Packing 101

Last year I had the good fortune of spending over a month in Europe. This trip consisted of ten days of solo travel through Madrid and Salamanca, a week with a girlfriend in Barcelona, and two weeks in Italy with my husband Jack. As this epic journey drew closer, one of my coworkers (who is originally from Austria) asked me what type of travel bag I planned to bring. I told her that I assumed I would have to bring a large suitcase since I was going to be gone for so long, visiting a variety of locations and climates. However, as an experienced solo traveler, she strongly advised me to pack light: “The last thing you want is to be struggling alone with a heavy bag on a crowded European train.” This terrifying image stayed with me and I was determined to find a way to pack for a month in a carry-on.

I did a ton of research and decided to purchase the Farpoint 55 Travel Backpack from Osprey, offered for $150 on Amazon. I ordered it in S/M (it also comes in M/L) – this was the perfect size for me (I’m 5’4″). Its volume is 55L (3,400 cubic inches), which complies with carry-on standards. The straps are adjustable, so it was easy to get a perfect fit on my body. It also comes with a removable day pack, which was great for hiking and various day trips. I easily fastened a small combination luggage lock to the main compartment zipper so that I could wear it on my back and not stress about getting robbed. I was incredibly pleased with this bag and will continue to use it on my travels.

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Me wearing the Osprey backpack – large backpack on my back, day pack in front.

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Positano

When Jack and I were planning our trip to Italy last year, we knew we wanted to go somewhere relaxing to rest up before sightseeing in Florence and Rome. We struggled deciding between Lake Como, Piedmont, the Tuscan countryside, Cinque Terre, and the Amalfi Coast. After much debate, we ultimately decided on the Amalfi Coast, and we couldn’t have been happier with our decision. We still hope to visit the other spots on our list some day, but Amalfi ended up being the perfect place to start our Italian holiday.

Once we agreed on Amalfi, we then had to choose which city or town to stay in. We considered staying in Naples, as there is a Starwood hotel there that caught our eye. But we hadn’t heard great things about Naples (lots of crime, apparently zero parks – though the infamous pizza is supposed to be incredible), and we didn’t want to spend our time there taking day trips to the towns we’d rather be staying in. Praiano was recommended to us by several friends; Praiano is a quiet town on the Amalfi Coast which boasts incredible views of Positano. We also looked into Sorrento, Capri, and the town of Amalfi, but we ultimately decided on Positano.

Magical Positano
Magical Positano

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The Perennial

Last week my  husband Jack forwarded a list of new restaurants on SF Eater to me. The Perennial caught my eye, primarily because of its proximity to the the Orpheum Theatre, as I’m always looking for new places to dine at before a show (we are SHN members). However, I had no idea how stellar the food would be or how environmentally radical this new restaurant was until Jack surprised me with dinner there last night. We were blown away by each and every dish we tried, and I can’t say enough great things about the quality of the food and the philosophy of the restaurant.

The Perennial opened in January of this year. The restaurant team includes head chef Chris Kiyuna, as well as wife and husband co-founders Karen Leibowitz and Anthony Myint of Mission Chinese Food and Commonwealth fame. Regarding the restaurant’s environmental philosophy, the website states that “agriculture has the potential to reverse climate change and our goal is to serve great food and drinks that are part of a positive food system.” With the help of aquaponic agriculture, perennial grains, and carbon farming (which you can read about here), The Perennial is able to serve delicious seasonal food, while keeping their carbon footprint as small as possible.

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Florence

During Jack and my trip to Italy last summer, we stopped in Florence for three nights. We had originally planned on staying there for five nights, but we shaved two nights off our stay to allow for dinner at Osteria Francescana in Modena (hope to write about that incredible dining experience soon…) Three nights was just enough time to get a great taste of Florence (or “Firenze,” as the Italians call it) – the amazing food, history, art, and fashion – and we are already dreaming about returning in the near future.

We arrived in Florence after spending five nights on the Amalfi Coast, and the first thing we noticed was how HOT it was along the Arno (side note: I swear the name of this Florentine river comes up in the “easy” Monday New York Times crossword more than almost any other word…) We were there in early June, but we were told the weather was “August weather” (it was in the 90’s Fahrenheit). As you can imagine, this fair-skinned San Francisco lady doesn’t fare too well in hot weather. The days were long and it really didn’t start to cool down until 8 or 9pm, so this definitely affected my time in Florence. But we survived the heat by eating lots of gelato and taking midday naps at our air-conditioned hotel to recharge for the cooler evenings.

