A veteran travel writer’s take on where the LA diner is transported…
Plan Check (Santa Monica) is a new-American comfort food haunt made even tastier by its open-air social-atorium that’s chock-full of LA’s best characters, from bushy-bearded dudes wearing ski caps to those opting for designer t-shirts/store-ripped jeans/flip-flops. Everyone let’s their hair down at this upscale-casual industrial hangout where the soundtrack is human laughter. Debuting with the dynamite crab dip (masago, charred tomato, nori, toast) creates a leadoff moan, while the stuffed mushroom (roasted portobello, swiss cheese fondue, crispy kale, roasted garlic steak sauce) adds only silence. The craft beer (hello santa monica brew works Witbier) inspires system-wide comfort, too. The nine-seat bar slings signature cocktails including Plan Check Penicillin (el silencio mezcal, ginger, lemon, agave, fennel, and a “buzz button” that makes your tongue tingle) and the creamy El Pomelo Rose (more el silencio mezcal, pamplemousse rose liqueur, campari, agave, lime, egg white, edible bouquet). The mixology mastery here—happy hour made easy—adds digits to the sidewalk-strolling would-be models. Wait, entrees too? Make room for the Lobster Pot Pie (curried lobster bisque, beets, green beans, corn, carrots, potatoes) because you’re going to be here for a while. ∞ ∞ ∞ ∞ ∞
BOA Steakhouse (Santa Monica) is not your grandfather’s stogie-scented hangout, yet. While waiting for the steak to blow you away, beware of the unstoppable three-tier Chilled Seafood Platter (you name it, it looms) accompanied by a trio of dipping sauces and a seared tuna ceviche offering as the tower’s cone. The 17-page drink list is not short on revealing there’s something for everyone here; also a Wine Spectator award-winning list (hats off to The Prisoner, a Napa Valley Zinfandel-Cabernet). The modern-day cuisine also reverses trend with prime Omaha beef options including a “40 Day” Dry Aged New York Strip and Center Cut Filet Mignon (the choice for savants leaning toward weller-done). Other selections include Certified Organic Beef and Premium American Wagyu, all served with a choice of rubs and house-made sauces, including BOA’s own J-1 sauce. Traditional steakhouse sides like the tableside-made Classic Caesar Salad and Mac-n-Cheese help to weigh down your to-go bag. If you’re able to look away from what’s happening on your table, take in the colorful ambience, floor-to-ceiling wine racks, and outdoor or indoor options to behold the ocean across the street—everyone else is! Gluten-free diners warmly accommodated. And oh yeah, grandpa’s drink is waiting in the form of an El Olvido (patron silver, pineapple, poblano chile, Mexican honey, smoke-infused bitters). ∞ ∞ ∞ ∞ ∞
Sushi Roku (Santa Monica) brings the high-end LA sushi experience back down-to-earth (since debuting in Hollywood in 1997). With a dash of contemporary California cool (jalapeños, olive oil, on so on), fresh fish handpicked from the world’s pristine waters are melded with an artistry achievable only by a seasoned sushi chef. The Yellowtail Diced Chiles (yes, spicy) and the Albacore Sashimi (ponzu, crispy onions) immediately showcase this innovative twist on Japanese tradition. The signature rolls dazzle, enter the Katana (spicy tuna, shrimp tempura, tuna, yellowtail) while the mainstays like the Softshell Crab roll won’t disappoint. Digging deeper into the menu, the freshwater eel (unagi) broke new ground for my palate. Circling back to the cold appetizer menu to sample the Fluke Kumquat Sashimi (yuzu vinaigrette) and Blue Crab Tartare (with uni & caviar) made time and place stand still—until the hot waitress returned. Exotic but casual, 100 seats share four setting options, that include an open-air patio, a 20-seat cocktail bar, and a 10-seat sushi bar. Either way, you’re within easy reach of a specialty cocktail like their Skinny Bulldog (bulldog gin, veev acai spirit, cucumber, lime, agave, sea salt). I was not embarrassed to raise my hand for a second miso soup. Ps, the name Sushi Roku is via the Japanese slang word for “rock,” implying “rock and roll sushi.” * The three restaurants above enjoy ocean-breeze locales near the same waterfront intersection (Ocean Ave @ Santa Monica Blvd). ∞ ∞ ∞ ∞ ∞
