Sunday, October 20, 2019

Kid-Free Vacation to Cincinnati: Part 1

As I mentioned before, we got so lucky this summer. Our families really stepped it up and gave Dan and I a much-needed break, while getting to spend one-on-one time with their grandkids. Zahara flew solo to Florida for two weeks, and my folks came to DC to hang out with Asher.

My dad actually flew in before my mom, who had to stay behind to work. Though our trip didn't have the best start (flat tire in the pouring rain), dad did great and Asher loved hanging with his Pop Pop.

Dan and I left the next morning for a four-night vacation to Cincinnati, Ohio! Now, I know you're asking yourself, why Cincinnati? Admittedly, it's a strange choice. But, our criteria were as follows: 1) Nonstop flight from DC 2) Cheap plane tickets 3) Good food/drink scene 4) Relaxed vibes. I'm happy to say, Cincinnati hit it out of the park on all fronts!

To be honest, I had pretty low expectations. I loaded a ton of books on my kindle and prepped for an awesome, low-key get-away. I thought we'd be spending most of our time in cafes and coffee shops like we did in Vilnius. But that's not what happened at all. Here are some of our highlights:

We stayed at the Hampton Inn & Suites in downtown, very close to the Over-the-Rhine (OTR) neighborhood, making it the perfect home base. OTR is the cutest little neighborhood filled with interesting shops, yummy food, and beautiful murals. This city clearly appreciates the arts and individuality.

Huge mural in OTR
One fun thing we did in OTR was make our own candles. I saw this shop called The Candle Lab and had to check it out. There's a wall full of single-scent candles waiting for you to sniff. You get a clipboard, mark which scents you like, then a staff member helps you narrow it down to three complementary scents. You choose what you'd like to make (choices include candles, bath salts, hand lotion, and more), then start mixing. You come back a few hours later to get your finished product. We went with a peppercorn, mug and brush, and bourbon scent. It smells really clean and masculine. We're calling it our anniversary blend.

I was really surprised at how walkable this city is. It felt like we were able to cover a ton of ground in just one afternoon. We could easily walk from our hotel to the end of OTR, to Fountain Square, to the baseball field, and even into Northern Kentucky. This town is so cute though, and may think its a bit larger than it is. It has a lightrail system! We literally were walking faster than the tram, but it's nice they've invested in their  infrastructure.

Cincinnati Museum Center
We got a tip to check out the Cincinnati Museum Center, which we were told was not quite walkable from where we were staying. It definitely is, by the way, but we decided to try out scooters for the first time. Dan LOVED it and wishes he could commute by scooter. I'm happy I tried it once.

The museum was surprisingly cool. We went on 1940's day and everyone was decked out in the most authentic-looking costumes. Inside the museum were a few special '40s exhibits, a kids area, a special exhibit on ancient Egypt, and their permanent exhibits. We only went to the permanent exhibits, which included the largest model city I've ever seen; an entire town set in the 1800's filled with shops, a steamboat, and cobblestone streets; and a cave system with running water and stalactites. Every room in this museum was so intricate and well-thought out. I was very impressed!

Kayaking on the Little Miami River
We spent a day kayaking on the river, and it was glorious! This was a really last-minute decision, and it worked out perfectly. We went with Scenic River Canoe, and their drop-off site was less than half an hour outside the city. We ubered there and back with no problems at all.

There were a couple of different choices for tours, but we went with the 6 mile one, and it was perfect. Nice and leisurely, with minimal effort and maximum relaxation. We even stopped near the end at a brewery! We just pulled our kayaks up on the bank and headed up for lunch. So fun!

Baseball Game
We really ran with the summer theme and went to a Cincinnati Reds game. Tickets were really reasonable and the stadium was fantastic. It is really well-designed to be very accessible from the city (we walked!). Inside the stadium was a pleasant surprise as well. Every seat seemed to have a great view. Ours was right behind the home plate, and it felt really intimate compared to some other ball parks I've been to. It was super hot and sunny, but we had a great time.

