Friday, May 28, 2010

Fun Times in Staunton

We made yet another visit to beautiful and charming Staunton, VA last weekend, celebrating my wife's graduation. We attended all three productions of the Spring Season at the American Shakespeare Center and ate at a few new places and some old standbys.

Upon arrival, we stopped by and visited our friends Katie and Brian at George Bowers Grocery. Katie and Brian are great folks who sell some great local/regional products. They gave us some Polyface Farm hamburgers on mini Martin's Potato Rolls (best bread you can get from a commercial baker). We bought some of their awesome blueberry and blackberry preserves. They are the best I've had. After visiting with them, we headed over to Shenandoah Pizza to eat. I had a slice of pepperoni, a slice of the Shakespearean (artichoke hearts, tomatoes, pesto, mozzarella, on wheat-wonderful), and some of the "Adrian Wings." Unfortunately, Johnnie wasn't there when we first got there, so he didn't make the wings and they were a bit too saucy for me, but they were still good. I ate them all, so that says something. Anyway, Johnnie showed up and he gave both of us t-shirts from the Shenandoah Blues Festival since we didn't get to attend it. We talked with Johnnie and his wife Cheryl for a bit before we headed over to Cranberry's and picked up some of the great Newtown Baking multigrain wheat bread.

After all that we headed to the Blackfriars to see Romeo and Juliet. We chatted with the Infamous Chris Johnston, Sarah Schultz, and Eric Klingbeil for a bit before the house opened, then we were greeted with Rick Blunt & James Patrick Nelson's friendly faces when the house opened. Blunt plays Capulet in R&J and does a fantastic job. Nelson is great as the regal Prince and the downtrodden Peter. This performance was very good, maybe a tad stronger than the one we saw earlier, but not by much. R&J is hard to do, as people have so many expectations for it from all the movie and stage adaptations, but this production is great. The comedic and bawdy aspects of the play are emphasized and everything goes off well. On second viewing, I was very impressed with Dennis Henry as Friar Lawrence, David Zimmerman as Tybalt, Curt Foy as Mercutio, and Joseph Rende as Benvolio. After the play we went to The Darjeeling Cafe to chat with our friends Jack Morgan and Mary Beth Harris. They are moving the cafe down a block into the downtown area on the same block with Staunton Grocery and Mockingbird. We had a delightful Berber Whiskey iced tea and peanut butter chocolate cake (gluten free & great). I wish we'd had more time to chat, but we had to run back to the playhouse to see The Knight of the Burning Pestle.

OK, in my review of The Knight a few weeks ago, I was a bit more critical than normal. I chalked it up to not being all that familiar with the play (I had read it, but was confused by it), and having a dead crowd. Well, the crowd was not a problem this time: there was a large group of enthusiastic, rowdy high school girls in the audience. That made a big difference, even if they were sometimes a bit disruptive. It also helped for me to speak to Ginna Hoben about the play, and to listen to two excellent ASC podcasts on the play. I thoroughly enjoyed the play the second time. It really is hilarious. Hoben as Nell, Blunt as Rafe, Foy as Curt the Grocer, Nelson as The London Merchant and Aidan O'Reilly as Mr. Merrythought are excellent. Zimmerman, Rende, Kelly McKinnon and Henry were also standouts in their roles.

After the play we went to a late dinner with Rick Blunt and Ginna Hoben at Mockingbird. This was our first time at Mockingbird. They were on a very limited menu since it was so late, but I had some good oysters (not Mill Street good, but excellent nonetheless). Most of the cast were also at the bar and we spoke with a few of them. We also met Sarah Enloe, the Director of Education at the ASC. After we closed the place down we headed back to our hotel for the night.

