Sangria, Apples, and Wine in the Metro East

Another girls trip! The guys were busy, so just me and Sharon this time. We decided to go south again, and started at The Weingarten in Belleville. It is about a an hour and a half drive to get there (maybe a smidge longer). The last time I was in Belleville was for my high school best friend Anne’s wedding, and that was in 1988! So it’s been a while …

The Weingarten may technically be in Belleville, but it seems to me to be on the outskirts. It is in a really nice setting, situated on 20 acres of countryside. And … there is a cemetery! This may sound weird but I really love cemeteries … really. Lots of history and mystery, and some spookiness.

We were greeted by Kyle, and he instantly made us feel welcome. It was a Friday, and I was surprised we were the only ones there. The benefits of retirement! Kyle explained the wines to us – they do not make their own wine, and they are known for their sangria and a whiskey drink called Honey Pot. They were featuring Apple Strudel Sangria, and we were surprised that it was red instead of white. Kind of like a mulled wine but cold – and really good! We both ordered the sangria, and had a yummy lunch of grilled cheese, tomato soup, chips, and spanakopita bites.

After lunch we took a “walk-about” to the cemetery – some really old stones but well maintained. A great final resting spot.

So where to next? We noticed Eckert’s on the way to The Weingarten – like really close by, lucky for us. I had heard of Eckert’s before but had never been. You can “pick your own” apples if you want, or you can head into their store (which is amazing by the way) and buy them already picked. Guess what we chose? The store of course! We both got some apples and something from the bakery – yum!

Our plan was to then start heading back north, but hopefully stop at a couple of wineries. We found Bella Vista Winery in Maryville on the map, so off we go. Sharon thought she had been there previously for a wedding, but was not sure. It was a memorable wedding because she wore a sleeveless dress and the wedding ended up being outdoors (which she didn’t know until they were almost there) and she froze her buns off. So if your husband/boyfriend invites you to a wedding, be sure to take a peek at the invitation so you know whether it is outdoors or indoors :).

Bella Vista Winery has only been open a couple of years – there was a different winery at this location previously. It is really cute with lots of seating indoors and outdoors. We sat at the bar and talked to a very friendly person – and I feel really bad I didn’t get her name. The winery is owned by the same people who own Hidden Lake Winery (see previous blog post about our trip to Hidden Lake).

The last winery we visited before heading home was Shale Lake Winery in Williamson, Illinois. This winery is located about an hour from Springfield. It has a very eclectic feel to it – lots of different spaces located inside the winery to go have a drink – plus a large patio when the weather is good. If you are lucky you may see some deer or turkey! We were warmly greeted by who I think was the owner. Sharon and I each got a glass of wine and then explored the different spaces – this would definitely be a fun place to go with a group of people.

They have cabins to rent as well if you want to spend the weekend there. As we drove back to see the cabins, a deer ran in front of our vehicle. So exciting! But I was glad I was only going about 5 mph. This would a great place to unwind.

We drove back to Springfield on Illinois Route 4. Lots of cute towns to explore on this route! And another fun day with Sharon 🙂

Gooooaaaaaallllll! U-S-A! U-S-A!

It’s kind of hard to believe that I had never been to Orlando – no Disney for this kid! But when the U.S. Men’s National Soccer Team announced they were playing Panama in Orlando, in what could be the match that put the U.S. in the World Cup, of course we were going!

Tim has always loved soccer. He had season tickets to the Chicago Sting “back in the day”, and we still have some drinking glasses commemorating the team! I have become a fan, mainly because of him. It can be a “beautiful game”, but to a soccer novice like me it can also be very frustrating and boring. I’m still learning though!

This was going to be a quick trip since we had just returned from California a couple of weeks prior. The plan was to get into Orlando early so we could see the USA vs Mexico soccer match that night. Our flight was at 5:30 a.m. and we landed in Orlando a little after noon. It was pouring down rain – buckets! The airport was closed when we were getting ready to land due to the weather, and once we finally landed we had to sit on the plane for another 30 minutes due to lightening in the area.

We were staying at The Aloft in downtown Orlando, and ventured out to Church Street to have lunch at Artisan’s Table. This restaurant was recommended by the hotel, and we loved it so much we ended up going there twice. Delicious food!

I didn’t realize the USA v Mexico soccer match would be starting at 10:00 PM in Orlando … stupid East Coast time LOL!! We ended up watching it back at the hotel since I wasn’t sure I could stay awake for the whole thing. Also, we had a big day planned for Friday.

The next day (Friday) was our Disney Day. Woo hoo! Remember, this was our first time at any Disney Park, and neither of us knew what to expect. Prior to our trip we had done some research and consulted with some Disney fanatics to decide which park to go to, and decided upon Epcot. I’m not going to lie – I had some sticker shock!

We took a Lyft from our hotel to Epcot and arrived at the park around 10:00 AM. The first ride we encountered had a line of around 20 minutes – and at the time I thought that was too long. Newsflash – that would be the shortest line we saw our entire time at Epcot for any of the rides. Most of the lines were 90 minutes. I’m not much of a ride person anyway, which I guess is a good thing. The only ride I regret not going on was Soar. We found out later that the bartender at The Aloft Hotel was the project manager for this ride, and it sounds fantastic.

Lots of strollers!