Overall, I'd recommend Cincinnati as a great weekend destination. It hit all the requirements for us, and we came back rested and happy.

See what we ate in Cincinnati here.

Friday, August 23, 2019

What We Ate in Cincinnati

Cincinnati was a surprisingly fun town with tons to do and see. And since eating is my number one pastime, you know we found good food in the Queen City. Here are some highlights:

We had several great meals and one pretty terrible one. Our best meal was at BOCA where we had tremendous food and an awesome waiter (thanks Kyle!). It's pricey--especially for Cincinnati, but we split an entree and appetizers and walked away full. My favorite of the night was the Egg Raviolo "San Domenico," which was a raviolo stuffed with an egg yolk. It was heavenly! A close second was the Corn Elote (R.A.D.), which was fresh pasta that tasted like Mexican street corn. Sidenote, if you haven't had fresh midwest corn in the summer, you're missing out.

We had another great meal at Salazar. I got talked into the Fried Pimento Cheese Fritters and am so happy I did. Such a great guilty pleasure. And the homemade spaghetti with fresh corn and tomatoes was incredible.

For a quick bite, the tacos and roasted cauliflower side at Bakersfield were great! The cauliflower was like a yummy, spicy dip, and the Hongos taco was my favorite.

Since Cincinnati is known for its chili, we stopped by Skyline to check it out. Sadly, their vegetarian offerings were pretty lame (black beans and rice), so we skipped it. Luckily, there was a great vegetarian chili option at the airport called Gold Star Chili. We loaded up our to-go containers with spaghetti, chili, onions, and enough cheese to feed a village (veggie 4-way). Verdict: it was delicious! Nothing like the chili I'm used to as a Texan, but still really good.

Sadly, Satre totally missed the mark for us. We went there initially because my dad's colleague's cousin was the chef. Turns out, he no longer works there--a fact we only discovered as we were paying our bill. The food was ok, but the service was terrible. Definitely not worth a visit. At least the company was good!

There were two main sweets were were told we had to have in order to properly experience Cincinnati: Graeter's ice cream and Holtman's donuts. So of course we obliged.

We got a a really delicious apple fritter at Holtman's. I wanted to go back and sample more, but each time I was nearby they were closed. Bummer. I'm not sure it was the best fried dough I've had, but it was really tasty.

We had Graeter's twice. I had their black cherry with chocolate chip and their cookie dough chocolate chip. Dan had the banana chocolate chip and the maple cinnamon crunch. The ice cream was good, but not nearly as good as Jeni's.

To be honest, we didn't really go out for drinks other than having a cocktail at dinner. We grabbed a beer at Taste of Belgium and wish we had stayed for a waffle. And I had a great chai latte at Coffee Emporium (Dan had an espresso).

But one of the most fun places we went to was called Tokyo Kitty. It is a crazy little Japanese karaoke bar/night club that we just stumbled upon. We got there a little late for the group karaoke and only participated in a few songs before the DJ started up, but trust me when I say this is one of the most unique places I've been in a while. It was such an interesting mix of people that words won't do it justice.

Cincinnati was such a fun surprise. Now it makes me want to explore more U.S. cities. Hopefully we can make this a more regular thing!

See part 1 of our Cincinnati trip here:
Kid-Free Vacation to Cincinnati: Part 1

Tuesday, August 20, 2019

Zahara the Brave: First Solo Adventure

This summer Dan and I hit the family lottery. My in-laws asked if we would consider sending Zahara to Florida for two weeks of grandparent fun time. At first, this seemed like way too much time. We've never been apart for that long before. I wasn't worried about her--I knew she'd have a great time playing at the beach, swimming in the pool, hanging out with her aunt. I was really worried for my in-laws though. Two weeks straight with a six-year-old is hard work! But, they kept asking, so we figured, let's try it.

