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Breathtaking in Austin: The Perfect Medicine

 

Song Pairing: The Breath You Take – George Strait

The lake was still tranquil aside from ripples caused by occasional jumping fish and gentle swirls from the paddle blade. The morning was peaceful, birds stretched their wings in the cooler air before heat drove them into thick tree cover, their tweets lyrical and apolitical.

After 45 minutes of cruising the Colorado River, I steered the yellow kayak toward the boat dock and inhaled deeply the scent from the nearby herb garden. The smell was a combination of rosemary, lavender, oregano, thyme, and renewal. I focused on my breathing, uncontained by stress, unveiled, my breath a gift of life; I took in the scent, a gift of the moment. My first morning at Lake Austin Spa Resort was restorative.

Tired of Sweltering in Place

It was the second week of July and I felt like I had been sweltering in place for years. Trips to Mexico and Florida were canceled, the holiday-less period until Labor Day loomed ahead bleakly. With the country starting to reopen, I decided the time was right for a change of scenery that would not involve commercial transportation and would infuse money back into the local economy. The perfect solution turned out to be Lake Austin Spa Resort, the 19-acre luxury wellness resort on the banks of the Colorado River in Austin.

Back in early March, I had lunch with Mike McAdams, co-owner of the wellness retreat, who, with several key team members, was in Dallas to promote the resort’s recent $2 million renovation. The pandemic interrupted their media tour and my plans to visit.  But now, determined to leave town, I connected with the resort and made the easy three-hour drive a few weeks later.

Breath

The thing that, during a pandemic, can be a contagion is the very same thing that revives and energizes us. In fact, it is life itself.  As I was headed to Lake Austin Spa, I was grieving the loss of a friend who had just passed away after a battle with cancer. While I was at the spa, I learned about the passing of another friend who died tragically and unexpectedly. I’m very grateful to have been in such a beautiful, peaceful setting while I was processing this.

The composition of Lake Austin Spa and the programming it offers is intentional and healing. Paddling in the mornings while the water was still and the air was thick with dew required me to breathe deeply, thoughtfully. I haven’t felt more present in any moments this year than when I was there, watching turtles pop up to the surface of the lake and birds glide from tree-to-tree.

In three words, Lake Austin Spa is: Intentional, Peaceful, Restorative.

Lake Austin Spa Resort closed down March 21, during their busiest time of year, and reopened July 1 after developing and implementing comprehensive health and safety standards, protocol and training for employees including servers, housekeepers, spa technicians, massage therapists, fitness instructors, programming consultants such as chefs, musicians, mediation experts, and others who provide their services for LASR’s unique wellness-focused programs and activities.  I reviewed the information on the website and felt safe with their approach.

The resort only has 40 rooms, each of them separate with no shared ventilation or air conditioning, and has limited occupancy during the pandemic.

Plus, the unique feature of the resort is its natural setting. Its irreplaceable location on the banks of Lake Austin, the shade trees, landscaping, and thoughtful outdoor spaces, and its minimal public spaces make Lake Austin Spa especially suitable for guests during this time.

Welcome

From the moment you enter the gates, it is clear that management has put thought into the guest experience relative to keeping everyone safe. Hand sanitizer is perched at the gate keypad so you can use it before and after you call the front desk to announce your arrival.  There are sanitizing stations located throughout the resort so anyone can take a squirt of sanitizer or a sanitizing wipe when and where they need one. All employees are masked indoors, and the same is required of guests.  Temperatures are taken daily at the front desk and color-coded wrist bands are issued daily to indicate the guest and employee has had his or her temperature checked and is normal, a requirement for any guest participating in an activity.

Rooms

Guestrooms, recently renovated and presented in a calming light aqua, tan, and white color scheme are immaculate and spacious. Each room is deep cleaned and sanitized prior to guest arrival and is outfitted with the resort’s private-label lavender amenities of bar soap, body wash, shampoo, conditioner, and lotion. Daily housekeeping service is discontinued as a health and safety measure, but whatever you need is a phone call away and a member of the housekeeping staff can deliver it to your door.

My husband and I stayed in room 20, which included a small workstation with easy-access plugs and ports and a spacious back patio, which included a hot tub. Connectivity was perfect and we had no issues when our Zoom/Microsoft Team online meetings took place concurrently.

I got a peak at the Lady Bird Suite, which is their version of the Presidential Suite and it is gorgeous, features fabulous antiques and a sitting room, expanded back patio with table and chairs suitable for a small dinner party. When I hit the big time, I will stay there.

Cuisine

Chef Stepháne Beaucamp has led the culinary mission there for nine years and still, he manages to keep it fresh and creative.  His menu is innovative, relying heavily on locally-sourced plants and protein.  Spa cuisine is meant to be healthy, low cal, and low carb, and Chef Beaucamp’s is, but his cuisine is abundant with flavors, textures, and visual appeal which, to me, made every meal feel indulgent and luxurious.

Preparing nutritious, tasty meals is labor intensive, time consuming, and requires technical expertise for preparing ingredients in ways that magnify the flavor, texture, and color without adding fat or salt. Every menu item I tasted, which was a lot, I confess, was memorable and bursting with flavor.

