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Promising new tapas wine and grill eatery in Portland, Maine

December 15th, 2014 · No Comments

By Elena del Valle
Photos by Gary Cox

Lolitas Asador and Tapas

The exterior of Lolita Vinoteca + Asador

Lolita Vinoteca + Asador (90 Congress Street, Portland, Maine 04101, +1 207-775-5652, http://www.lolita-portland.com/, info@lolita-portland.com), a few blocks past the Portland Observatory on one of Portland's main streets, was easy to find. Maine's coastal city had many dining choices from exotic to exclusively local. Lolita, established by Guy (executive chef) and Stella Hernandez and Neil Reiter was the only Spanish themed tapas eatery with a wood fired oven we came across. The 900 square foot eatery with a staff of 12, table seating for 20, and space for 10 at the bar opened its doors in June 2014.

Guy and Estella Hernandez

Guy and Stella Hernandez

The menu, described as “American cuisine, guided by Mediterranean and old-world traditions,” featured small plates and plates to share with specialty dishes from the wood-fired grill and meats from the eatery's antique prosciutto slicer.

Bread, honey and local cheese

Bread, honey and Consider Bardwell cheese

Prior to Lolita, Guy and Stella owned and operated Bar Lola for seven years. Lolita is a reference to that previous establishment in that the Asador where we had lunch was smaller and less structured than Bar Lola had been. Vinoteca, or wine facility in Spanish, referred to Stella’s wine and beverage background. There was a list of 75 wines featuring classic wine regions and varietals, as well as unique selections from around the world. Plans were in place for an extensive by-the-glass program with full, half-glass and flights options. Asador, referring to an establishment that features food cooked over an open fire in Spanish, highlighted the custom grill in the open kitchen.

Sliced Serrano Ham

A serving of thinly sliced Serrano ham

Before entering the restaurant industry, Guy held a number of teaching positions in architectural design and technical drawing. In 2006, before opening Bar Lola, Guy was a baker at the One Fifty Ate Bakeshop in South Portland, and assisted with the launch of Scratch Baking.

Stella, general manager and beverage director at Lolita, had more than a decade of experience in the hospitality industry. Prior to working at Lolita, she held the same positions for Bar Lola. She was a member of the Guild of Sommeliers and was taking Court of Master Sommeliers education courses. Stella and Guy were the owners of Hilltop Coffee, nearby. 

Sardine pot with bread

The Sardine Rillette pot with bread

Neil’s passion for the restaurant industry grew out of his experience as a silent partner in several successful New York City restaurants and clubs. Previous entrepreneurial experiences included founding and being president of Reiter Marketing Group, Inc., and R & J Partners, LLC. 

Mussels from the asador

Our order of Wood Roasted Clams

We liked the casual contemporary decor with post industrial features, as well as the friendly and well informed, if slow paced, service. Mostly we enjoyed the food. We sampled a variety of the dishes: Thinly sliced Serrano ham from La Alberca, Spain; the day's special short rib panino; Consider Bardwell, a West Pawlet, Vermont cheese; local Wood Roasted Clams (a favorite); Spicy Sardine Rillette, served in a pot with roasted slices of bread; Grilled Romaine served with Tarragon Vinaigrette and Pecorino cheese shavings (a favorite); and a homemade Apple Tarte Fine for two. We washed it down with a glass of cava and a pale ale.

Grilled romaine from the asador

The Grilled Romaine

Making grilled romaine in the Asador

One of the staff making Grilled Romaine in the Asador

Our only complaint? Parking was difficult to find in the residential neighborhood of Munjoy Hill. It took us ten or more minutes of circling around the eatery to locate a parking space two blocks away where we hoped our car would be safe from the tow trucks announced on many city signs.


