Vienna: The City of Music

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To say that we were excited to use our passports again after nearly three years is an understatement. Add to that, this was our first international trip since having Gianluca. I’ve wanted to visit Austria for as long as I can remember. As a child and avid skier, I looked forward to watching my favorite racer, Austrian Franz Klammer. I dreamed of one day skiing Kitzbühel and visiting the Olympic village at Innsbruck. As an adult, I have heard time and time again that I must see Vienna because it is one of the most beautiful cities in the world. Since Inga’s brother and his family moved to Austria a few years ago, it was only a matter of time before we would make this trip.

Vienna is known as the City of Dreams. It’s easy to conclude that this is  due to the city’s connection with the father of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud. But more commonly, Vienna is called the City of Music. Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, and Schubert, also known as the Vienna 4, all called Vienna home at some point. It’s hard to say which one is more true but no matter which you choose to call it, one thing is for sure: Visiting Vienna is like stepping into one enormous and beautiful museum. It couldn’t be curated any better; The architecture is beautifully preserved; the streets and sidewalks are spotless; and the lawns, fountains, and gardens are perfectly maintained.

Considering the season and the possibility of rain or snow, we searched for hotels nearest to the places we wanted to visit most; the Innere Stadt district, also known as the 1st municipal district of Vienna. This is the old town of Vienna where many of the top tourist sites are located: Hofburg Palace, Rathausplatz, and Staatsoper are all located here. The famous Sachertorte from Hotel Sacher is also in this district. The weather turned out to be  unseasonably warm, almost spring-like and that allowed us to spend more time outdoors, exploring this incredibly clean and beautiful country. We had a total of three full days in Vienna but unfortunately, that is not nearly enough time see all there is to see.

How we got there

Austria Airlines offers daily non-stop flights from New York JFK to Vienna but we flew Air France from New York JFK to Vienna via connection through Charles de Gaulle. I’m a stickler when it comes to being loyal to one airline or at least one airline alliance. In our case, it’s SkyTeam. It’s good for accumulating miles and earning frequent flier status.

Where we stayed

Grand Ferdinand Hotel (Schubertring 10-12, 1010 Wien, Austria), located at the southeast corner of the Innere Stadt district. A 5-star boutique hotel with a twist and its that twist that appealed to us most and why we stayed. According to their website, the hotel has their own philosophy. Rather than striving for exclusivity, they believe that hotels should be open for anyone and everyone. They offer suites for €1,500 per night and beds for €30 per night, and everything in between. This philosophy carries throughout the hotel and best of all, no matter which room you choose, the same level of service is provided for every guest of the hotel. We liked that.

The first thing you notice when you enter the lobby is a stuffed horse— As in taxidermy stuffed. I don’t know the story behind it or the purpose it serves but it fit the image and the vibe of the hotel. When we  arrived at the hotel, the staff was extremely welcoming. It was a few hours before check-in time so the bellman took our bags for storage. When I inquired with the front desk, they were able to check us into our room immediately. We had an upgraded superior room with a city view. Since the hotel is a converted office building, the rooms are not all uniform in size and the floorplans can be a little unusual. Rooms with a city view are deep but a narrow. The decor is modern and very European as you can see from the pictures. The matte grey painted walls with glossy white bed is a beautiful combination to me. A hand-written note on the minibar welcomed us to the Grand Ferdinand Hotel. Next to it was a little gugelhupf (similar to a bundt cake) and bottle of wine; a very nice gesture on behalf of the hotel.

Our room rate included breakfast and that’s something we always do when traveling. I know it’s typically far more expensive than venturing out for breakfast but we think the convenience is typically worth the price. Breakfast is served on the 7th floor lounge and private club, called the Grand Étage. It’s exclusive to hotel guests and members of the club. Weather permitting, there is a large patio for al fresco dining as well as the hotel pool. The space is nice and the buffet is positioned so you have the city view in the background. In addition to the hot and cold buffet, they provide a menu that includes  items made to order. During the day and evening, the lounge serves a full menu. You can also stop in for an afternoon coffee or after dinner drink as well. This is where we went to get fresh milk for Gianluca when we needed to fill his bottle and the staff were always courteous and helpful.

Overall, we really enjoyed our stay at the Grand Ferdinand Hotel. Would we stay there again? Absolutely.

