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Our fat & festive tree...plus glowing cat eyes at right.

Rather than therapeutically writing about the inevitable “post Christmas blues,” which undoubtedly will befall many an individual in just a week or so from today, I’ve decided to revel in the beauty of the season by creating a “best of” list for this Christmas.  If you’re looking for a new cookie, a new Xmas CD, a new festive drink, a new holiday scented bath product, a new holiday date spot, (oh, and a way to possibly beat the post-holiday doldrums) look no further!  Well, at least here are some ideas…

1.  Music: John Erickson’s “A Feeling of Christmas” is one I highly recommend for peaceful piano tunes most likely in the jazz category.  There are a couple cheezy renditions, but for the most part, I absolutely love this record, particularly his versions of “O Come, O Come Emmanuel,” “Greensleeves,” and “Lo, How a Rose E’re Blooming.”  Our bass-player friend Patrick Williams gave us the record last year…and he’s on it!  🙂

2.  More music: Frank Wallace’s “Joy: Carols & Songs for a Season of Light.”  Peaceful, Renaissance-influenced guitar music.  Absolutely fabulous, beautiful, peaceful…

(I still think Vince Guaraldi’s Charlie Brown Christmas is my fave of all-time…)

3.  Cookies/treats: the famous Riley Holiday Nuggets (top secret recipe), but I will share a recipe I recently acquired from my good friend, Angie.  Sandwich a peppermint patty between 2 Ritz crackers; coat with melted chocolate (preferably “almond bark,” which is apparently better for coating and NO, it does not have almonds in it).  Let the cookies dry on wax paper and store in an air-tight container.  They don’t sound like my kind of thing AT ALL – I mean…Ritz crackers??? – but these are…in a word…superb.  TRY THEM!  Or at least take them to a Xmas or New Year’s party when you don’t have time for in-depth baking.

4.  Candles: holiday scented candles from Bath & Body works.  Ever since Illuminations went out of business a couple years ago, I’ve been searching for a truly wondrous scented candle.  Look no further, Bath & Body Works is the way to go.  They also have these beautiful ceramic shapes — pumpkins, acorns, apples, pine cones.  They’ve been gracing chez Rigby since October.  They had some pretty sweet sales online recently, so check it out.

5.  Drink: Riley Cranberry spice tea with Jameson.  3 parts cranberry, 1 part water & a splash of OJ if you have it on hand.  2-3 Constant Comment teabags and or mulling spice sack.  Sliced oranges.  Cinnamon stick.  Liberal sprinkles of nutmeg, cinnamon, &  whole cloves.  This is fine without the booze as well, but nothing warms a winter night like Jameson.  You could also use Maker’s Mark, of course.

6.  Decor: Strands of white/clear Moravian star lights.  This is our favorite piece of holiday decor.  You can hang them anywhere.  Since we do colored lights on our tree, we take the Moravians off the lights on which they come and put them on the colored lights.  (See photo.)  Ours came from the Winterthur catalog maybe 3-4 years ago, but I’m having a very hard time finding them online.  I’m sure they’re out there, so it’s worth the search.  Moravian stars in general are just gorgeous, so I think every home should have one.  🙂

7.  Arts/dance/theater: the 1977 version of the Nutcracker with Baryshnikov & Gelsey Kirkland.  This is the one I grew up watching…as many of us did!  🙂  Kirkland looks bizarre, but I really think this is THE quintessential Nutcracker.  Almost all of it is on youtube, but I think this is a DVD worth owning.

8.  Movie for all ages: Polar Express.  I have a rather lengthy list of holiday favorites, most of which I’ve been watching since the 80s, but Polar Express is one of my relatively new faves.  What a beauty!

9.  Movie for little ones: Emmet Otter’s Jug Band Christmas.  This is a fantastic, fun, imaginative film that Jim Henson & his ingenious team did back in the early 80s as an HBO special.  It is just wonderful!  I still have such fun watching it.  And be sure to watch the special features.  Frank Oz (Miss Piggy, Yoda, etc) originally did the voice of Ma Otter.

10. Beauty: Holiday scented shower gels & hand soaps from Bath & Body Works OR Philosophy.  I highly recommend Sweet Cinnamon Pumpkin & Twisted Peppermint from Bath & Body Works…and just about anything from Philosophy (available at Sephora or philosophy.com).  Superb!  Also, any holiday scented handmade soaps off ebay.  They are easy to find…and cheap!

