A sacred place. Even for heathens.

I last visited Notre-Dame just over three years ago, in fall 2015. When in Paris, I invariably duck into the grand Gothic cathedral several times, because it’s there, because it’s beautiful, because its draw is irresistible. It is Paris splendor epitomized.

I’ve been to Paris on five occasions, which means I’ve been to Notre-Dame at least 15 times. It never gets old. Rather, each visit rewards with something new and startling. Sometimes I just hang out on the plaza in front of Our Lady — the sprawling Place Jean-Paul II Square — sipping coffee, people-watching, marveling at the twin bell-tower facade and those maniacal, sniggering gargoyles perched way up high. 

A Catholic apostate and mid-level opponent of organized religion, I don’t worship in Notre-Dame, which went up in flames yesterday, mostly surviving the catastrophic blaze that had the world aghast. (Maybe there is a God.)

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Notre-Dame Cathedral in flames Monday in Paris

I don’t go for the holy experience, but the wholly experience — a soothing spiritual state of serenity and rumination, reflection and introspection, inspired by the vaulting, dimly lit sanctuary’s artwork, architecture, luminescent stained-glass and twinkling constellations of prayer candles. And that’s just the interior. 

Agnostic natives are with me, according to a piece in today’s NY Times: “France is one of the least religious countries in Europe. Urbane, intellectual Parisians often dismiss religion as archaic and unenlightened.”

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Notre-Dame facade, fall 2015

But like other transporting religious structures around the world — from the Jama Masjid mosque in Delhi to the Wat Arun Buddhist temple in Bangkok — Notre-Dame is staggering to even this peevish secular humanist, with its gilded grandeur and gravity-defying architecture that toils so magnificently to transcend crude corporeality and reach for the heavens. In all her glory, Our Lady, I think, tickles the firmament.

(This goes for scores of religious sanctums I’ve traveled long and far to be dazzled by: the Blue Mosque in Istanbul, St. Peter’s in Rome, Angkor Wat in Siem Reap, La Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, and on and on. All instill dizzy awe, even if I’m not always buying what they’re peddling.) 

Even without the slightest religious propensity, I bewail the damage to Notre-Dame. Like most, I was sickened watching flames devour the cathedral, my old friend, on the news. More is there than a quaint, history-encrusted, 850-year-old church. It is the ineffable, the mystical, the irrefutably sacred.

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Standing tall, fall 2015.

The cathedral, with a wingspan from Joan of Arc to Victor Hugo to Disney, “is universal, Western, religious, literary and cultural, and that’s what makes it different from any other object,” says a French analyst in the Times. “It’s the whole spectrum from the trivial to the transcendent, the sacred to the profane.”

In other words, it is stubbornly irreplaceable. Its survival, by a hairbreadth, an act of God, divine intervention, is something I am loath to believe in: a naked miracle.

Whatever saved it, I think it was more the skill, action plans and water hoses of the Parisian fire fighters than, say, the conquest of virtue vs. evil. But it doesn’t matter. Notre-Dame didn’t collapse or burn to cinders. It is, they declare, structurally sound. No lives were lost. And for that, all of us should sigh a collective amen.

But do note, those devilish gargoyles survived the flames, and they are still sneering.

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Tippling Dixie

Sure, I took a nip on my trip this week to Charleston, South Carolina, not on the basis of “When in Rome …,” though there was a bit of that. No, I just like a good cocktail or Scotch or beer, particularly in a nicer establishment, like a fine restaurant or stylish bar/saloon. (Or salon: Where I get my hair cut, they serve free Prosecco, a nice Kardashian flourish.)

And, as part of what became something of a foodie journey (see that part here), I hit a lot of those places. My slogan: No driving, no hangovers, no regrets.

Right before my three-day trip to Charleston, I blogged about the award-winning small-batch boutique distillery I had my sights on, High Wire Distilling Co., on bustling — one might say boozy — King Street.

I made it, and took the short tour — the place is fashionably cozy and drips with hip — and partook in the tasting flight. The tour was $5, as was the tasting. (I also bought a bottle of the Hat Trick Extraordinarily Fine Botanical Gin for a reasonable $27.)

