If there is one thing we enjoy as much as food, it is discovering really great hotels–one-of-a-kind boutique hotels that really transform a vacation into an extraordinary and unforgettable experience. We do not usually travel to exotic locations or spend a fortune on hotels, but we have found some great places over the years from Hotel Rouge and Hotel Helix (both Kimpton Hotels) in Washington DC to the Arbor House, an environmental inn in Madison, WI. However, this interest first started about 8 years ago when we stayed at the Hotel San Jose on South Congress Avenue in Austin, TX. This year we decided to return to Austin to celebrate our 10th wedding anniversary. Scott did some great research and uncovered several hotel options in the South Congress district. We have always wanted to return to Hotel San Jose, but after spending an afternoon browsing different hotel websites, we both (independently) chose Hotel Saint Cecilia. Named after the patron saint of music and poetry, it is described online as a secluded estate with accommodations inspired by the “experimentation of 60’s writers like William Burroughs, the daring and extravagance of groups like the Stones in the early 70’s, and the defiance and convention embodied by artists like Miro and Warhol in the late 50’s and early 60’s.” And, with that description, I was hooked.
We stayed three nights at the Hotel Saint Cecilia and it was just as wonderful as I had anticipated. South Congress Avenue had grown up quite a bit since our last visit, so it was nice that the hotel with tucked away from the busyness and noise, yet still close enough to walk to shops and eateries. The hotel grounds were beautiful–lush green grass, sprawling live oak trees, charming outdoor patio, quirky bar, and great views of the downtown skyline. As we walked around the grounds each day, we noticed an interesting and pleasant aroma. I convinced myself that it had to be coming from one of the plants or trees, but then on our last day we discovered they had strategically placed incense burners near the hotel entrance and pool! The service was the best I had ever experienced–they called us by name and congratulated us as soon as we walked in the door, they offered to carry everything from luggage to a simple tray of chilled Richard’s Rainwater. Each room was equipped with a turntable and sound system, and the hotel library offered a selection of vintage vinyl as well as films and books about poets, musicians, and writers. We stuck to LPs and the soundtrack for our stay included Billy Joel, Jimi Hendrix, The Doors, Simon and Garfunkel (including their song Cecilia, of course), Rolling Stones, Willie Nelson, Ella Fitzgerald, Ray Charles, and the James Brown band. We also borrowed the hotel bicycles and rode around the nearby residential neighborhoods and along the paths at Town Lake. We laid by the pool in the afternoons and, between dips in the water, we took turns reading chapters of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer to each other. Needless to say, after a couple of days, I decided that I needed to permanently move in to Suite 3 at Hotel Saint Cecilia.
One of the fun things about staying at such a small, quaint hotel was visiting with some of the other guests. We got restaurant recommendations and tips on sneaking our own drinks into the hotel’s public spaces, and then we passed all this great information along to others we met. I think the most interesting encounter happened our first afternoon by the pool. We chatted with a lady visiting from Houston who was about our age and publishes a lifestyle blog for a living. She asked the reason for our visit and we happily replied that we were there to celebrate our 10 year anniversary. Scott and I smiled at each other, and I thought about how blessed we were to actually celebrate this milestone. Our new friend seemed impressed with this accomplishment and immediately asked something like, “What is the key to a happy, successful marriage?” Scott and I looked at each other again and chuckled as I was thinking, “You’re asking the wrong couple, lady!” Scott put it more nicely and responded that we were, in fact, learning the hard way as we had recently been through a separation. Then we shared a few of the breakthroughs we have had over the past year. Never let yourself become complacent in your marriage. Recognize that marriage is something you have to continually work on in order to grow, protect, and nurture your relationship. Develop a “we” or “couple” identify while still maintaining your own interests and individuality. And, I don’t think we said this that day at the pool, but Scott recently wrote about how we have both realized we must work hard to keep our marriage as the most important human relationship in our lives–before work, friends, children, pets, parents, hobbies, and so on. When we got back to our room a few hours later, I told Scott how I had been caught off guard by her question and how unprepared we were to share a simple version of our story and the lessons we are learning. I hope the opportunity presents itself again and I hope we have the rights words to share when it does.
Balmoral Bites is back. We have never been particularly good at posting to the blog on a regular basis. Weeks and sometimes months would pass between posts, but this is a record: it has been one year since our last post! And, what a year it has been. Sometimes we feel as if we have lived an entire lifetime in the past year. We moved back to Texas last summer and are now writing from Lawndale Drive in Dallas rather than Balmoral Avenue in Chicago. Scott returned to his alma mater and former employer, the University of North Texas, as the Manager of High Performance Computing. I am now a Gallery Teacher at the Amon Carter Museum of American Art. We settled into Oak Cliff, a community just across the river from downtown Dallas, and began exploring the local restaurants and joined Urban Acres, an organic market with co-op style produce. Even though we were surrounded with an abundance of new blogging opportunities, it began to seem that Balmoral Bites was at its end. It also began to seem that our 15-year relationship was coming to an end. Scott moved out in December and we were separated for 4 months. That may sound brief, but it felt like the longest and most difficult period of our lives. Then, about two months ago, reconciliation began and we are now trying to build a new relationship and start a new journey together. After a little more time and reflection, we hope to share some of our experiences of the past year.
