Author: James Cooper

Quick lava cake in the Instant Pot

Quick lava cake in the Instant Pot

This very easy recipe was suggested by another (unsigned) online one. This is a simplified and briefer version. Even if you don’t want to go shopping just now, you probably already have the ingredients for this simple dessert. You just need chocolate chips, eggs, butter and sugar. There is no problem mixing some partial bags of various types of chips you might have around: they’ll all work fine.

  • ½ cup unsalted butter (1 stick)
  • 1 cup chocolate chips
  • ¾ cup confectioner’s sugar
  • 3 eggs
  • 1 egg yolk
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract
  • 6 Tb flour
  • ¼ tsp salt
  1. Put the butter and chocolate chips in s medium mixing bowl and slowly melt them together in the microwave. I suggest 2 minutes at halt power and then may 30 seconds at full power. Stir with a wooden spoon. Add another 30 seconds if needed.
  2. Whisk in the sugar.
  3. Mix in the 3 eggs, one at a time and add the egg yolk,
  4. Add the vanilla
  5. Add the flour and mix until smooth. This whole thing will take about 5 minutes.
  6. Butter 4 ramekins or spray them with non-stick spray.
  7. Add batter to each ramekin using a large cookie scoop. We used two scoops for each one. Leave enough room for them to rise.
  1. Add 1 cup of water to the Instant Pot and set the four ramekins on the trivet.
  2. Close the pot and cook at high pressure for 9 minutes in a 6-quart pan, or 7 minutes in an 8-quart pan.
  3. Release the pressure quickly and let the cakes set for a couple of minutes.
  4. Run a knife around the rim of each ramekin and invert each one onto a plate. They should come right out.
  5. Serve with ice cream or whipped cream, with a side of slice strawberries of you have them.

cake uncut

You can make the batter ahead, or serve the cakes on two days, but the lave cakes are best served warm. But even cold, they are still pretty good!

ramekins

Ziggie and Mad Dog’s steakhouse—Islamorada

Ziggie and Mad Dog’s steakhouse—Islamorada

If you think that a steakhouse called Ziggy and Mad Dogs is not likely to be of interest, you may be partly wrong. According to the history on the menu, the restaurant was founded in 1952 as Ziggy’a Conch by Ziggy Stocki. And in 2005, Jim Mandich, who had played for the Miami Dolphins as “Mad Dog” Mandich purchased the restaurant. He and his partner Randy Kassewitz refurbished it and opened it as a steakhouse called “Ziggy and Mad Dog’s.”

While basically a steakhouse, the menu does include chicken, pork chops, veal chop and some seafood and pasta. The outside of the restaurant maintains the informality of the original, although the inside is somewhat more formal. But with ESPN playing on TVs in every room, it has a bit of a sports bar atmosphere about it, rather than the décor you might associate with charges approaching $200 for two (with tax before tip).

tables

Every few minutes a drop of water would fall on my head, probably from a leaking air conditioner in the ceiling, which I didn’t find endearing. The waiters are pleasant and knowledgeable, but as steakhouses go, we’ve had better for the same price range.

Our two salads: the Mad Dog Wedge and Mixed Baby Green with Goat Cheese (each $12) were good enough but not much better than you might find at Applebee’s. They also bore little resemblance to the photos on their website.

ribeye

Our Cowboy Ribeye ($40) had a crisp burnt crust and served with Bearnaise ($4 extra) was properly served medium rare. But with the crust obscuring the contours, it was difficult to delineate the bone to cut around it. However, the meat we found was juicy and tender.

medallions

The Smothered Medallions ($36) were easier to work with and more tender, as it was a filet mignon with caramelized onions, au poivre sauce and stilton bleu cheese. It was probably the better choice.

onion ringsIn our mind the Garlic Salted Onion Rings ($8) were the best thing on the menu. They were crunchy and dry to the touch and not a bit greasy. We were very impressed.

Our two scoops of gelato brought the bill to $189 before tip including two drinks and two glasses of wine.

Overall, this is a pleasant enough place, but we wouldn’t repeat the experience. There are so many better restaurants in the mid Keys to try.

 

Pierre’s: elegant dining in the Florida Keys

Pierre’s: elegant dining in the Florida Keys

Pierre’s, in Islamorada, is one of the most elegant restaurants in the Keys. Where informality usually reigns, Pierre’s features a more formal atmosphere with excellent French fusion cuisine and highly trained staff.

place settingPierre’s is situated in an old plantation-style house, with a lounge on the first floor and an elegant oak-paneled restaurant on the second floor. An elevator is available just behind the desk where you check in. On warm(er) evening you can also dine on the veranda, where you can also watch the lovely sunsets.