One thing adults can do at Epcot is drink and eat “around the world”. There are food and drink pavilions, as well as sit-down restaurants, at each country highlighted in the World Showcase. Pretty neat!

Tim meeting his first love

After several hours of eating, drinking, and wandering, I was getting tired (like a little kid) and hot, a little buzzed, and wanted to go home. I originally wanted to try and stay and see the fireworks, which I have heard is fantastic, but there was no way I could stick around until 9:00 PM!

We took a Lyft to The Wellborn to have a drink and a snack before heading back to the hotel. This place was awesome! It is located on Lake Lucerne, and is an eclectic combination of a large courtyard with patio tables and an older home that is now set up with bars and seating areas. Needless to say we loved it here – it was the perfect way to end our Disney Day!

Best Friends Means Friends Forever – may be the best drink I have ever had!

We did a little more exploring in Downtown Orlando on Saturday. Garth Brooks was playing at one of the nearby stadiums, so the city was full of cowboys. There was a pre-party set up on Church Street that got pretty crowded, so we opted to take a walk around Lake Eola. We have become the “typical retired person” and are now obsessed with birds LOL! We saw lots of birds you don’t normally see in the Midwest!

Dinner Saturday night was at a Soco – so delicious!

Sunday was Match Day! We were so excited! The stadium was within walking distance of our hotel, which worked out great. The American Outlaws Orland Chapter was meeting up at a local brewery close to the stadium, so we decided to go check that out. It turned out to be really small, with the line for beers snaking out the building. Remember how I don’t like to wait in lines? So, we ended up walking back to the stadium and found a small sub shop where we could get a bite and a beer.

There was a tailgate party next to the stadium sponsored by U.S. Soccer. It was pretty cool, family-friendly, but my only complaint – no bathroom facilities! There were two port-a-potties outside of the tailgate area, and it looked like they were there for the construction crew working on a nearby project. Oh well – poor planning!

The stadium itself is really cool – not a bad seat! Our seats were in the second deck, but we had a perfect view of the pitch.

The match itself was so much fun! Basically cheering, chanting, and drum beats the whole game! And the U.S. was scoring like crazy – the end result was 5-1. What a game!

We left Orlando to travel back to the Midwest the next day. Our message to U.S. Soccer:

We love you, we love you, we love you,
Where you go we’ll follow, we’ll follow, we’ll follow,
Cos we support the US,
The US, the US,
And that’s the way we like it,
We like it,
We like it

And our message to adults going to Epcot – start later in the day (like 5:00 PM) so you can see the fireworks 🙂

So Many Wines, So Little Time (Paso Robles)

This is my second time in Paso Robles Wine Country. We came out here to visit in 2019, and I really fell in love with the area and especially the wine. I think they produce some of the best wine in California. So of course when our friend Cheryl moved to Morro Bay and started working at a winery in Paso Robles, we were definitely coming out to visit her!

The Paso Robles wine country is about 30 minutes from Morro Bay, and the drive is really pretty, through rolling hills. We picked up lunch in Paso Robles at Red Scooter Deli. I highly recommend this place for picnic lunches at the wineries. They will deliver, but we decided to pick up.

We decided to visit Brecon Estates the first day in Paso Robles, since that is where Cheryl works. She had scheduled time off for our visit, but it really made sense for her to work on the day we planned to visit Brecon Estates. I can see why Cheryl loves working here! It is a very cute, boutique winery that makes amazing wines. We met Damian, the owner/winemaker, who is from Wales. How did a Welsh man end up in Paso Robles making great wine? Well, you should all go out there and visit with him to find out 🙂 We discovered he even spent time in St. Louis before ending up in Paso Robles.

Brecon Estates is named after the Brecon Beacons, which is a series of caves in Wales. And Wales is where Doctor Who is filmed … I’m sure you can see where I’m going with this. If you did not know already, you should know that Tim is a HUGE Doctor Who fan, and loves to talk about it whenever he finds a sympathetic ear or a kindred fan 😀 Lucky for us, Damian was both – and they discussed the episodes of Doctor Who filmed at the Brecon Beacons, as well as the delicious wine made at the winery.

It was so great meeting Cheryl’s co-workers as well. Vanessa works alongside Cheryl in the tasting room, and she was super sweet. Tony, the Cellar Master at Brecon Estates, gave us a tour and talked about the winemaking process, from grape to barrel. He is such a nice guy! He even brought all of the ladies working at the winery flowers that day for International Women’s Day! As Cheryl said, his mother raised him right. Needless to say we joined their wine club.

Tim with Roy, Brecon’s Employee of the Year

Our second stop of the day was for an olive oil tasting at Pasolivo Olive Oil, just a hop, skip, and a jump from Brecon Estates. Lots of flavored olive oils and vinegars to taste and purchase – if you are tired of tasting wine this is a good stop to make.

On to the the last stop of the day, which was Dilécta Wines – another “in the neighborhood” winery to Brecon Estates. It was a beautiful day, and we sat outside on the patio and really just soaked up how lucky we were to be in Paso Robles. Oh, and the wine is really good too!

We headed back to Morro Bay and ate dinner that night at Harbor Hut. Friendly service and good food!