Zahara is six now, which means she can fly on her own! Game changer! I've been flying on my own since I was that age, thanks to a travel agent mom and grandparents who lived in a different city. Flying solo isn't for everyone at that age, but I felt pretty confident that Zahara would do well. She's pretty independent and is a seasoned traveler. If I had to guess, I'd say she's probably been on close to 200 flights. Plus, give her a tablet and tell her she can watch unlimited movies and she's solid for days. Ha!

In the days and weeks leading up to the trip, we sprinkled in lots of conversations about what was coming up. We talked about strategies for how to ask for things on the plane, like drinks and bathroom, and what it would be like to be gone for so long. She was literally counting down days.

On the morning of the flight, she understandably got a bit nervous. She bravely powered through though and walked on the plane with her head up (and her tablet in her hands). And when my in-laws picked her up at the gate, they said the flight was great. She was a champ!

The two weeks went quickly for everyone. She spent her days taking swimming lessons and getting quality time with her family. We spent the two weeks living a one-child life (WOW! So much easier), and even snuck in a kid-free vacation thanks to my parents who came to watch Asher for a few days!!

All-in-all, this was a fantastic experience for everyone, and I'm looking forward to it being an annual event. HUGE thanks to my Florida family for making this happen! Love you guys!

Monday, August 19, 2019

More Birthday Celebrations!

I'm now in my late thirties. That's just a fact. Neither good nor bad. But it is kind of unbelievable sometimes. It's not that I don't feel like I'm in my late thirties--I mean, I'm a homeowner, a mom of two kids, with a husband of more than ten years. But it's still weird to me.

Nevertheless, birthdays are something to celebrate, and celebrate I did! You already saw my amazing dinner at Rose's Luxury, but I was lucky enough to have a second birthday dinner with my friends Ally and Mitchell. We had such a fun night at Le Diplomate*!

I love this place. The food is so good, and the drinks are some of my favorite in the city. I especially love the Romarin, which is Rocktown Vodka, St. Germain, Rosemary, and Grapefruit. It's so good that it's dangerous.

As with most French restaurants, there aren't a ton of vegetarian/pescatarian options, but the ones on the menu are so fantastic that it's worth the trip. Our table ordered a bunch of non-meat appetizers and it turned out to be so much food I couldn't even finish what we ordered. I think the tuna carpaccio and the haricots verts were my favorite, but the mushroom tart was a close second. We also got a free cheese plate after a waitress broke a glass and some of the shards went into Ally's back(!!).

My super thoughtful friend Dani called the restaurant and sent a glass of sparkling wine to my table. Can you even? I would never even think of something like that. It was really special. What a great way to round out my birthday. Cheers to 37!

*Incidentally, Le Diplomate is another Starr restaurant, so of course I love it. See more of my favorite Starr spots here.

See more birthday celebrations here:
Asher's birthday
Dan's birthday
Asher's 1st birthday
Dan's birthday
Calli's birthday
Dan's birthday
Zahara's 3rd
Calli's birthday
Zahara's 2nd
Dan's birthday
Zahara's birthday
Calli's birthday
Dan's birthday
Calli's birthday
Dan's birthday
Calli's birthday

Wednesday, July 31, 2019

Rose's Luxury

As part of my birthday celebrations, Dan and I went to Rose's Luxury for a fancy meal. You know how much we love a fancy meal, right?

The thing with Rose's Luxury is that it is a Michelin one-star restaurant, and they take very few reservations. Doors open at 5pm, and people generally start lining up around 4 or 4:30 to snag a table for that evening. Normally, we aren't able to get there that early and wait (because of kids and jobs--silly life responsibilities). But, today, on my birthday, I had the day off. I figured, I'll grab a book and a drink and wait in line for what promises to be an awesome meal. And you know what, it was worth it!

The line ended up not being bad at all. Granted, it was a Wednesday so crowds were smaller than they would be on a Saturday. I got there early--around 4pm, and there were already two people ahead of me. But thankfully there were chairs, so I went next door, grabbed a sangria, and came back to wait. By around 4:45 there were nine people/parties in line. A few had reservations, and a few didn't. As far as I could tell, everyone who was there by 5pm got a seat for that night.

