Upon our arrival in Mumbai, India, we were immediately whisked away to the airport where we began what Silversea referred to as their Mid Voyage Land Adventure, highlights of which included visits to two UNESCO World Heritage Sites, the Agra Fort and the majestic Taj Mahal. This involved an excursion of four days/three nights, an Air India flight to Delhi, overnight stays in the posh Oberoi New Delhi & Oberoi Amarvilas hotels, and return flight to Cochin where we would once again reboard our cruise ship.

Gurdwara Sri Bangla Sahib, Delhi, India: One of the most prominent Sikh gurdwaras, Sikh house of worship, in Delhi. Situated near Delhi - Sikh TempleConnaught Place, it is instantly recognizable by its distinctive golden dome.

The grounds include the Gurdwara, a kitchen, a large holy pond, a school, and an art gallery. As with all Sikh Gurdwaras, the concept of langar is practiced. All people, regardless of race or religion may eat in the Gurdwara kitchen. The food is prepared by gursikhs who work there and also by volunteers.

When entering the temple, visitors are requested to cover their hair and remove their shoes. Head scarves and shoe-minding service can be found inside the compound and are available free of charge.

Agra, India: Agra is a city on the banks of the Yamuna River in the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh. It Agra Cityis located 140 miles south-east of Delhi, the national capital. With a population of roughly 1.6 million, Agra is the fourth-most populous city in Uttar Pradesh and the twenty-third most populous city in India.

Agra’s notable historical period began during the reign of Sikandar Lodi; however, the golden age of the city began with the Mughals. Babur, who reigned from 1526-30. The founder of the Mughal dynasty, he acquired Agra after defeating the Lodhis and the Tomaras of Gwalior in the first battle of Panipat in 1526. Agra remained the capital of the Mughal Empire until 1658, when Aurangzeb shifted the entire court to Delhi.

Under Mughal rule, Agra became a center for learning, arts, commerce, and religion, and saw the construction of the Agra Fort, the Tomb of Agra - Tomb of AkbarAkbar (pictured: The mausoleum of the third and greatest Mughal emperor Akbar; built in 1605-1613 by his son, Jahangir), and the Taj Mahal, constructed between 1632 and 1648 by Shah Jahan in remembrance of his wife, Mumtaz Mahal.

With the decline of the Mughal empire in the late 18th century, the city fell successively, first to Marathas and later to the East India Company. After independence, Agra developed into a manufacturing center with a booming tourism industry. It is now included on the Golden Triangle Tourist Circuit, along with Delhi and Jaipur.

Agra Fort, Agra, India: The massive 16th-century structure is Agra’s second-most important attraction after the Taj Mahal. The fort’s Agra - Red Fortapproximately1.5-mile-long red sandstone walls contained the imperial city of the Mughal rulers. Mughal emperor Humayun was crowned here. It was later renovated by the Mughal emperor Akbar from 1565; and the present-day structure was completed in 1573. It served as the main residence of the rulers of the Mughal dynasty until the capital was shifted from Agra to Delhi.

Before being captured by the British, the last Indian rulers to have occupied it were the Marathas. In 1983 the Agra Fort was inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. A city within a city, it is comprised of fairy-tale palaces, audience halls, and two beautiful mosques.

Taj Mahal, Agra, India: The Taj Mahal (lit. “Crown of the Palace”) is an ivory-white marble mausoleum on the right bank of the Yamuna River. Taj Mahal ComplexIt was commissioned in 1631 by Shah Jahan, the fifth Mughal emperor (r. 1628-1658) to house the tomb of his favorite wife, Mumtaz Mahal, who died on June 17th of that year, giving birth to their 14th child. It also houses the tomb of Shah Jahan himself. The tomb is the centerpiece of a 42-acre complex, which includes a mosque, a guest house, and is set in formal gardens enclosed on three sides by a crenellated wall (a wall containing battlements).

The Taj Mahal was constructed using materials from all over India and Asia. It is believed that over 1000 elephants were used to transport building materials. Some 22,000 laborers, painters, embroidery Taj Mahalartists and stonecutters were used. The translucent white marble was brought from Makrana, Rajasthan; the jasper from the Punjab region; jade & crystal from China. The turquoise was from Tibet, the lapis lazuli (a deep blue metamorphic rock used as a semi-precious stone) from Afghanistan, the sapphire from Sri Lanka, and the carnelian from Arabia. In all, 28 types of precious and semi-precious stones were inlaid into the white marble.

Construction of the mausoleum was essentially completed in 1643, but work continued on other phases of the project for another 10 years. It is believed that the Taj Mahal complex was completed in its entirety in 1653 at a cost estimated at the time to be around 32 million rupees, which today would be approximately 70 billion rupees (about 915 million in U.S. dollars).

The Taj Mahal was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1983 for being “the jewel of Muslim art Taj Mahal - and outlying buildings from across the riverin India and one of the universally admired masterpieces of the world’s heritage.” It is regarded by many as the pinnacle of Mughal architecture. However, due to the global attention that it has received, and the millions of visitors it attracts, the Taj Mahal has become a prominent image that is associated with India… but even more than this, a symbol of India itself, as well as one of the new Seven Wonders of the World (pictured: view of the Taj Mahal and outlying buildings from across the Yamuna River).

All that being said, however… as I quickly discovered, the more one learns about the Taj Mahal, the more one realizes there is so much more one does not know. Scholarly articles and essays abound…ditto myths, legends, deep dark mysterious secrets, and a superfluous sprinkling of crackpot theorists. And sometimes it is difficult – if not downright impossible – to separate fact from fantasy.

For example, the most famous myth – undoubtedly false – describes in rather horrific detail the mutilations and dismemberments that were inflicted upon those associated with the construction of the tomb. In order to ensure that no one could recreate the beauty of the Taj Mahal, Shah Jahan supposedly severed the hands and gouged out the eyes of the artisans and craftsmen. Despite the prevalence of this rather gruesome tale, historians have found absolutely no evidence to support the story.

Another longstanding myth – and certainly one of the most fascinating – holds that Shah Jahan planned another mausoleum to be built in black marble across the Yamuna River. The story had its roots in the fanciful writings of Jean-Baptiste Tavernier, a European traveler who visited Agra in Taj Mahal - Myth of the Black Taj Mahal1665. He maintained that Shah Jahan had begun the construction of his own tomb on the opposite side of the river, but that Jahan’s son, Aurangzeb, overthrew him before the Black Taj Mahal could be built. Local legends also add that Shah Jahan intended to connect the two tombs with a bridge across the Yamuna River, possibly made of silver.

Research has shown that Shah Jahan asked his architects to modify the Mahtab Bagh (Moonlight Garden) built by his great-grandfather emperor Babar, to incorporate it within the Taj Mahal complex. It has been suggested that this was to be the site of the second Taj. It has also been pointed out that while the Taj Mahal was built in perfect symmetry, Shah Jahan’s cenotaph (a monument to someone buried elsewhere… more on that below) appears to be the exception. It is irregularly positioned in the burial chamber, while Mumtaz Mahal’s cenotaph lies at the center. It is also much larger in comparison to Mumtaz Mahal’s and almost appears to be an afterthought. Is it possible that Shah Jahan never intended to be buried along with his wife?

The evidence noted above may seem perfectly plausible… However, historians have dismissed the idea of a second Taj because, except for Tavernier, there is no reference to it in the other contemporary accounts of the time. Archaeological excavations of the area have also not found any trace of the construction of such a building. And while ruins of black marble were found in the Mahtab Bagh, further research led to the conclusion that they were white stones that had discolored over the years.

Whether the story is fact or fiction is, to me at least, a moot point. Having personally visited the Taj Mahal, I can assure you that the mere mental image of two such magnificent structures facing each other on either side of the Yamuna River is enough to set fire to anyone’s imagination.

On the other hand, the fact that the architects and craftsmen of the Taj Mahal were masters of proportion and optical illusion is beyond question. When one first approaches the main gate that frames the Taj, for example, the monument appears incredibly large and close… but as one gets closer, it shrinks in size – exactly the opposite of what one would expect. In addition, although the minarets surrounding the tomb appear to be perfectly straight and upright, in reality, they actually lean outward, serving both form and function. Not only do these pillars provide an aesthetic balance, but they would also crumble away from the main crypt in the case of a natural disaster such as an earthquake.

Taj Mahal - Interior ArchwaysAs awe-inspiring as the exterior may be, the interior ornamentation is equally impressive. As you enter, you observe a large octagonal-shaped structure with a dome at the top. The interiors are stunning, amazingly beautiful, yet beguilingly subtle. The basic elements of the structure are Persian. The floor is vast, echoing the slightest sound, while a series of breath-taking arches are embellished with exquisite calligraphy.

The main chamber, the tomb, is the central focus of the entire complex of the Taj Mahal. The tomb is an octagonal shaped room that was built in such a way that any face can be used as an entry, although only the south garden face is used. The walls are 25 meters high (approximately 82 feet). They contain Taj Mahal - Tombeight arches, four on the lower portion of the walls, four on the upper. The four top arches form balconies – viewing areas – each containing a jali or screening carved from marble in the shape of vines, fruits, and flowers.