The next day (Wednesday), Cheryl and Ed both took the day off of work, so the four of us ventured back to Paso Robles. Since Cheryl was driving she took the “short cut”, which is really curvy! Our first stop was at Daou Vineyards. This place is just “WOW”! The tasting room is situated on top of a hill, with a magnificent view of the vineyards. The wine is really tasty too! Cheryl, being in the “industry”, got the red-carpet treatment. Our server was Austin, a chemistry major/surfer dude, and he had recently visited Cheryl at Brecon Estates. Austin was so interesting! He did a great job taking us through the Dauo line-up, and we really enjoyed our time there. It is just a beautiful setting, and you can’t beat drinking wine and eating cheese for lunch!

We were enjoying our time at Dauo so much that we didn’t realize we were going to be late for our next appointment. Never fear, Cheryl was driving! Or as Tim would say, fear for your life! 😀 Cheryl was clearly used to driving on the windy roads, and I felt very safe with her driving.

Cheryl and Tim talking about the drive from Daou to Clos Soléne

We were about 15 minutes late for our appointment with Clos Solėne, which thankfully ended up being no big deal. I found out later that Clos Solėne, along with Benom and L’Aventure Winery, are affectionately known as the “French Mafia” in Paso Robles. All three wineries are owned and operated by French people, and they are all connected to each other. It is a really interesting story, that I can relate in person (and probably embellish), so just be sure to ask me next time you see me 🙂

But why Paso Robles when you can make great wine in France? The answer is simple – control and creativity. If you are making a Bordeaux in France, there are lots of rules and regulations you must follow, and not deviate from at all. In California, you can experiment with the winemaking process and get creative with your blends.

Our tasting room host was an intern from France, who was learning all of the ins and outs of running a tasting room. She was great! We really loved the wines at Clos Solėne, and joined their wine club.

We still had time to visit one more winery before dinner, and decided to visit Venteux Vineyards. The winery had been recommended to Cheryl by some of her customers, and we can see why. It is a really fun place! They have a lot of room to spread out, and there is a stage on the property for them to host bands – if you check out their website it looks like they have music most Friday nights. Our tasting room host was awesome and a lot of fun. As a bonus we got to meet the winemaker, Toby. He was great, and had been at the winery and in the industry for many years. When he found out where we were going for dinner that night, he gifted us a bottle of wine for us to drink that night. What hospitality!

Our dinner that night was at La Cosecha Bar and Restaurant, a tapas restaurant in Paso Robles. It was so good!!

Our last full day in Morro Bay and Paso Robles was Thursday, and it started off by Tim and I finding out that poor Ed had to go to the Emergency Room the night before, and he and Cheryl got home around 6:30 a.m. Bummer! We let them rest, and Tim and I took off on our own for Booker Wines.

We have been a wine club member at Booker since 2019. They were the first winery that we visited in Paso Robles during our 2019 trip, and their wine really set the bar high for other wineries in the area. Luckily our favorite wine store carries Oublié, as well as My Favorite Neighbor and Harvey & Harriet.

The winery has expanded dramatically over the last couple of years – the tasting room we used back in 2019 is now the tasting room for My Favorite Neighbor. The main tasting room is absolutely gorgeous! It is modern, elegant, and hip – they even have a record player where the customers can play the owner’s vinyl records. Their wine is just amazing, and I highly recommend a visit to this winery when in Paso Robles.

Our next stop was in Tin City. This is another “must visit” for visitors of Paso Robles. Tin City is an industrial area that is home to wineries, breweries, and food. It is like a “one stop shop” to go for wine if you have limited time in Paso Robles. I suggest watching the documentary Tin City before you go – it is eye opening!

Cheryl met us in Tin City at Benom Wines (remember the French Mafia?). Arnaud (Benom) and Guillaume (Clos Solėne) Fabre are brothers, winemakers, farmers, and BFFs. We couldn’t wait to taste the wines here! And they were delicious! If I hadn’t already joined three wine clubs on this trip, I would have definitely joined this one. I didn’t really care, but Tim (the accountant :D) was the voice of restraint. I can’t wait to go back there!

While we were in Tin City we stopped at Etto Pastificio and picked up some lasagna and salad for dinner that night. A nice bottle of wine, a beautiful sunset, and great friends – who could ask for more?

Tim and Jack the Cat

Unfortunately we were leaving the next day. We had accumulated a good amount of wine during our travels, and luckily found a place who would ship it back for us. If you are in Morro Bay, Perry’s Parcel & Gift is the place for your wine shipping needs!

We had a fantastic trip, and can’t wait to come back and discover more wine, but most importantly see our friends Cheryl and Ed ♥️

I’m Just Here For The Halibut

Oh Morro Bay, where have you been all my life? As I stated in my previous post So Many Wines, So Little Time (Santa Ynez and Edna Valleys), our friend Cheryl had moved to Morro Bay and was working at a winery in Paso Robles, living a great life. Of course we were going to come out and visit her!

One thing I love to do when I visit friends is cook with them, and Cheryl is an excellent cook. She also sells Pampered Chef, so her kitchen tools are top notch – she has everything!

Morro Bay is only about an hour and a half north of Buellton, and I immediately fell in love with it. It has a small town, laid back vibe, and Cheryl (and her boyfriend Ed) have a direct view of The Rock and of course the ocean. Ed calls it “Urban living in a 10,000 population town”. For this Midwestern girl, it was everything!