Posted in May 2010, our last entry was written about the burger joint at the end of our block in Chicago, Hamburger Mary’s. We thought it fitting to restart the blog with another burger post, so we set out to find the best burger in North Oak Cliff. Instead of discovering one burger that was the overall best in OC, we found that every restaurant had their own unique approach to a good burger. We started with the EB&D Loaded Up and Truckin’ Burger at Smoke. This burger is served with sharp cheddar, two slices of thick bacon, a farm egg fritter, and the other usual burger fixins. Absolutely delicious. While we aren’t officially naming a winner, this is the burger I would personally go back for again and again. Of everything we tried, this was definitely the most gourmet and the most expensive at $14 for the burger and one side. With one extra salad, though, the burger was plenty of food for the two of us to share. And, as a side note, I also highly recommend their cedar wood infused tequila.
Next, we made our way to Eno’s Pizza Tavern on an unusually chilly Sunday afternoon in April. We decided to split a burger and pizza since their daily special was a hamburger pie with basil, tomato, and ricotta cheese. The Tavern Burger is made with local grass fed beef and served on a toasted bun. It came with the usual burger fixins as well – tomato, white onion, pickle, greens, and mayo. I don’t typically eat mayo, but this was actually good – homemade, I assume – and didn’t take away from my burger experience. Eno’s burger was quite simple, and yet it exceeded all the other burgers with the quality and flavor of meat. The burger is served alone for $6, but chips, soups, and salads are also available as sides.
On Cinco de Mayo, we headed to Oddfellows for dinner. No splitting here – it was late and we were starving so we both ordered our own cheeseburger. We had heard that Oddfellow’s burger was better than Eno’s, so we had high hopes that this might be the winner. The Oddfellow’s Cheeseburger was a large (probably 1/2-pound) burger served with a heaping pile of thin-cut french fries for $9.99. The burger did not wow us, but it certainly had a good charbroiled flavor with a crispy crust on the patty.
To finish up our OC burger adventure, we visited Bolsa. We had some delicious cocktails while waiting for our table, but after being seated, we realized they were not serving burgers that evening. Bolsa’s menu changes daily based on the availability of fresh and local ingredients. While we like that approach, we were a little frustrated and disappointed about not getting to add their burger to our blog. Next time I get a craving for a good burger, I may head to Bolsa to give it another try. Or, the Kessler Theater, whose burger just won the Backyard Burger Throwdown at the annual Brew Riot. Or, my very own backyard… Scott and I used to make burgers about once a week, but our grill hasn’t been fired up since we moved back to Texas. So, not only has it been a year since our last blog post, it has also been a year since I enjoyed a burger a la Scott. It may not sound like much, but I really missed those burgers! I guess I didn’t need to go far to find the best burger in OC. So glad my husband is home!
Mary, Mary, quite contrary,
Oh, how your burgers grew!
In my belly, it’s so swelly,
Now that I’m tasting your brew.
It’s spring in Chicago and that means it is perfect open-window weather (as is most of the summer, too). Only problem is, around lunch and dinnertime an aroma from all the Clark Street restaurants comes wafting in our windows, which makes one both hungry and very tempted to eat out. It is usually the smell of burgers that is so tempting, but we are never certain if it is coming from La Tache (they used to serve a good burger, but we haven’t been back since they changed their menu), Huey’s Hot Dogs (they also serve burgers), or Hamburger Mary’s. We usually opt for Mary’s because they serve tasty burgers and home brews in a fun atmosphere.
In the almost three years we have lived down the street from Hamburger Mary’s, they have undergone some changes and expansion, but have always kept a variety of delicious 1/2-pound burgers on their menu. One of Mary’s many quirks are the women’s stilettos and pumps in which they bring your check; although, it has been a while since we have seen a woman’s shoe on our table, so they not be doing this anymore. We have also seen Mary’s Burger of the Month come and go over the past few years, but are glad to see it is back for now. Even without the monthly special, there are always plenty of other interesting menu options. Some of our favorites are: Steakhouse Burger (pictured above) with A1 sauce, melted provolone, grilled portobella mushrooms, and crispy red onion strings; Barbara-Q Bacon Cheeseburger with onion rings, BBQ sauce, bacon, and cheddar & jack cheeses; Buffy (The Burger Slayer) with red wine sauce, swiss cheese, and garlic aioli; and, Philly Cheesesteak Burger (pictured below) with swiss & jack cheeses, grill onions & peppers, and crispy red onion strings. Because these burgers are so hefty, we always split one and order an appetizer or a side. Mary’s also has several Stuffed Burgers, but we have found these are too messy for sharing. In addition to the burgers, one thing that keeps us coming back are the tasty fries – full cut, well seasoned, and a little bit of crunch – which you can also order loaded with chili, cheese, green onions, and a dollop of sour cream. There is much more than burgers and fries on their menu, but we’ve done little exploration other than some starters…most of which were just okay.