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The High Wire tasting flight. Left to right: Hometown VodkaHat Trick Extraordinarily Fine Botanical GinHat Trick Barrel Rested Gin; and New Southern Revival Brand Rye Whiskey. Especially for how early in the day these were imbibed — noon shots on an empty stomach? — each libation exerted kick and fire and were exceptionally complex.

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At this upscale bistro I sipped the Nordic Witch — “bright and herbal, this witch is ready to head south for spring” — made of Old Tom Gin, Strega, Linie, Aquavit, Lime and Peychaud’s. It was superlative, swirly and tangy, but it was so small, I didn’t even take a picture of it. 

With dinner I had a Classic Whiskey Sour that hit the spot:

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Husk has one of the coolest, most coveted little bars in the city (big patio for you patio people), with potions to match. Waiting for a dinner table, I ordered a tasty Gin-Based Drink Special, whose name and ingredients I foolishly didn’t commit to memory.

But here it is:

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During dinner I got the toothsome and bracing Option Bee: Earl Grey-Infused Local Gin, Yellow Chartreuse, Honey, Lemon and Egg White. Below:

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My penchant for gin is glaring and at this classy, streamlined drinkery I stuck to my beloved botanicals with the assertive “Clover Club” — Hendrick’s Gin, Raspberry Preserves, Dry Vermouth, Lemon and Egg White — followed by the satisfactorily simple PGT (Proof Gin and Tonic)” — Hendrick’s Gin, Lemon Bitters, Cucumber.

Proof’s a neat place on crawling King Street, and I would have returned with more time.

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Slathered in ersatz grunge and lacking snarly attitude, The Griffon touts itself as the authentic dive bar in Charleston, and apparently a lot of people who haven’t been to Charleston’s The Recovery Room or Dirty Franks in Philly actually believe this. This bar is a poser dive if ever there was one, a faux dump made to look beaten and badass with floor-to-ceiling wallpaper compiled of signed $1 bills. It tries awfully hard, and it made me kind of sad. The Griffon is the Planet Hollywood of dives, a cosplay simulacrum, a movie set. Spotless bathrooms? Yep. Tourists only. I had a $4 bottle of Miller Lite. Then I skedaddled.

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  • Finally, for non-alcoholic, caffeinated elixirs I spent mornings at the sleek, slightly industrial, mid-century and mini-menu’d Revelator Coffee Company on — where else? — King Street. Fully recommended. Free WiFi, tip-top drinks, cheery baristas.

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Chewing through Charleston

I did it right, I nailed it. During my quick foodie tour through Charleston, South Carolina, I sidled up to the bars at five restaurants I urgently wanted to hit, the places that songs are written about, that journalists spill fragrant ink over, that Uber drivers gasp in amazement, “You got into (restaurant name here)?”

I researched and read. The internet was my friend. I watched Anthony Bourdain and “Chef’s Table” and “The Mind of a Chef.” I emailed eateries for the tricks and maneuvers that would guarantee I’d get in without a dinner reservation. (Simple: Arrive well before 5 p.m. Wait outside. When the doors open, nab a seat at the bar. Eat. Drink. Rejoice.)

Charleston is a powerhouse food destination, cutting-edge and farm fresh, and not one thing I ate was less than exemplary. Vittles vaulted me to that pleasure zone, a kind of palate paradise, where you sigh and go, Yeah.

Where and what I ate:

(Assume I loved every dish, passionately, and click the restaurant name for more info.)

  • HUSK, 76 Queen Street:

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Wood Fired White Stone Oysters, Green Garlic Butter, Lemon Vinegar, Fermented Chilies, served on a bed of rock salt

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Confit Duck “Cassoulet,” Heirloom Peas, Lowland Farms Brassicas, Pot Likker Broth, Pan Fried Farm Egg

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  • FIG, 232 Meeting Street:

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Ricotta Gnocchi alla Bolognese Parmesan, Mint

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A dazzling Chicken Confit with Brussels Sprouts and Fig (and lots of other complex goodness I can’t remember) over Polenta

A little about FIG: “The name is an acronym for ‘Food Is Good,'” writes Bon Appetite, “a simple epithet that doesn’t do justice to the level of cooking set forth by Mike Lata, the godfather of Charleston restaurants (he also owns The Ordinary).” 