We arrived in time for lunch, and ate at Bayside Cafe. This is just what I needed! Good food at a great location. They have fried clams, and I am sucker for those. Afterwards we took a little walk and did some bird watching.

Before heading home we needed to shop for that night’s meal. And have a cocktail! Luckily the fish monger and the cocktail place were basically right next to each other. We had a drink a The Great American Fish Company, overlooking the pier. You’ll never believe what we saw – a whale spout! We sat there a long time just watching this whale, so close to land. We found out later it was probably an older gray whale, and luckily made his way out of the harbor and into the wild blue ocean by the next afternoon.

Cheryl had the menu set, and since fresh fish is in abundance, she decided we were going to have halibut. We went to Giovanni’s Fish Market & Galley to pick up some halibut. This place was awesome!

We also picked up some shrimp for an appetizer, and opened a Brecon Estate Albarino to toast our first night in Morro Bay. It was delicious of course! And served with a beautiful sunset 🙂

On to the meal! Halibut was of course the star of the show – and she had selected Guy Fieri’s Halibut Veracruz as the preparation. This was so delicious and easy, and really let the fish shine.

Our side dishes were Braised Fingerling Potatoes with Garlic, Shallots, and Fresh Herbs and Buttery Sautéed Green Beans. Both so easy and so good!

And of course we had dessert! Cheryl made Frozen Mango, Blackberry Cassis, and Vanilla Mosaic. The perfect way to end the meal 🙂

More wine adventures ahead in Paso Robles – stay tuned!

So Many Wines, So Little Time (Santa Ynez and Edna Valleys)

I just love wine – I love learning about and especially drinking wine! So when our good friend Cheryl moved out to California to work in a winery, of course we were going to go visit her! Duh!

We decided to break the trip up into two parts – Santa Ynez and Edna Valley for four nights, and Paso Robles for four nights. In this post I will just discuss the Santa Ynez and Edna Valley wineries we visited.

I didn’t really know very much about Santa Barbara County Wine Country before going on this trip. Where should we stay? What wineries should we visit? Luckily I found a great blog post by Carpe Travel that helped a lot! We pretty much followed their itinerary for visiting wineries and picking up picnic lunches, and it worked out really well!

So where to stay? I really had no idea, but we had free nights at Marriott properties to use, so we chose the Santa Ynez Valley Marriott in Buellton. Fun Fact – Buellton is the setting for one of my favorite wine movies – Sideways! I had not seen the movie for years, and so of course we watched it again before embarking on our trip.

One thing we did a couple of weeks prior to our trip was sit down and make an itinerary of where we wanted to visit – I would suggest 2 to 3 wineries per day. Then I went online and made reservations, planning out how long it would take us to get from one winery to another, and giving us at least one to one and a half hours for a tasting. We also researched what places allow you to bring in your own food.

We flew in to San Luis Obispo and then drove south about an hour and a half to Buellton. It was a really nice drive, and we stopped at Woody’s Butcher Block in Santa Maria for a sandwich – highly recommend! Very friendly service and delicious food.

Before our trip we were consulting with Cheryl and her co-workers in Paso Robles where we should go in the Santa Ynez Valley. They had a few suggestions, and in fact a wine maker from Buellton had just stopped by their winery in Paso Robles that week. She knew nothing about him or his wine, but suggested we stop in since it was located in Buellton. And that is how we made it to Imagine Wines – our first stop on our wine country vacation.

We met Ross at the tasting room for Imagine Wines, which is located in what looks like an industrial area of Buellton, but there were other tasting rooms and restaurants in the area. Ross is the owner and winemaker for Imagine Wines, and he had recently visited Paso Robles because his daughter had purchased some land up there and was going to start growing grapes. We had fun talking to Ross – he has lots of stories! A young lady named Camille visiting from the Los Angeles joined us later – she was attending a Sideways-themed bachelorette party. The four of us chatted and drank some of Ross’s wine. Ross purchases the grapes for his wines, and my understanding is that he takes more of a “winemaker influence” approach to his wines. This makes sense to me since he is not actually growing the grapes. I would recommend going here if you are going to be in Buellton, especially if it is your first stop. We had fun! But the visit really helped me to understand what an important role the quality of the grapes and how they are grown is to the winemaking process. I always understood, but now I had an experience that was fresh in my mind.

We ate at Industrial Eats for dinner – basically across the street from Imagine Wines. It was delicious!

On to our first full day of wine! We picked up our picnic lunch at New Frontiers Natural Marketplace located in Solvang. This place was awesome!! All you have to do is place your order online the night before. The we drove up to Foxen Vineyard and Winery, which had been recommended by Cheryl and her co-workers. Such a contrast to Imagine Wines! They really want the grapes to be the star of the wine, with very little winemaker influence. Their wines are delicious, and we really enjoyed our time there.

Bacon, Fig, and Goat Cheese Sandwich

After lunch we had an appointment at Pence Vineyards and Winery. I am so glad we decided to come here! This winery ended up being one of my favorite stops on our whole trip. Josh was our host, and he did a great job explaining the farming methods they use at Pence. Again, they let they grapes shine. Their Chardonnays are some of the best I have ever had! Another favorite was the PTG – PasseToutGrains – which is a blend of Gamay and Pinot Noir. After our tasting Tim and I walked around the property, and it is just beautiful. I highly recommend visiting Pence – you will not be sorry!