On Sunday we visited Thornrose Cemetery to visit the mass Confederate grave where I believe my 3rd great-grandfather is buried. He was mortally wounded at the Wilderness and died in the hospital in Staunton. We then headed over to MugShots and I had a great iced chai tea latte and a blueberry scone. We came back later and had a cranberry orange scone before seeing All's Well That Ends Well. The play was great, again. After the play we had dinner at Baja Bean. This was our first time at Baja Bean and we both had excellent chimichangas. The price was definitely right, too. You can get stuffed for not much money and the taste was great! We then headed to Martin's at picked up some stuff to take home and headed south.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Asheville, NC

Despite being a native of North Carolina, I have very little experience with eastern or western North Carolina. My time has always been spent in the Piedmont, and quite honestly, I think there are much better places to spend my limited vacation time and money than North Carolina. My nephew recently moved to Asheville, so my wife and I decided to visit for a short weekend trip. The first thing I noticed when trying to find a place to stay were the lofty asking prices for hotels in the area. We just decided to use our Hilton Honors points and stay at the Hilton Asheville Biltmore Park. The hotel is new, as is the Park, and is in a rather self-contained village of restaurants (P.F. Changs, Brixx, Cold Stone, Roux at the Hilton, etc.), a theater, stores, businesses, and residential spaces. The hotel was wonderful, the front desk staff members we dealt with went above and beyond in the customer service realm.Our room was somewhat small, but very nicely appointed. The bed had the best linens of any I've ever experienced in a hotel. Ditto for the bathroom linens. The shower was a nice, walk-in model with glass doors that open and shut- no sliders. The TV was great, a 37 inch LG with HD service. We were on the go much of the time so we did not eat in the restaurant, so I can't speak on that. The elevators were great- exceptionally fast. The lobby was very nicely appointed and comfortable. My only quibble was the location, it was a good haul to downtown Asheville where my nephew lives, but, all in all I would love to stay there again.

We had reservations at Chelsea's and the Village Tea Room. I had assumed I'd reserved high tea, but found out they don't serve until 3:30. I should've been informed of that on the phone. Why would I make a reservation for lunch? Anyway, that disappointment aside, we had a good lunch. My nephew and I had the Monte Cristo and fruit, and it was delicious. I also had a tea called tippy assam. It was good, but definitely needs sweetener as it is very bitter. My wife had an excellent chicken salad sandwich that was bursting with flavor. The desserts looked wonderful, but we did not partake. The cake slices were enormous. I look forward to going to high tea here one day.

We had dinner at the Early Girl Eatery in downtown Asheville. This is a busy little restaurant and was highly recommended by my nephew. He got an amazing looking southwestern style omelet. I had a breakfast scramble of farm fresh, free range sausage, bacon, eggs, chives, and sweet potatoes. It sounds weird but the flavors were intensely amazing. It also came with a great biscuit. For dessert I tried a slice of Lady Baltimore cake. I had heard of this white cake with rum infused icing, apricots, and nuts but had never tried it. It was quite good, though sadly a little dry. We then visited Greenlife Grocery. This was a great grocery store with a health food/organic/green bent. After chilling out with my nephew for a few hours at his place we went back to our hotel for some rest.

The next morning we checked out of the hotel and after some adventurous directions from our idiot of a GPS unit, we arrived at the South Asheville location of the Tupelo Honey Cafe. It was naturally crowded for a Sunday at 10:00, but we didn't have to wait. We ordered biscuits and milk gravy with bacon, sausage, and ham. We were also given biscuits, butter, tupelo honey, and blackberry preserves while we waited for our entree. It was a good thing, as it took a long time to get our food. The preserves were some of the best blackberry preserves I've had. The biscuits, while large, were just so-so. I need to give a shout out here to a place in High Point/Archdale, NC that has the best biscuits by a mile of any place I've ever had them (including homemade). It's called BBQ Joe's and their biscuits are amazingly flavorful and HUGE. Their tenderloin biscuit is to die for. Anyway, our food finally arrived and looked great. The bacon and sausage were great, the ham so-so, the biscuits were OK, but the milk gravy was not very good. It was way too spicy. In fact, it had cajun spice in it. That should be noted on the menu. I'm used to lots of black pepper in my gravy. I also like cajun spices and sauces. However, I wanted good old Southern style milk gravy with black pepper, not what I got. My wife doesn't like spicy food at all, and she complained about it. Our waitress was great and didn't charge her for the food and offered to give her something else. I will definitely give them another chance, I'll just order something different next time.

After that we went with my nephew to his volunteer radio gig and I helped out a little with some voice acting. It was fun, if a bit hot in the non-air conditioned studio. After the show we went back to Biltmore Park and had lunch at Brixx Pizza before heading home. It was good, we had a Margherita pizza. It definitely was not in the same league with Shenandoah Pizza, but it was better than most. I look forward to going back to Asheville and seeing and sampling more of what it has to offer.