Speaking of The Ordinary …

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A quartet of immaculate, sweet and salty raw oysters, hand-chosen by the suave server/bartender. The orange beverage to the right is the zesty House Daiquiri: Plantation Old-Fashioned Traditional Dark Rum, Plantation 5-year Rum, Cane, Lime.

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Crispy Oyster Slider with a whisper of jalapeño (unbelievable)

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New England Style Fish Chowder with Oyster Crackers — better than you think. A knockout loaded with generous chunks of white fish and potatoes.

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Spicy Two-Piece Dark Meat Fried Chicken with Cole Slaw: Buttermilk Dressing, Currants, Seeds 

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Second visit: Four Raw Oysters (only one shown here), Signature “Old School” Scalloped Potatoes (divine) and a Gin & Tonic

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The famous Tavern Burger, a 4-ounce Patty Topped with American Cheese, Tangy Tavern Sauce, Griddled Onion on a Sesame Bun, with House Salad. This glorious, glorified slider goes for a mean $15, and it’s worth it. So hypnotic I couldn’t even focus the camera. My eyes were crossed. 

Avoiding the gin-eric in South Carolina

I leave Sunday for three days in Charleston, South Carolina, and already I can smell the aromatics and botanicals, those ultra-fragrant plant compounds often used in alcoholic potables, most popularly in gin. Aromatics and botanicals furnish a strong herbal, floral or fruity tang that sets flowery, pungent gin apart from insipid vodka, which tends to smell and taste like undiluted alcohol (and which is why producers are always grossing up their swill with flavors like cherry, vanilla, mango and peppar, whatever that is). 

In Charleston is the award-winning High Wire Distilling Co., which claims to be the city’s first distillery since Prohibition. Like a boozy boutique, the outfit “produces a distinctive line of small batch spirits, including gin, rum, whiskey, and vodka using premium, specialized ingredients.” 

I’m there.

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And I’m taking the $10 tour and tasting, which (more canned copy here) “provide an overview of the distilling process and allow guests an opportunity to see the still, mash tun, fermentation tanks, barrel aging, and bottling operations.” Tour-takers “receive a traditional tasting flight of four High Wire spirits.” (Yes!)

This has got to beat the tragic, gimcrack Heineken Experience brewery tour I signed up for in Amsterdam last year (my head still hurts from the strobes and electronica). And it might just match the exemplary Russia Vodka Museum in St. Petersburg, where the tastings exuded high European class. Or the fine, frothy, free tour of the Sam Adams Brewery in Boston.  

I have my eye on one of High Wire’s specialty gins, which goes for $27 a bottle (I don’t yet know the size), the “Hat Trick Extraordinarily Fine Botanical Gin,” described in detail:

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“Made with crushed juniper berries and fresh lemon and orange peel, this bright and flavorful gin is well-balanced and pleasing to the palate. Balancing botanicals include licorice root, angelica root, coriander, and cardamom. From a straight up martini to a more complex Fitzgerald, this gin dazzles even the most discerning gin drinker.”

Proof: 88

Tasting Notes: Floral, licorice, lemon, orange, pine, rounded/full texture, well-balanced, long finish.

Cocktails: Gin & Tonic, Martini, Fitzgerald, Collins, Negroni, Gimlet, Martinez, Gin Gin Mule

I’m sure I don’t know what at least three of those cocktails are, but they sound ravishing with this nifty gin, which, you never know, might suck. I’ll taste it during the tour’s tasting segment. If I like it, I’m buying a bottle. And then, you know, drinks on me.

Doing the Charleston

History throbs and threads through Charleston, South Carolina, a city I haven’t visited for about 16 reasons, the biggest being I just haven’t made it down there yet. Part of that is because I feel I got my Deep South fix some years ago during a greatest-hits southern road trip with my brother in a brazenly purple Saturn sedan rental. It was a blast.