About a year ago, Mary’s expanded into the adjoining space and opened a small brewery and sports bar called the Rec Room. Prior to the Rec Room, Mary’s beer selection was lacking, but their home brews have definitely bumped this place up a notch on our list. Two of their regular beers we enjoy are the Mary Hoppins (Pale Ale) and Gangster (Hopped-up Amber Ale). And, finally, Mary’s Attic (located directly above Hamburger Mary’s) is for the late nighters in our hood, but we have yet to venture upstairs to see what all the hooting and hollering is about. On karaoke nights, we can sometimes hear a few divas from our flat!
Mary, Mary, quite contrary,
Oh, how I’ll miss you so!
When we’ve moved, and can no longer behoove
Ourselves there to go.
Today we sat down together for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. And, coincidentally, all three meals were made up of round, flat foods!
After staying up till 2:00 a.m. last night working on a thesis and job applications, we slept in (till 9:20) this morning and then made some fluffy Yockel Pancakes. For a late lunch, we put together some easy & delicious Black Bean Tostadas:
- 1 package tostadas
- 1 can refried black beans
- 1 can chipotle salsa (we use San Marcos brand from our local produce store)
- 2 cups shredded head lettuce
- 1/2 cup chopped cilantro
- 1/2 tomato, diced
- 1/4 cup red onion, finely chopped
- 1/4 lime, juiced
- splash of olive oil
- dash of cumin
- 1 avacado, sliced
Add one can of black beans to a medium sauce pan and mix in 2-3 tablespoons of chipotle sauce (depending on your preferred spice level), salt, pepper, and cumin. Continue heating on low until ready to serve. Meanwhile, in a medium bowl, mix the shredded lettuce, cilantro, red onion, and tomato. Then, drizzle olive oil and lime iuice over mixture and toss. To prepare, spread a couple spoonfuls of warm beans over the crisp tostadas, then top with sliced avacado and lettuce mixture. Quick and easy lunch in served! But, we didn’t take pics – sorry!
For dinner, we headed across Clark Street to our favorite local bar, In Fine Spirits, for their weekly Wednesday night special – $3 cans of craft beer & cask ale and $5 flatbreads. We shared three different 6-inch flatbreads – chicken, short rib, and a house flatbread with truffle oil. We also tried their Surly Furious IPA cask ale and two canned beers from Ska Brewery in Durango, Colorado.
All in all, it was a great day full of all things round and flat…
~ Lauren & Scott
To conclude the series of posts about our trip to the UK, I’ll finish with the best food we had while eating out abroad. The last two days of our trip, we parted ways with the rest of the band and traveled to Canterbury. When Lauren was looking for hotels in the area, she had come across a B&B website that recommended local eateries. We decided to pass on their recommendation for a Mexican restaurant (something about Mexican food in Canterbury didn’t seem too promising), and instead planned our last dinner for The Goods Shed, a farmers market and restaurant that specializes in local produce, dairy, and game. And, after a long day of climbing around Dover Castle in the wind, rain, & fog and then rescheduling our return flight because American Airlines decided to take our plane out of commission, we were thrilled to sit down to a warm meal.
The Good’s Shed is exactly that – an old train storage shed. The main market floor is where the train used to come through the shed and the unloading platform (on the left in the above picture) is now where the restaurant is located. For a restaurant, this place has elegance in it’s simplicity. The seasonal menu – handwritten daily on their chalkboard – was full of local favorites like rabbit, duck, and fish.
After eating our fair share of fish-n-chips and meat pies, we were delighted with such an exquisite menu selection. Lauren couldn’t resist the braised venison fillet with rosemary and chocolate sauce. It was served with roasted potatoes, yams, and cabbage. And, after asking for further explanation of their fish options (because we don’t get those fish in the States), I chose the hake with razor clams, which was also served with roasted potatoes, yams, and chard. For dessert we opted for the warm apple pudding (aka cake) and custard, and I treated myself to a glass of ruby port for my birthday. The food, like the atmosphere at The Goods Shed, was simple yet elegant. The menu retained a sense of traditional English fare, but prepared it with quality, local produce and served it in a charming rustic shed. We’ve never eaten anywhere quite like this restaurant and wish we would have had time to visit the daytime market as well.
So, this concludes our posts on the UK! Hope you have been inspired to enjoy great times eating and drinking while in the UK and the next time a pilgrimage lands you in Canterbury, the Goods Shed will not disappoint.
During our recent trip to England, we were lucky to be hosted by a wonderful family from the church where Scott’s band was playing music. They helped us figure out the train system, gave us information about the towns we were visiting outside of London, and fed us warm, comforting home-cooked meals. We were spoiled with desserts at almost every meal and I am determined to give this one a shot: Baked Apple and Almond Pudding. The one dish I have already tried here at home is the oven-roasted parnips they served with a Sunday lamb roast. I didn’t grow up eating parsnips (a root vegetable related to the carrot) and had only recently tried them at home in a parsnip & carrot soup. I wasn’t all that impressed with the soup and didn’t plan on adding parsnips to my grocery list again anytime soon… Until I had the oven-roasted parsnips across the pond. The parsnips have a subtle sweetness and when combined with the crispness from oven-roasting, I feel as if I’m eating something more like sweet potato fries than a roasted root vegetable! There may be fancier and tastier ways to prepare this veggie, but this simple recipe has me convinced that I like parsnips.
- Parsnips, peeled and cut in quarters
- Salt & Freshly Ground Pepper
- Vegetable Oil
Boil the quartered parsnips for 3-4 minutes. Meanwhile, heat a tray with a few spoonfuls of vegetable oil in a hot oven. Drain the parsnips. Spread parsnips onto the tray of hot oil and add salt & freshly ground pepper. Roast parsnips for about 45 minutes. If needed, turn on oven broiler for the last few minutes to help brown and crisp the parsnips, but watch carefully to avoid burning.
Based on this post, you might get the impression that we were intoxicated the entire ten days we recently spent in England. Not true. We didn’t actually spend all of our time in pubs – we saw a few sights as well. During a wet, cold February visit, the local pubs provided a great place to warm up and rest our feet in between all of the museums and cathedrals…and they provided a few good brews and meals too.
Here’s a few of our favorites:
- The Bear and Staff. Scott went to this pub the last time he was in London and we decided to seek it out again when we were in Leicester Square. On our first visit, we discovered they had several good brews, so we actually returned for lunch later in the week when we were back in the area. Leicester Square was not our favorite neighborhood – it was a little too commercial with lots of movie theaters and Burger Kings – but The Bear and Staff is near the Tube station and also within walking distance of Covent Garden.
- The Market Porter. The Market Porter was a great, unexpected find in Borough. We had just finished our second lunchtime visit to Borough Market and our feet were too tired to head straight to the Tate Modern, so we found the nearest pub, of course! The place was bustling since it was a Saturday afternoon and we were lucky to find a seat. They had a large selection of beers and best of all we got to hear live music. A small, three-piece band setup right in the middle of the pub and started playing Irish music. The music was great and it was a welcome change from all of the bad 90s music we were hearing in most bars and restaurants. I guess the British really love Michael Bolton & Celine Dion because I can’t tell you how many times we heard their music. (I have since learned this pub was transformed into the Third Hand Book Emporium for a Harry Potter film and the area has been used in other films such as Bridget Jones’s Diary.)
- The Bear. Recommended by a friend, this was a great little pub that was off the beaten path in Oxford. It is apparently one of the oldest pubs in England, dating back to the mid-13th century. It was a charming place with a small bar, very low ceilings, fireplace, and a quirky collection of neck ties that patrons have exchanged for pints of beer over the years. And, while there wasn’t anything especially memorable about the brews at The Bear (like most English beers, unfortunately), we would definitely return to this spot.
- The Eagle and Child. One of the friends we were traveling with in Oxford is a big C.S. Lewis fan, and it turns out this pub was his first stop on a walking tour of Lewis-related sites in Oxford. We decided to join him for this portion of his tour! The Eagle and Child was often the site of weekly Tuesday meetings of the literary discussion group, the Inklings, whose members included Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien. And, again, the beer and fish & chips weren’t remarkable, but the you can’t beat that history!
- The Bishop’s Finger. We actually stopped into this pub twice because it was right next door to our hotel, The Falstaff. They served a good selection of beers from Shepherd Neame, the local brewery in the South East region of England. We enjoyed the Late Red Autumn Hop Ale and the Bishop’s Finger Kentish Strong Ale – the latter being a whopping 5.4% alcohol. I guess that is considered “strong” in England when the average ales are around 3.5%.
- The Cricketer. This pub also served beers from the local Shepherd Neame brewery and we had the Spitfire Premiun Kentish Ale. The fish and chips were some of the best we had on our trip. The fish had a beer-batter, giving it better flavor than what we had elsewhere. And their onion rings – made with red onions – were light, crispy, and so delicious!