Category Archives: Staff Picks

Once upon a time, in a land called Marseille

I am going to tell you a story about a city in France. Everybody all over the world knows Paris, but my story is about a town in the South of the France. Maybe some of you had heard about it, maybe in a positive way or maybe in the negative way. This city, snuggled up at the heart of Provence and on the shores of the Mediterranean Sea, is also commonly known as la Cité Phocéenne (The Phocaean City). Marseille, town of a thousand facets, fascinating and bewilderingly complex, is my city.

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Marseille, Land of Immigrants

I was born in Marseille in 1984, to Italian immigrants parents. Why Marseille? Because  for many people who make the choice to leave their country, the city has a big port open on the Mediterranean sea. Near Spain, Italy and North Africa, the town has welcomed many different culture over the years. When you are in Marseille, you just need to drive 3 hours to cross the Italian border. Easy! The new inhabitants arrive also by boat, trying to built a better life. Marseille has never closed its arms in front of any wave of immigrants. This made it strong, a multicultural city. Everything isn’t perfect, because some differences can create conflicts. Indeed, language, religious, or cultural differences can cause real integration problems. Despite that, Marseille stays the most welcoming city in France, a town where my siblings and I have grown up and where we proudly carry our Italian heritage and our dual citizenship.

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Marseille, Land of  Authenticity

If you like beautiful and authentic attractions, Marseille is made for you. When I think about my city, I can’t forget the smell of the sun on my skin, its daylight beauty, and its mysterious side at sunset. Rich in history, Marseille is where ancient architecture combines with the new face of the city. The first thing to do, even if you aren’t catholic, is to visit la Basilique Notre Dame de Garde, commonly refer by the Marseillais to “La Bonne-Mère.” Built on the hill overlooking the town at 490 ft, the view on the top is wonderful. The best moment is early in the morning when everything is still quiet. With a 360 degree view of the city, it was consecrated on June, 5th, 1864, and each year, the pilgrimage for the Assumption Day, on August 15th is really popular event. This Neo-Byzantine church supports a monumental statue of the Madonna and her child, which is 27 feet tall and made of copper gilded with gold leaf. La Bonne- Mère, is the guardian and the protector of Marseille. The other religious site is La Cathédrale de la Major, built from 1829-1874, in a Byzantine-Roman style. With a capacity of 3,000 seats, it’s one of the largest cathedrals in France. It’s 469 ft long, with a main cupola of 231 ft high.

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But in Marseille, there is another strong religion: football. Not in general, but the football team of the city, l’Olympique de Marseille (OM). Taking place in the famous Stade Vélodrome, the night of home matches are events not to be missed. The ambiance and the fans are considered  as the best all over the world.  Built in 1937, the stadium welcomes 67,394 spectators and is also used for shows. Indeed, le Vélodrome is a wonderful stage for several artists, such as The Rolling Stones, Paul McCartney, The Police and AC/DC. The other site associated to the team is La Commanderie, it’s the training center of l’OM. Many fans from all over the world come to see their idols and dedicate jerseys.

The town is also known for its different authentic districts, such as le Panier, which is located in the oldest part of the city and surrounded by famous places such as l’Hôtel de Ville, les Grands Carmes and La Joliette. With narrow streets, shops and its own old architecture, the district is considered the most picturesque place in Marseille. It’s defined as a popular area because it was the first place of the immigrants in the city.  It soon became a tourism venue and many artists opened studios because Le Panier served as a place of inspiration as for the famous local TV show, Plus Belle la vie, shot in Marseille. You can also visit La Vieille Charité, a a museum and a cultural center and former almshouse for the poor. This Baroque structure was constructed between 1671 and 1749 by the architect Pierre Puget. It is filled with beautiful architecture such as structure with pink and yellow tinted stones. In the center of the courtyard a round church was built. If you continue to walk, you will arrive on the MuCEM, (Museum of European and Mediterranean Civilizations), inaugurated on June 7th, 2013, the year Marseille was designated as the European Capital of Culture. The museum is near the wonderful site of the 17th century le Fort Saint-Jean, built by Louis XIV at the entrance to the port. The two places are linked by a high footbridge.

