Sunday, February 28, 2010

Restaurant sans Rival

One of the pleasures of my job is eating in some of the country's finest restaurants. What a treat to find one in my own backyard! Oh, there are many fine restaurants in the Oklahoma City area but Friday night I dined (not ate -- dined) at a spot that exceeded all my expectations.

I was scheduled to speak on Saturday morning at the Norman Public Library. Having to make the trek, I decided to do some research in the process. Jennifer Tregarthen at the Norman CVB made arrangements for me to stay at Whispering Pines Inn. The owners, the Kchao family, also extended an invitation to dinner -- including a companion -- in their restaurant. I'll be writing about my stay in the Edmond Sun's next weekend edition but for this post, I want to concentrate on dining.

The restaurant is open Monday through Saturday from 6 to 8:30 p.m. Reservations are required -- they time the baking of their home-made yeast rolls based on the number and time of reservations. Everything is from scratch and the presentation is sheer artistry. Let me describe the meal.

The Whispering Pines main house is a large, Victorian-style structure. There are three dining areas. Two of the three rooms have fireplaces. The lighting is subtle; the linens crisp and white. The seating is limited but, unlike many restaurants, they've provided ample space so you won't feel crowded. And it's quiet. Everything is planned to enhance the dining experience -- to provide an atmosphere of serenity and elegance.

My friend, Billie Lee, and I each started with a glass of wine. We were brought a basket with rolls and dishes with honey/dill butter. I could have made a meal on the rolls alone! But we were in for more pleasures. The soup du jour was lobster bisque -- rich and rosy and garnished with a scribble of cream.

We cleansed our palates with a tiny scoop of citrus sorbet in an icy dish.

Billie ordered salmon and I chose filet mignon. I'm a when-Harry-met-Sally kind of a steak orderer -- "I'd like it medium -- on the rare side -- but not medium-rare" -- and it was absolutely perfect. Billie let me taste her salmon and it, too, was just right -- flaky, moist and flavorful.

Our entrees were served with fresh vegetables -- carrots, yellow squash, zucchini and asparagus spears. Rather than being cut into the usual bits, the vegetables (except the asparagus) were cut into little spheres -- a colorful confetti-look on the plate. Twice-baked potato was piped into a swirly design and browned. And there was a rosebud garnishing the plate -- not just any rosebud. This one was carved out of potato. I've seen tomato roses and radish roses but the potato rose takes the prize! The food was so good that no embellishment was necessary but the hallmark of the Kchao's is the attention they pay to the tiniest details.

In a fit of self-control, belated though it was, we decided to split a dessert. Our choices included a creme brulee, something chocolate and -- cinnamon raisin bread pudding with a scoop of homemade vanilla bean ice cream and fresh raspberry puree. Oh, died and gone to heaven!

The service was impeccable -- attentive without being obtrusive. The price? My steak, at $33, was one of the most expensive items on the menu. Our entire meal, with wine, was about $100. Given the ambience and the experience, it was a bargain.

Whispering Pines is located at 7820 East Highway 9, southeast of Norman. Call 405-447-0202 or 888-876-0202 for reservations.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

This Is the Coolest!!!!

The Hotel de Glace, near Quebec, has got to be the coolest hotel I've ever visited. Made of 15,000 tons of snow and 500 tons of ice, it takes a month to build and is open from January until April (weather willing). Then it's taken down and dumped in a nearby lake -- the ultimate in recycling.

This year's hotel features 36 rooms -- a number of them suites -- and some amazing public areas. The suites feature beautiful snow carved walls. Check out the roses in the honeymoon suite and the polar bear in the suite of that name.

The temperature is kept between 26 and 28 degrees Fahrenheit. The furniture -- including this fabulous chandelier -- is made of ice. Wooden boards and mattresses top the ice beds and visitors bundle up in mummy-like sleeping bags.

The chapel is a popular spot. There were five weddings over Valentine's Day weekend.

Did I spend the night. Nope. But I did enjoy the bar! The hard cider in ice glasses was super!

A votre sante!

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

La Belle Ville

From my window on the 9th floor of the Quebec Hilton, I had a perfect view of Vieux Quebec, Old Quebec, a walled city so historic and beautiful that it has been named a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Across the street from the hotel stands the Parliament Building built in the late 1800s in Second Empire style. Though outside the old city, the architecture blends perfectly with the gray city walls and the distinctive French flair of the city.

One of the reasons I love Quebec is that it is so French but it's chic without the cheek. Quebecois are proud of their heritage and language -- by law they must speak French to their work colleagues. One man told me that Canadian French may be more authentically French than the French they speak in France. Some old French words which are no longer used in France are still used here -- kind of the equivalent of remnants of Shakespearean English which can be found in some Appalachian expressions.

French Canadians, however, are unfailingly gracious to those of us who attempt the language. In every store I was greated with "Bon jour" and I politely responded "Bon jour." The next words out of the clerk's mouths were inevitably "May I help you with something?" Finally, I couldn't stand it any longer and had to ask "Is it my French or do I just look American?"

Gently, the clerk replied, "You have an accent. But don't feel badly, I have an accent when I speak English." And I thought I was doing so well! How badly can you mangle "Bon jour?"

Don't answer!

The first evening we had cocktails and dinner at the Chateau Frontenac, the iconic castle-like hotel that rises above the Old Town. This was the first of many amazing meals we enjoyed in Quebec -- innovative sushi at Yuzu; dishes featuring local products prepared with such style that Le Patriarche has earned a Four Diamond rating from AAA; great Italian food at Restaurant au Parmesan and our last dinner at the charming Franco-Italian Graffiti.

Below is the dessert we were served at Graffiti. I don't know if you can see the spun sugar garnish but the presentation was beautiful -- and I loved the hearts for Valentine's Day. On the plate is a piece of apple tart, ice cream in a crispy cup and a heart-shaped meringue cookie filled with jam. I loved the food and I HEART Quebec!