11. Manhattan holiday date-spot: Bin 71 or Barcibo (and/or the soon-to-open Bar’rique).  I found myself unexpectedly at Bin last night & it was just super cozy & candlelit & I ordered one of my favorite wintertime meals — meatballs in a lemon broth with crusty bread.  I can’t speak more highly of these places & they are so wonderful in the wintertime.  Cozy up to your sweetheart & enjoy!  Bin is on Columbus & 71st (SE corner) and Barcibo is on Broadway & 69th (NE corner).  The soon-to-be-open Bar’rique is on Bleecker & Cornelia.

12.  Asheville, NC holiday date spot: the lobby at the Grove Park Inn…or (if you’re lucky) a ROOM at the Grove Park Inn!  (wink, wink…)  I’m unfortunately only in Asheville a handful of times a year, but this is a go-to spot for hanging with friends and loved ones, esp. at Christmastime when GP goes all-out with its decorating.  There is also a beautiful spa there as well as shops, Christmas stores, restaurants, etc.  It’s an Asheville gem!

13. International Christmas destination: York, England.  The most Christmasey place I’ve ever been to!  Jason and I went there on our honeymoon and it was like stepping into Dickens’s “A Christmas Carol.”  Beautiful, charming, interesting medieval town…they know how to do Christmas there.

14. Swanky gift-buying spot for gals & metrosexuals: L’Occitane.  This is my new favorite beauty supply place, though I really can’t afford anything there.  But…if you need a luxurious, swanky gift with absolutely gorgeous holiday gift wrap, check out L’Occitane.  They’re usually generous with their samples as well, which one can certainly pocket.  For more CRAFTY gifts, check out etsy.com.  Esp. the tattoo tights!  🙂

15.  Beating the post-Christmas blues: I really don’t have a fool-proof solution for this except to create things to look forward to in the new year.  This year for me they are: SNOW, starting up ballet classes again, maybe starting riding again, SNOW, becoming a stronger runner, seeing lots more of my family…oh, and snow.  🙂

Merry Christmas!

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The Gramercy Tavern, on E. 20th St, is my new favorite NYC spot for food/wine.  J & I went last night for a somewhat last-minute Monday evening rendez-vous, and we had an absolutely  incredible meal complete with amazing wine, impeccable service, and stunning decor.  This is THE place to go in NYC, in my book.  And I have many reasons!

1.  If you’re looking for something of “a deal” price-wise, you really can’t beat walking into the Tavern, GT’s front room (a bit more casual than the dining area in the back) and ordering 3 courses for $38.  For the incredible quality of the food & service, I don’t think you can beat that.  You can also do a la carte, which is by no means off-the-charts price wise.  I think GT is the deal of the century considering the amazingness of the food.

2. The food is number one, don’t get me wrong, and they have a beautiful wine list & some really interesting & fun cocktails!  But the DECOR.  Omg!  This was the second time I’ve been in the fall – luckily, because their pumpkin/birch tree/bittersweet/candle arrangements are absolutely out of this world gorgeous.  Even the flower arrangement in the bathroom was autumnal and stunning.  GT is hands-down my favorite place for decor.  (One year we went for J’s bday around Christmastime and they were decorated accordingly.  However, I had one of the worst sinus infections of my life, and had trouble swallowing.  Not a good evening to go to GT.  I think I was so distracted by my throat that I barely remember anything about the evening.)

3.  Lovely service.  Nothing snooty-patooty here.

Quick menu overview.

For appetizer, I ordered the Red Kuri Squash Soup with Brussels Sprouts and Fried Oysters.  Jason ordered the Fish Croquette with Heirloom Beans, Arugula and Lemon.  This was our favorite course, I think.

For main course, I ordered the Hanger Steak with Fingerling Potatoes, Red Russian Kale and Bourbon Sauce.  J ordered the Meatball with Fontina, Potato Puree, and Red Wine Onions.  Deliciousness all around.

For dessert, we shared the Butterscotch Bread Pudding with Pear Sorbet.  Amazing!  Autumnal!

Wines: I ordered (via waiter’s recommendation) a glass of the Aligote Derain (2009) from Burgundy; J ordered a glass of the Barolo (1999), which I eventually ordered as well since it was INCREDIBLE.

I should also add that if you do any sort of no-bread diet (South Beach, etc), sorry, but you CANNOT pass up the bread at this place.  Soft yet crusty multi-grain goodness with the most amazing butter…even a little side dish of sea salt.  Omg!  Heaven!