The dinner menu features vegetarian dishes, seafood, beef, chicken and lamb dishes as well as appetizers that include soup, salads, caviar, crudos, ceviche, charcuterie and a cheese board. While not inexpensive, dinner at Pierre’s will probably be the bets dinner you will have on the Florida Keys.

cheese platter

We started by sharing the cheese platter, which included s triple crème, a bleu cheese, and several harder cheeses, unfortunately not identified, fig mostarda, nuts, grapes and crostini. It was plenty for two, and a few bites for four, but everything was a rich and thoughtful selection.

grouper

For entrees, one of us chose the Local Catch Meuniere with Crab. The local catch was grouper, apparently only four hours out of the ocean, served with roasted fingerling potatoes, beurre noisette, haricots verts, Pierre’s garden parsley salad with pickled shallots, bell pepper rings and Meyer Lemon olive oil, and topped with crab. The fish was moist and tender with just a hint of acid from the Meyer lemon.

lobster curry

For our other entrée we ordered the Florida Lobster Curry, served, amusingly, in a coconut shell, over forbidden black rice and braised baby bok choy, all served with a Thai coconut curry sauce. This was certainly one of the most imaginative presentations we’ve ever seen, and the lobster was perfectly cooked without being in any way tough.

For desserts we ordered a traditional chocolate tart, which was chocolatey rich on an excellent crust, and a white chocolate cheesecake, which was both lighter and more flavorful the typical cheesecakes and definitely worth your attention.

Overall, our experience at Pierre’s was outstanding. The waiter and servers were courteous and knew what they were doing. Our only criticism was a long wait for the check.

Beware, however of their dark, unlit black spiral staircase, and take the elevator instead. It is really hard to see the steps. Be sure to ask if you can’t spot the elevator.

dining room

M.E.A.T. – An outstanding burger place in Islamorada

M.E.A.T. – An outstanding burger place in Islamorada

M.E.A.T. Eatery and Taproom has restaurants in Islamorada and Boca Raton. They both features single and double burgers, as well as pulled pork, blackened fish, hot dogs, chicken sandwiches and variations like the Cow and Pig Burger. Their hamburgers are called the Nancy Pants, and come in single and doubly variations. And on top of that, all of their delicious fries are cooked in duck fat!

Their taproom features a dozen or more beers on draft, and many more by the bottle. They also offer wines by the glass and bottle.

wings

Among their Fun Foods, suitable for starters are their unusual Chicken Wings: House Smoked and topped with a Honey Chipotle BBQ and Bleu Cheese Crumbles. They were featured on Diners, Dives and Drive-ins, and winner of the Best Sauce in the South Florida Wingfest. They wings are, grilled, not fried and the idea of saucing them and adding bleu cheese crumbles is a great one that I may steal for my own kitchen. You get eight pieces for $13.95. I think we finished six of them! They were really terrific, and fortunately they offer wet-dry wipes and napkins alongside.

We, of course, had to try the Nancy Pant Burger: 5 oz Angus Burger served with Cheese, Lettuce, Tomato & House Fries. One of us got the single and one of us the double. They were juicy and perfectly cooked, and unlike most such sandwiches, they didn’t fall apart in your hand (that much). These are truly great burgers, they were named to the Top 101 Burgers in America several years running.

condimentsIncidentally, the burgers come with several unique condiments: a specialty mango-chipotle ketchup and a caraway/vinegar mustard. The mayo is unchanged and classical ketchup is also provided.

The whole M.E.A.T. experience is fast and courteous, and completely unlike fast food emporia. You can pick up a menu from the bucket when you come in, and sit at any table or at the bar. When you decide what to order, you go to the counter and place it. They give you a receipt and a card to leave on your table so they know where to bring the food. They’ll deliver your drinks and food as soon as they are ready, or in two steps if you order wings as a starter.  Then, you pay on the way out. The food and service are terrific, and we’ll go every time we are in the area. Our bill, with two drinks was only $52, about one third of our Chef Michael’s bill. What a great place!

facade

 

 

 

Chef Michael’s in Islamorada

Chef Michael’s in Islamorada

If you look at lists of the top restaurants in the Florida Keys, Chef Michael’s always comes out near the top. Their sign features the hogfish, a local mild-tasting fish that can be prepared any number of ways. And they do.

outsideDespite the unprepossessing façade, Chef Michael’s is a fine restaurant with excellent food and a knowledgeable staff. Since our hotel was close by, we walked over about 5:45 only to find the place already very busy. They were able to get us one table, but take our advice, and make a reservation. People come from all over the Keys to eat there.

Their menu includes seafood as well as meat and poultry. Interestingly, while the actual fish they serve change daily, they offer the same preparations:

  • Pontchartrain – lightly blackened then topped with crawfish & shrimp in a piquant Creole cream
  • Ambassador —sautéed w/ crabmeat, shiitake’s, capers & key lime butter
  • Adriatic — grilled, then napped w/ our olive oil & herb concoction
  • Juliette — seared w/ shrimp, scallops, chardonnay butter & toasted almonds
  • Mixed Nuts —pistachio, cashew & macadamiacrusted, served w/ our “nearly famous” mango sauce 

as well as Grilled, Sauteed, Fried or Blackened.

