Blogs > News-Herald Food and Travel

Food and travel captivate Janet Podolak, who chronicles both for The News-Herald. Get the back story of her three decades of stories here. Guest bloggers and fellow News-Herald staffers also periodically share details of their trips.

Friday, January 30, 2009

airline fees: comparisons

It's more than annoying, to say the least, to be assessed extra fees for checking bags, making flight reservations by phone, choosing a seat in advance and checking bags at curbside. Given the price of flights, more often than not, I feel I've been gouged.
But not all airlines are created equal.
Southwest Airlines actually is using its many freebies as an advertising ploy. It's even done the comparisons for us and put together a chart listing its own and its compeititors' fees. Get it at
Southwest doesn't charge for bags, (unless you check three and then it's $25), lets unaccompanied minors fly without an extra charge, has free curbside check-in and no fee for changing a ticket.
I was especially annoyed at being charged $2 for water aboard a recent USAirways flight. But if I'd wanted a beer it would have been $7. Coffee, at $1, was the best deal since refills were free.
Continental is one of my favorite airlines, largely because they fly from Cleveland to almost everywhere I want to go. But they don't charge for curbside check-in, seat selection, beverages and snacks or meals on flights longer than two hours.
Last summer, when I flew Air Canada from Toronto to Calgary, I experienced a type of service that U.S. airlines might want to adopt. The meal service was built into the ticket price, at several different levels.
I also think the charter operator USA3000 is worth emulating. There's no charge for a checked bag, on-board movies and snacks are free. And there's a choice of color coded lunch packs available for $7. The one I chose included salami and cheese with crackers and was so generous in its servings, that I saved the dried apricots and nuts to give my husband when he picked me up at the airport.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Dinner at Coffee Creek

Special occasion dining in Northeast Ohio has achieved a new dimension with the Jan. 23 debut of the Estate on Coffee Creek.
I was among the 22 lucky people seated in three intimate dining rooms by white jacketed butlers in order to feast on a nine-course chef's dinner there. After being welcomed with a flute of champagne, we toured the first floor of the 1880s home which Chef Nick and sommelier Giovanna Kustala have so lovingly restored on Route 45 in Austinburg Township. It's the realization of their dream to offer in their home a special occasion dining venue and teaching kitchen for cooking classes. They're in the middle of Ohio wine country and have lots of great ideas for a farmers market and other attractions on the 10 acres around their home this summer.
The Friday and Saturday of Valentine's Day weekend will be the next chance to dine there.
The candlelit room in which I dined had a plexiglas floor through which the wine cellar beneath it could be viewed, complete with its original stone foundation. Nick's lobster bisque,— a menu mainstay when he had Lure Bistro in Willoughby,—came to the tables as the first course in exquisite china cups from Gianni Versace. (see the cups at the far right of the photo above showing Giovanna at the bar) To the side was a slice of buttered lobster atop a tarragon shortbread round next to a tiny white spoon with truffle oil.
Lure aficionados — several of whom were on hand for the Kustalas' opening — also recognized the wall of salt water aquariums in the billiards room-turned-bar and some of the art works the couple has brought back from Puerto Vallarta.
Each small and beautifully executed course was described on a bound menu presented to guests as they were seated. Wines selected by Giovanna could be paired with four, six or nine courses. Some guests stayed in the nearby Hampton Inn at Route 45 and I-90 rather than drive home after the feast. The Kustalas have negotiated a discount rate with the inn for their dinner guests.
Nick, who celebrated his 37th birthday that night, outdid himself with the menu. Some course descriptions didn't seem like they would work. But, like the snakeskin patterned wallcovering in the dining area where I ate, they did. Case in point was Course Four: diver scallops atop braised pork belly with crunchy chicken livers and Cabernet gelee napped by a 50-year old balsamic vinegar.
Giovanna poured a lovely Oregon pinot noir with that course — which also worked beautifully.
This dinner was priced at $125 a person with wines for an extra $35, $55 and $75 depending on the number of courses with which they were paired. The maximum number of dinner guests at any one time is 22, so it will always be an intimate experience.
Hands-on cooking classes are given in the kitchen each Wednesday.
Nick and Giovanna Kustala will answer questions and accept reservations at (216) 392-3663 or (440) 275-5022. Their Estate on Coffee Creek is at 1591 State Route 45 in Austinburg.