If you’re doing a walk-in for the Tavern, I recommend getting there early.  We were there around 5:15 on a Monday & it was pretty packed shortly thereafter.

This place is amazing.  Am thinking maybe we’ll do our 5-year wedding anniversary at GT next year in their regular dining room.  The whole place is perfection!!

Happy NYC dining!

http://www.gramercytavern.com/

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A Lovely Meal at Home: Take-Out from 12 Bones BBQ, Asheville, NC

Hard to beat a home-cooked meal: Jason's German-style dinner - organic, western NC sausages, German potato salad, cucumber salad, Coconut cake from the Well-Bred Bakery in Weaverville, NC

Last night my husband and I decided to have our long-awaited date night at a cute tapas bar on the upper west side, which will remain nameless, but I have indeed been there before — twice, in fact —  and was reasonably pleased both times — enough to go back.  I’ll keep this as succinct as possible so as to get to the point of this post.  We had a lovely time, mostly because it was the one time in the last month that we’ve actually sat down face to face with no reason to hurry through a meal and/or a conversation (our lives are crazy…seriously).  I do like this tapas bar.  It’s candlelit, cozy without being too cramped like many NYC wine bars, and the service was attentive and friendly — the host even inquired about the book I had on the table.  Nice touch…I mean, I like when people are inquisitive without seeming too nosey.  The wine was fine.  $13 for a quarttino of Pinot Grigio (so-so)…Jason had a spicy, full-bodied red (Crianza???), around the same price.  Anyway, the food was really just so-so, and we ended up spending waaayyyy too much for the quality.  We had grilled calamari, which was just weird…I mean, it’s not even worth describing.  Brussel sprouts which badly needed salt and had a presentation that would perhaps even scare off the most die-hard brussel sprout lover.  The meatballs were pretty good, though Jason thought they too needed salt.  The bread & olive oil was lovely, though we ended with this little “snack” for $3.50, which was basically a slice of slightly stale baguette, a piece of serrano ham, a piece of unexciting cheese, an olive, all toothpicked together.  It kind of reminded me of something from the infamous Ohio relish trays to which I was introduced Thanksgiving 2008.  Bottom line: lovely date, disappointingly so-so food, too much money spent.  We could’ve prepared every single thing better at home.

So hard to find a great restaurant sometimes!  Since the above comments are about a tapas bar, I should say that two of my favorite wine bars EVER are on the upper west side, but we opted for tapas, because the other 2 tend to be crazy busy & just a tad too expensive for what we were looking for.  I’ll go to my staples next time: Bin 71, Barcibo for uptown; 8th Street Wine Cellar for downtown.  You can’t go wrong with those.

Here’s the question: how do so many restaurants — cute, pretty, inviting restaurants with attentive servers — get away with such subpar food?!?!  I’m realizing as I’m writing this that I sound like a total snob…but it’s really about standards, isn’t it?

I recently started working at a really fabulous restaurant in Tarrytown.  I’ve really been enjoying the job so far & it’s been a much-needed break from so much of the stuff I’ve been doing for so many years.  And I have to say, the food is STELLAR.  And THAT’S what makes me enjoy going to work.  I used to find waiting tables to be demeaning.  Waiting on snooty people?  No, thank you.  Waiting on people who treat you like you’re below them?  No, thank you.  But I (knock on wood) haven’t encountered those attitudes at my current job, and I notice that people are just blown away by the food.  What a difference a high quality meal makes!  The food is almost all locally produced/grown, with the exception of a few seafood items.  The presentation is beautiful, I literally want to eat every single thing on the menu, the restaurant cozy and inviting with a really beautiful bar as well.  I just can’t say enough good things about this place.

But then I come home to Manhattan, meet my husband out at a cute little chic tapas bar on the UWS…and we’re disappointed.  We also experienced another recent disappointment when we did dinner on the UWS back in July at a restaurant that I had absolutely raved about to Jason — and we were so incredibly disappointed!  It was just subpar quality and (big surprise) too much money!  Maybe they went downhill???  Or maybe my standard just suddenly got higher.

