Friday, March 31, 2017

Santiago and la Habana

The Andes from Providencia
 Another trip to Santiago and still lots of new and cool things to do. Everyone says the city is great except for the terrible pollution. I have been very lucky to be there on clearer days and in the picture above, you can actually see the ski village in the Andes.

Didn't make it to the Mercado Central but we did go to the big seafood wholesale market about half an hour from the Providencia neighbourhood.
Awesome fish and seafood market!
Shocking prices for seafood! Well, I wasn't surprised that salmon was about $5/lb but we got a kilogram of big white clams for $1.50! If I lived in Santiago, I would be eating seafood all the time. Probably better that I don't since my GF is allergic to shellfish.
Scallops gratinado and champagne. Why not?
Elizabeth worked her magic and after quite a bit of work cleaning, rinsing and prepping, we had scallops and mussels gratinados. White wine, garlic butter, parmesan cheese and toasted bread crumbs. And giant plates full.
And Mussels!
I also did a simple white wine, olive oil, onion and garlic clam steam that was quite tasty.

I try to be a low maintenance guest and don't expect people to spend hours driving me places ... but my hosts were kind enough to take me out into wine country. After a lot of research, we settled on a country estate and a very small vineyard.
The parking lot of the estate ... as far as we got.
The estate was lovely, from the outside, but after being told that we could come and visit, the idiot guard said there was a private function and we couldn't go in. We waited for 15 minutes as he called up from the gate trying to find out if we could just walk around the grounds (well before the event) and we finally said f*ck it and left.

We drove by many vineyards including the ginormous Concha y Toro installation ... but didn't stop. I wasn't interested in seeing big coaches and hordes of tourists. We finally ended up on a very small and deserted road and came up to a gate guarded by probably the oldest person working for G4S. He looked like he was 80 years old!

He checked us off a very short list and sent us up through the fields of grape vines and up to this beautiful estate. We parked and made our way up to the restaurant.
Lovely wine with our afternoon snack.
It only had about 10 tables and was about a third full. We were early for our tour and tasting so we decided to have a light snack washed down with a fantastic bottle of Sauvignon Blanc.

We finished up and went to find our tour guide who happened to be hostess at the restaurant and cashier, I think. We stepped out and she walked us through to the vines and ... was surprised to see that our tour group was just us! She said that there were two other people but they would catch up a bit later.
Our awesome guide Salome
Our wonderful guide Salome told us about Haras de Pirque, where the owner combined his love of horses and wine to create a beautiful vineyard in the Maipo Valley. She told us about the grapes and the soil and how this lovely valley and rolling hills created a great micro-climate for producing outstanding grapes. Its true that wine only comes from beautiful places.

It was so peaceful and serene and quiet. Salome said she lived in the area and only did tours once a week but wished she could work there every day. The grape harvest was coming up in a few weeks so it would be all hands on deck and she, and everyone else in the valley, would be working.
Salome has taken quite of few of these shots.
We tasted the almost fully ripe grapes, cab sauvignon, carmenere, sauv blanc and they were tiny and very sweet. Then a tour of the plant and checked out the giant wooden barrels. The building was in the shape of a horseshoe and the fountain in the middle had a glass bottom ... that was the skylight for the underground cellar and tasting room.

We finally met up with the other two people just before heading to the tasting room. Lovely couple from Wyoming doing a wine tour of Chile and Argentina. She was a vegetarian chef/owner of Sweet Melissa's in Laramie. How cool is that? But too bad she is going to miss out on the seafood and beef in the area! That is why I believe strongly in being a flexitarian so you can enjoy everything life has to offer.
Inside the horseshoe and looking over the fountain.
 Salome set out some very lovely glasses and had us try four wines. The final one was a 10 year old cabernet sauvignon that had tremendous presence with its colour, bouquet and quite a refined flavour. She only poured about an ounce each and there was a ton left in the bottle so I asked if I could have a bit more and she said "no." Ha ha, no hard feelings, I had a lot of wine that day. And very charmingly, like the young Concha y Toro woman at the wine festival, Salome liked cigars! So I gave her a couple of nice Habanos that I was carrying around. And I also said I would come back with a bottle of Canadian ice wine since she had never tried that and was curious.
In the tasting room.
So meeting Salome was probably as interesting as visiting my first Chilean vineyard. It was wonderful to meet someone with such a passion for wines who was able to enjoy living and working in such a beautiful, tranquil, and isolated ... almost fairyland, full of positive energy. They were recently bought by Antinori, the giant Italian wine conglomerate but I think they are taking a light hand with their management.

