Troy Hightower


Fall Napa Sojourn

Recently we made a little foray out of 'our' valley (Sonoma) over the Oakville Grade into the 'other' valley of Napa. Late fall--well into November--is a good time to do this, as the crush is done, and accordingly, the hordes of tourists and their traffic have ebbed back to the wherever they've come from. The lovely town of St Helena was mellow and un-crowded on a crisp, sunny Saturday as we strolled its tree-shaded streets, window shopping, stopping for a bite of hand-crafted chocolate at  Woodhouse Chocolates, or a loaf of crusty bread at  the venerable Model Bakery. We lunched at the bar at Tra Vigne--again uncrowded, plenty of seats--on Mozzarrella 'al Minute', that was literally just made, served on smoke-tinged grilled bread,  salad of Forni Brown greens with shaved goat cheese, and the Pizzeta of the day.

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A Small Island "In the Midst of Waters"

Feeling small is sitting in the right front seat of an 8 passenger Cessna headed southeast into a wall of fog for 45 minutes, trusting the pilot's knowledge of the instruments, and the instruments themselves to find a tiny flat island 30 miles out in the Atlantic off the coast of Cape Cod. Less than two minutes before touchdown, the mist clears, and the blue rabbit-running light of the runway at Ackerman field appear, announcing that we've arrived safely on Nantucket—a named appropriately derived from a Native American word meaning "in the midst of waters".

Friends have visited the island for years in the shoulder season of September, after the summer hordes have left, and convinced us to join them for leisure and relaxation in the prettiness and charm that Nantucket provides. They'd taken their usual one-bedroom cottage over the water on Old North Wharf, but those are booked years in advance, and we were lucky to obtain a two-level cottage called Falcon halfway out Old South Wharf overlooking a fabulous view of the boat basin. Cheerfully furnished with great light and decks on two sides, Falcon proved a fine little home for five days.  

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Serenity at Sea Ranch

We’ve been going north to The Sea Ranch for a weekend getaway or two each year for a couple of decades, now, staying in a succession of rental houses throughout that coastal communithy. Recently two of our oldest and closest friends, who live nearby in the Sonoma Valley, made a pretty significant northward shift when they sold a pair of flats in the Marina in San Francisco that had been in his family for three generations, and bought an iconic oceanside house in Sea Ranch.

Located a two-hour drive north of Sonoma, The Sea Ranch was planned and developed in the mid-60’s by noted Bay Area architects Charles Moore, Joseph Esherick, Bill Turnbull, and landscape architect Lawrence Halprin. The design intention was for the houses to organically and naturally fit into the seaside landscape—to “lie lightly on the land” as they put it then. Houses are low-lying, driftwood colored, and clustered to leave large areas of open space available to all residents. Successfully meeting this intent, Sea Ranch has won environmental design awards and been internationally recognized as a harmonious and ecologically sound marriage of human habitation and preserved wild land: “an unparalleled melding of architecture and landscape”. And it’s a fabulous place for a relaxing weekend getaway.

The house is dubbed Frank’s Cadeau, in tribute to Ken’s grandfather who originally bought the Marina flats, which ultimately made a weekend place up the north coast possible. It’s emblematic Sea Ranch architecture—clean and modern, beachwood gray exterior, low native meadow landscaping, with interiors of sweeping glass, high beamed ceilings and rough-sawn Douglas fir siding. There are incredible blue ocean and whitewater views, with the sound of crashing surf always in the background.

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Bringing Etxebarri Home

Ever since that fantastic lunch of charcoal-grilled foods at Asador Etxebarri in Basque Spain, I've been musing on grilling and smoking. I've dabbled here and there with things, and then decided to re-create a full meal, matching the conditions in Victor Arguinzoniz' grill-kitchen as best I can. We don't have a crankable stainless steel grill, but do have a raised outdoor hearth and a trusty Lodge cast-iron grill. No laser-drilled pans, but a stainless wire mesh splash guard and collander might serve. Oxygen-controlled charcoal oven? No 'check' there, but we do have seasoned branches of oak, madrone, olive and manzanita from our property, all of which provide wonderful coals. And we do have access to some pretty darned fine fresh foodstuffs. So we invited some close friends, and settled in to a grilling and smoking experience in the Sonoma Valley.

Explorations in home-made chorizo are out, but Paul Bertoli's Gentile salami from his Berkeley Fra Mani salumeria serve adeptly as an appetizer with a glass of Paul Bara Champage. Bryan's Meats in Corte Madera gets fresh Louisiana white prawns flown in Tuesdays and Fridays from a shrimper down there who fishes Mondays and Thurdays--these slightly blueish beauties were in the Gulf of Mexico yesterday. They marinate simply in Meyer lemon juice, our own very fruity 2008 olive oil, and fleur de sel for a half hour, and then go on the grill over glowing coals of madrone and manzanita for about three minutes. Served on their own, the prawns are incredibly fresh tasting--sweet, succulent and lightly redolent of smoke. (I'll save every scrap of shell, leg and head for a smoky shrimp bisque).