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Rome

Jack and I spent five nights in Rome last June and we absolutely fell in love with the Eternal City. We enjoyed walking along the cobblestone streets, taking in the history and architecture, feeling the energy of the city, and eating the amazing food. However, we had heard mixed reviews before our trip; most of our friends are fans, but others complained that Rome was too crowded and touristy. After experiencing the city first hand at the peak of travel season, I can see where one could come to either conclusion. My theory about the tourists in Rome is as follows: every major city is going to have sites that are crowded with tourists (think Times Square in NYC), but in Rome, these sites are spread throughout the city because they are ancient sites, rather than built around a city center. So, you’ll find yourself having a romantic stroll in a quaint Roman neighborhood such as Monti, with great restaurants, cafés, and shops, then – wham! – you turn a corner and you’re staring at the Colosseum, and there are tourists everywhere,  locals selling cheap souvenirs, and restaurants that post pictures of their food on the menu. Once Jack and I figured this out, we were much less overwhelmed by the city, and we learned to just duck back down a quiet street when we didn’t feel like battling the tourists at the popular sites.

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El Dorado Kitchen

El Dorado Kitchen is our go-to spot on Sonoma Plaza. The food has been consistently good every time we’ve eaten there, and their mussels and french fries are some the best. We’ve always found it to be superior to its overhyped neighbor, The Girl & the Fig, which has let us down on multiple occasions. But EDK has always served us a solid meal.

We typically don’t spend as much time in the town of Sonoma as other parts of the county, but we try to stop by a couple times a year to pick up wine at Sonoma Wine Shop. SWS is right on the square, and sources wine from “ultra-small wineries in California, direct from the winery owner, winemaker, or vineyard owner.” We’ve been wine club members there for many years, and we continue to enjoy the variety of small production local wines at decent prices. The shop itself is a little hodge-podge, with fickle service, and staff that seems to turn over quickly. But despite these flaws, we continue to enjoy their wines!

We stopped by SWS this past New Year’s Eve for a quick tasting and to pick up a case of wine. Afterward, we enjoyed a tasty brunch at El Dorado Kitchen, which is located inside the El Dorado Hotel, right on the square. It is a large restaurant, great for a large group, and they serve breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Jack and I rang in the New Year here many years ago, and it was a mellow yet classy way to end the year.

On this visit, we started with the Steamed Mussels with white wine, créme fraîche, chickpeas, fines herbes (parsley, chives, tarragon, and chervil – often used in French cuisine), and country croutons, as well as the Truffle Fries with Parmesan and chives (a must-order every time we visit). The mussels were plump and steaming hot, and the truffle fries may be some of the most perfect french fries I’ve had.

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Bread and butter (room temperature)
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Steamed Mussels with white wine, créme fraîche, chickpeas, fines herbes, and country croutons

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Carousel

Whenever Jack and I travel to L.A. to visit his family, we always share a large family-style meal at Carousel Restaurant in Glendale. Jack’s family is of Armenian descent, spending much of their life in Beirut before they moved to Southern California when Jack was a child. They tell me that Carousel is the best, most-authentic Lebanese restaurant in the L.A. area. I can’t vouch for its authenticity, but I will say that it serves incredible food.

Carousel has two locations, one in Hollywood and one in Glendale. I’ve only been to the Glendale location, and it is a large airy space with indoor and outdoor seating. It is perfect for large groups, especially since the food is designed to be shared. The walls are decorated with ancient swords and trinkets from the Middle East, as well as photos of Lebanon.

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Lebanese Meza: sarma, hammos, pickled beets, carrots, cheese, cucumber, olives, tabbuleh, muhammara, cabbage salad.

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Kid-Friendly NYC in the Winter

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Central Park. This photo was taken by my dad when he and my mom visited me in NYC for Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s The Gates exhibit (February, 2004).

I have always had a special place in my heart for New York City. Most people who met me after 1998 are not aware that I once seriously wanted to become a Broadway actress when I “grew up.” However, once that dream faded away, I still longed to one day move to NYC. This wish came true in my early 20’s when I was accepted to graduate school in Manhattan. I stayed in NYC for 2 1/2 fabulous years, which to this day remain some of the most special years of my life.

But, like Los Angeles, it has been many years since I lived in NYC and I am very much out of the loop when it comes to food, entertainment, and activities. Furthermore, I have zero experience with kids in the Big Apple. Which is why, when my friend Holly mentioned that she was spending a week in NYC with her husband and two small children over the holidays, I reached out to my New York friends for some recommendations on kid-friendly activities during the winter months. Here are their recommendations:

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L.A.’s Best Restaurants

Jack and I recently traveled to Los Angeles to spend the holidays with his family. Jack grew up in L.A. and I went to college there, but these days we are very out of the loop when it comes to restaurants in the area. So, as I’ve been known to do, I reached out to my friends and family via Facebook to get their recommendations for restaurants in the area. We received a lengthy list of dining spots, from casual to fancy, which I thought I’d share with you here.

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Lebanese Meza at Carousel in Glendale

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Mourad

Earlier this year, local chef Mourad Lahlou opened his new restaurant Mourad, a follow-up to the highly acclaimed Aziza. I was eager for Mourad’s opening after I got a taste of its offerings at Jack’s work holiday party last year (the company he works for owns the building in which Mourad is located). I’ve since eaten there twice, and I was very impressed by the comforting Moroccan-inspired dishes served family-style at this Michelin star restaurant.

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Chicken for Two with preserved lemon, green olive (Castelvetrano!), marash

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