Danny keeping me well supplied with good beer.
Such a short visit and on my last day, I walked up to Avenida Providencia and met up with Dany, Marisol and Mia. Dany is quite the Chilean gourmand and brought me to Tip y Tap for some traditional food.
Some of my favourite foods in the world, all on one plate.
I had this nice appetizer with grilled shrimps and veggies and smoked salmon. 
More raw meat! And chips.
Then steak tartar, french fries, and artesanal beer. Frickin yum!
Mia, my charming luncheon companion.
Also managed to grill some delicious rib eyes and various types of kimchee washed down by some kick ass wines. And then off on the red eye to Lima where they let me stay in the lounge for my eight hour layover rather "inviting" me to re-register  (i.e. pay money) after my four hour Star Alliance allowance ran out! Still, it was a long trip and I was relieved to get to Havana where a cold beer and a cigar was waiting for me.
Del Frente, before the lunching hipsters rush.
Just briefly, had a nice meal at El Frente but it is getting too crowded with American hipsters! Ate three times at Bella Ciao, once at Nero de Seppia. 
Not Tibetan monks but cold Canadians.
Went to Cocinero on one very cold night (which meant we could actually get into the place, frickin American hipsters ruining another place) and they kindly handed out orange fleece blankets so we could stand being there. Also went to 4You for some drinks where, if you can believe it, we ran into a crowd of about 12 wannabe hipsters from Buffalo, NY! Then it dawned on me ... spring break in Havana. Yikes.
Danny back at Meson de la Flota!

Great to see everyone back together.
  Highlight was seeing Danny Villalonga coming back from Ecuador to dance flamenco with Ana Rosa of Grupo Ecos! Haven't seen them dance together for about 7 years.
Flamenco a second night at Tablao under the Gran Teatro.
My last chance to see Grupo Ecos before their 6 month tour in Turkey.
Had many late nights and closed Fabrica de Arte at 3 am and then closed another bar in Miramar at 4:15 am. Huge line up as usual at FAC but some of our compatriots have VIP cards so no waiting, no cover and we could go out onto the terrace of the VIP bar and smoke cigars. Have to get me one of those.

Hmm, apparently we are the hipsters at FAC.

Notable new restaurant, the Buena Vista Curry Club. I haven't mentioned it before since they only had a soft opening with a partial menu. But they now have Vindaloos, Butter Chicken (which was very tasty), and Tikka Masala (of course) to go with all their roast meats. They brought two Tandoor ovens from India along with Vilmar, the Indian hotel trained chef. He makes great Naan bread. And the best part, the place is cigar friendly! I brought some kimchi making supplies for the chef and they gave me one of the owner's giant custom cigars and a Chai Rum for dessert. And the kicker is, they have a large live band playing on the mezzanine that is a bit too loud BUT they have the last remaining orchestra member of the Benny More Orchestra. That is amazing.

Delia waiting for the curry!
The week also saw the baptism of my best friend Delia's son Jose, now residing in Miami. 

Enjoying cigars and the terrace with Pedro.
So Pedro came down from Toronto and I got to meet Christy's lovely adopted daughter Ester who now live in Rome. Lester was also down from Toronto with his two great kids Diego and Isla and it was awesome getting together with everyone at Delia's house (where I lived for about 7 years). 

The lovely senoritas Ester and Isla.
And another old friend of the house saw Lester's FB post on his way from Bolivia that same day and came by to play dominoes. 

Wonderful to sit out on the terrace with many bottles of rum, big cigars, and the family playing dominoes!

Jose's lovely wife Arlin

First time in 20+ years I have seen any of this family in a church!

Everyone in their Sunday best.

The Priest's assistant was a bit casually dressed ... Miami Heat sweatshirt, shouldn't be a surprise!
So made it for the first five minutes of the baptism before I had to head for the airport but that was nice to see as well.

Then after some ridiculous travel days, a short two hour flight home to San Salvador.

Friday, February 24, 2017

Santiago de Chile

Click on the photo for a full view from our Air BnB apartment
I am a big believer in visiting a new country (or two) every year. Looking at the list of South American countries that I had not visited, I thought I would give Santiago, Chile a try. I contacted a friend of a friend and did some research and booked an Air BnB for 5 nights for the excellent price of USD200 for the entire stay.

