Sunday, November 26, 2017

Holiday Bites 2017 - Gift Ideas for Your Favorite Food and Travel Lover

The holidays are upon us once again, and this year there are so many creative food themed gifts for the foodie / travel lover in your life! 

1.  For the Lover of Seafood to Wear Heart on Sleeve Chain / Finger 

Amazing artists who are also ocean lovers have poured their passion into incredible handcrafted jewelry pieces so that your favorite seafood lover can literally wear their love of marine creatures around their necks, fingers etc.

Here are some of my personal favorites - and yes I snagged these for my collection already:

Sea urchin ring with exquisite level of detail:

Buy from: Cirer on Etsy  $121.08 (currently on sale for $102.92)

Oysters (and Scallops and Mussels) sterling silver / 14K Gold pendants inspired by real life beauty of foodie favorites.

The oyster pendant shown is made from a real seed oyster from Cuttyhunk Shellfish Farm in Cuttyhunk, MA. Flip the shell over to reveal a hidden freshwater pearl! Also available in a larger size, and with the second half of the shell.

Buy from: Laura Blanc Jewelry from $100

2.  For the Fashionista and Haute Cuisine Enthusiast

Love this metallic, fun glittery Finer Things Caviar Coin Purse from Kate Spade, with a spoon zipper pull!

Buy from:  Kate Spade $98

[Deal alert: get 3% cash back by going through eBates first (free to sign up)]

3.  For Pun Lovin' Sushi Lovers

Edible: For LA locals:  California Roll cake inspired by Dominique Ansel's newest bakery location that just opened at The Grove LA!  Made with avocado mousse, vanilla lime mousse, honey gelee and almond biscuit.

Buy from: Dominique Ansel Bakery (LA location only @ The Grove)

For some, anytime is sushi time.

Buy from: eBay $154

[Deal alert: go through eBates first to get up to 2% cash back]
Socks.  Printed and shaped like sushi - not just sushi print, but they roll up to look like an actual sushi roll.

Buy from: The Grommet $12.95 per pair

Sushi gummy candy bento box

Buy from: Amazon $11.25 or Tokyo Central

4.  For Jetsetters / Wanderlusters

Travel lovers know what it's like to be caught without Wifi  / cell service in a place where you don't speak the language and need to find your way around.  The brilliant minds at Iconspeak have created awesome wearable solutions: tees and tote bags pre-printed with easily recognizable icons customized to popular travel destinations.  Need to find the Colosseum, or the nearest glass of wine, or the closest WiFi hotspot, while in Rome?  No problem, just find a friendly face, point to the appropriate icon and commence local engagement/ travel memories, a semi-lost art in the age of tech addiction.

Buy from: Iconspeak $22 for tote bag

5.  For the Home Chef and Lover of Puns

Have a little fun especially for Italian food lovers, gift them kitchen accessories shaped like their favorite pasta shapes so that they can have literally every aspect of their kitchen infused with their favorite food while creating their  masterpiece meals!  Set includes silicon Farfalloni pot grips (2 units), 1 Ravioli spoon rest, 1 Penneli garlic peeler, &3 Mafaldine elastic bands.

Buy from: Monkey Business  $39.99 (or from Eataly where you can also pick up fresh or gourmet dried pasta to go with the pun pasta accessories :))

Then go full-pun and pair the gift with a greeting card from Etsy.

Buy from: Etsy $4.50+

6.  For the Wine / Cocktail / Sweets Enthusiast 

Serious drinkers and DIYers: let them age their own spirits in mini oak barrels that add instant klout to any desktop. Size matters too: not just about the fun look, the smaller sized barrel accelerates the aging process, so that your recipient's choice of spirit will age up to 10 times faster. Oak is beloved of distillers because it imparts flavor to spirits through three main compounds resulting in vanilla and marzipan-like flavors, buttery, coconut notes, and astringency and spice.  Handmade by coopers in Manassas, Virginia. Ages 21+.

Buy from: Uncommon Goods $130 for 2L barrel with rum & whiskey making kit and personalization

Up the game even more with glasses beautifully etched with maps of their favorite (drinking?) cities from Chicago to NYC to LA (~24 city options at last check!). 

Buy from: Uncommon Goods $14

Novelty options: Get them in an island state of mind whether they are spending the holidays in the depths of northern winter or somewhere with lots of sun, sand and sea.  The Pineapple Lover set includes a cocktail shaker, 12 oz. tumbler, set of shot glasses, bottle opener all in pineapple shapes (gold, silver or copper options) and metal straws.

