Sunday, October 25, 2009

Cafe Ponte

Café Ponte is inconspicuously nestled in a Business Park location, but once you are in, it transforms into an upscale feeling of bistro extraordinaire. We found Pontes by chance one night while perusing the St. Pete Times sometime back in 2003, realized it was in our backyard so to speak, and couldn’t wait to try it out.

From the moment you arrive, you are escorted to your finely decorated table and introduced to your wait staff. Believe it when I say you are in good hands from there. If you have a passion for wines, ask for Dominic. If you are interested in trying a new wine paired to your entree, ask for Dominic. Their wine vault is well stocked, and there is something for everyone’s taste and price. There is nothing better than a special night, close companions, and an extraordinary bottle of wine. Some of our best memories are made of these.

Whether for business dinners or “anytime” occasions, Cafe Ponte has an eclectic and ever changing menu selection. I love the latter as we are loyal patrons, and nothing keeps me happier than new dishes such as their seasonal Stone Crab special. Known as American fusion (with French, Asian, and Italian influences), chef Christopher Ponte will delight even the most discerning palates. The sauces and locally grown micro vegetables are displayed with pride, making each entree its own artistic landscape of colors and tastes.

My absolute favorite, whether by the bowl or demitasse cup, is the creamy wild mushrooms soup, sprinkled with black trumpet dust, chunks of shiitake, and that unique flavor of Italian truffles. The seared ahi tuna appetizer was so good; I’ve ordered the entree version as well. We’ve been back for their steaks, Chilean sea bass, diver scallops (to die for), and even other holiday specials. Do you know Pontes has a mother’s day brunch? Try the blood orange mimosas!

Desserts could almost be another blog, but just know they are worth pacing your evening for. Ed loves the Upside down Chocolate Soufflé and Tahitian Vanilla Bean ice cream or the Ice-cream Plate - Burnt Carmel, Tahitian Vanilla Bean, and Peanut Butter Chip, served with cookies while I go for the Chef’s Crisp of the Day - Seasonal fruit with crispy topping (no ice-cream for me). Finish with a great cup of Cappuccino…need I say more?

In fact, the wine tastings at the end of each month should be on your calendars. The international cheeses, fruits, and assorted breads makes a great start to any Friday night, then add a few freshly cooked buffet combinations (pastas, pizza, plus…), and enough tickets to taste a serious selection of reds and whites. I missed out on last month’s Wine Tasting where one of the bottles introduced was a sparkling Shiraz…not to worry; we bought out Dominic’s last three bottles for our Chocolate Party in November! Next on my calendar will be the Taste of the NFL; check out Café Ponte’s scheduled events on their website: and add them to your Facebook for updates as well.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

World Wide Tipping Guide

Here is a link to tipping restaurants, porters, and taxis.

Monday, October 19, 2009

London - Footloose and Fancy Free

Last summer, Ed and I decided to go to England/Scotland/France with our teenage son, our best friend and his teenage daughter. The challenge was to show our kids some of the best of Europe’s offerings. We wanted them to understand that if you work hard, you can play hard. Since I was born in England (an East end girl), I thought we’d enjoy a centrally located bed and breakfast in London for the first few nights. That would give us four days to adjust to the time difference before joining Globus for our nine day Britain Sampler bus tour. Arriving a few nights early turned out to be a fantastic idea, and we found a great B&B.

Running free in England is liberating, but it all starts with good planning. My travel mate is the best there is when it comes to connecting the dots; he covers all the locations of interest, explores all forms of transportation, and then checks for the best deals. We discuss all options and procure the dates. Everyone had their new electronic passports, and thanks to Magellan, we purchased an RFID Blocking Passport Holder which acts as a protective shield for passports, IDs, and credit cards, so your RF data can only be accessed when you remove them from the holder.
The anticipation and planning is almost as much fun as the actual trip.

First on our “to do” list, was checking airfare and finding lodging. We utilized books (Fodor’s) and the internet to explore possibilities. Ed found the best airfare rates with British Airways with an internet special upgrade to Club World travel, and we scarfed them up on that offer. British Airways had a nice club at the airport in Tampa where we could relax, get a snack and drink, and wait for the boarding process in comfort. We would now be going essentially first class, complete with fully reclining seats that stretch out into six foot beds! We each had our own space with TV monitor, and of course, a delicious array of meals to choose from complete with silverware and china. Not what we normally encounter on our domestic flights. Our flight was smoother than I expected, and the luxury of sleeping for a few hours made it seem pretty short. It didn’t hurt, either, that we had a direct flight to Gatwick on a new 777.

We found our B&B online as well. We warned the kids about the small bathrooms you might encounter in European B&Bs, that the bathrooms may even be down the hall, and things can be much smaller over there…rooms, beds (often singles or doubles), but we were ready to accept the differences from an American vacation.

The Arran Hotel, ,a 200-year-old Georgian Town House within walking distance of the British Museum, Piccadilly Circus, and Oxford Street shopping area, cinemas, restaurants and Theatre Land. This is a small family run hotel situated in the heart of literary Bloomsbury. The owner’s warmth and hospitality will bring us back again, especially for the hearty breakfast buffet! We feasted on bangers (sausage), eggs, stewed tomatoes, grilled mushrooms, awesome toast (there’s something about breads in Europe!), and beverages. We enjoyed their quaint garden, often relaxing out there chatting up a storm. The weather was cool, sweater weather, and only sprinkles of rain here and there. The proprietor, Mr. Richards, willingly helped us find eateries, call for taxis, etc, and made us feel like family.