Since Muslim tradition does not permit the elaborate decoration of graves, what visitors see, therefore, are cenotaphs. That is, monuments to those buried elsewhere. In this instance, the bodies of Shah Jahan and Mumtaj Mahal were laid to rest in a relatively plain crypt just below the main chamber, which is inaccessible to the public.

One final word… If you plan to visit the Taj Mahal ­– which should definitely be on your bucket list – be sure to leave plenty of time, as the Taj is a creature of many moods. In the morning light, it is white as the driven snow; in the evening, it takes on a golden hue; and in the moonlight, it is irresistibly romantic.

Old Delhi, India: We began with a brief visit to the Jama Masjid Mosque, one of the largest in India. Built by Mughal emperor Shah Jahan Delhi - Jama Masjid Mosque 2between 1650 and 1656, it was constructed by approximately 5,000 workers. The workforce was diverse, consisting of Indians, Arabs, Persians, Turks, and Europeans. The project was supervised by Sadullah Khan, the wazir (prime minister) during Shah Jahan’s reign, and Fazil Khan, the comptroller of Shah Jahan’s household. The cost of the construction at the time was one million rupees. The mosque was inaugurated on July 23, 1656, by Syed Abdul Ghafoor Shah Bukhari from Bukhara, Uzbekistan, who had been invited by Shah Jahan to be the Shahi Imam (Royal Imam) of the mosque. The Jama Masjid was one of the last monuments built under Shah Jahan. After it’s completion, it served as the royal mosque of the emperors until the end of the Mughal period.

Leaving the mosque, we set out, via bicycle rickshaw, to explore the sights and sounds of Old Delhi. Delhi - Chandni Chowk 1This is what is commonly called the Chandni ‘Chowk, historic buildings that were once home to prominent families of days-gone-by. Today, however, this district is one of the country’s best-known wholesale markets for textiles, electronic goods, and watches. Its narrow, winding side streets are also home to shops overflowing with spices, jewelry, books, hardware, brilliantly-dyed fabrics, and vendors hawking a variety of foods prepared on the spot… Awash with tsunamis of bustling humanity, the crowded streets conjured up nightmarish visions described in the oft-quoted opening sentences of American biologist Paul Ehrlich’s The Population Bomb (see photograph).

Bon Appétit & Cheers!

 TAD

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Following our five-night stay at Raffles the Palm in Dubai, UAE, we checked out of our hotel and were transported to Port Rashid where we boarded Silversea’s Silver Spirit for a 33-day cruise that would take us from Dubai to Cape Town, South Africa.

Because of the conflict between Israel and Hamas, I must admit that we were more than a little concerned about traveling in this region. However, Silversea clearly communicated to passengers that there was no cause for worry, as every possible precaution had been taken to insure their safety. And they were absolutely correct, as we felt totally secure throughout our entire voyage.

 Desert Dune Ride, Abu Dhabi, UAE: Since we had already explored a good bit of Abu Dhabi during our pre-cruise excursion – including the world-famous Sheikh Zayed Mosque, as well as a very brief visit to an outpost of the Louvre Museum – we decided to do something totally Abu Dhabi Dune Ride 4different in nature: a hair-raising dune ride through a portion of the Al Sahara Desert.

And hair-raising it was… but great fun. This is, without doubt, as close as you can get to a roller coaster ride on terra-firma (and I love roller coasters). There were times when I was certain that our vehicle would turn over on its side… but, luckily, that never took place, as the drivers were extremely adept at negotiating our rousing passage through the dunes. Fortunately, we were not in an open vehicle, as all concerned would undoubtedly have been completely covered in sand.

World Trade Center, Al Manama, Bahrain: Al Manama, the capital of Bahrain, is as old as it is new. Here you discover remains of a 16th-century trade route port juxtaposed with steel and glass skyscrapers that line the streets of the busy financial district.  The most striking of these, of course, is the Bahrain - World Trade Centerincredible World Trade Center, a 787 ft, 50-floor twin tower complex that houses both a five-star hotel and a luxury shopping mall, among its other intriguing attributes.

Designed by Atkins, a multi-national architectural firm, construction of the towers was completed in 2008. It is the first skyscraper in the world to integrate wind turbines into its design, which were developed, built, and installed by the Danish company Norwin A/S.

The two towers are linked via three skybridges, each holding a 225-kW wind turbine. Each turbine is aligned north, the direction from which air blows in from the Persian Gulf. The sail-shaped buildings on either side are designed to funnel wind through the gap to provide accelerated wind passing through the turbines. This significantly increases their potential to generate electricity.

The wind turbines are expected to provide 11% to 15% of the towers’ total power consumption, which is equivalent to providing the lighting for about 300 homes, 258 hospitals, 17 industrial plants, and 33 car engines. On an average day, they are expected to operate 50% of the time.

 Al-Fateh Mosque, Al Manama, Bahrain: At one time, the Al-Fateh Mosque, also known as the Al-Fateh Islamic Center, was one of the Bahrain - Al Fateh Mosquelargest mosques in the world, having the capacity to accommodate over 7,000 worshippers at a time. The mosque was built by the late Sheikh Isa Bin Salman Al Khalifa in1987 and was named after Ahmed Al Fateh. In 2006, Al-Fateh became the site of the National Library of Bahrain.

The mosque is located next to the Al-Fateh Highway in Juffair, a suburb of Manama. The huge dome on top of the mosque was constructed entirely of fiberglass. Weighing over 60 tons, it was originally the world’s largest fiberglass dome. The marble used in the floors is Italian and the chandelier was from Bahrain - Al Fateh Mosque Interior 2Austria. The doors were made of teak wood from India. Throughout the mosque is Kufic calligraphy.

The library of Ahmed Al-Fateh Islamic Center contains approximately 7,000 books, several as old as 100 years or more. These include copies of the books of the teachings of the prophet Muhammad, or what is referred to as the books of Hadith, the Global Arabic Encyclopedia, the Encyclopedia of Islamic Jurisprudence, Al-Azhar Journals, which have been printed more than a hundred years ago, as well as numerous magazines and periodicals.

I liked Al-Fateh infinitely more than the aforementioned mosque in my first article – Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi – which gave the impression of being constructed strictly for tourists. Al-Fateh just had a much warmer atmosphere… And as we tiptoed our way through its precincts in our stocking feet, there was an instructional class going on, which only added to the feeling of intimacy. Definitely worth a visit.  

King Abdulaziz Center for World Culture, Dhahran, Saudi Arabia: Also known as Ithra, this is, without doubt, modern architecture in Saudi Arabia - Center for World Culture 2extremis. Whether observed from a distance, or up close and personal, the structure is equally mind-boggling. The building covers some 80,000 square meters, its intriguing shape inspired by the internal structural shape of oil-bearing rock formations. The Norwegian architectural firm Snohetta designed the building and Buro Happold, a UK professional services firm, was in charge of the engineering design. It was built and is operated by Saudi Aramco, and was inaugurated by King Salman bin Abdulaziz on December 1, 2016. The Center is located where the first commercial Saudi oilfield was discovered in March 1938.

And the building’s interior is equally striking. The interior levels are arranged thematically to suggest a progression through time. Areas dealing with the past are at the lowest levels, while the present is represented on the ground floor. The higher levels are mainly situated in the building’s Knowledge Tower, to indicate that the knowledge communicated in the tower’s teaching rooms will equip citizens for the future.

The Center’s facilities are, indeed, impressive. The Museum is situated on four levels and is arranged thematically into four galleries: contemporary art, Saudi heritage, Islamic civilization, and natural history and human ecology. The contemporary art, heritage, and Islamic civilization galleries have non-permanent displays and change their exhibitions on a regular basis. From 2018 to 2020, for example, the Islamic civilization gallery hosted an exhibition of Islamic art in conjunction with the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

Saudi Arabia - Center for World Culture 3The Center’s Great Hall (pictured) is the dedicated area for short-term exhibitions. It has hosted an exhibition of original paintings by Norwegian Expressionist artist Edvard Munch, as well as an exhibition of manuscripts by Leonardo da Vinci.

Other facilities include the Ithra Cinema, which is one of the first to be operational in Saudi Arabia. It Saudi Arabia - Center for World Culture Librarydisplays a mix of movies, including popular international features, documentaries, and independent productions. The Ithra Library (pictured) is one of the largest and modern in the region. It is designed to host about 500,000 texts, as well as a variety of digital resources, and also hosts workshops, lectures, and book clubs. In addition to  performances, the Ithra Theater also organizes events intended to develop theater in Saudi Arabia, displays local & international plays, and offers theatrical training workshops. The Energy Exhibit offers visitors an ever-popular introduction to the oil industry, including renewables, ecology, and technology.

Time magazine listed the King Abdulaziz Center for World Culture as one of the world’s top 100 places to visit; and it attracted one million visitors in 2019. If you are planning a sojourn to the Saudi Arabia, the Center is definitely a must-see.

Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque, Muscat, Oman: In 1992, or so the story goes, the then Sultan of Oman, Qaboos bin Said al Said, decided that his country should have a grand mosque…. And the rest, as they say, is history.