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Monofloral honeys bring diverse regional essences of France to the table

December 1st, 2014 · No Comments

Article and photos by Josette King

The distinctive square jars

Signature Hédène cube jars were a common site on the shelves of gourmet shops

“Please hand me the rosemary honey,” my friend asked. I was wedged in a corner of her diminutive Paris kitchen where she was whipping up an impromptu dinner while we caught up after a long separation. “Honey in the vinaigrette?” I thought as I reached on the shelf above my head for a cube-shaped jar filled with rich amber liquid. “The rosemary,” she insisted, “the light one.” I glanced at the jar in my hand. A smart white label announced “Hédène Miel Sapin du Jura” (Jura Mountains Fir Honey). I reached up again for an identical jar, that one filled with a silvery concoction. “That’s lavender,” she said absentmindedly, arm stretching above me to retrieve a third jar just a notch darker, a pale champagne color. I couldn’t resist asking: “why do you need all this honey?” “This is not just honey,” she pointed out, “it’s pure monofloral honey. The right one can do wonders for just about any dish. Smell it.” Having just branded myself a honey philistine, I inhaled the “Lavande de Provence.” It had a delicate, complex scent that took me back to warm Provencal evenings. “We’ll have it for dessert,” she volunteered, “drizzled over mixed red berries and yogurt.” By now I was taking a whiff of “Sapin du Jura.” It did hint at a walk in an evergreen forest. “We’ll try it for breakfast tomorrow; on pain perdu (French toast). Think of maple syrup, only much more subtle, with an elegant lingering palate.” I felt we had just crossed into the elite spheres of wine tasting.

Cyril Marx explaining the finer points of monofloral beekeeping

Cyril Marx explaining the finer points of monofloral beekeeping

This impression was confirmed a couple of weeks later when I attended an Hédène honey tasting at a Latin Quarter gourmet shop (86 rue de l'Université, 75007 Paris, France, +33 6 63 04 98 82 86, http://www.hedene.fr/en/, contact@hedene.fr ). I immediately spotted my three old acquaintances Sapin du Jura, Lavande de Provence and Romarin du Languedoc among a display of the signature cubes with their tailored white labels and black tops. The collection also included Acacia de Bourgogne (Burgundy Acacia Honey), Tilleul de Picardie (Picardy Linden Honey) and Châtaignier du Tard (Tarn Valley Chestnut Honey), lined in a palette ranging from the palest of golds to rich copper.

Alexis Ratouis conducting a tasting of Hédène honeys

Alexis Ratouis conducting a tasting of Hédène honeys

But mostly I met the two enthusiastic young men clad in matching dark grey aprons, who were orchestrating the proceedings, Cyril Marx and Alexis Ratouis, the cofounders of Hédène, a brand of premium French monofloral artisan honeys created in 2013; and I got the answer to my unspoken question: what makes Hédène honeys so special that they have already garnered preeminent space on the shelves of épiceries fines (gourmet shops) throughout France; and gained staple status in the pantry of my Parisian gourmet friend?

The newly introduced Bourdaine des Landes was the star of the honey tasking

The newly introduced Bourdaine des Landes was the star of the honey tasting (click to enlarge)

Cyril and Alexis met at university in Paris and developed a friendship based on common interests including apiculture. Cyril’s family has kept hives in the Cevennes for four generations, while Alexis'  relatives  keep their own bees in Savoy. Both men have enjoyed participating in honey harvests since childhood. Even as they completed their education and began their professional careers, they nurtured their passion for apiculture at le Rucher Ecole du Jardin du Luxembourg (founded in 1856, the Luxembourg Garden Hive is recognized as the oldest ongoing urban hive in France, and one of its most prestigious apicultural teaching institutions). After two years of intense planning, they decided to make it their career. Hédène was launched that year.

My current Hédène favorites French monofloral honeys

My current Hédène favorite French monofloral honeys

“We aim to take our customers on a journey of the diverse regions of France. All our honeys are unique monofloral vintages issued from a flower characteristic of its area of origin, each with its distinctive color, taste and texture,” Cyril explained.

In each area, they select artisans who uphold the highest standards of traditional beekeeping. Those chosen suppliers also commit to adhering to the rigorous specifications set by Hédène. But how do they ensure that the bees will make single flower honey? The selected beekeepers in areas where the target plant predominates must time the introduction of the hive and the actual harvesting of the comb to coincide with the peak blooming period. To be chosen as an Hédène product, the honey must be analyzed and laboratory certified to contain the required pollens. Because of these rigorous requirements, as in the world of fine wines, the quantities of an especially prized vintage may be limited.