Westwood’s Napa Valley Grille experience is a morphing of crisp décor, wine excellence, and fantastical starters like their Crescenza Cheese & Serrano Ham Tartine (pickled onions, arugula, raisin-pecan bread). The words Napa and Valley together ups any ante, and this inspiring space does not fail LA. The multi-room indoor/outdoor space can comfortably seat 370 diners. The long and handsome 20-seat bar is as inviting as any table in this sweet-sixteen-year-old institution that just got a $2 million facelift—which means new menu and new vibe mingling with its old-style neighborhood charm. Brick-oven flatbreads include the Roasted Vegetable (brussels sprouts, heirloom carrots, cauliflower, garlic, basil) and the Seasonal Harvest salad takes no prisoners (roasted kabocha squash, green dragon apple, glazed walnuts, mixed greens, maple-olive dressing). You can up your degree in wine to in-the-know here—the leather-bound wine guide for servers includes tasting notes highlighting the nose and palate of every choice on the list (borrow one). Their cozy wine cellar seats eight guests. Along with a curated selection of international wines, this grill also proudly showcases its private selection from the Tavistock Reserve Collection. While you’re at it, pair something with their sensational Cast Iron-Seared Sea Scallops (sweet corn purée, charred hearts of palm, ginger-citrus vinaigrette). Seeking a walk on the wild side? Their designer cocktail, the Spaghetti Western (lime, Giffard orgeat almond syrup, Solerno, Milagro Tequila Reposado) has your name on it. Need to keep it simple at lunch? The Grilled Wagyu Cheeseburger (Monterey cheddar, caramelized onions, brioche bun) is misdiagnosed as simply a cheeseburger.
A country’s history is discovered in its songs.
Music mobilizes mortals. Estonia lacks military might and has always been surrounded by much larger countries with intimidating armies. Russia, Germany, and Sweden all vied for its control, creating a tug of war that lasted centuries. Tough times. Inspired by the fall of the Iron Curtain, Estonia symbolically overcame its final suppressor, the U.S.S.R., when country-wide choir jam-bands launched their Singing Revolution. A Baltic Woodstock. Here, choirs outrank sports as a national pastime—some attracting as many as 30,000 singers. Song festival fairgrounds, with their signature bandshell arches, are everywhere.
After 50 years of Soviet repression, in August, 1989, two million Baltic citizens, including people from neighboring Latvia and Lithuania, created an unbroken 350-mile human chain linking the countries in their call for freedom. The likeminded people clutched hands, and changed their destiny. Estonia, where medieval meets modern, sang itself free. The three original flags of the Baltics had been outlawed with possession punishable by prison and torture. Swiftly, these flags—hidden inside walls and ovens for decades—began waving all over the country. The keynote battle-charge song, My Fatherland is My Love, has since become an unofficial national anthem.
We’re all hooked on songs. While in Estonia, I asked several street-strolling locals to sing for me, and true to form, they obliged. One woman sang the entire unofficial anthem as we stood on an empty sidewalk. This fallout of the Baltic Singing Revolution made me wonder, what would the U.S. choose if it needed a new anthem to sing its way out of a real jam? Won’t Back Down, Born in the USA, American Woman, Highway to Hell, Don’t Stop Believin’?
Healing conflict with music, now that’s a concept. Follow your melody.
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Estonia’s national bird is the barn swallow. It’s no pin-up like the bald eagle, nor a chart-busting singer—but, aptly, an agile survivor for all seasons.