Buy from: WP Design $160

[Deal alert: save 25% sitewide with code: HOTPOTATO]
Fun themed chocolates handcrafted in Texas:
  • (2) Martini Glasses in dark chocolate filled with salted caramel
  • (2) Caviar Canapés in solid milk chocolate
  • (2) Olives in milk chocolate filled with chocolate nougat
  • (1) Vodka Bottle in white chocolate filled with chocolate caramel + sea salt
  • (1) Lemon Slice in solid white chocolate
  • (1) Word Tile in solid white chocolate
 Buy from: Maggie Louise $38

Or for a sleeker boxed set gift, check out Sugarfina's "But First, Cocktails" candy bento box including eight fun flavors in beautiful packaging:
  • Brut & Rosé Champagne Bears® 
  • Peach Bellini
  • Champagne Bubbles
  • Jamaican Rum Snowballs
  • Paloma Sours 
  • But First Rosé Roses
  • Bubbly Bears®
  • Martini Olive Almonds

Buy from: Sugarfina $65

If they are more solely devoted to bubbly: gummy bears made with Dom Pérignon Vintage Champagne in two beautiful flavors: classic Brut and fashionable Rose would be a fun twist gift. Named "the perfect party favor" by Cosmopolitan magazine. Non-alcoholic.

Buy from:  Sugarfina starting at $8.50 for small cube to $45 for 2.5lb bulk bag that you can pick into your own gift packaging

Or step it up with a Sugarfina x WP collab Champagne Bears Cocktail Kit so that your favorite jetsetter can get their dose of bubbly up in the air first class style no matter if they're actually in coach.
    Kit includes:
  • Small-batch elderflower syrup
  • Sugarfina Champagne gummy bears
  • 0.5-oz. jigger
  • Bar spoon
  • Linen napkin
  • Recipe card
  • Stainless steel storage tin
Just add alcohol (not included - maybe hit up duty free at the airport before boarding)?

Buy from: Sugarfina $24 or Sur La Table $25

[Deal alert: sign up for eBates (free) and click through their Sugarfina links first to get 2.5%-5% cash back on your purchase] 

Stocking stuffer option: Cocktail lip balm Stewart & Claire, a trio of tasty cocktails to kickoff the holiday season:

Negroni: originally created as a limited edition for Campari: spiced orange and juniper-scented lip balm that does the Negroni justice.

Old Fashioned: cedar, bitter orange and a touch of vanilla, cinnamon and black pepper

Tiki: virgin coconut oil with a little mandarin essential oil: vacation in a tube.

Buy from: Stewart & Claire  $23 (or find at Paper Source stores)

7.  For Fruit Lovers

Serious gift: taste the sunshine in each handcrafted bite of pate de fruit made from all natural fruits from amazing chocolate and confections master Christopher Elbow. Flavors are seasonal but may include:  raspberry, apricot, blood orange, strawberry, black currant, blueberry, passion fruit, mango, morello cherry, green apple, white peach, pear, coconut, kiwi, and pineapple.

Buy from: Christopher Elbow $24

Novelty gift: Get through the winter with fruit scented lotions / skincare and lip products that are housed in fun fruit shaped containers like this mango butter (they also have banana, apple, peach etc.)

Buy from: Tonymoly $12 for hands & feet mango butter

8.  For People Who Literally Live for Tea Time

For tea lovers who are so serious they need to jetset with their own accesssories: travel tea set with bamboo tray, gaiwan, server, and four tasting cups and stainless steel tongs plus padded zipper pouch for easy carry during travel.

Buy from: Red Blossom Tea $120

For tea drinkers of the more punny variety: Pair tea with literature in the punniest way with book shaped tea tins emblazoned with titles from Anise in Wonderland to Matcha Do About Nothing to The Picture of Earl Grey!

Buy from: NovelTeas $29 

Lovepop Cards

Felt Toys dim sum

World Power Adaptor Tumi
Buy from: Tumi $

Thursday, November 23, 2017

Thank You: Fighters, Persisters and 500 Percenters

It's been a few years since I'd returned to see my parents in Hong Kong.  In recent years, we'd been heading up to Canada to spend the holidays with my brother's family.  And it's been decades since I'd lived in Hong Kong - but somehow, and maybe especially more than ever since November 2016, it still feels like home.

This holiday, my parents wanted to stay in Hong Kong, and take a side vacation from there.  But airfare from LA would be upwards of $2500, and closer to $3000 for better itineraries - yes in coach.

So I set out to find a workaround (I guess an occupational hazard hardened into habit).