Lake Austin Spa is an all-inclusive property, so all meals are included in the price per person per night. Breakfast, lunch, and dinner are served in the main dining room and the adjacent outdoor patio.  Menus are presented using a QR code you can scan with your phone and on a disposable paper menu.  Dinner specials are featured on an A-frame stand. The Aster Café up at the spa also serves lunch packaged to-go so you take choose to eat in the lovely dining room there or go picnic anywhere on the grounds.

Some of the lunch menu standouts include Texas Pecan Vegan Tacos, which uses chopped pecans as a beef substitute, giving a rich, slightly crunchy texture with a slightly spicy kick. Tacos are served with gently pickled onions, avocado, and pico de gallo on corn tortillas.

Another standout was the open-faced falafel burger which piled hummus, tzatziki, a slice of heirloom tomato, arugula, cucumber, red onion, and feta atop a house-made falafel patty. It was flavorful and filling and only 231 calories which allowed me to partake guilt-free in the pistachio frozen yogurt dessert.  The lunch menu offers salads and Power Bowls with protein options such as Red Bird Farm chicken, grilled avocado, and sustainable salmon.

Dinner is by reservation only to ensure guests are appropriately distanced and the restaurant adheres to maximum occupancy guidelines. The menu is robust and offers a selection of interesting salads such as the Vitamin Boost Salad with citrus, fennel, radishes, herbs, watercress, and pistachios in a honey Dijon vinaigrette and main courses with chicken, fish, beef, and vegetarian options.  As I mentioned, Chef Beaucamp is a genius with vegetables, and the dinner sides are each works of art.

Roasted cauliflower side dish

Roasted cauliflower with harissa, cucumber, pomegranate seeds, almonds, and charred broccolini were big on flavor and virtually fat free.

Wine, beer, and cocktails are available for an additional cost and the list is approachable and well-priced. Dessert options change nightly and could easily pass as some something you’d expect to find at The Mansion Restaurant in Dallas, including a chocolate mille feuille with a passion fruit sauce and a stunning raspberry bread pudding.

Spa

This photo predates COVID19. All spa staff and
guests are required to wear masks

Really, the whole point of coming to Lake Austin Spa and Resort is the spa. A brief shady, scenic walk from the guest rooms, the spa is an impressive building positioned between the Pool Barn, where guests take aqua fitness classes, therapies and swimming, and the Palm Pool, an aquatic retreat with shaded cabanas and chaises for lounging.

Spa personnel take guest’s temperature or look to ensure they are wearing the proper wrist band for the day prior to check-in. The ground-floor locker room is well equipped and has a lovely shaded patio for relaxing before or after treatments, or guests can go upstairs to the Blue Room, which perhaps is the most memorable room in the entire resort. The massive yet cozy room is Austin Hill Country chic, with a cornflower blue vaulted ceiling, paneled walls, clerestory windows, and botanical and bird prints on the walls.  The room is elegant and comfortable, and I thought it almost a shame to leave when called for my treatment.

Therapists and technicians carefully explained the sanitation and safety precautions they take to ensure guest and employee safety.  The rooms are thoroughly sanitized, and therapists wear masks during the treatment as do guests unless they are getting a facial. Something I noticed on this and my previous visit to the spa is the commitment to wellness that each therapist demonstrates.  I have had two significant injuries that throw my entire musculoskeletal system out of whack.  The therapists at LASR, more than any I’ve had before at a spa, are interested in how the injuries occurred and how they impact me on a day-to-day basis.  With that knowledge, these therapists focused on the areas that would be most beneficial to me and I left my treatments feeling relaxed, steady, and more upright than I had in a while.

In keeping with its natural wellness vibe, LASR includes the Naturopathica treatment line, which is an all-natural, plant-based line used for my Luminous Skin Brightening Facial. Two of the products were so impressive I ended up buying them: the Manuka Honey Cleansing Balm and the Sweet Cherry Enzyme Peel which was gentle but effective and looks and smells like something you’d smear on a biscuit.

Programming

In a non-pandemic time, Lake Austin Spa offers hundreds of different classes, activities, and events for guests, some cost extra, some don’t. Though they are scaled back a bit now, there were still plenty of things to do.

Guests are advised to review the options prior and book in advance as some activities have guest limits to ensure proper social distancing. For me, my goal was to make this visit an investment in my health and well-being so I can return home with knowledge I can apply back in the real world.

This is not a a photo of my actual treatment. Photo courtesy of LASR

To that end, I signed up for an AquaStretch™  Myofacial Release upon my arrival and spent one hour one-on-one in the Pool Barn with Monica, a certified aqua fitness professional. This is a great treatment for anyone who is stiff, sore, or spends hours at a time in the same position, such as surgeons, who make up a large segment of Monica’s clients.  After I was loosened up, I trekked over to the Fitness Center to meet with Paul for a Functional Movement Assessment, which, even as loosened up as I was from my previous treatment, I still flunked.  However, included with the cost of the assessment is access to the Functional Movement Systems app and a personalized fitness routine that I can do at home. Both treatments cost extra.