For appetizers, we chose the Conch and Crawfish Fritters and the Bahamian Conch Chowder. The chowder was rich, spicy and filling, but we ate every bit. The conch fritters were excellent: mildly spicy and crispy and a remoulade dipping sauce.

Since hogfish was on the menu that night, we ordered Hogfish Pontchartrain, and while it looked at first like a small portion, it was incredibly delicious and very filling, especially with the crawfish and shrimp on top. The Creole cream went well with the fish and with the accompanying rice.

hogfish

We also ordered the Seafood Pasta, Shrimp, Scallops & Lobster, Oven Roasted Tomato & Basil Cream, which was a huge portion that might feed two or three people. But every bit of it was delightful, and way above what you normally get in seafood pasta dishes.   

pasta

Chef Michael’s is the kind of place where the waiters are really knowledgeable and happy to help you choose your food and wine. Our waiter also made it a point to stop by several times to make sure that we were pleased with everything. We were.

We have to admit we skipped desserts, but they appear to be house-made, and the Salted Caramel Cheesecake Brûlée and the Chocolate Toffee Mousse Cake both sounded terrific.

Chef Michael’s is not to be missed if you are visiting Islamorada, or the Keys in general.

 

Bob’s Bunz: breakfast in the Keys

Bob’s Bunz: breakfast in the Keys

Should you be staying in the Florida Keys, anywhere near Islamorada, around mile 80, you should skip your hotel or resort breakfast and head for Bob’s Bunz. They are both a bakery and a restaurant, and are open from 6 am to 2 pm, every day. They are noted for their fantastic cinnamon buns as well as delicious breakfast items, such as the fried eggs and Eggs Benedict we had this morning. The service is quick and friendly and the food excellent.

eggs

benedict

We’ll go back at least once more just to have the buns!

pastries

Should you take a cruise?

Should you take a cruise?

The above photo shows the Seabourn Odyssey (450 passengers) adjacent to the Royal Caribbean Jewel of the Seas (2700 passengers). Royal Caribbean has much larger ships in its fleet.

We don’t take two or three cruises a year like some people we’ve met, but we’ve been on three cruises in the last 10 years and have picked up enough experience to make some recommendations. You might have seen some of the disappointing cruise ship photos, and you may have read Don Saltzman’s snarky review of a luxury cruise.

Put all that hyperbole aside. Cruises can be relaxing and invigorating and a lot of fun. It depends on you and what sort of things you enjoy. And how much you want to spend. We have limited ourselves to 7-day cruises because longer ones seem to us to be too much of a good thing.

Our experiences were a cruise around scenic Alaska on the Celebrity Millennium about 10 years ago, and a cruise on Seabourn to the Caribbean and another in the Mediterranean on Seabourn a year later. Both of them happened to be in the same ship, the Seabourn Odyssey, although all the staterooms had been upgraded during a winter drydock.

The nice thing about cruises is that you don’t have to pack and unpack everyday: your hotel comes along to every port, and your dinner or lunch is waiting when you come back from your excursions. The only disadvantage is that the ship usually is again underway by 6:00 pm, which precludes dinner in town. The only exception was at Monte Carlo, where they stayed in port until 11 pm in case you wanted to visit the casino. Recognizing, as Penn and Teller put it, that casinos are for people with poor math skills, we didn’t avail ourselves of the gambling.

Deciding on a cruise

You first need to decide on your budget. We created a spreadsheet of information for 11 of the most popular cruise lines from mass market to luxury. Here is a small copy:

cruise rotated

You can look at the entire table full size here. The table identifies cruises from about $2000 to well over $10,000 for a week for two people. This price may or may not include airfare, and you can sometimes get a good deal booking the airfare through your cruise line. We chose our cruises with rooms having a balcony (veranda). You can get ocean view staterooms a bit cheaper and windowless interior cabins quite a bit cheaper, but they can get a bit claustrophobic without a view. Prices were  recorded in mid to late January of 2020, and probably change all the time. Photos were taken from cruise ship web sites or in a few cases from CruiseCritic.com.

To approximate total costs, we assumed you would take four shore excursions (for 2), would order the drinks package and go to a specialty restaurant twice. We also added in the tips and WiFi charges if  not included. This gives you comparable costs across a spectrum of ships. If the cruise line couldn’t or wouldn’t provide a cost, we added in one from a comparable carrier.

You also have to decide on whether this is an adult vacation, or whether you want to bring children. This can get a lot more expensive in a hurry. While Disney excels in cruises that entertain children, they are by far the most expensive cruise line, costing more than actual luxury cruises. We’ll deal with Disney separately below.

Travel agents

We strongly suggest that you work with a travel agent. They know a lot more than you do about cruises and you usually end up with more shipboard credits and good advice that way. One agent told us about a nearly secret whirlpool she used on deck 6 every day. And we used it too!