After checking my account for airline miles, I was at least 47,000 miles short even after pending ones from recent trips, but was determined to find ways to make that up within a few weeks, so I:
  • Transferred 20,000 Starwood points from work trips to Delta Skymiles to get the 5,000 promotional bonus (total: 25,000 miles)
  • Purchased 9,000 in 'Mileage Booster' Skymiles with my last work trip (they are cheaper to buy when already traveling on Delta vs. independently.  Paid $177 for 3 sets of 3,000 miles each vs. regular price equivalent $315)
  • Chased, expedited and transferred 24,000 Marriott points earned from work trips into 8,000 Starwood points, and added to my remaining 12,000 Starwood points to create second set of 20,000 Skymiles with 5,000 bonus (total 25,000 miles)
  • Fortuitously timed but surprise transfer of credit card to hotel points which I converted to Delta miles 
  • Signed up for Delta credit card to get bonus 50,000 miles (knowing I may not reach qualifying minimum spend in time to bank miles for ticket for peak holiday season) 

When I'd finally built up the 80,000 minimum total miles for an award flight LAX-HKG, I was cautiously optimistic, as there's always a chance the flights I'd found earlier would already be sold out.  And indeed the website kept returning error messages that the fares were no longer available, to try again later.  Several hours, then days of this and I had to call in to see if a live rep could help. Four reps later, I'd still gotten no better answers than "try again later" or "due to partner airline connection to China Eastern, the system is unable to connect / the flight availability is not communicated in real-time, so if it says it's no longer available there's no way around it", "get more miles and try back again for the next set of flight options at 135,000 miles", or the worst: "you may just have to try to find some way to pay for the flights".

On the fifth call, I got a rep who at least made an effort at a new recommendation: use 'Pay With Miles' option to lower costs: every 10,000 miles can be traded for $100 discount on the ticket price with eligible Delta credit cards. With this I could save $900 but would still need to pay over $1600 I couldn't afford. But still, in desperation to get home I asked how this logistically could be accomplished - and luckily, the rep then transferred me to her team to walk me through the process.  Which brought me to Tyler. 

Where do I begin with Tyler? Incredibly thankful for him.  A unicorn shining in the grey desert of people who live to give 'just enough', and no more. A fighter who will not go quietly into the dial tone.  Who cared to make the effort to look beyond 'what', and the defeatist 'can't be done', into 'why'.

And 'why' we (for yes, I was thinking of us as a team by this point) couldn't buy the ticket with miles only was because one leg of the 1-stop flight was Delta and the other was China Eastern, and the two could not auto-connect.  He wanted to talk to his international help desk to see if he could attempt a manual override. Would I mind holding, he asked.  He apologized for the wait, and I almost cried out loud in gratitude to this total stranger who was trying so hard to actually help.  And who was doing it so kindly, and graciously.  After three hold sessions, they still could not override, and it was looking like I might have to at least pay for one leg of it, or go back to Pay With Miles.  I thanked him for his efforts and started to resign myself to go on a strict diet of Top Ramen for the next few months to pay off the credit I'd need to use for the ticket.  And tried to keep focused on how lucky I already am to be in the position to even have any options in the first place.  And then Tyler apologized for trying to put me on hold one more time, so that he could try one more thing.  That one more thing was to change the front leg of the 1-stop flight so that it would be on China Eastern as well, so that I could use Delta Skymiles for one partner all the way.  And because he never gave up on me, knowing that this is probably going to damage his length of call time to resolution record, and still caring to persist with 500% effort to get me home: he was able to with that clever and creative solution, secure the ticket for me 100% on miles, so the only money I would have to pay is for taxes and fees, totaling under $200.  Saving: Christmas.  In a time where the formerly hopeful, had become so hopeless.  He brought new hope.

So, this Thanksgiving: Tyler of Delta Minnesota, first of his name (as far as I'm concerned), the Unburnt(out), breaker of chains (of 'adequacy'), conqueror of challenges, enabler of homegoing.  Agent of sign "HR".  Heroes can come in many forms.  I salute you.

(And yes, Delta:  you have a fan for life.)

To all: wishing you a very happy Thanksgiving filled with great food and family time.  Safe travels to those who are traveling.  Hope that some of my learnings may be helpful to your travel planning.  And may everyone also have a fighter, persister, 500 percenter in your corner.

Monday, February 6, 2017

SHARE by Curtis Stone: Top Chef Dining on the High Seas

Whether you're a food lover who has followed Curtis Stone from his first incredible tasting-menu based restaurant Maude, to the debut of his meat-focused restaurant / premium butchery Gwen, or a wanderer who looks for quality in all  your travel experiences, SHARE by Curtis Stone should be on your radar as one of the most exciting things to alight the cruise industry.

In exclusive partnership with Princess Cruises, SHARE is a fine-dining concept that represents the respected chef Curtis' first restaurant at sea. 