“We are the music makers, and we are the dreamers of dreams.” —Willy Wonka
While many other Manhattan restaurants labor to reinvent themselves, it’s relaxing to slide back into basics at the upper east side’s TBAR Steak & Lounge—and that’s why it’s packed with in-the-know veteran New Yorkers. The one-page 40-item menu rolls out time-tested beauties debuting with appetizers including truffle rice balls (mushrooms, truffle oil) and salmon ceviche (lime, jalapeno, tequila). The bi-level 100-seat space has a chatty 10-seat bar and a dozen options to dine while beholding Third Avenue’s bustle. The career waiters (including philosophical Croatians) and the mature clientele ensure calm as you realize that although steaks drive this train, the menu isn’t mono-focused (Chilean sea bass, Crispy Long Island duck). That said, many filet mignons, NY strips, and prime aged angus burgers are celebrated. The flip side of the one-page menu highlights champagne, fine wines, and cocktails including the Manhattan 73 (Angels Envy whiskey, cherries, antica, vermouth, cherry herring). But you’re not done yet—desserts like the banana parfait mille feuilles (coconut, caramel sauce) and the chocolate sundae (brownie, cream, chocolate sauce) have a way of reviving your appetite. This place makes getting it right the first time look easy. Okay, now you’re done. TBAR Steak & Lounge, 1278 3rd Ave @73rd, 212-772-0404.
One Community for Sustainability
“Our region is characterized by coopetition—a cooperative, collaborative decision by all players to compete with each other so that the world will choose the region before choosing the country.” —Philippine Minister of Tourism Ramon R. Jimenez, Jr.
The idea of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts is not lost on Southeast Asia. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) is an organization comparable to the European Union with its enduring effort to achieve regional solidarity. Manila (Philippines) will host the 35th annual ASEAN Tourism Forum (ATF) this January 19-22. This year’s theme is ASEAN–One Community for Sustainability.
Since its inauguration in 1981, the annual ATF rotates alphabetically through its 10 member-countries with a total of 570 million people—Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam. Russia had been ASEAN’s fastest growing tourism market, but the Russian financial collapse has evaporated those inbound numbers.
The tourist appeal fusion of Southeast Asia’s 10 countries and their amazingly varied cultures poses several challenges, one of which is its diversity. ASEAN members range from wealthy Singapore and Brunei to agrarian Laos and Cambodia. Politics also run the spectrum, from the democratic Philippines, which is largely Christian, Indonesia, which encompasses the world’s largest Muslim population—and, until now, a sometimes difficult to access Myanmar.
This forum is ultra-focused on how its member countries can work together to market themselves as one destination. Philippine Tourism Secretary/Minister Jimenez notes, “Our countries become, in very real terms, each other’s value extension—we become each other’s developing markets. And to make this development last for our children, we have to make certain that we are mindful of the social and environmental context that our region’s growth exists in.”
News from the ATF 2015 (held in Myanmar)…
ATF 2015 attracted 1,500 attendees from more than 40 countries, including tourism ministers, ASEAN exhibitors, international buyers, and international and local media.
BRUNEI is a handy gateway to remarkable Borneo. The last Malay Kingdom celebrates its options to play golf or polo, dive, or relax in a plush resort. Brunei’s quest to draw curiosity from western travelers to Borneo is reflected by its complete overhaul and expansion of its international airport. While under 10,000 Americans visit Brunei each year, it is rich in rainforest and mountain terrain that could be very attractive to adventure travelers. It is also working to promote itself as a dive destination thanks to an abundance of mint-condition shipwrecks.
CAMBODIA has discussed building a new road to Angkor Wat, but talks have been tabled for the time being. The dispute is that it would increase the number of day trips and cut down on overnight stays at Angkor Wat, weaken the economy and potentially degrade the ruins. “Overnight stays at Angkor Wat are very good for the tourism and local economy,” Dr. Thong Khon, the tourism minister, said. Cambodia now partners with Thailand for a single visa option. The symbolic Kingdom of Wonder campaign remains an enduring symbol of Southeast Asia’s incredible history. Here, white gold equals rice while green gold equals tourism.
INDONESIA: Cruises of Indonesia’s huge archipelago are beginning to become more popular, exposing the country’s beautiful coastline outside of Bali, the only destination most Americans visit. Indonesia’s presence on Borneo is often also overshadowed by Bali, making it perhaps one of the best kept secrets in Southeast Asia. Despite a few political setbacks, tourism numbers continue growing as the country offers incredible cultural and geographic diversity.
LAOS is undergoing major infrastructure developments that will soon change the face of this hospitable country. The “Jewel of the Mekong” continues a sustained effort to support soft tourism and local immersion. The big news out of Laos is its commitment to improving the roads and transportation infrastructure, allowing tourists to move easily throughout the country without flying. It is also upgrading all four of its international airports – Vientiane, Luang Prabang, Pakse, and Savannakhet. Luang Prabang continues to be one of the main draws for western travelers, and Laos is hoping that places like Vang Vieng evolve from backpacker hangouts to upscale destinations.