Dinner that night was at The Hitching Post II, which is featured prominently in the movie Sideways. It was good! The bar looks exactly the same as it did in the movie.

You can’t see him but Tim is in this picture!

The next day, which was a Saturday, we decided to head up to Edna Valley, which is about an hour north, close to San Luis Obispo. We picked up lunch again at New Frontiers Natural Marketplace and then headed up to Chamisal Vineyards. I had heard of Chamisal Vineyards before, and our favorite wine store carried their Chardonnay for a long time. It was a beautiful day but extremely windy. They used little magnets to keep the menus from flying away, and the wind was so strong it lifted the menu and the magnet, which went flying and slapped Tim in the head!

The wine here was delicious! I would have probably joined their wine club, but didn’t for two reasons: (1) some of their wines are available at retail outlets (2) we were running out of time since our host Will (who was probably the most knowledgable person there) kept being pulled away by one of Chamisal’s new wine club members who was sitting at the table next to ours. That person also had a “tasting room host”, but he wanted to talk to ours. And we found out that person belonged to 23 wine clubs – who does that?? 😀 We were there close to two hours and had another appointment that luckily was very close to Chamisal.

On to Kynsi Winery – I think it was only 10 minutes away maybe? Nevertheless I hate to be late anywhere. This was a really cute, pet-friendly winery. The wines were very good, and we ate our picnic lunch here. Luckily we were a sheltered from the wind, and we had a very enjoyable visit.

Wine Cat

The last winery we visited was called Center of Effort. It is located literally across the road from Kynsi Winery, but in look and feel they are miles apart. Where Kynsi was cute and quaint, Center of Effort is opulent and sophisticated. They both make wonderful wines, and it is really up to each person what kind of vibe they prefer. I liked them both!

The next day (Sunday) we visited wineries closer to our hotel in Buellton. Our first stop was at Brave & Maiden Estate, and I am so glad we decided to come here! We arrived a little early, and waited for our tasting room host to greet us outside. The experience was amazing! The location is beautiful, and their tasting room reminded me of a friend’s home (if they were really rich and had impeccable taste). We were seated in a very comfortable room, and the wines were all ready poured and ready to be discussed and tasted. Our tasting room host was Chris, and he was very friendly and knowledgable. Many vineyards in the area took out their Merlot vines due to the movie Sideways. Lucky for us Brave & Maiden did not. We had a delicious Merlot there, as well as their Sauvignon Blanc and Cabernet. I loved it so much we joined their wine club! Their wines are only available at the estate, and possibly a few lucky restaurants in California.

Our next stop was to pick up lunch at The Lucky Hen Larder in Santa Ynez. Yum!

Just a few miles down the road is Gainey Vineyards, our next stop. We decided to share a tasting here. It is a completely different experience from Brave & Maiden Estates. It is a much more casual atmosphere, and the tasting room host brings your wine in small carafes. I honestly can’t remember the number of wines we tasted – probably five or six? It was hard to keep track because they bring them all at once, and also talk about each of them, then leave you to do the tasting. It reminds a little bit of a “fast-casual” restaurant experience. I’m not saying I didn’t enjoy the wines, but I would have probably enjoyed them more if I had a personalized experience. That all being said, they are able to accommodate a lot more people than Brave & Maiden.

We left Gainey and then headed to Sunstone Winery. This place is really cute! We sat outside and enjoyed the beautiful weather and wines. Our host was Andre, and we found out later he is also the cellar master at Flying Goat Cellars, and pours at Sunstone on the weekends. He was very knowledgable (of course!) and really took us through some great wines. He brought us a couple of “off the tasting menu” wines to taste as well. It was an excellent afternoon, and a great place to have a picnic lunch.

We ate dinner that night at Andersen’s Pea Soup – a local landmark in Buellton. I think mine is better, just sayin’. And when I say mine I mean Ina Garten’s recipe 🙂 But while in Buellton …

The next morning we took off for Morro Bay to see Cheryl – stay tuned! Cheers!

Mai Tais, My Friends, My Happy Place

We recently visited Maui, staying at the Kaanapali Beach Hotel. I have been here several times and it is my favorite place to stay on Maui. IMO its location cannot be beat – best stretch of beach in front of the hotel and you are walking distance to great restaurants and shopping. We love it there!

We also love Mai Tais – I mean, this drink just screams Hawaii! Fresh juice, dark rum, and a whole lot of deliciousness. We drank a few Mai Tais and ate some great food, and in this blog post I want to share with you some of the places we loved.

And travel buddies Sharon and Randy were with us too!

Best Mai Tai goes to – Mama’s Fish House! Let’s be honest – this restaurant could be “best of” just about everything. The location is beautiful, the fish is fresh, and the Mai Tais were phenomenal! That being said, it is really hard to get a reservation here. We started trying over two months out from our trip, and luckily they had a lunch reservation open up. If you are a foodie, this restaurant should be on your “bucket list”.

The Mai Tai was a little tarter than the others we drank on our trip, and not too sweet. It was a perfect complement to Mama’s Curry.

Mama’s Curry

Tim ordered the Antarctic Toothfish, and Randy had the Bouillabaisse – everything was so good, and the service was wonderful.