I should write a quick disclaimer here that I am not a picky eater…and not really a picky drinker either.  I’m pretty good at identifying shitty wine, but I’ll gladly settle if that’s what’s offered.  (I can’t say the same for Jason…but then I just get to drink his crappy wine, so it all works out)!  But J & I really do good food at home, we know how to eat, how to savor food & wine…but we’re just not in the budget to go to Le Bernardin.  So what to do.  Either cook at home or go to a place that you KNOW is going to be good.  No more risk-taking a la last night’s date.  The tricky thing here is that both of our not-so-good UWS dining experiences these last few months were at places that I thought were good.  Perhaps my standard really has gotten higher.  But if we’re going to go out and spend, say, over $50 on food, it should be absolutely stellar in my book.  Anyway…  So I’m making a relatively short list here of places that rarely, if ever, disappoint (the first 5 are in Manhattan).  As for any new places to try, I’m going to go with friends’ recommendations.  So here are my picks:

1. 8th Street Wine Cellar  http://8thstwinecellar.com/

2. Bin 71  — Their meatballs in lemon broth is one of my all-time favorite wintertime meals.  http://www.bin71.com/

3. Barcibo  http://barciboenoteca.com/

4. Supper  http://www.supperrestaurant.com/

5. Otto — go for the wine & cheese & of course, the famous olive oil gelato; the pasta is so-so.  Sorry, Mario.  😦  But it’s still a go-to place and doesn’t seem to break the bank.  http://www.ottopizzeria.com/

6. Sweet Grass Grill — Tarrytown, NY http://sweetgrassgrill.com/

7.  Rezaz — Asheville, NC (this is one of my favorite places of all time).  http://www.rezaz.com/intro.html

8.  Laughing Seed — Asheville, NC  http://laughingseed.jackofthewood.com/

And lastly, chez Rigby, Washington Heights, NYC.  🙂

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One of the Philabaum lemons being put to good use

My mom has always said that when my dad traveled, she would resort to really, really simple eating — like, cereal for dinner.  While I relate  to that approach to “single/alone” dining, I really do enjoy making quality meals for myself that do indeed take some preparation, & some- albeit simple- planning.

My husband is an absolutely outstanding cook…without exaggeration, one of the best I’ve ever had the pleasure to encounter.  I’ll never forget the first time he made his famous “northwoods mushroom pasta” back in March of 2005 to the soundtrack of Nick Drake, Miles Davis, Iron & Wine, and John Coltrane/Johnny Hartman (the most romantic record I’ve ever heard).  Anyway, said mushroom pasta resulted from an extraordinarily complicated recipe involving various types of mushrooms — fresh and dried –, homemade mushroom broth, etc.  I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been out for dinner when I’ve literally thought, “Jason could do this better at home…or I could even do this better at home!”  So we dine at home as much as possible, and his approach in the kitchen is a beautiful sight to behold.  His dishes tend to resemble those at Supper, NYC’s absolutely wonderful east village Italian.

With that said, Jason is out of town…a lot.  But rather than shying away from the kitchen & opting for cereal (a la Catherine Riley – who, btw, is also an outstanding cook) or take- out (a la undergrad years), I consistently venture into food preparation with some hopefully fresh produce, almost always olive oil, usually some greens, and probably a dairy element — like goat cheese or parmesan.  I love salads, dried fruit, avocado, broiled chicken breasts, etc.

So the Philabaum lemons: one of my dearest friends, Aubyn Philabaum, is from Tucson.  I was very happy to see her last night for a (albeit wretchedly torturous) Bikram yoga class followed by an absolutely lovely dinner at Aubyn’s Hell’s Kitchen apartment.  I brought some french white wine — in terms of the Ninth Ave wine store’s chilled selections, it was that or a $7 bottle of Chardonnay, which I most definitely was NOT going to purchase…plus I was so spent from the Bikram torture that I could hardly think.  The camel pose was the last straw.  So back to the dinner: Aubyn is a wonderful cook, always has health in mind, and really knows how to season.  She knows good food & wine…like, really, really.  What could be better for a culinary combination?  She made two kinds of fish — halibut & tilapia, a lovely salad with avocado & cucumber, and some red potatoes.  So the lemons:  Her parents apparently have this lemon tree — that, surprisingly has produced oranges…yes, oranges one year when it…well, just decided not to produce lemons.  But anyway, I guess her lovely parents decided to send Aubyn all these gorgeous lemons…tons of them.  So she passed quite a few on to me.  I like to think of them as good luck charms as we enter springtime and my April 8th deadline.