Bringing together chef Curtis' love of food, travel and the ocean, SHARE serves a 6-course dinner that is a game changer for the cruise industry: a top chef designed menu full of fresh ingredients and flavors reflecting some of the ports along the ship's itineraries - in a sunlit, spacious, chic space - in contrast with the typical hi-low options typical to a cruise ship where you either have cafeteria style buffet dining or over-the-top opulence - that is tasteful and would make any foodie feel at home.

Chef Curtis also made the dining room feel more cozy / intimate with eclectic personal touches including souvenirs from his own travels.

And the best part?  The meal costs only $39 per person, and offers several options per course to accommodate different tastes.

We were excited to get a preview of the new menu, on a day when the Ruby Princess was docked at San Pedro en route to Santa Barbara.  

course one STARTER: Charcuterie whole 18-month aged San Daniele prosciutto sliced thinly with pickled onions and Castelvetrano Olives. On a regular night, cruise ship travelers would get a choice of fennel infused finocchiona, garlic dusted Hungarian salami, or spicy soppressata.  We got to try all three, and I loved them all - but the main attraction was definitely that flavor packed, incredibly smooth and perfectly sliced prosciutto.

The other option that would suit non-meat eaters: Pantaleo cheese with accompaniments
course two SALAD: Little Gem baby romaine leaf salad tossed in a caraway buttermilk dressing complementing grapefruit and nasturtium flowers.  This was edible art, with gorgeous colors, super fresh ingredients and a perfect balance of textures and bright flavors: savory, tart, and sweet - I loved it even as someone who is not typically a fan of salads.

course two SALAD (alternate option): Lemon Poached Prawns paired with a turnip cream, crispy brioche and finished with raw radishes.  This one was unanimously a showstopper for all our fellow diners: the prawns were perfectly cooked, with beautiful structure and spring. Counterbalanced by crisp pieces of brioche lightly garnishing the dish like butterfly wings, and soft clean crunch of radish.  This dish was not just 'good for a cruise ship', I would happily order it at any restaurant on-shore.

course three PASTA Ricotta Cavatelli highlighting roasted sunchokes, pickled beets and brussels sprouts leaves. SHARE offers handmade pasta dishes and this one is a decadent one again with beautiful plating - the red beets can be swirled into the cream sauce to turn it a lovely magenta color.  Nice control here of savory, acid, sweet and subtle bitterness.

course three PASTA (alternate option): Pork Ravioli a green curry filling coated in a lemongrass cream and topped with crunchy chicharrones. This was a creative and playful dish that takes Thai flavors into a classically Italian dish - something unexpected especially for cruise dining.

course four SEA Butter Poached Lobster Tail resting on roasted potatoes and crispy pancetta covered in a white onion soubiseWe tried to order different dishes per course in order to sample more, but couldn't resist the poached lobster tail, which was delicately poached and the simplicity yet subtly sophisticated sauce let the freshness of the lobster take center stage.

If we ever get the chance to take a Princess Cruise, we'd love to check out the other options in the "Sea" course: from day boat scallops with sesame and chickpea puree and Za'atar spice mix, steelhead trout in white wine beurre blanc, or white corn veloute.

course five LAND Strip Loin Steak a charred and sliced New York steak on top of a sunchoke puree, braised leeks and crispy onions. 

course five LAND (alternate option): Lamb Loin paired with harissa scented couscous coated in spiced almonds and lime yogurt.  I don't recall seeing lamb loin on many menus, so it was a treat to taste this on chef Curtis' menu.  Makes sense that even the Land section of the meal is exciting, since he just opened the meat-centric restaurant Gwen not too long ago, and can make use of well sourced premium cuts of less ordinary proteins.

course six DESSERT Dark Chocolate Cremeux a chocolate hazelnut custard with crispy mousse and a burnt vanilla bean ice cream.  This was the best of three desserts we tasted - so good we almost licked the plate.

Other options were citron tart and toffee cheesecake 

Overall, love that on Princess Cruises we now have the ability not to simply 'make do' with dining available but to actually look forward to dinner.

Satiated after our lovely meal, we took a quick tour around the ship before it starts its voyage up the coast.

There was the gorgeous atrium...a casino area, a full on theater for nightly entertainment.

And of course, pools on top deck for travelers to have a great hang out while enjoying sun and sea - they also have giant screens in the pool area for movie nights under the stars, as well as concerts.

The visit definitely made me want to work on planning my next vacation - with the rate 2017 is going already, we're all going to need to get some quality R&R.

*Disclaimer: this meal was hosted.


SHARE by Curtis Stone
On board Princess Cruises: Ruby Princess, Emerald Princess and Sun Princess
Ph:  1-800-774-6237



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