Visiting Chef Beth Pav preps for class

The resort has a spacious and well-equipped demonstration kitchen and classroom where cooking classes are offered several times a week, led by Chef Beaucamp and local guest chefs. Chef is an engaging, entertaining teacher who prepared Baja Shrimp Tacos for the group of eight guests who all admitted to cooking more at home during the pandemic and saw this class as a way to expand their culinary repertoire. When I mentioned my failure in pandemic bread baking, Chef spent a few minutes to share bread-making hacks to the guests who also copped to unsuccessful pandemic bread baking.

Programming doesn’t end when the sun goes down and guests can take advantage of an outdoor lullaby concert by local musicians, meditation practices for bedtime, or watercolor classes. Or, if you’d rather, find an empty hammock or bring a blanket and find a spot to listen to nature and stargaze.

Pricing

Lake Austin Spa is an all-inclusive resort, so rooms, food and non-alcoholic beverages, most water and ground activities, classes, activities, events and parking are included in the price. 

At first glance, the rates might give you sticker shock, but when you break down costs, it’s completely in-line with any luxury property without pricey airfare. Activities that cost extra include the evening wine cruise, water sports such as tubing, skiing, and wakeboarding. Wellness is worth the investment–more so, in my view, than a handbag, shoes, or the latest fashion trend. Today, two weeks after I returned home from Lake Austin Spa Resort, I feel more energetic and optimistic, and I’ve lost two pandemic pounds from the healthy cooking tips, exercise plan, and motivation I got at the spa.

Many of the guests during our mid-week visit were women on mother-daughter, sister, or girlfriend getaways. In fact, I ran across several locals including Kelly Yandell, author of The Meaning of Pie blog, who was there with her incoming ESD senior daughter, Lily. Lamenting canceled spring break and epic summer trips, Kelly and Lily took every advantage of their time at the spa, including Kelly slalom skiing for the first time in two decades (being pulled by the resort’s resident former NCAA champion water skier) and the both of them challenging us to a dessert eat-off (which they won).

There were a few couples there as well, so my husband didn’t feel completely out of place, though he wants to return for a couple’s weekend when guest demographics are more evenly split male and female.

I look forward to returning there to enjoy it during cooler weather, taste what Chef does with fall and winter produce, and restore the halo of wellness I gained there this summer.

Tips

Be sure to visit The Garden Room

Every room is lovely, some have covered porches with comfy chairs, perfect for morning coffee. Many guests walk around in spa robes or athletic apparel and even show up for dinner that way.  It’s perfectly acceptable and, in fact, encouraged.  Just be comfortable (and covered). Be sure to fully understand which activities and events cost extra, you don’t want a surprise at check out and it isn’t fair to the front desk staff when guests react poorly to their bill.  

The gift shop and spa shop are well curated and worth visits. Included in my package were discount coupons for each and I shopped in each, picking up a pair of light-as-a-feather Anatomie travel pants and a LASR resort tee for my husband at the main shop. Check-in time is 4 p.m., but you can go “on property” and use the activities while your room is being prepared. Check out time is noon, so I checked out, left my bags at the front desk, and headed to the spa for a facial before driving home. Parking is a breeze and free, unlike many resorts. The spots, some shaded, were filled with luxury SUVs and sedans and are located conveniently close to the guest rooms.

For more information on Lake Austin Spa, visit their website https://www.lakeaustin.com/.

https://www.peoplenewspapers.com/2020/07/29/breathtaking-in-austin-the-perfect-medicine/

Something’s Fishy Here

What is the number one selling fresh seafood product at Central Market across the state?  Verlasso Salmon, the delicious farm-raised salmon from Chile. It outsells every other fresh seafood by a large margin and, if you’ve tasted it, you know why. Verlasso is mild in flavor, rich and buttery and has a perfect texture that makes grilling, baking, pan frying and even smoking very easy.  You can even eat Verlasso as sashimi; it’s that good.

So what makes Verlasso so good? It’s farmed in the fjords of Patagonia, southern Chile, where the Humboldt Current keeps the waters cool and clean. The area is pristine, far from environmental pollution, with cold, moving water rich in nutrients. Verlasso is a brand, not a breed, owned by AquaChile, which is selective in choosing its farming partners and invests in sustainable processes to cultivate the salmon.

Verlasso has been around for around a decade, which is pretty much when I first discovered it.  My notoriously picky daughter, 13 years-old at the time, wouldn’t eat much of anything so I picked up some Verlasso and roasted it with fresh thyme, lemon zest and olive oil.  Since then, I’ve prepared it for her about once a week and it was the second thing she requested to eat, after Whataburger, when she came home on college breaks.

The only retail outlet in Texas that sells Verlasso is Central Market, which is a perfect partner for a high quality product. I often write and post about my affection for Central Market, (remember this) because I think they sell the very best in each category they carry, and I appreciate the leadership and philanthropy of the owners, the Butts family.

If you’re not much of a cook but want to enjoy Verlasso, you can also find it on the menus of restaurants Parigi and Salum and many others.

Parigi Chef/Owner Janice Provost told me that “I chose to use Verlasso after seeing Abraham Salum using it. We share lots of ideas together,” she said. (Probably the reason they are two of my favorite restaurants.)