MALAYSIA: This is another year of festivals in Malaysia, with over 50 events happening throughout the country. A highlight is the Rainforest World Music Festival. The Malaysia Truly Asia campaign continues showcasing the best of its mixed native, Malay, Chinese, and Indian heritage.
MYANMAR: In 2015, ATF was held in Myanmar for the first time. Tourism continues to grow at an amazing rate, breaking 3 million visitors in 2014 (another exponential year-to-year increase) after welcoming only 1 million in 2012. 2015 could possibly see 5 million tourist arrivals—book ahead! The country is working to improve transit, road conditions, and flight options. Yangon, Lake Inle, Mandalay, and Bagan are currently the main attractions, but as the country continues to open up, other regions will no doubt catch on. One area in particular is the Chin State, which dropped its strict entry requirements this year. I can testify that the online tourist e-visa (evisa.moip.gov.mm $50) and business visa on arrival ($40) both work.
PHILIPPINES: The US remains its second largest market, the first being South Korea—one out of four tourists here are Korean. Philippine Airlines announced that it will begin a direct flight from New York (JFK) to Manila on March 15th. Many of the Philippines’ 7,017 islands share some form of American-influenced musical, religious, and Hollywood traditions, hence its tourism slogan, It’s More Fun in The Philippines.
SINGAPORE: One of the country’s largest projects is a hi-speed railway link to Kuala Lumpur, with an aim to eventually extend through Thailand to Kunming, China. While that plan develops, things remain busy on the homefront. This year marks the country’s 50th birthday, and it will celebrate with a number of openings, including the National Gallery and the Pinacotheque de Paris Art Museum. Last year, it opened a Chinatown street market that has proved to be very popular with locals and tourists.
THAILAND: Protests continue to plague Bangkok, and Thailand is using it as an opportunity to promote more of the regions outside its capital city. At the moment, westerns typically stick to Bangkok and the southern beaches, but those seeking an experience outside of the party tourist track should look into Loei in the north and Buri Ram in the east. The Amazing Thailand brand (reinvented this year as Thainess) continues setting the example for tourism in Southeast Asia with growing golf and health/wellness sectors. The country is considering waiving its tourist visa fees, but not its exotic culture of service.
VIETNAM: The popular yet hard-to-reach Northern Highlands of Vietnam are now more accessible thanks to a new road from Hanoi to Sapa that halves the travel time between Hanoi and Lao Cai to only 3.5 hours. Vietnam continues trying to simplify its visa policy, which recently doubled in price. A French Imperial twist continues fanning its hidden charms.
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Tourism encourages human connectivity—one of the key strategies towards ultimately achieving the ASEAN community. Peter Semone, Chief Technical Adviser for the Lao National Institute of Tourism and Hospitality (Lanith) adds to this notion: “Reaching towards greater sustainability in tourism is paramount to our future and there is no better time than the present to create a community led movement to achieve these goals. The freshly minted Sustainable Development Goals will lead the international community development agenda, while the new ASEAN Economic Community will provide unity among ASEAN member countries. One must not forget that these initiatives must translate into the local context if lasting sustainability measures are to be accomplished.”
A goldmine for business and leisure traveler news and forecasts, speakers included Green Recognition Award winners and homestay program pioneers. Also, press conferences led by tourism ministers from member countries create buzz about plans for a single or no-visa policy for the entire region, as this visa-free tourism strategy will help create an ideal single destination.
ASEAN cohesion emphasizes partnerships rather than competition. Tourism Ministers continue developing a mutual recognition agreement aimed to improve the quality of human resources and giving workers in the tourism sectors of member countries a chance to work in other countries. A single market free-trade agreement is another goal of the association. Until December 2008, the 40-year-old organization had no written constitution. The new charter sets a 2016 goal for establishing economic integration via a 10-country free-trade zone and established commitments respecting human rights, democratic principles, and keeping the region free of nuclear weapons. Binding the 10 members to an enhanced legal framework, the regional charter sets out their shared aims and methods of working together.