Let me start by saying the restaurant is gorgeous! It is very unassuming from the outside, but inside it is so well decorated. In particular, I loved the warm string lights, which created a cozy atmosphere; the soft, blue velvet couch in the bar area; and the neon sign which simply said, "awesome." The service was impeccable, and exactly what you'd expect from a Michelin-starred restaurant. But, of course, the food was the star of the night.

We sat at the Chef's table, which I'd highly recommend. Dan and I sat side-by-side just a couple of feet away from the kitchen watching as each dish was meticulously prepared and then inspected by the owner before being sent out. We tried to decipher the kitchen's system, affectionately dubbing one of the chefs "tweezer man," after watching him delicately place each item with his long tweezers. 

We decided to order ala carte, vs. the prix fixe menu, and it was definitely the right choice for that night. We basically ordered every pescatarian small plate, and it was more than enough food. Here's what we ate:
  • Cacio e pepe monkey bread 
    • YUM! This was so salty and peppery and buttery. Really great start
  • Green tomato panzanella with anchovies
    • At first I was confused as to why this was called panzanella, but then I found the cubed bread underneath. This was really light and refreshing. I liked the saltiness of the anchovies
  • Popcorn soup
    • I had no idea what this would be when we ordered it, but it is exactly what it sounds like. It's soup that tastes like popcorn! It's really salty and creamy with bits of popcorn blended in. I loved it, but the small amount I had (Dan and I shared one portion) was perfect. I'm not sure I'd want a whole bowl of it

  • Lychee salad
    • This is one of their best-sellers and has been on the menu since they opened six years ago. We were told by our server that we had to mix it up to eat it properly. Dan and I planned to, but first wanted to taste the different components, like the coconut cream and peanuts. Then the chef came by to reiterate the point about the need to mix it up. Message received. Either way, it was delicious
  • Strawberry pasta
    • Ok, this one was weird,  but I really liked it. It is a freshly-made pasta with a 60% strawberry and 40% tomato sauce, served with a big dollop of ricotta. It is definitely on the sweet side, but I found it refreshing for summer. Dan said he probably wouldn't order it again though
  • Sweet Pea Primavera 
    • I really liked this dish too, but was starting to get pretty full. It's a nice, light pasta flavored with fresh peas and mint. I liked the egg and horseradish that topped the dish. And it was just so pretty

  • Cacio e pepe pasta
    • Dan's favorite dish of the night--and a strong contender for mine as well. It was perfectly seasoned with just the right amount of bite. This was compliments of the chef, which was a nice touch. I know we're paying for it one way or another, but I love the service in fine dining where you feel like you're getting value for your money. It's nice to feel taken care of
  • Dessert
    • We ordered the aged rum banana pudding, which was delicious! Tasted just like an adult Nilla wafer pudding. So tasty we forgot to take pictures. Oops! But, the servers/chefs brought two extra desserts for my birthday! One was a coconut sorbet with lime zest and caramel. I loved the sorbet, but the lime was a little too sour for me. The other was a vanilla ice cream in the cutest little cone you've ever seen, with sprinkles and a sparkler. So fun! 

Another epic meal in the books for us! What a treat!

Tuesday, July 30, 2019

Asher's 3rd Birthday!

Asher turned 3! To celebrate this milestone, we had a small party at our house with my Holy Cross mom's group friends. We've been meeting once a month for the last 3 years, since our babies were born! It's amazing how much they've all grown.

We went pretty low-key for this celebration, with a breakfast spread and play date. Thank you Costco for all of your amazing offerings! We had bagels with cream cheese and whitefish; croissants with jams; fruit and veggies. Easy and delicious!

I broke out my decorations from Sarah and Kyle's bon voyage party years ago and had all the moms sign a passport for Asher. Each kid got to keep a passport and some travel stickers. I also got little airplane whistles at the Dollar store for them to take home.

It was great watching the kids run around, play together, and get messy with cake!

Happy birthday, Asher! We love you!