Friday, January 23, 2009

chocolate for lovers

Chocolate is almost certainly the most popular Valentine indulgence.
It’s sensual — first teasing with its scent, then melting on the tongue to spread its flavor among all the sweet, sour, bitter and salt-sensing taste buds. It’s temperamental — seizing up into an unmanageable mass when one tries to melt it at too high a temperature. But it’s so very, very satisfying.
Seven courses of chocolate pleasures will be paired with wines at a Feb. 7 Natural History of Chocolate dinner among the exhibits at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History. It’s $150 a person, but for a chocolate lover, worth every penny. Reservations: (800) 317-9155, ext. 3279.
Hot chocolate soup is one of the decadent desserts that Loretta Paganini will teach folks how to make at a Feb. 10 cooking class. Reservations: (440) 729-1110.
Find details about both in the News-Herald’s Wednesday Jan. 28 Food section.
And then there’s this yummy Dark Chocolate Creme Brulee from Nestle. I’m stopping at Heinen’s on the way home from work today so I can get the ingredients.
1 cup whipping cream
1 cup half-and-half
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
4 ounces Nestle Toll House Chocolatier 53% Cacao Dark Chocolate Baking Bar, broken into pieces or 2/3 cup Nestle Toll House Semi-Sweet Chocolate morsels
4 large egg yolks
1/3 cup granulated sugar
6 teaspoons granulated sugar, divided
Preheat oven to 300. Place cream, half-and-half and vanilla extract in a large saucepan. Bring to boil. Remove from heat. Add chocolate. Whisk until melted and smooth. Whisk egg yolks and 1/3 cup sugar in a large mixer bowl. Gradually whisk in chocolate mixture. Pour mixture through fine sieve into six 4-ounce ramekins or custard cups. Place cups in larger pan to which warm water is added. Bake for 40 minutes or until custards are set but with a slight jiggle to them. Cool custards in water until cool enough to handle. Remove custards from water and refrigerate two hours, covered with plastic wrap. Continue to refrigerate several hours or overnight. Preheat broiler. Sprinkle 1 teaspoon sugar over top of each custard. Place custards on baking sheet. Broil for 3 minutes or until sugar is melted and caramelized. Refrigerate for 2 hours so topping can harden and custard can cool and set.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

$2.95 dinner & haggis

When I can break out of work early enough on a week night, we head for Bravo for its weekday Happy Hour specials in the bar. It's right around the corner from The News-Herald on Route 306 in Mentor, so even if if I leave here at 5:45 p.m. it's possible to get there before 6 when the deals are the best. Small plate appetizers, just $2.95 from 4 to 6 p.m. Monday through Friday, are enough for my dinner. Last night I had the Chicken Spinach and Bacon flatbread...complete with green onions, mozzarella and provolone cheese. The flatbread was cracker like, but flavorful and perfect washed down with a Dortmunder. I also am partial to the artichoke and spinach formaggio, a warm dip served with Parmesan flatbread. There are four other flatbread specials, plus house-made meatball sliders, crab cake bites with horseradish dressing, zucchini fritti, and calamari fritti. Most are regularly priced in the bar at $4.99 to $5.99, so even at full price they don't break the bank. But dinner for $2.95 is really something special.