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For more information visit ATF Philippines. ATF 2017 will be Singapore.
Nobody gossips about virtue.
A mopey, well-fed stray hound strolls by and faintly sniffs me. I’m leaning against an impromptu beer truck on the fringe of a resort area on the Caribbean island of Grenada while distant Calypso music fills the barbequed night air. I’m fishing for West Indian gossip from the middle-aged guy whom I just gifted another icy brew. He grins and announces the same thing four times, as his songlike accent is lost on me until a fourth translation: “Who have cocoa in sun, look out for rain.” This Grenadian proverb suggests minding your own business—as in, it takes six consecutive days to sun-dry cocoa beans, so pay attention to the weather instead of trivial matters. The mellow dog takes the cue and moseys elsewhere, but I stick around.
This lively traffic circle near Grand Anse beach borders a makeshift outdoor marketplace sarcastically named “Wall Street” because the strip-mall parking area is bookended by banks. Along with being a mini-bus hub, the circle attracts locals who gather to buy open-air grilled meat and drink beverages sold from ice chests in pickup beds. At night, cars blare music, creating instant parties. Unlike other over-priced Caribbean islands that are designed so tourists rarely meet non-resort personnel, here I’m dancing in a parking lot with grandmothers, sipping bargain brew.
Strolling away from Wall Street, I follow the sound of steel drums into a palm-tree surrounded auditorium to behold a showcase of senior Calypso musicians. It sounds happy, so I wonder why 500 fans are calmly seated. I find out that Calypso, a West Indies invention, is “listening music” that doubles as delivery for satire and political commentary. Now I understand why the concert-goers are chuckling more than foot-tapping. At this point, I still have no idea how passionate these folks are about their history and politics. A woman looks away from the stage and smiles at me. I’m going to like it here.
Spice Island is an apt metaphor, as all races blend here. Children don’t speak about black or white skin, rather brown or peach skin. I stumble upon a new definition for relativity after meeting several men in my age bracket whose fathers had 10 or more offspring, sometimes with as many women. With so many folks related on this small island, everyone knowing each other keeps things safe. Also keeping the peace is their attachment to British Colonial law. One must bow to a picture of the Queen when entering a court. And if you swear, it’s not hard to land there. Locals call this a “church state” because cursing within earshot of a cop can warrant an arrest.
A long way from church, I step out onto the beach and wander down to a seaside bar. Nuggets of Grenadian folklore fly at me from every direction. As the sun dips into the water, the wave-crashing soundtrack is competing with singing frogs—a tiny newt-like chorus that sounds like an army of loud piccolos. The bartender leans forward to tell me something arriving via “tele-Grenadian” (meaning, gossip spreads fast here). “Don’t let the sun go down on it,” he adds, urging everyone there to solve problems with loved ones quickly. There’s just something about getting good advice when you’re barefoot.
I hail a cab wanting to be delivered to a popular dance joint. My plans rapidly change, however, when my taxi driver pulls over. Also a recreation advisor, Keith gives the bar I’m heading to a thumbs-down and redirects us to a local joint where the upbeat Soca music takes center stage and gets Grenadians up and bouncing. They call it whining, pronounced why-ning, a carnal dance demonstration I first witnessed in
Five hours later, I ask Keith, “What time is it?” “GMT,” he replies (Grenada Maybe Time).
The nutmeg on Grenada’s flag is telling, as it’s used to flavor many local dishes and heralded to cure everything from colds to infidelity. Taxi talent Keith and I share a few meals in local joints. The national dish is called oil down, namesaked by the coconut-milk oil residue that infuses the one-pot stew of breadfruit, callaloo, okra, cabbage, fish, dumplings, turmeric, and whatever else is on hand. While graduating from a heaping plate of oil down to brew, two schoolgirls in uniform sit across from us. Keith advises them, “Boys and books don’t agree.”
A few days later, Keith drops me off at the airport. As I walk away from his car, he reminds me, “What you miss ain’t pass you.” His way of saying, don’t worry about anything, it’s coming either way. He then retells me that copasetic is a Grenadian word.
A bad attitude is a disability. —Grenadian cabbie Keith