There are so many places to see that the best way for you to take it all in will be to book a ticket and fly Marseille. But if you want more right now, I of course have to talk about le Vieux Port (the Old Port), which is located at the the end of the most historic street of Marseille, La Canebière. Since 2013, it’s mainly for pedestrians with few cars. Each morning it welcomes the fresh fish of fishermen. It is the historic and cultural center of the city since it dates back to sixth century BC. From the port you could take the ferry boat to visit the islands of the Phocaean City, such as, the archipelago of Frioul and le Château d’If, fortress and prison known for being one of the settings of Alexandre Dumas novel, Le Comte de Monte-Cristo.

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If you continue towards the Southern districts, you will follow the ledge called la Corniche du Président John Fitzgerald Kennedy, named after US President Kennedy. It extends from Les Catalans beach to Le Prado and its famous for its naked statue of David. It offers one of the most beautiful landscapes of Marseille, with the Mediterranean Sea and its islands on the horizon. On the way you could see the famous fishermen sheds, “cabanons”,  houses of the 19th century (Villa Valmer, Villa de Gaby Deslys), hotels and famous restaurants (Le Petit Nice, Peron, Chez FonFon), where you could stop to eat the inimitable, bouillabaisse (fish soup). Under La Corniche, hides the little but picturesque port of Vallon des Auffes, where the time seems to have stopped.

I can’t finish this part without talking about the amazing Calanques de Marseille. The massif is the best place to hike and climb with is wild and rugged landscape between Marseille and Cassis. The site is the one of France’s great natural beauties. The geology and ecosystems are protected — In 2012, the Calanques were declared National Parks due to their uniqueness. Even though nowadays we can’t visit it, the Cosquer cave is located underwater, in the Calanque de Morgiou. It’s a cave of the Paleolithic area, covered with paintings and engravings of animals dating between 27,000 and 19,000 BC. The Calanques can be see by boat and if the weather allows you should swim in this warm, blue water. But please be a responsible tourists! Protect this land of dreams.

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Marseille, Land of Pleasure

Oh my taste buds quiver with pleasure evoking the food in my city. Okay, I’m vegetarian but even though Marseille has the best fish restaurants, we are also known for the best pizza. Remember, Marseille is a city of immigrants with close proximity to Italy. We are the city with the most pizza in France. In each area, you can smell tomato sauce and wood fire. I could damn myself for one of these piece! If you want make your own pizza, the best venue is Sapori di Napoli. It’s a little Trattoria in Château-Gombert’s district, which combines a shop full of Italian products with a restaurant. The owner, Raffaele Paparone, imports products such as the mozzarella di Bufala, Panettone, wine and deli meat from Napoli.

If you like different kinds of food, I recommend la Baie du Dragon. It’s a Vietnamese restaurant on Notre Dame du Mont district. The place is perfect for vegetarians and the chocolate nems are just divine. It’s my king of headquarter, the go-to for when I have to celebrate something, such as my departure for the USA.

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In Marseille you can easily find all kind of restaurants — Indian, Italian, French, Moroccan, Japanese etc, and for all your events. Even though Marseille has some good restaurants, for me, the best place remains my family home, with the real meals made by la Mamma. But take your ticket and wait your turn, because I can’t invite you all in the same day.

It’s time to say goodbye to Marseille, with a little twinge in my heart, thinking about these venues, the food and my mother’s arms. But do you smell the perfume of the Mediterranean? Do you smell the garlic, tomatoes, basil and olive oil? Do you smell the flavor of freedom?

If yes, you are made for Marseille, the city of the Epicurean

Sorry, I have to leave you, it’s now time for l’apéro, (a kind of happy hour, after work where you drink and eat snacks), the most important moment in a day in Marseille, to drink the legendary Pastis.

Allez santé! Salute! (Cheers!)

Restaurant Review: Ryoko’s

A few blocks from Union Square, tucked away on Taylor Street (between Sutter and Post) you’ll find Ryoko’s. This late night, hole-in-the-wall sushi joint has been turning out quality sushi, sashimi, and other Japanese fare for the past 23 years.