Hédène monofloral honeys ready for tasting

Hédène monofloral honeys ready for tasting (click to enlarge)

It was the case with the Miel Bourdaine des Landes (Adler Buckthorn Honey from the southwestern France Atlantic coast) being introduced that day. It was the color of fine Cognac, full bodied with a delicately astringent, quince-like finish. There will be no more than 2,000 jars available this fall, and with the holiday gifting season coming up I doubted they would last long on the market. I immediately purchased two jars, one for my honey connoisseur friend, the other one for myself. I can’t wait to hear what she thinks of it. As for me, I expect it will be delicious as a glaze for roasted pork tenderloin. And by the way, that tablespoon of Miel Romarin du Languedoc did work wonders for the vinaigrette on our mixed summer’s greens salad.

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A pleasant French style dinner in Lincolnville, Maine

November 17th, 2014 · 2 Comments

By Elena del Valle
Photos by Gary Cox

The restaurant in the Youngstown Inn

The restaurant in the Youngtown Inn

We arrived hungry at the Youngtown Inn and Restaurant in Lincolnville, Maine, after a day of driving and tourist activities with little time for lunch. Instead of driving the six miles from our nearby inn we opted for a taxi. Fortunately, it was early when we asked if the restaurant was near enough to walk. A smiling front desk staff person indicated it would be better to drive or rely on a transport service as it was several miles away down dark roads. Advance planning was necessary as it required 25 minutes before a taxi made its way to Linconlville Beach, where we were staying, from its base of operations in Rockport. It was the only taxi service available, the staff woman explained.

The lobster bisque

The lobster bisque

As the taxi van negotiated the dark residential roads and our tiredness sunk in we were glad of our decision. As we entered the restaurant, located within a classic 1810 farmhouse turned into a cozy four room inn, a distracted middle aged woman welcomed us, led us to our table and handed us menus. We explained that we needed a taxi and she offered to call the service when our dessert arrived. As the evening wore on her timing estimate proved to be spot on. Moments later, another personable woman arrived to announce the daily specials and bring us water. Although it was a weekend evening we were among few guests at the restaurant because of a nearby special event.

Beet and arugala salad

Our beet salad (click to enlarge) 

Arugala salad garnished with a flower

The arugula salad was garnished with a flower (click to enlarge)

While the set menu was well priced, the chef's beef and lamb specialties were on only offer in the a la carte menu so we chose that one. There were two types of bread, whole wheat and sour dough. For starters we ordered Lobster Bisque with Sherry made with fresh lobster chunks, one beet salad and one arugula salad. For mains we had Pan Seared Black Angus Filet Mignon, Caramelized Onions, Roquefort and Roast Rack of Imported Lamb with Herbs de Provence (a favorite) both of which were well prepared. They were served with green beans, carrots and potatoes. Relying on our server's advice we ordered a 2010 Billerond Saint Emilion to accompany our dinner. It was a good match for the meal, stout enough for the red meats yet well rounded and with a smooth finish.

The lamb was moist and tasty

The lamb was moist and tasty (click to enlarge)

The fillet with the pepper sauce removed

The filet mignon with the pepper sauce removed

Although the menu description of my filet mignon said nothing about pepper nor did the server mention it when I placed my order, the meat was sitting atop and covered in a thick black pepper sauce. After I raised the issue, the server took it back to the kitchen where they removed the sauce. She brought it back quickly and it was still hot, but the pepper flavor had penetrated the meat, making it difficult to enjoy my dish or taste the Roquefort cheese.