Haggis is the subject for my Wednesday Food story tomorrow. It will be served at Saturday's Robert Burns Dinner, piped in by bagpipers dressed in kilts. It's the 250th birthday of the Scottish folk hero Bobbie Burns, who is best known for writing Auld Lang Syne but also devoted his talents to writing an Ode to a Haggis, which will, of course, be read. Catch the story or reserve a place at the event, which still has seats available. My colleague at The News-Herald, reporter Jenny May, will bring an award winning group of highland dancers, a troupe called the Heather Belles, to the dinner hosted by the Scottish Heritage Association. See Wednesday's story for ticket details.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

thai thoughts to stay warm

My first weekend home in a couple of weeks means lots of domestic tasks to stay on top of things. Just back from a midday run to Half Price Books where I lugged two years worth of books to clear out space for newer ones received at Christmas. It was cold work in 10 degree temps since I had to make three trips back to the car. And the wind is howling out today, making that 10 degrees seem like 20 below with the wind chill. But they paid me $30 for my books and I spent back half that on 2009 calendars and thank you notes...the ultimate recycling
But I have my memories of recent warm weather getaways to keep me warm. In fact I am still wearing the ankle bracelet of tiny turquoise beads given me by a beach vendor in the Dominican Republic. It's somewhat lost beneath my wool socks and calf-high boots here in Northeast Ohio but it reminds me of the 80 degree temps and silky white sands at my Barcelo resort just a week ago.On the flight back home were some diehard tropics lovers, still wearing their shorts and sandals on the flight. They carried on their winter clothes and changed in the airport restrooms as they were waiting for their checked bags to arrive. It was a bit dicey, because after clearing customs in one area of the Cleveland airport, you have to go outside to board a bus to take you to where you collect your bags. The walkway was shoveled though so at least they didn't get snow between their bare toes.
I can't think of a nicer three night escape from here than a 3 hour flight to Punta Cana with flights, lodging, meals and drinks included at one of these resorts. Apple Vacations has priced these getaways starting at about $1200 a couple in Jan. The price goes up in Feb and March. Check out or
And I spent part of this week warming up as I wrote about the Thai temple I visited in Tampa just the week before with my daughter. That story runs in Sunday's News-Herald so catch it if you can. I just discovered that you can click on the photos Ive added to make them the size of your screen.
Every Sunday temple volunteers stage a Thai food sale on the wraparound porch on an adjacent building, setting up their giant woks and grills to turn out all manner of delicious dishes. Lauren & I brought a cooler to take home Pad Thai and other foods, but ate soups and yummy deep fried platains at picnic tables between the Palm River and the Temple's mediation garden. The foods all sell for $1 to $4 dollars and I think I was the only out-of towner there.
But for all you folks headed to the Tampa area for Super Bowl or just to make a brief escape from winter should think about spending part of a Sunday at the Thai temple. The food sale's hours are 10:30 a.m. to around 2.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

40 below: what it feels like

Landing in Cleveland Monday after a nonstop USA3000 flight from the Dominican Republic was an abrupt reminder that Northeast Ohio is snow country. As we left, a small band serenaded us beneath the Punta Cana airport's palm trees. As the plane swung over downtown three hours later it was easy to tell some of my fellow passengers had never seen snow before. The landscape below was white, vast Lake Erie had already begun to freeze and winter was not yet even three weeks old.
For them winter was probably as much a shock as my wintertime visit to northern Minnesota a few years ago. I had hoped to go dogsledding and winter camping, but when I arrived in Duluth it was 40 below and the plans were canceled. We were told that it was just too cold to assure our safety. The condensation from breathing can result in wetness even inside an igloo.. and moisture can be a killer at 40 below.
"Temperatures like this sure cut down on the riff-raff," said one native. Cars not kept in good running order aren't shelter for very long if they break down, he explained. And those who go out without a hat, coat, gloves and scarf will very quickly have frostbite on any exposed skin.
Parking places have outlets to plug in the car battery to keep it from freezing, and entryways everywhere have vestibules with doors on each end to keep the cold from entering the interior space.
My nose tickled in even the quickest walk from the car.
At 40 below, my nose-hairs froze.
Until I learned to cover up my entire face with my scarf it kept happening. My scarf captured my warm breath and kept my face from feeling so cold, but billowed up from underneath.
And then my eyelashes froze, and my eyebrows became frosted.
Today's Cleveland temperatures are balmy by comparison. But I'm betting those folks from the Dominican Republic don't think so.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

DR bathrooms: a study in contrasts

DR Bathrooms: a study in contrasts

Bathrooms here in the Dominican Republic characterize the co-existence of the first and third world. The photos here tell the story.