With its nondescript entrance, Ryoko’s can be pretty easy to miss—that is, unless you go during peak hours and see the line of people out the door. The restaurant is actually located below street level, so once you step inside you descend a set of stairs to reach the dining area. The atmosphere inside is warm and inviting. Cave-like, even. It’s the type of place where you think “Cool, I had no idea this place was here.” Lighting is dim, ceilings are low, and the walls are painted a deep cobalt blue. The brightly-lit sushi bar takes up half the space, while small tables set close together take up the rest. There’s a baby grand piano squeezed in amidst everything too, though I have yet to see anyone play it.  Overall it’s cozy and lively.

Everyone that arrives is greeted by the staff with a boisterous “IRRASSHIMASE!” which means “welcome” in Japanese. It’s in all caps because they literally shout it at you. With Ryoko’s being the popular place that it is, people are always walking in so you hear a constant sing-song of “IRRASHIMASE!” throughout the night. It’s not too noticeable though, given the high decibel degree. If anything, it just adds to the friendly and jovial vibe of the place.

On to the food.  The food here is simple, not flashy.  It’s best to order from the daily specials board above the bar. That’s where you’ll find the freshest stuff. If they have it, I recommend the Hamachi Toro (toro being the fattiest part of the fish). It’s flown in from Japan so it’s not too cheap—usually $9 for two pieces—but my god, the flavor and buttery texture…perfection!

Hamachi Toro (and some other fish I can’t remember)

The sushi rolls are decent. They’re not fancy, but they’re executed nicely and the fish is always fresh. However, the portion sizes are a bit small in comparison to other places of the same caliber quality and price range. [SIDE NOTE: for fancy sushi at reasonable prices, check out Sushi Bistro in the Richmond.] Specialty rolls range from $7-$14.50 and usually only comprise of five pieces (sometimes six, if it’s a smaller roll). Continue reading

I Want to Go to There: A history nerd’s look at London museums

It’s no shock that history nerds love museums. And when said history nerd is also an Anglophile, a trip to London is not just a vacation, but a pilgrimage. Having been to London several times, there are some museums I never get tired of no matter how much time I spend there, or how little it changes from year to year. As any true history nerd can attest, some things are just too awesome to only see once.

British Museum

Of all the museums in Europe, the British Museum is usually in every sightseer’s Top Five. It’s a no-brainer, and for very good reason. It’s amazing. One of my former college professors once described it as “a staggering assemblage of pillaged artifacts from all over the world.” There are too many awe-inspiring relics to even mention. One of my favorite galleries features what’s known in Britain as the Elgin Marbles and known to the rest of the world as “Pieces of the Parthenon that Greece wants back.” It’s an incredible gallery that I never tire of, no matter how much time I spend there. Truly, you can’t go wrong in the British Museum, but if you need some suggestions on where to start, check out the BBC series “History of the World in 100 Objects,” which traces the development of human society through the museum’s collection. I will leave you with one tip though. The first time I went, I completely missed the Rosetta Stone because of the crowd of people surrounding it, so if you want a decent view and are short like me, use your elbows.

Pillaged statuary in the Enlightenment Gallery

Some of the famed Elgin Marbles

National Gallery

Admittedly, this wasn’t originally on my list of must-see museums, since my “interest in paintings” threshold is relatively low. However, it was a rainy day in Trafalgar Square and I really needed a restroom so I thought, “why not?” The National Gallery features art from 1250-1900 by everyone from Da Vinci to Van Gogh. Like most major London museums, the building is incredibly beautiful, with architecture from the Late Georgian and Victorian periods. All in all, even if classical art isn’t high on your priority list, the National Gallery is a lovely way to spend an afternoon. Continue reading

Top 5 Austin Food Trucks

When it comes to the cuisine in Austin, Texas, many travel advertisements for this great metropolis proudly tout the abundance and high quality of Tex-Mex and Barbecue (BBQ). The recent hardships many are suffering due to our compromised economy have led chefs to create food trailers in order to keep their businesses afloat; thus, it is not uncommon to see many promos for BBQ and Tex-Mex food trucks in Austin.