Oman - Sultan Qaboos Grand MosqueThe grand mosque was inaugurated by the Sultan himself on May 4, 2001, as a gift to the nation to celebrate his third decade in power. His policies found favor with many, as his enlightened leadership spearheaded Oman toward becoming a modern state while still preserving age-old traditions of the Islamic way of life.

An architecture competition took place in 1993 to select the best design for the mosque. Once the winner was determined, the mosque took six years and seven months to build. Featuring a combination of Islamic, Middle Eastern, and Omani architectural styles, it was constructed utilizing 30,000 tons of pink sandstone imported from India, as well as local granite and white marble. Five minarets were built around the periphery. The main minaret, 300-feet in height, and the four flanking minarets, 149-feet, are the mosque’s chief exterior features.

The mosque is Oman’s largest with a capacity for 20,000 worshippers: 6,500 in the main musalla prayer hall, 750 in the women’s musalla, and an additional 8,000 in the outer paved grounds, interior courtyard, and along the passageways.

The enormous Italian-manufactured 24-carat gold-plated chandelier, once the world’s largest, weighs 8.5 tons, is trimmed with 600,000 Swarovski Oman - Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque Carpetcrystals, contains 1,122 halogen bulbs, and also includes a dimming system and a staircase for maintenance within the chandelier. Thirty-four smaller chandeliers of the same design are hung in other parts of the building.

Equally magnificent is the hand-loomed carpet (pictured) that covers the floor of the prayer hall. Containing 1.7 million knots, 28 natural vegetable dyes, and weighing 21 tons, it brings together the classical Persian Tabriz, Kashan, and Isfahan design traditions, and took four years to produce. The carpet measures 230 by 200 feet and covers the 46,750 square feet area of the prayer hall.

Oman - Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque LibraryThe double-story library is a striking cultural representative of Oman’s contemporary renaissance inspired by the late Sultan. It contains more than 23,342 books on the topics of Islamic culture, natural science, fine arts, philosophy, and psychology within its six departments, including a children’s section. The collection of predominantly Arabic and English titles grows larger each year.

Another must-see during your journey to the Middle East.

Bon Appétit & Cheers!

 TAD

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Although our cruise from Dubai – Cape Town began officially on Saturday, November 25th, we arrived in Dubai late in the evening of November 20th to participate in a Silversea sponsored Pre-Cruise Excursion. This included five nights and four days of sightseeing in and around the Dubai area. And, if memory serves me correctly, there were only a total of fourteen (14) people, plus our guide, which made for an infinitely more personal and intimate experience than the usual busloads.

Dubai, United Arab Emirates: To call Dubai a land of extravagance would, of course, be a gross understatement. To think that in just a quarter of a Dubai - Skylinecentury, the city has gone from being a sandy desert to becoming one of the top five cities in the world with the most buildings over 100 meters (328 feet) tall is absolutely awe-inspiring. In 2008 alone, forty-one of these incredible skyscrapers rose from the ground.

Proof of the country’s daunting financial health is the abundance of luxury cars. It is rumored that the local pound is stocked with abandoned luxury vehicles; and even the police drive supercars like Ferraris and Lamborghinis… including an Aston Martin One-77 with a list price of a whopping 1.79 million dollars.

But even more important than the extravagance of the car itself is the license plate… The fewer the numbers, the more important is the driver. Just a few years ago, the number plate “1” was auctioned off for a cool 14.5 million dollars.

Yet another measure of Dubai’s immoderation…? Here you can find ATMs, not for banknotes but for gold. And it is certainly no coincidence that 40% of the world’s gold market passes through the city’s precincts.

Raffles the Palm, Dubai, United Arab Emirates: Located on the West Crescent Palm Jumeirah, Raffles the Palm is a 5-star hotel with beautiful pyramid-shaped architecture, tropical gardens, and one of the most stunning beachfront properties in Dubai. Our home away from home for five nights, it is Dubai - Raffles the Palmdefinitely worth a visit in its own right.

Raffles the Palm, of course, is constructed on one of Dubai’s human-made archipelagos – Palm Jumeirah – with others at various stages of development. These islands are made through a kind of “land reclamation,” a process that involves dredging sand from the Persian and Arabian Gulf’s floors. The sand is then sprayed and “vibro-compacted” into shape using GPS technology for precision and is surrounded by millions of tons of rock for protection.

The process is labor intensive… and expensive, which is why many of Dubai’s artificial islands have yet to be completed. And, as you would undoubtedly surmise, construction of the Palm Islands has had a significant impact on the environment, resulting in changes in area wildlife, coastal erosion, alongshore sediment transport, and wave patterns.

As a result of dredging and redepositing of sand for the construction of the islands, the crystalline waters of the Persian Gulf at Dubai have become severely clouded with silt. Construction has damaged the marine habitat, burying coral reefs, oyster beds, and subterranean fields of seagrass, which threatens local Dubai - Palm Islandsmarine species and other species dependent on them for food.

These environmental disturbances have attracted the attention of environmental groups such as Greenpeace. In 2006 the World Wildlife Fund announced that “(The) UAE’s human pressure on global ecosystems (its ecological footprint) is the highest in the world. The country is supposedly at present five times more unsustainable than any other country.” It also mentioned that the construction from the start-up date had caused many visible ecological and environmental changes that threatened the future.

Palm Jumeirah was built entirely from sand and rocks; no concrete or steel was used to build the island. And one of the risks of such a tremendous undertaking, as well as the above-mentioned environmental issues, is the very real possibility of sinking. Is Raffles the Palm destined one day to disappear beneath the waves…? Only time will tell.

Dubai Polo & Equestrian Club: This is quite a beautiful facility; and our guide at the Club, a woman from New Zealand – who is the CEO and chief Dubai - Polo Equesttrian Clubtrainer – was both charming and informative. She gave us a quick glimpse of horses in general, their different breeds – polo ponies, thoroughbreds, Arabian – and their specialties and needs, as well as the equipment utilized. She guided us through the Club House, polo pitches, equestrian training facilities, and the stable, where we had opportunity to get up close & personal with the horses.

Following our tour of the stables, we enjoyed a first-class lunch at outdoor tables overlooking the exercise track. My chicken breast sandwich was excellent… ditto my traveling companion’s lobster roll. Dessert was a shared rich chocolate cake garnished with vanilla ice cream. And, seemingly like everything else in Dubai, portions were prodigious.

Al Sahara Desert Dining Experience: After a few hours of relaxation at our hotel, our group set out again on what was billed as a Dubai Dinner Safari. To quote the description: “As a perfect end to the day, you’ll be presented with a luxury 5-star banquet dinner. To accompany your dinner, you’ll Dubai - Al Sahara Belly Dancerhave the opportunity to see a live belly-dancing show, a spectacular fire show, and various other entertainment that is traditional in Dubai and the surrounding region. Sit back and relax, watching the sun set softly over the desert horizon, and reflect on a day well spent.”

… Well… yes, and no. The entertainment was outstanding. The belly-dancing was great and the fire show quite spectacular, indeed. But, in my opinion, the food was just so-so. It was an outdoor buffet… and you had to walk a goodly distance from where you were seated to adorn your plate.

In addition, we didn’t exactly “watch the sun set softly over the desert horizon.” The Dubai traffic is, in a word, formidable. And since our travel time was infinitely longer than expected, it was quite dark by the time we eventually arrived at our desert destination.

Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, Abu Dhabi: Located in Abu Dhabi, Capital of the United Arab Emirates, the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque is one of the world’s largest mosques and a massive architectural work of art that intentionally blends different Islamic architectural schools. It features 82 domes, more than 1,000 columns, 24-carat-gold gilded Abu Dhabi - Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosquechandeliers, and the world’s largest hand-knotted carpet. The main prayer hall is dominated by one of the world’s largest chandeliers. The late Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan built this mosque to convey historic consequence and to embody the Islamic message of peace, tolerance, and diversity. He intended that the Grand Mosque be a living reference of modern Islamic architecture that links the past with the present and creates a place of Islamic science and learning that would reflect genuine Islamic values. Constructed at a cost of 1.4 billion dollars, it is capable of accommodating 141,000 worshippers.

To enter the mosque, you must take an escalator down to an underground mall that is filled with souvenir shops and a plethoric variety of retail stores & restaurants. I doubt that I have ever seen a more commercialized religious enterprise. Having run the gauntlet, you are confronted with a type of staging area, where you are scrutinized with regard to proper attire. Shorts and otherwise bare skin are strictly prohibited… ditto transparent & tight-fitting garments; and women must cover their heads with a scarf or shawl.

Burj Khalifa, Dubai: The Burj Khalifa (originally known as the Burj Dubai prior to its inauguration) is indisputably the world’s tallest structure. With Dubai - Burj Khalifaa total height of 2,722 feet, or just over half a mile, it has been the tallest structure and building in the world since 2009, supplanting Taipei 101, the previous holder of the status.

The construction began in 2004, with the exterior completed five years later on October 1, 2009. It officially opened on January 4, 2010.  The building was designed by a team led by Adrian Smith of Skidmore Owings & Merrill, the firm that designed the Sears Tower in Chicago, a previous record-holder for the world’s tallest building.