Antarctic Toothfish

The most interesting Mai Tai goes to Monkeypod and Merriman’s. Pete Merriman is the chef of both restaurants, so the Mai Tai is the same. Monkeypod is a more casual place to eat, with pizza, sandwiches, salads, and fresh fish entrees, and Merriman’s is an upscale restaurant with a fantastic view.

What makes this Mai Tai unique is the honey-lilikoi foam that floats on top. This is really good!

Monkeypod is located in Whalers Village, close to our hotel. They do not take reservations, and it was pretty easy to get a table. We all agreed the food was good, and the Mai Tai excellent.

Mahi Mahi Fish Sandwich
Macadamia Nut Crusted Mahi Mahi
Fish and Chips

Dinner at Merriman’s was amazing – and got our vote for best meal on the trip. It is a prix fixe menu, and of course the daily offerings change. You get to choose an appetizer, entree, and dessert. I don’t have enough words in my vocabulary to explain how wonderful this dining experience was!

Tako A L’Escargot, Filet Mignon, Macadamia Nut Crusted Mahi Mahi, Rosemary Roasted Rack of Lamb, Lilikoi Pot De Creme, Chocolate Lava Cake, Pineapple Macadamia Nut Bread Pudding – this is the kind of meal you dream about!

Tako A L’Escargot (Octopus)
Rosemary Roasted Rack of Lamb
Macadamia Nut Crusted Mahi Mahi
Filet Mignon
Lilikoi Pot De Creme
Pineapple Macadamia Nut Bread Pudding
Chocolate Lava Cake

Another favorite Mai Tai was the first one we had when we arrived – we walked down to Whalers Village and got a table at Leilani’s Beach Bar. The fresh pineapple juice was so good! It was very delicious, and almost won as Best Mai Tai (of our group LOL).

Leilani’s Beach Bar is a very casual beach side restaurant. They do not have a big menu, but after a day in the sun all you really need are fish tacos and Mai Tais, am I right?

Leilani’s upstairs restaurant is another story – a full-scale restaurant with many food and drink offerings. I ordered the 1944, a Mai Tai made like the original. It was not as sweet as the fresh squeezed Mai Tai, but very good! I personally preferred the fresh squeezed Mai Tai.

For dinner we had the Herb Roasted Mong Chong, and it was really good!

Herb Roasted Mong Chong

We can’t forget the restaurant at the Kaanapali Beach Hotel – Hui Hui. The hotel recently went through a major renovation and built this beach-front restaurant. It was wonderful! The cocktails are great and the bartenders and servers couldn’t be nicer – what more do you need? The Mai Tai made here is also very good, and if I had not had the previous Mai Tais I would have thought it was the best LOL! The setting, the sun, the food … it’s paradise!

Hand Line Ahi
Banana Bread Ice Cream Sandwich

Last on our list for Mai Tais is Roy’s. We went to Roy’s on what we thought was going to be Sharon and Randy’s last night in Maui (luckily it wasn’t, but that’s another story). So we had tasted a lot of Mai Tais before going there. Although their Mai Tai may not have been my favorite, their food is outstanding! I may travel back to Maui just to go there and have the Misoyaki Butterfish! The beef short ribs were also excellent.

Look how big the calamari is!
Misoyaki Butterfish
Honey Mustard Glazed Beef Short Rib

And of course there are other places for you to get an abundance of Mai Tais – the Old Lahaina Luau will serve you as many as you can drink, and so will Trilogy. And they aren’t bad – in fact, sitting in the sun, contemplating how you can live on Maui, they taste pretty good!

Banana Bread To Die For

One of my favorite places in the world is Maui – like I could live here! Tim and I have been numerous times, but there was always one thing I wanted to do and that was to get some of the “world’s best banana bread” on West Maui.

I understand “world’s best” may be disputed – one of our servers told us the best to be had was on the Road to Hana. 🤷🏻‍♀️

And as a bonus our Thursday travel buddies Sharon and Randy are with us!

One of Tim’s favorite places is the Nakalele Blow Hole – usually not very crowded and can be very stunning. We are staying at Kaanapali Beach, so it really isn’t far. The farther north you get the landscape gets more rugged, and the road less traveled. No signage pointing “Blow Hole Here” either – you just kind of know where it is through either guide books or Google Maps. There are a couple of parking areas and walks to get down to the blow hole, or you can view it from a higher vantage point without risking a limb.

The “world’s best banana bread” is supposedly a little food truck past the blow hole. I had a guide book about 25 years ago that told you exactly where it was, but of course I didn’t bring it. We kept driving and made it to the Olivine Pools … very pretty to look at from above but beware if you want to hike down and swim – can be dangerous! We met a couple from San Diego who had also stopped at the Olivine Pools – very happy and friendly and a little older than us. They were looking for the blow hole, and I was looking for banana bread, so we happily exchanged information. Yes indeedy, they had seen the cute little food truck selling banana bread in a cute little town only about a mile from where we were. Since we had come this far of course we were going to go one more mile!

Not too much farther and the road became a little rough, and then turned into a very small one lane road along the side of a cliff – or maybe it is a mountain – but regardless there is a very steep scary drop off. So I proceed to keep going and of course I meet a truck – and there is no where to go! The truck driver backed up until he got to a place we could pass each other – very much appreciated by me! We proceeded into this small village and found a pink food truck that was selling banana bread. By this time I’m not even sure if this is the “world’s best banana bread” or not – and I did not care! We got some banana bread – yee haw!