“We were getting Faroe Island [North Atlantic] salmon before March 17,” she continued. “Then, since COVID-19 shut things down, the product wasn’t as good. They had to freeze their supply to save it, and when we received it, it wasn’t up to our standards, so we switched to Verlasso.”

As an award-winning restaurant with a sophisticated clientele, clean food is important to Provost.  She added, “Like Faroe Island, Verlasso is also ocean farmed, not tank farmed, so it’s clean, no hormones, sustainable and we feel good about serving it. People love salmon so it is a regular on the menu.”

Want another reason to become a fan of Verlasso Salmon? When COVID-19 forced restaurant closures and many hospitality workers were laid off, Verlasso donated 2,500 pounds to Staff Meal Dallas, a program created by hospitality veterans including Alison Matis, who raved about the company:

“Verlasso Salmon has been a consistent and proven friend of the hospitality industry. By donating a literal ton of salmon to feed COVID-19-affected restaurant and hospitality workers, they ensured that hundreds of people in our community, and their families, would be nourished and sustained for months while out of work. Their ethical business practices carry through from their product to their practices in the community.”

Victoria Parr, Verlasso’s marketing director, estimated that their contribution provided 13,000 meals to those in need and were happy to support the hard-working foodservice workers who have represented the brand for years.

For more information on Verlasso Salmon including recipes and a fun story by Andrew Zimmern from Follow that Food, visit their website at www.verlasso.com.

Duck, Duck Juice

“Want to see my diamonds?” he asked, catching me off guard as I was trying to name the Led Zepplin song playing in the background. Lee Fuqua knows how to get a girl’s attention, and I followed him past a giant worktable and brown boxes stacked Nowitzki high. There they were on the floor, hundreds of sparkling diamonds lying in repose inside a four-inch long see-through pipe connected to black industrial tubing. The lights were dimmed, and Lee aimed a bright, white light on the stones which made them sparkle even more.  “These must be worth millions,” I teased.  “No, about four dollars,” he replied. “Worth every penny.”

Herkimer diamonds. Not for wearing.

Lee Fuqua’s award-winning Duckworth Vodka is made with 100% Texas pure cane sugar and distilled seven times, including through the Herkimer diamond gauntlet I stepped around on the floor of the distillery, giving it an extremely clean, pure, neutral non flavor, which is how vodka is supposed to taste. Or not taste.

Lee is a local guy, he started as a Bradfield Bronco and graduated as a Scot before heading off to Baylor, an unlikely choice for a future winemaker and vodka distiller. He spent a few years in the advertising business but he and his wife Julia are lifelong foodies who had a passion for travel and a creative pursuit. They attended culinary classes at El Centro and pursued their culinary hobby relentlessly, traveling near and far to taste the best wines and cuisines wherever they went.

As a student of wine and its history, Lee was familiar with Thomas Volney Munson, a late 19th century viticulturist who is credited for saving the European grape and wine industry from ruin from a fatal vine fungus. Grayson College honored the late T.V. Munson who became a resident of Denison to study the biodiversity of Texas and its grape-growing potential, by naming a vineyard for him as well as the T.V. Munson Enology and Viticulture Center at the college.

Lee took his passion to the next level when he attended and graduated first in his class from Grayson College’s Enology and Viticulture program and started Fuqua Winery in Dallas, right behind the Home Depot on Lemmon Avenue. He began making wine from Texas-grown grapes he sourced directly from growers.

After years of tasting and researching wines in the European style, he found success with his Fuqua Zinfandel and Syrah which gained attention, accolades, and fans, while his Orange Muscat won best amateur wine in a Texas competition.

But, back to vodka since we are celebrating National Vodka Day October 4.

After Lee was diagnosed as a diabetic in 2014, he switched from wine making to vodka, naming the brand Duckworth after his maternal grandfather, H.E. Duckworth, who was a pioneer in the fruit juice business, says Lee.  Fuqua studied distillation and dove head-first his new passion, creating the most pure and neutral vodka he could make. A year after he launched Duckworth vodka, but before he sold any product, he entered several competitions for amateur craft spirits.

Lee’s vodka won its first medal, a bronze, in the 2015 San Francisco World Spirits Competition. Later that year, he upgraded to a silver medal at the Craft Competition in Los Angeles.  Each medal was only moderately satisfying to Lee and he marched right back into the Atwell Drive distillery to make a better vodka.  That determination paid off with a gold medal earned at the Beverage Testing Institute’s International Review of Spirits. He’s been selling Duckworth Premium Sipping Vodka ever since.

Today, Duckworth Vodka is distributed throughout Texas and major retailers and boutique wine and spirits stores. The product line has expanded to include a beautiful French Oak Barrel vodka in which the Premiums Sipping Vodka is rested in French Oak Barrels that Fuqua held onto from his wine-making days. The oak from Vosges is lightly toasted to accentuate the flavor and coax out the vanillin which gives this vodka a whiskey-like nose and taste. It’s stunning. 

Truffle Vodka in the making

Lee also crafted a Truffle Vodka which is made by infusing the original vodka with French black winter truffles which lord over the Herkimer diamonds in five-gallon glass carboys, shaved truffles lining the bottoms. The latest addition to the vodka line is Dry Grapefruit-Mango, which is made from natural grapefruit and mango flavors and completely sugar free, unlike most other flavored vodkas.  H.E. Duckworth would be proud of this concoction.