 Burj Khalifa was designed to be the centerpiece of a large-scale development to include 30,000 homes, nine Dubai - View from top of Burjhotels, 7.4 acres of parkland, 19 skyscrapers, the Dubai Mall, and the 30-acre artificial Burj Khalifa Lake.

The Burj contains luxury homes, global companies, and the swanky Armani Hotel. Only the 124th, 125th, and 148th floors are open to the public. And as you can well imagine, the view – especially from the 148th floor – is truly spectacular. (pictured).

 Final Evening of the Pre-Cruise Excursion: This, of course, should have been the highlight of our pre-cruise junket. Instead, it turned out to be something of a mixed bag,

The evening started out well enough, as we attended an intriguing rendition of Cirque du Soleil’s Water Stage at the La Perle Theater in the Hilton Hotel. Following the performance, we went upstairs to the Babiole Restaurant for our 8:00 p.m. dinner reservation – and this is where the anomalies Dubai - Babiole Restaurant Viewbegan to pop up.

The food wasn’t bad at all – my Burrata and my traveling companion’s Beef Carpaccio, for example, made excellent starters… ditto her main course of Seafood Risotto… and other members of the party seemed more than satisfied with entrées such as Wild Mushroom Ghocchi and Chicken Milanese – unfortunately, there were a number of other contributing factors. My entrée, for instance, was simply MIA, missing in action. I had ordered the Baked Salmon with quinoa and olive crust. What appeared, however, was the Risotto. I informed the server of the mistake, and he promptly returned it to the kitchen. And I waited… and waited… and waited. By the time the salmon finally materialized, everyone else had completely finished their entrées, so I simply handed it back to the waiter and we all moved on to dessert.

Then, of course, there was the noise issue… Instead of being seated in the restaurant’s cozy dining room, which, at the time of our arrival, was completely devoid of human habitation, our party of fourteen was plopped down at a large table in the bustling bar area. And while the view was spectacular (pictured Dubai - Babiole Restaurantabove), there was a speaker situated almost directly above our heads; and, as the evening wore on, the piped-in music became louder and louder. Carrying on a reasonably intelligent conversation became completely impossible.

Complaints were made. The restaurant manager wasn’t exactly helpful, simply noting that this was “Ladies’ Night” (I mean, there were all of three unescorted ladies seated at the bar), that the music was always loud on such occasions, and that a representative of our group had been informed of this fact at the time our reservation was originally made.

Neither a particularly satisfactory conclusion to a highly-anticipated pre-cruise excursion, nor a very auspicious prelude to what proved to be a very enjoyable and illuminating cruising experience.

Bon Appétit & Cheers!

 TAD

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SHAKEN, NOT STIRRED

007’s FAVORITE COCKTAIL

Vesper Martini“A dry martini,” (Bond) said. “One. In a deep champagne goblet.”

 “Oui, monsieur.”

 “Just a moment. Three measures of Gordon’s, one of vodka, half a measure of Kina Lillet. Shake it very well until it’s ice-cold, then add a large thin slice of lemon peel. Got it?”

 Certainly, monsieur.” The barman seemed pleased with the idea.

 “Gosh, that’s certainly a drink,” said (Felix) Leiter.

 Bond laughed. “When I’m… er… concentrating, he explained, “I never have more than one drink before dinner. But I do like that one to be large and very strong and very cold, and very well-made. I hate small portions of anything particularly when they taste bad. This drink’s my own invention. I’m going to patent it when I think of a good name.”

 Of course, Bond later named the drink after his love interest, Vesper Lynd.

Vesper Martini 2The above passage is from chapter seven of Ian Fleming’s Casino Royale, penned in 1953. If you’d care to see Daniel Craig’s interpretation of the dialogue from the film of the same name, please click on https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uuRKTvAs_ns.

Contrary to popular belief, while Fleming’s novel popularized the cocktail, it was not his creation. It was actually devised by his good friend Ivar Bryce. Naming the drink, the Vesper, however, was Fleming’s idea, though it was based on someone else’s pun on “vespers,” a religious observance normally held around sunset.

Lillet BlancThe only item in the above recipe that may be unfamiliar is Kina Lillet. Invented in 1887, this was a liqueur made with white wine mixed with fruit liqueurs and flavored with quinine. The Kina in its name is derived from quinine’s main ingredient: the bark of the kina-kina (or cinchona) tree.

In 1986, however, Lillet Blanc, which has a lower quinine content, replaced Kina and has since become exceedingly popular in bars and restaurants. Lillet is actually a family of French aromatized wines; that is, wines fortified with brandy and then infused with herbs, spices, fruit, or other botanicals.  Lillet Blanc is crisp and light, with subtle floral, herbal, and citrus notes. It tastes like a semi-sweet white vermouth with distinctive herbal notes on the finish.

In addition to Kina Lillet being discontinued, in 1992 Gordon’s cut the proof of their gin; so, unfortunately, we cannot duplicate the exact recipe as it was stated. We can, however, with substitutes, come pretty close…

Cocchi AmericanoLillet Blanc is available, but Kina Lillet included quinine. Cocchi Americano can be used as a substitute, as it possesses a more bitter finish than Lillet Blanc…. For a more traditional flavor, 100 proof vodka should be used to bring the alcohol content of the cocktail back to 1953 levels… Because Gordon’s Gin has been cut to 75 proof, possible substitutes are Beefeater, Bombay Sapphire, or Broker’s (I prefer Bombay Sapphire), which provide the traditional flavor of 94 proof gin.

The Vesper Martini:

Ingredients:

3 ounces gin

1 ounce vodka

½ ounce Cocchi Americano or Lillet Blanc

ice cubes

lemon for lemon twist

Instructions:

  1. Pour gin, vodka, and Cocchi Americano or Lillet Blanc into a cocktail shaker filled with ice.
  2. Shake vigorously for 20-30 seconds, until ice cold.
  3. Strain into a chilled cocktail glass.
  4. Rub the lemon twist along the rim of the glass and drop it into the cocktail.

The Vesper Martini is definitely not for the faint of heart, as it contains 4 ounces of liquor, plus a splash of Cocchi Americano. It’s, well… yes, delightfully boozy… But it’s as uniquely alluring as it is powerful.

Cheers!

TAD

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Favorite Wines of 2023

by artfuldiner on January 29, 2024

in Artful Diner Review, Breaking News, Opinion, Wine

Wine 3Once again, 2023 was a great year for wine tasting. Of the slew of wines sampled, from a variety of different countries, the 8 listed below – 4 white; 4 red – are particularly recommended.

Please note that prices quoted are approximate, depending upon where the wines are purchased; and, of course, all are subject to change. The prices in states other than Pennsylvania can vary significantly from retailer to retailer. So, it would certainly be to your advantage to spend some time surfing online for the best price point.

 

FAVORITE WHITE WINES OF 2023:

 2021 Cadre Band of Stones Grüner Veltliner (California): While Austria is known as the home of the finest Grüner Veltliner, I freely confess that Cadre Band of Stones Gruner 2021I much prefer this version from California’s Edna Valley. Not only does it possess infinitely more body than many of its Austrian cousins, but it also hits you with less acidity. This wine is also highly rated – 92 points from Wine Enthusiast; 91 points from Wilfred Wong of Wine.com – and readily available from Pennsylvania State Stores. So, when you begin to tire of those over-oaked California chards, but still want a wine with plenty of body and texture, the 2021 Cadre Band of Stones may be just your ticket. And, priced at $15.99, its also less expensive than it Austrian siblings.

 2022 Forrester, Ken Old Vine Reserve Chenin Blanc (South Africa): In March 2023, I visited Ken Ken ForresterForrester Wines, considered by locals and wine loves alike, the home of Chenin Blanc. The man himself, affectionally known as “Mr. Chenin Blanc,” is reputed to be just as dynamic as the grape he so fervently champions. I tasted four wines during my visit… and the standout (and most reasonably priced & readily available) continues to be the Old Vine Reserve Chenin Blanc. While I sampled the 2022, the 2021 and 2020 are also excellent vintages. So, feel free to snatch up whatever may be available from various sources online. Priced in the $18.00 – $20.00 range.

 2020 Trimbach Riesling Reserve (Alsace, France): Structured, bone dry, and delightfully fruity, the 2020 Trimbach- WineryReserve is finesse personified. Wine writer James Suckling bestowed 94 points, referring to the “super-ripe lemon, fresh pineapple and herb aromas… of this medium-bodied, concentrated and sophisticated dry Riesling… and the excellent balance at the long, very clean finish.” Priced at $33.99 at your local State Store. The lowest price I have seen online is from the Saratoga Wine Exchange: $27.94 (plus shipping). If you’d prefer a slightly lower priced wine, I would suggest the 2020 Trimbach Riesling, $23.89 at State Stores; lowest price online: $19.99 (plus shipping) at Gary’s Wine & Marketplace in New Jersey.