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Charcoal Grilled Everything

The contrast in just five minutes, from toodling along the N634 in Basque Spain's urbo-industrial sprawl to the Swiss-hillside like serenity of the village of Axpe is nothing short of astounding. One minure, diesel fumes, factories, shopping complexes, apartment towers, and a few minutes later, clean mountain air, slopping wildflower covered sheep fields, stone barns and-chalet like farmhouses, all backed by the steep limestone reef dominated by Mount Anboto, the 1300 metre limestone peak in the sprawling acre Parc Naturel de Urkiola. It just doesn't seem possible that the modern human sprawl has stopped so abruptly, changing to a gorgeous scene that could have existed pretty much unchanged 100 years ago. Birds sing, cowbells, clank and not a hint of roadnoise--of course the road pretty much ends here, as the natural park map showing miles and miles of hiking trails, and sites for backpack camping demonstrates.

Such a beautiful, peaceful setting is an unexpected benefit of searching out Asador Etxebarri, Chef Victor Arguinzoniz's by now legendary wood-grill restaurant set in one of those wood and stone chalet-like farmhouses. In this kitchen, it's all wood-fire, all the time. No steaming, no sous-vide, no liquid nitrogen here. Just grilling on la brasa, and wood-fired oven. One side of the kitchen is a long, custom-made wood grill, with sections that raise and lower on cranks to get the perfect height above the coals for different foods. On the facing side, a set of oxygen-contolled wood ovens that serve primarily to make coals for the grill, out of oak, apple, olive woods, and grapevine--the wood type and heat of coals matched to the food being cooked. Each order prepared by the kitchen gets its own scoop of coals.

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Pintxos at the Spoon

The 'Spoon' was overflowing into the square. That first bite made my eyebrows skyrocket in astonishment. The intensity and complexity of flavor in something normally meant as a bar snack was unprecedented. In the 'Spoon', we might have stumbled across the best pintxos in the world.

Tapas are Spain's ubiquitous bar food, found everywhere with regional variations. In Basque Spain and here in San Sebastian they are called pintxos--the word said to derive from the verb pinchar--to prick--because they were at one time all served with toothpicks. Many still are, and counting toothpicks is often a way for the barman to tally your bill.

But these amazing pintxos are all toothpickless, and rather than being arrayed across the bar on a sea of platters as at the usual pintxos bar, are individually ordered from a chalkboard menu. This temple of pintxo gastronomy is La Cuchara de San Telmo (cuchara means spoon), a narrow space tucked into the corner of a building across from the San Telmo convent under the looming brow of Mt. Urgull, and two blocks from the sea, at the edge of San Sebastian's parte vieja, or old quarter. A long bar takes up one side of the space; a narrow shelf, bar height and just wide enough for a small plate runs along the other. The width between is no more than two people deep, though it frequently seems to contain more. The open miniscule kitchen is at the back. Two barmen take orders and dispense plates, two bar girls pour drinks and ferry plates from the kitchen. Our barman, called Marc, is tall, dark and handsome and speaks better English than our pidgeon Spanish. His is a constant-motion dance--scribble order, pour a glass of txacoli, yell "Alex, un foie, uno; dos canelon, dos!" to chef Alex Montiel at the back, and deliver tiny plates of incredible, beautiful food up and down the bar.

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The Birds of Las Mananitas

There’s a pink flamingo at my door!

The plastered stone halls echoed with a curious gentle double-honk that sounds a bit like Harpo Marx. I peeked out the door to our room to see a 3 foot high pink flamingo delicately treading up the shallow stone steps, cock his head and fix me with a baleful unblinking eye, and then edge toward the half–open door, clearly seeking entry. Not knowing the etiquette of allowing large avians in the rooms at 5 star Relais & Chateau resorts, I gently denied him entry by slowly closing the door, and he soon honk-honked off down the hall, out to the entrance and back into his garden domain.

Las Mananitas is a lovely and tranquil resort set in an old mansion in Cuernavaca, Mexico, nestled under the ring of the Sierra de Morelos Mountains an hour south of Mexico City. The hotel/restaurant is renowned for its cuisine, its gardens, and as a home to many exotic birds since shortly after it’s opening in the late 1950’s. Las Mananitas’ signature is its African crested cranes, of which there are currently two and a half pair. Gorgeous, stately birds, they have dark charcoal bodies, stark black and white patterned wings, white cheeks with a rouge patch, and fine golden crests. Two spend most of their time at the pond at the very bottom of the pool garden, along with the single resident flamingo, who indolently wanders the gardens (and, apparently, sometimes the hallways), stretching and dipping his 2 foot neck, shaking his hooked-beak head, and occasionally spreading his broad, black-tipped pink wings.

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Two Great Days in Buenos Aires

For years we’ve written “3 days in ____” accounts of our travels in places ranging from Paris to Istanbul to Mexico City—well before United’s inflight magazine Hemispheres started their ‘3 perfect days in ----“ series (and, pilfered the title). Three days is always cramming a lot in, so when we had just two days in Buenos Aires, on the way to Patagonia and far southern Chile, the challenge seemed even larger. But we felt up to it.

A cardinal rule for us is—short stay, great hotel. The Four Seasons BA overlooks the edge of the city and the sea to the rear, a jewel of a private garden and their Mansion extension, a (pink baroque, wedding-cake architectural confection). We were whisked directly to our room for a very early in-room check in, after 19 hours of traveling, once again pointing up the impeccable service in Four Seasons properties.

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