Ship sizes

Ships vary considerably in size with small ones like Seabourn, Regent, Crystal and Oceana being sort of boutique cruises. But the large preponderance of cruise ships are floating towns of 2000 to nearly 3000, and MSC being floating cities of 4500 to over 6000. Obviously, you are likely to get more attention in the smaller ships, but the really important number is the passenger to crew ratio. Note that for pricey Seabourn, that number is only 1.3, but for the larger, mass market ships, that ratio is 3.0 or more. That is what you are paying for: more personal service, which includes better food and more wait staff as well as more helpful cabin attendants and the like. You generally find that the cabins are more luxurious as well.

Here is a sorted table of the ships by staff ratio.  Note that while the most expensive cruises have the lowest staff ratios, there are some bargains to be had. Crystal looks like  a good bargain, although note that it has larger ships.

Pasngrs Crew Ratio Total
Seabourn 450 335 1.34 $9,240
Silversea 596 411 1.45 $11,000
Crystal 980 655 1.50 $5,601
Regent* 700 445 1.57 $6,999
Oceana* 684 386 1.77 $7,998
Princess 2600 1150 2.26 $5,226
Disney 2400 950 2.53 $11,279
Royal Carib 2730 989 2.76 $6,638
MSC  4500 1536 2.93 $4,889
Celebrity 2852 920 3.10 $6,035
Carnival 2980 953 3.13 $4,879

Excursions

You should decide your objective for a cruise. Most people treat cruises as times to relax and get away from the pressures of daily life. On most cruises there are stops at ports most days, and you can stroll through the towns or take guided tours. In Alaska, the towns are quite small, but if you want to see the usual Eagles and Bears and Whales (Oh my!) you definitely should book shore excursions. If you do, you will definitely get to see  eagles and the mega-charismatic fauna!

Note from the table, that there is a wide variation in charges for what are probably the same Alaska tours, since there aren’t very many tour providers in these small towns. The typical charges for tours ran from $80-$125 on both Celebrity and Seabourn, but note that some other lines like Carnival and Princess mark these tours up by nearly a factor of two, to $225 to $249. Regent, Crystal and Silversea bundle them in their price.

In Saltzman’s screed referenced above, he complains about “nothing to do.”  This is odd, but even the smaller ships have pools and exercise facilities. Some of the bigger ones have climbing walls and running tracks around the perimeter. But the reasons this is so odd is that cruises take you to destinations almost every day and there is plenty to do in exploring the town or island of the day. Trudging along cobblestone paths and hills of old European cities can take a lot out of you, and we usually felt we had most of our exercise by the time we returned to the ship. We usually found a whirlpool to rejuvenate in after our late lunches.

On Caribbean and Mediterranean cruises you probably should be a little more selective in choosing tours. In many cases, like Menorca and Toulon, a walk through town is all you probably need, and we found that your could probably skip the tour of Nevis, since you can walk to Hamilton’s birthplace from the pier. (The only remaining building is the stable, and they don’t permit pictures because the exhibit is so cheesy.)

Entertainment

Evenings on most cruise ships include various kinds of after-dinner entertainment. Our ship traveled with singers, dancers, a 6-piece band and soloists. Larger ships have more elaborate “Broadway style” productions. These shows consist of hard working young singers and dancers doing their best with what seemed to be pretty bland material and we think these must be aimed at some other demographic.

Meals on cruises tend to be creative and well prepared in the main dining rooms, with more informal food choices at other buffet-like venues around the ship. And you can get a pretty good dinner delivered to your stateroom if you don’t feel like eating in a large restaurant. Only a few ships charge for room service.

Celebrity

CelebrityDespite Celebrity’s TV saturation of their surreal Dream Song (Jefferson Airplane) commercial with the improbable redhead in the clashing green gown, Celebrity is a good cruise line. It was originally owned by the Greek Chandris Group, but was sold to Royal Caribbean in 1997. The “X” on their ships looked to me to be a reference to the Unix X-Windows system, but it actually is the letter Chi for Chandris.

The ship we were on had 2800 passengers, but It never seemed crowded. The main dining room is a two level affair and there are two seatings at maybe 6:30 and 8:30. They have since added walk-in seating as well since then. You are assigned to a table for the cruise, in our case we shared the table with 3 other couples and found them friendly and congenial. You also have the option of dining in their specialty restaurant for an additional fee for about $50 a head. Since we had purchased a drinks package for the cruise the wine may have been included.

The dinner menus were varied and well prepared, but the breakfast and lunch were served buffet style from several smaller stations were you could get typical hot and cold breakfasts and lunches. The breakfasts were at best adequate, and while you could have a waited breakfast, it was the same food.