Creme brulee

The creme brulee

Chocolate truffle cake

The chocolate truffle cake

For dessert we had Tahitian bean Creme Brulee and Chocolate Truffle Cake. While the thin slice of cake didn't look especially appetizing it had a rich chocolate flavor. Dinner was pleasant. The Youngtown Inn and Restaurant, 581 Youngtown Road, Lincolnville, Maine 04849, +1 207-763-4290, info@youngtowninn.com

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Forgotten Italianate villa back to life as world class Virginia boutique hotel

November 3rd, 2014 · 1 Comment

Article and photos by Josette King

The formal arched central entrance of Keswick Hall

The formal arched central entrance of Keswick Hall

It is not unusual for friends who know that I am “always running off somewhere” to ask about my personal “short list” of favorite properties around the world; and be surprised that the list is quite short, of properties so exceptional in their location, surrounding, facilities, accommodations and service that I would gladly fly half way around the world to enjoy them again. On my recent visit to Charlottesville, Virginia I had the pleasure of adding one entry to my list, Keswick Hall.

The infinity swimming pool acted as a reflecting pool for the north façade of the villa

The infinity swimming pool acted as a reflecting pool for the north facade of the villa

The elegant Italianate mansion located on 600 acres (243 hectares) of pristine countryside at the eastern edge of the city had the feel of a grand English country estate. As I drove around the circular driveway to the formal triple archway of the central entrance, I fleetingly wondered whether the walking shoes and jeans in which I had roamed all day from area wineries to remote artist studios were appropriate for the occasion. But already, the doorman was making me welcome like a long expected friend of the family. My luggage was out the trunk and my dusty rented car whisked away by the time I stepped through the open door into my “great uncle’s country mansion.”

My room was a welcoming retreat of understated elegance

My room was a welcoming retreat of understated elegance

It was just as Sir Bernard Ashley intended when in 1991 he set out to transform the decaying Italianate Villa Crawford into a world class property where guests would feel they were staying at a private manor house. Three years and a $25 million major restoration and expansion effort later, he had created Keswick Hall.

The historic North Wing had reclaimed its original opulence

The historic North Wing had reclaimed its original opulence

In the central grand entrance hall, mellow oriental rugs created intimate spaces for clusters of inviting sofas, armchairs and antique accents furniture. Fresh flowers, in seemingly simple arrangement hinted at having been brought from the garden on a whim by an artistically minded lady of the house.

An antique mirrored armoire was a focal point of my room

An antique mirrored armoire was a focal point of my room

In spite of its vast proportions, the room had a lived in feel, as though it had organically developed to its current gracious state through generations of residents. I had to remind myself to look for the reception area. It was there, an inconspicuous desk in the corner nearest to the entrance, as was the concierge desk, in the opposing corner of the hall. Both were staffed with knowledgeable and attentive hosts who appeared ready to assist with even the smallest of wishes. This was the norm for any staff member with whom I came in contact.

The North Wing sitting room

The North Wing sitting room

My own accommodations were equally welcoming, a large light filled room decorated in a relaxing neutral palette and a mix of antiques and period inspired furniture, and a French door that opened onto a large corner terrace with views of the garden and the manicured vistas of the golf course. Fossett’s, the property’s award winning restaurant, was remarkable not only for the quality of its classic continental cuisine with Virginia flair, but for it panoramic views of the estate’s rolling hills and the Blue Ridge Mountains beyond.

The lower terrace of the mansion reached out the rolling lawns at the rear of the estate

The lower terrace of the mansion reached out the rolling lawns at the rear of the estate

In addition to its flawless hospitably, Keswick Hall offered activities to indulge the most varied tastes, from the billiard room restored in the original Villa Crawford, now the Historic North Wing of the mansion, to an in-house spa, a croquet pitch overlooking the Southwest Mountains, spectacular 18 hole golf course, nature walk and bird watching trails, aquatic center and tennis courts. It even had its own courtside vineyard. But for me, the ultimate luxury was the Horizon Pool, the adults only, heated saltwater infinity pool that reflected the north façade of the mansion. Best of all, it was open around the clock.