What we ate

Huth Gastwirtschaft (Schellinggasse 5, 1010 Wien, Austria) specializes in classical Viennese cuisine in a slightly upscale setting. We were seated on the second level where another family were seated. While they provided a high chair, no children’s menu was available.

The menu was straight forward and had all the traditional fare for Austria. We ordered the Kärntner Kasnudln (Cheese ravioli with brown butter), Kalbsbutterschnitzel (veal meatballs), and Cordon Bleu vom Tullnerfelder Schwein (Cordon bleu from pork). The cheese ravioli was for Gianluca and he absolutely devoured it. Reading several reviews, it appears most people ordering the cordon bleu are under the impression that it was veal when in fact, its pork. The only reason I’m mentioning it is because those same reviews thought the cordon bleu was simply the wienerschnitzel with ham and cheese inside. I found that odd because the taste and texture of veal and pork are so different, it’s nearly impossible to confuse the two.

Vestibül  (Universitätsring 2, 1010 Wien, Austria) was the culinary highlight of our trip to Vienna. This Michelin Bib Gourmand recipient is located inside the Burgtheater, and if the architecture and interior are any indication of what to expect, you’re in for a treat. Like most of our trip, we were with Inga’s brothers family so finding  a reservation for seven people on a Saturday night wasn’t exactly easy. I contacted Vestibül weeks ahead of time to make the reservation and I’m glad I did because the restaurant was at capacity the entire time we were there. I also made sure they could accommodate a child and they had a high chair waiting for us at our table but no children’s menu. The restaurant prides itself on serving upscale yet traditional Austrian food. The exception is Chef Christian Domschitz’s signature dish, Szegediner lobster (lobster with creamy cabbage).

Upon being seated, we were presented with a three and four course Menu du Chef but I immediately noticed the absence of the lobster. Our server notified us that there were a couple of items you can substitute or you can order them a la carte, including the lobster. Ordering for the table was easy; The three course Menu du Chef substituting the set entree with two steak frites and four Szegediner lobsters. In general, I struggle with Austrian wines. Many are too sweet for my taste while others too mineral. So I played it safe by ordering a Puligny Montrachet. It also gave my brother-in-law an opportunity to try a great white Burgundy. It was well-balanced and buttery but most of all, it was perfect for our menu. As for Gianluca, it had been almost a week since he had rice (he’s half filipino after all) and the restaurant was happy to cook some for him. With that, he picked some food from our plates.

Dinner started out with burrata served with candied grapes and radicchio. The burrata was creamier than most I’ve had with the right amount of sweetness from the candied grapes. The radicchio added the contrast and balance to the dish. Next up, the lobster. The first thing you notice is the color. Its orange from the saffron and it’s not the most attractive dish I’ve ever seen. The taste? It was good. The lobster was tender and moist. The cabbage was cooked well and the saffron cream sauce was delicious. Everything seems to go well. What was missing was something to cut the saffron. Perhaps a side dish of something but no. There was nothing else served on the plate or on the side. Had I known, I might have ordered something acidic to contrast with the saffron. Dessert was interesting. They called it Honey-Milk Créme with strawberry sorbet. When plated, there were little meringue drops, milk foam, and these red crunchy things that resembled fruity pebbles. It was good: not too sweet and that works for me. All in all, a very good meal.

Aragwi (Neustiftgasse 3, 1070 Wien, Austria) is one of a few Georgian restaurants in Vienna. It was our last meal with Inga’s family and a Georgian meal was a nice departure from the foods we’ve been eating. Food from the Republic of Georgia is a culmination of  European, Middle Eastern, and Asian influences that date back to the days of the Silk Road trade.

The restaurant is decorated nicely with touches of traditional Goergian decorations on the walls. Georgian’s are very family oriented and the restaurant accommodates kids very well. There is even a children’s play area with a big screen television to keep them entertained. Since I was at a table filled with native Georgians, I simply sat back and let them order their favorites from home: Pkhali (minced beets, beans, and spinach), Khinkali (meat dumplings),  Mtsvadi (Shish kabob), and of course, two types of khachapuri (cheese bread). The meal wouldn’t be complete without the Georgian wine for the adults and Georgian soda for the kids. Gianluca ate well as it wasn’t his first time tasting Georgian food. The Khinkali and khachapuri were two dishes that he kept asking for more.