The flight in was through Lima and was quite long on Avianca but having access to the lounge there made it easier. I had a nice Pisco Sour and filled up on potato chips.
President's Staff Office right in front of our apartment
We arrived very early in the morning and grabbed a cab into town. The streets were very quiet at 5 am as our taxi took us into the city centre to our condo a few blocks from the Plaza de Armas.  There seemed to be a lot of dogs on the street but they didn’t seem aggressive or hostile.

Walking around Bella Vista enjoying the street art
The keys were with the concierge and we got up to the 24th floor corner apartment that had an amazing view of the city. The apartment was a tiny one bedroom but it had everything we needed including a gym a few floors up. It got very cold and we had to use every blanket in the place ... until we found the space heater and then it was fine.

A night time view
The owner popped by later that morning and gave us a quick rundown of where everything was. The Mercado Central and the Mercado Vega were both very close as well as many parks and monuments.

First meal in the Mercado Central. Salmon and a fantastic Chardonnay
We went for a walk to the Mercados where we had to fight off all the touts trying to get us to eat in their restaurants and cafe’s. We finally settled on one on the outer edge of the market that had natural light. We ordered a bottle of wine and Fatima had the salmon and I had a deviled crab casserole. Wow, both the wine and the food was fantastic.

Renovated Plaza de Armas

The centre area was a bit gritty and dirty but better than most latino centres but the Plaza des Armas had been recently fixed up and it was great. There were a lot of Haitians who were accepted into Chile after their bad earthquakes – probably because Chile shares the same natural disasters. We were listening in on them and couldn't tell what language they were speaking.

We met up with Dany, who my friend Mark met when he travelled through South America in his Xterra. Dany took us to a great local eatery downtown that was jam packed with office workers during the lunch service. 

Empanada with cheese and shrimp
He helped us order some of the Chilean greatest hits like a cheese and shrimp fried empanadas. Fatima ordered a nice beef rib soup. 

I ordered the baked corn pie, Pastel de Choclo, and then I ordered the famous Completo. 

The legendary Completo. I did NOT ask for extra mayo.
Imagine, if you will, a hot dog on a large bun packed with an inch of guacamole, tomatoes, cole slaw and about an inch and a half of whipped mayonnaise! I actually had the waiter take it back to the kitchen to scrape off half the mayo ... and it was still almost more than I could manage. 

Dany, the Big Dog, was served his plate of raw meat. Happily, he shared it with me.
And Dany, who knows his shit, ordered the Crudo. A very large plate of chopped raw meet to be garnished with lime juice, chopped pickles and mayonnaise and served on dry toast. There was lot of Crudo and I had a couple of big servings of this Chilean steak tartar.

Great produce in the Mercado Vega
We walked over to the Mercado Vega and picked up a lot of super fresh produce including asparagus and mushrooms. And we hit a wine store ... with a huge selection and very low prices. I think the average price was around $5 for good wine and you could get an excellent wine for $10.

Our wines for the week on our balcony
We posted this picture of our wines on the balcony with the Andes in the background. I soon heard back from an old and very good friend of mine who, unbeknownst to me, was living in Santiago. We ended up walking through the Plaza de Armas and into Bella Vista and a big park until we came to a subway station. 

Funky band playing in front of the subway station
It took a bit to figure it out but we managed to take the subway a few stops away to Providencia. Our plan was to check out the Costanera shopping centre and tower before meeting up with our friend Jorge who lived just down the street. So we emerge from the subway and are surrounded by 3 storey buildings and we can’t see the tower! Supposedly the tallest building in South America ... it was nowhere to be found. We asked a few people and the pointed up a small road and we passed a bunch of street vendors and then, of course, there it was.

View from the Costanera tower
We took the paid elevator to the top for a magnificent view of the city. And then we hit the mall and found an H&M that were selling these great dresses for Fatima for about $7 each and I found a Top Shop and got some shirts.

Grill master Yoyi
Then off to visit my friend who had a bunch of great wines and grilled meat waiting for us. They had a nice balcony terrace where we could sit, drink wine and smoke cigars until late. Their part of Providencia was full of nice older apartment buildings with quiet narrow streets to walk.

Jorge informed us that we had two other Cuban friends living in the city. I probably spent 50 hours playing dominoes with Carlos. We called him the “professor de dominos” as he liked to show us where we played the wrong tiles, even if we beat him! He had married a Chilean and moved to Santiago.

