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Friday, August 21, 2009

The Enlightened Traveler: In Rio de Janeiro, Forget Copacabana!

Rio de Janeiro doesn't have many must-see sites for the visitor. (The impressive Christ the Redeemer, with it's breath-taking view of the city and shimmering bay, is a noteworthy exception.)

Rio's museums and shopping aren't much either. You'll do better elsewhere.

The main reason to visit this Brazilian gem is a simple one. If you enjoy people watching and like to hang out into the wee hours at cozy neighborhood cafes, bars, restaurants – as the locals do – then Rio's for you.

Before we had been there, our friend, screenwriter Tom Musca, informed us that there's only one thing we needed to know about it - Leblon. How right he was.

Leblon, at bottom, boasts Rio's nicest beach, cafes and streelife

The trendy quarter known as Leblon is two beaches south and a world away from the tawdry tourist stomping ground that is Copacabana Beach.

In fact, we advise you to skip Copacabana altogether. In no circumstances lodge there, unless it's at the luxe, palatial Copacabana Palace and you don't mind taking a taxi to other neighborhoods for strolling, dining, and shopping.

Ipanema, the famous beach between Leblon and Copacabana, is a mixed bag, with nicer hotels, restaurants and shopping, like the impressive H. Stern jewelry workshops and sales floor. This is where you'll find Vuitton, Cartier and other international brands. But you you're not traveling 20 hours for that, are you?

For most of your visit, you'll want to stay close to Leblon, with its mix of sophisticated bohemian pleasures. (Pronounce Leblon as if you are speaking French: "luh-blohn" with the nasal "n" at the end.)

Its beaches and streets are among Rio's cleanest, safest, and least crowded.

We often dine at the brasserie Garcia & Rodrigues, where we are well fed by their French chef from early in the morning until very late at night. For snacks or take out, they have their own bakery, deli counter, and wine cellar. The place is casual, friendly, and filled with students, sophisticates, and otherwise untouristy, very cool folks – just like us.

Garcia & Rodrigues is on the Ave. Ataulfo de Paiva, Leblon's main boulevard, and right across from the Hotel Ritz, where you can nest in a spacious one bedroom apartment, not a paltry room such as you'll get in Ipanema or Copacabana, for around $125 per night, breakfast included – if you ask politely.

Right next door to the the Ritz is the fabulous Letras e Expressoes book and record emporium. You'll want to own every CD in the store and most of the DVDs, books, and international newspapers. They frequently host free performances from established and young Brazilian musicians. (Click here to see videos.) It's open until 2AM weeknights and round the clock on the weekend.

Many of Leblon's best restaurants can be found on Dias Ferreira street, just around the corner from the Ritz. The hot South American designer Isabela Capeto also has a boutique there.

Not to be missed: Pizz
a Guanabara, serving Cote d'Azur style pizzas that are so good you'll be back several times during your stay. Don't forget to order a choppe (Brazilian draft beer and pronounced "shop") with your meal, as the Cariocas do. You can sit outside all night, basking in the sultry tropical warmth as the hours and crowds gently pass by.

Just a few blocks from Leblon in Ipanema is Restaurant Da Silva, under the same ownership as the famous Antiquarius, which is to say that at Da Silva you get much of the same food, but cheaper and more casual. It's where young professionals and artists like to dine.

After your meal, it's time to hurry back to Leblon to browse
Letras e Expressoes, grab a desert and coffee at Garcia & Rodrigues, or join the illuminati at the profusion of outdoor bars and cafes.

And the best part is, you're in Rio!

As much as we love Leblon, Rio has other attractions. The formerly dicey Santa Teresa neighborhood is being gentrified and is home to art galleries, trendy cafes, and hip boutique hotels. ♦ Catch the entertaining, flashy samba show at Plataforma, which is in Leblon, even though it caters to tourists. ♦ Leave your good jewelry and watches at home. Brazil can be unsafe even in the best neighborhoods. ♦ The first "R" of any word in Brazilian Portuguese is pronounced as an "H". It's the Hotel Hits (not Ritz), Hee-oo (not Ree-oh). If you meet someone named Rosa or Roberto, now you know how to pronounce it. ♦ For Brazilian history and music, we recommend these volumes: "Brazil, The Once and Future Country" by Marshall Eakin and "The Brazilian Sound" by Chris McGowan and Ricardo Pessanha.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Gordon Ramsay Finds Himself in the Soup

Does Gordon Ramsay have his fingers in too many pies? As the recession lingers, the super chef has discovered that running a far-flung network of pricey eateries is no piece of cake.

Attendance is down at Ramsay's 20 restaurants across Europe, North America, and Japan, causing him to breach the terms of a $15.7 million bank loan. The celebrity chef is being forced to restructure his global empire, shuttering his Prague location and reducing his 1,200 person staff by 15%.

He is closing some of his restaurants at slower times of the week and is using less expensive cuts of meat, according to an article in the Wall St. Journal. Costly out-of-season ingredients no longer have a place on his menus.

Reasons for the decline are several. Corporate expense accounts have been slashed, and diners are ordering fewer high priced bottles of wine, where the fattest profits are.

Another reason for the drop in patronage may have nothing to do with the souring economy. With so many restaurants, Ramsay isn't cooking in any of them very often. Diners who pay several hundred dollars per head may be reluctant to do so when the star chef is not in the kitchen.

It's a good bet that the tough Scot can withstand the heat. Yes, he sold his silver 430 Scuderia Ferrari. But he still earns an estimated $16 million per year for his TV shows ("Hell's Kitchen" and "Kitchen Nightmares"), as well as from publishing and endorsements.

That's a lot of bread, even in a stale economy.

You'll find the full text of the Journal article here.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

The Enlightened Traveler: The Best Burger in San Diego or Pretty Much Anywhere Else

After spending the month of July cleaning out and moving our offices (same address, just a different part of the building) we were eager to escape to La Jolla for a few relaxing days with our friends Nancy and Andy.

On a lazy Monday, we strolled into town to lunch at Burger Lounge, which had been commended to us recently. We cannot recall who told us about the place; all we could remember was the name.

And a good thing, too, because the burgers are among the most agreeable we have ever tasted.

The concept behind Burger Lounge is simple. The owners, Dean and Mike, use only all natural grass-fed beef from Kansas.

This produces a juicy, tender, mouthwatering burger. There also are a host of health (no hormones or antibiotics) and environmental benefits, which are enumerated on the restaurant's website.

Patties are topped with iceberg lettuce, tomato, house-made 1,000 island dressing, fresh onion and white cheddar or American cheese. Everything rests delicately on a signature home-style bun. Ask for grilled onions, which provide an additional layer of flavor.

Grilled turkey burgers (also fabulous) and veggie burgers are are on the menu, too, along with fresh-cut fries, thick shakes, and made-on-the-premises Red Velvet or cream-filled chocolate cupcakes that are every bit as rich and toothsome as the ones you find at specialty bakeries.

Oh yes, and the decor, while casual, is sleek and sophisticated. In other words, Burger Lounge is seriously not a greasy spoon.

Burger Lounge opened in the heart of La Jolla village two years ago and now has three other locations in the San Diego area.

If they don't open in Los Angeles soon, we might have to move south.

You'll find Burger Lounge at 1011 Wall St. (corner of Herschel Ave.), La Jolla, (858) 456-0196, and also in Coronado, Kensington, and recently gentrified Little Italy. www.burgerlounge.com