Celebrity excelled at baggage handling at a level we haven’t experienced elsewhere. We flew to Anchorage and stayed overnight at a hotel, leaving most of our tagged luggage outside our room for pickup. They took it directly to the ship and it was in our stateroom when we arrived, after taking a bus from Anchorage to Seward, where we boarded our ship. Even better, since we never really left the US, they took our tagged luggage from outside our room directly to our flight home from Vancouver. We never had to touch it. And while Vancouver is indeed outside the US, we were on a bus that delivered us  directly to the transit area, so we never officially entered Canada. This was really well done!

Celebrity has briefly advertised a Kids Sail Free program. Their drinks package at $59 a day seems excessive, but their current advertising suggests that they are offering drinks as part of the standard fare.

Seabourn

seabournSeabourn sails on small ships having 450 to about 600 passengers, with very low passenger to crew ratios and excellent service. The level of attention you get is very high and many of the crew will soon know you by name. And on our second cruise the social director remembered us from the year before! Seabourn cruises are all inclusive except for the excursions: tips, liquor and all meals are included. Even the specialty restaurant, The Grille by Thomas Keller is available at no charge.

The rooms are a bit larger at 302 square feet and the cabins are quite a bit fancier. Since liquor is included in the fare price, they ask what you want them to stock your minibar with and keep it stocked all during the cruise.

One of the most relaxing things about Seabourn is sitting poolside, either in the shade or sun and finding a waiter at your elbow offering you a drink from his tray. They will also bring you any kind of drink you want, if that one doesn’t quite meet your taste requirements.

On our Seabourn cruises there was usually one singer doing pop standards with the band who was pretty good, but performance purporting to be “classical” were more like Lloyd-Webber and other popperetta rather than actual classical singing.

On our second cruise, they had cut some corners: the service in the informal restaurant suffered, and they were only offering two kinds of wine with dinner, where the year before they had four or five bottles to choose from. However, it remained an elegant experience we’d happily repeat.

There is a nominal charge for WiFi, but they provide enough shipboard credits to cover it. We never ran out.

Seabourn also features spas and treatments using the name of noted alternative medicine quack Dr Andrew Weil. Some of the excursions are labeled as “Mindful,” but fortunately none of the tour guides knew anything about this hokum. Weil’s treatment regimen includes yoga, Chinese herbal malarkey, and acupuncture, otherwise known as a pre-scientific theatrical placebo.

Carnival Cruises

CarnivalCarnival is distinctly a mass-market cruise line with ships holding around 3000 passengers. The staterooms are much less fancy (early Holiday Inn) and they keep their low per room prices by charging you separately for tips, specialty restaurants and WiFi. Their liquor package is so high at $52 per person per day that you could never drink enough to cover it, and getting  drinks individually is probably the only solution. They also have the highest passenger to staff ratio of any of the cruise lines we looked at 3.13.  This is the kind of ship where they have Lip Sync Battles and Water Slides. Their excursion prices are roughly double those of Celebrity and most other cruise lines. They have several kids clubs on board.

Princess Cruise Lines

princessPrincess Cruises is a slightly more upscale cruise line also owned by Carnival. Drinks, WiFi and tipping are folded into the base price. However, their excursion prices are even higher than Carnival’s. The room décor is significantly better than Carnival’s. Specialty restaurants have charges of $25-$29 per person, and they offer children’s programs for ages 3-7, 8-12, and teens. They also offer some 4-person staterooms featuring models so attractive you can’t tell which is the mom and which the daughter. Princess Cruise Lines and Carnival have both paid whopping fines for dumping oil and plastic waste.

Regent Seven Seas

regentRegent Seven Seas is a high end all-inclusive cruise line, where drinks, tips, WiFi, all restaurants and all excursions are included in the price. With only 700 passengers and a passenger /staff ratio of 1.5, you can be sure to get excellent service and attention to your needs. With five specialty restaurants in addition the main dining room and the Pool Grill, you are sure to find something interesting every night. They are so sure that they are standouts in the luxury cruise market, they even publish a comparison chart.

While their list prices seem high, they actually turn out to be two for the price of one fares, which makes them an excellent value. They also offer bundled air fare. While this is clearly a ship for adults, they do offer discounted children’s fares and a Club Mariner Youth Program.

Royal Caribbean

royal caribRoyal Caribbean takes the cruise experience and turns it into a theme park. On the smaller Enchantment of the Seas with 2730 passengers, they have scuba, climbing walls and a bungee trampoline and an old arcade. On their larger ships, they also have dodge cars,  laser tag, vertical sky diving into a large plastic tube, and a surf simulator (??). And on some Caribbean cruises, you may stop at their private CocoCay island (Bahamas) amusement park.

Their main Windjammer restaurant is open for all meals and the Chops Grill (at extra cost) is open for dinner, and lunch on sea days.

But Royal Caribbean doesn’t stop there. Their larger ships have over 6000 passengers, as you can see from this extensive table.   Their latest Quantum Ultra (or maybe Death Star) class ships can carry 6680 passengers and 2200 crew, giving them an unimpressive staff ratio of 3.03. These are touted as the world’s largest cruise ships. These large ships have up to ten restaurants to choose from.