Fatima and her ex-samba partner, now head chef, Alexis
And we were told that Alexis, a boyfriend of an old friend of ours, had moved to Chile to take a job as the head chef of Havana Salsa, a buffet of Cuban food followed by a floor show. We knew Alexis more as a dancer and was Fatima’s favourite Samba partner on Stefan’s dance floor in Havana.

Happy times, before almost ruining the evening with a full bottle of Pisco
We were able to reserve a table and all met up at the venue in Bella Vista. Jorge had been there before and strenuously warned us that the floor show couldn’t compete with anything we had seen in Cuba so we weren’t expecting much. Surprisingly (for Latin America), we were given a discount as friends of Alexis and bumped fists with various friendly Cubans working there. Carlos joined us and it was great having three Vedado boys together again in a foreign city. Kind of like hanging with Kyo and Jorge in Bogota. Vedado boys get around!

The food was excellent and plentiful. I tried the ropa vieja, frijoles negros and the cerdo asado. I think we had beer and then started ordering the pisco. Now Chileans and Peruvians fight over pisco like a national sport. Most of the Chileans “generously” gave the award for better pisco sours to Peru but claimed that their straight Pisco was better. As a fan of grappa, I really enjoyed the local verison. And when you order a pisco in Chile, you get a four finger drink. Ouch.

The not bad show
So after the many warnings from Jorge, the show starts ... and it ain’t bad! A few Cuban dancers took the lead and the company was ably filled out by very professional Chilean dancers. Everyone loved the show and I could see that this place was a favourite for families and big groups celebrating special occasions. Service was great and they kept bringing over more glasses of  Pisco.

Fatima and Jorge cutting the rug
After the show, a DJ played a popular Cuban salsa song and I encouraged Fatima and Jorge (the best dancer of his size that I know – extra-large former national fencer for Cuba – specializing in salsa and funk) to get up and dance and they did the first number on their own. They were soon joined by dozens of Chileans who clearly came to dance. 

Carlos and Fatima on a now crowded dance floor
Carlos is no slouch himself and he and Jorge alternated dancing with Fatima which gave me the night off! After I think 3-4 Piscos and some beers, Jorge came up with the brilliant idea to order a full bottle of Pisco because it was more economical! I told him we were already pretty drunk but he insisted and, of course, we finished it. End of the night, we are in a taxi almost home and Fatima says she left her glasses at the bar so we head back and find them. But by the time we got home, the alcohol was hitting my system hard and it was quite a wobbly trip to bed.

After a few days in the centre, we changed apartments and stayed with Dany and met his wife, the lovely Marisol from Merida and formerly of Mississauga (small world!), in the Condes area. Traffic was terrible but we had an entertaining young cabbie from Colombia who taught us that their word for traffic was “taco”. Lots of taco, everywhere.

Marisol and Mia ... but no cats
But wow, this area was much newer than both the centre and Providencia. Much wider streets, good roads, lots of tall glass buildings and this HUGE park that you could barely see the end of. Condes reminded me a lot of Toronto. The apartment was very modern and we had a nice room a met the adorable Mia and the very shy cats.

I had no idea that Santiago was so modern, had a great subway system, quite a strong rule of law, and very nice people. I think Chileans like keeping their great city to themselves.

Walking through the Parque Rosario in Condes
We walked through the area and through the park and large rose gardens to another mall. Very high end with a Tiffany’s, D&G, Jimmy Choo, Gucci and LV. We didn’t shop here. 

Enjoying my free cup of wine
But we did hit a fancy sushi fusion place that was gorgeously designed and had decent food but, shockingly, they didn’t have a liquor license so couldn’t sell booze. Liquor license? Latin America? Does not compute. I have never heard of a Latin American establishment ever needing a license to sell alcohol. Santiago, you are a first for me. But happily, while they couldn’t sell us wine with lunch, they could give us two glasses for free! Cheers!

Uni! Wish my Mom was here, it is her favourite.
On our last day in Chile and we walked through Condes to I think a German styled seafood place. Wow, what an incredible feast. A platter of super fresh steamed and raw seafood. 

A few plates of cheese gratinada shellfish. And a big bowl of Uni that probably would have cost over $100 in Japan.

So I had a great time in Santiago and was very happy to have spent it with Fatima and to have met up with old and new friends. I’ll be back soon.