I LOVE lemons…in the winter, our apartment is ridiculously freezing, so I frequently drink hot, hot, hot water with squeezed lemon in it.  Or I squeeze lemon in tea.  But what to do with so many lemons?  Hot toddies anyone?  For you Tori fans out there (I know you’re sadly few & far between):  “Lemon pie, he’s coming through.  Our commander still, Space Dog.”

Salad dressing!  I love salad, so I made a big batch of salad dressing to store in the fridge.  Chopped/minced garlic, olive oil, some salt and pepper, and lots of freshly squeezed Philabaum lemons.  Perfect!  And earlier today, I squeezed some over some broiled chicken I was making…salt, pepper, olive oil, freshly squeezed lemon.  Really, the simplest things are the best, n’est pas?  The garlic in the salad dressing is super potent.  I hope my body shows mercy to the poor soul next to me at the gym tomorrow.  At least no Bikram in the cards this week.  😉

Quick note re. cooking music: usually J & I put on Joni’s “Song to a Seagull,” “For the Roses,” or “Clouds” while we’re cooking & eating dinner.  “I Had a King” is probably my favorite bit of Joni poetry ever.  Since Joni is really an “us” thing, I’ve been listening to the entire catalog (pretty much) of Shearwater albums.  “Palo Santo,” “Rooks,” “the Golden Archipelago” while J has been away.  Jonathan Meiburg has sort of substituted for Jason…at least in the cerebral sense. 😉  Shearwater is playing in NYC next weekend and I cannot wait!

Happy eating, happy lemoning…or “turning lemons into lemonade,” to use the parlance of our times.   😉  “Come in lemon pie, can you read me, lemon pie?  I read you, buddy.”

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Jason, Aubyn, and my wonderful in-laws, George & Eileen at 8th Street Wine Cellar

People are always quick to say that New York City has amazing food available at every turn.  Part of me agrees, and part of me feels that you really do have to know where to go.  Like any city, NYC certainly has its share of mediocre restaurants/bars/cafes, etc.  So I think trial-and-error, being somewhat adventurous, and (this is the most important thing, I think) get recommendations from people who also love food/wine/beer and read reviews!  I don’t know what I would do without yelp.com!

Hands down, my favorite places to eat & drink in NYC are wine bars, and I have a small list of places I think are stellar on every level.  I have much more detailed reviews on my yelp page: http://www.yelp.com/user_details?userid=MzkeNPw6OXtPR73UjCHVjg

1. Boqueria: 19th Street, just east of 6th Ave.  Just discovered this thanks to my good friend and fellow food/wine lover, Hannah.  Tapas.  Fabulous food & wine, not too crazy expensive.  I recommend the rose sangria!  Get there early…this place gets packed.

2.  Jadis: Rivington St., LES.  Been there twice, this was also recommended by Hannah.  🙂  Cozy vibe, a little bigger than a lot of wine bars, which is nice.  Get the crabcakes!  Delicious wine.

3.  Bin 71: Amsterdam & 71st.  Two of my good friends have worked here, and it’s one of my all time favorites.  I swear, I’ve never had a less-than-awesome meal here.  The food is sooooo good.  A little small, esp. when I’m coming from a gig and have my gear with me, but otherwise a lovely place to get cozy!  Went there last New year’s eve before J & I headed out to a cocktail party.  Had the famous meatballs in lemon broth.  Fantastic!

4.  Barcibo:  Broadway & 69.  Owned by the same people who own Bin (pretty sure about this).  Only been about 4 times over the last couple years, but it’s utterly fantastic.  Same high quality as Bin.  Romantic vibe (dark, candle lit), and the guy (Mark?) who greets-and-seats is soooo charming.

5.  8th Street Wine Cellar:  Between 5th Ave. & MacDougall.  This might be my number 1 of all-time, maybe tied with Bin.  Absolutely fantastic food, lovely wine list, cozy, romantic vibe, great service, not too terribly small.  LOVE this place.  Their butternut squash bruschetta is one of my favorite things of all time!  It seems the world has discovered it since the last couple times I went it was packed.  But that’s good for them.  They deserve to be popular!

Other places I’ve gone and would recommend, but I don’t know enough about them to review: Riposo 46 (Ninth Ave), the Wine Bar (2nd Ave)…

Also, check out the gorgeous bar at Bocca di Bacco on Ninth Ave. (btw. 54 & 55th).  They have great food as well, and it’s really more of a restaurant.  The bar is so beautiful, though, I would go and just sit there.  Also, check out their front door.  It’s gorgeous!

Happy wine-barring!

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