So … we could keep going on this treacherous one lane road for another 12 miles or turn around and go back the way we came – and we chose the latter of course! I did meet a couple of cars on the one lane portion but was able to white knuckle it through.

Was it the “world’s best banana bread”? I’m not sure … I have also had some from the Old Lahaina Luau and from a food truck on the Road to Hana. The consensus from our group was that the banana bread from the Old Lahaina Luau was THE BEST – it had a cinnamon crunchy top that was just delicious.

I will say that ALL THREE of the banana breads I have eaten have been very good – but not worth dying over. And I think the couple from San Diego may have been smoking something 😜

Jar-din-air-ah (or Giardiniera)

Oh these fun to pronounce ingredients! Is it giardiniera, giardano’s, or giada?? I chose Alex Guarnaschelli’s (gwar-nah-shelly) cookbook Cook With Me for Cookbook Club. We love Alex! In my opinion she is the princess to the queen Ina Garten 🙂 The recipes in this book are all easy to follow, with simple ingredients. So let’s go!

Alex has quite a few cocktail recipes, as well as non-alcoholic sodas, in her cookbook. We chose the Spiced Negroni, even though we had featured a Negroni in a previous club meeting (See No Reservations About Rao’s Restaurant). This drink was not a winner for any of us, with the Campari overwhelming the rest of the ingredients. A little addition of club soda did help though, and luckily there was plenty of Italian wine to drink.

Nancy brought the appetizer, a Salami and Cheese Platter – and yes, this is in the cookbook! You can see why we love Alex – easy peasy! Actually the hardest part for Nancy was trying to find some good Italian cheeses, which led to the conversation “Why doesn’t Springfield have a good Italian deli??” Ughhhh!! Anyway it was delicious as always!

Dee made the salad, which was Iceberg Giardiniera – iceberg lettuce cut into wedges, with the dressing being as simple as giardiniera (store bought is fine, but she does have a recipe for homemade in the cookbook) and its brine, Dijon mustard, and mayonnaise. We all thought the giardiniera was a little spicy, but delicious! This is a salad that I will definitely be making again.

So, how do you say giardiniera? I wish I had a video of all of us trying to say it LOL … Nancy found a t-shirt that Jeff Mauro was wearing with the correct pronunciation – jar-din-air-ah. So there you have it!

Since I was the host, I chose to make both the Godfather and Goodfellas Spaghetti and Meatballs. The meatballs are the same in both recipes, the difference is in how they are cooked. The Godfather sauce has spicy Italian sausage in it, and is more “saucy” to me. The meatballs are cooked in the sauce. The Goodfellas sauce is more basic, includes onions, and the meatballs are added to it once they are browned in a skillet. The Godfather Spaghetti and Meatballs was the winner, mainly due to the addition of the spicy Italian sausage. But both were yummy and very easy!

And last but not least, dessert, and the reason I picked this cookbook in the first place. On the back cover of the cookbook Alex has a picture of her Dark Chocolate Peanut Butter Bars. I have been obsessing about these, and asked Laura to make them. So delicious! Definitely going to make these myself!

So, to recap – giardiniera is not scary, Springfield needs an Italian Deli, and Alex is great!

Favorite Dishwasher

Food and Fun in Southwest Florida

It was time to head to Florida and visit my good friend who had recently moved there. She is a fan of the blog and wanted us to do some cooking together during our visit. We’ll call her E, since she is sort of like M from James Bond – badass, totally in charge, and likes her privacy 🙂

First of all, the last time I had been to Florida was in early 1990’s, and I have never been there on vacation or a leisurely visit. So this was something new to me. My vision of Southwest Florida was completely different than what I experienced. I expected loads of traffic and lots of “old people” (like me I guess LOL). Instead I found a really vibrant community with lots of amenities, great Happy Hour specials, excellent places to purchase wine, and lots of shopping and dining options. What’s not to love??

After a day of traveling we just wanted to relax, and E made a delicious taco casserole that night. Actually, she was the sous chef and I put it together – so nice to cook with somebody! This recipe is really good and forgiving – for example, we didn’t have enough red salsa for the casserole, so we used what we had and added some salsa verde. Same with the corn – just add another vegetable if you have it for some bulk. It was really easy and delicious, and just what we needed. Lots of leftovers!

We have a tradition when we are staying with E of having a little drink of bourbon before calling it a day. The first night we had Dave Phinney’s (of Orin Swift fame) bourbon called The Burning Chair. It is a delicious bourbon, easy going, and I would say it would appeal to those who are either new to bourbon or don’t like the burn you can sometimes get when you drink it.

The next day we drove over to Sanibel Island and had lunch at Doc Ford’s Rum Bar and Grille – super casual and yummy food! On the way home we stopped at ABC Fine Wines and Tommy Bahama’s in Coconut Point for a little retail and wine therapy 🙂 Did you know you could get a drink at Tommy Bahama’s? Who knew??

The next night we prepared the meal I want to highlight in this post. We started the day by going to DeRomo’s Gourmet Market & Restaurant in Bonita Springs to pick up some shrimp. I think if I lived in the area I would go to this market every day! The biscotti is the best I have ever have, and the store itself is just so interesting and inviting. Obviously we don’t have anything like this in Central Illinois!