Café Sacher (Philharmoniker Str. 4, 1010 Wien, Austria), located in the historic Hotel Sacher is famous for one thing: the Sachertorte. The story of this cake began when Prince Wenzel von Metternich in Vienna was hosting a party and asked his chef to create a special dessert for the occasion. The chef became ill so his 16-year-old apprentice, Franz Sacher, was left to create it by himself. Hence the name Sachertorte.

We actually went to Café Sacher twice. The first time was on a Saturday afternoon and when we arrived, the line was literally around the corner so we had to decide whether to waste the rest of the day in line or try again early the next morning. We agreed to go the next morning and I’m glad we did, for a couple of reasons. First, when we arrived the following morning, there was no line. In fact, we were seated immediately. Second, it simply wasn’t worth sitting in line for—There, I said it. The Sachertorte, for all its history and hype, just wasn’t worth it in my humble opinion. I am certain, there was a time when the Sachertorte was a culinary revelation. The the contrast between the apricot jam and chocolate, mixed with fresh whipped cream was so unique and so special, that people would wait in line for a taste. By today’s standards though, with creative chefs pushing the envelope of tastes and textures, the Sachertorte seems boring. The cake itself is on the dry side. The apricot jam is a bit too sweet, and the whipped cream is the only thing that mellows and moistens it enough to eat.

I respect the historical significance of the Sachertorte and I am happy that we were able to sit in this historic hotel and taste the same cake Prince Wenzel von Metternich ate in 1832. Would I do it again? Not a chance.

One thing you must do when visiting Vienna, or Austria in general, is visit a Würstelstände. These sausage stands are a staple in Austrian culture and can be found virtually everywhere. They serve several  kinds of sausage, from frankfurters to Käsekrainer (pork sausage cheese) served on a plate or in a bun with a choice of any condiment you can imagine. The typical Würstelstände is open day and night with customers from all walks of life. If there is a “when in Rome” moment in Vienna, this may be it.

What we did

Hofburg Palace (Michaelerkuppel, 1010 Wien, Austria) among other things, has three different areas to tour: The Silver collection, The Imperial Apartment, and the Sisi Museum. Seeing all three takes an entire afternoon.

My take on visiting Hofburg Palace is the Silver Collection and Sisi Museum are worthwhile. It is quite amazing to see the amount of gold, silver, and china in one place. It’s still used today for state dinners and and other offical events. The Imperial apartments left me stumped because I don’t believe anything in the entire museum belonged to Franz Joseph and Elisabeth, rather, everything in there was from the correct period. I might be wrong by saying everything but each placard I recall seeing had noted that it was either a reproduction of a period piece, not actually belonging to Franz Joseph or Elisabeth. With that said, I would skip the Imperial Apartments.

Rathausplatz (1010 Vienna, Austria) still serves as Vienna’s city hall and the grounds are used year round for the enjoyment of locals and tourists alike. In the summer, they host a music and film festivals and sporting exhibitions . In the winter they have a huge skating rink and Christmas Market. Since it was still winter, the skating rink and food vendors were still operating. This gave us an opportunity to try Glühwein, a spiced red wine served hot. It’s a seasonal drink and one we were told not to miss. Warm alcoholic drinks aren’t typically a favorite of mine but I wanted to try it. It tastes like hot cough syrup and I mean that in the most respectful way because as Inga will attest, I love the taste of cough syrup. The part that turned me off was the temperature. If it were at room temperature or even cold, I’d actually like it but served hot, not so much.

MuseumsQuartier (Museumsplatz 1, 1070 Wien, Austria) is an enormous cultural center that has museums, exhibit space, performing arts space, shops, and restaurants. I thought about leaving this off our list of things we did because we actually didn’t “do” the MuseumsQuartier. We went there on a Sunday and that was a mistake because nearly half of this amazing place was closed. Second, we didn’t have enough time to even scratch the surface so it was decided to just leave it for another visit. What I can say, based on what I saw, is its one of the most magnificent areas devoted entirely to the arts that I have ever seen.

