Archive for the ‘Rob Bhatt’ Category

Behind the wheel, paying attention never goes out of style

Friday, February 21st, 2014 • AAA Journey, Rob Bhatt

When I think about my greatest moments behind the wheel of an automobile, a few experiences stand out. My third favorite memory stems from a collection of moments from high school (in the 80s), when my buddy Mark let me take the wheel of his 1964 Ford Mustang (64-and-a-half, to be precise) a few times. Mark’s father bought the car during the first month that Mustangs rolled off the assembly line and kept it in tip-top shape to pass it along to his son. It was a sweet ride and just one of the reasons why all of Mark’s friends held the highest amount of respect for his dad. My second favorite driving memory dates back to 2006, when I drove a borrowed Ferrari spider from San Francisco to Carmel. I remember turning off the radio about 15 minutes into the drive so that I could listen to the hum from the engine compartment just behind my right shoulder. No CD or radio station could have produced a sweeter sound.

Given the muscular nature of both of the vehicles described above, it might seem odd for me to say that my greatest driving moment took place in a 2008 Subaru Outback-until you consider the circumstances.

Last fall, I took part in ProFormance Racing School’s One Day High Performance Driving Clinic at Pacific Raceways. I went into the session seeking driver-safety tips from school founder Don Kitch Jr, a veteran of the endurance-racing circuit. In the process, I gained a new respect for the fundamentals of driving.

The thought of racing around Pacific Raceways’ meandering track at speeds topping 100 mph sounded like a true adrenaline rush, which it proved to be. But I was surprised by the amount of mental energy that it took to properly negotiate the nine sets of turns that make up the course, not to mention the “street-survival” drills we performed in our morning session.

The experience, which I wrote about for the current issue of Journey magazine, served as a great reminder of why it’s so important to constantly monitor the activity all around you in any driving environment. It also made me realize how so many other people on the road these days seem to take traffic safety for granted. The people who text or talk on their mobile phones while driving are among the worst, but even many who power down seem all too comfortable simply staring just beyond the hood of their cars. Granted, many people are lucky enough to never have a problem taking this approach, but there is a reason why the term “unexpected hazard” exists. When you encounter one, you typically only get a split second or two to react, and knowing your escape route before you have to use it can literally be the difference between life and death.

You don’t have to be a car expert to notice how more and more cars are being equipped with collision-avoidance features, and this is great progress. The overwhelming majority of car crashes are caused by human error, so anything that car makers do to reduce the likelihood of human error makes us all safer. However, I’m concerned that these collision-avoidance features might give some drivers a false sense of security and lull them into thinking that they no longer need to monitor their surroundings for themselves.

When I shared my concern with Kitch, he brought up an interesting point. “I compare some of these new safety features to the spotter I have when I am racing,” he told me. “My spotter never tells me anything that I don’t already know. When he’s saying, ‘Inside, inside, inside,’ or before he says, ‘car closing,’ I already know that there’s a car there, because I’m using my eyes and I’m aware of my surroundings. These new safety features are nice additions, but they should never tell a driver something that he or she doesn’t already know.”

I’m not sure if Kitch’s class is for everybody, but I can tell you this: Taking it has made me more excited about driving than ever before, even if I am still schlepping around in that aging Subaru.

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Orcas Island proves well-suited for wellness

Monday, July 1st, 2013 • AAA Journey, Rob Bhatt

As I rounded the corner leading into Eastsound, the sight of the tide rolling up against the U-shaped shoreline of the largest town on Orcas Island was so moving that it compelled me to stop the car and get out to soak in the view. The residual tension from the workweek had already begun to subside when I departed the ferry about 15 minutes earlier, but a sense of relaxed contentment was now washing over me like a wave as I walked across a manicured lawn overlooking the water. It would still be nearly 24 hours before I would learn that I had unwittingly stumbled upon what is believed by some to be one of the Pacific Northwest’s most powerful vortexes, those mysterious spiraling fields of spiritual energy said to possess rejuvenating powers. Until then, I was forced to believe that my growing sense of calm was the product of such terrestrial factors as the island’s stunning natural features and its eclectic arts and artisan-foods scenes.It didn’t take long to adapt to the pace of island time on the slow, scenic drive out to the Doe Bay Café, and not just because the speed limit topped out at 35 mph. Shortly after grabbing a seat in the rustic dining room, part of a 38-acre wellness-oriented resort set on a waterfront bluff, I was welcomed with an amuse-bouche consisting of pureed rhubarb, ginger and fennel-all picked straight from the resort’s garden. This shot of herbal energy was followed by an asparagus vichyssoise that offered tastes of spring freshness by the spoonful. But it was the white cheddar cheese flan, topped by locally caught Dungeness crab and organic greens and a drizzle of citrus gastrique, that really reminded my taste buds what it means to be alive.