2020 Zacharias Assyrtiko (Greece): Among the little-known grape varieties of Greece, Assyrtiko has been by far the most popular among Greek whites. Zacharias Assyrtiko 2020Although originating on the Island of Santorini, it is now planted across mainland Greece, becoming one of the most important native varietals. It produces mainly dry white wines, some of which are aged in oak. The 2020 Zacharias Assyrtiko is characterized by light yellow color and aromas of yellow fruits and lemon flowers. It is bone-dry with distinctive character, excellent structure, and crisp acidity. It is pleasant to drink young; however, it also ages well – from five to ten years, sometimes significantly longer – developing aromas and flavors of ripe fruits, honey, and intense minerality. This is not, unfortunately, available through Pennsylvania State Stores. The best price I have discovered online is $10.95 (plus shipping) from Shoppers Vineyard in Clifton, New Jersey.

 

FAVORITE RED WINES OF 2023:

 2021 Barista Pinotage (South Africa): Produced by legendary South African winemaker Bertus Fourie, the 2021 Barista Pinotage is its own unique Barista Pinotage 2021oenological treasure. It is a deliberately & distinctly modern interpretation of South Africa’s signature grape; and will undoubtedly remind most wine lovers of a top-notch Pinot Noir. Nuances of vanilla and mocha and silky-smooth tannins make this a completely accessible wine that is ready to be enjoyed. Readily available from a variety of sources, it is currently priced at $15.59 at Pennsylvania State Stores.

2019 Château Brun Despagne Querre Bordeaux Supérieur (France): The Bordeaux Supérieur I have Bordeaux Superieur - Imageenjoyed on a regular basis is the 2019 Château Brun Despagne Querre, an enticing blend of 80% Merlot, 20% Cabernet Sauvignon. Garnering 91 points from James Suckling, this medium-bodied every-day quaffer is lusciously textured, alive with sweet dark fruit, and pure pleasure in the glass. But the best part of the 2019 Bordeaux Supérieur wines, as one writer put is, is that “every one of them sells for a song.” The 2019 Château Brun Despagne Querre, for example, is currently on sale at Pennsylvania State Stores at $8.99 per bottle (a dollar or two more at Total Wines).

 2018 Manzanos 111 Reserva Red Rioja (Spain): Hailing from Bodegas Manzanos, one of Spain’s largest producers, the 2018 111 Reserva, like all Manzanos Wines - Reserva Rioja 2018red Riojas, is a blended wine of predominately Tempranillo supplemented by smaller percentages of Garnacha, Mazuelo, and Graciano. As a Reserva, it has also been aged for three years (one of which was in barrel) before release. And although it received 93 points from Mike DeSimone of Wine Enthusiast, I think that score could have been even a few notches higher, as this wine is incredibly opulent, delightfully complex, and as smooth as silk on the palate. In addition, although the suggested retail price is $45.00, it is currently on sale from various sources online and also available in Pennsylvania at a paltry $12.99.

2020 Vinha da Coutada Velha (Portugal): This wine hails from Portugal and is an intriguing blend of Aragonez – a Vinha Da Coutada Velha 2020Portuguese name for Tempranillo, Tincadeira, Syrah, and Cabernet Sauvignon, combining native grapes with international varieties. The pleasing result is a marvelously spicy mix of red and dark fruit flavors backed by an intriguing earthiness. The Wine Enthusiast bestowed 92 points, noting its smooth & powerful finish and potential longevity, while the Washington Post called it a “great value.” Priced at a mere $9.99 at your local State Store, it is a bargain, indeed.

Bon Appétit & Cheers!

 TAD

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Poseidon Asian Cuisine & Sushi Bar

128 Paoli Pike

Paoli, Pennsylvania

(610) 812-3333

https://www.poseidonpa.com/

Tucked away in a building that has been home to several restaurants – including the long-running Luigi’s, the short-lived Big Easy, and an excellent Poseidon - Exterior2gastropub dubbed the Redhound GrillePoseidon Asian Cuisine, hopefully, will enjoy a longer and more prosperous tenure than its various predecessors. And, based upon several recent visits, as well as the comments posted on social media, as of this writing, the gastronomic gods – especially the Greek god of the sea – seem to be smiling favorably.

The menu, of course, rounds up the usual suspects… sushi, sashimi & teriyaki; fried rice, noodles, Szechuan stir Poseidon - Outdoor Tablesfry & poke bowls. Familiar the culinary constituents may be, but… the ingredients are of impeccable quality, the preparation & presentation first-rate, and the atmosphere – including a beautiful patio for al fresco dining in warmer weather (pictured) – relaxed and inviting. Add personable & knowledgeable service, reasonable prices, and the fact that you may BYOB, and a very pleasant dining experience awaits.

There are, as you may very well suspect, numerous ways to start things off here. My dining partner, for example, is a lover of crab, and she went immediately for the Crab Cheese Wontons, which she highly praised. I, on the other hand, since I consider myself something of a veggie-saurus at heart, felt very much in the mood to give the Tempura Vegetable a try.

Tempura is a dish that consists of vegetables – in this case, carrot, sweet potato, broccoli & mushroom cap – (or Poseidon - Veggie Tempuraseafoods) that are battered and deep fried. However, it is the distinctive batter that makes tempura remarkably different from other fried foods. Tempura batter utilizes no breadcrumbs; it is basically made from beaten egg, flour, and cold water. Occasionally, a touch of oil or spices may be added… And here it was as light as a feather.

Tempura is one of the most common Japanese dishes served outside of Japan. And, in the minds of many, along with sushi, it has become synonymous with Japanese cuisine. Interestingly enough, however, tempura’s origins are not Japanese. This method of frying food was introduced in the 1600s by Portuguese missionaries. The original dish is no longer extant, but it was a meal designed for Lent, when many Christian denominations are forbidden to eat meat. In point of fact, the name tempura comes from the Latin ad tempora cuaresme – meaning, “in the time of Lent” – which, evidently the Japanese mistook as the dish’s name and called it tempura. Speculation has it that the original Portuguese dish may have originated in Goa, India, where a similar dish known as pakora is served.

Please pardon the momentary digression… Back to the entrées… My choice for the evening was a rather simple dish, the Eggplant with Chicken. That being said, however, the brown sauce was quite excellent… It was also slightly on the spicy side, which was very much to my liking, as there was just enough heat to invigorate rather than incinerate the palate. The slender slices of chicken were moist and tender, and the eggplant just the proper texture and consistency.

My dining partner went straight for the Sexy Lobster (pictured), a dish she had thoroughly enjoyed during a previous visit. The lobster is steamed, formed Poseidon - Lobster Rollinto a roll and stuffed with lobster salad. It is then topped with steamed shrimp, avocado, red tobiko (flying fish roe), and companioned by spicy mayo and mango sauce. An absolutely fabulous dish that is highly recommended on all counts… And as you can tell from the photograph, it was as pleasing to the eye as it was to the palate.

Asian restaurants aren’t particularly known for their desserts. However, the cheesecake we shared certainly Poseidon - Cheesecakedeserves mention. Although not made in-house, it was moist, flavorful, and the perfect sweet ending for our evening at table.

I do apologize, however, for the poor quality of the photograph… We visited the restaurant during the latter part of August and were seated outdoors on the patio. As you can tell, darkness had begun to descend.

As noted above, the service here is quite good. In this regard, however, I do have one significant complaint; and I take a moment to dwell upon it here, not because it is endemic to Poseidon, but because it seems to be occurring with the nauseating inevitability of an unloved season (mostly, it is true, in more casual eateries; but occasionally in fine-dining establishments as well – a prominent Michelin-starred restaurant in London, which shall remain nameless, comes immediately to mind).

The scenario goes something like this… You and your dining partner have stepped out for a leisurely dinner. In absolutely no hurry, you’re enjoying your appetizers and some very pleasant conversation. You’re not quite halfway through the starters when… you guessed it… up pops a runner bearing entrées. This is a positive no-no. There is absolutely no way that entrées should be presented at table before appetizers have been cleared.

Unfortunately, this Speedy Gonzales approach to restaurant service has become more and more commonplace of late. And this questionable state-of-affairs Poseidon - Interioris certainly not the fault of the kitchen; rather, it occurs because of the inexperience of servers and, ultimately, as a result of poor management. Some restaurateurs seem to be under the mistaken impression that anyone with the appropriate number of appendages is qualified to wait tables… and that, quite simply, is not the case. Occasionally, a bit of instruction is very much in order.

Bon Appétit & Cheers!

 TAD

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Ivy, The - Interior 1For your dining pleasure, listed below are synopses of the restaurants reviewed during the year 2023. The month appearing in parentheses indicates the month the restaurant’s full review appeared on my blog.

As you will note, I have also included restaurants from my recent travels to London and South Africa, which are well worth visiting and, hopefully, may be of interest to those who enjoy an occasional gastronomically-inspired sojourn (pictured: The Ivy in London).

United States

 BUNHA FAUN (July), 152 Lancaster Avenue, Malvern, Pennsylvania, (610) 651-2836, https://bunhafaun.net: The unassuming exterior notwithstanding (it formerly housed a Dairy Queen), the restaurant’s inner sanctum is attractively and Bunha Faun - Interior 2tastefully appointed… And the cuisine – French fare with a distinctive Asian flair – is lovingly prepared and beautifully presented. Recommended starters include an eye-catching Snow Pea Salad and Oriental Noodles tossed with sesame dressing topped with slivers of chicken and crushed peanuts surrounded by alternating snippets of carrots and broccoli. Entrée-wise, the Filet Mignon wrapped in bacon is excellent; but the Escalope of Veal in an addictive white wine sauce aided & abetted by wild mushrooms & prosciutto is even better. Desserts (mostly trucked in from off campus) are, unfortunately, a low point. And just be prepared. Depending upon the night of your visit, service can be as slow as a herd of turtles. BYOB.

THE CHOICE (March), 845 Lancaster Avenue, Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania, (484) 383-3230, https://thechoice-restaurant.com: Given the fact that the menu is awash with a host of French and Asian fusion innuendos, you would probably never Choice, The - Scallops in Shredded Filo Doughsuspect that the restaurant is owned by two Ukrainian families. But since well-traveled co-proprietor “Vlad” Hyvel served as sous-chef in London’s Nobu and also put in time at Le Cirque, Alain Ducasse and Jean-Georges, his curious culinary predilections make perfect sense. Matters piscatorial – both preludes and main courses – play a significant role in Mr. Hyvel’s repertoire. Scallops in Shredded Filo (pictured) accompanied by a zippy wasabi cream sauce, for example, were simply irresistible. Ditto the Wild Caught Striped Bass. Wrapped in a crispy potato crust, the filet was served on a seabed of creamy leeks and splashed with a delicate red wine sauce. If the restaurant has a weakness, it is their desserts, which are exceedingly limited and completely lacking in creativity. While dining at The Choice is not an inexpensive proposition, the fact that you may BYOB helps to soften the blow somewhat.

 DI BRUNO BROS. (September), 385 West Lancaster Avenue, Wayne, Pennsylvania, (484) 581-7888, https://dibruno.com/locations/wayne: Located smack dab in the middle of the hustle & bustle of this well-known Philadelphia-based gourmet Di Bruno Interior 1specialty store, the charming little Alimentari Bar/Café is a great place to enjoy a luncheon rendezvous or afternoon snack bolstered by one of the establishment’s creative cocktails. Italian comfort food is the name of the game here, with items such as House of Grilled Cheese Sandwich, Pizza alla Romana, and Spicy Sausage Rigatoni taking center stage. Dolci, “sweets” are somewhat limited, but be sure to try the traditional Affogato al Caffe, vanilla gelato “drowned” in a shot of potent espresso. On the other hand, the pastry department is just a few steps away… Why not make a quick stop and savor your dessert at home.

 LE BERNARDIN (October), 155 West 51st Street, New York, New York, (212) 554-1515, www.le-bernardin.com/: The recipient of three Michelin stars and more culinary honors than you can shake a fork at, if Le Bernardin - Eric Ripertyou appreciate the unmitigated joys of fine dining, Le Bernardin should most assuredly be at the very top your bucket list. Chef de Cuisine/co-owner Eric Ripert’s (pictured) French-inspired piscatorial fare is absolutely incomparable – there is simply no other word for it. And nothing quite measures up to his superlative pan-roasted Dover Sole. Adorned with crisp green olive rings & toasted almonds, the delicate filet is finished with a subtly seductive sherry wine emulsion that gently caresses the object of its affection. The award-winning wine list, curated by wine director Aldo Sohm in collaboration with Chef Ripert, is a thing of beauty; and desserts, under the watchful eye of Executive Chef Orlando Soto, are equally pleasing to both eye and palate. An extraordinary experience that is, indeed, worthy of a journey.

 POMOD’ORO PIZZA & ITALIAN RESTAURANT (May), 200 Chestnut Street, Downingtown, Pennsylvania, (610) 873-0405, www.pomodorodowningtown.com:  Pomod’oro is the younger sibling of Anthony’s Pizza & Italian Restaurant in Malvern. And, like its elder Pomodoro - Cannoli Cake2brother, Pomod’oro is a BYOB majoring in Italian comfort food that sports princely portions at downright paltry prices.  The interior is somewhat utilitarian – unadorned wooden tables, silverware wrapped in paper napkins, hardwood floors, bare windows – but don’t be misled. The dining rooms have a warmth all their own, especially when filled by the restaurant’s loyal and ever-growing clientele, which is most of the time. The menu runs the gamut, from appetizers, soups and salads, pizza, sandwiches, stromboli and calzones, through entrees and signature dishes: chicken or veal prepared Marsala, Piccata, Parmigiana or Cacciatora… But save room for dessert. All are homemade from the bakery located on the premises. My favorite? The incredible Cannoli Cake (pictured). Part creamy cannoli filling, part moist yellow cake, it is both irresistibly decadent and utterly delicious. BYOB.

 SCHAEFER’S CANAL HOUSE (August), 208 Bank Street, Chesapeake City, Maryland, (410) 885-7200, https://www.schaeferscanalhouse.com: Tucked away on the north side of the C&D Canal in the historic town of Chesapeake City, Maryland, Schaefer's Canal House - ExteriorSchaefer’s isn’t exactly a “destination” restaurant. However, should you find yourself traveling along the I-95 corridor between Philly & DC – especially in warmer weather – its considerable charms will surely beckon. And no matter where you happen to be seated, outdoor veranda or dining room, the view of the canal is truly spectacular. Given the restaurant’s strategic waterside location, it’s no surprise that seafood is the name of the game. Start with the incomparably tender Traditional Calamari, for example, and I guarantee you will not be disappointed. From there, you can move on to entrées such as Jambalaya, Grilled Salmon, Parmesan-Crusted Mahi Mahi, or lighter fare like Fish Tacos or Crab Melt. An especially pleasant spot for lunch during the summer months.

 

London

 THE AMERICAN BAR (February), Savoy Hotel, The Strand, London, https://www.thesavoylondon.com/restaurant/american-bar: American Bar - Cheese BoardWhen in London, nothing beats a visit to the Savoy’s world-famous American Bar – one of the most iconic cocktail bars in the world. It has been named “World’s Best Bar at Tales of the Cocktail Spirited Awards 2018 and World’s 50 Best Bars in 2017. Most recently, it was named one of “The World’s 44 Best Hotel Bars” by the Forbes Travel Guide. Luncheon offerings – such as Grilled Dry-Aged USDA Beef Burger, Texas Fried Chicken Strips, and Vegan Reuben Sandwich – feature uniquely British flourishes on All-American Favorites. The American is also a great spot for a late-night snack following an evening at the theater. Gastronomic possibilities include Oysters, Caviar, Coffee & Cupcake, and a New York Deli Platter. We finally settled on the Artisan Cheese Board (pictured), which proved to be an excellent choice.

THE CINNAMON CLUB (February), 30-32 Great Smith Street, London, https://cinnamonclub.com: Sequestered in the former home of the old Westminster Library, just around Cinnamon Club - Interior 2the corner from Parliament and Westminster Abbey, the Cinnamon Club isn’t all that easy to find (there is no exterior sign)… but if you enjoy fine Indian cuisine, it is definitely worth the effort. And, as you may observe from the photo, evidences of the previous occupant are very much in evidence – which only adds to the enjoyment – but it’s the outstanding quality and presentation of the cuisine that clearly places this restaurant in a class by itself. Items such as Chicken Seekh Tawa Masala (minced chicken in a spicy sauce), Masala Corn Kebabs, Corn & Ginger Soup, and Cauliflower & Berkswell Cheese Parcel with Tomato Fenugreek Sauce succeeded in making this a most memorable lunch. And even though desserts are usually not given a second thought in most Indian restaurants, we found the Royal Malai Kulfi (Indian ice cream) with caramelized quinoa & raspberry crip and the Mango Meringue Tart with spiced puffed rice and smoked berry sorbet every bit as extraordinary as their illustrious predecessors.

GALVIN LA CHAPELLE (February), 35 Spital Square, London, https://galvinrestaurants.com/restaurant/galvin-la-chapelle: Located in Galvin La Chapelle - InteriorSt. Boltolph’s Hall, a 19th century former school chapel, the setting – vaulted ceilings, massive pillars, grand buttresses, dark woods & leather furnishings – was, indeed, awe-inspiring (pictured). Unfortunately, the cuisine and service, a Michelin star notwithstanding, were significantly less so. The Foie Gras Terrine, an appetizer garnished with black garlic, caramel vinegar, and fermented cherry, while beautifully presented, was the bland-leading-the-bland. Ditto my dining partner’s entrée of Herdwick Lamb; another triumph of form over substance. Flavor was conspicuous by its absence. On the other hand, my Barbecued Monkfish kissed by an ethereal clam velouté was positively sublime in its simplicity. Desserts – Provence Peach Soufflé and Raspberry & Manjari Chocolate Delicacy – were also quite good. However, apart from the Monkfish – with an “honorable mention” to the desserts – the food, in my opinion, simply wasn’t up to Michelin star standards. And the same was true of the service. Nothing seriously amiss… just out of sync. Our Speedy Gonzales server was in entirely too much of a hurry – to take our orders… to bring wine… to serve the entrées – when there was absolutely no need to be. Especially since we told him we wished to linger over cocktails. An interesting experience. However, as my dining companion so aptly put it: “I don’t think I’d hurry back.”

 THE IVY (February), 1-5 West Street, London, https://the-ivy.co.uk/: Located directly across the street from St. Martin’s Theatre, The Ivy has Ivy, The - Cheese Soufflebeen a West End institution for over a century. The attractive bohemian-style eatery comes replete with a sumptuous flatiron bar, iconic wood paneling, harlequin mullioned windows, and a kitchen that is quite adept at turning out an impressive array of traditional British fare with decidedly innovative touches. Entrées run the gamut… from roasted & grilled items such as Slow Cooked Rabbit Leg & Spring Lamb Cutlets to miso-marinated Black Cod and a rather pricey Dover Sole. My dining partner and I enjoyed two of the house favorites, Deep-Fried Haddock & Chips and Shepherd’s Pie, respectively; and both were excellent. The absolute show-stopper, however, was our shared appetizer, the Twice-Baked Cheese Soufflé (pictured), which was nothing short of extraordinary.

TURNIPS (February), 43, Borough Market, London, https://restaurant.turnipsboroughmarket.com/: Tucked under the historic arches of London’s iconic TurnipsBorough Market, Turnips is a greengrocer selling high quality fruit and vegetables from independent producers across Britain, Europe and beyond… But it is also an haute cuisine restaurant offering patrons seasonally-inspired creative modern dishes featuring world-class vegetables. The restaurant’s small plate selection and tasting menu both showcase a beautifully presented cooking style that follows the micro-seasonality of the ingredients. Definitely high end, but totally accessible, as Chef Lidakevicius’ cuisine remains in perfect harmony with the charmingly casual ambience of the market stall. While sipping glasses of white wine and taking in the seemingly ceaseless flow of human flora & fauna, my dining companion and I were treated to such remarkable luncheon creations as Wild Mushroom Croquette with mozzarella, Sicilian & Provence Outdoor Tomato garnished with walnut & gorgonzola, and Britany Cauliflower crowned with Australian black truffle. Haute cuisine… smack dab in the middle of the bustling Borough Market… Who would have guessed?

 South Africa

CHEFS WAREHOUSE (June), Beau Constantia Wine Farm, Constantia Neck, Cape Town, South Africa, https://www.chefswarehouse.co.za/beau-constantia: Located twenty minutes from Cape Town proper, this modern eatery opened its doors in 2016. Chef's Warehouse - Thai Roast ChickenFrom the outside, the building with its eye-catching cubed glass appears suspended in space. The recently revamped interior boasts an expanded open kitchen and spacious outdoor terrace that affords diners exceptional views of the valley below. Chef Ivor Jones offers a celebration of global flavors with a unique set menu that changes seasonally. Main courses include such intriguing possibilities as Char-Grilled Tuna with Perilla leaves (mint), Nam Phrik (spicy Thai chili sauce) & Szechuan-style cashews; Hakurei Turnip Mille-Feuille garnished with preserved spring flowers, and vadouvan (Indian curry blend of spices) & buttermilk dressing; and Thai Roast Chicken with BBQ cashew nut purée and tamarind dressing (pictured). Fabulous!

DELAIRE GRAFF ESTATE (June), Helshoogte Road, Stellenbosch, South Africa, https://www.delaire.co.za: Following our morning tasting at Stark-Condé Wines, we departed for lunch at Delaire Delaire Graff Estate - TerraceGraff. We wanted to dine alfresco and, once again, Samson, our knowledgeable guide, was right on the money with his suggestion. Shaded by ancient oak trees, the restaurant’s broad wooden terrace provided breathtaking views of vineyards and olive groves from Simonsberg Peak across the Banghoek Valley (pictured)… And the food was every bit as pleasing as the view. Entrées included innovative presentations such as Sweet Potato Gnocchi with wild mushrooms, broccoli, and parmesan velouté; Seafood & Black Risotto awash with langoustine, mussels, prawns, squid, seaweed, tomato, sesame, and roasted red peppers; and Duck Breast accompanied by turnips, fennel prune, and marsala jus. However, since we were scheduled for another wine tasting that afternoon, followed by an upscale dinner, which would include cocktails and wine, we decided that a light luncheon, sans the fruit of the vine, was definitely called for. And an excellent Salad Niçoise, followed by an ethereal but exceedingly flavorful Caramel Tart, filled the bill quite nicely.

 ERNIE ELS WINERY RESTAURANT (June), Annandale Road, Stellenbosch, South Africa, https://ernieelswines.com/restaurant: Ernie Els Winery Restaurant - TerraceFollowing a morning wine tasting, it was but a short drive to South African golfer Ernie Els Winery Restaurant for lunch. This was another eatery highly recommended by our guide, and we certainly were not disappointed.

The building itself was quite impressive: a charming open-plan space that extended out onto a spacious terrace, offering incredible views of Stellenbosch and the Helderberg Mountains (pictured). The cuisine, made with a host of fresh, locally-sourced ingredients, was quite hearty. My Roasted Butternut Squash and Goat Cheese Feta Salad, for example, came replete with an intriguing cashew nut praline, baby leaf greens, pickled onions, and was finished with a first-rate citrus dressing. My traveling companion was perfectly satisfied with her Roasted Local Vegetable & Pecorino Tagliatelle, and Samson, our guide, had nothing but praise for his Beef Filet. An excellent glass of the winery’s Chenin Blanc proved the perfect complement to my salad.

FOODBARN CAFÉ & TAPAS (June), Noordhoek Farm Village, Village Lane, Cape Town, South Africa, https://www.thefoodbarn.co.za: After a morning of sightseeing, we paused for lunch at the Foodbarn Café & Foodbarn & Tapas - ExteriorTapas. Aptly named, this super-casual eatery is set in a renovated barn with high-thatched ceiling, bare wooden tables, and modern lighting fixtures. But don’t be fooled by the laid-back ambience, as the subtle French-influenced cuisine is beautifully prepared and generously portioned. So much so that Fodor’s referred to the Foodbarn as “probably the best restaurant on the Cape Peninsula.” We dined alfresco and enjoyed the Calamari and Mushroom Ravioli, respectively, then shard a luscious Rhubarb Crème Brûlée for dessert. I should also add that first-rate, reasonably-priced wine pairings and stellar service completed the picture. Definitely a gastronomic high point.

FYN RESTAURANT (June), 5th Floor, Speakers Corner, Parliament Street, Cape Town, South Africa, http://fynrestaurant.com: Fyn Restaurant – pronounced “Fain” – made its debut in 2018 and Fyn Restaurant 1has been making waves on the global gastronomic scene ever since. In 2022, it broke into the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list at number 37… picking up the Best Restaurant in Africa award at the same time. At its core, the menu is completely Japanese, utilizing fresh fish, poultry, and meat from the best of Cape Town’s farms and fisheries. The menu included intriguing starters like Guinea Fowl Wonton and Ostrich Egg Chawanmushi (savory egg custard) before moving on to such delicacies as Cape Malay King Trout with smoked barley and curry vinaigrette, Rooibos (a South African red herbal tea) Smoked Sashimi, and Roast Duck Breast with lacquered onion & hijiki, sancho pepper & lacto blueberries. Dessert…? Ethiopian Ice Cream with yuzu (citrus fruit sauce). By the way, if you arrive before sunset, the views of Lion’s Head and Table Mountain from the triple-height windows are truly spectacular.

LA PETITE COLOMBE (June), Leeu Estates, Dassenberg Road, Franschhoek, South Africa, https://lapetitecolombe.restaurant: Part of the Leeu Collection stable of fine restaurants, La Petite La Petite Colombe - Karoo LambColombe is nestled in the midst of vineyards and manicured landscapes, offering diners extraordinarily beautiful views of the Franschhoek Valley and Franschhoek Pass… And the delicious cuisine, I can assure you, is every bit as photogenic as the scenery. The adventure begins with cocktails and “snacks” in the lounge before being called to table. Innovation is definitely the name of the game here, including a host of ingredients – many indigenous to South Africa – that will send you scrambling for an epicurean dictionary. The high point was clearly the Karoo Lamb (pictured), which is considered by many the best lamb in South Africa. Raised in a semi-desert area, the sheep feed mainly on the indigenous flora, which is extremely nutritious and responsible for the lamb’s unique favor. Dessert, a luscious Vanilla Panna Cotta, was garnished with gooseberry and tonka (a bean with a nutty vanilla flavor that is illegal in the US). An array of chocolates from the Sweets Trolley provided an ever-so-decadent finishing touch.

PROTÉGÉ (June), 18 Huguenot Street, Franschhoek, South Africa, https://protege.restaurant/: Tucked away in Le Quartier Francais, a Protegecharmingly rustic little hostelry in the heart of the wine country, Protégé describes itself as “an informal eatery featuring stylish casual fare.” The setting is quite informal, as patrons may dine alfresco or watch the chefs at work in the central open kitchen. The food, however, is anything but. Calling it “stylish casual fare” is, indeed, an understatement… And that is not meant to be a knock, as the Asian, French, and Italian nuanced cuisine dished out in trendy small plates is perfectly prepared, beautifully presented, and more than just a touch innovative. Gastronomic esoterica such as BBQ Pork Roti, Gochujang and Salmon Miso Aubergine, Ssamjang isn’t likely to appeal to the meat & potatoes crowd… and just as likely to send even the most knowledgeable of diners in desperate search of semantic succor. The menu is also prix fixe – X number of courses for X number of Rand (the national currency of South Africa) – so copping out à la carte simply is not an option. Still, not such a bad deal as four courses will set you back a total of R795, which translates to $43.50 per person (plus beverages, tax & gratuity).

Bon Appétit & Cheers!

 TAD

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From Dubai to Cape Town

by artfuldiner on January 13, 2024

in Uncategorized

Dubai - SkylineI recently returned from a six-week journey and cruise that took me from Dubai, UAE, through several other countries in the Middle East, to India, with diversions to the famous Taj Mahal and Red Fort, to Tanzania, Madagascar, and Richards Bay, before disembarking in one of my favorite cities, Cape Town, South Africa.

There were several interesting dining experiences along the way, as well as a visit to the Klein Constantia Winery in South Africa. (Pictured: Dubai’s majestic skyline)

More to come soon.

Best regards,

TAD

 

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The 25 Best Restaurants

in Philadelphia Right Now

 … at least according to the New York Times.

The article first appeared on October 23, 2023, as part of the Where to Eat: 25 Best, a series highlighting the paper’s favorite restaurants in cities across the

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U.S. I won’t bore you with a complete recitation, as the chosen 25 may be noted from various sources online. And, needless to say, the Times’ take on Philly’s dining scene has raised some eyebrows and a touch of ire here & there as well. (Pictured: Dining Room at Friday Saturday Sunday)

Michael Klein of the Philadelphia Inquirer, for example, noted that the Times’ article was “heavy on South Philly.” He went on to specify that “fourteen of the Times’ top 25 are in South Philadelphia… only four restaurants are located in the rapidly growing Fishtown-Kensington area, while six are in Center City.”

Of particular interest to this writer was not only the restaurants that were included, but those that were Vernick Fish - Interiorexcluded. Among them, a number of highly-regarded upscale establishments that had received excellent reviews and were all-too conspicuous by their absence. This also caught Mr. Klein’s attention, but he blithely tossed it off as inconsequencial: “As Mason said to Dixon, ‘You have to draw the line somewhere.’” (Pictured: Dining Room at Vernick Fish)

Yes, Mr. Klein raised several significant questions… but failed to follow through. In fact, right from the outset, or so it seemed to me, his comments with regard to the Times’ article appeared to be self-consciously solicitous, studiously avoiding stepping on anyone’s toes. He did bring up a minor point of contention with regard to restaurant Friday Saturday Sunday, but never seriously questioned the general tenor and/or content of the article itself: “As the Times is writing for an international – or at least New York – audience, there are few surprises to those who follow the Philadelphia restaurant scene. Philadelphia readers may insist that their favorites have been overlooked as the Times writers have included a breadth of cuisines and price points. Such lists are conversation-starters, anyway, and are purely subjective.”

Subjective, indeed… “Food writing’s shameful secret,” chef/author John Thorne once remarked, “is its intellectual poverty.” And empty enumerations such as John ThorneThe 25 Best Restaurants in Philadelphia Right Now are glaring examples of that searing indictment. They represent, in my humble opinion, the worst of culinary journalism.

… And the New York Times should have known better – although, apparently not, as numerous other cities have already fallen (or will fall) victim to their top 25 as well. In this regard, Mr. Klein had ample opportunity to make a relevant contribution here… Unfortunately, he chose to remain mute, and/or refused to answer on the grounds that he might incriminate himself (as the Inquirer is by no means immune to the “listing” syndrome… ditto Philadelphia magazine and a number of local sources online).

In June of 1980, Jeff Weinstein, then restaurant reviewer of the Village Voice, penned a thought-provoking article entitled Learning to Eat“The 25 Greatest Restaurants in America,” which was subsequently included in his book Learning to Eat, published in 1988. The article was brief and to the point; its major thesis even more relevant today than the moment it was written: “If anything can kill the possibility of spirited and serious food writing, it’s the list.”

“Most lists are nothing but menu information and prices, with a few adjectives like silky or pungent tossed in as camouflage. Not only is this an impoverished way to describe experience, it presupposes that all experience is available to this predigestion.”

Lists can also be deceptive, Mr. Weinstein asserts, as they lead us to expect perfection. However, “(lists) don’t have moods, memories, ambivalences. They won’t refund for disappointments.” In addition, lists have a deep structural connection to fads. Lists help create fads and are also subject to them. “The same editors,” he notes, “lick their chops at both.”

Another of Mr. Weinstein’s comments that I found particularly intriguing – but also completely valid – is the fact you can’t have a restaurant list without an expert. Conversely, anyone not an expert is basically a dimwit. And here he is definitely right on target: “Other kinds of media games can reinforce feelings of inadequacy, but the list does it without even trying.”

When it comes to the media’s fetish for lists, as you would undoubtedly surmise, profit motive plays a major role. “A list,” Mr. Weinstein concludes, “is a fundamentally lazy way for a newspaper or magazine to fill space and woo as many advertisers as possible. Modern restaurant reviewing was born as advertising copy that snuck onto the other side of the page. It may die there.”

His final word on the subject: “Ships list – before they sink.”

Bon Appétit & Cheers!

 TAD

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The Wines of Bodegas Manzanos

by artfuldiner on November 15, 2023

in Uncategorized

Manzanos Wines - EntranceBodegas Manzanos is a large Spanish wine producer, founded in 1890 by members of the Fernández de Manzanos family. The original production capacity of the small winery was 50,000 liters of wine. In the 1940s, a new facility was constructed, expanding the capacity to 350,000 liters.

Between the 1950s and 60s the estate was consolidated with the creation of the Viña Marichalar winery, the first attached to the Rioja Qualified Denomination of Origin, increasing the output to more than 1.5 million liters.

In the 1990s, after obtaining a Master’s Degree in Viticulture & Oenology from the Polytechnic University of Madrid, Victor Fernández de Manzanos Pastor joined the family business. He then built the Marqués de Butrago winery and fulfilled his life-long ambition with the construction of Bodegas Manzanos.

In 2020, the reins of the winery were turned over to brothers Victor & David Fernández and Victor’s wife, Laura Mateo Manzanos Wines - 4th Generation(pictured). The young entrepreneurs, while still maintaining a deep respect for family tradition, have turned Bodegas Manzanos into a prosperous, modern facility equipped with the latest technologies. In 2020, when COVID was preventing industry professionals from visiting Spain. They took the bold step of establishing a U.S. office and tasting room in Miami, Florida.

I recently had opportunity to sample two red wines from Bodegas Manzanos, which are not only of excellent quality but also readily available and quite reasonably priced.

Manzanos 111 Red Blend 2021: Hailing from the estate’s winery in Navarra, this is an interesting red blend of 85% Manzanos Wines - 111 Red Blend 2021Grenache & 15% Cabernet Sauvignon… and it hits all the right notes. Mike DeSimone of Wine Enthusiast bestowed 93 points, noting its “vibrant acidity and plush tannins,” before launching into the usual ad infinitum, ad nauseum pontification of aromas & flavors.

Forget the usual palaver. Bottom line… this is a very likeable wine. It’s medium-bodied, offers a nice tinge of black fruit on the palate and is, above all, eminently quaffable. I happen to think it’s overrated (see more of that below)… but if you’re a red wine lover in search of that perfect everyday libation, trust me, you’ve just found it.

But there’s more. The price is quite likeable as well… a paltry $8.99 at your local State Store. And you can’t get much better than that. Well… actually you can. Please check out the wine below.

Manzanos 111 Reserva Red Rioja 2018: The red wines produced in Spain’s leading wine region, Rioja, are also blends. Tempranillo is the predominate grape, supplemented by smaller percentages of Garnacha, Mazuelo, and Graciano to add body and color.

The phylloxera blight (the invasion of an insect pest that attacks grapevines) in the 1870s brought an influx of Bordeaux winemakers to the Rioja region. Manzanos Wines - Reserva Rioja 2018These winemakers introduced many techniques from their own region, including the use of new oak barrels for long-term aging. Thus, the tempranillo-based red blends take on new complexities, depending upon their time in oak. Crianzas have the shortest aging requirement of two years (one of which must be in barrel); and Gran Reservas have the longest requirement of five years (two of which must be in barrel). Reservas, such as the 2018 Manzanos 111 Red Rioja, occupy the middle ground of aging: three years (one of which must be in the barrel), which means they are generally characterized by the subtle hints of baking spice, vanilla, and chocolate.

However, I tasted both Manzanos’ wines side-by-side; and what struck me was not only the difference in flavor – which was infinitely more subtle – but also the difference in texture. The Reserva was incredibly opulent, and as smooth as silk on the palate.

Interestingly enough, Mike DeSimone of Wine Enthusiast bestowed the exact same score – 93 points – on this wine as he did the wine noted above.  A ludicrous case of over/under rating, in my opinion. Especially since 2018 Manzanos 111 Reserva Red Rioja, which retails at $45.00, is currently on sale for $12.99 at your local State Store. While a tad higher in price than the 2021 111 Red Blend, it is definitely worth the few dollars more.

By the way, the Manzanos 111 Reserva would make an excellent complement to your Thanksgiving table.

Cheers!

 TAD

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