Wiener Staatsoper (Opernring 2, 1010 Wien, Austria) or the Vienna State Opera, is one of the most breathtaking buildings in Vienna. The opera house offers guided tours that last around 40 minutes. The tour takes you through the auditorium, where we you can see how vast the back stage is in comparison to the auditorium. You then go upstairs and work your way through Tea Salon, Marble Hall, Schwind Foyer, Gustav Mahler Hall, then finishing at the grand staircase. If you don’t have plans to see the opera, this is a chance to at least see the opera house. 

There is no doubt that we needed another three days to experinece more of Vienna. It’s one of those cities that cannot be seen only once. Knowing our time was limited, we focussed on the Inner Stadt and stayed there. We look forward to coming back to see the Schonbrunn Palace, Belvedere Palace Museum, the Naschmarkt, and of course the MuseumsQuartier.

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New York City: Restaurant Week

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Photo courtesy of TravelSort

When I moved to NYC in 1999, I really looked forward to Restaurant Week. Back then, it was a lunch promotion to ring in the new year. In 1999, you paid $19.99 for a three-course lunch and in 2000, $20.00 and so on. It was a great opportunity to taste signature dishes from some famous, and often expensive restaurants that you may not have eaten in otherwise. The original New York Restaurant Week dates back to 1992 and has evolved into what it is today. Unfortunately, today’s New York Restaurant Week has no resemblance of the original except in name.

The Restaurant Week we have now is $29 for lunch and $42 for dinner. It primarily consists of a three-course, most cost-effective menu that almost never includes their signature dish(es). It usually equates to a free dessert when you compare it to the standard menu. It gets customers in the door but I imagine more discerning diners look at the limited choices and opt to order off the regular menu— It’s the perfect bait n’ switch. It’s gotten so gimmicky that I no longer look forward to it and rarely partake.

This year’s winter Restaurant week ran from January 27-February 10, 2017. We decided to go to Morimoto (Chelsea Market, 88 10th Ave, New York, NY 10011) for lunch. Morimoto is owned by its namesake, Masaharu Morimoto of Nobu and Iron Chef fame. It’s a large and visually appealing restaurant to walk into. We’ve eaten there for dinner a few times and have always enjoyed the food but have never been for lunch. The restaurant has high chairs but no kids menu so if your child only eats chicken fingers, this is not a place to go.

Not to anyone’s surprise, the menu is limited and lacks the more popular dishes that make Morimoto famous. In the spirit of Restaurant Week though, we ordered from the special menu but added our favorite appetizer, the Toro Tartare. The presentation alone makes it worth ordering but the interaction you have with the dish is what makes it special. The Toro is hand chopped and then spread on a dish and served with caviar. Along side is a perfectly laid out dish of accoutrements consisting of wasabi, crème fraîche, nori paste, chives, guacamole, and rice cracker balls then a bowl of dashi soy.

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Inga ordered the Veggie Bop and I had the Dry Aged Burger. Everything that is included in the lunch arrives together, as a set on one tray. The Veggie Bop is Morimoto’s version of vegetarian bibimbap. It’s extremely flavorful and makes for a hearty lunch. I’m not sure why I ordered the burger but I am glad I did. What popped out at me was reading the description on the menu: miso russian dressing, sake kasu soba ale cheese, soy-ginger shiitakes, house-made nori bun. What? I wasn’t sure what to expect but as soon as I took my first bite, I was in umami heaven. If you’re unsure what exactly umami tastes like, this burger will answer that real quick.

As for Gianluca, he had a little of everything we had. The veggie bop, the tofu from the miso soup, and part of the bun from my burger. I think the burger had too much going on for his young palette to handle but it’s okay. He was very happy, as always.

Some other menu items that we’ve really enjoyed in the past are the Ramen Soup (a simple yet incredible chicken noodle soup), miso glazed roasted bone marrow, spicy king crab, braised black cod, and the ishi yaki buri bop. A bibimbap with yellowtail that cooks table side in a hot bowl.

Other interesting things to eat and see in the area include:

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New York City: Astoria

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Queens is the 2nd most populated borough in New York City after Brooklyn. It’s by far, the most culturally diverse and the choices of restaurants reflect that diversity. The Astoria neighborhood has a wide range of cultures from Europe, Latin America and the Middle East. A good portion of the population is Greek so whenever we find ourselves in Astoria, we think about Greek food.

We’ve never been to Greece but we absolutely love all the food we’ve eaten around the Mediterranean. Greece isn’t much different when it comes to the seafood. Simply prepared fish that’s grilled or broiled with a little salt, olive oil, and maybe a little lemon. Perfection.