While I have family and friends from out-of-town who “hyperfocus” on these genres of food during their stay here, I am of a different variety—I flock to this cosmopolitan to venture into more “exotic” fare. Yes, as a native Texan, I will always have a place in my heart for Tex-Mex and BBQ (they’re my soul foods), but there is also room for tastes from Spain, England, and Germany, to name a few. That being said, here is a list of food carts you must try while in Austin. And, yes, I would be criminally insane if I didn’t throw in a taco trailer or two…

LATASCA
415 Jessie Street
(512) 426-5841

Wow. Just, wow! I am a proud American of Spanish descent (three cheers for Spaniards!), and we need more eateries of our culture in the USA, especially ones serving lip-smackingly good food.  Enter Latasca, a dark, sexy, Spanish tapas truck inspired by eco-friendly Texas ingredients. Tapas can be ordered temperature hot or cold; I strongly prefer the former. For a whirlwind of tastes across the Spanish peninsula, combine albóndigas (organic grass-fed beef meatballs, olives, and red wine sauce) with champiñones al ajillo (vegan, garlic mushrooms) and patatas bravas (griddled potatoes with caramelized onions in a spiced tomato sauce). Everything is served with warm pan de horno real (oven-baked Spanish bread).  BYOB, and cash only.

IZZOZ TACOS
1503 S. 1st Street
(512) 916-4996

First of all, for all you non-Spanish speakers out there, this business is pronounced “E-zoes,” but don’t fret too much about the pronunciation; fret about whether or not you will have a big enough appetite to down the delicious offerings. Health-conscious advocates will enjoy the Del Mar Taco (blackened tilapia, slaw, pickled red onion, and chipotle aioli), but the best-tasting tacos are—of course—unhealthier: the Padre Taco (braised carnitas, avocado, pineapple, and tomatillo salsa) and the Slowrider Taco (braised machaca beef, caramelized onion, cotija cheese, and cilantro).  No trip to a taco cart would be complete without washing everything down with Topo Chico (Mexican mineral water) or Jarritos (Mexican soda).  BYOB.

BITS & DRUTHERS
1001 E. 6th Street
(361) 850-0645

God shouldn’t just bless the Queen, God should also bless the creator of fish & chips. Who would have thought that slathering haddock fillets in a beer batter, deep frying them to a crisp, and serving them with French fries would result in groans of culinary appreciation? The British, that’s who!  If you are blessed with a superhuman stomach as I am, then the Fish Supper is for you (said fish, said fries, tartar sauce, cole slaw, and a cornichon pickle).  Cheers! Cash only.

ONETACO
6th Street & Nueces
(512) 539-7561

No, you’re not alone. I’ve been there. Usually a trip to 6th Street means bar/club hopping until 3a followed by a haphazard excursion to a crowded 24-hour fast food joint somewhere else. I’m here to assure you that those days are over (well, at least those Saturday nights)! OneTaco is the satellite taco trailer that forms a symbiotic relationship with the bar Little Woodrow’s. Although they are two independent businesses, you can order from OneTaco, take your number to Little Woodrow’s, and the servers will bring your food to you.  The Al Pastor taco (spicy marinated pork with onions, pineapple, and cilantro within flour or corn tortillas) pairs perfectly with a side order of their guacamole and Austin’s own Citrus Green Sweet Leaf Tea.

TREY’S CUISINE
600 S. Lamar Boulevard
(512) 234-2103

Compared to the majority of the food trailers on this list, this truck is not flashy at all—by all means, no. Fortunately, it’s not the décor that brings people here; it’s the food—by all means, yes! World dishes are Trey’s specialty, with kabobs (skewers of meat and/or veggies), croquettes (small fried rolls with various fillings), and pierogi (unleavened dough dumplings). Don’t overlook the chef-recommended daily specials! On one visit, the lamb Salisbury Steak (with spinach, mushroom, spätzle, and grilled bread) proved exemplary.

Know of any other food trucks in Austin that Freddie should try?  Let us know in the comments sections or hit him up at freddie_obregon_iii@yahoo.com. Don’t forget to add us on Facebook and Twitter, too!