And as usual drinks, tips specialty restaurants and WiFi are all at extra cost. If you want to sit and quietly sip your drink around the pools, these are not the best ships for you, and if you really like to vacation in close quarters with a lot of people, you could skip the boat and just spend a few days in New York.

Oceana

oceanaOceana is a top of the line small ship experience, with a staff ratio of 1.77. The fare is all inclusive including drinks, dining, tips, WiFi, excursions and airfare. Some of these are part of a bundle called OLife Choices which is a per-cabin program which includes drinks, air fare, 4 excursions and WiFi. The Culinary Experiences include te Grand Dining Room, Toscana, Polo Grill, Jacques, Red Ginger, Tuscan Steak, the Terrace Café and the Wave Grill, as well as coffee and tea shops and culinary classes. Oceana does not mention any youth programs. This looks like a fine choice, but Oceana cruise reviews are less than stellar, implying that their food and service have slipped.

Crystal Cruises

crystalCrystal Cruises is a luxury cruise line running ships with just under 1000 passengers, and with a staff ratio of 1.5.  Tips, drinks and WiFi are included. The restaurants include the Waterside main dining room, The Marketplace (by day) and Churrascaria (a Brazilian steakhouse) by night, Uma Uma, a sushi bar by chef Nobu Matsuhisa, Prego, the inevitable Italian restaurant, Silk Kitchen Asian cuisine, and The Bistro and Trident Grill for informal meals. There is also an ice cream bar. Entertainment includes Broadway inspired shows, and movies.  They also offer enrichment lectures featuring “thought leaders” and book readings by favorite authors. There are exercise facilities, a lap pool, yoga, Pilates, and some sort of hokum inspired by Feng Shui at the Crystal Life Spa. Most recent  reviews of Crystal  Cruises have been a bit mixed, criticizing the food and some of the excursions. Crystal tells us they will not be cruising to Alaska again until 2022.

Silversea

silverseaSilversea is an all inclusive luxury cruise line with under 600 passengers. They make their actual prices difficult to discover, as they want you to given them your name and address first. This link shows some of their current deals. Without going through “Request a Quote” it is hard to know what the prices will actually be. Fine dining abounds on Silversea, with a main dining room, The Grill, Indochine, La Dame, Seishin, La Terrazza, and Kaisecki. There is an air and hotel program, that offers free economy or business class for an addition $699 each way, per person.  Online reviews of Silversea are mixed, but difficult to summarize. In general, this is likely to be a fine experience.

MSC

MSC_Cabin_SE_Balconylw_800x450_CB (1)MSC is a European line that has made significant inroads in the US.  Their ships are about 4500 passengers, but with a staff ratio of 2.93. However, MSC has announced plans for the Meraviglia Grandiosa, which will carry 6334 passengers, continuing the trend to megaships. MSC also has announced their private island, MSC Ocean Cay, off the Bahamas. Ships will stop their for a day of food and dancing going on into the night, where there will be a light show featuring the local lighthouse. The idea of visiting an actual living island instead does not occur to them, we suppose.

MSC cruises claim to have twelve distinct venues, including HOLA Tapas, Butcher’s Cut, Kaito Teppenyaki, Ocean Cay (seafood), and Marketplace Buffet. MSC also currently offers All-In Plus, with free drinks, free WiFi and $100 shipboard credit, for $419 per person for 7-day cruises.

Criticisms of MSC include rating it one of the “worst lines” by EscapeHere for lackluster food, outdated rooms and few English speaking staff. CruiseCritic is a bit more evenhanded with 2400 Excellents, 1800 Very Goods, 1375 Average, 1261 Poor, and 1107 Terrible ratings.

Disney Cruises

disneyWe waited until last to discuss the Dumbo in the Living Room: Disney Cruises. A quick glance at the cost table above reveals that it is easily the most expensive cruise line we’ve discussed, even though with a staff ratio of 2.33 it provides less attention and from the looks of their stateroom photos, it is far from luxurious: rather more like a budget motel.

The rooms have a separate toilet and shower, but no closets. The only storage is that small dresser in the picture. There is also some room to store your suitcases under the bed.

The reason for the high cost is of course, children. Disney cruises are not only about entertaining children, they also are housing and feeding them. So, while your typical veranda stateroom looks like it is for two adults, the couch unfolds to a bed, and there is a pull-down bunk bed as well. So, the base room charge is really for four passengers, two adults and two smaller people. So, while Disney claims that adults could sail without children and eat and drink in the adult areas, this is not very cost effective.

Much of the child appeal of Disney cruises is the encounters with costumed Disney characters, the “clubs” for various age groups (and not unlike that on several other lines) and the Broadway-style shows. Some ships actually present (probably shortened) versions of Tangled and Frozen, but it appears that some of the time these are pastiche shows along the lines of  “Frozen Lion King Aladdin II.” (OK, I made that title up.)