On this visit, we went to Bahari Estiatorio ( 31-14 Broadway, Astoria, NY 11106). From the window, you see several types of fresh fish on ice ready to be grilled. When you walk in, another display with steaks and chops of beef, lamb, and pork. Keep walking and you’ll see trays with stuffed cabbage, tomato and pepper, Mousaka, and Pastitsio in an open kitchen. Once seated, the menu lays out other options like traditional Greek dishes. The restaurant is casual and perfect for families with young children.

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It literally took us only a few minutes to decide what to order. We started out with sharing Saganaki, pan-seared Kefalograviera cheese. Growing up in the Detroit area, we used to frequent an area downtown called Greektown. The Saganaki that I remember eating as a child would arrive at the table on a sizzling on a cast iron platter that they would light on fire with the obligatory “Opa!” You won’t find the same showmanship here but the flavors are similar.

Next up, we ordered the whole grilled Tsipoura (also known as Dorado) and Arni Kokkinisto, braised lamb in tomato sauce. With sides of rice and okra (There are no words to describe how good the okra was) , our lunch was just perfect and Gianluca was happy with his fish and rice.

Another option, which is our usual spot, is Taverna Kyclades (33-07 Ditmars Blvd, Astoria, NY 11105). It’s one of our favorite restaurants but it’s always busy and almost always has a long wait. Unfortunately, that doesn’t typically work with a hungry child (or adult) so its best to have a back up plan. They also have a restaurant in the East Village (228 1st Avenue, New York, NY 10009) but we prefer to go to the original.

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If you plan a trip to Astoria, have lunch and then check out one of these places:

New York City: Chinese New Year

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The Chinese New Year, or the Spring Festival, was Saturday, January 28th. It’s the year of the Rooster. I’ll be the first to admit that I have no idea what that means other than I know that the Chinese and much of Asia celebrate it so when our friend, Li, invited us to Sunday brunch, we gladly accepted.

We went to Hakkasan (311 W 43rd St, New York, NY 10036), a UK based Cantonese style restaurant located near the theatre district. It happens to be her favorite dim sum spot in Manhattan and because of that, I was excited to give it a try.

The restaurant is very nice and it’s enormous, especially for New York City. The entrance is beautiful and really sets the stage for what is to come —fantastic food in a beautiful setting. While the restaurant was filled with families with young children, I wouldn’t say it’s kid friendly in the way that most of us think of it. There isn’t a kids menu and they don’t have high chairs or booster chairs. Luckily, we had a corner booth so we could keep Gianluca safely seated. Had we not, it would’ve been a nightmare trying to keep him from falling out of his chair or running around, possibly both.

This isn’t a dim sum restaurant but rather a full service restaurant that serves dim sum. You won’t find dim sum carts rolling between the tables so you have to order off the menu.  The menu is extensive and I noticed several set meals to choose from as well. We each ordered the dim sum brunch, which is exactly what we came for. What you get in return are 8 pieces of their best dim sum:
Scallop shumai
Prawn and Chinese chive dumplings
Har gau
Chilean sea bass daikon roll
Crispy prawn dumpling
Crispy duck roll
Truffle and roast duck bun
Stir-fry udon with duck in XO sauce
Selection of macarons for dessert

The standout items for me were the scallop shumai and the truffle and roast duck bun. I could eat a plate of each and would have been completely happy. Gianluca sampled a little of everything and seemed to like the truffle and roast duck bun the most.

In all honesty, the food is incredible but it’s incredibly expensive for dim sum considering the amount of food you receive. Does it change my perception of our meal? Not really. I’ve paid more for less at other places. Would I go back? Absolutely.

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New York City: Chinatown

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Since moving back to New York City, we dine out a few days a week. And as with most New Yorkers, we really don’t venture out of our neighborhood for the typical meal out but occasionally, the craving for something specific requires us to do so and on this night, Chinatown was where we went.

Chinatown, like New York City’s Little Italy, has more gimmicky bad food than good but once you weed through it all, there are still some little gems that cannot be missed. One of those places is Hop Kee (21 Mott Street, New York, NY 10013), a Cantonese-style Chinese restaurant that consistently ranks in Zagat as one of the best in Chinatown. You walk down a set of stairs and into a well-lit, relatively clean restaurant. While they don’t have a kid’s menu, they do provide highchairs and boosters. The service is fast, the staff are generally friendly, and the food is quick to arrive at your table.

