallways and check out the various dining rooms, patios, and even the bathrooms for the amazing interior design. Next time we’re in town I’d love to try one of the cooking classes at 700 Drayton, the inhouse restaurant, as well.

A Celtics playoff game was just starting so we snuggled into the overstuffed couches in the bar upstairs, and sipped on cocktails. I made the mistake of ordering absinthe (aka “firewater”), which was – as the bartender promised – pretty gross. Kind of like Jaegermeister. And I don’t like Jaegermeister. I should have stuck with the martinis!

The hotel bar was gorgeous but pretty quiet on a Tuesday night, so we headed to the other Kessler Hotels property in Savannah, the Bohemian Hotel on the Waterfront. We had checked out the rooftop bar earlier and thought it would be a great place to return, so headed over.

OMG, the place was OUT OF CONTROL. There was some kind of pilot’s conference going on, and it was madness and mayhem. The place was packed, and looked like the Webster Dictionary definition of a meat market. We stepped in, surveyed the crowd and crazed lines for drinks, and quickly retreated back into the elevator in search of a different venue. Luckily we found a relatively quiet bar across the street where we were able to watch the rest of the game uneventfully before making our way back to our hotel. We had to get in some good zzz’s because the next day we were heading to Hot-lanta!

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