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Peak Design straps made it easy to carry cameras outdoors

October 20th, 2014 · No Comments

Article and photos by Gary Cox

 The Clutch holds the camera in position, ready to shoot

Using the Clutch I held the camera in position, ready to shoot during a cliff side hike

I had a chance recently to field test the Slide and Clutch camera straps from Peak Design. Prior to using the new straps, the Canon EOS-7D SLR I use when traveling sported the manufacturer supplied neck strap and I rarely gave it a second thought. It was a bit annoying when using the tripod to have the strap hanging off the camera, but it was too much trouble to remove or even adjust the old fashioned length clips, except in extreme circumstances.

When walking around to photograph a property or a destination, the strap provided a measure of safety to avoid dropping the camera, but I had to be alert and hold the camera in my hands to prevent the lens or body from smacking against something and being damaged. When hiking, I usually place the camera into a padded pack or case. With the camera securely packed away, I noticed a tendency to only pull it out and use it at particularly special spots, sometimes passing up shots that I would regret later. Holding the camera with the Clutch make it more likely for me to take those spontaneous photos, and for that I was glad.

The Slide shifts the weight of the camera from the hand for long walks

The Slide shifted the weight of the camera away from my hand during long walks

The Peak Design straps offered some noteworthy innovations that made it easier to carry the camera securely and be ready to take a shot at anytime. The Clutch was a surprising pleasure to use. It allowed me to hold the body securely with my hand positioned to shoot. I adjusted my grip using its small strap to fit my hand snugly in place. Adding the Slide strap made it easy to carry the camera along on a hike, ready to shoot at all times, while shifting the weight to my neck. The Slide strap was sturdy, made from the same material as vehicle seat belts, and reinforced with padding in the center. It was simple to adjust the length of the Slide by opening the clips, moving the strap through them and locking it securely.

The quick release clips make length adjustments easy

The quick release clips made length adjustments easy

The Anchor Link quick-connectors attached the Slide to the camera body and the bottom of the Clutch. The top of the Clutch attached directly to the camera, with a quick release spring to prevent accidental release. A plate provided with each strap could be mounted onto the bottom of the camera body using a standard screw. Multiple quick-connectors could then be attached to the plate. I prefer to use my custom fit plate from Kirk Photo on the camera body because it allows me to turn the camera sideways on the tripod and provides a stable surface to set the camera onto (provided the attached lens is not too heavy). Fortunately, my Kirk Photo plate includes a nice little slot to mount the quick-connectors. Aesthetically speaking, I prefer the sleek lines of my single plate which is custom shaped to the Canon body and will not twist or turn when I adjust the camera on the ball head.

The plate supplied with the straps provides four mount points

The plate supplied with the straps provided four mount points

The Kirk Photo custom plate also provides a useful mounting point

My Kirk Photo custom plate also provided a useful mounting point

The quick-connectors allowed rapid attachment and removal of the straps, perhaps my favorite feature. They gave the set-up solid feedback, and could support 150 pounds each, according to the manufacturer. The interlocking of the lozenge shaped anchor into the clip provided easy visual confirmation that the strap was secure. With a few extra Anchor Link quick-connectors on hand, my spare camera body can be ready for action quickly. All it requires is that I move the straps. I liked being able to remove the strap when placing the camera onto the tripod, eliminating one potential tipping hazard. I never found it necessary to detach the Clutch, other than when I was playing with different configurations of the Sling, a few of which used the top attachment point on the camera body.

The Anchor Link quick-connectors securely attach the straps to the camera

The Anchor Link quick-connectors attached the straps to the camera securely

The Clutch attachment does not use the quick-connectors, but is still easy to open

It was a matter of moments to set up the Clutch attachment to the camera

Peak Design took the mundane camera strap and updated every aspect of it. They improved the method of attachment, how it is adjusted, the options for carrying the camera and enhanced my overall experience as a photographer. I plan to continue to use those straps as part of my ongoing equipment configuration. The Peak Design mission of enabling "photographers, adventurers and outdoors enthusiasts to better capture the beautiful world around them" appealed to me. I was pleased to discover the products fulfilled this mission for my purposes. Peak Design, 2325 3rd Street Suite 410, San Francisco, California 94107, http://peakdesignltd.com +1 312.203.8427, info@peakdesign.com.

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