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Filled with barbecue, catfish and boiled peanuts, we shoehorned as much as we could into five days, pit-stopping in Nashville; Memphis; Sun Records; Graceland; Asheville, N.C., which is tucked in the Blue Ridge Mountains; Montgomery and Birmingham; the dewey-eyed Dollywood Theme Park in the Smoky Mountains of Tennessee; as well as Thomas Jefferson’s digs at Monticello in Virginia on our way back north to Brooklyn. For much of the journey we listened to the operatically twangy “A Country Boy Can Survive” by Hank Williams Jr., an aching ode to hillbilly pride suddenly apt for these puke-making MAGA days, which dominated the local airwaves. (Listen HERE. It’s impossibly catchy.)  

A native Californian who survived more than a decade in Texas, I’m now an inveterate Yankee. As much as that maiden journey was an eye-opening kick, the South doesn’t come naturally to me. On a later road trip I circumnavigated coastal Florida, from St. Augustine to Miami and the Keys, St. Petersburg to Panama City. (We cut through Alabama and landed in New Orleans, La.) I found Florida gauche, grubby and at times noxiously racist. You couldn’t bribe me back.

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Enter Charleston, S.C., above, a stately midsize city swathed in Civil War lore and, just as intriguing, boasting gourmet gold. I leave in two weeks for a fast three-day trip. Here’s Lonely Planet on the burg’s historical heft:  

“Cannons, cemeteries and carriage rides conjure an earlier era in this lovely city. Signers of the Declaration of Independence puffed cigars and whispered of revolution in historic homes, and the first shots of the Civil War rang out over Fort Sumter. The city was built on slave labor, and several sights are among the nation’s most important educators on the long-standing oppression of African Americans.”

This is a small jaunt — a two-hour flight (free, thanks to airline credits) and a reasonable if flavorless midrange hotel in the Historic District. I’m taking a walking tour of the cobblestone-paved historic hood, including the French Quarter, but I’m not overly excited about the glut of antebellum mansions — silk sofas don’t thrill me — sprawling parks or even fabled Fort Sumter, surefire soporifics I’d rather read about than actually visit.

In my sights is the Old Slave Mart Museum, which “recounts the story of Charleston’s role in the interstate slave trade by focusing on the history of this particular building and site and the slave sales that occurred here.” And I’ll meander through and photograph the history-rich spreads of St. Philip’s Graveyard and Magnolia Cemetery, morbid musts.

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Called the Holy City for contested and not necessarily pious reasons, Charleston keeps accruing accolades as the “friendliest city” and “best city to visit” and other breathless superlatives glossy magazines can’t help bestowing on every cool town (hello, Austin). 

Part of its cachet derives from its evolution as a culinary epicenter, with drooled-over fine dining spots like Fig and McCrady’s, which offers a rarefied tasting-menu experience — “inventive cuisine fresh from the farm” — with only 22 seats.

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Supreme southern chef Sean Brock

The McCrady’s kitchen is run by award-winning chef Sean Brock, who’s been extensively profiled on “Chef’s Table” and “The Mind of a Chef” on Netflix. Brock also co-owns the more casual Southern food destination Husk, where the crispy fried chicken skins are legend (and not always on the menu, drat). Brock and his famed dishes are a big reason I’m going to Charleston. Oysters are also a pull, with Leon’s Oyster Shop and its exalted shellfish and scalloped potatoes firm on my gastronomic itinerary. 

Call it my foodie expedition, brevity be damned. It’s also my overdue return to the South, a region rather alien to me, a cluster of unvarnished Americana, verdant beauty, rampant Republicanism and Confederate fervor that, if nothing else, will impart salutary exposure to the unusual, surprising and startling — a whole new world, exactly why I pack up and go.

View of the day, wistfully

IMG_1286.jpgMy laptop, a tall drink and a fairy tale vista — about all I need in my travels.

This was the perch on the rooftop terrace of my Istanbul hotel in November. I went up there a lot for the trusty Wi-Fi; cool fall breezes; Efes Pilsener, the cheap local brew that hits the spot despite its unflagging mediocrity; and, of course, the pristine views of the fabled Blue Mosque and yawning Bosphorus strait. 