The next morning, a trip to the observation tower at the 2,400-foot summit of Mount Constitution in Moran State Park reminded me that I was not the only person to have felt the healing powers of Orcas Island. (The peak is accessible by a hiking trail and a paved road; I cheated and drove up in my car). Robert Moran, a shipbuilding tycoon and former Seattle mayor, described the San Juan Islands as a “delightful place in which to regain health-physical, mental, and spiritual,” and he seemed to have loved Orcas Island most of all. He moved here from Seattle in 1904, after doctors told him that he needed to reduce his stress levels. (Moran later donated land to create the state park that bears his name, and his story is part of the interpretive exhibit found inside the summit’s observation tower.) A few minutes on the deck atop the tower gave me a chance to admire the layout of the islands and other landmarks, with the Olympic Mountains and Mount Rainier peeking through the clouds from afar.

Back in Eastsound, the Saturday farmers market let me soak in more island flavor, literally and otherwise. In between sampling grilled salmon tacos, handmade papusas, island roasted coffee and confections crafted by a local chocolatier, I had a chance to meet Panda, the 3-year-old Pomeranian-Chihuahua mix running for honorary mayor against four other canine candidates in a quirky fundraiser for the Orcas Island Children’s House (voters include a donation for the island’s early learning center with each “ballot”; you can learn about the campaign, which continues through July 6, at After perusing the market’s craft stands, I walked over to the Orcas Island Historical Museum. Though I initially intended to only stay for a few minutes, I couldn’t tear myself away from the exhibit of reassembled homes from six of the island’s original homesteads, each containing the implements of daily life from about a century ago.

In separate conversations with locals during subsequent stops in an art gallery, antiques store and a café in the pedestrian-friendly town, I learned about the reputed energy vortex believed to exist on the tiny rock island just offshore from the Outlook Inn, where I happened to be staying for the weekend. The locals who told me about the vortex seemed skeptical about it themselves. I, on the other hand, had become so comforted by feelings that were at once relaxed and energized that the existence of such a mysterious spiritual force didn’t seem far-fetched at all.

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The James Beard House sets a date for Santé

Tuesday, June 11th, 2013 • AAA Journey, Rob Bhatt

 Some of New York City’s most discerning diners will get a taste of the Inland Northwest this summer when chef Jeremy Hansen of Spokane’s Santé restaurant cooks dinner at the James Beard House on Aug. 15.

Though dozens of Washington chefs have prepared dinner at the home of the late culinary pioneer, Hansen’s appearance will mark the first visit by a chef of a Spokane restaurant. Hansen and his wife, Kate, opened Santé in downtown Spokane in 2008.

During a recent phone conversation Hansen, 37, told me that he sent an email to the James Beard Foundation last year to thank them for inviting Adam Hegsted, executive chef at the Coeur d’Alene Casino Resort in Worley, Idaho, to cook at the space. Hansen wanted to show his appreciation for the foundation’s interest in the Inland Northwest. About two months ago, Hansen returned home from work after a late dinner shift to find his own invitation in his email inbox.

“I couldn’t believe it,” he said. “This is something that passionate chefs dream about. It’s kind of like going to the Super Bowl.”

The James Beard Foundation maintains Beard’s former home in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village as a “performance space” for visiting chefs. It invites culinary professionals from across the country to prepare regionally themed dinners about 200 times a year. Examples of past James Beard House meals featuring Washington chefs include Kathy Casey’s “A Taste of the Northwest” dinner in 1988 and last year’s “Seattle Surf and Turf” dinner by Seastar Restaurant and Wine Bar’s John Howie. The foundation has selected “Washington Bounty” as the theme of Hansen’s dinner.

At Santé, Hansen presents modern interpretations of Old World classics, while showcasing his area’s growing bounty of sustainably produced foods. His expansive selection of house-cured charcuterie, for example, relies on heritage pork and grass-fed beef from Reardan’s Rocky Ridge Ranch and Walla Walla’s Lostine Cattle Company.

These are some of the attributes that appealed to officials at the James Beard Foundation. “Simply put, I found chef Hansen’s menu and philosophy to be in keeping with our foundation’s mission to celebrate, nurture and honor America’s diverse culinary heritage through programs that educate and inspire,” explained Izabela Wojcik, the foundation’s director of house programming, via email. “I considered his cooking background, his careful consideration of ingredients and quality of their sources, and his ambitious charcuterie and butchery program.”