Duckworth Distillery is located at 3737 Atwell Street, Suite 203 in Dallas.  There is a tasting room open to the public and where small amounts of the vodka can be purchased.  When COVID hit and hand sanitizer was hard to come by, Fuqua made Duckworth Hand Sanitizer and made sure first responders throughout Dallas had it in their hands when they needed it.  You can also pick up a bottle or two and a refill of the hand sanitizer at the distillery. 

Sip sipping vodka at Duckworth Distillery

Prior to COVID, Lee and Julia, who is a member of the prestigious Les Dames d’Escoffier International organization for women in the culinary, hospitality and fine beverage industries, were fixtures on the Dallas food festival scene, promoting their vodkas and exposing foodies to this fabulous Dallas distillation.

It’s always nice to learn about a Highland Park student who stays close to home and makes a name for himself or herself.  Lee Fuqua has a passion for fine spirits and has worked hard to be successful. Look for Duckworth London Dry Gin launching soon.  I look forward to tasting it and including it in a story about National Gin Day which will be next June if you’re keeping a calendar.

For more information on Duckworth Distillery and to check tasting room hours of operation, please visit the website at www.duckworthvodka.com.

Taco-Bout: Pick Sides in this Food Fight

In 1000 AD, Archeologists discovered pre-hispanic comal “ovens” used to cook corn tortillas.  Since then, or maybe before then (this isn’t a history lesson) people have been eating tacos. Tacos have earned a place of great culinary and cultural importance and in 2009 the first National Taco Day was created. Taco aficionados everywhere assumed the taco could receive no greater honor than that, until October 2015 when the taco emoji came out. Since then, the taco has never looked back.

October 4 is National Taco Day and, thanks to the overwhelming success of People Newspapers’ Mac-Off, we will pit neighbor against neighbor, taco against taco to determine the Peoples’ Choice for best taco in town. For more about People Newspapers and its dedication to the fine art of tacos and everything else, read more here

Vote HERE for your favorite taco.  Voting ends October 2 at noon and the winner will be crowned October 4. 

It’s National Tequila Day

It honor of this manufactured holiday, which I wholly support, I will share a story I wrote for Auberge Resort’s Esperanza to introduce their certified Catadores and Sommelier, Christian Moya.  I love story telling, especially about people, food and places.  But first, here are some recipes developed by Casa Dragones and mixologists at some of Dallas’ best Mexican food restaurants, Jose, Jalisco Norte and El Bolero.  You can enjoy these cocktails in their dining rooms or at home.  

 

Time Travel with Tequila Tasting

at Esperanza, An Auberge Resort

Tequila Master Christian Moya, Esperanza, An Auberge Resort

“It’s another tequila sunrise.” “Don’t ask her on a straight tequila night.” “Jose Cuervo you are a friend of mine.” He Drinks Tequila. Me and Tequila. Tequila Sheila. “Tequila makes her clothes fall off.”  And who can forget Tequila, 1958 hit re-popularized by Pee Wee Herman? Ah, the many odes to tequila. The national drink of Mexico made from a plant that is the most spectacular shade of blueish green I’ve ever seen, it’s the color of the sea when dark storm clouds are above, its many arms spread out like a powerful Hindu goddess.

I grew up in Guadalajara City, about an hour southeast of Tequila, Jalisco and remember speeding by fields of agave, blurs of greenish blue along the road during family road trips. For as long as I can remember, I’ve been around tequila. My family always had a few bottles of tequila open and available for occasions – special and everyday – for family, friends new and old, and perfect strangers. Tequila is about my culture, my family and my country’s history. It’s a great joy that my job at Esperanza allows me to share my passion with others.

Esperanza has been my home for 12 years. I am a Certified Tequila Master and a Certified Level 2 Sommelier, working on my Level 3 exam.  I’m both student and teacher, drinking in every bit of knowledge I can, then sharing it with guests. In addition to overseeing the beverage program at each restaurant and bar here, I work closely with the chefs on pairings for meals and banquet events and I host tequila tastings, which might be one of my favorite activities here.

Twice a year I journey to Jalisco, the land of blue agave in southwest Mexico, to meet tequila distillers, taste new batches and tour the agave fields that sprawl peacefully in the shadow of the Tequila Volcano (which is not a cocktail, rather an inactive volcano that is responsible for the rich soil ideal for growing blue agave). In the air is the unmistakable smell of tequila in various states of distillation. I return to Esperanza after these visits invigorated and ready to share what I’ve learned.

Many of our guests are well traveled and have basic, if not moderate, knowledge of wine.  It’s my greatest privilege to teach the history and nuances of tequila and its cousin, mezcal, of which guests tend to know less. When I conduct a tequila tasting event I’m often told a variation of the same story: guests’ experience with tequila consists of a bottle of tequila, a drum of table salt, cut up limes, and a regrettable feeling the next morning.  Unceremoniously slugging tequila versus smelling, tasting, wetting your lips and absorbing the depth of flavors on your tongue is as different as acid rock is from bossa nova.