At night the mosque lights up like a jeweled crown. The water shimmers. I sip my drink and tip-tap on the keyboard, writing nothing of consequence, most of it rot. Istanbul is paradisiacal, keenly removed from normal life, so transporting you sigh with an operatic flutter. It’s Paris of the East, a storybook nirvana.

I miss the mosques, the street food (döner kebabs, simits, etc.), unduly charming people, sweet stray dogs and cats, and ancient rococo scenery. It is where I want to be, right now.

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Blue Mosque, November 2018

How wine’s vines wrap around your brain

I am sipping wine as I write this, a chilled glass of Portuguese rosé that is an ideal swirl of sweet and dry, fruity and floral. It is 42 degrees outside. The fusty stereotype says that rosé is expressly a summer drink, just as some insist soup is only a winter meal. I say balderdash to both feeble-minded myths, which suffer a fatal lack of imagination. 

So, indeed, I am sipping wine (rosé!). And I am thinking of an article a friend sent me about the intricate neurological processes involved in the simple joy of tasting wine. It says: “According to neuroscientist Gordon Shepherd, the flavor of wine ‘engages more of our brain than any other human behavior’” — be it pitching a baseball, basking in Bach, playing Fortnite or, I imagine, having tangly Tantric sex.         

I’ll drink to that (and I did). More, and listen closely as the ideas get knotty: 

“The apparently simple act of sipping Merlot involves a complex interplay of air and liquid controlled by coordinated movements of the tongue, jaw, diaphragm and throat. Inside the mouth, molecules in wine stimulate thousands of taste and odor receptors, sending a flavor signal to the brain that triggers massive cognitive computation involving pattern recognition, memory, value judgment, emotion and of course, pleasure.”

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I’ll drink to that, too, mostly because that passage was as complex as some of the most sophisticated wine varietals, and it kind of gave me an instant hangover. (Shepherd’s book, by the way, is “Neuroenology: How the Brain Creates the Taste of Wine.”)

Yet so much jibber-jabber is a buzzkill. So let’s for a moment detour to Turkey, the last place I really indulged in wine. Namely to Göreme, in Cappadocia, where I enjoyed a marvelous wine tasting. Just me, the sommelier and lots of wine.

After almost crashing a rented motor scooter about four times in the craggy hills of Göreme, returning the vehicle well before it was due, I was rattled. Walking to the town center, defeated and with a comical helmet head, I caught a sign outside a handsome restaurant that said simply “Wine Tasting.” It was time for a drink, a celebration that I didn’t smash open my head toppling off the scooter into rocks and shrubs.

Apparently I stumbled upon a hotspot, the newish Mozaik Restaurant, which is rated the #1 restaurant in Göreme on TripAdvisor. (OK, it’s TripAdvisor — take it with a grain of salt.) For about $18.50 you get four tastings of the varietals of your choice. The wines come from the rugged Cappadocia region, a local tasting.

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A rose from Cappadocia, served by my sunny sommelier.

Thing is, and I’m hardly complaining, my friendly host did not pour tasting measures — a few hearty sips — but pretty much full pours. I sat there for a good 90 minutes, sipping four glasses of wine — a Chardonnay, Merlot and, of course, two rosés. They were excellent, dimpled with notes and accents and bouquets and finishes and all that jazz.

I all but forgot about the scooter drama, because, little did I know, this was happening inside my head: The wine, recall from above, “stimulated thousands of taste and odor receptors, sending a flavor signal to the brain that triggered massive cognitive computation … emotion and, of course, pleasure.” (Italics mine.)

That’s a lot of action from a sip of fermented fruit. I know shamefully little about wine — I’m no vino snob; the rosé I’m sipping came out of a box — but I can tell good grape from rotgut pretty well. All that “cognitive computation” triggered by a “flavor signal” is nifty enough. But I think many of us agree it’s the “pleasure” that’s triggered that we are after. I’d drink to that, but, alas, my glass is empty.