Dinner at the James Beard House typically involves a 45-minute reception and a chance for guests, about 80 people, to meet the chef. After a multicourse meal, the culinary team joins guests in the dining room for a brief talk.

Hansen plans to serve five courses—each paired with a different Northwest wine—plus hors d’oeuvres. One of the night’s dishes, the Heritage Naturals Muscovy duck with potato gnocchi, heirloom carrot-coriander crema, rosemary-infused honey and parsnips, will be accompanied by a 2011 Willamette Valley pinot noir from Toil, the latest venture by revered Walla Walla winemaker Chris Figgins. Figgins, best known for his work at his family’s winery, Leonetti Cellar, won’t even release his new pinot noir until 2014, so Hansen’s guests at the James Beard House will get what amounts to a preview tasting.

The Hansens are launching a Kickstarter campaign and hosting preview dinners and receptions to raise funds for their trip to New York. These include a “test dinner” at the restaurant on July 22 and a champagne-and-hors d’oeuvres reception July 29, which will also celebrate the opening of Santé’s new bar. Visit the restaurant’s website to learn more about these and other events taking place in the run-up to Team Santé’s big night at the James Beard House.

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The Four Seasons Thrives at Five

Friday, May 24th, 2013 • AAA Journey, Rob Bhatt

When the Four Seasons Hotel Seattle opened in November 2008, a global economic meltdown made it tough for anybody-travelers, industry executives, local observers and others-to get too excited about a new luxury property. Nevertheless, the hotel, located across the street from the Seattle Art Museum and less than a block away from Pike Place Market, has not only survived the toughest of economic times, it has also grown into an admired and respected downtown fixture. So we can understand why its management team is so excited about the future as they gear up to celebrate their fifth anniversary.

“This is such a great time for Seattle.” said GM Ilse Harley, when I asked her to describe the significance of the property’s upcoming milestone. She was referring to hot happenings in the neighborhood, which include last year’s the opening of the Seattle Great Wheel and plans to reshape the city’s waterfront. “There is so much happening right now,” she added.

The conversation took place during a May 21 media reception at the hotel’s ART Restaurant & Lounge, where she and her team unveiled plans to begin their 5-year anniversary celebration this summer. Based on what I saw and heard, here are my top-five reasons to visit:

1. Just say fromage: The restaurant’s cheese table (available year round) brings in about a dozen changing selections from boutique producers near and far. During my visit, I sampled everything from Beecher’s Flagship cheddar to a Spanish manchego with black truffle shavings. Unlimited samplings are available nightly, beginning at 4:30 p.m., but I suggest waiting until the nightly cheese happy hour, 9-11 p.m. each night. The price drops from $14 to $7 per person, and the bar offers select wines at happy hour prices.

2. I scream, you scream: The restaurant’s dessert menu includes homemade ice creams crafted by Tara Sedor, the hotel’s pastry chef. The selections include such year-round staples as chocolate, vanilla and strawberry, as well as seasonal surprises, including two of Sedor’s latest concoctions: s’mores and blueberry pancake. The former combines honey-and-cinnamon-flavored cream with homemade marshmallow, while the latter features a to-die-for mix of buttermilk, maple and blueberry.

3. Poolside fun: I’m not normally a spa guy, and I already live in Seattle, but I’d consider a spa package or an overnight stay at the hotel just to access the pool deck. The outdoor infinity pool and hot tub are surrounded by chaise longues and cabanas, and the hotel serves a wide range of foods and beverages The latter include everything from mineral waters and smoothies to cocktails and beers served in ice mugs (literally, beer mugs made from ice), and the space overlooks the waterfront.

4. Seven bites for seven nights: The 7 Days of ART promotion brings a food tasting designed for each day of the week to the restaurant and hotel lobby. On ART Steak House Saturdays, for example, the restaurant offers a beef “tasting menu,” featuring a sampling of cuts from across the country, accompanied by a variety of sauces and rubs, while guests can sample free mini burgers in the lobby (for hotel guests, restaurant patrons, etc). Thursday’s theme is Northwest Best Catch. The restaurant’s seafood special is paired with a seafood-inspired beverage, while salmon canapé samples await in the lobby, along with a mock fish-throwing demonstration featuring a doll resembling a salmon. These demonstrations are designed to prep children staying at the hotel for visits to Pike Place Market, explains Mike Hirschler, the hotel’s human resources director. Hirschler, who doubles as a monger—waders and all—for the hotel’s demonstrations, says he’s willing to help grownups practice catching fish, too. “If you want a fish thrown at you, we will toss the fish to you,” he says, with a smile.

5. Sip local: Jorge Castillo, the restaurant’s general manager, is embracing the craft distillery movement. This spring, he brought 55 regionally produced spirits to the restaurant’s bar. The selections include Seattle-made Glass Vodka; Crater Lake Sweet Ginger Vodka, produced by Oregon’s Bendistillery; and Alaska Distillery’s smoked salmon-infused vodka. The producers describe the latter as, “Specifically crafted to be enjoyed in a Bloody Mary,” and, after tasting it myself, I can truly say that this is something that you have to try at least once. Guest distillers lead tastings and discussions about their respective spirits at the bar on Friday evenings.

Visit the Four Seasons Hotel Seattle website to learn more.

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Ice cream, covered bridges and more reader tips

Thursday, January 10th, 2013 • AAA Journey, Rob Bhatt

One of the best things about being the editor of Journey magazine is the opportunity that the job provides to interact with AAA members. Shortly after our latest issue began arriving in homes, we received a slew of suggestions on additional fun things to see and do, and I’d like to share the hottest reader tips in this space.

Karen Peck gave us the scoop on the Edaleen Dairy store near the Sumas border crossing along Highway 9, one of the byways that we showcase in our article on “Alternatives to the Interstate.”

Mrs. Peck told me that not even chilly winter temperatures stop her from visiting the store’s ice cream counter, which serves the Lynden-based dairy’s handmade ice creams for as little as 75 cents (for a kid-sized single scoop on a cake cone; a regular single-scoop costs $1.85). What’s Mrs. Peck’s favorite flavor? Fudgy Wudgy, of course.

In addition to its Sumas location, which opened in 2011, Edaleen operates two stores in Lynden, and its products are widely distributed in the Bellingham area as well as in 7-Eleven stores across western Washington and western Oregon.

I didn’t get the name of the reader who called our attention to the Grays River Covered Bridge in the Willapa Loop section of the “Alternatives” story. Shame on us for forgetting to mention that the covered, single-lane bridge at Ahlberg Park in Grays River is still open for traffic. The Ahlberg family, prosperous dairy farmers with land on both sides of Grays River, built the covered bridge in 1905, according to historical information provided by Grays River United Methodist Church. The then-new bridge replaced a swinging footbridge that wasn’t very efficient—or safe—for farmers carrying containers of fresh milk, particularly during gale-force winds. The “new” 155-foot-long bridge was built for $2,615 in 1905, though this price tag does not include the additional costs incurred a few years later, when the bridge was covered with shingles and reinforced with steel cables. An Eastern Washington University engineering study completed in 1991 estimated that the covered bridge would have cost more than $295,000 to build in the 1980s. Added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1971, the covered bridge and the park are the site of an annual Grays River Grange fundraising dinner and the Grays River Bridge Festival.

In response to our feature stories on cruising, Jean Bolton provided additional tips for cruise passengers. “When my husband and I were planning our cruise (Barcelona to Venice, by way of Rome, Athens, Istanbul, etc.), I happened to come across the Cruise Critic website on the Internet,” Mrs. Bolton told us, via email. “This is a website made up of past, current and future cruisers. I found an immense amount of information on here about which rooms were noisy, which rooms were well situated, what different amenities each cruise line offers, what the quality of food is, etc., etc. If you’re a first-time cruiser and you have ANY questions, you can post them and someone will help you with a response.

“Also, if you book a cruise, you can get onto the ‘Roll Call’ and find others who are booked on the same cruise,” she added. “We lucked into a couple of private tours in this manner. It was particularly nice when we saw a huge cruise line bus parked at the top of the road, because it was unable to navigate the Positano. We were in a Mercedes Benz that held eight of us. We had a private chauffeur, who sang to us. He was an excellent tour guide, and the car was small enough to go everywhere. The best part: It was cheaper than the cruise line bus.”

On a side note, I’d like to point out that AAA’s travel agents are available to guide travelers through the cruise-planning process. You can also learn more about the ins and outs of cruising at AAA’s upcoming cruise shows.

Speaking of reader tips, I would be remiss to not mention a message I received last fall in response to an article on great pie bakeries across the Northwest. Toni Tobin told us about the Old Post Office Sweets and Gifts deli in Sequim (751 Carlsborg Road). “I’m not related to these people and discovered their pies one day at the open-air market,” she wrote, also in an email. “I was hooked! First I bought one slice and shared it, then had to go back for another.”

Thanks to Karen, Jean and Toni, and I encourage anyone and everyone who reads Journey to share your tips, too. In the meantime, I’ll see you in the lines for ice cream and pies.

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