There are several items we may order depending on the size of our party but we never stray from our favorite dishes: the pan fried flounder, the pork chops with salt & pepper, and the kangkong cooked in shrimp paste. Kangkong is the Filipino name for a kind water spinach. It’s known by many other names throughout Asia like kong xin cai in Mandarin, ong tsoi in Cantonese, and Asagaona in Japanese. Being Filipino, it’s kangkong to me. Some of the other worthwhile dishes are the snails cooked in black bean sauce, crab or lobster Cantonese style, and the fried spring chicken.

Gianluca eats most things we put in front of him, especially if it includes rice or pasta. He enjoys eating the pan fried flounder with rice.

I think the cost of dinner is reasonable considering how much we enjoy our food here, which came out to be $100 with tip. One thing you need to remember is it’s cash only so don’t forget to stop at the ATM. In case you do forget, there are signs at the door, at the counter, and on the menu.

 

 

Miami Beach

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Miami is special to us because it’s the only place that Inga and I lived together besides New York City. For many years, we talked about moving and starting a life outside of New York. Our criteria for a new city was that it had to have a major airport so we could fly non-stop to almost anywhere in the world. Another is that it had to have a mix of different cultures. And finally, it had to have good restaurants. Miami checked all those boxes so in May 2014 we left New York for Miami – well, Miami Beach actually.

Two months after moving, Inga found out she was pregnant. We were absolutely ecstatic to start a family in a new city we now loved. I mean, what isn’t there to love? We could walk out our back door and step onto the beach. Plus, the weather is near perfect 9 months out of the year. It’s paradise.

In March 2015, Inga gave birth to our son, Renato III. We call him by his middle name, Gianluca. So this trip was a homecoming of sorts because it was the first time the three of us returned to Miami together since leaving. In case you’re wondering why we left, the best answer I can give is that Miami wasn’t for us. While I agree it is an amazing place, it felt like the vacation that never ended but not in a good way. It just got old for us.

We flew Delta 1765 from LaGuardia to Miami. Our drive from the airport to the beach was awful – bumper to bumper traffic. It’s not usually this bad but Art Basel was in full effect. We stayed with my brother and his family, who live in Miami beach. It also happened to be his birthday so we took him and the family to Izzy’s Fish & Oyster (423 Washington Ave, Miami Beach, FL 33139). It’s a very nice and unpretentious seafood restaurant located in the heart south beach.

Being stone crab season, we had to begin the meal with crab claws. And being an oyster house, we had to order some oysters. Our entrees included Maine diver scallops, stuffed Maine lobster, and the local catch of the day was pompano. If you haven’t tried pompano, you should. It’s typically thought of as a game fish but on a plate, it is mild in flavor with a firm texture. It’s perfect for grilling, searing and broiling. I imagine it holds up well when cooked in soups or stews too.

Another must try while in Miami Beach is the Bandeja Paisa from Mi Columbia (702 71st St, Miami Beach, FL 33141). It’s the national dish of Colombia that consists of rice, beans, fried eggs, avocado, sweet plantains, sausage, steak and or course, chicharrón. The restaurant isn’t fancy but it serves up some of the best Columbian food we’ve ever tasted.

miami-13Other notable and uniquely Miami/Miami Beach restaurants for us are:

Of course, a trip to Miami wouldn’t be complete without Cuban food. Cuban food can be found everywhere but for us, there is only one place worth driving to and that is Versailles Restaurant (3555 SW 8th St, Miami, FL 33135). Even if you don’t have time to go for a complete meal, do yourself a favor and stop by, walk up to the open-aired counter, then order a cortadito and beef empanada. You’ll thank me later.

miami-17The weather was perfect for our trip so we took advantage of it while we could. The weather in New York City was in the mid- 30’s and cloudy.

We had plenty of time to walk around and spend some time at the pool.  Miami Beach is a perfect destination for adults and kids alike. The beach and playgrounds are clean and safe. Lincoln Road, Ocean Drive, and Collins Avenue offer an enjoyable walk with shops and restaurants lining the streets. But if you need a break from the beach and want to keep your little ones happy, check these out: