Auckland: waterfalls and parks

Since we had stayed in the Ponsonby neighborhood on a previous trip, we already had restaurants in mind and decided to return to our favorite breakfast place, Cafe Jervois. I ordered the smashed avocado on toast with a side of salmon and Eric had the gluten-free waffles with bananas and bacon. Both dishes looked nice but only tasted average, a bit disappointing frankly. My eggs were underdone and the toast was too hard but the ginger latte was a highlight, very spicy.

 

We packed up the backpack for the day then headed to Hertz on foot to pick up the 24-hour car rental we had reserved the night before. No problems at all – plus the car was much nicer than what we had been used to so far with Apex Car Rentals.

We headed north to the Whangaparaoa area and Shakespear Regional Park (yes, it is spelled that way). Enroute we stopped at a New World Supermarket where we finally found more of the Tom & Luke cranberry and cashew snackaballs we fell in love with from Wellington. Twenty or so bags may have been purchased…

Once in the park we took the small trail to Gully Falls, which had a rather low waterflow this day. Further into the park we found a large picnic site where we had lunch with quite a few feathered friends, including some large peahens that scared some young park visitors by being overly friendly. There was no chasing any of of the birds away, as soon as I sat down with our bread and cheese, we were surrounded! One little bird even took small pieces of bread right from my hand.

Waterfall Gully  Shakespear Regional Park

peahen @ Shakespear Regional Park

Rejuvenated after our picnic, we headed west across the island to Makarau for Omeru and Waitangi Falls, located near another charming picnic area. The creekside trails were quite lush with foliage and many shades of green. We saw at least four separate falls here but most were unmarked and discovered by sticking close to the creek along worn footpaths.

waterfall @ Omeru Reserve

waterfall @ Omeru Reserve

Omeru Falls  Waitangi Falls

Despite our GPS’ best efforts to get us lost, we stopped in for a quick beer at Hallerbrau on our way back to the city. Eric had the black currant berliner weisse and I had the Nitro porter. Both were tasty, Eric thought the porter was very floral. The menu looked pretty good (I was tempted by the oysters) but I didn’t want to spoil my appetite for dinner.

Hallertau taps

When I tried to make online reservations at The Cav Gastropub, their system said there was nothing available, so I emailed the restaurant directly and was happily told that 7pm was no problem. Lesson learned – don’t always trust automated systems! The rose wines (both from Marlborough) were a bit disappointing but Eric liked his ‘Roaring Meg’ Pinot Gris and the food was also very tasty. Eric had the venison and mushroom hot pot that came stew-like in a planter pot covered by a massive puff pastry cap and a side of mashed potatoes. I had the house-named pork sticky-buns that were sweet and tangy with a side salad of cucumber, mango and sprouts tossed with chilis and a sesame vinaigrette. Definitely need to make that at home!

After dinner, we stopped in again at Dida’s for a glass of wine each from Jules Taylor, a Pinot Gris and Sauvignon Blanc – both solid.

San Sebastian: food & drink

As with most places in Spain, we found San Sebastian to be absolutely delicious. One thing I had to get used to was that ordering wine at most of the pintxo bars was done at the mercy of the bartender, who rarely spoke English. With no posted menu available, I generally requested a ‘tinto’ and drank what they gave me. At an average of $2 a glass, this worked fine most of the time but I definitely preferred the places with a wine list.  Also, the pintxos skewed heavily fishy so Eric wound up eating quite a lot of jamon and cheese on toast.

Here are a few of our favorite snacks from the trip…

gilda pintxo with cava and white wine  pirate pastries!
the most famous pintxo in town, the Gilda (guindilla peppers, a Cantabrian anchovy fillet, and manzanilla olives on a toothpick); pirate donuts from a local bakery

pintxo @ Zazpi (our favorite spot in town) 
Zazpieverything we had here was amazing, but the best was the roasted beef cheek – plus they had a great rose on the menu

red wine in Old Town  a crowd gathers for snacks
Paco Bueno – crowded but good wine and blue cheese / sardine toasts

tasty mussels w/ lots of company
La Mejillonera – mussels & Padrón peppers; also very crowded!

pintxos @ Bar Sport
Bar Sport – my second favorite place for quality of pintxos


La Viña – much touted cheesecake was tasty but I am pretty sure they gave us two portions when I only ordered one

little fish on bread  how am I going to eat this?
Bar Zeruko – this place was hit and miss – the tabletop items were good but my hot tuna dish was not

Unfortunately, one of our top choices, Bar Nestor, was closed for the exact three days we were in town. Boo. We also visited La Cuchara de San Telmo but were unimpressed with the beef cheek after falling in love with Zazpi’s version.

Bilbao: food & drink

Pinxos (small plates) are the thing to eat in northern Spain, so that was the plan. We were staying in Old Town, right next to Plaza Nueva, but our favorite pinxto bars turned out to be in the Moyua district.

pintxos!  our bill ~ $2 for a glass of wine
Bar Charley – pintxos and wine

pintxos place

grilled lamb skewers
lamb kebobs @ Café Iruña

delicious pintxos  more tasty pintxos
El Globo – easily our favorite spot in Bilbao – we visited three times!

oysters @ El Puertito
El Puertito (oysters & cava)

Bar Basque 
glass of wine @ Bar Basque; cheese and membrillo gelato from Tostadero Nosshbe Pasteleria Bombonería

Eric’s 40th: Reykjavík

We spent our first and last evenings in Iceland’s capital and main city, Reykjavík.

Tuesday

Our apartment was two blocks from the famous Hallgrimskirkja, a church design inspired by the Icelandic basalt columns seen several times on our trip.

Hallgrimskirkja  Hallgrimskirkja

After getting into our apartment we realized that the nearby grocery store was just about to close (at 6p). However, there was a smaller convenience market, 10-11, a few blocks away, so we headed there to purchase breakfast and snack items for the next day.

On our walk down we scouted potential restaurants, but none of them really struck us – reviews were so-so, and prices were definitely high. Leandra had read about Micro Bar, but when we arrived at the address there was a restaurant in its place (with a faded awning above the door that said Microbar!). Clearly something had changed, and as we found a little later, they had indeed moved locations in the fall.

We were ready to eat by this point, so we decided that takeout from Núðluskálin was probably the best option. While Leandra was ordering a noodles for us, I explored the side streets and noticed a Mikkeller bar (we returned to it on Sunday).

After a nice dinner in our apartment we did some more research and found the new address for Micro Bar, so we decided to go out a second time. On the way we found a few street art murals too.

street art  street art

Reykjavik @ 11pm

We’re glad we found Micro Bar as they had a great selection and cozy basement atmosphere. I immediately spotted a sour ale on the board and although Leandra’s first choice was out, she enjoyed her tequila barrel aged Imperial Stout (that took her nearly an hour to drink)!

Micro Bar

Wednesday (morning)

The next morning we simply went downstairs to Brod, a bakery in the next building, for some delicious breakfast danishes and after a second purchase of more pastries, we checked out the Sólfarið (Sun Voyager) on our way out of town.

Sólfarið (Sun Voyager)

Sunday

We arrived back in Reykjavík in the late afternoon around 3pm. Thankfully we found a close spot for our car right outside our room, and street parking is free on Sundays. Bonus! Our first stop was Brod – on Wednesday they told us that cinnamon buns were released after noon, so we made sure to try those. We were not disappointed!

We made a reservation for dinner at Roadhouse, then walked down a few streets that we hadn’t explored earlier.

downtown Reykjavík

Eventually we made our way back to Micro Bar for happy hour.

Since we hadn’t done so on Tuesday, we also stopped in Mikkeller & Friends to try their offerings. Housed on the upper floor with exposed beams, this was also a quite cozy beer hangout.

Mikkeller and Friends bar

Leandra hadn’t used any of the cash she took out from the airport ATM, as credit cards are accepted everywhere in Iceland, so we used it on beer. And with the price of beer in Iceland, that $40 didn’t last long.

Roadhouse had good reviews on Google for their burgers and their fries were especially well reviewed, so we were interested to try it out. The fries (double-fried it turns out) were quite crispy and good, but the burgers were just OK – a bit dry and not all that memorable for a near $20 burger even with a bunch of toppings.

With a long day of travel facing us, we retired to re-pack our luggage for our flight home the next day.

Middle East 2016: Muscat dining

Friday

Perhaps our most memorable meal in Oman, we both enjoyed the expansive Friday brunch at the five-star Chedi Hotel. All the western hotels have a buffet brunch on Friday, and since the Grand Hyatt’s was closed for a private function we decided to try the nearby Chedi instead.

The food spread was expansive and once you have a table, you can park yourself in a comfy chair for hours (typically 1pm-4pm) — relaxing, talking and eating as much as you like. Considering the cost is about $70/person without alcohol, I appreciated the time to browse and snack. Since we opted for the non-alcohol option, we had the choice of a variety of delicious juices and, of course, sparkling water. My favorite items were the raw oysters, salmon sushi and the multitude of desserts!

Friday Brunch @ the Chedi Muscat

chedi_brunch   Friday Brunch @ the Chedi Muscat

Friday Brunch @ the Chedi Muscat

Once we decided that we could not eat another bite, we walked to their private beach and strolled along the waterfront for a half hour before heading back to our hotel. The pool area was quiet, with lots of little places to relax so you didn’t feel like you were surrounded by people. Basically, perfect.

Saturday

Shakespeare and Co in Waves was open early for breakfast on the morning we drove to Nizwa, and we stopped again before our flight out of Oman because it was right by the airport.  Eric got the American breakfast (I took his coffee drink) the first time and pancakes on the second visit, while I ordered the Lebanese Zatar Lebbneh (twice) which had a nice spice to it. Everything was tasty and they are one of the only places we found that opened at 7am, very rare in Muscat – even for breakfast! The only downside, perhaps because of the location to the water, we noticed a ton of flies when we sat outside.

Shakespeare and Co. @ The Wave Muscat

We decided on Indian for our first proper dinner in Oman and, of course, it was a bit of an adventure finding the address and then a parking area. Begum’s served us a great meal for a surprisingly good price. We ate upstairs which is where most of the foreigners seemed to be seated. Service was prompt and portion sizes were spot on. Eric had the Chicken Tikka Biryani, while I had a Paneer Curry – mine had just the right level of spice. We also split a 1.5 L bottle of water, all for under $20.

Begum's = excellent and inexpensive Indian food

Sunday

Knowing we were going to need snacks for our trip to Wadi Shab the following day, we hit up the Carrefour at night – a massive store with crazy amounts of dairy. As usual, wrong turns and u-turns were part of the experience of getting anywhere in Muscat and the 30 minutes I gave us to make it to dinner almost wasn’t enough time!

We found a good parking spot again and our dinner at Ubhar improved from there. I selected the Omani sampler appetizer (which turned out to be plenty of food for me) which had a mix of a meat and veggie filled pastries, kebob, hummus and salad. Very tasty. Eric had the beautifully presented Qabuli mahshi (qah buli ma she) – beef, cashews, golden raisins and rice in puff pastry. It was quite savory, with flavors of lemon and cinnamon, probably the best tasting item of this trip. At the end of the meal, our waiter brought over a sample of Omani coffee for us – rich tasting and spiked with cardamom.

appetizer sampler @ Ubhar   Ubhar Restaurant

Monday

Our last dinner in Oman, was, unfortunately, disappointing. We choose Grand Lounge as it was Turkish and we were craving some of our favorite flavors from that trip. We arrived to a nearly empty restaurant (bad sign) but were shown to a table surrounded by some fish tanks in a smaller, raised seating area. The language barrier seemed to be a problem here but we finally got the message that they didn’t have the two main dishes we came here for — Manti or Lahmacun. Instead, we ordered the hummus (with a massive bread covered in sesame seeds) and the Urfa Kebab. It was reasonably smoky but I would have preferred a stronger flavor. To top things off, their credit card machine was broken and I was down to my last few rials (we were leaving the next day) so we had to be extra mindful of prices.

Vietnam 2016: tasting Hanoi

After the snafu with our hotel, I was ready to get out and about and try some local beers (that potentially weren’t yellow). Thankfully, I had read up on a place that had a variety of brews available and we were not disappointed. Even better, Caps n’ Taps had a great second-level balcony that afforded an entertaining people watching experience from above. On our first visit I had the Shade Tree (dark) lager on draft while Eric tried the Big Ken Beer. On future visits, Eric really enjoyed the Lindemann Gold which resembled a lemonade shandy in appearance and taste. I stuck with my dark lager. :)

Caps  draft list @ Caps n' Taps

For dinner the first night, we chose the Gourmet Corner Restaurant, which was easily one of the best meals we had in Vietnam. We started with the Hanoi fried spring rolls (the simple dipping sauce was great) and followed it up with the Bun Cha (and extra noodles) for Eric and I had a small portion of the beef pho. We also split a bottle of rose bubbly and left completely full and happy. Everything from the service to the atmosphere was excellent.

Hanoi crispy spring rolls @ Gourmet Corner Restaurant  Pho @ Gourmet Corner Restaurant

The following night we went to Gia Ngu Restaurant, near Caps n’ Taps. The service was beyond attentive and we had several people stopping by to chat with us, ask where we were from and even help us out with the ingredients in what we were eating so we could recreate the meal at home! The Hanoi spring rolls were a little better at Gourmet Corner the night before, but these were still quite good. The waitress looked at me a bit funny when I ordered the beef papaya salad as my main course, but I told her I wanted that to be my last meal in Vietnam because it was my favorite. Eric, once again, managed to order something he had to assemble himself, this time Nemnuong (minced pork with herbs) that you wrap in spring roll wrappers with herbs and noodles. We shared the same rose bubbly we ordered the night before as it was still a good deal and once again, left happy and full.

Gia Ngu Restaurant  beef papaya salad @ Gia Ngu Restaurant

For our last lunch in Hanoi we went a little outside our comfort zones and ate upstairs at Bun Cha Dac Kim. They only serve bun cha and crispy spring rolls so we ordered one of each to split. The food was fine — although the meat was pretty fatty and the noodles and herbs were just sitting out so it didn’t inspire a freshness quality about the place. I am also certain we paid the “tourist price” for our meal as there were no prices listed anywhere and it seemed expensive for other meals we’d had. But it was an experience and we didn’t get sick as I am sure those red chilis killed anything harmful. :)

buncha_lunch

Beijing 2015: food & drink

Friday

Great Leap Brewing #6 – located in a hutong, this brewery was a bit tricky to find – thank goodness for working GPS! We grabbed a table in the nearly empty tasting room and ordered a sampler to split: Dan Cong Dark Ale (6.7%), Chai Masala Stout (6.5%), Aggressor (7.0%), and the Imperial Pumpkin (7.5%). All the beers were solid but we both liked the pumpkin one best so we decided to split a full pour to bide our time before going out in the cold again.

Great Leap #6

Great Leap beer list

After we secured our beer sweaters, we walked about ten minutes north to Mr. Shi’s Dumplings and… encountered a very rambunctious birthday party! As the eponymous Mr. Shi was toasting shots of wine with all of his employees in turn, we enjoyed plate loads of fried dumplings. Eric tried the pork and chive while I ordered a sampler of pork & potato, potato & leek and beef & chive. The atmosphere was lively, with notes (and money) from around the world displayed on the walls and under glass of the tables.

birthday celebrations @ Mr Shi's Dumplings  birthday celebrations @ Mr Shi's Dumplings

As with many (if not all) restaurants located in hutongs, there are no inside bathrooms, only public restrooms in the alley with varying degrees of privacy. Most were squat toilets and some had partitions. As a woman, I got used to carrying toilet paper with me at all times.

Saturday

Our fancy meal for the trip was an all-you-can-eat dim sum lunch at Jing Yaa Tang (in the Opposite House Hotel). For about $20 pp you got a sheet with a variety of items to order. Pricey for dim sum but the setting was pretty swanky and full for Saturday lunchtime so I would suggest reservations. The wine was expensive, I though the draft beer was a better options but Eric’s lychee passion fruit lemonade was memorable also. Overall I think the quality was pretty good… the bbq pork bun, pork puff, and steamed shrimp dumplings were very tasty, but the soup dumpling skins (xiaolongbao) were too thin to pick up easily. I managed a few bites of a delicious egg tart before I declared myself completely stuffed.

dim sum lunch!

Later that evening we needed to warm up again after spending a few hours at the 798 Art District, so we made Jing-A Brewery our next destination. We were still relatively full from lunch so we really just wanted beer and snacks. The brewery was busy, but they had a few tables available when we arrived. Eric ordered the Monster Mash Pumpkin Ale first, then an El Hefe (hefeweizen) for his second. l had the Black Velvet Vanilla Stout and then a Nine Rivers Imperial Chestnut Ale. We split a mixed nut bowl for snack which had tasty pecans with Asian spice and other nuts. Their beer was surprisingly good, and the atmosphere was lively for the 2+ hours we were there. It would have been an even better deal for IPA lovers, as they offer a discount on their double IPA depending on the smog levels; given the the conditions we would have had a 30-40% discount if we liked that style!

Jing-A Taproom

Sunday

We couldn’t leave Beijing without having some soup dumplings, so for our last dinner (and lunch the next day!) we headed over to Din Tai Fung. The subway exit into the large shopping mall was a bit squirrely, but we eventually found the restaurant on the 6th floor. Amazingly, there was no wait either time and we settled in for a feast of xiao long bao. Yum.

xiaolongbao @ Din Tai Fung  dumplings

Slow Boat Brewery – We had one more brewery left on our list, so we found ourselves heading down a very dark hutong alley to the mark on our Google map which was a barely lit sign. The other side of the door couldn’t have been any different – a lively tap room with bench seating and a ton of beers to sample, way more than they listed online. Eric opted for the Northern Drift Sour, which was gingery with a subtle sour twist, very refreshing. I had yet another vanilla stout (Sea Anchor Imperial Vanilla Stout) which was dessert-like with lots of vanilla and a bit of salt spray. We would have loved to try more but we were pretty worn out from the day so we stuck with one each.

slowboat