Dining on Disney cruises schedules you to rotate among three different restaurants, with your table mates and servers coming with you to maintain continuity. There are also several more informal choices, including pizza and burgers. While the food is included, ice cream at their soda shop is not. Every Disney ship has at least one adult restaurant as well, the Italian Palo   being the most common. Some ships also have a French-style restaurant called Remy, named after the rat in the cartoon Ratatoille, who wants to become a chef. Personally, I don’t find the idea of rats in the kitchen particularly appealing. In the cartoon, Remy opens his restaurant when an established chef invests in it. (However, no one mentions that this will be a short investment, since rats’ life span is only about 18 months.)

You can see a complete run of menus from a Disney cruise here. Note that the menus and the food names are drenched in Disney  promotions and Disney kitsch.

The problem with these adults-only restaurants, of course, is that you still have to get your children fed. Apparently, if your kids are old enough, they can eat at their usual table and then the servers will escort them to the kids’ clubs. Of course, if they are that old, they probably would prefer a cruise without the costumed characters milling about.

Disney has a bizarre tipping policy. Tips are not included in the price, and while bartenders add 18% to the drink charge, Disney suggests that on a 7-day cruise, you tip your server $31.50, your assistant server $24.50, your head server $7 and your stateroom attendant $31.50. You can arrange to have this charged to your bill if you like. It amounts to about $189 for two that should probably be bundled into the cost of the cruise.

Disney does not have an overall drinks package, but their liquor prices are so cheap ($5-$8) that you can easily charge them to your account. However, premium drinks (like Scotches) can run up quite a bill. And unlike most cruise lines, they don’t mind you bringing on your own booze.  They do have a beer mug package. Buy a souvenir mug and you can get it filled with beer whenever you ask. Stay classy, Disney. On the other end, they have a wine package, which means you can buy 3, 4 ,5 or 7 bottles of wine ahead of time. It’s kind of an odd idea, but apparently cost effective.

Overall, Disney cruises are not for us, as our children are grown, but even when your kids are young, you might do better to take them on a less aggressively Disneyfied cruise and take them to a theme park instead. To be fair, some adults like this sort of thing, and you might be one of them, but you can spend a lot less for a more luxurious experience on some of the other cruise lines.  Other critics have been less impressed.

 

 

 

Terrasole: outstanding dining in Ridgefield

Terrasole: outstanding dining in Ridgefield

Terrasole, just off Main St in Ridgefield has been serving fine Italian food for over ten years. Founded and managed by Pietro Polini, and with executive chef Eugene Jerome, Terrasole is one of the finest Italian restaurants in Connecticut. The food and excellent service reminded us of the food we had in Italy: it is just that good!

We visited Terrasole twice recently, once on a quiet Sunday evening and again on New Year’s Eve. Despite the crowds of the holiday evening, the wait staff and kitchen never missed a beat: both experiences were outstanding.

You will notice that your table may contain a wrapped bottle of extra virgin olive oil as well as one to use on your food. While we usually brush aside those little puddles of olive oil for butter (and they will bring you some right away) this is one time when you want to savor their house brand olive oil. Then, if you agree, you can buy a bottle to take home. We did and we are so glad: it is rich and flavorful, one of the best we’ve had.

You know you are in an outstanding restaurant when you see the fascinating menu, including the beautiful Arancini Aragosta: “Imported carnaroli rice risotto balls filled with fresh Maine lobster, crab, peas & burrata cheese served over lobster bisque sauce.” We’ve never had anything quite like them, and they were quite delightful.

But, their take on the classic beet salad is fascinating as well. Dubbed Carpaccio di Barbietole, this is essentially a beet carpaccio, served with baby arugula, almond goat cheese rondure, and white truffle essence vinaigrette.

We also tried their rearranged Caesar Salad, served with grilled romaine heart and creamy parmigiano dressing, shaved imported sharp provolone, and grissini (bread sticks). Again, rising far above expectations, this was an outstanding version of this classic.

linguinii vongole

Terrasole has two seafood and pasta dishes we found entrancing. One was Linguini alla Vongole, which was fresh linguine pasta tossed with rock shrimp, cockles, cherry tomatoes, imported Portuguese octopus, white wine, parsley, pepperoncino, and shaved imported bottarga (salted cured fish row). This was exquisitely delicate and a dish we’ll return to again and again.

Their other outstanding version is a Tagliatelle al Frutti di Mare alla Annie McNally (shown above). This dish starts with homemade tagliatelle, and is served with fresh Maine lobster, Maya prawn, clams, calamari, PEI mussels, scallops In a spicy San Marzano tomato sauce. This was outstanding and somewhat reminiscent of lobster Fra Diavolo, but much richer with all the other seafood ingredients. Utterly amazing.

lobster ravioli

On New Years Eve, they had Lobster Ravioli on the menu: two ravioli for the appetizer portion and four for the entrée. This was a rich, smooth, creamy delight, and yes, two were enough for an appetizer and four plenty for dinner. Try it whenever they add it to the menu, as it was one of the best ravioli we’ve ever had.