I like to say that each tequila tasting session is like time travel; I cover 2,400 years in 60 minutes. The “classroom” is breezy, open-air, often with a view of the sea, and set with proper tasting glassware, a beautiful display of the many kinds of tequila and mezcal we offer and places for each tester.  I offer four kinds of tequila and one mezcal for comparison. Mezcal is not nearly as well known as tequila and is often disregarded because of its strong, smoky flavor.  I often find that guests who gravitate towards a “peaty” scotch have a distinct affinity for mezcal as well. There are many “ah-ha!” moments during the tasting and it’s rewarding to see guests continue to process their learning by trying new tequilas throughout their stay.

I’m proud to know that when guests leave here, they have a new respect for tequila and, long after they’ve returned home, they continue to share their experience and knowledge of tequila. Some of my best days on this job have been spending time with a group of 12 eager learners who become as passionate about the history and taste of tequila and mezcal as I am.  When I leave Esperanza, whether it is for visits to international wine regions to continue my enology education, to Jalisco to visit the distilleries or to one of the up-and-coming Baja Valley vineyards, I am always seeking more information and knowledge on my passion for wine and spirits so I can continue to share with guests.

Christian Moya and his team of spirit and wine experts would love to share their knowledge and passion with you.  Complimentary tequila tastings are offered Tuesday and Saturdays at 5 p.m. Please contact your concierge to arrange your own tasting. 

The Flowers of Guatemala

Song Pairing: Flowers of Guatemala by REM

Stepping into San Martín Bakery and Restaurant on a rainy spring night was like walking into a tidy garden of bright flowers, edged by brick and marble, cradled by lush greenery and illuminated by firefly-like lamps. It felt like a Viennese coffee shop except, the décor of Guatemalan owls and tiny little worry dolls and the elegant letters that spelled out Pasteleria and Panaderia was an obvious tell that it’s not European, rather Guatemalan.

This charming eatery opened in December though I had, sadly, never heard of it prior to the media dinner invitation. I feel I missed out on cute Valentine’s cookies, Easter sweets and by having morning meetings at Starbucks, not here. Well, that’s about to change. San Martín is perfect for morning meetings, lunches, brunches, dinners and just dessert-only dates and I can envision baby and bridal showers, girls’ night out and after-tennis lunches too. On nights when my husband and I have our 7:30 Spanish class, I can see us popping in for a quick, easy dinner.

Comida

The dinner menu is diverse and, for me, surprisingly Italian in offerings. There are several different pastas on the menu. I tasted a one with a light, tomato sauce with a hint of smokiness from pancetta but would like to return to try the lasagna and ravioli (confession: I could eat pasta every day). There are also several pizzas, all of them using a light, thin crust, a nod to the lightness of Guatemalan Pan de Agua. There are also soups such as the Sopa de Elotes, a creamy sweet corn soup and the Guatemalan staple Frijoles al Albañil a salty, rich soup with panela cheese, avocado and tortilla strips on top. They are both delish. There are great-looking salads and appetizers including Guatemalan style Tostadas and Carpaccio, beef and avocado.

I didn’t try any of the hamburgers or sandwiches but will definitely return to try the traditional Guatemalan options, such as the Shuco, a hot dog loaded with guacamole and white cabbage salad and the Arrachera, skirt steak on a baguette with a chili mayo and avocado, seriously all good things to eat. I’ve never been much of a Bruncher, probably because I’d rather eat breakfast AND lunch instead of just one brunch, but I would like to check out the Belgian omelets, the chilaquiles and every single pastry they sell (except the ones with banana, I do not eat banana under any circumstances).

Panes Dulces

What shines most to me are the pastries, breads and cakes that are all made fresh in a nearby commercial kitchen. Beautifully-made cakes, cookies and cupcakes will draw your eye, but the taste will draw your soul. The light Rosca Vienesa is a San Martín original and is a light, not-too-sweet almond-kissed bundt cake that I brought to the office and was gone in half an hour. Croissants, strudel and eclairs are laced between Guatemalan specialties such as pan dulce, sweet bread; polvorosa, a shortbread cookie and the Guatemalan Quesadilla which is nothing like the quesadilla we know as Texans, rather it’s a sweet cheese bread/cake. All fresh pastries and breads are available for dining in or takeaway, and there are take-and-bake offerings of the Pan de Agua, Pan Francés and Chapata rolls as well.

Bebidas

San Martín serves and sells all-Guatemalan coffee. If you’ve been there and didn’t think much of its coffee, it’s probably because, according to Gabriel Castillo, the director of U.S. operations of this Central American chain, the best Guatemalan coffee is exported. Numerous coffee drinks are available from the coffee bar and include espresso, macchiato, americano and cappuccino and well as the house specialties Café de la Casa with and without milk. The restaurant is beer and wine only, with the red list serving only American wines from California and Washington State, and the white list offering a bit more diversity, with American, Italian and New Zealand wines and Italian and French bubbles. Beers are also mostly American with two Central American beers added to the list: Famosa from Guatemala and Pilsener from El Salvador.

 

Prices here are very reasonable. One person can easily spend just $20 for a nice dinner and less for lunch and brunch, depending on your drink and pastry options. The restaurant and bakery are open daily from 7 am to 8 pm. If you haven’t been, go. It’s great for everyone at any time. Parking is ample and the setting is really lovely, like all flowers of Guatemala.