As was an initial concern, the bathrooms were tiny. We could literally soap up the curtain and rotate to get washed up. Getting soapy and rinsing off was a daily challenge, but we worked it all out. Don’t forget to step up into the “lou”…a warning for sleepyheads like me! But, at least we had one in each of our rooms.

The first thing we did was buy a three day London Pass for all of us at the rail station. We had unlimited access on all London Underground, Buses, Trams, Docklands Light Rail and Over-ground Trains within zones 1 – 6.
I truly hope we get high speed rail and light rail in the Tampa Bay area because it was liberating to come and go as we pleased. Our son enjoyed it so much; he wants to go live there for a summer after college!

As timing would have it, we were there for the Queen’s birthday. The last time I saw that parade, I was seven years old and got lost when I followed the Queen on her horse… obviously a long time ago. We had taken the tube from our hotel, and walked around St. James Park, the mall, and to the Palace. The Colour Guards, Royal Bands, and the
Queen were just several feet from us, so the pictures we got were incredible. We managed to get a great shot of Camilla Parker-Bowles and the two Princes, William and Harry. The pond, was as remembered, filled with ducks, swan, and other fowl. The rose gardens were fragrant and colorful. It was a fantastic sunny day; one the Queen would surely have ordered.
Before getting back on the tube, we ate lunch at The Old Star Pub and made friends with some lovely local ladies and their gent who were out for the day to celebrate the birthday affair.

Of course, our daily adventures also included a Double Decker bus and trains to The Wax Museum, Harrods for some shopping, London Tower, and the Trafalgar Square area. It was kind of sad they had managed to get rid of the pigeons which I loved to feed as a kid, but it made it much cleaner for people in general. The local pubs were a blast to visit, each with their own specials of the day. With much dismay, I could not find steak and kidney pie, but any pub food was homey and delicious.

One evening, we fit in an extravagant High Tea at the London Ritz. As we got fancied up, our hotel called for the famous black cab (and yes, they fit all five of us, unlike in Paris, but that’s another blog). For this event, we enjoyed a choice of several varieties of tea, finely cut sandwiches, freshly baked scones, jam and clotted cream, and an assortment of delicate pastries all served in the spectacular Palm Court in the Ritz. The gentlemen had ordered the Ritz’s magnificent three foot white rose complete with an attractive box, so we were quite surprised! It was a night to remember, that’s for sure.

Our last excursion before joining the Globus Tour, was taking the tube, bus, and taxi to Abbey Road.
Ed was particularly interested in this place because he just loves anything Beatles. We tried several times for the perfect picture, but with concern about stopping the traffic or being out of sink, we managed to get only a few good ones. We signed the gate entry of the Abby Road Studio as all who come there must do. People from around the world sign their messages as a memorial or tribute to the Beatles. It was magical.

We loved the Arran House, and all London had to offer. It was a great start to the rest of our trip; we were rested and excited about the adventures yet to come.

Some notes from our travels:

We struggled a bit trying to get all our luggage onto the Gatwick Express we inadvertently popped into the nearest train car, but with three helpful males, we dragged the cases into the business class and stayed there too pooped to move up one train car more. (Trains can be crowded in regular fare, but first class is much roomier even with suitcases in tow. Plus, the bathrooms are nicer.)

The Gatwick Express goes directly into London proper, and cabbies from there are easy to beckon; they are friendly and pride themselves on getting you to your destination hotel quickly and safely.

How to Get the Most out of Your Travel Wardrobe:

  • Plan for and pack clothes that meet the needs of your itinerary, are appropriate for the culture and climate of your destination, and allow the most outfits from the least number of pieces.

  • Here are some easy ways to lighten your load. Plan around a basic color. Choose a neutral solid color like black, navy, gray, brown or khaki for your main wardrobe pieces. Matching striped or print shirts, a scarf or a pin can add a little color without sacrificing valuable space.
  • Plan to wear each item several times during the trip. Choose clothing that is easy to care for -- wrinkle resistant, hand washable, and quick drying. Take a compact laundry kit along to wash as you go.
  • Take more tops than bottoms. Every top should go with every bottom. Tops are lighter and take less room than bottoms, and are easier to launder.
  • Choose lightweight knits, microfibers, cotton and silk over bulky sweaters, heavy denim and corduroy. For colder climates, pack silk long underwear that keeps you warm, packs small, and doubles as pajamas.

  • Wear your jacket or coat and heavier shoes to the airport (worn clothing is never weighed). While you are at it, stuff the coat pockets, too. Many travelers choose multi-pocket jackets or travel vests, in effect wearing an extra carry-on.
  • Pack for comfort. Chances are good that you will be sleeping in your clothing on the plane. Choose clothing made of stretchy fabrics, expandable waistbands, and non-binding collars and cuffs. Make sure these fabrics resist stains and wrinkles to avoid the slept-in look.
  • We love TravelSmith’s clothing and Magellan’s packing organizers.