Our other entrée was also a menu addition, a red snapper special served with a puff pastry and white truffled cream vegetable side dish, along with some excellent gnocchi. Quite an excellent addition.

snapper special

And, of course, there are some desserts to sample, but there was no question that our favorite was the profiteroles. Quite a sumptuous portion at that. Rather than chocolate sauce, they were served with melted chocolate that had begun to solidify on the ice cream. A great way to end the evening.

profiteroles

Terrasole also has a wine bar personality. You can order wine, meat and cheese from the Salumi e Formaggi menu. Another great opportunity for a lighter visit.

Terrasole is simply an outstanding restaurant. The staff are warm and friendly all the time you are there and the food is outstanding. You’ll see!

facade

Flameout- the story of why IBM Instruments crashed and burned

Flameout- the story of why IBM Instruments crashed and burned

In the summer of 1978, a group of IBM executives met in Armonk to form the Instrument Systems Task Force and explore IBM’s entry into the chemical analytical instrument business. The IBM PC was not yet even a glimmer in Don Estridge’s eye, and the only well-known personal computers were the Apple II, the Tandy TRS-80 and the Commodore Pet.

By October, IBM’s Corporate Management Committee had approved the venture and IBM Instruments was soon formed. This book explores and memorializes the rise and successes of IBM Instruments and its eventual demise, only about 6 years after it was announced. To many, this was a shocking failure from one of the greatest computer companies in the world, and it is worth taking some time to examine how the Instrument Division grew and how it finally was shut down.

It tells the never-before written full story of IBM Instruments and why everyone who worked there misses it.

nr80 announce

This corporate Greek tragedy details the ideas for great products like a redesigned NMR spectrometer console that concealed obsolete electronics, to a desktop computer far ahead of its time that received far too little support.

Successes included an excellent AF series NMR spectrometer and an IR spectrometer based on new PC-AT, as well as a satellite PCNMR workstation package for the PC-AT that revolutionized the organization of NMR labs.

But eventually, IBM’s Instrument business unit was shut down and we all went off to other jobs. What they did wrong was mostly management-based, not technical and the book explains it in detail.

Flameout: The rise and fall of IBM Instruments- a business study wad just published and is a great book for anyone interested on how small businesses grow and sometimes do not. Early readers have called it

  • “A must-read! “
  • “I think the book deals with some important issues still relevant today.“
  • The value of writing these things up is huge”.

The book is available on Amazon.

The Misen Nonstick pan

The Misen Nonstick pan

Our last nonstick pan wore out years ago, and we didn’t bother replacing it because they are hard to care for: the coating flakes off and isn’t edible, of course.

But we decided that we really wanted to make better fried eggs, and a nonstick pan really makes a difference. The Misen Nonstick Pan, which has been heavily advertised on the Internet and FB seemed a possible candidate. It looked better made than those cheap pans that come from the As Seen on TV conglomerate and we thought we’d give it a try.

both pans

The 10” Misen pan compares favorably with our Allclad 10” pan. It’s heavy and well-made, weighing 42 oz. The Allclad weights 37 oz, probably because it lacks the same sort of handle. The coating is PFOA free and is described as a three layer DuPont platinm coating.

 

 

To illustrate the problem we wanted to solve, we fried a couple of strips of bacon in the Allclad and 5 more in the Misen pan and compare the residue. The Allclad pan had streaks where the sugar in the bacon caramelized on the pan, while the Misen had some floating debris that did not stick to the pan or to the eggs.

 

 

We were easily able to fry 4 eggs at once in the Misen pan, and they didn’t stick at all while cooking. It was pretty easy to baste the eggs with a little bacon fat while they cooked, although they did move easily so we couldn’t tip the pan too much while spooning.

frying eggs

With any nonstick pan, you are supposed to use a non-metal spatula. We have one that see Melmac on it. Others might be wood, silicone or nylon, and in any case, you can slip the eggs onto the plate two at a time without breaking the yolks.

2 eggs fried

In terms of egg cooking, we are completely sold: the Misen is a great pan.  We were disappointed to learn that the instruction sheet says that we shouldn’t have put it in the dishwasher, but since it washes so easily, that isn’t a huge problem.

The Misen instructions say cook only at medium heat, and never above 450˚ F. You shouldn’t scrub with pan with metal or abrasive sponges, but thus looks like it would be unnecessary. And you shouldn’t shock the hot pan by pouring cold water in it. You also shouldn’t stack other pans on top of it (without padding). We paid $45 for our pan plus $5 for shipping and it arrived in about 4 days. It’s a really nice pan and we hope it lasts a long time.