This article was originally published in the Park Cities People Newspaper

3120 McKinney Avenue, Uptown

Website: sanmartinbakery.com (it’s all in Spanish)

Drooling While Writing

Getting seduced by food is an occupational hazard when you write about it, especially when the food is incredibly fresh and the chef is incredibly handsome. I had a great time working with Chef Yvan Mucharrez, Exec Chef at Auberge Resort’s Chileno Bay on this post. Yvan is very passionate and serious about his craft and using sustainable, fresh, local ingredients for his five-star cuisine. As I was getting to know the chef, we discovered that he opened Rosewood Mayakoba in April 2008 when I was also the global PR Director for Rosewood. Though I didn’t meet Yvan during my many trips there, we share many mutual friends and memories of the resort. In fact, he shared with me a story about when legendary chef Thomas Keller dined at Rosewood Mayakoba.

Though only an except appears on the Chileno Bay website, here is the article I wrote in its entirety. Enjoy.

The Mexican Chef Who Made Thomas Keller Happy by Kersten Rettig for ARC

I don’t cook for words, I don’t cook for any other reason than to make people happy. A few years ago, before arriving at Chileno Bay, I cooked for Thomas Keller. I knew he was staying at the resort where I worked at the time, so I prepared a menu for him and waited . . . I didn’t know if he would show up in the restaurant, but he did. I was so nervous, but just took a deep breath and said, “Let’s do this,” and greeted him and his fiancé at the table. He must have seen something in me because after dinner he asked me to come visit him at The French Laundry which turned into a job.

My days start early and end late but allow me the opportunity to experience the resort unaccompanied and when it’s quiet. It’s as if the solitude amplifies the radiance of the Cabo sunrises I see in the morning and the stars that guide me home at the end of the day. My title is Executive Chef at Chileno Bay, but I don’t consider it my job. For me it’s fun, it’s not work. I’ve worked in the kitchens of Michelin-starred chefs and days blurred together in a montage of sights, smells and sounds – brightly colored produce, bone stocks and the repetitive clapping of knives prepping vegetables. Here in Cabo I live at a different pace.

Image courtesy of Chef Mucharraz

The land and waters surrounding Cabo San Lucas are abundant with super fresh ingredients I can use in the kitchen and they all have the unique taste of the area – a little minerality from the land and the salty, sweet flavor of the Sea of Cortez. I use only what is in season, organic and sustainable. For example, we source our totoaba from a local fish farmer who is helping to raise and reintroduce it back into the sea. The crudo and ceviche we prepare is made from locally caught kanpachi and shrimp, too. They’re so fresh, we don’t cover up the flavors, we just add a little acidic citrus, a pop of chile or a rich avocado. Sometimes we host barbecues at the resort and, for that, I prefer to use local mesquite or pecan wood for the smoking wood. I have everything I need around me to prepare really good food.

When I was young I liked hanging out in the kitchen and learning from my mom the basics of cooking. I still like hanging out in the kitchen, there’s a lot of camaraderie here, both among the team and suppliers. There’s really nothing that compares to having our suppliers show up each morning with their best seafood and produce. The moment they walk in and start unloading, I feel the creative energy that swells throughout the culinary team. There is a hum in the kitchen as some of the culinary team inspects the product. I see they are as excited as I am about getting their hands on this bounty and make something memorable from it.

As satisfying as it is to be in the resort’s kitchen, visit new suppliers at a local farm or fish market, I do take time to recharge find inspiration. Cabo offers so many personal adventures – fishing, boating, hiking and going into town – but my personal adventures are a bit different. I like to read and immerse myself in history, different cultures, cooking, art, everything.  I also like to escape and explore places that are in the middle of nowhere. Baja is a state of contradictions in some ways; the desert is harsh, there are fertile lands here too and, of course, the dramatic coastal areas. On days off I will head out on a scenic drive – one of my favorites is the drive to Todos Santos which is about an hour drive north along the coast.

Spending my days at Chileno Bay is a dream. There is lightness all around and a desire to please running strong. I’m proud of the talent among the culinary team and the positive energy that they put into every bite of food they produce. When our guests leave here, I hope they leave here energized and relaxed, well-nourished and with a sense of well-being, because that’s also how I feel about working here.

Occasionally, my team and I participate in local food festivals such as the Sabor a Cabo, a food and wine festival that takes place in December and is a great showcase for the talented chefs and kitchen staffs here in Cabo. When I travel internationally, to Napa Valley for example, I make a point of trying the best restaurants in the area. There is great fellowship among chefs, I’m offered such warm hospitality and enjoy repaying that generosity in Cabo.

Scaling Cliffs for Dinner

Using my voice to tell others’ stories . . .

I was fortunate enough to be hired by Auberge Resorts Collection to write for Our Stories, the section on their Esperanza and Chileno Bay websites that shares first-hand stories from the resort team members of their experiences on property and in the region.  My favorite interviews were with the culinary and F&B staff, I extracted colorful detail to write about. I would interview the team member then research and write their story in first-person.  As I’ve always said, having worked in the hospitality industry for so many years, the very best of every hotel company is the team on property.  They work with joy and purpose of sharing their unique hospitality.    Chef Guillermo Gomez of Esperanza is a genius and a gentleman.  Here is one of the story intros, followed by the complete article.