Best Biscotti!

When we got back to E’s house we started preparing the Key Lime Pie. Confession – we almost forgot about it! But I’m really glad we didn’t – the pie needs about three hours in the refrigerator to set up.

For our side we had the Bang Bang Cauliflower – again, so good and easy! Very flavorful too, so if you like spicy but not too hot this is for you!

On to the main dish – Spicy Shrimp with Charred Poblano Romesco. Another very simple recipe that comes together quickly. Quick note- do not turn your back while you are toasting the almonds – it does not take too long to toast them, and you do not want them burnt. We may or may not have had to do this a couple of times 😀 Good thing we had bought more than we needed! E does not have a grill yet so we cooked the shrimp under the broiler, and they turned out perfectly!

E is big on presentation as you can see – which made the meal even better!

The next day we wanted to go to brunch at Three60 Market & Wine in Naples before heading to Marco Island. This is a pretty small location, but we found out that they are expanding to a much bigger space across the street. The brunch was good – I ordered an omelet, but I had food envy for the tomato pie that E ordered. It was so delicious, and what they are known for.

French Press Coffee!

When we returned to E’s house that night, we just wanted to stay in, and luckily we had the leftover taco casserole. I was able to use crescent rolls and make a “taco stuffed wreath” for dinner. I’m sure you all have done that before, and it is a good way to change things up a little bit with leftovers.

Last day in Florida! We drove to Naples and did a little window shopping in their downtown area, and stopped in at The French for a cocktail. Florida knows how to do Happy Hours the right way! Delicious cocktails and small bites held us over until we went to dinner later that night.

Dinner was at Yabba Island Grill. It was great to eat outside in December – something we can’t do in the Midwest. We started with The Original Swimps, and I had the Crispy Crab Stuffed Grouper for main dish. The Christmas decorations were beautiful, and it was a great way to end our trip.

Even though we were only there for a short time, I can see the appeal of either moving there permanently or being a “snow bird”. And I’m definitely not going to wait another 30 years to visit Florida 🙂

You’re Shrimply The Best

Fall is just the best time of year! Leaves, bonfires, warm apple cider … I could go on and on. It’s also this time of year that our friend Jacob has his annual Shrimp Boil.

You remember Jacob (see Cioppino in the Garden) – wine connoisseur, foodie, dog dad to Libby, and works part time at our favorite place. He’s also a great host and loves to entertain. We are so lucky to know him!

For this shindig, Jacob served pulled pork, homemade vegetable soup, and of course the shrimp boil (with sausage, potatoes, and corn).

This pulled pork – OMG! It was so good! I had a little, and when I turned around it was gone! Here is Jacob’s recipe for Pulled Pork:

I used Salt/Pepper, Black Magic from Spiceology, and Garlic Powder as the rub, let that sit for 60 minutes. I mixed 1/3 cup of berry jam, 3 tablespoons of balsamic vinegar, 2-3 tablespoons of water, and two tablespoons honey mustard as a glaze.

Put into an oven preheated to 275 for about 40 to 45 minutes per pound. Internal temp of the pork shoulder should be 185. Let it rest for 15 minutes at room temp then start shredding the pork.

So good!

Here is Jacob’s go-to recipe for shrimp boils – great for a crowd!

The vegetable soup was amazing as usual, and Jacob shared his recipe with me:

Jacob’s Veggie Soup

6 cups of chopped veggies (cut to about an inch)
Caramelize 2 medium Onions
1 tablespoon of chopped garlic
2 tablespoons tomato paste
1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
2 cups red wine
2 cans of crushed fire roasted tomatoes
1 can of chopped fire roasted tomatoes
1 cup of lentils or quinoa (I used French lentils)
1 cup of chopped corn (I used one bag of frozen corn)
8 cups of vegetable stock

Caramelize the onions then add the garlic.

Chop the vegetables, toss them in oil, salt/pepper, herbs d’province, and roast them on 375 for 30-45 minutes.

Put the tomato paste and balsamic vinegar in the onions and stir to incorporate. Add the vegetable stock and wine to the onions/garlic and cook the lentils till almost finished. Then add the tomatoes, frozen corn, and roasted veggies.

I used 1 tablespoon of the Oh, Canada seasoning from Robert’s Seafood (Spiceology) and 1 tablespoon of Braggs Aminos.

Simmer for 20 minutes…then ready to serve.


Guests brought side dishes and appetizers … and I kind of messed up. I have a lot of phyllo dough left over from Cookbook Club (see Movin’ to the Country, Gonna Eat a Lot of Peaches) and my plan was to make some Spanakopita Bites. Two problems – I thought I had a mini-muffin pan and I don’t, and secondly, I forgot to get the phyllo dough out of the freezer in time to make these. So …. on to Plan B since I didn’t want to go empty handed to the party.

I found a recipe (Spinach Feta Dip with Lemon and Oregano) on Pinterest that pretty much used all of the ingredients I had purchased for the Spanakopita Bites, minus the phyllo dough. I will admit, it wasn’t too bad! I served it with pita chips, but I think you could even warm this up and serve it over pasta.

Another successful party for Jacob! Great times, great friends, and great food! It was “Shrimply The Best”!