My room at the Barcelo Palace has one of the best bathrooms I've ever experienced. An 8-foot long shower has stations for two people to shower together, including a big foot-wide showerhead for a quick drenching. The toilet is in a separate cubicle caddycorner to a pair of freestanding basin sinks. Perhaps best of all, the lights are on some sort of motion detector that illuminates the area when one gets up in the middle of the night to use the facilities.
The porch to my room has a large jacuzzi in which I sat last night drinking a glass of wine as I watched the full moon rise over the sea.

The resort is among five Barcelos strung along this 30-mile stretch of snow white beach in Punta Cana, a resort area developed mostly in recent years on the northeastern part of the island of Hispaniola. Guests here come mostly from Europe so in addition to the island's native Spanish, I've heard Italian, Swedish, German, Russian and French spoken among my fellow guests. Knowing that Haiti, which shares this island to the west, is a nine-hour drive away gives a sense of its huge size...second only to Cuba in the entire Caribbean

The Barcelo resorts and most of the others are all-inclusives, meaning food, drinks, lodging and even airfare all are included in packages. Guests can avail themselves of 14 different restaurants, a spectacular night club show, casino and several swimming pools.The Barcelos also have their own water purification and power systems, separate from the rest of the island. One never needs to leave the premises or spend another dime to have a great beach vacation.

But booking an Outback Safari allows visitors to see how the islanders live. They are a proud and beautiful people who live in a state many North Americans would consider poverty. But they are happy, hardworking family people who dont seem to view themselves as poor. Their world only gets electricity 8 to 10 hours a day and few people have indoor plumbing. But they are surrounded by flowers, trees bearing all manner of fruit, and live open-air lives cooled by ocean breezes. Every village has a church, a school and an arena for cockfights. contracts with Apple Vacations and other tour operators to take visitors around the area. The company also contracts with local families on a rotation basis to bring people to their homes.
Our visit was to a two-acre coffee and cocoa plantation operated by the Cedeno family.

Because the tour operator brings groups to their family compound once each week, the family has constructed an outdoor bathroom for their visitors to use. The path to the gender separated facilities is lined with flowering plants and flush toilets are fueled by water brought the village well by donkey. It is clean and very impressive.

I'll have a more complete story in coming weeks for readers of the Sunday Travel section. But those who need a break from winter before then might wish to check it out at

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Airport smoking & punta cana bound

Last weekend, while in the Tampa area to deal with a family issue, I took this photo in the Tampa Airport of this outdoor cage designated for smokers. It was attached outside the waiting area at my gate-- a pretty clever accommodation in this state where smoking indoors is prohibited everywhere.

This weekend I'm flying again, headed to the Dominican Republic to check out a resort that's among the Apple vacations options in Punta Cana. That country shares the island of Hispanola with Haiti, and this will be my first visit.
On a snowy day at Cleveland Hopkins International Airport, the sandals were the giveway . They're worn by many of the early morning passengers headed for Gate A11, where USA 3000 flights to Cancun and Punta Cana depart at 6 a.m. The charter carrier serves passengers who have booked Apple Vacations escapes to balmy breezes and palmy beaches in Mexico and the Dominican Republic . Its Fort Myers flights also are a popular option for many Northeast Ohioans who head to Florida's Gulf coast. Because they don't require a roundtrip purchase, they're ideal for folks who drive to Florida to deliver a car, a relative or both. In spring those folks reverse the process.
Although USA3000 don't go every day and the schedule is prone to changes, it is also unusual in other ways that make planning around its schedule worthwhile.
Some of those things, which are becoming rarer and rarer on flights:
Changes to flights booked as part of an Apple Vacation are inexpensive and it's no problem to even change the name of the traveler.
There's no charge to check the first bag.
Headsets and on-board films are free..
There is a $7 charge for snacks but soft drinks and coffee are free. I had crackers and cheese, salami slices,dried apricots a cookie and potato chips.
I signed up to receive the airline's email promotions, making me eligible for a monthly drawing to choose the winner of a free Apple vacation.
Here's hoping!