Scaling Cliffs for Dinner

There is a cliff at Esperanza where I go to retrieve live sea urchins that cling to the sides of the warm granite, as they sunbathe and seek refuge from the constant crashing of the Sea of Cortez. The cliff is one of my favorite spots at the resort and I go there to carefully collect the urchins and bring them to my kitchen to prepare and serve them. Foraging for fresh seafood among the backdrop of Cabo’s dramatic cliffs is one of the most surreal and best things about my job here, and to have immediate access to high quality food is any chef’s dream.

We are blessed by more than the sea, the organic farms in Baja Sur provide an abundance as well, with exceptional fruits and vegetables that nourish tourist and locals alike. On weekends and days off, my family enjoys going to Miraflores, a small town almost 50 miles northwest of Cabo which was settled more than 300 years ago by French sailors. We make a day of it there, visiting leather craftsmen, the farmer’s markets and sometimes we make it to the hot springs. My daughter and son love to pick their own produce at the farms we visit.  In fact, the Valentina’s salad we serve at Cocina del Mar is inspired by my daughter who is a “foodie” and eats everything, including raw oysters which she first tasted at age two.

We moved here almost three years ago from Sicily, Italy. Like Cabo, Sicily is perched on deep blue and turquoise waters and the view is sometimes obstructed by hills and cliffs that taunt curiosity and beg for exploration. Cabo San Lucas surprised me, in some ways.  I wasn’t expecting such rich nature and biology, so much depth in the landscape and not just in and around the town. When I’m walking around the resort, my gaze still gravitates to the trees where red and yellow birds sing and dance from branch to branch.

As a chef, every day is a new day.  I can prepare the Chocolata Clams for Cocina del Mar every day for five days in a row and it will not exactly be the same each time. The chocolate clams that are native to our waters, the cucumbers from Miraflores and avocados from Michoacán are different today than they were yesterday, and they will be different tomorrow.  Maybe our guests cannot tell a difference, but I absorb the subtleties of product and approach them new every day.

It’s my good fortune to work and live here in Cabo.  My colleagues around the resort and especially within the culinary team have formed a family and I find it very satisfying to work with them. Every day I see beauty here, the views from La Palapa and Cocina del Mar are unforgettable. Some of my favorite times of the day are when I come out to the kitchen to greet guests and get a peek and the deep blue sea and sky behind them.

 

 

Did I Just Drink Actual Poison?

Snake oil cures what ails you, or so they say. They say the same thing about Digestifs, the category of alcohol-based after dinner drinks that claim to aid digestion, reduce effects of hangovers, cure menstrual cramps, make you feel younger, healthier, more virile, etc. etc. Even if you don’t regularly partake in digestifs, you’re probably familiar with a few of them: brandy, sherry, cognac, sambuca, fruit-infused liquors such as Grand Marnier and limoncello, and, the ubiquitous college-party staple, Jägermeister.

How about herbal-based digestifs, are you into them? Have you tasted Underberg, Herbs de Majorca, Unicum, the drink that sounds like something you’d find in a hospital’s hazardous waste barrel, or Fernet-Branca, which actually tastes like it came from a hospital’s hazardous waste barrel? Well, I have so you don’t have to.

On a recent trip to Italy, we stopped at a little bar in Trieste to enjoy a digestive after a long day of eating and drinking.  By “we” I mean my lovely Austrian friends, Mischa and Fritz, and my husband, Clark.  The three of them ordered Fernet-Branca and I ordered a Bailey’s on the rocks.  My husband ostracized me for my drink choice, maybe because the bottle cap of Bailey’s was encrusted with a greyish crystallized substance indicating an age no longer compatible with consumption, or maybe because he still thinks you can’t drink the water there because of the plague.  Regardless, I chose, instead, to join them in Fernet-Branca, up.

Oh! my merciful God in heaven. I was completely caught off guard by the oily, black elixir. Bitter is an understatement, as is terrible, revolting and vile.  It tasted like pureed penicillin, and I would know that because I took a lot of penicillin for ear infections as a kid. My mother, a really good cook but less so a caregiver, crushed up penicillin tablets and put them in prune yogurt in an attempt to get me to take the medicine (it was before it was available in pink bubble gum suspension fluid). So, that night in Trieste, I was assaulted again with a taste so bitter, it caused facial gyrations and dry heaves that left the three others doubled over with laughter. When I recovered, I declared that my lips would never again meet “Franca,” the rechristened designation for Fernet-Branca.

I’ve tried Underberg and found it quite tolerable, almost pleasant in an “I dare you to drink this” way.  A few days after the Franca incident at a tiny bar in Venice, I tried again to consume a digestive.  The Averna was a bit softer, not as bitter and less offensive, but still not for me. I will stick to my Bailey’s, maybe a Sambuca now and then, or maybe I just won’t eat and drink so much to require a digestif.

Or, naaah . . .  Say ciao to Trieste . . more to come on this beautiful seaside town soon.