One of many pictures I took of the nearby tower, all in different shades
And I was able to go back several months later and stayed with Jorge this time in their very cool two storey condo in Providencia. 

And another in the morning.

They were just down the street from the Costanero so I took a bunch of photos in its many shades of colours. 

In the market looking for ingredients to mak kimchi
Back again to the Mercados Central and Vega for veggies. I brought the dried chillies and gave Jorge lessons on Kimchi making. We took walks in the neighbourhood and picked up Fabi from his German school in the neighbourhood.

A great view of the Andes from their balcony.
We met up with Jorge’s wife one day and went to a great Peruvian restaurant in the neighbourhood. Tons of food and super delicious seafood.

With Elizabeth enjoying great Peruvian food
She is a consul at a European embassy and got us comp'd for ... the Chilean wine festival! In a big downtown hotel, we had to fight through a lot of traffic to get there. Upon entering, we were given nice big solid wine glasses. The main room had about 24 vineyards, a food station handing out delicious amuse bouches for free, and a stage with some folkloric shows. 

Drunk happy people. Lots of spit buckets around, didn't see anyone use them.
We wandered around and sampled many wines. Met one charming wine pourer for one of the giant vineyards who asked where I was from. I said I was living in San Salvador and working in Havana. We got to talking about Cuba (as Chileans, like every person I have met in South America, would love to go visit Cuba) and she told me she loved Cuban cigars. I happened to have some with me so I gave her one and she was very happy.

In the Pisco room
So wandering around the room, we discovered a doorway and we go through a short hallway and, wow, discover another room with a Djay playing music and another 20 vineyards. Then we cross this room into another room with another Djay and another 20 wine stands. Then we found the espumante room and then there was a Pisco room with innovative mixologists inventing delicious cocktails. 

Awesome Pisco cocktails
I had a pisco, beer and honey concoction that was quite delicious. The girl I gave the cigar to found me in room 3 and brought me over to a small independent vineyard and had me try some of her favourites there. Very cool.

We ended up leaving early to meet up with Carlos in Bella Vista for some very good hamburgers and some craft IPA’s. Probably a good thing we didn't spend all night sampling wines. Then back to Providencia for more wine and cigars.
Vedado boys knocking back pints
Next day we were a bit wobbly but strap on your boots! It is time for the Santiago Oktoberfest! Imagine one thousand blonde and blue eyed Chileans with one chino (me) and one mulatto (Jorge). 

Buccanero? In Chile? Why? Why not?
Everyone was very friendly and we sampled many many beers. We found a Cuban guy repping Buccanero Cuban beer! We had a few of those with some nice grilled sausages. He said he could get us Caney for a really good price. My favourite rum!

Custom made tray of charcuterie for us.
Then got a plate of cured meats. Met up with a bunch of Jorge’s friends for more beers. Very nice people and we all smoked cigars in the warm afternoon sun.

The view from the restaurant at the top of the hill.
The icing on this short visit was a day trip to Valparaiso. The drive out was interesting. Great roads and we must have passed a few dozen vineyards. We also passed about 500 motorcyclists who were making a mass trip out to the coast.
Ready for a great lunch at Cafe Turri at 147 Templemen
Valparaiso is a bit of a strange place. Dominated by a small but very deep water harbour and surrounded by hills, the town was notable for having giant ships very close to the shore giving the place an industrial feeling. The area around the harbour has a lot of street vendors and is a bit trafficky and dirty but after a short walk, we took one of the famous funicular railways up to the top of the hill. 

Funicular tracks.
We emerged into a charming neighbourhood of pedestrian friendly streets and walkways. Our number one choice for lunch was closed but we ended up at an old restaurant famous for its seafood and views. Both were spectacular. 

Tuna tartar
I had the tuna tartar and gratinada scallops and we had a bottle of Santa Carolina Reserva de Familia.

And for dessert, we had Cannolis! Raspberry sauce and spun sugar to boot.

Lots of great street painting
We walked off lunch by taking the winding roads down the hill, looking at a lot of excellent graffiti, some impromptu street theatre, and enjoying the sunny cool day.
No need to fear, just a plastic gun and a Guy Fawkes mask
Thanks Santiago for another great visit and see you again next month. Looking forward to more seafood, grilling steaks with Jorge on the balcony, amazing wines, beautiful city-scapes in what is one of my favourite cities in South America.

The view of Valparaiso bay