Top 5 Valentine’s Day Restaurants in SF

Yes, yes, there’s no question that Valentine’s Day is a much maligned holiday, with adjectives like “consumerist” and “cheesy” thrown around left and right. I understand that, and if you’re of that mindset, this list is not for you. But, if you are one of the people who likes – or even, loves – this day, and likes the idea that there’s nothing wrong with celebrating love and the closest people in your life, please read on. These are my picks for restaurants to spend Valentine’s Day…

FIREFLY
Located on the quiet side of 24th Street in Noe Valley, Firefly has a rustic chic vibe, with a billowing, fabric roof, Mason jar candle holders, and reserved elegance. For Valentine’s Day, they’re going to be serving their regular a la carte menu, but with some special items from both their chef and pastry chef. Also, since Valentine’s Day falls on a Tuesday this year, my guess is they’ll be serving up their incredible fried chicken (only served on Tuesdays) – which magically manages to be light while being , you know, fried chicken.

FIFTH FLOOR
For those who want all the bells and whistles, Fifth Floor – aptly named for being on the fifth floor of Hotel Palomar – is offering some major decadence. Starting last week, the restaurant is serving a seven-course menu, which includes dishes like Foie Gras Torchon, Celery Root Agnolotti and Poached Maine Lobster. For the special day itself, Fifth Floor is bumping up their menu to a nine-course tasting menu, giving you and your honey plenty of time to spoil yourselves.

L’ARDOISE
If you’re looking for something more understated, try L’Ardoise (the French word for chalkboard). Sitting quaintly on Noe and Henry, this beautiful and intimate restaurant combines neighborhood charm with heightened ambiance, packaging these traits together with authentic French food. For Valentine’s Day, they are serving a special three-course menu, which includes such options as Tiger Prawn Raviole, Braised Venison Shoulder, Caramelized Tarte Tatin… I’m going to stop because it’s making my mouth water!

FRASCATI
The charm of Frascati begins at its location. Perched on the leafy corner of Hyde and Green, where cable cars rumble past, this restaurant feels like quintessential San Francisco. And since San Francisco is the most romantic city in the world (it is), this is a great beginning to a dining experience. Add to that, delicious Mediterranean-inspired dishes, an extensive wine list (hello, champagne!) and a menu that says, “Cell phones in use will be confiscated and made into soup,” and you are guaranteed a romantic dining experience.

BI-RITE MARKET
Okay, no, this is not a restaurant. But, for those who believe that nothing is more romantic than a home-cooked meal, Bi-Rite Market is a perfect place to buy the goods. With its high-quality meat, cheese, fish, ice cream and prepared foods (if you want to cheat), Bi-Rite Market will start you on your path to creating a special meal for the evening. Don’t forget to buy a pretty bouquet of flowers on your way out.

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While the above are my picks for romantic meals, here are a couple of runner-ups for other kinds of Valentine’s Days…

VELVET CANTINA
This is my pick if you’re celebrating Valentine’s Day with girlfriends – or, as Leslie Knope calls it, “Gal-entine’s Day.” With pitchers of delicious margaritas, a fun atmosphere, and tasty Mexican food, you’re guaranteed an excellent night out with your friends, who, of course, are your other loved ones. (Men, you are also free to take this suggestion!)

PIZZERIA DELFINA
My choice if you have children in tow. Pizzeria Delfina delivers the best of all worlds: delicious pizza, a good selection of wine, and a casual, yet graceful, atmosphere. And since it has two locations (one in the Mission and one in Pacific Heights), you have two shots at celebrating your family with style and fresh mozzarella. (A bit cheesy? Sorry. I can’t stop…)

15 ROMOLO
No, you’re right. This is mainly a bar. But, it’s a very good bar, which is why it’s my pick for the place to go if you’ve recently gone through a break-up. You won’t care about cute couples when you’re sipping on 15 Romolo’s Pimm’s Cups. Also, they do have a small but excellent bar menu in case you need to eat something.

I hope that one of the above restaurants suits your Valentine’s Day needs. And if they are already booked up (as these wonderful restaurants are sure to be in demand), they’ll serve wonderfully any other day of the week!

What do you think of Alexa’s recommendations? Let us know in the comments sections or via our Facebook and Twitter accounts!

Photos courtesy of Firefly and L’Ardoise.